Anxiety, Camino de Santiago

Lessons from a Pilgrimage for a Pandemic

One potato, two potato…no, just one potato!

When life throws a curve ball, or I find myself in disappointing circumstances, I attempt to reset my expectations for whatever is happening NOW by recalling my experience walking El Camino de Santiago. What did I do then, when faced with all kinds of unexpected situations? I don’t always remember this exercise, or succeed when I do, yet it’s still a worthy experiment. I completed the pilgrimage in 2012, which seems like a century, given all that has transpired in the ensuing years, especially the acceleration of change in recent weeks. Yet, it’s a timeless walk and a powerful reference that still reverberates through my life.

El Camino can sound magical, mystical and romantic from afar, yet the joyful, surprising and meaningful trek had often been interspersed with grim, desolate and even miserable stretches that made me question why the hell I was still walking. In theory, I could have exited the Camino at any time. Yet, something compelled me to keep going. I and thousands of others slogged through muddy fields, walked or limped with painful injuries, and endured rough sleep in barracks’ like buildings on creaky metal bunk beds atop flimsy, plastic coated mattresses, some even infested with bed bugs. And, the worst torment came from my own mind, which created internal obstacles around the clock. Most days, however, the opportunity to spend an entire day under a vast sky, without knowing in advance what would happen, who I’d meet, or what I’d see, plus the prospect of a warm shower and a hot meal each evening had been enough to keep me putting one foot in front of another. Discouragement set in when a long, exhausting walk ended in a tiny village with no place to sit down and be served even a basic hot meal, when the only option was a small market with sad looking vegetables, perhaps a few bruised fruits, canned goods, processed cheese and, if they hadn’t already run out by late afternoon, bread. Still, I never went hungry. There was always something to fill my belly even if it didn’t lift my spirits or soothe my soul. I had to trust that there would be food the next day, too, because carrying excess edibles in my pack, “just in case”, had slowed me down at the beginning when I felt more fear.

Two Saturdays ago I loaded my bicycle in the car, drove to a public park, and then cycled to Whole Foods in Hadley, MA. I normally shop at River Valley Co-op, a compact and lovingly stocked community owned store, but with the YMCA closed, I needed exercise. I had hoped to buy some potatoes and onions, which I’d been getting at a winter market, filled with local characters and their home grown deliciousness. Alas, that venue shuttered for the rest of the season due to the Coronavirus, leaving the community bereft of ritual, needed connection and income for the farmers. By the time I arrived at Whole Foods, the potato and onion section had been stripped bare, save for one lone potato. Out of surprise at the utter decimation, I laughed and took a photo. After my ride, I drove to the co-op and bought some potatoes and onions. Perhaps because it’s a nimbler operation, they were able to keep more staples available. 

Since then, the shelves and freezer sections at both my local co-op and Whole Foods have grown increasingly large bare spots. The hot bar at the co-op closed nearly two weeks ago, replaced by pre-packaged salads, soups and meals. Whole Foods followed suit a few days later. But even with these gaping holes, I am struck by how many varieties of food are still available. The array is dizzying, even disorienting. The sheer number of choices can be paralyzing. And as much as I enjoy exploring the food universe, and discovering new products, especially those that are friendly to my gluten-free diet, I wonder:

How much of it do we need?

While I do not wish for any more people to die from Covid-19 and, for the sake of our sanity I hope this outbreak can be contained before “social distancing” takes an even greater psychic and economic toll, I wonder if this unique moment in time will invite people to take a look at the excess around us, an excess that we have come to accept, if not believe, as “normal”. If the grocery stores could shrink in real time so that there were no longer any bare spots, would I and others notice what was missing, or would we adjust to, and come to appreciate, what was available?

When I came back from the Camino, I felt like a changed person with different priorities. American capitalism seemed too complicated and confusing for this Pilgrim, after I had spent six weeks only buying what I needed and wearing the same outfit day after day, my head relatively clear from being outdoors and away from the media. Yet, over time, old habits, fears and some poor decisions eclipsed my deeper sense of self, a self that knows that material goodies and conveniences offer only ephemeral pleasure and relief, not deeper satisfaction. The Coronavirus has forced everyone onto this collective Camino, a new way of life requiring that we quickly adjust many of our habits, for an indefinite period, in order to keep going. Yesterday, when I cycled to Whole Foods, I noticed that most people along the bike path waved at or greeted me, a bit of a change from a few weeks ago, yet similar to my experience walking in Spain when fellow Pilgrims exclaimed, “Buen Camino!” upon seeing each other. Now, the sight of a human being is more cause for celebration than before, when we took each other’s presence for granted and perhaps, like this sensitive introvert, became weary or frazzled in the presence of too many people. Indeed, at Whole Foods yesterday the potato section was well-stocked but the aisles practically empty. Without customers, the potato piles seemed less tempting, as if they were a strange art installation.

The most challenging aspect of this moment for me is the lack of in-person contact, especially the casual kind, since I live alone in the woods and have intermittent contact with upstairs neighbors. Simply showing up at the YMCA and chatting with staff and other members was often enough to get me through the day feeling like a human being, rather than shriveling inside. Zoom meetings, groups and classes help, but they are no substitute for being in the presence of other bipeds. I am trying not to think too much about how long life will be shutdown, or what will happen next. I am trying to remember that when I walked the Camino I willingly put myself on the path of uncertainty and had been open to being changed by it. And just as I became habituated to the demands of the Camino which, in the end, felt far more healthy than “normal” life, perhaps something more profound and meaningful will emerge from the Coronavirus cataclysm, both for myself and for this society. Pain can be a powerful teacher. 


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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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