Three years ago, my wife divorced me. It was a somewhat expected ending to an agony that our marriage had become, but still, it was painful. Even more so because our baby girl went away with her. My family fell apart the moment they walked away from that door, and a huge part of me fell apart with it.
Months have passed, but I just wasn't able to get it together. I would see my daughter every other weekend, but instead of feeling the joy of a reunion I felt distracted and numb. It was like carrying a big heavy bag of bricks on my chest the whole time.
The unexpected turnaround
While I was trying to keep it together for one of my business lunches, one of my colleagues mentioned going on a pilgrimage after his wife died from cancer. He claimed that it was a key element that helped him start the healing process and snap him out of the depressive state he used to be in. That's the first time I heard of the Camino de Santiago. All of a sudden, the lunch started to feel like counseling. I asked if he thought it would help with divorce consequences. "Absolutely", he replied.
That's when I started exploring the Camino de Santiago. The research itself helped already, since it took my mind off and out of my daily negative cycle. I quickly learned that there is not only one Camino - one way to Santiago de Compostela, but several quite different routes. I decided that for the state of my mind it would be better to pick a less busy, more intimate route - and the Camino Portuguese seemed to fit that description. April was the month that faithful lunch took place; in September, I found myself on a plane to Lisbon for a month-long pilgrim escape.
All the shades of Lisbon
When I arrived, it was really cloudy, the way the Atlantic coast can often be. But the city is lively enough to overcome the gray layer of clouds. I took that day to explore the city, with its beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and iconic trams. It was a joy. After having lunch and a strong and tasty Portuguese coffee at a cozy restaurant, I decided to take a ride to the Atlantic coast. The sea was gray, and so was the sky above; together they created one big gray mass. I realized that it could easily symbolize the weight I felt on my chest. I kept staring, and I felt my burden has somehow cracked, and will slowly start to dissolve soon. I got a small rock from below me, took a deep breath, and threw it into the ocean.
Walking with a lighter load
The next day was sunny and I felt like it was some kind of sign. I felt a relief as I began my journey north. It would probably take a whole book to note everything I've seen and experienced along the way. The beauty of the Portuguese countryside, pastures, tree-lined earthy tracks and the towns like the old Portuguese capital Coimbra is truly stunning. I was especially touched by old signs of pilgrimage - the old shrines and churches, the stone crosses. It filled me with great comfort that many people before me have walked this route, all bearing their own cross, so to speak. That I wasn't the only troubled one, or the only one seeking peace. Exploring and soaking in all the different landscapes for a whole month made me discover and appreciate the landscapes of my own soul.
Perhaps going away for a whole month seems like a selfish thing to do in my situation. I did feel guilty about leaving my daughter for a long stretch of time. But when I came back I was finally able to connect with her again, letting go and holding on at the same time. It's possible that the resolution would've come on its own, in its own terms. But walking the Camino Portuguese has surely catalyzed my healing, and doing that for myself helped me become a much better dad to my precious girl.
Published by Michael Deane