Sunday, 30 December 2012

Born In the USA: An Intensity Checklist

I am back in America, living a couple of weeks of holiday with my family. It is very intense. Here is my highlight reel:

Surprising Cora Lee: I found an incredible round-trip airfare back in October. I booked it, and told my sister Beth, who lives near my mother. Our family loves surprises, I figured I would sneak home for Christmas and surprise my mother, seeing as I have not been home in Pittsburgh at Christmas for a good seven years.

The scheming snowballed into a Great Christmas Conspiracy -- Operation Let's Surprise Mom! Beth, a born mastermind, eventually ensnared both my children into the plot, as well as my little sister Martea and her two boys. And so Christmas Eve saw my daughter Libby at my mom's house, and my son Philip driving down from New Hampshire to pick me up at the Boston airport, and Martea and family boarding a plane in Little Rock. Me and Philip picked up Mart and boys at the airport in Pittsburgh, and the lot of us converged at Beth's house, where Mom was setting the table for Christmas dinner. She looked tired. I hoped this wasn't going to be too much for her.

Me and Mart, the faraway daughters, stood in the dining room doorway.
"Hey, mama." Mart said, casual as you please.
Ma had just put the potatoes and gravy on the table. In her hands she held a flap of foil, and the lid to the antique china gravy-boat. I saw her mouth open, I saw her hands shake. She looked back at the table, and back at us. We were not ghosts!

Beth pulled to things from her hands. Mart and me and the boys swarmed around her, and mom/Grandma/Cora Lee cried like a little girl. (She was not the only one.)

Meeting Maximus: We visited Aunt Esther and Barbara, my cousin. These are two fine women, strong and wonderful, who live in a log house out in the woods. The Peaceable is a shadow of what they have going on -- Barbara's way with animals and machinery is a model I can only shoot for. Barbara always has a couple of dogs around the place, and this time she's got the biggest dog I ever met. His name is Maximus. He laid his chin on my knee (something Tim loves doing), it was akin to having a the head of a live ox set gently onto my lap. But an ox that drools and says "rrrumph."

It gave me a moment of whim-whams. I was very happy that dog was friendly!

Big Snow: The sky went dark, the weather went bad. Philly's car skidded and slid up the hill to the dentist's office in Vandergrift, where I learned my teeth are not so bad after all. I walked downtown along Hancock Avenue in the thick of the snowstorm, the ice pinging off my cheeks, past the house on Sherman Avenue where my great-granddad lived -- he founded that town, you know. Vandergrift is down on its luck, but everyone that day was cheerful and kind, offering me rides, holding off the snowplow so I could pass.

Wasabi Blast: Yesterday me and Philip said goodbye to all that and headed south over the Allegheny mountains to suburban Washington, D.C., where Libby lives. Her neighborhood is staggeringly diverse, and the ethnic food varieties boggle the mind of someone who lives in a world where the restaurant offerings are Castilian, Castilian, Tapas, Pizza, and Castilian. We went to a place called Osaka. I ordered Chirashi, a Korean take on Japanese sushi. The bed of rice beneath the fish was studded with honest-to-god real wasabi, freshly ground.

It was nothing short of spectacular.

A goodly lump went into my mouth, and sent a Great Wall of Fire to overrun the lymph nodes in my neck. My mouth watered furiously, and the heat swept up the back of my neck and the underside of my jaw and rolled through my sinuses. My eyes contracted, and tears squirted from the ducts alongside. It was as close to pain as pleasure can go without making me scream out loud. I was in a public place, with my children. It was almost embarrassing!

I had some more. I ate it all. I slept very well last night.

St. Alban's:  The latest and maybe best of all was this morning. I went to church. I love church. I love Santo Tomas in Moratinos, but I am most at home in the Anglican Communion -- a liturgy I feel is the apex of liturgical beauty, a work of poetry and ritual performance. Probably because it's in English, and probably because I know it "chapter and verse." It is home. And at St. Alban's Parish in Annandale, it is done up with all the altar boys and girls, crucifers, deacons, readers and Eucharistic ministers of every shape, size, gender and ethnicity. The people in the pews stand up and really interact. The songs are sung in harmony, with a big German-style pipe organ. Today it was "Angels We Have Heard on High," with all those descants on the "glorias!" and at Communion my favorite "O How a Rose 'ere Blooming." Communion is done at the altar, kneeling, with both bread and wine. Good, spicy wine, strong with Holy Ghost.

It is good I only do these things rarely. They don't lose their freshness. They stay glorious for me.

I feel very far from The Peaceable, but very much at home.
It is all very intense, and exhausting in its way.
When the time comes to go home to my Real Life, I will be ready.  

Saturday, 22 December 2012

In the Bleak Mid-winter

Late December. It is foggy and dead quiet in the tiny pueblo. 

Mist comes in the night, and stays well into morning. Today we braved it. We took all the dogs in the car over to the Promised Land, to a new section, the dirt road that connects San Nicolas a dying adobe pueblo called Rio Sequillo.

The road was impassible. Yellow mud squidged underfoot. The dogs ran up and down the gray fields, but they stayed close. There was no horizon, no distance. We could hear the busy autopista when its sounds bounced off the facing rise, but our voices were muffled and softened.

Clouds laid themselves along the ground. What are usually the heavens came down to the earth.
We cut across the fields until we were lost. Distance stretched out. Time slipped. Mud clogged the treads of our boots and weighed us down like deep-sea divers.
Paddy has a chest cold. He started slowing, coughing.
We found the road again, a road, it could´ve gone anywhere but it felt right.
That is when Lulu and Harry, like Victorian villains, vanished into the mist.
They stayed vanished for three hours.

We are not sure what to do about this, aside from keeping them on leads all the time. They are greyhounds, designed to run free. They glory in their morning gallop, but when the two of them are loose at the same time, after their initial game of cannonball-run, they cannot  be trusted.

We know all this. We´ve been through all this many times. You would think we´d learn.
It was particularly stressful today, seeing as Paddy was feeling bad, and the days are so short and the sunlight so feeble. The trail was far from home, unfamiliar, and fog blocked out all the landmarks -- Lu and Harry are sight-hounds, they don´t navigate by nose. The roads between there and home are busy with holiday traffic. And these are not bright dogs.

We have three other dogs, good dogs who stay close. They were tired and dirty, so we took them home. Rosie had rolled in something smelly, so I bathed her. We had a bite to eat. Paddy had a lie-down.

Long story short: I drove the Kangoo out there once the mist began breaking up. The impassible roads were made passible, but not without hair-raising slides, spinning tires and flying muck. (Our little van has a nice high clearance, but the next one I buy will be a four-wheel drive, I swear!) I scanned the horizon with my little field glasses. I saw a tractor out there, and a couple of human figures -- hunters maybe. No dogs.

I drove down to where the drama started. Alongside the car was a flicker of movement.
As if from out of the very earth she sprang -- Lulu! She was beside herself with joy to see me, she cried and whined and yipped, and leapt into the back of the car when I opened the hatch. Her brother was nowhere to be seen. If Lu knew where Harry was, she wasn´t saying.

I took her home and gathered up Paddy, whose face by then resembed the very Wrath of God. We drove out to the same place, and found Harry waiting there for us.

The two of them are, literally, in the dog house.
The sun went down by 5:30. The rain started up again.

And so you see how little happens out here on a winter´s day. Nothing to write about. No deep insights, no revelations, no pilgrim tales. No Christmas tree this year, no bright lights or packages. We are being minimalist -- the doctor told Paddy his cholesterol number must come down, the wine-bibbing must dry up, and so we are being abstemious. The weather is right for asceticism. A box of Christmas wine arrived on Wednesday, crianza from Rioja, in huge magnum bottles. We opened one, but there´s still a few glasses left of it. 

We read all day, and chase dogs, and I go to my Spanish lessons twice a week -- nice progress is being made on the past tense.

On Thursdays, after my lessons, I can shop at the little weekly market in Carrión de los Condes. A man there sells lovely mandarin oranges, fat ripe pineapples, and dates and brussels sprouts still on their stalks. The bakery on the plaza makes real raised glazed doughnuts. One stall sells nothing but hats. One old lady comes into town to sell the three cloth-wrapped soft cheeses she and her sheep made that week. Above them all on her marble plinth is a bronze Immaculate Virgin Mary. She gazes into the heavens, ignoring the grackles cackling in her starry crown. The plaques say all of Carrión is dedicated to her Immaculate Heart, but her face is turned from them. No one down below seems to notice her, either. 

There´s not a pilgrim in sight. 

Nothing to see here, folks. Come back when the sun comes out. 


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Plastic Lamb in the Home of the Brave

It´s a dark and stormy day here on the perimeter. The dogs and cats are sacked-out in front of the fire, our stomachs are full of lunch, and Bud Powell is playing "Time Waits" on the stereo with Bob Canary as front man. There´s no good reason to go anywhere, what with the fields all fallow mud and the days so very short, and the wind blowing the rain sideways.

We went to church. Flor and Family set up the vast manger scene in the entryway, in keeping with local tradition -- it´s got real moss and aluminum-foil ponds, plastic palm trees and heavenly hosts in several scales and sizes. It is janky and homely, and I love it. It is our dime-store Bethlehem, a Peace on Earth that fits in a big cardboard box in the choir loft.

In the Prayers of the People today Don Santiago first spoke of Newtown, CT., whose children and teachers were killed by a madman with a big gun. He held up the community, the state, and the United States of America before the Lord. I felt some eyes looking at me. I felt that dart of pain in my heart. It is a dart that is getting way too familiar these days -- another mass shooting, another moment of my neighbors wondering what the hell kind of place I come from, that would let this kind of thing keep happening.

I prayed, too. I put down that pain and self-consciousness and national guilt at the foot of the cross up front, seeing as I was at church, and that is what an altar is for. 

Back at The Peaceable I look at the internet, and it is full of horror and pain. It is also full of anti-gun and pro-gun self-righteous bloviating, the ugly kind I had kinda hoped was finished after the presidential election. America is clearly just as divided as it ever was. The country is in major trouble, and everyone is either wild-eyed and blazing, blaming "those people" for all the madness, or insisting that we all be quiet and stifle our outrage  "out of respect for the lost."   

I am American. I grew up on a string of military bases. My father was a military man, but he was not a soldier -- he served his 23 years in the Air Force. He did not carry a gun. "Guns are for hunters and soldiers, for policemen," he told us. "In the Air Force we aren´t soldiers, so we don´t have to carry guns. We have technology. We listen. We use intelligence," he said. So maybe from him I learned, in the way of a child, that guns are used only after discourse runs short.

When we moved off the military base we kept a (unloaded) shotgun behind the front door, "to keep the honest man honest." In summertime my mother, a crack shot, kept a .22 rifle handy for picking-off the groundhogs out in the vegetable garden. Dad used a thirty-aught-six rifle to hunt white-tail deer in November. We children learned to shoot at targets, but we did not handle guns. We did not touch them without our parents´oversight. Over time, we kinda forgot they were there.

It was an uncle who first made me fear guns. He lived very near, drank way too much, and was terribly unhappy. He wore a nickel-plated .44 in a shoulder holster, strapped to his bony chest. His "sidearm" was his "goddamn god-given right." One sunny morning he used it to kill himself. His daughter, my best-beloved cousin, found what was left of him. I love her. I saw how she suffered. That is why I hate handguns, and hate what her dad did with his. (I am not supposed to write about this.)

I was a news reporter for many years, some of those on the police beat. I worked with men who carried guns as part of their duties. I knew two policemen who were shot dead, one at work and another at home. I saw shooters, and I saw shooting victims, all but one were dead. (I saw stabbing victims. They were bloodier, but they were almost all alive. They had a chance, at least.) I covered the trials, I saw the evidence, the weeping moms, the disfigured, the incarcerated, people still alive but their lives blown away. I saw the guns, tagged as evidence, the ragged bullets, pieces of skulls. 
Guns make violence easy, and very final. Guns are part of America´s history. They are written into the U.S. Constitution, as a way for "well-regulated militias" to keep tyrants at bay. What was a reasonable check-and-balance back in Colonial days has, with 200+ years of technology and capitalism, morphed into a monster. Any American with ready money can buy an assault rifle, or a semi-automatic handgun -- weapons of mass destruction -- at the local K-Mart store. Not just jolly hobbyists. Fearful people buy handguns, or people in despair, or people with family or emotional or work problems. Not just madmen, either. People just like me and you. They have a gun nearby. Sometimes emotions get out of hand. Like one domestic killer told me through the glass at the Michigan State Pen, "It was there in the closet. She wouldn´t shut up. It was just so easy."

The outcomes are written in the scripture of Statistics: 

    In the US 2,694 children and teens were killed by gunfire in 2010. (This  number includes suicides, if that makes a difference.) Since 1979, when gun death data were first collected by age, 119,079 children and teens have been killed by guns. That is more child and youth deaths in America than American battle deaths in World War I (53,402) or in Vietnam (47,434) or in the Korean War (33,739) or in the Iraq War (3,517).  And that is just counting the people under age 20. In a first-world, developed nation.

We live in a country where someone´s "right to bear arms" translates to denying a kindergarten classroom its first-amendment "right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." No one seems to have courage or common sense enough to look it in the eye. Maybe because we respect the older parts of our Constitution too much to change it.

Maybe because we love our families, and this issue walks right up to our doorstep and rings the bell. 

My family lives in the United States, and my family keeps guns. They use the rifles to shoot deer, rabbits, pheasants, and wild turkeys. They use handguns to shoot targets and the occasional rattlesnake. (My in-laws include a police chief and a sheriff´s deputy; I do not know if they carry sidearms at work, but law enforcement is a legitimate armed service.)  None of my family has shot one another, at least not in recent memory. They are steady, decent, working-class people, not given to violence. If any of them carries a concealed weapon, I don´t know. I don´t want to know. 

But do they need assault rifles? Do they need guns that shoot entire ammo clips in seconds? No. They are not well-regulated militias. They don´t need arsenals. Weapons of mass destruction are not needed or desired by rational, decent human beings. Automatic weapons are are good only for SWAT teams and cold-blooded killers. Rational gun owners of America, the hunters and hobbyists, even the "mine is bigger than yours" macho men, will agree with that. I think.

But if I were to go home now, and meet with my family, and these shootings should come up in conversation... We are a family of gun owners, and a family of opinionated people! What would happen?

Nothing would happen.

I would remember how much I love them.  
I would remind myself that being loving sometimes is more important than being right. That love overcomes fear. That my family members are just as convinced of their right-ness as I am of mine. That I could not change their minds any more than they could change mine.  
I would breathe deep and keep my peace, secure in their love for me.
I know they might have a gun in their handbag or pocket, but they would never point it at me, no matter what I said to them. I would not say anything to them that might make them upset, because I love them. 
I would very much lay my prayer again at the altar, to remember what Jesus said how truth often is a sword -- or an AK-47 -- in family situations. It is dangerous. It can cleave a family into parts. Discretion is the greater part of valor.

All of us is well aware of the canyon that divides us. And unless somebody drinks too much and starts, well, shooting off his mouth, we would not go there. 

America has a genius for keeping millions of wildly various people, spread out over an enormous space, together in some fertile, dynamic tension. Americans, by and large, are amazingly tolerant people.

My sisters and cousins and uncles and in-laws are Americans. They might abhor my politics, but I know they love me. They know I love them, even if they believe...  well. I will shut up now.

I wonder if keeping my silence is noble and patriotic, or if it is the same cowardice that keeps Americans from facing the truth about the bloodbaths that keep happening in our home towns. Maybe we need to shout this out in our families before we can work it out on a policy level.

But half of us have only words for weapons. We all know how passionate many gun-owners are on this issue. We know 99% of gun owners can have a rational family discussion without getting crazy and shooting people. Gun owners love family peace even more than their guns. Am I right? 

I am part of a Peaceable Kingdom. A wacko lefty, a "libtard," an expatriate by choice. A black sheep in the Home of the Brave. A janky, dime-store plastic lamb.  I know when to shut the hell up.

Christmas is about innocence arriving to overcome darkness. It is about silence and peace and humility, and powerful potential for peace, most probably at a terrible price.

So once again we set out the manger scene, and say the words we all count as holy. Christ our sacrifice is born in Bethlehem!

Let us keep the feast.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Poetry of Pretérito Imperfecto

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds

Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

- RS Thomas

Thank you to Rev. Andy Delmege, aka "Pilgrimspace," who published this in his Wordpress blog. It is simply beautiful.

I get a lot of pleasure from poems. They are so boiled-down and precise, but they look so easy and languid. As a writer I enjoy playing with technique in prose (as you can see from the last post, I sometimes get carried away!) but I leave poetry the heck alone. There´s enough bad poetry out there already without me adding to the pile. And wonderfully, deliciously, we seem to be living in a time of poetic flowering! I keep finding more contemporary poets whose work is superb. Friends send me poems. I have a whole file of them here on my computer someplace. Poems are helping me now.  

I am taking Spanish lessons in Carrión de los Condes with a sprightly lady named Lucía. She is very good -- our very first session she went right to the heart of my problem with verbs, and we´ve been bashing our way through them ever since. It is very hard. I have skated around this for years now, and it´s time to set aside my lazy-ass excuses and just do this.

I am letting myself imagine what it will be like to sit down at El Castillo with the neighbors and just chatter. We do a form of that now, I can keep up with all the byplay and gossip and jokes, but I am not quite fluent enough to put my zinger in there at the right moment. Not yet.

I want to. I can.

I will, if I just work really hard for a while. It´s about time.

Poetry helps, especially poetry I already know. Sunday Mass is the best example. I know and love the creeds and prayers already in English, and every week, sometimes even more often, we recite them together in lovely Castilian Spanish. They are some of the most beautiful words in the world, in every language. And just look at all those verb tenses:

Señor Hijo único, Jesucristo,
Señor Dios, Cordero de Dios, Hijo del padre:
tú que quitas el pecado del mundo,
ten piedad de nosotros.
tú que quitas el pecado del mundo,
atiende nuestras súplicas;
tú que esta sentado a la derecha del Padre,
ten piedad de nosotros:
Porque sólo tú eres Santo,
sólo tú Señor
solo tú Altísimo Jesucristo,
con el Espiritu Santo, en la gloria de Dios Padre.

I want to read poems in Spanish, and the meseta novels -- I can read simple best-seller type books, but reading classical literature in Castilian still requires a dictionary nearby. I want to understand all the words of the Flemenco singers, my Diego el Cigala songs, my Buena Vista Social Club CDs (although Julia tells me nobody understands what they´re saying under all that yowling!)

I learned some poetry already from a Flamenco singer, my favorite, a woman called Carmen Linares. She sings Spanish poetry, she sets it to music. It uses all kinds of verbs, and that helps me out:


Recuerdo que cuando niño
me parecía mi pueblo
una blanca maravilla,
un mundo mágico, inmenso;
las casas eran palacios
y catedrales los templos;
y por los verdes campiñas
iba yo siempre contento,
inundado de ventura
al mirar el limpio cielo,
celeste como mi alma,
creyendo que el horizonte
era de la tierra el termino.

No veia en su ignorancia
mi inocente pensamiento
otro mundo más hermoso
que aquel mundo de mi pueblo;
¡qué blanco, qué blanco todo!,
¡todo qué grande, qué bello!  

Like Andy´s poem. Simply beautiful.
Worth working for, working toward.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Loki´s Daughter

Jörmungandr was a horrible, beautiful snake who lived in the earliest age of Norse myth. She was the daughter of Loki, the tricky, shape-shifting semi-god, and Angurboda, a wolf-haired giantess. Jörmungandr slithered on land for a while, but returned to the depths of the ocean to grow into a thick, ravening monster.

One day on the dark sea floor, Jörmungandr bit down on a great dark moving thing. The pain was paralyzing.  She had grown so long she´d wrapped the width of the the world -- she had torn into her own tail. And so she stayed that way for eons, her hunger blindly binding together the world beneath the waves. 

I am writing the myth of our first years here at The Peaceable. Like any creation story, our beginning was terrifying and wonderful, at least to us. Passage of time and much telling have given our tales a golden glow. I am trying to keep it simple. I am telling the tales the same way we tell them around our table when the pilgrim asks the inevitable: "How´d you get here?"

We have dozens of stories. 

I have tons of resources. We kept daily diaries and accounts. We wrote letters, clipped photos from magazines, circled things in catalogs. Half a year into the adventure we managed to get internet installed here, and I started this blog.

So I went back into the blog. I looked at the entries that drew the most response. I tried to see the issues that came up over and over.

It is very difficult work, looking for a road through a forest you grew yourself.  I need wings, I need to fly above it all like a hawk, but I am bound to the ground. I follow clear paths over ridges, and there I see again the light blasting through the trees, the dappled mud. I hear the dogs bark -- dogs now dead --  I hear tractors rattle and roar in the background. I follow the familiar paths til they stop at the highway fence called "the present."

I am distracted. So many sweet details I want to put in there, toothsome, crusty characters. I am slowed by accounts of anxiety, rejections, misunderstandings, boring painful months I do not want to remember and I assume no one wants to read. It is ugly and slow. I don´t want to go there.   

But I want to stay true. The story is rolling forward down those farm lanes, but it wobbles and veers, its wheels are barely holding to the axle.

I wonder if it is worth it, I wonder why I am doing this to myself. I wonder why I worked so hard on the Zaida novel, why I have anticipated this writing project almost since we came here. I wonder why this is so hard, when I´ve wanted it so much.

And then I see I am the sea-snake, biting my own tail. Years ago, I wanted so much to leave America and come here and start this work. When I arrived and settled into the labor I wondered why this was so hard when I wanted it so much. I wondered if it was worth it, why I did that to myself. 

But I stayed with it. I lived through the hard parts, I suffered and rejoiced and learned and grew, and many other people benefitted, too. A cycle began and peaked and is finishing, like so many things seem to be winding up and finishing these days. I was a pilgrim, and became a hospitalera, an instructor, a guide-writer, a counselor. But hardly any pilgrims stop here now. I cannot leave here for two weeks to volunteer at a pilgrim albergue, and I don´t think I want to any more. No one wants to take the hospitalero training course. Publishers aren´t interested in new camino guides. I face a blank wall, a loss of the identity and ego-fulfillment those roles gave to me.
I still am a writer, though. Our story is worth telling. I will stay with this. I will live through the hard parts. I will suffer and rejoice and learn and grow. Maybe it will never be published, or maybe only a few will ever find it in the great ocean of dreck that publishing has become. But already I have benefitted.

I will have to become comfortable with repeating myself, with meeting my own tail in the darkness of the deep. It is hunger, the myth says, that bound the world together.   

Or, as a poet says: 

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

"Love After Love," 
by Derek Walcott

Monday, 3 December 2012

Keith is shot. Carry On.

A group of New Age type pilgrims is "cleansing" the Camino these days, preparing the Way for the new ether energy that´s going to enlighten our lives in days to come.

Another group -- well, three of us, anyway -- is cleansing the camino too. We are picking up all the trash along the trail where it passes through Palencia province. I am sure the other group´s work will have a  more lasting effect. Still, ours is gratifying enough. It is certainly exciting. Especially when firearms are involved.

Yesterday morning I met up with Bruno, the Italian innkeeper over at Albergue San Bruno, and Keith, the Yorkshireman who last year also volunteered to help with this annual enterprise. We synchronized our mobile phones, stuffed our pockets with bin bags, and armed ourselves with a broomstick with a nail in the end. We used the car, to better cover more country. Following complicated logistical arrangements laid-out the night before, Bruno took the car and dropped off Keith in Calzadilla, then drove back and parked the car in Terradillos. He walked from there  to Ledigos. Out on the far end, Keith walked from Calzadilla de la Cueza back toward Ledigos. I walked from Moratinos to Terradillos, where I took the car and picked up the other two. (We are, obviously, university graduates.)

About 20 minutes into my stroll down the camino, my telephone signaled a text message. It was Keith, whose phone number is English. The text said:

"I´ve been shot. Shaken but OK."

Holy moley, I thought. It is hunting season. Some drunken idiot was out firing away at quails and got Keith! What does "shaken" mean, exactly?  I´d better drop my trash bag and get to Terradillos and get in the car and get him!

Then I thought, No. Terradillos is two miles away, on foot. This is some kind of joke. Some bizarre straight-faced English thing. I am not going to fall for it, because I have asthma and running to Terradillos in the morning cold might kill me. And if it was a joke, it was not funny. I have seen a few shooting victims. I have had guns pointed at me. It does not make me laugh.

I texted back:  "No way."

And the answer came back: "Yep. Fine to carry on. K."

Carry on. How exquisitely English!

I picked up trash the whole way to Terradillos. I drove at reasonable speed to where Keith should have been, and there he was. Blood was running from a corner of his mouth, he was shaking like Lionel Barrymore, but the rest of him looked OK. He climbed into the car. We picked up Bruno and took him back to Moratinos, and took young Keith to the health center, where I struggled to translate the whole tale to the doctor.

Keith was walking up the camino. A hunter with a rifle under his arm was walking toward him. Just as they passed, just as they said "good day," the shotgun went off. It blew a great hole in the path between them, bits of lead flew every which way, and Keith felt like someone had thrown a rock at him, hard. The man dropped his gun and cried out in anguish. He embraced Keith, wiped his face with his hanky, apologized profusely, gave him his telephone number. By then Keith realized no great damage was done -- he might end up with a fat lip, was all. He walked on, picking up litter. He bled on, too. When I picked him up he looked pretty scary.

The doctor cleaned him up, filled in some papers, spoke quietly to Keith. He was more concerned about the trembling than about the little wound on Keith´s face. Like a few other Englishmen of my acquaintance, Keith was more focused on getting a drink than anything else. We went to Pili´s, sat down, breathed. Keith unwound a bit. He picked bits of lead out of his jacket and laid them on the tabletop.

"You know what? I could have been killed," he said. "I´m damned lucky."

Damn straight, I told him.

This morning we drove in the wrong direction, over to Bercianos del Real Camino. There we met Rosa, a doctor who chucked it all to open an albergue on the camino, who has dealt with one disaster and rip-off after another but who is still bashing away at it. She had fresh wood mushrooms in a basket, and a beautiful brown nanny goat. We stopped at Manfred´s cross, a marble memorial to a German pilgrim who died on that spot in 1998. Someone or something had knocked it over and broken it into three pieces. We took tools and steel and silicone cement and stuck it back up again.

We turned around again and headed to Calzadilla de la Cueza, where we started picking up litter once more. It took hours. We drove slowly west to Carrión de los Condes, we picked, we stuffed bags and bags of bottles and cans and wrappers into the back of the van, 17 kilometers worth of pilgrim castoffs. We saw a flock of two dozen quail, and not a hunter in sight. We worked against a backdrop of crystal-clear, snow-topped mountains and perfect blue sky. We arrived at what is usually the most trashed picnic area of all, and found that some fabulous pilgrims had been there before us. Four big bundles of trash, improvised from baling-twine and sheets of black agricultural plastic, were stacked neatly along the road, as if they knew we were coming. God bless their hearts.

When we finished, our trash bags filled a dumpster bin right up to the top.

And then we had lunch. Potatoes and field mushrooms, sopa castellana, asparagus and fried-egg sandwiches. The work continues tomorrow, when we carry on west from Carrión.

Thanks are in order: The Annual Palencia Camino Clean-up is organized at The Peaceable, executed by volunteers, and financed by donors large and small from around the world. It´s not too late to buy us lunch! There´s a donation button over to the right.  

Friday, 30 November 2012

the nomads

They are in their 20s and 30s, they are Europeans, singles. They are university-educated, from good families, they speak three or four languages. 
Their clothes don´t fit. Their skin is pale. Sometimes it´s evident they haven´t bathed in a while.
But they want to come in, they want to visit, they want to stay. Can they stay?
They´ve got to stay. They´ve got no place to stay yet this winter. December is coming, then January. Then things will get better, the pilgrims will come back the albergues will open up, they will find a place, they know somebody.
They are a camino phenomenon, perhaps an outcome of the economic crisis. They are former pilgrims, young people who left behind their lives in Seville or Germany or Czech Republic to find themselves along the trail in Spain. They walked the pilgrimage, they made friends, they found what "community" means. And when they reached the end of the road, they did not get on the plane or train and go back home. More often than not, they´d run out of money.
They felt a calling. They couldn´t go back. They decided to stay, to live on the camino. 
They fetch up at an albergue and volunteer to help out, in exchange for room and board.
Lots of former pilgrims do this. They feel moved to "give back" to the camino. The usual term is two weeks. For these nomads, it goes on indefinitely. 
For Alice, it´s been three years.
When I met her, Alice lived in the windowless back room of a cement-block pilgrim hostel. It was mid-winter, and the place was barely heated. Alice made no wage. She worked for room and board, an agreement supposedly set up to last through the winter. She ate the same kind of sandwich for her lunch each day, and a cheap pilgrim meal each evening. When she could catch a ride to the store she bought fruit, which she sold to pilgrims to raise a bit of cash. She fed stray cats, and left the open tins of food on the windowsills. The boss did not like her cats, or her moneymaking. Things unraveled. The boss found a new guy to run the place. He moved into the hostel and simply took over, Alice said. She packed up her things and left.
She always goes. She does not always leave a good impression behind her.
When she stayed here, she did not get in the way. She was quiet. She petted the dogs and chattered to the cats. She did not cook or clean or help with the housework unless she was asked first. She did not give a donation, unless you count the cans and boxes of food she brought from the last place. She was on the run from a stalker, she said.
Someone had stolen her cats. Her little dog had vanished. And her shampoo.
She found a place farther down the trail that needed some help, and she was gone.
Until this week, when things unraveled again.

Johnnie is a similar sort. He pops in now and then to say hello. He is a grinning 30-something boy, a very competent hostel-keeper, a pretty good cook. He´s held jobs at albergues all through Galicia, and has now landed a sweet position in the mountains of El Bierzo, a live-in, year-round pilgrim host at a municipal albergue. He has his own room. There´s no kitchen, and it´s pretty cold up there, and he has to share the showers with the pilgrims, but it´s his dream job, he says: no boss to fall out with.
The pilgrims are not always kind to him, but he smiles and nods and shows them the door if they get too nasty. They hurt his feelings when they´re mean. Sometimes one or two will stay for a day. They help with bigger projects, they recharge their batteries, they keep him company. He gets lonely, he says. You can´t make lasting friends when each night´s customers move on the next day.
Johnny´s teeth are bad, but he has no money for a dentist. When comes to visit, we fill his pockets with Tylenols and vials of Listerine.

Many of the nomads are perfectly competant. They stay as long as they are needed, or as long as they like, and then they move on. Others seem more needy, more desperate. We get the phone calls now and then,  usually from somewhere far to the west: do we need some help with anything? Can I volunteer at your place? Do you know anyone who needs help? I will work for food, for a room. I don´t want to go home. I can´t go home. I have no home. The camino is my home. So can I come over? For Christmas? For January?


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Turkey Scratch

The kitchen smells like magic. 

The days are gray now, and the mornings misty. I am holed up indoors, in the two rooms we keep heated with the woodstove. All this morning, I baked fruit pies. Thursday is Thanksgiving, the big American holiday, one of my very favorites. We have people coming over, or at least we have invited some.  We will feast, as is fitting for Thanksgiving.

And here in rural Spain, cooking a traditional American meal requires substantial ducking and diving and substituting, because many key ingredients just don´t exist here. I have to make do, or make it up from scratch. As a result we eat a whole lot less processed food, and we appreciate the rare, holiday-only treats I have been saving things up for.  Like blueberry pie. I made an actual blueberry pie today, with blueberries from jars I found, by sheer luck, in the discount bin at a German grocery down in Malaga. I snatched them up and brought them home and saved them for today. I didn´t have quite enough, so I dug out a packet of dehydrated blueberries a kindly pilgrim brought here for me. I soaked them in white wine and threw them in the mix. I lined the bottom of the pie with a layer of apple slices. We shall see. 

But there´s champagne, to serve with smoked trout and boquerones and goat cheese to coat with Balsamic cream --  sharp/sweet/smoky flavors for starters.
We have carrots and onions and red peppers, and sugar and oil and vinegar, and crushed up tomatoes all marinating together to make Copper Pennies -- a lot of those veg I grew here myself.
We have lovely Brussels Sprouts, holiday food for Englishmen. 
We have Granny Smith apples. I made a big Dutch apple pie today with those.
Maybe best of all, this year I grew three pumpkins out back. One became a jack-o-lantern. This morning the second became two lovely pumpkin pies. (The third has not turned orange yet. I am saving him for soup.)

Turkeys are out of season. I asked at three different fowl butchers yesterday in Palencia, and was told I would have to order one. They will come in time for Christmas. No. Instead I bought seven fine pichones -- squabs. Young pigeons. Each diner will have his own entire bird to eat, so we won´t have to fuss about white meat or dark. I tracked down celery and walnuts and several kinds of whole-meal bread, so I can make proper stuffing for the little guys.  No cranberries, though. Those are almost as rare as blueberries. And no fresh sage -- my herb garden fell victim to the new terrace project. 
No sweet potatoes. No marshmallows, no cream of mushroom soup to make green bean casserole, alas!

Still, another cause for thanksgiving is the people coming. They are (if everyone shows up) a German, a Spaniard, an Italian, an Englishman, and a French lady. Only one other American. Almost none of them has ever eaten a Thanksgiving feast before.
They won´t know what´s missing!  

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Brothers and Sisters

I hobnob this weekend with the saints of Leon. We are gathered at the Benedictine convent in the middle of the old city, where hundreds of passing pilgrims are welcomed every year to sleep in dreary bunks in sunless dormitories, for a mere 5 Euro per. (the nuns throw in breakfast, and all the plainchant liturgy you care to take.)

On the other side of the wall from the albergue the sisters keep a splendid three-star hotel, where I checked in on Friday along with most of the other delegates to the Acogida Cristiana en el Camino hospitalero group. (We might volunteer to care for dreary dormitories. That doesn´t mean we have to stay in them ourselves, given a choice.)

Almost everybody here is a professional Catholic of one kind or another: priests, nuns, and even a couple of friars. I want to tell you about these people.

But first, Me. I grew up in a working-class Protestant world where Catholics in general were rare, and Catholics in uniform were the stuff of wacky TV sitcoms, or black-and-white Bing Crosby movies. I never knew a nun until I was 18 years old, when the Sisters of Charity charitably let me attend Seton Hill College. I walked in the door a week into the Fall semester of 1980, and they offered me enough scholarship money to stay through my first two years of higher education. Me, a backslid Pentecostal. I had no money, and a pretty questionably attitude. But I found the sisters fascinating, and the Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey, our “brother institution,” put me on the road to becoming a church historian. (I veered off that road in short order and plummeted into journalism, but that´s another story).

Fast-forward a few years and I moved to Spain, where the Catholics advise the Vatican on Christianity. I am told there are a lot fewer cassocks and soutains around than before, but the place is still alive with people in vestments and habits and pointy hangy-down hoods – and it is not Halloween. Here this weekend are Augustinas in white, Benedictinas in black, Franciscans in brown, and two Daughters of Charity in regular-people clothes. Some of them are under age 40! Here are some of them:

Joaquin is a Conventual Franciscan from Italy. His religious order had little to do with Spain, but when Italian pilgrims came home from their pilgrimages with bad reports, the friars took note. “All the churches were closed. They could find no presence of the church along the Camino – one of the three great Christian pilgrimages!” he said. “We decided to do something about it, and build some bridges with our fellow Franciscans at the same time.”

So Joaquin and some of his brothers moved to Ponferrada, and now serve at the great “pilgrim factory” albergue there. They keep the chapel open, lead worship services, offer pilgrims counsel and hospitaleros a helping hand with the housework.

Padre Jaime is from the island of Mallorca. He´s a parish priest, but he looks like a big, beefy truck driver. Since 1992 he´s taken groups along the Camino, 12 or 15 at a time, several times a year. Some are families, some church groups. But mostly they are prisoners -- convicted criminals on a special accelerated rehab program. “It´s hard to say that spending time in jail with other sinners really changes a man much. But an encounter with Christ will do that. A lot of these men will tell you that,” Jaime said.

Giuseppe is an Italian priest, an economist, a Jesuit who works for the papal nuncio of Prague. He is also a camino-head, who keeps coming back to walk and talk and study and volunteer at pilgrim albergues. He did an informal study over several months, and found most people under 30 on the trail are not Christians. The only religion he heard discussed was Buddhism. Last December he ran a pilgrim albergue in Hospital de Orbigo, and did an experiment with seven of the pilgrims who passed by – simpaticos, helpful and kind, but not Christian. Each stayed a day or two extra to help out. They attended interfaith services in the chapel, and spent time with the parish priest during the work sessions. No pressure. Just Christian presence.

Giuseppe gathered up his seven pilgrims after they finished their caminos. All of them are volunteer hospitaleros now. One of them, a Chinese student, will be baptized in January. Giuseppe will be his Italian godfather.

Juan, a Franciscan friar, wears a long brown robe and cowl. He and his brothers serve pilgrims in the mountains, down in La Faba and up in O Cebreiro. “Most of them are not Christians, so we pray with them a prayer for peace. Everyone can believe in that,” he says. Like the Conventuals in Ponferrada they offer listening ears to pilgrims, and helping hands to the hospitaleros.

Perhaps the person most challenging to the Catholic status quo was Leonie, an extrovert from Rotterdam who serves pilgrims with the Augustinian sisters in Carrion de los Condes. She sings the songs and cleans the kitchenware and translates. She is full of life and charisma. She speaks five languages. She is a seminarian. She is studying for priesthood in the Dutch Reform church.

Leonie doesn´t wear a habit, but she is a minister like the rest of them. There´s nobody here going to tell her to go home.

I still marvel at people who join religious communities and wear strange uniforms. Their world still seems very foreign and exotic to me, even though I am these days a practicing Catholic.

Perhaps the Catholic church is Spain really is ignoring the pilgrims on the Camino, overwhelmed as it is with keeping parish churches open and misbehaving priests and nuns out of jail. Maybe this is the hour for religious communities to step up and help out.

Or maybe the Bishop of Leon is right. He paid a visit today, said a few throwaway lines, and was quickly blindsided by the people in the room. A man in the back stood up and asked him: “What is the difference between a Catholic and a Christian?”

“Catholics are Christians by definition. Not all Christians are Catholic. We all stand on the same rock,” the old man said. "Every man must answer the call himself, however he hears it."

Mother Abbess of the Benedictinas stepped up and hit him with “We need more support from the church in our efforts to evangelize pilgrims. The church is distant from the Camino. We cannot do this work all alone. The church is missing a great opportunity.”

Don Genarro, head of the pilgrim office at the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela itself, piled on: “Thousands of pilgrims are coming all the way across Spain to us. They arrive full of questions. Who is responsible for these souls?”

Poor old bishop Julian mumbled some platitudes about pastoral roles of secular institutions, and finally talked himself around to a very pointy point. He pointed at the room full of Christians.

“In the final analysis, I agree with the Mother Abbess,” he said. “Yours is a very important field of Christian work. And you are the church on the Camino -- we don´t have the manpower to institutionalize it for you. YOU are the evangelists and pastors out there." 

Preach it, brother.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Some of you know I am spending November working on the first draft of  "The Book," the story we tell all the pilgs who stop here and (inevitably) ask "what are you doing in the middle of nowhere?"  Today I got on a roll, thinking about dirt. Please know this is the roughest of first drafts, and be kind.

Think about the dirt beneath your feet. How connected are you to the land where you live? 
And leave me some feedback, OK? It´s getting lonely out here. 

8 Dirt

We live close to the ground.
Moratinos is all earth, hunkered down under an enormous sky. A Spanish poet once said “the landscape in Castilla is in its sky,” and I know why. The sky is huge around us here, the horizons low and flat and rolling like an ocean, a brown, green and golden ocean.

There are many villages out here. From atop the bodegas, on a clear day, I can see four or five more villages, with great swathes of fields between them and a scrim of craggy mountains on the north and west horizons. We live in a flat place, and we live up high – almost 900 meters above the sea level, on a vast flatland called the “Meseta,” “the table.”

Lots of pilgrims dislike the meseta. It bores them. There are no spectacular buildings or pretty trees laid on for their enjoyment, and in late summer and fall, after the crops are cut, it is dun brown and dusty. They call it a desert, and they make up horror stories about wild dogs and lightning and bad water. It makes them sound noble for having endured it.

Paddy and I met on the prairie, in Toledo, Ohio. We were accustomed to this kind of “boring” landscape, so when we settled in here it felt like home. We found it beautiful in an oceanic way.

We found the Roman villa excavation at Quintanilla, about seven miles away, and dreamed of mosaic murals buried under our barn, inside our walls. Romans lived in this neighborhood. Then came Visigoths, early Christians, cave-dwelling hermits and monastics. The next wave of people to live around here were Arabs from Morocco, wily builders and engineers. Our house is cleverly set into a hillside, with maximum sunshine and minimal wind, good water, good drainage, and gates north and south. The Arabs built the monumental churches of Sahagun, the monasteries that remain in this region, our only tourist attractions – and then they too, with their unpure blood and bad religion -- were sent away. I sometimes wonder who lived first at what´s now our house. They probably bowed each day to the southeast, to Mecca, when they could get away with it.

There is no stone here. The soil is clay, better suited to bricks than crops. All our houses are made from the earth around them, watered and smashed together with straw and sweat, pressed into molds and dried in the sun into “adobes,” stacked thick and wide at the bottom, more slender at the top, rendered-over first with more mud-plaster, later with whitewash, later still with concrete. We make gooey “cob” building mortar with our feet when we need to repair a crack in the outside walls. One summer two years back I demonstrated this for a dozen budding architects from the University of Michigan. They played in the mud, then squeezed and smoothed the goo over the inner walls of the bodega. They got a hands-on education in primitive building materials. I got 26 man-hours of labor, and a job done in an afternoon that would take me a week to do on my own.
As we say in my country: Win-win.

The Moratinos people of the past were not the first to excavate their hillsides. On our southwest horizon, where Paddy walks the dogs many mornings, stands the tumberon – a knob on the flat fields, topped with a national topographical waymarker – one of two within clear sight. An archaeologist told the neighbors it is a paleolithic tomb, a hollowed-out chamber with bones, pots, and flint knives buried inside. Unexcavated still – “how many stone knives do we need?” he said.

When Paddy dies he wants to have his ashes scattered up there, where greyhounds run. Alongside the ancient warriors, ancient neighbors.

Back in town, the bodegas are Moratinos´ best testimony to the power of the ground, and the most memorable thing about this place. They are 21 little caves dug into the base of a hill on the southeast side of town. The villagers dug them over generations, no one knows how long ago, underground caves for making wine and storing cheese and hams.

“When you first dig in, it´s like cutting cheese,” Serapio told me. “But leave it exposed to the air, and it turns to stone. Not hard, like granite, but hard enough to hold up. That´s why in winter they had the children do the digging. It was something a child could do, to occupy the hours. The work kept them warm. They could wriggle into small spaces. It kept them asleep then, for hours, in the dark part of the year.”

The temperature never changes down there, so it´s just right for storing wine. There´s always work to be done, so it´s a perfect excuse for a man to escape the house and spouse, the hot sun or driving rain. It´s cool down there, dark, full of rough homemade intoxicants. The bodega was the original “man cave.” Paula once told me the bodegas were for men only.

“A woman only went there if they wanted to make trouble. Or a baby,” she said. “Under the ground. It is a good place for that, you know. I bet half of every little town comes from the bodegas, one way or the other.”

Pilgrims see the bodegas first as they come into town, and they don´t know what they are. Little doors set into a hill, some well-kept, with TV antennae and water supplies, others derelict, collapsed into dangerous-looking caverns. “Where are the hobbits?” they ask.
“Do you live down there?” a pilgrim asked old Modesto one day.
He said No, definitely not.
“Why not?” the foreigner continued.
“If you had a house, would you live in a cave?” he answered back.
The bodegas need maintaining, and for families with many children and a need for cold-storage space, that was not a challenge. But today? Today more than half of the bodegas are dangerous ruins, high-mainenance luxuries. Only four are used for making wine. Ours is used only for storing the cases of Toro, Navarra, Bierzo, and Ribera del Duero we buy on our travels around Spain. A few of them survive us long enough to be laid down in the dark for a year or so. And for showing pilgrims what´s inside a Hobbit House.

Ours bodega, number 16, is tall and wide with pointed arches and several small alcoves along the sides. It would make a fine Visigothic chapel. I have worked hard hours (with good pilgrim laborers) to keep the chimney standing and the roof intact, but the bodega is not a priority. We have gone out of the baby-making business. Our neighbors notice if we visit there too often.

“You have thirsty guests?” they say, from under their raised eyebrows.
“Bottomless pits,” I tell them. “Thank God good wine is so cheap here.”
“Make them pay, Rebekah. Set a price. They will eat you out of house and home, the locusts!”
“Some leave nothing, some leave just a little. And another leaves enough to pay for all the rest,” I say. And it´s true, so far.

But I digress. I must stay down to earth!

Earthy as the people are here, they are businessmen, too. They are professional farmers. They know how to make this sticky brick-making dirt yield up a harvest of rye, oats, soy, alfalfa or sunflowers each year. They use chemical fertilizers, soil conditioners, fungi- and insecticides. Each of them has a vegetable patch as well, and often a fruit orchard. It is there they show off for one another – year after year, straight rows of perfect tomatoes, beans, greens, artichokes, radishes, lettuces, and peppers. They dike up the onions and garlic, and form channels of dirt to send streams of water to the roots of each plant. They do not use silly plastic irrigation hoses. They pump the water up from the ground and send it via hydraulic hose into their byzantine channels of dirt. Byzantine, or Arabic. Their gardens are spectacular, elegant, and fruitful.

Out in my back yard I tried to build a vegetable garden.
In its fourth year it now is five raised beds and a bower of flowers. I plant according to what I see my neighbors planting, and sometimes I have a harvest.

But I did not grow up here, I did not spring from the cave, I do not know their secrets. The ground to me is a mystery, and only half the things I sow in my garden will ever see sunlight.

I bring in my Penn State Agricultural Extension soil testing service, my Ph meter, my soil thermomenter and ag fleece and little plastic greenhouses. I bring in seeds from England, and my pole beans bear red flowers the like of which Florín has never seen, flowers that predatory birds supposedly cannot see and peck and eat.

But Florín and her sister Angeles pick kilos of beans from their ordinary, white-flower beanstalks. They roll wheelbarrow-loads of potatoes up the street for all to see – and squash and peppers and asparagus, kale and quinces and beets and peas. Pilar, the neighbor next door, and Paco, Juli´s dad, each have elegant, geometric gardens in the middle of town. They spend hours laboring there each sunny day, doing God-knows-what things with a 33rd degree of Masonic complexity.

They are professionals. They grew up with this.
If my garden produced like theirs, I would be hip-deep in produce, I tell myself. They have big families, they know how to freeze and bottle and preserve their vegetables, they know because they need to know, because in some point of their lives they went hungry.

I can save myself a ton of trouble, just go down to the supermarket or farmers in the plaza in Sahagun, and buy the same stuff, same quality, for a song. Dirt cheap.

Like the bodegas. Why do these people continue making wine here, when their local wine is usually mediocre, and decent wine is dirt-cheap all over Spain? Why do they grow garbanzos, a labor-intensive crop that requires the whole town to thresh and winnow, when the Argentines export them here for half the price and none of the work?

It is about the dirt, the land, the rhythm of plowing and planting and harvesting. Maybe it is habit, just repeating what they know. Maybe they are slaves to tradition. Maybe they loved their mother and father so deeply, they honor their lives now by repeating the same rhythms, planting the same crops, dressing the vines their grandmothers planted.

Maybe they are just, like me, occasionally slain by the beauty of this place, the bright yellow sun that opens onto the white barns at 6 p.m., the steel-gray sky behind, the soft green of the germinating November fields. This is a mature kind of passion, a late-in-life love affair. Not to everyone´s taste. But to some, to us? These are our fields, our homes, our dirt and caves, mud and birdsong. Even the doves, as they pass past the window glass, are illuminated.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Friendly Ghost Grows Up

very much not Moratinos

Back at home in the United States, this is the day after Halloween. Kids are straggling to school with sugar hangovers, their lips and nostrils chapped where the cold wind came through the spit-scented slits in their plastic masks. 

I bet they don´t make those any more, those cheap costumes that came in pasteboard boxes with cellophane windows, with the empty eye-holes of your favorite cartoon character looking back at you. For a buck or two you got a plastic mask and a very poorly-sewn apron with a picture of your character printed on it. I remember them well, the cardboard smell, the frustration of putting on the apron over my clothes, and then having to cover up the costume with my snow suit! What´s the use being Casper the Friendly Ghost when the neighbors open their front doors and just see a regular kid there, with only a mask between them and her plain old self? 

A plastic mask with a rubber band round the back that tangled itself into my hair. The inside of Casper´s plastic face got moist pretty fast. My nose ran. When the wind blew through the mouth and nose holes I knew something bad was happening. In November outside Denver in second grade, impetigo was always just around the corner.

Snow fell diagonally down the streetlight beam at the end of Ironton Street. It was getting late, my pillowcase bulged with candy. It was too heavy. I would never make it. I would have to winnow out all the junk licorice blackjacks and jujubees and candy corn if I was ever going to get home. I´d have to leave them on the sidewalk on the street corner, even though my Mom loved licorice. She could come back and dig in the snow and take them herself in the morning. There wasn´t any other kid going to take them home. Junk candy. Why? I asked myself. Why give that to kids, when they only come asking once a year? 
"Bums," I called them, using a word from my dad. (I thought it meant behinds.)

And why did my big sister leave me there on the corner and run off with Tonya Ball to hit the houses along the runway fence, when she knew I was going to start crying within five minutes. (I was a whiny, sickly kid, a burden to Beth.) She knew she´d get a spanking when she got home, but whatever temptation lured her up the street must be worth it. Beth was always doing cool things with big kids.

I knew the way home from there. I could almost see the house. But Beth had the flashlight, and it was only safe in the light. The dark was home to the Boogie Man, clowns, or maybe even a Hippy. I had to stay there under the steet lamp, watch it waggle up there when the wind hit it, see the shadows waggle the same rhythm on the ground, and the snowflakes shooting through in straight lines, into the beam and back out. The snow always makes it, I thought. It has to come all the way from a cloud to the ground, but it knows its way. I knew the way home, too. I could see the porch light, I could see skinny pirates and hoboes going up the front walk and ringing the doorbell. I stepped out of the streetlight beam and headed home.

That is how, in 1969 America, little kids learned how to face scary things.

Many years later, I still don´t like candy corn or licorice, and it is me who has left behind my big sister. There isn´t much snowfall here, but I have a waggling streetlight outside my window. The rain and snow still go straight down in its beam, just like they did 44 years ago in Aurora, Colorado.

There is no Halloween in Moratinos. I did not miss it much for the past six years.

On Tuesday a pilgrim came over, a printmaker from San Francisco. We lazed on the patio, talked in American accents as we basked in the last rays of October sun. I remembered I had a big orange pumpkin on the vine out back, and the little girl in the Casper suit said "yeah. Let´s do it!"

We hollowed out its heart and cut out a face, and made us a jack-o-lantern, perhaps the first Moratinos has ever seen. We put it on the stoop outside, where maybe someone will see it and wonder "what the heck have those people done with that perfectly good vegetable?"

We have no candy, we bobbed for no apples, we saw no ghosts. But a pilgrim came out of the dark, a long-haired boogie man looking for a place to sleep for the night. He sat quietly at the kitchen table and read aloud from St.  Paul´s Epistle to Philemon. He put his name in the guest book, there with all the rest of the hoboes and pirates, heroes and princesses who´ve rung our front bell in the past six years. 

And it struck me: I don´t have to risk my complexion going out Halloweening any more. I don´t have to wear a mask, or pretend to be anything more eccentric than myself. I am the grown-up now, and the characters come to my door. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Bones in the Vineyard

Their bitter skins stretch tight over their sweet, seedy hearts. They are Jerez grapes, they hang in great bunches from the last lines of vines atop Segundino´s vineyard.

Yesterday a great mob of Segundino´s kin gathered from far and wide. They came to snip and trim and load and ladle grapes off the vine and into tubs, off the tubs and into the tractor-bed, off the hillside and down into town and up to the open door of the winepress, then trundled into the newly-tiled vat in the funky dark where wine is born.

I told you before about this family, how only two of the brothers  live here full-time, but how their nine brothers and sisters, their spouses and offspring, in-laws and cousins, schedule their lives around the rural rites of vine-cutting, pig-butchering, tree-cutting, bodega-building.  

And when I rolled up on my bike at the vineyard on Friday, they said Sure I could help them with the Vendimia. They needed all the help they could get! And so I was paired with Alberto, Angeles´ 30-something firstborn, an amateur archaeologist who lives in Pamplona. Our hands were busy with the snipping and tucking, and we moved fast along the vines as we talked -- or he talked, mostly. I tried my best to keep up. We talked about Moratinos, local history and culture, what´s been lost since he was a boy here in town, what´s changed for the better. We talked about the Camino -- he walked it in the 1980s, and again not so long ago.

Now and then someone burst into song.

We talked about bones. When he was a boy, Alberto and some other kids found human bones sticking out of the ground right there on the Camino, where the bank had washed out. They loaded them into a big trash bag and took them home. Maybe it was then he decided to study archaeology, he mused.

I asked about those bones. How old might they have been? Could there be a civil war fossa here, a roadside ditch where civilian victims were buried?

No one from Moratinos went missing during the Civil War, he said.  And these bones were clean. Old. The bones found around here go too far back for anyone to remember...Skulls have turned up in the Rio Templarios for time out of mind. Plows uncover tibias and jawbones. People have lived and died here for a thousand years or more, and the clay soil is preservative. When you die it takes a long time to turn to dust.

I told him about Americans´ sense of history, how a building only 200 years old is jealously preserved, considered a landmark -- unless it gets in the way of a parking lot project. Nothing is very old in America. We come from so many places, and the land is so big and wide, we don´t share a lot of common culture. We are individualists. So we honor our family roots. Children compare their ethnic pedigrees: "I´m Russian on my dad´s side, and Scottish on my mom´s." The more mix you had, but more colorful you were... and how chichi it was to have a forebear who was "full-blooded Cherokee!"

He smiled at that. "All of us here?" he said, waving his clippers at Judit and Angel, Sara and Hilario, "every one of us is full-blooded Moratinos. Castilian. Nada mas."

"Purebreds," I said.

We clipped and snipped. He held up a long branch so I could pull the bunches of fruit from underneath.

"The bones you found," I said. "That person might have been one of your ancestors. What happened to the bones? Did you take them to the cemetery to bury?"

Alberto just shrugged. "Why? No one knows anything about whose bones they were. They are bones. They aren´t a person any more."

I gnawed on that for a while. We are sentimental, us Americans and English -- squeamish, morbid, maybe a little paranoid. If my kid found a cranium, I´d scream first, then call the police.  

But old bones, along a path in central Spain... whose innards ended up in Alberto´s trash bag? Were they male or female, Arab, Christian, Jewish, or even Celt?  There´s a paleolithic burial mound a half-mile from the vineyard. There´s a Roman villa nine kilometers east, and a big medieval monastic complex nine kilometers west. Soldiers criss-crossed this countryside, Templar knights, Al-Mansour´s Moorish raiders, French and English fighting over the peninsula. And centuries of farmers, pilgrims, and ordinary Marias and Josés lived here. Their bones had to go someplace when they were finished using them.

I looked at the gravelly soil underfoot, and wondered if anybody was under there, pushing up the grapevines. I laughed at myself, marveled at how centered we humans are on humans -- any bones beneath me could just as well have belong to deer or pigs, dogs or quail, owls or hares or Permian fish, fossilized.

We start as dust, we end as dust. Or bones. We are only us for such a little while.

Smart people make wine while they can. With their families. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

My Own Mountain

On Sunday I went back to Liebana, to the great Picos de Europa National Biosphere Park where the Camino Vadiniense begins. I thought I went there to revisit the Camino Vadiniense Guide, a document I wrote a year ago that would enable English-speaking pilgrims to better tackle that tough trail.

But really I did not go up there for pilgrims, or guidebooks, or caminos. I went there for Me.

The first day´s walk got off to a late start. It began at Liebana, the 8th century mountaintop monastery, and continued at an angry stomp up a busy two-lane asphalt road that was not on the maps. I cursed the Vadiniense Amigos group that publicized and mapped and posted this "re-routed" Ruta Vad without, apparently, bothering to waymark the actual trail. After all that peevishness, I tucked myself into a lumpy hostal bed in Espinama, and let myself sleep with the window open to the nippy night air.

I woke to blue skies and birdsong, and started walking from Pido, a cheese-making village, up an unmarked trail to meet the high-altitude Vadiniense I walked last year. It is a medieval cart-track, full of switchbacks and holm oaks, grasshoppers and wide mountain meadows. Fred climbed up part of the way, til a bad ankle turned him back. I soldiered on, up and up. Gray mountain-tops glowered over me. A troupe of nine eagles circled. (They were not sent by The Great Spirit. No. They were waiting to see if I was fixing to die.)

Alone up there in the wide, bright air, it was not hard to forgive the Amigos. I wrote-off the Vadiniense Guide update as a project for someone else. I realized that stretch of mountain, that remote path, is one of my favorite places in the world. If I publish a guide, people will read it and try walking it. They will carry up the soft goat-milk cheese from Pido, they will snap photos and post them on the web, so even more people will climb up to see it -- or they will come in Jeeps, or on odious, fume-belching dirt-bikes or quads. Soon their Coke cans and cigarette butts will appear along the trail, and signs and waymarks and graffiti inviting more of the same. My pristine mountain will be spoiled by riff-raff. And it would be my fault, for inviting them there, for giving them directions.

So maybe it is a good thing the trail markers are bad, I decided. You have to be determined to do this hike. And determined hikers are not the same knuckleheads who leave a trail of NatureFood InstantNRG wrappers in their wake. I thought about trail guides, and pilgrim hostels, and pilgrims, and pilgrimages. I groused about the whiny middle-class tourists we´ve hosted recently, narcissists who have all the gear and credentials, but not a single clue about what a pilgrim is.

I started to say prayers, something I love to do when I am walking. I prayed for my friends, my family, my in-laws, for the Peaceable and Moratinos. I prayed that this person would find kindness in his heart, that that one would learn to believe in herself, that the other one will overcome her fears and make a better life for herself.

"I guess I ought to pray for myself, too," I said. And an answer answered: "You already are. Your prayers are all about You."

And so I reviewed.

Whilst exulting over this beautiful place, I had declared it all my personal property. This was MY wide, bright air. Those were MY eagles and hawks and crows, circling above a whiny narcissist, a tourist praying for HER friends, family, in-laws, house and village. Praying for herself, her needs, her her her, telling God who needs to be fixed, and how to fix them, is a person who needs fixing, who needs to find kindness in her heart, who needs to overcome her fears, to believe in herself.

A woman walking up 1,700 meters with all the right gear and credentials, and not a single clue. Apparently I have to climb up pretty high to be brought low. I apologized.

At the top of the pass I turned the whole way around and looked over the shoulders of the Picos, horizon to horizon. Mountain after mountain, above the eagles, the sky unspeakably vast.

And me, me me. Unspeakably small. I shut up for a while.

The cold wind blew over the ridge, just like it does every day, with me, and without me.    

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Shifting Down

Outside it´s trying its best to rain. I think the sky has forgotten how.
We have not seen real rain here for weeks. We water the vegetables, we water the flowers, we water the fruit trees, each in its turn, after the chickens and dogs and cats get theirs.
One of the black hens died.
Tim´s foot is much improved, but he is still lazy as hell.
The fields are baked brown, the weeds are crunchy alongside the roads. The farmers spread manure this time of year, a job that lays stink over the town like fetid towel. Their plows turn the dung over into the soil. Their tractors carry great rooster-tails of dust behind them, and when they disappear behind a knoll it looks like something´s on fire out there.
The tall trees are turning yellow and flinging leaves down on the breeze.
There´s a breeze. It is cool in the evening, chilly in the morning. Evenings come earlier now, dawn comes later, and night is inky black. The Milky Way spans the sky from horizon to horizon, and galaxies invisible on moonlit nights suddenly shimmer into sight.   
The church is back to being closed all day, even though the pilgrim numbers have not dropped much – they keep coming through in great waves. Some evenings they fill up Bruno´s albergue, and the scent of pasta Carbonara floats down Calle Ontanon. It´s a vast improvement on manure!
The swallows will go soon, if they aren´t already gone. They slip away so quietly.
The windows are still open, the blinds are down to keep out the flies. Sounds roll up from the town and bounce off the front of our house. We hear the radio over at Pilar´s garden, tuned to old men arguing politics. The voices keep the birds out of the fruit trees and grape vines. The vines are loaded, grapes glisten from the stems down along the ground – that´s how the table-grapes are grown here, low down where the leaves shade the soil and hold the moisture. We don´t have a vineyard. Everyone else in town does.
This afternoon, Fran came to the door with a shopping-bag full of table grapes – the second in two week´s time.
This evening, Milagros came to the door with a cardboard box full of table grapes and green figs.
And so we will make Ajo Blanco, one of the great delights of Arab-Andalusian cuisine. It is weird, delicious, mouthwatering food, utterly seasonal. You eat it cold, for Indian Summer. With fresh-cut table grapes like these, it is fit for a king. But try it in January, with hot-house fruit, and it´s almost inedible. Ajo Blanco is not local food. I made some last week, and shared it with Paco and Julia. They had never tasted it. I am not sure they liked it, but Fran did.

You should try it. Here is the recipe I use.

AJO BLANCO de ALMENDRAS (“White Gazpacho”)
Serves 6

1/3 cup blanched almonds
1/3 cup pine nuts (just almonds works fine when piñones are too costly)
2 cloves peeled garlic
1 teaspoon salt
4 handfuls seedless green grapes OR
4 one-inch cubes honeydew melon (I am allergic, but it sure looks good!)
3 slices good quality bread, de-crusted
6 Tablespoons good olive oil
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
4 cups ice water
Another handful of grapes OR melon balls, for garnish

Grind together the almonds, pine nuts, garlic and salt to a powder. Add and puree grapes or melon. Soak bread in water, squeeze it out, add the goo to the processor piece by piece. Slowly drizzle in the oil and vinegars. Gradually add water. Adjust flavors of salt/vinegar.

Chill well. Taste again before putting into individual bowls or cups and garnishing with grapes or melon. Serve cold.

Forgive me if I wrote up this recipe on the blog in the past. I have given it to many friends, and I cannot always keep track of where and to whom I sent it.
Pilgrims love this stuff, this and gazpacho and vichysoisse (leek soup). Patrick and I make them by the ton, especially when the garden is in full swing. We used to burn through it all fast, but now we do not have pilgrims to feed. Just the occasional guitarist, or Couch Surfer, or someone who stayed here before. (Occasionally the chickens end up eating the leftovers. They love soup, but I hate feeling like I am wasting good food.)

We are shifting roles. I no longer call myself a hospitalera, and I am stepping away from teaching others how to become volunteer hosts. Strangers will always be welcome here, but people who can afford it ought to patronize Bruno or Martina´s businesses – I sometimes feel I am taking food from their mouths when I have a full house and they have nobody.

I miss the hippies, though. And the missionaries. The nuns and the scruffy old tramps, the fresh-faced schoolboys and the lost souls.
But I know that winter is coming, and Bruno and Martina will close up and go back to Germany and Italy for a couple of months. We will once again be the Only Place in Town.
And then we´ll get our pilgs. The hard-core Winter walkers, the True Believers, the cold and frozen lunatics from off the path.

Heavens! I never thought I would look forward to winter!