(I’m still tied up in the sheets of the “love post” and have yet to make that bed of thoughts. At the same time, I’ve been dealing with a family emergency and for this reason have neglected the site. Please accept my apologies and another chapter from my adventures along the Camino de Santiago. In my succulent anticipation of my return to the Camino de Santiago (this time in France), my mind won’t stop knocking on the dusty doors of memories from my pilgrimage along that magical path. And since this blog holds hands with my heart, we’re just going to have skip down this memory lane together.)
***** Santiago Staff
Many pilgrims walk the Camino with the assistance of a walking stick.
They come in all forms and sorts; metal, wood, extendable, expensive, carved, curved, thick, thin, painted, pointed, burned, blackened, short, tall, adorned with scallop shells or still sticky with sap. An assistant not only to walking, a “bordon” or “palo” is also an aid to fending off small beasts, a form of swashbuckling and martial art entertainment, a sweeper of cobweb-cluttered paths, a wet jacket rack, and a carving block for artistic expression of self.
Along my Camino, a small collection of tiny stones, pieces of colored glass, shards of broken tiles, bits of broken mirror and slivers of lost sea shells have found their place engraved into the wood of my own “Santiago Staff” (which found me in an enchanted forest on the second day of my Camino).
It is with this stick, that on the downbeat to the step of my feet, my palo and I announce our arrival by playing out our walking pulse (pad-pad-plunk, pad-pad-plunk) on the tiled floor entrance of a particularly new and plush pilgrim refuge. In a mirage-like vision, and to the toe-squirming delight of my tired soles, I find at the entrance of this hostel a “foot fountain” specifically designed for the purpose of refreshing feet belonging to those of pilgrim-ing inclinations.
“What a incredible fountain!” I declare, upon arrival, in delight and agreement with my feet.
Pupils dilated in joy of what my eyes spy, and attention focused on the fountain (and object of my affection), I do not at first notice the character that guards this treasure. Just as I feel him turn and take notice of me, he suddenly steps vividly into vision and his enormous presence unmistakably claims rein of the scene. Although by all accounts a very big man, there’s no need to cower, as his eyes are as wide as his smile and outstretched arms. And bowing to my clapping anticipation and astonished delight, the big man lifts his tree-trunk legs and transplants them directly INTO the fountain.
“Yes! Welcome pilgrim! Come now child. Come now here! This is what you do!”
He bends into the fountain and, with huge cupped hands, brings a handmade bowl of water to his face. He splashes the water up onto his arms and then cups his hands again to anoint his neck, head and face with the freshness that only water inspires. He excitedly shakes the water from his hair and smiles at me once more with all the innocence and energy of an enormous wet puppy.
“Hurry child! Follow my suit. Take off you shoes now. Come, come!” He jumps out of the pool and beckons me to take his place.
Without hesitation, I accept his invitation and strip my feet of shoes and socks. I jump in, douse my arms and neck, baptize my head, and then kick up the water in a small dance of delight. The big man’s joy in witnessing mine makes for an exponential energy curve which culminates in a final burst of shared laughs aloud.
A peace fills the pause after our thunder of laughter and then he places a delicate hand on my shoulder and his eyes rest upon me with the softness of the water now reclaiming its composure in the fountain. With a heavy sigh he says, “Ah my child. There are pilgrims, and then there are pilgrims.” He shakes his head and then takes my hand with a gentle grace normally bereft big men and leads me to the entrance of the building, “Welcome to our house. Please come inside.”
As he makes to pick up my bag, he suddenly halts, noticing my walking stick leaning nonchalantly against the wall. I notice how he approaches the stick as he would a friend, greeting it with the same delicate touch that he demonstrated in our own handshake. He picks up the stick, squints his eyes in scrutiny, and scopes its carvings and engravings carefully as he runs his sixth sense across the piece.
“Well look at this,” he whispers, more to the piece than to me, “You’ve crafted this with love. The heart of this wood beats.” He relieves the stick of duty, turns his attention back to where I’m standing at ease and eyes me cautiously with a similar round of re-consideration. Then he turns his attention back to the wood and the animation that defines this character re-consumes his body as he suddenly booms, “but you need to fill in these cracks! And olive oil! You need olive oil!”
In one sweeping second he fills my hands with a bucket of clay, scalpel-like tool, bottle of oil and a thick painting brush. With expert hands he swiftly demonstrates how I must fill in the cracks in the wood with the clay. Pat, pat, pat; he tucks the clay into cracks and the splits in my stick, like magic, disappear. He explains softly as he shows, “After the clay, generously paint the wood entirely with olive oil. At least three coats before you sleep. See? Like this child; extra coats on the ends. Do you see? Just like this…” Slap, slap, slap; the wood stains dark as it absorbs the oil in a thirst so strong I imagine that I hear the stick sighing in relief.
I am still watching this magical transformation of my palo to bordon and “stick” to “staff” when something in the peripheral of the scene catches my eye that suddenly demands my attention and simultaneously drags my body in tow to the corner of the patio. Still carrying my walking stick and clutter of tools, I slowly approach the great fallen tree on its altar of multiple supporting stands. I drop the tools and my humbled walking stick in order to free my fingers to dance along the grooves, curves, cuts and ridges of the mother spirit of all walking sticks. The pages of childhood history books begin to dance back into my memory, thumping to the percussion beat that always themes the tragic tale of those native to the North American continent. This sacrificial piece, in falling, did not lose life, but at the hands of this man, is being eternalized in the new form of carved sacred symbols. I put my hands on the wood. The pulse of the piece is strong; no doubt it is synchronized to beat in resonance with the heart of its own creator – who stands modestly beside me allowing just the right amount of space and silence for me to absorb the oil of its own essence.
Finally he puts the period on my open-mouthed awe, “…a totem pole. We will erect it here in the plaza of this hostel this month on the day of Saint Santiago.”
There are no words, but I try to stutter a few out anyway, “…it’s, it’s, so…. so beautiful!”
He brushes the compliment aside with the same stroke he used with the olive oil.
“Come child. Do not misplace credit, for is the spirit of the Camino that breathes life into this piece. And since you, pilgrim, ARE the Camino — you must help. Stay here tomorrow and I shall teach you a bit on the art of woodcarving and you will make your mark on this wood and add your own spirit to its story. Yes? Yes.”
He picks up my bag and enters the hostel and I follow him.
***** Sculptor of Dreams
I sleep late and after all the pilgrims have left, I assist the hostel staff with cleaning sinks, mopping floors and tucking in beds. When the chores are finished, I go outside and find the wood sculptor at work. The fresh bark dust wafts lazily about the floor and scents the new day’s air with the freshness of forest.
“Ah child! Good morning! Quite a day we’ve been blessed with today, yes? You’ve had tea yet? You must start the day with tea. Wait. I’ll get you some,” he excitedly declares as he, in one giant stride, disappears into the hostel kitchen.
I am still admiring the finest details of the scallop shells, birds, and other animals and symbols that adorn the totem pole when he returns with tea. He hands the cup to me and I observe with admiration that this man makes no favors for anyone. His every offering of kindness is made only for the delight that the act of giving itself inspires. If I asked this man for the moon, not only would he deliver it on a silver platter, but he’d praise me for coming up with such an ingenious idea.
He picks up the chisel and hammer.
I’m suddenly nervous. He doesn’t really expect me to taint his work with my inexperienced hand, I wonder?
He addresses my silent question as he begins to work on the wood and demonstrate by slow and exaggerated example…
The wood melts into smooth curves under his experienced hand as he explains, “You are already an artist of life child. Wood carving is only another channel of expressing and giving form to that same life force.” He continues, “The well of creation is already within you. All you must do is draw upon it. Art is the universal language that bridges the dreaming and waking worlds and although today you will use a chisel, you may always utilize the same tools to sculpt life as you would wood.”
He then turns to look at me and instructs, “Stand yourself in front of this piece of un-carved and clean wood. Good. Now, close your eyes child. Because every single task in life should warm up with an exercise in imagination. The elixir of eternal youth is only a limber imagination; and we must toast and take a shot before starting. Yes? Ready?”
“Now imagine your clean and un-carved wood in front of you. Have you an idea of what image you would like to carve into that space? There are no boundaries – this is important to realize. Do not box yourself into something you’ve done before. Feel out and find the edges of your experiences, and then — and this is important — take one step over that border. Are you on the other side with me? Good. Because this is where we always start. This is where the horizons of creativity spread. Do you see? Now you are standing in the place where dreams and the universe conspire to realize. Now just wait and watch. Something always rises out of the stillness of this spot…”
I straighten my back, breathe deeply, envision and watch the space. He gives me a few minutes and then whispers as if not to disturb the emergence of something wild on the horizon, “Do you see it? Can you see what you want to carve?”
Straddling the border of reality and dreams, where I have been instructed to stand, I listen and wait; and sure enough, I catch a glimpse of something in the distance. It shimmers like a mirage and I quickly learn by trial and error that the more I squint, the harder it is for me to make it out. But if I settle and wait patiently, like a vision from a forgotten dream, the image emerges of its own accord.
“Now look at the image on the wood in your mind. Your chisel has not yet touched it. But look at what you see sketched on the slate of your mind. Isn’t the image of you what you want to see, in fact, already there? You see, mere conception of a vision or dream, in some formless and untouchable way, brings it into existence. The inspiration within you is REAL and an outline of it already exists in some realm between your mind and the material.”
I tilt my head in observant study of the image I see in my mind.
“Now don’t lose me child. For I know this understanding can be difficult to grasp. Do you see that your creativity sprouts from something beyond you? That your dreams are seeded and nurtured by the hand of a grander and guiding force? Do you get that it is not just an opportunity, but your responsibility to foster the growth of these divine seeds of creativity which start as dreams? And do you see that that only difference between your vision and reality is the chisel in your hand? You just need to pick up the tools and start working to bring it into reality. Just pick up the chisel and start carving it into life, one chip at a time. Now don’t be overwhelmed by the whole picture or your task of making it all happen exactly as you had hoped. Don’t constrict yourself to working within your outline. Allow your contours and design to move and change as they are brought to life according to your new inspirations. The trick is to not expect, or even want, the final work to follow the exact line of the original idea. Because your dream, as it comes to reality, will grasp a new life of its own. And as it builds upon itself, it will in turn birth contours and dimensions that you had never imagined yourself capable of the creativity to conceive. Your final masterpiece will bear resemblance to your original inspiration but, over the process of actualization, will evolve to become more than you ever initially dreamed.”
With some hesitation, I explain honestly, “I do see it. But I doubt my skill to realize my vision because I’m not a wood carver…”
His contagious confidence spreads with his supple suggestion, “Move your body and you are a dancer. Put pen to paper and you are a writer. Walk and you are a pilgrim. Step into any place unknown and you are a traveller. There is no trick to this equation. Whatever you want to be, you just start being it; right now.”
With my eyes still closed, I feel my hands lifted. A sharp chisel is placed into my left hand and a soft hammer in my right.
“And now child, you are a wood carver.”