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In the Presence of a Natural Woman

At seventy-three years old, Aretha Franklin sings Carole King’s song, “Natural Woman” at Lincoln Center with perfect timing, range of voice, power and outright presence. If you ever wondered what you might have to offer the world in your aging years, listen to her sing, and you will know what is possible—a person who knows who she is, who is in full possession of herself, and who gives her gifts—her talents and skill to the world as a blessing. This is beauty.

imageDaniel O’ Leary, a priest in Leeds and former teacher at St. Mary’s University College in London writes, “I like to think that each one of us, when we act out of our true essence rather than out of our false ego, when we refuse to betray our authentic self, when we are in close touch with our own sacred centre, in spite of persistent temptation, persuasion and compulsion to conform and to compromise – that when we act in this way we transform every room we enter, every conversation in which we take part, every relationship we engage in and every project we initiate or join.” Aretha Franklin was most certainly singing from with in the center of her true essence when performing at Lincoln Center, her presence transforming not only those in the room, as evidenced by Carole King’s overwhelmed and enthusiastic reaction to the performance, and by Obama who wiped tears from his eyes, but transforming also those who watch Aretha via the Internet. How do we live like that–from the center of ourselves, moving beyond the desire to demonstrate our skill, ability, talent, or worth—beyond the need to compete and claim a space, beyond nervousness and fear about perceived success—and instead, move into the depths of our own selves, to rest in the acceptance of who we are, including our imperfections and incompleteness? How do we live with open arms, surrendering into life in order to walk into a larger world, so we can let go into our own transformation?

Recently, while traveling through Morocco’s enormous outback of the Atlas Mountains, I noticed how in the desert, the earth lays itself open for all to see. Nothing is hidden, the layers, folds, slumps, the red years of surface soil eroding away to the green rock beneath, solidity slowly wasting away–all is revealed. The Atlas Mountains, opens its chest to Allah, lays bare its red heart. Each ripple and rock stripe, distinctly visible and known. How vulnerable the earth is, face open to sun and wind. The sky kisses the earth. Goats, their shadows following them like dark drifting clouds, amble slowly across the red soil, grazing. Earth’s muscles loses hold. Rocks walls crumble—bones turning into gravel. Mountains slide into valleys in slow, smooth heaps. Complete with folds and flares, in her old age, the earth wears her skirt of splayed sand and rock, swirled out as in slow, ponderous steps–an ancient dance still in play. Continuously, the earth’s age reveals her beauty.


Erosion reveals the layers of earth’s substrata. As in our own lives, the surface wears away as time continues, revealing the bedrock of who we are, what we are built on—what our foundation consists of. When standing in Morocco’s 10 meters (thirty three foot) wide Todra Gorge, the color and stone rise 600 metres (1,969 ft) above in gold-red walls, surround you with their millennia of patiently layered rock, cut through by the Todgha River. The slow turning folds and twists that made the canyon’s strength, humble you, leave you without words. We take the wadi and the world in at a glance—the entire landscape gifted to us, a grace delivered as simply as the sky kissing the earth–a beauty, that like an abstract painting, strips away all to its bare forms and essence–joining us to the oneness lying beneath. To stand in the Todra Gorge is to connect to your foundation, to stand inside it. Experience it.

Later, a bit further down the road in the Dades Gorge, I woke the next morning to the view outside my window: the leaves of a tree trembling in the gold, early light of morning’s breeze. Everything around the trees delicate leaves was rock. Solid and still. The sun rose, turning the gorge’s walls to rust. Then, the tree, too, stood still as the stone surrounding it.

The next day, after traveling on to Ait Bin Haddou, I climbed the hill that overlooks the mud walled city. Walking along, Here you can find calcite formations strewn across the earth in palm-sized slabs, and can see the bubbling up in pillow-like form from beneath the soil’s shallow cover. The earth wears stripes here and spots of purple. Wind rushes across the earth, kicks up dust, and streaks the sky with long cloud flares. The sky is the very definition of blue—long vowels of ooooohhhh, moving with the wind’s rough breath, the scattered stones the earth’s consonants. The earth speaks.

In mountains, in sky, in her erosion and old age the earth speaks. She has no pretensions. In full possession of herself, she gives her gifts to the world as blessing. She’s the natural woman. She knows who she is, and she is singing.

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind

‘Cause you make me feel
you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman.

Ait Bin Haddou
Ait Bin Haddou

Welcoming the Strangers

In America we read in the news of shootings, and Trump asks for the deportation of the nearly 11 million that are living in the US without permission. Last September, 17,000 Columbians fled Venezuela after 1,500 Columbians were deported from Venezuela. Syrians escaping their country as a result of the war have created the greatest migration since WWII. All this, and yet at Christmas we wish each other peace. At the start of the new year, even to strangers we often wish others happiness. Nevertheless, division lines between who is deemed as an insider and who is an outsider seem to be growing. Though it may seem that tensions are about race or religion, often times, if one digs deeper, however, the root of the tension is economic. Recent research in Germany, the  Washington Post reports, that those who are economically disadvantaged are those who are more likely to be persuaded that race and religion are causes of fear. “According to polls, whites with a high school degree or less disproportionately favor Trump. These are the same people who have seen their economic opportunities decline the most in recent years. This group also disproportionately favors tough restrictions on immigration.”

In Morocco the country I recently visited, however, a different story is promoted by the people on the street. Tourism is important to Morocco’s economy. They depend on welcoming diversity, and across Morocco you hear Moroccans tell you a story of living in harmony with others. In Tangier a synagogue, mosque, and church are within visual sight of each other. In Fez, a man tells us “We sit in the cafe talking together, Jew and Muslim. The prayer call comes. We go off and pray, then come back and pick up the conversation. We are friends.” It’s true that the majority of Moroccans are Muslim, and that only 1% are other–Christian, Jewish or Baha’i. Even so, people in Morocco have an attitude of open hospitality.

While walking around the area of Fez where the majority of Jews once lived before the sate of Israel was created and most moved to Israel, I saw an old man sitting on the street having difficulty getting up. A person near him saw his difficulty and came over to help him. To sit on the street is not an uncommon thing in Morocco. Many people do it in Morocco in order to take in the sun as well as to sell things. Some sit on the street because they are poor. To notice someone’s difficulty to stand demonstrates an awareness of others, and a sense of community. This wasn’t a singular act. Later that day, I also noticed an older man walking up a side street with a cane. His outer cape was slipping from his shoulder and the man walking up behind the older man noticed this, and stopped to lift the robe to the old man’s shoulders, then continued on his way as if helping the other were commonplace, the most natural thing in the world. Again, here I saw an awareness of others demonstrated in simple acts. On several occasions and by different people I was told that people who live near each other help one another. They share their lives with each other and are like family. They aren’t people who happen to live near each other. They communicate.

Even in the Fez medina–the winding open air market, one of the most known souqs in the world, and full of pedestrian traffic, a beggar woman looked at me kindly with a wide, open smile when I greeted her saying “Assalamu ‘alaykum.” Again, at the Moulay Idriss tomb, three women sitting on mats leaning against the wall greeted me with smiles much wider and longer than simple politeness when I said “Sabah al-khair.” At breakfast in the guesthouse where we stayed in Fez, the woman serving us breakfast went about her work with joy in her movements and her voice. It was clear her work wasn’t merely her job; it was her way to give happiness to others. The French woman at the table across from us said something, and the woman serving us food leaned over to hug her and say something to her in a cheerful voice, then went on with her work. In Bhalil, a Berber village outside of Fez, a woman invited us in to see her cave house when she saw my husband and I walking by. She was hanging her laundry out and happened to see us, and wanted us to visit. In Ait Bin Haddou a shop owner invited us to share his lunch, later insisting we return to share tea.

Not all encounters in Morocco were like this. On the streets there is the hustle bustle of business, and children wrestling with each other and running around in active play as they walk to and from school–people are involved in their own lives and worlds, as they would be anywhere. It’s also true that crime in Morocco has risen over recent years, according to the Numbeo web site as well as the Knoema website. Crime statistics are not like what you notice in the US, however, where according to BBC there were 353 mass killings in 2015,62 shootings at schools,12,223 people killed in gun incidents, and 24,722 people were injured in gun incidents.  Flight attendant Rose Hamid stands up in silent protest when, according to CNN Trump “suggested that Syrian refugees fleeing war in Syria were affiliated with ISIS.” She is booed and shouted at to get out, according to the article. In contrast, when visiting Morocco, non muslims are welcomed and shown hospitality, a quality often ignored by the media, but  found throughout this dominantly Muslim country. Why is it that Moroccans recognize the stranger and honor him or her and in America, we are afraid of the stranger? When in  Ait Bin Haddou, one man told me “To visit a country is not only to see, it is to learn something about the culture.”  Maybe the person greeting you as you walk by wants to sell you something from his shop, but he also wants to sit with you and get to know some of your story. It seems we could learn from the Moroccan’s approach to things.


As Barry Lopez writes, ““Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Maybe we need to become hospitable to our own selves and the the things we don’t understand, our questions and struggles–to the stranger inside us. Maybe conversations with the other–with those we are afraid of–would better help us understand not only their own story but our own. Lopez writes, “Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act—it does not matter whom—and we will survive.” If we can’t travel to foreign countries and immerse ourselves in another way of seeing and being, we can read novels by writers from or about other cultures. We can view documentaries. It is still possible to expand our understanding through others’ stories.

W. S. Merwin in his poem, “To the New Year,” writes,

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

The US Bill of Rights supports the right to diverse voices. We can recognize the strength in that diversity and honor it. Living together as citizens of a country is a kind of marriage. The German poet, Rilke, speaking of marriage said, “…once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” As we come closer to hear each other’s stories, we will see and hear another world. Look and look again. You will see more. When we listen closely, we will understand better.




Chefchaouen, Morocco Blues


It’s a blue world in Chefchaouen, the small city of narrow, winding streets in the Riff mountains of northern Morocco. The blues here tell the story of the Jews who left Spain when in 1492 the monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, throwing off five hundred years of Muslim control, required Jews to leave or to convert to Christianity. Many Jews left behind their property at that time and migrated to Morocco, with many settling in Chefchaouen.

Though most of the Jews have left Chefchaouen now, immigrating to Israel and elsewhere after Morocco attained independence in 1956, the city is still blue. This is because the citizens have painted the walls various blue shades. Morocco can get very hot in the summer with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. The cool colors make the temperature feel cooler, and the blue color is thought by some to help keep mosquitos away. In Andalusia, in southern Spain, people painted their city walls, and the tradition was carried on when the Jews arrived in Morocco. Today, people come to visit Chefchaouen because its walls sing the blues in myriad tones. People come because Chefchaouen is beautiful.

What you want to do in Chefchaoen is wander the streets and discover its nooks where a fountain may flow out from a royal blue wall, or stand inside the blues that reflect off each other in narrow alleys, shining out from a street painted with moons and stars, blues that curl into quiet corners. The blues of Chefchaoen create a peaceful state. “Where are you from?” asks a man standing in the door where the community oven is located. We tell him, and he says, “Welcome to my country.” All over Morocco I’ve been asked this question, and always the reply is “Welcome to my country.”

It’s not just a saying. Morocco is a welcoming country. Just recently, Jews of New York City acknowledged Morocco’s extension of welcome and refuge to Jews during World War Two. Moroccan culture, like cultures in other Muslim countries I have visited, is generous spirited and open hearted. Always when visiting, and often when doing business, people offer you tea. I was taking a photo of my husband in a small street in Chefchaouen, and didn’t see a woman walking there, who stopped and waited while I took the photo. I was filled with delight at the beauty of the place. When I lifted my eye from the camera lens, I saw the woman and apologized. Her response was to smile. She reached out her hand, placed it on my heart, still smiling, and said a few words as she walked on, brushing gently by in her cream colored robe as she continued down the street. Though I hadn’t understood her words, I understood her intent, and felt I had been blessed.

Walking through the central plaza, I see a mother holding her baby close in her arms. Bent tenderly toward the child, over and over she speaks . An hour later, I stroll back through the same area, and she is still there, still cradling her small child in her arms. Wrapped snug in warm blankets and crooned to, this child is dearly loved, at peace. Islam means submission to God. The root of the word is the same as is used in the Arabic greeting, “Assalamualaikum,” meaning “Peace be with you.” Implied, is the idea that to submit to God is to submit to peace.  There is lots of business in Chefchaouen, people selling their wares, vegetable markets, people hanging out their laundry. Old men in jellabiyas tap along the stony pavement with their canes, women hang out the laundry atop the roofs. Amidst the activity of daily life, prayer call drifts across the streets. The people of Chefchaoen, continue on in their beautiful town, practicing a way of peace.