St. Jean to Roncesvalles: Part 1

This post would be over 3,000 words if I wrote out the whole day, and that still only dips into my “book” version of this telling currently in progress. So I will make it halfway.

(Also, I do not currently have time to proof it, so–sorry for the mess!)

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07/07/17

I experienced all five stages of grief while crossing the Pyrenees. Denial, anger, bargaining, and for a fleeting moment, acceptance. I then looped back around to a few just for good measure. I suppose I was mourning the passing of my normal life for the next five weeks or even the life before and after this particular Camino.

Even though this was my second hike from France to Santiago de Compostela–799 kilometers west of where I stood–this one, as they all are and will be–was different. I entered the first Camino with the weight of unexplained sadness. The five weeks opened my eyes a story I’d been suppressing since I was a little kid (more on that later), but I did go into it with something precious–enthusiasm.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2017, I’d lost enthusiasm for things. I hadn’t lost love, curiosity, or even gratitude. But that extra energy required to feel enthusiastic about something? Well I’d grown too angry, tired and practical to remember what that felt like. And so I knew I carried a different weight heading into this trip, and the Pyrenees is damn crazy way to kick things off.

Denial

I felt surprisingly okay rising after my fourth night of not-so-great-sleep. At least I’d slept more than the first time I crossed in 2009, and also, the weather looked like it would be stunning today. Eight years earlier, we crossed in dangerous fog and sleep, missing most of the beauty that the Pyrenees offers, and also probably risking our lives.

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Bordeaux to St. Jean Pied de Port

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Arriving in St. Jean in 2009

Leading up to the trip, I often dreamt of a group of hikers walking up a hill from the train station in St. Jean Pied de Port–a common starting point of the Camino Frances. It was such a distinct memory from my first Camino–a moment when the weight of my decision really set in, when I realized that I was now a part of a different group of people separate from my group back home.

When I woke up the next morning, after about four hours of very rocky sleep, I realized that I’d finally get to see that exact image later in the day.

Despite my exhaustion and not wanting to say goodbye to my friends, I was relieved to finally start heading in the direction of the Camino. So much hype for so many years. The original idea of coming back started to grow as early as 2012, just after moving to Jersey City with Ben. I believe I drunkenly shouted it outside of Barcade. Then, when I walked into Journal Square a year later and saw the horrific news on the TV screens about the train crash in Santiago, something in my head shifted fully into place.  It was time to stop putting it off. I am still one of them, and I have to be back there.

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Photo Cred: Claire Higgins

Christina and I suited up, took a clean and bright-eyed “before picture” and said goodbye to Claire and Helen. Still connected to Wifi, I took a screenshot of the map leading us to the Bordeaux train station, the first of two trains that would take us to St. Jean. Without the yellow arrows yet to guide us, I was still dependant on this thing.

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Bordeaux to St. Émilion

July 5th, 2017

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Leave it to me to have a panic attack on a wine tour. I’ve had panic attacks on and off since I was little, and they’re infrequently triggered by anything obvious. I’m fine one hour, and the next, I notice a slowly growing discomfort, usually in my throat, getting worse and worse–like I can’t fully swallow all the way. Once the nausea comes on, I usually know what’s up. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in therapy since I was 19.  But I’ve never quite gotten rid of these waves.

I thought the heat of the city was making me feel woozy–it was over 90 degrees that day and we’d walked through the streets to make it to the tour bus. We were set to head out into the countryside for some sightseeing and wine tasting. Anything involving a bus and a tour guide is really not my jam, but I didn’t want to be a killjoy, and my friends were right–we’d see more of the area this way.

Still, by the time I took my seat next to Helen on the bus, Mr. Panic was there, acting out in full swing. I told Helen what was up and she said what any friend of 10 years would say. “It’s cool, I’m right here next to you, girl. No one on this bus needs to know but me.”

With the pressure of ruining the day off my chest and trusty Helen by my side, I tried to figure out what was causing my shaking hands and the feeling like everyone around me was yelling.

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EWR to LIS to BOD

Been struggling a whole bunch with my Camino writing. With the year anniversary of the trip, I’m going to try and touch on each day just for memory’s sake. Some may be long,lofty posts, others just a picture with a sentence about blisters. But here we go.

Lisbon to Bordeaux

July 4, 2017

Before our journey, Bordeaux made me think of two things: wine (clearly) and a very strange scene we’d performed in my London acting conservatory. I couldn’t tell you a darn thing about what happened in the scene, except that a character said “Bordeaux” all drawn out and with a thick, Southern-American accent. Who can say why. Theatre is strange.

Anyway, luckily for us, Bordeaux was an obvious place to rest our heads before Christina and I started our hike across Spain on the 7th. If you’re planning your own pilgrimage, work in nap time. Seriously, don’t hike while jet-lagged if you can help it.

I usually can’t sleep on planes, and our red-eye from Newark to Lisbon and then Lisbon to France was no exception.

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My anxiety likes to rear its ugly head when I haven’t slept well, making the particularly small plane we packed into that flew over Northern Spain extra stressful. Yay for me. Not only was I seated alone, but reality really flooded in as we flew in the opposite direction of our upcoming pilgrimage.

Crossing the Pyrenees struck an extra rough chord in me. In just three days, we’d be heading over them in the other direction, on foot. The last time I’d crossed, we hit terrible weather–rain that turned into sleet. And though it’s a great story now, it wasn’t so grand at the time. What had I done? I’ve been here, I’ve done this, why did I convince myself to come back? I could be sitting by a lake with Ben’s family in Western Pennsylvania, drinking craft beer and planning out my next nap.

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A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader. Continue reading

Finding Organic Structure

Two fellow writer friends recently inquired about how my book was going. It’s a legit question—eight months ago I flaunted online that I’d written 85 pages of said manuscript before going totally silent about it. Since then, I’ve barely been able to look at it. It actually took writing 85 pages about my Caminos and everything that came before and in between to realize that I had no idea how to write a book. My lack of formal writing training has finally caught up with me.

No, I’m not waiting for some golden strike of lightning to show me the way to write this thing, or even for the possibly never-to-be-seen opportunity to go back to school. I simply don’t know what the story of my book is. What do I have? Two, five-week hikes across a country, a childhood filled with stories that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck, a year of trauma therapy, and all the details in between. Believe it or not, this does not make a story. It makes a very long journal entry. Lucky for me, I no longer have shame in sharing these stories. I do feel that I own them–I am ready to be my own narrator. So, that’s good.

But as I mentioned in my post on Tuesday—I have a pile of memories, stories, and lofty themes that could make endless books that I sure as hell wouldn’t want to read. Maybe someone would, but not me. I’m not putting down my experiences, I just haven’t found the proper way to honor these memories yet.

So how do you do that? The last chapter I read in Natalie Goldberg’s book dealt with finding organic writing structure. Instead of depending on the 5th grade essay structure—roman numerals and all—she suggests that a writer must find some way to structure their writing that works for them. For her, this came after decades of writing with little structure at all–as I’ve been doing quite unsuccessfully. When she did find something that worked for her, she was finally able to sift through that pile of thoughts living in her writer’s mind.

One of her journaling tactics—and eventually her writing structure—comes from jotting down phrases, sights, stories and anything that inspires her throughout her day into her journal. When she sits down to write something longer, she writes one or more of these at the top of her page and sees what comes out within these ideas. This allows your brain to ramble within a theme, it brings out the actual story you need to write—opposed to restricting yourself to the jail that is linear memoir writing.

I’ve done this bunch of times on this blog—my birthday month of stories, the acts of connection series, and even a list of Camino stories that fizzled out. But perhaps my structure has been too tightly held—too much pressure to create something interesting every day. I could, for example, move through the Camino towns as the inspiring word at the top of the journal page. I could try to tap into where my mind lived while walking through each of these little Medieval towns.

So yes, I have 85 sing-spaced pages of gobbledygook (did you know that’s actually a real word? And that I’ve been saying “gobbledyGOOP” my whole life?).  Anyway, what I wrote is not my Camino story. Perhaps it’s all the “this is what people will want to read” crap that I needed to write first.

I do feel a bit like I’m starting fresh, but this time, I’d like to at least be prepared. As I continue to write about not writing, I welcome any book, blog, or class suggestions for those also in this strange boat.

Perhaps one day I’ll look back on this post and say, “How nice! I had no idea I’d eventually write the darn thing.” Who can say.

For now, I’ll go back to sipping my cup of coffee in a bouncy plastic chair outside my favorite coffee shop where I currently sit. The guy next to me is mansplaining college courses to his–daughter? niece? friend?–even though she knows way more about the whole thing that he does. I’m dying to cut in to tell her that she doesn’t have to decide what to do with her life yet, and that no matter how much she plans and trains in one subject, she may still end up sitting in a coffee shop chair trying to recreate her artistic career at 31. But perhaps not.

Learning to Write Again

Yesterday, I spent my afternoon painting two old adirondack chairs that we found on a curb in Cape May while on vacation. Frustrated with my writing, I hauled my grouchy self to Home Depot with a hoard of feisty gardeners and purchased outdoor furniture paint, some gorilla glue, and a whole bunch of sandpaper. For someone who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, the chairs don’t look half bad. I’m writing from one right now, rickety, gorilla-glued armrest and all.

My paid writing life seems to alternate between weeks packed with work and those with ample time to work on my non-paid, personal writing. I am currently having a slow week–hence the chair painting. I also made a cake and some really fancy-pants iced tea. Have I written anything I’m proud of this week? Negative. But look at that Santiago cake!

The one productive action I made toward my writing this week was to pick up one of Natalie Goldberg’s books I have yet to read, Thunder and Lightning. She begins the instructional collection with a harsh warning and a bit of regret. Her most well-known book, Writing Down the Bones, was one of her earlier publications, and now she wonders if she naively damaged those that she encouraged toward a writer’s lonely life. With the start of this book, she cautions her reader. “Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind, the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back. But I have made the journey and I have made it back–over and over again, I will act as your guide.”

Though her earliest book continues to provide guideposts for my writing, I can’t blame her for my questionable life choice. I’ve had a nagging narrative playing in my head since I was a kid. I even remember–during a particularly tense ride home in my parent’s car–planning to open my future book by describing the lightning storm that grew in the distance above the soccer field across the street from our house. If only I knew how to write anything past that.

It wasn’t until my first hike on the Camino did my writer’s voice have enough time and space to speak up and be heard. I’d hoped this second Camino–the one I completed last summer–would spark something new in me. Instead, as I whined to my husband last night, I’m left with a jumble of thoughts, piled in the middle of a room like a haystack, and I have no idea how to sort through it. Perhaps the older you get, the more discipline one needs to figure out what the hell you really want to say.

Anyway, I’m writing this post about not knowing how to write–one of many on this blog–to simply break my writing dry spell. When I was a kid, theatre was my true love. It was communal, celebratory, full of parties and rituals. Now, I am the only director, cast, and stage manager of anything I want to create–a true blessing and a curse. I no longer have to wait to be cast in something. It is my responsibility to put down the paintbrush, ignore the cake recipe, and simply write–even if it’s garbage.

But at least I picked up a helpful book today. And at least I received confirmation from a wise teacher about the ache that plagues each writer. “Now that you have been warned, let me also say this: if you want to know what you’re made of, if you want to stand on death’s dark face and leave behind the weary yellow coat of yourself, then just now–I hear it–the heavy modern doors of the cloister of no return are cracking open. Please enter.”

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The Darker Side to My Arts Addiction

I started acting in this ridiculous field when I was a kid. Next year is my 25th anniversary of jumping off into the deep end. My parents–both veterans of the theatre world in different respects–warned me from the get-go not to fall into some of the common traps of growing up in theatre. They’d seen it all–the egomaniacs, the obsessives, the bad-mouthers, the creepy men. I lived in fear of becoming one of these spoilsports among an otherwise-supportive and wonderful community. But my parents were always–and remain–very supportive of my choice to follow this crazy business. In a nutshell, my mom often came back to quoting Stanislavski at me: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cure to what seems to be a much larger problem in this oversaturated field today–not so much the over-confidence, but the opposite–the constant feeling that you’re banging your head against a door that won’t open. The complete disconnect between effort and results. The fruitless pep talks after your 3rd audition of the week that leads to nothing but silence. I see less and less puffing of the ego feathers in audition spaces and more exhaustion, self-deprecation, and encouragement of unhealthy habits.

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AOC Challenge Week 6 & 7: Break Time

Photo via Unsplash

Hi All! I’ve hit a wonderfully busy time of my year, and for my own sanity, have decided to give myself a blogging pass for a bit until things settle down. In the meantime, last week’s On Being episode speaks to a lot of what I’ve been contemplating here. If you need a nice lift this morning, have a listen to this episode.

https://onbeing.org/programs/brene-brown-strong-back-soft-front-wild-heart-feb2018/

One of my favorite clips from the interview transcript, referring to a distancing that has occured since the election…

MS. BROWN: Yeah, no, we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that — and this goes back to your paradox — nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. And having shared hatred of the same people or the same — I call it “common enemy intimacy” —

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. That’s such a good phrase.

MS. BROWN: Our connection is just an intimacy created by hating the same people, is absolutely not sustainable. It’s counterfeit connection.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s not true belonging.

MS. BROWN: Oh, God, it’s not true belonging, it’s hustling of the worst magnitude. It’s just hustling. And so my question was, for the men and women who really carried this sense of true belonging in their hearts — they didn’t negotiate it with the world; they carried it internally; they brought belonging wherever they went because of their strength and their spiritual practice around it — what did they have in common? And so this first practice of true belonging is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?

MS. TIPPETT: Actually, I think, the real spiritual practice — or at least hand in hand with that — the spiritual practice you’re pointing at is reclaiming our belonging, our human belonging, and having a courage to stand alone in our own groups, to transcend the tribal politics. Is that fair?

MS. BROWN: Yes. That’s exactly right.

MS. TIPPETT: So that we defy the sorting. We just say, “We’re not gonna live this way.”

MS. BROWN: I’ve probably been in front of — let me think — realistically, 25,000 people since this book came out, on a book tour across the United States. And every time, I ask the audiences, “Raise your hand if you deeply love someone whose vote in 2016 you find incomprehensible.” And 99% of hands go up. And we have to find a way. Then I ask, “How many of you are willing to sever permanently your relationship with the person you love, because of their vote?” And maybe one or two hands goes up.

I’m not; I am personally not willing to do that. Now I’m not going to tolerate abuse, or I’m not going to tolerate dehumanizing language. I’m not going to have a curious and open dialogue with someone whose politics insists on diminishing my humanity. Those are lines that were very clear with the research participants. But short of that, I’m going to lean in, and I’m going to stay curious.

AOC Challenge Week 5: Soup Kitchen Time!

Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I hoped to further develop after hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here

I’m a tad behind here, so get ready for a two-post week!

On the first night of my Camino in 2017, in a massive old Cathedral-turned-pilgrim hostel, Christina and I poked through a table of hiking gear left by previous pilgrims. After that terrible trek over the Pyrenees, you’re usually willing to give up that “just in case” sleeping pad or $200 extra pair of shoes. Anything to make your pack lighter. For so many of us, those tables were god-sends. When my hiking socks left me with a new blister every day, I found a new pair of unused socks that rescued my poor, desperate feet.

At the end of most days, a family or local restaurant pooled their resources and cooked a low-cost or donation-based dinner for all us carb-starved pilgrims. The generosity never failed to bring half the table to tears. Maybe we’re just an emotional bunch. When the volunteer chef entered the dining room with that giant pan of paella, you better believe the whole room cheered.

Last week, when I found myself in a particularly low mood, I took another shift at our local soup kitchen in Montclair. I started volunteering there after the election. Full of rage and desperation for hope, I realized I couldn’t sit around anymore feeling hopeless about humanity.

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