Sunday, 30 December 2012

Born In the USA: An Intensity Checklist

I am back in America, living a couple of weeks of holiday with my family. It is very intense. Here is my highlight reel:

Surprising Cora Lee: I found an incredible round-trip airfare back in October. I booked it, and told my sister Beth, who lives near my mother. Our family loves surprises, I figured I would sneak home for Christmas and surprise my mother, seeing as I have not been home in Pittsburgh at Christmas for a good seven years.

The scheming snowballed into a Great Christmas Conspiracy -- Operation Let's Surprise Mom! Beth, a born mastermind, eventually ensnared both my children into the plot, as well as my little sister Martea and her two boys. And so Christmas Eve saw my daughter Libby at my mom's house, and my son Philip driving down from New Hampshire to pick me up at the Boston airport, and Martea and family boarding a plane in Little Rock. Me and Philip picked up Mart and boys at the airport in Pittsburgh, and the lot of us converged at Beth's house, where Mom was setting the table for Christmas dinner. She looked tired. I hoped this wasn't going to be too much for her.

Me and Mart, the faraway daughters, stood in the dining room doorway.
"Hey, mama." Mart said, casual as you please.
Ma had just put the potatoes and gravy on the table. In her hands she held a flap of foil, and the lid to the antique china gravy-boat. I saw her mouth open, I saw her hands shake. She looked back at the table, and back at us. We were not ghosts!

Beth pulled to things from her hands. Mart and me and the boys swarmed around her, and mom/Grandma/Cora Lee cried like a little girl. (She was not the only one.)

Meeting Maximus: We visited Aunt Esther and Barbara, my cousin. These are two fine women, strong and wonderful, who live in a log house out in the woods. The Peaceable is a shadow of what they have going on -- Barbara's way with animals and machinery is a model I can only shoot for. Barbara always has a couple of dogs around the place, and this time she's got the biggest dog I ever met. His name is Maximus. He laid his chin on my knee (something Tim loves doing), it was akin to having a the head of a live ox set gently onto my lap. But an ox that drools and says "rrrumph."

It gave me a moment of whim-whams. I was very happy that dog was friendly!

Big Snow: The sky went dark, the weather went bad. Philly's car skidded and slid up the hill to the dentist's office in Vandergrift, where I learned my teeth are not so bad after all. I walked downtown along Hancock Avenue in the thick of the snowstorm, the ice pinging off my cheeks, past the house on Sherman Avenue where my great-granddad lived -- he founded that town, you know. Vandergrift is down on its luck, but everyone that day was cheerful and kind, offering me rides, holding off the snowplow so I could pass.

Wasabi Blast: Yesterday me and Philip said goodbye to all that and headed south over the Allegheny mountains to suburban Washington, D.C., where Libby lives. Her neighborhood is staggeringly diverse, and the ethnic food varieties boggle the mind of someone who lives in a world where the restaurant offerings are Castilian, Castilian, Tapas, Pizza, and Castilian. We went to a place called Osaka. I ordered Chirashi, a Korean take on Japanese sushi. The bed of rice beneath the fish was studded with honest-to-god real wasabi, freshly ground.

It was nothing short of spectacular.

A goodly lump went into my mouth, and sent a Great Wall of Fire to overrun the lymph nodes in my neck. My mouth watered furiously, and the heat swept up the back of my neck and the underside of my jaw and rolled through my sinuses. My eyes contracted, and tears squirted from the ducts alongside. It was as close to pain as pleasure can go without making me scream out loud. I was in a public place, with my children. It was almost embarrassing!

I had some more. I ate it all. I slept very well last night.

St. Alban's:  The latest and maybe best of all was this morning. I went to church. I love church. I love Santo Tomas in Moratinos, but I am most at home in the Anglican Communion -- a liturgy I feel is the apex of liturgical beauty, a work of poetry and ritual performance. Probably because it's in English, and probably because I know it "chapter and verse." It is home. And at St. Alban's Parish in Annandale, it is done up with all the altar boys and girls, crucifers, deacons, readers and Eucharistic ministers of every shape, size, gender and ethnicity. The people in the pews stand up and really interact. The songs are sung in harmony, with a big German-style pipe organ. Today it was "Angels We Have Heard on High," with all those descants on the "glorias!" and at Communion my favorite "O How a Rose 'ere Blooming." Communion is done at the altar, kneeling, with both bread and wine. Good, spicy wine, strong with Holy Ghost.

It is good I only do these things rarely. They don't lose their freshness. They stay glorious for me.

I feel very far from The Peaceable, but very much at home.
It is all very intense, and exhausting in its way.
When the time comes to go home to my Real Life, I will be ready.  

Saturday, 22 December 2012

In the Bleak Mid-winter

Late December. It is foggy and dead quiet in the tiny pueblo. 

Mist comes in the night, and stays well into morning. Today we braved it. We took all the dogs in the car over to the Promised Land, to a new section, the dirt road that connects San Nicolas a dying adobe pueblo called Rio Sequillo.

The road was impassible. Yellow mud squidged underfoot. The dogs ran up and down the gray fields, but they stayed close. There was no horizon, no distance. We could hear the busy autopista when its sounds bounced off the facing rise, but our voices were muffled and softened.

Clouds laid themselves along the ground. What are usually the heavens came down to the earth.
We cut across the fields until we were lost. Distance stretched out. Time slipped. Mud clogged the treads of our boots and weighed us down like deep-sea divers.
Paddy has a chest cold. He started slowing, coughing.
We found the road again, a road, it could´ve gone anywhere but it felt right.
That is when Lulu and Harry, like Victorian villains, vanished into the mist.
They stayed vanished for three hours.

We are not sure what to do about this, aside from keeping them on leads all the time. They are greyhounds, designed to run free. They glory in their morning gallop, but when the two of them are loose at the same time, after their initial game of cannonball-run, they cannot  be trusted.

We know all this. We´ve been through all this many times. You would think we´d learn.
It was particularly stressful today, seeing as Paddy was feeling bad, and the days are so short and the sunlight so feeble. The trail was far from home, unfamiliar, and fog blocked out all the landmarks -- Lu and Harry are sight-hounds, they don´t navigate by nose. The roads between there and home are busy with holiday traffic. And these are not bright dogs.

We have three other dogs, good dogs who stay close. They were tired and dirty, so we took them home. Rosie had rolled in something smelly, so I bathed her. We had a bite to eat. Paddy had a lie-down.

Long story short: I drove the Kangoo out there once the mist began breaking up. The impassible roads were made passible, but not without hair-raising slides, spinning tires and flying muck. (Our little van has a nice high clearance, but the next one I buy will be a four-wheel drive, I swear!) I scanned the horizon with my little field glasses. I saw a tractor out there, and a couple of human figures -- hunters maybe. No dogs.

I drove down to where the drama started. Alongside the car was a flicker of movement.
As if from out of the very earth she sprang -- Lulu! She was beside herself with joy to see me, she cried and whined and yipped, and leapt into the back of the car when I opened the hatch. Her brother was nowhere to be seen. If Lu knew where Harry was, she wasn´t saying.

I took her home and gathered up Paddy, whose face by then resembed the very Wrath of God. We drove out to the same place, and found Harry waiting there for us.

The two of them are, literally, in the dog house.
The sun went down by 5:30. The rain started up again.

And so you see how little happens out here on a winter´s day. Nothing to write about. No deep insights, no revelations, no pilgrim tales. No Christmas tree this year, no bright lights or packages. We are being minimalist -- the doctor told Paddy his cholesterol number must come down, the wine-bibbing must dry up, and so we are being abstemious. The weather is right for asceticism. A box of Christmas wine arrived on Wednesday, crianza from Rioja, in huge magnum bottles. We opened one, but there´s still a few glasses left of it. 

We read all day, and chase dogs, and I go to my Spanish lessons twice a week -- nice progress is being made on the past tense.

On Thursdays, after my lessons, I can shop at the little weekly market in Carrión de los Condes. A man there sells lovely mandarin oranges, fat ripe pineapples, and dates and brussels sprouts still on their stalks. The bakery on the plaza makes real raised glazed doughnuts. One stall sells nothing but hats. One old lady comes into town to sell the three cloth-wrapped soft cheeses she and her sheep made that week. Above them all on her marble plinth is a bronze Immaculate Virgin Mary. She gazes into the heavens, ignoring the grackles cackling in her starry crown. The plaques say all of Carrión is dedicated to her Immaculate Heart, but her face is turned from them. No one down below seems to notice her, either. 

There´s not a pilgrim in sight. 

Nothing to see here, folks. Come back when the sun comes out. 


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Plastic Lamb in the Home of the Brave

It´s a dark and stormy day here on the perimeter. The dogs and cats are sacked-out in front of the fire, our stomachs are full of lunch, and Bud Powell is playing "Time Waits" on the stereo with Bob Canary as front man. There´s no good reason to go anywhere, what with the fields all fallow mud and the days so very short, and the wind blowing the rain sideways.

We went to church. Flor and Family set up the vast manger scene in the entryway, in keeping with local tradition -- it´s got real moss and aluminum-foil ponds, plastic palm trees and heavenly hosts in several scales and sizes. It is janky and homely, and I love it. It is our dime-store Bethlehem, a Peace on Earth that fits in a big cardboard box in the choir loft.

In the Prayers of the People today Don Santiago first spoke of Newtown, CT., whose children and teachers were killed by a madman with a big gun. He held up the community, the state, and the United States of America before the Lord. I felt some eyes looking at me. I felt that dart of pain in my heart. It is a dart that is getting way too familiar these days -- another mass shooting, another moment of my neighbors wondering what the hell kind of place I come from, that would let this kind of thing keep happening.

I prayed, too. I put down that pain and self-consciousness and national guilt at the foot of the cross up front, seeing as I was at church, and that is what an altar is for. 

Back at The Peaceable I look at the internet, and it is full of horror and pain. It is also full of anti-gun and pro-gun self-righteous bloviating, the ugly kind I had kinda hoped was finished after the presidential election. America is clearly just as divided as it ever was. The country is in major trouble, and everyone is either wild-eyed and blazing, blaming "those people" for all the madness, or insisting that we all be quiet and stifle our outrage  "out of respect for the lost."   

I am American. I grew up on a string of military bases. My father was a military man, but he was not a soldier -- he served his 23 years in the Air Force. He did not carry a gun. "Guns are for hunters and soldiers, for policemen," he told us. "In the Air Force we aren´t soldiers, so we don´t have to carry guns. We have technology. We listen. We use intelligence," he said. So maybe from him I learned, in the way of a child, that guns are used only after discourse runs short.

When we moved off the military base we kept a (unloaded) shotgun behind the front door, "to keep the honest man honest." In summertime my mother, a crack shot, kept a .22 rifle handy for picking-off the groundhogs out in the vegetable garden. Dad used a thirty-aught-six rifle to hunt white-tail deer in November. We children learned to shoot at targets, but we did not handle guns. We did not touch them without our parents´oversight. Over time, we kinda forgot they were there.

It was an uncle who first made me fear guns. He lived very near, drank way too much, and was terribly unhappy. He wore a nickel-plated .44 in a shoulder holster, strapped to his bony chest. His "sidearm" was his "goddamn god-given right." One sunny morning he used it to kill himself. His daughter, my best-beloved cousin, found what was left of him. I love her. I saw how she suffered. That is why I hate handguns, and hate what her dad did with his. (I am not supposed to write about this.)

I was a news reporter for many years, some of those on the police beat. I worked with men who carried guns as part of their duties. I knew two policemen who were shot dead, one at work and another at home. I saw shooters, and I saw shooting victims, all but one were dead. (I saw stabbing victims. They were bloodier, but they were almost all alive. They had a chance, at least.) I covered the trials, I saw the evidence, the weeping moms, the disfigured, the incarcerated, people still alive but their lives blown away. I saw the guns, tagged as evidence, the ragged bullets, pieces of skulls. 
Guns make violence easy, and very final. Guns are part of America´s history. They are written into the U.S. Constitution, as a way for "well-regulated militias" to keep tyrants at bay. What was a reasonable check-and-balance back in Colonial days has, with 200+ years of technology and capitalism, morphed into a monster. Any American with ready money can buy an assault rifle, or a semi-automatic handgun -- weapons of mass destruction -- at the local K-Mart store. Not just jolly hobbyists. Fearful people buy handguns, or people in despair, or people with family or emotional or work problems. Not just madmen, either. People just like me and you. They have a gun nearby. Sometimes emotions get out of hand. Like one domestic killer told me through the glass at the Michigan State Pen, "It was there in the closet. She wouldn´t shut up. It was just so easy."

The outcomes are written in the scripture of Statistics: 

    In the US 2,694 children and teens were killed by gunfire in 2010. (This  number includes suicides, if that makes a difference.) Since 1979, when gun death data were first collected by age, 119,079 children and teens have been killed by guns. That is more child and youth deaths in America than American battle deaths in World War I (53,402) or in Vietnam (47,434) or in the Korean War (33,739) or in the Iraq War (3,517).  And that is just counting the people under age 20. In a first-world, developed nation.

We live in a country where someone´s "right to bear arms" translates to denying a kindergarten classroom its first-amendment "right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." No one seems to have courage or common sense enough to look it in the eye. Maybe because we respect the older parts of our Constitution too much to change it.

Maybe because we love our families, and this issue walks right up to our doorstep and rings the bell. 

My family lives in the United States, and my family keeps guns. They use the rifles to shoot deer, rabbits, pheasants, and wild turkeys. They use handguns to shoot targets and the occasional rattlesnake. (My in-laws include a police chief and a sheriff´s deputy; I do not know if they carry sidearms at work, but law enforcement is a legitimate armed service.)  None of my family has shot one another, at least not in recent memory. They are steady, decent, working-class people, not given to violence. If any of them carries a concealed weapon, I don´t know. I don´t want to know. 

But do they need assault rifles? Do they need guns that shoot entire ammo clips in seconds? No. They are not well-regulated militias. They don´t need arsenals. Weapons of mass destruction are not needed or desired by rational, decent human beings. Automatic weapons are are good only for SWAT teams and cold-blooded killers. Rational gun owners of America, the hunters and hobbyists, even the "mine is bigger than yours" macho men, will agree with that. I think.

But if I were to go home now, and meet with my family, and these shootings should come up in conversation... We are a family of gun owners, and a family of opinionated people! What would happen?

Nothing would happen.

I would remember how much I love them.  
I would remind myself that being loving sometimes is more important than being right. That love overcomes fear. That my family members are just as convinced of their right-ness as I am of mine. That I could not change their minds any more than they could change mine.  
I would breathe deep and keep my peace, secure in their love for me.
I know they might have a gun in their handbag or pocket, but they would never point it at me, no matter what I said to them. I would not say anything to them that might make them upset, because I love them. 
I would very much lay my prayer again at the altar, to remember what Jesus said how truth often is a sword -- or an AK-47 -- in family situations. It is dangerous. It can cleave a family into parts. Discretion is the greater part of valor.

All of us is well aware of the canyon that divides us. And unless somebody drinks too much and starts, well, shooting off his mouth, we would not go there. 

America has a genius for keeping millions of wildly various people, spread out over an enormous space, together in some fertile, dynamic tension. Americans, by and large, are amazingly tolerant people.

My sisters and cousins and uncles and in-laws are Americans. They might abhor my politics, but I know they love me. They know I love them, even if they believe...  well. I will shut up now.

I wonder if keeping my silence is noble and patriotic, or if it is the same cowardice that keeps Americans from facing the truth about the bloodbaths that keep happening in our home towns. Maybe we need to shout this out in our families before we can work it out on a policy level.

But half of us have only words for weapons. We all know how passionate many gun-owners are on this issue. We know 99% of gun owners can have a rational family discussion without getting crazy and shooting people. Gun owners love family peace even more than their guns. Am I right? 

I am part of a Peaceable Kingdom. A wacko lefty, a "libtard," an expatriate by choice. A black sheep in the Home of the Brave. A janky, dime-store plastic lamb.  I know when to shut the hell up.

Christmas is about innocence arriving to overcome darkness. It is about silence and peace and humility, and powerful potential for peace, most probably at a terrible price.

So once again we set out the manger scene, and say the words we all count as holy. Christ our sacrifice is born in Bethlehem!

Let us keep the feast.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Poetry of Pretérito Imperfecto

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds

Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

- RS Thomas

Thank you to Rev. Andy Delmege, aka "Pilgrimspace," who published this in his Wordpress blog. It is simply beautiful.

I get a lot of pleasure from poems. They are so boiled-down and precise, but they look so easy and languid. As a writer I enjoy playing with technique in prose (as you can see from the last post, I sometimes get carried away!) but I leave poetry the heck alone. There´s enough bad poetry out there already without me adding to the pile. And wonderfully, deliciously, we seem to be living in a time of poetic flowering! I keep finding more contemporary poets whose work is superb. Friends send me poems. I have a whole file of them here on my computer someplace. Poems are helping me now.  

I am taking Spanish lessons in Carrión de los Condes with a sprightly lady named Lucía. She is very good -- our very first session she went right to the heart of my problem with verbs, and we´ve been bashing our way through them ever since. It is very hard. I have skated around this for years now, and it´s time to set aside my lazy-ass excuses and just do this.

I am letting myself imagine what it will be like to sit down at El Castillo with the neighbors and just chatter. We do a form of that now, I can keep up with all the byplay and gossip and jokes, but I am not quite fluent enough to put my zinger in there at the right moment. Not yet.

I want to. I can.

I will, if I just work really hard for a while. It´s about time.

Poetry helps, especially poetry I already know. Sunday Mass is the best example. I know and love the creeds and prayers already in English, and every week, sometimes even more often, we recite them together in lovely Castilian Spanish. They are some of the most beautiful words in the world, in every language. And just look at all those verb tenses:

Señor Hijo único, Jesucristo,
Señor Dios, Cordero de Dios, Hijo del padre:
tú que quitas el pecado del mundo,
ten piedad de nosotros.
tú que quitas el pecado del mundo,
atiende nuestras súplicas;
tú que esta sentado a la derecha del Padre,
ten piedad de nosotros:
Porque sólo tú eres Santo,
sólo tú Señor
solo tú Altísimo Jesucristo,
con el Espiritu Santo, en la gloria de Dios Padre.

I want to read poems in Spanish, and the meseta novels -- I can read simple best-seller type books, but reading classical literature in Castilian still requires a dictionary nearby. I want to understand all the words of the Flemenco singers, my Diego el Cigala songs, my Buena Vista Social Club CDs (although Julia tells me nobody understands what they´re saying under all that yowling!)

I learned some poetry already from a Flamenco singer, my favorite, a woman called Carmen Linares. She sings Spanish poetry, she sets it to music. It uses all kinds of verbs, and that helps me out:


Recuerdo que cuando niño
me parecía mi pueblo
una blanca maravilla,
un mundo mágico, inmenso;
las casas eran palacios
y catedrales los templos;
y por los verdes campiñas
iba yo siempre contento,
inundado de ventura
al mirar el limpio cielo,
celeste como mi alma,
creyendo que el horizonte
era de la tierra el termino.

No veia en su ignorancia
mi inocente pensamiento
otro mundo más hermoso
que aquel mundo de mi pueblo;
¡qué blanco, qué blanco todo!,
¡todo qué grande, qué bello!  

Like Andy´s poem. Simply beautiful.
Worth working for, working toward.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Loki´s Daughter

Jörmungandr was a horrible, beautiful snake who lived in the earliest age of Norse myth. She was the daughter of Loki, the tricky, shape-shifting semi-god, and Angurboda, a wolf-haired giantess. Jörmungandr slithered on land for a while, but returned to the depths of the ocean to grow into a thick, ravening monster.

One day on the dark sea floor, Jörmungandr bit down on a great dark moving thing. The pain was paralyzing.  She had grown so long she´d wrapped the width of the the world -- she had torn into her own tail. And so she stayed that way for eons, her hunger blindly binding together the world beneath the waves. 

I am writing the myth of our first years here at The Peaceable. Like any creation story, our beginning was terrifying and wonderful, at least to us. Passage of time and much telling have given our tales a golden glow. I am trying to keep it simple. I am telling the tales the same way we tell them around our table when the pilgrim asks the inevitable: "How´d you get here?"

We have dozens of stories. 

I have tons of resources. We kept daily diaries and accounts. We wrote letters, clipped photos from magazines, circled things in catalogs. Half a year into the adventure we managed to get internet installed here, and I started this blog.

So I went back into the blog. I looked at the entries that drew the most response. I tried to see the issues that came up over and over.

It is very difficult work, looking for a road through a forest you grew yourself.  I need wings, I need to fly above it all like a hawk, but I am bound to the ground. I follow clear paths over ridges, and there I see again the light blasting through the trees, the dappled mud. I hear the dogs bark -- dogs now dead --  I hear tractors rattle and roar in the background. I follow the familiar paths til they stop at the highway fence called "the present."

I am distracted. So many sweet details I want to put in there, toothsome, crusty characters. I am slowed by accounts of anxiety, rejections, misunderstandings, boring painful months I do not want to remember and I assume no one wants to read. It is ugly and slow. I don´t want to go there.   

But I want to stay true. The story is rolling forward down those farm lanes, but it wobbles and veers, its wheels are barely holding to the axle.

I wonder if it is worth it, I wonder why I am doing this to myself. I wonder why I worked so hard on the Zaida novel, why I have anticipated this writing project almost since we came here. I wonder why this is so hard, when I´ve wanted it so much.

And then I see I am the sea-snake, biting my own tail. Years ago, I wanted so much to leave America and come here and start this work. When I arrived and settled into the labor I wondered why this was so hard when I wanted it so much. I wondered if it was worth it, why I did that to myself. 

But I stayed with it. I lived through the hard parts, I suffered and rejoiced and learned and grew, and many other people benefitted, too. A cycle began and peaked and is finishing, like so many things seem to be winding up and finishing these days. I was a pilgrim, and became a hospitalera, an instructor, a guide-writer, a counselor. But hardly any pilgrims stop here now. I cannot leave here for two weeks to volunteer at a pilgrim albergue, and I don´t think I want to any more. No one wants to take the hospitalero training course. Publishers aren´t interested in new camino guides. I face a blank wall, a loss of the identity and ego-fulfillment those roles gave to me.
I still am a writer, though. Our story is worth telling. I will stay with this. I will live through the hard parts. I will suffer and rejoice and learn and grow. Maybe it will never be published, or maybe only a few will ever find it in the great ocean of dreck that publishing has become. But already I have benefitted.

I will have to become comfortable with repeating myself, with meeting my own tail in the darkness of the deep. It is hunger, the myth says, that bound the world together.   

Or, as a poet says: 

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

"Love After Love," 
by Derek Walcott

Monday, 3 December 2012

Keith is shot. Carry On.

A group of New Age type pilgrims is "cleansing" the Camino these days, preparing the Way for the new ether energy that´s going to enlighten our lives in days to come.

Another group -- well, three of us, anyway -- is cleansing the camino too. We are picking up all the trash along the trail where it passes through Palencia province. I am sure the other group´s work will have a  more lasting effect. Still, ours is gratifying enough. It is certainly exciting. Especially when firearms are involved.

Yesterday morning I met up with Bruno, the Italian innkeeper over at Albergue San Bruno, and Keith, the Yorkshireman who last year also volunteered to help with this annual enterprise. We synchronized our mobile phones, stuffed our pockets with bin bags, and armed ourselves with a broomstick with a nail in the end. We used the car, to better cover more country. Following complicated logistical arrangements laid-out the night before, Bruno took the car and dropped off Keith in Calzadilla, then drove back and parked the car in Terradillos. He walked from there  to Ledigos. Out on the far end, Keith walked from Calzadilla de la Cueza back toward Ledigos. I walked from Moratinos to Terradillos, where I took the car and picked up the other two. (We are, obviously, university graduates.)

About 20 minutes into my stroll down the camino, my telephone signaled a text message. It was Keith, whose phone number is English. The text said:

"I´ve been shot. Shaken but OK."

Holy moley, I thought. It is hunting season. Some drunken idiot was out firing away at quails and got Keith! What does "shaken" mean, exactly?  I´d better drop my trash bag and get to Terradillos and get in the car and get him!

Then I thought, No. Terradillos is two miles away, on foot. This is some kind of joke. Some bizarre straight-faced English thing. I am not going to fall for it, because I have asthma and running to Terradillos in the morning cold might kill me. And if it was a joke, it was not funny. I have seen a few shooting victims. I have had guns pointed at me. It does not make me laugh.

I texted back:  "No way."

And the answer came back: "Yep. Fine to carry on. K."

Carry on. How exquisitely English!

I picked up trash the whole way to Terradillos. I drove at reasonable speed to where Keith should have been, and there he was. Blood was running from a corner of his mouth, he was shaking like Lionel Barrymore, but the rest of him looked OK. He climbed into the car. We picked up Bruno and took him back to Moratinos, and took young Keith to the health center, where I struggled to translate the whole tale to the doctor.

Keith was walking up the camino. A hunter with a rifle under his arm was walking toward him. Just as they passed, just as they said "good day," the shotgun went off. It blew a great hole in the path between them, bits of lead flew every which way, and Keith felt like someone had thrown a rock at him, hard. The man dropped his gun and cried out in anguish. He embraced Keith, wiped his face with his hanky, apologized profusely, gave him his telephone number. By then Keith realized no great damage was done -- he might end up with a fat lip, was all. He walked on, picking up litter. He bled on, too. When I picked him up he looked pretty scary.

The doctor cleaned him up, filled in some papers, spoke quietly to Keith. He was more concerned about the trembling than about the little wound on Keith´s face. Like a few other Englishmen of my acquaintance, Keith was more focused on getting a drink than anything else. We went to Pili´s, sat down, breathed. Keith unwound a bit. He picked bits of lead out of his jacket and laid them on the tabletop.

"You know what? I could have been killed," he said. "I´m damned lucky."

Damn straight, I told him.

This morning we drove in the wrong direction, over to Bercianos del Real Camino. There we met Rosa, a doctor who chucked it all to open an albergue on the camino, who has dealt with one disaster and rip-off after another but who is still bashing away at it. She had fresh wood mushrooms in a basket, and a beautiful brown nanny goat. We stopped at Manfred´s cross, a marble memorial to a German pilgrim who died on that spot in 1998. Someone or something had knocked it over and broken it into three pieces. We took tools and steel and silicone cement and stuck it back up again.

We turned around again and headed to Calzadilla de la Cueza, where we started picking up litter once more. It took hours. We drove slowly west to Carrión de los Condes, we picked, we stuffed bags and bags of bottles and cans and wrappers into the back of the van, 17 kilometers worth of pilgrim castoffs. We saw a flock of two dozen quail, and not a hunter in sight. We worked against a backdrop of crystal-clear, snow-topped mountains and perfect blue sky. We arrived at what is usually the most trashed picnic area of all, and found that some fabulous pilgrims had been there before us. Four big bundles of trash, improvised from baling-twine and sheets of black agricultural plastic, were stacked neatly along the road, as if they knew we were coming. God bless their hearts.

When we finished, our trash bags filled a dumpster bin right up to the top.

And then we had lunch. Potatoes and field mushrooms, sopa castellana, asparagus and fried-egg sandwiches. The work continues tomorrow, when we carry on west from Carrión.

Thanks are in order: The Annual Palencia Camino Clean-up is organized at The Peaceable, executed by volunteers, and financed by donors large and small from around the world. It´s not too late to buy us lunch! There´s a donation button over to the right.