Saturday, 18 November 2017

At Last: A Stone for Denise

At long last, there's a memorial stone along the Camino de Santiago for Denise Pikka Thiem, an American pilgrim who was killed outside Astorga in the spring of 2015.
Plenty of good-hearted people proposed memorials in the months since the crime occurred (the culprit was caught, judged, and sentenced to 26 years of jail time) but the Thiem family just wasn't ready to sign off on anything. So the plans for plinths and statues, sculptures and crosses were laid aside.
Meantime, we of Peaceable Projects conceived an idea of a small park along the path, dedicated to the several pilgrims who die each year while on their Camino journey. Planting trees and placing small plaques is a nice way for friends and family to leave a little of their loved-one there along the trail they loved... and this way, if we ever placed one, Denise's stone would be one of several others. This would not be a dark spot, a memorial to a crime victim. It will be a place to stop and reflect, to honor fellow pilgrims, and remember how short our lives really are.
 Astorga is centrally located, easily reached. There's lots to like there.
I got hold of some well-connected people in Astorga. They had a park just right for the job, smack alongside the Camino path. They said "sure!" They'd supply the trees and mow the grass. There's even a little chapel there, in case someone wants a memorial Mass or service.
And so we started. In the spring of 2016, the Bishop of Astorga blessed the site. This spring we installed and blessed our first memorial plaque, for Ron Duke, an Australian pilgrim who died in Leon.
The waves of fear and near-hysteria that followed Denise's disappearance played themselves out.
Months passed.
And this spring I asked again, gently: "Do you still want a camino memorial?"
And this time, Denise's mom said "yes."
Yesterday, after a long summer of false starts and grand plans, me and two American friends hauled a plaque of Yorkshire stone over to Astorga, mixed some concrete, and set the Denise Pikka Thiem memorial stone in place. It sits at the foot of a red maple tree planted especially for Denise, right from the start. A tree that's hung with pilgrim scallop shells.   
I never met Denise Thiem. I've never met her family in person. While the drama of her disappearance played itself out I did not step up or lend a hand when I could have done.
So I did this, with a little help from my friends.
And from strangers, too.
You never work alone in Spain. Any job you do in public, especially if you are a woman with blonde hair, will attract droves of spectators, advisors, and people who really want to take it over and do it the right way.
I am not one to deny anyone that opportunity, especially when it involves digging holes in hard earth.
And so yesterday, Olindo rolled up on his bike with some builders' tools, and showed us how it's done. He's a builder, an immigrant from Portugal, happy to help a project that might comfort the family of "that poor unlucky pilgrim girl."
So Denise has a stone, and an epitaph written by her brother Cedric. And a red maple tree. We will plant some spring bulbs there next week.
Lilies. Denise's favorite.
This is the first project for Peaceable Projects Inc., the new US non-profit I started in October.
If you would like to help pay for the memorial, or support our ongoing efforts to Do Good On the Holy Way, you can make a tax-deductible donation by tapping on the PayPal button above.

Kim is designing a handsome website, where this blog will soon find a new home, and our ongoing projects will be (God willing!) detailed and updated and duly illustrated. 
This is only the start.
God is with us.
Colorado Mark, me, and Olindo, who is plotting our rescue

NOTE: I am informed that a group of Argentine pilgrims put up a memorial plaque for Denise along the Camino earlier on. I didn't know that. So this is not the first, after all. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017


There was a fly in the room. I snuggled under the covers, hiding from the afternoon light and the buzz. Momo Cat curled up against the back of my legs. Against the wall of my chest my heart ached.
Voices floated up through the floorboards from the room below. Paddy crooning to the dog in his lap. Kim washing up the lunchtime dishes. Kim in the house, fetched down from Foncebadon, a long morning’s drive up the mountain and back down again for just a couple of days. But these are special circumstances. Dire days.
The dog in Paddy’s lap is Rosie Dog, our little chihuahua terrier mutt. The veterinary specialists in Leon say Rosie’s spleen and liver are dotted with what is probably cancer. She will probably die soon. Seven years ago, right about this time of year, Kim found Rosie limping along the Camino de Santiago in a eucalyptus forest outside O Pedrouzo. She brought Rosie home to us.
Kim has come and gone a few times in the years since. Rosie became a lap dog, a house pet, a fixture at Peaceable Kingdom. Kim remains Rosie’s favorite person. It was only right that Kim should come to see the dog again, to say goodbye.   
It’s very right, having Kim in the house. Kim belongs here, just like Rosie belongs here. Some creatures are just like that.
I lay there in my bed, my own bed in my own house, probably my favorite place in all the Earth. I let myself feel the pain in my heart, the keen loss of a beloved friend. Yeah, she’s just a dog. But she’s an integral part of my life, a little spark that’s lighted up my days for seven years. When I lose her, I’ll lose a piece of my heart, a bit of my home.
I heard a tear thump onto the pillow by my ear.
I thought of the heaviness of the past few weeks, the months of dull depression, the sparks of hope that I’m pulling out of it, the desperation at oncoming projects that ought to make me happy, but only overwhelm me with details and expenses. I thought of Paddy’s aging body and low spirits, the wonderful book no agent can be bothered to look at, my son’s struggles, the friend in North Carolina with cancer, the neighbor caring for her husband with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the ongoing Republican dismantling of that beautiful Democracy. Catalonia. The future, or the lack thereof.
A motorbike zoomed past on the road outside. The fly buzzed past my ear.
I am at home, I thought. Kim's here. Paddy is here. Rosie is still here, and me. We are all here today, all of us still alive, looking forward to a nice dinner in a warm kitchen. 
My heart aches, but I could not ask for more than this. 
Momo purred against my knees. I opened my eyes all the way. The soft yellow kitchen light shone up through the cracks between the floorboards. Down there someone fired-up the new pellet stove and put on a classical guitar album, Barrios. Softly, music I know by heart. I was time to get up, to close up the cold frame in the back garden before the sun went down. Lettuces out there, ready to pick for salad. Dinner was already set in motion.
The patio dogs shouted the alarm. A pilgrim at the gate, someone coming in off the trail, and out the bedroom window I saw Paddy bring in a blonde lady. Clearly exhausted, probably did the 31 kilometers from Carrion de los Condes and found the Moratinos albergue and hostel both closed. We’d have to revisit the dinner plan. Have to feed the animals early, have to change the sheets on that second bed in the salon…
I combed my hair, splashed water on my face, went downstairs. Her name was Ingrid. She sat at the kitchen table while the music played and the kettle boiled, the cats chased one another. Rosie dozed. Patrick peeled potatoes. Kim took the lady’s pack to the salon. 
I gave Ingrid a cup of tea.. She put her hand on mine. She was crying.
“This is a home,” she said. “A family. I feel like I am at home.” 
And she was right, by God. 

Rosie Dog