What Living Out of a Backpack for 6 Weeks Has Taught Me

This past weekend S.A. and I drove to Florida to pack up his mother’s belongings and ship them to the assisted living apartment she moved to in Chicago.

She told us she wanted all of her clothes, but after stuffing a garment bag and five suitcases with all the items we could manage, many racks of evening gowns, dresses, skirts, blouses, wraps, bags, and shoes remained, so we made the decision to give her lifetime collection of finery to charity.

I hoisted her beautifully arranged outfits into industrial-sized garbage bags and with the help of one of my MIL’s neighbors,  drove them to a local thrift store that services the homeless and veterans. Other bags went to Goodwill, and others to Salvation Army.

I felt sad to see my MIL’s artfully selected skirts and blouses crammed into bags. Why didn’t she give some of this clothing away over the years? Now that she’s older, she stays  in her muumuu most of the day, and when she goes to the grocery she puts on the same sweater and frayed pants.

On the Camino, I had to pare down my belongings because of the weight. To keep my pack under 15 pounds, I had only one pair of spare shoes in addition to my boots, four shirts (two too many by the standards of micro-lightweight packers), one pair of thermal Smartwool leggings to wear as pajamas and as pants for the evening, three pairs of underwear, two sports bras, and four pairs of socks.

I will admit that when I walked around the streets of Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon in the evenings, cities that the Camino passes through, I felt somewhat oafish compared to the neatly dressed Spanish women out on the streets with their beaus or their families. But walking the Camino is a lesson in humility if nothing else. I had to let go of my vanity if I was going to make the distance to Santiago.

One of my Camino  friends, Carolina,  a lovely blonde  from Brazil, said that when she arrived in Santiago she would treat herself to a dress and some make up as a way to celebrate and restore her sense of beauty.

I ended up finding a nice summer dress on one of the main streets of the historic part of town  in Santiago, and it has become my main dress. I took it to the beach and to the mountains, I’ve worn it to almost every poetry reading I’ve attended this summer in Atlanta, and I might even bring it on my next pilgrimage–it’s lightweight,  dries quickly, and can be worn over my thermal leggings.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I'm wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I’m wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Before emptying out my MIL’s condo I had already begun the process of paring down my own belongings. I’ve had to face my proclivity to hoard books. I have them piled up next to my bed, stacked on shelves in every room, and even stored in boxes in the garage. I’ve donated many of them to Goodwill and other organizations, and I will bring others to the library.

But giving away or selling possessions is only a physical manifestation of other more important aspects of my life that I need to give away. Just as I let go of my vanity on the Camino, at least for the most part, now I’m working on letting go of fear and anxiety.

If I feel a vague twinge of negative energy, my tendency is to tell myself a story that gives me a concrete reason to worry. So these stories are what I’m going to let go. I’m letting go of fear. First I will give fear a gentle squeeze on the shoulder, then I will pat it on the back and wish it a safe journey. Goodbye, old friend, buen viaje.

With a lighter load, I go on my next walk.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

How Can I Be at Peace when Fear Nibbles at My Heart Like a Mouse?

In Parker Palmer’s  column at  On Being,  he writes about allowing  his life’s unfolding  to be guided by open-ended questions that look at the big picture.

Here is an example question he gives at the end of the post, which he arrives at after some give and take with the wording:  “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”

Questioning the universe and then listening for its wisdom seems like a gentle and good way to live a life. In yoga there is a similar practice of sankalpa, translated as an intention, a resolve, or a wish.

When I practice yoga nidra, a 45-minute relaxation meditation, at the beginning of the session I allow a sankalpa to manifest itself in my mind. Sometimes I have a clear image of myself realizing my wish. When I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I would see myself walking on an open road under a blue, blue sky, experiencing total freedom. And ultimately, at moments, this freedom is what I experienced.

When my son returned from India, he told me he learned that a yogi makes plans, sets an intention, and then lets the intention recede from his conscious mind. In other words, he doesn’t fret over the outcome. All his actions will lead toward the manifestation of his wishes.

I like the practice of posing a question and waiting for the stream of life to unfold. By allowing a question to guide us, our very lives become the answer.

My question is this: How can I feel more at peace in my heart and mind, and how can I share this peace of mind with others so that they too can experience peace?

In a way, the question is a mission statement for a life, but since it’s open ended, it doesn’t presuppose that we already know how to achieve the outcome or even what that outcome will look or feel like.

When I came home from Spain on June 30, I was not anxious at all, even after discontinuing all the medications I had been taking. Now, two and a half months later, some of the old anxieties are creeping back, and even though I continue walking, meditating, and reading inspiring books, it’s rare that I don’t feel the pain of some ancient grief bubbling up.

The difference now, after the Camino (A.C.!) , is that I don’t take any pills to muffle the gnawing, nibbling discomfort. As I learned from the gentle teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I say to the anxiety, “Oh, hello old friend. What do you have to tell me today?”

My old friend anxiety says: Keep walking. Keep writing. Breathe deeply and slowly. Listen deeply. Be patient.

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

*** If you take medications, please don’t stop taking them because of what you read here. I’m not a professional therapist of any kind, and I only speak of my own experience. I have taken different anti-depressants for decades, and I think they might have helped me at one point or another. They certainly seemed to help. But I have the support of a therapist, my family,  and many years of life to help me face my inner demons, and I believe I am ready to do this one day at a time, breath by breath.

My True Home

My true home is life itself. My true home is the here and the now.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Kennesaw, Spring 2015

Kennesaw, Spring 2015

Filed under the label stuff I tell myself is the adage that we shouldn’t postpone our happiness.

When I came home from the Camino, my heart was cracked wide open from the effort of walking by myself from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

A woman whose heart has cracked open looks like this: she cries over the littlest things, or she experiences sympathetic joy (not the typical jealousy or envy she used to feel); she’s in tender mode; she’s patient with those who still don’t know they are on a pilgrimage.

Because we are all on a pilgrimage, whether we know it or not.

Lately, though, I had been postponing my happiness and slowly I felt my heart begin to harden. I had been caring for my mother-in-law for a month and a half, and walking had become an escape from the fact of her constant presence in the house. Rather than walking to reconnect with myself, I was walking to escape.  I was postponing my peace of mind until the day she would go to Chicago.

I found myself already planning my next pilgrimage to France without having fully processed and integrated my recent journey to Spain. An escape maybe?

But I have found comfort and redirection in the words of one of our time’s greatest sages,  Thich Nhat Hanh, a world-renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who has helped refugees and war victims recover from their trauma through mindfulness meditation.

In his audiobook titled Living Without Stress  or Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how mindful walking can reconnect us with the present moment, the only moment where life takes place. He suggests while walking to breathe in and think “I have arrived,” and on the exhale to think “I am home.”

Mindful walking does not have any outward destination in mind, but rather it is inward. When we reconnect with the simple act of breathing and walking,  we rediscover happiness in the present moment. That’s how it works for me, and it works for others, too.

Today while walking I also let my mind drift to the many refugees that are trying to escape Syria by any means possible, whether on foot or by makeshift boats. I dedicated my walk to them, wishing that they find inner peace as well as a means of escaping the physical threats they are under. We can’t experience inner peace while our very lives are under attack. They have to find a way out of danger.

And so I felt much gratitude for having the freedom to step out of my house and walk, with my only goal to connect with the ease of my breath, the ease of being. Walking is not an act that we can take for granted. Connecting to the joy of being alive is what I am grateful for today.

A Funeral and Texas Coney Island Wieners

In 1992,  when my son Casey was two, my grandmother died, and so we drove up to Scranton, PA with my parents to attend the funeral. My father’s mother wrote poetry, and because of this I felt a special attachment to her, even though I only saw her once a year growing up.

Every summer, wherever my family lived, we would pack up the sky-blue Ford Galaxy 500 and drive the highway miles to spend two weeks with both sets of grandparents in Dunmore, PA, a borough of Scranton in the Lackawanna Valley.

There were four children, so three of us would settle into the backseat while the fourth would wedge between my parents in the front seat. This was before bucket seats, when the interior of a car resembled a couch rather than a recliner. My dad would drive the entire way, and whoever sat between my parents had the luxury of being able to lie across my mother’s lap to sleep away the miles.

The backseat, however, was a different place. No air conditioning, the windows down, hot wind would blow across the cornfields into our faces for hundreds of miles. When we grew tired of drawing, reading, or weaving potholders on a plastic loom, we would squabble with each other until my father’s freckled arm, always stretched across the front seat, would start waving wildly in our direction in an attempt to swat us into docility.

The occasion of my grandmother’s funeral found me once again in the backseat of my parents’ car, this time a station wagon with air conditioning. My mother and I sat in the back with Casey strapped into his car seat. He was a champ, considering he had to stay locked in place for two days as we drove from Atlanta to Scranton.

We took some time during that trip to visit my dad’s favorite diner, Coney Island Lunch for one of his Texas Coney Island wieners, food he probably should have avoided considering his struggle with ulcerative colitis and the many surgeries he had already endured.

The way home from the funeral felt like the old days of driving under the threat of my father’s arm. He had broken down in tears at the service, but for reasons only my father could explain,  his grief morphed into anger toward my mother and the rest of the world. He raced back to Atlanta with us in tow,  a black cloud of  negativity seeping from his pores. He drove at breakneck speed until my mother and I pleaded with him to pull over to let someone else drive. That was the last road trip I made with my dad.

Painting by my sister, Patrice Needham.

Painting by my sister, Patrice Needham.

My sister  took a few pictures of us while we wandered around Scranton, whose early twentieth century architecture charmed us after the glass towers of Atlanta we were accustomed to seeing. She painted the picture from a photograph, and then gave it as a gift to my mother and father-in-law. Katherine’s maiden name was Casey, which is why we named our son Casey. Another connection is that Sean is wearing his Berkshires t-shirt (which I still use as a night shirt), the place where my in-laws lived every summer.

I rescued the painting from Katherine’s house since she’s planning on selling the place in the Berkshires. Now that she’s getting on in years, she can’t travel there by herself, much less live there alone for a summer.  I like my sister’s photorealist style of painting. Her more recent work is plein air water colors, which I also find very beautiful. This one was painted at a beach trip we just took, on a postcard size water color block.

Plein air water color of Port Saint Joe Bay by Patrice Needham.

Plein air water color of Port Saint Joe Bay by Patrice Needham.

Today’s Walk

I’m sitting at the top of Monument Mountain, the place where Herman Melville met Nathanial Hawthorne for the first time.

It’s a hot day for the Berkshires. I’m sweating in the muggy air, but a slight breeze refreshes my skin. This humidity is nothing like the pizza oven heat of Georgia.

While going up the mountain I took a picture of a log bridge–I’m a little afraid of crossing narrow bridges, even when there’s nothing but a creek below. So I took a picture to illustrate the obstacles I’m forever confronting.

When I went to look for my phone to take another picture, this time of the rocky ascent to the summit, I realized I had left my phone at the log bridge.

So back down the mountain I went. A couple had seen my phone in the ground where it must have slipped out of my backpack (or what is more probable is that I missed the pocket completely, dropping the phone silently on the pine straw and moss covered path).

While climbing back up to where I am now, I thought I would maybe start leaving my smart phone behind when I go on these long walks. I usually put my phone in airplane mode, and I don’t check email, but I do use it to take pictures.  

So here I am on the summit, thinking about Herman Melville and typing into a WordPress app. I read that the day he came here with a gathering of local literary types, it rained, and he spent a good while describing to Nathaniel Hawthorne the intricacies of manning a whaling ship.

The trail here is well maintained. The granite and schist stones form a staircase that allows the hiker to reach the top fairly easily, but I doubt the rocks were arranged so artfully when Melville walked here. 

The air was the same, the flora and fauna the same, and some of the views. From where I am now, I can see Monument Mountain high school, where someone has written the name Maia in large white letters on the lawn in front of the school. Even from this height I can see the heart over the letter i in place of a dot. Someone loves Maia. 

To enter the nineteenth century imagination, I think I would have to abandon iPhone technology for a while. I don’t even know how Melville would have traveled from his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield  to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. Horse and wagon maybe? I know he liked to camp and was an avid outdoorsman. 

He became depressed after Moby Dick didn’t sell, and he turned to alcohol. This is a lesson in not tying one’s ego to one’s art. I don’t blame Melville–he had to support his family, and he had wanted to do so by writing. Art and business don’t mix. Robert Graves said something to the effect : “There’s no money in poetry, and no poetry in money.”


Camino Life Lessons

S.A. and I are still in the Berkshires, but our sons, who drove up for the week with the dogs, have now left for home.

We’re staying a week longer with Katherine to help her with her house and her decision to sell it. Since she’s in her eighties and does not use the Internet, she needs our assistance. The world has evolved from looking for real estate agents in the phone book, alas. 

After our sons left, I felt so alone. I went for a walk up Cone Hill Rd, but after an hour in the sun and fresh air, some of the sadness drifted off and sailed into the approaching clouds. 

On the Camino people were constantly entering and leaving my life. Even though it wasn’t the same as missing my dear sons, I still felt the joy of seeing old friends and the pang of sadness at our leave taking.

Each day on the pilgrimage had a different tenor, and after a while I learned to accept whatever the day brought. 

After reaching Sarria, where many routes converge and the number of pilgrims increases, I listened to the wisdom of a longtime pilgrim who said, “After Sarria, the Camino changes. It becomes a giant picnic where people are out for a good time. You have to adjust.”

Instead of feeling irritated at the maurading teens on the path with their iPhones piping in pop music, I opened myself up to a new experience without judging myself or others. I didn’t love the blaring music and the screaming laughter after my weeks of meditative solitude, but I enjoyed the kids’ enthusiasm for life and their excitement of being with school friends on the Camino. I accepted the new day. 

So now my sons are gone and it’s just S.A., my mother-in-law, and I in her little house near the creek with no Internet or TV. It’s a new phase of my time here without my sons’ lively conversation and zest for life. I’m adjusting to the quiet by walking, writing, and swimming across the Stockbridge Bowl. If it rains tomorrow, I’ll go to a yoga class. 

And it goes without saying that I need to cultivate gratitude for being in such a beautiful place during summer vacation time.    

Traveler, There Is No Path

Today’s walk took me from Iron Ore Road in West Stockbridge to Lake Mahkenaac in Stockbridge, also known as the Stockbridge Bowl.

The plan was to swim across the lake once I got here, but lightning and rain rolled over the mountains, so now I’m huddled under a tree, waiting for SA to come get me in the car.

I had to walk along a highway to get here, not too busy with traffic, but the speed limit was 50 and there was no sidewalk. I tried to walk in the grass and face oncoming traffic whenever I could.

It was not a meditative walk due to the cars, but I did think about Antonio Machado’s poem, sometimes translated as “The Wayfairer,” other times as ” The Traveler.”

When I walk alone and set my own course, I sometimes feel lonely. My obstacles are at times tangible, like the cars on the road, but often the blockades are  mental. It’s a matter of summoning the motivation and finding the courage to make my own path, again and again.  


Today’s Walk

I’m in the Berkshire Mountains now, soaking up the fresh air. SA and I have taken his mother to her place here because she needs the help, and since I’m in this beautiful part of the world, I’m taking advantage of the country roads for some longish walks.

From West Stockbridge on Iron Ore Road I went up Cone Hill Road, turned right  on 41, and entered Richmond, about 6 miles.

Before leaving Iron Ore I walked around the neighborhood to see if anything had changed since I was here a year ago, but the same tidy houses with the same tidy lawns greeted me as I passed.

People here have lovely gardens of perennials–tiger lilies, Black-eyed Susans, sylvia, Queen Anne’s lace.

On highway 41 I picked up a menu at a barbecue place called Lakota, across the street from the Richmond fire station.

Crossing over the train tracks reminded me of a book I just finished called Bold Spirit, the story of Helga Estby and her daughter Clara and their walk in 1897 across the U.S.  from Spokane, WA to New York City. They walked most of the way along railroad tracks so they wouldn’t get lost.

They faced tremendous criticism for even going on such a walk because women were supposed to stay at home to raise their children. This was before women had the vote, and many men thought women were too weak to endure such an arduous trip.

Helga accepted the challenge to walk because the person who completed the journey would receive 10,000 dollars, money she would use to save the family homestead from bankruptcy.

I didn’t face one tenth of Helga’s hardships when I made my pilgrimage to Santiago, but traveling alone in Spain was not exactly easy. Women have to be on their guard while walking alone, even if we are no longer young.

On my way back to Katherine’s house I went along Furnace Road where former Governor Duval Patrick has built a home. He built on plot of land next to Mud Pond, an old quarry where we used to swim. Patrick bought up all the land around the quarry, so now there’s no access to it. Our sons would swing from a rope swing there along with many other locals. We would also swim out to a fallen tree floating in the center. It’s sad that now no one can swim in the cold, clean water just because one person wants privacy.


Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

Paddling, Like Walking, Leaves Me With a Porous Heart

Yesterday S. and I took our inflatable paddle boards out on the Chattahoochee River above the dam. We started at the Nature Center and paddled to Morgan Falls park, where the dam is. We paddled about three miles there and back.

Because of the dam, there is very little current, a good place for S. to learn the basics of paddling. He fell in once, but only because he wanted to see if he could go faster by standing farther back on the board. Laura, the woman who taught me the fundamentals of SUP and SUP yoga, said to always stand on the “sweet spot,” the very center of the board where the handle is.

The July sun cast a withering heat over the afternoon sky. Storm clouds gathered here and there. Pines and oaks greened the banks in a hazy blur. Water rippled like melting glass and shimmered on outcroppings of sandstone cliffs that jutted over the river.

We paddled in silence, greeting fellow boaters as we passed them: a mother kayaking with her son, who wouldn’t hear of him jumping off the cliffs with the older boys; a young couple who had been floating downstream in an inner tube for five hours; a young man who was practicing headstands on his board.

Paddling on a lake feels a lot like walking. Time slows down. Once I got  the hang of balancing on the board, I could pay attention to the horizon, the ducks swimming nearby, the blue heron  soaring toward a nest high up in a pine tree.

Maybe it’s because I’m entering old age, or maybe it’s because of experience, maybe both, but I am learning to slow down with everything I do. By slowing down I accomplish more, paradoxically.  When I ease up my pace, my heart softens. With a malleable heart I open myself to the world. I become porous.

Photo by Christine Swint. Cliffs near Morgan Falls dam, October 25, 2014.

Photo by Christine Swint.
Cliffs near Morgan Falls dam, October 25, 2014.

Photo by Laura C. Mirando, SUP yoga class above the dam near Morgan Falls, October 18, 2014.

Photo by Laura C. Mirando,
SUP yoga class above the dam near Morgan Falls, October 18, 2014.