June 6, 2012
It’s Wednesday afternoon and I write from Arlington, Virginia. The morning has been slow and delightful. Coffee on the back deck with Colin and the dogs with the early light of morning just making itself known, a delightfully uneventful prenatal appointment, reading The Marriage Plot (which I bought in Madrid for the plane ride home and am loving) on a shady park bench, stealing Colin away for a lunch of veggie burgers and asparagus, and now camping out in a coffee shop to sit and reflect, read and write – to be.
But this isn’t where I had planned to be on Saturday evening when I tucked myself into my silk sack and sleeping back on a cot in the overflow room of the municipal albergue in Hornillos. My sights then were on the week ahead, daily travels through the hot, desolate flatlands of the Camino, the Meseta. Our sleeping quarters in Hornillos were basic – a repurposed gymnasium with cots lining the walls. Some pilgrims slept on the concrete floor. Despite the rough and bare environment, the skyrocket high ceilings and sheer volume of the room gave the feeling of immense space. “This is like Versailles,” a fellow pilgrim announced. Sure the water from the shower head barely trickled out, but it was hot. Sure the cots had some questionable stains, but they were a place to sleep and recuperate. We were grateful as we tumbled off to sleep. We needed it.
Despite our rest day in Burgos, I was feeling pretty exhausted from the events of the previous days. We had spent Saturday recuperating – a leisurely breakfast, time spent talking with Philippe about what it was like to learn of Mark’s death, sitting for hours dozing and writing and surfing the internet in our hotel room – we even went and got massages. Still sleep was increasingly hard to come by, a natural result of being over 6 1/2 months pregnant and of having “borrowed” a cold from a delightful German woman with a not so delightful hacking cough whom we happened to share an albergue room with for several nights. Lying awake at night now was not made any more pleasant with the weight of my sincere sadness for Mark’s sudden death. A death which threw into sharp relief for me the toll that the physical demands of the Camino can take on you.
Still, Aimee and I made the trek to Hornillos and had found a bed. We had made dinner for Philippe in the albergue. A room full of french-speaking pilgrims gave me a standing ovation for walking pregnant. A older Frenchman kissed my belly and spoke to me with great passion about what I was doing. At least I think that’s what he was doing. He only spoke in French. Another woman proclaimed, looking at me, that she would no longer complain on the Camino.
I appreciated the warmth and kindness of these strangers, but also felt a strong sense of not needing the praise or attention. I was feeling much more comfortable in my own skin, was no longer so dependent on the positive reinforcement of those around me. It was a good feeling.
I wrote a letter in my journal that afternoon to my baby. Here’s an excerpt:
I want you to know that there is no one else in the world more important to me than you. Your health and safety are my number one priority. It is a total shifting perspective for your mama-to-be to be so totally focused on someone else. I am glad to feel this way, although it is challenging at times to not know how you think that I am doing. I think this is why I am so grateful for your kicks and thwacks as we go. It’s so nice to know that you are here with me.
Flash forward to 2:30 am. I am wide awake again. The loud splatters against the roof indicate that it is pouring outside. I wonder if it will let up before we plan to leave. I move to the bathroom with a book and my journal so as not to disturb the other pilgrims. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Boy has my body changed since I left almost 3 weeks ago. I am PREGNANT! I read from Wanderlust: The History of Walking, a fascinating book that Colin gave me before I left on the trip, but my mind is wandering its own paths. I’m noticing how tired I am, but unable to sleep. How psychologically exhausted I am. Somewhere during these early morning meanderings I make a decision. I am going to stop walking once we get to Leon. It should be in about a week’s time. Another 200 kilometers or so. I need to set some boundaries for myself and for the baby. By that time, it will only be a matter of days until Colin arrives and I can go to meet him in San Sebastian. It will be fun. I am resolved and plan to tell Aimee on the walk the next morning.
At 5 am I wake Aimee from her bed. We are not the first ones up. After a slow start to the day, we depart for Hornillos at around 7am grateful that the rain has let up. Even with a leisurely pace and a lunch stop, we should be in Castrojeritz by 2pm. As we begin the ascent back onto the Meseta I feel a new sensation in my belly. Could this be a contraction? It’s around the time that I could start to experience Braxton Hicks, and my midwife has advised to stop walking if I have more than 4 such contractions in an hour. I stop for a few moments, alerting Aimee to what I’m feeling. As the sensation passes, we continue on. Maybe 20 minutes later it comes back. We are about 3 or 5km into the trip now, and again we stop. I am noticing my total exhaustion at this point, odd because it is a stark contrast to how I have felt throughout the rest of the trip. Even when I’ve been bone dead at night, I’ve felt great when we are walking. Clearly something has changed since Burgos. For the first time, it crosses my mind that maybe I should stop.
I share with Aimee what I’m thinking. She’s very surprised, doesn’t see physically what would cause me to stop, but also does not want to pressure me to move forward. We stand on this dirt road, alongside a field of wheat and grass and poppies and don’t say anything for some time. Other pilgrims are passing us by now, wanting to make sure as is well. Yes, we smile. We are fine.
I again lay out my stream of conscious thoughts. Aimee replays what she’s hearing and is confused about whether I want to stop for the day or what. And it hits me and feels entirely right and clear, “I want to stop walking the Camino. Whether we go on to Castrojeritz or back to Hornillos today, I am done.” This is a big decision and not without real inconveniences on Aimee who will need to continue on without me. I feel confident if I can get back to Burgos that I will be just fine navigating my next steps – whether Colin can come to Spain earlier, whether I will spend 2 weeks traveling on my own through Spain or elsewhere, whether I will board a plane home. Aimee is clear that she will accompany me to Burgos. Then we remember my bag. The bag transport service will be coming to get it anytime now to move it to Castrojeritz. She walks ahead on the path with the cell phone to call and try and prevent the move.
I stand still and tall and straight. I am in motion but not moving. I look back on the Camino and realize that this is the path forward now. I am reversing my direction. This is when I see Philippe with his bright red fleece heading up the path. Of course it is Philippe – he has served as such a rock for us over the past few days. It only makes sense that he should be with us now. Aimee was still a distance off on the phone when he met me and he instantly could tell that something was wrong. As I broke into a flood of emotion he held my arm and looked into my face. He told me how brave I had been and confirmed that this was the right decision. When Aimee rejoined us we mourned and rejoiced together. Philippe offered us dried apricots and deep appreciation and love. He sat next to me at my very first meal on the Camino, some 180 miles before in Roncevalles. It was only fitting that just as he was there at the beginning – then a virtual stranger – he should also be here at the end. With hugs and pictures and the exchanging of email addresses, we set off in our opposite directions. Aimee and I back towards Hornillos and Philippe back along the Meseta.
At this point it started to rain, lightly, refreshingly, and I wondered if this might be a sign. My eyes were wide open to being a part of something much bigger than myself. I should not then have been shocked at who turned the corner next. It was the Italians. A group of three we had delighted in seeing for much of our trip. We communicated in our own languages and yet we communicated. One woman had taken her picture with me. She was so excited to see this smallest of pilgrims on the path, my baby. All three of them would rub my belly and exchange hugs. They were a hugely positive force for me on the Camino and I couldn’t have been happier to see them. We had last seen them in Burgos on the day we arrived, but they had already taken a rest day. I figured that they would have been far ahead of us my now. But this is the Camino and it was clear that larger forces were at work. In our separate languages we told them that we were fine, but that I had decided to stop. They were sad but understanding. They hugged us and kissed both our cheeks. As we parted ways, I was filled with love and gratitude for these individuals whose energy had carried me, I now realized, over so many of the miles that I had already traversed.
As Aimee and I continued along the path now, the mood was lighter. We joked that we were paving a new path. It was as if we had reached Santiago and then turned back. We sensed that something bigger was at work and commented that we needed to see our singing Australians. And then – YES! – the singing Australians appeared. Andrew and Borris who had so impacted me back in Atapuerca with the depth and simplicity of their Catholic faith. We stopped them, saying “we knew we had to see you again.” I told them how much I appreciated having gotten to know them, how their view on faith had really stuck with me. They couldn’t have been more kind about our return to Hornillos. They recognized it was a hard decision and yet look at what I had done. And how amazing that Aimee was there to help support me on the path back. They promised to keep us in their prayers and I noticed a small oval with the Virgin Mary hanging from Andrew’s neck as he said that. Godspeed they wished us, and again we parted ways.
At this point Aimee and I were walking with raised eyebrows. Something really was a foot. Who could believe that we were re-meeting these people along the way. No sooner had these thoughts passed us by when a Civil Guard SUV pulled up alongside us. I understand their message in Spanish: Do we want a ride? Yes, we both indicate – a real milestone for two ladies who have both been working towards asking for and receiving help…something which previously had not come to us so easily along this path. We had never seen a car like this on the path before and we inquired what they were doing. Someone alerted them that a pregnant lady and her friend had turned back to stop the Camino. They had come in search of us. And we were found. Now in the car, Aimee and I wondered how we would find a taxi on a Sunday morning in Hornillos (population about 60) to get us back to Burgos. We asked the two guards, and neither had a good idea. BUT…
As the car pulled up in front of the albergue, what did we see? Yes a cab, sitting there. It was a cabdriver from Burgos, who spoke German no less. I was able to tell him myself where I wanted to go, as if important that this message should come from my own mouth. Of course he could take us to the city. It this point we had to realize that it was not just as if he had been waiting for us. He simply WAS waiting for us.
I leaned over to Aimee and proclaimed, “this is one of those moments where you have to acknowledge – in whatever word you choose – that God exists.”
Her response: “I know. I mean if only we could get some kind of sign that we made the right decision.” Smile.
The albergue with my bag was locked, but at this point we had to trust we could get in. And yes no sooner than the belief passes than the owner walks by with loaves of bread in hand. She lets us in. The bag is still there. Off we set for Burgos.
We head to our hotel of the previous nights. We don’t know the address or if they have a room, but again, we trust. Yes, the cab driver knows just where Hotel La Puebla is. Yes, there is one room still available with two beds.
Aimee and I began to relax and let go of the past intentions and settle in to our redirection. Aimee sits back and says, “Do you know who we are going to see tonight?” Of course I do. We say aloud in practical unison,“Martha and Rebecca.”
Martha and Rebecca were in a hostel back with us on night four of the Camino and for about a week or so we saw them frequently but never really got to know them. One morning before setting off, we said to them that we’d love to have dinner with them sometime and get to know them. They agreed and we had planned to meet that evening in Navarette. But they didn’t make it to Navarette because of a foot injury. Aimee and I had often wondered when we might see them again. But now it was pretty clear.
Still I couldn’t help but smile when I went to meet Aimee later that evening (she was doing laundry and I was making decisions about where to go next with Colin) and found her sitting on a park bench with…YES! Martha and Rebecca. In a huge city, we had connected without cell phones or email addresses or anything other than a belief. We had dinner that evening and shared with them the beautiful experiences we had over the past several days, culminating in this moment. We were graced by stories of their own travels and transformations that were occurring along the way. These were powerful, magical women. Sisters.
I closed my eyes on that Sunday confident in the decision that I had made, joyful about the experiences – all of them – that I had on my Camino, and humbly proud that I had been able to redirect the momentum that carried me forward towards Santiago for so many weeks and miles to a new destination. And even as I boarded a bus for Madrid the next day, I knew that the Camino was coming with me. The place and path and the community are special. But the Camino is something that you carry with you. It is a mindset, an opening. I have an intention to hold this Camino, this way of being, no matter where I am.
As I sit in a cafe in Arlington, Virginia, I feel a quiet hope that there is nothing stopping me.
PRESENT DAY REFLECTIONS
The Camino is a magical community and it does stick with me. Many transformations are true metamorphoses. Like a bud coming into full bloom. We rarely notice that it’s changing until it’s fully spectacular. The Camino was different.
Time was marked on the Camino not by schedules planned out neatly in 30 minute increments. There was no 9-5. Time was marked by footsteps. Each push forward was felt not just intellectually but through the whole body. In this way changes were felt, not just perceived.
And yet there were also reminders on the Camino that time is not infinite. At least not in the physical sense. Mark’s death was a stark reminder of our own mortality. I still find myself feeling a strange mix of peace and urgency when confronted with the death of those close to me. I want to sprint fast to do and be all that I want to do and be. And yet I know that just being in this moment is where the great things in life occur.
Yesterday was a lovely day. I made a hearty and healthy breakfast. Lentils and sticky rice. Blanched swiss chard from the farmers market doused ever so slightly with a delightfully thick and sweet balsamic vinegar. Fresh cherry tomatoes. Eggs gifted to us by our sweet hen, Survivor. After outliving two broods she’s earned this name. After a leisurely meal out on the screen porch, we played in the garden. Our compost has gifted us surprise tomato plants for the second year running. We lined them up in an empty bed and mixed in some peppers and a rosemary plant.
Later we walked to the pool to meet good friends. Their son and our Crosley are dear friends and it was so fun to see them splashing together and fearlessly floating through the water. Henrietta loves the water and had a delightful time pretending to be a crab crawling along the wall. Later we played “swim lessons.” I got to be the teacher and she was the student. She’s practicing for her real swim lessons which start this next week.
After some quiet time at home, we headed across town to celebrate the 50th birthday of a very dear friend. It was an evening marked by delicious food, lovely wine, and the kind of easy conversation that emerges among old friends. The event was held at our friend’s parents’ house and when I thanked his Dad before leaving, I had to ask him, “What’s it like to have your baby turn 50?” He laughed. “It’s a strange thing. I keep thinking that someone has miscalculated the years.” I can imagine.
Wherever you find yourself today, I am wishing for you that you too can find great joy in the things that are offered to you on this day. I am hoping that you too are surrounded by a wonderful community of people. That you celebrate and mourn together the mysterious unfoldings of this world.
ABOUT THE SERIES
My Pregnant Pilgrimage is a blog series that I’m sharing in the Spring of 2017 during my present-day maternity leave. The arrival of my third little seemed a fitting time to return to these journal reflections from those last months of my life pre-parenthood. Learn more about the inspiration for this series here.