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.