I just completed an interesting memory and writing exercise, which was to list all the places I’ve lived in my lifetime. The total number is forty-five. This does not include a few months-long periods of homelessness (by my parents’ choice, never out of forced necessity) during my childhood while we traveled about, staying in friends’ homes, youth hostels, camp grounds, inns, a thatched roof hut, and even one overnight on the front door area to a priest’s house/rectory in Central America. It is no wonder I especially value the stability of hearth and home so so much.
When I was 5 1/2 years old, I began over a year of travel with my parents that took me overseas to England and Europe, then back across the Atlantic down to Central America and up through Mexico, all before arriving back home, Northern CA. We moved around a lot, living for a while in ethnically diverse Berkeley of the 1970s. (Telegraph Avenue was hopping then with merchants selling their colorful wares.) We visited at least a few Native American Indian reservations. There were some other journeys too and peoples I met along the way.
I know that my openness to meeting and learning from others who are far different than myself stems in significant part from the various cultures and ways of life I was exposed to over extended periods of time at such a young age. In a sense, my own backyard was expanded early on to encompass whole other countries and peoples. And while I am often a homebody these days, feeling tired at times from a hard week’s work, in my heart I remain ever-open to meeting and welcoming an array of people into my life.
In February of 1975, my parents decided to resign their posts as English teachers at Modesto Junior College to travel around California and, if I remember correctly, British Columbia, Canada for the rest of the school year. We mostly stayed at friends’ and friends of friends’ homes, driving around in my mom’s 1960-something VW station wagon and then, soon, a 1969 VW van. It may have already been the latter vehicle we rode in entirely during this period.
In any case, my parents made it a point to go to my 3rd grade classroom and gather text books and consumable lesson manuals for me to work through during the months ahead. I did not consciously know it at the time, nor did my parents, but this method of on-the-road homeschooling would be problematic for me. I learn best by listening to and watching someone disseminate information in a classroom setting, taking in information primarily via my hearing, enhanced along by visual aides, such as viewing writing on a chalkboard, slideshows, movies, etc. Some interactive question and answer time can help with my learning as well. But, alas, here I was left to my own devices to take in information and express it back via only the two-dimensional pages of texts and workbooks. Through life experience, one lives and clearly learns what works and what doesn’t.
Focusing was a challenge to no end, made particularly difficult by having no routine of place and time as we moved around from day to day or week to week. My parents’ minds were preoccupied elsewhere, such as deciding where to go next and how to save money, among many other adult concerns. “Did you finish your homework today?” was a frequent refrain I heard from Mom and sometimes Dad. “No, not yet,” I often replied. “Well, get to it!” was said, usually by my mother, or some other similar response. That was largely the extent of my parents’ involvement with my schooling during this latter part of my year in 3rd grade. I was eight years old. I sat with school books in other people’s dining rooms, living rooms, outside on sidewalk curbs, doing my best to get through some reading, writing, or math lesson (though the math I barely remember working on, as it’s possible I did not have a math workbook). My imagination and ever-changing environment distracted me to no end, that and a deep sense of loneliness and uncertainty. Looking back, it is amazing that I managed to complete whatever schoolwork I did. Many of the pictures in the books and manuals were interesting to look at, which helped somewhat to sustain my attention.
Around the beginning of this itinerant period, I remember us staying on a few occasions in a semi-communal household of young women. This was still in Modesto, or somewhere close by, I believe. One of them, Christy Ellis, had been a student of either my father’s or mother’s and had taken an interest in me. The year before, when she lived alone, I had spent a lot of time with Christy in her small apartment listening to then popular music, such as Joanie Mitchell’s latest album, and doing things together in downtown Modesto. But, that is perhaps for another story. So, there we were, hanging out with Christy and her roommates, a group of women in their early to mid twenties, my parents being older by less than ten years.
I started talking to one of the roommates, bonding with her around the new Maria Muldaur album she was playing one morning. “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” crooned a sultry woman’s voice through the stereo. I was entranced. Some months before, I’d been swept up by Ms. Muldaur’s 1973 and ’74 hit song “Midnight at the Oasis,” my imagination carried along to an exotic desert locale with camels and a large, bejeweled tent filled with plush cushions and female belly dancers. I was thrilled that this beautiful woman singer had another record out, this time with a song that made me want to move from within a deep erotic place that I was far too young to understand.
While staying in this household, two publications made deep impressions on me. One was the week’s current issue of PEOPLE MAGAZINE laying prominently out on a coffee table in the living room. A closeup of Cher was on the cover. She wore multiple turquoise necklaces and her head of long black hair was topped with a cowboy hat, feathers stuck in its brim. A Native American look was clearly going on, which was especially trendy at the time. She smiled broadly at the camera, her long purple polished fingernails matching her dark lipstick and eye makeup. I was impressed and intrigued but in a muted, interrupted way. On one hand, this photo embodied the dark-haired witch imagery of powerful, mysterious women with whom I’d already started to become intrigued. On the other hand, my parents disapproved of such an expression of blatant excess and, I’m pretty certain, co-opting of Native American culture. Mom also found imagery of women in commercial media, such as that of Cher on PEOPLE’s cover, to be sexist, objectifying. Dad found that particular picture pretentious and, again (I strongly believe), co-opting of Native Americans. I remember him complaining about the picture to someone when we were away from the house. (My folks had already begun researching Native American cultures and we would later visit Indian reservations in the years to come.) So, to avoid irking Mom and Dad, I secreted away my own fascination with this photo, which was neither borne out of sexist objectification or viewing it as having anything to do with crass, superficial emulation of Native Americans. To me, in a deep intuitive way, the image simply embodied an aspect of the Great Goddess, who I would grow up to understand and revere as a core part of my spirituality. I would go on to watch THE SONNY AND CHER SHOW on TV now and then, enjoying Cher’s chameleon-like quality of colorful, showy costume changes and theatricality, though never caring much for her singing. There was something magical to her then that captured my rich imagination.
The other periodical that struck me deeply at this time– far more so than the PEOPLE issue’s cover– was the Marvel Comics series BLACK PANTHER. I was either in a local supermarket or convenience store with Christy or one of her roommates when I came across the latest issue of it on a stand. The actual initial moment of discovering the comic is vague to me, but I know I was accompanying one of the young women of the household and not either of my parents. At my request, she bought a copy for me, which I’m pretty sure neither Mom nor Dad would have done at the time. Back then, they often were reluctant to buy me such mindless “trash,” especially my mom. (She has long since relaxed around my liking of comics, having even bought me one or two as gifts.) The comic cover was that of a hyper muscular man covered from head to toe in a tight black costume that stuck to him like a second skin, a pointy little feline ear on each side of his head. Pure masculine strength stared out at me with virile determination, ready to lunge. I was hooked. Complementing Maria Muldaur’s wonderful, sizzling “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion,” here was the object of my interest to act out that song, except it was both the meat and the motion. However, I had no idea about such a connection between the song and this image for me at the time, I just knew I had to have the comic.
Back at the house, I proceeded to look through the colored newsprint pages and managed to recruit Christy to read the story to me, which I found both suspenseful and disturbing. I have very little recollection of the actual narrative, which was mid-story, following from previous issues. What I do remember is that the opening scene beheld the hero, Black Panther, bending over a pool of water in a wild jungle, nursing his wounds. His body suit was torn in several places, revealing bleeding, brown-skinned flesh. His vulnerability and pain upset me deeply. I wanted to go to him and help somehow in his time of need. I wanted him to be strong and healthy again, like how he was portrayed on the cover. Some villains were stalking Black Panther and it was basically a kill or be killed situation. I think I had one of Christy’s friends read the comic to me as well. I stashed the comic somewhere and eventually misplaced it during our travels and many moves.
Like Black Panther by himself in the wild and facing danger, I felt alone and uncertain during that year I discovered him and throughout most of my childhood and adolescence. My wounds weren’t physical like his in the comic book, but they were there inside me due to familial discord resulting in my parents divorcing before I turned five and me subsequently having to adjust to a new mother, Dad’s second wife. In the summer of 1973, I had lived with my father and (new) mother in a thatched roof hut in the jungle of Belize for two months, which I had very much enjoyed, the weather being warm and the lizard and amphibian fauna particularly fascinating to observe. I’m sure this positive experience further enhanced for me the mystique of Black Panther and his own jungle life. In short, I could deeply relate to Black Panther and his predicament in the comic, even though my jungle was no longer a literal one but one often made up of asphalt and concrete, unpredictability, and social isolation from peers and consistent adult attention. I had to learn to navigate this frequently rough outer and inner terrain on my own, or so it felt at the time.
The primal male strength yet vulnerability and heroism of Black Panther deeply appealed to me as a fatherly protector in my colorful, wish-fulfilling fantasy life. This contrasted with the actual life of a sensitive, sad little boy in need of more tender attention than he happened to be getting from loving, but otherwise preoccupied and insecure parents. Obviously, though, there were more implications than this. Black Panther was clearly an early fantasy crush for me, one clue of many that I was different from most latency-aged boys and their nascent sexual interests.
In 1975, my imagination did not just find ways to comfort and entertain me, for it often met those deep needs just well enough. My creative thinking led me to inwardly and outwardly listen to my very own growing life impulses, impulses of how my body wanted to move and feel and who I wanted to move and feel with in the world. Listening to Maria Muldaur awoke something in me, her singing giving voice to these budding stirrings, those nonverbal, primal urges to celebrate life, such as through dancing alone and with others, which I would eventually do now and again over the years to come, while enjoying feeling deeply erotic, both alone and with others. Black Panther offered me a sense of where and to who I would direct and share those impulses as I grew up. This would almost entirely be with men, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. And both Ms. Muldaur’s singing and the images of Black Panther gave me meaning when I so badly needed it, being an oasis or safe clearing for me in a desert or jungle of fear, loneliness and frequent boredom, affirming that the sky was the limit as far as being able to envision the great expanse of beauty and wonder in the universe. From grand tents filled with belly dancers in a faraway desert to hunky, powerful feline men in a jungle, or anything else you can possibly imagine, there is always more to life than whatever tedious, solitary-feeling difficulties happen to be at hand in the moment. Meaning and connection to something more and bigger than one’s own lonely existence is there to be found. Connecting one’s imagination to the imaginable in the world around you, it’s all good. Doing so has been a life saver for me.
“I’m a Queens’ queen!” was one of the first things Michelle said to my husband and me. While declaring this, she smiled broadly with full, dark lips and quickly swayed from side to side, her body a big “snap” of exclamation. And so, our first full day in Costa Rica at Pura Vida Spa Resort felt like it had truly begun.
The next day, while lounging on a comfortable couch of the Wellness Center during the first of my husband Ray’s spa treatments over the week, I got more acquainted with Ronnie, Michelle’s long-time friend. Comparatively quieter than Michelle, she opened up with me there in the empty porch of the treatment waiting area. We exchanged pieces of our life narrative. Ronnie had moved from New York City, where Michelle still lived, eighteen years ago to join the police force in Baltimore. My mind began to open about about future vacation travels, such as to Anguilla, where Ronnie has relatives.
Ronnie’s face would be still with seriousness one moment then expressive and animated the next. Her wiry hair was kept short and pulled back, leaving me easily able to think of her in a police uniform, including hat.
Over the week, Ray and I enjoyed meeting up on a few occasions for lunch in the dining area with Ronnie and Michelle. We spent a bit of time with them in the outdoor hot tub once too, until they had to return to their yoga retreat group from which they were briefly playing hookie. At one of our lunches together, Ronnie shared more about her work, such as some challenges of being a woman in a still predominantly male-filled profession, where many men abuse their power over citizens but the women officers do not. “We know how to listen,” Ronnie explained, referring to herself and her female colleagues. She had a boyfriend from Nigeria, a tribal prince there, who had moved to Baltimore. He treated her well. Ronnie’s face lit up with a big smile when she spoke about him. They would be leaving together to Florida soon for a long weekend, shortly after her return from Costa Rica.
As a testament to Ronnie’s incredible resilience, she exhibited a level-headedness and determination to balance work with frequent fun-filled travel, this despite– or partly because of– having lost her one and only child, a daughter, in a car accident about seven years ago. The young woman was still in college at the time. I noted with quiet respect how Ronnie memorialized this daughter by having a photo of her as screen wallpaper on her phone. I’m certain I would do the very same after such a loss.
At one of these lunches, Michelle shared how she had been working in New York City as an accountant for HBO over the past twenty-four years. She had purchased a house in Queens in 2007, right before the housing crash of ’08. Michelle was single, having divorced her Nigerian husband some years back, her daughter then still a toddler, though now twenty-one and finishing up college. Her thick eyelashes over large, dark brown eyes on an unmade-up face were pleasantly striking. I think they were eyelash extensions, but they did not at all appear overdone or fake-looking.
This vibrant duo of women New Yorkers said farewell to us a few days before our own departure. Ronnie shared how she often makes a tasty “jungle juice” with Amaretto and five different kinds of rum and would find a way to send Ray and me some in the near future. Everyone agreed that this delicious-sounding refreshment would be great to enjoy at that very moment if she only had some handy. We talked about possibly meeting up again at Pura Vida, as both Ronnie and Michelle agreed how pleasant a place it was, despite some of the run-down look to much of its buildings. We laughed together one last time while voicing a fantasy about what we would do if we collectively ran the resort, such as getting walls repainted and some structures remodeled, sooner than later.
We exchanged embraces, then they were off to get their luggage. Ray and I walked on along the cement walkway, grass and shrubs on our right, while on our left, the not-too-distant mountains cozily encircling the city below.
One afternoon around mid-week or a little before, I sat on a cloth hammock overlooking a sun-lit view of the tropical trees and shrubs before me, a lightly clouded sky just beyond. A cicada, or some insect sounding very much like one, hummed in a high pitch for a long moment before stopping. Bird sounds took over, filling the brief silence. Leaves beat softly in the growing breeze. Further off, someone dropped a metal bucket, disrupting my attention to write next about the distant drone of traffic.
A ways below Pura Vida’s mountain perch spreads the city of San Jose, though Alajuela is the immediate urban area of which the resort is a part.
I was struck by many things there, including the black vultures with their white-tipped wings gliding on the up drafts overhead. My husband managed to see two of these raptors touch their talons together while in flight, all while we lay back in hammocks.
Ray and I enjoyed being graced by the intermittent attentions of Julia (the “j” pronounced as an “h”), Pura Vida’s resident cat. A slender and petite calico, Julia followed us to our room at least three times, spending the night with us twice. One evening, she walked by the front desk area with a squeaking mouse in her mouth. Clearly, Julia’s job involved many duties, ranging from pest control to greeter and relaxer, her mere presence and playful ways a treatment of sorts. On this trip, Julia startled me with her initial appearance by bounding into our path from out of the darkness. It seemed like she remembered us from last year and before. Or maybe she simply liked making surprise grand entrances to unsuspecting visitors.
Our mid week tour to our favorite excursion was disappointing. As always, the hot springs under jungle canopy were a relaxing balm to our bodies and minds. We spent three hours sitting back in different sulfur-smelling pools by a large stream, leisurely immersing in, and then emerging from, hot then warm then cool before returning into hot again. But, the tour guide seemed burnt out, embittered, or both. We had had him before for another excursion about four years ago, at which time he spoke prolifically about the countryside’s natural history and climate zones. He also expounded in detail then on the agriculture of the region, this being a significant segment of Costa Rica’s economy. This time, though, he was brief, repetitive, and negative. And while the guide had good reason to feel upset about the government’s imminent tax increases on largely the middle class and the slow recovery from a large earthquake that had hit the region in 2009, I felt for our three fellow bus mates who had never been on this particular trip. They were missing out on a wealth of information regarding the verdant land opening up on each side of the narrow road winding along the mountainside. Instead, we all sat listening to our guide as he couched so much into a complaint.
On the way back from the hot springs, the tour guide broke his silence by pointing to outside of the bus window and exclaiming in his thick Costa Rican accent, “Look! Scarlet milk cows. They’re very rarely seen around these parts. Scarlet milk cows!”
I looked intently at a group of cows behind a fence not far off the road. Some of them had a reddish coat. I had never heard of a “scarlet” breed of cow. In my mind, I guessed that was a rarer one alongside all the Jerseys and Holsteins. My husband Ray turned to me and remarked on seeing a pair of beautiful scarlet macaws flying by, two of what we had seen so many more of while on excursion along the Tarcoles River for years before.
I replied, “I thought he said ‘scarlet milk cows.’ Damn!”
The day after our excursion, I received a hot stones massage from Mar Y Sol, one of the treaters. She and I talked about our families of origin and our good fortunes at having love-filled marriages. I listened a lot under her skilled hands while she shared heart-felt concerns about her parents and one sibling.
Before the massage was over, we’d both agreed to ask our husbands if we could all go out for dinner at Las Espuelas, a restaurant closeby Mar Y Sol’s and her husband Miguel’s house, located in the small town of El Roble.
Mar Y Sol and Miguel are each thirty-five years old with wide, white-toothed smiles. Miguel assists Eduardo with managing Pura Vida. Ray and I hit if off with this warm and friendly couple early on in our annual visits to the resort, which led up to us visiting their home and eating out at the nearby Las Espuelas last year. Well, this place had since been completely redone from a hole-in-the-wall dive to a slick, spacious eating establishment. Huge square windows looked out into a mostly bare parking lot before the view swept downward into a blanket of city lights. Mountains silhouetted the night sky further on. The ceiling above us was lined with a covering of long, thin wood sticks, lending a somewhat tropical look against the smooth, concrete walls. The lights were pleasantly dimmed. Fun.
On occasion, our conversations were momentarily broken by the harsh shine of car lights through the windows behind me. Miguel and Ray sat opposite Mar Y Sol and me, their faces enduring these brief white blasts. The front of the restaurant had a parking lot as well, a poor design completed by large low windows left uncovered. Not fun. But, the company of Mar Y Sol, her tall and swarthy husband Miguel, my partner Ray, and Eugenia, a yoga teacher at Pura Vida, all out-shined this annoyance.
We talked about politics in Costa Rica, which had started to become dismally comparable to the scene in the States. We discussed movies, social media, each of our family dynamics, and other things. I enjoyed the ease between us all.
The food was decent. Ray and I both ordered shrimp with rice. The white foamy sour sop beverage especially went down easy.
I remember Mar Y Sol and Eugenia talking the most, including in moments to each other in Spanish. Their graceful speech felt pleasant to listen to even though I hardly understood what was being said.
Eugenia sat at the head of the table while I was placed by the other end. As the evening wore on, her position seemed naturally apropos. Eugenia had been an elementary school teacher in her previous career and, now teaching yoga to adults, she continued to be used to holding the attention of a roomful of people. Newly forty, here she was, a dynamic, independent woman opening up about herself. For me personally, Eugenia had acted a little brazen by asking at the last minute if she could come with us all to dinner. While we all were gathered at the front desk area, Miguel had turned to me with his big, soft, hazel brown eyes and asked, “Is it alright if she comes?” “She asked,” I replied as politely as I could, smiling through my disappointment. I proceeded to encourage my thwarted wish for an exclusive evening with Miguel and Mar Y Sol to gently shift into an openness around getting to know an additional dinner mate.
I ended up finding Eugenia interesting, engaging, knowledgeable and full of compassion. We connected around the topic of Internal Family Systems therapy and she seemed to readily agree with how she has a “part” of her that cold be harsh and bossy, particularly back in her schoolteacher days. This part had since softened in her, she explained, and I did sense that to be the case.
Mar Y Sol’s deep, gentle voice and open-book self-reflectiveness encircled my attention like an elegant, soft-furred cat. I could listen to her for hours.
Miguel grew more quiet after we’d all finished our meals and I wondered if his rigorous hike up and down Costa Rica’s highest mountain peak (about 12,000 feet) was catching up with him. He and Mar Y Sol had just completed this trek the day before. I selfishly said nothing, though, and let someone else decide when to bring the get-together to a close. Mar Y Sol eventually suggested concluding things.
Ray was generally quiet throughout, which Miguel remarked on with respect and understanding. “You like to listen and observe, don’t you?” Ray nodded vigorously and smiled, “Yes.”
The following day was our last full day at the resort. For a final treatment, I had Mar Y Sol guide me through “Ananda,” which entailed listening more to her soothing, often velvety voice. I lay on the massage table receiving Reiki and some light touch before she guided me through a most unique visualization. This was derived from her Himalayan Masters training she’d received some years ago in India. The energy began to run through me like undulating waves, a pins and needles buzziness, and, eventually, an overall sensation of floating. Visual imagery in my mind’s eye was simple and limited. I “saw” light beneath me, as if it were reflected from water. Powerful, trippy, relaxing, heart and mind opening.
Before we ended, Mar Y Sol instructed me to sing “Om” with her. Interestingly, I felt a longing to open my mouth and sing several minutes before she told me to do just that. We softly but strongly san at least three “Om’s” together. She then removed the light cloth placed over my eyes. I started a slow transition out of my trance by sharing aloud what I had experienced and continued to feel. Mar Y Sol sat off to the side. At first, I kept facing the ceiling, but then I turned my head to the right and looked into her broad face of coffee dark skin and large black-brown eyes. I acknowledged the incredible opening to energy, including a sense that she had brought me briefly to other portals of existence and activity before repeatedly focusing me back to my center, a center of a much larger center. Mar Y Sol validated my narrative with ease, out of her own familiarity of deep meditative experience. I stated how my knowing and trusting her as I did made a big difference with being able to “go deep.” She suggested I try doing this guided meditation at home on a regular basis via using a free recording available online. I told her how it would be fun to do together with her and my husband in our upstairs loft bedroom, should she and Miguel ever come to visit us. “That would be great,” Mar Y Sol replied.
I now understand why dear Ray has done the Ananda treatment three times with Mar Y Sol.
Before leaving Pura Vida, Ray and I looked one more time at the pair of tropical screech owls perched high up in the interlacing palm trees next to the main entrance. Hugging against each other, the brown-feathered duo looked down with a soft sternness, or so it seemed. From my heart, I bid them a warm farewell.
Last February 26th, my husband R. and I returned home at about 3:30 a.m. from a life-affirming, rejuvenating eight days at the Pura Vida Spa in the mountains of central Costa Rica. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I’d slipped on ice, sustaining a left radial head fracture (elbow area), bruising my arm, hip, and thigh on 2/14, less than three days before our departure. I spent as much time as possible in the spa’s hot tub under the stars and swam a lot in the solar heated, salt water swimming pool. The trek to the hot springs mid-week was also very healing. But the six different spa treatments I received were probably the best of all for my battered body.
I was not with a structured group program this year as I had been in previous years, so R. and I spent a lot of time together. We lay in hammocks resting and sleeping and were there for each other’s treatments with a deeply gifted healer who practices a unique, hard-to-describe technique called Body Talk.
A highlight– of many– occurred at the very end of our time in the verdant land of Costa Rica. We were invited by the wonderful assistant manager of Pura Vida, Miguel, and his lovely wife Mar Y Sol (a yoga instructor and massage therapist there) to their home in the nearby town of El Roble (“The Oak”). They live next to a jungle and large creek, which the four of us walked a long with their five dogs before entering their cozy house for some delicious tea and conversation. Later, we convened at a local restaurant for dinner, a game of pool, and more warm socializing.
The trip home was a bit arduous, given that our connecting flight out of Fort Lauderdale, FL was delayed over two hours, but it was all well-worth it.
We look forward to seeing dear Miguel and Mar Y Sol again, including at our place here when they make a road trip to the States in October.
Our hearts were warmed and wide open while our bodies continued healing from all the skilled, loving hands that worked their magic on us at Pura Vida. It felt so good to be alive.