the butterflies of Spain
to bring us
I did not expect Guadalupe to kick my butt. On the first day of the Camino del Norte route, I left Irun a bit overconfident on the route toward the Santuario de Guadalupe. I thought that since I could run three miles and hiked the Rockies, I was conditioned. Totally wrong. These mountain trails went straight up – one after another. And it was hot – before 8am. And sadly, my delicious coffee was not enough to power me; ditto the two little packaged muffins provided by the albergue.
Usually, I ran on fumes. A handful of trail mix, an apple, or a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter on the way out the door. And of course, coffee. I never drank it until I turned 24. That was the year I became a single parent of three, all preschoolers. I later became a single parent of four. And then a single parent of five. I created a comeback line, to hide my own frustration as well as my sense of being judged: “Well, girl’s gotta have a hobby….” It often got a good laugh, and I could stand taller, as if these broken vows and broken homes for my children were fine by me. In one sense, they actually were fine: I stood for a certain honesty, a rugged, fierce truthfulness, and damn the consequences. Which was the inevitable outcome each time. So my brutal honesty and I lived happily ever after, raising a tribe of brilliant hooligans and wayward angels, my favorite people – Vikings with the souls of artists. This was in fact our heritage, and we were insufferably proud of it, especially me. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Get up early, stay up late to finish what needs to be done. You’re the only one. Down some coffee and pocket a couple muffins for later.
In my career as an addiction counselor and case manager, I’d been taught to nod supportively and then ask my sick, tired, homeless clients, “So – how’s that working for you?”
The good news on the Camino: I was meeting people already. That was working for me. Katrina, who was in grad school in Belgium, studying psychology. Her sweetness was a balm for any day. Kati, from Germany, strong as a bear; her backpack was lost by the airline, so she was collecting replacement gear. Having bought a small pack, she found a few items on the albergue donativo table of freebies. I gave her my pack cover, in case of rain. I had my travel duffle, a sturdy stuff sack for transporting my backpack on the plane so the straps and zippers wouldn’t be damaged en route. I figured I could tuck it upside-down over my own pack. Thankful and delighted, she started out walking with me, together with Katrina and others we’d met, all enthusiastic and eager to go.
The bad news: one by one, everyone waved goodbye to me as they left me in the dust. Because I was so slow. A new embarrassment welled up around my Viking pride, as I considered that my combination of factors – age (51), lax training, low blood pressure in the heat, THE HEAT, the intensity of the trail, all of it piled on top of my heavy pack – could well kill me. Time to ditch more from my pack. Day One, and I’d already emptied things twice into multiple plastic bags I left behind, on the donativo table, on random benches, into the trash. But I was still too heavy. I needed to get rid of more.
Thirty degrees has more than one meaning, and at least two apply, I thought, puffing up the steep route. My tank top clung like the mercury in the thermometer, soaked with perspiration as if I’d been crossing myself against this baptism by fire. As I hiked up a vertical death march to reach the church of Guadalupe, suddenly a bamboo grove sprung from behind the wire fencing along the path. Startled in my sweaty exhaustion, I stopped to wipe my face with my cotton scarf and have a better look. The grove was dense, yet languid as it all moved in the slightest breeze – which felt heavenly.
It called to mind my second son, Daniel, who wanted to plant walls of bamboo instead of fences. He loved the renewability and usefulness of it. He was like this himself, tall, fluid, exotic and surprising, committed to self-renewal and a useful life.
And – on the other side of the dirt path – two burros ate ordinary grass under ordinary apple trees. Daniel also had a great fondness for humble burros. I had imagined that it was their useful sturdiness, their seeming tirelessness under burden. While he appreciated those aspects, he had added with a grin, “And – they’re just so cute!” Daniel often gave gifts of unexpected delight. One of my favorites from his childhood: a small paper box that, upon opening, exploded a rainbow of origami birds into your hands. Now in the late morning heat, I stood resting in Daniel’s joy of the unexpected, in his eclectic energy, rejuvenating my resolve in the shade from bamboo and apple trees beside the little burro buddies. They were cute, and fun to watch, nuzzling each other one minute, headbutting the next.
Finally atop the first hill, I entered the dark cool of Guadalupe’s sanctuary, a carved and gilded altar hidden within. I had not expected this santuario in Spain. I knew of Guadalupe only from her Mexican hilltop story; her familiar shining visage was common where I’d lived in Colorado and New Mexico. The name “Guadalupe” is a place name; in Spain, it was thought to be derived from Arabic words for “river of the wolf.” As I refilled my water bottle at the pilgrim’s fountain outside the church, I felt like I was hiking that riverbed, the dirt of a vertical arroyo, straight up the path of a waterfall run dry, heat exhaustion howling in my ears and blisters biting into my feet.
I remembered how, in grade school, Daniel had done a project on reintroducing wolves to the American West. More than his difficulties with the project, I remembered his conviction that the benefits to the ecosystem outweighed the risks. He had been just a child then, yet he wanted a world that renewed itself naturally, difficult though that might be.
The trail rose again after Guadalupe, ascending straight to the top of a mountain. I hiked along the crest, more mountains on my left, ocean to my right. A herd of ponies emerged from a copse of trees, nodding up the steep slope together, the blue water behind them. I sang Daniel’s “Horse Boy” song I had written when he was four, about my Sagittarius child “whisking the flies with a flick of his mind.” I tried to practice this approach and not faint in the heat, humming and panting down the other side of the mountain into Donibane.
Entering this quaint harbor town, I was relieved to find Kati, and together we found a cafe for lunch. Food and wine, at an outdoor table, with chairs to sit in and chairs for our feet. I complained of my surprise at the steep trail, comparing it to hiking a ski run, and Kati’s wide smile and laughter in response was as refreshing as our meal. I learned that many European trails are equally steep, and Kati was well seasoned to easily walk the Camino. She suggested trekking poles, which I had never used, but I scoffed because I had never needed them before, in the Rockies, of Colorado, as if this trail had been created incorrectly, over the centuries…by the penitent. Santiago the Pilgrim is portrayed in a traveling cloak, a floppy traveler’s hat, scallop shells on the shoulder cape of his cloak and on the front of his hat; and in his hand, always, is a tall walking stick, with a drinking gourd tied to it. As I realized how I sounded, I quickly retracted my words: “Yes – however, I think it’s time for me to find a stick.” I thought maybe I’d buy one in the next city of any size we came to.
I wanted to just stop. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that I could; I found out later there was a small but clean albergue in Donibane. But I didn’t know, and my guidebook said my stopping point was still a half-day’s hike away. “Over another mountain,” Kati warned.
“I know,” I sighed.
“This part’s supposed to be harder,” Kati added.
“I know,” I sighed deeper. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But I wasn’t feeling all that tough any more.
We ferried across the harbor to reach the next stage of the trail. “Well…,” Kati began as we reached our signpost.
“Yes, off you go – buen camino!” I smiled at Kati. She took off up the hillside.
I held a hand to my eyes and looked up at the steep steps built into the hill. And that’s when I first noticed them: the butterflies. They had been swirling around me periodically during the morning, but now I took a moment to see that they were fluttering just ahead of me. As I stepped forward, they continued farther up the path, as if beckoning me to follow. I tightened the straps on my backpack and slowly climbed the intense hill out of Donibane.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was climbing the second mountain that I met Saulomon, originally from Mexico and now from Los Angeles. Saulomon was sleek, fit, and charming, with wide-set eyes that crinkled happily when he smiled a perfect, wide smile. We talked about the pace of life in the U.S., and he told me about his previous camino trip, friends who had met and fell in love on that camino, now married and living the slow life on a farm. As he helped me up each loose, rocky step or sandy, steep hillside on the second mountain, Saulomon told me he was thirty-six; he was seeking that sort of love, a deeper love than he knew, and starting to feel age creeping up behind him. He asked my story, so I told him about bringing 17-year-old me along on this trip, and his eyes brightened. “And I am 21! So when we get to Santiago, you will have your 18th birthday!”
“And you will turn 22!”
“We will have such a party,” he mused, reaching his hand down to me from steps above. “Drink wine, good food, and you will dance with me! You will be 18…,” he flirted, winking, which made me laugh.
When we reached the top of the mountain, we found the remains of a castle, and I stopped to rest, thanking him. He asked if I would be all right, and I assured him I would. “See you soon,” he called as he left to go flirt with a young blond woman near the stone walls.
Through the afternoon, I distracted myself by looking for a stick. I finally found one, a dry, slender, dead branch barely clinging to its tree. Having seasoned itself in place beside the camino, this smooth stick caught my attention as it seemed to reach out from the tree, like a friend’s hand from higher on the trail. Grabbing hold with both hands, I snapped it free. Just the right height, it fit my hand. The bottom forked into two spikes, one longer, one shorter. It felt right, one end for me, one for 17-year-old me. Awkwardly, I began walking again, trying to sort out the rhythm of stick and steps. It would do until I bought a proper trekking pole, I thought.
Whenever I’d start to feel overwhelmed in the sun and lose my will to continue, a little orange or white butterfly would appear on the path ahead of me. Always ahead of me, over the center of the path, as if waiting. And so I would say, out loud, “okay, butterfly,” and inevitably smile, and keep going a little longer. At some point, I realized I was going to make it, all the way.
I dubbed myself La Tortuga, The Turtle, slow under my weighty backpack shell. It let me laugh at myself. The butterflies sustained me in my darkest hours of exhaustion on the trail. I finally realized the friendly message they were trying to give me: lightness. So I would continue to lighten my pack; but I would also start lightening my mood in those exhausted times, and lightening my heart.
Daniel’s way taught me that the gift of unexpected delight could lighten the hard times – but I had to look for those moments, choose to take delight. Once I looked, it was all there: bamboo, burros, and butterflies; bountiful lunches of laughter and flirty birthday parties. I could choose to take help when it was offered: advice, a reaching hand, an old walking stick to ease the load. Running on fumes was just running me out of gas, and then it was a heavy push from that point on.
Rest and renewal strengthens us. I understood that the biggest challenges of the Camino would not be its mountains. I had a lot to unload.
to illuminate my mind
to burn my words into a sword
to break our hearts
with the beauty of it all
The cab driver was confused. After shaking his head and trying to dissuade me from hiking the coastal route of the Camino (“montañas”), I gave him 40 euros for a 28 euro ride. “For luck,” I told him: for being kind, and helpful, and forgiving my useless Spanish. For this odyssey upon which I was embarking. He let me shake his hand, offering me, “Buen Camino.” I smiled, not realizing it was the first of a thousand such blessings I would receive, then walked toward the wrong hotel door. He honked and pointed, and once more steered me right.
Up the narrow stairs, at the front desk I was greeted by Begoña; she said most women in Bilbao have this name, which makes it easy to address people on the street – “Try it! You’ll see!” – and we both laughed. My room at the end of the hall looked exactly like the online photos, meaning aging, rundown, and absolutely charming, with a view out the long floor-to-ceiling windows of the Teatro Arriaga across the street. Cool air flowed through the long unscreened windows and gently fluttered the gauzy curtains. I stood my backpack next to the writing table in the corner, and hauled off my hiking boots and socks. Several pots exploding with flowers filled the balcony to the left of my window, including begonias. I could see the river past the plaza de teatro.
I ran a hot bath, knowing I would not have another for months. As I soaked in the steaming water, I thought about the many begonias in Bilbao: the cathedral, the flowers growing around lampposts and on balconies, the women like exuberant flowers gracing the city. I found out the Basilica de Begoña is the cathedral of the patron saint of Bizkaia/Biscay, named Nuestra Senora Begoña. Our Lady of Begoña. I had arrived in the Basque region, fiercely independent people with a long tradition as sailors and navigators. Sailors who were immensely grateful for returning from the fierce Atlantic Ocean into the Cantabrian Sea, known in the west as the Bay of Biscay; they navigated up the Nervión river and offered thanks to Our Lady as soon as they could see the high steeple on the hill. I later learned the begonia flower symbolizes many communications, including this gratitude, giving thanks for a favor or assistance. It can also mean a warning of upcoming misfortunes or challenges, including those dark thoughts that can distract you from your joy.
For now, nothing could distract me from it. I set out into the neighborhood and found a small cafe with an excellent soup: sopa pescada con mar. In the delicious, rich, rusty-brown broth floated scallops and mussels in the shell, and an entire, enormous prawn, the giant shrimp found here. Who knew shrimp legs are delicious? I still couldn’t bring myself to eat the head of another being, however. The waitress, mixing Spanish with a few English words for my benefit, asked if I wanted wine, and I said no, water please. I thought she asked “single, or cold glass,” and was regretting that I’d answered “cold glass,” thinking I had foolishly asked for local tap water. Instead, I received a sweating bottle of sparkling water with my soup – “con gas” means carbonated. It was the perfect drink. I sat at my outdoor table with its white tablecloth in the wide, lively alley behind the hotel, where several restaurants’ late night customers held court over bottles of wine, or laughed softly and intimately, as neighbors walked through on their way home. I could feel the moisture in the breeze, and would have dozed in my chair, looking up at more flowers, geraniums on balconies, soft lamps glowing behind flowing drapes in apartments above, the restaurant lights warm and inviting. In Bilbao, I felt like I’d stepped into a romantic fairytale. Every scene was richly textured. The very air wove itself through the story, as I smelled the sea, faintly, now and then.
I wished Begoña buenos noches and fell asleep in my bed to the sounds of laughter and footsteps, trains and motorbikes, and one lone saxophone playing Spanish melodies somewhere, all below me in the street.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the morning, I set off to find coffee and a bus to Irun. As I wandered the streets of last night, here marched Begoña, who called, “Hola!” like a hug and asked what I was looking for. When I said coffee, she took me back to the bar next to the hotel even as I protested that it was closed. Her answer: “Oh, he’s nice, you’ll see,” and she knocked on the door. Raul opened the door to her rapidfire explanation that I was una peregrina searching for the holy café con leche and he let me in, making a lovely thick latte. Lovely as in I am in love with the Spanish idea of a cup of coffee; it is a deep and intense moment of desire, a lingering kiss each morning, and I felt spoiled all day because of it.
I walked across Bilbao afterward to find the bus station. The river curves through the history, the theater district, the churches and government buildings, and I cross over all on cobblestone plazas rising onto bridges and streets leading into the hills. Once, lost in map study on a corner, a very dear older man with musical English explained the route and wished me “good way” offered with his cheery smile. I waved goodbye, and thought about what it would be like to live in Bilbao. The entire city was fitted onto the foothills of mountains, so people walked up or down to get where they were going, and always with a view of the mountains between the buildings, a framed landscape wherever I looked. Bilbao was like no mountain town I had ever known, a mountain city near the coast, gone European and self-confident. The old city by the river was especially energetic, edgy and delicious. Posters offered museums and art exhibits large and small, and always a street musician played with an open case sprinkled with coins.
I waited only 20 minutes at the station for the air-conditioned bus in the July heat. There I met the Three Musketeers, who were actually the Three Graces in disguise – Charm, Joy, and Beauty, better known as Vicki, Pat, and Bernie, respectively. These three women were all teachers from Britain, two retired, one on summer holiday. “You Australian?” they had asked. Americana. They immediately absorbed me into their group as we tried to figure out why this bus to Irun was in fact not now the bus to Irun…it all worked out, and we found our way to Irun and so to the start of our journey.
I feasted on irony, pinxchos, and beer with the Graces at a pub next to the albergue, the word for pilgrim hostels along the Camino de Santiago. Vicki was annoyed by the bar owner who didn’t seem too anxious to take the order of four women backpackers, and she kept up a steady stream of abuses about his pace and the quality of the service. Bernie offered witty asides and quips and was so helpful with her fluent Spanish they called her The Linguist, and it was easy to agree. Pat was the experienced through-hiker, and a runner, fit and easy to like – and 69 years old. Her pack was small and tight, her step solid and balanced. While Bernie was exploring the possibility of a new love, and Vicki was impatiently waiting for a paycheck to hit her account, Pat was the glue holding the trio together.
As we waited for the albergue to open, we walked a path through a nearby natural area park, and as we imagined walking the Camino, talk came to the subject of past health issues. Pat’s husband had malignant melanoma, but was going on five years “clear,” approaching that mark where he might breathe again after such a long fight. She talked about going to college again after her children had grown, and not being identified as their mother or Jim’s wife, but just as herself, and she reveled in it. I told her I was following the dream from when I was 17, so I decided to bring that girl along – just me, and me. She nodded approvingly.
What I didn’t elaborate on was my own brush with cancer several years back. More than five. But my cancer could return whenever it wanted: I had a nasty and, in my case, particularly persistent virus that could cause cancer cells to develop at any time. It had already cost me two surgeries and three organs, an ugly tally. I had taken it as a warning shot fired across my bow, that life can end at any time. My life, ready or not.
What I also didn’t share was my supplication to any angel that could hear me, that this trip would heal something more lethal than cancer for me. I was making an entreaty for wholeness. My body was strong enough to make this long hike, at least for now. But I had other issues weighing me down. What I wanted to let go of was my fear of giving up on my life. Of drowning in dissatisfaction before I was finally the poet, writer, singer, artist I had always wanted to be. The “me” I had been, but hadn’t seen through to completion. I needed to go on this pilgrimage and arrive to see a steeple on a high hill, and thank Our Lady for my safe journey, and safe return…to myself.
At the albergue, I received my credencial, and its first sello – the first stamp on my passport for the Camino. I tied a white scallop shell to my backpack, the sign of Santiago, Saint James, and the mark of the spiritual traveler. I had found the starting signpost, been given blessings by strangers, guidance by Santa Begoña, and nourishment by the Three Graces. In the morning, I would set off for Santiago de Compostela, over 800km away. And beyond.
Mother of Life
oh Mary where
among the saints
does the sea
have her name
Having slept on three planes so far, after 20 hours of travel I arrived rumpled and excited in Lisbon at 6:00am local time. The sound of my passport being stamped for the first time echoed in my ears as I exited the airport – and found myself officially in Europe.
I got a real coffee. Thick foam, lovely brown, hearty and satisfying like a crusty loaf of homemade bread. The tiny white cup and delicate silver spoon let me savor my first moment away, relaxing at my cafe table like a movie extra, anonymous behind the story.
I caught the aerobus, which looped from the airport past hotels and restaurants and into the center of the old city. The streets were cobbled, the plazas actually mosaic, as were some of the walkways. I turned in circles occasionally, wondering at the world beneath my feet. Stone steps led from the main square surrounded on three sides by the palatial buildings of the kings of Portugal, down to the harbor – literally, down into the harbor, with iron rings pinned into the stone steps that disappeared into a blue-green bay. Gulls landed nearby, as pigeons hunted for crumbs. Out beyond the last steps, two stone pillars rose from the water. Sitting with my bare feet just touching the lapping water, I realized that this was the original entrance to Lisbon – by boat, of course. What a spectacular front gate. A man played Fado-style guitar as tourists took pictures, summer skirts and sun hats ruffling in a cool summer breeze. People sat reading on the seats built into the low stone balustrade winding away along the harbor shore. With hours before I needed to catch the bus back to the airport, I let myself be lulled by the music, the sun, the breeze through palm trees, couples walking past holding hands, boats in the harbor.
Fado is the richly blended music of Portugal: sad, filled with longing, wistful maybe’s and what if’s and the melancholy regret of a passionate love forever lost. I could feel it deeply, this waiting for a boat that never came back, a voice that never called my name again, a burning heart grown cold for reasons never known. But instead of some other, the lost beloved was me.
I wondered if I was too late. This fear, more than any other, I had carried across the Atlantic like the burden stone in my backpack. The stone I would give up on the Camino; but this burden of fear, of time forever lost, weighed heavy. I listened to the seagulls crying to each other, their voices blending with the Fado guitar, the creaking of a nearby dock accompanying them. I could hear the beginning of a song to it all, and just sat on the steps of Lisbon’s harbor, listening to the aching harmonies that can hardly bear what we ask. Steps that lead down deeper than we know.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Your ticket – where is the other part?”
“There was no other part – only this.”
“From the machine. At the airport.”
The aerobus driver shook his head. A passenger with stronger English explained tickets come in two parts. The second missing part had a code I needed. When he understood I had only come from the airport, seen the water, and now returned to the airport, the driver waved me back to a seat.
The passenger told me, “Always get both pieces,” and smiled, and for a moment I imagined that I became a local in Lisbon, using the airport bus to go to the old city, the Praca do Comercio and the beautiful fountains with green figures on four sides, the colorfully painted plaster buildings of yellow, pink, blue, and the tiled buildings at their sides – entire facades covered in intricately designed four-by-four tiles. Color and tiles, and red clay tile roofs, and ornate iron balconies, all gleaming under the midday sun.
The narrow streets of Lisbon flow down and around its hills, intersecting at random, organic, no right angles. It is easy to lose your way. If you fight to find a direct path, you wind up going in circles. So I had finally let go and just wandered, slowly, in gentle arcs. A young mother sat a moment at her open upstairs window, her baby craning his neck to see me, laundry fluttering on the wall between us. The Santa Maria Maior Cathedral rose like a fortress of belief in the midst of wonder. Shopkeepers smiled in their doorways and chatted across the streets to each other. Workers hung colored streamers and set up tables for the next fiesta, called a festa here.
Drifting between being a local and a tourist, I was already remembering as I saw through the bus window the Avenida da Liberdade and the Marques de Pombal, shady promenades under huge trees I’ve never known before, something like a cross of maple and catalpa leaves, with trunks seemingly blown smooth by the winds off the sea. They look like the tallest giraffes, smooth and pale with patches of khaki and brown, grown to trees instead of animals. Utterly foreign to me.
Eucalyptus, I found out. Their shade cooled the sidewalks, and the road, and the bus back to the airport as I returned for the flight to Spain, soothed and welcomed regrets-and-all through the Fado gates into coracao de Lisboa, the heart of Lisbon. Having washed my pilgrim feet by stepping into the ocean to which I would return.
Once, not so long ago, in a place far away over the ocean, Gorma took a long journey to find her joy, and what was in her heart among the hearts of people everywhere.
Gorma walked and walked for many days along the Camino of the Heart, and so it was good that in the first days she met a guardian angel – and all because of the trouble with her broken toe. It was the tiniest pinky toe, on her right foot, that caused all the problems.
As she hobbled up a great, green hill with her aching toe, she was sad and all alone. Suddenly, Hernani appeared at the top of the hill, above the sea. Hernani’s black hair curled wildly atop his head, and his bushy, black beard wrapped a kind smile. His warm, dark eyes in his warm, brown face knew Gorma in an instant.
“Gorma, Gorma, why do you walk so slow? Why are you ‘La Tortuga,’ little Gorma?”
She recognized him on sight as well, as often happens when we walk in the Land of the Heart. “Hernani Angel, my toe is broken and will not let me walk.”
Hernani smiled, and said, “Here is a friend to help you on your way.” And an old dry branch from an ironwood tree broke itself free and slid into Gorma’s hand.
“Hernani, friend – I do not use the walking sticks the trekkers tap, tip-tap, tip-tap. I use my feet, my good strong feet, to walk up any hill I want to climb.”
“It is true,” Hernani agreed. “But I see: your broken toe won’t let you walk.” And with that, he turned up the path and was gone by the next bend of the camino. Vanished!
Gorma set off with the walking stick, and it was true, it helped to carry the load, so Gorma was glad. She arrived at the albergue just in time for a bed, for which she was very grateful, and she slept deeply.
The next day, Gorma set off to walk again. The walking stick helped quite a lot, and Gorma named it Saint Thomas, in honor of her doubts, for she had to feel the pain and suffering herself to believe. Gorma walked many miles, but her broken toe would not stop aching with every step.
Suddenly, Hernani appeared from among the trees of the forest. “Gorma, Gorma, why do you walk so slow? Why are you ‘La Tortuga,’ little Gorma?”
“Hernani Angel, I lean on Saint Thomas when I have doubt, and need, but my broken toe, it will not let me walk.”
Hernani smiled and said, “Here is a gift from the land of Portugal, home of humble loving kindness on the shore. I will cradle your tiny toe in a bubble filled with the sea. This gift will help you on your way.”
“Hernani, friend – I do not know of the sea, the waves that curl and wrap the shore, laugh and roar. I use my feet, my good strong feet, to walk up any hill I want to climb.”
“It is true,” Hernani agreed. But I see: your broken toe won’t let you walk.” And with that, he turned the path and was gone by the next bend of the camino. Poof!
Gorma walked with the bubble of the sea surrounding her little broken toe, and it was true, she felt comfort from the sea, as is so often the case. She arrived at the next albergue just in time for a bed, for which she was very grateful, and she slept deeply.
The third day dawned cool and gray as the sea. Gorma walked along, leaning on Saint Thomas, and feeling the sea cradling her tiny toe. But by that afternoon, the sea had grown stormy, and so around her broken toe. It grew and grew until she thought her toe would become the sea itself.
Suddenly, Hernani appeared out of the mist on the mountainside. “Gorma, Gorma, why do you walk so slow? Why are you ‘La Tortuga,’ little Gorma?”
“Hernani Angel, the sea has swollen my toe into a tempest! The sea, it will never stop growing in the bubble around my broken toe! And so, I cannot walk on the sea.”
Hernani smiled and said, “You cannot stay in this bubble of the sea forever, little toe. You must walk the earth.” And with these words, he handed Gorma a little knife, just the size to match her tiny toe. And with that, he turned up the path and was gone by the next bend of the camino. Into the mist!
Gorma looked warily at the little knife until at last she sat down on mountain and repeated Hernani’s words: “You cannot stay in this bubble of the sea forever, little toe. You must walk the earth.” Then quick as you can say “Hernani,” she cut the bubble, just the bubble, and out poured the sea onto the path like a wave upon the shore. Gorma saw inside that the poor little toe, all pink and soft like a sweet new baby, could not yet walk the earth. So she gently cushioned it with gauze and wrapped it with bandages like a blanket. And leaning on Saint Thomas, she walked carefully so as not to wake the baby toe, and arrived at the next albergue just in time for a bed, for which she was very grateful, and she slept deeply.
The next day, Gorma set off with soft socks and more gauze wrapping the tiny toe like it was precious to her, which it was now. She walked carefully, letting Saint Thomas help her with the many, many steps of the path.
As it became evening, Hernani appeared on a wooden bench by an old stone wall, all mossy and comforting. “Gorma, Gorma, why do you walk so slow? Why are you ‘La Tortuga,’ little Gorma?”
“Hernani Angel, shhh, so softly speak. My baby toe is sleeping. It is healing,” Gorma smiled.
“It is true,” Hernani agreed. “We all must leave the soft bubble of the sea to walk upon this earth. This is how we heal when we are broken.” And with that, Hernani turned up the path and was gone by the next bend of the camino. Just like magic!
Just like love. For the love of true friends watches over us like a guardian angel, supports us with a strength like iron, surrounds us with loving kindness, and encourages us to be brave when we feel small and weak. So Gorma learned that love is healing.
Gorma walked on, quiet and smiling. She arrived at the next albergue just in time for a bed, for which she was very grateful, and she slept deeply. Outside, it rained and rained, cooling and cleansing the air.
Buen Camino, Hernani.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – it was my life, and now I was 50. It took me another year to realize, or more accurately, to make up my mind, that it was time to walk the Camino de Santiago. And I needed to bring someone with me.
“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
My daughter lassoed me on my 51st birthday. “You need to buy your ticket.” I bought a one-way ticket to Bilbao, on the northern coast, the closest airport to the border with France, where the northern Camino route begins in Irun, Spain. “Did you get your passport?” I’d never had one.
So everything began with me wanting desperately to go, but stalling. And then deciding. And then never looking back. Because the someone I needed to bring with me…was 17-year-old me. The kid who was going to escape all the crazy of my younger life by going to college, getting that journalism degree, writing for National Geographic, traveling the world, meeting the world’s people. Falling in love with all of them, writing their stories. Over and over, year after year, becoming a citizen of the whole, wide world.
When I quit college, and then when I got married at 19, and then when I started having kids at 20, and 22, and 23, and 27 – that kid just had to sit and wait, reading book after book, writing angry poems, listening to the Rolling Stones, especially, “You can’t always get what you want….” That kid just had to watch while I worked like a grown-up every day, typing up reports instead of stories, interviewing homeless alcoholics instead of Amazonian tribal chieftans or Sami herding reindeer in the Far North or the great-great-great-great’s of Genghis Khan.
At first, I tried to half-listen to that kid. I read those angry words into microphones in small, dark theaters filled with smoke and poets. I sang sorrow to open art exhibits and crooned bluesy warnings in front of velvet drapes and mixed drinks. I breathed sultry innuendo into the erotic poetry night. I was good. I was married. It was terrible. I got divorced. I got a job.
That kid didn’t know I was trying to offer a consolation prize. The other kids needed a home, regular meals, a ride to school so they wouldn’t drop their science project, a cheering parent on the sidelines of their games. If I couldn’t go to meet the world’s people, maybe I could have the world’s people come to me – give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…. And Life did.
Don’t get me wrong – their stories were rich, rich with lost hopes and survival, disillusionment and yet perseverance. But I didn’t write those. I entered their basic demographic information into databases. For all their stories of childhood abuse, foster homes, learning disabilities, drug use, prostitution, jail time, gang crimes, mental illness – I ticked boxes. Type an X. Type an X. Another X. Another.
“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”
If you’re looking for it, Life offers real consolation. Not bestowed as a prize, but earned by hard work, like that paycheck. Real connection in those moments when I listened, cared, said so. I learned to be quiet and let people tell their stories themselves. I developed a radar for danger, alert to people’s state of urgency and desperation, aware of my safety while ensuring theirs as well. I was an emergency responder without a badge or a siren, only my voice, and my eyes, which both needed to communicate at the highest levels. And amazingly to me, I rose to that challenge. I became someone who could evaluate a developing situation and set a boundary with a six-foot-four, 250-pound man who was coming unraveled and needed to leave for the day. I became someone who could empathize with the anger and fear but could keep it together. I became someone people could trust.
So that 17-year-old’s life passed again, and we were 34. And then it passed again. And we were 51.
Somewhere between 34 and 51, something shifted for me. Originally, when I met with homeless people and they told me their stories, they’d inevitably thank me. I shrugged this off, reminding them they were the ones who had been brave, who’d opened up, who’d risked. They’d ask, “So, you have a master’s degree or something? Are you a doctor?” To which I would answer, “No, man – I’m just a poet with a sweet day job.” I’d thank them for talking to me.
But somewhere in my 40s, I stopped saying it. I stopped saying I was a poet with a sweet day job. What had been so honest, so true, for so long, became a memory. Became my history. I had quit going to poetry readings long ago. Now I wasn’t even writing, just a thought here, a Christmas card poem there. I hadn’t written a song in years. I started to believe I was a social worker. But I didn’t have the education; social work requires credentials, a trail of letters following your name. I had lots of experience, many skills, but needed a couple of college degrees to work anywhere but in the one job I had. And then I left that job.
Life intervened. This is what I know now. The Universe turned my world upside down. Ownership of the homeless resource center where I worked changed. A private group created their own agency, thought they could run the center through good intentions and quickly ran it into the ground. I tried to work with them, and then I fought them, and then I left them. I did it very intentionally, to attract community attention. It worked. The center was investigated. Ownership changed hands again. The center was saved.
But all of that took over a year. In the meantime, I needed a job. I found work an hour away. I sold my house and found a closer apartment. However, because I didn’t have the degrees, I couldn’t do the work I knew how to do. I could only approach the depth I’d had, but it was out of reach now. I thought about college, but at my age, I didn’t really want to spend the money from selling my house on a social work degree, which would earn me not much more than a non-degree job. I saw burn-out on the horizon, but it didn’t look like anger. It looked like boredom. Leading to apathy.
That’s when I realized I had quit saying I was the poet with the sweet day job. I hadn’t seen it disappear; it had just faded away.
“I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew….”
I was a fraud in both worlds. I was a social worker with no credentials, and a poet with no poems. I couldn’t do the real social work I knew, and I hadn’t become the journalist I’d originally intended. What to do? I did what has always saved me: I wrote. I wrote what I was experiencing, began searching, exploring the unformed ideas that were rising. For three years, I was more honest than I’d been in a really long time. I had learned how to interview in all those years talking with homeless people. So I interviewed a really fascinating character I had never thought to talk to about all this: 17-year-old me.
Ah, that kid. There she sat in her metaphoric basement bedroom, headphones on, cross-legged on top of her bed, grounded seemingly for eternity. I sat down next to her, and she took off her headphones. And I just listened.
As I was writing, I gave her the respect I hadn’t been able to give her before. She was a wild-child, hair on fire, eyes blazing, heart broken, brilliant, fantastic. Yet she wasn’t only defined by what she’d gone through. She knew who she was, what she wanted, where she wanted to go. We don’t believe teenagers, that they know what they’re talking about, that they could possibly know who they are. But she was solid. She knew. She wanted to go see the world. For herself. With her own eyes.
“And yet I have had the weakness, and have still the weakness, to wish you to know with what a sudden mastery you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into fire.”
I realized she was right. I knew people would say I’d had a great career, was a good social worker no matter what, had done so much good for my community, helped so many people. That’s true, there’s truth in that. But I knew, and young me knew, that I’d been treading water. I have a talent for making those lemons into lemonade, so I’d made a humongous, industrial vat of lemonade, decades’ worth, and that’s where I was resignedly kicking and swaying my arms, floating confined. And getting tired.
Social work wasn’t my calling – it was my foundation. It was my training ground.
I had to go. Whether the time was right or not, whether anyone understood or not, I had to go. And I had to take 17-year-old me along, before I lost her forever. I couldn’t bear that thought. I – finally – loved that kid. Ferociously.
The Camino de Santiago was an easy choice. Since I was 15 I’ve been an amateur religious studies aficionado, reading on my own about Buddhism and Sufism and mystical traditions in Catholicism, Shinto beliefs that everything has a spirit, Hindu beliefs in keeping multiple virtues in balance with the help of multiple deities. If I couldn’t go on the Muslim hajj, I could hike the great camino across Spain, some of it traipsed by the weary faithful since before the year 800. I was seeking kindred spirits to walk and talk with for a time. I was seeking seekers.
As I got off the plane that had carried me across the wild Atlantic, I turned inside to 17-year-old me, smiled, and said, “You ready? C’mon – let’s go.”
“It was remembered afterwards that when he bent down and touched her face with his lips, he murmured some words. The child, who was nearest to him, told them afterwards, and told her grandchildren when she was a handsome old lady, that she heard him say, ‘A life you love.’”
This is how I know I’m back from the Camino de Santiago: I burned my tongue on gas station coffee, driving the interstate north from New Mexico to Colorado. The hot, sharp sting from that plastic cup felt like a snake bite, the risk you take when you walk too close to the sheltering shade of sagebrush or cool clefts in the rock under the relentless desert sun.
I started to realize I was back when I noticed airports and train stations felt more comfortable than familiar cities and towns. The tickertape of news from Washington is everywhere, and so unnerving now, I can’t even look at it, though it does its best to suck me in. Relentless. The manic pace of this place is so intense, so constant, for me it’s relieved by driving 80 miles an hour down a gray highway, looking at pronghorn antelope, an eagle slowly circling overhead. In my mind, I’m driving at the level of those clouds building on the horizon. This actually feels slower. The highway feels slower than the mindset of this country I’ve returned to. I don’t know how to be here, but I don’t know how to not be here – my whole family is here, and I love them, and I couldn’t wait to see them; but I’m not sure how workable this is going to be in the long run.
It’s sort of like this: I left with a crewcut, and a backpack, and all the time I would need. And I returned with a backpack that’s far too big, doesn’t fit me any more, and a mop of hair that is neither attractive nor controlled. This is probably my attitude toward this society right now: so uncomfortable. I have no interest in being attractive, or controlled, or fitting here. And now I wonder how much time I’m going to need.
Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees; Time can break your heart, have you begging please…begging please…
— Eric Clapton, “Tears in Heaven,” Unplugged
In a strange way, the quietness of the Camino was matched by the busy pace of New York, where I arrived from Spain. Floating equally anonymous and unimportant along my way, I was able to observe small moments on the streets, stop to hear music in a jazz club, search for a book on sidewalk tables. I stayed in a hostel, slept in a bunk, lived out of my backpack, just as before. Yet once I got to the quiet of New Mexico, I realized I was overwhelmed by the roaring pace of ordinary American life.
But even that’s not as accurate as I’d like to be. That’s just one piece. If I don’t want to hear the noise, I can just turn it off. It would be easy in my own space. But I don’t have my own space, just this jeep, and walking. Everywhere else is through the kindness of people who love me – a grand generosity, but subject to their relationship with the world, with information, with speed, with technology, … with noise.
So I’m also trying to figure out how to not leap back into the rat race as if I was an alternate on a relay team and now they need me – hurry, lace up your shoes, start running. I’m not interested in that any more, either, and I think the options that will come my way first will be more of the same. Instead of taking those baton hand-offs for the endless racing around in circles, I have to deflect them. I’m not sure even if I get a job and tell them, “Look, every year I go on pilgrimage, it’s what I do, it’s the reason I work, so if that’s not gonna work for you, this isn’t gonna work for me” – even if I tell them that, will I still maintain what I brought back? Or will I slowly melt into the madness again, slowly put back on my racing shoes, slowly just go back to the way it was before? I can’t lose this, and I’m not sure how to keep it.
Woke up this mornin’, feel ’round for my shoes, you know ’bout that babe, had them old walkin’ blues….
— Robert Johnson, “Walkin’ Blues,” Eric Clapton Unplugged
What is “it,” anyway, this invisible Hero’s Journey elixir. I feel like I’ve brought back a pocket of mountain mist…the sound of the sea…the texture of Roman stone roads imprinted on the soles of my feet…arms of comrades still draped lovingly across my shoulders. I keep searching as I drive past New Mexico arroyos hinting they’ve recently held rain.
I’ve been gone three months. A season in the Spanish sun. Which is how I measured my days – by the sun. My phone was reduced to a humble camera – no international phone service, no text messaging, no email, no GPS. No internet. Nada.
It forced me to quit forcing life. Our iPhones actually use two standard “commands” to keep our messages and appointments and frantic anxiety and relentless noise up-to-the-obscene-minute: PUSH and FETCH. Good god. Push it through, push it through, like forcing new prisoners into cattle cars before the horrified eyes of those already captured. Or fetch it for me, a lordly order using the intonation of a dog command, as if we ourselves are not the slaves ordered to fetch more news, more appointments, more crazy news, more assignments, more insane news, more useless meetings, more possible world war news, more messages we dread to open because it’s just one more impossible thing we are expected to manage or accomplish with a sickly smile.
As if we ourselves, the prisoners and slaves, haven’t created this culture of force. We have, by participating in it, by accepting it. We are many. We could be mighty. But we’re afraid to lose what we believe we have: security. So we push and fetch.
The highway passes out of one reservation boundary and into the next. So many reservations in the American West. I am sadly familiar with these road signs of despair: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ohkay Owingeh, Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna. Over 20 exist just in New Mexico, sometimes lumped together to make it seem like the individual tribes have more space and more power than they actually do. Many that could be mighty. I realize they have the security that so distresses me: maximum security. The terrible security of imprisonment and slavery. Oh, they are free to walk off the reservation any time they want – but where can they go if they are still wearing spiritual and emotional chains of fear and defeat?
Must be invisible; no one knows me. I have crawled down dead-end streets on my hands and knees. I was born with a ragin’ thirst, a hunger to be free, but I’ve learned through the years, don’t encourage me.
— Eric Clapton, “Lonely Stranger,” Unplugged
I’m feeling like I’ve returned to the rez. Seeing the people I love searching for the water of hope in a desert of anxiety. Handcuffed by earbuds and remote controls forcefeeding them despair disguised as news. Trying to find electronic comraderie and escape from the battle fatigue of the day in games of more battle, like bailing a brother out of detox and then coming home to drink cheap vodka on the porch together. Everyone’s strung out on screens, fingers twitching keyboards like they’ve got the shakes.
And now as I’m driving north, I just want to put on my shoes and walk. Hike. Run. I’m looking for the Camino on every walking path and running trail. At 80 mph on this interstate highway.
I watch cloud shadow cross the silent red mesas. I feel similar shadows crossing my brow. Looking south, out across limitless miles of sage and yucca and rabbitbrush, my mind is eased. It quiets. Opens again. Calms my heart, as I feel myself once again standing on the shore of the endless sea, watching the waves crash forever against the rocks, watching the day drift into night.
This is the magic elixir. I understand what I’ve brought back in my pack: freedom. Anti-venom for the snake bite. My pack isn’t too big; it’s big enough to hold freedom for myself and for anyone else who wants some. How I found it and brought it back is another story.
I am free. Sounds pretentious, or idealistic. Actually it’s somewhat disorienting, after all these years. You’ll feel a little lightheaded as the poison leaves your system. Take it slow.
Then we’d go running on faith, all of our dreams would come true, and our world will be right, when love comes over me and you….
— Eric Clapton, “Running on Faith,” Unplugged