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Finding Meaning: Day of the Dead Inspiration for Women’s Writing Workshop

We gathered in Teotitlan del Valle on October 30 for the Women’s Creative Writing Retreat to find meaning, reflect on life and death through the written word. Some of us were mourning recent losses: husbands, mothers, fathers, and yes, even self. There are those other kinds of losses as we age, lose memory, become infirm, face our own mortality.

Elaborate Day of the Dead altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca

Being here during Day of the Dead offers perspective on the Zapotec and Mexican way, gives us a point of comparison to our own culture. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, A culture that celebrates death knows how to celebrate life. We find spiritual meaning here in the notion that life is a continuum. Our references are the deeply incised stone images at the Mitla archeological site, stones embedded in the walls of the Teotitlan church built by the conquerors with remains from the Zapotec temple, depicting infinity, regeneration.

Mitla woman guiding her difuntos home with copal incense

On October 31, we go to the market to buy bread, candles, chocolate, fruit, tamales, beverages and flowers. We build an altar with these and place photos of our loved ones there. In the doing is the remembering. One of us buys sugar cane branches that will serve as the door from which the ancestors will enter and exit earth from the spirit world, a Zapotec tradition. They will visit us, too, for the 24-hour period called Dia de los Muertos.

Our altar to bring our own loved ones back — memory is powerful!

Our journey into remembering continues with a visit to the cemetery in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with Arturo Hernandez. He takes us to his mother’s tomb. Day of the Dead is practiced in this village differently than the one I live in where our workshop is held.

Panteon (cemetery), San Pablo Villa de Mitla

On November 1 in the morning, Mitla villagers lovingly tidy up the grave sites, removing spent flowers and adding new. They entice the dead to return to earth by burning aromatic copal incense, scattering fresh marigold flowers, placing sliced oranges and apples or an open bottle of Coke on the tomb. Aromas awaken the dead. At eleven in the morning, the cemetery is packed with people.

The tomb of Maria G, a child who died February 5, 1996. Remembered.

At twelve o’clock noon, the church bells toll and the cohetes (firecrackers) explode. This gives the dead an extra jolt to get up from their slumber to visit. One of us reports seeing a youngster leaning over a tomb and speaking softly. I explain that the tradition here in Oaxaca is to ask the dead for their advice, to commune with them, to respect their wisdom. There is a spiritual loveliness to this that evokes generational connection, I think.

Making a marigold path to help the difuntos find their way home

In our science-based western culture, we often eschew that which we know is impossible. The literal practice of talking to dead parents or grandparents is seen as abnormal, primitive, uneducated. But there is much to learn from other traditions, and that is why we are here. The experience opens us up to write about memory, family, loss.

By noon, the people of Mitla are exiting the cemetery, carrying bundles of marigold flowers so large that you can hardly see their bodies. Girls carry baskets filled with marigold petals, dropping them in a path of petals from the grave along the streets to their home altar. Men and women scurry, carrying ceramic incense burners, leaving a smoky aromatic trail. The idea is for the aroma to guide the difuntos home for this annual re-visit. Families walk together, grandparents, mothers, fathers, children. Some have returned to the village from far away places to honor and participate in this sacred tradition.

Robin, Debbie and Amy looking down at courtyard

We move to the home of Epifanio Perez whose elaborate altar draws visitors to enjoy the atmosphere and his daughter Reyna’s house made hot chocolate, bread and chicken barbecue. We sit and marvel at the piles of bread on the altar, the candle — an eternal flame, the fragrant wild flowers of the campo, the spectacle of yellow marigold blossoms, the memories it conjures up for us.

In the courtyard, writing professor Robin Greene (r) talks with Claudia

We return to Teotitlan to our base, to write, to read what we have written to each other, to understand our own feelings around celebration and honoring those we have lost. We experience grief, yet we can share this approach to death with equanimity as the Zapotecs do, with acceptance that without death there is no life.

Abundant bouquet in vintage vase

Ultimately, this leads me to looking at and accepting my own mortality without fear. I’m working on it.

Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic corn harvest festival, adapted to Catholicism

We will hold the 2020 Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15 to December 21 in Teotitlan del Valle. Holding the retreat close to over the winter holidays, just before Christmas, will give us an opportunity to reflect on celebrations here and our own family holiday observances — what they evoke, how they are remembered, the stories of holiday expectations and disappointments, the pressures for a perfect home and table, gift giving and symbolism. We will participate in the village Posadas, too. You might want to invite your family to join you after the retreat and stay on for Christmas in Oaxaca. It is magical.

If you are interested in participating, please send me an email: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Our writing group 2019, with weaver Arturo Hernandez

Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice

Click on this link for March 2012 program http://wp.me/p1v1Ek-1hB

Indigenous Women at the Guelaguetza

You are invited to join Professor Robin Greene, MFA, for six days of writing, renewal, and self reflection. In a supportive small group atmosphere, you’ll be encouraged to find your own creative center and to surprise yourself with the power of your words. You’ll have the opportunity to work with memoir, journaling, poetry, and mixed genre writing in an intimate workshop environment.  If you are working on a project — bring it.  We’ll provide you with coaching and encouragement.  In addition, we include daily yoga sessions and one shiatsu massage.

Bending over the comal

The retreat is designed to accommodate both novice and experienced writers, and it is limited so as to offer an especially satisfying small group experience. Through writing exercises, discussion, caring feedback, and the simple gift of time, you’ll gain knowledge and perspective about the art and craft of writing. Our goal is to empower you to tell your story well, and to lift and share your voice—widening your lyrical range and adding to the tools in your narrative toolbox.

In addition to daily writing exercises in organized sessions, Robin will meet one-on-one with participants so that each writer feels nurtured and personally served.

You’ll have an opportunity to retreat and write on your own if you choose, but there’s also plenty to do here. We’ve scheduled daily yoga, stretching and meditation sessions, and shiatsu massage sessions, and there’s ample time for other activities such as walking, hiking, bird-watching, and visiting village weaving and artists’ studios.

Use this form to register.

What the Retreat Includes:

  • 15 hours of group writing instruction
  • One 45-minute coaching and feedback session
  • 5 one-hour yoga sessions
  • 2 one-hour meditation sessions
  • 1 shiatsu massage, one hour
  • 6 nights lodging
  • 6 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches and snacks
  • 3 dinners

Once we are on-sight and based on group interest, we can arrange for a guided bird watching expedition, for an evening session in a traditional Temezcal women’s sweat lodge, and for additional massage sessions, all for a nominal additional cost. There are lovely walking paths around the village, along the river and into the countryside near a local reservoir. You are welcome to venture out and explore the village and its environs on your own.  Personal safety is not a concern here.

Come join us in an inspiring setting of great natural beauty for an opportunity to explore and lift your voice, enrich, and empower your world.

Family of Clay by Guillermina Aguilar

About the Workshop Leaders

Robin Greene is a Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and 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. 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 (a novel, forthcoming in 2010). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Click here to read Robin Greene’s C.V.

Our certified yoga instructor is an experienced workshop leader who combines yogic practice and philosophy with  meditation, creativity and improvisation.

Norma Hawthorne has produced arts and educational programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC since 2006.  She has offered tapestry weaving, natural dyeing, painting, documentary filmmaking, and photography workshops that have been 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 organized national award-winning continuing education programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, and George Washington University, and has raised more than $20 million for The University of North Carolina School of Nursing.  She holds the B.A. from California State University at Northridge and the M.S. from the University of Notre Dame.

Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

To keep this program affordable, we have selected clean and basic accommodations at a woman-operated bed and breakfast inn that is part of their family compound.  Josefina, along with her mother-in-law Magdalena and daughter Eloisa, prepare delicious meals from scratch.

Base Cost:  $995 per person double occupancy with shared bath facilities.  Single rooms are available and the single supplement is $200. A limited number of double occupancy rooms with private bath, and single occupancy with private bath are available. Please indicate your preference below.

[  ]  I will share a room, double occupancy with shared bath, $995 per person.

[  ] I prefer a single room with shared bath, with a $200 single supplement for a total of $1195 per person.

[  ]  I will share a room, double occupancy, with private bath, with a $200 per person supplement for a total of $1195.

[  ]  I prefer a single room with private bath, with a $300 single supplement for a total of $1295.

The cost includes six nights lodging double occupancy, six breakfasts, four lunches, three dinners, one massage, daily yoga, and all instruction.  Most travel workshops of this type and length cost more than twice as much!

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

We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Use this form to register.

Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit ($500) is required to guarantee your spot.  The final payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be postmarked by January 15, 2011.  Payment may be made by check or PayPal.  We will be happy to send you an itemized invoice.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After January 15, 2011, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space.  If you cancel before January 15, 2011, we will refund 50% of your deposit or $250.  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.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact:  normahawthorne@mac.com or call (919) 274-6194

Please make your deposit payable to Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, and mail it to:  Norma Hawthorne, 110 Blue Heron Farm Rd., Pittsboro, NC 27312.  Thank you.

This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to alter the program and substitute instructors.  For more information, see:  http://oaxacaculture.com

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