“Lost in Paradise” by Crime Watch Daily: The Story of Barbara Struncova and Bill Ulmer

Last Monday, November 9, Crime Watch Daily dedicated three segments of their programming to the story of Barbara Struncova and Bill Ulmer. They called the story:

Click to watch it.

I am very happy with their presentation of the story. All of Barbara’s friends, as far as I know, are pleased with the piece. Some of the minor details—like which roommates lived where when, and who started what websites—are confusing or incorrect, but there are no mistakes in anything that matters.  Endless thanks to everyone who put themselves out there and shared their piece of the puzzle!

The story is not over.  Five years is a long time, but five years is not forever.  The earth and the climate in the tropics quickly devour things, but they also spit them up.  Crocodiles do not eat board bags, and neither do worms.  Earthquake happen and erosion is constant.  We may never know what happened to Barbara.  Then again, time may be on her side.

If you wish to participate in the effort to create justice for Barbara Struncova, here is a small list of things you can do:

–Like the facebook page Where Is Barbara Struncova?
–Share the video or posts about her disappearance on your timeline (put the audience setting to “public” on those posts, please!)
–Type #justiceforbarbara into the comment box on facebook posts about Barbara or about Bill
–Use #justiceforbarbara if you are a twitter user (I try but it’s so not my thing)
–Send the link to Crime Watch Daily’s report to news stations and news papers
–Write a letter to the North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory (http://governor.nc.gov/contact)

I don’t know exactly what you or I can expect any of those things to accomplish.  But you can do them all from your chair.  The other option is to do nothing.  We all know exactly what that will accomplish.


Awake en el País de los Sueños

Me hacen falta los temblores
how the walls shudder when
the ground beneath takes
a deep breath and mumbles in
restless sleep.

I miss the soprano of mosquitoes
around the net, cantando
en la noche de enfermedades que me
darían in exchange for
my sweet blood.

Extraño hasta los escorpiones,
their wicked tails cocked against surprise
in my shoes, the folds of towels,
esperando entre las sabanas
at my feet.

In the silent safety of America,
my loud breath keeps me
awake at night en el país de los sueños
donde lo que amenaza es la

The Day of The Dead

Yesterday, November 2, was The Day of the Dead.

I love The Day of the Dead. We don’t really have The Day of the Dead in English (as my different lives are divided in my mind); I didn’t learn about it until I got to Costa Rica. Then when I heard it named, I thought it sounded awful. I’m already not a huge fan of Halloween (gasp) because I don’t like gory/scary things—and now we have ANOTHER day about dead people on its heels? Great.

But, lucky for me,The Day of the Dead is just the opposite; it’s a fiesta in the cemetery. And maybe there’s a clue as to why it isn’t celebrated where I come from: November is not exactly picnic weather in most of the northern hemisphere. That and to celebrate it properly you have to believe or at least tolerate the idea of saints and souls and other non-Mennonite/Puritanical stuff.

On The Day of the Dead in Latin America or where ever it is celebrated, people take flowers (real, cloth, plastic, home-made) to decorate the graves of their dead. And streamers and bows and every cheerful colorful thing you can imagine. They take food and gifts and in some countries spread picnic blankets on the grass and have meals with their deceased loved ones. Children run around and siblings squabble about how to place the decorations on grandma’s grave and dogs are constantly being scolded and ants crawl on the sandwiches and everybody is wearing their colorful best. Forget ghosts and goblins and fake bloody hands poking out of the grass.

I didn’t have very many dead when I first came to appreciate the celebration, and none at all in Costa Rica.   Now I have them everywhere.

* * *

I cannot take flowers to all of my dead or even name you all anymore. You are from too many times and in too many places.  But I am having a fiesta for you in the place I have buried you in my heart.  It is covered with flowers and streamers and there is cake for everyone, including:

A high school classmate who died in a car accident while we were still students. She is the first friend I ever lost.

A few years older than I am and I worshiped the ground she walked on in high school and college. Everyone expected her to recover from Hodgkin’s’ Disease in her early 20s.

 Grandpa Zimmerman
In his mid-seventies when he died of complications from a stroke or of a heart attack.

Great Grandpa Horning
Died in his sleep in at age 105.

A girl in college whose name I forget. I didn’t know her.
Disappeared while she was driving to her mother’s house and was found much later, murdered.

Jorge (Papa)
My Costa Rican father and he died of liver failure. Or that is how I remember it.

A friend in Costa Rica who died driving drunk on his motorcycle.

My friend’s perfect 10-month-old perfect baby who flew out the window during a car accident and the angels took him away.

Uncle Earl, my dad’s brother
He was struck by a car while he was getting the mail out of his mailbox.

A close friend in high school and then we lost contact. He died a few years ago from complications of brain cancer surgery.

Chuck Cook
A father figure in Costa Rica who died of cancer.

Martin (Saul)
My ex-father-in-law who was kind and I loved him. I don’t remember the name of the disease.

A neighbor in Costa Rica, a butcher from Italy who was always joking and smiling. I did not expect that he would hang himself.

We had Christmas dinner together in Costa Rica the year before he went to prison where he died.

Grandpa  Brubaker
Starved to death as a result of advanced Alzheimer’s in his early 90s.

Grandma Brubaker
Died a few days after a massive stroke in her early 90s.

Crazy guy who used to cut my hair

Grandma Tina
Saul’s mother who lived to be 100. She called me her granddaughter and told me the best stories I ever heard while her mind was clear.

Grandma Paula
My other grandma in Costa Rica, matriarch of matriarchs.

My friend in Costa Rica who always called me “Lady Di.” He died of a degenerative disease I cannot name.

My dear friend Barbara disappeared a month after I left Costa Rica and is still missing.

Hearing The Road

A story that is a poem that ends in a prayer

The storm has passed but I take an umbrella because lightning and thunder are everywhere. Fat drops fall from forest leaves onto my tin roof as I close the door and walk down the path to the street. My feet mumble over white stones which do not hurt me. It is easier to walk barefoot on the cool mud than in slippery sandals and I do not bother with boots.

I am walking down the soft cool road in the gleaming, dripping night. In the tall weeds and wildflowers beside me frogs are wildly rejoicing and a chorus of rain-beaten mosquitoes rises. My feet whisper. I hum. Drops plop from high leaves, dampening my hair. I walk toward the streetlight on the corner, watching the ground for sharp stones or slick snakes.

Suddenly the night snaps to black. Pitch black. The black of the night when God created the world. Black so close your breath is suddenly in your ears. Black without a star, without a moon, without a lamp or a flame. The black of closed eyes when they are wide.

I stop in my tracks. The way ahead, the way back, the sides of the road – all are erased. Now I cannot walk. I could wander into the wet weeds or put my bare foot on a silent snake.

My eyes widen and find the dripping forest flickers with fireflies: the world before time, the world right now. Night has been resurrected by a fallen electric line somewhere. I stand still, listening to the music of night creatures, watching firefly constellations flicker.

Then ahead there is a flash in the sky. Billowing thunderclouds are revealed by the light in their bellies and the road ahead of me appears like a momentary black and white photograph, with puddles shining bright. A long rumble shakes the air.

I take two steps forward in the blackness and then stop. I wait, the night pressed against my skin.

When a flickering in the southern sky starts again, I step quickly forward, as many steps as I can, until the rumble sounds and blackness closes over my head.

I am a little night animal walking on my path at the bottom of the forest. The world is gone and I am alone under the enormous black sky among trees. In my bones I feel my grandmothers who were not strangers to the dark. Their instincts softly stir.

And then I hear it. I hear the road. I hold my breath and there it is, clear as noon in the opaque night of closed eyes. It is the quiet place around me, the empty space in forest frog songs and chirping shrills. It is the space with no raindrops tapping on leaves. It is a pause in the rainy jungle night-music stretching before me and behind.

I step slowly forward into blackness without waiting for lightning, hearing the road between the trees. My toes slide forward, looking for stones and I step calmly into the quiet dark space.


Break the lines and let me keep this dark.
Do not lift the spell of night.
Let me walk along this road, trying to hear the way.

Glass Windows

trapped inside
i stare through glass windows
at the sky
from the sun and rain

i would give my life
to be a leaf
making sugar from sunshine
even only for a season

i would be a bee, my
face buried in flowers and
let winter kill me
once and for all
when it comes,
dissolve my little wings
in its rain that
taps chilly fingers against
glass windows

From the Journals: Two entries about Tia Flor

January 31, 1998
(Guanacaste, Costa Rica)

We went, on Friday night, to visit Tia Flor in El Silencio. It made my heart ache inside its cage because the blessed silence was there that once lay over the world before everybody had televisions. All was silent and crisply cool in the moonlight. Through the open-air window a star hung over the mountain and ranas and solococos sang their hymns. Tia Flor gave us coffee and fresh hot bread.

I love my pretty house with its windows and floors and I know I am living a relatively simple life compared to some people in the world, but when I stood in El Silencio I felt the same hunger for simplicity that I felt in the USA, ironically, living here.

November 15, 1999
(Washington State, USA)

I am haunted by Tia Flor. She is what stands between me and any ability to become contented with a “normal” life. She has what I do not.

I thought about her on Saturday night as we were driving out of the Tri Cities on 395 North. It was dark and the cars driving with us and toward us made up a great high-speed pulse. The night was lit up by giant bulbs surrounding shopping malls, over gas stations and on road signs. The earth in all directions: asphalt, concrete.

And here comes the unreasonably agonizing understanding that all of this is artificial. Superficial. Fake. Unnatural. Contrived. Illusory. Night isn’t yellow. Night is black. People can’t travel at 70 miles per hour. People walk. The ground isn’t hard and black. The ground is soft and has many colors. Everything that is the common agreed-upon reality of the moment is bullshit.

I cannot stand it.

Tia Flor appears to me. She is everything a “beautiful”, “successful” person is not. She is old. She is fat. She is poor. Her clothes are out of fashion and her hair smells of smoke. She wears big glasses, cheap flip-flops and her shins are full of lumps. In Tia Flor’s house, there are mice. She has a cat to catch them, to keep them out of the tortilla corn. There are spiders and spider webs connecting the rafters of the house with one bare bulb in each room.

She gave me the most delicious scandalously sweet coffee I have ever tasted that she made on her woodstove and warm bread she just baked over the coals. I sat on a sunken chair too sorry, even, to throw away and looked out her window open to the sky. The moon lit up every leaf on the mango tree and outlined their movements, like dancers, when the breeze ruffled. The rooster crowed from his perch. Frogs giggled and hooted in the quebrada. An owl said it name.

It will drive me mad. These are not pictures of affluence and poverty. They are pictures of illusion and truth. Dementia and sanity. Quebrantamientos and wholeness. It causes me pain to look out the window, to look in the window, and not see black sky, a moonlit mango, a wood stove, a pile of corn. Even now that I know of the hardships suffered by a person like Tia Flor. Even so, she has what I do not.

From the Journals, November 1995: Generosity

(Guaitil, Cost Rica.)

I have seen and known the generous heart of the Earth and I keep praying to God to give me a generous heart.  I find that, at least comparatively,  my culture is not one of generosity, but of stinginess and fear.  Stinginess and generosity are fear and love dressed in other clothes.  And perfect love drives out fear, they say.   If I keep more than what I can use, it is because I fear I may need it later.

Today I went to Santa Cruz and when I finished my mandados, I started walking home.  I got almost to the Cooperativa when the same guy who picked me up the last time picked me up again.  He risked a 20,000 colone fine for taking me on his motorcycle without a helmet.  As we flew back I thought about Generosity – him taking me and even risking a fine.  And in this country, you can count on Generosity.

I thought about the generosity of the Earth that we barely see in North America.  Here, the lemons and oranges and papayas fall from the trees.  Cows give their milk and one tiny kernel of corn gives 2 or 3 elotes.  It requires work, but work to gather what is being freely given.  The 20th century thinks that milk, corn, wood, water, fruits have to be extracted from the earth, and extract them we do.  In quantities immeasurable.  We don’t receive them; we demand them.

But the truth is that the mango tree, if you leave it alone, has a generous heart and the hen and the cow, too.  The mango will make you more mangos than you can eat and the hen will leave you eggs whether you ask her to or not.  The calf will share the milk of the cow.  Irma will bring choreadas and Maria Elena will give arroz con pollo when there is extra and the river always gives Renan fish to bring home for us to fry.  The nature of Earth, when it is left untormented, is Generosity.  I guess the orange tree doesn’t worry about the other 10 months when it has nothing to offer but shade – it gives what it can.

Slowly, I am reading the gospel of Luke and, I think, understanding some things.  Jesus wanted to be a teacher, but he had the same generous heart and couldn’t turn people away.  That’s what got him.  That’s why the Pharisees became interested in him and felt threatened by him – he couldn’t turn the sick away.

I have thriftiness ground into my being so deeply that generosity is hard for me.  The open-hearted generosity of Martina who bought me fried chicken when her money was running out is not in my culture or my habits.  I would not have done that.  She called me over and invited me.  She could have just as easily let me walk right by.  That is the ridiculous generosity that amazes and shames me and demonstrates to me a life that is truly without fear.

I guess believing in the generosity of others helps to eliminate fear.  Hmm.   I came home from Santa Cruz and cleaned the entire house.  Generosity in favors is part of my culture, even if generosity with money is hard for me.

a thousand years

I wait
like a mountain
so still under
stars, you
cannot see me breathing
I think if I sleep, maybe
the night will go faster

when dawn turns
gray the sky I
have not moved
I am still here

a thousand
years will change
my face but
only a little

(from Tell Me About The Telaraña)