Tag Archives: creative writing

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

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




Memoir Writing Workshop: Pilgrims, Immigrants, and Travelers

Memoir is a way to express where we are, where we have been and where we are going. Both women and men are welcome to participate. Everyone has an important story to tell.

Arrive Sunday March 13, 2016 and depart Saturday, March 19, 2016.

This six-day intensive writing workshop uses memoir to position the self and understand our worlds. We’ll focus on themes related to life’s journeys, starting with roots and family stories. Using inspiration drawn from food, art, nature, politics and more, we’ll tell our own tales of culture, identity, change, loss and transformation.

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As a literary nonfiction genre, memoir represents reminiscence — a story, an event or a turning point. Akin to autobiography, memoir can have more focus and is similar to narrative nonfiction. However you choose to approach it, each of us has a story to tell about the evolution of our life and how we came to this place called now. We open this door to you to bring your memoir to life – to start it, continue it or take it to its rightful conclusion.


Memoir writing raises the issue of truth—is what we remember accurate, and is that even important? Craft and focus allow truth to emerge within the container of writing. Ruth Benedict beautifully said: Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination. Combining both experience and imagination, we’ll tell our stories.

We will also learn and explore classic and traditional memoir forms, including the letter, the list, the diary, personal essay, and the haibun (poetry with prose). Expect examples from the ancient world, Japan, Mexico, and contemporary literature.

In addition, there will be an emphasis on revision and completion, and on writing for an audience. We include an overview of markets for memoir, including short pieces, personal blogs, and independent publishers. Each participant will also meet with Miriam privately for a personal review and coaching session.

About Workshop Leader Miriam Sagan

Miriam Sagan, associate professor in creative writing at Santa Fe (NM) Community College, where she created and directs the creative writing program, is our memoir writing workshop leader. Miriam has over twenty-five award-winning books of memoir, poetry and fiction published with academic presses, independent publishers, and well-known literary presses. Honors include a New Mexico Book Award, Best Memoir of the Year from Independent Publishers Association, Pushcart Prize nominations, and a finalist from New Mexico PEN women, and Mountains and Plains Booksellers.


She has taught workshops at the Aspen Writer’s Conference, Taos Institute of Arts, Wheaton College, Antioch College, Colorado College, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the Border Book Festival.

A versatile author, Miriam Sagan’s published books include poetry, fiction, memoir as well as writing techniques. In the past several years, she has participated in mixed-media installations that include writing, poetry and art.

Miriam’s work has appeared in over 200 magazines in the United States, Canada, England, Japan, and France, including: Agni Review, American Poetry Review, Blue Mesa Review, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, Exquisite Corpse, Family Circle, Fish Drum, Frank, Hollis Critic, Indiana Review, Luna, Mademoiselle Magazine, Maenad, Mothering Magazine, Ms. Magazine, New Mexico Humanities Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Paragraph, Permafrost, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Now, Poets On, The Sun, Yellow Silk, and West Branch.

She is editor of Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico, Sherman Asher Publishing 1998, with Joan Logghe; and New Mexico Poetry Renaissance: 41 Poets, a Community on Paper, Red Crane, 1994, with Sharon Niederman. Benjamin Franklin Award.

Miriam Sagan holds degrees in writing and English from Harvard University and Boston University.

Her blog, Miriam’s Well, has a thousand daily readers. The blog has published and promoted the work of hundreds of writers and artists, with a special emphasis on Santa Fe’s West Side and Railyard neighborhoods

About Norma Schafer

Norma Schafer has produced arts and educational programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC since 2006. She is a published writer and photographer. The workshops she organizes are attended by participants from throughout the U.S., Canada and from as far as Australia. During her twenty-five year career in higher education, Norma has produced national award-winning programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University, and The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She holds the B.A. from California State University at Northridge and the M.S. from the University of Notre Dame.


The Workshop Schedule

Our location is inspiring and tranquil. You are immersed in an indigenous village with 8,000 years of language, history and culture.

Sunday, March 13:  Arrive and check-in to our Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, B&B inn. Informal supper included for those who arrive by 8 p.m. (D)

Monday, March 14 to Friday, March 18: After breakfast, meet for learning session and workshop. The workshop is time to give and take feedback about works in progress. Take a lunch break and then use the afternoon for independent writing and/or to explore this ancient Zapotec village. Dinner is daily at 7:30 p.m. You may want to gather on the rooftop terrace to watch the sunset, sip a refreshment and talk with instructor and participants, or spend your time in evening writing and reflection.

Friday, March 18: End-of-Workshop Evening Celebration and Reading – an opportunity to select your best of week work to read before the group.

Saturday, March 19: After breakfast, leave for home or continue your travels independently.

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What Is Included

For participants in residence, daily 8:30 a.m. breakfast and 7:20 p.m. dinner are included in your workshop fee. Daily lunch is on your own. The workshop includes all instruction, a private coaching session with Miriam, and the gala celebration dinner. For non-resident participants, lodging and meals are not included except noted below.

Optional Activities

During the week, we will schedule optional outings that are sure to inspire your creativity: cooking class, temescal sweat lodge, Zapotec massage, weaving and natural dye demonstrations, local hikes, visits to nearby archeological sites and more. We will send more details and costs of these activities to you before the workshop starts.

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About Lodging and Accommodations

Our workshop is in the rural Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle. Yes, there is Internet connection and coffee shops that prepare good cappuccino and chai latte! The bed and breakfast inn where we stay is a family home within a large patio. Accommodations are clean and basic. We offer a few rooms with private bath. Other rooms share a guest bath across the courtyard.

Workshop Cost

Non-Resident Participant:  $695 per person, does not include lodging or meals. It includes all instruction, one private one-hour coaching session, one gala dinner.

Resident Participant: A limited number of double occupancy rooms with private bath, and single occupancy rooms with private bath are available. Please indicate your preference below.  Requests are filled on a first-come, first-serve basis.

[  ]  $795 per person, shared room, double occupancy with shared bath.

[  ] $995 per person, shared room, double occupancy, with private bath.

[  ]  $1,095 per person, single room with private bath.

Residency Program cost includes 6 nights lodging, 6 breakfasts, 6 dinners, all instruction, one private coaching session for one-hour.

The program does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city.


Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit guarantees your reservation. The last payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be made by January 15, 2016.  We use PayPal for all deposits and final payments.  Tell us you are ready to register and we will send you an invoice for the deposit.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After January 15, 2016, no refunds are possible. However, we will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space.  If you cancel before January 15, 2016, we will refund 50% of your deposit.


Required Travel and Medical Insurance

We require that you take out an international travel insurance policy that includes $500,000 of emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip. We will ask for proof of purchase. Thank you for understanding since unforeseen circumstances are possible and that’s what “accidents” are.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact:  norma.schafer@icloud.com

Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, produces this workshop.

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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.


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