In Talking With Cats, Nichols takes us on a personal journey that enriches the spirit, informs the mind and becomes a map for healing and finding true inner happiness. The author does talk with cats; one of them is wise and thoughtful. Another is sarcastic, rude and funny. He is even ambushed by a horse, anxious to join him on his pilgrimage. On another day, he is attacked by a large German shepherd dog-with a very different outcome than expected. More importantly, he talks with the people who have come to the Camino de Santiago to heal their spirit and find a meaningful life.
This Story is written with a sense of wonder and reverence for nature, earth and all life. Discover the real heart, soul and spirit of the Camino as you meet the people who walk it, the warm hospitality of the volunteers who care for it, and the rich culture and history of the Spanish people who have inherited the unique DNA of pride and service. During 500 miles, walk with Nichols through the Basque country, the Spain of Old Castile and Leon, and the ancient, proud Celtic tribes of Galicia. Savor the wines, learn about the cuisine, and hear the stories of mystical northern Spain.
Talking With Cats is not a guide to a place or a destination. It is a guide to our hearts, walking, and the spiritual journey that heals, instructs, and returns us to an authentic life and a sustainable earth.
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Talking With Cats
A Journey of Spirit, Healing and Wisdom on the Camino de Santiago
By W. Lee Nichols
Balboa PressCopyright © 2013 W. Lee Nichols
All rights reserved.
There is almost a sensual longing for communion With others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged In furthering the evolution of consciousness Has a quality impossible to describe. ~Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
At six a.m., one hundred fourteen pilgrims put their feet on the floor of the seventeenth century Jesuit Church of Jesús y María as though a bell or alarm had simultaneously shook them out of their bunks. Actually, no alarms had sounded; most of these pilgrims had been on the Camino for a week or more and were now responding to their internal awareness of time. I soon discovered that sleeping pilgrims respond en mass to the faintest rustle of a sleeping bag or the crackle of plastic being shoved into a backpack. It is not considered cool to set one's iPhone or watch—after all; we are on a medieval pilgrimage.
We were cocooned into the old Jesuit church's modern addition, where sleeping quarters had been sandwiched into the side naves of the ancient stone building. The spotless, sparse elegance of stone, brick and gleaming hardwood gave warmth and a surrealistic contrast to the neat rows of double bunks. I was more than excited to begin my first day on the camino and joined the fray for the bathroom, getting dressed and double-checking backpacks. After hurried farewells to new friends, I was soon in pursuit of coffee and crescents.
I had decided to forego the traditional pilgrimage start in the French town of St. Jean Pied De Port. Instead, I avoided the treacherous trek through the Pyrenees and today I would begin on their western slope in Pamplona, Spain. I had been following the pilgrim's blog online to learn that there was still some snow and hazardous conditions on the mountains—too difficult for my unstable beginning. I was just cutting fifty miles from the normal pilgrimage, a mere ten percent of a five hundred mile adventure.
Bronze scallop shells embedded in the sidewalks marked the exit out of Pamplona to direct us into the countryside. Though it was only 7 a.m., the bulk of pilgrims from most of the hostels in Pamplona were well ahead of me; some were already on the mountain with the plan of walking thirty-five to forty km. that day. Many seem to always be in a hurry and pay little attention to relaxing over breakfast or a mid-day repast featuring the comida del dia (meal of the day). They snack on the run, grab a sandwich or pastry, quickly washed down with coffee, soda or beer. It is sad but true that the majority do not allow sufficient time for the camino to become their friend and guide.
It has many stories to tell, but like all worthy tales, we must stop and listen. Largely due to the limits of jobs and family, modern pilgrims try to cram a five or six week walk into much less time. Instead, I had chosen to take eight weeks with a buffer zone of four more weeks at the end, should I need it. I had only 721 km. (about four hundred fifty miles) remaining to reach Santiago de Compostela.
The camino took me though two city parks and the University of Navarra campus before crossing the Rio Sadar on a stone bridge. A short walk led to the affluent village of Cizur Menor, an upscale bedroom community and dorm town. I encountered only polite, well-groomed dogs, manicured lawns and flower gardens with roses trailing on fences. Lovely, but not what I expected to experience on this journey.
Fortunately for my expectations, the road soon led onto a dirt path that opened to a beautiful vista of farms and rolling land, at the end of which stood the Alto del Perdon. The "Mount of Forgiveness" is only a mere hill of 790 meters or 2590 feet, but it didn't earn its name without justification. Today, it stood defiant, looming large in the morning sun, challenging my ascent and pathway to the west. It did not look like a place of forgiveness.
The trail up the mountain soon became a narrow gutter, filled with rocks that seemed to always be on the move. I found climbing a struggle, which accelerated quickly to just plain suffering. My left knee and right hip were acting like they needed to be replaced. Every part of my body was reporting in with complaints and protest; the shoulders and back were already in the red zone of alerts. I had worked hard to reduce the contents of my backpack and the twenty-two pounds that I now carried were non-negotiable. The incline and frequent switchbacks didn't allow for much relief while the ditch remained narrow, dusty and rock infested.
I decided that defeat was not an option and that I was going to Santiago even if I had to crawl. That was actually a good idea; I leaned over my two trekking poles and became a sweaty, four-legged old man with a mission.
Suddenly, I heard the ding of a small bell behind me. A robust young cyclist was pushing his bike up that twisty, rocky gutter of a path as though he had a party to attend. He wished me buen camino (good road) and was soon out of sight without as much as a bead of sweat. I was surprised that the mountain had become so very difficult. After all, I had practiced on Big Glassy Mountain at the Carl Sandburg Estate in North Carolina for six months. I had arrived feeling confident about the camino. Yes, Big Glassy is only a three mile round trip but it is steep and rocky in places.
Nearing the top of what had become my Mount Everest, a row of strange other-worldly sentinels came into view. The city of Pamplona had constructed forty giant, futuristic looking windmills across the summit of old nasty. What a clever way to destroy the medieval aura of the majestic Navarran landscape, I thought. As I pulled myself up over the final outcrop of rocks, I discovered why they had chosen this place; the wind was blowing at gale force. My hat sailed off like a flying saucer only to crash-land against the base of one of the aliens. Three very large arms started rotating faster as though he wanted to help catch my hat, but I knew it was the wind he really wanted. "Mountain, what did you say your name was?"
As I turned to see the eastern view with the majestic Pyrenees as a backdrop, another greeting loomed large and heroic in size. A wrought iron group of life-size medieval pilgrims, heads bent into the western wind, trailed along the cliff's edge. Some of the sculptures were on horseback, another lead a pack animal and they all carried tall staffs. They represent the long pageant of pilgrims that have braved the climb, the winds and perils to find their chosen paths in life. We can only imagine the hopes, prayers and dreams carried by the thousands who have passed this spot since the year nine hundred fifty. I stopped to reflect on my own journey as I read the inscription on the sculpture: Donde se cuza el Camino del viento con el de las estrellas. (Where the path of wind and stars meet.) The beautiful city of Pamplona lay below, spreading out to the base of the formidable Pyrenees. It was good to be at the top.
As I moved to find the trail down the western flank of the mountain, I was startled to step in front of an auto. To my surprise there was a paved highway that brought tourists up to the overlook. This was the first of what would become many reminders that I had chosen to walk the ancient path with occasional encounters of the modern kind. Before arriving on this pilgrimage, the twenty-first century was always with me and the choices I made daily were in that context. I now had a foreshadowing of the days and weeks to come as the camino would take me into the medieval landscape of unchanged villages, churches and castles of the Knights Templar and back again. This journey was about to become a time-machine of the mind and spirit.
Later on I would learn the truth of this as I crossed busy roads or looked up to see jet planes with their contrails etching signature lines in the sky. The few large cities that I entered were even more shocking with flying overpasses and aerial junctions. Sleek vehicles with darkened windows moved with high speed through mazes of concrete intersections. I knew that those inside were unaware of the stream of pilgrims below. The blur of nearby villages and the farmers who grew their food would not register as anything meaningful either. Most modern travelers had sold all the allotted time of their lives to buy a material world of possessions, luxuries, and status. Pilgrimage soon separates illusion from reality. How different the world and what we perceive, when we walk. It actually talks to us.
While carefully picking my way down the western side of the mountain, I couldn't help but reflect on its name and what it had been teaching me. Climbing the Mountain of Forgiveness on my first day walking the camino was starting to feel like more than mere coincidence.
"It's a setup for me to face that word forgiveness," I said to the raging wind.
Without any thought, I found myself asking, "Who should I forgive?"
"Yourself," the little voice in my head chimed in.
"From what," I asked. Here I was, the first day walking the Camino and I was talking to myself.
I guess that I had known the answer all along. Now with unlimited time alone on the road, I could deal with the big questions. My mind flashed on the many times in the court room of my life—how I, presiding as judge, had brought the gavel down as "Guilty" on the shrinking soul of self. There were so many people and events that I felt guilty about: the divorce, the wrong words to those I loved, the midlife crisis, the business failure, and the loss of family possessions. The list went on. Wow! I was guilty of all that and more.
How to forgive myself was strong in my thoughts as I stumbled down a rocky embankment barely catching a small dusty bush to break the fall. It was a long way down the mountain, rocky and steep, but the dirt path was much wider here, with abundant vegetation on either side. The heat and climb left me exhausted, and then I ran out of water. I trudged on, carefully picking my way while using the trekking poles to keep me steady and take pressure off the legs.
The little voice came back and buoyed me with an "aha" of thoughts about forgiveness as a virtue. In fact, this was something I was ready to consider as a pathway to becoming a more loving person. I knew of studies at universities, which confirmed that people who forgive are happier and have better overall health than those who hold resentment. There was empirical evidence that people who showed forgiveness had healthier hearts and nervous systems. It's just that until today, I didn't know that I had the problem. It was shocking to awaken to the fact that I needed to forgive myself for a lifetime of self-abuse and blame.
"What better place than on the Mountain of Forgiveness?" I thought. I was ready to surrender the pain and mend a wound in the fabric of my being. At that moment I felt as though there was a deep and bottomless hole in my soul. After all, during a few days of preparation in Madrid, I had committed to accept my own truths as they surfaced.
The small computer tablet that I carried was my camera, telephone, e-mail, flashlight, GPS locator, compass, calculator and book. Yes, I was carrying a twenty-first century gadget into the medieval past. It was also my umbilical cord to poetry, literature and the family that I loved. Before leaving for the camino, I had downloaded many favorite quotes from spiritual and philosophical idols. Now was the time to open some of the inspiration that lay waiting within my icon laden time capsule.
Near the path was an old log in the shade of a scrub oak. Here, now, I was ready to take responsibility and unconditionally love and forgive myself. One of the finest quotes that helped me most came from the wonderful Maya Angelou.
"I don't know if I continue even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes—it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'Well, if I'd known better I'd have done better,' that's all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, "I'm sorry", and then you say to yourself, 'I'm sorry.' If we all hold onto our mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror; we can't see what we are capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self."
Her words rushed over me as though she was whispering them in my ear. They became truth evident and filled my darkness with a new light of wisdom and understanding.
We should never become so removed from the heart as to assume that the wisdom of others can't be a valuable resource. Our path stands firmly on the shoulders of those who have walked theirs. It is evolution manifest. Like the many who have left a light burning on my path, my finest hope is to do the same. The teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Plato, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to inspire someone, somewhere every day. Many leaders of global corporations, governments, science and the arts accept their Laureate, their awards, with the humble praise for those who awakened them. With that said, I find that the key to another human's heart is a cosmic riddle. In my own case, the quote from Maya Angelou was not the first one that I read, nor was it the first time. The door to my pain was ready to be unlocked and her words had the key.
Once down the mountain, it became painfully evident that I would not be able to walk another four miles to reach Puente La Reina. The next village of Uterga would house me for the night in whatever was available. A barn actually sounded quite restful.
The camino meanders through the center of Uterga following the main street. Its white washed houses, with large stone lintels above windows and doorways, attest to the town's medieval heritage as a welcoming sanctuary for pilgrims. In front of the sixteenth century Gothic church of La Asuncion stood a large fountain, gushing forth spring water that cascaded into its stone reservoir. Two plaques in Spanish had been fastened to the fountain, pretty much at eye level. The oldest, chiseled in stone read, "Very Good Drinking Water," the second, modern but official looking, stated, "This water is natural and has not been sanitized." Well now, was that a disclaimer to heed or to ignore? I drank deeply. Another sweaty, dusty pilgrim hobbled towards the fountain as I was filing my pack's reservoir and inquired, "Is the water good?" "Delicious," I replied, "I just drank four cups."
The private hostel—Albergue Camino de Perdon (Way of Forgiveness) was housed in a handsome two story building in the next block. The doña welcomed me as she would an old friend—with assurance of a clean bed and a warm meal with some fine local wine. After a hot shower and the day's menu of salad, grilled trout with red peppers and an exquisite smooth flan, the restorative process was amazing. My knee and hip still ached but the heady Navarran wine eased the pain considerably.
Like most of the albergue on the Camino Francés, this one had Wi-Fi and I spent the afternoon on the patio journaling and connecting to friends and family. That evening I enjoyed fresh fruit and tea before exploring the small town at twilight. The fountain was the loudest sound in the village. The town stood stark and quiet with shuttered windows and no one in the streets. It was just the stars and me, standing alone in medieval Spain as though it had always been this way.
The gratitude and excitement of being on the Camino kept me awake and alert with thoughts of the past few weeks and how I had progressed from cancer surgery to plans to walk this pilgrimage across Spain. During recovery, I started by walking around a small lake, then I graduated to walking the flat trail around two mountains near my home. And so it was, each day I became stronger until I scaled four miles round trip on Big Glassy Mountain. That day, like today, I stood on the top and yelled to the world, "Yes I can."
Excerpted from Talking With Cats by W. Lee Nichols. Copyright © 2013 W. Lee Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 ~ the Pilgrimage.................... 1
1 - Forgiveness.................... 3
2 - Kindness.................... 15
3 - The Borgia Legacy.................... 23
4 - A Woman Alone.................... 31
5 - Hanging the Innocent.................... 39
6 - Talking With Cats.................... 49
7 - Pit of Bones.................... 55
8 - Alive & Well.................... 63
9 - Suffering is optional.................... 73
10 - Demons on the Riverbank.................... 77
11 - The Roman Road.................... 87
Part 2 ~ the Awakening.................... 97
12 - Festival in Leon.................... 99
13 - Companions.................... 117
14 - Land of the Maragato.................... 125
15 - Wild Dogs of Foncebadón.................... 131
16 - Ways of the Way.................... 141
17 - Mountain of Mist.................... 149
18 - Ambushed by a Horse.................... 157
19 - Confession & Compassion.................... 165
20 - The Inner Child.................... 173
21 - March to Glory.................... 181
22 - La Fachada.................... 191
Part 3 ~ the Odyssey.................... 199
23 - Santiago de Compostela.................... 201
24 - Finisterre, the End of the (Known) World.................... 205
25 - Murcia (Muxia), Synchronicity and Flow.................... 215
A Note to the Reader.................... 223
Gratitudes & Acknowledgements.................... 225
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book! No, I mean really Great! Teaches you about the flow and happiness in the world of awareness. Recommended for everyone who is planning to walk the Camino de Santiago or anyone who wishes they could. The Camino is becoming the hottest travel subject in every part of the world and here you have it, in all its sublime beauty.