Tag Archives: Fear

Leonard Cohen … Just Because


Leonard Cohen’s music was a theme of my Vía de la Plata pilgrimage. It started a few days in, when I saw a bird sitting on a barbed wire fence and Like a Bird on a Wire started to play in my head.

Anthem was another song that often ran through my head when I was feeling discouraged—and one I heard at the bar in Alberguería. It has possibly the best chorus ever:

There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

And then there was Hallelujah. I heard it in a grocery store in Mérida, and it made that gloomy day a little brighter. I had a wonderful time in Alberguería because I stuck around to hear Hallelujah, and couldn’t seem to leave. I heard it again in Santiago, played by protesters in the Praza de Obradoiro.

The Solitary Walker collected some of Leonard Cohen’s thoughts on this amazing song. Here’s a snippet:

… [R]egardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say “Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.” And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.

(If you got this by e-mail, you might have to click through to the post to see the videos.)


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:21 am
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Ich Bin Aufgeregt


[Rama V palace ruins, Thailad]

Heading into the unknown.

I met this woman once, when we were both university students. I don’t remember her name or what she looked like or why we met. I just remember her story.

She wanted to travel to Australia. It was her greatest desire, the thing she’d always dreamed of doing. And one Christmas, her parents said they would buy her a plane ticket there whenever she wanted.

No worries, right?

But if that had been all there was to the story, it wouldn’t have stuck with me. The thing was, that Christmas had been more than a year ago. The student kept coming up with reasons not to go. When I talked to her, she wasn’t sure she’d ever make it to Australia.

She really wanted to go, but she was scared.

That encounter made me think a lot about fear and travel. I figure a lot of us get scared—or at least nervous—at some point, but the timing of that point can vary widely, and have a huge impact on whether or not we actually go.

I’m lucky. When I’m planning a trip, it’s the excitement that wins out. Otherwise, like that student, I’d never buy a plane ticket.

The serious fear hits about two weeks before I leave—when I’m too committed to back out. Like, say, right now, when my thoughts begin to cycle through an endless litany of potential problems.

I haven’t trained enough and will never survive that 30-kilometre section on day three. My boots are all wrong and my pack is all wrong and my knife won’t sharpen and my second pair of brand new hiking socks has vanished without a trace. And if the weather changes (snow in Southern Spain may not be likely in April, but surely it’s possible) I won’t have enough warm clothing and will freeze. Probably to death.

And then I’m going to miss my connecting flight on the way home—I knew I shouldn’t have cut it so close—because either my first plane will be late or for some unfathomable reason I’ll be hassled going through Customs. Of course, that will only be an issue if I make it to Europe in the first place. I can come up with any number of disasters that would prevent my arrival.

And … well, that’s about it for now, but I’m sure I can come up with more in the next week or so.

My saving grace is the excitement from the planning stages. It’s still there, beneath the fear.

I keep thinking about a conversation I had two and a half years ago, the day before I walked into Santiago.

“Is there a word in German that describes being both excited and scared at the same time?” I asked Sascha, a pilgrim from Switzerland, as we walked through a eucalyptus forest.

He couldn’t come up with one off-hand, but promised to think about it.

“I bet there’s something,” I said. German, I am convinced, has a word for everything. If one doesn’t exist, the Germans just mash two or more words together to create something new.

After a little more walking, Sascha came through for me. “Aufgeregt,” he said, and he patiently taught me to pronounce it.

Ich bin aufgeregt.”

The nervous excitement I felt when I walked out of Le Puy-en-Velay on my first pilgrimage was different from that of walking into Santiago, but the two had a lot in common. They were both related to the ending of one life—even if only temporarily—and the beginning of something new.

So now, as I pack and repack my backpack, as I put my affairs in order before setting out, as I go on long walks and think about my upcoming journey, of course I’m feeling the same way again: scared and excited, excited and scared.

I don’t know what happened to that student who dreamed of Australia. I hope she, too, came to feel aufgeregt about the journey, and that the excitement won out over the fear.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:05 pm
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Refusing the Adventure


[The moon and the cathedral]

I took this photo of a cathedral detail just before the pilgrims' blessing, the day I walked out of Le Puy.

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (and quoted in The Power of Myth)

I’ve written before about the end of my Camino, and the post-Camino blues that followed.

Now, as I get ready to walk the Vía de la Plata, I’m thinking of beginnings rather than endings. And I’m hoping not to duplicate the beginning of my last Camino.

Here’s the thing: I wish I were more like Rob from SlowCamino. I really do.

But while I am a relatively slow walker, and I can be laid back about some aspects of life, I am also a first-class worrier.

So here’s me, the night I reach Le Puy-en-Velay at the end of August 2008.

I’m pacing up and down a hill that seems more vertical than horizontal. I’m trying to convince myself that my boots fit, but can’t escape the reality that they’re rubbing against my heels: a blister just waiting to happen.

My head itches. Part of me is sure this is psychosomatic—in my head rather than on it. The other part, the louder one, is convinced it’s fleas or lice or something worse, which I must have picked up in the hostel in Chartres and am now going to spread around the Camino.

Then there are my pants (that’s trousers for you British folks), which I suddenly realize I should have worn for more than three minutes back home. A piece of plastic-covered fabric scratches constantly against my leg as I walk. Later, I’ll find that my leg is bleeding.

And I don’t have a sleeping bag liner. I hadn’t considered this item before, but it suddenly seems a necessity on the Chemin du Puy. It’s hot out and my sleeping bag is too warm, but a gîte d’étape blanket with a sleeping bag liner, like the one the pilgrim in the next bunk has, would be perfect.

Then there’s the sheer fact of the hills. I’d walked around with my backpack a little at home, but I’m not really in great shape. I’d seen pictures of the hills around Le Puy before leaving home, but I didn’t understand, then, how steep they really are.

I am a complete fool, I decide, walking up and down that hill in the darkness, still trying to convince myself that my boots fit.

There are a lot of kilometres between me and Santiago de Compostela. My plan to walk them all, which seemed so reasonable at home, suddenly seems the height of hubris.

* * *

[The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe]

The Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe, in Le Puy-en-Velay. The Chemin du Puy, I must admit, didn't ascend quite that vertically, though it sometimes felt like it.

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the “hero’s journey,” which shows patterns that he said are found in many stories from a variety of cultures around the world.

After showing the hero in her normal world, the story really takes off with a call to adventure—something that warns the hero she’s in for a journey, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.

The next stage of the journey (and not all stages are found in all stories, but this one is quite common), is the refusal of the call. It can range from a flicker of doubt to an outright refusal.

Or maybe the panic I felt that night in Le Puy-en-Velay as I paced under the streetlights.

Now, I’m no hero.

My point is that this refusal, which is part of so many myths and other stories, reflects a universal truth: doing something big and different is scary. It’s tough, too, even when we’re beginning something we really want to do.

And if galaxy-saving heroes like Luke Skywalker (Star Wars always comes up in a discussion of the hero’s journey, and who am I to break tradition?) can refuse their journeys, shouldn’t we be able to do it, too?

The problem is when the refusal becomes the story: it’s never overcome. Looking at my own life, I can see a number of times when I was living a refusal instead of an adventure.

But Campbell said we should choose the adventure, every time.

He was using the term “adventure” in its broadest sense here. You don’t have to leave home to have one. It could be taking a job you’re afraid you can’t do, or asking someone on a date when you’re afraid they’ll say no. Or, of course, (to choose an example totally at random) it can involve walking across a country or two.

Adventure is risk. It can be frightening. It can be tough.

But in the end it’s absolutely worth it.

* * *

Stained glass in the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe

Some of the simple, beautiful stained glass in the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe.

I didn’t reach a firm decision that evening I paced the streets of Le Puy.

The next morning, I woke up when my roommates got up to head for the pilgrim’s blessing at the cathedral. Then I rolled over and went back to sleep.

That day, instead of beginning my pilgrimage, I went on a long walk to a sports store, where I bought new pants and a silk sleeping bag liner. I decided my boots fit after all—and they really did, once my feet had swelled up from all that walking. I found a pharmacy and asked for anti-flea shampoo, after summoning all my French to describe “shampoo for the little bugs that bite in the hair.” (I’m still not sure if I actually had fleas—but at least it had a placebo effect.) I climbed the many steps to the lovely little Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel, and that alone made the delay worthwhile.

The next day, I got up early and trudged up the hill to the cathedral for the pilgrim mass. And when the mass was over, I started walking.

It was tough sometimes, the adventure I started that day— mentally, and emotionally exhausting.

But I walked into Santiago, almost three months after that evening in Le Puy, having walked the whole way. And I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:31 am
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My Camino Angels


I figure we all meet at least one angel on the Camino. It’s not necessarily dramatic. The angel might be the pharmacist-pilgrim who turns up with painkillers two minutes after you’ve hurt your leg, or a local who gives you water when you desperately need it.

The Camino angels I remember best were a group of retired French siblings who rescued me one day on the Chemin du Puy.

The day started off badly. I was in a terrible mood that morning, as I got ready to leave a rural gîte d’étape (hostel for walkers). Part of it was because my walking companion of the last week and a half was about to go home to Belgium, leaving me alone. And then I was planning to stay at a tiny gîte with only seven beds that night. It was in Uzan, which I thought was basically in the middle of nowhere. And despite several phone calls, I couldn’t get through to the owners to confirm my reservation.

I was at my most neurotic that day. What, I worried, would happen if I ended up in this tiny town and the gîte was closed or full?

And then my friend seemed to take forever to get ready. I wondered if I’d even make it to the gîte before dark, and checked my flashlight just in case. It had burned out, leaving me even more paranoid, since I was now convinced I wouldn’t make it to Uzan before dark.

It was one of those mornings when you walk and walk and walk, but hardly seem to make any progress.

And then there was the rain, which started up soon after we got underway. It was the first serious rain I’d experienced so far, more than a month into my pilgrimage. And so, for the first time, I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t completely waterproof. So I was wet and frozen by the time we reached Arzacq-Arraziguet around lunchtime, only 8.5 kilometres beyond the farm where we’d spent the night. I still had about 16 kilometres to go.

With some help from my French-speaking friend, I found a headlamp in Arzacq, solving one of my problems. But, as we made our way to the gîte where she would spend the night before going home, my cold and miserable brain came up with new, increasingly irrational, scenarios. Even if I found a place to spend the night, things could get worse. What if it rained the rest of the way to Santiago? It was already the beginning of October. With my imperfect jacket, I would probably freeze to death.

There was no one around at the Arzacq gîte, so my friend and I settled down in the kitchen. I changed out of my wet clothes, and felt a little better. We went out to find a public phone and tried calling the Uzan gîte yet again. Still no response.

When we returned to the gîte kitchen to eat lunch, I suddenly realized I’d dug through my entire backpack in search of dry clothes and hadn’t seen my new headlamp.

I took everything out of my pack again. No headlamp. I looked in all the pockets, though I knew I hadn’t put it in them. It wasn’t there. I looked all around on the chair and the floor. Still no headlamp.

By this time, I was in a panic. And then finally, somehow, I thought to look at the inside of the top of my pack. The headlamp had got stuck there. I picked it up, tried out its lights—they still worked!—and put it down on top of my jacket.

A few minutes later, I grabbed the jacket, knocking the headlamp to the floor. I tried turning it on again. Nothing happened.

It wasn’t the end of the world, but in my current state, it felt like it. Although my friend was still there, she wasn’t going to continue with me, so I felt utterly alone with my problems.

That was when my angels came in: a group of four retired French siblings—three men and a woman—who had stayed at the same gîte as we had the night before. They were each taking a turn driving, while the other three walked. One of them looked the perfect French gentleman but spoke English with a British accent, and even used words like “chap.”

They noticed I was close to tears, and asked what was wrong. I told them about the headlamp. One of the brothers figured out how to open it up, and got the batteries back in properly so it worked again.

Then my friend explained about my problem getting hold of the gîte in Uzan. Immediately, the sister offered to drive me to Uzan to make sure all was well.

They must have gathered I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea (I didn’t like the thought of paying a lightning-fast visit to the place I’d then walk for hours to reach). So the same man who’d fixed my headlamp looked in the phonebook, found the number of someone with the same last name as the gîte-owners, and called them up. The person on the other end of the phone said there was no problem—the gîte was open, and even if it was full, his uncle and aunt, who owned it, would find me another place to stay.

And just like that, everything was all right again. Better than all right, even—not only, or even not primarily because I had a working light and a definite place to stay, but because of the way these four strangers had helped me.

I didn’t get their address. I never even learned their names, or got a picture of them. I hope they’re doing well. I hope they’re happy. Two years later, I still think about them sometimes, and their unhesitating kindness to a stranger.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:16 pm
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