pilgrim of truth
you see, i had an appointment. on the last day of the year, i met her there on that empty beach. my assignment had been to live a year, a holy year, along the camino de santiago pilgrimage route. i had few instructions, one or two of my own questions and a name that was given to me before i arrived. the instruction was only to live the experience. my own questions asked for a deeper understanding about who i really am and what is it that i have to give to the world. the name that was given to me by a teacher is kundön neyjama. these tibetan words translate into peregrina de la verdad, or pilgrim of truth.
on becoming the path
before you can travel the path, you must first become the path itself. – the buddha
it would be by the side of the ancient pilgrim’s trail in an ochre colored house that the camino requested my presence and attention. instead of making my way as a pilgrim, i was asked to stay still by the side of the road for a while. to learn to become the path. and to let the world come to me. the peaceable kingdom sits just about halfway or so between st. jean pied-de-port (one of the main jumping in points for the camino frances just over the border into france) and finisterra. there, in the middle of the spanish meseta, where the infinitude of a ‘big sky’ can make any good pilgrim a little wild of mind, is the small village of moratinos. this funny little pueblo is where i would come to spend many a moon smoothing out some of my rough edges and maybe gaining a few where i was much too soft.
just off of the calle ontanon is a private home (known as the peaceable) that is generously open to wanderers of all kinds. the place has grown organically in these past four years from the dream of american writer rebekah scott and her husband, artist and englishman patrick o’gara. it seems that the camino chose them to put down their roots in this small village of crumbling houses made from earth, with its 14 or so inhabitants that range from kind to curious. it hasn’t been easy for reb and paddy. from the beginning, they have been tested and tried and asked by the camino more than once if they really meant it and were committed to being there … and then stretched just a little bit more for good measure. (you can read more about their story by clicking on the three-legged una dog in the sidebar on the right)
and so, through the cold winter, into the deep red poppy bloom of spring and maybe just a bit longer, i became part of a strange tribe. a place where the existence of god is debated daily and the presence is felt even more often. mice are chased, wine is had, prayers are layed down and each day brings something or someone new. change is constant and flows over a foundation that has grown strong and sturdy. and it was here within these walls that i got down to some gritty soul work. i had the opportunity and privilege to care for pilgrims from all over the world—some blistered, broken hearted or mixture of both. i became hospitalera to the hospitaleros. had great adventures with wild dogs (and a handsome cat) all with the oldest of souls. i ran in the fields under skies as wide and blue as the sea that had i left behind. i chopped wood, carried water. cleaned out coops, shoveled poop. discovered the zen of dishwashing, learned to love european football, enjoyed good meals and became famous for salads and soulful stones. i tended the small but mighty labyrinth, wrestled my ego, felt grouchy sometimes. expressed it. was loved anyways. held space for healing and had space held for me. and it happened there, in through the cracks of everyday living and being, that the deepest of daily lessons seeped in —the ones about love, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion, boundaries, kindness, receiving, giving, humility … and a much needed clarity of the difference between service and servitude. this subtle grace shimmered a fine light into the dusty corners of my soul and it was in this space that i practiced ‘the leaning in’. leaning in for a deeper understanding. for truth, without attachment or aversion. to be near and listen from the heart. to come to a simple knowing that we are all on our own spiritual journey, without exception. that we all want to be loved, to be understood, to be heard, to be seen and to know that we have the right exist. we each have our own unique story filled with dreams and longing, failures and disappointments. and no one’s is less important than the other’s. we have all known, at some time in our lives what it is like to suffer. we all want to be free of suffering. we want the freedom to be who we truly are. and through this practice of learning to see with the eyes of the heart and to stand in the stillness of a place of knowing the truth of who i really am and who i am becoming, i am beginning to understand that each time i lean in to others, i am also leaning in towards myself. thanks Peace (with all of your people, creatures, pilgrims and wanderers) for your mysterious spirit that has provided me with the time and space to learn about becoming the path.
traveling the path
and when the time was right, with my pack pressed close to my back, i set out. from the monastery of san juan de la peña along the camino aragones, i began to make my way. slowly following the path of the sun. it was a long road. a strange road. by no means an easy road. but for sure a most beautiful road. i learned about living close to nature and with very few ‘things’. to witness my ‘thoughts’ and the way that i have been perceiving the world. that circumstances don’t matter, but only our state of being matters. what is it that is really true? during these months on the trail, all that i met along my path became my reflections. i can’t say more now, only that it will take me some time. yes. i need some more time to understand.
i arrived on foot to finisterra, the end of the land, after walking for four days from santiago. the longest day was 35 km in the cold, wild wind and rain. for good measure. i have learned to meet this road where it is and to love all that the camino serves up. because, there are always the strange gifts after these storms. and i do not have the good words to describe what it was like for me to come to the place on the hill where i could see the sea for the first time after almost a year inland. i had almost forgotten the vastness of this ocean. funny thing is that it was there the whole time. while i stomped, staggered and shuffled my way along the long road, through fields of wheat and tops of mountains. the big blue had waited patiently for my return. when i landed on that beach, with my backpack still on my back, i wrote my name in the sand. do you see me, universe? it’s me. and i made it. … and then, on the last day of the year, i went to the spot where one year earlier i had buried the message in the bottle. the landscape had changed a lot in all of this time. i felt moments of despair when i thought i might not be able to find it. it is lost forever. then, i took a deep breath and laughed when i remembered that as a little girl, i always used to build my sand castles close to the waters edge. life is risky. this joke was one me. i heard a voice inside me say, go on, then. try again. so, i lined myself up with the old pine tree, the patch of rock, the big clump of seagrass. i began to dig. now, i know what pirates must have felt like when they hit that top of the treasure chest. i hooted and hollered like a maniac to the empty beach. woo, hoo! found it! there it was. i sat there in the grassy sand dunes with that letter for a long time. i looked each way down the long stretch of beach. maybe i was expecting to see ‘her’ walking up to me at any moment. shit, maybe she wasn’t going to show. deep breath. another. and then, with the sun shining down on my face and the soggy letter falling apart in my hand, i felt a wave of peace come over me. a sense of lightness. ah, ok. i get it. she was already here. and the ‘she’ is me. yes. i am here.
big old sun
i hustled the 3km up to the lighthouse. the sun was setting fast and i wasn’t sure i would make it in time. wait for me, old sun. in one hand, my trusty walking stick that i had received from that kind bird-watching hospitalera in jaca at the very beginning of my camino, in the other, the hole-y shirt that made me look like the loved-so-much skin horse in the children’s book the velveteen rabbit, and on my head, the warm cap that my dear dad had given me before my first camino almost seven years earlier. and with perfect timing, i found my place on the large stone that looked like a whale surfacing out of the sea. on the ground at my feet, the flames danced across the fabric of my old shirt, transforming its journey into ash and light. in front of me, a silhouette of a pilgrim who had walked for so many months from the czech republic performed his own ritual to the gods of salt and flame. he danced and cried out in what sounded to me like a native american chant. and there behind a large rock to my left, tucked in and out of sight, the pilgrim from texas sang a hebrew melody about a meeting with the angels. i was there in good company. and somehow, we harmonized together as i hummed my own little ditty by neil young. at the end of the earth on this last day of this most holy year, we sang that old sun to sleep.
it will appear as does the poem to the poet
it has been a long story. i have done my best to be authentic and to share the beauty of a journey with you. to show, through my experience, what is possible when you make the decision to set out on your own road, a road to the soul. it is my greatest wish that you will find the courage to make your own way. that you come to understand that all things are possible and experience a deep knowing of how close we all are to what some might call miracles.
i arrived here to this road with very few things. only with the intention to keep my heart open and to hold all things loosely. as i sit here in this moment, i can hear the words of that old poet and the coffeehouse shaman reminding me of what lives within me and a name that contains the potential of who i could be. who am i really? and what do i have to give to the world? and in the words of the man on the road, jack kerouac, one day i hope that i will find the right words. and they will be simple. until then …
ultreia. and namasté.
kundön neyjama. peregrina de la verdad. pilgrim of truth.
many demolitions are renovations. – rumi (from tear down this house)
the last 100 km and the old dream.
somewhere around palas de rei, i found myself standing in front of a small house built of stone. i leaned on my trusty walking stick and shifted my weight back and forth to try to relieve the aching in my feet. you have to know that this house wasn’t anything special, really. parts of the roof had merged with the nature and was making its elegant crumble down. down. down. the hearty wood beams entwined with thick vines that patiently wrestling them to the ground. i stood there and looked at this little house. i looked for a long, long time.
once upon a time, it had been a dream of mine to find my place along the camino. a small coffee house. for pilgrims, poets and wanderers. maybe even an albergue. only a few beds. donativo, of course. soulful hippie meets galician rustic.
after i arrived home from my first camino almost seven years earlier, i sat in my little studio in key west and dreamed. i searched online for property along the camino. (i have a funny feeling that i am not the only one who has done this.) i found a little stone place for sale. cheap. cheap. needed work. a lot of work. roof had started to fall in a bit. no matter, part of the charm. it had potential. lots of stone and wood. a real dreamers dream. i saw the photographs of this stone ruin on my computer screen and said out loud, “yes! this is what i want. universe, make it happen.”
skip ahead seven years later to present moment. the stone house that i was standing in front of was the very same house that i had seen online all of those years ago. there was no for sale sign anywhere but i recognized it from the photographs. no takers, i guess. this old house built of stone was slowly coming down. sigh. the universe must not have been listening.
during these final days of my adventure of the spirit, the camino has been really pulling out all of the stops. i have been in a space of complete wonder and amazement. the road kills me with delight. animals come out to the road to meet me. horses. turkeys. goats. cows. cats. dogs. even squirrels with wild tufts of fur on their ears chatter at me from the tree tops. the rain has stopped. the sunlight pours in through the tall eucalyptus giants and lights up the path in front of me. and with all of this, i started thinking. dangerous. might be something joseph campbell refers to as the hero’s refusal of the return. i started to bargain with the camino. ok. i could just keep going. maybe i am not supposed to finish at the end of the world. maybe the camino wants me. needs me to turn around and walk back. to the meseta. no, to lourdes. no, for sure it is vezelay, france. where i had started seven years ago. my mind played with me like a family of galician squirrels. i had all kinds of ideas. they flowed freely. they wouldn’t stop. i began to walk faster. almost skipping, as the brilliant plans came. i could become a shepherdess. with a flock of my very own sheep and a llama, for good measure. i could open a juice bar. train to become a wizard. a bee keeper. a shaman. or … nevermind all of those things. i could just keep on walking. until even i forgot my own name. then, i would find a new one. recreate myself. disappear. then i would be really and truly free. after all, no one needs me back home, i told myself. yes, thats it. i’ll just keep walking. i think that this could be my destiny. and i could finally learn to play the guitar. yep, a llama would be great. … then my mind drifted back to the little stone house. yes. this is it. this was what i told the universe. “i want that!”
… and no sooner than i said those words, i felt my feet slip out from under me. it all happened so fast, but was in slow motion. my mind had been so occupied with what had become a kind of dreaming frenzy that it would have been next to impossible to see that big rock with the fresh pile of cow shit strategically placed on its edge. the next thing i knew, i was on my knees. shock set in. i was sure that i had broken both of my legs. afraid to even breathe. i felt the camino’s hand gently on my shoulder holding me right where i was. don’t move. and in that moment, i saw once more the image of that stone house. the little fortress build of heavy stone and big beams that had started crumbling to the ground. i heard my voice say to the universe, … please. i want that. i have heard that images are the language of the soul. and i have come to understand that the camino/universe has a pretty good sense of humor. i heard a voice whisper to me, well, you asked for it. and you got it. still there on the ground, i saw flashes of my encounters from this year spent along this strange road. i saw many mirrors helping me to tear down – bit by bit – the stone walls that i had built up around myself. each lesson helped my old ways of being in the world begin to make its elegant crumble down. down. down. the hearty wood beams of misunderstanding and wrong thought were wrapped up with the thick vines of compassion that patiently wrestling them to the ground. tear down this house. and that was what my soul had really been asking for. to tear my own house down. hmmm, thought for sure it was a coffeehouse.
i finally picked myself up off the ground and dusted myself off. by some miracle, i was completely unhurt and with no cow poo on my person. my feet didn’t even hurt anymore. once more and right on time, the camino had spoken. loud and clear. pull myself together. i am to be in this world, but not of it.
and with that, i headed on down the road.
just when we think we know how it will go.
not far from santiago, i was thinking about a dog. i was thinking about a three-legged wonderdog named una. a peaceable kingdom dog that left this world over month or so ago. she had been a good friend, dependable backseat driver, a film star and the source of much joy and laughter. not long ago, i had been called back off the road for one last big dog party on the meseta. her cancer had spread and no one knew how long she would be around. so, i went back for a few days. it was a beautiful party. the best, really. and after the liver was gone and scruffles given, i headed back to the trail. it was not long after, she decided it was time to go.
as i was saying. i was walking along the trail, almost to santiago. after all of this time, my long road finally nearing its end. i was thinking about that peaceable dog and how funny she was. not too long after … there, in the misty eucalyptus wood, i felt someone behind me. expecting a pilgrim, i was surprised to find that following along right behind me was a dog. a curious little dog. with brown spots, a funny underbite grin and a bum front leg. a camino casualty. it was strange and mysterious and i will leave it to rebekah to tell you how the story goes from here. rosey has been graciously welcomed into the peaceable kingdom fold. she may be small, but i feel like she has the heart the size of a lions. … this long road offers up its strange gifts at every turn.
you see, i am a believer. i believe in the magic and the mystery of this Way. that we are given just what we need, when we need it. even thought it might not look like what we thought it would, it often times turns out to be even better than we could have imagined for ourselves. sometimes we are only the messenger, the catalyst or the middle-man. yes, i am a believer. and i want to keep believing. long after i leave this path. and i want to continue to tear my stone house down. to be ready for the renovations.
i arrived in santiago. alone. a little bit behind schedule. it was raining and i hustled to the cathedral. i forgot the new rules and that i couldn’t go inside with my backpack. i would have to come back later to give my thanks and say my prayers. meanwhile, i ducked into a smoke filled bar, had a coffee and gathered my thoughts. sitting there, i felt the camino’s hand again resting gently on my shoulder. i am tired, i thought. at least four more days to get to the sea. tearing down the house isn’t easy work. it is long and slow. the renovations, it seems, take years. lifetimes even. but, as i sat there looking down into my coffee and more deeply into how far i have come. all that i went through to get to this moment … now, almost one year later … as van morrison sings, i am a soul in wonder. really. it is all so rich and the beauty of feeling is difficult to describe in words. i am a soul in wonder, indeed. and i think maybe the universe is listening.
now, on to the end of the world.
a big dog party
“Somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” Jack Kerouac
today is thanksgiving day. one year ago, on this very day, my dear dad came all the way to the island of key west from his mountain home in colorado to drive me to the airport in miami. we made our way slowly up the chain of islands on highway 1 in the pouring rain. i looked out across the warm waters of the gulf of mexico on one side and the atlantic on the other. i grew up in this territory of salt and sun. and now, i didn’t know how my destiny would unfold from here. i only knew that i could not stay. the road had been calling. and now, she was waiting for me. first to finisterra to pull myself together. to prepare. and then, a whole year on the holy road.
i have made it to the cruz de ferro (iron cross) situated on a plateau of monte irago. there is a long oak post with a small iron cross attached to the top and rises up from a large pile of stones. pilgrims have been laying a stone at the cross for centuries. the prayer of the cruz de ferro is: ‘lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage that i lay at the foot of the cross, weigh the balance in favour of my good deeds some day when the deeds of my life are judged. let it be so.’ for many pilgrims the ritual also denotes the symbolic laying down of a burden.
i have chosen to leave a pearl. this pearl comes from a mala that was handmade for me by a friend and then given to me by a teacher before my last pilgrimage. it broke in my hand the day i arrived in santiago. they say that when a mala breaks, it is auspicious. i have carried 12 pearls with me since then that represent twelve people in my life that have supported me as an artist as well as on my journey. this one that i leave here at the cross, disappearing between the stones and snow has nothing to do with burdens or sorrows. a small and precious symbol. wisdom. the grit of the journey. beauty formed slowly over time. a treasure. i leave this small treasure as a gift. an offering to the road. as a symbol of thanks giving for all that i have received. blisters and blessings. rain and sun. loss and love. shadow and light.
and now, i still have a mountain to climb o cebreiro. and about 255 kilometers of stones, mud, snow and Way to place my feet upon. pilgrims to connect with. experiences to live. prayers to lay down. i am a long, long way from the end of the earth. finisterra. where on the last day of this holy year, if i make it, i will dig up the message in a bottle that i wrote to myself. it waits for me on that long stretch of beach. and then, i hope that i will know where my road will take me from there. but i don’t have to know that just yet. … today, i wanted to put these words down. for you. a thanks giving on thanksgiving. i have to be honest that i don’t know if i am any wiser or closer to enlightenment. but i am doing my best to lean in to my truth. and maybe the most important, through the distance of miles and the space of time, i can feel the love of my life. the loves of my life. my family and friends. the pilgrims and care takers of pilgrims. peaceable kingdoms and three-legged dogs. animals. forests. the elements. all things. by being near to all of these things, i have discovered that i have a capacity. for big love. and it reminds me of the line in the eat, pray, love film when richard from texas in india says … clear out some of that space in your head. open a doorway. … and God will rush in.
and so, somewhere along the line, the pearl has been handed to me. god has rushed in. now, i bless it. and i give it away. i can’t hold on to anything on this journey. this was one of the conditions. love and life rests gently on an open palm.
i send love from my road to yours. happy thanksgiving.
When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.
– The Buddha
i have been under for a long time. i have let myself sink into the mystery. the sublime. the meseta. submerged into this seemingly endless stretch of lonely camino that is sometimes referred to as the mind. humility is demanded here. in this landscape, if one is brave enough to travel it, we might come into contact with something rare. big sky mind. now, i am writing this from the other side. these have been long days. and i have to tell you that i have left something there along that road. different than tattered shoes, notions of love and loving, a string of regrets. no, this feels ancient, somehow. running deep. low. the guts. way beyond my understanding. but it is real. i will tell you more, one day. when i understand it. my traveling companion from berlin patiently reminds me that transformation is slow. let it come. let it be.
where am i on my road? time moves in shifts and leaps. and miles. slow and steady. waves of feeling move through me. i have had all the space i need to let my mind roam and ramble. thoughts tumble. i move as if in some strange dream. faces and places enter like clouds against a vast blue sky of infinite stillness. who am i? who have i been. who am i becoming? what is real. what is illusion. what is this truth that i have been looking for? i feel the road dissolve behind me. remembering is difficult. there is nothing i can hold on to now. only move step by step towards the memory of a great sea. i let it all come. i let it all be. what it wants to be. this love. this regret. these promises. longing. feeling. dreams. plans. words. prayers. my humanness. all sink into the earth under my feet. falling away behind me like the gentle wake from an old poet’s wooden boat. image. beauty. a most sweet surrender. i drift. i flow.
i have been here before. in this place. once, under a scorching summer sun. light so fierce and bright it burned even with my eyes squeezed shut. my mind escaped me along this road for the first time.
it was july. my skin burned hot from blazing sun. lips parched. i sat on the stone bench for a rest. i didn’t know what time it was or even how long i had been walking. i hadn’t seen another pilgrim for hours. it was seductive. i was drifting off. to where, i wasn’t sure. but i was leaving. i tried to pull my consciousness back with some kind of thought. an idea to ground to. an image of someone from my family or a friend. nothing. a memory. nothing would stay. then i started to freak out a little. ‘i have lost my way’ i can remember saying outloud. i have completely lost my way. i repeated this over and over. and then, must have fallen asleep. when i woke, it was as if i had been out for days. i fished a squashed banana from the bottom of my backpack and managed to get myself back on the road again. later, at the albergue, i fell into my bunk and slept a long and dreamless sleep. the next day, the hospitalero drove me to the hospital in leon to check on my foot and maybe my head. but, instead of keeping me for observation, the doctor told me to take a break from the road and drink beer for the next three days. so much for being crazy.
in the hospital elevator, a girl was wheeled in. body small. complexion grey. cancer patient, i thought. she watched me. i shifted nervously in the corner. wild hair and sunburned skin. she must have thought i was from a strange pilgrim carnival. downstairs, i headed as fast as i could for the door. somehow the girl and i came together in the center of the large bustling room. i turned and met her fierce gaze just as she reached out for my hand. she held on tight and wouldn’t let go. she looked me in the eyes and asked me in perfect (and slightly otherworldly) english, ‘are you looking for your way?’
all i could manage was to nod my head and she held my hand a little longer and smiled lovingly. and then, just as suddenly as it had happened, she was wheeled off without another word. in that moment, i had a jolt of energy. i understood somehow that i had in fact, not lost my way. that i was alive. i was awake. i was strong and healthy and on my road. i should enjoy each moment. experience all things fully and deeply. stay out of my mind. live in my heart. simple. all of it.
When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.
later that summer, when i arrived in santiago, i felt at peace. i wandered through the great crowd of people and tucked myself in for the mass at the cathedral. i noticed that across the isle, leaning against a great stone column, a girl was watching me. she was about twelve years old and was near her mother. she seemed familiar to me somehow. and as i looked more closely, i noticed that she was about the same age as the girl in the hospital. she had the same face, but hers pink and healthy. as it should be. i took off the leather cord with the indigo stone attached from around my neck. i held it in my hand and when she looked my way again, i smiled and handed it to her. her eyes grew wide and she then tilted her head back and laughed and laughed. she didn’t thank me or ask me what it was for. she only held my gaze for a moment and then was lost in the bustling crowd of pilgrims and tourists. i don’t know if this was the same girl. it would be impossible really, if it was. but, i don’t know that it was not. after all, this is a mysterious camino. i don’t question. everything has significance and meaning. well beyond my understanding.
i have known a lot of people to skip the meseta. too boring. too long. nothing exciting or important happens there. but, i can tell you, if you are brave enough. if you can let it come and let it be. the transformation is slow, but it is very, very real. i dare you to enter the fire of this rare landscape. learn another level of compassion. know it for yourself.
ah, humility. ah, the mind. the opportunity to ‘lose it’ and to also find what lies beyond it. to feel this bearable lightness of being. big sky mind. mysterious meseta, indeed.