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Haven’t written a word here since September 18, a week after returning from walking 110k on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Thought I was finished with this blog, the final post about those 5 days signifying ‘it’s a wrap’. I was wrong.

Tonight, with only a few hours left on this year, I realized something, with a little help from my friends – always. My Camino was this entire year. It didn’t end in Spain. It ends tonight at midnight. And tomorrow, new day, new Camino.

I suppose everyone feels compelled to capture the waning year, summarize the ever-fluid thing we call life, make meaning out of it, look back fondly or with regret or with pain or with love. Kiss it goodbye and linger or get racing to the new year, all that potentiality waiting to be fulfilled. Make a new plan. Dance with possibility.

For me, the year was all journey – finding my way and walking the Way, stumbling hundreds of times and going on. The Camino that began well before Spain, and continued well after. ultreya

Move forward. Ultreya, my word for the year – a deeply compelling pilgrim word of encouragement on the Camino meaning, depending on translation, onward, move forward with courage, walk with grace and appreciate everything. Without question, this strong beautiful word sustained me through pain and near-defeat on the Camino.

It also, I realize now, has fueled me, lifted me, guided me and been at the core of everything I’ve done this year – before and after Spain – a time of change, growth, spiritual and physical preparation, and rediscovering purpose, passion and love. My gratefulness is boundless and has become my prayer.

I’ve written thousands of words here about the steps I took before taking those first steps on the sacred trail in Spain. I had some awareness that what was happening was transformative, a ‘journey before the journey’. I see now it was all one. Everything that happened, every experience, every new ‘yes’ created a personal river of motion and momentum that helped me ‘wash my soul and get it clean‘. When I walked those many hours mostly in silence except for the daily music that is the Camino, I simply had more time to absorb and think about what had happened and about the way forward.

And while that was partly about self-discovery, it was also very much about letting go of self, ego, mind traps, historical narratives and constraining beliefs and giving over. I am here. Now. I am here to do one thing – live love. I can be of service in this way. And then the ‘I’ went away altogether. Another pilgrim wrote it best: “One commentator on the Camino has said that a pilgrimage should be considered a success if the pilgrim meets him or herself on the way. For me the high points were when I lost myself.”

Coming home from Spain and to this extended Camino…so much fullness.

I’m stronger – in all ways. But yes, physically, for sure – it’s so much easier to move forward, here or on the trail, if you’re strong. So I’ve continued with Stefan and the gym and it’s as tough and challenging and wonderful as ever! A few weeks ago, I dead-lifted 155 lbs – 30 more than before I went to Spain. My knee still complains from time to time but right now we’re good – and I love the focus and mind-emptying power of lifting. I recently met a woman at a party, same age as me with 60 a couple of months away, who had just dead-lifted 230 lbs!! So I have another goal. (though I now sort of wish Stefan didn’t read this blog 🙂

I have found my footing in my new role at my beloved Donkey Sanctuary.  I already knew this was the right place for me, the right ‘last job’. Now I know the people there better and am feeling so lucky to be doing work that’s important with people I have come to care about deeply. We have worked hard and navigated some difficult losses together – bonds have been formed. Apollo_head

I have taken enormous comfort in my Quaker roots – finding the still, powerful embrace of silent meditation to be quite a lovely antidote to the noisy world we live in. And as someone who would not be called an introvert (though I’m actually shyer than some might think), this is a good thing. Silence has much to tell us. The Camino taught me that as I walked virtually alone most days, something I think I feared before that. I’ve also opened up to the possibility of God – the spark and presence of divinity in all of us, all things. I think I had many years of resistance to the word and concept of God – too many associations with organized religion that didn’t sit well with me. On the Camino – and since – I have found a new openness to that larger idea, to a greater connectivity among all beings, and to the notion of perfection.

I took a chance on love again. And though it didn’t stay, I am ever grateful for always. After my marriage ended, I walled up my heart. I didn’t mean to but that’s what happened. The Camino – this whole year of it and on the Way – took every brick away. How love may be expressed..in what form, so to speak, is not for me to say or even seek. It is all about simply being open to possibility. That’s a gigantic gift.

The year of the Camino – this ultreya experience – I am indebted to many for so much of it. Thank you to my exquisite, perfect daughter – light of my life – for every single thing about you and to her loving partner whom I so adore. Thank you to my brother and sister-in-law and all my family who are simply always there, with love. And to my irreplaceable close friends – you know who you are – my life is a thousand times bigger – and better – with you in it. And to the Camino angels who gave me so many yellow arrows before I ever reached Spain. And to Stefan for his knowledge and faith. And to many others who have peeked into this diary and spoken encouraging words and also expressed interest in the Camino. I’m here – always – to talk Camino with anyone who would like to.

And so guess what? This Camino is done and dusted. But another one is in the offing – yes, in life, but also in Spain. I want to go back. I need to go back. I feel a pull that’s beyond strong to walk more steps on the Way, and so I’m starting to plan. And for this I need a new word for the year.

I believe that word is Faith.

waymarker

 

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After Camino: reflections

Just over a week ago, I came home from Spain – back to my beloved and welcoming family and friends, dog and cats, work. It was very good to be home. And yet.

The Camino hasn’t left me nor have I fully left it. I suspect – and hope – this is just the way it’s going to be now. The Camino – whatever that means and I don’t really know yet – is inside me now, here to stay, and I touched it too, left my heartprint on the dirt trails and busy highways, in the stones and streams, within the hamlets and farms, rooted with the trees and sunflowers, all pointing to the Apostle in Santiago, all connected with yellow arrows and scallop shells.

The most powerful and beautiful guidance system in the world – no words, no translation required, quietly beckoning onward.

I am full to the brim with gratitude and wonder. I am trying to find the words. Many have spilled out here, not polished. It’s all I have right now.

I do know what I want to say first. I must send deepest thanks to the Spanish people along the Camino. All of us – and there are always many – were treated with so much kindness, patience, respect and care.

The very first cafe we visited, about 12k in. What a beautiful haven it was, too.

Throngs of us, strangers all, pass through their towns, small roadside cafes and bars, dirt-streaked, sweat-soaked, often speaking in seriously fractured Spanish, lining up for their single loos (Bano, por favor was our constant question!) and often buying only a bottle of water or cafe con leche).

They were the most gracious hosts imaginable and nearly always sent us on our way with a Buen Camino and a smile. I believe all our Caminos were made possible – and enriched – by the extraordinary accommodating grace of these people. Thank you.

So, my personal Camino. It was harder – and more wonderful – than I ever imagined.

I did walk every step from Sarria to Santiago over 5 days. My knee (braced) held up over hill and dale – for 111 kilometres. My mind emptied. My spirit soared.

I cannot adequately describe every day, nor do I think a travelogue would express what it was really like. You’ll have to go see for yourself – please do if you have the chance! But to give the journey a framework, here was the distance we walked by day and where we stopped each night:

  • Day 1: Sarria to Portomarin, 21.5k
  • Day 2: To Palas do Rei, 23k
  • Day 3: To Arzua, 30k
  • Day 4: To Rua, 18k
  • Day 5: To Santiago, 19k

Sarria is a small city with several old churches and many albergues because this is a common starting point for many pilgrims who may not have time or ability to walk the whole 800-1,000k of a full Camino. If, however, you make it on foot from Sarria to Santiago, you will still be awarded the Compostela, a certificate of accomplishment by the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago. We had our pilgrim’s passport to be stamped along the way as proof.

My friends and I stayed not too far from the first yellow arrow that would start us on our way. Our first steps were on these stairs, then a long slow uphill out of town. My thoughts: ‘we’re really here! This is the Camino! We’re walking, right here, right now, on our way to Santiago!’

It was as I’d read about in so many Camino books this past year. Yet it was completely different, of course, being there – a participant – taking those first steps, meeting other pilgrims, breathing the clean air, and seeing the yellow arrows for real, for us.

Starting with stairs was an excellent preview for the day of many hills.

Once we left Sarria we were soon deep into the rural and storybook pastoral Galician countryside for the rest of that day’s walk. Lots of us set off around the same time, but very quickly spread out in little groups dotting the landscape as far as you could see.

A Camino truth: you are never really alone, even when you are. There is, and has always been, a community there – a communal sense of purpose and destination, that I came to trust and appreciate, even though I walked almost exclusively alone. As everyone does, really.

The first day was full and gorgeous and tough – a half marathon distance when I hadn’t walked more than a k or two in many months was not a light stroll.

The hills were surprising – and the walking stick a godsend I couldn’t imagine being without. Still, I felt strong and able. Those many days in the gym gave me a much-needed core strength.

After 7 or 8k, we settled in. One foot in front of the other. Breathe, move, look at the road, look beyond it. Look behind you now and then to see where you’ve walked. Take it all in and enjoy.

The slow steady rhythm of walking for hours, on this very old trail, with so many others, took the shape of music for me – and this deep impression lasted for all 5 days. Camino hymns and cantatas that lift and swell then drop off into a quiet hum, then tiptoe in again, pianissimo, occasionally with a crescendo of lovely notes, none discordant.

The score is in nature. Always, there are birds,  saucy black and white magpies that trill and squawk; roosters crowing well past dawn; cows mooing; dogs barking; the crunch of stone and gravel and acorns under many feet; the atonal tap tap tap tapping of walking sticks on dirt, rock, road. And sometimes speeding cars on asphalt for contrast.

And a choir of hundreds of voices, so many languages – French, German, Italian, Spanish, of course, Japanese, and so many more – rising up in harmony, fading as people walk on.

The leitmotif is the traditional pilgrim greeting of old: Buen Camino Buen Camino Buen Camino, over and over, a hundred times a day or more, given freely, even when people were exhausted, limping, sun-baked. Or when they were whizzing by on a bike…or a horse.

This beautiful sing-song litany felt, to me, like a psalm of of love and peace. This is what connection across differences feels like. It washed over me as a blessing that I just loved. I hear it still.

Day 2 was when my Camino got a lot harder, more painful, far more solitary, yet deeper, more real. Though I’d taken precautions – with Vaseline and high tech socks – and never had blisters in my distance walking days, half the bottom of each foot became severely blistered after about 5k. And things got progressively worse.

The hardest day opened with this most beautiful of sights. Magic.

Not a pretty sight when I finally peeled off the socks later that night. Blood and other oozing, large open sores, skin pulled off, infection, puffiness – just your basic foot pulp, you get the drift.

It hurt like hell to walk – every single step. With no time to heal, I devised various strategies to clean and protect them as best I could. (I used an entire bottle of peroxide, a half tube of polysporin, and about 8 boxes of bandages before all was said and done).

My friends were worried. Day 3 was 30k and I was hobbling quite badly. I thought about calling it quits and said I’d sleep on it.  I didn’t want to make things worse nor hold anyone back. But morning came, I ditched my boots for my old beat-up running shoes and regular gym socks, swaddled my feet and got going. I promised I’d find transport if it got to be too much.

I sensed that this was my challenge, not my knee as I’d thought, and that it was as much a test of spirit as body. I decided to look at this as provident, not something to fight or resist – it just is. Deal with it. The Camino will provide.

I came here to walk. I needed to walk. I wanted to walk. And walk I did. Just very very slowly after that.

Except, oddly, when it came to the many uphill climbs we did! For some reason, going up relieved the direct impact on the blisters, which was wonderful respite. But also – shout out thank you to Stefan and his grueling exercises – I was most definitely conditioned enough to power up those hills with little difficulty at all. Going down – not so much. Back to creeping, small, awkward, halting steps, walking stick bearing as much weight as it could.

Sometimes the Camino is forest trails imagined in fairy tales. Sometimes it’s asphalt highway with whizzing cars. Sometimes there are grand vistas spectacularly unfolding – rolling verdant hills, wild splashes of bright flower, big open clear blue sky.

When my feet got hurt, sometimes my Camino shrank to the foot or two of dirt around me at each step – sometimes this was all I had energy to see. And walking became a prayer, a meditation, a spiritual galvanizing.

I was raised Quaker, so not a lot of traditional religion in my background. Yet there I was willing God to please help my feet to keep going, and asking St. James – over and over – to pull me towards Santiago. Thanking the Camino. Telling it I would be back, as I’d been asked to do by someone close to me. Here’s the message I kept ‘hearing’ – you are opening yourself up to love. You are leaving fear by the side of the road. Keep opening your heart.

Call it pain-induced hallucination. Call it crazy. For me, it was church and it was good.

Every morning before walking I read two things I’d written in my notebook in Canada: one is Rumi’s Guest House, which turned out to be prescient. The other was this line: “Open your heart and let so much love pour out of it, for everyone and everything… more than you even thought you contained.”  I’m sure these words helped shape each day. And became part of the Camino message – just keep walking.

Through the hours and sun-drenched days and eucalyptus groves and through villages and past churches, it was as if I became the walk, and the walk became me. There was no separation between me, the trail, the dirt, the air I breathed, and the motion forward. Ultreya. There were moments when I couldn’t interpret what was around me. For one fairly long stretch, I kept mistaking the fluttering yellow leaves on the trees for yellow arrows. My reality was internal at this point.

Momentarily alone on the road, I couldn’t find the arrow right away. Then a cat jumped out from the grass – and there it was, faint but really there. See it?

I truly believe the foot problems shaped my Camino the way it was supposed to be. Ordinarily, I gravitate to people – talking – connection – words. I reach out. This time, I reached within. I had to. I was so slow – and so focused on the simple movement of walking when it felt really quite wretched – that I walked quietly alone until my friends and I would meet up at rest stops. And this was amazingly wonderful! I felt a tremendous calm and inner peace beyond words.

Pretty soon my friends Wendy and Linda were way down that road ahead of me. But then, an uphill stretch would come and I’d catch up!

I believe the Camino is sacred space, whatever one’s religious views, background, leanings. The power of absolute intention – to walk pilgrimage and to walk to Santiago, as countless have done through the centuries – infuses everything. I felt that, drew strength from it.

I don’t think there’s any other way I could have managed to keep going because I’m not a hero and I’m not a masochist.

The Camino opens up a space in one’s soul if you let it.

Every evening in the different towns we stayed in was lovely, healing times of community and rest.

Hydration is very important on the Camino. We hydrated this way every night – never in my life has beer tasted so amazing.

My friends and I would shower, I’d tend to my feet, then we’d head off in search of food – simple but utterly wonderful meals of bread, cheese, eggs, chorizo, ham and olives.

We’d talk about our day. We marveled over how completely we’d disconnected from our daily lives; how strangely empty our minds felt yet we knew we were completely engaged in what we were doing; and we enjoyed seeing the by-now familiar faces of fellow pilgrims and wishing each other well.

Five short days that stretched out in timeless waves. Time and progress were so fluid, so elastic, so difficult to measure. Yet, just like that, it was nearly done.

Santiago.

We arrived in the afternoon and followed the scallop shells imbedded in the road and sidewalks that replace the yellow arrows on this last bit of journey. We found this by far the hardest trek of all – reaching the outskirts of the city, but with still a good hour and a half left of trudging along city streets, no more birdsong, no collapsing on a grassy hill for a rest.

We finally made it to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela – the final destination for all pilgrims – though too late for pilgrim mass that day which was perhaps just as well because all of us felt more done in than we expected.

We went instead to pick up our Compostelas at the Pilgrim Office – this was a thrill! While I am in utter awe of the pilgrims who walk the entire Camino, I felt like as short as ours was, it was hard enough and I was proud to accept the certificate.

Back to the cathedral for noon the next day. But first we climb the stairs to touch and embrace the status of St. James. I left a lot of tears on that old stone and gilded altar. And I gave thanks – for pulling me so strongly towards Santiago and completion.

The mass was very moving. We couldn’t help but feel connected to all those in attendance – and the hundreds of thousands from centuries past. I was so struck by the thought of what they endured – put so much at risk, with so few comforts, many died along the way – all to come for blessing and forgiveness in this old stone church.

We were lucky that this mass included the botafumeiro, a huge incensory made of silver-plated brass. The monks lit the incense, and then swing the container like a pendulum through the sanctuary, which leaves a huge filament of smoke and a faint fragrance of incense. Back and forth, wide arcs of movement.

This is an old, old ceremony, done, I’m told, in the early years because the pilgrims who arrived after days and months of hard walking were quite fragrant themselves. It was mesmerizing, magnificent. And because we live in this century, dozens and dozens of cameras, phones, and iPads were immediately in the air capturing these ancient rituals – a different expression of worship, perhaps.

Leaving mass, we explored Santiago and yes, purchased bits of tourist pilgrim memorabilia. We were drawn back to the cathedral later in the day to look again at the statues, windows, so much ornate design and gilt, yet a simple stone structure.

Yes, I wore my I believe in donkeys t-shirt to church.

So that was the walk in Spain. That part is finished. But what did it start? What did it open for me? That is the big question. I let things go on the trail, I know that. I felt my heart opening wider and bigger than ever before.

I felt wholly at peace and connected with myself – and with my two strong and wonderful walking partners, and even those with whom the only connection was Buen Camino – and with people from many years ago.

I feel sure I will go back. I would like to see other parts of the trail. I would like to have tougher feet the next time!

Thanks for reading. Thanks for your support and comments. Thanks for too many gifts to count.

Buen Camino.

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Camino. Soon.

By this time next week, my friends and I will be 3 days in to our Camino walk to Santiago.

To say I’m excited is beyond understatement. Thank you so very much – my family and friends and Camino angels – who have given me such extraordinary love and support. This has been a long time coming and I love you for sticking with me and the many twists and turns the journey before the journey has taken.

And you kept it coming in these last few days before departure. You’ve sent beautiful notes. And made me dinner. And taken me out for dinner. (people seem to realize I stop cooking when I get focused on other things). And called. And created a lovely goodbye video message that made me cry. And texted and messaged on fb and given parting gifts.

Here’s a very thoughtful one from a volunteer at my new work, one with lots of Camino resonance and personal meaning, too. It’s a gorgeous turquoise stone on a copper chain, and the note said turquoise has given protection and emotional balance to travellers since 3000 B.C. in ancient Egypt and many other countries and cultures since then. So that’s pretty perfect. Also, what the giver didn’t know is that turquoise was a favourite stone of my beloved – always missed – mother. So I will carry this, extra weight be damned, and be ever grateful.

People have asked in the last few days ‘am I ready?’ I think the main subtext is: Is your knee going to be able to do this?

I say yes. I’ve done everything I can to be as strong as I can. Yeah, I’m limping around some. It’s most certainly not where I *expected* I’d be at this time, once again demonstrating the folly of expectations.

But thanks to Stefan’s persistent persistent persistence, and mine, I’m strong enough. I have to trust that I can put one foot in front of the other, a lot of times, as slowly as I need to, and that I will get there – with ‘there’ being every single step along the way to Santiago.

Of course ‘readiness’ is about the spirit, too, perhaps most of all. I know I have sometimes wondered will I, can I, should I? I have been disheartened on occasion when I was well and truly benched. I have turned on myself at other times – why didn’t you stick with the food plan and lose weight? Why didn’t you stick with the Spanish? Why did you foolishly run on a treadmill until your knee was wrecked??

I can honestly and thankfully say, however, that these were flickers of fear and mere sparks of old patterns that didn’t flare up enough to really matter, in the end. Mostly, it has been a wondrous and illuminating and positive process of being drawn into the notion and reality of pilgrimage – of discovery – of moving forward. I am happy. I am not a paragon of fitness or enlightenment but I am stronger, and I have learned, and I feel ready to thank the Camino for all that has happened.

I don’t expect to skip lightly down the trail. I know my knee (and likely other body parts) will hurt – maybe a lot. I know I can keep going. I know I can stop, too. That’s all I can know.

People who know me have called about my suitcase. I did not pare down to the essential pilgrim needs. But it’s much lighter than what I used to haul around. I feel like I may be almost ready to think about a manageable pack if I’m lucky enough to return to the Camino to do a longer stretch of it.

I did, however, just have a slightly terrifying moment. I went into the fully packed suitcase (very good thing I did, too) to look for this turquoise stone pictured above. What I found first was an erupted shampoo bottle (just one of the little dollar store ones that clearly wasn’t worth a dollar) that had made lovely-smelling rivulets all over my top layer, including my knee brace (is there some kind of strange message in that?).

So I swabbed things down, had to take the brace out to dry with my hairdryer (no I’m not taking that, come on!), and replace a couple of things that were just too shampoo-drenched to stay in. I must admit, I now have a frisson of anxiety every time I look at the dang suitcase and will pray that toothpaste knows how to stay in the tube.

People have again asked me ‘Why Camino?’ Why are you doing this? Why do you want to do this so much? They’re not suggesting I shouldn’t want to and mostly no one thinks I should cancel because of injury. They just want to know. I do, too.

But I don’t have a good answer. That may be avoidance but I don’t think so. I just feel – and have from the beginning – a draw to do it. And it’s deepened over time. I am going with as open a mind and heart as I can possibly make them – I don’t want to write the story before it happens.

I have not been a church goer. But a Quaker upbringing has instilled in me a sensibility for seeking. For recognizing that of God within every person, not only in something big and divine outside ourselves. For silence and discovery and peace and the glory that is humanity. I hope I can find these touchstones in me on the Camino and beyond.

I have a strong sense of my mother, too. I know we walk the Camino alone, even as we are in company. But I feel like I will be closer to her on this walk somehow. I think she would love the Camino – and the donkeys – and the turquoise stone. But that’s not the reason either.

Sarria, our starting point.

So not a very specific answer. I imagine some people know exactly why they walk. But I know others just sense a reason somewhere beyond words, like it is for me. I found a lovely write-up by some Camino pilgrims and I’ll just put the first and last bit of it here:

“When we started, we did not know – exactly – why we were doing it…

When we got to the sea at the end of the world
We sat down on the beach at sunset
We knew why we had done it
To know our lives are less important than just one grain of sand
To know that we did not need the things we had left behind us
To know the we would nevertheless return to them
To know that we needed to be where we belonged
To know that kindness and friendship and love is all one needs
To know that we did not – after all – have to make this long journey to find this out
To know that – for us – it certainly helped.”
So, that’s it for now. I’m going unplugged onto the Camino. Of course I hope to write about it when I return.

Thank you.

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I’ve been preparing for the Camino for about a year – perhaps longer, if I think about when the spark of an idea from a brief conversation with two friends seemed to trigger an invitation from other friends.

And so it began. Going to the gym. Reading Camino books. Unexpectedly, and gratefully, connecting with many other pilgrims who have welcomed me with a huge embrace in spirit – and sometimes in person – and taught me so generously about walking this sacred trail.

Yet it’s only now that I feel I’m truly starting to put my whole heart and mind into a different place – into the wonder of it all.

I am going to walk the Way – part of it anyway. Wow!

Not that mine is a unique story. Hundreds of thousands for hundreds of years have set out for hundreds of thousands of reasons to – simply – walk to Santiago and put down their burdens at the statue of St. James. Religious or not, people from all over the world have been drawn to the Camino – often more than once – and find the rigour and simplicity and profundity of walking many steps in the footsteps of history changes them. The collective made personal.

And so, maybe I’m amazed.

Two friends very close to my heart helped me still my heart, so that I could experience this ‘readiness’ and not have it get lost in the shuffle. They saw me always on the move, new job – with my beloved donkeys – but still lots of new, the gym 4 times a week, house stuff, life stuff, making lists and checking them twice and thrice. Life as ‘to do’ list. I was getting it done, but perhaps losing out on an important piece of the journey.

My friends kindly told me of a brief meditation and it goes like this – When you find you’re 5 steps ahead into ‘what’s next’, maybe a bit too revved up in accomplishment gear, just stop for a moment and say:

Here. Now.

It can be tough to do, but I think the words speak to their purpose – and how it might be helpful. Which it has been for me. A breath of calm, a sigh of relief, a quickening, too, but of excitement about what I’m getting ready to do.

Getting prepared for a 100k hike has a clear pragmatic side, too. And here I’ve been learning as well. Though we’re not carrying everything we have on our backs nor staying in refugios (this time – 🙂 we still will carry some, plus there are strict weight restrictions on our second flight from Barcelona to Santiago. Plus it’s just good form to not carry everything you own on a pilgrimage.

I have freely confessed in this blog to the sin of overpacking. I have lugged ridiculous luggage the size of refrigerators around for – well, for too long. And not for any good reason. Half the stuff stayed in the suitcase anyway while one or two items became the every day favourites.

So here’s where the Camino angels flew in again to help me sort myself out or risk paying enormous fines for an obese suitcase, this time around. And when I do return to the Camino carrying all in a pack, it is imperative I learn how to whittle the gear down into something that won’t cripple me as I attempt to stagger the much longer future hike. Many a pilgrim can be found in Spanish post offices quietly mailing a good third or more of their ‘essential’ gear back home; a 30k uphill trek strips need down to the truly essential.

Rob (quoted often throughout this blog) sent me some words from a fellow pilgrim-in-training who had recently read a book that I feel was written for me: To Walk Far, Carry Less. The author Jean-Christie Ashmore has walked over 3,000k on the Camino in France and Spain and knows of what he speaks when he says:

We pack our fears, our what-if’s, our just in case’s.

Ever feel like you’ve been hit in the head by truth? I did…in a good way. Honestly, everything I have done when it comes to travel fell into place – just like that. I do this. I don’t *need* to do this. Seeing it was enough. (I hope, please).

If this extraordinarily sage advice wasn’t enough, Rob went one better. He who is walking a 3 1/2 week pilgrimage this summer showed me what he is taking. This is his 4th time, so he knows, too. Take a look. (My current planned list for a week in Spain is – was – 4 times as much, at least).

So I’m re-thinking and trying to separate what’s needed from fear, what if, and just in case.

This Camino experience has taken me to many many places, not very far away, before I’ve even boarded a plane.

Because working out has been such a big part of preparing – physically and mentally, too – here’s the latest in Stefan’s tough love regime. And I have the hand calluses to prove it:

8-12 reps, 2-0-2-0 Temp with 30 sec rest, 4-5 sets. These are a new format of workouts we’ve been doing for past few weeks, more reps, lower weight (in some anyway), and these little bitty rest breaks in between instead of a minute. Apparently these break down muscle or fat or something even faster. I wondered if they’d break me. But nope, I’ve been working it out.

Legs:

  • Conventional Deadlift 125 lbs. That’s 125 lbs!! The most I’ve done so far.
  • Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
  • Step up
  • Hip Press 25 kg

Upper body:

  • Assisted Pull-up 140lbs
  • Seated Stability Ball Cable Row 52.5 lbs
  • Lat Pulldown 67.5 lbs
  • Sandbag Press 25kg
  • Raised Pushups
  • Cable Press 17.5lbs/ side

Workouts are winding down now with a week of ‘no training’ just before I leave. My friends continue to do 10, 12, 18k or more hikes to prepare. Me, I lift. I am hoping St James will consider that sufficient.

Many people carry stones on the Camino and leave them in places along the way as symbols of letting go, forgiveness, or maybe they were just lightening the load. I’m laying down my stones before I get there.

 

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It’s getting closer.

38 more sleeps and approximately 22 more workouts until my friends and I get on a plane to Barcelona. From there we’ll travel to Santiago, then bus to Sarria. Then we walk 100 k back to Santiago over 5 days. Touch the statue of St. James. Attend pilgrim mass. Go home.

Short, sweet, a blink of the eye after the long and twisty path to get there. Yet this Camino pilgrimage, however brief in reality it will be, has already meant so much, called on me to examine things (self) in new lights, introduced me to new worlds and new people with whom I now feel a deep connection. I am already grateful. I go there with no additional expectations.

This trip felt like it was eons away when I first started writing about it in October 2011. I had a plan then – to learn more about the Camino de Santiago and to regain the overall fitness and walking chops I’d lost in the last couple of years. I’d lost a good bit of that while gaining a good bit of weight. That’s how it works.

Telling myself I’d walked a bazillion kilometres in life and while training for marathons was no match, it seemed, for my new life of late night ice cream and sweat-free dog ambles. That was then.

Everyone and everything can change – something I find quite heartening. True, change sometimes bitch slaps us out of the blue with surprising vigour and it can hurt like hell.

Other times, though, it comes with a heart-fluttery gladness and a lovely sense of empowerment. I can do this! And I am lucky I can! And it’s good! And sometimes, (often? always?), it seems change most often comes down to how we respond to – life, I suppose, what goes on in our head and heart, how we choose to interpret the map and the guideposts we have.

The kind of story we tell ourselves can be a dark tale or a gentler, less judgmental narrative. It seems we play our part accordingly. Well, that’s how it’s worked for me – meaning, at the end of the day, this whole extravaganza has been a lot more about interior change, learning, exploring new territory and releasing the past than it has been about going to the gym or even going to Camino, as compellingly important as that has become to me.

I’ve quoted Marianne Williamson here before. And now again: “We do not heal the past by dwelling there; we heal the past by living fully in the present…I’ve come to trust not that events will always unfold exactly as I want, but that I will be fine either way. The challenges we face in life are always lessons that serve our soul’s growth…The present moment, if you think about it, is the only time there is. No matter what time it is, it is always now.”

I used to resist what I thought were aphoristic reductions of complex fundamental truths. But ‘I’m younger than that now.’ I have found it helpful to have certain simple statements and mantras that in fact are a lot harder to live by than they look. These particular themes have been a persistent drumbeat for me this past year.

Now the trip is around the corner. I am definitely stronger and love the Iron Kate experience I’ve had, a new one for me, one I never expected to like as much as I do for reasons I can’t entirely express. The knee injury (still there but more in the background now, or so I hope) put quite a crimp in the fitness plan and very nearly put an end to this year’s Camino. Instead, I’m now back (nearly) to the place where I left off months ago.

Let me just share yet another sample of several workouts, done across my 4 days a week with Stefan:

Conventional dead-lift: 120 lbs!! This was a milestone day. When I stopped going to the gym months ago at the height of knee injury, I was struggling to lift this weight. I think I managed it once or twice, but I do recall that I was afraid of it, I felt unable to do it, even when I did.

I don’t think I smile like this. Maybe I should. Note the hand positions. I do that!

Now? We did a superset of 95lbs, then 110 lbs, then 120lb lifts and while I wasn’t twirling the barbell like a baton, I really felt strong and able to do it. And did.

Pull ups: 135 lbs

Lat pull downs: 55 lbs

Standing rows: 75 lbs

Standing cable press – 20 lbs per arm

Push ups: Ok, not ‘real’ ones but not total girl ones either. They’re hard enough. Take my word for it.

Sandbag chest press: 15kg

Lift, lift, more lift, press, pull – all of it designed to strengthen, balance, stabilize. All good.

What am I not doing to prepare for Camino? Well, I’m not doing much actual walking other than half hour to 45 minute dog ambles nearly every day. Many people think I’m nuts. Usually people train for a hiking trip by – you got it, hiking or walking.

But here’s the thing: I’m still walking with a brace. Even as the knee has stabilized as muscles around it get stronger, walking tends to lead back into inflammation territory. In earlier times, this meant tremendous swelling, a lot more pain, a tightness and hitch in my walk that had me hobbling very carefully even walking a few metres. So I am sticking with gym program for now in hopes of throwing everything I have into making everything else as strong as possible.

This is an actual picture outside a Camino refugio.

And then give it all over on the Camino itself. In the scheme of things, it’s a very short Camino and we won’t be carrying heavy packs. I can do this. If not, way will open.

In the spirit of disclosing other things I am ‘not’ doing to prepare for Camino:

I have not, after all, learned much Spanish. I suppose there’s still time to get some basic phrases downloaded into my head.

I have lifted a ton of weight, but not dropped very much. Though I feel quite good about making some important changes to the fuel I take in, and eliminating the Doritos/ice cream/pop comfort food plan, I have not been rigorous enough about it to change shape and reduce the load my knee will have to bear. I suppose I could eat raw veggies while listening to the Spanish lessons and see if I could kick off a couple of lbs before leaving. Tal vez. Tal vez.

Cramming for Camino – perhaps not the right spirit to take on pilgrimage.

I will definitely keep working on several fronts. Health is a good goal, Camino or not.

Because it feels good to quote Aaron Sorkin (still miss West Wing quite a bit), the Sam Waterson character on Newsroom had this to say to his star anchor on last show:

“In the off chance you don’t live forever, why don’t you try being happy now?”

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And so, a new chapter in my life is one week gone.

First full week at the donkey sanctuary, and my head is flooded with the usual niagara of information that comes with learning to navigate a new job. The rhythms of life on a farm are earthy and pragmatic. Hay must be cut. Donkeys fed on time. Ornery machinery fixed. Stalls mucked.


This sweet thing was coming over to check out my dog beyond the fence. They stared at each other for a few minutes and decided all was well.

My job is to get the word out about donkeys and raise the money – and support – we need to help these funny, beautiful, often sadly mistreated, neglected, forgotten animals.

I feel privileged to try.

My Camino quest, re-ignited since I was told I may not require surgery after all, continues apace as well. The doctor told me to try walking again – slower steps, not too far, build up over time.

So I began to do that at the donkey sanctuary, too. I am lucky to have my dog with me at work, so at noon, we’ve been taking a 20-minute amble around the pond, no iPod stuck in my ear because that would drown out the symphonic braying that has become my daily sound track. I don’t know what it is, but I know others feel the same – when the braying starts, my heart gladdens. It’s the best sound in the world.

I will admit to some anxiety about the whole walking thing. (which is something of a sin given the calm pastoral splendor I am surrounded by, but well, it’s the truth). It’s just that I’m still only able to walk with a brace, quite slowly (yes, I know, that’s what I’m *supposed* to do), and I’ve probably not gone more than a kilometre or two.

I can’t help wonder about the 20-plus k walks every day on the Camino. The one thing that never worried me in the least – until now. I took walking for granted. I didn’t walk ‘consciously’. I just walked.

So I have occasionally slipped into that quite fruitless speculation about the future, what it will be like out there on the Way attempting to walk what used to be normal distances for me and now seem rather enormous. And it’s happening in 2 months! When this wasp buzzes in my head, I feel my pace quickening – I feel that sense of ‘hurry up’, which I know leads straight to ice packs and Advil.

Here’s what I’ve learned from donkeys. They NEVER rush. They will often think for a very long time about whether to walk anywhere at all. People have attributed their slow patient demeanor to stubbornness.

I don’t think so. They know certain terrain can trip them up. They often put up with an enormous amount of pain and don’t show anything so it’s possible when they’re contemplating walking, it’s to assess whether the pain is too much. They like to be with other donkeys and people and they also walk alone.

My daily walking place.

So I need to find my inner donkey spirit. I need to walk now – and likely later on the Camino – as a donkey would. Which may mean I walk alone a *lot* and reach the destination far behind my friends but that’s ok. It will do me good to quiet my spirit and brain and see what a more contemplative rhythm will bring forward.

The third big change this past week has been about the gym, continuing with the program the surgeon says has helped me potentially bypass surgery. Instead of racing to the gym after work, I go early in the morning now, 4 days a week, before heading off to the donkeys.

We are continuing apace:

  • 115 lb dead-lifts
  • 50 lb chest presses
  • 60-70 lb seated rows
  • 130 lb pull ups

And more along these lines. I start to wake up about 15 minutes in, and I can honestly say, this kind of workout clears the nattering out of my head and demands attention in a way almost nothing else does in our highly-plugged in, information overload lives.

They also give me tremendous energy for the day. I feel like I’ve been fueled, the tank is full, and I can work hard, with a reasonably clear mind, for a good 8 hours or more. Despite quite a long morning before I actually ‘get’ to work, I think this is a better set up than what I was doing before, going after work, coming home late-ish and feeling kind of wired for action well into the late evening.

Somewhere around 8 in the evening, though, I feel quite whacked out with exhaustion. But I think that’s mostly mental right now, so much new information coming in, and my brain is frantically trying to find a place to put it all. I expect that will ease in good time. Again, when I’m at work and start to feel anything resembling frazzled, I take a breath and look at a donkey.

They are so very ‘in the present’, accepting the day as it is, and calmly making decisions about whether to walk 10 feet to the water bucket or stay where they are leaning on a fence post. What me, worry?

One week of new. And renewal. I feel good that I worked it out – didn’t wimp out of the gym, learned a lot and accomplished a few things at work, and walked. (even managed the laundry but the rest of the house will just have to wait). A full week – a week! Chapter 1.

A belated Happy Canada Day to all! Some came out to celebrate with the donkeys, and many of us added colour with this lovely tattoo. Wonderful Canada and wonderful donkeys – does it get any better?

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You hear about second wind in marathons, often around mile 22. Just when you’re out of air, out of energy, and the finish line is a breath too far, all of a sudden the body (mind?) finds its rhythm again, breathing steadies, legs carry you onward. Sometimes, anyway.

Other times, you see those depleted runners sitting on the curb, within view of their goal, stopped miserably in their tracks.

Who can forget marathon champion Paula Radcliffe when she knew she couldn’t go on after 36k during the Athens Olympics?

All the planning, training, preparation, and Gatorade in the world is sometimes just not enough.

The restorative renewal of a second wind when you need it most, whatever the shape, type or distance of your marathon – it’s a beautiful – and sometimes mysterious – thing.

And it just happened to me.

I finally saw the ortho surgeon a few days ago, expecting to get a date for him to scope my knee and fix the cartilage tears that have made walking so difficult, next to impossible for any length of time.

My hope (a fairly faded one as time has marched on) was that all could be dealt with in time for me to recover for Camino in September and not miss too much work in my new job. I am a dream weaver.

He looked at my MRI, poked, prodded, pulled and pushed at me, asked a bunch of questions about my activity level, pain, etc. and then pronounced: “I don’t recommend surgery at this time.” What???? My doctor had been 100% convinced the only solution was a surgical one.

But he (I suppose we learn mostly from TV that surgeons only care about wielding the knife) said whatever I’d been doing since the scans were taken had been helping tremendously. I described my gym program. He said I was strong with tremendous range of motion in legs, hips, joints, especially for someone with this injury.

He also said in addition to the injury, I have moderate to severe arthritis in one part of the knee and surgery won’t help that anyway.

It’s not as if my knee has been reborn. The cartilage tears are long and jagged and won’t heal themselves. But the inflammation and fluid build-up, a big part of why my walk became a limping hobble, have largely disappeared! And the muscles supporting/stabilizing the knee – they’re much stronger and are doing the job pretty well!

So Stefan, I dedicate this second wind/second chance to you – I am ever grateful.

Then the doc said the magic words: “Don’t cancel your Camino trip.” Hallelujah!!

He said I was already active, which would make it easier to get back into the walking swing. He cautioned Go Slow. Start with short easy walks. Wear the knee brace. Build up *gradually*. After all this hope and glory, he did get a tad buzzkill at this point and said there are no guarantees.

He said if the inflammation and fluid come back, I have to stop and he will reconsider surgery. He said, well, if this happens a few days before your trip, that’s life. Very true.

Like others before him, he finished with LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.

Sometimes I have selective hearing. But I will give this very good advice another chance.

The Camino certainly seemed to have a few words for me in these past few days, beginning, of course, with the wonderful doc news.

Later I heard from someone close to me who passed this blog to a colleague who had just discovered the Camino and was longing to do it – the whole thing – as a much-needed time for reflection, healing, discovery.

Then I went with family to a small Celtic concert, held in an old old bar in my town that used to be the site of brawls and drug busts. It still has some attractive rough edges.

The headliner was the fey and charming Nuala Kennedy who played flute and tin whistle to old Irish reels, jigs and new mashups along with her fiddle and guitar player.

Turns out Nuala had collaborated with Canadian Oliver Schroer, a musician who walked all of the Camino in 2004 and recorded his musical reflections along the way in a record titled, simply, Camino. He died several years later, and Nuala played to him and for him – odes of joy and lament both.

Here’s his beautiful song Field of Stars, sung in a Toronto church, the last time he performed before he died.

In the preface to this album, he says:

“El Camino. The Road…

It is continuous, unbroken, yet changing. The one constant is the sound of footsteps – the heartbeat of the pilgrimage…”

And excuse me for yanking you from the sublime to the earthly, but the final word from Camino jumped out at me from the loo at the bar. The first graffiti scrawl I read was ONWARD written in huge letters on the stall door. My word for the year. Come on, that’s gotta be a message, yes?

Of course, there was also “Eric is my big sugar daddy” and “Call me for a good time” (no phone number, though).

So I’m moving onward. Taking the chance and not cancelling plane tickets and other Camino plans.

I will continue with the 4-times-a-week gym action, early in the morning before work at the Donkey Sanctuary. There’s a beautiful 2k trail around a pond there, perfect for practice walks and longer trails when I get back in gear – I know, who can be so lucky?

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