Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Unpack Your Socks

I've blogged numerous times in the past about packing for the Camino. Last week I read a blog post "Unpacking from the Journey"  and it made me think... So here's a reflection on the notion of unpacking.

Most people who have ever backpacked or gone on camino spend lots of time wondering what to bring. I'd say most Camino pilgrims who have read up on the pilgrimage have spent HOURS thinking, shopping, weighing, evaluating. Not a single item goes in that backpack or daypack without careful attention to its weight and utility.

I'm down to the following for me:

  • One pair of walking shorts/pants combo.
  • One pair of shorts in case you have to wash your shorts. 
  • Two quick dry shirts.
  • One lightweight jacket
  • One poncho
  • Two underwear
  • A buff (scarf/bandana combo)
  • A light charger for your phone that also acts as an extension cord so that you can share the limited outlets with others.
  • A wide brim hat.
  • Prescriptions
  • Vaseline & Compeed/Mokeskin/blister patches
  • Water camel
  • Day pack
  • Walking stick
  • Lightweight/cheap flipflops/sandals
  • Toiletries
  • Either a sleeping bag (for rustic trails) or sleeping bag liner for Camino Frances
  • A lightweight back brace because I have back issues
  • And most important: 4 pairs of incredible socks

With the backpack, it shouldn't exceed 10% of your body weight for a long journey. Every little bit counts.

I am careful in how I pack. I place daily things at the top or sides and less frequently used items deeper inside. There's lots of attention to packing every day before I head out. I adjust the pack midway to make sure the weight is evenly distributed so I don't hurt myself.

Most people overpack. They bring too much. My first camino was wildly overpacked. I wasn't even close to only 10% of my body weight. And my second camino, the 600 miler, I allowed myself to overpack but had just enough sense to remember lessons from the first one; I brought things I wouldn't mind leaving behind. Because that's what I did on that first camino. I left 1/2 of my stuff behind.

We carry too much.

Like the stone that sits in our pocket to be left behind at the Cruz de Fero, our fears and anxieties hold us down, causing pain in hidden ways - perhaps not at first, but eventually. We trudge on thinking we can't do with less because if there's an emergency we will be without. But as we do so, we creep ever so slowly towards our own internal emergencies.

And that's when we realize you have to leave things behind.

We dump things. It's somewhat comical, somewhat sad, and always with calm knowing when I watch someone at the albergues deciding what to dump from their backpack. They yearn for the quick fixes that will help them feel better.

It's so much like life itself that I sometimes wonder if it needs saying. But we forget. And on our next trip, we need reminders. And on every subsequent trip, like the journeys around the sun we make every year, we learn a little more about what to take. For example, I've learned that socks matter more than anything else in the backpack. Seriously. Socks can make or break a long walking trip. I remember as a child that I was disappointed when I got socks for Christmas or birthday gifts. But now? I ask for them. And I am careful that I never leave behind something as special as socks.

The real lesson in packing is not what you take, but what you leave behind.

Leave behind those stones, those comfortable trinkets of our hearts that we think we need but just get in our way. Bring only that which makes every single footstep lighter, every single moment brighter, every single experience remarkable. All else leave behind.

And if you take them, leave them on the side of the road, like the grave markers you see all along the camino, marking and remembering that which you choose to leave behind. Laundry detergent? Good bye. Extra clothes? Adios. Heart ache? Adieu. Tears? Let them evaporate into air we share between us.

We talk about what we bring and not what we leave behind. We also forget to talk about what we do at the end of the journey. We unpack.

Some people turn that bag upside down and dump it out on floor. Most people take things out carefully, putting things down briefly, and hurry to get the clothing into a proper washing machine. If we bought some souvenirs, we set them aside to enjoy. We share the gifts as soon as we can.

Other things take longer. Sometimes I wonder where my water pack or poncho is and I realize it's still in the camino backpack. We simply don't spend anywhere near as much time unpacking as we did packing.

In fact, this ritual of unpacking happens as often as we pack. For every time we pack that backpack - every single morning - we unpack parts of it - every evening. You have to reach in and see what's in there and decide if you need it right then or there or it can be set aside for now.

It took me a while to realize it, but that ritual of unpacking is meditative and spiritual. You simply have to pause. If you unpack hastily, it makes re-packing that much more difficult. If you unpack without thinking, you might misplace or forget where you put something. If you unpack without reflection, you could just be unpacking something that you didn't need.

And such is life. We forget to pay attention to unpacking the events that make up life itself. We do it hastily, or thoughtlessly, or without reflection and we wonder why we spend so much time thinking and packing again the next day.

But if we pause, reflect, and think, what wonders we discover. I get delighted, just thrilled every day on camino, when I take out a pair of dry clean socks. I wash the laundry including the socks, and as I dry, I joyfully take out and put on the soothing clean ones. They might not bring you as much as joy as to me, but for my feet, they're better than even a foot bathe.

Wouldn't it be great if we could do that with our lives? Do you know which things in your life, something as trivial as socks, make you happy? Comfort you? Soothe you? Heal you?

Do you ritualize that joy? Do you take your joy for granted? I hope you don't take your socks for granted. Don't wear, wash, hang out to dry your socks without recognizing how they felt on your long walk.

I put on my socks with joy every day. I wash them at the end of the day's journey, ridding them of the soil but knowing that the toil and dirt wears at them just a little bit every day. But I have them for now. I let them dry and then pack them. And the cycle repeats.

So I must ask... what are the socks in your backpack, the things that could bring you joy daily? What are the socks that you pack lovingly and unpack with anticipation? Or do you forget about the joy that socks bring you, putting them on without remembering what they mean to you?

May you unpack your socks that are there waiting for you in your backpack, there because they were packed just for you, and may you wear those socks with comfort and joy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Joy Finding

Our crazy little creche on our fireplace is an oddball mixture of the mass-produced and predictable along side the delightful finds from somewhere on our travels. At the core are a manger, Joseph, and Mary that are made in plaster. The plaster baby Jesus showed up on Christmas morning, having spent the past few weeks in hiding behind the manger. The Magi are off to the side of the mantle, slowly but surely making their way to a January 6 Epiphany appearance, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Meanwhile, a zoo of sorts sits around the scene. There's the glass camel Christmas ornament that we found in Luxor, Egypt. There's a clay Pucara bull from Cuzco, Peru that we found after our hike to Machu Picchu. The little Dala horse that I got during a winter visit to Stockholm, Sweden watches over the baby. An African giraffe and zebra from Ten Thousand Villages are perched beside the creche. A disproportionately large terracotta horse from Xian, China towers over the plaster sheep. And scattered around this scene are angels from so many places and St Nick, historically and literally from Turkey.

So many shopping finds. It occurred to me that though we purchased the animals or were given all these angels, they represented joyful moments that delighted us or the person who gave them to us. The discovery of these individual creatures brought pleasure. And I totally enjoy bringing this weird assortment of characters together as our nativity scene every year.

I was pondering about why I liked doing this. I giggle every time I see that fireplace this time of year. One aspect is that it's bringing unexpected things together to tell a story. But I think what makes it particularly enjoyable is that these finds are positioned by us to tell a story about the greatest find: the finding of the baby Jesus. They are in a story about finding something joyful in unexpected places. They are literal store finds in a representation of the great finding.

And when the Magi appear at this nativity scene, the finds get wackier. Because multiple nativity sets have come and gone over the years, we have a baseball team of plaster Magi. Added to the caravan is a wooden Don Quixote from Avila, Spain (as in St Teresa of Avila). And the nested dolls from Russia, deliberately unnested as the women search for Jesus. And so on and so on.

All that searching, seeking, yearning. All that finding. All around the discovery of a newborn baby. Joy sometimes comes both in the finding and in the struggle to find.

This past Christmas day, we spent the morning with Stephen's family. Then, mid-day, we headed an hour away towards San Diego where my parents were visiting my sister in Murietta for the week. It was a big family coming together from miles around to spend the afternoon and evening together. My sister's twin boys came from Northern California to surprise their grandparents and sister. She hosted a feast for us all, and my parents got to watch their large family playing games, breaking bread (or pancit), and telling stories.

When Stephen and I got home late that night, we opened our own gifts to each other and went to bed. We never heard the phone ring. When I awoke the next morning, I listened to a voice mail message and read countless texts from my nephews and sister that my mom had fallen in the middle of the night and they had to take her to the emergency room. They found my mom in the bathroom, blood everywhere as she gashed her head on the corner of the wall. As dawn approached, after a CT scan showed she was fine, they were able to return home, a little scared, a little relieved, a whole lotta tired.

I cannot imagine my niece finding my mom like that, as unlike me, she's never worked in a hospital. I heard the fear in her voice when we spoke. My mom, though, says that she wasn't scared. She wondered if this was the end, but she wasn't frightened. She couldn't stay awake so perhaps she was unable to process what was happening from an emotional level. She was relieved they heard her fall, had found her, had lovingly cared for her. My Dad was thankful that the family was around to help.

I suspect that it's not normal to compare the finding of a newborn baby, the incarnation of love and life, to finding a mom bleeding on the floor, but I felt the connection nonetheless. There's a lot to think about when so much happens in such a short time.

My mom is in her 80s now and needs to remember to use her cane, especially when she's tired, in an unfamiliar setting, when she's alone. We wonder sometimes how long we'll have her and pray that it'll be for many more years, but we know we can't control it. My family found her, lying in blood, in a humble room like a bathroom, with fear, with love. They wondered if this was the end. She's fine now and we pray we can enjoy our time together as best we can.

Jesus was found with Mary. It was probably messy, bloody, scary. Mary was tired and in an unfamiliar setting. She knew that the baby was to be called Jesus ("God Saves" in Hebrew) and perhaps wondered how long she would have him, knowing she didn't control it. In a humble place, she gave birth to love. She and Joseph probably wondered what this beginning would bring. Jesus the baby was safe in their arms and they probably enjoyed their time together as best they could.

Joy comes unexpectedly. Sometimes there's anticipation, sometimes there's sheer surprise. Sometimes we have to go out of our way to arrange the figures in our life to bring joy to us. Sometimes we walk miles, sometimes we walk down the hall. Sometimes we just sit in the emergency room or in a manger, waiting for word, waiting for Good News.

We cannot make joy appear. We can only position ourselves, orienting our hearts and minds in a way that gives us the opportunity to see it, feel it, grasp it in our hands. Whether we grasp the hand of a baby, or grasp the hand of an older parent, we cannot make ourselves joyful at what we have. We can only be open to it. Be ready for it.

Many times, we walk away in horror, sadness, brokeness, when what we hoped for and what we yearned for does not happen. Our need for joy, for unending love, of inter-relatedness, can suffocate under the realities of our mortal lives. We don't always get what we want. We can't force a fairy-tale ending to every story.

Yet we can still hope, because the promise of Christmas was fulfilled. In the worst circumstances, there's always a chance for hope. And even if things turn out badly, we dive deeper into what things matter most, because at one time we had found love, we saw it, we touched it.

So when the unthinkable happens, when the fears and the exhaustion and the tears build up inside you threatening to bring you down, remember that you can still be surprised. You can still discover Good News in the most unlikely of places. You can orient yourself to the star of the east buried in your heart, perhaps while the tears are falling from your face, and offer a precious place, a humble place, for joy to be born. And maybe, just maybe, joy can find you.