Category Archives: News

Sharing Stories, Settling Down, Sorting, Sifting and Slowly Letting Go.

Morocco Street by Perla
Painting of Moroccan street scene by Perla Barchilon, mother of José, Arthur, Lili, Jacques and Maurice, my paternal grandmother. The colors here are not as bright and vibrant as the painting itself.

 

“I’m depressed, Nicole and I have many regrets.”

“Well, Papa, that’s understandable. You are slowly dying and your body is getting weaker every day. This is not easy or pleasant and your mind is completely aware of this slow degradation of your body. Your beloved wife died a few months ago; you have lots of reasons to be sad.  I think you are incredibly courageous to be navigating this time the way you are. I wish there was more I could do to help you feel better. Would talking about your regrets be helpful? I’m here if you want to share.”

And then my father started to tell me about his deepest regrets and how badly he feels and what a failure he was with certain people. He mentioned how he behaved towards his mother. This was his first statement of regret. My father has never said one nice word about his mother in the entire time I’ve been alive. Every story about her is negative and puts her in a bad light. So, for him to say, he felt badly about how he treated her, is pretty monumental. I feel waves of energy and spirits are moving through the space as my father shares. It’s a timeless and powerful moment. I also need to mention that my father regularly shares that I am like his mother, especially around how much food I prepare and eat, but unlike his mother I do not force him to eat anything.

I ask him about what he regrets in terms of his behavior towards his mother, my grandmother Perla. He says he wasn’t empathetic to her and didn’t have empathy towards her situation. I asked him if he’d ever apologized to her and he said he had and that  she had told him: “You never need to apologize to a mother.”

Perla Posing
Perla, age sixteen or seventeen, Morocco right around the time she married my Gran-papa, around the turn of the century.

This is the first remotely loving story my father has ever told me about his mother. I can see her dismissing my father’s apology with this statement in one way and also being very moved by it. My grandmother, Perla Barchilon y Cohen was an amazing woman, but she wasn’t the mother my father wanted or needed. Nevertheless, he has a portrait of her in a place of prominence that my mother did of her, when she came to Paris for my birth over 54 years ago.

We spoke more about his mother and I asked him if Perla had ever been empathetic or sensitive to him, if she had taught him how to be kind and empathetic? He said “No,” and I pointed out that he didn’t have any role models growing up about how to be the way he wishes he had been. I told him I was amazed at his empathy and how he was still growing and working on improving himself. We spoke about how Judy, May her memory be for a Blessing, was the person who finally taught him the empathy he wanted to have. She showed him how to be kinder and to think about the feelings of others more. He agreed with me about this and it made him sad to talk about Judy.  Perhaps we will revisit this mother regret, but I hope that he feels freer to let this one go now.

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Perla Barchilon, age seventeen probably.  At the age of sixteen, she was married to my grandfather Jaimé Cohen (Spanish version of  the Hebrew name Chaim). He was 20. She had five sons and was a wonderful painter in Morocco in the early part of the last century. She lived through World War II in Morocco and her artwork was celebrated and respected for over fifty years. She was a Jewish woman in a Muslim country and she was a painter. I remember her still painting when I was a little girl in Morocco. She was a very old woman at that point in her seventies, which now that I’m 54 doesn’t seem that old to me. She was born around 1898 and died in 1988.

I am in this very complex place of trying to comfort my father in any kind of way that works for him. I’m trying to balance my inclination to impart, share,  and perhaps somehow convince, through my touch and my heart and my presence, the tremendous relationship to Holiness and to Hope that is possible for my father. I don’t want him to be sad, depressed, afraid or certain that his end is an end. He has no belief in any spiritual system at all.

Whereas, I am walking into and out of Olam Ha Bah and the Angelic and Supernal Realms often. I feel these energies surrounding my father and I’m wanting him to feel the presence of the Divine and to know that he will be safe, at peace and not suffering after he dies. This is my need. My father is a devout Atheist. He maintains there is no such thing as a soul, so he doesn’t have one and there won’t be any Heaven for him.

In the Jewish tradition, we have a final confession as part of the dying process. We didn’t borrow this from the Catholics, they probably got the whole idea from us! Our confession is very different though. It is called a Viddui and is said by someone when they are on their deathbed. It is a general request for forgiveness for all wrongdoings in our lives and a listing of those wrongs. It also has a clause/caveat that states, we might not be dying, a miracle could happen and we might recover, but we still want to be clear now. I love the language of this, asking for forgiveness, stating our wrongs and then saying, we might get better, who knows? This might not be a final confession after all.

In addition to the final confession, there are daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycles of self-scrutiny, correction, confession of wrongs to the person one has wronged, making amends and attending to the patterns that might be causing us to make these errors. We’re all about confession, it just doesn’t happen in a box with a priest and a screen.

I keep looking for opportunities for my papa and I to cross the bridge between my world and his. I don’t need him to change or believe, I just want him not to be in pain or distress, physical or emotional. If there is something I can offer to ease his suffering, than I want to do it. He appreciates my touch, my cooking, my massages and my taking care of his daily and nightly needs. He is grateful for my care and the care of my brother Paul and the caregivers we have working with us.

Since I’ve been living with him in his home in Denver, there have been many moments of storytelling and he has asked me to query him and volunteered to share whatever stories or ideas with me, with my brother, and with others who want to know more. How can I ever know all that he wants to share or even what questions to ask? I think I know my father pretty well and most of his life’s stories have been written down or lived together or shared. I think he is not a mystery to me. I am so wrong about that.

I ask my father about his dreams in the morning. I ask him about his sadness and if he wants to talk about anything, when he volunteers that he is sad.

I ask him what he wants for breakfast and how long I should wait before checking on him when he is in the bathroom. I ask him what number heat setting he wants on the heating pad and I ask him if there is anything I can do to make him more comfortable. His reply is usually, “Make me forty years younger and smile.”

His dream the other day, the one he remembered to tell me, went like this:

“I dreamed I was in the home of a very famous man, you will know who he is, Freud. I was rearranging the furniture in his house.” Another dream had been that he was in NY, and there was a starving, lonely cold child on the street and he was with Eloise (the famous NY storybook character who lives in a hotel). She was talking to someone about how much money should be given to this girl and my father and she agreed that it should be $100,000.00. What’s interesting about this dream is that he didn’t remember the name of Eloise, but he remembered that his niece Coco loved this character and so I suggested we call her and ask her if she remembered the name of the NY storybook character. Just as we reached Coco, Papa, said “Eloise!”

His mental acuity stuns me, and I truly feel at half his capacity. I can’t remember things from my childhood or my children’s childhoods, the way my father remembers his niece’s favorite storybook from over fifty years ago. His memory is a golden mine of treasures and I don’t think my brother and I will ever plumb its depths.

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For now, though, I am grateful for my technology that is allowing me to record his stories when he wants that done. Every tale he tells is a golden offering that will be of value to me and to all of our family.

I hope I have the presence of mind and the loving care and support my father has when I am leaving this world. We all deserve to be with those who love us and where we are comfortable, surrounded by our art and what makes us feel at home; to be safe and to suffer as little as possible.

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Portraits of Perla and my brother Paul Barchilon by my mother Helen Redman, hanging on the wall with paintings by Perla. Also, a Moroccan print of my brother’s in the bottom corner.

 

 

 

 

Having Arrived…

Shabbat Flowers.
Shabbat table and flowers on Paul Barchilon’s  coaster in the home of my father.

It has taken me a few weeks to actually get here. Here being Denver, Colorado in the condominium of my father and his wife Judy, may her memory be for a blessing. I was grieving leaving my life and my husband, my garden, the Redwood tree who is my friend off my deck, my bed, my community and so many other parts of where I live.

But now, Here I am, Hee Nay Nee, הנני

I am fully here and arrived in Denver. Even though I moved here in mid-December, it has taken me a little while to actually get and BE here. I was going through the motions; getting the meals cooked, the laundry done and attending to my father’s needs just barely. I say just barely because my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve been preparing for this time, for years, literally over 15 or more. I’ve known that there would be a brief moment between raising children and my needing to help care for my father, my mother, my beau-père and my mother- in-love. That time has arrived and regardless of preparing for it, the actual transition to it, has been, like all transitions, not so easy.

I felt so bad, not being happy to be here, not being happy to serve. In my piece S.O.S (Surrendered Open Serving)  I wrote about serving the Holy One with Joy. This work is serving the Holy One, while it is also serving my father, my family and myself. Doing it with joy, is the part that I wasn’t able to just swing into. I needed to grieve not being with my husband. He is more than my mate in this life. He’s my life-line and being physically near him and with him nourishes my soul and my cells in ways that are central to who I am and how I do all that I do. He’s the silent, behind the scenes, invisible partner in everything I do.

So, the adjustment has taken a little bit of time. Now, when I take my Shabbat break from my father for the two days I have off, I start to miss him and feel pulled back to him. He and I have formed a new bond, similar to the one that we formed when our roles were reversed and I was the infant with huge physical needs unable to meet them by myself. It’s such an interesting pendulum swing and one that so many folks are fearful of.

I am not afraid of being needy or not in control. I am prepared for it and expect it. I also don’t think it’s so terrible to lose control. Part of why I am less reticent than others has to do with my fundamental Emunah/Trust in the Holy One and in the goodness of folks in my life and in the world in general. I also have less fear than most people about what is on the other side. And I believe it’s our calling, all of us, in smaller and larger ways to care for one another on this planet and also for the planet. Some folks will be care-givers of the earth, or a water-shed or a species of frog. Some folks will stand guard over a forest or a flower or a polar bear. Some of us will care for wounded soldiers or special needs children or adults. Some of us will cultivate awareness in art and music and bring comfort or a wake-up call to others. Whatever ways we find to listen and honor the voice of caring in our lives, it is real and present and of value.

As I spend this truly precious time with my father, he is weak, not-well, tired, sad, frustrated about his bodily functions and process and also very much mentally present. He wants to share stories and talk about hard things in his life. He asked me to record him recounting the few days leading up to and the day of my sister Paula’s death. She died at the age of 21 months old, over 54 years ago now. He wanted to share this video with my mother. The two of them have now talked about this time. This is something they never had done and it has been painful, intense and beautiful all at the same time.

To me, it is a huge tikkun/healing. It’s also been that for my parents. It’s never too late to have healing in a relationship or in a fraught situation. My mother and my father, despite all the territory in their past, have found their way back to a very tender place with each other. A place (my sister’s death) that they are closest to and can share feelings that no one else can. Across the 48 years since they’ve been together, this time and this desire on my father’s part and my mother’s willingness to listen and attend to all of this with caring and compassion has created a bridge. That bridge serves everyone in my family and most especially me.

My sister Paula’s death has colored every facet of my life. She’s been very present for me recently. I’ve been feeling her suffering and confusion at being alone, or what I perceive as those feelings, as my father and mother re-live the specific details of her tragic death. Today, I will go to her grave and sing her some songs. Her grave is a very unique and special one that many folks recognize who live here in Boulder. I will honor her, as I have my whole life, by trying to live my life with more gusto and more aliveness, with a double dose of the blending of my mother and father and all that this shared combination of heritage and story means as it flows through my veins and muscles and heart.

 

 

The front and back views of my sister Paula’s grave marker, which was commissioned by my parents and made by DeWain Valentine. The rocks are traditional Jewish offerings that I bring when I visit to commemorate my presence and as place-holders for my memory being as long as a stone’s for her.

The other night at Shabbat in the basement of Rabbi Marc Soloway of Bonai Shalom, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish for a thirteen year old boy who died last week. Children dying is terrible and not how we want our lives or the lives of those we cherish to unfold. Death is just not something we can ever overcome or get away from. It’s not fair, it’s not easy, it’s not fine or pretty or simple. We do all kinds of things to try to wrap it up that way, but the reality of it is anything but wrapped up neat. In the Jewish tradition, we have space, communal space, at every prayer service, for all those grieving to be supported, to name their beloveds and their pain.

This naming doesn’t fix the wound, but it gives us a container, a shared vessel for our hurt to be in, and it helps us feel less alone in our most tender and broken times.

It takes all my resources to show up for this dying time with my father and with others as well. I have very little energy for conversations or interactions with folks, because all of me has to be present now for these precious moments with my father, my brother, my mother and my family. It takes all of me to hold the space as we walk on the bridge between this life of my father’s here and now and the destination he is moving towards. It takes all of me to stay present for the feelings I have about when he will no longer be in a body here with us to tell stories to, or enjoy an artichoke with, or laugh at something silly or remark on something so intelligently that I feel like a total idiot in comparison. My father’s intellectual capacity far out-shines most folks I’ve met. He is still so sharp in his observations and thoughts. I’ll miss that, I’ll miss it a lot.

Nicole.Dad.1.10.18.2
Papa et moi.

So now the river of tears flows, as it can only flow when I have some space and time to be by myself and not be having to attend to his needs or anyone else’s. I’m very grateful for my time off, even though I’m acutely aware that every minute I’m away is one less minute I will have with him………forever.

Being present for what is going on in my life is one of the ways I honor the Holy One and my family and the planet. I cannot know when my life will be taken. I cannot know when my father will leave or my husband or a beloved friend or my children. I pray I won’t have to navigate losing a child, as my parents have, and as so many mothers and fathers in history have had to, but I cannot know.

So, every day I hold my family in my heart, in my prayers and I endeavor to honor them. I do this with my friends and my community as well. Mostly right now though, I’m just right here, tending to my father as he falls further from this realm. I hope to help ease his landing on the other side as best I can. I’m not alone in that. My brother and my children have shown up in various ways, as have some of my father’s nieces, nephews and friends to remind him of how precious he is and how much he is appreciated and loved.

What more can any of us do for those we love?

Papa Painting
“Dad wanted to help! He is 94, and doing hospice at home. My sister and I are taking care of him. He has seen me painting tiles non-stop for my big commission, and today he asked if he could help. Took me a little extra time to clean his work, but he was just barely able to do it. He made three tiles. I told him you never know, someone could dig up his tile in 10,000 years. He liked that!” Paul Barchilon

Nicole’s Nutritious, Num, Num, Nummy-Nut Balls

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Nut Ball with Tart Cherry Heart

Ingredients:

  1. 1/2 cup to one cup of shredded, unsweetened, toasted or raw coconut
  2. ten or more dates, pitted and chopped fine (you must use a cutting board and knife, do not destroy your blender or food-processor with this task, it is a messy, sticky job, but it’s a by hand job, not by machine job)
  3. 1/2 cup to one cup of almond meal/ground almonds
  4. 1/4 cup rose-water or orange flower water (your preference)
  5. one to two tablespoons of pomegranate molasses, honey or maple syrup
  6. cinnamon and nutmeg to taste

Put the almond meal and coconut in a large wooden or ceramic bowl (not metal) and add the chopped dates. Wash your hands, dry them and then mix with your hands until you get the dates and nut meats well mixed.

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Shredded coconut, ground almonds and chopped Medjool dates

Add the rosewater and syrup and mix again, you will now get something more like a ball of clay. Once you have mixed this up and it is all adhering together, add the cinnamon and nutmeg.

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Big lump of yummy stuff all adhering together well.

Once you’ve mixed in the spices, you can start taking small lumps from your big lump and rolling these together into small balls. Add a tart cherry to the top or a whole almond and you are done. These will keep for quite some time in the fridge. I prefer to eat them at room temperature, so take them out an hour before you serve. Some folks like them cold. Try them both ways and see what your preference is. These are gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free (mostly, the pomegranate syrup, honey or maple syrup are a kind of sugar, but they aren’t white sugar). These nut-balls are addictive and you will find you’ve eaten several before you know it!

Enjoy!

 

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25 Nutty, Num, Num, Nummy Nut balls!

 

S.O.S (Surrendered Opened Serving)

Wyoming sky
Wyoming sky, from the car my husband is driving, on the way to Colorado, to take care of my father.

S.O.S Surrendered Opened Serving

Softening of Self

Serving over Self

Striving (to) Offer Selflessly

Surrendering of Self

Play with it how you will, it is all the same territory and damn tricky.

I wish this wasn’t the case. There are certainly times when I truly can “serve the Holy One with joy, ivdu et hashem b’simcha.” ~Psalm 90

Serving with joy feels good. Serving with resentment, fatigue, frustration, irritation, wondering if it will ever be over, trying hard but still making folks you care about feel bad, and other not so nice feelings, none of that feels good at all.

This is the territory I’m in. It’s the territory I’m in by choice. So, as I write these words, I have left my Bayside home and am now back in Colorado to be the primary care-giver for my father in his final journey. Since March of this year I’ve flown back and forth to Colorado more times than I can count. I’m done with the back and forth; I’ve finally surrendered.

I just need to be there, give up my life here, for a time, and serve the man who has served me, my brother, my children, his students and his wives so deeply. It’s his turn to just be the recipient. He’s asked for me, which is fairly radical, in the story of our family. He’s also surrendered and recognized that my care makes a difference and he wants what I have to offer.

Nicole and Dad
My dad and me, when he was healthy.

If my life was about achieving success, having a career or being perfectly sculpted, what would I have to bring to my father or anyone in their time of need? This is not a judgement of folks who strive for those things. I am commenting on our society’s over-valuing of these kinds of achievements. I don’t want or need accolades of any kind. That may seem specious, given that I’m writing about my process, my “selfless” process.

Perhaps, it will be seen that way. I share here, and wherever I find an audience, what is true for me. I know I am not alone in these feelings or experiences and that folks feel isolated way too often when they are care-giving.  I choose to be present for my parents, my mother-in-law, my children, my friends, my community and those who I have made covenants with. My spiritual and personal commitments are as real and binding to me as the ones that are linked to my biology, my blood, my ancestry.

This is lifetime work. It is not something I will ever complete or finish. Perhaps it will be lifetimes of work. I hope not. I’m tired. I am looking forward to the promise of singing with the Angels and not having to serve in a body ever again. When I cross over, if I get a choice, that’s the one I want. I have no desire to come back and do any more living over. I may feel differently when I’m 90, if I’m around then, you can be sure I’ll let you all know if this has changed.

My life has been so full and joyful. It’s also included extremely hard times and situations. I’m just like every other human, on our spinning planet, in this way.

The difficulties in my life aren’t comparable to the hardships of most folks’ lives. I live a life of privilege in many regards. Difficulty, is a relative thing though. If you string the events in my life up by the tragedies and failures or by the joys and wonders, you get different pictures. It’s often felt like a pendulum swinging wildly between the two poles.

I do not believe that you can create the life you want and that if you just attune and align with the perfect philosophy or diet or get things right personally all your problems, fears, complications and debts will go away, or the president you want will be in power, or folks will do what you want, and all will be perfect and polished. I am not interested in my life being polished or shiny or perfect. I’m not interested in weighing the right amount or looking the right way or doing things according to someone’s current ideal of what is fashionable or healthy.

I am interested in mastering, to whatever extent I can, what the Holy One sets before me, not what I set before me.

Shiviti
The Shiviti Prayer: I have set the Holy One Before Me Always

And, I fail every day, over and over. I fall down all the time and sometimes, even with all my personal padding, I am bruised all over. The reality of suffering is so damn intense, it’s not mild, it’s not pleasant, it’s not calm, quiet or easy. It’s a full-on completely body-slamming story.

I live it in my body. My empathic nature is not something I am dimming or turning the volume down on. I’ve already done a volume shift to walk around and look semi-normal my entire life. I’ve learned to have a boundary between myself and others. Sometimes, though, I will still be brought up short, if another person is having trouble breathing, I also will start choking. I’ve said this all before, and I’m restating it for the following reason. Being empathic and devoted to easing the suffering of others is a full-time experience.

It is not a seamless process. Sometimes what I experience is a tsunami, sometimes it’s a slow flow of energy, like air leaking from a balloon, and other times it’s just in the background. Sometimes, I feel as if the life is being sucked out of me, Other times I feel as if I am being gifted with tremendous energy and all the gears are working properly; I’m loving, I’m being loved and I’m serving with joy.

These are the moments I live for, when it all aligns and the warm honey liquid healing/Tikkun unfolds like a lotus opening. That’s what I want and it’s a palpable real experience that I have had and hopefully will have again.

It’s the true goal of my soul. S.O.S traditionally stands for Save Our Souls, and indeed, that’s what we are called upon to do, when we care for children, elderly parents, otherwise-abled children, family, friends or spouses. We are being asked to surrender our own time-frames, needs, and lives over to the care of another.

This is not something we do as a sacrifice. The word sacrifice is one I do not resonate with. In Hebrew, we make offerings. They are called Korbanot/Offerings. You can make a korban that is for wrongs you have done, or in gratitude or in praise, or for a holiday or special life event. A korban is brought forth willingly and given with intention.

If you have never surrendered yourself over to another person, then this will seem completely foreign to you. In our society, there are more opportunities to give than you can possibly imagine. And, when the world feels insane, there is no better feeling than knowing you have made a difference in the suffering quotient of another human being or the planet. When we offer willingly of our time, our hearts, our bodies, there is a return offering that comes our way and it is one that cannot be measured or calculated. It can feel like a river of life-blood, a continuous flow of manna, heavenly nourishment and goodness.

It may take some time to recognize this, due to the stress of continuously extending for another, but when you do feel the flow, it is a game-changer. Simply Offering Simply that’s my goal.

I’m not going to list the mistakes, the all too common ones, most folks and I have made when offering self. I do want to share four basic keys that make a difference for me and enable me to give myself over and over in this and other situations.

Shabbat over Serving: Make sure you take one or two days off a week, figure it out, find friends or others to give you a break. If you cannot manage a day, manage for as long as you can. Make your time off regular, same day, same times. This will mean your body and heart and mind will adjust and know they are getting a break and it will train the person you are caring for to not expect your presence at that time.

Self-Care on Start: Don’t try to take care of someone else if you aren’t attending to the care of yourself as well. Get regular massages, work-outs, walks, acupuncture or whatever it is that nourishes you. It is not optional or secondary, it needs to happen before you help others, if you can, and consistently.

Start out Slow: Take your time getting to know the rhythms of the person and place where you are. Folks who are sick or elderly are moving at a very different pace from the one that you are. It is more of a service to them for less to happen, than for everything to get done, and it’s impossible to get everything done, so give up on that.

Stay Engaged over Signing Out or Off: When things get edgy, with other family members or there is a problem or grumpiness from a care-giver or the person you are caring for, or anyone in the situation, don’t give up or resign. Just give it some space, take a break, a day or a few hours, and come back to the situation. It’s a given that there will be rough patches. Expect these moments and work to prevent them, but remember that if you stay centered and apply the other three suggestions here, a solution will be found.

On that note, of solutions to be found, I’ll close.

Dad Waving
My father in a moment of less pain in the new recliner/life chair I realized we needed to get him, in the middle of one particularly difficult night. He can sleep for two or three hours comfortably here, and it’s his favorite spot to be now.

Nicole Barchilon Frank writes to you, from her home in California, and in the future or the past, she writes to you from the home her heart calls her to—wherever that might be…

  • Originally published in the Mad River Union on December 13th, 2017.  Changes have been made in this online version.

 

 

Omar and the Bowls

Omar Bowls
Silver-rimmed Star of David bowls from Omar

Thinking about serving, serving the Divine, serving others, serving family, serving a meal, being served and encountering a servant. While I was in Morocco this last April, (April of 2014), I met Omar. Omar is my Uncle’s servant. There is no easy way to say that. The word itself is primed and full of meaning. It connotes both positive and negative things for me. My first encounters with servants were in Morocco as a child. My grandparents’ home had three full-time servants; Hassan, Sadia and Fatimah. Sadia and Fatimah did the cooking and the cleaning and my grandfather was tended to by Hassan.

Berber Woman
Berber Woman painting by Helen Redman

I vividly remember being surrounded by these large warm women, who smelled heavenly, unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before or after. The combination was something like sweat, cinnamon, heat, roses, musk and cumin, vanilla and linden flowers. If I could swim in this scent or be near these women again, I don’t think I would ever emerge. I can’t describe it properly, but their smell, their warm arms wrapping around me and carrying me around or chasing me around the kitchen is something I carry with me and which I long for. It is the smell of work, of service, of excellence, of laughter and care and anger and heat and heart and some mystery too. It is the opposite of contained or relaxed or mellow and so very not of this place here.

My whole trip back to Morocco has really been a trip back inside of myself and into myself. I find I am reluctant to land fully here in this country, because so much of who I am is actually embedded in where I have been and in these memories, but also in the work of service. It’s a very foreign concept in this country. We don’t have servants, or at least most folks don’t, and unless you are active in a religious community or other non-profit organization “serving” is not always viewed as positive. The idea of being an actual servant to someone is frowned upon and rightly so, for many, many reasons in most work situations. I am not trying to justify servitude to a flawed system, servitude to a wealthy unjust boss or factory here. This kind of service though is not the only kind of service. I see no use in hiding from what is true for me and what I know from my life and my experiences that are the positive side of service.

My own service to others is a primal choice on my part in many ways. It is something that gives me tremendous energy and is a kind of tuning or truing. There is a tuning fork in my soul and when I am following the call of the Holy One, the sound inside of me is so pure and so whole and so right that I can’t imagine it being otherwise. That feeling doesn’t always manifest, often if I am asked to be of service or find myself pulled into it, I am not happily singing inside. I can be resentful, tired, frustrated, worried and so many other things, all of which are human and okay for me to be. The difference between those feelings and the feeling of being in tune is an order of magnitude difference.

The proper alignment puts me in a groove and there is the touch of the infinite there. I could lift a car off a person, or have a conversation with a star as it is being born somewhere light years away or back here on earth I might find myself helping someone to cross over the river Jordan singing them to their next destination. It’s just not a common experience or a mundane one. I feel blessed and lucky and grateful whenever I find myself there, amazed and renewed, awed and lost and full of tears. It’s the feeling of being a true servant, of serving the Creator and of wanting to do it again and again and to do it well and joyfully and of being so glad I was asked to do it. There is trembling and awe and a deep shaking and rushing to find the core of the task and to rush to do it well. In the Jewish tradition there is a teaching that one should RUSH to do a Mitzvah, not hesitate or stand back, but rush and hurry to do what is being asked. We don’t do this for people we don’t love or beings we don’t revere. If you are in service to a tyrant, you might rush out of fear, but you would never rush out of joy to serve.

I’m not serving a tyrant, so my movements are ones of speed and force towards the hope of helping or healing or finding the right words or actions or moment to grow some love in the world. I am so not alone in this. And, I am so very far away from serving humbly and with grace. Which, brings me back to Omar.

Atlas Mountains
Oukmaiden, Atlas Mountains

When we arrived in Oukaimeden, where my Uncle lives, about 9,000 feet high in the Atlas mountains, there was snow on the ground. It is a ski-resort during the winter months and my 86 year old uncle BB still has a ski rental shop there along with his home. This is where Ethan and I came to spend our one night with him. Omar lives downstairs in the small cabin and my uncle lives upstairs. Omar has a wife and two married children in a village about twelve and a half miles away. He rides a large motorcycle and could be anywhere between forty and sixty. I couldn’t tell. He made the fire in the cabin when we first arrived. In Marrakesh we were burning up with heat and the temperature was in the 90s. In Oukaimeden we needed a fire. Omar prepared dinner, he served us dinner and then sat in the kitchen while we ate it, he cleared our plates and did all the cleaning up. He smiled at me, he smiled at Ethan. He speaks no French. I speak only a little Arabic. I said Shukran about fifty times. Shukran is “Thank You.” Omar just smiled.

After dinner we prepared for bed. My uncle gave Ethan and I his bed and he slept on the sofa near the fire, something he insisted he did regularly so he would be warm. Omar prepared the sofa and went downstairs. Ethan and I said goodnight to my uncle and climbed into the large and lumpy and cold bed that was graciously given to us. We read a little bit from The Crucible by Arthur Miller and then we tried to go to sleep. There are no street lights in Oukaimeden, most of the homes don’t have electricity.

It was VERY dark and very cold and just a little spooky. Ethan got up to use the bathroom which was a tiny room full of dusty, grimy, half-used bottles and looked like most bathrooms I’ve seen that belong to older folks or those who are otherwise-abled and who can’t see or get to the dirt. Ethan came running back into the bedroom and he was hyperventilating. He said that while he was peeing a giant spider the size of half his hand started to drop down from the ceiling towards him in his exposed state. He ran back into the bedroom.

Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited when it was time for me to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was one tiny light and everything looked creepy. I didn’t want to wake up my uncle so I was trying to be quiet but also doing the Nicole is tapping on the floorboards in a funny way dance. This was my “Spider if you are here, please do not come out, there’s a large person here and it’s better if you stay away” dance shuffle. I’m sure all spiders understand that this particular combination of footwork, shuffling, tapping, scooting, and slight jumping that I was doing is universal code for “do not disturb or emerge.” I tried to use the toilet, but was so terrified of the spider and unsure if my message had been properly translated or received. I made it through the event and quickly rushed back to the bedroom. I didn’t get much sleep, but at least I didn’t need to go into the bathroom until morning again and clearly, along with French and Spanish, I can now add Spider Language to my repertoire.

We had a lovely morning walking the area and then got ready to head back to Marrakesh, which was a three hour drive on twisty roads in the old blue 1976 Chevrolet with no air-conditioning being driven by my 86-year-old uncle who told me he needed a new glasses prescription, ummmm, that’s a whole other story. I wanted to buy some ceramics, small things, to bring home and my uncle said Omar would help us negotiate better prices and would accompany us part way down the mountains on our way back to Marrakesh. I was very happy to have the help. We had to drop something off at the only hotel in Oukaimeden and so I was sitting in the car with Ethan waiting. Several men came up to the car with their arms covered in necklaces and jewelery of every kind. I didn’t want to buy anything, so I tried to ignore them, but to no avail. All of a sudden Omar was there, he took off all the jewelry on one man’s arm and he picked through it and handed me ten necklaces. I tried to shake my head no, but Omar would have none of it.

No money was exchanged and I couldn’t communicate with any of these men. My uncle came back and I explained what had happened. He told me that this man owed Omar for something and now that debt was partially forgiven. I said, but I didn’t pay Omar and what is Omar getting from this? I asked my uncle if I could give Omar some money, but he said absolutely not and it would insult Omar. I arranged to give my uncle some money and asked him to do something extra for Omar or his family and then we went down the mountain looking for ceramics.

Omar stopped us at a roadside hill that had thousands of ceramic tagines and bowls and tiles in piles making up columns and columns and rows and rows of red clay, unpainted bowls stacked on top of each other which were entirely covering the hill leading into the factory. There was a tiny path with small steps through these columns into a large dark building. To my right, once my eyes adjusted, I saw a man who was kneading a large bunch of red brown clay with his feet; stepping in and out of the clay in a large square tub. As my eyes got more comfortable, I saw thousands of bowls and dishes leaning every which way in stacks of tens and twenties and more. It was a jumble of sizes, shapes and colors. I walked through trying to find something small I could safely pack in my bag and bring home. I found some beautiful white and blue bowls with a thin strip of silver lining on the bottoms and around the lip of each bowl. I asked the merchant the price and he said they were the most expensive ones and quoted me a price I didn’t want to pay. At that point I noticed some others that I also liked and they were smaller and didn’t have the silver. He told me those were made in this factory here, unlike the others I had previously selected. He quoted me a price and Omar nodded and I paid him.

On our way back to the car, Omar handed me the two other bowls, the expensive ones. He had bought them for me without my noticing. I couldn’t understand. I asked my uncle why and he told me Omar said I was family and he wanted me to have them and to have joy and that it made him happy to think of me with them. This man, who I only just met, was rushing to do something for me. He owns no home, he has worked for over twenty years or perhaps thirty for my Uncle, and he couldn’t stop trying to serve me, to offer to me. I didn’t and don’t know how to properly thank him. His gift was coming straight from his heart. He had the largest grin on his face, so happy with himself. This generosity and desire to please was radiating off of him. I told my uncle to thank him and tell him that I was so happy with the gift and that I would treasure these bowls and think of Omar always when I used them in my home in California.

I gave my uncle some more dirhams and asked him to pass them on however and whenever he could as he saw fit for Omar or his family. Even if I hadn’t had a penny to give, Omar would have been and done exactly as he did. He wanted to make me happy, he wanted me to smile, he wanted me to be served and he wanted to do the serving. He served me. He is serving me still, because I can’t get him out of my mind or heart. His simple kindness, his generosity, his humility, his smile, his strength. All these qualities and more dance around in me and beg me to pay attention.

Serving with joy, serving with kindness and with no thought of reward, serving out of a sense that the person before us is family or Holy or just deserving, this is the service I want to embody. How am I family to Omar? I am family to him because we are all family. My Omar bowls have a special place in my home and every time I see them or use them, Omar is with me. The jewels he gave me also connect me to the Moroccan soil, they come from the red earth and the mountain caves of the African continent, the birthplace of humanity. When I wear them, I feel myself connecting back to the Atlas mountains and to an ancient reality, to a warmth and strength and beauty and even to the large, prehistorically large spiders that come down in the night.

Nicole serves herself by writing to you from her home in Bayside, where she has a lot more to say about serving. Originally this piece was published here and elsewhere in March of 2014