Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Back by popular demand (meaning I thought it’d be nice) I’m posting another poem in this entry. But first, I’ll hit some of the highlights from the past couple weeks:

The Pacific Coast Beach Trip. Funny how sometimes you don’t realize you need a retreat until you’re gifted with one and come back to normal life so rejuvenated. I had gotten into a funk for some reason, probably having to do with the fact that I hadn’t left Mastatal for a whole two months. Three days of full team beach volleyball, sand dollar findin’, wave riding, pizza eating, journaling, emailing family and friends, and reading “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, did the trick. We’ve all come back to the Ranch with a vengence, working our (metaphorical in some cases) balls off and wondering aloud at how clearly we see the beauty of this place and the people in it.

The 1st Annual Cork Festival! On the evening of first day of spring (the spring equinox), we all trooped up to the Cork, the new wattle and daub residence under construction, to participate in and enjoy a music festival. Wine, homemade mead and Imperial flowed freely, and we sat on cinderblocks and boards next to the octopus mural as the mountains behind the stage faded into nighttime. There were skits and poetry readings about circuses and rich men, and songs about blueberry picking and personals ads. Yours truly was in two acts: Angel From Montgomery (John Prine) sung by five of the female interns in three part harmony, and a solo act, a cover of the Avett Brother’s “Murdered in the City.” Everyone got a bit sloshed, real affectionate, and quite verbose about our gratitude for each other’s creativity. What a wonderful night.

El Baile Segundo! This past weekend was the second dance in Mastatal since I’ve been here. As happened the last time, Ranch folks went to pick up the generous pig, who made quite a scene in the truck and in front of the community building before it was slaughtered, screaming and emptying its bowels. It definitely knew it was going to die, and it’s a humbling experience to be a part of that sacrifice, to see where your sustenance is coming from. All day Saturday folks were at the community center (a single floor tiled basketball court with a kitchen) cooking tamales and the “cerdo” (pig). By 10 pm Saturday night, the gym was full, and the DJ was mixing the music, which has absolutely no breaks—one song just flows into the next for hours upon hours, and somehow you’re jiving to a remix of “If You’re Going to San Francisco” that flows seamlessly into twenty minutes of reggaetone and then on to thirty minutes of fast, traditional Latin American music. Let me tell you, these Latin men know how to dance…and so do us gringos, except that we are doing goofy angular things with our legs and holding flip flops to our ears as if they were telephones, while the Latin men’s style is simply…hot. So it was a late night/early morning for us Ranchers, who work and play hard but are usually in bed by 10. So worth it!

Yestermorrow Natural Building Class. As I’ve been telling y’all, my fellow intern Anne and I have been building a shitter up at the Cork. Once upon a time, we were both interns at Yestermorrow Design Build School (different years) and we’ve taken to calling each other simply “Erann” to express the commitment we have to each other and to our work. Well, Erann had the opportunity to co-teach a timberframing workshop to the Yestermorrow class that came down from Vermont for a two-week natural building class. What a rush to be able to design a timberframe, teach it, cut it, trouble-shoot it and eventually raise it. Erann are both heartily enjoying the experience. The class has left and we still have a bit more to do before raising day in a couple days. It was also great for us both to see one of our favorite instructors from Yestermorrow, Lizabeth Moniz, a spunky corker of a woman who’s been a builder for many years, rode her horse through the fields of McLean, VA before it was all condominiums, and is super fun to shoot the shit with after work hours are over.

Honestly, I could write a paragraph about every day at this place, which, especially in the past month, has really fed my soul and inspired me. So that’s why I’m staying until early June! Many of the interns head out this month, but I’m feeling that I have more to contribute and learn, so after traveling around Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a couple weeks in May, I’ll be back for another month before the new rainy season interns arrive. I’m still pondering where to go and what to do for the summer back in the states (yup, I’m still planning only in seasonal increments), and suggestions are welcome. Love you all, and enjoy the latest:

Can Coconuts Be Composted?

“Can coconuts be composted?” he wonders aloud.
“Just chuck them in the jungle,” we reply.
So gloriously normal they’ve become
The strange things we say and do in this place.

Ladders cobbled together from scrap wood and old nails
Carpenter’s squares so rusty the numbers have given up trying to assert their existence
Cookbooks only a few years old molding and decrepit, mummified in duct tape.
We cut bamboo with machetes, plug screws with purple heart, and hand plane tropical cedar and pelon—
All the while shirtless or shoeless or calves bared –
Or all of the above.
Absent is the plywood, the Ikea shelves, the plush couches
Replaced by overwhelming inspiration
Gained from imagining the number of fingers and brain cells
That have labored to create the tables I sit at.

Mango and papaya and avacado are for breakfast
Yucca and chiote and hand thrown tortillas for supper
Starfruit in the backyard and cilantro in the front.
We romance the vanilla vine by pollinating it ourselves,
We help the poop and banana peels and eggshells feed the soil and fill our plates.
A magic jar of yogurt appears on the counter every morning
And sugar comes brown and crystallized, wrapped in banana leaves.

A six inch long scorpion on the wall by my bed
Takes a break from his lunch of a four inch long grasshopper
And all I can do is yawn.
Cold showers, leaves tickling knees, stones underfoot
And the forest to stare at instead of grout and tiles.
Breathing, sleeping, heart-beating with the out of doors
As lacking walls and window panes will do.

We make a habit of gawking, of staring, of telling work and play to hold on a minute
Until that ant finishes dragging his tarantula home,
Until that neon green lightening bug finishes his meal in the compost bin,
Until the birds stop their morning gossip
Until I can make out the face that belongs to the long, furry, striped black and brown tail
That curls up and down a near tree as I sit on the shitter and watch.

Gloriously normal
Normally strange
And yes, coconuts can be composted
It just takes a really long time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Watch Out: The Booger Gets Introspective

Amigos! What a beautiful week it has been. The other interns and I agree—we’ve all hit stride. We’ve gotten into a groove with our projects, whether it be building a shitter, going into the elementary school to sing “heads-shoulders-knees and toes!” with the 18 kid multi-age classroom, or sculpting a huge octopus on a mud-built wall. But more so than projects, we’re hitting stride in our relationships with each other. We’re getting to know each others personalities and patterns. We’ve forgiven each other more than once and expressed appreciation for moments of patient instruction and creative hilarity. We’ve dance partied in the kitchen to Old Crow Medicine Show and MIA, we’ve mooned each other, cut each other’s Mohawks, bathed each other’s sunburn in aloe and yoga-ed together at 6 am. We’ve worked through vastly different communication and planning styles to complete challenging projects. And we’re still learning about each other, discovering in our midst the Washington State track champion, the flamenco guitarist, the calm one in the midst of a scorpion bite or sliced finger, the songwriters and stand-up comics. We’ll all be sad to leave the community we’ve formed.

As far as my future after this place, I’m keeping the eyes of my heart and ears of my soul open (is that sufficiently vague for y´all?).  The past year has been one of self-reflection and learning, of placing myself in simultaneously familiar and intimidating situations for short term projects. With Vermont and the Ranch, I left the support and safety of living in a Christian community. After the initial excitement of a new place faded a bit, I was faced with stunningly diverse and gorgeous people who value many things I value (creativity, conservation, community, carpentry…all those great “c” words), but who oftentimes hold vastly different morals, worldviews or motivations than I. As a great seeker of meaning in both the large and the small, I take everything to heart. My brain and soul take in all of these new people, new ideas and new experiences. After mulling them over, my mind and spirit combo revisit my current beliefs, values and understanding of the world, like a writer going back to a manuscript that she’s been writing bit by bit all her life. And just as that writer scribbles out new plotlines, unexpected character developments and poetic flourishes that she didn’t even know existed in her creative consciousness when she started, so the novel of my soul gets rewritten and taken in new directions that I marvel at. As I´m sure you can all affirm in one way or another, it’s an exhilarating, emotional, scary, giddy, transformative process to continually try to take in a world that’s always becoming bigger and richer. It’s also addictive! A poem I wrote as I was journaling several weeks ago helps to explain a bit more why I think I’m attracted to these places that don’t provide a comfort zone of homogeneity that I’ve known before:

“A fish out of water,”
Some would call me.
Maybe so, but I can’t resist diving in.
I’m addicted to these strange waters
Newness and differentness
Pang and revelation
I relish
And I sink.

I relish the diversity, the feeling of my soul and heart opening, flexing, beating to cadences other than my own.
I sink under the weight of difference, of perceived or real ostracization.
I relish the opportunity to reinvent myself, to reintroduce my personality, to start anew.
I sink as I pigeonhole myself, as I realize I am not who I want to be.
I relish those moments of connection when I and another listen to each others’ souls, speaking honestly of dissimilar lives.
I sink under the fear that I will be misunderstood, that the most unusual and radical parts of myself will be scorned and shunned.

“Perhaps,” I think sometimes, “I should keep to my own.”
But as soon as I think it
Oceans grow smaller
And the world shrinks—
But it shrinks nonetheless.

So that’s where I’m at right now, navigating the emotional roller coaster that is my exploration of the world and of God. I often get very frustrated that I’m not a more easygoing, laidback, even keeled explorer. Why do I have to feel everything? And though I’m getting better at letting go, I’m also learning to accept who I am. I’m a free-spirit, but as my older brother declared wryly one day as I hashed out life’s most recent revelations and frustrations, I’m the most high-strung free-spirit he’s ever met. So I’ll keep feeling, keep striving, keep growing, keep seeking. I’ll mull things over often with my God and that hippie, peace and love son of his. I’ll glow over the lessons learned and the kim chi eaten and the laughter belted out and the costumed sushi nights. I’ll stay connected to my Christian community through letters and emails and solidarity and prayer. I’ll most likely keep hopping from place to place with my eyes wide open until one location or person or mission shouts for me to stop a take a load off. And God will continue to write on my soul like a manuscript that’s soft around the edges from so much editing and doodling on and adding to. Good think he’s one of my favorite authors.

Thanks for reading, friends! Buenas noches…

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Over the River and Through the Woods

I promised an update on the work-weekend at Ana and Juan's, so here it is, once again in newsletter article format: (unfortunately my pictures don't want to upload, so check flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/7600452@N04/ for pics related to this post)

Ana and Juan Luis live on an isolated a cow pasture in a two-story modest stick frame house set upon the scenic mountainside of San Vicente. After several years of subsistence farming, this hardworking family decided that Juan Luis would get a part-time job in San Jose as a security guard and gardener. The extra income and formal employment allows Ana and Juan to obtain health insurance and send their daughter to a boarding school in nearby Puriscal. Though they have to live with relatives in San Jose, they luckily inherited the land that their cow pastures and home stand on. So though their home is a 20-30 minute hike from the road and lacked walls, a ground floor, electricity and running water, they proudly set up house for half the week there.

The Ranch got to know Ana and Juan when the Ranch’s Solar Energy Institute installed a small solar panel on their roof to power four light bulbs. Ranch interns Britt, Taggert, Erin and Carolyn visited the family to see how the installation was working (great!) and to see if there was anything else that the interns might be able to help with. Ana expressed concerns about the lack of protection inside the house from the torrential downpours of the rainy season, as well as the oppressive smoke created by her cooking situation, which was essentially a campfire inside shielded from the wind by some sheet metal. Unfortunately the sheet metal also made it more difficult for the smoke to escape. Thus two projects were born: create a more private and protected space upstairs with walls and by framing out a new room for Ana’s teenage daughter, and build a “rocket stove.” A rocket stove greatly reduces the smoke emitted and amount of fuel inputted by using a 5 or 6 inch L-shaped stovepipe (see link). We decided to encase the stovepipe in cob so that when the pipe burned out, the stove would still be intact and usable.

The planning process involved many trips over the river, through the woods and up the mountain to talk with Ana. The hike up to the house was always eventful in one way or another. We saw a sloth and an iguana, a Jesus Christ lizard (walks on water!) and a huge terciopela snake skeleton. After the big windstorm we also saw hardly any of the trail, which meant a trail maintenance day before the big work weekend. Over the course of several weeks of treks up to Anna’s to plan and get to know them, we were treated to all sorts of unexpected “comida tipica,” that felt more like exotic and gourmet fare for us: a baklava-like coconut filling, red beans with plantains, pork, chicken, pinto, sausage and potatoes, tortillas, baloney sandwiches and refrescos of all flavors. We also learned new vocab words like “toro” to replace our own butchered versions (“vaca hombre” kept us laughing for weeks).

About a week into our planning, we were happy to find out that the 15 students in the month-long Aerie Backcountry Medicine EMT class were psyched to help us during a work weekend. Thus our planning focused on the big weekend and finishing with a smaller crew early the next week. When the big weekend arrived, the students worked their medically trained butts off. Saturday’s crew hauled an obscene amount of wood and tools up to the house, and then got to work with gusto, deconstructing the existing stove and dancing up a cob mix for the new one. The wall crew got into a rhythmic groove of measuring, cutting, joking and hammering. Juan Luis ran around setting up ladders and sawing boards. Sunday’s rocket stove crew sat in a circle around the stove, cobbing and singing the day away. By the end of the weekend, over half the work had been completed, and Dr. Love had volunteered to build shutters for one of the new windows. Anna and Juan repeatedly expressed their gratitude, saying they didn’t know gringos (non-Central Americans) could work as hard as ticos (Costa Ricans)! After two more days of work the following week by Ranch volunteers and interns, the building was complete, with characteristic Ranch love infused into details like the smoothly sanded guanacoste sills upstairs, the live wood window-shutter handle and the spirit tree sculpted into the cob surface of the rocket stove.

Many thanks, again, to the Mastate Charitable Foundation for funding the project, and to all the Aerie students and Ranch regulars who flexed their muscles to go over the river and through the woods to Juan and Ana’s.