Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Holidays (be it 4th of July, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, or the mother of them all, Christmas) aren’t real. They are a construct we fabricate in an attempt to make a certain moment of time more special than another moment of time. The problem is, when we build up that moment and pin our hopes of future happiness on it, we can be disappointed to discover that it is just a moment in time like all others.
I’m no Scrooge. I just realize that, like Santa Claus, Christmas isn’t real. It’s a nice story we tell ourselves, a construct that is useful for selling things, for gathering together, and even for reflecting on deeper spiritual truths, but it’s still a fabrication. And don’t think I’m saying that you can’t be happy at Christmas. Of course you can. All I’m saying is that this moment, NOW (be it today or Christmas Day when it becomes NOW), has everything you need to be happy. Why waste time ruing about the past or pinning your hopes to the future?
There are many versions of this quote by many different people, but it basically says,
“Happiness isn’t what you find at the end of the road. It’s here. Right now.”
In other words, you won’t be any happier 10 days from now than you are right now. You wouldn’t be any happier here in Costa Rica than you are wherever you are now. Full disclosure: we didn’t move to Costa Rica to be happier; we moved here to live a different kind of life. And we are doing that. But we are exactly as happy here as we were in Pittsburgh. To expect a holiday to make you happier or more joyful can be a fraught exercise. Deep, right?
So, my advice this Christmas is to go ahead and put up the tree and the lights and the stockings, but don’t look for the season to provide a boost to your spirits. Let the boost in your spirits come from the things you already appreciate about your life. And don’t overlook the simple pleasures. In fact, those are often the greatest source of joy in this or any season.
Case in point, Thanksgiving this year was a surprising delight. Our neighbors in the “compound” are Liza and Sandra and their two boys, Santi and Pablo. Sandra is Costa Rican and has muchas connections in the country. Need information or advice or connections of any kind? Sandra has a sibling or a cousin or a friend who can hook you up. About three days before Thanksgiving, Sandra proposed that we combine our efforts and share a meal. She had already scored a large turkey from San Jose–not something you can find in the local supermarkets here. Sandra came to love Thanksgiving when she and Liza lived in the States, so this year, she wanted to share that experience with her Costa Rican family. We pushed our dining tables and chairs together on our front patio–nine adults and a kids’ table for four. There was stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and green bean casserole and yams and some of the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten. It occurred to me that it had been six or seven years since Jean and I had gathered with others around the table for a proper Thanksgiving meal. At the end, there was homemade apple pie and the sangria flowed as things quickly shifted toward singing Costa Rican folk and drinking songs. No politics. No football. Just a lot of joy.
We had no expectations that this Thanksgiving would be more than the two of us fixing dinner as we do every night. And we were fine with that. In fact, I would suggest that the path to happiness in life is not found in the future but is in learning to appreciate and be completely present for every moment of NOW we are given.
For me, I’m grateful for something as simple as finding the perfect avocado…
For our casa and compound.
And although I missed out on autumn and won’t experience that first winter snow, I definitely will not miss the 30-40 snows after that. So I am grateful for the form of creation I inhabit, and all the beauty a mountainous cloud forest can provide.
I am grateful to the Quaker community that founded and still influences this community, and the graceful way it has blended with the local Ticos, both by marriage and neighborly collaboration. Sitting in stillness in their meeting room has provided a spiritual landing place and a fast-track into community.
We are also grateful for the Ticos we have met who always greet us with warm smiles and a hearty “¿Cómo estás?” each time we see them. And they really want to hear the answer! Before we arrived, one of Jean’s dreams in coming here was to start conversational English groups for Costa Rican women. About a month after we arrived, without us saying anything, one of the shop owners told Jean that this very thing was needed for the women working in shops frequented by tourists. Now Jean has three groups: one for the women who cook at a local women’s coop, one for the women who work at the organic vegan/vegetarian convenience store, and another group that is a mixture, including one welder dude who charmed his way in. These women want to own businesses or study to become accountants and tour guides. Learning even small amounts of English empowers them professionally, builds their confidence, and provides wonderful times of laughter, storytelling, and friendship.
We are grateful for resilience. We have withstood mold, ant swarms, the rainy season, the windy season, bruised ribs from a fall (me), painful sonic dental cleaning (Jean), driving on Costa Rican moon-like roads, and the scramble to provide acceptable documents for our residency application (although this is still not resolved). In five months, we have yet to see a snake or scorpion. Oh, I’m sure they’ve seen us; we are just grateful we haven’t seen them. And through it all, we have never once questioned our move.
I am grateful for the birds I see on a daily basis. Some come and go; some are permanent residents. But the tanagers, toucans, toucanets, mot mots, bell birds, quetzels, and parrots have become our constant source of entertainment, along with mammals like coatis, agoutis, Capuchin monkeys, and even the random tree frog. All of these are photographs I’ve taken in our yard.
But by far my favorite place to be is “at the benches.” About a 15-minute walk away are a series of benches that look out toward the southwest, down the mountain and across the valley to the Pacific waters of the Gulf of Nicoya and to the Nicoya Peninsula across the way. The view changes every day. The sunsets there are spectacular. The expanse of creation just takes your breath away and recharges the spirit. We go there often and just lose ourselves in the wonder and beauty.
This Christmas will not have the trees and ornaments and garland and sparkle of past years. There are just not as many things to buy here. Certainly no Apple stores or Best Buys or even Targets–at least not outside of San Jose. And although there are many things I’ve valued about all the places in which I’ve lived, I truly value Costa Rica, and specifically Monteverde, as a place that is less materialistic, less commercialized, less stressed, and less angry/divided/tribal than what has become of the United States.
So, no manufactured emotions or experiences will be required this year. Less presents; more presence. (See what I did there?) I hope you are able to find a similar variety of that authentic peace and contentment amidst all the busyness and expectations of your season.
We hope to absorb some of the energy of the people with whom we share this community. They are not people without their own individual problems, gripes, heartbreaks and desires, but in general, they are just happy here. Content. Generous. At peace. And always looking for ways to make things better for the community and the world.
And all of that can be expressed in two simple words: pura vida.