Saturday, 31 December 2011

A New Year Blessing

Zamora province, Camino Levante. August 2011

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing
If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.
Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.
There is nothing
for it
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:
to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;
to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.
There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.
Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel
to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.
Jan L. Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook

This from my friend Claire, who posted it from elsewhere. May 2012 bring us all blessings and revelations. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Holy Innocents

Paddy, Miguel, Martina, and Petra, hospitaleros all
Christmas came with two roasted chickens, three otherwise-lonesome hospitaleros, (2 Germans and an Italian) two rosy pilgrims, (a Brazilian and a Dutch lady), a warm house and big appetites. We got through a pint of pickles and peppers, a kilo of stuffing, 2 pounds of Copper Penny carrots, a bowl of home-grown parsnips, a loaf of bread, tiramisu, half a stöllen, eight brownies and a half-liter of caramel ice cream. And a bottle of champagne. And five bottles of wine.
Holy Innocents on Calle Ontanon

We even got a Christmas tree put up, at the very last minute. It is outdoors, in Murphy´s window, all decked with jolly lights. We let the hens run loose in the yard, and split up a big ol´ cheap sausage among the dogs. A good time was had by all, and seeing as hospitaleros were part of the scene, everything was cleaned-up and put away before sundown. 

I picked up Philip the next day, at the airport in Madrid. I will not burden you with the hair-raising ordeal of finding him there. All is well now. He is here with us at The Peaceable, a bigger, broader version of himself. He is my son, whom I have not seen in almost two years! He is a first-year student at Franklin Pierce/University of New Hampshire School of Law. He loves to talk. I am adjusting my sensors from "prevailing silence" to "chatterbox." I love him very much.

Paddy is prevailing silent. Jo, his first wife and mom to his three boys, is hospitalized down in Malaga, gravely ill with blood poisoning. His son Matt is there with her. Paddy is not sure what to do. He is not much good at sick-bed duty, or even keeping his other two sons apprised of events. He cooks us lovely spaghettis and omelettes, and cracks wise, and swears at horse races on the computer. I love him too. I just hope I never get very sick.

The other exciting news on this Day of Holy Innocents is I finally met Alicia! She is the first grandchild born to Julia and Paco, two of our good neighbors. She is a month old, very tiny and pink and doll-like, with very good lungs. Her mother is simply besotted with her, as you might expect. I look at them, and I look at Philip, who was about that size himself only 24 years ago. I marvel at what time does to people. And I rejoice in my heart, knowing Julia has a grandchild, and knowing I never have to face raising another infant of my own!   

In the evening Raquel came by, bearing gifts: beautiful yellow apples from their huerta, two jars of jam, and a great quivering block of membrillo -- quince jelly. Milagros gave us a great block of membrillo last week, the same day Angel gave us a spectacular cabbage. We still are discussing what should be done with it. What shall we make with it all? Can it all be eaten?

So here we are with an abundance of food and wine, with friends enough to share our Christmas feast, with family come from far away to spend some time in silence. Here we are with generations of a town: Raquel and Modesto the patriarchs, little Alicia the future. And here we are with worries for one of our own, someone fragile and far, whom we could easily lose. 

It is quiet and sunny, chilly and sleepy. The last couple of months have been tough, but 2011 was a very good and busy year for us, taken all together. I can´t ask for any more than that, can I?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Short Days. Long hours.

We have been very ill for the past week. Even after a round of anti-biotics I am still unwell. This is getting very tiresome.
Paddy is gone to London to attend a friend´s funeral. I am here, but I am not alone.
Fred wafts in and out, bringing groceries, repairing the front gates and spoiling the dogs. With Paddy gone, the dogs are particularly needy. I take them for long walks in the mornings, probably over-long -- I am worn-out by 11 a.m. They stay near me, they run hard but do not let me out of their sight. I think they might be taking care of me.
This morning, over at the Grand Canyon near San Nicolas, I saw two beautiful foxes slipping over the broken ground and up the camino. Lulu and Harry saw them too, but they didn´t chase them. Maybe they, too, were awed by their fluid beauty.
Christmas is coming to Moratinos. The little plastic Bethlehem is all set up in the church entryway, with real moss and dried flowers for trees. It is silly and beautiful. Each Sunday the Magi are a little farther along the sandy pathway to the manger in the upper corner.
I do not know why, but there are two Baby Jesuses.
Over at the bodegas José and Esteban toil away in the concrete bunker that will sometime soon be a bar and restaurant. Fred stored some box-wine in our bodega, but this weekend discovered mice had chewed through the cardboard, eating the glue all along the edges. They pierced the foil bags inside, of course... and so we have a mess in the cave, and some rodents full of holiday cheer! Tasteful mice. They only chewed the boxes from France. 
At Hostal Moratinos, Martina spends her mornings waiting for the scarce pilgrims to pass. She offers them German herbal teas, gingerbread, pumpkin soup. If no one shows up to take a room, she lowers the blinds at sundown and tucks herself away.
The nights are very dark and cold. The stars are hard and sharp in the sky, and Orion spins across the firmament as the hours pass.
At the Hospital San Bruno, the pilgrim albergue, Bruno and Miguel have an electric star in the front window. The place will be closed between Christmas and New Year´s Eve, when it seems everyone will be back in town. We will take up the slack, here at the Peaceable, in the days after Christmas, the very last days of the year.
Pilgrims are already running into trouble: daylight is so short, the distance between open albergues very long. A German man showed up last night just after midnight, banging on the back door, the emergency exit we rarely use. He was lost, exhausted, and very sorry. And lucky -- he chose the right house! I put him in the green bedroom. He ate a banana and three pears, then slept for 13 hours. 
I am led to meditate these days. Perhaps because of the long nights, perhaps because there is so little else to do that is interesting. (Reading makes my head swim, and we don´t have a TV.) Meditation makes my senses sharper, makes me slow down and think and appreciate more. Music sounds better, I hear the crows and hawks shouting at one another in the fields. Twenty minutes a day makes a world of difference. It also is an agony for little Rosie, who must leave me alone the entire time!
She watches me, even when she is asleep. She follows me, wherever I go.
I am alone here, but I cannot be lonely.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Signed, Sealed...

Now that the manual work is done, I need to get down to the written test.

Which is another way of saying "Christmas cards." I try to keep track of all the friends and family and just random kind people who touch us in special ways each year, and at the end send them each a nice hand-written holiday card. This should not be difficult, seeing as we no longer clog our Decembers with evergreen trees, holly, or extravaganzas of cookie-baking, partying, or gift-giving. I string a line of Christmas lights around the living room or over one of the larger house plants. I bake stöllen or lebkuchen or something merry, and if we expect a crowd I will roast a fowl or some kind or other. This year I grew parsnips and brussels sprouts in the garden, just for the holidays, because Paddy likes them. (we shall see how they turn out!)  But compared to the month-long lunacy so many people undergo, things are pretty simple and easy around here at Christmas. I like to think if a star appeared in the east, or a baby was born out in our barn one of these nights, we might not be too busy to notice.

Anyway, we looked over our diary and thought back over the nice things we enjoyed this year, and we made up a list of people to send cards to. I bought ten nice ones from the UNICEF display at the post office. Ten cards. It tends to focus things a bit. Who is on the list?

>Kathy, who sends us divine Mexican tortillas from California, at vast and foolish expense. Who flies to Spain to walk with me on unexplored trails. A great friend. A card for her, surely.
>And one for Tracy, who drove me and Kathy up to the mountains, and let me stay at her villa in Marbella, and is soon to open a pilgrim welcome place in Galicia.
>Denis, the French Scotsman who rescued Kathy and me from the hot griddle that was the last three kilometers of the Camino Vadiniense in late July. Sent by angels. A card is the least I can do.
>Miguel Angel, my Mexican-French psychoanalyst friend. I did not see him this year, but on a particulary tough day in the spring a courier delivered an elegantly wrapped tin. Inside were waxed papers, embossed with the name of a French pàtisserie: Pastries. Cookies. Sweetness. He was just thinking of us, he wrote on the little slip inside.
>Filipe, my Portuguese DNA scientist and bosom friend who whisks me off to the beach. 
>Dael, the dour Scotsman who helped me move 16 tons of dirt onto the bodega roof in May. The man deserves much more than a card. He needs a medal of honour, that one.
>George, from Virginia. An academic, a gentleman, a scholar, a mystic. He introduced me to movie stars in February in Washington D.C. We go way back. I love him.
>Ivar, who lives in Santiago and always welcomes me to town with a big lunch and all the latest camino news.
>John and Stephen, more Scotsmen. They walked and talked with me across the baking plains of Valladolid and Zamora provinces, and who now are innovating a pilgrim welcome center in Santiago. Visionaries. 
>Marion, and the other very English people in the Confraternity of St. James office in London, who edit and publish the guides I write. Infinite patience. Hard work. No pay. Except maybe a card now and then. Worker bees.
>Colin and Margaret, from Wales. They drive their camper van from home all the way to Rabanal in the summer, to volunteer at the monastery there. They stop here on the way, and have done ever since we lived in the summer kitchen. They bring us Marmite, cheddar cheese, Branston Pickle, and week-old copies of The Times and The Guardian, and great good cheer.
There are others. You get the idea.

What do all these fine people have in common, except acquaintance with me and The Peaceable?

I cannot find postal addresses for any of them.

In the Information Age, I am without their data. It is here somewhere, maybe tucked into a computer file, or scrawled in a notebook. I have found addresses for Kathy and George, but I know those are out-dated. And Kim. Where is Kim these days? The sangha in Colorado, the Hindu chant-fest in Puerto Rico, or in Key West? I could send out an email appeal to all of them, but that would spoil the little frisson of receiving an honest-to-God, hold-in-your-hand greeting, wouldn´t it?

So here I sit with beautiful little cards and lots of good will, but noplace to send it all.

I wish everyone could be blessed with such a problem. Lucky old me!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Seamy Side of Santiago

Along a two-lane highway we walked, our coat-pockets stuffed with slippery green litter bags, our hands in gloves, our hearts in the right place. It was me and Keith from Halifax, Yorkshire, preparing the Way of the Lord.

Me and Keith, an out-of-work statistician who got on a plane in London early this week and flew to Valladolid and took a train to Sahagun and walked to our house to join me on out here on the seamy side of the camino. He brought along a handy litter-grabber device, which made the job do-able from his six-foot height. There were two of us, one little van, rakes and shovels, and two sizes of bags.

In four days we did every inch of the way, from San Nicolas to Itero. Almost 70 kilometers. All of Palencia. 

The Camino de Santiago is a UNESCO Cultural Itinerary, a Spanish national treasure, the Main Street of Europe, the Way of Stars and Stones. It is also a trash-dump for tourists, pilgrims, and local folk alike. In December, after the weeds die back, a year´s worth of litter lies exposed along the path. (With more than 150,000 pilgrims passing this year, that´s a lot of litter.)

And a lot of organizations want a piece of that action. They line up to plaster their logos on We Luv Camino signs all up and down the path, but none of them has arranged a comprensive trash-removal program. Municipalities and local clubs or confraternities supposedly keep an eye on the trail and pick up the clutter. But Spain now has no money. Cities and towns are too strapped to waste labor on outlying hiking trails, especially near county lines or municipal borders. It´s winter, and nobody wants to work outside. It´s "the holidays," when everyone is supposedly "spending time with family." The old folks are too stiff for all that bending and lifting. The young ones all live in the city.

Camino litter is a hot topic on some online pilgrim forums. Foreigners find it appalling. They shoot photos of the granola-bar wrappers, poop-and-toilet paper assemblages, and drifts of empty water bottles in the ditches. They post them on their blogs, they analyze what kinds and nationalities and age-groups of idiots would desecrate a holy path with sewage and garbage. Spanish school-groups and bicyclists come in for a kicking. Heads are shaken, "tut-tut" is said. There are cries of "someone ought to do something," and "It is not my mess and not my problem."

And after all the outrage, accusation, and bloviating, the hubcaps and toilet paper are still out there.

Advent started last week, the penitential season leading up to Christmas. A year ago I had a profound Advent. I wanted to continue with that. I wondered what kind of project I could do this year to mark the season. The Scripture verse at church gave me the answer: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. The valleys will be exalted, the mountains and hills made low, the crooked straight, the rough places plain... and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord."

And so it came to me: Pilgrims walk the Way of St. James to find God. So I oughtta pick up the trash on the path. Prepare the Way of the Lord for them, so if the Holy Ghost whispers their name they will not be distracted by the half-mile of wrappers that once were a KitKat 6-pak. I had found a way to make boring old waste management into a righteous pursuit!

I posted on the website with all the trash-complainers -- I am out to clean up the Way, maybe all the way from Burgos to here. Anyone want to help? (I did not expect much response, but I took a chance. It would be much simpler logistically if there were two or three of us.)

Keith put his hand up right away. The Confraternity of St. James of South Africa left dozens of plastic litter bags with us when they did a "Spring Clean the Camino" campaign two years ago, and a kindly blog-reader from America donated money enough to cover our lunches.

The work is harder than it appears at first. We followed along the camino far as we could with the furgoneta-car, and walked the rest of the way. On the stretches between Revenga and Fromista and Boadilla and Itero we drove slowly, eyeing the ditches alongside, stopping and jumping out to snatch Coke cans or plastic bags as they appeared. We tried all different ways. At the notorious picnic area outside Carrion we just stopped and shoveled. At Villacazar de Sirga I dropped off Keith with a bundle of bags, and drove myself to Carrion de los Condes, and we each walked toward the center-point along the two-lane, picking up the bottles, cans, cigarette packs, styrofoam  and hubcaps tossed away over the past months by pilgrims and bikers and drivers of the passing cars. The weather is perfect for this. We are still healthy and spry enough to do this work. We are tired when we finish, Paddy is feeding us very well, and we sleep very well these nights.   

It´s the sleep of the righteous. We are righteous trash-pickers, I am not afraid to say it. Sinners saved by grace, grubby and tired but full of life. I´ve decided to make trash-picking into a regular spiritual practice.  

I made a fine stöllen for St. Nicolas Day
...hosted by Daniel and Martina at the new Hostal Moratinos (she is German)


Monday, 28 November 2011

Long View from the Tiny Pueblo

When all the fear, aches, ugliness, bad news, and impending disaster gets to be too much, I take my telescope out into the yard and look up at the stars and planets and moon. I still love the moon best. (Probably because it is easiest to find with my telescope!)

Here is the latest from NASA, shot over the last couple of months from the International Space Station. Sit down for a minute and take a breath and let it play.

It is not just pretty pictures. It is pure philosophy.

The sky is the best free show in the whole universe. It is calm and dark and huge and so far away, and so constant. Even though humans have mapped the stars and planets, given them names and measures and grades, the stars themselves remain value-free. They don´t care.

I get caught-up in fear, aches, ugliness, bad news and impending disasters, I do not look outside myself, even though we have a choice. I get so caught up in relationships, schedules, neighbors, communities, politics, I stop seeing other people as struggling creatures who are just like me, trying to fix what is broken, trying to change people and policies and things to make life more secure and happy, to make the pain and fear go away.

I am just a creature. I will not be here for long.
The planet does not care if I am liberal or conservative, Muslim or Christian or atheist. It does not care if the oceans are poisoned or the price of silver or Euros or coffee is going up, or if currency is collapsing.

It will keep turning, light and darkness, lightning and Northern Lights, with me or without me. With us, or without us. 


Thursday, 24 November 2011

Walking: Ordinary Time

At 4 o´clock each afternoon, if no one is visiting and it´s not raining and if we feel like it, I put on my boots and choose a dog from the lineup. I leave the other three moaning behind the gate and take off down the street for Julia´s house. Julia pulls on a jacket and ties a scarf round her neck, and off we go on Paseo.

Julia´s house is a plain brick place on the axis of the village, where the highway bends down to touch Calle Ontanon. Hers was the first door to open to us when we came to Moratinos. We were
strangers then, and she and her husband Paco invited us in. They invited us to lunch on the biggest day of the Fiesta of Santo Tomas – on a day dedicated to family and the pueblo, they made room for two foreigners at their table. We dined on rabbit and endives, roast potatoes and baked apples, all of it raised right there.

After dinner we took their daughter Juli with us to see a tumbledown house down Calle Ontanon and round the last corner. The house was for sale. Young Juli spoke good English, and could translate. Julia Madre was keenly interested in what went down.

The house we saw that day is now The Peaceable. Julia was here from the very start, offering warnings and advice, exclaiming “Ay! Virgin santo!” whenever we let slip the price we paid for anything.

Julia and I have walked together, off and on, all the years since. Sometimes other people join us – Leandra did for a while, and Oliva (in their slippers!), Juli and Christie, Paco and sometimes Chus, their daughter-in-law. Our most constant companion is Julia´s brother Fran. Fran lives in his own world, but he likes a good airing. Walking with Fran is like walking a cat. He falls behind, or strides on ahead. He has his own dialog going, his own songs he sings.

But mostly it is just me and Julia. I set a stiff pace, and Julia moves right along on short legs. She is not a big woman. Her chestnut hair is kept shoulder-length, usually caught up in a pony-tail. She is quick and active, slim and bright, her tastes are simple and somewhat conservative.

She has a ready smile with a bit of glitter from a silver-capped cuspid. She loves to talk. She knows everyone in the towns around us, the owner of every field, sometimes what crops grow best on which tract. It was Julia who showed me the little hidden holy spring at Fuentes de San Martin, the abandoned village down the road. She can look at animal poo on the trail and tell if it´s left by a rabbit or a hare. In her pocket is a plastic bag and a sharp knife, so we cut mushrooms that grow along the road, take cuttings of wild thyme. We pluck red berries from a tree by the beehives. Nothing goes to waste. In my patio she pointed out the little flowers I thought were some kind of daisy. Those are manzanilla, she said – camomile. I give her cuttings of camomile and rosemary and Christmas cactus. She gives me starts and seeds for native flowers whose names I don´t know.

We walk far and fast for two middle-aged ladies. Sometimes we go for miles, out beyond Terradillos or over the Grand Canyon and up the road toward Escobar (their feast day was Wednesday. San Clemente.) We walk until we run out of sun. She does most of the talking, but that is fine by me. She has so much more to say.

One day in the Promised Land a stretch of the tractor-path was embedded with the soles of many shoes. I wondered out loud where they all came from, how they got out there so far from any habitation. She knew, so she told me.

Up til not so long ago there was no trash collection service. Everyone just threw their old broken things into the same pile out back with the manure and trash, scraps and slops. Once in a while the whole pile was hauled out and plowed into the fields. There´s lots of strange things out here, she said, but everything but rubber soles finally rots away back to earth. 

Not everyone in Moratinos is fond of one another, and occasionally I get a whiff of interpersonal conflicts. Julia does not discuss those things. She is not a gossip. There are plenty of more interesting things to talk about besides the neighbors, she says. We talk about our children, how my children are together with the extended family for Thanksgiving -- how this makes me feel, being so far away. Julia waits, walking, while I struggle to string together the subjects, objects, verbs into a description of Thanksgiving Day in Western Pennsylvania, the roast turkey and pumpkin pies and my cousin Jo´s great house on Chestnut Ridge.

Julia is a keen traveler. Her daughter Celia lives in England, and Julia´s spent some time over there. She doesn´t always make it home for holidays. Julia can kinda sympathize. She thinks it´s a good idea for a whole country to take a holiday to be grateful for what it´s got.

And so I am grateful today, even without all the holiday trimmings and Aunt Esther. The sun is shining, and in an hour´s time I can head out again, this time with Rosie on the lead. 

We´ll walk for our health, to take the air, to practice some Spanish, to see who´s planted their garlic already, whose dog had pups, how old Gregorio´s holding up after his operation. Fran will sing us songs about the flag, or “una Chica Yay-Yay,” or “the way you broke my heart,” and we will walk on plain old tractor-paths, through mud and dung, in Ordinary Time.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Gut-Check at the Convent

It felt oddly under water, removed from the ordinary. Sounds were muffled, tempers cool. It was a long weekend, a meeting of the Acogida Cristiana en el Camino – a group of Christians who provide accommodation for travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Half of us were priests or nuns, so it was only natural to meet at the convent of the Benedictine Sisters in Leon, halfway down the camino. It is a place familiar to pilgrims who´ve passed through the city, as the sisters keep a big pilgrim shelter there.

Pilgrims sleep in the bare-bones albergue, then move on the next day. The fact they are staying in a nunnery barely registers. They don´t see many nuns unless they go to the evening prayers and pilgrim blessing in the chapel. Few do. They´re worn-down from a week´s walk on the plain old plains, and wine bars and pizzerias and a great stone cathedral somehow lure them away from the convent. A chilly chapel and 20 black-clad nuns can´t compete.

The sisters do not compete. They have their own world going on.

They´ve inhabited this slice of downtown since the 16th century, and with only a few historic interruptions they have continued the same round of singing, prayers, and worship without cease. They run a school, make medieval-style banners and hangings, keep an orchard and the albergue and an adjacent minimalist-chic hostel. And they host retreats and small conferences.

It was a three-day meeting, and aside from a breezy walk to a nearby shrine and a cathedral tour we did not see much of the city around us. We were immersed. As guests of the house, the sisters´ round of psalms and prayers was integrated into our schedule of meetings. It would´ve been churlish to skip Compline for the sake of a glass of Toro and a tapa, as good as those may be in the bar-rich Barrio Humedo. We stuck together, and stuck to the schedule.

It was a Hospitalero Gut-Check. We discussed the meaning of hospitality in the Bible and Christian tradition. We poked around the philosophy and the role of hospitaleros: We are, Biblically, acting as deacons, missionaries, and sometimes evangelists. We looked at how a tradition of Christian hospitality grew up along the trail as more and more people took to traveling it. Who were those hospitaleros? How did earlier pilgrims view their hosts, and how did the hosts treat their pilgrims?

We looked at how the camino changed since the 1980´s, when the only albergues around were run by religious orders or confraternities or other church groups, on a donation basis. The only pilgrims around were academics or hardcore Catholic penitents. People along the road hosted pilgrims in their homes, as pilgrims were few in number, and usually trustworthy and helpful. The pilgrims, the hosts, and the towns around them all knew the score.

And then, in the 1990´s, the Camino de Santiago was “discovered.” 

Over the past two decades an onslaught of hundreds of thousands of visitors swamped the primitive Christian accommodations system. Private albergues sprang up, hostels, hotels, restaurants, baggage services... the camino became a money-making proposition, and a magnet for people in search of cheap holidays. Hikers with no spiritual motivation took advantage of an infrastructure not designed to support them. Travelers, given a choice, prove unwilling to contribute much of anything. The priest in charge of the massive albergue in Ponferrada – a donativo place with space for 240 people – said the average pilgrim leaves 3 Euros in the box.

Pilgrims no longer come from a Christian background. Often, the volunteers running the albergues are not  Christians either. (Hundreds of generous former pilgrims volunteer each year for two-week periods to keep the non-profit hostels running. You don´t have to be a Catholic or a Christian to be a fine hospitalero, so don´t misunderstand me.)

The point is: when a Christian pilgrimage loses its Christianity, it becomes just another hiking trail. Modern pilgrims who undertake this ancient pilgrim path as a spiritual discipline are finding themselves lost in a crowd of souvenir vendors, Coke machines, and wannabe Templar knights.

Still. The Camino de Santiago is bigger than people. It is a sacred trail that´s waxed and waned over centuries and sustained itself through wars and counter-Reformations, inquisitions and invasions. We are surely not the first Christians who´ve wondered if this pilgrimage has been bought and sold, pimped and publicized to death. We do not despair.

Because we are still here. Hospitaleros (and villagers along the Way) are the other half of the pilgrimage equation, the counter-balance to the waves of seekers and pilgrims. If we don´t give up on being a Christian presence here, the Camino will not lose the Christian character that makes it unique, and so deeply, mysteriously appealing.

And that is why we met, and why we spent three days politely taking turns, telling tales and explicating, organizing and singing. 

I think the singing was the best part. In the meetings we sang bouncy new Camino songs with three Augustinian sisters from Carrion de los Condes. And in between meals and meetings we went to the chapel again, and sat in serenity as the sweet-voiced Benedictines chanted Psalms back and forth across the choir.

We chanted too, those of us who knew how, and most of us did. A church full of us. It was beautiful, sweet, soothing. After the hours of hard news and philosophy and hashing-out, delivered at breakneck speed in a clatter of regional Spanish accents, it was like cool water to just sing “Alleluia.” 

And to be reminded 

this is really not about us at all.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Postcard from Seville

Many generations of tiles in the fountains of Sevilla Alcazar

Written from Sevilla, Nov. 1, evening: 

In the lobby of Hotel Murillo I sit in a comfy chair and feel the cool air whisk through the sliding glass doors behind my back. I feel them before I hear them, the people passing inside, my fellow tourists, middle-class travelers from everywhere, chattering in Dutch and Danish, German and Spanish and broadest Michigan. In the beautiful twirly-carved mirror a girl stops and looks at her pretty brown shift. She pulls her hair back from her face, grasps it into a ponytail. She wears Keds with her dress. She glares at her nose. I want to tell her Yes, she is beautiful.

Seville cathedral, in non-revenue hours
Here with me in the lobby is a Portuguese or Brazilian girl, chattering with two-dimensional friends on the other end of her I-Pad. And another girl who looks very much like the others, in a wingback chair, speaking into a mobile in rapid-fire German about what she had for lunch. The programmed stereo overhead plays an over-arrangement of some vaguely familiar top-40 hit from Air Supply or Oasis. It is rendered unrecognizable. No one cares. 

The doors whoosh open and the football game howls from the bar across the donkey-wide street outside : “Gooooooalgoalgoalgoalgoalgoalgoal! Bells peal overhead  from the convent in the next street. Who knew the Carmelites were Real Betis fans?

Two suits of armor stand by. This music drips over them every night at this hour, but they stopped hearing it years ago. They do not understand a single word of us. They do not see more German beauties arrive, and another Portuguese in full makeup, her lips a perfect Deneuve. They all are so beautiful. No man is safe tonight in Barrio Santa Cruz! I take a photo for them with the silent armor. They shriek and squeal and grimace. Their lives are peaking just now, for all I know.

Patrick and I are on a short holiday in Seville. For two months I planned these five days. It is not easy for us to get away – a friend came from England to stay with our dogs and cat and chickens and canary while we were gone. I had to drive four hours to get her from the airport in Asturias, and I will have to repeat the journey when I get home. We have to make this count.

Seville is beautiful, but I am not enjoying it so much. My mind is not on where I am. So I came to the lobby, to exercise “being right here, right now.” Being present. Stopping all my stories from the past, and expectations of future days. Just to sit here, and be, and let Paddy have some time off from me too.
Paddy bought a new hat in Córdoba.

I don´t want to be in Barrio Santa Cruz in Sevilla, even if the whole rest of the world is SO here. I want to be at home in Castilla. I miss my animals, my kitchen, my corner of the sofa where I work. This morning, at the over-the-top 1929-world´s fair Plaza de Castilla, we looked at the little tiled stall that housed the display for Palencia, our rather backward province. Laid out in ceramic tiles on the floor was a map of the place. And over to the far left, right beneath a glob of chewing gum, was emblazoned for all of Spain to see and marvel at: MORATINOS. I took photos with my telephone, but I do not know how to upload those to Blogger. Otherwise, you all could marvel, too.

For the first time in many years, I am homesick.

In one of the most beautiful, metropolitan, soulful cities of Spain, I long for Moratinos, a nowhere town in Palencia, a forgotten, depopulated province in Old Castile.

Nobody goes there on purpose. There are no beautiful or historic buildings. Everyone here has planned and budgeted and looked-forward to this moment. They are so ready and so dressed and so beautiful. I wonder what their dreams are for this place, what they envision happening out there in the narrow streets this moonlit night. But I do not wonder long.

They can live their dreams. It is time I lived mine. I have walked miles today, and I will walk more tomorrow. Time to summon the lift, and interrupt Paddy´s solitude, and tuck myself in.

It´s a pisser, being a hermit/pilgrim on holiday.
Because holidays are so full of expectations, the very thing a good pilgrim is supposed to foreswear.

A truly happy Patrick

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A Star is Born (Again)

From the upstairs bathroom the pilgrim roared for the second time this evening. Flu, maybe, or bad food. He is not the first vomitous traveler to share that awful serenade with the household. The toilet flushed, and a few moments later he shimmered down the stairs and into the living room where I sat.

"Rebekah," he said, pale-faced. "Do you believe in God?"  

Not exactly what I expected to hear just then. But hey. "Yeah, I do," I told him. "You guys been talking up there?" 

He smiled a little. I gave him a big glass of water. I told him to sit down, but he didn´t want to. 

"Something is happening to me today. Something amazing," he said. "I´ve been walking for so long, and had such pain, and today I was walking alone so I just shouted and raged, like a madman. I am just so ready to give up. I tell myself if I get to this house and nobody is home, then that´s it, it´s a sign that my Camino is over. I am on the plane tomorrow and going home. But here I am. I feel like I am home." 

"You´re welcome," I told him. "This is what we do here. You came to a good place." (His arrival was a reminder to me that my troubles could be a lot worse, and that pilgrims are the priority here.)

"I wonder if God sent me here. I was so glad to find you home, because I don´t really want to go back home yet. I was up there lying in the bed, hearing the rain, and I just gave up anyway. I just told God, "I give up. You take this. I can´t handle my life any more." And then I got up and want to the bathroom and threw up like I never threw up before. And now I feel like, wow. Like something amazing is happening. I don´t have the flu. I am not sick, really. I think I just got rid of all the, well, shmutz I´ve been carrying in my mind forever."

It was a Billy Graham moment. Anyone raised in Evangelical Land will recognize it. 

"Wow," I told him. "Do you believe in God? In the Christian God, in Jesus?" 

"I do now," he said. 

"Well, then. What you just did means, in Christian terms, you are a new creation. You just made a brand new start, spiritually. Your past is gone. You are born again." 

"It feels like maybe you are right," he said. "I´m Protestant. I heard about this before, but it didn´t really make sense..." We sat for a minute. 

"What about the vomiting part?" he asked. 

"That is unique," I told him. "I never heard of projectile conversion before. It might be your body just mirroring the cleanup that´s going on in your spirit. But vomiting -- I think that´s maybe supposed to happen when your demons are exorcised. And that´s one service we don´t usually provide." 

"So I got a two-for-one bargain," he said, smiling. He smiled in all sincerity. 

We had a cup of tea. He then went off to sleep some more. 

Moratinos isn´t any more spiritual than any other place, but wonderful things happen here. 
We keep a mop and a bucket handy. 

(This pilgrim is a pop star in Germany, a real character. I would post his photo but I do not want to violate his privacy, and New Creations are sometimes fragile. Besides, I still have not found the cable for my camera.)


Cordoba was a mind-blow. The mosque there was so beautiful it made me weep. Sevilla was a let-down. I did not cope well with the noise and crowds.  

When time came to go home, we were ready. We´d had enough of the 24-hour racket and hoopla and shakedown prices. The longer I live, the less I enjoy large cities. We hermits like our own silent spaces and routines, and once we get settled in somewhere we tend to keep things pretty much the same.

But it was not to be.

The Sister of Mercy we left in charge of animal care turned out to be a brutally efficient housekeeper. We returned on a rainy afternoon to find The Peaceable spotlessly clean, the corners swept and mopped, the carpets beaten and even blankets washed. I was duly grateful. And then she unveiled her piece de resistance: the Salon!

The Salon has single beds for three, the best mattresses in the house. It has a long wall of shelves, where we store stuff we don´t know what to do with. Out-of-date cameras and cables, decades worth of film negatives, (remember disc cameras?) family photos, tax records, diaries, and New Yorker magazines are all hidden out of sight in colorful file-boxes. Or they were, up til now.

Now the mishmash is unboxed, stacked on one of the beds. The shelves are full of books, books moved from another shelf, which was moved from the corner along with the cedar chest, which is now in the middle of the room. The corners are spiderweb-free, and our fiction collection is filed according to genre.  The box of books for free giveaway is gone, its contents duly filed. Three baskets of notes and references for three ongoing writing projects are now emptied, their contents neatly stacked and filed into God knows what box. Even my bag of vocabulary objects for the English class -- cans of beans and peas, toy animals, seed packets and small tools -- was broken up and put away.

We´ve been back for days, but the Miscellaneous crouches on the bed like a gang of toads. It must be dealt-with. Decisions on what should be thrown away, what should be kept -- who is this familiar person in this photo? Will we ever use this camera again? Should I list it on EBay? What about these trail notes from the Ruta Vadiniense? What about this old printer/CD player/cassette recorder? Is there a place to recycle these things? What happens if pilgrims show up and we need to use this bed?

And that´s just the salon. The kitchen cabinets are now filed. And the upstairs linen supply.

...And our bedroom.

Dear God in heaven, she cleaned our bedroom. 

I am not sure when this place has been so clean, certainly not since Shimmering Kim left us. Somehow I feel I have been scrubbed-down too. With a steel-bristle brush.  

Maybe it´s the weather -- suddenly it is cold out there, and windy and wet.
Maybe it´s hormones, or the lack of daylight now that the clocks have shifted back.
Maybe it´s my sudden inability to write coherantly, right when I wanted to be hard at work on the new book. (I cannot find the notebook with the outline in it!)
Maybe it is Paddy´s fault -- he feels the same way I do, and we can´t afford to turn on each other.
I am very low.
But my house is clean as hell.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Mr. Clean and the Sisters of Mercy

The whole world is occupying and protesting and saying ugly things about each other.

Here at the Peaceable, though, (almost) all is Peace Love and Understanding. Paddy and I are off in the morning for Córdoba, and from there to Sevilla -- two "can´t miss" Spanish tourist attractions that I have never seen. I made some kind of whining sound late last month after we had a long pilgrim occupation and cabin fever set in, and what I said then was true: we need a break. We want to get away somewhere together for a change. And so Leena called up and asked, in her perky way, "When shall I come? And how long shall I stay?"

Today I drove all the way up to the Aeropuerto de Asturias to get her. It was a beautiful drive, and I only got lost twice. Leena took a week off work and came all the way there from London Stanstead, just to walk dogs in a backwoods Spanish town so me and Pad could get away for a few days. 

Sorta like Anita, the Busted Pilgrim. I wrote about her last week. She still is here, and will travel with us tomorrow as far as Madrid. Her arm is still in plaster, but her face is much more Anita-like now. It took a few days, but the last three or four she´s taken apart our sitting room, utility room, and old summer kitchen. She sorted out the pots and drawers of screws and drill-bits and fly-strips and eye-drops and outdated anti-depressant pills. She swept away the dust-bunnies and dog-hair muskrats and filth-beavers that have lurked for months (or years!) behind and atop and around the furniture and fitments. She sorted out the books, knick-knacks, Virgins of Guadelupe, the very pictures on the walls. It was horrifying and fascinating, like a train wreck. Having strangers see how truly nasty my house is. Knowing pilgrims sleep in those beds, with that much stuff underneath... Euuugh.

The two of them met only hours ago. At dinner Anita told about the things she´s achieved in the last few days. Lena cast her bright eyes round the room. Some kind of spark ignited between them. The spark of shared passion, shared compassion -- they tell me they are sorry I am so allergic to dust, that I cannot do this work myself. The truth is, they are obsessive-compulsive cleaners and organizers, and they´ve hit on a mother-lode of benign neglect that´s within their power to put to rights. 

They are OCD, and Patrick and I are, well... lazy. Patrick has bad eyesight, and supposedly cannot see the dirt. I know the dirt is there, and I can medicate myself beyond my allergies and do the work. I just do not choose to do it. Any more often than, say, every two years or so. And only one room at a time.

Upshot is: We have tickets to ride to Cordoba tomorrow on the 10:08 a.m. train. It now is 11:34 p.m. I am in the living room with the dogs and cat, relaxing, blogging. Leena and Anita and Mister Clean are in the salon, apparently moving furniture and wiping surfaces.
Leena says "You want to sweep that?"  
"Is this pilgrim stuff, or do you think these mittens belong to Paddy?"  Anita says.
"That I´m going to empty, and put these in there. That´s too pretty to hide back there."
"If we move this to the back room, maybe the pilgrims won´t walk out wearing Reb´s jacket any more."
"Isn´t this fun?"
"Are we being neurotic?" 
"This isn´t OCD. I´ve seen OCD. We´re doing this for fun, not because we have to." 

No. They don´t have to. People buzzing around cleaning is a sure way to drive Patrick to his bed, or to the pub. I feel just slightly guilty, having these guys laboring over my place and things. But not too guilty. It´s true, that kind of cleaning makes me miserable for days. They are doing a true Work of Mercy -- payback perhaps for some of the other mercy that was worked in the salon over the years. 

I didn´t ask them to do this. They are having a good time, God bless them both. They recognized one another right away, declared themselves sisters, and set to work. Leena and Anita, the Sisters of Mercy.
I am grateful for the blessings that rain down on me.
A burst of lemon freshness rolls out the door and down the hall.It´s a long journey tomorrow. I am going to bed. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011


An important week in a quiet sort of way.
For an entire week I have very slowly wrestled with the climactic scene in the novel I am writing. I have written this story three times now, and this part was most important and very challenging. I took it slowly. I was painstaking.

I was unusually busy besides. On Monday a phone call came from a tiny town on the Camino de Madrid. Anita, an American pilgrim, wasn´t going to make it to Sahagún as planned. Something had happened. Could we come and get her?

We did. She was waiting at the pilgrim albergue at Santervás del Campos, a medieval adobe town right out of a spaghetti western. Her face was a mess – one eye swollen shut, her lip split and cheeks bloody, one arm was crooked across her chest, like she just did three rounds with Bruno Sammartino. But she smiled. “Can you take me home with you?” she drawled.

She is a cargo pilot from Tennessee. She´d walked the whole way north from Segovia without incident. Tuesday was supposed to be the last day of this particular trail, but she was walking heads-up, surveying the roofs and cornices and soffit and fascia as she strode down the main street of Fontehoyuelo. Downhill from the fuente, the concrete heaves up a little, enough for both feet to catch. She crashed face-first, with 8 kilos of backpack pushing from behind.

Tuesday she spent with me in the health center in Villada and the hospital in Palencia. She was examined by a family doctor and an emergency doctor and a trauma osteopathic doctor, X-rayed twice and then plastered from wrist to shoulder – the crooked arm was broken at the elbow. The evil Socialist doctors did not give us a bill.

Anita cannot carry her backpack now, and she has noplace to go. So she is here.
Yesterday a Scottish hospitalero stopped here on the way to Castrojeriz, a town east of here, where she is helping to close the pilgrim hostel for the winter. She took Anita away with her, for what looks like the weekend. It is good to have a break after a few days, even from nice people.

Moratinos is a dustbowl. It has not rained for months and the dust is getting unbearable.

Austin, a pilgrim from Canada, started walking the Camino Vadiniense on Sunday, and phoned or emailed his progress as he “beta-tested” the new guide I wrote a month or so ago. On Wednesday we three drove up to meet him in Cistierna. He had not seen another pilgrim or spoken English for a week. He talked and talked, and we looked at his maps and pictures and ate sea bass and drank vermouth. He is liking the trail, but it is apparently kicking his butt, as it kicked mine in July.

It was beautiful in the mountains. The night sky was spangled with stars. I started thinking of other stories I want to write, when Zaida´s tale is told.

On Thursday Florian, a handsome German pilgrim, arrived with Einstein, his equally handsome dog. We let them both stay inside the house, and Harry was very jealous – Harry isn´t allowed inside, as he is a hound dog. (Einstein was a Münster, a smart sort of spaniel.) Florian and Anita are both pilots. They talked and talked about helicopters and airplanes, while Patrick made good things for dinner.

Before he left Friday morning Florian helped us move the big houseplants inside. The nights are getting frosty. Now the sitting room is full of greenery again. Soon we will start up the woodstove!

Today, Saturday, was best of all.

A big shipment of wine arrived, mostly Ribero del Duero. Delicious. The English lesson went well. Today they learned to say “No way!”

Still no rain.

The new two-star Hostal Moratinos, the Spanish/German enterprise on the edge of town, is now open for business. We went there in the evening. I had a Warsteiner Dunkel, a delicious dark German beer in a huge tall glass. Paddy showed the proprietors how to make a gin-and-tonic. It is a clean, sharp, well-lighted place in a really prime location for catching pilgrim traffic. I wish them well.

And on the way from there, in the dusk, José and Estevinas showed us how things are progressing at the new bodega-cave bar-restaurant. It should be elegant, I said. Slow but sure. Like learning verbs.

“No way,” José told me, grinning.

“No way José,” Patrick quipped. (I am not sure they got it.)

And further up Calle Ontanon we met Edu, coming home from his garden with a bucketload of freshly-pulled onions. They are gorgeous and fragrant, bristling with green tops. He gave me three. They weigh at least a kilo.

Back at home the dogs gave us their usual hysterical welcome, their tails tracing figure-eights in the half light. We settled in. Paddy watched a horse race from Keeneland. We picked the first- and second-place finishers.

At 9:30 p.m. I finished writing the book.

At midnight the lights flickered off, then came on again. The dogs looked up from their dozing. I lost internet access, so I shut down the computer for a while and picked up the daily diary. I heard voices outside. A man talking. The neighbors, I thought, staying up late.

But then the voice changed, and someone started singing. A folk song, a “niña bonita.” It was, I realized, the boom-box, the portable CD player out in the patio. The power surge had triggered it to “play,” and the flemenquista Carmen Linares was doing a midnight concert for the entire Barrio Arriba de Moratinos.

I stepped outside to restore peace. I did not turn on the lights.

I looked up to my friends the stars – the Big Dipper dumping upside-down over the barn, the W of Cassiopea atop the chimney, the Earth warm and powdery underfoot. The night was like velvet, and the singer´s voice rich as toffee. The patio was an adobe bowl, filling up. Eduardo´s onions on the table, the last of the basil leafing-out on the well-head, and the birds fluttering in the spruce overhead. I switched off the music, but my heart kept singing.

The patio was full of darkness and joy.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

New Life in the Old Pueblo

Leticia, Manolo, and The Star of the Show
They are Flor and Angeles, Hilario and Feliciano, Segundino and Angel and Manolo. The sisters are small and slender and fond of flashy fashions.
The brothers are short and portly, with spectacular smiles.
They share the same cheekbones and chins. They are fair enough to pass for Irish, but they´re Castilian to the bone.
Seven sisters and brothers, they grew up in Moratinos and still work together on their parents´ homestead. This weekend they gathered into the corner house on the plaza mayor with all their children, spouses, aunts, and uncles – 29 people altogether.
This is not unusual out here in the pueblo. Big families were the norm, right up to the 1980s.
It is not unusual that Igor, one of the sons of this family, a couple of years ago married Leticia, a daughter of the family who lives on sunny weekends in the house next door to ours. And this afternoon the vast assortment of friends and relations on both sides, and both ends of town, donned their Sunday clothes and descended on the church for the baptism of Asier, the much-anticipated firstborn great-grandchild.
The church was mopped and dusted and decked with flowers. The bell rang, and Angel and Pin set off sky  rockets. The 90-something great-grandparents – a bisabuela and a bisabuelo who now live in care-homes far away – gloried in their front-row seats, their faces radiant to see their old village and neighbors again.
The parents stood at the font, a 700-year-old stone cup that´s tucked under the stairs, and offered up their offspring to a Christian life. The baby was duly sprinkled with holy water, and shed not a tear.
Igor and Leticia were baptised at this font. Their mothers were, too, and Leticia´s mother´s father, and who knows how much farther back. Baptisms didn´t used to be so special.
This is the first baptism here for a good six years, Leandra told me.
At the turn of the 20th century, 120 people lived in Moratinos. The young men and maidens grew up together and married one another at this altar, then baptized their children at this font. They knelt here to receive their first communions, and turned up for Sunday Mass and rosary prayers if they were one of the respectable families. And when they died, their families gathered into the church to mourn. The church is still the heart of Moratinos, but these special events are landmarks, remarkably rare.
And so it was, back 20 generations or more, a thousand years. And so it continues, just not nearly so often. Not when the population stands at 21 souls, all of them over age 40.
We spilled out of the church into an Indian summer afternoon. Manolo and Flor and Angel threw out handfuls of candy, and old and young scrambled like gulls to snatch up the goodies. The families stood on the church steps and smiled for the cameras.
The sun was brilliant, the smiles luminous.
From there on the steps of the church you could almost hear Moratinos´ heartbeat. 
proud family
more of everybody
the whole crowd, except photographers

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Key to Everything!

convento de las clarisas, Astudillo

This is going to sound "woo-woo," but what the hell.

I watch the news, and most of it is bad. Soon our money will be worthless, the plans we made to keep us in comfort for the next few years are not so stable and sensible after all. What can I do? How can I get ready? How can I change a system so evil and so entrenched?

I felt scared for a little while. I looked at the wall of negativity on the Web, and I sat down with it to think. I decided to look round the other side of it, at what else could happen. I looked for a glimmer of light.

On the other side of this mess is something simple and beautiful.
I pray for it. I think so much of the answer to the fear and suffering around us, the suffering that is and may be to come, is for everyone to calm down, shut up, and do something Good.

Doing Good doesn´t have to cost anything. It is therapeutic, calming and cleansing. It has tons of historic precedent. You don´t need lessons or workshops or seminars to learn to do it. You don´t even need to believe in anything or anybody. It is as natural as breathing. It is something humans just do, whether or not they call it "prayer" or "works of mercy" or "charity work" or "volunteering" or "standing up for what´s right." 

My friend Claire made me think a couple of days ago, when she quoted author Brian Taylor, an Episcopalian Rector:
"Do you feel God most directly when you sing the blues? Then sing the blues and call it prayer. Do you blurt out things that everyone seems to be thinking but no one is saying? Blurt one, and call it the prompting of the Spirit. Do you love to cook and eat? Hold parties and consider it Holy Communion."
So he expanded on the "prayer" thing a bit. My point is, many of the things we do naturally are, with a simple re-phrase, doing Right. Doing Good. People have stuck labels on all these things and assigned them to lists and Virtues and Gifts of the Spirit, Sacraments, etc. etc., as if they were church property.
Nope. If God is as big as the church people say (s)he is, no one can co-opt goodness. It is from God. It is natural and human and therapeutic. It is not Democrat or Republican, Labour or Tory, liberal or conservative. You know what it is, because you are good. 
Unless you are a sociopath, you know what is right, and you know what needs to be achieved in your house or yard or street or neighborhood. Shut off the goddam TV and/or computer and go do it. 

For all our sakes. For God´s sake. 
It will put your mind at ease. It will correct wrong, clean up the mess, solve a few problems. Just imagine if everybody stopped snarling, snarking, fighting, and worrying, and just did something good. Every day. Not waiting for the government to do something, not worrying about someone else taking advantage. Just doing it because it needs to be done, and our hands are free, and the needs are clear.     

Even if the über-rich win and we all must live under a bridge, if we all are in the habit of doing Good we will make the bridge into a community, where good people do good for one another, without having to make a buck out of it, without having to score points at someone else´s expense. Maybe when we are all collectively screwed out of all our "belongings" we can dump our over-hyped, alienating "Individualism" and learn to take care of each another.

Jesus talked about that. Jesus the homeless brown-skinned revolutionary, the woo-woo Jew. (If I am just a silly dreamer, I am in very good company.) 
We cannot stop a financial armageddon. But we can stop being afraid, and go out and be kind to our neighbors. This is the only answer I can find.   

Friday, 30 September 2011

Hound Dog in the Promised Land

Paddy, Promised Land
If you have been round here for long, you know about the Grand Canyon, Labyrinth, Tumberon, Hare Field, Medieval Lane, and Happy Valley -- names we´ve given to the trackless landscapes around us.  You will not find them on any maps, but these names enable us to find one another while dog-walki, bush-whacking and star-gazing, or better describe to one another where we spotted the owl or the avutarda.

So... what´s the Promised Land look like in September, when the fields are cut and there´s been no rain for many weeks? Here you go. Shot today, while the camera battery stuttered out its last moments of power. I will do better next time, I promise.

soybeans sprouting near the bodega hill

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Things delight, if you let them.
Here are several things that delight me lately.

My grandad Albert Scott celebrated his 94th birthday Saturday. He is sharp and smart and funny, and now he has a girlfriend! Her name is Betty. She is a sweet young thing of 80-something.

This morning I picked a bucketful of sweet yellow apples from the trees in our back yard. I thought to make pies with them, but realized I still have sliced-up apples from last year in the freezer. I pulled those out to use them up, and discovered frozen sliced-up cherries, too. And cascabellas, the little cherry-ball fruit thingies that grow on the tree out front. So in the oven now is an apple pie and a cherry-cascabella pie.

I don´t know who will help us eat them, or even if they will be very good after all this time in the freezer. But we´ve seen a spate of very fine pilgrims lately. Hungry ones. And I bet these pies are going to be fabulous.

Lately the fruit and veg are beyond compare. In the past two weeks I have made the finest Red Gazpacho Andaluz AND the finest Sopa Ajo Blanco of my entire life. And some killer zuchinni bread and veggie quiche as well. It´s the vegetables, people. September is the moment for fresh vegetables and fruit, and I love to eat!

I delight in Literacy. Over the last couple of weeks I re-wrote Zaida, a novel I wrote last year about a Moorish princess who lived nine kilometers away and a thousand years ago in Sahagun. The book is now being read critically by three trusted people. And of course I now am discovering a great trove of historic information on that time and place that will have to be rubbed into the story somehow! I am delighted to say I feel no fear or resistence to re-writing the whole thing again if I have to -- I may need to make Zaida into a tough cookie instead of the innocent hard-done-by. This is a wonderful and simple story, but I am not so attached to my work that I cannot chop out chunks of it to make it even better.

Reading deeply of historic texts has always been a favorite pastime. Now I can do it with an end in sight. It makes me want to go and visit Córdoba and Sevilla (where Zaida grew up). Just about every tourist who comes to Spain goes to see Sevilla and Córdoba, but until now I have managed to miss them both. (FYI: Leprosy did not exist in western Europe until the 12th century, when the crusaders brought it home with them from the Middle East.)

I am delighted that Leena, a friend from England, may be coming in a few weeks to stay with the dogs, so Paddy and I can go together to see the splendid Moorish cities down south. We almost never travel anywhere together, so it is a treat when it happens.

Meantime, the camino has offered up some wonderful characters. We hosted a kilt-wearing Shaman massage therapist, a high-church Episcopal priest from Fort Worth (he updated me on goings-on in my beloved US denomination and did a bit of healing as well); Another night brought a chipper Dutch-English couple who run hotels in Costa Rica. (The man is a jolly prophet of our oncoming collective economic doom). We also had a beautiful Irish girl who explained how hashish is made, using freezer bags and tea strainers and a rolling-pin.

We bought three new tires for the car in a week´s time, and now the front end is making a not-encouraging sound when I turn the wheel hard. So far we´ve been able to address the problems as they rise... including the fused light-switch in the salon. When things go, they all go at once.

The English lessons are swimming along. It delights me to hear Flor and Estevinas saying aloud, “The doves are timid,” “I have no money,” and “José is drunk.” Some of them are doing very well indeed, even though I still do not know what I am doing. The hours of 5:30 to 7 p.m. Saturdays goes by faster than any other hour-and-a-half of the whole week.

Our critters are healthy, we are getting over colds, and we put the last couple of pilgs on a train for Oviedo just before lunchtime. Now I will have a nap.

We are doing delightfully.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Year´s Hard Crown

Internet is back. I am taking all the credit, even though I am not sure which of the several "fixes" I tried was the one that worked. It is all very mystical and mysterious. Maybe a saint dunnit. Thank you, whomever or whatever. Living takes on an odd cast when you know the communication links are down.

The sky is full of herds of birds, lots flying south, a few heading north! This afternoon we saw eight gray geese fly across the fields near St. Martin de la Fuente. The sky is becoming silent now. In the morning, out on the Promised Land, nothing can be heard but crows. I saw a snake out there the other day, black and gray, running away.

It is manure-spreading season. The familiar perfume hangs in the air. The flies are bad.

At the bodegas work continues on the new underground restaurant, with a forest of floor-jacks and elaborate cement-injection machines blasting away on the roof. Someday, something awesome is going to be there. Around the other side of the hill the Segundino family is rebuilding a collapsed bodega, connecting it inside with their current cave. Beautiful arches of bricks, all of it going to be buried at the end. We are keeping busy too, taking care of business: furnace maintenance, new front tires on the car ("Fear As Tony," the tire man recommended: Great for farm vehicles. Tough as nails. American. Then I saw the brand printed on the side of the tire: Firestone! Aha!) All we need now is a window and door out back, for Paddy´s painting studio.The next ordeal.

It all would be rather boring and anodyne if I was not working a good four hours each day on Zaida, the novel I wrote last November. I am doing an overhaul, a re-write, smoothing out all the repetitions and stupidness that slips into a document that size. It is productive, it is creative, and it is funner than just about anything else I do. Half my day is spent in Sahagun, but a thousand years ago.

The work is only apropos, seeing as Autumn is on its way.
Next to the downstairs toilet we keep a copy of "The Unquiet Grave," a series of epigrams by that cheery old elf Cyril Connolly. In there this morning I found this:

The creative moment of the writer comes with the autumn. The winter is the time for reading, revision, preparation of the soil; the spring for thawing back to life; the summer is for the open air, for satiating the body with health and action, but from October to Christmas is for the release of mental energy, the hard crown of the year.

Hear, hear, Cyril. I could not agree more! And now that I have the re-write half finished, other projects are flowing in -- Mitch is going to Bolivia at the end of the month, and will be writing madly after that to have his book in shape for a November deadline. I agreed to do that re-write, too -- no doubt chapter by chapter, as the draft is finished. Should be fun. I might actually make some money, too!

And then there´s the Vadiniense guide, and an article or two about the route for a couple of pilgrim magazines. Kim sent me a huge zip file of blog entries and photos... I haven´t had the nerve to open it yet.

It is very good to be booked-up. Things like blogs, housework, friends and birthday cards are neglected, but I don´t feel too guilty. I am doing what I do best, what I love most.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Limited Contact

The internet connection in our house has gone south again. I write this from Bruno´s place. I will get back into better touch when Civilization returns to The Peaceable.(everything else seems to be breaking down, too. Tis the season!)

Meantime, I am doing the re-write on Zaida, the novel I wrote last November. Without the internet distractions the work is progressing apace. Also, the English lessons here in Moratinos recommenced yesterday evening... I thought I might get five or six takers, now that the summer rush is over. But TWELVE people showed up, and stayed for a full hour and a half! What fun!

But seeing as I need to move on out of here before another purchase is required, here is my offering for the week. An offering, really, from Kim. She lived with us for a good while in the last couple of years. She is a  gifted woman, and a filmmaker. Here is her summary of her Year On The Road, part of which was spent with us in Moratinos. I could never have put it better than she does -- our house, and the Camino de Santiago, and Finisterre at the end. Put it on full screen and pour a glass of Tempranillo and just enjoy:

reflections from the end of the land from soulful road on Vimeo.

Thank you, Kimster, for being a part of our story.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

What I Ate on my Summer Vacation

A week ago I was stretched out on a lounge chair under a cocoa-fiber umbrella, dozing in the heat of a Portuguese beach. The hiss and roar of the Atlantic muffled the children´s shouts and the tak-tak of the paddleball players, and the calls of the boliña vendors -- "Boliñas! SUCH boliñas I got!"

In the Algarve part of Portugal, beach food is not hotdogs or sno-kones. It´s boliñas, berliners -- big cream-filled doughnuts! I can´t imagine anything I´d like less after a hard day of sun-bathing, but apparently at Praia Altura there are people making their living that way. I did not yield to the temptation.
Filipe and Lobster Cataplana

I think it was the only culinary offering I turned down in my entire stay there. Filipe, like many Portuguese, is a superb cook, and Altura is home to a small local market with excellent fish stalls, vintners, and truck-garden vendors ... So. Imagine what we ate and drank each day and night, out on the rear terrace -- cataplana cookers loaded with sea creatures, veg, and green wine. And when I trimmed the lemon tree, we made a fragrant barbecue from the sticks, and roasted lamb chops and red peppers and marinated octopus over the coals. It was days of wonderful excess, with some of the finest company in the world. And best of all, a week ago tonight, I looked into the night sky to find Cassiopeia, and instead saw a shifting, silent V of pink flamingos.


I drove the car this time. It gave me the flexibility to pay a visit to Tracy, a camino friend, author, and hypnosis therapist who lives on the Spanish coast. We met up in the mountains, hiked a beautiful green arroyo in Grazalema, ate local trout in the dark, and drove a massively long and twisty mountain road down to Ronda and into the great coastal Babylon of Marbella. Tracy lives in a palatial villa there, in a palatial gated enclave surrounded by golf courses, swimming pools, and spas. She has a beautiful balcony garden, a massive collection of books that I want to read, two superb cats, and a soft rabbit. But Tracy would much rather live in a stone house in rainy, gray Galicia, taking care of pilgrims. (how bizarre!)  
sundown over Andalusian mountains, north of Ronda

It was very very hot there. I did not stay very long. I drove on east to Torremolinos, where part of Patrick´s family lives. It was hotter still there, humid, crowded. We ate Indian curry, talked about the past and the future, real estate, funeral arrangements. The heat drove us north, back into the mountains, where we spent an afternoon in a cool reservoir lake, playing with Sam the adorable and sassy step-grandson. I learned that Matt, Paddy´s second son, lived up there in his 20th summer. In a cave. (Matt made a great video of the event, which I hope to post here:

back in my own house!
I headed home on Monday morning. It was a long, long journey, punctuated at the end with a minor accident: a rock flew off the back of a passing truck and into my windshield. The safety glass held up, but I was sprayed with tiny shards, and an impact the size of a baseball was right there above where I needed to see out!  Insurance paid for the new windshield. I got home just fine (in spite of my Garmin Nüvi 225W SatNav, which was worse than useless). I was very glad to arrive, because...

After two weeks away, Murphy Cat came home! He is missing one of his toes, but it does not seem to bother him much. He is as demanding and luxuriant as ever. I was so happy to see him, and the rest of the howling horde, I almost cried.

I wondered, stretching myself out on my own bed in my own room in my own house, what could have possessed me to ever leave this place.