We had been warned about Morocco, and Marrakesh in particular: watch your purse, pay attention to where you are going, everyone is going to want to trick you - and whatever you do, never ever look as though you are lost nor ask a stranger for directions.
When we first arrived, our host Jan took us the main square, Djemaa El Fna, and carefully explained to us how to make our way back home. Pretty soon we had the path memorized and if we indeed paid close attention to a few landmarks, we could do it quite easily.
Within a couple of hours, I actually felt very comfortable and not the least bit in danger.
Walking around the old citadel was enchanting, disorienting and mesmerizing. The blend of exotic sounds (including the call to prayer), spicy smells and eye popping sights had us at the edge of overwhelm within an hour of exploring, and on this one particular day, we decided to find our way back home before dark.
Just a few minutes before making that left turn into our tiny street, I spotted a makeshift stall, nested inside a wall. Upon closer inspection, I saw an older gentleman sitting on a stool inside the dusty alcove, lowering balls of dough into what looked like a vat of very hot oil.
The part of my brain which is reserved exclusively for all things donut immediately lit up bright crimson. Donuts. In Marrakesh.
What could be better?
The thought of gluten did not dare make a peep, nor did anything potentially related to food safety. There was a man dressed in a djellaba hand making donuts. This was all I needed to know.
Raising a couple of fingers, I placed my order. My salivary gland were clapping their little hands in glee.
Once out of the hot oil, two donuts were artfully tied together with a simple reed and almost handed out to me, along with a request for two dirhams. I handed the man a one hundred dirham bill, which earned me a puzzled look and a shake of the head. No change.
One hundred dirhams was all I had on me.
What were we going to do?
It’s funny how even when we think that all is fine and we are handling what us French call dépaysement* so very well, it actually does not take all that much to get us off kilter pretty quickly. In this case, I was both concerned about keeping my fresh donuts and manoeuvering a smooth-ish transaction, one that would not make the older man angry nor get me into a Moroccan jail.
My one hundred dirham bill (about ten dollars) was suddenly swept away and brought over to another booth, either to never return, or as an attempt for change. It did return. And we still had a change issue.
That’s when a young man appeared by right shoulder, and in a strongly accented French offered to pay for my donuts.
Something about the oppressive heat, the financial negotiation in fast paced Arabic and the small crowd that was gathering around the donut stall now had me feeling on my guard. Mostly, I was hearing voices in my head, voices that weren’t mine: we had been warned about being careful. We had been warned about being robbed, we had been warned about being tricked. What did this young man want?
I declined with a smile and a shake of my head.
The one hundred dirham bill went for another round around the neighborhood, in the other direction this time. My donuts were getting cold. The kid to my right was insisting. The voices in my head were snickering.
The bill came back. No change.
At that point, I was ready to leave with no change. One hundred dirhams for two Moroccan donuts? So be it. I had made worse transactions before.
But there was that kid, again. He wasn’t letting go. “M’am, please let me pay for your donuts. Please?”
Ok, fine. Whatever trickery his was, I was ready to see it. I was hot. I wanted my fried dough. How bad could it be?
I thanked him and said that that would be really nice of him. Then I waited.
This is the part where things got weirder than I thought they would.
The young man handed the old man two dirhams.
The old man nodded, took the two dirhams and handed me my donuts.
Then the young man turned to me and with a hand on his heart, said: “thank you, M’am. Thank you for letting me buy these for you. I hope you enjoy them very much.”
End of story.
No trickery, no running through hot labyrinth streets chasing anyone, no terrible prison.
Just ... kindness.
I nodded and I thanked him again.
My eyes stung. My throat was tight. My cheeks were flushed with shame. So much shame.
I had lost myself and my belief in people’s goodness. Why? Because I did not have the right change, because it was hotter than I am used to, because I did not speak the local language and because I had bought into stories.
How strong is my conviction, then, really?
Thinking about this day five months ago, still makes me feel ashamed. I think it always will. I hope it does.
Today, I want to invite you to stay strong - stronger than I was that day - in your convictions. I want to invite you to listen to your own voice, in the midst of everyone else’s. And I want to invite you to be nice to you whenever you sway a little bit off track.
Oh, to try Moroccan donuts whenever you get a chance.
*Dépaysement is a very specific French word which is sometimes ill translated as homesickness. It’s not homesickness at all. It is more a feeling of disorientation that specifically arises when you are not in your home country.
PS: If you are near Anacortes, WA and would like to hear more stories about this journey, I invite you to join me on Saturday night at 6 pm in the Ballroom for a potluck followed by some photo / stories / conversation.
So... what’s it like?
Ever since I got home two and a half weeks ago, this is the question I hear the most often, when talking with people. What is it like to be back? How are you adjusting? and sometimes... How long are you staying? The last one puzzles me a bit since really, this island is where I live and unless someone knows something I don’t know about my own life (which wouldn’t be the first time), I have no plans to leave, other than for Happiness Retreats.
About the first two questions, and mostly the first one: What Is It Like to be Back? That’s such a big one and a great one and I sense that when I am asked these words, it comes from both a place of caring and a place of curiosity. Something like a mixture of “are you still the same person I know?” and “how disruptive is it to do this, and how would it affect my life if was I to take off for six months, too?”
So, as much for me as for others, here is what I am finding so far, about being back:
1) it’s super sweet.
Because my home, my cat - and my car - were so well taken care of, it was very smooth and gentle to slip right back into my home life. There were some boxes to open and things to put back in their place, flowers to put in vases and photos to add to the fridge, and that took about a week. A very pleasant, slow week of moving back into my own home. During that week, I saw a few people and had some great hugs. There again, it was lovely and easy and I loved the process.
2) it’s weird.
Sitting in my bed one night, I realized that while everything looks the same around me, my insides have been subtly yet powerfully re-arranged. My guess is that this had been happening for a good while but since the outside was also foreign, I did not notice it as much. Back home in my white fluffy comforter, there is no way to ignore the contrast. And there’s nothing to do about it except to notice and trust that it’s perfect. No stories, just noticing and trusting.
3) it’s suffocating.
When I first walked into my home, I wanted to get rid of almost everything from my kitchen and before my coat was off, I was piling extra plates and bowls into a bag and asking my son what he wanted to take (not my Le Creuset pots, I had to specify that part).
This went on for a few days and then it was time to open my closet, which I knew would be tough. After months of only having a few choices of what to wear in the morning, I am finding the rows of clothes unsettling and demanding. I find that I don’t want to give my fresh morning energy to my choice of what to wear. At all. So I have been pretty much wearing the same things as I have gradually tackled my closet. Now that it only holds about 1/3 of its original contents (and shrinking), I find that I am able to digest it better.
4) It’s exciting.
After six months of working from the road (or the plane, or the sidewalk), I find it very exciting to be able to actually focus on my work from a desk and for hours on end - and the most exciting part is that as life will have it, my work has been responding enthusiastically. It’s as if something, somewhere knows that I both need this grounding and also have reserves of energy for it.
5) It’s big.
Most mornings, I wake up to a message from someone I have met while traveling. A little hello, a photo, an idea... something. These connections remind me that my newly rearranged heart has grown a few sizes and made room for more. More love, more heartbreak, more possiblities, more questions.
And somehow, all of it brings me back to how happy I am to be here now.
This morning, I received a quote which summarizes so well what I have experienced and continue to experience:
"Stay awake to the things that break your heart. Be present with your growing passions and talents. Trust the decisions that move you toward combining the two. Who knows what might happen at the intersection?"
So for those of you who are wondering if I am the same person you knew before I went - I would say both yes and no, and as far as what happens after one takes off for a good while, this is what’s happening for me.
A whole lot of good.
I had been working at the refugee Community Center on Lesvos for only three days when I spotted the American couple.
In the middle of the chaos and super charged energy, they stood out, sitting very still on a bench and waiting for ... something. When I introduced myself they explained to me that they had traveled from California in order to remodel the Child Care Center. They had everything, they told me, from paint to rugs and from shelves to educational toys, a whole lot of it waiting in a white van outside, filled to the brim with a somewhat anachronistic world of Ikea goodness. They said that they had emailed the staff many times letting them know about their project, had only received sporadic responses, and that on that morning, no one seemed to be expecting them at all. They looked worried and disheartened and it was clear to me that they had hoped for a warmer welcome, something at the very least matching their big effort.
The woman was a newly retired teacher and ever since she had heard about the Community Center, she had fund-raised tirelessly to bring to life her vision of creating a beautiful, peaceful and inspiring place for hundreds of kids temporarily living in the island’s camps.
I eventually got them connected with some of the Center’s coordinators and it was agreed that the Child Care Center would be closed until Monday, giving the American couple three and a half days to create their makeover.
They immediately put a big “Closed until Monday” sign on the door - written in four languages - and went to work.
The following Saturday was a wildly rainy day and the Center was quieter than usual. In order to get to us, people usually needed to walk about an hour, which was rarely a problem given the big stretch of hours often spent waiting for legal decisions to be made. But when the rain came, it made the trip way more difficult and mostly men would then show up, as the idea of pushing a stroller or two in the beating rain was not a fun prospect for most moms.
As I walked through the sweet calm and dryness of of the main hall on my way to the bathroom, I noticed another couple sitting on a bench, near the door to the Child Care Center. They were wet, looked to be originally from Afghanistan and had two small children with them, including a toddler who seemed to be in a fit of unconsolable tears. I approached them and tried to enquire as to what was so sad. The mom pointed to the big “Closed until Monday” sign on the door and then to her toddler. They had walked all the way from Moria in the rain in order to give their kids a few hours of play, only to find the door closed. In a normal life this would be a disappointment, but in their lives it was a really big deal, one more door shut in their face and one more incarnation of the powerlessness of their situation.
You see, there was so many things I would never know about all the people I shared days with, so many stories I would never hear. But one thing was pretty much for sure: anyone and everyone there had arrived by boat, at night, and in conditions that are the stuff of which drama and scary movies are made. Newborns, kids, parents, old people, they all had crossed that dangerous stretch of water, at least once. And by then I knew enough to know that in doing so, they had experienced trauma akin to nothing I could personally relate to. Whatever had happened before and after the crossing varied, but the crossing was pretty much universal, and that knowledge was always with me.
So on that morning a child was upset and his parents too tired to do anything more than hold his crying body. I knew better than to cheerily propose that they come back on Monday. Because for any child, three days is basically three years and because over there, from Thursday to Monday, many things can happen.
That’s when I noticed that between sobs, the child was looking at something. He was looking at a large clear plastic tote, one of four stacked outside the Center’s door. The totes were filled with “the old toys” while the new, more educative ones were getting tastefully arranged on blond wood shelves, inside. Some of the old totes contained blocks and some contained other treasures. The one that had his attention was full of colorful balls.
Maybe because we could not speak the same language (I mostly only know how to say “popcorn” and “sit down” in Farsi), we were able to communicate really effectively. I looked at the child, I pointed at the balls, I looked at his parents and it was immediately obvious that between all of us, we would be able to solve this situation quickly. Success was within reach and we were about to celebrate a great international win.
All I had to do was reach for the tote and lift the lid.
I was inches away from victory when the Child Care Center’s door opened ever so slightly and a face appeared in its opening. As though telepathically attached to anyone trying to revive the old toys, the face informed me that it had been previously decided that none of these toys would be used again and that the Center would re-open with beautiful new toys on Monday, which after all, was only two days away.
Then the door closed again. Click went the inside lock.
Eight eyes were on me as my brain was trying to catch up to this latest update. One side of me was working on some sort of equation and grasping for a place where any of this made any sense. The other side of me was reaching for the lid with one hand and grabbing two balls with the other.
One yellow ball and one red ball.
Lid went back down, yellow ball went to the baby and red ball went to the toddler.
Breaths were held for a brief second or two, and then a huge smile broke on the kid’s face and the parents exhaled simultaneously. Hand on her heart, the mom thanked me.
That’s when the door opened again and the face was back in its previous place. Undoubtedly telepathically informed of my breach, the eyes now looked at me questioningly.
At that moment, I knew that there was very little in this world that would be capable of making me put these two plastic balls back in the tote. I knew, just knew, that the balls were just where they belonged and that while I could provide an explanation, there was no turning back.
Before I could think clearly, I was graced with an explanation to pass on. What I said was: “you know what? There are a whole lot of things we can’t do much about, but this, this we can fix. So I did.”
And that was that.
I think that the woman might have nodded before closing the door back behind her, the kids were happy, the parents relieved and me ... I was healed.
Healed from the paralysis I had experienced the past few days, the paralysis that had kept me awake at night and sobbing on my way home each evening. The paralysis that came from a thought that went like this: “I can’t fix this huge mess, it’s just way too big.” Followed by: “then I better just do what I am asked and nothing more.”
This way of being had meant that yes I did teach English to my students but no, I did not sit down with them at lunch to hear their stories. It meant that yes, I served tea to the women in the Women Center, but no, I did not give them rides back to the camps. Really it meant that I erected walls around my heart and boundaries around my involvement.
Because it was too damn big for me to really do anything about.
What a lie.
That little red ball saved me from living a lie for the next two weeks.
Immediately, I knew that while I could not stop smugglers from selling false promises and boat engines from falling in the water and the camps from sucking the soul out of people’s dignity and the governments from doing too little, I could still do a lot. I could listen, I could stretch, I could connect. Mostly I could allow life to guide me where it wanted to, where it knew I could bring a little butter in a vast mountain of spinach (that’s a French saying, please humor me)
This, right here is my truth and the place from where I live best.
Today, I invite you to consider that while you may not be able to change laws, generational trauma or even your kids’ finances, there is most likely a little Red Ball waiting somewhere for you to pass it on to just the right person at just the right moment. And that by doing so, you are allowing your heart to stretch to a full breath and you are also applying for a most delicious lifetime position of making life sweeter for others and yourself.
That’s pretty good stuff.
My new book