Category Archives: shelter

rings of eternal strength

Friend, artist, and current Berkeley Springs neighbor* Michael Gotwald gave me two iron hoops he no longer needed for the wheels for his non-existent buggy.  I buried the bigger one in the meadow and mowed a fairy ring around it.

The smaller one is suspended at the end of the porch, creating a visual hook but not a barrier. Inside it is a small element of fired clay.

*His sweet place on Hageman Street is for sale.

Perky Yellow for a happy new year


Haiku for today:

A new day, new year.
McCormick’s “Perky Yellow”
Gives warm glow in Bath.

We have come up to Berkeley Springs (the historic town of Bath), with, as usual, a long list of alterations, beautifications, and general improvements in mind. I drove up one a day earlier than William, anxious to get to the homemaking here that I don’t do at home. I have paint to be applied, curtains and rods to be hung, shower curtain to be replaced, home to be made.

Early humans probably draped some tissue over gaps in walls without giving it much thought, but I started days ago with a visit to JC Penney, where I burned through an hour of a worker’s time as I struggled with too many choices of fabric to cover windows. Ridiculous. That fiber choice steered to a paint chip selection – Perky Yellow it is, mixed up at Hunter’s Hardware.

I called sister-in-law Erica after prepping, but before dipping a brush, to share with someone the anxiety of committing wet paint to wall. “Oh, like glazing a pot,” she said. Yes, like that.

Two walls are newly yellow with paint and fabric, giving a boost to the artwork acquired a year ago for the then bare, white walls, and the house is transformed. Happy new year.

just need to fill up the punch bowl

Whew. Holiday decorating nearly done.

First we retrieve the yule branch from the basement.  It meets many of the criteria of our lives — minimalist, pretty cheap, “green,” a bit crafty.

It has a back story.  In life, this magnolia branch started out as part of a Casey Trees planting (I should say the mighty Casey Trees!) in the triangle park on our street.  Despite our attention and watering, it died.  When the poor dead soul finally fell over and started to migrate into the street from natural forces, we picked it up, trimmed it a bit, and William went at it with white paint.

yule branch

Then I find among our office supplies the Colorformesque sticky gel tree, and arrange its parts on the bathroom door.


All that’s left is filling the punch bowl.

Happy holidays.  Find some good news somewhere around you.


may April showers bring June, July and August showers

William just had another one of those events that come around annually, and like most modern folks, said he didn’t really want or need anything in the birthday gift category.  You’re the same way, I know.

But I wanted to do something. So in the merger of cheap and creative, the result of looking at the catalogs that come to the house and my love of the Georgia Avenue Thrift Store, we have an outdoor shower in the well to the basement door under the deck.

I bought these little hooks, found the working outlet for the power drill (my birthday present to myself when I turned 40 just the other day decade), and screwed them into the inside of the deck.


A showerhead on a hose will screw into the hose bib. Only William would have installed a hot water faucet for the outside water source, as you can see here by the red and blue knobs indicators.  That’s how he rolls.


Thrift store curtains were pretty cheap, if a little too bright red.  I stitched little rings to the top to hang on the hooks, and weights to the bottom edge, so that Shepherd St. neighbors Leslie and Carrie won’t have to see to much of William if a little breeze were to blow the curtains around.


He’s still dubious, thinking I wanted the shower more than he.  Well, maybe, but after biking, gardening, sweating on a construction site, or just because you can, an outdoor shower feels very nice.

Inaugural rinse is pending.




Donde yo estoy (where I am)

Donde yo estoy (where I am)

On the bat-strewn tile floor in the restroom of San Pablo, 1 noviembre 2013.

San Pablo is a sacred space to me.

Helen Hine 1


Helen at our common table, telling about her life, septiembre 2013

This is not a cheery story even when it starts out, so maybe don’t read it. I just saw her about every day so want to note it.  (I moved out of the house described yesterday, as planned.)

Helen Hines was the first person to officially meet us here in Oaxaca.  Her house shares the courtyard with ours, the whole compound owed by her partner Agustino’s daughter, Cathy.  Agostino appeared earlier in these postings, sunning himself outside in a nice hat and a shawl.


Helen at Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, septiembre 2013

She met us when we arrived in early September, gave us keys and a tour of the whole two-room house.

We have gotten small bits out of her, mostly practical information.  She informs where to hide the small plastic-wrapped 5-peso coin for the collector when putting out trash, which restaurants she likes (very similar menus at each of  a consommé, spaghetti, and one kind of meat or another, with a special fondness for fish, conclude with “and for only 40 pesos!”), and where I might find some special thing I have asked about, though maddeningly she can’t recall street names, and “it’s right past that other place” that I have never heard of either.  You know the type.

Helen is apparently quite old, but won’t talk numbers. (She said she once fired a lawyer who disclosed her age to someone.)  Also, every conversation starts with a lot of “What? What?” and a moment or two of firing up the hearing aid before proceeding.

Once in September, I asked her over to the table in the shared patio space, and offered a bit of the wine I had opened.

“Why not?” she said.  And in that quiet one-on-one I heard a bit of her life.  She has been in Mexico, specifically Oaxaca, a long time, more than twenty years, but other versions have put it much longer than that.

She must have been a bit of a seeker — after growing up in New York, there was time in San Francisco, then Guatemala, where she was asked to use her background as a librarian to start a library.  There was a marriage, which ended badly, and Helen has a son in New York City.  “But that was with another guy,” she said, waving her hand loosely at some dismissed relationship.

At some point, she met? fell in love with? hung on to? Agostino, Mexican, once an accomplished archaeologist in Mexico City.  He went to study in the United States, and somehow his career went awry.

So there’s searching, finding, scholarship, romance in the past, now making way for aging, immobility, dementia, deafness and other troubles. Who knows what else.  And you can see from the picture that she was beautiful, with fine features and gestures.

They live in the house behind the gate we share and now owned by Agostino’s daughter in New York.  Helen tries admirably to be the on-site caretaker, but the daily skills don’t come so easily any more.  To use the washing machine, we follow fairly straight-forward instructions, read to us over and over, with the warnings of the bad things that will ensue if we do it wrong.  When the water pump to our house suddenly went out, she yelled increasingly loudly to turn off the pump, ignoring William’s yelling back that it was never on.  And more like that.  Frustration and fear.  Shouting at Agostino and his shouting back.

Her joy remains the Oaxaca Lending Library, a part of her life for all these years.  Through the original and long-time librarian there, Ruth Gonzalez, came her attachment to this house.  Everyone at the OLL has great esteem for Helen, invariably grateful for her volunteer time there and praising her intelligence.  Until recent weeks, she has performed her job there organizing all the periodicals.

Sadly, in the short time we have been here, we cannot help but notice a huge decline.  Daily trips to market, just around the corner, are harder and she needs help with the small package and with clearing the obstructing stairway that’s always been here.

More later.

Sierra Norte in Oaxaca, on foot

ImageOur local friend Orlandini’s parting words to us were to tell us not, absolutely not, to go to the Sierras hiking as we had planned, because the weather conditions are horrible and with the clouds and rain we would not see anything around us.  “You’ll be at six thousand feet and the cloud ceiling will be at 5,300,” or some specific prediction like that.

As William just told, we did it anyway.  Orlandini was accurate about the clouds, but the sun blasted through on both days anyway, so we had our views too.

We started in Cuajimoloyas, which is in fact at 10,433 feet above sea level. William thought it reminded him of Switzerland, with its roofs sloped steeply in contrast to the flat ones of Oaxaca.  It felt a little cold getting off the bus but I couldn’t admit it because I alone was wearing a short-sleeved (but new!) shirt and local people had a few layers.  It was clear there with spectacular view.  And the little store happened to sell impermeables, rain ponchos…

The guide, Israel, arrived precisely on time, and without delay strode up the road out of town.


We hiked for five hours that day, with a little teeny picnic and a bottle of water in our bags (plus camera and a little other gringo stuff).  Each guide started his shift with the tiniest of bags containing:  an impermeable.  That’s it.  None drank water on the whole sweaty romp*, nor carried a first-aid kit with an Ace bandage or litter for evacuation or extra gear for stupid gringo clients (guides did carry walkie-talkies), or even an extra apple.  I’m not a baby hiker, but wouldn’t you feel a little more secure thinking the leader was dependable for that?

As for the “guides’” knowledge – I don’t know.  When we enlisted and prepaid for the two-day trip, there were no cumbersome release forms with fine print to sign.  The guides were ages mid-twenties to 40, did not speak any English (not their fault) and had sketchy knowledge, I think.  For example, one pointed out ferns, “helechos,” but when I saw another type of fern and asked its name, he just said helecho again, and pressed, did not know a detailed name.  Thus, even I could spot about 10 different kinds of ferns, though not name them, and I’m not sure these young guys would get excited about that.

My hope – fantasy? – is that this organization, Expediciones Sierra Norte, is, as advertised, doing what some will call “god’s work” in promoting preservation of nature, responsible land use, and sound local and indigenous economies.  We passed through communally owned land that allowed small privately managed corn and potato fields on the steep slopes (as I understood the explanations), so different from giant monoculture tracts on flat fields in the US.  We did not see tractors, but horses for transport.  The three small Zapotec pueblos we visited did not have a lot going on to the eye; for example, Latuvi has internet access in two locations, one being the ecotourism office, but  only in the afternoons, and no bank or ATM.  The store was out of beer.  The three guides we had all said they loved their communities, saying they were “tranquillo.”  One said he went to Oaxaca about once a month, none had been outside the state of Oaxaca.  So if guiding on these trails can provide a living and permit constancy in the pueblos, good.

The hiking was strenuous, on trails ranging from excellent – and historic, prehispanic even, if I can believe that – to abysmally in need of maintenance, and through the beautiful range of ecosystems with mosses and lichens and low shrubs to 60-foot pine trees.  We followed an arroyo overtaking its banks after the hurricane conditions last week and baked in the open sun.

Taking a lot of pictures of all the plants would be ridiculous; great photographers have done that.  I include two here, just to show a huge mushroom and a cactus, usually thought of as appearing in moist and sere places, and not together, here just three steps apart.


ImageThe fern thing:  This sent me back to Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, a satisfying little travel book that I recommend. He came here to see Oaxaca’s “seven hundred-odd species of ferns” — to the discerning helechophile, a great destination — and I hope to find the names of at least a few that I have seen. (I’ll keep that to myself, since I sense you’re nodding off now.)  But look to that book for just wonderful intelligent and funny writing that will make you feel smart and want to go traveling.

The cloud bank, however, contributed our favorite aspect of this side trip.  Fog is a cloud that has the base on the earth’s surface, and Tuesday night, up in Latuvi, at 7,943 feet, we watched the clouds slide around a mountain toward us, eventually concealing absolutely everything farther than 10 feet away; I am not making that up.  I could see only to the edge of the patio of our little cabana.  So Orlandini was right.

We were the only customers on our particular night.  The little cabins were spotlessly clean with multiple beds, hot showers, flushing toilets and fireplaces.  A guy came in to build and light a fire.  Heaven.  How much do you tip for that?

Morning brought only a slight thinning of the fog; we were to set out in the same white-out on day two.


* William screams angrily as I read this aloud to him:  No one drinks water! They don’t sweat! They don’t pee! It’s 80 degrees and they’re wearing extra layers and a stupid hat!  I’m drinking three bottles of water and Lisa’s juice and 10 minutes away from heat stroke!

In William’s words

Dear Friends,

Lisa and I just returned from two days and one night in the northern Sierra Madre mountains, hiking between small towns.  We crossed the continental divide twice.  This morning, at ten thousand feet, we woke up in a cloud in the town of Latuvi.

I am starting to relax.  I am realizing that leaving one’s own society for an extended stay in another society is a meditation,  maybe like a monk in a monastery.  Deprive yourself of what you know and see what happens.  One thing that repeats for me is when I see new ways of building, like here in Oaxaca, I want to build with those new styles and materials.  Almost every building in town is one- or two-story and often through the street-level door is a compound with at least one open courtyard and many rooms.  I wanted one right away.  You know it never freezes here, right?  I have started to think that I am just building castles.  I feel powerful when I build, but I don’t feel that in other areas of my life.  The techniques are new, but the acquiring and desiring with no end, I am not so sure about.  My father has two complete castles.  I have one and a half.  Who is counting?  Maybe I am.  I cannot have two and one-quarter castles!  There have to be more important things for me to do, but what?  Spanish?!.

Both of us finished our two-week Spanish classes.  Classroom learning is really stressful for me.  I do now understand more of the Spanish I hear; I can’t get my mouth together for saying much though.  I am really resistant to studying.  I am lazy about using my mind.  I have always felt that classroom learning was like groping in the dark.  And I hate being in the dark.  Somehow the pain of using muscles was always preferable to the pain of using brain.  I have to learn how to study!

I have attached a picture of Nina [included also in Lisa’s post below].  She was tied up so as not to disturb lunch at a local restaurant.  I have not ever been able to tie a cat up successfully.  The owner of the cat and restaurant says that Nina knows she will be let off the rope after lunch so she cooperates.



In William’s words

I’m pretty sure that if he were awake to do so, William would allow me to lift his email to friends yesterday.
We arrived safely in Oaxaca.  I has rained every day, sometimes at night, usually late in the day.  The casita is nice, grapefruits that grow outside the door give just a little juice.  The caretakers are named Helen and Augustine.  They both move very slowly and must be in their 80’s.  Helen is the only one who talks and you have to lean in so her hearing aid will work.  Both our little houses are in a compound that is sweet and unkempt at the same time, as mine might be if I was older and less able to sort and clean.  Cathy, the owner, lives in Woodstock, N.Y. We sent a deposit to her in cash then paid the balance of our rent to Helen in Oaxaca, so we are supporting the old folks in the compound.  It feels a little like an old folks home.  We have a cleaning lady who comes twice a week, I think mainly to empty the fecal paper basket since it is not allowed to put paper in the toilet, and will clean and wash the sheets.  A man comes around every day in the alley calling “aaaagua,aaaaagua” and Helen told us if we need a five gallon bottle of water to give him 17$ plus one for a tip.
    I am still not sure why I am here in Oaxaca.  My first attraction is always the materials of construction.  Almost everything her for construction is concrete based: bricks, adobe bricks, plaster, tile.  Lots of paint too.  I spend an awful lot of time fantasizing about my future compound, with its rain collection system and solar hot water. I have already purchased a motorcycle and my helper is going now to purchase some bricks and mortar — not. 
    I saw an add for teaching children English.  I wonder if that is something I can do.  I don’t really understand the mechanics of English.  I got so excited when I reheard the word “subjunctive” listening to Garrison Keillor. I am sure my teachers tried to learn me but I just didn’t.  I am finding fascination in Garrison’s show that had Guy Noir’s client responding to questions with only questions, or the Car Guys with a listener’s letter about all the words like “disgruntled,” where there is no word gruntled if the dis is removed.  I’ll teach them children about hosopotomei and grungification.

wall + paintbrush

wall + paintbrush

In the central district, the old buildings are plaster over adobe or other brick. The beautiful surprises are the colors and so frequently a stunning design; bold, asymmetrical to the point of erratic. This one is created for the eyes of only a few on our tiny dead-end alley, Flavio Perez Gasga, with only eight houses.