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‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Cindy McCain, an author, teacher and world traveler. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.

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Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico last January, I wrote a sunny blog post called “2020 Vision from Lessons Learned.” I asked readers when charting the new year to remember what the last decade taught them about overcoming challenges and fear. I read the post over coffee to 2019’s big surprise — a man I believed was part of my future. All looked so bright we were both wearing shades.

On the Gulf of Mexico in January, 2020 looked so bright we were wearing shades.

Weeks later I booked a spring break escape to a travel media conference in Sicily to heal a hurt heart. When the plague took down Italy and the conference was canceled, I tried to outrun the outbreak to New York … then to Florida, but … well, you know.

There’s nowhere to run and home is the only place to hide. This season of dreams deferred has blurred my 2020 vision with tears, but I’ve learned being grounded can be grounding as I see neighbors slowing down to smile, play with their children, or string a hammock between two trees. The value of health and connection has come into clearer focus. Making peace with a new norm sometimes feels like a dystopian novel, but in stillness, there’s simplicity and light. I’ve realized that living abroad for a third of the last decade not only helped me survive an empty nest but also gave me transferable skills for the current crisis. My timeout taught me how to find peace in isolation and uncertainty, let go of things that are nonessential, embrace a global community and my children in a new way.

In Berber villages, I learned how to linger over long lunches and relax.

When I felt gutted a couple of months ago, friends reminded me of “Morocco Cindy” — the one who taught at the school her children attended K-12 and has been a single mom since they were 6 and 3. When they left the nest, she was sad, so she flew away, too. She landed in Africa. Solo. Sight unseen. She taught two years in Marrakesh, then a year in the Dominican Republic to let go of fear, hold onto faith, contribute, grow. As promised when God called her, He exchanged roses for ashes while she was in the desert on a beauty break for the soul. Trekking across 10 countries … sleeping in palaces of pashas … swimming in waterfalls … discussing Huck, Holden, and Heathcliff with African teens. She shared new worlds with her children in London and Marrakesh … a month with her daughter in the DR. Though it wasn’t all pools and palm trees — a hurricane; threats of ISIS, ebola, zika; illness; a van wreck, two assaults; returning to the U.S. with no job or home — she found protection leaning into God like never before.

“Morocco Cindy” exploring a Berber village with some friends from Australia.

“Hope is a belief in the mysterious and curiosity in the moment.”
— Susan Beyler, Therapeutic Counselor at The Estuary Nashville

No one knows how this pandemic will pan out, but it reminds us that financial security, health, and relationships can disappear with a diagnosis, someone leaving, or circumstances we can’t control. There’s comfort in remembering what we’ve survived by God’s grace — broken relationships, chronic health issues, unemployment, bankruptcy, seeing a loved one suffer. For those sheltering in solitary confinement, I know how hard this is. For three years I didn’t go out alone after dark to stay safe. Single friends and I have confessed that when lockdown started, we each thought “I’ve got this!” but have all had meltdowns. We’ve felt lonelier than ever until reaching out to others, then realizing we’re not alone.

Navigating a new reality — whether the pandemic or a new life — requires energy. Letting go of nonessentials creates mental space. Feeling cramped, I finally donated a beloved sofa last week by remembering how I felt after downsizing 21 years of stuff crammed into an 1,800-square-foot house. A 4,400-mile move demanded emptying closets, cabinets, dressers … giving away baby furniture and toys … which felt more like a disembowelment than a cleansing. But once I checked only three bags and settled into my sparsely furnished North African apartment, I felt a lightness of being.

Packing for a two-year move to Morocco meant letting go of what wasn’t essential to embrace a simpler life.

While abroad I gave up a car, fast food, and a school cafeteria, forcing me to walk everywhere and prepare healthy meals organic and GMO-free. Now that walking is my only recreation and I’ve returned to the same diet, I’m shedding pounds again. Morocco taught me to “make do,” handy when staring at empty Nashville grocery shelves. I couldn’t find hand sanitizer there either … or vanilla and nutmeg for baking … or Mexican food. Like now, I couldn’t find paper towels for drying my hands in restrooms, so I used the hem of my skirt. In Marrakesh I could buy toilet paper, making my bidet obsolete, but when traveling, I sometimes used a “Turkish toilet,” a hole in the floor with a bucket of water beside it to “flush.”

Since every day is Saturday, I’m rocking my Moroccan weekend uniform again — harem pants and waves. When impatient for a haircut, I remember my old ombré — red on top, blond on bottom — because Marrakesh didn’t carry my hair color for touching up roots. Missing salsa dancing, I’ve taken up Arabic dancing again by tying my jingly scarf around my hips and joining an online class. Missing yoga in my Nashville studio and on African beaches, I’m doing sun salutations with ducks beside my apartment complex lake.

Hair color disaster — red on the top, blonde on the bottom.

New worlds require letting go of old ways. Living cross-culturally and through a pandemic requires humility, making us release control and rigid constructs of what life should be. Doing life with friends from a dozen countries taught me that sometimes what’s best isn’t always the “American way.” While in St. Petersburg, Russia, at a Model United Nations conference, student delegates of all faiths inspired me as they worked together for the good of their assigned countries and the world-at-large on issues of human rights, education, health, sustainability, and climate change. Volunteering at Project Soar, I learned that village girls walk miles for education and how dire the refugee crisis is. I saw Americans and Canadians travel freely with passports, but I saw other colleagues barred from borders without expensive visas sometimes impossible to get.

My weekend uniform in Marrakesh and now.

I wonder how borders will work in the future, especially given discrepancies between US states.  I’m thankful for all on the frontlines sacrificing daily, my government providing relief funds,  Americans staying home for the common good. When the coast seems clear and life ramps up again, I hope we sustain what we’ve gained through loss–more compassion, faith, and holistic healing. I hate that smiles are masked now because they’ve been the universal language whenever words have failed in foreign territory.  Still, I can smile at the future when I remember God’s got this. He promises to be with me wherever the journey leads.

For parents or teachers who have run out of ideas for lesson planning, here are some ideas that have real-world value during the pandemic:

Lesson Plans For Students K-College

This is a  “teachable moment” for embracing global citizenship and courageous vulnerability — admitting as adults we don’t have all the answers and feel overwhelmed.

I loved preparing Moroccan students fluent in English, Arabic, and French for US university acceptance, but I valued more the school’s broader mission: “ to build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship, and encourage lifelong learning.” Witnessing how new findings on Covid-19 modifies protocol daily reinforces that education is an ongoing process of analyzing and utilizing information in a changing world. Globally exchanging medical information teaches that even while social distancing, we’re sticking together. I’m following friends in Canada, Spain, Dubai, and Morocco via Skype to see how they’re holding/holing up. My friend, Moni, confined to her home in Spain, invited me to her town’s 8 PM ritual of clapping from open windows in solidarity for medical workers, grocery clerks, and cleaning staff. The tribute ended with the Spanish version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”–the song I sang at a birthday party on a rooftop in Marrakesh where my friend, Kate, now runs laps during quarantine. Thankfully we have technology to maintain friendships, connect with family, and gain a global perspective with free virtual tours and podcasts.

Lesson Plan #1 On Covid-19: Dealing with Information and Emotions

My son and I have been syncing our computers and using Speakerphone to watch The Office episodes when we need laughs. He suggested Inside Out for students to relieve stress/show how internal programming affects us, prompting discussion on emotions and memory when faced with unwanted change. I also have students take online Enneagram tests to discover how the ways our personalities deal with anxiety and fear affect classroom/family dynamics.

My university students use online forums, the CDC website to present a case for or against social distancing, and psychological studies (free now in The New York Times) to discuss pandemic mental/social effects. They analyze how different countries are handling Covid-19, using Canva, a free app, to create infographics to organize research.

Lesson Plan #2 On Global Connection for Older Students

My former high school students in Nashville discussed Romeo and Juliet and A Separate Peace with students in Quito, Ecuador. They connected over themes like love, marriage, and competition between friends and learned about different cultural expectations. Likewise, my Moroccan and ex-pat seniors passionately debated the role of family in choosing a marriage partner after reading Wuthering Heights. International schools typically open to collaborations such as these can be found at Search Associates (the organization through which I found my jobs abroad) and International Schools Services. Contact me at  [email protected] for more help on finding a school and facilitating a cross-cultural reading group including books that work well for students grades 7-12.

Plan #3 On Global Connection for Younger Students (Ages 4-12)

In Give Your Child the World Jamie C. Martin provides descriptions and themes of 600 books by country. Her goal is to educate children about other cultures through stories that bind us so they reject cynicism and embrace “a lifetime of love in action.”

For more travel and reinvention inspiration, check out Cindy McCain’s blog, Southern Girl Gone Global and her new YouTube series, “Travel People: Living Authentic Lives, Finding Kindred Spirits, Fulfilling Dreams” where she interviews friends from around the world. For help with online teaching, to enroll in her online Travel Tales course, or to join her writing retreats, email author Cindy McCain

All photography provided by Cindy McCain.

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