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I sang for my supper by preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende (UUFSMA) last Sunday. It turns out that in addition to the week’s stay at a home provided by the congregation, Joy, Munchkin and I were treated to lunch afterwards and got to take the day’s flowers home. Generous compensation for an easy morning; I prepared, of course, because I always do, but it was much easier preparation than usual because I’d given the sermon in essentially the same form two years earler at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Text version is here, audio here. They were a nice bunch, intelligent and friendly.

Ten percent of San Miguel de Allende’s population come from elsewhere, and 70% of those are from the US or Canada. There are a fair number of expatriates and retirees, and lots more who come every year for a few weeks or months, plus a goodly share of one-time tourists. That’s whom the congregation serves: English-speakers who are here permanently or transiently, that is, mostly norteamericano retirees, snowbirds, and visitors. It is therefore elderly–our hosts joked that we brought the average age of the room down significantly–and has no children’s religious education or child care. As a result, we won’t be going much, since we can’t go together; if one of us goes to church, the other has sole charge of the munchkin all morning, which is okay now and then but far from a desirable every-Sunday arrangement.

They have a weekly discussion group that sounds really interesting, and a Wednesday lunch that we found welcoming, and “Circle Cenas” (like many UU congregations’ Circle Suppers). Everything seems very well-organized for people to drop in, with all information in the weekly order of service, few of the activities requiring an ongoing commitment, and membership offered in various categories to reflect the fact that many members also have commitments to another UU congregation. It’s also organized to gather up the comparative wealth of the congregation and give it to the local community; the church gives away 75% of its post-expenses budget to various San Miguel organizations, and with an all-volunteer staff, its expenses are low.

I’ve run into a couple of people who only started going to UU church when they came to San Miguel, so I know the church is doing outreach (perhaps only passively, though it advertises its services and its location better than a lot of US UU churches). Its outreach, however, is only to English speakers. It announces its weekly services in the English-language newspaper. Services, classes, group meetings are in English.

It makes me wonder about the possibility of having a church here that serves the local population–not just in the sense of the support the UUFSMA gives to San Miguel, but in the full sense that any UU church serves its members: a center for shared worship, religious education, justice work, pastoral care, etc. The vibrancy of the little group of norteamericano UUs points up the lost (or shall we say, not yet taken) opportunity to make Unitarian Universalism known to the tens of thousands of Mexicans who live in and around San Miguel.

How does one sustain a bilingual, bicultural congregation? As someone at UUFSMA noted, to make the Sunday service bilingual would make it very long. But there are other models for bringing people together into one congregation without a common language; San Jose, CA, seems to be making one work, as do many congregations in other faiths. E.g., where I live (near San Francisco) many churches have large populations that speak only or mostly Tagalog, Tongan, Chinese or Spanish, alongside those that speak only or mostly English.

Or might UUs in San Miguel start a truly Mexican congregation, maybe linking the two congregations in some kind of partnership but recognizing that they will be quite separate? There are a couple of emerging congregations in Mexico City. San Miguel might be a candidate for another.

How would someone go about starting a Mexican UU church in San Miguel, given the UUA’s unofficial franchise system (not to mention its almost complete lack of engagement with the world outside the US and Canada)? What resources does the UUA or International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) offer to help a new congregation start in a town that already has one, in a way that diminishes any sense of rivalry and increases the partnership between them?

We also frown on UU ministers starting up congregations that they will then serve. There are good reasons for this, but it means that the only way for a new UU congregation to get started is for a very devoted group of laypeople to work at it, probably for many years, before they have the resources to bring in even a half-time minister. It also wastes the tremendous resources that ministers have to offer. In the case of San Miguel, many ministers have come through and led a service or a class; occasionally they retire to the town themselves. Maybe one who was not yet ready to retire would want to plant a church here, if they could count on support. Surely there are ways to safeguard against the problems that can come along with a minister helping to found a congregation: say, a requirement that the minister serve for only a certain number of years (five?), then has to be voted in or out by the congregation, as in the late (and lamented, by me) Extension Ministry program.

I’m not interested in the job (at least, not for another thirty years or so), but the questions make me want to do a little research into the other faiths represented here in San Miguel. I bet some of them, other than the Catholics of course, came from somewhere else and offered their message and their service to Mexicans. Maybe some of them even did it with the respect for the local culture that I’d expect from UU outreach. I’d like to see how they did it and how it’s going.


I’ve barely posted about San Miguel de Allende. It seems to call for photos, and I don’t have many yet. Tomorrow morning I’ll take and post some of the house and colonia. First we have to get some decent batteries for the camera, since the ones we bought in the Tuesday market were crap. They’d probably been sitting there for five years. But for now, for a photos-free post, read on.

On our fourth day here, having taken a few rainy days to get acclimated, we set out on a finally-dry day to visit the preschool we’d heard about and the first of the rental houses on our list. The munchkin explored the school playground while we chatted with the director. Bingo. We liked everything we heard and saw and felt, and the format was just what we were hoping for: half days Monday through Friday, allowing us time for our own explorations but giving us more family time than we have when we’re both at our jobs; teachers who understand English so they’ll know what the munchkin is saying; a program that’s half in Spanish so she’ll learn it; kids from all over, some there to learn Spanish, others English. (Back home in the Bay Area, they call it dual immersion.) Having arranged for her to start school on Monday, we had lunch in the cafe across the street and then headed to our appointment to see the house on Calle Esperanza.

We were running late even by the relaxed standards of Mexico, so Joy went on ahead while I followed at the munchkin’s pace. She told me later that as soon as she walked inside, she told the owner that she loved the place and I would too. And when I joined them about ten minutes later, the first thing I did was signal to Joy that I loved it. So last Monday was an eventful day: Munchkin started at her new school and we moved into the house where we’ll be living until the end of July. Taking note of the streets between school and home, Joy said, “OK, this one is Tesoro. We don’t live on Treasure, we live on Hope.”

San Miguel has spiffier, newer, gringo houses; this one is not one of those . It’s a little funky, with lots of things that are just a little broken and almost everything a lot old. (There’s a huge, beautiful, wardrobe in our room with three mirrored doors and a sign on the center one, “Don’t open–it falls!” We’re not sure whether it’s the door that would fall, or the whole thing, and don’t dare to find out.) We’re waiting for the landlady’s brother to come put in light bulbs in the many fixtures that are missing them, and looking forward to being able to cook by overhead light instead of a floor lamp stolen from a bedroom.

Downstairs, an enormous brick fireplace joins the living room and dining room. Upstairs, twenty-five feet of windows fill our room with light. Brick arches, and in one place a brick cross vault, punctuate the stucco walls and ceiling. The house is decorated with years of amateur artists’ paintings and prints (some excellent), a full-length mirror carved with calla lilies, chandeliers made of thick multicolored glass, odd touches such as a wall of antique keys, tile details everywhere, and about twenty crosses, I kid you not. We need a plant for the hook on the stairway wall, and as it’s next to a cross, a crucifix, and a sacred heart, I’m thinking the Wandering Jew currently living on the roof would be appropriate.

A spiral staircase in the middle of our room goes up to the roof. I told the munchkin that in Spanish it’s called a caracol, a snail; she loves snails. She now calls it the snailcase. The huge rooftop has places to sit and a fabulous view of the city. It has a wall all around, but the munchkin still isn’t allowed up there alone, of course. The shared courtyard at ground level–a jungle of plants–is completely shut in and often houses a sweet old Golden Retriever named Zumm, and there she can play with minimal supervision. On her first couple of days here, she seemed to have developed a fear of dogs we’d never seen in her before. There are a lot of wandering dogs in San Miguel, and while I’m glad she doesn’t run up to every strange dog and pet it, I don’t want her to cry and try to climb up our legs every time she sees one, either. She was very scared of Zumm when she first saw him, and who can blame her? He’s taller than she is and about four times her weight. But she bravely made friends on Monday when we moved in, and now asks all the time if she can go outside and pet Zumm.

Tomorrow I’m moving a table into the second bedroom and making it my studio. Room to work, a bathtub the size of Lake Michigan, lots of light, a view of a beautiful city, funky touches everywhere–and all for less than one quarter of our rent at home. We’ve landed in a good place.

This morning I started my drawing class, my first since 1986. When I sat down, blank paper and oh-so-subtly-shaped model in front of me, I was very nervous and excited. Now I’m just excited. It was so much fun. And it is so clear that nothing but committing to a class would get me to draw for three hours straight three days a week. I feel a great unblocking happening, like a river of ice breaking up. So this is what I’ll be doing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for the next four weeks. (Morning classes are perfect because the munchkin is in school 9-1. Bilingual preschool, two hours of each day in Spanish, two in English—perfect.)

Drawing is so magical. I can never get over the small miracle that occurs when I manage to just draw what I see. (Getting eye and hand to align is, of course, at least half of the challenge.) It takes a leap of faith to do that, not to draw what I think is there but to draw the weird, foreshortened shapes appearing to my eye, and then a few minutes later, when I pause to look at the whole thing, lo and behold, I’ve drawn toes that look like toes. That foot looks tucked under the other calf. Those shoulders look like one is close and the other is far away and like they could actually hold up that head. These are the moments that make the hard work worthwhile. What a strange practice, just to strive to put on paper what anyone could see if they took a few moments to gaze at the body itself. But I see it more clearly for having drawn it, which is part of the point.

Thursday and Friday mornings will be collage time for the time being. I’ve just learned that the secret to the color-saturated, textured surfaces of two collage artists I admire, Eric Carle (of children’s picture book legend) and Jan Richardson, is painted tissue paper. And Carle, bless him, explains on his website what kinds of paint he uses, etc. so that someone like me can try it out. I was so jazzed after class, felt so much more freedom to carry out the visions in my head, that I went to the art supplies store and got tissue paper, watercolors and brushes.

Buying hardcover is such an indulgence, when a year’s wait will get you a paperback and a month or two’s wait will get you to the top of the queue at the library. So it was a real treat when Joy gave me the newest books from three favorite authors at the holidays: Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals), Robert Barnard (The Killings at Jubilee Terrace), and Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna). It was Christmas week and my first week on sabbatical, so I wolfed down the mystery and the Pratchett before so much as peeking at Kingsolver’s thick new novel. But by the time I got to page 5 of The Lacuna I couldn’t put it down.

I was a little apprehensive going in, especially when I realized the book was going to deal with overtly political issues. Not that I expect (or want) Kingsolver ever to be apolitical, and Animal Dreams, which wears its politics on every chapter if not every page, is not only my favorite of hers but one of my favorite books, period. But my last go at a Kingsolver book had been Prodigal Summer a few months before, and I couldn’t stand the lectures on the preservation of despised predators that she forced out of her heroine’s mouth. I love Aldo Leopold, but I don’t want to read him reproduced in improbable dialogue. I like my essays to be essays and my novels to be novels. If telling is inferior to showing, ranting is worse than telling.

She does stray into ranting a couple of times in The Lacuna, but late and seldom. I was so captivated by then that I could forgive a couple of unnecessary, distractingly lecture-y passages on the subject of the blacklist. I love the main character, I love the way she writes about people like Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky so convincingly, I love the painterly detail of her descriptions of Mexico. And I love the metaphor of the lacuna.

A lacuna is a gap, such as a missing page in an old book or a period of silence, longer than a rest, in a piece of music. Kingsolver uses it in multiple meanings, layered and interacting, which is one reason I can tell this book will reward rereading. One is the geological phenomenon of a cave that is actually a tunnel; another is the missing volume in a lifetime of diaries; a third is whatever you don’t know about others’ lives. What they choose to leave out when they tell you about themselves.

The most poignant lacuna evoked by the novel, for me, is the gap in our world created by the failure of Communism, by which I mean not the collapse of the USSR, but the failure that concerns Kingsolver here, the true one, the one that began in the 1920s when Stalin rose to power. What did we lose when the revolution was betrayed to totalitarianism . . . ? Workers’ ownership of the wealth they produce has always struck me as eminently sensible, but I got through four years at what I privately dubbed Marx-and-Freud University without ever reading Marx, something I still regard as a, well, lacuna in my education as a citizen of the 20th-and 21st centuries. (I did read plenty of Freud there. And for the record, as outdated as much of his thinking is judged to be and surely is, I think he was a genius and a hell of a writer.) I’ve never given much thought to Trotsky, the sum of what I know about him being that he was an early Communist leader and visionary, he had an affair with Frida Kahlo, he was assassinated in Mexico City, and he (probably) shows up in Animal Farm as Snowball the pig. All but the latter get attention from Kingsolver. Now I want to know more about him and his philosophy. Her protagonist grieves for him as a person; I grieve for what we lost, as a world, when the great Communist revolutions died.

Not that ideas ever die. The end of the book suggests that there might be life in these “dead” ideas yet.

Another, related lacuna suggested by The Lacuna is the work lost to our culture by our imposition of the blacklist. All those writers and directors and actors who were shut down and never got back to their life’s work. What might they have created? It’s gone now, unrecoverable.

I also realized, with a laugh, that I did my undergraduate art thesis on lacunae. Not that I used the word–thank heaven, undergraduate art majors have enough of a struggle with pretentiousness–but my senior show in ceramic sculpture was called “What’s Not There,” each piece having in some way to do with an absence that makes itself felt as a presence. More on this in another post, as this one is long enough.

Barbara Kingsolver is giving the keynote at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in a couple of weeks, called “Finding my way into The Lacuna,” and we will be there.

I thought of adult Unitarian Universalists and our congregations’ children when I read this passage by the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson this morning:

In Israel I had repeated conversations with older members of kibbutzim bewailing the fact that their children do not want to “follow in their footsteps,” choosing to leave the kibbutz, even live abroad. “Did you grow up on a kibbutz?” I would ask. “Oh no, my father was a shopkeeper in the city and very religious.” The parents had left home to found the kibbutz, and now the children are following in their footsteps by leaving. (Peripheral Visions, New York: HarperCollins, 1994, 80)

Most adult Unitarian Universalists either grew up in another tradition or none at all. In either case, as much as we may wish our children to remain UUs, some of what we convey to the next generation is bound to be very different than “stay in the tradition of your upbringing.” This entire chapter of Bateson’s book is on continuity and change, and she counsels neither one or the other but a balance—and a recognition that what may look like change is in fact a deep continuity.

Estamos en México! We arrived Monday night and are enjoying the hospitality of the Unitarian Universalist community here via a generous couple who lends their home to visiting UUs and others. In exchange for my preaching on February 14, we are staying here for nine nights, which should be long enough for us to find the place we’ll rent for the next several months. They also met us at the house at 11 p.m., got us settled in, and lent us several hundred pesos since the casa de cambio at the airport had closed by the time we got into Leon.

I was up at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, or was it seven? Joy’s cellphone had adjusted on arrival, yet didn’t agree with the airport clock, so I wasn’t sure. I wanted to walk those streets we’d come through in the rainy dark the previous night. “Did you look out the front window?” Joy asked. Across the narrow street, one building in orange, another one yellow with a bright blue door, another with a row of flowers blooming in cans along the rooftop terrace. Ah, llegamos! We’ve arrived!

Joy reminded me to take it easy. We’d jumped 6000 feet in one day and it can take a couple of days to adjust to this altitude–I already felt it in the unusual effort it took to lug our suitcases upstairs. I stopped at two—the other one could wait—and slipped into the rainy street, where everything reminded me, go slowly, go slowly.

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