Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sometimes Love Sounds a Little Crazy

This painting by Tanner might be my favorite piece in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It shows a perfectly typical girl somewhere from the Middle East. This Mary is not at all the fair-haired, blue eyed damsel found in typical Renaissance paintings.

The whole painting is so realistic to me. Mary herself in particular looks utterly true. She's darker, for one.

And scared.

And puzzled.

And maybe even sarcastic. As in, "You're joking, right?"

After all, what sane, sensible girl wouldn't be shocked by the visit of some apparition telling her that she will soon be carrying a special child.

What sane, sensible girl wouldn't be horrified by how her family will feel when they find out? And don't even go there when it comes to telling her boyfriend. If they had slang in those days, which every language does, I'm sure she'd be thinking something akin to "WTF"?

I know I would.

The colors, textures, and shadows of the painting intensify the feelings that she seems to be having. This isn't the happy, glowing Mary we usually think about when we hear about the coming of Jesus. We are told that the story of the coming of unfettered love and compassion. Advent leads to Christmas and throughout this season we are eagerly waiting for this amazing love.

But maybe that's just as mistaken an impression as those Renaissance paintings. I look around and I'd say that most every active Christian in America, especially those who are involved in churches, are frantically busy trying to do what others are doing -- shopping, celebrating, gathering, traveling -- and be active in their churches at the same time. It's frantic and busy and often times less than that picture of perfect love.

Our world today is equally frightened. The political situation in American much less in other parts of our often-times dangerous world offers challenges even to the most wide-eyed optimist.

Yet, love is there waiting to be discovered. We have so much potential to welcome love and grace into our lives, if we move beyond the fear.

I view Mary and Joseph not as awed adults as is portrayed in paintings and media, but as incredibly brave teenagers. Maybe they're a bit like most young adults I meet today: fearless to the point that they behave as though they are immortal. They face the challenge put to them by their visions head-on.

Because love demands it. Love isn't meant to be seen from sideways glances. It's the full embrace, the bear hug, the never-gonna-let-you-go squeeze that comforts. You can't get that by being coy. And you can't see it or even notice that it's there if you're afraid.

I'm in a discerning mood right now. I feel and hear things that call out to me that have frightened me. It didn't dissipate upon my marriage. It didn't disappear upon walking the Camino de Santiago. No, in fact, it got stronger and reinforced. I see this painting and I'm wondering if that's me cowering in the corner.

I look and pray to Mary and Joseph to show me what fearless love looks like. And I invite you to pray for the love that knows no limits into your lives, regardless of your fears. You and I weren't meant to fear the invitation to love. If we know love is there waiting, we must get past our darkest nights and see the light that is to come.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bowl of Light and Stones at the Cruz de Ferro - An Advent meditation

A friend of mine in choir at All Saints Pasadena reminded us during her Advent meditation of a "story of the people".

Imagine an old bowl. It might look like a simple vessel, but for those who appreciate ancient wisdom from other cultures, it can mean much more. Here's a story from the Hawaiian people.

It is known that “each child born comes with a Bowl of Perfect Light.” And providing that the child is taught to carefully, mindfully tend to his or her light, the child grows in strength and is able to do all things - swim with the sharks in the deepest oceans, fly with the birds in the heavens, know and understand all things. If, however, the child becomes envious, jealous, judgmental he or she must drop a stone into their bowl of light, causing some of the light to go out, since light and stone cannot occupy the same space and time. And if one continues to fill the bowl with stones, the light will go out completely, and that person becomes a stone and like a stone, one no longer emits lights, grows, moves. One remains in this state of being. If at any time one tires of being a stone,  that person must realize that all he or she needs to do is turn the bowl upside down, letting all the stones fall out and making room in the bowl once again. Light can shine through and fill the bowl once more and grow even brighter than before. We must always remember that nothing is impossible, and a life in the darkness can be turned upside if we choose.
Though I had forgotten this story, it struck me how meaningful it would have been had I remembered it on my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The Cruz de Ferro is an extremely tall cross at the highest point on the walk across Spain. I had several blog postings about the Cruz de Fero which I share again here.

The custom is to bring a stone with you from wherever you came from across the world. I brought mine from the 3200ft (1100m) mountain behind my house here in Southern California. The stone was carried across way, a reminder that you carry with you things that weigh you down, even on the most arduous of journeys. The pains and suffering we experience while taking the pilgrimage aren't helped by carrying that stone, just as the stones in our lives weigh us down and impede us on our life journey.

So we leave that stone at the cross, asking that our Christ, who carries our burdens and for us, to take that stone off us, relieving us of its weight, lightening our load. Some leave the stones plain, others like myself wrote on the stone the things that the stone represented. I left my stone at the cross and was overwhelmed at how much lighter I felt inside.

Advent comes in the middle of the darkest times of winter. And yet, in the stillness of the night, we still have hope that comes. We await and prepare for that hope. We turn over our bowls to make room for the light. We leave our stones behind at the cross. We remember that we can choose to walk away from the darkness and into the most humble and otherwise empty spaces to find the birth of a miraculous life and light.

Thank you Cynthia for reminding me in these times of winter's darkness that we, celebrating Advent, know that a light shall come and we can make room for that light in our bowls.

May all of us have the courage to turn our bowls upside down and may light perpetual shine on us.

May we help those too weak or poor to turn their bowls upside down and may light perpetual shine on them.

May we help those too powerful or rich to have the courage turn their bowls upside down and may light perpetual shine on them.

May we help those too frightened, confused, or lonely to turn their bowls upside and may light perpetual shine on them.

And may your stones be set down so that the light may arc into your bowl of life.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Meditation: Soft vs Hard, Natural vs Man-made, Love vs Fear.

Cloud and Chichenitza pyramid, Mexico. Mel Soriano 2014-11-30
I've been contemplating why this photo struck me so strongly as I took it last week while I was traveling in Mexico. It's basically a corner of the main pyramid at Chichenitza and the cloud behind it. I took many photos that day, but I focused on this one in part because it highlighted an interesting contrast to me. At that time, it was just the difference between soft vs hard materials. But more than that, it meant something deeper, and I gazed at it in wonder. It attracted me more than I understood at that time.

This morning, a comment by one of my best high school friends on Facebook gave a clue as to why I liked it so much. Glenn pointed out that it was also a contrast between the natural and the man-made. Finally, it all started to make sense.

Juxtapositions like this happen all the time but do we really pay attention to the contrast as it happens before our eyes? What might seem simple and direct might actually be connecting at a deeper level, yet we sometimes move on before we have a chance to fully appreciate and understand what is before us. In this instance, the cloud and pyramid weren't just material textures that contrasted, but represented much more, especially during this troublesome Advent season.

The natural is floating so gently in this photo, with elusive, indefinite boundaries. The edges in fact change constantly: it's a cloud after all. The pyramid has striations laid out by man. Strong lines mark every step with heavy burgeoning stones. The soft versus strict lines are as disparate as, say, the concept of justice to Jean Valjean compared to Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. One is difficult to define, the other easily precise.

In addition to the lines, you also have a temporal contrast. Clouds are ephemeral, transient, elusive. They float by and change shapes while you stare at them. What might look like one thing can transform and suddenly you realize it looks like something else. The pyramid, however, is permanent and unchanging. It's ancient. Really ancient. It's so unchanging that the Chichenitza pyramid was lost and forgotten in the jungles for centuries before it was re-discovered. And of course, it hadn't changed during that time.

You also have a marked contrast in origin. The cloud is a gift from God, the source of life, a sign of nourishment, a spigot of life-giving water. It shades from the sun and recedes after it gives of its gift. The pyramid on the other hand is wholly man-made as a gift TO the gods. It's a way to reach towards the heavens, but not to inspire connectivity with gods. Instead, it perpetuates fear of the gods and was a way to make sacrifices to those angry gods. Rather than affirming life, the pyramid was the site where lives were taken to placate and appease. By dispensing with a few, the larger masses felt better, safer, shielded from wrath.

I already had my morning prayers today, but they were focused on the troubling state of affairs in our country in regards to police and ethnic minorities.  My prayers were also on the horrifying revelations found in the torture report regarding the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques. In my name, I feel sin is committed every day. In my supposed security (unfounded as the report shows), people were tortured and minorities are killed without due process. As a way to appease the fearful, our government high priests have deemed it acceptable to maim, intimidate, threaten, terrorize. Where is the Holy Spirit when you need Her? How do you prepare for Christmas with this stain?

So thank you Glenn for digging out of the jungle of my mind the reason the photo struck me so strongly. I prayed, pray, and will pray for a day when we reach out to our God of love and no longer need to build temples of fear. I prayed, pray, and will pray for a day when we no longer need to sacrifice our own to appease the gods, as a cover for the fact that we are just appeasing our own human fears. And I prayed, pray, and will pray for a day when we can look at these monuments of injustice we see today as mere stepping stones to a heaven filled with grace.

May your Advent be lit by the candle of light and life.

Praying for the sacrificed at Chichenitza pyramid, Mexico.
Mel Soriano 2014-11-30

Friday, December 5, 2014

As Thanksgiving yields to Advent

The last wedding we attended was our own, six months ago. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we attended the holy matrimony of a dear couple, Jeff and Chris. .Weddings are an outward sign of love, community, charity, and self-assurance. Stephen and I hoped ours felt that way as much to our guests as to ourselves. We certainly saw that in Jeff and Chris's union. In offering and sharing a sign of love, weddings are the visible rainbow promised to us and where we, if we desire, can find a pot of grace granted.

As the old hymn goes, "Ubi caritas et amor deus ibi est". We used that hymn as did Jeff and Chris. It means more or less "Where charity and love exist, God is there." People can be in love and keep it to themselves. I'm sure politically, many would prefer this. But loving just yourselves is basically self-focused, with no outward benefit or creation. By sharing the love with others in the most charitable way, one creates. Creation can be in offering life, in supporting life, or in sustaining life. Some have children. I myself prefer feeding children and working towards their safety. Charity and love combined show us the face of God.

Thanksgiving itself was a marvelous affair for us this year. It started on Thursday with a morning of work at Union Station Homeless Services's Dinner in the Park. We love the set up tasks. Many prefer actually dishing up the food, but we prefer to work with the team that hauls out the tables, sets up the temporary structures, and decorates. It's very behind-the-scenes, but for us it's not important for the one hand to know what the other is doing. It's about sharing hospitality, abundance, and grace with those who are in need.

We then had a quiet and intimate dinner at my sister's apartment. It felt warm and joyful. The next day, we had a much larger, combined dinner with both sides of our family together at our place. Noise and food were plentiful as we shared stories and laughs late into the night.

And then I took off to Cancun, Mexico.

At the top of Coba pyramid in the Yucatan jungle.
Stephen had to be at school so he stayed home. I traveled and did some work from afar. I met up with a Camino peregrino - 19yo Jakob from Austria - who I befriended on my pilgrimage. He was one of the two cousins who walked not 800 km, but 3000 km as he started from his front door in Austria. Together, we celebrated, learned, shared dreams, and immersed ourselves in culture, history, peoples. Jakob is starting a 9 month journey that will take him from Mexico down all the way to Chile in South America. In that time, he'll work organic farms, find odd jobs, camp, swim, hitchhike, learn about the cultures, and improve his 5th language Spanish.

And that's what led me into thinking about Advent. Advent is about preparation and waiting. I found myself turning on a dime from a season of thanks by spending time with someone preparing for what is to come. His dreams and aspirations are so similar to what I carried with me at his age. I share with all who listen that I view my young Austrian friends from the Camino de Santiago as almost my nephews. I hope that I can share my stories with them, offer ideas not based on judgment, and encourage them. Jakob has so much going for him and his heart is as expansive as his mind.

Spending a week with Jakob allowed me to feel hopeful and alive. It was a move from the past -- where your mind must be in order to give thanks -- towards the future where your mind must be in order to have hope. Jakob takes the needed risks on this journey so that he can be ready for what is to come. He's willing to walk away from worldly conveniences and stable relationships in order to ensure that he's prepared.  I feel blessed that he helped make my Advent more meaningful and personal.

Y con eso, para mí, mi Advent ha comenzado (and with that, my Advent has begun)

Friday, November 21, 2014

It's not Kinky

Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It utterly amazes me that people have so much fear of sexual diversity. More specifically, it shocks and disgusts me when weekly you read about another gay bashing or assault if not murder of a transgender person.

On top of that, I found it ironic and embarrassing that an individual who made the news yesterday was called a "former man". The person, made famous because of a purported relationship with Olympic athlete Michael Phelps, apparently was born intersex, but even today half the media reported that she was born male. The lack of understanding not only runs deep, but it almost smacks of resistance to understand biology and denial of the existence of intersex people.

Even in supposedly progressive times and communities, such errors are widespread. How do we ask people to understand that it's not a sin to be born a certain way, that it's not a sin to be raised a certain way by your parents and family, that it's not a sin to discover that God's plans for you are to live your life as intended, not in a false, error-laden, bullied way? We do so by reminding them that life is diverse and multi-hued.

My clothes, shoes, music, and books vary tremendously. I gain so much more when the things that inform me and the items that represent me are as varied as my moods and my interests. Likewise, we as a people are so much better off if we respect the variety around us and not try to pigeon hole people into shoes that don't fit.

Tonight, I watch the play Kinky Boots at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. I first saw the musical on the big screen and then on stage on Broadway. It was delightful and magical. It showed that all people can make assumptions about others, both good and bad, something that we all can do on any given day. What makes the show so enjoyable is that what is superficially considered kinky and unusual does in fact offer appealing attributes that are both challenges and opportunities for those who look beyond the surface.

That's what makes life so special to me. If we look beyond our own limitations, our own blinders and biases, we can find a world out there that enriches, and a world inside of us that enlivens. It's knowing that we can be both unusual AND essential that allows us to express our humanity in a more honest and purposeful way.

Those of us born with unusual characteristics can't choose the cross they've been given, but all of us can choose to affirm so-called kinky if that's what it means to be honest and alive.

Monday, November 17, 2014


This week's gospel reading from the common lectionary reminds me, as it does every three years, why I share with people how I feel about my spiritual direction. I may not be giving direct instructions or sermons, but I do like to discuss my journey, my growth, and my offerings as a way to see how I'm slowly grasping greater meaning and purpose in life.

The reading involves the parable in Matthew 25:14-30. It's the one about the master giving his servants sacks of talents (money). The ones who used those talents to create more were rewarded. The servant who buried his talents was cast out.

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This passage is often used by the wealthy to justify their wealth and the preservation of their wealth. I think, as all good parables do, that the money is just a way to help us understand the story better. I don't see it as a justification for the 1% hoarding 22% of the country's wealth (up from 10% in 1970, and that's according to Fortune Magazine). Whatever our gifts might be and in whatever quantities, it's important that we create more from those gifts. We can't just sit on them. It's why I think the preservation of wealth argument fails. If you're creating wealth that only you can enjoy, you really aren't creating wealth for the master. You're making the wealth and hiding the benefits from everyone. In other words, you're doing it for yourself and not the glory of God.

I was born into a middle class immigrant family, where my parents worked 2 or 3 jobs to get us educated. I didn't understand what a gift this was until I got older, but now appreciate with enormous gratitude their sacrifice. I also know I was granted some skills that can be useful to others. Though I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes waste these gifts, it doesn't take long for me to remember how important it is to share back in whatever way possible. I feel responsible to use these gifts as granted to me.

One point that I didn't realize until this year was that a bag of talents isn't chump change. It was 6000 dinari. A dinari was equal to a day's labor. In other words, even the third individual received a bag of money equal to 20 years of labor. That's like winning the lottery. We all are winners of the lottery then. We've been given enormous, unbelievable gifts, like my parents gave to me when they brought me to this country to be educated. These gifts are almost inconceivable and we are all the fools for not using them. Worse, we're cast out as lazy and worthy of tears for wasting them.

As Thanksgiving comes, I recognize that I have much to be thankful for and much to share. May we share our joys and gifts, whatever they might be, with others so that these gifts may grow, be fruitful, and multiply. It might be re-gifting, but anything less would be squandering our inheritance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Crushing Leaves

I gave a devotion at the Millbrook Baptist Church Sunday night in Raleigh, North Carolina. A friend of mine is a minister there and she leads the labyrinth services with the church members. I met Carolyn McClendon last year while dropping by to visit the labyrinth. She and other members were gardening the areas around the it. I chatted, exchanged Facebook info, and then returned later. Lo and behold, one year later, I'm leading the walk with a devotion (sort of a homily).

I wasn't sure what to talk about, other than to reference the Camino. So, as with anything, I took a walk in the forest. It's fall in North Carolina and the kaleidoscope of colorful leaves lie below your feet wherever you turn. I usually stay in hotels at the Crabtree so Umstead Park is a favorite of mine. But despite the visual glory of the park, it was oddly quiet, oddly still.

No birds.

No squirrels.

No copperhead snakes.

Just sound of the leaves crushed underfoot.

It's fall and the animals seem to know it's time to slow down or move on. The leaves are coming down and time tick tocks its way toward winter.

The various lakes and ponds and streams shimmered with the hazy sunshine. The crisp air, not yet biting, filled my lungs with power and fuel. It fed me for my talk.

Later that afternoon, I gave a probably longer than normal talk about the Camino with an explanation of how it works and some of my favorite vignettes. In the setting light, I offered my devotion to the people there among the birds and flowers. I was pleasantly surprised when I had several questions asking me to elaborate on points about the walk or resources to learn more.

And then we walked in silence around the labyrinth. We walked, in the fading light, until you could barely discern the path that seemed so clear just moments before. We walked and prayed.

Most of the time, I don't understand why people are interested in listening to me blather on about this topic or that. But something caught my attention this morning. One of my Camino friends from Austria chatted me on Facebook and told me that my comments and stories affected him. He's still processing and learning from the things I shared and the values that I carried with me on my journey.

And so, despite the silence of my walks, hearing neither bird nor squirrel, I still hear the crunching of the leaves as I move forward in my life. Whether I follow the path or meander away at times, I appreciate that my trail of crushed leaves may yet guide someone I do not know or see.

May you always remember that your journey guides those who follow you.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Thin space-time

I'm not sure I like Halloween as a sexy, alcohol-dripping festival for adults. It seemed more fun when it was in that transition time during the 60s-80s. When I see old 1950s references to Halloween, it seemed mostly for children. Then, at some point, Halloween started to become a time when you as an adult were allowed to feel childlike glee in costume.

Now, with sexy nurse costumes for kids it seems like it's flat out backwards. Halloween is when children are not just dressed up like adults, but are mimicking their party behaviors. And adults seem to think of it as an opportunity not feel like a child, but to act like one, trying to relive a childhood or frat party long gone.

Maybe the key is transition time. I like the transition time. And, like Halloween, it's also the scariest time. Transition is terrifying. You're never sure what comes out the other side. You hope, dream, aspire for something special and better but there's always the risk of a nightmare.

It's why when we approach the end of our time on earth, we fear the reaper. We don't know what to expect and fear what must come.

But with All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Halloween - the Dias de los Muertos time - we once again celebrate the transition. It's a thin space where past meets future, life greets the grave, humor shakes hands with fright.

I like most am leery of transition. But perhaps as one of those annoyingly optimistic ENFP types, I also carry in my heart a hope and eagerness to see what is on the other side. And, while here in the present, hope to see the shimmering glimmer of what might yet be.

Much has changed this past year. I've said goodbye to my brother in law, gotten married, walked the Camino de Santiago, moved out of my office to work from home, and paid respects to friends and family. I've watched people get hurt and hurt in return. I've held the hands of those who I may not see again for years to come or ever again.

All are times when you have to breathe and take things one step at a time, moment by moment, day by day. And yet in them there is hope that the thin space between yesterday and tomorrow will yield an insight and love that surpasses what we understand today. And who knows? Maybe I won't like where things end up. But until then, we can listen, enjoy, and grow together.

This time of thin space may be unsettling, but for me, it's the time of my life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Remembering Those Who Walked Before Us to Help Those Who Walk After Us

Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day: the Dias de los Muertos is about remembering. Whether you raise your glass on Friday night or crack open a candy bar, whether I'm remembering those we lost in our family this year or someone from yours, whether we choose the road less traveled or the road with comforting safety, we remember that our lives are marked by those who brought us here as we pave the way for those yet to come.

Sooner or later, I'll tire of this Camino theme. But it's near the end of October and we are about to celebrate All Souls Day and All Saints Day. Both days remind us that we need to engorge ourselves on Halloween, but that's a relatively modern form of commemoration.

All Saints Day (November 1) is an ancient feast day to honor the saints. All Souls Day (November 2) is feast day to remember those who had passed on, especially those caught in the tricky space called Purgatory. Halloween is "Hallow's eve" or the night preceding this holy period. All these days are now part of the Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico, which many of us in Southern California also enjoy.

These days are meant to reflect and pray on and pray for those who preceded us. They might be saints or sinners, martyrs or meat-heads, friends or fleeting strangers. We look to them because they groomed the earth for us before moving on.

Which is why I care about what I do today. I hope to leave a place that is this much closer to a just and equitable land, this much closer to freedom to live one's life as God intended, this much nearer to a peaceful me in a peaceful world. My actions might be grand or more likely minuscule. I can help those in need or plant a tree or walk instead of drive. These actions when done mindfully pay homage to those from days gone by.

Stephen heads to a memorial up in Fresno for his uncle's wife on Saturday. I have commitments at church that keep me from joining him, but she will be in my heart this weekend. She was kind, lovely, and wonderfully chatty with me whenever we sat together. Would that I be remembered that way one day.

We also together are remembering Stephen's brother Tim who passed on in April. Talk about a spirit! No doubt he chose a path of exploration, of seeking, of questioning, of justice. Would that I be remembered that way one day.

I walk in the footsteps of those who laid down a path for me. They might be my ancestors, they might be those who fought for civil rights and for an equal place in the pews of my church. They might be the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago who laid signs down so that we can more easily follow their trailblazing ways.

In no case do I feel compelled to walk these roads. I know that I can walk a road less traveled. But in truth, I think that more people walk a flattened route with the least resistance than the route that challenges and inspires, that soars with awe inspiring views as often as it trips you up onto the gravel. One is safer than the other, yes, but both were set by those who came before us.

So, in honor of all these people, I walk the labyrinth, walk the trails, walk the life that others made possible. And I do so with a solemn respect that my life may one day be the yellow arrow for someone else who I may never meet. May you and I walk with that knowledge that we pave the way for generations to come and may God hold you up as a beacon for their way.

Friday, October 24, 2014

You might be a pilgrim if...

This originally came from someone else's blog posting. It's meant to be amusing, but as in all things funny, there's usually a tiny grain of truth. I've incorporated portions of it in my presentation but here's an edited version of that list. I removed some items and added others, and I've added some commentary.

1. Goodwill will not accept your used hiking boots.

It is simply amazing how beat up shoes get on the Camino. It's great that they still function afterwards, but donating anything that can't be used again isn't ever right.

2. You carry toilet paper, extra-powered Ibuprofen, and Compeed with you at all times.

You just never know when you really need these things. And Compeed is a type of bandage that does a miraculous job on blisters. It truly is profoundly helpful.

3. You wash your socks with shampoo. You wash your laundry with shampoo.  You wash your body with shampoo.

Laundry detergent is just extra weight. Shampoo suffices. And you do your laundry in basins, sinks, and anything that can hold even a pint of water.

4. You have a fantastic tan…but only on your left side.

You are walking to the west for the most part. As such, it's almost impossible to tan  your right side. It's amazing how tan my left arm got compared to my right arm.

5. You fear cyclists.

I've cycled across Europe and California so I don't have a dislike of cyclists. But there's no doubt that out on the senda (trail), cyclists that speed by without warning or a bell frighten the majority of Camino walkers. Don't weave left and right on the trail with

6. You routinely approach reception desks and ask if the hotel is “complete.”

It took me a couple nights to realize that in Spain a hotel isn't full. It's complete.

7. When you sit down to eat, you immediately take off your shoes.

Yeah. It's a thing. The only risk is that your feet are so swollen that you can't get the shoes back on your feet. So the lesson here is to make sure that your shoes fit right and can handle swollen feet, blisters, and twisted ankles.

8. You can say “hello” in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, English, Dutch, Korean, and Aussie.

In truth, most people say "Buen camino", "Hola", and "Ola" (once you get into Galicia). Once you sit down, however, you will meet people from every corner of the earth. I met folks from every inhabitable continent. A few ways to say "hello" can go a long way in making friends or at least finding an empty seat in a busy restaurant.

9. You’ve engaged in hour-long poncho vs. rain suit debates.

I had these discussions even with myself. I started out as a rain suit person. After hours of walking in the rain, I switched to the poncho and have never looked back.

10. You had no idea hot chocolate can be so thick.

I didn't drink coffee or tea like others. Both contain caffeine and let's face it, when there aren't many toilets on the Camino trails, you don't want to drink a diuretic that forces you to make a pit stop.

Hot chocolate was a nice way to warm up and get a sugar shot without eating a pastry. I'm gluten sensitive, so anything that can distract me from the endless supply of delicious, mouth-watering pastries was a sugar-coated blessing.

11. You can pee anywhere, and you don’t really care who sees.

Pee happens. Everyone has to deal with it. Hold it in for a few hours, and you can hurt yourself.

12. You can pack everything you need for a long trip in 10 minutes or less.

It's amazing how quickly you can pack your backpack. In the dark. Wet or dry.

13. Your prized possessions include dry, fluffy, durable socks and dry, fluffy underwear.

The benefits of dry, fluffy socks on your peace of mind and on your foot comfort cannot be stressed. It just feels so good to rip off your sweaty ones and slip on fresh, dry socks. Underwear is a close second in this nirvana.

14. The yellow arrow is your GPS.

You learn to look around you as you approach a fork in the road. There must be an arrow or concha shell or sign somewhere. If you don't see it, you start backtracking until you do find it.

17. Whenever you go to a restaurant, you look for the Menu de Peregrino, and you can’t understand why the wine isn’t included.

Those peregrino menus really are a good value. Three courses (starter, main, and dessert), with bread and wine and water. If you're hungry, you won't be after one of these meals.

18. You can take a shower in 4 minutes…using only shampoo.

The showers are frequently busy and in many cases co-ed. Take a long shower, and you'll have a line of men and women waiting for you and then yelling loudly if all the hot water is gone. Shampoo is just as good as body wash. Just scrub off the dirt and go take a nap.

19. You can dry yourself off completely using a tiny ShamWow towel.

I didn't see one large or thick towel and for good reason: you don't want to carry something so heavy and bulky and which won't dry out before you leave the next morning. Everyone brings small, thin towels. It's amazing how much water these tiny towels can take off of you and still dry out before the morning. Just remember to bring your dry clothes into the shower area with you if it's co-ed or else your tiny towel will be less than adequate to fig leaf you.

20. You’ve whittled your wardrobe down to 2 of everything.

You learn to pack really, really light. Anything can be washed and dried overnight.

21. You know how to say "bandage” and “blister” in Spanish.

"Ampolla" happens. Buy some Compeed and maybe a "venda" if your knees and hands bleed from falls.

22. You know and understand the many varieties of jamón.

There really are a number of dishes made with ham. And they serve them all.

23. You measure distance in kilometers.

I'm still adjusting back to miles. In the car, miles come easily. But when walking around, it just seems so much easier to think in kilometers.

24. You only own clothing that dries really fast.

Heavy clothing would be such a pain on the Camino. Even if it's colder weather, your clothes just cannot dry fast enough after a wash. Much better to get fast drying clothing and layer.

25. You walk into bars and ask for a stamp.

I imagine that the Green Stamps craze in the 60s and 70s was similar. Any time you had a business transaction, you had a chance for a stamp. In this case, the stamp shows up on your credentials, and boy some of them looked pretty.

26. You know to avoid the ensaladilla rusa.

Seriously, there was tuna in every salad. But the first (and last) time I ordered the ensaladilla rusa, I expected an interesting salad with some Russian dressing. But it's not a lettuce-based salad. Oh it's still an appetizer and not served as a side dish. But instead of seeing any green, you'll see white. That's because it's a potato salad. And yes, there's tuna in it. It's a potato salad... with tuna.

27. You don’t care much about “things,” but if anything happened to your framed compostela, you’d freak out.

This is when everyone gets spiritual on the Camino. People become much more important than things with each passing step. And then you earn your compostela (diploma) that shows you completed the Camino de Santiago. And all that spirituality and non-materialism gets chucked out the ventana. You become Gollum protecting your "precious".

28. You’ve had the best conversations of your life with people who walked beside you for a less than an hour.

It's amazing how quickly you bond with people on the Camino. And not just with one person, but with many. I would never have believed it but it just kept happening.

29. You love pulpo, but only a la gallega.

Octopus when cooking in the pot is as horrific to the eye as it is to the imagination. But don't let that stop you. Gallician octopus (pulpo a la gallega) was my tastiest surprise on the Camino. I recommend it to all in a heartbeat.

30. You feel like a winner when you find a free electrical outlet at bedtime.

In actuality, there are electric outlets in many places around the albergues (dormitories). And in the modern facilities, they have outlets by each bed. You can recharge your phone and flashlight (and please I hope you don't bring any thing more electric items than those two) fairly easily. But often times, more than any anxiety about finding a bed, finding an electric outlet ranks way way up there.

31. You tell yourself you will never eat another tortilla española as long as you live

It's a Spanish omelette - basically scrambled egg in a thin pie shape and stuffed to the teeth with potato. I will live a long happy life if I never see this on my plate again.

32. When you check into a hotel, you ask if there is “weefee.”

As a business traveler, I've come to expect my hotels to have wifi. But in inexpensive albergues, you can't expect "weefee" to be extensive or even in the lobby. It's most places now, but there are notable exceptions. There isn't a single facility in Foncebadon (the tiny hamlet nearest to the Cruz de Ferro) that has weefee.

33. You want to hug John Brierley. You want to punch John Brierley.

Brierley wrote the definite English language book so it's the best resource to guide you. It tells you distances, altitude changes, terrain maps, accommodation lists, dining options, and spiritual quotes. It ought to be your best friend.

But your best friend sometimes lies to you, especially when it comes to distances and terrain. "Gently slopes" can mean either gradual ascents or alpine ravines. So, yes, it's a love-hate relationship. Buy his book and then yell at it when your feet hurt too much.

34. The love you feel for your hiking boots is not natural.

It's not. Couple that with the way you fondle your dry, fluffy socks and you can see that anything that protects your feet will be an affection that's just this side of kinky.

35. You are astonished when restaurants open for dinner at 5pm.

Siesta starts around 3 or 4pm. The world stops. Be sure to grab your food, pharmaceuticals, and supplies before then or suffer for 3 hours until commerce resumes. Even if you're in a city, good luck trying to find an open restaurant or bar. It's cultural, it's charming, and it's the perfect time to nap after a long walk.

36. You know the difference between tapas and pintxos.

Tapas are larger and in the central and southern parts of Spain. Pintxos (pronounced pinchos) are in the north/north-eastern areas. Pinchos tend to be smaller because they sit on small pieces of bread.

37. You’re never too hungover to walk.

I never drank more than two glasses of wine while on the Camino because I was too dehydrated to enjoy the wine in normal quantities. Even the most mundane wine, though, was quite tasty. So it's no wonder that many drink more wine than they should. And even when I drank two glasses on an empty stomach in a state of dehydration, nothing stops you from walking the next day.

38. You keep turning up the “C” knob in your home shower, but the water does not seem to be getting any more caliente.

"C"aliente isn't the same thing as "C"old. After weeks on the Camino, you tend to forget this.

39. You keep meeting the same people over and over without saying more than "Buen Camino" but you're thrilled to see them make it to Santiago de Compostella.

Even more surprising, you may not have said much if anything to them. But when you say goodbye one last time in Santiago de Compostella, it's like a someone tearing a bone out of your spine. The upshot is that the Camino is oddly powerful in creating bonds.

40. You wave your hands around in dark bathrooms and wait for the lights to come on.

It's not pretty when you have to open your stall door, leaning out, waving your arms, hoping nobody enters the dark bathroom just then.

41.  You’ve been to the “end of the world.”

Finesterre translates to "End of World". After you visit Santiago de Compostella, many continue to the Atlantic to see what the Romans thought was the westernmost end of Europe. Today's tradition is to burn or leave behind things like boots, clothing, or items that have weighed you down on your journey.

42. You know that anywhere is within walking distance, as long as you have the time.

The Camino changes your perception. You can walk anywhere. Any hike is feasible. It's empowering, exhilarating, and sobering.

Are you a former peregrino? If you have any suggestions for this list, please add them in the comments!

Buen camino

Monday, October 20, 2014

Camino de Santiago Presentation at All Saints Church Pasadena

I gave a presentation on October 19, 2014 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. I wasn't singing that day, so I asked not to serve any of the services so that I could focus on the Adult Education talk.

Over 100 people attended my talk - a pleasant surprise indeed. I appreciate all who came to inquire about spiritual pilgrimages and journeys. I received questions that were both practical as well as spiritual in nature.

The slides are at
The photo slideshow is at http://mel-shows-camino (click on the first of three icons in the middle right of the screen to start the slide show itself)

The video is at

Thank you all for sharing the camino with me. I hope I've deepened your understanding of pilgrimages and the effect on your spirit and perceptions. May your journey of faith and life be ever free of burdens, so that you may walk in your true path.

Buen camino

Sunday, October 19, 2014

After the Walk, Where Do I Stand?

Many have asked me if I feel different? Do I feel changed? Was I transformed?

Of course, my first response is usually glib and about blisters: I've gotten more blisters on my feet during this walk than the rest of my five decades combined.

All kidding aside, I do feel different inside. I have a better sense of where I'm going. I now appreciate how my journey guides me and how I must respond. I feel much more confident about the guiding signs that lead me. And even though I don't have my way mapped out in detail, I know which way to head and to stay alert for the signs.

I just feel and know that I need to follow my way, wherever it leads. I might have a clearer idea of where I'm going, but I just can't force my path to go in a certain way. It strikes me that life just doesn't work that way. I have to adjust and change as the way works on me.

And I know that my way won't be alone. Much of my spiritual rebirth in the past two decades has been deeply personal. In some ways, I feel now, it's somewhat selfish because I focused so much on my own development. But, our paths are not meant to go alone. It's not possible. Moreover, we can't survive on our own. We depend on each other and must trust that it's through our love and trust in others that our trust in God becomes most evident. By trusting others, we show that we can also trust God. If we can't trust others, how can we say that we trust in a higher power? No, my spiritual growth depends on those around me and this revelation grew obvious on my walk.

And those whom I must depend, those who are around me, these aren't necessarily the people I already know. Just like on the Camino, the people I don't meet are nonetheless present around me. Perhaps we may possibly meet, perhaps we won't. Nonetheless, we share a journey together and it's possible that our paths will intertwine in the future. It's possible that we will touch each other deeply. Anything is indeed possible. And I must keep my lantern lit and stay alert for the party.

I also know that I've got to be alert to how I limit myself. The incident in Melide where I judged someone was downright bigoted. I almost avoided someone who on the surface made me uncomfortable. But it was all on me. He actually did nothing to push me away. And I wouldn't have been blessed with the profound lessons of our meeting if he hadn't reached out and chatted with me.

I don't believe I shared the story of my flight home. I was tired and looked forward to resting on the Madrid to Dallas leg. Instead, a young man imposed himself on me and chatted with me. He looked like one of those who are unfamiliar with long-distance business travel, and he fit uncomfortably in his suit. He talked and wasn't shy about trying to chat me up. Normally, I would have tried my hardest to ignore him and return to my reading and sleeping.

But, perhaps because there were 6 other peregrinos sitting in my area on the flight (we're easy to identify: we have the shells on our carry-on bags), I didn't turn away from him. Something in me opened to him and let him into my space, talked with him, joined him on this shared flight home. It didn't cost me anything, and I felt somehow that I had to be present with him.

As we were deplaning, an older woman crossed over to him. She was also clad in business attire and said to him, "Sorry you had to spend your birthday that way. At least you can now rest."

I don't know if I ever recognized that he was reaching out to me. I still don't know if I'd notice it if it happened again. I do know that by being there for him, by letting my guard down, by opening myself to him I perhaps made his birthday a little less unhappy, a little less unfriendly, a little less alone.

If that's the Camino still working on me, then my walk isn't over. God bless us all with the presence to stand with each other.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Post-Camino - A Journey Ends Where It Began.

My journey ends where it began. My journey begins where it ended.

I say that because my camino journey ended where it started, in Madrid. These extra days were helpful, not only as padding in case I didn't complete my trip in the time I expected, but also as a way to transition back into the "real world". And, with a major city like Madrid, you definitely have a big city, big world experience.

Oddly, I started my Madrid stay by visiting an ancient site: The Temple of Debod. It was going to be flooded by the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, so it was moved stone by stone over to Spain in the 1960s. Here it's actually open free to the public who can get close to real hieroglyphics. The temple itself was as impressive in quality as those I found along the Nile, if much smaller; 

The irony to me was that I had made a journey to a cathedral to make my camino. Here, I visit the temple itself made a journey for me to enjoy at the end of my camino. It made me think about journeys and anyone and anything can make a journey.

I then visited the Cathedral of Almudena, adjacent to the Royal Palace. I caught the mass and enjoyed stunning contemporary stained glass and artwork. The ceiling was a remarkable series of rectangles that contrasted with the soaring arches and curves of the cathedral.

And, in a reminder of how religion is so often a double edged sword for many, I noticed a prominent statue of Josemaria Escriva who was canonized very quickly this past century for founding the Opus Dei group. For many, he was a source of inspiration; for others, he represented a repressive figure. It was like my day trip to Avila where I saw good and bad in one place.

My next day in Madrid I visited the Royal Palace. The grounds were large and expansive, and one could imagine military brigades flexing ostentatiously in the square. The interior was lavish and laden with gold, as expected.

Most importantly for me during my two full days in Madrid was the visit to the Prado Museum. I actually went to the museum twice during those two days because there was so much to see and soak in. I caught a marvelous exhibition on El Greco, an artist who had always seemed to be far ahead of his time. I found the Hieronymus Bosch paintings, especially the Garden of Earthly Delights, to be enthralling.

Thematically, I couldn't help but notice the number of Madonna of the Milk paintings. The following was particularly surprising, as the baby Jesus coaxed Mary to feed Saint Bernard of Cluny. 

The other consistent artistic style I saw was that the Prado's collection was decidedly melodramatic. It was as though the statues and paintings were in perpetual Lent mode, with beating of chests, tele-novelo level intensity, and obvious heart on the sleeve emotions (literally, many hearts right on those sleeves, as well as tables, and in mouths).

It made me wonder about the Spanish culture in general, whether as a people they found greater satisfaction with overt emotional affectation. It was sort of the polar opposite to the cool, detached British Museum.

I ended my stay in Madrid with walks through the city and Retiro Park. I saw beauty, families, sunset, and majestic architecture.

As I prepared to go home, I gave thanks for the time, resources, and generosity of all who supported me. I prayed for those who contributed to the Episcopal Relief and Development organization, a group for whom I sought to raise funds and make a donation during this pilgrimage. I had lit candles for my parents who inspired me to find God and growth throughout the world. I gave thanks for my new husband who supported me on this journey with such tremendous love that I get tearful thinking about it.

And I praised our Creator, who gave us vision, desire, and courage to find our way, our road, our journey, no matter who difficult. In such a journey, I discovered light and relationships and values that might not have appreciated as fully before.

Let all who are thirsty come
Let all who wish receive the water of life freely
Amen. Come Lord Jesus. Amen

I return to a journey's end, a journey's birth, a journey's sunset, a journey's renewed life. I returned, I return, I will return.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Day in Segovia - Look up, Look up, Look up, Look down

I spent the whole day looking up it seems. Well, almost.

First, the bullet train that whisks you from Madrid to Segovia is fast enough to make you dizzy. Look down at the ground and, if you're prone to motion sickness as I am, you won't feel so good. Look up and you'll see a rapidly shifting landscape that slides by with breathless abandon.

Once there, I took a city bus to the centre of town and walked towards my first destination. Along the way, my keeps kept reaching up the hills towards the north, as I could clearly see the Cathedral that I will be visiting later in the morning.

And soon, as I approached my destination, I saw the 95 ft tall Roman aqueduct that, even 2000 years after construction, remain standing. It boggles the mind that something that old was still in perfect use up until the 19th century. Somehow, this 2/3 mile long giant of stone evaded earthquakes, fires, and war. Graceful arch after graceful arch, arch upon arch, this stands as a reminder of what we can accomplish despite the odds.

I then proceeded to the Alcazar, where I found an intact castle that stood proudly upon the hill. The lines were somewhat fairytale in shape but the surprise for me was inside.

Most beautifully to me were the unending supply of sumptuous Andalusian-inspired ceilings. The craftsmanship was stunning, the colors intoxicating, and the patterns enchanting. I could barely tear my eyes away from those ceilings, and I'm grateful that none of those original designs were lost in the mist of time.

From the Alcazar, I explored the Cathedral. Again, looking up from the Plaza Mayor, I was gobsmacked by a lovely sight: several hot air balloons were floating just beyond and above the Cathedral. They were colorful and contrasted with the smooth colors of the cathedral stone.

As an amateur photographer, one couldn't ask for better photo opportunities.

As one who appreciates irony, I loved comparing the solid, stoic behemoth with the effervescent, transient mirage. The two seemed locked in an futile ballet, where one danced around, while the other was planted firmly in place.

And life is like that sometimes. Sometimes, we want to be on this wild adventure, a journey of space and time, but we are held down by our nature, by our being. Or worse, we are held down by those who hold us down.

But in this irony lies another irony. The cathedral is in fact built to cause its congregants to look upwards, to search the skies, to peer up at another realm. It might not be able to get there itself, but it's meant to help us imagine ourselves in the clouds on another level.

I returned to the aqueduct for a light lunch and figured out the mystery of the pig. In several places in the Alcazar and cathedral, I saw pig references. In the square by the aqueduct, I asked a friendly shopkeeper about this as I knelt down and peered at the various clay and ceramic animals. There, looking down at these figures, he explained that Segovia has a long history with the pig, and that it was a symbol of its commercial importance.

And so my time in Segovia was spent looking up, looking up, and looking up. And, when it came time to think of worldly things like souvenirs, it came time to look down, at the pig and remember the soil where my feet were planted.

And from there, I looked up once more and smiled.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Day in Ávila - How Do You Defend Your Beliefs?

What best defends your beliefs? A vigorous prosecution of those who disagree and attack those who are different? Or, by defining the strengths and values of your belief system?

In essence, that's what today felt like to me. Ávila is a wondrous, ancient city that is best known as the home of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Here she was born, wrote her books, and lived her life in faith. She was a reformer, a Carmelite nun, and a theologian of who garnered tremendous popular affection.

It's also the home of Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor, and thus was ground zero of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than winning over the population, he convinced monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand to declare the Alhambra decree that expelled the Jews from Spain. His remains were pillaged and possibly incinerated in an ironic auto-da-fé.

Both come from a town with lovely walls, romantic streets, and beautiful buildings. The contrast between these two people struck me strongly. It was almost jarring to walk these streets and think of the ways history swung in alternative directions here.

I doubt that I can do justice to this comparison without writing one or two dissertations. But I've admired Saint Teresa of Ávila since I was in CCD. She has a natural advantage in any comparison because of that affection. But in my heart of hearts, I also like to think that it's more compelling, more authentic, more sincere if you win people over and not compel them.

So now that my Camino walk has ended and my pilgrimage trip is nearing its end, I have to wonder how this lovely land could inspire such contrasting ways of encouraging faith. And I pray that more people follow the Camino, the Way of Saint James, with the heart of an apostle and the brains and mental prayers of Saint Teresa.

Monday, October 13, 2014

No more arrows - a Day in Salamanca

Conrad and I left Elias and Jakob at the hotel, so that they could walk to Finesterre while we took the bus. I then left Conrad at Finesterre as I returned to Santiago to catch the pilgrim's mass and take the night train to Madrid, connecting there, and heading towards Salamanca.

Salamanca has the 4th oldest university in the world. Not only is it filled with academic history, but was once considered to be the jewel of higher education. Today it remains a vibrant city with an impressive ecclesiastic history.

It's blessed with two cathedrals, one built adjacent and around the original cathedral. Unlike other building projects, the city chose to preserve the original cathedral and have it serve as a sort of mega-chapel to the new cathedral. The Gothic lines of the new cathedral contrast beautifully with the Romanesque architecture of the original building.

What most fascinated me about my stay in Salamanca wasn't the large number of young people. That's to be expected in a college town. No, what I found odd was that there were no scallop shells or yellow arrows to guide me around the city.

I had to find the hostal on my own. I had to find the gorgeous and youth-filled Plaza Mayor without staring at the sidewalk. I found the cathedrals and convents all without following another person walking with a backpack.

All this was a jarring return to normalcy, to a life where there are no directions, no guides, no signposts. You might know where you want to go, but it's a mirage. We depend upon a false sense of assurance that the signs will take us where we want. Even if we think we're following arrows, I've noticed on the Camino, there's no guarantee that you are heading in the right direction.

Did you see every sign?

Did you understand what the sign was trying to convey?

Were you too busy talking, taking photos, thinking about your hunger, nursing your blister to notice?

Did you forget you were supposed to be looking for those signs.

All that is while we are actually on the Camino. But like life, when we're not on the Camino, we have to try even harder, to discern, to listen, to see, to grasp.

With the people I met and walked with, we talked much about being present. The Camino forces you to be present in the moment. Life gives you all too many ways to be detached, to float away, to stare at your phone. None of these are meant to keep you present but are meant to take you to a different realm.

And if we're trying to find our destination, the place we feel we want to be, how will that be possible if we escape the notion of now?

I marveled at the beauty, the food, the vibrancy of this wonderful city. And I felt uneasy at how difficult and tenuous it was to know where I was so that I could know where I wanted to be.