July 30, 2017. The echo of discordant footfalls on cobblestone. I stalk up and down the narrow streets, scolding myself. Few have the luxury of so much free time and I’m wasting it. In a few months, it’s back to the real world of work. If I don’t finish the memoir now, I’ll never finish it. Frustration clamps around my throat. Why can’t I get over this block? A glance to the left. Words written on a broken doorbell: La réponse est en toi. The answer is within you.
August 21st. It’s funny, the things that get caught inside us, interrupting the flow. Work on the obvious, then look at what you thought was insignificant. Because nothing is. A sliver: long forgotten and lodged so deep that I could no longer feel the poison that has seeped into every aspect of my life. The painstaking excavation is almost complete. It now lies just below the surface, freshly inflamed. The final extraction will be excruciating.
The livestream for the eclipse begins. Not just any eclipse. The Great American Eclipse! I roll my eyes. I’m surprised they didn’t find a way to trademark it. Totality is imminent. A reporter interviews a scientist. Wide, innocent eyes. The phenomenon is an amazing accident! The diameter of the moon is almost exactly four hundred times smaller than the sun’s diameter, and the sun is almost exactly four hundred times further away than the moon. The distance between Earth and the moon are slowly changing, so in the future this eclipse will not exist, as was the case in the past. Life has only been on Earth for four hundred million years. Such an astounding coincidence that we live in this little window of time!
A smile spreads across my face. Coincidence is for people who can’t handle mystery. The languid blink of totality fills the screen. Sunrays reappear. People gather up their blankets and scurry away. I shake my head. After what they’ve just witnessed, they’re worried about beating traffic? I close the computer and go out to the balcony. It’s headed this way. The familiar din rises from the square below. Chatter from the pubs and shrieking children, punctuated by the rasp of skateboarders gliding across the concrete.
The blazing disc hovers over the rooftops. A narrow crescent shadow slithers across the bottom. Barely perceptible dilution of sunlight. France only gets a partial glimpse. A sudden breeze wafts across the hardwood floor, encircling my feet. I lean against the door and close my eyes. Do not squander this. Use it to focus. Soft red heat on my eyelids. A flood of sadness. So much time wasted chasing after those who don’t recognize my value.
Time to set the last of the phantoms free. I am not the captive, but the prison. I’m ready now. Give it to me. His face materializes. A cascade of heartbreak. It drips off in rivulets of disappointment. I reach over and squeeze his arm. Soft smile of forgiveness. I was wrong about you. Go in peace. The euphoria of transference: it had nothing to do with me. With one long, luxurious sigh, it is gone.
Now. A feeling, not a voice. Forceful and tinged with mischief. Look at this. I open my eyes. The scene in the square below ripples. A massive wave recedes, revealing the life below the maelstrom. Writhing, gasping, stumbling through their own personal oblivion. All of the individual struggles, so intricate and unique. The magnitude of the illusion that enslaves us. Tears fill my eyes. My heart aches at the broken beauty of it all.
The air ripples again and then swells. A slow, deep hum. Pure awareness. The source from which everything emanates. The resonance intensifies. A tremor seizes me. It knows I sense it. I back away from the balcony. Turn around to step back through that doorway, but it’s gone. There is no going back. Back to the wall, slow slide to the floor. What the fuck. The devastation is total. Please. Not this. The day I’ve feared has arrived. I’m going to end up like my father: raving, incoherent, consumed by psychosis, medicated into submission. After all the progress I’ve made, this can’t happen.
Surrender. Love your crazy. I wrap my arms around my knees, lay my head down, and let it engulf me. Minutes pass. The tremors subside to isolated muscle twitches. Fireflies under the skin. They converge under my sternum. The tremor becomes a shimmer that radiates through me. I crawl into bed and collapse into sleep.
When I awaken, the world is reassembled. Sharper, more vivid. Untainted by the filter of every pain I’ve ever felt. All the little details I’ve never noticed. The hues within hues. The glow, everywhere. My entire body aches to the bone. The eyes that meet mine in the mirror blaze.
I sit by the edge of the lake for hours and stare at the ripples as they journey across the liquid expanse. One tiny drop reverberates so far. And it never really ends. Runners and bikers pass by. Greetings are exchanged. I can look them in the eyes now. The further I recede into detachment, the more empathy I have for humans. The deeper I go, the more I blend in. My perception has shifted, but I still have to navigate the illusion. So what if I’m crazy. No one has a handle on any of this.
In the vastness left behind after letting so much go, I carry the sky. This exquisite silence, now. The clear intent. I fill in the empty spaces on the page. Leading it all to completion.
At the beginning of September, Le Voyageur arrives. Just in time to bring me back to Earth. With him, I am safe to share my deepest reflections. He’ll let me know if I’ve gone too far. We walk along the banks of the Loire, sharing revelations. He has his own way of figuring things out, as it should be. I bask in our communion of strangeness. So much gratitude for this thirty-year friendship.
Clouds converge. Ripening grapes perfume the dry, late summer breeze. Halfway through the fifteen-mile walk, we stop for a lunch of cheese and fruit.
“You know my trip home in January?” I take a deep breath. “I’m thinking of staying.”
His eyes widen. “Wow. What changed your mind after all these years?”
“I’m tired, Jim. I’m tired of being isolated from the people I love. I’ve done what I wanted to do, found what I was looking for. At this point, it feels like I’m punishing myself. I can pretty much go anywhere I want to, but is it worth it, anymore?” I swallow the lump in my throat. “I know that when I walk away from this marriage, which has consumed me for two decades, I will probably face the rest of my life alone.” I pause. The more I realize the rarity of finding someone who is unafraid of what lies beneath my surface, the more I believe it is possible. Explore your darkness: the loneliness. There you will find treasure. I close my eyes and nod. “I’m prepared for that. No more hiding who I am. It’s possible that I’ll work a mundane job until I die. That’s fine. Somehow I know that everything will work out, whether I stay in Michigan forever or not.”
Jim has recently moved back to Chicago with his partner after more than a decade overseas. Even though he longed to return for years, it’s a difficult transition. Friends have turned their backs on him, because he now has different views. He fears he has lost the ability to make new friends. It has become necessary to choose sides, adopt labels. People have become addicted to outrage and division. I need to steel myself for this and other sicknesses in the culture.
A high school friend’s face flashes before me. I reconnected with her during my last visit. Two bottles of wine consumed in a hotel room. Twenty-five years of history to catch up on. She built herself up from poverty. A brilliant example of success. Twelve-hour work days, two kids to raise alone. Gated community. Cosmetic procedures. The frequency and viciousness of her panic attacks put mine to shame.
Why are you doing this to yourself?
She brandished a plastic baggie filled with a trail mix of pharmaceuticals. I’ve got these. I’m fine.
A spasm of derision passed over her face when I said that my wealth consists of my experiences and the free time I allow myself to have. I can fit everything I own in two suitcases, but I feel like the richest person on the planet. I’ve made it a priority to face what needs to be done instead of drowning it out. It’s the only reason I’m still alive. I stared into her eyes, kaleidoscopes of torment. Is this really what life is about?
A vast sigh. You’re an artist, Julie. You live in a different world.
I frowned. What’s that got to do with it? Your kids will still love you if you have less. They’ll be happier if you’re happier. You don’t have to abandon your career, just learn how to say no sometimes.
She shook her head. You don’t understand. People can only hear the things they need to hear when they’re ready. Most make damn sure they are never ready. I haven’t heard from her since.
I take a deep breath and put my head in my hands. “I don’t know if I can deal with it, Jim, but I want to try. I feel like I’m being called back.”
“It’s funny, you’re not the only person I know who’s returning home after a long absence. I hope you do stay. I’d love to have you near me again.” Hand on my shoulder. A squeeze. I place my hand on his and bow my head.
Sometimes it reappears, seeping through the cracks of my consciousness. Seems insulting to try to give it a name. No more fear. I open wide and let it pour in. It leads the way now. Sparkle in my heart. A giggle. Such a delight to be in on the joke now. We are here to love and do it with every atom of our being.
The fog begins to dissipate, revealing the path ahead. Something is there, taking shape, waiting for me. Suppressed excitement comes back as fear, a therapist friend once told me. I lift my face to the sky and beam. I’m so excited for what you’ve got in store for me.
October 16th. Something about the sun, again. Gauzy, copper-infused radiance trickles through the treetops. A warm, humid breeze. Could it be connected to the hurricane passing over Ireland?*
There’s something about Indian summer that makes me feel as though I’m passing through every place I’ve ever been. Foreign lands. Territories of perception. The beliefs I’ve held. Another’s happiness is more important than mine. Another’s life is worth more. I have no value, at all. Be grateful for the chance to disappear into someone else. I was so very proud of this martyrdom. You are just as worthy of your own love and energy as anyone else is.
The more I take care of myself first, the more I’m able to give. I’m not obligated to expend energy on everyone. Only those who are receptive. It’s not an obligation, but a desire. The right words. A look of recognition. You are not alone. I open myself to receive. I am not alone, either. We are in this together. Beacons in the gathering darkness.
A stray cat bursts out of the bushes with a raucous meow. I brace myself. I’ve been the victim of more random cat attacks than I can count. She rubs herself around my legs in a figure eight ballet. I smile. Infinity. I reach down with caution. “Don’t bite me, please.” She arches her back under my caress.
Line edits, then copyediting. Every single word. Over and over. The life on the pages becomes that of someone else. All of this couldn’t have happened to me. Afternoon walks along the rivers. The different voices tell me their stories. The whimsical Mayenne. The placid Sarthe. The sluggish whisper of the Maine.
The exuberant Loire swallows them all. Here, the current quickens. Not with urgency, but determination. Individual flows join forces, moving towards surrender to the infinite.
An undercurrent raises its voice. This one feisty and unpredictable and so far away. Calling me home.
December 10th. The memoir is finished. No fireworks, tears of joy, or flood of relief. Only calm. My mind flickers to the next steps: synopsis, proposal, the search for an agent. My chest constricts. A wall of self-doubt encloses me. Yet another block to dispel. The work is never-ending, but I welcome it.
January 1, 2018. Supermoonrise over the blue slate rooftops. Mind swathed in iridescent clouds. A taste in my mouth like dark forests and furtive blooms. In my slumber, a dream: Spider wrapped in a cocoon web. The kind they build for periods of regeneration. She is pure gold. Black hieroglyphic scrawls on her back. She stirs. Her legs tear at the fibers in slow, fierce motions. Her glow intensifies. She’s coming. Get ready. I’m petrified, but I force myself to stand my ground and look at her. She breaks free with a scream. A war cry. I jerk awake with a whimper, heart pounding, gasping for breath.
I stagger into the kitchen. Morning sounds rise from the streets. Delivery trucks and street sweepers. In the corners of the windows, tattered webs shudder in the cold wind. Tiny bodies cling, fearless. I brew an espresso and drink it at the counter. Spider is a frequent visitor to my dreams. She’s a writer’s totem, spinning the web of her reality. She also represents fear of one’s own power. I brush my fingers over a fresh red lump on the inside of my left forearm. It’s not failure that I’m afraid of, but success.
*The strange sunlight was caused by dust from the Sahara that was brought north by Hurricane Ophelia.