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.

Once Upon a Time in Bohemia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prophetess Libuše – Karel Vitězslav Mašek
Image source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The English word for Vltavín is Moldavite.

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.