On Becoming a Pilgrim

I’m on the threshold, in the doorway. It’s a clear metaphor, of course, just describing a liminal space – you pick one side or the other, or you stay there. Do I back in and stay safe or do I step out and go on an adventure. It’s not unlike “Do I buy tickets or stay home, do I write you an email or do I just sit on my couch, pick up the phone, and call you?” Threshold stuff: you find yourself in that space of neither fully here nor fully there. And typically, in my life, it’s a choice between going outside my studio or staying in. It’s the space of deciding.

This particular threshold is a bit more complicated. I am going out on a pilgrimage, walking along a stretch of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. I leave in two weeks and my time in my every day life is divided. I’ll be sitting on the train to work and think, “Damn, I forgot to get new Band-Aids,” and I will spend the next 20 minutes going over everything in my head – am I taking a cab or a car service to the airport, should I bring more than one notebook, do I need a case for my notebook in case it rains?

I have a child’s rocker in my studio where I have been depositing the things I want to take with me to Spain. My passport is there and a credit card I think I want to bring. I have two water bottles so I can choose between them or take them both. Each decision I make seems to get me closer to going even though I am still home. And to be fair, I could throw everything into a bag the night before and walk out the door to catch a cab to the airport and I’d still be fine. But this packing is very different. I am not going on a vacation and I feel that I need to honor that, somehow. Somehow ceremoniously.

On social media, lots of pilgrims will lay out all their bits of packing in a kind of a ta-da moment. “Look! I did it! I got my stuff down to only 20 lbs in a 35 liter pack and I am ready to go!” But I think if you scratch the surface, it’s a ploy to hide the nervousness, the doubt, the creeping feeling that we are all in over our heads doing this, even when we have done it many times before.

I can safely say, “I am always packed for the Camino.” I keep my backpack ready with all my hiking clothes in one place, my boots and my poles, and my little pouch filled with leftover Euros – I am always ready. But the actual getting ready? It’s a strange yet familiar place. I have plane tickets, arrangements, everything in place travel-wise, but just the way labor prepared me for childbirth, I think packing prepares me for walking the Camino.

I will bring a rosary and forget I have it. I will make sure I have a day pack to use around town and then decide my pockets suffice. And I will pack a half dozen granola bars and end up bringing 5 of them home because I don’t really enjoy granola bars but want to look like a veteran hiker. On the one hand, I want to look the part, but on the other, I know pretty well by now what I need and what I can leave home.

But I find myself packing in my head. I will see something that reminds me my departure date is coming up and then I’ll go over everything I have on the rocker, looking for gaps. And it’s this mental preparation that propels me toward that first step out the door. Every day, I spend more and more time getting ready – even though I know I’m ready now. I was ready five years ago when I planned this particular Camino. Maybe that’s what keeps me in this middle state. I’ve just been here so long.

As I write this, I’m neither fully home nor fully walking. And I will be in this place until I leave. Little by little, I will spend less and less time occupied with my regular day life and more and more time becoming a full pilgrim. In so many ways, I think we all imagine what the earliest pilgrims thought of their journey. I know they either packed less or brought animals along to carry the load. And they certainly did not have the cool 21st century gear I will bring with me. But I wonder how long they lived in this threshold state of planning to go, but not yet going. It’s watching the every day me start to sink more and more, as the pilgrim me bubbles up to the surface. The every day me everyone knows, but the pilgrim me is someone I can become. I think this is why arriving in Compostela is so emotional. It’s watching the pilgrim quickly fade from view as the every day comes sharply into focus again to take her place.

While there’s no place like home, I never want to rush into clicking my heels three times to go there. It’s just another threshold, after all, but for some reason, the end of any Camino is an even more challenging place to be. I will struggle with anticipation and memory, exhaustion and exhilaration – and little of that presents itself to me on a normal day’s ride on the train. I’m going from my every day numb and accepting, routine and settling, into expectation, hope, accepting challenges, and overwhelming joy. And back again.

The Camino’s pull on me gets stronger every day I get closer to going. Then, one night in two weeks, I’ll leave every day me in New York and become fully pilgrim. That’s going to be pretty ceremonious.

To read more about the Camino de Santiago, I recommend my book! Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim. Available on Amazon, Kindle, and by special order from your favorite independent bookseller. Follow along this trip #littleoldmomwalking

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