What’s Next?

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“What’s next?”
Since returning from Europe, we’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. If you’re a twenty something, then maybe you too can relate. Of course, it’s possible that the awkwardness of living an unpredictable life plagues other generations too. I suspect it does. And maybe you too know how difficult it can be to string together words in some sort of an answer to the “what next?” question.

As a historian, I’m much more inclined to answer this question with stories of my past than with predictions of the future. So this means that if you ask me, I will likely tell you about moments in our trip that convinced us that Victoria is still the best place for us. Keep in mind that when we left it was with every intention of discerning our future direction. Move back to Smithers? Apply for a dream job? Press on towards that lucrative History PhD? Become a professional Instagrammer? It was anyone’s guess. Thankfully, a few key moments along the way brought some clarity to this muddle, like…

  •  That time we were sitting on a gorgeous windswept beach in Greece and Jakob said “Man, I just want to sell a car right now.” Me: “(?!?!)”
  • That time we were sipping pints in a tiny dutch pub and a wise-beyond-his-years homesteader told us how difficult it was to raise his children far from their extended family
  • That time we crashed on the couch of a Canadian english teacher and long-time resident of Istanbul and she shared the complexities of expat life
  • That time I was working in a particularly cozy archive in rural France and I felt a profound sense of acceptance and thankfulness for my somewhat obscure and possibly irrelevant degree
  • That time we stepped off the plane and Jakob took an actual real breath through his nose (thanks to that sweet salty ocean air) and I heard the irresistible call of my hippie grow-your-own-food rootsIMG_0626

But lately I’ve realized that it’s not just my historical training that calls me to ponder the past, it’s also my faith. Through out the Bible, God calls us to remember our story. The story of God’s faithfulness. The story of human failure. The story of unending forgiveness.

The story I’ve been reading lately is that of a shepherd boy turned warrior king. According to bestselling author, Malcom Gladwell, David was the best kind of underdog: a smart skilled boy who knew his limitations and knew he could win if he didn’t play by the rules. He was supposed to beat Goliath with an honourable bronze age duel, but instead he pulled out militia style wilderness farming tactics and killed the hulking Philistine hero with an average slingshot and a stone no bigger than a paintball. Gladwell even speculates that Goliath had some major vision problems connected to his excessive height growth disorder. That’s why Goliath says,  “am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” When of course, David didn’t have any sticks in his hand at all just “five smooth stones that went into the sling and the sling went round and round.” So according to Gladwell, David is a hero because he used his underdog status to his advantage instead of playing by the rules of the powerful. How inspiring. Everyone loves an underdog. But Gladwell missed what every Sunday school kid I’ve ever taught knows intuitively. David wasn’t a particularly talented or even flukey underdog. He was a person of immense honest, gut-wrenching, embarrassing, and courageous faith. He danced undignified in the streets to praise God, he poured out his deepest doubts on paper, and he continued to run to God for refuge no matter how scandalous his family’s sexual drama (hint: there’s more than just the Bathsheba fiasco).

How often do you think people asked David: “What’s next?” amidst all the turmoil of life as a king fighting for a contested throne in a fractured kingdom. How often do you think he whispered to himself with tears in his eyes and blood on his hands: “What’s next?” Most of all, what answers did he receive from God that lead him time and time again to write things that sound a lot like this: “Put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3), “In God I trust and am not afraid.” (Psalm 56:11), “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.” (Psalm 3:6), and “The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:7).

So will I run to God in faith? Or will I plead the arts major underdog victimized by a STEM tech start-up world? Will I look to my creative analytical mind to make myself relevant in a difficult job market or will I look with eyes of faith upon my degree and trust that God called me to this place on purpose?

How do you see yourself as an underdog today and in whose strength will you seek to overcome it? Where will you find your courage? No matter what’s next.

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Bulkley Valley

I come from a place
where weddings are in country halls,
grocery stores are attached to ever changing shopping malls,
and the mountain views footnote our conversations
because if you mention them you’re obviously not from here.
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Where each house, each party, each vacation spot
is somewhere down a dirt road or just past a parking lot.
Each lake day, each drive way, each high school play
is filled with some face you know.
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Where the grade twelve grads can’t wait to leave
and those with degrees, or diplomas,
or with moms who are now grandmas
can’t return soon enough

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As if when we were born beneath the gaze of a glacier,
our hearts came out as compasses set to here.
East of the ocean, west of the Rockies,
south of the wilderness, and north of the cities.
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Here where the mountains begin
and the rivers meet,
where the pine beetle stops
and the winters rarely retreat.
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Here we disagree on pipelines, and gender neutral signs,
on homelessness and broken promises,
on downtown cans and traditional lands,
but somehow we always choose the same MP
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Around fire pits and hockey sticks
these differences somehow fade
they’re still close to our hearts
but most of all we’re just proud to be from this place.
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O Canada

Since returning to Canada, I’ve experienced some (completely unpatriotic) location confusion. I may have even said something like “when I get back to Canada…” while standing on Ontario soil. What I mean of course is when I get back to BC, because there are just a few things about Ontario and Quebec that strike me as entirely foreign, and even hilarious.

For one, why so much roadkill?? Sure we have roadkill in BC too, but we don’t have maimed racoons, deer, squirrels, beaver, and other unidentifiable furry brown things distributed every few kms along our highways. At this point, I’m not even sure they are real road kill anymore. I imagine it’s some sort of public safety stunt.
“No one reads signs anymore, eh Pete.”
“Ya Pat, but I got an idea. Stay with me here. We get some of ‘em taxidermy animals, rough ‘em up a little and bolt those down to the asphalt every so often.”

Of course there weren’t enough taxidermy deer, so they still had to make a few signs.

In BC our signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
Next 20kms

In Ontario the signs read something like this:
*Cute picture of a deer*
NIGHT DANGER
Next 20Kms.

Night danger?!?! Is that some sort of deer gang?

Well before you crap your pants in fear, good news. Ontario is full of adorable roadside attractions sure to fill your heart with an unbearable dose of cheesy country charm. In fact, you literally can’t miss them since each corn maze or goat zoo gets a full size road sign, as if heritage grist mills are just as important as hospitals.

So on your way from Toronto to Ottawa, why not make a quick stop at Pingle’s Fun Farm or better yet, Saunders Country Critters Zoo. Then fill your belly with some of Mrs. Garrigles fine mustard. Finally, finish of your adventure with “The Spooky Wagon Ride” featuring grotesque squash growths and life size models of Kathleen Wynne.

Of course the signs that made me laugh the most were not in Ontario, but in Quebec. There is one street sign that is the same almost everywhere we’ve been: Greece, Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal, even France. The stop sign. No matter what language the locals speak, it is always a bright red octagon with the letters: STOP. Except in Quebec. And of course that’s okay, because we like Quebec. Just the way it is. Never change (and please don’t leave).
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But signage aside, BC and Ontario, and yes even Quebec, really don’t seem that different at all. Here’s how I know that I’m actually not in Europe any more:

People ask how you are all the time. Grocery store cashiers, the visitor centre staff, the poutine guys, EVERYONE. It puts a smile on my face immediately. I don’t even care that they don’t really care. It’s just nice to be asked.

It takes so freaking long to get anywhere. While driving between Montreal and Quebec City I commented that it looks just like the Netherlands. Big flat farm land and water water everywhere. But then I paused for a second. There was not a single church steeple in sight and I knew we wouldn’t be hitting another town for the next hour and a half. Nope we certainly aren’t in Europe anymore.

Peeing for FREE! While in Europe I got in the habit of scheduling my bathroom breaks around train rides and dinner times, just to be sure that I wouldn’t have to pay a cent for bladder relief. In one moment of desperation, I even snuck into a five star hotel in Rome and explored two floors in hopes of finding a free toilet. In Amsterdam, I shopped around for the cheapest port-a-potty, before realizing that one euro was the going rate. If a pee costs the same amount as a beer, than we’ve got a problem.

The service at restaurants. Yes that’s exactly what I mean, the fact that there is service. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and most of France usually we had to explain ourselves before sitting down: “To eat? Can we eat?” Nine times out of ten we sat in the wrong section, came at the wrong time, or asked for the wrong menu. It was never easy to trade money for food. So when we sat down for dinner in Montreal and were brought a glass of water and a menu with no questions asked we almost cried with joy. Sure they turned into real tears when we saw the total and remembered that yes tipping is a thing here. But mostly tears of joy, because we are back in Canada. Even if the stop signs are in French and there are no mountains in sight, we really are back in Canada!

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Wandering On Purpose

For 147 days I’ve been a wanderer. To some that may seem like a small feat, too others it may seem unfathomable. To me it’s a bit of both. The culture I was raised in doesn’t take well to wanderers. We prefer that people have a plan: an education plan, a health care plan, a career plan, a dental plan, an insurance plan, a workout plan…Really we are just a lot better off if we know where we are going and how we are getting there.

So while wandering for a short time may be a component of a plan, it certainly isn’t a plan in itself. And it’s true. Even for me, this current phase of wandering isn’t going to last forever. But what things about wandering are worth incorporating into my otherwise planned life?

1. Relaxing amidst imperfection. Usually, I like for everything in my day to look and feel perfect before I invite others into it. There must be enough food for dinner before inviting guests. The house must be clean before family arrives. There must be a plan in place before going out with friends. While traveling, I noticed that abandoning perfection rapidly increases human bonding. On countless occasions, I found myself invited into less than perfect situations, and learned to embrace the discomfort. In Budapest, a host was adamant that eating alone was rude, so he didn’t hesitate to offer us a portion of his reheated leftovers. In Pamplona, we had gathered a group 20 or so pilgrim friends for dinner, but when we realized that none of us had an actual plan for the event we started a spontaneous fake free walking tour and eventually the laughter overwhelmed our grumbly stomachs and tired feet. In Muiden, a cake was baked with less than half of the required ingredients and both new friends and old took part in the experimental taste-test. Let’s cut the crap. None of us are perfect, none of us live in perfection, so let’s be imperfect together.
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2. Reimagining personal space. Before this trip, I was someone who needed a lot of personal space. While growing up and going to university, I almost always had my own room. On occasions when I have had to share a bedroom I would sigh with relief when my roommate went out for a night of fun, just so that I could read or write in the comfort of my own company. While travelling these opportunities are even fewer. So I have redrawn my personal space criteria: a journal, a water bottle, a soft scarf, my phone, and some headphones. These are really the only things I need to create my own space whether in a bumpy bus, a crowded dorm, or a sub-standard Airbnb. I imagine that my inventory will change with each stage of life, but the truth is: I don’t need as much physical space as I once thought.

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3. Rethinking introductions. In the comforts of planned life, one of the first questions that arises when we meet someone is: what do you do? As in for money. While traveling, this question is rarely relevant. Much more frequently I will find out where some one is from, how many siblings they have, what they like to do for fun, what sort of music they like, how they drink their coffee, and whether or not they snore, before I have any idea if they might work in an office or a kitchen. What a relief! My own career status isn’t exactly a conversation starter.

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4.  Recognizing strangers. Before travelling I usually kept my interactions with passing strangers to a minimum. Of course, I would extended some social effort to the lucky person who occupied a plane seat beside me (and got to monopolize our shared arm rest), but I see no need to interact with every passerby. Until I learned to love the “bon appetite” and the “buen camino.” Both of these are simple phrases, they don’t take a lot of effort and they’re not intended to start a discussion. They are more like blessings than conversation starters. In France, it is considered rude to walk by someone who is eating without wishing them “bon appetite.” Until I learned this, I just thought that everyone was really friendly and happy to see me enjoying my baguette. On the camino in Spain, everyday was punctuated with dozens of “buen camino”s. On a particularly difficult day, one of our pilgrim friends exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear another f***ing ’buen camino’ I just want someone to say ‘I feel bad for you, you sorry bastard.’” But isn’t that what a blessing is? It’s a way to tell a stranger, even if you don’t speak the same language, that you see them, you recognize their experience, and you wish them well for their day, or their journey, or even just their lunch. I think I’d like to share more of these passing blessings, even though I’m not quite sure what that will look like in North American culture.

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I can’t keep backpacking forever: my shoulders are tired, I’m sick of peeing in other people’s toilets, I miss having Q-tips, and I would love to wear shoes that actually match my outfit. But maybe in a few small ways, I can keep wandering, on purpose.

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The Broken

“At first, I was worried there would be a lot of broken people out here,” Marg admitted while sipping a glass of vino tinto under the shade of a bar patio.
At the time, we all laughed and agreed. We were all having more fun than expected. Wasn’t there supposed to be some element of suffering in a pilgrimage?

But then things started breaking.

The first thing to break was Jakob’s phone. We were in San Juan de Ortega. Don’t look it up, I can describe the googlemap view quicker than you can spell the name. Somewhere in the middle of northern Spain there is a church, a bar, and a hostel conveniently located all under the same dilapidated roof. This is San Juan de Ortega. I left Jakob and Louise unattended for no more than 30 minutes and when I returned I discovered three things: Jakob’s iPhone screen was smashed, Louise was slumped over on a bench, and the vending machine specialized in beer. Of course my assumption upon taking in this scene was entirely wrong. The phone smash was an innocent accident and Louise’s was suffering only from a cocktail of asthma medication and muscle relaxants. There was nothing to be done about either mishap, so Jakob cracked open a beer, and Louise took a dignified bench nap in the heart of bustling San Juan. Neither one was as concerned about the unfortunate events as I thought they should be, so after a few minutes, I gave up my panicked attempts at problem solving and sat down on the bench beside them.
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Louise’s situation went from bad to worse. Of course she recovered from her temporary semi-coma, but her muscles and tendons refused to cooperate. Over the next day, her witty trail banter was gradually replaced with the sound of her clicking hip. By the time we hobbled into Burgos (km 285), Louise’s left ankle was also inflamed. It seems bodies like symmetry and if a right hip is in limbo then the left has to sacrifice something as well. After six hours of physiotherapy, Louise still wasn’t trail ready.
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The good news was, Louise wasn’t suffering alone. Only about a week before Burgos, Dave had made some sort of comment about those young kids who wear braces on every joint in their body. “They just need to toughen up,” he said. So when he first started feeling stabbing pain in his shins, there was no way he was going to admit to weakness. Over the next few days, Dave’s trek slowed to a limp and by the time we all reached Burgos, he had no choice but to cuddle up with some icepacks and Netflix for five days. Marg and Anita were all too content to trade their polyester quickdry for some cotton sundresses, while quietly admitting that they needed the break too.

Jakob and I decided to take a rest day in Burgos too. While our bodies rested our minds raced. We couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to our Camino family. Could we laugh without Louise? Could we drink beer without Dave? Could we compose eloquent dinner time poetry without Marg? Could we complain about shitty bar service without Anita?
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Jakob did everything in his power to delay our departure. He complained that his heels hurt. So we bought some foot cream. He complained that his shins hurt. So we bought some shin cream. He complained that MY knees hurt. So I bought some knee cream. After running out of excuses, he had no choice but to crack his head open on the hotel window. So I ran frantically out into the street armed with a google translation of “my husband hit is head. Do you have some ice?”

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After the bleeding had stopped Jakob suggested that this was a sign that we should delay our departure. Why break up the family? I insisted that he suck it up. So the next day we had one final family breakfast and before the tears could water down the orange juice, we hugged goodbye and wished each other a “Buen Camino.”

We managed to cover another 75km before something else broke…or should I say broke out. Somewhere in the endless fields of the Tierra de Campos, Jakob noticed some sort of allergic reaction reddening his arms. As a wife, I of course have inherent medical knowledge, which I assume is some sort of precursor to the natural medical knowledge that comes with motherhood. So I assured Jakob that they looked like hives, probably an allergic reaction to something he had eaten. Which was ridiculous of course, since we had eaten nothing other than chicken, potatoes, bread, eggs, and cheese in the last two weeks.

That evening we stayed in what we assumed must have been an (old?) insane asylum. We had no way of really knowing if pilgrims were the only inhabitants since the fortress like building was an endless maze of halls and doors stretched out over five inadequately lit floors. The nuns gave us each a private room and told us that we had to pay extra if we wanted to share a room. I insisted “no we are married. It’s not a problem,” assuming that we were being slapped with some sort of immorality tax. But they insisted. So I pulled out my big girl sleeping bag, took down the creepy saint portrait on the wall, and assured Jakob that I could fend off ghosts on my own.

That night a cold wind blew into town. The evening air was even colder in the Romanesque stone church where we sat and listened to a beautiful guitar concert.

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While my mind and body relaxed, refreshed by the music, my shins tensed up, resistant to the sudden cold. By the time we made our way back to our asylum accommodation, I could barely hobble. The next morning I rotated and stretched my ankle nervously. Something was not right.

Twelve hours later, we were in the midst of what must be the most purgatorial stretch of the Camino: seventeen killometers with no potable water fountains, scarce shade, and not a single hill or curve in the road to disrupt the horizon. We stopped briefly on the edge of the gravel road to munch on some cheese and bread. Between mouthfuls we muttered half-hearted ‘buen camino’s to the endless ant-like line of pilgrims. At some point, I put my glasses in my pocket and switched to sunglasses to better cope with the desserty conditions. Bending down to pick up my pack, I heard the unmistakable sound of cracking plastic. Sure enough, two hairline cracks ran through the plastic frame of my glasses. My first thought was a vain one: “Shit! I’m totally going to be that nerd with the taped glasses.”
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By the time we reached the village of Calzadilla (km 388), my right ankle had lost almost all range of motion and Jakob’s rash had spread. There were now at least 65 distinct welts covering big patches of both his left and right arms, dotting his legs, and tracing across his waist and chest. It was 10:30 in the morning, we had only walked 17km, but we were ready to call it a day. Jakob explained our maladies at the check-in desk as if we were entering a hospital emergency room. I interrupted just as Jakob began explaining the swollen bites all over his body. No way would they take us in. No way would they willingly invite what must be bed bugs into their hostel. The young man at the counter grimaced.
“I am going to do something special for you,” he began filling out the paperwork, “you can have the disability room. See your rash and leg pain aren’t all bad. Tonight you get a private room.”
We breathed a sigh of relief. Not only were they not going to turn away a cripple and a leper, but they were offering us special treatment.

We spent the rest of the day sitting around a bar table at the edge of town. The scene looked like some sort of sad marathon finish line where the crowds were too tired to cheer, but if you sat down for a drink they were more than willing to commiserate. We watched as familiar faces and people we now counted as friends trickled over the small rise into town.

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It felt like a finale to us. We were able to wish well to our friends who were continuing on that day and we smiled with relief at those who decided to join us for one last night together.
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We technically had time in our travel itinerary for three more full days of walking to cover the remaining 78km into Leon. But we had had enough. We walked the 10km to the next town with bus service and relaxed into the air-conditioned oasis of modern transportation. Out our window we couldn’t help but stare at the long lines of pilgrims struggling under the hot sun and the weight of poorly adjusted packs. I couldn’t believe how miserable they all looked. Hadn’t we all chosen this path? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? No, not exactly fun. I guess it was supposed to be healing. Yes, healing. Because we’re all a bit more broken than we’d like to think.

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The Pessimist

We were huddled under a bus shelter in Paris, barely escaping a downpour and frantically searching a departures board when we met our first pilgrim. His voice was nearly as loud as his florescent orange backpack.
“Ye goin’ te Bayonne,” he inquired with a lilting Irish accent.
“Yes!” we smiled relieved that we weren’t alone in our search for the right platform.
Before long, we got to chatting. Like us, he was on his way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the Camino de Santiago. Also, he was Danish, not Irish. After years of working in Cuba with an international crowd, he admitted that his accent baffled even the most adept globe trotter.

Yet his country of origin was hardly our biggest surprise. He soon admitted that he hated tiny Spanish towns. “They’re all the same,” he waved dismissively, “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” He much preferred big cities.
Jakob and I looked at each other with confusion. Why spend five weeks walking through rural Spain, munching bocadillos in tiny taverns, and sleeping in parish monasteries if you’d rather be in Barcelona?
Seeing our puzzled expressions, he continued: “well I’m not planning on taking the full four-five weeks, or whatever the book says. I figure if I can do it in two, why not?”

We didn’t know how to lecture a casual bus stop acquaintance on the true meaning of a pilgrimage, so we smiled and nodded. If he wanted to rush through a potentially life changing experience and eliminate a bucket list item, then that was his business. Realizing that we were on very different paths to the same place, I began looking forward to the social solitude of a bus seat, where I would no longer be under the obligation to continue this awkward small talk. Meanwhile, Jakob was all too eager to pry further into the motivations of our first pilgrim acquaintance.IMG_7415

Jakob got his wish, since two hours later, we still hadn’t set off for Bayonne. We were now standing in a small circle awaiting hourly updates from an overly casual bus operator. Our tiny group had acquired two additional members, a young woman from Clermont Ferrand, and another from Calais. I have no idea why these two decided to join a grumpy Irish/Dane, and a couple of tired Canadians, but they stuck with us like they had been assigned as our translators. They were the ones who informed us that the bus delay was due to a broken rearview mirror.

By the time we piled onto the bus, it was midnight, the Dane was singing a half-hearted rendition of Micheal Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” I was searching for my ear plugs, and Jakob was already mostly asleep. We all settled in for the ten hour night bus, eager to leave behind rainy Paris and disembark in the sunny south. We bid each other goodnight and goodbye, sure that with our opposing ideas about pilgrimage, our paths were unlikely to cross again.

Fifteen days and 286kms later we caught sight of a familiar face in a busy Burgos street. It was no surprise really, after sharing bathrooms and bedrooms, tables and trails with hundreds of strangers over the past two weeks, almost any face could look familiar. But Jakob has a better memory for these sorts of things.
“Hey stranger,” he called out.
The man looked up casually and smiled, “well if it isn’t the Canadians.”

“Weren’t you planning on being in Santiago by now?” I thought to myself. He was a good 500km behind schedule.

He didn’t wait for my condescending questions, but offered his own summary of the past two weeks. As it turns out, he couldn’t get enough of the Spanish countryside! He even planned on coming back to spend more time in all of the picturesque little villages. He had also taken the time to upgrade his gear. He invested in a higher quality backpack, picked-up a sleeping bag, and shipped unnecessarily bulky items to his destination. Jakob and I were astonished. We thought we had recognized the pessimistic Dane from a distance, but once we were up close, we realized he was a different man entirely.
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The Joyful

He was sitting on the edge of the highway when I saw him. Cars sped by, but he was motionless. His heavy black robes fell like curtains over his folded knees and a single scallop shell hung from his neck. A wide brimmed hat hid most of his serene face. Must be from an ancient monastic order, I thought to myself, probably doesn’t speak English.

Sitting outside a pizzeria, the cloaked figure appeared again, walking briskly this time. My curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to catch his attention. Do I smile? Do I wave? Do I dare to say words that he certainly won’t understand? He smiled and a hundred wrinkles creased his face. I smiled too, assuming that this was as far as our communication could go. He nodded and raised his hands to his chest, bowing briefly in a respectful namaste. My hands fumbled in confusion. Who is this smiling monk man? What religious order does he follow? What country does he come from? How many Caminos has he walked? In what God does he believe? His bare feet slapped the cobblestones as he strode away. Each sole marked with the colours of the earth.

At the garden gate, at the place were we would stay that night, I saw him again. He was kneeling in the grass, playing the part of a masseur for an aching pilgrim. I reached for my phone to capture the bizarre scene. He looked up and smiled. My hand retreated from my pocket, embarrassed to have even considered snapping a candid shot of someone so sacred.

“Five euros for a massage,” another pilgrim explained, “only five euros and he will take away all your aches and pains.” I watched from a distance, still unsure how to ask all the questions I wanted answered. To those who weren’t alarmed at the sight of a grinning monk, the deal was too good to refuse. So my husband laid down on the grass and took his chances on the monk massage. I heard him tell a bit about our life. He spoke quickly, like he would to someone who spoke English everyday. So I got up from my observer’s seat and pulled a lawn chair up close. Like a swim coach overseeing a meet, I leant over my knees and interrogated the masseur monk. He smiled from his place on the grass, his palms pressed into my husband’s shoulders.

“I’m from California,” he said, in a voice forty years younger than his face.
“What sort of monk are you,” I cut to the chase.
“I’m a joyful monk,” he explained, “if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘no.’ If someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘no.’ Still yet, if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Christian?’ I would say ‘yes.’ And if someone asked me: ‘Are you a Buddhist?’ I would say ‘yes.’” He laughed and looked up at my face expectantly. Clearly I wasn’t the first curious pilgrim to cross his path.

“Which religious texts have you read?” I pressed on, aiming for a straighter answer.
Without hesitation he rambled off an assortment of major religious texts. Pausing for a second he added, “none of the Jewish stuff though.”
I didn’t press that point, but I was curious why he had also omitted the primary Christian text.
“Have you read the Bible too?”
“Ya but it’s mostly crap,” he admitted with a laugh.
I raised my eyebrows. What sort of monk walks the camino and hates the Bible?
Noticing my surprise, he offered an explanation, “the only part of the Bible that’s any good is Jesus’ words. What people should do is just get one of them Bibles with Jesus’ words in red letters. Skip everything except the red letters.”
An eavesdropping pilgrim pulled out his smartphone. “Just the red letters? Where do you get one of those Bibles? I might actually read that.”

I smiled and tried the reconcile the scene before me with my own love for the Bible and my belief that it is (in it’s entirety) the word of God. In a way, I had to agree with the monk. If you were going to read just one part of the Bible and you couldn’t stomach the whole crazy story, then I guess the words of Jesus would be the right place to start. In a split-second, I made up my mind to agree.
“Yes, read the words of Jesus!” I nodded enthusiastically, “he was a pretty great guy.” I turned to the pilgrim who had entered our conversation. “You can find those Bibles everywhere. The Gideons give them away for free.”
The monk began singing a song about Gideons Bibles as he massaged my husband’s calves.
I laughed and launched into another question: “When did you decide to become a monk?”
The monk thought for a moment and then began to recount a story that most people would only tell their closest friends. His life was once much different. He was a band leader and a husband. He was married for twenty years before it all fell apart. His unique combination of aspergers, bipolar, and alchoholism meant that his fists sometimes had a mind of their own. He spent some time in jail before he realized he needed help. When he got out, he set out in search of God. He read everything he could find, and joined a variety of religious communities. He was given a new name and a new life.
“I am called ‘The Joyful,’” he explained with a grin, “With a personality like mine, there are only two things I could be in life: either an entertainer or a monk. So now I am an entertaining monk.” He bobbled his head, making his wide brimmed hat dance.
I laughed again.

“So why did you choose to do the camino?”
For that he had a quick answer. “Most people do this walk for themselves. They want to get away from something or find something. But I am doing this walk for everyone else.”
I nodded, noticing his particularly thorough massage work on my husband’s battered and dirty feet. I couldn’t help but be reminded of another man, who, 2000 years ago, showed love by kneeling on the ground and touching weary feet.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I would do it. It was easy enough to sit in my lawn chair and discuss religious texts. But would I kneel on the ground and put into action the words that I professed to follow?

It’s been more than a week since my encounter with “The Joyful” and I still can’t quite figure out what to make of it. Should I be sceptical of his story? Should I be ashamed to have agreed with a man who dismissed a large portion of the religious text I follow? Should I just take inspiration from his joyful and compassionate spirit? I don’t know. But I do know that I saw a glimpse of Jesus’ words in action. The red letters come to life. And that I will never forget.

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