Lessons from the Camino de Santiago: Romantic Relationships
For those of you who have been patiently waiting this last month for me to blog about my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, thanks for waiting! My boyfriend had been right: this journey was to be “an inflection point” in my life. Not a term I would have used but hey, engineers…what can I say? For me, I knew it was going to be a new phase, shifting upward into something I’d worked toward for much of my life, and certain new doors opened for me in my career within a week of my return, about the time my jetlag vanished. That kept me too busy to finish household chores, finish editing The Secret Lives of Librarians, or blog my Camino insights for a full month. Now that I’m catching up, the house is cleaner, I’m read to edit my paranormal thriller, and I’m writing my first insights from my pilgrimage along St. James’ Way and my love of the Celtic, mountainous Galicia region of Spain.
They say that all pilgrims find answers along The Way. How can you not? Part of the spiritual aspect to the pilgrimage is the solitude. I suppose that if you walk only a very short way (a few kilometers or maybe just one day) and walk it with friends and music and laughter, then you might be able to avoid the solitude or the groove you can get into while walking through Nature for eight and more hours a day. Physically, you just keep pushing through while your mind–similar to hypnotherapy–takes flight far above. I think that many people don’t get a chance to spend time alone with their thoughts for an extended period. I certainly couldn’t when I had needy small children and husband. I certainly haven’t been able to do that at work in the last year, when I’ve been so overworked that I start barking orders the moment I step off the elevator and everyone is tugging at me for answers all day. I so desperately needed a break from work and family where I didn’t have to be in charge, where I could simply be on a path like a labyrnth and just let my mind explore all those Life-Death-and-the Universe questions while moving along physically on my journey.
One of my questions that I wanted either to work out completely or gain more insight into regarded relationships. At my core, I do not believe any really deep relationship is 100% easy in every moment. Oh, there can be incredible ease between two people where there is never a gap in discussion and always, always an excitement in seeing the other person as if every first glimpse of the day is Christmas morning to a kid…but it’s turbulence, trials, deep explorations that make for the kind of strong bond that ties me to a person at soul level. So ultimately, I don’t believe that any deep relationship, romantic or otherwise, can be 100% smooth because if an individual’s journey is never 100% smooth if the individual is to grow, then the possibility for both contrast and growth is increased exponentially when you add a person to the relationship with self to the relationshp with another. My youngest child has never been in a deep romantic relationship so she cannot understand why I would hang around after the first bout of turbulence with any new man in my life–and honestly, most new men in my life over the last decade have been out the door in a matter of days, weeks, or a few months not because of the turbulence that happens in a relationship but because there wasn’t enough beauty and joy to outlast the turbulence. She still thinks of romance in terms of formula romance novels and romantic comedy movies where the few bumps are quickly ironed out and everyone is assured of smooth sailing once the commitment is made between the would-be lovers. She doesn’t yet understand that the bumps and compromises are just beginning, but so are the deepest rewards.
As I walked The Way, I began to see all the major romantic relationships of life in terms of the terrain and the Camino experience. I didn’t notice at first. It took a couple of days, just because I had to understand the very different terrain along The Way and along the way of Life and how those differences are easy to match with men who either are or have been important to me.
While I’d love to take enough time off from work to walk the entire Camino, I could take only two weeks from work between my old duties and the start of my new duties, and that included a few days to fly to Madrid via meeting up with my older daughter in Orlando and back again. So my pilgrimage focused on the last 100 kilometers of the Camino, giving me both much-needed solitude and a taste of how to structure a much longer pilgrimage. My little group began our “warm-up walk” in the Cebreiro Pass and at the .
The countryside–mountains with heather and wild flowers seemingly straight out of Scotland rather than Spain–was breathtaking. My excitement about hiking up the mountainside soon turned from breathtaking to breathtaken. For all of my months of training for the walk, nothing prepared me to go from living all my life at sea-level to walking uphill at 4200 feet, especially after a bad reaction to food before I even began. After the first bend in the path, I had to stop to catch my breath. I was quickly the last of my group. By the next bend in the path, I was gasping, my heart pounding out of my chest, and me shucking off my jacket, sweater, Tshirt, down to my basic layers of clothes and still too warm. It was the most physically challenging activity I’d done in years, including 3 rounds of daily P90X.
And yet, every time I stopped to catch my breath, the scenery was the most beautiful I’d ever seen. I could have just stayed exactly where I was and stared at the beauty instead of moving forward and seeing more beauty, different beauty, just more exhilarating sights. It was the most challenging turf I’d ever climbed…and the most beautiful.
A few days later, it struck me how much Cebreiro Pass is like my current relationship: full of inner and outer turbulence, lots of ups and down, almost nothing at a smooth plateau, and yet probably the closest and most rewarding of my life. It took seeing other terrain and relating that terrain to other relationships to understand not what I was missing but what I had.
In one long stretch of Galicia, the path was dirt now, even if it had been remnants of Roman road well over 1000 years ago. But it was more than just dirt. As I walked past little farms with slate-roofed, stone-walled houses, my nose was immediately assaulted by a long-forgotten smell of wet hay, sweaty livestock, and plenty of juicy animal poop splotching the path. The scenery was serene and at times exquisite but the path was so full of muck and shit that it was hard to pick my way through without getting soiled myself.
Wow, I thought to myself, remembering a particular young man from a few years ago who took sexy to a new level. This is just like my relationship with him! So beautiful to look at from a distance or at first glance but a horrible path to walk each day where the stench and extended desperate choosiness to navigate every step unscathed far outweighed the pleasant sight. No matter how careful I was, I could not walk that terrain without smelling like and get covered in…poop.
There were other stretches of terrain that were level and poop-free and pleasant enough to walk but there was nothing particularly deep and memorable. Beautiful enough to others, yes, but after a month, I have only fleeting glimpses of them in my memory. I don’t feel a deep bond with those places, even though I do remember pleasantly the area that looked like a Tolkien Shire or the Primordial Forest or the fields of waving grain or the fog of Lavacolla or the first morning light of Salceda across the fields in the middle of nowhere. These are only fragmented glimpses emblazoned on my mind. Pretty but nothing as special as Cebreiro Pass.
Where the connection between terrain along the Camino and my relationships became very clear was the last kilometers of The Way as we were walking into Santiago. Our path led us around the Santiago airport, which was as challenging as the Cebreiro Pass to me but in a different way. It was uphill, along treeless (I remember one tree, one shade) road, downright ugly terrain, hot Spanish sun beating down, weary, just…tedious. There was not beauty to balance out the challenge. To me, it was brutal but unlike Cebreiro, there was not balance of joy and exhilaration. Oh, yes. I knew exactly the relationship reflected in this part of my journey.
I came home from the Camino with a better understanding of my relationships and that challenges are a part of every relationship. That’s what a relationship is. Being on the path. Experiencing it first hand. Not just looking at a photo of it and finding it pleasant or not but actually being in the experience. Because that’s what a relationship is–being in the experience firsthand, not viewing it from outside. For me, the rewarding relationship is not the one that’s ho-hum, level and fields of grain. There’s challenge, but there is always challenge. The question is whether the beauty balances and outweighs the challenge that is the same thing as growth, even painful growth. Regardless of all the twists and turns of the path.
When I returned home, my friend told me that he had been following my itinerary on Google Earth and to him, not knowing thousands of miles away how the road looked that I was on or what obstacles were in my path or whether I was climbing uphill or stopping to enjoy the beauty, it did not make sense that my path was so twisty or even going backwards at times. I didn’t have Google Earth on my no-signal iPhone in the middle of Galicia, so I didn’t know at the place where my feet were on the ground that I was twisting all over the place or going backward, then forward. All I knew was that I was moving onward on my path, amazed by the beauty of terrain, and pushing through the physical challenges and obstables in front of me.
For all its challenges, I am so glad for my time along the Cebreiro Pass and for all the beauty there. Looking back, I wouldn’t have chosen to take the bus instead for anything in the world. I wanted to be part of it for every moment, no matter how difficult some of those moments were. Every step took me higher, and closer to my destination.