Last Christmas I woke to the hoots of my host nephew while he chased a chicken at my Moroccan grandma’s house perched on top of a mountain. “Sbah lkhir” (good morning) my host aunt greeted me when I stepped out into the roofless courtyard in the middle of the clay home. Then she nabbed the chicken, handed it over and asked me to take it to the neighbors to be slaughtered. By asked, I mean she charades-style acted out a slaughter since I barely knew Darija at the time.
I apprehensively agreed and accepted the squirmy chicken by its wings. My poultry friend and I squirmed on over to the neighbors. An old man answered the door, perplexed by the random shaky girl clutching a chicken. “Is it possible that this chicken is dead?” I asked, unsure of the words for “slaughter” or “kill” in Darija.
He retreated into his home and returned with an ordinary kitchen knife. I handed the squawker over, and the man casually slit its neck. He was so nonchalant that he might as well have been buttering up a slice of morning toast. The chicken gurgled and floundered around until it finally toppled over. The man dropped its body in a bucket and sent me off with my soon-to-be lunch.
I wasn’t a timid chicken carrier this Christmas. Instead, I decked the walls of my Moroccan abode with makeshift olive sprig and pinecone garland and cultivated holiday cheer with old and new Peace Corps friends.
We brunched and lunched and dined on my roof. Strolled through the mountains. Tried to listen to Christmas music but got overwhelmed by its dings and dongs and vouched for Bob Dylan instead. Laughed at the absurdity of our Moroccan lives, like the hyper-aware police in our towns who watch our every move. They even notice when I buy more produce than usual at the weekly market. We stuffed chocolate chip cookies the size of our faces with peanut butter and chocolate spread and decorated them with pretzels, Oreo chunks, coconut flakes and sprinkles. When I got back from my Christmas morning run, my friend Audrey surprised me with a bag of granola (!!!) “From Santa,” she laughed.
No chicken slaughters. No piles of unnecessary presents. No commercialism or wild schedules or any sort of rush. Just simplicity.
I’ve learned a million things from Morocco. Just this week I learned to pick wild lavender and the perfect amount to add to harsha, a pan-fried, olive-oil rich bread made with semolina flour. Too much lavender makes it taste soapy, Radia advised.
But there’s one lesson that I practice daily: how to embrace simple living.
Morocco forcibly simplified my life. It emptied it out. Peace Corps whisked me up and tossed me far away from all my support systems and comforts. The experience alienated me from my own language, self-confidence and routines. It dropped me here in rural Morocco, only to find myself embarassingly asking old men, “is it possible that this chicken is dead?”
I initially felt empty, vulnerable and squirmy. Similar to how I feel when I’m in an unnaturally well-lit dressing room. I look at my body in the mirror and start seeing a million flaws I never knew I had. Usually, I dash right out of that room, too scared to acknowledge my imperfections.
But here in Morocco, I couldn’t just run away. I had to embrace what I’m made of, just me and my skin and all that lies beneath, when I’m surrounded by uncomfortable light.
It’s scary not having anything to cling to except myself (and maybe some live chicken wings), but it’s simultaneously freeing.
I’ve deep-cleaned my life. I’ve tossed aside my social media habits, my need to flush out the world around me with music, insecurities about conformity, romance, perfectionism, regular binge drinking, a diet dominated by processed foods, sleepless nights, illusions about weight and physical strength, my unnecessary need to multitask and work I didn’t love but felt obliged to do only to ensure a “successful” future by western standards.
This simplifying mentality felt foreign at first. Maybe because complexity is associated with success in the states. It now seems backwards that meals spent with gmail or our newsfeeds are more common than meals spent with other humans. I have no idea why we’d reward pulling all-nighters in college or compare the amount of hours we’d spent locked in the library. Why a busy schedule is more honorable than a simple one. Why compliments like, “you’re a machine!” exist. Why we’ve become obsessed with intensity. Why leisure time is associated with laziness and a stress is associated with higher status.
I still struggle to feel successful here because I’m not meeting the complexity-standard that once consumed me in the states. I’m trying to abandon my always more mentality: more to do, more to gain, more to achieve. Despite a full schedule, I enjoy slow mornings, relaxing evenings, fulfilling work and leisure time with friends almost daily. My life is simple, thanks to Morocco. I chipped away all the inessentials and intentionally filled it back up.
I’ve stuffed my life with silent jogs along the lake as the sun slowly burns off the morning fog. Starting my days with podcasts, oatmeal, apple slices, cinnamon and steamy coffee. Ending my days under a pile of blankets with ginger tea, journaling, reading and phone calls with loved ones back home. Taking the long route through the mountains to my friends Bouchra and Youssra’s house where we bake cakes and prepare our lessons for our girls’ empowerment and library clubs. Recently, the olive season dominates our hangouts (as it dominates most people’s lives here in the Rif region, famous for olive trees). We gear up with gloves and spend hours pinching olives and tossing them into a bucket larger than myself to soak in salty water for a week’s time. Truck beds are heaping full of massive sacks of olives as they head to the local olive oil factory, and taxis are piled high with large plastic canteens of oil to be sold in cities.
My Moroccan family and I share a big, hot bowl of lentils or navy bean stews for lunch, and we scramble up into the mountains afterwards to collect seasonal berries, herbs and mushrooms. I hop on my bike, a new addition in my life, for a quick spin just before sunset a few days a week. Little kids are fascinated with my helmet and love to knock on it, and new talk of the town is that I’m doing the Tour de France. The women in my aerobics class and I chuckle as they try to finagle their bodies into a lunge or a squat, and they laugh even harder during our post-class dancing sessions when I fail to shake my hips. “Jack-leen yella!” (come on!), they encourage me. Usually the teenagers in our outdoor club exhaust me with their immaturity, but sometimes they truly work as a team to choose our next hiking route or remind each other to say “3afak” (please), filling me with smidgens of hope.
Winter has hit, which means temperatures can drop down to the 40s at night, so we huddle up in the evenings with hot tea and foods to fatten us up until spring like chocolate, peanuts and oil. To fight the cold, I’ve been wearing my panda footie pajamas (thanks, Camille and my Belgian fam!). My downstairs neighbor says I dress like her infant daughter, and my Moroccan family assigned me a new seasonal nickname: “dubduba” (little bear). “Dubduba dyali fink?” (My little bear, where are you?), Radia calls me every morning, even though the answer is always the same. I’m at home eating my oatmeal. “Nti kheloufa dyal shufan!” (you’re an oatmeal pig!) she always jokes.
Through this process of ridding the unnecessary and embracing simplicity, I’ve realized what really matters: people. The kids knocking on my helmet and kissing me despite their sticky lips from too many lollipops. Radia teaching me about wild herbs, patience and hope. Bouchra and Youssra and their constant generosity, always kissing me goodbye with leftover cake, olives, fresh oil or pomegranates plucked from their trees. My Moroccan bros who usually act too cool for me but will text me “finik dubduba” (where are you little bear?) if a day passes without me stopping by. The shepherds who yell “bsa7a” (to your health) with their hands over their hearts as I jog by in the mornings. My students who mix up their verbs and accidentally say goofy things like “The woman is a backpack.” My wild friend Tamo who greets me by insisting I desperately need a husband because they’re “7sn mn mantat” (better than blankets) in the winter. My stateside family and friends who build me up and give me perspective when I fall back into that squirmy, lost attitude. My Peace Corps friends, always just a free phone call away, to chat about our highs, lows, confusions, absurdities and make my dreams come true with surprise bags of granola and oversized cookies stuffed with peanut butter. It was a stuffed-cookie Christmas and a very stuffed year. Stuffed with finding simple joys and surrendering to all the ways I thought I was supposed to live and instead living more intentionally and authentically. I checked back into my life with a fresh perspective and learned about myself as a squirmy, lone independent. Even more, I learned about other humans. Each one of us a bursting individual, stuffed to the brim with our own passions and lessons and stories waiting to be shared despite the differences between us.
On Christmas evening after Audrey and I delivered our stuffed cookies to my Moroccan families, we chased the sunset to a lookout in the midst of an olive grove. To our left towered Ourtzagh’s “jbel msoud” (lovely mountain) that resembles a spiny dinosaur’s back. It just so happens to be where I carried the chicken to be slaughtered a year ago. To our right the rolling foothills rose from the reservoir’s shores. Among the hills, people loaded up their donkeys with their olive hauls from the day and headed back to their homes to drink hot tea with their families. The sun danced across the water and its quickly changing colors reminded us that this moment and our lives in Morocco are precious and fleeting. Audrey and I fell silent, overwhelmed with gratitude for the beauty and simplicity of it all. “We gotta take a seat,” Aud suggested. We were stuffed.
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