Saturday, 25 October 2014

Gettin' Down in Party Town

Dear God in Heaven, these people know how to celebrate.
Paddy y yo
Today in Moratinos me and Paddy attended the “Golden Wedding” of Celestino and Esther. Celestino is a son of Moratinos, the brother of Milagros, the man who opens his bodega in the summer to passing pilgs, the man whose bum knee a couple of years ago was miraculously cured by San Antonio. He is the man who gave us advice on how to repair the bodega roof. The man who told us the tale of the mysterious pilgrim at the bodegas, back in the 1930s. He’s only here in the summer, but hundreds of pilgrims remember Celes as the local who showed them inside a Castilian wine cave, who gave him a taste of the rough local vino and a slice of divine sheeps’ milk cheese.  Celestino is the original Moratinos spokesman.
Today, all the family came back to town to celebrate Celestino and his Basque bride Esther, with a Mass and the Coro de Sahagun singing, a huge dinner at the bodega restaurant, a dance in the plaza, and God knows what else after, with everyone dressed up to the nines, the Autumn sun shining, with all the bells ringing, rockets booming, open bar and chorizo and lomo laid on.  We were invited to all of it, even though we weren’t totally sure how much. We dressed up for the 1 p.m. Mass, maybe because we are fond of Celestino, maybe because the whole town was awake and stirring.
Esther y Celestino, back in the day
Celes was one of dozens of local boys who left Palencia to seek work elsewhere during the 1950s and 60s. He found work in a cardboard-box factory in Bilbao, where he met Esther, who grew up on a Masia in Basque country, and who spoke not a word of Castilian Spanish. But love conquers all – four years later, in 1964, the two were wed.   
Everyone and his sister came to the Mass, even the neighbors who don’t usually attend these things. It did not disappoint. People came who have not been seen here for decades. Tears were shed, the Gospel was read, and impossible notes were reached-for by amateur sopranos.  The couple re-exchanged vows, their daughters and grandchildren read readings no one could hear over the yowling descendents, and then we all said Amen and headed out into the sunshine, out to the bodegas, to taste the vintage, to taste the real wine, brought down from Esther’s native Basque Country.  
Celes and Esther, today
We had a copa, we ate the embutidos, we said “enhorabuena,” we made to head home. But Celestino headed us off at the door – “No no no! You are family now! You’ve been invited since a month! It’s all paid-for!” he said. “I will be crushed if you go now!” So what could we do?
So we sat, and so we ate: grilled shrimp, crabs, razor clams, mussels, salad, grilled cuttlefish – all served with a dry white Albarino. Jose and Esteban outdid themselves for their uncle. Then came the meat: lamb chops, chips, dark red Tempranillo. Mas y mas. Paddy dropped out before the wine changed. I stuck with white, but did not last much longer.  
a crab who did not die in vain, with Carlos
I found my way to the terrace, where little Isabel, “the daughter of Moratinos,” was making an appearance along with the day’s dose of pilgrims. Down in the plaza the dancing started. I shared some vino blanco with two lucky French pilgrims. (I must pay for it on Tuesday.)
And then I realized that yes, it was time to head home. I’d lost the feel of my pointy-toe shoes, and another trip to the bathroom in my complicated underpinnings might prove too much for my architectural education.
Here at the Peaceable I trust Paddy has fed the dogs – they are quiet. If there are pilgrims, they are equally invisible.
And so, after great swills of water and a full milligram of Tylenol, I shall retire to my bed, to sleep the sleep of the righteous, well-fed and watered, como la familia de Celestino. 

Como una Palentina de pura cepa – like a purebred daughter of Palencia.   

long may they wave

Thursday, 16 October 2014

There Oughtta be Ghosts

It's creepy out there, violent wind and darkness. Big poplars roar above our bedroom roof, and down in the patio the gazebo curtains bow and flutter in sideways rain. The little yellow lamps strung out over the picnic table send a pathetic glow across the patio.

In summertime they're jolly, but the weather's changed. Now they are weak and sad. They're no proof against the noisy dark.

There ought to be ghosts here. Here in little Moratinos, a paleolithic warrior lies in "the tumberon," an unexcavated hill tomb thousands of years old. Two of the neighbors use centuries-old stone sarcophagi for animal troughs, heisted many years ago from the ruins of a long-gone monastery. The farmers spare no thought for the abbots who once moldered inside. The St. Nicolas cemetery stands on the site of a medieval leprosarium, where poor souls with infectious skin diseases lived and died for centuries.  

Human bones lie scattered in the field outside cemetery walls, turned out to make room for the next generation in the two-person family tombs. Arable land is too valuable to waste on dead people. Cemetery space is tight. This is the final word in recycling.

Violent death, the kind that supposedly makes ghosts happen, is no stranger here. Out on the two-lane beyond the back gate, pilgrims and pets are struck down and killed. Cars careen off the curves and into the culverts and cottonwood trees. Eighty years ago now, a transport truck carrying explosives blew up over where the Villada Road meets the N-120. The driver died, and a mule. A mile west, five years ago now, a French lady died in a highway accident. Two years later, atop the same hill, a bicycle pilgrim was struck and killed.  

In the fields, along the tractor-paths where nobody goes, lie buried the bones of those who disappeared in the civil war and the terror that followed. A 16-year-old boy from Grajal, shot in the gut and left to die, bled to death along a road between here and St. Nicolas. He ought to be a ghost, if anyone is.

Everybody used to know where the bodies were buried, but now all of them are gone. And before that, the soldiers of Napoleon, the soldiers of England and Spain, even Templar Knights, they marched through town, or stayed around. Some of them were killed, or died along this stretch. Not to mention epidemics, accidents, crimes of passion, slow poisonings, lonely suicides -- endings endemic to any place where humans live close together.

I have never heard a ghost story here. For whatever reason, the people who pass on from this neighborhood all stay dead. Like the pilgrims who slumber so deep in their beds, the dead of Moratinos rest in peace.  

Even if they wanted to wander the highways or huertas, ghosts round here could not compete with the weather. These creepy nights the wind moans and screams louder than a banshee. It hammers on the doors. It throws buckets and brooms around like a poltergeist, it overturns the garbage bins and bangs open barn doors.

And when the wind goes still, the owls shriek. Bats flutter and chatter under the streetlights, sending wild shadows dancing down Calle Ontanon. Voices carry from far off across the fields. Snatches of music. A radio, maybe.

Or maybe it's the neighbors, The ones no one can see.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Holy Holy Holy Lourdes

the grotto and spring at Lourdes, with sanctuary up top
Outside the throng chants. The ladies are firm but gentle. They pull us one by one through heavy curtains, into a chamber of marble and concrete. Their movements are carefully choreographed. One holds up a blue fabric sheet, another motions that now was the time to strip off our clothes. 

The ladies do not speak a language I understand. I do not know what to do, where to go next. They wrap the blue fabric around my body, carefully covering everything. My turn comes. One takes my by the wrist and pulls me along through another curtain, to another team of ladies on either side of a long marble tub. My blue wrap is removed, and a cold, wet sheet is wrapped around me as I descend into the frigid spring water.

A lady pats me reassuringly on the shoulder. I kneel in the water when I am supposed to sit. The ladies tip me backward, but I don’t go under all the way. They do not snicker. I am not the only beginner here. They must do this a thousand times a day.  

Women who cannot speak, walk, hear, or see, and women who do those things too much. Women with missing limbs, failing hearts, broken spirits, withered breasts and scattered wits. They’ve seen us all. 

We come to Lourdes for health and grace. We come looking for something we don’t deserve. Most of us don’t really expect to get anything but wet.

But you never know. The walls of the church above the spring are covered from floor to ceiling with marble plaques engraved with words of thanks, a century’s worth of testimonies to answered prayers.

In another time and place, the bath-house ladies would have been priestesses of of a water goddess. But at Lourdes the goddess is the Virgin Mary, her apostle is St. Bernadette, a local peasant girl who saw the virgin in a vision at this spring a bit more than a century ago. Bernadette drank the dirty water, she washed her face in it. A neighbor touched the water, and her withered hand was made whole. It did not take long for word to spread. 

A building campaign was arranged, a huge train depot installed to connect this remote mountain village to the French rail network. Lourdes took off, the hoteliers and souvenir dealers moved in, and the town is now a Catholic Disneyland. (The shrine complex itself is remarkably restrained, taste-wise. I shudder to think what it would look like if Lourdes happened in, say, Ohio.)  
Everybody loves a miracle. Everybody wants one.  And almost everybody loves their mother.

Everyone at Lourdes swears they do not worship the Virgin Mary. They worship Jesus, her son, they say. But it was Mary who showed herself to little Bernadette. Mary’s image still is everywhere at Lourdes, with Jesus appearing only in the occasional altar crucifix, or as the bonny baby in the arms of his Most Holy Virgin Mother. 

In the Catholic world, God the father is so distant, so furious and judgmental. Jesus? So much guilt attached to him – he was so nice, and he died horribly, and every time I sin it’s my fault, all over again. But Mary? Oh, Mary, mother mine, sweetness, kindness, staying God’s angry judgment, crying the same tears every parent cries! Mary is someone truly human, a simple girl, a humble wife, and a mom… without any of the sex and blood and bodily fluids. What’s not to love?

It's heresy to say so, but Mary is the female aspect of the Holy Trinity. Nobody seems to really know or understand what the Holy Spirit is supposed to be… no one really connects to doves much. The original Trinitarians gave Christians a wholly masculine god. But the believers said No. We need a goddess, thank you. And Mary looks real good to us. And so she is, or so she has become, to both Orthodox and Catholic believers, and a whole load of Protestants, too. 

In the hard-shell pietist Protestant world I grew up in, Marian devotion and Lourdes-type shrines were viewed as the worst kind of idolatry, cynical priests milking money from superstitious souls looking for magic in a mountain spring. 

But the Bible is full of stories of healing springs. Baptism itself is a healing spring. I thought a long time about taking the waters at Lourdes, if it is something I should do. And the scripture told of a woman who simply reached out and touched Jesus' robe and was healed, and another woman who Jesus sent away as unworthy, who stood up to the very Son of God and said "No! I need grace, even if I am not a chosen one!" And Jesus gave her what she needed, and wished the Chosen had such faith. I am not a baptised Catholic, not a "chosen one" in Lourdes terms. But I am a needy soul. Maybe even a superstitious one.  

And at Lourdes, the superstitious souls smile. They let one another go first at the English-language confessionals, and make sure everyone has a scripture-verse card written in his own language. Jolly children open the taps for elderly nuns, and help them fill their Blessed Virgin-shaped jars with blessed spring water. The handicapped roll right up to the front of the line in specially provided gurneys and wheelchairs and chariots. Uniformed ladies and gentlemen open special gates for them. They lower them into the healing waters. They hold their hands when they cry out from the cold.

We don't deserve it, but they let us go first. They make sure we understand. They open the taps for us. When we stand naked and vulnerable, they do not laugh at us. When we cry out, someone takes our hand.

And that is what Christianity looks like.