There’s a sunflower planted on the side of the freeway in my hometown. I don’t know how it got there, or if it’s even real, but I don’t care. It’s become a yellow happy reminder that exuberant things can somehow dwell in concrete daily life.
I didn’t think I’d need something as simple as a sunflower to remind me of hope. But I’ve clung to it, I think about it often. It stands tall as if to say, “I didn’t think I’d ever be here, either. But I’ll grow and bloom and make the best of this until I wither or uproot to somewhere else.”
On the rare occasion that I buy a cd, I flip through the album book. I search for messages between the lyrics, I read the artist’s notes. I want to know why I should invest in this album; show me where you bled and cried and lived again.
For Taylor Swift’s latest (don’t judge; I know you like her too), she wrote about how this album was a breakthrough of saying yes to things she once promised she’d never do. She’d never move to the city alone. She’d never cut her hair short. Other promises to self. Her first song is about New York: how she did end up moving there alone and decided to release the odd expectation that someone would one day inhabit her empty spaces. She just did them, these big claims, she broke promises. She moved on and lived.
There’s a lot of things in my life I am surprised I’ve ended up doing alone. I’ve pursued travel. I’ve rented an apartment and live alone. I have signed documents and made commitments with only my name hanging in the spaces.
I was recently in New York City, hence the mention of Taylor Swift. Her song ran through my head. I looked up at giant buildings and thought about how I always imagined it would be Christmastime and my hand would be in someone else’s when I first saw the city view.
Life is a great disappointment or a great surprise, depending on how you look at it.
And while I’ve come to accept coming home to a quiet apartment I share with three succulents, I also know the dangers of channeling what were previous high expectations for someone else onto yourself. We’re more fragile with other people’s souls, but our own? We let the whip fly.
Ever since I was a teenager—when I read a fictional book about a girl going on a personal pilgrimage throughout Europe—I’ve been fascinated with the idea of a pilgrimage. Of intentionally seeking out answers and growth and God. The Camino in northern Spain appealed to me because, for over a thousand years, it’s been a strenuous and beautiful experience. You physically push yourself in ways you never have before (and may never again). You rise far before the sun to get five miles in before breakfast. You eat for the calories, for the energy, and not so much for the taste and pleasure (except for the ice cream—there’s always a good reason for ice cream).
Anyway, I wound up on the Camino with a 10 pound backpack and a tired heart. I anticipated the answers I would find. I expected to break through my skepticism with God and come home filled to the brim with supernatural goodness.
Leading up to the trip, I ruminated on the word “abundance,” asking hard questions to myself and to God and to people close to me. “What does it mean to live an abundant life?” and “My life is good and I’m grateful, but it also feels empty. Am I living from a place of abundance?”
These are big questions, and they may sound confusing, but to me they were pressing at deeper matters: I wasn’t content with how I had been living for the past eight months. I was merely surviving. And while it was fun a lot of the time, I wasn’t thriving. I felt stagnant, selfish.
I hoped the Camino would change all of that.
(Spoiler alert: It didn’t, necessarily. A jolting interruption of normal life to walk a pilgrimage may be life changing and a big deal, but it doesn’t mean everything realigns in real life. There’s still hard work and a shifting of thought patterns that needs to happen, and that can take a long time.)
It was our first day on the path—you find your way by looking for yellow arrows and signs of seashells—and already blisters had begun to form. My boots weren’t broken in enough, and after a couple miles, the only way I could walk was by gingerly limping. To be upset about blisters sounds somewhat petty, but on the Camino, it’s a big deal. Your feet are everything, they’re your lifeline.
My friend Danica and I stopped to take a water break (and rest my screaming feet) around lunch time. A woman we’d passed earlier in the morning caught up to us and began a conversation. She was an American who lived in New Zealand. Her story was a unique one to be sure, and she was a tad crazy (but to be fair, anyone choosing to do the Camino has to be a little out of their mind). We got wrapped up into eating lunch with her and eventually walked the rest of the day’s route with her.
She was doing the Camino, for one reason she said, because she is able to walk. Having undergone major hip surgery, it was a miracle for her to be able to walk so normal and confident—”so why not walk the Camino?” she said.
If that were my story and it truly was incredible for me to walk, I’d be grateful and joyous too. But to the lengths of walking 500 hundred miles in Spain? No thanks. My reasoning had to be deeper than literal walking. I had an agenda after all: find answers, throw away skepticism, and leave with abundance.
As I hobbled along, we talked about everything: her hip surgery, dance songs she was into (she had no shy bone and threw out some moves), where we were from in the States. And then: “So are you guys religious?”
I was wondering if it would come up.
Danica and I explained that we believe in God. I shared why I chose to do the Camino in what I thought was a quiet humbleness emphasizing grace. But when a human is hurting—when a human is hard on herself—others notice. Humans are all too familiar with pain, with the strain in a voice or the phrases tossed around to make a situation sound better. Even though this woman didn’t share our beliefs, she certainly picked up what I was definitely not trying to throw out.
“It sounds like you’re doing the Camino out of guilt. Like you’re trying to please God or something,” she stated. “I think you’re really hard on yourself.”
This was not the conversation I expected to have with a woman smaller than me who hailed from New Zealand. I didn’t expect to be called out and called higher by a stranger. I expected to check off my list of things to work through (which in itself isn’t really how grace works anyway) and listen to others’ stories and share about what I’ve learned in life.
God does things so differently and so much bigger than what I plan.
Our conversation drifted away from religious beliefs and back to dance songs and blisters. After that first day, I never ran into her again. But her words have plagued me since. Although she didn’t offer any sort of relief or answers to my guilt, I have returned home thinking about her and wondering if maybe, in some odd way, she was right. Maybe how I’ve been living—crippled with a need to appease God and appease others—isn’t so freeing after all.
I’ve looked for the sunflower on the freeway. It’s no longer there. Perhaps it got crushed by a car or two, but I’d like to think someone stopped and cared enough to pick it up and re-home it.
There are a lot of things about life that are strangely paradoxical. You learn to grow up and work hard, but also surrender and accept grace. How? I’m still learning.
My life looks unlike anything I imagined. But like homegirl T Swift, I’m slowly accepting my foreign future and doing things anyway. Dyeing my hair. Going on a pilgrimage. Committing to a city, a home.
Mostly, I hope to accept myself more. Yes, the Camino was life changing. And yes, coming back home to just my three succulents has been lonely and unforgiving and hard. But thankfully, abundance and grace grow anywhere. They’re not confined to a walking route in northern Spain, or to a home filled with people. Grace is in the little things: waking up early to make a cup of coffee to accompany a book; watching the sun say goodnight; a wave from a driver to let you into the busy line of traffic.
And abundance is mostly about contentment. It’s learning to sit in uncomfortable spaces, hopefully and eventually wholeheartedly. It’s obedience before understanding (I read that line yesterday and it hit me right in the gut).
Just like that silly sunflower, we too must accept where we’re at. To grow and bloom and smile and love even if circumstances look like concrete and pavement some days. We never know what will come of it.
Linda, my American friend from New Zealand: I imagine you ran to the cathedral in Santiago when you arrived. I imagine you danced and sang and made a beautiful fool of yourself. I hope you know you provoked a lifetime of thought in a strange girl from Washington State. I hope you come to realize the power and beauty of grace, that it’s readily available for guilt slingers like me, and runners like you.
And the best part about it: we don’t have to come complete or perfect or do a pilgrimage to get it. Keep your hands up and hands open, Linda. Hands up and open. And don’t stop dancing.