Morocco Retreat Summer 2021

Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi

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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.

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Imagine yourself with journal or laptop perched on the ramparts of the Atlantic coastal town, Essaouira  , formerly known as the Port of Timbuktu. Anything’s possible here, where goats (not pigs) fly.

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Imagine wide, open spaces where you write on the mountain terrace of a Berber village overlooking Toubkal, highest peak of the Atlas Mountains and northern Africa.

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Here Martin Scorsese filmed Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt.

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See your inner child (creative unconscious)  freed to play in pools and secret gardens. Or learning to cook from local ladies.

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Enjoy sharing over dinner with new friends.

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Taking a photo walk. Volunteering.

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.   

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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 BakerJimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas.  Here Laurence of ArabiaIndiana JonesGladiator, 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:

  • yoga
  • 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

Package Includes:

  • 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
  • Seaside Villa)
  • Airport Transfers
  • Private Transportation to Essaouira and Berber home near Toubkal, largest mountain in northern Africa, for mule trek, class, and lunch on terrace
  • Medina Guided Tour and Entrance to Bahia Palace, El Badhi Palace, and Jardin Majorelle
  • Free Time to Write and Wander
  • Luxury Resort Pool Day
  • 7 Breakfasts
  • 4 Lunches
  • 4 Dinners (one in the  former palace of “Lord of the Atlas,” Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956)

Spots are limited. Contact me at cindylmccain1@gmail.com to reserve a place or ask questions. 

Not Included in Package/Paid by Participant:

  • Airfare
  • Proof of Travel Insurance
  • 4 Lunches, 4 Dinners, Tours/Activities during Free Time
  • Alcohol
  • Tips/Gratuities
  • Local hotel tourist tax collected by riad and villa

Itinerary

*Signifies lunches and dinners not included in package price

Day 1

  • 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

Day 2

  • Breakfast at Riad
  • Class Session
  • Guided Medina Tour/Photo Walk
  • Lunch Together at my Favorite Rooftop Lunch Spot near Koutoubia Mosque and Jemma el Fna Square
  • Ensemble Artisanal
  • Writing/Free Time
  • Dinner in the Former Palace of the “Lord of the Atlas”

Day 3

  • Breakfast
  • Class Session
  • 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.)

Day 4

  • Breakfast
  • 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.
  • Stop on way back to Marrakech at Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot https://www.virginlimitededition.com/en/kasbah-tamadot for a *drink
  • *Dinner on own

Day 5

  • Breakfast
  • Private transfer to Essaouira
  • Check into sea villa
  • Medina and ramparts walk (*Lunch on your own—many cafes and fresh seafood served at port stalls)
  • Dinner on Rooftop above the Sea

Day 6

  • Breakfast
  • Class Session
  • Free time/Writing
  • *Lunch and *Dinner on Own

Day 7

  • Breakfast
  • 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

Day 8

  • Breakfast
  • Transfer to Airport

About Your Instructor:

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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.

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Rising from Travel Trauma

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caroline’s Rooftop

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Marylynn (left) and Martina (center)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I SAW YOU DANCING

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

Summer Travel: Courses That Will Transport You

Summer travel season is here–my favorite time of the year! PLEASE JOIN ME FOR A WAY TO SAVOR TRAVEL EXPERIENCES AT HOME in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center. GO HERE FOR DETAILS:  Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far  is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various  writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.

My Ireland- bound friend, Carol, sent me the poem below–a sendoff for sojourners– as I packed for Spain and Morocco.

Travel Lovers are everywhere. Recently I enjoyed another cooking class taught by Chef Paulette, I met a group of ladies who have grown close on her culinary tours of Italy.  As we braided bread in her kitchen, we bonded over a common thread: travel. We were transported to Italy again by four pasta dishes and tales of soul food…the beauty, adventure, and relationship… travel has given us. In Chef Paulette’s classes you can create delicious dishes, meet kindred travel spirits, and enjoy Italy at home.

Another way to savor travel experiences at home is in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center.  Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far  is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various  writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.

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See all Summer Classes Here.  See my course below here.

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Oh the Places We Will Go… and How We’ll Remember Them  

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Please join me in July! And for now, here’s some Italian inspiration and a travel blessing…

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Braided Puff Pastry Pecan Coffee Cake

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For more on Chef Paulette, one of my favorite people, go here. Her summer 2018 classes are sold out, but in August she’ll announce by email her fall schedule. If interested, go here.

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Whether taking a trip together in a Nashville kitchen or across the sea, food and travel are ties that bind.

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Antipasto Salad with Olives and Chunk Parmigiano

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Four spaghetti dishes:  La Spaghettata with fresh tomatoes and anchovy butter (my favorite), alla Carbonara, Aglio Olio (Garlic and Olive Oil) with Parsley and Red Pepper Flakes, and Lemony Garlic.

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Whether coming or going, enjoy the journey–what you experience while away and what you do with it when you return…

For the Traveler

–by John O’Donohue (Dec 05, 2016)

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

Taking a Timeout in a Tennessee Version of Walden Woods

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 Woods  after 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 to  small 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.”  

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Cheekwood
Cheekwood is minutes away–part of my Tennessee Walden Woods

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Edwin Warner Park
Ella loves our daily walks, especially at Edwin Warner Park.

Reading to ride at Bellevue Red Caboose Park
Ella is ready to ride at Bellevue’s Red Caboose Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ritchie, who is now teaching in Russia

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

I also hated that I couldn’t say goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celine, Kate, and Ritchie at lunch on Saturday

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Wisdom Wanted for the New Year

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It was a good day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply.

Humbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Lord. It was a good day.

Sunshine Blogger Award

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Just in time for Thanksgiving…I am thankful for this nomination and a chance to thank some bloggers who bring sunshine into my life.

When I was a little girl, my parents, sister and I ate every Thanksgiving at our grandparents’ house.  Mama Lou was the most positive person I’ve ever known.  I can still hear her singing to my sister and me, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey…” She was creative, loving, and fun.  She took us on our first trip to Paris via her rocking chair.  I am not always as positive, but I try to speak more from faith than fear.

Last month I was surprised and encouraged when I received a notification that I had been nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award. The nomination came from previous recipient and Sunshine Personified, Natasha, author of A Girl with Geography.  I was even more thrilled when I read her story. Born in St. Petersburg (the most beautiful city I’ve seen) and currently living in Paris (sigh), she inspires not only travel but the expat life as one who has traveled 38 countries and changed her country of residence 5 times in the last 9 years. I appreciate her kind spirit, love of learning, and honesty about the challenges of finding work/life balance. Most of all, I love her commitment to living an authentic, happy life.  Thank you for the nomination, Natasha!

Here are the rules for The Sunshine Blogger Award:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Answer the questions from the person who has nominated you.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award.
  4. Write the same amount of questions for the bloggers you have nominated.
  5. Notify the bloggers you nominated.

Below are my answers to Natasha’s questions—some tough ones. But first, here are 11 bloggers—some recently discovered and others old friends– who make my days brighter  by celebrating life, radiating hope, and pursing their passions.  Bloggers, I’d love to see your answers to the 11 questions at the bottom of the post (and yes, many of the questions I swiped from Natasha :).

  1.  The Londoner–long-time fav blog on one of my favourite cities.  I love Rosie’s  recipes, style, and travels.
  2. Assortment/On Living Well–Carmella is a gifted writer.  After the sale of my home last spring, reading her story of everyday blessings since downsizing to 665 square soothes like sipping tea.
  3. Kirstenalana.com Kirsten, American descendent of Swedish and Finnish immigrants, describes herself this way: “I’m a lover of culture and adventure…I’m a romantic and an optimist at heart.”  Her photography is stunning.
  4. Travelling the World Solo–Ellen is a 20-something Aussie and trained midwife on a mission to go to every country in the world. Join her journeys.
  5. Gypsynester.com–Americans Veronica and David prove that the empty nest is a beginning to some of the best years ahead.  Their sense of humour and adventures have won them rock star media attention.  I’ll always appreciate blogging advice they gave me one night while trying to navigate a storm.  Good people.
  6. ChefPaulette–New Yorker/now Nashvillean Paulette the Polymath is currently a celeb chef, painter, and performing artist.  She has more accolades than I can list here (but will in a later post from an interview I did years ago).  Everything she does is sunshine…pure gold…and I’m proud to call her a friend.
  7.  Mosaic Road–With a photographer’s eye, a writer’s wit, and uber energy Kate Woods is an Australian blogger living in Marrakesh.  She, too, is a dear friend, a chocoholic, and one of the most positive people I know.  We hope to meet up somewhere in the world for a trip soon.
  8. Handmade in the Heartland –Angela is a designer, Supermom, and one of the most creative people on the planet.  She recently was named Best Blogger in Kansas City–no surprise.  A friend who makes me laugh and a tv celeb, should she decide to list yet another goal in her planner–to run for President in 2020– watch out America.
  9. France Travel Tips–I met Jan at the European Travel Bloggers Exchange a couple of years ago and was immediately impressed by her sweet spirit and sincere desire to build her blog and share her love for France.  She is truly an authority on the country, having made 24 visits (and counting) there.   If you need help with trip planning, she’s your girl.
  10. Girl with a Dog and Good Shoes–Adrienne Chinn, another friend I met in Morocco, is a writer, interior designer, educator, photographer and dog lover.  Based in the UK, she is writing a novel I can’t wait to read; check out pictures of her garden and her haiku.
  11.  Synnove Holt.com–As sure as Synnove moves nomadically from Norway to Marrakesh to the Sahara Desert, anyone who says in her presence, “I wish I could…” will get her signature reply:  “Why can’t you?  You can.”  Though I’ve not attended one of her retreats, as her friend I can attest to her making you feel all things are possible.

Questions for Bloggers:

  1. For what/whom are you most thankful?
  2. What is your source for sunshine?
  3. What is your most important achievement thus far?
  4. What are you most passionate about achieving or learning in the future?
  5. What is the best advice you have on making a major life decision, such as career, family, moving abroad?
  6. What is the best advice you have for someone starting a blog?
  7. What is at the top of your Bucket List?
  8. If you could relive a travel experience, what would it be?
  9. What is the greatest risk you’ve taken? What were the obstacles and was it worth it?
  10. What is a book, movie, or quote that has changed your life?
  11. If you knew five years ago what you know now, how would you have lived differently?

Here are my answers to A Girl with Geography’s questions:

  1.  What would you love to know 5 years ago that you know now? (As you can see above, that’s my all-time favorite.)  I wish I had known five years ago (my son’s senior year of high school) that I would survive the empty nest and fly away to a new season of life, too. He was my younger child–his sister had already moved out– and I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with The Three Musketeers no longer under the same roof. I’d taught at the school they attended K-12. Though I had friends, family and work in Nashville, two years after he left I decided my house was too empty and silent, so I followed a dream I’d had for about a decade. I moved abroad. Since then I’ve lived in Morocco and The Dominican Republic and visited 11 European countries. That first Christmas I lived in Morocco my kids met me in London and we went to Marrakesh together—a holiday we’ll never forget. Nor will I forget the beauty and adventure I’ve experienced these last 2+years. Despite the challenges of living so far apart and, my children and I are as close as ever and we’ve all grown by learning to lean on God even more. I don’t know what lies ahead—which sometimes scares me—but I look back on all God has worked out and how far He has taken me the last five years and all is well and will be well.
  2. What was the one thing you were considering writing about multiple times but have not written yet?  A memoir
  3. If you could speak any new language – perfectly, today – what language would it be? Spanish.  I’m taking lessons but have a LONG way to go.
  4. What was one thing that surprised you about blogging? How therapeutic, fun, and important to me it would be. Also, I love that it puts me in touch with readers and other bloggers from around the world.
  5. What do you see as the most meaningful achievement of your life, to date? Being mom to Taylor and Cole
  6. What is the thing you regret not having done in past?  Hanging in my apartment are these words, “In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take.” I truly believe that, so I have tried to push past fear and take risks to avoid regrets. I do sometimes regret not getting a PhD as a path to teaching full time at the university level, but I have always been passionate about a full time writing career and school didn’t seem feasible or affordable while raising kids, working full time, and writing when I could. I sometimes regret becoming a teacher because it can be a thankless job, but when I think of how blessed I was to have my children’s schedule to spend more time with them and when former students reach out and tell me I made a difference it their lives, I don’t regret my career choice. Likewise, I loved acting and writing (still do) but when I was in high school it seemed to mean moving to New York or California solo to “make it” and I wanted a family more than anything. Thankfully, it’s never too late to follow dreams; the hard part for me is knowing where to focus energy next.
  7. What is your most important objective, for now?  I want to transition back to Nashville to be based near family and to do meaningful work based on my background in writing and education that will allow continued travel.
  8. If a day had 27 hours in it, what would you do with the extra 3? Write
  9. What are the three things (objects) you absolutely can’t do without? Bible, prayer journal, laptop
  10. What is the best life-work balance wisdom you have mastered by now?We work to live. We don’t live to work. I learned that from Italian, Spanish, and Latin American friends who speak of enjoying “The Life.” We need a balance of work, play, rest which is hard to achieve but necessary.I grew up an overachiever and still try to do my best at everything I do. When I started teaching, I worked summers, nights, and weekends grading and planning. This left me tired, frustrated, and not much fun. As a young wife and mother I tried to be perfect at work and at home which was exhausting and unhealthy. After my divorce I learned self-care and that my kids would remember quality and quantity time with  me—not a spotless house. Research confirms we are more productive, creative, happy and healthy (emotionally, physically, spiritually) when we find balance.  Having kids forced me to leave work at school. When they were little, we’d wheel into the driveway, jump out of the station wagon, and head for the swing set.  Work must come second to relationships—with God, spouse, children, friends, ourselves.  Most people I know work at least 40-50 hours per week. Though there may be periods where more time is required to finish pressing projects, most work will be there when we return the next day. People we love and our health may not be.

Seaside Escape in Essaouira

It was many and many a year ago,/ In the kingdom by the sea,/ That a maiden there lived whom you may know /By the name of Annabel Lee.–Edgar Allen Poe

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Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world/I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.   —Cat Stevens

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Last weekend I discovered the writing retreat of my dreams.

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My heart, churning like the waves beneath my rooftop terrace, was stirred, then calmed…pacified, then pounded… by the power and beauty of the ocean.  I am so thankful for a four-day break and a panoramic view of Essaouira, a seaport city with a rich history of surviving and thriving.

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Excitement mounted last Friday as I climbed seventy-three winding, tiled steps from the Medina’s ground floor to Number 7 of Jack’s Apartments.

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I’ve always loved studios

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and found this one with its balcony by the battlements perfect.

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Although the fog shrouded the sea, I could hear the waves crash and see the seagulls sweep the ramparts where Orson Welles filmed Othello. It was a scene Shakespeare-worthy, and I’m sure I caught a glimpse of Hamlet’s father’s ghost in the mists. In the 60s this town attracted Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens, music legends; more recently it lured HBO myth makers to set Game of Thrones Season 3 here.

Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador,

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was established as a settlement in the 6th century by the Phoenicians. It has been the conquest of Roman, Arab, Portuguese, and French rule.

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The “Port of Timbuktu” has weathered not only pirates but also the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, natural disasters that partially prompted Voltaire’s Candide. For more on Essaouira’s past and present, go here. Today it is an artists’ colony and home to the Gnaoua and World Music Festival.

The coastal town introduces itself gradually, inviting visitors to meander through shops without the pressure to buy as in the Marrakesh Medina.  Choosing this place where winds howl louder at the windows at night than at Wuthering Heights released in this romantic melancholy musings.

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On my first extended break since moving to Morocco, I was given the time and space to slow down, relax, breathe, grieve… and return stronger for it.

On Saturday and Sunday after drinking coffee in bed while watching waves, I climbed to the rooftop where my only distraction from writing was my imagination. I spied Annabel Lee’s “kingdom by the sea”—a castle rising from the ocean. I saw cats curling around canons on the ancient city wall, and like Pablo Neruda, I, too, felt “The Poet’s Obligation” to share this seaside adventure with you.

It began with reinforcement of a lesson I’ve been trying to master my whole life– lose the illusion of control. Move onto a Plan B, maybe a Plan C, but first relax and let Plan A go.

I’d tried to buy a return ticket in Marrakesh –twice—because friends told me finding a bus back on Sunday, the Eid-al-Adha, might be difficult. I chose the beach, two and a half hours from Marrakesh, to escape sheep slaughtered on my apartment’s rooftop, then hung to bleed on neighbors’ balconies.

The Feast of Sacrifice is a sacred holiday for Moroccans. My students’ families gather together to kill, cook, then feast on sheep in thanksgiving. They believe once Abraham proved his willingness to sacrifice his first son, Ishmael, God spared the boy and provided a lamb for the sacrifice instead.   They believe Ishmael, not Isaac, was the chosen one. I eat meat but did not want to see the sheep killed so I thought I was safe in an apartment hanging over the sea. I was anxious to get there but needed to secure my return ticket.

Following Supratours’ instructions to get one upon arrival, I rushed to the booking line. The kind French couple I met earlier that morning interpreted the message of the agent I feared. All tickets were sold out. I could take a taxi back Sunday or possibly find another place to stay Sunday night (my studio was booked). Hoping I could find a room for a third night, I bought a return bus ticket for Monday. I’d focus on first things first.

Walking out of the bus station, I looked for the shop where I was instructed to pick up my room key. I’d be staying at Jack’s Apartments, a property we call a “mom and pop” place at home. The sons of this mom and pop attend my school, and one is in my class. Seeing only the walls of the Medina and unsure of where to go, I struck a price with a man I assumed to be a cab driver offering to take me there. As he put my suitcase into a pushcart he explained cabs cannot drive into the Medina, so he took off and I followed through the gate, then down dark alleyways and tunnels through the Old Town. Counter-intuitively– having been taught to never follow a strange man to a strange place–I hurried to keep up as locals stared. Of course he took me to my destination where I was told a Sunday taxi could be arranged for 700 Dirham/$80 US dollars. Since that was the price of many rooms in town, I decided to try to find a vacant one and stay a third night.

But that first afternoon rather than scramble for a room for Sunday, I went to the seafood stalls, fresh catch squirming, chose a crab, cringed when its legs were snapped off, saw it cooked, and ate it.

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As I paid the bill, coworkers called inviting me to Beach and Friends, an outdoor restaurant near the camels.

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For the next two afternoons it was the group’s base camp for windsurfing, horseback riding, sun bathing, and lunch.

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I was glad I’d run into them as I checked in. Turns out they were staying in the B and B next to mine–we’d realized how close when we waved from rooftops. Friday I left the beach to stroll through shops in the Medina, then met them for dinner at Taro’s. I loved the fish, the live band, the lanterns lighting the rooftop, and being included.

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On Saturday morning there was good news and bad news. I booked a room and breakfast for $80 at Miramar by the Sea.

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But below my balcony on the ramparts, a boy had tied a sheep.  He kissed it and tended to it all day and into the next morning.

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On the terrace near my balcony, another lamb bleated, pleaded, and stared at me likewise.

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I decided to take off before noon on Sunday, the time I’d heard the killing would happen.

To take my mind off it, I focused on a group of girls, happy sentries, sitting and sipping wine on the wall below waiting for the sunset.

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One scampered up the watchtower as a friend snapped her new profile picture.

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They reminded me of my girls by the surf of South Beach and of my family on the lake late in the afternoon, of loved ones who sent me off in a big way and continue to support me weekly, even daily, on this new journey.

Sunday the sacrifice happened earlier than expected. I heard screaming from a building behind me, and as I locked my balcony to grab my bags, I saw what I was running from– the sheep on the ramparts was now spread in pieces across the stone.

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After dropping my bags at the new hotel I ate lunch across the street at Cote Plage. Salsa music played and the restaurant was full of families and couples. I remembered what a coworker said when I told him I was leaving the US. “Being able to travel will be great, but I wouldn’t want to do it without someone I love.”

I spent a couple of hours on the hotel’s beach alone. The Atlantic was beautiful but across it were family and friends I miss everyday I’m in Morocco. The sea broke me open as did the Caribbean when I went to Puerto Viejo solo. Beauty does that. I hope Rumi’s right…that wounds let the light in.   The salt water was healing.

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I’ve been told by a lot of people I’m brave. To be honest, using an ATM alone scares me. So does signing up for the Smart Traveler services and then reading precautions for Americans abroad. But most of all, wondering what the future holds scares me because I don’t want to travel alone…live alone… forever.  I guess the brave part is doing it anyway.

On the ride home today it again felt right to be in this strange land here and now. When Cat Stevens began singing “Wild World” from the bus driver’s radio I felt it was my song. And I’m not alone: I carry my loved ones in my heart as sure as there is One who has always carried me.

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“The Poet’s Obligation”– Pablo Neruda

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to who ever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weigh of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So. Drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of the windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

New School

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.

IMG_5417 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.IMG_5489 IMG_5399 IMG_5415

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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. IMG_3391 IMG_3390On 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). IMG_3388 IMG_3374     IMG_5411 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.     IMG_3376 IMG_3381 IMG_3382   IMG_3383 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.

IMG_3393 - Version 2   IMG_5428 IMG_5427   IMG_5430   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. IMG_5486 IMG_3400 IMG_3401 IMG_5426 The library is full of classics and other interesting reads.  Teachers check out books regularly for pleasure. IMG_5439 IMG_5438 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. IMG_5405 IMG_5424 IMG_3402

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    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. IMG_5521