Category Archives: Creative Writing

Exquisite Corpse Poem 2015, Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat

The Exquisite Corpse Poem is a collaboration.  Each writer in the group contributes a random sentence or phrase that then becomes part of a complete poem. The result is surprising and creative!  We do this each year as part of our closing ceremonies for the Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat. For 2015, our mission was different however.

We adapt the Exquisite Corpse Poem based on the game developed by the Parisian Surrealist Movement.  Professor Robin Greene, our writing instructor and coach, takes liberties with the concept and edits what we have contributed into something more coherent than abstract, but always beautiful!

This year, we dedicated our Exquisite Corpse Poem to honor returning participant Becky, in celebration of her upcoming marriage in North Carolina over Memorial Day Weekend.  Congratulations, Becky.

To Becky, Upon Her Upcoming Marriage

Becky, it’s spring at last under the beloved fields

in Teotitlan, where the earth is full and steady,

constant and quick as our rushing breath,

constant and slow as the rotating moon;

love, we wish to tell you, is light and dark,

bitter and sweet, rough and smooth. So let

the planet remain round, Becky, let your leaves

open and rustle; let your moments be amazed

and electrified, changed and unchanged—as

marriage is both perfect and imperfect, full

and empty, and light radiates in the star-

filled darkened sky. Becky, we are your sisters

now, braiding your hair with soft ribbons, asking

you to hug the space between all spaces, allow

the romance of cockroach and swallow to matter,

give yourself to the heart-merging of all white

daisies in wind. And in return, we give you

our blessings: for you are so lucky, Al is so lucky,

and so lucky are we.



The dates are set for 2016 Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat — March 4 – 12, 2016.  Send me an email if you are interested in attending and/or finding out more. As soon as we publish the program description, I’ll send you a notice.  Thank you! -Norma Hawthorne Shafer

In 2015, all our participants were women who returned from years before, many for two, three or more times. This was our fifth annual writing retreat and the energy, and quality of writing and poetry was amazing. There is a space for you in 2016.

Women’s Words, Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat Closes for Another Year

Our fifth annual Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing Retreat just ended.  After an intensive week of writing, listening to each other’s words and offering feedback, our participants dispersed to upstate New York, Denver, Manhattan, North Carolina, the north coast of British Columbia. We are a diverse group.  Our words resonate, are distinctive and universal.


I have been able to do not much more than organize and actively participate, which I do each year.  This time, I wrote, rewrote and rewrote a poem that was finally ready to submit to Minerva Rising literary magazine where I am a monthly contributor. It was hard and satisfying work. I started a creative non-fiction piece that could likely become the foothold for a memoir. Then, I wrote another about the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, mother earth. I had no time to take many photos or write a blog post.


This sense of place inspires us.  Others wrote poetry, memoir, creative non-fiction.  Some wrote fiction. Mostly they wrote about relationships between mother and daughter, with husbands and boyfriends, childhood memories, Christmas and grandchildren, the meaning of food, the slipping away of time, death, aging, youthful exuberance and misguided decisions, the strength of being a woman. This is important stuff however trivial it may seem.  We listen. We say what works and what doesn’t work, what we understand or don’t.

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Each morning began with yoga, a refreshing and cleansing way to begin a writing practice. One afternoon, we took the practice to Yagul archeological site where DNA testing of cave corn remnants confirmed that corn was first cultivated here about 8,000 years ago. It is a magical place high above the valley floor where the wind speaks.


We ate great local Zapotec food, strolled the Sunday Tlacolula market, wrote about these experiences, savored the deliciousness of culture and community in Teotitlan del Valle, and directed this energy into our writing.

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We celebrated the upcoming wedding of Becky with flowers, flan, lots of tamales with yellow mole and chicken, and Magadelena’s handmade chocolate with almonds.  She roasts her own cacao beans!

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Hermalinda and her daughter-in-law came from San Felipe Usila to give us a private expoventa show and sale of the Chinanteco region’s fantastic textiles, woven on back strap looms and then intricately embroidered in cross-stitch.

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The end of the week culminated with a public reading followed by a fiesta dinner. Many will return again next year, March 4-12, 2016, and we hope there will be space for you. Interested in participating?  Contact us.

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Thanksgiving and Frida Kahlo, Hospitals and Recovery

It’s Thanksgiving Day 2014. I’m at Duke Regional Hospital in Durham, North Carolina recovering from knee replacement surgery in a hospital bed that reclines to any position at the touch of a finger. In the past twenty-four hours, Frida Kahlo has often entered my mind.

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Mostly because she did such a miraculous job of hiding her pain and her deformity when medicine at the time did not offer sophisticated drugs or surgical techniques. She adorned herself in jewelry and costumes to focus attention to her upper body.

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Mostly because I want to look “normal” just like she did. Friends will come to visit today with good cheer, turkey and mashed potatoes in hand. My bandaged leg is under a blanket, my lipstick is applied.

Mostly because having surgery is a solitary experience, even surrounded by flowers, accompanied by Facebook, family and friends who are with me in this virtual world. Frida did not have Facebook and WhatsApp to connect her. She had her imagination and insights.

She reached out to connect by looking in the mirror that still hangs above her recovery bed in Casa Azul, paintbrush and canvas in hand, sketchbook and pencil in hand, to express her feelings about life, death, politics and Diego.

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I have my knitting at hand, my dreams rumbling around in my mind and my plans for the new year formulating.

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When I left Mexico City last week to return to North Carolina for this surgery, I kept the image of Frida on her bed with me. Her effigy was draped in an indigo shawl reflected in the mirror above.

My knee will heal and the pain will subside. This is more than a hope. It is knowledge that my care team led by Dr. Rhett Hallows, a Duke orthopedic surgeon, is expert. Afterall, I did interview four surgeons in September!

Today, one day after the procedure, I used day-glow pink, duct-taped crutches  to walk my first three hundred and one steps down the hospital corridor. The goal was three hundred, but my friend Mary Ann said, go on, you can do one more. So, I did.

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I am reclined in my hospital bed ready to welcome visitors. I give thanks for the gift of life as it presents itself each day, each moment a different experience and not as I predicted.

It is a perfect day for giving thanks, to my family and friends, to the strangers who care for me, and to Frida’s memory, a woman who endured hardship and pain. Frida is a model for what it means to transcend, create and live large.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I am grateful you are a part of my life.

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Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Art History Study Tour, April or July 2015.

Back to Oaxaca, Mexico: A Brief Personal Essay

Next Friday I will be returning to Mexico for an extended stay. At this moment it is difficult to know for how long. By the time I return to Oaxaca, I will have been gone for almost two months.

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You have not heard from me in a while for many reasons. I have been in North Carolina to pack and move, and in the process sort through the collections of life — art treasures from around the world, family photographs, paintings and pottery, chef’s accoutrements acquired when I owned a gourmet cookware shop, cooking school and cafe so many years ago in South Bend, Indiana.

The accumulation of thirty plus years is daunting. There were boxes in the attic I hadn’t opened since two moves ago.  I found vintage La Grange County Amish dolls that I at once gifted to the Indiana State Museum and complete set of 1940’s Ohio-made Blair Gay Plaid pottery that I hauled to Replacements and sold.

I am the keeper of my son’s vintage Tonka trucks, infant clothes, and university diploma.  I am the keeper of copper cookware bought in Paris in 1984, every tax return since 1990, and every university program and proposal I ever developed and wrote during my career.  I made a pile in the yard and started a fire.  Friends came to help me push through, sort and eliminate. I couldn’t have done it without them. Then I drove a fourteen-foot U-Haul truck to a 5′ x 15′ storage unit and with the help of two wonderful Latino men who I picked up at the day labor gathering spot, completed my move.

Goodbyes are not easy, even as I look forward to spending most of each year in my beloved Oaxaca with friends there. I know that change is constant, nothing is forever, experiences matter, and staying open to possibility is essential.  I have closed the door to the home on the pond that I built and shared with another.  I have said goodbye to dearest friends.  North Carolina is still home, yet when I return, it will be to another place. Friends there and around the world are my constant source of caring and support.

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As all this was going on, I organized more Oaxaca workshops, wrote and published a personal essay in Minerva Rising Literary Journal, sold one of my photographs to a consulting company, had a skin cancer surgically removed and a pre-cancer treatment on my face as a result of too much youthful sun-bathing on Southern California beaches where I grew up.

Here, now, in this northern California beach town, I am with my ninety-eight year old mother who sleeps in the next room, and my dearest sister who lives just a mile away.  Each moment matters. It is a great lesson in how to live life.

See you in Oaxaca.

Life Transitions Retreat: What are you doing with the rest of your life?

In Oaxaca, Mexico. 3 days, 4 nights — arrive Saturday, March 8 and leave Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

This retreat will help you explore and identify life’s possibilities and choices.  Our two professional workshop facilitators – psychotherapist Susanne Saunders and professor of creative writing Robin Greene – will offer caring guidance and support for imagining the journey that comes next and how to get there.  There will be plenty of time for meaningful reflection, exploring passions and setting personal, achievable goals.

About the Retreat 

Change happens and opens up questions, possibilities, and opportunities for hopes and dreams to become realized.  Change also creates fear of the unknown.  Sometimes change brings euphoria.  Perhaps we move ahead too quickly and we don’t arrive at the destination we had in mind.  Or, the ideas may swirl in our head of all the extraordinary possibilities open to us based on what we know we are capable of achieving … and stay there unfulfilled as time passes.

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The retreat program, held in a lovely, private B&B in the historic 16th century colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico, is open to anyone facing change or imagining it, including those who are

  • considering retirement
  • contemplating a career change
  • transitioning back to the workforce
  • experiencing divorce, separation or widowhood
  • dealing with an empty nest
  • coping with the needs of elderly parents
  • reinventing life with boomerang kids
  • wanting a more satisfying life and steps to achieve it
  • dreaming of living life larger and more fully

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We will offer structured and unstructured time that will allow you to re-envision and give shape to your journey.  Thoughtful meditation time and reflective writing exercises serve to guide you toward holistic self-understanding, while more structured activities create opportunities for you to integrate the many complex parts of your life that need to come together to create meaningful, positive change.

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In addition, you will have the opportunity to examine the cultural richness of Oaxaca while participating in workshop and independent activities. In fact, we designed this program so that people, unhooked from their usual routines and assumptions at home, gain the necessary distance to understand and re-evaluate them.


Scheduled for early spring—life’s natural season of renewal—you will find yourself in a world of color, texture, smells, and tastes that will help awaken the spirit and give access to the self’s inner purpose.

At the end of our retreat, you will leave Oaxaca with a journal filled with meaningful reflective writing, three plans for a re-imagined future, and a better understanding of yourself and life’s next direction.

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Retreat Program Schedule–Preliminary

Each workshop day includes individual and group exercises, reflective writing, time on your own, meditation sessions, group discussion, and breakfast.  Lunch and dinner are at your own expense, although many meals will be shared as part of the group experience.

Saturday, March 8  (Travel Day, Arrive by Evening)

Arrive / Informal Introductions / Welcome & Orientation

Sunday, March 9

Following breakfast we will meet for formal introductions, discuss the reflective writing process, review the pre-workshop exercises you prepared, and go over workshop organization, etiquette, and boundaries.  We will define the Life Board and how we will use it.  Our goal is to offer a caring, supportive and safe space in which you can freely share your hopes and dreams.  We will meditate, engage in a body awareness exercise, and assess personal strengths and values.  This will give each of us an opportunity to Dream Large and identify our unique skills.

After lunch, we will engage in exercises that will help explore beliefs, capabilities, perceived limitations, and then have reflective writing and feedback time.

After dinner there will be time for reflection and writing.  (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

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Monday, March 10

After breakfast we will explore what brings us each joy, then after lunch we will walk to Oaxaca’s outdoor market for a fun exercise that we anticipate will stimulate your senses and stretch your imagination.   You will then write about this experience and bring meaningful found objects back to add to your Life Board. (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Tuesday, March 11

After breakfast, we will write about what it means to dream large, the possibilities that are open to you, and honoring the authentic self.  We will then talk about what has meaning for each of us and what future paths would help manifest this.  After lunch the afternoon will be free for journal writing and to prepare our culminating work. Dinner will include a celebratory toast followed by presentations.

(Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Wednesday, March 12

Departures—After breakfast, you may choose to return home or stay on to further explore Oaxaca.

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What the Retreat Includes

  • 4 nights lodging in an upscale Oaxaca city bed and breakfast inn
  • 4 breakfasts, delicious and healthfully prepared
  • 24+ hours of guided facilitation by skilled professionals
  • all retreat materials including journal books
  • an experience to awaken your senses and give direction to your future 


Robin Greene is the McLean Endowed Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and senior editor of Longleaf Press, a literary press that publishes contemporary poetry. Greene is the recipient of a NC Arts Council/NEA Fellowship, a university teaching award, and a visiting professorship in Romania. Her work is widely published in literary journals. Greene has led community and conference workshops, has served as a writing consultant, and has taught creative writing for over two decades. She is also a member of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and integrates mindfulness practices in her writing classes. In 1999, Greene co-founded Sandhills Dharma, a Buddhist meditation group in Fayetteville, NC. Her books include Real Birth: Women Share their Stories nonfiction), Memories of Light and Lateral Drift (collections of poetry), and Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman (novel). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. See Greene’s website: 

Susanne Saunders is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area here she has lived and worked for the past 34 years.  A Licensed Clinical Social Worker, she works with individuals, families, and couples across the life span.  She earned the Master of Social Work degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a founding member of Blue Heron Farm Intentional Community, where she actively participates in community growth and development.  Music is an essential part of Susanne’s adult life, and she  performs in and writes original music for a 5-piece band.  She has made many transitions in her life, including growing up in Massachusetts, starting a family in North Carolina, moving from an urban to rural setting, attending graduate school as a young mother and then again as an empty-nester, changing professions, moving a house and rebuilding it, and on and on.  She enjoys listening to people’s stories and supporting them in getting the life they want.

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Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

We will be based at one of Oaxaca’s most lovely, hospitable Bed & Breakfast Inns within walking distance of the Zocalo and historic center of the city.  Vegetarian options are available for meals. 

Cost.  Because we are able to offer you all the benefits of personal attention within a small group setting, we can keep costs lower than comparable programs.    

  • $995 per person double occupancy with private bath (sleeps 2)
  • $1295 per person single room with private bath (sleeps one)
  • $845 per person if you make your own  housing arrangements and join us for the retreat portion only (you must participate in all group activities, including meals)
  • $125 per person per night, extend your stay at the B&B in Oaxaca city
  • $45 per night per person, extend your stay with lodging in Teotitlan del Valle

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The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, lunches, dinners, snacks, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city. Secure airport taxi and shuttle service is available at Oaxaca airport when you deplane. We reserve the right to alter the program as needed.

Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit based on your selected options is needed to reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due (including any add-ons) shall be paid by January 15, 2014. Payment is by PayPal. We email an itemized invoice to you when you tell us you are ready to register.

We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible. 

Workshop Details and Travel Tips.  Before the workshop begins, we will email you a pre-workshop questionnaire, a map, instructions to get to the workshop location from the airport, and a document that includes extensive travel tips and information.

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To get your questions answered and to register, contact:  Since we are in Oaxaca most of the year, we are happy to arrange a Skype conversation with you if you wish, to be arranged by email.

This retreat is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes as needed.