Mar 23 2013

The Higher Road

I hadn’t met a single pilgrim on the road for three full days. Not that there weren’t any – I saw four people the very first day – but there weren’t many. For two nights in a row I was the only person staying in a pensión. The third morning I saw another place setting at breakfast, but I headed out before he or she came to the table. The only people I conversed with were hoteliers and hospitaleros, and barmaids at cafés along the way. I relished the solitude. Hours alone, just the sound of my footsteps and the swish-swish of my wet-weather pants. Nothing to do but walk and think and talk to myself out loud.
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Except I’d catch myself thinking sour thoughts: remembering a difficult person, hashing over an unpleasant memory, or thinking about a conversation I’m not looking forward to. When I noticed this, I’d correct it, taking a deep breath of fresh air or focusing on the stunning vistas around me. I’d try to think about something good, like De-facto and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how lucky I am that they would give me the space and time to do the Camino. Then, some kilometers later, I’d catch myself again, trudging through the bad stuff.

Why is that? Why is it that when my mind wanders, it meanders so easily to ugly thoughts? I’m not saying not to address or confront the difficult situations in life. But to fester with them, which I’m adept at, is really a waste of valuable mental capacity, not to mention that ever-precious commodity, time.

It makes me think about how important it is to pay attention to my train of thought, to be mindful of altering the ratio of “time spent thinking” in favor things positive and productive.

~ ~ ~

Coming out of Villafranca del Bierzo there are three routes, accordingly to the Brierley guidebook that I carry. The lower road snakes along the Route N-VI, passing through lots of little villages and hamlets. While easier on the knees – you don’t have to climb up and down any hills, or navigate rocky, muddy, or snowy trails – it’s not easy on the soul. You walk beside the cars and trucks, often sharing the road with them. It can also be dangerous; once when the path was merged with the road, I was in such a Camino zone I almost didn’t notice the oncoming car. 20130324-184532.jpg

Another route is marked in the guidebook by a series of green dots, indicating an alternative scenic route, generally more forested and the furthest away from traffic. On these routes, you have to carry all your water and food. No counting on a village café to buy a bocadillo or have a bowl of caldo and you can’t be certain of finding potable water. This particular green-dotted route, called the Dragonte, is 25.1 kilometers of nature and no civilization, crossing three mountains, up and down. It would be gorgeous. It would also be rigorous. Given that ten days ago I was flat out with a bad back, and how tricky the weather might be, I knew I couldn’t risk it. Especially since hadn’t seen another pilgrim on the route since the first afternoon.

The third route, to the north, is called the Pradela. The guidebook warns of its steep incline, and suggests that it is a challenging path, but I couldn’t bring myself to take the route in the middle of the valley with all the traffic, which could be as dangerous, if not more, than being alone on a ridge in a forest by yourself for 13k, the distance until the first hamlet. I knew better than to take the uber-scenic trail. I didn’t want the low road. This one, the higher road, seemed just right.

It started out with an sharp, steep slope. For at least a hundred meters it felt like I was climbing a never-ending staircase. Eventually the slope became gentler, but it still headed upwards, taking me to and along a high ridge that peaked at 930 meters. I had sun and clouds that 20130324-184550.jpgday, and lots of wind. I was high enough to have incredible views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, with the trail I didn’t take. As the path gradually dipped back down toward the main road, it weaved through a forest of ancient chestnut trees with thick trunks and wise expressions. I was in the zone, like a runner’s high, so I stepped off the trail and wandered between the trees. I sat in the hollowed-out trunk of a grandfather chestnut tree, and thought about only good things.

~ ~ ~

On the first day back on the Camino – now already a week ago – I came into a tiny village and saw a young woman walking out of a café-bar carrying a beer. She set it down on the table on the terrace. She said hello to me, in English, with an American accent.

“That’s a good idea,” I said, eyeing her beer. I unhooked myself from my backpack, setting it on the chair of a nearby table so I could go inside and get one, too.

“Maybe you can tell me,” she said, “how much should I tip here in Spain?”

“I don’t tip them at all,” a brash voice coming out of the bar answered before I had a chance. It belonged to a guy, probably in his early thirties, shaved head, a bit of a swashbuckler. I couldn’t tell his origin, maybe Brit, maybe Down Under. He set his glass on another table, across the road, but he didn’t sit down.

I explained to the young woman the my policy for tipping in Spain: rounding up to an even number and then adding a little bit more, especially now because the economy is in rough shape and these people are scraping by, especially in the winter with so few pilgrims on the route.

“They’d make some money if they weren’t all closed,” the guy yelled from across the street, pacing back and forth. “Think I can make it back to Astorga tonight? I’m gonna walk back and take a bus to Madrid where things are happening. I’m sick of this. Nothing is open.”
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I wanted to ask him exactly why he’d started the Camino in the first place. But we were headed opposite directions and any suggestions I might make, soulful or reprimanding, probably wouldn’t register. I opted to keep quiet. Besides, it was my first day back on the Camino. Who was I to be a know-it-all? (At least out loud.)

It’s easy to be righteous. What’s harder is to let people be in their own place on their own path in their own problems. To observe, not in a scrutinizing or judgmental way, but in an observant and curious way, the kind where your silence might actually be more useful than your advice.

~ ~ ~

I lost track of the days of the week. I know the date, only because with every sello, or stamp, in my credentials, the barmaid or hospitalier is obliged to add the date. At first I tried to keep count of how many days to Santiago, but then I realized it involved keeping track of the time. While it may not be something I can do permanently, at least this week I can take a vacation from worrying about when and where I have to be next. So, it could take two more days, it could take four days, it depends on my feet, my back, the weather. I’ve walked in the pouring rain for two days now. It can make you walk faster. Or it can make you stop early for the day.

I’ve made good time, better than I expected, but not because I’ve been in a hurry. It happened more than once: I’d set off in the morning gauging where I might like to finish the day, thinking about a walk of 18-25k, targeting an albergue or a pensión marked in the guidebook. I’d get there, only to find everything shut tight. One day I walked 36k, passing through four villages that I hoped would have accommodation, but nothing was open. I found myself cursing them, out loud to nobody, for being closed. It made me think about that guy I met on the first day. I’m glad I didn’t say anything to him. I hope he’s having a good time in Madrid.
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The minimum distance you must walk to qualify for a compostela is 100 kilometers. People who don’t want to walk the whole distance of the Camino, or who can’t take the time, will start in Sarria, 100 kilometers away, and walk the four or five days it takes to get to Santiago. In Sarria, the volume of pilgrims increases, noticeably. All of a sudden, the luxurious days of walking without seeing a soul are over. My solitude has been abruptly interrupted.

The first morning out of Sarria, I ducked into a roadside café to rest my feet for a few moments. After days of being the only person in just about every bar I stopped at, I was surprised to see tables crowded with pilgrims and a line to use the bathrooms. There was a buzz of conversation, and then the ritual of pilgrim questions: Where are you from? Where did you start? Why are you doing the Camino?

I wasn’t really in the mood for this chatter. I wanted to shout out: What are all you people doing on my Camino? I’ve done the whole Camino Francés, from the beginning, in St. Jean Pied de Port, and I’ve been walking for days, over high peaks and through a foot of snow!

But I didn’t. I’ve spent too much time walking, and thinking, about the higher roads, and how to take them. I softly answered the questions, and asked a few of my own, gently moving into the company and companionship of others, on their own paths but for the next few days, next to mine, as the road, high and low, draws us all nearer to Santiago.


Jun 23 2011

All that Noise

I stood at the curb, waving goodbye as Buddy-roo’s face pressed against the window in a crying grimace. That would be the very last image I’d ever have of her – this is what I told myself as I walked away – if they got in a car accident on their drive to or from the country house. This is a morbid thought, I know, but don’t we all have them occasionally? I think this is how you handle a suppressed fear – the one you know is irrational but somehow it’s still lurking there, just under the surface, polluting an otherwise optimistic view of life.

They were getting a late start, later than De-facto had hoped, and I knew that when they returned on Sunday he’d opt to leave even later to avoid the end-of-weekend traffic jam outside of Paris. But thinking of him driving by himself, so late at night, the two girls sleeping in the back, makes me just that little bit nervous – not enough to try to talk him out of going, but enough to let a few morbid thoughts squeeze their way into my colorful imagination.

I’d failed to pack Buddy-roo’s favorite doudou and pillow for her to have with her in the car, this was the original cause for her torrent of tears. The car was parked too far away from home to return to fetch the prized items, she’d have to do without. Then she realized that I wasn’t accompanying them to the country and this became her main beef. There was nothing I could do to console her; I knew the only answer was for De-facto to simply drive away. But that didn’t make it a very easy departure, for any of us.

Within a few blocks, however, the lump in my throat disintegrated and I regained my clarity and you could even say there was a little spring in my step: a contained enthusiasm about the idea of two nights – and full day in between them – to be all alone in my own home.

It’s not that I don’t get time to myself during the course of a regular day (though it never seems to be enough), but it’s impossible to get a long stretch of uninterrupted and unaccompanied hours in my own apartment. I have to be in my studio, or at a café, or away on business – and I do use that time to resource myself – but there’s nothing like a weekend of absolute solitude in the comfort of your very own home. If you live alone, you might not appreciate that sheer joy of this solitude – or maybe you do – but I can tell you with two children and a partner, I forget what tranquility is like, except perhaps late at night when I’m too tired to appreciate it fully.

I love how you walk in the door and it’s absolutely still. Everything is just as you’ve left it. There is no wooden train track encircling the kitchen island with tenuously-constructed bridges tipping over each time you try to move from the refrigerator to the sink. There are no coats left in the hall, no shoes by the couch, no upside-down-and-open books and thin strips of just-cut colored paper and partially-finished spontaneous art-projects left on the table, the floor, the stairs or anywhere in your sight. I know these are the accoutrements of a creative childhood, and I believe I indulge and encourage them sufficiently. But just once in a while, it’s nice to have the house left how I like it, without having to nag anyone to get it that way. This only happens when they’re gone.

Then there’s the quiet. But don’t you love the sound of their feet pounding down the stairs, shouts of “Mama!” delivered with the same enthusiasm as if they hadn’t seen you for weeks, even though you walked them to school this morning? Yes. And. The fact that what’s usually playing in the background at home is the constant chatter of children, the talking and telling and an occasional tantrum, the sound of a hundred plastic pieces being dumped out of a bin onto the floor; it’s all one continuous loop of noise. I get that it’s good noise, it’s the noise of a happy family. But sometimes, it’s just nice to be happy without it, too.

The weekend was all mine. I did go out with some friends, knowing that if I had too much to drink, the following morning’s discomfort could be slept away without having to negotiate the manufacturing of pancakes. Yet I exercised discipline, because I was so excited to have a day to myself to do things alone in my own home, that I didn’t want to spoil this precious opportunity by being even the least bit hungover.

I went for hours without talking with anyone. I talked to myself, out loud, without anyone thinking I was nuts. I worked a little, but not too much. I wrote a little. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted. A little slice-a-heaven.

This weekend coming up, it turns out, I’ll get another break from all that noise. This time I’m the one going away: I’ll slide through the Chunnel to London to attend Cybermummy, a conference for British mums who blog. I didn’t plan these consecutive escapes from the girls (and there’s even another one coming up) and I know I should take advantage of another noiseless weekend without remorse. I should be more excited about going. I am looking forward to the reunion with several of the fab femmes I met last year at the BlogHer conference. But packing my suitcase tonight, I looked out at the mess of shoes and books and toys strewn about my living room, and I heard the girls upstairs opening and closing drawers, changing in and out of play-dresses and costumes, acting out the wild stories or singing songs they’ve made up on the spot, and I thought, I don’t mind it so much their precious, playful noise.

I might even miss it.


Dec 29 2009

Garbo Days

You know I love those two little rug-rat creatures of mine. They furnish dozens of adorable moments each day, doing or saying something funny or sweet. The simple extension one of their peach-soft hands upward toward me, a gesture of such complete trust, is sometimes all it takes to wet my eyes and thrust me into a state in awe. How did I ever have such beautiful children? I must have done something good.

However there are just as many dozen moments in the day when I would just like them to please be quiet and go away and leave me alone. If you listen closely, you can hear me parrot Greta Garbo under my breath, “I want to be alone.
I want to be alone.”

I’m not the first woman to know this paradox, and I won’t be the last.

You can imagine, then, the gladness and joy I experienced when one of the presents under the Christmas tree for Mère Noel was De-facto’s offer to take Short-pants and Buddy-roo to the country for a few days – without me.

He knows my fondness for going to the country house wanes in winter. It’s a lot of work to open and close the house in the warmer months, but in the cold weather that work is augmented by all things that must be undone and then done again to protect pipes and water tanks. Not to mention arriving to an unheated house. It takes at least two days for the wood stove to truly warm the walls and you have to let the fire die before you leave. The visit, then, is book-ended by hours of hovering and shivering and wearing mittens inside. My idea of nothing to do.

Late on Christmas Day afternoon I shut the trunk and waved as they drove away, and I have been alone, in my home, without another creature stirring for four days. Four days of solitude. Four days of freedom.

The quiet that stretches its waking arms throughout the apartment is delicious. I hear only the muffled voices of people in the street, an occasional sound of a neighbor in the hall, a nearby church bell ringing. No pattering feet. No screaming and crying and “Mama, watch this!” No voices in stereo vying for attention.

There are no marbles, pet-shops-creatures, Barbie shoes or other small, unidentified pieces of plastic left on the floor to torture my bare morning feet. No toys or dirty stuffed animals, no pretend stores, schools, or cars constructed of chairs, pillows and blankets to navigate when crossing my living room. Absolutely no sign of that big doll, often splayed on the couch. I’ve relegated her to a far corner upstairs.

No interruptions when I’m in the middle of something; that means complete privacy during all ablutions and eliminations.

It’s paradise.

What to do with all that time?

There’s reading, an attempt to make a dent in that pile of books on the bed table. There’s writing, on-line and off. There’s sorting and organizing those papers and things that pile up. There’s catching up with my electronic life, clearing out emails and diving deep into the blogosphere. (Ah, the sweet pleasure of unlimited time to click-through; to tumble deep into my curiosity and then into the web of information to satisfy it, without watching the clock.) There’s sleeping in, until noon. There’s complete autonomy. Decisions are all up to me. One day, I didn’t even change out of my pajamas.

I have remembered what is too easily forgotten: hours without boundary. This only fortifies my belief in the importance of solitude. I have never minded being alone. I think both my mother and father made an asserted effort to instill in me – especially, as a youngest sibling – the capacity to be content with my own company. I’m grateful; it means I’m rarely lonely. But this conditioning has its price. Without sufficient private alone time, I become awfully grumpy.

Greta Garbo is quoted as saying, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Yes. Just because I’m so delighted to be alone does not mean I’d seek permanent separation from my family; if they were gone for good I’d be shattered. I just want, from time to time, to be left alone. The sense of peace that has come over me this weekend proves the value of such solitude; I feel grounded and calm, like the old me.

A text message from De-facto just a few hours ago tells me they’re on their way home. I must admit I’m a bit terrified. The order and solace of my home will be broken, an eruption of laughter and play will bounce off these walls again. I will have to readjust.

At the end of the scene in the movie Grand Hotel, where Garbo utters those words that haunted her for the rest of her career (watch the clip here) she makes a phone call to find out what happened at the ballet. “They didn’t miss me at all,” she whispers, in despair.

It’s probably not today – since I’m pretty sure those two little girls will run strong and fast into my embrace when they return – but I know in a few years time, they won’t even miss me at all. Then maybe I might not appreciate the solitude so much. But for now, how lovely to have been left alone for a few days.

It makes all the difference.