God of the City

IMG_6254Last week our car had its front window shot out (yes, as in, with a gun) while parked in the street in front of our house. At least 10 other neighbors had their cars hit as well and we had to call the police and fill out police reports and we were all late for our morning commitments.

No houses or people were hit, so that’s good. And just four hours and fifty dollars later, we had a new window put in.

It’s the city. These things happen.

 

What is God’s Country?

I grew up in rural west Michigan and figured I had no choice but to live in a rural setting forever. Afterall, everyone called it “God’s country” and I certainly didn’t want to live anywhere God wasn’t.

A thousand twists and turns later and Paul and I find ourselves living in the heart of Grand Rapids. Not the worst neighborhood of our city, but (clearly) not the best either.

I realize that if one has the resources to choose where they live, debating over which locale is best (city, suburbs, country) is completely arbitrary because it’s purely personal preference. We didn’t have to move to the city. We could have stayed in the burbs and we could have stayed at our “big dream house” that we had built in the country. We chose city life.

And now, we have found a spiritual-ness to city life that proves God dwells powerfully here, too.

 

10 Ways We See God in the City:

1 – In the city, we have met people from all kinds of different race, religion, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds from our own. Whenever I hear someone (usually caucasian) ranting about issues/problems with blacks, gays, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, pro-choice, pro-life, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, etc. I will ask them, “Do you know any? Like, do you HANG OUT with anyone from (that particular people group)?” If they reply “Well, not exactly”, I won’t listen any further. If we do not know people who are different from us, we do not have the right to talk about what “they” are like, what “they” do or think or feel. When we made close friends with many Muslims in Morocco, our entire view shifted from what we previously thought or believed about Islam. It is imperative to truly KNOW the “other” before commenting (or worse, ranting) about them and their perceived impact on your own existence. I believe we’re extremely misguided to derive our opinions from Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow.

 

2 – In the city, we drive down bumpy, neglected roads as we take in broken street lights, graffiti, and panhandlers. These serve as a constant reminder that the world is not a perfect place and no matter how hard we strive to curate perfection in our lives (whether by beautifully perfect homes, perfectly edited Instagram feeds, perfectly manicured lawns, etc. ) the truth is, PERFECTION is for heaven and this world is broken. Most of the world suffers unspeakable pain, hurt, loss and brokenness and we MUST NOT forget that truth. For me, I need the daily reminder the city offers.

 

3 – In the city, we see people. People are seen out walking, hanging out at bus stops or street corners, or just visiting one another on their front porches. People in the city don’t drive their cars into their houses (as once described to me by a little Moroccan boy who couldn’t fathom the phenomenon of “garages”), but instead, we park on the street and SEE one another with every coming and going. When Paul and I were younger we sought to escape others, now we seek them and the city just works better for that.

 

4 – We hear church bells in the city.

 

5 – I can hear my neighbors conversations if both our homes have the windows open. Living in the city means you watch your language more carefully. It’s like having a built-in accountability partner.

 

6 – We have nuns playing soccer with the students across the street during Catholic-school recess. I don’t care who you are – if you’re having a bad day, watching nuns play soccer with little kids will just make you happy. It’s like having Julie Andrews out your front window.

 

7 – We may get our cars shot at once and awhile, but you know what? It brought us all out onto the street that morning and we learned the names of a few neighbors we hadn’t met and we all banded together with common loss and concern and empathy. It’s through the hardships that we truly bond with one another. I don’t believe in seeking hardships, but I also don’t think cocooning ourselves in an attempt to avoid life’s hardships is the life God desires for us either.

 

8 – Living amongst those from a lower socio-economic status serves as a daily reminder to not become lovers of money. It’s so dang easy for us to believe we need more, more, more. But when I am surrounded by those who have less, I have to really wrestle with my spending habits and discern if I really need those new throw pillows more than Julie down the street needs diapers for her children.

 

9 – Living in the city you do not need to waste your money on marijuana. If the situation calls for it, you can just stroll over to the park and inhale a big enough whiff to get a little buzz for free.

 

10 – In the city, you can get REAL tacos from little hole-in-the-wall taco stands that serve REAL corn-flour tortilla shells. You’ll never be able to eat a flour tortilla shell again (Gross. Just gross.)

 

But is it SAFE?

 

I don’t particularly care for people driving down my street shooting at our cars (or shooting at anything, for that matter), but I LOVE what Mrs. Beaver said to Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” when Lucy asked if Aslan was safe:

 

She said, “Of course He isn’t safe, child, but He is good.”

 

 

 

 

Is it possible that snow in April, stupid lung diseases, and other atrocities could be good for us?

IMG_3843.jpgWe lived in the most glorious, sunny, mountainous and palm-treed locations both times that we lived abroad. Aix-en-Provence, France and Casablanca, Morocco are two dreamy places to have once been called “home”.

While living abroad, we met people from all over the states, as well as from around the world. Then we all moved on and returned to our “homeland” which means we now have friends scattered around the globe.

Visiting some of our friends in Southern California for the first time changed everything for me and my “Best Places In the World to Live” list. To be honest, my first thought when I encountered the beauty of southern California was not that I wished to live there, but one of feeling sorry for my Californian friends. Let me explain:

To me, the south of France and Morocco were these magical, breathtakingly beautiful holy sites where God revealed Himself to me. I cried the first time I saw the French Alps, the Mediterranean Sea, the palm-tree lined streets of Casablanca, and the Sahara Desert (to be fair, I do cry a lot…) Every time I encountered new beauty my Michigan-eyes had never known, I was left speechless, breathless, and entered a holy state of worship for a God who could (and would) create such beauty. My Michigan-eyes had beheld a LOT of glorious things in our mitten state, but just nothing like mountains, ocean, desert, palm trees, oh – and that elusive SUNSHINE!!! (Today, on April 11, it snowed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Need I say more???)

So when on my inaugural trip to California I discovered identical beauty – mountains, ocean, desert, palm trees, sunshine (which can all be seen AT THE SAME TIME, for heavens sake!) – I realized that there was NO WAY my Californian friends could have felt the same depth, love, and appreciation that I did while we all lived in France and Morocco. There is no way that they woke up every day and said, “Lord have mercy! Another sunny day!” (as I did). There is no way they took endless pictures of palm trees (as I did). There is no way they walked the beaches every day and said, “God in heaven, help me to carry this moment with me forever – even into the polar vortex that is bound to hit in the middle of my future Michigan winters” (as I did).

I was CAPTIVATED by the weather and the landscape of those two countries – but only because I come from a backdrop of cold, snowy, and relatively flat Michigan. My California friends who also lived in France and Morocco with us must have greeted each new day with “Just another day in paradise.”

And that difference in our two experiences is such a CRUCIAL thing for us to remember when life gets hard, ugly, disappointing or blizzard-y.

A light shines brighter against a backdrop of darkness.

Comfort is only as comfortable to the degree of discomfort it relieves.

Joy is only as joyful as the sorrow from which it rescues.

Pain relief is only helpful to the degree of suffering it relieves.

God is only as good as to the depth of which we recognize our sin and need of a Savior.

**********

When we meet people who (seem) to come from a very “charmed” life – who basically seem to escape all suffering in this life (they are smart, rich, thin, never struggled with teenage acne, their kids all make good choices, no cancer, disease, or disorders, no bad hair days, and their dog never poops on the living room rug… Kind of like the sun is always shining in their lives. You know the type…) well, it is tempting for us to wish we were them. It seems like THAT would be the life we all want and should strive (pray) for.

But I wonder…. I wonder if we’d be missing out on some very important things God wants to show us if our lives were void of the pain, the messy, the heartache (the snow?) I wonder if there are actually parts of GOD we would not know if we never knew pain, suffering, hurt and loss.

Why are we given so many different names for God if we’d never need them? If we all pursued and achieved the “charmed” life without any pain and suffering, certainly there are attributes of God we would never know.

 

How can we know God as our DELIVERER if we’re never in a horrible place from which we need delivering?

How can we know God as our COMFORTER if we’ve never been uncomfortable?

How can we know God as our HEALER and GREAT PHYSICIAN if we’ve never known illness or disease or suffered emotional/spiritual brokenness?

How can we know God as our PROVIDER if we’ve never ached for provision?

How can we know our God, the PRINCE OF PEACE if we’ve spent our whole lives avoiding conflict, running from adversity, never challenged?

How can we know our God, the SANCTUARY, if we’ve never been in a place of needing protection?

How can we know God as a REFUGE FROM THE STORM if our lives are always “sunny”?

How can we know God as the BREATH OF LIFE if we never recognize our desperate need for Him in ALL things?

How can we know God as our SHEPHERD if we never see ourselves as lowly sheep?

 

I’m not in any way suggesting we shouldn’t live in California! Nor am I saying God gives suffering – I believe HE IS PERFECT and would never author pain, loss, and suffering. But I do believe, with all my heart, that through the suffering we discover a God we hadn’t previously known – and we come to experience Him and love Him more fully, deeper and truer.

And, after all, isn’t that what He wants most from us???

 

 

Rae Dunn, Jesus, and a Washing Machine

IMG_5697.JPG

Am I the truly the last one to the Rae Dunn Party? I have only recently discovered it’s magical lure when my sweet friend gifted me a mug engraved with“Sing” after she read my blog on how I’m struggling to sing.

Apparently, RD is the latest craze and people are clamoring and clawing their way to select stores and clandestine gas station rendezvous to get their hands on more of this imperfectly perfect pottery.

Now, much to my chagrin, I am too.

Days after unapologetically jumping that pottery bandwagon, I’m sitting in my car in the black, wee morning hours (which, if you know me, should already clue you in I’m no longer thinking rationally) waiting for Home Goods to open their doors so I can rush in and deploy some rusty high school basketball skills and “box out” any obnoxious Johanna Gaines wannabe’s so I can beat them to the latest installation of Rae Dunn goodness.

The longer I sit here in the parking lot, the more I feel something disturbing in my soul. I’m feeling queasy about this shopping virus I’ve caught. Honestly, the real me – the healthy me – knows this is not what I want to be about. It’s not what I want to do with my precious time. It’s not where I want to spend our money or my energies either.

Furthermore, I need more cute mugs about as much as I need another hysterectomy.

But as I wait in my warm car and contemplate all this I ask myself, “So if this is not who you want to be, then why are you really here, Cindy?”

I should be at home. I have a long messy list of people in real need waiting for me back home: several friends in the midst of difficult, serious trials who could all use a loving phone call, my junior-high discipleship girls begging for an afternoon of my time, my widowed mom needing a “check-in” because I just don’t do that enough, a friend in Morocco hoping for a call as she faces a mountain of paperwork in an attempt to move their family to Canada, and a hard-working-tax-season husband who I desperately needed to reconnect with over a lunch date. And the list goes on…

People. All these people who are important in my life. People I love dearly and care passionately about their wellbeing. But yet, I’m escaping the responsibility of caring for them to instead chase down some stupid Rae Dunn dishes.

Why?

**********

When our lives were flipped upside down – almost 20 years ago now – Paul and I prayed every day that our lives would better reflect that which we said we believed. Specifically, we wanted our lives to reflect that PEOPLE are always more important than THINGS. At that time, we knew we had been spending too much of our time on things (whether buying things, taking care of our things, saving for more things, scrolling and dreaming about things or just talking about our things) we KNEW this was not the way of the kingdom. So we fervently prayed God would flip that on its head.

For the most part, He did.

So what the heck am I doing here in the Home Goods parking lot about to buy more THINGS while PEOPLE who genuinely need me today wait???

Many smart people have been able to hone in on this pervasive problem that is mine today and name it.

Jon Acuff, the bestselling author of Do Over and Finish calls it a “Hiding Place” – an activity you focus on instead of your goal or living out your true calling. Steven Pressfield in his highly acclaimed book The War of Art calls it the “Resistance” and describes it as a “toxic force that deforms our spirit” and keeps us from our truest selves.

That is definitely true for me. I’m hiding, resisting and avoiding. I’m avoiding the “messy” things in my life by running to a store. Because this is brainless, instant gratification. And, let’s be honest, there’s no REAL cost (because I believe if something costs you only money, it’s really no cost at all). Shopping is just dang easy.

The way of Jesus – the way of loving people with all of me – is rarely easy.

And as far back as Bible times, the earliest followers of Christ struggled with the same crap:

15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Romans 7:15 -20 

The apostle Paul doesn’t really go on at this point in the text to tell us how to respond when this happens, except to acknowledge it IS SIN living in us.

And we KNOW that we cannot overcome sin on our own. It’s just not possible.

We sin. We need a Savior. Period.

Holiness begins with knowing just how unholy we are. So that’s where we begin.

We acknowledge we are a sin-full people. We confess. We come clean.

WASH. RINSE. REPEAT.

Jesus – our holy washing machine.

I’m so thankful for a Savior who operates my rinse cycle – who puts my car in drive and pulls me out of the Home Goods parking lot so I can go home and do that which I know I’ve been called to and made to do.

Anyone else care to bravely share what things they do that they do not want to do? Are there things that pull you away from that which you know is right to do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does God Smell Like?

Unknown-2

 

It’s been six weeks since Heidi died. I have spent innumerable hours thinking about her in heaven. I like Revelation 7:9-17 best for a descriptive image of what she does with all her time. Without any cancer, suffering, work, eating, sleeping, etc. – just imagine all the time we’ll have for praising God in heaven!

 

But lately, for some odd reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about what things Heidi smells in heaven. I wonder if she now smells the way God smells – and I don’t mean in the sense as to what scent they give off, but how does God’s almighty and perfect olfactory sense work? What smells does He smell when he takes a whiff?

 

What is a pleasing aroma to God? What scents does He fill the heavens with? And therefore, what do the inhabitants of heaven smell when they take a whiff?

 

I have a friend* who has, for as long as I’ve known her, worn the same perfume. She must really like the scent. I think it smells like a hideous combination of mosquito repellent and my grandma’s bathroom spray.  Which I find curious.

 

I have another friend* who has severe haliotosis. I take a (hopefully) subtle small step back whenever we’re in conversation. Not-too-ironically, her husband is somewhat of a close-talker. Not only that, he’s also touchy-feely. He’s always hanging all over her – right up close – smelling that bad breath. Does he not notice? I wonder.

 

I know some other people* whose home smells like a decomposing animal. (We used to have packs of wild dogs roam our neighborhood in Morocco and they would sometimes fight to the death. I know all too well what a rotting dead animal smells like.) These are decent people who have regular jobs and clean their house and do laundry and such. I don’t think they’re hiding anything (taxidermy? Animal sacrifice???). But do they not notice the abhorrent smell of their home? I wonder.

 

All these things have made me wonder about our own human olfactory sense. Because, clearly, God has made us all to smell things differently. What seems abhorrent to one, seems decent, even lovely and pleasant to another. It’s incredible!

 

And so I wonder about God. Since He is GOD and the very CREATOR of the distinctly unique olfactory sense within each one of us, certainly His olfactory sense must be distinctly different from OURS!

 

And, interestingly, the Bible frequently talks about aromas. It is no secret that some are truly pleasing to God and others are not. Genesis 8:21, Leviticus 2:2, Leviticus 6:15, Ephesians 5:2, Ezekial 20:41, Isaiah 5:24, Ezekial 8:17.

 

So how do we know when we’re smelling that which perhaps God finds pleasing? Could it be we’re missing the divine in certain smells because we’re tripped up by our own noses?

 

I recently met a woman new to my neighborhood and she asked where I shop for groceries. I told her whenever I have enough time, I prefer Aldi’s because of the incredible savings. She pulled up her nose and said she refuses to shop there. “It stinks,” she said.

 

I know what she means. Aldi’s has a distinct smell. It smells like busy, haggard single moms trying to make ends meet. It smells like daycare. It smells like tired and worn out dads working two physically laborious jobs. It smells like people forced to view deodorant, shampoo and soap as luxuries. It smells like families who have chosen to eat over getting the washing machine fixed. It smells like humanity – real live people working hard to make it in this life and that includes shopping at Aldi’s. I wondered: What if the Aldi’s scent is a pleasing aroma to God because of all it represents?

 

Does God maybe even prefer the smell of Aldi’s to that of the fancy grocery store on the other side of town that pumps a new-baked cookie smell down every aisle to encourage over-spending and over-consumption?

 

Does God smell those differences and do they represent the differences in humanity to Him?

 

A few years ago, a dear friend and I traveled to Guatemala together. In awe of returning to the country we both love so much, we walked through the airport terminal in silence. When we reached the lobby, we simultaneously set our bags down. In a totally unplanned moment, we both breathed in deep and let the smells of Guatemala fill our nostrils. I said, “I love this smell.” She said, “Me, too.”

 

Guatemala smells like one part exhaust, two parts green chilis, three parts burning rubbish, and four parts body odor. I would imagine many human nostrils would not find it pleasant. But to me, it represents the birthplace of my daughter, the multiple service-learning trips we have taken there and also, some of the most poor, hard-working, and forgotten people on the planet. I love their smell, because it reminds me of them.

 

I wondered – does God love their smell, too? Could it be God loves the smell of Guatemala, Burundi, Haiti, and the Congo (just to name a few) because He is always close to the poor, the broken, the downhearted?

 

I wonder if God is drawn to the funky smells of this earthly home – simply because that’s where the majority of His hurting people are. Slums of Mumbai. Garbage city of Cairo. La Limonada of Guatemala. Under the highway overpass. Mission for the homeless (in your city and in mine). And millions of other places most of us are unaware exist.

 

Our family has lost four beloved family members in just a little more than a year. I have been at the bedside for each one in their last few days here on earth. Repeatedly, in those final days, those of us gathered at the bedside would comment that it felt like our loved one had one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. That space – that liminal space between heaven and earth, life and death, old body and new, is probably the most holy space I’ve ever had the privilege to enter. And there is a distinct smell in that holy of holies. I wonder if that is because they start to smell like heaven.

 

I do not believe heaven will smell like lilacs, Estee Lauder Cinnabar, or lavender fields. Some people might like those things (me), but certainly, there are those who do not!

 

I think heaven has a smell all it’s own and just like most things in heaven – it will surprise us.

 

* In order to protect the innocent, I have changed some vital information so that there is virtually no way anyone could figure out who I am talking about here.  I may or may not have changed the gender of the referred upon.  I may or may not have been referring to more of an acquaintance than a long-time friend.  I may or may not have been referring to someone from my past (or present).  I may or may not have been referring to someone deceased (or alive).  Even Paul, who should know these stories well, could not guess who I was referring to.  So rest easy, all my friends – it’s not you…

 

 

 

I Took A Bath With 10 Naked Ladies and I Loved It.

IMG_4306I just returned from a visit to my second homeland, Casablanca, Morocco. I lived in that beautiful country for four years and never went to the hammam – the Moroccan version of a communal Turkish bathhouse where women and men (in separate quarters) go for weekly bathing rituals in a somewhat spa-like setting.

The experience always sounded terrifying to me because I was only aware of two facts: women walk around naked and an attendant scrubs you down from head to toe. No part of that sounded “fun” in the least. I don’t walk around my husband naked, let alone strange Muslim women.

On this particular visit, however, my friend Khadija tried to convince me into going to the hammam together. “It’ll be fun!” she said.

While still skeptical, I acquiesced to Khadija’s cajoling – mostly because she threw out the word “brave” when referring to westerners who try the hammam – and I SO want that word to define me…

Bring it!

After paying around eight dollars each, we entered the locker area and stripped down – leaving only our underwear on. Khadija explained that this was necessary because Islam forbids total nudity. I didn’t exactly feel “less nude” just because I had my little black bikini Target underwear on.

Khadija told me to just relax and “enjoy” the experience.

“Uh-huh. Okay, Khadija”

The bathing area consists of four connected rooms – each one large, bright, and cavernous with white and marble-y grey tile walls and ceiling, and white and grey swirled marble sinks, fountains and slab tables. Loud echoes bounced around the rooms from rushing water, splashing children, laughing women. This was most definitely a place to let your guard down and engage. I tried to let my guard down but couldn’t quite get past all the boobs. Every size, color and shape. Boobs for days. One thing I know for certain about our God: He IS a creative.

We walked through a large room that had at least a dozen marble sinks around the perimeter, each with hot and cold faucets – many of them running freely without anyone nearby. They do not worry about wasting water at the hammam. There were several naked women sitting on little stools at some of these sinks. They each held a small, brightly colored children’s sand bucket in their hands and were either soaping up their bodies or dumping water over their heads with their buckets. Water was overflowing the marble sinks and flowing loudly into a drain in the center of the room. A couple of little girls were splashing around in the water streams. No one seemed to really notice us. Everyone was just so matter-of-fact going about their cleansing business. Still – I couldn’t help but feel like a white sheep who had just walked into the black-sheep pen.

Khadija and I walked through the sink room and entered the sauna room. Its purpose was to sweat-open our pores so the scrubbing we were about to receive would be the most effective.

In the sauna, we also personally scrubbed down our bodies with this soft, pasty brown soap that every Moroccan uses every time they visit the hammam. I don’t know why they do it, they just do. Sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions. As I was soon to discover…

After the sauna, my “attendant”, Souad, came to greet me. She was thrilled to have an American as a client! She said, “Me. I speak English!” I said, “Wonderful! I’m so relieved! I don’t speak Arabic!” And she said, “Nice you speak Arabic.” I said, “No, I said I DON’T. I only speak French. We used to live here and I was able to get by using only French.” And she said, “Nice you live here someday.”

I held back, but so wanted to say, “You. You no speak English.”

But, as it turned out, it entirely didn’t matter and it in no way affected my experience.

Souad brought me to yet another room where there were six or so marble slab tables. At the head of each table was a hand bar. I never read the book or saw the movie of the same name, “50 Shades of Grey” – but it was, honest to goodness, my first thought of use for that bar…   I looked at the other women being scrubbed down on their marble slabs – and sure enough, their arms were up over their heads holding onto that bar for dear life just to keep from slip-sliding off the wet tables as they were vigorously scrubbed down.

I had to dig deep to find my bravery at this point.

Souad had to clean the marble table first from the previous bather. So she hosed it down and took her arm and swept away any excess water on the table. Third world living had definitely taught me how to do “mind-over-matter”, so I quickly deleted from my mental hard drive all that I had learned in nursing school about sanitizing equipment and everything I knew about proliferating germs from working two years in Infection Control at Spectrum Health. I did not want to be hindered from “enjoying” this experience due to unnecessary knowledge…

There. Gone from memory. Brave again! Let’s proceed!

Souad wore a harsh, gritty scrubbing glove on her powerful right hand. It was only slightly less abrasive then the SANDPAPER I had used on the plastered walls of our Fixer-Upper! Souad squirted some warm oily soap over one small area at a time and with hands more muscular than most men, she scrubbed me down. At first, I felt the scrubbing to be a wee bit painful and I was searching my vocabulary for some Arabic words to tell her to “chill out a little, would ya?” – but after a few minutes of more mind-over-matter and mentally replaying Khadija’s words of advice, “Just enjoy yourself”, I began to relax. Soon, I forgot I was naked and that a stranger was scrubbing every nook, cranny and crevice of my body. She yanked my underwear up and down to be sure to reach every hidden part – (except, of course, the unmentionables because of that part of Islam….). She yanked so hard on my underwear that the elastic burst and I had to hold them up the rest of the time.

She scrubbed my front side. She held my legs high in the air, she steadied them one at a time in her armpit to wash the interior side, she held them off to the side, jerking me into positions I didn’t know I could do – all to access every square inch of my body. She rolled me over and scrubbed my backside. She went back over my legs and arms several times – even seeming, I think, a bit frustrated as she increased force.

It wasn’t until I sat up that I realized what exactly had transformed for the past half hour. I was surrounded by a pool of grimy, dirty piles of skin. MY grimy skin! What the @#%*!? Have I never washed myself??? Do I not shower every day??? What the heck AM I doing in the shower if I actually have this much grimy residue left behind?

I wanted to gag. I also wanted to run away from embarrassment. I didn’t even want to make eye-contact with Souad for fear that she was gagging, too. I tried to think of a quick lie that might explain why I was so dirty, like, “Well, you know, I just returned from a month-long camel trek in the desert with no water available for bathing…” But I realized Ms. Souad the “English speaker” wouldn’t understand me anyway.

It wasn’t until at least an hour later when I finally found a mirror that I realized what had happened. I was at least two-shades lighter. Whiter. Souad had simply scrubbed off the tan that I had spent all summer trying to acquire. I said a quick prayer hoping the body scrub also removed the negative carcinogenic effects of the sun…

After the scrub down, Souad took me to yet another room, where, instead of marble slabs, there were padded massage beds. Again, she “cleaned” the bed by hosing it down and wiping off the water with her arm. I clenched my saggy underwear with one hand and climbed on the bed. With one strong shove, Souad rolled me to my stomach and stretched my arms above my head. She then proceeded to apply some kind of grey mud that smelled like lavender to my entire body. And she massaged me – from freaking tip of my head to freaking tip of my toes. And here, here is where I nearly fell asleep and entered some kind of nirvana. I forgot where I was and I didn’t care that I was naked with nothing but stretched out underwear on. I didn’t care that Souad and I couldn’t communicate or that she had probably seen more terrain of my body than my husband. I didn’t care about anything anymore.

This was bliss.

From the massage table we went to the sink room and washed our hair and dumped water all over ourselves with those colorful little plastic buckets. It was kind of tricky as I had to hold up my underwear with one hand, but it was like a bunch of grown women playing in a splash pad/water park. I loved it. I stopped noticing boobs.

After the splash pad, we showered in traditional showers. To my memory, this made the fifth full-body washing of the day. We ended the experience by wrapping up in towels, grabbing a cold drink from the desk attendant and sitting in lounge chairs while watching Arabic MTV for about half an hour. My body a calm, contented, noodle – I could have easily fallen asleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so relaxed.  We sipped our drinks and laughed about our aging bodies, confessed how we sometimes screen phone calls and ignore texts, and talked seriously about Middle Eastern politics for a while.

I ended up tipping Souad about the equivalent of her day’s wage. Again, I didn’t care. Souad is some kind of soul-sister to me now.

Lastly, Khadija reassured me that everyone leaves behind piles of grimy skin – even when they are visiting the hammam weekly and that’s how you know the attendant did her job well! She also hypothesized that Moroccan women have less issue with body shame and striving for unattainable goals of body perfection because they grow up in the hammam observing the real female form. They develop a solid sense of self from seeing “normal” female bodies far more than observing those airbrushed models on the lying covers of magazines. I had to agree. She also told me to feel my skin and said, “Feels like a baby’s bottom, doesn’t it?” She also said we should go to the hammam together more often.

I couldn’t agree more, Khadija. I couldn’t agree more.

And here’s the thing: I think Moroccans are on to something with this whole hammam-gig. In addition to the “reality-check” it serves women with body image, I think the whole experience is also far more about bonding with girlfriends, getting real with one another and eliminating relationship inhibition than it is about bathing.

And we see this in other cultures, too:

Our oldest daughter is in her first year at university. She lives in the dorms and they have community bathrooms. She says the best bonding moments come in the bathroom – sometimes with tunes blaring, dancing in their bath towels and singing into toothbrush microphones; other times it is serious conversation with shared tears and prayers – but somehow, beautifully, these college girls develop intimate lifelong friendships in those bathrooms.

There’s something about being naked literally that makes one dare, but also want, to bare their souls as well. And it seems to me that sharing of our souls with a couple of our safe, bestie girlfriends is essential to becoming whole.

Hammam anyone???