On my walk from Burgos to San Bol, I stopped for a few minutes to take off my backpack and stretch out my shoulders. The morning was warm and bright and though we’d never met before, an older Australian woman stopped beside me to chat. She was full of loud enthusiasm while I felt more subdued.
I could sense that she mistook my quiet responses for disinterest or plain rudeness. What she didn’t know about me that morning was that I was on my second day of bad cramps and I was tentative about being on the trail at all. In Burgos, the private room, extra sleep, and heavy pain meds had got me through the worst…but I wasn’t out of the proverbial woods yet. I wasn’t sure about my body’s ability to carry a backpack long distances and walk in the searing heat. So, I followed my body’s needs that morning – walking slowly and gently. I wanted to at least try walking some of the trail but decided that if my body needed to stop after just a few kilometers then that’s what I would do.
For once, I was willing to go a bit easier on myself. I didn’t care about covering a certain distance or the speed of my walking: I was doing well to stand upright!
She said two things to me that morning that rattled around in my system for weeks and months to follow. Without ever realizing it, she sparked a new direction for my inner camino.
She enquired: Are you going all the way to Santiago?
That’s the hope, I replied.
Well you don’t sound very positive! she snorted.
I thought my response was honest and realistic. Given the morning that was in it, I thought it an accurate sentiment. I wanted to walk all the way to Santiago. I intended to try walking all the way to Santiago. But I never knew whether I would walk all the way to Santiago. I couldn’t guarantee anything. Her impatient dismissal caught me off guard and I spent the rest of my camino wondering which one of us was “right”. Was I lacking in confidence or was she overly so? I never could tell.
It struck me that she held a certain expectation of how I should respond, as though the conversation was tightly scripted in advance. If that’s the case, then we tell people what we think they want to hear and they do the same to us. If we do this, none of us are allowed to change, or grow, or be/do/feel something unexpected. It takes time to have a real conversation. I don’t mean that it has to be a long one, but if I ask someone how they are and I really listen to their response, I might find the conversation goes somewhere surprising. It might get uncomfortable and I might need a few extra minutes to respond to properly, instead of replying with a common platitude.
Otherwise, we’re all running the same old script day in, day out.
How are you?
Good to hear! See you soon.
And we don’t get any deeper than that.
She was right, of course. I didn’t sound very positive because I wasn’t very positive. But on that sunny autumn morning, I had every reason to believe that my chances of making it were as good as anyone else’s. I gave an honest response but she either didn’t know how to listen, or didn’t want to. Either way, her judgement and quick scorn caught me by surprise and I instantly wanted to put some distance between us. I had enough of that BS in my life already without inviting it from random strangers!
But still….it was a remark that followed me all the way to Santiago, and beyond.
She also asked me all about my stop off in Burgos, and shared that she’d suffered some stomach troubles so she’d organized a bus to carry her backpack that day.
She declared: You have to take care of yourself!
She said it with such authority that it struck me to my core. And I instantly recognized:
I’m not doing that very well.
I was physically tender and my body really needed to be horizontal and still, but there I was, carrying a heavy bag across the countryside and hoping to walk nearly 25km to San Bol. I thought that allowing myself to stop off earlier was “taking care of myself”. I thought that was “going easy on myself.”
It never occurred to me to stay on in Burgos until I felt well enough to walk. It never occurred to me to book a private room somewhere so I’d be guaranteed a bed, without the daily guessing game of where I’d sleep that night. It never occurred to me to have a bus company carry my bag and spare my body the extra strain.
The way she took care of herself and the way I did it, were quite different.
Honestly, I thought she was a wuss. I thought she was a cop-out. I thought she was being way too soft on herself. But her comment needled me in a tender spot and I spent the rest of my camino journey quietly reflecting on the ways in which I do, and don’t take care of myself. I thought that eating my broccoli and getting regular exercise were enough. Turns out, I need more than that. The camino experience had already challenged me by then – I’d learned (the hard way) that I needed alone time and rest in quantities that my fellow pilgrims didn’t always share. Her off-the-cuff remark gave me a starting point to reflect on how best to take care of myself in life.
I considered it every day on the trail.
I still find myself reflecting on what it means to take care of myself. In the months that have passed since I finished walking camino, I’ve been continually surprised by what it means to take better care of myself. In some cases, it’s meant disengaging from conversations and relationships that no longer sustain me. In others, it means allowing myself to be still and wait for my inner knowing to come up with the answers to my questions. It’s an ongoing discovery. It’s one of the ways camino continues to change who I am in my own life, and in the world.
I bet she’s long forgotten me and our conversation that morning. I bet she never imagined she had such a profound effect on me, and shook me up in unexpected ways.
The people we meet on camino are not always the people we want to hang out with, but some of them have a lesson for us all the same. Gotta love it!