My Onion and Related Camino Lessons

Since we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port to start our Camino over a month ago, we’ve had many people ask us the common pilgrim question ‘so why are you doing the Camino?’.  I can’t speak for Exploradora but I’m not sure I’ve yet given an answer that I’m totally satisfied with.  Besides the basic facts (that I love Spain, speaking Spanish, enjoy long distance walking and travel), there still remains a little bundle of personal reasons that made this desire to walk the full Camino Frances too insatiable, and too darn loud in my head, to ignore any longer.

In summary, this little bundle of reasons is what I think of as my Onion.  On reflection, I now realise that what I wanted was to strip back the ‘stuff’ of life, for a little while, to see what was hidden under the layers.  Taking off a layer of obligation; to opening the mail, to daily electronic communications, to (unnecessary?) chores, to people pleasing, even to generating income for a while (so counter-intuitive it feels alien to type).  Taking off a layer of physical ‘stuff’; the endless choice of gadgets, clothes, toiletries and other material things that I’ve been persuaded into feeling that I ‘need’ to help run Nicola Enterprises.  Taking off a layer of pretence (that I didn’t appreciate I still practiced); feeling natural telling other pilgrims ‘actually I’m not okay, thanks for asking, I really hurt today.  How about you?’, feeling good about myself despite (or because of?) my shiny face, Carmen Miranda-style hair scarf and mala bead new ‘look’ or allowing silences to permeate conversations with people I’m comfortable with.

The word that has kept coming up in conversations with Exploradora when I describe how thrilling it is to shed layers like these is authentic.  So I’d comfortably call out authenticity as my first big Camino lesson.  Although I have certainly felt, especially in recent years, that I’ve led an authentic life I realise that there are definitely still layers left to shed.  And just to clarify, I don’t mean authentic in that reality television style of being ‘real’ by forcing my opinions on others; rather respecting authenticity in myself and others, valuing difference whilst remaining true to myself.  I’m getting deep here so I really wish I could tell you the suppository story.  I can’t, sorry, as I’d betray confidence.  It was a true story told to me last night by my Mum on the phone which had me giggling long after the call, retelling it to Exploradora back in the room.  I had spoken to my son and parents in turn and it felt like home, despite the distance, to hear their accents, quirks, sayings, unique humour and warmth.  I realised then that this lesson about authenticity isn’t just about me (arrogant pilgrim!), but that it is also about valuing those in my life who are so wonderfully, weirdly, authentically themselves.  You know who you are, you odd bunch.

The tricky part for me on the authenticity note is that, on pilgrimage or not, we all encounter people who are wearing many layers, their authenticity hidden from view.  I’m learning how to deal with that better; from setting boundaries, to challenging attitudes that offend myself or others when it feels of genuine benefit.  Or avoidance. The people pleaser inside me winced a little with that last one, but I need her to get uncomfortable from time to time.

My second big Camino lesson is acceptance.  Acceptance of myself; my imperfect body with its shin splints, tiredness, sore feet and gastroenteritis, my imperfect mind that makes up songs with swear words to express frustration about loose rocks and flies on a hot day rather than feel gracious about being on this wondrous adventure.  Acceptance of others; their views, their ways, their habits and even their darn positivity when I just want to moan about skinny pillows or flies using my generous forehead as a graveyard.  And finally acceptance of what is.  The Camino, in my experience, gives you a little sliver of everything; from thunder and lightning storms with hail in your eyes while climbing the highest peak to scrambling down a rocky mountainside in 34 degree heat, from happy, hippy pilgrims to opinionated, competitive ones, from flat terrain on the meseta to the unbelievable heights of the Pyrenees, from cute, charming accommodation to the Spanish version of Fawlty Towers.

Nailing my pilgrim lessons to the mast may appear premature as I have several walking days left to go before I reach my final destination at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  I may have new insights between now and then, or I may not.  But I do hope to be a much smaller onion.

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