A handy app tracks my runs and prompts me to name each jog afterwards. My archived runs list is full of names like “stopped by sheep stampede 6 miler,” a “pukey 3,” a “kids STILL laugh at my red face 4 miler,” a “freeing 10” and a more recent “U.S. makes me cry 5 miler.”
It’s true. The U.S. made me cry. It made me cry on that run. On the plane. In beloved Trader Joe’s. And when my sister’s wedding was over, forcing my siblings and I to bring our group-slow-dances to a close until who knows when again.
My 2.5-week homecoming initially felt foreign, which jerked the tears. Home should feel familiar, but I was too consumed in the peculiarities of the U.S. to feel its warmth.
America is filled with things. Boxes and boxes of things. We live inside boxy houses filled with boxy rooms filled with literal boxes and drawers and piles and Ziploc baggies of things. Even when we leave our boxy homes, we walk into the box where we keep our car, get inside that box, and make our way to another box where we spend our days.
It felt weird going to sleep without hearing the nightly tantrums of the infant who lives below me or her mom joking, “nti khnza!” (you’re stinky!). Not smelling my neighbor’s bread baking through my kitchen window or hearing her pressure cooker squeal when lunch was ready. I had no idea who did their laundry in the mornings, and I couldn’t yell “llah y3wnkum” (God help you) to them as they hung their clothes to dry.
The natural sounds of the world were eerily hushed when I entered the U.S. Life felt soundproof despite being in a city over 200 times larger than my Moroccan village. Everyone was tucked neatly away in their homes or cars or between their headphones. Even the outdoors felt absurdly organized. Motors putting at the same speed and pausing at the same places, lawns with right-angled corners and not one herd of children explosively racing towards me while squawking “JAAAAAK-LEEN.”
It was freeing and isolating all at once. I could walk outside without a qualm, but I also felt worlds away from people that were physically so close to me. They operated in their set of boxes and I in mine.
Other American norms surprised me too. Massive coffees, water fountains, billboards, waiting lines, mirrors galore, excessively soft toilet paper, table settings, leafy greens, sharing personal feelings with strangers (or anyone for that matter), eyebrow fashion, wood floors, PDA, bike trails, sauces, petty complaints, big windows, delivery pizza, delivery anything, cutting boards, creative expression, drinking culture, strict time schedules, mailboxes, unnecessary amounts of waste, dinner conversation lasting long beyond when the food is gone, individualism, squirrels, exact addresses, chapstick, snacks, frozen foods, impatience. Plus dozens more (which reminds me of another absurdity: measuring things by the dozen).
After burying myself in the weight of cultural differences and logging that “U.S. makes me cry 5 miler,” I yanked the Moroccan mentality of living presently out of me. It tromped my overly-analytical American worries and allowed me to appreciate the very thing that makes both Morocco and the States home: people I love and their big, big hearts. I traded my tears for long hugs and embraced 2-weeks worth of simple joys.
Joys like my brother-in-law handing me a hot mug of coffee with “cup of love” written on the side after my sister and I returned from a snowy creekside stroll. A surprise Christmas-in-October with my mom and a kale, tahini and brussel sprout salad that I still dream about. A dear friend of 20 years popping by with a six-pack to just lay in my bed and do nothing together because the world felt too overwhelming for anything else.
My dad’s famous pumpkin pancakes served with a hearty dose of my step mom’s blunt humor. A running reunion hug with my 14-year-old bro that was actually more like a body slam because I underestimated how large he is now. Sharing the backseat of the minivan with my 12-year-old sister after she won a ribbon at her conference cross-country meet. (The fact that she’s old enough to win ribbons for anything besides school carnival cake walks marvels me).
A fall-color jog with my older brother and his girlfriend (my third sis) while dreaming about how awesome it would be to all live in the same place. An attempted cozy soup night with friends that turned out to be a smokey soup night since we are fireplace-amateurs ignorant to the role of fireplace dampers. Falling asleep at a bar following my sister’s bachelorette party. Sharing Peace Corps pictures and stories and Darija greetings with Amy’s students.
Getting giddy and cheersing with champagne the morning of my sis’s big day. She was one beaming bride and John was one perfectly mushy groom. Their beamy, mushy energy revived me, and my big bro and I jumped around on the dance floor like we used to in Camp Randall.
The day after the wedding, my mom and I took a honeymoon instead of the couple. We jetted out west, and chatted about our next big dreams as we drove across Utah. My mom’s: a solo American road trip. Mine: a Moroccan bike tour. We hiked in red canyons, above green valleys, through narrow rivers and spent an afternoon writing letters to people we love in a quaint mountain town coffee shop.
I reconnected with an old friend, and we balanced out our jog with omelettes and oversized cinnamon rolls. I finally gave my dear friend Carolyn a congrats-you’re-in-love hug that I couldn’t give through facetime at her wedding last summer. We scrambled up foothills and talked about our heavy feelings and then floated weightlessly in the great Salt Lake with a spontaneous skinny-dip. Later her mom gave me a gift that brought both my mom and I to tears: a painting of my Moroccan home.
Eight of my closest college friends flocked to the middle-of-nowhere in the Minnesotan woods for a weekend fueled by puppy chow, New Glarus, group hugs, kitchen dances, deer watching, pine forest walks, feasts and goal-setting (of course). My friend Tori who has changed my life (by igniting my passions for marathon-running and long-distance-hiking) also stopped by for a 12-mile jaunt and a pile of pancakes. True to our college traditions, Maggie read us bedtime stories like “How to Save Your Garden” in her robot voice. ツ At one point, despite the abundance of space in the cabin, all nine of us piled onto a couch meant for three and steeped it with so many positive energies.
And just like that, I hopped back on a plane to Morocco feeling very full. Full of support from my inspiring stateside communities, but simultaneously empty. I wanted to be neatly tucked away in a comfy, boxy home roasting brussels sprouts with my family or in a cuddle-puddle on a tiny couch with my friends.
Instead, I was zooming 500 miles per hour towards my Moroccan home. A place where I’ve become comfortable with the uncomfortable, a realization that hit me after re-experiencing easy, organized American life. I didn’t want to worry about wild dogs chasing me on my runs, understanding basic conversation or following gender roles. I didn’t have the energy for the rawness of Morocco. I returned feeling even funkier than I felt upon arriving to the States.
Just days later, my aunt passed away. My aunt whom I hugged just weeks ago at the wedding. I can still hear her asking her granddaughter to teach me how to twirl in my bridesmaid dress and her laugh as she watched the two of us spin around in circles.
With so many broken hearts back home, I seriously questioned my purpose in Morocco. Here, I will never be able to speak like a confident 23-year-old woman. Here, I truly don’t know the best ways to support the people around me. I will never feel like I’m doing more than making an unnoticeable dent. No one will ever explicitly say “I’m happy you’re here,” and I crave that so badly. I wanted to be surrounded by those supportive, now heartbroken people back home. I wanted to embrace them all in a giant hug and invest in them instead of my life here.
I expressed all my insecurities to my sister over the phone. “Why am I here?” I asked her through tears. “Why are any of us anywhere?” she responded.
To love. We’re all here to love, at least that’s the best reason I’ve got. Sometimes it’s hard to know which people you should be investing your love in. People in America or people in Morocco, people who constantly reaffirm that they love you or people who won’t say it aloud.
I went to my Moroccan family’s house the night that I learned of my aunt’s passing. The power was out, so Radia and I sat in darkness with just a flicker of a candle. She mummified me in blankets, hugged me and told me I’d get sick if I didn’t let my tears out. So I did. I told her stories of my aunt and about the legendary birthday cards she’d write filled with stickers and sweet poems. “Qalbha beida,” (her heart’s pure) Radia affirmed.
My 16-year-old Moroccan brother called “baaaaah-noon!” (his new nickname for me) from the balcony. I followed his voice outside. “Shufi!” (look!), he said as he pointed to the sky. There were millions of stars, not one dulled by artificial light. We stared at the sky in silence for a few moments, and he went back inside. Radia asked what we were doing. “7tta 7aja” (nothing), Yaakoub responded, and he returned to the balcony with a blanket.
That’s love. Sometimes it’s obvious. Other times it looks different in Morocco, and I don’t recognize it at first glance. It’s rarely expressed explicitly. Genuine words of affirmation are few and far between. People don’t usually thank each other for being in their lives, but they sure do love.
I’m one lucky lady to experience so many expressions of love. From my piles of friends on tiny couches at home. To my stargazing Moroccan bro. To my late aunt, who loved wholeheartedly, in hundreds of her own languages.
The second-to-last time I saw my aunt, we went out to brunch a few days before I left for Morocco the very first time. She sent me off with a box of granola bars and a travel-size container of hand sanitizer. I squirted the last blue drop out of that berry-scented hand sanitizer days before she died.
My Aunt Carrie has taught me to care for others, with travel-sized hand sanitizers and birthday poems, without expecting anything in return. To see past our differences. To not get so caught up on one culture’s abundance of black coffee and another’s abundance of wild dogs, and to simply love instead. To uplift everyone around me. “Serve the women of Morocco,” she once wrote to me. To not compare battles, but to instead hold on tight to each other as we fight them. To embrace intimacy and to share my life with others. To write it large and say it loud: I love you. To give. Give hugs or your granddaughter’s twirling advice or granola bars. To give time. And to realize that the universe doesn’t revolve around ourselves, our successes, our comforts or our insecurities. That we all spin a bit more gracefully with a little humanity.
Why are we here? Why are we anywhere? I suppose it doesn’t really matter after all. As long as we’re cultivating love, that’s enough.