The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, compares writing to running marathons. He says to write books you need talent, focus and endurance. He admits that writing stories is not a healthy occupation. A writer of any caliber writes close to the edge of contamination from the toxin that lies deep within humanity and which must necessarily rise to the surface in the process of bringing a tale to life. This is why he runs marathons: to stay healthy, maintain focus and develop endurance.*
I don’t run marathons and I don’t know much about writing but I do know something about walking. You don’t need any talent to walk but you do need focus and endurance. At least you do if you want to walk the Way of Saint James** and that’s the kind of walking I’m talking about.
I remember a forest somewhere on the Spanish side of the border with France when I came to a very large gate. I stood contemplating it for some time, assessing which would be the best way to get to the other side. I finally opted for heaving my pack over the top, hoisting myself laboriously up every rung of the gate and then flopping awkwardly down on to the other side. Feeling rather proud of my effort and resourcefulness I waited to show my partner, who was trailing along behind me how to do it. He walked casually up to the gate, opened it, walked through and looked at me in some amazement. We’re still laughing about it ten years later.
Walking the Way is more like a saga than a simple story. Generations of feet have written their stories into stone, earth and landscape. When you lend your feet to the Way your own unique story stands out and blends into the saga of humanity which necessarily brings you close to the edge of toxicity. Walking is essentially a healthy activity but walking the Way is not without its risks to self esteem.
I remember arriving in Sahagun*** with my partner who had developed a mammoth blister on his right foot. He set off to see a doctor used to handling the ailments of pilgrims. He was gone all afternoon and the sun was setting. We were staying in a Spanish hostel without much light and the other “pilgrims” were preparing their evening meal. This was our fourth year of walking the Way and I had a collection of stamps in my “credencial”**** that put me in the ranks of those who KNOW. I set about preparing something to eat in the semi darkness and found myself accosted by the irritating voice of a young Australian woman who was recounting her adventures of travelling in Asia. Being in my early 50s, a New Zealander and someone who had travelled those roads 30 years BEFORE this YOUNG AUSTRALIAN woman, I heard myself muttering under my breath, “Teach your grandmother to suck eggs!” There was no way I could decently let her know of the superiority that my age and experience (to say nothing of my nationality) gave me.
The story gets even more toxic!
I was by now fuming that my partner’s absence had subjected me to this annoying woman. When he finally appeared the sun had gone down. I was sitting at a computer that wouldn’t work next to a nurse from Belgium whose computer did work. We had already come across this woman and her female companion at earlier stops. I had labeled her as a “cow” for some reason known only to my reptilian brain. Yes, well, the pain of walking such long distances every day for days on end can short circuit the functioning of the “reasonable” brain. When my partner showed me his heavily bandaged foot and announced that the doctor had told him he should rest for a day, I hit the roof. I went ballistic. I blew a gasket. “We can’t stay here!” I screamed! “I hate the place,” I shouted. I simply could not stop myself. The “cow” whose computer was working chipped in with a simpering, “I’m a nurse. Can I help?” If there was ever an offer not to make at that particular time that was it! Fortunately no knife or gun was available so I avoided the worst. Through clenched teeth I hissed, “No, you can’t!” I managed to avoid employing additional expletives. My partner was looking at me with about the same amount of amazement he had shown on the other side of the gate two years earlier. In coaching we ask our clients what they do to get what they want and what happens when they don’t get what they want. I now have the unequivocal answer: I transform into a raging two year old. It is all so terribly embarrassing.
Travelers tell tales of encounters with devils that roam the path to Santiago. It is said that you can recognize a devil by the unearthly gleam in his eye and the strange stories he will tell you of his listless wanderings. I remember the conversation I had with a wiry old man on arrival at the hostel. He had many stories to tell and he definitely had a gleam in his eye. Seen in this light my behavior was simply a poetic expression of an encounter with a devil. HOWEVER, if God would be so kind as to not place this lady on my path again I would appreciate the gesture. Shame tends to cling to the soul and does funny things to it.
Those who have erred along the Way of Saint James will have something to say about focus, endurance and the devils that walked close to them.
What tale do you have to tell of focus, endurance and devils? How do you stay healthy and what happens when you don’t?
Go well in March! Hasta luego!
*Page 96 “What I talk about when I talk about running” – Haruki Murakami Vintage 2009.
**the track that Christian pilgrims in Medieval times followed to Santiago in Spain to worship the relics of Saint James whose martyred body is said to have been found in a field of stars off the coast of Galicia hence the name: Santiago de Compostella in Spanish.
***Sahagun is a small town situated along the most popular route across northern Spain.
****A “passport” in which people walking the Way collect stamps from each town they stop at. This document is presented on arrival in Santiago as proof of spiritual intention. In Medieval times when the Way was the exclusive affair of the Catholic Church this was considered to be one’s “ticket” to heaven for self or whoever you were undertaking a pilgrimage for.