Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Never Slept with Charlemagne

I often experience a long lag time between when I finish with things and when things finish with me. Sometimes I don't even know something's unfinished until some final piece clicks into place, maybe a long time afterward. 

This summer, for instance, I finished up a trip I took eight years ago, mostly by realizing I'd never quite accepted that it was what it was.

I. No Bad Pilgrims

The summer of 2001, I walked across northern Spain, on the medieval pilgrimage trail the Camino de Santiago, with bink. [bink kept a sketchbook, and all the drawings here are hers.]

The previous year, Shirley MacLaine had published a book about walking the Camino too. She'd written about being accompanied by an angel and about connecting with her past life as Charlemagne's lover.

It annoyed me when European pilgrims I met thought I was an American of her sort. I was full of Latin, not feathers, and serious intentions to straighten out the path of my twisted life. 
I'd recently quit my job of twelve+ years, and I didn't know what I wanted to do next. My married lover wanted to leave his wife and move in with me when I got back, and some interior red light was signaling THIS IS A DISASTER, but I wasn't sure. 

I told people I was walking because I wanted to be a better person. I wasn't looking for sex with dead emperors.

I wasn't looking for flayed feet either, but that's what I got. 
A couple days in, at the Roncevalles Pass, where, according to The Song of Roland, Charlemagne was killed in battle, I put my first band-aid on my little toe. 

A couple weeks later, the pilgrimage had become about walking. Nobody, including me, talked much about spirituality. 
Everybody, including me, talked a lot about feet.

And a couple weeks after that, toward the end of the walk, I knew I hadn't miraculously become a better person. 
I was exactly the same person, with all my concerns and confusions, but now with ripped up feet.

I stood in the dirt path under the hot sun in rural Spain and wept. 

"I'm a bad pilgrim," I told bink.

"It's not possible to be a bad pilgrim," she said. "Pilgrims walk. You're walking. You're a pilgrim."

II. Home Again

After five weeks and five hundred miles, I went home. 
My twisty life was right where I'd left it.

 People asked me what I'd learned. I told them mostly I'd learned that blisters really, really hurt a lot. Also cheap red wine with Coca-Cola is surprisingly good.

I worked up a couple insights too:
"You can have whatever you want, but you have to carry it"

and "Maybe happiness is the baseline of existence", a thought I'd had when I was blissfully happy one evening, even though my feet excruciating painful. 

I also offered bink's wonderful phrase, "It's not possible to be a bad pilgrim." 

In truth, however, I was a little deflated that I couldn't report dramatic spiritual transformation.
Still, I suspected there was something profound in realizing I wasn't going to turn into a better person. A Catholic monk even told me I was a better person for knowing that...

III. I Missed Nothing Special

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my porch in the sun reading Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America. One of the teachers, Joko Beck, talks about the Zen concept of "nothing special." 
Our minds get attached to everything, she says, even to enlightenment, which is freedom from clinging to attachments.

As one practices being aware, however, over time the mind naturally loses interest in holding on so tight to attachment and opens, now and again, onto enlightenment.
But this is "nothing special." 
It is ordinary. It comes and goes. Don't cling onto it. Just go on sitting.

Nothing special.
Just go on sitting.

When I read that--though I've read this sort of thing many times before--all of a sudden it flashed on me that I always thought I'd missed something on Camino. 

All of a sudden, I saw that in fact I had hoped--secretly, even from myself--that some divine being would descend on me or Charlemagne would appear in a dream and tell me what to do about my life (as if he'd know).

I laughed.
It was delightful to realize I had overlooked the very ordinary, nothing special times that had opened over and over and over again because I wanted the openings to come with neon signs, pointing: Enlightenment Here
As if I'd hit the jackpot.
But of course that's exactly what enlightenment is: 
 no self. no sign. no prize. 
Just go on walking.

The Camino had been full of openings onto no thing. 
One night on Camino, for instance, another pilgrim told me that she'd unintentionally walked more than 40 km one scorching day. She'd miscalculated where the next albergue was and got stuck far between two. She didn't want to sleep outside, so she'd just kept walking. 
She got so tired, she told me, "I forgot who I was."

We laughed together about the shared experience of walking along with heavy packs and empty minds. 

Nothing special.

Maybe I finally realized I didn't miss anything--or, I had missed no thing--because so many dramatic things have happened since. 

I came home to break up with the married man, without angelic guidance. 
My cockatiel bird flew away one hot summer night, and planes flew into buildings. 
My mother killed herself, and profound dreams piled up. 
I started working on geography books. Angels and emperors came and went. Neon signs pointed to Star Trek. 

Terrible things. 

Wonderful things.

And you know what? 
None of them have been more or less "special" than walking. I didn't miss anything. That was the thing.

Slept with Charlemagne? Didn't sleep with Charlemagne? Either way, as they say, you gotta do the laundry.

14 comments:

Manfred Allseasons said...

Your best blog yet.

Whatever it is that makes you a writer, you certainly have it.

Rudyinparis said...

What he said.

(I don't mean that to sound abrupt--but Fresca, this is just so great I don't know what to say!)

Timecheck said...

Wonderful sketches. We were there the same year, a few months later. In Santo Domingo de la Calzada (the chicken place) during 9/11.

We are obsessive hikers and your insight is perfect. You can have anything you want. You just have to carry it. Might work on kids also.

bookworm said...

This post has jogged my memory of a book I wanted to recommend to you and Bink - which is "Gatty's Tale" by Kevin Crossley-Holland about a medieval pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Arthur trilogy which precedes it is wonderful too.

Keep on walking...

fresca said...

MANFRED and RUDY: Wow, thanks!
I am really glad you like this, as I was wondering if it made any sense, since basically I'm saying, "The thing is the thing."
But then, I think Goethe said something like that too...?

I don't know what it is that makes a good post, but I do know free brain time is an ingredient, and I'm really glad to some again.

TIMECHECK: Hey, thanks for commenting, peregrino! Yes, the chicken place--I remember it well. We ate some great paella there...
Ain't that the truth about you can have what you want but you have to carry it...
I was amazed at some of the stuff people were willing to carry. Like women who brought along their complete makeup kits. Each to her own! I carried the least I could...

BOOKWORM: Thanks, I jotted down the reference and look forward to checking it out.

Maura said...

All I could think of when I read this was that week in Door County 3 or 4 summers ago where I was so exhausted. That is when I learned and lived and breathed the practice of "doing 'doing'nothing"---one of the greatest lessons ever. Not practicing it is probably what gave me mono these past 4 months, don't you think?! That's what is called a clue.....

fresca said...

Doing "doing nothing" is quite an art, especially challenging for people who think it's a sin: "Idle hands are the devil's tools" and all that!

Clair said...

I have a mundane question, fresca. Does the Remarkable Women book mention someone called Sheila LaFarge?

Annika said...

Oh, how I love your blog, Fresca! I'm just sorry that I can't spend more time responding to your posts. (Right now I'm breaking a former taboo of mine by posting from work. It's July, everybody is on holiday, so I tell myself that it's slightly less not OK than normally...)

As it happens, I got a book on the transformation-through-the-Camino topic for a graduation present last Saturday. It's written by a Swedish TV celebrity, and I've been planning acid LJ posts about it for a week. It's so abysmally bad! Your post is everything that book isn't and everything that it should have been (and definitely could have been, in less clumsy hands).

Your insight about "failure" at pilgrimage is a great one! So many people expect sudden, miraculous solutions to their problems (it's one of the things that kept me from seeking out Buddhist internet communities, actually. They had nineteen-year-olds posting about how they had been to their first retreat but not been enlightened, and what were they doing wrong?), and if a method doesn't make them happy in a couple of months, they're off to try the next quick fix. Have people always been this impatient?

Sorry if I'm being incoherent. I'll have to try and compose a proper e-mail!

fresca said...

Hi, CLAIR:
I just checked, and no the book doesn't mention her. It's from 1987--is she more recent? Someone I should look up?
It's interesting to learn that Buddhist leadership, if that's the right word, in the West is more inclusive of women than has been traditional in the East).

ANNIKA:
OOoooh, please write that acid LJ post!

I can understand how we in the West, so accustomed to Fast Food experiences, expect instant results. Born-again Christianity offers it too--a once-and-for-all conversion experience.

I think we're more impatient than we used to be, because we do get such fast results, but then,
it's probably never been easy to get into a practice that promises "no results"! : )

At first, I was attracted to the Buddhist idea of "no failure" because I thought it meant "all winning"...
But when I realized it meant "no winning" either--well, that was harder to accept. Now I see it as entirely refreshing.

You were perfectly coherent--it's just that one always feels incoherent when talking about "nothing", I think. But I'd love to have a long e-mail from you (since everyone's on vacation, why not?).
I'm still curious to explore where Buddhist ideas turn up in Star Trek.

Nancy said...

Fresca, this is absolutely terrific!
This is the part that riveted me "Maybe I finally realized I didn't miss anything--or, I had missed no thing--because so many dramatic things have happened since.
I came home to break up with the married man, without angelic guidance. My bird flew away one hot summer night, and planes flew into buildings. My mother died, and profound dreams piled up. I started working on geography books. Angels and emperors came and went. Neon signs pointed to Star Trek.
Terrible things.
Wonderful things.
And you know what? None of them have been more or less "special" than walking. I didn't miss anything. That was the thing."

Beautiful and moving. A gem.

fresca said...

Thanks, Nancy!

Bianca Castafiore? said...

many small gasps -- of appreciation, even of recognition (though i've never knowingly said or thought anything similar).

wunnerful, wunnerful.

bink said...

Re-read this again this summer. You should try publish this piece. I'm not sure where... but it really is a great piece and I think you should put it out for a wider audience.

Everything in my life (except Joop) keeps saying "go back on Camino sooner rather than later, or later too".