I started walking the Camino de Santiago on New Year’s Day. Known as a pilgrimage across Spain, the Camino dates back to the eighth century. Millions upon millions of people of every faith, hue, and nationality, have hiked the month-long (or longer) trek to the city of Santiago de Compostela where St. James the Apostle is reportedly buried. It is considered a sacred journey in search of meaning and transformation. It could not be more timely on the heels of 2020.
Medieval pilgrims started from wherever they lived. Modern pilgrims in the midst of a global pandemic can start wherever they live too. It’s called a virtual Camino. And it’s still 480.8 miles.
This morning, frozen snow crunches under our boots. My legs burn. On my first day, I discover that I am an ill-prepared pilgrim. My running pants feel ridiculously thin against the bite of the Chicago winter. I forgot my scarf, and the wind is making my eyes water. I am grateful that my companion, my now nine-year-old son, is unphased in his new winter coat.
My dear friend in Toronto is also a fellow pilgrim. We compare notes via the virtual Camino app. We had planned to meet in Spain to do the abbreviated Camino (one week) and celebrate her 50th birthday this coming June. But the coronavirus, as you well know, had other plans.
Overhead, a bunch of geese honk as we make our way around Washington Park. Hundreds of them graze in the snow-covered baseball fields. My son slides across frozen puddles, delighted. I try to imagine the Spanish countryside with all those rolling hills and lush green pastures. The Pyrenees mountains and blue skies. Fresh mountain air and the heat of the late summer sun.
My tired, frosty breaths bring me back. My first day on the Camino is not at all what I imagined. Neither was 2020. Or the start of 2021, for that matter. The barren trees, etched in white, remind me of all that has been lost. I have to remind myself that much has been gained too. Like you, I had to let go of expectations and plans. I had to navigate an unprecedented amount of change and uncertainty. And, in the face of multiple crises, I had to learn how to rise.
One such turning point—a dark night of the soul if you will—comes to mind as I walk on. It was the night when peaceful protests first swelled around the world in response to the unjust death of George Floyd. My son was finally asleep, and I had read all the news I could handle. I checked my work email one last time and saw that I been asked to write a statement on behalf of my employer and the thousands of diverse school leaders we’d trained over the past 20 years.
I’d been leading our crisis communications since schools closed in March, but that night, the request hit an inexplicable swirl of anguish and fear. I fired off an email and told them no.
If I had been honest, I would have told them why. The reason was simple. In George Floyd, I saw my son. My beautiful dark-skinned Haitian son. I saw my best friend’s teenage son. I saw my neighbors and their sons. I saw their husbands, brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles.
That night, I wanted to run away from it. Let it be someone else’s narrative. Not mine.
Within minutes, as only grace allows, my best friend texted to say she needed to talk. I told her to come over. I didn’t want to be alone. We sat socially distanced on my front porch and cried.
When I told her about my email, she listened with compassion. As an African American mom, CEO of a large nonprofit, and a member of the mayor’s cabinet, my friend knows how to call the shots. “I understand,” she began. “You can only do what you feel that you can do.”
She looked up at me and even with her mask on, I knew she was about to lower the boom. “But I want to remind you that you have words, beautiful words, and you know how to use them.”
I said nothing. I hated that she was right.
Unable to settle my mind, I drafted a two-sentence statement at one a.m. I condemned the tragic loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I commended education leaders who drive real change in Black communities and advance equity in our nation’s schools. And I called for a deeper commitment toward building schools that foster a more just world.
To my surprise, I felt calm, centered. I slept soundly. By week’s end, over three thousand people would affirm our statement. But what mattered most to me was the promise I made to myself (and to my son) that night: I would no longer be afraid to use my words. To be honest. To own my narrative—and to work tirelessly to change our collective narrative as a nation.
Little did I know how many more statements I’d be writing in 2020. It hasn’t always been easy but keeping my promise has felt expansive. Spiritual scholar and noted psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald May, writes that dark nights of the soul bring meaning to our lives. Rooted in the teachings of St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, he defines them as an “ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from our attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely.”
The darkness, he suggests, allows God to do what God does without us always knowing the reasons why, let alone how our hearts will be transformed. These times of re-alignment, of seeking deeper purpose and connection with the divine, happen over and over again in our lives. You cannot plan them anymore than you can control the outcome. Or accurately predict how walking 480.8 miles over the next year will change you.
All you can do is keep stepping into the “more” of who you are invited to be. That is my prayer for 2021—for me, for you, for all of us.
As my son and I turn toward home, I am eager to log in my first 2.36 miles. We make hot chocolate and play chess on the living room floor. A sense of peace washes over me. I am content to begin again, to seek and to be found once more.