Saturday, 21 December 2013

Impending Comedy

My fingers are doggy and dented, my palms are calloused from wood-chopping and digging. The day after Christmas, about halfway around the world, I will meet with a manicurist. She will do her best to smooth my rough spots and make fine my fingers. I will visit an American dentist, who will make my choppers gleam.
I will drive the long highway from Pittsburgh to Toledo, Ohio, with my sister and daughter and mother and nephew. In my luggage, should USAirways deign to deliver it, will be my loveliest dress, my new stockings, shoes, elaborate underwear, and black pillbox hat, all of it shopped and matched and fussed-over, all aimed at December 28.
It´s not every day I get to star in a Woody Allen movie.
On December 28, my son Philip is marrying his best girl. But this is no ordinary wedding.
The bride´s name is Raheela. She is a second-generation Pakistani-American, part of a huge family of high-achieving and good-looking immigrants.
The ceremony will be at her home in suburban Toledo. It is a small rite, presided-over by the same imam who guided Philip in his conversion to Islam several years ago. It´s the “nikkah,” the actual legal vows part of the traditional Pakistani wedding.
Afterward, we all will repair to an uncle´s house nearby for the dholki. Far as I can tell, a dholki is a reception with music and food. (We are bringing along a mix of traditional American cookies, as is done at weddings on our side of the family.) We will dance. I am not sure what kind of music is played at a dholki, but I have told my son enough times “I will dance at your wedding,” so I´d better deliver.
Philip is a rare bird, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired American-born Muslim. He converted because he wanted to, and he´s stuck with it for several years. He labored on a loading dock through a hot summer and kept the Ramadan fast. He withstood the suspicions and prejudices of native-born Muslims at mosques in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, as well as the bemusement of his (somewhat)  Christian friends and relations. This is a faith that has been tried. It´s not just for the girl.
It was difficult for me at first, but I have come around. I am happy that Philip has a faith that works, even if it is not the same one I raised him on. He worships the same God I do, after all. And ultimately, it´s his soul. It´s his decision.
Aside from the faith, he gets great food and an enormous family of in-laws. The dholki will bring out at least fifty of Raheela´s closest relations who, we are warned, are very curious to meet and examine Philip´s family.
Some of Raheela´s family are very conservative, religious, and elderly. They might say something. 
There will be no liquor served at this wedding, and that´s a very good thing. Feelings could be hurt, sensibilities offended. Or even worse: comedy could break out. 
Some of Philip´s family are very liberal non-believers who are not used to self-censoring.
Philip´s dad Michael will be there with his partner, Rob. They are a couple. They are "out."
Philip´s grandad, the agnostic son of a Methodist minister, wields a razor wit. He will also attend, if the weather is kind. He might say something.
Philip´s sister Libby, a familiar face at marches and protests at the White House, is coming up from Washington D.C. for the event. If someone says something, she will answer back.
My sister Beth will be there, and my teen-age nephew Joey. They are prominent people in their town, volunteer firefighters, deer hunters, heavy-duty Steelers fans. It is safe to say there are no Pakistanis in Vandergrift, and probably no Muslims. Not even any Jews. I do not think they will say anything.
My mom will go, too, if she´s feeling well enough. My mother´s health is delicate, she´s had her innards hauled out and stitched together too many times in the past couple of years. Long trips away from home are a dicey proposition. And this trip passes through the Cleveland snow belt and ends up on Lake Erie. In late December.
But my mom and Philip are thick as thieves. She won´t miss this. Something might happen, and she hates it when she misses out. If someone says something, she´ll be right there to put out the fire.
Something might happen. It is a mix fraught with comic possibilities. La Cage Aux Folles without the drag queens, but with glorious formal ethnic garb. 
And I will be there. A jet-lagged dropout who left her husband at home and is wearing a dress without sleeves. A woman with callouses on her hands and a silly hat stuck somehow on her head. My smile will gleam. My eyes will be full of tears.
Someone might say something at Philip´s wedding, but it won´t be me. I will be too choked-up. The bittersweet emotions of seeing my youngest child marry? Maybe. The splendid curry? Probably. But I kinda am hoping for a little comedy, too, a bit of Life Imitates Art. 
This is an extraordinary event. I say let´s make it really memorable. Let´s let ourselves laugh. 

Friday, 13 December 2013

Cry of the Ditch-Pig

The ditch was full of blackberry vines, and the vines were tangled with doughnut wrappers, plastic water bottles, and cigarette packets. Getting the trash out of there was a prickly challenge.
The tongs make it easier to reach in among the prickles. If you´re lucky they´ll get a clean grip and lift the litter up and out in a single motion.
But if the object is smooth glass or plastic, or if it´s decayed over months of exposure to rain and sun, or if it´s heavy, well. Tongs no good. You pull your coat-sleeve down over your gloved hand, and go into the briars up to your elbow.
Sometimes you give up and leave it in there. Especially when there is excrement involved. We are volunteers. We don´t touch toilet tissue or human waste, not if we can help it.
I have learned over several years of "ditch-pigging" to not consider how the refuse got there. I stopped being angry at people who feel that litter ceases to exist when it leaves their possession. I ceased wondering what others think of me and my ongoing appearances along the roadsides, salad tongs in hand, a great black bag of trash slung over my shoulder.
Picking up litter along the pilgrim trail is lowdown, low-status work. Prisoners are often made to do it. It´s part of some state-sponsored humiliation for drunk drivers. In Spain, litter-picking is not really approriate for women. It is certainly no job for a self-respecting man, not without a wage-paying city contract.
But I learned not to think too much, at least not while I am out there. 
You do it, you dispose of it, you do not think about it. Not if you want to stay peaceful.
Just getting the wrappers out of the bushes without bloodshed is enough reward, at least for that moment.
This is not sainthood. It is not public service, per se. It is just showing up for a job that needs to be done, than nobody else will do, that no one notices.
We come back each year and do it again, me and some hardy volunteers, some of them from very far away. Each year there is less trash. That is encouraging.
If we stopped picking it up, the trash would come back.
Thousands of pilgrims pass this way each year, almost 200,000 of them in 2013. It takes only a small number each day, contributing a couple of meusli-bar wrappers, a cigarette butt, a Coke can, a sweaty  t-shirt, a busted flip-flop. Into the ditch. Invisible. The undergrowth covers it up.
Most of them do it out of habit, without even thinking. If they do think at all, the reasons are glib.
It´s heavy. Pilgrims must reduce the weight they carry. I can´t carry this trash, it is not useful to me any more. 
I will leave my broken boots along the trail. Another pilgrim can use them.
If they don´t want me to litter, they should put trash bins out here.
Spanish people don´t give a damn about taking care of their environment, so why should we? 
Oh my god, look at this picnic place. Look at this mess. Why don´t they clean this place up?
Take a picture. Put this on the internet! It´s outrageous!
I know.
Outrage is fun, it makes you feel really righteous, especially if you never litter, yourself. But if all you do is complain, that trail of water bottles just stays out there, glimmering across the first mile out of Revenga de Campos. The beer can you leave there today attracts three more tomorrow.
So, I tell the pilgrim, Put some action into your words.
Pick up a bag, pal, and put some trash in it. Carry it to the next trash bin. It´s not rocket science. It´s not difficult. It costs you nothing. Nada.
Two hundred thousand pilgrims this year... If just a few careless people each day can turn sections of a UNESCO World Heritage site into a dump, just a few people each day can get it back into pristine condition. It won´t take longer than a couple of weeks. And if pilgrims police one another, and each one picks up whatever scrap he sees along the pathway, we could keep it that way.    

We pick up trash in December. Why then?
There´s a long-weekend holiday in December. By December the frost has killed off a lot of undergrowth, and the refuse that "disappeared" in July is now on display and easy to spot. There aren´t many pilgrims on the trail, so we won´t get in one anothers´ way.
And the cold freezes the excrement in the bushes. The murky water inside the bottles is ice. It doesn´t stink.  

And OK, I do think while I am out there. This year Kirstie joined us, a chain-smoking woman from Carlisle in Northern England. She was a philosopher, a theologian even. This was her Advent discipline, she said.

In December Christians observe Advent, a period of penance that leads into Christmas. Picking up trash on a pilgrimage trail is perfectly suited to the season. Camino trash-pickers maintain the road that pilgrims walk toward God. We believe in what the pilgs are doing. So in essence, we are "preparing the Way of the Lord."

Our hands are cold, our skin is pricked and nicked, our faces wind-burned. We are footsore and tired-out at the day´s end. But rewards come right alongside. Our food tastes extra good. We sleep very deeply. We slim down fast and feel pretty good, really.

We are ditch-pigs, but we do the work of angels.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Say No to Stunt Caminos

No, I do not like Stunt Caminos. I find them offensive and vulgar.

In the last couple of years, athletic people with ego needs and TV crews have taken to using the camino as a backdrop for their attempts at "fastest bicycle camino,"  "longest continuous roller-blade camino" or "ultramarathon camino."  Others do the 500-mile path on camels or driving pony carts or pedaling tiny clown cars. Still more are doing the month-long trek with a webcam strapped to their heads, directing in their own streaming broadcast to the waiting world!

So a lot of people say "that´s wonderful, your camino is all yours, no judgement, we all have to walk our own path, etc. etc." And they would be right, if the "pilgrims" were skating and camelling along, say, Route 66.

The Camino de Santiago is not just a special road.  It is a holy place. It should be treated with respect.

I believe the Camino is made sacred by the faith and prayers of a thousand years of pilgrim traffic. It´s a bit like a battleground, hallowed by the blood of people who gave their all for some greater good.  It´s a national historic site, the Waterloo Memorial or the Taj Mahal or the Western Wall, a place key to the identity of a country. You don´t have to be a citizen of the nation to be respectful of their sacred places.

The Camino is also a Christian pathway, deeply Roman Catholic in its architecture and iconography, its tradition of hospitality and its harsh demands. People who don´t like Catholics do not like that the Camino is a Catholic kind of place, but it is, undeniably. And people really ought to respect one another´s religious shrines and holy places, even if they don´t believe in religion. It´s just a matter of civility.

They should not do their sensational record-breaking stunts on the camino, any more than a dog-and-pony show should set up inside a mosque. 

It is disrespectful. It is unneccessary -- there are plenty of places to ride bikes fast, or ride camels slow, or live-stream your blistered feet and what you had for your lunch. Stunt caminos are not pilgrimages. They are vulgar photo-ops and ego exercises that abuse the holy hospitality of The Way.
They are in poor taste, and I do not like them.

And that is how I see it.     

Patrick has been laid-up with a bum leg, and I´ve had to take over a lot of the chores he usually does. It is not all wood-chopping and dish-washing. Every morning at dawn, I get to walk six dogs over a few miles of rolling countryside. It is sharply cold out there, but sunny, and these days the fields sometimes have hunters in them. But we take it slow and take it easy. I am not a morning person, I probably never will become one, but I can see the appeal.

I can think, and consider, and wonder as I wander. 

And I get to see greyhounds run in the mist.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Inevitable

Milagros says a town needs two things to stay alive: a bar and a Mass.

Moratinos was limping along at half speed when we arrived here. There hadn´t been a bar in town for a good 30 years, but Don Santiago showed up every Sunday morning and said a quick Mass. He´s been doing that for as long as we´ve lived here.

San Isidro in the fields
Weekly Mass is a rare privilege for a town of 20 people, but Don Santiago volunteered to take us on, along with four other tiny villages strung out along the N120 two-lane. There aren´t enough priests to go around in Palencia Diocese, and the men who take the job work long hours, usually over long distances. Once Don Santiago hit retirement age he didn´t have to say Mass any more. But he was still healthy and fit and wasn´t ready to quit. He is a local boy, from down near Cisneros. I´m not sure why he took on the churches of San Nicolas del Real Camino, Moratinos, Terradillos, Ledigos, and Poblacion -- maybe because we all are Camino towns, maybe because he likes us, because we invite him to all our parties. Maybe the bishop told him to. 

Moratinos knows it´s lucky. And every Sunday, just about everybody turns up for Mass. Even José, who says he doesn´t believe any of it. Or Manolo or Justi or Paddy or any of the dozen or so men who never take communion, and only go up to the altar to kiss the baby Jesus doll at Christmas, or carry a statue round the town on their shoulders, or a coffin up to the cemetery.

They come to church because they are part of a community. And church is one place where no one is excluded, not even the people you´d never let into your house. We didn´t care that Don Santiago often put his alb on inside-out, that his collar was askew -- he was always in a hurry, on his way to two or three more Masses. He sang parts of the service, and we sang the responses. (We are terrible singers.) He blessed our houses at Corpus Christi and our crops at San Isidro Day and our dead at All Saints, and we all turned out to meet him when he came to town.

Don Santiago was a farm boy, raised in a big farming family. He worked at a garden center part-time, to help make ends meet. One Sunday during planting season he ate the whole big wafer himself, and told the communicants to pick out their own disc of bread from the dish -- his fingers were too dirty, he didn´t want to touch the holy hosts. 

As time went on he did not kneel so deeply. His voice was scratchy, he didn´t stay so late at the fiesta. But it seemed Don Santiago would go on forever, baptizing our babies, marrying our children, burying us when our time came. 

We all knew it would happen sometime. Don Gaspar, the archpriest, came on Sunday to do the Mass. He told us Don Santiago suffered an aneurysm last week. He is in hospital in Palencia, and no one can say when he´s coming out, and home. Or if he will say Mass again. Or when we will hear Mass again at Sto. Tomas.

If we want to hear Mass we must drive to Villada or Sahagún, like the villagers in tiny, dying towns all around us.

Mass has gone on here for a thousand years. And now it is finished. We´re not so special now. Milagros was right.

We have three bars in town now, and two places to sleep, but we´ve taken a big step backward.
We have no place to pray together, no one to lead us in the ancient rites. No one to come on Sunday to make us sing so awfully together, to make our joyful noise unto the Lord.
Corpus Christi in the plaza
Saints, please pray for Don Santiago, and for us.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dead Hens and Chestnuts

No, it´s not all gloom and doom.
Yes, it has been gray and wet around here. We´ve had to light the fire and chop wood, and yes the boys had to shut down the wonderful cavey Restaurane El Castillo on weekdays.
We got sick, (we got better) and Paddy´s hurt his back (but not too bad). Most of the albergues are closed, and the pilgrims just walk right past Moratinos without stopping. When Paddy went out to water and feed this morning, one of the hens was dead.
But are we sad?
No, we are not sad. Not too sad, anyway.  
Once the morning fog burned off, the sky turned a spectacular cloudless blue. All the tractors are out planting seeds that will soon turn the ground green, right through til spring. The farmers wave as they rattle and roar past us.
One of them is a new farmer, one of Manolo´s many nephews. He doesn´t usually live here, but times are tough in the city for young men, and Manolo is past retirement age. He could use some help, and the fields he tends belong to his entire, vast family. It´s only right the young ones step up. And this young one smiles as he swings himself into the tractor-cab and fires up the engine.
Maybe he will stay.  
I told you how the line of great cypresses behind the Beehive House were chainsawed down. I still don´t know why they did that, but there´s no help for it now. Unless. Unless I go and get just as many young trees, and plant them around the town to make up for the loss.
Today I planted a chestnut sapling in the Plaza Mayor. I don´t know if it will survive, as the hole I planted it in is still choked with the remains of the tree that stood there before. If the root goes straight down, It will do just fine. I dug out all the dirt I could, and following time-honored superstition, I spat into the bottom of the hole. I put the body of the expired hen down there, too. And then I put the root-ball down, and water, and dirt from here and sand from there and new dirt from the flower bed alongside, and some rocks to weigh it down when the wind starts to blow. 
Someday maybe this skinny tree will tower over the plaza, offering shade in the summer and nuts in the fall. Its branches will touch the branches of the olive tree we planted last year -- the wind bent it over last winter, but it´s thriving now.
I love to plant trees. I have more trees to plant here, one of them is pretty special.
It´s a tree for Philip Wren. Wren was a Methodist minister from Liverpool, and a kindly character -- he stayed at Peaceable at least once that I remember, and explained to me how an insulin pump works to treat Type 1 diabetes. The disease had forced him into early retirement, which he intended to spend, much as he could, out hiking round the caminos of Spain. Phil made some good friends out there. And in early May this year, in the pilgrim albergue in Logroño, the diabetes quietly put an end to him.

I said I would plant a tree here in his memory, and his many friends are coming out of the woodwork, waving 20-pound notes. I´ve commissioned a stonecutter to make a little memorial plaque to put at the base of his tree. I am now scouting out just where to plant the thing, where passing pilgrims can spot it, but a combine won´t clip it off and its roots won´t be in miry clay or sinking sand or private property. It keeps me busy, it makes me happy to do something harmless and good.

Wren is gone, the hen is gone, the great cypresses are gone, and summer is over.  But I don´t have to be too sad.  Endings are as natural and beginnings, they say.

I am still here. I do not always handle sadness as well as I could, but I suffer from clinical depression -- It´s been a part of my life since I was a child. It is not pleasant, but it is natural, it is cyclical. Like a chicken, it comes and scratches around for a while, it usually lays a few eggs, and eventually it goes away. Sometimes it leaves behind some good fertilizer for some new living thing to use.
Anyone who plants trees believes there´s a future.
Especially if you throw in a chicken. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

What´s In the Oven

I need a good editor, a professional.

I am writing, but it is a tough slog. I cannot find the thread that joins together all these random tales. I keep writing, though... I feel like I am knitting, knitting, knitting. I start a new row every day and just continue going, and at the end I will have a woollen Thing that is huge and well-wrought and snuggly, but pointless. Good for nothing.

I am feeling a lot better physically, but I am low. People still write to me out of the blue, asking for advice usually. I always answer them eventually. But lately my responses are evidently, well... less than upbeat. A kindly lady who wants to find a comprehensive solution to the massive litter problem on the camino says I am "just telling (her) all the reasons why this WON´T work, so (she) just wants to give up and walk away from the whole project." And she is right. I keep cleaning up the same trash, year after year, and I get no kind of support from the Powers That Be. (Indeed, one camino brahmin says camino clean-uppers are "neurotic German hygiene enforcers!"  

So I will leave the ambitious comprehensive projects to those who feel called to solve problems in a comprehensive, systemic way. I love to be part of solutions, but I have only ten fingers -- not enough to keep in all the pies that are baking.

Here is what´s in the oven now:

The book.

Buying and planting a tree on the camino in memory of Rev. Philip Wren, an English pilgrim who died this spring out on the trail.

Planting a strapping big chestnut tree in the plaza mayor, to make up for the several magnificent plane trees chopped down here in Moratinos in recent days. (I still don´t understand why.)

Finding a home for little Ruby, who is growing less little every day. Seems nobody who´s going to Sweden wants to get involved in transporting dogs.

After Thursday, taking whatever pilgrims show up looking to stay at Bruno´s place, seeing as Bruno is going on holiday and closing up shop for a week or so. 

Holding a big powwow at Peaceable the first week of December. It combines a Hospitalero Training session with three or four days of trail cleanup and a re-dig and reset of the much-neglected labyrinth.

A trip to the United States at the tail-end of the year. My son Philip is getting married in Ohio, and I need to be there. (I bought a great dress for that. And today the Hat arrived, a hat I ordered from England. A
black wool pillbox hat with a bow on the back and a little net veil in front... it is splendid! Now to figure out how to stick it onto my big head!)

Winter is long around here. I book it up. There´s a shopping trip to London at the end of January, for the Wedding Part II that´s planned for May. Philip is marrying into a huge Pakistani-American family, and the big blowout three-day celebration calls for some ethnic outfitting... an opportunity to shop the princess-worthy boutiques of London with my friend Leena. And piggy-backing onto that, a walking retreat on the Camino Ingles, a week of spirituality -- just what you need the first week of February.

Mix into all this the daily Dog Wrangle (we still have six); and the always-possible lottery jackpot win, and the ongoing battle of Conditional subjunctives, which I have pretty well given up on...

And that is what makes up a life.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Home Sick Wet Dark

We both are very sick. Outside it rains and rains.

The electricity kept going out, so we called Tino the Electrician. He says it´s the fancy induction cooktop doing it, it is broken. So we stopped using it, and ordered another one, a different brand this time.

Meantime, the lights went out again. Out in the back yard I saw water coming up from under a little junction box where the wiring for Paddy´s studio is hidden in the ground. Obviously that is what´s grounding out the power, that is why the lights go out when it rains hard. I shut off the circuit at the main, so now there´s no light in the studio and no power for the chainsaw. I opened up the junction box and sucked out the water with a turkey baster, and contemplated the delightful cautionary tale:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
-- Hillaire Belloc

OK, I will leave the electricity to the electrician! Still...
Maybe, if this is the problem, this means we don´t need a new cooktop.
Maybe our back yard is an electrocution hazard.
Maybe someday it will stop raining, and the electrician will come back to install the new stove, and he will find out the bozo who installed that junction box did it all wrong and the problem will be solved and neither we nor our hens will electrocute ourselves, and we will not have to pay a month´s wages for the shiny new stovetop.
(I wonder, if a chicken electrocutes itself, is the resulting meat tender or tough, or even edible?)
I know this all will work out at some point. It always does.

Meantime, we will skip Mass for today, for our good and the good of all the holy Church. We will close the gates and curl up in our (seperate) beds and contemplate the group of pilgs who dined with us on Wednesday, and left us with these gifts: a brutal dose of germs, and two little bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon to medicate ourselves with.   

Pity the pilgrim who travels with this germ. Imagine being far from home in damp clothes, your head on fire, joints aching and eyes crying, in a reeking dormitory room of people you are probably infecting.  Poor old pilgs. Pray for them, will you?

And pray for us, too. I am not happy to be ill, but I am very thankful to be home.  

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Where I've Gone

Pilgrims, and guests, and pilgrims with bedbugs.
Spanish language lessons that combine subjunctive mood with preterite perfect that I cannot fathom. (the rest of the class is skipping right along just fine... I think that is the worst part!)
Rain and mud.
Kim being here, which is lovely and very helpful, (she is building a Peaceable website) and Kim having to go back to Florida, which is very dreary indeed. She just got here!
And the headaches. Behind my left eye. I wake up in the night with them. The doctor just says "take a paracetamol." They go on and on.
I am slimming down for Philip's wedding. We are following a vegan diet throughout the day, and let ourselves have regular food after 6 p.m. It improves our overall intake. Jury is out on the weight loss advantages.
Momo keeps jumping up on the kitchen counter.
We still have six dogs. The little one is growing fast and digging holes in the flower beds. No solution on the horizon on how to get her to Sweden. Everyone loves this little Ruby, but no one wants her. It is very sad-making.
I cleared out the garden beds, turned over the earth, worked in some fresh manure. Tons of vegetables to do something with.
The grape harvest is in. I made eight jars of jelly that are more like syrup. Really good grape syrup. I ordered some pectin, so I can try making jelly that gels (I still have tons of grapes, and now I have a ton of figs as well.) The pectin arrived, but then a gang of pilgrims arrived too. No time for it all.
Oh, and I am writing a book. I am writing well enough to not want to do anything else at all.
Not even blogs. Sorry.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Lucky lucky me

The otter was the high point. A fat sleek otter, not 100 yards away, hunched on the rocks in the rapids eating a crayfish. We stood on the path on the bank overhead, he didn´t see or hear us. We watched him finish and turn and flow over the rocks like he was water, too, into and out of the deep little pools, until he hit the main stream and slipped inside and floated south underwater. Beautiful.

I never saw an otter in the wild before. We were only about 20 miles outside the big city of Leon, but here was serious wildlife, in a river clean and clear enough to support fish and crabs and big riverine  mammals! Yet another reason to love the Camino San Salvador, the ancient name of the path we walked this week.

Not Ready for Formalwear
"We" being me and Kathy from California, my longtime walking friend. Kathy only could come for a week, and she wanted to walk in the wild. So we did the front end of the Camino San Salvador, from Leon city up and over the mountains to Puente de Fueros in Asturias. Four days, walking easy through the woods and along the babbling Rio Bernesga and up into the Cordillera Leonese of the Picos de Europa. We slept in pristine little pilgrim albergues, carried most of our food with us, met only one other pilgrim -- An athletic Spanish soldier who caught up to us in a mountain village called Buiza, at the old school-turned-albergue. He walked in a day what we´d done in two. His name was Julio. ("We and Julio, down by the schoolyard," Kathy sang out).

When Kathy arrived she had two little spots of poison oak on her left arm. By the end of the first day of walking it had blistered and spread. It was OK, she said, she´d had poison oak before. We put gauze pads on it, wrapped it up. We kept walking, the weather was spectacular, the mountains were harder than I remembered. We chatted, said prayers, sang songs. We walked from dawn right up to dusk, we cut it too close a couple of times, but each day we made it.

I realized how much I needed that walk, that talking with Kathy. How good it all was, how lucky I am to have her, to have caminos within easy reach, to see otters, to still be fit enough to take on this kind of challenge and then just jump on a train and come home. Lucky, lucky me.

But unlucky Kathy. Her arm went from bad to worse. The spots spread to her hip and her collarbone, and the itching kept her up at night. She hung on, though, through Friday, to today. She´d promised to help me face down a phobia, and she delivered.

This morning we drove to Palencia and met Lucía there, my Spanish tutor from Carrión de los Condes. The two of them took me in hand. My son Philip is getting married in December, and I needed to buy an elegant dress for the occasion. They took me shopping.

I like wearing nice clothing, but I detest shopping for it. This explains why I wear the same few items and outfits for (yes) years between shopping trips, why I am not often seen in dressy clothes. The fitting rooms, the glaring lights, the horrible music, price tags and colors and wondering what underclothes I must buy in order to wear this dress with those shoes and that little jacket... realizing that being fit does not equal being thin or lovely. That my blistered toes make trying on formal heels a painful, shameful proposition. That the beautiful, costly dress I buy in the shop will look just okay once I get it home. That no matter what clothes I wear, it will still be me inside them.

They did their best, they made it happen, they made it almost fun. They said they had fun. I bought the dress, the best one, a very Spanish number from Purificacion Garcia, a hot Spanish designer. A great load rolled off my mind. We had a nice lunch. Lucía headed home, and so did Kathy, a few days early. The arm is really bad. She´s been putting on a brave face, but she finally admitted she had to get back to her home and her doctor. She took the train to Madrid straight from Palencia station.

Kathy told Milagros she´d help harvest grapes tomorrow, but she will instead be on an airplane. I was sad for a while, driving home alone.

But I was grateful, too. Two good people helped me do something that would have been anguish on my own. I came away with something nice I would not have found otherwise.

I got to walk a spectacular stretch of trail, in the best of company. We made the best of the last of the fine weather. Kathy came halfway around the world to do that with me, and I am lucky lucky lucky.

And all dresses and shops and poison plants aside, I saw an otter.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Down the Tube

Ruby, a pup who needs a home

On Friday evening a bird descended our stovepipe, scratching and flapping. 
It was trapped.
For about five minutes the cats were rapt. They soon joined the dogs in not giving a damn.
We thought, “Stupid bird got in there, he can get himself out.”
We had people in and out all weekend, phone calls, the final guitar concert, the winding-up of our long summer. We ignored the bird, we hoped it would just go away. It didn´t.
By Monday I decided to do something. I climbed up a ladder outside, alongside the tall silver pipe. I took a length of heavy chain with bolts stuck on the end, and clipped it to a dog-leash, which I clipped to another dog leash. I removed the little hat that tops the chimney, then lowered the chain, bolts first, down the pipe. I intended to scare the bird into dropping down into the stove itself. From there I could open the little glass door, snatch him up and set him free outside.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The chain went down, down, down. The bird flapped and squawked for a second. Good. I pulled up on the dog leash to retrieve the chain. Up, up it came. And then it stopped.
It was stuck. About six feet down, in an elbow against the house, it snagged on something inside the pipe. I jiggled it, I twisted it, I said bad words, I said prayers. I pulled and jerked it hard as I could, but it was no good.
A bird was stuck in our flue, and now a chain was stuck down there, too.
At least I still had hold of one end of it. I tied it off and climbed down the ladder.
I gathered up a dozen fresh hen´s eggs and put them in a box. I headed over to the albergue and asked Bruno to please help me out.
And so he did.
He climbed the ladder and stood over the chimney-pot and grabbed hold of the dog-lead and gave several whole-body pulls on it. And out it came. I have to admit, sometimes that male upper-body strength thing is for real.
Bruno looked at the chain-and-leash contraption and said nothing, wise man that he is.
“I know, it was a crazy idea,” I said.
“Chains were good. The bolts, too long,” he said. “The bolt, it catches in the curve.”
I shrugged. I am in the midst of a long streak of hard luck where machines are concerned. 
“So that is problem number one solved,” Bruno said, encouragingly. 
“Now indoors, for the number two problem.”
Inside, we took apart the chimney-pipe that attaches the stove to the chimney outside. A brief shower of sandy black soot flowed out, past the walls painted white and yellow onto the floor below. We turned it and cradled it, wrapping both ends in old shirts to keep the stuff inside the pipe inside the pipe. Between us we walked out the front doors, down the patio, through the gate and up to the wilderness beyond the rosemary hedge. I opened one end, and out flowed a year´s worth of soot and the blackened body of the grackle bird.
I probably did him in. I brained him with that chain. Karma, I thought.
“Pobrecito,” Bruno said.
We vacuumed-out the innards of the stove and put it back together. Bruno packed up his neat kit of tools and headed back to his pilgrims. He wasn´t even dusty.
I sat down for a minute.
Our living room was trashed, the sofa pulled away from the wall, the jute rug folded back. All the dirt and dead spiders that hide behind and beneath were suddenly on display.
Paddy looked up from his computer. “Look at that,” Paddy said. “It´s a mess.”
Paddy is rarely disturbed by disorder. I am sure he could live happily in a bombed-out ruin and never notice unless the wifi didn´t work. For him to notice a mess means it´s nothing short of catastrophic.
“Help me out,” I said. And he did.
We vacuumed the rug on both sides, and the sandy floor beneath it, the dusty sofa, the cat-hairy cushions, the unspeakable dog beds. I found the big spiders I thought I´d imagined this summer were real. Their spiky carcasses disappeared into the vacuum.
Paddy mopped the floors, all of them. We put back the rug, re-arranged the furniture, wiped the last bits of soot off the walls. I washed the dogs, who were smelly. (The cats had vanished soon as the vacuum arrived on the scene.) 
Paddy and I each took a shower, because we were smelly by then, too.
Then we were tired. We had tea out in the patio, away from the dust and indignant dogs.
On the patio table was the chimney-cap. One last job to do.
Paddy took a roll of chicken wire from the barn, and we clipped off a length of it, folded it long-ways and twisted it around the chimney-cap, to keep the birds forever out.
I climbed up the ladder. Paddy handed the shiny silver chimney-top up to me. I shivvied it into place, clipped it securely down.
I came down again. We carried the ladder between us to the barn and put it away. We shut the gates and doors, fed the hungry dogs, and laid ourselves down for a nap. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Full House

I thought I achieved a whole day's work on Thursday morning: a terrifying Spanish tutoring session, bright red tomatoes in the garden, seven eggs from the hens, and new alternator and timing belts for the car. I bought a six-pack of beer at the supermarket, because Daniel was coming on the 1:30 train from France, and Daniel might like a beer on a sunny day like this one.
While I was out, the long-awaited wine delivery arrived. I was feeling mighty efficient when Daniel's train pulled up at the station right as I did. It was great to see him. I'd finished up my chores, and could enjoy a nice relaxing visit.
Back at The Peaceable Paddy had lunch already made up. Two pilgrims were settling into the salon -- a couple from France. They did not want food, Paddy said. They spoke no English, but Daniel speaks French.
Daniel is a surfer dude and wilderness medicine expert from northern California. He trains hospitaleros for American Pilgrims on the Camino, and sometimes volunteers at pilgrim albergues here on the camino. We met years ago in Toronto, but he's never managed to visit us in Moratinos.
He put his things in the upstairs bedroom.
The doorbell rang. A third pilgrim, a bedraggled young man from Poland. Bruno's albergue is full, he said. He had no money, but would happily sleep in his tent out back, he would work for his keep, he said. I brought him inside, shook his hand. He had a fever.
"You're not well," I told him.
"It is true what you say," he said.
His name was Pavel. He had walked all the way from Posnan.
I put him in the third bed in the salon, the last one. The couple did not seem so happy to see him, but too bad.
I gave a beer to Pavel, to get his electrolytes back into balance. He didn't want anything to eat.
We sat down to our lunch. We had some of the new vino, which is very good indeed. We cleared up. The sun was hot and high. I went out to the patio to put some laundry on the line. The doorbell rang again.
Two young Germans, looking for a place to stay. They'd come 32 kilometers, every bed at every hostelry was full, could they sleep on our floor maybe? I told them we were at capacity, too. I could give them a ride in Sahagun, where they'd have more options. Meantime, they should come inside and take a break out of the sun. They doffed their boots at the door.
Daniel poured cold water for them. Paddy rescued their boots from the dogs. They asked if they could make some calls to the albergues on the trail ahead -- It looked like they were in for a 40-kilometer day.
I remembered the mattress stowed under Daniel's bed upstairs. The spare. One of them could sleep on the sofa, and one on that mattress. They were delighted at the idea. We hauled the mattress down the stairs and into the living room.
Daniel volunteered to make Piperade for dinner -- a Basque recipe he learned on the road last week. It would use up a lot of our tomato and egg backlog, and with some rice would stretch to feed all eight of us, even the one who couldn't do gluten.
We never had eight people in here before. This was a real stretch. I could see that wild look in Paddy's eye, even as he quietly set the table. He told dog stories to the girl from Hamburg, who set to work on chopping tomatoes.
Out back, Eduardo delivered a fragrant tractor-load of cow dung.
Dogs were fed. Blistered feet were patched up. The Polish boy was dosed with minerals and Ibuprofen and went immediately to sleep. Again the doorbell. 
A man called Jean, from Quebec. Could he stay? He was old, and had just walked all the way from Carrion de los Condes.
"Come in and sit down," Paddy told the man. (Behind his back Paddy made his best imitation of Edvard Munch's "The Scream.")
"Jesus," I said quietly.
The boy from Darmstadt switched on when he heard me say that. "That man could be Jesus, you know. If he needs a place to sleep he can have my mattress. I have a mat with me. He is an old man, and I am young. Please let him stay."
We did. He spoke French with the French, which seemed to please them. He chose very well from Paddy's records. We ate to the Modern Jazz Quartet.  
Dinner was huge and filling. Some people had three servings. The evening was soft, the company sunburned and sleepy, but good-spirited. Daniel passed round a chunk of Camembert. Jean washed the dishes. By 9:30 p.m. the mattresses and sleeping mats were sorted out, and the pilgrims folded in on themselves.
Tim, Rosie and Moe curled up with me in my office, where we would not disturb anyone. I opened the final beer, which I had selfishly hidden for myself in the back of the fridge. I sat back in my comfy chair and sighed.
Daniel stuck his head in the door. He looked exhausted, but he smiled.
"Thank you, Rebekah. What an opportunity," he said. "I'm loving this."
He went to bed. Within five minutes, through the wall I could hear him gently snoring.
The moon lit up the world outside. The owl shrieked.
From the next room, from down the hall, from the salon below came soft sounds of sleep.    

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Not My Beeswax

Paddy & Dogs in front of the Beehive House: 2011

The Beehive house stood facing onto Calle Ontanon. It wasn´t much to look at, but it was the last of its kind, old-fashioned adobe, its front door opened right onto the street. It had no foundation or electricity or plumbing. It was not built to house people, so no one bothered with extras -- it was a dry barn, meant for storing seed corn and animal feed. Pilar´s old aunt managed to live in it anyway, right up til she died. It´s stood empty for the last 25 years or so, collecting junk inside and slowly melting back to earth outside. Two sets of "for sale" signs went up and faded away in the last five years. Nobody was interested.

Nobody but me. In the spring of 2011 I had a bit of extra money, so I got a bee in my bonnet. I started looking around at empty places in the neighborhood.
I looked at the Beehive House. I walked around it, I peered in the keyholes. Pilar finally showed it to me. There were almost no windows, so it was always dark inside. The ceilings were low, the rooms long and cool, the stairs narrow and steep. The little pocket-patio out back had a well. And set into the wall of the tractor-barn, up high, was a wicker basket that hummed and dripped with a hive of honey bees. The wall beneath it was streaked dark with generations of pollen and honey and bee poo.

I love bees. I loved that little house. It spoke to me. I dreamed of what it could become, given a great dose of design and respect and labor. A little apartment, a studio, a place where friends could stay, a rental house, a long-term experiment in organic building materials. I imagined an expanse of glass out back, the great cottonwood trees roaring overhead. Skylights to bring the sun inside, pavement on the patio, the existing stone floors indoors cleaned and preserved.  Keep the timbers holding up the second floor, raise the roof a few feet, electrify, but keep it very simple, keep it consistent with what´s always faced the street, make it modern inside, but keep the rough simplicity and charm. 

A shower-stall, a woodstove for heating, a galley kitchen, tiny and efficient, with a window out over the patio. A patio with lots of flowers, maybe a greenhouse, comfy chairs, an awning in the summer, a view out over the fields to the west. Keep the naíf painting of the sun and stars on the ceiling of the main room, keep the hooks in the timbers where years ago flowers and herbs and hams were hung to dry. Keep the bees, somehow. Ask them, please, to stay. 

But then and there it was a derelict mess. A money pit.

The house I have now is too big for just two people, what would I do with two houses? I already rebuilt one semi-abandoned house in Moratinos, and know well the horrors of rehabbing an agricutural structure made of mud and straw into a functional dwelling for humans. I do not have the skills or energy to do the work myself.

New plumbing and wiring, sewer lines and roofing, windows, paving, carpentry... all the digging and shoring-up required would drive the price through the ceiling and out the roof. And the months of wrangling and waiting and running to the builders´ merchant, I have not forgotten that awfulness. I promised myself to never do that again!  

I had enough money to buy it the place, and probably enough to do a basic rehab. I could get it enclosed and "onto the grid," but I´d have to do the finishing work myself, I would have to furnish it over time. It would empty out my savings.

I do not have earned income any more. It would be foolish to use my "nest egg," my "rainy day" money, on something I don´t need.

I could have a Beehive House, or I could have Security. I chose.

Moratinos is enjoying a building boom, at least among a couple of the resident extended families. Grandchildren are now putting up holiday dwellings on the little slices of land left to them. They don´t want to live here year-round, but they want a stake in the future of their pueblo. Three new little flats went up last winter alongside the plaza mayor, hidden from view inside a former barnyard. This summer their cousins from the Canary Islands spent July erecting a prefab wooden "chalet" on the empty lot next to the albergue.

And somebody, another faraway cousin, bought the Beehive House.

Someone said the cousin planned to restore the place. But when the heavy machines arrived and the adjacent barn was pulled down, I started to wonder. It was too easy.
A day later the space where the Beehive House stood is flat and empty, pristine.

It is cheaper this way. Sensible, really. No hassle with lintels and un-plumb floors, no wires or pipes to run through crumbling adobe. No bees, no pigeons, no woodworm-raddled beams. Smash it down and start from scratch, with everything new and shiny and modern.

It was not my house, not my decision. It´s none of my business. (Or none of my bees-wax?) 

Calle Ontanon´s raggedy jaw just lost another tooth.

If I´d had the courage and the cash, I could have made it smile.  

Monday, 26 August 2013

Americans Abound

Americans came last week, they came in pairs and threes. It is refreshing, having people from the Real Outside World come here, people who are not hikers, not breathing the rarified, self-absorbed air of Planet Pilgrim.

You can tell American guests from everyone else. They always bring a gift, or some kind of food to share. They have good teeth, and sporty shoes, and nice hair. They usually offer to help cook, or clean up. They want to see the place, even the pepper plants out back, the woodpile, the shocking old sofa in the barn where the galgos sleep.

The first to arrive were Maddy and her two girls, from Massachusetts. All three were attractive in an apple-cheek, healthy, tanned way. They were polite and funny and vegetarian. Paddy made tortilla for them. (I made gazpacho, but we had to throw it away. The missing transparent plastic knob that fits on top the blender, a useless doodad, was found suspended in the soup, ground to pellets. Damn. Never store transparent things inside the blender jar, unless you want to eat them later.)

Maddy and I talked about the Massachusetts Bar examination, a test my son Philip will undergo within the next few months. Maddy is a lawyer. She knows all about lawyering in Massachusetts. She and Philip will Be In Touch.

The lasses brought us flowers – a great bouquet of lilies that lit up the room all week on the end of the kitchen table. They make us sneeze, but we do not care, they are beautiful.

In the evening I talked on the telephone to Khalida, the woman who will, as of December, become  my son’s mother in law. We have never met. She lives in Toledo Ohio, but was born and raised in Pakistan. She is planning a huge blowout Pakistani wedding for her daughter and my son – even as her daughter and my son are planning a small, simple ceremony. A clash of expectations looms on the horizon. I am happy I now live half a world away from Toledo.

(I have never before been Mother of the Groom, and I haven’t a thing to wear! I look at beautiful embroidered silk formal Pakistani dresses on internet sites. At first I thought I would represent the Western aspect of this marriage alliance by wearing something sensible, but it seems American Mothers of Grooms are expected to dress like Easter Eggs. Here is an opportunity to wear a beautiful, princess-worthy gown, the kind of dresses worn by women called Khalida. I almost never let my Inner Princess out of her jeans and t-shirt prison. Here is her opportunity.)

I took our Moorish fiesta costumes back to dear Lucia in Carrion. I was supposed to meet an American lady who lives in Extremadura and rescues riding horses from the butcher’s van, but she did not show up. I take that as a sign: it is still not time for me to get a horse. (It may never be time for me to get a horse.) Paddy and I went in the evening to Fromista, where a Dutch and Turkish guitar duo played a world premiere duet called “Recuerdos del Camino” to a packed house. Afterward, a deluxe dinner with the artists and Fred, the pride of Green Bay, Wisconsin. We ate gazpacho ice cream. No plastic pellets.

The following day we had church duty. California arrived on the 11:45 from Madrid. Grant Spangler, an old Camino head from Ojai, arrived with Rosalie, his lady friend from L.A. They brought us a fully-loaded, rebuilt and fab laptop computer (Grant’s hobby is rebuilding computers and writing code), as well as cheese and wine, bread and fruit, and assorted packets of organic vitamins and minerals. We visited for two days, they saw the Roman villa. We drove at sundown to Palencia for another guitar concert, this one in the patio of the bishop’s palace. Enno the Dutchman brought down the house again, there was a magnificent flyover by a dozen storks, and afterward we all repaired to Bar Javi for braised octopus and calimari.  In an overlit formica bar in the heart of Castile, we chattered into the night.

Summer nights are wonderful here, out on the perimeter.   

The same night Laurie, my friend and co-author from Illinois, sent the manuscript for the updated Camino San Salvador guide. I kicked it into shape and shipped it off to London to be published. (They will duly remove any American-isms.)

And on Sunday afternoon, two more Americans rolled up from Madrid in a tiny SmartCar. Gil is a reporter for Radio Nacional Espana, and head of Democrats Abroad Spain. She is a retired ABC news Spain correspondent. They both are hardcore expats, they’ve lived in Spain since the 1970s, so where they’re from in America doesn’t really count for much any more. They said they’d heard enough about us to want to see the Peaceable for themselves. They’ve never spent much time up here (nobody has!) but I think they liked it. 

There was money left over from last weekend’s fiesta, so the Neighborhood Association threw one last big feast at the bodega restaurant. Gil and Martha arrived just in time for the prawns. We toured the town, sat in the patio and took in the cool breeze, and spoke fluent Media.      

(In the middle of it all, Portuguese Antonio, the wheedling drifter, made his semi-annual appearance. He gave me a fridge magnet with “Rebeca” on it. We gave him a glass of wine and some cheese, and slices from tomatoes plucked from the flowerbed. While he caught us up on his adventures of the past months, Harry Dog stole two loaves of bread from his backpack.)

The American guests brought gifts, too: Everything needed to make a fine sangria punch. Shandy and beer.. and a beautiful antique inkwell for my desk!  It was great fun “talking shop” and politics, religion, news and architecture. No one misbehaved or over-indulged, and all the dishes were done-up before we went to bed. I gave them a copy of the novel, and a breakfast of eggs from our chicks. And so we have two new friends in Madrid! 

No Americans arrived today. Nobody came at all. Using American recipes, I pickled cucumbers and baked brown bread. The house smells wonderful. All is well.

We both got naps. Spanish naps. Siestas. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Hermits Prevail!

So we hauled ourselves once again down the street, and what did we see in the plaza?

 A gypsy caravan with dancing girls and dogs and babies, pulled by a tractor, driven by a spiv in a pinstripe suit (who is really Segundino the carpenter)

 A troupe of Sanfermines, the lunatics in white and red who run with bulls through the streets of Pamplona each summer. This bull was a lissom lady holding a pair of horns, and the Sanfermines were all members of the extended Milagros family

Assorted ninjas, rabbits, Moors, Templar Knights, and mermaids.
Templar Bruno

Family unity was upheld, dances were danced, drinks were drunk, and a good time was had by all.  

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Moorish hermits crash and burn

It´s hard being foreigners in a tight-knit town. No matter how friendly everyone is, we will always be outsiders. Add to that our location: we live at the top of the pueblo, the finca farthest from the plaza, and information doesn´t tend to flow uphill. This time of year, when everyone´s relatives are visiting for the  fiesta, we miss out sometimes.  

In a town totally centered on family, we are not related to anyone. We don´t have anything they need or want. We are no longer a novelty, so no one makes special efforts to include us. That´s normal, that is
Castilian, and that is OK by us. One thing we appreciate most about our village is their respect for privacy.

Because even though yes, we open the house to almost anyone who wants to come in, and yes, we host a lot of strangers and friends and acquaintances here, still, fundamentally, Paddy and I are both introvert. We are hermits.

When no one else is here, we spend our days in quiet, individual pursuits. We potter around the house, we paint pictures, we read and write and edit books and blogs. We do not talk to anyone. We hardly talk to one another. We are loners. To a lot of people, we are probably pretty boring. But we love our lives.

How & where I spend my summer
Still, for us the hours are long during the fiesta. At Vitoriana´s house on the plaza, 28 people are crammed into ten rooms, eating and drinking and catching up -- at least four other houses are similarly brimming. Children, dressed to the nines, chase balls and balloons through the flowerbeds. Cousins hold hands in church, and pass their cranky baby brothers hand to hand. Old ladies air-kiss one another´s cheeks outside the church. I see them, and I miss my cousins, aunts and uncles, I miss my big family back in Pittsburgh, its weenie-roasts and potato salad, lightning bugs and fireworks.  

So, maybe making up for that lack, at the Moratinos fiesta I throw myself into the community fun and drag Paddy along with me. I sing the songs and snap photos of the processions, we fill our pew at Mass, we sidle up to the makeshift bar on the church porch. And since they reintroduced the annual costume contest to the lineup, I figure a way to dress up for the big Saturday evening dance.

Last year we turned a couple of cardboard boxes into wearable dice. Paddy happily filled that role. But this year, Lucía my Spanish tutor lent us some exotic Moroccan robes and an headpieces. We can dress up like Mozarabs, the people who lived in Moratinos a thousand years back -- how cool is that?

So this evening, in time for the 8 p.m. costume judging (as listed on the church door) we donned our burnooses and pinned up Paddy´s hem, and headed up the street. Paddy groaned and mumbled that the other men in town don´t dress up. I reminded him of last year´s cave men and pirates and Che Guevarras, and told him "You don´t get old and stop playing. You stop playing and get old." 

We looked great, I thought. Good as two foreigners can look, dressed up like another kind of foreigner. Julia and a little group of relatives smiled and waved as we passed, and we saw they were wearing the clothes they´d worn to Mass earlier. But not everyone participates in the costume thing. We kept going.

I wondered. Last year, the costume contest happened after sundown, after the mobile disco music started up, after everyone had a glass of wine or a beer. Now, at 8, the sun was still high and white. Paddy´s sunglasses made him look like an OPEC oil sheik.

Gillen, a child I´ve pretty much watched grow up in the last seven years, spotted us from down the street. He pointed and laughed at us. We turned the corner into the plaza. The card tables were set up in the shade, the Brisca and Mus tournament in full swing. The games stopped, the faces turned to the two strange beings. Smiles. Incomprehension. Realization.

Victor, always a quick wit, bowed three times and said "salaam." 
A cousin stood up and touched his watch with his finger. "The contest is not til 11 o´clock," he said.
I´d got the schedule wrong.
Yes, we are foreigners, yes, we live up in the Barrio Arriba. And yes, we are morons: me for getting the time wrong, and Paddy for not even bothering to look. 

We came dressed up like Moors, but suddenly we were clowns instead.

"I have ruined my grand entrance!" I mumbled.
We foreigners scuttled home. The dogs snarled at us at first.

Eleven o´clock is two hours distant. The house is very quiet. I don´t know if we will make that long, long walk downtown again. I will have to re-do my makeup, and struggle back into that robe, and hear Paddy groan and grouse from inside his.

Next year Paddy says he will be out of town for the fiesta. If he lives that long. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Funeral for a Friend

We went to London to say goodbye to Paddy´s old friend Derek.

Derek and his wife Jean were with us here last summer, right when Bella Dog arrived. He was one of only two of Paddy´s old friends to ever visit the Peaceable, far as it is from civilization. He was the only one to ever come back twice! Paddy knew Derek since they both were 15 years old, for more than 50 years.

It was sad and interesting, attending a funeral at a London crematory. The service happened in a 1930´s-era chapel-like room, but everything was carefully engineered to avoid reference to Jesus, God, Allah, or Church. The attendants scuttling round in top hats and Edwardian morning coats made me wonder what all the formality was about. The attendees were advised in advance that this was an informal funeral, that Derek played pretty fast-and-loose, sartorially speaking, and we could too. But the women stuck with conventional black dresses. The men, black suit-coats, if not ties. The few who came in jeans and jerseys were dissed outside their hearing.

A humanist minister spoke. Paddy gave a short eulogy. They played Erik Satie´s Gymnopedies 1. At the end, an electric curtain closed around the coffin up front. It was no secret a belt carried the box into a flaming oven on the other side of the white-paneled wall, but that particular truth was discreetly hidden from view. A man in a morning jacket several times stopped and bowed gravely before the bier, the same way a Catholic bows before the holy Eucharist in the front of a church. I wondered if it was Derek he was honoring, or the altar-like bier and curtain, or the firey furnace beyond. In that setting it was vestigial behavior, truly meaningless ritual. 

At the end almost everyone repaired to a pub along the Thames riverbank, where drink was taken in quantities and Derek´s memory was toasted and roasted and recalled.

The people who came to Derek´s do are a fascinating and fruity lot. Except for his children and grandchildren, most of Derek´s friends -- like him -- are over 60 and white and suburban. Many went to school with him, or worked with him at the London daily tabloids where he was an artist and layout man. They are intelligent people, and after a glass of white wine or two, they are loud and fun and funny. They´ve all known one another for decades.

One lady wore a lavender blouse with matching handbag, shoes, and hair. She joined a sprightly, slim companion, the sight of whose amply cantilevered bosom even now brings joy to the hearts of men much too mature for that sort of thing. (I know because one of them said so, out in the driveway, after asking my pardon.) Paddy´s second wife was there, looking trim and healthy, as was Derek´s first. Another well-upholstered woman arrived, wielding a vast handbag, a sharp young man in tow. Her curly mane and Scotch whisky voice were unmistakeable -- We´ve met before. She´s one of Paddy´s old girlfriends, and she knew everyone in the most elaborate and dramatic way.

A clutch of ladies watched from a table nearby. They wore costly haircuts and pressed linen. Their nails were manicured, their eyes and smiles took us all in. They looked at each of us, then at one another, and glittered like gorgeously patterned reptiles.

Some were newspaper veterans, others wives of newspaper veterans, others were neighbors in Ealing, the pricey Peyton Place suburb where Derek lived most of his life. Paddy and Ray, Gloria, Jilly, Alisdair, Sue, Chedgey (in fabulous leopardskin sneakers), Brian and Molloy told stories of their art school days together, the nights in the newsroom and later at the pub -- Fisticuffs, love affairs, betrayals, shameful behavior and last-minute triumphs.

I kept to one side, out of the way. Paddy´s life has been very full, with lots of friends, heartbreak, booze,  laughter, and women. The people at that pub know more about those years than I ever will. Now that retirement has scattered them from Brighton to Norfolk, it´s funerals that bring them together again. With their future hanging heavy ahead, they smile and laugh and talk about the past, the years when the paper sold 3 million copies a day and they had nothing but time. 

They lived the best of times, and they know that very well. They have a healthy view of life and death. They go to a friend´s wake, and laugh afterward. They are characters -- still here, still very much alive. 
I am lucky to see even the last chapter of some of their stories.


Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dignity, Options, and James

St. James of Bristol

A saint stopped here last night. His name was James, he walked here from Bristol, England. He was ill and ragged and really religious.
James has no money, no job, but lots of time and tons of zeal.

James writes each day in a little pocket diary, in teeny, tiny letters. He is writing a book, he says, and this is the book, right here. He says he doesn´t need much, long as he can write. I can dig it.
The Gospel of James

James appeared at the end of a long and costly month. I had a health problem, Paddy lost a good old friend to cancer. We paid taxes and lawyer bills and insurance premiums, we took a long weekend in the mountains to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. We had enough resources to cover it all. There are different kinds of "cost," and lots of different ways to pay them.  

During our anniversary spa holiday I lay up to my neck in swirling hot spring water in a garden of Japanese maples. The magnesium prickled the skin on my legs. A fine drizzle prickled the skin on my upturned face, and I thought about what all this must cost. I thought of the people whose faces were being peppered with the same rain because they were sleeping out in the open, and I saw the only difference between us was money. I have some  money, so I have options. I can lay down on the park bench, too. And I can also relax at home, or in a hotel, or once in a while, in a whirlpool under a maple tree.

I am not just talking about millionaires. Buy an airline ticket. You can pay more and get a seat that lets you lie down. That money buys you, essentially, a few inches of leg-room, a few hours of sleep. The poor folks in coach are packed in like red-eyed sardines.

Likewise, the guy with little money can eat fast food, or make his own lunch, or go hungry. The guy with a fat wallet can choose those any of those things, and a zillion more.

The Gospel reading a couple of weeks ago talked about the rich man who had a dozen lambs, and the poor man next door who had one, a beloved pet. And when an important visitor came to visit the rich guy, did he kill one of his flock for a fine dinner? No. He took the poor man´s lamb and slaughtered it. The rich guy had all those options, and he opted to take away the only one his poor neighbor had.
(I think this is a perfect illustration of why well-off pilgrims should pay for their rooms, rather than take up spaces in the dwindling number of donation-only albergues and refuges. They are slumming, stealing the only option meant for truly poor pilgrims, putting the poor into the street. Jesus does not like that.)

Here at the Peaceable we see a lot of Divine Providence, even though we are not poor. Providence sends us people like James, people in a jam, poor people who are stripped of their dignity and out of options. If they are not drunk or crazy or obnoxious (we have options, see) we slip them into the household routine -- We do these things anyway, and another person or two makes little difference to our little economy or rhythm. Like everybody else in the world, James likes to sit in a soft chair and hear some good music. He deserves a nice glass of wine, a cloth napkin, a table properly set.

Entertainment options abound, if you´re lucky
When you put his clothes in the washer and give him a bed with clean sheets and blankets to sleep in, when you show him a little dignity, he feels like a wealthy man. He is refreshed and restored.

We have options. We can choose. Compared to most of this world, we are wealthy people, and we owe it in part to the Jameses. When they leave here, I always ask them to pray for us. They continue down the trail to Santiago, and while they walk, consciously or not, they pray. Superstitious as that might sound, I think pilgrim prayers are powerful. Pilgrim prayers keep the divine providence flowing into the Peaceable. They keep our options open. They make our "unique lifestyle" a viable one.

And they give me things to contemplate, and stories to write. And long as I can write, I am alright.   

On holiday: Paddy encounters the natives
NOTE: I realize this post is not the most coherant thing I have ever written. I am trying to distill what we do into a "mission statement," and this is one of several attempts. Hopefully clarity will break through all the fuzzy thinking and Gospel readings one of these days... Meantime, enjoy a few random pictures of summertime.

Bella, in the garden
holiday: walking the Ruta de Cares in the Picos de Europa

Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Sky Full of Trouble

Hilario to the rescue!

Trouble came at lunchtime, about the time when the wind picks up out of the west.

The day was pure July, hot and dry. Combines swayed over the rye fields through the morning, swallowing up the grain and leaving a spew of straw in lines behind. The air was full of dust and flies.

Mari Valle saw it first, from her new pre-fab wooden holiday house on the lot next door to Bruno´s – her house looks out to the west, across the fields. Across the fields, when she looked out, stood a huge column of black. The horizon was smoke, and the smoke leaned east. The fields were aflame, and the fire was blowing toward our town.

Someone shouted, someone ran.
Edu had the church keys. He opened up the big door and grabbed the bell-pull. The bell sang out over the town and out to the tractors still in the field – something awful is happening! Your help is needed! Call home right away, come downtown!

Justi and Oliva jumped in their little car and drove straight at the flames. They have a crop out there, a field of standing sunflowers. José fired up his tractor, two of his uncles loaded into the cab with him.  José Maria from San Nicolas was already working a field nearby. One of them called in the firefighters. Firefighters must come here from Villada and Palencia, a good distance. But until they arrived, this fire was our problem.
I heard the bells, I ran to the gate, I hit the driveway running and looked up and saw the cloud, it had turned white by then, it disappeared against the white light in the sky. But the wind was blowing, and inside the white cloud I saw a thread of black. A spinning dark thread, like a little cyclone. A great hot breath of wind came up the driveway then, and the stink of burning. I shouted for Patrick. I took off down Calle Ontanon.

The blood runs cold

Tractors emerged from the barns, some with plows, some with front-end loaders. They slowed to scoop up men with shovels and rakes, then they roared up the road to the tumberon. Their rooster-tails of dust vanished into the heat. A carload of young harvesters came flat-out from San Nicolas, their lunches left standing at La Barrunta. I thought I heard bells from San Nicolas, too, but could not tell for sure. Milagros and Esteban, Esther, Flor and Angeles, Mari and Joaquin, Pin and Feliciano and Modesto stood in the shade of the pumphouse and pointed and shouted. Hilario appeared, a pitchfork in his hand, pedaling furiously up the road on his bicycle. Every man, the able-bodied, the relatively young, was needed up there, and every one went. 
Modesto knows all about firefighting

“The plows. They´re plowing a fire-break. They´ll stop the fire before it can follow the road down to here,” Angeles explained.
“The others, they´ll rake, they´ll shovel. They´ll get in front of it. No doubt,” she said, but her face was worried.
“How did it happen? How´d it start?”
“We don´t have anybody around here who´d start one on purpose.”
“Yeah. This isn´t Galicia, or Valencia. No one around here.”
“A cigarette. A spark off the machines, you know how many moving parts there are. And look at the fields, dry dry dry.”
“This happened before, I remember. Same time of year.”
“The bomberos will be here soon. They come quick these days.”
And as if they heard us say so, a helicopter appeared in the sky. It flew straight into the great smoke-plume, and touched down at the brow of the hill, where Justi´s little car was parked. It took off again right away, with a great canvas bucket slung from its belly. It headed for Villada, for the reservoir.
the professionals arrive

The wind shifted, the smoke disappeared. For a moment we thought it was over. A siren wailed in the distance, a big four-wheel-drive fire engine roared up the road from Fuente de San Martin. It slowed as it passed us. A man opened a door, shouted at Pin to get the hell in the truck and help.

“I have lentils on the stove!” he wailed. Many hands pulled him up into the cab, and the vehicle vanished up the road into the smoke. The helicopter came back, its water-bag bulging. It emptied itself over the hill, where we could not see. It went again for more, we could hear shouting from above.

I wanted to go there, I wanted to see. I was a news reporter for many years, I have marched right up to to dozens of bad fires, but this one I let go. Asthma. Kidneys. I would only be in the way. No one pays me to be nosy any more. If it started blowing wild, I would have to see to saving my home, my cats and dogs.

But no. The fire-break worked, the buckets of water, the firefighters, they worked. Soon the tractors reappeared, the cabs stuffed with shirtless men, guys here for the weekend, in-laws and brothers. Lucky this happened on a weekend, when Enrique and Victor and Hilario were here to help out, lucky there were extra hands around for the harvest, those boys from San Nicolas. Two thoughtful ladies even saved Pin´s pot of beans. 

No one hurt. Fields burned black, but most of them were harvested already. Only the straw was lost, and maybe the tenant farmer at San Martin lost a half-acre of rye. The men were hungry, late lunches were laid out, families settled into an afternoon of fresh stories.
charred remains
Two hours later, Patrick and I drove up to see the damage. The tumberon, an un-excavated Paleolithic tomb with a navigational mast on top, is blackened. It is one of Paddy´s favorite places, he walks there often with the dogs. It made him quiet, seeing it that way.

We went to the bodega and discussed the day´s events with Milagros. We stopped at the church, where Fran and Julia were mopping, getting the place ready for tomorrow´s Mass and guitar concert. They´d missed all the excitement. They´d been on siesta. They didn´t know about the fire, and nobody told them til I did.

Remarkable, Julia said, how the church was full of flies yesterday, and now they all were dead now. We´d left the doors open when the pilgrims were visiting, and dozens of flies came in out of the heat. Today, they all lay dead, dozens of them. We swept up their bodies and threw them into the street. Weird.

And back at home, out on the patio, more strangeness continued. The wind blew from the wrong direction, the trees creaked, but there were no clouds in the sky. Something was up there, shimmering. I called to Patrick to see – a flock of birds? Insects? Locusts? Whatever it was, it was coming down to earth.

From hundreds of feet up in the blue sky, hanks of straw came floating, spinning and flickering in the long sunbeams. The dogs barked and ran beneath the patio table. Straw rained down, pelted, even, carried on the wind. It carpeted the patio and orchard and driveway. Then it stopped.

Such a strange day: Fire, flies, and a straw-storm. Plagues. 

I hope the sun goes down soon, before the frogs arrive. I do not know if our insurance will cover that.