Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Soul in the Machine

Pinned face-down in a tiny tunnel, hands bound, lower body covered in a heavy blanket, immobilized. I could feel drugs move hot across my back, up my neck. My face flushed red, my nose itched, but breathing deeply just made me more aware of the weight pressing on my back.

I have nightmares like this, but this was real. This was for my own good. People do this every day, and they don’t break down. They don’t freak out. Just breathe softly, I told myself. Close your eyes.

If I wanted to keep breathing, I had to be perfectly still. If I wanted this to end, I could not move.
The noise started, ticks and thumps, then a steady beat.

Holy holy holy Lord God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest

It was set to go on for 20 minutes. I didn’t know if I would last that long.  I had to.

Early today I had a Magnetic Resonance Image experience at Hospital Rio Carrion in Palencia. I had an MRI before, but it was just my face, my sinuses. This was the whole chest, the whole body-inside business. 

I was not prepared for the panic. I was not ready to be overwhelmed by irrational fear.  I thought I’d outgrown claustrophobia. But now I see I’ve just developed ways to avoid small, tight spots. I use coping strategies to handle booths and crowded elevators, and crowds in general. They are excuses, dodges.

The MRI dropped me face-down and head-first into the horror I keep deep down. 
Starting out was the worst. Settling into the bonds. Feeling just how deep a breath I could take without bumping against the arc above my shoulder blades. Feeling things shift in my sinuses, hoping nothing moved in there to block my breathing.

These people are professionals, I told myself. They know what to do if you can’t breathe. Stop. Noble thoughts. Prayers. 

Padre nuestro que estas en el cielo
Sanctificada sea tu nombre

Soon time stopped meaning anything. I had to stop thinking about when it would end, because it might just be starting. If I was going to get through this, I had to stop thinking.

I relived the drive down to Palencia, the dawn breaking red and orange over a hillside studded with windmills. There was a pilgrim out there already, hunched in the cold, dark on the path, moving fast. Just at Calzadilla I saw a dog running alongside the road, down on the camino – it leaped and twisted like something joyful. I slowed, hoping it didn’t dart into the road. I looked down and into its face. It was not a dog. It was a fox, with a mouse in its mouth. Its fox-tail was thick and lush, its eyes looked through their white mask and right into mine.

Where can I go from your presence?
Where can I flee from your spirit?
If I go up to the heavens you are there, 
If I lie down in the depths, you are there
You have searched me and you know me
You are with me always, even unto the ends of the Earth

I thought of my sister Beth, who reassured me this week that this problem is common, she went through this before herself, it hurts but it’s not cancer.

Not cancer. Not cancer. That means a lot to ­­­­me, it’s why I am in this machine, so I can find out. So many of our family get cancer, and so many of us are dead now. I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be sick, even. I don’t want to hurt. I want to breathe.  I want to walk in big broad steps and wave my arms around and shout at bad dogs, and laugh out loud.

I thought of the low bright sun outside, and Paddy probably out on the campo with all the dogs at that very moment, throwing ridiculous long shadows down into the fields. The walk up to the tumberon, all that sky and air and space ahead and behind and above. The music in the house, the morning music, ridiculous witty Cole Porter music

While tearing off
A game of golf
I might make a play for the caddy
But if I do I don’t follow through
Cause my heart belongs to Paddy

The music started moving to the pulsing deep rhythm of the machine, and I saw myself dancing to that, like I danced many times in the past, arms and legs, hips and fingers, all in motion all at once, to that music. Techno. Deep house. In my head I boogied down, while my body stayed utterly, perfectly still, while the magnets whirled round my carcass and somehow shot dozens of photos of what’s inside.    

Here am I, sitting in a tin can
High above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

And then it stopped.
And I was freed.
And I went home.  
On Tuesday afternoon I will know what they saw.


Meantime, I will celebrate Thanksgiving. I will walk under the big sky and take great deep breaths.   

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Wednesday in November

The brown-eyed girl came first, a Navajo called Annalise. From New Mexico, a dental hygienist, a bad ankle, a chipper little talk talk talker. I was baking bread. She watched carefully.
I put her to work, helping trim the buds on some dried stalks. A big job for people who are sitting down. A great thing to do while someone talks, while The Eagles sing on the stereo, while a storm gathers up in the sky outside.
Autumn blew in overnight over the weekend. Now it's blustery and chilly, and the sky can't decide on sun or clouds or overcast, snow or cold or wind. I took the screens and the canvas roof off the little gazebo out on the patio, I pulled the orange tree and ficus and pony-tail palm inside, just in time. When the ugly storm broke, the patio was waiting for it, stripped half naked and ready for the worst.
Annalise said she'd left a note for her friend in the bar in Calzadilla, that the guy was sure to stop there for his 10 a.m. beer, sure to get the note, sure to get here before nightfall. He's a chef in a restaurant, she said -- he can cook our dinner when he arrives! Him and maybe a couple of other people. Maybe a couple or more people, she said. It depends.
And so yes, they showed up. Michael, the Belgian beer-lover, tattooed and pierced and carrying a flute and drum and juggling sticks in his 25-kilo pack -- a classic Camino character. (these are the kind of guys who built our house, matter of fact.)  
Then came Joseph, an older man whose face shone with the gentle severity of San Ignacio -- and yes, he was a Basque, a doctor just back from years of service in Gambia. His ankle was very bad, there was a hole torn in the heel. His Achilles tendon was about half-ruptured. I did some healing juju on it, even though he is a doctor. He closed his eyes and breathed as I did it, just they way you ought to. A real doctor, a real healer, knows how to be healed himself, just as well as he knows how to heal others. He learned that in Africa, he said.
With him was Will, a mild-mannered man from Charleston, S.C., who immediately fell in with the dogs and cat. With him was Santiago, a dark-eyed Murcian who works in Mexico, "moving merchandise." His hair was black and wild, he had prison tattoos, but a toothy smile full of sunshine. There were three more, but we had no room for them. They went to Bruno's place.
Oh, and there's Coco, a shiny black Podenco hound who we are babysitting while his master finishes the Camino. Tim and Rosie tolerate him. Momo Cat kinda likes him, I think. He follows me around like a puppy dog. He likes to eat everyone else's dog food.
All the pilgrims were inordinately happy to see one another, even though they'd seen each other only hours before, they exulted, hugged and kissed, even with packs still strapped on and walking poles in hand, with dogs barking and laundry going up onto the lines. A hunk of veal shoulder for four was sliced with carrots and potatoes into a ragout for seven. Potatoes peeled, buds put into jars and stowed away, writing projects despaired-of and abandoned, Someone produced wine, another pulled out some eggs, some lettuce, a tomato... which quickly combined with some other leftovers into a pan of fried rice and a salad with honey-mustard dressing. The sun went down suddenly.
In the middle of it all, after a wait of three weeks, Tino the Electrician arrived to fix the lights in the salon. The salon by then was stacked with pack-covers and gloves, draped with drying socks and dozing blokes. He pulled some wires out of the wall, climbed up on a chair.
All the lights in the house went out. Someone actually screamed a little scream, which made all the dogs bark madly. The lights came back on right away, and the dogs thought they'd done it.  
We set the table with plates of different colors, backup silverware, four bottles of less-than-wonderful vino. Tino fled. We pulled a lawn chair in from outside and everyone sat down to a lovely communal feast, conducted in English, Spanish, and German.
There was just enough of everything. Everyone helped to wash up dishes and wipe down the kitchen.
Everyone went to bed by 10:30. Every bed was full, and Will shared the mattress on the living room floor with Tim, Coco, Momo, and Rosie, who are not allowed to climb on beds.
I retreated to my office, which was very chilly.
I thought I might write.
I fell asleep instead.  

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Gettin' Down in Party Town

Dear God in Heaven, these people know how to celebrate.
Paddy y yo
Today in Moratinos me and Paddy attended the “Golden Wedding” of Celestino and Esther. Celestino is a son of Moratinos, the brother of Milagros, the man who opens his bodega in the summer to passing pilgs, the man whose bum knee a couple of years ago was miraculously cured by San Antonio. He is the man who gave us advice on how to repair the bodega roof. The man who told us the tale of the mysterious pilgrim at the bodegas, back in the 1930s. He’s only here in the summer, but hundreds of pilgrims remember Celes as the local who showed them inside a Castilian wine cave, who gave him a taste of the rough local vino and a slice of divine sheeps’ milk cheese.  Celestino is the original Moratinos spokesman.
Today, all the family came back to town to celebrate Celestino and his Basque bride Esther, with a Mass and the Coro de Sahagun singing, a huge dinner at the bodega restaurant, a dance in the plaza, and God knows what else after, with everyone dressed up to the nines, the Autumn sun shining, with all the bells ringing, rockets booming, open bar and chorizo and lomo laid on.  We were invited to all of it, even though we weren’t totally sure how much. We dressed up for the 1 p.m. Mass, maybe because we are fond of Celestino, maybe because the whole town was awake and stirring.
Esther y Celestino, back in the day
Celes was one of dozens of local boys who left Palencia to seek work elsewhere during the 1950s and 60s. He found work in a cardboard-box factory in Bilbao, where he met Esther, who grew up on a Masia in Basque country, and who spoke not a word of Castilian Spanish. But love conquers all – four years later, in 1964, the two were wed.   
Everyone and his sister came to the Mass, even the neighbors who don’t usually attend these things. It did not disappoint. People came who have not been seen here for decades. Tears were shed, the Gospel was read, and impossible notes were reached-for by amateur sopranos.  The couple re-exchanged vows, their daughters and grandchildren read readings no one could hear over the yowling descendents, and then we all said Amen and headed out into the sunshine, out to the bodegas, to taste the vintage, to taste the real wine, brought down from Esther’s native Basque Country.  
Celes and Esther, today
We had a copa, we ate the embutidos, we said “enhorabuena,” we made to head home. But Celestino headed us off at the door – “No no no! You are family now! You’ve been invited since a month! It’s all paid-for!” he said. “I will be crushed if you go now!” So what could we do?
So we sat, and so we ate: grilled shrimp, crabs, razor clams, mussels, salad, grilled cuttlefish – all served with a dry white Albarino. Jose and Esteban outdid themselves for their uncle. Then came the meat: lamb chops, chips, dark red Tempranillo. Mas y mas. Paddy dropped out before the wine changed. I stuck with white, but did not last much longer.  
a crab who did not die in vain, with Carlos
I found my way to the terrace, where little Isabel, “the daughter of Moratinos,” was making an appearance along with the day’s dose of pilgrims. Down in the plaza the dancing started. I shared some vino blanco with two lucky French pilgrims. (I must pay for it on Tuesday.)
And then I realized that yes, it was time to head home. I’d lost the feel of my pointy-toe shoes, and another trip to the bathroom in my complicated underpinnings might prove too much for my architectural education.
Here at the Peaceable I trust Paddy has fed the dogs – they are quiet. If there are pilgrims, they are equally invisible.
And so, after great swills of water and a full milligram of Tylenol, I shall retire to my bed, to sleep the sleep of the righteous, well-fed and watered, como la familia de Celestino. 

Como una Palentina de pura cepa – like a purebred daughter of Palencia.   


long may they wave

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.