20/20

A few weeks ago, I had surgery to correct my vision. For the last few weeks since, I have been forced into a very uncharacteristic period of rest.

As you can imagine, my eyes were sensitive and tired for a few days following the procedure; even the dimmest kitchen light still stung and my eyes strained to bring the blurry world into focus. My vision improved quickly, but daily headaches halted my plans to read, use my computer, watch TV and even work out as my new eyes tried to heal themselves. The rest my eyes required left me restless for days, with nothing but the colorful visions of my own imagination to paint the world around me.

In the darkness and stillness of my recovery, I learned a little more about seeing. This verse from 1 Corinthians came crystal-clear into my mind, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (13:12).

As I peeked through tired eyes at my fuzzy surroundings, the thought of seeing dimly spoke to me.

My eye surgery was but a parable for my life right now. Graduation and job hunting has left me in a season of uncertainty, my vision of the future hazy and unclear. I cannot see the future God is forming beyond my line of vision.

Really, we’re all a little blind. Our eyes can only perceive the tangible, the obvious. And even then, the eyes are often deceiving. Yet we know there is so much more, a complex universe that exists below the surface of all we see. Our vantage points are highly subjective, and entirely oblivious to some of the most amazing things happening at this very moment.

Because we are not God. We cannot understand everything, cannot see the threads that bind us all together in one elaborate, beautiful mess. Even our own lives, the ones we think that we know best, are only being viewed through a mirror dimly.

This could be disheartening, but Paul doesn’t stop there. He adds that we will someday know all. We will understand the reasons behind some of our most difficult trials, know the answers to every challenging question we ponder.

As our God works behind the scenes, we enjoy the roles that we play without ever fully seeing the whole picture. Our actions could have repercussions so far-reaching we will never see where the ripples land. And that could be an incredibly scary thought, or it could be a humbling one. We cannot fathom the importance of our own lives until we release the idea that it is our own life at all, but by losing sight of self, we gain a greater view of the entire production.

My life right now is more unknown than usual. I do not know where I will be in a month or two or three. I am in the darkness, but there I cling to God’s low, steady voice leading me into the light. I cannot yet see what God is doing with me in this season– the seeds He is planting or the harvest He’s reaping. Though if I squint, I think I can make out the shadows of lessons in patience, in trust, in rest.

For now, that is enough. Until my vision is perfected, I will view the world through lenses of faith.

Even when my eyes can’t see 
I will trust the voice that speaks…

from “Peace Be Still,” Lauren Daigle (listen here) or check out her album on Amazon below!

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From Mess to Masterpiece

Here’s the last post in my miniseries inspired by the wheel-throwing ceramics course I’m taking this semester! Read my first post here. 


I’ll let you in on a little secret about pottery: You never know how a piece is going to turn out. The uncertainty of the craft is enough to deter the obsessive-compulsive and to entice the free-spirited. If you approach the wheel with visions of precision and perfection, you may as well leave before you ever get your hands dirty. Pottery is not for you.

If you’re going to try wheel-throwing, you must forget your cookie-cutter ideas and your Pinterest inspirations– this is not IKEA.  Your work will be flawed, a little off-kilter with patches of unevenness, smudged with the maker’s mark. Your flawless form will get bruised and beaten as it passes the numerous steps from the wheel to the kiln to your hands. The final product is rarely the one you envisioned in your head, but sometimes the results can surprise you.

For a recovering perfectionist like myself, releasing control over the outcome was by far the most challenging lesson to learn. There are days when my most prized projects have been ruined over silly little mistakes– forgetfulness or clumsiness or both. On the days that my hands work seamlessly with the wheel, I manage to shape the clay into some pretty cool forms. But then I bump it with my clumsy fingers or someone knocks it over as it’s drying on the shelf and I am reminded of the futility of beauty.

As luck would have it, the only kiln explosion to date damaged a handful of pieces– all of them mine, including my favorites and most of them gifts created with care for family and friends. ‘Twas a sad day in the studio.

This craft is frustrating.

Life can be pretty frustrating too. As we’re tossed and mishandled through the stages, none of us makes it out without a few scars. We’re flawed, not one of us exactly like the other. But each of these imperfections are just the fingerprints of our Creator– the Potter, leaving His little marks on His masterpieces.

And masterpieces we are. Even in times of trial, in the middle of the messes we’ve made for ourselves, His work is still being done. He continues to refine and transform us with every season. The clay is transformed with every stage: wet, dark brown to dry, dusty ash, then fired a vibrant orange and, finally, covered in a mosaic of our own creation. Each step in the process reveals something new– sometimes even unexpected.

Our lives can be like that too, if we let them. Every season is its own fire, used to refine us through hardships and changes and blessings and joy. We, like the clay, are never the same, but unlike the clay, that work is never finished in us. God promises constant care and endless growth opportunities for Christians.

See, I adoing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? [Isaiah 43:19]

There is a sense of peace in realizing that we are the clay, not the potter. We don’t always have the power to control– in fact, we rarely do. Yet often we live as if we’re the ones who need to do the shaping and forming of all the little details in life. We stress like it’s our job, when in reality, our only job is to be still. To allow ourselves to be molded.

The clay doesn’t know what it will be made into. It can’t comprehend the beauty that lies in store for its destiny. But the potter does know. He knows how to shape and mold the clay into a new form, something unimaginably beautiful compared to the gob of nothingness out of which it came. The clay is at the mercy of the Potter’s hands just as we rely on God to guide us into His chosen form.

Life will put its pressures on us. It will surely bump and bruise us along the way. To think that God is making beauty out of the most difficult trials, out of the biggest messes– that is hard to believe. But He declares that He is “making all things new,” and that includes you and me.

What patience God has with us, seeing us through from beginning to end. From mess to masterpiece.

[2  Corinthians 4:7-10]  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

Centered

Here’s the second installment of my miniseries inspired by the wheel-throwing ceramics course I’m taking this semester! Read my first post here. 


The first step in the wheel-throwing process is also the most frustrating. Centering is exactly what it sounds like– the act of wrestling the uneven gob of clay into a smooth, uniform mound from which you can begin your work.

I use the term wrestling purposefully; guiding the clay into shape is much harder than it sounds, and I still somewhat dread the task at the beginning of each project. There are days when I just cannot shape the hunk of clay on my wheel into form, days I spend my time cursing the gob of chocolate-brown mud that ends up splattered across the wheel instead of spinning into a perfectly-formed cookie jar.

Wheel-throwing is messy. So are people. But lucky for us, our Potter isn’t afraid to get His hands dirty.

He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand,Israel. [Jeremiah 18:6]

As I mold stubborn clay into workable mounds, I think about God continually shaping me, too. Strong, knowing hands that gave life to dust and transformed mud into beauty, constantly embracing me while also applying pressure, refining the areas that stray from the center.

Clay must be carefully centered before it can ever be transformed. If this integral first step is neglected, the project is doomed. Eventually, the clay will warp in on itself, twisting and falling apart on the wheel. Though to the eye it may look even, under the potter’s hands its discomposure will be painfully obvious, clay precariously wobbling with every rotation.

As Christians, we function the same way. Without Christ at the center of our lives, we’re as flimsy as the clay. Though we want to be made into something worthy and valuable, we will collapse if unbalanced. We may look like we’re holding it together on the outside, but when pressure is applied, there is no avoiding the inevitable crash.

20190415_133609The problem is, it’s so easy to get off center. In the same way that the forces of the wheel naturally want to pull the clay outward, the forces of our world pull us away from center, too. One small thing may have us reeling out of control– and the faster we spin, the further we stray.

When this happens on the wheel, I usually end up scraping the mess of splattered clay off my wheel in frustration, only to abandon it and start fresh with a new piece. But how lucky I am that God never does that with me. He doesn’t look at the mess I’ve made and consider me a lost cause. Instead, He continues working on me, firm and practiced hands lovingly refining and guiding me back to Him. To center.

Sometimes, the clay is stubborn. Sometimes, so are we. It’s our nature to resist, but it’s His nature to persist. There is no clay too far gone to be brought to perfect center.

From the Mud

In my four years of university education, no class has taught me more valuable lessons than Wheel-throwing Ceramics this semester. Through working with clay, making wobbly coffee mugs and uneven cookie jars, I have learned more about myself and more about God than I ever imagined I could from a senior-year “just for fun” class.

Those closest to me were skeptical, and I’ll admit, I had my doubts as well. Impatient, easily frustrated and clumsy with perfectionist tendencies doesn’t exactly fit the persona of a skilled potter. But I like a challenge and despite the aforementioned qualities, my soul has always been drawn to creative pursuits, and I wanted the chance to see what my hands could do in a new medium.

The very first time I handled the clay, it felt right somehow. I was no prodigy by any means, but I wasn’t terrible, either, and that gave me enough confidence to keep practicing until I got the hang of it. Wheel throwing is time-consuming, and while other students gripe about the commitment, I shamelessly spend hours in the studio refining my skills. My time spent in the studio always serves as a “reset” for my restless spirit. Unlike the chaos and confusion of life around me, the clay is something I can control. Throwing sessions are my chance to press pause on the spinning world outside and my own spinning thoughts until the only thing spinning is the wheel.

I think a lot about God when I throw.

I think enough about Him and the ways this art form so closely mirrors His work in us that I can’t even limit myself to just one blog post to cover this topic. I have decided to create a mini series of posts devoted to the lessons I’ve learned on the wheel, because He has too much on my heart these past few months to contain my musings to a single lesson. Ceramics is a process, so this series will be too.


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I’ll say it right now, the clay isn’t pretty. It’s a dark, earthy brown piled high in heaps that look like mud (if we’re putting it nicely). No one would ever imagine that from this gross pile, something beautiful could arise.

We’re a lot the same. On our own, we are like the clay– ugly, messy, a little gross. We’re sin-infested and rebellious. But God looks at us the way the potter does the clay. He sees through the mess and the ugliness to the thing of beauty that is hiding somewhere underneath. Like the clay, our souls are brimming with potential, calling out to be molded into something beautiful.

Viewing the clay from the potter’s perspective has changed my perspective on my own identity as a Christian. I’ve long since wondered how I can be this sinful creature born into rebellion and, at the very same time, be called holy and blameless, chosen and loved [Ephesians 1:4]. But I am beginning to see that it is the same way the clay can be both a messy hunk of mud and a flawless work of art. The Potter has chosen me to be an expression of Himself, the work of His hands and the material through which He will reflect His glory.

The clay, on its own, will never become beautiful. It will spin and spin and spin away on the wheel forever, but it will never be something of worth. The clay cannot mold itself into a vase or spin its way into a bowl. And neither can we. All our striving for greatness and esteem, purpose and success are like spinning endlessly to no avail.

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity, a futile grasping and chasing after the wind. [Ecclesiastes 1:14]

But not all hope is lost. Under the right hands, slabs of mud become masterpieces. God may view us as messy hunks of potential beauty, but His work in us has only just begun…

 

Stay tuned for the next post in the series! 

 

 

You Don’t Have To Be So Busy

My name is Vanessa and I am a busybody.

I’ll be the first to admit it. There is an intrinsic part of my being that hates doing nothing. I equate idleness to laziness, and sometimes end up counting perfectly good days as “wasted” if I don’t end up with something to show for them. I have a very powerful awareness of time and its rapid passage that gives no reprieve or retrieval, and because of this I cram my hours in hopes of making my time count.

Some of you might read this and think I am crazy. But I’m willing to bet most of you can relate, at least a little, to the busybody mentality. In today’s always-on culture, we’re left very little time to breathe, much less rest. In fact, we sometimes treat rest as a sin, don’t we? Like a luxury we can’t afford, or a guilty pleasure we feel wrong doing. I call this the busyness burden— the feeling of obligation that makes us feel as if we need to be always “on”, always moving. It’s the anxious feeling we have in the backs of our minds that tells us we don’t have time, we never have enough time, to just be.

It’s especially true in the college setting, where classes, extracurriculars, sports and socialization attack us from all sides. We measure our days in terms of productivity; wear our busyness like a status symbol, as if the amount of bullets on our To-Do lists equate to importance. Take a walk through any campus and you’ll hear students touting sleep deprivation like a badge of honor: “Man, I only got like 4 hours of sleep last night.” “Oh yeah? Well, I have 2 papers due and went to bed at 5 a.m.”

It’s not just a student condition, and the busyness burden doesn’t lift upon graduation. In life there will always be pressure to keep moving and do more. We live in a culture that tells us we need to be the best at work, have an active social life, give back to the community, hit 10,000 steps per day, date, eat our veggies, do our laundry, walk the dog, call our moms– all while having a few hobbies so we have something to contribute to dinner conversation.

Its…exhausting.

There’s really only so much that can fit in the span of 24 hours (minus 8, because don’t forget to get enough sleep), yet I think we’ve all been guilty of overestimating it to the point of burning out–or worse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s OK to do some of these things (or all of them if you can really balance it). But the real problem is being busy with the wrong things. When we find ourselves “too busy” for a lunch date with a friend; when we simply do not have time for a quick call home; when we’re pouring out each day more than we’re allowing to be poured in.

I can’t definitively say which things are worth being busy over– that’s different for each of us. But I can say that being busy doesn’t make you more important. And relaxation is not always wasted time.

This semester, I am a lot less “busy.” I am filling my time, nonetheless, but I no longer feel the pressure to take on everything at once. For maybe the first time ever, I am realizing my limits. I am saying ‘no’ to things I’ve done in the past, which has allowed me to say ‘yes’ to unexpected new opportunities that arise. Maybe most importantly, I am learning not to beat myself up over it, either. I can feel the busyness burden slowly, slightly, lifting.

But a leopard can’t change its spots, and this post is as much a reminder to me as it is to any who read it. So I hope that some other stressed-out soul takes a moment to read this. To pause, take stock of what’s keeping you busy and your motivations behind them.

Instead of just being busy, let’s get busy with the things that matter most.

 

 

hands.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I think I see yours through your hands.

I can recognize anybody by their hands. Go ahead, test me on it. It’s a weird quirk of mine (one of many) but this is the very feature I notice first about a person. It’s a kind of infatuation for me, studying a person’s hands and committing them to memory; I watch them as you speak, punctuating ideas and flying through the air with excitement or fiddling mindlessly. I see hours of work in the callouses that give your hands character, in the dirt that collects under your fingernails and the deep lines on your palms. Rings signify love stories– the inheritance of an ancestor, the reminder of your roots, the promise of a companion.

We wear our life stories on our hands– and in them, we hold the power to change lives.

My own hands are nothing special; they’re small and kind of knuckle-y and my nail polish is usually chipped. The winter air assaults them, leaving them dry and cracked until the summer sun rejuvenates the skin and leaves a warmer shade behind. My hands are not pretty, scarred from my own clumsiness– tiny accidents that leave permanent relics on my skin– always cold, a little shaky. My grandmother’s ring adorns my left middle finger, a steady reminder of her loving presence, even now. There’s nothing special about my hands except what they can do.

My hands can build ramps for the handicap and serve food to the hungry; they can embrace a friend or wipe away tears; they can write, express and encourage. My hands are my tools, given by God, to carry out the purpose He has set for me to do. And though I may not fully know what that purpose is yet, all I can do is lift my hands– empty and ready to be filled– to the One who knows exactly how to use them. This is where we can all begin.

I look around me at this fallen world and I see so much work to be done. And then I look down at my hands and I wonder where on earth to even begin. I see scars and imperfections and think surely God can’t use my hands. But then I remember that I know someone else whose hands are scarred, and I know there is hope for me yet.

I have realized that changing the world is God’s work; I can only change my world. But if each of us changes just one corner of our individual worlds, we can begin to see a revolution until the day that all will be made new. Each of us may feel as if our hands are just too small to carry the whole world, to reach that far, to touch so many. But that’s the beauty of it all: that even one touch ripples outward almost infinitely and can affect more than we ever dare dream.

If we each touch just one life, if we changed just one aspect of this world for the better, I believe the reverberations would echo throughout the universe. It’s a massive feat, too big for any one of us to accomplish, but made entirely possible by the collaboration of tiny, everyday acts that add up to real change. Not one person, but one body.

Billions of hands, reaching toward the same goal, working for the same God.

 

Last Lap

Disclaimer: I am not a runner.

I haven’t laced up the old Nikes in an embarrassingly long time, and even when I do, I can assure you my performance is far from a track star.

But a sermon I listed to this morning by Sadie Roberston had me thinking of life– and more specifically, faith– as somewhat of a race. Sadie shared a personal anecdote of a mortifying high school track meet where she was lapped by everyone in the race and forced to finish the last lap by herself. That is, until her brother stormed the track with a speaker blaring “Heart of a Champion” and began to run alongside his sister. This small act of encouragement was enough to push her to finish the race when she wasn’t sure she was going to make it through and even count the defeat as something of a personal victory.

Her message went on to point out that God uses the lowest points– the toughest laps, if you will– to bring about amazing things for his glory. Getting there can feel unbearable, but when the focus shifts from your defeat to His incredible victory over it, God’s glory shines light even to your dark spaces.

Sadie’s story resonated with me this morning. As a second-semester senior just returning from studying abroad, I feel as if I am on my own “last lap” of sorts. I have run with all I had for so long, and now the end is almost in sight… but getting there feels impossible. So much excitement lies behind me, and the uncertainty of the future brings trepidation to my steps forward.

But the thought never occurred to me before that maybe, just maybe, something amazing might be right around the bend. Sadie’s message hit me hard, and hopefully you can find some truth to it, too. If you’re going through your last lap– or if you’ve counted yourself out of the race entirely– there is always a reason to keep running. When your legs are tired and your lungs are screaming and you want nothing more than to just finish, I promise you: you are just one lap away from the best God’s got in store for you.

How can I make such a bold claim? Because I believe that each of us is a living, breathing miracle. The air in our lungs is the breath of God’s own spirit and the hearts in our chests beat in sync with His. So even when you feel like anything but a miracle, your very existence proves otherwise. And with every new day we rise, God promises amazing redemption.

Moses had counted himself out of the race long before God he heard God’s call. At his lowest, he was nothing but an exiled murdered, but God chose him to lead a nation (Exodus 2:11-15). At Jesus’s command, demons fled from the possessed man (Mark 5:14-20) who was ostracized and hopeless. One touch from Jesus and the sick, hurting and paralyzed rose up and danced on legs once thought useless. In these and countless other examples, there is a common thread: unexpected redemption right when they were at the end of their ropes.

When you think your race is over, God has even more waiting for you at the finish line. From the first lap to the last, He is running alongside you. We have this hope for amazing things to come, because God promises miraculous redemption ahead.

So I ask you today, wherever you are in your own race– what if you were just one lap away from something amazing? 

Will you keep running?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:1-2]

**This post was inspired by Sadie Robertson’s message titled “Keep Running.” Because she expresses this idea better than I ever could, you can watch her video here!**

La Despedida // The Farewell

At 5am, the tears began flowing.

I tried to hide my emotion in the dark backseat of the taxi as I peered out the window for one final goodbye to the city I loved so much. It felt wrong leaving like this, like running away in the dark of night– unsatisfying in my inability to have a proper goodbye. I just wanted one more Sevillan sunrise, one more chance to see the light glisten off the cathedral or feel the bustle of the streets as they come to life each morning. Instead, my flight was soaring into the sky before the sun even rose.

And just like that, my study abroad experience comes to a close. The most exciting months of my life screeched to a halt in a flurry of final exams, packing, sightseeing and saying goodbye. Above anything else, a sense of melancholy permeated my last week as I ground my heels into the cobblestones to avoid the inevitable that was approaching far too quickly.

How could it be over already? Didn’t I just arrive, bright-eyed and unsuspecting, gazing at the Plaza de España with amazement for the first time? Or have I been here forever, knowingly navigating that confusing web of streets in the place that now feels like home? The two conflicting sentiments interweave somehow– an excited wonder at each new day, tinted with a familiarity that wraps over it all like a warm blanket.

The internal conflict continued with every thought of leaving. I would be heartless to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming home; of course, I was excited to see my friends and family again, and I couldn’t imagine not being home for Christmas. Warm thoughts of family traditions and holiday celebrations were the silver linings that made me excited to return.

But a large part of me also dreaded leaving. I feel unsatisfied by my glimpse of Sevilla; 3 months was but a blink, enough to whet my appetite but leaving me hungry for more. Enough to fall in love and leave with an ache in my chest and a lump in my throat for the city, the people and the life that had become home the past few months.

Some people will talk about how difficult study abroad is. This is true; there are moments of discomfort, of such exhaustion (physical and mental) and overstimulation that you’re left wanting nothing more than an American meal and your own bed and a hug from your mom. But such is life, and anything more perfect wouldn’t be realistic.

Like anything in life, this experience is entirely what you make it. You can spend your time missing home and the comforts you’ve always known, or you can shed the weight of your own expectations and open yourself up to amazing possibilities you’ve never imagined. You can get happily lost in a foreign culture and maybe even end up finding yourself.

At least that’s how it happened for me.

A friend put it best when he said being in Sevilla is like a dream. Every day, a new adventure– even if that’s just taking a different route to class and discovering a new point of view or having a conversation in Spanish with a stranger. Sevilla was a place of learning and growth; I came in search of a part of me I felt I had lost– the me that was before college and stress and illness overcame me. I leave now with a heart that is somehow both lighter and heavier– lighter because there, amidst cobblestone calles and under the brilliant Sevillan sun, I found her, the me I had lost. Heavier still because I had to leave, and from this dream, I must awaken.

One semester was not enough for me– three months, just a tease. I have tasted the sweet Andalusian life, and a part of me will forever remain there.

And one day, I know, I will go back to retrieve it.

The Things We Leave Behind

Among my many character flaws quirks, I am impossibly forgetful. But you probably already knew that. Come to think of it, I also have pretty bad luck when it comes to leaving things on public transportation. (RIP to my favorite aviator sunglasses that fell down the subway track this summer, and don’t even remind me of the Peruvian chocolate taxi incident of 2016…)

So it should come as no surprise that the inevitable happened: I lost something that can’t be replaced. Monetarily speaking, it wasn’t too harsh of a blow, but this item held infinitely more value to me than its price tag.

As I write this, my travel journal is probably riding through Eastern Europe somewhere on a Hungarian charter bus. In the disorder of collecting my things upon arrival in Budapest a few weeks ago, I seemed to have left that tiny treasure in the back pocket of my bus seat.

From the outside, my journal doesn’t look like much. It’s white with gold flowers, clearly cheap because I bought it at Wal-Mart the day before I left for Spain in a last-minute decision to dedicate a book solely to this chapter of my life. Its modest exterior does not reveal the treasured thoughts it contains. To anyone who finds this journal, it’s nothing more than the silly (hopefully entertaining) ramblings of a study abroad student. But to me, it is some of my best days yet, some of the most memorable experiences of my life: the details of all the exciting new things I’ve experienced and reflections of all my growth and learning. It is a part of me, not to be dramatic or anything.


But my journal isn’t the only thing I am leaving behind in Europe. (And I’m not talking about my missing earring either, or all of the old shoes I will most likely not be able to fit in my suitcase, ugh).

The truth is, I am leaving behind a lot. There are pieces of me now in so many different locations, parts of myself that I’ve left in the places that have changed me. There are things that I’ve shed in order to make space for the new– misconceptions and false expectations that dissolved as my worldview grew; traits and tendencies that have shifted as my lifestyle adapted to a new culture; truths I thought I knew but discovered were never really true at all.

That’s how it goes when we travel. Sometimes we leave behind the old junk in order to make room for all the new things we collect along the way. We shed the weight of the past as we journey, because in life– like in airplanes–there’s no room for extra baggage.

The best part, though, is that the things we lose are never really lost at all. The places that have inspired me will always be there, and my memories will live on even as the world around them changes with the times. And I can only hope the places that have changed me have felt my small impact, too, even for a brief moment.

Maybe someone out there found my journal and decided it was worth a read. Maybe they got a kick out of it; maybe they laughed or cried right along with it as they read, like I did at times as I wrote. Maybe they needed to find it and maybe I needed to lose it.

Or maybe I really just need to learn to not be so forgetful…

Morocco: A Whole New World

I spent my Halloween getting spooked in a different way this year. In Fez’s oldest market, the Medina, a decapitated camel’s head hung precariously close to my own as a strange form of welcome to Morocco.

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Rainy Medina Streets (no decapitated camels in frame– you’re welcome)

I averted my eyes, but to no avail, encountering grotesque sights at every turn. The smell was overpowering, heightened by the dampness of the day, muddy rainwater seeping into my shoes as we made our way through the Medina’s endless passageways. The narrow “streets” were lined with everything imaginable: handcrafted goods, argan oil and spices; electronics and toys; toiletries and medications. Raw meat and animal parts sat drying in the air on one side, while sweet pastries and fresh dates displayed temptation on the other. The overstimulation sent my brain into a frenzy as I tried to process this strange assortment of sights (and did I mention smells?) I was experiencing all at once.

With my head down to avoid sight of the butchers’ torture chambers, we weaved through this market of horrors. Inside the shops, it was a completely different story. We were met by jovial Moroccans in every store, welcoming and eager to show off their goods. In the carpet store, we were treated to a spectacule by a natural-born salesman that made his pitch so fun we almost forgot we were being sold to. Here’s a little-known fact: Moroccans have salesman skills running through their veins. I am not usually so easily persuaded, but there I was spending nearly $50 on argan oil and contemplating a $200 rug for my future home, if that tells you anything.

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Moroccan carpet store and quite possibly the best salesman I have ever met.

 

Though I painted the Medina in a harsh (but entirely accurate) light, it wasn’t all a bad experience. As soon as we stepped into the little shops where people display the goods to which they devote their whole lives, my mind was changed. Each carpet that someone labored over for months to get the intricate design just right is a work of art; each hand-painted bowl or piece of silver jewelry became instantly prettier once we knew the work that went into it, and the passion with which they sell their pieces makes up for their pushiness.

Who would have thought that shopping could ever be a cultural experience? But in the Medina, this was a way to understand the ancient traditions, to connect over goods that carried months or years of labor, heart and soul. And though we certainly looked out of place, a giant group of white American tourists with our backpacks and cameras in the middle of this place, somehow in the shops, the differences between us felt smaller, the distance just a little less great.

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Ceramist working on tiles in the ceramic factory

In the leather store, one of the shop owners asked me, “Why is it you wanted to come to my country?” There was pride but also distinct curiosity in his question.

“Well, I am studying in Spain and this is one of the trips offered…” I started. But as I responded, I knew this wasn’t the real answer. “I wanted to experience another culture that was different from my own. And I’ve heard a lot about Morocco, but I wanted to see it for myself,” I finally answered.

“Well, what you hear is not all true,” he told me sadly, downcast eyes with painful shame for the way Muslims are often portrayed. “Here we welcome you. We are happy you are here. We wish you peace… We want peace.”

His statement was raw, and it broke my heart. For a moment he wasn’t a shopkeeper trying to sell me a leather jacket; we were just two people from worlds apart forging a connection. A Christian and a Muslim, each sharing blessings in our own ways– he taught me “Salam-Aleikum,” a greeting of peace, and smiled as I butchered the pronunciation.

Ultimately, this is why I travel (or reason #4520, honestly). For me, it’s not just about seeing new cities and checking places off my bucket list; it’s about diving into a culture– even one so foreign from my own. I can’t pretend my afternoon in the Medina was, by any means, sufficient to say I now understand the Moroccan culture. But I can say I learned more from walking through those narrow alleyways and talking with shop owners than my touristy Instagram photos ever let on. And in doing so, it felt a little like I was bridging that seemingly unbridgeable gap between us.

We shared smiles and stories and mint tea, and it felt as if we could be long-lost friends. Not Moroccans and Americans or Muslims and Christians–just people. On foreign soil but under the same sun, finding that our similarities spoke louder than our differences.

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Our Moroccan guide leading us through a much more colorful quarter of the Medina after the rain let up.