This blog is a personal publication and does not reflect the views or opinions of the US Peace Corps or US Government...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Musings: a Day of Peace, Quiet, and Contemplation

So finishes the most quiet and satisfying day I have yet passed in Morocco. I have either had houseguests, or been the guest of someone else, for nearly a week. I have had little to no time alone and am still in the "getting used to" phase of occupying my new home. So today was my first full day entirely by myself and it was, in my opinion, well spent.

I awoke to sunlight shafting through the ornate bars on my window, which I had left open to let in the cool night air. I stirred under the single woolen blanket that covered me and staggered to my feet, checking the time briefly on my phone. No need to dress in my own house and the morning air felt cool and gentle on my skin. I walked blearily into the kitchen, looking briefly at the pile of dishes in the sink from the spaghetti my PCV neighbor and I had made the day before, and filled the tea-kettle with water. I turned on the stove and lit it in one quick, fluid motion; I smiled, realizing how I was getting used to the Moroccan kitchen. I turned on some music, "Very Best of Sons of the Pioneers" and listened to old cowboy ballads as I poured the steaming water into a french press over several spoonfuls of French Roast that I had a received in a wonderfully thought out care package that had arrived yesterday.

I carried the press and an empty mug into my study where I checked my email briefly before settling in to read from Proverbs, my favorite book of the Bible. I also scanned my favorite Psalm, Psalm 50, which gives the most eloquent defense of Christian Environmentalism I have yet found. I think of John Muir again, as I often do these days, how he constructed an argument for biology and environmentalism, solely from biblical references, in an instant. He had been accused by a blacksmith that he was staying with of laziness and frivolity; of misusing his God-given talents and skill on something as useless as cataloging plants. His argument was this:

"You believe in the Bible do you not? Well, you know that Solomon was a strong-minded man and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great Cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.
Therefore you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I'll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to 'consider the lilies how they grow,' and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ's? Christ says, 'Consider the lilies," You say, 'Don't consider them. It isn't worth while for any strong-minded man'"1

I love that exchange, Muir was about my age when it transpired and he was walking 1000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico from the heartland near the Great Lakes. This was years before he first glimpsed the Sierra, his muse, the 'Range of Light' and yet he was still completely, well, Muir.

I finished my coffee and completed a workout; a light one to bring me back from the illness induced atrophy that I found myself in after 4 months of... 'distress'. I ate a protein bar for breakfast (also a care package gem, from a different package) and, with resignation, put on some clothing. I go out into the village for roughly 20 minutes, talking to those I know. I buy some vegetables at the 'daily souq' and pay an amazingly low price for them. I make another stop by my favorite 'hanut', or shop, and buy some essentials from Ali.

I return and look at my watch, realizing that I have only one hour of running water left in the day, so I fill my big kettle and top off a couple of black buckets in my bathroom. I do last night's dishes while I wait for the water to boil and listen to more quiet music, not thinking of anything in particular. When the kettle begins to steam, I strip back down and take it into the bathroom. I enjoy a long and much needed 'bucket bath', mixing the warm and cold water in my bucket and pouring it over myself with a plastic cup. I use the handmade soap from Kelaat M'gouna that my host sister, Nouhayla, gave me when I left Ait Gmat 2 months ago. Eventually I use all my water and towel off. I pull on a pair of linen trouser that I purchased in Rabat and go back into my study.

I pick up Desert Notes/River Notes by Barry Lopez, another of my heroes that I have already mentioned. I read for a long while my mind entirely focused on his words and the meaning behind them. I read the story of Coyote and Rattlesnake, a story I have never before heard (and I have read many Coyote Stories). This one had a great deal of depth to it, and struck a deep chord within me as I absorbed its words. One passage, in which Coyote has climbed the sacred mountain to consult the Great Spirit, is especially poignant as Coyote pours out his concerns for himself, his friend the rattlesnake, and for his beloved desert:

"Akasitah [Great Spirit], I have come here to ask you to change your mind. Below it is chaos because of the Shisa [humans]. In a while there be no place to go. I and all my friends, even the mountains, they will be taken away by the Shisa. It is said that you are wise and fair. How is it that the Shisa have come to this? Must I always be a coyote to the Shisa? Can I not be who I am? I ask you to change things. Let me walk out of the traps. Let Rattlesnake up off the ground so he can see something coming. Let these things happen or we will be no more. There will be nothing left. The Shisa will take even the desert."2

Coyotes concerns echo in my own heart and, as look out on the ravaged hills surrounding my village I realize that they are this way because humans (and their beasts) have destroyed them- they have been taken by the Shisa. But here is Akasitah's reply:

"Coyote, you see like a man with only one eye. The Shisa are like a great boulder that has broken away from the side of a mountain. The boulder makes a great noise as it comes down the side of the mountain. It tears away great chunks of earth and rock and breaks the trees like twigs, throwing up a cloud of dust against the sun and you are afraid for your life. There is no need to be afraid. It only seems this way because you have never known the world without the Shisa. You have spent your life under the boulder. I understand your fear.
Once there were no Shisa at all... Coyote: they are like a boulder fallen off a mountain. Soon they will hit the earth at the bottom of the mountain and roll out into the desert leaving a little trail in the dust. The boulder will come to a stop. You can sleep on it at night. Do not worry. Go."2

I won't expand on that much, I'll just leave it for you to digest as I did; if you're anything like me, you'll feel a vague comfort and a lessening of that sense of doom so common in our times of Climate Change and Oil Spills. Not to lessen these problems, they are terrifying and disgust me to think we, the Shisa, have anything to do about it. But the comfort comes from the feeling that we are dealing with a power and a creation so much greater than ourselves, that it will always be greater than humanity at its most powerful.

I place by bookmark with the lizard on it that reads: 'readers find heat between the covers' and open my mandolin case with a click. I select a large pick and play a clear and ringing 'Ashokan Farewell', before methodically moving through the songs that I already know and the songs that I am currently learning. I was given this mandolin by one of the men I most admire in my life, a musician, civil war reenactor, and close friend, by the name of Michael. He lives with his family in a house by a tidal creek off of Mobile Bay in South Alabama. I have spent many weeks in his home, drinking sweet tea on the screened-in porch or dangling my toes in the brackish water of the creek, dark with tannins leached from the over-arching trees.

I played until my fingers began to sting, and then a little more;I winced and look at my fingertips which were now blistered. A good practice session... I rise and begin to make lunch in the kitchen, Annie's Mac and Cheese (oh joy!) which I make in an automatic sort of way, but eat slowly,savoring it and knowing that my supply is limited. I walk out into my sitting room. Sun streams through the skylight and I lay down a mat in the center of the room.

I put on some quiet music and spend the next hour engrossed in yoga, flowing from form to form, my mind emptied of all thought save the intake and exhalation of breath, and the slow beating of my heart. I feel the sun on my back and sweat beading there, I am aware of my skin, my muscles; I feel what is tight and what is relaxed, what is weak and what is strong. I explore my senses, but keep my eyes shut, aware of only the suggestion of light from the warmth on my shoulders and the glow through my closed eyelids. I slow and stop, settling into a seated position to meditate. I concentrate and let the music flow through me. Thoughts try to surface, but sink back into the nether before they can break the surface and be realized. The music stops and I open my eyes. My brain reactivates, but slowly like a catatonic pulse; a scarcely discernible rhythm. The sweat dries on my back and shoulders as I pour a glass of sweet tea, cold and smooth, from a pitcher I had made the day before.

In my quieted state I simply stare into space, I am happy and carefree. Not the fleeting, manic (and brief) ecstasy of personal triumph, but a quiet happiness; a contentment and acceptance of myself, my circumstances, and my surroundings. No worries could be recalled and that was enough. I looked at the pictures on my kitchen wall, they are of national parks from across America, some of which I have worked, most I have not. Over my sink is a small painting of the mountains near Lake City, purchased there and sent to me as I worked on the island in North Carolina. Below the painting is a tally of the days I have spent here and a small notecard with a tiny watercolor of downtown Durango on its cover. Inside the card is a short message from my grandmother, written in her tight and beautiful cursive: "Dear love of my heart, don't forget your way home!" The date is the day I walked into the conference room in Philadelphia, confused and unaware of what lay ahead. The card arrive a couple months ago in a package from home and has occupied a place of honor ever since; it reminds me every day of my way home, as it should.

There is a blank space above my gas stove and I am going to fill it by painting a Muir quote that I have selected in black calligraphy (yes, I can). It is short, simple, and inspiring. It is one my favorite quotes:

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."1

I sip my tea and walk around my house a bit before picking up Desert Notes/River Notes and reading it until I reach the end. I read of deserts and of rivers; of dark forests, running salmon, drought and plenty, dusk and dawn. I read of a vision, a vision of being surrounded by the creatures of the wood and river who speak to the storyteller who has just saved a fish from the encroaching drought:

"Before we could ask for rain there had to be someone to do something completely selfless, with no hope of success. You went after that fish, and then at the end you were trying to dance. A person cannot be afraid of being foolish. For everything, every gesture, is sacred. Now stand up and learn this dance. It is going to rain."2

Lopez' words ring true, a person absolutely cannot be afraid of being foolish. Especially here in Peace Corps; here in the high Atlas of Morocco, the mountains that hold up the sky. If I can make myself realize that my actions are sacred, that what I do here matters, maybe I too can make it rain.

I close the finished book, and go into the kitchen to make dinner, a successful experiment that I name "Huevos Rancheros Stew". I eat a bowl and I go pull on my clothes. I pick up a notepad and a pen, with a couple letters to answer, and head to the nearest Cafe. My host father is there and we speak, both in English and Tam, laugh, and drink mint tea as the sunset fades into gloaming and dark clouds growl on the horizon promising rain.

I think back on the day, of what I have learned and what I have felt; I feel more whole from today. I feel that I touched something greater and feel a sweeping humility that perhaps heralds the beginnings of wisdom. I will not worry, what I am doing here is right, it matters and is sacred; I will not fear being foolish, because perhaps even my uncoordinated dance could someday bring the rain...

Thanks for reading,


1: The Wilderness World of John Muir, edited by Edwin Way Teale
2:Desert Notes/River Notes, by Barry Lopez