Little Camino, Day 5: Sand Painting

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

In my prior blogs, I have been writing about some of the “Ten Commandments of the Camino.” And there is yet another one that is perfect for today’s post on the continuing Little Caminos in my life. It is the Ninth Commandment: Respect nature and you can learn much.

A week ago, I was walking a beach in Kodiak called White Sands. The beach is broad and vast and the water quite shallow for several hundred yards out into the bay. Like other Kodiak beaches, the sand is dark gray to black most of the time. But at a very low tide, a band of white sand appears at shoreline in sharp contrast to the rest of the beach. The sand itself was ridged from the lapping of the water, but as my friend and I got closer to the water’s edge, I was surprised and delighted to see the water “painting” beautiful designs with the intersection of the white and grey sand.

On my Camino walk, the “storm of the century” drenched us early on in the trek, and I certainly “respected” nature, but I wasn’t as aware of what nature was teaching me. If I had truly respected it, I would have stopped walking, checked into an albergue and waited out the harsh weather. But instead I walked on stubbornly, and got caught in a dangerous lightening storm without shelter. I had an agenda and a certain number of miles to accomplish that day, and I wasn’t going to let driving rain stop me. Yet Nature was trying to teach me to flow with what is; I fought against it.

I think that may be part of what delighted me so much about the sand paintings; I took the time to just watch the small waves sculpt the patterns, changing with every wave that lapped onshore. I took my time, or maybe it is more true to say that time took me. I let the magic happen without an agenda; I let myself marvel at the ways of water, constantly creating and destroying. I respected the power of water, teaching me with every moment about flowing with the tide, not pushing against it. And seeing what beauty that creates.

I knew the tide was coming in. I knew all the paintings would be gone in an hour or two. Nature was teaching me again about staying present to the moment, not already regretting that the paintings would disappear.

Watching the water paint these waving patterns, reminded me of a book that I am slowly reading called Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water and Air by Theodor Schwenk. He writes, “Water desires nothing for itself, it gives of itself freely, never questioning the form into which it must change when needed by plant, animal or man; with the same submissiveness it fills them all. Selflessly it resigns itself to every need, retiring after acting as mediator, to be ready for new creativity. As in its very nature it is itself pure, it can purify, refresh, heal, strengthen, revive and clarify all things.” (pg. 98)

The Nature of water has much to teach me about this kind of humility–whether pouring down rain in Spain or painting on a shoreline in Kodiak. My little Camino is to see water, in all forms with new eyes, with slow attention, with a sense of its inner pureness, a sense of its innate flow. This aspect of Nature is teaching me about how to see all things, how to view other people, and even how to gaze at myself.

Little Camino, Day Four: A Call Back to Happiness

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

“Optimism, happiness, sincerity, and empathy are the qualities of the authentic pilgrim.” Thus reads the Third Commandment of the Camino. When I first read all ten of these unofficial commandments on a sign outside an albergue on my pilgrimage, (see pg. 30 in my book), this third one seemed like an “of course,” and one I was sure I could keep. I saw the “glass half-full” in life or even over-flowing with blessings. I was happy with home, family and friends. I thought I was sincere and sensitive to the struggles of others. Yet it was one commandment that proved challenging on the Camino as the days of walking unfolded in rain and wind and a lack of places to sleep.

That same commandment has been challenged again over and over since January 26, 2020 as the losses began in my life–my soul sister, my mother, my spiritual teacher, my brother-in-law, and then cancer and my own breasts. And all this during the pandemic that strangled relationships, and made it difficult to love or even be civil. Grief upon grief. It became so familiar I didn’t really realize I wasn’t happy. It just was what it was. But in May of this year, I attended a spiritual director’s conference in Santa Fe entitled “Engage 2022” that inspired me again. I began to see a way past our polarization, and I did feel “engaged” again in life, rather than death. My physical and emotional energy was returning, and I was enthusiastic about all the new teaching being presented. As the conference ended, I turned to my friend, Rebecca, and said, “The grieving time is over.” I could sense it was happening. But what was about to begin? How would I be able keep that Third Commandment? It could be easy to slip back. As I headed out on a hike up Baldy Mountain late one afternoon last week, I was given more lessons. Another little Camino.

I heard a shout from an old red sedan across the parking lot at the Baldy trailhead. I turned to see a woman waving enthusiastically. I looked around and realized I was the only other person in sight. She must be waving at me. I squinted at her, thinking that it was someone I knew, but as I walked closer, I didn’t recognize her, the man in the driver’s seat or the woman in the back seat. I felt some hesitancy then, wondering if I should smile and walk on. What did they want? But that felt like the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan that walks on past the man on the side of the road. I could feel the old energy of not engaging with others that the pandemic spawned, and the old sense of sadness that would keep me separate. I took a breath. I didn’t want the old energy anymore.

Walking up to the car window, the woman in the car looked so pleased. “I wanted to tell you it’s my birthday today!” She laughed excitedly. “Congratulations!” I replied. She took a bite of the sandwich she was eating. “I’m forty-nine,” she said proudly. The woman in the back seat was smiling ear to ear as well. “I’m her mother, she said. “I wanted everyone to know it’s her birthday so we can all celebrate.” Then she added, “I’m 61”. I quickly did the math in my head, wondering how this could be, and then decided it didn’t matter. They were simply so happy.

“How old are you?” the mother asked. “I’m seventy-one,” I replied. There was much giggling and commenting on how I was older than them. “Good for you,” they said. “And going hiking too.” The man in the front seat said, “I’m nineteen,” to which the women hooted and hollered that he was lying. “Well, I’m 19 thirty eight times over.” Which made us all laugh again. They returned to eating their sandwiches and looking out over the Alaska Range on that bright clear day. I wished the birthday girl happiness again, and said goodbye. I kept giggling as I headed up the path. Happiness had birthed in me too! It felt like I had met the teachers of the Third Commandment.

What had they shown me by simply being themselves? It was that lesson again of vulnerability. As that same friend, Rebecca, says, “Vulnerability is the bridge we cross to connection.” And for me, connecting to others again is happiness. It was a vulnerable thing for the woman to call out to me, a stranger, and tell me it was her birthday. I wouldn’t risk that vulnerability of being rejected or being thought I needed attention. But by her bypassing all those fears, we connected with laughter, joy and for a few moments, I was part of the family celebration.

In some ways, it was a small encounter lasting less than five minutes. Yet I still feel the significance of that simple invitation days later. This is one of the ways happiness and optimism and sincerity and empathy endure. By being open to one another, past our fear of differences. To engage with joy again. To trust in life. And then to share it.

Little Camino, Day Three. Looking in the Mirror

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500 miles)

If you want to watch a brief video guaranteed to make you laugh, just go to YouTube and search for, “bear sees self in a mirror.” I found myself watching it over and over, totally amused by the scene of a black bear wandering in the woods and coming upon a large mirror. The bear’s reaction is immediate and explosive; he ends up tearing the mirror from the tree and stomping on it. A comment attached to the post read–“That’s what I feel like when I look in the mirror in the morning.” And I laughed again.

Just as this person who commented, I sometimes can only muster a sideways glance, a little afraid to see what a night’s sleep has done to my hair, my face, my eyes. If I’m feeling courageous, I look full on, wondering when that particular wrinkle showed up or what caused the puffiness of my eyes. I survey my hair, wincing to think it might be bit thinner. While I have not yet torn the mirror down from the wall and stomped on it, I usually turn away with relief and try to give myself a little positive, yet half-hearted, affirmation like “True beauty lies within.” Or “Well, you look pretty good–for your age.”

As I walked the Camino, I don’t remember so much about looking in mirrors in the morning–and often, there weren’t mirrors where we stayed–but my book relates over and over the many ways that I was reluctant to look into the mirror of my soul. My Inner Critic was walking right beside me, always commenting on how I wasn’t keeping true to the intention of being relaxed or trusting or confident or even kind. The chatter was so severe I did want to tear down that mirror and stomp on it like the bear. Yet I was walking like a martyr many days of the pilgrimage, lashing myself with barbed remarks about how wasn’t present, had missed the beauty around me, was pushing myself too hard or not pushing myself hard enough (the Inner Critic can work it from all angles.) By the time I reached Santiago, I was very discouraged with myself and certainly not wanting to glance in the mirror. All this despite the fact that I had indeed walked the 500 miles and done it in exactly the thirty-four days that our guidebook suggested. When I was asked to speak about my experience to a women’s group a few months after I returned, the first thing I said was, “I failed the Camino.” The women laughed, but it was the truth in the mirror to me.

As friends and family have now read my book, several have said that when I returned from the trip, I didn’t want to talk about it, or I would say simply, “It was harder than I thought.” Almost to a person, they wondered why I had all these remarkable experiences and yet never told them anything about them. Truth be told, I didn’t realize this. The Inner Critic is a master of shame. I did enjoy so much during the walk, but the overriding sense when I finished was of disappointing myself and God. Why would I want to talk about that?

Fifteen years later, I no longer feel that I failed the Camino. It was only my reliance on egoic pride that told me I had failed. My soul had the journey of its life! So much was seen, excavated and released. So much was inspiring, expanding and revealing. And yet, I am still being tempted to listen to that old cynical voice of the Inner Critic each day. In my work in the Diamond Approach, where the inner Critic is named using the psychological term of Super Ego, its definition is “any voice that makes you feel less than.” And to follow up on that, “It’s not the voice of Truth.”

Of course, I realize that the bear in the video didn’t have a Super Ego. Instinct for survival was the reason the bear attacked the image. But it is interesting that the Super Ego starts out in us by the age of 6 or so, as a psychological structure that is trying to get us to behave, and thus assure survival and love. It’s just too immature to be wise however and it never grows up. Living between the lines is a lean life. And a very poor resource for realizing our full potential.

Lately, I’ve been amused at my Super Ego, amused as I might be seeing a small child trying to be the “boss”, thinking it knows best at age six. Hearing all its critical comments as a six-year-old with a loud voice makes me laugh. And my body and soul relax.

My “little Camino” this week is waking each morning and looking in the mirror with kindness instead of judging. Just gazing into my own eyes and letting love arise. One of the spiritual teachers in the Diamond Approach, Alia, is often quoted as saying something to the effect that, “We are infinite, boundless beings of Light and Love, going around believing we are milk trucks.” I want to live into that deeper vision of my self. To smile at the reflection I see in the mirror, love its aging as beautiful and see more deeply the Light that shines within. I want to gaze upon this mirror fully, with appreciation, with interest and no urge to look away. Not at all.

Having the Eyes to See Beauty: Little Camino: Day Two

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500 miles)

Outside an albergue on the Camino, a large plaque was fastened to its wall, inscribed with the heading, “The Ten Commandments of the Camino.” It then listed these 10, which I copied into my journal. The seventh commandment read, “Always have the eyes to see beauty and art.” (It seemed an easy commandment compared to #5 that commanded that “one not have prejudices for anyone”.)

 I can only guess at the beauty that I missed on the Camino when I was trudging on to the next town to find a place to sleep, distracted by fatigue or worry.

Yet now I still remember the small purple flowers just outside the town of Burguete. And I recall the welling happiness of walking through parks full of spring flowers as we left Pamplona. Or that Idyllic walk just before Astorga when, at last, it was something like I hoped the Camino would be–pleasant fellow pilgrims, a stroll through wildflowers, a sweet narrow path, and a meadow where we ate our lunch in the sun. In retrospect, I sense now that the beauty had sustained me in ways my own resolve could not. 

Last week my friend Kaylene and I left Homer after a four-day writing retreat. Near Nikiski, we pulled off to let Kaylene’s dog run for a while, and I strolled up the gravel road, seeing blue sky overhead and blue sea beyond the rooftops of that small town. Then in a small wet depression off to my right, I felt my heart lift to see an explosion of small balls of white, swaying in the breeze, like waves tossed to and fro–cottongrass at its peak, looking to me like small lion manes. I waded into the wet depression to see them more closely, and then pick a few for a vaseful on my dining room table.

Picking cottongrass is a long tradition for me–every summer since I first saw them in 1975. Dried, they will keep their white fluffy fringe for months. I couldn’t pick cottongrass, however, without the memories of sharing this ritual with my mother, who came up nearly every summer to visit. She would take a few stalks of these white iridescent heads home too to capture a bit of the time she spent in Alaska with me. 

She hasn’t come up for five summers now. When she was 92, she said goodbye to all my friends who knew her, saying with certainty this time, that it would be her last visit. She had said this twice before and then relented when the next Alaskan great-grandchild was born. (She had no willpower with babies.) However, this time she was right. It was her last time. Loss of memory invaded more deeply. She often had to steady herself on the counters to keep her balance. I knew she was wise to not travel again, but it was a hard letting go. 

She fell then when she was 95, breaking her pelvis and then fell again later the same year, this time breaking her hip. While in convalescent care, she acquired Covid 19 like so many of the beloved elders during the pandemic. She died in January 2021 at age 96. 

It was some consolation to say she had a good life. A long life. A life of loving integrity. And she was “ready to go”, she said in those last years. But then that can’t prevent the little griefs that come, like picking cotton grass in the sunshine, seeing their beauty, and my mom not there to share this little joy. 

Kaylene came back with the dog then, thrilled to see the white waves of undulating cotton grass too, not knowing she was filling in for my mom in that moment. We went back to the truck to get our iPhones. I stepped into the damp depression full of moose and dog tracks and algae-covered mud to take pictures, to try to capture this moment of joy and memory. 


My mother spent most of her life cooking, laundering, cleaning, child-rearing, and running taxi to maintain a household of nine. But always in the spring, we would go with her to find the first purple violets for the May baskets. She planted hollyhocks in the garden each summer and show me how their flowers were little fairy caps. I brought her a jack-in-the-pulpit from the woods where I had hiked, and she planted it in a safe place on the farm– away from where the cows or pigs would tread on it if the gate was left open. We went down to Lizard Creek in spring to find Dutchman’s Breeches, mutually feeling like we’d found little treasures in these small white flowers that looked just like their name. Moments like these sustained her on a farm and with a family that wanted so much from her all the time. 

The day after Kaylene and I returned home, she sent a poem entitled “Plenitude” by Jan Richardson from her book called The Sanctuary of Women. An excerpt reads, 

I do not know where the greater part 

Of the miracle lies; 

that I should pause 

to notice this, 

Or that I, 

a woman of such great hungers, 

should be so well satisfied 

by such small things. 

There are so many miracle stories on the Camino that I document in the book, but the miracle of noticing “such small things” satisfied me far more. Now these years later, I wonder if “such small things” were even more significant than reaching Santiago. It’s an incredulous thing to wonder; getting to Santiago was every pilgrim’s dream, and certainly it was mine. That was why we did it, why we persevered, why we walked. Yet, it is true for me now. I don’t have to walk five hundred miles to find myself or prove myself in order to end the restlessness inside. To simply notice and to be “so well-satisfied in the small things”, as my mother was in finding new flowers, seems the wiser walk.

The seventh commandment of the Camino seemed only like a good idea when I first read it. Now I am glimpsing not only its truth, but how “always having the eyes to see beauty” is an invitation into the sacred nature of daily living. My little Camino.