Little Camino, Day 23: Just As I Am, Just As Life Is

(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)

I read Kitchen Table Wisdom so long ago; it was published in 1997, and I read it soon after. It’s sold over 700,000 copies now in twenty-one languages. I didn’t so much remember what she wrote as how it impacted me. I wanted to sit at that table with this humble Jewish doctor and listen forever. Recently, I stumbled across a quote from the book that spells out much of my experience on the Camino. And this time, I hear her words like crystal notes of clarity.

“Those who don’t love themselves as they are rarely love life as it is either. Most people have come to prefer certain of life’s experiences and deny and reject others, unaware of the value of the hidden things that may come wrapped in plain or even ugly paper. In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all cost, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness. Or even that the love we have been given can be trusted. It is natural, even instinctive to prefer comfort to pain, the familiar to the unknown. But sometimes our instincts are not wise. Life usually offers us far more than our biases and preferences will allow us to have. Beyond comfort lie grace, mystery, and adventure. We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life.” 
― Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal

The first line alone is enough; I’ve never heard it stated more concisely. It’s as if we who are still striving for some unnamed perfection, don’t realize we are saying in effect, we don’t love ourselves as we are right now. And that judgment gets projected onto all of life not being okay just as it is.

I didn’t get much encouragement in my life to love myself as I am. Did you? I was aware and made aware of all the ways I needed to improve to be approved. I’m just now learning in these later years of my life to consider this simple reality–to love myself without editing. That. Just writing that feels like relief.

Dr. Remen suggests I will be much more content with life just as it is–without a preference. I had so many preferences for how I wanted life to be on the Camino. “The guidebook said there shouldn’t be rain like this in late April!” “Why is there never any room at the allergies? It’s not fair!” “Why is there so much snoring? I can’t get any sleep!” (to name a few.) Remen says, “in avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all cost, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness.”

In hindsight, even though I did not love myself or the circumstances well on the Camino, the pilgrimage taught me those very things. I grew in compassion; I saw the quest through; I learned about a greater inner strength. Yet that next line is the one that I hold most dear in my understanding from the Camino; that by not accepting life as it is, we doubt “even that the love we have been given can be trusted.” Without this basic trust in life just as it is and in the Love that has created us, I lose my way on the journey. This accepting and loving myself as I am is directly connected to love of life and basic trust in the way of Divine action.

So how does that happen–loving oneself? I ask that question not in a narcissistic way. I mean to love oneself just as we are, without masks or need to change. If I try then I’m the one back in control of this quest. My ego will form a list of how to love myself or my inner judge will comment on all the ways that I’m not loving myself. Oh yes, I can how easily I could make even this a way to fix myself again.

This turn to loving oneself is willingness on my part and grace on the part of Love. It’s a whole new orientation. As Remen says, “We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life.” Jesus said something like that too. (And he was Jewish.)

This orientation is dropping the belief that I need to be fixed and changed– to just letting myself be. What does that actually feel like or look like? I don’t fully know. It’s unfamiliar. But I’m open to learning.

I think I’ll just set this aim, trust that this orientation to self-love will unfold somehow in the mystery, and relax. That seems like a good place to live into loving myself, loving everyone else, and having a life, loving life just as it is. My Little or not so Little ongoing Camino.

Little Camino, Day 22–Little Miracles

(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)

At a recent book talk about The Long Walk Home, I started talking about miracles. Certainly, the miracles that are attributed to the Camino, primarily about St. James, (Santiago) and how he appeared miraculously to save in many situations. I also remember the miracles that others felt occurred on this ancient pilgrimage. So many miracles happened to Steve and I not only during the walk, but in our lives together, and even in the publishing process of this book.

The definition of a miracle has at least two distinct understandings:

  1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.
  2. One that excites admiring awe; a wonderful or amazing event, act, person, or thing. synonymwonder.

I have been wary of saying something is a “miracle” in the past. I think we all have reason to have a certain amount of skepticism in naming something a miracle, meaning “supernatural in origin or even an act of God.” We know how that has been abused and used to deceive and scam. Drugs, treatments, creams, pills– all purporting to work a miracle. I am hesitant to claim I’ve “seen a sign” or “heard God’s voice” since many have been led into beliefs that have harmed, betrayed or even killed others. So I tread lightly with this topic. I don’t want to be gullible either.

Yet, miracles have happened in my life. And I have heard a voice. I was nine when told on the authority of specialists at the Mayo Clinic that my two year old brother had a zero percent chance of surviving a rare cancer in his arm. He had a few months to live. I prayed on my knees in my bedroom that he wouldn’t die, and heard a voice by my right shoulder that said in a loud, strong voice, “He will not die.” And he didn’t. He’s now 64. That really happened. I’ve never heard it again, but I’m not as skeptical as some.

I was brought up in a faith tradition that told me all kinds of stories about miracles that occurred by God’s providence. The Israelites saved by the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the desert, water from a rock, a burning bush. And then the stories of Jesus walking on water, turning two loaves of bread and a few fish into enough to feed 5000. Touching a blind man’s eyes with mud and then he sees again. Casting out demons of mental illness. Healing leper, a cripple, a woman bleeding for years. Even bringing Lazurus back from the dead. The basis of the whole Christian faith is the story of a miracle: Jesus dies and then returns alive in new form that walks through doors, can appear and disappear at will and ascends to heaven. All fantastic miracles and I could doubt them, but somehow I don’t.

I want to regain the wonder of what can actually happen to us and by us as human beings. If I let skepticism and doubt govern my life, my ego will feel secure, but I don’t want to live where amazement at things that are beyond my comprehension can’t abide and inspire. And what do I do with the verse when Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20-21.

My small self is always afraid and lives with blinders on, keeping me from the deeper truth of human existence and how God works in this realm. I’ve glimpsed these wonders in many small and significant ways in my life–enough so that sometimes, I look at a mountain and contemplate moving it. It doesn’t matter to me if it moves or not. It only matters that I have the willingness to contemplate that God could do that through me. That keeps that grimy doubt from clouding my vision of life with despair and hopelessness, anger and hate–that’s my ego. It is not my essence that is of God.

Miracles are often explained away in today’s culture, unlike that of the Middle Ages when the Camino was at its height. Even I examine the origin of miracle stories and wonder about superstition or wishful thinking rather than reality. But I’d rather be a fool at this point, than miss “something that excites admiring awe, a wonderful or amazing event, act or person.”

So my ongoing little Camino is to play the fool, be open to mystery, transparent to wonder and believe in the possibility of miracles. That a mountain could move.

Image result for almaas quote

Little Camino, Day 21; Indigenous Wisdom

(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)

When pilgrims first walked the Camino de Santiago, the rule was to travel very lightly. The less they took, the more they would be dependent on God. In the middle ages, Popes prescribed the pilgrim’s dress – a long cloak, broad hat, a staff and gourd, a pouch to hold alms and a satchel. The broad hats to protect them from the sun, the cloak to counter cold and rain, the satchel for food, the gourd for water and the staff for defense and support over rough ground. The scallop shell, which the pilgrims wore, soon became the symbol of the pilgrimage. This was to identify them as pilgrims and not vagabonds.

Steve and I did not follow these exact guidelines, but we did limit what we carried to ten percent of our body weight. With one change of clothes and the bare minimum of toiletries, we kept to this limit for the entire journey, supplementing our food daily. We didn’t suffer from the limitation as early pilgrims did, and instead, living that simply was a certain kind of pleasure. We were both glad we followed the old rule of limited possessions. It did keep us focused and unencumbered and not wanting for anything (except a bed at night!)

I was reminded of this old wisdom more directly when we invited Rita Pitkin Blumenthal to come to the Listening Post as our guest in honor of our third anniversary. She was one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers who had gathered from around the world to share their wisdom and their medicine in service of the planet. Their collective story is an amazing tale in and of itself, and I encourage you to read about it; but I want to only tell the story that Rita shared that night; it is one that I have never forgotten and still guides me.

Beside being the first certified Native healer at Alaska Native Medical Center, she had done much work on deep listening with patients and in her culture. She told us the story of the long and careful preparation for her initiation to become a Yupik shaman for her people. The process went on for five years. Once each year several villages would gather and during that time, they would work on the garments and tools that she would need for her initiation rite. For five years, the skins for her robes were tanned and sewed, intricate bead work done, dance fans made, rattles fashioned, mukluks painstakingly sewn, the head dress fit to her size, and the bags where she would keep her healing arts were designed.

Finally everything was ready and the large gathering came to honor her in a ceremony to make her a shaman at last. But this is the part that set me back on my heels when I heard it; after the ceremony, her mother took her out behind the tent that night, stripped her of all her beautiful garments and tools– and burned them in front of her.  And what her mother said to her as the fire blazed was only this, “Cling to nothing.”  Cling to nothing. It was not about the outer garments that would make Rita a wise healer; it was what would happen on the inside to the heart. It was the inner journey that would outfit Rita to become a shaman for her people, not external finery.

Whenever I tell this story, my soul always leans into it, knows its truth. My little Camino continues in my living into not only simplicity, which can still be egoic if used as a badge, but to take that step of clinging to nothing. As with Rita, clinging implies that there is something outside of myself that is needed for intimacy with the Holy. Truth says we are never separate.

Photo of Rita Pitkin Blumenthal from the archives of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers

Little Camino, Day 20: My Problem with Problems

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)

I’ve been thinking about the definition of the word “problem”that I read online last week, but try as I may, I can’t find it again. But it has slumbered in me. So I ask forgiveness in not naming the source, but I want to share it with you. It traces its lineage back through the French, then Latin, but ultimately to early Greek. It literally means “to throw in front of.” But that particular author felt its meaning was more precise than that; it meant “the stone God throws down in front of you.”

I have lived my life so long as one who works on problems, solves problems, avoids problems, dislikes problems and considers problems in a nutshell as negative. Who wants problems–mine, others’, the world’s? Success seems to be defined as having a problem-free life. The capacity to deal with anything that arises and say nonchalantly, “No problem.”

The trouble is, of course, that problems are endemic to living a human life. Rather than resisting them, this new definition of the word has opened me to seeing a problem as connected to the work of the Holy in soul transformation. If I perceive it as a “stone God throws down in front of me,” everything shifts. Here is an opportunity to not resist the problem and try to get past it, but rather guidance on where I need to be wake up from the illusion of the ego that tells me problems are a problem. Maybe they are gifts in disguise. Or portals to deeper understanding.

I am going to use an example of a problem that always gets my reactivity up and helps me to so clearly see my ego–calling the help line of my local internet provider. The first problem is that I feel inadequate about technology and the terminology. So I’m already feeling defensive. I call and say I have a problem with my connection. The tech person doesn’t understand my problem. I feel myself tighten. I don’t want to admit it might be my problem. Then I get self-righteous about my right to have what I pay for every month to work flawlessly. When the tech support person keeps repeating the instructions I’ve already tried, prejudice and judgment arise, just as it did so often on my days on the Camino. I like to think I’m a person open and welcome to immigrants, but I judge that the tech support person doesn’t really know what they are talking about because English is their second language. I begin to feel superior. I begin to talk in clipped tones. I just want the problem to go away. I hang up and feel like a jerk immediately. It was like I couldn’t stop myself. I have this ego ideal of being an understanding person and then within five minutes of things not going my way, I behave exactly in the way I so despise in others–uncivil, demanding, unkind. More confessions.

I didn’t want to be cold or tired or unable to find a bed for the night on that pilgrimage, and I resisted and resented these problems. But what has changed gradually since I walked the Camino, remembering these confessions, is that I am beginning to see problems as opportunities–opportunities to not react in the old familiar ways. Those stones thrown down in front of me may indeed be the things that the Universe in all its wisdom wants me most to see, so that I can change from living from my little scared and wounded ego and be more of who I really am.

It seems hilarious to me now to remember how I so wanted the Camino to be easy and go according to my plans. That has never been the description of a pilgrimage! There were a lot of problems with my body, the weather, the Germans, the housing. And yet–guess what? The Camino from St. Jean to Santiago went exactly according to my plan of 34 days with 2 rest days! And all those perceived problems are the very things that transformed me and that made for the best stories! If it had been easy, I wouldn’t have come face to face with so much of my egoic patterns or sensed the depth and sacredness of this ancient path.

My little Camino these days is not easy; it is living into a life where problems are not to be avoided, but to lived as practice for enlightened living. It isn’t a straight line. I’m better in some areas than others. I sometimes start out being calm and contemplative about the problem, but lapse with impatience before it’s resolved. But sometimes, on a good day, I see the problem as an opportunity and I feel a shift, stay relaxed.

I can’t exactly say I look forward to the next time my internet doesn’t work, but I will ask for grace, breathe and recite the mantra, “this is a stone God has thrown in front of me” before I dial tech support.