Heather Conn Blogs

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What thresholds have you crossed or missed?

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The Camino offers many forms of portals and thresholds.


After walking almost 27 kilometres, I arrived in the hot, dusty town of Sahagún in mid-afternoon, looking forward to rest and an albergue bed. In mid-June, the town of about 170,000 was poised for a night of bullfights.


In preparation for a small running of the bulls before the indoor event, temporary fencing of horizontal boards blocked off sections of the street surrounding the municipal albergue downtown. A youthful marching band, wearing light blue shirts and red scarves, was already playing rousing music. The young men’s brass instruments and pounding bass drum added to the loud, throbbing songs piped through a loudspeaker across the street.

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The marching band in Sahagun. I snapped this as they were posing for an official group photo.


I needed to escape the sun, noise and crowds. After searching for an opening amidst the fencing, I walked up to what looked like the main doors of the municipal albergue, an imposing former church made of brick. I tried the knob and pounded on the thick wooden doors, but they were locked. No one came.


Damn siesta time, I thought. Can’t I just come in and lie down? Instead, I had several lemon sodas at the bar-restaurant across the street, hoping to quench my seemingly endless thirst. Ah, the shade and cold liquid felt good.

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After more than an hour, I walked towards the albergue doors again, hoping that they would now be open. A young female pilgrim, sprawled on a bench to the right of the doors in beating sun, pointed past the doors to the corner of the building. I wasn’t sure what she meant. She continued to point.


I followed the direction of her finger, and found myself around the corner of the same brick building, which turned out to be the front of the albergue. It was open, and people were coming in and out. I had been trying to get into the side door!

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The Camino is full of intriguing wooden doors
in stone buildings.


An unwelcome sense of déjà vu hit me. That same day, thirteen kilometres earlier in the tiny village of Terradillos do Los Templarios (population 80), I had found a square white stucco building of several storeys that bore the sign for the Jacques de Molay albergue, my desired destination. I tried a main door covered with vertical wrought iron. Locked. I knocked and rang the buzzer. No one came. Walking around the building, I tried another door. Locked. More knocks produced no one.

Frustrated, I looked around for some shade. This was the only albergue in the village. How could it be closed at 1 p.m.? Feeling too tired to walk to the next town of Moratinos, more than three kilometres away, I joined several pilgrims in the shade who were waiting for a bus. I told them that the albergue was closed.

“That’s strange,” said one of them. “We were just there and it was open.” After chatting for about a half-hour, with no sign of a bus, they headed to the albergue and I joined them. We turned the corner of the building, perpendicular to where I had stopped previously. About a half-block down, an open doorway led into the albergue’s large grassy courtyard. Dozens of pilgrims sat at tables, drinking beer and relaxing. After enquiring, I found out that this welcoming spot, although now full, had been open all day. How could I have completely missed this entrance?

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On day one of the Camino, bales of hay in southern France
formed the gateway to the route to Valcarlos in Spain.


After experiencing this form of omission twice in one day, I began, as always, to ponder its symbolic ramifications. What else in life have I passed over or not seen, thinking it was not there or unavailable, when it was indeed?

I recognize that my impatience or fear often makes me give up too soon. Usually, if I can’t readily find what I’m looking for, I stop the search. When challenged or beyond my comfort zone, whether it’s due to fatigue, frustration or downright orneriness, I normally grumble about waylaid plans. I stop trying.

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One of many church doorways found along The Way


This is different from the spiritual concept of surrender. In that case, I can recognize, with some humility and grace, that my desired answer or solution might not be immediately visible. I can choose to trust that it will come later, perhaps in an unexpected form.

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What makes me let go, trust, and persevere in some cases, and give up in others? If my goal is clear and deeply felt, such as a creative project, I will pursue it relentlessly.

Like life, the Camino is a series of portals and thresholds. The most obvious ones are physical access points: doorways, gates, and windows or stairs leading into an enclosed space, perhaps a church or sanctuary. The mental and emotional thresholds, whether it’s leaving an unsatisfactory relationship or changing an attitude that no longer serves us, are more difficult to face.

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I love the notion, both literally and symbolically, of crossing a threshold. The hero’s journey, exemplified by Joseph Campbell, is a great archetypal example. Stories and cultural tales of all kinds, whether it’s a knight slaying dragons or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, feature people who cross thresholds.


Crossing thresholds, big and small, determines who we are and aren’t. When we face a fear and overcome it, that’s huge. I’ll share the story of an Irish pilgrim named Anne, whom I spent time with along The Way. Ever since a dog bit her when she was a child, she had a tremendous fear of these animals. While walking alone on the Camino, three dogs approached her. But as they got closer, she didn’t run or skulk. Instead, she raised her walking sticks, yelled, and ran towards them. The dogs ran away.

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I give myself credit  for  having crossed many big thresholds, from a mountain climb to the Camino Frances itself, but my response to the little ones still needs work.

NEXT WEEK: Little miracles


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September 15, 2013 at 11:38 am Comments (4)

A visit to Casa de los Dioses (House of the Gods): an oasis of love

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Earlier, when a tractor passed me, I gained a new perspective on relative speed. Back home, tractors were always too slow, the impediments at the side of the road that I needed to pass in my car. Here, they were the hare to my tortoise. Humbling indeed.


Walking solo past sprawling fields of wheat and corn, heading towards Astorga, I braced myself against the wind. Even with my windbreaker hood on, my jacket zipped up as high as it could go above my neck, gusts battered my face.


This was day 24, my third week on the Camino, when I was supposed to fall more deeply into myself, according to one seasoned pilgrim. “Week three is when you get in touch with your pain,” this retired European man had told me.


It never happened. “Still have had no profound insights or revelations, no new deep stuff from my past appear,” I wrote in my journal. But I was feeling increasingly content and peaceful.


And I needed a break. The arches of my feet ached. My blisters and the bottoms of my feet were sore. Since 7 a.m., I had covered almost 26 kilometres, surprised to have seen few people in my previous hours on this red dirt path.


In flat, open space and dry scrub, passing no town or village for almost seven kilometres, I felt delighted to see a building, a few trees, and some people ahead. Feeling dehydrated and wanting more water, I now truly understood the impact of the word “oasis.”

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Approaching the front of a long, crude brick building, which looked like a warehouse, I saw scattered backpacks and a few pilgrims seated under makeshift sheets of corrugated tin. A large mural of painted coloured circles, intersected around a star, was on the wall to the right. To the left stood a tiny, free-standing derelict wood stove with a kettle on top and a small fire pit in a circle of bricks on the dusty ground.


Beyond that, in the middle of the same wall, stood two tall rusty doors, which bore graffiti and large painted red hearts. In front of all of this hung the ultimate symbol of laid-back living: a hammock. (A long-time hammock lover and user, that sight alone warmed my heart.)

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I’m happy to lounge in a hammock

The dominant feature on the wall was a large blue tarp, which hung vertically across the entire left front of the building. Pilgrims from around the globe, current and past, had scrawled their name, the date, and/or a thoughtful saying in black marker, wherever they could find room on the fabric. “Love from Gibraltar.” The star of David. A white dove with a white heart above it. “Dios esta en los detalles” (God is in the details.) It was a tableau of temporary presence, a mingling of hearts. I loved it.


A woman named Elisa, whose smile and genuine warmth exuded love and kindness, gestured at me to help myself from a wooden cart decorated with a row of hearts. I joined a handful of pilgrims who were selecting from many cartons of juice; thermoses of coffee; a plate of cookies; crackers, peanut butter; oranges; and a jug of water. Everything on this Camino-style welcome wagon was available by donation.

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As a handful of us stood around the cart, a beat-up old truck appeared from the west, pulling up next to the building. A handsome, tanned Spanish male, with his shirt off, jumped out, gave us a celebrity-bright grin, and said in English: “Welcome to paradise.”


His name wasn’t Adam, but David, the man who had created this slapdash stop for pilgrims in 2009. He called it Casa de los Dioses or “House of the Gods.” I asked him why he felt compelled to create such a place and gave it that name.


“I wanted to create somewhere where all gods, for all people, could come together,” he told me in broken English, “and where people could feel loved.”

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David and a friend


He explained that all religions wanted the same thing, love and peace. This humble pilgrim stopover was his attempt to create a loving sanctuary on the Camino. He and Elisa described, with passion in their voices, how they hoped to raise $30,000 to buy the surrounding land, owned by a friend of David’s, to establish Casa de los Dioses permanently.


Elisa, who had come from Italy to serve as a Casa host for two weeks like a hospitalera at an albergue (hostel), offered me a kind smile and hug. She exuded simple warmth and kindness. No smarmy niceness here.


This place is a church of the heart, I thought. To me, David’s sincere welcome and vision of oneness brought more love to my Camino experience than any church or cathedral I had entered so far along the way.


For the first time on The Way, I felt inspired to add my name and a sentiment to a collective pilgrim document. Grabbing a black marker, I wrote “One Heart, One Soul, One Spirit” with my name, the date, and Roberts Creek, BC on the bottom left-hand corner of the blue tarp. It felt good to be part of this cross-cultural, multilingual record.

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This Casa—a feel-good haven with hippie ideals and a community-minded soul—reminded me of Roberts Creek, my home. In my journal, I called it “bohemian funk.” For a weary pilgrim seeking basic comfort, it was the sustenance I truly needed: validation that someone else, on a route defined around the world by Christianity, valued oneness beyond the separation of religion, culture, race or language.

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On a red, heart-shaped table, I eagerly stamped my credential (pilgrim passport) with the heart-shaped Casa “logo,” like a groupie getting a temporary tattoo. Continuing westward into the wind, I felt grateful to have visited this mini-oasis of love.

For more information about Casa de los Dioses, see their Facebook page.

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August 23, 2013 at 4:26 pm Comments (4)