Back in the fall before Radia and I launched our outdoor leadership club, the two of us were strolling in the foothills collecting small nutty, spherical fruits called “nbig.” The stone fruits grow on thorny shrubs that clawed at us until we looked like a dozen kittens attacked us both.
“Khssni nswulik shi haja” (I need to ask you something), Radia interrupted as I was whining about the thorns tangling my hair and thus trapping me inside the shrub. “W khssk tjawbini b sara7a” (And you have to answer me honestly).
“Guliha” (say it), I stopped complaining and responded. Radia proceeded to ask if I truly believed she was capable of climbing Mt. Toubkal, North Africa’s tallest mountain, which we hope to summit with our outdoor club in June.
“Qtr mn qadera” (more than capable), I assured her, but she didn’t believe me initially. Her social network has belittled her for so long and convinced her that her strengths don’t transfer beyond her kitchen.
Regretfully, I’m guilty of underestimating Radia too. I distinctly recall sitting in her kitchen over a year ago when we first met, squeezing 10 kilos of oranges into fresh juice. I had fleeting thoughts of wishing that I was spending all that quality time with someone who could also help me jumpstart youth programs. I was blind to Radia’s limitless potential, a confession that makes me cringe with shame.
Despite being heartbreakingly undervalued for 40+ years, Radia now dedicates her Sundays to mobilizing youth so that they unearth their own potentials. Recently, she led our outdoor club on a 12 mile hike to a lookout over the lake. At one point, the trail disappeared so Radia had us all link arms and gallop down a mountainside in one wild human chain. “Hna fariq!” (we’re a team!), she chanted when we safely landed on even ground.
Although she could easily succumb to living in darkness, Radia actively seeks out light. She was deprived of education, but taught herself to read and write via a WhatsApp group two years ago. Recently, we’ve cried about injustices together while hugging each other tightly. After those heavy conversations, my first instinct is to call it a day and go sulk in my bed, but Radia musters up the energy to prepare beautiful rooftop picnics so we can bask in sunshine instead. On one particularly rough day, I walked into her home, which was eerily dark and silent with all the windows closed. “ANA DUBDUBA!” (I’m a little bear!), Radia shouted, wearing my panda onesie pajamas, as she jumped out from behind the door and bounced onto my back.
Radia proves to me that we’re not always capable of changing the worlds we live in, but we’re always capable of coloring them however we wish. That we’re all filled with fire, although sometimes others fail to acknowledge our sparks. Other times we forget to fuel them ourselves.
A couple of weeks ago, a group of Peace Corps friends raced a half marathon. Two of them have no history of running and didn’t even train one day prior to the race. They all met their goals. They, like Radia, are true fireballs.
A 16-year-old youth leader named Chaymae wakes up every Sunday before dawn in order to bake bread, squeegee the floors, prep lunch, hand wash laundry and walk the mile from her village to our town in order to make it to our outdoor club on time. Fireball. My friend Youssra had never spent one night away from her family in their 100-person village. Last fall, she traveled 10 hours to attend a week-long training away from all things familiar in order to launch a girls’ empowerment club.
The women in my aerobics class originally couldn’t even use their squat-toilets because they were so sore, and now they’re requesting harder workouts and speed-walk-racing in the mornings together. A dear Moroccan mama of mine glows with the most contagious, beamy energies, yet she secretly lives in a world saturated with domestic violence. Despite it all, she selflessly brightens others’ worlds with her dreamy orange nutty cakes and deep belly laughs. These humans are all so capable. Beyond capable. So extraordinary. So fire-y.
Sometimes it’s our own voices that drown out our fires and say we’re not worthy or adequate enough. We find ourselves nervously confiding in our friends, “tell me honestly….[insert question of self-doubt]” like Radia did on that mountain stroll. Up until this year, my face turned bright red anytime I talked in front of a crowd larger than five listeners. I convinced myself I wasn’t a public speaker, and I accepted reductions in all of my class participation grades because of it. Just yesterday, I delivered a speech in Darija to an audience of over 160 without even blushing.
It’s not just public speaking, class participation or publicly voicing my opinions that I shorted myself of. I also never considered myself an athlete. Never believed I could learn another language. Never thought I was capable of serving in the Peace Corps unless I did so as a couple. Never envisioned myself as an experienced thru-hiker and never dreamed of starting the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Never accredited myself as a leader. And I still don’t know how to accept a compliment. I usually say “thank you” in some weird robot voice. All because of my own insecurities.
Sadly this self-doubt is amplified by other voices too, often those that are louder than my own. They flood those hollow cracks of doubt and haunt me when I’m feeling low. My dear friend of 20 years, Michelle, has always cautioned me to stay away from people’s toxic negative energies. I’m picturing her driving her Jeep around town in high school, windows open and a Wendy’s frosty in hand, yelling at me in her passenger seat, “JACK, DON’T LET ANYONE DULL YOUR SPARKLE!”
Cynics will constantly dull our sparkles, drown our fires and darken our worlds. Sometimes obliviously. Last month, I stopped by the neighborhood shop to buy some popcorn. The store was bumpin’ with men hurriedly buying macaroni or spices for their wives to prepare the midnight-Moroccan-dinner. I asked the owner Hamid for five dirhams of kernels. “JAAAAAACK-LEEEEEAN!!” he belted since I recited my order correctly. He proceeded to explain that he’s so happy that he taught me Darija. “W shnu nti dirti mn 3jl hna?” (and what have you done for us?), he asked. “7tta haja” (not a thing). All the men bumpin’ in his shop snickered. Hamid has five daughters. They’re all involved in our youth programming, except for the two oldest which he forced to quit so they could commit to housework.
On multiple occasions, a local authority figure hasn’t shown up to meetings that we agreed to. “Nti mafhmtinish” (you didn’t understand me), he uses as his excuse, blaming his absence on my lack of language skills. I originally thought he was right, so I started discussing logistics with him exclusively on speaker phone so Radia could verify the details. Turns out he is just flaky and manipulating me into feeling stupid and crazy.
Over the past 17 months, a plethora of people attempted to flood my fire and passion for running. My first host dad didn’t let me out of the house (to go on runs or anywhere) unless I was accompanied by a male. The orthopedist who diagnosed my stress fracture last winter told me I was “too heavy to be a runner.” The man who chased after me and held a knife to my neck. The man who told me that full marathons are for males only. There’s no way females can run 42 kilometers, he asserted. The cars that slow down and tail me while I’m jogging. When I don’t respond to their honks and hollers, they make fun of me for being mute. Not to mention the packs of wild dogs and guard dogs that everyone warns will eat me one of these days.
I ran the Marrakech marathon in January with two goals: (1) to make a racing friend, and (2) to finish in 3 hours and 30 minutes. I clocked-in at 3:19.59, which still blows my mind. Our bodies are so capable. Despite all the external and self-doubt, so many souls build me up day after day. Especially on that race day. My stateside friends and family rallied me with messages of encouragement, and Peace Corps friends traveled from afar to form a cheer squad. “I’m doing the ultra,” my friend Renee joked. “ULTRA SUPPORT.” And it’s true, they ultraly-supported me and fueled my fire until I was all hot and toasty and glowing with gratitude. Even my Moroccan friends and families watched on T.V. and surprisingly caught glimpses of me. Now all the ladies in my aerobics class want to run a marathon together.
I even met my goal of making a friend during the race. “Bravo!” I encouraged everyone I passed with a thumbs up. Most runners were understandably exhausted or too focused to really engage, but about half way through a guy reciprocated the thumbs up and started matching my stride.
“Thank you,” he piped between breaths a few minutes later. “3lash?” (why?), I asked. “You speaking Arbiya!!” he rejoiced, wide-eyed, and explained that he too had been searching for a running buddy. So Mohammed and I teamed up for the last 12 miles, side-by-side until the final 200 meters. Every time I started falling behind, he’d reach out his hand, and I’d give him a high five. “Nti qweea” (you’re strong), he’d encourage me. “Ana wyak bjuj” (me and you both), I’d reply. Once we finished, we celebrated with a huge sweaty hug and popped open our complimentary water bottles, sprayed them around and chowed on free bananas and clementines. “Ana sharft” (I’ve aged), I admitted as I struggled to get back on my feet. “Ana wyak bjuj” (me and you both), Mohammed laughed.
That 3:19.59 marathon time means a lot to me, but it’s the power of support and kindness that really lifts me up. It’s my ultra-supportive family, friends and even strangers. It’s Radia playing with my hair when I was sick and dangerously dehydrated, even though she was deep-down so annoyed with me because I forced her to track down all the phone numbers of the aerobics ladies to notify them I wouldn’t make it to class. And it’s her grabbing me by the ear and dragging me into her house when she made me a special plate of get-well-rice the next day.
It’s my brother Yaakoub who interrupted my English class the evening I got back from the marathon with a giant congratulations hug-tackle. It’s the youth in our outdoor club who will cut one tiny chocolate square into 13 equal parts so everyone gets a bite. It’s the 160+ people who showed up to our library opening event yesterday. It’s my friend Réda who traveled 3-hours just to give Audrey a surprise birthday cake. It’s the random woman who insisted I take a loaf of her freshly baked bread while I was running today, so I jogged the 4-miles home with a loaf swinging in my hand.
Ordinary acts of kindness overpower the voices, injustices and negative self-talk that shrink our worlds and make us feel defeated, hopeless and drained. We don’t have to make grand gestures, just ordinary ones. We don’t have to be grand humans, just ordinary ones. Just plain-old, good-hearted, authentic, capable people. We don’t have to escape to the Peace Corps or even change our routines. We just need to color our worlds and the worlds of those around us with a bit more positivity. With high fives and “thank yous.” Big hugs and birthday cakes. Listening ears and quality time. We need to be cheerleaders for both ourselves and others. Together, I truly believe we’re capable of it all. We’re louder and bolder and kinder than the dominant voices that drown us out and manipulate us.
“Hna fariq!” (we’re a team!), as Radia reminds me daily.