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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Camino Family

How often do you know the exact condition of your friends’ feet?

Well I do.
Louise has three blisters on one big toe and a few on the rest.
Dave has a couple of blisters that keep coming back because he always cuts the badges too small.
Marg is blister free (and we hate her for it).
Anita’s got a few sore spots, but she has magic foot wool that keeps the blisters at bay.
Jakob has cracks in his heels..

My feet are scarred too. The topmost layer of skin on my back left heel is replaced with silicone. My big left toe has erected a temporary wall in attempts to resolve recent conflicts with my second toe and my big right toe has seen more needle punctures than a puppy with a porcupine habit. So why the battered feet?

About a week ago, Jakob and I started a pilgrimage, so our feet are showing the natural wear and tear of about 163km of walking. We started our trek in the picturesque village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrennes.

I have to admit, 163km ago I didn’t have the best attitude. I was pretty certain of 4 things: (1) the trail would be too busy, (2) I would make few genuine friends, (3) I would grow weary of touristy misrepresentations of medieval life, and (4) I would overall find the experience bearable, but certainly not life changing. Jakob would call me a pessimist. Of course, I know that I’m just a realist. Now after a week on the trail, I am reporting the very real fact that I was wrong on 3 of my 4 predictions. Let’s see if you can guess which ones.

No more than a few kms from the start, Jakob and I trekked past a group of three pilgrims. They were blaring music out of their compact speaker and struggling a bit with the steep incline. Just out of earshot we began a somewhat self-righteous critique of “those people.” “Why not just talk to each other?” “Who gives you the right to set the soundtrack for everyone?” “Why can’t you just wear headphones?” We quickly forgot their faces and remembered only the stereotype.

A few kms later, another group of three pilgrims passed us as we sipped water. We chatted briefly. Aussie? Kiwi? Jakob was sure they were from New Zealand. I shrugged my shoulders. A few more kms and they were snacking as we passed. A few more and we were waving at their familiar faces once more and commenting on the beautiful views over the valley bottom.
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“Orisson.”
“Us too!”
“See you at supper then.”
“Yes, see you at supper!”
And just like that, we had our first pilgrim date!

The end of our first day’s hike came quickly and before long, Jakob and I were huddled at a rough wooden table dealing cards and rehashing our day. A short woman with a purposeful walk entered the common space of our hostel/cabin.
“We need to build fire,” she stated sternly.
Jakob and I glanced at each other. Usually we are quick to claim that we are capable Canadians, but at the moment neither of us felt compelled to chop damp wood and kindle reluctant flames. We played dumb and continued our card game. The woman left, apparently deterred by our disinterest. To our surprise, she returned moments later with an armload of wood and explained that she found it under a shelter, protected from the rain. Dropping the logs on the floor, she looked expectantly at Jakob, the only man in the room. Jakob sighed and set down his cards.
“There’s no hatchet. No axe,” he gestured a swinging motion to add emphasis.
“We cut with knife,” the woman explain, hurrying to the kitchen.
I followed, surely she couldn’t be serious. The elderly woman examined the knife drawer with a practiced eye. She selected a large cleaver and handed it to Jakob. His face gave away only the briefest moment of confusion before he got to work peeling thin layers of wood fibres away from the log. The woman shook her head and demonstrated. Smaller strips. She got to work immediately emptying the ash from the fireplace while I hovered helplessly. An elderly German man entered the room, taking in the scene, he dropped his pack and offered his fireplace expertise. Half an hour later, Jakob and the German fellow were busy building an elaborate flammable structure. There were few words exchanged, but a clear master and apprentice hierarchy emerged instantly, with Jakob seeking a nod of approval before placing most of his pieces. I sat at the long wooden table with the project foreman, Lubmila from Latvia.
“I grew up under the Soviet Union,” she explained seriously, “I was taught that when you see an opportunity to improve your life, you must take it.”
I nodded gravely.
“Here I saw opportunity,” she cracked a smile and we both began to laugh.
A few long minutes later, the fire was roaring and we all cheered. The German gentlemen stood up, brushed of his hands, and summarized succinctly:
“Now women happy.”
Jakob nodded in agreement and the French pilgrims upstairs shuffled down towards the glowing common room, bringing all of their socks and laundry to dry by the flames.
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That evening we walked the 1km up to the next hostel for dinner. After a quick scan of the dinning hall we spotted a few familiar faces and invited ourselves to join them. Marg, Dave, and Anita introduced themselves. Yes Jakob was right, they were from New Zealand. After some friendly interrogations we found out that Marg and Dave are on a year long trip around the world, celebrating a “significant birthday” and enjoying some empty-nester freedom. Anita is an Aussie turned Kiwi and a close friend of theirs with an equally bold sense of adventure.

That first night, we probably should have given them fair warning: you won’t be able to shake us off. We should have told them that we would likely interrupt our travel schedule if it meant staying on the same itinerary as them. We might even slow our pace or delay a departure. Upon arriving in a new village we might even ask anxiously if any other pilgrims have seen three Kiwis looking somewhat lost or lonely.
“Oh you’ve seen them?” we might say, “yes, they are looking so sad because they have misplaced their Canadians.”

On our second day on the trail we traversed the Pyrenees and rescued a damsel in distress or a jomfru i nød (a mermaid in need). We had just made the steep descent into Spain and were dusty and exhausted, waiting to check-in to the hostel. A lone pilgrim ahead of us seemed to be having some trouble. She had no cash and there was no ATM in town.
“This is going to be a problem,” she mumbled under her breath.
The clerk looked sympathetic, but remained resolute. He suggested that she begin the 4km walk to the next town.
Jakob leaned over and whispered, “we should pay for her.”
I gave him a skeptical look. Twelve euros is a lot to just throw around. Jakob ignored my hesitation and marched towards the counter.
“We’ll cover her stay,” he offered nonchalantly.
She spun around, surprise and gratitude written across her face.
“You need dinner too don’t you?”
She hesitated and looked down, “yah.”
“No worries! We got this.”

Her name is Louise, she is 24 years old, she is from Denmark, she’s got a crazy sense of humour, she’s served in Afghanistan, and she’s barely left our side for the last five days. For the first few kilometres there were some indentured servitude jokes, but even after the money was settled up, we still couldn’t seem to part ways. At this point we rarely make decisions around food, accommodation, foot care, or travel without consulting her. The deal works something like this: Louise makes sure we don’t starve, Jakob makes sure we don’t get lost, and I keep everyone well informed with useless facts and inspirational quotes from the guide book. Needless to say, we are all quite content with the arrangement.
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A couple of days ago our camino family, Dave, Marg, Anita, Louise, Jakob, and I were inching past the 20km mark for the day when Dave pulled out a compact bluetooth stereo and offered to lift our spirits with a little country music and rock and roll. My eyes widened as I put it all together. Those hooligans blaring music the first day were our beloved Kiwis. We laughed awkwardly and admitted to our snobby prejudice that first day. The Kiwis seemed pleased to have rocked our boat a little. So we turned up the volume, picked up our tired feet, and sang along to George Ezra’s “Barcelona.”

The only prejudicial assumption we regretted more was the time we ran into our Latvian grandma again and she gave us another one of her classic bossy pieces of advice.
“You must skip down the hills,” she stepped one foot in front of the other and demonstrated an awkward lope.
We smiled and laughed, immediately dismissing her suggestion as the crazy ramblings of an exhausted pilgrim.
“No, no,” she insisted, “I am not joking. It is really better to skip. I fly down the hills. Passing everyone and they ask me how I do it. I tell them I skip down the hills.”
The next time our knees were straining and our shins were aching from a restrained downward descent, we heard Lubmila’s stern words in our heads and decided that if anyone knew how to ease suffering, it would be someone who survived the Soviet Union. So we gave it a shot. Louise tried it first. Then Jakob. Then I joined in. We’re now known as the crazy pilgrims who run down all the hills and I have no doubt everyone else secretly wishes we would fall flat on our faces. Still, at every opportunity we try to convince others to convert to our skipping ways. Dave and Marg are the most recent converts. Anita is next.

While our camino family is pretty tight (Jakob and Dave bought matching shirts and have been known to call each other “young bull” and “papa bull,” we do have room for a few extended family members including a couple of Britts, a few other Canadians, and some Aussies. We call it the Commonwealth plus Denmark. In a typical day we each leave at our own pace. Jakob, Louise, and I get up at the crack of dawn and usually stop for breakfast about 5km down the road. Just as we are finishing our café con leches and hot chocolate, a couple other Commonwealth pilgrims are bound to stumble in. Of course, we stay and chat and just as we are finally strapping our backpacks on a few more familiar pasty faces will likely find their way to our table. It is in this rhythm of ‘hello’s and ‘see you later’s that we pass most of our days. In the evening we track each other down in some sort of central square, bring out the wine, and munch on pinxos (basque version of tapas). Even the bustling city of Pamplona started to feel like a small town when we strolled past bars full of familiar looking pilgrims and eventually managed to gather the whole Commonwealth gang together.


Each morning when we head out there is a brief moment of tension. How far are we going? Where will we be stopping? What if we loose track of each other? But I have to believe that our paths crossed for a reason, and they are going to stay entangled for as long as they need to be. By the time we do say “good-bye” it will most certainly be a “see you later.”
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Waiting Day

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6

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Today is Saturday, yesterday was Friday, tomorrow is Sunday. Keeping track of the days gets tricky while travelling. But I actually care this time because today is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Does it have a special name? I don’t think so. Perhaps Grocery Shopping Saturday? Hide the Eggs Saturday? Clean the house Saturday? 

Is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter supposed to have a spiritual mood or is it just a day for getting everything done for Easter? 

While travelling I don’t have much to do for Easter prep. I don’t have a house, probably won’t have a fancy dinner, and I spend enough time hunting for chocolate in the dusty bottom of my backpack. Strip away all of that and today just feels like a waiting day. A day to wait on the Lord. 

The good news is I have been practicing waiting. I’ve gotten good at waiting. Waiting for trains, waiting for buses, waiting in lines to see old things, waiting to find out if a host will take us, waiting to see if our working holiday visas will be approved….I could go on. But all those little writings are just symptoms of a much bigger waiting season. For the past three months I have entered a purposeful season of discernment. Sure it may seem like I am traipsing across a continent with my husband in tow hitting up all the major landmarks, but what may not always be apparent is that while staring up at yet another cathedral ceiling I find myself in purposeful prayer, wondering when God will speak his words of wisdom to me. I know I’m not Joan of Arc, but would a clear loud voice from heaven directing my future path be so much to ask for? Be honest, I’m sure you’ve asked for it too. 

I have heard snippets of God’s voice: in an email from a friend reminding me that my value is not defined by economic productivity, in an acquaintance’s honest Facebook status, in finding fulfilling work at the archives, in watching other families play at a city park, and so many other fleeting moments. But I crave the clarity of God’s actual voice saying, “you chose the right degree, dear daughter. You will have a fulfilling career and you’ll be able to balance it with motherhood, no problem!”

But God doesn’t work like that. I’ve been reading the first five books of the Bible over the last few months and I can’t help but notice all the waiting. Not just one day or three months, but years! Forty, fifty, hundreds, thousands of YEARS. God plays the long game. An eternal perfect being isn’t confined by our tiny ideas of deadlines and efficiency. God speaks and calls when the time is right. When the time has fully come. Therefore I will wait upon the Lord and trust that just as he brought the Israelites through the desert, just as he brought the promised Messiah that this world desperately needed, just as he raised him from the dead after three days, that same Lord and saviour will instruct my path. All I can do is embrace the waiting, trust God’s timing, listen attentively, and act faithfully.

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“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8