Even though my body is still in Denver, I feel like I’m in a netherworld, between what was and what will be when I return from the Camino. It’s a wide openness I once feared but am now learning to inhabit. Suspending an identity is equally freeing and disconcerting. Yom Kippur, which ended tonight, amplified this liminal space. During the Day of Atonement we rehearse our deaths by dressing in white, like a shroud, abstaining from food, drink, bathing, the wearing of leather and even face cream. We strip ourselves of our worldly routine to focus on the soul and the spirit.
Since deciding to walk the Camino I’ve been systematically ridding myself of possessions. Not the majority, by any means, but enough to signal to myself that I wish to shed what no longer serves, literally and metaphorically. I suspect that when I return, I’ll be grateful for what I have and possibly wish I had been more ruthless with my purge.
Several nights ago I strolled a few blocks to pick up copies of The Onion to use as packing material. Along the darkened sidewalk, I passed two elegant women in a tense exchange. The older one spoke in a thick central European accent; the younger one boasted a chic blunt haircut. Something told me to slow down. The matron, visibly frustrated at how the conversation ended, turned to me and vented that her daughter was being difficult about making plans for the next day. Theirs was a power struggle that, if you’re the boundary-defending offspring, has a torturous logic yet is otherwise painful to witness.
“Do you have kids?” she asked me as we approached the local Whole Foods.
I shook my head.
“Gut,” she said. “Sometimes they are more trouble than they are vorth.”
I paused by the newspaper dispensers and she slowed, too. It was as if we were held by some magnetic force, unable to pull ourselves apart, suspended in time. Later, I calculated that we probably talked for more than half an hour.
“I can’t believe vat people do here.” Her dark eyes burned bright. “I used to verk at Saks Fifth Avenue. A voman returned $35,000 vorth of clothes. All vorn. Then they go back on the sale rack. It’s criminal! In Vienna, if you buy anything, you have three days to return it for just three months of store credit. No refunds.”
She had stories galore. Someone returned an empty bottle to the Clinique counter, claimed the moisturizer didn’t work, and wanted a refund. Another woman returned a vial filled with a cheaper, lookalike product. Since retailers are fearful of complaints, the fraudsters got their money back.
“Ven I buy something,” she said,”I know vat I vant. Once I buy it, vy vould I return it?”
“You know who you are,” I said. “Here, people don’t know who they are and buy stuff because they think it will make them happy.” I thought of all the garments I’d acquired, more as experiments than investments, over the years.
“You might be right,” she said.
We compared cultural notes. Often we agreed. Other things frustrated her: the lack of respect shown to blue collar workers and tradespeople who, in Austria and elsewhere, are recognized for their skills; that her longtime neighbor has not once cleaned her windows (in Vienna, it’s a monthly ritual). Listening beneath her grumbling, I sensed a deep current of homesickness for a place she no longer has strong ties to and might not belong in anymore. In her native language, perhaps a more accurate term is sehnsucht. Her tone and cadence reminded me of my late Hungarian-born father who, while an American citizen for most of his life, was homesick for the world of his childhood, destroyed in the Holocaust. Maybe I needed to cross paths with her to fully grasp that my father’s frequent grievances about his adopted country were, in essence, a lamentation, a cranky kaddish for what was lost, a kaddish recited nearly every day of his life, a kaddish at times I couldn’t listen to anymore. Maybe this conversation by the news kiosks supplanted the Yizkor (memorial) service I missed this afternoon, where I would have recited the traditional kaddish.
Being in one place while longing for another is a condition I seem to have inherited. Meditation and other practices help bring me back to the “here” and “now”, but often I’m overpowered by sehnsucht and its more uplifting counterpart, wanderlust. This time, they are propelling me to the Camino. Maybe walking hundreds of miles will help me arrive closer to my own center, to that still place beyond yearning, to a internal place I can call home, wherever I happen to be.