from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Camino: the way of the wind and the path of the stars

I suppose this is another riff on the things that seem to concern me, to do with living with heart and how we find meaning in a world that seems so fragmented, so sorely close to the edge; not least because of what we're doing to the planet, other species and ourselves.

When I first started this blog, I didn't know really what I'd be writing about, simply that I'd be writing. I guess I thought I'd be speaking about the writing life. And of course I am – because of course 'the writing life' is no different from any other life, or any other aspect of my own life. I also knew that it was partly about writing practice, for me – on days when, for instance, my time, as it so often is, is taken up with admin for courses or attention to others' writing, at least a blog would ensure I did some writing. Nonetheless, I see themes emerging; I'm not surprised, but I am interested to see what my magnetic field is pulled towards.

One of the main things that draws me, in my own life and in terms of the courses I lead and books I write, is around how we keep from being seduced and insulated by and lost in the passing attractions of the overwhelm of entertainments that threaten to keep us too busy, too stimulated by the trivial, too distracted; too comfortable and insulated, I suppose I mean, in the affluent West.

I don't mean to sound like a ranting puritan; it's just that one has to go against the current to remember the significance of core stuff, the simple fundamentals, whatever that means for each of us: something to do with the fact of our living, the fact of our dying, the meaning of what comes between birth and death, and how we 'do' that in a way that doesn't feel like squandering this precious life. 'Meaning transfigures all,' wrote Laurens van der Post. And, for me, there's the importance of how we step lightly on this earth we've been lent as a home.

I'm talking about the life of the soul – a really hard word to use, with all its overtones of faith and belief and the Christian heritage. But what I mean here is that part of us that is not just material; not just a collision of atoms; not just brain consciousness; that is aware at a deep level of our connectedness, and that seeks meaning. It's also connected with imagination and empathy, and is bigger than the analysing intellect.

The Way
Yep, you're right: this is going somewhere. Or rather, it's not – because the journey, one could say, is the point.

I came across the phrase  'El Camino' as a teenager. I knew nothing about it except that it meant 'way' or 'path' or 'road' ('chemin' of course in French) and I also knew that the phrase in the way I came across it used (and I have no idea where I did come across it so young) meant more than a generic path; there was something about it that made the hairs on my neck prickle in a good way, like reading an inspiring novel or poem for the first time, or having a bareback gallop along the sands near my childhood home at dusk (no it wasn't that I had a privileged childhood in terms of wealth: we weren't affluent. But in terms of lifestyle, yes – brought up in the country, close to sea and hills and woods, allowed to run free; and at 11 I bought a young colt off the moor for £25, my Post Office savings of all my pocket money, and supported his keep with a job in cat breeding kennels and as a newspapergirl after school and at weekends. But that's a digression.).

Years later I found out what the Camino was actually about. It's a pilgrim route; in fact there are many Caminos, all over Europe, all converging on St James' Basilica at Santiago de Compostella, which sits at the hub of these radials like a heart. (The scallop, or Coquille Saint Jacques, is St James' symbol and the symbol of the pilgrim.) The route with which we're most familiar in the UK, anyway, is the one leading from France over the Pyrenees: the Camino Frances, which most people pick up at St Jean Pied de Port, near Biarritz in southwest France. There are starting points all over Europe, though, including a tiny riverside chapel on the Tamar near where I used to live, on the Devon/Cornwall border.

Another digression: the verb 'to saunter', which I love, didn't originally have its current overtones of lazy swaggering; its roots are from the old phrase for a journey 'a la sante terre', or journey to the sacred place.

We know that the Camino has been travelled by Christians for at least 1000 years. I have read that in fact it's a much more ancient processional way or pilgrim route, and no doubt simply crossing-the-landmass route, from pagan times, as so many of these routes are (eg the road to Iona, and the Ridgeway in the south of England, though this latter is not a Christian pilgrim's route). This is not these days necessarily a 'religious' experience in the normal sense; but it is very much an experience of depth, of heart, of significance, and it will usually be spiritual in content, depending on one's take on all that.

The point of the journey is the journey. A pilgrimage, in distinction from a holiday, is a trip taken with intention, with mindfulness; and although one doesn't have to wear a hairshirt to do it, or whip oneself with nettles, it's not gratuitously hedonistic (and there's a place for that – I don't mean to sound judgemental) in the way that holiday can be, but rather about simplicity. It often involves some hardship. Walking this kind of journey (and the Camino is hundreds of kilometres to be covered on foot, though some do it with a pushbike, donkey or on horseback) is not about escape and distraction; on the contrary, it brings you face-to-face with yourself; and, not being without risks, also face-to-face with with the possibility of accident or death. The fact of your living; the fact of your dying. On the Camino it also brings you face-to-face with the many other assorted humans making this journey, and a kind of often transient but always significant companionship that strips away outer more superficial stuff that seems to be absent from many contemporary lives becomes possible. (Another digression here: 'companion' = 'com pane': those 'with whom one breaks bread'.) People of course are often drawn to this kind of journey at a time of change or tumult in their lives: to make, or mark, a transition. Participants on my writing retreats on the Isle of Iona each year seem to experience something of this, too, in a small way.

Phil Cousineau, in the book on pilgrimage I mentioned yesterday, says this:

'To be touched, we must, in turn, touch. When life has lost its meaning, a pilgrim will risk everything to get back in touch with life... the risk is for the confirmation that the mystery exists at all in a modern world seemingly determined to undermine the sacred as mere superstition. Every day, we can read articles "exposing" ancient mysteries – the soul is "nothing but the electrical firing of synapses in the brain", dreams are the result only of "chemical combustion in the mind", love is simply the blind attraction of two incompetent personalities... the miracle of life itself but a chance occurrence, a universal hiccup... The idea that redwood groves, an eagle's eyesight, the formation of coral, the grip of a baby's hand, the Bach suites, the echo of God in the poetry of Sappho or Pablo Neruda are all but a burp of evolution makes the soul recoil and long for a journey to reconfirm the presence behind sacred mysteries.'

We are humans, and humans seek to understand, and to explain, and perhaps grow as a result of that. And there are other ways of growing. For me, give me also mystery, and presence, and companions on the way; and give me the experience of it.

There is a great deal more I could say about this (including the long trek my sister made), and might at a later stage. But I wanted to speak of all this for two reasons: one is that I wrote in my blog yesterday about pilgrimage; and the other is that I have just seen the film starring Martin Sheen: 'The Way'. See it if you get the chance.

It's not an action film as 'Apocalypse Now' is, in which I think Sheen also starred, didn't he? It's about walking the Camino. The theme behind it is simple: loss, and the numbness and absence that comes from that; and the transformation of that. It's about humanity and the best in humanity. It's about love and disconnection and reconnection (which is the true meaning of the word 'religion' if we look to its Latin root 'religio': 'to tie back', to 'bind' or 'rebind', to reconnect). It's beautiful, and moving, and it feels true. If I were a critic, I might say that in places it verges on sentimentality; but I'm not, so I shan't. It's simple. And, as in good Zen fashion (though it isn't about Zen): once they get to the end of the route they keep walking.

For more on the Camino there are a great many books. You might also see

And if you are a compulsive picture-straightener I'm sorry about the skew of the scallop shell! It's one I picked up at the crossing to Iona; and it insists on sliding down the screen of my scanner, despite all my best efforts.


  1. Camino as sacred journey - wonderful. What you write reminds me, sideways, of Atahualpa Yupanqui's 'Camino del indio' - one of my favourite songs ("Caminito del indio que junta el valle con las estrellas" - "Indian's path that links the valley to the stars"). See

  2. What a lovely comment! Is that you, 'my' Francis oop north? (- or another? Whichever,) I'm very touched and pleased as I woke this morning thinking 'that was a dire and turgid post - no-one's going to get through that one!' - and was about to severely edit it. So that's very affirming and I'm off to youtube.

    Something that's beginning to happen here on the blog because of people's comments is that I'm really beginning to feel a sense of a cybercommunity of fellow travellers. It's a great feeling.

  3. I loved this film too. I did walk some of the Camino in Spain a long time ago (there's an essay about it on my blog). But I would have loved the film anyway. It's heartening that such starry Hollywood people choose to make such a gentle, simple film.

    Your earlier mention of Phil Cousineau and his books resonated at once and I've already ordered second-hand copies of several, about pilgrimage and about accessing creativity.

  4. Thank you for that, Jean. I've missed that one on your blog so will go and check it out. For anyone else: Jean's blog is 'tasting rhubarb', which you can find in the 'interesting blogs' bit below and to the right of this post. I recommend it.

    Phil Cousineau's other books include a simple and beautiful book with photos called 'Soul of the Earth', which is a profound and inspiring little book. I keep it by my bedside. For information: I found another of his - can't remember the title - maybe 'Soul Moments' or 'Soul Whispers' - less inspiring and a little more trite by comparison with 'The Art of Pilgrimage' or SotE - it is about moments of synchronicity, but I can't help feeling other books by other authors have dealt with that better. The other two I have mentioned of his are extremely precious to me, and would be some of the ones I'd attempt to save first in the event of a fire! I always take 'The Art of Pilgrimage' with me to Iona, and on other journeys too.


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