My grandmother, Mama Sargeant, was the Matriarch of Mom’s family and the Queen of Regifting. She asked us not to give her gifts and truly meant it. We learned that when we didn’t listen, gifts we bought ended up in her upstairs bedroom–unopened. When we needed to buy a gift for someone, she’d send us upstairs to choose from her collection.
What she really wanted was us at her table weekly for Sunday lunch and surprise visits any (ok, every) day of the week. As a mom myself, I don’t want things from my adult children. I want experiences. Time with them sharing something that we love.
And if you’re looking for a way to bond beyond one experience on one day, I have more unique ideas… they are in this month’s newsletter along with suggestions for summer entertaining, travel planning, and other May fun.
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“What has made the day so perfect? To begin with, it is a pattern of freedom. Its setting has not been cramped in space or time. An island, curiously enough, gives a limitless feeling of both. Nor has the day been limited in kinds of activity. It has a natural balance of physical, intellectual and social life. It has an easy unforced rhythm.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
Never underestimate the healing power of a room- with- a- view of sea and sunrises. Of island sunsets that make strangers friends. Of connecting with family after an unimaginable year. On making a wish on a seashell and feeling like a kid again.
Not since we spent a month together on another island in 2016, had Taylor–my adult daughter–and I had a chance to get away together. Because she cares for the elderly, we couldn’t see each other for months in 2020. We’re both vaccinated now, but getting our school and work schedules together–as it is for most families– is a perennial problem. We needed some island time, so we took it. At the South Seas Island Resort on beautiful Captiva Island, we discovered within the U.S. borders a breathtaking part of Florida we’d never seen. Though I did work-by-day and she did school-by-night, our sharing an office with the view and exploring 330 acres of natural nirvana (and beyond) was an escape we’ll never forget. Here’s a few reasons why South Seas Island Resort was named a Top 10 North American Island by Conde Nast Traveler and families return year after year…
(Photos in Gallery Above Courtesy of South Seas Island Resort)
Nowhere else in the US have we stayed this close to the water and seen so much wildlife and sea creatures. The sanctuary has 230 species of birds, such as egrets and the white ibis, bottle-nosed dolphins, rabbits, Cuban anole lizards, and West Indian manatees.
We loved hopping beaches and cruising shady paths. Sunny Island Adventures offers bicycle rentals for a few hours or the length of your stay to enjoy 20 miles of bike trails.
This area and neighboring Sanibel Island, which since 1937 has hosted the largest and longest running Shell Fair and Show in the United States, is famous for shelling. It was the inspiration for one of my favorite books, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea where the Gulf of Mexico delivers over 250 types of shells which you can learn more about here. Sanibel Island was featured on the April 2021 cover of Southern Living by the editors as one of The South’s Best Beach Towns. Children love the Sanibel Sea School where every day is a field trip. I eavesdropped on a group exploring the beach by my balcony and not only learned a lot but saw a boy find a starfish in the the few minutes they were there. Offerings for children and adults are here.
We flew into Fort Meyers on Southwest Airlines at the Southwest Florida International Airport located 35 miles from the resort. I’ve been a fan of Southwest for years but because of open seating the fee for early boarding is worth it–especially during high season or if you have a connecting flight and need to get off quickly. We had a great experience with Dolphin Transportation, the largest independently owned fleet of luxury vehicles serving Fort Myers, Naples, and Bonita Springs, who picked us up in a Suburban where I met a fellow writer based in Atlanta and returned us to the airport in a Lincoln Continental. They have bus and van options as well. We didn’t need a car with the trolley and bikes, but the property is so massive–20 tennis courts, 2 community pools (and 17 private ones), 9 dining locations, and other attractions the first day or two you’ll need to use a map and/or the App (which has a Trolley Tracker).
There are 434 guest rooms, villas, and waterfront private homes. We stayed in one of the 30 newly renovated waterfront suites at North Pointe Village overlooking Pine Island Sound. We appreciated the huge marble bathroom with closets and mirrors– great for two women :), the espresso machine, the wood-inspired floors, comfortable bedding and seating, but forgot to turn on the huge television because we were too busy watching an even bigger world of turquoise waters…coral, blue, and pink skies…boaters, fishermen on the dock, and wildlife from our balcony.
Just 10 miles south of the resort is a tiny island that is old, old Florida at its best. There are no cars or roads–just a few rental cottages where anglers and artists can get inspired. Boaters stop in for breakfast, lunch, or dinner so if alone time gets old, there are always new people to meet. The restaurant is known for its food, a famous customer, and a tradition dating back to the days when fishermen wrote their names on dollar bills and tacked them to the wall for times when they might have no luck and need credit. Behind the bar is Jimmy Buffett’s bill.
You can board the Lady Chadwick of Captiva Cruises at the Yacht Harbor for a one-hour sail to the island. I loved the 70s music and 80s music I heard as we disembarked and headed up the hill.
We learned a lot on the cruise from the ship’s captain. There’s said to be $75000 on the Inn’s ceiling and the $10-$15,000 that falls off each year is donated to charity. I learned that the back bay waters are estuaries for wildlife, fish, crab, oyster beds, and stone crabs which fishermen catch, declaw, and throw them back. Their claws regenerate. I saw where Captiva was split by a hurricane in 1921, destroying farmland there. Other history pertaining to the Native Americans on the barrier islands, to English, then Spanish rule, to Cuban fisheries and cattlemen, some of which is here. I learned the namesake of our boat, the shopping center on Captiva, and some of South Seas Island Resort’s origin. The area was bought in the 1920s by Clarence and Rosamond Chadwick, inventor of the check watermarking process and an opera singer, who made it one of the most successful key lime plantations in the world. In 1961 the Captiva Island Company bought the property for $225,000.
The islands between Cabbage Key and South Seas all have a story–North Captiva which has 11 vacation homes and uses solar power, La Costa with homes run on propane and solar, Pine Island which exports palm trees and has off-the-grid art galleries, and Useppa, base for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs and once vacation escape for Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Shirley Temple, and Mae West. Captiva Cruises offers options for exploring Useppa, other islands and types of excursions.
I LOVED doing sun salutations on the Kings Crown Lawn as bunnies bopped in and out of the bushes behind me and boats bobbed past. Ambu Yoga was the best way to start the day and warm up for kayaking later (though Taylor did most of the rowing). If you’re not into yoga, the seaside golf course looked amazing.
If you didn’t see the video above, check it out. Our meal there was the event-of-the-week from the Cucumber Smash to the champagne toast to the crème brûlée served beside a fire pit glittering with sea glass. The mixes of their artisan cocktails are hand-pressed and blended, and the spirits infused in-house. A Tennessee girl born in Kentucky, I loved that their focus isn’t rum– as is the case with most island drinks–but bourbon and whiskey. The most impressive presentation I’ve seen was of the The Captain’s Smoked Old Fashioned I had to try. Our server said she did her nails especially for it. 🙂 Another surprise was that the hit of the starters was the Yacht Line Candied Bacon–torched tableside. Other delicious dishes were the Romesco Garlic Shrimp, Kung Pao Calamari, the Cuban Bread, and always my favorite–Spanish Octopus. I had the Mahi Mahi and Taylor enjoyed the Lobster Tacos.
Also the oysters and scallops at Doc Ford’s (see video) are great.
THE #1 thing to do at South Seas Island Resort is their signature Sunset Celebration at Sunset Beach. In the video above, singer songwriter Danny Morgan who has toured and played with about everyone from Jimmy Buffett to The Beach Boys, visited the area in the 80s and has been playing to multi-generational crowds since. Rather than wish upon a star, we wished upon a shell as the sun melted into the ocean.
I have only two regrets: One, that a regatta pulled the sailboats from the island. We were excited about taking our first sailing lesson.
Next time. Two, that our time at South Seas had to end.
Stay tuned for the Anniversary Celebration of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s, Gift from the Sea, one of my favorite memoirs. I am excited and grateful to be one of the writers invited to work on my memoir on Sanibel Island for this event where she was inspired to write hers–a dream come true.
Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own.
This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass pavilion, historic theater, arboretum, gardens, and palatial mansion is a place where lovers of all kinds can wander away from crowds. More a destination than an attraction, The Ringling alone is worth a trip to Sarasota County. It’s also a cultural center for local members and a dream venue for romance and weddings.
I took a three-hour private tour with Virginia Harshman, Ringling Public Relations Head, M.A. Harvard University in Museum Studies. She gave me a behind-the-scenes look, unlocking secret areas with keys, masterful storytelling, and passion for the property and the people who built it. I left wishing that I’d explored this hidden gem and national/global treasure a long time ago and looking forward to a future visit.
The Ringling is beautiful in any season. It’s not too late to plan the perfect Valentine’s, Spring Break, Remote School, or Summer Getaway.
Who loves The Ringling?
I Do! I Do! And if you’re one of these 10 Kinds of Lovers, you will, too…
1) Lovers of Love Stories & The 1920s American Dream
Even before I heard the love story of John and Mabel Ringling, American Royalty who owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, I fell in love at first sight with their home. Ca’ d’Zan transported me to my favorite era, the Roaring ‘20s, and two of my favorite places on earth. Its Moorish arches took me back to Morocco
and its overall design to Venice where I started another new year. Inspired by the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, the five-story Venetian Gothic Revival mansion overlooks Sarasota Bay.
The exterior’s stucco as well as many glass windows and bedrooms are pink hues. My favorite color, the breathtaking property, and John Ringling’s story reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Jay Gatsby, and his pink suit. John Ringling, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist, had humble beginnings and both tenaciously pursued The American Dream. I could imagine Jay Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, called a “circus wagon,” parked in the driveway beside John Ringling’s Rolls-Royce, now on exhibit in the Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
Walking the grounds, I could imagine legendary ‘20s parties around Gatsby’s and on the Ringling terrace. John and Mabel frequently entertained celebrities, like Will Rogers who had his own guest room, movie directors, politicians, and actresses, such as Billie Burke, better known as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Jay was “The Great Gatsby”and “John was King of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Both built romantic palaces for the women they loved, but here the parallels end. Daisy rejected Jay and his new money. John and Mabel had similar values–maybe because she, too, came from a modest family. They were kindred spirits in their shared love for culture, art, and travel, as well as their desire to give back. Their legacy is now the State Art Museum of Florida administered by Florida State University.
Though Ca’ d’Zan means “House of John” in the Venetian dialect, it has been called John’s “love letter” to Mabel. They built it together, getting ideas as they traveled the world for twenty-five years buying art and new circus acts. She collected in an oilskin portfolio photos and sketches of architecture, gardens, and design. See the video below of my behind-the-scenes tour where I learned more about Mabel and why everyone at The Ringling adores her.
2) Lovers of Architecture and Design
In 1911, John and Mabel began spending winters in Sarasota on 20 acres of waterfront property they purchased. They continued buying real estate and at one time owned 25% of the town. In 1924 they hired architect Dwight James Baum to design and Owen Burns to build the 36,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival of their dreams. In addition to the Doge’s Palace, Ca’ d’Oro and the Grand Hotel d’Italie Bauer-Grünwald inspired the plans.
The roof was made of 16th century tiles John found in Barcelona and sent home in two cargo ships. The marble bayside terrace –now used for weddings, yoga classes, and other gatherings– was used by the Ringlings for entertaining. The orchestra played for guests from their yacht, Zalophus, beside Mabel’s gondola which bobbed in the bay. Their dining room table seated 22, and cocktails were served in style at parties and in John’s Man Cave.
Virginia gave me a look at the upper floors of the house which were closed due to Covid. I felt like I was a kid again–Nancy Drew on a snoop–when she showed me the secret Playroom. Overlooking Sarasota from the 82-foot tower is a moment I won’t forget. (See video below.)
3) Lovers of Art and History
After Ca’ d’Zan was completed, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the courtyard stands a cast bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David purchased from the Chiurrazi Foundry outside of Rome, Italy. It’s now the symbol of the City of Sarasota on Florida’s Cultural Coast.
Inside are collections of Classical and Modern Masters. In 1931, two years after the death of Mabel, John opened the museum to the public to promote “education and art appreciation, especially for our young people.” In 1936 he left it to the state of Florida upon his death. See the video above on the Rubens Gallery, the family crest John had designed, and Modern Art exhibits, such as the photography series, A Girl and Her Room . A world-class cultural center, The Ringling Art Museum was just awarded another grant–this one from the Andy Warhol Foundation.
It has been restored and moved into the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, designed by Yann Wemouth, architect for the Pyramide du Lovre, East Wing of the National Gallery in D.C. and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. See performing arts schedule here.
5) Lovers of Glass Art
Grouped by country of origin, works of art from the studio glass movement from the 1940s to the present are in the Glass Pavilion here.
Ok, I admit it. I’ve saved the best for near-last. One of my favorite movies as a child wasThe Greatest Show on Earth which I watched again this week while writing this piece. Director Cecil B. DeMille traveled with the circus for research and John North, John Ringling’s nephew, plays himself in the film as he tries to save the show in changing times. I loved seeing Sarasota where it was filmed–especially the parade down Main Street which included locals as extras. When it was made, there was no Walt Disney World; time under the Big Top was the premiere happy place for children. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year. Though some critics didn’t agree with it winning Best Picture, I’m with Stephen Spielberg, another fan. He said it was the first movie he ever saw and it inspired his film career. Since my mom’s generation, kids would say, “I’m goin’ run away and join the circus!” Swinging from a trapeze in sequins and feathers still looks pretty fun to me.
John was one of eight children of a German immigrant. Mabel grew up in a small farming community in a family of eight. John began in a small circus as a clown.
After making his fortune, he bought Saint Armand’s Key to develop it into a center for shopping, restaurants, and art. Though the Great Depression deferred his dream, it was fulfilled later by others. Today his statue overlooks Saint Armand’s Circle, a global destination. Here statues he donated to the city transport visitors to other cultural centers, like Rome and Athens. Other plans he had for Sarasota were thwarted by the times, such as a residence for a U.S. President and a Ritz-Carlton on Longboat Key. The statues today in The Ringing Art Museum Courtyard had been purchased for the hotel. One thing is for sure. He shared his love for mythology and was a muse and myth maker himself.
I’m not a romantic, but even I concede that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose to pump blood.–Dowager Countess
In my opinion, to misquote Doctor Johnson, if you’re tired of style, you are tired of life. — Carson, Downton Abbey, Season 3
Aren’t we the lucky ones to have loved. — Isobel Crawley, Downton Abbey, Season 4
The Estate, Beautiful in Any Season
My son, Cole, and daughter, Taylor, had never been to Biltmore. We were in Asheville celebrating his birthday and made a stop at the Vanderbilt home, one of my favorite US destinations, and Cole was glad we did. Here’s a few photos from our tour. See MANY MORE from my previous visit here and here.
Thank you, Biltmore, for another amazing visit. As always, the opinions here are my own.
I adore Europe, but it turns out after living two years in Morocco, that Africa is my second home. I found more beauty, adventure, and relationship (especially in Marrakesh)–the three things I seek most in life–than I ever imagined. Sharing this place with my children, my friend, Moni, and former students (more on their trips later) was a privilege I’ll never forget. Likewise, I was thrilled when my niece, Emily, and Andres stopped by for a couple of days after Emily’s work trip to Turkey and some time in Italy.
For $45- $100 roundtrip on RyanAir, you can fly to Marrakesh from Milan, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, London, and many other European cities. (Arriving on a one-way ticket from one European city, then departing to another is a way to see more, but note that you will pay for all baggage above the size of the smaller-that-standard carryon allowed for free.) If you have the time, in Marrakesh you can relax by pools at regal resorts and riads (many featured on this blog), take cooking classes, or volunteer. You can also do excursions to Essaouira, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, Chefchouen, Agadir, or Casablanca. But even if you have only two days, the trip is worth it because you will definitely experience some Marrakesh magic.
Here’s what these two did in 48 hours…
After dropping off bags at my apartment, we were joined by my artist friend, Jon, who walked with us to the medina where we had lunch at my favorite daytime restaurant with a rooftop view of the Koutoubia Mosque.
Emily is a textile designer, so our first mission was checking out intricate tile patterns and woodwork and shopping.
The Ensemble Artisanal(see gorgeous entrance below) sets the standard for the highest authentic, quality goods made by the superior local artisans selected to work there. Here you can see them working and teaching apprentices, and it’s a great place to check out fair pricing before bargaining in the souks.
El Badi Palace
Giant storks greeted us as we entered the remains of El Badi Palace. Began in 1578 by Arab Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the complex, built with ransom money from the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings, exhibits architecture of the Saadian Period. For tour times and more information, go here.
No trip to Marrakesh is complete without hanging out with local friends at a riad, the traditional style of home in which all doors and windows open to an inner courtyard with a fountain and/or pool. My friend, Kate, arranged a riad rooftop breakfast for us at the location she managed, Riad Mur AKush. The November weather was perfect for a panoramic view of the medina and Mustafa’s morning music.
Palmeraie Camel Ride
Though Emily and Andres had a 3 PM flight to catch, Ismail, my driver, hooked us up for an hour-long camel ride after breakfast in the palmeraie on the way to the airport. It was Andres’ first time on a camel, and he had a big time. They felt the Marrakesh Magic, and having them there, was a double dose of magic for me, too.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…
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.
Though I am writing this on a Dominican Republic beach a couple of hours from Santo Domingo where I’ll return to work on Tuesday, I’m reliving the mountain escape I had while home for the holidays. I’m sorry I missed the snow in Tennessee that arrived just after I flew back to the Caribbean on Wednesday, but I am glad my son and I had clear roads for a trip to the Smoky Mountains while I was there. Cole moved to Knoxville last summer and with each visit I understand more why he likes the city where he chose to work. Nashville’s growth spurt since I’ve been gone has frustrated natives and longtime transplants with the high rise apartments and traffic chaos that came with it. Knoxville feels much like Nashville did before the boom and with the bonus of Gatlinburg one hour away and The Biltmore two (which we plan to see next summer when the gardens are in bloom), it’s a great destination for more than Vols fans.
Tennessee is a hiking and wildlife lover’s paradise. My first morning there while drinking coffee and looking out my son’s sliding doors I saw the usual–a cardinal, squirrels chasing each other–and then something moving in the brush behind his apartment that looked like a bobcat but larger. Then there were two of them. I grabbed my camera to zoom in and started snapping; while focusing and scanning the second creature disappeared.
Whether they were both coyotes (a growing problem in suburban Nashville as well), coywolves or one was a deer that took off like the roadrunner I am not sure, but one of these guys stayed and stared me down. The sighting seemed another sign that 2017 will be full of surprises.
Thrilled to be home for the holidays for the first time in two years, I had wanted to rent a cabin in the Smokies for our family, but with the recent fires we weren’t sure how much of the area had been destroyed and which roads would be closed. Instead we drove to Cade’s Cove and stopped for lunch at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, a hot spot for locals and tourists. We saw no fire damage and given the line of cars, neon lights, and ticket sales the Pigeon Forge “strip” was still going strong.
The good news about southern food is the comfort. The better news is there are gorgeous opportunities to hike it off. Living two years in the desert and the last six months in the tropics, I had so missed journeys amidst farmhouses hidden in hills; cows and horses in fields; and cold, crisp air on moss-covered banks beside mountain streams. My questions about the future, usually rushing like water over rocks, are hushed and stilled by a winter forest.
Later in the week Taylor drove up and joined us for some amazing Italian food and a day in downtown Knoxville at Market Square. I highly recommend Altruda’s for an authentic, family-owned atmosphere and The French Market for a quick trip to Paris.
As we took a shortcut to our car, we happened upon an alley of street art. Again, it seems, technicolor surprises are just around the corner this year.
We saw Arrival, nominated for 2 Golden Globes. Cole had already seen it and thought I’d like it. He was right. Among other vital truths, it stresses that we can’t survive without communication and global collaboration.
As I felt when the holidays were over with my children in London and as most moms feel when the world goes back to work and “reality,” (and though I am forever grateful for the beauty and adventure of the time spent abroad), nothing brings me joy like relationship. Translated: quality time spent with my kids/family. I loved Marrakesh, but it was too far from them. The Dominican Republic, though many hours closer, is as well. They are grown and have lives of their own, but my heart longs to see them more often. We are bonded across miles by blood and years, vacation times spent together, technology and our love for one another. And we’ve learned, or at least I have, that home is what we are to each other–not one place. Good to know since Taylor is in Nashville and Cole is in Knoxville now. (Likewise, my sis is in Nashville but mom is in Kentucky.) And though I’ve learned “home” is wherever I am at peace with God, as a southerner I feel tied to place, to roots, to people–my people–my kids, family, and closest friends. And so my journey back has begun. I look forward this year to following the path God charts to my dream destination.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It has been awhile, too long since I’ve been able to write. Summer was a six-week cyclone spent in the US–(to be read aloud in one breath)half of the time spent getting medical appointments, fingerprints, birth certificates, and other pieces of a 39-page work visa document stamped by government and federal authorities sent to the Dominican Republic Consulate… the other half waiting for approval while trying to see friends and family spread across 250 miles while packing up to take off again. Each step of the Visa process demanded we wait for paperwork to be returned before sending sealed envelopes to the next checkpoint. Our target date to leave was August 1 because my job started on August 4, so I prayed the Visa would be approved giving us the signal to book flights and get “settled.” For those writing to ask if we are “settled” yet, the answer is we are unpacked (except for the fifth bag we were told at the airport we had to leave behind because of a summer embargo which American Airlines didn’t tell me about when I called the day before to confirm the cost of adding another bag. It would now cost at least $500 to ship the contents so, as we say in the south, we will “make do.”)
Waiting all summer for the Visa decision left no head or heart space to process saying goodbye to the people, the city of Marrakesh I loved NOR a proper pace to say hello, connect deeply, then say goodbye to friends and family before leaving. There was also no debriefing for integrating back into US culture as some businesses and churches provide after sending people overseas. (When did gas pumps start streaming video? When did Panera become a drive-through? When did chip technology take over the quick swipe at some stores but not at others? I always managed to swipe when I wasn’t supposed to or pull out my card before the chip technology accepted the payment, causing those in line behind me dismay as I had to start over. Everything moved so fast. When did rent-a-cars replace key fobs and cameras show you how to back out of the driveway? Keep in mind I drove a 2002 Nissan before moving abroad. When did traffic in Nashville whip from lane-to-lane and tailgate at such high speeds and close proximity? My kids said I scared them to death driving with my slow reflexes. When did a hotel room in Music City cost more than one in just about any city in Europe? When did politics peak in craziness? When did news cover only the most horrific events, dissecting violent acts bone- by- bone, day- after- day until we all pay in a pound of flesh called profound fear? When did Animal Kingdom, a series I found while channel surfing, become filled with shocking camera-closeups of graphic, sadistic human sex scenes rather than a Discovery Channel tutorial on meerkats? ( I paused on the series while channel surfing in a hotel because I saw Ellen Barkin was in it and I’d always liked her. After two years where kissing was censored from television I couldn’t believe when I happened upon a scene of two guys, seemingly enemies, punching each other and then…) And when, can someone tell me, did Jimmy Kimmel become so thin, darken his hair and grow a beard? With no time to ponder, Taylor and I flew to the Caribbean and began the business of trying to assimilate into another culture.
Although I have always considered Latin culture in many ways “home” and share with my daughter a lifelong love for the ocean, I knew moving to a new country, apartment, job, life would be challenging for us both–Taylor who has never lived abroad and I who have done so only once. Vacations have return flight dates. Moving abroad happens on a one-way ticket. I knew we needed to celebrate the small victories (learning how to turn on the hot water, light the stove, get internet and phone service, order water , negotiate a taxi…where to wash clothes, dump trash, buy groceries) because if you don’t stay positive and make room for play–wherever you live, but especially when trying to navigate new territory–so much new information can disorient, deplete, depress. So that first week, to escape the humid heat (in apartments due to electricity costs, AC units are in bedrooms only and used at night for sleeping) we checked out the local scene starting with lunch at Adrian Tropical, recommended by a new friend. The whole fish fried Boca Chica- style (named for a nearby beach) was amazing…enough for two.
The second week we went to the same restaurant in our area. Though it isn’t on the sea waterfalls and fish ponds make it a cool oasis. I also made my first pot of shrimp chowder at home. We love the food here.
For the first weekend, I booked us a night at Emotions, appropriately named given all we are feeling with this move. Ranked #1 by Trip Advisor on what many consider the best beach near Santo Domingo, Juan Dolio, it is 38miles/50 minutes from our apartment. Saturday was spent watching waves of storms move down the beach; at the first raindrop all knew to run for cover. By night all had cleared for the animation (dance show) and fireworks. Sunday was sunny sky perfect.
It is hurricane season here, appropriate given our charged feelings as we try to absorb all the change. As I write this, again lightening flashes and the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard signals another downpour that will most likely turn the streets into lakes again. We’ve come to love the storms that cool and calm us–such a change from remembering no more than five times it rained in the two years I was in Morocco. We’ve had some great discussions–now adults, roommates–each finding our own paths and learning how to respect our differences in doing that. We both trust God has lessons and blessings for us here.
When I asked Taylor her best memory so far she said the day we walked to the store in the rain. Despite umbrellas we came home soaked, laughing all the way. We’ve laughed and cried. Sharing this experience is something we will never forget. We both struggle with the heat during the day and our inability to speak Spanish but are determined to learn as much as we can and allow life to unfold. I asked her about surprises here. She said she likes all the open air places and that we have to walk to get what we need. This morning, Sunday, was cooler and quiet–no jack hammers or honking cars (driving is crazy here–the only rule of the road seems to be to pull out and take your chances.) “Walking forces us to be connected. When you walk you see things you miss when driving. It keeps us in the mix, in the moment.”
Yesterday was a good day. Our Russian friend, Maria, took us back to Juan Dolio–this time by public bus– with Sana and Steve, a couple from New Jersey we’ve met. On the commute, under the palm trees, in the water, and around the delicious dinner at El Mason we bonded over this new experience we share. Truly, no man nor woman is an island.