Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rhythm number three: the rhythm of solitude and society

"Its doors (are) open to sick and well, to Catholics as well as to pagans, Jews, heretics, beggars, and the indigent, and it embraces all like brothers."

The words of the 12th century hymn (quoted here from Gitlitz and Davidson's masterly cultural handbook) refer to the Hospital of Roncesvalles, but they could equally be applied to the Camino today. For while the Camino gives us wonderful opportunities to be alone, the chances it offers us to meet people are unparalleled. The pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago are women and men, very young and very old and every age in between, of every nationality, profession and culture. They run the religious spectrum from devout Catholics to committed atheists with a generous sprinkling of pagans, Jews and heretics.

Many of these people, if we passed them on the street or sat next to them on the subway, we would never talk to. Our thought would be, "We have nothing in common." But on the Camino, you do have something in common. You are walking in the same direction, on the same road, to the same destination, sharing the same bars and shade trees and shelters along the way. And because you are walking, there is plenty of time to talk.

On a perfect day on the Camino, the three rhythms come together. There is the gentle, constant rhythm of walking, the
solitude of the between-spaces, and then a reunion and a celebration as we reach the next town with its bar or fountain, where already pilgrims are meeting and laughing over the usual talk of distances, heat and blisters. We can pass through with a smile, or stay to enjoy the company, and maybe leave with a new walking partner. On the Camino, we are only as alone as we want to be. It lets us measure out and balance our desire for solitude with our desire that our journey be shared.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

rhythm number two: the rhythm of human settlement

I'm back from the west coast to grey old Toronto, where the snow is still mounded up on the lawns and the streetsides. BC was very good to me. The pilgrim gatherings were wonderful and more than 200 people turned out for my three public library readings. (My sister was pretty good to me too, driving me all over town.) I just wish I could have brought home some of those daffodils and cherry blossoms.

The second vital rhythm of the Camino de Santiago is the rhythm of human settlement. There is little continuous settlement on the Camino, or in most of Spain. Instead, there is a village, a town, a city, surrounded by a great emptiness. Human settlements, especially in the early parts of the Camino, are like pearls
loosely strung on a necklace.

This rhythm of habitation and emptiness derives in part from Spain's history. In the old days of chronic warfare and raiding, people sought safety in numbers, going out to their fields by day, huddling together at night. It is also a natural consequence of Spain's dryness: where there is a well, people congregate. The resulting landscape impacts strongly upon the walker's experience of the Camino.

Why? Because of course the places I have described as "emptinesses" are nothing of the sort. They are full of space and sky and wind and wheat. They are places that invite the mind and spirit to expand and soar; or, conversely, to feel their meagerness in the face of nature (or "creation" for those who see it that way). They are wonderful places to be alone, places where you can set your eyes on a distant horizon, fall into the rhythm of your walk and let your thoughts run free. (I think of the walk from Puente la Reina, or the Sierra de Atapuerca before Burgos, or between Rabe de las Calzadas and Castrojeriz, or over the Paramo de Leon to Villar de Mazarife...)

And at intervals along this lonely, peaceful way there are human settlements. Compact little boroughs where life is lived in the streets, and the plaza with its fountain is the community living room and the pilgrim rendezvous point.

Which brings me to the third rhythm of the Camino...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

rhythm number one: the rhythm of walking

Along with our heartbeat and our breathing, it's the most basic rhythm we have. The rhythm of walking. Ages ago our ancestors traipsed out of Africa and populated most of this planet (for better or for worse) on foot, a step at a time.

Up as far as the Arctic Circle, out across Asia, south to Australia, over the Bering land bridge and all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. (As I write this I think of that urge so many of share to keep on going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, where we finally feel there is nowhere left to go.) Walking defines us. We are the creature who goes on two legs in the afternoon, and the agreed-on signs that we have joined the human club are our first steps and our first words.

Yet because of the life we live today, many of us have lost, or have hardly ever known, the rhythm of walking. City life disrupts natural rhythms and imposes unnatural ones. We navigate crowded sidewalks, stop and go at traffic lights, pop into and out of buildings, vehicles and elevators, bounce and jerk around on our feet like ball bearings in a life-sized pinball game. How many of us have exercised our great human legacy - of waking and walking, and then waking and walking again, and so on day by day in the direction of the horizon till we get to wherever it is our feet want to carry us?

One of the beauties of the Camino is that it offers us the chance to find the rhythm of our walk (for each of us has our own), and the pace that is right for us, and then to live by that rhythm of step by step day in and day out for a few precious weeks.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

the rhythms of the camino

What are the rhythms of the Camino?

When I tried to prepare an answer to this question on the ferry to Victoria, the first thing that came to mind was the rhythm of a pilgrim's day, the waking and walking and eating and sleeping and waking and walking and.... Though, thinking back, I had to admit that I never established much in the way of daily rhythms for myself. This was not for lack of trying, I was always saying "Today I'll do this and tomorrow I'll do that." It was just the Camino always tripped me up.

Take the waking as an example. There were mornings, a very few, when I woke all by myself at the hour of my body's choosing, days when I "took my waking slow." But most mornings I had help waking up. Sometimes it was from the hospitalero: the old "inspirational music at 6:30" routine. Sometimes it was from roosters or church bells. But mostly it was from some fellow pilgrim up long before dawn's first light to prepare his or her pack.

The early riser (and I'm talking 4:30 or 5 o'clock) invariably possesses a vast number of items, each wrapped in its own crinkly plastic bag. He wears a headband with a little miner's torch clipped to the front, which keeps flashing in my swollen eyes. As I lie paralyzed, he removes each of his items e v e r s o s l o w l y from its crinkly plastic and lays it on the bed. When they are all spread out before him, he examines them by torch light (I imagine him whispering "My precioussss.") Then he wraps each one up again s l o w l y s l o w l y and puts them all back in his pack.

Why does he do this? I don't know why he does this. But he does. And the rhythm of waking is shot.

Or what about that morning when I was wakened by a flashlight in my face. A man was standing beside my bunk, whispering, "Cinq, cinq," while he flashed the number five with his fingers. I went through some pretty lurid scenarios before I figured out that he had simply mistaken me for a member of his group and was telling me it was five o'clock and time to get up. There was no getting back to sleep after that.

When I think of my other attempts to establish daily rhythms - walking a certain distance in the mornings, arriving by a certain time, drinking only half that bottle of wine that came with supper, etc. - I reach the same conclusion. That, for me at least, trying to dictate terms to the Camino was largely a waste of time. I got more out of the Camino when I let it have its way with me.

So what "rhythms" was I going to talk about?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

more fun

And it only gets better! Beautiful group tonight at beautiful West Van Memorial Library, where Margaret Mould spoiled me rotten. And hey, is there an ordinance in Vancouver requiring every library to have at least one staff member who has walked the Camino? West Van has two!

I just wish I had more time to talk to people at these events. Please, anyone who didn't get to talk to me, or have a question answered, don't hesitate to e-mail me. Just click on the page that says Contact.

Before the gathering in Victoria, Wendy Loly did me a favour. She asked me to talk about a couple of subjects. i.e. not just to READ from my book, but to TALK. And this required me to THINK. At the time, I didn't feel like she was doing me a favour, I felt like she was subjecting me to a penance. But once I'd got the thinking out of the way and could see the results, I felt a little better about the whole exercise.

So what were Wendy's toughie subjects? Numero uno, scheduled for the first hour of the meeting, was to talk about "the rhythms of the Camino." Ben Cole had thirty-some minutes at the top to address Camino nuts and bolts: the who/what/when/where. In my part of the hour, I was supposed to give a feel for the pilgrim experience.

Question numero dos provided the theme for an afternoon breakout session led by Ben, Mary Virtue and me: Why do the Camino more than once?

Some of the answers I came up with for these questions were pedestrian-and-predictable. Others surprised me. I'll be sharing them in this space over the next little while.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

fun on the west coast

So here I am in Vancouver, barely off the plane, and I've already talked to two pilgrim groups and one public library crowd. Saturday's Victoria gathering offered a full day of Camino info and lore (and a great paella lunch) thanks to the organizational prowess of Wendy Loly and a high-powered team of volunteers.

In Surrey on Sunday (nice ring to that), Leigh Anderson made us feel like we were sitting around his rec-room with his cheery, easygoing style. But the best part of both gatherings was the breaks, when pilgrims and pilgrims-to-be mixed and mingled, sharing advice and stories and wishing each other well on their future big walks. Thanks to everyone for making me welcome, and giving me a chance to escape Toronto's Never-ending Winter of 2008.

Hats off too to Ben Cole, co-author with his partner Bethan Davies of some super guide books and maps of the Camino. His talk on the Via de la Plata almost convinced me that it would be great fun to spend a few weeks walking thirty-five kilometers a day in 45 degree heat. (Or was it forty-five kilometres in 35 degree heat?) Nearly got me, Ben.

And then tonight, a sterling audience of a hundred-or-so on a rainy Monday at Vancouver Public Library. Thank you to librarian and peregrina Janice Douglas. I tell you, I'm likin' this west coast!