Where Am I?

I still love it here, in fact, I love it more. Yesterday — after donating my medical equipment bought to help me recover from the knee surgery I’ve decided not to have (right now? ever?) to the First Christian Church here in Monte Vista (they have a closet of medical equipment for people who need it) I thought about what it has always been about this town that has appealed to me.

I lived six happy childhood years in Bellevue, a small Nebraska town — it was twice as big as Monte Vista because the population included the people living at Offutt Air Force Base, but the town itself was very like this one. It sat between the Missouri River and the endless prairie on the edge of agriculture. It was older than Monte Vista by seventy years, originally a trapper’s way station during the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It had the small-town essence that this town does. On nights when there were little league ball games or girls’ softball some church or other would put on an ice-cream social. People paid a quarter and the ice cream was homemade. We rode bikes through the town, kids like dragon flies, free and unfettered through a dimension almost free of adult supervision. To the pool, to the park, to the tennis courts (by the junior high), to the one movie theater, to the drugstore, to the Dairy Queen.

Bellevue in the early 60s

Bellevue as it looked when I lived there

Last night as I went to sleep I realized I have moved back to the place I was happiest as a kid. I came looking for that, for people like the people I knew back then. I’ve found them. I just returned from a little “boutique” of holiday crafts and gifts. It’s an annual event held at the Masonic Temple by a small group of crafters. I did most of my Christmas shopping. The people who make the items that are for sale work all year toward this weekend. There were cookies and punch — homemade cookies and punch from a punch bowl.

Monte Vista as it is today.

Monte Vista as it is today.

For a long time I’ve been disenchanted and cynical about modern life, our rushing, commodity driven acquisitional culture in which people matter less than things. I was worried when I moved her that I’d have a hard time fitting in but that has not been the case at all. I have been welcomed; it’s as if Monte Vista had been waiting for me as well as I had been looking for it.

I walk the dogs and people wave; some people have come to know me and Dusty and Bear. There’s a little boy who watches for us in the evening because he’s so entranced by my big white dog. People are natural and open and sincere and I have felt my guard drop a little more each day. The kind of tolerance I always knew as a kid I am experiencing here. When there are few people and people need friends and allies against a harsh climate and the isolation of a small town, individuals are valued. Friendship — a huge challenge for me in California — is easy here.

I’m so happy I made the decision I did even though, financially, life is not always perfect — but could any human live with a perfect life?

Feeling It

I’ve always thought that anniversary thing was BS. I didn’t mourn my dad on the anniversary of his death (difficult because in real life he died on February 29…). I don’t even know what day my mom died. My brother? I know but I didn’t know it at the time…

But I definitely remember September 15. September 15, 2003, I closed the deal on my dream home in the mountains of San Diego County and moved in.

On September 15, 2014, I closed the deal on the same house and began the serious and final preparations for moving out.

We planned it that way, my real estate agent and I.

I didn’t feel much last year. Everything was focused on getting OUT and getting on the ROAD and finding a place to live. I arrived in Colorado on September 20, 2014 and moved into my new house four weeks later. Exactly. The deal didn’t close formally for five more days, but it didn’t bother anyone that I was living here while they finished replacing the roof.

The anniversary thing.

Yeah, this one I feel, perhaps because I couldn’t feel it then. Now I know how those 30 years affected my view of the world. How working in the way I did for so long formed me into a determined and highly focused person. I also, today, faced the reality that I didn’t really want to leave. I loved my house. Those mountains were easy, small, accessible and familiar. I also know, now, that no mountains anywhere are any different, really, except in matters of scale. The 7 inch waterfalls at Mission Trails Regional Park are no different from any waterfall here in the Rockies; they’re just smaller and harder to see.

But I learned to see them.

Still, I’m grateful I’m here. I was thinking this morning how great it is not to be working. I think I actually worked LONG past my sell-by date without knowing it because I had no choice. I’m grateful for the concatenation of events that let me to lose my job at City College and end up at San Diego State University long enough to get the wonderful retirement benefits I have now. Someone was looking out for me.

Lately I’ve also come to understand that I’m no longer obliged to prove anything to anyone. I can relax. No one’s looking any more; the race is over.

So…

Thank you little house in Descanso for being a home and haven during hard times and for sending me off with enough money in my pocket to find a new house and a new life. Thank you for eleven years of your 90 year existence. You are beautiful and I hope everyone who moves into you loves you as much as I did — and do.

2

Grand Opening

I moved here without knowing anyone and, of course, I brought my personality with me. I’m a friendly introvert and that means if I’m drawn out, I enjoy people but contact has to be focused on something outside of me.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been involved in a new business here in Monte Vista. I’m a small player, but it’s still something that helps my town, and the people I’ve met are wonderful. In a small place like this there is every kind of person you find in a big city, just fewer of them, maybe one of each. It has brought home to me how much a communal effort demands a variety of types in order to succeed. It’s never easy — communication styles and needs are so different — but, at the same time, each type is valued highly. The one thing everyone has in common is wanting the co-op shop and gallery to succeed. There’s friction — substantial friction — but we all know that without each others unique talents we’d have less chance of making it.

Yesterday was our Grand Opening — and it WAS grand and sweet. We all brought food. One of the members borrowed the church coffee maker and stressed that she had to get it back before evening so it would be ready for Sunday. We had live music — including a very, very talented high school violinist. We had door prizes (each of us contributed something). We had artist demos — in my case this was painting the window outside the shop, an immense, hot, fun project I shared with two other co-op members and the granddaughter of another.

Some of the members of the co-op raise animals, harvest the wool, clean the wool, card the wool, dye the wool, spin the wool and make it into things people can wear. Others are crafty and make cute things people like to buy. Others make jewelry. Some work with wood. But the things in our store would go for hundreds of dollars in an exclusive shop in La Jolla if this were California. I don’t think this group could exist in California.

Yesterday was one of my happiest days in recent memory. For one thing, I painted all day. The shop made $700 — that’s a LOT of money for a small shop in a small town. We had lots of visitors and the atmosphere was truly joyful. I had several jobs as a member of both the Marketing and Special Events committees. I had already designed and produced invitations. I made raffle tickets. I designed flyers to pass out. I designed a window painting that was probably 30 feet long. Friday I went to the co-op and painted white on the windows to serve as a sketch and a better background for the paint. I’d sketched designs and downloaded photographs to make it easier for me to share the work with other co-op artists. I knew for sure I had one partner and I hoped to recruit at least one other painter for this big job.

Everything about the experience was great.

First, I got to — for the first time — use my tool box. It’s a big old metal tool box, red, that I painted with drippy gold spray paint years ago. That led to one of the worst fights I ever had with my brother who argued that you can’t paint gold over red, that it violates every rule of art. I’d just returned from China and red with gold drips and spots and sparkles was good luck. I had dreams — at the time — of taking this paint box out to paint with. 30 years later? It happened.

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Then, I wrote a novel about a muralist — a street painter — but I’d never done street painting. In Martin of Gfenn, the protagonist earns his living by painting frescoes on the sides of buildings and the walls inside churches and homes. I’d imagined every step of this process, so when it finally came my time, I knew what to do. I followed “Martin’s” procedure to prepare myself. And there I was; outside, painting.

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The co-op member — Cynthia — who was painting with me was nervous, but once she got into painting a rendering of a church, she got into it and forgot being nervous and had fun. There were a couple of sweet surprises — I (in her words) “gently kicked” the ass of another co-op artist, Jeanette, to come out of  (her words) “the closet” and paint in public with beautiful results. And, the eight year-old granddaughter of one of the other co-op members joined me in painting scenery around the horse. We’d already painted together one morning when I was working in the shop with her grandmother, so she had the idea that painting with me would be fun and it was.

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Cynthia Stone painting detail onto the scene she developed through the day.

My colleague’s grand-daughter putting a cross on the church

I love painting. I love my town. The people I’ve met are great and unique. In a small community everyone matters. It was a sweet, miraculous, beautiful day here in Monte Vista, CO.

Monte Vista, 9 Month Update

Above is a painting I did when I was 6. It looks like the Sangre de Cristos with the Rio Grande.

9 Month Monte Vista update. So there I was this time last year on the verge of losing my main job because the classes I taught were being phased out of the college. My contract didn’t count for )(*&. My options were retirement from the university and continue teaching at two other schools or making a big leap and retiring completely (taking social security and moving on).

I waited to see how things would unfold and I began looking for a place to live. I found a house in Monte Vista, CO, a town I’d never seen. The house seemed perfect (it wasn’t) and the town seemed great. Now I know the truth. The house needed work and the town needs help. I’m sure it was hit by the 2009 economic downturn and jobs were lost in the Forest Service and other government agencies. And more. Most of the store fronts on the main street are empty. Most of the houses around me are empty — nice homes, too. I’ve learned that buying a house here is a more serious commitment than I could ever have imagined because houses don’t sell. People move away. I keep thinking of ways to change that. I have a lot of ideas, but no way to initiate them. I have pitched it as a great place to retire to a few of my high school friends who are thinking of moving back to Colorado. That would be great for my town and great for me.

So what do I think of my decision now that I’ve been here nearly 9 months?

I don’t regret a thing. I love this town. I loved it the first time I saw it and I love it more now. I love the way people are fighting for its survival — it’s a town in which volunteers run the movie theater and all the take from the movies goes for more movies and upkeep. I love that I meet HAPPY people who have lived here all their lives and people like me who moved here because they WANTED to.

The mailman and I were talking about it yesterday. “So how do you like it now?”

“I love it.”

“Can’t beat the climate,” he said. He wasn’t joking. “Sure, it can get cold, but it don’t last.”

I said, “I don’t mind the cold, OK when it gets ridiculous like 30 below, that sucks, but you’re right. That can’t last.”

“No. I hated it walking to school back in the day, but it didn’t kill me.”

I walked to school in weather like that, too, back in Nebraska, and it didn’t kill me and I agree; this is a perfect climate.

I still think this is the most beautiful natural landscape I’ve seen (and I have some great landscapes to compare it to). I’m looking forward to getting out into the mountains as soon as my current responsibilities (joyful and laborious, both) wind up a bit. I still haven’t been many places, but I’m very eager to.

I was right when I drew this picture back when I was 6. This is where I’m supposed to be.

A drawing -- self-portrait -- I did when I was six years old. It's clearly the San Luis Valley, but I had never been here. I think it was a letter of some kind, me telling me where to go.

A drawing — self-portrait — I did when I was six years old. It’s clearly the San Luis Valley, but I had never been here. I think it was a letter of some kind, me telling me where to go.

Over the last couple of months I’ve met people and that’s been great. As an introvert, that’s not the easiest thing in the world for me, but I’ve been really happy to be part of the Valley Art Co-op in its opening days/weeks (month and a half?) and also the Monte Arts Guild. It’s been great to go out into the world as an artist not as a teacher. It’s exhilarating, even a kind of relief, even if I have a lot to learn as an artist and a long way to go. That’s all fine with me.

Still, inside me lives a teacher and I’ve finally managed to make some peace with my 35 year career and the way it ended. I don’t think most people in the world have had my good fortune, to spend more than half their life doing something they loved and believed in. The icky experiences of the last couple months recede further back in my memory, replaced by the many, many, many great moments I had in the classroom. The years I spent teaching ESL, I was in contact daily with the whole world. And when I made the transition into teaching native speaker English and business communication I felt that I was involved in helping the future be more articulate, to think more clearly and (hopefully) to have more tools for the enjoyment of life. I don’t feel confused and angry any more as I did last year. I can see now — from this distance — that the bad moments were a couple of months of a whole that was marvelous.

Oh, a real photo of the valley, for comparison. 😉

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How Are You in the San Luis Valley

Ordinary life can be quite extraordinary.

I'm a Writer, Yes, I Am!

Years ago when I was teaching ESL in an international school, I heard (mostly from Swiss and German students) that Americans are ‘superficial.’ I asked why and the answer was, “Ja well you say ‘How are you?’ but you don’t really care about the answer.”

I don’t think that makes an entire people superficial but whatever.

I thought about all the various greetings I had become aware of. In China, Chinese people don’t greet each other with “Ni hao?” which is “You good?” they ask if you’ve eaten. “Chi baole ma?” “Did you get enough to eat?” In Switzerland the greeting seems to vary by dialect but often it’s a regional variation of “Good God” “Grüss Gott” connoting “Good day.” I imagined greeting people in the US with “Good God!” (Take the literal as it’s more interesting). Italy, of course, Buon giorno, good day, Buon di, good day, Ciao, ciao……

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