When choosing a book or movie, I ask, “Where do I want to go?” emotionally and physically. Films and travel memoirs have shaped my Bucket List, transported me back to places I love, and moved me–literally–to live abroad for three years. Two of my first posts on this blog were movie reviews–one on Slumdog Millionaire set in India, and the other on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button set in New Orleans. I’m preparing to return to NOLA, so I just watched the latter again.
Souls knowing no age, the only constant being change, and life’s demand that we constantly let go are truths that have always intrigued and often frustrated me. At year’s end we nostalgically look back on what has passed and hopefully or anxiously look forward at what’s to come. The movie’s message is that because nothing is permanent on this earth, beloved relationships that last a lifetime, the ability to be grateful and present in fleeting moments, and the freedom to change our course and start anew are precious gifts.
I couldn’t believe as I watched the movie again that the words below were spoken first by Benjamin Button–a voiceover as the character traveled the world. I’d found them on a poster somewhere online which I bought and hung in my classroom in Morocco. Two of my students, inspired, drummed and sang them to a beat. They were headed to universities in the US, Canada, and Europe, and my colleagues, international teachers, changed schools and countries every two years.
These words are what I hope for my own children, for us all in the new year.
I read within a poet’s book a word that starred the page:
“Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage!”
Yes, that is true; and something more you’ll find, where’er you roam,
That marble floors and gilded walls can never make a home.
But every house where Love abides, and Friendship is a guest,
Is surely home, and home-sweet-home: For there the heart can rest.–Henry van Dyke
Since moving home from The Dominican Republic in June, life has been a blur. Two days after landing, I bought a car, braved Nashville traffic (the city has been growing by 100 people per day since I left three years ago), and began reconnecting with family and friends from Knoxville to Kentucky. Trivia Night at ML Rose, Knoxville’s Market Square and hiking trails, movies, and malls… Nashville’s live music of Santana, Phillip Phillips, the Goo Goo Dolls and my guys at the Irish pub …an eclipse, a wedding, salsa… a nine- month job search finally ends.
Nine weeks after landing I’ve put 5,000 miles on my car. Some days the journey home still feels long. Expats warn that when we reenter the US after so long away we find everything changed. Nashville is now a maze of high rise apartments and new restaurants and shops. Everything, everyone seems different, including me, because life is fluid, and the only thing constant is change.
This weekend marks the official end of summer–my favorite season which is partly why I chose to live in two warm-weather countries for awhile. But I’m also looking forward to fall–my first in a long time–to process all that’s happened. Today… I’m simply thankful for what has been, for what is, and for what is to come.
An unexpected highlight of the summer was when an Australian friend visited me in Nashville, allowing me to share southern hospitality. When I left Africa over a year ago, Kate said we’d meet up somewhere in the world soon. An empty nester like me, she arrived in Morocco a month after I did in the fall of 2014 to manage a riad. She’s still in Marrakesh in the apartment complex where I lived when she isn’t traveling the world or visiting her kids. When she decided to come “see the South” and me, I first said to wait until I am settled in a home again so I can make her feel welcome. But Kate, knowing what I had learned and already forgotten–that home is anywhere friendship abides and we are at peace…that we don’t put off for later blessings we are offered today–came anyway. I’m so thrilled she did.
At our first Airbnb our host had written the poem above on a blackboard by the door. Truly home is where friends, family, love abides. I’ve been blessed by family, friends, and strangers who have opened their couches, cots, and rooms to me all summer as I’ve been seeking what’s next. Likewise, what a blessing to share with my soul sister my roots. Seeing again where I am from through the eyes of someone who marvels at church steeples, Broadway, and town squares… at grits, gravy and cornfields… someone who danced for the first time in her life when two friends pulled her on the floor to merengue and now wants to take dance lessons… were moments like other summer pleasures and people who have given me wings again.
My next post, a downloadable Seven Days in Nashville: Homegirl Guide.
“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:
Six months after Whitney Houston’s death, the movie, Sparkle, a twelve-year project she co-produced, was released. It was a remake of a movie she fell in love with as a teen. The movie she’d hoped would be her comeback was her swan song. The girl who began in gospel, who struggled, who died…a woman loved by many… reminds me here that when I spin in dread, doubt, or desperation, too disoriented in the dark of uncertainty to look up, God, thank God, is always looking down.
Apparently not only March can come in as a lion. December and January have, for me, roared. Fraught with some of the hardest decisions I’ve been faced with in years, one I knew was coming, one I did not, I’ve felt terrorized at times. Sad others. Confused most. And yet the last two days I awoke singing this:
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
Maybe it’s because yesterday, like every Saturday morning in Morocco, I opened my eyes to blue skies and birds on my balcony. Here it’s already spring. Tiny finches with nest-building bits in their beaks—a piece of string, a snip of vine—are busy. Yet they perch and sing, rest and rejoice.
Today I awoke early again before sunrise. Focused on the future, I didn’t get enough sleep last night. As on the fifth day after I moved here, happy until circumstances threatened my peace, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop. Sixteen months ago as I watched the sunset my sense of safety, of protection was restored. Today as I watched the sunrise, I felt the same way, and I knew clarity will eventually dawn. I must dwell in patience. In faith. I needed to look up as far as I could see, knowing I am seen.
When I came down, I watched as I did yesterday two women sing, Ethel Waters and Whitney Houston. Again they made me cry with comfort, hope, peace.
When I was in high school our early church service and teen band needed an organist. I volunteered. I’d never played the organ—only the piano—badly, but I have always been curious, loved challenges, and taken literally the verse that says with enough faith, mountains can be moved. My grandmother and I, like Jay Gatsby, were born with “a romantic readiness” –a stubborn belief that faith makes all things possible. So with the same tenacity with which I tried out for my high school dance team despite wearing a brace for scoliosis (yes, like the one Lisa Kudrow wore in Romy and Michel’s Class Reunion which got all the laughs), I took up the organ. (And I made the team though I now half-cringe, half- marvel at the girl busting moves for an entire year in such a contraption. Thank you, classmates, for never making fun of me.)
The first piece I learned for my organ debut was “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It was chosen by my piano teacher, my Aunt Artie, who had long ago given up on my practicing scales and gave me a crash course in chords. The words to that song, carried on the wings of a homing pigeon, reached me in Africa this weekend. They call me to new adventures…at home.
Psychologists say we change every seven years–that seasons of growth are the natural order. Seven years ago I started this blog and called it “Cindy McCain’s Rich Life”–first as a reference to being confused with the millionaire Heinz Heiress and almost- First Lady which landed me on MTV Canada–second, and more importantly, because I did and do believe Life is Rich. How did I feel rich then? In gratitude I counted the ways…
Abundantly blessed with family, friends, faith
Abundantly blessed with hopeful romanticism and full moons from Italy to Tennessee
Highly seasoned or very sweet, full-bodied…chicken tikka masala, tres leches cake, chocolate, Malbec, limoncello
Mellow or vibrant tone…Sinatra, salsa
Warm and strong color… Irish beef stew, sangria
Highly amusing, entertaining, unexpected… most days
Life was rich then and now. Since moving to Morocco–a milestone in letting go and letting God take me to places inwardly and outwardly more incredible than I ever imagined–I’ve focused mainly on travel on this blog. Still, my main purpose for writing was and is to express gratitude for and find joy in this journey we call life.
Much has changed since January, 2009. Much hasn’t. Sometimes I’m full of faith–fearless. Others I look too far ahead and am thus afflicted (as Southerners used to say) with the paralysis of analysis. Though most of my time on this continent has been full of sunshine, illumination, light and learning, over the last month I’ve felt at times where I was seven years ago (and seven years before that) when in the belly of Mammoth Cave. Again I have just enough light to see the next step. Sometimes I panic, let go, and grope the wall though I’ve never really felt alone. I know change is coming and though I have no map and can’t see what’s ahead when I fly home this summer–where I will work, where I will nest– I know my Guide is watching me.