The Lake: Writing in Guatemala

I knew I was going to jump.

I’d jumped nearly every day, but this was different. The lake wasn’t clear, it was black. The sun wasn’t shining, the moon gently lit the lapping waves. The volcano was an imposing dark outline against the starry sky.

I thought about the things that might hide in deep, dark water. And how every time I jumped into water where I couldn’t see the bottom, I felt like I was going to keep plunging until I reached the center of the earth. I would just fall and fall and there would be nothing to catch me. I could only trust that I’d survive, that somehow the jump would be worth it.

Blind trust isn’t easy to accept. But I’d somehow spent the past week trusting and being trusted. I arrived in Guatemala with my mother, ready to experience a different world, to see unforgettable sights, and to learn the craft of memoir writing from a writer I admire. But I also arrived with my guard up, with the wall that I had steadily built brick by brick over the past few years. I planned to discuss my writing, but not to delve into anything too deep, too personal. I didn’t want to go there, into that murky place that always sucked me in and left me drowning in regret.

Our hotel in Antigua was more garden than structure.

We spent the first night in Antigua, eating dinner with the eighteen other women in Joyce Maynard’s writing workshop. I tried to remember as many names as I could, but there was too much to focus on: the beautiful strings of lights hanging above us, the smells of delicious Guatemalan cuisine, and the surreal fact that we’d all be heading to Lake Atitlán in the morning to begin our journey.

A beautiful setting for a first meal with new friends.

After an exhausting day of bumpy bus and boat rides, we arrived at Joyce’s house. My mom and I climbed and climbed to the top of her property, where we settled into our treehouse overlooking the lake and San Pedro, an immense volcano across the water.

Not a bad view to have outside your door.

That night, we ate and laughed and talked with the other women. I still couldn’t get a feel for who they were. All I knew was that they seemed very impressive and accomplished and I felt like an imposter around them. Everything changed in the morning when the workshop began.

Joyce asked us to go around in a circle and introduce ourselves. I prepared myself for the standard introduction I’d experienced dozens of times in college and in work environments. Name, what brought you here, what you studied/are studying, your favorite hobby. I always dreaded those introductions, and I steeled myself to make mine very quick, to draw no attention to myself.

What happened next was far removed from the introductions of my college days. I sat with rapt attention for what must have been an hour, listening to the women pour their hearts out to this group of people they barely knew. I said much more about myself than I’d expected to say, and most of us were crying by the end. I knew then that this week was going to be more than I’d anticipated, and that I’d have a difficult time keeping my deepest feelings hidden.

Outside Posada Schumann in San Marcos La Laguna.

Over the next week, I felt like a busy student again, with no free time, not a single wasted second. We spent every day sitting outside with a view of the lake and San Pedro, listening to the stories each of us planned to write, and absorbing Joyce’s advice for how to write them even better. We ate incredible home cooked meals at lunch time, and met up in the village of San Marcos La Laguna for dinner and to decompress after long, emotional days. At night, we gathered again and read to each other things that we’d written, not always related to what we were writing for the workshop. I always read something I’d written months ago, unable to get past the mental block keeping me from accessing what I truly wanted to say.

A world of color.

Every morning before we began workshopping, I swam in the lake. And every time, its depth and its cold water took my breath away. I surfaced for air, gasping for a few moments before my lungs calmed down and my heart stopped racing. My legs churned beneath me, restless, overexerting themselves with the effort of keeping me from falling through the earth.

Joyce said that she never regrets a swim. And I never regretted mine. Even when the water felt colder than usual. Even when I only stayed in for a minute. I never regretted jumping off the dock and splashing down into the lake. It made me feel alive, awake, and refreshed in a way that a chlorinated pool never could.

Leaping into Lake Atitlán.

My birthday fell in the middle of the workshop. I awoke, now a quarter-century old, and looked out my window at San Pedro, still shadowed in the early morning, the sun barely visible on the horizon. I didn’t want it to be my birthday. I didn’t want to reach this age at which I’d foolishly believed I’d be married with a child and a career. I had none of those things and no prospects for any of them. I knew that thinking all of that would happen before I was thirty was a childish dream, formed when I knew nothing about adulthood.

I tried to put aside my usual thoughts of failure, and I got dressed and headed up to the road to meet a few of the women and a guide. We’d managed to plan a sunrise hike in the hills above the lake. I’d been missing the Appalachian Trail and it felt good to set off on a narrow path again.

The sunrise on my birthday hike.

That night, I fell apart, convincing myself that I’d never be anything, that I was still nothing even after the world gave me a twenty-five year chance to make something of myself.

The next day, the sun still rose. I’ve always felt most depressed at night, when it seems like time has run out and there’s no hope left. In the light of day, I put on a brave face and headed into another day of workshopping. On this day, my own story had its chance to be heard. As Joyce began to write down the themes of my book on her whiteboard, I loosened up. I felt the energy of the other women around me. And I trusted them.

Joyce asked me about my life, and this time I answered honestly without withholding information. I read a personal piece about my near attempt at suicide, and the other women cried with me. Above all, they listened. I’ve spent so much of my quarter-century of life feeling like no one hears or sees me. But I felt heard that day, and I left the circle feeling prepared to tell a story that was sometimes so painful, I couldn’t even allow myself to remember all of it.

One of many savvy street dogs enjoying the shade.

The week came to a close and it seemed impossible that we’d be leaving this place. Our lives here had become so routine, it was hard to imagine another place where my life could happen. I thought of how truly lucky I was to have experienced all of it. I’d awakened each day to the sound of exotic birds trilling through the air. I’d learned how indigenous women dye and weave fabric into beautiful clothing. I’d made friends that felt more like family. I’d marveled at the human-esque behavior of the stray dogs all over town. I’d given up on my spider infested bathroom and peed in an old yogurt container all week. I’d taken twenty different journeys with the help of the storytellers around me.

One of our morning “snacks”.

On the final night of the trip, we ate and danced and laughed and cried. We watched as fireworks lit up the sky above the lake. We wondered what would happen next, when we would see each other again, where our writing would take us.

Learning how to weave cotton into thread.

When most people had gone, I stood at the edge of the dock and looked at the black water. I knew I was going to jump. Without allowing fear to take over, I leapt off the dock, flying away from safety and comfort and all things known. I plunged beneath the icy waves and trusted that I would come back up for air in just a moment. Nothing would suck me under forever, nothing had that power. I was safe.

My best friend (who happens to be my mother).

I smiled and leaned my head back to look at an inky sky full of stars and a bright moon rising above the trees. I thanked the volcano and the lake for all the time I got to spend with them. I stayed in the water longer than I had all week. And though I couldn’t see what was beneath me, and I certainly didn’t know what lay ahead of me, I didn’t feel afraid.

Our own little paradise.

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