June 4th

A year ago yesterday Helen and I walked into Santiago de Compestella having spent nearly six weeks walking across Northern Spain. It feels like yesterday and also a distant memory. It was a huge and varied experience, up there with childbirth for the full monty. We arrived sweaty and elated and a little disbelieving that we’d made it. We hugged each other and lots of other people. Had our picture taken by another pilgrim and then sat in a corner of the sunlit square, taking time to arrive as our guru, John Brierley advised. I had a silent weep, of joy I think now, relief maybe, though we never really considered giving up.

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We checked into the swankiest hotel on the square and made full use of their sparkling facilities.

In some way it compensated for the dire places we had stayed along the way, however there was still a piper playing strangely unconnected notes outside our window from before dawn till well after lights out.

The fluffy white towels were just as we imagined them. And imagining them had helped us when the towels had been grubby and thin.

But the varied experience was all part of it.

The blisters, the snorers, the borers, the unimaginative menu, the hail and snow. The quiet pleasure of leaving an anonymous village before dawn and feeling the sun on our backs as it came up, casting our shadows long before us as we walked westwards.

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The daily ritual of café con leche.

And not knowing what we might find around the next corner, unexpected kindness and beauty.

One of the joys for Helen and me was the lack of planning. Normally hyper-organised we let a lot things just fall into place and felt the freer for it. For that time it was right.

 

 

 

Three years ago yesterday my daughter got married and the wedding and reception came together in a fluid and joyful way as a result of months of thought and careful planning. It wasn’t without hitch or incident, the bat, the fight, the gas going out, but on the whole it was great.

And since then, so much has happened. I have two grandsons. Both of whom were surprises and both bring life and smiles and energy to my world. Who’d be without them for not being planned?

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My dad had a stroke not long after the wedding and is with some courage, rebuilding his world. My son fell in love and then out of love with a beautiful girl and her daughter who are now lost to us. Today I heard of the death of a young woman I never met but who had so much to live for. Her loss makes me weep, even at some remove.

So what am I saying? Sometimes we plan and we need to. It is fitting. Sometimes plans are unnecessary and we can enjoy spontaneity and the flow of life in all its fullness. Sometimes things happen and they knock you sideways and off your feet, on to your back and kick you in the guts. You don’t know what’s around the next corner. So live today. Say yes.

Live while you are alive.

Buy those flowers. Smile at him.  Invite them over.

Look up.

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I thought I’d deleted this picture below, but it snuck in.

 

 

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More not knowing

I don’t want people to think that theology is not important. It is and I enjoy hearing intelligent people talk about it. It’s just not that important to me. I can’t, and never could, get my head round many clever ideas and feel foxed by each cogent opinion I hear expressed on subjects like evolution and euthanasia. I am too easily led. I have tried to engage in debate with people on these subjects, but not recently.

And to a degree I don’t care enough to press my point home even when I have one. My experience is that those who persist in point pressing forget who they’re pressing it into, and who they may be wounding on the way. And that’s my point, that some of us find it much easier to relate to an idea than we do to a person. Jesus was pretty hot on that score and it didn’t go down well for him.

In the past I lived very much in my head, thinking and analysing, shaping my thoughts in to something I felt I could trust and stand by. The problem is once you stand your clever idea up and show it off to the world, someone else comes along and knocks it over with equal cleverness and gleeful panache. And if your identity is too closely bound up with your ideas, your whole sense of self takes a battering.  That’s why the notion of ‘playing with ideas’ is useful. The mind is important but we are so much more than our minds – for a start we have bodies which we can feel and listen to to judge our well being.

Every day on the Camino Helen and I did a body check for aches and pains – it began as a bit of fun, neatly sidestepping any moans either of us might have indulged in – but it helped us to become aware of the parts we needed to look after. Feet mostly. Sometimes hips and knees. It was a very useful exercise for me who would be inclined to carry on ignoring all the signs that I was weary. I became aware of the simple miracle of my body healing in my sleep, ( if sleep didn’t happen then being horizontal), and ibuprofen.

Sometimes your body reacts with anxiety and sleeplessness over a decision. It’s as well to know the difference between excitement and anxiety, but both are a sign to you that something is going on and you should LISTEN. Much of Christianity has not held the physical world in high regard, the world is ‘fallen’ therefore untrustworthy, but my sense is that things are changing.

We also have a wise part of our being. You might call it spirit or intuition or just ‘knowing it in your knower’. It is a deep seated place within, beyond logic and beyond words.You can get it when you meet someone and you can trust them. You get it when you meet someone, and you can’t. It doesn’t matter how charming or winning they are, you just know. And this place, this faculty is like a muscle: the more you use it, it grows, becomes stronger and more dependable.

So these days I value a less cerebral approach, more experiential perhaps. Intellectual certainty is less important to me: I am learning that I can trust every part of my (God-given) being to speak wisdom to me. In fact my mind with its tired old prejudices and predictable patterns of thought does not always serve me best. There is so much more than I ever thought or imagined.

PS Just read this for the first time in years – the end of Ephesians 3. 🙂

14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 

15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 

16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 

17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 

18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height– 

19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 

21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Mountains are not friendly

Today I am in Scotland in the village where John spent four happy weeks whilst I walked the Camino. We left home where temperatures were comfortably warm 23/24*C and drove to Gatwick airport Travelodge. There we had a surprisingly good curry served by smiling staff – not all Eastern European – who cheerfully processed the orders of crowds of excited holiday makers, bringing tray after tray of lamb shanks and cod and chips. No doubt the Peroni helped but we had a cheerful and hygienic experience. It was also ‘tasty food’. My culinary experiences now are measured by Helen’s criteria. “Let there be tasty food” and there was. So far so good. And the room was clean and the bed was big. Yes yes. And despite the ravening hordes the night was quiet. All good.

Next our British Airways flight to Glasgow: we unwittingly chose row 4. Excellent choice. Two wide seats and something for Flat Stanley inbetween. More decent food: a hot breakfast, a well seasoned omelette, bacon, sausage, tomato and mushrooms served in funny foil tray but all piping hot. Ours is not to reason how. Ours is just to get it down.

Because a Munro beckons. We are going to climb Beinn Ime and The Cobbler. Happy sunny climbs he performed with no difficulty in May. However today it’s 10* cooler up here than home. I’ve not been silly: I’ve come prepared with kwik drying trousers and all my Camino kit except Vaseline. And my MERINO BASE LAYER! I got one as soon as I came home having suffered from severe base layer envy in Spain. Got my poles and I am fit! So I set off with a will. But very soon the rain set in. Then the wind, almost gale force and able to gust me off my feet and into a peat bog. Not nice but the path was clear and we pressed on, determined not to let the elements prevail. My thoughts: this feels familiar, damp legs and reaching for my buff to wipe my nose. Head down pressing my glasses back onto my face, wondering if I might be better off without them, all damp and smeary. No I’m not.

Almost at the top and all hell breaks loose. “Have I developed tinnitus?” No it’s driving rain and sleet against my hood which is flapping like one of Scott’s tents. It then occurred to me that if we were separated by the dense cloud cover John is carrying the rucksack and has my lovely purple pilgrim jacket, my phone, the map ( much good it would do me) and all the provisions ( lots of chocolate). I then thought, Which part of this is fun?” None of it. And decided to turn back.

No Munro for me today, but a long slithery scramble back down the mountain John whooping away in front of me gleeful at the descent. Note to self, did I pack ibuprofen? Another note to self: so glad I didn’t get my facial thread veins done. It’s not yet winter but I feel like Greasy Joan red-faced and in need of a pot to keel – indoors.

Made it to the car, in that confused freezing cold and sweaty state that comes from exercise in inclement weather, we drove to our modest hotel where we drained the tank of every ml of hot water and made them put the heating on. Bed by 7.30 pm.

Just looked at the Folkestone forecast for the week. Wish I hadn’t.

We’re home

Forgive me for the huge gap in blog info but blogging by iphone was uncomfortable and tedious. My fingers are too clumsy for the ‘keyboard’ and then trying to post or edit anything was almost impossible. Then waiting for the mystery of Wifi to be available… it all became too much. While my musings are no doubt of interest to many, I had more pressing things to do. Like staying warm and getting enough to eat. Getting Helen enough to eat. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs finding food and shelter appear at the bottom of the pyramid. Creativity (which I like to think this is) is at the apex.

So our tasks on the Camino were fairly basic: our aim was to walk from one end of Spain to the other, 500miles – let’s use kilometres, it sounds more  – 790 km east to west. On the way we needed food, drink and shelter. We also needed support of a different kind: encouragement for example.

Physical support is there for you in terms of waymarkers and albergue/hostals. These are of varying sizes and quality, I have alluded to them before. Mmm. A bit like the little girl who had a little curl: when they were good they were very, very good, but when they were bad, they were horrid.

The Way is clearly marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells, both real and stylised, set in walls and pavements. Finding and following these was our directional task and it was a joy. That sounds strange but the simplicity of the marking relieved us of the burden of finding our way. We followed The Way. With countless other pilgrims and many who had gone before us. Very quickly we began alluding to ourselves as pilgrims. We bought and attached our own scallop shells to our rucksacks and embraced the possible cheesiness of ‘pilgrimage’. (I want to explore the notion of being a pilgrim more and at length, but for now I will just say that it has become very dear to me. Everything was very simple. I liked that. Even as I write, I feel some longing and tearfulness, and I am not sure why.)

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So map-reading wasn’t an issue and neither was finding a bed, although it became a bit of a scramble at points with Helen and I developing a scattergun approach in small towns, bursting into bars and reception areas asking “Una habitatione, dos camas?” with a hopeful inflection.

Often met with a grim faced, “Reserva?” “Non”

Shrug “Completo” and turn away. Unhappy pilgrim face. But we always had a bed even if some of them were what my dad would call ‘ropey’. In fact we had two beds, because as you know, we are married, but not to each other. We also had some rather splendid beds.IMG_2158 IMG_2272

The pilgrim menu is ever present. In theory it sounds great. Three courses, bread, wine and water for 9-12 euros. In practice it is monotonous and bland. Helen was often on the look out for ‘tasty food’. And almost invariably disappointed, but not always.IMG_2438

A tasty and tasteful albergue dinner in Villa de Mazarife. This was followed by a plate of vegetable paella. It was great.

Finding varied food was difficult. At the beginning of our walk we enjoyed a beer, bananas and brioche diet. At the end it seemed to be mostly chocolate: Kit Kats and longlife croissants and a lovely frothy drink called ColaCao, as the cook had nearly always gone home or we were tired and wanted to go to bed before dinnertime – 8pm! Despite these difficulties and all that walking I have not lost an ounce in weight. Not one. My shape has changed which is fine, but you read of people who lose 10 kilos. Oh my word, they must have been pretty, shall we say, shapely to start with. We took in calories. Food was fuel and it nourished us sufficiently. However it did make us reflect on the homeless and very poor and how lacking in variety a low cost diet can be. I am sure it needn’t, as the picture above shows, but often it is. And I won’t buy chips for a homeless person again. Some Pret soup perhaps.

Other support came from our companions and each other. The Camino is very egalitarian. No one asks or even cares what you do at home or who you might be. I have no idea what my walking friends did for a job unless they told me, which mostly they didn’t. Rarely did I hear about their family life or life outside the Camino. We were ‘in the moment’, to use a cliche. Our concerns were small and basic. Looking after our feet was a priority. Treating blisters and sprains. Often in public. We saw a notice in Triacastela that asked pilgrims not to take their boots off in the cafe. Another saying not to put your feet on the table. It happened.

Helen and I were fortunate. Our feet were relatively unscathed and our joints miraculously repaired every night if we rested them. I caught a cold I think from an elderly French guy swathed in a scarf who told me that he had ‘la grippe’ – of course. I felt rotten and Helen kindly went out to find some paracetamol. They cannot be found for love nor money in a normal shop. She tried some pantomime of someone with a sore throat and headache. And the lady behind the counter went to her handbag and offered her own small foil wrapped pills, for me. Unexpected kindness that moved us both.

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When people asked us why we were doing the Camino, we talked of our long friendship and the many other walks we had done together. Of our children growing up and the privilege of having a month to do this in. There are reasons though which are harder to explain. We did it because we could, because, thank God, we are still healthy and strong and able. And so many dear, dear people we have known are not. Who knows what lies ahead? We also did it because it’s something we love doing together. We are well matched in walking. We can also laugh at things together that would be more difficult in an family situation and make light of troubles by laughing at them. Helen and I played silly alliterative words games across Spain. Describing these now is pointless, but in those moments our love of language, and joy in stretching and squeezing it to fit our mood and situation was an endless pastime. We walked and played through scorching hot days and hail, snow and sleet. It’s a long time to be with the same person but I know we both loved it, pretty much every moment despite our small whines. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half so much alone. Thank you Helen. Buen Camino.

And so to Camino

Not long now. Nine days to be exact and despite my best intentions I have done little training, although I have walked to the end of the garden to my washing line and pegged some smalls out to dry. No mean feat after the dodgy weather we’ve been having, but everything seems to springing to life now, a few sunny days and the buds unfurl and the birds begin wooing and building in earnest. My garden soil – clay – turns from shit to bricks, a horticultural term. And a middle-aged woman’s fancy turns to pilgrimage.  I will be one of the 90% of pilgrims who do no training at all. I intend to ‘walk myself fit.’ reassured by the nice Mr Brierley that any reasonably fit person can complete the Camino if they walk at a suitable pace.

Excellent. He suggests 33 days for the 790km. We are allowing 40. That’s a week for loafing lounging and general day dreaming, or maybe treating blisters, shin splints and nursing sunburn.

For some time our (Helen and mine) attention has been on equipment. We consulted the Brierley bible and read that you should aim not to carry more than 10% of your body weight. even though we are both tall and not undersized, that is not much. So we have done lots of research and quite a deal of shopping for lightweight kit. Camino kit and trekking clothes come in a range of dire colours, as if made from offcuts of scout tents and end of line Edinburgh Mill gear. You have to look hard for anything not beige but so far I have resisted the various shades of khaki and taupe and am kitted out in lots of bright blue kit, mostly from Tog 24 which I hope will wick and wear well. I do feel as though I am giving free advertising – maybe they could pay for my flight home?- and I am trying not to buy anything with too vivid a logo, but they do a useful 12/14 size. Why don’t more companies do that? Most of us are between sizes, aren’t we? I hope to be much nearer the 12 end than the 14 by the time I finish.

Anyhow we’ve not yet shaved slivers off our toothbrushes but we have bought lightweight sleeping bags and debated the merits of an all purpose cleaning product. Not Liquid Flash exactly but something that can wash your hair, body and pants and not weigh too much either. I am debating doing an Ann Hathaway with my hair. It’s so thin I could probably give it a wipe over with a soapy flannel to clean it but it is flyaway and, call me vain, but I don’t want all the pictures of me on this walk looking like a dandelion clock. I’ll let you know my decision. Husband says yes do it. Daughter says no, you have to accessorise carefully when you have very short hair – to avoid misunderstanding. And you don’t do that mum. You just put any old thing on. And she’s right I do. But it’s tempting.

So far I have bought nice rucksack,Image

a tasteful blue coat, and a poncho. Helen and I have had prolonged What’s App conversations about wet weather gear and we have, after consulting Brierley and the Camino forum, decided on ponchos. These garments are truly hideous and hers, though blue, has a particularly becoming pouch on the back to accommodate the rucksack. Mine is so immense that if I become too weary I will hire a discreet Sherpa and be carried under its all enveloping folds.

Anyhow our questions have centred around ‘How much does it weigh?’ and ‘Does it wick?’ We’re nearly there equipment-wise and have begun trying out our poles. I feel very silly striding round the lanes near me – at least she lives in foreign parts and is that eccentric English woman – but these poles are good. I have done enough advertising this post so I won’t name them but they make me stand more upright and walk with more energy and purpose. We’ll see, if they don’t help I’ll post them home, but I have a feeling they will be one of my better buys. That and the soap leaves. But that’s another story.

There is another aspect to this venture. The spiritual aspect of the journey. Now the practical preparations are in place I am beginning to look at what I need to sustain me for the next six weeks. Given the weight restrictions an entire book is out of the question, otherwise I would choose Les Miserables. So I will choose some poetry: I’d like to memorise some, so it had better rhyme.  And some psalms. I know many and they address every mood and occasion. Ecclesiastes too will fit, I have always loved it/them. Its lugubrious tone should be appropriate for a pilgrimage. It concentrates the mind wondering what will nourish me for that time. All very Desert Island Discs. Now for a luxury… suggestions please.