2011-08-09_13-49-31_587The past 2 months I have been on a pilgrimage from the Camino de Santiago to Edinburgh to the Porch Stage of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. I left for Spain and the Camino in early August, to walk 350 miles, through forests, mountains, plains, vineyards, hillside towns, farms, and cities… to find grace in my life. It has been an exciting five years, music has turned my life upside-down. And I like the view from here. But I also lost my Dad, who passed away last year, and my only daughter has flown the coop, to attend college in Edinburgh, Scotland. I released my second album with more of my own original work and field recordings of family. I am keenly aware of time passing and while I love change, some of the changes have stretched me and my heart and asked a lot of me. So it seemed a good time to take a solitary walk, to be alone with my thoughts and to let the internal shifts settle down a bit.

I imagined that I would walk and think deep thoughts on the Camino, an ancient route originally for getting to what was thought the end of the earth in Finisterre, Spain. It became a popular Christian pilgrimage route when a vision of St James appeared in the sky during medieval times, and there are relics of the saint in the cathedral in Santiago.

What I didn’t realize was that I would be almost entirely occupied with just walking. The image and lingering sense I have of my pilgrimage is simple: the sound and sight of my feet crunching along at a steady pace, a sound I heard for up to 8 hours per day for 25 days. Funny how we take our feet for granted. They do so much for us. Mine carried me through a lot of different kinds of terrain and weather – and while they certainly 2011-08-19_13-43-17_454suffered (my sister says the photos I sent her of my feet made her eyes bleed J), and I went through four pairs of shoes trying to get comfortable – they just kept going.

2011-08-23_08-56-53_757Each day I thought about tending my feet, about where I needed to go and how I was going to get there, about where I would set my foot down moment by moment, where I could find water and food, and at times where I could get help because I was tired and hurting. I am very careful to say that while I think it is important to know that the pilgrimage involves pain and discomfort, I would not change a single moment of it. Not because I romanticize pain, but because I learned from it and I would not trade those lessons or experiences for all the comfort in the world.

My husband joined me for the last 75 miles and that brought additional joy to the walk as I teased songs out of him for most of each day. He has a huge repertoire of old songs in his head from his childhood camping on the Choctaw River with his family all summer long, where they gathered around the campfire to sing every night.

There are a lot of memories and stories from my pilgrimage but I’ll close this part of my comments here with the end story: as we started toward Santiago, I was deeply moved and actually quite sad to realize my pilgrimage was coming to an end. I wept as I entered the cathedral and practiced the handful of rituals that pilgrims have been doing for centuries. I wanted to continue walking every day for the rest of my life, and of course that is what I bring home with me. The realization that my pilgrimage has just started and that I am walking the earth, considering the central question of my existence: How do I live a life of value, that makes me worthy of the fact that I breathe, that I am alive and enjoying the miracle of the life that surrounds me.

If you’d like to see photos from my pilgrimage, please visit my Facebook photo album.

I returned to Berkeley to a whirlwind of life-in-action. I helped my daughter get settled in her second year of college in Edinburgh and began preparation for a full Fall of music and performances, especially excited about a show at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Soldier Stories Show for veterans on this auspicious 11-11-11 Veterans Day.

Cass at Volcano Oct 2012First, though, my daughter…I learn so much from her. I learn how to love, how to be a mother, how to be a friend. She is a brave, resilient, smart, funny, kind and beautiful young woman. I can hardly believe my good fortune. We survived the rebellious teenage years and now we can hang out and read Calvin & Hobbes and laugh, walk and talk, and share our lives. One amazing evening I played the Tarot with her and her roommates, four vital, beautiful women. I like the Tarot deck I have because basically you look at an issue from 10 different perspectives with people who know and love you – how can you not gain insights? After playing the cards for each young woman they invited me to pose a question. My question was: How do I break down the internal obstacles to fully expressing myself in music? These four wise women ended the session advising me: Music is your passion and spiritual journey, it is not work. That message hit right home, because being by nature a workaholic, I can take anything pleasurable and make it a grind :-).

Home then from Edinburgh and onto a mad dash to prepare for my CD Release at the Freight, Hardly Strictly and other shows in the very fine company of Jim Nunally and our All-Star Band, aka John Reischman & the Jaybirds.

I’ll admit to you, but don’t tell anyone: I have a crush on Warren Hellman. I love him dearly for how he entered into a life of music sort of later in life, as I have done. He inspires me and he makes me laugh too, always ready with a good joke. Warren has also brought music into the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through the founding of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free festival in Golden Gate Park. You will find CEOs sitting on the grass with homeless people, old folks and young ‘uns, everybody feeling good and enjoying a day of music and community.

I got a call earlier in the summer asking if I would like to perform at the festival – for those friends who are not into roots music, you gotta understand, this is like being invited to the North Pole by Santa. It’s just magical and a huge honor.

HSB11-4146It takes a tremendous amount of work and skill to pull that festival off – there are north of 600,000 people who come through and scores of bands, it’s outside in a public park. The HSB folks from Slim’s have it nailed. We were made to feel welcome and provided meticulous support for our show. My hat is off to all the folks who put that wonderful festival on. I am grateful.

While getting ready to go onstage I was feeling a bit nervous, though of course Jim and the band are so talented, so positive and experienced, I knew we would be fine. Still I have not been at this very long and I get nervous sometimes! We started the set and a few songs in, I see Warren walking up the steps onto the side stage where there are a couple of rocking chairs set-up for those with backstage passes to see the action up close. He looked wonderful – relaxed, dapper, at-home. He took a seat in the rocking chair and grinned up at me. And all of a sudden I was singing on the front porch with friends and family, and my nerves slipped away. We sang our hearts out and just had a great time.HSB11-4185

And I thought as I was up on that stage about my journey from St Jean Pied de Port at the beginning of my pilgrimage, to Santiago, to Scotland, to San Francisco, from solitary walking to singing with friends onstage with some of the finest musicians in the world. Thank you life, thank you God for all these blessings…let me be worthy of them.

(I’d be happy to fill you in on the pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago, if you want more information just email me at nell@nellrobinsonmusic.com).