The Soap box and the Sandwich bag

On my second day of walking on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrim path to Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain, I had some real challenges with my backpack which was very full. The issue was not so much about the weight of the bag which I would be carrying for a distance of 20 to 30 kms a day for the next 20 days of my walk, but rather that it was bursting to capacity, to the point that I felt like the proverbial Christmas tree. Attached to the elastic threading on the outside of my pack, I had my sleeping bag, a pan (the traditional long Spanish bread), which I had broken in three and put in a plastic packet (so it had gone from being long and unwieldy to being short and bulky), and a long sleeve top I had taken off as the day warmed up. Attached to one of the side straps, I had another long sleeve top and my trouser leggings which I had zipped off.

However, it was not long before I had to stop and re-arrange the items, because the bread kept pushing the sleeping bag out from the threading, leaving it dangling below the pack and swinging vigorously from side to side with each step I took! After numerous attempts and some success in re-attaching all the bits and pieces in a more suitable way, I resolved that when I arrived at my overnight rest stop, I would see what I could discard from amongst my things before setting off on the next leg of my journey.

Later at the albergue de peregrinos, (the pilgrim hostel), I took everything out of my backpack and laid it all out on a big table so that I could decide what I could get rid of. My ‘Two Oceans Marathon’ drawstring bag which I used as my ‘evening bag’, had broken, so it was logical to dump it – it just meant letting go of the 56 kms I’d sweated to ‘earn’ the bag and the uncertainty of what I’d use instead to carry things around at night (when I wasn’t carrying my full pack). Everything else in my pack seemed essential for my journey.

After becoming what my mother refers to as ‘ruthless’, I eventually decided on three items to leave behind. Two were articles of clothing (T-shirts) which rationally I knew I could leave behind because I had other clothing, but it was still difficult to part with them.

In having to ‘let go’ of these two T-shirts, I recognised how attached we are to our ‘stuff’ and how unconsciously or consciously we rationalise this attachment as ‘need’ or ‘contingency planning’ because “what if I unexpectedly need those items further along in my journey and I no longer have them?”

Is it really sentimental attachment or a sense of safety and comfort that keeps us holding on to things, while we literally struggle under the weight and volume of what we carry with us? How do we step courageously into this paradox – aware that we surround ourselves with that which is ‘known’, be they tangible objects or our dominant patterns of thought and behaviour in order to bring familiarity and certainty to the journey? And, at the same time appreciate the extent to which the possibilities for how we engage in and with of our onward journey are limited by us carrying what we have always carried? What if we are able to begin to let go of the extra weight as we travel through everyday life?

So, back to my backpack, and the letting go of a third item which required much more thought and soul searching….

I was carrying with me, as I had on two previous Caminos, a plastic soap box in which I stored my soap. On the one hand, the use of the soap box was logical, the firm casing would keep my soap clean and contained. On the other hand, because of its casing, the soap box would retain its size, despite the soap itself becoming smaller with each use. So the question was: could I discard my soap box and what might this ‘letting go’ require of me?

At a practical level, I decided that I could carry my soap in a plastic sandwich bag I had with me. This however required reconciling myself to the real possibility of my soap becoming soft and losing its shape and the sandwich bag becoming a slushy mess.

Beyond this practicality, I was very curious about how the soap box and the sandwich bag could be seen as a metaphor for how we tend to engage with life, particularly in and from our ‘soap boxes’. Typically, through our habits of thought, belief and behaviour, we build and constantly reinforce a firm casing around ourselves which we present to the world around us. Can one understand the ‘soap box’ as a metaphor for our identity, or at least, the ‘outer’ identity that we put out into the world? An identity which is to a greater or lesser extent driven by who I believe ‘I must’ or ‘I should be’, in order to be recognised and valued by myself and others; an identity which contains, protects and provides certainty, but also constrains?

At the same time, how much of what we present to the world is a reflection of us ‘getting on our soap boxes’ – being wedded to specific ideas and approaches and feeling the need to convince others and, more so ourselves, that our approach is the only/right approach?

What if we were to step out of our soap boxes and be less driven by who we thought we ‘should be’ or who we believed others expected us to be or who we always had been? What if we were to step down from our soap boxes and our need to dictate to ourselves and others how things ‘should be’? Outside of these constraints, could we venture into the terrain of the ‘sandwich bag’ and the possibilities it might hold? Not only to the possibilities associated with vulnerability, but also a greater potential for spontaneity, flexibility and authenticity. And, if we sense the freedom and liberation this could bring, how do we start stepping into it?

For me on that afternoon in the village of El Cubo de Tierra, it was about asking myself what my pilgrimage was really about – reaching my destination in a ‘soap box’ way (with structure and certainty)? Or being on a journey with less fixed ideas of what it should be and how I should be in it?

And so the next morning, I stepped out onto the third day of my Camino, with my soap in the sandwich bag…. accepting the potential for mess, while at the same time appreciating that ‘liberated’ from the soap box, my soap would be more malleable and, more significantly, that in the sandwich bag, its shape and form would be a much truer reflection of what it actually was.

So my questions to myself and to you are:

How much of what I showed the world today was my ‘soap box’ self? i.e. driven by who I believe I must or shouldbe or who others expect me to be?

  • Where was I in the ‘sandwich bag’ i.e. more open, flexible and authentic?
  • What kept me trapped in the ‘soap box’?
  • What enabled me to ‘be’ in the ‘sandwich bag’?
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