Once upon a time, when I thought the lump by my collarbone was a lipoma, I walked 500 miles from France to Spain.
I have to be honest with you, most days I forget it happened. That speaks so much to the human condition, doesn’t it? You accomplish a dream, you finally get the material object you want, you finally end up in that happy relationship that you want – and its meaning slips away. You begin to wonder what’s next.
For several years, that 500 mile journey called the Camino de Santiago was my dream. Then I did it, my life radically a few months later, and now it seems like a part of another person’s life. It was not even a year ago when I set off from St. Jean Pied-de-Port with one of my dearest friends and embarked on over a month of walking. There are days when I do not recognize that strong, healthy woman smiling, sunburnt and dust-covered in those photos. It was hard, but despite being only partially aware at the time, I was experiencing the vibrant fullness of being human.
I read recently that the experiences of our elders, our generations past, live in our DNA. Isn’t that wild? Somewhere, encoded in the basic scientific cells that make up our bodies, live the heartache, the loss, the beauty, and the striving of our ancestors. It puts in mind another amazing phenomenon: when individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia are played music from their past, and suddenly, though this person may not have even spoken coherently in years, lyrics start to ascend from lips to the heavens.
We know, deep down, who we are. The world will try to tell us otherwise, but if we try hard enough, we can remember.
I’m fairly certain social media is a black hole that launches us into forgetfulness. It’s a vortex that pulls you through and flips you inside out until you forget what time it is as you look at pictures of better meals than the ones you make, someone better looking than you are, adventures that are better than those you’ve had. It’s not all bad: Instagram and Facebook have been a lifeline for me in the wake of my diagnosis. I’ve made “friends” with desmoid patients from all over the world, despite never having met a one in person. But the negative force of the vortex is strong.
After the news that my tumor had not grown, I was shocked at how quickly I fell into that pit of jealousy. Comparison is the thief of joy, and I was bereft of any excitement in less than 24 hours. I sat bitterly staring at this tiny phone screen, watching as friends and peers and people I’ve lost touch with share that they were cast in shows, starting families, or doing ordinary things like going on a run. These people had done nothing to offend; they were simply living their lives. Still, I found myself filling with resentment and seething with jealousy.
I’m aware I project a pretty positive attitude in public. It’s no less real or valid or “me,” but it’s only half the story. I am grieving in some way every single day. Some days, it’s the flinching recognition that my yoga mat is collecting dust in a corner. Others, my restless thoughts spin inside my head. How did I pull the short straw? Why do I need to focus on just living when others are thriving? My life was once that easy too. What the hell did I do to end up here?
One day before our final walk to Santiago, I was sick – really, really sick. Other pilgrims walking the Camino had been walking in and out of the room until well after midnight, and when they finally slept, it was a symphony of snoring. I had oily spinach and eggs the night before, poor fuel for a vegetarian completing a day of waking in August heat. A fever was brewing that would rage on well into the next day. I was determined to get into Santiago, even if it meant crawling on my hands and knees, but I seriously doubted that I had the strength to do it.
There’s a rush of pilgrims, or as they’re called in Spanish, peregrinos, who join the Camino only for the last 100 km. While everyone has a right to their own Camino experience, those of us who had already been walking for four weeks could get annoyed at these “tour-ogrinos” pretty quickly. Many of these latecomers were inclined towards drinking heavily, talking loudly, treating this religious pilgrimage as a holiday.
Around 10 AM, my walking partner and I stopped at a bar to get a Coke and hopefully a tortilla, a hearty Spanish frittata, to fuel the rest of our day. The bar was crowded, and judging by the cleanliness of most of their boots, they hadn’t been on the trail for long. I was feeling awful and the expression on my face warned anyone within several yards to stay far, far away. So naturally, one man who had just ordered a round of shots for himself and his friends came up to us at our table. He lunged his head forward, alcohol and smoke on his breath. He smiled and piled on the bravado, announcing, “You see, my friends and I, we will smoke and drink all day, and we will still get to Santiago before you!”
When I spoke, it was without pause, with a voice I did not recognize. It was thunderous in tone, yet restrained. This was the voice of a fierce warrior, one who pulled no punches and took no prisoners. This was the voice of someone who had nothing to prove. I stared him down, my nausea and fear cast aside, and responded unwaveringly.
“Yes, you may. But I walked here from France.”
I can’t remember what his reaction was. I believe it was something akin to a half-sneer, half-smile, perhaps a smug chuckle as he sauntered back to get his drink. It doesn’t matter what his reaction was. What mattered was that I found this new, steady voice that I didn’t know I had within me.
I arrived in Santiago two days later.
This recollection surfaced at just the right time, as I was neck deep in my present-day social media binge. I stumbled upon the honest reflection of a fellow peregrina who had arrived in Santiago on a Camino facebook group. The post was translated from German courtesy of an auto-translator, but the words ring true in any language.
I don’t know how many steps I’ve gone physically, mentally and psychologically on my way. However, in the last few years I have learned so incredibly much about me, living, incredible, wonderful, sad and fulfilling stories and experiences, which fills me with deep gratitude.
The Camino never ends in Santiago – the actual journey takes place to a large part in the interior and begins afterwards. My truth, my experience. Don’t believe me a word, feel it, take something for you and leave the rest. Trust yourself and the way. It’s all there. Always.
To all the people who have supported me for the last few years, all camino angels and also all the ass angels who have often made me mad. Thank you, because through these experiences I grow. And I’m here for that. I don’t cry tears of grief.
I shine. I’m happy. I am.
It took reading this post to remind myself that it’s all there. Always.
I am no longer in Spain. Hell, I am not able to lift a full Brita pitcher without two hands and take off a tshirt without getting caught in it, let alone audition for shows or run a 5k or walk across a country. Most days I make myself a smoothie and then drive in traffic, trying to get to work on time. I give my students as much heart as I can muster, then come home to walk my dog, make dinner, do dishes, and maybe watch Netflix. It’s not the existence I am accustomed to or one I’m particularly proud of.
But I am still here. And though I forget the significance of that very fact as I trudge through this new normal, after a while a voice inside fiercely whispers the truth. The words cut through the anger, fear, rage, bitterness welling up and spilling over: I walked here from France. I walked here from Spain. I walked here after being told it’s a soft tissue sarcoma, from a conversation about taking out bones and muscles and tissue and sinews, and from a discussion of how I would be stitched up and pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I walked here on chemo. I am walking through hell and some days I feel transcendent, one of those spiritual firewalkers, and others the embers burn my feet so badly I cannot imagine going forward one more step.
And yet, here I am. Isn’t that something.
The word “ultreia” is seen often on the Camino. It’s an old, old word, mentioned in the 12th century Pilgrim’s guide called the Codex Calixtinus. It’s something pilgrims would say to one another in greeting, meaning “keep going” or “beyond,” encouragement to head onwards to Santiago, or perhaps, further.
When I said this word on the Camino, my eyes were on Santiago. Now, my destination is unclear, a blurry spot on the horizon or even somewhere past. But I must keep going and go beyond. It will not be easy. I am bruised and battered and broken. I can’t do the things I once took for granted. But here I am, continuing onward and beyond.