By Katharine B. Soper
(Writer Rachel Urist wrote an in-depth profile of Kate Soper for our September through December 2015 issue, which you can read here. In the post below, Kate Soper picks up where the article left off: her return trip to the Camino de Santiago.)
Can we repeat meaningful experiences? Is it possible to recapture strong emotions? And should we even try?
These questions came up for me when I thought about returning to the Camino de Santiago this past summer to celebrate my seventieth birthday. What better way to mark a milestone birthday than to return to a place that has been central to my life in so many ways? Though I have been back several times for short trips of a week or more, they have not been long enough to allow me to tune into the magic (I do not use that word lightly) of the trail, to give over my life to its unique rhythm. On a practical level, I had been thinking of updating the information in my book, Steps Out of Time: One Woman's Journey on the Camino. And I was pretty sure I was ready for a spiritual tune-up.
My first journey on the thousand-year-old pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in 2002 had been unforgettable. So much of what I took away from that experience continues to guide my life: a much better relationship with time, recognition of the need to move from my judgmental lawyer mindset to a more open perspective, and renewed appreciation for my many blessings.
And yet, I couldn't help wondering about the wisdom of trying to recapture something that had been so unique--something that had meant so much to me. Would changes that have almost certainly occurred over the past thirteen years leave me disappointed? Would I be so lucky a second time to meet and learn from so many fascinating people? There were also the practical realities to consider. Could I still handle the rigors of walking that far? And more than one person questioned the wisdom of a seventy-year-old woman taking off for six weeks on her own to hike across France and Spain.
The pull of The Way proved irresistible. I decided to return and to view this undertaking as I do music (as opposed to shopping). Like music, another shot at the Camino would not dull or tarnish my previous pleasure. Rather it would be a chance to deepen my understanding and appreciation. Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps continues to move me to tears, and each time I listen to it I am intrigued by some new discovery. I will never tire of hearing Strauss's Die Rosenkavalier; the Marschallin's musings about the passage of time and growing old inevitably leave me feeling nostalgic but also calmly accepting of these inevitable facts of life.
My middle sister, who is an amateur musician, takes the analogy one step further. For her, experiencing the music actively and directly--for example, playing second violin in a Haydn string quartet--puts her in a completely different realm than when she listens to that same quartet on a recording. I think she's on to something, for there is nothing passive about the Camino. If you want to tap into its power, you must engage fully and with all your senses, and this is true each time you step onto the trail.
So I returned to the Camino this past spring, trusting my instincts, just as I did when I left on that first journey thirteen years earlier. As before, I jumped in with both feet, and I was not disappointed. Many aspects of the Camino have changed, and only some for the better. (I'll explain these changes in my next few blogs.) But I came back refreshed, renewed, eight pounds lighter, and in the best physical and emotional shape ever. Once again I was awestruck, and to my great surprise, this Camino journey went significantly more smoothly than the first. It was essentially pain-free and blister-free! I'm gathering my thoughts about the reasons for this piece of luck for another future blog. In the meantime, here's one thing I know: some experiences bear repeating.
Katharine B. Soper is a retired French professor, lawyer, and University of Michigan administrator. She continues to learn about the pilgrimage to Santiago by volunteering at pilgrim welcome centers in France and by talking with prospective pilgrims and interested armchair travelers at book clubs and book talks. She and her husband live in Ann Arbor, Michigan; they have a son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter who live in Minneapolis and a daughter who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. You can contact Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org