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.