Saturday, 23 May 2015

Blackbird Fly

This is how things work here.
Oliver´s been at our house for a week or so, helping out with pilgrims and housework, as well as helping out  at Bruno´s  albergue. Ollie´s a camino hospitalero of long experience. The dogs love him, he´s tried and true. I was finishing a manuscript, he was free, and we have a room where he can sleep.Everyone is happy.
Work started on our remodeling/rebuilding project. Dust everywhere, but pilgrims coming out of the woodwork. Ollie and Paddy dealt with pilgs, I finished the book.
We went to San Anton de Castrojeriz to check on things. Ollie is going to be host there in the months to come. Fred came along. He donated many bucketloads of donkey doo for the garden, from his projects in Carrion de los Condes. He brings along Tess, a California pilgrim who makes beautiful portraits from trash washed up on beaches. I commission a portrait of me, a Queen of Camino Trash, out of pure vanity, because I really cannot afford portraits these days...
My friend Marta in Madrid wants to help furnish the new apartamento at the Peaceable. She has a huge and wonderful historic house in the middle of Madrid, full of beautiful things. Me and Oliver drove dwn on Thursday. Tess the artists needs to get home to California, so she comes along. We stay at Marta´s house.
I realize I have left my handbag, ID, telephone, and cash at Peaceable. (what an idiot!)
I use Tess´s telephone to call Paddy and Fred. Fred goes to Peaceable, gets the handbag, drives to Madrid (where he was going on Friday anyway)Leaves messages with Marta that he´s arrived, very late...

Meantime, Ollie and Tess spend a long afternoon in Madrid, seeing the sights. I have no money to go to the big Van der Weyden show at the Prado, so I fall asleep and snooze for hours. Marta deals with realtors, corporate coachees, and emails.. I dunno. I was asleep!
I wake up and chat with two very flash ladies who want to put Marta´s wonderful house in a magazine of Euro Executive Listings. I am reminded of how lucky I am to know Marta!
And then two ladies and a little boy from the neighborhood, here to visit Monty the Dog. We give them beer, wine, Sunny Deelite or dog biscuits, depending on specie. Finally they go, and me and Marta open the Rueda.
Tess arrives. Then Oliver, with a Madrilena peregrina he met a month or so ago... she showed him over the city all afternoon! We all sit on the terrace, and dear Marta feeds everyone on pinchos of hummus, crackers, apricots, corn chips, salsa, sliced turkey breast, tapanade... way beyond the call of duty.  She makes up beds for all of us strangers, she fields phone calls.
Fred calls. He´s in town, he has my bag, he´s a couple of blocks away in a bar. It´s late.
Me and Marta clear off a bed for Tess, put on sheets and eiderdown, hope it´s enough. The wind is up.
Me and Ollie walk up to Las Portazgos en Nino Jesus, to meet Fred and Carmen. (Carmen lives right across the street.) Fred´s got my bag, God bless him... he´s saved the weekend! We have a vino on the terraza, he shows me the latest guitar, made for a maestro in Holland. The shallac is not quite set, but the instument glows from within as I touch the grain, smell the wood... and from the next table rises a young man.
A student of classical guitar, from Caceres, in Extremadura. He asks if he might. He sits down and touches the guitar. He tunes it. He clutches and strokes and caresses... Por favor?
I tell him, after my long day of foolishness and Lambrusco: I do not want to hear this guitar. I want to hear you, Carlos. I want to hear your heart in this guitar.
And that is what happens there, in the patio on Nino Jesus. He puts his heart in there, and people go quiet, and he sings, and the guitar... it is only a baby, but it more than sings.
It is beautiful, and it is midnight. And after a bit of Falla and a bit of Montoya, he sings a song that´s been speaking to me since the birds of passage returned to Moratinos this year, since I started going into my own back yard after midnight to look up into the stars, hearing birds sing in the dark...

Blackbird singing in the dead of night 
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting
 for this moment to arrive. 

Anodyne, yes. But beautiful. At least 50 people stopped to hear and enjoy.
Real life is made of this.
People find these things on the camino, and marvel at them. But they are here all round the bigger, greater world, too.
We just have to open our hearts, and our homes, and our minds.
Even in days that start out so stressful..

We are only waiting for these moments to arrive.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Someone Important

No one will be offended if I say that Barbara was my favorite cousin.
She wasn’t just a cousin to me. She was a role model. Having known Barbara when I was growing up is a major reason I became a successful adult.
When I was very small, she was the cool teen-ager with big blonde hair. She took me for thrilling horse rides, hanging on behind her on her big Arab horses.
When I was an awkward, horse-crazy, lonely adolescent, Barbara lived in the little house up on Gravel Bar hill, where our grandparents once lived. She had horses, chickens, ducks, a mule, and fabulous Afghan dogs. Animals loved her, they trusted her as one of their own kind. Barbara made me welcome at her house. She showed me how to handle and groom and ride the horses, feed the chickens, scythe down the high grass. She showed me how to butcher a duck, how to weld metal, how to pour a beer into a glass, how to shift a Jeep into 4-wheel drive, and how hold down a goat who didn’t want to ride in the back of a Jeep.
Hers is the only bathroom I ever visited that had an injured swan living in the bathtub.  
Barbara knew how to do everything. She didn’t wait for help to arrive. She didn’t worry about her hair or fingernails. She showed me the best way to get something done is to do it yourself.
She didn’t stay at home. She went out into the woods and had adventures. She dug for hidden treasures in Cook Forest. She helped Bobby Dale relocate his rattlesnake collection. She took apart engines. She dug out springs and shifted boulders and strung electric fences uphill and down, through dense woods. She put roofs on houses. She knew how to drive a steamroller! 
Barb had more than her share of suffering and bad choices, but she somehow made the most of it, she kept a positive attitude. She took care of her mother, her daughter, her family, with an endless generosity. She worked hard. She earned every damn thing she ever had.   
She wasn’t too proud to dig in and get dirty and get the job done. And she taught me that. It’s because of Barbara’s example that I am the person I am now.
My cousin Barbara was my hero. She still is. I know she’s not gone very far away, and I will see her again sometime soon. She told me so, the last time I saw her, when I held her hands in mine and told her goodbye. Her lovely, strong hands, a little calloused.
Hands a lot like mine.  

My cousin Barbara Burns died last week at her home in rural Pennsylvania. 
This will be read on Saturday at her memorial service. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Bed Beneath the Griffins

I turned the key in the great iron gates and looked up into the stone arches. Griffins looked back at me, and ladies' faces, and leaves, delicately carved.
A ruined 15th century monastery in the heart of Old Castile. Overgrown, ruined, Gothic as hell.
And I have the keys!
I spent the whole day at the little albergue at Monasterio de San Anton, cleaning windows and pulling weeds and planting flowers and herbs. I brought along a borrowed generator and an industrial vacuum cleaner. Everything worked, but I am not sure I made a noticeable difference.
It's a jungle in there. A ruin. It took a couple of hundred years to get into this state. What do I think I'm going to achieve in a few hours?
The little pilgrim shelter, built against the far wall of the former church, opens on the first of May, staffed with volunteer hosts who stepped up when I put out the call. I'm doing this under the aegis of FICS, the International Federation of the Camino de Santiago -- I wrote about them in December, when we announced our Manifesto to the world. Taking on this scruffy, no-hot-water, no-electricity place is one of our fundamentals. We want to keep the trail simple and stripped-down, running on faith and charity and lentils, and this place is iconic, it embodies so much of the history of the Camino. It was a Christian monastic center, a place where people came for shelter and counsel and most of all, healing.
And not every modern pilgrim longs for a swimming pool and a four-course meal at the end of the day's march. Some of them want starlight and a fire, salad, a little music maybe... only 12 pilgrim beds. And griffins in the arches overhead.
Today the beds are what grabbed my attention, more than the spider webs or God-knows what brown things were left last Fall to molder through the winter in the trash bins. I fired-up the little generator and switched on the vacuum and swept each mattress, both sides. The mattresses are at least 15 years old -- One was dated 1999. They are bowed, stained, drawn- and bled- and dripped-on, torn all along the edges and worn on the corners.
We like to think the pilgrims who stay at San Anton don't care about these details, but I know I care. I just spent several days walking on the Camino de Madrid. I slept in a couple of places similar to San Anton, and the mattresses were shot. Even after 27 kilometers and three glasses of tinto, sleep was achy, itchy, and awful.
San Anton needs a lot of things -- a good water source, maybe a solar panel or two, and a landscape designer  (a talented gardener could make San Anton into a paradise). All would do a world of good without impinging on the fundamental scruffiness that makes the place unique.
But what San Anton needs right here, right now, is 15 new mattresses.
Good mattresses, 80 x 120 cm., heavy duty ones, run about 130 euro apiece, delivered.
So you, kind reader, can finance a mattress, so San Anton this year can offer a good sleep along with a good rest. If we move fast, we can get them installed before the big pilgrim waves arrive in late May.
The dollar and the pound are strong, you know. You can probably afford it.    
I will put the names of each donor in the little window-slot inside the arch where the camino passes through, where monks once left food for late arrivals, and where pilgrims now leave prayer requests and notes of thanksgiving.
A nice lady in South Africa already sent me the money for the first one.
You can donate by using the PayPal button on the right. It's not tax-deductible, but your reward will be the blessings of hundreds of sweetly sweeping pilgrims. And your name will lie beneath the stony smiles of  ladies, leaves, and griffins, with the camino itself a couple of steps away.
So romantic. And practical, too.
not San Anton, but much like it. Even the sky is the same!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Rough Patch

It's been a hard few weeks at the Peaceable. It's not been very peaceful.
Harry put his face in a fox hole.
Bella dog attacked Lulu the greyhound, and Paddy intervened. Lulu and Paddy had to be stitched-up.
My son Philip the lawyer is still looking for work. He is feeling low, and there is nothing I can do to help him. He's got to walk that lonesome valley by himself.
Barbara, my favorite cousin back in USA, is losing ground against cancer.
Bella attacked Lulu again and tore out all her stitches.
The animal control officer put Bella under a 14-day quarantine. She has to be separated from the other dogs, which made little Ruby very sad. Moving around the house and planting the garden are logistical challenges with dogs attempting to sneak past and reunite.
Bruno came back from Italy on April 1, and opened up the albergue for the season. He then went down with diverticulosis. Emergency surgery, recovery time..  and back in Moratinos, an inexperienced, shy young hospitalero was left to keep the place going. I played backup. The pilgrims were patient. After a couple of days we had hot water, and got the stove working!
We had pilgrims here at Peaceable, one of whom was profoundly strange.
Bella got loose and attacked Lulu yet again. Paddy intervened. I intervened, this time with a big stick. Lulu's neck was torn open in a new place. Paddy has several new punctures and tears to add to his total.
Bella has an appointment to die on Saturday morning, soon as the quarantine is through.
A guy was working a backhoe on Calle Ontanon yesterday, and he obligingly dug a Mastiff-size grave out back.
Paddy's hands are wrapped in white-and-blue bandages, and his heart is busted in a million pieces.
I am numb, keeping things going. The house is cluttered, I cannot keep up with everything, and Paddy cannot help with a lot of things. I feel like my hair is turning gray.
Bruno is back from the hospital. His son his here to help him now.  
I am almost finished with the big book-editing project.
There are only two more openings on the San Anton hospitaleros list... volunteers are finding me now. It's coming together.
It all will be better after Saturday. Life will get easier. It always does.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bloody Animals

Elegant, gentle Harry is really just a hound dog, a ruthless killer. When the fox took off almost under his nose, he just had to chase it. Pad and I watched from afar as Harry and Bella tracked the crafty creature across a wide field and into a tree-lined ditch, jinking and jiving, yipping with pure doggy joy. (Lulu was on the lead, and could only moan.)

We  saw the fox cut across an adjacent field. He gave 'em the slip, we thought.
We walked on, watching for Harry and Bella to catch us up.
Twenty minutes later came Bella, with flecks of blood on her legs and chest and muzzle. Oh my.
We climbed up onto the tumberon to see where Harry was. In the distance he was coming, head down, tired. Evidently the fox we saw run away was not the fox in question. Or some other fox had taken the fall for him. Because when Harry came round the corner, he looked like something from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
I do not like my dogs killing wildlife. Foxes have as much right to live as any other critter, but these dogs were born and bred for chasing them down. Lulu mixed it up before with these same foxes, not very long ago. Everyone came out of that encounter without any bloodshed, far as I know. But this time, Harry's face and paws, neck and muzzle were covered in fresh bright blood. It was not all fox blood. Harry's face was bleeding, his mouth was bleeding, his paws were, too. It looked like maybe the fox won this fight.

We got everyone home. We sponged down Harry, put some Betadine on the obvious injuries. I phoned the vet. He was out purging sheep. We'd have to wait til 4:30 p.m., bring him in then.
And we did.
By then, Harry's slender nose was swollen to a shnozz. Blood crusted his front end. He was sad, crying, limping a little. He knew he needed help. He jumped right into the back of the Kangoo.

Veterinary care is a great cultural disconnect between Spain and the United States. In America, when your dog is shredded by a fox, you drop him off at the vet's office and wait in anguish until they phone you up with the outcome and the bill. Here in Spain, the person who brings in the patient is the person who serves as surgical nurse, anesthetist, and handler.

Pet ownership here is not just cuddling and feeding and sweetness and light. It is pinning down the flailing, screaming creature who was your pet, watching him pant and twitch and fight as the second dose of tranquilizer takes effect. It's holding his head while his eyes roll and his tongue lolls and his blood and saliva dries on your hands and face and the walls of the exam room. It's looking someplace else while the doctor swabs the Betadine, runs next door for sutures that will dissolve inside a dog's mouth, while the doctor says "look, look how deep this bite is, the goddamn fox was going for his throat!" while he pumps a puncture full of black iodine with a plunger meant for printer cartridges.  

The Bar Deportivo is right across the street from the veterinarian's office. I wonder if the vet gets a percentage of all the pet-owners who head over there after their pets take on foxes, automobiles, rat poison, or the neighbor's bull. Or just the vet.  

Here in Old Castile, if you own a dog or cat, you assist the vet during "procedures." You give the follow-up injections to your animals -- intramuscular, or just under the skin -- donkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits. It's a given. You leave the vet with a little bagful of IV needles, the anti-inflammatory, the antibiotic, the vitamin, the one to make him sleepy. You learn quick how. Now I know how, too. I think this is a better way. Pet owners are so much more responsible this way... you see your pet suffer, you suffer yourself, you are hands-on part of the cure. You cannot just hand over the animal and a credit card, and pick him up when it's all over. It's your animal. You have to take care of it.

It took a full hour to stitch Harry's muzzle and gums and shoot him full of healing chemistry. He'll probably be OK, but he's going to hurt for a while. He's a mess. His stitched and shaven skin is sprayed with blue antiseptic and silver scar-forming stuff. He looks like a clown after a four-day bender. God knows what he feels like.

The vet carried him out to the car, laid him on a beach towel in the back. Once home, Paddy and I carried him, supine on the same towel, into the barn, onto the busted old sofa. The other dogs came to sniff him. His eyes rolled. They turned away and asked where their dinner might be.

I have to shoot up Harry Dog with two kinds of medicine for the next three days.
The vet didn't give us a bill. Not til Monday, he said. Not till we see how he's doing.

We will probably see that fox again, the vet told us. Tough as nails, foxes. His own terrier dog has its face carved up like this with some regularity. It's just awful, he says, but that's nature. That's life. That's dogs, foxes, pets, animals in Spain.

We signed up for this. It is how it ought to be. We stopped on the way home to buy him some soft, canned dog food. And for me, some Albarino, Galician white wine. Sustenance. Anesthesia.

Poor old Harry.
Poor old me.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Finished Men

They are dark figures, staring out of black-and-white pictures in black robes and collars, owlish spectacles, jowls, bushy hermit beards, adolescent peach-fuzz. They're men from another world, another time, far away from here.
They could be ghosts.
They are from towns I know, many of them quite near: Carrion de los Condes, Terradillos de los Templarios, Villada, Grajal de Campos, Fromista, Becerril. Others are from Camino towns: Banos de Montemayor, Villadangos del Paramo, Puente la Reina, Puebla de Sanabria, Zamora.
They are priests and monks and friars: Jesuits, Augustinians, Capuchin Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, Hospitalers of St. John of God. Their names are Juan, Manuel, Alejo, Froilan, Miguel, Claudio, Tino, Victor, Damaso.
They are teachers and preachers, students, philosophers, healers and most likely sinners, too. Boys from here, some of them grown up, some of them very young indeed.
All of them are dead.
All of them are martyrs, killed for being clerics.
They were killed for being part of the Spanish Catholic church, a monolithic institution deeply loathed by many underclass, under-educated, underprivileged Spaniards back in the 1930's. Their soutanes and birettas set them apart, and when civil war broke down the old order, their uniforms marked these men for death.
Now, 80 years later, their pictures hang in honored places in the churches where they were baptized, back when they were baby boys, before they grew up to take vows. They are honored for their sacrifice, if not their holy lives -- there is no living memory of any of these men. It's assumed they all were beyond reproach.  

They are "Beatos" now, blessed, by papal decree in 2013.  They are not saints yet, but violent death made them special.  Death by firing squad, neglect, long imprisonment. Torn apart by mobs, thrown from moving vehicles, left to starve in a cold room. Many of them died together, and were buried in the same ditch, in places with names like Paracuellos de Jarama, Villecas, Algodor, Escalante Crossing.
They may not have died for the Gospel of Christ, but they died for their religion.
Martyrs, murdered for their faith, their souls gather under the altar in heaven and cry out "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord," or at least that's what St. John heard them saying, when he visited there.
And here we work and live and walk, surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. Here as Holy Week comes at us, contemplating the martyrdom of Jesus himself, and all the martyrs in the news -- Christians, Muslims, Martin Luther King, Jr., freedom riders, Meredith, Malcolm X... politics, religion, oppression, and vengeance, stupidity and violence so common they've become banal.
I wonder if Claudio and Victor and Alejo cried to God for mercy when the knock came on their door.

Even Jesus cried.
Not even God's son got a pass when the time came to die.        

Thursday, 12 March 2015


Monasterio de San Anton, image taken from a website I will credit asap

The fading sun shone through a weird ruined rose window, made up of letters T. Taus.The symbol of St. Anthony. The moon rose quickly as we walked in what once was a church.
The Monasterio de San Anton is two kilometers out of Castrojeriz, and almost too Hollywood to be for real. It's a shattered church, roofless, with a monumental arch that every pilgrim must pass through on the way into town. The monks used to leave food out there for the passers-by who arrived after the gates had closed.
But the monastery went out of business 200 years ago. It was turned into a farm, its once-cohesive layout is now subdivided, fenced-off, sliced and diced into odd corners and bricked-up doorways. Somehow, ten years ago, a local foundation got hold of the part that once was the church. They installed a six sets of bunk beds in the sheep barn that once was a sacristy, and a camp stove and dining table alongside. They opened a bare-bones pilgrim albergue in the ruins.
There's no electricity and no hot water. There's precious little running water at all -- the spring the monastery used 400 years ago is still the only water supply, and it needs a good digging-out. No one's much disposed to that, because nobody really owns the place.
It's pretty much what most pilgrim albergues were like, 20-some years ago, before the Camino de Santiago became a money-making proposition.
Nowadays, hotels and albergues and hostels offer pilgrims heat, laundry, swimming pools, privacy, full menus and safety lighting... for a price most happily pay.
This old place operates on donations. It's open all day. Pilgrims who stay there have to put up with what they get -- cold water, candle light, a scruffy yard full of weeds and rubble, a dinner of salad and pasta and canned fruit, and probably a job washing-up afterward.
But a bed among the ruins... how romantic! (No matter if the mattress has too many miles on it.)
And after the sun goes down, there's a spectacular show of stars above the broken pillars.
There's an energy to San Anton. You can feel it humming by the gate, where the bees have a hive under the jasmine.

The Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago, as one of its initiatives, is going to staff the place. We (I am on the board of directors) can't criticize how built-up and commodified the camino has become if we are not willing to set an example ourselves. And so we will.

We visited today, me and Juan Carlos, FICS vice president and head of everything Camino in Astorga. We looked it all over, we asked all the important questions, we took notes. And we marveled a little, too. It is a magical place.
We're putting the documents together, and he'll take it all to the board after next week. It looks like a go. We need to raise about 15,000 Euro to bring it up to code, and it's a demanding post for hospitaleros. But it's the real deal. Total camino. Really exciting.  

March came in with a bright, warm, dry, fake spring. Things are beginning. After that long wait in the darkness, after the lonely cold, even when I really don't trust the light, things start to happen. The seeds planted in the dead black ground start germinating.

I am not sure how much I am supposed to say. I don't want to expose the tender shoots to too much light too soon. Things grow very slowly in this latitude. The papers are not signed yet.

But I have waited and waited, and worked, too.

priests round here have their work cut out
I haven't blogged because I am very deep into an editorial re-write on a very large book, a reportage, a true-life story of the crew of a World War II Pacific gunboat. Compelling, frustrating, hurry-up-and-wait stuff... How to keep the reader interested between the blasts of gunfire? It's challenging work, very time-consuming. Now that the albergue in Terradillos is open, we have almost no pilgrims again. And just now, that's a good thing.

Because we are starting things.
This summer we will -- God willing -- have at least one priest here in the house, serving Mass every day in Terradillos or Moratinos, in English or in Spanish. We have the blessing of the bishop and the support of the de facto pastor in charge of camino ministry for Castilla y Leon. It's an outgrowth of Camino Chaplaincy, a program pioneered by my friends John and Stephen in Santiago de Compostela. For the past two summers, volunteer priests have offered Masses and confessions in English at a dedicated chapel in the great cathedral, the goal of the Santiago pilgrim. This year, the program is expanding out onto the path itself... and because we have a spare room in the house, and a rather empty lineup of altars in our part of the Way, we decided to give it a shot.

Our first priest, an Irishman with experience in missions, arrives this week for a look around the place. We will feed him on suckling lamb and Ribero del Duero wine, and hope he likes the look of our scruffy little neighborhood. (Paddy has promised to be nice, and to keep off the Wittgenstein.)  

Oh, and we are deep in negotiations with Jose Antonio, our friendly builder. We want to turn the old kitchen and storage room and toilet into its own little apartment, but my vision, alas, outstrips available funds. I must compromise, or pick a winning lottery number, or find another builder.

And so grow the green shoots in Moratinos.
If you want to serve at San Anton, and you are serious about making the trip and living pretty rough for a couple of weeks, let me know in a week or two. I will start putting something together.

Thank you all for standing by while I sit in the dark.
I am a depressive old thing. But I find some pretty important things in there, if I shut up and just be still.  Because eventually, things change. The light comes on.
Just look at what blooms.