In Search Of

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Easter Island – October 2016

Come back to me.

A shift in pressure as the plane descends through the clouds. I catch a glimpse of the island. Is that a cloud moai over the wing?

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The Time has come.

I have come in search of a lost spirit. She is eight years old, a halo of blonde hair cut into a Toni Tennille bob. She wears a long, deep purple dress that her mother made. Her feet are bare. For forty years, she has roamed among the stately monoliths.

Come back to me.

Detail from Religion class drawing. January 4, 1977

Detail from Religion class drawing. January 4, 1977

My favorite television show is In Search Of. It stars Mr. Spock from Star Trek. It’s about mysteries like the Loch Ness monster, haunted castles, and UFOs. My favorite episode is about Easter Island. At St. Anthony’s school, I draw the stone heads for a Religion class assignment. The heads are my science research project. I say that they were carved by outer space people. I don’t even care if anyone laughs. The Teacher or the other kids. But they don’t. They are afraid to now, after what happened.

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Dream

Julie Douglas
Writing 3
March 10, 1977

Dream.
I had a dream about the heads on Easter Island. Me and my friend were going to Easter Island. When we got there we didn’t expect a city. Then we go, do you know where the heads are? They go, yes, but they are guarded by ugly creatures. So what. We’ll bring weapons. Many men had took the most powerful guns on this whole island but they never returned, so nobody would dare go there. Thanks for telling us. You can stay at my place for tonight before your trip home. The End.

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A pre-dawn symphony awakens me. Vigorous crows and indignant clucks. I smile to myself as the performance grows more impassioned with the sunrise. It’s funny to be back in the Pacific islands after a ten-year absence. I once called two rocks in this vast region “home” – Guam and New Caledonia. Yet Easter Island had somehow fallen off my travel radar. The Time was not right back then.

I glance at my phone. Only twenty minutes have passed. It seems like more than an hour. That’s Island Time. Languid, elongated. It feels like I’ve been on this voyage for ages, but I’ve only just arrived.

The evening before I left on this journey, I found the In Search Of episode on YouTube. It was called, “The Easter Island Massacre.” Shadowy film tones and melodramatic music. Leonard Nimoy in a turtleneck and blazer. His presence as aloof and regal as the moai. The vague, sensational theories seem silly today, but to a young child in the 1970s, they were mesmerizing.

I gather myself together and walk down the path to Tahai, ten minutes from the guesthouse. It is a must-see place for sunsets, so now it is empty. The rangers haven’t yet arrived. Here is the only moai that has restored eyes. I stare into them.

She was here, but has moved on. I feel a pull to the right. The dirt road continues, so I follow it. I’ve got all day in Hanga Roa. The rental car is reserved for tomorrow and the day after. A wild horse passes me with a snort. A solitary moai comes into view. This one is named Kioe.

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I sit on the grass and watch the clouds dance behind him. A soft light emanates from his body. It shifts and whirls like a transparent aurora. I stare at it, transfixed. This has never happened before. I’m a feeler, not a seer. For a few moments, the world floats away. I am enveloped in a strange, soft emptiness. An instant of panic. What if I don’t come back? But it passes. Do I even care if I do, anymore? Then, in his eyes, a glimmer of awareness.

I catch my breath. “Can you see me?” I whisper. You know why I’ve come.

A young woman steps into view. “Hola.” She strolls around the Ahu taking photos. Her boyfriend appears. His voice grows harsh as she ignores the signs and steps onto the altar. Kioe is not important enough for a ranger. She shrugs. I stand up, brush myself off, and wander towards the village, passing Tahai, where wild horses have gathered.

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The Teacher stands at the front of the class. What do you want to be when you grow up?

The other kids stand up and say doctor, teacher, and other normal things. One girl says she wants to lie on the couch all day, eat candy, and watch soap operas. I want to be an archeologist and go to Easter Island. I can even spell the word archeologist.

The Teacher’s knife-slash smile. Cold light in her eyes. Very good, Julie. My stomach turns. I want to think that she likes me now, but I know it’s because she’s afraid I’ll tell my counselor about what she did. About the time when she took me in the office and everything went black.

Are you still seeing your lady friend?

I nod.

She stirs her coffee, and sucks on the plastic spoon until her fat lips turn white. Then she pulls it out of her mouth and shakes it in the air. What do you talk about?

The other kids stare at me. Eyes filled with disgust. I squirm. She no longer lets them be mean to me, but I don’t like it when they remember that I’m here and that there’s something wrong with me. I am too sensitive. Everyone says this word like it’s a disease. The Teacher was only trying to help me. But I am hopeless.

I turn away and stare out the window of the three-room rural schoolhouse, past the fields and barns. And I am There, walking along the windswept cliffs, weaving in and out of the stone heads, alone. Safe. Safe from them all.

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Rain in the Pacific islands sometimes comes in the form of momentary cloudbursts. Sometimes it’s a constant mist. I arrive at Anakena as the ranger station opens. Clouds encircle the beach, leaving a circular patch of sunlight. A French-speaking guide explains to a couple that the moai face inland to watch over the people. They are representations of the ancestors and were believed to be infused with a powerful spiritual magic called mana.

It would be fascinating to hear detailed history, but the thought of being around people, here, is unbearable. I have work to do and I will not be disturbed. She has already come and gone. I take the road towards Tongariki. Something tells me that I will find her there. The rich green slopes of Poike are obscured by rain. Wild horses dart in and out of the road. No other cars pass. It’s as if I’ve got the entire island to myself.

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A herd of wild horses has blocked the road. The pale green cliffs of the Rano Raraku crater rise in the distance. I come to a halt. The horses disperse, tossing their manes and shooting me haughty looks. Two males kick and bite each other, twirling around in a vicious dance. Two females approach the car. One of them rubs her head on the hood. A mischievous spark lights up her eyes.

I burst out laughing and roll down the window. “Aw, you just want love.”

She licks the hood as I continue to talk to her. A soft snort. Teeth appear. She tries to gnaw on the metal. The steely eyes of the rental car lady arise.

“Woah! That’s enough.” I tap my foot on the gas and nudge the horse out of the way. There’s no car insurance on Easter Island. All damage has to be paid for by the renter. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” I say as I drive away.

It only takes a few minutes to get to Tongariki, but by the time I arrive, it is pouring rain. I pull into the small parking lot and shut off the car. A minibus parks next to me. The door slides open. Tourists tumble out. Rain ponchos and selfie sticks. I recognize a few from the Lan flight from Santiago. With only one flight in and out per day, it’s bound to happen. The driver of the minibus on the other side leers at me. When I glance at him, he smirks. I sigh and start the car. It’s only early afternoon. It only takes thirty minutes to drive here from Hanga Roa. Be patient. Have faith in Later.

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Hating yourself is not something that comes naturally. It’s something that must be systematically taught. Not everyone has the fortune of finding such an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher. For some, it starts from birth, with parents who never should have been. For others, it’s teachers and peers. Sometimes it comes later, with toxic lovers and friends. But those are usually the result of earlier trauma. The seed of self-loathing must be planted deep within a fertile mind. You can cut back the stalks, but unless you dig way down to the root, they just keep growing back.

There is no shortage of gurus, coaches, whatevers. Systems©, Methods©, Secrets©. Each one proclaiming louder than the next that they can, for a price, help us be the best we can be.

As if we’re not already.

It’s funny how most of those self-proclaimed enlightened ones can’t seem to manage their own personal lives. So much easier to tell others how they should be, rather than look in the mirror. The Teacher claimed that she only wanted to help me. Her shrill voice has echoed, for too long, in my memory: What is wrong with you, Julie? Huh? There were so many things. I was left-handed. That started it all. I had odd thoughts, daydreamed, never raised my hand to be called upon. I did not work to the best of my ability.

The Teacher was fired after that school year. No one spoke about why, but a couple of years later the school secretary told my mother about what happened. She had witnessed the abuse and had been too afraid to step in. One of my oldest friends had also witnessed the Teacher beating me, and still blames herself for not saying anything. I would never blame a little kid for not standing up to that monster. Besides, by that time, the psychological damage had already been done.

Why didn’t you tell me? My mother asked.

I tried, but you wouldn’t listen.

Both of my parents bore the scars of Catholic school. Just be thankful you don’t have the nuns, they had said. My father, especially, suffered terrible humiliation under those blue-robed tyrants. He was also left-handed, and they forced him to write right-handed. He was poor. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was crazy. They made fun of his clothes, and how his mother pinned his hair back with barrettes because she couldn’t be bothered to cut his hair.

If I’d had the nuns, year after year, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

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It is late afternoon at Tongariki. The mist has lifted and coalesced into a shroud. It hovers over the landscape, a barrier between the worlds. The only person present is the ranger. She sits on the stone wall, lifts a hand in greeting, and then goes back to staring at her smart phone. Fifteen moai rise before me. I sit on a rain-sodden rock and lift my eyes to theirs. Auroras appear, undulating around them. A silent, incandescent vibration. A flicker of white, a giggle. She is here.

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Forty years gone. Without her.

Come back to me.

Of all the people who were cruel to you, you were the worst. Five years ago, these words blasted into my consciousness. At another sacred place on the day of elevens. The details of that event will never be for public consumption. It was meant for my spirit only.

Sounds are transported in the breeze. Distant waves, the whinny of excited horses. The ranger has begun to sing. Gentle words in Spanish. A wistful melody.

You can come out now. It’s safe. I won’t hurt you anymore.

She steps into view, pauses, and then runs towards me. I throw my arms open wide and gather her up. I love you. Teardrops soak her blonde hair. I cradle her in my lap. Her face morphs, matures. The awkward pre-teen with the unruly Blondie hair becomes the raging, defiant teenager. Eyes ringed with black eyeliner. Fierce spark of determination. She’s going to show them all.

And you did. I love you.

Twenty. Awake in a strange bed. A familiar, despised face. He only drugged and took advantage of her. She needs to get over it. It’s her own fault anyway for not seeing the signs. Why can’t she get over it? And then so many years stumbling along. Days spent curled up on the floor. Catatonic. Defeated eyes staring up from a hospital bed. Spirit gone, gone, gone. She can’t even succeed at killing herself.

I love you.

Twenty-four. Fresh out of the abyss. Blonde hair cut off. Acne scars. Starting over. Soon to be transformed again. There she is dancing on a stage. Seven-inch platforms, sequins, crushed velvet, satin. Fulfilling a sordid destiny.

You were just trying to stay alive. I love you.

Twenty-seven. Forehead against windowpane. Spring rain symphony. What now. What now. The heartbreak doesn’t exist, because there was no love. It was just a twisted game. All of it imagined.

Your heart was pure. I love you.

It all speeds up. Thirties, forties. Blazing a path across the planet. Trying to outrun herself. Fine lines appear. World-weary eyes. Circumnavigation blues.

Look how awesome you were, you are. How worthy. How beautiful. I love you.

I won’t hurt you anymore.

Psychopaths and egotists are merely obstacles to be dodged. They are not entitled to contemplation. I did nothing to deserve them.

Be gone. All of you.

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I stand before the Fifteen, reverent and resolute. The shroud of mist has dissipated. Blue sky revealed. Thank you for watching over her. I take her by the hand and lead her away.

She seeps back into me as the remaining days pass. Look, here’s Rano Raraku, where the moai were forged. Here is the crater of Rano Kau. Every morning and evening, we bathe in Kioe’s glow.

You never dared to dream that you would see the mystery, but here you are. You did it. I’m so proud of you.

Departure time arrives. I am ready. The plane ascends. I turn to the right, look past three turned heads, out the window. A collective ahhhh of shared wonder fills the cabin as the moai of Tahai appear. And just beyond: solitary Kioe. My heart bursts free and soars. Thank you for watching over me. I turn forward, close my eyes, and fly away.

74 thoughts on “In Search Of

  1. I am almost without words. It is brilliant that you saved that 8 year old’s words, they were prophetic, as they usually are if we are paying attention. I am so glad you found her again. Much love to you for sharing something so very personal, Julie. I’m in awe, and not of the Easter Island statues. I am off to make my morning coffee, and shed a few tears on behalf of that special soul.

  2. Thank you Julie for the extraordinary honesty. Thank you for guiding your readers through the Labyrinth and slaying the demon. Such strength to your spirit!

    • That’s it exactly: labyrinth. The only monster to be found within is the self, but it can be very intmidating. Thank you, as always, for your kind thoughts.

  3. Oh my god, Julie, this is so intense. I don’t share the trauma of your childhood and young adulthood, but I share the deep connection with that former self, the little me whose childhood longings, loves, and dislikes have dictated my path. I feel the little girl along with me sometimes, too (powerfully at times), but your story made me shiver and almost cry for your little girl self. To connect it with that place, such a spiritual realm in and of itself (I think … never been … yet) makes it all the more haunting and, ultimately, uplifting. You did “do it,” and I’m happy for you.

    • Thank you. 🙂 It’s funny how certain places call to us from a very young age. It’s for a reason. Rapa Nui is pure magic. The moai are so awesome, but the energy is incredibly peaceful. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has visited the island feels it.

  4. I know that my daughter went through some of what you did. Not that any two experiences can ever be the same. I’m not sensitive enough and for that I’m sometimes truly grateful, Julie. Thanks you so much for showing me your Easter Island. 🙂

  5. Hi Julie

    I started reading this post and I was thinking about moronic comments on how nice the wingflex on the Boeing 787 is, and how I also publicly declared, as a scruffy 8-years-old, that I wanted to go to Easter Island and study it, thanks to a Donald Duck comic I’d read.

    But then I started delving into your italics and, really, my heart sank. I have a little nephew, now, who daydreams, is facinated by the oddest things and is also left-handed. If his dreams, quirkiness and individuality were to be crushed by bullies or beaten out of him by teachers….

    Anyhow, I’m happy that the trip to Easter Island brought little you and ‘now’ you together. I hope I’ll be able to follow in your footsteps next year, even though ‘ll probably be geek galore for me!

    • Hi Fabrizio –

      I happen to think your 8 year old proclamations are anything but moronic. 🙂 Humanity (the masses) seems to have a thing against true individuality and quirkiness. People like us are seen as a threat. To what, I don’t know. The funny thing is, without creative individuals, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Just be aware that your nephew is more susceptible to being bullied and ostracized. If there are strong adults to watch over him and protect him, he will be fine. This was not my case. My parents loved me, but had so much of their own stuff to deal with.

      I look forward to reading about your geek Rapa Nui escapades soon.

  6. Dear Julie,
    Wow! I sit here with streams of tears running down my face and I remember you so vividly at that age. I didn’t having the dealings with “her” in the way you did but as a teacher now, I look back at some of our teachers from that school and I just have to shake my head in disbelief! I wish we were all brave enough to stand up to “them” back then!! I’m sooo glad you have embraced the 8 year old you and learned to love yourself both then and now! Thank you for sharing such a powerful piece!!
    I love you too, dear friend!!
    Shelly

  7. Beautifully written, Julie – as ever. I have read this twice and even watched some of Leonard (!) but for a story of redemption I still find it almost too sad. I cannot make the connection between the ‘beatific’ face in Lessons from the Old Country and the abused child. I guess that’s it – we have no idea what scars others carry behind the smiles. One day I look forward to reading the completed work.

    • Except for the very darkest times, I’ve always been able to goof around and laugh. That’s probably why I was able to survive. I’ve noticed that depressed and/or grouchy people often have a great sense of humor. Robin Williams, for example. Scars have a way of fading over the years. You can almost forget that they’re there and why, except for that constant, vague feeling of poison. I made progress over the years – my husband has been a big help – but deep down I still felt like garbage.

      Leonard was just so damn cool, wasn’t he? 😉

  8. Easter Island, such a small dot in the map, but such an iconic, and dream place on the imagination.
    Great post.

  9. Someday I hope to see those magical statues for myself. In the meantime thank you for transporting me to Easter Island through your story. We all carry our share of scars and doubts, but it is empowering to witness people who are brave enough to share some of theirs with the world.

  10. I’d never thought of Easter Island as a place to find closure, but why not? If we look at the Moai as guardians in a timeless sense, why could they not guard across the years? Thanks for the thoughtful, moody piece.

    PS: I’m at a complete loss as to why being left handed would be perceived as a threat. Maybe because lefties swing more creative, and some are afraid of anything outside their staid boundaries.

    • Thank you, Dave. The aversion to left-handed people is a very old superstition. I’m not sure where it began. I should probably look it up. It probably has something to do with lefties having a tendency to be more creative, as you said, and therefore less normal. It’s in the human DNA to be suspicious of those who move in a different direction than the herd.

  11. Going through the exercise of remembering all the names of the boys in the class of 1960/61 had been important to me for years. Not the other classes, just that one. As I recall all the names, the faces float into view; the way they stood; the state of their school uniforms; the tiniest details. Forty-two in all, and I think I’m short of maybe two names and two faces. There’s a spare face without a name, but he may have only lasted a term. I based a short story around them; only partly fiction.

    For years I didn’t know why I needed to remember that year most of all. And then the memories of abuse returned. It wasn’t the first year of abuse; that started along with memory and recognising my own existence. Aged eleven, that school year was the first year I began to rebel against it.

    Thanks for sharing your traumas in such a poignant way, I’m trying to share mine.

    • It’s important to try to remember. So many people had told me that I should forget about it all. There’s a difference between wallowing in the past and navigating it. Remembering is part of the process of letting go. Seeing the faces and little details, hearing the words. Breathing in what’s ours and then breathing out what’s theirs. Taking back and giving back. Severing the cords with calm intent. At least that’s what helped me get over it. Everyone has a different way of dispeling their darkness.
      I’d like to read your story, Bryan. Where is it located?

      • So many people told ne I should forget about it too. But, as a writer I see it as my duty to remember the good and the bad. Only by remembering the past can we hope to change the future and the way we deal with it.

        Here is a link to the short story ‘The New Teacher’: https://bryanhemming.wordpress.com/2171-2/

        And here is a link to the first part of the true story of my father: https://pedersenslastdream.wordpress.com/2015/07/17/recollections-of-my-father/

        I’m working on the second part at this very moment. I don’t want to make it seem as though my life was one of constant abuse, as that was not the case. When he wasn’t at work, my father was out drinking for much of the time. My mother was left with the task of making sure we were in bed before he came home. Most of the abuse was psychological, with my self-esteem constantly under attack.

  12. I love the place this wonderful island holds in the story that is you (I’m going to have to look up that Nemoy show on Youtube now).

    Perhaps we were more fortunate, we barely saw any others during our time on the island, despite the plane load of passengers that were dumped on the rock the same day.

    What an amazing speck it is in that vast ocean

    • Hi Chris – I’ve been to quite a few Pacific islands, but there’s something really special about this one, and not just because it has meaning for me personally. We hear so much about the moai, but I had no idea about the craters (especially Rano Kau) and Orongo. Most of the time I was alone with the moai, but I think I hit the tour rush at Tongariki when I went the first time.

      Enjoy In Search Of in all its cheesy 70s glory. 🙂

  13. This was a very moving piece, Julie. I felt healing snaking through time, providing just enough to make it through in the darkest hours, but also gently offering the longer voyage–the journey and the return. I also loved seeing the little girl, and the way she moved in symbol and dream, and how it became real to her in your unfolding life. I still have this memory of being in the third grade, in Alabama, imagining what it would be like to live in Maine with a woman who had brown hair. Seems kind of silly, I suppose. How do we come up with these things? My wife and I live in Maine, and she has that brown hair. By the time we walk that path back to ourselves it’s amazing to discover the whole thing was there in the beginning–Easter Island, the teacher, your journey. It unfolds in slices, but it’s always there in full at the same time. Here’s to those with the courage to live a dream!

    Michael

    • The child’s voice that we carry inside us seems to have an innocent wisdom. No need for analysis – it’s a pure, simple certainty. Silly or not, I’ve begun to let it guide me. I had a fascination with Maine when I was young, too. I was sure I would live there one day. But, so far, I haven’t even visited. 🙂

  14. What a paradise the Island of Easter is… I have always wondered about those huge statues (to the point of believing they could have been built by Aliens!)… I liked your account very much… the way past and present and fantasy and dreams get intertwined… I like the photographs & descriptions.
    A delightful reading Julie… thanks so muhc for sharing!… Love and best wishes. Aquileana 🙂

  15. I also have some childhood scars and I was thinking, while a was reading, that the moais may give us more security and be more healing than human beings!! Thank you very much, dear Julie, to have taken me to the mysterious Easter Islands and for your most touching post. Very best regards Martina

  16. This is the exact way in which I imagine sometimes this island (one of my dream-trips for sure): the mistery and the majesty of it, you have evoked them greatly, Julie. The fact that you saved that child’s words it’s not casual, really. Oustanding. Cris

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