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Monday, June 11, 2012

Spirit is a Feeling, Not an Object

I attended mass yesterday with two of my dear buddies at a beautiful church, St. Anthony of Padua, named after San Antonio's patron saint.  The pastor greeted us and chided my friends with dry Irish humor for not having seeing them for the past few Sundays.

We sat in the front, not in the back, where my pals say people who might be ashamed for their sexual orientation often sit in church. Not us. What I love most about these men is their powerful sense of what counts, what matters in life. When they first started attending, they had "the talk" with the priest there, who said to them, "You and your partner are welcome to worship here. At this church we follow, not the letter of the law, but its spirit."

Mass was beautiful, sacred in song and ceremony, recreating the awe that living day-to-day often obscures in its many to-do's, mash up of memories and compelling goals and wishes for the future. I gave special thanks for our successful and safe travels in Spain and our safe return back home.

In recent months, reading about the Vatican and its many legal trials as well as surreal edicts against family planning and American nuns has made me retreat even further from organized religion. Yet, the joy and peace that bloomed around me in prayer, song and human-ship, bright, alive and as yellow as Esperanza itself, made me remember that the church is people, not press releases.

The irony was not lost on me of having sat recently in so many gilded, centuries-old churches, built from the riches of Spanish colonies, any of which would have easily dwarfed St. Anthony's, a concrete-block edifice built only 80 years ago for quarry workers on the edges of Alamo Heights.

The lesson for me was spirit is spirit, no matter the clothes, the jewels that surround it, those that it lacks or even excludes.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Sis

We are a curious people, we Cuellars. Take me and my sister.

Life holds so many things for us to see and learn about, the only reason we ever sleep is because our bodies stage a sit-down strike and topple us over like Roman ruins late at night demanding equal time and rest.

First of all, the goals for me for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, were headed up by getting to spend 11 days with my sister.

I was a young girl when Elda married and left home to start her family. I longed to spend a chunk of quality time to get a sense of Elda beyond our usual scurrying about during holidays and family events. What was she like day to day? I was curious.

 Elda and her husband, Doug, come to visit their Texas clan every Spring, and we make a great week of it, with barbecue's at my brother and sister in law, Al and Mary's lake house, dinners at our house, treks into San Antonio for shopping and exploring new sights. The visit is usually during Spring Break, and we talk late into the night with my brother and sister in law from the Valley, Ari and Jo Ann, who drive up for the reunion. There are babies, kids and Mary's elderly mom from Laredo, Olga, and the whole circle of life spins noisily around us all the four or five days of her visit.

I love each visit, but when my sister and her husband leave back for their home north of L.A., I feel my heart burst and I start crying, knowing that for all the love that surrounds me, only the arms of my sister and brothers carry the memory of me as an infant, the me I used to be when our family was intact, Dad was alive, and Mom and he were heads of a whole, complete family.

The tragedy of his death at 42 was hard on us all, but my sister carried the greatest burden in some ways, hard on a girl aged 13. She organized our family's return from Arizona to Texas, and was a support to my broken-hearted mother. Mom's life was shattered, and my sister knew we would be safer nearer to Mom's mother and sister in Mexico, and Mom's girlhood friends in Laredo who helped to get our family back on its feet.

I wanted, more than anything, to spend time together with my sister, and the trip to Spain was both an adventure in and of itself, as walking on the Camino de Santiago for 110 plus kilometers in just over a week would be for anyone . The chance to spend hours walking and talking with Elda was the 'deal-maker' in the decision to save the money, train for the walk and read up on the Camino in preparation for the trip.

So who is Elda? She too is curious. About flowers, birds (she made the taxi driver stop twice to photograph storks), cooking, wines, art, language, culture, and all that is beautiful. She is endlessly energetic, friendly to everyone, and caring about other's well-being. Did I mention, really attractive? Yes, we are a lot alike:)

What did I learn? My sister is a learning machine. She has a hunter's vision for the natural world and all of humanity. She engaged a French set of pilgrims for miles, and had them singing with her and sharing grand children's photos. In one aldea (village) we passed beside a farm where an elderly woman bent over her washboard using a homemade soap bar to scrub sheets. She faced an east facing rock wall of her old home and was surrounded by dairy cows that towered over her. Elda approached the woman and asked permission to photograph her. I wouldn't have dared interrupt the busy woman. In the time it took for us to walk the length of the yard, Elda had her smiling and prettifying herself for what would turn out to be the best photo of the journey.

What else did I learn? My sister's enthusiasm does not wane and that she is fiery 24/7 in her passion for life.

If the struggles of her growing-up years marked my sister, they only served to make her resolute to live at full throttle, a todo pecho, facing the wind and ready for take-off. That helps explain the abiding love of her airline captain (retired) husband.

That's a lot to learn about, and I'm grateful for the experience this past month, and for the Camino of our braided lives since my birth, being her sister.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Hill Country Welcome Home

Three weeks away, and what happens?

Nature takes its course, that's what. The grasshoppers, chicharras (cicadas), crickets, tree frogs and a drunken crowd of rowdy celebrants from around the insect world do what comes naturally after Spring rains. They fill the night with sounds seeking their companion, calling out, "Hey, there, listen to me! I am a great candidate for a mate. Check out my song!" "No, listen to my song! Here! From my tree! I'm the one you should have your baby (fill in the blank) with!"

Across the hills and wafting up from the bottoms there came last night wave after wave of their hello- look-at-me calls, thousands of churning, whirring maracas and castanets filling the clear full-moon sky.

Our serenata from the hill country might have sounded raucous and disorganized to the casual listener trying to sleep after 18 hours sitting upright in a speeding magical bird that old Columbus could only dream of while crossing back and forth over the ocean between Spain and the Americas.

But tired is tired, even in a speeding magical bird. Yet, laying flat, finally, back on your own bed, if you breathed deep and slowly, and listened hard, after a while, you might start to hear the melody strands of a familiar song carried on the breeze from the window facing south.  Coming in on a whim, the rhythm section brings in  ribbons of the familiar tune, Cielito Lindo. There now is the chorus, "Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores..."  Here now is the gentle trot of the opening of the song, and there, too, the lilting conclusion, " alegran cielito lindo los corazones." 

This non-linear rendition of Cielito Lindo came not in the logical progression, but all at once and from all directions. One hill carried the first strands of the song, the next hill the third, while from deep in the ravine below, I think I heard an old Woodie Guthrie or Johnny Cash tune trying to get untangled and join in with mariachi trumpets.

This joyous music came from insects that had not been born when we left for EspaƱa.

The singers sounded like sailors glad to be home after a long journey away. Or maybe the choirs nestled in the cedars were singing for the travelers who were too weary to take up anything but their nightgowns.

The song's pieces were spread across the night sky, but my brain in that moment and at that stage of exhaustion could strangely and easily braid the pieces together as they lulled me to slumber.

The occasional chiming in from the mourning doves and whippoorwill completed the night's entertainment, and we felt all of nature welcome us back home.