Gorma was cleaning up her picnic lunch, shaking away crumbs for the ants and birds to share, and washing her bowl and her spoon in the water of a beautiful mountain lake. The water was icy cold, and made Gorma shiver by the time her bowl and spoon were clean.
As she packed everything away in her bag, she saw a man standing a short distance away from her, looking very concerned and very undecided, as is often the case.
“Have you lost something?” Gorma called to him and startled him from his concentration.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma, yes I have – I’ve lost track of time, and now I’ve lost my way, because of it,” he called back, and his shoulders carried a heavy weight that could not be seen by anyone but Gorma. His name was Christoph, and in his coming and going to and from work, he had started to think about things, considering more and more each day his three sons, and what he should teach them as their father, and this started him wondering what sort of man he had grown up to be, and thus he had quickly gotten lost in endless thoughts that wandered down endless paths, and his feet had simply followed, until now he was in a wilderness he did not recognize.
“Well, luckily your feet have wandered onto the very path you need, as feet often do,” Gorma reassured him. “Can you not see what is directly before you?”
“This large lake?” Christoph asked, baffled.
“Look farther,” Gorma urged him, so Christoph took a deep breath and looked as far as he could see across the lake.
“Why, it is my own village, just there, past the opposite shore,” Christoph responded, quietly surprised. “I must have been walking in circles for some time.”
“Oh yes, this can happen easily when our wandering thoughts loop ’round our cares,” Gorma agreed.
“Well, at least I know where I am now. But it will do me no good – my sons need me to meet them in the village and take them home from school. There is much talk of a wolf loose in the forest surrounding the village, and they are too young to take on a fully grown wolf, even three boys together.” Christoph’s eyes were worried, though he simply stood and looked at the village away across the lake.
“But if you were there, you would be able to manage this wolf?” Gorma surmised, understanding his concern.
Christoph took a second deep breath. “Well, I am no great hunter, Gorma, but I suppose I would do what I might to drive it off, if I had to,” Christoph replied seriously.
“And what will your sons do, waiting at the schoolhouse, if you do not arrive to meet them?” Gorma asked plainly.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma, this is my fear – I have not told them the stories of the wolf, because I did not want them to be afraid. So they do not know, you see?, the danger waiting for them! What can I do, Gorma? What can I do? They will decide to walk home without me.”
Gorma looked out over the lake. “It is too far to walk around this lake, because it is stretched out long across the land. Even with a ride from a kind stranger, no horse or hay wagon is fast enough to reach the village before they set off.”
“Yes, this I have calculated also, Gorma,” Christoph nodded, and he gave a great sigh of despair.
“Sometimes, we must meet danger with the element of surprise,” Gorma nodded back. “Sometimes, we must risk everything we are for the benefit of everything we love.”
Christoph turned to Gorma. “How so?” he asked, baffled once again.
“You think if you hide uncertainty, peril, from your sons, it will not find them? That if you hide from it, it will not find you? Even now, it prowls your woods. You must go to meet it, Christoph. You must face your fears. And you must do it with confidence and conviction. There is only one path to your sons – the most direct, truest path of your life. You must choose it. And you must choose it now.” For Gorma knew that there is no other time…only now.
At Gorma’s words, Christoph saw his path. He took a third deep breath, and as he did so, the weight on his shoulders was transformed into a great strength, which carried him forward – as he dove into the icy lake. Under the surface he went, where the lake is dark and full of mysteries. But as he swam, strong and determined, he rose again toward the light, and air, stroke after stroke pulling him all the way across the deep water to his village, where he arrived soaking wet but proud and confident as he walked up to the schoolhouse door. For duty and responsibility can drag us down to the bottom of the dark waters, or they can make us strong and sure, and this strength will carry us far. In this way, instead of being lost, we find our true path to the joys of our heart that stand waiting at the doorway; it is no matter, then, how we may appear to others.
Gorma picked up her bag and her walking stick, Saint Thomas, and walked on down the path by the lake, quiet and smiling. She reached the next albergue just in time for a bed, for which she was very grateful, and she slept deeply. Outside, the lake waters lapped gently against the shore, and ducks floated sleepily in the gentle rocking, warm and cozy in their downy feathers. And far, far away, many days’ travel from the village, high in the wild mountains, a lone wolf howled.
Buen Camino, Christoph.
woke in the warm clouds
I fell asleep to without you
to the stones
of the courtyard
where you found me
kindled a fire
and found my way
to the end of the world
I had an infatuation hangover, still slightly intoxicated from my date with a monk, drunk on stars and God and attentive understanding. I went looking for a little “hair o’ the dog,” retracing my steps from the day before, dazed from the idea of being seen, yet also hoping to be seen once again, a dazzling thought in this city of starshine around every corner.
A day of rest is often a day of perspective. Sleep on it; answers sometimes come to us in the night. Or follow us through the crowded streets, as we wend our way back through our supposed destinations.
Passing the smaller churches, I headed for my sacred altar: the coffee shop table. My love of the coffee shop was interwoven with my love of writing. I remembered grabbing my notebook and dashing out the door – of my high school, of my unhappy marriages, of my far-too-serious jobs – to free my words, unleash my voice, unmuzzle myself, amidst strangers at tables with lives intersecting mine for mere instants as we ordered coffee for here, as we stirred velvet cream into bitter cups and imagined our lives receiving such grace, as we slurped and sipped and scribbled and talked and found our lost minds among other kindred souls, in small books and self-published magazines and at the open mic. A coffeehouse had been my stage and my workshop for many years, a home for this homeless poet, this author with no publishing house, this singer with no band and no label.
An open mic is an open world. At an open mic for poetry, I first sang, a capella, and got a roaring, shouting standing ovation at 1:30 in the morning from drunk and stoned fellow poets. At an open mic, I first told – told what happened to me as a girl, with imagery of pain and betrayal and misery woven into word, my clenched voice shouting quietly, screams echoing in the imaginations of the audience as I stepped down and away. At an open mic, I flirted with every man present, describing in exquisitely slow detail an aching in the back of my throat, until the night turned into an orgy of words, each succeeding poet painting every erotic feeling imaginable, but one at a time, the glory of legs oh legs, the next offering nipples rolled on his tongue like pistachios, the heat of voices melting the strings of lights hung over us until we were all swimming in the stars above us.
Hung over. Us. I didn’t need a mic now. I could free my mind with my words, say anything, any way I wanted, or say nothing in a moment, keeping my words to myself, for myself. It was the family of poets I missed. Needed. It was the other seeking voices, other singers of songs. Las Peregrinas Artistas. Caminantes Poetas.
I looked up from my notebook in the cafe, and through the window, I saw Mauro walk by. Packing up my book and pens, I hurried to the bar to pay. But payment for café con leche cannot be rushed. The barman took his time, as I had taken my time sipping and pondering meaning at the far table. Finally paid, I hustled out the door into the growing crowd of pilgrims and tourists on this main road to the cathedral. I walked fast, moving through the people, searching for the familiar tossle of hair, lean form, easy gait. Looking into small gift shops, stepping into markets, I poked my head everywhere, finding myself at last at the Pilgrim’s Office, now somehow closed. I glanced at the complicated hours posted and turned away. Mauro had dissolved into Santiago somewhere. I felt like I had failed him; I had not found him, given him a joyful greeting, the way Christoph had found me. I had not gotten my joyful greeting in return. I could not sing for Mauro again, joy for us both.
Wandering, still seeking my people and now disappointed, I found myself in St. Fructuoso Church. Saint Fruitful. Mauro was not there. Volunteers with the group “Piedras Vivas” stood inside, marked out by their vivid green T-shirts. One friendly young woman approached me.
“Hola, peregrina!” she beamed.
“Hola,” I replied.
“English? Irish?” she asked pleasantly.
“Americana,” I smiled.
“American! So far you have come! We are asking peregrinos if they wish to contemplate, meditate, yes? on their camino experience?” She offered me handouts in English, explaining they were for my use as prompts to help me uncover meaning found on my journey. “And you may write a prayer, here, if you wish,” she concluded, indicating a small book on a stand, like a writer’s journal perched in the sanctified air of this small church.
The paper was divided into three sections: TO REMEMBER, TO GIVE THANKS, and TO RETURN.
I sat in a pew inside the small sanctuary, and looked at the writing prompts.
Do you remember, during the Camino, the moments in which you felt alone and disappointed?
I sat up straighter, intrigued by the timeliness of this exact question. The written word was speaking to me.
Which encounters or situations gave you the strength to continue?
Remembering the Camino Frances, I smiled wryly, and scratched notes to myself on the handout paper: Finding compassion freed me from my frustration. I thought of Mauro, and Christoph, and all the friends I had listed to myself in the cathedral only yesterday: Friendship, being known, gave me strength to keep going.
In what situations did you get inside a feeling of peace and joy?
Peace was easy: Just walking, eating, showering.
Walking. I saw it plain as day, that word on the page, revealing itself to me, and an answer flowed back without me forming the words. Being in stride with myself, with my life.
Writing. Singing. This was me in my stride. This connection was my joy. Even meeting up for coffee had been a series of joyful greetings, reunions. When I was a young poet, the coffeehouse had been a weekly gathering of a wild tribe, a congregation of miscreants stealing the fire of holy words, to give to each other, those who knew us best and would keep the words sacred.
The GIVE THANKS section mentioned all the encounters made during the Camino, and I sat in my pew, holding my fat notebook full of scribbles in my bag, remembering hugs and shouts and laughter, the poets of long ago and the peregrinos now, all walking, sitting, standing, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, face to face. I remembered Christoph swinging me around and around on the plaza. I remembered Mauro at dinner, telling me about his life, and watching the sunset together.
There is a YOU, Barbara.
Shhh – Barbara is singing.
I didn’t want to give thanks for intimate moments with men I’d met, moments that made me want to kiss them. I wanted to write neat answers, tidy summaries of the Camino to take home with me like souvenirs. I didn’t want my words to burn beneath my skin any more, stoke desire and longing. I didn’t want to miss the dinner party in Santillana del Mar, Jon’s hand on my back, him feeding me new foods. I didn’t want to miss Pablo’s protective sweetness and open heart, Svend’s stunning chiseled face and rugged body, or Wolfgang’s wild, restless energy and dangerous, purring voice. I wanted them to be peregrinos, not men.
After cutting away my body to remove the cancer, not much familiar remained. And I still carried HPV like plague, like AIDS, for a lifetime. I felt like a leper. I could kill these beautiful men, one indiscretion sharing this slow kiss of death, knowing I gave them the genesis of cancer.
But that was just my own body insecurity. I knew there were ways, protections, and I was being melodramatic. I had turned away from men to keep my distance. I had cut off all my hair to avoid attracting attention, and it had worked; but as my stubble grew back into unruly waves, I felt my unruly body turning traitorous with attraction itself.
Men had been my prisons, my locked towers with only windows affording glimpses of the larger world. Men had been my drug of choice, my addiction. Like psychodrama, I had re-enacted my original abuse by choosing poorly and often, trying to prove to the world that I was all right by demonstrating to the world that I was a disaster.
I did it to myself. All of it. I sabotaged the dream I’d had at 17, and the weapon I’d used was men.
It was hard to face my 17-year-old self. But as I looked at her, I saw how destroyed her heart had been. I saw her face shine toward mere scraps of attention, lunging at any mirage of someone understanding who she was, what she wanted.
It was Prometheus bound by love. She kept chaining herself to that rock, and the eagle kept coming, over and over. No one understood: it wasn’t about stealing the fire. That was the easy part. It was about the love that motivated the deed. It was about the love of human beings, freeing them from believing they were encased in clay, stuck, trapped as piedras vivas, living stones. Because she would not believe it. She couldn’t. There had to be more – for herself, and so for everyone. She fell in love with potential, possibility, over and over. But who could believe that a
17-year-old would love connecting with other people so much.
Give thanks for all the experiences that have allowed me to make contact with the deepest part of me, and that have made me an ally, and not an enemy, to myself and to others.
An ally, to myself, finally. I felt myself unchained, beginning to be the person I was born to be, more a world citizen, a traveler, a poet again, a singer of songs, more than the labels of an American social worker single mother. A singer with no label. I was Me, with nothing but this self that mattered, that experienced, and cared, nothing but this self to share. I wanted to write, and sing, and GO, work just to travel, like Mauro, see humanity and the world, walk the pilgrimages of other lands, other faiths, reconnect with the burning mystic soul of me that loved what even poetry could not give words to. Experience what could not be told…what must be lived.
It all moves on, this life, my feet, The Way. I am feeling alive again, and more whole, even as my identities are disintegrating. I am in love, with a man and yet more with myself, with human beings, this earth, this universe, the Universal, whatever that may be. Send a poet, to bring back fire from the stars. I will go. I will go.
Definitely still drunk on Santiago. I wrote a prayer in the book on the stand. The young woman from Piedras Vivas handed me one more paper on my way out. It had Bible verses printed on it.
I looked at the portion of Genesis 32 quoted there, where Jacob had been wrestling with the angel on the road:
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
I had been given a new name already. Maybe I had done my striving, as well. Lord knows I had striven with God and with men for years now; to prevail would be a welcome change. I walked back to the chapel where Christoph and I sang. This day, it was filled with candles, set on the altar and all around cushions on the floor. Santa Barbara was burned alive, for refusing to marry, for defiance, for her belief in something more than herself; stepping carefully into this ring of fire, I sat down crosslegged and looked deep into the flames.
From the altar, Our Lady of the Traveling Mother, Maria Peregrina, watched over me, her child in one arm, her walking stick held firmly in the other.
will I always
walk Jacob’s Way
limping with this hip
from wrestling with angels?
will I ever only fall
and never love
will I walk alone
or kneel to hold
the dying of promise
again and again?
who am I,
and who am I,
Just before 5pm, Christoph found me at the bar across the street, having a glass of wine with an Italian man who had just walked the Camino Frances and was now going to walk back on the Norte. With so much time in Spain, I had thought to make a similar trek, but in reverse, and carried a Frances guidebook in the bottom of my pack. We said pleasant goodbyes, and then Christoph and I hustled into the chapel.
A surprise awaited me: this was a sing-along. Lyrics were projected onto a screen for all to see, sometimes in Latin, or Spanish, or English, with guitar accompaniment. After hearing each tune once through, I joined in. Such joy for me, to sing with Christoph, his deep voice harmonizing low and rich beside me. I closed my eyes at times to listen to him. Each time I opened my eyes, I would see before me on the altar a statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus; she was dressed in Santiago’s traveling cloak and hat, the scallop shell shining bright, baby in one arm, walking stick in the other. Maria Peregrina, I named her. Pilgrim Mary. I held her close as the songs repeated in a very meditative way, immersing myself in the tones and rhythms, and the meanings of the words. I loved it, and too soon, it was over.
But Christoph had an entire evening planned, which he kept feeding me in small bites. Would I like a snack, and then a tour, and food after? The Camino had taught me to say YES.
The cathedral tour was in German, so Christoph translated, leaning close for me to hear, telling me stories in my ear as we saw statues of saints, and kings, and God, and Jesus, and many, many Santiagos, shells and stars radiating overhead in the setting sun from every building and fountain and archway. So much attention to detail here; so much attention to me, too. I wasn’t used to it.
I found myself looking forward to each translation, to the warmth of his breath on my neck, the nearness of him standing close. Once again, seventeen-year-old me had been seduced by a beautiful voice.
This was my weakness, and as always, I hadn’t seen it coming. My siren song was holy, poetic words delivered by a rumbling voice I could not see, could only hear, feel. Leonard Cohen as God. Thunder to my lightning. Down this same irrational road, I had fallen for an intellectual, a poet, an artist, and now, a monk.
Christoph so genuinely wanted me alongside him this evening, had searched for me to join him, and I wanted this close time with him, as well. My spinning head told me we were something more than Teodoro and Atanasio, Santiago’s two devoted followers in Spain. And yet how could we be? Like me, Christoph had a family, grown children – and also a mother to those children, his wife of 25 years. A married monk. I needed a new relationship definition, too, and didn’t know what that might be.
But instead of defining ourselves, we fed ourselves. We chose a restaurant and sat at a small outdoor table, on a patio that was a plaza that was an intersection, like the center of the cathedral, radiating streets and ways and caminos, roads less traveled, roads not taken.
Our conversation began in science and religion, glasses of wine and “what is this? prawn ravioli with sea urchin sauce – what is ‘sea urchin,’ Barbara?” It developed like a meal of courses, the Menú Peregrino, philosophy and mindfulness, finding we spend the first half of our lives developing survival techniques that become our own traps and prisons from which we must break free, “to live the life God intended when he made us,” per Christoph.
I told him, “This is beautiful.”
He answered, “I think more than beautiful. I think it is true.”
The idea caught my attention. I told him it was the same to me as when I would tell my children that we were each born unique, with a unique set of gifts no one else brings, and it was important that we use those gifts, because all the rest of Us, all Life, gave each one their gifts for the good of All.
“But this is not personal; why do you stay distant?” he asked.
I blushed. I was caught theorizing instead of bringing the lesson home. “I don’t know. I do that. In Buddhism, I learned to be like an empty cup – see? Like this wine glass. Unattached to what comes. The wine may be poured in, may be emptied out, spilled, but none of that matters. I am the wine glass. Filled or empty.”
Christoph leaned in across the table, looking very intently into my eyes. His voice rumbled low. “But Barbara – you are more than the glass. What is it that fills the glass? There is a you, inside, here. There is a YOU, Barbara.”
I sat, stunned, struck by this bolt of lightning. Christoph took our theories and went personal. He used his own life to illustrate his meaning. He talked of his perfectionism as taking on others’ judgmental beliefs, adopting them, saying, These are actually my beliefs, to generate or repair his sense of autonomy that had been weakened or damaged.
Here I had thought I could not imagine anything but a strong sense of autonomy in my own life, and yet, for years I had been playing the role of caretaker, helper, and planner for others’ lives – and absolutely neglecting developing my own life. Caseworker. Social worker. Miracle worker. I saw I needed to keep finding my Self, that warm, delicious, colorful, complex, intoxicating sense of Me that could fill the glass.
“You know, this music we were singing this evening – there is a place, Taizé, in France, where they practice this style of singing,” he offered, shaking me from my thoughts.
“The four-part harmonies?” I clarified.
“Yes. They have a weeklong program of study there, for young people; but at the end of the summer, after August, for adults, as well. You could go there, to Taizé. You would love it.”
He was right, I would. And he already knew me well enough to know I would love it. We ate this new food, in a new city, new country, and shared our struggle to be authentic, in a new relationship that was as unique a gift as anything I had ever known before.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Christoph just would not say goodbye yet; and neither would I. We went to find the “ghost pilgrim,” a shadow made by a pillar against a wall, the architectural details creating a peregrino complete with Santiago’s traveling cloak and hat, a backpack and walking stick. Christoph took a photo of the ghost pilgrim, while I took a photo of him.
“There is supposed to be local music here tonight, did you know that?” Christoph offered next, returning from taking his picture.
“On the Plaza de Obradoiro – want to see?”
I smiled. “Of course….” We set off for the plaza.
The band played Galician folk music, under the long portico of the Pazo de Raxoi, the seat of local government. Like the warm, rich sound of a mariachi band back home, the musicians brought their traditional acoustic instruments to life, the air pulsing with waves of sound. Older couples immediately began to dance, creating their own space to move with the music, together.
I longed to dance with Christoph, but I didn’t say so. I wanted to walk holding his arm, but refused to reach for it. We hugged goodbye on the plaza, and he teased me, saying, “Okay, this was a nice, polite, American hug – now let’s really hug.” And with that, he grabbed me and swept me up tight, lifting me off the ground as I laughed, feeling myself swinging around and around in his arms.
He set me down, close in front of him, and I took his face in my hands, saying, “Christoph,” smiling at him, in love.
He reached out and took my face in his hands, echoing, “Barbara.” He smiled love to me in return.
And I pulled back, inside. I hugged him again, my head to his chest, the pain of distance burning as I listened for the reassurance of his heart beating.
Because he was married. And I still remembered the sting of being on the receiving end of my husbands’ choices, their affairs and denials and humiliations. I still believed in commitment, renewed and intended; but more than that, I believed in honor, as much as I believed in freedom, because without honor, you had no real freedom. And honor was made and kept by choices.
I had no idea what this love was that I felt for this man; I had no name for it. And so, breaking the pattern of my entire life, leaving behind the traps and prisons of suffering I had so dutifully created for myself in the past, I did not take the next step into a hell of my own making.
I did not kiss him. I wanted to, though. I so wanted to. Restraint stretched the seconds as Time swooned, reeling with possibility.
The moment passed. We said our goodbyes. Christoph invited me again to visit in Switzerland, where he had lived for many years. “You must come visit us. Come visit us.” And then: “I want to be with you again.”
Feeling the words echo in my heart, I answered, “And I want to be with you.” It was the simple truth. Sometimes, in pursuit of truth, we are reckless. “So, I will. I will come visit.” I looked at him, hoping to hide deep within my eyes what I felt. But I’d always been a bad liar. We talked of timetables for my visit instead.
One more hug, and then we walked our separate ways across the plaza, and I didn’t look back.
I couldn’t. I didn’t know what crazy drama I would try to create if I did. He was on his way to his nearby albergue, and tomorrow, the road to Finisterre; and me, to a day of rest. I walked “home” to Seminario Menor, thinking about the evening. We both said, though we knew we would feel sad, we needed to walk our next steps on our own, alone to the end of the world.
But now, maybe not truly alone; I carried something with me, a moment of being found, seen. A reassuring voice behind me.
There is a YOU, Barbara.
The name Atanasio means “immortal, eternal life.” And Teodoro is “gift of God.” That might be a different enough type of relationship for me to make work. I walked through the dark streets, not only feeling my way, but by a new familiarity, a sense of being at home, anywhere, by being.
Climbing into bed before midnight, I watched the stars out the open window until I slept.
in the morning
you are sleeping
in the middle of the night
back home across the ocean
I walk the quiet
and reach my dream
in the morning
round a corner
into the quiet
quiet plaza of stones
and a slow sun
as if still sleeping
in the middle of the night
it is later
my compostela shows
and where I walked
and how many kilometers
It rained in the night, all the world washed and fresh for this Sabbath. Lingering clouds kept the morning dark, as I entered Santiago de Compostela. It seemed the city was still sleeping. My boots found foreign footing on bricks and cement, empty sidewalks lifting me above the roadways. I listened to the rhythmic tapping of my walking stick echoing against the dripping store fronts and wet skies. Like ticker tape of wings, pigeons flocked silently over my head as I entered Santiago, birds like confetti fluttering from the skies, block after block. Streetlights like spotlights lit the way until the gentlest morning light suffused the air, and they, in turn, popped off, the reflected halo of their last light glowing before my eyes like fireworks, before fading.
This hill though high I covent ascend;
the difficulty will not me offend;
For I perceive the way of life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Old City. I crossed an empty intersection at a stoplight and crossed into history. Now the roads narrowed immediately, worn cobbles carrying me up and up, past old churches and new shops in buildings that looked to be relics of the Middles Ages. Scallop shells in the road led me on, past a fountain with a statue of Cervantes holding the broad courtyard in his gaze. Only a few shopkeepers were awake to receive deliveries at side doors, and I passed unnoticed.
A moderate descent brought me to a plaza, to my left a side entrance to the great cathedral, and to my right, a formal garden standing before a massive convento. I tapped with my walking stick down smoothly polished stone steps, landing to landing, layer by layer, and passing through an arched gateway, I came to the fabled Praza do Obradoiro. There it lay before me, quietly waiting.
My lip trembling, I stepped forward. I looked up and saw the grand cathedral, this destination of the ages, and began to cry, as I beheld the Portico of Glory – wrapped in stories of metal scaffolding and plastic tarping. Confused, tears still poured as, overcome by my feelings of gratitude and relief and accomplishment, I simply stood and stared, high above, to where the highest towers emerged from their protective cocoons, shimmering and bright, transformed by being washed clean.
Calmer, I smiled; then I chuckled…and then I started laughing. The Mighty Catedral de Santiago: “Please Excuse Our Mess.” Everything human was a work in progress. Not a capilla, a chapel; no, The Capullo de Gloria – Cocoon of Glory. Somehow, I felt like Saint James had set up a fantastic punchline, just for me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
I saw signs for SIN MOCHILAS everywhere – No Backpacks – to enter the cathedral and the smaller churches, so after the plaza, I found an albergue just outside the Old City, “Seminario Menor,” where I could stay multiple nights if I chose, and for an additional three euros, have a private room. I turned the key in the lock of the heavy wooden door, and it swung in to reveal a simple, plain room, with a single bed, a sink, a closet, and a small desk and chair by the long window. I wanted to stay and live here forever; instead, I booked two nights.
Stowing my stick and backpack in the closet, I returned to the cathedral, lighter. I still wore the clothes I had on when I hiked into the city, still wore my boots and cap, my small badge of honor, still obviously a peregrino.
Line upon line upon line. First I stood in line for 45 minutes to enter the cathedral at 11am for the noon Pilgrim’s Mass. So then I sat for another hour, a wonderful reprieve yet exhausting to my aching hips and back, as it was a wooden pew. Still, it let me have time to reflect and begin to rejoice.
Just so surreal: I am actually here. I wanted this journey, and planned, and didn’t plan, sold the house, quit the job, made my flights, took the bus to Irun, learned how to navigate the trails and the albergues, how to pack my backpack so it rode evenly and easily, my routine each night of shower laundry food writing sleep, up at 6am, coffee and something, and walk again. Walk. And walk. And somewhere along the way, walking the road became living my life. And the people I talked with, really talked with, became people I loved. And as I once thought Pablo would be someone important in my life, because of his generosity and his protectiveness and love of my stories, I realized they had all become important people in my life, each giving me their own gifts and unique perspectives.
I sat on the hard pew and thanked the Camino for Svend’s gift for reflection, and Wolfgang’s fierceness and Cordula’s directness; the merry jostling of the first three women from Britain, more sisters than friends; the sweetness of Hernani, and the hopefulness of Felix; the sass of Francesca; Joanna’s open, loving touch and affection; and the mystery and intelligence, the struggle of pride and humility, science and religion that was Christoph.
He had become the best mirror for me so far, willing to tell me when I was being judgmental, or distant, and willing to love me all the same. While it was easier and more soothing to talk to others like Svend or Francesca, I had grown the most talking to Christoph.
The Pilgrim’s Mass was crowded, both in the cathedral and in my heart’s memory. People filled the pews, and sat on the floor beside, and stood behind them, hearing the beautiful service in multiple languages, the priest listing the multiple caminos that brought us all together, people from countries all over the world. Behind the altar, I could see pilgrims filing in one by one to hug the statue of Saint James, and the endless flow of humanity rippled the very air. The readings and prayers kept shifting languages, until an Irishman read one of the Lessons, and here were familiar words I could hear and understand, before I slipped back under the lovely waves of Spanish once again. For communion, the oldest priest brought the wine and bread all the way to the back, for the peregrinos, while the other visitors and attendees went forward to the priest up front. The shaking of hands, saying peace to you, and this touching communion act for the pilgrims, brought me to tears; small gestures, always, were what got to me the most.
And then, as pilgrims stood in back, sat on the floor, and leaned on the stone columns themselves, they lit the incense burner, and it began to swing. Having given my pew to an older woman, I stepped to the place where the church crosses in the center, so I could watch the botafumeiro swing slowly back and forth, between the columns and under the arches, over the priests and over the people, like the watchful pendulum of Time.
I am here. I came. I am in Santiago, in the cathedral, and it is more beautiful than any movie, any cinematography. Because it is real. Now. And I smelled the incense, and felt the tears, so happy. I leaned my head on the pillar where I stood, resting on this new old friend, and smiled, and smiled, hugging myself and the aged stone. Deeply satisfying, this grand gesture of purification and sacred essence that I could not completely understand, which was always attractive to me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I left the cathedral by first entering deeper within. As I stepped into the oldest chapel, I felt the presence of layered centuries, the hush so solid it seemed to fall from the massive gray stones themselves. So small, so rugged in feeling and texture, this powerful space gave me a feeling of awe and something close to fear – maybe a wariness, or proper respect, for old energies I did not quite know the power of. I later learned this was the parish church of Santiago before the rest of the cathedral was built; it would have been where medieval pilgrims came, those of the Primitivo.
I had followed their footsteps into the inner sanctum of absolution – the Christian word for freedom. I was freed from my past, as they had been. The question was where we would go from here.
The obvious answer was the line for Hug-A-Saint. Reverence to sacrilege, tears to giggling snorts, I got in line for Santiago’s next Redemption Park ride, behind a string of tourists and peregrinos making a hot mess of salvation as we waited under the now clearing skies and burning sun for almost another hour. I entered by slow steps forward, through the Monks’ Door, into the cathedral but now behind the gilded altar, NO PHOTOS, SILENCIO, and at last, up the marble stairs to place my two hands, one on each shoulder of Saint James, and to touch my forehead to the scallop shell on his cape, thanking Life for this moment before I was whisked away again by the surge of humanity.
But the center of the spiral rested at the bottom of the stairs leading down, and down further: the silver casket holding the bones of Santiago. I stood before this window, this gap in rock wall and eternity, and then, as my spirit reached forward, I knelt. As if I were Pelayo. As if I had found something, something real, buried below all the shine.
“Most men will not ignore the present world that they can see
in order to make the world they cannot see
the object of their desires.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After you go to mass, and hug Santiago, you head to the Pilgrim’s Office for the compostela, which means: a long, long line. I resigned myself to hours of waiting, and watched the people. The French bicyclist, slightly older than me, cut the line, and though people told him where he could join the queue, he refused to move back, as if either he didn’t understand what they were saying or he didn’t give a flying sello. I later saw that he understood several languages.
I was chatting with the sweet, tired-eyed Portuguese woman who shared her breakfast cookies down the line, looking back toward the fountain in the center of the courtyard, when I saw someone moving diagonally through the crowd – Christoph. I put my hands to my mouth as we recognized each other, and I let out a truly delighted shriek, and called out, “Christoph!” How wonderful it was to see him, to hear him, to have him say my name back, “Barbara!” I felt like singing.
We shared a heartfelt hug, and I held onto him. He told me how much they had missed me and talked of me, Joanna, Cordula, and himself. Joanna had played them my songs she recorded when I sang to her in the albergue.
“I have been searching for you, since arriving in Santiago,” Christoph told me. For two days. As his words sunk in, I imagined him searching faces in the long lines, walking through the now-crowded plazas. He had come today, looking for me, just for me, to find…me.
I hadn’t felt this loved since I was a child, and my father carried me to the doctor for stitches, my blood dripping onto him, and I squeezed his hand at every stitch in my leg; or when he gathered me in his arms and carried me to the house for a sling when I broke my arm falling out of a tree; or to the hospital for my concussion falling from the high feed truck, or the doctor’s office for more rocks ground into my knee on the school playground. It was always him, always there when I fell, and I knew it was okay, no blame, only love. Because he knew that in life, we need help, stitches, slings, and this was just the cost of being alive. He loved me ALIVE. And I felt this again, with Christoph.
He stayed with me in line and told me how the others were, and where, Cordula finishing research on alternate Camino routes and albergues so she could write her guidebook, Joanna on the way to Finisterre, and he, himself, going tomorrow. But first, Christoph had plans.
“There is to be a certain style of singing, here, in this chapel beside the Pilgrim Office. It is sung in four parts, and I think you would enjoy this. Would you like to meet there, at 5:00?” So away he went to attend to other concerns, and I waited in line, and waited in line, until I was next, and stood excitedly, watching for an available clerk. When it was my turn, I stepped forward, from dust of the trail to dust of the courtyard line, my turn, adding my name, and my dates, and my distance walked, to the neverending list of compostelas. And yet, in those few minutes, it was just me, questions asked about me, and I was congratulated, and smiled at. Me.
At 51, I had arrived.
“Sing, Faithful, sing, and let thy name survive;
for though they kill’d thee, thou art yet alive!”
— John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
waves of voices
washing over me
still the morning
through the trees
“Wait for me!” yelled the chubby teenage boy with the lopsided backpack, careening down the trail past me as his friends laughed from farther ahead. Directly before me, two young women, maybe 18 years old, worked a sultry, languid sashay, hips rolling in short shorts, tiny tight tummies bared in belly shirts, sparkle laces in one’s tennis shoes, rainbow laces in the other’s, nodding seriously to the pulsing of their earbuds. They carried the tiniest backpacks I had seen yet, scarcely more than a beach towel string bag.
Proud Spanish women marched next to their men, in wedge-heeled faux athletic shoes and perfect nails, one assumed both fingers and toes, wildly-patterned cropped running pants ending at the knees, busting out of sleeveless running tops, not a teased hair out of place. The men wore snug sport shorts and silky T-shirts and gold chains, with new running shoes for the walk. Again with the tiny backpacks – where did everyone get these? With the same small scallop shell painted with the Sword of Santiago, and a miniature gourd tied beside it?
It was a bit of a shock as I finally joined the Camino Frances. So many more people. So much yelling to each other down the trail. So much hairspray.
“The scenery here is not very interesting,” I heard one man remark to his friend, as one of their female companions added, “I’ve lost the high of a few days ago.” A long weekend, they’re hiking. People’s attention spans were very short. These holiday pilgrims, the “tourigrinos” on the 100 km mini-Camino, tended to stick to the direct route of the paved roads; they did not want to take the detours of the dirt paths.
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.”
— Matthew 5:1
So I fled to the dirt paths. I focused on the sound of boot and gravel, breathing easier. The twittering of birds felt like a secret signal that I had located my path again. I found an abundant crop of blackberries, untouched, and laughed at the luxury of having them all to myself.
I ate the plumpest, ripest ones, eating berries, alone, in the quiet, until I was full, and content.
I knew blackberries would carry this meaning for a long time: sweet, quiet morning time to myself, along a dirt road. The ones that get the most sun become the sweetest, by the way.
I was so overwhelmed by the new energy and new reality that I didn’t follow any grand thoughts or hear any new songs or come up with any stories. By noon, I stopped to find a bed in Arzua, to have time to prepare for my last day of Camino as it had been – about moving toward Santiago, about the walking, about mulling the significance. Because tomorrow, I walked; and the day after tomorrow, I would arrive in Santiago.
Suddenly, it felt like it had come so fast. In truth, it was just over five weeks. I counted it up: exactly 40 days. I would arrive in Santiago having trekked for 40 days. Like all the great tests and thresholds in world religions, 40 days to deeply experience something, to cross over. Odd coincidence, yet somehow reassuring.
But of course not an odd coincidence at all. If I’d learned anything, it was to trust the Camino. And now, in Arzua, if the Camino wanted my wanderings in the wilderness to include hot showers and a bed at night, I was not going to complain for a minute.
That thought struck me, scrubbing my clothes at the laundry sink. I had received everything I needed, every day, without fear and without demand. I remembered a story from childhood, when my grandma would send me for a week of summer Bible School to the white clapboard church that was the center of her world. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his disciples that the birds of the air are fed, and the lilies of the field are clothed in beauty. Reduced to myself and my pack, each day was “sufficient unto the day.”
Yet, in the midst of the mobs that started following him, even Jesus retreated from a crowd sometimes. Some days, he took just a chosen few of his followers with him, discussing his experience with those trusted friends.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?”
— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:13
My friends were far ahead, probably already in Santiago, or beyond; how I longed to talk to them.
I had sought Cordula’s experienced, sharp mind to give me sound advice to see me through. I missed Joanna’s warmth and enthusiastic greetings that elicited an unselfconscious grin from me in return. No one could shake me awake from conventional thinking like Felix. And I wanted to walk and talk beside Christoph again, hear his thoughts about the self, inner growth, and the challenges to his ideas that he was finding as he met others.
Christoph had the mind of a scientist. His speech was linear, words well-chosen, simplified to reflect each step on which he based his thinking. Erudite and thoughtful, a conversation with Christoph was a journey through questions both basic and profound, one leading to the next, a mental Camino seeking way marks to assure the path.
Christoph also had the soul of a mystic, and at times, it seemed to trouble him. This scientific man had a recurring dream that he struggled to understand – or maybe to accept. I remembered him describing it to me: standing on an ice-covered lake, unable to take a step because the ice was beginning to crack, about to give way underneath him, and he did not know what he would find below if he fell through. He found the dream unsettling, somewhat unnerving; it seemed to me that the dream frightened him, not as an image in his day-to-day waking life, but in its persistence, calling to him.
I resonated with Christoph, this logical mind and soulful heart, one always trying to lead the other, those binary stars circling each other with a fierce gravity. But unlike Christoph, I had slowly abandoned assurance of my path, at least allegiance to having any assurance. The sure path hadn’t ever really materialized in my life. Ever since I sold my house and quit my job, I had stopped making sense, and I let it amplify on the Camino into a fantastic feedback loop. I was intentionally flying blind now, taking alternate routes leading who-knew-where, stopping by choice and gut instinct instead of by logical mileage tallies or descriptions in the guidebook. I was feeling my way.
I looked forward to Santiago, even as I stalled the journey’s bittersweet end. It had been the destination for millions of pilgrims for over a thousand years, and I planned to go to the Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral, and get my compostela, touch the statue of Saint James. But Santiago, for me, was just a way mark.
My ultimate destination was to Finisterre, and then Muxia, with a very different energy, a feminine energy, a goddess buried in Christian stories, and I wanted to free her energy in my life. I planned to go to the end of the world, and beyond.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”
— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it all. Bikes with bells zipped past, ding! ding! One biker blew his whistle like a traffic cop on wheels, and the entourage of bicyclists began shouting a rowdy cheer in time with his silver whistle’s shrieks. Then, applauded by the walkers who were laughing together, they rode away singing.
I found myself cheering, too. Seventeen-year-old me turned, delighted, exclaiming to me, See? It’s a party! This Life! Come on!
Young men in homemade kilts, their tartan red with life, answered with gusto when their leader hollered incoherently, raising his trekking pole over his head: “Charge!”
“Gaahh! Go! Now! Go!” they roared, voices overstepping each other’s, running their irreverence full-tilt down the Camino with Mercury’s winged feet.
I went from annoyed one day to laughing out loud the next. A mother and father were bringing their tiny children, probably one and three years old, the tiny one in a backpack with butterfly wings on the back, the older one in a stroller, occasionally hopping out to hike the path like the rest of us, her father’s collapsible trekking pole exactly the right height when closed up tight.
Families with older children biked by. Groups of white-haired old couples, friends, walked the Way together, slowly, familiarly. One boy walking with his father carried a short skateboard under his arm, just waiting for smooth sailing.
Music played everywhere – arias, techno, rap. Young church groups sang harmonies in Polish and Spanish. Cows still mooed. Cars honked. Campers honked louder.
I hummed what a guy was playing on his ukelele, long after I passed him by. It was fun, happy people all together walking in the heat toward Santiago. I saw that the 100 km trek allowed many people to participate who would not have been able to make the long pilgrimage from the border, or from the coast. People shared fruit with each other; some nibbled careful bites, with their teeth carving shocked or goofy faces into their apples and pears, which they left on milestones, to the amusement of the rest of us.
All was crazy and hilarious until the arrows split – and most people went to Pedrouzo, where I had originally thought I might go. But it was early, and I was excited, so I just kept going, this last stretch of Camino an opportunity to walk well and strong, carried by the wave of good will and anticipation all the way to Monte de Gozo, 34.5 km. Tired feet and a little too much sun, but no more the worse for wear, my route was often shady, with dirt paths most of the way.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:7-8
I remembered to stop at Labacolla and wash in the stream, purifying myself as the medieval pilgrims used to do. It translated to “wash scrotum,” a ridiculous name for a holy river on the approach to a holy city. I settled for dunking my shirt and washing my hair, my face, and my arms and armpits. The rest waited for a shower. A soothing, hot shower, and the rose-scented soap I had bought at a market.
Refreshed body and soul, I went to sleep early in the enormous barracks environment of Monte de Gozo, which had room for ten times the number of peregrinos who arrived. All were welcome. Tomorrow was Sunday, the day of my arrival. I dozed off, remembering a song my grandma taught me when I was small enough to ride in a backpack with butterfly wings or take my first steps forward to find my own way:
this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
hide it under a bushel, NO – I’m gonna let it shine
hide it under a bushel, NO! – I’m gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
— Harry Dixon Loes,”This Little Light of Mine,” American folk song
“Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men….”
— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:15-16
young white bull
standoff over the fence
eyes dare me
I experienced my first blatant hostility from an odd source – other trekkers. I didn’t say peregrinos because now, since we were within the 100 km range of Santiago, all the young Spaniards were doing this short stretch, the limit to get a compostela. They seemed to be similar to young Americans, backpacking while drinking beer and bragging about their fabulous and immature lives.
These particular young Spaniards overheard that I was American. I was generally friendly to everyone, tried to remember to smile, said buen camino. I ignored the first cold shoulder, which was not talking to me at all as I got a cup of coffee. I figured, people were tired, maybe they were just about to leave, maybe they spoke no English, my Spanish was terrible, the usual ways I let people off the hook. Live and let live.
But at the second run-in with them, as I reached a rest area, they left singing some song about Americanos, and made sure to sing loudly and clearly enough to be understood as I passed by.
I pursed my lips and said nothing.
HOWEVER – as I arrived at the only bar in San Román for a coffee later in the day, there they were, their gear and themselves spread out in all the best seats, as always, and I overheard them saying to each other, “Es la Americana – ‘Buen Camino, Buen Camino!’ Pfft – Mal Camino.”
I looked over, and in that instant, two of them realized I had not only heard them but understood them; one looked away, the other looked down. The look I gave them, THE LOOK, as my children used to call it, made it very clear that I was not impressed.
Seventeen-year-old me wanted to play dumb, walk up grinning my best shit-eating grin, saying, “Hola! Ha ha, soy Americana! Ha ha – FUCK YOU.” She made a really convincing argument for this response, but cooler 51-year-old heads prevailed as I said to myself, “Nice, peregrina. Your old ladies in black would be very impressed with your humble pilgrim behavior.” So I ignored them, and that was the end of that. Would have felt good, though.
The albergue I reached may have had some dirt, and mildew, and ants, and flystrips covered with flies while more flies kept coming in the open windows and doors, but my ten euros was getting me supper, a bed, plus breakfast, which made it as cheap as any other, cheaper than most. So she who eats beef and salad with pleasant travelers laughs last, you arrogant asshole young backpackers; ha ha – fuck you.
the middle of the road
is trying to find me
I’m standing in the middle of life
with my plans behind me
well I got a smile for everyone I meet
long as you don’t try dragging my bay
or dropping the bomb on my street
— The Pretenders, “Middle Of The Road”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
My fiery temper had been a source of destruction and survival for years. It had become a joke, to blame it on my red hair; but it didn’t feel fun. So much work – I had put in so much work to tame this beast. I had lifted weights, run miles, hiked mountains; when that didn’t work, I did an about-face and looked eastward, practicing tai chi, zazen, yoga. While I could exercise through all the adrenaline and physical tension, it took more than postures and poses to rein myself in. I read a library of books, and behind all of those disciplines, I finally found mental training I’d never heard of as a kid: mindfulness. It was a practice of its own.
Mindfulness was a way to get out front of my immature, reactionary behavior. When I coached soccer, I used to tell the girls on my team, “The way you practice is the way you’ll play,” pushing them to give their best effort even as we ran laps or scrimmaged. In my own youth, I had practiced explosive reactions for so long that at first, I didn’t get it. I thought reacting was natural, and responding thoughtfully was fake, a gimmick people used to hide their real feelings and thoughts.
Over the years, I practiced mindfulness. I practiced hard, often exasperated as I watched my mind wander and freak out and grab self-righteousness like a child grabbing a toy away from another.
It was so godawfully embarrassing to be me so much of the time. Even after I confronted my childhood abuser and yelled back at my mother and barked at my father for supporting my mother, the flashpoint anger didn’t slow its ignition. I was just a hothead trying to be cool.
It was by teaching mindfulness that I finally learned some mindfulness. As I met with homeless people in my office and we talked about the life choices and behaviors that seemed to be in the way of their goals, we talked about “The Hole in the Road.”¹ I would tell the story as if it was about the person before me:
“You walk down a road going home, and you fall into a big hole you don’t see. You climb out, shaken, and carry on. The next day, you walk down the road going home, and as you get midway, suddenly you remember the hole – just as you fall into it. You climb out, frustrated, and carry on. The next day, walking down the road going home, you see the hole, and make a hard stop – whew! – just before you fall in. You breathe another sigh of relief, stepping carefully past the edge of the hole, and carry on. The next day, walking down the road going home, you swing wide, wide around the hole, and smiling to yourself, you carry on.
“And the next day, you take a different road. Because there’s a hole in the middle of that road.”
This was how I explained the change process, and the key to change: noticing. It was about learning to pay attention. It was about learning to build a small space between your perception of an event and your response to it. The hope was to create a gap in which to take a breath, and then to gradually widen the gap, until you could take several breaths, with a calm mind, and choose the way you wanted to respond.
It wasn’t faking – it was crisis management, self-control, possibly even self-mastery. And I readily admitted that we all had easier and harder days with “minding the gap.”
Here I was now, walking on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, getting all pissed off about young people being rude. How many times had I said at work, “They’re just doing their job” about our clients – “Their job is to bring the chaos, and our job is to bring order and safety.” Now I had somehow forgotten that the job of young people was to test limits. They were just doing their job. It seemed I did not know my job, in my new role, in this new environment. I kept falling into the hole in the Camino.
For every epiphany I gained, I fell back a step. Or several. I couldn’t seem to keep my balance, and down I’d go, tumbling into that hole. Finally being able to pursue this adventure into the world had unleashed 17-year-old me at last, in all her furious sweet punk glory. She was all over the map, emotionally as well as physically. I kind of adored her and kind of wished I hadn’t brought her along.
As if she weren’t a part of me. As if she weren’t the core essence of me. I’d built my entire adult life around her, fearing her rage, managing her reactions, the center of my spiral. She was the one who first left home, set me free. She was tough, a survivor. She didn’t take shit from anyone. I needed to get it together and give the kid a hand. I needed to learn what my job was, fast.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next day started out as one of those easy, ordinary days where I walked a short distance without incident and arrived early at an albergue in As Seixas, all smooth as could be. I really had to pee, that bellyache need – and lucky stars, the hospitalera was there! Relieved, I went to speak to her. And when I told her, clearly, I needed the bathroom, she said, clearly, too bad, go to the bar. My face registering a mix of confusion, discomfort, urgency, and astonishment, I walked miserably to the bar which, being such a tiny, TINY village, I knew she KNEW was closed. Such a jerk! on my Camino.
I have peed along the trail in remote places easily enough. But now the Camino was always fairly close to a farmhouse or road or crappy little village where they don’t give a crap if you have a place to crap – so it was harder to stay hidden, to preserve any shred of dignity.
Like I was doing now, with my beautifully poetic language.
Luckily, I only had to pee. But even as I was taking a breath and saying, easy, kid, 17-year-old me won her day. She had hiked quietly for weeks, had bitten her tongue at “Mal Camino,” but now, she’d be damned if she’d pay money for shelter to that woman who would deny another woman
a simple toilet AS SHE STOOD RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOOR TO THE TOILET SAYING NO – and
17-year-old me was right.
So we walked 15 km more, and NOTHING was going to stop us, as we finally rested at 2pm and took off our boots and socks and put our feet up on an outdoor cafe chair and BASKED. IN. THE. SUN. And still made it to Melida by 3:15pm.
At this very nice, not-crappy albergue, I started to do laundry and noticed I’d forgotten one of my dirty shirts in my backpack. Without thinking, I ran up the stairs, and as I got to the second floor, I realized I had walked 29 km and now had the legs to just run up a full flight of stairs, no problem. That, plus the angry adrenaline pumping me through the final stretch, I thought. But no, I knew it had faded away easily. This was just strength.
Seventeen-year-old me, and me, we did a good day’s work together. I had allowed that part of myself, allowed her to take the lead, finally, with respect and appreciation for her sense of justice, instead of trying to hold my hand over her swearing mouth and haul her out a side door. It was a small indignity made right, and she did not let me down.
We took the Roman road like soldiers, but without all the fighting and bloodshed and hurling foul curse words like spears. I felt ridiculously victorious.
Some things are hard to give up
Some things are hard to let go
Some things are never enough
I guess I only can hope
For maybe one more chance
To try and save my soul
But love is a long road
Yeah love is a long long road
— Tom Petty, “Love Is A Long Road”
¹Based on the poem “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”
by Portia Nelson
- Accept gift of prepackaged, pre-cooked rice. It should be mixed long grain, wild, and red, for best results.
- Add the last of your salted peanuts on top. Be sure to tap out all the salty crumbs.
- Microwave until hot.
- During this one minute of cooking, peel your orange.
- Take out hot plate using your towel, as there will be no hotpads.
- Pull apart your orange slices and arrange them around the edge of the plate in a pleasing pinwheel design. Presentation is everything. Perfecto!
- Eat alternating between sweet and salty. Touch your finger into the last crumbs of peanut bits and eat every single one.
- Choices for dessert: corn nuts or a ginger candy. I say go crazy, have both. Careful of your teeth, though.
nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars…
— from the chorus of “Nomads and Wanderers”
Yesterday’s albergue was new and modern and so clean. Today’s albergue was old, dirty, and rundown, so I planned to sleep in long sleeves and long tights, to avoid any bug bites, just in case. How quickly my situation changed, day to day.
Here, I was straddling the old and the new. The Camino now followed an old Roman road, passing a Roman mile marker near the bar where I drank coffee. I would cross a Roman bridge tomorrow. I had chosen the Primitivo for these very days, to walk in the millions and millions of footsteps of all those who had walked this Way before me, from after the life of Christ into Viking times, through the Middle Ages into this modern day.
My Middle Age: a milestone. Retracing my steps down the road to study that mile marker, I stood facing the Romans’ assertion of their dominion, carved in granite. And look at them now. All roads actually led to a different Rome than they might have been considering when they erected this supposedly permanent way sign. The message was hidden in plain sight: back to the zero-mile, the beginning and the end, center of a penciled compass arc of influence and power, easily erased and redrawn by Time.
As I passed these oldest landmarks, I found myself noticing the oldest people along the Camino. Elders were grabbing my heart and my attention in these last days of the Primitivo, before my path joined the Camino Frances into Santiago.
Yesterday, at the cathedral in Lugo, an old woman dressed in black paced slowly before the doors, keening in mourning for her husband. Not a loud wail, she moaned her pain and panic, tentatively extending her begging cup. My immediate streetwise thought was, Nice strategy if you’re homeless – well done. But as I approached her and tried to talk to her, it was apparent that at some point, she had actually lost her husband; she was obviously elderly; and homeless was homeless, so survival was now the full-time strategy. I might have used my grief to let me live, too.
When my father died, I was devastated. He had been the sanity of our family, the grounded stabilizer, fortunately or unfortunately attracted to the wild energy of my mother’s neurotic demands and rages, deeming this passion. His personality was friendly, down-to-earth, and also expansive; he offered that wide, generous pasture, because he needed it himself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
He, too, roamed in his day, and told stories about taking a train west when he was only 16, dreaming of becoming a cowboy. When he reached the ranch that had hired him, that’s exactly what he found, cows and more cows. But to his utter dismay, these were not longhorn dogies for a dusty cattle drive to Abilene – no, they were milk cows. He’d come 700 miles to the dry eastern plains of Colorado, not the stunning mountains, to milk cows, just like back home on the farm.
But that didn’t stop him. He soon enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was sent to the Pacific at the end of World War II. The horrors of battle never realized, he spent his tour cleaning up after battles already gone by, clearing beaches, patrolling beaches, swimming beaches. After learning to smoke and drink, he came home with a new and shocking vocabulary, a gorgeous tan, and a beautiful hula girl tattoo on his bicep that he could make dance by flexing his muscles.
What I remember most about his stories of those days was the way his eyes changed when he talked about the ocean. His hazel eyes reflected a certain light he had seen, over a wilderness of endless water, unfathomable, expansive beyond description. The ocean had given him something profoundly personal, spiritual, and I always wanted to follow that light, to see what he had seen.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Today, I came upon a wonderful elderly woman slowly making her way up an old mossy-walled stretch of the Camino passing through woods. Again, all dressed in black, again, not understanding when I tried to explain I could not understand Spanish well. But when I took her hand, the skin papery-thin, she got teary, so I leaned in close and said, “Buen dia, señora, buen dia,” as I kissed one cheek, then the other. She smiled and touched her teary eyes, saying words that sounded like, “Buen viaje,” though I wasn’t sure. Still, I took that meaning, and walked on. It was so hard to leave her; I felt like I wanted to make sure she made it home all right. But this was her life, and she’d let me go, so I let her go and kept walking.
Mostly this day I remembered things from childhood, as if I had become an old abuela, too, slowly using my stick to walk the path, my head draped in a scarf against the sun, telling stories of days gone by to my grandchildren, all of which I was most certainly doing, even writing tales into my notebook in the evenings. Feeling tears rise at the kind gestures of strangers, and at my inability to do more for others in return. Indeed, I was walking her mossy path.
I remembered my favorite picture book from when I was five, where the little boy, Lester, traveled the world making friends, riding an elephant, flying on a dragon kite, seeing storks in their rooftop nests, floating on a red balloon past the Eiffel Tower. How I had longed to go with him. And also the Dr. Seuss book, “McElligott’s Pool,” where anything exotic from any far away place was possible to find, if you remained “patient and cool.” Oh, and how I wanted “Scuffy the Tugboat” to sail out into the sea at last, and not return home to sail in the bath tub.
I remembered working in our fields, walking beans and baling hay with my uncles and my grandpa, saving my pay at $1/hour to finally buy an army surplus rucksack of olive green canvas that I used for going everywhere, until I wore it out.
I saw now that this had been a lifetime obsession for me, not since 17. Lifetime. Always, this had been me: ready to go, searching for adventure.
The dirt of the Camino crunched under my feet, as I wiped sweat from my face. I remembered my grandma kept small potted cactus on the kitchen windowsill over the deep chest freezer filled with homemade cinnamon rolls and hearty breads and sweet corn sliced from the cob and thick cuts of meat wrapped in white butcher paper. The wonder, to me, was not the abundance of food (we lived on a farm); it was the foreignness of desert life in the midst of the Midwest. So fascinating to me, that if we gave the cactus water, it could be too much and kill them. How do they live?, I had wondered. What would the desert be like?
Now I knew, and cactus still amazed me. Understanding the world a bit more in no way diminished its magic; if anything, it let me bring it with me, visualizing the desert, or my grandparents’ farm, or the snowy Rocky Mountains, using the learning of direct experience to make the magic last. It was the learning that seemed to stick with me best, and the kind I had pursued least, until now. How long I had waited. Hardly patient and cool, though.
My father and I had come by this wanderlust naturally. My grandpa, Holger, was first-generation American. His parents had crossed the Atlantic from Denmark, searching for something more. The heartbreaking story of his father, Christian, was all too common: having bought a farm, he settled into his life in America, he married, and they had a child, a little boy; and, when diptheria claimed the wife and five-year-old child, Christian was devastated. A handsome, dashing, blue-eyed Dane with a gift for jokes and storytelling, he became somber and defeated, his loss too much to bear. When he finally remarried, it was to a sturdy, quiet, dependable woman who bore him several more children – the first of whom was Holger.
Holger was a chip off the old block. His eyes twinkled merrily whenever there was a party to be found. He loved to talk to people, and people loved to talk with him, and he had many friends. But Christian never appreciated this trait, his own fun-loving charisma reflected back to him, and he and Holger struggled to get along. Holger, in turn, tried to knuckle down and be responsible. He went to college using the ROTC program, an Army second-lieutenant at the end of his term who was unable to obtain the final credit needed for his horticulture degree, because he could not pass the college English exams. The family spoke only Danish at home.
Undeterred by this setback, Holger bought land from his father and started farming. He married a sturdy, quiet, dependable woman who bore him several children – and this is when the problem began.
Holger was like the original Christian – the life of the party. He had married a girl just like the one that married dear old Dad, even though Holger had not gone through the devastating loss and grief of his father, had not lost his sparkling belle of the ball. Even Holger naming his own first son after that first son Christian had lost, had made no difference in their relationship. Now here he was, living something very akin to his father’s life of mourning, an adventurous young man of joy and passion. The family always said they could never understand why he did what he did next – but I could.
Holger took off. He headed west, of course, into the fabled promised lands of America, where a person could find wide open spaces and opportunities to reinvent himself. Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above – don’t fence me in. He went all the way, as far west as he possibly could drive, to the coast of California. There’s a picture of him, sitting on a dock, facing the ocean, his jaunty cap framing a beaming smile.
That picture had captivated me as a child. I had never seen my grandpa so happy. My aunts made disparaging remarks when I asked about it, and my uncles laughed and used it as a punchline to their jokes. But my father – he didn’t say anything about it.
Grandpa Holger was back about two weeks later. In my heart, I’m confident he had gone to make a decision. Overwhelmed with the responsibility of the farm, hired hands, several small children, his wife, all struggling together as they trudged through the Great Depression, he’d run, to clear his head, to choose between the life he had fallen into and the life he had never let himself find. That photo showed me Holger right before the heartbreak of his life: giving it all up, that wide-open freedom, and returning.
Holger was a good man. He became a respected pillar of the small community. He helped a lot of young couples get started farming, selling them sections of his own land for much less than it was worth. He took Grandma to church every Sunday, took his turn ringing the bell. He could be counted on to help his neighbors whenever they needed him.
He loved a good joke forever, and a good rascal – like me. Always disapproved of for my latest shenanigans, always the recipient of my aunts’ bossy admonitions, he always laughed whenever
I got myself into trouble. As I walked into that farmhouse kitchen and found him standing there, he’d reach out his brown, gnarled hand and tossle my already tossled hair, saying in his gruff, thickly-accented English, “This one – this one I like.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At one crossroads, an older man with silvery hair sat on the wall with his two dogs at his feet. As I approached, suddenly, he jumped up with a shout, and he and the dogs ran down the righthand road. When I got to the intersection, an older woman in a long dress, apron, and headscarf stepped from the small barn before me. We could see then that four sheep were out of their pasture and strolling up the small road. The man was having a time herding them in again with some help from the big dog, while the small dog rolled enthusiastically in what looked like dried manure on the road. The woman and I chuckled together. I understood that these were older, newly-weaned lambs, because I could just make out she said that they didn’t want to get their own food, they just wanted milk. They had gone in search of their mothers.
So had I. After years of escaping fences and running down the wrong roads, I had finally sat down and reread the story I told myself, slowly, carefully. My mother’s story had shown me how poison seeps down through the generations, a hidden leak of deadly contamination oozing toxic trails through our lives. Long ago, I had processed what happened, but hadn’t taken time to look deeper into how, and why, everything happened as it did. High on the mountain, I had stumbled onto understanding, perspective clear and fresh as this woman’s smiling explanation of the lambs.
But in an unexpected twist of fate, like all the best tales, searching for her story had led me into my father’s story, and his father’s. Rereading this story, I saw how good people can break their own hearts, by trying to be what they think they should be, instead of being who they are; by mistaking passion for irresponsibility, or rage, or just some children’s fairy tales, instead of recognizing it as the divine spark of the soul. Another cautionary tale.
I remembered my grandpa, many times, out on the tractor alone, the summer sun slowly sinking late in the evening. He was out haying, steering into rippling waves of an endless, golden, shining sea of grass.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I met an old woman who looked like me. As I sat on the bench of a roadside fountain, she walked up silently in her worn shoes and the long apron she had patched, and handed me a ripe pear.
I looked up at her and saw my aged face looking back at me. She said she couldn’t eat it, opening her mouth to touch her sore tooth. Then she took out her whole lower denture, my most unexpected surprise of the day, but not entirely strange for me: it reminded me of when my homeless clients always wanted to show me their blistered feet. “I believe you, I believe you,”
I would say in protest, holding out my hand, attempting to ward off the inevitable.
She showed me that the tooth was loose, the gum inflamed. I told her she needed a médico, and
I was not a médico. She motioned that they needed to just pull it. I pantomimed: they yank it, “OWWW,” then relieved expression, “AAHHH,” and she cracked up laughing, nodding and agreeing with me. Then she wished me buen camino and, chuckling, walked back down the lane.
The pear was perfect – soft, juicy, delicious. My tongue instinctively checked my broken molar, the root canal that had never gotten its crown. Still, I savored the sweet taste, juice dripping off my lip and through my fingers, imagining one day soon, I might not be able to.
Or, they needed to just pull it.
“Getting old is not for sissies,” my dad had told me. How quickly time passed, day by day, straddling the narrowing gap between youth and old age. I planned to savor every delicious moment, hand in hand, side by side, with as many people as I could possibly meet, blistered feet notwithstanding. Teeth or no teeth. A little thing like that wouldn’t stop me – I had places to go, people to see.
some people stay
and some walk away
some stand, one foot in, one out
and dance in the doorway
some hear a call
like a great waterfall
it plunges them up over under
and carries them forward
nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars
vikings out hiking beyond, over hill or by sea
like my grandfather, my father, and me
with your heart full of song
you carry your life on your back
and that’s where it belongs
the people I love
are the people I meet
if you meet me halfway I will stay
for a coffee or two
nomads and wanderers, wherever you are
sleep well, you pilgrims and vagabonds, under the stars
vikings out hiking beyond, over hill or by sea
like my grandfather, my father, and me
— “Nomads and Wanderers”
Indulgence: remission of part or all of the temporal and especially purgatorial punishment that according to Roman Catholicism is due for sins whose eternal punishment has been remitted and whose guilt has been pardoned (as through the sacrament of reconciliation).
As I strolled toward Lugo with a young Frenchman named Fred, we passed through a tiny village, or maybe a large farm; it was hard to say. A huge tree stopped us in amazement, so old and so much a part of the place that the usual stone wall was built right into its massive trunk, the gate attached to its other side.
As we stood marveling and discussing the age of such a tree, a sweet dog and a puppy came out to greet us. The dog took a soft head rub from each of us and, tail wagging, trotted back to the nearby house; but the puppy had recently gotten its new, sharp teeth, and kept playfully attacking our ankles. Fred laughed in fond delight, until the naughty puppy quickly nipped a hole in his sock, so that Fred shouted in surprise and shooed it away with his hand as he assessed the damage. The pudgy little ball of energy then pounced on my foot, untying my boot lace. We dissolved into hilarious tears of astonished laughter as we tried to walk, first one of us with a puppy on our boot, then the other, runny the furry gauntlet of one determined little canine toddler, until the puppy finally got tired and we made our laughing escape.
The Beloved Disciple resting his head on Jesus’ shoulder
At the beginning of the Camino, I had read in my guidebook about loose dogs, especially on the Primitivo, and strategies to defend yourself from them. I had planned to buy dog treats, but at each market, if they had any at all, they came in bags much too big and too heavy to be of any practical benefit for a pilgrim. A ploy was just a burden, it seemed.
Nevertheless, I had now survived my run-in with wild Primitivo dogs, armed only with indulgence. The Latin origin of “indulgence” meant to be kind, tender, an aspect of coddling, and babying, which all led back to mothering.
When Fred joined me in my slow walking, I couldn’t help but notice I seemed to collect quite a few young adults along the Way. Fred, Felix, Francesca, and also Jana, eighteen and brand new to adulthood, and the two young Japanese girls who had no English or Spanish, but waved and smiled whenever they saw me, sometimes gesturing at crossroads, their faces asking the question until I pointed them in the right direction, showing them an arrow farther ahead and receiving their reassured expressions and deep nods as bows of appreciation in return.
Life-size tableau of “The Last Supper” within the cathedral of Lugo
All the ages of my own children, I enjoyed our talks about the meaning of the Camino, why they had come, and what significant life choices awaited them when they returned home. I found myself by turns encouraging and reassuring them, Fred deciding about buying his first house or traveling, Francesca leaving her “good job” for taking an ethical stand, Jana waiting for other young Camino friends who never came, and Felix – I just hugged Felix as often as I could get away with it.
They reminded me that I had moved on, beyond my teens and 20’s and 30’s, and they looked to me for some sort of wisdom I was not at all sure I had. Santa Barbara was no saint. The only thing I had to give them was experience, the gritty real-world learning of having been in hard places making hard choices, and living to tell the tale.
So I told stories. As each fit into the stream of conversation, I talked about being newly divorced with preschool-age children and how perseverance had generated its own luck in finding a job, work which eventually became a career. About the humiliations of poverty, receiving food stamps that store clerks shamed me for using, just to buy a 79¢ mix to make a birthday cake for my three-year-old. About “This Damn House,” as I had christened the money-pit
I finally bought, a flat-roofed, wood-floored beauty in her day, leaking water and cold air and home improvement projects into all my weekends, but big enough and sturdy enough for raising
As I told my stories, images of my children rose up before my eyes, and I could hear their tiny voices and high-pitched laughter, their arguments and tears, and see them expectantly giving me gifts of smudgy kindergarten hand print art, receiving school awards, graduating high school, graduating college, telling me about jobs and friends and love relationships and having their first babies, buying that first house.
I knew I had lived all those experiences, and yet, I didn’t feel older and wiser. And yet I was. How strange, to become an elder without realizing it. I wasn’t convinced I had earned that position.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Brought up Lutheran, I knew Martin Luther had fought corruption he saw in the medieval Catholic Church, including the sale of “indulgences,” essentially “Get Out Of Purgatory Free” cards sold by church authorities, sometimes obtained by significant acts of penance – such as walking a pilgrimage. Since starting the Camino, I had learned that this substitution had gotten to the point where some people in the Middle Ages hired pilgrimage-by-proxy, rich sinners sending poor serfs out to risk their lives on dangerous trails to holy sites, obtaining a compostela in the name of the wealthy scoundrel.
I had discovered a deep satisfaction in walking my own Camino, finding my own way, carrying my own burden. I was also discovering my own delights, and taking them, intentionally and without apology. Not very Lutheran. I knew I was being changed by the Camino, and would not be returning to my previous life, my 8-to-5 office, my weekends at plumbing supply stores. I was dancing over obstacles, surfing this powerful experience under a glorious sun. The rebel angel inside was singing, some sort of loud, punk rock anthem, the only words I could hear:
remember all the desperation of our love
the teary kiss, the frantic hug
the joy we crucified, a passion play
and on that cross we built ourselves we hung our love
and like a phoenix from a dove
we burned the tree that held our heart’s desire
smoke and cloud
days of pyres
running on fire
remember looking for the key for every door
and finding none, imagined more
the possibility of heresy
remember when we realized the world was round
and more than this could well be found
and how we raised a sail to save the day
smoke and cloud
prison on fire
— “The Reformation”
Indulgences required a “Pardoner.” I had finally figured out that this pardoner was me. And the sinner, too, was me. I was the whole shootin’ match. The way out of the fiery gunfight was to quit fighting – quit fighting my history and myself.
I had come on Camino to atone, to make peace with 17-year-old me, the lonely, brilliant, sensitive girl I’d tried to kill off over all those years, for her belief in us. In me. Here she was, defiantly singing the Reformation at the top of her lungs.
Leaving the tower behind was the road to reconciliation.
All I needed was the key. I needed to commit heresy.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “indulgence came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in … the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment.”
— New Advent
It was easy to know when I had reached the Old City of Lugo – I faced a massive Roman wall. Over twenty and sometimes thirty feet high, 14 feet thick occasionally bulking to over 20 feet across, it stretched a gargantuan two-kilometer ring around the central core of Lugo; over a mile of protective stone. UNESCO described this World Heritage Site: “The defences of Lugo are the most complete and best preserved example of Roman military architecture in the Western Roman Empire.” The wall was built in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It boggled my mind: I was standing in the far western reaches of the Roman Empire.
I entered by the Prisoner’s Gate. For hours, I toured the Roman ruins within the wall. Mosaic tiled baths under the street were covered in glass. The same for a section of aquaduct. Temples to Roman gods stood below ground level, next to Christian churches above.
One such temple was Casa do Mitreo, or, House of Mithras. Mithras was a god popular with Roman military men during the time the Walls of Lugo were built, a blended persona based loosely on an even older Mithra from Persia. This Zoroastrian divine angel of oaths, covenants and contracts was hailed as “Mithra of Wide Pastures, of the Thousand Ears, and of the Myriad Eyes.” To the Romans, Mithras’ “wide pastures” referred to his watchful eye over cattle, the currency of many contracts.
As I wandered the Old City, I remembered a gift of wisdom Emma’s father had given me about my sons, especially sweet, creative Daniel, my own Ferdinand the Bull who, as a child, had preferred sitting and smelling clovers on the soccer field to fighting for the ball. He had told me not to rein Daniel in, but to give him a wider pasture, room to roam. I, too, had needed this wider pasture, always. What Emma’s father could give me was the idea, the story, though not the freedom itself. That I had to take, like a stolen key.
This was how I perceived Mithras. Often considered the pagan model for the stories of Jesus, he was the originating idea, the spark. Many scholars drew parallels between the Romans’ December 25th Feast Day of the Unconquerable Sun and the birthday of Mithras, as he was considered an embodiment of the ever-returning sun, and would have been celebrated on that date. His promise to protect was sealed with the blood of the bull, like children pricking their fingers to solemnly swear, becoming blood brothers, becoming Jesus’ story of giving his life-blood for all of humanity.
Yet Mithras was also depicted riding a bull. The bull didn’t die; it lived. It carried Mithras where he needed to go. Onward. Far afield.
This partnership formed the original contract. One of my dearest friends from those long-ago kindergarten days of our children, my beautiful hippy-artist pal, had wisely surmised, “You came to this life, not to be with any of these men – your contract was with the children.”
She was so right. We’d sealed that contract in blood. Paid in full.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound….
— Isaiah 61:1
I climbed a staircase of stone, and stood on the Roman Walls of Lugo, looking out over the city, back across time. As I looked over the edge, I remembered my own poem about the water man, back along the northern coast: the wall is open, peregrina. It was true. The gates of the massive walls here all stood open, like triumphal arches.
As I slowly walked the path along the top, I thought of what I’d hoped to give my children by this seemingly reckless, irresponsible choice to come to Spain and walk the Camino: that spark. The idea that if they tried to live a larger life in the world, they wouldn’t die. They would find a wider pasture waiting. They could take the steps, see over the top of their own confining ideas of themselves, break down their own limiting walls. Walls for protection can become prisons over time; this truth, I knew.
Virgen de la Esperanza (Hope)
And then I heard something sweet, carried by the wind to me as I stood high on the wall, a child’s voice below: “Mom-my….” In it, I heard Meghan, and then Daniel, and Zach, Emma and Magnus.
They had needed me, and I had answered. Or maybe it was the other way around. We had become partners, giving each other hope, and after the Thousand Ears of a listening mother, a mommy’s Myriad Eyes watching over them, they had given me what I had not been able to give myself, what I had not allowed: forgiveness for my failings, and freedom.
Indulgence. They told me, “Go.” They told me, “This is your life – fly away and live it.” They told me, “Spend all the money. If you run out of money, we’ll send you more.” And best of all, offering me that glimmer of hope I was watching for, they told me, “You know what? I have to say, I’m a little jealous.”
Mithras the Bullrider, may I stoke the fires of that spirit until it burns like the sun, until they recklessly, irresponsibly, and self-indulgently refuse to live captive or unreconciled to themselves in any way, and though they find a wall on one side of the Great Tree, may they find a gate just waiting on the other, opening for the ride of their lives.
Gorma was washing out her smelly socks when she heard a strange sound. She twisted them tightly, using her strong hands to wring all the water out, then clipped each sock to the clothesline behind the albergue. As she put her other dirty clothes into the soapy water, she heard the strange sound again, like the trumpeting of a horn announcing a king’s arrival.
Gorma peeked around the side of the building, looking just past the hydrangea and rose bushes near the walkway to the front door. There she saw an animal unlike any in the Land of the Heart: big, round, gray, wrinkled, four great legs and two humongous ears and two long tusks, plus a long, strong trumpet of a nose announcing the arrival of – an elephant.
“Why in the world must I wait?” the elephant was complaining to no one in particular. “On Myland Island, where I come from, we never have to wait for anything. I get what I want immediately. This person should give me what I want. I’m tired, and want a bed, and I want it now.”
Gorma frowned and went back to washing her laundry. It had gotten dusty and dirty from all her walking, but the soapy water felt warm and soft, and as she rubbed her clothes together gently, the dirt was washed away, leaving them clean and smelling sweet. She had just finished squeezing all the water out and hanging them all on the clothesline, when the elephant’s trumpeting sounded in the albergue kitchen.
“There’s no dinner ready for me? On Myland Island, where I come from, we never have to make our own dinner. Someone else always does all the cooking, so that I can eat as soon as I am hungry. This albergue should give me what I want. I’m hungry, and want to eat, and I want to eat now.”
Gorma turned away from the kitchen and instead, went to read her good book in the comfortable chairs in the front room. She smiled at the other travelers seated there, and they smiled at her, and all was quiet and pleasant, except for a lot of banging in the kitchen, which they all ignored.
Again Gorma heard the elephant’s trumpeting sound, this time outside by the clothesline. “Wash my clothes by hand?” the elephant repeated, sounding very surprised. “On Myland Island, where I come from, we use washing machines, and dry our clothes in the dryer. Why, I hardly have to touch my clothes that way, especially the smelly socks, and … and other smelly things. A clothesline? I never use a clothesline. On Myland Island, no one has to use a clothesline.” But soon, the elephant was heard splashing and crashing in the washing sink, and he hung his heavy drippy clothes on the clothesline.
Gorma had gone to make a cup of tea in the kitchen, and after her tea and her good book, she said goodnight to the other travelers, washed her face and brushed her teeth, and slept deeply in the bed she had been given in the albergue for that night, for which she was very grateful.
In the morning, after coffee and toast with peach jam, Gorma packed up her bag with her fresh, clean clothes, put on her cloak for the morning chill, and taking Saint Thomas, her walking stick, she began her day’s journey down back roads and byways. It was a sunny morning, and as birds greeted her and the butterflies led her down safe paths, Gorma felt warm enough to stop to take off her cloak. As she took a drink of water from her water jug, she heard a strange sound, like the honking of a goose who has lost his flock.
As Gorma emerged from the wooded path, she saw a fence with a big gate for cows and sheep, and a small stile beside it, that gap the farmer uses to slip around the gate in a V around the gate post, too tight and too tricky for a cow or a sheep to pass through. “Apparently, too tricky for an elephant to pass through, as well,” said Gorma to no one in particular, for there, stuck in the stile beside the gate, was the elephant. He looked a bit panicked.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma, thank goodness you are here. This farmer has built his gate all wrong, and now I’m stuck. On Myland Island — ”
And at that moment, Gorma opened the large gate with a simple click of the latch. It swung wide and welcoming.
“You mean, this gate?” she asked, stepping through it easily, then back again, before pushing it closed until latched once more. The elephant did not know what to say, sputtering now, not trumpeting. His name was Ben, and, as you may have heard, he was from Myland Island.
“You are correct about the stile, however,” Gorma nodded, and Ben the Elephant began to smile, with his complaining face all ready. “You are certainly stuck.” Ben the Elephant looked shocked; then his face crumpled in defeat.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma – can you – how will I? – can you help me…get unstuck?” And at that moment, the elephant looked more like a sheep than an elephant, a little bashful and more than a little embarrassed.
“Of course,” Gorma smiled, and with a lot of encouragement and the strength of Saint Thomas, Ben the Elephant was finally free of the stile beside the gate.
“Wow – gosh – thanks – that was – on Myland Island — ” he began, but Gorma simply said,
“You’re welcome,” and walked on.
Gorma stopped to eat her lunch on a smooth, flat rock near a shady tree. She had just finished her bread and cheese, when she heard a strange sound, like the squeaking of a mouse who is searching for, coincidentally, bread and cheese. Gorma looked back down the trail, and here came Ben the Elephant, slowly lumbering UP the trail.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma, thank goodness you are here. The woman at the albergue sent me out this morning with no food, and now it is midday, and I have nothing to eat! Women.
On Myland Island –”
And at that moment, Gorma pulled more bread and cheese from her bag. “You mean, like this bread and cheese I bought from her, at her shop next door to the albergue? Did you mean that woman? Or did you mean me?” Gorma asked, taking a bite of the cheese and munching the bread. The elephant did not know what to say, and stood blinking foolishly. And hungrily.
Oh, Gorma, Gorma, will you – how can I? – would you…share some food…with me?” And at that moment, the elephant looked more like a mouse than an elephant, very small, and willing to take the crumbs that might be offered.
“Of course,” Gorma smiled, and she broke the bread in half and gave him some, then broke the cheese and gave him some of this, as well.
“Wow – gosh – thanks – that was – on Myland Island –” he began, but Gorma simply said,
“You’re welcome,” and walked on.
Finally, as the day was wearing down and the evening began to cool the air a deep and lovely indigo, Gorma came to a fork in the road, a place where the path splits into two, and either way might be just the way to take you where you want to go. Gorma always loved a fork in the road, she stepped into the crossroads to read the sign she saw there. And who was sitting under the sign at the crossroads? Ben the Elephant. He was not trumpeting, or sputtering, or even squeaking.
“Oh, Gorma, Gorma, thank goodness you are here. The signs in this country are all written in the wrong language. I cannot read a word, so I don’t know where I am going. On Myland Island –”
And at that moment, Gorma began to read the sign aloud, to no one in particular, in the language of the Land of the Heart.
“You mean, this sign?” she asked, first in the language of the Land of the Heart, and then in Ben the Elephant’s language. He did not know what to say, so he looked back and forth, from Gorma to the sign, the sign back to Gorma, and then he looked down at himself, sitting in the dirt at a fork in the road. He looked up at Gorma, and his eyes understood, and it is just possible that his heart began to understand, as well.
“Gorma,” began Ben the Elephant, “oh, dear Gorma, would you please, if you have the time today, teach me a word or two of this language of the Land of the Heart? For if I do not learn, I will continue to lose my way, unable to read the signs at the many crossroads, and unable to hear the people, as well. This is how we live on Myland Island. But I would like to be changed by my travels in the world.”
Then Gorma smiled her best smile at Ben the Elephant. “Of course,” she replied, and as they nibbled on the last of the bread and cheese from Gorma’s bag, Ben the Elephant practiced saying the most important words he would need to continue his journey.
As darkness called to the owls in the trees and the bats in the caves of the rocky cliffs, Gorma stood to leave, looking down the lefthand path, of course.
Ben the Elephant stood too. “Oh, Gorma, Gorma –” he stopped himself, and smiling a very real and sincere smile, his best smile — “thank you,” he said, in the Language of the Heart. And he pronounced it perfectly, shaking Gorma’s hand very politely.
And Gorma simply said, “You’re – very – welcome.”
Then Ben the Elephant walked away down the righthand path, quietly practicing his new words so he wouldn’t forget. Because even an elephant sometimes forgets.
Gorma walked on, down the lefthand path, 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, the night birds spoke each other’s languages with ease, twitter-a-twitter and whoo-whoo, whoo-whoo, softly greeting each other, and politely saying, “Good night.”
Buen Camino, Ben.