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)