Jan's New Blog

My writings about the Constancy of Change in Life and beyond. From my view spot above the city in southern Costa Rica, I write.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Seurat - My Life Hero

Seurat loved the tortillas Frank made for him.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. And some even have feathers, fins or fur and four legs.  Seurat is my four-legged hero.

At fifteen, he is showing the signs of a life well lived with cataracts, some difficulty hearing and a desire to sleep a lot. Still – he has not lost his zest for life.  Which is why he is my life hero.

I met Seurat when he was about 2 years old and living in the Española New Mexico Animal Shelter. I was looking for a companion for my aging sweet German Shepherd, Livvie.  I describe the meeting in my Chapter 4 of my book,  “A Woman Awakens:Life, AfterLife” 


Seurat's first free days in Española
“Seurat’s fur was dotted black on white, thus named after the artist Georges Seurat, a nineteenth century pointillist. I’d hoped to find a Welsh Corgi, but discovered something almost as rare in northern New Mexico, that being a dog that wasn’t a mix of area favorites: Pit Bull, Mastiff, Rottweiler or Chow Chow. When I asked about the dog sitting off in the corner of the fenced kennel that contained smallish dogs, the attendant explained, “He’s not very sociable; been on the street a few years. Gets along with other dogs, but doesn’t like people. He is scheduled to be ‘put down’ tomorrow.”

I looked at all the noses and wagging tails on the other side of the chain-linked gate and then returned my gaze to the dog in the corner. Such a sad sight. Suddenly he lifted his head and focused on me, then uttered a long eerie howl. I replied to the attendant, ‘I want to see that one more closely.’

Seurat with Livvie, 2006
Once Livvie had approved the choice—after meeting and visiting him—Seurat was neutered and Livvie and I brought him home a few days later. It took two months to fully convince him that I was Alpha and he could not go out a door in front of me. Or growl at me.”

During the first two months of my relationship with Seurat I discovered that he was very bright and even seemed to understand my thoughts as well as my words. He was also stubborn – but merely a match for my own stubborn streak.

He came within a day of being taken back to the shelter because I didn’t think I could trust him not to bite me. His growls were sufficiently intimidating to make me wary. In desperation I ttold him that though I really cared for him I would have to take him back to the shelter because I was afraid he would bite. He seemed to listen intently. And from that day, that talk, he did not growl at me again. He got it.

2009. Sitting and looking out over the Costa Rican hills
When I moved to Costa Rica on Christmas Eve, 2008 Seurat and Livvie came with me to my new place. Seurat seemed to love all the new smells and scents – but often sat at the edge of the yard looking out over the valley. It seemed that he was thinking as well as watching. 

Livvie passed away in 2010 and Seurat became my sole canine companion. He took his job of watching over me quite seriously. His protectiveness was severely challenged when Frank and I got together. Though Seurat liked Frank, he didn’t like us spending private time together. Frank, another dog lover was able to change their
dynamic by sitting next to Seurat on the couch and talking softly and directly. “Seurat, the trouble we are having is because we both love the same woman…”  Seurat listened and there was never again a problem.  And he listened again when we asked him to accept into our family a starving shepherd mix female rescued from the streets of San Isidro . He accepted her completely on the day we took him to meet her.  He had objected strongly to another dog and a puppy in the months before. Seurat was definitely opinionated about both people and other dogs.

Though I admired Seurat’s obvious intelligence and ability to understand, it was the example he set for me during illness that put him up on the hero-worthy pedestal.

Seurat, constantly attentive
When my Achilles tendon ruptured in mid-May, 2018, I had emergency surgery to repair it. I was to be in a fiberglass cast from my knee to my toes for four weeks. It was a difficult time and I was cared for by friends and my neighbor/like a daughter Anita since I could not walk. Seurat became even more attentive to me. He was never more than a few feet away from me whether I was resting with my casted foot elevated or moving to another room on a knee scooter. He followed me to the bathroom and watched me while I slept from his bed in the corner of my room.  After the cast came off, I developed a wound infection that kept me off my feet for an additional four weeks – and Seurat kept his vigil. I felt constantly comforted by his watchful presence.

Suddenly one morning Seurat collapsed and was having difficulty getting up off the floor and to walk. His head was cocked severly to one side. I was terrified at the possibility that I was losing my dearest friend to some kind of neurological demise. He was after all 15 years old - or 105 in dog years. Fortunately, a friend arrived who could take Seurat to the Vet,
who gave him 3 weeks worth of medicine (prednisone) and the diagnosis of either a middle ear inflammation or my worst fear, neurological decline. I took over his 4 feedings per day, which at first meant feeding him by hand since he couldn’t move his mouth well.  Slowly he improved. While sick, he still continued his job of watching over me from room to room. A month later – just about when I was allowed to again put weight on my healing foot, he was acting pretty normal except for a slightly cocked head and some persistent weakness. 

The thing that impressed me most, however, was his heart. He just never gave up.  While he was still stumbling and walking wobbly, he would follow Frida out the back door and try to run up the road. Of course he only got a few feet the first time or two – but he didn’t stop trying. 

Such an inspiring attitude about life. I took to my own heart his example of persistence and courage. It was Seurat, this little dog with the big presence who helped me to endure the 89 days until I was able to take my first tentative steps, aided by a cane. I celebrated silently, with my eye on Seurat.

Seurat showed me how to keep going. 

He is my hero.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Scarlet Red

I first used the color scarlet in a painting in New Mexico. I’d always been reluctant to use any red as a landscape color because I thought I’d never actually seen it in nature. My artist’s life was based in the Pacific Northwest—ever green—where comforting and languid blue-greens and analogous hues overwhelmed the seasons. As close as I ever came to red was burnt sienna—a neutral, earthy almost-orange. Sure, I occasionally dropped in a bit of Opera (hot pink)—but only for exuberant rhododendrons in spring, or bright candy in a gum-ball machine.

Then I moved to New Mexico.
Ghost Ranch Red Rocks, Jan Hart, 2005

Suddenly, simmering reds glowed like embers in rock crevices. Washed upon the shaded side of the bloodshot rocks blazed countless scarlet exclamations, only visible to the eyes of those who were tempted to be hypnotized—like when one is drawn to the flames in a fire.

No more denial. Red was alive and thriving in northern New Mexico. Here was a land carved through a volcanic rift between the Colorado Plateau and the High Plains as a zone of red rock beds composed mostly of sedimentary sandstones and shales stained in every shade of red. 

Ghost Ranch Splendor, JH 2004
The real magic was in the interaction with sunlight; each sun ray could strike a hard red rock surface and bounce, carrying with it both color and light energy. Each bounce further charged it so that it was possible to see the glowing scarlet red embers in each shaded overhang or crevice. With over 325 sunshine filled days, there were plenty of opportunities to witness the magical phenomenon of reflected light and color. Red tinted light rebounded all over northern New Mexico. One time, walking up into Echo Amphitheater, the partially shaded sloped sandstone walls appeared to glow. Astounded, I wondered if the very air I was breathing was also red tinted – and what other mystic qualities I breathed beyond the hue.

As I became more obsessed with the phenomenon of reflected light and color, I even placed a bumper sticker on my car that read:  I Brake for Reflected Light. I always smiled when someone passed me on the highway and looked me over – my sticker might as well have stated I was stark raving mad. 

In my New Mexico days, and after them, I ordered Perinone Scarlet, Scarlet Lake, and Vermillion Red. Ached until the precious tubes arrived. And then I used them. Gone was any fear of using red – pure red – straight out of the tube. The redder the better.

It was no surprise that the color showed up in a dream vision several years later. While hospitalized for a staph infection in my spine in 1997, an entity who called himself Raphael spoke to me while surrounded entirely by brilliant scarlet (and a bit of emerald green).  After six weeks of hospitalization and time at home to rest, I made my way out to my studio to see if I could paint.

The Raphael paintings

Raphael 2, jh 1997
For the Raphael paintings I painted wet into wet (wet paint onto wet paper), a technique I rarely used this freely. But it seemed just right during this time when my brush felt like it was almost being directed in a way both unfamiliar and deeply familiar. The paintings came directly from my consciousness; swirls and shades of deep scarlet. I watched as the paints moved against each other and merged together.

I definitely was in a place of less control with these paintings. I was in another world.

Way past New Mexico, Scarlet Red remained tucked into my heart. It had become my favorite color – for painting as well as wearing.  I could almost feel my connection to something greater whenever my brush dipped into Peritonea Scarlet.  It showed me the way forward and eventually to Costa Rica.

In 2008, I was on the last day of a tour to see about the possibility of moving to Costa Rica.  

From A Woman Awakens: Life, AfterLife, page 60

Even though we were driving, I caught a glimpse of a glass-encased statue of San Rafael stationed over the door of the white church. Portrayed in flowing garments in the colors of faded scarlet and pale green-blue, he held a line with a fish on it in one hand. His hair was wavy and blonde. My heart skipped another beat.

I did not ask the tour guide realtors to stop, nor did I share any of my thoughts or incredulity with them, but I felt the subtle pin pricks of excitement along my arms.

The road wound up the mountainside through a couple of switchbacks. Just as the car lurched onto the steepest part of the bumpy road I looked ahead and saw a house painted bright scarlet red and softer emerald green.

Very calmly I asked if the house ahead was the one they were going to show me.

When they answered, 'yes', I stopped breathing. In my mind I was asking myself if this was really happening. How could this be? The colors. The exact colors.

Soon after my move to Costa Rica I noticed the color again at an ExPat gathering. It was the shirt- color worn by a gentle Canadian man named Frank. Two years later we married – and of course both of us wore shades of red. 
Published in 2017. For more information
Frank was my soul mate and the great love of my life. Still one of my favorite memories is seeing him dramatically mimic these words from the actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the title role in a favorite movie of his, and then mine. Kinky Boots, 2005:

“Burgundy. Please, God, tell me I have not inspired something burgundy. Red. Red. *Red*! Is the color of sex! Burgundy is the color of hot water bottles! Red is the color of sex and fear and danger and signs that say, Do. Not. Enter. All my favorite things in life.” 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Continuing 'Notes in the Night'

Farolito Pathway, Jan Hart 2007
At last I am back to writing pages for my book, Notes in the Night. I had pretty much stopped for about a year–this past year–that seemed to consume my thoughts and energy on a daily basis.  Even here in Costa Rica where I am surrounded by as much peace as one could hope for. My heart hurt with daily news of the cruel intentions and actions of humans - against each other as well as our fellow animals and plants on this planet.

What has changed? I'm now certain that all is an opportunity to grow at a soul level. That is what Frank has been talking about since he passed.  Finally I am beginning the writing of Chapter Six, Diving into the Deep  (January - March 2015) that will finish the communication during the first year after Frank died, March 10 2014.  Back then I heard from Frank as often as twice a week as he helped me through several personally difficult life events and also let me know how it was for him on the other side.

A few excerpts from each Chapter....
  • Chapter 1  First Conversations
Jan, it is an amazing thing to be here in this other place. Surrounded, all the time, with pure love and pure being. I see that we are truly all a part of each other, of all that there is. I see that I am unlimited and a part it all. My place is here and I watch you and see that your life is going as it should be going. I know that you understand that you must be patient and honor the time that is set for you to follow. 
  • Chapter 2  Survival Lessons
I know that there are times when you are troubled still and you need to know again and remember that everything is as it needs to be and will work out well for you. Just know it. Just know that the steps you took today are good steps and will provide such balance and positive results. Please pay attention to your thoughts because they are there to help guide you. Follow up when you can.
  • Chapter 3  Magic and Synchronicities
Here it is calm and so loving. All of the pettiness is gone. No one tries to hide their strengths or their weaknesses because they just aren’t a part of life here. We see each other completely. Still we know that all the work is being done on earth – and it is for this reason that we try to help by guiding and pushing and informing and walking among you.   I know you feel lost at times, Jan and I know it is very hard. Please know how many many people are with you and more souls here than you can imagine. 
  • Chapter 4  Darkest Before Dawn
Life is unsure, Jan. how can we be sure of anything at any time when everything around us changes constantly?. It is so true that nothing stays the same, and we must try to hold on in the midst of constant change – not holding on to the what it was a minute ago, but what it is in this minute. You are afraid. Fear of not having enough is creeping back into your heart and mind. You do have enough always.  
  • Chapter 5  The Light Returns

Life is such a strange thing, really. Everyone thinks that it is the most important thing – to be alive. And it is really the least.  The most important is that our spirits are vibrant and connected and enduring. It is our souls that are the most important – and we give them such little regard in life. I should not say that life is unimportant, really. It is very important for what it gives us – the ability to reach out to learn, to respond, to change ideas, to ponder – to grow. All of this is why we live and of utmost importance.
I am eager to continue. And I just posted a recent Note in the Night from Frank that you can view through the website, Notes in the Night    http://notesinthenight.com/

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

On Waiting and Waiting....

This morning
Probably nothing jolts me out of my peaceful life more jarringly than when I am forced to wait. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I am waiting for something pleasant or something unpleasant. Either way – the very fact that I am waiting shifts my focus away from the present – and into the future or the past. Granted, if I’m looking forward with anticipation like a visit from one of my sons or a lunch with a friend, I have an easier time of it. Looking forward begins to add in opportunities for pleasant expectations about the upcoming event.  

And therein is the problem. Stealthily, it is little Expectations that begin to weasel their ways in. It is nearly impossible ever to fulfill an expectation, especially if it is flavored with accents of hope and wishes.  What a perfect set up for disappointment.

And what if the wait is focused upon something not pleasant? In a similar fashion, the recollection of unpleasant experiences from the past come into play.  A flash memory of my survival of a near drowning plays a melodic background note whenever I enter water.  It may only last a few seconds – but it remains tucked in a distant memory of fear, helplessness. And right now the first drop of rain on the roof triggers a flashback to a month ago when my front yard disappeared down onto my neighbors’ access driveway in a thunderous mud slide. Days and nights of continued rain had turned the clay soil to a liquefied feral force that pushed through retaining walls of rock and reinforced concrete. It happened all over Costa Rica – landslides, mudslides, bridges and homes and even entire villages washed away by mud and too much water racing to the sea.  That was Tropical Storm Nate – and though it didn’t even make the news in the rest of the world, it was the most destructive event in memory here.

October 5, 2017
At my place we did what we could. With the help of my Tico friend ‘like a son’ Billy, we got my neighbors’ access road cleared of rock, mud and concrete within 12 hours – which was near miraculous as the entire country struggled through shock and denial and directly into action.

So now I am set up for the Wait. I am waiting for the Dry Season to come so that the building of my replacement retaining wall can happen. It must be dry before the project can begin.  Added onto the waiting time is all sorts of extenuating circumstances, each with its own basis in experience that adds the element of fear to the waiting time.
·      The wall is the only way to fix the gradual erosion of the 20 ft. slope in front of my house – that threatens the house, Frank’s house, the palm tree that is now leaning.  It is urgent, but cannot be done until the dry season.
·      Global climate change is bringing into play more extreme forms of weather patterns and records.
·      This rainy season has been the heaviest in memory and has now been predicted to be longer than usual – extended by one or two weeks.

My rational mind has explored each of the points and come up with very rational responses, of course. We have come up with our plan and it is a good one. After researching through engineers, contractors and others, the gavione wall with good drainage in place will secure the slope in the best way possible. Additionally, with Billy managing the project, we will hire neighbors who will help insure the success through community involvement.  

But what to do about the things that are not in our control like the heavier than normal rainfall, the tropical storms, longer rainy periods, sudden earth changes?  For those things we need another solution – one that can only be controlled within oneself. Perhaps all we can do is shift our perception. We still have to wait. So I must find a better way to wait.

“As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love - even the most simple action.”

My friend Suzanna finds her way through meditation. She has even done a twelve day silent retreat in order to go more deeply into a meditative state where she finds her peace.

I am finding my own ways to focus on a present moment.

At any moment, any time I can choose to focus on the particular task or activity that I am currently doing. And then I slow down my perception of each little part. This morning I was opening an avocado for breakfast. I felt the pressure of the knife as it passed through the skin and around the seed.  Then I noted the angle of the knife as I laid it on the edge of the cutting board. Next I paid special attention to how I took each half of the avocado in each hand and turned them in opposing directions in order to break the fruit into halves – each half a perfect piece of itself. I focused on color and appreciated the shade of green that changed so subtly towards a golden hue as my eye moved from the skin to the center. When I saw one small sliver of avocado at the edge, I touched it with my tongue and noted the cool, smooth texture in my mouth. And I continued my intense awareness of my actions as I finished removing the pit, preparing the avocado slices and placing them on the edge of my plate.  Then I moved on to the papaya. 

Suddenly I noticed that I had no awareness of what time had passed – probably only a few minutes – but that I was in another place entirely. The inclusion of color, texture and taste had magically transported me to the Now.

I was refocused. Refreshed. And content to allow the next moment to evolve as it would.

That night I heard from Frank….

12:34 Tuesday, November 7 2017
I am here with you Jan – as a breeze, as a calm note in the night, as a momentary pause of wakefulness during the night. Life on earth is so very tenuous and brief and can only be marked by the moments that you spend in the present. There is no other way to go through this time except as a series of present moments. Right now this is a struggle for you because you want to feel life is good. You want assurances that all is well. And truly all is well only right in the moment. In the larger realm there is much change. Roiling changes are occurring.  Your job now is to use the time that you have moment by moment and immerse into each moment as best you can. I am here to help with that, but only if you can meet me to receive my help. Yes, you are right – the animals are your teachers. They show how it is done. Yes they get excited about something that is coming – something they look forward to – anticipation – going for a walk, getting a bone to chew, going outside – but the teaching is that the anticipation is for the next moment.  A moment that is still nearly touching this one in the present. That is what they are showing. The lesson then becomes un-attachment. Disengaging oneself to the outcome. Peace on earth implies a calm. A persistent calm – and that isn’t possible during a great turning – which is what is happening now. I can help you with the choices, moment to moment and it is best if you will leave to us the progression of the turning. You can take charge of the moment. These are the great challenges of living right now. For us here – beyond- there is no time. We are continually in the moment, continually at peace because we no longer are attached to distant, or a next, or a future. We can project through analogies like paths, and steps and walking and moving, but we are always in repose and of course we know that this place is so very different than what you are experiencing in the dimension of time and change. So we can help by expanding the sense of the present moment so that it is overflowing with beauty and love and completion. This is the great turning. Turning within to experience the fullness. And I am helping you with this, dear Jan.  feel the peace in that. Now, rest – and rest into the moment. Feel the softness of the pillow and the comfort of your bed and the stillness of the night.

Living in layers of moisture, moment by moment
I think this is a lot to take in.  This immersion into the moment –but it is what I am working on.  I like that Frank says he can help with that. And he does.  Sometimes, when I am remembering to be really attentive to the just what is right with me in the moment, I can feel the slight cool breeze that I know is Frank. This morning, while seeing the amazing morning I was just taking in the colors, the light, the sense of the breeze in the fronds of the palm – and I heard, before I saw, the buzzing wings of a hummingbird that swept close to me as part of the moment. That moment. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Red Plastic Chair

The Red Plastic Chair

It may be that after a significant traumatic event in our lives, we carry on - kind of unsure how we are doing day by day, step by step. We manage - and sometimes we look like we are doing just fine. And other times we notice that the can opener has been placed in the refrigerator. Or a name or word is forgotten. Or that we feel very vulnerable - close to tears for no apparent reason. I believe these are subtle effects of trauma, even PTSD.

On October 5, the entire country of Costa Rica was hit by its worst disaster in remembered history - Tropical Storm Nate. It sneaked in with heavy, non-stop rain for several days along with some wind. But the real calamity was that its heavy rainfall fell onto earth completely saturated from an almost twice normal rainfall for September. The earth just could not receive another drop. And so the countless drops that fell on the tops of this mountainous land ran down to join others, gathering momentum and might as they changed from rivulets and streams to become
courtesy of The Costa Rica Star
rivers, joining other rivers on their mad rush to the sea. Wherever the water couldn't be contained, there was massive flooding taking trees, livestock, homes, villages, bridges and anything else in its way. Suddenly there were landslides marking the slopes leaving major roads and highways blocked with mounds of liquified clay soil.  A distant photo of Costa Rica's crown jewel of biodiversity, Monteverde looked like the mountain was crying.  

That morning I lost the main part of my front yard along with the retaining wall that failed and all the grass and bougainvilleas and much loved trees. My damage was slight compared to so many others. But the horrific sounds and mounds of mangled steel, concrete and suddenly massacred life tore into my heart and lodged in my mind. For the next countless days and nights I would suffer some sort of PTSD, along with so many others - both Ticos and Gringos. 
The country is busy repairing, digging out, rebuilding bridges and roads and electric lines as this country does. With the help of Billy, my Tico neighbor and 'like a son', we cleared my neighbors' access drive below and have made plans for the new gavione retaining wall that will be built when the dry season begins - mid December.

This morning I stepped out to my front porch to enjoy the sunshine and noticed the red plastic chair I had placed the night before. I thought how strange that it looked so good in the morning light.  Back inside I scrolled through all the photos I had taken since the event - curious about where the chair had been throughout the past 24 days..before and after the landslide.

I wondered if the chair was a metaphor for me. 

On the morning of the crash the red plastic chair had been sitting near the edge, next to the bougainvilleas. It had been carried down to find its spot, resting on its back, halfway down the slope. The small red plastic stool was nearby.

Too dangerous to retrieve, I mostly pushed it out of my mind. It was, after all just an old, red plastic chair. 
After the access road below was cleared for my neighbors, Billy brought rolls of black plastic to place over the slope to protect it from further rain; further sliding.   One of the neighbors climbed up to hand the chair up to me. I thanked him and set it aside. After hosing the accumulated mud off its surface, I set it aside on a small patch of grass.

It appeared to silently watch from that place.
On the sidelines.

Billy tied the upper corners of the plastic sheeting to some anchors to hold it in place. It held for a week or so until one of the ties broke. 
Without thinking, I used the red plastic chair as a prop to hold up the edge and insure the continued rain run off.
The red plastic chair had become useful to the project. 

Though I felt relatively sure that the plastic would hold and protect the slope, I didn't feel good sitting out on my rocking chair front porch anymore. I had lost my privacy.  My well meaning neighbors  waved and shouted up to me as they passed below. They had an unencumbered view up to my porch and even into my house. 

About that time, my friend Jill came to visit and made a wonderful suggestion. What about hanging a low 'wall' of shade cloth across the yard? It would shield my view of the remaining wreckage below and the jagged edge of the broken yard. More importantly, it would provide privacy for me and my dogs. 

The following day Billy and I designed and he put the new privacy 'wall' in place while I directed from my rocking chair according to the view I wanted.  I had to be able to clearly view the twin steeples of the San Isidro church in the center plaza downtown.

The red plastic chair was again set aside. But that evening, just before the sun went down, I placed it in the corner of the yard next to the red leaves and infinity deck. And that is where I found it in the morning - with lovely sunshine and dancing shadows.  

It felt almost alive!


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tropical Storm Nate, October 2017

Tropical Storm Nate

Thursday, October 5, 2017

My house from above, 2014
For two days the rain drizzled and poured and my view from my front porch ended in a solid white cloud soup. I could see my front yard and the bougainvilleas we had so carefully planted along the edge of the retaining wall.  We were immersed in Tropical Storm Nate - our 42nd of the season. Nate kind of slid in unannounced and at first un named a couple of days ago (October 5) on the heels of persistent rain that just didn’t let up - all through September. So after several days of rain and clouds, the ground was saturated – and the last thing it needed was more rain.  That’s what Nate brought – heavy, sustained rain – all day and night.  I kind of didn’t get it – was down at La Princesa in the evening for dinner with Linda (owner of La Princesa) and Billy’s family – Eliza, Kimberly and Leislani. Yes it was raining, but oh well…    Then, during the night there was heavy wind, which is really unusual.  I got up several times to check on it, close any windows I could, and look out to see if everything looked okay.  I was uneasy.  By 3:30 a.m. I was up with a flashlight wondering about the crack in the newly planted grass – close to the gravel area we’d just finished as the final touch for the front yard. Bordered by bougainvilleas, it was so beautiful. Just in front of the incredible view over the valley of San Isidro de El General.But what about that crack in the grass area that seemed just a little lower than it had been the evening before. In the morning light I worried about it and wondered if the retaining wall looked just a little bit lower on one end.  I decided to wait until the rain let up a bit so I could walk down to see it from below – on my neighbor’s driveway access.  I fixed coffee and was sitting at my computer checking emails and Facebook when suddenly I heard a huge, unidentifiable sound – a roar.  The dogs started barking and because I didn’t have my hearing aid on yet, I looked to them to see the direction that caused their alarm. The front yard.  Opening the front door I simply stood in complete disbelief. Shock, actually.  Over half of the front yard – with the grass, the bougainvilleas, the gravel edging, the carefully tended gardenias and vines and the entire retaining wall was gone. It had all been pushed away and down onto the neighbor’s access driveway. Huge concrete and steel beams that had been anchored to the wall had been ripped out of the earth and were standing semi upright like totem poles. The steel fence along the neighbor’s driveway was mangled beneath the gigantic pile of spongy wet dirt. Even the base of stone filled gaviones had been rolled and pushed across the driveway. An avocado tree dangled at a precarious angle, still clinging to the part of the yard that remained. I simply stood and stared. 
Standing above on what was left of the grass yard - looking down.
The rest of that day - Wednesday was kind of blurry. I called Anita, who came up with Melany to see if it looked like there was more damage above. And then I called Billy who came up to see the damage, talk with my neighbors and begin the process of looking forward a bit to what we would do once the rains stopped. The first thing would have to be to clear the driveway below – and would require a backhoe and a dump truck to carry away the concrete. We’d try to save the stones for later use. At least there was a bit of an immediate plan – and we all had to wait for the rains to let up. It weighed heavily on me that my neighbors were trapped in their house below and that they had no electricity or phone because of my mudslide.

Meanwhile, all of Costa Rica was being hit hard by this storm, the likes of which no one could remember. The combination of a very wet September (over 50% above the normal rainfall) followed by such a slow moving (7 mph) Tropical storm simply drenched the soil all over this mountainous country. Over the day the reports just did not let up – several bridges in the San Isidro area were destroyed or damaged and unusable and trapped many people. Mudslides and landslides were everywhere – two on the road from my place down to Billy’s.  Suddenly no one could travel on the roads. Buses were trapped between mudslides on the Pan Am Highway and power poles crashed leaving large parts of the population without electricity. A dam failed that provided fresh water to most of the San Isidro residents – 35,000 people. The earliest they will get water is in a week. As the day continued there were more reports and the entire country declared a stage 4 emergency. Creeks became rivers and existing rivers overflowed and flooded.   By the days end, six people had died and over 5000 were evacuated to shelters. Airports, main roads and businesses closed. Though this tiny country didn’t make the news in the states, it was the only topic of conversation here.  Even the futbol game that would decide the playoffs was cancelled for Friday and re scheduled for Saturday.  (Though Costa Rica didn’t play well, we tied with Honduras which means we are in the World Cup!)

Though NOAA was predicting two or three more days until  ‘Nate’ moved north into Nicaragua, I tuned in to Windy.com – which was forecasting a different scenario, a more hopeful one. And sure enough, Friday the 6th dawned with sunshine and calm. At first light I reached for
the phone to call Billy, who was simultaneously calling me to say that he had already found a man with a back hoe and dump truck who could come do the work today, though he was a little more expensive than others. I replied ‘Yes – let’s do it now’, knowing that the government would be quick on this dry day to hire all available equipment and workers to clear roads and deal with country wide emergencies. They all arrived at 8:30 and for the next 9 hours worked non-stop.

One of our biggest issues was where to put the debris – that included the huge reinforced beams of concrete and steel ‘deadmen’ that had braced the existing wall by extending back into the yard nearly to my house as well as the steel fence and the six gaviones that failed to hold the base. (A gavione is a steel wire cage of approximately 3’ x 6’ containing tightly packed but loose river rocks).  Mixed in was all the slushy and slimy liquified clay mud along with my beautiful array of bougainvilleas, gardenias, birds of paradise and ginger. The nearest landfill was miles across town – and Billy again came to the rescue. He had just helped another neighbor with a mud clogged drainage pipe so he asked if we could dump the refuse on his land. We were given the permission that would save time and a lot of money.

Throughout the day the work continued and I spent my time answering emails, talking with my concerned sons by FaceTime and Skype and checking with Billy, who became a one person diplomat – taking with my neighbors, the backhoe operator and me. And of course I would be the one who paid for the work.  By the end of the day, the slope was scraped clear, the driveway was open and as day turned to night, the neighbors were putting up their temporary electricity and phone lines until they could get them better situated. Billy said he would go to the hardware store in town in the early morning to purchase plastic sheeting and plastic drain pipe to replace the broken pipe that carried water from my studio roof to the road – again to protect my neighbors below from heavy water runoff. It was done in a couple of hours and finally I was able to relax a bit. 

So how is it now?
With the slope protected by plastic (hopefully) and my neighbors with full access to their houses again, I am relaxing a bit and letting the shock abate before I do anything more.

I now have time to reflect…and plan.

I am thinking back to the many small decisions and mis steps that got me to this place  with a clear view down to my neighbors' driveway from my front door - once again. It wasn't always that way.

March, 2008 - day of purchase.
Back in 2008, when I bought the property – there was a good sized yard that extended from the house out to a steep slope down to my neighbor’s driveway. Then, just a few months before I left the states to move in, Tropical cyclone, Alma came in from the Pacific causing widespread damage throughout Costa Rica. About half of my front yard slid down onto my neighbor’s driveway. I was notified and of course I  sent money to have it removed.  A fence was built at the base of the slope and around the property for security and dog safety.  Plantings along the top of the slope provided some visual privacy from below, but it was difficult to maintain because of dogs clamoring up and down the slope, barking at neighbors and the neighbor dogs.  What to do?

2014 - after Frank's house was finished
In 2014 I finished Frank’s house, soon after he passed in March. Suddenly – the yard looked too constrained and I spoke to my builder Oscar about the yard. That’s when the word ‘level’ came up.  

I inquired about a level yard that extended out to the edge of Frank’s house and he agreed that he could build a level yard with a wall.  My view was a retaining wall  and the word ‘level’ to me meant horizontal, at the same level as the existing yard. His view was a sloping yard that sloped in a consistent or level or even fashion down to the neighbor’s driveway, where there would be a wall built. Translation differences and Tico engineering created the misunderstanding that was compounded by his need to go to Panama for work and leaving the makeshift gaviones to be filled by his son and another worker. Who didn’t. Work. Suddenly I understood that we had two very different views – and I halted it all. I hired others to complete what was begun on the existing base of gaviones. The first wall that was built failed soon after and I scurried to repair by hiring a new guy who had experience with retaining walls. Just then, Oscar returned from Panama and pleaded to repair the wall with ‘deadman’ anchors, a lot of concrete and steel and heavy reinforcement that
The beautiful yard...
would be tied and anchored back into the existing yard. Teetering on the edge of a decision to start over entirely or to allow Oscar to save face – I opted for Oscar. The result looked good and I loved the beauty with the border of bougainvilleas for two years. I especially loved the privacy. Now it has failed and I must start again. This time I am in no mood to do it without good advice and abilities.

From friends and Facebook acquaintances, I have received a lot of advice – and mostly to do with a favorite perennial grass that is known to prevent erosion - vetiver. While erosion control is so important and desirable, it is not my main design preoccupation.  I want my privacy back. I remember well before the wall and the yard – kind of like it is now – with barking dogs, a fence needed at the base, my neighbors below playing and waving from the driveway and how I had gradually retreated into my house for the quiet I craved.  So – we will wait for the dry season, coming up in a couple of months – and this time the retaining wall will be engineered, soils tested etc. This time it will be built to stay put–as much as is possible in a country that is nearly constantly in motion. 

I am remembering back – years ago, when I first met Frank who was visiting me at my house. Frank–a geologist and Canadian Expat with nearly 15 years of living in Costa Rica–simply smiled when I pointed to a crack in the summer season earth. I told him I was a bit concerned about the fact that it stretched across my yard parallel to the edge of the slope. 

His reply:  “Jan, do you not realize that everything on the mountain is very slowly moving towards the sea?”.  My response was “Oh”.

Now I get it. 

Stay tuned...I'll post more of the process....