Today I drove to Huntington, IN to visit my Sister Sister, who is temporarily staying in an old Capuchin priory there, since her order has outgrown their motherhouse in Ann Arbor. (Article here – my sister is in the center of the picture, in white.)


Semana Santa

Elaborately braided palms on Domingo de Ramos

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when life in a new place just becomes life. For me the epiphany has occurred when I come back to Spain from trips other countries, and breathe a sigh of relief to be back home – because it feels suspiciously like home. Obviously I am still a guiri, and a thousand little contrasts show it (I haven’t found the unspoken but unanimously adhered to schedule for what date it’s okay to wear short sleeves or a skirt without tights, or just how sunny it can be out before you leave the house without a scarf.) In the streets waiters and strangers speak English at my American face. But the overwhelming feeling of otherness has faded. Routines have normalized. Several months ago I still was a little baffled when Spanish camareros brought a knife and fork with a croissant. Now if I order a croissant with my coffee and it doesn’t come with silverware, I feel a little affronted – what am I, a savage?

All the same, at the back of my mind I am aware of the contrasts, as I begin to pull together details for what my life will look like in the coming year. I already am aching at the thought of going home (although home has begun to waver and shift) and leaving behind little things here: the glint of the sea on my morning commute, the ability to sit down and drink a coffee slowly with coworkers in the middle of the school day.

And just as life in Spain feels normal, Semana Santa happens.

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Pedestals & Halos

Old St. Stanislaus - Detroit

Today in Spain we had the day off. I was told at school not to come in today, because it is, according to the succinct explanation of a coworker, “la fiesta de España – como tu fiesta del 4 de julio, ¿vale?”

The Spanish version of our Independence Day? I was a little intrigued, since this coincides with the celebration with a well-known and controversial explorer with ties to the Spanish crown, who bumbled his way onto my native continent some 500 years ago. My curiosity was temporarily trumped by my relief at a day off. (My two American friends here in Alicante and I have been feeling a little wistful for big American breakfasts, so we cooked up a feast – without the elusive maple syrup, but with real American versions of bacon, ketchup, and coffee.) However, after spending most of this Spanish holiday reclaiming my belly for the United States of America, and lots of English conversation about politics around the globe, I was ready to educate myself a little more about the holiday. As it turns out, today is the Día de la Hispanidad, as well as being the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar.) This coincides with the commemoration of Columbus’ voyage and the celebration of the first mass in the “New World” – an obviously significant moment for Spain, since he was supported by the Spanish monarchs at the time.

The First Mass in the Americas, by Pharamond Blanchard

However, this was predated by the celebration of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, at least a thousand years earlier. According to legend, this was the first of many Marian apparitions, which took place while Mary was still alive. James the Apostle was in what is now Zaragoza, Spain, preaching the gospel. Although she was still in Jerusalem, Mary used the handy Catholic power of bilocation and showed up to gave him pep talk and a pillar – supposedly that which holds the statue of Our Lady in Zaragoza today, and the focal point of today’s celebration.

At this point I should admit that I have no idea what actually happened back in 40 A.D. Most of the information about the feast day is from sites with names like miraclehunter.com. Churches in Spain are full of artifacts and histories that are verified only by ancient texts (often written centuries after the actual events), through inscriptions beneath shriveled body parts in reliquaries, and fragmented explanations by local devotees. It’s one of the fascinating things about living in a country full of Really Old Stuff.

I was very interested to find out that this is a feast day with connections to St. James the Greater, or Santiago as he as called here in Spain. I first learned about Santiago four years ago when I spent a weekend in the city with his name, where pilgrims have been visiting for centuries. That was the seed that turned into my more concrete plans for next July, when I am going to spend at least a month walking across the Northern part of Spain on the Camino de Santiago – a pilgrimage that has retained its importance despite the dubious nature of the legends surrounding St. James’ presence in Spain. I have been reading about the pilgrimage a lot, and I was a little disconcerted during my trip to Valencia recently, where I found out St. James’ other identity here in Spain: Santiago Matamoros. (St. James the Moor-killer.)

Kill enough infidels and someone will paint your portrait (and put it in a church.)

It makes me very uncomfortable to see images like these, when I have associated Santiago and his emblematic red cross with the Camino de Santiago, where people from all over the world walk on foot together toward a common destination. I am also a little skeptical of how much Santiago got around – hanging out with Jesus? Working with the early church? Running around Spain? Building more churches? Swinging a sword around? Coming back to Jerusalem in time to be beheaded? Taking a postmortem (& miraculous) trip back to the Iberian peninsula for burial? However, I’ve decided that the poor guy can’t quite be blamed for the Matamoros thing, since that didn’t even take place during his lifetime: A legend says that Santiago showed up at the Battle of Clavijo to aid the Christians in a battle against the Muslims, approximately 800 years after his death.

(Am I boring you yet? If so, maybe you want to take a break from all these words to check out this rockin’ tune about Santiago Matamoros – complete with images?)

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I am familiar with the church’s devotion to saints – both the more recent and the obscure folks, whose realities often have long been lost to legend. So when I happen upon shriveled body parts in glass cases, I may be just as weirded out as my non-Catholic colleagues, but I am not surprised.

In the cathedral in Valencia, the audio tour said that "the most interesting feature of this chapel is the alabaster blah blah blah" - which was disappointing, because it would seem that the shriveled arm in a glass case is worth mentioning, too.

Recently, however, I have been very interested by the ways that the saints and their legends are interwoven with the history and politics of Spain – which includes some truly horrific events on several continents, that modern Christianity would almost unanimously condemn. Whether or not Santiago actually came to Spain, and whether or not his remains are here, he was used to boost morale and to justify the slaughter and expulsion of many of the Muslims in Spain. And somewhere along the line, the celebration of Nuestra Señora del Pilar stretched beyond the small wooden image nearly obscured in gold and jasper and arched ceilings, to the first footholds of Catholicism in India? Uh, New Spain? the Americas. Although she was quiet in documented history, Mary has been prolific in legends. After arriving with Columbus, she would later appear as Our Lady of Guadalupe – a name invoked in Spain to defeat more Muslims in the 1300’s, and in Mexico as a rallying battle cry against the Spanish colonists in the 1800’s.

Crushing the devil - or other cultures - even in her indigenous clothing.

Here in Spain in particular, religion has always been tightly connected to politics. (Even now, public schools include Catholic religion classes, though parents can opt out of their child’s participation.) Although post-Franco Spain has made a lot of dramatic changes to government, religion, and where the two connect, there are still a lot of things that are a stark contrast from what I am used to in the United States, where the majority has a (perhaps justified) near-phobia of mixing church and state. It is uncommon to find relics of warfare in churches where I come from, for example.

More from the Valencian cathedral - some kind of medieval bashing mechanism. Let's put it up next to the pipe organ!

It’s only fair to fast forward to the present day – to October 12th, 2011, when during my luxurious mid-week free day I took a stroll down the Esplanada of Alicante, which was crowded by a Diversity Festival. Traditional dancers performed in the bandshell and a long row of booths offered traditional handicrafts, foods, and information about organizations fighting poverty across the globe. I passed booths representing the countries in South America where Spanish culture has been interwoven with that of the indigenous peoples (sometimes more peacefully than others) for centuries, and others with information about efforts to improve educational opportunities for the gitano people in Spain – a culture that is still suffering from vicious cycles of poverty and racism. In many Spanish churches, there are still plaster homages to haloed saints bashing brown people… but these are not the people who are being canonized by the Catholic church today.

I am looking forward to more chances to talk to Spaniards about their takes on history and current celebrations of that history, and finding out whether Spain’s national attitude toward him is any more positive than ours. For now, seeing celebrations of diversity and efforts to combat poverty and racism is refreshing to me, especially on a day that has such a difficult history attached to it.

A Garnish of Introspection in a Casserole of Banality

I’ve been very productive the last few days.

I finally called around and tracked down the right people to yell at for taking 3+ months to process my substitute application. I am currently registered in the system and hopefully can pick up some gigs before the school year ends.

I’ve been researching lots of apartment options (in the joyful event that I get this job in Detroit.)

I paid my bills on time and will make rent… thank you, stimulus check.

I even got an eye exam and ordered glasses today. I haven’t worn glasses for over a year, because they’ve been broken and I’ve been broke, and since I mostly need them for driving at night it wasn’t an issue for my carless (not to be confused with careless) little self. But I want to be able to read signs on the way to and from NYC, and also read the board in my own classroom, so should be four-eyed again within the week.

I wish being productive didn’t always involve me spending so much money.

I think I should rename this blog “another boring grown-up blog.” Maybe I should start writing some lugubrious poetry or something for you guys… or take some more close-up pictures of flowers.

Eh? EH????

In lieu of me being entertaining myself, go check this out: String Spin Toy

Oh, in other great news, I finished the last of my observation hours this morning. Hurray! Read more of this post

I kissed you in a style Clark Gable would admire; I thought it classic.

Last day in Ávila.

Last night the remaining estudiantes all went to Miguel’s house, for sangria and good music and (another) last hurrah with our spanish amigos. After we left his house we went out, but the night went downhill dramatically when a classmate lost her wallet & passport. She was (understandably) very upset, so I called her parents, made sure the credit card would be cancelled, left a message with the program director, helped write a note in Spanish for her host family, and Anna and I walked her back home. All should be okay. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll leave the country without any similar misadventures.

Today I packed, finished up some laundry, and coughed up a lot of slime. I’m so sick and congested. I hope I feel better by the time we get on the plane. Once I flew to Nashville while congested, and that one hour flight was hell… I don’t really relish the thought of 8+ hours of that.

I don’t even like relish.

Relish doesn’t look like a real word, does it?

Okay, basta with the relish.

Carmen’s children and grandchildren and a few assorted relatives were all at lunch today. I’m going to be sad to leave.

I finally went into Ávila’s cathedral today. I think it’s one of my favorites that I’ve seen here in Spain. It’s beautiful and feels peaceful.

The churches here are sensory overload. It’s boggling to me. In the treasury of the cathedral is a huge monstrance that must be as tall as I am. It’s crazy.

Looking at all the chalices and gold and silver and religious *bling* produces some mixed feelings. I have very strong memories of my home parish in Maybee. I always helped the sacristan clean and set up all the necessary items for mass. It was a small country parish, not Europe, and our monstrance was nowhere near as extravagant as the one I saw today. But everything was still treated with respect, and I miss that almost daily routine of taking care of the church. It’s the tactile & sensory memories that are the strongest for me, always. It’s why people hang on so long, maybe for the wrong reasons: it’s comforting to have things you can see and touch, even if it’s just angles of light, cool heavy gold, embroidered fabric (ironed meticulously), saints made of plaster–always familiar; it’s the people who change.

The Catholic Church has a long history of beauty and romance that has gotten all tangled up in their idea of religion. Candlelight and flowers and songs and rituals. But like any relationship, the romance can only carry you through so long. The gritty difficult decisions outside, in daylight and in daily life, are something entirely different. If the romantic rituals are all you have, the relationship falls apart. No amount of romance or emotional residue can make up for serious character flaws or a lack of integrity. In the last month and a half I’ve seen a lot of romance and centuries and centuries of history tied up with the catholic church. There’s a lot of gold, a lot of empty beautiful churches, a lot of saints in museums, a lot of ruined cities that were sacked in the name of some kind of God, a lot of politicians & royalty buried under altars. If anything, being in Europe has only further obscured any realistic understanding of what religion should and should NOT be. God and I have been giving eachother a mutual silent treatment for a while now – less hostile than at one point, perhaps, on both sides – but that’s all separate from everything else: the romantic *bling*.

And I am sensory… not romantic. I’ve recieved plenty of flowers but my favorite was the Free Rose If Your Name Is ___ from that florist on Washtenaw, which wilted slowly in a beer bottle on my desk. My fondest memories are of train bridges, fire escapes, getting lost on purpose, reading on my roof, skinnydipping in summertime, driving barefoot with our feet out the window, inopportune picnics, climbing trees at night, spanglish on scaffolding, jumping on furniture, and other weird things.

And all that – religion and relationships alike – are tangents for another time and place.

Maybe as this trip winds down to a close I just feel like I need to make some big! overall! summary! of the experience. Sometimes I forget that I am NOT poised at the first sentence of the last paragraph of a five paragraph essay.

But thank god I don’t live in a didactic narrative.

And on that note, I am off to finish packing

say my last goodbyes

wake up muy early to go to madrid

shlep around madrid all day tomorrow

sleep in the airport – NOT the streets

get on the plane early monday morning, madrid time

get off the plane monday afternoon, chicago time

return to michigan sometime tuesday

and I will see you all stateside.

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