This is where I spent the first night of Pesach up Sugarloaf road in Boulder, Colorado. I had planned to be with my dear friends in Oregon, but life intervened. My 94-year-old father fell and broke his hip and then two days after his hip-replacement surgery had a minor heart-attack. I flew out here to help my brother and family navigate all of this.
My father, never at ease, with care or emotions, was very upset to see me when I first got here. He requested that I not come into his room alone. He said that I was “too emotional” and my presence distressed him. I was actually expecting this, because this is his default around me and emotions. I refrain from all emotional expressions around him and have for years. But, he was so uncomfortable and unhappy already, my presence served as a reminder that things were dire or difficult.
I am the person folks usually want around them when they are sick, 99% of the time. Folks love when I bring food to them, help them navigate tests, hospital staff, doctors, end of life care issues and everything in between. I am regularly consulted, and in the company of folks who are not well in hospital and home situations. It’s something I do from my heart with confidence and skill. The fact that my father denies me the opportunity to give to him, in the ways I am most able to, is one more opportunity for me to grow.
My Mussar/Jewish Ethical practices and teachings ask us to look at whatever is present in our world as our “spiritual homework.” This idea works for me because I am someone who tries to address whatever is difficult as an opportunity. I am not always successful in this, but I do use this concept as a framework for my life.
So, my brother, his partner, my daughter, various other family members and I have been trying to do a very complex dance. There are lots of steps behind the scenes and various curtains opening and closing, in sync hopefully, and lots of improvisation. I have respected my father’s wishes, for the most part. I found that he was open to good soups and foods, which I could make for him and send with my brother. This worked for a little while and then it was “too much fuss” and “too much foods,” even though it was a small box in the hospital patient refrigerator with some cheese, yogurt, olives and soup.
My father asked where I was several times when my brother came to spend time with him and my brother reminded him that he had told me not to come. I spent my pre-Passover time cleaning my brother and my daughter’s homes and kitchens and cooking for them and my father to support all of them, behind the scenes. I drive my brother into Denver frequently, and stay in the waiting area, and try to make it easier for my brother to handle all he is handling. It’s a family affair with one person on center stage looking like he is doing it all, my brother, but there are lots of things going on in the background.
This element of caring for folks, whether they are old, or not, is critical to understand. It is often the case that only one member of a family or friend grouping will be the one the person who is not well feels the most comfortable with. It’s important to not take it personally when you aren’t the person wanted. I know this intellectually, emotionally it’s another story.
So, I have cried, done a phone session with my therapist, gone to multiple services at Bonai Shalom and been on the phone with my husband and sisters and others and processed. I’ve gotten massaged at Siam Sensation, my favorite place in town and gone swimming and taken walks in the woods. I don’t swallow poison or hurt, when I am awake and aware. I take my pain to the Holy One, to my support crew of friends and family and to my sister’s grave as well. I lay it all out and down and work on trusting that my love and care will be of help and that someday it will all make sense or improve.
Everyone is unique in how they navigate illness and stress and difficulty. There is no cookie-cutter form that works every time. Patience and calm and trust are always great tools to have if you can figure out how to have them in a crisis, no small task. Even though my father was reticent initially to my arriving and my involvement, he has warmed up to me and to my help. My presence makes a difference for the other folks in this situation. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing, on the other hand, this is what is.
How this relates to Pesach and Passover is also relevant. We look at all the ways we enslave others and are enslaved at this time of year. We look at all the things that are leaven in our lives, all that puffs us up and that is not necessary. Our pride, our lack of awareness about the suffering of others, our over-consumption, our fear and our lack of faith are all examples of things we need to look at deeply. We always tell the story in the present tense and we are not only reminded once, but repeatedly, over and over and over, that the Exodus is not something that happened once. Our story is something that is currently happening and that is happening for us and for refugees and folks in bondage everywhere right now.
We live the story in this moment.
So, in my now, having to traverse the territory of my pride around my ability to care for folks in need, I can see it as one more form of leaven in my life. Ceding the care-giving to my brother and taking a back-seat, that’s not my normal setting, nor is it easy for me, but I can and am doing it. Letting go of my childhood pain and sense of rejection around my Papa is also a way to liberate myself further from things that I no longer need to be tied up in knots about.
My father loves me, he has never, and will never understand me. Big deal, what’s new? This is the story for so many people. While it is painful, I am not alone, I am not three or twelve. I’m fifty-two years old. I have a plethora of folks who do understand me and don’t reject me. My father is actually not rejecting me, he’s rejecting having to feel things that he doesn’t have the energy or ability to handle. I represent emotions and feelings to him, I hold that space in his mind and in his experience. Just being around me stimulates him in ways that are not comfortable for him. He still thinks I should be a lawyer, which is just beyond laughable.
Soup, I can send him, through another person, that works. Yesterday, I felt a strong call, on the second day of Pesach, about ten days into my visit here, to go see him. So, I called him, he is now at a rehabilitation facility. I asked him if I could come for a brief visit and bring him some maztoh ball soup that my friend, a former student of his, had made. He said, come visit, but no soup, and only if I was already in Denver. I lied and said I was, but that it would be a few hours before I arrived. I drove in, during rush hour to see him. It took an hour and a half to get there and an hour to get home. When I got to his room he said: “I’m going to make you very happy and let you rub my feet.” This is something I’ve offered before, when visiting with him, but that he’d always refused.
So, I washed and massaged Papa’s feet, which felt good for both of us. While I was there, the Executive Director came in and asked how things were going. My father said “fine,” but then started to complain about the food. He then he raved about the tomato basil soup he’d had at the hospital and said they should hire away the cook at the hospital. This was funny to me, since he’d complained about the food there to my brother. I told the director to just have the kitchen always put some lemon on my father’s tray and that would help him enjoy whatever he was eating.
A little later, dinner was served and the cook came up. My father apologized profusely for complaining to the director and the cook assured my father, that he wanted to provide the best meal possible for him and that it was his job to do so. He asked my father where he was from originally and my father said: “France, we are French, from Morocco originally.” The cook said: “I’m from Palestine, I’m Palestinian.”
I immediately said “Salaam Aleicum,” and he shook my hand and said Aleicum Salaam and smiled. Jews and Muslims share this form of greeting. We say Shalom Aleichem, they say Salaam Aleicum, both of these things mean the same thing, Peace To You, and the response is Alecheim Shalom or Aleicum Salaam, which means To You Peace.
My father then said it was a “bloody ridiculous mess” in Israel and Palestine and that all the bloodshed and arguing was wrong. The cook didn’t say anything more to this. I shook his hand again and thanked him in Arabic, “shukran, shukran.” He smiled and departed. There was lemon on the tray they brought my Papa for dinner. And, of course, he would have preferred the soup my friend had made, but he’d told me not to bring it, so I hadn’t, trés typique, as we say en français.
We attend to the details of Passover more intensely than any other holiday. It is considered of benefit to go longer, go deeper, do more, make things sparkle or have more meaning, discuss it differently, cook more dishes, clean more, and in general go a little crazy in your preparations and expressions for this holiday. So, likewise, with my father in his situation, the details are maddening, complex and continuously shifting and challenging. It requires great attention to detail and flexibility.
I’m blessed to have a family that has consummate skills in this area. So, as we wander in this new wilderness, this place that is wholly different from what we are comfortable and familiar with, we look around us and see we are not alone. We are helping each other along, we are laughing, we are crying and we are falling down and picking each other up. We are finding ways to do what needs doing in the face of complex emotions and situations.
Let me be very clear as well, it’s horrifying to me, when I think about how hard and how much work we are doing for my father, who has health-insurance, who is in clean and calm facilities, who has children who can afford to drive or fly in to help. What is horrifying about this, is that so many folks don’t have this kind of support or care. The vast majority of people in the world, who are suffering all over this world, don’t have the resources or the facilities that my father does. My father is an American but he wasn’t born here. He emigrated here after World War II. He got his college education here in the 1950s and became a French professor at CU Boulder. He worked for over thirty years there and planned intelligently for his retirement. He found his truest love at the age of 75 and has been happily married to her for almost twenty years now.
How can my situation, which is challenging, but not horrific help me to be a better person?
What can I do differently so that the suffering of others is lessened?
Where are there places in my life that I can explore further that will enable me to be freer to give with my whole heart and serve the Divine more fully?
How can I release what constricts and binds me so that I am truly free to show up for exactly what needs showing up for?
These are my four questions for this holiday, not the typical ones, but they are the ones I’m wrestling with. May your forays into this Holy Spring Time, whether you are Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or any other stripe or way of connecting to this Wholly and Holy Amazing world, be full of joy and thoughtful contemplation. May you find your way out of whatever binds you, into full-on service to what needs doing and what is for the good.
I went looking for something to share that wouldn’t take me too much time, something I’d already written that I could upload here and then get back to the work of preparing for Passover. I was sure I had written about Passover/Pesach many times, it turns out, this was all in my mind.
Of course, what I have done is prepare for and celebrate Pesach, which, if you’ve ever prepared for Pesach you know, means you don’t have three seconds to write about what you are doing. I haven’t had a relationship with Pesach my whole life. My first Seder happened in the home of my boyfriend when I was fourteen and it was sooooooooooo wonderful and wild and incredible that I have been hooked ever since. It was all in English and mostly a bacchanalian experience with everyone in a toga and lots of food and drinking, what teenager wouldn’t love that? Nothing like it had ever happened in my home and I was in love both with my boyfriend Matthue and with the ritual meal, foods and experience.
Pesach is always a journey and a hard one, when you are actually responsible for the holiday, not just a guest at someone’s table. No matter where I am or what is going on in my life, the month before Passover involves some deep cleaning and mess uncovering. It involves long days and nights of work and being exhausted. It is full of stress and confusion and work and trying really hard to turn all the myriad tasks and the hard work into an offering. In Judaism we have a philosophy or pathway that helps us take all things hard or difficult and turn them towards the use of what is Holy or of Service, it’s called for the sake of Heaven (l’Shmayim).
It is not the same as being enslaved to a job or a master with a whip, as the story of Pesach reminds us about every year, but there are elements of those things. I find I am enslaved to the laundry, the groceries, the endless cycles of my life and all I have to do to keep my family healthy and well and myself too. There is a resentment in me that I regularly have to navigate. It’s minor in comparison to what I perceive other people having. I may be fooling myself here. I generally feel choiceful about being a servant to my family and community, friends and the planet. I have actively and regularly chosen and asked to serve the Divine and accept that what unfolds in my life is a combination of that prayer being answered and my dedication to a life of service. I know that my life is amazingly blessed and yet, when it all gets to be too much I feel weighed down and somehow put upon.
These feelings are part of the process of preparing for the holiday or liberating ourselves and liberation of those who are oppressed. I am intrinsically bound to a cycle that I find myself both caught in and delighted by. I cannot imagine my life without the Jewish holiday cycles. They are linked to the cycles of harvest and the seasons and also to the narrative of my people across thousands of years. I believe they are central to my cellular make-up, which may sound patently absurd. My relationship to my sense of what is right and true for me is body-centered and always has been.
The first time I heard Hebrew singing and praying, it was like having a rushing whooshing sound move through me and also my whole world felt tiny and encapsulated and I was hot and everything shifted inside of me and I felt alive in a completely whole way that was instantaneously familiar and new at the same time. It was miraculous and continues to be. That time was when I was 18 years old and went to my first Shabbat dinner at a Havurah/Group Gathering in Boulder Colorado in 1982.
So, my relationship with Pesach is multi-layered. It’s a combination of scrubbing and cleaning and removing all the schmutz/mess/grease, caked on goo from my physical world, but also my internal world. It’s an opportunity to be free and smooth, to be liberated in every way from the gunk of my life. In order to get there, I have to work really hard, and that’s the part that feels not so good a lot of the time, but because this is MY CHOICE and not something forced upon me, it also has a quality of being an offering.
Unless you have had to clean up your reality or space and see it as a spiritual practice, I think this may be hard to relate to for many folks. Usually people only clean at this level when they move. I do this once a year, every year and I don’t just do it for my space, but for my heart and the home inside of myself I make for the Holy One to dwell inside of. I am cleaning my space to make room for the miracles of the Pesach story that all culminate in the giving of the Torah. So, as I scrub and rub and crawl around the corners of the house and I get vigorous in my scrubbing, I imagine the space being made really clean for the Holiest guest. Once the space is ready,I then work on preparing a feast that tells the story of my people and I share that story with others and with the special foods. It’s an extraordinary experience.
I hope you will find a Seder to go to, if you aren’t Jewish, at least once in your life. If you are Jewish, I hope you have a lovely Seder to go to, and if you don’t, clean your kitchen, sit down with some wine, some apples, honey, matzoh, wine, horseradish, parsley and whatever other foods you need or want that are part of this holiday and set your own table for the Holy One to come join you at. All the work, even if you cannot do it at the micro and macro level I am talking about, is for the sake of Heaven, however you interpret that.
I have to get back to it now, so I’ll close by wishing you all good cleaning, cooking, feasting, studying and sharing together as the Spring unfolds and as the Full Moon eclipse and Pesach coincide, may the reminder of how we are all connected and linked be present for you in your bodies, homes and communities.
This series of three combined into one long posting together here was written last year right before Passover/Pesach in the Spring of 2013. The story is relevant now, but the time references are from last year. I have also been preparing for Pesach right here in real time this year.
“It’s a small world after all.” That was my favorite song when I was little and I guess, in many ways, it still is. As I rush around getting ready for Pesach (Passover) and also for a trip to Spain and Morocco WAHOOOOOOOOOO! I’m a little bit more crazy than usual. And, I am trying to ride the WAVE of this time, rather than get smashed by it.
My name, Barchilon, comes from my paternal grandmother’s Moroccan name Perla Barchilon. My paternal Moroccan grandfather’s name was Jaime Cohen. When my father came to this country after WWII he didn’t want the name Cohen. It was way too Jewish and so he took his mother’s name Barchilon. Barchilon is a Jewish name too, it comes from the city of Barcelona, most likely. When my grandmother Perla’s ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492 (the year the Jews were forced to flee Spain, convert or be killed), like many immigrants, the name of place left became the new name. The name Barchilon may also come from the Hebrew bar shelanu, or some form of those words which mean “son of ours.”
This journey I am going on with our son Ethan is through his school, the Northcoast Preparatory Academy. When I heard about this trip I told him, YOU ARE GOING! Then he asked me to come along. What’s money anyway? Who needs it? So, despite the cost and the challenges I decided to come along. My mother and my step-father graciously offered to help and since this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me with my sixteen year old, I am on board. My husband also felt that it was of great benefit and supported the choice.
Part of why this trip appealed to me for our son Ethan, is that he and the other students going are acting and performing in a play in Barcelona. This play, “The Sheep and The Whale” was written by Moroccan playwright Ahmed Gazhali. The play is about crossing the Straight of Gibraltar and about illegal immigration, the hunger for a better life, murder, violence, poverty, and the longing for home and country that lives in the heart of many immigrants. It is based on a true story:
“ June 8th, 1992, at 2 AM a small wooden boat transporting 20 Moroccan illegal immigrants sank in the Straight of Gibraltar. A Russian freighter, that happened to be passing through the Straight as the drama was unfolding, managed to save one person and to pull out several bodies from the sea. In order to return the survivor and the bodies to the Moroccan authorities, the freighter was obliged to pay right of entry fees to the Port of Tangier. Negotiations dragged on until dawn…This event occurred a few days before Aïd Elkebir, The Festival of Sacrifice.” ~From the Moroccan newspaper, L’Opinion, 11th of June, 1992
Well, my father illegally crossed the Straight of Gibraltar as a young man on a fishing boat under a tarp of fish. He was with one other young man, they were both fleeing Nazi-Occupied Morocco to join up with the Free French Forces who had a large fleet ship in the port of Gibraltar. My father made it to that ship and joined the Free French Forces. He emigrated to this country after the war and that’s how I got here, although I was born in Paris. My father will turn 90 in Paris, while my sixteen-year-old son plays an Islamic Moroccan immigrant in a show in Barcelona. How could I not have my son be part of this story about crossing the Straight illegally and going to Marrakesh and Barcelona?
My father’s family lived in Morocco for over 500 years, it is only in his generation that they left Morocco. Before they left Morocco, they were in Spain, and before that they lived in the Holy Land of Ancient Israel and Palestine. I have one Uncle still living in Morocco, my Uncle Maurice Cohen, whom everyone calls Bébé (which means baby, since he was the youngest). My Uncle Bébé is now 86. He was a Moroccan tennis star when he was younger. Another small world connection, Ethan loves tennis and is currently number two on the “ladder” at his school. We will see my uncle when we go to Marrakesh, he lives in the mountains about two hours from there.
It feels absolutely monumental to me that I am getting to have this experience, earth-movingly huge. I am crossing the globe, this small planet with my son, flesh of my flesh of my father’s flesh, of his parents flesh, etc… back to our homes from not so long ago and from VERY long ago. Our family stories cycle in many many ways. This particular circling is one of choice and joy and yet, I can’t help but be thinking about all the folks forced to flee their homes seeking a better life or respite from war, famine, and oppression.
My own life has been one of abundance and love, with plenty of hurt and mess too, but not because of oppressive governments, war, religious intolerance or grueling poverty. The story of my people is one we tell every year in the present tense, never in the past. As long as there are people oppressed and endangered the story of fleeing oppression is not over. My son accompanies me on this journey, where he plays an illegal immigrant, a man torn in two by his need to connect with his people, his family and his home in Morocco and also a man who loved a woman and hoped for a different life. The character named Hassan is forced to confront his story on the freighter amidst great turmoil. He’s been living a life of lies with his Parisian wife and the story unfolds on stage and in real life, every day.
So, as many of you sit down for your Seders or celebrate spring in all the various ways we do in this country, I hope you will remember that the story is not over. Our re-telling and remembering must be followed up with ACTIONS to make this whole small world a place of peace, justice, kindness and goodness. A place where the flavors, colors and tastes of home are not forfeited as the price for the possibility of living with dignity and hope. Isn’t it time, really time, now to see everyone on this planet as members of our own family and to embrace them, not shun them, for their differences, languages, practices, gifts or wounds? It’s a small world after all.
Nicole will be winging her way to Barcelona and Marrakesh as you read these words, she will try to pen some thoughts while in the lands of her ancestors, and she sends you wishes for sumptuous feasts around your tables, with room for guests unknown and perhaps who don’t have home, but who might find it at your table if you invite them in.
The picture here is from a building on Calle Perla. My grandmother’s name was Perla, my Sephardic grandmother. I am surrounded everywhere by the history of my family. Every street feels familiar, every balcony seems like it could have been mine. The city feels like a friend, someone I had to leave behind but who never really changed.
Today I went on an Orange Donut Tour with Lisa, the other Chaperone on this trip and my friend Shullie’s parents Rona and Bernard. I am at the Ristorante Compostela waiting for them because I just couldn’t walk much further. City life is all about walking, walking, walking.
Walking is wonderful and my weight and feet make it hard for me to do everything at the same pace as thinner, more determined to see and do everything folks and also all those younger folks.
I love the neighborhood where we are. Each quarter or area has its own flavor and energy and unique character. There are currents here that, like in a fast moving river, you cannot always see or be aware of in advance and that catch one unawares. The whole Catalan vs. Spanish issue here is huge and I don’t know the signs of who is who yet. So, for example, I have been trying to learn and speak as much Catalan as I can, really just Thank You and a few other words. Thank you in Catalan is different. It is moltas gracias (spelling phonetic, no idea how it is spelled in the actual language). So, while I was at the Ristorante Compostela, which was not in Gracia, where I am for the most part, but which is in the Gothic Quarter, where the Cathedral of Barcelona is and where the Pope stays when he is in town, I said “Moltas Gracias.” The waiter looked at me like I was vermin practically. Clearly, I had left Catalan without knowing it. I did have the best coffee (cafe con leche) of my life there though, so I guess I can handle the look. Actually had two, ’cause one just wasn’t enough.
It is 5:05 a.m. as I write this, sleep is complex here as well. I am in the home of a single mom, Belen, who has rented out three of her rooms to guests from Airbnb. The others here are the other mom Lisa, who is a chaperone with me on this trip, and two German Opers who look to be in their early twenties, perhaps. They are sharing a room. It is great here and for $32 a night, completely unbeatable.
The toilet is a tiny room, with just the toilet, and no room to really pull your pants down though, so you kind of have to have the door open a drop to get that part done, then sit down and close the door to do your business and then vice-versa on the way out. And, this is not because I am big, the space between the door and the toilet is about five inches and the word water closet describes the space pretty accurately. The flush handle is the old fashioned pull down kind.
The tile in this place could be hundreds of years old at least, the flooring is all tile. The shower is outside in a small room but is magnificently hot and strong. The stairs up to the bedrooms are about six inches maybe wide, so I have to put my feet sideways on them to get down and brace myself on the walls as I navigate the twisting small steps.
I will fill in more about the students next time, but wanted to get this off to those of you following me on this adventure. Today, I will accompany the children for their presentations at the host school here as they talk about Arcata and NPA in the English class at the IES school here in Gracia. Then, Ethan’s host family has invited me for lunch, which is called diner at 3, which is when they eat that meal. What we call dinner is eaten around 9pm.
MOLTAS GRACIAS for accompanying me on this journey, in your hearts, wishes and thoughts I feel supported! Big Love from the Casa de Belen y Mario (14 month old angel who is the baby here).
Bread and Salt
I am sitting at the Vegetarian Indian restaurant not far from where I am staying in Gracia, Barcelona. I slept until 12:41 today and I needed it. The last few days have been very long and very intense, full and wonderful as well as a little too rushed for me. We leave tomorrow, for Marrakesh, and from the moment we landed it has been a running at full speed kind of experience. The kids especially have been put to every imaginable test and are rehearsing for their play, interacting with new families and experiences and foods while adjusting to life in an ancient and large city with thousands of people on the streets. It is about as far away from Humboldt as one can imagine. The show last night was phenomenal and I only regret that my technological acumen is shoddy and hope that between Marceau’s camera and my ipad mini I managed to capture most of the play. I have yet to see if any of it came through.
So, today, Saturday morning, which is Shabbat, no matter where I am, required a slower pace and I guess those extra hours of sleep guaranteed that. Best moments are so plentiful for me here, to put it in Rabbi Naomi Steinberg’s language: “this celebration is in the top 5,000,” a reminder that we shouldn’t rate joyful or prayerful moments. Very hard to do.
Comparing and rating are easy to fall into. Being in the moment with exactly what is going on requires something different from me. When I allow the present to flood my being and stop focusing forward or backwards, true magic occurs.
Friday afternoon, was just such a moment. I took a brief siesta on the sofa of Ahmed and Mireia before the small Shabbat I was going to observe before the show in the evening. Ahmed is the playwright of the Sheep and the Whale and together with his wife Mireia they are Jiwar a residence for artists that hosts workshops and creates home for folks to come and be creative. Their house in the center of Gracia in Catalonia was our home away from home, complete with a lovely garden courtyard. I should say that the whole endeavor wouldn’t work without the help and support of Mireia’s parents also, because in Spain, la familia is part of everything. So, the two small sons of Mireia and Ahmed were often there in the home or hanging with their lovely grandparents and the whole endeavor runs better because of this extended family that is not an anomaly, but the norm in this part of the world.
After my tiny siesta on their sofa, I prepared a little Shabbat moment for us on their table. It was a first Shabbat moment for them. Ahmed, my new Moroccan brother and Mireia, his Catalunian wife and my new sister. These two folks, immediately felt like my family, the nicest, warmest best folks ever. I want to be part of their family forever and hope for many years of connection to all of them. While Mireia and Ahmed were on their computers, I made myself at home in their kitchen, something I do in most homes I enter. I found some salt and located a small bowl from their china cabinet. I had brought some wine and some bread and arranged the flowers I had given them and finally I set out the candles.
I invited them to join me and unfortunately, at first, we all regretted that it was just the three of us. We wanted the kids and the grandparents there. But, as it turned out, I couldn’t get through any of the prayers without crying and there were tears in everyone’s eyes. I am not sure if this would have been the case with a fuller cast of characters. In the play that Ahmed wrote and Ethan and his classmates performed, there is a line about Europe and Morocco having had bread and salt together. This line kept playing in my mind and I reminded Ahmed of it. He said, he had never had bread and salt together like we were and that this line in his play, written over twenty years ago, came from some memory inside his being, but not from his actual having lived it. This exact moment we shared together on Shabbat eve, was the first time that his internal tribal kind of memory experience and this actual living present moment came together and made a new kind of sense. Europe, America and Morocco, Christian, Jewish and Muslim all breaking bread together with flowers, wine, salt and olive oil. The water for all of us, was our tears and the warmth flowing through our hands and hearts in hope and shared companionship.
I long for these moments in my heart all the time, with everyone. The times when barriers completely dissolve around a shared table. When the conversations, tastes and flavors of our lives all become common and precious and the feeling of family is palpable.
I hope you will all find ways to break bread and salt with anyone you encounter and especially those you imagine might be other than you. The more we sit around each others’ tables and share our lives, the smaller and more whole this aching and wounded planet becomes and the task of mending all the brokenness becomes as doable and perhaps as simple as sharing a meal.
Room with a View
The View from the terrace at the Riad Spa Luxeux Bachawya. So, this is a cemetery across the street from where I am staying in a home that is over 1500 years old and that was the home of Moroccan royalty. My first day in Morocco so full already and now I am home and resting. It is 6:16 pm my time as I write these words. I put my friend Arik Labowitz’s first CD on and I will try and put down what is in my mind and heart while I listen to his divine Hebrew and the flute of his music mate Maxine.
After taking the taxi from here to downtown Marrakech and finding Ethan and the other NPA students along with their host families at the American Language Center, I walked from there, about twenty minutes to find my Uncle BB. He was waiting for me at the McDo (McDonald’s) across from La Grande Poste. There he was looking very young for 86, thin as ever with his very large nose, the nose of my grandfather, the nose that identifies one as a Jew, even if practicing Judaism is the last thing on your mind. BB, like my father, has no interest in his Judaism. BB and I walked to his car, parked about five blocks away, an old blue chevrolet. He took me on a long drive into the mountains to get the “best tagine” in Morocco. It was very good. I do not have much to compare it to. What was the best was just being with family. My ties to family are beyond description and this is something all of us know, or should know. A feeling of complete home that emanates from the connection.
In Spain and here as well, folks are “chaleureux.” This word does not translate well, it is more than being warm, it is being hot and friendly and warm all combined. Warm, just doesn’t communicate the feeling. Everyone holds hands, hugs, kisses, and is physical. There is a palpable heat that is from connection, not just from the sun. It is so different from the colder world of the United States. I feel so at home here, I am not an anomaly here. My size, largesse of expression and behavior as well as of body is just fine. It is pretty wonderful to not feel other and of course I am other. I have a very different life that what most folks do here.
BB kept referring to himself as gatté, with an accent on that last “e”. This means spoiled. We spoke of many things and he is more like a young boy than an old man in his eyes and in his expressions. He has no children, but many friends. His wife of 40 years died not too long ago and so he speaks of her still very much. It has been many years, but she is still present for him. He told me about his piano playing, something I had no idea about. It turns out that Ethan and him will have so much more in common than just a blood tie. Ethan plays piano and tennis and has some of BB’s last child qualities, a well-taken-care-of-ness. It is a kind of ease that comes with being the last baby around. As a mother, with Ethan, everything is precious, every moment there is a sense of “this is the last time.” Perhaps this is true for all last children. I like comparing them in this place and time, even though, they are also very different.
I am going to go lie down now. Just wanted to get these few words off to those of you wondering about how I am. Tomorrow, Ethan and I will leave NPA here and go off with BB to his home in the mountains for an overnight stay with him. Every single hour here is packed with more feeling and emotion than I can possibly convey. It will take me many months to capture any of this in depth. I am grateful for the stream of consciousness style writing that flows easily for me. I am also wanting to spend time with each feeling and thought and that is something I cannot do here. Everything is on full speed ahead and I am already aware that by this time next week, I will be flying home to California.
Omar and The Bowls
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, 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.
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.
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, but she’ll keep you on edge, waiting for the next installment in her Spain and Morocco narratives.