Beneath the Winter

There is a time, in February or March, when the winds turn warm and the sun dispels the gray. The snow recedes. A glimmer of hope, a hesitant smile. Is it finally over? Put the boots and heavy coats away. Throw open the windows. But the gray gates slam shut again and the wind howls with laughter. Soggy snowflakes bury the earth. There is always snow on the Day of Fools. The Spring of Deception, this phenomenon is called. I fall for it every time. Maybe I’m a fool, but at least my heart is still capable of hope. 

But this year is different. It doesn’t matter that it won’t last. The obligatory snow of April Fool’s is a mere dusting. The warmth persists. I fill my lungs with the rich aroma of thawing earth. We deserve this.

A lot goes on in these woods, but I keep most of it to myself. The ravens, especially, always lead me into deeper territory. Springtime’s blossoms and birdsong overshadow the death that also abounds this time of year. That which reawakens is disoriented. So easy to stagger into the path of disaster. And the new life, the babies. So sweet and fragile. One mistake and the life that could have been is finished.

Then there are the bones that resurface, a reminder that it takes a very long time for some things to disintegrate into dust.

What lies beneath my winter? I do not avert my eyes, no matter how uncomfortable the revelation. The intricacies of self-sabotage are revealed. It feels as though I’m standing on the precipice of happiness. But there has been so much disappointment, so much deception. When we ask/hope/wish, are we not relying on an external force to deliver? Maybe the person in the mirror is the one who holds the key. I’m tired of punishing myself for some long-buried, unfairly-assumed childhood shame. But maybe I don’t really want some of the things that continue to elude me. Perhaps, somewhere underneath, I know it’s for my own good. There is no time left to squander. As if there ever was. Be very, very clear on what you want and give yourself permission to have it. I peer into this blurry reflection in the snow-swollen current. Who we are is ever-changing. Momentary glimpses are swept away. 

In northern Michigan, true spring hesitates, in love with its own slumber. A gradual awakening, excruciating languor. Patience, patience. That which takes the most time to come into being is the most profound. Cherish the sweet unfolding. 

Each day brings a new surprise – another songbird’s voice, new buds emerge, and, finally, wildflowers. Marsh marigolds first, then violets. The drowsy flight of butterflies and bumblebees. Awaken, sleepyheads. The bewildered emergence of the little furry ones. They stare at me with curiosity, and then skitter away, remembering that my kind is to be feared.

The early petals wither while new blooms unfurl. Each one more flamboyant than the last. 

And, finally, the White Queens return and the woods become Wonderland. Soon it will be summer.

The freshest green of leaves about to burst from their buds is the most delightful color of all. A warm rain, a new morning. And everything that brought you to this stage of becoming is already a memory.

It was two years ago, I believe. During morel time. I had fled to my favorite place on the river. A place I savor every spring. By June the stinging nettle and thistle form an impenetrable barrier, barring my access until winter. Across the meadow and through the forest. Along the low bluffs. I startled a fawn that had been sleeping in a patch of tall grass. It scampered into the woods, bawling. I looked down at the ground, a wrench in my heart. A pair of ravens called back and forth to each other from the treetops, one on each side of the river.

And then I saw them, just under my feet. Out in the open, on the river bank, poking up through cedar needles and moss. There are strategies for hunting these culinary treasures. Look around fruit trees after the first warm rain, they say. And so on. But, in reality, morels grow wherever they please. They spilled out of my sweatshirt as I gathered them up. The turmoil of earlier that day lost all of its power. The ravens’ voices became more urgent. I paused and peered into the trees. The tone was unfamiliar, so full of despair. Something was happening. Were they angry with me? More gathered in the skies, circling and calling. I cradled the morels in my arms and headed towards home. I passed through a copse of poplars, scaring up about a dozen ravens that had been sitting in silence in the canopy. Waiting. I froze as the shadows flew over my head. 

When I crossed the meadow, I understood. On the far side, a raven swooped and fell to the earth. Another called down to it. It mustered the strength to lift off. Two smaller birds flew at it in attack. It dipped and nearly fell again. Two ravens ran the other birds off. They coaxed their injured one into the woods. Dozens of others followed. A grim procession.

I paused in the middle of the meadow and bowed my head in respect. When a raven is dying, its family gathers around it, keeping it company until it passes through the doorway to Home. It will not leave this Earth alone. I could have lingered or tried to capture it on film, but I’d always respected their wishes to not be photographed. As if I could if I tried. I headed up the trail, haunted and humbled. The requiem receded. My ears hummed in its absence. The world of humans loomed ahead. I took a deep breath. Yes, I often falter, but I somehow manage to take flight.

“It was good to finally know that the spirit is everywhere rather than a separate thing. I’ve been lucky to spend a life pretty close to the earth up here in the north. I learned in those three days that the earth is so much more than I ever thought it was. It was a gift indeed to see all sides of everything at once. This makes it real hard to say good-bye. My family will be with me just like that old raven falling slowly down through the tree.”

– Jim Harrison, Returning to Earth

Remember the Dance

London – March 1989

We are in some sort of small warehouse. It’s pitch dark, except for black light glowing on Day-Glo painted walls. I’ve got a bad sinus infection. My head hurts so badly I can hardly see. Manuela and I are the only girls in this place. A bunch of guys dressed in baggy pants and fluorescent high top trainers are dancing like weirdos. Spastic shadows twitching to the worst music I’ve ever heard.

“This is acid music,” Manuela says. Her eyes blaze. “This music is God.”

I sigh in annoyance. Rome, Venice, Paris, and now London. We are getting on each others’ nerves, but we are stuck with each other until tomorrow morning when I go back to LA. I have to be at the airport three hours early because the terrorists who blew up the PanAm plane are threatening to blow up another one this weekend, Easter weekend. I just want to go back to the hotel and sleep.

Manuela grabs my hand and leads me through back alleys in search of some club called Heaven. We wait in line for a long time. We are dressed in the funky clothes we bought on High Street. She’s wearing bellbottoms that are so ugly I can hardly look at them. She says my leather hat and leather boots with skull buckles are outdated. So American. “No one listens to hard rock anymore.” She stifles a snicker. “That’s for old people.”

The music throbs around us as we meander endless corridors. Up and down. Around and around. Manuela is on the hunt for some musician she’s got a crush on. S’express. Bomb the Bass. People and groups and music I’ve never heard of. “There he is!” Manuela gasps. She walks up to a small-boned man of Asian descent. He is gay, but she’s hopelessly smitten. 

I stand back while she talks to these famous people. They look at me with respect when she tells them I’m from Michigan. I guess this music actually started in Detroit. Figures. The musical bombardment is relentless. Sadistic. I clasp my battered head in my hands and stifle a scream.

“This crap will never become popular in America,” I growl, as we finally make our way to the exit. “It sucks!”

“You’ll love it, too. One day.” Her deep brown eyes glitter. “You will always remember this night.

I sigh and shake my head. The vow to myself is etched in steel. Never, ever. 

Two years later, I sought out the merry asylum. My London story was a source of envy to my friends, who were fanatics about this new music. They heard a rumor, which beckoned us on a quest for the ticket seller. We found him at a tiny party store in Hollywood. The middle-aged black man screened us with nonsensical questions. “Are you sure you know what you know?” He bugged his eyes out and pulled his lips into a carney grin. 

I tried to keep a grip on my escalating buzz. “You’re totally messing with me.”

“Just trying to figure out if you finished high school.” He winked at me and gave us the precious treasure map. 

It led us to an abandoned warehouse in South Central LA. Interspersed in the vast crowd were people standing with arms crossed over their heads. “That means they’re selling X,” one of my friends whispered. “Ecstasy.” 

We passed them by, preferring the natural source of bliss we had ingested earlier. Smiley faces and stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss hats. It was a carnival of love. I believe it was that night when the music took hold forever. The repetitive beats brought me to a trance. It burrowed deep inside my cells, the friendliest of parasites. 

Just before sunrise, flashing red lights surrounded the warehouse. Sirens. We scattered into the streets, breathless with glee. 

I danced whenever I could, which wasn’t often. Work and responsibilities and financial challenges kept me from going out on a regular basis. Smaller clubs were my preference. The deejays were enigmatic figures hidden in booths. They were genies who wove tracks together into a vibrant tapestry. A magic carpet ride. The clubs were dark, smoky, spartan. They were simply receptacles for bodies moving together in the dark. There is a special intimacy in sharing a dance floor with strangers. Deep and warm, but without physical contact, or even acknowledgment. We shared a space, but our awareness was turned within. Glowing glances were exchanged when we caught the same groove and surfed it to shore. That shared euphoria. No other intoxicant was necessary. The dance floor is the only place where I’ve truly felt oneness with humanity.

Poznan, Poland. 2007. He took the stage and exclaimed. “I am Polish Electro Boogie Boy!” There are so many other characters that I will always remember. Nameless and their faces are obscured with time, but their dance was unforgettable. You can know so much about a person by the way they allow themselves to move. They way they inhabit their bodies.

The places I’ve danced. Nights that became mornings. Gatherings that brought me home to myself. In my days of deepest depression, I believe that it saved me. London. LA. Berlin. Chicago. Budapest. Noumea. Rio de Janeiro. Phoenix. And Sydney.

Sydney, Australia – September 1995

In Sydney, we clean up. We splurge on new clothes. Dig our makeup out of the bottom of our stinky backpacks. Unfurl. We made it. 

“A toast.” Maya holds out her palm to reveal three tiny squares of paper. “To surviving Papua New Guinea. And to Sydney. Magnificent Sydney!”

Amelia, our Australian friend, places one on my tongue, communion-like. The body of infinity. Forever and ever. Amen. Slow, deep breaths. Focus. With courage and respect. A new expedition looms ahead. Inter-dimensional. Be ready. 

“Peace, Dearie. It will be beautiful.” Amelia takes my hand. “Let’s go dance.” 

Into a labyrinth of murky rooms. Psychedelic frescoes shimmer on black walls. A tingle, then radiance. And away I go. A giggle moves through me. This effervescence. So different from the tainted, bone-jarring LSD trips of yesteryear.

Maya and Amelia whirl away. Into the shadows. A gaunt man wearing a yellow polyester blazer and red pants sits down next to me. He is surely younger than I am, but his eyes hold the weariness of eons. He spins a glittery plastic scepter in his hand. Round and round. Others of his kind slouch against walls and huddle in corners. Eyes downcast. Rumpled velvet and smeared makeup. Carnival carnage.

“Who are you?”

“We are the Vibe Tribe.” He lays the scepter across his lap. “Some call us The Ferals. A band of futuristic gypsies. We’ve spent the last few years on the road together.”

Tendrils of music swirl around me and seep into my pores. Liquid resonance. My heart swells and ascends. 

“This morning we will pack up our tipis and leave for Tasmania. And then it’s over. We are weary of the road, each other, the dance. The Ecstasy has stopped working. We tried.” A heavy pause. “Have we, as humans, lost the ability to band together forever?” He shakes his head.

Crestfallen and bewildered souls. A girl wearing a white dress with big black polka dots stares out at the world through spooky black-rimmed eyes. Her manic staccato cackle is consumed by the music. 

Maya’s whisper in my ear. “She scares me.” I turn my head to respond, but she’s dancing with Amelia on the other side of the room.

Feral boy speaks. “Some will wander forever alone, unable to re-integrate into society. That’s the price paid for searching. The longer you’re away, the harder it is to return. Maybe it’s better to die than to live in the past.”

I take his hand. “Dance with me.”

He pulls his hand away. “It’s all over for me.” He crumples against the wall and closes his eyes.

I sweep my eyes around the room. A slight, shiny distortion, like cling wrap, warps my view. Behold the membrane that separates me from other humans. The wall of There. Glide onto the dance floor. Into Maya and Amelia’s open arms. I smile into the face of a man with long black hair and limpid brown eyes. The shimmer of his hands down my back. The slow, deep seep of his essence into the cells. The eternity of our friendship unspools before us. He looks down at his hands and then back at me in wonder. My languid pirouette. The music throbs an obscene warmth though me. I lift my arms in surrender. Undulate myself into dissolution. Whatever you are out there, I am yours. Take me. The membrane dissolves. 

Tentacles of sound pull the dancers tighter in its grasp. Polka Dot Girl staggers to the dance floor. Spastic, jerky dance moves. Ferocious eyes. A battered marionette struggling to break free. Those who seem wild are often just imprisoned by a different force. 

I close my eyes. And see. My atoms are iridescent aqua blue spheres. I am the sky. They morph into tiny blue bubbles that float away on my laughs. I am joy. I am no more.

Drops of pink dawn drip through the cracks in the heavy black curtains. From the softest illumination. The music’s velvety tendrils recede. Back to the luminous abyss from whence they came. We shake ourselves off. Reassemble. 

Feeling at home in solitude is a gift. I gather this to my heart in a gentle embrace. Thank you.

The Vibe Tribe coalesces. A bouquet of wistful wilted wildflowers. They pause in the doorway. A silhouette of resignation. And then they are gone. 

The 1990s became the 2000s. Then came the organization. The marketing and promotion. The plastic surgery, the solarium tans, the skimpy costumes. The pouting. White shirts and waxed chests on the male variety. The deejays became superstars. The turntables morphed into computer programs. The awareness shifted to the exterior. The music became a stagnant pond, sub-genres blended together to appeal to the masses. The waves went flat. The soul took refuge underground. I lost the motivation to find it. It was inevitable. 

Vapors of laser phosphorescence dissipating in the sunrise. Always a beautiful, bittersweet sight. It was time to go home. Satiated and covered in dust and smoke and dried sweat. Grateful and already wistful. You could buy the music, play it at home or in the car, but the vibe was impossible to replicate. You could dream of next time. Eventually, it would be the last time. We are all middle-aged now. Those of us who danced together all those years ago. It doesn’t matter what became of us. We are still grooving together in the vast arena of memory. The dance continues. For eternity.

The White Room

I awaken. Something is different. I blink the sleep from my eyes. Scan my body. Catch my breath. The pain. It’s gone. My eyes flicker to the window. The pine trees are blanketed with fresh snow. A gust of wind seizes the branches and the world is obscured in white. A long, smooth exhale. It is over. 

The lessons I’ve learned over the past year: 

— The difference between signs and wishful thinking. 

— For every demon inside of us there’s an angel. Sometimes they’re the same presence. I’ve identified mine and given them names. We work together now.

— You can pass the test, but feel defeated rather than victorious. 

I’m a profoundly different person than I was a year ago. Am I a better person? I really don’t know. 

I’ve entered a vast, white space. It is utter emptiness, a vacuum of cosmos magnitude, but not desolation. Eerie, but intriguing rather than terrifying. I stand still and listen with innocent curiosity. I have absolutely no idea of what is to come.

There is a recognized form of torture called “white torture”. It’s used by certain organizations and governments, including my own. A prisoner is entombed in a soundproof white cell. Her clothes and even the food she is served is white. All communication with guards must be written down. The only sound is the prisoner’s slippered feet shuffling across the white floor. And her thoughts. Eventually, the prisoner completely loses her personal identity. She will never return to normal.

Is it really amnesia? We are more than just beings who process the sensations of our environment. When the external is stripped away, we are confronted with the blank canvas of the psyche. Out of the white void, something else arises. If we let it. 

I have a new profession. One so alien to me and yet so necessary. I work in a temple of value and worth. Rigid compliance and conformity. The soft rasp of currency gliding through my fingertips. The tinkle of coins. When you touch too much of something it loses its power. It becomes silly.

I close my eyes at night and I’m there again. People have given me money for my work. Stacks and loose bills. Ones, fives, hundreds. Two-thousand and ten-thousand dollar bills. Dreamland denominations. I’m humbled by the generosity. It’s much more than I expected and I wonder if I’ll get into trouble for taking it. I look over at my coworkers, those above me. “Can I take all of this?”

Their smiles are amused and slightly sad. “Of course you can take it. It’s yours. You deserve it.”

I sort through the bills. Some are faded, torn, blood-stained. There is a small stack of twenties with a singed hole through the center, like a gunshot wound. This is all they had to give, but it doesn’t mean it’s all that you’re worth. You are not obligated to accept it. You never have been. I set the soiled bills aside. Mutilated currency is sent back to its origin and it is taken out of circulation. Forever.

The things that I’ve let go. Fundamental facets of my identity and purpose in this life. Who was I? A world traveler. One who will most likely not be welcome in a brave new normal. I refuse to betray my convictions. Even for the road. The vessel that carries my soul is more sacred than an airplane. I have my wilderness, now. I drift amid my trees, gloved hands caressing bark. Eyes lifted to the sky, following a raven’s trajectory. The crunch of my boots in ankle-deep snow. New adventures begin to sprout in my imagination. Whispers fill my mind: permaculture, agroforestry, foraging, herbal medicine. A wonderland surrounds me. 

Who did I wish to be? An author published by a recognized house. Alas, my story is not one that’s sought by the masses. It was not bitterness, but momentary resignation that blossomed into sweet liberation. I never truly wanted to be part of traditional publishing. I am too wild for that world. I have lost the last of my respect for it. Now, only my energy will be within the pages. It won’t be sanitized by outside influences to make it more marketable. I won’t be molded into a Brand®. I have enough faith in my ability as a writer. Those who are destined to read the book will find it. 

What seems like rejection is redirection into new frontiers. I wait and watch and listen. Try to identify this incredible feeling inside. Indifference, effervescence, wonder. Purity. I have passed the test. There are things I will never again allow into my life. If it means that I finish my existence alone, so be it.

Recede. Come home. No one can hurt you here. 

A mischievious smile creeps across my face. I was never really there, anyway.

Years ago, back when I wrote fiction, I wanted to write a story about a woman who believed she was a ghost among the living. There have been so many stories written about phantoms who believe they are still alive, and the story ends when they’ve discovered that they’ve passed on and couldn’t let go of life. The character I envisioned wanders the corridors of her workplace and the various haunts of her daily routine. She no longer bothers to communicate, because no one has ever acknowledged her. Then, one day, a man speaks to her. He peers deep inside of her and smiles. And she realizes she’s alive. She always has been. The others were incapable of seeing her. 

The softest hiss of a paintbrush gliding across bare wood planks. The walls of my little shelter. Just enough white to brighten, but not enough to erase the character. I lift my eyes and brush my hair out of my face with the back of my whitewash-splattered hand. The iridescent glow of snow light through the shiny new window. Snowflakes dance against the pristine window pane. I’ve been writing that story all along. How it ends remains a mystery.