I’ve taken on a Lenten discipline of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, for the month of March. (Some of you may recognize this as NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, typically undertaken in November.) This is an excerpt from my novel, with very little editing because that’s against NaNoWriMo rules. My heroine is Martha, a newly-retired 5th grade teacher walking the Camino de Santiago by herself. In this vignette, she’s been on the Way about ten days, and strange things are happening.
I am a mess, she thought. I am just a mess. Maybe I’ll always be a mess. Maybe being messy is just how it is. Maybe the trick, the work, is to do the work of being myself before I feel ready, before I feel prepared, in the midst of all the mess.
Of what does this mess consist? Memories, plans that never saw the light of day, abandoned goals and desires, anger and sadness and grief and pain. Walking by myself I can’t be distracted.
The lid wiggles loose and the messies start to crawl out. Am I big enough to contain my messies, she wonders? There are a lot of them and they seem vaguely malevolent. They’re wild and angry, exulting in their newfound freedom and room to roam. They surge out of the jar and crawl all over my insides, latching on with their tiny claw-like appendages. I can feel them on my chest wall and hanging on to my heart. They’re crawling all around inside me. They crawl up into my arms and down to my hands. They gleefully grab my organs and find their way down my legs. The messies are so glad to be free! They’re blue and black and red and green, with wild fur and eight legs and googly eyes and fangs. I’m afraid of them. They’re a little crazed, a little frantic.
I really am going a crazy, Martha thinks. But let’s go with this.
I’ve taken the lid off – the lid has wobbled loose on the Camino. Day after day of walking has jostled the lid loose. Day after day of being a stranger in a strange land has jostled the lid loose, and the messies have taken their chance. They’ve rushed up and out. They’re now crawling around my insides – around my chest between my lungs and chest wall, around my heart, up to my shoulders and down my arms. They seem to like the bones for traction. My mind is going crazy with dismay and worry.
Yet… It feels good to have the lid off. It took energy and effort to keep them hidden. It feels good to give in and let the messies have their way. As they squirm around I see that they’re different things – some of them are dreams. Many of them are emotions. Some of them are memories.
It’s like I have a jar into which I’ve stuffed the inconvenient things for so long – the messy things, because being messy wasn’t okay. I have to loosen the lid if I need to stuff another messy into the jar. They squirm frantically and resist, and then they try to escape whenever I open it. I’m usually quite competent at keeping them contained, through other-focus, codependence, addiction, busyness and distraction, rule-following.
But now, here on the Camino, as I walk mile after mile, the lid has loosened enough that they’ve popped it off and they’ve escaped.
“Hóla, Marta! How was your Way today?” they’ll ask me tonight at in the albergue.
“Well, here’s what I found out today,” I’ll say. “In my heart I keep a jar full of what I don’t want to know – the messy things – the inconvenient truths of my life. The sadness I don’t want to feel. The unkept promises and failures. The losses and the rage. The dreams I’ve let languish. The pain and the betrayals I didn’t want to see. All the stuff I didn’t want to do but I did anyway. All the things that didn’t fit with being perfect. Now they’re out. And they’re crawling all over me, inside and out.
Don’t ask too much of me. I have to keep the messies in. Don’t let loose, don’t let down your guard, or the messies will get out.
That’s how my Way was today. How was yours?”
She walks, smiling and weeping. She’s beginning to suspect there will be many tears on this Camino. Every pilgrim she meets, she sees their jar of messies. We all have them, she sees. We all have our sequestered messies. I want them to become peaceful drops of love, she realizes. I want to hurry them along – to metamorphose them into beings that make me feel proud and comforted. I want them NOT to be what they are – inchoate yearning and longing and feeling that cause me distress.
The jar is very old. It was given to me when I was a little girl. “Here’s your jar,” they said. Please put into it everything about you that we don’t like. Don’t ask questions. Just do it. No messies allowed. Or aloud. Either one. Your job is to sequester your messies so they don’t bother us. We only want to see the smart, pretty, nice bits. Thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter. We’ll teach you how to identify, capture, and contain said messies, since you’re just a girl. Before you know it, you’ll be so good at it you can do it without thinking. Expect to feel listless and depressed at times. That’s a sign that you’re doing it right. Anytime you want to do something irrational or have a feeling we don’t like – catch that messy and stuff it into your jar. And NEVER let them out. Oh. Yeah. A little joy goes into the jar with each messy. And it takes a lot of energy to keep the lid on – so you can’t commit to anything else, and you have to hold back some energy at all times so you can contain the messies. So no going flat out and giving something all you’ve got. That’s not safe.”
Stay tuned for more of Martha’s adventures by following the blog. Stranger stuff is happening…