The Island of Truth and Lies

Bali, Indonesia – March 2019

I am in the void. Conscious and floating on my back. A copper shimmer traces infinity in the blackness above me. It spins into two eyes. They lean close and stare into mine. Shiny pennies. I catch my breath. Unfurl, exhale. Okay. Look. I’ve got nothing to hide. The gaze is curious, amused. Familiar.

I move my lips in the softest whisper. “Who are you?” The eyes recede into the murk. The spell is broken. A languid ascent from sleep’s abyss. “You are me. Aren’t you.”

I pull the mosquito net aside and rise from the bed. Step outside into the dawn sunshine. Swim through liquid air. A delicious glow has invaded my atoms since my arrival in Bali. Wicked intoxication. It feels just a little too good. I float into the dining area and lower myself onto a cushion, still unable to speak.

Pebby gives me a knowing look. “I always have the weirdest dreams when I sleep in that room.”

I find my voice and tell her mine. She nods. “Uh huh.”

My little sister Penelope – my “Pebby” – teaches science at an international school for expat kids. She has aged so little in the almost nine years since we were last together. Hers is feral beauty. Deep olive skin. Eyes a rich, earthy green. Hair that changes hue depending on the light.

“I feel so strange since I’ve been here. So good, but apprehensive, too.”

“Bali tests you. They even asked me during the interview if I was mentally strong. So many marriages break up here. So many people fall apart.” She tells me of her longtime on and off boyfriend’s recent visit. After so many years, she saw how ugly he was, on all levels. She can’t stand him anymore.

Her dog, Lala, lies in a patch of sunlight. Mottled hyena fur, bloated body, shrunken head, feet like chicken claws. Her stinky feet stench persists no matter how often she gets washed. The sweetest dogs are so often the most hideous.

Pebby takes me on a tour of the school. On the scooter ride home, a downpour ambushes us. I arch my back and let it wash over me. There’s something so luxurious about being drenched by tropical rain. I wouldn’t trade this for the comfort of a car. Sensations are the most memorable part of a voyage. Warm raindrops on bare skin. The aroma of cooking grease, vehicle exhaust, and incense intertwined in the dense air. The vivid rainbow colors of traditional dress. The percussive thud of my heart beating with exhilaration.

When we get to her house, we sink into the cushions. Into the comfort of reminiscing. The family. Dad. Gone so long now. We have both mellowed so much over the years. We have survived, and, despite the dark times, thrived.

March 30, 1981

Ronald Reagan has been shot. My family gathers around the television. The footage is replayed over and over. Pebby is lying on her stomach, legs bent, chin on her hand. “Watch. Now the Pope’s going to get shot.”

The person who used to be my dad stares at her, eyes ablaze. His lips move. My mom frowns at him and switches off the television. He rises from the La-Z-Boy chair and goes to the basement.

The entity who now inhabits my dad’s body calls himself The Mediator Between God and Man. We are no longer his family, but his disciples. He has a small following at St. Anthony’s church. They like to hear his prophecies. They think he’s special, because he uses big words that they can’t understand. They are so stupid. Nothing he says makes any sense at all.

The Pope is shot just weeks later. “You know things, Penelope. Tell me what you know.” He follows her around the house and the yard. Takes her for long drives. When he was a young boy, he made tapes of his prophecies. A priest stole them. The neighbors across the street are in on the conspiracy. “Where are my tapes, Penelope? Tell me where they are.” When she hears his footsteps coming down the hall, she crawls under the bed. He barges into our room without knocking.

This is me: twelve years old, ninety pounds of freckles, braces, and unruly blonde hair. I clench my fists. “She’s not in here.” I glare into those piercing black holes. What did you do with my dad, you bastard? Bring him back. He leaves. I slam the door behind him and slide the desk in front of it.

I peer under the bed. Fierce eyes stare out of the shadows. A wild animal in the underbrush. “It’s okay. He’s gone,” I whisper. But still she doesn’t come out.

My siblings and I held each others’ hands through early adulthood, keeping watch for signs of incoherence, paranoia, delusion. The voices. It’s said that if none manifest by the age of thirty-five, you’re out of the woods. Other than an eccentricity that we embrace, we have made it. A doctor once told my mother that it’s a miracle that we aren’t all drug addicts or dead. Love is what saved us. Before my father’s schizophrenia spiraled out of control, life was stable. We were taught right from wrong. That there is a reason to persevere.

We have a deep connection to spirit, but an innate aversion to fervor. An impeccable bullshit radar. We are unable sit in congregations and nod our heads in unison. We prostrate ourselves before no one. The voices in our heads are our own. Ego chatter and, with increasing frequency, guidance from the Higher Self.

Our conversation switches to the present. Her work at the school. My work as a bartender this past winter at a dive bar in my village in northern Michigan. Most of the patrons live in the dodgy rooms upstairs and have lost the right to drive. The bar is their universe. I’m so grateful for all of the colorful stories I’ve gathered. But I am exhausted.

Tomorrow we leave for a trip to Komodo National Park, after which I will take off for a few days. To Ubud, a place of pilgrimage for the New Age crowd. Pebby snickers. “We all laugh about the Ubudian Yoga Pants People. So annoying. But it is a pretty area. A good base for day trips.”

I wander to my room, stopping to give Lala a goodnight scratch behind the ears. I tuck my mosquito net firmly under the mattress. A poisonous snake crawled up through Pebby’s shower drain a few weeks ago. One of her friends found a six foot cobra in her bedroom. I take no chances.

My head sinks into the pillow. Eyes close. Fade. To white. The brain flickers. Not a dream. A transmission. A sentient radiance streams through the leaves of a giant oak tree. An eminence, benevolent and awesome, prowling on the periphery. The truth has nowhere to hide under this illumination. It sees me. Are you ready?

I lift my face to the immaculate rays. Deep breath. Yes.

It is my second to last day of work.

“Hey Barbie, how much to show us those beauties under that sweater?” I deliver their cans of Budweiser and walk away. In order for me to be offended, I’d have to give a shit. Which I don’t. “You’re a beautiful woman. What do you expect?” An accusation not a compliment.

A soft-spoken hulk of a man sits in his usual spot next to the kitchen. His name is Randy. “I can’t believe what you ladies put up with.” He shakes his head. “Makes me ashamed to be a man.”

I sigh. “The women are no better.” Such delight taken in deceit and manipulation. The stupid games and fabricated drama. Everyone is cheating on everyone and they’re so proud of it. I’ve had quite the education about modern love these past few months.

Every day after work, Randy drinks a few beers here, not enough to get a DUI. Then he goes home and drinks himself to sleep in the basement, which has become his bedroom. When he tells me the things his wife says to him, my stomach turns. He stays for the kids. And, in spite of her abuse, he still loves her.

I go into the kitchen to fetch a food order. When I turn around, Randy is standing there. He shifts his feet, holds out a calloused paw. “Well, have fun in Bali. I’m really glad I met you.”

I look at him. So humble. So broken. My heart swells. I wrap my arms around his neck and squeeze. “You’ll see me again. I’ll come by.”

When I pull away, he bows his head and hurries out the door. “Take care of yourself.”

But the next evening, he’s sitting in his usual place.

I smile. “Hey! Told you we’d see each other again.”

He lifts his glass. “I’m drinking coke.” He grins. “I quit drinking.”

“Wow. Really?”

“That hug you gave me…did something to me. It made me realize that I’m not a piece of shit. If a nice lady like you thinks I deserve a hug, then I can’t be.” He takes a deep breath. Exhales. “No matter what she says.” He pulls himself up tall. Steely glint of determination in his eyes. “And another thing I did. I made an appointment with a counselor. I’m going to get to the bottom of all my stuff.” He pushes back from the bar. “Gotta go. Just wanted to stop by and tell you.”

I can only manage a whisper. “I gave you the hug, Randy, but you let it in.”

He lifts his hand in farewell and strides out the door.

I retreat to the kitchen and slump against a wall. Head in my hands. Oh, this beautiful, broken world.

There’s a finality to everyone’s goodbyes. A resignation. It’s as if they know they’ll never see me again. Underneath it all, they don’t want to see me again. Not because they don’t like me, but because I come from such a different world. When I told them I was going to Bali, they looked it up on the internet. “You are making a difference, JD. I want to do that, too.”

“I’m just going on vacation.” I laugh and shake my head.

“You are an angel.”

But I’m not.

Too many days too close together. A tiny room on a small boat. Clouds converge, much more ominous than our usual tension. Pressure deepens. Thunder rumbles. Lighting flickers. By the time we get back to Bali, the tempest is in full force. A cloudburst of old, old resentments. My retaliation is unrestrained. Did those words just come out of my mouth? Things that can never be unsaid. And yet, it is possible to feel both profound remorse and unapologetic. It needed to be said. We retreat to opposite corners of the house. When she leaves for work, I emerge.

I lie on the wooden floor next to the garden, weighed down by a leaden heart. Luminous petals of sunlight stream through the frangipani tree. I’ve lost my cool, my bliss. It’s been so long since anything, or anyone, has pushed my buttons. I close my eyes. I’m being too hard on myself. No one ever evolves beyond doing things that require forgiveness. Just chill out.

The click of thick toenails on wood. Grunts of exertion. An odorous cloud wafts around the corner. A daft, bony face appears.

I lift my heavy head and smile through a sigh. “Oh, Lala. You are so beautiful.”

Letters are exchanged. Pebby’s is sweet and funny: Lala will miss you! Mine is more serious: I don’t know what’s come over me. Could it be Bali? We’re old enough to know that we can only spend a few days together before conflict arises, before the inevitable communication breakdown. This hurt is deep, but not fatal. We will meet up again before I leave.

To Ubud I go. My guesthouse is a traditional Balinese house tucked down a long passageway off a main road. Paintings and statues of deities everywhere. A little shrine sits off to the side of the courtyard. Rai is the owner. Tiny, regal, eyes of pure gold.

I drop off my things and make the exploratory lap around town. I wander inside a temple of lotuses. In front of each picturesque statue, flawless princesses line up for photo ops. Identical shrink-wrapped, immobile faces. Flat doll gazes. Long, flowing dresses. A blonde lifts her impeccably manicured hands to her forehead in mock prayer. Her lips are so inflated that they are unable to fully close. After a long moment, she turns away from the statue. Two women lurch forward. They glare at each other, vicious cobras about to strike. I flinch. The boyfriends take the photos, obedient and oblivious.

What of their time alone together? Every move choreographed, every moan practiced, every expression of ecstasy contrived. No risk of communion in those eyes. That which lies beneath the pretty masks is too shallow, even, for the most basic existential angst. There is simply nothing to explore. They were born into a reality where identity is meticulously fabricated in pixels on a screen and worth is determined by likes, follows, and fawning comments by strangers. A two-dimensional wasteland.

I turn away and head out to the street. The sky rips open. I cover my backpack with the rain poncho. Heaven’s tears cascade over me. Washing me clean.

The cacophony of desperation recedes. The tugs on my sleeve, the faces thrust into mine. The voices, beseeching. Taxi! Cheap! Look here! Good price for you!

A sign materializes: Magical Rice Field in Ubud. My soggy footsteps echo in the narrow passageway. There is more to be revealed. Are you ready? I roll my eyes. No. Not really. When I emerge on the other side, the deluge has already finished. Rice ponds shimmer like liquid metal. I step forward and peer into the opaque mirror. Into my iridescent shadow.

I am beautiful. I deserve to be seen and valued. Loved for who I truly am. Randy’s voice echoes through my mind: I’m not a piece of shit. I bow my head and wrap my arms around myself. “I’m not a piece of shit.” Sobs erupt. A relentless flow from deep within, viscous and red-hot. Molten magma of the heart.

The most devastating lies are those that we tell ourselves. And is hope not the most achingly lovely of all? This exquisite bouquet of glimmers that I’ve gathered. Under this light, so merciless and merciful, it withers and dies. Time to loosen my grasp and let it fall. If only I could. A hot wave engulfs me. I hurl it away. If it’s not meant to be, then be gone. I never wanted this in the first place. It boomerangs back.

The responsibility for this heartbreak lies with you. The person is merely a mirror. A perfect mirror reflecting your deepest wounds. Focus on the lesson, the pattern. Deep, slow breaths. There you go. Go easy on yourself. The attachment still serves a purpose. It will dissipate when it’s time.

There is one fundamental lie which culture instills in us from birth: I am not good enough. It keeps us from standing in our power. It keeps us in line. It attacks the source of life itself – our ability to truly love. If you dig deep enough, through all of the layers, you eventually find it. In all of its horrific glory.

I trudge back to the guesthouse. I curl up on the bed and tumble off the precipice into a dreamless sleep.

Nothing is more precious than a heart full of dreams in a world that has turned to stone.

Tendrils of incense snake through the little shrine. I sit on the ground and lean against the rough stone wall. Tremors of pain radiate through the bottomless fissure in my heart. Death throes. Rai performs her morning prayers. Ethereal ballerina movements. Chants of unknown origin float overhead. Vintage bird cages sway from the roofs. Songbirds chirp a melancholy melody. Votives flicker. These strange, smoky orange marigolds. The color of funeral pyres. Ultimate purification. Cheek against cold stone, I let my eyes close. Out of the ashes I will rise.

Watch, now, my insolent sashay into the vegan cafe. Cutoff jean shorts, floppy hat, constellations of mosquito bites on my legs. Disheveled, haggard, bleary-eyed. Past the man buns, dreadlocks, Macbooks. Yoga pants. Looks of condescension and bewilderment follow my haphazard trajectory. That’s right, dudes. Diving into the chasm of the soul isn’t photogenic. I could sneer at them for being hypocrites, but I can longer be bothered. I lower myself on a cushion and order an herbal tonic. Now the convalescence begins.

A somnolent drift through temples and palaces and sacred forests. Cloud-shrouded volcanos in the distance. The shrill symphony of bats. Mischievous monkey hijinks. Demons and deities. Not always easy to tell them apart. Without total annihilation there can be no resurrection.

I have managed to reclaim my worth as worker, family member, friend, and writer. The people in my life now reflect that. But as a woman. I shake my head. The transcendent love you deserve exists. You have cracked your heart open to make space. Now you must let the love in. I come to rest next to a murky pond. Gaze into the eternal parade of koi fish across the waters. My spirit dives in. Surrenders to the flow.

Back in Ubud, I wine and dine myself. Spoil myself rotten. Pretty sundresses. Silver rings on my fingers – turquoise for self-forgiveness, rainbow moonstone for new beginnings. Around my wrist, a bracelet of anyolite to harmonize the mind with the heart. In a humble shack, a gargantuan of a woman tears my body apart and molds it back together again.

Come into your wholeness. Come Home.

For my final two days, I head to the coast. To Kuta, beloved haunt of blue collar Australians. It is the lowest part of low season. The streets are nearly deserted. The pubs and shops are empty.

My last evening, I meet Pebby at a multi-floored labyrinth in Seminyak. I ascend a staircase and glide across a terrace. Bland chillout electronica wafts over the crowd. My floor-length sundress swirls around my legs. The multi-colored beads on my sandals glow like gems in the soft light. Salty air curls fall around my shoulders. Male and female heads turn in appreciation. I look down at the floor and blush. An invisible hand takes my right hand. A grip so warm and unwavering. My queen, there is no other choice but you. I’m so proud to walk by your side. I lift my face and smile.

Pebby waves me over. “This place is kinda trendy,” she grimaces. “Sorry.”

“Oh, whatever. At least the food is probably great.”

Our apologies are encoded in the comfortable conversation. No need to bring it all up again.

A wall of clouds creeps towards shore. A legendary Bali beach sunset is not to be. I’m no longer disappointed by such things. Like every voyage, Bali has given me exactly what I need.

By the time we find our way out of the building, it is pouring. Goodbyes in the rain. Of course.

“I love you, Pebby.”

Her eyes are soft, hesitant. “I love you, too.”

One last dawn stroll on the beach and then it’s off to the airport. With the exception of the surf schools, I am the only foreigner. Fishermen. Runners. Couples holding hands. They all make a point to wish me good morning. I lower myself on the sand and watch Balinese surfer girls frolic in the waves. A mutt trots over and flops down next to me. He presses his body into my side. Territorial, protective. I smile out loud and scratch behind his ears. No place has ever witnessed the truth of my soul and made me feel so welcome. But I’m so ready to go home to my wilderness.

Above the hypnotic waves, on a lingering cloud, the ghost of a rainbow appears. A promise.

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.

Shine

**Another fiction piece unearthed from the deepest vault. I don’t wish to be a downer during the holiday season, so those who are uncomfortable with dark themes (addiction) might want to skip this post.**

Shine.

Sometimes I like to leave the needle in my arm longer than necessary. The reflected light a beacon of hope. My salvation. There was a time when the mere thought of such an action would have caused me unbearable anxiety. Now it’s a curiosity, like my passive face looking back at me from this toothpaste-splattered mirror. My glow dissipating. I have not sunk so low. I lead a productive, though unconventional, life. I’ve always made it to my gigs. I love my family. And so on.

I’m not sure what time it is. It’s light outside and I hear people moving about. Cursing myself for losing my watch again, I pick up the phone and dial the front desk. A kind voice tells me that it’s five PM. I don’t have to be anywhere for a while. Good. It’s true that all hotel rooms look the same, but each town has its own charms. And neuroses. I peek through the curtains at the incessant gloom that is winter in the Midwest. Buildings breathing steam. Lights peering dimly from behind frosted, incandescent glass. Signs of life.

Passage of truth
Lead me far from this farce
Coherence is lost
In the forest of my heart

My arms hurt. At least I can pull off long sleeves gracefully in this weather. I remember a dream I had before I started doing this to myself. “Little girl afraid of the big, bad needle,” a seedy, reedy black man said to me as he tied and squirted and smacked and plunged. Yellow dog eyes rolling back in his head. Some of the golden liquid had landed on my hand. “Go ahead. Have a little taste.” Timidly, then enthusiastically, I did so. The glow like a hissing serpent gliding through the lonely corridors of my being. And warmth. Such incredible warmth. And when I woke up I was scared.

Fear is a strange thing sometimes. The great motivator. The great deceiver. You fear that which intrigues you the most. I remember my virgin veins, aroused and eager as they were lovingly tied off and caressed. So many to choose from then. “Relax, baby.” Ryne with his soft eyes and confident touch. I hardly felt a thing. Then: pounding heart and panicked whimper as all control was surrendered: help me. Every pore dilated and weeping. Tender hands stroking my hair. Safe. Safe from them all.

Ryne. It rhymes with shine. Where did he go, my sublime? Oh, he left me for a socially acceptable anesthetic: the Church. Now I’m nothing but fodder for his flock; a radiant example of depravity strewn to the self-righteous masses. They gobble up every last morsel and shake their woolly sheep heads in disapproval.
Choke on me. That’s it. Gag me down. Soon there’ll be no more. Soon there’ll be—

Tears no more
Those glass slippers dangling in scorn

A bath will help. I don’t want to go out there yet. Don’t want to see their frigid concern. The running water soothes me as I notice myself, a faded pastel portrait, gazing back from the depths of this wretched mirror. I am alive. Around my neck, the antique locket’s inscription: For Meredith, who shines so bright. A gift from my supportive and bewildered family. The irony. If only they knew. It’s not their fault, yet they would shoulder the blame. The family closets harbor no boogeymen. This despair is my own doing; the result of a foolish experiment in—

Love not my soul
For it is dubious
Search not my heart
For it is shadowed
Just sing with me

The crowd will be intense tonight. Furiously enthusiastic as if in defiance of the harsh, bitter weather. A welcome change from the beige and preoccupied audiences of the Southwest. It’s different in the North. Surly and aggressive. They go through a lot to get to the show. And they’ve been counting the days.

People come to hear my music and, if I may be so delusional, my words. I used to think I had something to say. Now it seems I could be up on stage extolling the virtues of stale corn flakes and they would still think that I was remarkably profound. Perhaps even more so.

Entombed in this pearly grave
I am precious. I am not yours to interpret
Not yours to categorize, analyze, institutionalize
And –

I am not profound. They don’t listen. I am just the latest novelty. For some, a topic of conversation over café mochas and biscottis. For others, background accompaniment to getting stoned. I’ll never forget the moment when I looked out over a wasteland of rapt faces and realized that they didn’t get anything I sang, and yet they truly thought that they did. Faces that, when it mattered, shot me down and then laughed about it. And now it’s my turn to gloat. But instead of gratification, it was a sickening reality that hit me. It’s too late. I don’t want their love now. And then, the guilt. It’s not their fault. They want so much to understand. They want to be inside my head. To be me. And I began to wonder if I even understood what I’m singing.

Kill me kill me kill me
Set me free
From your endless scrutiny

Morbid, self-indulgent thoughts cascade across my mind as I lie here submerged and cozy. Reality obscured by ripples in this: my coffin of make-believe. The water has grown tepid, but I put off my return to the air. Izzy, my manager, and the others will be here soon. We still go through the motions. They have given up trying to rouse me from my isolation. None of them will look at me directly. They’re planning their escape, biding their time. They say nothing, because, in spite of my sullen seclusion, I still kick ass.

I paint rosebud lips on my listless mouth, butterfly lashes on my bleary eyes. Long lost little lady. Angel hair and ragged nails. It’s hard to imagine a powerful performance from such an image. I still can’t believe I have a following.

Once, I was out there among the lonely and misguided masses. Wanting to be relieved of the responsibility of giving the hurt a voice: tell us what we feel, because we don’t have the guts to dig for it ourselves. My only difference was that the pain was always on the surface, demanding to be acknowledged. There was simply no other choice but to express it. I am such a coward. Yet I’ve been called courageous, passionate. “Elegantly brutal in her relentless search for meaning in an inconsistent universe,” wrote one critic. Cheesy and pretentious, but it’s the only review I’ve ever saved.

I’ve caught the bouquet
That I never sought
I only ever wanted
To not be bought

It was there all along. The purpose of it all. Sadness in everything. Illuminated in a tiny, hollow piece of metal. I will not be getting help. It wouldn’t be the same if I cleaned up and became lukewarm. That’s a death I’m not willing to endure. I will let everything run its course until the inevitable accident. No shotguns, razor blades, or goodbye notes from me. Just negligence and destiny.

I hear them knocking. Time to go out there. I’m not ready to face them, but I will because soon it will all be over. I can already hear what people will say. Some will call me a loser, others a tragedy. They will both be right. For now, I hold my head up. I have seen my end and it’s exquisitely mine.

Shine.

**”Shine” was originally written in the mid-1990s. It was a time when “heroin chic” was aggressively marketed to the troubled Gen X youth. All the cool rock stars were addicts. Very few are still alive today. My own abyss of depression never led me down the path of substance addiction. My addiction was travel. But I could relate to the alienation and hopelessness. The feeling that no one could possibly understand. It’s not easy to have empathy, if you’ve never experienced it for yourself. This was my attempt to understand.

This was my very first published story, way back in 2003. It appeared in Word Riot, which, for more than a decade, was one of the most reputable online literary journals. It has recently vanished, like so many other webzines from the early years of the internet.**