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!
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
As published in the fall issue of the online literary journal, Sky Island Journal
Someone Else’s Poem
by Sandra Shaw Homer
You are proud
to show me your poem
about a feather-touch
some long ago,
and I am pleased to see
it speaks to me
and what is here.
Some other one
inspired your art,
but I know
the feelings are for me
now. (Who was she?
A solitary feather
on a page.)
Perhaps you are ashamed
and wish the poem
had been for me.
A gift of you,
something more of you
to know, touch, smell,
hear, kiss, taste, see.
had I been she
I would not have flown,
I would certainly have known
to stay, and now –
I would be more than
just a poem.
I was beginning to feel I would never get control of the Spanish subjunctive. It is an evil thing, ubiquitous and complex; not even one Costa Rican friend I knew used it consistently, which added to my confusion. I decided I needed to visit my old Spanish teacher Enrique in Barranquilla, Colombia, so I wrote and asked if I could come for a week of intensive work. He was delighted and offered me his guest room and bath, classes every morning and a few excursions in the afternoons.
Barranquilla was home for a time to Gabriel García Márquez , so I felt I would be treading on hallowed ground. In fact, Enrique took me to an architectural wonder of a municipal museum with an exhibit of García memorabilia. In awe, I touched the battered leather suitcase he had used when he was an itinerant bookseller, receiving rum as payment more often than not. His typewriter was there, along with poster-sized photos of other great authors he had known, and there was a multi-media show featuring well-known quotations from his books. One evening, after several obligatory visits with Enrique’s family, we went to La Cueva, the former hangout of “Gabo” and other writers, journalists and artists. There was a life-sized cardboard cutout of him standing at the entrance to the dining room, and the coasters on the bar sported lively Gabo aphorisms. Enrique snapped my picture standing next to Gabo’s ghost.
But what entranced me more than anything was Enrique’s sending me, in advance of my visit, three short stories to “contrast and compare” on the theme of love, one of which was Gabo’s Nos vemos en agosto, an unpublished story transcribed from a live reading the author had given years ago in Madrid. Gabo had intended it as part of a longer work, which he never lived to finish, and so crudely typed transcriptions circulated among the literati, until finally the Spanish magazine La Vanguardia published it at the time of Gabo’s death.
I loved this story. The minute details all led inexorably to a wildly ambiguous ending that Enrique and I puzzled over for days, without ever coming to a conclusion. I read it again and again, always finding something new – always with just a touch of the magical – and I was dying to try my hand at a good literary translation. I wrote La Vanguardia to ask how they had gotten permission to publish it post-mortem and to point me in the same direction so I could request permission to publish a translation.
It isn’t difficult to fall in love with a writer as funny and precise about the human condition and incisive in his descriptions as García Márquez. And his story Nos vemos en agosto both captivated and challenged me. There were several ways one could translate the title, for example. We meet in August? We’ll meet in August? I’ll see you in August? We’ll see each other in August? Same Time Next Year? Does it suggest a future meeting? Or simply an event in the near past? Or something that happens every year? If only the author were alive to enlighten me! This is one person I would love to sit down with and converse at length about his work.
I’m afraid this story took up more of my class-time than the subjunctive, which I had been avid to conquer. Enrique had given me lessons and homework, and I studiously spent my afternoons going over the exercises, but Nos vemos en agosto simply wiped the subjunctive out of my head. (There is nothing subjunctive about the title . . . or is there?). The subjunctive is all about things that haven’t happened. “If I were only capable of understanding it,” is a good example in English. Could the story be a fantasy? The protagonist was certainly preparing herself for one. And could the lover have been a ghost (with his Musketeer mustache and white linen suit, smelling faintly of lavender water)? Ah, Gabo, I stood next to you, I drank at your bar, ate at one of your tables, read your story over and over, and still I don’t know!
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017
I wish I could express in poetry what William Butler Yeats did so perfectly in “The Second Coming.” But even though I don’t consider myself in any way a poet, sometimes poetry is the only way I can deal with what life hands me. I think of the Yeats poem especially these days, and the recent presidential election affected me particularly, as I have been struggling with the dilemma of whether to return to the States or not.
You can find my poem, “Post November, 2016” in the online journal, “I Am Not A Silent Poet”: https://iamnotasilentpoet.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/post-november-2016-by-sandra-shaw-homer/
I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view. I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine. See below for the link.
“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead. I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up. I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming. Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick. That’s where Grandma came to pick me up. I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along. I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ” Read more . . .
Occasionally, I go through periods of writer’s block, where my “idea well” seems utterly dry and tumbleweeds blow by the desolate terrain of my creative imagination. In these periods, sitting down to write feels like the hardest thing in the world.
Even when my writing is going well, it can still be scary—first drafts seem like dog-paddling in the middle of an immense body of water, slogging towards a hazy shoreline. Sitting at my computer and taking a few strokes forward on my novel-in-progress is much harder than pretty much anything else I could spend my time doing: cleaning my kitchen or reading a book or brainstorming a quick blog post.
Writing is difficult. Revising is difficult. Querying agents and editors is difficult. Putting yourself out there is difficult. Rejection is difficult; criticism is difficult; rewriting again and again is difficult. And yet, it is helpful to remember that none of these things are as difficult as so many challenges that people go through every day. Things like cancer. Divorce. Job loss. Car accidents. Hunger. Poverty. Domestic violence. Homelessness. Grief.
Writing is not truly difficult, not in that sense. Writing is an incredible gift—the opportunity to sit down with ourselves in the quiet of our own minds; to escape into new worlds of our own creation; and to perhaps share the magic of our invented worlds with others.
–Dallas Woodburn, “What My Premature Birth Taught Me About Writing,” Compose Journal, Spring 2016
This is my first published work of fiction, and it appears in the latest issue of The Quotable (December, 2016). It’s a “flash” piece, and it was inspired by a writing prompt given by Allyson Latta in her last Costa Rican workshop. It seems my persistence is paying off, because another short nonfiction piece has been picked up by Junto Magazine (forthcoming issue), and a brief memoir piece made it into Oasis Journal 2016. I hope you enjoy “Through My Window,” which begins below.
Through my window I watch robins feed their young in the nest they have built under the eaves of the verandah. The window faces the forest, and is low and wide enough to give me an ample view from my bed.
The robins are industrious. Every three minutes (I have timed this) one of them lands on the verandah rail with a bug in its beak and, checking to be sure neither of the cats is lounging on the deck, glides quickly up to the nest to feed one of the three nestlings. I can’t see the nestlings – it’s too dark up there in the corner – but Rosa has assured me there are three.
Lying here, I have become more attuned to the subtleties of the changing Costa Rican seasons. Read More
Copyright © Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016
Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship
Homer (The Magnificent Dr. Wao) inspires readers with this chronicle of a 49-day “voyage of exploration” she took through the South Pacific—from the Panama Canal to Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand—as a passenger aboard a cargo ship. Homer embarks on her journey for a number of reasons: to experience again “the joy of being afloat in the vast, undefined watery spaces” that she first felt as a child on her father’s boat; to find some sort of “magic” that would wipe out troubles both physical (arthritis) and mental (doubts about her long-time marriage) ; and, while seeing other countries, to experience what a friend tells her: “Keep looking inward and see what the moment has to teach you.” What she discovers—and artfully describes—are the joys and hardships of life on a working ship (“A freighter is a noisy, dirty, smelly beast”), the beauty of the high seas (“With little warning, the red blob of sun oozed forth from the primordial soup, then slowly backlit the clouds above it, first in mauve, then rose, then gold”), and the strength she finds to go back to her daily life renewed, with a new appreciation for the “someone who has always been inside me but has been ignored for too long.” (BookLife)
Ever since November 8, I have felt as if I’ve been run over by a truck — unable to think straight, unable to make even the simplest of decisions, just pushing ahead, one minute at a time, to what end I’m not at all sure. Today I ran into the following quote. I have always found solace in the natural world, so I found the following very comforting . . . and fortifying.
“We don’t have the luxury of being complacent. So, no more getting up in the morning and reading the Guardian and calling it a day. You have to act at the end of the day; you have to do something.”
“It’s not about money. There is just no excuse for doing nothing. Abdication is not a possibility. Whoever you are, wherever your interest lies, whatever you’ve fallen in love with, you get out of bed every morning and you do something. You act, you step into the fray, and you fight for a human society that is in balance with the natural world.
“We have no choice. Otherwise we might as well kiss our beautiful planet goodbye.” — Kris McDivitt Tompkins