The Beginning

I leave Madrid for Santiago de Compostela on a sunny Sunday morning. The evening before, at a Spanish friend’s house, I had admitted that my family was from Galicia, and Lady of the House’s son immediately piped up, But you do not seem crazy! You know that all Gallegos boast they are 10% crazy, right? He shook his head, confused at the idea that anyone could be proud of that. I did not tell him that if what he said were true it would explain Quite A Lot about one side of my family.

I don’t know what to expect in Galicia, other than 10% of the people being nuts. Nearly twenty years prior, my high school sweetheart had studied abroad in London, and capped off the adventure by travelling the Camino de Santiago before joining the Peace Corps in Mauritania after graduation. His trek down the Camino had been fruitful for him, creatively speaking, and it had resulted in a play – a musical – which he’d sent to a select group of readers via his mother. It was the first in a series of many musicals he wrote, and he’d ultimately grown up to be a Broadway composer.

The envelope containing That Particular Play had arrived at my college apartment in a manila envelope with the soundtrack on CD or a cassette tape – I don’t remember which it was and given the era, either was plausible. He’d also sent word that a single bird flying overhead seemed like a sign, and when he reached the church at the end of the trek, the floodgates opened, and he cried, because then he felt like he had found God.

I ripped the manuscript up without reading it; I listened to the tape once, because I loved the sound of his voice more than I hated him; and I burned the postcard where he described the bird, the sky, the church, and God. He had broken my heart – broken me – so profoundly that I didn’t think I’d ever feel whole again. After losing my first love in such a public and humiliating way, I didn’t think that my head and my heart would be part of the same complete person again.

At the time, I didn’t know he was travelling the roads that my family had lived on; that he was exploring the places I was From. Back then, I had no idea how we would both grow, and more importantly, how much work time actually does. I was just angry in the way that Hurting Young People often are.

Before I left for Spain, this past June, I had bumped into him in California. Someone snapped a photo of us, arms around each other, smirking into the camera like we might have done Way Back When, and it reminded me of being on the cusp of all the things we could not contain twenty years ago: Our love; our anger; our fear; our knowing that This Was A Finite Thing.

That’s heavy stuff for teenage hearts.

I am thinking of him again as I land in Santiago de Compostela, in their modern airport nestled amongst the greenery that makes the approach look like I am landing in Norway or Ireland. My heart aches with old fury; untapped grief; with feelings I cannot identify but that feel vaguely familiar.

Is this what it feels like to be a pilgrim? 

I am only in Santiago for two days, so I am only planning to walk the last ten miles or so of The Way of Saint James; of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage derives its name from the patron saint of Spain – Saint James the Greater – whose body is entombed in the grand cathedral at the Camino’s end. The name Santiago itself comes from the Spanish derivation of James from Latin – Sanctu Iacobu – which, translated from Vulgar Latin to local Galician, became sant iago, hence Santiago.

The story goes that after James was martyred at the hands of King Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), his body was returned to Galicia, but was thrown into the sea – emerging covered in scallop shells. As a result, travellers come to Santiago and carry bleached shells on red cords, emblazoned with the shield of Saint James as evidence they are pilgrims who should be granted a safe passage. 

I pick up my red lanyard and hit the trail mid-morning on my first full day in town, the sun bright overhead. When I reach the first scallop-shaped trail marker, a bird flies across the perfect blue sky, and the floodgates open, and the tears come in a tidal wave that I did not know was contained behind my eyes. I snap a photo of the trail marker and I send it to my high school sweetheart, without any text, because I know that in this moment, almost twenty years after his own journey, he is the only person who will understand my heart.

Then I walk for ten miles, crying. I am crying because these are the roads my people have walked for generations and this is the first time, ever, I have been in a place that I know I am From. I am crying because I came all this way, and did all this work, and married all these men, and at the end of it, it is just me here, alone, with nothing to show all these dead ancestors for it. I’m also crying because I’m probably at least 10% crazy, just like the rest of them. 

How did I get here?

As I emerge from the Spanish woods and near the cathedral at the Camino’s end, my phone buzzes with a text message from my high school sweetheart. He has received my picture of the trail marker.

The start of everything, he says.

And I understand, suddenly, in this hot, stark moment in the north of Spain, that who I am is not just a disappointment; not only a litany of failures or a sum-total of endings. I am just at the start.

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