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 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 Three

Sarria to Portomarin, 16 miles

A brief recap. I left home on Thursday, flew to New York, missed my connection, slept in the airport Thursday night. I spent Friday morning in New York, determined to make lemonade out of the basket of lemons I had been handed. If the Museum of Modern Art is not on your bucket list, it should be. I saw so many works of art that I had only seen in books, but this was the star of the show. I’m not ashamed to admit that when I came around the corner and saw this beauty, I let out an audible gasp(!).

I left New York in the late afternoon and arrived in Madrid at about midnight EST. I, maybe, had four hours of fitful sleep in flight. It was about 6 AM in Spain when I boarded another flight and arrived in Santiago at almost 9 AM. I took a private transfer to make the 2 hour trip from Santiago to Sarria, and then, I started walking.

This was definitely not how I planned it. I intended to have a travel day and a good night’s sleep before the first walking day, but God’s plans are greater! Let me add this. Sometimes God’s plan hurts, hurts physically, hurts mentally, but grows us spiritually. Remember the Holy 2×4 I mentioned in the previous post? Compared to the other walkers that day, I got a late start so finishing the first 22.2 km in daylight was a concern. In a way, the first walking day was a race, not what this pilgrimage was intended to be at all, but God was already working to slow me down. I am so stubborn, though, that He had to work at it nearly the whole day (insert emoji of woman slapping her forehead). I finally stopped for a moment after the first 6 miles. I was already in pain, feet and knees, and a blister was forming on my heel. I could feel it, but I refused to take my shoes off. If I saw it, that would mean it was real, and I couldn’t let my mind accept that. I still had too far to go. After a short lunch break with only a few local cows to keep me company, I continued on.

Somewhere around the 11th mile, things were getting rough both physically and mentally. I begin to cry a little, to think of Paul and all the adventures we enjoyed together, all the things I had seen and experienced on this journey so far that I wanted to share with him but couldn’t. I was getting pretty low in spirit. I asked the Lord for help. Within minutes, he sent a helper, a lovely gentleman named Jesus. Yes, Jesus. We greeted each other, and he was about to continue on by me when I stumbled over a rock. I lost my footing and nearly fell but recovered. Jesus was by my side from that moment on, and we were soon joined by his friend, Ada. Both had traveled to the Camino from the Dominican Republic. We shared the last 5 miles and blessed each other in many ways. We listened to each other’s stories about why we walk. Ada’s story, like mine, includes illness (cancer) and loss. Jesus’ story is about his desire to inspire healthy living through nutrition and sustainable land-use throughout the Dominican Republic. Read more about his effort here. I just don’t know if I would have finished this leg without these beautiful helpers that God sent just when He knew I needed them. Maybe, hopefully, they needed me, too.

Here are some other takeaways from today.

The Camino is very well marked with signs and guideposts everywhere, but you have to look. So, too, God, fills our lives with signs and guideposts, but we have to look for them. First, look for them by reading the guidebook He’s provided, the Bible. God’s Word points the way. Some signs may be obvious, but others may be hard to see. You might even miss them if you’re not looking for them. That’s why we have to constantly seek God for His guidance through his Word and through prayer.

Reward, or something that we value, is often preceded by difficulty. The greater the difficulty the greater the value. Not 30 minutes into walking, after 48 hours of travel, little sleep, and still wearing the same clothes I wore to work on Thursday, I thought, “This was worth it.”

Sometimes you pass people. Sometimes they pass you. It’s OK. They catch up to you later when you have to stop, and you catch up to them later, too. It’s OK.

When you reach a high point, don’t forget to look back. The vista is spectacular. You can learn more about your experiences by looking back at the broader view rather than letting your mind and heart perceive it as a series of hurdles, or challenges, you passed through.

When the road is smooth, it’s appropriate to pick up the pace, but when things are tough, slow down. When you slow down, paradoxically, you might meet goals that you haven’t met before. Sometimes you have to slow down to achieve.

This journey we’re all on is not easy. You might even be injured or wounded along the way. That’s part of the process. Accept it.

And, finally, don’t be an ass. I’ll leave that one right there.

Until the next update, Malia

The Camino – Day One

In a previous post, I shared that I am going on a pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the Apostle. My trip starts today, but this journey started, well, years ago. Grieving is a spiritual journey, and God set me on this path from a very young age. My mother was killed in a car accident when I was twelve. That is when my journey with grief began. It’s a tough road to be sure. Grief is wrought with challenges, but I’ve come to understand and even value that grief offers us the opportunity to know ourselves, and God, more fully.

God put this trip on my heart months ago. I am really interested in this idea of travel as an element in the healing process. What is it about travel that has the capacity to soothe the soul, offers clarity, and lays the ground work for moving forward? Does travel provide some sort of filter or framework for understanding and processing? It certainly does provide a time out from our everyday lives to focus on healing and recovery.

It wasn’t long after my husband died last year that I began feeling like I needed to get away (read run away!). I felt like I needed a retreat, to be quiet for long stretches of time, to reflect and contemplate, and to explore the inner world in order to take a complete emotional inventory. A pilgrimage is the perfect way to do just that. The idea of a pilgrimage is nothing new. People have known throughout history the value of walking for the maintenance and growth of our spiritual selves and our personal relationship with the Lord. They have walked across Europe and around the globe to visit sacred sites. I will be following in their footsteps.

It is said that the true purpose of a pilgrimage is to find who we are in the eyes of God. It’s also true that I have wrestled with my identity throughout the grief process. I am eager to use this trip as opportunity to see myself, my new identity through God’s eyes, who he wants me to be moving forward. The fact that this trip involves a lot of walking is appropriate. I had always related walking to exercise but have learned that walking is a powerful activity for the mind and spirit as well. It has been an important part of my healing process. In an early post, I mentioned a daily, mindfulness walk. The mindfulness walk gives me time to focus my thoughts on gratitude, areas where I am falling short, and prayer for areas of need. It also gives me time to enjoy memories and rejoice. I find strength with each step and finish feeling refreshed and empowered.

The Bible has a lot to say about walking. Genesis describes Adam and Eve hearing the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Can you imagine that? The Lord God himself walking in the garden, walking in our midst. In Deuteronomy, we are encouraged to walk in His ways. Isaiah says to walk in His paths. In Jeremiah, the same encouragement comes with an added condition and promise that if we walk in all the ways in which He commands us, it will be well with us. Micah reminds us to walk humbly with God. Ephesians and Colossians implores us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. In the Psalms we are told to walk in His truth and walk in the light of His countenance. Finally, in perhaps the most well-known Biblical reference, also found in Psalms, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” This rod and staff business has always interested me. When I read rod, I think of the old saying spare the rod, spoil the child. So, if the rod is the rod of discipline, then how does it comfort me in this context of death, mourning, and grief? Very interesting. When I read staff, I think of a walking stick, or Moses’ staff, the staff that sheep herders use to support themselves as they walk but also to guide and protect their flock. Very, very interesting. So, God is going to comfort me through the grief process with discipline, support, protection, and guidance. I like it.

Psalm 126: 5-6 “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”

Friends, I have sowed in tears. I have gone out weeping. I am carrying seeds to sow, and I am leaning on God’s promise that I will return with songs of joy bearing the fruit of a closer walk with Him.

Much love, Malia

You did what?!

I jumped out of a plane. That’s right. I jumped out of a plane. I went skydiving!

To say that my friends and family were shocked is an understatement. The most common response was, “Why?!” It was a difficult question to answer. I am adventurous but not a thrill seeker. It was just this urge. That’s the best way I know to describe it. An urge, not an impulse. It was more lasting than that. I was talking to my son on the phone one evening, and I said, “You know what I want to do?” He immediately responded, “Go skydiving.” Dumbfounded, I said, “What! How did you know?!” “Because I want to, too” he admitted. I had no idea that he had also been thinking about it. As it turns out, it’s a bit of a phenomenon among people who have experienced a tremendous loss. When I told my sister-in-law that we were going to go skydiving, she said she had heard a story on NPR about something very similar. You can listen to the story here. It’s about a mother and daughter who go skydiving after the death of their husband and father.

Life is too short. Right? That’s what everyone says. Well, everyone says it because it’s true. Eat the cake. Buy the shoes. Seize the moment! Go skydiving! Heck, there’s even a country song by Tim McGraw that nails it. The refrain says it all.

“I went skydiving, I went rocky mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu, And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter, And I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’, And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’”

With everything I had just been through, I felt like there was nothing that could scare me anymore. I was ready to live like I was dying. My particular thought process was a) I will be closer to Paul and b) if something happens, I get to be with him forever. In my mind, it was a win-win. I want to clarify the first part. I didn’t feel I would be closer to Paul in the sense that I would be up in the sky where heaven is. That is a cultural depiction of heaven not a Biblical one. I felt that I would be closer to Paul because I would be closer to death. There. I said it. For me, jumping out of a plane was as close to death as I could be. I thought that perhaps in those seconds between leaving the plane and arriving back to Earth that I could pierce the veil between here and there and be with Paul just for a second. I thought it was worth the risk. Never before in my life would I have even considered doing such a thing, but in that state of mind, in the aftermath of such a stunning, life changing loss, it was worth the risk. I wasn’t even scared. I did have one fleeting millisecond of heart stopping anxiety when the instructor I was attached to opened the door of the airplane. He grabbed the door handle and pulled hard. In one single, confident motion, he slid the door open. The suction created by opening the door shot a jolt of electric terror through my body, but I still didn’t hesitate. I was ready to go. Ready to go. I stepped out onto the strut, and then we were effortlessly airborne.

Now, I realize that all of this is the madness of grief. I can write about it, explain it, and try to justify it to no end, but it really is the madness of grief. The surprise, the unexpected gift of the experience was that it was a little turning point for me, a moment of empowerment. It was a launch both literally and figuratively. I felt different after that day. I felt stronger. My family was there, and we celebrated with a champagne tailgate in the parking lot. We laughed and smiled and celebrated life and living. I will never forget that day as long as I live. As long as I live.

Soon, I will embark on another launch of sorts. I am going on a pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the Apostle, and I am going by myself. God put this on my heart. I have felt called to do this and to do it alone. As I have planned for this trip and read about the challenges it entails, there have been times when I have thought, “Lord, help me. I don’t even own enough underwear to go on a trip like this!”, but I am determined. I just know it is something I have to do. I am appropriately anxious, but I’m not scared. I am ready. This is an important piece here. Don’t miss this because I believe it has everything to do with grief and healing. A critical aspect of what I have learned through my grief experience is to be bold in the face of adversity. I have learned to lean in and develop a bit of a bring it attitude.

In his book, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, John Brierley reminds us that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, not the other way around. That really resonates with me. It comforts me because even though the human version of ourselves is temporary, our spiritual identities are eternal.

There are many Biblical references to walking. Some pretty amazing and powerful things have happened through the simple act of walking. Jesus’ ministry was a walking ministry. He and the disciples walked from town to town to spread the good news of salvation. The Apostle Paul’s conversion experience began with an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’m not necessarily expecting an encounter with the living God on this trip, but I am expecting to have time to reflect and contemplate, to draw closer to the One who loves me like no other. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 has been close to my heart this past year because I have walked by faith like never before and because it provides comfort as we groan and are burdened in our earthly tent that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit with us, our guarantee, and joyful assurance of our eternal home.

Safe travels to you on this journey through life, Malia