October 25: We’re almost home after a bit of a nightmare journey. Actually I’m in a very comfy hotel bed near the Vancouver airport. It’s about 7:30 am. A glitch in airport procedures by TAP Portugal (airline) meant we missed our flight connection in London and had to take a later flight to Vancouver through Toronto, adding a fifth leg to our already arduous itinerary. This means we had to book this hotel room but still pay for the one in Kelowna that we didn’t make it to last night. Enough whining.
I’ve been lying here half asleep for some time thinking about the ‘So what?” question. So, I’ve taken this time to walk this many kilometres in a foreign country. So What? I don’t have a clear answer. But my murky, early morning, jet-lagged mind was recalling the old figure-ground pictures (above). You know, like the goblet that becomes two faces when you look at it differently. While on the path I sometimes focused on the walking and sometimes on what was around me, or, you might say the walking and the walked.
I know that to walk that far for that long is a physical challenge, an accomplishment, if you will. While that is an important part of it, I have never considered it the main thing. Some do. There are people who make it a challenge to do it in as few days as possible. But when I reached Santiago my reaction was not “I did it!” as though it was primarily a personal accomplishment. The sense was more that “it did me.”
Remember, I’m still processing all this. Back to the figure-ground idea. Both when I was walking and when I’m thinking about it later, sometimes I think about the walking and sometimes i think about what I was seeing and experiencing as I walked. The walking itself was important – the rhythm, the effort, the sore muscles, the pain, the mud, the growing strength, and eventually the more flowing, effortless experience. The perseverance through all of that seems important. Difficult as it was sometimes, I never considered quitting. I never wished I was somewhere other than where I was.
And then there is the walked. I have written before that there were constant reminders of the ancient nature of this path – in the architecture, the art, the Romanesque churches, the statues along the way – even in the number of remembrance markers for people have have died walking the Camino. And there was the beautiful and incredibly varied scenery. There was the experience of getting along in a foreign language and culture with unfamiliar food, a culture that has no grasp on how bathrooms and showers ought to work.
And there were the people I met and talked to and slept with (so to speak – 24 to a room). There were the friendships that formed quickly and deeply, if temporarily. There was the opportunity to practice acceptance and loving kindness toward multiple loud snorers, a practice that actually allowed me to “zen out” and get some sleep anyway (walking 25 km beforehand also helps.) There was the kindness of volunteer hospitaleros who created such welcoming spaces in some of the albergues. There was also the opportunity to practice loving kindness toward those who served us, shall we say, unhappily, perhaps for the money, who were surly and unwelcoming.
The whole thing, all of it, was pure gift, pure grace.
The thing about the figure-ground picture is that both aspects are needed for the picture to make sense. If you take away the faces, there is no goblet. Take away the goblet and there are no faces. But you can only see one side of the reality at a time. So somehow the walking and the walked are one thing, all of a piece, even if I have to think about them separately.
When I started writing this post, I had more questions than answers. As I composed the list above (which is by no means complete) it started to become more clear. Funny that. No doubt after I’ve been home for a while and back in the rhythm of everyday life, the contrast will make more things clear. I have been away long enough that the Camino started to be everyday life. At the very least, the Camino is a metaphor for everyday life, with the added luxury of time to contemplate its meaning and its gifts.