The things we carry
A few weeks ago, I was at a hostel in Santander. I pushed clothes into my backpack, and then opened Facebook to check for comments on my latest blog post. The first thing I saw was a post from my mother that started “My heart is broken and very heavy.” I read on to learn that a young man who’d spent significant time with my family as part of an exchange program a few years ago had taken his life.
I blinked back tears and felt a wave of disbelief hit my body. It was hard to stand. I’d only met him a couple times when I visited my family in Nevada, but I knew him as someone thoughtful and bright and seemingly happy. I’d followed him on Facebook and always admired his authenticity and compassion. I never saw the pain he carried with him. I don’t know if it was because he hid it well or because of time and distance or because I wasn’t looking. A light had gone out in the world. A fellow pilgrim had stopped walking with us.
A topic that comes up often on the long walk to Santiago - this Camino of Life. The pilgrimage itself is really only a reflection of life. It’s journey - a long one. There are days that are filled with beauty and wonder. Some days offer challenge and a sense of accomplishment. Others an opportunity to connect with others over a shared meal and a bottle (or two) of wine. And there are days that are just frustrating and exhausting. Almost every pilgrim I’ve met has had at least one day where they just didn’t want to go on. It didn’t seem worth it anymore. They were ready to set down their bag and stop walking. I wondered what had made this young man decide that he couldn’t walk anymore. I wondered what he was carrying around on his back (or in his heart) that finally became too much to bear. I wished I’d seen him straining under the weight and had offered some support. I’m not sure it would have made a difference, but it’s something I’ve reflected on as my own journey has continued. The morning I read about his death, I shook off the heartbreak I was feeling and pushed it into my pack with my clothes. I felt the heaviness of it as I walked through the tunnel that would take me out of the city and back onto the Camino toward Santiago. Since then, I’ve taken that bit of heartbreak out and held it a few times. Each time I did, I came across some of the other things that I carry with me on this pilgrimage. Many are things that I’ve carried with me for most of my life. Like most pilgrims on the Camino, I’m carrying the basic necessities - clothes (honestly, too many), toothbrush, phone charger, sleeping bag liner, and my guidebook.
There are lots of pockets and straps in my pack that make it easy to carry other things too, things that I don’t unpack in front of others at the end of the day, but I carry them with me and feel the weight of them as I walk. There are hidden treasures tucked away. I use them to nourish me when I’m depleted or ease the pain of a hard day. These include my spiritual practices, memories, music, and laughter. They’re light and don’t take up much room in my backpack. I carry the love of my family and friends with me, clipped to my shoulder straps, like giant, helium-filled balloons. Their support and encouragement help to make everything a bit lighter to carry. This is a good thing because... I’m also lugging around some rocks - heavy things like anger and resentment. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my anger toward others tends to disintegrate over time, although it leaves behind a residue of sorrow. What doesn’t crumble as easily is the anger I feel toward myself when I think about the times that I’ve allowed others to treat me in a way that I promised never to let another person treat me. That is a jagged one that tears at the lining of my pack. Then there are the colorfully painted rocks that I’ve created each time I’ve taken responsibility for making others happy. An impossible task, but I decorate them with self-righteousness and show them off sometimes. I’ve been able to unpack a few of these rocks and leave them on cairns alongside the road. And...sigh...some I just refuse to stop carrying (at least for now). I can’t tell you why I hold onto them. I suppose it’s just that I’m as human as any other pilgrim in this Camino of Life. I hold onto heavy things just because I’m afraid to let go of them. Living in the bottom of my bag are the dark, hairy creatures that I try not to let others see: decades-old stories about not being important or beautiful or good enough; shame about my sexuality; fear that the breast cancer will come back again. These feel heavier when I feed them with my thoughts, but usually get lighter when I acknowledge them and bathe them with compassion. I’m still walking.
Every day, I empty my bag and re-pack it. Most days it’s light and easy to carry, but some days my shoulders ache, my back feels weak, and my legs shake with each step. I’m not sure what my breaking point is. What would it take for me to set down my pack and decide that my bag is too heavy? That I’ve had enough? I wrote a humorous post about a specific day where I was ready to quit the Camino and head to Morocco to surf. Honestly, that day was not funny at all when I was actually living it. I was tired and frustrated and didn’t want to struggle anymore. It happens. It happened to one young man a few weeks ago. He decided it was time to stop walking, and those of us that knew him will miss him and his beautiful smile as we continue our journey. Do you ever wonder what those around you are carrying with them? On the Camino, we often shove our clothes and toiletries into the space between the things we carry and keep walking. However, there are people we get close to and show them some of the things we carry. We all carry treasures. We all carry heavy things. Sometimes the things we carry, carry us. When we take the time to show these things to another, we sometimes learn new ways to pack them or to adjust our straps to make carrying them easier. When we’re brave enough to share these things with each other, we remember we’re not alone on the journey.