Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Walk in the Dark


I just walked in the dark down the road to the labyrinth, trying to settle my Christmas dinner deeper down into my stomach. I am keeping more fit this winter.  
I saw a star fall down. 
It´s been a very full day. The neighbors came over after Mass for a champagne toast and snacks.  A pilgrim was at church, so we brought her home with us. She was alone for Christmas Eve, but not now for Christmas day. She´s from New York City. She doesn’t  speak Spanish, but we made her  welcome. 
We ate an enormous pan of lasagne with fennel seeds in the sauce. Wonderful. (there is no ricotta to be had here, so I subbed-in smashed-up cottage cheese and mascarpone…wow!)  Greens from the garden, and some  Caldo Gallego from Maria de la Valle.  We drank dark red wine from Valdeorras, a gift from Laurie up in O Cebreiro.  Joaquin and Luca, Maria and Nancy from New York, Oliver and Paddy and me.  Christmas.  No presents, but lots of gifts.
It seems a lot more than average numbers of people are sending holiday greetings this year. Times are scary, maybe we feel the need to hug a little closer...  
There are some fine people in my life. 
We got a tree this year, a plastic one. It is very jolly, it makes me happy.
I am working on a book for AP, another sad and harrowing story. Kim has started production on “Furnace Full of God: Love and Death in a Camino Village,”  my newest book.   
Paddy is well, considering. He´s had a bad cough for months now, the doctors can´t figure it out so they simply say “wear a scarf,” or “don´t have ice in your gin & tonics.”  Paddy is sure this is going to kill him, but he´s been saying that stuff ever since I met him.  He is slowing down, and he cannot see so well, and he can´t always hear what´s going on, or maybe he´s just not listening. He is still dearly beloved.  He got a beautiful new black hat for Christmas, and he won an enormous basket of goodies in a lottery draw at the local tavern.  What more could he ask for?
Oliver is here with us again this winter. He is a great help to us.  The house stays much cleaner when he is around, especially as I am working many hours on manuscripts.                                           
Peaceable Projects is quiet these days since the Ditch Pigs´ big gig in Portugal.  I hope in 2019  to get the Memorial Grove better marked,  identifiable and accessible.  I meet in late January with FICS members who usually know who has pressing projects we can help with. 
So there is plenty to do now,  and the future is wide open.  And this year has been excellent, if a little hard on our hearts…   Harry Dog and Jean-Marc Kitty both  went off to A Better Place, and left big holes in our household.   
I am very privileged. My stomach is full, my house is warm, my neighbors are friendly. I can walk out in the dark alone and watch a star fall, and know I am loved.
Thank you all for making me so very, very rich.  

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Rain in November

Paddy and Reb, at Stone Boat, Rabanal


A voice cries in the wilderness... A longtime reader wrote and said "Please write a blog entry!"
He asked Please. So here goes.
I am not in a writing kind of mood these days, even though there are a few things happening that are blog-worthy... especially knowing so many blogsters will write about their every eyelash, for audiences of thousands.

It´s raining hard in Moratinos, the pellet-burner, draped in cats, is humming away in the corner. We are down to three dogs (two of them ours) and four cats (two and a half are ours.) Someone suggested I write about how I name our animals, and why so many of them are from two particular villages in the mountains west of here. All our critters have human names, except perhaps Juan Carlos Gato, who I call Punkinhead. (Juan Carlos is not my cat, he just lives here for months at a time and is involved in a deep intimate relationship with Gus, in whom we hold a half-share.) It´s complicated. And probably very tedious to those who are here looking for Camino Tipz.
Ruby, Judy, and Laika 

 I know much of our fame is built on our connection to the Camino de Santiago. I still enjoy individual pilgrims a lot, we are still listed as a winter camino bunkhouse, but in the last few months I find myself ever more bored and ill-disposed toward the whole Mystique, the Mystery, the Tourist Commodity That Is The Camino. I am not suffering fools gladly, especially the ones who want to be my friend so they can somehow monetize me. It´s Camino that people want, but I don´t have a lot of it to give right now. That is why, I think, I´ve pulled away from blogging.

I am putting my writing chops to work for the Associated Press. I am helping an investigative reporter turn their long-term projects into book-length narratives.

The Ditch Pigs continue. We meet up on Sunday outside Oporto. The weather forecast says rain, heavy rain, and showers. We shall see! On the other side of that somewhere is a trip to Grado, Asturias, to wrap up 2018 at the albergue there. Milio, the magical guy behind the whole operation, has it all under control... I am not really sure what my role is, hospitality-wise. But I´ve been recruiting volunteers for next year, and the Power of Social Networking is working in my favor. I only need about four more people to have the whole March-through-October rota covered! I think that is why FICS keeps me around. That, and because I am American -- they need a few non-Gallegos so they can keep the "international" in the title.

We have a lot more Spanish volunteers this year, and Dutch. And one each from Bulgaria and  Uruguay!

The apartment and house in Torremolinos are sold, thank God. I am not sure why that was so difficult for me, knife-wielding burglars notwithstanding.

Ollie is here, right through December. His presence is directly due to a timely reading of St. Paul´s Epistle to Philemon. Being a Benedictine means spiritual disciplines like "Lectio Divina," a close reading of obscure scriptures and holy books. Which are by their nature demanding, character-wise! I am driven more and more to silence, and solitude. It looks a lot like my old nemesis Depression, but it is not.

At least I don´t think so.

Paddy is slowing down, slowly. He has a cough that the doctors do not take seriously, because he´s had it for so long. He cannot see very well, and his dicky retinas won´t let him fly in airplanes, and he doesn´t like walking for more than a mile or two. So if you want to see Paddy, you have to come here. He is still very much himself, but a bit worn around the edges these days.

And now I must go and make a pumpkin pie, and a pumpkin roll... Thanksgiving Day is Thursday, and we have company coming, and 16 tons of roasted pumpkin in the freezer! 



Monday, 13 August 2018

We Go To Hell and Meet Machete Man


It was an 8-hour drive to Torremolinos, but I took a wrong turn and ended up in Cordoba. By the time we could see the high-rises and smog against the sea, the sun was way up and the autopista was steaming. We made it past Malaga and through the tunnel to the sudden turn-off for Torremolinos. Paddy has family down there. Lots of working-class English people do.
Torre was the place to be in the 60s and 70s, and Brigitte Bardot and Frank Sinatra shot movies there and posed with cocktails and fishermen. Spain was sunny and cheap, and some say the package holiday was invented in Torremolinos – weather-weary English and northern Europeans flooded in on charter flights, bought little studio flats in concrete towers, spent their Golden Years in little ethnic enclaves here. Many never learned a word of Spanish.
Torremolinos in 1966

Torremolinos was an early bloomer. The rich and glossy soon moved on to Marbella, and Torre headed downhill and down-scale. Think Daytona Beach, Atlantic City, or Margate. Still fun, but scruffy, too. Sunburned binge drinkers and the people who prey on them.   
Apparently, even on a weekday, everyone in the world wanted to go to Torremolinos, too. Traffic was backed up onto the six-lane highway. We joined the start-and-stop queue, inching along to a tangle of roundabouts and underpasses. I saw people in a car ahead waving their arms and shouting, then another carload doing the same. It was hot. I switched on the air conditioning and rolled up the windows. I was just in time. A cloud of hornets descended from the shade of the underpass and flowed over our car.  
I looked at Paddy. He looked at me. “Welcome to Hell,” he said.
I should not have laughed.
We had lunch with an aged relative in shocking decline. Something had to be done, and soon. The reason we went down to Torre was real estate. The ailing lady asked me to sell her apartment for her.
She sent us over to see it with her niece.
It was in Aries Block, a dark canyon of a high-rise development with a once-groovy zodiac theme. There´s a little bar outside the front door that caters to Danes. Any hour of day or night, a collection of stoned Birgits and Bendts is parked in plastic lawn chairs, watching life go by.
“It´s pretty bad,” said the niece, jangling the keys. “Squatters lived in there for a couple of years. We just now got them out. It stinks in there.”
Paddy looked at me.  “What the hell,” I said. We stepped into the elevator.
We stepped out of the elevator, and up to the front door of the apartment. A man was there, shirtless, jiggling, jangling something against the door handle. He was a burglar. We asked him what he was doing. He said he was opening this door, that this place belonged to his uncle who had died, and because it was empty and his place downstairs was crowded, he was moving in. His child needed a place to live, he said. I have a child, he said. He said a whole lot of things very quickly. He was scared, angry. Probably high.
The niece speaks fluent street Spanish, and that´s a good thing. She also has a steel backbone. And steel other things, too. She told him to go back downstairs and we´d forget about this.
He told her to open the door if she had keys.  
“I´m not opening anything long as you´re here,” she said.  “This man is the uncle,” she said, pointing to Patrick. “He´s alive. This place belongs to him. He´s got children to think about too.”  (Oh great, I thought. Give him someone to hate!)
“If you go inside that apartment, I´ll be back here with my friends,” the man said. “We´re all home downstairs. Five, six of us. And I have a machete. You go in there, and I find you there, I´ll kill you. I´ll kill all of you.”
“I am phoning the police now,” I said, pulling out my mobile. “It´s time to go home.”  I dialled the emergency number, then realized I did not know the address of the building. I didn´t hit “send.” I bluffed.  I turned the phone toward the man, I pretended to snap his photo. “Hola! Policia? Si. Un ladron, sin camisa, con muchas tatuajes... En el acto, rompiendo el candao…”
The man scuttled down the stairs.  We turned to one another. “What are the chances?” we cried. “What´s the address of this place?” I said.
And then the man came back, swinging up the stairs two at a time, still no shirt, still wild-eyed. And now he had a machete. Forty, fifty centimeters, silver. Japanese style, with holes along one edge.
I don´t recall what the niece said next. She got right into his face, and I held up the phone and snapped away, and said, “si, si, that´s him. How soon can you get here?” Paddy shoved his way forward, in case the guy started swinging that knife… but the niece kept talking, kept the guy engaged, and he kept running his mouth, threatening, angry at the great injustices of his life. I think that´s why I never really thought the guy would use the weapon. He couldn´t shut up. And he finally went downstairs. A door slammed.
We got the hell out. Called the cops for real, and after what seemed like forever six carloads of Policia Nacional rolled up in full riot gear, Policia Nacional. They stormed into the lobby and swarmed up the stairs and bashed on the doors til they found our man. They dragged him out in cuffs, but they made us go around the corner and out of sight. They brought out knives, said “which one?” and we pointed and said “that.”
The Danes got a great show.  Me and the niece got a ride in the broiling-hot back of a police cruiser down the station, and cooled our heels for another couple of hours before a nice man took our statements.  We spent another five hours at the Night Court. At the end of it all, the man was sent to jail for four months.
I learned his name is Miguel. He is 23 years old, without any prior convictions. I felt bad for a few moments… he evidently loves his child, and wouldn´t see him for so long. But as time went on, and we talked it all over for a while, I realized he could´ve just walked away down that hallway when we showed up. He didn´t have to get all macho-man. He really didn´t have to come back upstairs with that corn-cutter. He had a choice.
With Machete Man safely away, we finally got inside the studio flat.
It was as nasty as we´d expected, but still desirable. A neighbour told us another family of vagrants from upstairs had been there earlier, testing the door and locks. We scrambled to get a locksmith, a new door, someone to clear out the place and paint it. Valuations. Powers of Attorney.
Hell.  

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Still Alive Out Here!




After all these years of blogging and chattering at you all and "building a platform," it looks like I have got up and walked away from it all.

Like I said at the last posting, the ground is shifting underfoot.
We don´t see so many pilgrims these days. We don´t go to local pig-stickings, or bull-runs, or baptisms so much. We hole up at home, we read books, we walk the dogs who remain with us (we are down to a mere TWO!).
 Much of it is to do with Patrick´s health. He cannot walk so far these days, and he does not like to travel far from home. He´s getting older, and sometimes crotchety. I cannot leave him alone here for more than three days or so.

Some of it is me. I am spending more time in contemplation, when I am not working on someone´s book manuscript, or out saving someone´s butt. It seems that making measured decisions and following them through with calm action is now a Superpower. It wasn´t always so... or maybe I only recently got my own act together enough to step up and help out other people. I dunno.

In June I walked from our house to Santiago de Compostela with Jon, my 17-year-old nephew. I am still not sure that was a great idea, but we both made it in one piece, and I got a real close-up look at what this holy path has become since I last walked it long-term, lo those 9 years ago. I have walked the Camino Frances three times now. It will never lose its fundamental juju, but let me tell you folks, it ain´t what it once was. The trail is changed, yes -- parts of it I have no memory of ever seeing before in my life! But what´s changed most is the pilgrims. Don´t get me started on those! (Maybe the next blog post?)

I swore a great swear at the end of it, however. I will not walk the last 100 km. of the Frances (Sarria to Santiago) again, at least not in pilgrimage season. It is no longer the Camino de Santiago, not so far as I can see. It´s become a parody version of itself, a cardboard-cutout pilgrimage for people who kinda like the idea, but don´t really want to walk too much -- and a great gang of rapacious capitalists
angling to empty their pockets.

Yeah, I´m crotchety, too. We are dealing with a family crisis down in Malaga, sad circumstances that take a ton of emotional energy. We may live on a magical trail, but real life still happens, and it happens hard.

I need to write. I love you guys. I will do better, promise.

Meantime, the sunflowers are glorious. The barn is full of swallows. Combines cut and comb the fields and lay a layer of golden dust over everything and everyone. Venus and Mars shine bright alongside the blood moon. Wine prices are way down, and I am refilling our depleted bodega, even though we don´t drink so much these days. The apple trees bow low under a huge load of fruit, but the vegetable garden is making a lot more leaves than fruit.

We are still alive. Come by and say hello.

  

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Lord Taketh Away


Continental shifts are happening here.
Harry Dog is gone. He was ill last week, and on our Saturday walk in the Promised Land he ran off and did not return.
We´ve had an awful time with animals in the last year or so. Lulu, much like Harry, ran off into nowhere last January. She is still deeply missed. Hillary the lovebird flew away in mid-summer, and Tim, the last of the Old Firm, shuffled off this mortal coil not long after.
Heartbreakingly, little Rosie Dog died of a sudden cancer in December. Momo, my half-tail ginger cat, vanished right around Christmas. Maybe he figured it wasn´t safe living around here!
And now goes Harry, sweet goofy Harry Dog.
We love our animals, they are thoroughly vetted, petted, loved and fed. But they do not live long lives here, and that makes us sad.
They come, they live with us a while, and they slip away. You would think we´d learn not to become so attached, or we´d learn to not let them off the lead.

We are down to two dogs now, plus Laika, who we are dog-sitting.
We have three cats, a canary, and six hens -- only one of whom still lays eggs. We are letting them live out their old ages. We will not replace them when they die.
We will not replace Harry. We could not.
Our animals are dismissing themselves. We don´t know why. Our load is lightening.
We have to stay and wait and see what happens next.

On April 6 I became a Companion member of the New Benedictine Community, a religious order in the Anglican Benedictine tradition. It is small and new. The members are scattered all over the world. We meet weekly, online, for Vigil Prayers in English. It´s become a highlight of my week. 

I am hard at work doing rewrite on a book manuscript, a memoir by a DEA agent who hunted down El Chapo, a Mexican druglord. It is very hard work and the deadline is tight, but the money is good. This work keeps my writerly skills sharp, and it´s kinda fun to see my handiwork in print, even when someone else´s name is on the cover.

I am rewriting my memoir. I will hunt down a druglord in the meantime, so maybe then a book agent or publisher will want to see it. 

And right now, I am hunting down a bicycle for the hospitaleras at the new parochial Casa de Acogida in Hontanas. There is no grocery store in town, they have no car, and the nearest store is in Castrojeriz... I am thinking of giving them my bike, but I kinda need it myself. That bike was the very first gift that Paddy O´Gara ever gave me. Which means it´s probably pretty old now!

Peaceable Projects was quiet for a while, but this week I took a pilgrim with me to Astorga and we set a new stone in the Pilgrim Memorial Grove -- in memory of  Fr. Gerard Postlethwaite, a pilgrim who was also a friend. Gerard was a Camino Chaplaincy priest from England. He died last September on the Camino Portuguese, and is mourned by many. May God hold him near His heart. 

The Lord gives, the Lord takes away.
Blessed be His name.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Float the Stone Boat!

It´s a kind of beehive, because a honeybee flew inside right away. A live bee, in mid-January, up on a mountain! Or maybe it´s a cat´s nest -- a cat named Nellie moved in as soon as the door opened.

Right now, on the right side of the main street, something wonderful is happening in Rabanal del Camino.  It´s a dream coming true, a blossoming, a springing-forth. And now, finally, I am allowed to tell you about it!

It´s about Kim, aka Soulful Road, or La Perla, our dear old friend and Peaceable Person from Colorado and Key West. After a decade of  saving, dreaming, and planning, Kim´s ship is come in -- she has legal residency and work papers, a little car, a kitty cat, and most of all: The Stone Boat! Stone Boat is a little house in Rabanal where six pilgrims can stay, drink, and dine with a true Camino Character as their host.

Kim´s put everything she´s got into this place, and it´s ready to debut... BUT.  Kim needs to replace the beds, mattresses, linens and rugs. She needs to get the wiring up to Code, and hang some cupboards in the kitchen, and get her Stone Boat listed on Booking.com.  All this stuff costs money, and at the last minute she´s run out!

So... We the People can help her over the hump! Kim needs about 8,000 euro to put everything just so, and 10,000 would give her enough boost to feel secure right into next year.  Kim being who she is, could not just take your money, oh no.... have a look at the GoFundMe site, and see all the goodies she´s offering to people who pony up to help out. Nothing to sneeze at here. A very worthwhile project, and a person I´ve known and trusted for a decade now.

Every little bit helps!  Check it out.

https://www.gofundme.com/thestoneboat    Be a hero for the cause!  You may be the next one here!

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Ten Days of Silence: the Buddhist Boot Camp



No phone, no internet. No talking, no touching anyone, any how. No looking people in the face, no sexual nothing, the genders strictly segregated.  Vegetarian food, two meals before noon, and two bits of fruit at 5 o´clock. No alcohol, drugs, music, talking, no reading or writing or entertainment, no outward expressions allowed. I turned-in my car keys on the first day. Nothing around but sheer mountain fastness. There was no escape.
This was DhammaSakka, a Buddhist Boot Camp in Avila province. Ten days of cloistered monastic discipline, arcane instruction, inner examination, and incredibly deep sleep.  
Up at 4 a.m., and on the mat by half-past, meditating (and sometimes just dozing) in a big warm room. Eighty souls pinned to zafus and zabutons and pillows and yoga-rolls,  focusing for a day on the breath moving through their noses. Another day for the breath moving over their upper lips. Another day and outward to the throat, head, and beyond, until every little tingle or itch or ping of pain was carefully observed and noted, but not responded-to. We were learning to observe, but not react. Sensation is real, but it does not require response. Left alone, the sensation fades away on its own, sooner or later. Usually.  
I learned to meditate years ago. I thought I had my posture ironed-out, but I´d never sat for longer than 60 minutes at a stretch. Sitting Vipassana was eight or ten times that, hours of stillness that set my hip joints alight. An old shoulder injury flared, and on Day 3 I humbly whispered my petition to the teacher during question time.  My post was duly shifted from  the pack of toned Portuguese yoga moms to the rear wall, a lineup of older ladies. I spent the following week flattened against that wall, tucked into a lopsided pretzel shape my component structure could live with, face-to-face with the reality of my 55-year-old frame.
But no one was looking at me. I wasn´t supposed to look at them, either. When I did sneak a peek over the room full of bodies lined up in rows before me, I was secretly pleased to see some writhing and wriggling going on. I was not alone.  
This Ten-Day Vipassana Course, an introduction to Buddhist meditation as taught by a S.N. Goenka, a roly-poly charismatic Burmese businessman. It is a surprisingly modern approach to spreading philosophy. It depends on video teachings each evening, offered in the mother tongue of every person present via headphones or dubbed translation. The main course was arranged by the Portuguese national branch of the India-based Vipassana Foundation, and offered here in Spain in (heavily accented) English and Portuguese.  Our group listened in  Russian,  Czech, Dutch, German, Spanish, too. 
We were herded, guarded, and looked-after by a team of 20 volunteers, people who underwent the course themselves and now enjoy spending their holidays here at the camp, sitting silently for many hours between their work assignments. The setting is spectacular. Dhamma Sakka stands on a hillside in the Gredos Mountains, with spectacular white peaks, green pastures, and drifts of spring wildflowers.  We could not sing, but the music of cowbells, frog songs, and larks filled the valley through the day, and a wind roared down from the peaks during the night.
Or maybe that was just the snoring from the next bunk.
There was chanting, however. Very weird, low bass warblings and yodelings of Pali prayers, sung by the Goenka himself. I did not like it at first, but the phrasing was catchy. I didn´t know what the words meant, but they stuck in my head. I made up my own words, silly ones, which were probably not always duly respectful. I made myself laugh.  
Our bunks were clean and comfortable. The center is only three years old, scrupulously maintained. The food was excellent, if a bit Organic. Perhaps because the Portuguese group arranged this session, the chow had a distinctive Portuguese flair. Sadly, my innards are tuned to the Spanish channel. Tasty as they were, all those whole grains and pectins combined with the odd sleeping and eating schedule and the sudden loss of my usual couple-of-miles walk in the morning. So my digester, in its wisdom, simply shut down for a couple of days.
So yes, there was physical misery. There was a day I balked at all the rules, feeling hemmed-in by the rather short walking trail roped-off for women to use. (The men paced their own, similar-sized corral on the other side of the camp during the designated hour.) There was another bad day when Marcella, the only one of my roommates whose name I knew, developed a fever and was sent home.  It was Day 8, the day they announced three one-hour sittings where we´d be expected to not move at all. Oh, lucky Marcella!  How I envied her!
But I did it. By Day 8 I pretty much had the body stuff nailed down, and the inner work was well underway. I had to push through some heavy resistance, but I did it.  
And I did it again. 
It never became easy, but it became do-able. With my body settled-down, I could go deep into my mental basement and start clearing out accumulated junk I´d forgotten I had stored in there. Notebooks, bad poetry, bad decisions, politics, dead dogs and dreams, rags and bones.  
A rare opportunity for real mental maintenance, a mid-life re-boot, even. It took an awfully long time to get down in there, so I made good use of the opportunity. I stayed deep. I felt drowsy even in the times between sittings, but my senses were sharp. The evening fruit break was such a high point, and on Day 9 I felt a bolt of true joy when I snatched the last banana from the buffet table. My banana! So delicious, so full of vitamins! What joy! 
I wasn´t brainwashed, but I was not in my right mind.   
I looked at it, and at the people around me slowly savouring their apples and pears. I realized how beautiful some of us were. An exceptionally good-looking group, just a little tired. And so wonderfully silent!  
Outside that night, the sky was spangled with stars, the sliver of Equinox moon, the Milky Way. And the following day, after the morning´s Hour of Great Resiliance, the Noble Silence was lifted.   
The entire atmosphere changed in an instant. Our lips were unsealed and speech began, and with the joy of children let loose for summer, we introduced ourselves, we laughed, even. 
I was courteous, it was fun, but I never was much good at that shmoozing. I slipped away for a walk down to the creek, where the frogs were singing. It was quiet there. I spotted a couple of other introverts hiding out in the woods.
At 5:30 a.m. the final morning, Goenka made his final video appearance. After a half-hour of the Yodeling Yoda´s Greatest Hits, he expalined how we all can donate some money to cover our costs, and/or do some volunteer work. Starting with cleaning our rooms.  
I did both. I believe in donativo. Everyone ought to pay his way, and years of hospitalera work have made me an expert at cleaning up bunk beds and folding up blankets with speed and efficiency.  
I probably will not put myself through another 10-day wringer like this one, but my hat is off to Goenka and his merry crew. Their message became a bit incoherent at the end, but their gentle sensory deprivation technique slowly brings a determined student to deep places in a way I´ve never seen before.
And their “pay what you can afford” approach brings Buddhist practice within reach of everybody. Sadly, western Buddhism, in my opinion, is an exclusive, suburban, upper-middle class phenomenon. American Dharma Centers are designed by and for wealthy, well-educated elites, and a 10-day program at any American Buddhist center would cost thousands of dollars. They´ve priced themselves out of the reach of most American seekers. The Vipassana people, on the other hand, have centers like this one scattered throughout the world. The courses have long waiting lists to attend. 
It´s good to see I am not alone in this hunger and thirst for righteousness.