Monday, July 18, 2016

Nori, At the End of the World

Camino Day 38
Yesterday, I travelled to the end of the world. It was a short bus drive away. Who knew that it was so close?
Yesterday, I travelled the “rest” of the Camino, the part reserved for die-hard pilgrims for whom the majestic cathedral in Santiago was not enough. I travelled along the a costa da Morte, the Death Coast, so named for the multitudinous ship wrecks that have happened in these often stormy waters off the coast of Galicia.
The end of the world, the death coast, is, as it turns out, beautiful.
Most pilgrims end their journey at the Cathredral in Santiago de Compostela but a few hardy ones go an extra 89 km (55 miles) to Finisterre which does, indeed, mean the end of the world in Latin. It was so named because when the Romans reached this finger pointing out to the horizon of limitless water, and, believing that the world was flat, after all, they thought they had done it!! Reached the end of the world, beyond that vast expanse of blue, they figured, was a giant waterfall spilling endlessly into infinity.
Of course, now we know, as Cris,  the helpful tour guide to the end of the world, told us that directly across the water from where we stood was Boston, MA. Known to us Unitarian Universalist as the Alpha and Omega; the beginning and end of the world. 
It really was an amazing day, though, and I’m glad I took the time to do the tour. I often think of bus tours as cheesy for some reason. I do happen to live in a tourist attraction (Colorado Springs: home to Garden of the Gods, America’s Mountain, and, now, legal weed!) and so I’ve see tour buses go by, so that might be part of the reason for my bias, but really, I love doing tour buses. And every time I do I learn so much about the area through which I’m traveling and gain a deeper respect for the region, the terrain, the people that live there.
Yesterday was no different. We traveled first to Muxia,(Spain, not China, despite what Facebook might say) which is where the final scene of the Camino was shot in the movie, “The Way.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, “the Way” was written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starred his dad, Martin Sheen, playing, well, his dad. In the movie, Emilio dies on the first day of the Camino and his dad decides to walk it and spread his ashes along the way. It’s a great movie. Anyway, it ends in Muxia which is this tiny little village with a beautiful coast. The waves were crashing majestically (see pics from yesterday on fb) and I realized again how very much I miss ocean. There is something about the crashing waves, the roar of the surf, the hypnotic drawing in and out of the tide that I think must be very close to what we feel in utero, as we lie still and trusting in amniotic bliss. Maybe this is why the oceans always calls to me; it speaks of new beginnings, birth and rebirth, and the trust in the universe to care and nurture for me.
From there we went to Finisterre. I was pleased to find that some of my tiny Camino family were there, as well. Natalie and Laura, and Laura’s 22 year old son, Daniel. I felt such a sense of familiarity when I got on the bus and saw them. And it was nice for all of us, I’m sure, to be seen in mufti as opposed to our Camino gear, and not sweating (well, okay, I sweated. Even in shorts and a tank top with no back pack. I’m a sweater; it’s who I am. I own it.)
At Finisterre, we all had our pictures taken with the iconic Camino cement mile marker showing 0.0 as the official end of the Way. And as I stood out on the bluff overlooking the ocean, as near to the end of the world as I could get, I understood why the Romans felt that way. Looking out at the ocean and seeing only the deep, deep blue (and in Galicia, where I completely lucked out with very sunny weather, but whose normal weather is rain and storms) it would be easy to think you were at the end of the line. Where else would there be to go? And now what, once you’ve reached here?
We stopped at a couple of other places on the way back, including the only river in continental Europe who joins the ocean as a waterfall. And though it was not as far out as Finisterre, that had an end of the world feeling to it, as well. It pours forth over a cliff of rocks and enters the Atlantic Ocean gustily, with a certain sense of bravado.  (Again, see pics on fb yesterday) I stood where a finger of the river was pouring into the ocean, though not as forcefully as the main body of it. Enchanted, I dipped my hand into the water as it poured over the rocks, just before it joined the sea; it was fresh water, no salt. I was fascinated by that. By how once it joined the Atlantic, it’s whole DNA would be overwhelmed with the vast body of water it had been pledged to since its birth as a stream somewhere high above the sea. 
Fresh water, salt water, just a few rocks separating them.
As we drove back to Santiago, I thought about the river and the sea, the pilgrim and the Way; the way we our changed in our sojourn on this earth; none of can escape that fact.
Jamie, another pilgrim friend, reminded me that there is a saying that the Camino begins when it ends; the journey does go ever on. Once you think you’ve reached the end of the world, you find a new world, or a new path to walk upon. And so it goes.
Of course, there’s more to write about this Camino I’ve been on, more insights, miscellany about the mundane events of every day, but I will save that for another time.
It seems fitting that I should end this post from the end of the world with one of the first poems David Whyte shared in his workshop that led me here.

 FINISTERRE by David Whyte
The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean:
no way to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you had brought
and light their illumined corners;
and to read them as they drifted on the late western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.
 
 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Journey of a Lifetime

Camino Day 37 

After 36 days of walking almost 800km of trails, roads, tracks, and stone, I walked into Santiago de Compostela late yesterday morning and made my way through the bustling modern city to the historic district where the vast Cathedral loomed. I found it ironic that I couldn’t see the cathedral from the hill overlooking the city; I actually had to walk almost all the way to its doors before it was even visible at all.
I was feeling a little rushed because I wanted to make the noon Pilgrim’s Mass and reminded myself to slow down and pay attention to this moment. I had started out in plenty of time for the final nine miles, leaving at 815 AM but soon after heading out, I ran into Laura, a woman from Florida who I met and walked with a few times in the final week. Although we had both travelled from St. Jean Pied-de-Port starting at about the same time, we never really ran into one another until after Sarria. 
At any rate, I felt it was good to chat with her for awhile as we made our final stage of the Camino. Natalie, another woman I had met, who was also part of Laura's "Camino family," also joined us. It was a good conversation, but I noticed that my pace had slowed considerably. Instead of arriving at a roomy 1115 am, I was now looking at an ETA of 1145. That was cutting it close so I said goodbye and picked up my pace, walking the rest of the way in solitude and silence.
As I have said, during the last few days of the Camino, I had been feeling nostalgic for the journey which was almost at an end. I had, it seemed, fallen in love with the Camino, with everything about it: the challenge, the beauty, the intimate connection with tree and stone and flower and wind, the flirtatious horizon that kept coyly beckoning me on. 

How was I to leave all this?

I had finally taken the time to get to know my body, as well: my feet and legs, where pain liked to dwell-- where it would be sharp and where it would be suffuse, the way my sweat pooled and rolled down my face and neck.

And so, I had, in some ways, been dreading this final day, this final homage to the Way. And yet, I found as I walked yesterday that I was content, at peace. It was right. It was the right time to end this pilgrimage. I knew that today I would be taking a bus tour of the coast of Spain, including Muxia, Ezaro, Carnota, and Finisterre: the End of the World. I found I was not at all disappointed to be taking a day long bus tour rather than taking four more days to walk!

So I felt that yesterday was a good ending, a completion. I got to the Cathedral with 10 minutes to spare, and, although there was standing room only, I didn’t mind. I stood for the hour long service, all in Spanish. A priest gave the homily in a gentle, kind voice. When it was time for communion, the only message given in several languages was given: You cannot receive the host unless you are a baptized Catholic. I wasn’t invited to the table, so I left at that point. It was a sweet service and though I did get misty-eyed a few times looking around at the ornate beauty of the church and realizing I had really made it here, I wasn't feeling particularly moved. 
There was one final thing I needed to do to officially complete the Camino. I had to find the Ofice de Peregrin@ and get my Compostela, my certificate of completion. In ancient times this was given for the pilgrim to take back to their local priest as proof of completion so that their penance or indulgence was noted. 
Adding just the perfect sense of rightness, as I rounded the corner to where the office was, there was Miriam, my Flemish friend and her group. They had just gotten their compostelas and even as we hugged and posed for one last picture, their bus arrived to take them to the airport. One more minute and I would have missed her.
While I had I stood in the long line of pilgrims awaiting their Compostela I got a lump in my throat, thinking of what an incredible journey this time had been, the experiences I have had. 

Last spring, as I was preparing for this Camino, my girlfriend said, “I wonder how your brother will show up for you on this path.”
I wondered, too. My decision to go on this pilgrimage was directly related to Erik and to his suicide, and how that had shattered my world. I had gone to hear the poet David Whyte speak on the subject of Solace: Asking the Beautiful Questions in Life’s Dark Times, solely as a means of trying to make some sense of the unimaginable grief I felt, and when Whyte spoke of the Camino de Santiago, and grief as a sort of pilgrimage, I numbly wondered if that might be something I could do as well.
And truthfully, Erik has been with me every step of this Way. Some days I would feel his presence walking with me. I think walking this Camino is something he would have loved to have been able to do. Sometimes I could almost hear his wry voice and his deadpan  sense of humor. Sometimes, I just time-travelled to earlier, happier days, revisiting some of my favorite memories of him; often tears would well up in my eyes, though I laughed aloud, as well, at some of the memories.
I thought, as I shuffled along in the steady but slow moving line, about how delicate life is, how a single action in one moment can forever altar the history as yet unwritten, how the ringing of a phone can be a herald of devastation and yet, also, how we can find the beautiful questions in life’s darkest times, if we look. The Camino had certainly shown me that.
As I neared the Compostela office, I noticed a sign advertising an additional document that would state the number of kilometers walked and the start and end dates of the Camino for €3. 
Obviously, I would get that, too!
When it was my turn, I approached the agents behind the desk, gave them my pilgrim’s passport so they could verify I had, indeed, walked from SJPP to Saniago de Compostela. The agent, a young man, who seemed to be training an older woman, asked where I was from. I said the US and the woman said she was from Georgia. We smiled at that, and the man asked if I wanted the additional document. I said yes, and then added, “If I pay for two, can I have one in my brother’s name. I walked this partly because of him.”
The man explained that they could only issue the documents in the name of the person who actually walked, but they could write in memory of the person on it, if I wished. 

I nodded, suddenly unable to speak, because tears were pouring silently down my face. I was overcome with emotion at my pilgrimage and my brother’s own shortened journey and I.could.not.stop.crying. 
The agent gave me a piece of paper; I wrote down Erik’s name, and waited while he added that to the Compostela and then rolled both into a cardboard tube for safekeeping. The woman from Georgia reached out and grasped my hand. “It’s beautiful what you did,” she said, her US southern voice sounding both incongruous and comforting. 
I could only nod, as the tears were still streaming down my face. I took my tube of documents and went outside where I found a quiet place. It was a few minutes before I could pull myself together.
Finally, I walked back out into the sunshine, the heat of the day, and made my way down the crowded streets filled with vendors, peregrin@s, tourists, and townsfolk. 

I carried the Compostela of completion. This Camino is over but in my heart I carry the journey itself, and that will never end. Neither, I know, will my grief; that, too is a pilgrimage that will wind its way down whatever terrain my future takes. And that’s okay. That's how it should be. There will always be beautiful questions to ask of it. 

Suddenly, I smiled. So, that's it. I thought to myself. 
According to my Certificate of Completion, I had walked 775km. 480.5 miles. A seven hour drive. A 36 day walk. A journey of a lifetime. 


Friday, July 15, 2016

Somehow We Get There

Camino Day 35

I am experiencing one of those (not too) rare moments of cognitive dissonance when outside reality tells me something must be true but inside it feels completely impossible; tomorrow morning I will walk the final 8+ miles to Santiago. I will leave Amenal, my final stopping point on this pilgrimage, around 815 so that I can arrive in plenty of time to make the daily Pilgrim’s Mass at 12 noon.
I confess, I feel a certain sense of nostalgia, already, a poignant sense of loss. These past few days I have gotten very verklempt at the idea of this journey coming to an end; it has made me once again reconnect to the trees, the flowers, the fields that grow next to my Way, the rocks underfoot.  
In some regard, this is very similar to the way I felt when my son, Sam, turned 18. I was suddenly panicked as I realized he had, as they used to say, reached the age of majority. I realized my definition as mom was going to change. I frantically thought back over the first 18 years of his life: had I hugged him enough? Had I told him I loved him enough? Had I shown him I loved him enough? Did I do the best I could to prepare him for this next step for both of us? Wait! I wanted to shout out to the Universe, This has gone much faster than it should! I still need time to read to him before bed, to carry him sleeping from the car after a long day.

Of course, the chance for that was gone. I had to content myself, to make peace with myself in accepting that it was what it was. 
And the same is true for this pilgrimage. I have had moments of panic as I realize it’s drawing to a close. Have I learned what I need to learn? Have I experienced what I need to experience. Again,I want to shout to the Universe, Wait! This has gone much faster than it should! I am not quite done experiencing all this.

And yet I must be, right? Because I have less than 15km to go. I was thinking yesterday about this long journey, this short experience and the lessons learned. I wryly remembered the ridiculous old joke: why did the chicken cross the road?
I thought, that’s what this can be classified as: why did the peregrina cross Northern Spain? To get to the other side.
And I knew in my bones it was as simple, and as complicated, as that.

To get to the other side not just geographically, but metaphysically as well. The terrain I’ve crossed, the blisters (three) I’ve gotten, the pain I’ve experienced and the strength I’ve gained, have not been experienced merely in the physical realm.  I have crossed a span of not just miles but milestones.

A few days ago I posted some pics that seemed to show dueling Camino yellow arrows. Some signs (official, concrete signs) seemed to point left and some seemed to point right. What was a peregrin@ to do? 
Luckily, a new friend I had met on the Camino, Masha, from Russia, had told me about this cool app called maps.me. It is an amazingly accurate GPS app that doesn’t’ require cellular or wifi connections to work. I just have to type in the name of the hotel and specific walking and it not only shows me the route, but also gives an ETA. Hah! That is based on an 18 minute mile which I haven’t attained, even on a good day. My average is about 2.95 miles an hour—which does include photo stops. Still, it is useful when I come upon these mixed messages. 
After I saw the first one of these, the day before yesterday, I was musing on how this was Camino 2.0. Now that I had learned to follow the signs, I was being asked to interpret them. Would I go left or right? Would I trust the pilgrims I could see ahead of me on one path or take the other? 
Ultimately, honestly, I would look at maps.me and scale it so I could see the road to come not just right where I was, and follow that. I thought of the wisdom of spiritual leader Abaham. Hicks, who has said, any path is good.You cannot get it wrong, Abraham says, so just choose!
And that was a great metaphor for a few hours. Then I ran into a woman I had walked with several days earlier. Miriam, a Flemish woman from Belgium, and I had had a great conversation last Friday but then we parted ways and I hadn’t seen her since.
Suddenly, on Wednesday, there she was!! It was so great to see her. She told me she had gotten an infection in a toe nail and had had to take buses the past four days. She was traveling with a group and so couldn’t just stay on her own to heal. She was as excited to see me as I was to see. She said, “It gives me energy seeing you again!”
We walked along again. She was with a group of 13 Flemish peregrin@s who had begun in Astorga. At one point, she pointed to a man about my age—we had been crossing paths for several days—and said, “he is our group leader!.”
So then the three of us fell in together and the leader (whose name I didn’t get!) told me that the confusing signs were due to the fact that the Camino de Santiago had been given historical, cultural standing (much like my church, All Souls, in Colorado Springs, Co, has been given recognition as a State Historical Society) but in order to keep that recognition the province of Galicia had to restore the Camino to its original route. Evidently, over the past 1000+ years, there have been changes made; shortcuts, perhaps, or accommodations to modern life and the Way has subtly shifted. The tour leader said that they finished re-vamping the route just last year.
He also said that this added 8km to the Galician part of the Camino!! I knew it!!!! But, at any rate, it is true to its core now.
I thought, then, about how easy it is, through the years, to get slightly off center, to let the beliefs of others, or the things we tell ourselves, lead us, slowly, almost imperceptibly, away from the core of who we are. And how good it is to stop, every now and again, to get our bearings, to find our true north, to see where we need to make course corrections, to get back to the road that leads to our center, to our core.
This Camino has certainly been a way for me to do that. And to recognize, as well, that all roads will eventually get us there. Some may be longer, some may be more scenic.
Today, I came across a Spanish family at just such a crossroads. Here was an “official” sign pointing left and here was an equally official sign pointing right. There was much consternation in this family, as they tried to determine the right way. I showed them my maps.me page which said to go right. They were not convinced. I wished them Buen Camino and went to the right (one of the few times I will admit that!!!) Not far up the road, I saw where both options now converged. Both worked, it’s just that one was more true to the core. 

But somehow we get there, as Melissa Ferrick reminds us. We just have to get going, to keep forgiving ourselves for our missteps, to keep relying on grace—Grace given freely to us from ourselves, from others, from those who love us, and those who will never know us but wish us Buen Camino, Good Journey, blessings, blessings, love love, love, more love, Mas amor, por favor. And somehow, we get there, no matter how far—500 miles or 50 or the distance between a thought and a healing. 



And tomorrow: Santiago. And the next day? Well, we’ll see.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Confessions of a "True" Pilgrim

Camino Day 32
Today there was a marked change in how I experienced the Camino. I knew it was coming and tried to prepare myself as best as possible. This morning I left from Sarria, which is the port of entry for folks wanting to earn a Compostela—or certificate of completion—for the Camino by traveling the shortest distance possible. In order to get a Compostela, you need to show you have walked at least the last 100 km to Santiago de Compostela. Sarria, at a distance of 112km away is perfect for that and the town has clearly made that a successful tourist industry. Consequently, whereas heretofore I had enjoyed long stretches of solitary walking, interspersed with short pleasant periods of conversations with other pilgrims, today I would find myself swamped on all sides with fresh pilgrims, many of them young and traveling in groups, as well as couples and friends of all ages and from all around the world.

My trusty guidebook had tried to prepare for this inevitability. In fact, it had even shared this sage bit of wisdom with me: 
"Note to 'seasoned' pilgrims: Beware of signs of irritation at the intrusion on 'my' Camino--remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing they need is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path with an open mind and an open heart... Without judgment." 

So this morning, as I arose and did my morning preparations (which consists of taping the balls of my feet with paper medical tape and using KT tape on my heels, as well as the normal morning ablutions I do, regardless of where I am) I tried to mentally picture the difference and imagine what it would feel like. Perhaps a little nervous of what this day might bring, I scarfed down a breakfast of bread and ham, with a side of mixed fruit (in another blog, I’ll talk about the food on the Camino) and hit the road at 815—which is early for me.
Sure enough, I had barely stepped into the street when I was joined by throngs of fresh-faced, energetic, noisy pilgrims. 

Almost instantly I forgot my best intentions but I soldiered on, actually churning along at a pretty good clip, hopeful that I could soon outdistance the new pack and find some peace. This plan was hampered by a) having to start by going up a really steep hill, and b) no matter how far ahead I got of one group, there was another still in front of me to surpass.

It wasn’t even 9 AM and sweat was pouring off my head and down my face and neck. Making matters worse, it seemed as if a lot of the new peregrin@s were American, which meant I could understand what they were saying and, inadvertently and unwillingly eavesdrop on what I can only classify as insipid conversation. I mean, seriously--- did they have to come on this sacred path for this?

Yes, yes, I prayed this morning, as I do each day, that I would see what I need to see, hear what I need to hear, know what I need to know, and say what I need to say. But did I really need to hear the latest about the mutual friend of the two young college students behind me? And seriously, there was a man my age wearing black slacks and a clergy collar! I mean, really! Why on earth would you feel the need to identify as clergy while walking the Camino? Time and again, I had to reign in my judgement, my resentment, my irritability at “my” Camino being taken over by these upstarts who clearly didn’t have the stamina to go the whole distance and therefore had no idea what a Camino really was.
Then, thankfully, the better angels of my nature took over, and reminded me to feel compassion for those just starting out, to remember that there were a lot of reasons they were starting in Sarria rather than at St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I was older than many of them and I had more resources and help in getting to the starting point at SJPP than they did. Maybe they took all the time off they had to do these next five or six days. And for them, this was everything.

I began to feel compassion rather than criticism toward the newcomers. And I realized it reminded me of something else I am currently experiencing on Facebook.

We’ve had some tragic times in the United States over this summer, most recently the completely unjustified shooting deaths of two Black men by white police officers, followed by the shooting deaths of five white police officers in Dallas, TX by a Black man who had access (as do we all, tragically, in the USofA) to weapons of mass destruction and who took out his rage and helplessness equally violently by gunning down a dozen police officers, killing five, and wounding 7, including two civilians.

All of this happening so suddenly, one after another, barely gave any of us time to breathe, to mourn, to question, to seek comfort, to seek change.  In the wake of the Dallas shootings, a number of people began to post a well known quote from civil rights prophet and activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he said, 
“Darkness cannot  drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.”
That was the basic quote that people, including myself, shared.

I thought as I shared it from a friend who had posted it that this quote summed up such a key root of the violence and destruction that has been so much a part of the fabric of America. I wasn’t thinking only of the white Dallas police officers but of all who have been killed as a result of hate and violence—the African American men and women gunned down or otherwise killed by officers of the law because of a deeply embedded hatred and distrust of the “other,” the horrific shooting at The Pulse night club, all of the acts of violence that seem to be hand stitched into this crazy quilt of our nation.

I saw it, I shared it; I was not alone. And then, just hours later, I saw a reaction from my liberal friends—many, but not all, who have been on the road to racial justice and equality for a long time; many—but not all, who have stood arm in arm with our black brothers and sisters to proclaim boldly that #blacklivesmatter; many—but not all, who, like me, have stood on the front lines of this battle for the lives and wellbeing of our kin of color.

I read one friend’s post that said if you haven’t spoken up about black lives matter you don’t get to quote MLK. Others chimed in similarly saying things such as “just because you quote a black man doesn’t make you not a racist,” and I saw one meme that condescendingly said something to the effect of, “I see you’re taking a MLK quote out of context. Need some help with that?”
I confess, it had me wondering, were my credentials as a white ally and long time activist for racial justice and equality enough to give me a “pass” to quote MLK? And who should I get vetted by? And what if this was my first step into the conversation? Did it make it wrong if I quoted MLK after the shooting deaths of the white police officers? Would it have been okay if I had managed to squeeze it in between the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?

And who gets control over the words of Dr. King? Or Jesus? Or Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? Who gets to decide who can “legitimately” use them and who gets excoriated if they try?

How long do you have to have been on this pilgrimage toward justice before you can be considered a “true” pilgrim?

I realized today that my resentment and criticism of the new peregrin@s left no room for compassion for how they came to be a part of the Way. When I respond with bitterness there is no openness that allows for the fact that people can step onto the path at many points different from my own, but no less valid, and that my judgment doesn't help propell them closer to the Compostela—the certificate of completion—but rather, puts up stumbling blocks to them getting there at all.

Actually, that quote from Dr. King comes from his 1963 book, Strength to Love, in which his essays point to the need for all of us to undergo a transformation of love. In a review of this book, Coretta Scott King is quoted as saying, "If there is one book Martin Luther King, Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love. I believe it is because this book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King, Jr.' s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life.”
Frankly, I think those folks who posted this on Facebook in the wake of the Dallas shootings (and we’ll never know if they meant if for all of the violence we see here in the US, but why not believe they did?) is not out of context at all. It speaks exactly to the point Dr. King tried to make, not only in this book, but in his life. The rest of the quote, equally profound, goes on to say:
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction....
The chain reaction of evil --
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars --
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

For me, I see this as a cautionary note for those of us who have been on this road for a very long time. I don’t want to be bitter or resentful or critical of those who are just now finding their way onto the path. I want to make room for them. I want to give them course corrections, when they get off base (as in the whole all lives matter movement) but when they quote one of the heroes of my faith and activism, I want to applaud them and show them even more, reveal even more signs of justice that they can follow.
A few days ago, I arrived in the tiny (wifi-free) hamlet of O’Cebriero.  The church here, Santa Maria la Real, dates from the 9th century and is the oldest extant church directly related to the Camino. In this sacred place is the final resting place of Don Elias Valina Sampredo (1929-1989) the parish priest who dedicated his life to restore and preserve the integrity of the Camino, to encourage people to walk this holy way; it was his idea to mark the entire route with the ubiquitous yellow arrow showing the way to all of us pilgrims, guiding us from wherever and whenever we embark upon this path.
It was powerful and gratifying for me to see his tomb, to offer a silent word of thanks for providing signs to show us the way, and for encouraging all of us to walk this way, that it’s never too late to join in, that if (when) we make missteps, there will be other pilgrims to catch us and encourage us, not jeer at our lack of experience, and to set signs to help us remember that, at the end of the day—each and every day, as Ram Dass said, we are all just walking each other home. I guess that’s what makes a true pilgrim, after all.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

America the Beautiful

Camino Day 30
Today began what is to be my last week walking. On Saturday, I will make my way into Compostela de Santiago. In some ways, it seems surreal, not the least because it will mean I will re-enter the “real world;” you know, the one fraught with violence and pain and uncertainty and chaos.
Yesterday I had no internet access, and the day before, the sign proclaiming free wi-if in rooms neglected to mention that it only worked if I stood on one foot in the bathtub. Facing south.
So my access to the news unfolding in the wake of both the two police shooting deaths of black men—Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—and then the shooting deaths of five white Dallas police at an otherwise peaceful protest has been limited.
Truthfully, I was rendered speechless after the video of Sterling’s death appeared, and then Castile’s dying moments, video-taped by his girlfriend who, along with her young daughter, witnessed the entire event. I felt as if I just needed to make a generic statement about how #blacklivesmatter and how we need to do something about the rampant use of force against black men by police officers—you know, something undated, with no names mentioned, that I could just trot out again and again in the wake of each new tragedy.
And then Dallas happened. A mass shooting by a black man who said he wanted to kill as many white police officers as possible. A mass shooting by someone who had access-- once again, as is true of virtually all the mass shootings we’ve experienced in this year alone—to weapons of war, designed to kill as many humans as possible, as quickly as possible.
Clearly, the actions of the shooter were not reflective of the #blacklivesmatter movement. Clearly, he acted from his own private personal sense of rage, outrage, and inability to focus that in healing, empowering ways. Yet, now this tragedy is added to the already overloaded docket of death and despair on our nation’s books.
A friend wrote, after Dallas, that it felt like 1968. I had thought that, too, although I was too young at the time to understand the impact of all the violence that year held. It seems as if today, like then, the pressure cooker of race, power, despair, and pornographic access to guns  has exploded in unspeakable violence that seems to come at us with the staccato burst of an AR15.
So these two trajectories—the killing of black men and the use of weapons of war against anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—have collided in our nation.
Seven more lives senselessly taken, seven more families left grieving an inconsolable loss. Our nation, once again, ripped apart needlessly.
As I was sitting in my hotel dining room on Friday night, in Villafranca de Bierzo, virtually shut off from Internet access, thinking of all this violence, all this blood spilled in our streets, I slowly became aware of the song that was playing in the small room where I sat alone. It was Frank Sinatra singing  “America the Beautiful.”
Ironically, that song had been on my mind while I was still crossing the great Mesete—the vast, unending acres of amber waves of grain.  I had thought then how much easier life could be if we each looked past the boundaries we draw—making some “other” and instead saw the places of connection, of commonality—how we each grow crops of wheat or barley or rice to feed our families, how we each long for peace, for happiness, for love, for safety.
The experience of sitting in a small village in Spain, listening to Sinatra sing this singular song, written by lesbian, Katharine Lee Bates (who was teaching at Colorado College that summer of 1893), after she had visited Pikes Peak, the mountain in my backyard, while grieving over what is happening in America now, was a truly transcendent experience.
I know: that was a convoluted sentence; just imagine what it felt like to me—like a kaleidoscope with all these images swirling around, trying in vain to make sense of it all.

How can America be beautiful when it's streets are filled with the blood of innocent black men and women? How can America be beautiful when we continue to allow weapons of war to be sold to our citizens who then use them to spill even more innocent blood?

Can America be beautiful? And how? And how can we help in the reclamation process?
I  posted this poem on Facebook in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last month. I was reminded of it again, in the wake of these latest tragedies, in listening to Sinatra sing:
Good Bones, by Maggie Smith
   
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Today I am in Triacastela, Spain. I have six more days of walking before I reach the end of this pilgrimage. And I will soak in each of these moments with gratitude and awe. I will listen fully to the birdsong that is purer and more melodic than even a Gay Men’s Chorus. I will stop again and again to admire the wildflowers that still greet me and give spontaneous praise to the Universe for the rolling hills covered in green that meet me now at every turn. I will stand in silent, holy awe in cathedrals and churches built over 1000 years ago and I will remind myself of the good bones of our human existence—the ones that reach back before myth and religion, before the constructs of race and privilege, of inclusion and exclusion. I will see beyond the blood stained headlines to what could be.
And when I return, I will join, once more, with others who see those good bones, who believe in them with every beat of their heart. And together, we will find the ways to make this place beautiful once again. 

Frank Sinatra singing  “America the Beautiful.”“America the Beautiful.”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Confidence in Me

Camino Day 27
I awoke this morning feeling the importance of the day. It was going to be a momentous day because a) it would be the longest distance I’ve walked in a day (32 km) b) I would reach the highest point on the Camino (1515m) c)I would have the opportunity to leave stones at La Cruz de Ferro—the Iron Cross. The Iron Cross is a touchstone, a highlight of the Camino. There for who knows how many years people have left stones that they have carried with them on the Camino.
Perhaps, early on, these stones represented “sins” (based on the pilgrims’ faith tradition) that they wanted to lay down. Nowadays, however, people lay down stones for things they want to release, things they want to receive, healing for themselves or others. And not only stones—people also leave objects like teddy bears, notes or prayers. Today, I saw a perfectly good pair of running shoes.
So, it was to be a momentous day. And I awoke early, wanting to get a head start on what would be a very long day, no matter when I began. I hurriedly ate my breakfast, washed it down with café con leche and set out from the charming village of Rabanal del Camino.
As I left, I said my usual morning prayers to the Universe, and put forth my usual intentions, as well, that I would greet the day with awe and wonder, that I would welcome each experience with a holy curiosity, that I would be in sync with the walk, with the weather, with whatever the day brought me. But of course, this was also a most auspicious day. I would be laying down these three rocks, releasing all those intentions into the Universe. One of them was specifically for my sister, Lori, who had asked me to place a stone at the cross for her. 
I knew the Iron Cross lay on the ascent and so I wanted to be in a place of focused prayer, meditation, intention-releasing, for that. My idea was that I would walk contemplatively, reflectivity to the La Cruz de Ferro, feeling the weight of the three stones in my backpack, feeling the weight of the journey I’ve carried them on, bringing them with me from Colorado Springs.
But that was not to be. As I left Rabanal del Camino, the path narrowed to a single track, choked with plants and flowers on either side, threatening to completely block the path. But that was ok. That made it easier to give high fives to the flowers and other plants that I passed by. What was not ok was the swarms of flies or gnats or whatever the hell those buzzing, flying insects are that seemed to want to fly around my face, with their sawing voice going on and on. They were like the worst of playground bullies--always in my space and when I asked them to leave, they only laughed at me and continued to jeer at me and taunt me, “make me!”
I wondered if it was just me, so I was relieved when a younger couple passed me, both waving their trekking poles in the air to try to dissuade the flies. 
I tried to ignore them, myself, in total zen fashion, tried to make friends with them, even and welcome them into my experience. Of course, then I remembered last week’s blog by my sister, Kari, in which she recalled in horrifying detail, the experience of having a fly fly into her ear as a young girl. That was it. I began waving my hanky in the air above my head like a true believer at a tent revival. I was not, however, saying pious prayers or giving praise, what I was saying went something more like, “Get the fuck aWAY from me!!”
While this frenetic gyration seemed to keep the insects somewhat at bay, every time I stopped to take a picture, they’d instantly go into formation and surround my entire head like a living beekeeper head gear meant for protection. It was horrifying!
Fortunately, a village soon appeared on the horizon and, while it was early in the day to actually stop for a break, I was desperate! I needed to ditch the bugs. So I went inside, had a Coke, and rested (my nerves) for a bit.
But I couldn’t stay there all day, there was still 17 miles to go, so I gamely put on my backpack and went back outside. Fortunately, the flies did seem to subside then, seeming more like a pack of children chattering about me, asking me for change, rather than a defcon 1 assault on my sanity, so I was able to get to a meditative state of mind after all. I thought about the rocks in my back pack and all they represented-both known and unknown to me. I thought about how I have carried them with me for so long and how it was time to let them go. 
When I reached La Cruz de Ferro I was surprised by how small the iron cross actually was. It was maybe a foot or so high, but it was placed on top of a long pole that reached into the sky.  At its base there was a mound of rocks at least the height of two humans at the very foot of the pole, then gradually cascading down to the ground. Folks were walking on the mound, placing rocks, saying prayers, and I made my way up to the top of the mound as well, where I placed my three stones near the foot of the pole. I stayed there for a few minutes, saying my prayers, setting my intentions, releasing what needed to be released, embracing what needed to be embraced, and sending the lot of it off into the universe. I was surprised at how moved I was by this simple site, and this simple act of letting go. Finally, I continued on the Way.
As I continued up the steep path, I realized the terrain was changing from the hard-packed dirt with the overgrown flowers to the big stones in the path that I remembered from the first few days on the Way. There was no way to get an actual stride going so I stepped nimbly and paid attention as best I could. I was eager to make it to the top, the highest point of the Camino and I took pictures of fellow peregin@s ahead me as they began the ascent to the point, or at least I thought.
But I when I reached that same place, there wasn’t any sign there telling me this was the highest place so I trudged on. I quickly came upon a small mobile café that sold everything from café con leche to bocadillos but I kept going. I was focused on reaching the top.
It soon became apparent to me,however, that I was clearly on a downward trajectory; I had missed the highest point, although I walked right over it.
Soon, all I could do was to keep my eyes focused on the descent. Those damn big stones were everywhere! Sometimes, despite my eagle eyes, I would trip over one, or feel the roll of stones underneath my step. When this happened, I corrected as best I could and went on. I had wondered how I would do without trekking poles and it turned out I did just fine. I basically plunged down the path, trusting my feet to find solid footing. Sometimes, I held my arms out at my side, balancing myself, as if I were walking the tracks on the abandoned railroad line near my home.
These big stones seemed to occupy most of the path going down. Exhausted, I stopped in a small village for a bocadillo and Coke and then, somewhat fortified resumed my trek.
The stony path continued until it was replaced by a narrow path that seemed to be made of either petrified wood or some prehistoric lava sludge—bluish in color and undulating down the path. It was smooth and slipper and extremely difficult to walk upon. 
This was followed by washed out parts of the trail, requiring me to hopscotch over water by means of stones to get to drier land.
Finally, I made the city of Molinaseca. From there it would be only 3.8 miles to go. I did those miles after another brief stop to guzzle down some ice cold water. This trail led me along a busy road, with cars whizzing by, into a moderately wealthy suburb that lead to an industrial part of town before, finally, leading to my hotel.
As I reviewed the day, while walking the last couple of miles, it occurred to me that today had, in some ways, been a test. It was as if I faced, in a single day, the hardest challenges of the Camino thus far.
Those steep ascents and descents with those damn stony paths hadn’t been seen since my earliest days walking. The weather was hot and muggy, also not felt in a few days. The busy traffic and urban sprawl was like right out of the walk into and out of Leon. 
I remembered when my sister, Katy, and I were in the USAF Basic Training. One of the things we had to complete (Attempt, anyway) was the Confidence Course. This was a race through different challenges—crawling in the mud under barbed wire placed a foot off the ground, climbing over walls, and several water challenges, such as swinging from a rope over water to walking on a rope over water. 
I remember our TI (Technical Instructor) mentioned that the course used to be called the Obstacle Course and there were a lot of failures. But when they did nothing more than change the name to Confidence Course, the failure rate dropped! Although Katy and I both failed on different water challenges, the power of the name stuck with me through the years.
When I first started the Camino, it felt more like an obstacle course. The steep inclines and descents, those damnable rocky paths, all felt like something set up to defeat me; they were tasks I felt unequal to. 
But today felt like a Confidence Course! I knew I could handle the terrain, even without trekking poles, and I embraced the opportunity to try. 
When I arrived at my hotel, my watch told me that I had done 46, 326 steps for a total of 20.17 miles. I had started at 7:42 this morning and arrived at 4:50 this afternoon. Just over nine hours from start to finish with three breaks—and my feet were fine!!. It was a long day, a challenging day, a good day. I had passed the test and I knew that, even though I still have nine days left to walk, that I will be just fine. I’ve no doubt there are still things I will learn on this Camino but I feel like the biggest lesson I learned today: that I can do it, if I just have confidence in myself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Blessings from Poverty. Blessings from Power.

Camino Day 26

Wow, as I write that, I realize that I have only 10 more days of walking before I enter  Compostela de Santiago and complete this amazing pilgrimage. I have been on this Way almost a month and my guidebook tells me I have239.6 km (148.9 miles) to go. When I started in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, the full route of 776.2 km (482.3 miles) stretched before me—all uncharted terrain, each step a step outside of the well worn geography of my world. 
Today I continued the gradual incline that will lead me to the highest point on my journey,
Alto altar, at 1515 m or 4970.5 ft. The difference is that on the first day, I went from 656 to 4757 ft —and then down again to 2952 ft—in a single day. The journey to this peak will be the result of three days steadily climbing, gradually reaching the apex. I guess I could also say that reaching this peak has been the result of 26 days of steadily walking, continuing toward this unseen crest, having faith that each step will continue to bring me closer to this height.
After the vast, flat terrain of the Mesete, I don’t mind the additional challenge these rolling hills, and sustained uphill climbs are bringing and good thing; since then, the Camino is like a roller coaster for the faint of heart--- a steady incline followed by a steady decline but no heart-stopping descents into the pit of nothingness. 
Tomorrow’s  triumphant summiting, however,  will be followed by an almost 3200 ft descent into Ponferrada, a reminder to take care on the Way, to not get stuck in a rut of complacency so that attention and care is not given to the path.
This is a pilgrimage, after all, not a long circuitous walk around and around and around the 400 meter track outside the local high school.
And that’s been true throughout this pilgrimage: as soon as I thought the path would be one of unending pain and uneven footing on treacherous paths, the Way straightened into level, trails with white gravel or dirt that was kind to my feet, and easier to see where I was going. When I was immersed in the beauty and wonder of the wild flowers and mountains and rugged vistas on either side, the view gave way to the cereal crops of the Mesete with their own beauty, if also a sense of unending, unchanging views that could deaden the senses as well as delight.
And now, for these past few days, the road has been changing once again. The roller coaster has returned, though gently for the most part, and there are mountains again in the distance, and thick green forests of trees coating the landscape. The path is varied now: asphalt or gravel for one portion, hard-packed dirt for another, and then, today, a return to the long ascent up a path strewn with large rocks that made pacing challenging and paying attention a must.
Even the blessings have been different. In San Juan de Ortega I joined in a Pilgrim’s mass and blessing in the simple church built there by its namesake, solely as a place of sanctuary for the peregrin@s, a place of safe harbor against the bandits that roamed the area in ancient times, a place of healing. When San Juan de Ortega died, his body was kept in a simple stone crypt while a beautiful alabaster resting place in the center of the main sanctuary was made for him, but when it was completed, he made it clear—from beyond the grave—that he would prefer to stay in his humble stone coffin; he lived among the poor and the wandering and in his death, that’s how he wanted to be remembered.  The mass there was simple and there were programs printed in both Spanish and many other languages so that virtually anyone could follow along.
In that village of 20, the congregants were all pilgrims who were each given a blessing and a Saint James cross by the priest.
In Leon, I also attended a Pilgrim’s mass and blessing, on the eve of setting out for Villar de Mazarife. It was a very different experience. I got to the Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral about 30 minutes early. I had already gone on a tour through its private museum earlier in the day and, although the guide spoke only in Spanish, I didn’t need a translator to be in awe at the relics dating from the 12th c. The Cathedral itself was huge, in stark contrast to the smaller church in San Juan de Ortega, though it dated from the same period, and, also in contrast to San Juan—where the village existed much as it had been founded—to be a haven for pilgrims—Leon was built as a Roman military garrison and base for its VIIth Legion. The name, Leon, comes from the word Legion. It’s very genesis was as a place of power and wealth whose existence was predicated on serving the Rome and then the rulers who conquered throughout.
The Santa Maria cathedral, in the heart of the old part of the city was not just for pilgrims. In fact, you could say pilgrims were incidental to the reason it was built. Consequently, the Pilgrim’s Mass was not just for pilgrims, either. Most of the congregants were citizens of Leon, young families and elderly men and women. By the time the service started, over 100 people were in the pews. There was no helpful bilingual prayer book so I just took in the energy of the service while not understanding. Unlike in San Juan de Ortega, when the Eucharist was served, I did not go forward. But afterward, when the priest asked for the peregrin@s to come forward for a blessing, I did. There were more of us than I would have thought—maybe 25 or so, and the priest’s assistants handed out prayer cards which were in the language of your choice so that, although the blessing was spoken in Spanish, I could read along. 

Blessings from poverty. Blessings from power. 

How different and yet similar they were. The blessing in San Juan included scripture readings which the priest invited pilgrims to volunteer to read in their own language, the Leon blessing was more truncated. Both both invoked the name of Abraham and Moses, both asked for blessings and protection against harm and injury, and both ended with a hymn, one invoking Santa Maria, and the other, Santiago, himself.

Tonight, in the quaint village of Rabanal del Caminio, there is a Pilgrim’s Blessing, as well. It is to prepare us for La Cruz de Ferro—the Iron Cross, a mere 7.3 km into the day. This is a place where people place stones—stones for letting go, for acceptance, for healing. I have been carrying three stones, myself, and I will lay them down tomorrow morning. But I think I will miss tonight’s blessing, as it is at 9:30 PM. I would like to gather in this beautiful church and receive that blessing from the Benedictine monks who serve here, but seriously? 9:30 PM? On the eve of my longest day and a great climb? 
I think by now that I can bless myself, send blessings to my heart, my feet, my legs, my journey, my stones. Send blessings to those whose love and presence I have carried with me on this Way whose lives, at least one of these stones represent.
I have ten days left of walking. Ten days of seeking and giving blessings. Ten days of being open to all the blessings this Camino has for me. They will not be walked in vain.