And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Matthew 6:28
Arrival, Santiago de Compestela
The bones of St. James are buried under the altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compestela in Galicia, Spain. These are sweet-smelling holy bones of our patron saint, a fiery man they say, who was beheaded and martyred at the hands of Herod, unearthed by disciples in Jerusalem, and guided by angels and the wind in a stone boat (an act of faith if ever there was one) back to Galicia where he had once preached. There, from the shores of Padron on his way to his final resting spot in Santiago, stones softened under his dead body, angels opened prison doors, advancing soldiers drowned in rivers, a fire-belching dragon was cloven asunder and a cruel, deceitful Queen Lupa eventually redeemed herself.
It is within the lushness of this beautiful story---a story so few believe but I embrace---that thirteen rational, upstanding New Yorkers left behind their families and responsibilities and set off into a stormy night. The next day on the border of Portugal we prayed for a miracle, joined the continuous veneration of the faithful heading north, and embarked on a week of walking to seek redemption.
But this story begins on the last day of our pilgrimage, at the Pilgrim’s Mass at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, waiting for the service to begin, bent forward and dozing in the pew, hung-over from a night of champagne, whiskey, white wine and cigarettes and wired on three espressos---a precarious combination for a delicate housewife no longer accustomed to such behavior. Above and behind the altar, a ceaseless line of pilgrims slowly progressed up the steps to a 13th century statue of St. James, kissed him and hugged him, and descended the other side. There was a certain, calming grace in the tempo of the pilgrims’ movement and with each measured embrace. From afar it looked like a cult of brainwashed devotees paying homage to their leader.
Over a loud speaker, a nun shushed the swarms filling the cathedral. A procession of clergy ascended to the altar. I was impressed by their white hair and curious about their lives, but I didn’t feel too connected with them. That California patchouli-scented hippy girl, her continually-nursing baby still attached to her breast, weaved through the crowds and took a place in the front pew. She didn’t seem to understand that it was reserved and no one dared tell her. I had seen her with the baby and a friend on the trail and wondered what the hell she was thinking. But they seemed perfectly fine. I let the cadence of the Spanish liturgy lull me. After a while, the Botafumeira was let down from its height and swung magnificently from north to south to north again dispensing its great clouds of incense (an event celebrated on certain religious high days, or when a bus of Danish tourists pay for it). Hundreds of smart phones were raised in reverence to record the moment. I watched a bouquet of red-robed priests cling to the rope pulley, lifting up on to their tippy toes by the force of its pull and descending again like curtains when the breeze subsides.
So here I am. I am here, at the end of our pilgrimage, disheveled and sleep-deprived, feeling not too sacred nor pious. I have shed my skins. I have taken up my spade to break ground and I am drunk in love. The day before at the entrance to the cathedral with 70 miles of walking behind me, I practically died at the handprint that a million pilgrims have created with their touch upon arrival to the cathedral, a soft crater of wave-like layers creating a dreamy illusion of a hand slipping continually down the column. The human touch of a century of pilgrims softened deep into the marble as if the column were made of butter. I too had arrived---swerving and staggering, drinking and staggering, laughing and complaining my way closer to God.
Departure, New York
But there is no true departure on this journey, for where exactly does a pilgrimage begin? Shall we start in December writing a check in the church foyer? Or with the intentions set in January, tossed in February, redone in March? Did it begin with goodbye to my children: my cool, ten-year-old daughter looking up from Cake Boss with a “Bye Mum”; my brave and gallant eight-year-old son, his lip quivering as he held back tears at the door. Was it the prayer Holly and I said in my apartment before departing for the airport, asking God that we leave behind the chaos of the last few days and set off purposefully in His direction, or the sudden thunderstorm that rolled in as we left the apartment, the deepest, most incredible purple clouds descending over the city, the downpour that drenched us as we walked the three blocks to the F train?
On the first night in Tui, when Holly reached out to the little girl dancing around the patio’s pool---moon lanterns drifting around its shallow blue water---did that mark the beginning of her journey? For Chris, when she came leaping into the hotel lobby to greet us, having hitched a ride from Madrid in a red convertible? For me, I’ll tell you now, this pilgrimage began with the first cigarette I smoked the night we arrived---absolutely divine ten years after quitting and ushering me right back to my life before children.
Departures, Vigo, Spain
A small group of teenage girls and a mother were waiting at the arrival gate at the airport in Vigo, a light-filled, expansive terminal, silent and sleek. The girls were giddy and expectant waiting for their friend to come out of customs. They got up on their toes to peek in the door when it opened. They were wearing Mickey Mouse ears. This killed me.
I admit that I am prone to tears at airports. When a soldier stands awkwardly with his wife and his parents; when little children leave their mother for their father’s city; when a pregnant wife embraces her husband who has returned in time for the birth---the uninhibited emotions of families, friends and lovers saying goodbye or welcoming one another is just too much for me. I am with them. When our daughter was a month old, with a sinking heart I watched my husband go through airport security on his way to the Congo for a six-month assignment. A decade later, with two sullen children in the car and a traffic policeman swinging his arms at me, I watched him walk away from the drop-off curb for two years based in Afghanistan. We have endured a career of departures and returns in between. I know the unbearable weight of the day of departure. I know what it’s like to drive away from an airport with tears streaming down my face. I know the dread of returning to an empty home, his morning coffee cup still on the table and our previous life---bright, full, warm and loving---still lingering in the room. I know the pain of separation. What I don’t know is how we endure it.
But we endure it.
For days and weeks before the departure to Spain, I am in a mood of preparation. I make arrangements for the children, send emails for play dates and babysitters, write thank you letters to teachers. I am suddenly so efficient! I accomplish long-procrastinated errands---dry cleaning, a coat’s alteration, neglected medical bills, forms for the doorman. I abolish piles. No evidence! Everything is sealed and taken care of. There is enough coffee for my husband, the children are not sick, and then begin the endless, it seems, goodbyes. It is that time of year. Everywhere I go, we are leaving. I’ll see you when I get back. Or we’ll meet up in July? At school when you return in September… Yes certainly, I’ll see you then…
There is a touch of anxiety with each parting. (Every journey, as they say, is a journey toward death.) We smile politely through it, but the truth is I may never see you again. My neighbor is elderly and has had heart attacks. Airplanes, even airplanes filled with priests and vestry, can crash. There are car accidents involving children and husbands all the time. I know someone whose family died in an earthquake while he was at the office. I read about a couple separated for eternity by a tsunami. Eternity. I heard about that child abducted from her bedroom. Children drown too, especially if you don’t watch them every second. And I will not be there with my watchful eye, or with that half-awake-through-the-night sort of sleep that only a mother can achieve. Nothing, nothing, about the frailty of life escapes me now.
The frailty of life---ah yes. For I think I am living, and then I take a trip. Unfettered by obligation or fatigue, I soon realize that in order to live properly, I have conformed to please one hundred people. I thought I was breathing but I was not breathing. I thought I was loving but I was buried under the snow, seduced by the warmth that precedes freezing to death. My heart was enclosed in layers of wool, reticence and terror. This is no failure certainly. We can’t all be hippies living in a tent. We can’t all roam like nomadic gypsies, brushing off societal constraints and not paying taxes. Someone has to raise the children, protect the law, mow the lawn, make the deals, iron the shirts and govern the masses. Responsibility is not a character flaw.
But it is a delicate world, and we build our defenses in it. I rely on contortions to ignore life’s frailty: to keep fear at bay, to keep horror at bay. I am entangled in fantasy and denial, dependent on panaceas and talking remedies. I succumb to vicious depressions because they arrive cloaked as a relief to reality, a seductive warmth that I mistake for escape from tedium. Don’t misunderstand me: my life is insanely beautiful. I wake, I worship, I walk with my children. I am alone most of the day which I prefer. In a snowstorm I meet a friend to see the ballet. In the springtime I walk the dog past fragrant blossoms. It’s not complicated. But a subterranean worry runs through my days and nights as intricate and natural as a river passes through its landscape. It’s been persistent for years---certainly since the first child was born, certainly since way before that---so interwoven with my thoughts that I’m hardly aware of its burden. I have built my defenses it against it, and they actually sort of work. Until, in Spain, the fear lifts, and my defenses go down.
Each day on the pilgrimage we have direction and a destination. This is reassuring and liberating. There are yellow arrows to point the way, and scallop shell icons too (a symbol of God’s guidance).
The arrows are ubiquitous…. “painted on rocks and curbs and trees and the backs of street sign posts and even the sides of buildings, navigating us through town streets or pointing to where we went from country roadside to wooded path. They send us through vineyards with grapevines trained to grow up over our heads; they urge us up hillsides and through industrial parks; they take us past medieval stone crosses and lead us to fountains to refill our water bottles… The yellow arrows become for us visible signs that God is always trying to point our way in this pilgrimage of life, if only we could search sufficiently patiently for the arrow that lies somewhere before us…” Rev. Craig Townsend
I don’t follow the arrows. I follow the others who follow the arrows. I walk the way my children follow me each day in New York, chatting away without a care, oblivious to where we are or where we’re going. I don’t know the names of the towns or our hotels. I never did understand the guidebook’s layout. I abandoned any effort with Spanish in January. I don’t care. I have faith that someone will find me should I wander astray. The Lord is my shepherd! and so is Craig, our unobtrusive and ubiquitous guide, circling our staggered group on his bike. Of course we are like lost sheep, bleating and perplexed, and of course we compare him to a shepherd. Though at times, suddenly coming upon him playing his ukulele by the side of a road or in the shade of a tree, he is the spirit of a medieval troubadour, pleasing the Lord and reassuring the peasants passing by.
And so, without ambition or children, I meander. In America, walking has become a privilege. We are captives in our sleek spaceships, severed form the world beyond. What a huge tragedy, what a loss of life’s meaning. For one, conversation unfolds when walking in a way that’s so different from chatting in the church hallway or meeting over a drink. The rhythm of the conversation is measured by the rhythm of our steps: thoughts rise, evolve, digress and return. We unconsciously pace our speech to the geography---talking breathless on the hills, slow and cautious in the heat, silently or not at all in the woods. Listening is different too, in that I actually do it. With each story images take shape in my mind---a child’s school, an apartment under repair, a stubborn parent’s dementia, the heart-wrenching last rendez-vous with an ex-boyfriend. I hear the unspoken too. I hear the speaker processing the situation in her telling, in the pauses to reflect. In this foreign beautiful land, distance mellows our instinct to judge and so, falling away from the others on a country road or in a silent-afternoon neighborhood, we confess to each other. I’ve never said this aloud… No one really knows this but... What arewe confessing? A secret agony, a shameful act, a burden of guilt, things about those we love and those we have hurt. With each story something lifts, there is a little relief. It dissipates into the hot afternoon.
On the third night I have a nightmare in which I can’t remember my children’s faces. Like a dream where you try to run in vain, I wrestle and struggle to pull them up from the darkest pool of memory. Was it even a dream, or did I wake in the depth of night and panic? I don’t know. (One night, waking out of the blue, the room was so pitch black I thought I had become blind.) I confess that I haven’t thought about the children much. After ten years of parenting, often alone, I am free to let them go. I sighed deeply throughout the first day as my grip’s intensity (and its futility) loosened. By the second day, in Arcade, I understood what was happening. For the first time in ten years, I wasn’t trying to steer the course for another human being---a fruitless act if ever there was one.
And the waves of the high sea surrounded me:
I have no boatman and don’t know how to row,
Me waiting for my amigo.
I have no boatman, nor anyone to row:
And I’ll die, beautiful me, in the vast sea,
Me waiting for my amigo.
13th century Spanish cantiga about a young woman at the shrine of San Simion, overwhelmed by waves of passion for the Divine
In Arcade, our room overlooks the Rio Verdugo and the bay of San Simion. In the late afternoon sun we swim against the river’s current with fish tapping our legs. Galician families lounge on the riverbank. Languorous grandmothers in two-piece bathing suits sit on the beach wall, light up a cigarette and set their daughters straight. Plastic chairs are set up under a make-shift tarp for the men to watch the World Cup on tv. It is divine, an antidote to earlier that afternoon when I had arrived to the hotel room haunted with unspeakable loneliness. There was something sad in the weight of the bright, warm afternoon, and something too familiar. I washed my clothes in the sink and lay them out on the bright hot balcony, the searing whiteness. Across the empty street below, a stony church square was scorching in heat. The landscape beyond was still, no life. The river view was wasted on me.
Since we first arrived in Spain I am continually reminded of the years I lived in East Africa, the first year especially when I traveled alone through remote hotels. The heat, the still afternoons, the rooster’s crow, the smell of milky coffee in a rural, well-polished cafe. This was the landscape of my early 30s, when I left New York to pursue my dream and write. I had thoroughly prepared for this move---one must for any great departure---but it was still a true leap with all the inherent risks. No matter how carefully we devise our plans, you know there are a million shocks once we embark on the journey, a million unpredictable disruptions. The route is always circuitous and the destination so different from our original vision.
The transition to Africa was at times excruciating. I was vulnerable, at the mercy of others no matter how cruel. I endured humiliation, I was often so very lonely. For self-preservation, I learned to quickly judge character. I learned to accept charity and generosity. I was forced to scheme and manipulate. In retrospect I see, of course, that it was fun, and I eventually flourished in a new direction. Like any departure, however, it took patience, courage and sorrow.
In Arcade, a sense of alienation and panic. Perched on another familiar departure, toward isolation and despair, I turn to prayer. I pray to make order out of chaos, and to help me use this precious time, this pilgrimage, to do so. My intention is to shape the deception, hubris, diagnoses, as well as the faith and reverence, of my time in New York and make sense of things. A writer’s privilege. And so I asked you for guidance, dear God, remember? Let’s get serious now, I said. We have work to do here.
But first, a swim. By the river we’ll talk about skiing and how the headlights of the snow Cats at night used to climb and descend the trails like winter fireflies, and how the afternoon shadows fell across the ski slopes. Peaceful childhood images meet the bright colorful summer scene around us. The sadness begins to lift. I slip further into idleness, grace and ease.
And at two o’clock in the morning, as I stagger up the hill to the hotel with my girls---drunk, gossiping, singing---malaise is fully replaced by joy. We wake the hotel’s proprietor, how obnoxious, and disappear into the darkness of our respective hallways. Soon I hear them yacking in a room down the hall, on another floor below, and the rebellious boarding-school girl in me thinks vaguely, We’re so going to get it now. “Well,” I say to the Old Man as I stumble into bed, “that plan backfired.” I have to laugh, and swear I feel God laughing too. I know, I know! He says. Isn’t it a total joke, life?
On the third day, time begins to falter. My perception of time shifts, as it does when I’m deep into writing. It suspends and pools. There are no engagements, deadlines, there is no albatross hanging over the day. I don’t have to “just make it to bedtime” as I often must do with the children. The days’ light lingers on until 10pm. I believe a clock in a café that is two hours slow. I am a passive sheep, what do hours matter? I have left one place and, with some nudging, will arrive at the next. I graze on grass fields. I drink every night. I bum cigarettes and wait for dinner to arrive. When I run out of cash I assume Holly will cover me. She does. I can worry about it, or not. So I don’t.
My steady walking companions, my girls, are young enough to be my daughters and soon it’s important that I share every detail of my life with them---every exploit, triumph and regret so that they, of course, can do things differently, better. I warn them about love affairs with men whose names I can’t remember now. I implore them to take risks. I remind them how well they are doing in life. Lectures soon evolve into adventure stories and tall tales. They look at the trees and take it in stride, and then fill me in on Beyoncé and tell the best stories about college loves and surfboards, bartenders and riding in cars with boys. Go on… I say, remembering those years. Go on.
The people we have walked through our lives with---who have come with us in and out of our lives, for a moment or weeks or years---they come and go with us now too, in the stories. I am walking with nieces and nephews, children, ex-lovers, boyfriends, best friends, parents, colleagues, mentors. We are also accompanied by, I’m beginning to sense, quite the cast of past pilgrims. The stories we share are not humble and pure. I am regressing into my younger world, shedding my skin and not getting sentimental about it. I’m beginning to sense that ours is not a traditional pilgrimage, pious and holy. By the last day, I am sure of it.
For some, it’s on the third day, after the exuberance of the first day and the physical pain of the second, that disturbing emotions arise. For others, later. In the departure from routine and the expansiveness, it is to be expected. For me, on the way to Patron I am suddenly overcome with irritation on the trail and push ahead. I ascend and descend on a path through grapevine arbors and fields of something. I am sick of it, really sick of it, and furious. This absurdity I’ve been maintaining for years, unfocused and waiting for... what? The artifice, the addictions, and deceptions. I cling to delusions to take the edge off boredom and to give my life some illusion of meaning. But look, it amounts to nothing. The children will soon figure me out and rebel. I am not an artist. When will we suffocate in debt because of me? And that damn fucking cat. I spend my hours judging others, but look at me, who am I? I am a fraud. Who am I? Nothing.
It’s slightly overcast and muggy. I don’t look up or see much, only the blanket of slate-grey sky and the undulating green earth. I cruise up a hill passing French pilgrims in bathing suits---bathing suits? Ulgh---and past some ancient fountain I hardly notice. For how long do I rush like this, fuming and loathing and hating? When I come to a second fountain, I pause and make myself stop. The others are far behind me now, there’s time. I splash water on my face and arms---it’s really pure, you can even drink it. I don’t have to be alone here, I know, and so in prayer I bring it back to Papa. You’ve been with me on this one for years, I say. You know my delusions, and you (not I) know why I am plagued with them. You know it all, dear God, so please walk with me as you always walk with me. Please walk with me now.
As I pull myself together, a beagle trots up to the fountain. He’s not like the other dogs we pass who bark or leap up behind gates. He is mindful, floppy, and intent on some errand. There is no fuss in his arrival. He is not there, and then, simply, he is. He reminds me of my husband a little, the way he approaches a stranger with ease and settles into a conversation without a speck of self-consciousness. We chat for a minute, as comfortable as siblings, and when I’m ready to go, I bid adieu. I cross the quiet country road, and he does too. I continue on… and he does too. “Are you coming with me?” I ask, confused. A strange feeling creeps up on me, like the weakness just before a first kiss with a boy I’ve always loved. The dog glances up at me, I got your back babe, he says and looks ahead again without missing a beat. He’s like a dorky bodyguard.
Perhaps he has led every passing pilgrim this way, I don’t know. But today his timing is impeccable. In my life I have seen God’s wonder in a play of light on a chain-link fence, in ripples on still water, in a passing stranger’s face. I have felt God’s presence in times of horror, sorrow and joy. I’ve called on Him through it all, but I’ve never really had a laugh with Him before. I have to smile. I look at the dog, his ears practically drag on the ground. He is so sincere and committed to his mission. “That’s very funny,” I admit, sort of laughing in wonder. “You are very funny.”
God’s dog who was not a loving God but a loving dog, walked with me for a little while. At one point he ushered me past a little growly yappy thing, rolling his black-rimmed eyes as if to say, Ignore him, that Stan is such an asshole. And when we eventually come to a busy road, he turned back. He was beside me, and then, simply, he was not; it was a pure and selfless goodbye. Had I called out to him I’m quite sure he would have turned to me and with a touch of arrogance suggested, Next time, don’t take yourself so seriously, baby cakes. It’s going to be fine.
And so we parted ways. After a length of peaceful walking, I came to a narrow busy highway. This can’t be right, I thought. Way too dangerous, but I had followed the arrows and they led to here. I stood by the highway’s rail and wondered about it. Out of pure indifference, I hadn’t walked alone yet. I always relied on someone to lead me through the thickets. I didn’t even know our destination that night. I watched the traffic whiz by, half-thinking again about how I really didn’t want to think, when two men who I had passed a bit earlier approached with the same confusion. They shouted in Spanish to a man in a truck and he replied with gestures. They turned back, and I followed them. Without words we began to travel together. I wondered if the men were American or South American or what. I wondered how long they had been friends, and why they were on Camino together. Maybe one had had a wife who had recently died of cancer and this was his way to find life again. How could his friend say no to that? Maybe they usually sailed together---they were handsome and dashing, like yachtsmen---and this year they had just decided to do something different. They didn’t seem gay. And if one of them had just lost his wife… well then. But they didn’t seem American or widowed or yachtsmen either. They were Christians, I guess. After all the silliness and commotion on this weird walk, that’s who we ultimately are of course. That’s just who we are. We are all frauds, ridiculously sailing out in our stone boats. And yet, there are no frauds.
When we came to a turn or fork, of which there seemed many, they half-nodded to me as if they didn’t want to offend me by assuming that I was following them, and continued on, glancing back to make sure I was there. For 40 minutes we weaved into Padron like this until I came upon my group drinking coffee at a café on the esplanade. In our unspoken conversation, the men knew I was there. They each shook my hand gently. I said, Gracias. They said, Adios. That was all we said.
Toward the end
On the last day, my girls and I have a lot to talk about. Our talk is languishing by now, unraveling across the day---absurd, raunchy, ecstatic, ridiculous. We get in snippety fights about directions, what song to sing and over a croissant. We get hilarious until we stop, bent over in laughter. As we come into Santiago and ascend the streets into town and toward the church, staggering not from physical exhaustion but with the floppiness of joy, we hit the iphone and dance. We go walking through the backyard with the sweet-talkin’ son of a preacher man, and we be totally annoying to the locals.
A million pious and solemn pilgrims before us have walked this sacred path. Some approached on their knees, genuflecting and subservient to God. Others traveled for months and years fasting, praying and giving what little they had to the poor. They were exhausted, benevolent and heroic. But I wonder, did not a few drunken men revel in their first taste of freedom in their toiling, medieval lives? Did they too celebrate like fools, letting go just for one day their worry and burden? Did Jesus not walk among these jesters and vagrants as well? I was not accompanied by the most pious of past pilgrims, I know that, but I sensed these harmless goofballs’ gratitude for life and for the love of God too. And that’s what I keep trying to tell you: Does worry add one hour to your life? Let it go, baby cakes. Don’t take it all so seriously. Because I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking… And God is laughing.
*Title, Chapter Four of The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela, Book Five of the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th century manuscript of illustration, detail and advice for pilgrims following The Way of St. James.