The walk from Castet to Romieu was 30 kilometers (18 miles), a distance we’d walked before, but longer than I ever wanted to do in a day. We’d looked at the maps, though, and talked to our friends on the trail, and decided that a longer walk day while the weather was good was the best way to set ourselves up for the etapes (stages) of the Via Podiensis (the Le Puy route of the Camino) that would follow.
I spent much of the mid-day hours walking alone. Eric was somewhere ahead, well out of sight most of the time, moving at his own pace. This wasn’t unusual, but on that particular day, being alone with my thoughts was disastrous.
The Princesses were in full revolt (this was our second week in France, before I bought better shoes and walking poles). But more than that, that number thirty kept bouncing around my brain. Even thought I’d walked farther than that before, on that day it felt impossible.
How much farther do I have to go? I’ve be doing this for hours. I can’t do this! Why has everyone left me alone to do this? What if I get lost? Why is it so easy for everyone else? Why is this so hard? What if I fail?
With each step, my anxiety over what might happen ratcheted up.
I finally caught up to Eric, who stopped every hour or two to wait for me. If memory serves, we still had about six or seven kilometers until we reached our destination, and I was a teary, sulky, miserable mess.
Eric was (frustratingly) calm and rational. He slowed down and walked with me, at my snail’s pace, and let me vent about how far away the destination still was, and about how far away Spain still was, and about how hard the Pyrenees would be. And then he said something that stuck with me
“You’re a lot more miserable when you let yourself think about all of the things that come next.”
Ouch. But he had a point.
“What if you stop thinking about the next ten miles, or ten days?” he continued. “What happens if you just think about right now?”
He was right, of course, and not just about how I felt that day in France. And so my third (and final) Camino mantra was born:
Mantra 3. Choose Your Focus.
I could waste time thinking about the things I could not control. Or I could pay attention to what’s right in front of me.
Being offline, outside, and in new settings for 79 days helped me change some of my patterns. It forced me to slow down and, at least more often, give my full attention to my surroundings.
After all, it’s easy for me to skate through a conversation in English with someone familiar. I can pay half attention to what they say, and also plan my response, or watch the other people in the room, or mentally write a grocery list. But trying to communicate with someone in a language I barely understand took my total concentration. If I looked away or let my mind wander for a second, I’d lose whatever thin thread I had to the unfamiliar syllables. Even if the conversation was in English, I learned, if I spoke without thinking about my own words, I risked slipping into slang, or talking at my “New Jersey speed,” or otherwise breaking that thread between us.
I had to focus on what was right in front of me.
In 2016, back in the comfort and noise of home, I lost that focus. I let myself get caught in the unending, anxiety-fueled roller coaster of worrying about what might happen, and things that were far beyond my control, and I lost sight of the things right in front of me that could change. I spent hours on Twitter, watching hyper-emotional news and opinions unfold in real time. I fretted for months about personal conflicts over which I had no control. I prepared for arguments that never happened. And since that was an exhausting process, I also played a lot of mindless computer solitaire.
Looking back, it’s not a surprise that some of the creative projects I really wanted to do (like this book) didn’t happen. They got lost in the blurry corners of my distraction, which in the end didn’t change anything. Thinking about “the next ten miles, or ten days” only left the present untended.
So here’s my 2017 commitment to focus.
Focus on the present, and not on what might happen. I’m (gradually) setting some boundaries between me and the streams of news, opinions, and distractions coming at me. It means creating new habits to limit the time I give to the things I can’t control (practice acceptance). It mostly means beating the twitch to check social media every five minutes to make sure I’m not missing anything. If the news cycle of the last 24 hours (while I tried to write this blog post, ironically) is any indication, the heightened emotional state of the world isn’t going away any time soon. I can wait for the summaries of the daily disasters.
Focus on what matters most. None of that means that I’m planning to disengage. I don’t like to talk about New Years resolutions (most of which are broken by now, anyway), but as the new year approached, I did set some priorities. Because if I want to do something good this year, I have to stop trying to do everything. I can’t invest deeply in every one of the world’s needs. I can’t write every book I want to write. I can’t explore all six countries on my “must see” list. I can’t be in three places at once. And so I’ve made some choices. I know what matters most to me, and if I’m going to invest in them, I’m going to have to let some other things slide.
I’m going to try to treat every day as if it’s a conversation with a person who only speaks French, in which I have to try to explain how Obamacare changed, but did not fix, the American healthcare system works.
(Yes, that really happened; it involved a lot of bad drawings on napkins.)
Except no, learning French still one of those things that has to slide.
Je suis désolé.