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.