Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Seven things I wish I’d known before writing my memoir

  1.  People will project their own emotional baggage onto your story. For example, if a reader’s mother died recently, s/he might think you’re being too harsh on your mom. If someone has unresolved shame, s/he might not want to hear about your related anecdotes or incidents. But never self-censor. People who are striving to heal and gain greater self-awareness will appreciate your vulnerability and honesty.


  1.  The manuscript might take a lot longer than expected to complete. My memoir took eleven drafts (!). Based on a rough estimate by a former MFA professor, I figured it would be at least half that. But each draft got deeper, clearer, and better. Every tale takes as long as it takes. Be patient. Let the story take you where it wants to go.


  1.  Agents have their own agendas and won’t necessarily share your vision for the book. Yes, you can be successful without an agent. Your book’s attitude or slant might appeal more to an offbeat or niche audience rather than a mainstream one. Are you adamant about advocacy and your agent wants straight narration? Ask yourself if s/he is a good fit. Don’t sacrifice your creative vision for someone else’s profit motive. I heard things from agents like “No one’s interested in incest — write about your India travels”; “Rewrite your book like a novel” and “Your subject makes me uncomfortable.”


  1.  People close to you might threaten a lawsuit. As a pre-publication courtesy, I sent portions of my manuscript to someone from my past mentioned in my book. He said he would sue me if I left in that content. The brother of someone I know told her the same thing with her memoir. Did I acquiesce? No. I just changed his name and some of the identifying details. To be safe, it’s best to consult with a lawyer about such things.


  1.  Expect strong pushback if you’re presenting an admired figure in a negative light. I tracked down a former colleague of my father’s, who said my dad was the most supportive boss he’d ever had. He wrote a glowing letter about him after my father died. When I mentioned incest, he said, “I think you should forget about the whole thing.” Present a balanced portrait of someone, but don’t censor the negative.


  1.  If you’re writing about sexual assault or incest, be prepared to have others’ attitudes shock you. Sadly, even among so-called feminists and supposed female allies, I received comments that implied my sexual assaults in India must have resulted from my own actions or else I didn’t respond properly. Our cultural stance of “Blame the victim” is far more entrenched than I thought. Share your truth. Don’t let others’ skewed views diminish your story. Use their comments to make your experience even clearer.


  1.  Family members can make stronger allies than you think. In a family of secrecy like mine, I expected my three sisters to lash out at me about my memoir. Instead, they agreed to be interviewed and offered revealing anecdotes about my dad. Their support meant so much to me. Revealing your secret will inspire others to share theirs. Help break the silence. You’ll find allies in the most unexpected places.
July 31, 2017 at 2:45 pm Comments (4)

Discover the joys of writing historical nonfiction

Here are the three things I enjoy most about writing history:

  • hearing oldtimers’ stories and bringing their tales to life on the page
  • holding rare, original documents and feeling connected to the personality and passion of folks from a century ago who wrote or signed them
  • uncovering never-published-before documents or revealing a new truth about historical events or people that no one has ever written about.

I’ll be sharing my joy in writing history, along with some of the related risks and challenges, in a new course Oct. 5 offered by the Vancouver School of Writing.

It’s called Writing History: Passions, Pitfalls & the Process (Non-Fiction). This is a 90-minute-to-2-hour LIVE and LIVE VIRTUAL course so you can be in class or have access to it anywhere and ask the instructor questions.

Can’t make the date? All Vancouver School of Writing workshops are recorded; receive a link so you can view it later, or access it in a few weeks in our archive of courses.

Here’s just a few of the things you’ll learn:
• Posing questions you don’t have the answers to
• Getting beyond myths and stereotypes
• Handling conflicting opinions and sensitivities
• Finding characters and stories that matter
Making smart choices for structuring
• Discovering the hidden stories

The class, held in downtown Vancouver, starts at 6:30 p.m. PST. Cost is $59 plus GST.

Click on this link to see and hear a 20-minute overview of the course with “4 steps on successful nonfiction writing.”

Click Vancouver School of Writing for more information and to register online.

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September 15, 2015 at 12:21 pm Comments (0)

Bicentennial Redux: Sir John A. Macdonald Father of Residential Schools

Sir John A.


Note: The Edmonton Journal published my opinion piece on Sir John A. Macdonald and residential schools on Feb. 20, 2015.

Click here to read “Macdonald’s legacy not entirely golden”



(Source: Armstrong,  C.H.A. / Library and Archives Canada / C-030440)



he recent bicentennial celebrations of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth have left me flinching in a family conflict kind of way. Part of me feels proud to be related on my mother’s side to the so-called “Father of Canada.” I am fond of an heirloom circular table, which he once used, that sits in the corner of my home office.

However, when I gaze at his somber face on our current stamps, another part of me feels embarrassed. His Canada Post portrait reminds me that I share the same blood as someone whom our history books should more rightly call “father of residential schools.” Centuries of official accounts in this country have ignored Macdonald’s role in initiating and approving the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, which launched Canada’s residential school system.

A new, thoroughly researched hardcover book, which I edited, aims to correct the popular image of this crusty politician, my ancestor, and expand our vision of Canadian history.


The book’s cover includes a before-and-after image of a “civilized” Aboriginal boy, used as propaganda to promote assimilation.

In Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre 2014), residential school survivor and award-winning author Larry Loyie challenges our widely accepted version of how Macdonald shaped this nation.


Under the heading “John A. Macdonald: Friend or Foe?,” he and  co-authors Constance Brissenden and Wayne K. Spear write: “His dream of a nation stretching from sea to sea had one major obstacle . . . Aboriginal people were in the way.”

Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

Our first prime minister and his Canadian government gained complete control over the nation’s Aboriginal people, thanks to the British North America Act of 1867 and the Indian Act of 1876.


But the reserve system, which put Aboriginals under strict government control in designated areas, was not enough to reassure early would-be settlers that it was safe to put down roots in Canada’s undeveloped west. Macdonald reasoned that Aborigines needed to adjust their beliefs and behaviors to the European way of life, starting in childhood.


Hence, he endorsed the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, initiating the system of “Indian” boarding schools. This policy was identified as “aggressive civilization” in an 1879 report to the Canadian government.


The first official residential schools in Canada opened in 1892, a year after Macdonald ended his final term in office. But the model for these schools began more than 60 years earlier. The Mohawk Indian Industrial School, also known as the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., opened in 1828. It was financed by a Protestant missionary society based on the U.S. east coast. With a former British army officer in charge, the school took in boarders from the Six Nations Reserve in 1831. Children as young as five received strict army-style training.


Macdonald endorsed this military model of assimilation. Under his legacy, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children attended an estimated 144 residential schools from the late 1800s to as late as 1996. They suffered verbal, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at many of these schools.


The co-authors of Residential Schools are determined to put Macdonald’s role within a truer, broader framework. They hope that their book, identified on the cover as “A National History,” will be used as a textbook across Canada. As a whole, it provides a coast-to-coast look at the long-term impact of colonization and assimilation policies on Aboriginal culture and traditions.


I’m not surprised that aboriginal-rights advocates this week demanded the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in downtown Hamilton; to our nation’s Aboriginals, he is a symbol of genocide. About two dozen people staged a protest Jan. 11 in front of the statue, disrupting a local society’s celebration of Macdonald’s bicentennial birthday.


Just as Columbus Day in the U.S. ignores Aboriginal culture and presence by celebrating European colonization, Canada’s official bicentennial celebrations for Macdonald’s birthday disregarded more than a century of abusive treatment launched by our first prime minister’s policies.


“The hidden history of residential schools must be known to ensure the human rights of all Canadian children,” says Loyie.


It is vital that in the telling of history, whether it’s of a nation or a family, we are honest about the influence, in all its forms, of a prominent figure. Otherwise, we present only a whitewashed version of the past, which does a disservice to us all.

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January 20, 2015 at 11:52 am Comments (5)

The Roman road: Cuban intrigue fills an historic route

Part 1

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The lure of the open road . . . (Michael Romo photo)

Crowds of mostly twenty-something males were drinking and partying in the narrow streets when I left Sahagun at 6:30 a.m. (June 16: day 20). With a few girlfriends sprinkled in the mix, they were still celebrating the previous night’s bullfights. Raucous, raspy music invaded part of a block that I walked through, where several street vendors were selling loaves of bread and cooking sausages on portable stoves in the middle of the road.


As I approached a cluster of drunken, cleancut young men on my way out of town, I feared possible harassment or assault, so common in India’s cities. But these men mostly just smiled and said hello. Phew. I wondered if my pilgrim status, so obvious with my backpack, walking sticks, and floppy scallop shell, garnered more respect or admiration than I might otherwise have received.


Soon relieved to be out of town and back on The Way, I watched the sun come up against a pink-blue sky, stretching shadows across the long grass. There were almost no other pilgrims around. Sparrows landed on the pavement of the vacant highway. I reveled in the peace and solitude.


After walking about 10 kilometres, I arrived at the small village of Hermanillos, planning to stop there for the day. It was not even 10 a.m. but I already felt tired, having taken no rest days since Pamplona, more than two weeks earlier.


As the lone pilgrim at a small open-air restaurant, I enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice and chatted with the owner in my meagre Spanish. Yet it seemed eerie not to encounter any other pilgrims. Where was everyone?


Within minutes, a middle-aged pilgrim from southern California, Michael Romo, arrived and sat at a table across from me. While he drank a coffee, we talked openly about our plans for the day, our respective spouses, and our Camino experience. I invited him to join me at my table, sensing that he was friendly and “safe.”


By the time we had finished breakfast, Michael offered to walk the next section of The Way with me, a 17-kilometre open stretch known as “the Roman road.” Another middle-aged pilgrim, a Korean who lived in Wisconsin, sat down at the same patio and talked briefly to us. Like me, he had planned to stay in Hermanillos.

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I’m about to start down the Roman road (Michael Romo photo).

I felt pulled: stay or go? Michael’s warmth and knowledge of the route—he had thoroughly researched the Roman history of the Camino—won out. Rather than spend a day alone in what was beginning to feel like a ghost town, I would appreciate the friendly company of this former director of a teachers’ association who spoke fluent Spanish. Besides, it sounded as if we walked at the same pace.


So, we set out together. Michael was thrilled to be walking this portion of the path, which was 2,000 years old. Armour-clad Roman legionnaires had once covered the same terrain that we were walking; I couldn’t conceive of them working in clunky, heavy metal wear for days and weeks in Spain’s smothering sun. Dusty and dry now under moderate sunshine, the rough road had many loose pebbles and rocks. It seemed unimaginable that this region had once been marshy, Michael said, and that the Romans had transported stones to the area to construct this same road.

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Michael Romo and I on the Roman road (photo courtesy of a local shepherd)

I learned that Michael had grown up in New York City, speaking Spanish as a child. He was walking the Camino to honour the memory of his Cuban father, Miguel Fèlix Romo, who had always loved Spain; Michael’s family ancestry hailed from Spain’s Basque region. He has dedicated his Camino-themed blog to his dad, who died in 2009 at age 76.

Michael’s dad, as a railway captain in Cuba, had grown horrified by the corruption and atrocities of the Batista regime in the 1940s and 1950s. He had told Michael that under Batista, if a U.S. company wanted a certain piece of land in Cuba where campesinos or peasants were living, for instance, the peasants were simply killed.


Before Castro took power in January 1959 (the same month and year I was born), each trade or employment group in Cuba secretly supported its own cadre of revolutionaries against Batista, according to Michael’s father. They helped smuggle arms from Key West to Cuba to support Castro. His dad had fought on Castro’s behalf.


“It took me twenty years to find out all of this,” Michael told me. “My dad didn’t want to tell me for a long time. He thought there might be repercussions.”


Once Castro came to power, Michael’s dad said that Cuba’s new leader had one of his own contemporaries, a key guerrilla leader, murdered. He also put others in jail. When Michael’s dad had requested their release, this action put him on a death list. He had to leave Cuba, and went to the United States. Michael and I both agreed that many westerners tend to glamourize and over-idealize the Cuban revolution.

To be continued next week


January 9, 2014 at 11:49 am Comment (1)

Open your heart and transform: the Camino and Burning Man share similar values

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The Burning Man festival offers a phone booth in which
you can “talk to God,” via a true, interactive human voice.
On the Camino, such conversations are far less public.

While walking the Camino, few people probably draw parallels to the Burning Man Festival, an artsy, week-long bacchanal that draws about 50,000 people a year to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. But having attended Burning Man twice, including as a partial honeymoon destination in 2006, I began to see similarities between the two events that resonated with me.

Externally, both events use an iconic figure—a stylized stick figure man, and a Catholic saint, respectively—as a defining symbol and repeat motif. Both the Camino and Burning Man attract people from all over the world, of all ages, yet seem to draw proportionally more middle-aged folk. Regardless of what motivations individuals might have for participating, the over-reaching unity of an intentional community, along with related values like self-reliance and communal effort, are shared.

As I’ve stated earlier on the blog, many people walk the Camino for spiritual or religious regions, drawing on its heritage as a pilgrimage route through churches and cathedrals and its association with St. James. The resulting insights, however seemingly small at the time, that can emerge from tapping into this archetypal journey can be profound.


Burning Man offers an eccentric mix of huge wooden open-air temples, often designed by architects and professional artists. Meant to be enjoyed as venues for rituals and raves, these massive structures are ceremonially burned into nothingness as a tribal tribute to letting go and releasing attachment to the material world.

 A core part of Burning Man, as stated in its ten principles, is “radical inclusion.” As the festival’s website states: “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. . . .We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

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One of Burning Man’s open-air temples, with a reflection of a mandala pattern reminiscent of a rosette pattern
on one of the Camino’s many cathedrals.


In both places, deciding when, how, and with whom to participate created initial conflict for me. On the Camino, for the first few weeks, I enjoyed the same group of pilgrims that I saw each day. As individuals, we shared our innermost views, then came together in the evenings for rituals and meals. This was a welcome part of my early experience that reinforced the sense of community that I was seeking.


Yet, I also recognized that staying with the same familiar people was becoming predictable. I wanted, and needed, time to spend alone on the path, to commune more deeply with my surroundings without the distraction of conversation and others’ presence. I also wanted to meet new people. Finding that balance between solo and communal time became part of my “dance” of the Camino pilgrimage. It required reminding myself that the choice of who to spend my time with was up to me.


At Burning Man, as part of the raw spirit of the event, I consciously chose to participate in any group activity, be it dancing, pairs yoga, or a workshop, rather than just observe. Yet this frustrated the photographer side of me, since many events, involving people in astounding costumes and startling art, went unrecorded by my camera. My eyes witnessed and composed remarkable images, yet they remained uncaptured. Instead, I put myself within the frame.  I had to let go of my frustration over missed shots.

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The grid pattern of the temporary town of Burning Man
in 2005, as seen from a visitor’s small plane.

 On the first day of Burning Man, pedalling on my basic bicycle through thousands of theme camps arranged in a circular, labyrinth-like grid, I got lost, unable to find a desired workshop location. In the extreme heat and dust, I had a headache and felt crabby and unfulfilled. I missed the event. This wasn’t my hoped-for blissful inner exploration. After discussing this with my husband and another “Burner,” I realized: I have to let go of my expectations. Don’t make plans. Just open myself to the experience, go out, and meet what comes my way.


That’s what I had to learn to do on the Camino too. During the first four days, when it was pouring rain almost non-stop, muddy and numbingly cold, I seriously considered quitting the pilgrimage. I thought: I wouldn’t be hiking in this weather at home, why am I doing it now, on vacation? I had not yet made a deep, spiritual connection with anyone. Why was I even doing this? I thought of travelling to Portugal instead and relaxing in the sun. But as the weather improved, and my encounters with others deepened, so did my desire to continue.

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A modern pilgrim, from Germany,
dressed somewhat in the style of a more ancient time

Both on the Camino and in the Black Rock Desert, physical surroundings and weather became defining factors for the quality of my experience. At Burning Man, with only a light rain or bucket of water, the parched, cracked earth could transform into thick, caking mud within seconds. In high winds, the super-fine dust could swirl into tornado-like eddies, blinding you if you didn’t have eye protection. Even in the heat, socks were de rigueur at all times; otherwise, you could contract playa foot, a painful condition whereby the desert’s dust lodged between your toes, creating cracks and welts in your skin.


On the Camino, I learned how important socks were because the sweating that mine caused produced an allergic reaction. It took me weeks of blisters before I realized how valuable it was to stop, take off my socks and shoes, and air them out to avoid damp feet. And in both Spain and in Nevada, I kept myself covered at all times to avoid sunburn and heat stroke.


Aspects of communal living were ever-present in both places. The Camino features bunk beds and shared co-ed rooms, bathrooms, and eating facilities at albergues. At Burning Man, we pitched our tent among dozens of others, side by side, in the Green Tortoise camp. Thousands of others sprawled out around us. The culture there is nomadic by definition; it’s a temporary town of transplanted souls, joined by the concept of a gift economy.


Through a guiding principle of “decommodification,” the Burning Man festival disallows commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising. Except at centre camp, where coffee, lemonade and other beverages are available, there is no money exchange. Individuals are free to give away their own belongings, whether handmade expressly for this event or not, as symbols of gratitude and appreciation.


On the Camino, money is exchanged daily at the albergues, cafés, and restaurants along the way, yet the same ethos of “pay it forward” prevails. To a pilgrim with limited belongings in a backpack, a simple bandaid, safety pin or shoelace presented as a gift by another pilgrim can make the difference between grating discomfort and peace of mind.

The Man on fire

The giant effigy of “The Man” illuminated prior to its incineration at Burning Man

It’s pushing the comparisons to state that the desert at Burning Man is called, ironically, “the playa” (Spanish for “beach”) while the Way of St. James, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is associated with a beach symbol, a scallop shell. But one factor found in both places is liquid spirits: many camps at Burning Man offer a panoply of free booze while the Camino route has tasty, cheap and fresh local wines.


Just as Burning Man glorifies the collective burn of “the Man,” a giant figure, several storeys high, displayed at the centre of the festival, and many other structures, Spain has its own legacy of fire. In many places, especially Galicia, the bonfires of St. John are celebrated in late June: people burn large figures of wood and papier mache, in a ritual called the Hugueras.

I talked to a few pilgrims who had tasted some kind of ritualistic drink with Spaniards at a raucous party, perhaps as part of these celebrations. I wondered if it was something akin to the Queimada ceremonies in Spain on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. In modern Galacia, some Spaniards set ablaze a powerful drink called the Aguardiente, a distilled mixture of grape skins, coffee beans, fruit, and sugar.(Aguardiente is also a generic term used for booze drinks that have between 29- and 60-per-cent alcohol by volume.) They scoop the drink from a bowl and pour and repour it until fire seems to run from the ladle. This Spanish custom is supposed to have originated during the country’s occupation by the Phoenicians around 800 BC.

 NEXT WEEK: Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?


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November 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm Comments (5)

From medieval hospices to today’s memorials, death walks the Camino

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One of dozens of pilgrim memorials along the Camino

For hundreds of years, death has followed some people on the Camino, either literally or figuratively. Many pilgrims walk the path to honour the loss of a recent loved one, leaving a stone to the person’s memory at the Cruz de Fer (Iron Cross), the highest point of the route at 1,504 metres. At this spot, a cross stands on the end of a tall pole, which rises from the top of a large mound of earth and stones that’s several metres high. Each small rock added to this pile represents someone’s life, a pilgrim’s symbolic gesture of letting go or reinforcing a dream, or a way of saying: “I have been here.”


On the first day of our Camino adventure, after crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain, my husband Frank and I learned that two months earlier, in March, a lone male pilgrim had gotten lost and disoriented in the mountains and had died of exposure. Some said it was a Canadian, others a Brazilian (I find out later he was Italian). We heard that as a result, a tourist office in France was urging all pilgrims to take the lower route, via Valcarlos, rather than the higher one (Route de Napoléon) across the Pyrenees.

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This looks to me like someone used table legs to make this memorial. Whatever works, I guess.

Frank and I had already made that decision ourselves; our guide book recommended using this lower route in poor weather. Since we were experiencing fog, cold, and non-stop rain in late May, we did not want to chance poor visibility at higher elevations. On our second day, before we had walked about 25 kilometres and reached Roncesvalles, it had snowed briefly. Thick mist drifted down from the mountaintops and seemed to shroud the view ahead. We saw only seven people the entire day.


Although initially reluctant to have missed panoramic views available from the higher route, I now felt grateful that we had taken the cautionary path and had arrived safely.


With such weather conditions, it’s not surprising that in medieval days, the Camino route offered many hospitals and hospices to cater to pilgrims’ needs. Back then, people walked the path in sandals, simple shoes or went barefoot. They had no Goretex or specialized waterproof gear. There weren’t over-the-counter medications, tetanus shots, first aid kits or a pharmacy in every town. A simple dog bite, infection, or attack by roving robbers could have resulted in death or serious injury.

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Health wise, these early pilgrims did not enjoy daily hot showers and potable water. They couldn’t walk into a restaurant and order a filling, three-course meal. Many, understandably, got sick and never completed the route. In such cases, they might end up in a hospice bed, tended to by nuns, where they could be carried into a particular church or cathedral and receive the same sacred song or blessing as if they had finished the path.


Back then, kings and queens chartered hospices as a way of currying God’s favour as a shortcut to heaven. In the medieval form of lay charity, specialized religious orders sheltered pilgrims and others to reflect their ideal of holiness as practical and accessible rather than separate and cloistered, according to James William Brodman, author of Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe.


This sounds like the height of practical religious service to me: Come down and be close to the people rather than have them seek you out in hallowed places, especially when they’re ill and near-death. Camino pilgrims, after all, are great symbols of people with their feet to the ground, rather than their head in the clouds.

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One of my Camino companions, a Brazilian, rests beside an informal memorial.


In these early hospices, pilgrims’ spiritual needs were considered just as, if not more, important than their healing or palliative care. Those tending the sick and dying made the patients’ need for sacraments and religious burial a top priority.


(In the 12th century, although there were no lists of “Ten best places to die on the Camino,” the Codex Calixtinus, widely considered the world’s first travel guide, gave pilgrims basic information about the route. This publication is said to have been available from 1140 on; even then, tourism surrounding the Camino was organized.)


Some of the centuries-old former hospices and hospitals are still standing along today’s route or have been converted to albergues. As a hospice volunteer, I wanted to find out more about these historic structures and services but have uncovered little about them so far.

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While walking the Camino, I saw dozens of memorials that honoured the life of a pilgrim who had died en route. Most were simple stone, wood or concrete structures with a cross. Some bore a photo of the person and a brief summary of his or her life. In one small town, I discovered that a bicycle sculpture I had admired on a steep street was actually a memorial to a pilgrim who had died while cycling downhill.


I don’t know how many pilgrims die on the Camino each year, whether most suffer a heart attack or get hit by a car. Our guidebook warned us in a few places where there had been a traffic-related death. But the handful of deaths in recent years is teeny compared to the 183,366 who walked the route in 2012, for example.

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This niche along the path includes memorial messages and a prayerful plea
from a mother for help with her wayward teenage daughter.

It never saddened me to see one of the memorials. I believe that almost every person who had died along the way was middle-aged; perhaps they were fulfilling a lifelong dream or challenging their physical boundaries. Regardless, they died as part of intentional travel, on an adventure. I felt a kinship with these pilgrims of the past. Their souls live on.

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November 9, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (2)

The Camino adopts the scallop and St. James as global brands

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A pilgrim’s walking stick with a gourd
and scallop bearing the St. James cross


Before walking the Camino, I knew nothing of Saint James. Excuse my ignorance, but I now know that he and his brother John were among Jesus’s first apostles; they were the fishermen to whom Jesus said “Come, let me make you fishers of men.”


A pagan at heart, I felt little affinity to this notable Christian, particularly since he tried to convert Druids in Spain. But when I learned of his beheading in Jerusalem by King Herod in 42 or 44 A.D. (official dates vary), he gained greater favour in my eyes; viewed as subversive, he had died for his beliefs, evoking my sympathy for the wronged rebel. He’s now the patron saint of Spain.



It seems fitting that the memory of someone who worked in the sea is now paired with an ocean emblem like the scallop. Different legends explain the origin of this connection. In one popular myth, a ship that transported St. James’ body from Jerusalem to northern Spain smashed on rocks during a storm; when his body was recovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

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This scallop image appeared as a repeated symbol on this Camino bridge.

Today, the scallop is to the Camino what the golden arches are to McDonald’s: a global brand and repeat motif that every Spanish village and town displays in myriad forms along the route. Just as in India, where the “Om” symbol graces hats, souvenirs, carved rocks and any meditation-related surface, you’ll find a scallop logo on the Camino embedded in bridges, sidewalks, roads, on manhole covers, in stone waymarkers—anywhere where pilgrims’ eyes and feet will pass.

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A yarn-bombed waymarker bearing a scallop shell


Each urban municipality along The Way presents its own version of a stylized scallop. Seeing such a variety of presentations, I assumed that some lucky graphic designers must have enjoyed healthy contracts to create such distinctive, professional-looking images.

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A scallop image embedded in a cobblestone street,
next to my bandaged toes


I bought my own souvenir scallop at the albergue in Roncesvalles on day two of my Camino journey. It’s a real shell, about four inches across, with a red St. James cross painted on it. A long loop of red cord makes it easy to attach this to a backpack. This scallop version is the one most commonly seen dangling from pilgrims’ packs. It’s an overt yet silent way of saying: “I’m part of this particular global walking tribe.”


As I walked along, my shell clinked or bobbed. Whenever I rested, I made sure to lean my pack down gently so that the shell wouldn’t smash. Once, just after I had stopped and written something in my journal critical of the Catholic church, the shell fell off my pack. A subtle message in response to my sacreligious sensibilities?

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One of the many representations of St. James along the Camino

Some pilgrims will wear an additional scallop, perhaps as a hat or lapel pin. I bought a beautiful one, about two inches wide, hand-carved by a young German from the remains of a church pew. Suspended on a suede cord around my neck, it became part of my daily pilgrim attire, much like a bolo tie.

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The German carver who created
my wooden scallop necklace


In medieval times, pilgrims attached a scallop shell to their hats or clothes and used it as a portable bowl or dish. They’d use it as a scoop to receive a scallop’s worth of food donated at churches or other pilgrim-oriented centres along the path.


On day 21 of my journey, in the small village of Reliegos, I met an 82-year-old Dutch man who was walking the Camino for the twentieth time. He told me that the Canadian regiment that had liberated his city in the Second World War had worn scallop shells on their hats. Based on subsequent internet research, this must have been the Lincoln and Welland regiment, based in St. Catharines and Welland, Ont., which liberated Arnhem under the leadership of General Sir Isaac Brock. I had no idea that scallops had been part of this wartime victory.

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The 82-year-old Dutch man
with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo and I

Some of today’s European languages still draw a connection between St. James and scallops: in French, a scallop is coquille Saint Jacques and in German, scallops are Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels). In Dutch, Jacobsschelp means “shell of St. James.”


My constant viewing of scallop imagery along the Camino, combined with an assortment of life-size and smaller public statues of St. James, reminded me that walking this path plugged me into an archetypal history, one that valued his selfless service to others and the power of community.



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A statue of St. James


Although James has become a saint, I like that he was supposed to have been fiery and impetuous, blowing up at those who ran afoul of his visions. This makes him more accessible as a symbol of imperfect humanity rather than some beatific angel basking in the glow of his halo.


His heritage does give him saintly “street cred,” though. His mother Saint Mary Salome was at the foot of Jesus’ cross during his crucifixion and later brought herbs and spices to his tomb to anoint his body.

I had thought that James’ mom was the famous Salome of the dance of the seven veils; a Catholic-educated friend quickly corrected me on this (thanks, David M.). But I still like to think of James—dare I call him Jim?—with a soul of earthy rawness. Just think if he had become linked with oysters, instead of scallops . . .

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A depiction of St. James’ beheading
from a door panel in the cathedral at Santiago


By the time I got to Santiago, I didn’t care if the sacred relics of St. James in the cathedral were real, fake or nonexistent. I had made it—unlike him, with my head intact.


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November 5, 2013 at 11:11 am Comments (2)

Not just bars and bravado: retracing Hemingway’s past in Pamplona

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Statue of Hemingway by the Plaza del Toros

While seeking out Ernest Hemingway’s favourite haunts in Pamplona, I admit to feeling like a groupie. The Camino is a spiritual journey, I told myself, so why do I care where a famous alcoholic author, who was macho, petty, and self-absorbed, liked to hang out?

I know these labels don’t cover all of who he was. Besides his chiseled writing style and literary wonders, I admire his willingness to support the International Brigades, risking his life to fight fascism in Spain’s civil war as an ambulance driver. In daily life, he mucked about equally with illiterate fishermen and Hollywood stars, never wallowing in his celebrity status. From his home in Cuba, he tutored young boys in boxing and kept young baseball teams afloat by providing uniforms and equipment.

And Hemingway made a significant pilgrimage of his own to a basilica near a different Santiago, in southwest Cuba. Was it superstition or humility that motivated him to leave his home near Havana and deposit his 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, a medallion, at the shrine of the Virgin of Charity (La Virgen de la Caridad), Cuba’s patron saint?


Sure, having read Hemingway’s Women, I know about his four wives, and how he never left one until he had lined up another. Yes, he could be a drunken, brutal bastard and for most of my life, I’ve condemned him. Yet, recently, I have felt more compassion for him after learning that he, at age 19, was sent onto the battlefield after an explosion to sweep up the body parts. That would traumatize anyone.

He seemed unable to forgive his talented third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, for scooping him on a deluxe Second World War assignment; she was the sole foreign correspondent to gain coveted access to a certain allied aircraft carrier to report on the war first-hand.

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Having fun with Hem in the bar at Cafe Iruna

And what’s with his fixation with having a large rod in his hands while fishing or hunting?

Yet under his bluster and bravado, a cowering little boy lurked. The 1976 autobiography How it Was, by his fourth wife Mary, reveals not only Hemingway’s meanness and spite but his tenderness and vulnerable need for loving reassurance. She documents his later descent into paranoia and struggle with mental illness. How could a man, formerly at home in vast landscapes, free on the roiling ocean and African plains, stay sane and contained within a locked, isolated room in an institution? While reading that book, I felt compassion for the suffering of his soul.

The writer in me felt drawn not only to the places he frequented in Spain, but to his rebel soul that disdained mundane journalism for a passion-filled life of irreverent adventure.

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My husband Frank on a dreary day in Pamplona’s near-deserted Plaza del Castillo. The white awning of Cafe Iruna appears in the right foreground.

Hemingway’s great literature, skillfully created, added grit and guts to the otherwise snooty veneer of the land of American letters. His bylines came with a lot of sweat, swearing, and swagger; he was a man of the seas and the street—no starched white lapels for him. Although I don’t condone bullfights and his enjoyment of them, I recognize his love of Spanish people and culture and how his view of both expanded North American sensibilities.

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Inside the popular Cafe Iruna in Pamplona

When I strode across Pamplona’s Plaza del Castillo, the large square that housed Hemingway’s favourite hotel and café, it was easy to imagine the expatriate writer arm-wrestling over one of the many patio tables or downing too many absinthes or whiskeys in fading Spanish light. The wicker seats that once filled his haunt Café Iruña (Basque) are gone, but the large, high-ceiling place with overhead fans and polished lights feels like a touch of Paris. In the adjoining bar stands a near-life-size statue of him. Many framed black-and-white photos in the bar show him in informal poses. In one, he’s in the midst of making a cocktail; in another, he’s laughing with friends.  

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Pamplona’s tourist office supplies a free map of Hemingway-related sites. At Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, there’s a Paseo or street named after him. Next to it, a sculpture in his honour — a bust atop a stone shoulders and folded arms — stands as a solemn monument.

Besides notable folk like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Hemingway used to stay at the tall, elegant Hotel La Perla, where a small bust of him rests on a table in the lobby. Although this five-star “perfect combination of tradition, history, and comfort” offers discounts for Camino pilgrims, I found the atmosphere impersonal and uninviting.

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Hemingway’s five-star accommodations, Hotel La Perla,
appears to the left in this image of Plaza del Castillo.

One of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts, Bar Txoko, was empty when I first looked in. Dominated by a wide counter that runs the full length of the establishment, it has a photo mural at one end. When my husband Frank and I popped in later, the cozy joint was full of Spaniards drinking and talking after work, standing in huddles. Hem would have easily fit into this laid-back, intimate bar.

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Bar Txoko, one of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts in Pamplona

I have toured Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida, with its tropical garden, mangy crew of five-toed cats, and the salt-water pool that his wife Pauline built for him and he never used. The image of his writing room there, with a typewriter, chaise lounge, and mounted animal heads, has remained with me as a symbol of inspiration. I look forward to seeing his house in Cuba and some of the island’s local places that Mary writes of fondly in her book.

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A photo in the Cafe Iruna bar
shows Hemingway preparing a drink

After walking the Camino, I reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, appreciating his description of the same areas and towns where I had walked. But while still in Pamplona, after seeing the token spots that had attracted Hemingway’s boozy interest, I began to feel restless.  After spending two days in Pamplona — days five and six of my Camino pilgrimage — I was ready to leave the city and return to the open, rural paths of The Way. Like this far more famous writer, I craved untamed space and the lure of the unknown.

NEXT WEEK: The gift of little miracles on the Camino

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October 12, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

Witches on The Way: Remember the Camino’s tarnished halo

While tromping through mud and rain near Burguete on day three of the Camino, I came across an official-looking historical sign near an old stone cross. Expecting to read something about a local church or landmark, I was surprised to learn that there had once been a witch’s coven in the area in the sixteenth century. The surrounding forested region, part of the province of Navarre, was known as the Wood of Sorginaritzaga or Oak Grove of the Witches.


The historical marker, one of the few along The Way that included an English translation, said that medieval people had believed that the presence of a white cross would save them from such evil.

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White crosses in a church cemetery on the Camino


When I looked at the stone cross beside the sign, it gave me no sense of reassurance or protection at all. Instead, I thought of the many innocent women who had died brutally at the hands of Christians simply because God-fearing people viewed their practices of natural healing and using herbs as the devil’s work. I knew which side my modern sensibilities favoured.


My guidebook made no mention of Spain’s regional witch history. Once back in Canada, I learned that Spain had repressed witchcraft in this Auritz-Burguete area and eastward around Roncesvalles more fiercely than anywhere else in the country. Long before the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, a major raid against witches took place here in 1329. This resulted in the burning of five alleged witches in a village square.


Then, in the sixteenth century, a Spanish grand inquisitor named Licenciado Balanza started his investigation into alleged devil worship in this same region. As a result, at least nine people were persecuted and burned at the stake. That’s when the Catholic church erected a white cross or cruz blanca, as symbolic divine protection, near where today’s historical sign stands.


About five hours after reading the sign about the oak grove, I discovered a witch figurine on top of a bathroom shelf in my fifth-floor accommodations in a private building in Zubiri. When I tried, in Spanish, to ask our kind, middle-aged female host about it, she thought I wanted to use a hair dryer or there was something wrong with the plumbing. Only when I finally showed her the figure did I learn the word for “witch”: bruja.

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This ad for some type of alcohol appeared in a shop window in Pamplona, complete with a dead fly. A mandragora is the plant mandrake from the deadly nightshade family, which is supposed to have hallucinogenic qualities. It’s known as “Satan’s apple” in Arab culture. Because the plant’s tubers can look human, it was associated with witchcraft.



In Spanish, the woman told me about the witch museum in Zugarramurdi in the Pyrenees and its nearby cave. Until the seventeenth century, this area is where witches’ pagan rituals occurred, along with “wild parties, dancing around bonfires and holding orgies by moonlight,” according to the Kingdom of Navarre government tourism website. Sounds like juicy Burning Man material to me. Today, people still gather every year in the cave at summer solstice, with tall, flaming torches as their only light.


But as in the Oak Grove of the Witches, women did not fare well, historically, in the Zugarramurdi region. In 1611, the Spanish Inquisition received instructions to go to this cave and neighbouring countryside to hunt down so-called witches and heretics. During this rash of persecution, 2,000 people in the area confessed under torture; of these, more than 1,300 were aged seven to fourteen.


This demonization of women and children is an important, not-to-be-forgotten shadow side of today’s Camino de Santiago. The churches and cathedrals along the route easily herald the Madonna in statues, paintings, and prayer as the embodiment of divine, sacred woman. But beneath that glowing halo of Christianity lies unimaginable darkness: the horrific deaths of “lesser” females, branded as witches, whose lives did not conform to official holy doctrine. This signifies, in extreme form, what Simone de Beauvoir called the long-held cultural view of “women as Other” in her insightful book The Second Sex.

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This creative garbage can, designed to look like a witch’s hut, appeared in O’Cebreiro.


It is difficult to find accurate figures for how many women died as witches in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Numbers range from tens of thousands in some countries to millions as a whole. One Internet source says that the last legal witch-burning in Spain occurred in Galicia in 1936, but I can’t find any further verification of this.


Nowadays, residents in some communities in Spain honour the powers of benevolent women known as “white witches.” They are believed to have the ability to cure ailments from sunstroke, eczema, and stomach aches and to remove the mal de ojo or “evil eye.”

A common form of protection against the evil eye is to wear a cruz de Caravaca or double cross, one with two horizontal, parallel bars.


Today, like so many aspects of the Camino, witches have become commodities, sold as cute or comical souvenirs in tourist shops; I confess to buying a few myself. Spain’s Navarre tourist board even offers three separate “Witch Routes” in the areas where the most persecution and murder of witches occurred centuries ago. As a historian, I am grateful that such activities in Spain draw public attention to what medieval and pre-medieval abuses occurred in that nation, but I would prefer to see witches treated as honoured symbols of female wisdom rather than trivialized baubles.

NEXT WEEK: Creating community on the Camino

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September 21, 2013 at 11:52 am Comments (3)

The Camino: Blisters and bliss on The Way

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With Camino friends in front of the cathedral in Santiago, Spain (I’m the one on the left)




“The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children.”

—    Mahatma Gandhi


This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts that will address my journey on the Camino de Santiago route in May and June this year. I welcome your comments.


Seated on a narrow wooden pew in the cathedral of Santiago, Spain, I was one of hundreds of global visitors attending a daily “pilgrim’s mass” at noon. A non-Catholic, I felt little affinity to the Judeo-Christian symbology around me. Crosses and sculptures of a suffering Jesus? They barely seemed to touch my heart. So, why was I sitting here listening to a bishop talk about God, the Saviour, and so on, in Spanish? And I was crying!

The day before, I had arrived in Santiago, my final destination after completing the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which had begun in France 34 days earlier. After this demanding walk of blisters and bliss, I felt both proud and exhausted. Although I embrace eastern philosophy and mysticism, feeling more drawn to Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist concepts than Christian beliefs, I had joined in an archetypal journey, one that required faith in one’s body and soul to succeed. This Way of St. James might be Christian-based, but “The Way” is also a translation for the Tao, or “middle way” of living in harmony with the flow of life.

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The interior of Santiago Cathedral with the St. James cross, a symbol seen throughout the El Camino route, visible in the upper right

For 2,000 years, millions of people have walked this path called the Camino Frances, from the Romans who constructed early portions of the route to Christian pilgrims who have come to this cathedral for 13 centuries to see the remains of the Camino’s honoured patron, Saint James.

A Catholic friend wanted to know how my Camino journey compared to my seven months of solo spiritual exploration in India more than two decades ago. The biggest difference was the overriding sense of community on the France-Spain route. In India, spiritual seekers for centuries have chosen a path like mine, but I was not sharing it daily with others. Alone, I had no defined route. With periods of extended meditation in India, I was choosing stillness and solitude, rather than constant movement and companionship.

On the Camino, the path’s two ever-present way markers—the scallop shell symbol of St. James and a yellow arrow—link all pilgrims on the route in a powerful, unifying goal: to keep moving forward on the path. It’s a global village on the go, so to speak, and that’s a heady force to draw from.

On the Camino, I usually walked between 20 to 30 kilometres a day. This provided form, structure, and a logical sequence for each day. In India, I had no such limits except those I imposed myself. In this Asian nation, I felt closer to timelessness; I could wake up and go to sleep as I chose. The Camino fits closer to a routine; the albergues or pilgrim hostels require all visitors to be gone by 8 a.m. and most close by 10 p.m., requiring silence and lights-out by then. Normally, I’m one who disdains routine but on the Camino, I welcomed it. The albergue life provides sanctuary, a bed of relief from exhaustion, and a global community of potential friends.

For me, the Camino trip was more externally based than my India questing; it required more attention to physical needs. Although each journey required keen awareness of my footing to avoid accident or injury, the Camino walk prompted more physical pain and suffering. This ranged from shooting pain caused by a blister to sore joints that sometimes delayed walking. While in India, my pain was more internal; I was troubled and confused about many things and trying to let go of negative habits. On the Camino, I often felt at peace, providing a listening ear and support to others.

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An example of the Camino’s many waymarkers bearing the scallop shell icon and yellow arrow

Any spiritual growth often requires some level of suffering, especially when progressing to a less-reactive self. How will I choose to respond to any challenge? What can I learn from this encounter? How can my level of awareness deepen my connection with my surroundings and those who I meet along the way?

Both my time in India and on the Camino allowed me to immerse myself in nature, finding moments of profound oneness in the sprawling beauty of landscapes.

In Santiago, I was delighted to see a live sculpture in one of the busy tourist plazas near the cathedral: a bald man with glasses, wearing sandals and a draped cloth, painted head to toe in white, stood motionless on a platform, looking like a Mahatma Gandhi mannequin. This appearance of an Indian icon, one whom I admire tremendously, felt like a validating touch of eastern welcome amidst this city of Catholic gatherers.

When I dropped some coins in the young man’s small bucket, he reached into a pocket and asked me if I preferred Spanish or English. He pulled out a tiny scroll of white paper, less than an inch wide, tied with a fuschia-coloured piece of wool.

“A small piece of wisdom from Mahatma Gandhi,” he said, handing me the scroll. Later, I unrolled it, and read the quotation about children that appears at the top of this post.

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Every day, we can find blessings anywhere—not just on the Camino. We need only to keep our hearts open to receive and to overcome biases about what form these tiny miracles might take.


NEXT WEEK: Trust and the Camino



July 29, 2013 at 9:25 am Comments (14)

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