The Beauty in Me

Hawai’i, U.S.A. – August 1993

The highway from Honolulu to the North Shore slices through naked orange earth. A desolation that I didn’t expect. “Those are pineapple plantations,” Pebby explains. Her battered beast of a car sputters. She blanches. There’s an electrical problem of unknown origin. “If it starts to smoke, we need to pull over and get away,” she explains. “It might catch on fire.” Beater cars are the norm on the North Shore of Oahu, it seems. It’s even a source of envy to have one. As we descend into Haliewa, the problem subsides. She gives me a quick tour of the town before heading to work.

My little sister is a professional daredevil. She dives off the waterfall at Waimea Falls Park. When I sit in the audience and watch her, I see the high-strung little girl who dreamed of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She is living her dream. She is twenty-one and has lived in Taiwan and Thailand. I visited her in Bangkok a year ago. So much has happened since then.

Photographer Unknown

I clasp my hands in my lap. I’m on the verge of twenty-five. I’ve made it as far as California. But that’s nowhere near far enough away. What would it be like to live such a life of freedom? More than anything in the world, this is my wish. I’m still unable to visualize too far into the future. I’m unable to see past today, really. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be.

While she works, I explore the park. After her shows are finished, we meet up at the entrance. She places a crown made of palm fronds and flowers on my head. She hands me another creation. “This one goes around your ankle. I make them in between shows.”

Back to her place we go. Rents are astronomical on the North Shore, if you can even find anything. Pebby resides in a shack in the middle of a banana plantation. She pays more per month than I do in my shared house in Palm Desert. Light streams through the cracks in her walls. Her bathroom consists of a toilet, sink, and a tub with a rubber hose. Cold water only. I wash up, gritting my teeth against the cold, keeping an eye out for cane spiders. They have leg spans the size of my hand. They are too rubbery, too cartoonish, however, to be frightening. But that doesn’t mean I want them on me.

We spend her only day off hiking into a narrow, green valley. The jet black slopes of solidified lava are blanketed in the richest green I’ve ever seen. Along the way, she tells me of the spirits that inhabit Hawai’i. The Menehune, the Little People. And the Huaka’i po, the Night Marchers. I listen in silence as the gulch constricts around us. I can feel we’re not alone. The trail ends at Sacred Falls, a thin white ribbon that cascades down a shiny black groove. People frolic and soak in the murky baptismal font below.

The next morning, I drop Pebby off for work and drive to the beach. I’ve been back in the Southern California desert for a couple of months now. I live in a place of perpetual sunshine and warmth, and yet, no matter how much light shines on me, I’m surrounded by specters. Dad’s death, my breakdown, the night in the hospital, and lingering, always, the bad thing that happened two years ago. The betrayals that followed. All of that which finally drove me home to Michigan. In utter defeat.

But the darkness is dissipating. I am able to be touched again. I even have an almost-boyfriend. He had tears in his eyes when I said goodbye. A week apart can be forever, sometimes. I know he’s seeing another while I’m gone. Just to prove to himself that I’m not so important. The things we do to protect our hearts. I just want mine to be alive again.

I sit on my towel and watch the surfers bob in the waves. So serious and yet so comical. Congregations of beach bunnies await their return to shore. Perfect bodies in tiny bikinis. Hair color and physical features may differ, yet they are indistinguishable.

Not so long ago, I was just as pretty as they are. I look down at my pasty white body with a sigh. I’m nowhere near overweight, but my limbs are flaccid, hesitant. I’ve just re-emerged from the primordial ooze. I’m in the process of taking form again. Of re-becoming.

When I showed my driver’s license at a convenience store, the clerk, a young dude, exclaimed, “Woah, that’s you?” He looked at the license again, then at me, and shook his head.

“Yes,” I said, too numb, still, to be hurt. Still just trying to stay alive. And have you looked in the mirror lately, dude? I took the bottle that I’d bought and left without another word.

I squirt sunscreen into my hands and begin to rub it into my skin. A gust of wind blasts me with sand. It sticks to the sunscreen. I flip onto my knees and cower under my towel until it passes. I peek my head out. The wind seems to have spared the beach bunnies. Of course. A movement out of the corner of my eye. A guy is sitting on the sand a few yards behind me. A camera hangs around his long neck. He’s laughing, but it’s not unkind. I roll my eyes in embarrassment. Whatever. With a giggle and a shrug, I lay my towel flat again. The sand and sunscreen mixture has now hardened on my skin. I go for a swim to wash it off and rinse the knots out of my hair.

When I get back to my towel, the guy strolls up to me. His name is Vava. He’s from Brazil. He’s a photographer. Black curls, deep brown eyes, and soft features. I’ve heard that many Brazilians have African ancestry. I answer his questions with an amused frown. Why would he choose to speak to a dork like me?

“You have personality,” he says, as if reading my thoughts.

We melt into easy conversation and the day passes. He tells me of a place he’s heard of, not too far away. A sacred place on a hill. We find it as the sun descends towards the waves. We walk softly amid the primitive monoliths. Neither of us speak. He cradles his camera in his long delicate fingers. I back away and observe him as he works. He is in another realm.

He lifts his head and smiles at me. “Thank you.”

I shrug. “You’re welcome.” The conversation starts up again as we walk to the car. We make plans to hike to the top of Ka’ena Point the next morning. I drop him off in town and head to Pebby’s. I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My skin is glowing and blonde strands have begun to appear in my hair. Two days in Hawai’i have achieved what months in California could not. I’m beginning to shine again.

We scan the jagged edges for the trail. No markings are visible. We walk until we come upon a dead end. I peer over the side of a deep green chasm. So far down. The uncanny stillness within me. Not much is frightening anymore. We give up the search and pull ourselves up the side of the cliff. We’ll worry about how to get back down when the time comes.

We stand at the edge. An instant of panic. He could so easily push me off. But it passes. I turn to look at him. His gaze is piercing, yet gentle. His camera in his grasp.

“Take off your clothes.” His mouth twists into a smile. “I dare you, wild girl.”

I stare down at the distant waves, my heart pounding in exhilaration. An instant of hesitation, then my clothes fall to the ground.

“Turn to the side. A little more. No, that’s too much.” His soft touch on my shoulders. His delicate fingers tilt my chin up. The whimsical sparkle in his deep brown eyes. “Look into the sky. Okay, perfect.” He pauses. “There is so much beauty in you.” He kisses my cheek and steps back.

The wind’s embrace. The sharp clicks of the camera. And the sun, flooding my heart with joy. Finally.

Pebby meets us at her shack for dinner. We share the story of our adventure and a bottle of crappy red wine. The daredevil hasn’t yet climbed Ka’ena Point. After the wine is gone, she leaves for her boyfriend’s. And Vava and I are alone.

We giggle and smooch and grope, but never quite get to the act itself. We doze for a while, fingers interlaced, and then he leaves. My address tucked into his backpack. His flight to Tahiti leaves in the early morning. Maybe he’ll write to me, maybe he won’t. It doesn’t really matter. I do a quick search for cane spiders, shut off the lamp, and burrow into the blankets. Smiling. When I get back to the desert, I will tell my almost-boyfriend. He will pretend not to care. Soon we will no longer be almost. I don’t even know how I feel about this. I close my eyes and drift into dreamland.

A couple of months after my return to Palm Desert, a manila envelope materializes in my mailbox. No return address. Inside are two black and white photos. Me at the top of that serrated peak. Head thrown back, beaming at the sky. My body in profile, a flattering, elegant pose. Tendrils of hair caught in the wind’s grasp. I cringe. The monochrome tone accentuates my acne scars and cellulite. Then I see the words scrawled on the back: Ka’ena Point, August 1993. Look at you there. Just like the day you were born. So beautiful. Vava.

Make a Wish

It was June of 1997. My favorite place on the riverbank. “C’mon, smile for me,” my boyfriend said. I lifted the sides of my mouth. Some of the tension ebbed away. It was hard to be upset when I was here. I had moved into my own place by then, but he wouldn’t let me go. Relationships are work, he’d say. Over and over. His fingers digging into my shoulder.

The following year. Same place, same season. That boyfriend now banished from my life. Banished, but now obsessed. His grip on reality had completely shredded. I saved the incoherent threats that he left on my answering machine. Just in case they were needed as evidence. I would soon be leaving for Arizona. A safer place. The turmoil in my heart. The river’s voice telling me, Go. You will be back one day. I will be here. Always.

The sound of footsteps and voices behind me. I turned to look. A couple stood there. The woman had her arms wrapped around herself. Her eyes were wide and terrified as she looked all around her. She gasped when she saw me. “Aren’t you scared to be out here all alone?”

I smiled and shook my head. “No.”

A spasm seized her face. Fear mingled with contempt. They moved on without another word.

I smiled again, to myself. And whispered, “No.”

Spring’s awakening softens into summer’s daydream. I melt into the warm soil. Summer is lushness, indolence. I used to believe that people who preferred summer over all other seasons lacked personality. It’s the easiest season to love. But this year, I allow myself that guilty pleasure. Luxuriate in every precious day. All too soon it will be finished.

Why is it that we so often make things more difficult than they need to be? Who made up the rule that only that which comes from struggle is valuable?

I now live in my little cabin. I walk softly within these walls. Sweep my gaze and run my hands over the work I’ve done. Cosmetic work, but still arduous. The dark-stained ceiling and the whitewashed shiplap walls. Yes, I really did all of that. Yes, this paradise is really mine. My mother unearths a couple of storage tubs from her garage. The things I’d saved before I moved away all those years ago. I find the black and white photo of me by the river. My mother had it framed. I hold it in my hands for a long while. If I hadn’t been driven away, I wouldn’t have had the incredible life I’ve had. The nineteen years with Monsieur Riso. The travels. The most important thing that I’ve learned: if life is putting up roadblocks, stop trying to tear them down. Take the detours. Go.

Summer. That feeling of passing through the gateway to Heaven on Earth.

A night, I lie awake and watch the forest lights outside my window. Sharp flickers of lightning, like knife slashes. The languid blinking of fireflies. Eerie, drifting beacons inviting me into the night’s mystery.

In late June, a robin builds a nest in my bedroom window. At first, she fails. The material she gathers falls to the ground. I try to help, first opening the window a little more, then closing it. Finally she succeeds. The eggs hatch. If I stand on tiptoes, I can see the little beaks poking out of the nest. Tiny, shrill voices emanate from within. The male robin stands guard in the trees. If I get too close to the window, he flies towards me, his neck feathers raised in outrage.

One afternoon, the parents are absent. I walk to the window, startling one of the babies. It flies out of the nest and lands on the ground. It does not move. My heart withers. I go outside and stand over it. It stares upwards. If I come too close, it opens its beak as if to bite me. I lift my eyes to the trees. Where are you, parents? I look down again. Leave it alone. You’re not helping it by helping it. It has to learn how to survive. Let it go.

In the other world, people gather, high on reclaimed freedom. I retreat to the trails. My heart once again battered. My mind a maelstrom. The same lesson comes back to haunt us. Different incarnations of the same phantom. We only ever harm ourselves by the choices we make. Others cannot hurt us without our decision to let them in.

Feel how you damn well feel like feeling. Feel it all. The deluge. The ebb. The exhaustion. Walk it off, is what coaches often tell you when you injure yourself. Mud-splattered legs, soggy shoes. We never truly get over anything. Do we?

I look at the ground. My heart stops. A raven feather lies by the side of the trail. I bend over to pick it up. A single croak is released from the treetops. I look up and whisper, “Thank you.”

I move along, twirling the feather. We process, assimilate, shift. Alter our behavior. For better or worse. We teach ourselves how to survive.

Every hike is a story. The twists and turns and ups and downs of the trail. The chance encounters with animals I’ve only seen dead in the middle of the road. I stop and observe. The porcupine. The baby skunk. They scuttle along, indifferent to my presence.

I pass by lotus-filled lakes and tannin-stained streams. Through forests of pine and hardwood. Until I get to the end. Even though the view is different on the way back, it somehow always seems shorter.

I gather serenity from the wilderness and build a sanctuary of my presence. Stand guard. Until I can discern who is worthy, no one is getting in. In the deepest, darkest corner of my labyrinth, I corner the oldest of phantoms. It looms over me. No matter how many lost souls you try to heal with your love, it won’t make up for not having saved your father. I shake my head and sigh. It’s not my job, anymore. It never has been. The time has come for you to go.

August. I write by the light of a sun tinted by the smoke of distant wildfires. A coppery light that further dilutes the boundaries of memory.

It was last summer, around this time, that I crossed paths with some little girls on the trail that runs behind my property. They came out of the woods next to the meadow, flowers in their hair and sticks in their grasp. I recognized that look in their eyes. All feral mischief. Were they pretending to be fairies or witches or squaws as I used to do when I was their age? What spells had they just finished casting to the sky? What incantations had they composed and sung to the trees? They walked up to me and introduced themselves and said they were part of another family that had owned a cottage here since the time of my grandpa.

“I used to play out here, too, when I was your age.”

“We know,” the older one said.

They headed towards their cottage and I headed up the path. I had reached the middle of the meadow when I saw the hearts. They were etched in the trail every few steps.

Deep breath. Close your eyes. Open your heart. Make a wish and let it go. The dreamy drift of a bloom’s dissolution. Such beauty now in pieces. Transported on a breath – a breath not taken away, but unleashed without reservation. A passionate dissemination of new possibilities. Now: surrender to the mystery. Wishes are always granted, but not always in the form you expect. A gentle tumble into fertile soil. Earth’s soft embrace. And it all begins again.

And so I wish to stop wishing.

And so it comes to pass.

And so I discover that I already have everything I’ve ever wanted.

The Journey

Beijing, China - April 2016

A massive red wall rises before me. Mao's image hangs on high, watching over all. A soldier stands motionless, eyes squeezed shut against the sun. An endless stream of bodies shuffle forward, phones held high in reverence. One does not visit Beijing without visiting The Forbidden City. The tourists file into the belly of the beast. Hundreds and hundreds of individuals. I turn away and walk against the flow. Not today, thanks.

Those tremors of excitement are contagious. Vibrations that emanate from one body to the other. But: is it because of the history, or because it's famous?

I felt them, too, long ago. It made up for the unsettling numbness inside. Why didn't I feel what I was supposed to feel? What was I doing wrong? There were few famous sites that truly interested me. I went because I was told that this is what one does when one visits ___(insert city here)___.

Paris 1988. The Louvre. The line to see the Mona Lisa stretched down the long corridors. We shuffled forward, a listless procession. And then, there she was, hanging on a wall behind a wall, way behind a glass window. Each person had just enough time for a glimpse before we were ordered to move along. Do I feel like my life is richer for that glimpse? Nope.

And yet, it was not time wasted. Sometimes you have to experience what you don't want to realize what it is that you do want.

I want. To inhabit a place with all my spirit. With every step, every glance, every breath, every sensation.

Paris 1999. Drifting through the streets. Cafes and street art. The little rituals of daily life. The philosophical grafitti scrawled on the metro. The soft pride I felt when I realized that I could understand it. The language that was blossoming into my second.

After the obedience came the period of defiance. Disdain. The deliberate avoidance of the Must See lists. But that didn't last long. Let people be as they wish. There is no perfect way to travel. It's all good.

And so I drift. Until Beijing feels like home. It never takes long, anymore.

Off the main drag and through a vibrant portal. They call these little alleys hutongs. This is where life happens. Tiny teahouses and cafes: battered metal tables and plastic chairs on the sidewalk. The tangy aroma of seafood enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and grease. The rasp of brooms sweeping pavement. The language, so birdlike. Emphatic chirps that pierce the air. Weave in and out of bicycles and carts and cats and dogs. Watch where you step.

This impossible shade of red, everywhere. Like blood, like love.

 

Shop owners lean in doorways or sit on steps. Their heads turn to watch me pass. One waves and calls out, “Where are you from?"

I halt, perplexed. Where am I from, anymore? America, my birth country? France, my adopted nationality? Czech Republic, my current place of residence? Outer Space? Inner Space? The same point of origin from which each human comes into being? Everywhere and nowhere?

“France,” is what flies out of my mouth in reply. I'm traveling on my French passport. It's as good of a response as any.

“Bonjour!” He flashes a tea-stained grin.

I smile and bow my head. “Nĭ hăo”. And mosey along.

On the right, a crimson gateway beckons. The Confucius Temple. I'd hoped I'd find my way here.

The noise from the hutong soon recedes. Once again, I've found the quiet place in the chaos. The solitude in the hive. I peer into the face of this holy man. Set in stone for eternity.

What would you like to say to me, Confucius? Would you say that we are all one? All the same? That's what we're told we're supposed to feel in order to be considered spiritually evolved. But I don't. I know almost nothing about you, or your words, but somehow I feel you'd understand this.
I venture deep into the complex. Through the multi-colored temples. I pause and peer into a koi pond. The fish float motionless. They glow like coins in a wishing well.

We all draw from the same reservoir of thought. Some stand on the edge, completely dry. Some wade in. Others submerge themselves. Luxuriate in the depths. And, in so doing, find treasure.

Shrill music emanates from the back of the complex. I drift back there and peek around a corner. A group of young girls are practicing traditional dance. The teacher, a young man, sashays back and forth, hands on his slim hips. He disappears out of my line of sight. The traditional music comes to an abrupt halt. Chinese pop music takes its place. The teacher pirouettes, and claps his hands, pumping his long arms up and out. The girls imitate his steps, giggling. And then, one by one, they find their unique groove.

I watch, unseen. This hidden little corner is worth more than any famous monument. I turn away and head back through the complex. I pause, once again before a pearly white statue. A face, so inscrutable. A jolt seizes me. It softens into a gentle glimmer of pride. I bow one more time.

All those years ago, I set out to discover myself. That journey will never end, and I don't want it to. And yet, I believe I have succeeded.

Roads were made for journeys, not destinations – Confucius