The Road to Bliss

Harbor Springs, Michigan – April 2018

Out of all the places to work, how can I be here again? The little white church, the quaint storefronts, the historic homes. This town hasn’t changed at all in thirty-two years. Such a long drive from my forest sanctuary. I felt a tug in this direction, but ignored it, and then a closer possibility fell through. The general manager greets me with arms outstretched. A welcome home, long lost gesture. I’m hired within five minutes and we part with hugs instead of handshakes. I should know by now to not ignore intuition. There’s a reason why I was drawn back here.

A cinematic clarity infuses this new old life. Then and now become a double-exposed movie. Circa 1986 in grainy, pink-tinged VHS superimposed on 2018 in sharp, flat digital. Sometimes the ghost of who I used to be passes through me. The rage-fueled ambition. The impatience. My whole life was ahead of me. It still is. More than ever.

I work in the pantry, making salads for rich people. I work six days a week, sometimes double shifts. I’m saving up to move to California. I would’ve moved out there already, but my grandparents said seventeen is too young for a girl to move across the country alone. The waiters and waitresses glide through the kitchen, so elegant in their black tuxedos. Working, doing coke, and screwing around is all they have in their lives. I have a chip on my shoulder, they say. Angry little girl. What the fuck do they know about my life? My dad went crazy and school was absolute hell. Of course the stupid bitches here hate me. People are always going to hate me.

This establishment has changed in almost every way except name. Except for a cook and a waitress, everyone I worked with is gone. The tuxedoed elegance has been replaced by rumpled, disheveled indifference. The dress code now is to simply be dressed. I work in the manager’s office, isolated from the chaos of the restaurant below. My job is to arrange the antique boat cruises that leave from the deck bar. Captains and first mates are my closest colleagues. First mate Taylor is seventy-five. She swears like the sailor that she is. There’s nowhere to hide from her ice blue eyes.

She loves to hear stories of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done. “What did you do for work out there?” I rattle off the jobs I’ve held since I was last here: fine dining waitress, massage therapist, secretary, stripper, travel agent, French-English translator, voiceover artist for radio, and, for so very long, English teacher. For three years, I had a country music show on Radio New Caledonia. In French and under a pseudonym. Listeners adored my heavy American accent. That one makes people laugh, but they are most fascinated by the stripper years. The Hollywood dive I worked in and my encounters with the famous.

Taylor shakes her head. “After everything you’ve experienced, you’re now stuck in that shithole of an office.”

“You know what? I couldn’t ask for a better job to reintroduce me to America. It’s seasonal, unique, and I work with the best people ever. I’m unbelievably grateful and happy to be here. Really.”

She shakes her head in disbelief and putters away.

In their corner of the office, the managers discuss figures and strategies. Problems with staff and customers. I admire their passion. Small talk about television shows, the weather, and small town drama. No politics, thankfully. The world is all I’ve got to talk about. It’s the mundane that’s exotic. I participate, but eventually my mind drifts off. Simple things have their charm and lessons, but there is also so much more.

When people ask me what I plan to be when I get to California, I say, Free. Raised eyebrows, eye rolls, snorts of contempt. I think my life will always be lonely, but at least I won’t be like them.

Spring morphs into summer. The interns become my buddies. They linger in the office when the managers aren’t around. They confide in me and ask for advice. As if I’m an expert on anything. Luke’s broken heart. “Someone better is coming your way. You’ll see.” Allie’s crush. “Just go for it. Rejection is much easier to live with than regret over missed opportunities.” The anxiety and excitement about their future. “You’re going to make mistakes. Just try to learn from them and move on.”

TJ is my favorite. Our conversations involve Syd Barrett and Terence McKenna and what it means to be crazy in a crazy world. He gives me hope for the future. He can’t talk about this stuff with his girlfriend. He wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to hurt her.

“You’re so young. You need to have your heart broken and you need to break hearts. If you’re sensitive, it can be harder to be the one to leave.” A searing pain moves through my chest. “But it has to be done. Wait for the one who lights up your spirit, who sees you. Who scares you so much that you want to run away. That’s the one who will make you grow.”A flash of her face, of them together. “You have such an amazing life ahead.”

He beams as he strides out of the room. “You’re such a bright person, Julie. A light. You’re awesome.”

I lean back in my battered chair and stare up at the watermarks on the ceiling. I am the person I needed all those years ago.

He calls me his little witch, because I remind him of Stevie Nicks. He’s twenty-six and works as a cook. We were friends, but when I turned eighteen things between us changed. He’s only my second boyfriend. When he stays the night at the cottage, he picks wildflowers and lays them all over me before I wake up. I didn’t know that love could make everything bad melt away.

The things I pretend not to see: the stifled snickers and smirks that the waitresses shoot in my direction. The lingering touches they give him. The photo of his ex-wife that he keeps on his bedside table. She’s little, like me, and has long, beautiful hair and big blue eyes. A doll’s gaze, flat and filled with menace. When she calls, he goes running. When he returns to me, eyes wild with pain, he shows me no mercy.

In the quiet mornings before work, I walk out to the end of the pier. Vessels of various sizes float on the placid water. The transients that arrive with summer: the high-ranking politician, the rock star, the old industrial money, the wayward souls on the way to someplace else. I dive deep and conjure up a face from the watery depths of memory.

He’s sat in my section every day since he’s been here. Red hair. Soft-spoken. Eyes fierce with determination. He’s about to sail around the world. The night before he leaves, he invites me to his sailboat. I am also leaving for my destiny, California, in a few days. He makes margaritas, the kind with Grand Marnier. He remembered that it’s my favorite drink. After a couple of those, we say fuck it and drink straight from the tequila bottle. We bray along to the radio until the other boaters scream at us to shut up. I decide that if he makes a move, I will let him. Anything to kill the pain of my shattered heart. But he doesn’t lay a hand on me, except to give me a big hug goodbye. The next day, his boat slip is empty. A gaping void. Farewell, sailor. See you at the edge of the world and beyond.

County Road 77 heads north out of town towards a village called Bliss. Follow the signs. Destination: destiny. There’s something special about this area with its farms and bogs and impenetrable forests. Deep rolling hills ripple across the landscape. They’re called moraines, created when the glaciers from the last ice age receded.

The bliss that has taken hold of me these past few months. Effervescence like a pleasurable itch. Is it possible to have too much? When it ebbs away, I’m relieved. I don’t ever want it to stop being special, and I know it will be back. Primary emotions have transformed into subtle shades. Not faded. More precise. Fear, anger, and sadness have become uncertainty, discouragement, disappointment. The intensity is still there, but I rule it rather than the other way around.

In September, just weeks away now, I will turn fifty. Half a century. How is it possible to feel younger than I’ve ever felt, on all levels, even physical? My mother tells me that I remind her of when I was a little girl. My family and friends say: You have never looked better. Something in the way you carry yourself. Radiant. My God, what happened to you? It’s almost like you’re not even you anymore.

I’m more myself than I’ve ever been.

At the four corners village of Stutsmanville, I stop and look left. Do I really need to go down this road again? It’s shorter if I continue forward, but I’ll miss the most scenic area. Maybe there’s still something to be learned here, even after the forgiveness, the forgetting, the indifference. Will I even recognize the house after all these years?

We walk in the woods behind his place. Birch trees rise from the deep snow. A prison of white. Heavy boots under my waitress uniform that’s two sizes too big, but still the smallest one they have. Tears freeze on my cheeks. Why can’t those bitches just leave me alone? I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to California. He leans me against a tree and kisses me until I’m breathless. You can’t go. I’m not finished with you yet.

Stutsmanville Road ends at M119. Right turn into the Tunnel of Trees, one of the most picturesque roads in the state. A cathedral of green overhead. In the autumn, it’s like driving through a tunnel of fire. In the winter, after a snowstorm, it’s like passing through the gates of heaven.

Winter becomes spring then summer. August. The flicker of a bonfire against an aurora borealis sky. He’s there, in the shadows, making out with one of the summer transients, a fatass with crooked teeth. I grab his arm and drag him away. My frantic scream: Why? He throws me to the ground so hard it knocks the wind out of me. He stalks away. Over his shoulder, a snarl: get out of here, Jules. Her laugh. I pick myself up and dust myself off. The pain becomes cold determination, relief: nothing is holding me here anymore. A door in my heart slams shut. No one will have access to that part of me. Ever again.

Strobe light flicker of sunshine on the windshield. This deep blue ocean of a lake. My heart blooms in my chest. I enter into communion with the road.

We park by the ocean. Cold shimmer of waves under moonlight. We’re going to start all over, Jules.

I’m moving to Palm Springs.

Panic enters his voice. I can move there, too.

I shake my head. I’m not doing this to hurt you.

I know. I know. I really fucked up, didn’t I? He puts his head in his hands and begins to sob.

I stare at him. A shadow slumped over in defeat. Why is he so upset? He didn’t want me. Why is he even here? It’s just going to be the same thing all over again. Does he think I’m stupid? A wave hits me: disgust so strong that I swoon. He makes me sick, sick, sick. Why do I feel this? I don’t wish him any harm. The air thickens and I gasp for air. Take me home.

It was his self-loathing that I felt. All the women in the world wouldn’t have been enough to fill the void she left behind. There’s no pain more devastating than that of a broken heart. And nothing more difficult to forgive yourself for than loving so much.

At the village of Good Hart, the VHS halts. Now it’s only now.

Unbolt the door. Throw it wide open. After a lifetime of witnessing how selfish and cruel people can be, this takes the rarest form of courage. Shine the light in. Shine. Pour yourself into your void.

The ego will do whatever it takes to avoid dissolution, especially into love. It will find excuses why it won’t work, tell you it’s too good to be true, and, when it gets desperate, make you think that you’re losing your mind.

I walk over to the general store. A withered old farmer holds the screen door open for me with a shy smile. Faded overalls, John Deere baseball cap. I pause. Such a pure Americana image, surreal in its perfection. The door closes behind me. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd begins to play over the stereo. I freeze. My song, the one I named my blog and memoir after. I’ve heard it so often these past few months. I grab a lemonade from the cooler and walk up to the counter. The beautiful, unsettling longing. The come back to me. I pay for the drink and walk outside. The song’s final notes seep through the door. Deep breath. I’m here. I’m here. Look to the right: the direction I came from. Then left: the direction I’m going. I walk to the car feeling both harassed and guilty. Always the distinct impression that I’m being messed with and that I’m somehow bringing it on myself.

Onward. North, still. Through Cross Village to Sturgeon Bay. I sit on a low dune and watch the sun’s languid goodbye.

Some of us come into existence with a lot to learn. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve picked myself up and kept going. Even if it was crawling through the murk. The traumas have been dispelled. No counselors. No teachers. No gurus. They might be able to trigger something, but the real work can only be done in solitude. The black abyss that held me prisoner for most of my life is gone, gone, gone. In its place is a field of wildflowers. I couldn’t find it again if I tried. The darkness that remains is black smoke that thickens and dissipates. Wastelands of pain. Dark wonderlands of ecstasy. Not always easy to tell them apart. Wisdom and guidance can be found in the most unlikely places.

Reflection on the waves like a path illuminated. I will follow wherever you lead me.

I pass by the turnoff to Bliss. One final place to visit first: Wilderness.

I swerve around the camper that’s blocking the way and pull up to the ranger’s station.

The ranger’s eyes light up when he sees me. “You look like a lady who knows where she’s going.”

I roll my eyes and laugh. “Not really. I’m just following the road.”

“Follow it all the way to the end. There’s a nice beach out there and you’ll have it all to yourself.”

The Caribbean glow of Lake Michigan in the noontime sun. I lean my back against a piece of driftwood. Waves hiss through the pebbles. A male figure shuffles in my direction. Shirtless, sunburnt, panting. Face contorted with castaway anguish. Heavy southern accent. “Is there a trail back to the road around here? I seem to have gotten myself lost. I tried to cut across the marsh. Now my boots are soaked.”

“You’re almost there. The trail is just past the parking lot.”

He thanks me and shuffles away. When I look in his direction a couple of minutes later, he has already vanished. It doesn’t take long to find your way back, once the way is clear.

What was nebulous begins to sharpen. A purpose. A path. A presence so familiar. My heart begins to pound. I stare across the water. Send out a signal. Not an SOS. An invocation. Echolocation. I close my eyes. I’m here. Out of the silence, a reply. So very faint. It fades and returns. I smile. Not a missing piece. The mirror of my existence. A voice in my dreams. The flash of a face, but when I focus, it’s me that I see. A golden glow, a feeling of home. I lift my hand in front of me and feel the warmth of a palm pressed to mine. It’s enough to know that you’re out there. I’m enough.

Sometimes you have to go far out of the way to get where you need to go. Just keep going.

To Bliss. And beyond.

Wild Kingdom

Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

So often, the things that we seek in earnest are already with us. Right by the side of the road. The safari truck jerks to a halt and backs up. We were so focused on the road ahead that we didn’t notice the lioness. Camouflaged, but not hiding. Lounging. Languid and amused.

Two more become visible. A male and another female. The lion’s face rises above the grass. Proud to the point of comical. So sure of his own worthiness. It doesn’t matter how many males he battled, if any, to win his females. Success has everything to do with whether we feel we deserve it.

A slow, luxurious sweep of my eyes across this alien landscape. The monochrome grasslands. The salt pan that can be seen from space. So spectral and magnetic. That mesmerizing shimmer on the horizon. It’s as if, no matter how far you walk, you will never reach it. But the truth is that it already surrounds us.

I deserve this.

**Bay City, Michigan – Spring 1973

A little yellow house. The last house on the road. Nothing but open fields beyond. Images flicker on the television. Two men in a faraway place. A jungle in South America. I stare at the screen. The show is called Wild Kingdom. A man named Jim wrestles a tapir while an old man named Marlin talks. I want to be Jim when I grow up. In Bay City, there are no jungles or tapirs or people with painted skin. My little brother Billy presses his leg into mine, as if to anchor himself. He’s almost three years old, but does not speak.

My mother rocks my baby sister Penelope. “In Africa, the bugs are as big as birds. In China, the flowers are as big as a person’s face.”

I wish she would smile like that more often. “Can I go there?”

Her smile fades. She shuts off the television. “It’s too far away. Go outside and play.”

I stand at the edge of the field behind our little yellow house. A soft spring sun shines down. The smell of thawing mud fills the air. Across the brown expanse, the horizon ripples. A warm, dusty wind blows. It is the Kalahari Desert. But what is beyond? I step forward. Billy follows. Our boots sink into the mud. We push ahead. Exploration is never easy. Jim wouldn’t turn back. We sink up to our calves. The mud holds us prisoner. Quicksand!

Billy opens his mouth and wails. The sound of his voice is so unfamiliar that I panic.

My mother flies out the door, long brown hair streaming behind her. When she gets to the edge of the field, she bursts out laughing, puts her hands on her hips, and shakes her head. “Oh, it’s not quicksand. Calm down.” When she lifts me up, my little brown cowgirl boots stay in the mud.

It’s funny, the long ago images that persist. Those little boots didn’t survive that adventure. My mother washed them off, but the leather was ruined and they had to be thrown away. I was heartbroken. Curiosity comes with a price, but that did not deter the backyard expeditions.

The lioness rolls on her back in a playful frolic. A collective “Aw!” moves through the group.

I lift my hand to my mouth and sink my teeth in. One of the college boys gives me a look. I smile and shrug. “I’m just making sure that I’m really here.”

A conspiratorial smile in reply. “I pinched myself earlier. We’re really here.”

I shake my head and sigh. I did it. I really did it. Even with all of the strange and remote places I’d been, Africa always seemed out of reach. Somewhere deep inside, the dream never died. There is always a way. If you believe.

Childhood summertime afternoons. That sweet time before the lies people tell us become that which we believe about ourselves. My best friends were twin boys who lived next door. After the boisterous games of Marco Polo and Dark and Stormy Night, we’d float on inner tubes and stare up at the clouds. Drifting in the silence of endless possibilities. A life ahead to fill. They weren’t sure what they wanted to be, but they both wanted to marry Farrah. I was going to visit every country in the world.

Questions wandered into my mind: Where do birds go when it rains? What does a mango taste like? These provoked boy giggles. You’re so weird, Julie. The questions deepened: Where does the sky end? What is time? Fearful silence replaced the laughter. After that, I modified the questions: Snickers or Milky Way? Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley? Who loves Farrah more? I did not want to be banished from their pool. Okay, so some questions were best kept to myself. But the answers were out there. Somewhere. Far, far away from Michigan. I figured out that there were some that I’d never know the answer to. I’ve continued to wonder just the same.

What the hell is time, anyway? And what obligates us to agree on its existence? I wonder what my travel companions would say. I stifle an evil giggle as I picture the looks on their faces. Bite my lip. I do not want to be banished from the truck.

The internal journeys have mirrored the external in their intensity. I set the mind loose to gallop across the savanna, the steppes, the tundra. Landscapes exotic and vast and without obstruction. Unrestrained, fearless. Go. Seek out new frontiers in the wild kingdom. Theories, solutions, possibilities never considered. When they begin to warp into delusion, I herd them back to safer territory.

The power of the imagination.

There I am at twenty-three years old. Sitting in a dark basement. November gloom pressing against the tiny window. Jimmy Buffet on the stereo. Take me away from this abyss of broken dreams. Please. Behind closed eyes: iridescent aqua sea and palm trees. Sun on my face. Soft sand between my toes. During the song “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, the phone rang. It was an invitation to sail through the Grenadine islands with complete strangers. Months earlier, while I was still living in Los Angeles, I had responded to an ad for a travel assistant in a Bangkok newspaper. In the turmoil of my return to Michigan, I had totally forgotten about it. The man had already found an assistant, but there was room for one more on the sailboat. Would I like to join them? I accepted without hesitation. A crazy risk, but I had nothing left to lose.

On the last day, when we reached Mustique, news was waiting for me: my father had died. I used to think it was a cruel joke to receive that gift of light only to have it end with such unbearable grief. Now I know that it was the glimmer of light that kept me alive during the aftermath. Whenever my belief in miracles wavers, I conjure this memory.

Looking back, the exploration seems so effortless. The spontaneous opportunities, the unexpected money. I’ve been almost everywhere I’ve wanted to go. There is more to come: North Korea, Easter Island, and, yes, even Antarctica. They will all come to pass. How is it that some dreams materialize while others remain elusive? How to maintain that daydream softness? A “what if” without desperation. Such a delicate balance. It is okay to have everything that I want, in every facet of life. There is enough. If only I could feel the truth in this.

The roadside princess rises and strides towards the salt pan with purpose. She knows the way through the place without shadow. The purity of emptiness. Vessel of creation. What treasure lies within? My mind takes off in pursuit.

The second lioness follows and then the lion. Oblivious to his obedience. It would never occur to him to venture there alone. Even if he did, he’d be lost.

**The quicksand scene is an excerpt from the memoir. I remember the episode with the tapir, and I clearly remember this quicksand incident, but were they on the same day? This is one of the trickiest things about writing such long ago memories. It seems that it’s acceptable to splice some things together, as long as they both occurred.

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.