Category Archives: Creative Writing and Poetry

2017 Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing + Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice

For the 7th year, women will gather in retreat for a week of creative writing, daily yoga, meditation and exploration in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our workshop is limited to 10 people. Will you be one of them? Some of us are novices. Others are published poets and writers. All are welcome and encouraged. If this is something you have always wanted to do, please do not hesitate. We fill quickly!

In 2017, we are based in Oaxaca City — a UNESCO world heritage site!

Arrive by Friday evening, March 3. The workshop ends Friday morning, March 10, 2017.  The workshop fee includes 7 nights lodging in a top-rated Bed & Breakfast Inn, all instruction, daily yoga, personal coaching sessions, daily breakfast and some lunches.  You might want to arrive a day early to settle in, avoid a late night arrival or missed connection.

Templo Santo Domingo at sunset, Oaxaca, Mexico

Templo Santo Domingo at sunset, Oaxaca, Mexico from rooftop terrace

Chicken at the Tlacolula Market: The Gift

A group of 12 women are immersed this week in our sixth annual Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat. All except two have never been here before. Two came all the way from Melbourne, Australia.

Chicken on the spit, seasoned with local chili salt and delicious!

Chicken on the spit, seasoned with local chili salt and delicious!

Going to the Tlacolula market is a highlight for any visitor, especially for those who have a gift list. And, we are writers, so before boarding the Teotitlan del Valle bus and entering the frenzy of market day, Professor Robin Greene, our instructor, gave us a prompt to tie the often dizzying experience to the written word:

  • What does it mean when we give or receive a gift from someone?
  • What do we remember about childhood gifts?
  • What associations do gifts bring up for us?
  • How was a gift received and by whom?
  • Is giving a gift about asking for forgiveness? For showing love?
  • For expecting something in return? A transaction?
  • Who deserves what type of gift and why?
  • When we buy something for ourselves instead of someone else, what comes up?
  • Is a purchase associated with a relationship between the person who sold it and why?
A new artisanal mezcal from Miahuitlan

A new artisanal mezcal, Tzompantli, from Miahuitlan

At the Tlacolula market, there are the obvious gifts: bottles of artisanal mezcal from Miahuatlan, colorful embroidered blouses from Mitla, hand-woven tablecloths and napkins, brightly painted gourds from Guerrero, hand-hewn wooden trucks for little boys, flouncy dresses with lace trim for little girls, a new apron for grandmother.

These did not turn my head.

I saw a lot of chicken today. I don’t know why I focused on chicken. Barbecue chicken. The women selling cooked and raw chicken. Whole chickens and parts.

There was chicken roasting on the grill. Chicken turning on the spit. The people sitting at long tables eating chicken. The chicken legs and thighs at Comedor Mary that could be topped with mole negro or mole rojo.

Chicken at Comedor Mary ready for mole negro

Chicken at Comedor Mary ready for mole negro

I ate chicken for lunch at Comedor Mary although there were many other things to choose from. Took the meat off the bone. Looked at the bone and the meat and thought about my grandmother from Eastern Europe. She killed what she cooked and then ate it.

Rosticeria, where roasted chicken is prepared.

Rosticeria, (roas-tich-air-ee-ah) where roasted chicken is prepared.

Most people here do that. Have a reverence for raising the animals, then slaughtering them for food. Would they say a prayer like my grandmother did? Do they imagine the food as a form of gift? Protein is still scare here for those who don’t make more than 150 pesos a day. That’s about $9 USD.

A chicken on Sunday is a gift. I thought so.

Portable outdoor butcher shop

Portable outdoor butcher shop

 

 

 

Giving Thanks and Remembering: Happy Thanksgiving to All

In Mexico we say, gracias, thank you. We give thanks for el día de acción de gracias, which is how our Oaxaca friends greet us.  May your day with family and friends be stuffed with turkey, gratitude, peace, laughter and remembrance for those who came before you to give you life, wherever you are.

Guajolote

I hope whatever you choose to eat — guajolote, turkey, turducken or tofucken — be delicious and abundant. An abundant life is a blessing to appreciate and to help give to others.

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Our mom was buried a week ago in Santa Cruz, California. She died peacefully on November 15, three months before her 100th birthday. Her life was long and meaningful. We are missing her. Today we celebrate and remember.

RustyDoor

Today we will give special thanks for her life and ours.  Listen to I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me by Grammy Award-winning Cantor Doug Cotler. We will share memories, look at photos, play Scrabble — our mom’s favorite game, and how she honed her amazing vocabulary and helped us develop ours.  In the last six months she taught us the word risible and used it frequently. We all laughed.

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I am here with my son, sister, brother and brother-in-law. This last gift from our mother was to bring us together for Thanksgiving, a first for all of us.

WildMarigolds

In the past weeks as I was with our mom, helping her, my sister and brother to ease her to end of life, I realized how important it is to be in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. It was even more meaningful this year as I prepared to make the journey to California knowing what would come.

Cactus

As I was with my mother as she made her journey, I realized this was another gift she gave me — how to leave us at peace and with dignity.

Mom

I was raised in a home where science was truth and mysticism was for the ultra-religious. Concrete proof was required to test all beliefs. Things change. I have learned from the Zapotecs who embrace the spirit world and blend it into a continuum of life and death. For me now, the ethereal is more acceptable than the concrete. Someone I knew once said, the dead don’t care. I believe they do. To know that they care is to acknowledge that we cared about and loved them.

MasaMetate

Now, I have a different experience and I’m inclined to believe that our parent’s molecules are mingled with earth and sky, that the soul, the spirit, the essense of their being and those of our ancestors are with me forever. There is much I do not know about life and death.  Life is a mystery and death a destination.

I know that I will visit my mother and she will visit me each year when I build a memory altar with food, copal, candles and a sense of  life as mystery. But this won’t be the only time either.

Candlesmoke

I am thinking of creating a Day of the Dead memory and rituals program next year to examine the way Mexico honors and remembers the deceased. I want to contrast this with how we approach death and dying in the El Norte culture. If you like this idea, please let me know!

bougambiliasflowers

Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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Names, Identity and Change: Why Norma Schafer

Perhaps you have noticed, or not, that my name on the masthead of this blog has changed to Schafer. I thought I might offer an explanation. If you don’t care, just stop reading, delete this post and Move On. This is not about Oaxaca or Mexico or my recent trip to Spain. This is personal. In my creative writing and the work I have published on Minerva Rising, I have learned to write from the depths.

When I married in 2002, I took my husband’s surname. This is something neither of his first two wives had done. In doing so, I believed it would honor him and signal a strong commitment to this union.

Many years earlier, I had taken another man’s name when it was conventional custom and after the dissolving of this first marriage, I kept that name for a very long time because it also belonged to my son.

The man I married in 2002 became my recent ex-husband.  He was Husband Number Two. I was Wife Number Three. Soon, friends told me, there will be a Wife Number Four. I realized it is time for me to put that identity completely behind. Some said, it’s a nice name, you can keep it. But names are symbolic of something else.

MexCityPeacocks_StrLife-136

As a woman, I have always carried a man’s name, starting with the name of my father. I never liked my father’s name although I loved him very much. It is awkward to say, lengthy, unusual and must be spelled at each introduction. For me, it never fit.

My mother’s family name has resonance. I experimented with spelling (just like they did at Ellis Island) first selecting Shafer. I tacked it on to the married name to ease into a public transition to change. How long does it take? Maybe a year? Do readers even notice? I wasn’t sure. Now, easing into another name is not an option.

What I also know is that I also want to reclaim my identity through my last name. The spelling Schafer makes sense. It means scribe, an ancient Jewish record-keeper, then later a theologian or jurist. I am a contemporary record-keeper of Oaxaca art, culture, history, etc. I document what I experience through photographs and words.

I researched various spellings of my  mother’s family name that has both German and Ashkenazi Jewish origins, and made a choice. Please join me in celebration of Norma Schafer and new beginnings.

Please let me know if you have any questions: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Today, I am leaving North Carolina, returning to Northern California to visit my 99-year old mother and sister, and then will get back to Mexico in early June. It’s been quite a journey.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice 2016