Wow, I am one vigilant son of a gun! My old “friend,” The Cough, returned a week into my time in Jaco, Costa Rica. Since March when I gave up dairy, she had not visited me. But given the drastic change in temperature/environment/everything and with my crazy fears and endless analyses, she was alongside, actually inside, me yet again.
Of course I talked to myself, sometimes with impatient scolding. After I finally recognized a momentary appreciation of my vigilance, realizing how very much she has helped me all these long and glorious 63 years, I wanted to stroke and massage her slowly and tenderly.
Often especially during that first week away, I grieved. Well, first I judged. Why was the common language at this school English when what I needed/craved was total Spanish immersion? How could I be so close to Nicaragua but stuck here in touristy, party-central Jaco? And how could I protect myself and finish uninjured in this foreign place, lonely and alone? No wonder I was sick.
Gradually though I reminded myself of the careful discernment I had invited once I learned that my beloved school—Escuela Colibrí in Matagalpa, Nicaragua—had folded for the time being. I began searching and asking for recommendations. Our bishop and his family had visited a school on the Pacific Ocean in Jaco, Costa Rica. I decided to start my travels there. After all I felt brave enough to venture back to Costa Rica having traveled there twice before as a tourist. Besides Costa Rica borders Nicaragua. Maybe I would be able to see some of my friends or at least get a less censored version of what is going on there.
I can only begin to describe my fear and disappointment when I started coughing. Here I was living my dream with resources to pay my way and with a supportive husband (plus family and friends) available to help my 90-year-old mother as needed. Even so, I was falling to the curse of tightening. Lucky me, I have been at this business of being me long enough to have strategies for taming the mind. Once I acknowledged and named Vigilance as well as my sadness/sense of loss regarding Nicaragua, the tide began to turn. Other healing aids I used included:
Turned judging into noticing
Immediately I recognized English as the common language at The School of the World. Once I acknowledged that my work back home in Seattle involved both languages, I began to count the countries represented at the school during the three short weeks I was there—18 countries on 6 continents! I started listening more closely and was able to understand Spanish and English in scads of accents. Curiosity and delight got the upper hand!
One of the best decisions I made before traveling was to sign up to stay with a Costa Rican host family. Then when arriving, I made it crystal-clear to all that while I was at Ines’s, I wanted to use Spanish-only. Of course this was the family’s way plus they all knew some English (more than I found at my host home and on the streets in Nicaragua). What made this tricky was that another North American, William, was staying with the family when I first arrived. I was a bit of a snob with this 60-something surfing New Yorker, proclaiming only Spanish for me. In hindsight, I could have allowed more space for his deep wisdom–about Jaco, the school and this beautiful family we had both fortunately stumbled upon–to unfold in either or both languages. I am now grateful he was there at first, a good part of my transition to Jaco.
Many of the initial stories Ines shared with me were about William. For instance, his mountain-biking prowess led him to purchase an extra bike for himself while in Jaco and for the family in between his frequent visits. William’s Spanish is strong and I enjoyed his riotous laugh and chatter with the family.
He returned to the US after my first week in Jaco, leaving fertile ground for us to continue getting to know each other while exchanging the short stories of our lives. Usually the tales included profound feeling elaborated by descriptive gestures and hand signals. Since one of the activities in my Spanish classes was watching “Las Chicas del Cable” (a television series produced in Madrid in Spanish…we watched with Spanish subtitles), I found myself well-primed to understand and tell the stories of our lives as mini-telenovelas.
I also shared Bridging (my book), having brought along three copies to give away. It was interesting to wait and find out who would be the recipients. Initially, one copy went to Ines and then one to Kristin, my 20-something Icelandic classmate who works at the school. She was delighted to finally read a book by “someone she knows” and mentioned how much my code-switching presentation fits with her experience of learning Spanish. Later when another student, Vicki, was relegated to the sofa after a surfing accident, I gave her a copy of my book for company. What a flurry of conversation that caused between students, staff members and me.
In all of this, one thing I learned is that it is important for me to commit to one language and one only in any given conversation. My fluent son had suggested, “If you really what to get to know people, figure out the strongest language between you and use that one.” I am amazed at those folks who can interpret. But my Spanish is just not strong enough for much of that yet. This is a skill that will come only as much as needed. I was surprised that organizing the languages separately in my mind contributed to ease and flow rather than vice versa.
Tried and true physical practices – exercise, good food and modern medicine
Besides daily yoga, after Week One, Ines’s husband Erick resurrected an old bicycle for me so I could commute back and forth to school. Definitely easier for flow than the two or three round trips I had walked daily over the scant-mile between school and home during that first week. Even though I scared myself without a helmet for my giant kanoodle, I paid attention when I rode and I wore a reflective strip and my headlamp at night.
For the most part, I avoided dairy, sugar, red meat and alcohol. And (here’s another bonus of the home-stay), I ate at home. Ines used whole foods exclusively with lots of rice and veggies. I taught her my favorite Chilean word—lumami, meaning leftovers from the first three days of the week (the first two letters of lunes, martes and miercoles, Spanish for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) to be eaten on Thursday—when I made myself a lumami sandwich.
And when all else failed, I went to the pharmacy for drugs. This is always a good exercise for a language learner. Will my Spanish work in a real-life situation? What new vocabulary will I need? How does medicine work here, including cost, availability, etc.
Tried and true mental and spiritual practices – journaling, music, drawing, hypnosis, meditation, poetry, reading and more
I travel with several tools to assist reflection and quiet work and play alone: my trusty journal, iPod with guided meditations and hypnosis clips, meditative drawing book (see results below), a magazine or two and my phone. The phone has a terrific mix of popular Spanish tunes on it as well as Katia Cardenal’s “La Misa Campesina”—both of which encourage me to dance and laugh, pray and cry. This time I also read several of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poems when my friends posted them after she died in mid-January. And I was able to pull up a favorite by Billy Collins—“Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House”—for those times at night when the chorus of dogs or steady cock crows almost drove me nuts.
I met my fear head on and tried surfing.
This is a long story. Suffice it to say that at the end of Week Two, I paid Christian (good name for instilling trust, eh?) to introduce me to this “radical sport” and play in the waves for an hour. I had really scared myself about this after seeing Vicki’s cracked head dripping blood and hearing about a novice-surfer-become-quadriplegic accident from one of my sisters. But gifts from William (the rash guard he had left with Ines) and hypo-allergenic zinc cream from a fellow student plus prayers from my prayer partner and jewel-friends at home, emboldened me. I had also visited the ocean in preparation, dipping my toes first, then journaling alongside, then body-surfing in the warm gentle swells at low tide. I was ready. And I knew I’d kick myself later if I went home surfless in this ideal location.
At one point during the lesson I stood for 10 seconds, then laughed for 60 at the edge of the sea. What a wonderful memory! And afterwards during Week Three, I was well and happy and a more-appreciative audience while watching the surf-analysis videos of the other students. Funny thing about getting on that horse, or surfboard, whatever really represents FEAR, that crippling demon. It’s a powerful antidote.
Sundays are Sabbath for me. Almost always this includes church of some sort with others. When I got to Jaco, I learned that Ines and her family are Jehovah Witnesses. This is a community I knew nothing about except for the stereotype of door-knocking evangelists and the sign on the door of my first landlord that read “No, no, no, Jehovah Witnesses.” What I learned during my first two Sundays with the family at church is how deeply they study and live the Bible, Ines’s family at least, and how they welcome, include and train children. Church was a pleasure to enjoy with them, plus this activity provided a huge opportunity for me to listen to Spanish.
On the third Sunday, my Costa Rican family traveled to San Jose to participate in the annual conference with others of their faith so I had Sabbath to myself. What a gift! At first I considered how I could possibly get to Matagalpa. But when I let go of that possibility, I hunted down a liturgical denomination, finding I was hungry for the Eucharist.
Feeling the news
I decided to attend a very full Roman Catholic mass on that third Sunday. I understood most of the sermon and drank in the music. I heard more about the Pope’s upcoming visit to Panama and about the pilgrims from Jaco. This phenomenon had weighed on me every morning as we watched the news. On one side of Costa Rica, the beatings in Nicaragua played out as her people, my friends, again struggle for liberty. On the other side in Panama, people were experiencing peace and hope anticipating the visit of their religious leader.
Listing the Saints
All-in-all, I became well as I laughed and cried and came to know and value another dear family and culture as well as my own self in total again. Ten years ago as I was leaving Nicaragua for the first time, our guide/priest suggested we list all those heretofore strangers who had given of themselves to help us during the journey. Now I do this at the end of all my pilgrimages. For one, it encourages me to learn people’s names. I recognize the saintly and holy nature and value of their gifts and my practice. This time the list included 83 of us.
In conclusion (whew, finally!), I will be forever grateful. I know I will be as well as I allow and I have several ways to help myself heal.