...and other profound insights from walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.
“Would you call this landscape beautiful or nice?” the French woman asked me. “Usually, we refer to landscapes as beautiful. The weather we could call nice. In this case, the weather is not nice, which makes this landscape beautiful.” She seemed to get it.There is an attractive quality to rawness. To experience it can make us feel uncomfortably alive; to see it in others kindles a vulnerable connection. There is an aura of mystery and depth surrounding those who wear substance over surface on their sleeve. Beauty is not synonymous with aesthetic perfection. The French expression jolie laide (“beautiful ugly”) describes unconventional beauty, especially for women with atypical and sometimes an asymmetrical inner and outer radiance. The Japanese term wabi-sabi (侘寂) adds to this the notion of transience in which beauty is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Beauty is present in that which is dynamic and adapting. I learned to appreciate the winds of change while walking the Camino de Santiago during my 900 km pilgrimage across Spain from St. Jean Piedad de Port in France to Finisterre on the west coast of Galicia. Change was the only constant through the motion of seasons, terrains, and faces. Each day was a completely new adventure. Day 1: Thunder, lightning, and blinding rain through Pyrenees Mountains. Day 13: Windswept highways and lack of shelter through the high Central Plateau. Day 35: Redwoods and fern forests and the invigorating breeze of the ocean breeze. I would curse the rain and howl alongside the wind: stop! And it did. Rainstorms do sometimes lead to rainbows. I learned to embrace the winds of change. I also learned to accept the imperfections of my own body and confront the flaws of my personality. Never before have I been so acutely aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities. Some days, my monster pack felt like a hundred pound weight; my feet, heavy as lead. I fainted from exhaustion. I came down with a fever, walked eleven days with a twisted ankle, and had moments when I question everything and wonder: Is this really worth it? They say you carry your fears with you. I carried my insecurities: You’re not pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough. When people past age sixty sped past me, I couldn’t help feeling incompetent. Until, at one intersection, a retired Australian couple turned to me and said:
“You have a beautiful stride.”
Really? Cause all that I felt was ugly inside.
“Keep at it. You’re steady and seeing that in young people gives us hope.”They helped me realize that it is okay not to be at the front of the pack. Each of us follows our own pace, our own rhythm in life, and we have the choice to slow down or speed up according to our bodies and internal clocks. The way in which we walk is more than an external expression. It is an amplification of our internal state and the way in which we interact with others. It abruptly removes us from our daily routine and forces us to discover who we are in our most authentic, unadulterated state. There were no pretences or cover-ups to impress. We were all one, together and individual, pilgrims walking the Camino. We learned to lighten our packs. All those unnecessary items—books, blankets, shoes—and the emotional baggage left behind, made room for discovery. One young woman had taken leave from her daytime job in Paris to switch her high heel shoes for hiking boots. She said the hardest adjustment was getting used to seeing herself without make-up on every morning. An American woman who had married her high school sweetheart said that the hardest thing about her divorce was realizing that everything about her past life, hobbies and social network, had involved her partner. She was walking the Camino to re-discover herself, without the need of anyone else to make her happy. Reaching Santiago was not the “end” of the Camino. Rather, it was more like the beginning. I have greater appreciation for a different form of beauty: that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Our lives are works of art in progress.
EpilogueThe week following the Camino I visited the Harvard Art Museum. This sculpture made me stop dead in my tracks. The dancer in motion is working toward the arabesque position. It is not your typical sculpture of a ballerina: She looks clumsy. Ungraceful. And yet, beautiful. Memorable artwork, as with life-changing experiences, have a quality of openness. There’s this beauty in the art of process. The following day I met with a Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate. He is a chocolate maker and artists unto himself struggling with the imperfections of bubbles that surface in his chocolate molds. These blemishes literally melted away when I popped the chocolate in my mouth. It was perfect. And that’s when I realized:
No great art exists. No good chocolate exists. There is no perfect human being. We all have our imperfections. Yet, we ignore this reality and go around searching for the impossible, which only leads us down the road of disappointment. If instead we choose the more difficult path to experience the “good” or “beautiful,” that comes too with having experienced what is “bad” and what is “ugly.” Great art comes after we have learned to make mistakes. It speaks to us on a different level, arousing our soul and sometimes most sinful desires. Good chocolate comforts our vulnerabilities, nurturing us like a mother who loves us just the way we are.Great art, like good chocolate, is beautiful when raw. True journeys never really end.