Category Archives: family

Announcing the 2016 Leigh Hyams Studio Residency Recipient: John McCarthy

My family and I are delighted to announce that John McCarthy of Santa Monica, California, is the recipient of this year’s Leigh Hyams Studio Residency.

How John describes his art: “My work is about giving form to memories, visions, and dreams. Intuition, interpretation, and imagination are the driving forces that have fueled my passion for making art since the 1980s. Inspired by nature, I pay close attention to the forest, to the ocean, and to the qualities of light at night, especially faint illuminations cast by lit windows, campfires, and moonlight. These elements often surface in my painting as abstractions. My painting process includes sensory awareness techniques that allow me to relinquish control and invent new ways of making marks: painting with the canvas behind my back while looking through a mirror; painting the shape of a sound; and painting in near darkness. I often work with both hands simultaneously.”

John’s thoughts on how he’ll spend his time during the residency: “I spent  five weeks with Leigh in San Miguel de Allende in 2006. If I had a month to spend in her studio, I would take walks we used to take together, look at things we used to look at, and remember conversations we had. I would then take those memories along with the emotions they elicit and weave them into new works. Leigh continues to be a large and living presence in my life and work. The experience of being able to work in the place where she once lived and worked and to feel her presence and guidance, would be most meaningful and inspiring. And, I would love to be able to work freely, without distraction or interruption!”

"Mulholland Drive Dream" by John McCarthy, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 72” x 60”

“Mulholland Drive Dream” by John McCarthy, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 72” x 60”

Announcing the 2015 Leigh Hyams Studio Residency Recipient: Sally Heppner

My family and I are delighted to announce that Sally Heppner of Portland, Oregon, is the recipient of this year’s Leigh Hyams Studio Residency. Her application is so moving, I am publishing it (with her permission) in full below.


“Where are you going?” by Sally Heppner, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 24″ x 36″.

Leigh Hyams Studio Residency Application for May 2015

Submitted by Sally Heppner

How I’m connected with Leigh

Journal Entry from Sunday, June 8, 2008: She said to be ready to hate my work. She said to be ready to cry. She said to stop being nice. She said others have started looking for plane tickets back after a week. Apparently she is going to kick me in the butt. Big time.

This is exactly what I want.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I heard Leigh speak in March, 2008 in Portland, Oregon. The minute I heard her speak, I knew there was something within her that was luminous. At that time her paintings were loose, drippy, luscious botanicals. They drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. She said her painting was about “this incredible joy of being alive.” I knew then I wanted to be near her and learn from her.

She worked me hard. I painted for two and a half weeks in the little garden shed, painting from exquisite dreams I discovered I had only while in Mexico. I changed and my work transformed. Leigh had the ability to help unlock me, to loosen the tight intellectual constraints learned while earning my recent fine arts degree, and I began to paint from the center of my soul.

When I came home, I built out a wall in my little apartment like the wall in Leigh’s studio so I could continue to paint freely, and I did until two and a half years ago when my world turned upside down.

On August 10th 2012, my 24-year-old son, Michael, died in his sleep. We don’t know why, he just went. He was a luminous soul, like Leigh, an artist to the core of his being. His medium was music; when he played the saxophone I was mesmerized. Now I hear him in the sound of the geese overhead as they head to the nearby park, the harmonies of water as a river wends its way through boulders, the whisper of glacial wind blowing down from a mountain at dusk.

When Michael died, I felt him with me, guiding me through my grief. I felt an intense surge of creativity and love. But my painting heart became locked up. I’m still not sure why.

The following summer I realized if anybody could help me unlock this frozen painting heart, it would be Leigh. I would go to San Miguel and study with her again. When I searched and found she had died a few months previous, I was filled with new grief—for you, Gina, for those who would never get a chance to soak up Leigh’s spirit, and for myself because I would not have her to guide me again with her rigorous, exuberant, honest teaching.

I’ve continued to paint through my grief but it’s not the same. I’ve been painting about my search. What happens after we die? Where is Michael now? I’ve also been painting pure expression, like Leigh taught me, but only occasionally. I have lost my heart.

I still need Leigh. I need to feel her joyous spirit; her dedication to drawing; her passion for paint; her love of life. Though her body is not here, I believe her spirit is, and I know that while working in her space she will be near.

When I worked with Leigh previously, I was driven. I couldn’t stop painting. I felt like I was dancing with paint in the little garden shed and I didn’t want to leave. I kept learning from Leigh right up until the end. The last day as I prepared to leave, though exhausted, I decided I had one more painting in me. I started a diptych from a small, loose drawing I’d made at the hot springs the day before. As I worked, Leigh would come in and sit down, discussing the difference between value and intensity, suggesting just a bit more punch, or intensity, in the lower left corner of one. I was so very grateful for every hour spent with Leigh. She helped me open up and see from my soul. As I left San Miguel in the wee hours of the morning I closed my eyes. What did I see? Splotches of lush color juxtaposed against each other. My mind was playing with intensity, value and hue. Lush oranges were playing against the pinks, greens and yellows of Mexico. They were dripping and goopy and slopped-on in my mind. I was continuing to paint, continuing what Leigh had imparted.­­

What would I do for a month in Leigh’s studio?

To prepare myself, I will re-read the journal I wrote while working with her in 2008. I will also re-read her book, How Painting Holds Me on The Earth: Writings of a Maverick Painter and Teacher, which I continue to turn to when I need a good dose of Leigh. (She was writing her book while mentoring me and I had the privilege of helping her edit a few chapters. She also included portions of my journal in her postscript section on mentoring.)

The first morning in Leigh’s studio and garden I will sit and absorb. I remember her often sitting and reading in her garden. I want to hear what new things she has to tell me. I never got enough of her teaching.

Next I w­ill go out and find that luscious Mexican paint Leigh introduced me to. I will buy colors I like and colors I hate, just as Leigh suggested when we went to the little tienda on my first day with her. I will come back to the studio and tack up several large sheets of paper, nothing precious, and begin to paint. I will find those places within myself that I need to let go of and just paint.

Journal entry from Tuesday, June 10th, 2008: She said to think about painting joy later and think about shouting right now. It may not be beautiful or pleasing or anything I have been taught to do. My gut may paint ahead of my intellect. That will catch up later.

I need the time and the place to shout. I will revive what Leigh taught me; how she prodded me and pushed me to my limits. Since Michael died, I have painted when I can but haven’t set aside the time to inquire deeply. When I do have time, I have been reading everything I can get my eyes on and painting my questions about death. We don’t deal with these questions in our society very well. Mexicans seem to accept death much more fluidly than we. I had the opportunity to be in Mexico for Dia de Los Muertos in 2008 and experienced the celebration of loved ones remembered and returning to their families. What better place than Leigh’s studio in Mexico, where the veil between death and life is not drawn so tightly, to continue my inquiry? I will converse with paint in Leigh’s studio every day, then, in the evenings I will write of my experience. I learn by writing; it helps to clarify my thoughts and recall what I’ve learned.

As I was cleaning out my own small studio at the beginning of this New Year, I wanted to set aside painting about grief and paint life again. But when I think about it, I realize I am not done with grief. Leigh’s statement that her painting is about the incredible joy of being alive has never left me. It’s why I was drawn to her paintings and her exuberant spirit in the first place. My work tends to be about life and the joy I find when outside but I know I need the space and time to go deep into death and grieving before I can paint life again. I suspect there is much to learn about death and life and the interconnectedness of the two.

“Transition” by Sally Heppner, 2014. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 48″ x 54″.

About my work

In addition to my inquiry about grief, my work is about human interaction with nature. How humans respond to the environment surrounding them intrigues me. We are happiest and healthiest when in touch with where we come from; we have an inarticulate need to be an integral part of the natural universe. The more I turn over rocks to see lives below them and the more I absorb the beauty of what surrounds us, the more I feel a sense of wonder about what it means to be part of this unfathomable whole. Lately, though, when outside and when painting, I find my thoughts turning to life, death, and the nature of our being. I have so many questions.

I have lost my painting heart and I want to find it again. I used to find joy in the way art would open me up to the natural world—I would pay attention to shape, absorb color, bury my eyes in the texture of paint, and express deep emotion. When painting, I have a conversation with my work; sometimes a painting will tell me it is done but not yet ready to be understood. Leigh taught me that too. Looking at a particular painting months later, I begin to understand. I love the continued discovery.

I don’t want to let these things go. Now, glimmers of the power of art and nature emerge occasionally but the rigors of making ends meet clutter my mind and affect my art practice. I need the time away to focus, a fresh start, to revisit what Leigh taught me and push my painting to the limits. I am ready. Leigh said in her book, “For me, the act of drawing or painting a landscape fulfills some inarticulate need to be an integral part of the universe – to meld with the natural world, or, somehow, through painting, to touch the life force for an instant.” This quote exemplifies the mysterious and powerful interconnectedness of art and the natural world. Setting aside a month to paint and examine the connections between art, nature, life, and death in Leigh’s studio in Mexico would allow me to come away with a deeper understanding of this beautiful existence we’re living, a renewed pursuit of painting, and a good dose of Leigh’s spirit, so I may share with those around me this incredible joy of being alive.


A Painting Tribute to Leigh Hyams by John McCarthy

Los Angeles-based artist John McCarthy was one of my mom’s favorite people. They met at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in 1996, and he went on to serve as lead assistant during her master painting classes there from 2006 until her last seminar in 2011, as well as participate in workshops she led in Providencia, Colombia and at various locations in Mexico, including San Miguel de Allende, Patzcuaro, Guanajuato, and Xilitla. He recently shared with me this vivid series of paintings that he created in tribute to her.

Leigh and John at Esalen, April 2008

Remembering Days and Nights: 
A painting tribute to Leigh Hyams, mentor and friend
by John McCarthy 
January, 2015
These are memory-generated paintings inspired by the loss of my art mentor, Leigh Hyams (1926 – 2013).
For 15 years I painted with Leigh and other artists in Mexico, Big Sur, and Colombia, often working outside in the tropics to capture in abstract form the essence of the jungle, the wind, and the sea. This series is a remembrance of those days and nights: A recollection of the colors and sounds and smells of the forests and the shore as we all painted together, looking at each other’s work and delighting in conversations about art.

Leigh teaching at Esalen, 2007

The painting, Crossing the Bridge, was inspired by a vision that I had one night last year before I drifted off to sleep. I found myself in a forest in Big Sur with Leigh and another artist friend, Kay Bridge, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a forest we had all painted in many times, and I could see Leigh walking across a footbridge, with Kay following behind. I was struck by the aliveness of that moment: I could see what Leigh and Kay were wearing; I could see the moon and smell the pine trees; I could hear leaves rustling and waves crashing in the distance. And then, in an instant, I realized that Leigh was dead and Kay was soon to die. That searing moment was the genesis of the painting.

‘Crossing the Bridge’, watercolor, charcoal and ink on paper, 53” x 42”, 2014

At Leigh’s memorial service at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, her paintbrushes were placed in a basket and those in attendance were invited to take some. I took three brushes, mixed them in with my own, and used them to create this series.

Leigh’s paint brushes (photo by Gina Hyams)

‘The Night Walk’ acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”, 2014

‘Jungle, Xilitla’, acrylic on paper, 9.5” x 12.5”, 2014

‘Warm Xilitlan Night’, acrylic, caran d’Ache and charcoal on wood panel, 29” x 29.5”, 2014

‘La Selva Mexicana’, charcoal on paper, 22” x 30”, 2014

‘Rhythm of the Sea’, acrylic on paper, 9 3/8” x 12.5”, 2014

‘Waterfall, Xilitla, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 16” x 20”

‘Remembering the Forest’, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 22” x 30”, 2014

‘The Afterglow’, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 30” x 22”, 2013

‘Rituals of Spring’, acrylic and charcoal on paper, 22” x 30”, 2013

John McCarthy drawing

‘The Winds of Change’, charcoal on paper, 22” x 30”, 2013

John and Leigh at Esalen

John McCarthy is currently seeking gallery representation. Please email any leads to him at

Leigh Hyams Critique Group Exhibition

It’s heartening to see my mother’s legacy live on in her students and friends. A group of them, who met more than 20 years ago at her art classes in San Francisco, recently opened an exhibition at Canessa Park Gallery. It’s up through January 30. Hours are noon to 3:00pm on Wednesdays or by appointment by calling 415-885-5695. Their touching and inspiring group artistic statement follows below.

Six Artists: Eclectic Works

The six artists in this show met by chance more than two decades ago, when each of us signed up for a class led by Leigh Hyams. Those first classes were in the former University of California Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco, a couple of rambling old Spanish-style buildings in the Western Addition. Some of us began in a drawing class, others in painting or mixed media. We worked side by side in crowded rooms, on paper or canvas taped to the walls or on drawing boards on tables or mounted on easels. Leigh encouraged us to paint big and with abandon, and to stand while painting so we could use our whole body. And she encouraged us to live life adventurously, and we did, joining her painting workshops at Esalen and in Greece and Brazil and Mexico and France when we could.

After a few years of studio classes, we felt ready to work on our own, and Leigh encouraged us to carve out space for our art at home or to rent our own studios. But because we still wanted her inspiration and guidance, we formed a critique group that met with her once a month, to help us keep making art and to keep growing as artists. During this time, we also worked with Leigh and other students of hers on her film Making Marks.

Leigh Hyams teaching at the University of California Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco

When Leigh moved to Mexico in 2001, we continued to meet without her, for we found that we had absorbed her ideas about painting and her teaching about visual language so well that we could critique one another’s work in her absence. She went on to build a live-in studio in San Miguel de Allende and to paint prolifically for the next decade, with solo shows in San Miguel and Querétero. Whenever Leigh visited San Francisco during those years, she arranged to meet with us when possible, and many of her large following of students visited her in Mexico. Her last expansive series of paintings was of giant flowers in her elegant and buoyant gestural style, reveling in color as always. She died in 2013, and at her memorial in San Francisco, her daughter, Gina, gave Leigh’s paintbrushes away to her former students and friends.

Over the years, our group has continued to follow Leigh’s urging to take chances and to experiment with styles, subjects, and mediums. Styles have ranged from abstract to figurative, and subjects from childhood photographs to landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes, rabbits and fairytales and death boats, glaciers and rocks, real and imagined dramas, self-portraits and dog portraits, horse portraits and night scenes. Painting and drawing mediums have included acrylic paint and watercolor, encaustic, and wood-burning tools. Some members of the group have ventured into sculpture, in mediums that include fabrics, trash from the city dump, garage-sale finds, broken plastic dinnerware, ruined umbrellas, hunks of marble, leather, and cement.

We try, like our teacher, to make work that is surprising and alive. We sell our work, though we remain amateurs, in the best sense of the word. For we believe that art is important, not just to each of us individually and as a group, but to the culture in general and to the random universe. Like our teacher, we believe that art allows us to live more fully, that creativity is the lifeblood of being human, and that every piece of art we create is a kind of miracle: a new thing in the world made by our own hands, and often one we had no idea we were capable of making.

Artists at the opening (left to right): Heidi Sandvoll, Loretta Wolfe, Carolyn Miller, Jane Baker, Jeanine Briggs, Anne Ming Wong.


Leigh Hyams Studio Residency in San Miguel de Allende: 2016 Application Guidelines

Leigh’s family established the Leigh Hyams Studio Residency to give an artist a free month-long creative retreat at Leigh’s casita in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The furnished casita has a painting studio, simple kitchen, one bedroom, Talavera tile-filled bathroom, and an extensive collection of art books, as well as access to the patio garden and roof terrace. Everything you need, including organic groceries and art supplies, is within walking distance. For more information about the house and neighborhood, see Casa Duende.

Leigh painting in her casita studio circa 2008


1. Applicants must have some connection to Leigh – be it that they were her student, friend, or fan.

2. The residency will take place May of 2016 and will include rent, utilities, housekeeping three times a week, and assistance as needed from the bilingual property manager.

3. The residency is for one person (no friends, no family, no pets) so that you, the artist, can focus on your art without distraction.

4. The artist is responsible for his or her own transportation to Mexico, food, and art supplies.


Application deadline: February 5, 2016.

Answer these questions:

1. How are you connected to Leigh?

2. What would you do with a month in Leigh’s studio?

3. Please tell us about your art.

Email application to:

Casita bedroom

Day bed in the casita studio

Casita kitchen

Casita dining area

Casita studio

Casita bathroom

Announcing the 2014 Leigh Hyams Studio Residency Recipient: Painter Carolyn Miller

We are pleased to announce that Carolyn Miller of San Francisco is the recipient of the 2014 Leigh Hyams Studio Residency.

Here’s how Carolyn plans to use her May retreat in San Miguel de Allende:

“After being initially intimidated at trying to paint where Leigh painted, and finding it hard to be in the casita when she is no longer there, I believe I would be energized by her dedication to her work and as a result I would paint some large canvases. Last September I had a solo show at Canessa Gallery in San Francisco, and one of the paintings was of my mother’s famous dahlia bed at my childhood home in Missouri. On one of Leigh’s visits from Mexico I had told her I wanted to paint that dahlia bed, and she encouraged me to do. I tried to do that painting then and failed, but last year I did complete a large painting and named it ‘My Mother’s Dahlia Bed, for Leigh.’ After that painting sold, I decided I wanted to do several other paintings of the same subject. I also would like to do a series on the Missouri woods, and a series of Missouri rivers. I’m interested these days in large canvases, 48 by 48 inches, that would eventually be stretched.

Because the Canessa show went well, I would like to try for another show there, probably with another person, so a month of time to paint would allow me to gather some new work toward that end. Some other ideas I have for paintings include abstracts based on the sidewalks in San Miguel, because when I was there I became fascinated with the colors and patterns in the native stone. I would also like to do some paintings of the flowers, vegetables, and fruits sold in the mercado, some of which I sketched when I was staying in the casita. I would also like to experiment with some streetscapes and interiors, two kinds of painting I have almost never done but have always wanted to try.

Recently I’ve been taking a long time to do each painting and have found it hard to find the time to paint, but I believe that if I had an entire month to devote to painting I could achieve much more, as I did in the days when I took part in Leigh’s classes and workshops.”


Update June 16, 2014

To see photos of the works in progress Carolyn painted during her residency, please click here.

“My Mother’s Dahlia Bed, for Leigh” by Carolyn Miller

Announcing the Leigh Hyams Studio Residency in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Leigh’s family has established the Leigh Hyams Studio Residency to give an artist a free month-long creative retreat at Leigh’s casita in San Miguel de Allende. The furnished casita has a painting studio, simple kitchen, one bedroom, Talavera tile-filled bathroom, and an extensive collection of art books. Everything you need, including organic groceries and art supplies, is within walking distance. For photos of the house and more information about the neighborhood, see Casa Duende.



1. Applicants must have some connection to Leigh – be it that they were her student, friend, or fan.

2. The residency will take place May of 2014 and will include rent, utilities, and housekeeping three times a week.

3. The residency is for one person (no friends, no family, no pets) so that you, the artist, can focus on your art without distraction.

4. The artist is responsible for his or her own transportation to Mexico, food, and art supplies.


Application deadline: February 1, 2014. The winner will be announced by February 15, 2014.

Answer these questions:

1. How are you connected to Leigh?

2. What would you do with a month in Leigh’s studio?

3. Please tell us about your art.

Email application to:

Our 2012 Day of the Dead Altar

Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili by Hester Velmans, Plus Her Daughter’s Fabulous Pie Wedding

Hester Velmans


Berkshire Grown board member Hester Velmans contributed a delectable Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili to the Share the Bounty Chili Contest. At the event, she told me about her daughter’s pie-themed wedding held at the family’s barn in Sheffield, Mass. last summer. A friend had given my Pie Contest in a Box as a wedding shower present, which of course I was delighted to hear. Here Hester shares both her chili recipe and photos of the wedding pies – guests brought some 70 pies to the celebration!


Beef, Bourbon, and Roasted Tomato Chili

by Hester Velmans

Here is the unscientific chili recipe (a pinch of this and a pinch of


(8 servings)


First, braise the beef:

1 1/2-2 lbs cuts of beef, eg. strip steaks (whole)

1 tbs olive oil

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

1 large roasted red pepper, peeled, diced

1 onion, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

1 large can crushed tomatoes

4 tbs molassses

2 tbs Bourbon

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp ground pepper

3 tbs ground cumin

1 tbs smoked paprika

1 tbs cayenne or chili powder

Sauté the vegetables in olive oil until soft, add other ingredients, place

beef in roasting pan and pour the sauce over. Cover with foil and roast in a

325 F oven for 2 1/2 hrs or until you can pull the beef apart with a fork.


Cool beef and then shred it with a fork into small pieces.


Second, make roasted tomatoes (can be done ahead of time):

10 ripe tomatoes, sliced horizontally into thick slices.

Olive oil

Coarse salt, pepper

A few cloves of garlic, not peeled


Place tomato slices and garlic on rimmed baking sheet, dribble with oil,

season and bake in 350 F oven 30 minutes to an hour (check!) until tomatoes are

getting caramelized. Cool, then press soft garlic out of garlic skins;

process everything (scraping up caramelized bits) either in food processor

or through a food mill.


Third, make chili:

1 or 2 tbs olive oil

2 large onions, diced,

3 bell peppers, any color, diced

1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 tbs chili powder (check seasoning)

1 tsp each of dried oregano and sage

Salt, pepper to taste

1/2 cup Bourbon

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (to taste)

1 can black beans, drained & rinsed

1 can garbanzo beans, drained

1 ear sweet corn, (cut corn off cob)


In a big pot sauté vegetables (except for corn), add Bourbon, cook for

about 5 minutes to reduce liquid by half, add beans, beef mixture and

roasted tomatoes, cook for about 10 minutes, then add the corn and adjust

seasoning. If too thick, add water or some orange juice.


Best if reheated the next day! Enjoy!


* * * Photos of Hester’s Daughter’s Wedding Pies * * *

Before and After Mexico Essay

Originally published in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad, Seal Press, 2002


Before and After Mexico

By Gina Hyams


“While life yet lasts, laughter and molasses.”
— traditional Mexican saying


January 1997. My husband, Dave, and I were deliriously happy-giddy with the reality that we were officially unemployed, homeless, and about to blow our life savings by boarding Taesa flight 572 (Oakland-Zacatecas-Morelia) with one-way tickets, one two-year-old, three suitcases, a bag of books, a laptop, a pink teddy bear, a diaper bag and three saxophones. The only plan for our new life in Mexico was that Dave would play jazz, I’d finally have a go at writing, and our daughter Annalena would chase lizards.

We sold nearly everything we owned to finance this escape. Our Tahitian-green Honda Civic named Uma, Macintosh computers, Navajo rugs, 50s reclining beauty-parlor chair, Bang & Olufsen stereo system, reading lamps made of twigs, goose-down comforter, garlic peeler and Weber grill: all sold to the highest bidder. People described our liquidation as “the flea market of the gods.” Estranged friends descended like vultures to paw through our belongings.

Everything was gone. Dave’s beloved collection of obscure R & B Christmas albums: gone. The books of French literary criticism I never actually read in college: gone. Annalena’s primary-colored plastic educational toys: gone. The five bottles of extra fancy grade A pure Vermont maple syrup, four of which I bought because I never could remember if we had any, and brunch with friends was an ideal I perennially aspired to mid-supermarket-aisle: Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.

The abstract notion of lightening the load was more cathartic than the excruciating book-by-book process. I had to keep reminding myself that each item sold translated into that much more time I wouldn’t have to spend in a gray cubicle. A neighbor squabbled when I refused his pitiful offer for Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook. He didn’t understand that this was no ordinary garage sale, that we weren’t getting rid of these things because we didn’t like them. They were our only assets and we were exchanging them for a new life.

It’s not that our old life was without its pleasures, but we were bone tired. Dave was the managing director of a Shakespeare festival and I was the assistant to a vice president of marketing at a software company (back in the glory days of corporate-sponsored staff-bonding ski trips and free Snapple lemonade for all high-tech workers). I was too lowly a peon to get stock options, but my boss was a nice guy who thanked me daily for my competence. Having spent my twenties toiling in employee-morale disaster zones at supposedly progressive political and arts organizations, the software company’s esprit de corps and catered lunches had been a revelation.

Quitting was Dave’s idea. He was thirty-nine and barreling his way to an ulcer from the stress of managing the theater’s never-ending backstage dramas, while juggling the demands of fatherhood, husbandhood and gigs with his experimental jazz ensemble. He was seeing both a therapist and a career counselor, trying to figure out a way to make money that might also make him happy, or at least happier. Architect? Therapist? Jazz history professor? Vice president of something? Bookstore owner? Record-shop clerk? Hander-outer of putters at a mini-golf course?

None of these ideas stuck. More than a new profession, he needed a break-time to catch his breath, find his bearings, rekindle his spirit. He needed a lot more than a two-week vacation. While stuck in Bay Bridge traffic one Thursday night, the solution came to him. With desperate clarity, he bounded in the door and swooped Annalena up into his arms.

“Honey, I’ve figured it out. We don’t have to buy a house. We can quit our jobs, sell everything and become expatriates instead.”

We had habitually entertained fantasies of life abroad while on vacation, but this time Dave was serious. My first impulse was to dig in my heels: “But I finally like my job.”

“I thought you wanted to be a writer. Think about it. We’re not tied down to a mortgage. I haven’t embarked on a new career. We only have one child and she’s not in school yet. This is our window of opportunity.”

He made it sound so reasonable. I was thirty-one and had been coasting on my “creative potential” since college. This move felt like put-up-or-shut-up time, like my artistic bluff had been called. My work at the software company was pleasant, but it was meaningless. I needed to sit still long enough to find out if I had anything to say as a writer. I also yearned to see our little girl during daylight hours.

We contemplated relocating to Holland, Spain, Italy or France, but settled on Mexico, where we’d vacationed three times, because we loved the mariachi bands and the brilliant colors, because families were revered there and because rents were cheap. And we were, indeed, a family with limited resources-$23,732.45 after the sale, to be exact. We thought it would be enough money to carry us for a year, maybe two.

When the last of our furniture was carted away, Dave and I sat on the hardwood floor and surveyed the empty space. There was no remaining evidence of our personalities. We no longer had proof that we were intelligent people of distinguished, if modest, accomplishment and quirky good taste.

The closer we came to our departure date, the less coherent I was when people asked, “Why Morelia?” Nobody’d heard of this inland city. I tried to sound rational, explaining that we thought coastal resorts were well and good for vacations, but that at heart we weren’t beach people and we didn’t want to live surrounded by tourists. The guidebooks intriguingly described the state of Michoacán as the “Switzerland of Mexico,” the “Hills of China of Mexico,” and the “Land that Time Forgot.” We specifically chose the capital city of Morelia because we were suckers for colonial architecture and cobblestones, and, with its universities, music conservatory and nearby crafts villages, it just seemed like the place for us.

Of course, we’d never been there, we didn’t know anybody there, and we didn’t speak Spanish.

We ended up spending the first of what would turn into four years in Mexico in Pátzcuaro, a Purépecha Indian town on a mountain lake about an hour’s drive south of Morelia. The capital itself had felt too sprawling and cosmopolitan, too similar to California. There was a gourmet grocery where we could buy imported coffee Häagen-Dazs, and that felt like cheating. We wanted to live in the Land that Time Forgot, and in Pátzcuaro there wasn’t even coffee-to-go.

We lived on a nameless cobblestone road in a little adobe house that had no telephone, no washing machine, no microwave and no television. The kitchen counter was a glorious, crazy quilt of Talavera tiles decorated with bananas and jalapeño peppers, and the bathroom walls were painted azul añil, a deep ultramarine blue believed to ward off evil spirits. Two stone angels, carved in the nearby village of Tzintzuntzan, held up the mantel above the fireplace in the living-room. We bought wood from an eighty-three-year-old campesinonamed Don Ambrosio who delivered it by burro. Stoking the fire, I felt like a pioneer bride.

Dave planted a stand of calla lilies and hung a hammock in the backyard. We learned how to finesse the water and gas tanks and (after our first miserable round of amoebas) to soak vegetables vigilantly in a disinfectant solution. Just walking to the post office was an adventure because we invariably stumbled on one fiesta or another-boys blasting fireworks at dawn in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a mariachi band serenading a bride and groom on the church steps, children bashing a piñata strung up in the middle of the street, a drunken brass band careening through town in celebration of a win by their favorite soccer team.

Wandering through Pátzcuaro’s outdoor market was a visual feast. Block after block was filled with the reddest tomatoes I’d ever seen, alongside pyramids of huge, ripe avocados, juicy cactus paddles, mangoes carved into flower shapes, baskets overflowing with dried chilies and pumpkin seeds, platters of chicken heads, candied sweet potatoes swarming with bees and more cow parts than I’d ever imagined. Enormous bouquets of tuberoses could be had for a song. I’d dare myself to go back by the butcher stalls to look at the ghostly tripe, pig snouts on hooks and glistening entrails. My legs would nearly buckle, the sensual overload was so confounding. When Dave wasn’t around, I enjoyed a flirty dance with Juan, my favorite fruit seller. “A su servicio, mi reina (At your service, my queen),” he’d grin as he dug for the sweetest strawberries.

For people who had so recently shed our material trappings and piously sworn to “never accumulate that much stuff again,” we had a hell of a lot of fun accumulating new stuff. There was such palpable pleasure in being surrounded by things that were hecho a mano (made by hand). We drank fresh-squeezed tangerine juice out of hand-blown glass goblets, wore hand-knitted wool sweaters and slept under a hand-loomed magenta bedspread. We brushed our teeth with purified water decanted from an earthenware pitcher. Annalena played with miniature toy frogs made of straw and she chased not only lizards, but dragonflies, ladybugs, grasshoppers, butterflies, pigeons and all manner of mangy street dogs as well.

We made friends with Lupita, who sold roast chickens in the market. She always gave Annalena a little cajeta(goat’s milk caramel) cookie and advised Dave and me to make more babies. Mexicans rarely asked what we did for a living. They were more curious about the size of our family and, though ours was small, the fact that we were a family seemed to normalize us. Annalena, with her blueberry eyes and impeccable Spanish accent, became our goodwill ambassador. No matter how dusty-poor or remote the village, people made a fuss over her. ¡Qué linda! (How pretty!), they’d exclaim. She was preciosa (precious), una princesa (a princess), una muñeca viviente (a living doll). By the time she was three, Annalena would answer, “No soy una muñeca. Soy un mono. (I’m not a doll. I’m a monkey).” She also took to telling anyone who asked that she had forty-nine brothers and sisters.

The view from my writing desk was one-third twisting cobblestone roads and red-tiled rooftops and two-thirds sky. When I sat down to work on my novel, it seemed ludicrous to try and invent a plot when the surrealism of everyday life in Mexico felt so compelling. I found myself trying to describe the sky outside my window- surging and cleaving clouds, thunder and lightning, cotton-candy sunsets and a profusion of shooting stars. The constant drama of that sky seemed a testament to celestial will, grace and fury, an explanation of why there are so many believers in this part of the world. Instead of poetry, I wrote letters home.

Sent via e-mail, these monthly dispatches to friends and family took on a life of their own. My loved ones forwarded the letters to their loved ones, who in turn often asked to be added to my mailing list. What began as a list of thirty grew to nearly three hundred recipients. A fledgling writer couldn’t ask for a greater gift. Knowing that there was an audience eager to read my words helped me develop confidence and discipline.

Through the letters, I began to discover my voice and core literary themes (death, lies and room service). Eventually I found work as a guidebook correspondent and published three books about Mexico—one about Day of the Dead and the other two about the architecture and interior decor of Mexican inns and homes. Dave also thrived creatively. He practiced playing his horns several hours a day and found work with an art-rock band from Mexico City, as well as jazz gigs at various resorts.

We loved living in Mexico, but ultimately tired of being outsiders. The downside of a culture rooted in family clans is that friends aren’t as integral. Annalena’s classmates rarely invited her home to play because there they played with their cousins. We had genuinely warm, but stubbornly superficial relationships with our neighbors. While it was possible for us to feel gloriously swept away by the splendor of saint’s day celebrations, these holidays would never belong to us. And because most of the expatriates we met were either cantina-hopping college students or cocktail party- hopping retirees, we didn’t fit in with the foreigners either.

After four years away, it was time to engage again with our own tribe; to let Annalena get to know her own cousins; to taste Black Diamond cheddar, sushi and real maple syrup; and to hear the thunk of the SundayNew York Times on our doorstep. We returned to a Victorian house in Oakland and made dates to meet old friends for lattes at our favorite cafés. Annalena learned about the wonders of drinking fountains and central heating. Dave got another arts administration job and my old boss at the software company hired me part-time to write brochure copy. Our community welcomed us back with open arms.

But we’ve been home five months now, and I’m not sure we belong in California anymore either. We’re struggling to reconcile the Mexican sky that now fills our hearts with the daily grind of a more or less upwardly mobile life. I find myself willfully spacing out, trying to slow down the pace, trying to hold onto the sense that time is simply time, not money. Perhaps we’ve become permanent expatriates-neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter our location. But this fluidity also means that we’re now like mermaids and centaurs—magic creatures who always know there’s another way.

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Copyright © Gina Hyams