Alabanza

I spent several days as a guest of the family that rescued me from perishing by dehydration on the Camino, one hot day in September.  Their granddaughter found me resting in the shade of a castle ruin above the village of Montpeyroux on the Chemin d’Arles. It was National Patrimony Day and all the closed ruins were opened up for people to explore, so thankfully there were people there. She brought me a two-liter of water and her sexy French grandmother, tanned and wearing a tank top, who invited me to stay with their family since I hadn’t made any plans for lodging yet.  I spent two days in their enormous home, out in the country, surrounded by grapevines, resting and getting ready to continue walking. One morning I helped with the grape harvest.  I recently went back for a several-day visit in March.

I’m on a walk with the Carceller’s old red dog.  Despite not being a dog person, I have to admit that it’s sweet to have company. I can’t remember his name.  Titu? Tuti? Something else entirely? He plods along, tongue hanging out.  Clearly in some pain.  Clearly happy to be moving and sniffing and out in the world.  I walk slowly, on purpose. I am feeling benevolent.  I even attempt to give him some water from my water bottle when I notice his tongue hanging out and guess that perhaps he’s thirsty.  But I’m bad at this, this loving-a-dog-by-sharing-my-water-bottle thing.  And the best I can do is accidentally pour water on top of his head in my attempt to get him to lap up a stream of it.  Soon we come to a ditch that has water and he wades in and drinks noisily. I stop worrying.  I pause for a moment and congratulate myself, wishing that my dog-friends could see me now. Being good with a dog.  But they’re not, so I tell myself that i’ll write about it later so they’ll know that there’s hope, even for people like me.

I’ve been looking for a place to stop and paint and write and be artistic because, after all, I AM in southern France, and it’s spring.  The sexiest place in the world, to hear some tell it. It’s hard to find a perfect place to paint that also comes with a perfect place to sit.

After a while, I decide that one view of poppies and vineyards and cypress trees and smoke grey mountains in the distance is probably as good as the next and I turn in at one of the many vineyards we’re walking by. I spread my sweatshirt on the rocks and rotting weeds next to a low concrete and stone wall.  I call ahead to the old red dog.  In English.  I tell him that we’re stopping here for a little while.  He turns around and trots obediently back.  I am already seated, noticing that my yoga pants are getting damp in the seat from where I’ve chosen to sit but that the wall behind me is warm. Titu/Tuti comes up to me and sniffs around where I am.  Sniffs me.  Nose right up in my face.  As a non-dog-person, this is something I have to choose to accept and breathe through.  Then he lowers his head and rests it against my heart.  Takes a deep breath.  One of those “I’m-so-glad-to-be-here-with-you-doesn’t-this-feel-good” kind of sighs. Then lifts his head again, and ambles a few steps to the left of me before settling down in the sun.  I think I just had a moment with that dog.  Me.  A non-dog-person.  A dog just rested his head against my heart.

Birds are madly twittering away in the nearby scrubby live oak and olive trees, relieved that the sun has returned after several days of rain.  Thousands and thousands of drastically, dramatically-pruned grapevines surround me and Titu/Tuti.  They are just beginning to bud. Tiny yet robust fans of yellow green thrusting out of gnarled, tortured vines, silvery bark flaking and peeling. As incongruous as a grandmother giving birth. And yet they are.  These grandmother vines are giving birth again.

They bear grapes meant for wine.  The warm glow of which has zero apparent connection to what I see before me.  Patience.  There’s so much patience required.  And pain.  Pain in being pruned.  In limiting the spread of energy and resources into non-fruitful directions.  There’s also what’s not seen.  The pushing of roots through rocky soil, drawing up nourishment, fixing oneself to this place.  And the brave thrusting out of new leaves into chill spring air, trusting in the promise of warmth and sun.  And the setting of fruit. The hope it takes to set fruit time after time.  And the eager, trust in joyful news of these plants, whose sole purpose is that.  To bear fruit.

I helped harvest grapes from this land several months ago, in September. Bunches, clusters of dusky blueblackredpurple fruit, uniform globes heavy with juice.  Tart, sticky, sweet, rich.  The taut shape in my mouth, bursting as my tongue pressed it up, against the hard soft ridged roof of my mouth, juice spurting, the flavor of earth and sun and rain and patience and sweetness and pain and life. I remember cramming a handful in during a hungry moment that September morning and bit and sucked and pressed and softly chewed, not wanting to crack the bitter seeds.  I would later taste wine from these grapes and recognize their flavor.

Wine.  That’s really what these grapes are for.  But not even wine, they’re really for that warm glow that wine imparts. The way that it can soften life’s edges and bring joy. The way it keeps dinner company and brings friends together.

Everything is moving toward some sort of transformation.  And if I with my limited vision, can look at a twisted, shorn grapevine with two new leaves and imagine delicious, delirious intoxication, what could God possibly have in mind when He looks at me?

You may protest “ But grapes don’t have a choice!” And it’s true.  Imperfect metaphors abound. But the point it this – a no point is there resistance. And look what happens because of it.

What if willing participation in each part of the cycle were enough in itself? The peaceful rest of winter. The waking up, the running of sap.  The tenacious branching out below of blind new roots and the pushing through weathered bark of tender leaves? The golden joy of flowering and shivers of delight as wind lifts and carries pollen of a millionmillionmillion open-flung laughing blossoms? The green and more serious joy of nurturing tiny, sour green pearls into rich, harvestable masses? The sharp catharsis of the harvest – a tight, quick pain and gasping pleasure. A lightness on the vine.  An exhale. The job is done.  It is finished. The beginning of quietness again, crowned with red and gold and russet leaves of autumn.

What if grapes loves being together?  What if they loved the crush and press of fitting their perfect curved little bodies against each other? What if the weight were comforting? And as they tumbled and fell into the vat, ready to be pressed into juice, what of that glee? The thrill of the flood of thousandsmillionsmillions of their sisters going exactly the same direction, toward the same end?  And then the press.  The initial resistance and subsequent burst.  Juices flooding out.  Seeds and skin and vine left behind. The separation of body and spirit, essence and husk. Is there exhilaration in that? Can there be anything but? What about the newness of being dissolved into the materia prima of previously separate beings?  All of us, in and through each other, indistinguishable in form and substance, one from the other. What must that be like? And the fermentation process.  The elevation of rain and sun and drinking of earth into…spirit.  Spirits.  They call alcohol spirits. Are they on to something we haven’t thought hard enough about? Spirits. The liquid that is like fire and must be carefully used. The thing that can heal and warm and bring together, and can also destroy.

For all that has been pruned in my life, alabanza.

For all that has been plucked, harvested, jumbled together, alabanza.

For that which has been crushed, drained, separated, alabanza.

For that which no longer serves and is disposed of, alabanza.

For that which is poured into the bottles of waiting and told “Shh. Patience. Don’t be afraid.”

Yes.  For that too.  Alabanza.

For that which is poured out, shared, alabanza.

For all in me that has become a source of delight, healing and joy, alabanza.

May I not be afraid of this cycle.  May I accept each step of my own transformation. May I say YES, alabanza…to it all.

Amen.

*alabanza: “praise” in Spanish

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