Prometheus is hot
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.