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

Remember the Dance

London – March 1989

We are in some sort of small warehouse. It’s pitch dark, except for black light glowing on Day-Glo painted walls. I’ve got a bad sinus infection. My head hurts so badly I can hardly see. Manuela and I are the only girls in this place. A bunch of guys dressed in baggy pants and fluorescent high top trainers are dancing like weirdos. Spastic shadows twitching to the worst music I’ve ever heard.

“This is acid music,” Manuela says. Her eyes blaze. “This music is God.”

I sigh in annoyance. Rome, Venice, Paris, and now London. We are getting on each others’ nerves, but we are stuck with each other until tomorrow morning when I go back to LA. I have to be at the airport three hours early because the terrorists who blew up the PanAm plane are threatening to blow up another one this weekend, Easter weekend. I just want to go back to the hotel and sleep.

Manuela grabs my hand and leads me through back alleys in search of some club called Heaven. We wait in line for a long time. We are dressed in the funky clothes we bought on High Street. She’s wearing bellbottoms that are so ugly I can hardly look at them. She says my leather hat and leather boots with skull buckles are outdated. So American. “No one listens to hard rock anymore.” She stifles a snicker. “That’s for old people.”

The music throbs around us as we meander endless corridors. Up and down. Around and around. Manuela is on the hunt for some musician she’s got a crush on. S’express. Bomb the Bass. People and groups and music I’ve never heard of. “There he is!” Manuela gasps. She walks up to a small-boned man of Asian descent. He is gay, but she’s hopelessly smitten. 

I stand back while she talks to these famous people. They look at me with respect when she tells them I’m from Michigan. I guess this music actually started in Detroit. Figures. The musical bombardment is relentless. Sadistic. I clasp my battered head in my hands and stifle a scream.

“This crap will never become popular in America,” I growl, as we finally make our way to the exit. “It sucks!”

“You’ll love it, too. One day.” Her deep brown eyes glitter. “You will always remember this night.

I sigh and shake my head. The vow to myself is etched in steel. Never, ever. 

Two years later, I sought out the merry asylum. My London story was a source of envy to my friends, who were fanatics about this new music. They heard a rumor, which beckoned us on a quest for the ticket seller. We found him at a tiny party store in Hollywood. The middle-aged black man screened us with nonsensical questions. “Are you sure you know what you know?” He bugged his eyes out and pulled his lips into a carney grin. 

I tried to keep a grip on my escalating buzz. “You’re totally messing with me.”

“Just trying to figure out if you finished high school.” He winked at me and gave us the precious treasure map. 

It led us to an abandoned warehouse in South Central LA. Interspersed in the vast crowd were people standing with arms crossed over their heads. “That means they’re selling X,” one of my friends whispered. “Ecstasy.” 

We passed them by, preferring the natural source of bliss we had ingested earlier. Smiley faces and stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss hats. It was a carnival of love. I believe it was that night when the music took hold forever. The repetitive beats brought me to a trance. It burrowed deep inside my cells, the friendliest of parasites. 

Just before sunrise, flashing red lights surrounded the warehouse. Sirens. We scattered into the streets, breathless with glee. 

I danced whenever I could, which wasn’t often. Work and responsibilities and financial challenges kept me from going out on a regular basis. Smaller clubs were my preference. The deejays were enigmatic figures hidden in booths. They were genies who wove tracks together into a vibrant tapestry. A magic carpet ride. The clubs were dark, smoky, spartan. They were simply receptacles for bodies moving together in the dark. There is a special intimacy in sharing a dance floor with strangers. Deep and warm, but without physical contact, or even acknowledgment. We shared a space, but our awareness was turned within. Glowing glances were exchanged when we caught the same groove and surfed it to shore. That shared euphoria. No other intoxicant was necessary. The dance floor is the only place where I’ve truly felt oneness with humanity.

Poznan, Poland. 2007. He took the stage and exclaimed. “I am Polish Electro Boogie Boy!” There are so many other characters that I will always remember. Nameless and their faces are obscured with time, but their dance was unforgettable. You can know so much about a person by the way they allow themselves to move. They way they inhabit their bodies.

The places I’ve danced. Nights that became mornings. Gatherings that brought me home to myself. In my days of deepest depression, I believe that it saved me. London. LA. Berlin. Chicago. Budapest. Noumea. Rio de Janeiro. Phoenix. And Sydney.

Sydney, Australia – September 1995

In Sydney, we clean up. We splurge on new clothes. Dig our makeup out of the bottom of our stinky backpacks. Unfurl. We made it. 

“A toast.” Maya holds out her palm to reveal three tiny squares of paper. “To surviving Papua New Guinea. And to Sydney. Magnificent Sydney!”

Amelia, our Australian friend, places one on my tongue, communion-like. The body of infinity. Forever and ever. Amen. Slow, deep breaths. Focus. With courage and respect. A new expedition looms ahead. Inter-dimensional. Be ready. 

“Peace, Dearie. It will be beautiful.” Amelia takes my hand. “Let’s go dance.” 

Into a labyrinth of murky rooms. Psychedelic frescoes shimmer on black walls. A tingle, then radiance. And away I go. A giggle moves through me. This effervescence. So different from the tainted, bone-jarring LSD trips of yesteryear.

Maya and Amelia whirl away. Into the shadows. A gaunt man wearing a yellow polyester blazer and red pants sits down next to me. He is surely younger than I am, but his eyes hold the weariness of eons. He spins a glittery plastic scepter in his hand. Round and round. Others of his kind slouch against walls and huddle in corners. Eyes downcast. Rumpled velvet and smeared makeup. Carnival carnage.

“Who are you?”

“We are the Vibe Tribe.” He lays the scepter across his lap. “Some call us The Ferals. A band of futuristic gypsies. We’ve spent the last few years on the road together.”

Tendrils of music swirl around me and seep into my pores. Liquid resonance. My heart swells and ascends. 

“This morning we will pack up our tipis and leave for Tasmania. And then it’s over. We are weary of the road, each other, the dance. The Ecstasy has stopped working. We tried.” A heavy pause. “Have we, as humans, lost the ability to band together forever?” He shakes his head.

Crestfallen and bewildered souls. A girl wearing a white dress with big black polka dots stares out at the world through spooky black-rimmed eyes. Her manic staccato cackle is consumed by the music. 

Maya’s whisper in my ear. “She scares me.” I turn my head to respond, but she’s dancing with Amelia on the other side of the room.

Feral boy speaks. “Some will wander forever alone, unable to re-integrate into society. That’s the price paid for searching. The longer you’re away, the harder it is to return. Maybe it’s better to die than to live in the past.”

I take his hand. “Dance with me.”

He pulls his hand away. “It’s all over for me.” He crumples against the wall and closes his eyes.

I sweep my eyes around the room. A slight, shiny distortion, like cling wrap, warps my view. Behold the membrane that separates me from other humans. The wall of There. Glide onto the dance floor. Into Maya and Amelia’s open arms. I smile into the face of a man with long black hair and limpid brown eyes. The shimmer of his hands down my back. The slow, deep seep of his essence into the cells. The eternity of our friendship unspools before us. He looks down at his hands and then back at me in wonder. My languid pirouette. The music throbs an obscene warmth though me. I lift my arms in surrender. Undulate myself into dissolution. Whatever you are out there, I am yours. Take me. The membrane dissolves. 

Tentacles of sound pull the dancers tighter in its grasp. Polka Dot Girl staggers to the dance floor. Spastic, jerky dance moves. Ferocious eyes. A battered marionette struggling to break free. Those who seem wild are often just imprisoned by a different force. 

I close my eyes. And see. My atoms are iridescent aqua blue spheres. I am the sky. They morph into tiny blue bubbles that float away on my laughs. I am joy. I am no more.

Drops of pink dawn drip through the cracks in the heavy black curtains. From the softest illumination. The music’s velvety tendrils recede. Back to the luminous abyss from whence they came. We shake ourselves off. Reassemble. 

Feeling at home in solitude is a gift. I gather this to my heart in a gentle embrace. Thank you.

The Vibe Tribe coalesces. A bouquet of wistful wilted wildflowers. They pause in the doorway. A silhouette of resignation. And then they are gone. 

The 1990s became the 2000s. Then came the organization. The marketing and promotion. The plastic surgery, the solarium tans, the skimpy costumes. The pouting. White shirts and waxed chests on the male variety. The deejays became superstars. The turntables morphed into computer programs. The awareness shifted to the exterior. The music became a stagnant pond, sub-genres blended together to appeal to the masses. The waves went flat. The soul took refuge underground. I lost the motivation to find it. It was inevitable. 

Vapors of laser phosphorescence dissipating in the sunrise. Always a beautiful, bittersweet sight. It was time to go home. Satiated and covered in dust and smoke and dried sweat. Grateful and already wistful. You could buy the music, play it at home or in the car, but the vibe was impossible to replicate. You could dream of next time. Eventually, it would be the last time. We are all middle-aged now. Those of us who danced together all those years ago. It doesn’t matter what became of us. We are still grooving together in the vast arena of memory. The dance continues. For eternity.

Candles in the Rain

Fatima, Portugal – November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)

As I enter through the back gate, thick raindrops begin to fall from the sky. I glance down at my watch. 11:11 a.m. I freeze, then smile. The raindrops lengthen into streams which become buckets. I duck into a church to wait it out. A half hour passes with no sign of it letting up. I open my umbrella and stride into the deserted courtyard, a vast arena that can hold hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rivers of rain flow over my feet, drenching my pant legs. Rain soaks through the umbrella. I slow my steps, so that I don’t get swept away. 

I have come to light a candle for someone. Sadness and worry keep me awake at night. Helplessness. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so far away. I buy one of the elegant, rustic tapers from the lady in the booth and await my turn. So many candles here, even now. Some of the flames dance, some burn long and steady. The candles at the front are pelted by the rain. They flicker and go dark for a split second, and then they reignite. So defiant. I move forward, light my flame from another, and place it among the others. 

I am an imposter here, and I’m not sure why I have come. I have not been a Catholic since I was a child. My knowledge of Fatima is obscured, probably on purpose. I remember when my little sister Pebby dressed up as one of the shepherd children for a school event. On the day that Ronald Reagan was shot, while my family was gathered in front of the television, she remarked, “Watch. Now the Pope is gonna get shot.” He did, and it was on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima. My father, who had slipped away into schizophrenia, saw signs in everything. He never left her in peace after that. 

I abandoned the Catholic faith when my father got sick. I had prayed for him, for my family. Please make him better. Please protect us. But things only got worse. No one would protect us, so it became my job to take care of everyone. I was thirteen years old.

Pilgrimage sites, of every kind, have a palpable electricity. It’s as if the accumulation of the faith and awe of millions has charged the air. Something happened here, all those years ago. A crystalline lady, a “dancing Sun”, three prophecies. It is natural for inexplicable events to be interpreted through the lens of the culture and time period in which they occur. Christian God, extraterrestrial visitation, mass hallucination. Does it matter what the explanation is? 

The Chapel of the Apparitions is a simple glass box. A statue of the Blessed Mother is the only ornamentation. I sit on a bench. Most of the others are solitary or in small groups. The silence is absolute. A dog wanders in and curls up in the middle of the floor. Faces turn to smile and then settle back into meditation. I watch them. One by one, they are overcome. Bodies tense up. Eyes widen, staring into an endless internal horizon. Gentle nods. Faces melt into wonder, humility, gratitude. There are no histrionics. 

My eyes come to rest on the floor. A long sigh of envy, of defeat. I’ve tried for so long to transcend this depression. So many things I’ve tried. Why can’t I get it right? I wish I would have a breakthrough. The air to my right grows heavy. A sound, like a massive wave, fills my mind. As the wave moves through me, I hear, Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. The wave exits my body to the left. I wrap my arms around myself as the room spins. And then, the light. Flickering, then pure, unwavering illumination. A presence, eminent and kind. A hand on the shoulder. A finger pointing. Look, child. Here. It’s always been right before your eyes. I lean forward, my face in my hands. The hardest person to forgive is yourself. The enormity of it all. The simplicity.

The light. Yes, I remember you from that time, so many years ago. That gloomy winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after my father died and I tried to die. Twenty-three years of life, but so very old. I was working in a cavernous old building in downtown. A furniture company, I believe. Alphabetizing invoices. Hundreds and hundreds of invoices. I’d file them in boxes and load them in the creaky wooden service elevator and bring them up to the archives in the attic. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or think of anything but letters on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to think about how I was going to live. And then, the light. There were no words or thoughts, just radiance. And love. And it didn’t matter anymore what I was going to do with my life. Everything was going to be okay.

I sit, now, and listen. To the things I said to myself. My peers shunned me because I am defective. I was sexually assaulted because I wasn’t vigilant enough. People take me for granted, make the least effort possible, and consider me a last choice, because I am not good enough. I deserve every bad thing that ever happened to me. All of it was my own damn fault. I should have known better.

Maybe faith isn’t about how hard you pray, but how deeply you surrender. Of all the people who were cruel to you, you are the worst. Such a simple thought, but it is something I needed to understand. I’ve read similar words in books, heard them from “enlightened” ones, but they beaded up and rolled off. It had to come from within. We hold the keys to our unique prisons. The doors must be unlocked, one by one. Every lock is trickier than the last. 

Back outside, the rain has stopped. Into the basilica I stroll. Disheveled and dazed. I drift past the monochrome altar towards the tombs. The austere décor is a perfect tribute to these humble children. So much love in this place. Gentle, motherly love. I sit, once again, and let it hold me. And time passes.

Nine years have passed. Every year, I celebrate this day. The person for whom I lit the candle overcame the struggle very soon after my visit. There has been no relapse. I’ve never told that person of my visit and I most likely never will. With the exception of those who are closest to me, I’ve kept this story locked up in the vault of my memory. A few mornings ago, upon awakening, it drifted back to me and I knew that it was time to share it. “Illumination” was the word I chose for 2020. For most of the year, I’ve felt the complete opposite. As have so many others. My story is not Earth-shattering. I didn’t regain my sight or the ability to walk or conquer cancer. Even so, someone may need to hear it. No flame is too humble to light another.