This one’s for the girls (chinear)

Dear E.,

As you already know, the word chinear means “to baby,” “to spoil,” “to take care of.” It’s ubiquitous in Costa Rica and in other parts of Latin America. A child, or adult for that matter, who is chineado/a is spoiled rotten, but the verb chinear doesn’t have that negative connotation. It means rocking a baby in your arms, breathing in her scent, tending to her every need, even blissing out.


I’ve found myself thinking about this word quite a bit this week, which was not a good week for women in the United States. Or from the United States, like me. Or descended from it, like you.

I thought a lot about what women endure, and what we rise above, and how we nurture or neglect ourselves.

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Toddlerhood (mocosa)

Dear E.,

I am trying to return to my habit of writing to you here, interrupted for the better part of a year by the effort of producing a book (coming out soon, I swear). But that’s just one reason. The other is that I ran out of momentum, out of fodder for my love letters to Costa Rica. Looking back, I realize that my ever-fluctuating feelings for my adopted country were modulating into yet another key – as did, for different reasons, the tenor of motherhood.


I’ll explain later.

New motherhood can be tender, thoughtful even romantic. Romantic in an “I’m covered in puke and I think one of my nipples just fell off” kind of way, of course, but romantic all the same. If you’re lucky, there’s lots of gazing, silence, contemplation and gratitude. Life slows and sweetens. Everything seems precious, including the country outside your window.

Then things change. People can, and often do, have both a newborn baby and no sense of humor; believe me, I’ve met quite a few. But people who are the parents of toddlers without honing their darkest wit; who haven’t given up, at least for now, on 95% of the parenting goals they had before giving birth; who don’t question their own sanity on a daily basis (not their kid’s, because the kid is clearly insane); and who haven’t laughed until they cried while surrounded by a growing pool of toddler urine in the aisle of a store… well, such a parent is not a person I want to have a beer with.

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We’re having a… book!


A taste of Priscilla Aguirre’s delightful work.

Dear Friends:

I am happy to share the news that The Dictionary of You is becoming, well, an actual dictionary, on actual paper – a collection of my essays will be published as a book in a matter of weeks by The Tico Times Publications Group here in Costa Rica. It is being illustrated by the wondrous Priscilla Aguirre, an artist whose work I dearly love and is displayed on my walls at home. She is the creator of the popular Holalola line and captures the beauty and whimsy of San José like no one else, as you can see in the image at right (unrelated to this project, via the Holalola Facebook page). It is a dream come true to be working with her.

The book, which compiles musings published here and in my Tico Times column, “Maeology,” would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of all of you, and I am so grateful. I will be sharing more information in the weeks ahead, including the cover image, title and, eventually, Amazon link.

If you have any suggestions as to authors or other folks who might be interested in this book and willing to provide a blurb or review; media contacts who might be interested in covering it; potential points of sale, or locations for readings; or any other suggestions for me, I would be love to hear them. The Tico Times Publications Group is not even a year old, so we need lots of support in getting the word out!

Thanks again, and have a wonderful weekend.

Love, Katherine, Adrián and the indomitable Miss E.


CasaDear E.,

We build lots of dream houses, you and I. In your case, the word “build” mostly means “tear down with an evil grin after warning me, ‘Mom, I’m gonna smash it.’” But you do sometimes fall into a constructive mood alongside me, forming the transparent plastic Picasso Tiles into squares and odder shapes, helping make patios and terraces and balconies, deciding which room is yours and where the window goes.

I wouldn’t have said that this house, which has been my home for 11 years and yours for three, was my dream house. I’ve cursed its foibles on a monthly basis for a decade, including the space constraints that require shiplike maneuvers if more than one other person comes over for dinner. We have gone through waves of neighbor issues (standard yappy-dog, stereo-on-steroids kind of stuff). We have gone through home-improvement eras, layered on top of each other in archeological fashion, including the Era of the Floods and Drips – now resolved, but not in time to save a good number of my favorite books.

But it has hosted the most important events of my adult life, and is framed by orange trees and banana plants, and we love our kindly landlord. So now that a chance to rent a place with more elbow room and my dreamed-of garden terrace has emerged out of nowhere and we are moving, I feel a bit unmoored. I realize something terribly cheesy, but still true: what defines a dream house is not the way it looks or even where it is, but rather what happens inside of it. And by that standard, this is mine.

I look around these rooms and they are full of hyperlinks. It’s kind of like the “Fight Club” scene where Ikea product descriptions pop up all over Edward Norton’s apartment, except what I see here are little portals to the most important stories of my life. That, right there, is the exact spot where your father proposed. That is the bathroom where I found out I was pregnant with you. That is the specific tile where you took your first step, just a few feet from the tile where the physical pain of a miscarriage brought me to my knees in every sense. That, through the back, is the room I decorated with hanging cloths when I first moved in; the room I rearranged as my place to sit and watch the rain when I went through something rough; the room where we rocked you to sleep almost every night since you were born, home of a million spitups and ohmyGoddon’tletherwakeup tiptoes and sighs of contentment.

Those are the clotheslines where I hung out my clothes, and then your dad’s clothes, and then your clothes. I suppose your dad would cough loudly at this point and ask when, pray tell, I have ever hung out his clothes. The point is, they occupied those clotheslines, and the cas tree up above it casted too much shade and harbored traitorous birds who pooped on our nice clean socks and shirts. Its fruits brought clouds of fruit flies, no matter how quickly we scooped them up. Of course, now I’ll only remember its shade and that surprisingly loud sound of the fruit falling on the tin roof, a sound that came to mean home.

These are the places where we passed from one phase of life to the next. The stone table in the garden was once covered in beer cans and cigarette butts, or even dancing human feet, at party after party. Then coffee cups and breakfast things for sedate meals a deux. Then carefully sterilized milk bottles that could barely touch the rugged surface before I would worry about some kind of contamination. Then sippy cups covered in dirt and God knows what else but it no longer worried me, partly because of the Bloody Mary sitting alongside.

My friends at The Tico Times lived there before I did. The first time I ever visited, I was going to a party they were throwing. That first night, I slept on this very couch, which then was bright orange, with a spectacularly uncomfortable broken spring. How else can I put it? I walked into this house as a random visitor holding a six-pack of beer, and I am now walking out having found everything I ever wanted.

(And holding four dusty hair elastics and a George W. Bush squeezy toy that fell behind a bookshelf years ago, because that’s the kind of stuff you end up holding at the end of a move.)

What do you say to a house like that?

Nothing, I guess. It’s a house. But I feel the need to say something.

Among all the silly songs I’ve spilled out during the past few years is a lullaby I made up while I was pregnant and sang you every night thereafter until you were born, and almost every night since. You chime in sometimes. It is full of our house, and brings me back to it when I am far away. On our first trip to your grandparents’ when you were six months old, I held you in their back bedroom: you were fussing and I was discombobulated in the way of a new parent whose nighttime surroundings have changed in any detail. “This mattress is lower than her bed at home; how do I set her down without waking her up? There’s no rocking chair – for the love of God, HOW WILL WE SURVIVE?” I started singing your song, and within seconds I was back in our Costa Rican home, listening to the specific Costa Rican night sounds that surround that particularly spot on the globe. I felt grounded once more and realized that the place that a baby first comes home to will always be sacred to her parents, even if she herself doesn’t remember it and never even sees it as an adult.

So I walk through each room of this house and say thank you. Then I open one of your closet doors, which have faithfully hidden the sea of tiny shirts and tiny pants that never stay organized no matter how hard I try (not very hard). I pick a spot on the closet-facing side of the door that I don’t think anyone will ever notice and that, worst case, could be easily painted over. I crouch on the ground of your empty room and write a little thank you to the casa color papaya, entrada del Bar Garros, 2005-2016. And I write the words of your lullaby.

There’s a cricket chirping at our door

Two birds asleep in the orange tree

There’s a cat curled up where the roses bloom

And a sleepy girl inside with me.


The gecko clucks up in his corner

Cas fruits hit the roof with a tumbly sound

It’s the summer wind that blows them down

Far above my sleepy girl and me.


Well, the world is big beyond our gate

But these four quiet walls hold all I need

For I’ve traveled far and waited long

Just to have this sleepy girl with me.

Just to rest my weary head with thee.

Close your eyes and dream some dreams with me.

Sapo verde, part II (You at 3)

Sapo verde part IIDear E.:

One of my favorite quotations comes from an uninspiring-sounding source: Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Oxford. He wrote, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”

When I first read those words, I was a teenager – so all tragedy, all feeling. Today, I know that few of us are all one or the other. Life’s a comedy when we think, a tragedy when we feel, and this is absolutely true of parenthood, every single day.

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Sapo verde, part I (Me at 37)

Dear E.,

Sorry I have been AWOL – not that you even know, of course, but I feel such a loyalty to your future self, such a lifeline in these late-night letters. Life and work have taken over these past few months, and so have you. Gone are the quiet and slowness of your infancy, although I didn’t see it as quiet and slow at the time. Gone are those precious, lonely days that filled me up with words I had to pour out into the dark. Today, life with almost-3-year-old-you is a sentence that never ends. Just this afternoon, you lectured me on how to be a dog, on how a shiny computer made out of Legos can be programmed to fix a fallen tower of dominos, on why it is that Triceratops love to shake their butts. These days, when you drop off to sleep, I crash instead of writing.  But as we celebrate our birthdays, three weeks apart, I wanted to dust things off and reappear.

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IndependenciaSeptember 14th, 2015

Three years ago tonight, I felt you kick for the very first time. I was standing on the corner of our street, watching the kids walk by with their faroles, tiny dots of light in the darkness. As if you were stirred by all the kids milling around you, I felt the smallest of bubbles somewhere within: pop pop pop. I’m here. It wasn’t until hours later that I was sure what I was feeling, but I felt them on that corner on the eve of Independence Day.

The faroles are a Costa Rican homage to the lanterns women carried in Antigua, Guatemala, this night in 1821, as they waited outside the Palacio del Gobierno to find out whether the men huddled within would put an end to 300 years of Spanish rule. Independence took nearly a month to reach Costa Rica – the vote here was held on Oct. 11 of that year – but September 14th is the night that Costa Rican kids take paper lanterns and march through the streets. It’s always been one of my favorite Costa Rican traditions, although now, thanks to you, I have a real ticket to the show. Continue reading

What I would whisper in the ear of my new-mom self


whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK

whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK

That is the name of the baby a friend of mine is waiting to bring into the world at any moment. I have been thinking a lot about this lovely word, the Spanish for “island,” and have concluded that it’s the perfect name for a baby because birth sets us adrift. She comes and lifts your anchor and you are off to sea, just the parents and that baby in one little boat. Even among partners, within your family, there are times when you’re all in your own vessels, sailing close but separately, a wobbly fleet of love.

That is why no one can quite understand new mothers in those early days or weeks. That is why any and all advice you receive, and there is lots of it, is barely intelligible, as if it were being shouted across some vast space from a distant, unimaginable world. It is. It’s coming to you across the water. It can be comforting or even useful, but the fact remains that no one knows what’s going on in your own boat but you and the captain.

The captain is not you, by the way. Your baby has a plan for you, and you are along for the ride. In my view of things, parenthood doesn’t start with birth. Not all of it, at least. It phases in, like childproofing. Many, many months down the road, your child will do or say something that requires a stern retort, and you will come to as if out of a fog, and think, Oh, shit! It’s starting! But that’s later. For now, just ride. You are there to comfort and sing and feel your way in the dark and bail the ship out of the many fluids of newborn babydom, but you are not calling the shots. Not yet.

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A letter for my daughter about Clementa Pinckney

Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP

Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP

On Friday, I left you with your dad and headed to work, stepping out of a hot, sunny morning and into my office.

When I left, hours later, to head back home to you, it felt as though I were stepping into an entirely different world. Wind whipped my clothes and hair; the sky was heavy and low; my heart felt full but also broken. I felt changed, somehow, as a person, as a citizen of the United States, and even as a mother.

Why? Well, when I sat down at my desk for what was to prove one of my more distracted workdays of all time, I learned that the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. With a decision ending in four words, “It is so ordered,” a measure of long-delayed justice was delivered at last. I wanted to run around in circles and scream and shout with joy. Instead, I sat quietly and read jubilant Facebook posts. I basked and sniffled. I watched Barack Obama give a speech we could barely have imagined just a few years ago. It was like Christmas.

Then I watched him eulogize the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, shot along with eight others at a Charleston church eight days before in a horrendous act of racist terrorism. My ears belonged to our President, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that casket in front of him, that casket that should not have been there, that casket whose occupant was meant to continue doing great things. Continue reading

The cure for grumbling expats (un granito de arena)

Published on June 15th, 2015 in The Tico Times.

My husband and I sat next to a moonlit pool and had a depressing conversation. As we sipped our beers and watched a midnight rainstorm move in through restless palms, I confessed to him that I didn’t really feel the same passion, couldn’t see what I once saw, had entered a bit of a slump, was even dreaming of others.

I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about Costa Rica. Still, I felt almost as guilty as if it were our actual marriage on the line, and not my marriage to his country. Continue reading