Watch Episode One here or skip to sections which interest you marked below.
A lot of us are getting through sheltering at home by meeting online with old friends. I thank God for technology that bashes through borders during a pandemic. Looking back at how we’ve navigated change in the past can transform how we handle new norms in the present and future. Being grounded for many has been grounding–even if what we know about an invisible enemy seems to shift every hour. In Nashville we’ve been saturated with spring storms and power outages. Worldwide we’re assaulted with staggering statistics of death tolls and unemployment. So I’m wondering…
How are we doing? Reassessing life’s meaning? Seeking a new job or career? A new life? Needing to reinvent ourselves again?
I’d planned to start a podcast this summer but decided to first launch as a YOUTUBE series since we’re home on computers more than commuting to work or traveling. Welcome to this first episode where we’ll travel to Spain and meet my friend, Monica Fernandez Chantada, master of reinvention and growth, who shows us how she and her country are dealing with months of pandemic lockdown, social distancing, and unemployment. Her journey from a Corporate Human Resources position to International Teacher to Camino de Santiago Tour Guide to Life Coach will inspire you as she shares coping tips, travel go-to places, and the beauty of her backyard. She explains how saying “Yes!” changes challenges into adventures and offers to teach you Spanish online.
Moni will walk us through her province of Galicia, Bucket List worthy for its mountains, coast, Celtic ruins, wine, and wonderful people. Through here pilgrims since the 9th century have traveled to the Cathedral in Santiago on the Camino or St. James’ Way–backdrop for the Martin Sheen movie (trailer below). We’ve walked three continents together and I’m still inspired by her journey and spirit. I think you will be, too.
If you’re planning a getaway for when the coast is clear and up for a Camino or stay in Galicia, check out options at Moni’s company, Spanish Steps, and/or stay in her home in Vigo where she’s a Superhosthere.
11:30 How to Reinvent a Life (Again) From Journalism to Working in Corporate Human Resources Job to Teaching Spanish is the US to Camino de Santiago Guide “I always say ‘Yes!’ Every challenge, I take it!”–Moni
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 HUGEbecause, 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.
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 calledChérie, 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.
Lesson #5Expecting 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.
For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.
Once upon a time… before watching Game of Thrones or touring castles in Europe… I taught my children and literature students tales of fairies, dragons, and knights. That chivalry must never die and dreams do come true.
There I tried to teach my son and daughter archery as my dad had tried to teach me. I still remember the archery tournament in Kentucky where he’d won the “Robin’s Hood Award” for hitting the bull’s eye with his first arrow, then splitting that arrow with his second shot. He wanted me to compete in contests, too. No pressure. 🙂
Two decades later… a couple of weeks ago my daughter chose to celebrate her birthday at the Fest where we watched jousting and my son handed me a bow and quiver of arrows to see if I could still hit a target. Last weekend I returned to finally meet the man who created the beloved tradition that throngs of folks enjoy–many in costume–yearly.
Mike Freeman greets guests outside Castle Gwynn, located on forty acres he bought in 1976 near Triune. Friendly, fun, and sincere, he tells the inspiring story of a lifelong quest:
The first two most commonly asked questions are, ‘Do you live here?’ Yes I do. For the last 31 years I’ve lived here with my wife, Maggie, and our 2 dogs. The 2nd most commonly asked question is, ‘When are you going to get it finished?’ The answer: ‘When one of you wins the lottery, please remember me!’ I’ve been doing that for the last 34 years. It hasn’t worked yet. (laughs)
In 1970 I was a senior in high school who drew my dream house, a castle, in architecture class. Being a poor boy from Flat Rock, the only way I could do it was to build it myself. I am proud to say I built something from scratch, which means I started with zero. I did have a lucky break. By chance I got into photography my senior year of high school. My next door neighbor had been in Viet Nam and won a camera in a poker game and had forgotten how to work it. The deal was to learn how and teach him.
He did, and by graduation of his senior year, he photographed senior prom. Next he worked for a photography studio that needed 13 high school composite shots done in a month.
I got it done for them, and it only took me only 360 hours—90 hours a week. I used to think that was a lot of hours until I went into business for myself. (laughs) It you are willing to work 12-18 hour days, I guarantee that you can do absolutely anything in the world if you want to bad enough. I proved that, but to say I did this all by myself would be a gross exaggeration. I had a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people to make this dream possible including yourselves for coming out to the festival this year.
He gives credit to his wife, Jackie Harmon, who he married in 1988, the first wedding held at Castle Gwynn; to his parents, and to a master mason and his four sons who worked with him weekends for almost two years laying the brickwork in the kitchen. They started with 8 brick arches, but by the time they finished, they had 60 of them. 14,000 bricks Hosting four weddings helped with the cost. For the full story and credits of building the castle, go here.
I asked Mike what inspired a high school senior to want to build a castle. He said when he was five, his father returned from WW2 with a book of postcards of castles along the Rhine River. I asked if any movies or books were influential, and he immediately said Charlton Heston’s The War Lord, a 1965 film about Medieval warfare in 11th century Normandy. His interest in history and sense of humor can be seen throughout the property.
No costume? No worries! But if you want one… there are many on site.
I confess I returned, too, to stop by the Lady Smith Jewelry booth to look again at her cameo mermaids and sterling silver Celtic pieces.
The Fest runs yearly every weekend of May through Memorial Day. Check schedule for jousting, shows, and castle tours. Vendors for food, beverages, rides and games accept cash only though the admission gate and some vendors accept credit cards. Other Rules of the Realm are here. Stop by, sit a spell, and enjoy the magic.
Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Have you vowed that writing will be a priority in the new year? Do you have travel tales you would like to tell? Are you ready to make new memories and create the ultimate souvenir–remembrance–of a time and place you never want to forget?
Whether you are just starting to write or a pro honing your craft…wanting to journal your journey in a an exotic land or transport others with a travel narrative piece… this writing retreat is for you.
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco provides me with as much rest, adventure, and inspiration. While living there 2014-16, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. I returned Summer 2018 to some of my favorite writing spaces to prepare this retreat for 2020 when I can share them with you. I hope you’ll join me for a Beauty Break for the Soul.
Journaling beside mosaic courtyard fountains, writing in the salon and outdoor terraces of a private riad, and reading your work on the rooftop overlooking the medina.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs:
photo walks with a community of explorers
prompts for journaling your journey
beautiful spaces to recharge, relax, reflect, create on your own
study of the craft of travel writing, analyzing works of master storytellers inspired by Morocco who infused elements of journalism, personal essay, narrative, and poetic prose.
Workshop and instructor feedback
a rooftop/salon reading
5 Sessions: Craft/Prompts/Workshop with Feedback
One-On-One Session with Instructor
Rooftop or Salon Reading of Your Work on Final Night of Retreat
7 Nights in Private Suites (5 in Marrakech in Private Riad and 2 in Essaouira
Private Transportation to Essaouira and Berber home near Toubkal, largest mountain in northern Africa, for mule trek, class, and lunch on terrace
4 Dinners (one in the former palace of “Lord of the Atlas,” Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956)
Spots are limited. Contact me at email@example.com to reserve a place or ask questions.
Not Included in Package/Paid by Participant:
Proof of Travel Insurance
4 Lunches, 4 Dinners, Tours/Activities during Free Time
Local hotel tourist tax collected by riad and villa
*Signifies lunches and dinners not included in package price
Arrive in Marrakech by Noon
Transport to Private Riad/Welcome with Moroccan Tea and Pastries
Lunch together at Amal Women’s Center
Neighborhood walk (We are located near some of the best spas, shops, and restaurants in the Medina.)
Dinner Together at Riad
Breakfast at Riad
Guided Medina Tour/Photo Walk
Lunch Together at my Favorite Rooftop Lunch Spot near Koutoubia Mosque and Jemma el Fna Square
Dinner in the Former Palace of the “Lord of the Atlas”
Resort Pool Day with Lunch—Palais Namaskar or La Maison Arabe Cooking School/Country Club
*Dinner on own (May be ordered at our riad for 20 Euros. Many other options including fresh produce, local bakeries, groceries, mall food court, and restaurants/cafes at all price points. Next to our riad is the iconic La Maison Arabe and its jazz bar.)
Private transfer to Berber Village near Toubkal, highest point in Atlas Mountains and Northern Africa. We’ll mule trek to a Berber home where lunch and class will be held on the terrace.
Medina and ramparts walk (*Lunch on your own—many cafes and fresh seafood served at port stalls)
Dinner on Rooftop above the Sea
*Lunch and *Dinner on Own
Return to Marrakesh
Free day to write or explore/*Lunch on Own
Suggestions: Shopping, Yoga, Hammam/massage, Pool Day (resort or near riad near Medina), Jardin Marjorelle. Contact me prior to trip if interested in volunteer opportunities in Marrakesh, such as Project SOAR or Mule and Donkey Rescue .
Dinner together at Riad—Salon or Rooftop Readings of Your Work
Transfer to Airport
About Your Instructor:
I live in Nashville, Tennessee where I’m a writer and have taught university writing and literature courses for thirteen years. I’ve led educational trips abroad for over two decades, and my Travel Tales course at The Porch, an independent writing center for adults, has been a best-seller. Please see my portfolio for links to freelance publications and Southern Girl Gone Global collaborations with travel brands and tourism boards. Southern Girl Gone Global was named a Top 50 Travel Blog of 2016 in the UK and has been featured by US News and World Report, Expedia and Orbitz.
When not on the road or in the classroom, I’m spending time with my grown kids, the loves of my life; dancing salsa with friends; storytelling about my travels ; and writing my No-Mom-Left-Behind memoir, Roses in the Desert. More of my story here.
Know someone who may be interested in joining? Please share this post and brochure below.
Yesterday at Dickens of a Christmas in Franklin with my sister and brother-in-law, I ran into Edy, our wonderful Airbnb hostess last summer. She asked why I haven’t been posting on the blog.To her and other readers, I apologize. Reentry into the US over the last six months after three years abroad has been an adventure in itself. So much has happened which I’m still processing and will be part of the memoir I’m writing. And, yes, I’ve been away from the blog and all of you too long.Thank you, Edy, for sharing my Nashville Guide with guests and encouraging me to post this…
In the morning I watched the geese from the door through the mist, sailing in the middle of the pond, fifty rods off, so large and tumultuous that Walden appeared like an artificial pond for their amusement. But when I stood on the shore they at once rose up with a great flapping of wings at the signal of their commander, and when they had got into rank circled about over my head.—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Mom and I watched the geese from the patio as they picked through grass by the pond. The week after Thanksgiving had been quiet. As much as we loved having my grown kids with us, we hated seeing them go. Determined to have everything done before they arrived so I could savor time with them and too excited to sleep, I was in the kitchen till 1 AM the night before, cooking and binging on Outlander.We blinked and only leftovers in the freezer were proof that the holiday really happened. Now Christmas calls. But as I walk Ella over crunchy leaves beside still waters at Edwin Warner Park, I remember not only being there with Cole and Brittany Thanksgiving Day, but how nature reminded me all fall I’m never alone. I’m grateful for last autumn—my first in three years.And I thank God that I spent much of it in my own Walden Woods.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden or Life in the Woodsafter living in a 10’ X 15’ cabin beside a pond for two years, two months and two days.Though I’ve never been to Walden Woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, I’ve been inspired by Walden and so have my students. Thoreau was the original American minimalist. I’m learning to follow his advice to “Simplify! Simplify!” and after living in apartments three years while abroad I have grown accustomed tosmall spaces. I’ve culled and curated my material possessions which were packed into 1800 square feet for over twenty years, then a storage unit until I moved back.
I moved home and had no house.Virginia Woolf was so right when she said women need a room of their own—or at least room, space— to write, create, think, breathe.I am grateful for three months spent with my mom in my hometown as I job searched, then began teaching university and college English. At the end of September, I finally settled in Nashville, where I call home.I was able to focus on writing my memoir of the three years abroad–why I went and why I returned. Surrounded by peace, quiet, nature, I could hear God, my Muse, again.
My “tiny home” is 785 square feet beside three quiet lakes where geese greet me each morning. Minutes away is Percy Warner, Cheekwood, and the Harpeth River. I craved green space while in Santo Domingo where my apartment had no outdoor area and was surrounded by loud, relentless traffic and high-rise condos. When I returned to Nashville, I ironically found much of the same.
Friends and family warned that Nashville had grown and changed. Drastically. But last September I managed to find a place where I now see deer on daily walks.A couple of weeks ago, after all the leaves had fallen, I realized I could finally see into the woods.At the moment I looked up, peering past the pine trees, I saw on a shag carpet of burnt orange and brown leaves two of them staring back at me.On Thanksgiving Day we saw a buck snorting through the woods not far for where we walked Ella. The next day, Cole spied three deer while sitting on my living room couch.
Here I watch cardinals, bluejays, and finches take turns at my bird feeder and chipmunks enjoying seeds that they drop to the ground.A covey of doves feed there, too, reminding me again that although I have no idea what 2018 holds, I have peace. I still miss my home of 21 years which I sold in 2016.I always will and still can’t bear to drive by.But I believe I made the right choice and am where I need to be.In stillness I’m moving in the direction of my dreams.
Since moving home last June it has been a journey, and on it goes—a new season in a new life which a former coworker in Morocco called “the new new.”With all the change over the last 3+ years—4 schools and 4 addresses in 3 countries—I’ve not posted on the blog as much since I lived in Morocco.I’m writing a memoir that will explain, as I continue to understand, all that happened there and in the Dominican Republic, and what is happening now as I repatriate and try to create a new life in Nashville.
For me, moving to foreign countries was easier in many ways than making a new life in what used to feel so familiar. Career transition can be one of the scariest moves of all.Trading the security of what we’ve always done for what we now want to do is risky. I’d been in a classroom Monday through Friday since I was five. It was time. Teaching as an adjunct gave me a season to prioritize writing though I still put in eleven-hour days commuting to two schools twice a week. I missed full time pay and travel, but taking a timeout meant more time with Taylor who lives nearby and Mom who needs me now. And more time to create the life I imagine.
At Belmont University I designed and taught a course called “Long Way Home: Essential Journeys.” Truly life is like a web of adventures radiating to and from a center—home. I believe our Creator is home. That He lives within and guides us on journeys uniquely designed for each of us to become the person he or she is meant to be. My students chose journeys out of their comfort zones they felt would positively impact their lives. They researched the benefits and risks, the how-tos and whys, and for a month carried out their quests. We had focused on narratives and memoirs, particularly Cheryl Strayed’s, Wild.Check out the book and the movie it inspired produced by Reese Witherspoon, a Nashville girl, who played the lead. Cheryl’s journey — hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone—was a physical and spiritual task. What she learned wasn’t so much about the finish line as what it took to cross it. It always is.
They shared the challenges and takeaways of playing instruments, learning sign language, serving in the community and beyond. They practiced yoga, veganism, and ran, boxed, rock-climbed, and hiked their way across Nashville. One student after learning to play the guitar changed her major from Music Business to Music Therapy; others sought counseling to heal old wounds so they could move forward. They challenged each other to use less social media to make friends in real time and get more sleep.
Like my high school students who had completed The Deliberate Life project from Music City to Morocco, students at Belmont taught me a lot. So did my night classes at Vol State where I enjoyed working with adults who gave their all despite full time jobs and responsibilities to their own families. Students who believed an education would help them follow Thoreau, too, who said: “Go confidently in the direction of your dream. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
“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:
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.—Charles Dickens
The best thing in my life is my family and friends. The worst? School is kind of stressful. I still don’t know what I will major in.
I love how the older I get the more freedom I get. The only problem I have is that I want to do lots of activities outside of school but I don’t have the time for them.
The best? Friends, learning, freedom. The worst? The fact that we are getting closer to the end of high school and I feel I don’t have enough time to prepare.
The best is growing, maturing, learning, focusing on my future. The worst is stress over AP classes.
The best of times is having as much fun as possible my last year in high school; the worst of times is all the college applications and SAT exam.
The best is knowing in order to be happy, you have to accept change and the fact that if you do not make yourself happy, nobody will. I always keep in mind that if I am not happy with what I have now then I will not be happy with what I want to have. The worst of times? I wish I could change this cruel world we live in and create a world that welcomes people and doesn’t despise them. Anyways, I can say that I am positive 99% of the time but to the other 1% I am not because I know I cannot change the world by myself and make it better.
The best is I am on good terms with nearly everyone and I know my nails are always on point. The bad? Nothing.
These were my students’ responses last fall on the first day of school to Dickens’ quote. I had taught all but one class the previous year, so after hugs hello as we filed in from summer break, they wrote how they were feeling about the 2015-16 school year. I taught an American college preparatory English curriculum so we read, discussed, and wrote about nonfiction, poetry, and classic protagonists from Oedipus to Oscar Wao. We discussed the connection between literature and their own life stories.
Unlike the students I’d taught in the US, they were all fluent in Arabic, French, and English and all would greet me with a “Hello, Miss! How was your weekend?” and most leave with a “Thank you, Miss. Have a nice day!” The majority came to class discussing the latest news in world politics. At the beginning of the US Presidential race they knew more about the candidates than I did and when one candidate said all Muslims should be banned from entering the US, they asked why he hated them so. Since our school prepares them for acceptance into US, Canadian, and European universities, they wondered how this would affect them in the future—how they’d be treated if they attended school in the US. But overall, they were like all teens I had taught. Their concerns shared with me most often involved relationships with friends and family and the desire to do well in school.
Student life in Marrakesh represents a tale of two cities. The disparity between opulence and poverty is immense. My students were incredibly privileged compared to most of Morocco where over 60% of females don’t attend school past primary grades and many children of both genders don’t finish school. My students had drivers and maids who got them to class and parents who expect them to attend the best universities as is the tradition of our school. Many plan to bring the education they receive outside Morocco home to improve conditions in their country for all. Their clothes, movie, and music choices are influenced by western culture but they observe the practices and holidays of their country’s religious and historical culture. They are tolerant of and respectful toward the beliefs of foreigners.
Morocco is known for its tolerance of other religions and in Marrakesh, Muslims live and worship beside Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Likewise, the King and his forces are determined to protect the country from terrorists and subjects work together in a way Neighborhood Watch function in the US. They look out for one another and in Marrakesh areas where tourists frequent are under high security. And just as schools in the US have emergency drills, we prepared our students should intruders ever get past our guarded gates.
Our students enjoyed showcasing their art, music, and acting. They competed in Model UN conferences collaborating over global problems, did community service, and hosted soccer tournaments. The end of the year included senior skip day, water fights, outdoor games and an assembly where those of us leaving were sat on stage to be roasted about our quirks and classes. Their personal, public thank yous made me sob. We laughed about stories of them as well—such as the shark that kept eating my AP students (those who went MIA with senioritis) or the Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party scene my drama students performed for the kindergarten kids. Though very talented they became a mad tea party since up until the day of the performance only one student showed up for rehearsals in proper costumes (though the March Hare said he had one but had washed it and it was still wet.) When it was showtime, the White Rabbit (out two months with a knee injury) taped paper ears to his hair, the Mad Hatter borrowed a wool, tasseled cap, and our original Alice ended played the Caterpillar while the original Queen of Hearts played Alice. Their audience loved the performance and I loved working with them.
At the end of the year, I asked my students grades 9-11 (the seniors had already graduated) what they wanted the world to know about Moroccans. Most had lived in Morocco their entire lives, but a few had moved there from other countries, such as Italy, Spain, the US, Russia, France, and Canada.
We don’t ride camels.
We are Muslims but we are not terrorists. We are very peaceful and friendly.
Most Moroccans are kind and caring.
Moroccans give a lot of importance to family.
We are very fun and energetic. We like to go out with friends all the time. We enjoy company.
Moroccans are very grateful for what they have and always thank God.
Moroccans always help people from other countries even if they can’t speak the language.
Moroccan ladies cook very well and usually cook a lot even if there are only a few people eating.
Our food is amazing. We eat cous cous every Friday.
Moroccans are very generous when it comes to sharing stuff with others.
Not all Moroccan women wear Hijabs.
There are a lot of people who are poor and need help.
People always give you a warm welcome and help each other.
We tend to love larger women and having kids is a blessing for us.
It is not always hot here. We have snow on the Atlas Mountains.
Men love cafes.
We accept people for who they are regardless of their religion.
We tend to be late.
I want people to know that not all Moroccans are late.
Answers like the last two are reminders that not all students or people from the same country—any country–see everything the same way. It’s natural, I suppose, to try to quickly assess a place—“get a read” on the culture when moving abroad in an attempt to assimilate. I did. And I was often wrong. Many of my students were bursting with energy and highly social—too talkative in class I felt at first. But as is always the case in the classroom, a closer look and listen led to relationship that always brings a deeper understanding. As teachers we are often so busy with the more vocal students we miss those who are silent. Two of my quiet students wrote of their fears for a new year, reminder again that when we say “All teenagers are …” or “All Americans or Moroccans or People are…” or when we assume speaking up is easy for everyone we are sadly mistaken.
Anxiety is something you can’t really control. I am a very shy and anxious person. I don’t like being put on the spot, presenting, or talking to a crowd of people. When I do I get flustered, my heart rate rises, I turn tomato-red, and I can feel the blood run through my face. I try to do things to reduce my anxiety but I still feel the same way.
Being a teenager in a a world where you get judged by the slightest mistake you make doesn’t make my life easy and then comes the part of having to impress everyone which makes me have anxiety and panic attacks. My anxiety is starting to take over my life by making me cancel plans and not do things because there will be people that I don’t know. I’m happy for my friends. They get me through the bad times. They are my family. The other thing I’m happy for is the fact that I can go to school and I’m healthy.
When asked what they’ve learned by attending ASM , my ninth graders, a gregarious bunch said…
I’ve learned multiple languages and about the history of the world.
I’ve learned about other students’ cultures outside of Morocco–how they live, what they wear, what they eat.
No racism or bullying allowed.
Accept people for who they are and work hard.
I think that if I grew up in another school I would not be as open as I am today and by open I mean to new ideas.
Being in an international school is fun and interesting. You get to learn about other cultures.
And they made suggestions for tourists in Marrakesh—a must-see list and safety tips on which they generally agreed:
Splurge at El Mamounia or stay in a riad in the medina.
Do excursions to Terres d’Amanar , the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. Visit more cities if possible because each has its own story and character.
Mind your purse and don’t walk and talk on your phone.
Taxi drivers and some salesman in souks will try to charge tourists more.
Mint tea and Argan oil make nice gifts to take home.
As I was writing this my daughter read all their responses and asked me to express gratitude to my students for the kind treatment I received. To them I say again, thanks for the memories!
ASM Mission Statement The American School of Marrakesh is a multicultural community of learners. We offer an American-style education with a thorough grounding in the Liberal Arts, Sciences and Technology, and a highly competitive preparation for university acceptance around the world, especially American universities. Our students strive for mastery of English and fluency in Arabic and French. Our mission is to foster excellence through critical thinking and creativity; build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship; and encourage lifelong learning.
For Those Interested in Becoming an International Educator Abroad…
If you want to make a difference/ be changed as an international teacher at ASM, go here and here. For more on life for teachers at ASM, go here. For how this journey began at a Search Associates Job Fair in Boston, go here.
Amazing Resources for Finding Your Fit at an International School
SEARCH ASSOCIATES represents most of the best international schools in the world. In the last twenty-five years they have placed over 32,000 primary and secondary administrators, teachers, counselors, librarians, and interns in schools abroad. Their school profiles list demographics of student and faculty population, teacher-student ratio, core curriculum, extracurricular activities, salary, benefits, living accommodations and moving allowances, estimated savings, and VISA information. Each candidate is assigned a representative to advise him/her on what to consider when seeking a school abroad and how to navigate interviews, job fairs, and contract negotiations.
Very similar to SEARCH, International School Services is another great option for seeking work abroad. Several friends and colleagues have used and recommend this service.
For my upcoming international assignment in the Dominican Republic I used TIE Online, another good resource for finding international schools around the globe and staying on top of issues and trends in global education.
Some schools, like ASM, provide candidates an online guide for new teachers on visas, cultural norms/history, shopping, medical services, gyms, social life, etc. Schools should offer personal email/Skype information for connecting with teachers at the schools to which you are applying. Talking to someone on the ground about cost of living, the quality of community among teachers outside of school, safety issues, whatever questions you have is invaluable. I was relieved to learn other than the FBI background check done beforehand the school would handle medical exams/residency card procedures, but remember every school is different and expats have different requirements according to their countries of origin.
Most international teachers sign two-year contracts. While some may want to stay in a school/location longer if offered another contract, many chose international education to see more of the world. Regardless, from the first international assignment, you will have a network of colleagues and supervisors who can put you in touch with schools where they have previously worked or where friends currently are employed. Because many teachers lead students on athletic or academic competitions abroad (as I did when I chaperoned the Model United Nations delegates in Russia) as well as attend professional training/conferences, connections are made at other schools/events as well. My main reason for taking the job in the Dominican Republic was its close proximity to family in Nashville, but I was tempted to accept an offer from a school where a former colleague teaches in Brazil. Once you make the move, you discover a world–literally–of job opportunities.
“What will be your moment this summer?” asked Jodie as eighteen coworkers sat Indian style on our apartment complex rooftop under a full moon.
A packed school year had ended with high energy and emotion— Moroccan Heritage Day, ASM’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Graduation, our final faculty meeting sending some of us off for summer…others for good. Tears, hugs, and kisses had given way to a mellow mood. I’d sat in circles with colleagues over the last two years not only discussing work but life. Good times gathered around turkeys at our annual Thanksgiving dinners, birthday cakes, desert camp fires, and pools…challenging times around family members sick at home or a loved one in a hospital bed in Marrakesh after an emergency appendectomy…confusing times as we wondered what was going on with sad world events and the US Presidential race. The next day we’d disperse all over the globe—many traveling for ten weeks and some going home for summer. I couldn’t imagine not seeing these people again in August at our annual Welcome Back rooftop cookout.
“So…your moment? What will be that thing you can’t wait to do?”
“Hang gliding over the fjords,” said Sylvie. We’d hiked in the mountains together and she biked to school—a trek that took our bus 30 minutes to make. She’d been to Nepal last Christmas, hosted our annual Thanksgiving meal in her apartment, and shown me an amazing French cheese store and bakery in our neighborhood.
“What about you, Jodie?”
“Driving a scooter on the coast of Crete,” she beamed. “You know, I can’t believe we are living this life. We’re going to Greece! I always thought if I did do something like that it would be the trip of a lifetime. Now we take school breaks and say, ‘Want to go to Paris? Tickets are $20.’” She sat beside her husband, Jordan, as she did daily on the bus. They had raised four children and now the empty nesters were loving their first year of freedom abroad. Their summer plans also included doing the Camino de Santiago alone. Both witty, she’d sit on the outside on the bus each morning energetically singing, laughing, and proposing we contact the show, “Pimp my Ride” to enter our bus for a makeover. By afternoon his soft –spoken zingers, naturally timed with hers, made them a comedy duo. Both have huge hearts and when they’d kiss each other bye as she turned down the kindergarten wing and he headed to the middle school to start their days, I smiled. Jodie and I had bonded as moms and bloggers. She’d recorded my southern accent reading a children’s book for her students and we’d held babies together at the orphanage.
“Jordan?” We looked at the other half of the Dynamic Duo.
“I’m excited about the history in Greece and I also look forward to just reading books on the beach.”
“Mike?” He’d taught in Ecuador last year and we all loved his one-of-a-kind laugh.
“Having a beer made at a monastery that has produced it since 1050.” He was meeting his dad in Germany and then would continue onto several other countries.
“Jason?” We turned to half of another kind couple.
“Seeing my new nephew who is now six months old,” he grinned. Jason had taught middle school in our English department, would be upper school principal next year, and headed a writing workshop at the beach last spring. I’d taken yoga from his Irish fiancé from Belfast, Siobhan, a doctor, blogger, and all-around Renaissance woman. They’d met in Costa Rica where he was teaching and both have hearts of gold.
“Thelma?” Thelma and Laurance, also empty nesters, had been in my yoga class and writing workshop. They’d owned a café in Nicaragua where she was from and had given me valuable tips on The Dominican Republic where they vacationed. Their daughter, pretty and sweet like her mother, was studying close by in Nice. Both dedicated teachers, Laurance was a talented screenwriter and made us laugh. Both helped me lighten up by encouraging me to sell my house as they had done to allow for travel and expat life in this new season.
“Seeing a national park Laurance and I have always wanted to visit in Croatia.”
“Rachel?” The age of my daughter, she sat beside me as she did most mornings on the bus. Eliza was sleeping strapped to her chest. She’d taught me how to do a bun I now call “The Rachel” because it saved me from heat and bad hair days. Her husband, Jon, had tutored me in photography and painting. He’d led the Marrakesh Photo Walk last fall and was an amazing artist who first came to Morocco to do commissioned work. I’d seen Eliza grow from a month old infant to a toddler in dog ears. We’d laughed and prayed together and I’ll miss them so much. They are moving to Casa.
“Seeing my mom again who has been sick. It will also be special for Jon’s grandmother to meet Eliza for the first time.”
Other destinations included Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Korea. We traveled every school break during the year and traded stories to plan future trips. My coworkers were from ten countries I can think of—probably more: Canada, Russia, Scotland, England, the Philippines, Australia, Portugal, France, Morocco, and the US. Fellow Americans were from Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Texas. They’d attended schools like Berkeley and taught previously from Alaska to Las Vegas to Harvard. Overseas they’d taught in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Europe, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East….
I hope Tennyson was right when he said, “I am a part of all I’ve met.” Though we are from different places, backgrounds, and religions and teach students aged three to eighteen, we are all committed to being part of something bigger than ourselves. Together we worked hard and tried to love each other and our kids well. We respected each other. We collaborated. We listened. We lived out hope before our students. To be part of the solution rather than shout and shame others over the problems. To mute voices that promote negativity, fear, hate. To believe in and fight for a world of peace and understanding. I’ll miss these guys and am forever grateful for the community.
“I’m glad I met you Cindy McCain. What’s your moment?” Jodie asked before I hugged her bye and headed down to my packed apartment. “Hanging out with your kids–a movie night in perhaps?”
“Exactly,” I smiled.
That was just over a week ago. As I post this I see on Facebook Ritchie thrilled to be with her aunt in Milan, Emily having a big time in Germany thanks to the kindness of strangers, Todd and Jose on the beach in Portugal, Jodie surrounded by statues in Crete with hands in the air giving Julie a shout out for her signature pose. Moments in Morocco and beyond. We’ll remember.
I will miss Ritchie, my dear friend, and my sweet neighbors across the hall, Christopher, who kept my Mac running and provided karaoke for everyone, Bevs who fed me Filipino cuisine, and their three little ones who grew so fast and made me laugh.
Just before our 7:15 AM commute, teachers dashed to the hanut (mini market) next to our apartment complex for egg sandwiches, clementines, or whatever else we needed for the day. Likewise, when we dragged off the bus at 5 PM needing water, gas for our stoves, vegetables for dinner, or fresh mint for tea, this young man welcomed us in with a smile and asked about our day. He and his brothers work seven days a week until 10 PM–always friendly no matter how high the temperature or how many locals stormed the counter.
Mary (below) and her husband own Les Jardins de Bala–my favourite Sunday lunch spot where Anu, another teacher, celebrated her birthdays and my guest including my kids loved. We taught Mary’s sweet son, and I enjoyed her French flair for fashion. On the right is a chic dress she designed for 200 DH/$20 USD which included the cost of fabric and a tailor. She is beautiful inside and out.
How I miss Sayida. She kept the Woods and me organized and was nanny to their three children. Coming home to a spotless apartment, clothes and sheets washed, and dinner ready and mint tea brewed was a treat I’ll never forget. Just before I left, she surprised me with this beautiful gift. She was a Godsend and a great friend.
International Women’s Day will be held again on March 8. Since 1911 the annual celebration recognizes women past, present, and future for their economic, political and social achievements as the United Nations calls for greater equality. This year’s theme is “Make It Happen,” and Project SOAR is doing just that in Marrakech.
The non-profit now not only serves girls at Peacock Pavilions but also has opened doors to women at a new center in the Dourar Ladaam village. Here local women can take health and fitness courses like the one offered last Thursday. Led by internationally recognized Pilates instructor, Mareile Paley, the course was translated by two of my students into Darija, Moroccan Arabic.
We all had so much fun making new friends and trying new moves. By the end of class we discovered we’d communicated in the same language throughout. Laughter.
To support International Women’s Day, go here. To support Project SOAR, go here.
The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life… The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights…–Pat Conroy, author and former teacher
Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, William Golding…writers who were also teachers. The latter based his classic, Lord of the Flies, on his classroom experience. The Harry Potter creator began her saga as an English teacher in my now-neighboring country, Portugal. (So almost did a legendary songwriter from my home in Nashville, Kris Kristofferson, who after studying literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, took an English position at West Point. Though he resigned to move to Music City it’s a fun fact for me to remember that he and Conray have Southern accents, too. I first worried about having the only drawl on staff until some of my new coworkers told me they like it.)
I have to remind myself that despite the demands of teaching, there is no excuse not to keep up with blog posts. As Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat told me in an interview when I asked how she managed to teach and write: “The way anyone finds time to do what they most want to do. The time is there. It’s just a matter of priority.” By the way, she taught at the school of one of two of my brilliant new English department colleagues, who, like the rest of the faculty, work really hard daily and care deeply about our students. One of the many firsts this new school year is being the only female and non-Brit of the department.
I’ve been teaching as long as I’ve been writing. After elementary school each day, I’d run from the bus to play teacher to my sole pupil, Granddaddy Ladd. My grandmother, Mama Lou, had taught in a one-room schoolhouse before she married, at a home for special needs children after my grandfather died, and in an elementary school until she was eighty. She gave me my father’s book, The Arabian Nights, from which I’ll teach a story this year alongside The Alchemist, a book that inspired my move to Marrakesh. Although I’ve been at this teaching-thing more than thirty years, the first day of inservice I felt like a kid again. Like a first grader, I had little idea of what to expect, and not since a ninth grader had I boarded a bus for school. Most of the teachers live in the same complex and ride the bus into work daily. Our stop is just around the corner. Since our school doesn’t have a cafeteria, teachers who don’t pack lunches pop into the hanuts to grab fresh baked bread or snacks for the day on the walk to the bus stop. I either take leftovers or, more often, though I’ve never been much of a bread eater I find myself stuffing a loaf into my backpack and pinching off pieces throughout the day; that, a Fanta, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water are plenty for me in summer heat.
My thirty-minute commute has rendered many firsts–passing a neighborhood mosque, posses of pigeons in parks, donkey-drawn carts of chickens, weary workers gathered around tea in an alley before work (we leave for school at 7:15 AM–an American school schedule that lasts till 4:30–atypical of Morocco where families eat dinner/sleep/open shops later). Terra cotta apartments topped with satellite saucers give way to suburban living– villas and turnoffs into spas and luxury hotels along a boulevard lined with bushes trimmed into poodle tails, palm trees, olive groves, and walls laden with cascading bougainvillea. As we turn off the now -country highway, the guards swing open the huge wooden gates. Our bus driver parks, we gather briefcases and bags and walk through the school’s orchard. After two weeks I still marvel at the beautiful building and massive grounds– the arched doorways, long stone hallways, private alcoves, scrolled iron balconies, and olive trees on the playground tempting children to pelt each other with olives. On Day One new teachers meet off the courtyard for inservice where most of the children eat lunch. Our headmaster reminds us we’re one of only five schools in Morocco recognized by the US State Department. We discuss the Mission Statement which begins, “The American School of Marrakesh is a multicultural community of learners.” True. My colleagues from Morocco, France, England, Scotland, Singapore, the Philippines, Russia, India, Canada, and many US states and assorted countries do work and life together, whether interpreting for the French and Arab teachers at faculty meetings; discussing curriculum on the bus or movies or vacations together at our Friday night rooftop gatherings; cheering on a colleague’s son who rides his bike without training wheels for the first time in our complex courtyard; or taking a coworker’s daughter home so Daddy can play Friday afternoon soccer after school with the faculty and staff. Like many 21st century schools, ASM strives to “foster excellence through critical thinking and creativity; build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship, and encourage lifelong learning.” But unlike most international schools, students are expected to not only master English and their native language but also become fluent in French and classical Arab (different from Darija, the local language). My room, which I now affectionately call “the annex” has its own private entrance. It’s beside the basketball courts and has its own rose garden at its doorstep. Last summer I made posters for “windows to the world” using my travel pictures to entice students to read world literature and embrace global citizenship. They want to know where I’ll take them and when, and I’ve assured them class trips are being discussed. My students are high energy–most movers and shakers (kinesthetic learners and/or highly motivated), social and warm–and they all greet me each period with a “Good Morning/Afternoon/Hello, Miss!” and bid adieu with a, “Thank you and have a nice day, Miss!” I really like them. I have 15 in my 9th Grade Advanced, and a dozen in my 10th Grade Standard, 11th Grade AP, 12th Grade Standard. I also teach an elective, Journalism.
And though my first couple of days the temperature was 108 degrees and I wondered how we’d ever manage without AC, the weather has dropped to the mid-90s and become bearable. In fact, the mornings have been 70 degrees and I love preparing for my day, windows open to nothing-but-green– soccer field in the front, flowers in the back– as my daily visitors, wee birds, fly in, land on the floor, and say hello. It also helps in a new place to be surrounded by not only new friends…but old ones, like Bronte and the crew, as well. The library is full of classics and other interesting reads. Teachers check out books regularly for pleasure. During inservice we were treated to hot mint tea, pancakes, and pastries, and catered lunches of traditonal Berber tagines served on china. Yesterday we celebrated our first week of teaching with a high tea–mint tea, chilled strawberry and avocado drinks, pastries, and assorted almonds and other local nuts.
As students and teachers we get two new starts each year–one in January, the other now. Then again, we all can learn something new everyday for the rest of our lives. From the land of oranges, pomegranates, and figs, here’s to a fruitful year.