Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Although I didn’t know it at the time, I first came face to face with a thin place in a remote village in Castilla la Mancha, in a place called Atienza. The concept of thin places was new to me – or at least I never knew that there was a name for them.

Some thin place spotters imbue them with a mystical, religious quality, but I seem to discover thin spots that are encumbered more by history than by any sense of piety. Nonetheless, they give the eerie experience of being in a part of the earth very near the edge. Let me tell you about two of them.

Harold and I stumbled on Atienza the way we did most things in Spain – driving across the plains of Castilla with an openness to whatever might come next. We climbed over a broken castle that looked fine from a distance but was more than half rubble up close.

I stood in the crumbling keep of the tower on the hill and listened to the wind turn corners. The Spanish sky, which seemed to stretch all the way to France, grew darker with the burden of a storm front. Our little Renault cinco, parked far below, was the only modern object around. There was not a soul to be seen. We were utterly alone. Miraculously, there were no plastic bags fluttering by, no empty coffee cups, no man-made litter of any sort. Touching the broken rock walls seemed to connect us to a part of Spain we’d never felt before. The present moment fell away and the stillness of the place seemed to enter inside of us, making us quiet for a long time.

But not all thin places are so remote and austere.

Years later, we pulled into an historic hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan, itself a mystical creation in its own right – one of the deepest lakes in the world, ringed by villages of Mayans who speak neither Spanish nor their neighbor’s indigenous dialects.

The hotel was built from the ruins of an old Guatemalan coffee finca, and it had a small museum of old farming implements, along with a leather carriage, in a corridor off the reception area. It also had preserved three sides of a wooden barn wall, and here was my second thin place.

The wall was filled with pencil signatures of all the people from the old coffee families from the turn of the century. With names like Smith, Hempstead, Koch, and Kleinschmidt, they told the story of the Germans, French, Brits and Americans who had a hand in crafting Guatemala’s export coffee industry. The pencil messages recalled the goings and comings of older children, off to college in Massachusetts, then home again for the holidays.

I stood transfixed before this wooden barn wall, tracing the family lineages. The more I looked, the more names became visible, some badly faded and half invisible. I realized that the entire wall was filled with the penciled scrawlings of family members.

Occasionally I’d find the briefest of messages which had to do for narrative. “Tante Ellen here for the holidays. “John Smith, home from Boston.” Was Tante Ellen from Hamburg? Was John at Harvard? I felt a sort of desperation to know more and more. The need to leave behind a record seemed an important rite for the families – something they did compulsively, as I could see as I peered closer, finding scarcely any area that was blank.

The wall was well known among Guatemalan elites – the family names were as good as the best from DeBrett’s or an American Who’s Who. I asked Guatemalan friends for more details about the name wall, as I came to call it, and I heard second-hand stories of wild Christmas parties and New Year’s dances on the shores of the lake. I imagined elegant women and men, and could hear the music magnified across the water; lanterns sparkling against the black lake backdrop. I could see too, the indigenous servants of that era, resplendent in huipils woven on backstrap looms; padding silently from room to room.

While our own children cavorted in the hotel pool, I visited the children’s name wall over and over again, lacking the archival knowledge of what ought to be done to preserve all this; recording names, ages and years in a notebook; looking for the oldest entry, (1906) looking for surnames of people I knew in town. The children’s name wall pulled me back into a past that seemed far more meaningful than any touristic activities over that holiday weekend.

And that was how I came to utterly lose myself in this second thin place, where the seams that separated the past from the present seemed to have frayed, allowing me a glimpse from either direction.

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