“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.”
This may be the cheesiest, douchiest quote I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing I would have proudly added to my eighth grade yearbook page in anticipation of graduation. In Comic Sans, no less.
But it has been running through my mind periodically over the past few days, and I can’t shake the damn thing. It’s like a black-eyed peas song.
For the past four days, my father and I have been walking the Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James” for you english-speaking folk), a centuries-old pilgrimage across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. We have roughly thirty days left. It’s exhausting, it’s humbling, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. The scenery is gorgeous and the ability to travel (relatively conflict-free!) with my Dad is a true blessing. But the biggest gifts, I’ve quickly learned, are often the people we meet along the way.
I’d like to respectfully disagree with the author of the above quote. I take issue with the implication that those people who briefly enter our lives, those people with whom we share something and then never see again, are unable to leave a meaningful impression on our souls, on our perspective on the world and its inhabitants. Over the past four and a half months I’ve made many friends — beautiful, fascinating, brilliant, exciting people — whom I may never see again. It’s hard, traveling: you make friends, fall in love (platonically) with these other humans, and then you must go your separate ways. It can be emotionally exhausting. But it doesn’t make those relationships any less meaningful, the memories of those friends any less inspiring. It doesn’t make their “footprints on your heart” invisible or insignificant.
Here on the camino, this idea is amplified in a constantly moving microcosm of human interaction. We are all going to the same place, all moving at our own pace. Like an endless game of leapfrog, we pilgrims are in a constant state of passing each other, bumping into people we met briefly three days ago, having an inspiring conversation with a new acquaintance we met on the road only to quickly say goodbye (maybe forever?) because a pee break is imperative. You never know if you’ll see someone again; last names are almost never exchanged. To pull a concept from yogic philosophy, it is truly an exercise in detachment.
But then something funny happens. People reappear at just the right moment, just when you need a pick-me-up (e.g. when you’re tired and dragging and they yell “bullshit” across a public park to get your attention), just when you wrote them off as another beautiful soul that you’ll simply never see again. It’s uncanny. It’s the type of thing that could turn the most cynical into devout believers.
I’ve learned that these people can still be my friends, can still be influential in my life. Many of them I consider angels. I don’t have to hastily jot down their email address and friend them on facebook just to ignore indefinitely. I don’t have to know everything about them, or their job, or even their hometown in order to share the most basic human things: food, water, conversation, a smile. And very often, I know — really know — that these interactions we share were meant to happen. These people, these connections, are truly a gift from God.
Let me tell you a quick story.
On day two, my dad began to veer from the trail to find a place to pee. I looked over my shoulder: “There’s someone behind us, Dad”. He veered back into place ahead of me as our fellow peregrino blazed past us with strong legs and a confident stride. From his pack hung a small, stuffed heart, complete with dangling arms and legs and – if my memory serves me right – a cheery smile. “I like your heart”, my dad said, never one to pass up a good conversation piece.
So began our hour spent walking with Ricardo, an oncologist and father from Brazil who has already walked the second half of the Camino and is now completing the first. He was full of wisdom regarding how to prevent blisters (oops too late), the importance of taking your time (this is not a race), and the intangible beauty of the Camino. We all stopped to rest together, then once his companions caught up with us, they all headed off to the next destination. I felt grateful for our interaction — such a beautiful surprise — but assumed we wouldn’t see him again.
Today, as we sat outside our albergue in the tiny town of Urtega, talking blisters and travel plans with our new friend Alex, a familiar man strode up the driveway confidently. Before I knew it, Ricardo and his big, exuberant, loving smile were greeting us, and he placed his stuffed heart down in front of my Dad. “Webster! This is for you — I give you my heart. You have to take it to Santiago for me.” Both of our jaws dropped, the edges of our mouths creeping up into awe-struck smiles. First, we never expected to see Ricardo again; I think we both assumed he had zoomed past us somewhere between Zubiri and Pamplona. And second, we both knew that the heart had been a gift from a friend who was unable to walk the Camino because her husband suffered a heart attack two weeks before she was scheduled to leave for France. Her bag was already packed; the plans had been made; everyone was devastated. And now Ricardo was asking my dad to bring her memento, her heart, all the way to the end, since he would be heading home in a few days. As I fought back tears, Ricardo echoed our disbelief at the our meeting today: “I was telling my friend this morning, I hope I see my friend Webster again! I prayed to God that I would see you, and now here you are.” He left just as he had arrived, full of joy with a brisk gait, but only after giving a few much-needed band-aids and some medical advice to Alex.
This is the kind of thing that happens out here.