Thursday, 31 December 2015

Moving Right Along

December's gone on entirely too long. Time to put an end to it!

It's the time when people review the past months, but I live in small slices. Looking back over great sweeps of weeks and months makes me dizzy, makes me realize how fast time passes by, even as I live each little slice so intensely.

It's not like I am "practicing awareness," or "living in the moment." I do my fair share of reminiscing, as well as "what if," and "when this is done, then this." Problem is, when I look back over several months, what sticks out most in my mind are the hard times.

In 2015 my favorite cousin died in a terrible way. An American pilgrim died in a terrible way, right here on the oh-so-safe Camino de Santiago. I had a harrowing day of anesthesia-free surgery. In February all the albergues closed at the same time, and we were overrun with pilgrims: 78 people stayed here in 28 days! My son, all the year through, struggled to find work in the field he loves. My brilliant ideas for the new Moratinos Asociacion Cultural were not a big hit. My big sweet dog Bella turned mean and savaged Lulu Dog. The stitches, the horror, the loss of trust, and the final goodbye at a ditch dug out back...

No. Stop. Think of the good things.

In the bright spring I walked the Camino de Madrid, from Segovia to Valladolid, on my own. It was beautiful and healing.

The long summer evenings over at Terradillos, ringing the bells, seeing the pilgrims straggle in and sit up around the altar for a Mass in English. We served both bread and wine. The pilgrims were great, but it was the old ladies from the village who really struck me most. They came to the Mass, but sat down where they always do. We served them Communion there, like they'd never seen. They wept. It was small and sweet. It felt so important.

I re-wrote a fine new book by Pulitzer winner Mitch Weiss. In November I wrote the first draft of a new book of my own. This year I went two times to Paris, and for the first time I saw Italy: Florence and Venice. We had the front end of the house -- the old kitchen, storage room, and potting shed -- turned into its own smart little apartment.

I took the job of staffing the scruffy little Albergue Convento San Anton in Castrojeriz. Once I got people rounded-up, the place kinda ran itself, although I think I could've done a better job supervising. I am not a people person. I thought the volunteers -- almost all seasoned hosts -- ought to work out things for themselves, I didn't think they'd need to have rules. But they do. If I do not give them rules, they start making up their own, they start bossing one another around. Next year will be better.

This year, though, whilst getting ready to open up San Anton, I vacuumed the old mattresses. They started to unravel in my hands, they were mushy as old pumpkins, so I put out an appeal on email and FaceBook. The English-speaking pilgrim world rose up and opened its big, deep wallet. We bought new mattresses, and bedbug-proof covers for them, all in a twinkling. I was impressed. It made me start thinking... There's a lot of need out here, and generosity to meet it. We need to form a non-profit.

The guitarists came in the summer, and did their beautiful things all over Palencia.
Paddy slowed down. He made two of his weekend art-viewing trips to Madrid and Malaga, but a third, in November, proved too much for his weakening eyesight.

Paddy is 74 years old. His eyesight is going, and there is little the doctors can do now. He cannot hear so well, especially on his left side. He gets tired, he gets annoyed. He cannot drink they way he used to. I cannot expect him to jump up and run the way he's done since we met up.

Getting my head around that is a real challenge for me. I am selfish. I do not want to cut back on my junketing around Spain and Europe -- I want everything to stay in its comfortable rhythm!

Oliver, the German hospitalero who's been ghosting around Peaceable and Moratinos since May, has made this year possible. He helped Bruno early on, and was a real stand-by for me at San Anton all summer -- everyone who served with him left rave reviews. Ollie ran Bruno's place while Bruno walked the Camino this fall. He's staying with us this winter, he's with us now. He's a godsend.

He stayed here and walked dogs while Paddy and I attempted to walk from Samos to Santiago for Christmas. That trek was a disaster, but in the end we made it to the shrine city for the celebration. We walked together through the Door of Mercy.

Oliver is staying here through January, because I am off with the New Year to stay for a month on the mountain-top of O Cebreiro, house- and dog-sitting sitting for a friend.  I am doing this now, because I said I would, because I still can. I might need to stick close to home more in the coming year.

A month of solitude for re-writing the November book, and co-writing a short history in English of the Convento San Anton, for all the travelers who want to know about the place. I think I will publish it myself. I have ISBNs, after all.

I don't have to leave home to be a publisher!


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A healer called Jato

Jesus Jato at Tui cathedral. Photo by Jose Maria Diaz Bernardez

Jesus Jato is a camino character, a wiry old wise man who back in the 1980s turned a burned-out greenhouse on the path into Villafranca de Bierzo into one of the first privately-owned, donation-paid pilgrim albergues.

I met Jato in the summer of 1993, at the same time I was meeting Spain herself. I was a travel journalist, guest of the Tourist Office of Spain, traveling in 4-star luxury along the “new” adventure-travel destination called the Camino de Santiago. We stopped at Ave Fenix, Jato’s ramshackle shelter, for a look at the lowdown places pilgrims often stayed, to meet the funky, freaky kinds of people who took care of them. My fellow journalists thought the place was grubby and outre. We were scheduled to meet the mayor over at the fancy Parador hotel, but I got to talking to Jato and the pilgrims in a dormitory cobbled-together from plywood and plastic sheeting. Jato’s little daughter showed me where they gathered the herbs used to treat swollen knees and broken blisters.

The journos left me behind. I missed meeting the mayor, but I got a helluva sidebar for the feature story that later sold all around the world.  

Anytime after that I stopped at Jato’s place, and sometimes found him there – he is a busy guy, he’s always hobnobbing with camino people at conferences and dinners. He later gained fame for his quemada, a theatrical lights-off rite that combines brutally strong liquor, open flames, and a chant about witches and bats. Brazilians love that sort of thing, and they apparently love Jato, too. Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian superstar novelist, was an early adopter of mystical camino tales. He invites Jato to his fabulous birthday bashes, and touts him as “the witch of Villafranca.” Coelho donated the first computer installed at Jato’s albergue. But Jato doesn’t seem to bask so much in the light of celebrity, even though he’s not adverse to having his picture in the paper.

I stopped by his place during a subsequent press trip. He and a gang of hippies were using local stone to build a new dining area. I put three lovely pink quartz rocks into the wall, one for me, one for each of my children. They still are there. Pilgrims bump them with their knees when they sit down to eat.

When I walked the Camino myself for the first time in 2001, Jato took me and another pilgrim for a midnight expedition in his Jeep. He supposedly was showing us an alternative path over the mountain to O Cebreiro, but I think he was just enjoying an escape from the rackety albergue. I do not recommend trail-finding after sundown All the landmarks were invisible, and I got carsick in the bouncing back of the vehicle. The following day the other pilgrim bailed-out on the idea, so I walked the alternative alone. (I continue in this foolishness, I’m afraid.) After many miles of trudging, the barely-marked trail vanished in a vale of blackberry thorns. I turned back. A dog bit me. I found my way down the mountain to a village, flagged-down a beer truck, and arrived in Cebreiro courtesy San Miguel brewery. And so I learned of the fallibility of the Mystical Jato, who’d told me the Dragonte Route was perfectly do-able.

I saw Jesus Jato many times in the years since. He is a perennial figure, known to all, beloved of most, one of a rapidly-thinning group of cranky Camino old-timers. When I was invited to join the new Fraternidad Internacional del Camino de Santiago (FICS) last year, I was pretty disenchanted with Spanish Camino groups. But when I saw who else was heading up this particular bunch, I thought different. Here were founders, activists, academics, and journalists, people who were not uniformly Spanish, and people who didn’t just want to hang out drinking and arguing, or sitting through endless rosaries. These guys do things. They achieve things, and their philosophy is in keeping with my own. They are people l respect, people like my friend George Greenia, from William and Mary. People like Jose de la Reira, a bagpiper who painted some of the first waymarks on the Camino, who helped to map-out the Camino Portuguese. People like Jesus Jato.

I saw Jato a year ago at the first big founding meeting of FICS, in Villafranca de Bierzo. He walked with sticks. He was very frail, pale, hollow-eyed. People thronged him, but I left him alone. He wouldn’t have any memory of me, just another peregrina from years ago.  I did not think I would see him again.  

But Jato didn’t die. Last weekend, at this year’s FICS meeting, Jato drove himself down from El Bierzo and strode right into the Tui Cathedral in time for our scheduled guided tour. He looked a bit peaked, he walked with a limp, but he proceeded to dress-down a couple of tourists who were snapping photos in violation of the big “No Photography” sign. In the choir stalls behind the altar, he sang out a Te Deum, told us he was a friar for a couple of years a long time ago. At the Renaissance bishop’s garden overlooking the River Mino, Jato helped himself to an orange from an overloaded tree.

“It’s fallen on the ground. The bishop doesn’t want it, and I had no breakfast,” Jato said. He handed me an orange, too. “Here. Stolen fruit. The Bible says it tastes better.” He beamed. “Take it, please. I don’t want to go to hell alone.”

 Tui is not an easy town to walk around. The streets are steep and the cobbles are uneven, and Jato had knee surgery not too long ago. He fell behind the rest of the group. I dropped back, asked him if he needed a walking stick. He’d left his in the car, he said. I offered an elbow. Eventually he accepted.

After dinner he laid his healing hands on the head of a lady undergoing cancer treatment. The room was wide and high and tiled, the noise of many voices bounced and echoed, Christmas parties arrived, people sang and swilled. Jato stood behind the lady’s chair and closed his eyes, and the lady sat with her eyes closed, too. No one stared. It’s Christmas, after all. And this is one of the things Jato does.
Eventually he came back over to our end of the table and sat down again. He was exhausted, looking gray. I poured him some tinto. His hand shook a little.

“She’s suffering,” he said. “Not a lot I can do.”

“But you. You’re suffering,” I said to him. “Who lays hands on you? Who heals the healer?”

He looked at me then. “Nobody,” he said. “Never.”

“Jesus, let me,” I said to him, quietly. I felt very presumptuous. I felt frightened, really.

“Please do,” he said. He turned toward me, and took a sip of his wine.

I rubbed my palms together, like I do before I give a pilgrim my “juju treatment,” and I felt the little warm spark that happens most of the time. I put both my hands on Jato’s knee, and closed my eyes, and felt the warmth pass over my palms, I felt it in my elbows and shoulders, I felt my throat and ears, eyes and heart go warm, the way they do when things are working.

I shifted my hands to his calf, and one to his twisted ankle, and stayed there til I felt that warmth again. And I realized Jato was sitting with his palms open, his eyes closed. He was whispering something, breathing alongside my breathing. My fingertips tingled.

Eventually I laid my hands into his hands. I held the curve of his fingers in my fingers. I breathed alongside him for a moment. I opened my eyes. He opened his eyes.

Jato was weeping.

“Go and wash your hands, hija. Don’t touch your face,” he said quietly.

So I did.
Other people gathered round him afterward, the party broke apart. I walked back to my room, I was ready for sleep, even though the clubs were still just opening. The night was sharply cold and bright.  
My heart pounded. I felt a little giddy.   

I marveled at my pretension, but I knew I’d done the right thing. It couldn’t be true – no one can do all the curing that Jato does in a day and not get some kind of care himself. He must’ve just been humoring me, I thought.

But what the hell. We work on the side of the angels. We all are witch-doctors out here, some way or another, doing our juju magic. Sometimes it actually works.

Who is the healer, and who is healed, is anybody’s guess. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Things Left Behind

In the middle of the action you notice. You see the one who drops back and clears up the little crumbs, the one who takes the least-desired center seat in the back, the one who waits until everyone else takes a pastry. He takes the last one.  
I think it’s because I am a woman, for several days the only woman (the woman in charge) on the camino cleanup project, I notice which of the men in the group acts the most like I was taught to act. The one who waits til everyone else is OK before he takes care of himself. The one most ladylike.
But that would be an insult, wouldn’t it? Likening the best man to a woman?  
Because we’ve spent many days in focused labor -- driving distances, refilling supplies, reading maps, soothing ruffled feathers – it is easy to lose the individuals in the group, easy to just see us as a unit. But once the work is done and the racket dies down, the pre-dawn runs to the railway station are done, once the beds are stripped and the sheets laundered and the dogs settled back into their comfortable rhythms… once I have had a couple of naps! Once all that is done, then I can look back over the week-long project and see it for what it was.
It’s really a feather in the wind, cleaning up a hiking trail. We’ll have to go back and do it all over again. It’s really more of a low-cost feel-good social-service holiday for a few of us who live near airports where low-cost airlines operate, a little “fix” for the fit, forty- or fifty-something Camino addicts with not a lot to do in early winter.
Jacques and me, doing what's gotta be done
It’s surprisingly physical work. It leaves us groaning in the evenings, as couch-bound as a gang of pot-smokers. In the mornings we wince as our joints warm. But after that first half-mile of ducking and diving, digging and tossing up and over, scanning and shouting “stop the car!” and sliding open the doors and leaping out into the frosty fog – after that we can jump about all day, laughing as we go.
Not many groups get along so well, but this one is short-lived, well-fed, and sharply focused. This year we were an energetic French Swiss called Jacques, and Bas, a wily Englishman of Tinker stock. We were big, sweet James from Sheffield, UK, who’d fit right in as a Pittsburgh boy if he wanted to; and Keith, my standby guy from up-Yorkshire-but-Scotland-born. Kathy came in last, Kathy my best friend from San Francisco, who livened up the mix with her pizza dough, multivitamin Packs and off-the-wall observations. 
And me driving. And Paddy at home, playing backup. (Paddy was an original Ditch-Pig trash-picker, but he stopped when the volume of trash started making him hate pilgrims. And when all the ducking and climbing made him dizzy.)
The company are all gone now, back to their lives. About 140 kilometers of camino are many tons lighter, relieved of years of plastic, paper, aluminum, glass, rubber, steel, and styrofoam.
Here at the Peaceable, we think now of the people who moved all that trash. When they left the Peaceable, they left some things behind.
We have here a charging cord for an IPad, in a cool shade of turquoise. Very California.
We have duty-free shopping bags under the sink. In them are an unopened bottle of Glenrothes, scotch whisky of distinction. Alongside is a somewhat battle-weary bottle of Jameson’s Irish. Paddy and I are not big whiskey drinkers, and the Bible says “a worker is worthy of his wages,” and “never muzzle the ox that tramples out the grain.” Go for it, guys.  
And so the grain it is, with this group. And the grape. We started last weekend with a case of Ribera del Duero, and the lads on Tuesday bought a 22-euro, 15-liter bag-in-box of Rioja Crianza at the feed store in Carrion de los Condes. It’s surprisingly good, and not surprisingly rather depleted.
They did not eat the pate I laid on, nor did they touch the heavy cow-milk cheese brought in from Point Reyes in California. But we now need lentils, rice, beans, bacon, bread, and milk.
Keith brought 200 teabags with him – strong Yorkshire tea. (One of the summertime vicars said “a mouse can run over the surface of this stuff,” but I sure like it.) James brewed great pots of it, and seeing as so many of our group was English, the tea got drunk down. We did in a quantity of coffee, too.    
They left behind a much-needed plumber’s snake. Keith brought that from England, by special request, so we have another option next time the drains back up, before we have to phone Fontanero Hugo.
Atop the fridge are boxes of assorted chocolates and rawhide dog chewies, survivors of the ravages of a week. Inside the freezer are bars of Organic Sea Salt Dark Chocolate, as well as UK and US brands of allergy medicine. Down in the bottom of the fridge are wedges of cheddar cheese, stacks of real Mexican tortillas, two bottles of Worcestershire sauce and a quantity of Marmite. In the cupboard under the stairs is a ten-kilo bag of basmati rice. The volunteers brought them here, and left them for us.
Ditch Pigs, with Franco the Italian pilgrim we kinda picked up in Itero
These are good people, generous men, givers. These are not just “hostess gifts.” These are the little frills that make a hard day sweet for immigrants living in a foreign land. These guys did not just buy their own plane and train tickets, give up their holidays and family time. They did some truly filthy work, over long, cold days, for no pay at all. And they brought presents!  
They saw some corners of Spain no tourist will ever go to. We peeked inside a long-shuttered Carmelite convent in Grajal, and a melting-down ghost town called Villacreces. We ate blood sausage and fish with heads and tails on, as well as suckling lamb and sheep’s-milk pudding and tripes. We hobnobbed with the after-Mass grandees in a pastry shop in Medina de Rioseco, after we’d loaded junk of doubtful legality in their many Dumpsters. (We figure it’s their trash, after all. We just shifted its location.)  
We passed through forgotten pueblos down to their last few residents, on paths seldom trod. We had coffees in low-down bars where the old men huddled around an upright coal stove and the bright sun through the glass lit up the dust like flakes of gold. The ceilings were low and black, but outside were castles, Romanesque churches, Italianate palaces.
Near Carrion de los Condes we saw a coal-black weasel dancing in the road.
No one got hurt, (except for a hot-tea burn, the first day). No one got mad, at least not that I learned of. I am not sure how I got so tired, but here I am. Grateful to all those lads, and to my dear bestie Kathy. My fridge is full, my heart is replete, our beloved camino is spotless.
And so to bed with me.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Hermit is a Pig

Me and Una, in happier times
I am almost finished being a hermit.
I switched everything off this month so I could write a book. I am almost finished. I am getting ready to climb out of my little cave and peer into the sunlight, my clothes hanging off my withered form, my skin white, my ink-stained hands shaking...
Well, no. I only wish that writing books made me skinny!
Writing books only makes me boring, I'm afraid. I don't have a lot to talk about besides the book, and most of that is technical stuff that's only interesting to me.
There's been some animal-related drama: Norman Cat's dreams came true, and while we were out one morning, he pulled down the cage with Silent Sid inside, and slew the poor canary. I found Sid breathing his last, out back by the washing machine. He died, I cried, I buried him under the olive tree. Rest in Peace, Sid.
Lulu has four stitches in one of her front paws. She cut herself running out in the Promised Land, which this time of year is alive with little roe deer and great moving clouds of songbirds and hunters bent on their destruction. The fields are full of dead sunflowers, row on row, a sobering, artistic Anselm Keifer kind of severity.

Writing is becoming less interesting these days. I think I am ready to be finished, ready to strap on my boots and get out in the ditches and clean up some pilgrim trash.

Yes, I am a strange woman. Each year, I actually look forward to spending several winter days on the boring awful Meseta, cleaning up other people's trash with a group of like-minded individuals. I am not sure just why, but people who do this are called "Ditch Pigs."

The Camino Cleanup starts at the end of this week, with volunteers coming from Switzerland, England, the United States, and Spain. Eleven donors gave us enough money to each dine on a Menu del Dia every day for five days! I hope to clear a swath from San Anton in Castrojeriz right on out to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, or maybe do a couple of days' walks north on the Camino de Madrid, from Villalon de Campos to Sahagun -- depending on what the volunteers want to do. And the weather. And how bad it is out there.

Ditch Pigs to the Rescue! 
Picking up trash is itself a hermetic practice. It has a lot going for it, spiritually -- not just the obvious Service to Mankind and Nature stuff, but the long days of physical labor, much of it done alone. Ditch Pigs aren't burdened with backpacks like pilgrims are, so they can duck and dive and stretch down low, and leave the filled-up bag along the Way to be picked up later. While they're working, they're thinking. They're pilgrimmy that way -- the camino juju gives a Pig all kinds of philosophical grist to contemplate, even as they crush water bottles and spear tissues and rake out little streams.

We wonder what kind of fool flies a thousand miles to walk a pilgrim trail, then drops litter on it. We wonder why the rise in the number of North Americans has a concomitant rise in the number of white toilet-paper tissues left along the trail. It seems my countrymen have a toilet paper addiction, or are overly fastidious in their outdoor weewee practices. When they finish they feel daisy-fresh. But everyone coming along later gets to see their "paper rose."

One sometimes contemplates the redemptive and preventive power of portable rocket launchers. The problem is, we so rarely actually see anyone drop trash on the camino. We can't blow up anyone without good evidence and due process and all that civilized crap.

So we soldier on. And each year, there's less of a mess for us to clear up.  This summer a litter cleanup campaign headed up the the Japanese Amigos group had people picking up trash all over the caminos. And over in Galicia, a Spanish group just this weekend cleared up a goodly swath of trail.
Hats off to AGACS cleanup crew!

Things are looking up out there, I say. From inside my warm, dark cave. Where I need to scribble more, more more before the week is out, before I emerge into the light.

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Yesterday there were cobblestones underfoot, and renaissance palaces to walk through. Footsore and peckish, we let our fellow tourists line up for Kosher falafel sandwiches outside the Carnavalet museum without us. We wanted a sit-down place. 
The Marais is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and a friendly bearded man in black addressed Paddy.
“Sir, are you Jewish?” he asked, right out of the blue.
“No,” Paddy said, right into the black. (Paddy wears black, too; in Spain he is sometimes mistaken for a Catholic priest. This Jew thing was something new.)
“Have a nice day, then,” the guy said. 
He moved right along to the next white male in black, probably hoping to make someone’s Jewishness bigger and better and more like his own. Evangelism is alive and well in the streets of Paris, apparently… but the grace on offer was available only to the already Chosen.  
We were not Chosen, but we’re privileged. We found a little restaurant right around the next corner, and I rolled the dice on the “plat du jour,” the unlisted Daily Special. It turned out to be a vast enamel pot of moules – fresh mussels steamed in magically delicious broth.
Moules. No, I did not take this picture.
Dessert was a pear poached in Bergerac. The food was sublime, the neighborhood noisy and dirty – I wiped my chin and the napkin came away smeared grey with whatever hangs in the Paris air.
I like visiting cities – not  just because of the food and the missionaries. Mostly because of the great artwork cities store up inside equally great buildings. An old city is like a big grandma, the streets are the dozens of pockets on her apron, and in each one is a fistful of stories and pictures.
Now we are home, back in sunny, silent Moratinos. I am always interested in what I take away from a few days in a great place, especially now that I don’t carry a camera with me. What was valuable enough for me to snap a photo of, with my &&^% “smart” phone?
Here is the one thing:
I took this picture, and yeah, it's out of focus. Nothing is lost, however. 
It’s an Anselm Keifer painting, on show in Paris at the Bibliotheque Nacionale. (Yeah, some go to Paris and see the opera, the Eiffel tower, or the Moulin Rouge.We go to the library.)
The picture is huge and heavy, and top and center is a huge, heavy book made of lead. Books and pictures and stories, all of it much on my mind these days. I am writing a book in November, starting tomorrow. I have emptied out all but the very end of November to do this, so if you do not see a blog post, you will know why.
And if you have read this blog from the start, you will know what, and about whom. 

I am writing this story, all over again, hopefully in a more coherent and meaningful way. 
So I am going off the radar for a little while. 
Don't forget me when I'm gone.  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Happy Golden Days

Paddy and me and Robin

Kim came back for a final couple of days. The sun cooperated, a sun low in the sky, its light strangely yellow here where it's usually so white. We chatted and peeled apples and roasted a chicken, and Bruno came over and had a feast with us, to celebrate Ollie's birthday.

News here is not all good. No progress on the memorial garden. Ollie's hopes for a new hospitalero gig fell through. The eye surgeon told Paddy there's nothing more to be done for him.

But these are happy, golden days. I will carry these with me for the rest of my years. Little pictures to keep in my pocket, to pull out and marvel over: We all are still alive and healthy enough, with dogs and cats to cuddle and plans to hatch and dreams still worth dreaming.

Winter is coming soon. The sky will go dark, Kim will fly away back to Florida, we'll have to settle in to real work. We have to learn to live with handicaps as they press down heavier.

We face the music. We dance.

El Camino de los Galgos, out by Villada

he sees a brown door & he wants to paint it blue

watching the plumber work: an annual pastime

Norman, growing up

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Mountain Climbing

The nights are snappy cold, the trees are bright yellow, the sky is mostly shocking blue.

It makes me want to get out and about, makes me want to drive west and north, probably my last chance to run free before the gray skies and long nights close in and shut me indoors.
Posadas de Valdeon
And so I went, with Fred and a French guitar dealer, up into the mountains of Cantabria and Leon, to mountain fastnesses with great big-sounding names like Puerto de Pandetrave, and Posadas de Valdeon, and Boca de Huergano. Spectacular places, 1300 meters up, bright green and blue and yellow for now, but with an overhanging threat of isolation and snow.  I bought good 2500:1 maps. I can look at those this winter, when the snow’s sealed those places off from us in the the south.

I went with Ollie on Tuesday over to Astorga, in the foothills, and met with city councilmen and other muckety-mucks – they like my idea of a grove of trees to memorialize pilgrims who die on the camino Way. They have an unused swath of parkland right alongside the trail out of town – complete with a chapel, benches, water supply, lighting, trash bins, and a maintenance crew. It’s tailor-made. We only need the mayor to rubber-stamp it, and we can start taking donations to make it happen. 
The park outside Astorga. Not much there. Yet.

Astorga’s got it going on. And Astorga’s got some wounds of its own to heal. American pilgrim Denise Thiem spent her final hours there in April, before a local madman abducted and killed her.
So far, the victim’s family doesn’t want any memorial outpourings. But a tree? A tree among other trees, dedicated to all the pilgrims who’ve died on the Way … we can plant trees, and when they are ready, we can put her name to one.  Meantime, other grieving families and friends can memorialize their loved-ones on the camino path, and passing travelers can be reminded they, too, are only passing through.  Still no word yet from the mayor. If you know the guy, put in a good word. If you know a pilgrim with skills who’d like to help design this, put them in touch!  

Only a couple of days later I was back over west again, this time with our beloved Kim.(That explains the nice new blog header... Kim's got a way with graphics.) We drove up to O Cebreiro to visit another friend – Canadian author and activist Laurie Dennett. Laurie knows about gardens and garden design. Her own garden has a life-size Chartres labyrinth laid out in boxwood, and this year she had a bumper crop of parsnips, too. We sat and visited and consulted and sympathized, then
Kim in the car, this time with Paddy, Ruby, and Harry
loaded up the car with parsnips and the seed pods for Cosmos flowers. Kim and I stopped on the long way home to visit the grave of Don Elias Valina in O Cebreiro, the albergue of Matt Sanchez in Vega de Valcarce, the wineries of Tilenus and Camponaraya in El Bierzo, the Bank of Santander and pizzeria of Ponferrada, the Cave of San Genadio way up top the mountain at Penalba, and finally the pilgrim hostel of Leon. Kim jumped out there, to rejoin the pilgrim path out of town for a few days. She is back now on the camino, considering her next move. 

If you know someone who wants to buy a successful, soulful sea-salt and local honey boutique in Key West, Fla., do send them on.

Back at home, the house is full of pilgrims with no homes or money, pilgrims who want to buy a copy of “The Moorish Whore,” pilgrims who just want to stop and say hello. It’s mid-October, and there are still tons of the blighters passing by.

So you see, it’s busy busy business around here.  Except for when it’s very quiet.

Which it is, still, most of the time. We ARE Peaceable, after all.   

Sunday, 4 October 2015

A Last-Minute Crisis

The lady said her name was Chelo. Her eyes were full of  tears. “Oh no,” I thought – a Spanish drama-queen peregrina with a built-in audience, a couple of companions from home… probably relatives.  
I was partly right. The two other ladies were her sister and cousin. They’d arrived first at San Anton, and they warned me that Chelo was on her way and “in a state.” Chelo’s boots had proved too tight for her feet. She’d borrowed her sister’s sandals to make it to San Anton, but enough was enough.
“If I do not find proper shoes today, my camino is over,” Chelo wept on arrival. “A lady told me there’s a sandal-maker in Castrojeriz. She is my final hope. Please, for the love of Christ, take me there,” she said.
“What a drama queen!” I repeated to myself. But it was the final night of the season at Albergue Monasterio de San Anton, and we only had five pilgrims to care for. What the heck. I had a car parked outside the gate, and Castrojeriz is only 3 kilometers down the road.
Chelo said she’d pay for gas, she’d pray for me for the rest of her life. Whatever, I said. We bundled into the car.
There was no shop on the plaza where the shoemaker was supposed to be. Chelo charged into the little grocery store nearby. The shoemaker is sick, Gloria the shopkeeper said. Closed up last Tuesday and took to her bed.
“You got any shoes here?” Chelo asked.
“Flip-flops,” Gloria told her. “I got all sizes. Some pilgrims walk in them, at least as far as the next shoe store.”
Chelo’s eyebrows met her hairline. Just below, her eyes started to brim again.
“Let me make a call,” Gloria said. “We got a network here.”
“Have faith,” I told Chelo, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We aren’t done tapping our resources yet.”
Gloria hung up the phone.
“Across from the pilgrim hostel, right out there. Ring the bell marked “Paco.” Maybe he can help you,” she said.
And so we went, and so the door swung open on an antique pharmacy, dark-painted Art Deco woodwork and etched glass, long abandoned and dust-covered. Inside was Paco, a guy I’ve met before, a little bearded man who’s lived on the camino for years. He runs the municipal Albergue San Esteban here in Castrojeriz.
“Gloria sent us,” Chelo told him in a trembling voice. “I am a desperate woman. I don’t want to give up my camino.”
“What size shoe do you wear?” Paco said, wiping some interrupted dinner from his chin. He led us past shelves of  albergue supplies of jam, napkins, toilet paper and drain cleaner to the old front window. There were stacked the leavings of hundreds of pilgrims: t-shirts and socks, bicycles and underpants, umbrellas, knee-braces, Bibles, water bottles, and boots. Dozens of boots, and shoes, and sandals, in various stages of cleanliness and decay.
Chelo tried on some high-end Salomon sandals, but her toes, inside ratty yellow socks, hung over the front edge.
“No good,” Paco declared. “Look at these Tevas,” he said, pulling some chunky sandals down off a high shelf. "They’re kinda dirty, but they’ve got some miles left in them.” The Velcro opened with a crunch.    
Chelo bent over and wiggled her feet into the shoes. She stood up and caught her breath and steadied herself against a cellulite-cream display. “Jesus and Mary,” she said softly. “These shoes. These are the shoes I have been waiting for. They are perfect. I walked 300 kilometers to here, just to find these.”
“Great,” Paco said. “Your feet are small. These have been here a while. Glad they’ve found a home at last. Most pilgrims got big old slabs for feet, you know?”

He wouldn’t take Chelo’s money. He ushered us back to the street, and we went to Gloria’s and bought expensive butter and a couple of tomatoes, just by way of thanks.

“I thought Castilians were supposed to be cold and selfish. But I see now that is a filthy lie,” Chelo declared.

“Only some of us are like that. You just fell upon a chain of generosity,” Gloria told her. “It’s your turn now. You gotta be good to someone now, to keep it going.”

And so Chelo pressed ten Euros into my hand. “For the gas to get here. For finding these people,” she whispered, crying yet again, this time for joy.  

Back at San Anton,  in the yellow after-dinner candle-light, Chelo and her relatives sang us La Rianxiera, a Gallego song about the Virgin de Guadelupe. They sang out loud as they washed up the dishes, and they hummed themselves to bed.

Chains of generosity, Ali Baba caves of pilgrim goods, drama queens singing of blessed virgins… it’s been a beautiful season at the pilgrim albergue.  Despite the petty squabbles that come with managing people, I am blessed indeed to be part of this initiative.

We closed San Anton on 1 October.  If you’re interested in volunteering there next year, do get in touch.  

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

This Mud's for You

I troweled a big wad of trulla, chocolate brown and bristling with straw, onto the flat steel float. I laid the edge of the float alongside the lower edge of the adobe wall, squashed the mud flat against the vertical, and dragged the steel upward. The primitive plaster spread itself flat and true over the surface.

Six architects, a sociologist, a chemist, and a master adobero all stood silent, watching. My trowel made wide arcs over the wall, smooth as cocoa. I tucked the edges neatly in, and handed the tools over to the next student. "It's like decorating a cake," I said.

"Bien hecho!" the old adobe-man said.
"No fair!" said the architect with the fabulous hair. "You've done this before!"

They both were right to say so. I am really pretty good with mud plaster -- I've plastered many meters of adobe walls in the last few years, and I have my technique pretty well nailed-down. No one expects that from a foreigner. I stood up straight and smiled with delight. The teacher likes me! I did good!

I love plastering, and patching, and filling wide gaps with mortar made from quicklime and dirt and sand. I love sifting the dirt and mixing in the sand or mortar, gravel or chopped-up straw, turning it over with a shovel, adding water til it starts to bind, starts to bend and rise and almost inhale -- it is much like kneading bread, this earth. You even have to leave it then, overnight or over several months, depending on what kind of surface you're going to cover -- indoors or outdoors? Weight-bearing or decorative? Horizontal, vertical, smooth or rough, in a heated room or an animal shed?

Each option has its own proportion of ingredients, its own rising time, its own set of tools.
I love them. I want to learn everything about them. I want to be a master adobera, myself, and build beautiful little huts and donkey barns, chapels and bodegas, all of native dirt, straw, water, and sand. I want to put my hand against the wall and know my handprints are all inside there, know that color painted on is the color I chose, that smooth, glossy coat of wax is what I laid on last.
Adoberas. That's me on the left.

I'm taking a three-day master-class in Surface Rendering at SmartLocal Tierra, a natural building/architecture collective in rural Valladolid. Last September I spent three days there learning to repair and maintain old walls of adobe and rammed earth. Today I started Part 2. We spent the morning in a dingy classroom in the city hall at Cuenca de Campos, going over the chemistry and physics of cohesion, compression, plasticity, filosilicates and ionic bonds. We learned the science of the local dirt, and why it's so apt for building things. We learned about laying on three layers of vertical, and why some builders prefer barley straw over wheat, and why often the walls of old buildings are peppered with broken tiles, river rocks, animal bones and grapevines.
And then we hiked up to a building that 800 years ago was the Church of St. Peter. It was a house after that, and then a cattle shed, and finally a roofless ruin. Smart Tierra bought a couple of years ago for a demonstration site, put up a new roof and spectacular beams, and is now, over many teaching sessions, is building back the walls using old-school methods and highly-trained but mostly unskilled labor. This is an odd sort of hobby. I may be the only 50-something woman I know who is passionate about smearing mud onto walls, or tying sticks together to make a roof over a stack of straw bales. These skills have little practical application. Nobody builds any more with adobe -- manufactured bricks are much cheaper and durable and easy to work with, and way less labor-intensive and frustrating. Why make trullo and trowel it on when you can buy great sheets of plasterboard that's perfectly flat and smooth? I admit that "the Three Little Pigs" was my favorite childhood fairy tale. Maybe I should've become an architect. Paddy says 22 years as a newspaper journo seems like perfect training for a mud-slinger. But all mud aside, I know why I enjoyed this day so deeply. The last two weeks have been harrowing here on the Camino Frances. Spanish police finally located the body of an American pilgrim who went missing in April, and they arrested a man near Astorga who's admitted to killing her. I did not participate overly in the anguish that went on all summer while we waited for news. But now that we know, I am surprisingly sad. My illusion of a safe, sweet Camino haven where women can fearlessly walk has been busted to bits. I am helping on a memorial committee, with all the accompanying to-and-fro, egos and frictions. San Anton is still going on, up to the end of the month. There's a big wave of pilgrims moving through, and the albergues are packed-out. The Moratinos Cultural Association is in abeyance after a rather heated planning meeting. Paddy's having health issues. People keep wanting to come here. I am increasingly unable to say "yes" with a big smile on my face. I have been doing and doing for months, mostly for other people. The mud I do for me. Three days of smearing trullo on walls is not useful, or interesting, or helpful to others. It is not going to make any money. I do it because I like it. I do it just for me. Just because.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Old Man San Anton

from the fields to the south you see how big he really is

San Anton is famous and beloved and beautiful despite his many years. I live about 100 kilometers from his place outside Castrojeriz.  We only became acquainted a few months ago, when someone put me in charge of his daily caretakers. I cannot say I know him well.  

San Anton is stony and brooding and powerful; his figure is skeletal. He stands along the road where thousands pass. People stop to snap his photo, but only some of them follow the arrows round to the open gate. Inside they find the ravaged ruin of a monastery hospital and church, now reduced to a rustic rest-stop. The visitors stand and stare up at Anton’s roofless apse. If they’re aware of such things, they feel the power of the place.   

There’s a little pilgrim shelter built in there, with bunks for 12 people to sleep. A peevish old man next door controls the water supply. There’s no electricity to speak of, and very little water. There is no hot water at all, unless you warm it up on the gas cooker. But what seems to scare most people away is its total lack of wifi.
in through the back gates

San Anton is emblematic of the scruffy, minimalist shelters that pilgrims settled-for for centuries, in the years when the Santiago pilgrimage dropped out of public popularity. He runs on goodwill and donations. The people who keep him going are volunteers, like in many other pilgrim albergues.
But the volunteers at San Anton, like San Anton himself, are exceptional.

Most hospitaleros have a lot of advance time to plan for their term of service. My guys came out of the woodwork at the last minute -- I learned in early April that I was in charge, and the doors would open May 1. I had a month to find 20 volunteers.

I did not think I could do that. I resigned myself to spending much of my own summer at San Anton. 
“Let Things Come to You,” a wise meme told me then. I grabbed onto that, and chose to believe it. I put out the word on the internet: Come and serve at San Anton!  
father/daughter hospi team from USA

And so they came – hospitaleros from Scotland, Ireland, England, Belgium, South Africa, Austria, USA, Germany, Spain, and Poland. More than enough; I had to turn away some who’d never walked The Way, who’d never spent time outdoors, who needed special medical care, who just wanted a free place to live on the camino. Some canceled out, others were called away, but always another one, a new one, emerged just in time. I lost a volunteer to stomach flu, and another whose girlfriend decided after three days that he just couldn’t take it. 

All but two hospis have turned out to be excellent, so far. And the not-so-excellent ones were not bad hospitaleros. They’d have done fine in a more civilized albergue. They weren’t a good fit. They didn’t “get” what San Anton is about. 

He is not about crowd control, orderliness, or hygiene. Anton is a ruin. There will be dust and mud. There will be spiders and flies. There will be busloads of tourists demanding to use the toilet (which is reserved for pilgrims staying overnight); there will be long, dull afternoons with nobody there at all. Anton is not about hospitaleros. He just tolerates them, I think. San Anton is exactly what you see when you come in the gate.   

He is not about money. There’s a tendency for hospis to put the donation box next to the credential stamp, especially when the bus tourists show up. There’s a moment when the pilgrim asks “how much?” and the hospi has to say, “whatever amount you can give. We’re donativo…” And trust the traveler to put in at least enough Euro to cover his own costs.
German/Austrian hospis

San Anton is poor, old, and skinny, but he is proud. He needs to be maintained, but he does not need to be improved. Hot water, bowers of flowers, washing machines, swimming pools, lights at night… San Anton never had those things, and he shows you real quick just how little you can live on, too.

Anton says pilgrims don’t need wifi.  They don’t need a hot showers – they can survive on cold showers, or no showers at all! They might be used to three-course spreads at dinnertime, but a simple salad and spaghetti will do just as well. Twenty-first century pilgrims can go to bed at sundown, like people did there for centuries.  But if they stay up a while, there are ghost stories around the campfire. The strip of sky seen through Anton’s broken ribs at night puts on a spectacular show of stars. Pilgrims who stay awake long enough will hear the owls shriek.    

(For pilgrims who sleep, I went ahead and asked for money to buy new mattresses, and now I’m buying bedbug-proof covers for those. Anton may be scruffy, but that doesn’t mean he’s got to be tawdry, or infested. We gotta keep his dignity, really.)

I have never spent a night inside the gates of San Anton. I have never served there myself as a hospitalera. But the old guy's got something going on when it comes to keeping himself looked-after. He’s attracted just the right kind of folks, from all over the world. 
People as wiry, tough, and beautiful as he is. 

Think about becoming a hospitalero at Monasterio San Anton for two weeks in 2016. If you have made the Camino de Santiago, are in good health, can withstand "camping-out" conditions, and have some training in hospitality, get in touch. I need 19 committed people willing to serve two-week slots from May through September.   

Friday, 7 August 2015

Surf's UP!

It's said the some 2,000 years ago, a man walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, during a storm bad enough to panic a lot of experienced sailors in boats floating nearby. The sea-walker invited one of the boatmen to step out onto the waves, too.
"I can do it if you ask me to!" the man shouted. So the sea-walker said, "Come on, then!"
And the guy did it. It was so amazing, so unreal! He was walking without sinking down... no visible means of support! A miracle!

I often feel like that guy. I see miracles going on around me, especially when the sky goes dark and things go wrong, or at least things don't go my way. I live in a miraculous place, and I have a good eye for simple providential beauty and sudden truths and weird coincidences and overnight cures. We are a good match, me and the camino.

I am not saying that any miracles happened here lately. But there are storms of a sort. Busyness. Bustle. A hospitalero at San Anton walked out on his two-week volunteer slot, two days into the gig, leaving a single person to run the place on her own. The builders finally finished up here, and Alan Neville, a missionary priest from Ireland, moved in on the 1st of August. His room is lovely, and he has good things going, ministry-wise: Mass each afternoon at the church of San Pedro in Terradillos, and an open church each morning here at Sto. Tomas in Moratinos. He is a positive addition, wonderfully Irish, but running a daily ministry changes our routine substantially. Good things are happening, but even good things upset the rhythm.

Oliver is back from San Anton -- he spent the entire month of July there. Here at Peaceable he is helping to move heavy things, mopping floors, and cooking cooking cooking in a wondrous way -- homemade mayonnaise, anyone? He is great to have around, but he is around. Another soul in the house.

Maybe I am too committed to my rhythm, and my solitude. It's not all about me.

The kitten is now named Norman. He and Momo play-fight together, and run down the upstairs hallway after one another. Neither of them weighs more than 2 kilos, but they sound like bowling balls rolling around up there. Norm is cute, but he's loud and high-maintenance. He poops in the house plants, which is disgusting. The greyhounds will eat him if they can. Mo has taught him how to climb onto the roof out back, but he's not taught him how to climb down. Norman stands up there and yowls til one of us rescues him. It's funny and cute, and is becoming a pain in the ass.

The sign explaining the bodegas is written and designed and is on its way here from a sign-printer. I want it to be in place in time for the fiesta at the end of the month, so people can see our Asociacion Cultural has done something in the last year! (and pilgrims can have an answer to the question they all ask when they roll into town: Are those hobbit holes?) I need to make up an annual report, and schedule a general meeting, and tell the treasurer how much money I spent in the past year. Paperwork. Accounts, and accountability, and all of it in Castellano. OMG.

The fiesta is a three-day affair, a long weekend that starts with Friday. Me and Paddy are scheduled to leave here Sunday morning of that weekend, for a long-delayed holiday down south. Lots to achieve before then. I hope to God no one else drops out of the San Anton rota in the meantime. I am already patching things together over there...

The kitchen installer came today and got to work in the little kitchen. So far, I really dislike how it's looking. I am trying to reserve judgement, but that's not easy.

The storm blows around my ears. It's pretty much a self-made maelstrom. I signed up for it, so I cannot complain. I stepped out of the boat a long time ago, stepped out onto the water, my eyes glued to the vision that said "Come on, then. I'll take care of you. Just step on out."

It works pretty well if I don't think about it. But then the wind hits me. I feel the water soaking my pantlegs...

I am not cut out for executive duties, even the unpaid, invisible, do-gooder kind, any more than I am suited for walking on water. What will happen if I don't do enough, if I don't succeed, if no one is willing to pony-up his 10 Euro dues again for the Asociacion? I don't have any startling new ideas... What if I blank out on the Spanish and no one can understand me? What if the Chaplaincy program is a bust, and we don't get funding for next summer? What if none of the kids at the fiesta wants to build houses out of straw and sticks?  Paddy has a cough that won't go away, it takes his breath away, makes it so he cannot even speak... what is it? Why can't the doctor fix it? What about my son, his career? What about Tim, his arthritis? My mom's health, my sisters? The pilgrims, the hospitaleros... What about ME?

And that's when I feel myself sinking, and the waves smack me down, and the water rolls over my head. I start having nightmares in my sleep about tornadoes and locusts and car accidents, things all beyond my control. And I know, all over again, that nothing at all is within my control.

I can do all I can, but nothing is under control. I am not the center of the universe. If I vanish tomorrow, the universe will not blink.

And so I stop thinking. I let go. I do the jobs that need doing, but then I let them go. I instead do the things I know feed my spirit. I scruffle the dogs. I drive over the autopista into the Promised Land, over to a little stream I know there, with trees applauding overhead. I let myself cry a little, when no one is looking. I ask for help.

Like Peter screamed, out there in the deep water: "Save me, Lord!"  Like the Allman Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis, the angels and archangels and the heavenly host all shout together with me, I shout "Lord, have mercy!"

And at some point, the storm calms down, and the hands reach out, and somehow I am back again in the boat, wondering why the hell I do these things to myself.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Hotter than July

Now it's July. The priest is gone for now, the fields are cut and dried-out. Mornings and dusks are splendid, but the daytime in between is spectacularly hot -- I cannot walk across the patio in bare feet without screaming.

I love July. It is long and hot and full of swallows. Friends ask me to come and visit, friends like Laurie up in O Cebreiro. We drove all around a hidden valley of Galicia, we shared champagne with pilgrims for Canada Day (Laurie is from Canada), we shopped for antiques in Sarria, we stayed up late and solved the world's problems and discussed our respective projects and literary efforts. I weeded the labyrinth... how many people can say they did that?

On the way out of town we heard a big racket, and this little guy came tumbling out of a ruined basement and into the street. I took him home. Paddy calls him Leonard. I call him Inky. He's a pistol of a kitten. 

Days later, I took a train to a little town called A Rua, and met up with another Laurie (this one from Illinois) who was striding her way across Spain from Girona. She was taking the Camino Invierno for the last bit, and you know I really love that trail... so I went with her, all the way to Chantada. The hikes were quite long -- about 28 km per day. The afternoons got very hot very quickly. I was surprised at how well it went for me. No blisters, no sunburn, just a nice righteous tiredness at the end of each day. I enjoyed myself out there. But when the day came I was supposed to climb over a mountain right in the middle of a 32 km. stretch, with temperatures expected to reach 98 F... I said "Time to get the bus back to Monforte and the train back to Sahagun!" The last couple of summers have taught me good lessons about hiking in high heat. I am simply too blonde to withstand it.

The workers are still beavering away in our house, but they are "finish carpenters." I see that word "finish" and my heart goes pitty-pat! We only need to get the water-heater hooked up down there, and the kitchen units installed... Meantime, Paddy and I are moving 16 tons of dust-laden junk into some sort of logical storage. We got the big chest freezer rolled across the patio and into the newly-finished storage room today, just in time for the first drops of rain in a month! There's still a bunch of stuff left to shift out there, but we go easy on ourselves. Paddy is having asthma symptoms these days, likely outcomes of the dust and the kitten. I don't drive him too hard. Not usually!

Yesterday I had a bit of fun: Me and my friend Maria de la Valle and her little daughter Luka went to the little playground (aka "el plantillo") and built a little playhouse out of scrap lumber, sticks, and greenery. It's a simply tripod with sticks tied-together with clothesline and a grid of lighter lumber lashed on and covered in branches and leaves. I used a couple of left-behind pilgrim staffs to give it some color. We did a fine job. I hope to help build more little natural shelters around here as the children arrive for their summer breaks. Everybody loves a playhouse, and building one can involve the parents, too!

On Sunday the Texas Guitar Quartet is playing here in Moratinos, and accompanying the Sunday Mass -- part of the Camino Arts guitar series. Afterward we're hosting a Big Feed over at our house, two kinds of paella, salad, melon, and drinks, out on the newly-cleaned-up patio. We hope for some live music out there, a wonderful summertime treat when it happens. I just hope it's not too infernally HOT... because the inside of the house is still in a dusty disorder, too.

We have pilgrims, now and then. Last night, quite late, three lovely young French sisters bicycled up the driveway right at sundown. The albergue was closed, they'd come all the way from Hornillos (80 kilometers in a day!) They were hungry and grubby. Fed, showered, laundered, and batted-about by Leonard, they slept like stones in the salon, and slipped away at 6 a.m. today.

Things are going well at San Anton. One of the scheduled hospitaleros had to excuse himself due to a family crisis, but two others stepped right up to fill the gap -- one of them is driving all the way from Germany! I wrote up a "first three months" report on what's gone on so far. It's a rewarding project. Everyone is sleeping happily on the fat new mattresses, the Animal Rescue from Burgos came and took away the baby owl, and the Milky Way puts on a quietly spectacular show almost every night up there between the ruined arches.

In between all this are long quiet days of just us. They are the most beautiful of all.

With August comes our second Meseta Mass priest, here for three whole weeks. I am striving to get a "What Is A Bodega?" sign erected over at the Castillo before the fiesta -- anyone out there have graphic design skills they can contribute? The remodeling will (please God) finally be finished, and Ollie will come back to help me put everything away.  

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

We are rich

Fr. Gerard preaches in Spanish in Moratinos Sunday morning

Life is rich, we are rich. The sky is full of sun, the fields full of grain, larks, lizards. Our house is full of pilgrims, builders, wanderers, dust, dogs.
It is busy here, busy all over town, busy up and down the camino.
The new mattresses finally arrived at Monasterio San Anton. Lots of you blog readers contributed to that, and I thank you. We bought some new cookware, and fly screens, too. The people who've stayed at San Anton are generous as well -- with the donations left there in the month of May, Ovidio bought a small propane-powered refrigerator, so the hospitaleros can keep milk and cheese and meat for longer than a few hours. Things are going well there. I am very pleased.
Here at Peaceable, the latest Big Thing is the Camino Chaplaincy, a Catholic outreach that aims to open up understaffed churches and offer pilgrim Masses in English. Father Gerard Postlethwaite, an English priest with missionary credentials, has been here for a week, staying in our guest room. He opens our church early every morning and meets and greets the pilgrims. He hears confessions, songs, stories until noon. He is a great listener. He loves these people.
At about 4 p.m., even in the blistering afternoon heat, he walks 3 km. east to Terradillos de Templarios, a village with two good-sized pilgrim albergues and an accommodating church. He visits each of the albergues to invite the pilgrims to come, and then he sets the table for Mass.
Meantime, I round up pilgrims here in Moratinos, and bring them in the car.
Pilgrims at Terradillos, waiting for the Mass to begin

We sit them all down up 'round the altar, and at 5:30 we do a Mass. In English, mostly, depending on how many townspeople turn up.
Gerard is priest. I'm the reader and "eucharistic minister," which means he gives the communion bread, and I serve the wine. (This is a rare sight in rural Spain for several reasons, but it is perfectly legal, church-wise.)
It's the same service every day, but every day is markedly different from the others. The ever-changing mix of nationalities, languages, weather, exhaustion and energy levels, spirituality, and comfort zones makes it all fascinating.
And every day I have to study up on another set of scripture passages, another Psalm. I get to declaim them, read them out, fill up the church space with that ages-old poetry. I love it. And when you love what you do, people notice. You sometimes can touch their hearts.
We are doing well. Our numbers are very good.
In the great cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, 50 to 80 people crowd into similar English-language Masses every morning. Out here in a tiny town on the plains, we draw 16 or 20 each evening. Not bad.
Construction continues in the front end of our house. The place is still cluttered with items waiting for new homes in the new storage room. The dogs are displaced into the back yard, where they've wcked the vegetable garden. Ollie is here, helping with whatever pilgrims arrive, helping Bruno build a wall, cutting brush, mopping floors, biding time til he goes back to San Anton.
Frederic, aka "Popeye the Sailor Man," is back on the scene, too -- we have him shifting tons of scrap lumber and cutting them into firewood. This is his third time working here. He works long and hard and well. I think he may be an angel of some sort. He is a scruffy hobo, really, but there is something innocent and child-like about him. He finishes a 10-hour day with chainsaw and hatchet in 90-degree heat, and at the end he thanks me.
Soon everyone will finish up and go home. The plaster will dry, we'll put everything back where it belongs, we can have our dinner out on the patio again. I will be very glad to get things back to something like normal, because all the hubbub gets tiresome.
I will look back on this and say, "wow."
I will sigh, and relax, and kinda miss it all.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

I Am Honored

About 300 of us schmoozed in a moldy grey cloister, sipping white wine. I tittered with George from William and Mary, and Mary from Vancouver. It all was international ooh-la-la. 

We were in Santiago de Compostela at an international convention of people in charge of pilgrim organizations. (I am not in charge of much of anything, but they let me go anyway, because I know a lot of them. This happens if you stick around a few years.)

An important lady from South Africa stood near, and Mary introduced us.  “You are Rebekah?” she said, incredulous. “Rebekah Scott?”
“The very one,” I said. The lady took my hand. She looked into my face.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” she said quietly. “An honor.”

She reads the blog, she said. She reads my comments on She said thank-you for writing what I write and saying what I say, that I am wise and inspirational. Maybe it was just the wind in her eyes, but it seemed like she started to cry.

I looked at George, and he only shrugged.

“Just another Rebekah fan. It’s the biggest fan club around,” George said. “I used to be president, but the membership was just too big for me to keep track.”

Now, George Greenia is a man with his own fan base. He’s a medieval scholar, published worldwide, head of his department in a highly respectable college, a pioneer of pilgrimage studies and camino history, and a beloved and gifted teacher. A couple of years ago he was named a Commander of the Order of Queen Isabel, one of Spain’s highest civilian honors. George is, in short, The Bomb.
And despite the flattery, George loves me, maybe as much as I love him. We go way back. We are kindred spirits. We are very good for one another. It still amazes me that someone I respect so much really likes me.   
And here this South African lady really likes me, too, or so it would seem.

I was embarrassed, and flattered, and rendered somewhat speechless. This is only ME, I thought – look at the way she’s created this lofty image! I cannot be all these things. I am only myself. And myself is really nothing remarkable.  

Today someone sent me a photo they took, right about that same moment. 
We are privileged white people, standing in a fabulous place, in one of the world’s unique shrine cities. We are sipping superb wine, nibbling on delicacies, dressed in nice clothes. We have good haircuts, we’re smiling, laughing. We are educated, witty, tasteful, successful people from successful, powerful places. We have leisure enough to come to this faraway place and hobnob together for a few days, to meet more people like us from other faraway places.
We’re do-gooders, all of us, in one way or another. Mary trains Canadians to be volunteer hospitaleros – hosts in pilgrim shelters.  She travels all over her vast country, and brings a cheerful energy to the job. She doesn’t get paid for it. 

Me? I live here, in the dusty part of the camino. I put people together with other people they need to meet. I ask people to come and be hospitaleros in inhospitable places, and they say “yes.”  I let people sleep in our spare rooms, and share food with them sometimes. I write stories, I clean house, I tell dogs “No.” I let priests stay in our spare rooms, and I ask the locals if we can open the churches and offer Masses in English. And they say “yes.”
I asked people to help pay for new mattresses at San Anton, the ratty little albergue in a ruined monastery. They said “yes.”  I pick up trash along the trail and in the street, because I don’t like seeing it there and nobody else will pick it up. I ask other people to help me, and some of them  do. Some of them fly all the way from England each December to help pick up trash. (Other people keep throwing trash on the ground anyway.) 
All I really do is ask people for things, and then I put them – people and things -- to work. Because I rather enjoy work. I do lots of work, most of it unpaid. But I do not think the work I do is particularly angelic or saintly or even remarkable – maybe because I enjoy it, because I choose to do it, on my own terms.  
Still, like George says, nobody else does what I do. I am the only one who does this particular mix of things.
So that is unique. It is special, because my setting is special: I live among the cloisters and pilgrim trails and ruined monasteries. They give my hard work an air of mystery and sacrifice it wouldn’t have if I was just running a non-profit do-gooder agency in Iowa.  
And I have really impressive friends who love me. Not because I do things. They love me because I am me, and I inspire them to do good things.
I need to learn to love myself the same way they do. I need to learn to accept praise without feeling I somehow don’t really deserve it.   
As a very wise woman called Macrina Weiderkehr wrote:

“I will believe the truth about myself
no matter how beautiful it is.”