Moritz was schmoozing with the Danish girls in the alburgue’s dining room. I sat peacefully in the living room, in an ancient upholstered chair that was hemorrhaging horse hair. Sipping a cup of hot tea I silently thanked Jesus-God-and-All-the-Saints that in spite of my hideous shin splints I managed to hobble into Pamplona.
My shins were throbbing. I did not know at that moment that Pamplona would be my Pain Peak. That meant whenever something was hurting me, I would rate it by saying something like, “Nowhere near Pamplona,” or “Very close to Pamplona.” Pamplona Pain. It became a thing.
My reverie was interrupted by a guy I saw working the room. He handed out business cards like candy on Halloween. He spoke English and looked about my age. He slowly made his way toward me. There were no other chairs so he crouched down next to me.
“Hi, I’m Sammy! How did you hear about this albergue?” The minute he said “about” I knew he was Canadian. He thrust out his business card. It turned out he was a painter and a photographer. (I Googled him when I got home and found out that he is a very, very good artist.)
“I’m walking the Camino for my mum,” he said. “I want people to be aware of her disease!” It was a common disease and honestly, I wondered how anyone living in North America could not know about it.
“Well, that’s great,” I said. “Good for you!” Then I took a deep breath, sighed, sipped my tea and closed my eyes. These are all actions that I hoped signaled, “And now please allow me to go back to my silence, contemplation and tea drinking.”
Obviously they don’t mean the same things in Canada. In Canada they mean, “Please give me an exhaustive list of all your achievements.” Which he did.
He listed the years studying abroad in Europe, his solo exhibitions, his awards, his grants, his international accolades. “I’ve saved the best for last,” he said impishly. I held my breath.
Oh, Pamplona Jesus! Was he knighted? Do I have to call him “Sir Sammy?” Or is there some kind of intergalactic honor of which I am not aware?
“I’ve given a TED talk! Do you know what a TED talk is?”
“Have you heard one?”
I was silent for a moment.
Here’s a wonderful thing about walking the Camino: you can be anyone you want to be. You can even make up your name. You don’t have to say what you do or where you went to school or how much money you make or where you live or how many kids you have. It’s a lot like being back in kindergarten where all that matters are a kid’s name, their lunch and what toys they’ll share. It’s pretty much the same on the Camino except the toys are things like carabiners, nail clippers and flashlights. Nothing else matters.
So I was just Debra. There was no email signature to explore, no identity or role to live up to. No achievements to stand on. I loved it. I didn’t want to ruin that but I had to answer him.
“Yes, I’ve heard several TED talks.” I paused. It was now or never. “I’ve even given one.”
He gasped and in a gesture of sympathy clutched his chest. “Oh, a TEDx?” He said “x” in a disappointed tone as if he just found out that a scarf was polyester and not silk.
Now here I must explain the hierarchy of TED talks. At the top is TED, below that is TEDMED, and below that are local TED talks called TEDx. If your talk is really popular or good it will get put on the TED website which is considered a very big deal.
Sammy blinked in astonishment and then said, “Well, mine was TEDx but it’s up on the TED site.”
“So we’re both TED speakers!” he said in a loud voice. I cringed and forgetting that I was not a tortoise, tried to retract my head into my body.
The irony here is that my TED talk is about claiming your trauma simply as an experience and not taking it on as your identity. And by extension I think the same thing about awards. You had the experience of receiving one. Perhaps the journey leading to the achievement shaped and changed you. But you are not your awards. You are you. Nothing else matters.
Over dinner I told the whole story to Moritz and explained how uncomfortable I was. To my relief he had never watched a TED talk. He thought maybe he had heard of them.
A couple days later we stayed at an albergue that served a community meal—everyone at one big table. Moritz and I sat down and suddenly there was Sammy standing at the end of the table. He spotted us.
His mouth morphed into a giant megaphone. No, no, please God, no!!!!
“Do realize that you have not one, but two TED speakers at the table?!” he announced.
Moritz snickered. I gave him the side-eye and elbowed him—hard.
Well, thank Pamplona Jesus, God and Santiago that the wine arrived right at that moment. The subject of TED talks was dropped like a dirty napkin.
It’s a funny thing about awards and achievements. It’s all fine until we take them seriously. I learned long ago that when I based my identity and self-worth on the glory, once the glory is gone, so am I.
I’ve been at many death beds and I can tell you honestly people don’t say, “I was teacher of the year!” or “I won an Oscar,” or “I gave a TED talk!” Most people if they are still conscious, look around at whoever is there and say, “Thank you. I love you.”
I saw Sammy only once more on the Camino. By that time Moritz had returned to Germany and I was alone. Sammy was sweaty, unshaven and upset that the Camino was “so damn long!” He felt that the group he fell in with didn’t walk fast enough and weren’t serious about it so he left them behind. His feet were a mess and he wasn’t even sure why he was doing this. He was in so much pain—Pamplona Pain. I just listened.
I bet that when his mum is near death, she won’t mention his achievements. She will look at him and say, “Thank you. I love you.”
Nothing else matters.