When Differences Become Normal

Guatemalan women washing clothes at a creek.

Guatemalan women washing clothes at a creek.

By far, my most cherished moments in my recent trip to Guatemala were observing my children’s happiness. Seeing them smile, listening to their laughter, and seeing how at ease they were in their own skin.

This was our fourth trip back to their birth country. Our first trip was June of 2010 when they were 7. Sitting high on our horses, we walked through villages put together with sheets of tin, boards, paper, and straw. The front and back yards were dirt. Hoses were strung and used for bathing children in a tub. To the dismay of Juan and Crystel, I waved and hollered, “Hola.” They shushed me. “People live there,” I’d say in reply pointing to another shelter. “We know. Ssssh.”

On that first trip, every time I saw a boy with a load of wood on his back, walking barefoot, or planting in the field, I wanted to poke Juan and  Crystel. Wake them up to make sure they didn’t miss what I was seeing. The importance of it all. The women carrying heavy baskets on their head, the girls with a baby or small child strapped to their back, meat hanging in the open market, the bright orange lava flowing down the side of Volcano Pacaya.

A man carrying boards up a trail to the next village.

A man carrying boards up a trail to the next village.

They seemed to want to run away from the sights.

We were all startled. On our return to the United States, the four of us would have kissed the ground under the Welcome to Houston sign if we weren’t running north as quickly as we could.

Two years later when they were nine, we returned to Guatemala to meet Juan and Crystel’s birth families and to travel to Lake Atitlan.

At Lake Atitlan we had young Guatemalan men as guides.

Knowledgeable about their country and heritage, they answered our questions and shared their stories. It was with Juan and Crystel, that they had a different purpose—to show them that they should be proud to be Guatemalan.

IMG_0518 (1)During this fourth trip, I was even more aware of the relationship that our guide, Alex, had with Juan and Crystel. He had endeared himself to them as well as to Jody and me. He welcomed us and our friends, Pat and Mary, into his home. His family took a day trip with us to Hot Springs Fuenta Georginas, outside of the Mayan Village of Zunil, Guatemala. By sharing his family, his wife and two children, he provided us all with another experience—being around a Guatemalan family in Guatemala and seeing him as a loving father.

Our trips changed me. I no longer felt as if I needed to elbow the children.

This time, I heard Juan say, “Did you see that boy with the three cement blocks?” The Guatemalan boy had stopped to take a rest. The blocks must have matched his weight.

Crystel poked me and held out a fresh sprig of basil for me to smell.

Bringing home firewood for cooking.

Bringing home firewood for cooking.

I can still surprise my children. I gave a loud two handed whistle and hollered to let our friends know that the public boat we were on was coming to their dock. I surprised the other Guatemalans as well. This time instead of being shushed, Crystel told me that I needed to teach her how to whistle like that.

My experience is that when difference becomes normal the world is pretty darn awesome.

Thanks to Nancy Hoffman of Guatemala Reservations for introducing my family to Lee and Elaine Beal. We have stayed at Los Elementos Adventure Center on Santa Cruz la Laguna on our last 3 trips to Lake Atitlan. Juan and Crystel would have it no other way. Thanks to the Beal’s for training guides like Alex Vincente Lopez for us who come to learn the heritage of Guatemalans and to see the beauty of the country.

Juan Jose and a Guatemalan Revolution

FullSizeRender (5)In Guatemala today, there is an uprising.

“We don’t have medicine in the hospitals. The children don’t have books in their schools. And throughout society there aren’t any jobs and the president hasn’t done anything to help. They’ve just stolen from the people,” said Maria Elena Aquino Gomez, 38, as she sold flags in the plaza. “Guatemala is alive. We’re not dead. And we’ll continue fighting for our liberty.”

The parents of many of the organizers warned them not to get involved. “They grew up in the ’80s in Guatemala, when going out to protest meant death,” said Gabriel Wer, a 33-year-old organizer.

They hoped a few people would show up. Thirty thousand came.

I watch safely from afar, read bits and pieces, and know enough to know that I don’t understand.

Juan Jose had a history before he met Jody and me.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

His grandfather died in 1982 during the civil war and his grandmother was left to raise seven children on her own. She couldn’t provide for all, so when his mother was five years old, she was given to an aunt. The aunt treated his mother very badly so she ran back to her mother’s house. The economic situation hadn’t changed, so his mother had to get a job cleaning houses in Rabinal at age 9.

Antonio was 9 when he met his mother, Rosa, for the first time.

“Did you name Antonio,” was one of my first questions. I so much wanted to show her that we honored her by keeping his name.

“No. The adoption people named him Antonio. I wanted to name him Juan Jose. Juan to honor my father and Jose to honor my grandfather.”

Ever since then when Antonio and I meet someone whose name is Juan or Juan Jose we look at each other knowingly.

During our first meeting with Rosa, Jody and I asked her if we could help her with monthly groceries. She said, “No. I don’t want Antonio to think I sold him.”


Antonio (11) and Rosa

Antonio (11) and Rosa

It was then that I knew the strength and heart of Guatemalans.

Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia. She is from Aldea Concul, approximately 10 miles southwest from Rabinal on the Sierra de Chuacus, 5,500 feet above sea level.

Today, she lives in the poorest section of Guatemala City. Taxis won’t drive there. Still, she didn’t want to receive help. More than anything, she wanted Juan Jose’s forgiveness for letting him go.

The Guatemalan uprising resulted in Pérez Molina no longer being President of Guatemala. Perez Molina was a former general who led the most feared branch of a military that routinely massacred citizens during nearly four decades of Civil War. About 200,000 civilians died, one of them being Juan Jose’s grandfather.

I can picture Juan Jose a.k.a. Antonio running the mountain trails in Guatemala. He has the heart of Rosa.

We will be visiting Rosa next year. She’ll be able to see for herself the man Juan Jose is becoming.

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!

Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.

Word-of-Mouth Advertising

The word INTEGRITY is written on the children’s whiteboard in their room. “We are working on integrity”, I tell them.

Instead of using the word integrity I could have used terms like truthful, honest, trustworthy, reliable, or reputation. I mean, we are talking about whether or not they are actually practicing piano and drums like they say they are. I have reason to doubt them, especially, since they enthusiastically want to practice when I am walking the dogs. Timing just happens to work out that their 20 minutes of practice finishes just before Jody and I walk back in the door.

“What is integrity?” they asked.

I said, “It is simple. Integrity means: Do what you say. Say what you mean.”

If my children can embody integrity they will be successful in business and life.

Our entire trip to Guatemala was done entirely because of integrity and word of mouth marketing.

Word-of-mouth is one of the most credible forms of advertising because people who don’t stand to gain personally by promoting something put their reputation on the line every time they make a recommendation.

In 1996, Jody rented an upstairs duplex from a couple. This couple adopted two infant girls, a few years apart, from Guatemala. Through the years, our contact with the family was sporadic, largely through holiday cards. In 2011, I contacted them because I was aware that they had made visits back to Guatemala. This was an email from them:

“As I told Beth we were just in Guatemala two weeks ago and had a great time. We had our 4th visit with the girl’s birth families that went very well, due in large part to working with de FAMILIA a FAMILIA   in Guatemala. We started working with them in 2001 and they successfully located both families. They have continued to work with us over the years to maintain contact and facilitate our support for the families. The women of de FAMILIA a FAMILIA are Guatemalan women who are very committed to the people of Guatemala and have a great grasp of the complexity of the relationship between adoptive families and their children’s birth families.”

Shortly after this email, Jody, Antonio, Crystel, and I met with this family to talk with their now teenagers about their experience meeting and staying connected with their birth families. Antonio and Crystel were sharp-eyed and attentive as the teenagers shared their Guatemala travel stories and photographs.

Within minutes of us saying goodbye to the family, Crystel said, “I want to meet my birthmom.”

I contacted de FAMILIA a FAMILIA the next day.

Our experience with de FAMILIA a FAMILIA in locating Antonio’s and Crystel’s birthmom’s surpassed our expectations. They documented the search for us with photographs and script. We saw pictures and read about the birthmom’s response to knowing that their son and daughter from the United States were searching for them. All of us felt like we were following behind the movie camera as it rolled.

When the time came for us to travel to Guatemala, de FAMILIA a FAMILIA, recommended that “I would suggest that you contact Nancy Hoffman for your transportation and hotel arrangements.”

I contacted Nancy Hoffman of Guatemala Reservations the next day.

Nancy also surpassed our expectations. I made the initial contact with only giving her the information of the dates that we were flying to Guatemala. She took it from there, asking me all the questions that she needed to provide us with a tailored itinerary for our 10-day stay. Prior to our trip, she stayed in constant contact with us via email and when we were in Guatemala we had her personal phone number. The two hotels that she booked for us were perfect for the adults and the children. The transportation she provided for us was safe and reliable. I could clearly tell why de FAMILIA a FAMILIA would recommend Nancy Hoffman.

In one of my emails to Nancy I asked her if she could connect me with anyone from the project Amigos de Santa Cruz and I told her that we were also interested in visiting San Juan’s medicinal and curative plant garden.

“Hi Elizabeth – a good friend, Lee Beal, (from the USA) works as a guide and is associated with the Amigos program and also with the folks in San Juan. You can contact him directly. I contacted Lee Beal and subsequently have written many posts about our experience with him and his organization.

de Familia a Familia, Nancy Hoffman and Lee Beal built their reputation by doing what they say and saying what they mean. 

After our Integrity discussion piano and drum practice has increased in length. Sometimes, I still mention the word Integrity when I ask them how long they practiced. Antonio and Crystel know what I mean.

Now, I’m trying to explain to them how NOT saying something or not volunteering information when they ‘should’ be volunteering information is also a form of honesty.  But … we are all works in progress. Even so, I hope I am starting to impart the idea that at the end of the day our reputation is our individual responsibility and it starts with having integrity. And, when we have integrity, no one can take that from us. It’s ours and it is personal to who we are.