Life in Circles: Roots & wings, Amy Mortensen.

July 16, 2016
Amy Mortensen

Amy Mortensen

#MasonCountyPeople #LifeInCircles

Life In Circles by Stephanie Wagner.

Sponsored by Pro-Master Carpet Cleaning, 231-757-9061, promastercarpetcleaning.com.

True confession time. This week’s interview feels a little like a cheat. I will readily admit that I chose it so that I could have dedicated time to catch up with an old friend. A beautiful old friend who I haven’t seen in over five years. An amazing old friend who is living the life my alter ego would have chosen if the homebody inside hadn’t won.

It isn’t the fact that Amy Mortensen grew up in the same small Ludington that I did. It isn’t even that she left right out of high school, or that she has since lived in several American cities, six countries, and traveled more places than I can count.

It is that she has done it all without fear, and with unyielding faith that it will all work out.

“I have this basic belief that all people are good. Sometimes I make choices that seem a little reckless, but it has always led me into the right place at the right time.  There are so many ways that timing – maybe even fate – has put me exactly where I needed to be.”

When I was younger, even in high school, I knew that my life would take me farther than here. It is where my roots will always be, and that is so important – but my heart wanted to get out and see what the world had to offer.”

Amy’s wanderlust started with her mother, a high school French and Spanish teacher. 

“I grew up surrounded by books, and immersed in other cultures through my mom’s passion for language,” she says.  When the Spanish language program was offered in the sixth grade, I jumped at the chance to learn.  It was a ‘new thing’ back then, and I loved every minute of it.”

When Amy graduated from Michigan State University with a dual major in Spanish and international relations, the job market in her field was tough.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than that I wanted to see the world. I started out just traveling the United States. I packed up my stuff, got in my car, and headed towards California where I had a friend from a Spanish study abroad program.

“My parents were so supportive. They never doubted me. My mom was a little nervous about earthquakes though, so I ended up working in Phoenix for six months, as a secretary. It was horribly hot, and I kept thinking,  ‘This cannot be my life. There has got to be more’.”

So after a few months in Arizona, Amy re-packed her car and finished the journey to California, where she would spend the next 6 years.

“I waited tables, and had a lot of fun. It was a great way to spend my twenties!  But I also knew it really wasn’t going anywhere – that is when I started thinking about teaching.

“I went back to school in San Diego State in a bi-lingual teaching program, and that was really where I started to find my rhythm. I was one of very few white women – it was mostly Mexican-Americans – and I just loved being immersed in the Latino culture, and getting the chance to speak Spanish every day.”

After graduation, Amy got a local teaching job while working on her master’s degree. While she loved her work, she still felt the pull of international travel. It was then that she connected with Search Associates, an organization the helps match educators with jobs around the world.

“The first time I went to a job fair and interviewed, I only had two years of teaching experience. I didn’t get hired, but I made a connection with this wonderful recruiter from Israel. I really only wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country, but took the interview for the experience. I absolutely loved the man who interviewed me – he asked me questions about me, not just my professional credentials. He told me I was just a little ‘too young’, but encouraged me to come back next year.

“I really had no idea at that time just how important that interview would be for me later – in fact, it took eight more years before it came full circle.”

Amy persevered in following her dream, and in her third year of teaching, landed her first international teaching position.

“It was in Venezuela in a small city that is a center for the oil and gas industry. I really had no idea what I was getting into, and it was definitely a culture shock!  The school had about 90 students total – K-12 – and the town was gritty and grungy. I taught ESL (English as a second language) classes for all ages.  I trained to teach secondary level students, so I really had no clue about the little ones. I was so naïve.”

After two years, Amy found herself back in the international job fair market. This time, she was certain she would land in Peru.

“I was so convinced that my next placement was going to be in Peru – or at least another Spanish speaking country in South America somewhere. But then I took an interview with a school in Brazil. I have always listened to my gut, and intuitively, I knew that Brazil was next.   I was excited for the opportunity to learn Portuguese.

“It was a completely different experience than Venzuela. The school was huge, most of the students were very wealthy, and I only had to work with seventh graders.  The school was surrounded by immense walls, and had a ton of security. Sometimes students would be brought to class with their drivers carrying their backpacks for them, while not far from the school was a sprawling favela (Brazilian ghetto). 

“Every single day, I would see the extreme wealth juxtaposed with the extreme poverty – and I would just wonder, ‘How could this happen?’  It was a contrast like I had never seen, and wrestling with that changed me.”

Amy ended up spending five years in Brazil. She jokes that she “became Brazilian” in that period, loving every minute of the experience.

“The food, the dancing, the music – all of it. I was like a Brazilian trapped in a small town North American girl’s body.”

“I remember driving to work, and thinking ‘Here I am – this Ludington girl – and I am literally driving in a city of 22 million people.  I definitely do not miss the traffic and the pollution, but there were so many amazing things about the Brazilian culture.

“I was there when, Lula, the first president from a lower class was elected. I watched how they celebrated the coming together of all races during Carnival. It was truly an incredible time in my life.”

Then the time came when the still small voice spoke again.

“As much as I didn’t want to, and as much as I knew I would miss it, it was time to leave. I had no idea what was next, but I trusted that I would figure it out. It ended up that I took a year off before my next teaching post, and that year was pivotal for me.”

It was a year of coming home both literally and figuratively, and one that Amy credits with re-grounding her roots.

“I needed some time to reconnect and regroup.  I spent four months doing volunteer work in India and working on my yoga teacher certification, and then planned to spend some time back home in Ludington.

“I had been told that India would change me in many ways, and that one could never be ready to experience the full scale of what India has to offer, until immersed in its culture.  There is such immense poverty, yet richness of custom, tradition, food, spices, music, religion, and spirituality.  India assaults you and your senses on every level. I arrived with an open mind and I chose to go with my belief that most people are intrinsically good. I traveled through much of the country completely alone, and it was the most freeing experience of my life. I was astounded by the compassion of so many people.

“While I was there, I worked in a community school in Dharamsala. We were supposed to be ‘mentoring’ the teachers, but they didn’t need mentoring. They were incredible in that they managed to teach with absolutely no resources. I carried those experiences with me everywhere I went afterward. 

Today, when my students sometimes complain about not having access to a certain technology, I share experiences from that trip to help them get a different perspective.

I currently incorporate units on sustainable development into my social studies curriculum.  In one of my units on Africa, students study the work of Salva Dut, and we talk about the “lost boys” of the Sudan.  Many of my students are amazed to learn that in some areas of the world students might learn to do math, for example, by writing problems out in the dirt with sticks.

“It disheartens me at times that some students can have all of the resources in the world, and still struggle with being kind to one another.  Teaching empathy and compassion is also a very important part of my daily task as a teacher.”

In the midst of Amy’s travels, she began to feel that she wanted to establish more of a home base in Ludington, prompting her to find a more permanent place back “home”.

“My dad really talked me into buying a house here. I had money saved up, and I knew I wanted to come back every year. We found this little run down house, not very expensive, and that is what eventually became ‘Casa Violeta’.

“I have colleagues all over the world, and the ones who struggle the most are the ones who don’t have roots anyplace. No matter where I am, I still have a strong connection to this area. It keeps me from feeling groundless.”

It was at the end of this sabbatical year that Amy encountered an opportunity that seemed to point in the direction of Israel again. She found herself at the interview table with the team from the international school in Tel Aviv.

“When I first got to the job fair, I had not intended to interview with Israel, it wasn’t even on my radar, but I decided to do the interview with the recruiters for ‘practice’. I took the interview because I remembered fondly the man that interviewed me the first time around, and it was the first time I had been interviewed by a female director.

“They offered me the job during that interview – which is virtually unheard of, but people are generally hesitant about choosing Israel, so the recruiters worked fast. I felt like they were really interested in me, who I was as a whole person, not in just what kind of teacher I was, or in how long I had been teaching, or in what kind of accolades or credentials I had. It was refreshing. They requested that I do some research on Israel and gave me a list of people to contact, before I made my decision.

“I decided to trust my intuition again, and not make a decision out of fear.  I knew that I needed to go to Israel.”

Amy tears up as she remembers the years she spent there.

“I had been feeling the societal pressures to marry, to have children.  I was starting to doubt myself, even though I knew in my heart that I was living the right life for me.  I did not intend to get married, and I did not want to have children. “

And then she met Daniel.

“I had a few trying relationship experiences in South America, and I really just wanted to find a decent, intelligent, compassionate man to spend time with. I never expected he would show up and be 14 years younger than me.

Israel led me to the most important person in my life, aside from my family.”

“I’m not sure I believe in soul mates, or even fate necessarily – but I know that we are exactly the right people for each other, and that if Israel had happened at a different time, we would never have found each other.”

At 45 years old, Amy admits that her edges have softened as she ages.

“The pieces of my life have smoothed out a bit. It hasn’t always been peaceful, but it has always been OK. I don’t take the same risks that I did when I was younger. I’m maybe a little more cautious. But I still trust my intuition – maybe even more so.

“I think that is what I want younger women to know – that it doesn’t matter what other people are doing, or what society says you ‘should’ do. You are the only one who can live your life, and there are infinite possibilities for how you do that.”

When it comes to the hard stuff – racism, intolerance, hate, fear, classism – Amy is not surprisingly matter of fact.

“No matter where you are, no matter what country – you will find that people often deal with similar issues.  However, when I’m in Bulgaria (where she currently teaches), I’m just another person getting up, going to work, doing my job.  Everybody, everywhere – they are just living their lives.

“People struggle, people thrive. Most people, in my personal experience, are good and want to help one another. 

“Of course, sometimes bad things happen to truly good people.  This is the way it is everywhere.  This is unfortunately history and part of being a human. But most people want to do what is right.  I always try to remember that and I thrive when confronted with figuring out a new culture and new customs.

“As women, we can collectively teach one another. The more experiences we have with those who have a story a little different than ours, the more we all grow. It’s so important to honor other’s paths.”

As the sun sets over the porch, and we sip the last of our drinks, I silently offer up a breath of gratitude for my own intuition and the gift of friendships that connect across oceans of experience.

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