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]

A Walk in Old Tetovo

Posted July 28, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

So tomorrow is my last day in Tetovo.  Yesterday my fellow teacher Besa took me on a walk around the old town of Tetovo.  We went to several places that I had visited in the past, most importantly for me, the Colored Mosque.  There are so many beautiful old buildings in Tetovo, including the Turkish tekke or Muslim monastery that I have also written about, associated with the Bektashi sect, one of the ancient mystical sects of Islam.  The first mosque on this site was probably guild in 1495, but this is the Balkans and land has slipped back and forth during wars. In 1833 the mosque was rebuilt by Abdurrahman Pasha, the son of Rexhep Pasha.  Now maybe you are asking what is a Pasha and the answer is a Pasha is a title for landlords and generals in the Ottoman Empire.  This Mosque was build next to the Shkuma river, where there were other buildings of Islamic origin including a bath that is now open as an art gallery.

The eight-sided mausoleum to two sisters, Hurshide and Mensure, is in excellent condition and reminded me of the rather emptier tombs of Arthur and Gweneviere at Glastonbery. Upstairs there was a woman with spectacles on teaching children to read the Koran. The walls were clearly influenced by the French Rococo movement. That’s right. The interior of this Ottoman Mosque was painted with swirling baskets of flowers The amazing mixture of French painting style, including the domed ceiling’s miniature buildings and towns, was such a message of the fact that this town, like the Balkans in general, has been a synthesis of so many cultures, both European and Eastern.  The geometrical and floral elements are meant to convey the notion of wealth and luxury, while the smallness of the mosque convey a very different message, of coziness, like a dollhouse at Versailles. The Mihrab, whre the Iman leads the prayer, was particularly beautifully carved.  Work was going forward on the parterres of the courtyard, yet another combination of European cultures.

The single classical minaret allows one to see the Colored Mosque in Tetovo from all over the city.  I am so glad that I visited it again as I wondered where Abdurrahman Pasha, son of Rexhep Pasha, got the ideas for his amazing interior with its yellow and red flower baskets cascading off the walls of this beautiful and welcoming sacred place.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans
[photo of Colored Mosque from]

The Macedonian Express and the Best-So-Far Awards

Posted July 26, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Today was the first day of the WITS Creative Writing Camp in Tetova on the border of Bosnia.  The camp was huge with 25 students here this afternoon and four “Best-So-Far” Awards for each group — the morning kids and the afternoon kids.  I am not really sure how these “Best-So-Far” Awards got started, but they have come to have a life of their own.  They all culminate on the Fridays of the Camp with a “Best of the Best” Award in nine different categories, most of which are actually related to our writing, as in Best Haiku, Best Extended Poem, Best Play, Best Vignette, Best Short Story, Best Piece of Descriptive Realism, but also including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director of the plays that are presented the last day, usually in front of a representative sent by the embassy in Skopje.

Every afternoon, after hours with the kids, sit down together and review the writing that went on in the camp and select the best pieces “so far.”  It is an interesting experience, but what is equally fun is to see the campers come in the next morning and the smiles on their faces when they have won one of the awards and they know exactly what they won it for.  Then, the third day of the camp, we begin awarding campers for the “Best Body of Work So Far.”

I guess life doesn’t really give such awards, but it would be convenient to get a kind of check-up like this from time to time in life itself.  It also let’s the teachers know, if there is no award for example, that we may need to see what we are doing and make changes.  That has never happened, but it is possible.  Hope that you are having a “Best-So-Far” Day yourself.

From Tetova, this is WITS Writer Merrilee Cunningham having a good day.


Posted July 23, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

I know that you think that it is hotter in Houston than anywhere, but I am so glad that I didn’t go to Sofia Bulgaria because the mayor is telling the cities of the city to stay in because it is so hot.  It is 31 degrees in Moscow. That is hot, hotter than it has been for a long time and headed towards 35 maybe.  Still, this is no doubt great for the fields of sunflowers, the hay drying in the fields or on the hay trucks that one passes. How do you pass a hay-truck, you city guys?  The answer is “carefully.”

No doubt the plums and pomegranates will still be fine and the ancient monasteries in the lowlands will still be there as well as the Moslem retreats near Tetovo that I discussed two years ago.  It’s just mid-July and the hay is already ready in the fields.  Old houses made of well-fitted stones decorate the landscape along with Byzantine-Roman forms.  Old Tetovo is near the old library on the mountain side, but we are in new Tetovo with the children discussing Japanese forms (in language that must be translated into Albanian) in Macedonia. And then at the end of the day, when the children leave the camp, I walk into the waning heat and head back to my hotel and the notebooks.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans (which actually means mountains)

More from Macedonia

Posted July 22, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

We just finished doing four plays this morning with the younger kids and two plays this afternoon, including a Vampire Summer Vacation, featuring a trip to the Castle of  Dracula.  Rather than start on my rant about Twilight, the novel, I will tell you that the plays were wonderful, even the Vampire play as we are close enough to Romania and the sources of the Vampire that the students have many original as well as historical ideas about Vlad.  Indeed the student who played Vlad was named Vlad.  (What are the odds,  even  this close to Bulgaria?)   The plays were wonderful.  The children and their parents were justifiably proud of the great work  that they have done, the anthologies are almost ready, and there was general agreement that Creative Writing Camp was a fabulous experience for all.  Now there may be a couple of librarians who have to work this weekend who may need to put their feet up on Sunday morning and even call for breakfast in bed.  I intend to sleep in  tomorrow morning and then walk up the hill is Stip to the 6th century Byzantine Church that I have been looking at every morning from my hotel room and wondering when and if I would be able to rise early enough to beat the heat and take a trek up the hill to see it, water bottle and picnic lunch in hand. But tomorrow  is my day as Sunday morning  early I take off to Skopje and then to Tetova and my friends at the American Corners there.

So I move away from Eastern Macedonia and its Roman and Byzantine ruins to the hills of Tetova where I can see the mountains of Bosnia.  Remember, Balkans is  just a word for “Mountains.”

Merrilee Cunningham,

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

The Museum of Stip and the Triple Hecate

Posted July 20, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

More from the Macedonian Express

Yesterday, I had a great time in the WITS Creative Writing Camp in Stip, not that far from the Bulgarian border and near the ancient Roman city that we discussed in the last post.  Every morning I walk about 30 minutes to the American Corners away from the city center, past the Museum of Stip and onto a beautiful road with purple thistles and wildflowers all up and down the road. When I arrived here yesterday, after my visit with wild hollyhocks (the English would be so jealous) and gladiolas, I started the Haiku House project with the younger children.  Haiku are not often taught in the curriculum of Macedonia, and the students were largely unfamiliar with the concept, but they certainly caught on fast and did an amazing job of building their traditional Japanese houses with paper walls on all four sides with a Haiku on each wall.  The older kids built no houses but did finish the afternoon with three Haiku and seemed to enjoy the project.

At 4:00 pm, I began my walk down the mountain to my hotel and on the way I stopped by the Museum of Stip where I was fortunate enough to meet someone who let me  into the museum where, after paying my 120 dinari ($2.25 or so) I was allowed to see all the amazing archeological discoveries from the early Byzantine-Slav, Greek and Roman sites from near Stip.  It was wonderful inside.  I had already seen the Gandahara statues in the front yard two days before, so actually being in the museum was great.  There were amazing gold Roman rings, bronze ring, Greek and Roman weaponry, pictures of massive archeological digs that I hope to visit if I have time on Saturday and most significantly a fabulous picture of a work on loan elsewhere, the Triple Hecate of Stip.  This is one of a very few Triple Hecates in the area, maybe one of only two ever found in Macedonia, as the guard noted, and it is fabulous.

Hecate is the goddess of the underworld and a triple goddess is, as one can imagine, three times as powerful as some poor single goddess. Thus triple Nemesis is a powerful ally of justice and so forth.  There are some elements of celebrating the cycle of life and death in agricultural cults and certainly the great plains of Macedonia have always been so important to this area as between these beautiful hills and mountains are the river valleys, including those of the great Vardar. I was impressed, truly impressed with the collection and saddened that I was the only one visiting in that hour.  It was well worth the visit. Now, the third day of the Camp begins and children are coming into the library. More anon.

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools

WITS Meets Stip (Macedonian Express, continued)

Posted July 19, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Yesterday, I left Skopje for the mountains of Macedonia (the word “Balkans” means mountains) and the hills of Stip, an ancient city in Macedonia where there is a new American Corner Library. It was a beautiful trip. The sun was shining and the purple summer thistles were interspersed with fabulous little red poppies that had survived from May and June just in the places where there were rivers and streams. There are ancient early Christian churches (like 6th. century or so) that I can see from my amazing view of my hotel and just down the street is the Museum of Stip where in the beautiful lawns of the front of the museum are Gandahara-like statues which clearly show that Macedonian was a very important part of the ancient world.

There is a famous Roman city very near by.  Bargala was the name of the famous Roman city that was an important part of the Roman empire and there is an amazing statue on the front lawn of the Museum of Stip that has the body of a male figure that reminds me of so many of the Roman statues of the Persian God Mithras with his body turned backwards and his flowing cloak. Unfortunately, the head of the statue is lost, but I hope to see what is inside the museum as well as this morning, before I went to the American Corners Library, I was allowed by the lady who was working there to see two fabulous Byzantine saints from the early Byzantine period. So many of the ancient buildings here have been Byzantine, then for hundreds of years a part of the Ottoman Empire, and now part of modern Macedonian.

This is a truly beautiful town. I took a walk this morning after watching two dogs playing near the river. I got downstairs an hour later and they were still having a great time playing with each other on the cool morning before the day gets too hot to do that sort of thing. There was great attendance this morning with the younger children. The Corner hasn’t even been open for five months and yet there are 16 students in the morning creative writing class. It was amazing. They also did great work and we had no problem selecting the “Best So Far” awards for the morning class. The afternoon class was a little more difficult as we had done a brain geography and they had had a lot of choices about the character whose brain they were describing. Then they could place the character in either a first-person narration or a third-person narration. They did a great job.

It is a pleasure to be in Stip. I will write more about Bargala as I am seeing more objects from this famous Roman town. Several times during the Roman period, groups of Roman retired soldiers banded together and settled in Macedonian when they were not given land in Italy or Spain. More anon about Bargala. There is a mosaic in Bargala, a central processional pathway, the old town of Bargala is the old city of Stip, where one of the three rivers is. There is also a waterfall. There is also a really nice Goatherd nearby who is reputed to make coffee and let the Peace Corps Volunteers play with the baby goats, not to be outdone by the Pigherd in Odysseus’s Ithaca.

Merrilee Cunningham, WITS Writer to the Balkans

The Play is the Thing (Times 7!)

Posted July 14, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Shakespeare said, “The Play’s the Thing,”  and it was!  Here in Skopje we just finished producing seven plays —  4 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.  They included such titles as “The Nutty Granny,” “Revenge is a Dish Best Served up Cold,” The Magic Umbrella,” and “The Hero and the Dragon,”  just to name a few.  They were absolutely wonderful.  The young actress who played the title role in “The Nutty Granny” also helped write the play as did most of the actors.  It is very interesting how serious the students get about the plays.  All this has caused a Children’s Drama Festival in Bitola so when I get to Bitola, I will finish the first week with a second week where we do nothing but plays. I have always wanted to direct a children’s theater, and, what luck, it is happening!

It is very exciting to visit with my wonderful old friends in Skopje, but it is also exciting to be going to a brand new corner and a new place.  It has been a while since I have been to a new place.  Last year I went to Croatia with my daughter Susannah, and we had an amazing time going to Diocletian’s palace and looking at the stone symbols on all the ruins in Split. This time I haven’t really thought about going anyplace. Tomorrow I am off to Stip and new places and new friends.

Merrilee Cunningham

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

More from Macedonia: Haiku House and the Tower of Love

Posted July 13, 2010 & filed under Notebook.


Today each of the Skopje students built a Haiku House out of small lego-like sticks and blocks, clay and beads.  The windows and roof were made of colored wooden ice-cream spoons and the walls were of cashier’s tape to make sure that the 5-7-5 syllable lines looked right on the narrow paper.  One group refused to make single houses and created “The Tower of Love.”  There were 12 haiku in the three stories of the “Tower of Love” and, of course, the students wrote out “Tower of Love” in beads in front of the tower.  I have to admit that many of the Haiku Houses were wonderful, but the romanticism of the “Tower of Love” was almost more than I could bear.  It was beautifully decorated with wonderful haiku that fulfilled the discipline of having each wall have a haiku that represented a different season — summer, fall, winter, spring.  I was told that there is no tradition of haiku in  Macedonian and that I was very lucky that my fellow teachers could help me at the library because they had been trained by various Scots who had been on their faculty and trained them in the form.


The students did a wonderful job, translated the word “syllable” for me into “slog,” and I didn’t laugh.  I saw many young people counting like mad as they attempted to follow the more rigorous rules of the classical haiku and as they prepared their houses for the experience.  They seemed almost relieved when we went on to “Found Poetry,” and they were asked to select five words from the colored paper on the walls and bookcases and write a poem using all the words.  Compared with the busy fingers counting as we sounded out the syllables, this was easy for them and they took to it.

Several students were selected to read from their notebooks based on having a red piece of paper under their charge that said “Hot Seat.”  Even the shy ones seem to accept this as their destiny and read from the six words that they have begun in the portfolios.  All in all it was a great day.  I got to play in the wood glue, which is always exciting and now the teachers are deciding the “Best so far Day Two” awards and putting in the “My Personal Best so Far Away” so that the students can at least consider revisions as well as visions.  We have already set up the tables for tomorrow’s “Life Clock” and its follow-up work and then we are off to wherever we go after Creative Writing Camp.

I will be off for my walk toward my hotel passed some wonderful Soviet-Era sculptors and some amazing glamour girl statues and their dog, one without arms. Several of the students wrote essays saying that they would like to see fewer statues in the park and more hungry folks fed. I have to admit to being very impressed with the seriousness of thought and social consciousness of my Macedonian students. While I hate to leave my world to anyone and don’t plan on going just now, I am convinced that my beloved planet will be in pretty good shape if these Macedonians are typical.

Merilee Cunningham

WITS Writer to the Balkans

WITS and the Macedonian Express: Year 3

Posted July 12, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Beginnings are exciting, thrilling really, particularly when you know that they are filled with fun, energy, learning, reading, writing, and happy children.  This is my third year of WITS in Macedonia and the beginning of the third year on the Macedonian Express, and that express has more stops than it used to.  When we started, there were only three American Corner (AC) Libraries in Macedonian and now there are four. Next year there will be five. That’s pretty good for a country with only 4 million people in it, but what those Macedonians don’t have in quantity, they make up in quality.

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This is a nation of readers, poets, writers, artists, and their enthusiasm for the Creative Writing Workshops is so great that we have more students this year than ever before.  In Skopje this year we have two completely filled workshops and have only new students in the workshops.  That means that tomorrow morning there will be 20 kids in the morning and 20 kids in the afternoon in the AC. The younger kids come in the morning with all their energy, delight and excitement.  If it is like last year, they come with their parents, the youngest not really sure that we can be trusted to take care of them until the middle of the first day.  Then the second day they are so excited, so thrilled to see their new friends, to get started on their work from yesterday, and to do the warm-ups, probably starting with two truths and a “fiction” where they tell their new friends two things that are true about them and one fiction that they made up.  You would be surprised how often that fiction or even “lie” get used in one of their stories.  It also lets you know about their vivid imaginations.  Trust the bright lights to tell you their favorite color is blue, place their blue folder on top of their desk so that you believe them, all the while knowing perfectly well that their favorite color is green.  I know this is true because Emma tricked me with this at the WITS Creative Writing Camp “two truths and a lie” warm-up at Bellaire High School last month. She got me over and over again, and I fancy myself an excellent judge in this department!

I had a wonderful flight here.  I had just finished a Common Ground Seminar for the University of Houston’s Honor’s College when I boarded a United Airlines plane for Washington Dulles and then Austrian Airlines to Vienna and Skopje (pronounced Skop-e-ah).  I never seem to get over my love of flying.  When I was a teenager my friend Russ Heil and I used to go to the airport just to watch the planes that would have liked to be on and I haven’t changed.  I still am thrilled just to see a plane take off, and if I am on it is just where I want to be. I never had any desire to pilot a plane, but I do want a window seat, and a window seat to life is just what I got…all the way to Macedonia. Watching movies all night long, the second night without sleep, I was ready to sleep when I got to the hotel and that is just what I did.

By the time that I got to the American Corner library this morning I was ready to get rid of the 120 pounds of luggage that had the supplies that I had been buying for the past year…and they are wonderful.  I have inherited from my father the importance that I place on having the best supplies for a Writing Workshop.  When I got here the AC staff showed me t he great tee-shirts that they produced.  The design is fabulous. I will send you a copy of it asap.

This afternoon we are interviewing the kids that will be camp counselors and then meeting with representatives from all the American Corners so that they can pick up a copy of the master plan, modify that plan to their liking and be ready for the camps when I get there. That means creating a word wall, an bulletin board with local historical buildings and ruins, and other uses of walls and blackboards as we prepare for the arrival of the workshop campers.  But today it also means dividing the loot, the pencil sharpeners, the pens, the notebooks, the stick-on letters, the colorful wooden blocks on which they will hang their haiku, the satin ribbons that they will wrap around the box with their secret writings in it, the plain white paper plates that they will put their life clock on, the little brown bags that they will place something that they would love to “drown in the deep blue sea.”

I am so glad that I have the information that I got from participating in the SCWW camp adventures with Jennifer Aguirre and Pat Green.  Those two amazing teachers taught me new stuff that I am not going to drop in “the deep blue sea” but that I have carried with me across that sea to implement here.  Even the “two truths and a lie” warm-up was something that I had never done before until I did it in June with Jennifer and Pat.

A teacher must constantly be trained and WITS is the best there is about training.  There is on-going training for teachers before and during the Workshops…and I believe in training. Training makes us different from what we would be without it.  Training offers us  more choices.  Training makes us good at what we do.  As Malcolm Gladwell says in his wonderful book Outliers, training makes us extreme variables of folks who do something, because we have worked those thousands of hours to become the statistical outliers on a graph of how well we can do something if we get training and practice, work intensely on getting better at something. And that is just what these young people in Macedonia are going to do…they are going to write brilliantly in a language that was not their first, but a language that they are going to become very good writers in like Joseph Conrad and others who learned a language in which they became great writers.

Tomorrow is a new beginning and I will tell you all about it just after it happens. Welcome to the first day of the third year of the Macedonian Express. Come with us to Macedonia and the Creative Writing Camps as the centers are filled with young, talented children from the land of Phillip and Alexander.

Merilee Cunningham

WITS Writer to the Balkans

Skopje Celebrates Young Writers

Posted August 11, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

You are reading the blog of a woman who has been through five small earthquakes and did not feel a thing, yet when the American Corners was full of both the early morning kids and the afternoon kids, doing the plays that they themselves wrote, it seemed chaotic.  The U.S. Embassy sent its best and its brightest to award the children their certificates of completion for the program and to congratulate the winners of “Best Play,” “Best Long Poem,” “Best Lyric Poem.” “Best Short Story.”  The competition was fierce, and I got up early this morning to arrive in front of the library where we had to make tough decisions about who go which awards with my co-teachers and translators.  We had our differences of opinions, but the disputes were friendly, and everyone played by the rules. We had stayed up all night typing the anthology entries, as Bitola and Skopje had full-blown anthologies, complete with videos of the plays and 200 pictures of the camp. Still, there was no tee-shirt, though the embassy promises a tee-shirt if we will just come back and do this again next year.  This is a bribe that will work on my 1960’s soul.

The librarians are very excited about the program and have allowed us to take our dramatic chaos throughout the library, all the while these committed guardians of learning are actively attempting to carry on their regular programs, check out books, check in books, and do all the other things that help allow for people to get the kind of information that they need in order to make wise decisions about their lives, their votes, and their families.

After the plays this morning, we continued the tradition of ending the program with a proclamation of the rights of children. The right to go to the dentist was perhaps the most interesting. One has to wonder about the story behind an eight year old child understanding the importance of dental hygiene.  But the right to clean water, clean air, life with a temperature that was livable (Macedonia has been very hot this summer) were also important. When the children read their table of contents on their journal, they were very happy with themselves and saw how very much they had been able to write.  Then I asked them which works still needed more revisiting, and they slowly were able to tell me which works they would be working on and revising. It was great. Click here to see a 3:30 video of a news story about the project.

Tonight my youngest daughter arrives from Cairo, and we have dinner with a friend from the embassy and then we are off to Kosovo and Bulgaria as my daughter continues on to Istanbul.  So the Macedonian Express will be traveling West away from Skopje and into Kosovo and Bulgaria.  I hope that you will be coming with us, because after that, I need to revisit my syllabi for World Literature I and World Mythologies, and Renaissance Drama and Roman History Independent Study at the University of Houston Downtown so that my university gets its fair share of what talents I possess.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Young Poets of Skopje, Macedonia

Posted August 7, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

The children in the Creative Writing workshop in Skopje were ready to select their images for the Ekphrasis assignment and one of the masks that the teachers put on the board looked, from far away, like the famous Mask of Agamemnon, so, gold mask macedonianever the one to stand back timidly, I said, “Oh, the mask of Agamemnon.”  At that point both my Macedonian teachers (one married to an archeologist), fell upon me and gave me the what-for!  “Oh no. Many golden masks have been found in Macedonia.” One, found in 1934, is in the museum in Belgrade with its fellow. Others have been found recently in 17 graves from the 6th. century B.C.  in a village near Lake Ohrid. There is much excitement about the discovery of the bronze age graves near Ohrid. But there is also much pride about the beautiful mask that is in Belgrade. I was amazed by its beauty, the face surrounded by the ancient image for enigma and questioning.

Which brings me to the constant questions that the kids in the workshop are asking. “Do you go to NASA often?” How many computer languages do you know?”  “Do you know Obama?”  “Have you seen AC/DC?”  “Do you have a hamster?”  What do you do with questions like that asked by students who have learned their English by playing video games or whose goal in the workshop is to write an epic poem?

The answer, of course, is provide them with challenges, and that is exactly what I am best at, so tomorrow they have to perform the play that they are writing today, but only after they create their life clock on a large white paper plate, starting, at 12 o’clock with they day, month, and year that they were born.  Did you want a brother?  Did you want a baby sister? Did you want to learn computer languages?  Did you want a hamster?  Did you want to make good grades?  Did you want to have a bird?  Did you want to fly? Did you want to work with E.A. Blizzard or Krytech?  Did you want to meet Miley Cyrus?   Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want two new cousins?  I know I did. Did you want someone to love you all your life?

I feel like the Art Linklater of Creative Writing Teachers.  Kids say the funniest things.  They also say the wisest.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Our Indiana Jones and the Macedonian Hamburgers

Posted August 6, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Mere technology interrupted my transmittals from Macedonia. It seems that I was in line for a new computer at my university, and I knew that IT was going to take this time to get rid of my XP-powered bulky computer and arm me with my beloved Microsoft 2009 with all its many charms, templates, and  almost apple-like advantages.  Little did I know that getting rid of my literal machine would interrupt the flow of the Macedonia Express. But there is time now to catch up and my new machine, I trust, is awaiting me in my little office at the university, a better fate than Indiana Jones would have had in his handsome office at the University of Chicago. Yet there has been an Indiana Jones quality of this adventure. Five earthquakes, however small, in Bitola, a trip to Heraclea’s amazing mosaics, and a look at the on-going archeological work there, a wonderful ride from Bitola on the mountain rode to Tetovo, and we were ready for the second round of writing workshops.The anthology from Bitola was amazing. The children outdid themselves, and the staff, Elena and Bijana, worked so hard to make the anthology happen and make sure that the students revised well, and their work was not in vain. When I left Bitola for my sojourn on a narrow road through the beautiful mountains on Macedonia, past Lake Ohrid, where the Roman amphitheater is and where the amazing golden mask, that looks a bit like the Mask of Agamemnon, was found. I will write more about that mask tomorrow as it is one of the images of our Ekphrasis assignment.

Today I want to write about our adventures in Tetovo.  I was, once again, fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and able staff of teachers and students who were more than  ready to work.  The walls hung with Leslie Gauna’s “found poetry” assignment as well placed words in Albanian as well as English on the walls. By now, we have a cache of words in Macedonian, Albanian, and English for the students to select from.

After the workshop, my colleagues took me to an amazing natural spring in the mountains where people came who wanted to both bathe in the waters and drink the spring waters for their health. As this site is an ancient Ottoman Empire site, the very center of the spring is circled by white material for the use of the women who want to bathe and enjoy the waters, while the men enjoyed the waters outside the very large white circle where they could not enter. The mystery of inside that forbidden place was almost more than I could stand as I watched women go in and out of the large white, covered center.  After we bathed and collected water from the spring, offered us in used Coca-Cola bottles, we were off to have a Macedonian hamburger (the less said about this the better).

I was then off in my car to Skopje and the final week of workshops at the American Corners Center there. Tomorrow, more about the recent archeological discovery at Lake Orhid. And, not  a single earthquake I hope.

Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

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

WITS International: The Return of the Macedonian Express

Posted July 21, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

Who knew that when I bid a sad farewell to what I thought was my last entry in the Macedonian Express it would not be my last entry at all.  I left Macedonia last year hoping that the Creative Writing Workshops would continue, unaware that I would be invited back to the second year of the program.  But during the winter, the folks who  had the original idea for the Creative Writing Summer Camp won an award for working with children, a grant was written, and Writers in the Schools (WITS) in Houston was contacted.  Thus a second year of the partnership between the Department of State and WITS began.  It is a real lesson in the power of partnership as well as the momentum of success, but making and maintaining creative partnerships has always been what WITS  has been about as one can see from the partnerships between WITS and HISD, The Menil Collection, Inprint, The Orange Show (which I finally visited this summer) and many other groups.  When WITS asked me to go back to Macedonia again, I was thrilled.

It is not our goal to make this program as good as it was last year:  rather, our goal is to make it so much better than last year.  Thus the curriculum has been extensively updated, taking the best of what we did last year and adding to it lessons such as “The Magic Box” and other lessons available in the WITS publications which help writers like me select the very best curriculum available to us for stimulating creative writing (and before that, creative problem solving and thinking).  For the next two weeks, I’m going to be blogging about our summer writing camp — how our plans are working (or how they are not working) and what results we get from these programs, originally designed for Houston children, from the Balkan kids in the beautiful country of Macedonia.

I am very sensitive to the fact that this is a beautiful country as I just traveled from Skopje to Bitola by car.  I was truly astounded by the physical beauty of this country.  In July, the road from Skopje to Bitola is through green mountains dotted with ancient villages and monasteries that still offer cold mountain water from fountains that eventually end in the river where the cloistered life is lived away from most of their fellow human beings — so different from the megalopolae that many of us attempt to thrive in.  Perhaps the cold, clean water that the brothers offer the travelers represents a purity that is foreign to us, as we hold that water in our hands rather than in the plastic bottles marked Perrier or Utopia.    Perhaps it is a symbol for the inner peace no doubt valued in the cloister.  And it was a bit of inner peace that I was after as I traveled inside my amazing car over the green hills and thought about what gives the soul the ability to recover and the spirit its path toward healing.  I was thinking about friends and esteemed colleagues and healing, partly because I had just read an article from the New York Times about the renewed popularity of Ashrams given the economic downturn.  I thought about the history of both Christian and Muslim communities.  I thought of the rural environment and giving oneself time in that green world to experience the regeneration that is available in the City of God, even as one retreats from some Augustian concept of City of Man.  Not my usual stance, but today I am satisfied with stabilizing that binarial view.

So it was in that frame of mind that I arrived in Bitola just in time to experience an earthquake.  In the rare moment of my searching for peace in nature, nature rewarded me with an earthquake.  At first I just felt a little strangeness in the car.  Then I saw that people had come out of their houses and stores and were talking to each other in front yards.  But I just thought that maybe in the early evening that it was the custom in Southern Macedonia to visit with friends before dinner and after work.  Quickly, I saw that this was simply too many people to be a mere testimony to their neighborliness.  And one of my teachers in Bitola, who was riding with me, announced that they were protecting themselves from the possible aftershocks of the earthquake.  Notice my timing here.  I consider, surely for the first time in years, the healing powers of nature and nature answers my affections for the possibilities of healing and order within the green world.  It is nice to know how in sync I am with other earth mothers.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

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

A Party at the Embassy

Posted June 29, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

After both classes of creative writing students and our adventure up to the Kale or fortification and discussions with the archeologists, I returned to Skopje yesterday evening for an embassy party.  There I met many senior embassy officials and rode into town with the director of the Tetova Theatre.  We had such interesting conversations about his early years starting the Tetova Theatre immediately after the political conflicts in this country and his continuing work both at the theatre and at the university. Tetova is becoming an international university town, and he discussed how exciting it has been to see this take place.

At the party there were many professors on Fulbrights, a second year law student who had originally been scheduled to go to Burma (Myanmar) and Macedonian intellectuals who were scheduled to come to the United States for cultural exchanges. The level of cultural exchange was very impressive, and I had to think about what a huge amount of work went into the programs that were sponsored by the United States Embassy.

The party honored a senior diplomat who was fresh from a meeting with the president of Macedonia.  This diplomat had very impressive scholarly and diplomatic credentials, and it occurred to me that some people select both the contemplative and the active life. That choice can make a huge difference in both your own life and the lives and welfare of others. Her career also made me realize how much we need to work on language acquisition and second language acquisition in our country if we are to continue to function diplomatically in this global village of ours.

Tomorrow is a travel day for me. The embassy will send a car for me, and I will leave this beautiful mountain city and head for Bitola and my final four-day workshops in the Balkans. I will miss Tetova in a way that I have only experienced missing Sicily.  Its mountains and children and intellectuals somehow enter your heart, as you see how hard they work to further their culture, how earnestly the children attempt to succeed at the assignments, and how committed the staff at the American Corner in Tetova is to the programs they provide. It was also good, as an old Peace Corp volunteer myself, to see Melissa, the hardworking Peace Corp volunteer who did so much for our project with her amazing experience in teaching. Finally, we put together a great team here in Tetova, just as we had done in Skopje.

Now let’s see how the Macedonian Express does in Bitola, just a half an hour’s walk from Philip of Macedonian’s Heracula. Wherever Hercules was worshipped in the ancient world in classical times, difficult physical tasks were admired such as agricultural feats so I look forward to discovering if Philip named this city because of the flourishing agricultural community to be found around there.  Much of Heracula has not yet been archeologically uncovered, I have been told, but I will still take the hike out there the first chance I get and report on the city of the father of Alexander the Great.

Until Monday then, this is the Macedonian Express, on the way out of my beloved Tetova and on southward towards Bitola.

More Anon,  Merrilee, WITS Writer in the Balkans

Meeting the Great Poet

Posted June 27, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Today is the third day of the Creative Writing Camp in Tetova, and it is going very well indeed. As you may have gathered, we are using the same curriculum for each four-day program, although tweaking is necessary, both to incorporate lesson learns and to adjust to the new group at each site.

The students began their screenplays after they finished their Ekphrasis work. On the first day, they selected an image of a cultural object, a place of worship, cultural center, one of the Sar mountains, the ski resort near here, painted mosque, the Tetova Theatre, the city center, or many other images. Then this morning they began their poems about the images. They did a wonderful job. Then we wrote the plays in small groups which turned the American Corners into a bit of a wild place. It was at that point that the television cameras came to film the children, and they are very excited about being on the local TV this evening. Tomorrow is the last day, with performances of their plays and presentation of awards.

Yesterday, after the afternoon group left at 3 pm, some colleagues and I traveled into the countryside to visit with the new Baba in the mountains. He was so wise.  He is a leader of the Sufis in this region of the Balkans, and we talked about the long history of Sufi poetry from the medieval period onward. He read me a wonderful poem by Naim Frasheri called “The Words of the Candle” which begins like this:
Here among you have I risen,
And aflame am I now blazing,
Just a bit of light to give you,
That I change your night to daytime,
I’ll combust and I will wither,
Be consumed and be extinguished,
Just to give you brightness, vision,
That you notice one another,
For you and I will fade and tarnish,
Of me there will be no remnant,
I will burn, in tears lamenting.
That is just one sample of the poetry of Naim Frasheri, who wrote in French, Persian, Albanian, Turkish and other languages and has been translated, must interestingly perhaps by Robert Elsie. Now I am off to the kale, the  Ottoman Empire fortifications on the mountains.
I love the word Baba. It means so many different things. Baba denotes parent in so many different ways. It means father in Albanian. It means grandmother is Slavic languages and Greek. It suggests both great love and great respect. So with Baba Mundi, Babaimplies all of the above. I am sending photographs of Baba Mundi so that you can actually see him at his tekke with his only dervish.
More Anon, from the Balkans, Merrilee Cunningham

In the Mountains

Posted June 26, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

Here I am in the mountains near the Kosovo-Albanian-Macedonian border, and I am teaching creative writing at the American Corners in Totova.  This morning we had 14 students in the group and almost all of them speak and write Albanian.  They come from several of the villages in the mountains that live by an ancient code as well as the laws of Macedonia. Several of the students were two hours late because the travel time from their villages is so lengthy.

The ancient code, now adhered to only very rarely and in very remote places, requires avenging the honor of your family regardless of the law. It also allows a family without adult men to allow a virgin woman in the family to become a man so that she can represent the family in the market and mosque. Some of the very old women who have lived by this code have been interviewed in the media recently so this ancient practice is a popular subject of conversation among the teachers. They assure me that the ancient medieval code is only handed down by way of oral transmission and is only still obeyed in a very small mountainous region of Albania. Since I am surrounded by computers and all the modern conveniences, it is hard to imagine the code of honor that mountain families live by with its requirements of revenge, the danger that it could cause a family, and the amount of time some of my students are willing to travel in order to be in the creative writing workshop.

I have yet to see a drop of rain in Macedonian; nevertheless, the fields are full of corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and the markets sell tiny pears and apples, apricots, oranges, cherries, and green peppers which people carry home in great numbers. The people walk to the market in the morning and return home with their bags of vegetables, fruit, and bread. As they walk back home,they are tempted by the smell of bakeries and sizzling meat, either goat or sheep, on grills.

Totova is very peaceful now, but these people in very grave danger just a few years ago. There are metal racks of long, colorful skirts for sale to the Roma women who comprise a large minority of the people of this region.

This morning the government had doctors in the plaza taking the blood pressure and blood sugar of people who volunteered to be tested and many older Macedonians came to be tested. There are clearly many initiatives to make improvements in the quality of life of the citizens of Macedonia.  Lawn mowers are busy cutting the green grass of the plaza, murdering beautiful purple and yellow wildflowers as they go.

More Anon from the Macedonian Express, Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools