Friday, 18 April 2014

"Please help," the nun said.

"Please help," said the monjita on the telephone. She and the sisters who usually run the albergue are off on a retreat. "None of the people filling in has any English. Most of the pilgrims coming in have no Spanish. You told me to call if I need help, and now I do," she said.
And so I went. On Thursday morning in Carrion de los Condes, a smiling group of Madrileño volunteers met me at the door, lay members of the Trinitarian religious order in Alcorcon, outside Madrid. I walked in at about 11 a.m. for a quick run-through, just to learn where things are kept and how the routine runs, just an hour or so, seeing as I would be back early Sunday morning to run the place myself.
But no. I had to stay, they said. Had to help process the incoming pilgrims, said MariCarmen and Carmen and Maria.
They asked so nicely. I didn´t have a whole lot else to do. So I stayed.
I did not walk out again til the bells clanged and jangled next door to announce the 6 p.m. Mass.
In the hours between we registered 44 pilgrims, sang to them, blessed them, counted out coins for the laundry machines, run them through the rules and the hours, mopped up flooded showers, started the desserts for the communal dinner (all the restaurants are closed for the holiday), and ourselves ate, in shifts, a hearty takeout lunch with the Trinitarian and parish priests. We ate out of takeout containers, perched on lawn chairs, hunkered over trestle tables out in the garage.
I spoke a lot of Spanish and a lot of English.
The afternoon passed fast.
I remembered how nice it is to be a hospitalera in an albergue. It is a calling, a time-honored ministry. It is also exhausting. The pilgrims coming through the door were done-in by the spring sunshine and long miles, but the hospis were just as wrinkled round the eyes. Their many trips up and down the stairs and the long nights spent sleeping beneath a tower full of bells weighed on their features.
Still, their patience, at times, was Job-like. Their love was brotherly. At one point, a foot-washing even broke out -- the non-symbolic, Epsom-salt kind. We laid our hands on the sick, we fed the hungry, sheltered the travelers, we told a couple of transients sure, they could get showers before they caught the bus south. (When a pilgrim arrived with no money, they paid his five-Euro fee.)
And me, I spoke. I communicated with people whose exotic languages I´ve only encountered in Ikea furniture-assembly instructions:  French people, Poles, Finns ... Canadians, even! I learned what they needed and I turned it into Spanish for the Trinitarians. Unburdened by the rules of grammar, I spoke with the tongues of Men and Angels.
I shared the Good News of a clean bed and dinner.
The nun asked, so I said yes. Now I am knackered.
And that was just the quick run-through.
Tomorrow morning I go back to stay the full 24-hour shift, filling the gap til the replacement crew arrives.
Then we´ll see who´s asking for help!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Lots of Green, and a Little Blue

From the garden out back you can see the landscape to the west, beyond the mimosa trees and the chicken hut and the wall that breaks the wind.

I started installing the irrigation out there today, the water hoses that make veggies grow all summer. Nothing like putting in a water system to make the sky open up, except maybe washing a car.

I never wash the car, but my neighbours do. They are why these fields out beyond the wall are bright lime green. They wash their cars, they spread fertilizer on the heavy clay ground, and they put seeds down at the same time. The combination works its April magic. All the way to Sahagun the ground is covered in a quilt, its patches made of every shade of green. And the sky, so clear and blue all day, week, and month, this afternoon as gray as gunmetal, but with the fields still in full sunlight in the foreground. There´s a rainbow out there somewhere, you just know it. 

Paddy is painting a version on the patio wall. We are working outdoors in the long daylight hours, planting things, putting out the patio furniture, sunning ourselves and petting dog-heads. Bruno is open, so we see few pilgrims now.

I contemplate Enough. That this little life, lived pretty much in this little corner of this little town, is enough for me.

I am ambitious. I want more, I want to change things, make them better. I want to have friends I can meet for coffee and hang out with. I want to speak Spanish really well. I want to write more and better books. I want to be important and respected, but I also want to disappear, I want to be happy in my semi alone-ness. I want all the seeds I plant to germinate, and grow on, and produce beautiful fruit. I want people to come here and help us eat them, but I don´t want them to stay too long.

Things do not work out. Maybe half the things I start ever come to anything. My favourite cousin on Dad´s side died three years ago, and now the favourite cousin on Mom´s side is having radiation treatments. People are sometimes friendly to me, but I do not make the next move to turn them into friends... most of them speak only Spanish, and Spanish is exhausting to me after a couple of hours. I will never get Spanish.

I do have Malin. We went horse-riding on Saturday, to celebrate my birthday. I was involved in a minor collision, I hit the ground pretty hard. I am getting too old for riding, I think. I cannot afford to feel so beat-up, this many days later. It´s encouraging, though, to hear Malin and her English friends speaking Spanish. They´ve lived here a long time, too, and their Spanish is not so great, either.

So things are somewhat sad-making, if I let them be. But then I pet a dog-head in the sunny patio, and I see the swallow dive through the barn-door. The swallows came back early this year, on my birthday. I spent Sunday at O´Cebreiro with Laurie, a woman I have admired for years. She is full of history and wisdom, her house is beautiful, she has a wonderful scruffy dog she bought from a beggar, she lives alone and she lives very well.  She gave me a great armload of hydrangea cuttings which I am planting in my patio, I do hope they will grow!

I hope for half. Even half a hydrangea is pretty spectacular. Half a hydrangea, and a gun-metal sky behind a mimosa tree, and a dog-head that needs a scratch.

That oughtta be enough for anybody.    

Friday, 21 March 2014


last year´s grapevines

The new young chestnut trees, the olive tree in the plaza, the pine trees out back. They grow at a slant from the winter winds, but they grow. They survive.
Modesto, 80-something, still hiking out to examine his fields in the morning, still planting new strawberry plants in his big walled garden, still telling everyone how to do things better. He´s emerged in his slippers and Cardigan from his long hibernation. He is up early, marching round the town he´s marched around for most of a century. Winter has marked maps of veins on his face. Modesto does not climb up on the tractor any more, but he is ruddy and sharp.
Modesto´s son-in-law and grandson are farmers out of San Nicolas. They spread nitrate fertilizer, they plow under the winter ryegrass, their tractors crawl and swarm over their fields and Modesto´s these sunny days, rejoicing in the warmth, grumbling that it´s high time for some rain. They burn the brush in the ditches. I burned the brush out back this week, I accidentally burned a little tree of horsetail, it exploded upward like a Roman candle and I felt very sad, like I had injured a child. It will grow back, like the piñon and the Toby Tree out back grew back after I burned them a few years ago.
Out back there, right by the gate, some passing pilgrim dropped his pants and made a poo, complete with toilet paper. I was affronted. Then I looked a few feet away at the mountain of moldering cow manure, a commodity hereabouts. Almost no difference. I shoveled cow dung over the poo. I covered that sin with grace. 
Under the burnt black surface of the yard, down under the crunchy ash,  I see green. The earth is coming back to life, pushing past last year´s growth and this week´s fire, up into the light.


Friday, 7 March 2014

A Tree for Philip Wren

Wren Memorial Tree, and Harry Dog

On Thursday, in the corner of a sunny field alongside the camino, me and Paddy dug a hole.
It was not easy. The soil here is dark clay, but we´ve had enough rain lately that we could break the surface. We used a primitive sort of mattock to break it up, and shovels to clear out the chunks. It was hot work under bright sun. We stopped digging before the hole was very deep. We could not remember just how big the hole had to be.
We were peevish and hungry. We put the shovels in the back and went home.
We were peevish again today. 
Finally, at 3 p.m., the tree arrived. Paddy was deep into his siesta. The delivery truck followed my van up the camino to the edge of the field. The driver opened the door and jumped out to help me unload. The driver  was a very small woman, the same one who´d sold me this strapping young chestnut tree at the nursery earlier this week. I´d expected a big burly delivery man. I sighed. The lady never blinked an eye.
Between us we wrestled the tree off the back of the flatbed truck, onto the ground, over the ditch, up onto the field. She stood up the castañero next to the hole. It towered over her. She looked at the tree and the hole.
"That hole´s not big enough," she said.
She swarmed back up into her truck and headed back to Palencia. I made the hole bigger. I poured ten liters of water into it, and threw in the thawed carcass of a hen who conveniently passed on a few days ago. I put some sand on top, and spit in it, because that is what you do when you plant a tree. And then I went to put the tree into the hole.
It would not move. It would roll, it would tip over, but it would not come out of the big black bucket that covered the roots, no matter how I pounded on it.
I looked around. The tractors crawling over the fields were occupied by the neighbors I usually ask for help with this sort of thing. Paddy, at that particular moment, was not an option.
So I looked over the camino, and I said, peevishly, "Godammit, St. James. This tree is a memorial tree for a pilgrim who died on this road. I need some help here. Send me a pilgrim, please. A big, healthy one." 
I sawed away part of the bucket and got the roots nearer to the hole. I thought of the pilgrim who´d died, a pilgrim who´d stayed at my house, a pilgrim I actually knew.
He was a gentle man. Not a peevish bone in his body. I took a deep breath. 
"Phil Wren, pray for me," I said. "It´s your tree. Do something."   
And that is when the men came rolling up the trail, two tipos from Barcelona with backpacks and beer-bellies. Big men in bright blue and lemon-yellow quik-dri t-shirts, their faces smeared with sunscreen. I hailed them in my bad Spanish, asked them for a hand, told them this is a pilgrim tree.
They stepped right up, peeled off their packs, pulled up the tree trunk so I could free it from the bucket. They dropped the tree in the hole, helped me stand it upright, helped me line up and pound-down a pilgrim staff alongside the trunk. They snapped pictures with each other´s cameras.
I did not have a camera, but I will post a photo of the tree real soon.
I do not know the names of the pilgrims who helped to plant Philip Wren´s tree, but I kinda think Philip knows who they are. Maybe he´ll keep an eye on them from where he is.
They were godsends, after all.

The Wren Memorial Tree was funded by contributors from all over the world who were encouraged by the Rev. Philip Wren, an English pastor known affectionately as "Methodist Pilgrim" on the pilgrim forum. Philip walked the camino several times after diabetes cut short his career as a parish pastor. He died in May 2013 at the municipal pilgrim albergue in Logroño. 
A slate marker will be added to the base of the memorial tree once the soil settles around the roots.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Wet Morning

I wheeled the trash bin back inside the gate. The snow was shifting to rain, it pelted down, and there on the edge of the N120 dripped a pilgrim. He did not respond to Spanish, but he knew what "tea" meant.
He followed me down the muddy garden, doffed his poncho in the laundry room, sat down in the warm kitchen.
He did not care that the kitchen was messy.
He smiled, wrapped his fingers around his mugful of tea, bobbed his face over the rising heat. He smiled at the cookies and the apple on the plate. He picked up the cookies in a stack and sniffed them, like he´d never seen cookies before. He ate them that way, all three at once. The apple went into his pocket, for later.
Paddy came home with the wet dogs. Tim and Rosie wagged and greeted the pilgrim on their way to the woodstove. They threw their bodies down and steamed their wet-dog stink. The windows started to drip.
The man said thank-you in gestures. I helped him get his poncho on over his pack. He went back the way he came in, through the mud, out onto the side of the highway.

It is that simple.

I do not need to join the Association of Christian Welcome at the Benedictine convent in Leon, nor the Amigos del Camino in Logroño, nor trouble myself with the American Pilgrims on the Camino FaceBook page. I do not need to bemoan the demise of "the camino spirit" on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage forum, nor spend next weekend down in Villalon with an over-caffeinated gang of Spanish hospitaleros, touring dusty convents and swapping high-decibel tales and shmoozing -- fun as that might seem for a while. I do not need to go back to school and get my deacon credentials in order. I do not need to write any more camino books or guides or plans. Other people, worthy people, can do all those things better than I can.

I do not need to put my fingers into all these pies.

The Camino is right here, outside the back gate, in the rain.
The pilgrims are cold and wet, and our kitchen is warm, and we have apples and cookies and tea. 

It´s that simple.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

A big heavy Truth

Little Ruby

Truth is bird-like. It sings beautifully. It can fly south for months at a time, and you don´t notice it
until it´s not there any more. It is known to "lay an egg" now and then. Truth can twitter sweetly all morning, and then poo on you from a great altitude.

We are dealing with a big, heavy Truth here, ever since I came back from the Camino trip. If this Truth is a bird, it is an ostrich or emu, or maybe a bustard. 

Malin and David, our trusty friends, were here when I got home, working their tails off in the pouring rain. I jumped in and helped David pour concrete and reset the fencing in the chicken pen. We shifted the remains of last year´s firewood to the other side of the woodstore, and ordered in more. The three of us moved that and stacked it very neatly, all in a single afternoon, just before the rain began again.

We hung up the Franz Kline prints in the pilgrim salon. We cleared and cleaned and got the car inspected. We said goodbye on Friday, when Malin and David went off to Palencia to busk with their guitar and ukulele and  marionettes. On Saturday, Paddy and I helped clear up the Plaza Mayor during the annual tree-trimming -- this year we planted a line of chestnut saplings! We loaded up the back of our car with long switches cut from the plane trees. We left them in the car overnight.

There they breathed out their green breath and steamed up the windows. When I moved the car round the the back gate to unload them into the wood store (the wands make good kindling once they dry out) the car was perfumed. It smelled like February, the best kind of February -- like something green and living buried very deep beneath the cold.    

There was no Mass in Moratinos this week. We went instead to Terradillos and worshiped with the neighbors -- the few who were not in the street outside. Sunday was a boar-hunting morning in Terradillos, and dozens of flourescent-clad gunners with their car-trunks loaded with hound dogs were hanging round the streets, waiting for the fog to rise. You cannot hunt in the fog, it´s illegal, Mauricio told me. I wondered. I have seen many, many hunters out in the fog in recent mornings, some of them shouting that it´s illegal for me to be out there with my dogs! Go figure. 

We drove toward home. On the camino just outside town I felt a big bolt of pain in the left side of my chest.

I´d felt the same bolt about halfway through the camino last week, about halfway up a long, long hill. It took my breath away. I am having a heart attack, I thought.

And so, long story short, we went to the medical center, and from there to the hospital, with a stop in between along the road so I could have a cry. I was poked and tested and scanned and x-rayed. In the wee hours of Monday morning the doc gave us the news: No heart attack.

Asthma has left me with an enlarged heart, but it is in great shape, along with my blood and bones and food-digester. But sometime in the recent past -- probably at San Andres de Teixido, where I took a spill in the rain -- I tore some of the muscles between my ribs and my breast-bone. Hauling wood and concrete and tree-limbs in the following week didn´t help the healing. A couple of months with no heavy lifting and I oughtta be just fine.

I was very glad to know I was not dying. We went home and slept all day.
And woke up with this big feathered Truth Bird nesting in the middle of the kitchen table, squawking an awful song.
Truth is: the last couple of caminos I´ve done have kicked the tar out of me physically.  Much as I love walking caminos, I must reconsider my wandering ways.
Truth is: It´s been a tough Winter for both of us, health-wise. I can´t go away for longer than about ten days, because this place requires heavy work on a daily basis. Paddy cannot keep this place going on his own. He cannot drive the car, haul the firewood, handle all the dogs. (The man who was going to take little Ruby Dog in May has backed out. We have SIX dogs now.) The pair of us can never go anywhere together, and going seperately is becoming increasingly difficult.
But we have to go. Our families need us sometimes, and our families are in England and the United States and way down south in Malaga.
Truth is: We don´t get so many pilgrims any more. Winter used to be our busiest time of year, but in the past month we have had exactly five pilgrims here.   

We are not so useful any more, pilgrim-wise. We are here and equipped with goodwill and food and beds, but if the pilgs choose to go elsewhere, well... Maybe we should consider other options.
What are those? 
Even if we don´t take pilgrims, we need help to keep this place going.
If we keep this place going.   

We need an architect.
We need a caretaker, friends, funds to build the far end into a place a caretaker can stay. 
And maybe a vision. A new one. A purpose. A ministry, maybe.
Or just some wisdom.
(If I was me, I´d tell myself to walk the camino til I got an answer.)

But please, no more Truth. Not for a little while.
I am not sure my heart can take that.  


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Blast

the view from inside my poncho for about 3 days

OK, I admit it. I am a prophet.
In my last post I predicted everything that happened in the past week, in a most awesome way. Yes, I went to London and there I went shopping for Finery in the teeming oriental bazaars of Southall with Leena, a former Santiago pilgrim who is Canadian-English-Gujarat Indian.
Leena in a Finery Emporium

In addition to being a beauty, Leena is a born shopper, a sharp bargainer. We found dresses, fabrics, and trims we liked, then a little woman measured me up and down, and three hours later: Voila! Spectacular gowns and stylish up-to-date dresses I will actually wear again once all this Pakistani Wedding business is through. Three dresses, plus materials to make four more if my sisters/family want them, all for just a little more than price I paid for my Spanish designer outfit. I owe it to Leena, who also made sure we were very well-fed and never lost or over-charged during our sojourn in The Great Wen. 

London was very soggy. I left on Sunday afternoon and landed in the dark in La Coruña, a port city on the coast of Galicia in Spain. There began the Christian retreat portion of the odyssey, with Anglican clergymen Andy and Michael (both of whom serve inner-city parishes of Birmingham) and Kathy, my best hiking bud, from San Francisco. (The retreat once registered nine people, but those numbers shrank down for a spectrum of reasons.) I was mad about that for a while, even though I understand the insanity of walking in rainy Galicia in mid-winter.
It is, I can now fully affirm, utterly insane to hike in Galicia in mid-winter. Especially THIS mid-winter. During our four days on the road to Santiago, the coast was blasted with hurricane-force winds. Fifty-foot waves smashed waterfronts, split a big ship in half, and gutted the Giant Squid Museum of Luarca, a personal favorite. We could not have chosen less clement weather for contemplative walking. 

Andy and Michael at San Andres, with clooties right
It is not like we could not literally see it coming. On Monday in Coruña we rented a car and drove to San Andres de Teixido, a charming seaside shrine on the northern coast. We had to climb down to it from the cliffs above, and down some more to the "Energy Vortex" New Age believers say inhabits a cow pasture there. (they leave behind "clootie cloths" on the wire fences and tree branches, to carry their prayers. I think I have a new favorite word. "Clootie cloth.")

We had a little picnic by the holy well. We saw some clouds out at sea. It started to rain on the way up the hill. And when we reached the road at the top, all hell broke loose.

All hell broke loose at least five times in the next three days, as we toiled down the old English Way from Coruña to Santiago and maritime storms large enough to have their own names broke over our heads. We waded through flooded crossroads, staggered over slippery stones, squelched for miles in sodden boots and damp "waterproofs," climbed the great hill outside Bruma right into the teeth of the gustiest gale I ever tried to stand up in. The dirt road was awash, the fields and hog barns losing volumes of topsoil and slurry, and it was Grace Alone (and hiking poles) that saved me from flying sideways into a great lake of pig shit.

Into the screeching wind Kathy, her glasses steamed-over and running rain, shouted at us: "Admit it, you guys! Isn´t this kinda fun?"

We made it to the inn. We hung out wet things from the chandelier in our room. We slept deep. The following morning we walked in sunshine past a weird collection of roadside sculptures. On our left the light caught water standing in the fields, mist rising over distant pines. On the right, to the west, the sky was black with Ruth, the next storm. A perfect rainbow reached down to us. Andy read us a bit from R.S. Thomas, a Welsh poet, called

"The Bright Field."

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, it is the eternity that awaits you.

Beauty. Andy had a little notebook full of these. It was a retreat, after all.

A retreat warmed with Cola Cao hot chocolate, Dewar´s scotch, lots of laughter and jamon and ragged candy bars. We probably should not have been out there, what with the schools and ports closed, roads blocked, Level Red alerts for ships and heavy trucks. But some of us had come so far. Some had little holiday time, and we´d been plotting this walk together for two whole years. Besides, pilgrims have used this trail for centuries. We could not be the first of them to push through heavy weather.

And so we pushed through, and talked about where we grew up, our husbands and wives and kids, why we were doing this, where we´d go when we were through. We introduced bemused barmaids and innkeepers to a church with married priests, women ministers, and two men and two women, all of them married but not to each other, who hike together for days on end without bringing their spouses.

We arrived in Santiago at last. Flooded streets, huge deep churchbells ringing, our gloves and hats and pants wringing wet, we shivered through the shrine city to a bar where fresh young things sang Bessie Smith and the Eagles, and an old Gallego played a dobro like he´d spent his life in Mississippi.

We went to church at the cathedral, and we held our Anglican communion service in English, right there in one of the side chapels. (the chapel of St. Andrew, matter of fact -- we´d started at the vortex of San Andres, and finished again at altar of San Andres in Santiago de Compostela, with Father Andy presiding.)

Our Scottish friend John lives in Santiago and works at the pilgrim welcome office. He arranged many things for us, and it was him who locked the chapel gate behind us, under orders. We celebrated then, I read the Gospel, Andy officiated, we ate up all the hosts and drank up all the altar wine ourselves, just to be polite and politic. Rain dripped down through a hole in the roof and pinged off the stones. There were only four of us in there, but that was plenty enough.

It was delicious, blessed, and very damp. Just as I said it would be, prophet that I am.

My three amigos