First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

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Morocco: Daily Life

There was a nest of birds outside the kitchen window. I heard the little ones peeping, their cries rising in urgency when one of the children in the yard climbed the ladder to prod them with a finger. From my terrace apartment, I could hear the mother shouting to her children. They responded with a shriek: “LA!” they said, the Derija word for “no.” It came from the house with come frequency. The mother would call again. Something wooden would clatter on the concrete floor of the back area where the laundry was hanging to dry. I did my laundry too and dried my clothes on the rack outside, but everything came out stiff. Those children were monsters. Like other children in Morocco, a designated bedtime was not on their schedule. I heard them up and screaming at all hours, harassing the swift nest. I saw bird cages around Tétouan, holding the sad animals with featherless heads and thin wings. Stressed birds are ugly birds.

Evenings were otherwise pleasant on the terrace. My apartment was small but the view spectacular. I brought a chair and sketchbook outside and drew the tops of buildings around me. Seagulls cried and swifts bounced through the air. Once in a while, the sky grew quiet as a single crane went gliding by, backlit by vermillion clouds. The street below livened in the evenings. I grew familiar with the distinct calls and voices of each vendor competing for the most airtime. A river of locals pushed through the street and in and out of the medina. A few times I braved the crowd on my own, but the speed and urgency of the shoppers (people who actually had a purpose in being in the busy market) overwhelmed me.

At the busiest hour, I was invited by another resident to wander around and we wove like bees around the maze of the medina. Actual bees were trapped under film-wrapped sugary pastries. Everything in Morocco is dipped in honey and rolled in nuts or seeds, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. I do have cravings for heat, but I never encountered a decent hot sauce. I ate olives everyday and never got sick of it.

The vendor outside the studio has peddled several different kinds of fruit, from peaches to cantaloupes, onions and strawberries. I became most familiar with the sounds from the vendors below the studio, who started their days closer to noon, allowing me a few morning hours of relative peace. One young man’s aggressive calls boomed above the others, cutting through their words with his important message. The weird thing was, the vendor shouted (what sounded like) the exact same phrase over and over since I arrived. I thought he was calling out the price of peaches, but then the food changed to apples and the calls were the same. I looked down over my balcony and try to make out what on earth he was saying. My best guess was he was calling out price by kilo, which apparently never changes (at least not to my untrained ears). After deciding this was right, I peered over the rail the next day, only to see the man leaning over a cart of watermelons.

When the voices of the street vendors don’t drown it out, taxis honk and screech along the other road. There seemed to be a custom of holding down the horn for as long as one can to get someone to move. No gentle taps here on this side of Tétouan. Sometimes, although it was rare, I heard cats meowing or fighting with each other. Most of the cats were pregnant, nursing, or leading a parade of kittens down the sidewalk. In the evening, everything gets loud. The birds screech overhead, cutting the sky with their pointed wings, sharp like the edge of an arrow. The streets fill with vendors, raising their voices over one another in competition. Cocky students leaving the language school for the day enter the crowd walking abreast. Men came in from the desert and spread out blankets in the square. They had very black skin and wore deep blue—lapis lazuli blue—robes. They brought objects from the edge of the Sahara into town, statues of men and animals beside huge neck pieces with rough stones.

The tortoise shell cat had her babies outside of my studio. She was so pregnant, and the day before she had the kittens, I saw her lounging in a doorway, the pink nipples on her fat belly poked out toward the street. When I returned to studio from the medina one night, the man who sold fruit under my studio handed me a newborn kitten, a little orange one with tiny flaps for ears and eyes that were not open. It didn’t make noise, but searched for a nipple as I held her. Her mouth was hardly anything more than a little hole for sucking. She fit right in the palm of my hand.

At the end of my time in Morocco, I wanted to cast even my beloved jeans into the ocean. They made my flea bites itch and I still wasn’t allowed to wear shorts. I wanted to shred the long, sensible dresses I thrifted from Kansas City and change into a crop top. It was hard to tell if I was gaining weight or losing it. The Moroccan diet is a strange one. I reminded myself it would be easier to eat well in Spain, where I wouldn’t have to sterilize my fresh foods, or watch out where it came from. I frequently saw greens on the street, on pieces of cloth, as the man from the shop next door swept particles of dirt from the street landing on the dark leaves. My heart sank a little each time. I went to get ice cream on the corner by the plaza. The girl had a spot of chocolate on the back of her hand. She lifted it to her mouth and licked it off, flashing her braces, before diving back in to scoop my order. It was uncomfortable, but I knew I couldn’t be too squeamish. I also couldn’t be too careful, as I’ve been sick abroad before. I took a risk and ate my ice cream anyway.

Morocco: Food and Dreams

IMG_3813Cous 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.

____________________

Dear readers,

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.

Morocco: Getting There

I purchased a train ticket in Casablanca during my 14-hour layover and waited in the long dank tunnel with few other passengers. Birds, misplaced, or on their own purposeful visit chirped in the wooden beams above the rails. I wondered if, like the birds, I had flown into a new place and became disoriented by all the newness of it all. I stood on the tiled platform and waited in a humid silence for the train to roll up to the airport. Doors opened and then I was being whisked away in a flood of strangers, chattering and rolling baggage along the hall so quickly, the wheels on their bags over tile like rattlesnakes being shaken awake. The bags I carried carved their marks in my skin, making indentations in my neck and shoulders. A moment with the weight removed brought about a swift and stubborn stiffness in my upper body. My lower back felt compressed and sunken under the weight. At the airport in New York, I was told my bag would make it to Tangier and I would retrieve it there, but I had no idea where it could be now. What was the bag limbo of this long layover? Did it sit behind a desk until the plane loaded? Did it sit outside in the brief rain on a canvas cart? Was it revolving lonesome around an empty carousel waiting for my return? I supposed I would find out soon enough.

My next destination was Tangier. Then, in another two days a car would arrive from Tétouan to take me to my final stop, Green Olive Arts. The hunt for a residency began early the previous year when I decided to postpone graduate school applications and hone my skills by the determination of my own instruction. I was denied entrance to every colony until November, when Green Olive Arts, the residency in Morocco I applied to on impulse, contacted me to schedule an interview. I was accepted within the week and used the next five months to organize and prepare for May, the month I committed to set aside to write and travel. On principle, I don’t apply to residencies that charge a fee to their artists, but since it was the first one I had been accepted to, and would scratch the itch for exploration I had been putting off for years, I couldn’t find an appropriate reason to turn it down. I crowd-funded, organized a public fundraiser, wrote grants, and eventually raised all the funds I needed to travel to and pay my way through the residency program. Support came from everywhere, and although I began planning my journey with strategies in place to overcome the obstacles I anticipated, few presented themselves. I was funded, well-researched, and had a clear and unstoppable vision for what my month of creative output would look like.

On a whim in Casablanca, I followed a young man through the steady stream of rails and markets, lit by tempered sun from a cloud speckled sky. Our introduction happened in a small courtyard, palm trees with dead fronds like long unwashed hair stood sentry for the kids kicking soccer balls around. I had gotten off the train at a stop that looked somewhat metropolitan, and was slouched on a park bench no doubt looking dazed and bewildered. A young man sat at the other end and after a while asked me if I spoke French.

“English,” I said.

And to this, his response was: “Do you like ‘Game of Thrones?’” We quickly discovered a commonality between us and he offered to show me around the part of Casablanca I had accidentally happened upon. We drank kiwi juice, warm from the fruit stands, and rode the ambling light rail to a place with espresso where we could sit with our backs to the shop and people watch. After 20 hours of traveling, sitting knotted in uncomfortable chairs, I propped up my feet in a savory moment of total relaxation and drank in the new scenery. When the waiter came by with our coffees he tapped my feet off the chair I was using as a prop. He muttered something to my friend in Arabic, which he then translated to me: “I’m sure it’s normal in their culture.” My legs tangled back into the familiar crossed position and denied me a little longer the ease of rest after cramped and consistent traveling. Soufiane and I exchanged facebook information, because that’s what you do these days, and when the afternoon was coming to a close I re-boarded my train and rode to the airport.

My mind began to fade on the return train. I dozed with my head against the shivering window and found I had no control over my thoughts that threatened to mutate into dreams while my eyes could still be forced open. My bowels were full and tight, responding to every scrape on the tracks underneath as if they would burst like the skin of a plump sausage. I was out of it when the ticketing agent came through. I handed him the ticket for him to punch and waited for him to leave me alone.

“What is this?” At least I recognized those words in French. He flipped around the stub of my last airplane boarding pass, a similar size and shape as the train ticket he had asked for, but wrong for the journey. I dug out the correct document and he punched it impatiently. The man across the aisle looked at me through my thin and pitiful fog. The airport where I was to spend the rest of my long layover had loose rules about lines and customs. My second time going through gates, I flashed my passport and smiled as an apology when met with a question in French. It felt like an old acquired habit. Poorly designated or vague numbers on my boarding pass led me through the twisting rope of terminal one, only so I could be angrily denied access by a man who shouted in English, as if it were a swear, “Terminal two!” He leaned forward into my face, his outstretched hand wagging my passport like an object of scorn. More stairs and lanes, questions from me in English and answers from others in French finally led me to the correct gate. As I approached the lagging conveyor belt that represented Moroccan security, the two guards observed me with little interest and resumed their conversation. Fearing I was, again, predictably, in the wrong place, I waved my boarding pass and stepped through the scanner. One guard glanced at the time of my departure, still many hours away, then up at the pathetic wasted traveler with bad breath and snarled hair that I had become. “You know once you are in, you cannot leave,” he delivered in dry but passable English.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, neglecting to use bottled water instead of tap water because I had not exchanged any money and could not purchase any. I tried to make myself comfortable in the airport chairs. Once or twice I fell into a strange and disrupted sleep, waking up to cloaked men and covered women staring across the room at my still obvious otherness.

After six hours, a man started screaming in Arabic amidst the flashing lights of the transport van outside the airport window. For a moment, everyone in the airport—or at least everyone who could not understand the man’s words, tensed up as if ready to act. I sat helplessly with my crumpled New Yorker and too much weight in my bags, not exactly ready to turn over the chain of cold steel chairs as a barrack if something unspeakable happened. His voice and anger escalated. Would-be passengers to Marrakech, Rabat, and Chefchaouen stiffened and took a step back toward security. Whispers rang through the room and I strained without avail to understand the foreign words. Three uniformed men in badges and flat hats moved in a brisk walk toward the angry intervener. This is not an American airport, I remembered, and for better or for worse this type of outburst was probably not uncommon to witness. An airport, especially one so far away from every custom and language and person you have ever known, is not a good place for surprises. My nerves settled when I overheard a peppery haired man on a different link of chairs at my gate say to his neighbor, “missed his plane.” Missed a plane. Only missed a plane.

I have been on two other planes in my life that match the size of the plane I rode from Casablanca to Tangier. When it was time to board, we all scuttled from the gate aboard a bus that wheeled us across the tarmac to the pint-sized aircraft that waited with stairs unfolded. Our time in the air was brief and noisy, the engines and propellers making a racket in the sky as we passed over midnight and into the next day. I put my head on the tray table and had bursts of vivid and unsettling dreams, images that had been denied the two consecutive nights I had gone without sleep. When I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t even turn on the light before I hit the pillow and slept straight on through the next twelve hours.

Thoughts on Loneliness

aloneOne evening I realized I had gone the whole day without speaking more than a dozen words—a mix of English, Spanish, and Derija. Think of twelve words, a twelve word sentence. Think of a going a day using only twelve words, or a week, or a month.

I was not entirely prepared for all the loneliness I feel here.

If you think you can handle being alone, go traveling by yourself.

I didn’t think it was weird to spend more time than usual in the mirror until I realized I was trying to fill a certain degree of loneliness, unconsciously using my reflection as my own company. Disgusted, for two days I couldn’t look in the mirror.

I felt the same as I did last month when I realized I had obsessively worried a bald spot onto my scalp. Living in the mind does this.

In my daily life back home, I spend a good deal of time by myself during the day. I wake up, make coffee, look out the window, and start to write. This routine suits me and my work. It helps me focus and settle comfortably into the contents of my head. I like being by myself and solving the minor problems I create. I have a harmless practice of diving as deep as I can into certain pools of emotion then resurfacing for air, writing it down, and going in again. As long as I don’t have to spend every waking minute deep in the parts of my brain I access to write, I am a functioning human. Creative people know there are places in the mind that need to be tapped into in order to produce meaningful or interesting work, and it takes practice to be comfortable with these places in ourselves, because we are conditioned to believe they are socially unacceptable. You learn how mixing creative waters with social waters can upset a civic balance. Get in, get work done, and get out. Without an exit from these ‘pools’, the mind can take an unexpected turn.

The residents I was hanging out with before have been gone for a week, taking my social life with them. Tétouan is a male dominated town. Women aren’t allowed to socialize in the ways men are. It is not socially acceptable for a woman to sit at a café by herself, or even be alone on the street. She is accompanied by a man, her children, or other women. I hardly see them alone. When I walk around I feel a little unsafe, especially as the light fades. I’ve been followed, grabbed, harassed, and watched suspiciously as I unlocked the door to my apartment by a man or group of men lingering by the entrance. It’s sad how women learn to acclimate to this, to experience isolation on a social and personal level and then be expected to adapt, move on, and burden no one.

To relieve myself at home, I take evenings off to bike around, hang out with one person or a few people, relax my mind with company and exercise. Even going to a job in the evening helps my mind take a break from the creative problems of the day. I think, up until now, I underestimated how important those breaks have been for me. I often declare boldly and confidently “I love to be alone.” I’m realizing now, yes, I still love to be alone, but I need a balance to keep me productive. Here in Morocco, I don’t know anyone, I don’t speak more than three words of the language (yes, no, thank you) and finding a healthy release from being enmeshed in my brain all day is more difficult than I anticipated. My day here looks different from my days back home. I get up, walk to studio, lock myself in my room, emerge for a light lunch, and at the end of the day walk back to my apartment to sleep. Between these movements, I write, read, and try to come to terms with myself, and then there is nothing to distract me from my own intensity.

What I’ve come to realize about myself and my creativity is that without social anchors to my routine, I start to unravel a little. The brain changes when we’re alone, and it changes more drastically when we are lonely. I chose to roll the dice this year and do things I know I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m in a strange country by myself. I tentatively left my job with no back up plan. I lifted some blocks and created others. I am consciously choosing uncertainty over familiarity. A lot of this is coming down at once here in Morocco. I am trying to connect what I know on an intellectual level to what I feel on an emotional level and apply it to my work. I have had one downright howling emotional breakdown that accumulated from a series of minor punctures I tried to ignore. My work is changing. My immunity to solitude is being strengthened. Maybe with a little more distance, these things will seem minor. But here in the depths of the experience, even the smallest changes feel titanic, as if I am operating on a cellular level. A new condition of being embryonic.

Emotional distance is crucial to writing effective prose, otherwise it sounds precious and self-absorbed. One day all these intense highs and lows will find a way into my writing, and by that time, I will try not to forget what it took to get there.

Uncensored honesty is a growing importance in my life. The dark places in the mind reveal more slowly for a reason. We keep secrets from ourselves until we’re ready to face the truths, and that makes for a greater depth in creative work. I read Blake Morrison last night. He divides people into emotional and psychological terms: those who have lost a parent and those who have not. I think creativity can be divided into those who have accepted who they are and those who have not. Unlike death, a linear condition, self-awareness is a circle and involves a series of smaller deaths. We’re never finished discovering who we really are, because we accumulate experience, love, people, degrees of sadness. It takes a certain amount of loneliness to unveil new dimensions—not just in our personalities—but in our capacity to feel and understand. You don’t really know who you are until you have: a. lost part of yourself and b. gotten time to know yourself. I have found two things to be the biggest contributors to this kind of death: isolation and heartbreak. (In 2011, I experienced both at once, and it changed me on an elemental level.) Parts of us don’t really disappear. They evolve.

My final thoughts are to try it. Destroy your notion of comfort and your grip on yourself. Sink into your mind and your work. Be the deep sea diver of your own emotions. If you wait for life to decide loneliness for you, you will be completely unprepared.

Markets

The comfort and hospitality of El Reducto seems far from the chaotic medina that streams like an artery at the end of the pathway. Anything becomes possible under the colored tarps strung between buildings that provide a spectrum of shade for the vendors, the colored light broken only in the places where the evening sun slips through. For once it is not raining, so the markets are crowded and busy with families and gangs of youth, pulsating with unspent energy. Bags of grains, bouquets of verdures mint, baskets of brown chicken eggs give way to dazzling shops of steel teapots and crystalline chandeliers crammed so close, the shop itself becomes a faceted diamond. Plucked, dead chickens hang by their feet, the last of the blood dripping from their necks into the walkway. The fluid trickles to the center gutter to join the guts of fresh sardines, and juice from the womb of a cat that has just given birth. Goat heads smile up in a row, unblinking at strings of green peppers that twirl in the wind. Pleasant aromas of cinnamon and cumin in large open sacks are disrupted by rotting vegetables and fresh animal death. Wafts of leather from the tannery vats choke in my throat as I wend by the entrance, where men stand up to their knees in the pungent chemicals. My hand goes out instinctively to a kitten perched on the edge of a vendors table and it lets me pet its soft, scabby head. The air chills around carts of fish on mounds of ice. A little boy waits with his father as the vendor packs the silvery morsels into a bag, and as they wait, the father rests his hand on the child’s head, who is level with the dozens of eyes that gape back. Labyrinthine alleys appear between shops as if summoned, leading to another pandemonium, or down a residential path that is empty and shadowed, somehow forbidden to the casual wanderer. The scent of these medina’s is not for the faint hearted. It is a place where anything can happen, where the cycles of life, death, and commerce come together in a beautiful and intimidating disorder that tries, turn after turn, to knock you over with something new.

If I am being heckled by the young men as I walk the streets of Tetouan alone, I’m lucky I don’t understand the language. To them I am a blonde American, and judging from the TV shows I receive, dubbed over in Arabic, German, French, and Spanish (but never English) their views of American women are about as limited as my views of Moroccan men. Certain signs of heckling are universal: stares, kissing noises, mutterings in the direction of my ear as I walk by. But most of the words in my environment carry no meaning in my uni-lingual mind. It’s rather peaceful to tune out something that bothers me because my ignorance shields me from offense. That never happens in the States—I’m a vocal and aggressive anti-catcaller. In my other proceedings with the locals, I can coast by on a little Spanish—although Mexican Spanish is different from Spanish Spanish—but most of my transactions, such as buying bags of salty olives or a tuna sandwich, are completed with a combination of gestures, self-confidence, and trust in the vendors. If I have been taken advantage of yet, I don’t know it. It is possible, but it seems smiles and pleasant openness will get one far even when there is a language gap. I buy a grouping of garlic pulled fresh out of the mountain farms, a bag of green and purple olives, and a papaya that smells like the air did in Cameroon.

I turn around and make my way back through the uproarious market, remembering to turn at the third pen of live hens clucking behind the butcher. The street signs are in Arabic, and a wrong turn down one of the other alleys would make return from the unknown difficult in the dwindling light. I pass the familiar landmarks, not willing to get lost in the maze of hidden doors and whispered prayers as the sun goes down and the young men begin to travel in bigger packs. I return to my apartment and watch the events unfold from my balcony. Not much changes, except a group of children kick around a tennis ball outside the guarded palace gates, a young man leads an old blind man through the crowds, and I see more clearly the depth and magnificence of the Rif mountains, now that the rain has ended, framed by fine pink clouds as the sun goes down.

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The tannery behind the medina

The Refuge

Green shutters in my large studio open to a small balcony, where I can lean out from my post on the second story and watch the traffic of the fruit markets below. The Rif can be seen from anywhere in the city, but looking straight down the street from my studio, I have a particularly alluring view of the grey tops, often (this week) pointing to the undersides of heavy rain clouds. I can get work done here, wasting a minimal amount of time on worrying about things that would take up my head space back home. New work is flowing out of me, not yet great but not too bad. Being a writer is a day-by-day struggle against ‘I’m brilliant!’ and ‘I’m a fraud!’ I’m lucky if I can keep myself somewhere between. I was sick yesterday with a bad stomach, maybe from a peach or a batch of coffee, but two charcoal pills and a banana eased my discomfort. A forceful exhale at the state of one story or another produced a cloud of black ash from my nostrils that dusted the wood of my desk. I looked down at the soot, perplexed. Charcoal.

El Reducto is our own private refuge. Located in the same alley I stay in, a constant trickle of grey water runs down the middle of the walkway, cutting the road in two small paths. Occasional recessed door frames provide shelter to crowd into, with covered women and men who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, when the sudden rains appear. El Reducto is run by the Spanish woman and has a fine selection of wines on the menu. The other writers and I find a booth, lined with decadent red velvet and plush pillows, smelling faintly of sweet cigarettes. We are set with olives, walnuts, and golden raisins on the table. Mustapha brings us a bottle of wine. His English is good but his wine knowledge is dismissed with a passive shrug. He has the necessary beard and glasses combination of a young philosopher, wears collared shirts under dark sweaters pushed up his elbows to complete the impression. Even when I have my hair down past my shoulders and my cheeks are flushed from the wine—signs of a loose woman in this pious town—he is kind and respectful, responding to my zeal for a good Cab with timid English colloquialisms, fingers working the heavy coins of my payment. I am minimally in love with Mustapha, but only in the trivial way a hopeless romantic is with everyone she meets. Outside the ornate door and colored glass of El Reducto, three cats sleep on the entrance rug, waiting for calamari scraps while their fresh fighting wounds dry slowly in the damp air. Presently, there are three of us here at Green Olive, all writers. I am younger by thirty years but I talk the same stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Oates and Joyce, and indulge for hours in conversations about literature I rarely have the chance to do back home. It’s ok to tune me out, because those who are closest to me know I could talk about writing forever.

If you know me, you know how I forget my body. I forget to eat, I forget what I’m wearing, I look at people or things and don’t register who or what they are (I have been told I do this, which perturbs my friends). I pay little attention to my physical needs, because they fade behind my thoughts. I forget people can see me. This is not out of any desire to self harm, or a depressive existence which consumes my routine, but a genuine and extreme case of living deep inside my own head. I feel refreshed and stimulated by these nightly conversations, once the three of us have emerged from our separate cocoons of productivity, greasy-faced and slow as we return to the foreign world of ‘other people’. I crave exchanges which make me feel I am outside my body and her physical burdens, and I can live floating in the world of the inquisitive and self-direction of the mind. What is different here is that I am joined by like-minded individuals. There is no gossip. We don’t know anyone to gossip about. As I recline in the luxurious booth, face heating up and wine dwindling in the tinted bottle, soft Moroccan music plays above us and smoke drifts into our corner from the other room. The decorative tiles and rugs soften with the buzz, subduing crimson, gold, and cerulean into the natural background. Mustapha smiles into his phone, tapping the screen as he sits behind the register, his face above the invasive light that remains on when all other power cuts out. Our conversations barely pause: “…and when the fifth child arrives, the tone flips the narration on its head and—oh!—transforms the home into a prison.” Now we sit in the dark as Ruth and Mustapha fret in Spanish over the fussy breaker. Lights pop back on, and, after a few seconds, off again. This continues for a while, the soft music returning and fading into silence over and over as the owner adjusts the switch. Light returns. The wine is almost gone.

“Well, shall we?” the writers ask, wrapping scarves around their necks to leave. I know it’s time to go back to the apartment, before the streets are taken over by the marriage processions that cause an uproar before Ramadan. I know it’s time to go, but what I want to say is no, gracias, dejarme aqui, in my own fortified refuge.

Greetings from Tetouan

I left Kansas City the morning of May 5th for New York City, and began what I considered a long span of trading glimpses of multiple cities over the next several days. Plane to La Guardia, bus to JFK, plane to Casablanca, train into Casablanca, light rail through the city, propeller plane to Tangier, run across the tarmac, taxi to hotel, car to Tetouan. I ride a boat across the Strait of Gibraltar next month. All I need to complete the list of transportation methods is a bicycle and a horse. Or maybe a camel.

I’m here in Tetouan today at my new studio, with green shutters and glass windows that look over at the market on the street below. I work on a wide desk in the rays of sunlight. I can stand on the small balcony and look down the narrow streets of the village, white buildings rising into the sky on my left, homes dotting the looming grey mountains on my right. The air is damp and cool this morning from the rain the night before. Brown puddles of water gather in the dips of the stone roads, providing the one-eyed cats with something to drink.

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My writing desk

My apartment is two blocks from the studios, just outside the palace of the Moroccan king. Ruth, a warm Spanish woman who runs a cozy traditional restaurant up the street (with modestly priced red wine from her home country) handed me a key to the apartment and apologized, in partial English, for the door that leaked when it rained. Up three flights of spiraling triangular steps, a door opens to the petit penthouse, equipped with a bed, a small bathroom, and a balcony that offers another marvelous view of the town and mountains beyond. During my unpacking, a sound filled the air, a mournful wail that echoed off the flat white buildings. I knelt on the floor, removing things from my suitcase, and the long chanting calls inflated outside my open door, calling the town to prayer. I stood, amazed at the reach of the voice, its ability to penetrate my body and lure me outside. Standing on the balcony, I was gripped by the power of the call, the sound like a song of tired bulls under a swarm of black flies. I was shaken, rocked from a place in myself I never visited. Seagulls cry in hysterical laughs from the edge of the Mediterranean sea, the same as in my home town, making the sounds I associate with a harbor. Milwaukee, Homer, Astoria, Tetouan. The seagull call is a reliable gate to wistfulness.

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From my apartment balcony

Forgive my overly romantic descriptions of Tetouan (sorry WTF). I am overwhelmed with the scenery and power of the town. I am inspired and eager to write, to produce, to learn from the atmosphere. This excitement will settle back into my style, or change it entirely. You don’t really know what you’re going to get when you leave your comfort zone in pursuit of something meaningful. Sometimes it’s what you expect, but mostly you get to be surprised. Stay updated (subscribe, facebook friend, follow on twitter, etc) with the events of this month as I write and travel around Morocco.

Community Supported, Globally Driven

Fantastic news–ArtsKC approved my Inspiration Grant for the amount of $1,200 to help pay my way to Green Olive Arts. This amount will cover my studio fees, traveler insurance, and part of my housing budget. ArtsKC sent me their synopsis of the project based on the information I provided. I think it nicely sums up a challenging and ambitious project into a few sentences:

Annie Raab ($1,200)
Author and critic Annie Raab will use this Inspiration Grant to participate in a month long residency at Green Olive Arts in Tétouan, Morocco, in May 2016. During the time, she will concentrate on her short fiction, which focuses on the lives of Arab women through a lens of feminism and equality, dismantling the notion that Arab and Muslim women are homogenous, flightless birds with little to contribute. Upon returning to Kansas City, Annie will read the prose written at the residency at a public event and hold a connective discussion on how fiction plays an important role in the global feminist discourse.

When I talk about the project among friends, in front of an audience, or privately, you might hear a similar excerpted version of this description. I have a lot of busy ideas swarming around my head all the time, it’s helpful to have a launch pad like this to begin describing my plan. I want to add that short fiction is a unique vehicle for building empathy, as reading is a deeply personal experience. The right prose can penetrate much deeper than extensive non-fiction.

With the grant in mind, the $311 raised at the fundraiser, and all the generous donations from my friends and family, I’m over halfway to my final goal!

ArtsKCSupported

Fundraising is a mixed bag

My Go Fund Me campaign is live! You’ll notice it shows how many days the project has been active, but I had not been sharing it that entire time. Here’s why:

I’ve always had trouble asking for money. Even when it was expected of me, like when I had to name my babysitting rates at age thirteen. I’ve always felt weird about raises, bonuses, free rides, and simple generosity. I lowball myself because I like working, I like a job well done, and I like having the satisfaction of completing a task by myself.

Breaking this lifelong habit, even for a project I believe in, is difficult. Anyone who has worked since they were thirteen for five bucks an hour can relate to the pride that comes with being self-sufficient. Suddenly, with an opportunity to incorporate the lives of women into my fiction at Green Olive Arts, I realize I need to make some adjustments to my stubborn nature. Fundraising takes self awareness.

Fundraising for an organization is very different than fundraising for yourself. If you do it for a company, you know how much confidence you need to have in order to attract donors. You know it takes a lot of trying and failing, but things work out in the end. You have experience relating the glowing, positive, absolutely outstanding traits of the organization to potential donors, and you get good at this with practice. Then, when it comes time to raise your own money for your own projects which you have committed yourself to–emotionally and spiritually–you freeze.

Fundraising means sharing your enthusiasm. I recently got to talk about the residency and project with Maria Vasquez Boyd of 90.1 KKFI. Here’s the interview on ArtSpeak radio. Fundraising means taking the reigns in your own hands and organizing public events. Fundraising means asking your community to believe in the work you are doing before they see results.

When I ask for your support to help me get the most out of my month at Green Olive Arts, I am asking you to share your confidence with me. Knowing that I have such a vast network of support around me makes me certain I am not asking for a hand-out, but a critical chance to launch myself into a project that will change my life. I believe the work I do is important, and your donation makes this belief a reality. I believe I can contribute to the world and change it. I believe in the power of fiction.