2020 Vision from Lessons Learned

Reflect, then project. For those of us who thought we’d be farther along in 2020 in some area(s) –education, career, relationships, health, finances, savings, freedom, peace–think again. Rather than be discouraged, let’s look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come! Make a list of what you did accomplish in the last decade. Identify steps you took in the direction of where you want to go and what you’ve learned along the way. Just as important as getting to destinations/ outcomes for the lives we want is moving closer to the people we want to be. 

Girls get a sports, arts, and health education at Project SOAR in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Project Soar, featured by Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn Initiative, is a Joy Zone in Marrakesh, Morocco. Volunteering there and writing their story was one of many blessings the country gave me.

What words best sum up your last ten years? For me they were change, journey, faith, and let go. Before 2010, I spent 17 years in the same house 3 streets from the school where I taught/my children attended K-12. After 2010, I fled my too-silent, empty nest; lived in 2 countries abroad; traveled to 15 more; taught at 7 schools; and became a travel blogger, writing coach, and full- time university lecturer. During this time of transition, I thank God most for relationships; for my time in Morocco; and for other travels–Christmas with my children in Marrakesh and London, New Year’s Eve in Venice, Easter from Prague to St. Petersburg, and springs and summers in Spain.

Christmas Break with Cole and Taylor in Marrakesh Medina

 

New Years Eve in Venice

 

St. Petersburg, Russia with the Model UN delegates from the American School of Marrakesh

 

Canals in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

 

Cies Islands off coast of Vigo, Spain

 

Bratislava, Slovakia

 

Belgium Waffles
Brussels, Belgium
Montemartre, Paris

 

Surfer in Portugal
Miramar Beach, Portugal

Our Maker customizes journeys each of us need for seasons of life. Whether they require us to cross continents or make discoveries in our own backyard, all lead home– to the people we were uniquely created to be. God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4) so He can fulfill them. He delights in giving us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). What dreams has He given you? In ten years, where do you want to be? What’s your word for 2020 that expresses what you most desire to be or do? Is it a noun–courage, strength, laughter, vulnerability, hope–or a verb–enjoy, explore, create, focus, dream?

I share some lessons I’ve learned/relearned/am still learning over the past decade as invitations to reflect on your own. Please share in a comment what life has been teaching you on your journeys and where you hope to still go in the new year and decade ahead. 

Lesson #1: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”–George Addair

In January of 2014, my friend, Julie, started a blog. She was moving to Belize to dive, and posted the quote above. I knew those words were true. I’d battled Fear, Fiercest of Dragons, all my life. Studying the Enneagram over the last few years taught me that everyone does. A personality test profiling nine types according to strengths and struggles wasn’t that new. What was new was finally understanding why we are the way we are. Each number is driven by core values/desires/needs and fears. Everyone has fear, but we don’t all fear the same things nor deal with those fears in the same ways. Recognizing and appreciating our differences can help us navigate and deepen relationships. (If you haven’t taken the test, this one costs $12 and is probably the most thorough, but there are other good free ones online like this one.)

When, like heroes in books and movies, we set out on a quest, we meet Fear spitefully guarding the treasure– joy, confidence, freedom–whatever it is that we seek. Sometimes the dragon looms large before us, stradling our path with the breath of a blowtorch trying to force us back. Angst and Anxiety, fear’s more subtle forms– can be harder to identify although more people than ever say they suffer from both. Stress can also ambush us from within, threatening our mental and physical health. It can literally short-circuit our nerves, causing them to burn through our skin. This Christmas I experienced this condition for the second time — “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, SHINGLES all the way!” (I also learned that this can happen at any age. Three of my friends were diagnosed with shingles while in college.)

When anxiety gets me down, I get frustrated with myself because it seems by now I should have mastered the whole fear thing. Maybe that’s because over the last decade, I was more determined than ever to slay fear once-and-for-all. 

In 2013 I booked a bedroom in a Costa Rican jungle beach house owned by Lisa Valencia, an expat who’d left her empty nest in Montana for a more economical, adventure-filled life. Her book, like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to believe I could change my life, too. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and with an empty nest and bank account I was curious about a place where healthcare might actually be affordable. I’d traveled with students and done service trips in Europe and South America, but this time I’d go it alone.The trip didn’t go as planned, but it prepared me for an expat life a year later.  Steps we take in faith toward a dream can lead to unforeseen, scary territory, but rather than detours, they are necessary legs of the journey. They don’t throw us off course but help us stay the course and find the desired destination.  

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Over the years my friend Sherry, who I visited in Ecuador, and my friend Sally, a nurse who raised her family in Niger, sent me Matthew 11:28-30: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. I wanted that.

Braving waves and living freely/lightly in Costa Rican surf

I also wanted to be the woman in Proverbs 31:25: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.  In Morocco, like few times in my life, I fully experienced both. Moving solo to Africa sight unseen and trusting my most precious gifts–my grown children and other family members 4400 miles away– grew my faith. I had to trust God with all because (other than our choices and despite our best efforts), we humans control little. Most days, I felt my faith cutting through fear like a lightsaber. Even when blind-sighted, I was able to sing in the dark and when sad, I could find joy

Bird in Morocco
Birds abound at Marrakesh’s La Mamounia. Even when life grows dark, there’s comfort is knowing His eye is on the sparrow and me.

I thought I’d defeated fear for good. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic. I felt I was drowning in two tsunami waves–one the first month after I landed, the other the last month before I left. After moving home to Nashville, I also felt afraid. The supernatural peace I felt in Morocco couldn’t be sustained. Life is seasonal, and I realize now that this side of heaven, we will never be permanently fear-free. Just when we think we’ve beaten fear like in a video game and moved onto the next level, a stronger version of the monster appears. But with each bout we can grow stronger. Grace enables us to ride fear Queen Daenerys-style.  In darker seasons I find peace in the 365 forms of “Fear Not” in the Bible, and test my thoughts with 2 Timothy 1:7: “God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I trust His character and protection, the One who over the last seven years sustained me through earthquake, illness, a mugging, a van accident, a hurricane, and an assault. We can’t see what lies in wait, but He can. 

Lesson #2: Each of us has a life story and gets to be the leading lady or leading man of it.

In the movie The Holiday, an elderly friend and famous Hollywood producer, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), advises Iris (Kate Winslet) to let go of a man who doesn’t love or respect her. 

Arthur: So, he’s a schmuck.

Iris: As a matter of fact, he is…a huge schmuck. How did you know?

Arthur: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.

Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. 

Palais Namaskar in Marrakesh, Morocco makes walking in one’s own story feel epic.

We are free to live our own story– to choose where to live and how to serve others with the gifts God gives us. I’d taught Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for years, but it wasn’t until teaching Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist while in Marrakesh that I recognized each stage in my own journey. Like heroes in books– Ulysses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Mulan–we real folk are sometimes called to adventures that require us to leave everything familiar. Unchartered territory is daunting and can cause us to refuse the call. Coelho, in his introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, gives four reasons why: 1) We’re told since kids what we want is impossible. 2) We fear the defeats we’ll experience on the path. 3) We fear success. 4) Love–for me, the obstacle. 

Coelho explains: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream. We do not realize that love is just a further impetus, not something that will prevent us going forward. We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” I am forever grateful to my daughter and son who supported me 100% when I told them I wanted to apply for teaching jobs abroad, my sister and brother-in-law who gave me a sendoff party with family and friends, and my Mom who kept in constant touch the three years I was gone.

When moving abroad we cross the threshold into a new world with the help of mentors–those like my friend, Dana, who’d taught in Casablanca and blazed the trail before me. On the path we meet allies and traveling companions. And ordeals. (See Lesson #1.) But if we stay the course, we find our treasure–an elixir–that transforms us, and we return to share what we’ve learned with others, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. Coelho said, “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” I’m a romantic but know realistically that finances, family responsibilities, and illnesses can put dreams on hold. Some of my coworkers in Morocco raised their kids, then began international teaching as their second act. Others chose to raise their children in international schools where they taught abroad. Travel blogger friends now work their way around the globe as digital nomads; others use Trusted HouseSitters and Mind My House to country-hop. The world brims with possibilities to live the lives we want.

Lesson #3: Let go.

One of my greatest struggles has been with the empty nest. Moving abroad forced me to create a new normal so I could outrun it for awhile. School breaks–that Christmas in London and summers at home–we spent quality, intentional time together. I wasn’t prepared for the delayed pain that hit full force when I returned to Nashville–the place we’d lived together.  Releasing my children was HUGE because, as a mom, I’m a Stage 5 Clinger as much as a Gypsy Soul. The last decade I’ve also learned/am learning to let go of…

  • Expectations of how life and people “should” be. Plans are great, but life can derail them. How we react is the only thing we can control. Decades earlier, divorce made me let go of my idea of a “perfect family.” For years I feared my children and I weren’t just on Plan B but benched for life as the B Team. We realize now how close we became as the 3 Musketeers. I’m also learning that basing our happiness on how others act and react is a setup for frustration and disappointment. We can know our limits, respect other people’s boundaries/choices, and choose with whom to be in relationship and to what extent. 
  • Judgement–Travel teaches us flexibility. Living cross-culturally makes us let go of rigid constructs of what life should or should not be. I’ve taught behind what some, sadly, would call in my polarized home country ‘enemy lines.’ Working over the last decade with colleagues, students, and families in a Bible Belt Christian high school and university, a Caribbean Catholic high school, an international high school with coworkers from 20-something countries and students who were mostly Muslims,  a liberal public high school, and a public community college and university has taught me one thing. Our same Maker creates us more alike than different. Regardless of where we live on the map, most people love their families, value faith, and want to live happy and free.  
Ladies I met in Vilnius, Lithuania on my Birthday in 2015

 

Players in Prague
Children at Cologne, Germany Christmas Markets
Russian Performer in St. Petersburg
Ladies and children in Chefchaouen, Morocco
Sledding in the Atlas Mountains an hour from Marrakesh, Morocco

Learning to play basketball at Project SOAR
Watching Die Hard3 in El Fna Square at Marrakesh Film Festival
  • Material things–Downsizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives clears space for what we really want. Living out of 4 suitcases for three years taught me how much I really need. I like Thoreau’s approach to minimalism and simplicity: The cost of a thing is how much of life I’ll be required to exchange for it– now or in the future. 
  • People–Family is forever but time spent with friends can be seasonal. This is especially true in the expat community where friends bind fast and furious. International teachers by nature want to see the world, so after serving a two-year contract, many move on. Likewise, while expats are abroad, friends at home are also transitioning through new seasons. Priorities, addresses, interests change. Thankfully technology can keep us in touch, and I was able to reconnect with these friends when I returned to Morocco Summer 2018.
  • Old Stories–Some old stories–the ones we laugh about– keep us connected, and some connect us in shared pain. However, some stories we tell ourselves or others tell about us are unhealthy. They block us from moving forward. People can victimize us, but unless we are physically restrained, we can break free. Once we do, internalizing what the perpetrator did still holds us hostage.
  • Assumptions–We all have bad days or seasons when we speak or act from a place of pain. As discussed in the The Four Agreements, our lives are happier when we only believe what we know to be true and refuse to take things personally.  
  • Perfectionism–Though some life experiences follow the journey model, most are not linear. They spiral. We find ourselves confronting over and over our most challenging issues, and sadly, we still sometimes fail. Growth is learning from past mistakes, knowing our triggers, and adding to our skill set so we can better handle adversity. When we do mess up, we can make amends and treat ourselves with the kindness and patience we extend to others.  We can lean on God and give ourselves what we need when depleted– H.A.L.T. when feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired–rather than demand others fill these needs.

Lesson #4: Embrace.

Once we’ve let go of what we don’t need in our lives, we have free hands to hang onto what we do. Hang onto…

  • Beauty breaks for the soul. Most of the women I know live with passion and purpose. They are what southerners call steel magnolias–curious, creative, courageous. They contribute and grow. I know, too, they often feel overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stretched to the limit. Whether in our backyard or on an extended getaway, we need time to listen to our hearts–to explore, breathe, just BE. Self-care was foreign to me until I became a single mom with two young children. Wise women advised me to take timeouts–to put on my own oxygen mask– when my son and daughter were away. The solo travel and moves abroad I did in the last decade wouldn’t have happened had I not learned how to make the most of time alone decades prior.  I started with baby steps– lunch out with a book on a pretty patio, exploring a museum, or seeing a film in the theater alone. In the 2000s those moves became strides–an annual overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad.  Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers I needed as a mom, teacher, and creative. All of those mile markers moved me to Morocco. Wandering and dwelling in beauty creates calm. So do centering practices like yoga, meditation, prayer. 
  • Creative Community. Spend time with people who inspire you to do what you were put here to do and realize fully who you were created to be. Releasing a book or album or any other project creatives feel called to do can be a long, lonely process without traveling companions to remind us of our mission and cheer us back to the path when we lose our way. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and in The War of Art advised well— stay away from chaos and  ‘crazy makers’ who distract us from our work. 
  • Curiosity. T. H. White in his The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur Legend through the lens of WW2, explains the gift of education. In it, Merlin tells young Arthur: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Online courses, podcasts, and audio books make learning-on-the-go possible. Exploring new territory, like Josephine Baker’s Moroccan home, taught me about a woman who is now my hero. 
  • Your True Identity/Value. My friend-since-I-was-five Sally, created a jewelry line based on photos of my adventures. She knew me when high school dances ended with Chicago’s “Color My World,” and we prayed that one day someone would be our happily-ever-after. After both of our marriages ended, we saw God make mosaics from the shards of our lives. An Italian friend told me once I was meant for a grande amore. We all are. God calls us to a love story–one with Him full of adventure. The jewelry line she created is called Chérie, which in French, the language of Africa, means “cherished by God.” Thanks to Sally, women can wear the lessons I learned on my journey–Choose Adventure, Walk in Faith, Seek and Find, Follow Your Heart– and feel connected to a global, cross-generational sisterhood of seekers. See the line here.
Cherie jewelry line
Cherie line on Etsy

Lesson #5 Expecting the unexpected, enjoy the moment. Our health and that of our loved ones is not a default blessing. Without health, our dreams— like travel— can die. Take your shot when you have it. For many of us, that’s between when kids leave the nest and parents need our help. Most things cost more than the price tag, but experiences, unlike things we eventually Goodwill, we take to the grave and are priceless. And that old adage—“You find love when you aren’t looking”— for me proved to be true. I am thankful someone I hadn’t laid eyes on in over 30 years found me, has made me laugh like no other, and also values roots and wings. 

Fort Meyers Beach January 2020

For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.

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Life Lessons for 2020

Rising from Travel Trauma

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As Brene Brown says, “Soft front, strong back, wild heart.”

Last spring when my friend Caroline offered me her holiday home as my private writing retreat, I was thrilled. Though we’d never met in person, we’d been in contact since 2016 just before I left Morocco. After I moved to the Dominican Republic, she bought the house and sent me photos of each phase of its restoration. I was returning to Marrakech in June and couldn’t wait to finally step into the haven she had designed. She’d be working out of the country but would leave the key for me.

Months before the trip, I started envisioning myself wearing a kaftan again, journaling mornings on her rooftop couches and clicking afternoons on my laptop in her jade courtyard. The color she chose for the entrance tile and kitchen reminded me of the Emerald City. Appropriate, I thought, because Magical Marrakech had been Oz where I’d lived over the rainbow for two years. I  couldn’t wait to return.

I imagined scouting the souks in her neighborhood for wedding quilts–my most prized Moroccan treasure– and eating next door at the hotel she frequented. As I’d done before, perched on ramparts above the African Coast, balconies on the Mediterranean Sea, and atop other medina guest houses, I’d watch sunsets. And as the moon rose, though a female solo traveler, I’d feel safe so high in the dark. The panoramic views at sunrise and star-filled heavens at night– beauty breaks for the soul– would give me new perspective. I’d feel protected, closer to my creator, and thus more creative.

 

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An inspiring place to write is always top of my list when choosing accommodations. When traveling with children to Florida beaches, I’d book stays with pretty ocean or pool side patios where I could work before they woke up. Writing for me is a sacred space, and to do so in an Edenic location makes my heart sing.

But like Amanda Wingfield, despite all my  “plans and preparations,” things sometimes went awry. My 2013 trip to Costa Rica to write like Hemingway in a Caribbean jungle was rattled off course by an earthquake and ER visit. On the 2016 Girl’s Trip to Tuscany rather than writing in a vineyard villa the flu or pneumonia forced me to bed. I then finished the week like the walking dead. Spring Break 2017 in the Dominican Republic I was to write on a terrace by the sea. Instead, a man  hiding in the jungle in a mask marred my sense of safety for the two months I had left to teach in the country.  God protected me and I’m forever grateful, but I’d discover in Morocco over a year later that like Michael Myers in the Halloween film, fear had stowed away in my luggage to stalk me.

I felt him, faintly, in the distance when I met Moni in Madrid on my way to Marrakesh but thought I was just rundown  from a rough interim teaching gig or exhaustion from the last two years. Seeing her would be good medicine as would be seeing Kate and Jasna in Morocco where, before, I’d  felt so free. But while making my way one afternoon back to a hotel I was reviewing, I thought I was lost. Though I’d shopped and riad-hopped for two years in the medina, turning onto a deserted street–like the stretch of beach where the man grabbed me–I became terrified. I hurried on–as it turned out, on the right route–and turned down another deserted alley where I knew the hotel entrance would be. When a man on a motorbike turned down the same street, I began stabbing my key, hands shaking, to hit the hole. I stumbled over the threshold and pulled the bolt behind me. In  my room, I shook and cried. Was this what people call post traumatic stress?

The next trigger was when I went to Caroline’s. Kate said she’d see me settled  but couldn’t stay. We took a taxi to a part of the medina we weren’t familiar with, then were told by the driver we’d have to walk the rest of the way. A young man heard us talking about the hotel where we would get the key and pointed down a narrow street.  Though the hotel was there and the riad just around the corner, by the time we unlocked the door I was racked with anxiety.

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Two of Caroline’s friends from London stopped by to give us the tour. They said they were staying next door until the next day and while Marylynn, a flight attendant, chatted with Kate in the salon, Martina, a hair stylist, took me up three more floors. She unlocked each gorgeous bedroom and the stairway to the roof.

“Caroline said to choose the room you like best.”

“They’re all so pretty,” I managed to say. I tried not to start crying. And failed.

“I apologize. Something bad happened to me in the Dominican Republic. I love Morocco. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Caroline was so sweet to offer me her home. I wish you two were staying here. ” I was thinking, I AM VERY, VERY AFRAID. I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE. Somehow, she knew.

“Listen. We will be right next door. You can wave to us from the roof.” She kindly smiled and nodded, shaking her curls and, now animated, pointing to the neighboring restaurant.

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“We are going to dinner there and you will join us.  We leave tomorrow so I have to do a bit more shopping. My daughter’s getting married and I need to buy some things to take home. Relax and we’ll be back in a couple of hours. We’ll have some Prosecco on your rooftop and head over. Tell me what you’d like and I’ll make you a reservation. We’re having lamb. Do you know tapping? I’ll show you how to be free from those bad vibes.”

And with that the three women were gone. Caroline checked in by phone to be sure all was well, and I unpacked and shortly Martina and Marylynn returned. We talked children, travel, tapped, and toasted the sunset. Then laughed, a lot, over dinner. They were fun and so very sweet.

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Caroline’s Rooftop

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Marylynn (left) and Martina (center)

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They walked me back to the riad, and the next morning, before we met for breakfast, I took photos of the hotel to remember yet again time I’d been able to depend on the kindness of strangers. I hated hugging them goodbye, but we have stayed in touch and hope to meet again on one continent or another. I’d love to host them and Caroline in Nashville.

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The remainder of my stay whenever I was afraid, I prayed. I wrote of how God had protected me–in the DR and throughout all of my life–and thanked Him for a place where He had again given me roses in the desert.

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I knew last summer my time for living in Morocco had passed, but I hope to return there often. Next June I hope to show others on a writing retreat this place that moves me and so many.

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In Caroline’s home lines from The Wizard of Oz.

And on the last night at Caroline’s, I climbed to the rooftop. I’d been saved from a predator on a faraway shore. I could have been harmed, even died, but he hadn’t taken me down, made me too afraid to be alone or to travel.  Fear had almost made me miss staying in Caroline’s lovely home and meeting her friends.  God was still protecting me and blessing me with people who make me feel less alone. I had fresh hope that one day  I may travel with not only amazing women friends but also someone else.

I felt him out there. Not the guy I’d dreaded, but the one I’ve been waiting  for. The one who waits for me.  And then I found the poem below by Hafiz Shirazi, a 13th Century Persian Poet.  I twirled and smiled.

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I SAW YOU DANCING

I saw you dancing last night on the roof
Of your house all alone.
I felt your heart longing for the
Friend.
I saw you whirling
Beneath the soft bright rose
That hung from the invisible stem in
The sky,
So I began to change into my best clothes
In hopes of joining you
Even though
I live a thousand miles away.
And if
You had spun like an immaculate sphere
Just two more times,
Then bowed again so sweetly to
The east,
You would have found God and me
Standing so near
And lifting you into our
Arms.
I saw you dancing last night near the roof
Of this world.
I feel your soul in mine
Calling for our
Beloved.

Woods in Winter

Today was the first time in almost three years I’ve crunched through snow. I didn’t laugh like I did  sledding in the Atlas Mountains,  but sliding along with Ella in our quiet Walden Woods was happiness. Peace. A snow day–time no longer spoken for– is a gift that feeds the soul. Frozen flakes falling like manna from heaven. An invitation to simply, beautifully just be.

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When the Crazy Child Writes…on Memoir, Loss, and Letting Go

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 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

On a February Sunday in 2016 I sat calm, spent on the shore of Sidi Kaouki.  Two of my closest friends, Kate and Ritchie, were with me eating salads by the sea. We were aware that our time together was short—a hazard of expat life that bonds people fierce and fast. I had told the school I wouldn’t be returning to Morocco in the fall. When offered another contract, I was tempted to stay longer because leaving the kids, friends, and country would be so hard and no job had opened at home. But I missed my kids and though they were adults, I felt they needed me.

We had completed a writing workshop at the Blue Kaouki hotel in a rural area twenty-five miles south of Essaouria. Jason, a writer and our co-teacher, had led the workshop of faculty members. He and his fiancé often surfed at the quiet beach town, so we stayed at their usual hotel, which had a terrace and sunroom where we could meet shielded from the February wind.

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We had left school on Friday and while the ride through the rural countryside was beautiful, my gut churned. A policeman stopped the van and climbed aboard, asking us one-by-one where we were from and where we were going. Satisfied with the driver’s papers and our answers, he waved us on. I checked my phone again to see what was going on, and it seemed a terrorist cell had been discovered and members had been arrested near there a few days earlier. Even so, this was not what upset me. After living in Morocco almost two years I knew the country’s vigilance against terrorism — the teamwork of the people and the police meant eyes and ears were always protectively watching and listening. No, I was worried and felt sick about what was going on at home.

My plan had been to return to the same address of twenty-one years after my time abroad, but circumstances had left my house standing empty for a couple of months. I’d hoped to get a renter until I could move back in late June, but no one was interested in such a short lease. I couldn’t afford to let it set empty until then, and I didn’t want the stress of renting it for a year, leaving me with nowhere to live. Given the upkeep of a large yard and an old house, I wondered if it was time to downsize. After months of praying and discussing with my family, it seemed time to let it go.

In 2014 before I left the US, I read an article written by an expat that said there would be great gains from living overseas. I knew I was meant to go to Morocco, but the article said there would inevitably be losses, too. I never dreamed our family home would be one. Today, almost a year since the house sold, I am thankful and believe God worked out all things for good, but I still sometimes wake from dreams where I’m on my deck with my dog or in the kitchen with my kids, and my heart hurts.   A year ago… the heartbreak seemed unbearable.

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Ritchie, who is now teaching in Russia

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I hated that the huge job and burden of getting the house ready to rent or sell had fallen on my brother-in-law, sister, and daughter—months of fielding phone calls; meeting potential renters/buyers; cleaning; hauling; painting; upgrading; waiting on installers, repairmen and inspectors. A back-breaking and agonizing feat, a sacrifice of precious time–all for which I will be forever grateful and humbled by.

I also hated that I couldn’t say goodbye.

So when Jason sat us down and explained we’d be writing from the part of us called our “Crazy Child,” I felt grateful for release and terrified of what would surface. The last two months I’d cried into my prayer journal—pages of countless question marks and pleas for answers from God. The day before we left for the workshop, I prayed He would strengthen my family over the weekend for the final phase of preparing the house to be sold. I asked for stronger faith for us all from the outcome—whatever would ultimately happen. But as my guilt for being away mounted and grief grew, I felt physically sick.

Jason held up a book by Clive Matson, Let the Crazy Child Write!: Finding Your Creative Writing Voice, and we read aloud some excerpts:

The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset…

To convulsively weep and throw up simultaneously? I wondered, hoping so, because that was what mine was about to do.

The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body—in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain…

When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized…Your Writer and Editor …are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child—your creative unconscious—is the source.

I had thought the workshop would be good for me. I was thankful for a chance to focus on creating something rather than losing everything.

I knew the “Editor”—the critical voice—all too well. It always spoke in “shoulds” and kept reminding me that I should be home in Tennessee this weekend, though logic told me there was no way I could get there and back from Africa in two days. So when Jason sent us off to write from our Crazy Child—not the Writer who wants to organize or the Editor who wants to polish—I felt relieved. Alone I could cry and cleanse my stomach of everything souring there. There would be time to revise the draft others would see later.

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When we reconvened I felt weak but better. The dry heaving had subsided. But then, to my horror, Jason said we would share THIS PIECE…NOW. To reassure us, he read from Bird By Bird written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, on the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea ofshitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

Normally the “Mr. Poopy Pants” part would have made me laugh, but I just wanted to cry. Again. I felt as I had so many years ago—naked and exposed. My paper was worse than undigested food mixed with stomach acid.  Following Anne Lamott’s lead…I told Jason my draft was not only shitty. It was liquid diarrhea. How could I not clean it up? It was sure to smell up the place. As the sharing began I realized I had no other choice but to let it go. To let her go. My Crazy Child would wait her turn, then share like the others.

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One-by-one we read.   Around the table our crazy kids showed themselves. They were from Canada, France,  Australia, The Philippines, England, and the US. Collectively they made us giggle, laugh, nod, sigh, and weep. We asked them questions and repeated back their words—their wisdom, their courage—as their writers took notes. When I finished reading, some were crying and Ally, our guidance counselor and one of the most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, got up, walked over, and hugged me from behind. We all left lighter that day because we carried home something of substance—of ourselves and of each other. Our sharing made us vulnerable, and for that we left stronger.

Yesterday I saw on Pinterest writing prompts my daughter had pinned. She and her brother are doing great, and that makes me happy. Recently I took the online class by Brené Brown, The Wisdom of Story, and have finished the first chapter of the memoir I’ve needed to write, it seems, my whole life. I get up at 5 AM before work and continue after school till I can work no more. Glennon Doyle Melton, Brown’s co-teacher, says we must write from our scars, not our wounds. This morning I reread what I wrote at the workshop a year ago. It was stream-of-consciousness–the gushing flow of multiple losses over many years, allowed to surge when the locks were lifted on the dammed pain. It will be there– in my book—because it covers chapters, decades, of my story.

In some ways I’m where I was a year ago. And not. Then I had no idea I’d end up teaching in The Dominican Republic. I’ve told the school I’ll be moving home this summer to be with my family, though no job has opened there. Whatever happens, I know I’m to continue working on my memoir and that my Father loves and  has a plan for this Crazy Child, Gypsy, Writer, and Southern Mom–all me.

*I know many of you have told me you want to write your story, too.  I have also found these resources to be helpful:

Story Structure to Die For: P J Reece–an alternative plot structure

Anything by Laura Fraser–her memoirs serve as great models and she mentors, too

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Celine, Kate, and Ritchie at lunch on Saturday

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Wisdom Wanted for the New Year

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It was a good day.

My coworkers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic  greeted me Latin-style after our being off for 3 weeks for Christmas break. Hugs. Kisses.  Big smiles.  “Happy New Year!” “Feliz ano nuevo!”

On my way to the grocery an older lady saw me trying to cross the street in the rain and scooped me under her umbrella. She talked to me like a mom in Spanish. We braved the crazy traffic together.  After that I made my ultimate comfort food, Irish Beef Stew.

My mom is feeling better after receiving treatment today in Nashville. My sister– truly our family’s Florence Nightingale–got her a doctor’s appointment. My aunt drove her to and from Kentucky.

My daughter is at the Vanderbilt-Kentucky game with her boyfriend and dad. She sounds happy. My son messaged back that all is good with him in Knoxville.

Yesterday I talked with a former student who graduated in the ‘80s.  Now retired, he reached out and said it was on his Bucket List to have a conversation with me because I made an impact on him and some of his friends. A very wise and creative person, veteran, survivor he knows how much I want to write a memoir to share what I’ve seen and learned to encourage others.  Understanding my frustration of never having enough time to write, he advised me to be ok with where I am–of doing what I can do– because we may never achieve all we had hoped, and that is reality, and we are still enough.  He reminded me not to languish over where I think I should be or want to be. To un-clutter my mind and not allow worry to pierce my heart. To be ok with doing what I can do each day no matter how seemingly small the accomplishment or far the goal.  Because, paradoxically, when we stop worrying, obsessing,  we’re freed to move toward what we seek.

Today I talked with my gone-back-to-school friend.   Both of us have had full-on panic attacks—me last fall and her today. We needed to know we are not alone. I reminded her to be as kind to herself as she is to others. To let go of perfection, over- achievement. To not sacrifice what is most important—like her health–in the pursuit of making others healthy.

Tonight I am continuing the course taught by Elizabeth Gilbert  that my single mom/songwriter friend recommended on creativity and finding your life’s purpose.  Eat, Pray, Love inspired me and millions to do more than travel–to take a soul journey solo. Today she is a life coach not only by example but also by design offering video sessions and an online supportive community of other creatives (which by her definition would be anyone who tries to consistently choose curiosity over fear) seeking to live their best lives possible. She distinguishes between hobby, job, career, and vocation and provides journal exercises to determine what we care about most, why we care about it, and how to start doing it daily.  She believes creativity is about becoming a student of whatever lights up our brains like a cat scan.

She says the creative life is about humility. And service. She basically says what Hal Thurman did (my favourite quote which I’ve shared with readers and students for years): “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I love that she advised bloggers not to worry about building a big platform.   Rather, she says:  “Serve the platform you have.  Do you have five followers on Facebook? Serve them.”  She mentions her blogger friend who shares what many are afraid to say about being a mom and wife. That kind of transparency and authenticity has organically drawn a huge audience because it helps others–something I’ve wanted to do whether teaching or writing.  I want to share in a memoir what I’ve seen and learned, but until that book happens, I need to show up more on the blog while still on the journey.  I need to let go of perfectionism which causes me to labor so long over what I want to say that posts  end up in my unpublished drafts folder.  Though I work more than 40 hours per week so have authors I’ve heard speak since I first started attending the Southern Festival of Books. Many said they show up every single day before their “day job.”   I’m a morning person so have pledged this is the year I’ll write two hours before work every morning and not wait for the perfect time like weekends or school breaks.   And so I write this…

Simply.

Humbly.

Quickly. (Ok, I have edited it a few times since posting.)

Immersed in a culture that just celebrated Three Kings’ Day I was reminded of the Wise Men who brought gifts to Christ.  And this I know:  I want wisdom in 2017.  In 2016 my word was “Hope.” Then…”Wait.”  So far this year it’s “Wisdom.”

Last fall was a stormy season–ranked just shy of Category 5 for more reasons than Hurricane Matthew.  My mantra then and still was, “No say,” which translates, “I don’t know.” I don’t.

I’ve been confused about many things that have happened and especially about what’s to come.  I don’t know what job/career will come next.  I enjoy teaching those who want to learn, editing, proofreading, promoting, recruiting, and, of course, traveling.  I want to be closer to family again.  The perfect life, it seems, would be full of writing, traveling, friends and family.  As I’ve said many times before–roots and wings.   I don’t know where I’ll live having sold my house last year.  Or what I’ll drive having given my son my car.    But I don’t have to know.  Until God opens the next door I’m thankful for each day–for where I am now.   And I’ve thankful that, as Elizabeth says, the font of creativity (and I believe, wisdom or anything else good) isn’t us. She reminds that before Renaissance humanism, the ancient Greeks and Romans  believed that all good things we achieve, that we create…that especially genius… comes from divinity. Thus it’s good to know just one thing: I know so little. My theme verse since moving to the DR has been,“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.”

A very wise former headmaster told me years ago when I felt very alone as a single mom of two young children: “Bloom where you are planted.” And another truism I’m trying to practice here is that even when you don’t speak the language, smile.  Smiles translate worldwide.  And for awhile now I’ve tried daily to list all the things for which I’m thankful.

It’s so cool outside that my bedroom windows are open.  This usually screaming, shrieking, honking, jackhammering, rooster-crowing, motorbike beeping city is asleep.

Thank you, Lord. It was a good day.

Road Trip to Samana Province: Day One

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I understand now why local friends kept saying they love  vacationing in Samana.  While Punta Cana on the easternmost tip of The Dominican Republic is better known by tourists for mammoth all-inclusive resorts, Samana on the north shore is more a Mom and Pop kind of place–pristine and private.    The beach above, Caylo Levanto, is perfection– an isle off the main island in Samana Bay.

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Griselda (left) whose family is from the DR arranged the weekend for Sana, Steve, and me.  She said we wouldn’t believe how beautiful Samana province/peninsula is. She was right.  Our van took off at 7 AM Saturday and by midmorning we were on a boat headed for paradise.

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Coconut water

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The afternoon I saddled up with my three amigos– all Jersey boys and girls–and we headed to Salto Limon.  The ride was hot and rocky as the horses climbed up and down mountains through forests scented with coffee beans, coconuts, cacoa and pineapples.

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The water was so cold it took our breath…but not as much as what we saw next…

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Knowing all came up safely,  I can now exhale looking at these photos, relax and relate. The last 2+ years have felt like diving headfirst–or on less scary or exciting days–plunging feetfirst into a life far from my comfort zone.  I knew it was something I needed to do and though I’ve been lonely at times, God has never left me alone.  I’ve felt my life is a cliffhanger for awhile now because I am not sure what’s next.  But one thing is for sure.  Wherever I land after this adventure, I’ll never forget these moments that have left me feeling very, very alive.

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Of Seeing and Believing: The Three Eyes

Yesterday I went spelunking.

I was excited when my friends, Sana and Steve, invited me to join.  Though newlyweds, their kindness and inclusiveness from the day we met blessed Taylor and me.  Trusting them as history teachers and adventurers, I did no research but quickly scanned a few photos online and took off.  As I’d been thrilled by Venice last January, I wanted Santo Domingo to share some of its secrets as well.  I wanted to be surprised.  I needed to feel wonder.  For awhile I hadn’t had the energy or desire to explore, but last week I’d begin feeling like myself again.

Located just outside the city, Los Tres Ojos (The Three Eyes) costs a mere 100 Pesos/$2 and is open until 5:30 (though ticket sales end around 4:15).

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As I journeyed into the dark bowels of the limestone labyrinth leading to underground lagoons, thoughts of spiders made me flinch at water drops from stalactites above.  What other creatures might swim and slither within?

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The three underground eyes are Lago de Azufre (Lake of Sulfer) discovered in 1916 , La Nevera (Known as “The Fridge” for its icy cold water) and El Lago de las Damas (“The Lake of the Ladies”) where Taino women–first inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the DR) — bathed their children.

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The second lake was darker than I’d hoped, and Steve and I joked it was the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel.  I remembered a movie about a mutant shark grabbing a victim gazing into an underground river, so though I wanted to take the boat into even darker depths, I was nervous.  Normally I’d take photos with flash, but as we crossed the water I was afraid of arousing bats hidden in holes overhead.  My trypophobia was kicking in and I remembered, Katherine, my role model for adventure in The English Patient, had survived desert storms and a war but died in a cave.

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On the other side,  I crept off the boat, peering down into the dark at the slippery rock beneath my feet.  Determined not to sink into the river we’d just crossed, I carefully groped my way around a corner of the cavern.  Then, as in every miraculous moment of my life,  I looked up and all changed.

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My eyes filled with light. I hadn’t read that here was hidden the fourth lake–discovered after the park was named for the other three.  But unlike the others, this lake opened fully to the sun.  To the sky.  To the heavens.

My eyes filled with wonder and recognition as another heart’s desire was fulfilled.  As I’d dreamt as a girl of exotic Arabian gardens, then saw them come to life in Morocco, I stepped into another secret place I cherished as a child.   I’d watched Tarzan movies my whole life–loving most the black and white Sunday morning Johnny Weissmuller films. But here in living technicolor, realtime, were vines hanging like party streamers beckoning Jane to swing.  Turns out, this lake was a location for Tarzan films and  Jurassic Park. Memories of dying Katherine vanished. Instead I was strong Kate on Lost and smiled remembering my kids’ groans as I’d drag them around Radnor Lake  and tell them to pretend we were on the tv series island scouting for treasure.   This island, too– just outside my new city– was mysterious, unearthly, ancient.  And alive.

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We boarded the boat, left that piece of paradise, and climbed up, then down to the third eye–the most most gorgeous blue water dappled with sunlight.  On a walk around the perimeter of the park,  I marvelled at this tree and its green bean pods fit for a giant.

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The fourth lake, Zaramaguyones, was beautiful from above.  But somehow, discovering it on the other side of a darkness and fear made it much more breathtaking.

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For all my déjà vu movie moments, the expedition reminded me most of a cave of my childhood and its metaphor guiding my second-ever blogpost written so many years ago.  It calls me back to my main mission for writing.

When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave.  While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths… The tour guide seemed so calm.  She had a light to guide us but no map.  She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could  have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.

The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light…

Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight.  God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out.  I still grope but know He’s there.  Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine.  Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years.   I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.

The last few weeks I’m often felt confused.  Disoriented.  Exhausted.  I’ve had health issues and struggled at times to embrace all the changes that have flooded my life this year.  Selling the home we loved, then transitioning from Marrakesh to Nashville to here has been fraught with questions about where I’ll ultimately put down roots again.   Taylor moved back to Nashville and I couldn’t be happier for her as she goes after the life she wants there.  As Paulo Coelho said,  “Love never keeps a person from pursuing his or her destiny.”  We agreed if living abroad wasn’t right for her–as it isn’t for many people–she could be proud of herself for taking this opportunity and return with no regrets. Though I’d hoped we’d have more time together, I’m so thankful for what we shared while she was here.  Letting go again is so hard as all parents know no matter how many times the nest empties, but she and Cole are both in really good places and that soothes my soul.  In a week he flies to Washington, DC to start his new job in Knoxville–something he’s waited a long time for.  I love and miss them both madly.

So in this silent apartment I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with old friends– like Elizabeth Gilbert –who comforted me with these lines from Eat, Pray, Love:

In the end, I’ve come to believe in something I call ‘The Physics of the Quest.’ A force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.

As for this new relationship with the DR, I cling to the Message version of Matthew 6:22-23:  “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.”  I’ve experienced beauty, adventure, and relationship here. And caves.  Big ones.  Beyond my two human eyes is a third one of faith–the door to all things bright and beautiful.  I remain thankful for the One who holds, now and always, my family, future, hand, and heart.

 

 

Singing in the Dark

Six months after Whitney Houston’s death, the movie, Sparkle, a twelve-year project she co-produced, was released. It was a remake of a movie she fell in love with as a teen. The movie she’d hoped would be her comeback was her swan song. The girl who began in gospel, who struggled, who died…a woman loved by many…  reminds me here that when I spin in dread, doubt, or desperation, too disoriented in the dark of uncertainty to look up, God, thank God, is always looking down.

Apparently not only March can come in as a lion.  December and January have, for me, roared. Fraught with some of the hardest decisions I’ve been faced with in years, one I knew was coming, one I did not,  I’ve felt terrorized at times.  Sad others.  Confused most.  And yet the last two days I awoke singing this:

I sing because I’m happy,

I sing because I’m free.

His eye is on the sparrow,

And I know He watches me.

Maybe it’s because yesterday, like every Saturday morning in Morocco, I opened my eyes to blue skies and birds on my balcony. Here it’s already spring. Tiny finches with nest-building bits in their beaks—a piece of string, a snip of vine—are busy. Yet they perch and sing, rest and rejoice.

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Today I awoke early again before sunrise. Focused on the future, I didn’t get enough sleep last night. As on the fifth day after I moved here, happy until circumstances threatened my peace, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop. Sixteen months ago as I watched the sunset my sense of safety, of protection was restored. Today as I watched the sunrise, I felt the same way, and I knew clarity will eventually dawn.   I must dwell in patience.  In faith.  I needed to look up as far as I could see, knowing I am seen.

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When I came down, I watched as I did yesterday two women sing, Ethel Waters and Whitney Houston. Again they made me cry with comfort, hope, peace.

When I was in high school our early church service and teen band needed an organist. I volunteered. I’d never played the organ—only the piano—badly, but I have always been curious, loved challenges, and taken literally the verse that says with enough faith, mountains can be moved. My grandmother and I, like Jay Gatsby, were born with “a romantic readiness” –a stubborn belief that faith makes all things possible. So with the same tenacity with which I tried out for my high school dance team despite wearing a brace for scoliosis (yes, like the one Lisa Kudrow wore in Romy and Michel’s Class Reunion which got all the laughs), I took up the organ. (And I made the team though I now half-cringe, half- marvel at the girl busting moves for an entire year in such a contraption. Thank you, classmates, for never making fun of me.)

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The first piece I learned for my organ debut was “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It was chosen by my piano teacher, my Aunt Artie, who had long ago given up on my practicing scales and gave me a crash course in chords. The words to that song, carried on the wings of a homing pigeon, reached me in Africa this weekend.  They call me to new adventures…at home.

Psychologists say we change every seven years–that seasons of growth are the natural order. Seven years ago I started this blog and called it “Cindy McCain’s Rich Life”–first as a reference to being confused with the millionaire Heinz Heiress and almost- First Lady which landed me on MTV Canada–second, and more importantly, because I did and do believe Life is Rich.   How did I feel rich then?  In gratitude I counted the ways…

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  1. Abundantly blessed with family, friends, faith
  2. Abundantly blessed with hopeful romanticism and full moons from Italy to Tennessee
  3. Sumptuous...Dolce Vita
  4. Highly seasoned or very sweet, full-bodied…chicken tikka masala, tres leches cake, chocolate, Malbec, limoncello
  5.  Mellow or vibrant tone…Sinatra, salsa
  6. Warm and strong color… Irish beef stew, sangria
  7. Highly amusing, entertaining, unexpected… most days

Life was rich then and now.  Since moving to Morocco–a milestone in letting go and letting God take me to places inwardly and outwardly more incredible than I ever imagined–I’ve focused mainly on travel on this blog.  Still, my main purpose for writing was and is to express gratitude for and find joy in this journey we call life.

Much has changed since January, 2009.  Much hasn’t.  Sometimes I’m full of faith–fearless.  Others I look too far ahead and am thus afflicted (as Southerners used to say) with the paralysis of analysis.  Though most of my time on this continent has been full of sunshine, illumination, light and learning, over the last month I’ve felt at times where I was seven years ago (and seven years before that) when in the belly of Mammoth Cave. Again I have just enough light to see the next step.  Sometimes I panic, let go, and grope the wall though I’ve never  really felt alone.  I know change is coming  and though I have no map and can’t see what’s ahead  when I fly home this summer–where I will work, where I will nest–  I know my Guide is watching me.

Seven Secrets about Life Venice Shared

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And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.–Rainer Maria Rilke

I preferred one waltz with a beauty to a lifetime with someone less rare.–Marlena de Blasi, author of A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance

I wondered if I’d feel the same after seven years, Venice. Were the times proof that you are my first love or just flings? And there have been so many others. Like Casanova, you have had throngs of lovers; for me, your rival was only St. Petersburg last year.

Each time you pulled me close with seductive strength but stayed guarded. Dignified, decadent, detached. Silently allured me to taste your beauty, to wander your world, to seek and find exactly what my soul craved. You led me down streets that ended, forcing me to retreat and start over. Or were you teaching me to find other paths?  Promises, then departures; neither ever felt permanent.  You’re the romance of unrequited love, the sighs of all that’s unfulfilled and ever longed for. The ecstasy in the moment and the promise that maybe one day…

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And then I saw you, poignantly the night before New Year’s Eve–a time to look back and  peer forward–as I stood on the deck of the water taxi. You appeared through the mist and cold.   Luminous and lavish.  Still standing.  And I?  Still feeling.  Alive.

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You are no Don Juan. Like Elizabeth who married England, you carry a great burden for all who love you. With grace buoyed by hope and faith, you beckon us to enjoy the time left on this earth before all goes under.

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And yes, Venice. Though I fell in love with Saint Petersburg last March, you seem to be still The One.

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An Italian friend once told me I’m simpatica—that I understand what it means to live The Life and that I’m a woman meant for a Grande Amore.  I was definitely fashioned from birth a romantic, and the entire country of Italy has always felt like a soul mate. With many questions in 2016 looming, returning to a place that is meant to be wandered was, like the “fit” that is Morocco, a choice made for me, not by me.

Some call it serendipity, others destiny. I call it God. Marrakesh was exactly what I needed when I stepped off the plane sixteen months ago. Starting 2015 with the loves of my life, Taylor and Cole, in London was the best NYE ever– a blessed beginning of one of the most amazing years I’ve ever experienced. And likewise, watching fireworks from the Bridge of Sighs— choosing to exhale in trust and love rather than weariness and worry—I watched 2016 light up the sky.  A sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.

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I knew I’d love hearing church bells and Buon Anno spoken in the most beautiful language on earth.  How do I love thee, Italy? Let me count the ways.

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Paradoxically,  Venice is unified by bridges and divided by dead ends. As with life, without warning a seemingly good road can suddenly plunge one into dark depths.  Or maybe each halt teaches the art of retracing, rethinking, then rerouting a new course.

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The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs named by Lord Byron in the 19th century, is a place of blissful beginnings and tragic ends. Prisoners who crossed the Rio di Palazzo to the Doge’s Palace prison were said by the poet to sigh as they looked upon Venice’s beauty a final time. Yet couples who kiss on a gondola under the same bridge at sunset as St. Mark’s bells toll are said to be blessed with eternal love.

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Italy and life abroad continue to teach me.  Here’s seven secrets Venice shared for 2016…

 1)  Wandering can do wonders for the soul.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”–J. R. R. Tolkien

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‘It was one of those architectural wholes towards which, in any other town, the streets converge, lead you and point the way. Here it seemed to be deliberately concealed in a labyrinth of alleys, like those palaces in oriental tales to which mysterious agents convey by night a person who, taken home again before daybreak, can never again find his way back to the magic dwelling which he ends by supposing that he visited only in a dream.’–Marcel Proust

Like the Marrakech medina, Venice is constructed as a medieval maze of mystery and adventure.  Jasna and I  enjoy wandering both.  I’ve learned since moving to Morocco that when I let go and relax, God always brings peace and sometimes the world brims with bliss.   So when Jasna pointed at the Giudecca Canal restaurant and said, “Let’s eat there, it’s pretty”– neither of us having any idea we had chosen for lunch a historical literary hub– I accept it not as a coincidence, but as a gift.  Both English majors, we were thrilled to learn that Hotel La Calcina, (aka Ruskin’s House) was where creatives such as John Ruskin (who I studied in a Victorian prose graduate course) lived and Ranier Maria Rilke (one of my favorite writers), Marcel Proust, Bortolo Giannelli, Giuseppe Berto and Francesco Maria Piave gathered. A muse to many, Venice fed free spirited expats Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Truman Capote, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Mann and continues to inspire art today. A magical place to christen a new year of writing.

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2)   Trust the journey. Relax, wait, move, live passionately patient in faith and hope. 

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”–Ranier Maria Rilke

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Christmas peace out

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 3)  “All great art is praise.” –John Ruskin

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4)    Be true to who you are and the One who designed you that way.  We are colorful creatures all.

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Waiting for 2016

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5)  Con Dio tutto è possibile. (With God all things are possible.) 

Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. –John Ruskin

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Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.–Ephesians 3:20

In Venice everything seems possible.  I’m grateful for Anu’s invitation.  She’d  made plans to be there a week in an affordable hostel she found 4 minutes from St. Mark’s Square.  Jasna flew from England and I from Marrakesh to join her a couple of days.  My round trip ticket was $125–and our  triple room cost me 57 Euros per night.  And though December hit me hard with new challenges and I questioned my decision to go, I knew I may never spend New Year’s Eve in Venice again– particularly at such a price.  Thus, I moved forward  with plans prayed over and made in good faith.  I refused to let regret rob me of joy.  I let go and received the gifts of the trip from the moment a kind Italian man grabbed my suitcase as I was running to find a train to the last night when Anu invited me to dinner with her Italian family–sweetest people ever.

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I highly recommend Casa per Ferie La Pietà, more a hotel than a hostel, with a panoramic view from the terrace, a beautiful breakfast room, clean accommodations, and nice people.  I’d never stayed on the island before–usually too expensive–but here there is no commute by water taxis.  The three of us stayed in a huge room with restrooms/showers across and down the hall.  It is quiet, family friendly, and a great place to escape alone or meet other travelers.

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View from our room–one bridge from The Bridge of Sighs

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Anu

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Terrace view

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6)   La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is family, friends, food and fun.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.–Truman Capote

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Spritz Veneziano, an aperitif made of Prosecco wine, Campari, apple, and sparkling mineral water

 

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Christening running shoes with Prosecco on New Year’s Day

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Prashanth, Anu, Carmen, Sandro, and Marta

 7)  Dum Spiro Spero (While I breathe, I hope.)

Marta (pictured above and expecting her first child) told me her parents’ love story.  Her mother, Carmen, met her father, Sandro, in Peru in 1981 when they were both students climbing Machu Picchu with friends.  After three days together, each returned home–Carmen to Argentina and Sandro to Italy.  Because she didn’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak Spanish, they wrote letters in French.  In October Sandro returned to visit her family.  After fifteen days with her (plus the three in January), he proposed.  They married, she moved with him to the lake district of Italy near Como, and they’ve been happy since.  Oh how I do love a good love story.

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In Germany I let go of fear.  In Venice I remembered again all is well and will be well.  In 2015 God gave me the desires of my heart–beauty, adventure, and love of family and friends.  And though His love is all I need, He gave me the confidence to dare to dream…to believe again… that  somewhere in 2016 my Grande Amore, whoever he is, awaits.

“I don’t pretend to understand these feelings, but I’m willing to let the inexplicable sit sacred.” –Marlena de Blasi

Happy 2016…and for all my images of Venice and other destinations, please go to my photography site at cindymccain.photoshelter.com.

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In Cologne but Never Alone: Reminded by Christmas to Fear Not

 

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Christmas is charged with nostalgia. I’m in bed looking out my window at the Market of the Elves in Cologne, Germany. Under tents and trees all lit up, replicas of funny bearded men beckon below. Elf statues are more numerous here than in pictures of Santa’s workshop in the book Mama Lou read to my sister and me when we were kids. I came to Cologne to find Christmas cheer because I knew I’d need it.

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I have dreaded the holidays for months. It is the first Christmas I’ll spend without my children with me.  My son graduates in May on my daughter’s birthday. Last year we had the ultimate Christmas reunion, but because flights from Marrakesh to Nashville are too expensive with the May trip, we decided I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.

Because flights are cheap to Europe, I decided to spend the holiday with a friend in Germany and take the train to the Christmas markets. My daughter said she couldn’t bear to think of me sad in my apartment alone and all the family wished me well. All my coworkers—international teachers who in their collective years abroad have traveled to every country on the planet it seems—said “No one does Christmas like Germany.” And so here I am in a city with seven Christmas markets—an amazing place (as you’ll see in my next post). Yet despite enjoying the music, live trees, winter air wafting with spices and mulled wine, I’ve also shed some tears.

Since moving to Africa I’ve had bouts of loneliness and fear. Through every trial God comforted me, strengthened me, grew me more into the woman He has always wanted me to be. I have found freedom, peace, joy that nothing from without can sustain—only his presence within. I have seen beauty and experienced adventure as gifts—love letters from Him–during this amazing season. I have been protected and contributed on this new continent,  feeling totally in His will and being blessed beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Still… despite so much growth…so much faith and thankfulness for how far God has brought me physically, emotionally, and spiritually throughout the course of my life and particularly over the last sixteen months… despite feeling closer to God than ever  and thus, like the Proverbs woman clothed in strength and dignity who smiles at the future … a woman who now lives most days without fear, regret, and doubt….that woman took a holiday. Today, thankfully, she is back.

While teaching The Life of Pi my eyes filled at the line, “All of life is letting go.” It seems I was brought to Africa to learn this truth more than any other.  I had to let go of so much to follow the life in Morocco God planned for me. Being close to family and friends; renting the home and leaving the job where I’d been secure for over twenty years; giving up comforts like water and wifi that never failed, a car to grab what I forgot at the store, a neighborhood and greenway where I’d walk my sweet dog, Ella.

Letting go is painful. Because our natural reflex is to hold on. We fear if we let go we’ll lose something rather than free ourselves to receive gifts God wants to place in our hands. Letting go means losing the illusion of control and stepping out in faith, believing, remembering this leg of the journey was God-mapped though I can’t see where it ultimately will lead. I’m realizing that distance doesn’t mean I’m asked to let go of family and friends. Though I can’t hug them during the holidays, they are with me in my heart, loving me on Skype and in spirit.

Letting go means losing fear—the greatest enemy of the soul. I believe with all my heart, “God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” I just don’t always live it. Like Linus, I’ve been able to drop my security blanket (whatever I contrive and hold onto thinking it will protect me against fallout of a fallen world) when I remember two simple words—a mantra in my Bible: “Fear Not.”

My Truth and Light

Yesterday as I walked along the Rhine River with God I thanked Him for being my wonderful Counselor, my Prince of Peace. I believe with all my heart He is Emmanuel—God with us. This morning I googled “Daily Devotion” to reset (as I must do every day) my mind to truth.  Only truth trumps fear. Up popped this post by Jason Soroski explaining the impetus for dropping what we cling to in fear.   I’m also grateful for his Part 2, which reminds me why, after letting go, I as a human, pick up my blanket again.  I’ve often felt like Charlie Brown–someone who wants to be perfect but never gets it right.  I’m thankful for this reminder that I don’t have to. I’m loved by One who will never leave me.

I came to Morocco believing the move would benefit my family, finances, future, and faith.  In the latter, I knew I’d find true freedom.  I haven’t seen where my story will end and thus fear sometimes still rears its ugly head, but the Christmas story  reminds me again that I am to fear not.

On the train ride to Cologne I saw beautiful woods and a river. I knew this trip was what I needed. Though the skies were cloudy and I was striving to trust in the dark what I’d seen in the light, God again was taking me on a journey that would make me lie down in green pastures…lead me beside still waters… restore my soul.

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And this Christmas I find comfort and cheer knowing no matter what 2016 holds, no matter where I’ll live, work, serve, that surely goodness and mercy will follow my all the days of my life and I’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever.