lost in translation


will I always
walk Jacob’s Way
limping with this hip
from wrestling with angels?

will I ever only fall
and never love
each day

will I walk alone
or kneel to hold
the dying of promise
again and again?

who am I,
to love?
and who am I,
not to?


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.

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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.

“No, where?”

“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.