Saturday, September 15, 2012

Embracing connections and limitations

Our planned two-week trip to Washington State to see family turned into a month-long odyssey. Erin's father had a major stroke (on top of others and more than a decade of serious health problems) the day before we were due to fly back to México, and we ended up staying through his dying process and a memorial service. 

While there have been plenty of deaths in our families, for both Erin and me this was our first time to actually sit for hours and days on end in a room (the living room, in this case) with someone actively dying. I won't try to capture the full range of emotions, which in any case will be better and more profoundly known by many readers, but I will share a quote from one of my very favorite books of all time, Rodney Smith's Lessons From the Dying, that kept popping into mind both during and after her father's death:

In one of the Buddhist discourses a Brahman asked the Buddha if all mortals fear dying. The Buddha responded that not all people are afraid to die. He said, “Only those who thirst after sense pleasure, or thirst after the body, or perform a lifetime of unwholesome deeds, or are confused about the way things are, fear death.” That probably covers most of us. How we handle the daily deaths associated with loss and change tells us a great deal about the problems we will face when we physically die. 

When we left San Miguel for the U.S. we already knew that the serious air pollution problems there coupled with its inescapable urban intensity meant it wouldn't work as a long-term home. That knowledge combined with having moved four times in four months since being there, on top of so may other moves in recent years, was then leavened with having to move constantly while up in Anacortes, Washington where Erin's folks live, in order to make room for ever more family members coming to visit during her dad's final days of life. The net effect of it all was a sense of groundlessness and homelessness that probably made us about as empathetic as anyone could be with a dying person going through the process of becoming a disembodied consciousness without a body - truly ultimate homelessness!

We've spent so much time since prematurely exiting the world of full-time employment trying to find outer circumstances where we could survive financially and hopefully thrive in other ways, knowing all the while that what was needed on our part was far more digging in, acceptance of limitations and focus on spiritual work. Without a doubt the time has long since come for our primary focus to be on what we do every day, not where we do it. Wake up each morning and say: here is today - I'm not guaranteed another - how will I spend it? And at the end of the day, review, reflection, aspiration, really knowing in the body that there's no guarantee of waking to see another sunrise.

Since we had to cancel our return plane tickets we decided to return to México via Guadalajara rather than Mexico City - far easier routing from Seattle plus a chance to revisit Lake Chapala with fresh eyes. Since being here we've had a chance to enjoy the lush beauty of the rainy season, visit old friends and check out the housing market.

Given the horrific violence here in April and May and the ongoing reality of drug cartel activity there's no danger of any new "move to paradise" real estate sloganeering in the near future but newfound maturity and lack of naiveté about such issues was probably long overdue anyway. The north shore of Lake Chapala remains a place of great beauty, near-perfect weather and affordable living that's graced with a pretty extraordinary expat community. We feel at ease here, and there's something about being near water that soothes the soul like nothing else we know. Far more important, we have friends here and know the ropes, the trails, the shops, the seasons. Those things are increasingly important for a couple who have moved far too many times, who are homebodies at heart who want to be periodic adventurers but who have no appetite (or talent) for the "perpetual traveler" (or more accurately "perpetual mover") lifestyle.

As for concerns about crime and violence in the area, the killings here involved entirely random targets - innocents picked up off of the street in a Guadalajara-based narco cartel turf war. We're no more afraid to walk the streets here than we would be to, say, go to a late-night showing of a Batman movie in a Colorado theater. There's no doubt that bad guys and crime are around - but the same would certainly be the case in any city we'd be living in in the U.S.

There are small but vibrant Buddhist and contemplative Christian communities here, and lots of hunger for spiritual practice and teachings (along with the usual flakiness, commitment-phobia and perpetual comings-and-goings that seem to characterize every community of expat retirees we've been around). These groups and others provide all of the opportunities for service work and building community one could ask for.

entrance to the house-turned-sanctuary of a member of the local sangha

Our choices as we saw them as we got on the plane to return to México were to either return to Lake Chapala or throw in the towel on expat life and return to the U.S. Having gone through the huge upheaval of selling car, house and possessions in order to make the move it seems beyond foolish not to give life down here our best long-term effort. At a bare minimum it's clearly prudent to be here through the Presidential election cycle and 2013. If we wake up to a Romney/Ryan administration come January that pretty well slams the door on any desire to live in a country boneheaded enough to let that happen, while on a more personal level it would also probably mean the end of the Affordable Care Act and with it any chance for us to access affordable health care back home. 

More positively, there's an ease and simplicity of life here (as in San Miguel, but even more so) that provides lots of support for the ways we want to spend our time. We've found a tranquil and spacious house to rent with plenty of room for yoga and massage. The best supermarket in the area is a two block walk away, as is the bus, and we can walk to our meditation groups in 10 minutes or central Ajijic in 20, on wide, lightly-trafficked tree lined streets awash in bougainvillea, orchids and jasmine. When the need arises, as it's sure to more and more frequently, to get on a plane to visit family, the airport is 30 minutes away and flights are affordable. 

We'll miss a lot of aspects of San Miguel, starting with a handful of incredible friends, but for our needs and priorities Lake Chapala clearly makes the best home base. We're going to do our best to make it home and make a difference. Given our track record we realize we'll have to stay put for years for anyone (including ourselves) to believe we'e changed our peripatetic ways. Here's hoping. 

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