A Little Night Music

Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Sky Island Journal, this is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica. 

Now, in the still, moonlit nights, insomnia has company.

Wup, wup, whoo, whoooo.

An owl challenges the jungle of the quebrada by the house.  Everyone marvels at how tranquil our place is, but they’re used to the noises of cities and towns.  Out here the sounds drop into the night silence like thunder.

It begins with the owl.  From our quebrada he calls to another in the quebrada to the south.  A small echo coming back, saying what?

Crickets playing a triad – two tones perfectly spaced at a third – offer a metallic accompaniment.

The cicadas who screamed at sunset have already exploded and left their empty shells in the crannies of the trees.

A distant dog barks.

Later, no matter what the moon, a pack of coyotes hurls its protest at the stars.  Little Flor – separated by millennia from her sisters – still remembers to howl in tune.

In the ceiling, all night long, the bats are chirping fussily over their busy comings and goings.  There is the muffled beating of wings against the small, dusty spaces.

A gecko rustles across the skylight, and I hear the flat-footed thump of the cat’s paws on the kitchen counter, a better vantage point for contemplating the gecko’s tempting silhouette in the moonlight.

Even later, a small but insistent mew from the cat: she wants out.

The pump decides to gurgle, even though no one is drawing any water.

The breeze, blowing from the volcano, sighs back and forth like the ocean, and the great crossed limbs of the guanacaste tree groan against each other like two quarrelsome lovers in their sleep.

A lamp burns in my tiny room as my pen scratches across the page.  It attracts an abejón that buzzes his frustration against the screen. There’s a hole in the screen, but he hasn’t found it yet.

In the small hours a far-off rooster crows.

Later, at five – right on time – the King of the howler monkeys roars in the dawn.  He knows when the sun is about to rise.  The rooster hasn’t figured it out.

Night sounds in the campo.  I never feel alone.  As I look out the window above my bed, lights out at last, I see the pale moon and constellations swinging through the bowl of blue and, distantly, ever so faintly, I can hear – beyond all the chirping and chatter of nearby things – the music of the planet tilting toward the sun.

(An earlier version appeared on this blog in the series on the use of our senses in writing.)

 

Savannah Interlude

Leaving one ship and waiting for another to take me across the Atlantic, I spent a few unexpected days in Savannah, Georgia.  Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre: Lessons to be Learned on the Road if We Look for Them.

 

I left my hat behind on board. Is this another of the depredations of age, to litter the planet with our detritus as we wander half-witted along?

I didn’t get ashore until 9 o’clock last night, but I was lucky to grab the taxi that had just delivered my replacement passengers from the airport. The cab driver, a large man with a slow drawl, sympathized and then began to intone facts about the city. I had little patience for all that and have to admit that I interrupted him to say I was tired, annoyed at myself and hurting, and that I probably wouldn’t have time to enjoy much of Savannah. In the same slow drawl, he said, “Well, people around you can’t feel your pain, so we can’t know, can we?” Humbled, I apologized. Lesson for today.

My hotel room looks like a post-Civil War bordello with high, velvet-tufted headboards, flocked carpeting, dark satin curtains, a plastic snakeskin-covered chair, a mirror the size of a ’57 Pontiac, two oyster shell bathroom sconces made doubly hideous by the mirror behind them, furniture designed to look like old sea chests and an absolutely bewildering array of electronics on the large granite-topped desk (I called the hotel engineer to come disconnect everything). Evian water is available for five dollars a bottle. The “pillow-top” bed was so soft that I ended up sleeping on the floor. I piled up the plastic bed cover and two fake fur throws and stretched out with a pretty comfortable pillow and slept quite well, actually, but this morning I reported to the desk that there was no way I could continue to stay in a room that didn’t have a decent mattress and that I had requested an orthopedic mattress when I made my reservation.

The very nice young woman at the desk went to work. She searched nearby hotels to see if there was a room with an orthopedic mattress. Then she searched nearby hotels to see if they had extra beds in housekeeping and finally she came up with a roll-away bed that I can use here in the same room that’s somewhat firmer than the wallowy mattresses on the two double beds, although hardly orthopedic. I was supposed to have a river view, but because I arrived a day early (unbelievable – I had no idea what the date was), I’m stuck now on the ground floor, looking out at a parked SUV and, beyond that, some live oaks and shrubbery along the boulevard. It’s a pretty day.

After ten years since my last visit, I find myself feeling a little intimidated by the United States. I went out this morning to walk around in search of a bank where I could change dollars back into euros. Nothing doing. Not unless you have an account. But at the bank I asked for a little café where I could find something light and perhaps a glass of wine. The town is crawling with restaurants, most of them pubs or hamburger joints smelling of fries. But as I was following directions to another hotel restaurant I found a little Japanese place where I had a very nice sushi and sashimi lunch and part of a Kirin beer (served in a 16-ounce bottle and there was no way I was going to get through all that).

Back in my room, waiting to lie down and rest for a while. I have to keep ice packs cold in an ice bucket, , since there’s no minibar in this room. I thought I had arranged for every single room on this itinerary to have a minibar, as well as an orthopedic mattress, but I seem to have failed on both counts in this place, and it’s hard to imagine they would charge me full price for sleeping on the floor last night, but they might. I wish I didn’t have two more nights to stay here, but maybe tomorrow I can get out and do a little horse-drawn carriage tour of the city and get down to the riverfront. There is certainly no view from here.

Savannah is a walking city, with broad boulevards divided by wide, lushly planted parks, no commercial clutter to offend the eye and only bevies of tourists in their shorts and walking ténis. Clean. Talking pedestrian crossing controls. Brick-lined walks. Only one beggar in all the blocks I walked! The legions of unemployed are hidden away. In a pharmacy where I sat down to wait for some information, I asked a broad black woman if there was a restroom, and she curled her lower lip contemptuously and shook her head. “Not in here. Try the Starbucks across the street.” Which I did, and desperately wished I could still drink coffee – the aroma was so overwhelming! I learned that there was a 5-digit punch code – changed regularly – to get into the ladies’ room. For “express check-out” at the pharmacy I needed personal help – I’d never used one before. Everyone is super-friendly, though. It’s easy to interact with people with openness and humor. Deciding to try my luck at a jewelry store, I was served by an attendant who had lived in China for six years and taken away as her “souvenir” an adopted little girl. How lovely! She despaired at the provincialism of many of her acquaintances who have never been out of Georgia. My Costa Rican passport had opened the door to that conversation, and it was delightful to connect with her – she found the perfect little earrings and a shy bangle that will make me feel a little dressier in the evenings, as I’m wandering around Europe.

This morning I learned that the port agent had been unable to locate my hat, so I had to go off in search of another one. I’ve also managed to misplace my comb, so yet another errand to do. The desk suggested I hire a pedicab, which turned out to be a great idea, mine pedaled by a young college graduate named Stefan, who led me to the perfect store for the hat, then to the same pharmacy I’d been to yesterday, and finally on a wonderful tour of the old city – elegant period homes and historic public buildings all lining a bewildering array of parks filled with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. It was charming. The pedaler was charming. At the end she said she’d enjoyed “hanging out” with me. I returned the compliment! She dropped me by an elevator down to River Street, where I asked the first person I saw to recommend a place where I could get a salad and a glass of wine, which turned out to be a Greek café right behind him. Fisherman’s salad, house Chardonnay and a nice chat with two chubby older ladies (older than me?) who were on a bus tour from Indiana (!).

Tomorrow morning, I board my next ship and all this hopping about from place to place will stop for 17 days. The Atlantic!

Preparing to leave the United States again after such a long absence, I reflect that Savannah has certainly been a soft landing (it sure beats the Miami airport). The only exception was Homeland Security, what civilized people elsewhere call Immigration and Customs. Because I had to leave my cabin early so that the steward could clean it for the next passengers, I waited in the E Deck lounge where I knew the officials would be gathering. They crowded the room in their black uniforms with their side-arms and shaved heads and stiff military bearing, and they were courteous, but officious as hell. The kid in charge – I say “kid’” because he couldn’t have been over 30 – was wearing shiny black gloves that looked like something out of a sadomasochism catalog. He was just a little young for his job, and so a little extra authoritarian. With a touch of irony, I answered all his questions with the final word, “Sir.” The Coast Guard guys, who really are military, were much more relaxed and friendly. One found the phone number of my hotel on his cell phone, and the other, so as not to disturb me on the sofa, did his paperwork at the coffee table on his knees. As I was released to go, I leaned over and whispered in his ear, “You’ve been such a gentleman, you can get off your knees now.”

Copyright © Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

Photo by SSH

 

 

Another Five Stars for Dr. Wao

March 6, 2018

Format: Kindle Edition

Writing Prompt: Green

Writing prompts can produce some surprising prose:  stream of consciousness, things previously unknown to us or felt before, anecdotes, even poetry.  One such prompt in a workshop I attended turned into a flash fiction piece that eventually found a home in a literary journal.  Besides, prompts are super practice: we should try to do one every day.  If we can’t come up with one on our own, there are websites full of prompts.  Here’s one that cropped up in a workshop for two.

Green

The music of the river adds a sense of continuity to our stories.  We are all one, but accidentally separate – thus our reaching out to connect, to feel part of one another.  Green – a thousand shades of green all blending into one forest on the banks of this musical river: magical river, swollen with the rains, tumbling into the lake that binds us.

It is a geography of one-ness, and through it I feel God singing, inviting our spirits into the cosmic dance.

I have found heaven here – in this country, among these people – in this endless green that fills me up.  There are other beautiful places on this blue planet, but none for me like this, none that has reached inside to pull out my small gifts – the gift of connection most of all, connection to the earth, the green, the eternal river and, finally, the fearless connection to myself.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the question, always full of exciting possibilities.  But I knew, always, that I wanted to write my way into the one-ness, the connection to others, my own human truth.

The green is so soothing, the deep-throated river hypnotizes me under the synchronous songs of the cicadas, the howls of the monkeys.  This is the color of the music that I must share.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo by Marten Jager

Writing Advice from John McPhee

From one of my all-time favorite writers of nonfiction, here are some excellent tips for all writers:

  • “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
  • “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
  • “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
  • “The lead – like the title – should be a flashlight that shines down into the story.  A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
  • “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
  • “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
  • “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
  • “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
  • “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
  • “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
  • “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
  • “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
  • “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
  • “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
  • “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
  • “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
  • “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

 

 

I’m going to recommend his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, before I’ve even read it!

My Poem “Holding” Published in Junto Magazine

Holding

You place the heel of my hand
against your brow
so that my fingers spread out
over the curve of your head
settling down into your hair.
I laugh. Why are you doing that,
I ask. To hold the top down,
you answer. It feels good
To hold your head like this –
large and round like a melon,
you say, solid and field warm.
I want to be your head
under my hand, feeling held,
contained, all there. I am
both me, holding, and you, held –
all one, all the same.
Our bodies shift in the dark
and my hand slips away.
You put it back. We cannot
have enough of this oneness –
and, feeling it, we do not sleep.

© Junto Magazine, 2017

Junto Magazine, December 2017

 

“I Turned My Ear to Trees . . .”

“For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life.

“To listen was therefore to learn what endures.

“I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family.

“To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.

“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.

“Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.

“We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.

“Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.” – The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, David George Haskell

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH

Ah, Panama

Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

A journey without suspense would be boring.  Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown.  All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning.  At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers.  Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient.  And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave.  This little suspense is completely expected.  (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port.  The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)

The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica.  As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.”  Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.

This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund.  I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65.  That’s the lesson for today.

It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me.  First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too).  So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama.  In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon.  This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it.  He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”

Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family.  I have put myself in your shoes.  I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.”  I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel.  I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.

The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up.  He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out.  I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.”  Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness.  He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen.  I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach.  He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.

It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions.  He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there.  This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly.  When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.

Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic.  And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port.  His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands.  As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.

But, ah Panama!  First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.

©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer