Anna’s Camino: Day 16 (Part 1) – Leaving Villafranca Montes de Oca

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An early view from the day’s walk. Even the most difficult mornings carried their own quiet joys.

From the moment that I awoke, I was feeling run-down and pensive. The day was a struggle, one of the hardest of the Camino, especially mentally. It was also one of the most beautiful and memorable. It was the first day since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port that I walked alone for much of the day, something that provided me with a chance to reflect and come to terms with the changes that I intuited for my near future.

Since leaving home, my anxiety had abated significantly, but this morning I felt that old familiar post-anxiety attack feeling, like someone had hollowed me out, leaving my shell, both fragile and strangely pliant. I am always slower, sweeter, my sense of humor skewed slightly more towards the bittersweet (typically I’m firmly in the schadenfreude camp). I went with the flow, letting my body guide me, packing up and getting ready in a haze. As I’d thought they would be, my clothes were cool and damp in the morning. I knew I should have brought them in from the line overnight, but I left them outside anyway, and by morning they were soaked with fresh dew. It was crisp out, making the effort of donning clammy running capris especially daunting. My butt was cold, and my feet were freezing. I worried that I hadn’t brought enough clothes to get me through colder weather than this.

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This little guy REALLY liked my shoelaces. I’ve got a whole set of photos of him nom nomming away. I didn’t mind one bit; I’m not above bribing adorable kitties to like me.

As usual, I was one of the last few to finish packing and leave the dorm. I joined the rest of the pilgrims in the hotel’s little cafe/breakfast area, reveling in a steaming cup of cafe con leche and a little glass of sweet, freshly-squeezed zumo. I also seem to remember a slice of tortilla (which wouldn’t be hard to believe, given that I ate tortilla at every opportunity – several times a day, on average). This particular specimen must not have been great, though, because I can’t remember anything special in conjunction with that morning’s breakfast. The best part of the morning, as far as I was concerned, was after breakfast, when I plopped down in the garden and let the cats play with my shoelaces for a few minutes. This was just one of many animal experiences on the Camino, but again I was relieved to find that a few quiet moments shared with animal friends gave me the energy I needed to press on.

Natalie, Terry, and I walked away from Villafranca Montes de Oca together with the knowledge that we wouldn’t all be heading to the same destination. Terry had decided the night before that she’d like to spend the night in Ages, a tiny, ancient town that she’d fallen in love with on her last Camino. Natalie and I had talked it over, and agreed to walk further, to a town called Cardeñuela Riopico. It would be a challenging day for the both of us, but would make up for some time we’d lost in taking a few shorter days, and also allow us to get into Burgos early the next day, on relatively fresh legs. The promise of a short walk, and maybe even a day off from the trail, buoyed me along for the first half of the morning. Even so, I was to spend much of the day alone, for better or worse.

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From time to time, the Camino Frances intersects with other hiking trails. The yellow arrow tells you that you’re still on the Camino (and headed the right way), while the other trail markers denote the other paths encompassed on this stretch.

Anna’s Camino: Compartmental Packing

Before leaving for the Camino, I spent possibly too much time researching, and was a member of several different Facebook groups where people talked about what to bring, what to see, how to get ready, etc. When the conversation about packing cubes came up, I read along eagerly. It’s a generally accepted rule that one doesn’t just throw everything into her pack indiscriminately – it’s much easier to find what you’re looking for if you use some sort of containers to pack things separately. It’s also handy to have containers that provide extra waterproofing for your items. Most people have pack covers, but the pack itself will still get a little damp in heavy downpour, meaning that the items inside are still liable to be damaged in wet situations. Plus, anyone who’s watched The Way can tell you that rain isn’t the only way a pack can get drenched (not that I met anyone else who dropped their bag off of a bridge, but hey, there’s always a possibility!). To provide extra waterproofing, some people use a trash bag as an inner liner, or have waterproof packing cubes. Other people, like me, use Ziploc bags to separate out their items.

Before deciding to use Ziploc bags rather than their more expensive packing cube counterparts, I read a few online conversations about how Ziploc users were terrible people for waking up the rest of the people in the dorm with their packing noise. I thought long and hard when making my decision. I knew that I didn’t want the hassle of a trash bag liner, but I still wanted to make sure my clothes and important papers stayed dry.

I thought about how I’d feel if people woke me up with loud, crinkly bags, and knew that I definitely didn’t want to be that person. Then I realized that there was NO WAY that I could ever be that person, anyway – I’m simply not an early riser. Case closed. I was on the Camino for 35 days, and I woke up before someone else maybe three times. Usually, by the time I finally struggled out of bed, the room lights were on and pilgrims were scurrying to and fro, making all sorts of other noise. As it turns out, sleeping bags and trash bags are far louder than Ziplocs, anyway.

I eventually realized that there are lots of noise makers you’ll come up against as a pilgrim, and either you’ll have to find a way to deal, or stay in a private room. If crinkling bags are a major problem for you, snoring, coughing, squeaking springs, showering, flip flop slapping, doors opening and closing all night, opera singing (not even kidding – this happened to me on several occasions), talking, alarms, and a host of other unforseeable-but-definitely-gonna-happen issues will quickly stack up to make you miserable. Don’t be afraid to ask other pilgrims to please be respectful, but also bring ear plugs, patience, and a sturdy sense of acceptance. You’re going to need it.

For those of you who have made it this far, and want to know exactly what kind of bag to buy – I fit all of my clothes that I wasn’t wearing into a large, travel Ziploc Space Bag. They’re different from your typical Ziploc bags in that they have tiny perforations at the bottom edge of the bag, so you can pack the bag, squeeze out extra air from the top, then start to roll the bag down (like rolling a tube of toothpaste), and the extra air escapes out of the bottom of the bag. In the end, it’s about the closest you’re going to get to a vacuum-sealed bag without attaching it to a vacuum, and you’d be surprised how well the bag packs down to save room. I was able to fit all of my clothes in the bottom compartment of my backpack, keeping the bulkiest item in the pack at around hip level to save my back. As I traveled, besides being glad of the extra waterproofing, I also was grateful to know I had one more level of protection against bedbugs. It was nice to know that if I accidentally ran into bugs and had to boil all of my belongings, I’d still have one set of clothes that they wouldn’t be able to get to. I also used a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to keep my various papers safe and dry, as well as a smaller baggie just for my passport. I also had a vinyl bag for my toiletries.

No matter whether what you decide to use, make sure to take the time to look into how you plan to segregate and waterproof the items in your pack. You will find it highly useful to include some sort of organizational compartments on your Camino packing checklist. Don’t wait until the last minute to find out what works best for your budget and needs.

Anna’s Camino: Day 15 – Belorado to Villafranca Montes de Oca

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Follow the arrow. Maybe I don’t remember too much of the day’s walk because it was mostly all in shades of brown and gray…

Terry! Cats! Wet Laundry! Inclines! Cream Soup! Single Beds! Muddy Feet! What a weird, painful, memorable day. Well, kinda. I actually have very little memory of the day’s actual peregrination, just bits and pieces of before and after. There’s a vague impression of the albergue feeling cold and a touch damp when I woke up, and of waking to the sound of my alarm and quickly (very quickly – I got great at this) shutting it off before it could annoy anyone else.

On the whole, I was usually the very last pilgrim awake each morning, so for me, keeping the alarm noise down wasn’t so much about waking anyone else up as just not wanting to intrude on anyone’s need for morning quiet. I’m not a cheery, good-morning-y type of person (not grumpy or anything, just generally not at my best first thing in the day), and I’ve found that the more peaceful my first hour or so is, the better my entire day will go. I prefer to be woken gradually, with cuddles (not too many, not full body, not from the wrong person), soft music (not the wrong genre – which could be any genre, depending on how I feel coming out of whatever I was dreaming, so best that you watch carefully for cues that I’m hating your playlist), and/or cats (all cats are good cats, except Charlie, who’s just the worst). See – I’m totally easy going! Totally got this morning thing down. *Cue maniacal laughter as I set the last person to wake me up’s house on fire.* Nah, not really…I’d never do anything that unsubtle.

OK, you’ve got me, I’m painting a rather dramatic picture of myself. Ask anyone who’s woken up in the same room as me, and they’ll tell you that I’m an OK human being. My general setting is “even keel,” even first thing. In all seriousness, the only thing that is guaranteed to make me hunt you down and cause you bodily harm is unnecessary noise. Especially pointless and/or repetitive noises, like continued alarm noise (see above), TV sounds, music that I hate, dogs barking, or conversation that isn’t directly related to someone getting me coffee and/or bacon products posthaste.

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Mornings are tough – even on the Camino.

I don’t care how much of a morning person you are – people who talk at full volume first thing in the AM, within earshot of people who are trying to sleep and/or slowly wake up, are complete asshats. Yeah, you heard me, loud morning person – you suck. Stop it. No, I don’t care if you’re chipper and want to get going, or if you think that the sleeping person should have already been up minutes ago. You’re awful, and the fact that no one has told you this yet is most likely due to them endeavoring to get their seething morning hatred out of the way lest they cause you bodily injury while requesting you put a sock in it. Take your conversation elsewhere, heathen.

I’m not always successful at it, but I do try not to be a hypocrite in such matters, especially in public situations. Which leads me to a controversial statement: I packed my clothes in a giant (crinkly, loud) Ziploc space saver bag. Quelle horreur! Anyway, to keep this blog post to a minimum, I wrote a whole new post re: Ziploc bags vs. packing cubes. Check it out here, if you’re so inclined. Long story short: if you’re the last person awake, everyone else’s packing-up noise far outweighs the Ziploc bag in the room (but when it’s bedtime, you should make sure you’re the first to finish up with bedtime ritual stuff, so you aren’t crinkling when people are trying to pass out). Yes, you guessed it – I’m also very particular about people being noisy when I’m trying to fall asleep. I probably won’t say anything about it, if you’re being noisy. But I’ll hate you, silently, forever and ever. Sorry ’bout that. I’m a work in progress, much like New Orleans streets (if you’re from New Orleans, you’ll get the joke).

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Packs and poles, waiting for their owners outside of a cafe.

So back to the Camino – I woke up, got dressed, packed up, and walked to the town square with Natalie. We stopped at a little cafe for cafe con leche and zumo, accompanied by our own snacks from our pack – bread, meat, and cheese. I had a brief laugh at the pile of pilgrim backpacks outside the door. We met up with Terry again at the square, and left town together, but the rest of the morning is a haze.

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Natalie and Terry, walking ahead of me.

I walked faster than Terry, and Natalie walked faster than both of us, but just like most days, we ended up playing leapfrog over the course of the day. Sometimes we all walked together, sometimes we walked in pairs, and other times we walked alone. I was generally somewhere between the two of them (sometimes behind, as in the picture above), so I kept an eye out ahead of me for Natalie’s orange pants, and behind me for Terry’s bright green windbreaker. When Terry and I walked together, we talked about books (we’d both read our fair share of Camino-related titles), and I asked her questions about her life. She’s the wonderful sort of woman who thinks of herself as rather ordinary, but then can start a sentence with “Back when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa…” I loved getting to know her.

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Mud. So much mud.

We got into Villafranca Montes de Oca together in the early afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Just before we got there, we had to walk down a long, terribly muddy hill. The mud was ankle-deep in places, and very slick, so it was a weird combination of trying to maintain balance while also trying not to get a shoe pulled off in the muck. That last stretch was a killer, so though it was a shorter walk than most days, in all, I was exhausted. As we entered the town and started the uphill walk to our albergue, my shins were screaming in pain. There was no doubt in my mind that I had shin splints in my left leg, and the muscles in my right calf were seizing up, too. I was terrified that this was it, the day I’d snap my Achilles tendon. Terry said she remembered reading something about massages available in town, so I kept my mind on that little snippet as we walked, to try to stay calm.

Terry and Natalie were both experienced peregrinas. This was Natalie’s second time on the Camino Frances, and Terry’s third, so I trusted their information more than any book or app. When we got close to town, Terry gleefully announced that there was an albergue in town that was attached to a very nice hotel, Hotel San Antón Abad, which was renowned for its hospitality. As we walked through the little town and up the hill towards the hotel, I was intrigued to see that we’d be entering the estate through a walled garden – basically the back door of the hotel. The garden was still lush, even at this late date, and to my delight, there were cats. They were a little more sleek and cared-for than seemed typical, and my estimation of the hotel was greatly improved when I saw that someone had even left bowls of cat food out on the back patio.

The hotel is a grand old building that has catered to pilgrims since the 14th century. The regular private guest rooms are inside the main structure, with the albergue segregated off into a separate wing in the back. Terry and Natalie entertained thoughts of the three of us sharing a posh hotel room for the night, and the staff were happy to let us take a look at our options. We all took our boots, by now covered in mud, off in the main hall, then padded upstairs in stockinged feet after the front desk attendant, who unlocked rooms and stood aside to let us inspect the digs. The rooms were ornate, with plush rugs and custom upholstery throughout, priced at about a third of what an American hotel room of the same quality would have fetched per night. It was almost a shame to decide against a night of luxury, but in the end, we decided as a trio to forgo the expense and bunk down with the other pilgrims for the night. As it turned out, this was a great decision, since the albergue had a whole room with single beds! The last time Natalie and I had slept in a place with single beds was nearly a week prior, at Zabaldika. Once you’ve been walking 15-mile days for a week or two, nothing can replicate the joy of knowing you don’t have to painfully clamber up metal ladder rungs to sleep in child-sized rickety top bunk.

Terry, Natalie, and I picked beds at the very end of the dorm, which was great in that I got an entire corner to myself (with my own electric plug – woot, woot!), and no one would be walking past the beds in the night. Unfortunately, this also meant that once the lights were out that night, I would be walking through a pitch-black room, past a long line of beds, to get out to go to the bathroom (and of course I had a couple of times that I needed to get up to pee that night – awesome). We chatted as we went through all of the motions of making ourselves at home. Everyone has something different that they do. I always liked to get my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out, my pillow inflated, and slip my sleeping mask and ear plugs under the pillow for easy access later that night. Natalie inspected every nook and cranny for bedbugs, flipping over her mattress and inspecting all of the joints of the wooden bed. Terry carefully spritzed down every available surface with a homemade lavender concoction to ward off insects and ensure a peaceful night’s sleep.

Once unpacked, I showered, put on new clothes, washed my dirty outfit in the bathroom sink, then went out to hang everything up on the line. It was cool and humid out, with low clouds hanging in the sky, so I had little hope that the laundry would actually dry by morning. This was a recurring theme for me over the course of the Camino, as it was always mid to late afternoon by the time I arrived. Between cool evenings and heavy morning dews, I got used to starting the day in cool, slightly damp duds.

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Hopes crushed. *Sigh.*

As soon as the laundry issue had been sorted, I hobbled back down the hill into town. The hotel’s regular masseuse wasn’t in that day, but the front desk attendant had told me I’d find another massage therapist just down the street, at the bottom of the hill. My descent into town was consumed with thoughts of how heavenly the massage would feel. I had somehow come to believe that I would be miraculously completely healed if someone else could just touch my shins. In retrospect, it’s most likely this faith that made the resulting experience a breaking point in my day.

I found the right house, then knocked on the door. A woman answered the door, and in limited English told me that the therapist was away, but I could call her and she’d come back if I wanted an appointment. I asked if the woman would call her for me, since I didn’t have a phone to use. The woman said no. I asked again in a different way, using my limited Spanish vocabulary to try to bridge the gap, but she said no again. Finally, I gave up and trudged back up the hill to the hotel. One leg was throbbing, the other was filled with a stabbing heat. Halfway up the hill, I had to take a break to sit on the sidewalk and cry. It seems so trivial now, but at the time, the combination of pain, fear that I’d surely be gravely injured if I didn’t receive professional attention, and just the general frustration of not being able to make myself understood all piled up and pushed me over my emotional limit for the day. I sat there in the middle of nowhere and cried for five minutes or so, then did a mental “suck it up, buttercup” and continued back to the hotel.

One of my favorite things in life is soup. I love cream-based soups, in particular. New England clam chowder is an ultimate favorite here in the states, but long ago, a friend who lived in Austria turned me on to Knorr powdered soup mixes. Cream of asparagus soup and cream of potato soup fill me me with a sparkling inner joy that just can’t be replicated by many other things. Maybe smoked salmon, really good triple cream brie, and freshly baked baguette. OK, I shouldn’t be writing this hungry. The point is that as soon as I got back to Europe, on my first grocery store run, I scoped out the soup section and happily scooped up a few packets of Knorr cream soups. For the remainder of the Camino, I traveled with at least one soup packet on me, in case of dinner emergencies. In this case, in the aftermath of my failed attempt at finding a massage, and the fact it would be hours until dinner, I decided to make a pot of cream soup to cheer myself up. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying soup and writing post cards to the folks back home, interspersed with a little time in the garden, trying to coax the cats close enough to be petted.

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This photo is from the next morning, but these are the cats from the garden. ❤

Pilgrims continued to arrive through the afternoon, and it was here that Ruth, an Anglican priest, first crossed our path. She would feature more heavily a day or two down the line. I also met a married couple who seemed a little standoffish with the other pilgrims, but something about them intrigued me. I’d meet them again a few days later, as well. Only one pilgrim out of the bunch stood out as someone I’d rather not meet again. I was lightly napping that afternoon when a gaggle of pilgrims walked into the dorm room and started to unpack and get settled. For the most part, everyone was doing their own thing and being quiet, but one older guy seemed intent on regaling everyone with his knowledge and experience. He spoke loudly, waking me up in his need to command the entire room’s attention. By now you will know how I feel about people who wake me up. I disliked him immediately, sight unseen, and as he continued to talk, I was further annoyed by his tone of voice, the way in which he sought to both ingratiate himself to his captive audience and place himself on a pedestal. He seemed like one of those people who define themselves as a “guru” or “thought leader” in their career field. Let’s call him Pilgrim Bob.

Pilgrim Bob proudly proclaimed that he’d retired from his job a few years back, and had been walking the Camino ever since. This was his umpteenth time walking the Camino Frances, though he’d walked other routes. He knew everything there was to know about every town on the route – just ask him. If anyone needed any help with anything at all, he was there to guide you to the right answer. But of course the Camino wasn’t what it once was. So many people, all year long. Just too many people, and everyone thinking they’re an expert, though of course most of them hadn’t walked anywhere before, and only found out about the Camino from watching The Way. Those folks weren’t REAL pilgrims. Not like Pilgrim Bob, who was now devoting his life to being a REAL pilgrim.

The conversation went on in this vein for some time, until someone actually did ask him a question. The answer was to unnerve me for the rest of my walk, and possibly forever. It’s seriously something that I still worry about. It was a question about bunk beds vs. single beds, and if we’d be seeing any other places with single beds. Of course, Pilgrim Bob couldn’t answer the question properly, but made up for this by telling an anecdote. It seemed that a few years before, Pilgrim Bob had stayed at another albergue, where they’d just gotten new wooden bunk beds. He was on the bottom bunk, and had been napping there for awhile, but decided to get up to get something out of his pack. Only seconds after getting up, the top bunk collapsed. Had he stayed a moment longer, he would have been peregrino mush. Bob went on to say that he heard of another pilgrim who was killed in this same manner, crushed by a falling top bunk. I already hated climbing to the top bunk, and feared rolling off at night. Now I also feared sleeping on the bottom bunk and being crushed in my sleep. Awesome. Thanks a lot, Pilgrim Bob, you jerk.

Terry and Natalie were out walking around town, and missed out on the Pilgrim Bob story, so I told them that night when we met up for dinner in the hotel dining room. The hotel offered an excellent pilgrim dinner. I had spaghetti as my first course, followed by steak and chips, and I remember that Natalie had cuajada for dessert, but no clue what I had. Probably creme brulee, my old standby.

I had a breakthrough moment during dinner, as well, possibly as a result of the emotional current of the day, maybe just because the wine was flowing, or perhaps it was all of this and more. Many days on the Camino seemed to just be powerful, in their own weird way. I learned so much, changed so much, came to appreciate my weirdness, my wildness, be it ever so elusive. As we sat there at our little dinner table, all three of us peregrinas, I looked at my friends’ faces and saw myself. I saw who I would become, and for the first time, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I was 33, turning 34 in under a month. Natalie was about 15 years my senior, and Terry was around 20 years her senior. All of us were unmarried, a condition that had been lately filling me with fear and dread, even though I simultaneously felt like a total idiot for feeling that way. After all, I was dating, and I didn’t need a man to survive. Indeed, most of the time, flying solo seemed the most natural and only truly acceptable state.

Tonight, I looked at my new friends across the dinner table, both so strong and free and genuine. I already loved them, so soon into becoming acquainted. How could I not? We’d shared so much of ourselves, no games or posturing. Just honesty as we placed one foot in front of the other each day. They were amazing women, living interesting lives on their own terms. I’d spent the last few days coming to terms with my high esteem for them, and here at dinner, I was now suddenly connecting the dots and seeing that I could have just as much esteem for myself, if I chose. I didn’t need to be scared of being somehow broken and useless because I wasn’t married by some imaginary “sell-by” date. I didn’t need anyone else to make myself amazing. I just needed to keep on being me, and I’d be amazing all on my own, just like my friends were.

After dinner, we strolled back through the garden to our dormitory, happy and sleepy. It was cool and crisp out, and the air smelled of wood smoke from someone’s fireplace. We had all just started to get ready for bed when the hospitalero (rudely, we all agreed) popped into the dorm and turned off the lights about 20 minutes before 10pm. A low murmur of shock traveled down the room, and the room (even Pilgrim Bob) united in a general grumble-fest for about five minutes. No matter the albergue, the rules stayed the same, and we pilgrims got used to a certain routine: lights on at 6am, everyone out of the albergue at 8am, lights off at 10pm. Turning the lights off early was just not cool, man. Headlamps came on (not mine – I’d thrown it out a few days before, to save weight), there was a flurry of last-minute pack crinkling and sleeping bag rustling, and then, one by one, the tiny lights went out. Another day on the Camino had ended. Lucky for me, I slept well, with only a couple of awkward trips down the length of the dorm room to get to the bathroom in the dark. The next day was to be one of my hardest yet.

A Terrible Loss

I am a mess. I need someone to hold me, a friend to hear me out, but really I’m in search of comfort that I cannot name. I am alone, and I don’t have a way to adequately explain how deep this moment of nothingness goes. There is no one to hear my story. I have run through the mental list time and again, and come up short. I am so tired of living so far away from all of the women I count as my sisters, and so tired of trying to explain to myself how this will all be OK.

The doctor told me that I was anxious (with a touch of depression) a few years ago, and it’s true. I am nearly always anxious, and only sad every now and then. But when I am sad, I usually also know there’s no real reason. It’s easy to see that there must be sunshine on the other side, since the shadow is so flimsy, really. The feeling remains, but the hope is not diminished in its path.

Today, though, I experienced something. I’ve been turning it over and over in my head, and I believe that it might be best called trauma. I was at the doctor’s office. I was seeing my gynecologist for a regular procedure, an IUD insertion. We’d discussed the fact that there would be pain and cramping, and before going in, I read many, many stories from women who experienced everything from no pain at all to severe cramps and faintness and nausea. Not one story mentioned flashbacks or panic attacks in conjunction with the procedure.

I did not receive an IUD today; I’ve been scheduled for an insertion under general anesthesia next week, instead. Apparently my uterus is tiny and my cervix will need a lot of help dilating, and the pain I was feeling as my panic attack started was only about 10% of what I was going to feel. So if I go ahead with it, I’ll do it while I’m knocked out, and wake up with a prescription for pain pills and a weekend to recover on the couch. I’m not so sure, though. If I’m going to have anesthesia, why not just schedule a sterilization and be through with this whole thing? I don’t want biological children; why think about any of this anymore?

The problem here isn’t that I felt pain, or that I was once again feeling ashamed to have my feet in stirrups at the doctor’s office (though it is a source of deep, deep shame, thanks to my good ol’ Southern Victorian upbringing). The problem certainly isn’t the doctor, who held me as I sobbed, and offered me tissues, and assured me that this happens all the time. The problem is that the thing that set me off wasn’t physical or even related to my body. It was related to love. A lack of it. A loss of it. The feeling of having it physically stripped from your body. Of feeling like you aren’t worthy of love, and will never deserve it, no matter how much you try, how much you give.

Just as I screamed, just before I started sobbing and the doctor removed the tools she’d placed inside my body to prepare for even more invasion, I felt the intense desire for someone to hold my hand. No one was there. I was desperately alone, a tiny speck in a giant universe, floating lonely in a sea of forever, all the people I love being pulled backwards from me, out, out, out into their own space. This happened in my head, you see. It’s not something that I’m writing about to describe how I felt – it’s a thing that I saw, eyes squeezed shut on the doctor’s table. I recalled feeling/seeing this exact thing years before, a moment when I felt my soul cry out to the man I then loved, and heard nothing in reply. It was the emptiest I’d ever felt. I’ve never felt it again, because I haven’t given myself so fully ever again.

Also for a millisecond, as I experienced this all over again, I saw something deep in there, inside myself. I’ve built a little mental house around my tenderness, two stories, pink clapboard siding (strange, since I dislike pink), shutters on the windows, green asphalt shingles on the roof. I understood that the house was protecting my ability to love, that I’ve been trying to open it up lately, to air it out and shake the dust covers off all of the furniture. That I’m terrified of the rejection I feel coming. The house is miserable.

Tonight I’m finding myself back there in that terrible loss, experiencing this cosmic echo. And in realizing all of these things, I see now that it was just an echo of an even earlier moment. Only then, it was I who was needed, I who took my hand away when it was most required. “No,” my grandfather said, when I struggled to remove my fingers from his grip. I needed to go finish my homework; I’d come back tomorrow, I promised. It was the last thing he ever said to me: “No.” I have a strong suspicion that this emptiness I’ve seen, this great pulling away, this is how he felt, wasting away in his hospital bed, hooked up to a morphine drip, cancer gnawing away at him. His eyes were squeezed shut, too. Was he struggling to hold on to just one person who loved him, as everyone else drifted away? Will there be someone to hold my hand?

If I believed in an angry god, I would wonder if I’m being punished. Maybe I’m being haunted. Maybe I’m just suffering from anxiety and a touch of depression. I wish I knew where that guy was, the one I loved, the one who wasn’t there to hold my hand when I most needed him. I would egg his house tonight.

Inner Collaboration

I am in the process of building up amity between myself and myself – encouraging collaboration, as it were. It’s slow-going, but I guess I’ll get there at some point. For awhile now, I’ve been working at being more mindful, teaching myself to pay attention to my fleeting thoughts and impulses, to discover why I often regard myself with such negativity, and why certain destructive behavior patterns have developed to shape my life. My eventual goal with mindfulness is to be able to practice a larger degree of self-love, while curbing my most troubling behaviors – namely binge eating and excess spending. I started recording my daily thoughts/struggles over on my second blog, 50 x 36, a month ago, and it’s helped me to spot patterns and give extra time to thoughts that would have just skittered away were I not endeavoring to write down the details.

One of the benefits of taking inventory of my life and needs was that I came to the conclusion that, though I needed to move to a larger apartment, I’d never be able to move if I continued life as usual. It’s not a really great thing to realize, but I spent hours working and reworking my budget, and found that there was no way for me to save enough for a deposit on a new place with what I’m making at my primary job. To make it work, I’ve started picking up shifts at a second job, and cut back on every expenditure (except for the splurges I need to make to keep my cats healthy). I’m budgeting every move. No social activities, no spending money on myself (other than $30/week for groceries), and every single penny is going into savings. If I work 70-hour weeks for the next month, I’ll have saved up enough to move to a new place, assuming I can find something in my current range (which is a huge assumption, honestly, but I can only do so much).

After I’m done saving up for the new apartment, if I can keep up the work schedule, I will start applying myself to paying off my credit cards. Once that’s done, I’ll save up to pay off my IRS debt. Once that’s done, I’ll save up to buy a car, braces, and Lasik.

Hopefully, at some point in there, someone will either give me a substantial raise, or a job offer for a something that pays me enough where I won’t have to work quite so hard for so little money. But I’m sure something will come along. Maybe I’ll somehow magically beat the anxiety and I’ll get to go back to being a marketer, or perhaps I’ll figure out a way to put some of that savings towards my last two classes for the copy editing certificate, and open up my own little business. There’s also the chance that the kids’ book that I’m writing will get illustrated and picked up by a publisher. That would be cool, and I’m sure would pay at least enough to pay off a credit card or two, right? I’m not holding my breath for any of these, though. Got to keep moving forward with what I’ve got.

It’s 6 a.m., and time to make coffee for the continental breakfast bar, then put on my office clothes and head to Job #2. Catch y’all on the flip side.

 

 

Beloved

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They say that the heart is the seat of love, but what do they know? These days, it’s my gut and my brain that take turns churning. I thought that I understood, that there was no more to learn, but I was wrong.

The summer when I was eleven, I fell into a deep melancholy. My parents and I lived alone in the woods, and though I had many animal friends, friends of the human variety were much harder to come by. Kids just didn’t like me much. I was segregated from the pack, naturally and also against my will. The loneliness was profound, and it grew by the year. Eventually, I made some friends and began to find my way into a world of my own making, where I didn’t have to feel so alone. But if I pay attention, sometimes I can still feel it, pulsating, a raw wound, bundles of exposed nerves, screaming into the wind. I just don’t pay attention.

As I grew older, I found comfort in the idea that I might find a soulmate some day. A person who wouldn’t need to be sold on my positives (the ones I couldn’t even sell myself on, most days). A person for whom I wouldn’t need to shuck and jive. A person who would accept me, because he already knew me, before and outside of time. A person whom I could love deeply, without fear. Plato’s description of soulmates soothed that ragged part of me, and gave me hope. I found a weird comfort in the thought that each human was once part of a greater whole, rent asunder by the gods and forced to walk on alone, seeking our other halves, that physical embodiment of hope. I longed for that other half.

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Eventually, as I watched my friends pair off and move away, as I started my life over again and again, each time losing a little hope that I could ever excel the way I’d once imagined, the thought of a soulmate began to fill me with bitterness. I came to the conclusion that it was just one more lie that I’d have to learn to rise above. The term has become twisted and abused, overused until its potency has diminished in our cultural lexicon. Nowadays, every set of young lovers thinks they’re each others’ soulmates. It’s simply not true. Plenty of people have wonderful, lifelong relationships without finding a soulmate.

Soulmates are rare. They’re not available at every five and dime, and they’re also not a requirement for a happy life. Not even for me. I am no more special than any other lost soul. This is important to accept, now more than ever. Though I still longed to find the person who could help me complete the circle, I also loathed myself for ever believing that I could truly belong to someone else out there. What made my life any more special or valid than anyone else’s? What gave me the right to feel entitled to anything more than I already had?

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But then I met you, and I knew that you were my other half. Just like that. No question, just calm certainty. They also say: “When you know, you know.” That one they got right.

Plato made this all seem so easy. You go looking for your other half, and once you find them, you are no longer lost or lonely. You were broken apart, but now you fit together and make a whole. All should be right with the world, yes?

But Plato didn’t explain what to do when you find your other half, and the wait time was too long. He didn’t give any instructions on how to mend your other half if they got broken again while they were waiting for you to show up. He didn’t mention how it would feel to know with every fiber of your being that you’ve found the one, but not be able to do a thing about it. There was no passage on how it feels to choke on your heart every time you realize your only choices are to give up and leave, or to stay and wait for change that might never come. He made it sound like the hard part was being broken apart in the first place.

I have to think that Plato never found a soulmate, and this is why he never gave us a proper warning. Or, maybe that’s just it. By the time you’ve gotten to soulmate territory, you’re so experienced in loneliness and heartache that you don’t NEED a warning. You know as soon as your eyes meet that this will be difficult, but ultimately worth it, even if your paths are meant to diverge once more in the future.

For me, the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz pick up where Plato’s story ends. Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I am capable of understanding and selfless love precisely because of my pain. Hafiz said: “And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with love like that. It lights up the sky.” The pain allowed light in, and now my light will help you. Maybe my light will be the thing that gets through.

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So I’ll wait awhile more. If this entire journey has served to turn me into your Sun, I’ll bear the pain, and shine on. Because I want you to go with me, but more importantly, I want you to be free to go without me if you choose. Free of the pain that floods you, and the indecision that binds you, and the memories that drag you down. I will never tell you what to do, or insist you follow my lead. It’s become more and more evident that my lesson is to let go, and yours is to decide your own path. If I’m lucky, when I finally find the strength to turn away, I’ll hear your steps right behind me. And if not, at least I’ll still have the comfort of seeing that you’ve made your own choice. Soulmates aren’t happily-ever-after. They’re happily-ever-life-after-this-one. I’m sure I’ll see you around.

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Dream Diary: Witch Tableaus

The last time I dreamt about C, we were at the French Market. He and my friend K were playing drums, and there was a group of dancers/mummers dressed as mechanical breasts milling around in the background. That was maybe a month ago.

Last night I dreamt about C again, which is strange, since he’s a person who often doesn’t cross my mind for half a year or more. I always worry when I dream about him, because he’s always rather stoic and sad. It was also strange, since this dream had another very vivid reference to performance art – and again, very weird performance art. Man, my brain is a very interesting place.

Last night’s dreams, as a whole, were pretty interesting. In one dream, I realized that my elderly landlady must be going senile. I came home to find that she’d taken every piece of furniture in our house out into the front yard, and was letting people take what they wanted. The house was full of antiques and really funky mid-century mod stuff, so I was really worried for her. I started hauling stuff back inside, but since she insisted she didn’t want any of it anymore, I outfitted my own bedroom with the pieces I knew she loved the best, just in case she wanted them back. Since we’d always agreed on what things were the coolest, it was a win for me, too, but I was still heartbroken that she appeared to have lost her faculties over the course of a single morning.

In another dream, I was with a friend that reminded me a lot of my mom. I couldn’t figure out who the person was, but she did a lot of things that made me think of Mum, so maybe it was actually her. We broke into a house together and fed a cat. I don’t know why we broke into the house, but I do know that most of the dream involved getting out of the house before the owner came home, though we were trying to be sneaky and have the front door locked and climb out of a window, and we weren’t agreeing on how to do it. I don’t recall us ever getting out of the house in my dream.

The next dream was the one with C. I was at a charity event where there were all these live tableaus (real people) set up to represent specific scenes in the history of witchcraft. I don’t think that we were in this reality, because the scenes depicted Harry Potter-esque magical events – scenes of great bravery and sacrifice in war. They were very important for the viewers, like war memorials. Many people who passed were brought to tears. At first, I thought that the garden with many of the tableaus was going to be mostly abandoned all night, and the event wasn’t going to make any donations. But the garden was full of tables, and as I passed around and looked at the tableaus, the tables began to fill up with people drinking and talking. There were fairy lights overhead, and people were in sparkling ball gowns and other fancy dress outfits. It was a beautiful event.

My mom and dad were there at some point, and we all decided to sit down to have a drink and discuss some card game. I was explaining the rules, but getting irritated, because Mum kept interrupting to ask for details that didn’t matter at all in the game, wasting time dissecting the items of least importance. Then I looked up, and saw C and his brother. They were sitting at a table across from my family, and a waiter was delivering their drinks. The waiter called them “Golden Bourbons” – but it was an actual cocktail of some kind, obviously containing bourbon, but a rich, milky chestnut color, served in a tall glass with ice. C looked pleased to be there with his brother, but also presented as caged and uncomfortable, whether from the event, or interacting with the brother, or possibly from realizing that I was there. I did end up talking with him later in the dream, and it was a perfectly innocuous conversation, though I can’t remember what was said, only that it was light and pleasant enough.

After that dream, I had one last one where I was a waiter at a fast food restaurant, and I sneaked away from the party that I was catering (which, who knows, might have been the party I dreamed about before) to pursue a suspicious guy who looked a lot like Patrick Wilson. It turned out that the suspicious guy was a government agent, and perfectly nice. He found me hiding in the back seat of his car during his stakeout and the rest of the dream was a poorly-sketched-out buddy cop movie with a romantic thread (of course, lol).