Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A Change is Gonna Come

old-school pilgrim hospitality

The cries reach the heavens: We've had enough. Time to get back to life! I wanna walk my camino!

The push is on to re-open our economies, to get the tourism ball rolling again, even as the Covid-19 virus death toll continues to add up all over Spain. All the noise about the Camino de Santiago being the heart and soul of the local economy is being put to the test. It's been a mild winter and a good, rainy spring, and gas is cheap, so the farmers are happy at least. But the bakers, the launderette, the shoe-repair shop, the bars, the hostels?  No one can say. No one is allowed outside to talk about it. All the bars and beauty shops -- the places where these things are hashed-out and decided-upon -- are closed up tight.

The trail is fast asleep. Quails walk down the median stripe of the N120 on the way to Sahagun. I go to town once a week for vegetables, dog food, the sight of other humans.  On Tuesday I saw Father Dani from the Padres Maristas. All work has ceased at their Albergue Santa Cruz, but it's not so stressful now that work has ceased everywhere else, too. In the little diocesan apartment house next to the supermercado, Daniel is an enclosed monastic now, with three of his fellow Marists and a couple of local priests. They have a Mass there every afternoon. No one but monks and nuns have seen a Mass since the edict came down a month ago. The churches are shut down.

It makes us ache, the rest of us. 

We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves. It will not always be like this.

After all this time we are talking to one another, we Camino people, mostly online, on WhatsApp, on Zoom and Skype and Messenger. What will it be like in June? Should we close down everything, call off all the volunteers, just let this year go? If the borders are closed through September, this stubby Camino season will be a Spanish-only affair. Fifty percent of the usual crowd, and only if the virus is overcome enough to ensure safety. 

Albergues will need to spread people out, keep them from breathing the same air. That will cut down capacity. Spanish pilgrims are often an ornery bunch... would they cooperate with the rules? And how can we keep our volunteers safe? How will we staff the albergue, as 60 percent of our volunteers are from other nations? Our strength has become a weakness. It's not looking so good for Albergue Villa de Grado this year, my friends. Nothing official has been decided, but it's not looking good.

Even as we look into the future, we see the lights going out in flagship albergues that have been around for 30 years or more. Donativo places, bunkhouses, scruffy old schools... their day is past, some say. Pilgrims want more. Last week on the online Camino Forum, a wannabe albergue owner asked everyone to pitch in What They Want in A Great Albergue.  The answers were individual bunks out of the view of everyone else, with their own electrical supply, lights, and linens. They want spotless showers, strong wifi signals, and rock-bottom prices. Oh, and jolly shared meals, served by smiling hosts who speak proper English. 

The picture quickly came clear. Pilgrims don't want albergues any more. They want pilgrim-only hotels. 

It looks like new health regulations want hotels, too -- places where people occupy discrete spaces.  The old bunkhouses, crowded dining rooms and kitchens, shower stalls and shared dormitories may soon be legislated away. Prices will go up. The poor will be shut out again.

Alfredo at the Siervas de Maria albergue in Astorga this week posted photos of the place, sparkling clean, mowed, weeded, polished, and completely empty. I have never seen it without dozens of people moving into and out of its many rooms. It is spooky.   

Our beloved non-profit business model may be doomed. When the familiar infrastructure is deemed unworthy, what will become of the volunteers, the shared meals, the hospitality that grew up with them, that made the Camino de Santiago trail unique in the world? 

Change is inevitable. We have to evolve, or we will die. 

When we are gone, will the pilgrims miss us? Or will the Camino die with us?   

How do we continue to offer traditional hospitality on this new Way of St. James?

We ache, we wait. Grace is sufficient, we tell ourselves.

We will know in time.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Saints on Lockdown

So much changed in such a short amount of time.
Things were falling into place. I had the abdominal surgery, finally. Ollie left. I booked a camino, a ferry to England for a family wedding, house- and dog-sitters for the holidays.

Then St. James and all the apostles came down with a virus, and the world and the Camino de Santiago closed down until further notice.

Spain is on its second week of lockdown, but daily life in Moratinos is not very far off its normal rhythm. We are accustomed to living hermetically, using what's in the cupboard, making something new out of yesterday's leftovers, not going any farther from home than our feet will take us. It's not unusual for us to not see anyone else for several days. We rather like it that way.

But knowing I cannot go home if my mother or my children need me? Having policemen ask where I am going, asking to see the receipts for the groceries in the back, to prove my trip to town is necessary? Having to take turns walking the dogs in the morning? Seeing the news channels full of horrors, reading emails from fellow camino workers undergoing Intensive Care in hospitals...
The light is changed. The birdsong has shifted pitch.
No church on Sunday.
No vermouth after in the bar.
No bar. No cars on the road.
No pilgrims. Only birds returning from Africa, snow geese honking overhead on their way to Finland, moving north, not west.
Last weekend, I helped FICS and a few other agencies clear all the pilgrims off the Camino. Lots of phone calls, tears, drama, trauma, logistics, wrangling. Many good people disappointed. A few entitled jerks in complete denial. Languages, embassies. A nice break from the ordinary, doing something useful. They are all gone now, at least all the foreigners are -- they're either holed-up in a town along the Way, or gone back home to plan for another day. 
No one's allowed to run around loose any more.
We haven't walked on the Camino since then. We go over to the Promised Land in the morning, our dogs are now our passport to exercise. We have not seen any law enforcement anywhere. We haven't seen anyone at all. There is no one out there to infect. 
Until yesterday evening, when a Moral Dilemma came to the door and rang the bell.  I pulled my scarf up over my nose and opened it.
His name was Jonay, from Gran Canaria, heading for France. He had ID, but no pilgrim credential. "The Camino is closed," he said. "It's just a road now, and it goes the way I am going. I need to sleep. Can I sleep here? You have a barn, a shed? I'm perfectly healthy. I have my own food. I will stay well away."
Paddy appeared behind me. I looked at Paddy. He is 79 years old, immunocompromised. He shrugged, turned around, and headed back to the main house.
This man was illegal. This man might be infected, he might infect us. His virus might survive on surfaces for up to six days.
This man has no home, no money, no place to sleep. He was clearly exhausted. The sun was going down. A cold breeze passed through my sweater and into my bones.
"You can stay in this little apartment here, apart from the house," I said. "Just tonight. My husband is at risk, see. And what you are doing, walking out here, it's against the law. I am an immigrant. I can't take chances with the law."
"I know," he said. "The Guardia know I am here. I meet new ones all the time. So far, so good."
He put his things inside. I went back to the main house and put on the teakettle.
Two Guardia Civil patrol cars came roaring up the driveway, sending the dogs into a frenzy. I opened the door again. Four masked men alighted. "A man is here," one of them said.
"Yes," I said.
The man came out.
"Come out here. Keep away from the lady," the policeman said. "Madam, cover your nose." I covered my nose again with my scarf, and leaned against the doorway. 
The policemen barked at the man, but kept well away from him. They checked his ID. They asked where he'd been, where he was headed, why he was out there, didn't he know?
He told them. His camino geography was off. The cops jumped on that, they gave him a hard time, told him he's subject to a 1,200 euro fine.
"Fine me all you like, I have no job, no money. There's nothing you can take from me," Jonay said, clearly frustrated. "I was a firefighter, but now I'm out of work. I am not a criminal. I've done nothing but walk."
The police finally left him here, but warned him to keep a distance, and clear out in the morning.
Jonay apparently slept deeply all night, and in the morning he cleaned up after himself and swept the patio. Then he went on his way east.
I am glad he stayed. It was the right thing to do.   
I donned my gloves, glasses, and mask, and disinfected the little apartment. I contemplated the Jonay Dilemma.
Maybe he is a bad man, a fool, a scofflaw vagrant. Maybe he put us at risk. Maybe I was foolish to let him stay.
Maybe he brought us the germ. Maybe I will get sick now. If Paddy gets Corona Virus, he will die. But what the hell, he says ... if doing the right thing is going to kill me,  maybe it's time to die.
It occured to me that maybe Jonay was St. James, the original Santiago, patron saint of this pilgrim path. Legends say he pops up in times like these. There may not be pilgrims out there, but this is the Camino, after all.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Hunkered In

The sky keeps changing colors, the wind roars all night and morning. Sometime overnight it pulled the chicken-hut door off its hinges and smashed it to kindling.
We are down to one aged hen. The orange cats sit with her on the woodpile, keeping her company.   
Moratinos hunkers down. The water in the furrows turns to ice, the dogs delight the sudden slide underfoot. I have to take them out each morning, even when the wind is knocking me sideways, tearing aluminum strips off the highway bridge and flinging them down the autopista. There are almost no cars or trucks on the autopista. It’s dangerous to drive, wind here, snow to the north, the passes over the mountains are closed.  A man was killed up there yesterday, putting on his tire-chains at Pajares. A car slid on the ice and into him, hit his head, knocked him dead.  
The roaring goes on
for hours and days, it shoves smoke back down the chimney, it takes down the rotten trees along the road to San Martin. Our house is drafty. The furnace goes and goes, but the halls are chilly. We keep the doors closed. Breezes blow under the sills and around the edges, through the little holes in the electrical outlets. The chimneys moan. 
Boris the canary sings on. We play Chopin nocturnes.
We spend our days apart. Paddy sleeps. Ollie is down at the hostal bar, there is noplace else to go in Moratinos in January. The cats and I sit on the sofa near the pellet stove, hidden behind two lines of drying laundry. Last night’s pilgrim was shocked that we hang laundry in our living room. “My wife would never permit that,” the Slovakian man said.  
“We are not bourgeois,” I told him. “We don’t have a dryer. The laundry dries in here where the stove is.”  
The laundry smells clean.  
It’s started to snow.  It won’t last.  The sun shines bright, but the sky is grey as gunmetal.
The chimney thunders. Another pilg is on his way, a Swede, or maybe a Finn, or a Dane. 

Thursday, 26 December 2019

God's on Calle Ontanon

The pilgrim's name was Carly, or some approximation thereof. She was from China, from Hangzhou, a city south of Shanghai. She is a corporate recruiter, traveling the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail alone, in December, with no Spanish language skills and little English. She’d dropped her mobile phone in a puddle. Every day she was cut off a little more from everything she knew.   
Carly stayed at our house Christmas eve.  
She walked from Carrion de los Condes, arrived at dusk, washed and napped and had some tea, and went with us at 8 p.m. to the neighbors’ house for roast lamb. (Our neighbors have the hospitality gene. And who’s going to turn away a stranger on Christmas eve?)
Carly sat quietly among the merry group, politely tried a taste of everything we offered, occasionally touched my arm to ask is this cucumber, or squash?  She was tired. I thought she was having trouble tracking the Spanish conversation, so I translated parts of it. None of us knew any of the Chinese languages. Nary a word.
Then someone asked Carly the inevitable pilgrim question:  Why are you walking the Camino? And why alone, in December? 
Carly answered in halting, unsure English. She warmed to the language as she went on. We sat, rapt, as she told us why.  (Ollie and I translated to Spanish for our hosts.)
“December is when I can escape my job. And December is when nobody else is on the trail. I want to walk alone. I tried to find a Chinese person to walk with me, but no one had heard of this place or this walk.”  
“In China it is all study, study, study when you are young, and work, work, work when you’re adult. There is no time for forming yourself. There’s never any attention for why you are doing all of this, what it means. There is nothing to make you know you mean something in this world. There is no teaching about God.”   
“So I am walking to find what I am. I want to find God. I understand this is a religious pilgrimage, so I come here to find him. Or her. To find about religion.”
Everyone looked at each other.
“But China is home to some of the most ancient and elegant religions of the world,” I said. “Confucius. The Tao. The Buddha?”  Carly shook her head. It was like she’d never heard of them.
“We have a family religion,” she said. “Ancestors. And there are Christians in China, in my city. Two kinds of churches, one with Jesus, and one with Mary. I don’t know the difference.”
“So… are you Christian?” someone asked.
“I love Jesus,” she said plainly. “But I don’t know about him, or the church. That is why I came.”  
Everyone sat quietly for a moment.
“He is here,” she said. “God is here.”  
"God is everywhere," Maria Valle said. 
Carly and I left the party soon after that. We talked on the way home about camino churches and Mary and Jesus. Clearly religious buzzwords like “salvation” and “righteousness” and “savior” were of no use to her. Scripture was meaningless. She was context-free, a tabula rasa, a hungry soul that had, somehow, found an anchor in the wide sea of secular China.
The churches along the Way are locked up in this off-season December. There’s no Chinese Bible within 100 miles of here. I didn’t know what to tell Carly, how to help her grow in her simple faith. I wasn’t sure if I should. She was doing pretty well on her own.  
“I don’t need books and buildings and priests. I am finding him. He is here.” She waved her hands in the dark, to pull Calle Ontanon, Palencia, the highway and the starry sky into the equation. “In the quiet. God is everywhere.”    
“And here,” I said, touching her shoulder. “In you. The reason we are smiling. The reason you came here to walk. You have the spirit of the Christ.”  
The walk from MariValle’s house is not very long. Carly was exhausted. She went straight to bed when we got home.
She left in the morning before I woke.
If you pray, please put in a word for her.  

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

this morning on the Meseta

Well OK, I got a little dark yesterday.

It IS the Winter Solstice today, after all. It’s OK. It’s only natural.

Winter Solstice. I looked it up, and read maxims and meditations about the Earth’s axis, the “shortest day of the year,” farmers, crops, light, and of course Druids. (Druids and Templars apparently did everything that’s mystical or hip.) Everybody was really strong on the lights, candles, the twinkling brightness, hope against the blackness of the long, long night.

But then again, I thought, what’s so bad about the dark? Isn’t it just as real and normal as light? Don’t plenty of good, fruitful things happen in the dark? Don’t seeds sprout out of the darkness of the soil?
I commiserated with a friend, like me trying to analyze our anger at the way things are going nowadays in our countries. I told her to go someplace very quiet, shut the door, and let herself poke around at the base of her anger – what is it she is clinging to that no longer fits, that’s not real, that’s frustrating her?
She stopped me. Isn’t it sinful, wallowing in that darkness, letting those feelings take over? Isn’t it kinda… dangerous? Shouldn’t you always strive for the light, the brightness, the music?

I thought about that for a minute. I said No.

Babies are formed in darkness, and it doesn’t do them any harm.  We are formed of both light and darkness, equal parts – light and shadow.  If you never let yourself “go dark,” you will never find out what’s down there waiting for you. It might be a dragon. It might be Prince Charming. It might be the brainstorm that’s gonna change your life forever. It’s all You. But if you’re always busy with light, bright sweetness and chatter, you’re never going to pull that powerful stuff out of your Shadow and learn to use it.
the labyrinth under the trees, in Fall 
I walked in the rain out to our little labyrinth, on the Camino between Moratinos and Terradillos de los Templarios. The Ditch Pigs crew reset its stones in November, it stands out along the path, but most pilgrims never notice it. I walked the circle in, and then the circle out, praying aloud for my family, projects, country, town, health, and friends. I do that every Solstice, and every Equinox, four times every year. It keeps my inner calendar set. It reminds me of where I am in time, on the Earth, in a medium-size spiral galaxy of stars. How small I am, how tiny my life is.

How little it means, darkness and light, evil and good, seasons and solstices. We all are little solar systems in our own heads, full of daylight and dark, good and evil, intellect and idiocy.   
We gotta be patient with our darkness, and not fear our long nights and dark sides. God lives in the dark, too. That’s where she came from.        

Damp and Darksome

a summer storm in Promised Land, described in FFOG opening chapter

Rain roars on the roof and muddies the gutters. It stays dark all day. Outdoors smells nice in the mornings, but the rivers and rills and ditches are flooding. We kinda enjoy the excitement until our socks get wet.
The book is out, finally. It's doing OK, considering how slowly deliveries are moving. After all the rush and work, it's anticlimactic. I am low.   
I bought new winter gloves, and lost the left one immediately. Always the left glove. My left hand is cold all the time. 
I miss my children, and my mom. I miss a few things about Christmas.
I ordered a new English-speaking computer, and it was swallowed up somewhere between UPS and Spanish Customs. I had to cancel the order. My old computer, this old trusty HP from 2014, is almost dead. I have a shiny red Dell, but it doesn't speak English. And even after 13 years of full-on life in Spain, I still do not have fluency enough to drive a computer in Spanish.
Evil people have taken over in England and the USA. No one seems to know how to stop them.
I am on a wait-list for an operation to remove my gall bladder. Maybe after the operation I will not be so splenetic. We shall see. Meantime, it hurts a lot. I wish it was over. I hope I can get the operation before Brexit takes away my health coverage. Life is complicated.
Christmas is almost here. Pilgrims are coming. Very wet pilgrims. 
It's raining so much the sewers are backing up. Our upstairs toilet doesn't want to flush. When the wind blows, water comes in beneath the front door. 
The dogs are healthy. They sing trios every morning in the barn to wake us up. I walk them to the Promised Land, and they vanish into holes at the rabbit warren. They are having the time of their lives, undermining the fence that keeps them off the fatal four-lane Autopista beyond. 
At home, the living room is draped in cats. They are making Paddy unwell. 
I had new photos for this blog, but the server rejects them. No can do. 
We have a little plastic Christmas tree, and I have a few gifts to put underneath it.
Maria Valle and Joaquin invited us to dinner Christmas Eve.
So even with all the sad-making circumstance, we'll be OK.
The sun will come back.
It always has, so far. 

Saturday, 14 December 2019

"Furnace" is Lit Up!

The stars are lining up. I drove to Rabanal del Camino on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadelupe, patroness of the Americas. (I am American-born, so she’s my girl.) Somewhere up above that terrific rain and windstorm was a full moon in Gemini, the last of the year 2019 — a great time to launch something new, I am told. (I usually leave the witches and fortune-telling and evil-eyes to the Basques and Gallegos and gypsies, but the coincidences lately are reaching Camino proportions!)

And so here we are in the warm lounge of The Stone Boat Inn, where Kim and I are launching A FURNACE FULL OF GOD, the memoir I have been writing for many, many years. Right now it is a trade paperback book of 246 pages, clear and bright, funny and profound, colorful and stark, it will make you laugh, it will surely make you cry (that was my specialty, back in my newspaper feature-writing days). There’s also a spankin’ new website that will collect all the blogs, non-profits, webs, etc. under a single umbrella.
If you have followed “Big Fun in a Tiny Pueblo” blog lo these many years, you may recognize some of these stories. “Furnace Full of God” is the story of Peaceable Kingdom, our house on the Camino, the pilgrims who stay there with us, the Holy Year 2010, and what happened that year to Moratinos, our tiny pueblo. It is spiritual, but not religious. It is deeply felt, but not mawkish. It is professionally written and edited, and beautifully designed and illustrated. I am very proud of what it’s become.
And now it’s become, here at Kim’s little Kingdom. The Camino even sent us Graham, an Australian pilgrim who’s a retired editor, and a curry chef! to keep the wheels turning and to act as witness, and to open the champagne bottle…

I know I am pushing the limit for Christmas giving, but if you order direct from Amazon, there’s still time! Order here for the first-edition paperback. Signed copies will be available from the shop at Casa Ivar in Santiago de Compostela as soon as possible. Kindle and e-reader editions will be available within a week, honest! And because you are already a Peaceable supporter, here’s a little Christmas bonus for you, a taste of what’s inside the Furnace: Chapter 17.
Woo Hoo!