A Respite and an Oasis

Today we walked 6.8 miles, about half the miles we walked yesterday. Piece of cake. It was so much easier, and so nice to stop earlier in the afternoon and get to relax. It was a much mellower day. The weather could not have been more perfect for hiking: warm with a little cool breeze.

Each morning, before we set out, I read a poem that sets a tone for the day and pass around a small, soft black drawstring bag and everyone draws a quote for daily inspiration. Then I give a prompt: something to think about, take notes on or make a list about during the day.

Today, the morning poem I read was by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer:

Spring in Fall
for Suzan

It feels right to walk
through naked trees
with our naked hearts
and our naked hands
and thrill in the sound
of wind in dry grass
and delight in how quickly
the clouds are shredded.
You could say, it’s just a day,
but perhaps a day such as this
spent practicing awe and openness
is what changes everything.
You step out of yourself.
Suddenly, anything could happen.

For the daily prompt, I gave the following instructions:

“Walk in silence until our first stop of the day. As you walk, take note of things you notice that you might miss if you weren’t being silent—in the environment, in yourself, in your thoughts. Notice what you observe that you might not have seen if you’d been engaged in conversation or interacting with others. Pay attention to whether silence is comfortable or uncomfortable. Or both. What do you learn when you are silent?”

I told people they could talk about safety issues like, “I think I’m getting a blister,” or “I need a green door.” But otherwise, we agreed to stay in silence. And then we started to walk.

Personally, I have to admit I did not have an easy time with particular span of silence. Even though I’ve been spending hours silent every day and loving it, there was something about the pressure of HAVING to do it that sent my mind into overdrive.

My inner monologue went something like this:

“I’m cold. I wish I’d put on another layer. I want my gloves or my merino buff around my neck, but they’re in my backpack and now I can’t ask anyone to pull them out for me. And I can’t stop and do it myself. We are moving through Melide and we just started walking. I can’t stop to open my pack now.” A minute later, it was “Cold feels like this.” And “Brisk is good, and there’s nothing wrong with brisk.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was finally warm enough. But my mind kept racing: you know, all the usual shit: planning, creating, generating ideas for the future, not being in the present. Thinking I should be a model of mindfulness, a good teacher, feeling like a fraud because I was hating what I’d just told everyone else to do.

I tried many meditation tricks: feeling the soles of my feet on the pavement, gravel, dirt, sidewalks, and cobblestones, sensing the earth beneath my feet. Walking meditation. I repeated the mantra I gave everyone our first day walking the Camino: “I walk in beauty. I walk alone. I walk in community. I walk with an open heart. I walk with an open mind.” Now I added: “I walk in silence.”

And I could have added, “I walk in misery,” because my mind was giving me no peace.

Then I remembered to let my eyes settle back in their sockets, relaxing them so that instead of grasping to take in the world, I was letting myself receive it. That helped—but only for a little while. Even though I was the one who’d established the exercise, I was hating every minute of it. When the hell would we get to the stop Brenda promised?

Finally, a few hours into our day’s walk, she pulled me aside and whispered that we were coming to a special place where a woman sells fresh baked goods by the side of the Camino, and that it was a good place to stop. It was also the perfect place to break our silence.

Lourdes has been running El Pequeno Oasis since the mid-nineties and opens her stand at 7:00 AM every summer morning. Her shelves are chock full of everything a peregrino would want: free fresh water to fill our water bottles, ponchos in plastic packages, fresh whole fruit, cut-up fruit cups, fresh baked goods, homemade cheese topped with homemade jam, bags of popcorn, dried raspberries, and shots and small bottles of raspberry and coffee liquor. Everything from her shop was delicious and nothing cost more than three euros. Most of it cost a euro or a euro and a half.

The motif of Lourdes’ stand is Jesus and saints on the ceiling and euro bills on the walls.

Behind her shop is a grassy area with tables and chairs, a couple of picnic tables, a raspberry patch, a hot pink car, and a path that obviously led to a well-used green door.

After our group got their refreshments, I called everyone together, said we were breaking silence and gave them a choice of three writing prompts, “When I am silent….” or “What silence has to teach me…” or “Silence invites me to….”

After we wrote, one group gathered around the picnic table, the other in a circle of plastic chairs in the grass, and we read what we’d written to each other.

Thankfully, my students all were appreciative of the silence. No one seemed to have suffered like I had!

Here’s an example of one of the pieces that was written. This is by Tamara Myers:


“Notice smaller details around me, especially sounds. I have a harder time than I used to focusing on more than one thing, so when I’m talking or listening to talking, I miss the dappled light landing on fuzzy moss-covered tree trunks, the sounds of my feet landing on the earth, the sparkly sound of water in the distance, the unfurling of bright green fern fronds, and following the strong smell of cow shit, realizing it’s probably coming from the steaming pile of manure in the farm we just passed.

“I look for gestures to understand others and feel my extra sensory abilities kick in. In some ways I feel more connected to the group than I do when we talk. I communicate softly from deep inside. Mostly, I hear the sounds of nature more intimately. I notice how acorns have been spilling across the pathways for most of our journey. I see the change in light as we round a bend, cattle mooing low and soft. I feel peaceful inside, as if a bit of anxiety-producing stress has been lifted.

“How much I censor my words, feel pressure to be brilliant or insightful, to say something worthwhile or of interest to others. The expectation I have of myself to talk and not let silence bore someone else. Ooohhh… This is old! My teenage self so awkward after someone else stops talking. Heart racing, breath ceasing. As my anxiety rises and I let something inconsequential spill out, something I don’t even believe at times, just to try to prove my worthiness. I wonder what it would feel like to pause until something true and sincere for me bubbles up?”

–Tamara Myers

El Pequeno Oasis was the perfect place for an impromptu writing class, and soon after we finished our reading circles, we pulled out our paints, turned to a new page in our blue Camino journals and began painting what we saw around us. After a half hour or so, Brenda invited everyone to open their journals to a page they liked and to lay them out all together on the picnic table. You can see some of our evolving work-in-progress below.

I am really loving the way writing and painting are comingling on this trip. This is the first time Brenda and I are doing this, so we really didn’t know how it would turn out.

Check out the pictures some of the incredible beauty we saw while walking today.

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