Report # 2: An Unusually NEW Year

Tishrei 1, 5775 / Jan 25, 2014  - “An unusually New Year”

            It has been a while, at least for those of you who have not been following Linda on Facebook. Please pardon our absence from the blogosphere. These last few months –these last few years, really – seem to us to have been a churning of relentless activity and new beginnings, leading up to this Really New Beginning. If it seems useful to date it from something, why not from today, Rosh Hashanah, day one of the Jewish new year 5775.

            This stream of new beginnings began in 2008, following the year during which the defective liver with which I had been born decided to set my whole machine onto an accelerating slide to a final shutdown. In March of that year, thanks to our friend Dan Carpenter’s selfless gift of half of his own perfectly functioning liver, we swapped out all of my defective old one for half of his Alpha-1 anti-trypsin manufacturing new one in a live-donor transplant that had us on adjoining tables for nearly 12 hours. As soon Lahey Clinic sprung me from the recovery room and I had gained enough strength to lift a telephone, I celebrated my rebirth by calling the university personnel department and formally announcing my retirement. Dan and his wife Jean, who was clutched tight with Linda during this whole nail-biting ordeal, are now our liver-in-laws. They will soon also become our landlords (see below).

            The downside of retirement: no salary. The upside: no committee meetings, no student papers to evaluate, and freedom from the tyranny of the academic calendar. With the breathing room—and gratefully, still breathing!—I finished The Lost Minyan (UNM Press, 2010) and began work on a book about some communities of Portuguese crypto-Jewish silver miners in colonial Mexico, completing the first draft early last week. Linda, who in solidarity with my rebirth also retired from teaching Spanish, has become editor-in-chief, knitting maven, and gardener extraordinaire while sharing with me the joy of freedom of movement . . .

            . . . which turned out to be a damned good thing. Though Linda’s liver could not be in better shape, a combination of other auto-immune glitches like Raynaud’s Syndrome, pulmonary hypertension, and scleroderma, have somewhat limited her mobility and have removed from our list of acceptable options that of spending another winter in ice-bound New England.

            So, beginning with the winter of my new liver, every October we have motored south to Mexico. The first couple of years we wintered in Michoacán in a rental house in Zirahuén on the shore of a little lake surrounded by pine-covered volcanoes. We loved the town and the rural environment. Zirahuén is nestled in the midst of what is probably the most beautiful countryside we have ever seen or will see and makes for spectacular hiking. Linda and I made many friends there among the Mexican and small ex-pat community of Zirahuén and of nearby Pátzcuaro. Those were the upsides of Michoacán. The downsides were that Zirahuén is in the heart of the Michoacán Cartel country, and though we grew accustomed to seeing the drug police come through the area daily in their Kevlar vests and their black hoods and their heavy weapons, and though we were never inconvenienced in any way by our apparently peaceful coexistence with the bad guys, it did from time to time give us pause for thought. The other downside of Zirahuén was the altitude: at a little over 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) it proved too cold for Raynaud's and too high for comfortable breathing.

            After detouring one winter to do archival and field research in Spain and Portugal, we went back to Mexico to look for a place that was still in the mountains but lower, warmer, rural, and comparably friendly. Year one we tried out several options and liked the Oaxaca area best. Year two we rented for the winter in the village of San Pablo Etla near Oaxaca, and loved every minute of it. It is much lower than Zirahuén, only 5,300 feet, about the altitude of Denver. We made many new friends and found the culture of the area endless fascinating. In fact, we liked our life in the Etlas so much that it forced us to do the really serious thinking.  

            For half a decade now Linda and I have been five-and-fivers: five summer months in Rhode Island, a month to drive south, five winter months mostly in Mexico, and a month to drive north. Always just saying hello or just saying goodbye. Always restocking the larder or eating it down to the crumbs. Always short-timing our decisions. Never carving out an interval to go visit anyone else. We found ourselves disengaging from our northern community because we hesitated to make long-term-commitments; and we never fully engaged with the southern one because who knows when or if we’d be back. Not to mention that living half the year in somebody else’s house, relegating our possessions to one drawer in their dresser and one corner of their closet, is at best inconvenient: cooking on their pans and eating off their plates; looking at their pictures on the walls. We were watching our emotional bond with our northern house and gardens, in which we have invested so much energy and so many resources over the years, begin to atrophy, while not having a southern home to configure to our liking or land where we could plant a garden.

            All this unsettledness swirled in our subconscious. Once we vocalized it, it did not take us long to decide that we were tired of five-and-fiving. We wanted to reside all in one place or all in another, and the north, for reasons over which we have negligible control, was out of the question. We needed Our Own House, and we wanted it to be in Mexico, a country in whose culture and language we (and Deborah and Abby) feel entirely at home.

            For two months we looked at every house we could find in the Etla villages that was rumored to be for sale. A couple of them we looked at repeated times. Too much money; not to our taste; too little land; too close to neighbors; lousy view.

            Well, we said to ourselves, we suppose we could always build something if we found a nice affordable property (conveniently forgetting that we had sworn after building the addition to our Kingston house that we would never build anything again). So we prowled the hillsides looking for lots; we talked to neighbors, women in the markets, cab drivers, our Gringo and Mexican friends. We found two parcels of land that we liked, made offers, entered into negotiations, and could never get the price down to what we could afford, even counting with selling the Kingston property to cover the costs. Then early one morning, starting out on a hike with our friend Tom, he pointed out a bean field about a kilometer up hill from the San Pablo church and town hall that someone had told him might be for sale.

            Within two weeks we had agreed on a price for the 4,000-meter lot (about an acre) with the nephew of the owner, who was working in Mexico City. By the next week we had hired an architect and general contractor. In late April a crew with machetes chopped out a little area up by the loquat orchard (nísperos) where we could put a small house. And on August 5 we moved into our little casita, with its one bedroom, one bath, boutique kitchen, waffle-size living room, and ample front porch. We had acquired a dog (Mica, half-greyhound and half-miscellaneous), learned how to fix adobe with fermented cactus juice so that it will be impervious to rain, and made 40 new friends in the village. We put in a row of coffee bushes, a gift of doña Carmen Solís, the mother of Tami and Karen’s gardener Lázaro. We will live in the casita while we build the main house. After that, the casita becomes the guesthouse with your name over the door.

            On September 7 we flew back to the States. Closeted ourselves with the realtors to discuss strategy. Visited half of the medical professionals in the state of Rhode Island. Said goodbye to friends. Readied the Kingston house for what we hope will be frequent showings by our realtor. Packed the car. I went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah eve while Linda combed the house for stray tasks. We left our tenant Marianne in charge of everything. And at dawn, at the start of the 5775th year of creation by the Jewish Calendar, in the sixth year of my new life, we pointed the CR-V at Oaxaca and hit the road.



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