How I Learned To Talk Again On The Camino

In 9th grade, we sat in Mr. Bridges class listening to him lecture about the Spanish-American war. I remember the setting vividly in my mind, portable classroom with loud a/c window units, sitting on the first row, second seat, closest to the door. He asked I question and for the first time in his class, I had an answer. I raised my hand to participate, “Yes Erica, what do you think?” All eyes on me, my thoughts shuffled through my brain. I struggled to articulate my words, to deliver a succinct answer, a complete sentence. I’m not sure how long I fumbled, but it felt like forever. It wasn’t until the kid in front of me, a popular and beautiful football player, turned around and gave me a look that said ‘you’re an idiot, you’re not making any sense, shut up now before you make a total fool of yourself’ or at least that is what I read on his face. So I did. I stopped talking and contributing and would stop contributing for 20 years. That single look in an attempt at a little courage and bravery in life traumatized me forever. This on top of the lessons from my parents and society, to stay humble, stay quiet, to keep opinions to myself and share my story only with a select few, formed me into the gold-star listener I am today. This skill allows me to provide a safe space for my patients and loved ones, to listen to their joys, sorrows, worries and celebrations and have them leave with a sense of peace and hope of healing. Because storytelling and sharing with others is therapy in itself.
Last night, my friend said to me “Todd and Jessica, they’re really nice, they seem genuinely interested in my story”. I wondered why he would question this. Of course, your story is fascinating, everyone’s is. But then I remembered this feeling. The feeling that I get when people ask me about myself and I felt like it came form inauthentic place, out of obligation or platitude.
This feeling was familiar for so long, for much of my life. So when I started traveling the world in my 20’s, it would throw me for a loop that people actually inquired about me, my background, my interests, my life. If I was drinking, my confidence poured over and the words would easily flow from my mouth. But sober, I was right back in Mr. Bridges classroom, fumbling and on the verge of tears.
Then came the camino. A journey of 500 miles on foot to find my truth, to find forgiveness, to open my heart even more. A journey where all you have is your backpack and your story and the most loving, open human beings waiting to hear it. Walking side by side to a stranger was the most accelerated therapy I’ve ever experienced. They say that ‘community is the guru of the future’, I believe it. Walking and talking to strangers, sharing my struggles, my hopes, my dreams and having them reciprocate with their own, created a bond that will never be broken. Most pilgrims strip away the facade, the mask that protects our hearts from any pain and just dive in water or not. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve had the honor of experiencing. And now after three years, I still have my camino family around the world, ready to pick up where we left off.
I learned to talk again on the Camino de Santiago. I learned when people ask you a question, they’re most certainly interested in finding out your answer, in whatever manner you deliver it. They’re not asking to judge you and test you, they’re trying to find a way to your heart to see what makes it tick. Sometimes they ask to get a sneak peak into your soul. And sometimes they ask because they find you beautiful and they want to know if that beauty goes beyond your skin.
And if they walk away mid-sentence, that’s ok too. That’s a lesson to learn as well.
I’m grateful for the countless lessons that the camino taught me, from accepting kindness from strangers to the monumental importance of human connection to the deliciousness of a pilgrims menu at the end of a 20 km day. But my most powerful lesson, the one that has brought me to where I am today, able to sing my truth and not shy away, was finding of my voice again. The one that allows me to tell my story in person and on paper. Thank you Camino, you saved me in so many ways.

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