Day 21 (Part 2): Villarmentero de Campos to Calzadilla de la Cueza

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

All beautiful moments must come to an end, and soon enough, it was time to pack up and leave the garden at Albergue Amanecer. Buoyed by our little break and the lovely surroundings, my moodiness from the morning disappeared as we hit the road again. The weather had cleared up over the course of the morning, and once again we had blue skies and puffy clouds.

As we walked, Jakob and I discussed who we were and why we had each decided to walk the Camino. Despite our easy friendship, our lives had been extremely different. I was an only child, raised in a rural area by a lower income family.  I moved a thousand miles away at 17 and never looked back. At nearly 34, I had three college degrees and dozens of seemingly random jobs under my belt. My dreams of singing and writing hadn’t even gotten off of the ground, and I’d bounced around from idea to idea all of my life. I was pretty good at most things that I tried, and job transitions weren’t too difficult, but I’d yet to find a job about which I could be passionate. I was introverted, introspective, and struggling with depression. I was walking to find answers to questions I didn’t know yet. Though I enjoyed the religious architecture along the route, my only connection to Catholicism was my slight obsession with St. Francis, and I found him more in nature than in the built environment.

By contrast, my new friend grew up in a close-knit family, in conditions that many would call comfortable (both of his parents are professionals, and his father is well-known in his field). His family had lived in the same area of Bavaria for many generations – longer than my family had been in America. At 30, Jakob had only recently finished his law degree after many years of school. His dream was to become a judge, and he was almost there. His Camino had long been planned to span the bridge between graduation and job placement, and as we walked, he was keeping track of his job application process as it rolled along back home. I was surprised to learn that in Germany, there is no requirement to practice as a lawyer before becoming a judge. We discussed what the job meant to him, and the nuances of job hunting for a judgeship near his home in Munich. He was driven, optimistic, and given his patience and open-mindedness, I couldn’t help but marvel that he’d be great at his chosen profession. He was also religious, and for him, the Camino was a way to connect with his name saint, James the Apostle (called Jakob in German tradition, from the Latin Iacobus).

I was surprised, given how much I liked my new friend, that he was also highly active in his college fraternity. It took me awhile to wrap my head around how different it was to be in a frat in Germany vs. the U.S. He showed me a photo of their old-fashioned uniforms (complete with funny hats and military braids). Involvement seemed strict, and academics and conduct were of the utmost importance. Connections lasted a lifetime, and older members made sure that the college-age brothers didn’t stray off the path and embarrass the organization. But like the American frats with which I had more experience, beer was also a key ingredient. How could it not be, in the beer capital of Germany?

Speaking of imbibing, we found great kinship in discussing the party reputations of our respective hometowns during their two biggest festivals – Oktoberfest for him, and Mardi Gras for me. We shared funny stories of various debauchery we’d witnessed, and popular misconceptions of what these giant, world-renowned parties were actually all about. We each issued unconditional invitations for a festival exchange program – one day I still plan to make it to Oktoberfest.

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Bocadillo, Aquarius, Coca Cola – who could ask for more?

In early afternoon, we reached Carrion de los Condes, and sat down to have lunch at a little cafe. I had no idea, but this was about to be one of those life changing moments. We posted up at our table, me with an absolutely giant sandwich. I pulled out my phone to peruse the WisePilgrim app, and he pulled out his yellow guidebook (then only published in German – the English version came out a few months later), looking up our options. We were about to hit the longest stretch of the Camino with no opportunities to stop, and if we chose to keep walking, we’d have to really commit. No bathrooms, no water, no cafe con leche, nowhere to rest our weary feet! It would be hours before we’d make it to a stopping point, and it was already afternoon. Was it crazy? Should we do it, or just stop here for the night? Once again, I got this feeling that the Universe had put us together as some sort of challenge, to keep each other encouraged.

As we ate and mulled over the choice, it was also in the back of my mind that we must be reaching the end of our time together soon. It seemed natural to me that we would walk in each other’s company for a few days or so, then split up. Easy. No pressure. I was on track to find Natalie again, and also practicing a kind of detachment. Despite how much fun I was having, at some level I was letting things wash over me without getting too involved. Perhaps I was guarding my heart? I don’t know what I was thinking.

But then, over that jamón y queso bocadillo muy grande, somehow the conversation turned to books and TV, and I mentioned that I really loved the miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Weirdly enough, the show was my introduction to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, and it was a series that I rewatch yearly to remind myself of determination, grit, bravery, and goodness. Jakob immediately geeked out, and gushed that the show was one of his favorites, too. In fact, he’d watched it multiple times in German and English, to make sure not to miss any nuances in the dialogue. I told him that years before, when I was training to run the Chicago Marathon, I’d spurred myself on in difficult moments with Easy Company’s battle cry, “Currahee!” He said he’d often done the same. With that simple exchange, something shifted. No more conversation was necessary – we were all in. We could keep walking. We could do this. That was also the moment that I realized I’d been handed a new Camino family without even trying.

The next albergue was 18k away, in Calzadilla de la Cueza, which meant at least another 4 hours walking at our current pace. We’d be very lucky to arrive before dark, and there were storm clouds on the horizon, so we’d probably be walking through crappy weather. It was a stupid decision, made out of false bravado, and one which had terrible consequences. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On our way out of town, we stopped to purchase two cheap ponchos. I had a raincoat and a pack cover, but had found that my pack was still getting wet inside when I walked too long in the rain. Luckily, I’d packed all of my clothing inside a big space saver Ziploc bag, so my clothes stayed dry, but I still didn’t like the moisture in the pack. Additionally, wearing the raincoat made me feel like I was in a walking sauna. I thought maybe the poncho would do the trick if we encountered heavy rain, and soon, I got a chance to test out the theory.

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Within about an hour after leaving Carion de los Condes, the sky went from somewhat cloudy to absolutely treacherous. The wind whipped up into a frenzy, and we were hit with heavy bursts of rain. I changed out of my trail runners as soon as the weather shifted, to attempt to keep them dry. Instead, I switched to my Teva Tirras, worn with socks. My feet were cold and damp, but didn’t chafe – and I knew I could count on dry shoes the next day. Underneath the socks was the typical layer of moleskin on all of my “danger zones” known for chafing, plus a thin coat of Unpetroleum Jelly (made by Alba). The rain was so relentless that in the end, I ended up wearing the raincoat and the poncho together.

Between the insane crackling of the poncho and the wind whistling across the open Meseta over the Camino, there was little conversation. We marched on, wet and miserable, all afternoon. From time to time, the rain would let up a bit, and one of us would point out something funny or weird to examine along the road, from old boots left behind, to road markers. From time to time, I’d begin to despair that we would see civilization again. The road stretched on forever in those moments. Inevitably, though, as my spirits sank, Jakob would draw my attention to some small wonder at the side of the road. For awhile, we both put in our headphones, and realized we could walk “together” but separately, singing along to our own tunes. Singing is always a spirit lifter for me, and this worked out perfectly. Towards sunset, we stood and admired the clouds racing along the horizon. There was power in the land, and prayer in the walking. We were discovering something important together. It was still an incredible relief to see the first rooftops of Calzadilla de la Cueza appear on the horizon.

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It was dusk when we walked into town. Luckily for two completely exhausted peregrinos, the Calzadilla de la Cueza Albergue Municipal was on the left, immediately as you walk into town. I don’t know if either of us could have walked another step. As it turned out, the facilities were cheap and pretty nice. The bathrooms seemed newly refurbished and very clean, and the beds were comfy. There were maybe 10 other pilgrims there that night, including Tom, the older American guy I’d met with British Mark a couple of weeks before. I said hi, and he not only acted like he didn’t remember me, but was also a little rude about it. I was too tired to care much, but Jakob later told me that he saw the interaction and was taken aback on my behalf. As we started to unpack our things, I heard Jakob start laughing, and looked over to see that he was peering at me through a giant rip in his poncho. I’d already decided I couldn’t stand the way mine crinkled as I walked, so I told him he was welcome to have mine as a replacement. My pack would just have to get wet now and then.


After a hot shower and putting on some dry, warm clothes, I felt slightly more human. However, my legs were killing me, and my face was chafed from the wind and sun. It was obvious that the day’s activity had taken its toll on my already tired body. I massaged my legs with Volaren, popped an Ibuprofen, and donned compression socks, but even with that, I could tell I’d done some serious damage to my legs and feet. We’d walked around 34K over the course of the day – over 21 miles, almost a marathon. Even with all of the walking I’d done up until now, it was a huge leap in distance, and I knew I’d pay a price. Leaving the albergue in search of food was out of the question, since I could barely walk. I ate a few random choices from the vending machine while checking my Facebook messages in the break room, and went to bed before the dorm lights were out.

The Decisions

How often in our lives do we lay it all bare?

I’m wondering if that’s why I can regard my breakups – my bad decisions – so positively, despite the emotional damage. At least when you’re breaking up with someone, you can come clean with everything that you’ve been thinking.

Nope, even that’s a lie. That’s completely untrue. Sorry, dear reader. I didn’t mean to lie to you. It’s force of habit. That doesn’t say the best about me, I know. It’s just that I’ve been trained to be sweet, nice, amenable. If being a pushover is the prime directive, being myself is so far on the back burner as to be on a stove in someone else’s apartment.

So, here:

I have fallen in love four times. I have fallen madly in love twice. My most “serious” relationship was with someone whom I loved, but with whom I never counted myself as being madly in love with. I measure “serious” on us both acting like adults – cohabitating, both holding down jobs, mutually planning for a future together. I have only had that one serious relationship. Everything else has been wishful thinking on my part. I know that now.

The first man I fell in love with was my first taste of magick, and how much of a bitch it can be. We met my freshman year, through a very weird set of coincidences. We had the same birthday, even though he was two years older. We were supposed to go on a date, but before it happened, I met someone else and my life went another direction, entirely. We didn’t end up going out on that date for three years, after meeting again via another odd set of coincidences. Once it finally happened, we were inseparable. We spent days in bed, watching Adult Swim. He moved in with me and didn’t pay rent. His cat peed on everything. My friends hated him. I thought he was amazing. In retrospect, I don’t think he thought much of me.

The first man I fell madly in love with feels like a bad dream. I still get sick to my stomach thinking about him. It was the second time I’d fallen in love. I was singing on stage, and looked out into the crowd. He was there, bathed in blue. He looked like Krishna. I fell hard, and immediately. When I got off stage, he was waiting to talk to me. It felt destined. He felt perfect, but I was a mess, and I guess he was, too. It couldn’t work. He once kicked me out of his car because I said I wished that I could trade my life for Freddie Mercury’s, to bring back a star in exchange for a dud. I thought his music was sublime. I can still pick out the sound of his trombone over any other horn on Frenchmen Street, 15 years later. It helps me decide what bars to avoid. Maybe I tried too hard. Maybe I just weirded him out. I don’t know. I still can’t see the past clearly enough to understand exactly how it didn’t work, but at any rate, I kept trying. I can be accused of many things, but giving up is not one. I clung to him for two years after our breakup, and he had pity on me, much to my detriment. Thank god for Hurricane Katrina, for enforcing a break that I couldn’t make for myself.

There was a break. I didn’t take time off on purpose, but life went on, and no more love happened. I wasn’t sad about it. It was a relief, actually.

And then the serious boyfriend happened. We were friends for a year. I took my time, inching along, inspecting every crevice, anticipating every problem. He seemed safe enough, grown up and responsible, but with piercings, and tattoos, and a dark sense of humor. He liked me. He got my jokes, and understood my timing. He thought I was pretty. He just couldn’t understand my emotions, or talk to me about God, but by now I understood that I’d need to make concessions to find a partner. It was a good basic concept, but I wasn’t making the decision from an informed place. I didn’t understand yet what really made me tick, or that being with a man who refused to discuss God (or to put it in easier terms, Universal Truth) meant that I could never have a meaningful conversation again in my own home. It was too much to accept. We dated for nearly eight years, but in the end I couldn’t keep going. He was blindsided, but I’d known for awhile that it wasn’t working. I kept telling him that I was unhappy, but I guess I should have shouted, or used ruder words than “unhappy.” When I finally told him I was leaving, he fell apart. We’ve never spoken again.

I should have been more useful to my ex in this time of dissolution, but a few weeks before calling it quits and moving out, I’d met a friend of a friend with whom I really clicked. It was a first for me. I didn’t know it then, but I was entering new territory for me. I finally knew myself, and could speak from the heart in a way I hadn’t before. This new man saw me for myself, and to my surprise, he liked what he saw.

So I moved out, found my own place, and before long, man #4 and I fell madly, deeply in love. It hurt, physically, to be apart from him. I could barely breathe while he was away. I didn’t take any time to recover from the trainwreck of my prior relationship, and it would damage me much more in the end. Worst of all, in retrospect, is that this new beau turned my brain on. I don’t know how long it was off, but I’m assuming that it was only partially working for around eight years prior to meeting him. All of a sudden, it was humming with intensity. Story after story. So many ideas, just pumping out of me night and day. I couldn’t keep up. And for everything that worked its way out of me, there was a conversation to hone it, beautify it, make it more, bigger, sweeter, sharper. He wasn’t just a boyfriend. He was a muse. He was oxygen to a brain so starved it barely remembered how to function. There were shortcomings, yes. Shortcomings galore. And now that everything has ended, hindsight is 20/20. But while he was happening, he was nothing short of jumper cables for my brain, artistic life support in a world where I had long ago drowned.

See? I’ve still only given you half truths. Even with the best intentions on the line, I can still only give you what my heart’s ready for you to know. I’m sure if any one of these men weighed in, they’d give you their own version of how I was a monster to them. Only one would have a leg to stand on, but his offenses and mine weigh just about the same, if you add them all up over time.

That’s not why I started this, anyway. I started this because I wanted to tell you that I have a new crush. It’s not terribly new. I’ve known it for months, but have been logic-ing myself out of it. If I had to make a prediction, it’s that it will end badly. Maybe not death; just drama, and plenty of tears. I don’t want that. I should stay away. But I won’t. I won’t because I knew as soon as I saw him the first time that he was on my predetermined list of decisions. Whether he’s a bad one or not, I guess I’ll have to let you know.

 

 

It’s A Kind of Magic

It occurs to me that the likelihood is very high that I will never connect with a life partner. I’m sure I’ll have other short term partners, and even some longish term. But what are the odds of finding that person who’s experienced just the right set of life experiences, and has the knowledge, humor, and tenacity to be willing to hold my hand til the bitter end? (If I’m cooking up a dreamboat to visualize, it occurs to me here that I should probably insert “tempered, yet contagious optimism” to my list of requirements – can’t hurt.)

I found out the other day that I had my Myers Briggs profile wrong, and I’m actually INTP. Suddenly, everything clicks into place. The deep loneliness. The inability to connect. The annoyance at small talk and occasion-specific clothing. The overwhelming desire to find Truth, even without understanding exactly what Truth means. Never being able to explain myself because I skipped all the steps in the middle to get to the answer, and hell, I’m not a teacher, you figure it out. The overwhelm. Disliking arguments because if I know I’m right, I don’t want to waste time convincing you of something you should be smart enough to know. The mad scientist excitement over a hundred and one ways to create and innovate…but squirrel!

I sing out loud when I’m walking places in the city. It makes me happy, and I’m past caring about social norms. When I sing, I tell myself I’m sending out a beacon to the Universe. See me! I’m here, doing your work! But it’s really a distress call, isn’t it? See me! Don’t let me be invisible!

I’m doing my best to stay calm. It’s not that I am scared of being alone, physically. In most ways, I prefer it. I like quiet and having my own space. It helps me think. But the idea of being locked in my head forever, of never finding someone to understand me – I can’t find the words to paint the appropriate level of anguish for you here, dear reader.

I think that’s what hurts the most about the end of my last relationship. Connecting mentally and personality-wise with other humans is just not normal for me. It takes me years to move someone from the “acquaintance I spend a lot of time with” bucket to the “friend I would trust my life with” bucket. There’s no in-between collection receptacle.

It takes extraordinary circumstances to circumvent this process, but it’s happened in a few cases – most notably, on the Camino. That’s one of the reasons that trip looms so large in my life story. To go halfway across the world, expecting to be alone and stay alone, and then to meet multiple people to whom I could gladly offer my heart – that’s so far from my norm that I still can’t comprehend it fully. To quote one of the greatest musical acts of all time, it’s a kind of magic.

But I yearn for that magic in my everyday. The challenge is to find a way to reverse engineer it. Surely I am capable of whipping up some sort of recipe for success.

Unpacking

Lots going on right now, even though life on the face of things is quite quiet. It feels like the winds of chaos are beginning to pick up a little speed, and I sense that luck is in my favor. I’m not quite sure just yet what it is I’m supposed to be doing, but I think that the best choice is to buckle down, turn inward, and gather my strength for the jump, whenever I feel it coming. It won’t be long.

I want to publish this year. The thought occurred to me out of spite, more than anything. But my spite is so short-lived and soft. No one would ever guess that half of my reason for doing anything is just because other people piss me off, and I use the irritation as a catalyst to get shit done. It’s tough to explain – basically, I really dislike conflict or hurting anyone (or even displeasing anyone, really), so when people make me sad or angry, I just pick a project to work on until I feel better. It’s the truly bad part of being a perfectionist. I’m weighted down with the expectations for which I’ve blamed others all my life. I have to constantly remind myself that no one really cares, and I’m giving everyone much more power than they actually are entitled to.

In this case, though, I really do want to just go ahead and be a published writer. You know, more than blogs and articles. I’m tired of knowing down to my core that I’m a creative, but having nothing of substance to my name. Life is short. I could die tomorrow.  Spiritually, I can’t afford to keep living in fear. I need to write this book. Who knows, maybe there’s some way to even use it as a stepping stone to get funded to write more.

Speaking of writing, obviously I’m doing that a bit more now. I don’t want to jinx myself, but my thoughts are flowing slightly faster lately. The panic and sadness that was gripping my brain seems to have eased up a bit. Also, I’ve been inspired as of late. My curiosity has been piqued by several people who live wild, colorful lives. I want to be like them. I want to live bigger. I want to be outside of my own head for once.

I’m starting to identify my unique selling points. They’re very odd, but they’re all mine. I mean, surely someone else has to be interested in some of the same things I am, right? Death and ghosts and 60’s music and earrings and whiskey and cats and WWII history and magick and pilgrimage and travel and St. Francis and faerie tales (real ones)…

I can’t afford to get too discouraged. I’ve made some steps in the right direction this year. Sure, the debt feels like it’s crushing my brain, and it’s hard to focus when I know that I’ve got $40 left to get me through the next week and a half. But I’ve got a fridge full of groceries. I have two semi-valuable things to sell in a hurry if I simply must have money before next payday. I get fed for free at work every day that I’m there, and all of my bills are paid up. I’ve done a good deed. I’ve seen a smile in a loved one’s eyes. I’ve given hugs. I’ve loved a neighborhood stray. My braces are working, and my teeth are starting to look nice again. I have ideas for simple things to sell. I have ideas for complex things to write. I’m a lot less heartbroken than I was even a few months ago. I am not afraid of a solo adventure. I am hopeful that all the things that are me will make me worthy of great love from myself, and the friendship of others. I trust that I can dance and sing, and people will join in my celebration. Somewhere out there is a lantern, hanging in the fog, heading in my general direction, waiting to be discovered. But you can’t focus on other fires when you need to stoke your own.

I’m unpacking the bullshit, and leaving it behind. It might be just one piece at a time, but I’m getting there.

 

 

Day 21 (Part 1): Fromista to Villarmentero de Campos

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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Moon and stars carved into the bathroom door at Albergue Amanecer.

The day started out damp and gloomy. A fine mist was falling, and the sky was gray, as we struggled back out of the door of the inhospitable albergue and trudged back out to the Camino. I don’t know how Jakob slept, but I slept like a rock. That was great, because as it would turn out, I’d need all the energy I could get for the day ahead. Still, I was dragging as the day started. My mood was as dumpy as the weather.

The town still seemed to be asleep, but just up the road was a little cafe/bar that catered to the all night crowd. Most of the patrons were a little rough around the edges, guys who seemed to have just gotten off of the night shift, peppered with a few who had probably been drinking for hours. A pinball machine in the corner had a crowd of guys around it, bantering back and forth, cheering now and then. Several older men were perched at the bar, beers in hand. I mentally pegged them as off-duty truck drivers, and for some reason that cheered me up a little.

There were a few peregrinos already seated, eating the customary breakfast of toast, zumo, and cafe con leche. I took one look at their plates and decided I just couldn’t handle another morning of carb loading. I asked the bartender if she had tortilla, and she shook her head no. Eggs? No. OK, what about chorizo? Si! So I did have toast for breakfast, bolstered with a chewy hunk of sausage for protein, and a hot cocoa, just to get my endorphins going and pull me out of the funk. We sat near the other peregrinos, and ever-friendly Jakob made conversation while I ate and nodded along now and then. They were British women, in their late 50’s or early 60’s. In what I would learn was a pretty usual occurrence, they found my companion to be exceedingly charming, and one giggled like a schoolgirl while they talked.

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Eventually, there was a break in the rain, and the trio of women struggled away with packs and ponchos. I hadn’t quite finished my breakfast, so we sat a few minutes longer, and while we sat, it started to rain harder. Neither of us had the energy to budge until it cleared, so it was about 30 minutes later that we finally got our day started and got out of Fromista. Despite my breakfast and my new friend, I felt grayer than the day.

Before the Camino, walking was a means to get from one place to another. Walking just WAS. There was no emotion associated with it. There was no specific benefit to be gleaned from it. I put one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, until I reached a destination. That was that. I didn’t know before the Camino, and to be honest, I didn’t really realize while on the Camino, just what joy there was to be had through walking. I couldn’t see how drastically it could impact me, to my very core. This day stands as one of the first days that I got just a glimmer of an idea that putting one foot in front of the next could change EVERYTHING for me, starting with my mood.

As Jakob and I walked, I loosened up just a bit. I still felt emotionally low, but talking with my new friend gave me some mental space. The real turning point in the day was just up the road, about 9km away, at a place called Albergue Amanecer.

In my primary research for the Camino, I’d read that at some point around the Meseta, there was an albergue that had a friendly donkey and a tipi. I’m not sure when it became absolutely necessary for me to visit the albergue with the donkey and the tipi, but at some point, I’d decided that it was one of my Camino “musts.” I was hoping to stay the night in the tipi, should the opportunity present itself. The night before, while drinking wine and eating our grocery store dinner at the albergue, we’d researched the next day’s walk a little, and discovered that we were an hour and a half’s walk from Albergue Amanacer, home of tipi and donkey. I was disappointed to not be able to stay the night, but figured we could at least stop and take a look.

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Geese and a tipi! I never did get to chat with the donkey, though.

By the time we reached the tiny municipality of Villarmentero de Campos, it was already late morning. We were very behind schedule for the day, and the Albergue Amanecer’s front gate was closed. But beyond the gate was visible a large, verdant lawn, outdoor tables, and in the distance, the tipi and several old fashioned wooden structures that reminded me of Romani vardos that had been taken off of their wheels. The entire picture was so wholesome and pleasant that it increased my resolve to get in and explore. Jakob tried the gate, and it opened easily. Once in the front yard, it was obvious that it had been closed to prevent the yard’s various fowl – chickens, ducks, and geese – from wandering out. The birds wandered around and past us as we made our way to the little cafe on the side of the building. Inside, one of the owners made cafe con leches and invited us to hang out while we rested our feet.

As soon as we’d taken a seat outside in the garden, a couple of locals showed up. With them came their dogs, who scampered around, played with each other, chased chickens, and generally just amused the hell out of all of us. At one point, one of the chickens flew up to the roof to escape a dog, and we all clapped in amazement as the chunky bird clumsily cleared the roof’s edge by what seemed like millimeters. As we enjoyed the scene, a young hospitalera told us about how she had recently moved to Spain, soon after walking the Camino for the first time. On her first walk, she’d rescued Camina, one of the young dogs now playing out in the yard in front of us. She felt so at peace on her journey that soon after returning to her own country, she called up the albergue’s owners, asked if they’d hire her on, then packed up her belongings and moved to Spain.

I was aware that it was getting late, but was really enjoying the moment, and didn’t feel like leaving yet. Part of me felt anxious – was I inconveniencing my new friend? Would he need to walk on to meet his schedule? Was it pissing him off that I was wasting time here in this beautiful garden? But when I surreptitiously glanced over and took stock of his attitude, I saw that he was relaxed, just taking in the moment with a zen-like demeanor that made me a little jealous, but mostly just made me relieved. I knew that I was being given a big gift, whether or not Jakob realized it. To be able to move at my own pace without judgement was still a very foreign concept. I decided to sit back and soak in this taste of freedom that had presented itself, here in this perfect little slice of nature.

The Taste of Love Is Sweet

A few weeks ago, I started writing about love. I mean, that’s obviously not true if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time. I’ve written a lot about love. And pain. And depression. And self-loathing. Weirdly enough, at some point, all of those things intertwine. If I had to guess, I’d say that in my very early childhood, I somehow learned that achievement was the key to being loved, and it sent me down the shit-strewn pathway that is perfectionism, inevitable failure, chronic procrastination, anxiety, depression, inability to effectively communicate my needs to others, and look, here we are! Woohoo! Awesome, gotta love psychology – here’s a primer on perfectionism and anxiety disorders, if you’re interested.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I was talking about love. Or specifically, the second of two lessons that I’ve gleaned in my 36 odd (and I do mean “odd”) years here on Planet Whatsitsname. If you want to see Lesson #1, it’s not here. Go to this other place.

Whew, now that we’re rid of that guy (cheeky bastard, trying to read ahead!), let’s get on with things…

Lesson #2: Autonomy

This one is otherwise known as “Am I my lover’s keeper?” The answer, in case you’re wondering, is a resounding NO.

My friend’s mom has this wonderful saying, and I know that I’ve probably recounted it here before, but I’m going to do it again (#sorrynotsorry). She says that your partner shouldn’t be the meat and potatoes of your life. Instead, they should be the strawberries and cream. In a relationship, it’s our job to make life sweet for our partners, while we learn to be our own “meat and potatoes” – to create a life that sustains and nurtures ourselves.

In other words, your lover can’t be your everything, and you shouldn’t be your lover’s everything. That’s an extremely unhealthy way of living. As good as it may feel to lean on each other, that’s not a sustainable, long term solution. If you’re not leaning equally on each other (which presents its own unique struggle), one of you is weighing the other down. In either of these situations, your structural integrity WILL fail in the end. It’s only a matter of time.

For those of us who love to nurture, who just want to be helpful and kind, it is natural to want to give everything we have to make our loved ones happy, healthy, and whole. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for those around you. But people who give freely of themselves can lose track, and be taken advantage of by trusted loved ones. When we instinctively give, give, give, we attract people who instinctively accept, accept, accept (and in the most negative situation, those who take, take, take). It’s easy to feel fulfilled by the joy of being a kind person and doing good things for the people we love, but that won’t keep the emotional lights on forever. Codependency might not be malicious. It feels like love. It feels like symbiosis. But it’s not – it’s parasitism, and it makes both of you even weaker. The partner who never learned to take care of their own needs (be they physical, emotional, psychological, etc.) is never going to learn if there’s no impetus to change. Meanwhile, the partner who rejoices in offering too much care is most likely neglecting their own needs and deficiencies.

I know now that the only way forward is to create a language of reciprocal joy with my partner. Of course I want to share in the story of their life. I want to know when the day goes wrong, and when it goes right. I want to be there to lend a hand when I’m needed – that’s what partners do, after all. But I am not there to carry all that weight for the long haul. And it’s not their job to carry mine. It’s my job to be a grown up and learn how to shoulder my burdens when I can, when to graciously accept a little relief, and how to recognize when it’s my turn to take on some extra weight. Mostly, though, it’s about walking side-by-side, enjoying whatever the path brings our way. It’s about bringing sweetness to a difficult day when we can, but also not being daunted when we can’t. In the end, we are not our lovers’ keepers. Which leads me to an unexpected third lesson…

Lesson #3: Love isn’t an external process.

It’s an internal alchemy. It isn’t more valid because you have someone to share it with, will it towards, or spend it on. Love doesn’t require a physical object to exist, and I suspect that once love is sparked, no matter the catalyst, there will always be an ember held safe in your heart, willing itself back into full flame. We can easily be our own sweetness, if we just let ourselves remember how.

Hotter Than A Pepper Sprout

I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole tonight (as is my wont once I decide I just NEED to hear a song), and somehow got from Joan Armatrading’s “Drop the Pilot” all the way to a video commemorating June and Johnny Cash’s epic coupledom. (OK, I’ll tell you how I got there – it involved The Cowsills, Joni Mitchell, The Grass Roots, and Seals and Crofts…yeah, no, it makes no sense unless you’re me, lol.)

Anyway, I guess I’m just thinking about love vs. codependency, and new relationships when the old ones can’t be so easily pushed aside, for any given number of reasons. I don’t know that I have any solid wisdom to impart here. But I’m trying something very new (for me) lately, and that’s just trying my best not to worry, not to push myself, and to let things unfold as they see fit. In the last 12 years, I’ve learned numerous lessons, but lately, two of them are pushing themselves to the forefront. I’m trying to listen, learn, and avoid duplicating the pain.

Lesson #1: Saying “I love you.”

I’ve dated a lot of people. It might surprise some of you, since I’ve been in long-term relationships for pretty much as long as the Internet has been a serious thing, but before 2006, my longest relationship was three months. I made up my mind quickly, and moved on if things weren’t right. I never told people that I loved them, or talked about a future together, mostly because I was smart enough at 20 to understand that there was a lot of future left, and the odds of making a lasting connection with a guy my age were extremely low. I took every day as it came, and life was pretty good. There were a couple of heartbreaks, but overall, it felt like I was succeeding at the dating thing.

Then I met the guy I assumed I was going to marry, and stopped dating other people for eight years. It might as well have been a marriage, just no paperwork. But it was unhealthy, and eventually I LOST MY EVER-LOVING MIND. Well, that’s the face value…in reality, the people closest to me could see me cracking years before I gleefully blew the whole thing to smithereens.

Here’s the thing – I could have told you in 2006 that there was a problem, even if I couldn’t have given you a name for it. I knew there was a problem as soon as he told me that he loved me, and I thought, “I love (*insert Universe-sized pause here as the non-math person does complicated calculations…*) your family.” I didn’t say that, of course. I said “I love you, too.” But the split second between his declaration of love and my return of the sentiment stretches an eon in my brain. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, or that I didn’t think I loved him at that moment. That’s not it at all. I did love him. It’s just that when I thought about being with him, it was in conjunction with his family – and his family held more weight in my heart. We had a good run, and I can do the coulda/woulda/shoulda thing all day long, but in the end, it was really super wrong for both of us. I mean, it was a pretty epic mistake, in retrospect. He wanted a different kind of life, and I let myself disappear under the weight of his ideas.

The thing is, in that split second after he told me he loved me, I knew that my understanding of love was somehow flawed. I knew that I was going with “solid” instead of “amazing,” because I was worn down by “amazing” turning to “shit” within a month or two. He had all of the rare ingredients that I’d been told I should look for: he was attractive, dependable, and responsible. And his family – I really did fall in love with them. They kept me going for a few more years than I should have endured, if you want to know the truth. I miss his parents so much. I cherished being taken in by a group of rowdy New York Italians, of having someone’s dad keep my special brand of coffee stocked in the house “just in case,” of having an aunt pull me aside to ask for a recipe (still a high point in my life, if you want to be honest), of hearing all of the family stories, and feeling like I could live on forever, with this kind of close-knit family. I’d never wanted children, but all of a sudden, I thought how nice it would be to give my mother-in-law a grandchild to pamper. In other words, my life shifted to accommodate everyone but myself. Classic INFJ.

In the end, as things were drawing to a close, I started to find that my mouth didn’t want to make the shapes required to spit out “I love you.” I was unsure at the beginning, but at the end, I KNEW. I kept waiting for it to pass, to figure out how to reboot it somehow, but it withered and died. And you know why? Because in eight years, we had never really talked. We’d been saying things to each other, but we were never speaking the same language. Here’s what I have learned in years since, about what I was saying, and how I should teach people to interpret my words and my actions. “I love you” isn’t about romantic love, though it celebrates it. It’s not about sex, though it acknowledges it and revels in sharing a healthy physicality. “I love you” is about seeing the person in front of you for who they are, and celebrating that flame for having the courage to flicker. It’s not about wanting them to be better or do better, or envisioning who they could be, or who you could be when you’re with them. It’s about seeing the space between you, and realizing the steps you each take to bridge it, fling open the doors, and welcome the other into your weirdness, every damn day. Loving is easy, but building a relationship where you can love and be loved, that’s a daily commitment, requiring constant renewal.

Right now, love for me feels like that moment of zen when you take a breath and soak in your physical surroundings and state of being, and take note of the person’s presence in your sphere, and think, “Oh, this is good. I could do this more.” If you can meditate in the presence of the person you love – if you can trust enough to breathe freely and look how you look and think how you think and never ever worry how they might have misinterpreted you – and if you can appreciate all the same things about them in that moment – then saying I love you is right for now, and you will never regret saying it, even when now is no longer.

Lesson #2: To Be Continued…