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.

The Road to Bliss

Harbor Springs, Michigan – April 2018

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

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

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

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 The tuxedoed elegance has been replaced by rumpled, disheveled indifference.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

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

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

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

She shakes her head in disbelief and putters away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m more myself than I’ve ever been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m moving to Palm Springs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Bliss. And beyond.