Monthly Archives: December 2011

Feliz Navidad: Christmas in Oaxaca

The winter solstice is upon us and there is a sliver of moon hanging in the sky like an oyster shell, illuminated and alluring. In the southern part of the northern hemisphere Oaxaca is celebrating Christmas with her traditional pomp, ceremony, somber ritual and ubiquitous brass band.  From the city to the villages,  women are preparing tamales with mole, patting the corn tortillas, and simmering the guacalote (indigenous turkey) for the feast day.  The wood fires curl skyward from the comal where the tortillas will cook. Children will run underfoot and bring ingredients or utensils.  Men will sit with a beer or mescal after their work at the loom or wood carving table.  They will all gather at the church for La Ultima Posada (the last procession on Christmas eve) where there will be an all-night celebration after Baby Jesus is rightfully restored to the manger of his birth.

Here are some of my favorite scenes of Christmas in Oaxaca to share with you:  Feliz Navidad — Happiest Holidays.  May all your seasons be filled with peace, joy and love.  -Norma

Renewing Intimate Connection: A Retreat for Couples in Oaxaca, Mexico

Thursday, February 23 to Wednesday, February 29, 2012.

This retreat will enhance couples communications skills using ABC Change Process ®.  Stephen Hawthorne, LCSW, developed this proven, successful approach over the past 30 years in private practice and teaching in Duke University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry’s Family Studies Program and Clinic where he trains and coaches psychiatry residents and psychology interns to use the ABC Change Process ® for their work with couples and families.  Up to 4 couples will be accepted to participate.

Oaxaca, Mexico, is a remarkably beautiful, peaceful and culturally rich city where committed couples can truly “get away” from day-to-day pressures at home, allowing them to focus uniquely on each other and their relationship.  This experience offers dedicated time to renew your intimate connection away from intense demands of work, family, and the distractions of daily routine.  At the same time, traveling together in a foreign country offers excitement and challenges, along with opportunities for improving communication and closeness.

Retreat days will offer a mix of group seminars, experiential exercises, private couples consultations, and special activities tailored to each couples’ needs and desires.  Throughout the retreat week, we include scheduled one-on-one customized and confidential sessions with each couple to further explore and invigorate the relationship.  There will also be plenty of free time to discover the UNESCO heritage site of Oaxaca, a 16th century historic city, dine in exceptional restaurants, stroll through museums and galleries, visit renown archeological sites and take in the vibrant nightlife as you practice the skills you are developing.

Even the happiest marriages can get stuck when trying to resolve difficult issues.  In this safe, supportive environment, couples will have the opportunity to improve communication skills and create a closer bond with increased marital satisfaction.

By participating, you and your partner will:

  • Improve your understanding of each other’s needs and desires.
  • Increase your ability to express your own needs and desires.
  • Gain a clear understanding of the Problem Communication Pattern that keeps you stuck having the same argument over and over in some important area.
  • Learn multiple ways of interrupting that Pattern and creating breakthrough with mutual resolution.
  • Increase your ability to give and receive feedback, bringing you closer together.
  • Develop the greater warmth and intimacy that meaningful and successful communication creates.
Plus add-on extra days for a cooking class and market excursions.

About Your Facilitator—Stephen L. Hawthorne, LCSW 

Stephen Hawthorne

Stephen Hawthorne was hired by the Duke University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry in 1981 to create their first training program in Family and Marital Therapy.  He has taught in the program ever since.  Over the years, scores of psychiatry residents and psychology interns have learned and applied his ABCTherapy(R) model.

For a podcast about how and why ABCTherapy is so effective, click here.

As a couples and family psychotherapist in private practice for the past 30 years, Stephen Hawthorne has helped hundreds of people to create more satisfying and intimate relationships.  He has presented at many professional conferences to excellent reviews, and is founder of the Family Institute of the Triangle.   Hawthorne holds an A.B. with Honors in Political Science and French from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his MSW from the University of California at Berkeley.   He is a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in working with and teaching about gender issues, sexuality, chronic illness, death and dying, and palliative care. In addition, he has lived and traveled in both Europe and the developing world which gives him a keen awareness of cross-cultural issues.

Who Should Attend:   

The retreat will benefit all couples that are committed to improving their relationship – even if it is already pretty good!  It is not for people who are trying to decide if they should get married or stay married.  Creating true intimacy can be hard work, so being committed to the relationship is an essential condition for attending.

We suggest that each couple have a personal conversation with Stephen before registering to get any questions answered and to see if the workshop will fit your needs.  He can do this with you via Skype or telephone. Please contact him at phone (919) 942-8097 or email If either or both partners are in therapy at home, we request that they discuss attending this workshop with their therapist and clarify potential benefits as well as potential pitfalls.

Typical Daily Schedule

Arrival on Day One, check-in to your bed and breakfast, evening reception buffet and short orientation session.

Sample First Day

8:00-9:00 a.m.—Body movement and stretching

9:00-9:30 a.m. Breakfast

10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. – Group Session with Stephen, orientation/application of the ABC Change Process with discussion, handouts and experiential communications exercises with your partner.

1:00-2:00 pm. —  Lunch

2:00-4:30 p.m. Some couples take part in private consultation with Stephen for in-depth personal guidance, while others are on their own for the rest of the day. On the days when couples do not have a session with Stephen scheduled,they may, at their leisure, enjoy the sights of Oaxaca and surrounding villages on your own.  This is a perfect time to visit the many unique local galleries, museums, and shops.

Subsequent days will have private couples consultation appointments and other skill building group sessions as well as free time to take your new skills out into the city to develop together. 

Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

We have selected a lovely, comfortable bed and breakfast inn located in the historic district of Oaxaca city.  It is within easy walking distance of excellent restaurants, galleries, museums, churches and other historic sites.  We will provide you with a list of “on-your-own” daily activities and arrange private transportation for you to visit outstanding local artisan villages and markets.

Cost: $2885 per couple/double occupancy.  This includes private room with private bath, daily breakfast, daily supper, welcome reception buffet, all group facilitation and learning sessions, and private couples consultation sessions, resources and recommendations.  

Add-on extra activity days: 

[  ]  Option A:  Add-on 5-hour Oaxaca cooking class, includes local market shopping tour and lunch, on February 29 (depart March 1).  Add $285 per couple (includes class, one night lodging, breakfast and lunch).

[  ]  Option B:  Add-on additional night lodging in Oaxaca on Thursday, March 1 (day on your own)  at $145 per couple per night.  Does not include additional activities. (depart Friday, March 2)

[  ] Option C:  Add-on Artisan Villages Excursion on Friday, March 2 (depart Saturday, March 3),  $325 per couple (includes one night lodging, group transportation, guided visit to Ocotlan de Morelos Friday market, visits to famed folk art potters and wood carvers, lunch on your own).

The retreat does NOT include airfare, taxes, gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, lunches, and optional daily excursions on your own with associated transportation. We will provide you with directions for taxi or shuttle service from the airport to your bed and breakfast.  We reserve the right to alter the program as needed. 

Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit based on your preferred options is required to guarantee your space.  The final payment for the balance due (including any additional costs) shall be paid by January 20, 2012.  Payment is accepted with PayPal.  We will be happy to send you an invoice.  Registrations made after January 20 shall be paid in full.

Please see our cancellation policy listed in the Programs section of the front page of our website.  We 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:

This program is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.

Interlude: Santa Cruz, California

Work as I have known it, with routine and some semblance of structure and predictability, has ended.  My office is cleaned out of all the essentials and my personal memorabilia, ready for the next person to inherit and create as their own.  I will return on December 27 for my exit interview and give up my identity card, office keys, building pass and parking permit.  My last act of separation will be to remove my name plate from the office door.  I will give intention to this and I will be very aware of what this means as a transition in my life.  My identity will be elsewhere.

Now, I am in my sister’s house far from my own North Carolina home in the land where I was nurtured.  My elderly mother, still fresh of mind and spirit, lives with assistance in her own space where she is cared for.  I aspire to become her age with such grace, beauty and intelligence.  Meanwhile, this is my interlude.  The sustenance of family connection that takes me to my roots before I launch into Oaxaca on December 28 to begin the next adventure.

After dinner, I show my mother photos:  of the casita where I will live in Teotitlan del Valle, of the cemetery rituals of Day of the Dead, of the landscape of mountains and corn fields, of the church at the center of this universe.  She asks about Catholicism and the Zapotec practices. She lives in a Dominican community as a non-Christian and she understands spirituality.  Oaxaca was founded by Dominicans.  These are the constant connections in our lives.

She is old.  We talk about the symbolism of Day of the Dead, the celebration of the spirits of loved ones returning to share in the emotional connection of the living for one day.  We relate to that because in our tradition we light candles once a year to bring light to the memory of those we have loved who have died.  She is taken with the photos of grave sites and altars covered with  flowers, photos, the offering of food and beverage, the enticement of copal.  I think she would like to be honored this way.  With celebration and reverence.

The Spaniards brought Catholicism to Mexico, I explain to her, and laid it upon indigenous belief.  It was like a porous blanket.  Their intention was to embed the new religion and eradicate the old.  But the ancient spirituality was strong, older than the new religion, and I create this image for her:  it is like the smoke of the copal incense rising through the fabric of the blanket to find its original source.  The power of the Church was officially eradicated during the Mexican Revolution when church holdings were appropriated and returned to the civil state government.  Today, ritual and celebrations are family focused and held in the home, in the altar room.  My mother and I discuss the similarities of our own religious traditions.

As the Christmas lights twinkle and the elderly from the Dominican community assemble for the bus tour to see the holiday lights, I think of my transition to Mexico at this time of year.  The village posadas will begin.  I will arrive in time for the magic caves of Teotitlan ritual that pre-dates the conquest, and move into epiphany.  I will pray for the completion of the casita as I have for the past four years.  The cycle of celebration continues with the aid of many saints and virgins who are called upon to protect the believers — all an amalgam of indigenous belief and Catholic ritual.

This is easy for me to understand and appreciate, I tell my mother who has never traveled outside this country.   And, she gives me her blessing which is all I need.

Saying Goodbye and Time for Oaxaca

I suspect that there will be coming posts from me like this one that will express feelings rather than reportage about Oaxaca as I separate from my life’s work in four universities and look to the future.  Please bear with me!  This is the home stretch.  My last official salaried paycheck will be mailed to me on December 22, 2011.  I’m very close to being untethered and on my own.  This is both exhilarating and scary.  I am dealing with a roller coaster of emotions ranging from the excitement of spending more time in Oaxaca and the sadness of leaving people I have worked with over the past 10 years and care for immensely —  staff, deans, donors and faculty.

Last week began a whirlwind of goodbye parties starting with a surprise dinner given by the School of Nursing Foundation Board of Directors.  At the close of the board meeting on the following day they gave me the ultimate parting gift of thanks: an all expense paid trip to Peru.  This was NOT a trip to Peru, Indiana, as I had joked in disbelief after a dear alumna, donor and friend handed me the envelope. She organized this incredible gift that includes a week at a Peruvian resort (I get my choice from one of three locations) to be used whenever I wish.  It was accompanied by a large cashiers check to cover expenses!  I am still speechless and in shock.  My hope is to spend time planning the trip so as to savor the experience and take in all the appreciation that it represents.  This is the most difficult part for me — accepting all the outpouring of gratitude I am receiving now.

Yesterday, my school gave me a goodbye party, attended by three wonderful deans — our current dean, immediate past dean, and the dean who preceded her.  All of our three living deans!  My dear colleague Anne gave the roast and brought me to tears. She testified to how I don’t like or follow rules, bending them when needed so that we are people-centric.  How I have supported her to be flexible in her role as high-performance development officer, mom, and wife.  I hope she will be my successor and I am secure in knowing that the future of the advancement office is in good hands during this transition.

It is important, I have discovered, to know when to leave.  To let the next generation step up to the role they deserve and have worked hard for.   I notice people hanging on well-beyond the time they should have retired (early or not).  They may stay because of the money or because they don’t know what else to do with their lives or because they are committed to a purpose that may no longer be relevant or effective.  For many the fire is gone from their bellies.  Their career peak may have been years earlier.

It is important to know when to leave.  I have examined my own motivations and effectiveness.  I have reassessed how I want to live a creative and meaningful life.  I also know that I have worked hard and achieved much for myself and others.  I have added value to the world and made it a better place.  I am leaving UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing in good hands and with the promise of a strong future after raising $23+ million.  I feel good about that.

Now, it is time for Oaxaca …. and Peru.

A Worthy End-of-Year Gift of Education: Oaxaca Learning Center

I received this message from Gary Titus, who has made a commitment over many years to educate Oaxaca children and prepare them to go on to university. This is a legitimate and worthy organization.  I want to share his message with you:

From Gary Titus–Greetings from the Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center

2011 has been another very good year at The Learning Center. Student demand for our tutoring and for our summer session has continued to grow as word spreads of the effectiveness of our programs. Our donors, volunteers and visitors to the Center experience the enormous difference that being a part of the Center makes in the lives of our students and are advocating for us with their friends to extend our support network. Now we write to all of you who, at one time or another, have connected with us, to ask for your financial support.

“Our summer program, which served 113 students, was evaluated for the first time after our Center Director, Sonia Bautista, attended a six-week workshop given by two retired program officers of the Ford Foundation living in Oaxaca. The course focused on monitoring and evaluation of social projects, with the goal of assisting local NGO’s in developing these capabilities. The results of our first evaluation indicated beneficiaries’ high level of satisfaction with the academic tutoring, English courses and workshops this summer. In addition to staff and tutors receiving feedback on their performance and effectiveness, we expect to use these new quantitative and qualitative tools to support formal proposals to foundations for expanded financial assistance, as well as to then provide them with reliable evaluation of the benefits of their support. This should allow us to enhance your individual contributions with foundation monies and allow the Center to serve an increasing number of students.

Tutoring math at the Oaxaca Learning Center

In a state where completion of high school by low-income and indigenous students is very low, the fact that 30 of the 46 participants this year in our preparation courses for university entrance exams were admitted to universities in the fall attests to the life-changing difference our program makes in students’ lives.

In spite of our program’s effectiveness, the continuing negative press about Mexico has had a deleterious financial impact on us. Occupancy of our bed and breakfast, which has provided about 40% of our yearly budget, has been well below capacity. This, coupled with the worldwide economic crisis, has resulted in a slight decrease in donations, as well. In fact, as many of you know, Oaxaca is a very safe place with a wonderful climate and welcoming, friendly atmosphere. We hope that our expanded quarterly newsletter will bring you our good news from Mexico and allow you to experience the positive impact and achievements of the Center.

Oaxaca Learning Center students

We are now asking you to become a financial donor to our new “Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center,” which, with its 501(c)(3) status, can offer you a tax credit. Please remember that 100% of your donation goes to support the stipends for our students and student staff. For your convenience, we offer three ways to donate:

You can send a personal check to:

Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center (FOLC)

P. O. Box 926

Blue Hill, Maine 04614

Make a donation through PayPal by clicking here:

You can also make regular automatic monthly donations. Please contact Gary Titus at for the electronic transfer information.

Gary Titus with center tutors

On behalf of everyone here at The Oaxaca Learning Center, we thank you for your support and send you our very best wishes for the holiday season and for the new year!

Gary Titus                                                             Fay Henderson de Diaz

Founder, The Oaxaca Learning Center        President, Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center