I Simply Don’t Know

(If I could strike over this blog’s original title, Opening to the Bittersweet, as I have in a paragraph below, I would. Instead I’ve simply re-titled it.)

“This world is radiant with beauty. This world is also capable of bone-chilling brutality and the small, corrosive daily cruelties that salt our days with sorrow. For a sensitive person to live with the duality, to keep the light aflame without turning away from the darkness that needs illumination, may be the most difficult thing in life — and the most rewarding.”

Maria Popova, The Marginalian, Sunday, January 1, 2023

And so began the theme that echoed across several “love letters” waiting in my inbox on New Year’s Day. With an americano steaming in a cherished hand-thrown cup made by Italian potter Giulia Sbernini – one that brings joy every time I hold it and that naturally makes my espresso, or vino rosso taste better – and Annie waiting patiently for me to take my place by her on our loveseat (true in every sense), I begin scrolling and reading in the still dark dawn of this first day of this new year.

Echoed, too, in the Joy Harjo poem I shared on Friday, wherein she commands us to “help the next person find their way through /the dark,” just as we have been helped by – I offered – the ancients, ancestors and angels, all the beings seen and unseen, and those more than human.

“Finding our way through the dark.”
“Living with the duality of beauty and brutality.”
“Keeping death daily before your eyes.” (St. Benedict)

Back in August, when I announced my need and knowing to take a pause from writing, I concluded that post with a Facebook find which eloquently described me and how I show up in the world. Later, having borrowed from the library, read, returned, and then purchased Susan Cain’s Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (2022), I felt quietly affirmed in that way of being. From her epigraph:

“Gregory the Great (ca.540-604) spoke of compunctio, the holy pain[,] the grief somebody feels when faced with that which is most beautiful…The bittersweet experience stems from human homelessness in an imperfect world, human consciousness of, and at the same time, a desire for perfection. This inner spiritual void becomes painfully real when faced with beauty. There, between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed.”

Owe Wikstrom

Three months later, when I resumed this blog, I wrote in a post called Starkly Beautiful Truths, after experiencing an unusual season of illness, one that has persisted into the new year, “there’s the indelible realization we have entered a new life stage. Grief with facing the endings of ways of living and being, we are staring – starkly, undeniably -at our mortality and that of those we love and cherish.”

“…we all have our vulnerable seasons, and our contemplative practice is not a shield against struggle. It can certainly help in coping and enduring and discovering the grace at the heart of it all, but it will never exempt us from our humanity…

…The Underworld journey – sometimes called the Dark Night of the soul – comes for each of us and is ultimately in service of stripping away our old attachments and coming to greater clarity about what is ours to do in this world and how we are to be.”

Christine Valters Paintner, Abbey of the Arts Love Letter, Sunday, January 1, 2023

Of course, this echoing back and forth, within and across me and my love letter writers, is not a coincidence. I gravitate towards and seek out those whose radical takes on living I find utterly refreshing and a much needed counterpoint to the “just think positive and be happy” binary. Holding ourselves in the mess of it all is – to my way of thinking – living, taking fierce tenderness, tender fierceness and much love. But I had to laugh when even in my horoscope, penned by Vancouver’s saucy, yet remarkably prescient Georgia Nicols, I’m told I’ll be entering a two-three year period of giving up what is holding me back, and letting go to streamline my life for new beginnings, losing for lightening.

All this by way of saying I’m becoming more skillful in hearing the echo and seeing the synchronicities. Much as I have during this recent holyday season, where more than ever I heard many more voices across all platforms disclose the grief, disappointment, pain and disillusion with the decades’ long deafening “Hallmark Christmas,” happily ever after, consumer campaign. Finally a shift to naming and living the mess of it all.

Having long abandoned goal and resolution making for a new year, instead I love the process of discerning a shimmering word or phrase to serve as my north star for the year. Thanks to a break in the weather, walking in nature these past two days, reading, and writing this post have helped me arrive at “opening to the bittersweet.” Yes, like appreciating my wabi sabi life, the key here is in the opening to…and trusting in.

It’s now nearly 5 am, two hours before this post is scheduled to drop into your inboxes and onto my social media platforms. Awake at 4, I nestled under the covers musing on a dream and knowing I simply have no idea about my shimmering word, phrase, or much of anything about this new year. I kept coming back to something I read by Toko-pa Turner in her Solstice letter, Return to the Way:

“While it may feel like a lack of progress, return is always developmental. When we have grown too distant from our true nature, we have to stop, retrace our steps, and reconnect with the essence of who we are. The ancient Confucion philosopher Zhou Dunyi described this kind of progress as a “slow return to original sincerity.” Like drawing down into the stem of one’s character, return pulls us into our origins…

…If Solstice were a question, it might ask, ‘“’From what have I strayed too far?’”’ In the haste of activity and progress, what essential values have I left behind? What did an earlier version of me know better than I? As we transition from the active, outward life to an inner opening, we may discover a disconnect between our aims in the world and the way our soul longs to sing.”

There is something about returning – re-turning – in this way that speaks deeply to me. The question, while uncomfortable, begs of my time, and Winter’s invitation of to nestle into its darkness to discover. Perhaps it is the opening to the bittersweet. The giving in, once again, to what Life is asking of me. Trusting as I am, right in this moment, in its mystery. Admitting to myself, once again, and again, I simply don’t know. Yet. Or ever.

The paradox of this practice of living, especially as the stakes grow steeper as I grow older.

“May you be guided and held and may you come to know the great Friend who is alive inside you, longing to walk with you into the inner chambers of the Heart. Not only the heart that is open and filled with joy, but also the one that is tender and shattered with grief. For it is inside the shattered pieces a new world is born.”

Matt Licata, New Year’s Greetings, Sunday, January 1, 2023

Always, with much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

The Pilgrim

THE PILGRIM
When you return from a long journey
air sweet with lilac and unfurled green
then you fall to your knees
and become gratitude’s pilgrim.
You were given the way at birth.
Given blue fields and loam.
Given an open throat, wild orchids,
a path lit by milky stars.
You were given desire,
sweet darkness of the body,
white hum in the bone.

It’s not the departure you long for,
nor the finish, with its thick incense,
tired feet and weeping.
It is the quiet loneliness in between.
When memory marries the wind
and you are pure light. Walking.
One foot in front of the other.
You cannot speak of this place.
The way you cannot speak of grace
or what holds you to this world.
How at this moment you can only stand up
and move toward the light of home.

– Rosemary Griebel –

In Monday’s post I mentioned meeting in person Calgary poet, Rosemary Griebel. All week, during my morning ritual of sitting with Annie sipping my americano (now laced with a half pump of eggnog syrup, tis the season and all), I’ve been re-reading her poetry collection YES. Last night I texted to her:

“Rosemary, it truly is a beautiful collection…so grounded in your intimate, lived experience of the prairies, one I came to know only a bit when my husband, Sig, and I moved here from ON in 1981 and when I learned to appreciate them accompanying him many weekends in the spring and late summer on field trials – horses with bird dogs like Annie, our English setter. The Pilgrim…yes, what an evocative and deeply resonant beauty…and the several I heard you recite on The Road Home, how I first learned of it, you. And some “hard” ones…all so beautifully, deftly composed. Hard but light filled…”

And so to share here one of hers with you, together with my photo walking one rainy day from Viana do Castelo to Vila Praia de Ancora along the Portuguese Coastal Camino. “A day of quiet loneliness in between. A day when memory marrie[d] the wind and [I felt like] pure light. Walking. One foot in front of the other.”

I’ve written several times of the lesson shared with me in 2011, when walking along the path, high on the cliffs of Italy’s Ligurian coast, from the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza to its Corniglia, with a couple who had walked the Camino Frances a year earlier: the Camino is what happens once home. After preparing for last week’s presentation on my walk; talking this week with a friend about curiosity, creativity, and wisdom for his podcast; and lunching with a friend who, having walked the Camino Frances several years ago, wanted to hear some of my story; once again I feel Camino making its presence known deep within as I prepare for my next writing project.

I feel myself hesitate. Find myself distracted. Yet I know it’s simply a matter of placing my stake in the ground, and saying YES. Then Camino begins once again to work with me.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.



Inside the Season’s Cocoon

While a week late, and a post missed, I’ve kept my promise to myself to “stick to the knitting” and my writing practice here. During the interim, two rejections from the group where last year I’d been invited to read my submission to their ekphrastic poetry contest (beginner’s luck?) – I was sure I had a good one – and another written in the wee hours of Wednesday’s dawn to meet another contest deadline. Fingers crossed and regardless, I’ll get feedback from the judges. Always a boon.

Too, after a record-breaking long and warm and sunny August, September and October, wherein I was playing pickleball outside until Hallowe’en, winter – apparently fed up with waiting – suddenly, unequivocally barged in with November. Blowing and blustering throughout Alberta, it dropped nearly a foot of snow in a matter of days, wreaked highway havoc, and gave us the dubious distinction of being among the coldest spots on earth this week. Add Tuesday’s full moon lunar eclipse; peculiar and powerful planetary alignments wreaking their own astrological chaos; news from home that a high school chum has been seriously afflicted by dementia; another friend coping with pneumonia and two small children; a frozen vehicle; Annie down with a GI tract infection (she’s better now)…

Neither complaining nor making excuses, I’m simply noticing what now has the capacity to knock me sideways, crawl deeper into the covers, and, despite the sun and blue sky, colorfully renounce my gratitude for the seasons, especially this one. I refuse to call it a symptom of age…more the wisdom that comes with…a finer attunement to the nuanced…the paying with attention in my body, and not over-riding it with my thinking. Saturday’s Camino walk in the river valley with a reprieve in temperature, and later with Annie, restored my appreciation.

Last weekend I took the bus to Calgary to attend a Friday poetry evening and Saturday workshop with Pádraig Ó Tuama. Such a treat to physically sit in his presence and hear him do so brilliantly what I’d only ever heard him do through Zoom and podcast space…recite remarkable poetry and invite us into how to listen to its structure for its meanings. Thank God, I knew to book the bus when I’d made the arrangements during early September’s golden glory. (I have a kind of prescience when it comes to weather…that finer attunement thing.) Both of us walking alone as we approached the venue, I introduced myself, said a few words as we climbed the stairs to the entrance, and then made our separate ways. Pretty neat for this enthusiastic fan. Too, I was standing in line to purchase his “hot off the press” Poetry Unbound collection, only to recognize immediately behind me award-winning Calgary poet Rosemary Griebel. We have a virtual friendship initiated when she wrote me a lovely compliment on my blog. Knowing she’d be there, I’d brought my copy of YES, her most recent collection, for her signature. Again, pretty neat for this appreciative fan. And then at the Saturday workshop, of all the coincidences, by way of her friend, Peg, we discovered we share a birthday. How neat is that!?! A bit of kismet perhaps…especially as we talked about Camino walking and her interest in Portugal.

I had several takeaways from the weekend inspired by both Pádraig and Rosemary. With my own rejections fresh, I felt restored hearing Pádraig say how difficult it continues to be for him to find places and publishers for his poetry, still how many and often the rejections. Its antidote, he said, was finding a small, intimate group of writers with whom to share the work, so as to uplift each other in the efforts made, support each other through the process of editing, submitting, and receiving rejections and acceptances. In the acknowledgement of her book, Rosemary mentioned the friendship and support received from her regular local poetry writers’ group. Into my new vocation now for a couple of years, I know its solitary, often lonely nature. I returned home committed to putting a call out, both to the Universe (trusting my efforts are adding), and to some writers to ask if they’d meet me in the sandbox – virtual is fine – to support each other as we make our way with words.

And speaking of Camino, mid week I was invited to present “A Creative’s Way of Walking Her Camino” to the first, post covid, in person gathering of our local chapter of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims. Using a story I’d written for Portugal Green Walks and the upcoming issue of Sage-ing: The Journal of Creative Aging – a synthesis of my blogs – I shared my way of traveling in general, and in particular how I had walked the Portuguese Coastal Camino – using journal, painting, photography and poetry to grok within the experience’s impressions and memories. I was delighted not only with the feedback from attendees and planning committee, but more so to have been “seen” in this way of my vocation, to be, as one of the members said, the chapter’s “resident artist-poet.” Now this is very neat!

I am now inside the season’s cocoon, wintering. Despite the initial shock, I am surrendered to the inevitable, ready to savor having designed time for writing, studying Italian and “rewilding,” walking, cooking, hand work, seeing friends, sharing time with my “pack,” playing pickleball. Feeling life full in the midst of its fallow.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

The Power in a Pause

In circle work, as taught by my teachers and elder “heart sisters,” Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea in The Circle Way, knowing when to call for a pause is a practice tenet. To regather one’s thoughts or focus, to recentre to purpose, taking a deep breath or several in silence supports the moving through and forward.

my sky at sunset

So it is that after a month of walking, and another two reflecting and writing about it here, I am pausing from writing my Monday posts. I may return to posting my Friday feature photo and poems, and in fact, have one lined up for Friday. But I’ll see how it rolls. Needing my attention this month are a few projects: writing the foreward and composing poetry for an anthology of women’s leadership in education, fine-tuning my poetry manuscript for the next round of submissions to publishers, and preparing the next issue of SAGE-ING for our September 21 online publication date.

In signing off for now, and “tucking in” my reflections on the Camino, here are beautiful words that affirm who I am and how I show up in the world, evident in my recent Camino photostories. Again, one of those timely Facebook finds:

“Are you happy?
In all honesty? No. But I am curious –
I am curious in my sadness and
I am curious in my joy. I am everseeking, everfeeling.
I am in awe of the beautiful moments life gives us,
and I am in awe of the difficult ones.
I am transfixed by grief, by growth. It is all so stunning, so rich,
and I will never convince myself that I cannot be somber,
cannot be hurt, cannot be overjoyed.
I want to feel it all – I don’t want to over it up or numb it.
So no, I am not happy.
I am open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Bianca Sparacino, Seeds Planted in Concrete, 2015
Agrigento, Sicilia

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Arrival

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 19: Teo to Santiago

my first glimpse of the Cathedral de Santiago spire

“There is a great moment, when you see,
however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing which has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part
of the tangible world.”

Freya Stark in The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998

Waking at dawn to the sound of pilgrims’ footsteps passing by my open window, I’d prayed to the Fair Weather Goddess to hold off on the forecasted rain until our arrival in Santiago. I would, but knew walking in more rain, given my fatigue and cough would take more out of me. Despite heavy clouds during this three hour final stage, she had heard and thankfully granted my request.

It was a curious stage, through parkland and woods, meanderng into the thick urban commercial centre of the Santiago suburb, Milladoiro, where we stopped for coffee at the crowded cultural centre, then back into more eucalyptus groves. Climbing and descending, we finally reached the proverbial fork in the road with two Camino markers, each pointing the way to Santiago. Conferring in broken English with another walker, consulting the GPS and guidebook, we opted for the one pointing right. Described as the new “official” route via another suburb, A Conxo, it would be less congested and longer, but avoided a steep climb. We continued to walk in relative solitude. Crossing motorways, moving now into a consistent urban vibe, with markers few and far between, and only the occasional peregrino, identifiable with backpack and scallop shell, I was surprised by the lack of Camino energy and convergence of pilgrims I’d read about as the hard-earned destination drew nearer.

“Things are always different from what they might be.”

Henry James in The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998

From my journal: “Three hours of walking, not many pilgrims on the Way. At the crossroads we headed right to A Conxo and saw no one. Arrived at Prazo do Obradoiro in time to hear the cathedral’s 12:00 pm bells and struck by how few people were gathered here in front of the cathedral. As we stood side by side, I wasn’t overtaken with feeling…instead I felt subdued, relieved to have arrived safely, and tired. Observing myself, I was surprised at my response…perhaps because I had realized a 20 year dream and now is the time to lay it down. I walk my Camino every day and now I have the stamp and certificate, so be it. But when I called home after settling in at the Parador, I cried deeply…”

It would take several weeks to unpack those tears.

that sky

At the outset of planning this walk, and for long before, I had been clear within myself about the importance of holding both the deep value of the journey, walking every day, and the significance of the destination, arriving at the plaza in front of that magnificent structure, as had thousands of pilgrims for the thousand years before me. A few years ago, when I had last given serious thought to walking, I suddenly cancelled, heeding one of those hardly articulated hunches. A few months later, it would be confirmed when I discovered that the cathedral would be closed and hidden by extensive scaffolding to undergo a multi-year restoration. I knew that if and when I ever walked, I would need, as Bettina Selby describes in The Art of Pilgrimage (1998), “what the newly arrived pilgrims see, exalted as they are at the end of the trek, and by all the magnificence and beauty they have already seen in the approach to their goal, the pool of warm golden light drawing them on.” 

So yes, as I observed myself standing in front of the cathedral, taking in the final stage of arriving at my long held dream, I was surprised with my response. Where was the feeling of exaltation? Where the feeling of jubilation and accomplishment I had seen in the hundreds of photos posted by women on the Facebook site I’d followed for years? Was I subdued because I’d already been here, albeit virtually in several livestream tours a couple of years ago? Or was it  a visitation by “the dragons of disappointment”? Citing from The Art of Pilgrimage (1998) archeology scholar Michael Guillen’s experience at the palace of Knossos on Crete: “I felt very little at the site itself because of all the crowds and the meddling that had been done with the restoration; the only real power I felt was in the surrounding land. I felt that the site had been transmogrified, and that the only spirits left were in the objects in the museum. I suppose this is the danger of mass pilgrimage, the loss of spirit at the site, especially when the gods flee to higher and higher places.”

In a recent chance reading of a blog by a fellow who, walking the Portuguese route had taken the right turn at the fork, passing by the historic building at A Conxo, providing the name for my photo above, he, too, wrote about being struck by his own “let down” anti-climatic response to arriving. Not at all what he had anticipated. Hmmm, I wasn’t alone, and imagine there are countless others who have felt similarly.

When I designed this walk with Paola at Portugal Green Walks, I determined it would be prudent to stay 72 hours in Santiago in compliance with the then known Covid-19 travel requirements, something that would become moot when we actually departed Canada. The same friend who had recommended PGW said in hindsight, she wished she’d stayed at the Parador in Santiago, the beautiful hotel bordering the plaza, beside the cathedral. “In for a penny, in for a pound, ” my companion agreed and so we partook of its sumptuous surroundings and the best breakfasts.

Rain finally came later that afternoon, and poured the next day, making for a perfect time to explore the historic centre, the Cathedral museum, and as luck would have it, attend the daily pilgrims’ mass. As it was Tuesday, and no one had paid the required 400 Euros, we didn’t have the experience of witnessing the famous swinging of the incense filled botofumeiro, so a view of it from the cathedral and its solid silver counterpart in the museum would have to suffice.

Despite my initial “flat” response – let’s mark it down to being sick and tired and relieved – I was enthralled with the cathedral, catching it from different perspectives at different times of day during my time in Santiago. As if to confirm and assure myself that yes, I had arrived.

That despite it having been a dream to walk the Camino, it was now very much part of my lived and waking reality, of who I now am, in the cells and fibre of my being.

That upon returning home, and devoting these past two months to its reliving, reflecting, re-imagining, and writing, I bring back the boon of some insight and self awareness, and much gratitude.

“The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.
It is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of our journey. Perhaps it was in the form of an insight into our spiritual life, a glimpse of the wisdom traditions of a radically different culture, a shiver of compassion, an increment of knowledge. All these must now be passed on. The boon…is a presence in the soul of the world that can be sensed and honored and carried home in your heart.”

Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998

Dear readers, thank you for walking with me these several weeks. I’ve appreciated hearing from those of you who commented here and on social media, helping me to remember that while we are often walking alone together, ultimately we are all, as Ram Dass famously said, walking each other home.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends. And to read about my walk in sequence, I’ve created a new page with all the posts titled and stages named. Buen Camino!

Every Step Matters

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 17: Caldas de Reis to Padron
Stage 18: Padron to Teo-O Faramello

almost there…

I am tired. I feel a heaviness in my chest, a bit of a sore throat, and some sinus congestion. I’m coughing. Today we’re having our hottest day of summer here in Edmonton. I feel much as I did that day in May walking to Padron, where the temperature there had reached 32 C, just as here today (Thursday, July 28). Here and there, now and then, the same cloudless blue sky and dry hot breeze blowing. Coincidently that was exactly two months ago to the day.

I am weary. Remembering, reliving, reflecting on nearly twenty consecutive days and over 240 kilometers walked, with its insights and lessons, joys and griefs, blessings and ordeals… through the elements, immersed in beauty. I am in as much need of completing this written journey, as I was then of finishing the physical one. Careful though, both then and now, to not “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” – a wise instruction received many years ago from a wise woman – describing our human propensity for distraction and derailment from realizing our intentions. I did then and will here continue, complete, and arrive.

From my journal: “Our decision to leave at 7 am without breakfast was a wise one given how hot it became by noon. Many did the same as the Way was crowded. Again a lovely route thru hamlets, forests, with several cafes along the way. An early stop for coffee and juice as I didn’t have enough energy to eat breakfast before departing. Later at 11 am, another café stop where I finally satisfied my hankering for a fresh salad…few and far to come by.

…Opted for going directly to the hotel – Pazo de Lestrove described as ‘an emblematic 16th c recreational mansion that belonged to the Compostela’s archbishops’ – now a luxury “parador” where weddings and large receptions are held. Waiting for luggage and our rooms, I sipped another icy vermut in the shaded corner of the stone terrace – again that Italian Martini brand, but learned I’d be able to get the famous Petroni – made from Albarino grapes harvested here in the Padron valley – in Santiago…Laundry dried fast in the heat and huge open window overlooking the grounds and hillside. Slept for a few hours and given the heat and fatigue, opted for dinner in the attractive dining room…”

Legend has it that Padron is the town where the boat carrying from Jerusalem the remains of Jesus’s disciple, St. James the Greater, anchored after his crucifixion. The stone to which the boat was moored, called a pedron, gave the town its name, and rests within the Santiago church in Padron. (Photo of lawn art depicting the legend of the boat and stone.)

From my journal: “I continue to be happy with my planning and knowing myself. While the heat made it difficult to take in Padron and its historic sites, staying here in this old Galatian manor house is another facet in the rich cultural experiences provided by PGW.”

Igrexa de Santiago (background) leaving Padron

Sunday, May 29, 2022 – STAGE 18: Padron to Teo-Al Farma

“Imagine the moment when you ‘hit the wall’ on your journey.
You’re tired, you’ve lost track of your original purpose of taking the pilgrimage. Your feet hurt, your eyes smart, you are feeling angry with other travelers in your group or toward the local people you are encountering. What do you do?

Try taking a day to brood. Take your good old time, by yourself, and sit on it. Time and patience are the most natural therapists in the world…

Think of the darkness as potentially healing…the appearance of what Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca called ‘duende’ – the dark sounds in music, dancing, poetry, the ritual of the bullfight, the roots of all arts…the dark and quivering companion to the muse and the angel…”

Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, 1998
St. James- Sant Iago en route to Teo

And there we have it. I hit my wall on that penultimate stage. Yes, I was tired. No hurting feet, but my eyes smarted with tears. I hadn’t lost my purpose but was questioning it and myself. And yes, I had been feeling angry, and a range of other emotions off and on. From my journal: “So if a chest cold is helping me feel the weight of what I have been carrying – the need to get it off my chest – today’s head cold feels like sadness and the tears I need to shed…Walking alone I wondered about my Camino, what it had all meant. Thinking about others I knew who had had epiphanies, profound insights, almost mystical realizations. Talking softly to myself, and God, through the silent Sunday village lanes, I said knew I hadn’t come in search of a miracle. I came to say ‘thank you’ … that every step had been a kiss on Earth, every step a prayer to Earth. I began to cry and could have sobbed were it not for my fear of waking the village from its Sunday slumber…For the weight on my chest, in my heart, on my back, since the beginning…the judgement, worry, disappointment…I cried. For the near relief we are almost at Santiago, not without its challenges…I cried. For the ‘letting down’ of all I had been holding in the months prior, in preparation and planning…I cried. For the fears I’ve carried…I cried.”

And then I remembered…

The night dream I had had many months earlier of me with my elder “heart sister,” she who had guided me on my vision quest a couple of years ago. We were standing apart but facing each other, folding a large cloth item, like a sail or a sheet, something that goes better with two people folding together. Each of us holding the edges, she said, giving me guidance as elder sisters do, “You know, Katharine, every step matters.”

Every step matters. Every step I had made walking this Camino – kiss or curse, prayer or pain, joy or judgement – it mattered. None were better nor worse. Let it go. Walk it out. Every step matters.

“It’s the fourth Sunday here. I am so tired and wonder, will I remember… the roses of every color imaginable, stumbling through fences, cascading over stone walls, standing erect against ancient chapels, guarding secrets, holding scents?…Will I remember the abundance of beauty, from simple to sublime? I feel so full, yet I’m unable to discern anything. I am tired. I weep and pray I will remember. My photos will help me, and too, these words on these pages.”

And then I remembered…

I had walked with wonder as my companion. That in heeding the advice of theologian-poet John O’Donohue -to make a journey a sacred thing by ensuring to bless my going forth – I had emailed my three elder “heart sisters” to ask for their blessing. One, practiced in shamanic arts, gave me the gift of journeying for an “elemental” who would accompany me throughout. Named “Wonder,” and embodying the form of a young speckled fawn, “she” attracted that essence in the poetry I had serendipitously found and scribed in my journal before leaving, and in the myriad experiences along the Way, where each day was an unfolding of magnificent beauty: alleyways abundant with roses; stone walls covered in fragrant clover and jasmine; eucalyptus forests dappled with sunlight, their scent wafting in the rising heat; sea and surf in every shade of blue pounding on golden beaches, and rocky shores; skies heavy with sodden grey clouds rolling down mountains bringing veils of rain; fresh briny sweet seafood, simply prepared, drenched in olive oil and smoky paprika; local wines that complemented the local cuisine; and innumerable cups of ubiquitous cafe con leche. 

That, as I had written in my first post about this Camino, when I left Canada in May to realize my twenty-year dream, I, like Peter Coffman wrote in Camino (2017) , would be walking “because I knew others who had gone, and the experience filled them with wonder.” 

My epiphanies.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends. One more day.

Go Alone

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 15: Pontevedra to San Mauro (San Amaro)
Stage 16: San Mauro to Caldas de Reis

Caldas de Reis, Umia river

“If you ever get the chance, go alone.
Walk alone, travel alone, live alone, dance alone.
Just for a while. If you ever get the chance, learn who you are
when the world isn’t demanding you to be one way or another.
Most people only know how to stand on their own

if someone else will stand beside them.
Don’t let that be your story.
When you get the chance, know that the opportunity
to walk alone, even for a bit, is a rare gift, one that will hand you
insight that can change the course of your life.”

Brianna Wiest
walking alone across the Ponte de Burgo

I got that chance during the 15th stage when my companion chose to take a day off to recover from the previous day’s fall. Even though I’d been walking more or less on my own with my companion bringing up the rear, today I’d truly be walking alone. This would be a short stage where upon arrival in San Mauro, I’d need to contact the transfer service to take me back to Pontevedra. I was a bit anxious about how that would go, given some challenges the last time we called for a transfer taxi. With a forecast of sun and 30+C temperatures, I opted for an early start, giving me an early return to do laundry and more exploring in Pontevedra. From my journal: “Today’s stage, ‘alone together’ with other pilgrims was a rest… cold and fresh as I walked at dawn, through Pontevedra’s historic centre, down cobblestone streets embedded with blue twinkling lights marking the Way, crossing the wide expanse of the Ponte de Burgo.”

Past homes, parallel to train tracks, then on a busy road to more train tracks, finally in the sun dappled shade of the Reiris woods, to the stage’s destination at the Café a Posada do Peregrino, boasting one of the oldest credential stamps on the Portuguese Way. There, under the flower laden, pergola covered café, filled with pilgrims taking pause and refreshment, most of them continuing on to Caldas de Reis, I enjoyed another culinary delicacy: “sharing fresh Galatian octopus – boiled, sliced, sea salt, hot and smoky paprika and EVOO – with Denise from Ireland (first met in the hotel lobby in Baiona, then in Vigo and now here in Pontevedra) in gratitude for calling my transfer taxi.”

“I returned to the hotel around 11, just as the sun was coming around to my balcony, perfect for drying clothes and boot liners. Napped and showered, I did more exploring – the Basilica of Santa Maria, Alameda and gardens, the ruins of Santa Domingo. Ice cream and pharmacy stops…video call home…then another great Italian dinner steps away from the hotel…Buonasera bella!”

Friday, May 27, 2022 – Stage 16: San Mauro to Caldas de Reis – Another sunny, cloudless blue sky morning, that would bring even hotter temperatures sooner in the day. I woke feeling unwell. A headache, a sore throat. Dreamt of taking a rapid test so heeding its wisdom, I bit the bullet, googled what happens if I tested positive in Spain – nothing – and swabbed. Thankfully a fast and fifteen minutes later, unequivocal negative result. I’d felt my immune system wavering in Arcade after sitting there chilled for several hours following the preceding two days walking in relentless rain. Then, those few moments of feeling deep fear seeing my companion immobile proved enough to topple it. I’d walk the remaining four stages to Santiago under the weight of chest and sinus congestion, coughing, and growing fatigue.

Now that’s a cappuccino!

But for now, relieved I was covid free, we met our driver who delivered us the short distance to San Mauro to begin the four hour walk to Caldas de Reis. From my journal: “Transfer back to San Mauro went without a hitch. Joined the ensemble walking at 9:15 am. We stopped early and I ordered a cappuccino, the owner gesturing for me to wait outside. Little did I know what was being prepared for me! A spectacular whipped cream concoction, now on top of those 2 perfect glazed donuts at breakfast! This stage had at least 4 cafes. At another we sat in the sought after shade drinking radlers, probably not the best idea after whipped cream and the rising heat.”

A mid-afternoon arrival at our destination, again waylaid by misunderstanding the directions to our hotel and eventually guided there by a local woman to whom I gave one of my remaining gratitude gifts, we checked in, settled, and walked across the bridge to the Taberna O Muino. Its outdoor terrace, situated in the shade over the river, was a cool respite with temperatures now in the low 30s. From my journal: “Tapas at 2:30 – the owner kindly seated us despite saying it was full and we had no reservation, then when I asked, seeing people leave, he moved us to a better table. Another ‘coup’ as the terrace was filled with locals and the occasional peregrino ready for a leisurely Friday afternoon multicourse lunch. Had my first sangria – too sweet for my liking as an accompaniment to food – razor clams (not as good as those first ones in Castelo do Neiva), manchego cheese, white chorizo (uncured and unsmoked so like Italian sausage, it needed to be cooked), fried sardines which despite being “small” were not the finger length fried-to-a-crisp variety we’d savored at the tapas bar in Triana a few years earlier. A complementary EVOO cake for dessert that unfortunately got only a sampling, being full and hot.”

Caldas de Reis has been a thermal spa-town since Roman times, with medieval travelers documenting its similarity to the famous baths in Baden, Germany. Our “relais” Hotel Balneario Acuna (1812) featured a beautiful thermal pool and throughout the town there were numerous thermal fountains.

As I’d been feeling increasingly under the weather, and with the next day’s forecast for more clear, hot weather, we chose to forgo breakfast for a 7:00 am start, to walk the 20 kilometer stage to Padron before it became scorching. Hindsight would prove us right, and too, the truth of these words scribed into my journal on Thursday, May 26, walking alone to San Mauro:

“‘I do not go into the forest to be alone.’
She said, ‘I go to be with the ONES who speak
without human words.'”

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Camino’s Wild Enchantment

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 13: Redondela to Arcade
Stage 14: Arcade to Pontevedra

Arcade at sunset along the Ria de Vigo

This was one of the shortest stages, under two hours, less than 8 kilometers, but with a steep climb through the transmission corridor early in the walk. With the sun shine, blue sky, and cool breeze, it was an invigorating start to the day, getting heartbeats up and leg muscles warmed as we continued to have episodic glimpses of the large and long Ria de Vigo, the lifeblood of the region. Reminded of the Galicia’s Celtic roots, we met a piper in the woods, busking for coins, a preamble of what we’d encounter in Santiago.

True to the witnessed weather patterns and forecast, by the time we’d arrived in Arcade, several hours too early for checking in to our hotel, the clouds had rolled back in bringing afternoon showers. From my journal, Tuesday, May 24, 2022:“…we nursed coffees in the hotel café, and partook of the Arcade iteration of a ‘ploughman’s lunch’, each of us ordering one of the two options to share: ham and cheese pie made in puff pastry; a simple but delicious and easy to replicate chick pea soup with smoky chorizo; cod baked in EVOO and paprika with boiled potatoes; marinated shredded pork with fries; and a simple but good creamy cake. Finally checked in, with our bags having arrived…a hot shower to kill the inner chill, nap and now at 7:30 hoping the sudden cloud burst passes so we can walk the 15 minutes up the road for signature fresh oysters…Of course arriving earlier than the norm, we had our choice of tables at the lovely Marisqueria Arcade: a dozen fresh oysters, and finally tasted percebes (an homage to the women harvesting at Oia, and thank god I’d watched that YouTube video to know how to eat them!!!) with grilled scampi, and the famed Spanish albarino wine. The finishing touch sating my sweet touch, a complimentary snifter of the region’s cream liqueur.” On the walk back to the hotel, I discovered what they did with all those oyster and scallop shells.

The next day’s stage would bring me to, what in hindsight was my favorite stop along the Way, Pontevedra. Somewhat ironic because our arrival had been marked by the morning’s earlier mishap when my companion tripped and fell on the path. From my journal, Wednesday, May 25, 2022: “What started out as another cool, fresh, and sunny walk thru woods and villages, heeding the advice of 2 different men – one playing the archetypal ‘fool,’ carving and selling his wares in the woods – to take the flat ‘complementario’ route by the stream in the forest vs the exposed hot mountain climb, was well worth it…until she tripped and fell and I stood terrified for those first few moments…immediately many on the path were there to offer support and wish us well…intuitively I accepted the wise ministrations from the young Portuguese men, one with first aid training, and his friend, a padre. Bases covered, I wept with relief and gratitude.”

Not to be denied, I held its impacts and implications together with the comfort taken in asking for a room change to one with sunshine and a balcony from which to hang my sink-laundered clothing, and a solitary exploration around the city’s historic centre with camera in hand. My first icy vermut (what, Italian Martini and not those fantastic craft pours I’d fallen in love with in Andalusia!) – another generous pour – sipped al fresco at a café perfect for people watching warmed my soul in the late afternoon sun.

Discovered once home, these words became another source of solace, and a most apt description of my Camino, its purpose, and its gifts:

“In the fields, she stopped and took a deep
breath of the flower-scented air. It was
dearer to her than kin, better than a
lover, wiser than a book. And for a
moment she rediscovered the purpose
of her life. She was here on earth to absorb
its wild enchantment.”

Boris Pasternak

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Camino Provides

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 11: Corujo to Vigo
Stage 12: Vigo to Redondela

(In lieu of Friday’s photo and poem feature.)

Vigo, with its oyster and mussel flats in the Ria de Vigo

“There are no wrong turnings.
Only paths we had not known
we were meant to walk.”

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana

And so describes the next stage. After a night of thunder, lightning, and rain pelting down on the balcony, morning dawned with heavy cloud cover, puddles, and mud. It would be a wet walk. From my journal, Sunday, May 22, 2022: “Lo and behold, if Carlos, our driver yesterday, didn’t come back to take us to Corujo, our starting point for and a suburb of Vigo, missed when we’d walked along the coast and never did merge back onto the ‘official’ route. Walked thru the quiet village, mostly along the small murky creek, on muddy paths busy with Sunday saunterers, cyclists, dog walkers…thru the Parque de Castrelos, into and up residential streets. We overshot and had to back track, asking for help to find our way to the hotel, but en route, on the pedestrian main street, stopped in a pastry store selling empanadas – octopus and scallop – and ate them in the rain – checking off another culinary ‘musttry’…Bueno!!!”

Vigo. Spain’s largest Atlantic seaport, and Galicia’s most populated city, with an ancient history of Celtic and Roman settlements. When I’d returned home, our Camino friends from lunch a week ago in Viana do Castelo sent their photo slideshow of their walk. In response I wrote: “As one photographer to another, how similar and then how different what catches our eye, and makes for a wonderful photo. You saw a Vigo that I missed completely – one rich in history, texture, colour. Perhaps it was that we had walked in the rain, got a bit misdirected finding our hotel, but it felt so urban, cold and industrial…your photos gave me a fresh and more balanced perspective.”

But then again, we did taste those famous empanadas. And right outside our urban hotel, I spotted the first and only Illy coffee sign of my trip, and opted for a quick Americano before dinner – the best coffee since leaving home – which became a belated birthday celebration with chocolate cake, my companion’s treat. “Eat dessert first!” so I’m told and did, with gusto!

Another Monday. Another day of walking in the rain, to Redondela – where the central and coastal Portuguese Caminos converge. From my journal, Monday, May 23, 2020: “Straight forward walking up and out of Vigo into fog, mountain mist and steady rain. Thankful for having invested in that pack raincoat. Kept dry but damp. Finally learned that those dark containers we’d seen heading out to the Cies Islands were mussel and oyster flats. Saw hundreds of them along the Ria de Vigo.

Walked along forest paths, thru residential areas so no cafés. Finally I said out loud ‘I wish someone would invite us in for a hot cup of coffee.’ Not a minute later I see painted on the tarmac, ‘Coffee Bar’ with an arrow pointing up to a sweet little home café – warm – serving hot, homemade chicken soup! We had the place to ourselves, but a half hour later, every pilgrim walking to Redondela was lined up and out the door, stopping to dry off, warm up, and get their stamp.”

By the time we’d finally walked into Redondela, seeing many more pilgrims on the streets, the sun broke through to reveal its 19th c viaducts, 15th c church dedicated to St. James, and Alameda Park and gardens.

There’s an oft spoken saying among those walking that the Camino provides. In the rain, in need of something hot to drink, seeing that yellow painted sign on the tarmac seconds after asking was an unequivocal example. Too, the numerous strangers who pointed us on the way, or gave us directions when off route, weary, and wanting to find our accommodations. The server who saw a woman in need of the care an extra large glass of wine would ensure. The pharmacists in every town, knowledgeable about and prepared for the range of walking ailments – from heat rash and the ubiquitous blister treatments, to sunburn, colds, bruises, inflammation, and infections. Or in a later stage, the “peregrinos” soon present when my companion tripped and fell, their support and skills a much appreciated balm to her limited, and thankfully superficial injuries, and to my recovery from those initial moments of feeling terror as she lay facedown, motionless on the ground.

One of my travel strengths is asking for help from strangers. A lesson from my father, that if I don’t ask for what I need, how would anyone know what to offer? I’ve learned that asking for help gives another the opportunity to be of service. An encounter which, despite language differences, creates connection through a gesture made, a smile shared, a vulnerability acknowledged, an open heart in need. It joins us in our shared humanity, making for memories and stories that uplift and amplify kindness, generosity, and gratitude…reminding us, this is the way.

“As you start
to walk on
the way, the
way appears.”

Rumi

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

The More I Become Myself

Portuguese Coastal Camino
Stage 10: Baiona to Coruju – adjusted to Praia Patos
Free Day: the Cies Islands

Cies Islands

Half way through my Camino and the “ordeals” I’d mentioned in an earlier post were coming to bear. Despite waking to a glorious sunny day, my mood was cloudy. Again, a couple of FACEBOOK finds, written in my journal with the title, “thoughts for my day that re-ignited my love and joy”:

“I worried alot.

…Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

…Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning
and sang.”

Mary Oliver, I Worried

And this one:

“I was in darkness, but I took three steps and found myself in paradise. The first step was a good thought; the second, a good word; and the third, a good deed.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Breakfast with time taken to unpack matters weighing heavy meant for a later start, something we’d need to contend with as the temperatures rose and blistered feet swelled. (Though as I write this now, nothing like the record breaking heat both Portugal and Spain are experiencing – so intense that many are walking at night, or canceling their Caminos altogether.) And our decision to ignore the GPS route to continue walking along the coast would prove less successful getting to our endpoint, though a cooler and beautiful alternative.

Crossing over the River Minor via the jagged 13th C Ponte da Ramallosa bridge with St. Telmo watching over :

Walking on the boardwalk by one of Galacia’s golden beaches, Praia America, with its steeple and domed mosque in the distance:

To finally eating our packed lunch at Praia Patos, further north along the coast on the other side of the peninsula, where, in the hot and hazy distance, we saw the next day’s destination, the Cies Islands:

Cies Islands from Patos Beach, Nigran, Galacia Spain

Maybe it was the blisters, or the bee stings, or the blazing sun, but when my companion acknowledged her need to call short this stage, letting us make use of the nearby hotel to call a cab, she gave us both the gift of an early return to Baiona to enjoy a leisurely lunch over a bottle of “rosado,” some sight seeing, and to organize the cab to Vigo to catch the morning ferry to the Cies Islands the next day. From my journal: “The chapel of Santa Liberata (1695) commemorating Baiona’s martyred daughter and 1st woman in the world crucified, and the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria-Virgen de la Rosa – I felt very much the feminine spirit of this place…how today we had dipped into the wounds of the feminine – as mother, daughter, women…and how in the surrendering to need, giving us a most beautiful day.”

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

e.e. cummings – written on my journal page, Friday, May 20, 2022: STAGE 10- Baiona to Patos

The following day brought a cycling back around to cool, overcast weather. Maybe a blessing as we’d be hiking in the elements with limited shelter on the fixed ferry schedule I’d reserved months earlier. The Cies Islands are an archipelago of three islands in the Atlantic at the mouth of the Vigo River. A designated natural reserve with pristine white beaches, cliffs, and fragile flora and fauna, access is restricted with ferry crossings pre-booked online. From my journal Saturday, May 21, 2022 – “Free Day” Cies Islands: “Like clockwork! Front desk reserved a taxi and Carlos picked us up promptly in his immaculate CRV, drove us to Vigo and was there again at 6:00 pm to return us to Baiona. Perfect weather for walking on the ‘Ruta del Alto do Principe,’ to the cliffs on the north island – Monteagudo – facing west onto the Atlantic and the lighthouse – Faro de Cies – in the distance. Ate lunch and then relaxed at the harbor, people watching and waiting for the ferry. Taking a ‘rest day’ I realize my fatigue. But once I clarified with lovely Paola from PGW, who I met tonight, on how we proceed tomorrow, I’m ready for the long walk to Vigo. ‘Stay on the blue GPS route,’ she instructed. “

Back in Baiona, those laden skies opened up, pouring as we crossed the street for dinner, and for most of the night, with thunder rumbling and lightning flashing across the sky. By the time morning came, it lifted enough to set out with Carlos, who having returned, would drive us to the next stage’s starting point, Corujo.

Reflecting that day on the Cies Islands, I recalled my solo travels in Italy, to the time when sitting sipping icy limoncello on the boardwalk at Monterosso al Mare – the first of the five villages of the Cinque Terre – I watched two silver haired women disembark from the train, obvious trekkers with their boots, backpacks, and poles. Inspired by their presence, I made a mental note that I wanted to be like them at their age, which I’d imagined to be in their seventies. As fate would have it, these words appeared on my FACEBOOK feed later that evening:

“Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfilment and confirmation of one’s character.”

James Hillman

While I have a few years before my hair becomes as silver, I am more becoming myself with every step, and mis-step, taken in this Camino that is my life.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends.

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