Today I post a piece that I wrote a few years ago but never published. It’s an excerpt from about 100 pages that I released on a keyboard during a half-month manic frenzy following the last of 700 miles spent walking along the Camino de Santiago thru Spain and Portugal. It’s a very intimate insight into my personal spiritual life, and for this reason I kept the experience safe in a sacred inner lock box. But in the years since, I’ve learned that the more layers I peel off my being and expose, the more sensitive and authentic is my appreciation of life; and thus I’m going to bare all and skinny-dip this story as well.
The following certainly falls into the realm of the mystic and mysterious, where only those with an open mind and imagination should venture. Truthfully, the story still sounds strange even to me. Luckily, I’ve got a mini-Michael Franti in my head and every time I begin to heed my aversion to possible perceptions of abnormality, he starts signing, “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world” — and he doesn’t stop till my heeding does.
Excerpts from The Living Path – a creative non-fiction memoir based on a two-month pilgrimage along the “Caminos de Santiago” in May of 2003.
***** Converging Realities
I am sitting on a thick cement wall that surrounds the pilgrim hostel where I have registered to spend the night. I massage my weary feet of their fatigue while watching the waves of new pilgrim faces flood in.
Although a pilgrim can walk solo, she is never alone. The Camino de Santiago is a travelling community and the faces on the path are as familiar as those that live in the more stationary houses of neighborhoods, “at home.” They pass you on the path one day and disappear into the future of your camino (path, road or way) the next. And just when you are sure that one of your neighbors is days ahead of you, perhaps even relaxing IN Santiago, he comes up from behind you, smiling and waving a greeting over his walking stick fence.
But today the faces are not familiar. Nor is their number. Lines form at the reception desk of the hostel. A group of over a hundred Spanish high school students noisily file by on the way to a community center. A small group of company-branded cyclists stop briefly to inquire as to the availability of rooms at the refuge. They learn that the hostel (due to over-demand and priority to walkers) is not accommodating bikers, and amidst long sighs and a few swears, they re-mount and continue on to the next town. I watch a couple on horses pass by. And I almost fall off my wall in disbelieving delight when I actually see a motorbike with a scallop shell grumble its way past.
No. None of this is familiar. But there IS something about the essence of what’s going on here that is.
I watch the pilgrims cluttered around the grass, attending to wounds, examining maps and excitedly comparing experiences…and then it I suddenly realize what it is! The energy here is exactly the same as that which I experienced on my second day of the Camino, over three weeks ago. Yes! New bandages, clean boots, crisp guidebooks, fresh clothes, first blisters and initial insights. Somehow I have walked for weeks and ended up at the beginning again!
“Overwhelming, isn’t it?”
I’m not sure where she has come from or how long she’s been standing next to me observing the incoming tide alongside, but I turn to her now. I immediately feel the familiarity of another whom I have yet seen, but know has been walking with me all along.
I follow her gaze back to the new pilgrims. And she continues:
“You know why right? You see, somewhere along the path today was the marker that indicates where there remain only 100 kilometers left to reach Santiago. The 100-mark is that which is considered to officially qualify one as having made the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago. You have to traverse over exactly 100 kilometers to receive the certificate of completion. So they all started today; the students, the vacationers, the sport enthusiasts…”
She cocks her head in a pose of uncertainty, pauses and continues, “I’m not sure how I feel about it all. The spiritual searchers have been diluted and the messages of the Camino, the energy, and the magic, seem somehow…muted.”
She sighs and goes on, “…but I suppose this is the way of the modern world. The paths of those on the Camino have converged just as the roads of the earth have. I suppose it’s our job to figure out how we can share the space and all move forward together. And not just the walkers, but the cyclists, the runners, the kids, the groups, the horse back riders, and perhaps even…” she grimaces slightly, “… perhaps even find a way to accommodate the motorbikes.”
She finally turns to face me, but her attention is immediately caught. She looks curiously over, but not beyond, my right shoulder. I am just about to follow her gaze when she turns her eyes back to mine, and with sudden seriousness says bluntly, “You know that your grandfather is with you? Your father’s father. You know that right?”
I’m so caught off guard by this comment that I stumble upon my reply, “Well, no. I mean, yes. I mean… You know, that is really strange as this is the third time in my life someone has told me that exact same thing. But my father was orphaned when he was only a child; he has never mentioned anything of what he remembers of his father and I don’t even know my grandfather’s name.”
My mind is so absorbed in its own internal search for clues to this mystery that I barely notice another pilgrim step up to the woman and tap her on the shoulder.
I look up and see that whoever this man is, he’s clearly relieved to see her and he sings with a happy sigh, “I’ve been looking for you for days! I’m so happy to see you! Please, I really need to consult with you…”
The woman turns to me, “I’m sorry. Will you excuse me?”
“Of course,” I respond and watch as the man touches her on the arm gently and guides her away.
I am exhausted and decide to retire early.
***** Sleep Talk
Since I retired early, I arise alike.
It’s still completely dark outside when I sit up straight in bed and rub the sleep from my eyes. Having slept in a different bed for dozens of nights in a row, as often happens, I lose my grounding in time and place. I search the space around me for some clues as to where and who I am.
I am still shaking off this haze when I hear myself speak:
“Where has my grandfather gone? He was sitting here at the foot of my bed waiting for me to wake. He’s eager to walk today. But where has he gone?”
Despite the soft edges of sleep still drifting around me, this question is as sharp and clear as if it’d been said aloud by a third party.
I shake off the subject, look around me again, hear and see the snorers and scratchers that surround me, and my place and perspective finally return; a pilgrim hostel. That’s right. I’m walking the Camino and I’m sleeping in a pilgrim hostel.
I grab my watch from the ground and look at it; it’s much too early to start walking. I lay down again, pull the sleeping bag over my head, and fall back to sleep.
***** Puzzle Pieces
The next morning I start walking late.
I prefer to have the path to myself, so I enjoy a long breakfast in order to avoid the morning rush hour of pilgrims. When the mass of them have passed, I finally pick up my bag and walking stic
k and take to the Camino.
I am treading ground quietly but not peacefully, for I feel like someone is walking immediately behind me, stepping on the back of my heals in desperate and annoying attempt to capture my attention.
Suddenly I stop walking. And the realization that was walking a step behind, collides directly into me.
The echo of this morning’s question stumbles out of bed and to attention; “Where has my Grandfather gone? He was sitting here at the foot of my bed waiting for me to wake. He’s eager to walk today. But where has he gone?”
Without hesitation, I suddenly remember the name of my grandfather and I say it aloud. And as I do so, I feel something within me leap in recognition.
I am now stopped in the middle of the path, but the world starts to swirl around me.
I remember my Grandfather’s name! I can’t remember being told it, but here it is. And I know it like I do all the names of my family members; I know it like I’ve never not known it.
The certainty starts to confuse me.
For no reason I can point responsible, my eyes begin to well up in tears. Connections start crashing down upon me, like a box of puzzle pieces upon a table. I’m overwhelmed by the task of putting it all together, and at the same time, I already know the picture the pieces will ultimately illustrate.
I drop down to a rock on the side of the path, grab my pen and journal and begin to write frantically, intuitively pulling the odd puzzle piece out and snapping it together with another. The pieces are seemingly inclined by a will of their own to finally reunite.
A shadow falls over my rock and a voice from over my shoulder suddenly stops me:
“Well imagine the coincidence of finding you again here,” she says.
Despite the choice of her words, I can see by the confidence of her composure that she clearly would never give “coincidence” the credit of arranging this convenient meeting.
I cannot believe that the very woman who broke this puzzle over my head now stands right in front of me. I am shocked into silence. Sitting on the ground with my puzzle pieces still scattered about me, I have lost all words and the alphabet as well. I sit there, looking up at her, with my mouth open, fumbling to find lost letters and string them together into any sentence of substance — but nothing comes together.
“Hum.” she comments, “It seems you have some thoughts to put together before we meet again.”
And without a gesture of goodbye, she walks on.
Only when she leaves do I finally catch my breath. And then I return to sorting and matching the magnetic pieces.
A few hours down the trail, I look up and see that low, dark clouds have collected their efforts in order to prove their dominion by casting an intimidating shadow across the land. The front line of what appears to be a formidable army to follow advances and large water droplets land on my hood like the warning shots of canons. In an over-exaggerated exclamation of its reign, within minutes, the storm has marked its territory and I am completely drenched in evidence.
Shoes flooded and water cascading down my every curve, I arrive at the sheltered deck of a small cafe. I remove my useless armor and leave it at the door. As soon as I walk in, the heat of a nearby fireplace curtsies my cold fingers and begs me to come closer. I immediately accept the warm invitation.
I crouch down and let the fire properly greet my cheeks with soft licks that evaporate the cold and wet upon contact. When the backside of me becomes envious of the attention, I adjust to allow the fire to distribute its love fairly. When I turn around, the element of surprise sighs with defeated exhaustion; knowing this is the only way it could ever happen, I calmly recognize the same woman sitting at a table, sipping on tea, smiling and watching me.
I sigh and smile. For if there is ever a moment when I have, without doubt, felt the gentle hand of the Universe in mine, I am so very sure it is this moment.
She waves a request to the bar woman for another cup of tea to be brought to the table. She then welcomes me to join her.
I walk across the room and sit down in the chair across from her. My alphabet crumbles yet once again and I desperately hope that she is prepared to guide this discussion. But she reaches across the table, takes both of my hands in hers and says, “So my dear. Tell me the story.”
And out it comes: the morning’s vision, the afternoon’s realization, the internal battle between rationality and faith, the overwhelming feeling that a major truth has just been uncovered which fights brutally with the fact that I can not justify it with anything but the evidence of intuition.
I struggle to control myself, but I can’t; my emotions heat up; my words melt down. I begin to cry, and once I start, I find that I simply cannot stop. The storm has permeated the roof on my perceived reality; sought, found and drenched me even within the refuge of my skin.
Through the hiccoughs of my surrender, I finally stutter out, “But why did you say what you did to me yesterday? What did you see?”
She calmly reclaims my hands from the napkin dispenser and looks, not at, but through me. The light behind her eyes is unveiled but does not so much burn me (as I suspected) as it does soothe me. She says:
“You see my dear, over the course of my long life, it has been revealed to me that I am a messenger.
Things are often whispered into my ear, and I know not where they come from. I only know that I must repeat them, and from experience, have seen that these secrets sometimes have powerful effects on the people that receive them. I know nothing more of your mystery. But let me tell you what you have shown me, but are afraid to recognize yourself:
The spirit of your grandfather resides aside you. He has walked with you for a lifetime, unacknowledged in your waking reality, as he walks with you now. You have known this all your life, but have brushed aside the evidence because it comes from an invisible realm that is not appreciated by the world of the rational. But you have heard his voice in the quiet of your heart. You have listened to his advice and felt his gentle guidance at every turn in your path. And until this day, you have credited the unexplainable fortune of your path to what you call Intuition. But Intuition is only a language — and language is only a tool of communication from a greater source. Instinct, trepidation, impulse, love and all the other “unexplainable” feelings, they are merely the words of that which inspires them. You pride yourself on always hearing, respecting the advice, and following your Intuition; have considered it almost a best friend. And now you are shocked to find it is exactly so.
You are obviously overwhelmed in emotion, but you don’t cry out of sadness. You must understand that, for guiding spirits, the day they are recognized is the happiest of all. You spirit guide weeps in joy at being recognized. That emotion overflows unto your own spirit. You feel that joy in the same manner that you feel the other gentle emotions of guidance. You weep also in happiness, at the first recognition of a best friend whom you have always felt to exist, but never met. What you feel is the silent embrace of a long awaited reunion of souls.
Sometimes you need permission to believe. Sometimes you need permission to cry. And I am here only to deliver to you those permissions. The realizations are your own.
“This is the message that was whispered into my ear when I met you.”
She sighs and glances out the door.
“Ah. Look, the rain has stopped. That’s my sign that it is time for me to take to my own Camino.”
We both stand up and she embraces me.
She squeezes my hand one last time, and walks out the door of my life, for, as
is the seal of all effective messengers, we will never meet again.