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! 

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. 

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.

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.

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.    

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. 

A Long Walk Might Be Like Drinking Ayahuasca

In a comment on a recent post, “Why Go on a Pilgrimage?, “  Elissa from Sometimes She Travels  writes: In fact, one piece of Camino graffiti from last year that I thought about every day this year was, “What are you doing? Why?” 

It has been 24 days since I returned from Spain, and I am still processing how the journey has changed me. Once we begin a pilgrimage, we never truly leave it. It’s a spiral, a labyrinth that continuously leads us closer to the center.

In some ways, going on a very long walk seems to resemble a shamanic healing. Most of us have heard about the Australian aborigines’ ritual of the Walkabout. There are also the stories of Jesus walking in the desert for 40 days, or the Coptic Saint Mary of Egypt, who wandered in the desert a for lifetime with the hopes of purging herself of her “sinful” nature.

A pilgrimage to heal from the emotional wounds of life has a different goal, one that resembles an extended  psychedelic trip. Maybe that’s how I see it, since I spent a long part of the journey in a self-induced poetic trance.

Although I’ve never experienced an ayahuasca ceremony, after reading Kira Salak’s “Perú: Hell and Back,” an account of how her five ayahuasca ceremonies in Perú changed her perspective, I can say my pilgrimage has had a similar outcome.

Speaking about coming out of a great darkness and entering the light, Salak writes:  Little suspecting that I’d emerge from it feeling as if a waterlogged wool coat had been removed from my shoulders—literally feeling the burden of depression lifted—and thinking that there must be something to this crazy shamanism after all.

Salak states that her first ayahuasca rituals helped heal the depression she had suffered since childhood, but that she continued to experience self-doubt and fear, so she went on a second journey for further healing.

Like Salak, I have experienced relief from depression, not after taking ayahuasca (which intrigues me but may or may not be my path), but after completing a 40-day walk to Santiago de Compostela.

Also similar to Salak, who repeated her journey to Perú,  I am considering another pilgrimage to Santiago in the future. When I know the medicine works, it’s tempting to take more of it, and I’d much rather rely on a very long walk than the SSRIs I took for decades that I now no longer need. Maybe I never needed them.

A Walking Fool

At the bottom of this photo is a faint yellow arrow on the sidewalk where I was walking one morning in Georgia. You can take the pilgrim off the Camino, but you can’t take the Camino out of the pilgrim. I just finished the Way of St. James on June 28, but I keep walking, walking, walking.

IMG_6059

*For those who haven’t walked the Camino, the way is marked with yellow arrows. It’s impossible to get lost if you’re paying attention. Although I will admit to losing my way a few times due to distraction.

I haven’t stopped walking since my return, in spite of sore feet and soles so callused my skin looks and feels like a bull’s horn. Walking helps me maintain the peace I experienced after all the days of walking in the fresh air. Walking has become my medicine.

I walk and think about writing, relationships, memories. I walk until I don’t feel anger or grief. I walk until all I know is that my body is exerting itself in the muggy heat, sweat coating all exposed skin.

Why Go on a Pilgrimage?

“Why are you doing the Camino?” is one of the most common questions a pilgrim is asked along the way. It’s probably the hardest question to answer.

When you request a pilgrim’s passport, the credential that allows you access to the city and charity hostels, they give you a questionnaire to complete, asking your reasons for walking the Camino. The possible reasons include religion, spirituality, culture and history, and sport.

Also, when you stand in line in Santiago de Compostela to receive your “Compostela,” the document that proves you completed the pilgrimage, these same questions are asked. You show your pilgrim’s passport with the stamps you’ve collected along the way, and the volunteer at the desk then asks you to give your age and your motivation for going on the pilgrimage.

My reasons for going to Spain and walking the Camino changed as I went along. From the start my journey was spiritual but not religious. I’m not a practicing Catholic, even though while in Spain I found the ritual to be beautiful at times, but overly somber at others.

What I wanted was the freedom to walk under an expansive sky all day long with nothing to think about except my most basic thoughts, and that is what I received, although the process wasn’t as simple as all that.

I met a retired Australian man named Tim at a hostel in a town called  Hornillos del Camino.  Over beers in the backyard of the hostel (Australians consider beer to be a food, I’ve been told), Tim said, “The Camino has a way of purifying one’s thoughts. While we walk, the only thoughts that end up calling our attention away from the images, sounds, and smells of walking, are ones that concern the body: Where will I sleep tonight? What will I have for dinner?”

Later that evening I saw Tim lying on the grass with his legs up the wall to let his circulation have a rest, caring for the body.

But not everyone has this experience. I met many young people who were on the Camino to heal from traumatic life experiences. Some were trying to get over heartbreak and loss.

I know I had a few days when I was very tired from all the walking. One night I had too much wine to drink (after walking 20 miles, more than one glass of wine is too much for me), and the next day I walked up one of the highest mountains of the Camino (this story deserves its own blog post, which I will eventually write). For seven kilometers I cried all the way up the mountain, out of self pity, rage, and homesickness.

After about ten days of walking I developed shin splints, and every step I took was painful. I was creeping along when I saw Philip from Belgium who had begun walking two months prior from his hometown. “Take it easy,” he said. “The Camino is the Happy Road.” That’s the day I decided to take a bus to the next town and walk only 10 kilometers.

Philip’s attitude toward the Camino is different than others. Many believe that to go on a true pilgrimage, one should suffer. For Philip, the Camino was a way to celebrate life. He smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, beer, and wine, and walked on the plains at night to see the stars.

One of the names of the Camino is La Via Lactea, The Milky Way. Historians say that early pilgrims followed the Milky Way to reach Santiago de Compostela. Compostela translates as “field of stars.”

I was walking in May, right when many twenty-something students begin their summer vacation, so there were a lot of college kids from all over the U.S. Canada, Europe, and Korea. Many of these kid were doing the Camino as a physical challenge, walking 50 km a day. Their experience was completely different from mine, I’m sure.

At the cathedral in Santiago, I saw a young Korean buddy I had met in France at the beginning; I was weeping from gratitude at having arrived, but he was grinning from ear to ear and said, “Why are you crying?” I just gave him a big hug in response.

I’m still thinking about how my journey has changed me. For now, though, I will keep walking. The Camino lives on.