Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mammoth Tasks…Small Victories. By River.

When I started putting those stones in the wall I didn’t know if I could do it.  I didn’t know I could finish it. Our true summer began with the filling of the first holes in the walls of what will be our bedroom.  I remember the day clearly, utterly terrified that I would do something wrong and the house might fall over instantly.  But it didn’t and it hasn’t and I don’t think it will.  I think our work is there to stay for sometime.  But it is within the framework of building this house that our summer began and expended itself into our autumn and soon to be our winter.

Within that summer we have spent precious wonderful time with family, friends and strangers.  Sally and Papops, my Mum, Sister and Tia Avril, Uncle Andrew or Uncle Manly as he has been renamed,  shanti B,  Paula and Alfie and lots and lots of new friends and people we may never see again.  It has been one action packed summer a glorious summer and a gentle Autumn. 

When we finished the main structure of the stone walls I knew something more had to be done.  The room we built lacked the charm of the little stones characteristic of stone houses in this region.  For hours each day I sat looking at the beautiful stone work of our present little shelter – the house actually called Moses (our houses  midway up the land are actually called Cabeço meaning head like the head or source of a spring), anyway I sat and stared at these walls and one day knew what to do.  I would have to put the small stones in after the main structure was up. That way we could get the roofs on in time for the winter rains.

When the big stone work ended and most of the roof structure of our bedroom was in order I went up the hill to start on the face of little stones, I started as tentatively as the first stone I put in the house, I started with a little corner. The next day Senhor João the eldest stonemason, came and asked me who was doing this work.  Prepared to hear this is terrible and shrink off down the hill to go to my duvet,  I tentatively replied,  I did.  He grinned tapped me on the shoulder and said “this is the way.  The old way it takes a long time and no one has or wants to do it this way but this is the old way”.  An even wider grin appeared on his face as he said “one year to finish the small stone work on both houses”. 

At that moment, my eyes panned out. I looked at the house and thought I don’t even know if I can finish this wall let alone the whole house.  But set up the scaffolding I did with the help of my Memphis and I started with no instruction, no idea and no capacity to think of the whole wall let alone the whole upper floor.  Builders came, built the childrens house, roofs went up, tiles were put on, school started, ill health and good health has come, sun, rain, fog, and green grass grew from the terraces.  The grape harvest brought in.  The river got its voice back and the olives started to swell.  Strawberry fruit tree fruits started glowing jewel like, tantalising out of reach.  The school term started for Josh and Ellie, and I lost me Memphis to the little kids of Oleiros, Orvalho and Estreito, his days changed to singing nursery rhymes and dealing with naughty impish behaviour and still I continued on these walls.

At the beginning I felt sick to death of it.  Thinking I would do this and it would be pointless, it wouldn’t look the same or the stones will fall out instantly or I might dislodge something important.  But with every single stone my confidence grew until I was doing it without thought.  Without thought or instruction I have learnt a great deal about stone. The little stones have taught me about their quality, colour, how they will open up or whether they will crumble.  Where the fractures are and how each quality of stone is best bonded to the clay.  Which colours glow more in the night and wet and which stones will stand defiantly clear in colour in the face of the sometimes scalding Portuguese sun.  They taught me to stack them just like the big stones for the most stable support so that actually I was building mini walls within the bigger walls which we’d put together earlier on in the summer.

Every day for the few weeks Senhor João was here, he would come and shake his stone hammer at me and say “don’t think about the time, go to the wall”.  If he saw me deflatedly looking out over the horizon he would come and say “Maria, go to the wall”.  The truth is he was right it was the only instruction I needed.  Go to it, keep doing it and you will learn the way. Very yogic, Zen even.

Mario gave me my next lesson when one day I exasperatedly threw a stone over the terrace wall.  “What’s wrong Maria?” he asked.  Oh this black stone keeps falling apart.  “There are many types of black stone” he said dismissively as he walked away. And with a big Mosey sigh off I went to look for these elusive black stones and I found them.  I even learnt how to put in the crumbly stone letting it crumble or keep form depending on what I wanted.  From that experience I learnt that there isn’t just one way in the universal sense, but that each stone has its own way. 

Paulo taught me to look after myself, make sure I had a secure, safe and comfortable work place. Filipe has taught me to grin, jiggle to the accordion (yes I confess I have jiggled to the accordion on top of the scaffolding from time to time).  And Eugenia has taught me I must eat and rest on Sunday.

I knew I was on to a winner when Mister Farinha in his usual stern manner, said incredulously and with a dash of admiration, not too much mind you, “How many stones have you put in that wall?” I learnt my style was more different perhaps more feminine as female visitors would come over and gaze at the quartz or powder blue soft stone, while the men nodded at the hard black flint.  Hard because while it may take 10 minutes to break up a huge soft stone it takes over 30 mins to break a brick sized piece of the hard flint. I also learnt not to break up flint with a stone hammer on dry grass or twigs.  Very important lesson when living in a forest.

I am so grateful to João Antunes for teaching us this way it is slower but nothing moves not one stone can be easily removed and put back the walls are so solid, centered and strong like so many of our Portuguese neighbours.

With each small victory of stone put in that house I realised the mammoth nature of the task.  But last week I finished the small stonework of the bedroom.  I finished it and even up to the last stone I didn’t know I could finish it.  Perched on top of the highest corner wall of the house I hammered in the last hard black stones and when it was finished, I stepped back and my eyes panned out and realised it was complete.  I had done it.  The walls of small victories were over.

So much has gone into those stones, joy, anger, frustration, fun, laughter, disappointment, tension, apprehension, divine certainty, forgiveness, peace and above all love.

My eyes panned out further afield and I saw once again as new, all that we would be honoured to do in this land and once more I saw the mammoth task.  But I now know in a calm, patient and reflective way that it is possible perhaps even probable, since each task, whether it is picking Olives, or collecting seeds or planting trees or building walls or collecting firewood, each mammoth task is made up of a number or small, sometimes tiny, victories.  These victories are happening all the time until they come together and something apparently impossible has taken place.

I have finished what seemed like a mammoth task and at last I feel I can exhale, let go, kick back and know that whatever else we have to do, somehow we, whether that we be made up of Memphis and me plus the kids or with our neighbour Joao, Filipe, Jorge and Eugenia or with builders, or guests or friends, we will do what we can and we can do quite a lot when all those little victories have been added together.  We will, under the grace of the Infinite, find a way to do it and that is no small victory.

Thank you Memphis for encouraging me and stroking my back and telling everyone how beautiful it is that I was doing this. I really really needed that.

Paz e amor


P.S.  As I stood and looked at the jeweled walls, all of 10 minutes after finishing, my favourite João came and said “It’s beautiful Maria, now you can start the filling in the old walls of the house!”

I guess there is no rest for the wicked!

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