Faithful to their end.
I passed a newly-born calf on my walk today. He tumbled headfirst out of his mama’s black and white body, and was immediately attended to, properly washed by her rather large and not-so-gentle tongue. How she learned to do that, I have no idea. As far as I know, there are no Lamaze classes for bovine mothers. Then again, I remembered the morning when a human mother—one of the young students in the residence hall where I lived—gave birth to a son in the bathroom all by her lonesome. No one even knew she was pregnant. Somehow she made it happen, no Lamaze for her either.
After the tongue bath, mama cow gave her boy an encouraging nudge, and like a drunken sailor (who has ever really seen one of those?) he struggled to use those spindly-looking-sticks-of-legs to get up off the good earth onto which he had been spilled out. First the two hind sticks, one up, then its twin. There was a moment of triumph, rear wheels deployed, and then a sudden ungraceful collapse.
Undeterred, the novice pilot did a flyby, and geared up for a second attempt, with the insistent mooing encouragement of his maternal instructor. The same method was employed, one stick followed by another, but this time it locked, and with his chin on the ground he looked like one of my sleepy-headed nieces barely able to get her head off the pillow and out of bed in childhood summers at the beach house.
Then the calf found the lever for the front legs, and he was up—amazingly--on all four wheels. Well, barely. A feather landing on his furry new back might have reversed the success. But still, it was an impressive triumph over gravity, which incessantly cajols, wheedles, commands every thing to bow to its horizontal will. He stood, proud and a little shakey, and murmured a squeaky word of delight. His mama’s voice followed, a long, thunderously loud, approving moooooooooooo. (Spanish, for moo.) Which must have frightened the hell out of the boy, because he collapsed like a pile of tapas.
I stayed a while longer, and eventually they moved him outside the birthing barn, where, exhausted, he immediately fell into a sound sleep. Being born takes a lot out of a guy, but winning your first battle over mother gravity takes a toll as well.
I resumed my walking. Today I crossed the 200 mile mark, and witnessing the newborn was an unexpected grace that brought me such ineffable joy. It came at a moment when my pinky toe on one foot was once again complaining, and the strained muscles of my back chose to pile on their grievances as well. Oh, ok, guys, I hear you, and maybe I did bring too much stuff in the backpack, but look at the gift we’ve received from our travels.
This walking itself is such a grace, isn’t it? An app on my phone says that I have walked 394,672 steps so far, which sounds so ridiculous. First of all, really? How does it calculate that? Secondly, how many steps have my ugly feet taken since the very first one when I was only months old? A trillion? Or does that number only apply to the measure of light years to the stars that shine over our heads, and to the stock worth of Apple?
But it is a grace, this natural locomotion of the human species. We struggle to master it in our infancy (much more so than a calf), and when we lose the gift—a turn of the ankle, broken bones, neuropathy, amputation—it can be challenge and an awful handicap. We take it for granted that we can walk over there, carry our sleepy little girl up those stairs, bound whooping and hollering into that refreshing surf. And with every step we forget the triumph over gravitas, the great miracle of our bodies and of our will.
When you walk on the surface of the earth under your own power and with the energy you have stored in your body, you have a different perspective about who you are and what this is all about. Every time the terrain ahead grows vertical, you feel it in your muscles, in your skin, in the beat of the blood that flows through your veins, in the parchedness of your mouth, and in the emptiness of your stomach’s fuel tank. And when you step gingerly down a slippery, muddy, rock-strewn trail in the middle of nowhere with not a soul around, you realize that one mistaken step could send you tumbling down on your rear end, or worse, on your face, and that you could lose not only your dignity but maybe your good health (or more dramatically, your life).
We are dependent creatures here, boys and girls, and even though we can purchase a ticket on a chair in the sky that races the sun at 600 miles an hour, we are not the gods we appear to be. We are no different than the snail or the slug or the brilliantly colored caterpillar, or the cat or dog or horse or cow or the fly that is annoying me right now as I write this--who simply are what they were created to be, who do what they were meant to do. We human animals often forget the primary reason we were created to be—grace-filled spirit creatures meant to express and be bearers of the Love that is underneath all of this.
When you walk the Camino, every step is a prayer. Prayers sometimes pointing to specific things—a cure for an illness, gratitude for a child, peace for a nation. But prayer is at bottom an acknowledgement of our limitations and our belief that we are part of something wondrous that the loving Mind has made. Prayer is an act of loving and of being loved. So today I will pray approximately 39,000 times, and as often as I can, I will try to make each one consciously. For you, who read this, for each of the people named on the slips of paper in my backpack, for the woman who served me a coffee con leche this morning, for all the people who cross my mind and heart today.
And especially for one sleepy little calf, whose first steps made me realize what a blessing is every step of life.
one road, or a multitude? no matter. i will walk them faithful to their end, with whatever strength I have for that is all that can be asked.
Michael D. Prihoda