Pissed in Paradise

Last Summer I led a weeklong retreat in Costa Rica. Before embarking on the trip a good friend and confidante of mine asked me whether I had made sure to book extra time on the back end of the retreat to decompress. She asked me... but really she was telling me. I needed to reserve time to retreat from my retreat.

Now, don't get me wrong. My job does not suck. So at first I resisted her suggestion, in a major way. Why on Earth would I need to do that? The retreat was going to be amazing! Adding on more days seemed way too indulgent. But I also respect her advice and figured she must have a reason for suggesting it.

I decided to take her suggestion to carve out extra time to rejuvenate as a worthwhile challenge. I respected her guidance so much and wanted to give my best effort to a true pause-and-enjoy moment. At the end of the retreat I was leading, my husband and I packed up our rental car and headed out for the most remote location we'd ever stayed up to that point. With Tim taking the wheel, I had time to enjoy soaking in drive through one of the friendliest, most peaceful, hands-down prettiest places I've ever been.

We arrived at our Airbnb (and getting there was an adventure in itself) by following our hosts directions to a T. The instructions were helpful, and also detailed. Given the level of detail we were inclined to follow them exactly, less like following grandma's recipe and more like following orders in queue at the DMV. Along with directions she also had a lot of rules. Rules are not uncommon for an Airbnb host, and actually are helpful in ensuring the stay is comfortable. However this time around the volume of rules was more than we were accustomed.

I got a little stressed when our 4x4 left tracks in the lawn as our host noted would happen 'especially during green season'. This remote residence didn't have a paved driveway (not surprising) and it was a super steep slope to get down to the entrance of the home (in the mountains of Costa Rica, also not surprising). There was no way reversing the 4-wheel drive car back up the driveway was going to happen - so we had to make a turnaround. It felt impossible to live up to the expectation of making no tracks without hurling our car into a precarious ditch (definitely surprising!). So we kept ourselves safe and sacrificed a patch of grass. I spent the first morning of my stay just trying to cover the tracks back in out of panic.

How did she know?

Walking up to the Airbnb was picturesque and the view from the balcony even better. The two-story concrete home was built into a hillside, with the primary living space on the second floor. The Western side of the home opened up to the rest of the property, which was a working organic fruit and vegetable farm, sprawled down the hill, and overlooked an expansive lake nestled at the foot of an active volcano (yes, for real). Umm, was this heaven? "Wow.," I thought. "This couple who owned this home had life figured out! They've arrived."

We walked down to the local Soda, ate dinner, and watched the sunset.

By morning the rain had washed most of our car tracks, and some of my guilt, away.

We hiked the grounds, and oogled at the garden. Tim and I were in awe of the owner's tenacity to purchase the property, coordinate an organic farm, hire local farmers and caretakers to watch over it, sell the produce to the local restaurants, and strike up semi-permanent residence while maintaining their lives in the states. Oh, and the clearly also had a child, who was probably going to grow up and solve world hunger. Foreshadowing of this child's excellence came in the form of the home's modest bin of wooden toys and a carefully curated education-meets-entertainment style book selection, all just as intentional as every other aspect of the property and home. I'm certain this kid has never watched TV. Not only because there was no TV in the home, but also by hunch that television might be the kind of low-level entertainment that can easily be ignored while living in paradise. The thought of watching my favorite shows hadn't crossed my mind since landing in near perfection.

Every inch of the living space was eco-friendly, tasteful, and comfortably minimal - letting walls of sliding glass doors do the talking. There was no need for flashy decor when a sunset behind mountain, flickering pinkish-orange ripples on the lake was the evening's entertainment. The space wasn't huge, but who needs a big house when you can instead head outside, pick a fresh banana from the garden, sit by a babbling river on the north end of the property, and chat with the monkeys who lived in the trees above?

On a day that was raining (it was rainy season - so we expected this) we decided to stay inside and read. Tim, pretended to read but really napped, his favorite thing.

One small thing I love about staying in rented homes is how often you get to sneak a read from their bookshelf. And this bookshelf was teaming with books calling to me. Fiction and non-fiction, but mostly non-fiction and mostly non-fiction relating to human psychology, philosophy, world religions, and you guessed it, yoga! It was a library curated just for my interests and several of my favorites were already on the shelf.

I pull a book from the shelf and a wad of hand written notes fell out. They were written by the homeowner.

To read them... or not to read them.

Well there was nothing else to do, I read them. Of course.

There she was on the page, in her handwriting.

We'll call the owner, Crystal, and she was going through a lot. It was clear.

The notes included a list of to-dos, like sending payments to the farm's gardener, and connecting with the nearby town's shopkeeper. She had a note about her daughter's Spanish lessons. There was a grocery list for a recipe. One page had a thoughtful quote. Another an address for someone in San Francisco. Then, there it was, bold and underlined so many times the pencil clearly broke through the paper.


Crystal was pissed.

Pissed in paradise.

Last time I was so angry at someone that it required three underlines, and potential legal action, I didn't have to write the feeling down to remember it.

It was a strange thing to see next to the mundane reminders like an appointment time for a Spanish tutor. I felt for her, but not right away. If I'm honest my first feeling was disappointment. My second feeling, extreme judgement. Here she was with what I perceived as an abundance of resources and blessings. I mean she OWNED the most beautiful piece of property I had ever laid eyes on. And all she could journal about was anger at a neighbor? She was poking angry holes through pages of her journal? How ungrateful! In this little slice of paradise how could anyone harbor so much resentment towards their neighbor?

I investigated further, because it was raining and I was nosey.

The property was large, but a small slice of the driveway was shared with the property next door. From the place where I stood with Crystal's note in my hand I could see the neighbor's property through the wall of sliding doors. There was nothing obviously wrong. The property was well kept. They weren't noisy at night, at least not to my knowledge. When we left each morning, they waved and smiled. And the little cats that met us at the top of the driveway could be seen sunbathing on the neighbors porch. They seemed alright to me. There had been a dog that came to our porch asking for some of our meal, but I saw that dog later snuggling up to a neighbor down the road. Not the same neighbor, and not really an issue. So what was it? Nothing seemed off. Everyone was really friendly. As a result, I was judging her, hard.

But as I sat with it longer, I softened, I felt for her. I may have not been pissed in that moment, but I know what it feels like to want to poke holes through paper. I know what it's like to write little notes just to get the emotion out of my body. I realized I didn't know if she ever actually took legal action against the people next door, or if that was just a feeling in the moment. I don't even know if the neighbors I saw were the people she felt anger towards. Maybe the neighbor in question had moved and now lived in another part of the world completely. And maybe, this ripped out page of her journal was simply an outlet. Perhaps it was a place to process emotion, before it became a reaction or an over-reaction.

Finally, I felt gratitude for her.

What a reminder of what I already knew and I think what my friend was trying to tell me. Being in paradise externally, and experiencing paradise internally are two very different things. Going to the place to soak up its wisdom is a great first step, but it doesn't automatically solve problems. However, if we force ourselves to sit there long enough, we might be quiet enough to hear our own answers.

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