Fall | seeking stability
Last fall was largely defined by my homecoming for my sister’s wedding. The countless running reunion hugs proved nothing short of magic, but the environment surrounding them confused me. My stateside home somehow turned foreign over my year-long absence. Everything appeared perfect. Unnaturally orderly and structured. Too convenient. Too predictable. Too sugar-coated.
The reverse culture shock initially shook me up and spit me out. I found myself sprawled out in my bed with my childhood best friend Michelle listening to my confusion-sobs and cuddling me. Friends and family continued to swaddle me with patience and acceptance until I began to see beyond the superficial context of the world and find rawness and truth in human connection.
At my sister’s wedding, my siblings (and extended siblings) and I embraced for a slow dance. One big swaying circle of seven. Our arms locked around each other. Our tangled feet stumbled through a puddle of happy tears. Afterwards, we sat in a hotel lobby munching on carrots and celery.
I eventually hopped back on a plane to Morocco. Giddy and grateful for both my American and Moroccan lives until I realized there were no shared-sibling-carrot-snacks in my near future. “I feel empty,” I wrote in my journal one week after returning. “I want to hug my mom again. I want to run with Michael and Claire. I want Amy to play with my hair, and John to make me a fancy cup of coffee. I want to eat pumpkin pancakes with my dad. I want to pile eight spooky ladies [my college friends] on a tiny couch and diffuse positive energies between us.”
I struggled to find my bearings. Torn between the states and Morocco. Wanting them both at the same time, or maybe neither at all. Craving to be everywhere and nowhere. It eventually hit me that I only felt lost because there were so many different types of love coming from various directions. I didn’t know which course to pursue, so I surrendered. I accepted the fact that I was unsure and imbalanced. Lost in order to be found. Empty in order to become full again.
Winter | seeking challenge
Olive season hit hard. People thanked God daily for the year’s plentiful harvest despite the amount of manual labor it demanded. We spent many afternoons sorting fresh olives into piles: one for black, another for purple and green. My mental state mirrored olive hustle. “I can’t sleep lately,” I wrote in my journal. “Too many big dreams swimming around in mi brain.” I would lay in bed for eight hours a night and rise from my half-sleep to incomprehensible, scribbled lists with delirious ideas like “we’re all our own lil aliens anyways” / “world isn’t threatening unless you think it is” / “do we shape trails or do trails shape us?” jotted in a notepad on my makeshift-cardboard-box-bed-stand.
I convinced myself that my insomnia was enlightening. That those sleepless nights were sources of creativity and ambition rather than products of anxiety. Maybe there was a smidgen of truth to my mindset. Series of measurable successes set this season apart from previous periods: the establishment of the community’s first public library, team-building with outdoor club, the completion of two grants, a marathon personal record, testing at an advanced Darija level, and the launch of the town’s first women’s aerobics classes.
Eventually, my body crashed from lack of proper care and rest. I got so sick that I couldn’t even stand up without blacking out. Finally the absurdity of my mildly manic habits hit me. My hyperactive lifestyle took a toll on my emotions as well, constantly wavering between extremes: exhilarated and defeated, creative and drained, overjoyed and heartbroken.
“These months have stretched me in ways I never knew I could bend,” I wrote in February. “I’ve grown to a height I never dreamed possible, but now it is time to rest.” I acknowledged the world’s endless possibilities, and gave myself permission to not pursue them all in a single season. I stopped charging forward at full throttle and simply took a sit.
Spring | seeking light
In my attempts to recharge and reset, I became fixated on the details of daily life. The way the chilly morning fog stuck to Ourtzagh’s forest. Carrot peeling in my kitchen while listening to the Fleet Foxes. Pillow talk about lentils while sleeping over at my Moroccan family’s house.
I found light in simplicities. I rushed less and listened more. Listened to students belt “I eat chicken in the kitchen” over and over until they stopped confusing the two words. Listened to the “ahhhhhja” peep from my 1.5-year-old downstairs neighbor as she’d crawl straight into my house (the door was always wide open). Listened to women in their kitchens as they shared stories of hardship and hope. In my experiences in rural Morocco, people often repeat similar dialogues. Conversations sometimes feel scripted and surface-level as a result. Voicing more requires bravery, and brave words always deserve to be heard.
A stream of visitors began in March. As friends and family digested Morocco, they reminded me of the rarity and richness of life’s fleeting moments. Caitlin and I walked over 100 kilometers with backpacks full of bags of olives and liters of oil that random families insisted we took. Camille and I used goat hairs to paint pottery with my Moroccan grandma. Tori gave Radia her first-ever face massage. Joe baffled a room full of Moroccan women by folding chebekiya, a traditional fried pastry dipped in honey that’s often eaten during Ramadan. Hannah taught outdoor club kids the trendy “floss” dance on my roof. Kate crafted tissue paper flowers as a Mother’s Day gift for Radia. Simple fleeting moments.
When my dad visited, he observed the intimate connection many Moroccans have with land. Nature and the goods it produces are gifts from God, people say. Olives, oil, figs, milk, herbs, fruits and vegetables are everyday treasures. It’s refreshing to live consciously surrounded by wild riches rather than absentmindedly overlooking them.
I tried to adopt this perspective: to draw light from little things and to consciously recognize the endless beauties in front of me. “I’m passionate about discovering radiant joy in simplicity,” I wrote in my journal in April. “I will challenge myself to cultivate gratitude from each passing moment as I exist slowly through rushing time.”
Summer | seeking connection
Time inevitably rushed by, and the fresh greens of spring turned dry and crunchy under the summer sun. Our outdoor club celebrated the end of the school-year by summiting Mt. Toubkal, North Africa’s tallest mountain towering at 13,670 feet. Bodies ached throughout the trek, the cold chapped our lips, blisters swelled, snow fell, the trail food didn’t meet the club’s standards, and my shoulder was sore afterwards from literally pulling one girl up the mountain. Nonetheless, we made it up and down. “We learned how to live as a family,” a club participant wrote to me in a letter afterwards. “We have been tired together, sad together, and happy together.” In the end, the tiny details faded, but our connections remained.
My Moroccan family welcomed my American family to Ourtzagh in June by slaughtering a sheep. Later, we hiked to my Moroccan grandma’s house in the mountains. As we sat down for water, my Moroccan grandma insisted on sitting directly across from my mom so she could study her face. That night, my Moroccan brothers and my American big bro swim-raced each other in the lake. My deep belly laughs restricted my participation. My heart was too warm and gooey.
My sister, her husband John, my mama and I rode camels through the desert. As we sat under the stars that night, our guide Hassan explained that he once tried to pursue a university degree in a city ten hours away. He stayed for one night, woke to the city’s commotion and returned to the desert. “I missed the stars,” he admitted.
We scrambled up the sand dunes at midnight. Hassan unrolled his turban, unleashing his dreads as he threw the long fabric down to my mom to pull her up the slippery sand. Mohammed, a Moroccan visitor currently living in The Netherlands, joined us. As we laid atop the dune watching stars fly across the sky, Mohammed expressed the importance of living with an open heart and connecting with one another. “You have a wonderful mother,” he reminded my sister and me. We really do.
Meaningful connections and gratitude for humans around me saturated my summer. Childhood friends visited. Michelle and I went for a freeing swimsuit jog on the beach. Laura and I snacked on figs each morning while chatting in weird accents. Radia and I escaped on a honeymoon. I trekked a lot of miles with Réda and Yaakoub. Réda tried peanut butter for the first time, and then made scary-supreme peanut butter, jam, cheese and turkey salami sandwiches. My college friend Dave hitch-hiked his way to Ourtzagh. He reminded me to get DANCEY and collect “data” from all my interactions.
“That’s data collection: gathering information from the world,” Dave wrote to me in a message afterwards. “Much of that would be wasted without data processing, though: times of reflection by which we can actually grow as a result of our collected data. Best done in nature and/or sharing with someone we care about.”
My two closest Peace Corps friends Audrey and Maddie took a girls’ trip at the end of summer, reflecting on our Peace Corps experiences as we transitioned into our final season. One afternoon, we crafted a charcuterie board and shared it on the lawn of a mountain valley guest house. We began reading Winnie the Pooh quotes, and I copied the following one in my journal:
“Pooh,” he whispered
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw.
“I just want to be sure of you.”
As the seasons began changing again, I realized all I wanted was to be sure. To be sure of all the connections and relationships that influenced me in micro and macro-ways. To figuratively (and literally) take the hands (or paws) of loved ones to simply be sure they were there. That we’re here, processing the world together, despite the complexity and commotion of it all.
Final Fall | seeking peace
I catapulted into fall by running my first 50-mile ultramarathon, an unofficial race organized with friends. My runner’s high powered me back to Ourtzagh, and I convinced myself that I was ready to celebrate my final season, the finale of my Peace Corps service.
Anxiety consumed me, though, as the uncertain future drew closer. I began uprooting my life and felt as if I was floating aimlessly without direction: unsure if I wanted to launch into the future or cling to the present. “My life is changing. I can feel it.” I wrote in my journal in October. “It’s like I’m trying to pick up all the little bits and pieces, moments, feelings, tastes, sounds, smells, souls and views. Pick them up and piece them back together in some sort of logical order. Bundle them up and stow them away. But all the pieces are falling through my fingers. There’s no way to orderly collect or contain my Moroccan Peace Corps experience.”
I eventually accepted the impossibility of taming chaos. I didn’t have the mental capacity to fully understand the transition: what was ending and what was beginning and what would be lost in transit. “It’s a thick, muddy transition,” my friend Veronica pointed out while sharing morning oats on my roof during her and Nicola’s visit. I promised myself that I wouldn’t allow my final months in Morocco to be plagued with anxiety, so I dedicated my energies to finding peace despite the thick mud. Veronica, Nicola and I watched many moonrises and sunrises. I eventually squeezed them goodbye, the last familiar faces I’d see from my American life until I return to the states myself.
I spent most of my last days riding my bike, hiking to nearby villages for see-ya-later-squeezes and thank-you-for-everything-brownie-deliveries. Leading afternoon yoga, a new trend inspired by Veronica, with the aerobics ladies. Coloring with loud kids and playing many rounds of Twister, Connect Four, and Sorry in the youth center. Giving lots of hugs and holding out faith in the future, despite its lack of clarity. “Wach ra tnsayna?” (will you forget about us?), everyone questioned. “Maymknsh” (I can’t), I’d confidently respond. I can’t and I won’t forget: the only truths I know.
During my last breakfast in Ourtzagh, we ate dried figs and dipped them in homemade chocolate sauce. I had biked 30 miles that morning as a final tribute to the valley that had become my home, dotted with patches of bright green marijuana farms and shepherds in straw pom-pom hats. The physical and emotional exhaustion left me silent as we ate. I listened to a final story of hardship, the last story of injustice that I’d hear while still living in Ourtzagh. It brought us to tears. It was time to go, though, so we wiped our eyes and moved forward as we always do, leaving our half-full cups of coffee behind.
The End | beyond seeking
Maddie, Audrey and I left Morocco last week. When we arrived at customs in Belgium, the man behind the counter mumbled a question. “NAAAM?” (WAAT?), Audrey responded in Darija. “Where do you live?” the customs officer asked. “Uhhh ahhhhh waaaaa I don’t know,” Aud replied, all frazzled. “That’s a really hard question right now.” Later that night we fell asleep laughing about our incompetence. “Sensitive questions,” Aud confessed. “Why would he [the customs officer] ask me something like that?”
Now I’m cozied up in a wool sweater in my Belgian friend Camille’s new home. Her rabbit Helga is hopping around in the hallway. Yesterday when I video chatted with my Moroccan family, my little bro asked me to steal her. Camille and I have been reflecting on when we met 10 years ago. How many different lives we’ve both lived in the past decade. We thanked ourselves for all the different people we’ve been and for all the seasons that led us here. Together. Right this moment, Camille is mindlessly chanting, “Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!” in a goofy old lady voice.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the past two years in Morocco and for all the past seasons that have amounted to now. I feel as if I’m existing in some twilight zone, an in-between. I’m about to embark on another year’s worth of adventures, in Morocco and beyond. My immediate reaction is to start seeking — seeking out stability, challenge, light, connections and peace — as I have over the past year. To find it, whatever it is that I was once convinced would bring me more fulfillment. But I’ve realized I no longer need to be constantly seeking out that unattainable it. There’s no final pot of gold, no real endings. Everything is right in front of me. In front of us. No searching required.
I’m hoping to dedicate the next seasons of my life to simply absorbing and observing. Emotional osmosis and data-collecting. To living wholly, presently and deliberately as the seasons inevitably continue turning.
Audrey and I are dedicating an Instagram account to featuring inspiring, wild women that we meet throughout our travels. Feel free to give us a follow @ _galsgonewild_
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