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Archive for August, 2019

Camino del Norte: Be Nice To Your Husband

For though we often need to be restored to the small, concrete, limited, and certain, we as often need to be reminded of the large, vague, unlimited unknown.  A.R. Ammons

It was not raining on that third morning of our Camino pilgrimage.  In fact, the sun seemed to be breaking through the dark clouds as we slung our packs over our shoulders and headed out of our hotel onto Castro-Urdiales’ seaside boardwalk.  My husband Cam and I were feeling downright buoyant as we followed country roads and an ancient path along grassy meadows high above the sea.  The freshness of spring filled the air with the smell of sweet grass and roses — a whole field of roses — and the views of lush valleys and the sea beyond set our spirits soaring.  We sang out our “Bon Camino” greetings to the farmers working in the fields, to the occasional pilgrims we met on our route, to the donkeys, the cows, the goats and the sheep who were our curious companions along the way.  Yes, we were feeling chipper, a slight bit cocky even, as we made our way westward following the Camino’s yellow arrows and scallop shell tiles through villages and along country roads.  The predicted rain was holding off and the morning was unfolding with a welcome ease.  When our stomachs began to growl with hunger in the late morning, there it was, a bar on the outskirts of a tiny village.  And when the man behind the counter at the bar did not understand a word we were saying in our pitifully-broken Spanish, there she was, a young mother with her eight month old baby, eager to practice her crystal-clear English and translate for us exactly the sandwiches we were craving on that crusty good bread.

Yes, we were in the flow on Day Three of our adventure.  And so what if the sky was seeming a bit darker when we left our village bar at noon — and the wind,  well, there might have been a slight gust of wind as we got ourselves back on our pilgrim’s path, but our bellies were full and our bodies replenished and the moisture in the air was too fine to be called a sprinkle and certainly wasn’t going to dampen our buoyant spirits.  And an hour later, when I reached down to pluck a mint leaf from the weedy-lush hedge at the side of the trail, and my hand skimmed across the nettle plants that mingled with the mint, and a pain shot through my finger tips, I laughed it off.  No, it wasn’t going to get to me, a little sting, from the stinging nettle.  And the rain — because now there was no denying it, that fine mist had turned heavy on us — well, it was bothersome, for sure, but manageable.  We slipped into raincoats, stretched the waterproof covers over our packs, and I changed from flip flops to running shoes.  And okay, I admit it, I was feeling a bit judgmental.  Cam looked ridiculous in his thirty dollar rainy-weather get-up from Walmart, the pants slopping around his legs, the jacket hump-backing over his pack, but I kept my mouth shut.  I really did.  And when we traced the tidal estuary on a back road with the slimmest of shoulders, I focused my attention on the the egrets standing in the tall grasses of the river marsh and the cars rumbling toward us, not even listening to Cam, who might have been grumbling as he walked at a steady clip in front of me.

I kept it together, my kindness, my sense of wonder, my pride in being able to uplift, and it all seemed genuine enough, as we once again found ourselves in the woods, this time in a eucalyptus forest, on a paved path.  I commented out loud at the sinus-clearing smell of the trees on a rainy day.  I pointed to birds, small birds and large hawk birds, birds that were new to us.  And when we approached a town with a market where we could stock up on snacks and pockets full of clementines, I let out a whoop and a holler — and I might have been coming on a little strong, a little loud, a little too verbal to someone in a thirty dollar rain coat with wet socks just trying to hang on.  But he, my Camino buddy, needn’t have worried because it was the hill that quieted me down.  It wasn’t a hill.  It was a mountain.  And the road, a paved one-laner on the other side of the town with the market, shot right up it, no switch-backs in sight.  I huffed and I puffed and I assumed that Cam a few feet in front of me was doing the same.  Who cares about the smell of eucalyptus when you can barely breathe a short little mouth breath.  It was my Everest and it took my full-bodied effort to make it to the summit.  But make it, I did, and my guy did as well.  And up there on the top of Everest were cottages, and farms with large lumbering dairy cows, and a tiny stone church.  And it was charming and we were wet and the path we were following had turned muddy, and that’s when Cam lost it, up there on top of the mountain, the mountain that we were going to have to descend at some point to make our way into the town of Liendo and our sixteenth century pousada where we’d be sleeping that night.  He just stopped up, up there in the rain, refused to budge, said he could not go on.

And that’s when I turned tough. I found my inner drill sergeant, told Cam to buck up, told him he didn’t have a choice, that we had to keep going.  I was stern.  I was mean.  I was relentless.  The uplifter had become a tyrant.  And lo and behold, it worked.  My guy swigged a gulp from his water bottle and started walking again.  And that’s when I decided that I wasn’t so buoyant anymore, that I was feeling a bit heavy myself, that I could use my own dose of uplifting, and I certainly wasn’t going to get it from the guy in front of me in the ridiculous rain gear.  So I called upon my dad.  I don’t do it often, but there is something about the Camino that opens us up.  Maybe it is the exhaustion of having already walked twenty kilometers in sopping shoes.  Maybe it is the holiness of the path on which you are walking.  For whatever reason, it was my dad who I asked, on the high ground in the late afternoon, to uplift me, my dad who had died when I was seventeen, my dad who was my childhood uplifter.  And maybe the airwaves are a little less clogged on the high ground of a pilgrimage because he came through to me, loud and clear.

I heard his voice in my head and I felt his essence.  He told me how proud he was of me.  “Just look at what you are doing!” he said.  “You are amazing!” he added with enthusiasm.  “And so is Cam!  I’m so proud of you both!”  And that’s when I looked in front of me at my guy, saw him in his Walmart rain gear, placing one foot in front of the other, making his way downhill now on a more windy two-lane manageable mountain road.  My dad was right.  We were amazing.  And that’s when my dad added the clincher  “Be nice to your husband,” he said.  He wasn’t stern, not a drill sergeant at all.  He said it with kindness.  “Be nice to your husband.”  And I want you to know that I took my dad’s words into my heart — perhaps they were always in my heart — and I caught up with Cam, told him my dad was proud of us, told him that I was proud of us.  And it didn’t matter that it still was raining as we walked into Liendo and found our sixteenth century pousada.  It was a good day and we were in the flow.

Day Three of our Camino pilgrimage, beginning in Castro-Urdiales and finishing our 27 kilometer day in Liendo, joining many other pilgrims at a sixteenth century pousada in the early evening.

Camino del Norte: At Least You Can Do It!

My Work is Loving the World  Mary Oliver

 

Early in June, my husband Cam and I returned from an adventure in Europe.  We are walking El Camino del Norte, a route along the northern coast of Spain from east on the French border to the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela on the western tip, over 800 kilometers, and we, thus far, have hiked two one-week segments, the first segment two years ago and the second two months ago, have covered about 350 kilometers of our pilgrimage journey, carrying our clothes and essentials in packs on our backs and covering an average of 25 kilometers a day.  Hanging from a strap on my pack is a circular plastic tag that I had customed-made with a wide-winged peace dove and Mary Oliver’s words, “My Work is Loving the World” carved into its surface.  And that is my greatest intention on these pilgrimages across Spain, to soften my heart and spread my wings to this world I inhabit — that we all inhabit — to allow its gifts to soak in each day, to stay present to the moments.  And now, in a series of essays, I share a handful of these gifts with you.

 

I want to tell you that it was early on, before leaving the ground at our Marquette County Upper Peninsula airport on a Thursday afternoon, that a mantra for our El Camino pilgrimage became clear.  Sitting across the aisle from us on our small regional jet was a friend of my husband Cam’s, and, as Cam spoke to him of the monumental walking we were about to embark upon, sometimes over mountains, and often in the rolling hills along the northern coast of Spain, and always carrying packs on our backs filled with everything we were taking on this week-long journey, the friend replied in a chipper tone, “At least you can do it!”  These words stuck with me, and with Cam too, were etched in our minds from the moment the plane made its way down the runway and lifted us off into the wide wings of an overseas adventure.  Yes, at least we could do it, or believed in our hearts we could do it.  And isn’t that the most important thing, to believe something so fervently, so fully, that you know that it can be true?  And I knew this could be true, that Cam and I, two college kids who fell in love forty-five years ago, could do it.  It didn’t matter that we were now in our sixties, were grandparents who carried the scars of all these decades of full-body living.  It didn’t matter because the youthful vigor, the desire to challenge ourselves physically and spiritually, the excitement of opening to something new was as alive and fresh as it ever had been.

At least we can do it!  I said these words to myself, over and over, said them as we flew across the Atlantic on an overnight flight, said them as we paced the terminal at the Amsterdam airport for hours and hours the next day while waiting for our plane to Bilbao, the capital city of Basque Country, our end-point two years ago and starting point for this year’s trek, said them in the early evening as we were plunked out of a bus onto Bilbao’s busy city-center streets, and the next morning, backpacks strapped on tightly, said them again as we officially stepped out of our hotel and started following the Camino’s yellow arrow and scallop shell signs painted and tiled on buildings and sidewalks and telephone poles, followed the river and these arrows out of the city northbound toward the sea.  The Camino is a pilgrimage, with ancient roots, hundreds and hundreds of years old, that follows these arrows through countryside and towns and cities, along the many historic pathways across Europe and into Spain all leading toward the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St. James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, are housed in the city’s magnificent cathedral.  And Cam and I were on the path, on El Camino del Norte, the northern route to Santiago, and we felt it, something larger than any one religion or tradition, the way we were joined together with all those who have walked these pathways before us and with us now, something holy and good-feeling, something that was palpable in these bodies of ours.

And that’s what I want to talk about, these bodies of ours.  And our spirits.  Because I can’t separate the two.  It was a body experience, for sure, this walking on sidewalks along the river through the industrial and residential suburbs of Bilbao on that first morning, and it continued to be a body experience throughout the whole seven-day Camino journey, over one hundred miles of walking on goat paths and country roads, on old railroad grades, through fields and into cities and villages and resort towns, across sandy beaches onto rocky trails.  How can you not be present in your body when it is the vehicle carrying you forward?  How can you not feel the ground beneath you, whether hard and paved or rockbound and slippery or soft and grass-covered?  The moments are pressed into feet and shoulders, hips and thighs when you spend most of your day in movement.  And there were the packs slung across our backs.  We felt those packs on our shoulders and on our hips and middle backs, and it all required our attention, a tightening every now and then of the strap belted around our hips, a loosening of the one across the sternum, a shift here, a pull there in order to provide more comfort and ease.  Even in the discomfort, we felt it, the way our bodies were alive and eager and on board for this adventure.  And it was in these uncomfortable moments that our mantra became a handy reminder.  “At least we can do it!”  And when our walking feet, mine often in Teva flip flops, Cam’s in leather-bound hiking boots, found a bounce in their gait, when the packs slipped into place and our spines into alignment, that’s when we didn’t have to think about it, the way spirit infuses our bodies with a palpable vibrancy.  And that’s when we could relax our shoulders and our breath and settle even more fully into our bodies carrying us forward.  And that’s when our senses could open up to the feast of gifts along the way.

And what gifts there were!  It was springtime in northern Spain and the world, that first day, was washed fresh after an overnight rain, and it was all new to us, the river opening in a wide mouth to the sea, the sun breaking through morning clouds, the bus suspended by cables twenty feet above this river-mouth taking us across to the port city of Portegillete, the city band alive with music on a cobblestone side street, the bike path that took us up up up into the hills outside of town and westward twelve kilometers to the ocean again, to early evening blue sky and blue sea and a wide stretch of beach and silky warm sand on tired feet and a tiny village beyond where we spent that first night in an apartment overlooking the village square.  And along the way, it had been the smell of spring that my body had most savored.  It surprised me, how good it was to smell grass again after six months of cold frozen winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Green grass and unfurled leaves had never smelled so good, and the sweetness of roses, and the musky smell of white blossoms on trimmed-back bushes, and honeysuckle.  There was honeysuckle.  It is the best to walk along the sea and smell the headiness of honeysuckle while eating a juicy clementine from the market in the port town you have just passed through.  And in the evening of that first day, as we traced the banks of a small tidal river to our village destination, there it was, with us still, the slight bounce in our tired gaits, and the mantra we had carried with us since leaving our home airport: “At least you can do it!”  Yes, indeed.  We can do it.  And today, we had, and it felt good.

 

We can do it!

Photographs from the first two days, starting in the Basque city of Bilbao, passing by the Guggenheim, following the river to the ocean, staying in the village of Pobena the first night and the second night in the beach front city of Castro-Urdiales where we explored the medieval cathedral and ate fish stew and grilled octopus in a restaurant on a point by the sea.

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