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It has been a week of very sad, strange events on both sides of Costa Rica.
Up in Monteverde, with that beautiful view west over the Nicoya Peninsula and Pacific Ocean, Wolf Guindon returned home (along with his sons Berto and Benito) after forty-eight hours in the Calderon Guardia Hospital emergency room in San José. It was finally determined that he had a blocked catheter, causing a serious urinary tract infection, along with dehydration. They didn’t keep him (except waiting in the waiting room) or do much besides giving him the antibiotics that he needed along with some sleeping pills. It was a most frustrating hospital visit, the family hoping he would be interned and helped on a more sustained level.
They all came back to Monteverde exhausted, Berto now sick with pneumonia, something he is susceptible to. Lucky and I had been pretty relaxed for the few days they were all gone, yet her own bronchial/possible heart issues didn’t really subside. She was still feeling punk when the house filled up and Wolf’s necessities took over again.
From his return on Wednesday, poor Wolf continued to have a hard time eating, always followed by vomiting, and everything tasted metallic, including the water he needs for the several pills he has to swallow. Even though he was trying to follow doctor’s orders, it was a challenge for him to keep anything down and he was beginning to give up on eating altogether. It was hard to know what pills had a chance to be absorbed in his system by the time he was throwing the rest of his stomach contents into a bowl. He had a number of visitors, all received warmly, as friends and family are more appreciated as the days get harder. One of the highlights early in the week was a visit from Wolf’s cousin Sue Roth, her daughter Brenda, her son Dennis and his wife, Adele. I met Sue on other occasions in the US and it was wonderful to spend time with her and her fun family. Fortunately they managed to catch Wolf on a pretty good day before things changed. By Friday afternoon, Wolf’s family decided to take him to the local clinic and insist he get some IV fluids or he was going to become dehydrated again. His inability to eat was very worrisome, particularly when you gave him a hug and felt his bones.
Melody and I took Wolf to the clinic where he received an IV bag laced with Gravol. It was a different man that walked (well, kinda stumbled along on Melody’s arm) out of the clinic a couple of hours later. When we got home he was able to eat and keep things down, the metallic flavor was gone and he even sat up and played dominoes for awhile with Lucky and me. He spent Saturday in fine form, eating, joking, telling tales, and we all went for a short shopping excursion to Santa Elena. We thought that he was going to have some good days.
I had to leave on Sunday morning and am now back in Cahuita. Roberto and I have a trip to Panama coming up for my visa requirement of 75 hours outside of Costa Rica every 90 days. I left the family all recovering, even Lucky feeling a little better. My final night in Monteverde was spent at the Friends House dancing the stately yet somehow slightly provocative English dances. Led by Jonathan and Heather, two very talented teachers at the Friends School, we stepped and swirled to their instructions and their taped music library that covers several centuries of traditional (and recently written but sounding old) music for English dances. It’s always a pleasure to tickle my bit of British blood and join with a mixed crowd of Monteverdians, young and old, community founders and visitors, and dance like a character in a Jane Austen book, without the hoop skirt. Doing the dances, you appreciate the moments when the young sons and daughters of a proper class, normally expected to maintain a decent social posture, could have found a chance to flirt, gossip and make illicit plans while sashaying past each other.
It is now Monday and I phoned Lucky to see how things are. Unfortunately the stabilizing effect of the Gravol seemed to wear off right in the middle of Sunday Quaker meeting’s hour of silence. Within a few hours of my leaving, Wolf was unable to eat again, burping up the metallic taste and raising the flag of concern once more. I guess they took him back to the clinic but since he didn’t respond to the IV as well this time, the family is considering the next step, probably involving a trip back to San José. Poor Wolf and Lucky that alone all the Guindons.
In a week or so, I’ll go back to Monteverde to stay with them and do whatever I can, specifically while Benito goes to a conference of traditional peace churches in the Dominican Republic. Central America could use as much peaceful influence and conflict resolution as possible while relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica break down and the rhetoric gets nastier. I’m curious about how much the rest of the world is watching what has recently blown up from a relatively simple breach of border etiquette into what is now considered an invasion by Nicaragua on Costa Rican soil.
This conflict began two weeks ago with the dredging of the San Juan River by the Nicaraguans in the extreme northeast corner of Costa Rica to make river navigation possible. There is a piece of land known as Isla Calero, 150 square kilometers sitting between the mouths of the mostly-Nicaraguan controlled San Juan River and Costa Rica’s Rio Colorado. Until recently it was a neglected zone, home to poor fishermen and their families living a peaceful, if subsistence life. As the story of the illegal dumping of the bottom sludge onto Tico territory, along with tree cutting and subsequent environmental damage, played out in the media, it seemed like both the government and the press were sensationalizing the seriousness of the situation in a war of words. It appeared to be the kind of distraction used to take minds off of more serious issues and to get patriotic blood boiling on both sides of the border.
Now the radio, newspapers and no doubt television is filled with the language of war and images of military and police movement. Politically, the countries that are aligned with Nicaragua share anti-American leaders as well as much deeper interests – Venezuela and Iran are both involved with Nicaragua in a long-held dream to construct a canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean, along the San Juan River basin, to rival the Panama Canal. On the other hand, the Organization of American States (OAS), with minimum exceptions amongst its members, has backed Costa Rica’s ownership of Isla Calero which is ground zero for the conflict. Swords are sharpening in all camps while diplomacy and negotiations struggle along to avoid military action.
As tensions build, you have to wonder what the larger interests are here, besides that of the canal-builders from oil-rich countries. Daniel Ortega, once a Sandinista savior of the campesinos against the powerful interests of the corrupt Somoza regime, is now considered by most as an equally corrupt, power-hungry despot. He is coming up to an election and somehow starting a war, they say, is good for vote-getting. As the country has been embracing tourism and foreign investment, quite successfully, it is hard to imagine how turning it back into an unstable region of military conflict is going to win him votes although raising nationalistic ire always seems to be considered politically astute. Here in Costa Rica we aren’t hearing many of the voices of the people of Nicaragua, only the politicians and military.
Recently Ortega charged Costa Rica and the countries (Columbia, Panama, Mexico, US, etc.) that support her with being corrupted by the interests of the Narco-traffickers – particularly Columbia, where much of the cocaine trade originates before it makes its way to the drug-thirsty US of A. Although I don’t understand what this has to do with anything on tiny Isla Calero, he has touched a nerve. Costa Rica has certainly been affected in negative ways by the movement of international drug cartels (I would add they have been affected by the movement of international pharmaceutical companies too, but that is a different drug and a different story.) There are few here who wouldn’t agree that there has been a significant increase in crime within her borders, much of that related to heavy-handed, serious business drug running (as well as increasing poverty and the gap between the rich and poor, but once again, a different story….) I doubt that any of these governments are innocent of profiting from the spoils of the drug and, subsequent, arms trade.
Columbia herself can’t say much about such a charge, but their interest perhaps lies more deeply in a continuing struggle with Nicaragua over San Andres Island. Like most islands throughout the Caribbean, San Andres changed hands at different times between England and Spain but it was Nicaraguan territory when, in a treaty written in 1922, it was passed to Columbia. Nicaragua wants it to be returned, and Ortega has raised patriotic fervor while talking about the desire to regain San Andres along with some other islands in the area. Columbia wants the OAS to support them in the case of a more militant demand by Ortega. And it is because of their own lack of an army that Costa Rica is turning to other nations to help them if Ortega refuses to back off and military action is deemed necessary.
Here in Costa Rica, there has been a steady influx of Nicaraguans for decades. The migrants from the north do much of the low paying and hard labor here. There is no denying the negative opinion that many Ticos hold towards the “Nicas”. While the Ticos have been justifiably, but almost arrogantly, proud of the fact they abolished their army in 1948, their neighbors were engaged in civil war and struggles that has produced at least two generations with both a more aggressive nature and a more politically-engaged mind. As long as I’ve been coming to Costa Rica – twenty years – I’ve heard Ticos say that any particularly nasty crime “must have been committed by a Nica.” Sometimes they are, but, of course, not always.
Now, in 2010, Costa Rica is filled with Nicaraguans, too often considered a lower class and barbarian, and as the tensions rise, there are increasing reports of racist and xenophobic behavior on the part of Costa Ricans against Nicaraguans in their communities. A Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Nicaraguan Embassy in the city. A soccer player, originally from Nicaragua but with years of playing and living here in Costa Rica, was verbally abused by spectators, in a very hateful manner, when he made a poor play in a futbol game. It’s amazing how quickly human nature plummets to a pack mentality when given the opportunity.
As Roberto says, the media here is using a language that provokes these kinds of tensions, speaking disrespectfully of Nicaraguans. Costa Ricans listen to these verbal attacks and those with their own tendencies for violence and stupidity are reacting in the streets – and thus acting no better than the brutish behavior that they so quickly accuse the Nicaraguans of.
It is very hard to imagine that armed conflict is going to break out just a couple of hundred kilometers north of here, but as the days pass, it feels like it may be a reality. It is hard not to get caught up in the rhetoric that screams from the daily headlines of the newspapers and believe that these two small countries are going to come to serious blows. It is hard to imagine that a war could begin that could involve any number of nations with their own agendas and affiliations to protect. As we head down to Panama, I’m very grateful we are going south, not north, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about what is happening to this beautiful area of the world that has managed to stay out of serious military conflict for many years.
It is equally hard these days to know what my great friend Wolf is going to have to endure. I feel that his main problem now isn’t strictly with organic physical issues but rather is drug-induced, and the combination of meds is wreaking havoc with him. Drugs may be close to the heart of both of these conflicts, but the struggle of greed and power versus the struggle of one man to survive is distinct. Please join me in holding Wolf in the light, and let’s collectively work and pray for peace.
After over thirty years of dreaming of this place, I have finally come to el lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. I am so fortunate to have my good friends, Rick and Treeza, here – they’ve been spending winter here for the last five years or so and are now preparing to build a house in the lakeside community of San Pedro. Although they, and others I spoke to while staying in Antigua for a couple of days, describe this place as a village, I think that the place is growing up around everyone faster than they are aware. There are between twelve and fifteen thousand inhabitants, or more, now. Certainly it is a bustling place that laps the lakeshore and then winds its way in a series of paths, alleyways and terraces up to the volcano that looms behind – to this Canadian, it is definitely a good-sized town.
I came to Guatemala with the high expectations of a magical landscape that would be home to a colorful and friendly people and so far I have had these long held ideals met by the people and the place. Since I have some familiarity with other parts of Latin America, especially Costa Rica, I felt quite at home when I walked out of the modern airport in Guatemala City and saw the crowd of people pushing against the barriers, waiting for family and friends or to hustle a taxi fare out of the arriving planeloads of tourists. Arriving into that chaos in a new place always makes a big impact until you’ve done it a few times. Speaking the language helps to take away some of the confusion.
An elegant modern tipica Mayan – notice the great shoes…
The first language in this country is a variety of the different dialects of the Mayans but Spanish has been here for centuries and the Mayans speak it in a more understandable way than anyone else I’ve heard, probably because it is their second language. They speak it very cleanly and patiently and politely for the most part, and so my personal version of Spanish – learned in the campo of Costa Rica, spoken with a French accent that I picked up in the northern bush of Quebec, colored by my lack of attention to detail and perfection – well it works very well here. I find very little problem in understanding anything except the new vocabulary that is indigenous to this place.
I took a $10 shuttle van to Antigua as people uniformly seem to recommend getting out of the city, or Guate, quickly. Antigua is a smallish ancient cobble-stoned city where people have headed for years to study Spanish. The Mayan population there is accustomed to the ways of foreigners and tourism runs the economy but the traditional aspects of the place are still strong. Although I just arrived in this new country and city, I was eased into its comfortable slow and friendly pace.
I met a nice guy from Montreal, Georges, on the shuttle and we stayed at the same hotel, the very pretty Mayan-family run San Vicente Hotel, right downtown but off the street with a plant-covered courtyard, very colonial looking, with Hugo the talking parrot and Toby the terrier mascot. Georges and I discovered the joys of the city together, heading out by foot and just walking and circling, visiting the big cemetery that houses the ancestors, taking pictures in the amazingly clear mountain light, and trying out a variety of restaurants – great breakfast at La Escudilla, sunset at Cafe Sky.
Antigua sits on a flat table at the base of volcanoes – one of those places where you feel peaceful and protected by the shadowy mountains but are aware that this tranquility can be fleeting if one of those volcanoes decides to roar or an earth tremor wants to well up from below. Signs of destruction are all around in the old churches and traditional houses but there is a very modern energy that permeates out of the painted facades and old stone walls.
The mercado central, as is present in so many communities in the world, takes up blocks at the northwest end of town, where mostly Mayans dressed in their bright woven clothing are selling everything from fruit and fresh patted tortillas to bootleg CDs and plastic conveniences. Because of it being Christmas time, there was a whole section of decorations – many cornstalk and grass nativity figures, seasonal plants, and religious figures, but also tables of singing strings of Christmas tree lights that made me crazy just walking past as well as the aluminum-foil wreaths, hanging stars and garlands. I have been amazed in the past when I’ve spent December in Costa Rica at the art form I call tinsel-creations – I bought an intricate tinsel snowflake ball to take to Rick and Treeza – an Antiguan snowball.
Everything about Antigua was low key yet vibrant, steeped in the past but with signs of the 21st century all around. I will return for my last night to Antigua before heading to Costa Rica and already have ideas in my head of what food I want to taste and what streets I want to visit more closely. I have really enjoyed the food here – access to lots of fresh fruit and tropical vegetables as in Costa Rica, along with traditional corn tortillas and a variety of salsas. And because there is a significant foreign population here now, you can enjoy fusion cuisine made with local products, something that often takes food to new heights.
Hand-painting La Merced, a beautiful decorated cake of a cathedral…
From Antigua, it was a two and a half hour drive in another comfortable shuttle van up to Panajachel on the other shore of Lake Atitlan. From there you take one of the many lanchas, small boats, across the lake to San Pedro. I have now been here over a week – Christmas just passed, and I have a couple of days before heading back to Antigua and onward to Costa Rica before New Years. I’ve been writing this but actually have been too busy to finish up – and now just want to post it with a few pictures. It will surely be next year before I’m writing about this great community that I’m loving called San Pedro. Instead of trying to carry on, I will just leave you with what’s been said and will write about the lake, the food, the people and the beauty of Lake Atitlan later.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a comfortable, friendly and truly gorgeous place to spend the Christmas season. I hope that wherever you are, you have felt the same joy and contentment that I have, and been able to partake of the wealth of love that comes from family and friends. I am finishing 2008 in a very beautiful, peaceful place and hope that bodes well for the future. May 2009 be better in every way than anything that has passed before – and if it is meant to be a trying year, as fate sometimes predicts, than may we have the strength and humor to survive it gracefully. Hasta la proxima chicos.
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.