I’m back!

Ok, so, truth be told, I’ve been back for several days, but, you know, life!

From The Hymnal 1982, #398 I sing the almighty power of God, v 3, “….while all the borrows life from thee is ever in thy care, and everywhere that I could be, thou, God, art present there.”

My trip to the Dominican Republic was amazing! There were less hiccups on this trip than on my Camino adventure, and I was a much more confident traveler than I was the last time although I will confess to a little travel anxiety at the start. For me, that presents itself in the form of irrational worries like a sudden sense of panic that I selected the wrong airport when making my reservations online. Did I get the airport code right? Am I accidentally flying to the wrong country? I better double check. Did allow enough time for my connection? I better call the help line and ask. Where’s my passport? Did I remember to pack this, that, and the other?? Did I put my medicine in my carry on? Where’s my phone? Did I lock the car?

I left my home at 3:30am and boarded a flight to Miami at about 5:30am. I easily made my connection in Miami (traveling win!) and flew into Santo Domingo, the capital city, at about 11:00am and was greeted with……ugh, a looonnggg line to get through immigration. I was frustrated. I was anxiously texting my friend, Ada, keeping her updated on the progress of what would become my hour-and-a-half long wait to get my passport stamped. Being who she is, she texted, “Ok relax”. This is one of the many reasons I love her. Despite the short time we have known each other, she totally gets me and knows what I need to hear. Those two little words delivered with love and compassion made all the difference. I suddenly felt like I could wait in that line forever, and it would somehow be ok. Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of these friends in my life!

By the way, flying into Miami is always a treat as that area of the country never seems to disappoint in the cloud department. The early morning departure provided me with a literal bird’s eye view of the sunrise, and, wow, was it spectacular. I was like a giddy kid with my nose pressed against the window. It’s like a cotton candy jungle up there with beautiful, spun filaments and fluffy mounds of pink and blue everywhere. When the sun begins to work its magic, those clouds glow like live embers in a smoldering campfire followed by whole fields of clouds rolling and advancing like thick floes of lava. It is quite the show!

After finally getting through immigration, Ada picked me up and whisked me off to a beautiful lunch overlooking the ocean at Boca Marina Restaurant. The sound of the water, the warm ocean breeze, and the expansive view were just what I needed after the cramped airplane and pressing crowd of the immigration line.

In the evening, we met our other friends at Parque Colon (Columbus Park), home of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, in the Colonial Zone. The Colonial Zone is the historic, colonial district of the city. It is filled with shops, restaurants, historic buildings, and plazas where people meet to walk and talk, drink and dine, smile and laugh, and spend time together. The Dominican people are truly beautiful. A cross-cultural recipe of Spanish, African, and indigenous peoples shines in their faces. The street life is vibrant; rich with color and the smell of delicious foods, local produce, and the sound of merenque on every corner accompanied by crowds of people listening and spontaneously dancing in the plazas and along the sidewalks. It is glorious!

The next morning we set off for the mountains and countryside. Along the way, we stopped at a fantastic café, Miguelina’s Panaderia y Reposteria. They make fresh the most delicious breads and sweets, coffee, and fruit smoothies. From there, we made our way to Alta Vista Restaurant. We traveled by car to get there, but there is the option to arrive by helicopter from nearby locales. The view and the food were amazing as was the company. Next, we drove to a high mountain reservoir, Tavera Dam, where we boarded a boat for a day on the water with thanks to Ada’s brother, Ramon. In the late afternoon, we pulled up to a lakeside restaurant, La Presa de Taveras, serving the local catch. It was a truly beautiful day!

A long walk around the city the next morning before boarding the plane made my experience complete. It was a quick trip, but my Camino family and I made the most of it by seeing the sites and staying focused on the most important thing which was having time to enjoy each other’s company and give thanks that God brought us all together is this way.

***

Where’s the beef, ahem, I meant, grief?!

….to quote a fast food restaurant’s famous ad campaign from the 1980s. It went on to become a catchphrase implying where the substance or meaning is in a particular event or idea.

Well, the grief, my friends, is where it’s always at, crouching on coiled limbs in my heart, in my soul. The sadness still creeps in or pounces when I least expect it. I am still caught off guard by thoughts of sharing experiences with Paul. I am still uneasy without him by my side in so many situations, but right alongside that grief is gratitude and growth. I am so thankful for all that I have and all that I am and all that I am becoming.

I find myself becoming less and less interested in happiness. It never lasts. It’s bought, sold, and traded like a commodity. I am interested only in joy. Joy is eternal, and, along with gratitude, is the only counterbalance to grief and suffering. Joy happens in the small, quiet moments among friends and family and strangers when people connect. Joy happens when you’re dancing on a street corner or when your nose is pressed to a window watching the sunrise or when taking a long, deep breath of the ocean breeze. Joy is born out of contentment with all that life encompasses….birth, death, sadness, happiness, failure, success, fear, anger, acceptance, rejection. I am learning that joy can be present in the midst of it all if I approach life with gratitude and a desire to grow.

I am so completely thankful for Ada. God truly placed her in my life to encourage me to continue to learn and grow. She inspires me in all the best ways. For Ada, love is an action word. She shows me through her generous spirit how to cultivate and maintain connections. Ada inspires me to be more connected, more generous, to be more.

I love you all, Malia

The Camino – Day 9 ½

Santiago de Compestela, Spain to home, 4,986 miles

“Travel far enough, you find yourself.” – David Mitchell

I departed Santiago de Compestela, Spain, at 4am on 4/19/19 and arrived home at 6am on 4/20/19. Total travel time = 27 hours – 3 hours sleep in-flight.

Once again, I found myself where I was not supposed to be. After a very early flight from Santiago to Madrid and across the Atlantic, I arrived in New York to find that my outbound flight home had been cancelled due to weather. In fact, many people’s flights were cancelled, and it created a domino affect among many airlines and their schedules that left me with very few options. So, I got creative. I opted for a flight to Atlanta, four hours from my home. It was as close as I could get. I took a one hour bus ride from JFK to LGA to catch my flight and arrived in Atlanta at midnight. It took standing in line for an hour and a half before I could rent a car. Then, I hit the road. For once, the Atlanta roadways were not a parking lot. I finally walked in my front door at 6am.

Kurt Vonnegut quipped, “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.” I certainly did a lot of dancing on this day! After sleeping for about three hours, I got up and swung into action. Why? Because today, Aaron asked his girlfriend to marry him. Friends and family from out of town were gathering to toast the happy couple, and there was much to do. The ring, a cake, arrangements at the restaurant, corralling family members for the surprise dinner party afterward. Thankfully, all went as planned, and it was a joyous occasion!

It’s Easter Sunday, getting on toward late afternoon. It’s a crisp, breezy, bright sun-shiney spring day, and the house is quiet. My heart and mind are so full thinking of everything that has been and everything that is to come. I am thankful that you joined me on this journey. Your likes and heartfelt words of encouragement meant the world to me. With that, Hebrews comes to mind. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight the paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”

Even though it could be said that there are many things that went right on this trip and some things that went wrong, I am sitting here with the sense that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. Something has shifted, inside. The view from this vantage point has me feeling different about my life and everything that has transpired. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know now that I’m actually exactly where I am supposed to be, and I am at peace.

To Risk by William Arthur Ward

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool
To weep is to risk being called sentimental
To reach out to another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken
Because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But they cannot learn, feel, change, grow or really live.
Chained by their servitude they are slaves who have forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is truly free.

I wish you a safe and fruitful journey as you travel the road ahead, my friends! Malia

The Camino – Day Eight

A Rua to Santiago, 15 miles

Today’s the day. The last walking day on the Camino. I do believe that Ada and I have formed a lasting connection. What a blessing and treasure she is!

Arriving at the cathedral in Santiago was everything I expected and more. The enormity of it is overwhelming, the sights, the sounds, the people, the pageantry, the history, and the emotion. In the midst of it all, I was able to have a quiet moment with St. James in the sepulcher. He and I talked about suffering and grief, sadness and healing, faith, joy, and eternal love.

The big takeaway from this trip is this. One of the first mistakes that pilgrims make on a journey like this is filling their pack too full with things they don’t need, with things that weigh them down and make the journey more difficult. At the end of each day’s walk, I would unload my backpack, examine the contents, and edit the items trying to lighten the load.

That got me thinking. What am I carrying in my walk through life, in my spiritual journey, that is weighing me down, that is making my journey more difficult? What am I carrying that is too heavy? That is unnecessary?

I’ve written before about how I have a tendency to put on a brave face. This habit has its good and bad attributes. It helps me, and quite frankly others, get through the day, but when overused, it’s emotionally exhausting and not honest. It also creates a barrier that doesn’t allow others to reach me. To truly connect, the brave face habit has to be broken. I’m working on it. My precious friend, Erika, and I used Marco Polo to communicate while I was away.

Marco Polo is an app that allows you to record and send video messages. In one of her messages to me, Erika said that every time she sees me that I am more energetic, lighter, genuine in my lightness, not like I’m trying to put on a brave face that everything is OK. I was happy to hear that. I am working on how to capture that as I move forward.

My trip may be over, but the Camino is not. The true Camino is this life we are living, the human portion of our spiritual journey. Our walking partners are our family, friends, neighbors and total strangers, too.

Buen Camino, Malia

The Camino – Day Seven

Arzua to A Rua, 13 miles

My friend, Ada, met me in front of my hotel and away we went.

Since I began this journey on Saturday, I have encountered only four Americans and even less English-speaking people from other countries. Fortunately, my Spanish has held up pretty well, and Ada speaks excellent English. I am equally thankful that she speaks excellent Spanish and has helped me improve my conversational skills. Today, the Camino Frances on which we are walking joins the Camino Norte. There are many more walkers and many more English-speakers as well as German. The Camino is like a web that stretches across Central Europe. There are many routes that all converge at Santiago de Compestela where the remains of St. James rest in the cathedral. Despite the increase in pilgrims over the last 10 years, it is still only equivalent to the number of pilgrims who made the trek EACH year during medieval times.

Today’s thoughts really centered around the future. I have always been a goal setter and planner. Since Paul passed away, that has been much more difficult. I find my vision for the future cloudy. I think that is happening for three reasons. First, it is just very difficult for me to imagine or envision myself doing anything either trivial or significant without him. I literally can’t picture in my mind what that looks like although this adventure has certainly helped me gain some clarity. It’s just that since I was 18 years old, my plans for my whole life have included Paul. That’s a hard habit to break, my friends. Second, I mainly am just trying to get through the day most of the time. Thinking too far ahead feels overwhelming. I try to stay in the present to lessen anxiety, but that becomes counterproductive when I’m also trying to begin to consider long-term plans. Finally, the future feels less reliable, less trustworthy than it used to. We had 35 days from diagnosis to death. 35 days. So much for the plans we made.

One thing that has helped… Back at home, I have a dream room. About nine or ten months after Paul died and when I was feeling well enough, I covered the walls of the dream room with butcher paper and began to brainstorm, writing down anything and everything I wanted to do, learn, and experience. Categories soon began to emerge like travel, possible career changes, bucket list items, and so much more. In terms of the grieving process, having something to look forward to, whether small or big, has been very important. Some days having something to look forward to has been the only thing that has kept me tethered to this life. As time has past and my outlook has improved, I have also noticed that making lists and plans has its place, but it is equally important to leave room for being open to how the universe is unfolding before me. “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has see, nor ear hear, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’-” 1 Corinthians 2:9

The future looks more like a puzzle these days, like a puzzle without a picture for reference. I am trying to fit the pieces together. Each time I find a piece that fits, the view is a little sharper and the whole picture makes a little more sense. I am going to have to be satisfied with that for now and remain faithful that there is no wrong move when I seek God’s will first by looking for His guideposts, asking for His help, and loving others. Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'”

Tomorrow, Santiago, and while I know it’s rather trite, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Frost and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening when I saw this stunning sight today.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Looking forward to looking forward, Malia

The Camino – Day Six

Melide to Arzua, 10 miles

Today, was much better. My friends from the Dominican Republic , Ada and Jesus, reached out to me this morning wanting me to walk with them today. I gladly agreed, and we met on the Camino after breakfast. Ahhhh, the joy of friendship and connection with others! It is, indeed, a gift from our maker that we are designed to be social in whatever style suits our individual personalities.

I spent much of the day, too, thinking about my precious friends and family back at home, thanking God for the gift of them in my life. Before I left, they gave me a little remembrance book to bring with me. It is filled with their pictures, thoughts, and best wishes for my trip. I am so grateful for the way they love me!

The weather was so much better today, a little cooler, but plenty of sunshine for walking through undulating, wooded hillsides and river valleys.

It was also the shortest day, only 13 km. We arrived in the next city in the early afternoon with enough time for a long lunch of hot, fresh paella, local wine, and the best yogurt parfait I’ve ever had. This region is known for its dairy products. In addition, for the first time since arriving, I experienced the Siesta. In the middle of the day, most shops close. People go home for lunch and a nap. I indulged. I slept an hour and a half. I woke at about 5:30 and went straight to the pharmacy for more foot repair. Then, I enjoyed a nice stroll around the city center where I met and talked with a lovely couple from England. We chatted over gelato, sharing our Camino stories and said we hoped to see each other again on the way.

I was reminded today that God designed us to be social, but he also designed us for rest and to enjoy His creation, food, people, and places.

Two more walking days, and one travel day to go. Both walking days will be about 20 km each day. I’ll arrive at Santiago de Compostela on Thursday, and visit the tomb of Saint James. It’s also Maundy Thursday, the day in Holy Week that we recall Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet. That Jesus would humble himself in that manner was incomprehensible, but it is the ultimate model for friendship. The disciples were his followers, his companions, his friends. He loved them and wanted to show them what true love looks like in action. He was setting an example for both our actions and our attitude toward one another. Be tender. Be humble. Take care of your friends. Speak, Lord. I’m listening.

Love to all, Malia

The Camino – Day Five

Palas de Rei to Melide, 16 miles

Just so you know and for those of you who catch the reference, the rain in Spain does, indeed, fall mainly on the plain. I was alone all day. Apparently, when it rains, pilgrims take taxis. Not me. I bet I didn’t see even 10 other people in the entire 16 miles I walked today. I did take one diversion, about 7 miles off course and a wrong turn later, to see Castle Pambre. It was worth it!

On that trek, I didn’t even see any cars let alone people. I did see great forests full of majestic eucalyptus, a lovely stag bounding through a field, and quaint, sleepy villages across the countryside.

It was peaceful, but everything seemed so big. I felt very small compared to the enormity of God’s creation. People and pilgrims may not like the rain, but birds do. I saw many different kinds, but a sparrow caught my eye, and I recalled my grandmother’s favorite him, His Eye is on the Sparrow.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,

Why should my heart feel lonely, and long for Heav’n and home,

When Jesus is my portion?, A constant friend is He:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches over me.

Much of this day was about getting through it with sheer will, determination, and patience. The rain and blowing wind made the journey difficult and uncomfortable. This particular portion of the Camino is relatively flat and without many features especially the last section which was little more than a sidewalk bordered on one side by an expressway and on the other by a series of industrial buildings. And my feet! Ugh! In a shameless reference to Jerry Seinfeld, “These pretzels feet are making me thirsty angry!” (See how I replaced pretzels and thirsty with feet and angry? Ha!)

It all added up to a classic case of Are we there yet?!

Saint James to the rescue with, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

Finally, today, I want to sincerely and authentically encourage you in this way. If you are curious or even longing to know more about Jesus, begin by reading His word, the Bible. I’m not talking about church-on-Sunday or religion, although those things have their place and purpose. Heck, you may have been a church-goer all your life. So, what?! You read it right. So. What. I’m talking about a heart-to-heart connection with God. That’s where you start. He longs for you, too.

Santiago awaits, Malia

The Camino – Day Four

Portomarin to Palas de Rei, 21 miles

Twenty-one miles today. Whew! This post is going to be a bit of a rambler so hang on!

I noticed early on today that it’s actually my gaze that directs my steps. Looking down at my feet may help me with my footing, but if you don’t look up and onward, you have no idea where you’re going. Be careful where your gaze rests. It determines our direction in life also. Proverbs 4:25-27 says this, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” And, then, there’s this from Ephesians 5:15-17, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Speak, Lord, I’m listening!

I slept 10 hours last night, and it must have done me some good because I got up feeling bold. I took several diversions today. Apparently, after 22.2 km yesterday, 24 km on paper didn’t look like it was going to be enough. Ha! Diversion is important in life also. Diversion bears fruit. Because it is respite or because it’s a mistake from which we learn, makes no difference. If it is a respite, we are refreshed. If it is a mistake, we’ve learned something valuable. Today’s first diversion was a mistake. I took a wrong turn. That happens in life, too. However, in this case, I took another wrong turn, ironically, in my haste to get it right (insert eye rolling emoji). Don’t let a wrong turn lead to another wrong turn. Speak, Lord, I’m listening! The second diversion today worked out nicely. Don’t be afraid to try again!

The third diversion was a visit to Vilar de Donas, a 12th century church. Interestingly, this church represents a lot of Gaelic and Celtic influences that were present in Spain during that time period. The architect included clover and hissop and many Scottish and Irish saints and symbology. The former rector was there. Now, in his 80s, he gave a wonderful tour of the church entirely in Spanish. I probably picked up about 60% of what he said, but he was fascinating all the same, so knowledgeable about the church and its religious history. At one time, the church was used by both Catholic and Arabic monks. They shared the space and worshipped peacefully side by side. Now, there is a lesson for modern times! Inside, there was a fresco painted in the 15th century. One of the images was of St. Peter and St. Paul. My Paul was named after the biblical Paul. The biblical Paul was a man living a transformed life, from a hated tax collector to faithful servant, after an encounter with God. My Paul, like his namesake, also lived a transformed life. Before I left, the rector asked what brought me to the Camino. I told him about Paul passing away, and suddenly, in perfect English, he said, “He is here!”

The local people are all farmers of one sort or another. They all have a small garden with greens and root vegetables, fruit trees, or grape vines. I noticed, though, that a portion of their gardens is allowed to go to seed. I am from a farming family, and that is something we just don’t do. You don’t allow your crop to bolt, or go to seed. So, this seemed very peculiar to me. I think it’s also very American of me. These local farmers don’t buy their seed in bulk from giant seed companies like we so often do. They cultivate their own seed by allowing the very best of their harvest to go to seed so they can use it to plant a future harvest. Think of that….they give up the best of their crop, the largest, most beautiful, most nutritious, tastiest produce so that they can succeed in the future. Interesting.

It’s Palm Sunday, the celebration of the Lord’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and the traditional start of Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s so fitting that I’m here during Holy Week, a time when we remember the full promise of salvation and resurrection. It brings me so much comfort in the face of so much loss.

Yesterday, I was guarding my painful feet and knees, and growing blisters. That did not serve me well. Today, I am rolling into the pain, and my gait is better. I feel better. I feel stronger. Stop guarding the pain. It doesn’t serve us well.

Today’s takeaways…

Compression socks are a miracle. Get you some!

John Brierley’s guidebook to the Camino is a master work. It is so comprehensive. If you’re even thinking a little bit about taking on the Camino, get the book.

Most of the walk today was through forest land. The birds in this area of Spain are different varieties, in particular, the cuckoo. I have to say that it is not very affirming to have a bird singing, “Cuckoo!” over your head while you are attempting an extraordinarily challenging task like the Camino and feeling every step of it. I need birds that sing, “Yay! You got this! Yay! You got this!”

My Spanish is still improving. “Yo soy caminando solo. Necessito el bano, por favor,” is another phrase I’ve got down pat. While many walkers can pop-a-squat as needed with a walking partner to watch out for them, I’m relegated to begging for bathroom privileges in villages and hamlets throughout Spain. Never a dull moment!

Finally, I have to say, y’all, this little, South Carolina Lowcountry, marsh walking, flatlander is suffering mightily from the altitude and steep inclines of the Pyrenees. The struggle is real!

But I persist, Malia