2020 Vision from Lessons Learned

Reflect, then project. For those of us who thought we’d be farther along in 2020 in some area(s) –education, career, relationships, health, finances, savings, freedom, peace–think again. Rather than be discouraged, let’s look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come! Make a list of what you did accomplish in the last decade. Identify steps you took in the direction of where you want to go and what you’ve learned along the way. Just as important as getting to destinations/ outcomes for the lives we want is moving closer to the people we want to be. 

Girls get a sports, arts, and health education at Project SOAR in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Project Soar, featured by Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn Initiative, is a Joy Zone in Marrakesh, Morocco. Volunteering there and writing their story was one of many blessings the country gave me.

What words best sum up your last ten years? For me they were change, journey, faith, and let go. Before 2010, I spent 17 years in the same house 3 streets from the school where I taught/my children attended K-12. After 2010, I fled my too-silent, empty nest; lived in 2 countries abroad; traveled to 15 more; taught at 7 schools; and became a travel blogger, writing coach, and full- time university lecturer. During this time of transition, I thank God most for relationships; for my time in Morocco; and for other travels–Christmas with my children in Marrakesh and London, New Year’s Eve in Venice, Easter from Prague to St. Petersburg, and springs and summers in Spain.

Christmas Break with Cole and Taylor in Marrakesh Medina

 

New Years Eve in Venice

 

St. Petersburg, Russia with the Model UN delegates from the American School of Marrakesh

 

Canals in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

 

Cies Islands off coast of Vigo, Spain

 

Bratislava, Slovakia

 

Belgium Waffles
Brussels, Belgium
Montemartre, Paris

 

Surfer in Portugal
Miramar Beach, Portugal

Our Maker customizes journeys each of us need for seasons of life. Whether they require us to cross continents or make discoveries in our own backyard, all lead home– to the people we were uniquely created to be. God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4) so He can fulfill them. He delights in giving us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). What dreams has He given you? In ten years, where do you want to be? What’s your word for 2020 that expresses what you most desire to be or do? Is it a noun–courage, strength, laughter, vulnerability, hope–or a verb–enjoy, explore, create, focus, dream?

I share some lessons I’ve learned/relearned/am still learning over the past decade as invitations to reflect on your own. Please share in a comment what life has been teaching you on your journeys and where you hope to still go in the new year and decade ahead. 

Lesson #1: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”–George Addair

In January of 2014, my friend, Julie, started a blog. She was moving to Belize to dive, and posted the quote above. I knew those words were true. I’d battled Fear, Fiercest of Dragons, all my life. Studying the Enneagram over the last few years taught me that everyone does. A personality test profiling nine types according to strengths and struggles wasn’t that new. What was new was finally understanding why we are the way we are. Each number is driven by core values/desires/needs and fears. Everyone has fear, but we don’t all fear the same things nor deal with those fears in the same ways. Recognizing and appreciating our differences can help us navigate and deepen relationships. (If you haven’t taken the test, this one costs $12 and is probably the most thorough, but there are other good free ones online like this one.)

When, like heroes in books and movies, we set out on a quest, we meet Fear spitefully guarding the treasure– joy, confidence, freedom–whatever it is that we seek. Sometimes the dragon looms large before us, stradling our path with the breath of a blowtorch trying to force us back. Angst and Anxiety, fear’s more subtle forms– can be harder to identify although more people than ever say they suffer from both. Stress can also ambush us from within, threatening our mental and physical health. It can literally short-circuit our nerves, causing them to burn through our skin. This Christmas I experienced this condition for the second time — “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, SHINGLES all the way!” (I also learned that this can happen at any age. Three of my friends were diagnosed with shingles while in college.)

When anxiety gets me down, I get frustrated with myself because it seems by now I should have mastered the whole fear thing. Maybe that’s because over the last decade, I was more determined than ever to slay fear once-and-for-all. 

In 2013 I booked a bedroom in a Costa Rican jungle beach house owned by Lisa Valencia, an expat who’d left her empty nest in Montana for a more economical, adventure-filled life. Her book, like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to believe I could change my life, too. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and with an empty nest and bank account I was curious about a place where healthcare might actually be affordable. I’d traveled with students and done service trips in Europe and South America, but this time I’d go it alone.The trip didn’t go as planned, but it prepared me for an expat life a year later.  Steps we take in faith toward a dream can lead to unforeseen, scary territory, but rather than detours, they are necessary legs of the journey. They don’t throw us off course but help us stay the course and find the desired destination.  

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Over the years my friend Sherry, who I visited in Ecuador, and my friend Sally, a nurse who raised her family in Niger, sent me Matthew 11:28-30: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. I wanted that.

Braving waves and living freely/lightly in Costa Rican surf

I also wanted to be the woman in Proverbs 31:25: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.  In Morocco, like few times in my life, I fully experienced both. Moving solo to Africa sight unseen and trusting my most precious gifts–my grown children and other family members 4400 miles away– grew my faith. I had to trust God with all because (other than our choices and despite our best efforts), we humans control little. Most days, I felt my faith cutting through fear like a lightsaber. Even when blind-sighted, I was able to sing in the dark and when sad, I could find joy

Bird in Morocco
Birds abound at Marrakesh’s La Mamounia. Even when life grows dark, there’s comfort is knowing His eye is on the sparrow and me.

I thought I’d defeated fear for good. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic. I felt I was drowning in two tsunami waves–one the first month after I landed, the other the last month before I left. After moving home to Nashville, I also felt afraid. The supernatural peace I felt in Morocco couldn’t be sustained. Life is seasonal, and I realize now that this side of heaven, we will never be permanently fear-free. Just when we think we’ve beaten fear like in a video game and moved onto the next level, a stronger version of the monster appears. But with each bout we can grow stronger. Grace enables us to ride fear Queen Daenerys-style.  In darker seasons I find peace in the 365 forms of “Fear Not” in the Bible, and test my thoughts with 2 Timothy 1:7: “God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I trust His character and protection, the One who over the last seven years sustained me through earthquake, illness, a mugging, a van accident, a hurricane, and an assault. We can’t see what lies in wait, but He can. 

Lesson #2: Each of us has a life story and gets to be the leading lady or leading man of it.

In the movie The Holiday, an elderly friend and famous Hollywood producer, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), advises Iris (Kate Winslet) to let go of a man who doesn’t love or respect her. 

Arthur: So, he’s a schmuck.

Iris: As a matter of fact, he is…a huge schmuck. How did you know?

Arthur: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.

Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. 

Palais Namaskar in Marrakesh, Morocco makes walking in one’s own story feel epic.

We are free to live our own story– to choose where to live and how to serve others with the gifts God gives us. I’d taught Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for years, but it wasn’t until teaching Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist while in Marrakesh that I recognized each stage in my own journey. Like heroes in books– Ulysses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Mulan–we real folk are sometimes called to adventures that require us to leave everything familiar. Unchartered territory is daunting and can cause us to refuse the call. Coelho, in his introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, gives four reasons why: 1) We’re told since kids what we want is impossible. 2) We fear the defeats we’ll experience on the path. 3) We fear success. 4) Love–for me, the obstacle. 

Coelho explains: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream. We do not realize that love is just a further impetus, not something that will prevent us going forward. We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” I am forever grateful to my daughter and son who supported me 100% when I told them I wanted to apply for teaching jobs abroad, my sister and brother-in-law who gave me a sendoff party with family and friends, and my Mom who kept in constant touch the three years I was gone.

When moving abroad we cross the threshold into a new world with the help of mentors–those like my friend, Dana, who’d taught in Casablanca and blazed the trail before me. On the path we meet allies and traveling companions. And ordeals. (See Lesson #1.) But if we stay the course, we find our treasure–an elixir–that transforms us, and we return to share what we’ve learned with others, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. Coelho said, “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” I’m a romantic but know realistically that finances, family responsibilities, and illnesses can put dreams on hold. Some of my coworkers in Morocco raised their kids, then began international teaching as their second act. Others chose to raise their children in international schools where they taught abroad. Travel blogger friends now work their way around the globe as digital nomads; others use Trusted HouseSitters and Mind My House to country-hop. The world brims with possibilities to live the lives we want.

Lesson #3: Let go.

One of my greatest struggles has been with the empty nest. Moving abroad forced me to create a new normal so I could outrun it for awhile. School breaks–that Christmas in London and summers at home–we spent quality, intentional time together. I wasn’t prepared for the delayed pain that hit full force when I returned to Nashville–the place we’d lived together.  Releasing my children was HUGE because, as a mom, I’m a Stage 5 Clinger as much as a Gypsy Soul. The last decade I’ve also learned/am learning to let go of…

  • Expectations of how life and people “should” be. Plans are great, but life can derail them. How we react is the only thing we can control. Decades earlier, divorce made me let go of my idea of a “perfect family.” For years I feared my children and I weren’t just on Plan B but benched for life as the B Team. We realize now how close we became as the 3 Musketeers. I’m also learning that basing our happiness on how others act and react is a setup for frustration and disappointment. We can know our limits, respect other people’s boundaries/choices, and choose with whom to be in relationship and to what extent. 
  • Judgement–Travel teaches us flexibility. Living cross-culturally makes us let go of rigid constructs of what life should or should not be. I’ve taught behind what some, sadly, would call in my polarized home country ‘enemy lines.’ Working over the last decade with colleagues, students, and families in a Bible Belt Christian high school and university, a Caribbean Catholic high school, an international high school with coworkers from 20-something countries and students who were mostly Muslims,  a liberal public high school, and a public community college and university has taught me one thing. Our same Maker creates us more alike than different. Regardless of where we live on the map, most people love their families, value faith, and want to live happy and free.  
Ladies I met in Vilnius, Lithuania on my Birthday in 2015

 

Players in Prague
Children at Cologne, Germany Christmas Markets
Russian Performer in St. Petersburg
Ladies and children in Chefchaouen, Morocco
Sledding in the Atlas Mountains an hour from Marrakesh, Morocco

Learning to play basketball at Project SOAR
Watching Die Hard3 in El Fna Square at Marrakesh Film Festival
  • Material things–Downsizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives clears space for what we really want. Living out of 4 suitcases for three years taught me how much I really need. I like Thoreau’s approach to minimalism and simplicity: The cost of a thing is how much of life I’ll be required to exchange for it– now or in the future. 
  • People–Family is forever but time spent with friends can be seasonal. This is especially true in the expat community where friends bind fast and furious. International teachers by nature want to see the world, so after serving a two-year contract, many move on. Likewise, while expats are abroad, friends at home are also transitioning through new seasons. Priorities, addresses, interests change. Thankfully technology can keep us in touch, and I was able to reconnect with these friends when I returned to Morocco Summer 2018.
  • Old Stories–Some old stories–the ones we laugh about– keep us connected, and some connect us in shared pain. However, some stories we tell ourselves or others tell about us are unhealthy. They block us from moving forward. People can victimize us, but unless we are physically restrained, we can break free. Once we do, internalizing what the perpetrator did still holds us hostage.
  • Assumptions–We all have bad days or seasons when we speak or act from a place of pain. As discussed in the The Four Agreements, our lives are happier when we only believe what we know to be true and refuse to take things personally.  
  • Perfectionism–Though some life experiences follow the journey model, most are not linear. They spiral. We find ourselves confronting over and over our most challenging issues, and sadly, we still sometimes fail. Growth is learning from past mistakes, knowing our triggers, and adding to our skill set so we can better handle adversity. When we do mess up, we can make amends and treat ourselves with the kindness and patience we extend to others.  We can lean on God and give ourselves what we need when depleted– H.A.L.T. when feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired–rather than demand others fill these needs.

Lesson #4: Embrace.

Once we’ve let go of what we don’t need in our lives, we have free hands to hang onto what we do. Hang onto…

  • Beauty breaks for the soul. Most of the women I know live with passion and purpose. They are what southerners call steel magnolias–curious, creative, courageous. They contribute and grow. I know, too, they often feel overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stretched to the limit. Whether in our backyard or on an extended getaway, we need time to listen to our hearts–to explore, breathe, just BE. Self-care was foreign to me until I became a single mom with two young children. Wise women advised me to take timeouts–to put on my own oxygen mask– when my son and daughter were away. The solo travel and moves abroad I did in the last decade wouldn’t have happened had I not learned how to make the most of time alone decades prior.  I started with baby steps– lunch out with a book on a pretty patio, exploring a museum, or seeing a film in the theater alone. In the 2000s those moves became strides–an annual overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad.  Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers I needed as a mom, teacher, and creative. All of those mile markers moved me to Morocco. Wandering and dwelling in beauty creates calm. So do centering practices like yoga, meditation, prayer. 
  • Creative Community. Spend time with people who inspire you to do what you were put here to do and realize fully who you were created to be. Releasing a book or album or any other project creatives feel called to do can be a long, lonely process without traveling companions to remind us of our mission and cheer us back to the path when we lose our way. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and in The War of Art advised well— stay away from chaos and  ‘crazy makers’ who distract us from our work. 
  • Curiosity. T. H. White in his The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur Legend through the lens of WW2, explains the gift of education. In it, Merlin tells young Arthur: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Online courses, podcasts, and audio books make learning-on-the-go possible. Exploring new territory, like Josephine Baker’s Moroccan home, taught me about a woman who is now my hero. 
  • Your True Identity/Value. My friend-since-I-was-five Sally, created a jewelry line based on photos of my adventures. She knew me when high school dances ended with Chicago’s “Color My World,” and we prayed that one day someone would be our happily-ever-after. After both of our marriages ended, we saw God make mosaics from the shards of our lives. An Italian friend told me once I was meant for a grande amore. We all are. God calls us to a love story–one with Him full of adventure. The jewelry line she created is called Chérie, which in French, the language of Africa, means “cherished by God.” Thanks to Sally, women can wear the lessons I learned on my journey–Choose Adventure, Walk in Faith, Seek and Find, Follow Your Heart– and feel connected to a global, cross-generational sisterhood of seekers. See the line here.
Cherie jewelry line
Cherie line on Etsy

Lesson #5 Expecting the unexpected, enjoy the moment. Our health and that of our loved ones is not a default blessing. Without health, our dreams— like travel— can die. Take your shot when you have it. For many of us, that’s between when kids leave the nest and parents need our help. Most things cost more than the price tag, but experiences, unlike things we eventually Goodwill, we take to the grave and are priceless. And that old adage—“You find love when you aren’t looking”— for me proved to be true. I am thankful someone I hadn’t laid eyes on in over 30 years found me, has made me laugh like no other, and also values roots and wings. 

Fort Meyers Beach January 2020

For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.

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Life Lessons for 2020

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.