I read Evelio’s Garden slowly so as to enjoy every moment to the full. I enjoyed the prose, as well as the combination of the author’s personal moments with the beautiful descriptions of places, landscapes, nature and people, all of which make the reading very agreeable. The strength and positive attitude with which she confronts the vicissitudes and difficulties, without losing her calm and sense of humor, are admirable. The descriptions of some of the situations are really comical: for example, the bonsais, Ruth and the bats, the rice and beans on her bus trip to San José. The relationship with Evelio is truly special; her patience, tolerance and empathy are admirable. The way she describes moments of frustration, pain and anger, along with happiness and humor is marvelous. All of these elements mixed with the descriptions of people, customs, the culture, birds, plants and the countryside, made for me, one of those “trips” that will never be forgotten. My gratitude for the gift of these memoirs and the hours of pleasure I spent reading them. — Enrique Venegas
For a long time, I have looked for a way to describe my connection to the natural world. I tried in Evelio’s Garden, but no writer that I have encountered since has come as close as I have the privilege to quote here. Of course there have been many before me, but none that I have discovered as right on as these two: Robinson Jeffers and Oliver Sacks. (And I’ll keep looking!)
The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.
— Robinson Jeffers
The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.
– Oliver Sacks
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
There’s a big difference between writing stories and telling them out loud. This is something I’ve discovered as, over the years, I have recorded bits and pieces of various things I have written. Somehow, the spoken word is infinitely more powerful. Recently I was invited by an interviewer to record a story from Evelio’s Garden, and since her website focused on finding joy in our lives, I picked robins and sea lions. Well, listen and you’ll see how they’re related.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Canna, 1924 (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)
In a passage originally published in the exhibition catalog An American Place, she writes, “A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower — the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower — lean forward to smell it — maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking — or give it to someone to please them. Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
“So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
“Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.”
When you’re writing, sometimes surprising things spill out. This little prose poem was completely spontaneous; it didn’t follow any plot line nor was it the product of any forethought. It came from a moment of pure presence with what I was doing. I looked at it on the screen, slightly amazed, and decided to leave it in.
Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica is coming in September (as soon as I have a few reviews to put on the back cover). Published by Atmosphere Press, a small collaborative publishing house, it looks almost too good to be true.
I had let it slide for a while (ten years???) after contacting a zillion agents who were not thrilled — although some said it was beautifully written — because in the hurly-burly world of major publishing, a small, even beautiful, book needs a lot of extra work to become its own little profit center.
Even after all the work editor Allyson Latta had put into it, I still lacked confidence after so many rejections, but something stirred me when I saw a call for submissions by Atmosphere Press in a publishing newsletter. After I had jumped through so many hoops with the agents (send first and third chapters; send first five pages and a marketing summary; send synopsis of no more than 300 words, etc.) all this press wanted to see was the manuscript!
Well, that was just too easy, so I sent it — what the hell? — and a few days later I had a note from the publisher, Nick Courtright, a well-known poet in his own right, saying they would like to take it. I was flabbergasted: this was really too easy. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days (was that weeks, Nick?) until agreeing to go forward.
Nick put me in touch with one of their editors, with whom I had an excellent few weeks of working together — he liked it! — and I was beginning to feel a little jazzed. So, here it comes:
Sandra Shaw Homer has lived in Costa Rica for almost 30 years, where she has taught languages and worked as a translator and environmental activist. For several years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly, The Tico Times.
Her creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online travel and literary journals, as well as on own blog, WritingFromTheHeart.net.
Her travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, received excellent Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews; a brief inspirational memoir, The Magnificent Dr. Wao, is available as a Kindle Book; and a second travel memoir, Journey to the Joie de Vivre, details two Atlantic crossings on cargo ships as well as a swing through Europe.
I’m so excited for you to connect with Sandra, check out her writing and her books, and follow along as she continues to remind us of our connection to nature, and its power to transform our experiences.
I’d love it if you’d introduce yourself, what you do, and what you’re working on.
Having lived in Costa Rica for almost 30 years has given me an opportunity to discover what I value most. At one point I helped found and worked with three environmental non-profit organizations and headed the county environmental commission. This was long before the climate crisis was on anybody’s radar, and our efforts were directed at saving the Lake Arenal watershed from illegal development. We had some important successes, and I realize now that what we were doing did have implications for our climate future.
How did you get started?
But I’m really a writer! And that’s one of the reasons I moved to Costa Rica – to find a quiet place where I could start looking within to my creative self and do what I had always wanted. I’ve always been a writer – for other people, clients, environmental causes. But I knew that somewhere my own story was percolating inside, and I wanted to get at it.
What inspired the work that you’re doing?
Interestingly, the environmental work I did inspired my writing, so that my book, Evelio’s Garden, is a lyrical exploration of the environment as well as a memoir, my personal story.
What is your biggest passion? Do you feel like you’re living your passion and purpose?
My biggest passion now is to help others connect to the natural world in ways that will move them to work to save it. And, yes, after a lifetime of work and discovery, I feel as if I’m living my dream.
What is your joy blueprint? What lights you up, brings you joy, and makes you feel the most alive?
A good first sentence. Whatever you’re writing has to start with a good first sentence. For me, they usually come out of the ether – I may not even be thinking of a particular poem or writing project. But once that first sentence lights up, the joy of it carries me forward. There are lots of things that bring me joy: water, mountains, clouds, trees. But that first sentence taps into an inner creative self that just wants to sing.
How do you live intentionally? Are there tools/resources/practices that you rely on to help you stay mindful and grounded?
Weather permitting, I always sit outside at the end of day to watch the sunlight climb up the eastern trees, the vultures swooping as high as the clouds, the wind singing, my cat trying to squeeze into my car through the partially open window. These are precious moments in which I am conscious of how grateful I am.
What would your younger self think about what you’re doing now?
She’d probably understand, since those sunset moments were special to her too. But she was too angry to feel grateful.
Do you have a go-to mantra or affirmation?
A simple “thank you,” directed to the universe for whatever moves me. I read once that the only proper prayer is one of gratitude, and I’ve taken that to heart.
What is your biggest dream?
I hardly dare to think of finishing the novel I started so many years ago. I’m old now. I want to continue to live in peace in this beautiful rural setting in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I want to feel that I’ve led a useful life and be grateful for all the many gifts I experience every day. A Laughing Falcon calling in the wee hours just before dawn. The monkeys howling in the sunset. The stray cat that’s showing up every day for dinner. My loving friends. My sister and her family. Too many gifts to count. My dreams are simple now, things to be grateful for, that’s enough.
Joy Corner is an interview-style blog series brought to you by Seek The Joy Podcast. Our mission continues to be a desire to share your stories, truths, joys and inspiration in your words. We invite you to join our corner, and share your joys, passions, and moments of inspiration as we continue to seek the joy, together. Join this series here
It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…
For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.
My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.
The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
Listening, Fromm argues, is “is an art like the understanding of poetry” and, like any art, has its own rules and norms. Drawing on his half-century practice as a therapist, Fromm offers six such guidelines for mastering the art of unselfish understanding:
- The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
- Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
- He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
- He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
- The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
- Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.
I have admired and loved Erich Fromm ever since I read his The Art of Loving, the most sane and humane treatise on love I have ever encountered. The parallels he draws in The Art of Listening make perfect sense to me. And I reflect that an author must be capable of listening to and loving his characters. Otherwise, they will never seem real.
January is turning into a busy month. Today my poem “Tropical Rain” appeared in Sky Island Journal. The editors of this relatively new on-line journal have been wonderfully supportive of my writing, so I’m grateful to be able to highlight their existence.
You can read my poem here: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-11-winter-2020/ . Please remember to scroll down to my photo/bio and click on the poem there. And thanks.