Posts Tagged ‘Sandra Shaw Homer’

Lessons in Bonsai (and Writing): guest post by Sandra Shaw Homer

SANDRA SHAW HOMER was a guest speaker at my first Costa Rica writers’ retreat (2012) and a co-organizer for my second (2015).



I can’t imagine why my father picked up a copy of La Nación, because he couldn’t read a word of Spanish. But serendipitously he happened upon a two-page spread about a bonsai artist named Cruz in San José. He didn’t need to know Spanish to understand the pictures, and he eagerly shared it with me when I visited my parents’ vacation home near mine in Costa Rica.

My father had burdened me with his few bonsai, imported at great effort from the United States, leaving me with the responsibility for their care during his regular three-month absences. I wasn’t sure I liked this chore, but in caring for the bonsai, I slowly found an affinity for their living selves.

On my next trip into San Jose, I visited Señor Cruz and was enchanted by his calm, Spartan bonsai centre — the simple arrangements, the collection of beautiful stones, his artful bonsai, and his eagerness to share his expertise with a novice. Over many months, I visited him every time I was in the capital, because I was learning so much — not only about the care of these miniature trees in pots but also about the culture that spawned them.

He told me, for instance, that Zen masters viewed a tree as a ladder from which man could ascend to God, and God could descend to man. And it’s not just the physical age that gives a bonsai its value but the story behind it. Traditionally bonsais are passed from generation to generation, and they carry all the weight of their human history and emotional content.  To appreciate this is part of the aesthetic of bonsai.

It was around this time that I had the opportunity to visit the Pacific Rim exhibit on the campus of Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters in Washington State. There’s an extraordinary specimen there that was given to Panama by the Japanese government on the opening of the canal in 1915. The First World War sent the world into convulsions, during which that bonsai disappeared. According to legend, it ended up in the hands of a Japanese-American man, who was interred in the United States during the Second World War.

For four years that tree was completely abandoned and eventually outgrew its pot, shattering the ceramic that had held it for so long. When the man was freed, he came home to find an almost-full-grown tree, and he decided to re-pot it as it was, pruning and shaping it and allowing it to continue life as a giant.

On seeing this incredible tree-in-a-pot, I was terribly moved by its story, and I realized that the poor specimens I had at home, passed on by my very difficult father, also had a history and an emotional content. I decided to write about it, and when I sent the short memoir to Señor Cruz, he wrote back to tell me how much he appreciated it.

Later I had to cut what I had written to 2,500 words for submission to a contest — which I did not win — but I had faith enough in the story to send it to the annual anthology Oasis Journal, and it was accepted for the 2014 edition. “Bonsai Lessons,” which will continue to live as part of my forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden, seems to be creating a history of its own.


SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for 25 years, where she has taught languages and worked as a translator and environmental activist. For several years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002. Her writing has appeared in Oasis Journal 2014, Oasis Journal 2015 and on a few websites, notably Memories into Story ( and Off the Beaten Track ( Her travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, is available in paperback and as an e-book. She recently published The Magnificent Dr. Wao, a brief inspirational memoir available as a Kindle Book. An excerpt of a forthcoming memoir about her life in Costa Rica, Evelio’s Garden, appears on the site Miss Move Abroad ( For more information, visit

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

A Sense of Place: Mystica Writing & Yoga Retreat

Guest post by Sandra Shaw Homer


Photo by Rick Brazeau (

Photo by Rick Brazeau (


The theme of this year’s writing retreat (a series of workshops — we all worked hard!), a Sense of Place, was perfectly chosen, as it was my strong sense of place that inspired me to suggest that Allyson Latta hold it here on Lake Arenal.

Photo by Allyson Latta

Ever since her first Costa Rican workshop in 2012, to which she invited me to speak about my writing, I have wanted to be a participant. I was so impressed by the creative energy and goodwill flowing all around me. But Allyson had her next couple of winter retreats in Grenada, hard for me to get to.  The only solution . . . to tempt her to Lake Arenal in April of this year.

Fortunately, just ten minutes from my house, there’s a lodge cum restaurant cum yoga centre cum place-to-connect-to-your-inner-truth, Mystica Lodge, overlooking the lake and Arenal Volcano. It’s run by Francesco Carullo, his wife, Lori Myles-Carullo, and Barbara Moglia. Everyone at the retreat agreed it was perfect (excellent food, impeccable service) — with the minor exception of the screaming midnight cicada in Sara’s room (soon gently dispatched). And my house, with its open spaces, broad verandas, and view of the lake and volcano, proved a conducive venue for several of our sessions and a lunch.

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Each session opened with a five-minute writing prompt. The first time, I, for one, sat speechless (or wordless), but in just a few days, what initially seemed like forever grew to seem much too short, and all of us were begging for more time. The quality of light. Windows. First impressions of Mystica Lodge. A place that scared you. Some of these we would read aloud. Then Allyson would read to us — a description, a poem — and get a lively discussion going.  One day there was a stark and evocative video from Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to write about.

I think we all agreed that our favourite — and perhaps most challenging — exercise involved pair work, in which each of us had to describe a place to a partner in a way that the partner could then write about it.  We were all surprised — and moved — to discover how a place so familiar could be so well “perceived” by another after only a half-hour’s conversation.

Alex and LindaIndeed, “perception” is what it’s all about. A sense of place is more than a scene, a theatrical backdrop; it’s how place is perceived by someone. All the senses come into play here. While I was describing to Rick my tour of the engine room of a freighter, he asked, “What does a freighter smell like?” That was a great question, because he made me call upon a sense I had not consciously used when I was there. Interestingly, we don’t forget (memories beget memories), and after a moment of putting myself back there, I was able to come up with a few “smelly” sensations that were nonetheless true for my not having noticed them at the time. This “not forgetting” is something all writers need to tune in to when setting a place down on the page.

And, of course, what I perceive (smell, taste, hear, touch, taste, feel emotionally) in a particular place won’t be anything like what another person does — so that sense of place can tell us a lot about who a character is. It can also convey mood —  cobwebs and creepy noises in the dark, anyone?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Place itself can be a character. In Evelio’s Garden, my forthcoming memoir (with Allyson’s help, it seems that it will finally come forth), Evelio feels personally set upon by the unpredictable weather. And the wind and rain surge back and forth through the book like waves on a beach, pounding relentlessly, taking on a personality of their own. This is the classic Man against Nature theme, and Allyson reminded us that place can illustrate theme. Without a theme — in memoir as well as fiction — a book can just flounder around without going anywhere.

A strong sense of place will take the reader out of herself, and as readers we all want to be transported to the writer’s world, where things might make a different kind of sense, but sense all the same. We want to see through the protagonist’s eyes and even beyond, to those things the protagonist may not even be conscious of and which also reveal character.

Allyson brought us through all of these points, and more, in our conversations and assignments (including daily homework, even a poem!) in a way that made us all much more conscious of how we can use a sense of place to make our writing more alive, more real, more truthful.

I was powerfully impressed with both the teaching and the writing that resulted from that intense, very special week here on the lake. When can we do it again?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau


♦     ♦     ♦

SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for 25 years, where she has taught languages and worked as a translator and environmental activist. For several years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. Her writing has appeared in Oasis Journal 2014 and on a few websites, notably Allyson’s Memories into Story, Off the Beaten Track, and her own blog, Writing from the Heart. Her first travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, is available in paperback and as an e-book. She is working on a memoir of her life in Costa Rica, Evelio’s Garden, an excerpt of which can be found at Miss Move Abroad.


From Allyson:

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Muchas gracias to all the writers whose creative writing and sensitivity and mutual support made this year’s retreat special; to Sandy for suggesting it, helping with the planning, and opening her home, and for the gift of that yummy catered meal; to Lori Myles-Carullo, Francesco Carullo, Barbara Moglia, and their wonderful staff at magical Mystica Lodge for their smiles and warm hospitality (not to mention scrumptious food, stunning gardens, restorative yoga with Lori by the river, massages, swimming, and all the guidance and trouble-shooting that contributed to the week’s success); to our amazing driver, Eliecer (Flaco) Carvajal, for getting us where we needed to go on time — including to that stunning lakeside restaurant right at sunset — and entertaining us all the way; to Natalie McDonald of Sapori Antichi for her elegant catering at Sandy’s; and to guitarist and singer-songwriter Hannibal Chévez for his beautiful performance on our last evening. From start to finish, this really was a memorable retreat.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Will Come the Words: Sandra Shaw Homer’s creative space

Read the introduction to Will Come the Words: writers & their creative spaces.



Originally from Philadelphia, SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived and written in Costa Rica for more than 20 years and became a citizen of her adopted country in 2002. She was a guest speaker at my writers’ retreat in Costa Rica in 2012.


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Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Travelling to Write: Reflections aboard a Cargo Ship, an essay by Sandra Shaw Homer



In the roomy bottom drawer of my desk are three generations of travel journals, my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and mine.

My grandmother’s are strictly reportorial: “Spent entire day in my room with diarrhea. Missed tour of Santa Maria Novella.” My mother’s style is livelier and more descriptive: “Went to Les Halles at 3 AM and had some onion soup, along with a couple of glasses of brandy, and then irresistibly bought an entire crate of the most beautiful peaches.”

For years my mother kept the ship’s logs as she and my father knocked around in small yachts. These make pretty dry reading — position, wind, currents — but every once a while something interesting happens, the anchor dragging in the middle of the night, the dinghy painter separating mysteriously from its cleat, and these call forth my mother’s seemingly endless talent for limericks, small bright “literary” moments of sheer entertainment.

Banana boat off Honduras (photo: Sandra Shaw Homer)

Banana boat off Honduras (photo: Sandra Shaw Homer)

My own journal style has tended to follow my mother’s style and I have found that describing things adds immeasurably to the pleasure of travel. I never wrote specifically for entertainment, however, until I took a forty-nine-day freighter voyage around the South Pacific.

“But what are you going to do all day?” my friends asked.

“Write about it, of course. You want to be on the mailing list?”

And as I sailed along I set about writing my first full-length travel manuscript, Letters from the Pacific: Forty-Nine Days on a Cargo Ship.

The original idea had been simply to describe what was happening and send it back to friends and family in installments whenever I got to an Internet café in port. But very early in the voyage it became clear that I was taking this trip for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with adventure, and I started working on a parallel journal, my feelings opening up in the presence of all that wide, wild, empty ocean.

I began to discover the power of memoir — and the fact that travel, removing yourself bodily from your daily life for extended periods of time, offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and truth-telling.

It also offers the perfect chance to practise one’s writing.


Cruising along the north coast of Honduras at 257˚, west by south, at 11.5 knots, winds so light that the sea looks wrinkled like the skin of a pachyderm. A torpid haze hangs over us, deadening the light, turning the nearby Bay Islands into amorphous humps rising out of oblivion.


The Captain’s Dinner Diatribe tonight wound up with, “Media, politics, all just a circus.” He took a forkful of salad and then looked at us both intently over the rims of his glasses. “Like the Romans — give them bread, give them circus. Keep the people happy.”

“But, Captain, you’re so cynical!” I protested.

“And the world is not cynic? What about Iraq and the so-called weapons of mass destruction? Three days after invasion they are saying, no weapons of mass destruction. That is not cynic?”

I countered, “The western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein for years. I would call that invasion hypocritical.”

“And what means hypocrite?” Rodolfo and I were obviously expected to wait for the answer. “Hypocrite, Greek, it means actor.” And he lifts his hands from the table, palms up, in that international gesture, What more to say?


The morning after my first night in the room, I reported to the Signora the foul emanations of sewer gases from the bathroom. Unable to sleep, I had sniffed around until I identified the shower drain, no doubt squeezed into the old building without a trap. I threw a towel over it and went back to bed. The Signora told me that “these smells always occur in the bad weather,” and then she suggested that next time I use a wet towel. I recognized in her insouciance about the plumbing something wonderfully familiar, and it felt just like home.


It’s incredible to me to be passing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in my transit to Malta, these places having been nothing more for me than bad news in the daily paper. Now the shadow of the coast, sometimes visible, sometimes not, haunts me, because I know I’ll never go there and its mysteries will remain forever locked in the realms of fantasy and horror. Incredible also are the stars; we are somewhere around the thirty-ninth parallel, not that far south of where I grew up and lived half of my adult life. Could it be that this is the same nighttime sky?

At the Bow of the HS Schubert, North AtlanticTravelling is a little like losing your identity; everything familiar that defines who you are is gone and you open up more fully to your surroundings, emptying yourself of the quotidian so as to fill yourself with the new and strange. In such open-hearted states experience becomes more intense, and this lends great power to the pen. Somewhere I read a quotation that I wish I could ascribe: “Great stories happen to the people who can tell them.”

Someone asked me recently where I ever acquired the dream of freighter travel, and I couldn’t pinpoint it. I love the ocean, certainly — many happy times spent on small boats, and the romantic idea that must be hidden away in some nook in our culture, of climbing on board a freighter and writing a book, destinations be damned. And I had always loved tales of ships and the sea. If you have read any of that rich literature (Conrad, Melville, Dana), you know that there’s plenty to describe out there in the middle of nowhere:  people, conversations, subtleties of relationships in close quarters, movements of the ship, weather, and the ever-changing sea and sky.

One freighter voyage was not enough, as it turned out, and my latest voyage took me to Europe. While the first had not been at all about destinations (more like jumping off a cliff), the second one was; there were a few people I wanted to see and things I felt I had to do before a looming major surgery that might have made any future such trip impossible. Facing my increasing physical disability made this trip a great deal more poignant, and I determined that it would be an active search for the joie de vivre.

So this time I was writing with a special purpose, and that was to focus on all the things that gave me joy: the vivid colours of a fishing boat in Malta, the first taste of a seafood ravioli on the Italian coast, the silky perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture, sharing a day in a remote Alpine village with the family of a dear friend, holding my sister’s hand in Paris as we both felt the tones of an 18th-century cello pierce our hearts … There was all this and so much more, and I realized that writing about it helped me to find what I was looking for.

♦     ♦     ♦

The daughter and granddaughter of unsung travellers and sailors, SANDRA SHAW HOMER has been writing travel journals all her life, but only recently aboard cargo ships. Her Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship is now a Kindle Book. For more than 20 years she has made her home in Costa Rica, where she has taught languages and worked as an interpreter/translator and environmental activist. Between 1997 and 2000 she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002.

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

“Bicycle Summers” by Sandra Shaw Homer

A couple of weeks ago I posted a quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s autobiography The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career, along with three exercise questions to encourage you to write about a place, or places, special in your memory.

Sandra Shaw Homer liked the idea, and surprised me by sending in the following engaging short reminiscence, which I’m now sharing with you. A writer and resident of Costa Rica, Sandy was guest speaker for my Namaste Gardens writers’ retreat in 2012.

Perhaps Sandy’s recollections will in turn trigger memories in you. If so, well, don’t just think ′em; write ′em!

Credit: Image Courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Credit: Image Courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Bicycle Summers

Katie Smith lived about a half-mile down the road on the other side of the bridge that spanned the widest, darkest pool in the creek, and she was just my age. We lived on our bicycles when we were 12 — that is, when we weren’t building snow forts to protect us from Bobby Benner’s ice-filled snowballs or creating our imaginary garden on the sandbar downstream.

The Benners lived in a log cabin at the end of the dirt road that angled away from the pool just before the bridge. I only saw the inside of that cabin once — perhaps on a chilly Halloween night — and I remember the white plaster starkly outlined against the old black logs — who knew how old that place was? — and a smell of generations of endless woodstove winters. I thought at the time that it would be interesting to know those people better, but Bobby Benner, being older than Katie and me, was our enemy and constant tormentor.

The only time we were safe from him was when we were skating on the pool, all our parents huddled around the bonfire on the bank, smoking cigarettes and sipping whiskey out of dented flasks that they kept mostly hidden in their pockets. When a child fell down, a parent would come waddling out onto the ice in well-stuffed rubber boots to haul him or her upright. Sometimes the adult would skid and fall, and then it was mayhem.

Katie and I attended the sixth grade at Macungie Twsp School. That’s what it said in big letters right across the side of the red brick six-classroom building. My mother thought this was funny, and so we always called it the “macungietwispschool.” Only later did I learn what a “township” was. This was rural Pennsylvania, and most of children were farm kids, not always regular attendants.

Right across the road from us was the Lichtenwalner place, century-old house, bank barn and outbuildings all facing each other like circling wagons. This made it convenient to get from one place to another in winter weather. From the Lichtenwalners we bought our eggs, and once I was invited for a hog killing. The screaming impressed me, and I left before the butchering began. I think I had been invited by David Lichtenwalner, a couple of years my senior, who had a crush on me. But I had already been taught to be a perfect snob.

In rainy weather, Katie, my younger sister, and a small neighbor boy named Lyn and I played in our own bank barn. In Pennsylvania Dutch country a bank barn is simply one built into a slope, with the stables for livestock at the semi-underground level, and a cavernous dusty space above, reachable by an earth bank at the back (or a trap door and ladder from below). The base of our barn was built of fieldstone, the storage space above of wood and the roof slates hauled a century past from some nearby river. In haying time, that storage space would fill with carefully stacked wire-bound bales of hay. In summer it would empty and nothing remained for us children to do on a rainy day except scamper up and down the ladders and across long-smoothed, hand-hewn 12-inch wooden beams, playing tag with a basketball. Our mother never knew.

In spite of the fact that it wasn’t a mile from our house to the school, county school board regulations required that I travel to and fro by bus. And, for the most unfathomable reason, the bus would turn right at the Lichtenwalner place and wander around the countryside until it got to Katie’s house (the next-to-last stop on the 45-minute run) and finally mine. Being the last ones off the bus gave us many opportunities to cement our friendship and “make plans.”

Although, we got into an argument once, and we were still of an age to feel we needed to settle it physically. I jumped off the bus right behind her and pulled her to the ground, pummeling her as best I could, with her elbows fending me off. Even though her mother was outside in seconds, screaming and pulling us apart, I already felt how absurd it was to be physically fighting with my best friend, and I wanted to laugh. It was only the one time, and we made up, but was the damage ever undone?

Bicycle summers. Those are what I remember best. We could go for miles on those back-country asphalt roads, the sun high, the sky a breezy blue, the dusty, sharp smell of corn, alfalfa and hay rising from the fields on either side of us, sitting high on our saddles, or leaning forward in a make-believe race, no one to worry about where we were going or what we did. That was freedom.

♦     ♦     ♦

SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, where she has taught languages and worked as an interpreter/translator and environmental activist. Between 1997 and 2000 she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002. In a previous life she headed her own public relations firm in Philadelphia and wrote occasional articles for the local business press. Her writing has appeared on a couple of blogs, notably Living Abroad in Costa Rica.

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Writing on Tico Time: Memories of a Costa Rica Retreat

by Allyson Latta

Sunset at Playa Herradura

I’m sitting at Juanita’s, a rustic beach-front restaurant, sipping a foamy piña colada as the departing sun drifts shades of pink over the Pacific. We arrived early to watch the sunset and for just one drink, and it was quiet then, but with the Latin-rhythmed Costa Rican music pumping from the speakers and the aroma of garlic-sizzled sea bass wafting out to the street, other patrons have been enticed and the place is filling up. Several tables draped in bold orange clothes are pushed together for our group, and looking down the line at the smiling faces of exuberantly chatting writers, I think, not for the first time, how remarkable it is that we’ve found our way to this place.

Many of us met only a week ago. And when these women and men first stepped down from the airport shuttle in front of Namaste Gardens — a small yoga retreat in Playa Herradura on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast — they were all slightly rumpled and sheened, visibly tired from travel, unsure of what to expect, and a tad shy with me and one another. One whispered to me as I showed her to her room, “I don’t want to be here,” which startled me, until I realized what she meant. She was worried about fitting in, about whether she belonged here with “real” writers.

But as a writing instructor of mine once said, and I took this to heart, “If you are writing, you’re a writer.” And everyone who’d come to Namaste Gardens Writing & Yoga Retreat was here to write. They were also here to experience a bit of Costa Rica: the rich sunsets, lively music, beaches and cuisine.

Oh yes, and “Tico time,” an extremely relaxed view of clocks and schedules subscribed to by Ticos (informal for Costa Ricans) that, depending on the circumstances, can delight travellers or drive them crazy. Trust me: delighting in it is the best way to go.

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Tuesday, April 10th, 2012