Once Upon a Time in Bohemia

Long ago, before there was a Time to once upon, a little star fell to Earth. There were no territories then. No kingdoms or boundaries. Only the sky, the sun, strange animals, and vast forests. And the river.

Vltavín. Named after the Vltava, which traverses the land where the shards of this star now sleep, saturating the landscape with divine resonance. Legend says that it’s the emerald that fell from Lucifer’s crown before he was cast out of Heaven. From this celestial jewel, the Holy Grail was forged, as well as the fabled Emerald Tablet of the alchemists. Modern metaphysicians say it brings profound, sometimes violent, transformation. It is a light piercing the darkness, shining the way to one’s Destiny.

In the year 1998, two friends stood at a crossroads. The man placed a tiny green gem in the woman’s palm. This stone is special, created from the fusion of Heaven and Earth. It comes from a land called Bohemia. May it protect and guide you on your journey, La Vagabonde.

She closed her fingers around it and held it to her heart. They hugged and went their separate ways. He went to the northwest, a place of perpetual rain. She went to the southwest, the desert. But true to her nature, she didn’t stay there long.

She met a kind man who took her far away to a small island across the greatest of oceans, where the world is upside down and winter is summer and autumn and spring do not exist. There she lived for many years in a house of glass overlooking mountains and sea. She learned the language, but still no one understood her. She lost her voice and became invisible. She taught herself to speak through her pen, releasing the shadows that had caught up with her after so many years of flight. She’d hold the stone up to the South Sea sunlight, mesmerized by the deep green glow. Within its depths a golden city glittered. Prague. And there she was, striding down cobblestone streets, staring out a small window over rooftops, standing at the river’s edge. A soft, secret smile of certainty spread across her face, and then she’d laugh to herself and shake the silly daydream from her head. Was it possible for any place to be farther away from this lost little island?

Bohemia. If ever a realm could embody the spirit of Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After. Castles perched on lofty hilltops. Rolling hills of golden rapeseed. Deep, dark forests. The iridescent mist that rises from the river, veiling the landscape in its spellbinding shimmer. An enchantment that’s impossible to dispel once it takes hold.

And what of the chapters in between? The struggles and the victories. The dangers and the illusions. The monsters. For every fairy tale has a shadow side. It is here, too. A chapel decorated with bones, a castle with a gateway to Hell, the church of ghosts, the wooden sentinels that guard the forest trails. In the villages, effigies of witches are still burned every April 30th.

It was the pagan princess Libuše who cast the very first spell. She stood on the hill called Vyšehrad and pointed across the river. From the depths of her trance, she proclaimed, “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.”

Praha. Threshold. The beacon in the center of infinity. Does the magic emanate from or coalesce here? Only the river knows.

The Prophetess Libuše – Karel Vitězslav Mašek
Image source: Wikipedia

La Vagabonde meandered the streets she saw so many years earlier. Could she be any farther away from that lost little island? The calm inside. So unfamiliar. Never before had a place felt so right. Such a long and convoluted path to arrive. It’s too perfect, she’d tell herself. I don’t deserve it. Yet there she was. The things we talk ourselves out of are so often the easiest to achieve, she whispered to the ancient stone walls. It’s a question of being ready.

A woman’s voice, felt rather than heard. Divine and devilish. A sweet, hypnotic hum in her atoms. As if you had a choice. The castle rose over the city, its towers piercing the sky.

We each have, within us, every story that’s ever been written. Imprinted upon our souls. Gifts from the ancestors. In arrangements as innumerable as the stars. How much of our personal story was written in these very stars, long before we were even born? How much are we really able to compose? We are in an artistic collaboration with the Universe. Each of us have something to add to the never-ending fable of humanity.

The Vltava encircles the medieval village of Český Krumlov. A protective embrace. A back street doorway beckoned. Magic green stones laid out on a counter. La Vagabonde picked them up one by one. There, tucked in a corner, was a walnut-sized teardrop. A jolt of electricity, of recognition. A knowing gleam in the merchant woman’s eyes. The right one chooses you. She took it home and laid it on her bedside table. In her dreams that night, it hovered over her. Observing. The time has come to speak your truth. Or give your life away forever.

The story we present to others. The story we tell ourselves. The embellishments and convenient omissions. The lies. The interpretations of others’ tales through the filter of our personal perception. So much distortion. What is true? Is life nothing but one everlasting costume ball? Meticulously crafted disguises and choreographed steps. We are masked participants in a perpetual dance of delusion. And no one deceives us more than we deceive ourselves.

Something was in the path ahead. La Vagabonde stepped around it, leaning her head to the side with a wistful smile. What is this here? It seemed she had come from the dangerous way. She shook her head. All the warnings that came too late. Hers was a story of poison apples, wolves in sheep’s clothing, evil queens, and dragons. She knew how it was to lose something precious and dive to the depths of a bottomless well to find it again. She looked down at the ominous design and laughed. Were those hard lessons worth the discoveries? She lifted her head and stared down the path ahead, eyes fierce with victory. Yes.

Down the path, then, and across the bridge. The river below was named after the funny creatures that played in its waters. Moss-covered rocks in the flow. Green velvet on steel. The river’s voice was like rain falling on crystal. The truth had been spoken. She was free. She sat on a massive boulder, leaned her head on her knees, and stared at her wavering reflection. There’s no such thing as forever.

Mirror, mirror, please tell me the truth. No matter how brutal. Within your reflection is the only soul that can truly free me from towers and dungeons. Reawaken me from the long sleep. Discern the worth in the woman covered in ash, disheveled, clothed in rags, banished to the perimeter.

La Vagabonde took a deep breath and stepped inside the labyrinth. No looking back. Breadcrumbs are for those who are afraid of getting lost. Ascend. Higher. Take me in. Deep. She grasped the stone around her neck. Where do I go from here? Turn on your searchlight, baby. Show me the answer.

A demon slithered out of a crevice. She pressed her back to the rocks. But I’ve already killed you. Many times over.

It loomed over her and hissed. You really think you can go it alone now, after all these years? You have nothing. You are nothing. You’re old. You’re just going to keep going around and around.

She pulled herself upright and stared into its eyes. The blackest void. I did the right thing. Be gone.

From far within the canyon, the now-familiar voice emerged. Calm and assured and amused. Ripples across a still, deep pond. An echo in the soul. Stay.

She shook her head. I can’t. I must leave here to bring this chapter to a close. There is no other way. She stumbled out of the labyrinth, battered and empty. She collapsed under a tree and fell into a leaden sleep. In the abyss of her dreams, the echo. Stay.

A little cottage in a northern wilderness. This is where La Vagabonde now finds herself. Inhabiting the empty page between chapters. The most magical place of all. A realm of pure possibility. Watery autumn sunshine streams through the golden treetops, a light that obscures just as much as it reveals. Could it be The End? She has everything she needs now. More than enough. But what is it that you want? You’ve always been your own Fairy Godmother. Write your wishes into existence and watch the tale unfold.

The maddening intoxication of mystery becomes the beauty of being haunted. An Art Nouveau doorway on a quiet back street. The glitter of moonlight on dark water. A rural castle illuminated by a soft pink sunrise. Memory and premonition are fused together into this eternal Now. Is it possible for a place to be any closer? A wind chime laugh in the cold breeze. You know damn well you’re not finished yet. A tremor moves through her and she catches her breath. Around her neck, over her heart, the stone glows.

Every story has a message, dear readers. Be honest. Keep your promises. Look beyond appearances. There’s no place to hide from Destiny. But one message encompasses them all: memento mori. Remember that you will die.

*The English word for Vltavín is Moldavite.

Carry the Sky

Angers, France

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.

Breaking Away

Iceland – January 2018

So blue. “It means that they are newly capsized,” the guide explains before he turns everyone loose to explore. Blue is the color of breaking away.

Just when I thought I might never again be struck speechless by a landscape. Just when I thought I had given up travels to new lands, this unexpected chance arose. A stopover in Iceland on the way to the great unknown. A reward for listening to my intuition, despite the shrieks of my ego. Moving around all the time doesn’t necessarily keep ruts from forming beneath you. The time has come for massive change. It’s time to break away.

The creak and groan of ice in transition. The distant bellowing of seals. Muted human voices. Awe has a way of doing that. The five-hour ride down here started in darkness. A half moon dangled like a jewel in a black velvet sky. The shadow side’s gritty surface softly visible. Just beneath her, Mars and Jupiter peered out. Watchful, serene. The dingy morning light revealed towering waterfalls cloaked in mist. The sun rose to its zenith low on the horizon. The otherworldly landscape blurred by the window. Snow-capped volcanos mirrored in roadside puddles and immense moss-covered lava fields. The great glacier filled the windshield. No time to stop for photos. Light is precious this time of year. I arrived yesterday evening, on the tail of a severe gale. Another one is due tomorrow. This day is a sliver of light shining through the murk of the Icelandic winter.

A T Rex rises from the rear of the mass. From another angle, it’s an albatross readying itself for flight. I smile. The images that arise in the mind. What do they wish to say? I no longer believe that they are random.

Imperceptible drift. The lagoon is a womb-shaped lake at the base of the glacier. A narrow canal slices through the black volcanic earth. Just beyond, the ocean awaits. Perhaps total disintegration is just another form of rebirth.

The things that seem so beautiful and awesome and eternal. A pure, fearless light reveals the fractures. Uncomfortable truths. The futility of rescue. If something is meant to shatter, it will. No matter how hard you cling. The only thing left to do is let go and trust.

The mist thickens. The sun dilates and descends. Grainy tangerine radiance. Shadowy forms mill about the black sand beach. The waves have battered the ice into shards, sculpted them into lovely forms, and carried them back to shore. All that awaits is the slow seep back into the Earth. Nothing truly disappears. It is simply dispersed and assimilated. And the new incarnation begins.