Albergue Verde 

I’ve found a little slice of heaven in Hospital de Orbigo–the Green Hostel, located on the edge of town. 

For the first time since I arrived in Spain I took a yoga class here. We arranged our mats in a circle in the garden while the teacher played music on a drum he called a hand pan and led us through a meditation on the breath and on sounds.

Even though my foot was hurting, I could feel myself relax. Birds sang in the trees, sounds and smells of cooking came from the kitchen, and voices of people across the garden drifted by. Thunder murmured vaguely in the distance. 

Later we ate a vegan meal made mostly with ingredients that the hospitaleros (innkeepers) grow in their greenhouse: chard pesto, carrot purée, lentil hummus, roast squash, peppers, and mushrooms, and salad. 

The yoga teacher and owner played the guitar for us before the meal began, a song about being happy and loving. How could I feel discouraged here?

In the evening the western sun lit up the last of the storm clouds. People formed small groups in the garden to talk about their day. I rested in a hammock with an ice pack on my foot. Nuria, a nurse from Spain who’s walking the Camino, told me I probably just have muscle and tendon pain from over use. 

Today I’m going to the doctor to get her advice about my foot. I’ve lightened my pack as much as I can, and I’m hoping that tomorrow I can walk a short distance. I’m planning the rest of my pilgrimage around a list of vegetarian albergues on the way, so if I’m able to walk,  those are the places where I’ll stay.

If the doctor thinks I have a stress fracture, I’ll take the train to Santiago and then the bus to the beach. I’ve also found some hot springs in Ourense.

Later today I’ve offered to help with the meal preparations. 

Over Halfway Done … In

Today I’m wondering why I’m doing this Camino for a second time. News from home has been emotional, making me wish I were there to be a support. 

My foot hurts, possibly from over use or from carrying too much weight in my pack. I’m hoping it’s not a stress fracture. 

The mattress in this albergue is flat, and I can feel the metal bar from the bed frame under my back. 

The sun at 7 is still very hot. It’s a searing, dry heat.  After 10 or 11 in the morning, the sun is too strong to walk.

 I want to quit! 

La Meseta

Today I’m in Fromista, a town on the high plateau, known as the meseta. I’m staying at an albergue (a hostel) that’s behind the train station. It’s a quirky place run by a young woman named Tatiana who is giving me all kinds of advice.


I asked her for a lemonade and something small to eat, and she said no, if you snack now you won’t eat your dinner, and I don’t want you to waste food. 

She also told the woman I’ve been walking with that since she was done in from the heat, she should save her health and take the bus to the next town tomorrow. She reasoned that you can’t buy good health, and if you over do it because of pride, you’ll never reach Santiago. 

On the meseta it’s cool at night, about 45 degrees, and the cool air lasts through the morning, until about 11:00. The smart pilgrims wake at 5 am and finish by 11:00 or 12:00, but I’m so slow in the morning. 

Often I’m the last person to leave the albergue in the morning. I need to put on sunscreen, make sure my phone is in my right pocket, passport and money in my secret pocket, and my pilgrim’s credential in the left pocket. 

Once I begin walking, I take a while to warm up. I go slowly. I notice my surroundings, take pictures, and stop in almost every little town to have a cafe con leche or a snack. 

But by late afternoon, when I’m one of the few people left on the road, the sun beats down. It’s a dry heat, but there’s no shade on the meseta, and the sun crisps the skin and the air.

The way is flat. If you stand still, all you can hear is wind rustling the wheat and birds singing, hidden in the grass and shrubs. If you look out at the fields, it feels like you’re on the edge of a vast ocean of wheat. In the far distance you can see the last curl of the Pyrenees as it rolls into the northern coast. 

Burgos 

I’ve been staying in a hotel in Burgos for a few days to rest up. Right now it’s 10 am and I’m sitting in a cafe across from the municipal hostel.  

 People from all over the world are here having cafe con leche before they begin their day’s walk or start exploring the city. Others are having a coffee after putting their backpacks in a line to hold their place for a bed in the hostel. At eight euros a night, the spots fill quickly.  

 I had “café con leche grande con doble la leche,” a large latte with double the milk, and “tostada con tomate,” a slice of homemade bread toasted and served with olive oil and fresh tomato sauce. 

The body’s needs come to the fore on the Camino. While walking, I often think about what I’ll order at the next small town–sparkling mineral water, fresh orange juice, espresso, potato omelette, empanada, bocadillo (a kind of sandwich served on a baguette or a small thin roll).

Two children from Ireland are sitting near me while their parents sit outside. When I asked them if they liked the Camino, they said that their favorite part was the breaks! I told them that many of us feel the same way.

But pilgrims’ bodies give us other messages besides hunger and thirst. Many of us hobble into towns with blisters, strange insect bites, swollen knees, sore backs or shoulders, and colds. 

Today I’m resting and drinking tons of water. My nose is irritated from having a cold and being outside all day in the wind. It’s raining here, 48 degrees. A good day to write, sleep, and hang out at Babia. 

The Camino Provides

This Camino has been a bit different than the last time I walked in Spain. Two years ago I thought I would write poetry or memoir about my experiences, but this time I’m just letting myself live in the moment. 

I walk alone most of the time, but every once in a while I’ll meet up with someone who wants to talk, and so I listen. One girl from Canada shared a quote from Plato: “Be tender, because we all have battles to fight.” 

There’s a saying on the Camino that “the Camino provides.” People refer to this saying as a way of accounting for the little miracles that seem to happen along the way. 

For example, a woman whose hip was too sore to walk the last three miles to town happened to meet up with a young man who offered to drive her the rest of the way.

Another example happened with me and the Canadian girl, Miranda. She had passed me earlier in Cirueña ( a bleak town with zero charm). But after leaving the town and returning to the gravel road, I saw her sitting on the ground.

I recognized her black hair gathered in a top knot. Even though two other women had already stopped to help her, something drew me to her. She told me her feet were in pain, and I realized it was because she was walking in old trainers.

The day before, I had just mailed my boots back to the US because they were hurting my feet, but I kept the insoles for some reason. I don’t know why, because they wouldn’t fit the new shoes I bought.

Right away I pulled the orange shock absorbing insoles out f the bottom of my pack. My stuff was on the ground next to Miranda while she trimmed the toe part to make it fit. We walked together for about three miles and her feet felt great. 

I don’t think the Camino has magical powers more than any other path in life, but when we are all walking together, we end up making the little miracles happen. It’s a matter of noticing, of caring for each other, wherever we are. 

 

On the Way to Madrid 

While waiting for my flight, I’m doing some gentle yoga and trying to learn what has happened with the former FBI director when a man with a long white beard in an orange turban gives me a mantra that he sings–“baba nam kevalam, todo es amor: everything is an expression of one infinite, loving consciousness.”

Camino On My Mind

A few weeks ago I watched an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine on Super Soul Sunday. Speaking about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, MacLaine said something to the effect that, “The pilgrimage doesn’t truly begin until you’ve come home.”

My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began in May, 2015. I left San Jean Pied-de-Port, France on May 26 and arrived in Santiago June 28. During those 34 days of walking I meditated, wrote poems, met friends, cried, laughed, sang, ate good food, hobbled with shin splints, slept amid snoring pilgrims, and threw away the remaining antidepressants I carried across Spain.

Eight months have passed since I came home to Georgia, and I have been off antidepressants this entire time. It has been hard.

Since November, I wake in the morning with the fiery pain of nerves in my solar plexus. It takes an hour of  mindful breathing to slowly make my way out of bed at 8:00 am. Once I’m up, the rhythms of the day take over. The sun warms my muscles, the others in my family wake up, and the pain under my sternum dissipates.

Buddhist teachers would tell me that my suffering comes from expecting only good feelings. The trick is to watch the feelings come and go without identifying with them. But the pain! It’s sometimes impossible not to lose myself in the misery.

Some might wonder why I don’t go back to my psychopharmacologist for a new prescription. If I were suicidal, I would seek treatment, but I am not. I go to a counselor who helps me with moving the energy in my body. She also gives me suggestions for healing old wounds. I know that everyone is different, and I don’t recommend that anyone ditch their meds because of my experiences. I took antidepressants for twenty years.

I live with the hope that by entering the suffering I will eventually pass through it. I also practice what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “watering the seeds of joy.”

One to two hours of vigorous exercise works to exorcise my inner demons. I take long walks. I swim one to two miles at a stretch. I practice yoga. I’m grateful for the circumstances in my life that allow me the time I need to take care of myself.

Now that spring is around the corner here in Georgia, my thoughts are on the Camino again. I long for six hours of walking a day, no cell phones, computers, chores, or familial drama. It’s the kind of retreat I crave.

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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.

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.