Lessons Along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

The text of my article that appeared in Tacoma’s News Tribune on Oct. 19, 2015:

We often speak of life being a journey, even a pilgrimage.  This summer my friend Deborah Bellinghausen became an actual pilgrim, not just a metaphorical one.  She walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a religious pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages.  The heart lessons of this journey linger with her.

Deborah at the Atlantic, the journey's end point. The shell motif is used on markers along the Camino.

Deborah at the Atlantic, the journey’s end point. The shell motif is used on markers along the Camino.

Deborah learned the importance of inner strength in the hardest possible way in 2008, when her daughter Whitney was killed in a car accident.  Later Deborah took up extensive walking, for both the exercise and the quiet time to pray and think.  When she found out about the Camino, her heart leaped:  here was an epic physical and spiritual challenge that would honor the memory of Whitney, who had always embraced life’s opportunities.

So this past June Deborah set out from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, bringing a thirty-pound pack, a guidebook and a journal.  On the first day, the hardest of the route, she climbed a grueling ridge in the Pyrenees and then made a knee-jarring descent into Spain.  Quickly realizing how heavy thirty pounds were, she began leaving behind everything she could do without: dump towel, dry off with washcloth.

shaded walk on caminoCamino lesson #1: Lighten the load, and get along with less.

It took Deborah thirty days to walk the Camino Francés, the branch route between the French/Spanish Pyrenees border and the city of Santiago de Compostela.  In her daily routine, she would begin walking as the sun rose behind her.  Breakfast was coffee and a croissant at a café.  She carried her lunch, often a Spanish combo of sardines and tomatoes.  Because of the heat, she would stop in the early afternoon and find an albergue (somewhat like a youth hostel).  There she washed out her clothes, took a nap, wrote in her journal, and often helped cook a communal dinner. dinner, camino

She would usually walk 17-19 miles a day.  On a few days, Deborah walked longer and farther, but she paid for it with blisters and exhaustion the next day.  Some days the route was flatter, some days steeper, but overall the walking became easier because Deborah was growing stronger.

“At first I would feel overwhelmed, seeing a mountain,” she says, “but I learned to focus on one step at a time.”

road, caminoLesson #2: Pace yourself, and you’ll get there.

On the Camino, Deborah was sometimes alone, and the solitude gave her time for prayer and meditation.  Unexpected gifts came her way: a beautiful flock of birds, the sound of a bagpiper.  Often others were with her—from Italy, the U.S., Brazil, Spain, Ireland—and this too was a gift.  Deborah treasured hearing the stories of her companions, often through someone serving as interpreter.  Some moments were plain fun, like the night a companion played guitar and others beat rhythm with walking sticks, spoons and flip-flops.  Other moments were silently poignant, such as reaching the Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron), where pilgrims lay down rocks representing their burdens.  Deborah laid down a stone for an American friend—and that same friend had once climbed Mt. Whitney in honor of Deborah’s daughter. cruz de ferro

Lesson #3: Be grateful for each day’s gifts.

Along the way, Deborah made daily decisions about detours to explore, where to stay, when to rest, whom to walk with, when to say no to others and seek solitude.  Others understood.  “This is your camino,” the travelers frequently told each other with respectful reverence, knowing that each person had to listen for his or her own calling.

In their own time and their own way, Deborah and the others reached their destination, the cathedral in Santiago.  They received the completion certificate. cathedral, camino

But it wasn’t really the end.  The pilgrimage called life goes on.  Deborah is home now, walking Tacoma sidewalks instead of Spanish paths, still on her Camino.

Lesson #4:  This is your camino.  Where does it lead next?



For Those of Us Who Have Never Stopped Thirsting to Learn

My article that appeared in the Tacoma News-Tribune on Sept. 7, 2015

Today is Labor Day, which in America means the start of school.  I spent years on a school schedule, first as a student, then as a mother of students, then as a teacher.  Now that my first grandchild is about to start kindergarten, my eye is on the academic calendar again, but not only because of her.  A year-and-a-half ago I began graduate school, studying creative writing.

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

Whidbey Island, near where my graduate residency meets

I am not alone in starting back to school later in life.  Some of my classmates did, too.  My program with the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) is low-residency: each semester begins with an intensive (read, exhausting) session on Whidbey Island, but the rest of the term’s work is done on line.  Since the program doesn’t necessitate moving or giving up a job, some of the students live as far away as central Canada, Georgia and even Dubai, and most are older than the traditional college age.

Some are much older.  At our most recent commencement, half of the graduates had gray hair; and one diploma, sadly, was awarded posthumously.  These people studied with NILA not so much to advance their futures but to fulfill a creative longing that had been with them for years.  As I listened to them read from the impressive novels and poetry collections they wrote as thesis projects, I was thankful to be part of a learning community that knows no age barrier.

I know from my own experience that the decision to return to school in the autumn stage of life can feel awkward and out-of-sync.  When I applied to graduate school in my late fifties, my family and friends were very supportive.  My own impulse, however, was to be self-deprecating, to say I should have done this years ago, to joke that if I had got things right earlier in life, maybe I wouldn’t have to do all this cramming now.

But I as I began my studies, I realized there were advantages to being an older student.  Although my memory is not as quick as it used to be, some kinds of thinking are actually easier for me now.  I make mental connections by drawing on years of reading, going places, talking with people, and watching the world.  Years of living.  These days, when I read about Vladimir Putin, I think of conversations I’ve had with Eastern Europeans, and then I am unsurprised by Putin’s Russia-über-alles stance.  When I hear about urban crowding, I remember seeing the endless apartments and hopelessly clogged traffic of Manila.  When I try to understand ineffective governments, forgive me, but I think of fruitless meetings I’ve sat through.  Perhaps most significantly for a fiction writer, when I need to create young male characters for my stories, I think of the teenage boys I taught and especially the sons I raised.  There is a kind of understanding that comes only with having cared so deeply that you’ve lost sleep, cried, worked, yelled, prayed, and felt an impossible joy.

Perhaps that’s why I and especially my classmates in their sixties and seventies have undertaken such huge writing projects.  By this point, all that we have absorbed in life is aching to be expressed.  Call such writing a bucket list venture if you want, and in some ways perhaps it is.  But it is also a love effort, creating an opus magnum from a lifetime of the soul.

Yet I also understand as never before that thought and creativity don’t have to spend decades waiting.  Some of my most talented classmates are young.  What will they accomplish in the many years ahead of them?  And my little granddaughter, so enthusiastically beginning school—what will be her greatest work?  It’s exciting to ponder what can happen in a life of eager learning.