Sunday, September 20, 2009

Holding -- and Letting Go: A Camino Cameo

A week ago, we were having a sandwich in the tiny hamlet of Las Herrerias before ascending into O´Cebreiro, our destination for that day. It was a long break, and we´d need it. We´d cross from the province of Leon into Galicia, that part of Spain that abuts the Atlantic. We´d cross into Celtic Spain, where Santiago is.

To get into Galicia, though, we´d have to hike straight up. We´d been steadily climbing all day through beautiful villages, and already the landscape was changing. Red tile roofs slowly ceded to slate, stone supplanted adobe on the houses, stone fences replaced wooden ones. I kept teasing Lisa: "I´m beginning to taste the salt air!"

Suddenly, we heard someone speaking Spanish with a decidedly American accent. It belonged to Richard, and he walked out of the cafe/bar where we were having lunch with a pail of scraps for the dog. The way people greeted him, we could tell he was a local. We decided to greet him too. In American-inflected English.

Richard talked to us for a long time. He was from Chicago, and he´d left behind a bunch of lucrative jobs, a company he´d started, and a condominium. He´d lost track of where he was going, what he was doing, what life was all about.

He landed in Madrid, spent about six days on the streets. One of his former lives as the manager of a trendy night club in Chicago prepared him for the homelessness. Nothing could have prepared him for the Camino. He heard about it in Madrid; he started walking in Burgos.

When he got to Las Herrerias, he stopped walking, contracted to work with the woman who ran the only refugio in town, and started working as a hospitaler there. He cleaned; he cooked; he worked in the garden. He spoke of his work as a kind of ministry: "Some albuergues want the pilgrims to pitch in and help cook, help clean. Not ours. They´re tired, they´re hungry. I feel like they need someone to take care of them." And so he did. He loved becoming a "local" in this tiny town --and we could tell they´d embraced him as one of their own.

What struck us most was how he talked about his work, though. He spoke of holding people -- and then letting them go. There were lots of people he´d like to have gotten to know better, lots of people he remembered vividly. "But you have to let them go," he said. "Otherwise you won´t have room for the next batch of pilgrims." Holding -- and letting go, holding -- and letting go: for Richard it was as natural as breathing, the respiration of the hospitaler.

We left Richard and started climbing, but he impressed us deeply. Somehow, we incorporated him into the story we began telling ourselves as we ascended from Las Herrerias into O´Cebreiro. Along with Bianca, Beatrice, and Emilio, Richard figured prominently, his real-life story embellished -- but only a little. Spinning the yarn kept us entertained when pain and sheer fatigue should have soured our tempers and slowed our steps.

Then, yesterday on the Camino, as we walked through another tiny Galician village, I stepped aside for a group of faster hikers -- and who should be among them, but Richard and his dog, Alabar! Surprised, I greeted him by name, and before I could stop myself, I said: "We´ve thought a lot about you --" I thought Lisa was going to swallow her hiking poles! -- "what are you doing on the Camino?"

"I thought I´d better finish it,¨he said. "So I took a break from the refugio and packed my stuff." We talked more, as we walked and chatted with him and a cohort of young high school grads from the United States who were walking as part of a "gap year" before college. We walked and talked.

As we made our way along the road, Alabar ran ahead and darted behind, herding us like the cows we´d seen in Las Herrerias.

Eventually, we had to let Richard go ahead of us. He kept pace with the students, and they were all going faster than we. They had to make Santiago by Sunday, today. And I´m sure they are there.

So we too adopted the rhythm of the Camino: holding -- and letting go.

We´ve still got Richard in our story, though!

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