One of the things I love about story is that it always sends us back home. Terry Tempest Williams
I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life — not someone else’s life — water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom. That is the work. The only work. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I bribe my grandkids with stories. It’s not candy or cupcakes that gets them into their carseats; it’s the stories I tell. It’s an understandable battle a toddler wages, the postponing of the restraint of a free-ranging body into a tightly-bound buckled-up space. I get it! And so I, the visiting grandma, try to breathe as deeply as possible and call upon all the patience I can muster when toddler grandkid stands up backward in the seat and refuses to budge. That’s when I say it, “I’ll tell you a story!” And then I add, “when you sit down.” Toddler grandkid hesitates, still wanting the control of being in charge. But then I add, “Well . . .” stretching out each letter with emphasis and a great puff of breath. That’s how I begin my stories. “Well. . .” And that does it; toddler grandkid, with a pirouette and a plop, is down and ready to be snapped in place. And that’s when it gets fun. I don’t know what story will rise up to the surface, what one will be a perfect match for that moment. But I do know enough to trust the process, that we contain an infinite number of stories in our inner well, and, if we’re in tune, we draw up the one that suits the situation just fine. My grandkid stories run the gamut, from childhood memories growing up on the shores and in the waters of coastal Maine, to Grandpa and Grandma adventure stories, to stories of tarantulas and rattlesnakes and scorpions. Toddler grandkid and I are both entertained by these stories, and, I don’t mind the inevitable, “Again! Again! Again!”
So, there are stories that bring us entertainment and there are stories that bring us healing, stories that inspire, stories that delight, stories that provide us with courage and insight and a blueprint forward. And if we are paying attention, if our will is aligned with the source of the well within, we can trust the story that is ready to be told. And, as I was contemplating the power of story-telling, lo and behold, a story rose to the surface, one I hadn’t thought about in years, one eager to be told in this moment. So here goes. “Well. . . ”
* * *
My husband Cam and I left home in a raging snowstorm, a decade ago, two days before the new year, suitcases carefully packed, mine with scarves and flip flops and walking shoes, a favorite skirt, yoga leggings, a sweater, all the things I would need for a week in Morocco. Our flight from the north of Michigan was delayed, making it almost certain that we would miss the connecting flight to Paris, so the local agent re-booked us on a later plane to Amsterdam, and then on to Morocco from there. We arrived in Casa Blanca the next morning, to an airport bustling with people from all over Africa, some leaving, some arriving, to a helter skelter of humanity and piles of suitcases and trunks and giant canvas bags. But alas, our suitcases were nowhere to be found in this helter skelter of confusion. So, we made a detailed report of the missing luggage and were assured that our bags would arrive on a later flight. And off we went, by taxi, south over miles of two-lane roads to the fishing village of Essaoira where we would be staying for the next six days.
Our home was an eco-boutique-hotel in the heart of the old walled medina of the city, and, there, we befriended an American, who had lived in Morocco for years. She told us that Morocco takes you in both directions, frustrates you, maybe even makes you angry, then something in the culture brings you back, humbles you, opens your heart, touches your soul. It was like that for us. We loved our time in Essaoira. It was a treasure chest of exotic, the market-souks lined with stalls of orange and curry-colored, red and yellow spices and stacks of baskets and shoes with pointy toes and scarves and hand-knit caps and piles and piles of glorious rugs, ancient streets winding this way and that and filled with everything imaginable. And there was the harbor outside of the walls, with fishing boats moored to the docks unloading the day’s catch and the grills set up along the shore cooking every sort of seafood imaginable, and the sleepy-eyed camels with loose bottom lips, and the ramparts holding the force of the whole wild Atlantic at bay, and there was the sea gulls’ cry mingling with the call to prayer. Yes, it was a treasure box of the exotic, a treasure box within a treasure box within a treasure box. And sometimes we found this frustrating, the way it was easy to lose yourself in the maze of medieval alleyways, the discomfort with bartering, the language and cultural differences that made connection challenging, and a feeling that we couldn’t quite unwrap it all, the mystery of Morocco.
And then there was the luggage, which was indeed a mystery. It didn’t arrive as assured on a later flight, nor did it arrive the next day, on New Year’s Eve. Or, the day after, which was a holiday. You have to understand — this was ten years ago, and our nest had recently emptied, and, in my early fifties, I had rediscovered an adolescent love for clothes, cute clothes, hip clothes. It’s not like I had an extensive wardrobe, but I loved every single thing I owned, everything single thing I had packed. Since then, I have traveled lightly, hiked trails for days in Europe with the few things I can squeeze into a hefty daypack. But then, that week in Morocco, I was attached. Every day, I pulled on the same brown yoga pants, the same turquoise top, draped the one scarf around my neck and tried to let go — and tried to believe the front desk people in our eco-lodge that our suitcases would surely arrive on the second day of January. And they were partially correct. With a smile and a look of wanting to please these American visitors, one of the men who had been helping us, rushed to our table at breakfast. He was holding a suitcase, one suitcase, Cam’s. Cam, who didn’t give a rip about his wardrobe, Cam who wasn’t attached to every single item in his closet, Cam, who told me later, he had been praying that if only one suitcase was to be found, please god, have it be Helen’s, he was the one who was handed a bag full of his things. And I was furious and the front desk people were upset and so wanted me to be happy and kept assuring me that my suitcase would indeed arrive. So that’s what it was like the week we were in Essaoira, a balancing act between diving full out into the wonder of it all, while trying to let go of the suitcase debacle and my obsession with clothes, while also trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of the missing bag.
On Day Five, I bought two scarves, a Moroccon tunic, a pair of earrings. The wind had picked up the night before and a squall was blowing in off the Atlantic and I wore my new tunic, the earrings, a scarf to the ramparts where Cam and I stood with the local townspeople and the fisherman watching the mighty waves pound against the wall and fly high into the air. We could taste the salt and the sea and I nearly forgot about my lack of luggage — until later in the day, that is, when we were given a tip. There was a local office of the Casa Blanca Airport, one of the men who had been helping us at our boutique hotel said. It’s a mystery why it took five days to give us this information, but we grabbed on to it and found our way through the maze of alleys and streets to a small airport office where a man who spoke perfect English gave us advice. “Leave early for the airport,” he told us. “Get back to Casa Blanca and look for the bag yourself.”
And that’s what we did. The next afternoon, we said our good-byes at the boutique hotel, and to the medina and the fishing boats and the sleepy-eyed camels and we rode by taxi back over the two-lane roads, arriving at Casa Blanca as the January sun was setting over the horizon. And this is the part of the story that I had wanted to tell you, the part that had popped into my head a few days ago — the airport part of the story. We had single focus when we entered the terminal. I stopped to talk to the agent at the desk, and Cam bee-lined to a corner of the room where suitcases were piled a mile-high. I wasn’t even finished explaining the situation to the woman behind the counter when Cam came running toward us, exclaiming in his loudest of voices, “I found it! I found it” It had been lying there in that pile just waiting for us to claim it. And this was wonderful enough, my suitcase and clothes back in my possession, but this wasn’t the highlight; this isn’t what I want to tell you.
We were so focused on our mission that we hadn’t paid attention to what was happening — the two giant planes landing on the runway, the people beginning to flock. It wasn’t until we were walking back through the terminal that we noticed the white-frocked men and women, many with gray hair, some clutching canes, streaming in by the hundreds from those two planes. Eyes were gleaming, flowers were handed out, pictures were taken. We guessed it, as I asked one of the bearded white-frocked men, “Mecca?” And he nodded happily and we smiled happily and the joy in the airport was palpable. It is a quest, a spiritual mandate, a lifetime dream to get to Mecca and these people had touched it, experienced it, and we all were feeling its power. And then Cam and I were at the doorway when we looked out and gasped. Hundreds and thousands of people, holding signs and flowers and neatly wrapped presents, were standing there in the airport parking lot, crammed next to each other, as though waiting for the a rock band to arrive. We stepped out into the nighttime air and hesitated. What were we to do, two infidels dragging a suitcase needing to get to the far end of the lot? At that moment, two men near the front, began to shout in loud voices sounding as though it might be a fight breaking out.
But it wasn’t. Instead, the crowd began to part, the hundreds and thousands of them. And there were smiles on their faces as a multitude motioned us forward, motioned us through the sea of relatives and friends waiting to reunite with their pilgrims. And the sea carried us; that’s what I want to tell you. I have never felt anything like it, this sea of pulsating love, and a kindness to allow two outsiders to not just witness, but to enter this sea. We smiled, our smiles joining the sea of smiles. And I knew, just knew then, as I swam my way through that sea, that this, this was the reason, that I had gone seven days without make-up or a change of clothes, seven days teaching myself to call my mind back from an obsession again and again. I said it out loud, my voice joining the voices in the crowd. I said it to Cam, said it to myself, said it to a sea of people. “This is why I came to Morocco!”
* * *
And that’s my story!
That’s what I say to toddler grandkid as I finish up. Sometimes I acquiesce when toddler grandkid then jumps in with the inevitable, “again.” And sometimes it is a new story that bubbles up. Today, I’m going to sit with this one, going to remember how powerful it was to enter into the treasure of love at the heart of the mystery of Morocco, to touch and be touched by such a sea of excitement and love and kindness, to remember how good it felt to know with certainty that my luggage being lost for a week was a good thing, that I wouldn’t have missed those airport and parking lot moments for all the clothes in the world.
Handmade Book by Amber Edmundson
Essaoira, Morocco, January 2008: Photographs from our journal by Cam Remien & Helen Haskell Remien