Cous cous family meals are a traditional Friday affair in Morocco, but for lack of blood relatives, Green Olive Arts invites our makeshift intellectual family. Artists and writers from the area join us at the long table where we will partake in the age-old tradition of sharing a meal. Two towering dishes of cous cous are set on the table, ringed with boiled or steamed vegetables, rich and juicy from broth, piled high atop the quartered chicken marinating below the mountain. Caramelized onions and chickpeas with a brown sauce of sugar, cinnamon, and cumin top the grains and drip with sweet molasses. I had come to learn it was not a proper Moroccan meal until there was something sweet in the dish. Bowls of a salty, fatty broth passed around the table and ladled on the sections of the cous cous we claimed as our own. There are no plates, no borders between your food and your neighbor’s food save for the dam that naturally forms between the areas carved out by the spoons. Everyone is given a traditional glass of room temperature buttermilk and encouraged to dig in.
The multi-lingual meal is best complimented by arguments over which region of Morocco makes the best cous cous. Some add cashews, some use a fattier hen as the meat. Others have acquired a taste for seasonings more exotic than the traditional cinnamon and cumin. Most of this conversation occurs in Arabic, but friendly heated dinner conversations fall into a sort of predictable pattern no matter what language is spoken. Even the Arabic-illiterate Americans at the table understand the tone and timbre of friendly competition as we all stuff our faces. Conversations sprout off and become more focused between two or three people at a time, turning to anecdotes about religious upbringings that could be sinister in a certain way, but are lighthearted at the table. The buttermilk sits heavy atop piles of food in the stomach, but it’s hard to stop eating.
The sugary chickpeas and onions melt down into a thin and pleasant caramel on the tongue. The savory chicken bathes in its own broth, collecting in pools at the very bottom of the bowl, where all the flavors concentrate. As they say, this is where you get “the mouth of the goat”—the last of the meal that has spent time collecting flavors from the rest of the ingredients. The gooey center. The good stuff. When the not-even-close-to-empty bowls are taken away and stored for leftovers, steaming pots of mint tea are poured a foot above the small glasses. Bubbles form on the surface of the liquid, the “turban” of the tea, the aim of which is to cool and aromatize the traditional drink. Mint tea is semi-sweet, like an herbal agave, and aides the digestion of the meal and the offense of the breath. Post meal, since it is 2016, everyone pulled out their phones and exchanged facebook information, promising to stay in touch. I held a conversation about the challenges of being left handed that was entirely translated, but one thing that didn’t need to be translated was the fellowship of perfect strangers.
One night, two dreams disturbed me. In one I squeezed a pimple in the mirror and the head of a larvae emerged, wiggling. I squeezed more and it started to come out of my skin and then I reached up and pulled it out. It was two feet long and plump and writhing in the sink. I kept squeezing the spot and little maggots poured from my skin without end. I was screaming and crying and disgusted with myself and the contents of my head. I woke up and that spot on my face buzzed as if still trapped in the dream.
In another, I was alone in a dark hotel room. I could hear all my friends having a party in the room above me, heard them all talking and laughing together. I got up on the bed and pounded on the ceiling to let them know I was there and I wanted to come up, but the ceiling and walls were made of stone and nobody heard me. I tried to turn on the light so I could dress and leave, but I was trapped in the dark.
I did not anticipate the settling in of intense loneliness. It was the kind of loneliness that felt like an injury from which I might never fully recover. Even as I imagined my homecoming, as I eased myself back into the lives of the people I love, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling full again. I felt an unoccupied space in my mind, closed off like the haunted room of a castle, or that my body was missing some necessary nutrient. Yet, at least my prose did not suffer. I remember getting off antidepressants years before. My body made pounding waves as it craved the drug, but as time went by, these spells decreased.
It’s amazing how a month by oneself can shine light into corners you were too afraid to peer into before. I know I was afraid, but I had nowhere to go to avoid it. I was in the Deep Zoo of my mind, my work, my fictitious world.
But then, things changed. I stopped feeling some of the more intense edges of my emotional world after I had faced them. It was as if the edges flattened as my world expanded, a light rising higher above my head to illuminate a wider space that never was a drop-off at all. Now the things I am afraid of, the circumstances that make me feel vulnerable, are refreshingly new. I found new ways to love the people in my life and new ways to make peace, in the space of my mind, with others.
Is there any greater fear–to believe you are withholding love from the ones who deserve it most? I can think of few other personal disappointments that take up so much space in the inner life. What I discovered and am trying to put into practice is something I always believed: love doesn’t have an end point, only degrees of intensity. I sometimes dream of love as a circle. Now I feel an urge to deepen the emotional aspect of my work. As my own sense of self and emotional capabilities expand, I need to discover how it fits into the writing.
If you’re looking for short stories, be patient. The stories I wrote at Green Olive Arts will be available one at a time as they are edited by myself and my expert team. They will be published chronologically to give you the sense of how the work changed from the first story (a cat steals an important watch) to the final and longest piece (a woman goes searching for her mother). The landscape and emotional ambiance of Morocco plays a role in every story, and characters are built off of traits in locals and foreigners alike. There are more women than men, more pirates than not, and more questions than answers about the consequences of love.