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Santiago de Compostela

This incredibly beautiful city is altogether too much to take in. Even if I had a week, a month, a year, I would still be taking it in. I bought a book about it to take home, and I am not even trying to take pictures. The most surprising thing so far is that when I got to the Cathedral, I staggered around for a few minutes, and then I began to cry. I didn´t mean to cry. Nobody else I saw, of all the hordes of people, was crying. In fact they were shooting pictures and videos, talking, chewing gum, whistling, cajoling their kids into paying attention, lining up to touch the Tree of Jesse or to see the relics, kissing, holding hands, helping their aged mothers and grannies, and doing all the things that people do. I was shocked at myself, sobbing. I couldn´t help it. My sense of privilege was overwhelming. My awe was overwhelming. My sense of history is overwhelming: I feel the energies of the many people who have come here on foot, on their knees, as penance or as praise, hundreds of thousands of people for more years than I can imagine, many of whom must have died on the way. This is where they were trying to get to. And here I am. Not even a Christian. Did not follow the golden arrows. Sobbing. I found myself gazing into the eyes of a beautiful little figure of Santa Nossa Señora Salome. Salome was made into a saint? Wasn´t she the one who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter? The one Oscar Wilde wrote about? They made her a saint? Well, no matter. Obviously it is not her legend that moved me, since I don´t really know what her legend is. It is her stillness. The statue has a great stillness and presence to it that moves me. I did take a picture of her. I could wrap my spirit around her. She was the one presence in that vast and unimaginably complex cathedral that I could wrap my spirit around, and I put my hand on one of her little feet for a while, till I felt grounded enough to move again. If anybody knows anything about how she became a saint or what her story is, do tell me. But more about Finisterre, and more about this place.

First, let me backtrack for a day and return to Finisterre. I must have walked a hundred kilometers, all over the peninsula. I walked up to the cave and stone bed of San Guillermo, to honor both my friend Guillermo, who has been in prison for the past fifteen years, and also my friend Pho Nguyen (formerly Kate Leshock), who ordained with the Vietnamese nun whose order I almost joined myself before I made a dramatic shift in direction. I took a handful of little crystals and two pieces of lapis lazuli. I collected some of these crystals myself over many years, and Pho Nguyen collected some and gave them to me for this trip, and I spread them on the bed of San Guillermo. Right after I laid the crystals out, a tiny brown rabbit hopped out into the space above the “bed” as if to receive the offering. We made eye contact, and then the rabbit hopped off again. San Guillermo was a hermit monk who lived in a cave atop the highest peak on the Finisterre peninsula, and the story is that he slept on that stone bed there, which is still about the right size for a small adult, and which is still in place next to the cave. For my Guillermo, whose isolation from the world has been imposed, for Kate, whose isolation is a choice, and for myself, a person who has dabbled in isolation and hemitry from time to time, I wanted to visit the place where this man lived out his life in solitude, and I wanted to leave an offering. The place took me two hours and a half to get to, hard climbing, but it was worth it. The view from San Guillermo´s bed reveals the entire peninsula, surrounded by an infinity of sea stretching out in every direction. From his cave, San Guillermo could look down on the village, on the fishing boats, on all the drama, striving, love, foolishness, and struggle of life, and smile. I don´t think W.B. Yeats knew about San Guillermo, but if he had known about him, he would have written his poem, “Lapis Lazuli” for him. I am sure that San Guillermo´s eyes, his ancient, glittering eyes, were gay. Meaning joyful. If there was another meaning, I don´t know about it and am not prepared to say.

This next paragraph is intensely personal, so if you are reading this blog for the laughs and the travel news, skip ahead or pick up tomorrow. I sat up there on San Guillermo´s bed and saw with clear eyes. I saw the habit of self-shaming that has been so vivid on this pilgrimage. I chose not to walk the prescribed route for very good reasons that work for me, and then I felt ashamed for having done it my way. Taking a longer look at my life, I chose (again and again) to be single and then felt like a failure for not building a long-term relationship. I chose to leave Chris´s father, which was a good choice, but then when he took Chris and disappeared for years, I blamed myself for not being present for Chris´s childhood. I chose to have Seth unmarried, and then I blamed myself for not providing Seth with a father. I chose to adopt Palesa and then blamed myself when I could not save her from her Fetal Alcohol and Bipolar disorders. I chose to adopt Manko and have been blaming myself because I cannot give her what a Black mother could. I chose to leave Smith College because the workaholic atmosphere made me miserable, and then I felt a failure for not succeeding at what I didn´t want to do. I chose to go to Africa, and then I chose to leave Africa for very good reasons, and when I ended up in Texas I shamed myself for not being in Africa. I have chosen to travel, to give to others who had less than I, to live in the moment, and not to save money for my old age; now that I am stepping into my old age, I shame myself for having no house and nothing saved. I follow my heart consistently, and then there is a tyrannical voice in my head, a conventional, mean-spirited, boring woman who shames me for my best stuff. She waits for me to make the right decision, which I usually do, and then tells me I am a failure for making that decision: I should instead have done what I could not possibly have done well, should have done the more conventional thing, should have suffered more, should have tried to make myself fit an outfit that is not my size. Sitting atop the End of the World on San Guillermo´s bed, surrounded by crystals and hovered over by a small brown rabbit, otherwise completely alone for the entire afternoon, I saw that I am very tired of the voice of that judgmental woman. She is useless to me. She muffles my joys. She has never served me. I can let her go. She really doesn´t matter. Her values are tawdry. Up there above the world, surrounded by the ocean, blown by a fierce wind, I let her go. Of course she will return. Her presence in my life is a habit. But perhaps I will recognize her the next time she appears and send her away before she spoils my good time. Perhaps she will have less power in the future. So I hope. And so I hope for the young man with the blonde curls who found himself beautiful that moment, and for Guillermo and Pho Nguyen and Jetgirl and Lisa and Lillie and John and Noel with his flip-flops and everybody who has ever had a tyrant in their head. May we all become aware of the uselessness of our inner tyrants, and may we let them go.

After San Guillermo´s bed, I wandered on to the Arca Solis, the great standing stones through which the megalithic people must have watched the sun descend and counted the seasons and who knows what else, as they did at Stonehenge, Carnac, Sligo, etc. I climbed through a thicket of nettles because I HAD to put my hands in the hollows of those ancient stones. And I did. There was a buzz in the stones. I held on, and the wind blew fiercely, and I almost felt I could be a kite and be blown up into the sky. Almost. I remembered Seth in Ireland in 1978: atop Fourknocks, he said, “I feel the world breathing.” Yes. It was like that. And then I hauled my picnic of crackers, créme fraiche, peaches, and water to another outcropping beyond the nettles where no people were. (This took some doing. There were people climbing all over the stones in every direction, but I found a cliffside with a straight dropoff of about 500 feet, nestled in, and watched the sunset without another person anywhere within my view.) The sun took a very long time to drop. I got into place at 8:30 p.m., ate my picnic slowly, watching the wind blow the water and thinking about the winds that blow our lives, and by 10 p.m. the sunset had still not reached its climax, but I had to pee (and did I have my Freshette? No! I have not used it this entire trip), and I noticed I was wearing two shades of green and so would be invisible to drivers as I walked down the road after dark, so I started down. Just before I began my descent, as the sun dropped closer to the ocean behind the small island to the west of Finis Terre, but before the great color show started, I took a picture. I´m going to get that one framed. It´s incredible. Possibly not to anyone else, but to me. Because it was such a silent time. All the voices in my head had shut up. It was just me, the sun, the ocean, the rocks, the wind, and silence. That was last night.

This morning, I rode the bus for two hours with 32 other pilgrims, back through the heather, the pine forests, the cedars, the vineyards, and the mountains and valleys with glimpses of the rolling sea, to Santiago de Compostela. I found my hostel, dropped my bag, and set out to discover the city. I had a wonderful hibiscus-and-rose infusion at an Art Deco coffee house called Café Casino, with wonderful woodwork and overstuffed chairs in a red and cream tapestry pattern. I found Santa Salome. I cried. I found a perfect present for Manko. I ate pulpo and pimiento de padrón (once is enough for the pulpo, I think, but I LOVE those little fresh peppers, sweeter and milder than green bell peppers but more flavorful and subtle), and I came to this internet place. I am surrounded by people with hiking sticks and enormous backpacks, by people speaking every language known to Europe and some languages from beyond Europe, by people of every age and size and description. Some are inebriated by substances, some are inebriated by joy, some are inebriated by exhaustion. Many are limping. Many have knee braces and are leaning hard on their walking sticks. Some are Spanish and Portuguese faithful who came in their cars. But every one (except some of the babies, who always fret anyway) is happy to be here. Once again, there is a quality of euphoria in almost every face I see. And this is still one day. I left Finisterre this morning, and it is just a little before 7 pm Spanish time. Time has absolutely no meaning at all.

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2 responses to “Santiago de Compostela”

  1. Cyndi Jones says:

    The person most likely to be your Santa Nossa Señora Salome is Salome, Jesus’ aunt (Mary’s sister). According to Wikipedia, she is mentioned in several of the gospels as one of the women present at Jesus’ crucifixion. She also went to his tomb to annoint his body.
    I hope this helps.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Cyndi. That clears it up. The statue I love shows her holding a book.

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