Thursday, 16 October 2014

There Oughtta be Ghosts

It's creepy out there, violent wind and darkness. Big poplars roar above our bedroom roof, and down in the patio the gazebo curtains bow and flutter in sideways rain. The little yellow lamps strung out over the picnic table send a pathetic glow across the patio.

In summertime they're jolly, but the weather's changed. Now they are weak and sad. They're no proof against the noisy dark.

There ought to be ghosts here. Here in little Moratinos, a paleolithic warrior lies in "the tumberon," an unexcavated hill tomb thousands of years old. Two of the neighbors use centuries-old stone sarcophagi for animal troughs, heisted many years ago from the ruins of a long-gone monastery. The farmers spare no thought for the abbots who once moldered inside. The St. Nicolas cemetery stands on the site of a medieval leprosarium, where poor souls with infectious skin diseases lived and died for centuries.  

Human bones lie scattered in the field outside cemetery walls, turned out to make room for the next generation in the two-person family tombs. Arable land is too valuable to waste on dead people. Cemetery space is tight. This is the final word in recycling.

Violent death, the kind that supposedly makes ghosts happen, is no stranger here. Out on the two-lane beyond the back gate, pilgrims and pets are struck down and killed. Cars careen off the curves and into the culverts and cottonwood trees. Eighty years ago now, a transport truck carrying explosives blew up over where the Villada Road meets the N-120. The driver died, and a mule. A mile west, five years ago now, a French lady died in a highway accident. Two years later, atop the same hill, a bicycle pilgrim was struck and killed.  

In the fields, along the tractor-paths where nobody goes, lie buried the bones of those who disappeared in the civil war and the terror that followed. A 16-year-old boy from Grajal, shot in the gut and left to die, bled to death along a road between here and St. Nicolas. He ought to be a ghost, if anyone is.

Everybody used to know where the bodies were buried, but now all of them are gone. And before that, the soldiers of Napoleon, the soldiers of England and Spain, even Templar Knights, they marched through town, or stayed around. Some of them were killed, or died along this stretch. Not to mention epidemics, accidents, crimes of passion, slow poisonings, lonely suicides -- endings endemic to any place where humans live close together.

I have never heard a ghost story here. For whatever reason, the people who pass on from this neighborhood all stay dead. Like the pilgrims who slumber so deep in their beds, the dead of Moratinos rest in peace.  

Even if they wanted to wander the highways or huertas, ghosts round here could not compete with the weather. These creepy nights the wind moans and screams louder than a banshee. It hammers on the doors. It throws buckets and brooms around like a poltergeist, it overturns the garbage bins and bangs open barn doors.

And when the wind goes still, the owls shriek. Bats flutter and chatter under the streetlights, sending wild shadows dancing down Calle Ontanon. Voices carry from far off across the fields. Snatches of music. A radio, maybe.

Or maybe it's the neighbors, The ones no one can see.
 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Holy Holy Holy Lourdes

the grotto and spring at Lourdes, with sanctuary up top
Outside the throng chants. The ladies are firm but gentle. They pull us one by one through heavy curtains, into a chamber of marble and concrete. Their movements are carefully choreographed. One holds up a blue fabric sheet, another motions that now was the time to strip off our clothes. 

The ladies do not speak a language I understand. I do not know what to do, where to go next. They wrap the blue fabric around my body, carefully covering everything. My turn comes. One takes my by the wrist and pulls me along through another curtain, to another team of ladies on either side of a long marble tub. My blue wrap is removed, and a cold, wet sheet is wrapped around me as I descend into the frigid spring water.

A lady pats me reassuringly on the shoulder. I kneel in the water when I am supposed to sit. The ladies tip me backward, but I don’t go under all the way. They do not snicker. I am not the only beginner here. They must do this a thousand times a day.  

Women who cannot speak, walk, hear, or see, and women who do those things too much. Women with missing limbs, failing hearts, broken spirits, withered breasts and scattered wits. They’ve seen us all. 

We come to Lourdes for health and grace. We come looking for something we don’t deserve. Most of us don’t really expect to get anything but wet.

But you never know. The walls of the church above the spring are covered from floor to ceiling with marble plaques engraved with words of thanks, a century’s worth of testimonies to answered prayers.

In another time and place, the bath-house ladies would have been priestesses of of a water goddess. But at Lourdes the goddess is the Virgin Mary, her apostle is St. Bernadette, a local peasant girl who saw the virgin in a vision at this spring a bit more than a century ago. Bernadette drank the dirty water, she washed her face in it. A neighbor touched the water, and her withered hand was made whole. It did not take long for word to spread. 

A building campaign was arranged, a huge train depot installed to connect this remote mountain village to the French rail network. Lourdes took off, the hoteliers and souvenir dealers moved in, and the town is now a Catholic Disneyland. (The shrine complex itself is remarkably restrained, taste-wise. I shudder to think what it would look like if Lourdes happened in, say, Ohio.)  
  
Everybody loves a miracle. Everybody wants one.  And almost everybody loves their mother.

Everyone at Lourdes swears they do not worship the Virgin Mary. They worship Jesus, her son, they say. But it was Mary who showed herself to little Bernadette. Mary’s image still is everywhere at Lourdes, with Jesus appearing only in the occasional altar crucifix, or as the bonny baby in the arms of his Most Holy Virgin Mother. 

In the Catholic world, God the father is so distant, so furious and judgmental. Jesus? So much guilt attached to him – he was so nice, and he died horribly, and every time I sin it’s my fault, all over again. But Mary? Oh, Mary, mother mine, sweetness, kindness, staying God’s angry judgment, crying the same tears every parent cries! Mary is someone truly human, a simple girl, a humble wife, and a mom… without any of the sex and blood and bodily fluids. What’s not to love?

It's heresy to say so, but Mary is the female aspect of the Holy Trinity. Nobody seems to really know or understand what the Holy Spirit is supposed to be… no one really connects to doves much. The original Trinitarians gave Christians a wholly masculine god. But the believers said No. We need a goddess, thank you. And Mary looks real good to us. And so she is, or so she has become, to both Orthodox and Catholic believers, and a whole load of Protestants, too. 

In the hard-shell pietist Protestant world I grew up in, Marian devotion and Lourdes-type shrines were viewed as the worst kind of idolatry, cynical priests milking money from superstitious souls looking for magic in a mountain spring. 

But the Bible is full of stories of healing springs. Baptism itself is a healing spring. I thought a long time about taking the waters at Lourdes, if it is something I should do. And the scripture told of a woman who simply reached out and touched Jesus' robe and was healed, and another woman who Jesus sent away as unworthy, who stood up to the very Son of God and said "No! I need grace, even if I am not a chosen one!" And Jesus gave her what she needed, and wished the Chosen had such faith. I am not a baptised Catholic, not a "chosen one" in Lourdes terms. But I am a needy soul. Maybe even a superstitious one.  

And at Lourdes, the superstitious souls smile. They let one another go first at the English-language confessionals, and make sure everyone has a scripture-verse card written in his own language. Jolly children open the taps for elderly nuns, and help them fill their Blessed Virgin-shaped jars with blessed spring water. The handicapped roll right up to the front of the line in specially provided gurneys and wheelchairs and chariots. Uniformed ladies and gentlemen open special gates for them. They lower them into the healing waters. They hold their hands when they cry out from the cold.

We don't deserve it, but they let us go first. They make sure we understand. They open the taps for us. When we stand naked and vulnerable, they do not laugh at us. When we cry out, someone takes our hand.

And that is what Christianity looks like.   

        

Monday, 29 September 2014

Mountain Time

the view from my window: Maison D'Isabe, Arguenos, Haute Garronde, France.  

I am on holiday. I am living an American Dream, at least a middle-class fantasy.
I am for two weeks living in the Pyrenees mountains of southern France, a 19th century stone farm house hung with ancient family photos and furnished with comfortable antiques. There's a sunny terrace out front where we take our breakfasts, overlooking a mountainside of bellowing tan cows and invisible, roaring stags. The radio receives nothing but Rachmaninoff and "The Fountains of Rome" and "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." The fridge is full of exquisite butter, apricots, pears, black-olive confit. There are bottles of Bordeaux and Boujolais and St. Emilion, fizzy water and  apple liqueur (which is nasty.)
Miguel Angel 
For almost a week my daughter and son in law were here with me, on a whirlwind holiday from their busy lives in Washington, D.C. Here, too, was Miguel Angel, my friend from Paris. He was our interpreter -- he is native to Mexico, but speaks perfect French. None of the rest of us speaks any at all... or we didn't when we arrived.
We went all together to Lourdes, a Catholic healing spa/Disneyland. We went to Pic du Midi, a heart-stopping drive to the tippy-top of the Pyrenees, where the Tour de France bicycle race comes to a head. We looked into the night sky, and saw the Milky Way. We hiked up the mountain and saw lizards, cows, eagles, a badger. We saw the hand-prints of prehistoric children on cavern walls, (were they humans? Was this artwork what made them into people?) and a medieval church built with the scraps of the nearby ruined Roman town, (sic transit gloria) that in the shadow of the hulking monastic cathedral perched on the hillside above (the monuments to triumphant Christianity now government-run tourist commodities in an extremely secular society.) Thousands of years of humanity, all that remains of individual lives now long lost to history.
Libby and  Dave 
I love Spain, but I must admit to France's cultural hegemony. It is as cultured place as I have ever been, elegant, tasteful, delicious and expensive.
Sadly, even its perfect Autumn days are still subject to the passage of time.
Miguel left first. (Such a beautiful man, why do my friends all live so far away?)
 Today I drove Libby and David to Toulouse to get their airplane home. (dear God, when will I see her again? I love her so much!) 
I do not like cities, or traffic. I did not linger long.
And so they all are gone now, and I am here alone.
The maison is no less lovely, or old, or resonant of the family that lived here for generations. If there are ghosts, they don't bother with Americaines.
I can stay another whole week if I want to. Paddy is doing just fine at home.
I feel guilty for this. I do not hold down a job. I don't go to work every day, or have a limited number of vacation days each year. My entire life, in a way, is a holiday. I don't deserve to be here.
I should do something spectacular and creative with this splendorous solitude. I should outline a new story, or start a new book, or draw pictures.
But I think I may just think with it.
Consider how much time remains, and what is possible. How healthy am I?
I must consider the things I dream of, and how much work and risk and sacrifice I am willing to take on to pursue those dreams... am I getting a bit too old to be pitching myself into plans without set time limits?
the room where I am thinking 

I am lazy -- maybe it's that amazing butter. (we never use butter at home, the olive oil is so good!) A friend in Madrid writes with an intriguing proposal, but it looks like so much work... so much shmoozing, so many people..!
 I am lazy, or depressed. I want to be alone.
The clock ticks. None of us knows how much time remains, how long the sun will keep shining on the terrace, how long the Bordeaux will hold out, how soon we have to get back on the plane and head out across the concrete and into the grey sky.
Into forgetfulness, into history.  

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Swallows Have Flown

The tooth was abcessed, it spread infection up into my sinuses and into my tonsils. I got pretty sick pretty fast, and the dentist finally pulled the molar. It was awful. I passed out in the chair. I scared the dentist!

And now, after two courses of antibiotics and many hours of sleep, I am getting better. I feel like I lost the first half of the month, as well as the back half of my mouth.

This is a truthful year for me. I have taken three good hikes -- the Camino Ingles in February, the Peñalba trail in July, the little slice of Camino Madrid in August. Two of them left me beat-up and battered for days after. I tire faster now, and stay that way longer. I am not the Iron Woman I used to be.

But today, today I feel like myself. In the morning light we loaded up the dogs and went out to the Camino de Galgos and walked a good 10 kilometers along an old canal, past a fox den and under the new high-speed railway line. The dogs love that hike. We do, too. The light out there is yellow and soft, and the sky puts on spectacular cloud shows. No one else ever goes there. We have it to ourselves.

The songbirds are flocking. The swallows are gone from the barn. This week, the leaves on the chestnut trees turned yellow.

At long last, Alfredo the Leña Man delivered 2 tonnes of firewood inside the back gate. Pilgrims arrived, Hungarians and Germans and Italians. We stacked the wood in the shed, in stages, over time. It was hot, sweaty, righteous work. The heat here is dry, so I find breaking a sweat is not so terrible. It drips off and disappears. It doesn´t make me all yicky-sticky.  

The pilgs had to eat strange food, but they don´t care.
I have nothing profound to report.
Life is good out here on the plains.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Practically Perfect

I love a good ending. I love a good beginning even more.
And here it is, the first day of September. A bit of both. All the abundanza of the end of summer, the lush gardens, the grapevines coming on strong, a sky full of thunderheads. But when I am outside at 1 a.m. with Orion and Mars and the stars, it's almost cold.
Crickets sing in the dark. On the little boom-box we play Muddy Waters and Jussi Bjorling. One speaker points out onto the patio, and one into the kitchen. Someday we will get a proper stereo. We are kinda afraid what the dust here would do to a proper stereo. We will stick with the cheap option until they stop manufacturing these things. Then, well.
Silence is great. But everyone should have some "Long Distance Call" on September first, when the night is warm and the little string of solar bulbs switches itself on, the white wine comes up from the bodega at the just-right temperature. The end of a day of planting out the Fall crop of kale and chard and lettuce, topping up the dog- and chicken-feed, finally paying back Julia with a box of eggs for her many tons of apples, plums, membrillo and advice. (Her hens stopped laying when the men started re-roofing their house. Hens are touchy critters, and this time of year they molt -- they change their feathers, they stop laying. Bob Canary changes his feathers, and stops singing. Everybody needs a holiday.)
The Spaniards are back at home, back at school. All last week the trains were full, Moratinos and Sahagun teemed with out-of-towners, but their numbers slowly slackened. The Spanish summer madness winds down. The European Camino madness winds up. More and more foreigners show up now, thinking they won't have to compete for lodgings and dinner-tables. There's litter on the trails. A paint-can philosopher worked-over our labyrinth in the last couple of days, advising passing pilgrims that "The Silence Speaks."
(The Silence has spoken there for centuries without any help from dumb-asses with spray paint.)
And so it continues.
The Peaceable was busy in the past week. Patrick and I took turns going to Madrid to help a friend who's feeling low. I attended an Anglican Eucharist, which is always utterly delicious. We hosted pilgrims here, met some fine people, heard some great guitar music, ate  razor clams and sardines and drank some good vino.
It is tempered by the troubles of our friend. And Momo Cat going on another walkabout. And my own issues. I developed a toothache at the end of the week, and lost a good portion of the weekend to pain and pain-killers. Worrisome things. Paddy made lovely soup from beans and bacon. I harvested the tomatoes out back and made the year's finest gazpacho. Tortillas, salsa, rice, easy things to eat. I am well cared-for.   
And today... today was textbook late summer. The morning dog-walk was lovely, the dogs all had good runs and tumbles, almost no blood was shed, nothing was killed, we ran into no hunters, and all returned panting and well-aired. We went into town and found almost everything on the list -- alas, no dentist available until Thursday! Out on the camino I spread manure and calendula seeds and lots of water round the base of the Phil Wren Memorial Tree, and discovered the mess at the labyrinth.
My tooth did not hurt so much, long as I didn't use it for anything.
We made naan bread, a weekly team event. We read books, sitting out on the patio with dog noses poking at us. In the silence of the afternoon I went all round the walls of the house next door calling for Momo, just in case he was locked inside one of their outbuildings. (Mo has a distinctive bourbon-and-cigarettes sort of meow, and he answers when I call him.)
No Mo. How tiresome.
I took a nap.
The sun went low. The dogs lolled and wrestled on the patio. We had naan and gazpacho out there, listened to Steely Dan on the speaker, talked about old friends, and the old house that's for sale downtown.
And just as Paddy wound up a discourse on Heideggar, we heard a noise.
A yowl. A yip. Unmistakeable. Paddy's eyes met mine, and we both gaped and grinned.
Momo Cat, up on the barn roof, shouting to be let into the house. Home again, the bad cat!
And so our evening is complete, our family circle re-connected. We put the hound dogs to bed in the barn, and opened up the front door so Mo and Tim and Rosie could join us in the gloaming.
Beauty, it was.
The music ended on the box. The crickets took up the tune.
And now, upstairs, I can hear Patrick snoring. Down here by my feet, Tim snorts in his sleep, too.
My tooth hurts, yeah. But everything is so fine.
Even with a bad tooth, I have to say it: I live in the best place in all the world.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Fruits



Accidents, stopgaps, decisions made at the last minute three years ago, they all are cropping now, they are budding and flowering and bearing fruit. Literally. 
This is the most wonderful time of the year for anyone mad enough to try growing flowers and food in the ground around them. It´s a ton of hard work and hassle, and the rewards are often not so great, or just nada. Good produce is very cheap here, sometimes it is free. I don´t know why I bother, but I do. This is why. 
 
This year, for some reason, the skinny slices of dirt in the patio out front are booming, blooming with plants I expected to see, well... The same year I planted them. Three years ago, I planted poppy seeds out there, all different colors of California poppies, all over the place. Not a single one showed its head. Duds, I thought. (Meantime, wild poppies grow in great profusion by the acre, in the same kind of dirt, all over the region.) This year, in a big pot out front, a new plant put out lacy leaves and then little bright flags... bright yellow! Poppies! 
Something similar is going on with the nasturtiums, flowers with pretty round leaves and edible flowers. I planted a gang of them last year, with nominal success. This year they zoomed back, and are popping up all over the place in long plumes and tails, fat saucers of bright green, and only a few flowers. They all are orange. 
And the calendulas, too, are yellow and orange, and they are everywhere, front and back, tough as nails. I like these little guys because I got the first handful of seeds while out hiking in the mountains with my bud Kathy. We were in a mountain town called Boca de Huergano, on the Camino Vadiniense. I admired the flowers growing outside a trim little cottage, and the lady there broke off a couple of seed-pods and folded my fingers round them. "If they will grow here, they will grow anywhere," she said. And she is right. Three years later, they threaten to overrun the back yard. Which would be kind of pretty. 
I wonder why, with all the multi-colored things I plant, they all come out orange or yellow. Which works perfectly in the red-tiled patio outside an ochre-colored house.  
The flowerbeds are not just full of flowers. This year there are tomatoes growing in there, and an enormous eggplant (aubergine) covered in patent-leather fruits and purple velvet flowers. These were leftover seedlings, the ones that didn´t fit in the raised beds out back. They do a damn sight better out front, even with dogs walking and whizzing on them. Some visiting stoner disposed of a roach in the potted Pony Tail palm, and now there´s a marijuana tree in there that is taller than me. I did not plant it, I swear. There´s a grapevine out there, too. I never planted that, either, but it´s grown right up the trellis and is now heading west, over the wall. No sign of grapes, but what would I do with more fruit? 
Out back the fig tree is loaded down, the apple tree this year has clusters of fat green fruit. Edu and Milagros, Pilar and Modesto all have given us buckets and baskets full of plums, damsons, cherries, cucumbers, chard, and courgettes (zuchinni). Three stalks of sweetcorn grew this year, and we ate the first cobs last week, raw. The tomato plants are in overdrive -- we are consuming gazpacho by the bucket (I asked Milagros for a single cucumber for a gazpacho, and I came away with three cukes and two courgettes). Tomorrow I make salsa. And plum tart. And a red-pepper quiche. 
It is delicious and gorgeous and good for us, and there´s enough left
 over to share. 
Abundance, sweet providence. The fruits and vegetables of our labor.         

Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Scheme is Hatched!

I give up one thing that doesn´t fit any more (like training hospitaleros) and another, bigger, more interesting thing zooms right in to take its place.

I came to terms with the Depression. I agreed to sit still while the darkness lasted, because maybe there is something down here for me to learn. Sitting still is against all my upbringing. It is un-American. When anything is less-than excellent, you get up and do something – anything! -- to make it better. Even when doing something is really not the best idea.

So it is hard for me, just sitting here.
But sitting here, after a while, I start to see the big picture. The writing on the wall stops being part of the décor and starts demanding translation.

With fewer and fewer pilgrims stopping here, I don´t need to focus on accommodating them. I have lost a lot of interest in things Santiago. I have answered the same questions 100 times, and I´ve barked up the same trees at least as often to fix the things that don´t work so well. And I realize maybe the Camino does not need any fixing. It is exactly what it is. Pilgrims come and go, like they´ve done for a thousand years. We´ll continue giving them a bed and a meal if they need it. But what I achieve, or don´t achieve, camino-wise, means little or nothing.

So I decided to stop training people to be volunteer hospitaleros. I sent in a resignation to the Canadian Confraternity and the Spanish federation a week ago, and posted the news on www.caminodesantiago.me, the forum where I am most present, camino-wise. Nary a ripple was seen on the stream.

And a day later, up from Moratinos jumped another fish to fry. It´s fiesta week, and the town is heaving with friends and relations, come home to see granny and the cousins in the old pueblo. Everyone is happy to see the new chestnut trees and flowers blooming in the plaza, the cleaned-up streets, the fincas now for sale. Both church bells rang for the Santo Tomas procession, a jolly racket that echoed for miles across the fields and made all the dogs howl out loud.


video
procession of Sto. Tomas Apostol

And so we struck. A little group of us year-round residents rounded-up the visitors and founded a new Cultural Association, aimed at preserving Moratinos´ memories, informing outsiders of our little hidden treasures, and maybe shoring up our crumbling cultural patrimony, which is made of adobe.  

Response was overwhelming. No fewer than 55 people put their names down, along with a 10-Euro note to get things started. Men and women, young and old, all of them with some tie to this town, people determined – even though only 20 of us actually live here all the time --  to not let Moratinos die.  

I was made president. No one asked me. I was told.
I think it is because everyone can talk to me. My uncle didn´t offend their cousin back in 1985, so I am OK. I am a goober, clueless to a lot of historical inter-familial bullshit – when that comes up, I pretend to not understand. I work hard to keep a civil relationship with everyone here.
 
Costume contest: the Asturian chickens
This, I think, offers an opportunity to heal old wounds.

Only one family told me No, this can´t work, that people need to go home and mind their own business. They´ve been hurt in the past. I think they are just taking a “wait and see” stance. Once they see how things progress, they may jump on board, too. Because I feel pretty positive about this. And when I set out to make something happen, it usually works.  

I don´t have to handle money. There´s a treasurer for that. No need to take notes, because we have a secretary, too. Total transparency will be written into the bylaws. I might have to mount a FaceBook page, and update it with photos and copy – I can find someone to help me translate. Maybe this will improve my Spanish. Maybe someone will step up and make a web page. There is a lot of talent here.
Talent is cheap. Follow-through is what will make it really happen, once the initial enthusiasm goes. I am as hard-headed as a Castilian. I can make this stick. I just hope I do not step on too many peoples´ toes on the way.  
 
this year´s winner: a Pirate Ship!
We are starting out small. Tomorrow we will deposit all those ten-Euro bills in a new bank account. We will file papers to make ourselves an official Asociacion Cultural in Palencia province.  (You can join, too, and donate as much money as you like!)
We will clarify our goals. We will settle on what to call ourselves. And then start doing.

I have ideas, simple things we can execute with or without help from ministries or government groups. A sad fact is, many people here wait around for the government to improve things.  They don´t step up til they have a grant in hand, and grants don´t happen so much any more. But we can build a signpost, an information station to tell visitors what those caves are in the hillside, (bodegas), what those round buildings are in the fields (dovecotes). We can organize ourselves enough to open the church, open our bodegas, to show our children and our visitors that this is a rare sight, a disappearing resource, a  rustic little gem to be treasured.        

Small things, simple things. If we can make that work, we can tackle larger projects. Make the collapsed bodegas safe. Fix the uneven pavement in the plaza. Rationalize the reams of mouldering historical documents into a small archive. Label old photos. Collect old recipes and craftwork and stories from the elderly, while they are still here.Things people say are impossible, or too much, or beyond the reach of a small town and little people.


We are not many, but we have a big reach. We are scattered all over Spain, and most of us have some skill or another to offer. We love Moratinos. And we are only as small as our expectations. 

And here in the dark is something I believe in, something new worth working on.