It’s not Heart Surgery

Last-minute preparations: stop the newspaper, clean the cat litter box, pay bills in advance, finalize lawn-mowing arrangements, fill the bird feeder. Everyday living has lots of details to it that have to be handed off or sloughed off during an absence from home. I told my husband, whom I am joining in Europe, that I feel more like I am going to prison than going to Spain.

I have been paying more attention to little things I enjoy: the flash of the red cardinal in the yard. Cats snoozing in sunny spots in the house. Will those peonies open before I leave, and will they still be in bloom when I return? (The latter is very likely.) Morning sun through the windows. These are good things, being traded in for the unknown rain of Spain, which looks as miserable as rain anywhere else if you have to walk in it. Walking pilgrims have no choice.

The pilgrimage may be in Spain, but it’s not Club Med. It’s Club Camino, for walkers along the Camino de Santiago staying in inexpensive albergues where it is possible to encounter bedbugs, though Bill has made no such discoveries.

I don’t know what I’ll discover, besides how quickly I will adapt. This pilgrimage right now strikes me as extreme retreat, with lots of walking meditation required. I am discovering a combination of travel anxiety + pilgrimage anxiety + being away from home anxiety. On the other hand, it’s not open heart surgery, which I had last summer. There’s perspective. There’s anxiety.

I know what I will miss here. I think of the prophets called by God in the Hebrew Bible, and a number of them said: Why me? This is not a calling by any means, but I can relate to the foot-dragging reluctance before a new vista opens up. FullSizeRenderI don’t have to; I get to.

Shifting to gratitude and prayer always works. Bill was fortunate to get a blessing for his journey from a chaplain colleague at his hospital. I worked last night, and my duties included blessing of the hands of nurses, a sweet ritual that many really appreciate. At the end of my shift the two chaplains who came on blessed me for the road, including my reluctant pilgrim feet.

Left Behind

My husband left me, and I drove him to it.

I dropped him off at the airport this afternoon. He is going to Spain to do the entire Camino de Santiago and is starting tomorrow. He will wake up over the ocean or, if he is lucky, in the Madrid airport at the end of the flight.

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I am back at home; the house is not empty. One of the cats is curling up for his evening nap. But the house feels quieter. No big running shoes waiting by the door. The bed looks bigger. I am noticing something catch in my throat every so often.

I must explain: I have always been the one doing the leaving. I traveled to Europe in 2007 and 2011. I have been in nine short residencies at seminary in Indiana since 2011. I used to travel for business several times a year. I had a three-month internship in Wisconsin right after we married and before that a three-month academic quarter in Washington.

My husband has never been over salt water. This is his first passport that he has actually used. He usually stays home and feeds the cats and mows the grass (or shovels the snow) and brings in the mail. Yesterday he showed me how to use our lawn mower; he will be gone for six weeks and the grass does tend to grow in spring. I need to feed the bird tonight; I’ve never changed the paper in the cage and it needs changing. I already forgot to feed the fish.

Householding has been a two-person operation for us since 1983. I’m not expecting to need to turn off the main water valve for the house in the next six weeks, though for some reason my husband showed me how to do so. I’m more worried about falling asleep alone than flooding.

Six weeks is a while. The cherry trees are in bloom in the back yard, and he saw them before leaving. I was looking at the honey locust, which has not leafed out much, and our new hackberry. The downy woodpecker was rapping loudly on the locust trunk this morning. These later-leafing trees will be suited up for the season by the time of his return. I can be his eyes; he is usually mine, watching movies in my absence. I hope I can get into the Netflix account.

Yes, I am joining him next month in Astorga so we can do a part of this together. But he is now on the road, literally, and I am checking email, a pilgrim’s tether.

Conditional

Part of preparing for a pilgrimage is readying the mind and spirit. Everyone who plans this trip must wrestle with the prospect of not completing it. I have a vague notion that thirty years ago, when I was at my physically fittest and sliding down glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, I could set off to do strenuous activity without any kind of physical conditioning. Now I follow a conditioning schedule and worry that it’s not challenging enough.

I don’t know what to expect. It never really occurred to me that I had to work at fitness until I did have to work at it following heart surgery last summer. I had not experienced significant physical incapacity until I couldn’t lie down in bed without its hurting and napped most afternoons for six weeks. Am I fortunate to be that healthy? Lucky I never broke a bone and managed to avoid surgery for decades? Rehab gave my strength back to me, as well as a sense of what I took for granted.

What lessons will the Camino teach me about what I can or can’t do, what will require more effort or less? I was talking with an older woman yesterday who is physically frail now that she is in her 90s. She seemed frustrated; she told me how much she used to walk when she worked in the city and how active a gardener she had been. I thought I would be stronger, she said. FullSizeRender

That’s kind of what I’m expecting, or hoping, for the Camino: that I can manage the physical demands.But traveling light means not packing too many expectations and leaving room for ultra-lite plans B and C.

Limits are not roadblocks, however. They are not stop signs but they are givens. I will walk slower than pilgrims who are 20 years younger. I cannot anticipate limits but I will discover them just as I discover other things on the road.

There’s also this, from The Soul of a Pilgrim by Christine Valters Paintner: “A pilgrimage is an intentional journey into this experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations.”

Getting ready for the Camino. 3. Physical.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with 20,000 steps. Doesn’t it?

Today was my first long conditioning walk: 10 miles at Waterfall Glen in southern DuPage County. It’s a circle – actually, more like a quadrilateral. Waterfall Glen features a waterfall, not a natural feature but one constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is not named after that feature, however; it honors Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the Forest Preserve District’s Board of Commissioners.

The main trail has its ups and downs, its prairies and woods and of course the main waterfall. The trees of the Bluff Savanna include white and black oaks and shagbark and bitternut hickories, some in the range of 200 years old, young when this area was first settled by white people. Kettle Woods is undergoing restoration that has removed most of the invasive understory of buckthorn and honeysuckle (grrrr…..). Now, as shrubs are just beginning to leaf out, the view through Kettle Woods is impressively clear.

Water was standing around in lots of low-lying areas after this week’s rains, making plenty of suitable spaces for spring peepers. We heard them but never saw a one; they are little ones, so that is not surprising. We also saw plenty of runners, dogs, families pushing strollers, and a few hikers wearing backpacks, as we were.

IMG_1370 We chatted with a man who told us he was conditioning for the John Muir Trail in late summer; I guessed he was half my husband’s age. When did we get old? I asked my husband later. Yesterday, he answered. Good to know.

I got tired about five minutes before our hike ended – reasonably good timing. The temperature rose from 50 degrees F to 60 degrees in the four hours it took us. Perfect, in other words. I started to think without dread about walking in Spain, which I do not expect to look like a suburban forest preserve. We have already begun chatting in a friendly way with fellow hikers; there will be much more of that, my husband observed. And the crunch of unpaved trail underfoot. What kind of birds, I wonder?

Getting ready for the Camino. 2. Logistics

It’s a lot easier to think about buying things for a spiritual pilgrimage than reflecting on the state of one’s soul. I had to get a backpack. My old one, with an aluminum external frame, weighed nearly half the amount I plan to carry. The new one, well.

Purchasing a new backpack is a little like buying a smart phone or anything else that is strongly influenced by technology. Each pack I have owned (this is my third) seems less like a cloth sack worn on the back and more like an engineered and specialized piece of equipment. This one is padded at the waistband and has so many adjustable straps hanging off it (they help to shift weight) that I needed a short orientation (which I hope I remember). I walked around REI with it and the weight seemed to fade, which is to say I felt comfortable. The trip itself is hard; no need to court discomfort, as it will come unsought.

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The paradox here is that the pilgrim must assent to hardship; that is why one undertakes such an arduous journey. This is not getting on board a cruise ship. But this is true of anything physically strenuous, which would include a whole range of sports and activities. It may not be a matter of making things harder, or easier, but simply of being prepared for the demands of the pilgrimage and the lessons of the journey.

The material sirens were certainly singing loudly yesterday as I tramped around REI test-walking two packs. I wanted one of those, one of those, and also one of those. I looked longingly at socks, an item I do not need. I am still considering replacing old and heavy raingear and thinking about what is needed to get the best sleep. I need those things more than $70 lightweight pants. I suppose logistics considerations are not wholly divorced from more spiritual questions about simplicity and detachment from desire.

Getting ready. Part One.

So the plan is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This Christian pilgrimage route in northern Spain has been trod since the 9th century. It honors the apostle James, according to legend buried in Spain. More legend involves James in the Christian effort to evict the Moors from Spain in a battle in 844 that didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless St. James managed to become the patron of Spain and gained the sobriquet Santiago Matamoros: the Moor killer. This historical context of conquest and killing for religion’s sake will be something to reflect on as I walk the route. History cannot be ignored, but it need not be a mire in which to get stuck.

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Why am I doing this? It seemed like a good idea when my husband said he planned to do it. I happen to like Spain, having visited Barcelona. I like walking with my husband; it is one of our chief shared joys. And when I inquired, I discovered I could get academic credit from my seminary. It added up to a number of reasons to take a long walk.

I see preparation in two ways: spiritual and physical. I’ve started the conditioning, walking with a weighted backpack. My husband has already procured various waterproof sacks into which things one wants to keep dry are to be stuffed. I am wearing my old hiking boots right now, hoping they will suffice. I don’t think medieval pilgrims went out and bought new gear for the journey.

I have begun looking forward to something that has heretofore inspired mostly anxiety. I write to train my thoughts to go in this direction, instead of idling in the shadows. The spiritual preparation is harder and therefore easier to ignore. But at both levels, I have to figure out what I need to carry and what I should leave behind.

Much more later.