Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Shut Up and Feel the Shimmer

If God is everywhere, then everywhere must be holy, no?
Sometimes, all you have to do is shut up, and there it is. There's a shimmer on all kinds of things, even ugly things. That's God.
I keep a diary. In it are listed many, many holy moments. (If I don't write them down, I tend to forget them.) This has been a holy year.
Yesterday on the road to Paco's vineyard, three owls lifted out of the ditch and across our path. They vanished into the fog. They were perfectly silent.
With Laurie in July, on a cow-path in a mountaintop meadow near Penalba, with Ponferrada far down in the distance. We stopped and sat against the steep hillside. I pulled off my boots and stretched out my toes. I felt my feet smile.
With three beloved people in a stone house in the mountains in France, staring up at the stars in the back garden, laughing and exulting over divine cheese and wine and Rachmaninoff on the radio. "It's 3 o'clock in the morning!" someone said. We all fell silent. We all looked at one another, then smiled. It was God we felt in the room. God was there.
In a cave with hands painted on the walls thousands of years ago.
In my car, stopped in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm, the rain roaring on the roof and nothing at all visible outside.
In my arms while Murphy Cat died, in the horror of his suffering, and the tenderness of Mo cat and Rosie dog, who came and touched his body with their noses once he finished. How Paddy's hands tucked the towel 'round his head, and so softly laid the dirt over him out back.
How Paddy's hands put ends to suffering hens, because I just cannot do that myself. Paddy is not godless, no matter what he says. He buries our dead. God is with him.
God is with me at church, as you'd expect. I taste him at Communion, I feel the rush of him in my pew. I heard his voice in the canary songs, and the crows' sour voices, too.
I hear him in the poetry of priests. In February I read out the poetry myself, in English, in my deep Scripture Voice, in the great cathedral shrine at Santiago de Compostela, I stood and recited the Gospel Truth as winter rain poured through the roof above, and the holy ghost moved all around our side-chapel of St. Andrew.
He came too, in May, to Crystal Gardens Banquet Facility in South Detroit, when I read scripture at a somewhat wrong moment of my son's Muslim wedding feast. I was forgiven. I think I was actually heard.
I felt God in September outside the Bar Luna in Sahagun, just after I had an impacted molar pulled. I had lost consciousness, frightened the dentist, gave myself a scare, too. I was stunned, bloody, The anesthesia was wearing off. The waiter brought me a shot of Four Roses and a glass of draft beer.
I drank them down, and felt the strength of ten men roar into my being. God with us!
Sometimes God is obvious. He came with the strength of two men late last Winter, when I planted a tree. It was a big tree, too big for me to handle on my own, a meaningful tree, in memory of a fallen pilgrim. I stopped and stilled my bothered-ness and asked for help. And up the trail came two strapping pilgrims, who helped me wrestle the tree into the hole and stand it straight and fill in the dirt around it. They even snapped photos!
He sat in my hands this summer when I treated a pilgrim with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The man was a doctor. He knew what was wrong. He was ready to go home. And in the morning, well... I still don't like to say it. The tendon was whole again. The tear had repaired in the night. The pilgrim headed out onto the trail rejoicing. I was stunned. I still am.
But when I think of where I see God, and I think mostly of mundane things, daily things. St. Teresa of Avila, a great Christian mystic from here in Castilla, told the Grand Inquisitor that "God lives in the kitchen, among the pots and pans."
This year I saw God in mud-and-straw adobe bricks, in my sudden outburst of properly conjugated preterite imperfect verbs. I saw him in the faces of Antonio from Badajoz, Miguel Angel from Paris, Andy from Birmingham, Kathy from San Francisco. I saw him at Thanksgiving in Madrid, and here in Moratinos, in the fog, in the ditches, the plaza, the bodegas.
He's here. He brings holiness with him.
And if we just show up, he makes us holy, too.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Manifesto of the Camino Dreamers

Everybody loves a good Manifesto. Manifestos make you think of burning barricades, tragic youths facing down The Man, overthrows and uproar with a righteous tinge.

I helped to write a Manifesto last weekend, at a meeting of camino people in Villafranca de Bierzo. There were precious few barricades to be seen, burning or otherwise. There was a lot of really good local Mencia wine, though, and a lot of back-slapping and old-friends hugging, a lot of opinions.

These were not young firebrands out to change the world. These were old hands of the trail: Tomas the Templar of Manjarin, Jesus Jato from Ave Fenix (looking very frail). The original old bearded dude who walks the trail dressed in a brown robe. The little saint who runs the bare-bones albergue in Tosantos. Don Blas, the high-energy priest of Fuenterroble who brought the Via de la Plata to the fore. Jose Antonio de la Reira, a bagpipe-blowing Gallego who helped paint the first yellow arrows, and Luis, the TV reporter who broadcast the renewal to the rest of Spain. 

They are heavy hitters, these guys. I have a lot of respect for most of them. 

When they asked me to step up and be the token North American on the board of the Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago," their new “camino action group,” I said “sure!” I was honored, even.

Even though I've kinda had it with camino groups. Even though it’s hard for me to keep up with them, language-wise. Even though I don’t always make myself clear. I am dedicated to the same principals they are, and I have some things to offer. They listen carefully when I talk, and they don’t interrupt and overrun my efforts with their own ideas. I am treated with respect in this group… I do not find that in some other gatherings I have attended.

We did most of the work in a splendid old theater in the Villafranca town hall, where a hundred important people from eight or nine countries bashed and hashed out a list of proposals for later clarification and action. Lots of people brought their favorite hobbyhorses and axes to grind, but everyone was reasonably polite and orderly.

Here is the document, translated to English by Yours Truly. (click on the second one.) 

There were reporters at the Villafranca gathering, but the ship didn’t hit the sand til mid-week, when the word spread out across the camino Ways. Board members appeared on TV and radio shows, explaining that yes, there are some problems on the magic path, that yes, there are some rip-offs going on, that yes, the public administrations charged with overseeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site are asleep at the switch.

Yes, the Caminos are in danger of becoming victims of their own success. And we the people who love the caminos need to band together and do something, before complete Disneyfication sets in, and the old values of hospitality, simplicity, and kindness are drowned in a wave of Euro notes, souvenir stands, and Ye Olde 4-star Albergues.

Yeah, we live in a Capitalist society. Yeah, the camino is a tourism product now, like it or not. We can’t put that genie back inside the bottle. Or maybe it’s a hydra. It has several heads.

It’s no surprise the developers and builders and people selling things impinge on the old road. It’s an old road. It follows the geographical line of least resistance, it’s got highway access, it’s got lots of potential customers passing by every day. And “the authorities” are a notoriously corrupt and lazy bunch of rascals. Nobody’s held their feet to the fire. Yet.    

No one’s really defined what kind of protections are afforded places along a “Heritage of Mankind” highway, so it’s kinda hard to defend the sagging old monastery from benign neglect, or the little Roman bridge from the bulldozer. In Fromista, right here in my neighborhood, the Romanesque church of San Martin, a national treasure, has an apartment block going up a few yards from the back door. It’s perfectly legal, according to local zoning laws. The fact that it’s a crime against good taste doesn’t enter into it.  We want to change this.

Other things have changed all on their own, out of control – on the ground, where the old “poor pilgrim on a holy journey to the sacred shrine” has morphed into “well-heeled cultural tourist on a hard-but-really cool hike to an awesome church where you get a Latin certificate at the end that says you don’t have to go to Purgatory! Ha!”  

The certificate is called a Compostela. It is issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to anyone who can prove he’s walked the last 100 kilometers into town (or biked or rode a horse the last 200.) These certificates have a long history. They used to certify (and they still do, in writing) the bearer came to Santiago on a journey of Christian faith, with a prayerful purpose – that he was, in truth, a pilgrim.   

But when the pilgrimage started picking up steam again a couple of decades ago, the cathedral came up with a plan meant to filter out the bus-tours and shameless cheaters. They created the 100 kilometer rule. Instead of an identifying letter each pilgrim once carried from their priest or bishop, the cathedral issued its own “credential,” a fold-out booklet issued at the start of the trip to each pilgrim. Each day, the pilgrim’s host rubber-stamps the credential, creating a colorful collector’s item and blessed assurance the pilgrim get his Compostela at the end of the road.

The cathedral and a lot of other people soon woke up to the money-making potential of these documents. Nowadays, boxloads of credentials are sold to tour companies and tourist offices, to be sold at inflated prices to whomever wants one. Pilgrims enjoy picking and choosing which stamps to have in their “passports” according to which is most pretty, which fits best, or which are “weirdest.” (One pilgrim burst into tears when I accidentally put our stamp on her credential upside-down.)

And the Compostela, oh my. The idolatry that goes on at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela just boggles the mind at times – the long lines, the drama, the tears, the vapors… all for a piece of paper that certifies the bearer is something he would probably never admit to being – a repentant sinner, saved by God's grace. 

But I preach.  The 100 kilometer requirement for the Compostela, combined with the ruthless logic of Unintended Outcomes, has created 100 kilometers of overdevelopment, overcrowding, litter, price-gouging, and disillusion, from the little boom town of Sarria right to Santiago itself. One out of every three hikers applying for a Compostela has walked the minimum mileage possible. People who make the whole long-distance voyage step out of a relatively quiet countryside into a clatter that carries them all the way to the end.
We would like to deal with that.

We want to give the camino back to the people on a spiritual journey to a holy place.  We want the pilgrim to know he is a holy person, on a sacred mission. We want to see him treated with respect and dignity, and we want him to behave with respect and dignity.

This part of the manifesto has drawn all kinds of indignant denial from just about everyone with a monetary interest in the camino. I was told, personally, that I am naïve, “thinking like a little child.” “That it’s all very nice that you care so much, but who will enforce this?” “Who will push it through, who can change anything that’s already in progress?”

We can. If we want to enough, we can.

It will take a long time, and not everything we propose will work. All we can do is try.

We have time. We are on the side of the angels. The Camino’s been here for a thousand years, through wars and plagues and reformations, it’s been pimped and sold and betrayed a thousand times, probably in worse ways than these. We could sit back and just let it go, let the “market forces” take over and drive this camino into the ground, too. But we don’t have to.

We love this place. It is our home.  It’s a holy path.
And homes, ideals, holy things -- they are worth fighting for, no? 


Thursday, 11 December 2014

Foxes, Boxes, Caches and Ditches

The great green valley of San Martin opened up before us. The dogs flowed over the ridge and down into doggie heaven. Something moved in the far distance, a fox.
Definitely a fox, a gray one. He saw us coming. He took off running.
Lulu saw. Lulu the huntress, the greyhound. A fox is pretty large prey, and it had a good head start. But Lulu lives for chasing things that run away.
Mist rolled down the valley. The fox ran hard. The greyhound stretched out her legs. The other dogs followed her. It was a medieval tapestry, a hunt scene in faded black and grey.
I lost them in the fog, but I knew where they were. They fox had gone to ground.
A mile later I stepped across the frozen field to collar the yapping, baying curs. From deep in a brambly ditch came the skunky stink of musk and an extraordinary noise, a low mechanical burr with a coloratura yowl. Teeth, claws, rabies. Varmint panic.
I really wanted to see the critter, but I really did not want to get too close.
Everyone but Lulu came away with me. Everyone but Lu knows you don't get too near anything that makes a noise like that.

Lulu ended up bloodied, but not badly hurt. She caught up to us later. I do not know what became of the fox. I wasn't about to go looking for it.  

Today again I walked the dogs in fog -- it's normal this time of year. (It disappears again in January, when winter sits down hard.) We walked on the camino, watching the ditches for litter. In a bush I saw a plastic box. I reached inside the branches and pulled it out.

The label on the lid was ruined, but I knew straightaway what it was: a Geocache.

Inside were some flyers explaining what a Geocache is. There was a very nice leatherbound notebook, a rubber stamp, pencils, and some lanyards. Judging from the promotional nature of all the above, the geocache was a project of the Tourist Office of Castilla y Leon, who in their wisdom decided to spice up the lives of tourists and pilgrims with a high-tech "camino treasure hunt."

Geocachers are given a scorecard and an initial set of map coordinates, and use GPS units, compasses, and maps to locate these little boxes of goodies. They use the rubber stamp to mark their card, and they leave their name and a comment in the notebook. They can take a Castilla y Leon lanyard, but they'll leave some other little item behind for the next guy -- a candy bar, keychain, or similar swag.
The next set of coordinates is printed on the lid of the box. Or it was, once, before the rain got it.

I wrote in the notebook. I was the first and only person to have done so. I put it all back the way I found it, but more out of sight. (There are millions of geocaches hidden all over the world; this is the third one I have found by accident.) I wondered how long it has been there.

It made me think about geocaches, and geocachers.
They are the people who love maps, obviously. People who love knowing just where they are, just what time it is, They benefit from our passion for measurement and quantifying. We've assigned a numbers for every corner of the world, brought it under control, tamed it, made it ours.
Savage tribes are settled on reservations. Venomous spiders and highway robbers are all gassed and passed away into history. Exploring the world is a breeze, especially when you have all the coordinates in your hand-held worldwide GPS unit -- you can travel all over a foreign country, but you can't even get lost!

And with geocaching, all that safety hasn't drained all the wild blood out of orienteering. Play your coordinates right, and you can track plastic boxes full of Maple Leaf key fobs, cigarette rolling papers, granola bars... and the numbers to follow to find the next one. It's hunter-gatherer behavior, Hiawatha the Scout, without the bushwacking and chilblains and food poisoning.  

It's harmless fun for people with leisure time and expendable income. Obviously the Junta de Castilla y Leon spent a nice chunk of money on plastic boxes and flyers, notebooks, pencils and satellite bandwidth. Which evidently nobody has bothered to find.

It's hard not to think of a few better uses for public funds. Most pilgrims are too busy shlepping themselves to the next albergue to involve themselves in treasure hunts.

Geocachers have their own community websites, and they set up their own caches -- I don't think they go looking for tourist-office inventions. Geocaching is already here, without any government involvement. Two summers ago I helped a Canadian volunteer hide three plastic caches in the neighborhood, saw her upload the coordinates to a satellite somewhere overhead. An international community of geocachers occasionally ply their hobbies in Moratinos, but somehow they missed the cache that I found, almost in plain sight, looking an awful lot like trash.

Which is kinda nice, really. We should let some things stay mysteries. We should just walk sometimes, without a map or a guide. We should know the delight of finding the box in the bushes, without a map or machine to send us there.

Sometimes the ditch gives up a box. And sometimes it's a fox.
We only think we are safe, poking around in the bushes.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Ditch Pigs On the Go!

Ditch Pigs of 2014: Bas, Reb, Kathy, and Bruno

In keeping with my daft ideals, each year I hold the Palencia Camino Cleanup. I raise some funds and round up volunteers and gas up the car and we walk all 80+ kilometers of Camino de Santiago in Palencia province, picking up the litter along the way. The air is clear and fresh and cold, the weeds have died back in the ditches. We all get a great, gentle workout while we Do the Right Thing.

This year there were four of us. Bas is from a fishing village on the coast of England -- he's from a tinker family, and tells some interesting tales. Kathy is my best bud from San Francisco. It took her two long days of broken airplanes to finally get here, but now we're making hemp muscle-rub and wreaths of rosemary, cruising the Roman villas. And Bruno, our Italian neighbor and hospitalero at Albergue San Bruno, did a big share on the long stretches -- he and I are the only ones who can drive the car, so when he's along, I only need to walk half the distance,
And he brings KitKat bars.

It is useful and fun, even. Just when you start feeling bored with walking along the road, you find someone's underpants.  

It's been stressful old year, 2014, and I will be glad to bid it goodbye. I left behind a bad tooth, a beloved cat, and two canaries. Or maybe they left me.

I climbed some mountains with a good friend and walked across a big plain on my own, until the sun stopped me cold. Not all stress is bad: I celebrated my son's marriage, his law school graduation, his swearing-in to the New Hampshire bar; I got a fine new daughter in law called Raheela. I got to know my son in law Dave a bit better in September, when he and Libby joined me for a holiday in the French Pyrenees. Libby landed a very competitive scholarship, paid-for by her employer, to earn her Masters in Public Administration at George Mason University.
My children made me mighty proud this year.  

I am still working on the book, still dreaming big dreams, talking big daft ideas, still a big bleeding-heart liberal. Still doin' the Christian thing with a Buddhist zing.  

Paddy and I are getting older. Parts are beginning to fall off here and there. He is dealing with his end-of-year annual sciatica, but it didn't keep him from going to London this week to visit the Dear Aulds. I learned the doctors wielding the terrifying tests detailed in the last blog succeeded in finding exactly nothing wrong. They say they want to stick needles in me for a biopsy anyway, but nobody's scheduled that yet.

I'd put some big things on "hold" until I learned if I was OK. I think it's time to get on with life now. Or let life get on with me.