It’s February, and the word ‘love’ comes up a lot. I hadn’t planned to write a post about love (and not for Valentine’s Day, either), but as I was walking yesterday, my mind turned towards ‘self-love’. And I started thinking about what this has meant for me in the context of my Caminos and other long-distance walks.
Self-love is a practice, and it’s different than self-care, though the two certainly overlap. Self-care gets a lot of talk these days, which isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, but I’d say that it’s having a moment. We can have a long discussion about self-care on the Camino (and maybe we should! It’s a topic I’ve never written explicitly about), but for now, I want to think about self-love on the Camino.
Loving ourselves. It can be hard, right? Like, to really, really love ourselves. It takes great self-awareness and intention and focus and practice. And because we’re constantly evolving and changing, and entering new phases of life, I think it’s probably a life-long thing, this idea of learning how to love yourself.
The Camino is sort of the perfect place to work on this. I actually think it can happen without us even realizing it. I’ve heard fellow pilgrims say: “I really liked who I was on the Camino.” The Camino can help us return or, or remember, or unearth our best selves, our truest selves. The people we are, when all of the noise and distraction are stripped away. The Camino gives us time, and space, and a pure physical challenge that makes it difficult to hide. Who hasn’t had a day when you’re in the middle of a long uphill stretch, and there’s nothing left: no energy, no optimism, you’re running low on water. It’s hot and the flies are buzzing around your head and the clothing you washed the night before never dried and you’re hungry and annoyed and you lost your earbuds and everything is wrong. Who are you, then? Do you love yourself, then? It’s hard to hide. It’s hard to hide because there’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing else to do. You can only continue walking up that hill, and then back down the other side. You can only continue walking until your clothing dries and you find something to eat and you regain some energy in your legs and you fill up your bottle at a fountain and you see a friend and you smile. You have to walk through all the pieces of who you are on the Camino. You’re forced to face yourself.
And this experience has the potential to lead us towards self-love.
I’m not sure how much I practiced self-love on my first Camino. I’m sure I did, in ways that I wasn’t even aware of. Maybe it was when I bought a soft black t-shirt in a crowded shop in Burgos, so that I had something fresh and clean to wear in the evenings. Or maybe it was when I stopped in an albergue in the middle of nowhere, in a place where I knew no one, because I wanted time alone. Or maybe it was when I continued walking and walking, because I just didn’t want to stop.
But this idea of self-love has grown for me in the last few years, as I continue to return to Europe for more Caminos, more long walks. I suppose that going on a long walk, at all, is an act of self-love. I’ve learned that it’s something that makes me happy, something that makes me feel like one of the most true versions of myself, something that energizes me and makes me feel healthy and strong and good.
This is what self-love is, to me. Well, it’s a lot of things. But I keep coming back to those words: ‘truest version of myself’. It’s me, in all the wonderful and fun and sweet and quirky and annoying and difficult ways of being me. It’s knowing who I am, accepting who I am, and allowing myself to be who I am. And, the other piece, I think, is being kind and gentle and patient with myself, especially when things are hard.
And I get to do this on the Camino, every year I examine how I feel and try to let myself be totally present with who I am, and how I am. And then, I’ve learned to ask myself what I want. I ask myself what I need, too, but asking myself what I want is different.
How have I practiced self-love on the Camino? What has that looked like?
It looks like this:
Taking myself to a bar and finding a table in the corner, or maybe out in the sunshine, and drinking a glass of wine. Alone.
Walking past where I planned because I’m feeling so good and I just don’t want to stop.
Waking up early in the morning and walking with the sunrise.
Eating three-course meals and savoring every bite.
Making a playlist of favorite songs every year to listen to when I walk. Putting old Disney songs on the mix, and singing aloud as I walk (apologies for anyone who may have overheard my rendition of ‘Part of Your World’ from Little Mermaid this past summer).
Grinning and laughing as I walk down an empty trail, with the sun shining and the wind blowing and my walking stick held high in the air.
Choosing to stay in albergues by the coast so I can spend time with my feet in the water.
Playing with puppies, taking pictures of horses, saying hellos to the cows.
The full English breakfast. (This is not a Camino thing, but it’s a ‘hiking-in-England’ thing, and I love it).
Sitting in a pew in a dark and empty chapel, saying small prayers for my family and friends, saying a prayer for myself, asking for strength as I walk.
Sharing my stories with my fellow pilgrims.
Toasting to my sturdy ankles, learning to appreciate those ankles, those wide feet (I can’t exactly say I love them yet, but I’m getting there).
Carrying the weight of a bigger camera, so I can take thousands of beautiful photos as I walk.
Giving myself pep talks and encouragement when I need it most. My go-to phrase is actually something I mutter to myself in French: Tu peut le faire. You can do it.
Booking a ticket back to Europe, to return to yet another path, to do it all over again.
I just re-read this list and I can feel myself being lifted up; any tension I might have been carrying from the day eases. I feel lighter, I’m smiling, I’m grateful for discovering this thing that I love, this thing that I can choose to give myself (time and time again!).
So in this month where lots of people are celebrating love, I hope that all of you- my good and true friends and readers- can find moments of self-love, moments when you can give yourselves the things that you want, the things that make you feel like the truest versions of who you are.
More soon. With love.