After arriving at my second home in Costa Rica, it takes little time to synchronize with the timbre and rhythm of a tropical land, responding to the lure of its charms. Everywhere I see openness, humility, and hardworking cheerfulness—the blessed life of campesinos and “pura vida.”
Recently, a fierce wind toppled an imposing tree against the roof of my open-sided rancho, used for relaxing in the heat of the day and fiestas. My neighbor, Fernando, came to my door, and in his thick, almost indecipherable dialect, commenced telling me about it. He offered to chop down the tree, taking care not to disturb the bathroom window of the rancho, and remove it from my property.
The next day Fernando showed up with a machete, chainsaw, and son-in-law. As they worked, I watched from the edge of the rancho. Once in a while Fernando would look over and smile, commenting on the wealth of animalitas crawling over the limbs—mainly ants and spiders.
Fernando was not going to let the tree go to waste. With his machete he cut sturdy limbs into sections for a fence. The smaller pieces he threw into a pile along with chain-sawed hunks of trunk to scatter in his field, where the cows would trample and grind them into fertilizer.
A few hours slipped by, with the task of carrying off the unwieldy wood heap remaining. I told them I was going to pay. “Muy bien,” they said, but neither had a clue as to the worth of their labor. I drew out 10,000 colones, about $20, and asked if it was enough. “I have no idea; ask Diego” Fernando said. When I asked Diego, he said, “Ask Fernando.” I drew out another 5,000 colones, peering questioningly at Fernando. Fernando yelled up to Diego, who was on the roof of the rancho removing debris from the gutter, “What do you think about 15,000 colones?” “I have no idea,” Diego responded. “Bueno,” I said, and handed Fernando the money. Clearly, being paid for helping a neighbor was as perplexing as it was pleasing. “Any time you need help for whatever reason, call me,” Diego said.
To live on rich, fertile land among farmers who are the salt of the earth, whose days, though much the same, are filled with simplicity and grace, is to inhabit a slice of paradise.
I frequently see Fernando tending his cows. He brings over fresh milk and cheese. We stroll up and down the dirt path, chatting amiably. I feel rewarded when I can break through the dense Spanish dialect and get to the heart of what he is saying. Mainly, I love his sparkle and joy for life. We were coming to the end of the long dry months from November through April. He was bemoaning the fact that it was just so very dry, and his cows were suffering from the lack of edible pasture. With a stomp of his foot as if warding off flies, he shook his head and looked skyward. “We have not received a drop of rain, ni una gota! Ah, Dios, in God’s time,” he reminded himself. “I’ll pray,” I offered.
Soon the rains came, great blinding sheets that flooded houses and streets. Then all was right with the world again—that perfect Costa Rican balance of sun-streaked mornings and afternoon cloudbursts, turning the land emerald green.
I love the pristine spirit of the Costa Rican farmer, whose life, so close to the equator, is attuned to twin cycles of day and night. I’ll take some of it back with me when I return to Colorado. I learn here that life carries on in much the same way as it has for eons, in spite of technology and sophistication. What is worthwhile about life is ageless. It’s the light that shines through our eyes in the simplest of experiences, the native gladness in being alive without greed or design, the willingness to trust—qualities captured in lands where the campesino still thrives. “Pura vida!”—pure life, as the saying goes in Costa Rica.
In the winter of 2005, a friend was vacationing on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. He implored me to come, saying that I would be enchanted.
It was a life-changing week. Under the sway of sea breeze and tropical light, deep feelings surfaced and a marvelous healing. My son had died less than two years before. I want to live here, I thought, and vowed to come back.
That spring I returned to look for land. Another friend suggested the Central Valley, where it is cooler, mountainous and lush. He knew of a cabdriver who would take me around.
Each morning Mamo, the cabdriver, picked me up and away we would go, driving the back roads of the Central Valley, looking for property, knocking on doors. I bought farmland in the agricultural belt above the sweet highland town of Atenas.
The soil, planted in peanuts, breathed a rich reddish hue and sloped gently down toward tree-dotted fields disappearing into velvety green mountains—wide open country. Standing on the land, my heart opened up. I returned that summer to begin building a house.
In those early years of loss, while the field was being cultivated into a garden, I could feel Chris’s presence in an almost tangible way, as if he had led me there. The heavenly light of the tropics and a profound sense of peace pervaded my home. I sought a local sculptor to carve an angel in Chris’s likeness.
Seven years have passed since first stepping foot on land that promised a home. Today I was feeling a little sad, seeing how the garden, though glorious, has grown up, the treetops partly concealing the mountain vista, the peanut plants long gone. And there is development—street lights along the rustic road…. I thought, How in the world can you complain? But I sensed there was something else going on, as in, All of life is in flux, constantly changing.
The early years of loss was a magnificent time, in a way. There were years in healing; there is no description for a mother’s broken heart. But so dear and precious, so divinely inspired, as if God was right there with me. In the depth of my grief, I found Costa Rica. And suddenly, looking around at the garden, I was faced with remembrance, realizing life had moved on. An era had ended, the new one not yet defined. The feeling of peace still pervades, yet something has changed. Was I grieving the loss of those magical, albeit painful years, when an invisible thread connected me to Heaven?
I wonder where the new life leads. I have a precious daughter, the light of my world. There are cherished friends. Beyond that, it seems more to do with a mystical path. I dream of a golden life for the golden years.
This morning, before the sun peaked above the mountains, in the cool, fragrant air, I was having an animated discussion with my gardener, when I began listening to the pure music of his voice and native tongue. For a moment, I stood, utterly spellbound. Therein lies the path, I thought later.
Often I hear my son speaking to me, in the way he spoke in life, simple observations accompanied by that little chuckle. Mom, it’s easier than you think. It’s just little things that make up a good life. You don’t have to figure things out or even have a plan. You just have to be present for the unfolding.
Freedom to Fall is a book about the life of my son as a rock climber intertwined with my life as a bereaved mom. To read more about it or to order a copy, click on the appropriate link above.