Some thoughts on my 90th birthday and how I came to live a better life in Cuenca

Jul 1, 2022 | 19 comments

Editor’s note: Long-time expat Dave Nelson died early Friday morning in Cuenca. He was 93.

Dave Nelson at an Oakland A’s baseball game during a trip back to California in 2014.

Born in a small town on the Oregon coast, Dave spent most of his professional career as a workers’ comp attorney in Oakland, California representing injured workers. Besides his legal advocacy, he described his job as being a social worker and friend to people “lost in the system.” When he retired at 71, he took a job as gardener for a Presbyterian church retreat in Walnut Creek, east of Oakland, working there until he turned 81, when he first visited Cuenca. He fell in love with the city and moved down a few months later.

The following is a column Dave wrote for CuencaHighLife in 2019 on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Over the years my birthday has become unimportant to me, just another day to be treated with the same care and attention as the day before and the day after. I do appreciate the sincerity of the “Happy Birthday” greetings that come my way but it is usually difficult for me to see anything special about it. On the other hand this year on, May 14, I turned 90 (assuming that my birth certificate is correct) and for whatever reason this birthday is important to me. It brings home the fact that I am old. But that by itself does not define the kind of person I am.

My physical abilities have declined, my endurance is less, I walk more slowly, I spill food and occasionally drool. Mentally, other than having to write down things I used to keep in my memory, quite often not able to bring up a word that I know and, at times, slower to comprehend things, I seem to be in pretty good shape. I read a lot, keep up with what is going on in the world, keep learning more about the human race and mix in some novels for entertainment and edification. I go to Spanish class three mornings a week where I learn a little Spanish and a lot about Ecuadorian culture, politics and structure, e.g., the government pays the costs of the political campaigns which, mercifully, last only two months, for example.

A time for reassessment.

Looking back on my life, there have been marriages and divorces, children and step children, grandchildren and, in March, the first great grandchild. I had a very satisfying legal career representing injured workers and, after retirement, a wonderful 10 years as a part-time groundskeeper at an eight-acre church retreat in California where I did everything from planting flowers to splitting oak rounds into firewood. One of life’s small but very gratifying pleasures is when the second swing of the splitting maul strikes exactly in the groove left by the first swing.

I’ve been single since 1998 and, after 50 years in Oakland, California, I moved to Cuenca in July, 2011. Cuenca, with its tranquil atmosphere and friendly people is now my home and intend to stay here until I die.

So here I am, feeling fully alive. I try to live in the reality of the present, my senses not being able to be anywhere else, which means that thoughts about the past and the future are not reality. I like Bryon Katie’s phrase of “loving what is, because if it was supposed to be different it would be.” Fully alive means participating fully in my day-to-day life and, while doing that, being the best person I can be. I also have a deep-down sense of quiet joy, an underlying calmness. The phrase, “Life has never been better,” keeps popping up.

I am so humbled and grateful to be in this state and wonder how I, Swedish, English, Taurus, Stoic, left brained, introvert with a subconscious belief that I am just a dumb little kid from Tillamook, Oregon who doesn’t deserve anything special, got to this very comfortable place. Over the past twenty years I have come to believe that although we seem to be on separate journeys, we are actually intertwined and need all the help from others we can get. Here’s a short poem to illustrate:

The Way It Is

There is a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die;
and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford

In February 1998 I was at a church choir retreat. On Saturday evening we gathered around low tables with lots of candles and our minister asked us to say something about why we liked being in the choir. Many deep feelings were expressed, there were some tears, and when it came to me I felt absolutely cold and completely detached. I said something that sounded meaningful but felt nothing. The next morning I skipped rehearsal and went out to a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, sat down and looked out, still with the feeling of being completely alone. Then out of the blue, a message came to me:

Cuenca’s Rio Tomebamba not far from Dave Nelson’s apartment.

“David, if you don’t do something about yourself you are going to get sick, curl up, and die.”

Although I didn’t realize it for several years, my conscious internal journey had begun.

Sometime in the early 2000’s I was shopping at an Oakland farmer’s market for my favorite Pink Lady apples and got to talking to Ame, a young woman selling the apples. The conservation got serious and then she said, “It is better to be than to do,” which struck me hard as being completely true. Striving to become a loving human being is more important to the world than striving to become the president of your company to satisfy your ego.

Then in January 2011 I met a friend of Ame’s who spent half an hour telling me about Cuenca, Ecuador. I had been thinking about moving because eventually the cost of living would overtake my pension and I had always been envious of the more relaxed and open ways of Latin America. So in March, I came down to investigate and on my first night in Cuenca, on a deck overlooking the Tomebamba River, I immediately felt at home. In July, I moved. It was a couple of years before I understood that on that first night in the city something inside me (heart, soul — insert your own label) told me I was home. The die was cast.

At the going-away party at my church in California there were many cards and inscriptions entered into a book. In going through them later, at least half of them talked about continuing my journey. Journey? What journey? I’m just bumbling along in my life, doing the best I can to be, trying, like Jesus, to be loving, compassionate and forgiving. But many of those people had known me for 35 years. Maybe they know something about me that I didn’t.

Gradually I came to realize that my thread had not been a conscious one and in looking back over my life I see many instances where my actions were inconsistent with my newly developed conscious goal of always trying to be the best person I can be.

In eight years in warm and accepting embrace of Cuenca, I have continued to think, read and discuss and am more assured than ever that the most important thing a person can do in this life is to keep aiming at that goal. The world needs good people, our wiring tends to push us in that direction. We are made out of the same material as the stars which means to me that everything in the universe is related to everything else and we are in that sense kin to everything. And we can be at peace inside while taking actions to help our universe along its way.

— Cuidese. And love, Dave

There will be memorial gathering in honor of Dave Nelson on Sunday, July 3, at 11 a.m. at Memopaz Funeraria, Av. Loja 2-167 at Tunguragua.

Dave Nelson

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