(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.