A few weeks ago, which seems like another lifetime, my local food co-op removed the cafe seating in the store. While watching an employee take the interior chairs and tables away as I sat at a counter by the window, a deep fear churned in my gut, as if a rug were being pulled out from underneath me. The small and often cramped cafe, surrounded by art covered walls, had been a soothing oasis when I needed to be around people. I often sat down for a snack or a small meal or to check e-mail. Just being in the proximity of others felt necessary for my well-being, even if we only shared a cursory greeting or chatted about the delicious food. To have this resource disappear, even temporarily, left me feeling adrift if not a bit terrified.
Since then, the store has implemented more changes. It seems as if each time I arrive, they have taken yet another step to slow the spread of the virus. Just 10 days ago, anyone could enter the store at any time. Now, store staff direct us to stand in lane outside. We wait, six feet apart, until someone exits before we can enter. It feels like a cross between being in the army and kindergarten. They’ve installed a hand washing station in the foyer, once occupied by shopping carts. Customers now put on gloves, supplied by the store. They’ve taped six foot intervals on the floor, the yellow lines signaling how much distance to maintain. The bright demarcations remind me, again, of being on El Camino de Santiago, where nearly ubiquitous yellow arrows pointed the way. Unless one became lost in conversation or in a mental reverie, it was hard to actually lose the way given the number of guideposts. Now the store has made many of its aisles one way, the direction indicated by taped red arrows. These arrows, intended to keep people apart, don’t lift my spirits. As choices are removed and the path narrowed, I’ve been required to go deeper within.
During the early days of my pilgrimage, I found myself walking behind an older Korean couple. The tall man wore a mask that covered his nose and mouth. He walked with a precise, almost militaristic, gait, hands clasped behind his back. His wife, about half his size, followed directly behind him, her hands covered with white fabric gloves. Something about them struck a deep aversion in me. I imagined that the wife was subservient for walking behind him, and that he was was a domineering patriarch. Since I love the feeling of air on my skin and hands, and I was walking to experience an expansiveness and freedom that eluded me in regular life, I couldn’t relate to their need to protect themselves. Just seeing those barriers made me feel stifled, as if by osmosis. I quickly moved ahead of them.
On the Camino, as in life, one can pass a person one day and, later on, they might reappear, seemingly out of nowhere. I kept crossing paths with this couple and, after sharing a room with them in an albergue one night, discovered that the man snored loudly and my earplugs couldn’t block the sound. That made me dislike them even more. Every time I saw them I wanted to distance myself, except we kept a similar pace, so my attempts to avoid them created internal stress and proved to be pointless. A few days later we ended up in the same, cramped albergue, whose bunkbeds were packed so close together it reminded me of concentration camp barracks. With the next closest albergue already shuttered for the season, it was the only place to sleep that night. Rain pelted outside. There was nowhere else to go. Deeply miserable, I went downstairs to a common area where other pilgrims, including the Korean woman, rested and snacked while sitting around a long table. I sat at an empty table, hoping to find some space. A tall German man stripped off his lycra pants and laid them next to the fire to dry. He wondered if he could join me and we began to talk. He asked me if I planned to walk the entire Camino. I told him yes, even though I didn’t have total confidence or faith that I would complete it, given the intermittent pain of my leg injury.
“Then you’re one of the lucky ones,” he said, meaning that not everyone could take the time to do it in a single go.
I tried to take in his words even though, at that moment, I didn’t feel lucky at all. My leg ached. The grim and crowded accommodations suffocated my sensitive nervous system and surfaced ancestral anxieties. I longed to be anywhere other than that place. After a few minutes, a Spanish pilgrim stood and asked for our attention. She had a message from the Korean woman, who wanted people to know that she had been feeling lonely since she and her husband didn’t speak English or much Spanish, and she wanted to communicate her goodwill towards everyone. The translator also explained that the couple wore protective gear for health reasons. It’s as if the translator stuck a needle in my balloon of aversion, which collapsed into remorse when I realized that my mind had, essentially, turned this couple into an enemy, rather than honoring their courage for walking while older and in less than perfect health.
I thought of them as I stood in a long line yesterday to enter the grocery store. It was the first time I wore a mask since the pandemic began. I found the face covering uncomfortable, with the upper rim interfering with my range of vision. I couldn’t imagine walking hundreds of miles while wearing one, as the husband had. Suddenly though, I am, if not him, more like him than ever, even though he once appeared as the “other”. I am also contemplating what it means to be “lucky” at these times, when the Western illusion of being in control of our destinies has been shattered by an invisible parasite. At the moment, I am living alone, in the woods, in circumstances that are radically different from that crowded, noisy albergue in Spain. While I have access to nature, the saving grace of my situation, the prolonged isolation and touch deprivation is not something that makes me feel lucky, as it comes on the heels of a long period of exhaustion and depression-induced social withdrawal that I’d begun to emerge from literally weeks before the virus hit. It’s as if my attempt to crawl out of a deep hole and rejoin life had been met by life shoving me back down. On bad days, I wonder, much as I did in the middle of the Camino, how I will make it through the subsequent weeks of social distancing. I also wonder who I’ll be on the other side, although I can only manage one day, if not one moment, at a time. Right now, sharing a cramped room with strangers, tossing and snoring in their beds, would ease my primal anxiety and feel like medicine. In the meantime, what offers consolation is knowing that so many people are struggling in a wide variety of circumstances, whether they catch the virus or not, and that this collective trial might lead to a more compassionate society. Hopefully, when the pandemic passes, and we gather again, I will remember that we are all each other. Maybe others will, too.