In the shadows, a dazzling light

The birth of your child gives your life an arc. In fact: pregnancy. From the first strange soreness, sudden nausea, you begin to measure out your life anew. Nine months, developmental milestones, how much longer of these diapers, of this breastfeeding business? How much longer will she snuggle like this? Looming, that end tape: 18 years. 

We all see it there, a constant horizon. We look forward with dread or anticipation. After 18 years, some freedom will be restored, whether we want it or not.

Imagine, then, those mothers of mothers slain. The grandmothers who stand in the shadows of a femicide.

The murder of a young mother at the hands of her child’s father leaves many lives in ruins. But for that mother’s own mother—perhaps gearing up for a third act, perhaps easing into relaxation, graying and fraying as we do—it breaks the whole arc. In one instant of horror, a tent pole vanishes from the center of her existence. 

Her life refills with little socks and the nightly communion of teeth-brushing. To the uninitiated, this might sound comforting. Surely, at times, it is. But those little socks are not just socks. They are her entire life repeating, against her will. They are a return to the beginning just when the very beating of her heart seems to have ended.

As she grieves, she is called back into action. She must rewind to the start just when her years of work to raise her daughter have been cruelly tossed aside by hate. With one soulmate torn away, a wound never to heal, she reshapes herself around another.

In the shadows, a dazzling light. For what greater, sadder, stronger love than this?

As published today in El Colectivo 506. Image by Priscilla Mora Flores. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by pieces by Natalia Díaz and Priscilla Mora published by El Colectivo 506 this month

El Colectivo is the new, bilingual media organization I co-founded with two friends last year. Our Sunday #MediaNaranja series collects short love stories with a Costa Rican connection: romances, friendships, love of humans, animals, things, places, ideas. To share your own ideas for stories to be featured in this space, write to me at

‘The gift that is our lives must be let out’

I think I have written more about my father in recent years than about my mother. This is partly because, with his upbringing in Guatemala, his love of Central America, Spanish, and Costa Rica have played such a big part in my own adult life. It is also partly because his death in 2018 left a huge void in our family that all of us – led by my mother with grace, courage and humor – are still figuring out our way around.

The last reason is that my mother’s voice is so much a part of my own, in my head, that it sometimes goes unnoticed. When I say something my dad might have said, I generally ask the room, “You know what Grandpa would have said?” When I say something my mother might say, it usually just comes out of my mouth. For some three-generational bonding during the pandemic, she and I read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” together to my seven-year-old, alternating paragraphs. It reminded me once again how much I sound like her, how many of my verbal tics, little asides I make in passing, and, yes, my potty humor comes from the person who read me my nightly stories for so many years.

What an honor to have your code written in this way by a woman who, for example, delivered the invocation before President Obama strode onto a Portland stage, as pictured here. (My mother was a teacher for many years, before becoming an Episcopal priest.) What an honor to wake up at the age of 37, eyes opened by the election of forthright misogyny to the presidency, and discover that an overlooked feminism was poured right into your bones long ago by a mother who didn’t talk about it much, but just blazed the trail and Did the Thing. Poured into my bones, as well, by the flat-out awe in my father’s voice whenever he described his wife’s strength and talent.

She was my first and best writing teacher. She still is. Her own writing – or, perhaps more to the point, her own thinking – never ceases to amaze me. That is to say, it’s always quite extraordinary when this voice you think is practically your own comes out with a perspective that is startling in its depth and freshness, reminding you how much you have to learn. I am already getting glimpses of what it is like when your child plays this same trick on you. Someone who lives within your same rhythms and patterns – someone who, in this case, learned to speak from you – drops wisdom to which you are not privy. When our closest relatives school us and stun us, it’s like a door suddenly opening within your own house, exposing a space beyond that you didn’t build, didn’t paint, didn’t even know was there.

This past Sunday, I attended “Zoom church” and listened to my mother preach a sermon; she has retired, but will sometimes step up to the plate when asked. She talked about a passage (Matthew 16: 21-28) in which Jesus tells his disciples about the fate that awaits him, and Peter is none too happy about it, arguing that the flock needs a strong leader and can’t afford to lose Jesus.

My mother offered up her own take on leadership and, well, the meaning of life. I can’t help but share some of it. Here are my excerpts, with her permission:

What about us? How do we fit into this narrative? Do we, like Peter and his friends, yearn for invincible leaders who will shelter us from some of the horror around us, or at least help us get rid of uncertainty and settle us on the right track? Some of the pablum dished out in current speeches is, I think, designed to do just that, to make us feel good.  To forget the hard stuff. To get us over the hump. So things can be more or less normal again, or maybe even better than whatever “normal” used to be.

But then Jesus said, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit, that is, give up, your lives?” Basically what that means is, to trade your life in for what you gain.

Gain the whole world? What do we gain? What do I gain? I was thinking about that last week. I looked around my house. I checked out my domain, my possessions, all that I have accumulated, all that I’ve managed to gain, and collect into my world. Good Lord! There’s the house I own, yay for me! Chairs, bureaus, desks, books and more books, pictures, rugs, tubs of old journals and letters, my two beloved dogs, dishes, tables, beds, on and on and on. Things I’ve acquired, things handed down through the years from one attic to another until here it all is! All here in my very own house. I live in a museum, I said to myself. What do I actually need? Have I forfeited my life for all of this? A trade-off?

And then there’s the rest of my gain: my achievements, the jobs I’ve had over the years, my status and various job titles, my privilege, my life! It’s all mine! I own it all!

Or do I?

Jesus’ orientation was not about self-preservation and hoarding. Jesus’ orientation, Jesus’ focus, was outward bound…. Right away Jesus let Peter know that Peter’s focus was all wrong. Peter, you see, like so many of us, myself included, was trying to savor what he had, his gain, and leave it at that. There was equivalency between his gain and his life.

…The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and author, has written about this possession-obsession, how even our very life is a gift, a gift to be savored but not owned and hoarded as if it’s a baby bird we’ve found so we rescue it and put it into a nice clean shoebox and store it away to be safe on a closet shelf. I’ve been thinking about that little bird and how it needs to be nurtured, but I also know that in time it must be released to fly away, or it will end up with nothing to show for its life but a pile of very still feathers.

The gift that is our lives must be let out, too, released and given away, shared. Such life-sharing is happening all over our country – people taking risks large and small, to speak up and to help one another. I suspect that each of us in church today can look at our gallery Zoom screens and see people there who have already found a way to let loose into the world at least a portion of their life.

[Here my mother paused, smiling at the Zoom screen full of faces: faces of people who sat at their computers just a few blocks away from her, faces of people tuning in from far away. People who have donated and volunteered and surely done all sorts of things, big and small, to help others during this time. She seemed to look each of us in the eye. “Take a look!” she urged us again. And we did. I still am.]

And that is Good News indeed!










No habría película: The value of obvious errors

My seven-year-old daughter shares my dislike of those moments in a movie when things start going wrong. When the hero decides to explore the spooky basement, or an argument starts to brew, or (her least favorite) kids start doing something that could get them in trouble. Sometimes she even holds up her hands to her ears to block out the sounds, her eyes still fixed on the screen in fascination. She can watch superheroes confront the scariest villains without blinking an eye, but a kid tracking mud through the house will send her scurrying for the exit.

After watching her develop this habit, I realized where it came from: in the Harry Potter books, for example, I always wish I could just keep reading about the lovely holiday feasts and trips to Hogsmeade, without dark forces distracting from the fun. I get especially frustrated when someone does something that obviously puts them in danger or will otherwise turn out badly. In other words, I like my characters risk-adverse, or at least highly sensible, and I somehow passed on that predilection to my kid.

However, she is also her father’s daughter, and she’s learning from him. We watched a movie together the other day where the protagonist ignores strict instructions not to explore a certain part of the castle, and when I complained at this hard-hardedness, my daughter half-turned her head in my direction and said dismissively, “Mamá. No habría película.”

There’d be no movie. If our heroine had been sensible, we wouldn’t be watching this.

It’s something my husband says all the time. Since my daughter reminded me of it over the weekend, I’ve been thinking that maybe I need to say it to myself a bit more often in my daily life.

Why am I having to learn certain life lessons again, and again, and again? If it had been easier, pues, no habría película.

Why didn’t I make a smarter move, years ago, that would have changed the way certain things turned out? No habría película.

I’m going to try making this my mantra the next time I think to myself, “If only I’d…” It’s not a Costa Rican phrase, but of course, the matter-of-factness behind it is quintessentially tico. Shame spirals are not too popular here, which is, I think, why at least some of the country’s population wears Costa Rica’s official religion rather lightly.

Anyway, that’s my deep thought for the day. Does it ring true for you?

Featured image from Mi Costa Rica de Antaño’s piece on the Cine Magaly, which I highly recommend! Read it here.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; learn how to join my Overwhelmed Writers’ League, every Saturday at 1 pm EST; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookTo learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.


A motherlode of inspiration

This piece came out elsewhere on Saturday, but it’s just so good that I want to make sure no one misses it and that it’s officially a part of the Daily Boost as well.

Here’s what my dear friend Pip Kelly Varela, co-owner of a lovely B&B in northern Costa Rica, wrote for my Five Questions 2020 project this past Mother’s Day (August 15th) about the results of an effort I first featured last week. This beautiful story will be lifting my spirits for many months to come, and probably forever. Read on:

Everything has changed this year. My husband and I run a tourism business, Casitas Tenorio B&B, in rural northern Costa Rica. At the start of 2020, I was doing what a lot of parents do: switching my brain into entrepreneur mode when my two daughters went off to school every morning, and then juggling between the two modes as soon as they returned. Activities, classes, our team at the business, our community of Bijagua, the needs of our guests and the needs of the animals on our farm. A demanding routine, but one that filled my husband and me with joy and satisfaction.

With the pandemic, that juggling mode became a 24-hour affair. Costa Rica entered “Season Zero” — borders closed, no tourists of any kind, in a country where tourism is the leading source of income — and, of course, school was cancelled. Now my focus switches every few minutes, it seems like, between my daughters and the business and community we are trying to sustain and rebuild. We have no income between us, and it has been like this for five months. We have spent all our savings. And we are not alone: a whole country full of small enterprises like ours is in the same boat.

The whole thing has made me even more sensitive to how hard it is for moms who are doing this juggling act under even more stress than me. When I lie awake at night worrying about how we’ll keep our family afloat, I know there are so many other mothers around me in my town, and beyond, doing the same. So when I saw that eight women from Bijagua had joined forces to create a Mother’s Day gift box, each woman contributing something special that she makes — from homemade candy and bread to hand-crafted gifts — I wanted to do whatever I could to help them achieve their dream, sell some boxes, and have some income for their families.

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Through our B&B we’ve met so many people who love Costa Rica and Bijagua, but don’t live here and wouldn’t be able to receive a gift themselves. So I posted on our B&B’s social media inviting people to “pay it forward” via PayPal, buying a box for $15 that we would then deliver to a mother in Bijagua.

When I posted this, there were only two days for people to order these in time for the boxes to be made by Mother’s Day, which Costa Rica celebrates on August 15th. I hoped that the women might sell 10 or 20 boxes through this scheme.

They sold 80.

That’s $1,200. I can barely explain the impact of that support on these families — support sent from around the world to a community that has lost almost all of its income during the suspension of tourism. It’s enough to ease a lot of sleepless nights. Some of the women had to hire additional women to help meet the demand, thus generating income for even more families. Kids were enlisted to help out, too, including my own.

I spent the day before Mother’s Day and part of Mother’s Day itself helping deliver the gift boxes all over town. Imagine two days of torrential tropical rains, and tears almost as copious! We made videos of the women showing off their handmade gifts in their kitchens: Lilliam Alpizar, Miriam Barrantes, Maryuri Soto, Kathy Soto, Maria Luisa, Karina Vargas, Nelsy Rodriguez and Jessica Morera. We boxed and loaded and drove through puddles to house after house. We put these gifts, which were full of treats but really full of love from all around the world, into the hands of women who have faced all kinds of challenges over the past six months (and in many cases, throughout the years before 2020 even arrived). Pregnant women. Mothers of newborn babies. Great-grandmothers.

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I saw tears of joy and shocked expressions when they realized that someone cared enough to do this for them. I met a lot of dogs. I encountered, as anyone who knows Costa Rica will understand, lots of funny directions: for example, “the second house after the hibiscus that’s painted the same color as wine.” (White or red?) We drove and delivered for 13 hours, down dirt roads aplenty and tiny lanes.

With each gift, we gave a certificate showing the recipient who had purchased the box for her. The grateful moms sent audios and WhatsApp messages to the women, often thousands of miles away, who had made their gift possible. Usually, the recipient didn’t know the donor, and a new friendship was made. a smile on the faces of dozens and dozens of mothers. Sometimes, though, when I told them who’d sent the gift, I was met with a happy cry of recognition. For example, Peace Corps Volunteers who served in our town more than 10 years ago bought boxes as a surprise for the families they’d known.

I haven’t cried so much in a long time. By the time we were done, our whole town was abuzz with excitement and love.

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What I learned this Mother’s Day in Bijagua, and want other people to know when they need help during this international crisis, is this: never underestimate the human spirit, or the need to feel part of a community. I would never have thought that in just two days, 80 people around the world would buy Mother’s Day boxes for people who, in many cases, they may never meet. I think they did it because we all want to feel part of something bigger than we are, whether that’s the town of Bijagua, or the country of Costa Rica, or a global community of mothers.

Sometimes, it’s just about opening the door and letting all that goodwill come through.

Five Questions 2020 is a short survey that’s collecting responses from people around the world about what they’ve learned to do, realized, or created during the year 2020. Participate by filling out the surveyor contact Katherine Stanley Obando at to recommend someone I should interview. Please follow the Five Questions 2020 project on Medium.

Pip Kelly Varela is the co-owner of Casitas Tenorio B&B, an award-winning rural tourism enterprise in Bijagua, Costa Rica. She is already planning a Christmas project for Bijagua microentrepreneurs. To donate, visit


All hail the sloth mother

I’m in the middle of a Costa Rican downpour as I write this, which is one of my favorite places to be. My own daughter is within arm’s reach and is snugglable upon request (though she might squirm about, since it’s the highest-energy point in her day). The only thing that could improve my lot would be if I could give my own mother a squeeze on this, the eve of Mother’s Day in Costa Rica.

All in all, it’s an afternoon for a sloth-mother photo. I have developed an awfully big soft spot for sloth mothers in recent years, because that’s how I think of myself. My husband and I have tended towards inaction in some areas of parenthood. I continued waking up in the night to feed our daughter until, one day, she popped out of that phase. She continued to wear a diaper at night until we took a trip and forgot a diaper, from which date she never used one again. The other day, she announced that she had taught herself to play the piano – not because she is a prodigy, but because that’s how bored she had become. We didn’t set out with an intention of benign neglect and certainly have our moments of overthinking absolutely everything, but it sometimes does become our default; when it does, it works quite well.

I don’t know if the sloth is actually a fair emblem for lackadaisical motherhood. Sloth mothers actually seem quite attentive, and if you’ve ever seen the video of the sloth mother giving birth, you know that they’re incredibly capable as well. Still, when I’m slow to take action and my daughter ends up solving the problem for me, I think of the sloth mother in all her glory.

Wishing you a happy Mother’s Day Eve.

Imagine: User Manamana via Shutterstock.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; learn how to join my Overwhelmed Writers’ League, every Saturday at 1 pm EST; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookTo learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.


By mothers, for mothers: a gift from a land between volcanoes

Miriam, Lilliam, Karina, María Luisa, Jessica, Kathia, Nelsy, Maryuri.

These are the eight women whose handcrafted baked goods, sweets and arts have gone into a special Mother’s Day box being sold in the northern Costa Rica community of Bijagua. Donations of $15 via PayPal (through close of business on Wednesday) can be used to provide a box for a local mother in this hardworking ecotourism hub, and support the women who have joined forces to produce the handmade gift boxes.

Here’s what local Costa Rican-Australian entrepreneur Pip Kelly (also a mom) has to say about how she’s connecting international donors with this effort from local business Entre Volcanes through a “pay it forward” scheme where you can sponsor a box for a local mother:

Pay it forward during these difficult times and help support women in rural northern Costa Rica this Mother’s Day! Here’s the updated payment link (please select US$: You can also make a donation using our email address:

Help support eight local women in our community by purchasing a box of local delicacies for Mother’s Day (15/08) for just $15… We can then present it to a deserving mother in our local community. While $15 might not be much for you, for these women and their families it makes a big difference, especially at this difficult time with the pandemic.

You can make your payment via Paypal and let Pip know if there is a special mother in the community who you would like us to donate the box to. If not, we will chose a deserving mother on your behalf! 🥰

Each box contains: Lilliam Alpizar’s famous homemade candy (cajetas), Miriam Barrantes’ homemade bread, Maryuri Soto’s delicious rice pudding, Kathy Soto’s amazing arepas, Maria Luis’s homemade jam, Karina Vargas’ desserts, and Nelsy Rodriguez’s handmade present.
All of this will be presented in a box handmade by Jessica Morera.

Please consider joining this lovely effort. Costa Rica is bursting with artisans and ingenious mothers, but it’s particularly nice to see how eight moms have come together to produce something bigger and better than they could have on their own – and how Casitas Tenorio B&B thought of a clever way that international supporters who can’t sample the treats themselves can create a Mother’s Day surprise for someone else.
I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; learn how to join my Overwhelmed Writers’ League, every Saturday at 1 pm EST; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookTo learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

A month for mothers, and all women

Today, I had cause to reflect on the topic of women who should not have been mothers – at least, not at the time that they became mothers, or in those circumstances, or with that partner. (Or lack thereof.)

I thought about the fact that really, if a country has a bit of a cult around motherhood, as Costa Rica certainly does, that respect for motherhood demands respect for women on all levels. Because if you truly love motherhood and all it involves, then you must be passionate about all the ingredients and steps and twists of fate that go into a woman’s path towards that status: her safety, her education, her physical and mental health, her ability to plan her family, her economic rights. And you must be equally passionate about all the ingredients and steps and twists of fate that go into a woman’s path towards not having children.

Seems pretty obvious. But if I went through the streets proclaiming this through a megaphone, I don’t think I’d be met with an unanimous roar of approval. Not the way I would if I stuck to the script, which is, “My mother sacrificed everything for me, and my greatest aspiration is to do the same for my own little girl.”

Women in Costa Rica have, without any doubt, been perhaps the biggest sub-topic of this yearlong blog. Women athletes, women artisans, women leaders and entrepreneurs. Women who have been cut down in their prime. Women who speak out.

In this last full month of the Daily Boost, I hope to zero in once more on this topic. It’s a good month for it, August. It starts with a pilgrimage to see a tiny Virgin Mary discovered by a young girl, and is punctuated right in the middle by Mother’s Day. What better month to prod a bit further at the ways in which the country lives up to its love of motherhood by uplifting and supporting women – as I have often felt uplifted and supported during this period of working at home with my daughter sometimes at my elbow? What better month to continue examining the ways in which it tosses that love of motherhood aside?

As always, I love hearing from you. If you know a Costa Rican woman who deserves shouting out this month, please tell me about it. As we near the end here, I’m eager to keep sharing information about a group of people I’m so proud to be near, and whose challenges, despite so much progress, remain ever complex.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; learn how to join my Overwhelmed Writers’ League, every Saturday at 1 pm EST; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookTo learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.

Violence in Costa Rican delivery rooms? Not anymore, thanks to brave mothers

A movement created and supported by Costa Rican mothers saying “no” to the mistreatment of women who are giving birth turned a major corner with the approval this week of a bill to penalize obstetric violence.

I first heard the term “obstetric violence” a few years ago and thought, what? Is that a thing? Um, yes. A huge thing. A shocking thing. A 2019 survey in Costa Rica reported by La Nación showed that 35 of 100 women aged 15 to 49 weren’t consulted before medicine was administered to them or a procedure was performed; 12 percent were yelled at or scolded; 5 percent were made to push when it wasn’t called for and 2 percent suffered physical aggression. (Physical aggression. From their caregivers. During childbirth.)

The new law will sanction medical personnel who do any of these things, who perform an unnecessary caesarean or who prevent a woman from having someone accompany her during labor and delivery. Of course, this won’t really be put into place until the Health Ministry creates the regulations to accompany the law, and we all know that isn’t necessarily a speedy process – but progress is progress is progress.

This is amazing. What’s even more inspiring is that women who had suffered and even lost their babies took all that trauma and pain and transformed it into a powerful force for change. Taking a dive into the Alto a la Violencia Obstétrica en Costa Rica Facebook page is a sobering, informative and deeply inspiring experience. It would have been completely understandable for these women not to want to relive their experiences again and again, not to move even further down this rabbit hole by learning more about the atrocities sometimes perpetrated in hospitals. Instead, they powered through. They showed what they are made of. They exemplified the greatest qualities of motherhood.

Some of them are not even called mothers by society. Some of them say “No” when they are asked if they have children, and yet they are the finest mothers of all of us. They are mothers so big-hearted and generous that they have made a difference for hundreds of thousands of babies yet unborn, and women yet to walk through hospital doors.

With a lump in my throat and the deepest admiration, I want to say to these women I have never met: thank you, for all of our kids, and for all of their moms.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 



Day 28: The pink hat and the skate park

My daughter rolled into that Costa Rican farmer’s market in style. She wore a pink straw fedora she was given for her birthday by a preschool friend, all pink clothes she picked out for the weekend, and a black-and-red spotted Miraculous Ladybug coin purse – well, it’s actually a special case for the supernatural being who provides Miraculous Ladybug’s superhero powers, but it doubled that day as a coin purse. She surfed waves of confidence and shyness, negotiating for corn on the cob that she insisted on fitting into the tiny L.L. Bean bag she had brought for this purpose, rejoicing when she was given a free sample of watermelon, counting out her 100-colon coins in exchange for apples from Los Santos.

For my part, I carried two increasingly heavy bags of fruits and vegetables, and my usual vague cloud of worries. Doesn’t she stand out an awful lot? Is she going to be Costa Rican enough? Have I emphasized English too much (she hears one language from one parent, one from another, and my early months at home from her seem to have given English the edge for now), and will she sound funny as an adult? Does she look too fancy, too girly? Why did I fail so spectacularly at keeping her from drinking the Barbie Kool-Aid?

We finally stopped to rest next to a skate park where boys and men were soaring, falling, sweating and falling some more. My daughter perched on a metal railing and watched them, impressed. After a while, she started shouting some suggestions – in English, for some reason. Calling them “dude,” for some reason. As in “Dude, try leaning forward a little more when you hit the curve!”

I was about to open my mouth and remind her that she’d better use English if she wanted to communicate with them, when suddenly I was struck dumb by an epiphany that came out of nowhere.

I realized that our expectations for our kids are still impositions on them, no matter how fantastic those expectations might be. The pressures we put on them are still pressures, no matter how simple, no matter how virtuous.

Anyone who has ever watched a movie with a teenager in it knows we shouldn’t force our kids to become musical virtuosos, or to get all As, or to act ladylike, or to marry The Right Sort of Person. Before we have kids, or before they are born, or before they have actual personalities, we look at them and say, “We just want her to be happy.” The problem is that we all have ideas about what creates that happiness. We all project our own insufficiences onto these small people we love so fiercely. In my case, I want her to be Kind, and Generous, and Outspoken, a Real Costa Rican, and a Woman Free from Societal Gender Expectations. Those are all admirable aspirations, probably better than wanting her to be the best pianist in the world or a rich lawyer. But they are still burdens I am placing upon her. And those parents who want more traditional forms of success for their kids don’t develop those desires out of nowhere. That’s simply how they are expressing that same desire: I just want her to be happy.

Wouldn’t it be nicer just to set all that down, the way I set down my bags of papayas in that moment and stood, suddenly unencumbered, sweaty and tired, watching a small child dressed entirely in pink lean over the rail and yell encouragement in English at those skaters?

Wouldn’t both of us breathe more freely if I stopped pushing her this way or that, and remembered that, in the end, I’m simply her guide through the fair, and that only she can decide which booths catch her attention and where she’ll spend her precious coins?

Wouldn’t it be nicer if I just enjoyed her pink fedora and her own particular, weird, wonderful way of navigating her path through the world?

I did. That morning, I did. Then we walked back up the hill, my bags the same weight, but my heart suddenly, momentarily light.


For my father, who loved Costa Rica

One of my favorite things about my five-year-old daughter is that before she runs anywhere, she winds up like a cartoon character. She leans back on her right foot, her whole body at an exaggerated tilt, her left elbow cocked in front of her like a shield, lips pursed in smiling determination. Then she takes off. I always half-expect to see billows of white smoke and star-shaped sparks escaping from beneath her pounding heels.

When it comes to talking about my father, who died four months ago tomorrow, I feel I am still winding up. I am still leaning back, waiting to move. In my world, this means waiting to find solace in words again. About the things that count, I feel incoherent.

But on this Father’s Day, I thought I would at least attempt to pay homage in his name to what this column has always been about: language, Costa Rica, and love.


Continue reading For my father, who loved Costa Rica