Friday, 25 June 2010

Summer Rocks

I am very happy. I am riding the waves of whatever the wind blows this way. And it´s blowing a nice warm breeze across the plains, riffling the fat heads of rye and barley, and sending sharp rye seeds down the ears of  poor Tim Dog. (One fat head seeks  another?)

The farmers are cutting grain and baling straw and sending up great clouds of dust. Work on the new pilgrim hostel is coming right along. (alas, not the Italian albergue!)  Sunflowers have another half-meter to grow before they bloom, but they´re getting there, and the great fields of them are going to be spectacular by mid-July, just in time to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

As you know, this is the very best time of year for me. Everything is so alive and bright and warm, right at its peak -- except maybe sunflowers and tomatoes, which gives me something to look forward to. (The tomatoes are getting near, however. I made a gazpacho that was right up there this week... another couple of weeks and it´ll be right in To Die For territory. I may even post the recipe, it´s that good -- if you guys want me to.) (I am feeling parenthetical. Just so you are warned, if I become discursive.)

I am doing lots of writing exercises in the wee hours of these days, following a track laid down by Natalie Goldberg, she of "Writing Down the Bones" fame. Religious Fundamentalists might have trouble with her approach to writing, but I´m of a Buddhist turn of mind myself, so she suits me fine. I can´t recommend her highly enough, her exercises keep me limber and sharp and very much alive and In The Moment. (I tried to link you to her books on Amazon, but these days it seems the Information Superhighway has left me in the dust. I have been on the Internet since well before Netscape and browsers, even, but now I feel stupid and slow. A dinosaur carcass on the Information Superhighway. (Which is, I am sure, an antique term.))

This is why the blog post is rather stream-of-consciousness, because the writing exercises I´m doing this time of night are that way, and I like to keep you guys on your toes, and I had a glass of Rectoral de Amandi (Mencia wine from the Ribera Sacra region of Galicia, the vineyards I passed on the Camino Invierno) before I sat down.. This is the only time I have to write, so you´ll have to take it as it comes.  Most of my real writing juice is going into a book. I am having a really wonderful time getting that project going, and it´s not the Moratinos Life book I talked about before, but something more timely that´s evolved right out of the middle of it.

And in the middle of all this wine and scribbling come the pilgrims, hospitaleros, and dramas, and Paddy falling off the bicycle and scraping the hell out of his elbow, an elegant garden luncheon with Marianne la Suiza, and a call from The Federation for me to come out to La Rioja to do an emergency hospitalero gig, and a call from the Church for us to open up Sto. Tomas here in Moratinos once a week so the passing pilgs can come in and have a gander. So we are doing all of the above. Kim is still here, making it all glossy and shimmery rather than ratty and unraveled, although I think she´s gonna hit the trail again pretty soon. (We did a Road Trip up to Ponferrada yesterday, and I took us on a sentimental journey up to Peñalba, where I started on the Camino Invierno a couple of months ago...we climbed a 3-kilometer mountain path to the cave where the holy hermit St. Genadio lived 1,300 years ago. (I wanna write his story. Except I think he was a woman. Really.) here are some pictures. And notice the new header. That´s Kim´s doing. She´s phenomenal. And she´s the header up at the top of this entry, looking all edgey.

Put it all together and it means we are happy here at The Peaceable Kingdom. We are doing what we oughtta. (Like the kiddie song, about the little white duck, swimmin´ on the water, doing what she oughtta-r.)

Summer rocks.

I might be another little while before I post again, due to that emergency gig. It´s between Estella and Los Arcos, for all you Camino-heads: out in the middle of the vineyards in La Rioja.

How I suffer.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

He Had To Die

At first it was simple hen-pecking, dominance games, lovers´quarrels. But those eventually degenerated into bloody sexual battery. Soon the suspect, a cocky youngster with a bad attitude, was assaulting everyone in his path, challenging every authority, leaving a trail of blood and curses in his wake.

So we killed him.

This afternoon Milagros, a seasoned poultry handler, did what none of us had the guts to do. She gathered Mad Max the rooster into her blue apron, grasped him tight in her capable hands, and broke his neck.

Offing Max was not a sudden decision. Snowy the hen is just now recovering from the infected wounds beneath her wings, where Max´s spurs gouged her skin. All but two of our hens, all of them half the size of their magnificent mate, have bare patches on their backs, where his claws and beak ripped away their feathers. Chicken Answers website says mating doesn´t have to be so violent, but some roosters just like it that way. Solutions? Buy more hens. Separate him from the girls. Or casserole the cockerel.

We don´t want more hens just now. Yesterday we tried separating Max from the flock, but somehow he engineered a jailbreak – and soon the entire flock, battered and torn, was making a beeline for our vegetable garden. I rounded-up the hens easily enough (the girls come when I call to them), but once they were safely inside the fence, Max decided to take me on. Attacking Paddy has become a daily sport for him, but Max always treated me with respect. Until yesterday. It was time for a Showdown.

He ruffled his feathers into a Samurai warrior helmet, hopped forward twice on his absurd toes, then launched himself at me. I took all 20 pounds of seething chicken fury right at the knees. Wings flapping and claws clawing, he caught hold of my pantleg with his beak. He didn´t realize I was holding a chunk of kindling in my hand. I caught him a heavy blow upside the head, which sent him tumbling into the chicken yard. I closed the door behind me. Inside, Max picked himself off the ground and staggered upright. He shook out his ruff, stretched out his neck, and crowed.

He thought he´d won. Foolish fowl.

I went inside and sat down at the table where Patrick was reading. “We need to talk,” I told him.

“It´s that mad rooster,” he said, not looking up. “I know.”

We agreed we don´t need a cockerel. Hens happily lay eggs without any help from a male of their species. And they appear more presentable when their feathers are not gouged out.

This afternoon was my turn to sit at the church and greet visiting pilgrims, which usually means greeting visiting neighbors, at least in the slow afternoons. And when Milagros arrived, I told her about Max, the abuse, the attacks, the hubris. Milagros said she´d happily whack him for me. Roosters his age are delicious, she said, if you cook them long enough. Lots of dark meat. She walked home with me, scooped the big bird right off his feet, and carried him away to meet his fate.

And so this evening Estevín, Milagros´ son and our Honorable Mayor, delivered to The Peaceable the earthly remains of Max, tucked in a plastic bag, plucked and ready for the crock-pot. I was not present for the encounter, but Paddy and Kim told Estevín to take the critter home and eat him. They couldn´t bear to chow down on someone they know.

It´s full-circle then, for old Max – he returned to whence he came. Milagros and Esteban gave Max to us last year, when he was still a leggy youngster. Milagros said she´d give us another teenager to replace him, but the new guy probably will grow up to be just as nasty. That´s just how roosters are, if you don´t eat them when they´re young.

Max had a good innings. He got to grow into a magnificent creature, who greeted each day with a hearty song, stood his ground against Patrick´s daily incursions, and gobbled grubs and grain and greenery. He was wonderfully stupid and gleefully game. But he abused his wives. Which is something up with which we shall not put. Not in a place noted for peaceability.

It had to happen. I was not the executioner, but I was the executive – I made the final decision. I contracted the killing. His blood is on my hands.

And his carcass is on Milagros´ table. Stewed slowly with lashings of cognac, the fine fat free-range Max will make them a magnificent dinner.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

All-Star Lineup

Just look what happens when I go away for a mere ten days. An All-Star lineup of Camino Personalities passed through here, most of whom I love and enjoy deeply. Kim and Paddy fed and accommodated them, and things only got a bit ropey once that I heard of.

The fun began before I even left, when Frederic from France showed up – only moments after Federico the Guitar Guy left with his latest crew of guitarristas. Last year both Freds were here simultaneously, and managed to make the chicken-hut door work. The two of them have nothing in common except both their names are Fred and both turn up here at the same time. Eerie. Frederic went to work cementing the cracks on the front of the bodega (he likes to work when he visits, God bless him!)

I left. Then the fun started. First came some Dutch and a Kiwi (a person from New Zealand). Frederic left when they did, heading out for Fatima in Portugal. A German man who stayed here two summers ago returned: Rainer, the guy who thinks he is Jesus. (A second coming of Christ?) We get lots of saints and True Believers here, but this one takes the prize. Paddy lost patience with the Son of God when he didn´t offer to help with washing-up. (I don´t think anyone was told to Go to Hell, thank God.)

That evening, Frank arrived – Frank the Scottish hospitalero. He stayed a couple of days and helped Kim make our dog-dug front patio into this: A lovely little herb garden!

You can see he finally got Nabi to cuddle up, too!

After Frank came Sue Kenney, a charismatic pilgrim from Canada. Sue´s life changed radically after she walked The Way, and she´s since produced inspirational books and videos, gives talks all over Canada, and hosts a website and Camino walks aimed especially at women who would probably never dare to do it alone. This summer Sue is walking the Camino back-to-front. She started in Santiago and walking eastward. (that´s her in the top photo, doing just that.) She stopped into The Peaceable for a night, and charmed them all with her many stories.

And then came George, accompanied by his godson Jake.

George Greenia is another Camino Personality, a medievalist and Spanish professor at College of William and Mary in Virginia. He and I produced a magazine together many moons ago. He´s a witty speaker and a top scholar on all things Camino... we had a quick visit in Burgos a month or so ago when he was there to address a conference on world pilgrimages. George´s present pilgrimage might look like a penance: he´s accompanying a group of 21 American pilgrims for five-plus weeks, many of them in a “high-maintenance” category. He´s pulled a muscle. A close family member died suddenly in an accident. But George keeps on ticking.(that´s George in the photo in the red jacket on the left, and his godson up there in shorts.)

I am happy to report that he and Sue and Jake went with Paddy and Kim and assorted other pilgs over to Carrion de los Condes that evening to hear yet another set of Peaceable friends perform at the beautiful Iglesia Santa Maria: Adam and Will, the guitarist and violinist who recorded an album here last October, are back on the camino, part of Fred/Federico´s concert series. Jake did a reading at the pilgrim blessing. And afterward, everybody came back to Moratinos for a great feast!

Once that great event passed, the Japanese arrived: Sonomi, Chisado, and Arigato. They were fascinated by the dogs, and Tim and Una allowed themselves to be petted and fussed-over endlessly. And our hard-boiled eggs, usually distinguished from the raw ones with smiley faces or a letter H drawn on the shells, are marked with beautiful Japanese characters. The ladies were here two days, and were succeeded by Hom Sung Bae, a Korean accountant and blog-follower. He stayed two days, too – he wanted to meet ME! Jet-lagged as I was I don´t think I made a great impression, but he seemed a lovely man. He bought Kim a birthday cake and huge candles to decorate it. 

Scattered among those days was a Murphy disappearance and reappearance; creation of an isolation ward in the chicken hut, courtesy Milagros; a big loud “discussion” at a town meeting over what to do with money earned keeping the church open last summer; four days of rain; and another film-making triumph from Kim.

I missed it all.

Now that I´m back, nothing whatsoever is going on. No pilgrims, no guitarists, no messiahs. Just a whole lot of weeding to do in the garden. Laundry, and dogs, and reading, and writing.

Here´s the movie. Hope you like dogs!

Monday, 7 June 2010


Here I am at my mother's home outside Apollo, an Appalachian enclave in rural western Pennsylvania near the city of Pittsburgh. I lived in this area for many years, and spent much of that time planning how I might get out. It's a sad place to spend much time in. I could see only a bedraggled region raped and left for dead by a century and a half of mining, steelmaking, smelting, and every other kind of human pollution. Its low self-image and battered economy and general malaise always make it a great place to be FROM, rather than a place to Be.

It's a similar story down in suburban Washington, D.C., where I spent Friday evening and Saturday with my daughter Elizabeth. She lives along Columbia Pike, in a neighborhood called Tyson's Corner. A place with a name like that you'd expect to be broad fields and buggies and friendly farmers called Flem and LuElla... and it probably was, up til the mid-20th century. Now it is acres of apartment blocks, parking lots, strip malls and big-box retail outlets, threaded together with four-lane asphalt strips and blanketed with the smog of a million cars backed-up at every stoplight.

This is America, my home. And it is deeply shocking to a system so accustomed to the relative silence of The Peaceable Kingdom.

I know what is happening to me. I am trying to take this very slowly and easily. I am getting lots of sleep, avoiding alcohol and cigarette fumes, trying to eat lots of fruit and veg and vitamins.

Routines are important when you're culture-shocked. So this Sunday morning, on my way out of Virginia I stopped at St. Alban's Episcopal Church of Annandale for the weekly Eucharist.

I have not attended an Anglican church service for many, many moons, and this one was a beauty: Bach skilfully played on a sweet little pipe organ, hymns sung out with enthusiasm, a full complement of clergy in full vestments (there's a seminary in the diocese), flowers on the altar, squirmy children in the pews, and the gloriously poetic and approachable Rite 2 liturgy. Bread AND wine. And the priest was a SHE!

I had to struggle not to weep at the end, when the organist ripped through a Tallis postlude without missing a beat. I love going to Mass at Santo Tomas in Moratinos, and I may now be a practicing Catholic. But this service this morning? Extraordinary, and beautiful, and emotionally overwhelming. I surprised myself. My soul was at Home.

Later in the day, after a long journey north to Apollo, I took a couple hours' walk down McCartney Hollow to Roaring Run trail. (I hadn't had a decent walk for DAYS...) Yes, the abandoned trucks and rusting machinery and busted-down gas wells are still out there, but they're garlanded with knotweed and trumpet vines. The hillsides are dense with greenery, erasing the scars and ruts from view. I climbed the trail up Jackson Run, and at the falls a young couple splashed and paddled with their tiny toddler twins. Laughter and joyful shrieks echoed up the steep valley. Up above, the breeze tossed the treetops. A thunderstorm grumbled.

I picked the prickly fingers of a blackberry vine off my shirt and turned and listened to all the sounds around me. A robin sang out. Goldfinches. A red-wing blackbird. A brush-cutter. Children shouting. Someone shooting at targets with a .22 rifle, somewhere nearby. The waterfall.

I have not walked along that trail for more than 25 years, but I knew exactly where I was in the world. My father walked this trail, and his mother walked it, too. This is my inheritance. This is what Home sounds and looks and feels like, when you're from here -- grubby and redneck and sad, but still beautiful.

It is home. I don't belong here anymore, but what is Here belongs to me.

Somewhere in my DNA is a red-wing blackbird.