(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.