Pilgrimage: The Body

In 11 days, my husband and I are traveling to Ponferrada in Galicia, Spain where we will join the 1,200-year-old pilgrimage trail Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James. While we don’t have the resources to complete the entire pilgrimage trail, which starts in France and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Santiago, Galicia in the north of Spain (791 kilometers  or 490 miles), we do have the opportunity to do about 239 kilometers (148 miles).

Over the last three days, I’ve walked 24 miles, mostly to prepare my feet, which aren’t used to the 13 to 14 mile average walk per day that a peregrino (pilgrim) treks each day on the Camino. My feet are particularly unprepared for my hiking boots, which only ever see regular short hikes through the woods near my home in northern Indiana. By the time my hiking boots start rubbing my feet raw, the hike is over and I can drive home, prop them on my coffee table, while I comfort them and tell them how proud I am of them. They are mildly sore and by the next day often no worse for the wear.

After three days of extended walks, my feet, ankles, knees, and shoulders ache. Blisters have bubbled and erupted on the pads of my toes. If I sit too long after one of these long walks, I hobble until my muscles loosen again. I have found myself berating my body for its fatigue and focusing solely on the minor pain it’s causing me.

The other day while visiting my mother, I was complaining to her about my body. My mother has struggled with debilitating Multiple Sclerosis for the past twenty years (she has finally moved from the use of a walker to a wheelchair and is trying to gain weight from a recent exacerbation that saw her lose so much weight that she was reduced to a skeletal 80 pounds). I was bemoaning my changing middle-aged body. It seems, I told her, that no matter what I do with it, it just keeps getting fatter and fatter. She smiled at me and slowly blinked, forcing her heavy eyelids open. The characteristic fatigue, which overwhelms those who live with MS, threatened to shut her down completely for the day.

I suddenly heard myself in a way that I hadn’t in months. I listened to myself actually say, “I hate my stupid body.”

Shame washed through me.

Physical comfort has a way of blinding me. I’ve become inured to my own fragility. Over time, I’ve somehow convinced myself  that my body will serve me indefinitely and that it is not in the least prone, ultimately, to annihilation. Because it works mostly the way I want it to, when I want it to, I have the luxury of calling my body “stupid” and flippantly saying I hate it as if it just doesn’t matter in the wider realm of my own existence or in considering the “who” of what I am.

As I allowed the wave of shame to pass through me, I apologized to my mother, who was still blinking at me and smiling in the patient way she does now when she hears one of her children speaking unwisely and being unreflective.

“It’s okay,” she said.

But I knew it wasn’t.

“No,” I responded. “I’m sorry. I have this strong body that still moves any way I want it to. I can get out of bed in the morning without even thinking about whether I can. I shouldn’t have said those things.”

“It’s okay,” she said again. “I used to think the same way. But I don’t any more.”