A dory glides across the ocean in Costa Rica

The Stuff of Literature

Costa Rican mountains inspire literature
Driving through the mountains of Costa Rica, one realizes how challenging it can be for humans to accommodate themselves to a landscape.


I opened a recent diary entry with this quote by Richard Ford: “A lot of people could be novelists if they were willing to devote their lives to their responses to things.” Tomorrow is my three-year anniversary here on The Diary of an Improvateur, and this is my 100th post on this blog, so I begin by thanking everyone who takes the time to stop by and read my ramblings on design, travel and literature.


The Stuff of Literature

This quote by Ford in the same article Bruce Weber wrote, titled “Richard Ford’s Uncommon Characters,” made me think of a number of experiences I had in Costa Rica: “I really think that human beings accommodating themselves to a landscape, to a place, is natively dramatic, that that in itself is potentially the stuff of literature.” I began recording the bones of my experiences as a writer during my early 30’s, the pages of my writer’s notebooks, which I always have tucked into my purse, bearing witness to my responses to things. This is a practice Ford mentions in the article, published in The New York Times’ T Magazine in 1988, saying he would spend months accumulating the “raw stuff” that would come together to make his novels or short stories whole.


My writers notebook informs my literature
One of my early writer’s notebooks, which I carried everywhere when I was struggling to find my voice.


He maintained that anything appearing to him to be singular would end up in his notebooks. “Here’s a sentence I wrote [that’s] not meant to be interesting to anybody else: ‘Christmas, comma, Jesus Christ.’ That’ll turn out to be a dialogue line.” He went on to tell Weber, “A sentence in my notebook will come at a place where I never imagined it. And that’s what writing is for me, taking the raw stuff and recasting it into a logic that is its own.” I salute Ford and all of the writers who have come before me who continue to push themselves to heights to which I aspire. I’ll now be so bold as to follow that statement with an essay I have written, an experience that found its own logic not as a piece of fiction but as a non-fiction composition. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Ora et Labora: Life as Worship

A dory glides across the ocean in Costa Rica
A dory glides across the surface of the ocean off the coast of Costa Rica.


I’m standing at the edge of a pristine beach pocked with crumbling shacks and concrete block cubes masquerading as buildings, awaiting the arrival of a rolling silver canister containing an assemblage of Costa Rican Episcopalians. The bus is an hour late when the groaning of an engine rips along the sultry breeze permeating Puerto Viejo. Soon, I see it: a boxy vehicle so beat up it seems the large scrolling Concorde logos painted on both sides are the only things holding it intact as it rolls to a stop. The Episcopal Bishop of Costa Rica is the first to exit; he’s holding a beach mass and his flock today is a busload of parishioners from St. Mark’s Church in Limon, the hour-long trip turning into a two-hour fiasco because the bus had broken down.

In spite of the chaos, Bishop Wilson is all smiles. He laughs as he tells me he was enlisted to help the driver tinker with the engine, amused because their fumbling had actually worked. He felt this constituted one of the oddest laying-on-of-hands he had ever heard of and I told him I agreed. Following him down the steps was a line of portly elderly women who had hurriedly pulled their woven jute baskets ornamented with bright fuchsia, turquoise and chartreuse from the shelves running along the circumference of the bus above their heads.


Market baskets are staples in Costa Rica
The church women exiting the bus has their market baskets with them; they rarely leave home without them for good reason.


Belongings in hand, they slowly heaved their buxom bodies down the vehicle’s steps onto the graveled roadbed, many of them turning sideways to squeeze their way through the door. Each one paused, a similar expression of relief on her face, as she let the breeze waft over her sweaty forehead the color of chestnuts. I imagined the temperature inside the stalled bus would have been brutal at best, though cooler than standing in the midday sun while the unresponsive engine was revived.

Once everyone was out of the vehicle, we followed the Bishop onto the beach, plodding through the grainy sand to the spot he had chosen, a tiny wooden table carried from one of the nearby bars serving as the altar. The sky had been darkening for a while, and almost as soon as he spoke the opening words of the service, a deluge ensued, forcing everyone to beat a path to the closest shelter.


Reggae Bar Costa Rica
A typical Reggae bar along the Costa Rican coastline.


Sanford’s Restaurant and Disco Caribe, a Rasta club I deduced from the Reggae music blasting into the dampness, was the obvious choice in terms of proximity and the Bishop didn’t hesitate to duck inside. It was quite another story for the women. Clutching their baskets to their breasts, they entered the concrete block shell of a building with marked uncertainty.


Costa Rica Beach
Sandy beaches of Costa Rica are great for beach mass except when storms blow through.


There was a collective frown as they skimmed the bar’s patrons, a handful of men draped across battered wooden chairs as they bobbed to the beat of the pulsing music—their dreadlocks swaying to the reverbed tune that boomed so loudly it was as if the village had been given a syncopated pulse. Bishop Wilson was unperturbed as he once again placed the elements for the Eucharist on the crudely made table, the peaceful look on his face proof he’d discovered some secret formula to calmness escaping everyone else.


Beach during thunderstorm
The beach turns unfriendly during a thunderstorm.


Hovering above the ocean, storm clouds had darkened to a deadly gray, and the rain assaulted the tin roof with a vengeance as the Bishop carefully stepped onto a cane chair. He signaled for the DJ to quiet the music—a Bob Marley tune, which somehow seemed so perfect in that moment. The relief on the faces of the women huddled in a corner was palpable.

The Bishop motioned for them to step forward, then began speaking loudly to be heard above the barrage of rain striking metal, instructing us in Spanish and then in English to open our Bibles. He smiled to a small-boned man, who read the gospel so humbly it brought tears to my eyes. He nodded his way through the words, his staccato Spanish tumbling through the rain-soaked air in the spare space. At that moment, I realized if god existed and if he did actually listen to prayers, he is multilingual. Why this had never occurred to me until then, I’m not sure. It must have been the unorthodox place in which we were about to receive the “body and blood of Jesus Christ” that brought this awareness to mind.


Pieta with Jesus in mary's arms
The Pieta, a symbol of Jesus Christ’s elevation to deity. and a mother’s grief


Bishop Wilson’s sermon was about this very thing. “Jesus didn’t always have what the people of his time considered to be a conventional place to preach and worship,” he said. “The spirit was within him wherever he decided to preach. It should be the same with us: we should carry out our worship wherever we are.” As he concluded his homily, the rain subsided and the sun returned, coaxing moisture from the pavement in riffs of steam.

I stared out into the village newly scoured by the storm feeling uncomfortable with my thoughts, which turned rebellious any time the son of god was exalted as a deity. I was berating myself for being disagreeable when I spotted a hunch-backed woman carrying a large metal bowl on her head as she made her way down the street. She held the vessel covered by a thin cloth with one hand as naturally as if she had been born with it sitting solidly on the crown of her head, the expression on her face determined but serene.


Praying Monk Reaching toward sky, the stuff of literature
So much of life is reaching for understanding, a subject that occupies the thoughts of so many creating literature through the ages.


I thought of the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “life as worship”; I’d always agreed with the concept of making every act we do, even tasks as mundane as sweeping a floor or gardening, one of reverence. This raises the level of prayer from a passive entreaty sent with eyes closed and heads bowed to an active investment in life. As the Bishop circled the scrubby room, placing a wafer on every tongue, I realized the woman wobbling down the street, so hunched that her only view was the ground in front of her, was acting as prayerfully as any of us receiving holy communion that day. —THE END

What Piece of Literature is Next?

Writing is my form of worship, especially when I have the privilege of sharing narratives like this one. I am itching to produce another book and I am thinking a memoir on my times in Costa Rica might be next. Let’s see if this or my Literary Adventures book wins out!

The Modern Salonière and The Stuff of Literature © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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4 thoughts on “The Stuff of Literature

  1. I enjoyed your story. Well shaped. The visual of the preacher on the chair in the Rasta bar…priceless. Rather timely. Love your rebellious approach. It can be awkward at best to think that Jesus was/ is God and the holy spirit. I chalk that incongruity up to the fact that so many were subjected to death way back when Christianity was in its first few decades and the fact we cannot access the Vatican’s archives. How do we KNOW?
    So, I only have this to offer. I’m a lapsed Episcopalian, if that makes sense. Basically, I cannot find a church that fits my needs. Without knowing it, I think I do make almost every act I do one of reverence. I’m often called cheerful, and called upon to ease someone’s suffering almost like I was supposed to be there right at that time.
    I call this Serendipity aka “You know Who brought you here!”
    Yes, I pray to God and Jesus, sometimes in silence, sometimes out loud – as I did about this time in the afternoon, yesterday. I was sad and frustrated.

    In the days before I’d left my iPad, purchased mid-December of last year, on a bus for a design tour. I was beside myself. There was no way to locate it, because I had turned it off.
    Answered a Facebook post about finding a local designer, and the lady contacted me through Messenger with the wrong contact number. Other people were weighing in their choice. There were a few other things such as that holding me back from happiness that day. So, I pushed my chair back from my desk, and prayed out loud. (Which is always in a conversational way).

    Within minutes, my Armstrong Ceilings rep emailed me that the bus company had found my iPad. The lady who gave me the wrong number contacted me, after I tried to call her, embarrassed by the fact she had mistyped the number. Now I have an appt with her Monday for a really big project. And so it went.
    Last night? As my head lay on the pillow, with my eyes closed, I was startled to find I was actually smiling! That has never happened before.

  2. Wow; what a story, Heather! I am what I call “un-churched.” I gave up church after being in the mission field for years. I am quite spiritual but I don’t feel I need organized religion in my life. I agree with you that such egregious things were done in the name of religion: the Native Americans of this country are some of its victims.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m thrilled it turned out so positively. It’s not always the case. Keep smiling: you’re truly luminous when you do!

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