Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Afraid of Small Talk

Last summer as I prepared for my hike on the Camino in Spain, I had a training plan. My hiking partners Daisy and T-Dog and I were going to walk about 15 miles per day for five days, and I was going to need to do some serious training to be ready for that. I downloaded a plan from the internet and scheduled training sessions in my calendar. I was going to be fit and toned before I left Tennessee. It was gonna be awesome. 

None of that happened. I got busy. I was working a busy job in corporate America. Grant was graduating from high school and preparing for college. Audrey was transferring from the University of Tennessee to Emory. I was getting my house ready to rent out while I was away on my self-funded year-long sabbatical, which was set to begin just after I returned from the Camino. 

In short, it was just life being life. I did get one good 12-mile hike in the week before I left for Spain and by the end of the day I had a giant bruise on my big toenail. My friend Dee, who knows a lot about hiking, said we should use a needle to drill a hole in my toenail, otherwise it might fall off. That saved my toenail but the whole experience with the bruise and the drilling process left me with the impression that I was wholly unprepared for the Camino.

A week later, I was on the plane on the way to Spain, wondering how the hell I was going to hike 15 miles a day for five days straight. I was reading a book by James Brierly called A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago, and I came across a sentence which really hit home. It went something like this - 

"We bring our tired and stressed bodies and dump them at the head of the Camino and hope that all will be well."

Hope is not a strategy, James Brierly. I learned that in Corporate America. I needed a plan. So there in my seat in Row 34, I devised what I came to call the 60/30 plan. It was my plan for walking 15 miles a day even though I was in lousy shape. 

It went like this - I would walk for 60 minutes. I knew I could do that, I did it all the time. An hour of walking, easy. 

Then I would rest for 30 minutes. No matter how tired I got, surely after a half hour of rest, I would be able to walk for an hour again. 

15 miles a day, at a rate of 2 miles per hour... It might take me 11-12 hours to cover the day's terrain but I would get there. I had nothing to do all day but walk. This was doable. Surely. I felt better having a plan. I had a reason to think this would work, and if it didn't, it wouldn't be for lack of a plan. 

I had a plan. So if I failed, it wouldn't be my fault. That was comforting to me. Failure wouldn't be my fault.

Failure. Me being at fault. Those things make me very uncomfortable. But I have failed in my lifetime, many times. And I have been at fault. A lot. Plans and strategies are a buffer that protects me from facing my role in any of that. 

Those things were hard for me to talk about before the Camino and before my sabbatical. It's not easy now but I can do it.

(Photo credit: Melissa Freeman)

On our first day on the Camino, Daisy and T-Dog and I set off before dawn. I quickly realized that my first challenge would be to let them walk ahead of me. Their pace was different and I found I was walking their Camino, not mine. I was making the first transition - I was calling it my Camino. This path that I was going to walk for the next week was mine and I needed to claim it. And that meant walking it alone. 

They hesitated to leave me on my own but I reminded them that we had cell phones and the address of the pension where we would sleep that night. I would meet them there. T-Dog finally nodded and agreed to leave me on my own but he left me with important words of wisdom. "Watch the trail markers. It's easy to get off the trail so watch closely. If you do that, you'll be fine." 

I watched them disappear off into the distance as I settled into my pace. Which I had to discover. I had never done anything like this before, I had never been to this place before. I had never walked a path like this before. It took me a long time to find my pace. 

After an hour it was time for my break and I looked for a place to stop, but then I realized - I actually feel okay. I don't think I need a break. I feel ... great. 

So I shrugged and kept walking. I thought I'd get ahead of plan. I'd exceed my goal for this stage of the 60/30 plan. 

About 2 hours later I approached a small village, and I realized a break and some breakfast would be good. So I stopped at the next roadside cafe and got a piece of Santiago cake and a coffee. I sat down under a blue umbrella at a table outside the cafe and took off my backpack. 

The big plastic buckle that secured my backpack around my hips clicked as I unsnapped it. That "click" was a sound I had heard before but it meant something special this time. I had heard that click for the first time when my brother-in-law Cody gave the pack to me and showed me how it worked. I had heard it many times as I packed it, back in Nashville. I had heard it that morning at the hotel in Sarria when I put the pack on. But now on my first break of my first day on the Camino, that click meant something special - it meant the release of a heavy load from my sweaty back after many many steps on the trail. It was the first time I had really earned that click. 

My feet exhaled as I unlaced my hiking boots. I watched other pilgrims pass by as I ate my breakfast and breathed in the pastures around me. I propped my feet up and set an alarm on my phone for 30 minutes. 

When the alarm rang I started to lace my boots again but something inside my body said, "I'm not ready yet." It felt like I had a boulder on my sitz bones and it wasn't letting me move. It surprised me because I hadn't really asked my body, but it was speaking anyway. "I'm not ready yet." 

My shoelaces still in my hands, I turned my head and looked off into a field to my right, at a haze of mist floating over dewy grass in a field. A cow mooed in the distance. I wasn't sure what to do. It was time to walk again, according to the 60/30 plan. But here was my body saying, "I'm not ready yet." 

Who do I listen to? My plan, or this faint voice coming from inside my body? 

I decided that I could afford to rest a few more minutes. I had, after all, gotten ahead of plan earlier in the morning. So it was okay to spend a few more minutes here at the roadside cafe. 

I took my boots back off, settled back into my chair and folded my arms across my chest. 

How would I know when to get up and walk again? What would stop me from sitting here all day? What if I was still sitting at this cafe at the end of the day while Daisy and T-Dog ate dinner at our pension, 11 miles ahead of me on the trail? If I wasn't managing by a clock, how would I know when to start walking again? 

And then the most obvious thing hit me - I can listen to my body. 

Embarrassment and self-doubt and fear nudged me from all sides because ... I wasn't sure how to do that. 

How would I know when my body was rested? What would that feel like? Or ... what would that sound like? 

I hadn't been listening to my body for so long that I wasn't even sure what language it spoke anymore. I had been working in Corporate America for almost 30 years and I had become accustomed to governing my life by clocks and alarms and schedules and calendars. It was easy to know when to do things. You start working Monday morning at 8am and you stop Friday evening at 5pm. If you get to Tuesday afternoon and you're completely spent - IT DOESN'T MATTER. You have to keep going. 

If you get to Friday afternoon and think, "You know, I feel okay. I could keep going for a while," you better not. Because your next chance to rest won't be for another week. 

In the face of all of that, I had stopped paying attention to my body and the cues it was trying to give me. Because it simply didn't matter. I had to go when it was time to go, and I had to stop when it was time to stop. It was as simple as that.

But as I sat under that umbrella that morning on the Camino, I tried to make amends with my body. I hoped that it wasn't too late - that I could still hear my body if I listened closely. So I sat there with my arms folded across my chest, wondering and listening, hoping and doubting. 

Deep down I was horrified that I was at this point. Who doesn't know how to tell if they're tired or not? How did I get here? How had I ignored my physical cues for so long? It's no wonder my body stopped trying to communicate with me. Why would you keep trying to talk to someone who wasn't listening to you? 

This was anger coming up. I know this now, looking back. I had a lot of anger stored up inside my body and while I was trying to hear my body tell me if it was rested, it was also telling me other things. Like, "You have a lot of anger inside of you." It's easier for me to feel anger if I direct it at myself, so I did that for a while.

The shadow of the umbrella moved slowly across the ground in front of me. I tried to stand up a few times, but each time, the boulder on my sitz bones was still there. 

The cows mooed. The pilgrims passed. The mist lifted. The dew on the blades of grass became less silvery and more watery. 

And then, I felt it. It was a weird lurch. Almost as if my spirit was trying to leave my body. 

"Oh my god, is that what it feels like to be ready to walk again?" I asked myself. "Maybe. Maybe that's it."

So I laced up my hiking boots and stood up. It felt good. My legs felt strong. My feet weren't swollen anymore. I picked up my backpack, slid my arms through the straps and clicked the belt around my hips. It felt tight and secure and safe, like my pack was holding me. I took my dishes back to the cafe and asked the cashier if he could refill my water bottle. 

"Si, si, pelligrino," he smiled. He was calling me a pilgrim. I was a pilgrim and this was my Camino. And I was beginning to hear my body speak to me for the first time in a long time. Messages that I wanted to hear, like, 

"You are strong" or 

"You are ready to walk now." 

And some messages I didn't want to hear, like, 

"You can't ignore me," or 

"You need to rest" or 

"You are angry." 

But I agreed to hear it all, whether I liked the messages or not.

And this is how I made my way across the next five days. I listened to my body. I walked when I had energy and I rested when I was tired. It was that simple. If the boulder was there on my sitz bones I sat. If my spirit was lurching out of my being, I got up and walked. 

This matters to me in a whole new way now. I have been on sabbatical in my tiny house on the mountain for a year now. I have been sleeping and writing and eating and hiking and building fires in my firepit. I watched the leaves turn golden, then I watched them fall off the trees. I heard the geese honk as they flew south. The frogs stopped croaking and the bare branches of the grey trees swayed back and forth in the wind. Straight winds came through and blew some of the trees down. Thunder and lightning shook my tiny house.  The snow fell. The boulders on the Fiery Gizzard trail were round and slick. It rained and rained and rained. The icicles drip-dropped. The owls hooted. The squirrels jumped. The air softened and warmed. The bees and mosquitoes and gnats flew back in. The ducks came back and swam on the lake again. The branches plushed up with so many fresh leaves I couldn't see my neighbor's house anymore - all I could see was green all around me.

The last time I posted here on the Downtown Diner was December 8, and at that point, I wasn't sure I would ever be ready to come down off the mountain. I wasn't sure I'd be able to rejoin you all in civilized society. I wasn't sure I could ever again embrace things like deodorant and small talk and knowing what day of the week it was. The thought of the calendars and schedules and clocks and alarms - the tools that once brought me comfort and reassurance - felt restrictive and bossy and unforgiving. 

Around the middle of April though, I felt something inside of me lurch. My spirit seemed to want to return to the energy of the city. I thought about easy access to groceries, and church bells, and Starbucks, and paved roads, and utilities that come straight into your house through pipes and wires that you never have to even think about. I wanted all of those things. 

I was rested. I was ready. 

I put my tiny house on the market. I gave my tenants notice that they needed to move out of my house in the city. I began to work again, part-time, virtually, from my tiny house. I told my friends and my family that I was coming back. 

I was rested. I was ready. 

It's time to come back to the city. 

But these last few weeks, I don't feel ready anymore. I feel sad. I'm mad that I have to earn money, and that the best way to do this is to be back in the city. My skin itches at the thought of deodorant and shaving cream. My eyelids feel heavy at the thought of stiff mascara, an errant black lash falling into my eye and poking my eyeball. I can feel myself tugging on my lower eyelid, asking, "Do you see anything in there?" They never do. But I can feel it and it hurts.

I thought my body was telling me it's time. I thought my spirit was lurching up and out of me, back towards the city. And now I don't know what to do with this feeling. It's like the boulder on my sitz bones has me pinned to my chair on the mountain. Meanwhile, my soul is lurching on ahead of me, back to civilized life.

This, I have not experienced before. All the wisdom I thought I gained on the Camino isn't serving me now. 

This morning my daughter and I face timed while we made our breakfast. She was making watermelon with tajin in Atlanta, I was making avocado toast with Trader Joe's chili lime salt in Tracy City. We each made the case for why our chili salt was better. 

I told her how I'm feeling. That I thought I was ready to leave the tiny house and now I wish I could stay here forever. I looked out the window at the trees and the sky and the lake.

"That doesn't surprise me," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I know you," she said. 

I'm mad that I don't understand. I'm mad that this doesn't make sense. I'm looking everywhere for the trail markers and they are not there. Coming back down off the mountain after a year-long sabbatical made sense and I thought my body was playing along. I might have been wrong. 

Please bear with me as I adjust to life back in the city, assuming I do make it back there. I might not smell great, my clothes might not match. I talk about trees a lot. Appointments make me anxious because I'm afraid of missing them. I will probably pull on my eyelid and ask you if there's anything in there. 

I'm afraid that part of me will be pinned down by this boulder on the mountain while another part will have lurched 11 miles ahead.... 

You see what I mean about being afraid of small talk...

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