Sunday, 9 October 2016

Water for San Anton...and a cool book for you!

They're here at last, and ready to head out the door: "San Anton: A Little History" is a creative project a year in the making, designed to raise funds for a much-needed water supply for the scruffy little albergue.

It's a funky, magical place, San Anton. For five months a year, rough-and-ready pilgrims sleep in 12 Army-issue bunks set in among the old entryway, they eat a meal together and pay whatever they can afford for the no-electricity, no hot water, no-wifi experience.

But who lived there before the pilgrims arrived? Who built this ruined Gothic place in the middle of a field, and why did fall to ruin? Who was San Anton, and what's up with the pig?

The answers are here in a tasteful, artistic hand-size format that's easily posted and ideal for gift-giving. "A Little History" is the only English-language, easy-to-read history of the mysterious ruins that span the Camino de Santiago just before Castrojeriz.

I wrote the text last winter with historian and author Robert Mullen, a San Anton hospitalero in 2015 and a noted author and historian who lives in Scotland.

San Francisco artist and printmaker Melissa West was inspired by her camino to turn out spectacular series of linoleum and woodblock prints. She's got a sharp graphic eye and a real sense of humour, too -- she illustrated "Little History" gratis, because this is a good cause!

And almost nothing comes out of Peaceable Press without the steady hand of Kim Narenkevicius. Kim coordinated the graphics and production of this booklet, oversaw the print run, and delivered up 500 copies in time for the Christmas season shopping frenzy.

Once the printer is paid, the proceeds will help cover a new fresh-water system at Albergue San Anton -- we will not longer be at the mercy of a 500-year-old cistern and the guy next door who shuts it down when he's feeling ugly. So be generous! Help us get some reliable water, and we'll send you a cool little book!

These go for 5 Euros apiece at Albergue San Anton. I'll ship them to you from here, for minimum donation of 7 Euro, or 6 British pounds, or $7.50 US apiece, postage-paid. Use the PayPal button up to the right here, and put your shipping information in the PayPal "shipping address" box... and Bob's your uncle!  

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Black Dog

I was afraid this would happen. For years and years, at the bottom of all my busy-ness, my drive for change and thirst for adventures, was this fundamental fear.
I knew that someday the black dog would catch up to me.
That despite all my grand plans and sometimes-successful executions, I'd have to sit down and be still and open the door and let Depression move in with me for a while.
Clinical Depression, a mental illness, has been a part of my life since about age 10. It comes and goes every few years. I've gotten to know its modus operandi. It comes on very slowly. I can delay it for a good long time -- I am a "high-performing depressive," after all. I fend it off with projects, commitments, do-gooding, achieving.
I knew it was coming last year, when I still felt bright and able. I decided to write the book then, while I was sharp and energetic, before it was too late. I wrote "Holy Year," and co-wrote "San Anton: A Little History." I re-wrote them, I found an illustrator for the latter, a designer, a way to print them and get them here to Spain. (Now I need to market these boys!)

I didn't feel any great elation at my creative achievements. I was glad to get them finished in time.
I moved about. I walked from Samos to Santiago with George, I walked from Santo Domingo de Silos to Burgos with Laurie, I walked from Ferrol to Santiago with Jim. I went with Patrick to England, to a garden party at the mill-house where Keats wrote "The Eve of St. Agnes." These were excellent things to do. I wondered as I did them, why I was there. That is symptomatic.
Things I love to do stop being fun.  
The Camino Chaplaincy ran long and hard this year on the Meseta. I met and worked together with some fine ministers, and some pilgrims really did benefit. But my own private greedy reason ran along under it all: the Mass keeps the darkness away, keeps my spirits in the right place, reminds me to forgive, be forgiven, to trust God no matter what.
Because I also took the new book, the best thing I ever wrote, and I pulled every string I had dangling, and sent it out to all my shiniest prospects for agency and publishing. Some made encouraging noises. I sent it out also to people I had no connection with, people whose history showed they like this sort of thing. I talked with smart people, connected-up people, sharp people. I let myself hope. I trusted in the story, I trusted God. I trust God.
But I am out of energy, and interest, and ideas now.
None of the prospects is taking my calls or emails any more.
I try to ignore that, try to get on with other, more pressing things. Patrick had a medical emergency, a detached retina in his eye, which required emergency surgery. Once that was under control, he developed bronchitis. The doctors don't want to be bothered with "just a cough."
Last week, at the fiesta, I stopped being president of the Asociacion.
Two days ago in Burgos we dropped-off the last of the chaplaincy priests for this season.
Albergue Monasterio San Anton de Castrojeriz closes for the season at the end of September.
Likewise, Albergue Villa de Grado closes at the end of October.
I will be left alone with much less to do, with winter coming on.
There's still plenty here to keep me busy. But not occupied.
So now you know I really am not such a great saint. I do a lot of my doing just as a way to keep myself from falling into a funk.
But here it is, and here I am.
I will sit still for a little while, entertain the Black Dog, and hope he does not stay around too long.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Trees, Bees, and a little Batshit

"Batshit Crazy" seems to describe much of what's going on in the world these days. (You gotta love English, it's so colorful!) While true suffering, shock, and history happen elsewhere, we continue in our smallness, doing the things we like, for and with the people we love.

Here in Moratinos a division of the Asociacion Cultural is busy crocheting and knitting sweaters for the trees in the plaza mayor. In North America this is called "yarn bombing." I don't get it. It seems a little crazy to me (not to the point of batshit) but nobody asked me. Someone suggested I sit down and knit, too, seeing as I am a girl, but that is beyond my abilities. My fingers don't do that.

The trees are bright and fun and probably very cozy, and more sweaters appear every day. The ladies are pleased, the pilgrims snap photos.
And on the ground around those trees, in a space where once lived a ragged flowerbed, we now have an orderly semi-circle of (someday) flowering shrubs, surrounded by weed-snuffing landscape fabric, covered in an abundance of river stones. Reyes and Flor, handy people, plotted and planted over several weekends, with labor drafted from among the ranks.
Again, I couldn't envision in advance what they were planning, but nobody asked me. But it's taking shape now, and it's surprisingly nice in a janky, sweet Moratinos kind of way.

the rock garden, visible from overhead aircraft
We planted 50 Euros' worth of flowers in pots all around the plaza, and now individual householders are putting bushes and flowers out on their window-sills, too. It's gratifying.

And I didn't do a whole lot of the heavy lifting. I just yammered for a year and a half and finally drove us all to the plant nursery to get things rolling. We meet after church next Sunday to divvy up the work of watering all these plants. Poor Milagros is the only one from the Barrio Abajo who is here every day of the week, and she can't do it all alone.

The church is open now every morning so pilgrims can stop in and say their prayers and wonder where all the magnificent artwork has gone. Moratinos is one of the few pilgrimage churches that doesn't have any awe-inspiring artwork. It's always been a humble, hardscrabble place. Our church ain't much, I tell the tourists, but it's well-loved. You can feel that in there, if you slow down a minute and let yourself breathe.

The other natural wonder of recent days has nothing to do with the plaza or Asociacion. It has to do with bees. A big swarm of honey bees arrived at Peaceable on Friday evening, and set up house in the disused chimney above the salon. It was wonderful and awful. Half the house hummed and roared, the air above the patio was dark with movement; the salon, too, started filling up with bees. thank goodness we had no pilgrims that day!
Happily, we have Eric here in town. Eric, also known as Eddie, is Moratinos' youngest resident, a member of the hardworking Flor/Reyes/Segundino clan. He is also a bee-keeping enthusiast. He rolled up the drive with a bee-box, a fetching hat-veil-gloves ensemble, and an even more fetching jar of organic lemony-scented bee bait. He set it up in the weed-choked alleyway our batshit-crazy mayor refuses to mow, not far from the chimney.

We set a fire in the salon fireplace. That fireplace is useless, most of the smoke pours back into the room. Still, enough went up the chimney for long enough to convince the bees that maybe that wasn't their best choice for a home.  

The box is still out there, three days later, busy with bees. We're letting them settle in before Eddie moves the box to a more isolated place. I think they're happy now -- the patio is bee-free, the alley hums quietly with life. I wish I could keep the bees, because I love them, and because they chose to live here with us. They're a blessing, a sign of good fortune. But I am allergic to a lot of things, and I don't want to tempt fate. And wax and honey are sticky. My fingers don't do that.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Uphill all the Way!

Fuel Stop! (click on any photo to get a better look) 

I've written several blogs in the past weeks, but they all stayed right here in my head.
I took some photos, though, and you know those are worth a thousand times more than words. This is a splendid spring, flower-wise. This was taken at a ghost village near Castrojeriz:

Monasterio San Anton is open, the camino trail is booming, but the albergue isn't full. Why? I think because San Anton was so successful last year, and the wrong people noticed. We now have a guy parked out front with a fake San Anton sello, telling passing pilgrims the place is closed, charging some of them a euro for a stamp, then trying to sell them Tau crosses! Oh, and the guy renting the house next door, when not touting himself as a "massage therapist," says he's opening a bar there. Wonderful! I wonder where his water supply will come from.
the camino near Quintanilla de las Vinas, Burgos.

Last week I met my friend Laurie in Santo Domingo de Silos, a medieval monastery town known for its chanting Benedictine brothers. We walked 22 km. from there to Covarrubias, another precious half-timbered mountain town, and then 15 more km. up into the hills, following the Camino de San Olav, a tourist initiative enthusiastically created a few years ago, now left to semi-abandonment. We had a great time. I suffered only mild heat exhaustion and delirium, ate and drank and slept well. (I don't usually walk more than 25 km. in a day!) We rolled into Burgos three days later.

We saw dinosaur tracks, Spain's second-oldest church (Visigothic), a Roman cemetery, a couple of Romanesque little jewel-box churches, a 19th-century amateur church interior that was an amazingly glowing bright turquoise, and a ghastly new "hermitage" and bell-tower that resemble a cardboard box alongside a coal tipple. Oh, and thousands of birds, wildflowers, owls, eagles, hawks, buzzards, cuckoos, and a toad. And a snake, which was dead.  

that glowing turquoise!
Laurie walks like a boss. She's a good ten years older than I am, but she can stride through 40 kilometers and finish up in time for dinner. (She won't stop for lunch. I leaned heavily on bananas for survival.) But Laurie stops for  museums, beers, or a Roman fountain routed through recycled sarcophagi. Her Spanish is good and enthusiastic, so people happily set aside their chores and open up the shut-down museum or clock tower or hermitage for us to rummage around in.

a watery tomb 
With Laurie I don't have to map out the day, or set the pace, or ask for the keys. She has a GPS unit. I just roll along in her wake, smelling the wild thyme, listening to the wind in the trees, remembering the occasional local saint's legend. It's good for my head, to not be in charge. Laurie asks good questions, and can answer a good few, too.

My favorite part of this trip came at the end of the second day, a long, long afternoon's hike. I had already lacerated my arms and legs in an overgrown creekside briar-patch, and up ahead stood a sheer cliff, topped with a church. Mondubar de San Ciprian, our stopping place, was on the other side. The GPS wanted to send us a good 4 km. out of the way, to skirt around it. We decided the people of the town below had to get up to church somehow. There had to be a trail. We started climbing.

Not far up, we ran out of trail. We looked around, considered our options, felt the 20% grade, maybe mumbled a bad word or two. And then she appeared.

Steaming up from the town below came a stout little woman in a straw boater hat. Her name was Eugenia, she was out for her afternoon airing, she said. Just happened to be passing along that sheer cliff-face. And sure, she'd show us how to get to Modubar. Easy! Just follow me!

She chattered all the way up, told us about life in Los Ausines -- a town that's really three little pueblos dotted around the bottom of  that mountain. Her barrio is the biggest, with ten year-round residents, she said. A doctor, a nurse, the works -- life's not bad there, except in winter. I saw no path. I didn't converse. I tried to keep up. Even Laurie lagged a little. We finally made it, breathless, to the top.

The views were fabulous. In the valley below at least 400 sheep were on their way home. We could've gone along the valley, Eugenia said, but it's a good thing we didn't, because those sheepdogs would've got us!

We toiled along the ridge, crossed the pass, said goodbye to Eugenia and found the friendly B & B in Modubar. The next morning was a breezy 19-km. stroll into Burgos, where we sat along the Espalon and ate gigantic American hamburgers!

I retrieved my car and drove myself  home. Laurie's hike continues. I am enjoying a couple of days at Peaceable, where Patrick and I are ALONE in the house... the first time in months!      

Wednesday, 25 May 2016


cleaning the chalice from Terradillos: Fun With Chemistry! 

It's half-past midnight on a Tuesday morning. I am way behind on the blog, but I won't even try to catch you up.

The hostel and albergue are packed with pilgrims, but we've gotten away with just a priest from New Zealand in the front end, a German upstairs, and dogs and cats everywhere else.

Springtime is a whirlwind here, and this year I over-booked myself severely. I like to think things are working themselves out now, but only time will tell. June will tell, maybe. I am working out on the edge of my ability to keep track, or at least where I feel I am competent.

Here's where things are:

First, Paddy. An eye specialist in Palencia injected Prednisone straight into Pad's eyeball. Eeeugh! But after a day or so Paddy picked up a paperback, and Boy Howdy! He can READ! Newspapers, internet pages, magazines, novels, wow! Not for a long time, and not tiny print, but hey... when you've gone without really reading for a while, this is a wonderful treat. Glory be.

Viva technology, and anabolic steroids, and socialized medicine! Paddy can see so much better, and it doesn't cost us a dime. Life is bright here in the Commie Socialist Darkness.

Then comes Albergue Monasterio de San Anton de Castrojeriz. (I am in charge of staffing this very rustic pilgrim shelter with volunteers.) Everybody loves San Anton. I have tons of hospitaleros who want to serve there, but they keep changing their minds and plans, their health is dodgy (dammit, can't you think about ME and MY plans before you have a stroke??) they're scared or unsure-of or allergic-to the cold nights or cold water or the darkness or the owl that lives on the roof...OMG OMG OMG! O Thank God I have Leonie and Anne, two excellent, no-nonsense, steady, merry souls from the Netherlands there these two weeks. June at San Anton is a ragbag of ten-day, seven-day, patched-together schedules, a legacy of San Anton's checkered, hippie-dippy past. Thank goodness Ollie still is here, he can fill in the gaps with perfect confidence, competence, good humor, and six languages.

And then there's "San Anton: A Little History." This is an artsy limited-edition booklet that Peaceable Publications is putting out, with illustrations by the illustrious California printmaker Melissa West, graphics by the legendary Kim Narenkevicius, with research, text, and editing by me and Scottish historian Robert Mullen. All of us worked for free. Proceeds will go to feed San Anton pilgrims... once the thing is ready to hit the streets, I'll make a big splash and make sure all of you get at least one, for a small consideration. Production is done. We're just waiting now on the printer, and someone to carry them over here to Spain. Anyone?

Albergue Villa de Grado, the new FICS albergue on the Camino Primivo in Asturias province, opens on 1 June! Staffing that place is a real challenge, probably because it's an unknown quantity. Still, so far, every shift has at least one stout-hearted volunteer assigned... with a few already signed-on for 2017!  Leonie and Anne will serve there, too -- you may hear great things from them soon, marvelous plans are afoot with these two!

I am a pioneer, a founder, a vision person -- I am not cut out for maintaining, staffing, juggling details. I am too absent-minded and noodle-brained, I can build you a stable and put horses in it, but I cannot keep track of the bridles and bits and the shit. Or so I think.
Somehow, though, I keep finding myself doing it, for free... or for the love of God.

Milagros and Flor, jardineras extraordinarias
Last weekend a Canadian pilgrim came here to get her head together after a crash-and-burn camino. She came along in the car when me and Milagros and Flor went to the greenhouse out at San Cebrian to buy flowers for the plaza mayor. I think she was overwhelmed by all the language and pollen and  the non-camino Spain, at least for the day. She was very quiet, but she knew about plants, which was very handy. We bought masses of flowers, fifty Euros worth, and potted or planted them all over the following few days, and scattered them around town, where they now look very small and puny indeed. It is a small beginning, but it makes me feel nice. In August my term is up as presidenta. Someone else can take charge of the Asociacion Cultural. It is right and just.

Me and the Canadian pilgrim re-dug and re-set the labyrinth. Hard work, but righteous. It's like ringing the church bells -- visitors love doing it. They don't often get these opportunities.
Women's work is never done

Meantime, the Camino Chaplaincy Meseta Ministry 2016 session started up, with the Rev. Patrick Brophy, a Marist priest from New Zealand, doing the honors at Terradillos and Moratinos. He's a sweetie, this one, very tall and soft-spoken, and timely -- because the wildflowers are blooming and the fields are lush and the pope has made 2016 a Year of Mercy, the pilgrim trail is these days utterly choked with pilgrims. We're packing them at at the pilgrim Masses, crowding 20 or 30 people around the altar every evening in Terradillos. Today the founder, a legendary Scot named John Rafferty, came over from Santiago on the train, bearing for us a beautiful porcelain chalice and paten for our Masses -- from Sargadelos, a spectacular porcelain producer in Galicia.
I am cleaning-up and tightening to bolts in the old silver chalice we've been using in Terradillos. It lists to starboard. I may use some of the Peaceable contribution fund to take it to a jeweler for a proper repair job, a small thank-you to the parish in Terradillos.

Father Patrick is staying in the new apartment on the front end of Peaceable, aka "the priest hole," or sometimes "the lurkum." We get occasional pilgrims in our salon still; two weeks ago this entire section of the camino hit gridlock -- Peaceable hosted nine pilgrims, with people dossed-down on sofas, chairs, and mattresses on the floor -- just like old times.    

Yesterday I had a toe-to-toe shouting fight with the mayor, a real first for me. He is a small man, apparently with no understanding of public service, or even rudimentary people skills. I asked about a dangerous tangle of steel in the kiddie playground, and he blew up in my face. I took the high road, but yeah, it was ugly and petty. I didn't call him any names. I didn't lose my temper. I didn't even lapse into English! But yeah, I raised my voice. I may not have won, but I burned that mofo to the ground.

Everyone who reads the new book marvels at it, calls it splendid, the best thing they've read that I ever wrote. I only wish one of them was a literary agent or even a sharp book publisher.

"Holy Year" is now in the hands of two New York agents, one in DC, and a publisher in London. None has made any response since the first exchange or two, but all are friends of friends or associates somehow... apparently the only way to go. The market is apparently flooded with amateur camino diaries, serious journalistic interviews of compostela pioneers, and turgid pilgrim memoirs. But this isn't any of those things. It is as unique as we are.  If they'd only look, they'd see. It really is that good.

And so you see I am over-subscribed. I do this subconsciously, as therapy. If I keep myself very busy doing good things, I will not be overwhelmed by depression, an illness that brings me to full stop if I let it take hold.

And so we shall see.  
And so we are busy, with more busy to come.
And so I ask you to pray for me, so I can keep up with it all.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Stop Sending Me Money!

Mantra for 2016. Teabag wisdom. 

OK, kind people! You can stop sending money now!

We reached the 2,000 Euro goal with a big push at the end from the Camino Amigos group in Toronto, Canada. I have never gone to a group before for financial help, but maybe I should open my mind a bit... groups like to help out with worthy projects, and they can make a significant difference, especially when time is of the essence.

Rafa, the guy in charge at Foncebadon, is a pretty leisurely guy. It took him a good four months to say that yes, he really would kinda like to have some non-saggy bedding for on his albergue' shiny new bunkbeds -- preferable mattresses that actually FIT. The old ones are ten centimeters shorter than the bedframes.

I told Rafa to do some shopping, he found what he wanted at a great price, and once he gets it all squared-away he'll send us the bill, and maybe even some pictures. Not like bunkbeds with mattresses on them make for compelling blog-viewing, but hey. We have strange tastes out here in camino-land. Nothing looks finer at the end of a long day than a shiny new mattress to sleep on.

We have enough money to pay for twenty of them, and hopefully enough left over to seal the new mattresses with bedbug-proof covers.

Big gratitude to all of you. Now get yourselves out onto the trail and up to Foncebadon, so you can try out the bedding bought with your donations.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Misery, and Mattresses

Want to know what pilgrim misery feels like?

First, walk 30 kilometers uphill, in the rain. With 8 kilos on your back.
Arrive at the mountaintop, and realize you don't have the money for a 10-Euro bed, not if you want to eat, too. Go to the place that accepts donations.
Check in. Eat a nice hot meal, take a hot shower, roll out your sleeping bag, wiggle inside, and take that first deep breath that says, aaaah, sleep! Roll over.

That first deep breath tells you that mattress has been hosting pilgrim bodies for, oh, maybe a couple of decades. Probably longer. And then the mattress starts to sag, right down the middle. You're enclosed on either side, like a wiener in a hot-dog bun.

Every mattresses in the place is shot. The albergue lives on donations, and a lot of the people who stay at "donativo" albergues are traveling for free, leaving nothing at all in the box. New mattresses would run 2,000 Euros or so, and they don't pull in that kind of money there.

You sleep just fine, because you're exhausted, but you wake up miserable. Everyone in the place wakes up miserable. You are not wet or hungry, but you're stiff and crooked.

A decent mattress would have made the difference.

You can make that difference for a pilgrim this year, like you did last summer at San Anton de Castrojeriz. Up in the mountains of Leon at Domus Dei de Foncebadon, they need new mattresses on their 18 pilgrim and 2 hospitalero beds. A new, decent-quality mattress costs about 100 Euro. A waterproof, bedbug-proof mattress cover costs another 20 Euro.

Can you step up again this year, people?
Peaceable is still not a non-profit organization, but that's in the works. Meantime, use the PayPal button up to the right, and give what you can to outfit another worthy place with a better night's sleep.

We won't fly your nation's flag outside, or put up a plaque with your name on it, but hundreds of tired pilgrims will bless your generosity. Anyone who wants an accounting will be given one for the asking, as well as I can provide.    

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Heavy Weather

dormitory to be

Pilgrims hunch into the wind, their gazes on the ground before them, rain streaming and splattering off their plastic capes and hats. Miserable walking weather. But they're pilgrims. They signed up for it.
Some of them find their way to the Peaceable. A day ago it was a wiry Belgian walking east, on his way to Jerusalem. Today it's a Swede who met the Belgian last night in a shelter in Carrion de los Condes. He told her about our place, that it's warm here, worth an extra couple of miles in the rain.
It makes me feel warm, hearing that.
I got mail like that today, too, an email from a couple of pilgrim ladies who stepped up to the plate at San Anton last summer when the scheduled hospitalero couldn't make it on time:

So Lois and I spent one night there as pilgrims, and two nights as hospitaleras. And both of us have said it was the best experience of our entire Camino. We loved being able to give to pilgrims in that way, in a sense paying forward all the wonderful things that had come our way as pilgrims. The people we met, cooking and eating by candlelight, the singing around the table, welcoming visitors during the day. In fact, Lois said to me, after our return, "You know, if you would have told me before we left that the best part of our trip would be spending three nights in a place with no power or hot water, I would have never believed you." But there it is. 
So thank you, thank you, for giving Lois and I such a wonderful opportunity.

 It's that kind of goodwill that makes the camino hospitality network so miraculous: a sudden need, a realization that "Yes, I have the time. I can do this job."
And sometimes the job turns into something magical.

St. Francis of Assisi said it best: "It is in giving that we receive."

I am very happy that Ollie is here to help us these days. From the outside it doesn't look like I'm doing much, but here at my little computer screen I am going full-speed, juggling. Not just getting the new book to prospective agents and publishers, not just overseeing production of a little San Anton history... I am still trying to find two people to take two-week shifts at San Anton this July.
Now add this to the mix: I need last-minute recruits for a truly Green and Pleasant posting at FICS' newest enterprise: a spanking-new shiny pilgrim albergue in Grado, Asturias.

the new place, still under construction
It's the polar opposite of San Anton: the water is hot, the tiles gleam, the kitchen is fully equipped, and the town is an architectural jewel. Grado is the first day's walk out of Oviedo on the Camino Primitivo, a tough, 300-kilometer trek over steep green mountains. Almost nobody walks it in winter, so we'll close up through the coldest winter months. Even so, it's open March through October. And who gets to find volunteers to keep it going?
I do. Or I hope to.
I have written to hospitalero coordinators in nine different countries. Three have responded.
The place opens on May 15th, which is not so far away. I have a volunteer to take that shakedown shift: a seasoned Portuguese. But then come June, July, August... I need at least six people, experienced pilgrims and pilgrim hosts, people with some English and some Spanish, and two weeks to give.
The Canadians, God bless them, are taking September.
An Italian lady is taking the first half of October.
If you want to serve in summer, or you want to come and finish out the season, October 15 to 30, let me know. It's a sweet gig, hospi-wise. It's right up there with Salamanca or Zamora.
shiny kitchen

This all is worrisome. I am not a logistics person, I don't do details so well. I'm a founder, an apostle, not an administrator or pastor. Or so I think.
I don't get paid to do this work, but that doesn't matter so much. It keeps me sharp, keeps me interested and involved. It keeps me faithful.
It takes three hours to drive from here/ to Grado, over the mountains. I can't run up there from here to fill in the holes in the rota, not with San Anton another hour away in the opposite direction. Do I have enough qualified friends and acquaintances to keep two places running? What will I do when someone cancels out? How do I work this?  
This time it's not coming so quick -- Grado is an unknown quantity. It's up on a less-traveled path, it's not got the juju of San Anton. So my faith is being tested. Who will step up and take on the unknown? Who wants to be a camino pioneer?
? How did I get myself into this?
I could get worried. But so far, I hang on to the lesson San Anton taught me last year, a wise message that arrived on a tea-bag tag: "Let Things Come to You."
Last year, I had one month to staff San Anton. The volunteers poured in.
I needed $2,000 to buy new mattresses and bedding for the place. The money showed up, BANG!
Grado: the back yard

Who wants to walk across the plains of Spain, in the rain?
We are pilgrims, on a journey. We can't complain, not too loud. We signed up for this. I did.
At the end of the day is shelter, a friendly place to get warm and dry, a place to rest.
We can't see that, out on the trail.
But it was there for us yesterday, at the end of the day. We have to believe it will be there again today, and tomorrow, too.
And in between, we just keep on walking.  

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Spring Tonic

I drove home today from the eye surgery in Palencia with Patrick in the seat next to mine. Patrick's eyes were closed, he couldn't see the greening landscape or the Canaletto clouds. He'd just had cortisone shot into his right eye. He's had several kinds of chemicals shot into his eyes in the last few months. None of them is helping to restore his vision.

The cortisone shots hurt more than the others, I could tell. Paddy is philosophical about his aging body. He doesn't complain very much, but  it is sad, seeing the parts fall slowly off Paddy's fine old machine. He is 75 years old.
Paddy kept his eyes closed, and reached across the gear-shift, and took my hand. He kissed my knuckles.

At home the telephone rang -- Juan Carlos from Astorga, talking about the memorial tree project. The city council says Yes.  Faith in Santiago, with some more good news on the same project. We will plant trees right after Easter, in a park just outside Astorga, to memorialize pilgrims who die on the Way.

The book is finished, it's being shopped around London and the Cotswolds among Paddy's literary friends; it's being read by various and sundry. I sent queries out to a couple of literary agents, but got only immediate, automated rejections. I am letting this process trickle and bubble quietly, just to see if this book is as good as I think it is, if it is good enough to catch the attention of any of the few real human publishing contacts that remain within my purview.

I am translating documents from the FICS conference that happened last weekend in Sarria. I am reflecting on the green spring days I spent walking from Sarria onward to Santiago de Compostela in the company of George Greenia, an august professor of Spain and Spanish things, and a dear old friend. He too is aging. He's retiring this year, he's getting his head around that idea.

We spoke a lot about death and dying, people who'd done it, people who were doing it, what we wanted to happen before and after we die. It was not gruesome or morbid. It was real.

Most of the people I love are a good ten years older than I am, or more. I will probably spend a lot of my life alone, after they all shuffle off this life. If asthma and allergies don't give me the drop on them.

It's fearful stuff. But I am still fit enough to walk 110 kilometers in a few days, and enjoy it. I am sharp enough to translate between two languages, at least in writing. I write very good books, even if agents don't find them worthy of their time, even if I am past the age of rich and famous. I am still well enough to take care of business.

I am important, in small ways, to the running of several enterprises, as well as several hearts. Even with so many flavors of failure and death around me, my life is full of meaning. I am wealthy beyond imagining, at least for now.

I drove into town at sundown to buy eye-drops for Paddy, and some new lettuces. Sahagun is full of people home for the holiday, parking their cars up on the sidewalks, embracing one another in the middle of the street, flinging open the pharmacy door to shout out at a passerby, "Hombre!"  

On the way home the moon rose up in the northeast, a huge orange coin on the horizon. I thought of Kim and Melissa who are making the new San Anton history booklet into a work of art. I thought about Filipe in Belgium and Kathy in California, and the friends in Santiago who took me to lunch, the ones who let me stay at their house, and said they'd send my book manuscript around to their literary friends... I thought of Paddy, whose hands I hold. I thought of my dog Harry, and his dark wet eyes and fat black nose, how much he loves me.  

Like a big fat moon, it all is so temporary. We'll all be gone soon. But it all was so beautiful I just laughed out loud, right there in the car, alone.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Sowing in winter, gleaning in Spring

Peaceable time is not like regular time.
Time stands still around here, especially in winter. That’s why I try to keep at least one long-term project going all through the slow months -- I need something to keep me alive!
I work long hours, but it doesn’t feel like I am achieving much. It’s a lot like walking across the Meseta –  you’re walking forever and you never arrive anywhere. Like a treadmill. The scenery doesn’t change, but you sure can tire yourself out.
We can go for weeks around here without seeing a single visitor, and suddenly WHAM! The house is packed, the phone’s ringing, the joint is jumpin.’  
Writing works the same way. It’s just a lot more solitary, and less fun to read about in a blog.

In November “Holy Year,” the memoir about Peaceable life, a book I’ve been writing for years, really shifted into gear. I finished the draft at the end of that month. 
In December I researched and co-wrote (with Scottish-American author and San Anton hospitalero Robert Mullen) “San Anton: A History of the Mystery,” a fundraiser booklet for the albergue in Castrojeriz.
In January I re-wrote both of them. (Any book worth its salt needs to be rewritten and severely edited at least once.) I had a couple of trusted people read the manuscripts and tell me if and how and if they worked. I also sent “The Moorish Whore,” my first novel, to be professionally translated into Spanish, to give that book a new lease on life.  
And now, as February winds up, all the birds are flying home to roost.
“Holy Year” is finished.
“San Anton” is gone on to the graphics department. Kim is making it beautiful. Melissa West, printmaker extraordinaire, might do the artwork. It will be the first English-language document of its kind, and any money it makes will buy food for the pilgrims who stay at Albergue Convento San Anton this summer. (You can help offset the up-front costs by donating via the PayPal button above.)   

“The Moorish Whore” is now also “El Capricho del Rey.” Ella esta en las manos de la redactora de traducciones en Paris… ella va a afinar (y afilar, tambien!) el texto y (ojala) muy pronto voy a tener una novela de éxito aquí en Espana, y en las países Hispanohablante de todo el mundo.

Paddy and I are going over “Holy Year” together, word by word. I am reading it aloud to him, because his eyesight has gone back to bad again, and because reading aloud is a superb way to hear the rhythm, or lack of it, in a piece of writing.  

I am happy with several parts of “Holy Year.” A couple of more parts still need some hashing-out. And once a real editor gets hold of it, I may have to rewrite the whole thing at least once more!

It is not a Camino book. It is much broader than that. It’s along the lines of “Driving Over Lemons” or “A Year in Provence,” but it’s set along the Camino. Yes, there are tons of pilgrims in there -- It’s a story of what happened here in 2010, the last year we still cared for all the pilgrims who passed through Moratinos. I describe pilgrims and the pilgrimage, and dogs, but I also delve deep into village life, too – how we came to be here, how things changed. It’s funny and thought-provoking and very sad, too. And it has a lovely ending, very redemptive.  

I just need to find a publisher for it. I may be a professional writer with a successful novel and decades of experience behind me, but I might as well be a raw amateur where that part of the process is concerned. I feel I am staring down a long, black tunnel.

Maybe that will be the next long, silent project, after all this rush and noise dies down?  (If you are a book agent, or a publisher, or you know one of those, do get in touch. I want to make you very happy!)        
I didn’t mind publishing “The Moorish Whore” myself, it was a first novel. But “Holy Year” is in another class. It deserves the full professional treatment.

I feel a lot more hopeful about finding a home for “El Capricho del Rey,” even though I’ll be dealing in a second language, in a publishing environment I know nothing about. Spain is a smaller country, it loves historical fiction, and the book’s already sold thousands of copies in English. The translation work’s already been done for them.  And I know a couple of people…

I know this is all pretty dull reading, and I apologize.  I want you faithful Blog readers to know where all my energy’s been going, and where it will be going in the future.
Books, and San Anton, and another big FICS camino project that’s still very hush-hush.

And my dogs, of course. And the Asociacion Cultural – we are planting flowers all over town, starting with Holy Week. 

Come and see us. We are lonesome!  

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Paddy's Eye and Anton's Arm

pilgrim bear 

After all that long, cold, quiet on the mountain, I walked right back into the spinning blades of The Peaceable. There's much to do here at our house, even if anyone passing through Moratinos would think a neutron bomb went off. There's nothing moving but the occasional crow.

The funnest thing lately was recording a Podcast with David Whitson, and American pilgrim who's tech-savvy and a fine interviewer.

You can hear it here,

 I was cleverly paired with Rom Bates, an Irish guy who did something like we did at about the same time: he quit the Big Job in Dublin and went with his wife to Moissac, France to open a pilgrim shelter. Rom and I are mutual admirers, and we both enjoy talking about ourselves. Pull up a glass of something nice and have a listen.

Another reason I came back was Paddy's eyes. He's under a long-term treatment for vision troubles, and in the last three months he lost the ability to read without hugely magnifying the object or book or screeen in question. It's a hard road for a man whose house is a scattered pile of books, magazines, pictures, and paintings in progress. Paddy's been amazingly philosophical about it, for the most part... he's still got Podcasts and YouTube videos, and a good set of headphones.

He had a minor surgery on one eye last Friday, an experimental procedure that shoots an anti-cancer drug into the tube that connects the lens in the front of his eye to the retina in the back -- if I understand correctly, the optical nerve runs through there. The drug kills overgrowing blood vessels that are squashing up the space in there.

This morning, Paddy picked up a paperback book I've been reading, opened to a random page, and realized he could see it clearly! Glory be!

After church we went to Mansilla de las Mulas to celebrate at a nice restaurant. It's a joyful day.

I am beating the bushes for volunteers to host at the Albergue Convento San Anton de Castrojeriz this year, and I'm learning about how many mattresses of what size they need at the old donativo Domus Dei Albergue in Foncebadon -- theirs are in pretty rotten condition, and folks I know seem to like buying beds for donativo places... so get out your wallets, people! I'm back!

>I need to start a little non-profit to handle project donations.
>The memorial grove for fallen pilgrims idea is already well-developed among a little volunteer group in Navarre. I may need to take a trip over to Pamplona soon to learn all about it.

>I've pretty much finished a short history of the ruined Monastery of San Anton, written by me and Robert Mullins, a writer who volunteered there last summer. Before I decide how to package it, (and how to pay for it) I need to find out what's become of the relic that used to give that old monastery its Holy Ghost Power healing juju -- they had St. Anthony's left arm! It was kept in a silver "reliquary" case, and used to sanctify medicines and elixers the monks used for healing St. Anthony's Fire, an epidemic disease in medieval Europe.

When the monastic hospital at San Anton closed up for good in about 1795, all the riches and artwork were sent to the parishes of Castrojeriz, where a lot of it still is. But the arm? It left town. No one seems to know just where it ended up. Probably Burgos, the wise heads say. Look at the big imperial convent. Look at the church in that neighborhood -- the Church of San Anton.

So that's the plan: an expedition to Burgos, to find San Anton's missing arm. I bet nobody else is doing that this week. First one to find it wins the Arms Race!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Month On the Mountain

Laika Dog in The House, photo by Kim Narenkevicius

So here I am, living in a dream house on the side of a mountain, 1300 meters above a deep green valley.  The scenery stretches out on all sides, at varying degrees of steep.

Here there are no sheep, but many cows. They are beautiful Galician reds, with big soft eyes and spongy wet noses and bell-bottom fetlocks. I hear them in the mornings, bells and bellows from inside their grey concrete bunker a few yards away. When the breeze blows right their moist perfume flows up the street, up toward the pasture where they’d like to be. When the sun comes out the farmer rolls open the door and they walk slow and easy out, right past the front gate and around the curve, up to their favorite place. They don’t wander. They know where they want to go. The farmer lets them.

But the sun doesn’t come out much these days. The cows stay inside where their bodies warm the space, safe from the fog that slides like a grey hand down the steep banks from O Cebreiro. I can see O Cebreiro from the big picture window, when the fog clears – but the fog doesn’t clear much these days, at least not at Cebreiro.  They get the worst of it up there. It’s only about 200 meters higher-up than here, but it gets all the fog, snow, wind, rain, pilgrims, and tourists. 

I am house- and dog-sitting in a village called Laguna de las Tablas, which is six stone houses and some barns strung out along a single street. It’s all that will fit along this ridge. Pastures and fields are neatly mapped-out with mossy stone walls, even the most steep drops are delineated. They are property lines, watercourses, stands of trees, meadows. Birches, beeches, pines, willows, trees whose names I don’t know. Their branches are bare, but they still are full of color – the tops of the trees are pink, red, soft green, almost yellow. I walk the dog in the morning above isolated, abandoned valleys. They are full of wind-battered, mossy birches like Japanese woodblock prints. Plastic bags are carried there on the wind. They wrap themselves in the branches and turn, over time, to tattered pennants. You see them trapped down there in the box canyon, waving like some odd white crop from the trees in just that lot.

Somehow, though, inhabited places, valleys with even just one house, have softer trees. The ones with halos of spring hovering over their heads. I wonder how they know.

Pilgrims love this part of the camino. Its beauty is overwhelming in spring, summer, and fall, but in January it is not so obvious. I drove today up the isolated camino path from Las Herrerias to Cebreiro, one of the most breathtaking hikes on the Frances route. The view was invisible, laden with fog. I do not remember that road being paved – I recall a soft green pathway… but I have not walked up to Cebreiro for more 20 years!

Today I stopped almost to the top, in La Laguna de Castilla, a tiny hamlet with a very good restaurant. (Yes, there are two La Lagunas here, within about 2 miles of one another!) Rain was falling. It was just me and Isidro, the barman, but he lit the fire and pulled up a glass of local tinto. We talked about taking care of pilgrims, building fires in old-fashioned iron stoves, how tough it is, keeping big stone houses warm. I was having a good day, Spanish-wise. I told him I love staying at Laurie’s house, how I’m getting some good work done, but I am always cold – I have never had the indoor temperature higher than 14.5 degrees. (58 degrees Fahrenheit).

“How many layers are you wearing?” Isidro asked.

“Indoors? Three up top, two on the bottom,” I told him.

“You have to wear a hat,” he said. And keep your shoes on always. Or boots, even.”


“You’re living in a house that was a barn not so long ago,” he said. “If you want to feel warm,  you need to bring a couple of cows inside, and sleep upstairs!” He roared with laughter. He poured another glass of wine. I haven’t been drinking, but it would be churlish to say no.  He carved a couple of slices off a chorizo – another thing I’ve been passing up. It was delicious. I told him so.

“What are you doing in that house for a month, all by yourself?” Isidro asked. (This is a variation on the perennial question any solo woman gets in Spain: “Where is your husband?”) 

“I am editing a book,” I told him. “I’m a writer.”

“Like Laura! It’s a literary house, then.”

“Yes. It’s a great place to work. And I like the dog.”
“Tell me, because I am wondering,” he said. “Are you famous?”

I laughed, probably a little too loud.

“Really, though. I think I have seen your face,” he continued. “And you have the attitude of a famous person. You are comfortable.”

“I am not famous in Spain,” I told him. “I am not famous anywhere, not TV-interview famous. Only in a very small part of the world. But there, yes. I am known. I am comfortable.”

That gave me something to contemplate through the afternoon. The sky cleared a bit, and I took Laika Dog out walking. I picked up litter along the road up to Cebreiro. After the second hairpin-turn I looked over the little town of Laguna and beyond, miles and miles of green fields, forests, deep valleys and mountains with snow on top. I looked at the hamlet, at “our” house. 

I thought how beautifully restored it is, comfortably decorated, “tastefully appointed,” even – full of food and Canadian recipes, a working kitchen, a labyrinth in the garden underneath the snow… Yeah, it’s cold as hell sometimes, but I have a cozy bed beneath the eaves. And that view! Oh, the view!
And I thought, yes. I have this place all to myself for weeks. A spectacular place. I work, but only because I want to.

I took the dog home. I drove up to Cebreiro, where the Franciscans have a Mass every single day at 6 p.m. – a real luxury! I went to the hotel bar afterward, a cozy little place, to use the internet. A group of young men were there, pilgrims, Japanese and Korean. One of them played “Long Distance Call” on a harmonica – well enough the barmaid lowered to TV volume.  The room went quiet while he finished.

The fire snapped and thumped. A huge flaming log dropped out of the hearth and rolled across the floor. The pilgrims shrieked and scaled the barstools, their steak and chips and flip-flops abandoned for a moment. An old man in the corner laughed out loud like a little boy, and the pilgrims, recovered, joined in.        

Life is lonesome up on the mountain, and cold sometimes. But it is very good indeed.