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

A Wedding, the United Nations, and Disney

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A wedding. Two unique people become one. A mystery and a marvel. Until recently I’d never attended a January wedding, but starting a new year with a couple committing to share the rest of their lives felt right.

And kind of Disney. Weddings renew hope, reminding us that there is happy-ever-after, not only for the couples, but also for the communities their love creates. Flocked around the lovebirds on an island in the Caribbean were family and friends who’d flown from around the globe to witness, to be…love.

The Magic Kingdom may own ships on which families ride off into the sunset, but they still market their “It’s a Small World” ride as the “Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed.” I went to Disney World as a kid just after it opened, and, shocker, it was my favourite attraction. Three-hundred papier-mâché dolls traditionally dressed dancing and singing in their native languages a simple song of world peace made my soul sing.

Looking at the guests gathered, I remembered again that it IS a small world. Marcus, the priest who married them and the groom’s lifelong friend, called us The United Nations. They’d gone to high school together when Moises moved from the Dominican Republic to the US, and it turns out Marcus now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, the state in which I was born. In fact, when I met his fiancé at the wedding (they got engaged three days after the wedding at this waterfall) I learned she is from Madisonville, Kentucky –35 miles from Hopkinsville where I grew up.

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Maria, the bride, is my coworker. Some of her family and friends flew in from Russia for the celebration. A couple of years ago I’d assisted a coworker, also Russian, in taking student delegates from The American School of Marrakesh to St. Petersburg to the Model United Nations Conference. (I love that in Model UN each student draws a country—not his or her own—to research and represent on global issues. The task is to collaborate with delegates from other countries to find solutions that benefit all.)  Of all the European cities I’ve fallen in love with, St. Petersburg is probably the most beautiful–canals like Venice and Amsterdam lined with art, parks, and more palaces than Paris.

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Emma, Maria’s longtime friend, came down from New York.

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Maria’s sister Skypes in their mom from Russia.

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Calise, a friend I met at my table of Santo Domingo friends including one couple now living in Brazil, is a diplomat for the DR in India and Argentina.  Her brother, who was abroad, is another close friend of the groom.  

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Maria was one of the first people I met after moving to the Caribbean. When I needed to see a doctor and couldn’t make an appointment or speak in Spanish to the clinic staff, she went with me and translated. She introduced other coworkers and me to Moises. Gregarious and kind, he took us all to Zona Colonial for salsa and dinner and has grilled for us while on duty and  off the best steaks in town.  A chef for big destination weddings across the island, he and Maria decided they wanted their day to be relaxed and fun, which it was, with his staff cooking in the kitchen and serving the feast.

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Guacamole

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The best mojitos imaginable

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Coconut water

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Traveling to twenty-five countries on four continents has amazed me with the world’s vastness.  Travel provides wide, open spaces for beauty and adventure.  And sometimes loneliness.  I didn’t speak French or Arabic in Morocco and I barely speak Spanish, but I’ve learned to depend on the kindness, the hospitality, of strangers who become friends.

I am most changed–I think we all are– by the people we meet.  Friends I’ve met on the road. People at home I’ve loved all my life.  I’m no longer a child, but I still believe it’s a small world. That most of us are more alike than different. That God is love and says we must love one another. That peace happens in our world, our country, our hearts through real relationship.  Face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters with people truly change the world…for good.

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10 Must Dos When Going Solo To a Caribbean Resort

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1) LET YOURSELF GO…

Long before Pinterest prodded us to create virtual vision boards, Instagram insisted we share in-the-moment bliss, and Facebook fostered travel posts of happy places far, far away, I cut out and saved a magazine photo of a couple walking in the surf of the Caribbean Sea. I was single again, sad, but looked forward to a day I’d be that girl, her cocktail dress blowing in the breeze, as she laughed and leaned into her guy’s shoulder, one arm wrapped around his, the other hand holding a champagne flute.   I longed to share such a celebratory moment in paradise… one day (sigh)… with The One who was meant to be—whoever, wherever he was.

Though I still wait in hope to meet him, I have learned to cherish the many people with whom THE One, God, has blessed my life. And over the last twenty years, I stopped waiting to be in a romantic relationship to see the world or show it to my children. Money I have spent on traveling with my family, friends, and students strengthened relationships, made priceless memories, and taught us all something.  Likewise, I’ve learned to appreciate solo travel which has given me confidence, courage, and peace I never thought possible. A mentor told me years ago that giving ourselves what we need models self-care to our children and is healthier than waiting for someone else to fulfill us.   Travel rejuvenates and like a class taken to improve mind, body, or spirit, it’s  an investment in personal growth which positively impacts us and those around us.  Yet, though I’d traveled from Moscow to Morocco to Malibu and now live in the Caribbean in Santo Domingo, something inside kept saving the fantasy island resort experience for a hoped-for honeymoon. Until recently…

I gave myself permission.  I let myself go…solo…to Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort.

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Though Punta Cana is known for love connections– the 2014 season of The Bachelorette was filmed here– and this 5-star mega-complex in The Dominican Republic is popular for weddings, family vacations,

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This family reminded me of Florida vacations with Taylor and Cole.  I long for those days but in the words of Disney’s Dori, a family favorite, we have to keep swimming.

and bachelorette/bachelor getaways,

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the Caribbean haven cradles single women travellers with comfort. For those of us with grown children on their own journeys, going solo can provide rejuvenation and even reinvention as we navigate this new season of life.

I was impressed by the 85-year history of the  Barcelo Group, a family  company founded by Simón Barceló in Felanitx (Mallorca, Spain) and later expanded internationally.   After scanning The Dominican Republic by helicopter, owners chose Punta Cana–a then deserted stretch of beautiful jungle and beach.   Because they bought wide rather than deep as many property owners have since, this resort stretches two kilometres along Bavaro Beach rather than behind a small oceanfront area.  The company’s hotel division now has over 100 hotels in 19 countries and its travel division has 685 travel agencies in 22 countries. These figures position it as the third largest hotel chain in Spain, and the forty-second largest in the world.

2)  REST AND REVIVE.

Choosing an all-inclusive resort is the best way to rest before and during your stay since everything–where to eat, drink, swim, sunbathe, shop, be entertained, be active, and find transport–is provided.   While I enjoy researching and plotting my own travel adventures from restaurants to excursions, planning takes energy and time.  For those worn out from home/work responsibilities and constantly making grown up decisions, going with the flow of resorts that offer everything from a bowling alley to a soccer field

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to a casino

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to live entertainment can be freeing.   For those flying into the Punta Cana airport, transfer service to the resort can be arranged as can car rental.  Currency exchange is available and stores carry items you may have forgotten, like sunscreen.   Upon arrival at reception, get a map to see the lay of the land, and if not interested in the buffet, make reservations for some restaurants which require them and any special services–such as spa or tee times (though you can call from your room to set these up later).  I traveled less than three hours from Santo Domingo but was tired and upon checkin rested awhile, then showered before dinner.

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Relaxing shower and pampering products provided

Realize as the New Kid at Camp (seriously, the Barcelo complex feels like an amusement park/pleasure palace for adults), it’s normal to feel excited but also strange not having friends or family there to share the experience.  A trip to the spa and Wellness Center with use of the private pool outside thanks to Premium Level (this upgrade also provides free internet and personal service in the Premium Level Lounge which serves food and champagne and early and late check-in/check-out when available),

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Photos of me by Patirica Fuentes, Community Manager, Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort

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a dip in one of the oceanfront pools,

2016-09-17-13-56-24an iced chocolate cappuccino in the coffee/cigar bar,

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or room service, minibar, (courtesy of the Premium Club Suites)

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In my room were local rums.  Mamajuana is a spicy, peppery legend in the area.

and a movie –whatever you need to unwind–will help you relax, recharge and relish your evening and stay ahead.

3)  BREATHE AND DWELL IN POSSIBILITY.

Before dinner at the seafood restaurant where I had lobster on the terrace (the Sante Fe Steak House also has seaside dining), I walked barefoot on sugar sand inhaling the sea air.  I breathed…exhaled… under a full harvest moon.  What would I reap on this trip?  As always, I felt warm knowing those I loved to the moon and back were looking up, too.  I thought of Van Morrison, Emily Dickinson, and the Creator of the most gorgeous clouds I’d ever seen.  Truly, it was a soothing, surreal, “marvellous night for a moon dance,” a time to “dwell in possibility…the spreading wide (of) my narrow Hands To gather Paradise.”

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Though the property is so huge shuttles connect its vast offerings, a solo woman traveler can feel safe walking alone at night.

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4) EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY.

An all-inclusive (see under “Other Important Services”) vacation is NOT where we count calories.  Healthy choices are always available, but dieting?  No way.  And since we first eat with our eyes… the ambience of open air tables set amidst lagoons, lakes, and gardens makes every meal a feast.

I slept later than usual thanks to the blackout curtains, had coffee on my patio where I was visited by a Moorhen, nicknamed the Chicken-foot Coot because its feet aren’t webbed and it steps high like a hen. Rested, I was ready to step out, too, so I headed to the nearest restaurant just around the corner for something I rarely get–a Southern-sized breakfast.   The night before PGA golfers (The Dominican Republic is known for the best golfing in the Caribbean) gathered in the foyer bar –champagne, cocktails, beer and bachata music flowing.  Now hushed except for the tin, hollow sound of clubs hitting golf balls, the course and sky met as a blue-and-green canvas for a new day.

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From Dominican fare to all-you-can-eat buffets to a Buffett-worthy Cheeseburger in Paradise, culinary and beverage choices abound.  My finest meal was at the French restaurant recommended by the concierge upon my arrival.  I had to book for my second night because it was booked the night I arrived.

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Warm Salad with Breaded Camembert and caviar (a first for me).

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Snails A’La Bourguignonne

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The Chateaubriand was rich and tender. Other choices included Beef Wellington, Pork Loin, Chicken Cordon Blue, and Duck Breast a l’Orange.

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Chocolate Fondant

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Berries and cream

5)  LET YOUR INNER CHILD PLAY.  

Remember when you were little and you weren’t afraid to explore, concerned about “getting it right” or impressing others?  An all-inclusive where you don’t know a soul allows you to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: “Do  one thing everyday that scares you.”  Of course, do what you   love.  For me, this was dancing bachata on the beach (Romeo Santos had recently done a concert in Punta Cana).  Golf, tennis, volleyball, soccer, walking, swimming –do what makes you happy– but leave room to discover a new passion.

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Zumba

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Maybe learning to like alone time is what you need.  Or maybe starting a conversation to make new friends and not just because paddle boats take teamwork.

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I loved meeting Patricia who gave me a tour of the property on Saturday and took me out to sea on Sunday.  She assists travel bloggers/media influencers, she’s from Spain, loves promoting community and all the Barcelo brand has to offer, and I liked her instantly.

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And I finally tried kayaking.  It was fun.

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So was meeting Harry Lee and Livvy Turner, Brits below who had just arrived.  They were in the Caribbean for the first time and were looking forward to ten days of bliss.  Harry said they weren’t leaving the property, that he was exhausted by city life.  “I am a broken man,” he quipped, “but will return to London with more energy.”

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6)  LET YOUR INNER CHILD NAP.

Count ships, not sheep, under rustling palm leaves shading you from the sun.  And if you can’t sleep, as my mother used to say, rest your eyes and your mind.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

“Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing’… [it] has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. ”

 Last spring break I’d planned to practice this skill on The Amalfi Coast.  Of course, I planned to write and photograph Positano, but that isn’t work to me.  Circumstances prevented that trip, but I’m trying to learn the same lesson in the DR.  This weekend was a wonderful teacher.

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My favorite–pink and blaring bachata.

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 7)  LOOK BACK IN GRATITUDE.

Recall happy times in the past with thanksgiving.  If I’ve learned one thing from many Dominicans it is to laugh and sing more.

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Too often we’re too tired to remember what day it is, much less yesterday or yesteryear.  As has happened a lot over the last two years of living abroad memories of family flood me.   In Punta Cana I remembered other beach vacations with women who have strongly influenced my life.  The summer in Hawaii with my mom, sister, cousin, and aunt.  Another summer in Florida with Mom and her mother, Mama Sargeant–single women for many years like me.  I toasted to them with a Pina Colada, the drink my grandmother enjoyed when she became ill and mom moved in with her until she passed.  I thought of a month earlier when my daughter, Taylor, and I enjoyed another DR beach together.

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8) LOOK FORWARD IN HOPE.

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As gentle waves lap the shore the clear, calm waters of the Caribbean invite reflection.   Remembering happy times, even hard times, reminds us of all we’ve overcome to get to this place which strengthens us to face, even greet what lies ahead.

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Scan the horizon knowing that good is coming.  In studying Spanish I realized this week the roots for esperanza, hope, and esperar, to wait or to expect, are the same.  Faith says to wait, to expect with hope.

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On this lake is the Barcelo chapel where some couples marry.

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And on this pier, a group of friends waited for the bride and groom.

What are you waiting for?  Some things we can make happen.  Others we can’t, so we must trust, wait, and watch.  Traveling solo helps us figure out what we want and how, if in our power, to get it. What to hold onto.  What to let go of.  The beauty of this gorgeous globe  gives us peace in knowing the One who created it can work  all things together for good.

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9)  SEIZE THE DAY AS THE BEST SOUVENIR.

We must live in the moment.   I agree we can take so many photos trying to capture special times that they truly escape us.  Too much staging can kill just being, breathing the experience.  And yes, people may laugh at your selfies, but deep down most of us want to remember times we recognize as special pieces of eternity.   Even if you don’t typically like to have your photo taken, you will  want to remember that you were once in a beautiful place and felt more beautiful for it.  I promise.  Just as a mom says if the house were on fire and all people and pets were out safely she’d grab baby photos first, one day you’ll want to see yourself in a Caribbean paradise where you grew, changed–even use the photos as your screen saver–so you don’t forget how important it was–it is–to get away and enjoy gifts of beauty and adventure you’ve been given.

While in Punta Cana I read an article in More magazine called, When Looks Fade: An Exercise in Perspective by  Christine Lennon who interviewed “The Professionally Beautiful,” asking them how to age with grace.  Molly Sims, author of The Everyday Supermodel said:

“It’s funny how I used to look at a picture when it was taken and think, Ugh, I look awful.  You look at that same picture five years later, and you think, Dang.  I looked pretty good.”

A friend in her 40s recently had professional photos taken to remember this time in her life.  My mom did the same in her mid-30s.  I get it.  Even if you shy from the camera, the best souvenirs of any vacation are photos which capture living -in- the- now forever.  At a Caribbean resort photo opps are everywhere and you’ll see many taking advantage of it.  Don’t be shy.  Help a solo traveling sister out.  Ask if she’d like you to take her picture and ask her to take yours.  Hotel staff will kindly oblige as well.

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Whatever your age or style–girly girl, Bohemian Babe, or mermaid, wear something–maybe a new frock found in shops on the complex– that makes you  smile.  Though I brought a tropical dress with me–a TJMAXX special–I was thrilled to see new styles of two brands I fell in love with in Spain (Mele Beach in Tarife and Desigual in Vigo) sold at the Barcelo Punta Cana complex.

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Mele Beach

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My inner flower child loves this.

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This brand colors my world.

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Desigual

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The beach is your runway.  Get creative.  Take the plunge.  You’ll be glad you did.

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10)  TAKE A PEACE OF PARADISE HOME WITH YOU.

Peace.  Going solo to a Caribbean resort will convince you of what research shows.  Though too few people take enough time off, those who do vacation return rejuvenated and more productive.  No matter the age.  For some of us, the prime time to go solo seems to be when we are trying to survive, even thrive after the nest empties.  We are “tweeners”and if we can’t take a gap year, a gap week works, too.  Soon–assuming we stay in good health–we may be needed to care for parents and grandchildren. Doing all we can to stay fit–physically, mentally, spiritually–is vital for the ones we love.

We are as young as we feel.  I loved seeing women my mom’s age doing Zumba in their bathing suits on the beach.  And about those photos and the freedom on your face they will reflect…

Christie Brinkley, 62 year-old author  of Timeless Beauty and former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model said, “Aging needs a huge rebranding campaign.  People still think of 60 and picture a granny with a shawl and bun.  We need to stop lying about our ages.  Go ahead and say your number; then you’ll reshape other people’s images of that number.”

Likewise, when people ask in disbelief, You traveled to the Caribbean alone? say, Yes and smile.  They may need to be freed, too.

Special thanks to Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort for an amazing experience.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

 

 

 

Dream Riad in Marrakech for Weddings, Writing, Wellness

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Making a grand entrance must have originated in Marrakech. Crossing that first threshold from the manic Medina into a roofless riad respite– blue skies or stars above—is a moment no one ever forgets. I am still thrilled every time I follow surreptitious streets snaking through the medieval city… duck archways and dodge motorbikes, donkey carts, and darting cats… then knock on a heavy wooden door that slowly swings open into a secret, peaceful place.

But for me, entering the world of Riad Emberiza Sahari was epic.

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One of those surreal experiences when so much of what my heart loves to see, hear, taste, and touch materialized like magic. Here classic French Elegance, Hollywood’s Golden Age Glamour, and Desert Dreams meet…a rhapsody in blue.

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Welcomed warmly by owner Alexandra Richards, I could hear past the streaming foyer fountain Mancini crooning “Moon River” to a chirping courtyard chorus. Named for the Emberiza family of birds indigenous to South Morocco and considered sacred in Marrakesh, the boutique hotel that took two years to renovate was guarded by these feathered friends. They had comforted Alexandra who moved from Melbourne and found the process, like other expats building a new home in a foreign country, fraught with frustrations. A Barrister of Queen’s Counsel, the highest appointment and level of professional recognition in Australia, the Human and Civil Rights attorney is, no surprise, a strong, smart Leading Lady of her new life. But she is also a woman of beauty, style, wit and grace and reminds me of Big Screen legends like Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway.

When I asked what moving to Morocco taught her, she replied:

“One thing I have learned here is to ‘never say never and never say always.’ I believe Talleyrand said this of politics and war. I would say it of everything here.”

 

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To a musical mix of Moroccan, French, and Frank (Sinatra), I wandered the riad as slowly as the turtles who live there, delighting in the details—gorgeous artwork, antiques, bedding, and baths. As I climbed the stairs to tiered terraces, then the rooftop, I could imagine Truman Capote working or Holly Golightly playing here. Riad Emberiza Sahari is a venue for artists’ retreats, weddings and social gatherings, solo or romantic escapes, and the ultimate girls’ getaway. Offerings include excursions, cooking classes, massages, yoga, or meditation.

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Alexandra and Kate, a friend who lived near her in Melbourne though they never met until each moved to Marrakech.

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As darkness descended the riad became even more magical–the pool and fountains dancing, flickering,  reflecting lights and candle flames to classical music.  We talked at table under orange and lime trees about our love for our children and for this strange, irresistible city.

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I would return months later for Kate’s birthday and always look forward to seeing Alexandra. She inspires me as a woman of reinvention, as one who followed her dream and created an oasis where others can rediscover theirs.   Riad Emberiza Sahari is the manifestation of who she is and what is right with the world– a dramatically beautiful, comfortable, and peaceful place.

Alexandra: “I agree with Winston Churchill that ‘Marrakech is the most beautiful place in the world.’ But a place of great beauty AND great ugliness, a place of contrasts and contradictions. Therefore it never lets you alone and you always know you are alive.”

 

 

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.

A New Perspective

photo (14) “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”–Henry Miller

Sundays are delicious days.  Finally, the work-weary can feast on time.  We say of Monday, the most unpopular day of the week, we’ll “hit the ground running.” We lament that until the weekend we “won’t have time to turn around.”  But today I do.  And I did.

In Nashville, Sundays began on my deck under my grandmother’s quilt.   In the trees I’d rest, recharge and remember. There God lifted my gaze from problems to possibilities.  I’d later walk Ella, ready to face the world again with faith, love, and hope. As if she’d never seen the familiar greenway, she’d strain at the leash leading me.  I’d, too, with new eyes, see panoramic beauty on our path.

In Marrakech, today began on my balcony in a handmade chair delivered on the back of a motor scooter.  My feet propped on a pouf under a Moroccan wedding quilt, I was reminded in my quiet time of the same promises. But this time my chair  faced a different direction.

Last August when I stepped on my new balcony,  I took a quick look down the alley both ways.  At one end I saw cluttered buildings and satellite-covered rooftops.  On the lower end, nearer my apartment, I saw pretty palm trees, green space, and hills in the distance. I loved that view and have looked that way each time I stepped outside since.

But today, I looked the other way.

I couldn’t believe it.   There they were.   My favorite site in Marrakech–The Atlas Mountains–strong and beautiful, peered back at me as I stood, amazed.Atlas Mountain Though hidden behind summer heat and sand when I moved in, they must have shown themselves last winter.  They had been there all along. For months I could have enjoyed them on clear days, if only I’d looked a different way.

Two years ago, my friend, Kim,  gave me this Marcel Proust quote on a porcelain plaque.  Neither of us knew I’d be moving to a French- speaking country: “Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux.”  Translated, it means, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

A friend asked yesterday what I’ve learned most since the move. I said I realize now that understanding people and places takes time.  That just when I couldn’t be happier and think I have this thing of living cross-culturally “all figured out,” a situation or person disappoints me and I feel I’ve slipped back to square one.  But if I take a breath–my yoga class helps with this–release, pray,  I realize  I just need to step back. To wait and watch.  To be patient with circumstances and others.  And with myself.

Sometimes we find beauty, as I did, at the end of the street and are satisfied to stop looking for more.  Contentment is good and being thankful for what we do have even better.   Settling is not.  Knowing the difference is hard.  Sometimes we aren’t ready to see something even better–wouldn’t recognize it–even if it appeared.  Others we scan the horizon in faith, in expectation for a vision for our life, a deep desire, a dream planted in our hearts long ago to be fulfilled.  Today before stepping outside I was reminded though parts of the vision I have for my life tarry, to wait.  What I desire may be years away or right around the corner.  In the meantime, I’m thankful for my destiny and this day.

I’m still thankful for the pretty patch of green at the end of the street that continues to soothe me.  The sun sets there.  But I’m amazed to see today that it rises over the majestic Atlas Mountains, symbols of strength, gifts of beauty, within my vision. With patience, they revealed themselves when I looked up in a new direction.  When I could see.