I woke up in Ventas de Naron and packed quickly. I was a little later than usual so I began my day walking in the light for a change. The “town” was in hilly terrain, and the camino continued uphill for awhile towards the highest point on todays trek- 700 or so meters in altitude. It was still a little windy so I had on my pullover. There were no other pilgrims out walking, and I passed by a nice house with a brilliant display of hydrangeas out front. I smiled at the riot of color and gave thanks, something I was doing a lot of these days.
I walked alone, luxuriating in the morning as it grew warmer. After a short time I entered into woodlands again as the sun rose higher in the sky. I realized I hadn’t heard from the VITBOMH (voice in the back of my head) for awhile. You know, the guy I’ve 2016-09-12-07-38-15rambled on about some. The one who sometimes informs you with bad recommendations, who chatters endlessly when you’re trying to make decisions (refer to Alan Watts “Choice”). He’s a cross between Columbo and Camus, Louis C.K. and the Angriest Dog in the World.

I know how he works. He’s like a private investigator. He analyses and assess every detail of every decision you’re trying to make. He is only searching for the truth, but through borrowed glasses that needed cleaning about 50 years ago. He takes every word, every action of others (these are the clues he uses to inform your decisions) and tries to poke holes in their story. He questions everything, and implies a sinister motive. He hates to be tricked, tripped up, made the fool. He doesn’t deal much in laughter. He is insecurity.

He knows me well, my weak spots, doesn’t care about my strengths. He’s working with me, but against me at the same time. His tactics can be underhanded. He’ll take things he’s not sure of, things that there probably isn’t a grain of truth to, and spin them so it seems as if they’re real. So real that you’re willing to believe them, to act on them, to use them as weapons to protect yourself. Sometimes you use those weapons wisely, but oft times you use them to hurt someone, maybe someone you love.

As I’ve said before, he’s just trying to protect you, from the fear you felt when you were lost from your mother for two minutes that seemed like a lifetime. From the sadness of that day when she, gnarled hands and perfume, floated off for the last time. From the heartache you endured when the first beautiful spirit that gazed into your eyes said goodbye and broke your heart.

I wondered if I’d hear from him again when I got back to “civilization” (I use that term loosely). I’d had many conversations with him early on, but had less and less of them as I walked. Maybe it was because I was moving on, filling in the void that he regularly inhabited. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to some sort of truce. Maybe it’s because I’m growing up.

After hitting the highest point of todays trek- Sierrra Ligonde, the path headed downhill into the town of Ligonde. Apparently Charlemagne loved this little hamlet. Charlemagne was a dude ahead of his time. He didn’t believe in the contractual marriages, popular in his day. Of course this was the way you became more powerful, adding other families and lineages to yours, bound by marriage. You could rely on each other when the going got tough, sort of like Theoden in Lord of the Rings, when the shit is going down some other king shows up with his daughter in tow, ready to marry one of Theodens’ sons (I think, my memory is a little fuzzy).2016-09-12-07-27-37

Apparently Chalamagnes’ daughters did get hitched in arranged marriages, but they screwed around on their arranged husbands with the men they were truly meant for, and Charlie tolerated his daughters’ extramarital relationships, even rewarding their common-law husbands. He also treasured the illegitimate grandchildren they produced for him. I guess Charlemagne believed in love. 

A half a kilometer later in Eirexe I had an apple tart and cafe con leche for breakfast and sat down to write. I had been a little down- I was now certain I had left everyone I had walked with up to this point behind. There were plenty of new pilgrims walking the last 100 kilometers, but I felt more alone now than I had for the first 650 kilometers.

Not that I mind being alone. Again, it’s one of the reasons I’m here. But I think one of the points of life is, well, sharing your life with someone (hmm…where is that cynical motherfucker that would’ve laughed at that remark only a month or two ago?). I finished my danish and put on my headphones to write, watching the mad swirl of fresh, new pilgrims around me, happily joking with their friends, out for their day hike. As I whipped out my laptop a song by Colin Hay (Men at Work) came on:2016-09-12-07-31-21

I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away
And when I’m done I feel like talking
Without you here there is less to say
Don’t want you thinking I’m unhappy
What is closer to the truth
Is that if I lived till I was a hundred and two
I just don’t think I’ll ever get over you
Your face it dances and it haunts me
your laughter is still ringing in my ears
I still find pieces of your presence here
between the laughter and the tears.

I got some writing done, but after not too long I packed up and moved on. I caught a glimpse of a guy as I put on my pack outside the cafe. I thought maybe it was Kento but I had trouble with  getting my pack on so by the time I turned around he was gone. Sort of like Abraham Martin and John.

The sun was out, but I still had on my windbreaker to break the slight chill in the air. The path turned into hilly, small fields of corn, hay, rolling hills. I began to hear more and more rings from the bicycle bells of the many cyclists now racing by.

The camino passed through Palais de Rei, a more modern town than most I’ve seen. A big small town with a business district, newer apartment buildings. I followed the camino through it without stopping. By this time, I had no reason to stop in these bigger towns. I could find everything they offered (except maybe the cheap hootch- I just wanted to use “hootch” in a sentence) back home. 2016-09-12-07-29-08

After traveling through the town, the camino went up a hill through stone houses, and then into a forest. It was peaceful and quiet. The wind was cool as I walked through a forest of mainly red oak. My ankle was throbbing, knowing I still had 20 kilometers or so to go. It’s funny though. Like the decision to walk the camino (or lack of decision, if you will), it was never an option to stop, maybe rest for a day, have my ankle checked out. Maybe it was a rash decision, something I would pay for it when I got home, but my gut told me that it was nothing to worry about, just a little pain. But still, it was a constant, throbbing reminder of the past. 

I came across one of the little home made shrines one sees along the camino, usually made from rocks, twigs, debris. Many I had seen were messages for others who were walking the camino (“Only 340 kilometers to go Tomas!). This particular one was a homage, a prayer for a 52 year old woman from Holland who had died in her sleep in Santiago after completing her second Camino. Perhaps a reminder to you and me: Don’t wait too long to throw a few things in a pack and go walk your own Camino. 

Across the morning sky,
All the bird are leaving,
Ah, how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire,
We’ll still be dreaming.
I do not count the time
Who knows where the time goes?

I know you’re in a hurry, but maybe you have time to listen…

After another few kilometers, I stopped at a place to use the restroom. A sign said “bano sólo para clientes” (bathroom for customers only). It seems as I get closer to the end of my journey (and more pilgrims clogged the camino), more signs like these were popping up, making it clear that many were not here to lend a helping hand, but to make a buck.

So I bought a Nestea (which had become part of my triumvirate of liquid energy, along with Coke and Red Bull) and waited, and waited. I checked the door twice but it remained occupied, so I gave up and went outside to finish my drink and thought about the Pilgrims of yore and wondered whether or not they had to buy a Nestea to get permission to take a leak..

It used to be that many of these places were around to help pilgrims, lend a hand, maybe give them some sustenance on their journey (after all, the reason they were walking was to seek some sort of spiritual “sustenance”), and others respected that, even revered what they were doing). At the very least I doubt it was insisted they buy something for the privilege of pissing in the shops fine facilities.

Back in the day (that would be a few centuries ago) these places existed as a support system to assist those on their religious journey. Pilgrims were seen as something special, and everyone respected their decision to walk across Spain to go visit the tomb of a dead saint, and were typically given a meal, a place to stay.

What would make a pilgrim decide to walk a few hundred kilometers across Spain? I would guess it was something like what had happened to me. As I’ve explained, I’m not religious, but I also know my journey was not some calculated, planned out trip I had always wanted to take. It was more like a calling. As mentioned, I had heard of the camino a few years prior but never thought about it much, but when I was at a cross roads in my life, it reappeared, not only reappeared but attached itself firmly to my breast and wouldn’t let go.

I would imagine the olden-day pilgrims’ circumstances were akin to mine: they had reached a point in their lives where they needed a chance to remove themselves, reflect on their lives, and reestablish some sort of connection between themselves, the earth, and the heavens. Maybe to help them understand where they had been, what it all means, and figure out where they needed to go with what was left of their lives. The difference is, I’m thinkin’ they left their cell phones at home.

“-Just put whatever device you have down and live your life”-    Louis C.K.

I left the town, and walked a cool, shaded path. Cows grazed off in the distance. It was an Idyllic scene and reminded me of my grandparents farm in Iowa where I experienced the wonders of their simple life: fishing in a pond, riding on my grandpas’ tractor, using the outhouse. I’m pretty lucky to have grown up the way I did- my parents were pretty even-keeled, hard working, “normal”, no skeletons in the closet. They had their usual fights and disagreements, but all in all they were awesome. They did their best. 2016-09-12-07-36-36

After awhile the path ran along the side a town, and I sat down at a little cafe that was more like a snack shack at a southern California beach. I purchased a red bull and pulled out Brierley, still firmly entrenched in my front pocket. OK, I’ll come clean. Ever since I left Cormac many moons ago, Brierley had become my trustworthy friend and servant, my Sancho Panza (I’m not trying to imply that Cormac, like Sancho Panza was my servant, although like Sancho he did provide humor on our journey via his donkey jokes, perhaps in lieu of riding a donkey). 

I was trying to figure out where I was and how far I had come that day. My head was a little foggy, I had pretty much just put my nose to the grindstone and pushed myself forward, mostly due to my pained ankle, focusing only on “getting there”, wherever “there” might be.

I ascertained my locale by having the proprietress point to where I was in the guidebook. I smiled when I found out I was further along than I thought and raised my red bull to toast life, and the proprietress raised her coke in celebration. 

2016-09-12-07-33-22As I slogged on (this was to be a 40 K day, somewhat unexpected), at least I had the beautiful day, and the fact that in this moment, I still had only a few simple things to worry about (if you could call it worry). I wouldn’t have to confront the dragons that had brought me here, at least for another few days. And hopefully I will have learned a new way to look, understand, and maybe love them, as well as myself.

Usually, in these later days, when walking I would run into a group of people and would look for someone I knew, maybe someone to share the road with for a while. But now no one presented themselves. It was usually a group of younger kids that I would run into. During the first part of the journey, it seemed like I always ran across someone to walk with for awhile. I realized that these are the things that make the days out here special, and by extension, that make life special.

I was on auto pilot when I walked through Melide, barely stopping in front of the two famed places that Michael (the polish writer) had told me about that feed every iteration of octopus under the sun to hungry pilgrims. I had to move on.

Out of town, the street I was walking on turned into a dirt path bordered by fields, and the the pain of my ankle really started kicking in. It was the afternoon, the light was beautiful (afternoon light, or “magic hour” is always the best). There were layers of hills beyond the hills. It had been cool most of the day but now it was approaching the afternoon (I was usually done by now) and getting hot.  2016-09-12-07-26-57

I finally reached a little bridge that would lead me into Ribadiso de Baixo, where I hoped to stay for the night. Pilgrims were soaking their feet in the river as I crossed over the bridge. There was a small hotel that I considered but they were sold out of rooms so I trudged on. 2016-09-12-07-22-09

After the bridge, I walked next to streets, mostly uphill into Ribadiso de Baixo, asking at every auberges that looked promising for a bed, but there were none. Now I kind of know how Joseph and Mary felt. I had now walked 40 kilometers with a throbbing ankle, and was a little concerned that maybe the camino wouldn’t be providing. 

Finally after another few kilometers, in Arzua, I stopped at the last place just heading out of town, and they had a bed in the basement. It was a two or three story modern (well, by Spanish standards) building run by one woman named Isabel. She was a whirling dervish of energy and wise-cracks (even though I couldn’t understand some of what she said, she always ended her sentences with a warm cackle). She would check you in, take your money, and then take you on the tour, showing you the showers, laundry, etc. 

After I found a bunk in the sparsely appointed basement (hey, I was lucky to have a bed) I went next door to grab a coke and write a little, to the showers, and the laundry. At each place, I would see Isabel who would greet me with a “Ahh, Marco!” like we had known each other for years. Her place was a bit understaffed and under-equipped, but she made up for it with her attitude. When I wandered to the laundry (a corridor sized room with four washers stacked in the corner and clothes lines running the length of the room, and a sink on the other end) Isabel was showing some new arrivals the laundry room.

I asked her if there were any dryers (it was later in the day and getting cooler and I was worried that my stuff wouldn’t dry by the next morning). She said no and then, after thinking a split second, went on to say “but Marco, it’s so much better to dry your clothes on the lines, naturally, in the warm air!”. She was simply making the best of the situation. I had to laugh. Maybe we should all take a cue from Isabel- all this stuff we make into such a big deal, it’ll pretty much all come out in the wash. Yes, that was intended.

I went back to my bunk and laid down, knowing I had to wake up early. A poem I had written earlier as I was walking, for Hannah, floated into my head as I drifted off:

What happened to the girl I knew
Not too long ago she had the sun in her eyes
And she laughed and held a butterfly in her hand
And coaxed the bees from the flowers to sit beside her
And asked me to sing her another song.
Now the song has ended, and a new one has one begun.
I hope you’ll sing it with me
As the days grow shorter, and the nights long.

“If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.”
Richard Bach

After someone tells you for the third or forth time to stop being a victim, you take notice. Even if it’s at a drunken family get together in Reno Nevada. A roundtable discussion about who knows what had devolved into, it seemed to me, an attack on me. But I realized afterwords (several days, after the hangover had slunk off ever so slowly) that they were right. And that the reason it happened (not that it was planned or even consciously recognized as such) was that they cared for me, and felt I wasn’t happy with the person I’d become. Maybe this is why families exist, and why we participate in these rituals, greeting each other like old friends, even though we may have nothing in common, bound only by a few errant chromosomes from the gene pool.

Before I left for Spain, I was stuck. I wasn’t able to improve things, make things better in my life no matter how hard I tried. I began to realize that this crappy place where I lived that I thought was going to be transitional had become a prison, and a metaphor for my life, a piece of shit one bedroom of fuck, with no escape.

My previous life had taught me to look at myself as limited, stuck, worthless. Like I didn’t deserve to live anywhere else, drive a nicer car, take up more space. Maybe it was being scared of throwing away the old me, of facing the unknown. Or maybe it was admitting I had failed.

I truly feel that we all imprison ourselves, by our own doing. I think that while Janice loaded the gun and pulled the trigger, I didn’t do enough to evade the bullet, and when I did get hit, to tend to my wounds. No, I played the victim, felt sorry for myself, licked my wounds. I didn’t stand up and fight back. I didn’t know how. I guess the marathon fights I had with my brother when we were young didn’t even teach me that. 

Finally, after that festive bacchanal of food and drunken relatives I alluded to and the invocation of the “victim” word by my cousin (who incidentally could have painted herself as a victim due to recently losing her husband) started me wondering if it was really true. That is, several days later after the effects of the get together had been laid to rest. 

The upside to being a victim is that people feel sorry for you, and they try and help. You don’t have to take action (Hey- I’m curled up in the corner over here in the fetal position feeling sorry for myself. You cant expect me to do anything, can you?). Also, you don’t have to risk anything. The biggest thing is, you don’t have to take responsibility for your own life.

One of the things I’ve learned from the camino (it actually started with my therapist, but the camino has been the ideal place to practice it) that has helped me stop playing the victim card is to practice gratitude. I mean, shouldn’t just the fact that I’m lucky enough to be able to fly to Spain and have the incredible experience of walking across it provoke some sort of gratitude from me? I’ve also wrote about others who have it worse on this planet. Isnt that enough to give thanks? Gratitude, or giving thanks sounds a little hokey, but it works. There’s actually science to back it up. Check out this video.

Another way to stop being a victim is to forgive. Forgive yourself, and those who you feel have done you wrong. Until you can release the resentment you have towards another, you will be bound to the negative emotions that created that resentment. It’s as if the event(s) that led to the resentment has become an albatross, and the resentment is the rope that ties it to your heart. Cut the rope and you’ll set it free. If you don’t forgive them you are always bound to them, and those negative emotions.

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” ~Dalai Lama

I emerged from the shower with a hard-on. It came out of nowhere. What am I, 12? For me there are some thoughts that come up and smack me right in the face, vying for my attention immediately.  Other thoughts just sort of seep in, like a leaky faucet. It takes awhile for the sink to fill up, but eventually it does. I realized I had been thinking about the last few nights with Amanda. For the first time in a long while, I had felt like I was just in the moment, and the moment was exhilarating, joyful, beautiful, out of control and exhausting, all at the same time. It felt like LIFE. And I was sharing it with someone I loved.

The afternoon in the shower happened a few days after Jillian had brought Amanda and I back together. After that day, we  spent several nights together. And it was like it had been before. Maybe better. I remember lying next to her awake, as she slept, examining the musculature in her back. Even that was beautiful, perfect. It felt good to just be there, existing for the moment, both of us simply feeling good. Despite the self defeating messages and hatred we all constantly feed ourselves maybe, just maybe, we actually deserve moments like these.

As I dried myself off from my shower, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen next. Amanda and I were both still dealing with old wounds, and knew we couldn’t pick up where we had left off. But judging from the previous few nights, it seemed like there was something there, something we both still wanted. I guess we’re all just battered souls living lives of confused intent, not knowing which way to turn. We head out every morning ready to do battle with the world. It’s sad that we don’t realize that the only fight we have is with ourselves. Why in the fuck are kisses so fleeting, while the wounds we suffer leave scars that can last a lifetime? 

I got dressed and sat down at my desk to write. I thanked the Universe for everything that had brought me to this place, this point in time. I thought about Janice and Hannah, and if my relationship with them would ever return to some sort of normalcy. I thought about my friends, the ones I had left behind when I chose to give most of my time to Amanda. And I thought about Amanda, and what she had given to me, what she has taught me.

And I spoke to the voice in the back of my head, and we made a tentative pact to set all our defenses aside, to let my heart lead the way, and to try and give back to those who had been holding me up, and showing me that I did have a place in this crazy dance of tears, laughter, and love. As Robert Frost said:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on”.