A Story About a Bee and a Hug

On the second-to-last day of our hike to Santiago, Christina and I weren’t exactly on the top of our game. While Christina’s physical health was wavering, my mental stability and patience with the trip fell more and more each minute. I was growing weary of the whole ordeal, which is not where you want to be at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage.

After failing to find a bed in the cozy private hostel nearby, we ran across the speedy highway to a small “village,” made up of one bar, the public hostel, and a gazebo with a Jesus-looking man selling books (if the historically inaccurate white Jesus from your American Catholic School textbook aged a few years and sold books on the side of a dirt road).

He waved with kind eyes and his yellow lab came out to greet us. This made me laugh a bit, as I had been making a “joke” in my head for about a week of wanting to find Jesus. Not in the sense that many Christians mean–though I deeply respect their beliefs, I do not share them. Instead, this Buddhist on a Catholic pilgrimage was slowly turning into a grouchy insomniac with a bruised bone on the top of her foot that just wanted to go home. And so, I had spent the past week desperately longing to rediscover the human connection millions had found in these little Camino villages, churches, and roads, but had somehow eluded me the closer we got to our destination.

We waved back and walked down the road to a bench outside the albergue (Camino word for hostel), as it did not open until 1. It was noon. As Christina tried to prop herself up and sleep a bit, her obvious fever growing, giant Mack trucks flew by us approximately every 10 seconds. Hoards of happy, energized pilgrims that had only just started their walk a week prior, bounced on to the next city, waving as they passed and looking with an air of “You alright?” each time.

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5 Elements of the Camino Our Country Could Really Use Right Now

On many hiking days, hiding in the safety of the Camino de Santiago often offset the incessant pain of walking 15-18 miles a day, though it was hard not to feel guilty about turning a blind eye to the news back home. With spotty wifi connections and a goal to, you know, focus on the spiritual pilgrimage, we usually allowed ourselves the privilege to only check in about the news with family, opposed to falling down the Facebook rabbit hole every afternoon. Having family members as a filter was a gift, but there is only so long one can run to the mountains and ignore what’s going on.

Adjusting back to real life has been odd, to say the least, as it was after my first Camino in 2009. Not only does your body go into walking-withdrawal, but the mental transformation of a 500-mile hike comes in strange and often-confusing waves of mood swings and the urge to hide under the covers and never come out.

The biggest shock, however, is the urge to try and spread what you see and experience when a group of strangers embarks on an ancient pilgrimage together. It is the “great adventure” we dream of as kids, the outlet for that nervous energy you feeling sitting at a desk as an adult. There are few words for it. What happens between a group with the same common goal–a goal to understand themselves better through a ridiculous physical feat–is a part of human nature we’ve suppressed. But the world needs the lessons of the Camino right now. So, I will do my best.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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Post-Camino Zombie Phase

I have officially entered post-Camino-zombie phase.  After Camino number one in 2009, I had one full day at home with my family before boarding a southbound airplane and launching into a “getting to know you”-new-job situation. So as strange as I feel now, I am grateful for the silence of my living room, the promise of at-home work (which will hopefully be more than “promise” soon), and the freedom to be a zombie.

There is one part of my mind that is still seeing the rolling hills and endless wheat fields, and another part of my brain that is desperately trying to remember the details of everything that happened there.  I attributed my last post-Camino crash to a pretty lousy break up that commenced two days after reaching Santiago, but now I wonder if this feeling happens either way.  I just feel lost, confused by the silence around me while I’m home and confused by the chatter when I go out.  I’m used to heading into a town square and knowing half the people around me–if not by name, then by nickname–like “the twins with the hats” or “Irish guy with rolling backpack.”  We were known as a variety of things as well–Jersey girls, academic girls, and who knows what else.

On the Camino, you can learn the deepest, most intimate details of someone’s life before knowing their name.

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Aaaaand We’re Back

Man.  Well that was something.

In a nutshell, we did indeed walk from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostella.  After a pesky foot injury, I came very, very close to skipping a stage by bus, but somehow it just never happened.  I’m not sure I’m proud of ignoring my body’s message, but my foot does seem to be healing, so there’s that.  It took 34 days, spanned 799 kilometers, and required one roll of kinesthetic tape, several boxes of bandaids, one container of compede, almost a full container of an ancient salve for pilgrim joints and skin problems, an unknown number of bottles of wine and plates of patatas bravas, several midday beers, approximately four emotional meltdowns, and a lot of pep talks.  Compared to my last Camino?  The word that keeps coming to mind is: harder.  My body, mind, and life is significantly different.  Processing all the moments of beauty and all the days of endless difficulties is something I am only, slowing beginning to tackle.  And writing it down feels a bit farther away. I can say for certain that the miraculous world of the Camino still provides all the love, protection, and support that anyone needs to get through the mountains of self-doubt and endlessly developing blisters the morning hours bring.  But more on that later. For now, my emotional brain needs a snooze.

After many years of waiting, obsessive planning, and borderline-neurotic budgeting, I am finally a freelancer.  On my first morning over here, I am currently one- for-one with showering, eating a proper breakfast, and putting on real-people clothing.  Ben bought me a sweet little bird statue and I have decided that he is my freelancing mascot.  I have yet to name him/her.  Perhaps Carmella II–after my Camino walking stick that I had to leave behind in Santiago. She will be missed.  Anyway, though I’m handling my panic quite well, this is all a bit terrifying–this whole “getting what you want and hoping it works out” thing. Three nights ago, I landed at JFK, bleary-eyed, confused, and crotchety after a full 24 hours of travel to get from a hotel room in Santiago de Compostella to the apartment I have dreamed of laying my eyes on for the past six weeks.

At the moment, I still feel odd even adjusting my eyes to the look of a computer screen. My brain has not required this type of focus since late June, and I’m shocked at how strange it feels to stare at one white square while trying to type this out.

So instead of totally freaking out at the freelancing task ahead of me, I’m starting with small, controllable steps.  And when I reach the day (hopefully very soon) when I can genuinely begin to piece together the stories from my second Camino, this will be its immediate home.

Until then, this is where I’m at logistically:

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The Counting Down of Days

I’ve always been a calendar counter.  When I was a kid, I used to pick something in the future to look forward to and write numbers across the little boxes on my wall calendar.  I’d cross them off with big markered x’s, even occasionally adding a half slash around noontime.  As a now-Buddhist, this isn’t ideal.  The days and moments leading up to a change are not to be scratched off a calendar or discounted as unimportant.

And yet about a year ago, I began counting.  The months at first, then the Mondays, then the workdays.  Last June I could say for certain that I had 12 months left until I could walk away from a desk life.  And even though it had been very good to me, I disconnected from a part of myself.  And so I counted. And I set my sights on the landmarks that would remind me of the passage of the year.  The seasons, the holidays, the little celebrations in between.  I wanted to time to pass so quickly that I discounted the most obvious factor–one that you’d think I would have learned after 30 years of counting–life happens, and sometimes really happens whether you decide to keep your head down and count the hours or not.  A year ago, I saw the upcoming 12 months as just that–time to be passed.  And now that they are gone, I see them for what they were: a year of life changing, earth-shattering changes, troubles, and celebrations.  Long sleepless evenings, beautiful nights of friendship and love, and endless reminders of the strength of a strong community.

To honor a year that never deserved to be counted down on a calendar, here is the year I never expected–the year that lead me to the start of my Camino, or perhaps was the beginning of it in the first place:

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Solvitur Ambulando

Mid-Camino-Training Walk

I’ve had a serious case of blogging writer’s block.  Even writing this blog post has lead me to extreme distraction and procrastination.  I am now currently pan frying some brussels sprouts, because A. I was craving vegetables, B. That Kerry Gold butter we splurged on isn’t going to eat itself, and C. Cooking is not blogging. To be fair however, at least I feel like writing again.  Though I have written a good amount in the past year, it’s all primarily been a reflection of how lousy things have been since November.  So coming out of my eight-month anxiety cocoon is a welcomed feeling–the wedding I had a huge role in planning has passed, the film I partially produced is all set, and my non-career-related job that I’ve held down for two and a half years is in its final days.  And most importantly, a trip I’ve planned/saved for/talked about for nearly seven years is three weeks away.

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“But that doesn’t make it okay…”

Cloe Ridgway via Unsplash

Just before leaving the house this morning, I flipped open a book by Pema Chodron that I’ve been slowly reading.  I specify slowly because it’s a breakdown of an eighth-century text called The Way of the Bodhisattva by the Buddhist sage Shantideva, and most of it takes some time to process.  I usually have to be in either a very concentrated or spiritually depleted mood to focus on the densely packed text–and then take a bit and walk around with it throughout the day.

Well, this morning, I was the latter of those two–spiritually (and in this case, physically) depleted.  As I hoped, the book’s message was exactly what I needed to read in that moment.  Not only did Shantideva talk about the damaging and purposeless effects of self-resentment, but I was also reminded of Pema’s tonglen meditation method–or, the process of breathing in someone else’s vices, and breathing out peace.  In this practice, you are fully experiencing someone else’s anger, hatred, confusion; recognizing it in your self; and breathing out peace for both parties. It got me thinking about a dilemma I’ve had during this rough time.

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So I was on a podcast…

Amidst the absolute madness of the past several weeks, I received an early light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an email from Dan Mullins.  Dan hosts a podcast based in Australia that interviews pilgrims from the Camino, and he found my xoJane article from last year on the experience.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t had the guts to listen to the full episode yet because the sound of my own voice makes me want to hide under a rock, but I’m making progress!  Dan did such a beautiful job with the interview, and the experience itself was not only a bucket list item, but also generally exhilarating.  After I finished the interview, I may have jumped up and down around my house and couldn’t go to sleep for a while.  Wine helped though.

My main hope is that the episode will inspire more people to go on the trek themselves. Buen Camino, all!  And if you’ve found your way to my blog via the podcast or Camino forum, WELCOME! And thank you so much for visiting!

Also, a huge thank you to John DeSilvestri for selling me his excellent mic that saved the day!

Feel free to have a listen, and definitely go check out Dan’s past episodes on Facebook!

My Podcast Episode!

 

54 days!

Two Months Before the Camino

I’ve always had travel anxiety.  I dream about going on trips, and save up for years for these types of things, just to feel horribly anxious before I actually leave.  And the moment I decided on a date to return to the Camino de Santiago, I knew that this happy/terrified anticipation would begin even earlier than it did the last time.

Because this time around, I know exactly what I’m getting into.  I know how hard it will be on my muscles and joints, I know how long the days can feel, and I know how hard it is to let go of the dependable day-to-day life that you’ve been used to for the past several years.  But I also know that this is the whole reason I’m going.  My brain is like a dusty closet, filled more and more everyday by the little, persistent needs of my house, my job, my career. With too much dust, I forget what it’s like to sit down and think clearly for more than a few minutes at a time.  Even when I take a break in the middle of the day or go on a weekend trip, I see the impending end to that break on the horizon.  And this is exactly why I did not choose to go on a traditional vacation with my saved pennies.  This is why I need to spend this time moving as slowly as possible across a great distance. I haven’t found anything else that breaks up the cobwebs in my head like a challenge of this sort.

So with my building anxiety–and the countdown dwindling–I want to use this blog as a place to write where I stand, literally and mentally leading up to my second pilgrimage.  So I’m writing for three purposes:

  1. Help people who are considering/leaving soon for the Camino themselves.
  2. Vent about my feelings and pre-trip anxieties to make myself feel better.
  3. Prepare for the writing I hope to do on the trip itself.

So here’s where I stand…

Hiking during San Fermin.  Yikes.

Logistically, I have learned that hiking the Camino overtop of the running of the bull is a bit of a nightmare.  Pamplona, the fourth-or-so town on the Camino Frances (when starting in St. Jean Pied de Port), fills up for a week with revelers for the San Fermin festival.  So here comes a vegetarian and a girl that fears large crowds hiking right in the middle of the bull run.  Yeesh.  The hardest part is finding a hostel in or around Pamplona.  I know there are ways around the city, but I am worried these roads will not be well marked, and the last thing I want to do is get lost. Luckily, this morning we booked a room.  It was about four times the amount we will normally pay for a hostel, but alas, better than getting lost in the hillsides of Spain.  Hit me up in the contact section if you need suggestions of where to stay, we saw a few additional options in our journeys.

I’m losing patience with emails

My work email has a little notification feature that pops up on the top right part of my screen whenever a new message comes in.  As someone who needs to get into a zone when they work, I have been less immune to frustration as each one pops up.  I’m having real-world senioritis.  One of the best things about the Camino is a disconnect from technology, from usual rhythms and patterns of your day, and from a constantly shifting focus.  I feel the most resentful when I am pulled in several directions and incapable of finishing one specific task because of it.  I realize these are all “first-world” problems, and one of my whole purposes for returning to the hike is to reorganize my brain and not become instantly frustrated when several people need things from me at once.

A Week of Happy Crying

I have a suspicion that I’m going to happy-cry my way through the first few days of this trip.  Yes, I know I’m anxious as all hell now, but once I get my butt on the airplane and fall asleep, I will actually be able to say that I can truly rest. It’s strange to think that walking for five weeks is “truly resting,” but this is my sort of freedom.  I look forward to days and days of being out in the sun, opposed to looking at it through an office window. And I look forward to a community of people that find little reason to fall into the trap of negativity–a great listen for my own brain.  All that matters on the Camino is safely getting from one place to the next while looking out for the people around you.

So much support!

As I mentioned in one of my past posts, I’ve had such a different reaction to my trip announcement this time around. In 2009, the Camino was not as well known and the world was simply in a different mindset. I said that I wanted to drop everything and disappear for a few weeks, and everyone assumed I was doing a drunken jaunt through Europe to be wild and crazy. I was also told that it was too dangerous for a young woman to take on. This time though–nothing but positive thoughts from everyone.  I’ve even received a whole bunch of phone calls and emails from people asking about how to plan their own trips.  The world may feel like shit right now on the whole, but I applaud everyone’s newly opened mind to the idea of personal and spiritual pilgrimages.  You don’t get a big golden award at the end or some giant recognition on the news.  You do it for you, and you go home.  The fact that something of this sort if gaining popularity is a good sign for society.

 

We’re at 61 days.  And counting.