it is a stinking hot day in queensland. it is the late 1970’s. it is the era of disco music and roller skates, wedge platforms and tans. it is pre-skin cancer slip slop slap, during the time when the australian male thought it fashionable to wear shorts and long socks. in a mining town in the middle of nowhere, pumping away under the microscope of a glaring blue summer sky, people try to keep up with what is happening out there. but in the end, inertia always pulls them back in line. back to the australian way. so far away….so far away. shorts and long socks……that is all i am going to say.
inside a classroom, where even the flies are so hot that they buzz around, bashing against window glass trying to escape, there are children seated at rigid wooden desks. the kind with heavy lids that slam down on fragile little fingers and rock hard seats that leave your bum feeling numb after a while. all in a row. nice and neat. everything is in order. there is a crucifix. there is a clock that does not move. there is a plant. there is a photo of pope john paul ii……aaahhhhh the golden era…….children are seated nervously, little feet shifting hesitantly under desks, watching a decrepit nun positioned behind a table at the front of the room. she is the teacher, the boss. she wears a white habit, except it is not altogether white. more like an off-white. maybe even grey…. she is scary. she wears a set of thin, dark rosary beads like a flaccid noose. this woman is ready, waiting to die for our lord. she needs those rosary beads to finish the job the desert cannot do.
before speaking, she takes a few, long moments to scan the room. making brief contact with the eyes of each and every child.
today is a very important day, she drones. today, you will learn the order of things. the way things have to be. the ways you have to be.
the children can see her, they can hear her, but have no earthly idea what she is talking about, also scary. how long until little lunch?
suddenly, the old hag’s eyes narrow, as she focuses in on one child at the very back of the class who has accidentally fallen asleep in the heat, head slumped forward onto outstretched arms. she silently stands, and walks slowly over to the sleeping girl.
she stands in front of the child ~”sharon”~ watching her relaxed breathing. she is a komodo dragon, patiently waiting. she is seething. the others know what is coming and are holding their collective breath.
“WAKE UP, SHARON!!!”, she thunders, as she pounds her fist down on the desk directly in front of the child.
sharon is violently jolted forth from unicorns and rainbows, back into the hard reality of this classroom.
sharon is crying, but the hag is satisfied. at least she is awake. ready to receive this important information.
now, lets start…..
the children ~all too familiar with this cue~ raise their pencils, preparing to write.
this day on the camino commences more or less like every other day. it begins with the usual early morning snores as pilgrims embark on their last sleep cycle, breathing sounds morph into the rustling of sleeping bags, coughing, stretching, yawning… eyes open……lights……….whispers……………………a loo flushing off in the distance……………………………………sounds building and building, reaching a critical mass, pushing the morning movement along to the soundtrack of human buzz, as people get ready to march……………………………………………………………………….. propelled along by the sound dynamic, i walk downstairs, ready to put my shoes on and leave.
today, i will leave grandas de salime and walk to fonsagrada, leaving asturias behind and moving into the final stage of the camino ~galicia. the time walking in asturias has been precious for me, far more precious than any other travelling experience that i have had. in some ways, i have walked home, cleansing, reconnecting. there is a sense of excitement of moving on now, covering distance. there is a group of pilgrims downstairs as i am getting ready. although there are a few different people in the space, in reality, i only see one person. the rest are fillers, somehow not real. visual saccharine. does this happen to you? why is this? it is almost as if my eyes are only supposed to register this one person. exiting the albergue, this tunnel vision reappears when i go to the bar to eat breakfast and the same group walks in. i see this person once again. it is something that happens intuitively, instantly, organically. leaving the bar, i go out to the street, heading in the vague direction where i think the yellow arrows are going to pick up. i am confused as to where i should go, so, i stop and while i am thinking, the same group comes up the street behind me, apparently experiencing a similar dilemma. and there is this person again. relief. this time, there is no escaping. mouths open, words are exchanged, footsteps realign…………………………………………
walking in the same direction.
and here begins the most interesting and fulfilling part of the camino. the logical ending. the part where past situations, people, words, and learning come together in that space behind the eyes, reflected and brought into being in the physical world. this time the classroom is a fresh, new setting. a setting where integration of understanding can happen. the space where you have no choice but to head down a new camino, never going back to old ways.
my new walking companions are a group of four spanish fellows, seemingly “regular” guys, but as i discover in the ensuing days, they are not regular at all. in fact, along with the verb “process”, i also think i am going to pull the adjective “regular” out of circulation. kill it dead. so much happens behind the face, and the words that come out of the mind, and the body, and the way it moves…. regular is a cardboard cut out description of a human. it is a waste of conceptual space.
falling into conversation with them, that morning, we slip and slide along all the usual suspects: what is your name? where do you come from, what do you do, why are you doing this…..? all of this is very nice and all of this is very pleasant, but it is not the reason why i stay. from the first minute of walking with this mob, i feel like i have become part of their group. it might only be for an hour or a day, but i know right from the beginning that i want to walk with these people and am in no particular hurry to move off on my own tangent. there is also the matter of the lighthouse that has now crossed my path three times, guiding me gently in to the shore. as i am very prone to reading signs and symbols into just about anything, i see this as a sign to keep moving forward and see where the interaction takes me.
this camino has been a type of mobile existential classroom that has transported me through a lot of different territories, many of which did not come with a map. i simply had to feel my way along, from moment to moment. now, at the beginning of the ending, hindsight has given me the eyes to see the landscapes of my solitude with greater clarity.
at first, i wanted to walk alone, thinking that that was the way i felt that this had to be done. i am woman, hear me roar. the camino then brought me into contact with numerous people, which was all very lovely on one level but also quite arduous at times. you see, i have learned that i am protective of my space. there is a thick skin there, a poker face. i keep myself hidden much of the time….. walking led me to the realisation of the ways that, like most people, i am intolerant of others, their stories, their ways, their need to speak incessantly…………..oh, the wind……………at times, the human wind was so bad, i wanted to rip my hair out. my experiences reflected all of these shadows, nicely and clearly, so i could see them, feel them, taste them. then came fear……. more shadows………..the man in the forest…………………………shadows………………………..i need people………..people need me…………………………….people need each other…………….people march together………………………………strength in numbers……………………………strength in community…………………….strength……………………………………………………………the joy of SHARING……..the desire to share myself…………..then following the light into the shore………the most sublime lesson of all.
it never would have occurred to me at the beginning of this walk that i would finish the walk in this way. integrated into a group. of men! and when i begin to see that this is, in fact, what is happening, it feels great. it is evidence that the distances covered on this walk have not just been in terms of kilometres. although i have many male friends, i function best ~most comfortably~ in the company of women. so this feeling of comfort is a relatively new thing for me. as the days progress, i am given a lovely, safe space to experience real caring, teamwork, laughter, receiving support, supporting others, listening to, and conversing with a group of very interesting, funny, good, solid people. the relationships that develop also give me space to consider the relationships that i have with other men in my life: friends, lovers, my grandfather, my brother, my father, my nephews……. the camino is presenting me with the antidote for any tiredness that may be creeping in: the suggestion to take a new camino. lighter and more fun, where motivation and laughter go hand in hand. where things aren’t taken too seriously. i could have had this from the beginning, but i never would have taken that option. you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink…..
that day, we tramp towards fonsagrada, a long day. as we are arriving in fonsagrada, i am beginning to have an out of body experience, i am so tiiiiiiiiirrrrreeeeeddddd. walking into town, i see patri, and she tells me that jeremiah and a couple of other people are also at the other albergue. fantastic! oh, but wait, i am absolutely stuffed. tiredness has come upon me. it is as if a tremendous weight has been taken off my shoulders, and all i want to do is lie down and sleep properly for the first time in my life. maybe for a hundred years…… i am able to muster enough energy to eat lunch (pork cheeks- yum yum yum!!! and a weird dessert from fonsagrada- ho hum ho hum ho hum !!!) with my new friends and take myself to the albergue to sleep…. that night, i eat dinner and have a couple of beers with patri and jeremiah. the following morning, i see these four guys again at breakfast, and from that point on, we walk together…..the camino takes us to o cadavo the next day and to lugo, the day after that.
walking on this new camino, reaching the end now, time begins to push down harder, compressing the significance of conversations had, jokes laughed at, and all the information that you learn about a person simply by walking with them. i begin to experience interactions more intensely, their density augmented simply by the mere fact of ending. you might say that one hour of walking and talking in this sort of space definitely equates to a number of hours getting to know someone in daily life out there. with my new friends, there is an implicit respect for each person’s rhythms. there are strong, long periods of silence as we walk. sometimes people move ahead, or fall behind. the lighthouse and i walk together quite a bit. sometimes conversing, which is always very interesting….but there are many times that we walk in silence. side by side. these periods of silence become the most treasured gift of all from the camino. he is the lighthouse because my eyes really see him across space. i can feel other lines of communication open under the surface, he tells me so with his eyes. it is very easy to walk with someone like this, very easy indeed. the lighthouse teaches me that it is possible to walk closely alongside others in a shared space, comfortably, safely receiving care, and the light of guidance, without the limitation of words. i discover that if the walls are down, anything is possible.