(This essay is one of several about the walk along the Portuguese Way that my friend Mary and I took last October. It will be compiled into book form in the coming months.)
Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it. Soren Kierkegard
Every moment has its pleasures and its hope. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it. Rita Mae Brown
Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps a singing bird will come. Chinese Proverb
It is easy to forge ahead when there is a mist in the air and a downpour is imminent and the day has been long and the town you are trudging into as the rain dampens your coat, which isn’t quite waterproof, isn’t a town at all, not like you had envisioned with its ancient walled beginnings, but a full-blown city instead and the twenty-five kilometers you’ve already walked only gets you to its outskirts and you know you can’t cheat and take a cab even though one is sitting in the lot in front of you because you’ve told yourself you are walking the whole way. It is easy to forge ahead, to press the adrenaline button and keep on trucking because you find it a strange kind of fun to challenge your limits as you move yourself north in mid-October along the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostilo, Spain on a three week pilgrimage. And it is easy to lift up the positive in such a situation when an adorable young woman who doesn’t speak English finds you a map, grabs you by the elbow, whisks you forward on those busy city streets filled with the traffic of rush hour, and points you in the direction of that ancient walled center where your hostel is waiting. And though it takes a magical spell to wind your way through the charming old section with its narrow cobblestone streets, you make it to your room and to your dear friend who has sore feet on this particular day and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty that she has hitched a ride. And, it is easy still to muster up some optimism because you are on a pilgrimage and you love the way your body feels after a hard day of pushing it forward — and you don’t even mind the dark cloud of a downpour and the chill in the air, don’t even mind that the place you are staying on this gloomy night is stark and cold and the shared bath is even colder, and you love the feeling of the bed beneath you and you thank the gods and the goddesses and your own two feet for carrying you mile after mile after mile, for transporting you to this place of stillness where sleep comes easily.
There is something in you that can rise up above all this drizzle, that can remain upbeat in the midst of a storm. But what about the next day, when the clouds have lifted and the scent of eucalyptus wafts through the fresh post-rain air and the streams gleam and the meadows shimmer and there is a sparkle in the people you meet and you feel it, too, the sparkle, the lightness in your step, and you arrive at your next overnight destination earlier than expected, a town with a beautiful name, Caldas de Reis, on a beautiful river, and you catch sight of friends who you have met along the way and you wave a buoyant hello and you traipse on to the place where you will be staying on this shimmering glimmering early evening? What about then? Can you relax into it? Can you really receive it, the sunlight, the warmth, the paradise that awaits you? Can you breathe it in deep, all the way down to your bones that you are worthy of this, the light reflected off the bend in the river, the exhilarating rush of a waterfall just feet away from where you now stand, an old manor house and cotton mill renovated into an elegant palace, the splash of red-flowered potted plants on every step and in every doorway, the candle-lit patio, the enchanted bridge, the lushly-lined pathways? Can you take it in, that tonight it is yours, all this beauty, all this charm, that tonight you and your walking partner friend are alone in this palace, a palace that cost you mere dollars more than the hostel you stayed in the night before?
And there is a room waiting for you with crisp white sheets and plush comforters and thick terry bathrobes and a hairdryer. And opera music — there is opera music streaming through the heady air while you sit down to a table so lovingly prepared for you by the young woman who is the only other person who seems to be here this day and quickly becomes your friend. And can you stay present with all of this, the cloth napkins tied with delicate bows, the grilled fish and roasted vegetables, the spring green soup, the tomatoes, warm and ripe and drizzled with olive oil, the bread hot from the oven, the young friend who prepared this meal and is delighting in your happiness? Can pleasure arise from this place of ease? Can crisp cotton sheets, a hot water shower, a meal fit for the gods and goddesses be a part of the happiness package? Can you press the save button and know that it is within you now and always, the clear flowing river, the kindness of a stranger who delights in making you feel at home, the free reign of a palace, the memory of grilled fish and roasted vegetables and music, the most beautiful music you have ever heard? Can you claim it with heart and soul? Can you say it out loud and with conviction that you’re done with it, with the thinking that you need to rise above a black cloud into the space of buoyancy? I know that you know it now, that it is here for you in every moment, the taste of pleasure and the music of the opera, that it can stay with you as you walk into your next day — and into the next and the next.
Our wonderful home for the night in Caldas de Rais, Spain; October 2016