Wednesday, 29 January 2014

On Walkabout

I am off to London to buy beautiful dresses, like a princess.
Then I shall fly to the rugged, storm-toss´d coast of La Coruña, and from there walk with some dear clergical types down the Camino Ingles to the great shrine city of Santiago de Compostela. It is a getaway, a retreat.
I hope it does not rain the entire time, but hey -- it´s February on the Galician coast. WaddaIwant?
Walking is a form of prayer, a contemplative practice. 
I am walking for Roger, a very fit, athletic pilgrim who´s just been diagnosed with an awful disease.
I am walking for Philip, my newlywed son, who must finish law school now and find relevant employment.
I am walking for Paddy´s health, and for my mom´s.
I am walking for Moratinos, and all the people who live and work here. 
I am walking for me, too. For hope, and surviving the next month or two. For cool new ideas, green shoots in the dark grey lawn of winter.
And I am walking out of gratitude, cause there´s so many little things in my life that are beautiful. 
And I am walking because I just like to walk.

I am not taking electronica along. You won´t hear from me unless something extraordinary happens. So be patient.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

España Profunda

I have lived in rural Spain for many years now, but I will always be a foreigner. Some days I am reminded what a stranger I am, in a very strange land indeed.

We walk our many dogs in the morning. This muddy time of year we go up or down the Camino de Santiago. The Way into town passes a little graveyard. Periodically the farmers take a backhoe and level the land around the cemetery walls. I am not sure why they do this, because now the dirt around there is scattered with bones.

Not just doggy kinds of bones. Human bones. Little ones mostly, nothing reconizably belonging to anyone. They are old and scattered, and whomever they belonged to is probably long forgotten. This is what happens when families own only enough space in the graveyard for one or two relations, or people die too close together -- whatever´s not gone back to Earth from inside the tomb is quietly pitched out back.

One part of me says it is healthy, that dead is dead, that these bones are just part of the earth now. Another part of me silently screeches omigod omigod omigod that thing was somebody´s clavicle!  

The dogs leave them alone, and for that I am thankful.

It was a sunny morning, the shadows stretched long, and the patio, out of the wind, was a perfect sun-trap. Paddy sat out there with his day-old newspapers and a glass of beer and let himself be poked and prodded by dog-noses. Today he put one of the stereo speakers out there, too, so he could listen to Maria Callas singing Verdi opera arias, which Paddy likes to play LOUD. I stepped out there for something, and heard something strange going on beyond the usual  "è strano...e fors a lui..."
Something high and scrapey, with an off-key vibrato. Coming from next door, or down the street.  
"siempre libera..."
I couldn´t get a fix on it. Was Justi sharpening knives? Cutting sheet metal with an angle-grinder? Surely no one else in Moratinos was listening to opera divas on a Thursday morning! I could see nothing moving down the driveway, so I just headed back to repairing the chicken coop.

Out in the front patio the dogs went ballistic, just when Caro Nome hit its peak. It was the post. A box from California that was due last Monday finally arrived, patched-together with tape and letters from Spanish Customs. It is perfectly legal, apparently, for my friends to send highly explosive jalapeño tortillas through the postal system. But artisanal cow´s milk cheese will be summarily confiscated at the border. For Our Common Safety and Security.

(I made the chicken coop look a little better. It still will not contain chickens, however. Time to call in the experts.) 

Crestfallen, we shut down the Italian warbling and headed to Pili´s Casa de Comidas for a Menu del Dia. On the way out of town, in the yard behind Segundino´s carpentry workshop, I spotted the source of the not-quite operatic aria. Two hogs hung nose-down from the tines of the tractor-bucket, their bellies split, their great bodies opened up like red books. The noise I´d heard alongside Callas was a hog howling his last.

For lunch I had a big plate of fried eggs and morcilla, blood sausage fresh from a similar massacre. It´s that time of year.

Back at home, Momo caught a mouse in the closet beneath the stairs. He brought it into the kitchen to show me -- it was a big fat grey one, still very much alive. I told Mo "good job," and told him to take the mouse outside, as is our custom. He jumped up to the window behind the sofa, put the mouse down, and slipped outside.

He put the live mouse down inside the living room. Behind the sofa, where I sit now, writing. It is still in here someplace. Tim and Rosie, who will happily excavate a half-acre field to unearth a single terrified mole, are napping.

I am not overly afraid of mice, but I have too many fur-bearing critters living with me already. I do not like this.

There is so much life and death here, so many reminders of how fragile we all are. Where I come from, we don´t do bones and blood. When we die our bodies are are shot full of chemicals, sealed hermetically inside boxes, and buried deep. Animals are butchered, but far from the sight and sound of consumers -- our meat does not come from screaming pigs, it comes from shiny packets in the supermarket.

And decent people never have to deal with rodents. Those just don´t happen.
Your friend sends you cheese, nobody takes it away. You get your damn cheese. You say "thank you."

But I laugh, too, remembering uppity American subdivisions that forbid backyard clotheslines and flagpoles as "unsightly." I wish they could enjoy an afternoon of what´s hanging in my neighbors´ yard.

Spain is a first-world country. I don´t have to live out here in the wild part. I freely choose the backwater life -- the Spain of morcilla made from pigs grown out back, eggs spotted with dirt and feathers. Mud and blood and rough new wine. España Profunda.

It is weird, it is sometimes grotesque. But it is honest. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Friday, 17 January 2014

January Sun

January is a grey old bitch, mud tracked-in on wet paws and boots, chapped cheeks, and this year, death. Yesterday we touched bottom.  

But today the sun came out. Murphy´s suffering is finished, a new little grave is set up out back by the horsetails. Murph liked to hang out back there. Nabi the greyhound is buried there too. We set to work getting the house back into shape, the wood chopped, the floors swept up and mopped, and all the blankets and towels and cat-beds laundered.

Post-siesta we went to the Bar Deportivo in Sahagún to pay the electrician and the veterinarian. Two dozen men were packed in there, slamming dominoes down onto formica, shouting and swearing and living the life. Paddy loves these old guys, he says their faces are straight out of Goya and Velasquez paintings, and sometimes Hieronymous Bosch. I thank God they can´t smoke indoors anymore. The walls and ceilings of the Deportivo are still a soft yellow-grey from decades of Ducado fumes, but now, without the smoke, you can actually see the television screens. If you want to watch highlights of last year´s bullfights. 

When you pay bills here, you meet up with the artisan in a bar. You shake hands and fork over the cash, then buy one another drinks and talk over what was done. No paperwork, and probably no tax. 

You´ll remember me clearing out a flooded junction box out back with a turkey baster? Tino the electrican fixed that. He also bought my turkey baster from me, once I showed him how I got that water out of there. That´s brilliant, he said. "Americans think of everything."  

The veterinarian nipped over from his little clinic across the street. We have seen him early every morning since last Friday, he took us first thing and pumped Murphy full of glucose and vitamins and iron and God knows what. He apologized for losing Murph, and charged us 24 Euros for everything.
We said No Way, man. 

"You are good customers, good people," he said. "You trusted me, but it was not to be," he said. "The liver was too effected. The liver failed, the medicine failed. I failed."
He shook our hands, took our 24 Euros. 

I went to the hardware store where we´d left the chainsaw for sharpening. The couple there asked me how Philip´s wedding went, they´d heard I went back to America at Christmas. They heard from the news agent. Who knows Pilar at the bakery. Walking back up the street I was hailed by the homeless guy who sleeps in the alcove. He asked about Murphy. Last Saturday he´d seen me coming out of the vet clinic, looking sad. He´d looked into the carrier cage at the ragged cat. He´d told me I should have got a dog instead, that dogs can eat anything and survive because they know how to puke.
"The cat died," I told him today.
"I know. I heard. I´m sorry," he said.  

I do not know these peoples´ names a lot of the time. But people know who we are. We and our weddings and chainsaws and cats are part of the scene now, especially in January, when Moratinos and San Nicolas, Sahagún and Grajal are down to skeleton crews and there´s nothing going on, nobody to talk about. These people do not know us personally, but they know who we are, and I like that. It makes me feel comforted, strengthened somehow.

There is one note of wonderfulness to report, animal-wise.
If you follow my Facebook postings, you will remember Tor, a scruffy mongrel who likes to walk with pilgrims from Calzadilla de la Cueza to Moratinos. He fetches up late in the morning at Martina´s Hostal or Bruno´s albergue, where he is fed and watered and fussed-over. His owner, the driver for a taxi and backpack-transport service, stops in and picks him up and takes him home in the afternoon.
Just before Christmas, though, Bruno came to our door on a Sunday morning asking for help. Tor had arrived as usual, but something was wrong -- he had apparently been hit by a car. One of Tor´s rear legs was torn off at the elbow, the paw dangling horrifically from a scrap of fur, a bit of bone... oh I won´t get too gruesome with it! We loaded Tor into the back of the furgoneta and drove him home to Calzadilla, a pilgrim stop about 18 kilometers east. His people run the hostel there. They were suitably appalled, mentioned a cousin who is a vet, had us put him in a stairwell til the owner came home.
Bruno and I assumed the dog would be put down. We heard no more about him.
Until this morning.
Tor showed up at Martina´s place with a couple of Korean pilgrims, spry as ever, looking for dog biscuits. On three legs. The gruesome stump was swathed in bandages, and he wore a plastic cone collar to keep him from worrying the wound. But he is alive and well and back in the pilgrim business.  

Bruno and I high-fived. Moratinos has a history of three-legged pilgrim pooches. 
This one the vet won. We rejoice.   

Monday, 13 January 2014

Only a Cat

The house is in disarray, the fire keeps going out, the chicken-pen fence is down. Korean pilgrims come and come. Murphy Cat is dying.

The vet says Murph ate a mouse or a rat last week, a mouse or rat that was poisoned. He ate an awful lot of the poison, a kind that attacks the liver and kidneys, that causes internal bleeding. A slow-acting kind.

If you have stayed at The Peaceable, you may have met Murph, he has been here almost from the start. He snuggles with pilgrims sometimes -- especially those who dislike or are allergic to cats, or who are fastidious about getting fur on their clothing. He has a big voice, and greets Patrick in the morning with noisy demands for food. He is a fine mouser.

Murphy has tried to die several times already. He was poisoned before -- poisoning rodents is something farmers do. He was run over and broke three of his legs. He disappears periodically, and comes back all thin and hungry. He´s gone toe-to-toe with Lulu the Greyhound, and only a few weeks ago recovered from an infected bite he suffered in a cat-fight out back. He is just a cat, but to the local veterinarians he is a cash cow.  

And so, since Friday we´ve taken Murph to the veterinarian in Sahagun each morning for injections of several kinds. We force-feed him with soft things, squirt water down his throat til he yowls horribly. He tries to go to the window to go outside, and on the way he totters and falls. He passes out of consciousness, his eyes staring empty. 

Tim and Rosie and Momo come and sniff him, then turn away. For hours at a time, Murph´s not here.

He is only a cat. I asked the vet if we shouldn´t just put him down.
“He has a chance,” he says. “Why take that away from him? He isn´t suffering,” he says.

Murph is suffering, goddammit. I hold him and cry while he cries, and then when he stops crying. I put food into his mouth and he arches his head back and goes stiff and still, his eyes go blank. His fat, glossy body is a limp, ragged sack of bones and misery. 

I love him. I hate this.

He is only a cat, but I love him to death.

I love him, so I want him to die.   

Note: Murphy died on 15 January at 11 a.m. I was holding him in my arms, Paddy was alongside, Bruno and Rosie right there, too. He did not go easy, it was horrifying. John Murphy is the finest cat I ever had. Please, if you live in an area where rodents are routinely poisoned, DO NOT WAIT when your cat shows lethargic behavior and gets a runny nose. It may not be a cold. It may be rat poison. Get him to a veterinarian. If discovered early, this kind of poison can be counteracted with vitamin injections, his life can be saved. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Gift of the Magi

"You heard! You heard the news?" Flor asked, grabbing my arm at the church door. "You know about the baby?" 

"Three kings, yeah. The magos found the Baby Jesus today," I said, glancing at the manger scene in the entryway. Flor and her sisters had carefully arranged it there a couple of weeks ago, as they do every year. Flor is intense. Sometimes I don´t understand what she is saying the first time around.

It´s Epiphany, Three Kings´ Day, and the pulpits of Spain are full of Incarnations and Expectations, Hope and Joy and Revelations. It´s the day Jesus´ uniqueness was revealed to the world at large, as shown by the three Wise Men who made the world´s first Christian pilgrimage. Here it´s no different. The bells rang and we all gathered in the chilly church for the second time in 24 hours, ready to mark the end of the long holiday that stretches over the 12 days of Christmas.

"No!" Flor said, waving away the plastic Bethlehem. "This is for real! We have a baby here, in Moratinos! A girl! My sister got an e-mail, it´s on the computer!"

"You´re joking," I told her. Holy Innocents day is like April Fools´ Day, and it was just past. Maybe Flor was doing one of her wonderfully clumsy practical jokes a couple of days late. Maybe another grandchild had arrived to one of the second-generation couples who now live in Madrid or Vittoria or Burgos, far from Moratinos. That generation is having a bit of a baby boom, but their babies are only seen on holidays and in summertime.

Flor heaved an elaborate sigh.

"Rebekah, you have amistad with Martina and Daniel, over at the hostel. And yesterday they arrived from their holiday. With a baby. A little girl! A newborn! You didn´t know?"

No. I was as surprised as anybody. "But Martina wasn´t pregnant!" I told her, trying quickly to recall what me and Martina have discussed in days past. Hmmm. Sauerkraut. Stöllen cakes. Angela Merkel´s fiscal policy. No mention of babies. But wait!

When Martina came over last, she gave me a little Christmas gift and told me another surprise may be coming for Three Kings day. A mysterious note arrived in my email queue while I was home in America, an email with attachments. I wasn´t using a secure computer, so I didn´t open it. Must´ve been Daniel -- who was just then in California on some "business matter." He tried to tell me, but I thought he was a  spammer.

"Y que sopresa tenemos!" Flor said, skittering into the sanctuary in her stilletto-heel boots. Nobody knew, and she was there to tell. The church lit up with joy, once it was settled that Flor was not making a joke. Oliva and Milagros started to cry, even. And I of course choked up, too.    

It was a wonderful Mass, charged with meaning -- a new baby, a living future for a dying town, a real sign of promise to a town of 20 people, none of whom is under age 40.

Paddy and I headed over to the Hostal Moratinos soon as church was over, and sure enough -- there in the dining room sat Maria Angeles, Daniel´s mother, with a tiny baby over her shoulder. We hugged the new parents, learned the details, laughed out loud. Little Isabel was born in late November in San Diego, a bit earlier than expected, via surrogate mother -- a procedure still not legal here in Spain. Daniel went over to finalize the judicial paperwork and bring the baby back home. She´s American-born, has a blue USA passport, even -- she is Moratinos´ second Americana.

Baby Isabel

Martina, the new mom, didn´t tell anyone in advance. She knew how many surprises can jump up at the last minute, and she didn´t want to crush the hopes of anyone else if the process didn´t work out.

But this time, the long-awaited hope came true. And after we went grinning home, the neighbors went too, to see the little miracle, just a few at a time, not so many that they´d be overwhelmed, just for a peek and a shake of hands, just to see what color her hair was. 

Her name is Isabel, she is still very small, but she´s healthy and pink and very well looked-after. If her parents ever need a break, they have an entire village of kanguros lined up to spoil her rotten.

I am not sentimental, not usually. This little girl means so much, not just to her parents, but to this whole tiny village. We all filtered in to the Castillo restaurant to slap one another on the back and just grin like a gang of Cheshire Cats. Yeah, it´s wet and cold outside, there´s nothing going on, even the restaurant is closing tomorrow right through March.

But Moratinos, dwelling as we are in the January darkness, has seen a sweet light.
Her name is Isabel, but we could just as well call her Hope.   

Friday, 3 January 2014

Seismic Ceremony

Philip and Raheela (and her dad)

It was a big house in a subdivision, with big yards and three-car garages. We found Raheela´s house by all the cars parked outside, and the guy carrying steaming food trays up the driveway. He wore a big green turban.

Philip´s family numbered nine. Raheela´s family, well... they are legion. 

We -- me, my sister Beth, her son Joey (himself in comfy Pakistani formalwear, a gift from Raheela´s family), my daughter Libby, and my mom Cora Lee -- had never met Raheela´s people  before, so we were guests of honor. We were treated to the best seats, sent up first to the vast buffet of curried kid and chicken Karahi and eggplant jalfareezi and all kinds of lovely stuff I never tasted before, all of it the finest south Asian food of my life.

We shook hands and kissed the cheeks (after we finished lunch) of grannies, aunties, uncles, nephews, and nieces -- all of them soon to be OUR grannies, uncles, nephews, aunties, and nieces, or so we were informed. The women wore spectacular shalwar khameezes, flowing ethnic robes of Pakistan. The elderly ladies occupied chairs against the wall, and held one anothers´ hands. A couple of them stared balefully across the room at us, but they quit when Libby staled balefully back. (Libby does baleful pretty well.) Everyone was very polite.
Philip sat in a leather loveseat, appropriately enough. The rooms were decked with netting, strung with paper flowers he and Raheela made the day before. Their seat was covered in a red and gold rug, celebration colors. A corps of comely teenage cousins, dressed like the graces, flitted over the rooms fluffing cushions, serving chai to the grannies, thundering up the stairs to the bridal chamber above.
The imam arrived, the children were brought in and seated on the floor, and in every hand in the room suddenly appeared a camera or Iphone. I was bumped from my seat next to Philip. The imam pulled from a pocket a paper, which he unfolded and smoothed over his notes. Across the top it said "Marriage License." In the seat next to me I felt Libby draw in her breath.

Philip was nervous. I signed for him to sit up straight, hard as that was in those man-eater sofas.

There was no music. The noise died down as Raheela descended the stairs, her graces fluttering around her, her mother holding her hand. I looked at Philip as he watched this vision float into the room. It was not a smile, it was not joy I saw there. It was awe. Tears ran down both his cheeks.

I stood, and Raheela stopped where I was. She trembled under her jeweled veil, we looked each other in the eye. I took her hand and stepped her over to my son.

The imam said the words, almost all in English. He was careful to include Abraham and Moses and Jesus, too -- the big mosque in Toledo is famously inclusive and community-minded. It was much more informal than I´d expected. Raheela´s father interjected lighthearted comments, and her uncles laughed out loud. One of the cousins held up a camera that streamed the rites live to relations watching in Karachi.

They signed the papers, and the bride and groom fed one another sweets -- my best bud Kathy FedExed lavender shortbread from San Francisco the day before, which Philip preferred to the über-sweet Pakistani nut paste -- and a great exchange of gifts broke out.
We rose and hugged and posed for photos, we ate more, and shmoozed with my former in-laws and Michael, my former husband, and his jolly mate Rob. No one said anything harsh or offensive, everyone was kind and decent, and seeing my former mother-in-law made me remember I must be always kind and thoughtful to Raheela, who now is my daughter-in-law.

She is a woman now in new territory, feeling her way, eager to please. I must be kind and loving, even as I walk into this new territory myself. I suffered when I was a daughter-in-law. I will not see Raheela suffer like I did.

I felt sympathy, though, for the in-laws who once made me suffer so. Now I know what they felt back then -- what, thirty years ago!

Nobody told me that seeing my son marry was going to be so painful.

Thankfully, I was numb at first, long enough to make all the right noises, taste enough of the food and shake sufficient hands, long enough to see my family off to the hotel for a rest before the evening reception.

By the time I got away I was ready for a stiff drink. Rob and Michael said they were heading in that direction, but they didn´t ask me along. I drove away alone in my fancy rental car, wishing I had Paddy along. I did not feel ready to deal with what one encounters in a bar in Toledo on a Saturday afternoon while wearing a killer dress.

I headed back to the hotel. I got lost. (I lived in Toledo for eight years, but that was ten years ago.)  I did not mind much. I had not been alone for days, and I enjoyed the radio -- an old Marian McPartland Piano Jazz program. It was all in English!
I found my way back down an old two-lane. In the big, plush hotel hall another wedding was going on, the white-lace and tuxes type. I parked out on the edge of the lot.

I breathed deep and thought about Philip. I thought about the silver tray someone gave them, the Patek watch, things engraved: Raheela and Fahdel. A nickname, in a family where everyone has a nickname. But somehow that just struck me to the heart. My son´s name is PHILIP.

And then I began to cry a most magnificent cry. After a minute or two it morphed into a monumental nosebleed, that gave me an excuse for having a face so swollen up and puffy for the rest of the day, and the rest of the photos.

I am not sad that Philip is married. I like Raheela, and I know the two of them are smitten with one another. Aside from the whole intercultural wedding business, the religion and socioeconomic changes, the jet-lag and culture-shock of coming back to America, the uncertainty of the two of them starting their law careers, seeing old in-laws and husbands and neighborhoods and spending large amounts of money... beneath all that stress, something else happened. Something shifted down deep, something irrevocable slid into place.

It was so profound and unspeakable it bloodied my nose.

I never did get my drink, even though by the time I went inside the hotel I was well into shot-and-beer territory. What the hell kind of hotel bar is closed at 5 p.m. on Saturday, I ask you?

I did get a small nap, however, which was probably much more healthy. 

We returned to Raheela´s uncle´s mansion later on for a dohlki, a celebration of the bride and groom presided-over by a zillion fabulously-clad women drumming a special women-only drum. We ate more staggeringly good food. We listened later to the son of a cousin from Chicago warbling Pakistani pop music with backing tracks. (Whilst climbing the stairs I stepped on a toddler, whose response was not dissimilar to the cousin´s son´s efforts.) We slipped away before we got to dance, but that is OK. I was very tired when I went to bed, and I slept all the night through.

No more tears.

This was only the start. 
We go back in May for the big three-day party, complete with horses, henna tattoos, dancing, feasting,  and full fairy godmother dresses for all of us.

And maybe outside, far from the fiesta, a nip of bourbon for the faint-of-heart.

I am trying to load photos and even a video, but Blogger is not cooperating. I will do so soon as I can make it happen. If I take this blog to a more user-friendly platform, will you readers go with me?