Renewing Passports for Children? Be Aware!

passport[1]

I woke up startled. Filled with dread.

“Jody, I didn’t make a copy of the kids’ citizenship papers.”

I sank into our mattress. “Remember, we never did get Crystel’s green card back.”

Antonio and Crystel’s citizenship papers were issued February 19, 2008. They were six years old.

When Crystel was nine she asked me if I wished I were white or brown, or Mexican or American or Guatemalan. I knew then that it was time that she saw her citizenship papers.

“You’re an American,” I told her. “You have a Welcome letter from President Bush.”

“Do I have a green card?”

2012 Lake Amatitlan, Guatemala

2012 Lake Amatitlan, Guatemala

“Well,” I said.

Climbing Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala was easier than gathering the 20 documents that were required for her citizenship. Her green card was among them.

I had laid the trail of documents on the floor because the table wasn’t large enough. I methodically checked off each requirement before placing the paperwork into the envelope to be mailed.

Antonio’s train of documents was next to hers.

Seems like losing government documents is not unheard of, maybe not even uncommon. When I explained to the Chicago Passport Agency that I didn’t receive Crystel’s green card back – which was a requirement for her passport – they must have believed me because they issued her a passport anyway for our first trip to Guatemala when she was 7.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2014

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2014

Now, it would be logical to think that once you received a passport for your children that when it came up for renewal you could just show the about to be expired passport.

It’s never that easy.

Antonio, Crystel, and I arrived at the government office. Waited for our turn. An hour later, I learned that I needed Jody there as well as birth certificates, citizenship papers, etc….

While we were leaving one of the kids asked me why we needed Mama Jody. “So, they know that I’m not stealing you,” I told them.

Getting two parents and two teenagers together at one time can be challenging.

More challenging though and what will keep you up at night is if you don’t ask for a copy of everything that you turn over.

It might not come back.

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Writers Supporting Other Writers–Writing Process Blog Hop

If you’ve been following WordSisters, you know that Elizabeth and Ellen write the blog on alternate weeks, and occasionally, guest bloggers like Jean Cook and Brenda van Dyck join us. We have been invited by Shannon Schenk to participate in a blog hop (thank you, Shannon!) and so we are writing a shared blog in which we each answer some questions about our writing process.

From Ellen . . . me on 620

I feel privileged to call the Twin Cities my creative home. Institutions like the Loft and Hamline’s M.F.A. program, as well as the numerous aspiring and accomplished authors who live here, combine to create an exceptional writing community. Classes, resources, and writers’ groups are plentiful, and that’s how Elizabeth and I came to be in the same writers’ group and to launch this blog. The Twin Cities’ strong supportive writing community helped Shannon (a Hamline M.F.A. alum) reconnect with Elizabeth (another Hamline M.F.A. alum) and allowed me to discover Nodding and Smiling, Shannon’s blog. She has the sensibility of a poet with the insights of a psychologist. At her invitation, we are participating in this writing process blog hop.

What am I working on? Ellen answers . . .

I’ve completed a memoir manuscript (BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE) and I write essays, but currently, WordSisters gets most of my attention.

In many ways, Elizabeth and I seem like opposites—she’s very athletic, while the only way I’d be ziplining in Guatemala is if there were a gun to my head! She grew up on a farm while I’m a city kid through and through. But what drew us together is that each of us has a longstanding commitment to improving our writing and telling our stories. We also are fierce mamas. She is mom to 11-year-old Antonio and Crystel, and I am mom to Mike and Greg, who are in their early 20s.

Although our blog topics often vary widely, our commitment to writing is the same. We energize each other. I know Elizabeth is counting on me and I know she won’t let me down either. Together, we’re better. We also both like self-publishing—the empowerment of it and the connections we make. Each week, one of us sends our thoughts and observations out to the world and we connect with all of you. That, too, is very powerful.

Why do I write what I write? Elizabeth answers . . .

At the PORTA Hotel Antigua in Guatemala, I’m sitting next to my eleven-year old daughter who visited with her birthmother a few hours ago. My eleven-year old son is nearby, watching the Teen Beach movie in Spanish and English on the television. He also visited with his birthmother today. My partner Jody is working out in the hotel’s gym.

The focus of my writing is integrating my story with my children’s. I’m a birth mother and an adoptive mother.

As I hugged Rosa (Antonio’s birthmom) and Mayra (Crystel’s birthmom) goodbye today, I thought about how they must feel giving up a baby for adoption, visiting with their child, saying goodbye again with only the promise that we’ll return in two years. I, too, gave up a son in adoption. I know how it feels to not have a living part always with you—like having a phantom limb. But I’m also the adoptive mom standing on a cobblestone street with their child, while they are climbing slowly into a van to take them back to their casa.

During the next nine days, I will explore and study the heritage of my children, who are indigenous Mayans—an opportunity made possible because I received a 2014-2015 Jerome Travel and Study Grant. The information gained will be used to improve my memoir manuscript, HOUSE OF FIRE. It will help me finish the last chapter that brings bring the narrative full circle—from the trauma of my childhood sexual abuse and being forced to give away the son I conceived as a result of the abuse, to the healing and joy of my created family, and finally, to the redemption of returning with the children to Guatemala and figuratively handing them back to their birthmothers, their birth country, and their countrypeople – allowing me and the other birthmoms to experience love and forgiveness.

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

This new material will help me strengthen my manuscript’s theme that hope, joy, and redemption can prevail over trauma.

I write what I do because my ultimate goal is to speak publicly throughout the United States and internationally about breaking free from the cycle of violence, the trials of starting my own healthy family and the challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy despite being stalked by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

 

What is your writing process? Ellen answers . . .

Often, I start with a phrase that repeats itself in my head until I pay attention and start writing. Sometimes I have a flash of insight that intrigues me and I can’t rest until I work it out on the page. Then I’m off and writing—totally involved with writing the first draft. I love the rush of inspiration when that happens.

But just as often, I’m not inspired. However, I’ve learned to trust myself—if I show up and sit at my computer, the words and ideas will show up, too.

My favorite writing spots include my office at home, our sunny porch, and a chair overlooking the lake in Lebanon Hills Park—I’ve revised large hunks of my book there.

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

After I write the first draft of anything, I know I need to let it cool off. I always allow time to look at the piece—whether a blog, an essay, or a newsletter for work—with fresh eyes a while later. Then I begin revising, and the more time I have to revise, the better the piece will be. I rely on other readers to help me see what works and what doesn’t, and Elizabeth and I always share our blogs before publishing. However with blogging, I’ve had to learn to let go of the desire for perfection—sometimes I need to accept that pretty good is pretty good and I should just press Publish.

Introducing Cynthia Kraack

Elizabeth and I would like to introduce and recommend Cynthia Kraack, a talented novelist. Her first novel, MINNESOTA COLD, won the 2010 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for fiction. LEAVING ASHWOOD is being released July 1st. It is the final book of the speculative fiction ASHWOOD trilogy about a family living in post-global depression. She has had short stories published and received professional recognition for her work in writing business simulation games. Cynthia, a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing, also holds a graduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Marquette University. She is a native of Wisconsin and has lived in Minnesota all of her adult life.

We feel lucky to live in the Twin Cities—a haven for creative people, especially writers. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about a few of us. Be sure to check out Shannon and Cynthia’s blogs!

Day 2: San Pedro la Laguna

I wake up to the cluck, cluck of chickens. The patio door is open to the outside and their fussing is distinct. I feel safe enough to leave the door ajar each night and let the breeze waft in off of Lake Atitlan. I can’t explain why or how it feels safe … but it does. It is the same knowing as when I know that something isn’t safe.

I wouldn’t keep my door open in my hometown of Richfield, Minnesota.

Soon Jody is frying fresh eggs from these same chickens and Antonio is urging Crystel to catch one. She does. Antonio finds enjoyment in Crystel doing what he himself won’t do.

After breakfast we meet our guide Sam who by the end of the day will feel like family.

Because of our experience with Sam, Jody and I know we will always request a guide when visiting Lake Atitlan. Sam is knowledgeable and bilingual, but even more than that, he knows how to relate to two nine-year-olds. He becomes their companion. For Antonio and Crystel, it is the slow melding of being around another Guatemalan. Antonio and

Sam

Crystel can think, when I am older maybe I will be a little like him.

Being around a person of the same ethnic origin, someone who they like, allows Antonio and Crystel to intuit that being Guatemalan is a good thing. This is something Jody and I can’t give them. All the words that we have can’t compare to spending time with others of their own culture.

Los Elementos dock being worked on

Antonio and Crystel are around many Hispanics in Minnesota and the Spanish dual language school that they attend in Richfield. They never have to feel alone or at odds with their skin tone. Still, there is a difference in being in your birth country and knowing that everyone you see is Guatemalan and not Mexican, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or a mix of the former.

In the days to come Jody and I will witness our children’s growing sense of pride in their ethnicity.

Antonio at home in his kayak

Sam helps us carry our kayaks down to the water. Los Elementos Adventure Center has kayaks that fit the children. All of us are happy that we can each have our own. This is the first time I have ever seen Antonio and Crystel navigate on the water under their own power. They don’t have any hesitancy jumping into their kayaks and pushing off.

Included in our lodging at Los Elementos is access to the kayaks during our stay. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel will take them out again. I am content to sit and look at the volcanos from the patio, but I also know that I am missing out on that special feeling of being in the water surrounded by vast outcroppings.

Lunch

After our morning we head off to San Pedro la Laguna in a launch for a horse ride. Once we arrive at San Pedro, we decide that we are hungry. Sam assures us that the restaurant Shanti Shanti is open even though it is still early. This sets the tone for our day. We don’t have set times that we have to be any place. Horseback riding will come but not quite yet.

Having Sam with us makes Jody and me more adventurous in choosing our lunch and more inclined to say ‘yes’ to milk shakes and other drinks.

Lake Atitlan and Mayan Indian Nose out our window

When our family traveled to Guatemala in 2010 we didn’t try a lot of things because we didn’t want to become ill. In 2003 when we had brought Antonio and Crystel home we all got terribly sick with a gastrointestinal bug. Not the homecoming any of us wanted.

Sam, Jody and I order curry, Antonio orders his regular staple of pasta with just butter and Crystel has a cheese quesadilla.

Our view from the restaurant looks right out over Lake Atitlan and Indian Nose, a unique mountain formation that resembles the face of a Mayan Indian in repose.

Choosing handicrafts to bring home. See woman’s head dress. Crystel will soon be wearing one.

A Mayan woman and her son approach us while we are waiting for lunch. She is from San Antonio la Laguna but comes to San Pedro every day to sell her handicrafts.It is nice to be able to ask Sam if her asking price is good and to have his help in negotiating.

In 2010 when we traveled to Guatemala, Antonio and Crystel hated when I did any bargaining. Especially, if it was children with whom I was haggling. Even though I explained to them that that is the way it was. “Just give them the money,” they insisted. Now, I wanted to poke them and say, See?

Crystel’s new head piece.

Sam let us know that negotiating also puts him in an uncomfortable spot because he understands that the woman is trying to make a living and yet he knows what a good price would be.

San Antonio is named after Saint Antonio, Sam says. We smile at Antonio. He lets us know that he wants San Antonio to be a destination on our next trip to Guatemala.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Antonio is known for their hair ribbons. The Mayan woman demonstrates how to put a ribbon on Crystel. It seems fairly complex and we ask if we can video her doing it.

We aren’t planning on buying handicrafts but it feels good to do so. It seems as if the money will go directly to her and her family.

Making our way to the horses

Lee Beal had told us in the morning that we could have Sam go horseback riding with us or we could go alone. We opted for Sam to join us especially, when we found out that he had never been on a horse before.

Horseback riding seems like the thing to do in Guatemala. It has become one of our must-do things.

An interesting trek to the horses

We took a horse ride in 2010 and it was a remarkable way to see a village. You go slowly, you are up high, you can observe your surroundings, and there is excitement involved because you don’t know what your horse is going to do. Invariably, at some point in your trek the horse will start trotting, which leads to uncontrollable, scared, excited laughing.

Getting to the horses in itself is an adventure in San Pedro. We were led down narrow paths, past people working in small plots, and in-between buildings. Finally when we arrive it’s like the farm moved to the city.

Added to the excitement is an occasional BOOM.  San Pedro is celebrating their Festival of San Pedro with fireworks, carnival, and games.

After our horse ride we stopped for lunch again. There are many Spanish language schools in San Pedro, so we stopped at a restaurant frequented by students.  Jody and I had very good nachos with fresh tomatoes.

Before taking a Tuk Tuk to the dock, which Saint Antonio was all for, we walked through the main part of the village where the carnival was set up.

Riding horses in Guatemala. The thing to do!

Sam called Lee and told him that our first weaving class would need to be delayed by one day. We weren’t quite ready to leave San Pedro.

San Juan la Laguna

Leaving San Marcos la Laguna for San Juan la Laguna

After cliff jumping in San Marcos la Laguna, I was expecting to hike back down the trail to the dock of San Marcos instead Lee Beal motioned to where he was standing on a large outcropping of rock and a launch appeared.This happened throughout our six-day stay with Lee and Elaine Beal. Everything was taken care of from the moment we met Lee in the supermarket in Panajachel, helping us purchase needed groceries, to setting up weaving sessions for Antonio and Crystel in a Guatemalan casa, to Elaine popping corn for us in the evening after providing us with a relaxing massage.

Rising water in San Juan

Jody and I were able to unwind in a country where English isn’t the first, second or third language and more than a dozen Mayan dialects are spoken.It was with this feeling of being taken care of that we stepped onto the shores of San Juan la Laguna, a traditional, Tzutuhil village, of approximately 8000 inhabitants.

Water is rising in Lake Atitlan, swallowing homes and restaurants that are close to the lake. Author, Joyce Maynard, who has a home in San Marcos wrote an article for the New York Times describing how it personally affected her.

Rising waters are apparent in San Juan as you approach the dock. The level of the lake has reportedly risen 18 feet since Tropical Storm Agatha leaving many structures near the shore underwater.

The streets of San Juan are remarkably clean and well maintained. Street murals painted by local artists can be viewed at every street corner. The village is full of local artists and small galleries. Lee walked into a gallery and introduced us to an artist. Jody and I eyed the artwork on the wall . We knew before leaving Minnesota that we wanted to bring paintings home with us. This was a perfect opportunity. By buying the art, it felt like we were directly helping the artist and the cooperative.

Walter Mendoza artist. Two paintings that came home with us. The top painting, a common sight – women carrying a basket on their head. The second painting – three women are wearing the dress of their village and weaving colors that signify the village they come from.

Kitty-corner from the art gallery was another gallery that was highlighting student’s art. Antonio and Crystel each picked an art piece that a child their age had painted.

Our destination was lunch at Comedor Elenita.

  

The Menu “Del Dia” (menu of the day) was written on a greaseboard. After placing our order, we left Antonio and Crystel with Zach. You can easily walk to any part of San Juan within minutes. Antonio, Crystel, and Zach were playing a game of table football when we returned. Jody and I could see how bonded Antonio and Crystel were becoming to Zach whose story was similar to theirs. The three of them were starting to share information about meeting their birthmoms and their Guatemalan traits. Zach commented to Antonio how he would like to be able to do his hair just like him. A simple and powerful statement to a nine-year-old boy!

Learning how yarn is made

After lunch we visited a women’s textile cooperative, learning how yarn was made and dyed with local natural plant materials. We were also shown weaving on the traditional back-strap loom which Antonio and Crystel were practicing first hand in Santa Cruz. In fact, that afternoon, they would continue their weaving lesson when we returned.

Crystel and Zach tried on traditional dress. The older generations, in their 60’s and 70’s still wear the traditional dress of San Juan. We purchased the blouse that Crystel is wearing with a skirt. She had her own wish list – she told us before leaving Minnesota that she would like to return with traditional Mayan clothes.

Women wear their traje (complete outfit) with a corte (skirt) and huipil (shirt) and a faja (belt) while the men wear the hand-woven pants, a colorful shirt, and a cloth belt.

Visiting a local museum, we saw portraits of daily life, customs and traditions of San Juan. I especially enjoyed the photographs on the wall. In this photo Lee was explaining the artifacts and how they are used.

After leaving the museum we headed to a tienda to purchase candles for a Mayan Fire Bowl Ceremony and ran into masked locals dancing. Masked dances are a Maya tradition in Guatemala for the festival of each town. There are around thirty different dances performed in the Maya villages of Guatemala.

Traditional masked dancing.

After returning to Santa Cruz Antonio and Crystel had their weaving lesson in the village while Jody and I relaxed at Los Elementos. Zach headed out with Antonio and Crystel to do a little cliff jumping (now that they were professionals) off the rocks of Santa Cruz. Antonio kayaked by himself and Crystel caught a ride with Zach.The children were growing up right in front of our eyes.

Surprises in San Marcos la Laguna

Every morning I took a photo from our patio of what the novelist, Aldous Huxley, described as, “…really too much of a good thing.” Lake Atitlan takes its name from the Mayan word, “atitlan,” which translates to, “the place where the rainbow gets it’s colors.”

Volcano and lake, height and depth, pointed and vast, cradled me for five nights and six days. I felt taken care of regardless of what was or what would be. 2,895.3 miles from Minnesota, my family and I were home. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel were perceptibly at peace as well.

Antonio and Elizabeth waiting for launch

Across the lake from our suite at Los Elementos, Volcano Toliman rose up with Volcano Atitlan behind it.  Owners, Lee Beal and his wife, Elaine, reinvented their lives in Guatemala. They have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz la Laguna on Lake Atitlan for the past five years. They came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. They originally started working with a local nonprofit Amigo de Santa Cruz. Lee now serves on the board of directors. As he and others learned more about the people of Santa Cruz, they realized there was a need for jobs. The CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos helps fulfill that need.

Dock at San Marcos–homemade signs telling us where to go

Lee’s background as an entrepreneur in the horticultural field gave him the experience and basis to introduce a new cash crop to the area. He has developed a Vetiver Grass program, which is a good fit with the agricultural culture of the local people. This is a multi-year program that will not yield profits for 3-5 years, but will make an impact in the long-term. Lee and Elaine wanted to expand on the idea of creating new jobs, and from this idea grew Los Elementos Day Spa and Los Elementos Adventure Center.

Classes available on San Marcos

Elaine has trained over a dozen local women to do manicures and pedicures and has trained three women as massage therapists. Each of these training programs offers the women employment opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise.

Lee developed a series of tours, hikes, kayak excursions, rock climbing, and cultural sharing opportunities through Los Elementos Adventure Center. He has been employing two local guides trained through INGUAT on some of the tours and have been training a dozen local youth to develop the skill sets needed to be a guide.

Medicinal and curative garden

Accompanying us to San Marcos la Laguna was Zach, a 14-year-old adventure “guide in training” who was staying with Lee and Elaine. Zach’s personal story is similar to Antonio and Crystel’s. He was born in and adopted from Guatemala, he met his birth family for the first time last year, and he returned to Lake Atitlan and Los Elementos as an intern. It was our good fortune that Zach would be our guide for much of our stay. Antonio and Crystel had someone ‘just like them’ to hang with.

Lee had arranged our day for us. We were picked up at his dock and ferried twenty minutes to San Marcos. The waters were calm on Lake Atitlan as they usually are in the morning. They don’t kick up until noon. This surprising turn-around is known as the Xocomil winds.

Medicinal and curative garden

Stepping onto the shores of San Marcos is walking into New Age. Signs greeted us touting Astral Traveling, Metaphysics, Kabbalah, Tarot reading, Reiki and more. The village has several meditation, yoga, and massage centers. Walking up the foot path to the main center, Lee pointed out medicinal and curative plants and elaborated on their use and origin. Banana, coffee, and avocado trees blended with the landscape.

Mayan calendar

Next to the walkway was a wall with beautiful colorful paintings including a Mayan calendar.

We came to a wall on our right made of plastic bottles. Project Pura Vida or what I call the bottle project finally made sense to me. The evening before in their home, Elaine had shown me how she was putting plastic trash in a bottle. She had a stick she used to compress the waste. But it was the moment that I saw the wall in San Marcos that I understood what she was doing.

The bottle project – Pura Vida

The bottle of trash would be joined with other bottles and become a wall for a home. In more technical terms, the construction technique consists of stacking thousands of bottles between a shelter’s wooden supports, holding them in place with chicken wire, then applying concrete to create what looks like a typical concrete wall.

Close-up of construction

The walls are cheaper than those built with cement blocks, which is the material typically used in low-cost construction in Guatemala. The plastic core also makes the walls more flexible—and thus less dangerous—than block walls in the event of an earthquake.

Pura Vida began in January 2004 as a pilot project in San Marcos to solve the local problems of garbage.

Walking towards path that will lead us to cliff jumping

One of Lake Atitlan’s greatest attractions is the cliffs of San Marcos. Our group headed towards a dirt path that led up the side of the mountain when a very large sack fell out of the sky and hit me on my head. After I straightened up and shook off the shock, Lee explained that the locals unloading a truck were looking at me and not where they were throwing. I have often told people I need to be hit on the head to get the message, so it was kind of funny in a spiritual sort of way. Still, I missed the esoteric message that was divined for me.

Zach, preparing to jump

The sack incident was not on anyone’s mind a short while later when we were standing on a diving platform three stories above the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. We quickly determined that Zach should be first to jump. 

Sometimes all it takes is one. If that first person can make it safely through an adventure, then we figure it will be okay for the rest of us. I wasn’t any stranger to cliff jumping, having jumped and dived off the cliff at Spring Valley dam in Wisconsin when I was a teenager. Still, it was frightening. My heart went up, my body went down and that feeling didn’t dissipate on any of my next jumps. The kids kept telling me to do a pencil dive. I screamed and waved my arms crazily instead. Lee pointed out a tree that hung out over the water to Antonio. Without hesitation, just like at home, Antonio scampered up the trunk, inched out on a limb, and swung off into the water. He did this over and over and over.

Elizabeth not doing a pencil dive

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel which was scarier, meeting their birth moms, or jumping three stories off of a cliff. In unison, they said, meeting their birth moms. The bar was set. Their world had opened up. From the moment they met their greatest fear, they leaped beyond their nine years.