Thursday, 30 July 2009

Living Simple

Quiet, sunny times here at The Peaceable.

Here we have Brian, a friend from Pittsburgh, visiting for a while, helping with hard work, and sparking with little Juli! He captures the Praying Mantises he runs across while he works, and carries them softly to the aphid-infested rosebush or into the vegetable patch. Hearing spoken Pittsburgh again is filling my dreams with old images of New Kensington, Apollo, and South Oakland. I´m not usually homesick or nostalgic, but my mother is having hip replacement surgery this week, and I feel particularly drawn to Home Things, I guess. (She´s doing OK, I am told.)

I´m working hard, clearing brush out back. Paddy is dealing with an intestinal bug. Una is as full of beans as any dog has ever been, even a three-legged dog under death sentence. Pilgrims come and go, people from Slovenia and Chicago and Kuala Lampur. Leonard Cohen is this week´s soundtrack.

And here is a poem that I love.


by David Budbill

You can see him in the village almost anytime.
He's always on the street.
At noon he ambles down to Jerry's
in case a trucker who's stopped by for lunch
might feel like buying him a sandwich.
Don't misunderstand, Ben's not starving;
he's there each noon because he's sociable,
not because he's hungry.
He is a friend to everyone except the haughty.

There are at least half a dozen families in the village
who make sure he always has enough to eat
and there are places
where he's welcome to come in and spend the night.

Ben is a cynic in the Greek and philosophic sense,
one who gives his life to simplicity
seeking only the necessities
so he can spend his days
in the presence of his dreams.

Ben is a vision of another way,
the vessel in this place for
ancient Christian mystic, Buddhist recluse, Taoist hermit.
Chuang Tzu, The Abbot Moses, Meister Eckhart,
Khamtul Rimpoche, Thomas Merton—
all these and all the others live in Ben, because

in America only a dog
can spend his days
on the street or by the river
in quiet contemplation
and be fed.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Gut Check

Usually it happens in July. I shall call it my annual gut check.

Usually in July I wander off the warm fuzzy Peaceable ponderings and write about what´s going on in someone else´s life. It´s usually an abstract of how I view someone else´s behavior or lifestyle or issues.
The people I write about get around to reading the blog. And they´re offended or hurt.

Offending and hurting people is what you do a lot when you´re a journalist. You write it how you see and hear it, and you have to disregard a lot of the self-image and PR and family pride you might trample underfoot on the race for deadline. When you are exposing crooked politicians, or typing in the list of Drunk Driving Arrests, or describing the hellish home life that led to a criminal career, truth-telling trumps all.

But I am not a journalist any more, and this blog is not a newspaper, and I am writing about my life in Spain.

So I should not have written about my friends´ troubles in Paris, even if they figure into my own troubles, even if I didn´t reveal any gory detail. I am not Eminem rapping about his Mama, nor Leonard Cohen indicting an unfaithful lover, nor Philip Roth, novelizing the horrors of surgical scars and incontinent old age. Maybe because they are so talented and famous these peoples´ friends and loved-ones know their foibles and pain may show up in their art someday, and they give them a pass. Or maybe these people have burned through all their friends by now. In any case, they all make beautiful use of anguish.

I am not so gifted as they are. And I value my friends more than I value a blog... much as I love having my little cyber-soapbox!

So I´ve taken down the Paris post. If you missed it, just let it suffice that I spent some days in Paris holding a friend´s hand, and it was difficult.

My mother´s health is taking a bad turn. Una will likely soon have her leg amputated at the university veterinary hospital in Leon, if the cancer has not already spread to her lungs.

It is hot here, the garden is burgeoning with green peppers and eggplants and green beans. The dust is bad. Sunflowers are blooming everywhere, putting big squares of bright yellow among the amber fields of cut grain. The pilgrims continue, and we continue to help them out when we can.

We are not saints yet.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Ark at The Peaceable

The invisible "Welcome Pilgrim" sign is lit up, and they´re rolling in, these travelers. Just enough. Just the right kinds.

Federico the Guitar Guy is here. He brought along Esperanza, a beautiful guitar custom-made for The Peaceable, all endowed with ebony scallop shells and tiny staffs and some really amazing woodwork. It is a very fine gift, for us and for the musical pilgrims who stop.

So now we have a Paracho del Norte hand-built guitar. Neither Paddy nor I knows how to play a guitar, much as we might enjoy listening to them being played. Esperanza was inaugurated by Miguel, a Thai pilgrim who stayed here Sunday. We all sat out in the patio after dinner and enjoyed a skillful series of Brazilian Bossa Novas!

So if you´re a guitar-playing pilgrim, come by here. You´re in for a treat. I will post photos soon as I find the camera.

The other big treat in the past 24 hours was another Fred. Frederic is a homeless guy, a French pilgrim who stopped by a couple of months ago on his way to Santiago. He now is on his way back, traveling on foot, and looking for work. I recognized him by his remarkable nose -- it is neatly folded over to the right, as if he´d pressed it too hard against a cold window when it was still small and malleable, and it stuck that way. My mom was always warning me about things like that happening.

He´s a rough-looking guy, Frederic, but there´s something childlike about him. He speaks very little English. (We have even less French.) But a tattoo on his arm reminded me he´d started his camino at a L'Arch Community in France. L'Arch -"the ark"- is an international Christian group that helps disabled and recovering people get their lives back together. Its charter says, "In a divided world, L'Arche wants to be a sign of hope. Its communities, founded on covenant relationships between people of differing intellectual capacity, social origin, religion and culture, seek to be signs of unity, faithfulness and reconciliation."

Wow. That is a ministry I can believe in, and gladly support (although I draw the line at tattooing its logo on my arm!). Add that to Frederic´s Iron Man handshake and Popeye physique, and the ugly fact that our hen house door is falling off. Someone had to fix it. So...

Me and the two Freds set about working in the afternoon heat, and got a remarkable amount of work done:
hunting down tools, (scattered over four different working areas);
wrestling the concrete mixer into the hen yard,
dismantling and re-mantling the door,
tracking down a door-worthy timber,
ordering sand and gravel and concrete,
watching the delivery guy burn up his clutch trying to deliver the sand and gravel and concrete,
cooking lunch,
starting some laundry,
mixing concrete,
pouring and troweling and finishing concrete,
etc. etc. Very dull work if you´re not in there doing it.

It was too much sun. Too many chickens and dogs were underfoot. But finally we got two uprights in place that will likely stay vertical for at least a couple of years. Frederic proved himself extremely strong and nimble. He worked like a dog, except the dogs I know who have never worked a day of their lives. At sundown the chickens went back inside their hen house. We went inside our People House. Paddy made an early dinner, and everyone was fast asleep by 11 p.m.

And this morning, Frederic collected his wages and a bunch of food and his backpack and clean laundry, and headed east. He blessed us. He told me to look up Luke 9:48 in the Bible.

This evening I did that. (yes, I still have a Bible, and I know how to use it.)

And in Luke 9:48, Jesus says,

"Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

So who knows what Frederic is, in the greater scheme of things? A little child? The Least of These? Another angel, maybe?

I think I may see him again.

Thursday, 9 July 2009


OK, now that the blog about pain got such a resounding response...!

The really painful stuff now is past. I am thankful. I also am thoughtful.

When you´re in pain, you cannot think about much of anything else, and why it´s there, and how long is it going to take, and what do I gotta do to make it go away?

Which means for five days or so I really dropped out of living life. I missed me.
I apologize to all the people whose mail and/or phone calls I delayed answering or completely forgot. (the mail was my decision. the telephone I blame on Movistar, my mobile phone provider. Their telephone sucks, and their service sucks.)

Now that I am back to feeling like myself, I can look forward to things again.
This week we may go to Valladolid to hear a guitarist play. Federico the guitar-building dude from Wisconsin is back in the neighborhood, and he´s bringing a guitarist from Burgos ´round tomorrow to visit. We have some cool pilgrims due in, including an Israeli kibbutznik and a trio of chanting Dominican monks.

Brian, a Pittsburgh boy who lives in Lucca, Italy, is coming soon to stay a little while. In August Gareth is coming back too, during his break for the Big Vatican Seminary. Johnnie Walker will hang out after his long hike from Madrid, and Adam Levin will bring his guitar here for a concert at the Moratinos fiesta in August. And in September me and Kathy and Piers will hike the Camino San Salvador once again, taking good notes this time for the Confraternity of St. James guide.

If you want to be trained here to be a hospitalero, I´ll be doing that in November. Let me know ASAP so I can properly prepare.

Somewhere in there, if the veterinarian is right, I will lose my friend Una Dog. (Or maybe I will not. Inspired by my neighbor Christy, I made a vow to God via San Roque: if Una´s alive and healthy next year, I will walk a whole honkin´ camino in thanksgiving. With you bloggers as my witnesses.)

It is not very Buddhist to look so much into the future, because it´s really best to live right here, right now, in this moment. Ironically, I find that having a nasty pain is the best way to keep myself in the present -- not harking back to the hurts or triumphs of the past, and not driving myself toward something next week. Just existing. Just enjoying the happy faces of dogs, or the evening wind in the treetops, or the amazing sight of a great "dust devil" traveling across a freshly-cut field outside Sahagún, a huge, swirling column of swirling straw! The garden is producing green and yellow beans at a great rate, tomatoes are coming on strong, and wide acres of farm fields are now going brilliant yellow with the annual sunflower show.

One of the readings at Mass last week was about the "thorn" in St. Paul´s side, the undisclosed pain the apostle said kept his feet on the ground. Kept him humble, and aware.

Kept him In the Moment.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


I got me some pain these days. Critter pain.

My animals are giving me a big ache, and not just the emotional kind. Sometime in the past week a combination of exertions made me very sad indeed. These included carrying the 30-pound Una dog all the way home down Calle Ontanon (she´d fallen and couldn´t get up) and a fall in the muddy chicken hut (the new black chickens still spurn my friendly overtures), and some rather heavy gardening work. Suffice it to say I woke up one morning last week with a very bad pain all the way down my right arm.

It was not sympathetic pain for Una, who also has a really bad arm. I can´t point at a particular trauma that could have caused an injury.
So I left it alone and "got on widdit."
It didn´t get better.

So I sought out David, the Masajista. The Massage Guy of Sahagún, beloved of Santiago Pilgrims.
Visiting his office is a sitcom waiting to happen, as he shares a waiting room with his brother Luis.
David gives massages and orthopedic treatments. Luis makes and installs dentures and bridgework. My fellow sufferers tarried with me and willingly shared their symptoms with one another, accompanied by sympathetic oohs and aahs. One kindly old man pointed to the place where his lower plate rubs his gums all wrong. He pulled a little wallet from his pocket and opened a flap and there it was, the offending lower rack, grinning out at us.

"My husband had those same teeth," said the woman next to him. "He never wore them, except for holidays." Everyone nodded sagely. I ran my tongue over my teeth, the original set I was issued at age 7. I gave thanks silently.

David kneaded me like a sourdough starter, hard enough to leave bruises. He cracked my neck and snapped my back, and I realized up til then I´d been numb all ´round my elbow. And now that hurt, too.

He says I have tendinitis, the very injury that drives so many pilgrims to our door. I already knew the treatment, but could hardly understand how or why I have it. I haven´t walked several 25-kilometer days for a good while. I don´t do repetitive motions with my hands or arms -- I spend little time Flamenco dancing or working on assembly lines.

I am working too hard and I need to stop it, says David.
I need to put heat on my shoulder, and then exercise it in some rather amusing ways, and then put a bag of frozen peas on it. And drink tea made from Arnica, rosemary, and Devil´s Claw.

Arnica and Devil´s Claw leaves are available at any herboleria in Spain, it turns out. We have a massive rosemary hedge growing right outside the gate. The Lord she do provide. The tea is drinkable, the exercises doable. And when I am sad and sore and needy, Paddy steps right up and cares for me. This morning he did the heavy garden work I´d set out for my own self to do, whilst I sat under the apple tree and watched Murphy Cat stalk chickens. I felt fine, long as I didn´t move around too much. I sent up another "thank you," I made lunch. I ordered a vast array of on-sale crianza wine from the wine merchant: Albariño, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Toro...things that can stay in the bodega for three or four years. (Not that any wine is likely to survive that long around here!)

In spite of the heat and peas and Devil´s Claw, by afternoon the fierce pain was back. Paddy sent me off to take a nap, his first response to any challenge I present.

And verily, later on, The Almighty sent us a doctor down the trail. Shay is a General Practicioner from Los Angeles (the city, not the heavenly host. Far as I know.) She´s traveling light, but with a little bagful of very, very useful medicines. Like 70-mg Voltaren tablets. I took one with dinner.

And almost all the pain went away. And it´s staying away. I may actually sleep tonight! We may need to keep Shay around for a day or so.

Okay, I know nothing is more boring than someone else´s medical problems. I will stop complaining now.
And in the future I will have a much deeper sympathy for the pilgrims whose tendinitis shuts them down.

Yeah, it usually goes away after a few days of rest. But who wants to sit still, in a place that´s built around moving silently, peacefully forward? A place that has a big old manure pile that needs to be wheeled into the back garden and spread over the vegetable beds? A place with walls that want painting, and a chicken hut that needs a new door, and hens who need handling?

Thank you, Universe, for sending me a nice husband and a massage therapist, and now a doctor. Now, if you please, send me some patience. Do it Now. And please enclose several dozen Voltaren tablets. And no more animals. At least for a while...

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dark Day

The sun is bright and the breeze blows, but it´s a dark day at the Peaceable.

Today in Leon the veterinary specialist gave us the news: the knob on Una´s bad knee is cancerous, a fast-spreading kind.

There are all kinds of heroic things we can do, but none will spare her much suffering or extend her life much farther than a few months.

She´s still walking and eating and snarling at Tim and barking when anyone comes to the gate. She still puts a paw on me when it´s time for a scratching. She´s still enjoying life.

But she knows, and we know, she´s not the dog she used to be, not since last November. That´s when she and Tim simultaneously leapt from the back of the car after an expedition and Tim landed smack on top of her, twisting her rear left leg beneath her.

No more long walks along the canal. No more rodent-digging in the Promised Land, or long leaps over ditches. Just short walks in the cool morning.

The first vet said it would get better, but it did not.
Another vet, a month later, said we should´ve done something right away.
And now the third vet, the specialist in Leon, said it´s been re-injured too many times. She didn´t keep still and quiet long enough for the initial injury to heal up, and she kept hurting it over and over. And that´s how the cancer got started.

Una´s about six years old. She is a terrier-Dalmatian mongrel who showed up at our house outside Pittsburgh on September 1, 2003 -- the first day of Paddy´s official retirement, and two months after we married one another. She was still a pup, completely untrained and unmannerly, more of a crocodile than a dog. She gave him much to do with his first few months alone in a post-industrial rural area called Jeannette, Pennsylvania. They drove each other up the wall sometimes, and forged a close bond.

I wasn´t so easily won. I was the "bad cop" to his "good cop," I disciplined her and taught her that walking on the kitchen counters is not a good idea, and that groundhogs and wild turkeys and small children are not toys. And even though I was the hard-ass, (or maybe because I was,) she decided she loved me best.

She still is street dog, a barely-domesticated creature who´d just as gladly dine from a dumpster as a demitasse.

She adapted to life with ferrets, llamas, ponies, cats, chickens, other dogs, pilgrims, and other animals. She moved with us three times, one of those involving an 18-hour international airplane trek. But she´s had it good.

She has hunted raccoons and possums in the semi-wild state parks of Pennsylvania, and field mice on the Spanish meseta, and house-mice everywhere in between... she´s a terrier, and lives to stalk wily rodents. She´s leapt snowdrifts and dodged lightning bolts and baked her hide in the sun of two continents. She´s begged for scraps at the best tables, and rested her chin on the knees of sages and wandering bums.

We don´t know how long she´s got, but we´ll spend the fortune it takes to buy her painkillers.
The vet says we will know when it is time to say goodbye.

And meantime we can only scratch her spotted belly, and slip her bits of meat, and say soft words to her.

And we can cry.