Tag Archive - Endurance

A Pilgrim Tale: day four

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At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage through unforeseen places that enlarge and enrich the soul.

~John O’Donohue

Before leaving Zubiri, we tuck into a bustling little coffee shop for one of the more decadent breakfasts we will have on the camino. The proprietor offers to warm our chocolate chip muffins, and when we break them open, we discover a gooey, molten center. Oh! My! Mike will tell stories about these muffins for the rest of our trip, stopping at one bakery after another, trying to find them again.

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Today’s walk is up and down hills, past grapevine clad houses and trees heavy with fruit. We pay a brief visit to the Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz, the ruined church of Santa Lucia, which has recently been purchased by a former pilgrim from South Africa and his Spanish bride and is being lovingly restored in the hopes of creating a museum of Basque culture and possibly an albergue.

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We also pass a house that will be familiar to you if you have seen Emilio Estevez’s film, The Way. Do you remember a long table in a garden, Tom’s first encounter with cynical Sarah from Canada, and the innkeeper who would have liked to be a bullfighter? Yeah, that house. Cue James Taylor. ūüėČ

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We take a most meaningful detour up to Zabaldika to visit the 13th century church of San Esteban (St. Stephen). Here we are invited to climb the winding stone stairs up to the belfry and ring one of the ancient bells, sending our prayers out over the valley.

The trail leading away from the church is lovely, along a dry desert hillside where lavender and anise grow in profusion. The scent is intoxicating. I stop from time to time and run my hands over them, drinking in their fragrance. Also, there are dry stems covered in what I first believe to be white blossoms, but they are actually snails. Hundreds of snails. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I will, again and again, before we are done. And there is a farm with turkeys and ducks, chickens and goats. A fun surprise.

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The entrance into Pamplona is impressive, leading us under and around and finally through the ancient walls that once protected her. We secure beds at the albergue Jesus Y Maria, built into the nave of a 17th century Jesuit church. A clean room with rows and rows of bunks accommodates several of our friends including Rhys and the lads–who we will find practicing some restorative yoga later–David and Jan, Shay and Nichol.

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After a shower, Mike and I head out for an explore. First up, the art deco masterpiece, Cafe Iruna.

“The square was hot. The flags hung on their staffs, and it was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs around the square…We take coffee in the Iruna, sitting in comfortable armchairs, while from the cool shadow of the arcades contemplating the great square.”

~Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

We forego the coffee, but do share a piece of chocolate cake. And there is an accordion player. And the square is hot.

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Mike runs for a bit with the bulls. Then, like the bulls, we make our way to the famous Plaza de Toros, where I have my picture made with a bust of Papa Hemingway.

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Dinner turns out to be another of our more memorable meals. We feast on pintxos (pronounced pinch-ohs, Basque for tapas)¬† at a table on the plaza directly opposite the lovely town hall. Many of the cafes offer pintxos specials. Our plate–chef’s choice of nine pintxos–and bottle of wine is only 12 euros. There is plenty for both of us and it is so good. Padron peppers (amazing!!), tortilla con papas, chorizo, another type of sausage that is tasty but it is best to not ask too many questions about, seafood salad, calamari, chicken wings, and a couple of things I have forgotten.

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Travel notes:

It is entirely possible to do the camino on the cheap. Though we anticipated spending the occasional night in a hotel, we ended up electing to stay in albergues all the way. These ranged in price from 5-12 euros/person. Some are donativo, meaning pay what you can. We usually paid the same amount at these, or more if a meal was included. We probably averaged around 15-18 euros each for food per day.

Also, a word about bedbugs: It is one of the great preoccupations for pilgrims. Hospitaleros do what they can, but anytime you move this many people through the same space day after day, it is always a possibility. We personally did not encounter them, but we met people who did. Here are a few tips: Pretreat your backpack and sleeping bag before traveling with a natural product called pyrethrin. One treatment is good for 30-40 days or so which will be just about enough. Also, lavender oil is said to repel them. We always travel with lavender oil, so any time we felt like the risk was higher, and especially toward the end of our trip when our spray was wearing off, we used it as well. Some people made a spray with lavender or clove oils which they used to spray mattresses. Finally, bedbugs tend to leave droppings in the seams of mattresses, so that is a good place to investigate before bedding down.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day three

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A pilgrimage is a way of praying with your feet. You go on a pilgrimage because you know there is something missing inside your soul, and the only way you can find it is to go to sacred places, places where God made Himself known to others. In sacred places, something gets done to you that you’ve been unable to do for yourself.

~Ian Cron, Chasing Francis

Lights go on at 6:00 and we are sung to wakefulness by strolling minstrels. Our kind hosts graciously push us out the door before dawn. Despite considerable altitude change, today feels like a recovery day (compared to yesterday) consisting mostly of rolling farmland and woodland paths.

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Dew speckled geraniums grow wild along the fence-rows. And a profusion of blackberries, grapes and apples have us drooling all day. Medieval pilgrims would have helped themselves, but we only partake of the wild blackberries. The number of pilgrims has grown to such a formidable number that we would unnecessarily burden the poor local farmers.

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Instead, we stop at the first market and pick up sweet, juicy nectarines and add them to our sheep cheese for a nourishing, delicious picnic breakfast.

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We walk for a while this morning with our new friend, Rhys. She tells us about her dear daddy who she lost way too early to ALS. She also lets us in on the fact that doctors aren’t optimistic about her chances of living a long life. As a result, she is trying to squeeze as much out of her days as she can, while she can. She will be a bright ray of wild, warm light in these early days of our Camino, and saying goodbye to her down the road will be more difficult than we can possibly imagine on this sweet morning when the world is still fresh and new.

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Mike and Paul catch up to us around mid-day. This will become a familiar pattern. They start later, but move faster. So it is inevitable that, most days, they will overtake us at some point. And how do they spend their break? Playing hacky sack of course. “To loosen everything up,” they explain. ūüôā Oh, to be young again…

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Although many of our friends will continue on to Larrasoana tonight, so as to have more time in Pamplona tomorrow, we elect to stay in the medieval town of Zubiri as part of our commitment to starting slow. Our small, intimate Albergue, Zaldiko, is near the bridge. I am struck by a watercolor behind the innkeeper’s desk; a painting of her and her albergue by an artist who came here on the Camino, and later came back to stay. He left her the watercolor as a gift.

Shortly after we sit down to dinner on an outdoor patio, Perry and Samra come walking by. We convince them to join us for what is to be, though we do not know it yet, our final meal together. We talk about civil war, Sudan, Bosnia and Croatia, religion, smoking, topless bathing, family, facebook, and what it might look like to meet up in Bosnia sometime.

Tomorrow, Hemingway’s Pamplona. But a couple of delicious detours still lie between here and there…

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Gear Note:

After yesterday’s brutal downhills, a familar hot spot along my right big toe is acting up. On this day, I use moleskin as usual. It does not help, at all. Tomorrow, I will use a product called Compeed which is made and sold in Europe. It is marvelous!! Tomorrow, I will not feel the hot spot at all. I will wear this same tiny circle of Compeed for three days or so before it finally comes off and I have to replace it (for the last time). Beyond this, I have accumulated enough callous to not need anything.

To be fair, I should say that friends who use Compeed on a blister that has already formed do not find it helpful at all. But, for me, it seems to be one factor that insures I never have to deal with a blister in the first place. There are as many “tried and true” methods of foot care as there are pilgrims: duct tape, threading blisters, salves, creams, sandals with socks, sandals without socks, on and on. Use what works for you. But never stop being curious and teachable. ūüôā

A Pilgrim Tale: day two

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They serve us BOWLS of coffee for breakfast, and I kinda want to kiss them. There is also orange juice, and toast with butter and marmalade. We pick up our preordered chorizo sandwiches and stuff them in our packs for lunch. We thank our innkeepers, fill our water bottles, and begin.

It is difficult to keep my eyes on the road because there are fathomless views in every direction. As we climb over and through the mountain passes, new vistas present themselves at every turn. Freely roaming flocks of sheep (and herds of horses) are everywhere. We sometimes hear their baaing and bells before we see them. We watch a shepherd moving his flock. He drives along the road (with his sheepdog leaning over his shoulder) whistling through the open window. And his sheep scurry along the grassy hillside right alongside him, as if he were walking with them.

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We leave the path to climb up to the Vierge d’Orisson (the Virgin of Orisson),¬†the first¬†of many shrines along the Way honoring the Mother of God. The setting is¬†breathtaking. And¬†it is good to reflect on her example of humble submission here at the beginning of our pilgrimage.

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The wind is ferocious. The shirt and socks I safety pinned on the outside of my pack because they were still wet have dried completely by mid-morning. We attribute the wind to the altitude, a theory supported somewhat by the many trees that have grown with a permanent lean in one direction. But this is unusual, even here. Later this afternoon, pilgrims will be removed from the mountain, and tomorrow the pass will be (unofficially) closed. The winds are clocked at 120 kmp (80 mph).

We have packed a lunch because we have been told there will be no food til we reach Roncevalles. Imagine our delight when we happen upon a food truck cozied into a little indention in one of the hills. We buy fruit and hot cocoa and homemade sheep cheese. Sheep cheese will become an obsession. (There might be some in my refrigerator, even as I write this.) Here we meet Steve, who some years ago quit his job, sold everything, and bought a sailboat. He has a water catchment system and mostly feeds himself on the fish he catches. He is on pilgrimage while his sailboat is undergoing repairs in Trinidad.

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We pass a stone hut built into the mountain. It was formerly used by shepherds, but is now sometimes used as emergency shelter by pilgrims caught out in bad weather. It will be used tonight. Not far past this, we cross the inauspicious cattle gate that marks the border between France and Spain. The path is littered here on both sides with clumps of heather and delicate crocus blossoms.

The descent into Roncesvalles is the steepest I have ever encountered. Anywhere. Ever. I am grateful for both my ankle brace and my poles. And for the trees that now protect us from the wind.

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The Albergue Colegiata at Rocesvalles is one of the most efficient we will encounter in our whole trip. We are pointed toward a large, orderly closet where we deposit our boots on shelves. We check in and are assigned numbered bunks, and directed to our respective floors. Large, spotlessly clean rooms are divided into tidy cubicles of four bunks, each with a locker at the end. You insert a coin to turn the key and lock the locker. Your coin is returned when you unlock the locker and take your things. Showers and toilets, also pristine, are arranged in a long room at the end of the hall.

We have the pilgrim supper at the nearby hotel which consists of soup, bread, wine, and a delicious local trout. Our dinner companions are Mike and Paul, two Mennonite boys from Winnipeg who have just finished college and are out adventuring and figuring out what comes next. Thresholds seem to be a common theme on the Camino. Later they, and we, are joined by Rhys, a vivacious young woman from Oregon they have come to know already, and who will later adopt Mike and me as her Camino uncle and aunt.

This evening we attend our first pilgrim mass. Though we understand little of the language, it is good to be in this sacred place with these people who are already knitting themselves into our hearts…

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Travel notes:

All photos in this and all other posts taken with my iphone 5c (sometimes edited/compiled with instaframe/instagram). When every inch and every ounce counts, a smartphone is a marvelous multi-tool. Camera, computer, repository for notes and contact info, ipod, etc… We did not activate our phone service, we kept them in airplane mode with wifi activated. Wifi, pronounced “Wee Fee” :), was inconsistent and sometimes, like at Orisson, completely unavailable. But we found it often enough to be able to stay connected to family.

Also, there are a great many travel guides for camino travelers. The one we used, and saw most often among English speakers, was John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.

 

A Pilgrim Tale: day one

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14 September, 2015:

We breakfast to the sound of rain. Weather forecasters predict it will be done by 7:00 They are wrong. We nourish our courage with warm cups of tea and coffee, then put on pack covers and rain gear. We exchange hugs, take photos of one another, and wish our new friends a good way. We fill our water bottles at the fountain by the church. And we walk.

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The rain comes and goes all morning. It is so cool that we sometimes see our breath. But inside our jackets, we begin to sweat from the exertion.

All around us is astonishing beauty. Lush green pastures, bordered by great stands of trees, where sheep and cattle graze. The clanging of their bells forms a musical counterpoint to the whisper of falling mist and the deep silence that lies over these fields like a blanket.

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Mist crawls in and out of the valleys. Clouds reach down long, filmy fingers, drinking in more water to sustain the rain. Queen Anne’s Lace, purple heather, and fields of fern bend in the wind. And rain drenched honeysuckle and other fence flowers¬†startle us with their delicious fragrance.

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The climbing is hard. This first day is a baptism of fire. Because I am still recovering from a stress fracture, and Mike is only two days out from a marathon, we have decided to divide it into two parts. I cringe a little every time I tell someone this. I feel like a coward. But perhaps this is good for me. Perhaps humility is to be one of the gifts of the Camino. Truth is, once we arrive at Refuge Orisson wet and cold and send our friends back out into the rain for 10 more miles, it suddenly feels like a pretty good idea.

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A fire roars in the fireplace. Rain jackets are draped over every available surface. Pilgrims come and go from long communal tables where they slurp steaming bowls of soup and munch long, crusty baguette¬†sandwiches. Most of them still have a rigorous climb ahead of them today. We¬†take¬†two empty spots across from Jorge, a firefighter from Miami who was born in Columbia; his feisty, slender fianc√© Kelly who is stuffing half her sandwich in her pocket for later (we are told she eats twice as much as Jorge :)); and Kelly’s mom Kathy, who was the catalyst behind this trip. She is a quietly¬†devout woman.

After the lunch rush has subsided, the innkeeper shows us to the timbered attic room we will share with Norm and Cathy, a couple from Seattle whom were our¬†roommates last night as well,¬†and two gentlemen from Sweden. She gives each of us a token we can use for our five minute shower (It’s on a timer, you understand. DO NOT dilly dally!), and tells us what time to expect supper.

I trot off down the hall with my token and indulge in a gloriously warm five minute shower. I pull on dry clothes. I realize I have never properly appreciated the sensation of being dry. I hand wash my shirt, socks, and unmentionables and hang them on the (covered, thank goodness) outdoor drying rack (drying, in this case, being mostly a figure of speech).

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The rain has stopped, so I put on my coat and dry wool socks and find a perch on the deck where the sun and wind will hopefully dry my hair. I watch Griffin vultures effortlessly ride wind currents over the valley. I take out my journal and try to capture thoughts and impressions before they run away from me.

Last night at dinner, we were asked to share our reasons for walking the Camino. I realize those reasons are becoming less clear. I am trying to walk with open hands and trust the process.

At dinner we meet two couples who will become very dear to us. Samra and Perry. David and Jan.

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Samra grew up in Bosnia and endured the brutal civil war there. She is a strong woman with a keen and unpredictable sense of humor. I imagine how that must have served her well during those difficult days. Perry is easy going and affable with a sharp intellect. Samra and Perry met when he came to Bosnia with an aid organization. They were coworkers. Since marrying, they have lived in Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Costa Rica and probably a host of other places I am forgetting. They are presently working with World Vision in South Sudan.

David and Jan are a beautiful couple from Vancouver, B.C. They enjoy hiking and adventure and have travelled widely. We talk about all this, and¬†about our kids, about David’s job as a marine biologist, and about the knitting business Jan helped to build and is in the process of selling. (spoiler alert: you will see a lot of these two in pages to come…)

We help collect dishes, and carry them to the kitchen. The innkeeper refills our wine jug. Again. And we talk until long after most of our fellow pilgrims have turned in.

Later, we¬†bed down in our chilly room, pulling the wool blankets we’ve been given up over our sleeping bags, and sleep the deep sleep of the weary and well fed. My heart is full.

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Travel Note:

Animals on the loose are very much a part of these first few days. They are not wild animals, though. Many wear bells (or a ring in the nose, as the case may be), and all of them know their shepherd.

Gear note:

Mike and I carried lightweight, but warm sleeping bags. However, some of our friends used only sleeping bag liners or warm weather bags. As many of the Auberges in colder locations (like Orisson) will provide you with blankets, this is usually sufficient.

 

A Pilgrim Tale

As the train carries us from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I am surprised to find myself frightened. For years we have been planning for and dreaming of this moment, and now that it is upon us I feel sick to my stomach.

What if I can’t take sleeping in a room filled with stinky, snoring pilgrims?

What if it rains for days and I can’t get dry and I¬†get pneumonia and die in some Spanish hospital and never see my babies again?

What if I was never really cut out to be a pilgrim after all and have to tuck my tail between my legs and slink off home in utter humiliation?

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Then, all of a sudden we are boarding a bus for the final miles into St. Jean Pied de Port¬†and travelling across fresh green hillsides dotted with white plastered¬†houses bearing¬†striking roofs and shutters of red or green (required). Further on,¬†the jagged,¬†sapphire¬†peaks of the Pyrenees stab a cerulean sky littered with wispy white clouds. And I realize that, even if all those things prove to be true, being in this place–just here, just now–is worth all the trouble.

The bus disgorges a¬†whole gaggle of pilgrims–boots, backpacks¬† and all–at the bottom of the town, and so begin our first attempts at navigation, some more successful than others. Eventually we land before the door of our first Auberge, Beilari, directly across from the Pilgrim Office. We are welcomed by Maria who receives pilgrims on weekends while the owners are away. She shows us our bunks, the bathrooms, and where to put our boots. She gives us¬†covers for our mattresses and¬†pillows, and tells us that¬†dinner is served at 7:30 and¬†that the¬†front door will be locked for the evening at 10:00.

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After depositing our packs on the floor at the end of our bunks (Never on the beds! Chinches, you understand. Bedbugs.), we head across the narrow street to queue up at the pilgrim office. Here we receive our pilgrim passport, the scallop shell that we will wear on our packs to mark us as pilgrims, a map, and a list of places to sleep.

We wander about town, travelling up to the ancient Citadel for breathtaking views out over the valley. When we return to the auberge, Maria allows us to help her put supper onto the table in the courtyard. Here we gather with strangers over a meal of soup, cheese, chorizo, bread and wine. Two hours later, we leave the table as friends, having shared the stories of love and longing, pain, devotion and curiosity that brought us here.

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Tomorrow we will be separated from several of our new friends (though¬†we will find many of them again before journey’s end). And we will make room for new friends. This is part of the Way. Learning to live in community. And learning to let go.

O how many unknown things
You made known to me.
In how many places
You found room for me.
What was distant, Friend,
You brought near.
The stranger
You made my brother, my sister.

~Rabindranath Tagore

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*On September 14, 2015, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Mike and I began walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain. I had planned to blog along the way, but quickly learned there simply was not time enough in our days for blogging. So I journaled, sort of, and took lots of photos, with the hope of reconstructing the stories when we were home. My blog was down for a while in the fall for technical reasons, so I decided the cold, gray days of January might be a nice time to return to sunny Spain. I invite you to come along.

The entries will appear in the form of a travelogue, roughly one per day. I will be relying on journal notes and photos, and my memory. My fellow pilgrims are welcome to provide corrections–or additions–where appropriate.

Travel Note:

There are several roads to Santiago. The most popular is the one we walked, the Camino Frances, which typically begins in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) and ends, 800 kilometers later, in Santiago de Compostella (Spain). For the first few days pilgrims pass through Basque country, a region with a strong cultural identity, much coveted by both France and Spain. Most locals consider themselves Basque first, and French or Spanish second.

 

Letting Go

Imagine your departure as a metamorphosis. Through simple acts of intention and attention, you can transform even a sleepwalking trip into a soulful journey. The first step is to SLOW DOWN. The next one is to treat EVERYTHING that comes your way as part of the sacred time that envelops your pilgrimage.

~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

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It has been more difficult than I imagined: the weeks, days, now hours, leading up to our departure.

First, there was the injury. A stress fracture, diagnosed just 5 weeks out. Just like that, the marathon was gone. But the pilgrimage? Who could say?

Days before, I had read this admonition in the guidebook: “Remember, this is an inner as well as an outer journey. Be sure you spend at least as much time preparing your spiritual body as you do your physical body.”

Snap.

Immediately a film reel rolled before my eyes: hours spent researching lightweight sleeping bags and backpacks, reading pilgrim forums and attending presentations. And goodness know how many hours on the trail. Yet precious little time asking why I was doing this or seeking God’s design.

Until the doctor handed me the boot. Literally. “This is to protect the bone and make sure it heals straight. But mostly, it’s to slow you down. Stay off it as much as possible.”

So while I was “staying off it” and icing religiously, I decided to embrace this sudden “opportunity” to take a hard look inside. What if this was never meant to be a physical pilgrimage at all? What if there was as much for me to learn sitting here on the couch and letting go of my agenda as there was traipsing across Spain? Could I be ok with that?

I spent some time reading. The book referenced above, for starters. It made for a pretty great perspective shift. I had borrowed the book, so I filled my phone with some of the more radiant, and uncomfortable, phrases.

I pulled other books off the shelf that had been lifegiving to me and scribbled favorite passages into my pilgrim journal. I knew I would want them close to me on my journey. And even closer if the journey didn’t happen.

And I spent a good deal of time being still.

And slow.

I like to think I came to a place of being at peace with whatever God had for me in this. “Be flexible,” my friend Debra said to me on the morning of my doctor’s appointment. “Be willing to walk the path God gives you.”

Turns out the path involves starting, at least. I am cleared to go, thanks be to God. And am advised to take it slowly, a concept which is as foreign to me as the two languages I will be corrupting over the next few weeks. I know that if the pain returns, I have to stop.

Meanwhile, I find myself putting away laundry and fondly stroking the clothes I will not see for ages. In fact, all my worldly goods, at least all the ones going with me, are in that backpack you see up there. Except my sleeping bag, which I haven’t rolled up yet because I still have to treat it for bedbugs, ūüė≥ and the¬†one outfit that I will wear ever single solitary day from this Wednesday until October 21st. Oh, did I mention that all my worldly goods (including sleeping bag) weigh 14 pounds?

Last night, Mike innocently said to me, “Just three more nights to sleep in our own bed.” And I almost cried.

Apparently, part of what this sacred time means for me is to let go. To let go of my demands that this look the way I imagine it should. To let go of clothes, and make-up, and the flowers I had to cut down because they would become gangly and unkempt while I was gone. To let go of the house renovation project that began last week and must continue without me there to hover and get in the way.¬†To let go of my children and the grand baby for a while and trust that they’ll be ok without me. And that I will be ok without them. To let go of friends who are hurting and trust that God will take better care of them than I ever could, and believe that my prayers might be a far better gift than my presence.

It is begun. We leave on Wednesday, God willing. And I will make every attempt to report here from time to time. As best I can. On my phone. Which will not really be functioning as a phone because that costs a million dollars, but as a wifi receptor/the world’s smallest computer. This is my first attempt at posting from my phone so the jury is still out on how that works.

But I am letting go of that.

By the way, I write as though you know what I am talking about, which might not be the case at all. So, if you are new round here: my hubby and I are off to walk an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain. The Camino de Santiago. It culminates at the tomb of Saint James, Apostle of our Lord. 500 miles, give or take. God willing, we hope to commence on the Feast day of the Elevation of the Cross (Monday, 14 September). Two days before this, Mike will run the Marathon du Medoc in Pauillac, France. Alas, I will be cheering him on from the sidelines.

p.s. I corrected the photo on my computer, otherwise it would have appeared on your screen sideways. Incidentally, I didn’t even know it was sideways on my phone. So, be warned, you might have to stand on your head, or at least turn your computer sideways to see the photos I upload into these posts… ūüėú

 

 

 

The Lenten Spring Has Come!

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The lenten spring has come!
Let us begin the time of fasting in light!
Preparing ourselves for the spiritual efforts.
Let us purify our soul; let us purify our body.
As from food, let us abstain from all passion
and enjoy the virtues of the spirit,
So that perfected in time by love
We may all be made worthy to see
the Passion of Christ and the Holy Pascha
In spiritual joy!
~from the Lenten Triodion

Spring Cleaning

It is a time honored tradition, even in Appalachia where I grew up and where we were anything but liturgical. Of course, it is not the only time we clean our houses. But this is a time for going deep. For pulling furniture away from the walls to get to the cobwebs and dust bunnies. For washing windows. For pruning rosebushes and clearing planting beds.

And so it is with our souls. How perfect that Lent is a springtime affair! As I expose and scrub the dark recesses of my home, I ask my loving Father to expose the dark places in me and make them clean. As I prune away the detritus of last season’s growth, the rot and ravages of winter, I invite the Gardener to cut away that in me which contaminates, impeding my growth.

Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world”. ~Alexander Schmemann

In the Orthodox church, there are two primary focuses as we commence our lenten effort: fasting and forgiveness.

The Holy Therapy of Fasting

Alexander Schmemann describes the “holy therapy of fasting” as “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal…our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter and the world.” He points out that Adam’s fall was an act of eating, a grasping for sustenance that was not communion with God but reliance on what he could provide for himself; a transgression of which I too often am guilty. Conversely, Jesus began His work of restoration with a period of fasting…

Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone, but by God. ~Schmemann

Ours is a prescribed fast. We do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs for the whole of Lent. Olive oil and wine are permitted only on weekends. Vegetables digest very quickly and hunger becomes a familiar companion. And the hunger in my belly becomes my teacher.

In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. ~Schmemann

Forgiveness

The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition , separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness. ~Schmemann

Lent officially begins for us with the beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. It is one of the most meaningful services of the whole year. One by one, we bow before each member of the church and say these words, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and in response hear the sweet words “God forgives and I forgive.” Then we embrace. Who knows how many hurts are carried into that room? Yet not one person refuses to bow. Not one refuses to forgive.

This year I delighted in watching four year old Titus continually press ahead in the crowd, so eager was he to ask the next person to forgive him. And I thought of what it means to have that planted deep in him at this age. May he ever be this eager to seek restoration. May we all.

Wash me with my tears, O Saviour, for I am defiled by many sins. Therefore I fall down before Thee: I have sinned, have mercy on me, O God. ~Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers

The Church strengthens us in this, our first week, with nightly services. Three nights we will pray the penitential Canon of St. Andrew. And the prayers and the prostrations begin to weave repentance into our very cells.

I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’…As precious ointment, O Saviour, I empty on Thine head the alabaster box of my tears. Like the Harlot, I cry out to Thee, seeking Thy mercy: I bring my prayer and ask to receive forgiveness. ~Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew

Soul Food

Even as we discipline and deny our bodies, we are encouraged to feed our souls. In addition to availing myself of the services the Church so kindly provides to us in this season, I am also nourishing myself with Scripture and with good books.

Last year, I made a commitment to begin memorizing the words of Christ. I began with the Sermon on the Mount because it is three chapters of uninterrupted teaching. I was surprised by two things: How relatively easy it was to learn (because God honored and blessed the endeavor, I am quite sure) and by how much I have come to treasure those words. When I have difficulty sleeping, I recite them and they still my mind and bring me rest. I rehearse them when I am washing dishes or working in the garden. And it is remarkable how often I have needed those words to share with someone and there they were. I also committed John 17 (my favorite chapter in the whole Bible) to memory. Over the course of Lent, I hope to add chapters 14-16 of John. To hold in my heart those dear words He shared with His beloveds in His last hours on the earth is of inestimable worth.

Here are the books I will be reading. All are re-reads, save The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This book is read in monasteries all over the world each year at Lent. This year, I am joining them.

Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann
The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus
The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris

A blessed Lenten journey to you all.

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It all began this morning when Mike and I arrived in the bathroom at precisely the same time to take a shower; I because Kenzie was arriving soon and this was my window, he because he had to leave for a meeting. Of course, he assumed I would yield to him. Because he has the job that actually pays money, I guess. He didn’t say that. But he did get the first shower.

And all day I have wrestled with an issue that has been pestering me, drooping from the front edge of my brain for weeks now. What is it that I do? Who am I anyway? A friend I haven’t seen in some time innocently asked me, just this morning, what I am doing these days. One of my kids even asked, not that long ago, how I fill my time now that all but one of them is grown.

I don’t know. How do I?

God knows, I am not writing. If you have ever followed this blog, you know that. I don’t know why I stopped. But, I can’t seem to make myself start back. When I was writing every day, there was less pressure. So…one day I ramble or write something no one cares about? Maybe next day will be better. But now, when I haven’t written for two months, it should be something really good, right? And I can’t handle the pressure. So I don’t write anything. I just sit around resenting the people who are out there doing it every day. People whose lives are far more productive than mine. And still they find time to write. Still they have something to say.

And maybe that’s it.

Maybe I have nothing worth saying anyway.

How can I be this old, and this tired, and have accomplished so little?

Sure, I have raised some pretty great kids. But so have plenty of other folks who also held down full-time jobs and brought home a pay-check every week. And the truth is, though I love my kids and am proud of them, not one of them has had an easy road. So what was it that I thought I could give them by walking away from a job that I loved and giving myself entirely to being their mom? Would they have been better off if I had been less involved?

I honestly don’t know.

This past Sunday, the teaching of the Church was on the Pharisee and the Publican. Humility. And I sat and piously nodded my head and resolved to spend some time this week thinking about that. But I am pretty sure self-loathing, and rage against feelings of being invisible and under-appreciated and maybe having wasted my life thus far, are not exactly what the priest had in mind.

On the up side, I gave myself permission to write it all down. On the not so up side, it kind of looks like so much vomit on the page and I wonder if, in a couple of hours, I will pull it all down and hope nobody saw it.

Here is what I really wish I knew: What is it that gives value to a life? How do you know if you are doing/being that kind of person, the one that matters, the one whose absence will be felt, the one whose presence will live on, long after they have gone?

The Radical Defiance of Giving Thanks

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Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. ~I Thessalonians 5:18

Much of the time I feel like I lead a charmed life saturated with beauty and grace. Gratitude, for me, is as natural as breathing. But there have been seasons in my life when choosing to be grateful was an act of radical defiance. A trembling candle held out against the gathering dark. Maybe you know what that feels like. Maybe you are there now.

Gregory Petrov knew. A priest, he had been imprisoned by revolutionary forces in a Siberian gulag. Here, he would meet his death. In his personal effects, they found a prayer. He had titled it “Glory to God for All Things”–words uttered by St. John Chrysostom as he was dying in exile. An act of radical defiance. “A song of praise from amidst the most terrible sufferings.”

Last night we prayed his words. At times, their piercing loveliness caught in my throat. My heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears.

Wherever you find yourself on this day, I offer you his words. Perhaps they simply give voice to the deep joy in your heart. But, perhaps they are a vehicle for you to ride into a place of gratitude. A borrowed thanks. A radical defiance against your own gathering dark.

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O Lord, how lovely it is to be Thy guest. Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun’s golden rays and the scudding clouds. All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness. Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Thy love. Blessed art thou, mother earth, in thy fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever, in the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, the cry rings out: Alleluia!

Thou hast brought me into life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams. We have tasted fruit of fine flavour and the sweet-scented honey. We can live very well on Thine earth. It is a pleasure to be Thy guest.

Glory to Thee for the Feast Day of life
Glory to Thee for the perfume of lilies and roses
Glory to Thee for each different taste of berry and fruit
Glory to Thee for the sparkling silver of early morning dew
Glory to Thee for the joy of dawn’s awakening
Glory to Thee for the new life each day brings
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

How glorious art Thou in the springtime, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings Thy praises with a thousand tongues. Thou art the Source of Life, the Destroyer of Death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding garments, white as snow. All the earth is Thy promised bride awaiting her spotless husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to Thee, bringing from the depth of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature
Glory to Thee for the numberless creatures around us
Glory to Thee for the depths of Thy wisdom, the whole world a living sign of it
Glory to Thee; on my knees, I kiss the traces of Thine unseen hand
Glory to Thee, enlightening us with the clearness of eternal life
Glory to Thee for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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When the sun is setting, when quietness falls like the peace of eternal sleep, and the silence of the spent day reigns, then in the splendour of its declining rays, filtering through the clouds, I see Thy dwelling-place: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of Thy presence, and call to us in their majesty. We turn to the Father.

How near Thou art in the day of sickness. Thou Thyself visitest the sick; Thou Thyself bendest over the sufferer’s bed. His heart speaks to Thee. In the throes of sorrow and suffering Thou bringest peace and unexpected consolation. Thou art the comforter. Thou art the love which watches over and heals us. To Thee we sing the song: Alleluia!

When Thou didst call me to serve my brothers and filled my soul with humility, one of Thy deep, piercing rays shone into my heart; it became luminous, full of light like iron glowing in the furnace. I have seen Thy face, face of mystery and of unapproachable glory.

Glory to Thee, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love
Glory to Thee, making wonderfully Sweet the keeping of Thy commandments
Glory to Thee, making Thyself known where man shows mercy on his neighbour
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others
Glory to Thee, rewarding us so well for the good we do
Glory to Thee, welcoming the impulse of our heart’s love
Glory to Thee, raising to the heights of heaven every act of love in earth and sky
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but Thou canst restore a conscience turned to ashes. Thou canst restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With Thee, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Thou art love; Thou art Creator and Redeemer. We praise Thee, singing: Alleluia!

Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age

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*I assigned myself the arduous task of choosing only a few stanzas to share with you. I encourage you to read the whole of the prayer HERE.

**All bolds in the text are mine.

Cavorting With Angels

“Don’t Die.”

It was the last thing my seventeen year old said to me before we headed out the door to the airport. I confidently promised we would not. But now, as I leaned into the stone, gripping a hank of chain for dear life and feeling the great yawning chasm 1400 feet below, it occurred to me that I might have been a bit hasty.

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I blame Hugh and Lisa.

Last fall we sat across the table from them, comparing notes on some of our favorite hikes, and Hugh began to talk about Angel’s Landing. He talked about sharp drop-offs, about walking along slender fins of stone, about the lengths of chain that were sometimes the only barrier between you and falling, about the sections with no chain, about the lady who just last year dropped to her death. My heart pounded as he talked about it. It sounded terrifying. And amazing. And somehow I knew in that very moment that one day I would find myself there.

angel's Landing

Angel’s Landing sits atop a towering stone spine with dizzying drop-offs on either side. It received it’s name in 1916 when Fredrich Fisher, while exploring the canyon, observed, “only an angel could land on top of it.” Yet, on this day, a number of less than angelic beings were clawing, crawling, pulling and praying their way to the top. And we were among them.

When we decided to give Mike a little more time at altitude to acclimate for Grand Canyon, visits to nearby Bryce and Zion Canyons seemed the perfect solution. Both were places we wanted to see and the combination would give us a chance to hike high (Bryce) and sleep low (Zion). And as soon as Zion was on the table, so was Angel’s Landing.

We began researching the hike. We watched a number of YouTube videos including this ridiculous one shot with a GoPro. They made my stomach hurt. Most of the time I thought we were insane to even be considering this. But, every now and then…

We had decided we would go as far as Scouts Landing, and then evaluate whether to attempt the remaining half mile along the ridge. I did not feel one bit better about it when I got there. What those people were doing looked impossible. A couple of strong, athletic looking guys who were just coming down stopped to talk to us.

“You going up there?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Yeah. I wasn’t either.¬† Just kept taking the next step. I might have even crawled a few times. But then, somehow, there we were.”

I told Mike I could do that much. I would start. However, I reserved the right to turn around at any point.

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I’m not going to lie to you, I was scared pretty much the whole time. But here is what I quickly learned. What ever was out there–ahead, or behind–looked impossible. But what was right in front of me was doable. Pull yourself up over this boulder. Grab the next chain.¬† Lean into the rock here because there are no chains and the path slants sharply.

Any time I stopped to look back at where we had been, I wanted to throw up. But I could always do the next right thing.

I kept thinking of my friend Gail. I don’t know how many times she has said to me, when I am in a situation that seems too hard and I can’t think how I am going to get to the other side and I wish everything were laid out nice and clean before me and it never is, “Just do the next right thing.”

There was always an awkward little dance as we encountered hikers coming down and we had to figure out which of us had the safest place to lean into or wrap arms around to let the other pass. Unintentional intimacy made us fast friends. Many spoke kind words of encouragement as we passed, and their generosity was like a long, cold drink of water. Refreshing and invigorating.

When we finally crested, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. After I had securely installed myself against a cleft of rock to keep¬† me from falling, I think I did a little of both. Then I took deep, full breaths of the cool air and felt the sun on my skin. I looked out over the valley and drank in the astonishing beauty of it. I gave thanks for safety and strength, for exhilaration and joy. And for the boy at my side with whom I had shared it all.

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Of course, we still had to get down from here. On the way up I had refused to look down at the valley floor below. But on the way back, that would not be possible. Occasionally, I caught myself holding my breath. But by some combination of walking, and scooting, and turning around and backing down particularly challenging sections, I finally found myself back at Scout’s Landing with all my pieces and parts still attached.

That night I lay in bed thinking back over the hike. My stomach started churning and my heart pounded and I found myself as frightened as I had been standing there at Scout’s Landing. Something about seeing it from afar and not having a task that demanded my attention made it far more terrifying. I have been thinking a lot about that ever since. There is a truth in there that I need to keep close to me.

A friend asked me recently why we do crazy things like this. It’s a fair question. And maybe this is it: It’s good practice. Frequently life throws circumstances at us that seem insurmountable. In those moments, it is easy to despair and lose hope. But, every time something we thought would kill us doesn’t, we are made stronger. And hope becomes more resilient. I will never hear Gail’s words–Just do the next right thing–again without thinking of this day.

Of how the impossible became possible
one terrifying step at a time.

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That which does not kill us makes us stronger. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

*Special thanks to Mike who took all the photos in the post except #2 (public domain), half of the bottom shot, and the obvious selfie. ūüôā

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