I don’t know about you, but after several days spent frenetically following the unfolding events in New York and Washington, DC, I feel the need to reset my brain just a bit with something simple, basic and oh-so-beloved in Costa Rica. And while I learned last week that Coffee Me is here to stay, I did slurp down an alternative liquid just now as a salute to wellness a lo tico: a little té de manzanilla. It’s everywhere on these rainy September days when the entire country seems to have a cold.
I thought that the first few years of motherhood had fully indoctrinated me into the many uses of chamomile in Costa Rican culture. While this is a common herb all over, I happened to learn about it once I lived here, where it’s the national Windex – remember the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” in which the father swears that a little spray of Windex is the solution to just about any problem? You inhale chamomile steam for a cough, powder it to rub on the gums of teething babies, apply it in a compress for just about anything external and drink it for everything else. You are absolutely going to hear about it from your family doctor. It is as essential as rice in the Costa Rican pantry. Yeah, I figured I had a handle on it.
But then this little green volume practically fell into my hand from the used book shelves at the back of the Librería Andante in San Pedro, my new obsession, and I learned that I had no idea. Do you drink chamomile tea on the regular? Did you know that there is a dazzling array of varieties, all ready to be deployed with staggering specificity for different ailments? Did you know that the first word in the name Matricaria chamomilla comes from the Latin – and Spanish, of course – word for womb, because the herb was so renowned for its ability to improve the health of the womb that Hippocrates prescribed it for use during childbirth? (Here’s to giving birth in the 21st century.) Did you know it can give you lovely highlights but also, when mixed with fig leaves, somehow blacken your beard? Did you want to know any of these things?
I doubt I’ll ever make chamomile liquour – there’s a whole chapter – or work a chamomile foot bath into my morning routine. However, I did like learning about how drinking a proper infusion which has taken place over no fewer than 30 minutes, with one spoonful of flowers per cup of water, might calm me on a stressful night more than a teabag would. And “Chamomile: The Plant that Cures 180 Illnesses” (Valter Curzi, translated from the original Italian and printed in Spain in 1982) definitely made me think about the health boosters that are all around me in a country that is bursting with plants, flowers and fruits all year round.
I’ve learned that the things that bring me the most inspiration, like Greta Thunberg or politicians finally standing up for what’s right, also leave me very agitated. A steady diet of passion would leave me too drained for anything more than thumbing through news feeds – and some days, that’s what happens. I am slowly figuring out that I need to approach the highs of life almost as I would the lows, with the knowledge that a reset will be needed. The same practiced eye that notices when my daughter is in the throes of joy so intense that she’ll be a total nightmare once it ends needs to anticipate the same reaction from her mother. I need to arm myselves with little diversions, building blocks of contentment: a familiar pantry herb. A slim used book. Any chance to pause. Any space to pursue the kind of bliss you don’t need to come down from – which for me always involves silence, ideally rain, and the presence or the memory of love.