IT WAS the fall of 2001, and though nobody close to me had died that September, my world contained little joy. By virtually every measure, my life seemed less than what it had been a few years earlier, and though I’ve been blessed with an optimistic nature, for perhaps the first time ever, I was a having a hard time summoning hope.
I had been a writer at that point for close to three decades, since I was 18. A couple of years earlier, I had published a memoir that met with condemnation not so much of my book as of my very self. More than one well-meaning friend had suggested that in the future, it might be best to use a pseudonym. Since then, I hadn’t been able to silence the shrill voices of critics in my head. I had begun and discarded three novels, and I worried that my creative flame might have burned out.
Although I had good friends and three children I adored, I had never felt more alone. That Labor Day weekend, my youngest son had left home at age 17 to travel in West Africa, after saving up his money from waiting tables at night—and while some of my friends were loving the new childless phase so many of us found ourselves in, I wasn’t. Divorced for a dozen years, with no partner, I missed coming home to a house pulsing with music and a hallway full of skateboards and big shoes.
At 47, I felt more and more invisible. One night while I was out sharing a glass of wine with my 22-year-old daughter, Audrey, a man about my age approached us with interest—but it was my daughter he was after.
That fall, Audrey went to Guatemala for an intensive study of Spanish in preparation for a volunteer stint in the Dominican Republic. I flew there for a visit. On one of our last days travel-ing together in Guatemala, we spent the night in a Mayan village on the shore of what is said to be the deepest lake in the Americas, Lake Atitlán. Something about the place—the air, the angle of the light on the water and the feeling I got diving in—moved me so much that I felt myself close to tears. I turned to Audrey and said, “You’re so lucky you got to live in this beautiful place. I wish I could do something like that.”
“What’s keeping you?” she asked.
Here was the bad news and the good: nothing.
So I cancelled my return flight. I found a tenant for my house in California and rented a little casita on the lake, facing the tallest of the three volcanoes that surrounded it.
Before leaving the U.S., I had put my life savings into a mutual fund; the broker who managed it had been recommended by a bygone boyfriend. The money was enough to get my middle child, Charlie, through his remaining years of college, with some left for his younger brother. For the rest, I’d worry when the time came, though truthfully—with no retirement plan and a huge mortgage from refinancing to meet college costs—I wor-ried constantly.
But an odd thing happened to me in the village where I lived in a house I rented for $300 a month. The heaviness lifted. My life was the simplest it had been since childhood, or maybe ever. I rose early and started my day with a swim and a cup of coffee from beans grown in the soil of my village. Mornings I sat at a table under a thatched roof, writing a new novel that had come to me after I threw away the 200 pages I’d labored on for most of that year. When I was finished writing for the day, I walked into town and bought my groceries for that night’s dinner. Sometimes I ate with a friend, often alone with a book or just my thoughts. I had no phone. No car. No music even, though morn-ings at my desk, I listened to the birds, and at night, in my nar-row little bed, I slept with the window open so I heard “lake wa-ter lapping with low sounds by the shore” (Yeats’s words, which my father made me memorize in childhood).
I stopped wearing makeup and coloring my hair. Back home, I had studied my face for signs of aging; now I barely looked at myself. One day I caught my reflection in a shop mirror and realized that daily swimming had changed me. The muscles in my arms were defined. My face was thinner. But mostly, I just looked happier.