Monday, 25 February 2013

Two Treasures

Two Treasures today... No, you have not stumbled onto a Chinese takeout menu.

Today I found two treasures, for real.
One I found this morning on a back road out of Carrion de los Condes when, like Bruce Springsteen, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going. I rolled north toward mountains sharp and bright and  snow-white. I rolled through little farm towns and wondered how many people lived in them, what kind of antique oddments lurked in their adobe barns and byres.

I rolled into Nogal de las Huertas, or "Walnut of the Orchards." It was just another farm town, except... over to the west, along the riverbank, was a big stand of disorderly trees. And in the trees? A big building. Also disorderly. Abandoned. Along the river. A mill? A factory? A palace? You never can tell til you get up close. So I drove down the dirt road til it ended at the river-fording. The water roared. There must have been a mill at some point.

In the trees stood an archway, simple and fine. It was the front door of an old church.
A very old church. A little monastic church, from the look of it -- and from the checkerboard trim on the stone I could see the inner sanctum was at least 900 years old. Romanesque.

The village clock rang out noon. 

I did not have my camera. Other people have taken photos there, but they´ve made it hard for people like me to share them on blogs. Click on the link and you will see pretty much what I saw. It is what remains of the Cistercian monastery of San Salvador, founded in 1063 by Countess Elvira Fernandez, and inhabited pretty much continually until about 200 years ago. There are older buildings in Palencia province, but no older Romanesque ones. This one is a jewel. A hidden diamond.

And built right up against the apse, among the derelict orchard, was a huge haunted house. Its doors gaped open, its timbers creaked, the tile floors downstairs were littered with baskets, harness chains, shutters, stair-rails, embroidery floss and Gospel pamphlets. Both staircases were gone, rotted and collapsed. The second floor remained untouched, with steamer trunks and walking-canes and bookshelves visible through the holes in the floorboards. Sunlight beamed through broken glass and glowed on soft blue wallpaper.

Unreachable. A habitation for owls.

It was, in its way, as spectacular as the abbey, but nobody takes its picture. It´s another abandoned old farmhouse, in a countryside full of them. A couple of hundred years ago, the place next door was just another abandoned monastery, in a countryside full of those.

What a wonderful countryside I live in, where I can stumble over such jewels!

Once I got home, I found the next treasure. It was in our mailbox, in a padded manila envelope. The return address was Aspinwall, Pennsylvania -- a Pittsburgh suburb. A town I know of. But the person who sent it?  No memory of that name.

Inside was a hand-written note:

Dear Rebekah Scott and Paddy:
Happy New Year!! I hope everything with your family is going to be well include your lovely dog. 
I am Seun Lee, who stayed your "The Peaceable Kingdom" around Dec. 2009 with my german friend Matin. At that moment we didn´t have enough energy to continue Sahagun, exhausted and even hugry. However, you and your husband allowed to stay and gave a great green curry with white wine, and whiskey later. I appreciate about that day forever because that was the time I really need help.

So, since then I´m looking for how I can express my thank you to your family. Finally I found out that you and Paddy love to hear piano music when I heard my favorite Baik Kun Woo´s Fauré playing several weeks ago. I hope you and Paddy like this CD. It is low volume. It is good to listen in the morning. 

I know it´s just nothing than your kindness, but I want to say "thank you."  

I believe we meet again one day in the road. Actually my friend Matin also agree to walk again some day. 
See you soon. 
Seun Lee 
I don´t remember Seun or Matin, but their names are here in our guest register.
We have not hosted a pilgrim for three weeks or more.
We don´t get them here like we used to. I tell myself I do not miss them much.
But this? This is such a treasure. 
(and it is a really lovely recording!)

You blessed my soul, Seun Lee. You, and countess Elvira Fernandez -- one from far away, and one from long ago.
I thank you both for scattering your treasures in my path. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A Death-Scented Sofa

This is not Me. 
I woke up with a headache, and doing housework sometimes helps. So I started the day off busy. It did not take long to slide into an epic.

First I wiped the muddy cat-tracks off the back of the leather sofa. The back of the leather sofa was not designed to be a welcome-mat for cats, but the sofa backs up against the window that leads onto the back yard. The window was not designed to be a cat-door, not designed to be opened and closed 46 times each day to suit feline whims.

Things wear out fast around here. Wear and tear are the reason we dropped big bucks on a leather sofa. I would not ordinarily spend big bucks on anything, but I must say the leather was a good decision. The Meseta is an extreme place. Extreme dust in August and September, and extreme mud December through April. This is why what little upholstery we have is leather – it can be cleaned, over and over. Dust does not soak in. Dogs can vomit, cats can track across it, people can lounge and leak and cry all over it, and it will clean up just fine, long as harsh chemicals or sharp blades are not involved.

That is why the other furniture is rattan or wood, and cushions are made of carpet. That is why the rug is made of jute, not wool or cotton, and why the floors beneath are tiled. They hide the dirt and dog-hair and dander, at least for a day or two. And they endure.

It is only by happy accident that all these things work together into a happy harmony. It looks like décor in here, like someone actually planned these colors and textures and geometries. We are lucky that way.

Until, occasionally, our luck runs out.

Today, as I wiped down the sofa, I smelled something bad.

I live in an agricultural town, where fertilizer and manure, wet earth and rotting carcasses are daily aromas. I have a funk-adapted nose. When something inside my house stinks to me, something has gone very bad indeed. I pulled the sofa away from the wall.

It was not a derelict sandwich – dogs love old food much too much to let that happen.
It was not an abandoned rag, left to moulder when someone came to the door and interrupted a long-ago cleaning session.
It was not a leaky windowsill, admitting rain into the dead zone between the drywall and the old adobe wall behind it. No visible mildew.

It was two sparrows, very dead. Or what remained of them -- tiny heaps of feathers, beaks, and claws. Moe´s pantry. I went, to get the dust pan. When I returned, Rosie had one of the bodies in her mouth. She  was headed for the kitchen door trailing a cloud of feathers and at least one cat. I shouted. Rosie dropped the bird. I swept up the down as it settled onto the tiles and the jute rug. I retrieved both bodies and threw them onto the fire. I flipped up the edge of the rug, and saw the great beach of dust and dog-dander that lives between it and the tiles. I sighed. I could almost hear the dominos dropping.

I topped-up my headache pills with an allergy tablet, and rolled the vacuum into the room. Dogs and cats fled. I sucked up the feathers and dust from behind the sofa. I sucked down the spider webs in the rafters overhead and thought about refreshing the paint. I started on the under-rug dirt. I picked up the edge nearest to woodstove, and it came away in my hand. It is jute, natural fiber, always slowly going south, crumbling into the dust beneath. After three years of lying near the fire, it is dried up. It will have to go.

I took a hard look at the other furniture in the room. The wicker rocker´s been knocked-about in the last couple of years, frayed by kitten-claws and gnawing dogs and pilgrim bums. Rosie has decided it is hers, she sleeps there at night. The Peaceable Kingdom-theme cushion-cover is looking tired now, its lions and leopards are folded and grubby.

New cushion covers, I think. Leather. Or carpet. Or maybe replace the whole unraveling chair. Or not. We do not get crowds here any more. No need for more chairs.

The shelf bulges with compact disks. Someday we will master our computers, and our music collection will be neatly contained on hard-drives or Ipods or other such devices. But for now, it is all still on CD – testimony of our obsolescence as modern humans. It is a mess, this great jumble of music. Something should be done. But fixing that will require investment – hours of transferring the disks into digital form, cataloging them in a logical order. Someone will have to show us how. We will need equipment to do that, and time, and patience, and inclination.

And at the end of it all, there´s the very real chance one of us will forget to hit “Save.” Or the power will fail halfway through, or the hard drive will decide it only speaks MacIntosh. All efforts to recover will be met with scorn and humiliation by the 90% of humanity who keep up with media as it morphs.

But I digress.
A new jute rug is in order, and a new cushion or two or three.
The patio needs big pots for plants, and a ton of dirt to put in them.
Two new dog beds, as the ones in here have taken on the charactar of the creatures who use them – dirty, hairy, ragged and smelly.
Salad tongs.
Sheets for the odd-size upstairs bed.

A shopping expedition!
Which means cleaning the back of the car, flattening the back seats, finding what might be lurking in the folds. An odyssey, a day of measuring, list-making and driving, parking and hiking. It means decision-making and consultations on sizes and colors and materials. Yielding not to temptation. Sticker shock, then geometric exercise in fitting odd shapes into the oblong space that is the rear of the car. Then driving it home and unloading it all.

It means Ikea, in Valladolid.
I will not go there alone. I do not shop happily or well by myself. I have sworn a great swear to never again go there with Paddy.

What I need is a girlfriend. A shopaholic, a natural hunter-gatherer. There are not many of those here on the Meseta in mid-February. No shopping trip. Not for a while.

I let myself feel relief.

I pushed the sofa back up against the wall, and tucked the ragged rug-corner under itself, and put off the Inevitable for some other day. I have a headache. It will not do to push too hard. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Pocketful of Lent

It is mid-February, and the first week of Lent. But no, kids, this does not mean life is dreary!

It only means that life is -- shall I say -- structured.

Lent is 40 days of fasting, soul-searching, and quiet prayer, supposedly. Here in Spain, a heavily Catholic country, we take our repentence with grace and gravity. (Lent has a much nicer name here: Cuaresma. "Lent" sounds a bit too much to me like the stuff that accumulates in your pockets. "Cuaresma," though... it is practically "charisma!")

In any case, I am making good on Cuaresma this year. I am doing a daily session of contemplation and prayer, following an updated form of the Spiritual Discipline of St. Ignatius of Loyola -- the Spaniard who founded the Jesuits. It only sounds heavy. It is very good, and very good for me. 

I like to think I am a "free spirit," someone who can run her life just fine without programs and outside structures. I was not always very organized at all, but then I grew up. I learned I do well in winter if I have some regimen to follow, a schedule or a ritual. I have learned to schedule things for January and February. This is why I am doing well at studying Spanish verbs. It is why I will (by GOD) have a nice garden this year. It´s why I was able to get Paddy to the medical center by 9 a.m. today, and get the car to Palencia for its annual inspection, get to the bank and get grocery shopping done, all before 1:30 p.m. Because I planned it out.

(Of course we have to wedge dog walks into there somewhere, and muddy plowed fields, and Paddy losing the rubber tip off his new walking stick. The dogs flushed a rabbit and Harry, who is lame, dragged the lead out of Paddy´s hand and may have re-injured himself...  Still. It was a beautiful, sunny evening, even if it was a hard evening to be Paddy in.)

Structure is why I am digging Lent this year. It feels right, and there are positive outcomes. It makes me more aware of beautiful things. I see the yellow winter light, and how long and black the shadows are. I hear larks in the fields now, and see Vs of geese overhead, heading back south already. I listen better when people speak to me. I listen better to my gut. I spend less time online, and more time reading books. I pray for a long list of people and things each day. And I am seeing my prayers, very subtly, being answered.

Philip, my son, needs a summer internship. He is in law school. Summer work experience is vital to his later job prospects, and the market is very, very tight. I pray for him. And this evening, on an impulse, I contacted a couple of old lawyer friends -- a District Attorney, a journo who shifted into law, and asked them what is out there. I wonder if that is the right thing to do, if I am being One of Those Moms. (Philip is 25 years old, for heaven´s sake!) But I did it because my gut said "go for it."  Why not?  It feels right.

I pray for Moratinos, for unity, for forgiveness and co-operation. And at the annual Plaza Tree-Trimming After-Party, the head of the Neighborhood Association offered a strip of community land to me and Michael from the Italian Albergue, to put a garden on.
Angelón roasting lamb, post tree-trimming

We haven´t taken a good look at the land, don´t know a time-frame, haven´t settled anything. But the idea is an intriguing one -- a community garden! We would likely be comedy relief for the neighbors, all of whom are professional growers of green things -- Michael, like me, is a big-city newspaper hack, with little experience in actual dirt. We don´t have a tractor. Could we ask the neighbors to plow it for us, and share the big manure delivery, and show us how to irrigate? How many of them would help us out, at least at first? Will they be disappointed if we don´t succeed? Is the ground too near the camino, where passing pilgrims are known to sometimes sample the produce?   

I pray about Bella Dog. Nobody wants to adopt her. I decided to treat her with love and respect, even though she is clumsy and overly affectionate and huge. I brush her every day, and look her in the face and tell her she is beautiful. And she is. She is more likely to grow into a good dog if she is loved than if she is resented. If she´s got to live here, well... I will have to love her.

This is the Peaceable Kingdom, after all. This is Cuaresma, time to re-think our less-than-positive habits, time to clean out our pockets and get things lined-up for later.  And time to rest up.

It feels right. So I am doing it.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

February Is Better

January is always a bitch. The days stretch on, long and gray. Everyone gets the flu or the gripes or the Dreaded Lurgy. The washing machine leaks, the front door won´t close, the car yodels when the defroster´s turned up beyond 3.
The January page on my calender is the only one with days X´d out, counted down.
I do not like to waste the time I have here on the earth. I like to appreciate my life, live each day to the fullest, and all that. But January doesn´t count toward the total.
January is sometimes not living. It is surviving. Enduring.

February, on the other hand...
Not a job for amateurs
When I flip the page over to February, something happens to the light. Suddenly the daylight lasts longer. It is 7 p.m. sometimes before the sun goes down. The sun is out, the sky is bright blue, it has been bright blue for days now. The fields are spectacularly green. 
I don´t have to scrape so much ice off the windshield now on Monday and Thursday mornings.
Yes, it is still cold. (Justi says February is the coldest month, but I don´t believe it.) In the afternoon the wind gets up and roars all around the house, but now it feels cozy, not threatening. And we get out of the house and about the neighborhood a bit more now.
We see the Segundino family out in their massive garden, planting out the early peas. The vines are all trimmed back now, the clippings bundled up for oncoming barbecues. Edu and Fran pruned the apricot and fig and cherry trees last weekend, so I did the same thing here, to our apple and pear and fig trees. (This year we shall have apples!) In the patio I planted an almond tree. The dogs are not molesting it. (I wonder if that means it is not just dormant -- they don´t bother killing things that are already dead.)

Orejones ("big ears")
Patrick´s birthday is February 7. Milagros´ birthday is February 9. So today, at the meeting room of the ayuntamiento, Milagros and Florín threw a little party to mark the great occasion -- ten of us gathered round the table and ruined our dinnertime appetites with glasses full of thick, rich hot chocolate and "orejones," a sort of funnel-cake fried-dough treat made with home-brewed liquor and sugar and lard. Ash Wednesday is coming up, and this is traditional "Fat Tuesday" fare -- our last chance to stop up our arteries before, well... dinner. (In the slow cooker at home bubbled barbecued pulled-pork and ribs, all sticky and lovely. It was not a good day on the cholesterol front.)

It was good to sit down with the neighbors, even though our numbers were small. I miss the old Vermut gatherings after church -- the advent of the new Bodega restaurant seems to have snuffed out that weekly event. I am sure we will find a happy medium as time goes on. There are so few of us here in winter, and it is way too easy to wall ourselves away when it´s cold.
birthday boy and girl

Moratinos is an isolated place so early in the year, but we don´t have to always be alone.  

I heard from an American pilgrim who stayed here on New Year´s Eve. Paddy showed him a fine old time, apparently. On his blog you can read all about it, and see the ins and outs of a wintertime pilgrim