Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Looking For Miracles

"I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other."

I find that I usually go into a seasonal slump at the end of the year, as the light gets dimmer and the days get colder, and a quick review of mid-December blog posts from years past confirms this. The only time I didn't have at least one "oh, woe is me" post was when I was spending a week or two or three with Mom and John in Hawai'i around the solstice; one of the reasons I've been feeling woeful this year is that I miss Mom and John, and the rest of my family, quite a bit right now. Stress at school, a new deadline for figuring out where I will go next (and the associated financial issues), the cold and the dark and the aloneness have all combined to make me fairly melancholy if I stop and think about it, so I don't really stop and think about it. But I realized something was really wrong when I almost burst into tears last Friday in class.

So I decided it was time to take my mind off things, me changer les idées un peu, get a new perspective from a new location, and on Sunday morning I took the train to Lourdes, about half an hour east. The weather has been cold but sunny and clear, and I'd read about a funicular that takes you up 1,000 metres to the top of a peak where you can get a great view of the Pyrénées, which are currently blinding white with snow. Unfortunately the funicular wasn't running this last weekend (there was a visiting dignitary) so the alternative was to walk up to the top, and I made sure that I had thick socks on to keep my toes warm. But first I started out by visiting the center of Lourdes and its raison d'être, the grotto where, in 1858, Bernadette Soubirous said that the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times.

There is a church built on top of the grotto, completed 20 years later, and just three years before Bernadette died at the age of 35. It's a major site of pilgrimages, and when I found out that Sunday was the date of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to see the church for the crowds. However, there's some arcane Catholic rule relating to the fact that it was also the second Sunday of Advent, so the Immaculate Conception date got moved to Monday instead, which is probably when all the crowds were there. The path to get up to the church is by two long curving archways lined with statues of saints, and the cobblestones were slippery with frost. There are side chapels on the top, and the Rosary Basilica underneath, but that was closed for reconstruction after the floods last October and this past spring, when the Gave de Pau flooded and did some serious damage. I went up to the top and peered in at the long hall leading to one of the chapels, which I think is for the "adoration of the Holy Sacrament" or something like that, and then came back out onto the wide balcony in front of the upper basilica, where a large group of girls in blue and grey berets with the word veritas embroidered on them were milling about, holding banners and singing softly, shepherded by a dozen nuns in white habits and black veils. I didn't ask, but after doing some research and deduction I believe they were all from the Ecole Saint Dominique du Cammazou at Fanjeaux, another 2 hours to the east, not far from Carcassonne. I slipped inside the church and tucked myself into a corner at the back to listen to the call and response of the service that was concluding, and pretty much immediately started crying.

I had brought a handkerchief because I thought this might happen, that when I arrived in a quiet place surrounded by people with all of their own hopes and fears and prayers that I might be able to let some of the stress and worries come out. When the tears continued, I moved over into the rearmost side chapel, dedicated to a saint whose name I don't remember, but whose gentle face was soothing. There were already two women sitting on the small bench at the back, and they moved over to make room for me. As I cried, the woman nearest me patted my arm, and whispered something about how I had reached a point where I was ready for physical and emotional healing, and that she hoped that the Virgin heard my prayers. When she left a few minutes later, she pulled out a plastic-coated card from her purse, "blessed by the Pope" she said, with a picture of Francis himself on the front, a prayer on the back, and a small charm of the Virgin Mary inside, and gave it to me. I hope that woman's prayers were answered, and am grateful for her kindness.

But I wasn't really praying, just crying off and on, more of a "being in the moment" experience than really thinking about things. Just trying to relax. The previous service had ended, and all of the girls and nuns came in and filled up two-thirds of the pews, singing as they came. The next mass started, and I am glad that I was there, because it was a sung Gregorian mass, with the clear voices of the women chanting in unison, and I started crying again because I wished that Mom were there with me to hear this beauty. Crying because I can only send postcards and photos to share my travels instead of having my loved ones with me in this experience. Crying because I can't send my Aunt Pat a postcard from this super-Catholic location, because she's no longer here to send postcards to. And just crying to release the anxieties and the built-up weird chemicals that strain and unshed tears create in the body, and then just breathing in, and out, and letting the melodies wash me clean. Then starting up again because during communion, as soon as enough of the women and girls had gotten back into the pews, they started singing Palestrina motets, beginning with Sicut cervus, and I suddenly realized how much I miss singing with a choir, and sharing music with the congregation at St. Stephen's in Portland. I need to add vocal music to my "must have in my life" list.

When I finally came out of the church, the hollow feeling in my chest was gone, but had been replaced by a hollow feeling in my stomach. It was 3pm and I had spent almost three hours inside, thinking and not-thinking and listening to the music. But I wanted to go down to the grotto before I left, just to see it, and so I did. I didn't go into the grotto (which is really more of a shallow depression in the outcrop) but watched the line of believers do so, filing past the trickle of water on the rock face and touching it, then touching their fingers to their lips. More water comes out of a series of push-button faucets along a curved wall at the base of the basilica, where you can drink the mineral-rich waters or fill up the blue and white plastic containers that are sold at all the gift shops in town, from narrow pipettes to hollow plastic Virgins to big five-gallon jugs. I ran the cold water over my fingers and thought about belief.

Belief, or lack of it - belief in myself? Maybe it's a lack of self-confidence that's been getting me down lately. Or of confidence that I'll be able to keep going in this strange and enjoyable and difficult lifestyle of movement and change and discovery. I've got another blog post on that topic in the back of my mind, all tied into the notion of accomplishment. Back to the eternal question of just what, exactly, I'm doing. What I'm doing here. Whether it's necessary to have something, some thing, to show at the end, provided there is an end. How not to worry about what that end will be if it comes sooner than I think. Why I don't want to go back to the United States, even though I miss my family. Why there's no "itinerant cheesemaker" visa category that doesn't require thousands of dollars or definite plans to let me vagabond around the world, earning my minimal way. Why it's so hard to remember sometimes that I'm incredibly fortunate to be doing what I want, even when I can't do exactly what I want. What comes next. "What comes next" - that's the problem right now, the one that makes it hard for me to focus on the present. I have to start looking for the next thing right now, and there are too many options, and too much a chance that I won't find another work-for-room-and-board opportunity to make me comfortable. But so far I have always ended up where I need to be, and I just have to have faith that this will all work out.

I walked past all of the gift shops and through the winding streets up to the fortress in the center of town, the one that's been there since a thousand years before Ste Bernadette and her visions. Charlemagne is said to have put the fortress under siege in 778CE after it was taken by the Saracens, and conquered their leader Mirat, who was then baptized Lorus, which led to the name of the town. More buildings were added to the fortress in the 14th century, and it's now a rambling museum that was started in the 1920s to house examples of la vie Pyrénéen - wooden shepherds' pails for carrying milk, old wine presses, intricately carved sideboards, embroidered harness straps for donkeys and dogs. At the time the museum was built, many people in the area still spoke Occitan rather than French.

A bint ans qui boli. Abint è cinq qui trobi. A trento qui me bol.
("At twenty, whoever I want. At twenty five, whoever I find. At thirty, whoever wants me," an Occitan saying that makes me wonder if, at fifty, anyone will want me, or I them. Have I been lonely lately? Yes, a bit.)

Per èstre urous, n' ès que de s'en creire.
("To be happy, it is enough to think you are.")
Calquecop le pa que be quand las denses s'en soun anandos.
("Sometimes the bread arrives after the teeth have gone.")

I had spent so much time in the church that I ran out of daylight to make the hour-long climb up to the top of the Pic du Jers (15 minutes by the funicular, had it been running that day) so rather than looking for a place to eat a very late lunch, I went to the train station instead and changed my ticket to an earlier one and came home to have a very early dinner instead, of cauliflower and green peppers cooked in a skillet and then mixed with two bunches of chopped parsley and topped with grilled bone-in sardines. I'm trying to use up the random leftovers in the refrigerator before I leave this week, and that was a pretty good combination, though it could have used some sort of lemon or vinegar dressing, and capers would have been good too.

It's another lovely cold sunny day here today, and I have a few days off before starting up work again on the farm, though of course there is always freelance work, and I've been pecking away at that. Maybe someday I'll even get to those book projects I have on the list. Not this week, though, because I want to focus on the project papers to try and get as much of them done as possible before school starts again, so that I don't have to worry about that while concentrating on the new set of classes and exams in January.

And oh please Virgin Mary and Ste Bernadette and all the choirs of angels, let the other students remember that their constant chatter really is disruptive to the class, because I don't want to have to speak up and break down again.

Two weeks until the solstice, and my heart will rise again with the sun. I'm lucky to have another surrogate family here among the Bergeras for the Christmas holidays, but I don't know if I want to have another year go by without my own family around, so I'd better start saving money for a ticket back to Oregon, plus enough to leave again for some other exotic or prosaic location, because I'm truly not ready to stop traveling yet.

In the meanwhile, I'm going to start sending off letters to cheesemakers around Europe, proposing myself and all my abilities as an apprentice, a friend, a slave as John would call it, exchanging 6 hours of work a day for nothing more than room and board and a high-speed internet connection. Everything else is a bonus, and I've been quite lucky that everyone I've worked for has been willing to drive me around to see the local sights. Your suggestions, names of possible employers, and prayers are all welcome.

Grace will come, as long as I persevere.

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