Write on the Lake – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala with Joyce Maynard

I heard about writer Joyce Maynard years ago. After receiving a full writing scholarship to Yale in 1972, her essay, An 18 year old looks back on Life was printed front page of the NY Times Magazine.  Her life went in a different direction when J.D. Salinger wrote to her, starting a relationship that ended in less than a year after she moved in with him.

Joyce’s love of writing and books was instilled in her by her mother, an English teacher who was passionate about reading, language and books.

My love of books started in elementary school ordering all kinds of stories from the Scholastic Book Club. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a book I reread over and over when I was 12 years old. As Charlie slowly peeled back the tiny wrapper of the Willie Wonka chocolate bar and a flash of gold winked at me, I smiled. I wished Charlie would win the trip to Wonka’s Chocolate Factory because he wanted it more than anyone. Charlie showed me if you want something bad enough, dreams come true.

Guatemala was a dream I’ve had since I was very young. My mother was born and raised there so I have a pull to family when I go and I love the gentle people greeting me with open arms on every corner. I also love the food, the language, the culture, the people; la comida, la lengua, la cultura., la gente. Since I first traveled there in 1983, I have been back on six different trips.

I’ve been carrying around my own story for years. I started writing it two years ago after working with writer Hope Edelman but I allowed my busy life for the past year to stop my writing. I knew it was time to go back to Guatemala. Aldous Huxley said that Lake Atitlan was the most beautiful lake in the world. The combination of studying with Joyce Maynard and the beauty of the lake seemed to be the perfect blend to fill myself up, disconnect my i-Phone and breath deeply.

Joyce has created a space at her home with rocks hand carved in the shape of indigenous peoples, textiles of bright green, vibrant reds, bright blues, happy yellows. Her home is nestled in the side of a cliff in the village of San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. Two cooks nurtured us with a daily breakfast of local papaya, mango, banana, pineapple, watermelon, black beans- frijoles negros, hot corn tortillas, homemade raspberry jelly, eggs scrambled with spinach, onion and Guatemalan coffee con leche. For someone who lives alone and is not much for cooking, I loved the home made, comforting meals.

Another reason to travel to Guatemala is the weather. You can go there anytime of year as the average temperature is 75 degrees. Guatemala has earned its nickname, “land of the eternal spring.”

A group of writers who have stories to tell and need help telling them sat in a circle as Joyce stood at a white board, the blue lake behind her, while she laughed, smiled, and shared her love of writing and books. She taught us how to recognize a dead sentence like “the lake is beautiful” and gave us exercises to paint that picture.

Joyce Maynard – Lake Atitlan 8 March 2012

As the boat pulls away from Lake Atitlan, and I head back to Antigua, where our voyage began, I turn around to see Joyce, waving and smiling, as I take one more hard look at her home and feel grateful for ten days of fresh papaya & guava in the morning and frijoles negros at almost every meal. I’ll be back next year I think to myself as I wrap the black wool poncho around my shoulders that she gifted me with.

Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
En route to Panachajel near Lake Atitlan
Olivia and her alter ego Olivia the artist
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
San Marcos village at Lake Atitlan
San Marcos village at Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan from Joyce Maynard’s home
Lake Atitlan from Hotel Aaculaax
Lake Atitlan
Joyce Maynard
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala – procession
Antigua, Guatemala procession
Antigua, Guatemala procession

Last day on Lake Atitlan.

I started corresponding with writer Joyce Maynard over a year ago. I wanted to bring a group to Guatemala for a Kundalini Yoga retreat and she has a home here where she lives part of the year. Joyce was so accessible, answering all my questions. I tried to meet her at Lake Atitlan in 2009 but the lake was choppy, it was late in the day so I didn’t cross.

What struck me about Joyce was her humanity, her compassion for the condition of the lake and the children of Guatemala. I knew I would someday take her writing workshop on the lake.

I have finished a week workshop with Joyce and three faculty. I had the gift of Joyce’s thirty-eight years of writing and her passionate teaching. Hope Edelman published author of five books speciality is the effect of early mother loss. Hope added to the mix with her lovely smile. Author Ann Hood, whose essay on losing her daughter has forever touched me. Francesco Sedita was a student at Joyce’s workshop last year. He is the author of Little Miss Popularity and creative director at Penguin Book; children’s division. They’re all fun too!

Hope, Francesco, Ann

I sat in a circle of 26 women that came in from all over the U.S. At the top level of Joyce’s house, she has an area that is covered with palm fronds where she taught us about writing memoir and fiction. There are friendships made here that will last a lifetime.

As I left my hotel this morning one of the locals working at the hotel says “cuedese” “Take care of yourself “. I walked the dirt path to Joyce’s house one last day. I am greeted by each person that passes with “Buenos Dias”. There are three little children splashing and bathing by the lake with their father watching.

I can hear the birds singing.  Dogs barking in the background. Women pass in their clothing that is specific to this region. Breakfast is scrambled eggs with mushrooms and cheese, black beans, local white cheese, yogurt, granola, homemade brown tortillas, a platter of strawberries, pineapple, mango, orange, watermelon, a local berry. This morning I smell bread baking, hot mango mini muffins and there are three different homemade jellies. I drink orange juice I saw being squeezed this morning in Joyce’s kitchen.  I look at what Aldous Huxley called the most beautiful lake in the world.

I was enjoying each moment even when I was locked into my bathroom and my toilet handle broke and wouldn’t flush. Then there are always the complainers. You know, the Negative Nellies. Joyce kept saying “You don’t realize you are having fun” and as I get on the boat to head across the lake back to Antigua, I realize she was right.

Edgar & Luis in Guatemala

Edgar & Luis at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Luis is 13 years old. Edgar is 12. Their first language is Cakchiquel, the second is Spanish. The Mayan Indians in the highlands of Guatemala speak Cakchiquel.

Joyce Maynard runs a writing workshop in Guatemala every year. She does whatever she can to help many children that live around the lake but especially Luis and Edgar. Joyce has a big heart and the children admire and respect her. They help set the table, or carry the tourist’s luggage. It’s not child labor, they love helping and earning a few Quetzales. They like the feeling of responsibility. Luis is an orphan.

I asked Luis what happened to his parents. He said:

“Murio de tomar. Mi papa esta muerta para cinco anos.”

“He died from drinking. My father has been dead five years.”

And your mother?

“Ella tomo y murio tambien”.

“She drank and died too.”

And Joyce?

“Me parece como un mama.”

“She’s like a mother to me”.

“Nos regalan zapatos tambien,  y ropa y mochila  y utiles escolares (cuaderno, borador, lapiz).”

“She gives us shoes, clothes, backpacks & school supplies. (notebooks, erasers, pencils).”

Louis has been working for her a year. Edgar, a little while longer. They love looking at pictures of themselves so I show them each photo I take.

When we arrived in the rain the first night in Guatemala, neither one had a jacket on. None of the fifteen boys had a jacket.