Every now and then something or someone stumbles across our path that changes us. At the time it feels like an accident, a random act of the universe. Looking back on these moments with hindsight, however, they begin to look more like destiny.
The question ‘What book changed your life?’ always leaves me bewildered. There are so many books that have moved me, inspired me, made me babble like an idiot to anyone who’ll listen. But changed my life? That’s a big ask. It turns out Sinning Across Spain is one of its answers.
When I say this book ‘changed my life’, I don’t mean in a fireworks and fanfare way. I happened across it a few weeks ago while researching Spain, the setting for my current work in progress. The premise appealed: one woman, walking poles and backpack, 1300 kms, and 43 days on a Pilgrim (camino) road in Spain carrying other people’s sins.
I’m not a great traveller. I get anxious. I’m monolingual and have no ear for language. I’m not great at charades. I’ve never been to Spain and I’m not likely to get there anytime soon, so I opened Sinning Across Spain in the hope I would become immersed in the Spanish landscape and culture. Ailsa Piper, the writer and pilgrim walker, gave me that and so much more.
I started reading Sinning Across Spain in the throes of a mini-crisis, which was causing me to behave extremely badly. I was losing sleep, snapping at my family, getting cranky with doing normal writerly things, feeling incredibly pressured and overwhelmed as a result of over-committing myself. Reading about Piper’s internal process of undertaking the camino road gave me reason to stop a moment and take stock.
Piper shares so much. Yes, there is the changing landscape, her interactions with other pilgrims and Spanish natives, the food, the architecture, and the glorious, glorious Spanish language, but these are underscored by deeply personal and intimate revelations of her experience. Her meditation on the nature of sin, what it is, how it looks, how we experience it, how we justify it and are caught out by it, is moving and strangely comforting. Piper shows us that in all our ‘aloneness’ we are never really alone. The Big Ideas of Compassion, Forgiveness, Nature, Beauty, Love are right there, available for us to touch, if only we take the time to notice them in our daily experience.
Through difficult ways
you'll arrive at the stars..."
Toward the end of her journey she hits a low moment and a stranger fortifies her with food and advice: Remember, you don’t walk the camino, the camino walks you – ‘muy, muy importente’ – very, very important. It struck me as I followed Piper’s struggles and joys throughout the Spanish countryside that the camino road doesn’t only exist in the fields, pueblos and mountains of Spain. It exists within many experiences in life, it is a metaphor for the harder roads we choose to travel not because they are the easiest way, or because they will directly benefit us, but because we know they are the right way.
Sometimes hard choices present themselves. At these times all those sins Piper carried – Pride, Selfishness, Sloth, Greed, Envy, Lust – can drive us to behave in ways that inevitably harm or devalue others for the sake of saving ourselves. When we rise above these drives, when we see the value of the more difficult road, when we sacrifice our own needs for the greater good, we chose the camino way. We choose to let life ‘walk’ us, instead of us ‘walking’ it. This book helped me make just such a choice, and to do so without resentment or regret.
That choice was to put my plans for my writing career on hold for 10 months while I put the majority of my energy and time into a voluntary position convening the annual conference for the Romance Writers of Australia. It was a very difficult decision to make, one I had been really torturing myself over for a number of weeks. But reading Piper’s book helped me realise this project is my camino road. And while I’d love to travel to Spain and walk 1000 kilometres to experience the camino in the traditional sense, it’s not necessary. I can do that journey in a different way. With a shift in attitude I realised I can attend to the lessons provided to me as I struggle with the emotional, mental and physical demands of the project.
In adopting the camino as the lens through which I chose to walk through the next ten months of my life I felt weight lift. And the decision was fortified by a reinforcing moment of synchronicity.
Whenever I start a new novel I start a new notebook, with the title and the month I started it written boldly on the front cover. I started just such a notebook in September just gone and have been carting it around with me in the hope inspiration and ideas would strike. The day I made this decision I picked up the notebook and noticed the date I’d written six weeks ago.
Next year. After the conference. It made me laugh. My unconscious knew I wouldn’t be working on that novel until I’d seen this commitment out. Nice to know some part of me has a clue. As I set off on my camino road I ask for one thing only, a traditional blessing:
Buen camino. Good road.
Sinning Across Spain by Ailsa Piper, published by MUP was read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge #AWW2014