Thoughts on Global Travel and Facebook

Posted July 29, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

I am in Bitola on the Macedonian border with Greece.  One of the wonderful things that happened my first year teaching in Macedonia was the students asking me if I was on facebook, although I had to tell them I was not.  Then I went home and joined facebook, partly on the advice of my Harvard-educated nephew who lived in a dorm where and when facebook was born.  I remember the Ugly Betty episode where Betty is trying to decide whether or not she is willing to befriend Henry, her ex-boyfriend who has married someone else for complicated reasons, and I wondered at our making the decision between “ignore” and “accept.”  So here is the question.  I know that facebook is making us global, but is it also making us more accepting…even kind and perhaps forgiving.  I know that it says “accept”, not forgive.  What about local as well as global forgiveness?

This Spring the Macedonian teachers and I had global meetings on facebook. We did global craft-shopping. The teachers are already planning for March 2011 facebook meetings. Clicking that “accept” button  rather than “ignore” is not contrition or absolution, in the sacred sense, but, as in Betty’s decision, it is an important decision that people need to  band together to teach their young and that there isn’t all the time in the world to do it.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans

[postcard from]

Mayor and Ambassador Praise WITS Writers of Bitola

Posted July 24, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

bitola art of wordsYesterday the United States Ambassador to Macedonia came, with the mayor of Bitola, to give out the awards to the children who are completing the Creative Writing Camp.  Today we did a new assignment that basically uses chopsticks to create a proclamation of the rights of children. We glue the chopsticks to a paper that has been turned sideways once the child has written about the rights of children all over the world.  We talked about the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States and what it meant.  Then we played (thanks to YouTube) a song by Tose called “This World.”  It is an amazing song about the rights of children that seems to both owe a debt to Michael Jackson’s songs about children and move away from concepts of Neverland.  If you have time, you should take a look at the musical poem.


After they read their proclamations and tied the proclamation with ribbon we began working on the plays.  All agreed on the rights of children to have kind families, to have enough clean food and water, to have access to education, books, and information, to be treated with dignity, to have health care. The debate was over whether or not a child had the right to have a dog. So you can see how things are going here.  Things that great men are still debating, are easy to solve here, but the right to have a dog, now that is an issue. Perhaps this battle is fresh in the minds and hearts of some of the children at the camp.  I remember this battle with my own child, Meredith Cunningham, who bought a dog and walked the dog four miles home and simply dared me to take that dog (Buster) back.  Of course, I did not.

Today, the play is the thing.  This afternoon the students will present 6 plays as writer/actors.  They are busy memorizing their lines.  That is right.  I said memorizing.  Some of these plays are long, but Macedonia has a great bardic tradition.  I discovered this last year when I listened with wonder and amazement to my students, who memorized their play in 48 hours.  I did not ask them to memorize their lines. I told them this was “Reader’s Theatre”; that we are a Creative Writing Camp, not a group of roving players.

It didn’t matter. They were sure that I needed saving from myself and the best way to do it was simply present me with the Macedonian reality that you don’t bring paper with your lines on it into a threatre in Macedonia.  I had read about the great 20th century bardic tradition in Macedonia, about a man who could simply speak poems for 33 hours at a time, but I had no idea that I would be looking at the bardic tradition with my on eyes and hearing it with my own ears.  It reminded me that Mnemosyne (memory) is the mother of the muses. (We will get into their paternity another time). I will let you know how the plays work out in the next blog post.

Until then farewell from the World Capital of Memory, Bitola and the Macedonian Express,

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

Young Authors Gather in Bitola, Macedonia

Posted July 22, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Yesterday was the first day of the Creative Writing Camp at Bitola in Macedonia.   In the morning we had all the younger children show up to the camp and the American Corners was abuzz with life, energy, and joy — some of my favorite things.

We did a really great lesson called “Put in a Bag” where we had a big bag and a little bag and the children were to place things that they liked in one of the bags and things that they hoped a pirate would carry away in another bag.  I wished that I had had my brother Steven Riggall, a Dartmouth trained psychiatrist to help me on the results of this one.  Feral dogs, spiders and snakes were just some of the things that they wanted in a bag.

I asked the kids if they could think of a feral king and eventually, one of the afternoon kids came up with the Roman King Romulus, who as a child was feral.  I admitted that we don’t often use words in such oxymoronic fashion as in the case of “feral kings” but that makes it more interesting.

Today we are doing one of my favorite assignments.  It’s called “A shield; to shield; shielding”.  We take little paper umbrellas, like the ones that, if you were lucky, you have seen in a fruit drink sometime this summer.  The umbrellas have had their pointed toothpick center clipped off.  Then later we put the umbrellas in their juice during the mid-day break.

We ask them how an umbrella is like a shield. What does an umbrella shield us from?  What other kinds of shields are there.  Then I read a little Gilgamesh and talk about Gilgamesh and Enkidu as shields of Uruk, city of walls.  Sometimes I add similar epic epithets from Homeric epic and Sundiata.  We ask the children who their shields are, what their shields are, and who and what do they shield. Then we give them pictures of the new park in Bitola with the wonderful married metal shields in the park, similar, but not exactly like Alexander the Great’s famous 16 ray shield, which has been adapted into 8 rays and 8 points. To me, this represents the logic of a compass and indeed turns a shield into a compass.  Then I ask them how a shield is like a compass.

The idea came from my passion for the park, which the Macedonians are hoping to turn into an Istanbul-like light show as the park is located between very important Ottoman, Muslim, and Christian historical places, similar to the light show park between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  The copper and bronze shields that decorate it are brilliant.

I love shields.  I have always loved shields.  I even collect shield iconography.  Ask my World Literature students if this isn’t true.  What would a classical metal smith, who surely knows he is making an object meant to keep his client alive in the the great moments of danger and life and death, select to put on the shield?  A compass, a way home a la Henry V’s imaginative speeches to his men in Shakespeare’s plays. Who doesn’t want a compass on their shield?

We need a shield, and we need a compass.  Shields with the Medusa head illustrate that we are afraid of what will turn us into stone.  But what about that compass and the points and strikes on it? Will it take us there and back again as Tolkien implies?  Can we reach home if we are homesick and have a compass? Are we as centered as a compass on a shield makes us?  Is that point in the center home, base (as in my beloved baseball)?

Those extra 8 sword-like strikes to points, asks us to define the difference between a point and a strike, and I say there is a huge difference, as the points look more like home than the strikes. They also move away from traditional depictions of the compass as the Mesopotamian sun god Shamash, with his zig-zag strikes, like legs walking across the desert, or Aten-Ra, all rays.  I love the iconographic variety of the strikes and the dotes, but they do imply that home is not just at the center, that it is also found outside that center, that home can move outward, even on a shield.

I must go now as the children will be here in just a bit, and they are forces of nature, walking energy wanting to learn, write, express themselves, from their home in Bitola, Macedonia.  And we are, for a moment, their shields.

Merillee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

WITS Writer to the children of Macedonia

On to Bitola

Posted June 30, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Yesterday morning I found presents for my trip away from Tetova waiting at my hotel. I can hardly say enough about how kind these follks were to me.  I left Tetova and took a wonderful three hour ride passing close enough to Lake Ohrid (German archeologists have determined that it is one of the three oldest lakes in the world — over 50,000 years and that it has a small lake under it) and leaving the mountains and headed for Bitola with my driver. It was a good thing that Robert was a great driver because the road was narrow, two-way, and around mountains.  After all, we are still in the Balkans.

I am now just 4 miles or so from Greece. Bitola is amazingly beautiful, and I am thrilled to be here. I am listening to Macedonia’s greatest rock star, Tose, who was killed in a car crash at the age of 26 this past spring. Much of Macedonia’s youth is mourning for him, and we are playing his music when they do their ‘life clock’ exercise, which is my invention, though so many of the other writing initiatives that they are doing come from Amy Lin, Leslie Gauna, and other WITS Writers. Thank you.

Today is the first day of the program with the children of Bitola, and we are ready.  The staff here has made amazing preparations, and the American Corner looks beautiful. Juices are out. Tortes are in their little pink and green cups, cookies abound and there is cold water for the afternoon. The art images of their city are ready to be printed for the Ekphrasis exercise. The words for “found words” are up on the walls. Their portfolios are fluttering in the breeze of the air conditioning.

I have not seen Herculea yet, though I believe that Herculea was founded in honor of Hera, not Hercules. I will research more when I go there, and you blog readers will be the second to know.  It is a beautiful sunny day in Bitola. The buildings are classical architecture and so grand.   The children will be here in fifteen minutes so I must go.

From the Macedonian Express, this is Merrilee Cunningham in beautiful downtown Bitola on the border between Greece and Southern Macedonia