reflection

Living Out Ultreia

A Memory

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Savoring guava juice and a peach at a stop along the Camino.

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.

Forgetting

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?

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A self-portrait: two weeks after being told it was a sarcoma, two days prior to my official diagnosis.

Remembering

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.

A Reckoning

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.

— @wild_one_walking

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.

Ultreia.

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10 thoughts on “Living Out Ultreia”

  1. Christina, you are such a beautiful writer and person, inside and out. Your beautiful words and perspectives make me sad that I don’t write more and that I can’t think of a better word than beautiful (see, I told you I don’t write enough anymore). Anyway, I just had to share that with you and tell you that I never want to stop reading whatever it is you’re talking about. You’re my new Oprah ❤

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  2. Whether you are walking across a country, or walking across the room, you are a warrior. You are such a beautiful writer, Christina. Thank you for sharing your amazing adventures along with your struggles. I’m praying this pause in your journey is not too long. Your spirit is too bright.
    High regards, Kathy

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  3. Love reading your stories. They come alive in your writing. You are truly gifted and have so much more to do. I wish you health and freedom from this illness . Keep fighting and I’ll keep praying. You are amazing.

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  4. Hi Darling!

    As always you teach me and inspire me so much ❤ I had no idea that the experience of our elders are in our DNA. Cool! Also terrible…but generally beautiful and amazing…just like life ❤
    Just a little something to make you feel better, your "cancer life" of smoothie, traffic, work, dog, dinner, netflix is the life that most healthy people live. Only you would consider it a slacker life or something "not to be proud of". You should be proud of everything that you do. I know you don't see it, but you are thriving right now. You have always thrived, Christina. Right now you are just thriving in a different way.

    It takes a tremendous amount of strength to live a "normal" life when you are facing what you are facing. You have such a gorgeous insight and understanding of life that so few have and I am so proud of you for sharing more than just your positive side. OF COURSE sometimes you are a crying/sad/worried hot mess. OF COURSE you are pissed that you can't audition. OF COURSE you are jealous of fabulous social media jumbo (side note: social media=tabloid magazine/mainstream media news article…only half of it is true). Your anger is completely justified. I will let you in on a little secret, earlier this year God and I had a fight. Most of the reasons were petty reasons about my own "problems"; I didn't understand why certain things in my life were the way they were. Another reason was you. Nobody deserves cancer, but you deserve it less than anyone else and I don't understand why you have it. I can't see God's reason. Again, nobody deserves the disease…but I mean if people really have to get it, let's face it, the world has a long list of much more qualified candidates. So God and I fought, and even though we kind of made up…I still have days of "Why God whyyyyyyyyyy??? Woe is me!" I mean we all know I love drama.

    The point is, If I am allowed to feel jealous, ungrateful, angry and sad about the BS problems that I have you are certainly allowed to be upset about cancer. If i get to be angry and confused about your cancer, then you certainly get to be pissed off about your cancer. You are not allowed however, to feel guilty about these things. When they come, let yourself feel them and remind yourself that you are not being a brat, petty, ungrateful or a baby. You didn't break a nail, you got a cancer diagnosis.

    Now back to the part where you are thriving. You are inspiring people left and right with how you are dealing with this. When I feel lazy or whiny or drama-queeny, I tell myself "Really? Christina has cancer and she's full of positivity, you're really going to moan and groan about this bull shit?" You are still full of positivity when you feel sad and angry, Christina. You are still thriving and inspiring when you have a tear filled face. It's your humanity, your character and who you are as a person that inspires us. You inspire now, you did before cancer, and you will after cancer. Nobody is supporting you because you are sick, we are supporting you because we love you.

    You made it to Santiago and you are going to make it back to health.

    Oh look, Mari wrote a whole book to make a tiny point. Surprise!!

    Ultreia, dear friend. Ultreia

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  5. You amaze me sunshine. I love your blog. One of my dreams is to walk the Camino 🙂 xoxoxo hugs. Colleen

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  6. You continue to amaze me. I am so glad I got to see you and reconnect. You are a bad ass. You are a warrior. Know that on days that you might not be feeling it, I’ll feel it for you.

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