Brussels, Belgium – April 2013
I navigate the streets of Brussels with my eyes fixed on the pavement in front of me. I raise my eyes every so often to look for street signs. To be sure that I’m not lost. The sky is a uniform slate gray. The panic is lurking somewhere. It made a brief appearance on the plane ride. I forced myself to instigate a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. Tell me about yourself so I don’t think about myself. Please. He didn’t seem to notice my discomfort – the shaking hands clasped in my lap and the tense smile. Then again, people rarely do. He answered my questions about Belgium with unexpected enthusiasm. By the time the plane touched down, the panic had dissipated.
I make my way to the Musée Magritte, which is an uphill walk from Grand Place. A couple of photos of the artist hang in the entryway. There’s something familiar in his expression. The sadness of life has not snuffed out the innocence. Magritte’s mother drowned herself when he was a young boy. I’m drawn to one of his recurring motifs – fluffy white clouds on blue sky. It’s childlike, whimsical, and somehow unsettling.
Groups of young schoolchildren follow their teachers from painting to painting. I’m unable to get close. Suddenly there are too many people. A quick jolt moves through me and the edges of my vision grow blurry. I hurry on ahead. The space in front of L’Empire des Lumières (The Empire of Light) is empty. I pause and let the image sink into my brain.
Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see. – René Magritte
What is it that really brings about the darkness?
Before I venture back out to the street, I stop in the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. The mirror makes me smile, but I’m not able to meet my eyes for more than a split second. When I was a kid, I used to freak myself out by staring in the mirror until I “saw” myself. I’m alive, I used to whisper over and over. For a few seconds, the dream of reality would fall away and I would be left with the being that inhabits this body. Myself. It was fascinating and terrifying.
If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream. – René Magritte
I walk back towards Grand Place, trying to keep a grip on myself. I feel disembodied, a phantom among the living. Breathe. Lift your eyes. Look at the others. Meet their eyes. It’s going to be okay. You’re one of them.
For most of my life, I was followed around by the leaden cloud of depression. In November of 2011, something unexpected happened. The black clouds rolled away to reveal an immaculate blue infinity. Another kind of abyss. I’m grateful that the self-loathing is gone. However, without something anchoring me down, I might float away. A few clouds are necessary to put things into perspective.
It would be easier if I knew what it is, exactly, that I’m afraid of. I’ve come to believe that there’s an undercurrent that sensitive people are picking up on. Some of my friends are experiencing the same debilitating level of vague anxiety. Something is wrong.
At the end of the afternoon, I find myself at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the world’s largest Art Deco structure. Storm clouds gather overhead, but I make a complete circle of the magnificent building before heading back to the guesthouse. Magritte and Art Deco. These artistic delights will tide me over for a while.
On my last day in Belgium, a soft spring sun shines down. Grand Place is thronged with people enjoying the new warmth. I move among them in a calm oblivion. I simply feel good today. The intricate details of the architecture are illuminated. The windows of the Hotel de Ville become mirrors reflecting the remnants of cloud.
*Image source for The Empire of Light: Wikipedia