My good friend Toby has told me I have become a little too brief and less of a story teller in these blogs. I thought I was saving you time. Well screw it, if you don’t have the time, don’t read it.
A Lonely Planet search for the top places in Costa Rica lists “Monteverde and Santa Elena” as a must see, but it didn’t prepare me for what was to happen over those two days.
I hired a car in Costa Rica, something I simply can’t believe I did as I look at my finances now! It is a beautiful fairytale world of endless green mountain vistas – much greener than Nicaragua, and overall better cared for. “Elevation”, my sister would call it – she loves elevation. My sister was on my mind because she was due to give birth in the next month or two, and missing it was one of the sacrifices I had chosen to make.
Monteverde had been founded in the 1950s, by a small group of Quakers that travelled down from the USA, pissed off with the way their country had militarised and in search of a peaceful retreat. The mountains of Costa Rica took their fancy, and the country had a cultural fit, having abolished its army in 1948. And so was founded the town of Monteverde. Ahead of their time, the Quakers recognised the importance and fragility of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, and set up the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It is the Reserve, as well as associated canopy tours etc that draws so many tourists from around the world each year. The tourists don’t seem to know about the Quakers – but the Quakers don’t mind.
My brother Sam is a Quaker, which gives me great pride. It is one thing to say that you are not going to inherit your parents’ religion, but quite another to choose another. But that is the way of the Quakers. They are a Christianity spin off, but perhaps their most characteristic idiom is “think it possible that you may be mistaken”. Nothing is ever really for sure. Sam likes that, and so do I. It seems patently obvious; the more specific you are about something, the more likely you are to be wrong. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Quaker meetings take place in a “Friends’ Meeting House”. I first experienced one when Sam asked me along to the Forest Hill Meeting House, because he was going to get married there and I was to be his best man. Sam told me that most of the meeting would be in silence, and people would stand up and say something if they felt moved to. I was a cynical stubborn atheist, but was surprised to find myself thinking that maybe these guys were on to something. Meek facilitators opened and closed the meeting, with a few Friends occasionally reflecting on something they felt moved to say.
Sam’s wedding ceremony took the same format, but was of course focused on the couple. Almost everyone there took the opportunity to stand up and say something, a story about how they knew the couple, or sage advice from those who had taken the journey. Some people planned their contributions, some didn’t. It was the best wedding ceremony I have ever attended (sorry everyone else).
Since then we’ve been treated to two “welcome meetings” for my two handsome nephews in the same format.
I planned my arrival in Monteverde for a Saturday, so I could attend their Sunday Meeting. As Cab Calloway said, “Jake, you get wise, you get to Church”.
When I arrived to wifi I discovered that my sister was going to give birth by C-section to a rather fragile child 2 months early, expected to weigh just 2lbs 10oz. Of course I had no real idea how small that was. She was expected to be in NICU (tubes and plastic box and the like) and there was a possibility she wouldn’t survive.
5 hours behind, when I woke up at 6am I exchanged some words on Facebook with Rachel who was waiting in the hospital to go in and be opened up. I drove to the cloud forest for a solitary walk. Surrounded by the sounds and sights of the jungle, my mind was on the moment, but couldn’t help reflecting on how Rachel and I had learned about mindfulness together.
A few hours later I was pulling up to the Meeting House. Even in the car park people smile to welcome you. The Meeting House was full of Quaker song, including one called “Simple Gifts” to the tune of “Lord of the Dance” which made me think of when my brother used to sing “Dance Settee” instead of “Dance, said he” cheekily at church.
Before long the song books were collected and the meeting fell into silence. For 50 minutes no one spoke. I closed my eyes and reflected on Rachel and Paul’s situation, and the guilt that I hadn’t made time to reflect on it before… Oh, how the mind is unkind! But it struck me that while the anticipation is often worse than the pain itself, the hard bit would be the uncertainty for Paul and Rachel afterwards. My Spanish teacher had told me the previous week of a friend who had given birth to a premature baby that died 40 days later. 40 days!
I didn’t go into the Meeting expecting to say anything – I thought I would just reflect and feel the warmth of the Meeting. But it crept up on me. I had to ask the Meeting to hold Rachel and Paul and the little one, in the light (whatever that really means – it is a Quaker expression). But 30 minutes had passed and no-one had spoken. In London they normally introduce the meeting, but no such introduction had been made. Would it be appropriate? I waited another 5 minutes, then another and another, until a lady stood up and made a short speech about “seeing what love will do”. She recounted all the recent events that gave her hope about their local community, and looked back to the first world war, referencing Luther Warren, a Quaker from her hometown Wilmington, USA who helped rebuild France following WWI. The entire thing was then expertly recited in Spanish by an elder at the centre of the room, even though everyone spoke English as their first language.
I left a moment of silence and stood up. “I’m Jack”, I said, already feeling the involuntary spasms in my diaphragm as my body trembled. I have no problem with public speaking but this was a completely different thing, probably because it wasn’t an act of any kind – it was the totally vulnerable truth. “I’m travelling across the world and I feel very lucky to be here with you, particularly today, as my sister is in hospital, having a Caesarean section. The baby is only expected to be 2lbs 10oz and I’d like to ask the Meeting to hold Rachel, her husband Paul, and the ninita in the light. May they have the strength and maintain the hope that they will need in the coming months”. As it was repeated in Spanish, the translator stuttered as she held back her own tears. Hearing it repeated back, I felt heard, and could feel my worry, sorrow and guilt instantly divided by the 50 or so people in the room.
As soon as she finished, two elders shook hands to signal the end of the meeting, causing a ripple of handshakes around the room. All visitors were then asked to introduce themselves. There were around 10 of us, from various Houses in the US and Canada. I owned up to not really being a Quaker but representing my brother from Forest Hill, South East London, and having enjoyed my brother’s wedding, niblings’ welcomings, and always appreciating the warmth and welcome of a Quaker Meeting House.
After the meeting, a guy with two hearing aids shouted at me very loudly from just a foot away “WHAT DID YOU SAY IN THE MEETING? I COULDN’T HEAR YOU!” His name was Paul Smith – I later found out he was a masterful cellist who wows audiences while not being able to even hear himself play. I explained the background, less peacefully than before. After being asked to leave the room, he told me that you are given gifts in life, and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. It was simple but somehow wise and reassuring. While we were talking, many people interjected to say they would think of my sister. Incidentally no-one ever used the word “pray”. Praying was only mentioned later.
A lady beckoned me over and said she had to talk to me. She had been born here in Costa Rica – in the second generation of the Quaker community. She waited until we were alone in conversation and then said “your story struck a chord with me. We lost our first after a week. But it was a time of great love and great warmth, and I just had to tell you about it”.
She told me how there in Costa Rica her baby was premature, and needed a lot of help. She had tubes keeping her breathing and feeding her. “She couldn’t feel anything of the world, how can you feel anything of the world when all you can feel is those tubes down your throat?”. But, she said, she was inspired by her daughter’s strength. She was awed by the force that enabled her daughter to survive in those circumstances for as much as a week. As that week went on, and it became more apparent that her baby was not going to survive. Instead of feeling despair, she felt calm. It was a gift that this life had existed at all. She felt wonder, love and warmth building and building up to the moment that her daughter died. It was only later, when the commiseration cards came through, that she realised that people had been praying for her. And maybe, she implied, this was the warmth she felt.
We hugged in tears. Thinking about the worse case scenario, and grabbing for words of encouragement to offer my sister, I remembered that she said this was her “first” child and asked “You say you’ve gone on to have other children?” “People said that at the time”, she replied. “I know they were trying to comfort me, by saying I could have other children, but it just didn’t make any sense to me at all. Even today, I still have a connection with that child. I have three children – I just tell people I have two so that I don’t have to go through this whole story. And that is something I need you take away from this. It sounds like your sister’s baby is going to be fine, our daughter had so many failing systems. But if she doesn’t survive, your sister needs to know that her connection with her daughter will always be there.”
I thanked her, because I was thankful. Travelling on my own, I did feel distant from my sister in her time of need. The night before, I’d thought about telling my travelling companions about it but it didn’t feel right. The Meeting had given me an instant community that was sharing in this, an instant intimacy that wasn’t paranoidly judging itself, and this lady had so bravely gone out on a limb to tell me this vulnerable, intimate story in a hope to help me and my sister. It felt like it would be okay if my niece wasn’t going to make it – it was going to be okay.
I had to leave if I was going to make it to Volcan Arenal by dusk. I asked her name. “Elena”, she said.
Monteverde was the name of the area we were in, but the name of the town was Santa Elena, which means “Saint Elena”.
Dropping by my hotel, I got enough wifi to get a message from my mum that the baby had been delivered “crying”. I drove for 5 hours to Volcan Arenal, where I would next find out more.
Just as I was starting to feel upbeat about the situation, Spotify on shuffle played Foy Vance’s “Two Shades of Hope”:
“Some people think their sin
Caused the cancer that’s eating into them
And the only way they can win
Is by the healing of somebody’s hands on their skin
But when the cancer does not go
Baby, hope dealt the hardest blows …
Yet I cannot help myself but hope”
Oh Foy. And it was Rachel who first explained to me the meaning of this song (I am a bit slow). It could have been death caused by dangerous crying. And by the way if you’ve never listened to Foy Vance I suggest you do.
When I got to my hostel, I logged in to find that all is well. The baby, Abbie Christine Charli West, was indeed 2lbs 10 oz, but did not need to be assisted in breathing and was being downgraded from NICU to HDU. Still not out of the woods but a bloody good sign. She was in the best UK hospital she could be, and as Rachel works there we think they may have pulled out the stops a little.
3 months on, Abbie is doing fine having doubled in weight and just spent the weekend at our local music festival. It hasn’t been the easiest time for Rachel and Paul, but it is nice to now just think of Abbie as a new life in the family, and not be dogged by impending catastrophe.
Even though all is well, I feel forever changed by that conversation with Elena (actually it’s Helena with a silent H but never let the truth get in the way of a good story). To genuinely see the magic in what you had, not the tragedy in its loss, is a lesson I hope to retain.