I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and probably what I have missed most upon my re-entry into the so-called Real World are two keys of the good life: the simplicity of my days unfolding one day at a time, and a clear sense of purpose. We are meaning-seeking creatures, and we don’t live by bread alone. We also live by purpose, which is another way of saying meaning.
It had been a long time since my mind was not continually gnawing over the future (or, just as unhappily, the past), but that is how I lived for a month while in Spain. On the Camino, my mind was rarely occupied by anything farther into the future, or more complicated, than the next meal (prepared by others) and rest break (I was able to handle these on my own). I had a very clear sense of what I was doing, and why, and I looked forward to each unfolding stage of it.
Days on the Camino
When I woke up in the mornings on the Camino, I didn’t have to sort through options about what to do – one of many types of decision-making tasks that researchers tell us are mentally and physically exhausting. I also didn’t have to wonder what would happen that day. I thought, if anything, about First Breakfast.
A croissant or drinkable yogurt, coffee, perhaps jam, fruit.
After First Breakfast, we would begin walking. Where? Easy: just follow the yellow arrows. As we walked, I would begin slowly to entertain fantasies about Second Breakfast. The food was often similar to First Breakfast, or at least there was more of it (once, at 9:15a.m. I ate an entire medium pizza). And about two hours after Second Breakfast, I was pining for First Lunch. It sounds like a dog’s life, no? Or a child’s. This simplicity and living in the moment is part of what Jesus, a famous lover of food and drink and the common table, meant when he exhorted us to be like children.
During some of these walking breaks and even while walking, I would whip out my (paper) notebook and take notes, or, if we were in a café or near a boulder with good seating, I might even open my MacBook Air and start writing up notes (one of the reasons I chose my Air was that its Flash drive makes it turn on as fast as a paper notebook, or a cell phone – I just open it up and start using it – with none of the endless waiting and wailing and churning of Windows or of computers with hard drives).
Almost always after my shower in the early afternoon, I would lie on my back on whichever of the 30 beds I slept in while in France, Spain, and Portugal, my MacBook Air on my thighs, the purring of other pilgrims napping all around me, and I would begin transcribing notes from my notebook, then adding other thoughts and uploading the latest photos from our cameras to Facebook, and voila! A blog post.
But “a blog post” doesn’t really capture what I was doing. In fact, by writing and sharing my thoughts and adventures for an audience, however small (you know who you are!), I think I was living quite close to my purpose. I am still refining that; I welcome your ideas.
I have missed that sense of purpose. It was a slight purpose, getting up every morning to walk, walking, eating, observing, taking notes, reporting what I saw, but it was a very clear purpose, and it seemed, at the time, to be enough.
I miss expressing even my most mundane thoughts on a regular basis, and knowing someone is likely to read it, and almost as likely to be grateful for something in it. I miss, that is, what people in certain circles might call a “practice”. Flower-arranging is a practice. Karate is a practice. Yoga and meditation are practices. Prayer and good works are practices. Anything done mindfully, or with love, or both, puts us in practice of being fully human.
For me, writing must be one of my practices. If I skip it, it’s like skipping exercise: I can’t be fully happy.
I have missed the sense of freedom that comes with moving my body in healthy ways – freedom, say, from worries about gaining weight because I can eat as much or as little as I want to. (My Camino pants are still quite big on me). I’ve felt this liberation before, and I want to keep exercising so as to hold onto it. Now: how to do that in this urban wilderness that surrounds me?
Yesterday, I sort of stumbled on creating a day that felt a bit like the Camino: it began when I walked over a mile to yoga. Did yoga. I then walked over three miles on trips to the bank, to Karma Café for an Indian lunch, and along the Jersey City waterfront walkway, reminding myself now and then to look up and appreciate that a short distance away, over the Hudson River on which Captain Sully crash-landed his plane, rose the concrete mountains of one of the greatest cities the world has ever known. Then I stopped in a Starbucks to take notes and drink my first cold chai in six weeks, and continued to a federal building to pay the last of my 2009 and 2010 taxes.
Perceptions of Time
After the sobbing at the tax office had subsided and I had gotten hold of myself, I saw that the next light-rail to Jersey City’s Heights left Pavonia-Newport in 24 minutes, and I did something absurd: I decided instead to walk nearly three miles back to the apartment. I remember Julio saying that his impression of Americans was that we would drive from the living room to the bathroom. (Julio walks 250-300 days a year, sometimes across entire countries, or in Himalayas, and so on). This 5K was for you, Julio!
I’m not disinclined to walk places anymore, because I’m not afraid of the discomfort of spending time so inefficiently. That’s a big change. It’s only partly a physical laziness that makes us drive. Much of the reason we drive is because we are uncomfortable with the feeling we get when we do something inefficient, like walking, and then tell ourselves the following story: I’m wasting my time.
This one story is a cause of much misery in modern life.
I was looking at Manhattan from Jersey City’s Heights the other
morning and sized up the actual distance. Based on my newfound experience in assessing how far away a village is and how long it will take to get there, I figured I could walk to Manhattan in under an hour, if there were a walking bridge. It’s a shame there isn’t. New Jerseyites are entirely denied the pleasure of walking into one of the world’s great cities. They must either drive through a serpentine urban jungle, including underground, or dive underground with hundreds of other people in public transportation.
What I Miss, Part II
In a proof of the mathematical equation that says the grass is always greener, I offer the essay below as contrasted with what I said I missed just a few weeks ago while in rural Spain…
I miss other things. Both of my cars are in Oregon. One, the Land Rover, the World’s Most Expensive Ski Accessory, I want to sell. Or to detonate, after first putting my HTC My Touch Android phone inside it. The other, my BMW M3, I miss like my own child. I am reduced to public transportation here, or driving Adam’s Volvo, which is like driving an iceberg, or a continental shelf.
I miss a world in which a guilt-free nap is actually plausible. Not that much has changed for me . . . Of course, I don’t really need them anymore, since no one dares wake me up at oh-god-thirty.
I miss having feeling on two (or is it three?) of my right toes. They still feel kind of tingly, if not entirely numb, just as they often did while walking in the Five Fingers. And that was before I — “stubbed” doesn’t quite capture the crushing impact they made with a rock — on the trail.
I miss that on the Camino there was nothing more that could be done, with the result that I didn’t worry any part of the day about whether I could be doing more – a hallmark of the over-achiever, of the unhappy person. Instead, for the first time in a very long time, I was doing all I could do – or all I was choosing to believe I needed to do.
I know there is a secret recipe for happiness in that.