A Note on Belonging

I had a pretty difficult time returning from both of my Caminos. The noise of American televisions, the lack of connection with people in your neighborhood as you walk down the street, the speed of everyday life. The biggest shock driving home from the airport was the rigid geometry of the streets in our suburban town. Everything was a square: the yards, the houses, the intersections.

My left brain, which found some sweet rest while hiking across Spain, grumbled out of hibernation as I tried to adapt back to a regular, monotonous town and schedule. The sound of English was jarring–I missed being forced to find the overlaps in our shared languages to interact.

On the other hand, the Camino opened a social doorway for me. On at least five or six occasions, I’ve had the chance to sit down with other Camino pilgrims and long-distance hikers right after they’ve returned from their own trips. No matter what we talk about, I always ask them the same question: how have you been adjusting to coming home?

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Villatuerta to Los Arcos y Los Arcos to Viana

Sunset over Viana, 2009

I’m off on a trip for the weekend, so I’m gonna keep this short and leave it at a little Camino hindsight.

Many people have asked me why I feel the need to return–and keep returning–to the same trail. With some so many other places, other trails even, to explore all over the world–why this one? Doesn’t it get old? Aren’t I wasting my time? I’ve learned to stop incessantly questioning myself about this. Walking the Camino is like visiting thirty countries at once where everyone from each place actually has the time to talk to you. It’s as if this massive group of humans collectively hit the pause button on their lives so they could finally see and truly hear one another.

On the two days that followed my sleepless night in Villatuerta, we crossed a shadeless 12 kilometers of desert-like scrubland, sat in a plaza for an inspiring dinner packed with beautiful stories, and ended our two days 50k further, right on the edge of La Rioja, the land of the wine. I drank wine from a wine fountain on the side of a wall, bought a hand-carved pilgrims cross from a woodworker in the middle of the forest, and learned what it was like to feel like you’re sweating ice water.

The “girls in the hats” at the wine fountain

I continuously lost faith that our day would ever end the moment our village’s steeple appeared on the horizon. I sewed more blisters, sent more sunburned selfies to Ben and fortified myself with even more popsicles, cafe con leches, and lemon Kas mixed with beer–the Spanish shandy.

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The 2018 Writing Project, Title TBD

1. The Inspiration

About two weeks into my hike across Spain this past summer, I posted this status on Facebook:

“Since I arrived, many people have asked why I decided to return to the Camino a second time. And honestly, I’ve found myself somewhat stuck on how to answer. All I know is that I needed to come back–but a less-than-clear answer has continued to bother me.

And then a few days ago, after running into quite an angry, confrontational, Trump-supporting pilgrim (an extreme rarity all around), I found myself asking why on earth he would choose such a pilgrimage–one that accepts all and celebrates every belief. I sat in a church, angry and crying, after he confronted me about my thoughts on protecting the environment. A difficult reality I had managed to avoid since leaving home came rushing back.

Since then, I’ve felt my guard up, worried I would see him again. But as I continued on today, and saw my line of fellow pilgrims friends ahead of me, I was reminded of something very important. Each day–on the Camino, other pilgrimages, and in everyday life–there are people all around the world seeking to grow and change in some way, to become more connected. The reason for seeking change is not important, what matters is that they know they can be better–more honest, more compassionate.

This is what I share with the pilgrim who confronted me. Why we came here does not matter–what matters is that we knew we needed to. And as angry as he made me feel, he is several kilometers behind me, with pilgrims surrounding him on all sides day after day. He is encircled by the fierce inclusivity of the Camino. We experience the same sunburn, the same blisters, we are taunted by the same relentlessly unchanging horizon of the endless Meseta–a sight that forces every pilgrim to reassess the contradictions of their character. In the end, there is no escaping the mind on this journey, and both he and I are no exception.

I will trust that the road, the welcoming eyes of the hospitalaros, and the unmatchable bond of a fellow pilgrim–no matter their beliefs or background–opens his mind to his angers and fears, no matter what his reasons for starting out on this bizarre journey. And I hope it does the same for me.

Whether I have future Caminos ahead of me or not, I do know I will continue to seek actions of connection, for it’s here that I am reminded of the genuine fierceness and determination of the human spirit to grow–even without goals, expectations, or a clear reason why.”

I never ran into this particular pilgrim again, at least not long enough to continue our discussion. What I did experience were countless moments of connection that bridged the spaces between age, country or belief. The Camino is an even playing field. You cannot “win” or “be better” at the hike than anyone else. Because of this, you are all the same, you guide and you bolster, you lovingly challenge while accepting your own mistakes. It is both a time to listen and a time to share your own story. Each human contributes to the spirit of the whole.

When I returned, my expected post-Camino crash kicked into action. The same thing happened after I returned in 2009. It’s a bit like working on a play and dealing with the indescribable loneliness in the few days after the production closes. Your temporary family parts ways, and though you promise to reunite as often as possible, you know deep down that it will never be the same. Life goes on, separately.

2. The Problem

I feel lucky to have seen this love, both in theatre and on the Camino, but the crash that comes from the return has opened my eyes to another problem: these opportunities of connection are often hard to find without encouragement. Even when Facebook helps us remain in touch with loved ones, we’re still looking through a glass screen in the solitude of wherever we are.

This past fall, Harvard Business Review did a study called Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. It states that over 40% of American adults report feeling lonely. It goes on to describe the psychological and therefore physical outcomes of stress and loneliness and how our social and professional structures do little to combat the growing space between communities.

As an actor and a writer, I’ve sat at many a reception desk for days at a time. As a temporary outsider, I often hear the otherwise-unspoken secrets of the office. I become the confessional booth for pent-up, disconnected corporate communities, unable to approach one another with their issues. In the heart of a human-packed city, people are bursting at the seams for true connection.

On the other side of the spectrum, I occasionally visit my hometown up in Sussex County, NJ, an area that has three main roads connecting it to the rest of the state. If these roads are snowed out, well, you just don’t go anywhere. When I visit my parents and run errands in town, I see the same looks of longing. I’ve gotten in long conversations with waiters, store clerks, old friends just about wanting to do something else, to feel more than their daily lives, to change.

This sense of disconnection, of not really belonging anywhere, bridges all demographics. Even if we’re surrounded by loving family, a passionate religious community or a job that hosts weekly coffee gatherings, this feeling of separateness can still ring true. If anything, it can be a bit worse because then it comes with the feeling “if I have all this, why do I feel alone?”

3. The Idea

I’ve decided that in 2018, I need a project, a tangible action. One that helps others based on feelings I deeply understand. 2017 was a challenging, relentless year. I feel taken apart, knocked down and a bit like there is no ground beneath my feet. This puts me in a perfect place to begin building again.

I would like to launch a year-long writing project that explores weekly “Actions of Human Connection.” I’m still working on this phrasing and would love ideas or feedback on the title.  Each week, I will write–narrative-style, since that seems to work for me–about one action someone can do to begin easing this feeling of separateness. It may be small, something possible to do on your own: go to a museum and experience a piece of history or work of art that lets you into the mind of someone from 100 years ago. Or it could be difficult, something that requires years of planning: how to walk a 500-mile pilgrimage, for example, or running a Tough Mudder. But mostly, it will be everything in between–practical actions that you can do to reconnect with a world that feels far away.

As someone who has battled with depression, sometimes all you’re capable of doing it laying and watching your computer screen. Well, perhaps there’s even a version of that for this project. I want it to be a guide for the days when you feel there is nothing to do, for times when you need something more, or that something is missing. Instead of saying “how can I improve my appearance, weight, health, etc.” this will be a guide to “How can I feel I am part of the narrative of human experience?”

With two days left in the year, I have quite a challenge ahead of me: try to begin planning 52 actions of connection, one for each week.

4. Where You Come In

For this, I would love your help. How do you reconnect with the world or with other communities when you feel separated? Do you have a religious or spiritual community? A running club? A knitting club? Or do you visit somewhere on your own–a particular park, a movie theatre, a library? Do you volunteer with an organization? Do you visit the zoo?? Do you see a play?

Anything. I want to hear them. And if you’re part of a community that I am not a part of, such as a religion, I would love to come with you to a service. I mean all religions. I’ve never felt it would be respectful for me to go alone, but if it would be appropriate for me to tag along as an open-minded guest, I am all for it. I want to see and tell the story of where we are connecting, where we’re succeeding in coming together.

As always, thanks for reading. This blog has often become my own lifeline, my own way of feeling heard and reconnected.

Sending all my love to you this New Year’s Eve.

 

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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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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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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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BRB: Ukulele Parade

Today I celebrated the Summer Solstice by marching in a ukulele parade.  I do not, sadly, play the ukulele, but I did play a mean plastic maraca and tried to sing along.  Also, I broke a curse! This was the first official parade that I’ve ever  marched in.  I’ve been scheduled to march in several parades since I was a kid, but three now have been rained out.  So with my merry band of about 10 people and my awesome coworker Pia, I finally broke my cancelled parade streak.

It’s important to note that I’ve had more coffee today than I’ve consumed in the past week put together.  Reading over the letters of this blog post is like trying to catch sentences bouncing around a screen.  My health has finally improved, and so coffee is my friend again.  Also, I clearly needed an iced coffee to make the ukulele parade an even more beautiful experience.  So if this post doesn’t quite make sense, have a coffee, then reread.

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The Camino List!

I woke up this morning with a new sense of hope. It is the first time I’ve slept soundly through the night since last weekend, and I’m sure it was partially due to the fact that I was finally able to eat somewhat normally yesterday.  I’m still unable to get back to hiking training, but I feel less like the room is spinning every time I exert myself.

I am also beginning to fully process that I indeed only have two more weeks in a full-time, traditional office setting.  I’ve been counting down my return to the trail for nearly six years, and more recently, obsessively counting down the months and weeks.  This trip represents far more than a career change and “vacation.” It is the end of a three-year push to pay off a mountain of debt, to figure out a new lucrative, freelance career and lifestyle, and most importantly–to learn how speak up for decisions and ideas that truly make me a better, more complete person.

But with joy and realization, comes the inevitable travel anticipation–the total “holy crap moment” that accompanies leaving your comfortable bubble and doing something rather terrifying.

And so to both celebrate this morning’s new-found sense of hope, and to recognize my underlying terror of returning to this physical undertaking of hiking 500 miles, I have begun mentally making the “Camino List of Awesome Stuff”–a list that will keep me going through my final 15 days.

Things I’m looking forward to on the Camino

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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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I Never Wanted a Barbie Dream House

On my drive to work this morning, an old Barbie Dream House had been left out on their curb for bulk trash day.  And of course, it’s raining, so it was a wildly depressing sight. But the size of the thing!  That dollhouse, now crumbling and filling with water, must have been up to my hip and as wide as my car door.  I started to think about a reoccurring memory from childhood–sitting in my school friend’s bedroom, “playing” with that massive Playmobil mansion (I could have sworn it was Lego, but the internet tells me otherwise). It seemed like everyone got the same gift for Christmas that year.  We were barely allowed to change around any of the pieces, so I use the term “play” loosely.  The massive toy house had several floors, an epic front yard, a full cleaning staff, and all of these little lego flowers that you could “plant” around the garden.  I thought about how my cats would probably eat these lego-like pieces in a heartbeat if I had it at home.  To me, sitting there, staring at this untouchable dollhouse, was a rare, mature moment of clarity in elementary school when I thought, “I do not need this bougie dollhouse in my life.”

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