Start Where You Are, Do What You Can.

Two years ago today I started my yearlong quest for spiritual enlightenment, a sense of belonging and to find “the thread of humanity that binds us together.” I found it, it’s there. No question—we are more alike than we are different. People are wonderful, people are compassionate, people are good people.

I shared that first year with you earnestly, sometimes desperately and self-indulgently and always with a bit of slapstick comedy thrown in. This last year, I’ve stayed away, processing and observing and reeling. As promised, I moved to Istanbul. As expected, I kidnapped a kitten off the street and made it live with me. I write, I edit, I dabble in yoga and Turkish suffixes. I make new friends and try to hold on to the ones I left in New York. All in all I’m doing great— confident as I strut around Istanbul in my skinny jeans, last night’s sock bulging out around my calf. I haven’t changed much. I promise I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to introduce you to someone really special and really hungry.

This is Farhan. He is my friend and like most of my friends in Istanbul he is Syrian. And like most Syrians, he had to leave his country. He is fantastic, also like most Syrians I’ve met in Istanbul. He is warm, sincere, creative and fluent in absolutely fake French. He makes movies; he gives the best hugs, and will make you laugh about one second after you meet him. He makes jokes about the time the Security Forces arrested him and his father, and that other time he was kidnapped and beaten by the opposition in a case of mistaken identity. “I can’t win!” If he’d had a chance to finish his studies, he would have been an archeologist by now.

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This winter was really hard for him. The love of his life, also Syrian, also a shining example of a human, was given residency in France and had no choice but to leave him, for now. Their separation was unbearable to watch. He felt, “like I’m in a cage,” and at first, he rattled the bars, jumping from one impossible option, to another—“I’ll go by boat, I’ll go through Bulgaria, I’ll go back to Syria.” And then, he was defeated. For several months work and home were the only places he could be found. Dragging him out for tea or dinner was nearly impossible.

A few weeks ago something changed—Farhan became inspired. He’s traveling to Gaziantep to make a short film there, he’s reaching out to people, he’s asking for help and he’s on a hunger strike. That last detail is scary. He has now not eaten for two weeks. At the same time he is still going to work, still making jokes and still giving great hugs, though there’s noticeably less of him to embrace.

The reason for Farhan’s hunger strike is multilayered. The ambitious and immediate reason is to bring attention to and stop the seige in Syria , in areas like Daraya, Douma, East Harasta and Moadamiyah. Without access to medical supplies or food, the people in those areas are dying. If you follow the news, you know that today aid was set to be delivered to besieged areas, but without the support of Assad’s government the international community got scared off. The last time humanitarian aid got close enough to Daraya government Air Forces shelled the area where civilians had gathered in anticipation of the convoy.

Farhan knows that if the starvation of more than a million people won’t move the world to act, his own hunger doesn’t stand a chance at convincing any government. What Farhan really wants is to get people to acknowledge what is happening in the besieged areas in Syria. “I just want people to know.”

Farhan’s hunger strike has had a different effect on me. It showed me a tangible, inescapable consequence of my own inaction. He had told me about his strike  just two days after he started, almost two weeks ago.I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t do the little that he asked me to “maybe you can share it on social media, something, just to let people know.” I thought about him every day. I talked about it with  our mutual friends and my mom but I didn’t do anything because I thought I couldn’t. I’ve been hibernating. I don’t even remember my Instagram password, and is Twitter still a thing? I’ve hardly been on social media let alone built an engaged audience that could have any impact. SoI did nothing, while Farhan’s already slight frame became slighter.

Two days ago, my friend Claire was over for a visit when Farhan dropped by. He looked so small but still bright-eyed. I offered him juice as as Claire and I sipped wine. The last time Farhan had been over he had wanted a glass of wine, but the only bottle I had at home had a measly few sips left ad I was too embarrassed to offer so little.  So we both drank beer, which neither of us really wanted. And here he was again, in my living room nursing an orange juice while Claire and I drank from our full glasses. I don’t like to think of myself as an asshole, but I really felt like one in that moment.

To not offer Farhan that half (quarter?) glass of wine because it was less than what I wanted to offer is similar to me not doing anything to help my friend because I felt my power was equally miniscule. Neither time did I confer with Farhan to find out if he thought it was enough.

I know Syria seems too far away to ever really reach you, but if it happened to me, it can happen to you. I hope it happens to you. My Syrian friends, including Farhan and his accident-prone, bubbly baby sister are as close to my heart as the ones I’ve met in New York, Paris or London. They’re the kind of people that make me look good by association. I need them, I love them and I wince anytime someone in the news discounts their worth, denies their right to seek refuge and education or treats them with disdain and suspicion. And I worry for their families, their future, and their ability to just live.

Today I remembered one of my favorite sayings—the law of floatation wasn’t discovered by contemplating the sinking of things. I realized that I have you guys, I have this sacred space and this amazing community that I know will listen. I can tell you about this person who is so dear to me and I can ask you to do what I couldn’t do until today—whatever you can, no matter how big or small you think it is.

Can I ask you to do one small, tiny thing right now? Can you leave a comment for Farhan here, or on the Unlikely Pilgrim FB page? It can even be an emoji, a small token acknowledging that you know that you are more alike than you are different. Maybe you have a question for him about Syria, about his hugging technique or archeology. Ask away, and I will pass it along.

Maybe you can take some time, like I did and find your own way to support the friends you didn’t know you had halfway around the world.

If you want to do more, here’s a note from Farhan:

“In solidarity with the besieged areas and to highlight the suffering of the people inside Syria, we, a group of Syrian youth are on a hunger strike until the siege is lifted in all regions in Syria. This protest may be without any result if it is not accompanied by media and civil support from people in all countries who can put pressure on their governments and help the Syrian people who have survived through 5 years of war. The hunger strike is one of the means of solidarity with the besieged areas. There are many other ways in which you can show you support for the Syrian people. Spread the word through social media, by publishing articles that show what is happening in Syria, making videos that show your solidarity or by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins to put pressure on governments to help break the siege in Syria. “






The Final Battle. As Always, With Myself.

Tomorrow morning Anya, Christine and I will be reaching Cruz de Ferro, the highest point of the Camino. There beneath a tall metal cross is a hill of rocks, photos, jewelry, notes and other bits of someone’s life that mean much more than the object could mean to you or me . For many this is the climax of their Camino and they carry their burden, often just a stone, from home to leave it here, like thousands of other before them. 

Since I started walking more than a year ago, I’ve been collecting things with the intention of leaving them at the cross– a piece of Quartz from a dusty road in India, sea glass from the beach in Japan, a broken bit of pottery from Turkey, a heart-shaped rock from Tuscany. I can’t believe the moment to let them all go has come. I don’t want to. It’s strange that these lifeless bits that have been weighing me down have become so important to me that I am now afraid of what will happen if I let them go, just as I had always intended to. What does that say about the bigger things I’m carrying with me that have been a heavy load? How will I part ways with them tomorrow? I carry a giant clunky old thing of guilt with me.I still remember the name of the boy, Ryan who had asked me to the dance at camp and who I rejected in the most cruel way. “I just don’t like you,” I remember my eleven year old self saying and twenty years later I still wince. 

As a teenager I made fun of my grandfather’s English when he was visiting us  from Russia. Not only did he catch on to his grammar mistakes and my obnoxiousness but worse, he felt embarrassed rather than angry. He died two years ago and though I showed him the greatest love I was capable of the last time I saw him, that teenage moment of callousness will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

A week ago my most beloved furball, Mourka died. I picked her up on the streets of Russia when I was eighteen and she was three weeks and for fifteen years, through boyfriends, college, apartments and roommates she was alongside me, sleeping in my bed, curled up in my lap meowing for affection or food. I blame myself for not taking her to the vet more often, for not being there, for leaving the task of saying goodbye to my equally heartbroken parents.

I carry the guilt of leaving my husband to go in search of a life purpose that didn’t include him, for taking things and people that didn’t belong to me, for giving away what I should have held on to, for betraying myself over and over and over and one more time after that and for the times I betrayed someone I loved, or worse, someone who loved me. 

The wall above the fireplace of the albergue where we are staying tonight is covered in quotes from spiritual teachers, their photos and oddly enough momentos from some of the most important places I’ve been to this year, a flag from India, the wish granting slips of paper from Japan, my favorite Rumi quote. Looking at this wall, sitting among my fellow pilgrims who all have their own crosses to bear, I feel like we are a few hours away from summiting Everest, united in our quest, but alone with our fear and our courage.

I am desperately afraid of what tomorrow will bring but more than the painful throb of letting go and the seemingly impossible task of forgiving myself, I am scared that I won’t be able to do it, that the giving away of rocks will be just that, a token, a gesture, like the Monday resolutions we all so gleefully vow to keep on Sunday night, never really intending to do the work that it will entail the next morning. 

Before going in for the night, I caught sight of half the arch of a rainbow disappearing into the clouds, earth and sky connected by a prism of light. It felt like a promise that the physical journey, the stage where my life has been unfolding will connect to something much bigger, bridging the gap between wanting and having, between the person I’ve always wanted to be and the one that exists here, imperfect and overwhelmed, between the possibility of what could be and the inevitability of that which already exists. I hope that I can lighten my load just enough to walk across.

What’s In a Name? Misheard Lyrics On the Camino.

A fellow pilgrim snapped this photo of Christine pointing out Venus to me, as we watched the sun set over the wheat fields of the Meseta plateau, or as we call it– the Bread Pan. Two weeks of round the clock contact can make or break a friendship, luckily for us it has been the former and we now know and accept each other in all of our imperfect glory. 

We spend most of our days singing, belting and humming. Sometimes it’s a chorus of a Beatles song at dawn, paling into silence along with the stars once we realize the chorus is all we actually know. Occasionally Christine puts up with a rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise, and unfortunately I do know all of the words to that gem. Ever so often we will manage to go through a song in its entirety, like Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You  though this is also unfortunate for the pilgrim whose broken body won’t carry him out of earshot fast enough. We have sang everything from Gershwin to Rihanna in varying degrees of off key-ness and it has been oh so fun.

One of my favorite things about C is her complete inability to properly identify the names of musicians, actresses, or songs while still enthusiastically conjuring up what she must suspect are completely wrong identities for all three. Luckily, I have become an expert at deciphering the actual person or lyric or song title so that when she says “Trombone Guy” she means “Piano Man.”

The other day when we were trying to think of a Michael Jackson song to sing she beamed and said “Annie Get Your Gun!” Not so much the name of a song by the King of Pop as the name of a Wild West themed musical from the 1940s.

“You mean Billie Jean?”


That actually happened. I know, it’s amazing. Both, that she confused an 80s classic with a mid-century one and that I was able to figure it out. Allow me to demonstrate the workings of one sun stroked  pilgrim’s mind.

First, C though of Jeanie instead of Jean. Jeanie became Janie and that brought her to Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Because Christine loves musicals more than she loves Aerosmith and Mr. Jackson combined, the word gun triggered the memory of show tunes and sharp shooting Annie and yet another gleeful, completely inaccurate title. To know her is to love her. 

It’s wonderful to be able to read someone that well, and in just two weeks no less, because really our friendship, though promising was still in its infancy before we came here. That gift, the gift of timetraveling to sisterhood via unapologetic musical butchering is one I’ve only ever found while hobbling my way to Santiago. 

The Gift.

For once the morning was clear and it was even warm enough to ditch my parka and rain jacket as I walked through a maze of narrow streets on my way to the 68th temple on the Shikoku trail. The temple was all but empty this early and a drowsy cat seized the opportunity to laze on the moss-covered steps leading up to the bell tower. Nearby, a cherry tree was showering the ground with blush petals. At the Main Hall, two women in their fifties were halfway through the Heart Sutra. I like reciting the verses simultaneously with other pilgrims, so I stood next to them and read the English version to myself. Even though they don’t match up timing wise, I still feel a sense of unity as the rhythmic Japanese syllables form a hypnotic background for my internal English drawl.


The two women moved to the Daishi Hall while I was still on the Kigan-mon prayer, asking for harmony and happiness for all.  By the time I was ready to join them again, there were two other, younger women in front of the Daishi Hall, though not so wrapped up in spiritual training. They were taking photos of each other while behind them the two pilgrims were bowed over in prayer. One of the girls made an exaggerated pose and a peace sign and I wanted to hurt her for it. I am neither a pious person, nor one who has gone a day without breaking some rule of conduct, but I decided to be offended, both, because I felt they were intruding into the private space of the two pilgrims and because I now had to wait for them to be done taking photos so that I could lose myself in the words, and not in contemplation over how my butt looked on their iPhones.

Now fuming, I sat down on a bench, making sure my crossed arms and death stare conveyed my impatience and disapproval. At the same time, the other Masha, the one who set out walking around the world, sacrificing four toenails in the process all in the quest of greater love and compassion was gently whispering (she never raises her voice, not even at herself) “What are you doing? I thought we talked about this.”

She was right. We had agreed to stop judging people a while back. We also agreed to stop acting entitled. Or bitchy. This was a public space, where anyone could and should take as many pictures as they like and those of us who are bothered by it need to suck it up.

While being gently chastised by my higher self, I began to feel ashamed and as all four women walked away, I made a promise that would last no more than five minutes to send only love and understanding in the direction of the two budding photographers. The next temple was only a short climb of stairs away and when I got there for a second I thought I had taken a very short trip back in time— there were the two pilgrims in prayer, and in front of them the two women snapping photos of themselves. Equally Groundhog Day-esque was my reaction. Again, I sat down on a bench, proudly wearing my discontent on my face, even as I began reading the sutras under my breath. “ With the deepest respect for the Buddha’s fundamental vow of universal compassion, I will establish myself in the pure conviction that we are all one, and not apart.” Except for those girls, they get blacklisted. “As a disciple of Buddha, until the end of all future time I will not have thoughts of ill will.” Totally, but with the exception of the two newest additions to the aforementioned list.  “ With my whole heart, I offer this prayer. May all people be happy and may every being in the world be benefitted equally.” Damn it. I had to admit defeat. I was being a jerk in the house that Buddha built with all of his compassionate wisdom. And now I was using bad language as well.

In my annoyance, I had rushed through my prayers, finishing just ahead of the other women. I was in front of them as the three of us walked over to the office to get our pilgrim notebooks stamped. And then I did something really tiny, something that probably went unnoticed by everyone but me—I paused and pretended to look something up in my guide thereby letting the two other pilgrims be first in line to get their stamps. It was a pinprick of a gesture, but it was the first thing I thought of to try and make amends for my foulness and tip the scales of the morning back to happy.

Once they finished taking care of pilgrim business, the women came up to me, smiling, oblivious of the battle that had raged mere inches from them not ten minutes before, and asked me where I was from, expressed their disbelief and their awe that I was doing the whole circuit alone and on foot and then one of them reached out her hand, holding a friendship bracelet, with pink knots in the thread creating a pattern of hearts. “Ossetai” she said, gift. I reached into my bag and found one of the small strips of paper that pilgrims drop into boxes with wishes written on the back and hand out to anyone who has offered you an ossetai. I handed her the white slip, bowing my head slightly.  In return both women reached into their bags for their own wish-granting bits of paper. Then we took a selfie. And then one more with me wearing one of the women’s conical henro hats. Before we said goodbye, I received yet another gift– a bright red scallop shaped charm with a green bell. And just like that, my hands full of unwarranted presents, my lukewarm heart melted.


It’s possible that had I not let the women go ahead of me things would have turned out exactly the same, but it’s much more likely that had I taken my turn at the stamp office, fair and square, I would have kept the dissatisfied look on my face and left before either woman had a chance to so much as breathe in my direction.

I have seen this a million times—taking one baby step beyond the standard baseline of human decency that is expected of me creates a force of goodness that is inequitable to the energy I’ve exerted. I believe that making the choice to extend that tiny bit of kindness paved the way for everything that came after, and I don’t just mean the warm exchange I had with the two pilgrims. Their giddy gift giving rippled out through out the day. It stayed with me as I sailed past the two girls with the camera in the parking lot, still snapping away. It made me want to sit down on a grassy lawn on a riverbank to watch baby ducks and a puppy in a pink striped sweater for no other reason than that it brought me joy. I hold the feeling of gratitude  brought on by the ossetai responsible for the little ceramic pilgrim a woman gave me on the street, the green tea offered at the next temple and the two bean paste filled mochi that another pilgrim bought for me.

In the name of full transparency, I have to admit that the feeling almost wore off by the end of the day as hotel after hotel told me they were full. I was sitting on a swing, in the dark and in the rain eating the mochi I had been saving for when I’d find myself in warm room. The small inn that the swing belonged to looked brand new and warm. Though I rang the bell repeatedly, no one came. Looking at the amount of worn, muddy boots gathered at the entrance, I figured that they were full and so were ignoring any calls this late at night. While my mouth was busy with the sugary chewy sweets, and my heart was sinking as my brain tried to think of a place to safely pitch my tent, some other part that I am not entirely sure belonged to me was busy convincing me that a day like this could only end well.

I sat glued to the swing for almost twenty minutes, but then as I am sure you’ve already guessed, the front door of the inn swung open. Two minutes later, as my host was leading me up the stairs to a clean, cozy room, he told me that it was the last bed he had available. “You’re very lucky,” he added. Don’t I know it.


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