Fluffy White Clouds and Blue Sky

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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.

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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.

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The Empire of Light – Rene Magritte

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*Image source for The Empire of Light: Wikipedia

46 thoughts on “Fluffy White Clouds and Blue Sky

  1. “When I was a kid, I used to freak myself out by staring in the mirror until I “saw” myself. ‘I’m alive…'”

    I don’t know that I’ve ever known anyone else to do this. I still do it sometimes, and it still weirds me out.

    Beautiful essay, as always!

    • Wow. I’ve never known anyone else who did this, either, but I’ve never really mentioned it to anyone before, except to my peers when I was a kid and boy did that NOT go over well. 😉 You’re brave to keep on doing it. I don’t think I could handle it anymore.

      • Kids thought I was kind of a weirdo, too, when I was young. Now my friends just laugh about it, which is good because I haven’t changed much! 🙂

        It creeps me out to do the mirror staredown. I start looking foreign. I still do it just to take away the ordinary, I guess. I look at myself every day in the mirror, but rarely see myself. It’s offputting to realize that when people look at me, they see this face, these eyes, that crooked nose, and I rarely see it, myself.

  2. Scratch a little beneath everyone’s surface and we are all a bit freaky which makes us the norm. Always interesting to read about Brussels – I spent too many hours in dreadful; EU meetings when I could have been in Musée Magritte – doing things in the mirror I won’t even admit to 🙂 Great post as usual.

  3. I hear ya about the cloud of depression and “vague anxiety”. Well put! Good for you and thanks for being brave on that flight and to be there to take those gorgeous photos of that Basilica for us. I like how you put emotion into words. Simple, yet deep.

  4. what I like about your post
    you do make us travel to the place
    you were
    both physical and internal
    bravo!

    the photos are so poetic and surreal
    I guess that was were you were back then
    in a dream

  5. Hi J, I left a comment here a few days ago but I don’t think it went thru. Anyway, these photos are so beautiful. I even forgot what I said on here before.

    Btw, I sent a card on Wednesday for you. Hope it’ll get to you safely.

  6. Bonjour la Vagabonde! 🙂 Love it and miss it… we lived in Paris for 8 years and we used to go there on weekends… I often remember the yummy chicken or fish “waterzoï”… 🙂
    – – –
    My very best and have a great week! Amicalement, Mélanie NB, Toulouse, France.

  7. A very well written post complimented by equally wonderful photographs…I have been to Belgium many time as Brussels was my regular stopover between Paris and Amsterdam…I am just wondering if you had French Fries while in Belgium…Its because French Fries are NOT French but Belgian, which, almost everybody in Belgium is eager to point out.. 🙂
    Pankaj

    • I didn’t have French fries (frites) in Belgium, because they are fried in animal fat and I’m a vegetarian. I tried to find a place that cooks in vegetable oil, but had no luck. But I did eat lots of waffles! 🙂 Cheers!

  8. I always like it when people write about the city I live in. But you do it so well ! Thank you !
    And the photo of the Basilique looks so unreal but so Belgian in the same time…

  9. What an excellent post on Brussels. Many don’t realize it still is a nice place to visit. . . Probably because its overshadowed by gorgeous Bruges? I especially liked the narrative in this post. Brussels fills me with a bit of anxiety because I had my heart broken once in this city. . . Or maybe I’m just using this as an excuse to indulge in the Belgian chocolates more than I should 😉

    • So many people didn’t understand why I was bothering to go to Brussels, so I didn’t expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. The food was excellent. I ate way too much.

      Sorry to hear that you had your heart broken there. It’s so true that personal experiences can tarnish a location.

  10. I really liked reading this. Found it very interesting when you spoke about the undercurrent sensitive people are picking up on. I often have a vague feeling of worry or unease, I wonder what it is.

    • When I was growing up, we didn’t hear of so many people having debilitating panic attacks, but now it’s almost a common occurrence. What’s going on? Instead of taking pills to neutralize it, we really need to figure this out. Thanks for chiming in!

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