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 She sorted out the pots and drawers of screws and drill-bits and fly-strips and eye-drops and outdated anti-depressant pills.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.