It is the day after I got home from my little all-American roadtrip and the day before I set off on my quickie Euro-tour to London, England and Barcelona, Spain. How lucky am I? When I read my own words, I get a chill, a good one, down my spine. I have never been “across the pond” and now that I’m within a few hours of leaving, I’m very excited. I am going to visit my friend Chrissey Ansell, who I met eighteen years ago on a beach in Costa Rica, who has come to Canada no less than five times and visited me, and has consistently, patiently invited me to her homes in both of these fantastic European cities. I’ve always had an excuse why I couldn’t go – usually something to do with cancer or book-writing – but finally just bit the bullet and bought the ticket. I’ve always thought I’d find a two-month period to do Europe properly, but in the end decided that I better just go while I still have some money in the bank (international economic crises make me want to spend not save) and while I have my health and the world is in a lull between international catastrophes. As I’ve said in past blogs, I tend to plan for the future but live in the moment but here the moment has met the future and tomorrow I’ll finally be on a plane and headed over the Atlantic to take advantage of this long-standing invitation.
So I’m taking this opportunity – now that I’ve unpacked and repacked – to write about the last few days that took me from Ontario, across the border at Niagara Falls through Virginia to Ohio. The first important piece of news was that I bought a new camera so I can post photos again. I suppose the next important piece of news was that the weather was autumnally-beautiful – truly summerlike – we watched the treeline become more colorful as the days went on and actually sweated on occasion. Shirley and I traveled the interstates more than anything because of time. I wanted to do a secondary highway between Staunton, Virginia and Wheeling, W. Virginia but Shirley, my dear older & anxious friend, got thrown off by the CAA recommendation to stay on the interstates. Shirley has gone with me on backroads through northern Ontario and Costa Rica and always loves the back country but as she gets older, she gets more anxious (I believe that as we age, we are simply more condensed versions of our former selves) and got it in her head that this particular highway 250 that crossed the mountains would be somehow more dangerous than the truck-laden interstate. I tried my best to change her mind but in the end gave in and followed I-64 around to Charleston and up I-77 to Barnesville. I don’t mind racing the transports and getting into the interstate groove but it is truly much groovier on the backroads. Next time, I’m doing that Highway 250 (I wish somebody reading this would give me a good report that I could convince Shirley, next time we visit her relatives in Virginia, that this is a road worth traveling).
So that is where we went first – to Spotsville, Virginia, where Shirley’s kindly kinda-aunt Louise lives on a farm with her black angus cows munching the grass on the rolling fields and her hard-working, lovely family close-by. Louise is 84 years old (I think that is right) and still helping her son Warren unload the corn silage into the silo, cooking up delicious meals, and tending to the needs of her family, cows, neighbours and church. We visited her 94 year-old neighbour, Nellie, who also seems to have a firm hand on the running of the farm there.
For the couple of days we were with these warm friendly Virginian folk, I observed that though the men were hard-working, the women seemed to still run the place! Age un-important! Shirley, who I have known most of my life originally as a friend of my parents and always as my friend, has her roots in this country. She was born in England but was sent here in the second world war to be safe and far away from bomb-blasted London. She and her brother Tony lived in an “orphanage”, which was actually more like a home for wayward children, and benefited from being around her extended family. Shirley is now 76 and not willing to drive to Virginia on her own so when I invited her to accompany me to Ohio, I offered to drive her to visit her kinfolk on the way. Of course, I benefited for the experience.
So we stayed in this big ol’ farmhouse, ate way too much good food, fed the young angus cow who was being weened but was still happy to slobber all over the bottle, went to all of Shirley’s touchstones in the area and enjoyed the Virginian hospitality.
We went to the graveyards that house Shirley’s grandfather and Louise’s husband, Charles, who I met here in Canada many years ago.
We visited the McCormick farm, home of the reaper (not the grim one, but the pragmatic farm implement). There is also an old grist mill on the site.
Louise’s son, Warren, and her son-in-law, Lenny, both work at the nearby Hershey’s factory which is non-unionized. They often are working seven days a week for weeks on end, besides running the farm and tending to their families. If they complain, there are many others who will take their jobs, so they just go to work. It is a hard life, making those Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and Almond Joy bars that we take for granted as “candy” – although I tended to stay out of political discussions with these kind, country folk, we did talk about the value of unions and the need for socialized health care in the US. I shared my experiences of having cancer which brought so many worries to my life – as in “will I survive?” – but didn’t involve worrying about who would pay for the treatments since we have socialized health care here in Canada. Louise’s family – Warren Bradley and Linda Lou, Lenny, and Christy Phillips- were all interested in the concept of having medical insurance provided by the government and I was able to share my own experience. When Barack gets in, may he follow through and get the support from the Senate and Congress to implement his promise to provide medical insurance for all Americans. It seems to me to be the most basic of human rights in a civilized society. Perhaps – just a suggestion – cut the military spending and provide for a little nationalized humanity.
When people talk about how politics doesn’t affect their lives, I always shake my head. Next time you eat a chocolate bar, remember the guys who are working seven days a week, months on end, to keep the line going – limited medical insurance provided, no job security, tired, but unable to complain. I guess I’ve lived in Canada too long.
So after the lovely warmth of Virginia, we headed out in the morning through the fog that eventually lifted to reveal the coloring leaves, through Virginia, West Virginia, and across the Ohio River into Ohio. This is very idealic countryside until you see the big smokestacks – I have to admit, I’m not sure what kind of fabrication or energy plant this is, but I have seen the scene often when passing close to the gracious wide Ohio River, and shudder at the sight of the monolithic cauldrons.
We arrived on Friday afternoon at Olney Friends School just outside of Barnesville, Ohio. Anyone who has read Walking with Wolf will know that this is where Wolf grew up and then returned to for high school. He also met his beautiful wife, Lucky, there, who had come from Earlham, Iowa. It was Homecoming weekend at Olney and Wolf and Lucky managed to come up from Costa Rica, as Shirley and I came down from Canada.
Everytime I see this wonderful couple, even after all the years of working on the book, I get a warm rush of love that passes through my body straight to my heart. To have managed for us all to get to Olney for this occasion, for the weather to have cooperated as if it were a fine June day, for the extended family and friends of both of them to have shown up en masse for the occasion – well, it all added up to a beautiful weekend filled with laughter and tears and memories and friendship.
I find it quite amusing that when Wolf and I get together now, we are like a couple of business people, discussing marketing possibilities, exchanging publicity stories, sharing accounting information. Understand – we have been playing around at “writing a book” for years and now we are actually selling it! Wolf has continued to visit the stores in Costa Rica who carry our book, replenishing the stock on the shelves but most likely selling the best while sitting in the parking lot at the Monteverde Reserve waiting for the tourists to finish their guided tours in the forest. I will return to Monteverde in January and we will try to find ways to pick up the pace again, but I know that Walking with Wolf will continue to sell to people who come to Monteverde and are interested in the soul of the place. I believe that is what we managed to convey. What with all our words and history and recollections, Wolf represents the soul of this beautiful, dynamic community and we, luckily, managed to capture it in our tomb.
So here we now were at Olney Friends Boarding School, the place where Wolf met and wooed Lucky, a Friends school that has been teaching young people about reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, life and Quaker values since 1837. On Friday night there was a concert by an energetic a capella group of men from Ohio’s liberal arts Kenyon College (Paul Newman’s alma mater) called the Kokosingers. I think there were thirteen of them – taking turns as the solo guy upstage, providing harmonized, finger-snapping, renditions of both popular and classic songs and a few obscure tunes. They are going to be opening for Miley Cyrus (I won’t get into who she is, but if you already know, you should be impressed at least as far as the size of the audience) in a couple of weeks. Maybe I was as impressed by their male beauty as their talent (I digress…) but it was truly entertaining.
Saturday was filled with alumni reunionizing, students taking part in the annual run/walk and field hockey and soccer games (alumni 4/students many more). Bit by bit the alumni, many of them relatives of Wolf or Lucky’s, arrived and I could now hear that Guindon/Standing laughter ringing out amid the stately buildings and hardwoods. I have to say that the food at Olney was excellent – having worked for several years at a canoe camp, where the food was great, I was truly impressed with the quality and variety of the food at Olney – I’m not sure of the cook’s name but she was well aware of her responsiblity of feeding an international student body with a variety of taste buds and obviously loves to try new recipes. That kale soup was excellent.
Wolf and I presented the book on Saturday night to a packed house – somewhere between 150 and 200. Wolf spoke very clearly and lovingly, and I followed, proud of myself for sticking to my new program which involved slowing the slide images down to fit the readings from the book. We sold all the books I brought and received a lot of great response from those who had already read it.
I met a bunch of people who I’ve heard about over the years from Wolf and Lucky. Shirley and I lingered with Herbie Smith and Marie Bunty for a long time after the program and exchanged stories – mine of knowing the Guindons in recent times, theirs of sixty years ago.
On Sunday Shirley and I went to the Friends Meeting in Stillwater which was both the same as Monteverde – silent – but more verbally Christian than is Monteverde. The benches weren’t in a circular style and the way things proceeded was a little different. My personal Quaker experience has been consistently in Monteverde. When people stood and spoke I was naturally awaiting the Spanish translation that occurs in Monteverde. When we got to the afterthoughts and announcements, I was listening for Wolf’s son, Benito, in the background, his low voice simultaneously translating the english to the spanish. In Monteverde there is often an orange trogon – a relative of the beautiful resplendant quetzal – perched on a branch outside the window, perhaps hooting, perhaps silent like the Quakers, its orange breast and striped tail shining. In Monteverde, when the wind is blowing and the tree branches are snapping against the building, I often feel that I am in a tree – if that is so, then here at Stillwater, I was among the roots. I could feel Wolf and Lucky’s past all around me and knew that this was where the miracle happened, the life force rising from the seed that germinated into the roots that became the family tree that is Monteverde.
I saw other folks who I have met before – Roy Joe and Ruthie Stuckey, Susie Roth, Sylvia who is Lucky’s cousin. Following meeting there was a picnic nearby at Wolf’s nephew’s, Don Guindon’s. Guindons and Standing relatives gathered to celebrate the presence of Wolf and Lucky and to visit with each other.
Sylvia, Rachel & their Aunt Lucky
I had the pleasure of meeting Lucky’s oldest sister, Helen, 94 years old and laughing up a storm. I met a multitude of extended family and unfortunately don’t remember the names of many of them unless I had managed to meet them on a previous occasion.
One of the most touching conversations I had was with one of Wolf’s nieces. On Saturday night, she had implied that she wanted to talk with me but we didn’t have the chance until just before I left on Sunday afternoon. What she wanted to share with me was that in the Guindon family there have been chemical imbalances – mental illness – and yet they haven’t talked about it.
In Walking with Wolf we do talk about this. Wolf’s manic depression was a puzzle to me when I met him, but in the three years after meeting him but before returning to Costa Rica and continuing our oral history project, I bumped into people with this malady a couple more times. Then I lived with a man with a mental disorder for a number of years while I was working on the book. Mental illness is as common as any other illness but has carried a stigma that makes people keep their mouths shut about it.
This lovely woman (and I apologize for not remembering her name) has lived with depression herself, as has one of her two daughters – the other lives with Aspergers syndrome. Wolf’s daughter Helena’s son, Silvio, also has this affliction yet last year he was awarded as the top scoring student graduating from a Costa Rican high school. The niece had only just bought the book but had heard from sisters and cousins that we discuss the depression that her grandmother experienced and Wolf’s own manic depression. The book also includes Lucky’s story about living with Wolf in the years before he was properly diagnosed and prescribed lithium.
When I met Wolf and saw some of his behaviour, it was both comical and mystical to me. However, over the years, as I met various other people with a variety of mental illnesses – including my ex-partner who I shared struggles with for eight years – I realized the difficulty of living with this. It was important to me that we talk about it in the book, as it was a very real part of Wolf and Lucky’s life. Even though perhaps it was me who insisted we talk about this, it was Wolf and Lucky who provided the honest, candid details of their experience. And neither one ever suggested that we hide it. It is now out in the open and makes it possible for the family – who can share many examples and experiences – to start and continue the dialogue. There is no place for shame in this, only room for love and understanding.
Rich Sidwell and the staff at Olney – Mary, Leonard, Cleda, Ela & my Canadian-cohort Jaya – provided the opportunity and the backdrop for this wonderful weekend. Their invitation helped us sell books, connect with family and link to the broader Quaker community. Olney itself is a very special place with a student population from all over the world. When we sat down for meals, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural aspect of the place was apparent. For me, a non-Quaker but someone who has lingered among these peaceful, considerate, simple people who are encouraged to be seekers, Olney provided a place to rejoice with a community that was honoring Wolf and Lucky and that very special community in Costa Rica – Monteverde. Every path that this book takes me down allows me to breathe deeply, smile widely and hold my head proudly – to have participated in any small way in this community is a true privilege. The roots and the branches of this large tree of humanity have spread far and wide in my own life and I’m very thankful for that. Today being Canadian Thanksgiving, that will be my grace.