Your Moms Are Going into The Peace Corps

I told the kids that after they graduated from high school that their moms were going into the Peace Corps. Even though it is 4 years from now, I believe in giving plenty of notice. Juan Jose’ has already told us that he isn’t leaving home. He’s going to live here forEVER. It was clear that the moms were going to have to leave to get on with their life.

I had been in the Peace Corps in my early 30’s. After 1½ years, I received a phone call that my mother was dying of cancer. I went home for a 30-day leave, returned to Tonga in the South Pacific where I was stationed, only to learn that I didn’t have the stamina to wait for a call telling me that she had died. Though our relationship was contentious, I needed to be within driving distance when she took her last breath. We never spoke of my decision.

It has always been in the back of my mind to return to the Peace Corps as a couple. I’m excited that Jody is willing. It will be an adventure we can share.

I mentioned Fiji, Tonga, and other South Pacific Islands.

Until now, Crystel had not been verbal about her plans after high school.

“I’m coming,” she said. I thought about that. Many people do have family members visit during their two-year stint.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A visit is possible. Maybe you both can even travel to New Zealand and Australia with Mama Jody and me.”

“No. I’m coming.”

“Oh, okay.” I had no answer other than that. How does one hide their 18-year-old daughter for two years in a hut? I’m not sure that the Peace Corps allows for extended stays. As her Uncle Scott mentioned, maybe they have a university she can attend.

When I was in the Peace Corps in 1990, most people went off the island to New Zealand or Australia to get their education.

Still….

“Is college important?” asked Juan Jose’.

Both Jody and I answered him in the affirmative. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer. How do you tell a ninth grader that college is important when he thinks that the stuff he is learning is useless?

I support the kids doing a gap year and traveling overseas. As a human resources manager, I learned that the most important work strength one can have is knowing how to get along with others. If you can’t get along with others you most likely won’t hold your job long and you’ll be stymied for promotions.

I thought about the foundry workers, the press and extrusion operators and other laborers at the companies where I’ve worked. All jobs which the kids are familiar with from plant tours that I’ve given them.

I explained to Juan that the people who do those jobs work much harder than me, but they make less money. “It’s another example of how the world is unfair,” I said. “The hardest working people make less money because they don’t have a college degree.”

I went on to say that if you get a college education you are more likely to be in a job you want, make more money, and do less work.

Juan was quiet. I imagined him living at home and attending a community college. “The college you go to is far less important than one would think,” I said. “It’s the 4-year degree that holds the importance.”

It never occurred to me that Crystel might do her gap year with Jody and me.

I learned that the University of the South Pacific includes Tonga. Maybe, that will have to be part of the deal if she starts packing her bags and sets them next to ours when we join the Peace Corps. The university is jointly owned by the governments of 12 island countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Western Samoa. All places that she wants to travel.

Jody and I have our work cut out for us. We have to start teaching Juan Jose’ how to take care of the yard, the house, and the pool. Oh, and to run the dishwasher and throw his socks down the clothes chute. We have four years.

 

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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.

What Makes For A Strong Family?

Richfield Dual Language School fiesta. Playing games on McGruff.

Richfield Dual Language School fiesta. Playing games on McGruff.

I think about this a lot since my children will be starting middle school next year. Middle school means 900 students in three grades compared to 400 students in five grades at Richfield Dual Language School.

Middle school means dances, parties, old and new friends.

Middle school means more access to social media.

Middle school means I’m just outside of my parent’s reach.

Guatemala

Guatemala

Or, does it?

A strong family is in my mind because I want my children in my circle of influence. I don’t want them to make choices that have no do-over.

So, how to keep them close?

A lot of people believe that eating dinner together every evening or even several times a week is vital. That isn’t going to happen in our family. Jody and I often don’t eat dinner in the evening, although we make sure our children and their friends are well fed.

One constant in our life is putting the kids to bed. We take turns with them, as we have since they were infants. This of course, will become less practical as they get older.

I don’t want Antonio and Crystel to be lost in middle and high school like I was. I want them to be able to ask me for help without rebuke and even to bring their friends’ concerns to me if need be. I want to be accessible.

Boundary Waters

Boundary Waters

To this end, I’ve done a good job, even though at every school conference this year Jody and I’ve been surprised. The children take turns with who is having ‘issues.’I tell my kids that they couldn’t ever do anything worse than I did in school and that is the truth. The difference is the world is a much more dangerous place and a lot less forgiving than it was 44 years ago.

Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do

Having a strong family means having strong relationships within the family. It’s very important to me that Antonio and Crystel are friends. Sometimes, I still remind them that we adopted them together so they would always have each other.

Mondays have become our family Tae Kwon Do day. It is our sit down dinner. Antonio, Crystel, Jody and I are black belts. We have had many meals together the last several years. Our testing day is a banquet.

Once in a while we have game night, and when Amazing Race is on television, we all gather around imagining Mama Beth and Mama Jody as contenders.

Loft Mentor Series

Loft Mentor Series

Out of all that we do, I think it is our adventures that keep us strong. Doing new and different activities or eating meals in new restaurants. Since I won the Loft Mentor Series, we’ve been attending the readings as a family and eating out at a new restaurant prior to the reading.

And then there are our more adventurous trips which go a long ways toward bonding us as a family—camping in the Boundary Waters, visiting Guatemala, taking a train to Chicago, Mexico, driving to Arkansas, Florida, and cross country skiing in Wisconsin.

Mexico

Mexico

Sharing the above with family and friends also tightens the bond.

A strong family can mean many things. Tonight a strong family means no electronics and no friends over until all MIS (missing homework) on a fifth grader’s conference report are replaced with a grade.

Jumping into the Unknown

Ziplining to some would be the ultimate adrenaline rush, whooshing from point to point above the treeline attached to a cable.

Zach, Crystel, and Antonio on the launch

Zach was officially our guide on our zipline adventure at the Atitlan Nature Reserve. The 14-year-old and our two nine-year-olds had become comfortable with each other. They were bonded by the mutual experience of being adopted and meeting their birthmoms. During our launch from Santa Cruz la Laguna to the shore of Panajachel where we would start our trek through the jungle to the zipline, they talked about their visit.

Zach showed the necklace he received from his birthmom, Crystel showed her earrings, and Antonio described the weavings he received. All these gifts were very important to the children – a connection to their Guatemalan family.

The start of our trek

Just as their life is complicated, a crooked tree marked where our path started. We walked upwards on an ancient trail, stepped lightly over hanging bridges, and kept our eyes and ears open for spider monkeys.

The Ziptrek tour covers close to 35 acres of land. For 1 ½ hours we rode a total of eight ziplines ranging from 295 ft. to 1050 ft. along waterfalls, canyons, the valley and a coffee grove forest.

Zach, Antonio, Jody Crystel, Beth – ready to zipline

Ziplining took my breath away. Especially the first time that I let go and zipped above the valley, above the top of trees. If the cable breaks, it is a long ways down. A mother thinks of these things, even if she is just thinking of herself. True, after the first zipline it got less and less scary and I was more able to enjoy the view. Still, I was breathless.

Jumping off the cliff at San Marcos had been a warm-up for this. You take a leap into space without being hooked to a cable. You couldn’t see the water below before sprinting off of the platform. You had to assume the water was there to catch you.

Crystel on the zipline

After our zipline adventure Antonio was brave enough to ask the staff in Spanish to order us a tuk tuk to take us into the town of Panajachel.

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel what was scariest, jumping off the cliff at San Marcos, ziplining, or meeting their birthmom? Without hesitation they both said meeting their birthmom. Ziplining came third.

For Antonio and Crystel, meeting their birthmom was jumping into the unknown. Will she like me? Will I like her? What will it be like to look into the eyes of the woman who gave me life? The mom who hasn’t raised me? Who hasn’t grown up with me? Who opened her arms and gave me to someone else?

Antonio loving the tuk tuk he ordered

Jody and I were there to catch our children if meeting their birthmom went awry. Yet, we couldn’t take that first step for them. They had to take that leap into the unknown all by themselves and trust that they could weather what came.

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.