From There to Alcocer

The distance is only about three miles. A short drive down a very bumpy cobblestone road from San Miguel to Rancho Alcocer. Its a drive we’ve made repeatedly during the year and a half it took us to build this casita out here. But actually its a lot further.

The charms of San Miguel de Allende are by now legendary. With its delicious blend of old Mexico and contemporary vibrancy, it has all the elements for an exciting stay in Mexico. We discovered it to be an incomparable place to visit but seriously flawed as a place to actually live. Through a series of surprising happenstances, we ended up building our house in a small village just outside town. Did I mention “very fortunate” happenstances?

We thought of that distance on the drive back from San Miguel last night after visiting with friends there. A short distance to drive reveals a huge difference in kind.

It takes no time at all to remember the difference from there to Alcocer. The light pops off the hills here through the crisp air and jumps back to me in sharp delineation. The rains of July have turned the hills green and they rise up against white clouds and a too-blue sky. In the other direction, the old dam holds the lake above the valley that falls to the far plain, then draws my eye on away.

The silence is predominant, but not pure. It is punctuated by the coo of a dove, the crow of the rooster, the squeal of some delighted child in the distance. But it hovers and enfolds and embraces. Without it, the small rush of wind that ‘hoools‘ in the windows might not be heard. It provides the character to this pause.

The dogs that bark at night and the speaker trucks that occasionally blare through the village reel me back in from the idylic. But they are only some small bit of bother. The massive might of the peacefulness remains. Its strength becomes mine over time.

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Blessing for a Duck

We’ve come a long way here in our country, and the same could probably be said of most of the developed world. It was only a generation ago that our families got most of their meat from the wild or from the domestic animals they raised. Even in my early childhood we raised a few chickens, and I have memories of my grandmother chopping off their heads in preparation of our Sunday dinner. I’m only one generation away from subsistence off the land, which includes butchering your own hogs and chickens for meat, along with shooting the occasional rabbit or squirrel for variety.

Aside from the chickens that were sacrificed in my childhood, I wasn’t raised that way. We went to the grocery, and I learned to buy meat by the way it was marbled and the expiration date on the cellophaned package. My meals arrived neatly, cleanly, magically from the store, and I didn’t have to think about how they got there.

Yes, we are mostly a different society today than what my mother grew up in.

We have new neighbors to our south who have a farm in Livingston County just to the east of here. Brandon loves the openness of their farm there and the wildlife it affords. Wild turkeys and deer spot his fields on a regular basis. He knows their habits and that of the wood ducks and other creatures that abound. He hunts, too. Something of a passion, as I understand it.

Tonight Dave was making dinner and decided to open a bottle of chardonnay to accompany our pork chops. For some reason the cork refused to budge with our little twist-and-pull corkscrew, even with his many attempts. Remembering that I’d loaned our corkscrew to our new neighbors a few weeks previously when they were still without one, having recently moved in, I thought I’d ask for a return favor to use theirs. So I trotted next door and rang the bell. Brandon and Kathleen were both there as was their trusty corkscrew, one of the more powerful types with arms that you press down once it’s inserted.

“Do you guys like duck?” Brandon wanted to know as he popped the cork from my wine bottle. Sure! I said. “Well, I’ve got an extra that I shot today. You can have it if you want.” Without thinking too much I said that would be just dandy, and he headed off out back to retrieve said duck. I kind of expected what he brought back, considering it was a fresh kill from earlier in the day. Upon return he held out an intact — that is, undressed, fully feathered — female mallard duck suspended from her limp neck. She was an adult of fair size and strangely present, is the only way I can describe it. A dangling dead duck seemed unreal, uncongruous from my experiences. Yet, here she was, being offered as an early Christmas gift, all because of my taste for duck.

I reached out and took her in hand. Her neck feathers were soft and luxurious, and her poor head drooped to one side, eyes closed in submission. Her body was cold but still pliant, evidence of her recent loss of life. And I considered her life and what she had given today. I stroked her head, “Poor little duck,” I said. “Thank you for your spirit and for your life.” Kathleen smiled and said she believed that too.

But what to do with her? I mean, I’d never dressed or gutted even a chicken, much less a wild duck. How do you begin? “You’ll have to tell me what to do here, Brandon. After I pluck her, how do I gut her?” All I could think of were her guts and my ineptitude sure to make a mess of things and contaminate the meat. He told me one possibility and then said that I could simply make an incision along the breastbone through her feathers, and then one cross ways at the base and peel back the skin, feathers and all. “Then you just fillet the breast and the tenderloins underneath,” Brandon explained.

To say the least, Dave was nonplussed to see that I’d not only gotten our wine uncorked but had been gifted with a dead wild mallard as well for my efforts. Not wanting to let time take its toll, or lose my resolve, I set to work in our kitchen sink on our little duck. Thinking of Brandon’s instructions, I felt along her breast and found the breastbone running vertically. There I made a cut, with another at its base. My fingers sunk deep into her feathers covering her breast, soft and downy to my touch. They felt more like fur than feathers. I couldn’t help but think how pelt-like they felt, how warm they must have kept her. The skin and feathers peeled away easily and I was able to isolate the breast meat and remove it, not unlike cutting up a whole chicken you buy from a grocery. The difference was that I still had a duck in my sink, and I couldn’t divorce that from the experience. I found my stomach more unruly than I’d have liked. I seemed to be observing what I was doing in a rather detached way. Most assuredly out of necessity.

I had hoped to save a couple of her irridescent teal wing feathers as a reminder and a tribute to her, but they proved too hard to extract. So, I wrapped what was left of her body in a bag and took her out to the trash. I think of my grandmother, my mother, and all my ancestors before who would have found this all an unforgettable part of their day, and more than likely, a reason for celebration of the bounty they were receiving. I haven’t been toughened by their experience, and so I’m left contemplating what I’ve been given and what it means.

It is a bounty still, but I can’t forget the blessing of her life.

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The Longest Yard Sale

Can you imagine a continuous yard sale that stretches for 400 miles? That’s a lot of kitsch, to be sure. Kentucky prides itself in this annual event that runs along Route 68 from Paducah in the west to Lebanon on the Ohio River in the northeast. Saturday I decided to see for myself what all the hubbub was about, and so I set off in mid-morning with $70 in my pocket, a bottle of water, and a packed lunch in my cooler. Dave didn’t get to tag along since he was scheduled to work at Lowes during the day shift, much to his disappointment. While it would have been nice to have shared his company on the adventure, I was glad to be out discovering things on my own.

I drove to the start of Route 68 a few miles to the southeast of Paducah and wondered how long I’d have to go before I found the first sale. I hardly had time to get the thought from my head before I saw my first sign and a gaggle of cars perched along the berm. I drove on, thinking it didn’t look that interesting and not wanting to be too eager. Then there was another one before I’d gone a lick down the road, and another. I pulled over to investigate.

Part of the experience, I realized, was determining what your rules of engagement would be. How far did you want to go? What kinds of things were you interested in? Did it matter? Quickly I realized I wasn’t very interested in clothes so I shouldn’t stop at places that had mostly piles and racks of pre-owned faded ware. Ditto for kids’ stuff. Also, I decided that if it wasn’t directly on Route 68 I wasn’t going to bother. So that meant I ignored all yard sale signs directing me down a side road. Only so much time and so much territory to cover, you have to have a battle plan.

I realized I was interested in antique stuff, a broad category. I poked through tables of glassware and decorative items, trying to decide what interested me. Sometimes there wasn’t much to look at, and I wondered why they even bothered to try to sell a lot of what I saw. I’d have simply piled what appeared to me to be the detritus of overflowing households into large garbage bags and set it on the roadside for appropriate disposal. In the castoff Christmas decorations and ghastly faded and crumpled centerpieces I detected determined hope, perhaps misplaced faith, or was it foolishness, that somebody out there would want these pieces of their lives and even maybe need them. I drove on in search of what I might be looking for.

After several stops without much success in finding anything of even mild interest I found a sale in the shaded yard of an old farmhouse with lots of tables filled with interesting glassware, linens, and other fascinating items. There were a variety of antique chairs, desks, and even an old child’s school desk that I briefly considered for use as an interesting lawn seat. Under a tree to the side of the yard was a table with several household items including a small Mexican woven rug for $5 and a hooked rug pillow cover for $8. They were both in good shape and priced incredibly well. The chicken on the pillow cover looked almost identical to the designs the ladies outside of San Miguel make, and I wondered if maybe it was one of theirs that someone was now selling for a song. I felt its charm, and the rug had a good design and neutral enough color to go in Paducah or in our casita in Mexico. I plopped down my $13 for these incredible finds and was back on the hunt for more treasures.

My favorite spots along the way in route to Cadiz where I ended my journey, were large communal sales with several vendors. There were more antiques and more to choose from and usually no clothes or kids’ toys to detour past. At one such place I picked up 8 classic diner coffee cups for $10, reduced from the vendor’s original price of 2 for $10 when she found that I wanted the entire lot. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to get her to cave.

One of the added unexpected pleasures of the day was just getting to experience the people at the yard sales with me. Going from place to place I became privy to bits of conversations among sellers or buyers in the middle of some tale as they poked through the tables of books and broken yard gadgets. “Well, Ah tole him Ah wuddn’t gonna be thar any tahme soon.”?”Ah know’d ” Growing up in central Indiana where the Rs are pressed hard and there’s a harshness to the spoken word, these conversations of Western Kentucky had more twang with the sweet, slow movement of molasses, the vowels rounded and extended. The words became more fluid, more beguiling, more intimate. I found myself leaning into them, enjoying their cadence, savoring their earthiness, and smiled just for getting to listen in on these fleeting conversations even if I wasn’t able to get all the words. You never know what you’ll pick up at a yard sale.


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A New Lens

Our trusty old SLR camera lens finally bit it this year. After too much accidental cranking on the focus ring while it was set to “Auto Focus” we stripped the thingamajiggy inside and created the next piece of space junk – temporarily?Ç terrestrial.

So, our lives required a new lens. Wouldn’t it be great if when it arrived our lives would become clear and focused and well composed? Of course, these thoughts never occurred to me quite in that way as I searched e-bay for a replacement but they seem pertinent now that I’m writing about it. Writing about something transparently mundane like this doesn’t happen for me unless I can whip up some kind of “concerto of meaning” to play in the process. Actually, more like a “jingle of meaning” in this case but you get the idea.

So I did the bid on e-bay. I lost the first lens at $150 in the e-bay countdown. During those minutes my brain entered into a tiny sliver of awareness where even house fires can not enter. A place where my need pushes and my sense of comparative valuation pulls. A place where life becomes simple and everything comes down to one question, “Will I get a deal?” In this case the answer was “No” because some greedy bastard wanted it more than me.?Ç

I lost the bid on the second lens a few days later. Same scenario; great buying strategy, fixed and final price point, absolute focus… all for naught. And this time the winning bid went up by twenty bucks.

I did my research. I went to the library and parked myself at the microfiche reader. (Just checking if you’re still following along here…)

What I really did… duh…Cha!!… is use Google like every other single person with a question on the known planet. Did you know that “Google” starts with the same two letters and has exactly twice as many as “God?” Yeah, Google is God squared. Actually God helped us to invent Google to handle all the questions like, “What’s the going price for a used Tamron AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di aspherical IF camera lens for Canon?” Turns out to be around 200 bucks. Google knew because God’s got other stuff going on.

So back to the biding war. I set my price point higher (at just under 200 bucks so I could claim a “GREAT DEAL!” And… I lost again in the classic final flourish of ascending bids and white knuckle brinksmanship.?Ç

Losing three bids on e-bay on the same item just makes you crazy. You want it so bad now you can taste it. The little things just don’t matter anymore.

After coming around to the idea that it is actually e-bay that makes my life worth living and not my wife or family or my well-reasoned philosophical stances or my even my deeply held convictions, I finally won a bid on a lens. I put $150 in as my top provisional bid, intending to finish it off in a blaze of glory. But I?Ç forgot about the bid’s “end time” (oooh… got to love the apocalyptic flavor of that one!) during dinner.

I got the news about the great deal I made after desert. “Hey honey, e-bay says ‘I won!'” Darn right I did, e-bay! Darn right. Even the absent minded occasionally have the winning strategy.

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O for the Presidency

We all seem to be well rid of 2008 by now, what with its economic calamities and recurring images of a world in crisis. Our own tone-deaf and world-blind President leaves office with abysmal support, even among the party faithful. The New York Times tells me that only a third of Americans polled want him to have any public role whatsoever once he leaves office. While we all pretty near uniformly want to see the back of him as President, two-thirds of us want him just to disappear completely from view after January 20th! No role whatsoever. Be gone sir!

I have made personal confession that I see past Presidents in a different light after Mr. Bush 2’s performance. Reagan? I had him down as evil incarnate at the time. I thought he was the master showman who soothed our national nerves with that ersatz cowboy confidence while performing dirty little international Iran-Contra tricks not wholly embraced by our Constitution.

Or George Bush the First. The father of “W” seems like a sweetly benign paternal figure after seeing what his son provided in the second act. How quickly I forget all the campaign shenanigans provided by the likes of Lee Atwater?Ǭ†and crew?Ǭ†(think “Willie Horton”).

I won’t go into guys like Nixon or even rehearse the foibles and failures of guys I supported like Carter and Clinton.

After seeing the debacle of this year’s Detroit Lions football team, a team that lived through the absolute horror of going 0-16, I told my coworkers, “You know all those really bad Lions teams of the past 10 years or so, the ones we all thought we’re so unbelievably crappy? Well guess what… not so bad.”

That’s the effect that President George W. Bush has had on me. His record has been so consistently awful that he’s softened my memories of past presidential-related traumas. After this experience I look back and say, “Reagan? Hmm, he was alright I guess.” Funny how he now looks so much better in comparison. All you have to do at the very least is manage to win one stinking game a year.

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A Lesson in Church

I just spent the morning shoveling sand and drinking beer with my Mexican muchachos. It’s a community ritual known here as “corrado” (I think… don’t quote me) where the guys in town get together and work to pour a concrete slab. All by hand, no concrete pumper truck, just a gas powered concrete mixture and 30 beer fueled Mexicans with one likewise gringo. We did this little exercise ourselves three times for our house but it was fun to finally be a member of the crew. Of course the requisite huge “comida” feast followed where Stef and I gorged ourselves on pollo and frijoles charro. And did I mention more beer. All before 10am. On Easter. Ah, Mexico.

I realize this seems an odd choice for an activity on Easter Sunday morning. But that doesn’t appear to be the case for these fine Mexicans, who find more solid purpose in their religious imaginations with Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Easter here is very sedate festival day. Possibly a welcome relief and respite from a long week participating in the many festivities which culminates for them in the Good Friday procession.

I’ve had quite a week myself. We went to the Palm Sunday procession, then walked through the churches on Maunday Thursday with our good friend Charlotte and out-of-town guests Dot and Wes. Charlotte has become a real resource on Holy Week here in San Miguel (Semana Santa), even authoring a book on the subject. Of course she and Wes hit it off big time (he being a student as well as teacher of world religions).

I also had my wallet stolen that same night in a church courtyard. My own minor Maunday Thursday betrayal. I was foolish enough to forget all my lessons on how to take due precautions while traveling, leaving my wallet bulging provocatively from my back pocket. (“Mira chavo, el gringo esta estupido!”). The theft was executed very professionally using the old block and bump routine. And right in a church courtyard, in front of a Jesus praying in Gethsemene and a Judas hanging from a tree still holding his sack of coins. If the story of Jesus praying in Gethsemene while the disciples slept can be viewed as a story about vigilance then I was certainly the sleepy desciple. I’ll leave you to guess who played the part of Judas in my mind with his bag of coins.

Only for that moment though. The thief has my forgiveness by now and it comes to him with the hope that the $140 bought more groceries than Tequila.

One final piquaint irony. I discovered my wallet missing much later while Wes and I were walking with the group to the restaurant. We were talking about how people we both know who are physically challenged in one way or another manage daily to deal heroically with their adversity. Until that moment for me, the proposition remained strictly hypothetical.

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The Paducah Forum

We are once again preparing for a trip to our home in Mexico. Our plan is to get down there twice a year if at all humanly possible. With the date fast approaching I am just now realizing that I haven’t yet posted anything about Paducah. That would put me in the position of writing a blog post from Mexico a week or so from now with never a mention that we’ve been doing in Paducah for all this time. It’s possible I could use the excuse that the life here seems less exotic, somehow less noteworthy. Or maybe the weblog has taken on a “Life in Mexico” flavor that I find hard to shake. Or it could be that I suffer from classic writer’s block. Actually all these things apply to some degree. Add in a healthy dose of being preoccupied with adjustments to home making in Paducah, taking on a full-time job, etc., and the elements for the long silence begin to add up. The truth is, I’ve started writing several times and always came up empty. The sparks never seemed to create the flame. This morning is a little chilly so I’m getting out my flint to try again.

Paducah is a wonderful place. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a town more friendly and gentle. The pace of life is a true antidote to the disease of urban frenzy and the mild weather in general is a balm. The members of the artist’s community have been all of the things we expected; stimulating, committed, fascinating and kind. We did arrive at a somewhat awkward moment here with the community undergoing some fractious upheaval. None of it is unexpected as part of the growing pains of this noble experiment as it emerges from it’s heady visionary days and aims towards solidifying and institutionalizing it’s gains. I say “noble experiment” because the concept of an artist’s relocation program contains just enough of that element of intentional community to supercharge the group dynamics. Since we are all in a sense stakeholders in this project, there is no avoiding the inevitable clash of opinion over the direction in which we move.

At this point I really hesitate to revisit the particulars of the period recently past. But I do feel the need to at least talk in general terms about some of the lessons we can draw on in retrospect. Much of the emotional hurt was unfortunate and avoidable. Some of it was inevitable since a large part of the community decided that it was necessary to create an alternative organizational structure for the artists of LowerTown. Some building blocks for that structure were inadvertently dropped on some people’s toes. The truly curious element in the whole tussle was (and is) the part that e-mail played in actually militating against communication. We have an e-mail group via Google Groups called “LowerTown Artists Forum.” It was established to provide for the dissemination and cross-fertilization of ideas. While it does serve those functions adequately as far as getting news and questions out to the group quickly, it suffers from two very significant shortcomings.

The first might be characterized as; “I didn’t know it worked like that!” This is the shock (and shockwave) that comes from realizing you’ve just sent a very personal and pointed opinion out to the entire group when you just meant to talk to one confidant. The e-mail forum concept was simply too new and unfamiliar to many and simple mistakes in addressing messages soon turned into major flaps. In an e-mail forum, the dreaded “reply” button turns into a broadcast medium, blanketing the entire forum. Private thoughts promptly become public knowledge simply because the sender neglected to check the address line carefully before sending. I want to emphasize that the mistake made here isn’t in having the sentiment. We all tend to air our most strident opinions only in safe (read: “private”) contexts. This context is crucial for us all to vet our opinions so that they may be brought to the larger stage based on feedback received in the private setting. The mistake arises only from a simple lack of knowledge about a very new media. I’m sure that in the early days of telephone usage people didn’t understand the function of a hand over the mouthpiece.

The other shortcoming of the e-mail method is the “Alternative to face time” dilemma. We use e-mail because it is convenient, free and has the nice quality of instantaneous reward. It’s truly amazing to think that we actually lived without it all these years. But a huge problem with e-mail is that we now use it as a substitute for face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction. Time and again, a contentious issue would emerge in the forum and promptly degenerate into personal attack based on a misreading of tone and nuance. We rely on a whole variety of subtle cues to communicate nuance of meaning, most of them are visual and auditory. All of this can be lost in translation between the voice in our head when we write and the voice that is heard by the recipient of our e-mail. This is especially true when motives are in question or mutual trust begins to break down. The solution to a situation like this where intentions are misread is simple but takes some courage and a bit of generosity of spirit; pick up the phone and call. Just call. Begin with something like; “I thought we should just talk to each other because the last thing I intended was a personal attack on you.” The price we pay by not talking to each other is immense.

Since I’ve now jumped up on my soapbox to provide my “how to” guide to e-mail usage let me make another suggestion. Resist the urge to present yourself as cheerily constructive and positive in the open forum while flaming the person you contend with in the private e-mail channel. Don’t do it. The validity of your opinion rest squarely on personal integrity and the respect it engenders and by doing this little “one – two” you throw away any chance of being perceived as someone who sets aside personal issues in the interest of reasoned discussion. The public forum may be fooled, especially if the victim of this maneuver is sensible enough to not expose your duplicity in the public forum. The more important focus of your effort (the person you are in discussion with) is not. In the best-case scenario you’ll get a phone call and you can both talk it all over.

I think this may be my reason for my not writing about Paducah as of yet. I had to get this out of my system before I could move on. I realize that no one is asking for my advice and I that I don’t really know all the ins and outs of this situation. These humble suggestions are only offered in the spirit of fostering community health. But please remember that I need this advice as much as anyone. If my underlying thought in this post is; “we need to stop acting petty”, that’s plainly a projection of what I need to remind myself.

The community here is maturing. We arrived late to the effort but it seems the early “settlement” days are behind us. Ahead lies the challenge of developing the vision into a day-to-day reality. We will continue to disagree because much is at stake and we each have our unique perspective. Now, more than ever, we can’t afford to let our lesser natures dominate. We are muddled people. We are also good people.

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Peace from Central Mexico

A horse at pasture in Alcocer

A horse at pasture in Alcocer

Mexico is a place where the quiet daily routine is practically as old as the mountains behind our house. I watch my neighbor across the rock fence behind us do her laundry by hand and hang it out to dry. The shepherds lead their goats, sheep and cattle every morning to the small lake near our house for a drink before herding them past our front gate to the mountain pastures above. In the evening they return the same way and we get to watch the cooperation between shepherd and dogs as they work the animals, driving them home. Their work is purposeful, yet never hurried. The path is well known by both the animals and the herders so it becomes part of the routine of daily life down here. Watching the comings and goings.

Off to school at dawn

Off to school at dawn

The pigs are a different matter. There aren’t so many, just a handful. Usually a litter born in the spring to a mama sow, who guides her charges up and down the arroyo and parts beyond near our house. They continue to free range until whoever owns them decides they’re ready for market. But until then, we get the pleasure of watching them make their way along, exploring the nooks and crannies for grubs and bugs and whatever pleases them.

I watched a lone horse off and on today make its way around the little lake, grazing grass and weeds. Usually they’re tied somewhere to graze but this one dragged its lead rope around as it meandered from one side of the lake to the other. Part of the time it stood belly deep in the water enjoying the cool, no doubt, and nipping the tender grasses that grow in abundance along the edges of the water. The cattle egrets made their silent way into our valley and swooped out of sight at the far side of the lake. From time to time I was aware of a burro complaining somewhere nearby. A neighbor’s rooster crowed, just because.

A view towards our house across the presita

A view towards our house across the presita

Most of the afternoon I worked on one of the architectural rendering commissions I’m doing right now, listening to “Missouri Sky” by Pat Matheny. Our studio on the second floor is a quiet haven, free of distractions like internet, housework, and television. It looks out on the lake and mountains and all the glorious, peaceful outdoors that tantalizes us, but I guess it’s enough just knowing it’s there that keeps me focused. By 4 o’clock Dave and I were both ready for “tea,” he having worked in our cactus garden and side yard all day, cutting grasses, clearing out weeds, and starting a compost pile. We took our repast up to the roof terrace and settled under the overhanging limbs of the pepper tree at the north end. From there we looked out toward the valley and beyond across which stretch distant fields, the town of La Luz in the mid-distance, and far to the north yet another mountain range, all part of the Sierra Madres that march southward from the border. The sun was bright but the wind made it cool. Soon, the clouds gathered over the mountains just to our south and we were rewarded with a small shower through the sun and a rainbow that stretched from the lake below us to the lower slope of the mountain behind.

Wishing you all peace from Central Mexico.

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Borrowed Eyes

Stefanie models the Talavera tile kitchen

Stefanie models the Talavera tile kitchen

When will your house be done? When are you moving in? How long dear Lord, how long? When you build in Mexico you have to get ready for the hurry up and wait. No schedule is firm, no crew is consistent, every budget is filled with bubbles and shadows. But “poco a poco” the thing gets done. You watch it happen day by day and the changes are so incremental that you sometimes miss the effect. Certain features appear rather rapidly and you go “Wow, look at THAT!”; a spiral column to support the front porch roof, the shaped bricks that form the top edge of our stepped stair rail, the finial at the top of our onion-dome cupola. But the mass of changes accumulate slowly over the course of days and weeks. That and the fact that our focus is always on whatÕs still left to be done all militate against awareness that any real progress is being made.

Stefanie poses with our friend Floyd in front of our house in Mexico

Stefanie poses with our friend Floyd in front of our house in Mexico

The best way to see what has evolved is with the help of friends. It’s time like these when you just need to borrow some eyes. We invited a group of friends over a few days before leaving for Florida even though our construction site was still a mud and gravel lot, the exterior paint job half finished, the second floor is still a work in progress with tile-lights-bathroom in various states of completion. But inviting them over was the right thing to do because those borrowed eyes helped us to see what we’ve actually done. Where we see an unfinished structure set amidst a chaotic heap of construction rubble, they see a little gem of a house with no mention of those other distractions. I’m always looking at what’s left to be done instead of what’s right there before my eyes. The accumulation of details needs a fresh set of eyes to appear whole.

Hermilo does the brick rail on the staircase

Hermilo does the brick rail on the staircase

Our friends were generous with their praise for our efforts. All of them had experience with the distinctly Mexican process of home construction, to one degree or another. We had good conversations up on the roof patio, comparing notes and swapping horror stories. But I benefited most by being made to see the whole thing at once, as something to be appreciated and celebrated, instead of just a pile of unfinished details moving glacially towards completion.

The cupola. Mario said "This is art" This is right

The cupola. Mario said “This is art” This is right.

The first floor is largely done; the terracotta tile is sealed, the walls are painted. Our bed frame and headboard arrived a day before our mattress. And we had one lovely night sleeping on it before we had to leave for Florida. The refrigerator was moved in just as our cooler arrived from our rental casita. The built-in closet was installed the same day our car arrived with a pile of cloths on hangers. “Just in Time” construction. And just in time to leave for Florida and another rounds of art fairs.

Paint on walls of the dining room. Cat installed in the chair.

Paint on walls of the dining room. Cat installed in the chair.

We’ve left the house to our work crew; Mario the head maestro (“El Mejor”), Hermillo the other magnificent maestro, and Diego and Francisco our two helpers who endlessly mix cement and carry it up to the maestros. Oh, and our cat. We’ve actually built the place for her I think. Paintbrush will get to enjoy the fruits of our efforts more than we will the next two months. She’s got several prime sunny spots to lounge in and a place to look out the window there. Our previous rental casita had virtually none of those kitty amenities. And she’s got Margarina to come every day to tend to her needs.

Our full crew will be working for two more weeks while we’re gone and after that we might just have ourselves a house. We’ll return in April to touch up paint, put some plants in the ground, put our feet up. Take a look around. Start to “see” the place.

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What of Silence

I can sneeze again. And finally blow my nose. I can pick up something heavier than a gallon of milk. Oh yes, and one more thing. Best of all I can also hear again. This last and best thing is thanks to the wonders of technology by way of a new cochlear implant. All the other things were just nuisances, my restrictions after the surgery. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve found you can wait out nuisances but it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a lot harder to deal with obstacles that threaten your way of life.

I can now say that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve experienced hearing loss both gradually and all of a sudden. If I have a choice, quite frankly I prefer the former. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a whole lot more manageable in the long run, allowing you time to prepare and practice and think your way through coping with it. With the failure of my CI last month the loss came on like a gale force, and in fact sounded like one. A huge roaring, screaming wind that threatened to knock my head off if I dared to turn on my processor. There were no hints that something was up, at least not anything to make me believe that my miracle of hearing was about to come to an abrupt halt. I was simply going about my normal day when it suddenly sounded like a motor had been turned on which had no directional clues and kept on so unrelentingly that I silenced it by turning off my processor. When I turned it back on I knew that something was desperately wrong. The noise was no longer a motor but an unbearable screaming rage.

For approximately a week Dave and I mustered forces to deal with this new prospect in our lives. I found that if I weathered the screaming for a few minutes it toned down to a dull roar which I could withstand long enough for some conversation. I even managed to make a few phone calls to arrange an evaluation appointment with an audiologist in Dallas to see what the problem might be. For his part, Dave helped me stay positive with humor, patience and understanding. In the end we made our way to Chicago to meet with my doctor and audiologist as well as a representative from Med El, the manufacturer of my CI, to come to some conclusion about what was happening and what solutions might be available. All three agreed upon seeing me and hearing my descriptions of what was going on with my CI that it had failed and would need to be replaced.

I had always said years ago with my first CI that I would be fine no matter what happened with it. In my new reality of total deafness after receiving my replacement CI that resolution seemed a tad glib. While waiting for activation (that is, getting hooked up to your processor) during my first experience I still had the luxury of some hearing in my non-implanted ear and wore a hearing aid in it. So while my world seemed a little less clear, I still functioned pretty normally. I talked with people, went to work, stayed connected. This time I had no such assistance from my other ear. Its last vestiges of hearing gave way within a year of my first implant. I awaited my activation this time acutely aware of the difference and grieving the loss of my residual hearing as though deserted by a dear friend.

The silence in some ways seemed almost as unbearable as the screaming noise from the failed CI had been. Since Dave and his family, with whom we were staying during my recovery, know little sign language we were forced to communicate through lip reading and writing notes, neither of which prove very satisfactory in following a conversation. I also knew from living with my first CI that when it was turned off I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t speak very much. So during that week prior to activation I became not only deaf but also mute, speaking only when asked something or if I had a question. My world turned inward to a terrible degree. My disquiet at this sudden deafness was surprising given my earlier resolve. Evidently things weren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t so neat and tidy after all. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s one thing to say you are fine with deafness but finding your way when thrust into it of a sudden feels like being in a rudderless boat. You are adrift without direction, your connection to the greater world cut from beneath you.

A friend asked if there were something good about the silence. For me there is if the silence is chosen. At night with my processor off I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t have to endure snoring or dogs barking or other disquieting distractions. In the morning it is nice to go about my routine thinking my own thoughts, free to ease gradually into the noisy world. My week of enforced silence was an endurance test, or perhaps more so, a test of my will. I marveled at my friends who have gone into this silence and accepted it as their life. Most became proficient at sign language, but all have come out the other end as productive, happy people, at peace with where they are. Given time, no doubt that would also be me if I would have to go that route. To get there would require a considerable period of adjustments not only on my part but also that of my family and friends.

Today I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m experiencing the wonders of sound again. The voice of my husband, friends, family. I talk on the phone and listen to the shrill whistle of a morning bird who frequents our yard. I hear the call and response of lambs and their mothers grazing along the creek just below our casita in Alcocer, the rhythms of jazz on a radio station streamed over our computer. I shop and run errands, managing my transactions in broken Spanish. Life goes back to normal, but it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s with a new perspective. That there are still new twists and turns in my journey of deafness which require adjustments and introspection as to my response to it. I value more the varied choices of my fellow travelers in surmounting the challenges of deafness that threaten to cut off the world. I realize more than ever that my reality is an existence split between silence and sound. And I know the price exacted to achieve a balance between the two. Peace is had not by mourning the loss but by embracing the life that is.

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