Faculty Blog Posts

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Mullberry Street Focus Fellowship

By Linda McDonald, Senior School English Faculty 

Years ago, I had the privilege of hearing the writer, Annie Proulx, speak about her career; when she explained that her writing truly found its place in her life after she had finished raising children, I secreted those words away in my heart. I was a single mother, then, and teacher with time to myself that could be calculated in negative numbers by those who are able to calculate such things. And then time did its magic and I found myself with grown children and my writing began to stretch its cramped legs beyond the occasional poem and into some small literary magazines and contests, all of which bolstered the viability of my application for the Mulberry Street Focus Fellowship of my two week adventure at AIRSerenbe (Artists In Residency) through their Mulberry Street Focus Fellowship.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, long time friend of mine and of Shady Side Academy, author of Dr. Mutter’s Marvels and seven collections of poetry, suggested that I apply for this Fellowship in her way of encouraging others – all capital letters and many exclamation points. The lesson every SSA student learns by senior year – just apply, see how it goes, fingers crossed and hope – for me became a yes. While I had assumed that AIRSerenbe would be a summer adventure, the best available dates, for me, began the week before SSA’s Winter Break – and I was so pleased that Mrs. Lau and Dr. Barndollar were immediately supportive of my accepting this opportunity.

AIRSerenbe is a feature? Offshoot? Tentacle? Favorite child? Of a community designed with intentionality that the New York Times has defined as a “utopian experiment in New Urbanism being molded out of Georgia red clay.” Located in the Chattahoochie Hill Country, just outside of Atlanta, Serenbe offers four “hamlets” for residents within its borders, each with its own charm and personality, each (according to the Serenbe website) built around the practical application of “the elements of a well-lived life” including: “arts for inspiration, agriculture for nourishment, health for wellbeing and education for awareness.” The 25 acre Serenbe Farm is centrally located in the midst of the hamlets. Only about a third of the property has been developed but what is there includes walking trails, wildflower meadows, a stable that I can best describe a princess castle for horses who are also available for trail riding, ponds and lakes, coffee shop, bookstore and children playing outside in the little park that features a quaint gazebo and a trampoline built flush with the ground. Repeat: children playing outside. Every aspect, every view, from every angle is charming – little clusters of trees, a wide variety of simple yet elegant architectural styles, sidewalks and golf carts.

For my two weeks, I was the Artist in Residency. I was assigned the Black Cottage because the Black Cottage is small pet friendly and my writing process – as the newspaper staff understands from our occasional weekend layout sessions – includes petting Griffin, my friendly and opinionated corgi. We arrived to the parking lot that was designated by a frame of pine logs. I was excited and anxious, in equal measure, to take full advantage of whatever this was. I was greeted by AIRSerenbe Operations Manager, Michael Bettis, who could not have been more kind, or chill, who was dressed in jeans and boots and plaid flannel, met me at the screened-in front porch and gave me a few pointers – how to pronounce Serenbe, for example, which is derived from a combination of the words Serenity and Being – before he left me to the Black Cottage and my work. “Work on anything that you need to work on,” he told me. I asked about my obligations to the community and there were none.

The interior of the two room cottage is, like the rest of Serenbe, is deceptively simple in appearance – the walls are white, the only decorative feature is a handcrafted wooden shelf spilling over – literally, spilling – with books by artists and writers who have resided here. A pile of books on the floor that made me feel very much at home. Gleaming appliances along one wall, a desk, tables, windows everywhere, a simple back bedroom with an antique dresser and an extraordinarily comfortable bed. On my first trip out to Serenbe’s General Store followed by a stop at the Blue Daisy Coffee Shop, in my excited and distracted state, I ran over one of the pine log indicators of my parking space, carried it several feet, had to stop my car and remove the log from my undercarriage and drag the now moderately less pristine log back to its original position. “It happens all the time,” Michael Bettis assured me the next day when he dropped off my AIRSerenbe t-shirt and further encouragements that my work was my only focus.

And so my work became my focus. I have never stepped so completely out of my own life before. I shut off my phone. It began to rain, hard. I made tea. The observations of human comedy and tragedy that I have carried around with me over my lifetime, shaping them into stories, honing those stories by telling and retelling them to my students over the years, burst into the Black Cottage and settled in like the old friends they are. During those breaks where I did not take a nap, Griffin and I explored the nearby trails and the property set aside for Serenbe’s Art Farm, the stories tumbling along with us. I heard my writing voice, stronger and more clear than I have ever heard it before. I have no emotional space right now to assess the quality of the work I did there but I was changed in the process. I wasn’t teaching writing, critiquing writing, explicating writing: I was the writer.

The second foundational context – Annie Proulx being the first – for my writing residency has to do with the unique nature of Shady Side Academy community and curriculum. My English department colleagues are writers who write and readers who will become spontaneously absorbed in a new thesis about a piece of literature that they have taught for decades. They quote beautiful lines. Arguments spring up – passionate arguments – over interpretations of ancient or contemporary pieces of literature. The rest of the faculty are equally participatory in the ongoing conversations of their subject areas – or of our time and place in history – in that our artists are artists, mathematicians and scientists and historians are mathematicians and scientists and historians. World languages travel the world. From there, I see an intentionality that matches the evolving Serenbe community. Our farm. Our deliberate placement of the arts in its center, alongside opportunities to engage with our physical selves and our intellectual selves, are elements that we define as vital to “a well lived life.” The value that SSA places on professional development, that paid for Jackie Sheerer to facilitate my lesson plans for my week of my own work, restores the light back in the hearts and minds of the faculty so that we can continue to be the sun to all of our wonderful moons.

I encourage everyone to visit Serenbe, stay at the Serenbe Inn, shop at the General Store. I wish you all any collision between Serenity and Being. Most of all, I encourage my students and friends and fellow teachers and artists to apply for grants and residencies and fellowships and contests. See what happens from there.