Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation

Written early August 2014, a few days into our summer trip to Marrakech, Morocco.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit down, smell the roses and drink tea (Atlas Mountains, 2011).

Here I am. In Morocco.

Here I am, needing to refine my ability to ‘just be’. For someone who spends a lot of time reading about and agreeing with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, I’m not very good at it.

I’d been in Morocco for less than 24 hours before I began to sense the ennui that sometimes overcomes me here. I had to take a step back and recall some of the aims of my visit – the ‘3 Rs’:

Retreat.

Respite.

Relaxation.

At home I’m constantly busy, something FreeToBeB finds difficult to comprehend (despite it being obvious to me that between being a lone parent to two young children, running a household, engaging in various social and voluntary pursuits, working on creative endeavours, not to mention trying to pursue my many and varied interests, I am invariably burning the candle at both ends). Yet from his point of view, I appear to have better things to do than chat to him via Skype – for when I do find the time, I’m often distracted by the kids, trying to multitask with work on the computer, in the middle of cooking dinner or cutting our conversation short in order to pick FreeToBeP up from school.

In Morocco, the opposite happens to me: freed from most of my usual household duties, my social circle, the school routine and the variety of other things that usually keep me occupied, I find myself at a loose end here. This time, I don’t even have FreeToBeP with me to keep me on my toes.

I should be grateful for the rest.

But it’s all part of the culture shock, and there is a period of adjustment.

I keep thinking of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. I’m aware of my need for self-actualisation – the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human life, the gateway to transcendence – being unseen, unrecognised, unfulfilled. It’s a distinctly cultural issue, as I don’t think the idea of ‘hobbies’ and many concepts of personal development are particularly prevalent here.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Creative Commons License)

And with the more simple way of life in Morocco, oftentimes my own thoughts turn to more basic needs rather than anything of a ‘higher nature’.

Rather than considering what educational activities I can come up with for the kids, I’m thinking about the need to boil water for a wash. Rather than having my hands and mind free to complete other tasks whilst keeping an eye on dinner cooking safely up on the stove and/or in the oven, I’m trying to figure out how to cook a full meal on a single hob over a gas cylinder on the floor whilst keeping intrigued children out of the way.

Up in FreeToBeB’s family home in the Atlas Mountains – without a bathroom or running water – I am quite literally functioning at the base of the pyramid (“Where can I find a private spot to go to the toilet [outdoors] tonight without risking the attention of wild boars?”).

Thus, time passes differently for many people here, especially for those who have grown up in the countryside.

This observation has been confirmed by a Moroccan author whose work I have been reading this week:

“When it’s hot, people go to ground in their homes until dusk, learning to wait, learning to do nothing. They don’t talk about the climate and its hardships. They sit cross-legged on mats, shifting positions, then changing places. They don’t even look at the sky . . . they forget about the hours that drag by. Instead of passing from one person to another, words seem to bump into the walls and crumble away. So no one speaks. There’s nothing to say, nothing to do . . . Life is simple, and simply terrible.”  (Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village)

Yes, at least I can sit and read, something I can see as ‘productive relaxation’. Yet reading for pleasure does not seem to be a typical pastime for many people here, which may be directly linked to literacy rates in Morocco or perhaps it is our more secluded lives in the UK that allow us to partake in such pastimes.

Reading forms such a fundamental basis to my own learning and aspirations, that I can’t imagine life without written material to study, digest and philosophise over. I accept that this is my personal way to access my own ideas and dreams, and yet everyone needs something to inspire new ideas and dreams. Don’t they? To what extent do people in more traditional societies – not caught up in the same individualistic society as I am – even embrace their own ideas and dreams? Surely, I’ve thought, my striving for ‘something more’ is a normal, human drive to explore and discover and create? How indeed has the human race got where it is today without that drive?

And then I remember: life up in the Moroccan mountains is pretty much akin to how it must have been for centuries. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a sharp and sometimes grating contrast to my own lifestyle, full of my need for change and contrast, full of options and choices and everything around us telling us to personalise our content – create a unique identity and prove what we’re doing to make our way in the world.

There have always been trailblazers, explorers and inventors in the world who help push the human species into new territories. Yet for most of human history, these have been but a few faces upon backbones of larger communities. These days, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we are encouraged not to make our way as a community but as individuals, thinking about how best to progress life for I, Me, Myself.

And not forgetting Maslow’s hierarchy, we are lucky in the UK that most of us don’t have to worry about those bottom two layers, but can take it for granted that we have 3 meals a day and a doctor’s surgery, free at the point of service, just up the road. This isn’t true in places such as Morocco, where as many as 1 in 4 people have a hand-to-mouth existence and cannot afford basic medical care. What time or motivation is there for self-actualisation when your number one concern is ensuring you have a few coins in your hand at the end of the day in order to procure an evening meal?

And, whilst we have seemingly unlimited choice in what we choose for our intellectual and creative pursuits in Western nations, that’s not to say that those in less eclectic cultures can’t pursue valuable and valid personal projects. Who am I to say that a mountain woman making blankets or rugs is merely doing it for survival and following tradition? Yes, it is a tradition – but perhaps it is also her passion and her creative outlet that allows her to reach her own sense of self-actualisation? Who am I to say she isn’t creating her own individual style? Who am I to say that my own ideas of living a creative and fulfilled life have universal meaning across cultures? Of course they don’t.

And perhaps this is why, like a fish out of water, I struggle to adapt my ideals to my reality here. One has to work with what is at hand, and if the country you are in has different things at hand than the country you are used to, your ideas of how to work and what to work on may have to change.

The silly thing is that I feel I should be better equipped and better educated to deal with these differences than I seem to be. I’ve attended so many academic courses, meditated and prayed my way through so many spiritual traditions, owned and read so many books, that on the one hand I feel I “should know better” and on the other hand I’m not quite sure what to do with everything that crowds my restless mind. I have the unsettling feeling that I’m always missing the point.

Conversely, FreeToBeB spent about seven years in formal education as a child, being taught in a language that he had to pick up as he went along. The only books I’ve seen in his possession are bilingual dictionaries and other language-learning materials that actually seem quite surplus to his requirements as a polyglot who can speak seven languages to differing extents, self-taught through interactions with other speakers of those languages.

Occasionally the phrase “At the mosque they said . . .” will emerge from his mouth, but even this he says with detachment: he repeats what he’s heard but admits he doesn’t know enough about the subject at hand to either verify or deny the claims. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know. He shrugs and lets the subject go. He doesn’t understand why I’m always asking “Why?”, like an eternal child.

My point? FreeToBeB seems untroubled by the ever-changing thoughts and questions and the pervading restlessness that punctuates my own mental life. Yes, he sometimes feels fed up, but not in the desperate manner in which I do, whereby I feel selfish for sitting still and doing nothing when world peace has not yet been achieved (note to self: don’t hate – meditate!).

However, it’s now our fourth day here and I think I may well be settling into ‘relax’ mode at last. We were intending to attend a family wedding in Beni Mellal today (the marriage of one of FreeToBeB’s many nieces), but last night I felt ill and tired and worried, so I bailed out.

So much for an adventure! I’m afraid this bout of ‘travel blogging’ doesn’t involve a great deal of your typical traveller stories, much more concerned am I about taking the time to sit still for a while and look after my pregnant body.

Anyway, I couldn’t fathom if the nausea, dizziness and headache I was suffering were a psychosomatic response to heightened emotions (having allowed an issue with FreeToBeB to degenerate into an argument), whether the heat or some dodgy food was having its effect, or if I should be wracking my brains to recall the symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Whatever it was, it was enough to put me off a journey which would entail the generous use of Rescue Remedy in order to calm myself about the dubious road safety record in this country.

Yet I awoke today feeling just a little lethargic and checked myself to see if I was annoyed that I hadn’t committed to honouring the wedding and gone anyway. No, it’s fine; I’m not going to regret this missed opportunity on my deathbed.

We’d all had a late night and didn’t awaken properly until 2pm. We started the day slowly, still eating breakfast at 4pm, treating myself to a favourite yoghurt of cream and cereal which would be way too much of a guilty pleasure at home, where I adhere as much as possible to a vegan diet. I balance it out here knowing that my asthma (exacerbated by dairy products) is usually at bay in the dry heat where I don’t have my damp flat to contend with.

During our leisurely breakfast, I sat daydreaming about lush, green forests and clear, flowing streams of water. I’m yearning for the greenery of England and the seaside of my hometown. But here I am, in Abouab, Marrakech: I know I will exit the front door here to a view of dust and litter and ill-kept streets full of trip hazards. Am I looking on the negative side? No, I’m just looking; saying it as I see it. Here I am.

Despite the daydreams, I actually feel like they’ve come of a desire to ‘retreat and relax’. Let’s just sit here and observe my thoughts.

I’m glad I didn’t rush around purchasing fancy clothes and gifts in order to attend a wedding. Instead, I’m reading a book by a fellow ‘mum blogger’, a read I chanced upon whilst browsing the Kindle store for free downloads to keep me occupied (yes, always that need to be ‘occupied’!). [For those who may be interested, the book is Trees As Tall As Mountains by Rachel Devenish Ford].

This book is balancing. As this fellow mother talks of the joys and pains of parenting her 3 young children and her need to remember to connect to the divine in times of difficulty, it’s a good reminder to myself. Having exchanged some angry words with FreeToBeB last night, I feel I can live today in more grace.

Spontaneous smiles of love and contentment are blooming on my face as I watch FreeToBeZ playing exuberantly, a simple pleasure as I sip sweet, smooth coffee that tastes nothing like the bitter beverage I’m used to at home. The electric fan stirs the skirt of my dress around my ankles as it attempts to penetrate the stifling summer heat and, focusing on this gentle sensation, it’s enough to remind me: here I am; I am alive; what a wonderful world.

So, here I am: overcoming an inner battle of ‘shoulds’. I’m in another country, I ‘should’ be exploring, I ‘should’ go somewhere new. If I’m craving the sea, perhaps we ‘should’ hop on the coach to Agadir? I’ve never been there and have always wanted to see what it’s like. But at the moment it intuitively feels as likely a trip as saying “Ah, New Zealand – I’ve never been there.”

No, here I am trying to embrace the ennui and instead think of it in terms of those 3 R words: this is my retreat, my respite, my relaxation.

Last night I managed to find a place of peace as I prayed and visualised the amazing lifestyle of my dreams. It seemed all the more attainable thanks to being in a country that still relies so much on community and extended family, and due to the aforementioned book being based in an intentional community.

I saw myself amongst a group of people building together, cooking together, cleaning together, helping each other. Between us there were many children, playing as a pack outdoors, laughter streaming after them as they chased through meadows of tall, sun-browned grass . . .

What a cliché! All I need now are some John Lennon specs and flowers in my hair.

But the combination of my knowledge of the more communal, traditional Imazighen life here in Morocco and the impression made on me by an article a dear friend shared with me just before my trip (I Miss the Village) has watered a seed that has rested in my mind for a long time.

I notice that many of the challenges I experience stem from being an isolated single mother, which I keenly feel is not a natural, human state of being. And how ironic that within this isolation I never get the chance to rest and retreat, so consumed am I by being solely responsible for so many things, not least the two little people who depend on me 24/7.

I needed to get away to reflect on what I really want and need in my life. Our times in Morocco are such a contrast to our life in the UK that I can more easily see the pros and cons of both places and wonder how and where I can carve out an existence for my family that embodies the pros of both.

I always come to the conclusion that a commune in a warm climate is my ideal home.

Retreating into myself as FreeToBeP is cared for by my parents back in England and FreeToBeZ is entertained by her father across the room, I can sense my genuine needs, pick out the life ideals that may be desirable but not altogether attainable and/or necessary, and really sort all the wheat from the chaff.

I’m sitting still here, happily observing the mundane yet mighty moments of everyday life.

How can I be anything but appreciative as FreeToBeB cooks and serves me food and I temporarily escape from it being my own daily duty?

How can I be anything but appreciative as I soak up my daughter’s smiles? Such food for the soul. As I bask in them, I nourish myself in a way that I often neglect to do.

I’ve spent the past few hours thinking “Here I am – nowhere else but here”, reminding myself to be truly present in the moment, cherishing the little moments that make life a life lived.

FreeToBeZ just took both FreeToBeB and I in her tiny hands and led us to the shower room, wishing to play with water and wanting us both to witness her splashes. After performing the necessary ablutions to ensure her cleanliness, FreeToBeB blocked up the plughole with a plastic bag so she could sit in the water and enjoy a ‘bath’.

Moroccan bath

This is what I meant in Paltry Packing when I stated that kids are generally easy to entertain without all the toys and gadgets, providing you are present and patient. Rather than the rushed, pre-bedtime, functional ‘bathtime’ of home, I sat gazing adoringly at FreeToBeZ as she giggled each time she tipped a jug of cool water over herself. She doesn’t need Agadir.

Really: if some folks travel all the way to India to sit in a monastery on silent retreat, why can’t I have my own retreat in Morocco, a place where I have already enjoyed a significant amount of exploring?

Why must I be ‘doing’ when I could purely be ‘being’?

Perhaps, here, I can teach myself to relax. Surely that would be a worthwhile occupation? I may even (guiltily, self-consciously, apologetically) ask FreeToBeB for a shoulder massage later.

Quite apart from making my children aware of different traditions and lifestyles across the world, what better thing to teach them than effective self-care?

For there is no better springboard towards caring for and understanding others than to care for and understand one’s own self first.

6 thoughts on “Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation

    1. Thank you smilecalm, a memory arose as I read that of gazing in awe at my babies as they slumbered. You’ve also reminded me of a poem I wrote about the way time passes during early motherhood, I may well have to post it on here at some point.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I’m planning to post about the real positives of Morocco next, to balance things out against this post that is, in essence, about boredom! Good luck with your blog!

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