(The final version of Part 1 will soon be available for download.)
- an impoverished person who indulges in freedom and refinement by balancing time and money with self-actualizing undertakings such as creating and experiencing art, culture and self-fulfillment — not to be confused with trustafarian, trustfunda, or one who is independently wealthy, a glamsient has neither family money, nor a large sum of money.
I loved teaching, but found myself like many University lecturers — poor and disillusioned. My creative dream, my novel, sputtered in the wake of grading and planning. I’d catch myself staring at my job’s dead end from my cubicle (that was crammed into a large classroom like a bunk bed in a prison gym) and remind myself that at least we had a printer in the room. After years of telling myself to leave, I finally committed to my art and left. I left it all — my career, my friends, my home. I didn’t know where I was going, but I needed a new start.
Looking back at the past three years through this collection of shorts, the glam of glamsient reveals itself — it is not a glamour of possessions or status, but the time and freedom to pursue art and transcendence. It’s the glamor of creating a new life on your own terms, of polishing your inner diamond.
I have stayed true to my memory in these stories, although I have taken minor chronological liberties and changed some names,.
The mystical aspects of the story, however, are not fanciful or stretches of the imagination.
Part 1 of 3
Energized before first light, I got up, made tea, and went outside. Dark shadows obscured hills and valleys, the open farmland that stretched before me. Only an occasional owl’s hooting punctured the silence.
The crescent moon, hung in a star-filled sky, watched as I walked a deer path up a hill behind the house. It was cool and I enjoyed the cold air, knowing the afternoon sun would put me in the shade with the fan turned high. At the top, in a space unoccupied by dry shrubs, I kicked small rocks aside and sat down.
I brought the tea into my body with sips of intention for the rising day, breathing in the peace of a million minds sleeping as the night faded from black to blue, taking the stars, waking the birds. A line of color cut the hills to the east in rolling silhouette.
Birds convened with the heavens, voices joining with every new breath, proclaiming the ordinary miracle that sets our clocks, old and familiar, yet always new. Its majesty rising, I pinned my heart to the changing sky, and asked it to illuminate my being.
A showcase, a pastel wash on oaks and hills, hues casting themselves as bright streaks on feather clouds. Colors spread by a gilded brush, each layer more brilliant than the last. Breathing deeply, my feet on the ground, I took in the valley, hills, crop lines, oaks, shrubs, and dried grasses appeared with the sun.
A soft and tender happiness carried water to my eyes, washing my heart, spilling onto my cheeks, blessed with an awareness of golden rays behind hills, opening to light like a soul opens her eyes, birthed into a new life, fresh with the morning.
A rustling — a small rabbit running up the hill straight to me! My smile and his sprint, light and fast, until, face to face, looking into each other’s eyes. Paralyzed by fear, his nose and whiskers twitched before he dashed in a new direction.
I whispered gratitude to Nature for her gift.
I meandered back to the path and towards the house, recognizing each step. In the lowest branch of a wide-reaching oak, a barn owl perched. Her vision pierced into my humanity. I slowed my step to admire her round face and large eyes, her speckled auburn overcoat, and white underdress. She leisurely stretched her wings and flew to a post on a rancher’s fence, looking back at me before turning her gaze to the landscape, as if she, too, in her wisdom, admired the valley at dawn.
Towards her I crept, present to the encounter, though every step seemed too loud. She turned her attention to me, and after a moment, sailed on silent wings to another post further along. I followed her, enthralled by her mystery. Stopping at short distances, she peered into my soul and drew me along the ridge. She signaled the end of our walk by changing direction high into a tree.
I pressed my palms together and bowed to her, raising my hands above my head. I touched my hands to my third eye — collecting her call to vision — and brought them to my heart.
I drove along the dirt road, winding between hillsides, that remained golden through another rainless Winter. Dirt billowed behind my car as I navigated potholes. Cows sauntered away from the road as I neared, but the donkeys didn’t mind.
At the dead end, on the other side of a locked gate, a tan, lean man lounged on a pool toy in the salt water pool; the others sat under the gazebo clothed for a festival in cat ears, onesies, crop tops, harem pants, fuzzy hoods, tie dye, and faux fur.
James gave me a hug when I approached. He announced my name, but everyone was engrossed in their dialogues. James, preoccupied with his mirror, sat down. I chose not to point out that he had blood on his hands because it seemed like the others did, too.
Feeling awkward, I found space next to a woman at the end of the group. She wore a headpiece that draped feathers and crystals into her shining, obsidian locks. Dressed in all black (bra top, short shorts, netted tights and army boots), she turned to me. Metallic mandala temporary tattoos dotted a line from her neck to navel, each one a gold light beaming from her mahogany skin.
“Hello!” Bright red lips beamed a smile across her face. “Want a drink?”
“I’d love one.”
She handed me her martini glass. “I’m Steff.”
“Chelsea,” I said, looking at her glass, slightly confused.
“It’s ok, drink it. You need to catch up. We’re on a constant flow. James hired a bartender — he’s inside somewhere,” she motioned toward the large, ranch-style home, its bay windows reflecting the party and the pool reflecting the sky.
Steff nodded, her dark eyes glimmered with her hair. “How do you connect with us?”
“I know James.”
“Did he give you a ticket?”
“Yes, how’d you know?”
“He gave his favorite broke friends tickets, most of the people here. Cause he knows we can’t go otherwise and we’re more fun than the Richies.”
She looked behind her to the party, “Seriously. Almost everyone. ” She paused, “he’s the best kind of rich guy.”
“To James,” I raised my glass.
Steff raised an invisible glass.
“So, you’re broke, too?” I asked.
“Big time,” Her laugh, a joyous melody. “I’m kind of a hobo!”
“Me, too!” I laughed with her. “Well, sort of. I just ended my lease a couple months ago. Got rid of a bunch of crap. It was nice, like I unloaded some baggage. I’ve been staying at different friend’s houses and ended up here.”
“Care taking one of James’ houses?”
“Yes, sometimes. It’s temporary, a launching pad to help when I’m between places or needing a little money.”
“James attracts bohemian strays. I think he calls them in, to be honest. I’m the gardener at his home in the mountains. That garden is my baby, my pride and joy,” she smiled at the corner of her lips.
“I’d never believe you’re a stray. You’re more like — futuristic, tribal royalty.”
“I feel like royalty. Even if I’m broke. It’s an inner quality. I treat myself like royalty — at least, as much as I can at least. You know what I started doing? Bourgeois Picnic. I put on a pretty dress, do my hair and make up, and drive to Carmel. I buy a bunch of picnic foods at a grocery store and eat them on the beach. I walk along the cobblestone streets, look in the fancy shops, and drink a chocolate martini. I’m no good to anybody if I’m no good to myself.”
“Sounds divine,” I smiled.
“Nobody would ever guess I’m sleeping in my car down the highway that night.”
“I’d never guess.”
“Last year I decided I was going to do something different with my life. I wasn’t getting ahead in the city doing the nine to five. I want to live off the land where I get to create and be of service to myself and others. That feels like I’m treating myself more than anything else.”
“Are you an artist?” I asked.
“I am a medicine-maker, a gardener, and a cook. My dream is to grow all my own herbs and food for my natural remedies, make my own essential oils and everything. How about you?”
“Well,” I paused. “I want to be an author.”
“What do you mean want to?”
“I want to write books.”
“Yeah, but isn’t writing the kind of thing you do, not the kind of thing you wait for? Nobody has to give you permission.” Steff shook her head and gave me a wry smile, “you gotta say, ‘I am a writer.’ You have a vision for your life and you’re brave enough to chase it. So be it. Claim it. Do it and commit. You are who you want to be.”
“It feels more complicated than that.”
“It’s scary to take the leap. I know. But the world changes once you do. Before I came to live in the middle of nowhere I was working two jobs, making lots of money, climbing the corporate ladder. But I wasn’t happy. I came to visit James and he had this massive garden, and we made salad from the garden. We’d pull beets and carrots and collect eggs from the hens. I had never been exposed to permaculture before. It was life-changing for me, coming from the city, to have food like that growing at your house. I felt in touch with my ancestors — the Huichol who went into the mountains to escape the conquistadors. The didn’t want to conform; they wanted to keep their happy lives. I felt, this could be me, here, in the mountains. I knew I wanted to live this way. So I told James ‘I want to take care of your garden’ and he said ok.”
“Amazing,” I said.
“My parents didn’t think so! They thought I was crazy. Some of my friends, too. But I was inspired. And pretty soon after living here, I stopped needing to have my makeup and hair done, I stopped obsessing about my clothes. Now I do it when I want because I want to — not because I feel I have to. Coming from LA, that was a big deal to me, but nature healed me of those domestications. I felt good just being me. I’m at peace with myself for the first time and it’s changed the way I am with people. I can give. And I’m more authentic now because I am on my personal journey.”
We watched the tan, lean man in the pool watch clouds float above him.
“Have you ever heard of manifesting?” I asked.
Her eyes brightened, “I have.”
“I’ve always played it off as not being possible. You know, how can you tell someone who is healthy and happy and randomly gets cancer that they attracted it? And it ignores so many socio-economic factors.”
“OK, well, it is the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for a reason,” she said.
“I never thought of it that way.”
“It’s your soul’s power that manifests. That’s self-actualizing for sure. Transcendence if you do it right.”
“I tried it recently.”
“Everyday when I meditated, I envisioned finding a large, striped feather on a nature walk. Everyday, sometimes multiple times a day, I brought the feather to my mind; I saw it resting on the side of the path, easy for me to see and reach — as if it were waiting for me. I meditated on the vision of the feather and the joy of holding it in my hand. Then weeks later — just like that — I found a large, striped owl feather resting off the path — as if it was waiting for me.”
“Just like that,” she smiled.
“At that moment, the universe spoke to me through the feather; saying we are one. I’ve never felt so complete.”
“Synchronicities show you’re in the right place, on the good path. Your power is your soul aligned. ”
“Could it be used in a bad way?”
“Soul manifesting comes from a pure place. What you have to consider if whether your desire is coming from your ego — if you’re consuming or needing control. You have to manifest from a place of purity, from your heart. Like you said, you felt the joy in your heart. That’s what brought you the feather.”
“Since then I’ve found a bunch of feathers and each one feels like a direct communication.”
“Good, very good,” Steff said. “Just remember you’re not special. Everyone can do this. And you have to appreciate the gifts. It’s not just you in your little self — it’s bigger than that. You’re putting out the call and the oneness is offering a response. So to hold onto the gifts and use them as proof of your specialness — that’s Spiritual Materialism. And a lot of people do it. You can’t go to LA without having a bunch of bitches telling you about how they manifested all this crap.”
Her intonation brought a smile to my face. “I think I know the type; they’re everywhere.”
“Do it for the greater good. You know, on the surface it seems selfish, doing what you need to do, living your purpose. But really, living your purpose is the best thing you can do for everyone. Practice with the little things, but don’t get stuck going after things. Manifest the inner life you want and what you want to give society — that’s more important.”
“This is exactly what I need to hear right now. It’s like a reinforcement.”
“Yup,” Steff smiled, “that’s an alignment. You’re right where you’re meant to be.”
Just before sunset, we arrived at the art and music festival. We moseyed between oaks displaying art and colored lights, accentuating the connectivity between humans and nature. Music thumped from various directions, and as the night progressed, our group broke into factions until Steff and I were by ourselves. We went to the art gallery with our newfound independence. On our way there, I spotted a large, white feather on the ground, adorned with gold glitter.
I held it in the air as we spoke in excited tones about synchronization, alignment of our path, and the power of speaking intentions out loud.
After the art gallery, we continued to a village built around an oak, her large twisted branches spreading out like arms to enfold us and decorated with abalone shells, draping fabrics, beads, flowers, paintings and sculptures of goddesses. Music bumped and people, in outfits outlandish, danced before us.
I held the feather to the sky and drank its glittering, sparkling beauty reflecting the light. Natural, yet enhanced, an expression by human and Nature. I knew this feather came to me as a sign.
In the back of the village, we sat on cushions and pillows. I placed the feather on the ground between us.
Rested and ready for our next adventure, somehow the feather had already left. I looked all around — under pillows and tapestries, around people’s feet, but it left no trace.
“I can’t believe I lost it! How did I manifest losing it?” I asked Steff.
“What do you mean?”
“What did I do to lose it? I didn’t value it enough. I didn’t appreciate it enough.”
“No,” her eyes formed a frown on her otherwise serene face. “Don’t look at it that way. Somebody else needed the message. It’s for everyone and should pass into as many hands as possible. You don’t need it. There is no magic feather. No thing can bring you the peace and wholeness you seek. It’s all internal. You have to love without attachment. To need it as proof of what’s True — that’s spiritual materialism.”
After the festival, we went to Carmel for a Bourgeois Picnics and arrived unabashedly fancy at the grocery check out: olives, cheese, crackers, salad, strawberries, cider, dark chocolate — all organic. We took it to a grassy cliff overlooking the beach, shaded by cypress trees.
We drank to our embodied, luxurious expressions of freedom, knowing in a few hours we would drive south into Big Sur and set up our tent on a back road.
“Make the most with what you’ve got,” Steff said, pouring cider into her cup. “That’s what my life is all about. Balancing what I want with what I have and feeling like I’ve achieved my dreams. Just feeling it — into my blood and bones.”
We spoke of travel dreams for the coming months — San Francisco, Oregon, Lake Tahoe, Burning Man — not knowing which would manifest.
“Just imagine it coming true and hold the feeling,” Steff said.
“It’s easy for me to imagine my travels and make those happen, but writing my novel — that’s another thing. I envision a finished copy of my book in my hands, but I am not making progress. I just thought it would be easier to write without my creative energy going towards teaching, but now when I sit down and write I get discouraged. I thought I was ok before, but now, nothing is good enough; there’s no depth, nothing compelling. It feels like I have to cough the words and pull them out of my throat. The more I write, the more the characters and plot change. And theres always a million directions I could go. I’m feeling pretty discouraged.”
“Do you have to just write your novel? Maybe the novel isn’t ready to come out. Maybe you need to figure some other stuff out first,” Steff said.
“But what would I write about? The novel is my project.”
“Write about whatever comes to mind. Journal. Create that creative flow, open to what comes up. Make it low risk and try new things. Practice. You don’t have to give up on your novel. Just do other writing for practice. I loved writing, but teachers put me down, and I felt like I never wanted to do it again. What you love turns into shame like that, and you push it away. That’s what’s going on in your mind. Your mind is keeping you down. You gotta look at it differently and get rid of that voice putting you down. When it comes up, thank it for its opinion and let it go. Now that I’m older and writing for myself, there’s no judge. It’s helped me a lot. Poems, ramblings, half-thoughts. It’s healing.”
“I need to be open to the process,” I agreed.
“Let go.” Steff considered my words. “You’re paralyzed by fear.”
“The reason I know is because I’m there, too. I put a lot on the line leaving my community, everything I’ve known. I get discouraged and doubt myself. I’m teaching myself, experimenting, and sometimes it doesn’t work out. Feels like it’d be easier not to bother, like it’s a waste of time and energy.
“In LA, I was a personal assistant. I helped this man build his empire. I helped him get organized, I found him a new office, I was on a journey to be financially successful, but I didn’t want that. Having money in the city couldn’t make me happy like being broke in the forest. I needed to change, to heal my domestications, those things I did because that’s what I was told by society. I was in a mundane lifecycle: drinking, partying, wasting my money on things that didn’t matter.
“When I was younger, I wanted to learn about plants; I dreamed of foraging for healing plants in the wild, I hung out in shops with dried herbs to look inside and smell them. I was always drawn to them — to their magic and mysterious powers. Now I’m doing it, living my dream, my personal legend. I fail sometimes, but that’s part of it. I have to be willing to fail in order to learn. It’s part of the hierarch of needs. You have to feel safe and loved and good about yourself before you can be your highest. You have to write a lot of bad stuff and you have to be ok with it and love yourself anyway. Affirmations would probably help, but don’t get too hung up on feeling like you need to be perfect first. Just work on it. Tortured people make incredible art, but you don’t want the pain to hold you back.”
“I wanted to write books when I was young. I loved creative writing projects, but I never considered it an option for ‘the rest of my life.’”
“Now you’ve taken the leap. Maybe you thought that would be the hardest part, but now actually have to do the damn thing. Step by step. You climb the mountain, you make it happen. Set goals and go for it. Even if you step off the trail for a moment, you stop climbing and set up camp — that’s ok. Give yourself the time to regroup and eventually you start again. Because it’s your dream. The world needs your dream. You owe it to the world to live at your highest potential because you have everything you need. You owe it to the world.”
“I’ll tell you, it’s painful. It’s actually physically painful. It feels like I’m wallowing in a bog of murky words when I want to be soaring above the trees like a red-tailed hawk.”
“The hawk didn’t just appear in the sky. It took its time in its egg and then the nest building the strength — the capability. We each have our own flight, in our own way. And you have to work hard through pain and discomfort to transcend. But to live out your purpose — even if just for a little while — that’s way more than most people get! It’s a privilege, so act like it! Not many people can give themselves the opportunity to live their personal legend. You know, when I talk about this kind of thing, some people back home have said things like I’m just tryna be in with the bougie new age goddess shit. And you know what I tell them?”
“This is the top of Maslow’s mothafuckin hierarchy of needs. Hierarchy is written in the name. You have everything, that’s why you can live your best self, and if you’re doing it for a higher purpose — you transcend! And I’m saying, if you’re at the top of that pyramid — like us and like my friends at home — you owe it to humanity. Don’t you think people all over the world would give anything to have all their needs met, so they can come into their full expression as a human being?”
I felt the gravity of her words and raised my cup, toasting the sea.
Steff raised her cider, too. “You owe it to everyone to sit in that painful place of artistic discomfort. You are the only one standing in your way. Make space for your failure, it’s the only way.”
“Zen mind, beginner mind.” I looked to the sea. It all sounded so easy the way she spoke about it, but getting myself to believe, to trust in the process —
“Try this,” she said, as if reading my mind, “relax your gaze.”
Water moved in shimmering undulations until crashing on the sand.
“Now, see yourself writing and enjoying it. Feel it — the freedom, the happiness, the satisfaction — of putting pen to paper and enjoying the process,” she paused.
I held the vision in my gaze and the feeling in my heart.
“Now connect with the ocean. With every wave, see the ocean bringing this to you. And when the water pulls away, let it take your fear. Just visualize each wave bringing your dream a little more, and knocking the block down a little more. Taking the block into the purifying depths. A continual flow. Breath with it.”
We practiced, the sound of waves replacing words.
“How do you feel?” Steff asked after a few minutes.
“Good. I read somewhere that the heaviest weight a person carries is when they are suffering and don’t realize it. Not knowing what the block is within me — that’s an even bigger block. And then my original block is the block within the block.”
“Block-ception,” Steff smiled. “Just keep imagining the block crumbling and soon you’ll manifest the insight and understanding you need. Be patient, and be easy on yourself. By understanding the block you’ll gain understanding into yourself. This will be huge for you. To understand yourself better is love yourself better and have more compassion for yourself.”
“Seems simple enough.”
“But you actually have to do it,” she said. “Don’t just think about it or have the epiphany and not do anything with it. That’s the trick.”
We ate and drank until we were full. Before the sun lowered, we walked the water’s edge, waves gliding over sand and feet. We stayed with the ocean until the sun dipped below the horizon, completing the day.
On our drive out of town, we saw a lone man underneath the last stoplight before Big Sur. His clothes were dark against the night, he had a dog next to him, and held a sign reading, Anything Helps.
“I want to give him our leftover picnic,” I said.
Steff smiled at me from the driver’s seat, “I was thinking the same thing.”
I opened the door, welcomed by crisp air, the early morning light peeking around clouds, caressing the world. Unseen doves proclaimed its beauty in trilling coos.
Oaks stretched in wild formations. Brown grasses stood defiantly against their summertime death. Deer tracks said I am not the only one who walks this trail.
The distant scent of a wood-burning stove — a reminder of recent wildfires in these mountains.
At a clearing, a covey of quail (each dressed in fancy spots, stripes and bobbling headpiece) whistled as they ran on speeding legs.
I heard a crinkling — Towhee kicking up leaves, foraging beneath them. When I approached, they flew away in unison on purring wings.
Acorn Woodpeckers squawked and chuckled, perched on tree trunks — wearing tuxedos and red caps — drilling holes, stuffing them with acorns. Their gleeful chucking like happiness on the wind.
A thick oak tree with a large horizontal branch beckoned me off the trail. I hoisted myself up, stretched out my legs and reclined back.
Cradled in the oak’s arm, I gazed past the canopy to the sky, I heard birds all around me. Rustling leaves, fluttering wings, squeaking, laughing, whistling, and chattering. Each voice joined in one abundant song: the forest song.
I could have lounged for hours, held by the tree, listening; yet, the forest did not sing for me. She needs no audience to hear her symphonies. She is a true artist: creating for creation’s sake.
“Show me the way,” I whisper. “How can I create like you?”
“Close your eyes,” she says.
Moments passed. I notice subtle layers of the song. A hawk from on high. A frog in the distance. A crow passing overhead.
There’s room for every voice, contributors sing unashamed of their sound — the one they received at birth. They don’t fit into a box; they need only to be themselves. The song’s beauty is in its rich and vibrant variety. Each day, a new score, created without one thought of and audience — without doubt or self-consciousness. Each voice accepts itself exactly as it is — knowing it has a welcomed part.
In the oak forest, branches and leaves formed a tapestry of life around us.
“I love oaks,” Steff said. “I love feeling them. They’re like dinosaurs.”
I agreed. “There’s something regal about them. It’s not just the wild branches or droopy moss. There’s an essence –“
“They’re energetically dense. That’s why people burn it. I imagine when they’re alive, there’s a strong, energetic field around them. We might not be able to see it, but we can feel it. Like a vortex, all the oaks together in clusters,” Steff said. Our footsteps filled the momentary silence. She stopped and looked at the canopy. “Art can be just like the forest — it can connect you to the divine. Endless and open. That’s when you transcend.”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “Do you hear the call of the forest?”
“The unspoken truth,” she said. “Its what we all search for. I moved out here because I can’t live without it.”
“Here, there is no-self,” I opened my eyes.
“You embody — that sense of nothingness. Nothing, but everything.”
“That everything is made of non-self elements, ” I said.
We continued walking, the sun and trees created irregular, glowing shapes on the forest floor.
“You get into the forest,” Steff said, “you look around — and you feel small, your life feels small — smaller than it’s ever felt. You let your problems go because there’s nothing to interrupt the state of well-being; you get to be alive with beauty and more life than you ever thought possible. Maybe you see some pretty mushrooms that look like turkey tails. And then you’re looking at it and you think about the mushroom’s network and realize everything is connected. You’re supposed to be there. You’re not supposed to be stuck in traffic or worrying about stupid shit.”
“When you slow down in the forest, you dissolve into it. Living presence.”
“It’s magical,” Steff said. “People gotta slow the fuck down.”
“Magical, yes,” I said. “I grew up in a rural, coastal town, populated by First Nations before it was colonized. When I was a little kid, the town was smaller than it is now, it was quiet. And one day, I was eight or nine, and I was walking alone in the wild area near my house. There was a creek, lots of trees and plants, lush greenery, and an element of seclusion because it was down a hill. Crossing the hills, walking in tall grass, I looked at my feet pushing the grass with each step — I had a sense that my steps were in the days before the missions and settlers, before the genocide. There was no neighborhood. No roads. No cars. No strip mall down the highway. I just remember watching my footsteps in the tall grasses and, for this one brief moment, I was there.”
“The Spirit took you there. As a little kid, your mind is open and receptive. The Spirit embraced you, so you could understand something.”
I purchased my first ticket to Burning Man, the world’s largest open-air art gallery, three days before the general gates opened and five days before I passed through them (making a Playa Angel in the ubiquitous, white dust and hitting the hanging, metal bell with rebar three times). In the distance, multicolored flashed and moved, a city nestled into a crater, surrounded by crag mountains, a carnival on the moon.
“You are your own playa angel,” said the older fellow at the gate. He wore a red tutu and rainbow suspenders and asked if I wanted a hug, which I did.
My friend, Alexa, a long-time burner, drove us through the gate in her boxy motorhome with a fudged smog check, shag carpet, and all the amenities to make it easy.
She parked in an open edge of camping. We changed quickly. I put on my new favorite hat.
“I love taking people out to deep playa for their first time.” Alexa said, drawing her eyeliner. “The look on their faces never gets old.”
We rode through the streets of dust on bikes strung with lights. We passed into the clearing and my jaw dropped. The enormity of the space — filled with moving lights, changing sounds, technicolor chaos in every direction. An alternate reality. The sea of imagination realized. Busses dressed like insects and ships, enormous animals standing in the dust, installations as big as buildings, every shape in absurd sizes.
We stepped up little stairs into a full-length, yellow school bus. Inside, we discovered a ball pit. Just for us to jump into and live like kids again. Just because someone decided they wanted it. Out in the middle of nowhere.
A gust of wind stole my new favorite hat, flicking it off my head. Alexa assured me I had just paid the universe tax and I didn’t mind because we found people dressed like Ziggy Stardust serving free drinks.
On Thursday night we painted each other’s faces. “This could be the biggest party of the week,” Alexa said. “The lineup is ridiculous and they have, pretty much, the best sound system and light show of all the sound camps. And Thursday night there’s a lot more people here.”
We put on our wigs (Alexa in pink, me in purple), rode our bikes to the esplanade, and passed camp after camp blasting music, flashing lights. I felt disoriented, weaving through so many lights and sounds, shapes and colors. I didn’t know where we were, but Alexa knew the way, and after navigating our way upstream through the river of other bikers, we parked our bikes by chaining them to a pole someone hammered into the playa a week earlier.
We walked through a throng of people, all in dark clothes, towering above me. My purple wig and multicolored jacket made me stick out like a silly clown in a land of fashionable goblins. A shadow flashed, enormous ram horns grew out of his pale face.
At last we found the dance floor and walked to the front right where Alexa said she’d meet her friends. Speakers two stories high blasted us with bass, shaking my ribcage, pounding against my skull. I tried to move to the beat, but felt like I was dancing in an earthquake. Lasers flashed, narrowly missing our heads, bright lights shifting patterns behind the DJ. People filled empty spaces on the dance floor, bumping into me, carving their way. Covered with bandanas to shield them from playa-lung, their faces look like thieves and gangsters. My blood pumped fast, my shallow breath intensified the ever-crowding, tighter, pressing space.
“Are you ok?” Alexa looked concerned as she yelled over the noise.
“I need air, I’m going to take a walk,” I yelled, gesturing with my hands.
“Do you need me to come with you?” She signed back.
I shook my head.
“I’ll be here,” she smiled, pointing to the ground.
I turned around and started at the writhing hive. Tall art cars had sprung up at the back, flashing with LEDs, enclosing the space. I snaked my way through people, one by one, moving in opposition, pushing past faces in dark makeup, struggling against gravity, squeezing into the micro spaces between bodies, dense sound surrounding us, no escape, until, through the thick nest into a massive bike parking lot, weaseling my way through bikes, until finally, the open playa before me, dotted with lights, stretching to the vast open sky.
I walked beyond the tightly wound chaos, acclimating to less stimulation, a chance to breath. I didn’t want to stay. I didn’t want to wander the dark and slightly scary place alone, but this was my burn. I had to claim it. I only had a week here and couldn’t waste time not enjoying myself. There was an entire city made of art to explore. There had to be quieter, gentler places. I had to give that to myself. I had to do what was right and best for me.
I approached the edge of the hive. There were hundreds of people between me and stage right with their backs to me. It would be agony to find Alexa and say goodbye. My eyes passed over a slim face with a thick, dark beard. His large eyes connected with mine, a fleeting moment before I turned away.
I found my bike, and bent down to unlock it.
“Are you leaving?”
I turned to see the slim-faced man behind me. He wore a skirt over his pants, a patchwork jacket, and fuzzy scarves, and his dark hair and beard unkempt, as though he hadn’t cut either for months — another clown amongst serious revelers.
“Yes, it’s — too much.”
“I agree. Can I journey with you?”
I looked upon his smooth brow and into his large, gentle eyes. A clear light shone from their brown depths.
“If you like. What’s your name?”
“Where are you going, Chelsea?”
“I don’t know,” I opened my bike lock and wrapped the cord.
“Where would you like to go?”
I thought for a moment. “First, I need to leave here. My brain is not working. I can’t think.”
“You can find anything you want at Burning Man.”
I considered for a moment, looking into the madness. “Somewhere quiet, I need to relax. I’m feeling claustrophobic.”
He raised a finger to the air. “I know a place not too far. Let me get my bike.”
We walked behind the art cars to the other side of the party. People continued marching in, art cars crept together closing open spaces at the back.
“It’s over here,” Dorian motioned to a field of bikes. “Wait for me, please.”
While he stepped through the bikes, careful not to bump into them, checking for his own, a tall unicorn with broad shoulders approached me.
“Hi,” it waved.
“Hello,” I said.
It removed the mask to reveal bright chocolate skin, dark eyelashes and a strong jawline.
“You’re not leaving are you?” He asked. “I just got here and every purple-haired princess needs a unicorn.”
I laughed. “I am leaving. This is all too much for me.”
“I can take you up the rig if you want to be above it all…away from the crowd.”
People hung out at various heights, of the three story scaffolding. “Honestly, I’m slightly afraid of heights and in the state I’m in I can’t lean into that edge.”
“I hear you. I wish I could leave with you, but this is my camp. I’m supposed to stay. How about a hug goodbye?”
I traced my hands along his wide, muscular back, his big arms encircled my waist. We hugged for a while before his mask back on and galloped to the party.
At last, Dorian retrieved his bike and we rode into the dark city streets.
“Where are you from?” I asked, Dorian’s accent more distinct away from the noise.
“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”
“No, I am a Jew. From Tel Aviv. Take a left here,” he pointed.
The concrete wall, lined with barbed wire and snipers, rose between us. Should I have stayed with the handsome unicorn?
A warm glow poured onto the street, gradually shifting its hue. We pulled our bikes over at the glow, uninhabited beanbags on carpet, gauzy material strung up as a ceiling, and soft music created the perfect container to sooth, opposite of the party.
I found my favorite beanbag in the furthest corner and plopped down, a puff of dust rising and drifting back. The canopy moved in waves, breathing with the wind, shifting in the light, shifting in hue, woven with a fine shimmering thread.
Dorian spoke of his recent trip to Portugal. I told him about my life change; he listened with eyes full of kindness and peace. He gave me one of his fuzzy scarves when I commented on the cold. He pulled it off his neck, a few others came off with it like fabric springs popping out of a can. I wanted to like him, but I wasn’t sure I could. With the concrete wall in the way, I kept my heart guarded, in a locked place, behind barbed wire.
“I have to tell you something,” I said at last.
“Anything,” he smiled.
I took a deep breath. It was uncomfortable, but I had to be honest: “I am disturbed and angry about what is happening to the Palestinians.”
“Me, too,” he said with a solemn face, his eyes kept mine.
“Of course. I hurt with their suffering.”
I took a deep breath, “that’s a relief.”
“Do you know, even many Orthodox Jews are against the occupation.”
“I — didn’t know that.”
“It’s ok. You are American,” he joked. “You only get certain information.”
“You mean propaganda?” I laughed, embarrassed by my ignorance.
“At least Obama speaks out against the settlements,” I said.
“Speaking out is not enough.”
I watched the ceiling move in graceful undulations. “To be honest, my country may be the most cruel.”
““I am just like you. I don’t want my country to be cruel. But the people in power — they profit from it.” His brown eyes and smile remained gentle. “You asked me if I was Palestinian earlier.”
“You put us next to each other — we look like brothers. I am an Arab. A Mizrahi Jew.”
I gazed at his slender face and large eyes, his wild beard. “Man is a tree that would cut off its own limbs until it’s nothing but a stump.” I grazed the palm of his hand with the tips of my fingers.
Dorian told me about his adventures at Burning Man. It was his first time, but he arrived a whole week before the gates opened, helping friends with their installation. At the beginning of build week, just a little over a week ago, there was nothing. Now, it was the most magical city in the world. “You can find whatever you want at Burning Man. You just have to think about it or set an intention and it happens.”
“My friend who I came said last year she was riding her bike and wanted ice cream and then a guy stopped her in the street and asked if she wanted ice cream.”
“What do you want to find?”
I considered his question. “Something — soft, funny, and — art.”
“Everything here is art,” Dorian laughed.
“Soft, playful, funny art,” I finalized my wish.
Leaving the beanbag lounge, I noticed a woman curled into herself, she looked small on the beanbag. I draped a blanket over her, to help against the cold.
We got on our bikes and started our quest.
Dorian stopped in front of a sign. Here I See More Me, it read in bright lights.
“You will learn about yourself here,” he said. “You’ll see how you put yourself (and others) into a box.”
“Like I did with you.”
“We are all reflections of each other,” he said, looking into my eyes.
We came to a wide intersection where five flaming bowls enticed us off our bikes. We got close to the flames, entering the circle to warm our cold hands. In the center, tall arches grew out of an enormous, conical bowl. Metal letters at the top spelled, “Wishing Well” and flames poured out of it. Dorian and I walked up to the fire well, dazzled by the welding work.
“I can’t get over how much time and energy people put into the projects out here,” I said.
“Just for enjoyment. For one week,” he added.
An older man dressed in a long coat, a top hat over his grey hair stood next to me. Deep-set wrinkles and a scruffy beard made him seem quite serious.
“Hello,” I said.
“Make a wish?” He held out a large coin the palm of his hand, a smile crossed his stoic face as mine lit.
“I’d love to!” I took the coin and pressed it to my heart, connecting my heart’s desire. I wished to live in the present moment, to immerse myself in the beauty of the temporary city and gain the insights I needed for my journey. I released the coin on its thin edge and watched it make wide circles into the center, spinning at the end before plunking into the bottom.
Dorian and I left the fire sculpture and renewed our search. On a dark stretch of road, a small light on the ground got me to stop my bike and reach down. But when I tried to pick it up, it moved to the right. A group of people lounged on a couch with a fishing rod in the dark. We all laughed together.
“Hippie fishing,” Dorian winked at me.
We swung on swings and rode our bikes through poles flying glowing neon flags that made a soft flapping sound in the wind. We peeked in a circus sideshow tent filled with creepy pictures and novelties.
“Last night there was something cool in this yellow tent,” Dorian said.
“Let’s check it out!” We locked our bikes and walked through the yellow entryway. Inside the center of the tent, a man with his ass to us, lights shining upon his naked body, wrists tied to ropes above his head, stretching his arms up and out. A woman spanked him with a paddle. I gasped, and turned around.
“I’m sorry,” Dorian said when we were outside again. “That’s not what I saw last night.”
I put my hand over my mouth and laughed.
“There’s something for everyone,” Dorian said.
Across the street, melodic music with a driving beat streamed out of tall speakers. A DJ stood behind the deck, a small gathering danced in the dust below him. A multi-story climbing tower above them topped by a net.
Dorian looked up. “What do you think? Could the funny, soft, playful art be up there?”
“Only one way to find out!”
The music thumped in time as our hands and feet took us even higher. At the top, a few people lounged on the net, stretched between the structure’s four corners.
“Think it’s safe?” I asked.
“‘Safety Third,’ as they say.”
“People say that?”
“Burners,” Dorian smiled.
He stepped onto the netting and walked towards the center with his arms out from his sides to keep his footing. I followed, careful of my footing, trying not to look past the net.
Dorian said hello to the people reclined on a pile of pillows as he reached for one on the edge
Suddenly, pillows flew into the air! Dorian stumbled backwards, shaking the net, landing us both on our butts. At the epicenter of the explosion — a man dressed in a bright orange jacket. We laughed together — as strangers and friends. Dorian picked up a pillow and tossed it at the man in the orange jacket, releasing a puff of dust on impact, and officially commencing a pillow-throwing party. At least one pillow went over the edge, which was brought back to us to our delight. Our squeals of laughter were free like children’s.
Satiated on silliness, we leaned back into the net, our heads finding pillows. Half of Dorian’s slim face was white with dust. I brushed it off with the end of the fuzzy scarf he’d given me. He closed his eyes, and when I was done, I put my left palm into his right. We lounged there, two stories above ground, held by a net. People came and went, twinkling lights streamed across the playa, and art cars blasting music (sometimes, fire) changed the soundscape with beats and pops. Fireworks shot in the distance.
“That means they’re going to burn something,” Dorian said as they crackled and sparkled.
We watched the first flicker turn into a structure fire.
“I wonder if that was one I experienced last night,” I said. “My friend and I explored deep playa on foot last night and ended up on a large deck. There were benches, light posts, an overhang, and another small building like a mobile home with a fence around it; someone stepped out, looked at us, and went back in. And the sound of children playing came out of speakers that I couldn’t see. I don’t know what it was, but I instantly sensed child abuse, or maybe — pedophelia. It was so strong. We were the only ones on the piece and we had to step away.”
“There’s a lot of pain in the art. And then, it’s burned. See them while you can, before they become catharsis.”
The music, a soundtrack to our conversation, took us to the first glimmer of dawn.
“Do you think this the soft, funny, playful art you were looking for?” Dorian asked as lasers and lights beamed into the softening sky.
I sat up, most of the pillows had again made their way to the center of the net. “This is the art I was looking for — the art that I needed.”
“Should we find a camp serving breakfast and coffee?”
“I don’t know. I’m pretty tired. Not sure I have the energy for another quest at this moment.”
“Me as well,” he said.
We laid on the net until the sun became too bright. Neither of us had shades.
“Leaving for the night without sunglasses. A rookie mistake,” Dorian said.
We got back to the motorhome and stood outside. Alexa was already asleep.
“We will meet again,” Dorian said. “They say it’s impossible to make plans here, or maybe, that it’s better not to. That you leave it up to chance, and whatever is meant to be will happen. But we will meet again. Our paths will cross. It will happen.”
We hugged for a long time. The quiet enveloped us in such contrast to the night. We held each other’s hand once more before he got onto his bike and rode away.
Getting into bed, I unwrapped the fuzzy scarf and gave it a squeeze.
Days blurred into each other — a constant party infused with mind bending, thought provoking art. I gave myself completely to the city, following my every whim, open to what appeared. Playing. I forgot what day it was, only thought of what time it could be except to differentiate between applying sunscreen or not. The only time that mattered was now, the only place was here, infused with art. Every porous moment in the present. Nothing outside of each moment. Every night more art burned.
Dorian and I missed each other several times. I found little notes from him tucked into the motorhome door, each with his camp’s address and identifying features. I stopped by, but didn’t find him. There was nobody home and I didn’t have anything to write a note. We would see each other if it was meant to be. The night we shared, another addition to all the other beautiful memories made one moment at a time.
Late afternoon, on the last day, I headed to a dome art gallery with a new friend. Involved in conversation, I approached an intersection. A slim-faced, dark-haired man stood in the middle with his bike. His bushy beard and goggles a mask, shrouding his identity. I headed towards him, involved in conversation, turning a corner, on a mission, a planned direction, soaking in our remaining time before the temple burn. I was with another friend. I couldn’t tell if it was him. I couldn’t tell. I was turning a corner, in a pre-determined flow. Wouldn’t he say something if it were him? It was only an instant — a flash. And I didn’t stop to see.
— I didn’t stop.
The moment slipped, lost to the River Past, moving further away, never regained.
As the season moved towards winter, the colors changed and I entered a new reality. My mom called. Her mother was in the ICU with pneumonia. She could no longer swallow food properly and she refused a feeding tube. That had always been her wish. The doctors said it was time for hospice.
It’s just any other home in the neighborhood. It’s only a few minutes from my Gramma’s white home with the pool and the orange tree in the back and the park down the street with the willow and the tall bridge I rollerbladed down at top speed. The sidewalks have the same curve at the top instead of a corner.
Inside the first room, propped up on the hospital bed and pillow my mom bought, my Gramma’s small body curled into itself. She looked comfortable with her eyes closed and knobby hands resting together on her belly. She wore a pale pink shirt. A blue blanket covered her to her chest. Her body has shrunk since I last saw her two months in the nursing home she hated. She had called out to me that time.
I place my right hand on her left. “So soft,” she says, her eyes remaining closed. She put her right hand on mine, and I completed our stack with my left. I sat on the edge of the seat beside her bed. Her body looks like it would break under any pressure, so I pulled against my own weight not to rest against her hip.
“Gramma, it’s Chelsea.”
“Chelsea? What took you so long?” Her chest raised slightly.
“I came as soon as I could.” My eyes watered. I could have come sooner.
“Have you come to take me up the hill?”
“Yes,” water spilled in silent overflow.
“They’ll all miss me now,” she says.
“We won’t be the same,” I rest my head onto my shoulder, the tears pool into my ear and against the bridge of my nose.
She coughs. It shakes and tightens her entire body. “I took care of everyone as best I could.”
“You were marvelous.”
A faint smile passed her lips at the sound of her favorite word.
“You did the best that anyone could do.”
After a period of silence she says, “I’ll be one of the stars now.”
I remembered standing with her in front of my childhood home one night, looking into the sky and choosing a star for us to look at together when we were apart like the main character did with her Grandma in a book I loved. “You’ll be a beautiful star.”
“You’ll be radiant.”
She smiled for a moment before her face drifted into rest.
“I have a whole tribe of people to take care of. Do you think I’m up for the job?”
I take a deep breath. “Of course, Gramma. You cared for others your whole life. You’ll be wonderful.”
We are silent.
“Make something with your life.” The last time I saw her, she didn’t understand why I would leave teaching at the University. It had always made her proud. She asked when I would go back or what I would do instead.
“I want to, Gramma.”
We are silent.
“Make something of your life,” she said again, lifting her head for a moment.
I promise without knowing how or having a plan. Outside, my car contained my suitcase, a mattress that I unfurl onto the back seats when I’ve put them down, and the cash in my glove box I’ve made from odd jobs. We are silent. Our hands, stacked — one on top of the other.
Shortly after 10 am, my Dad called. She was one of the stars.
At the edge of the Pacific, I heard the waves crashing. A steady flow — each wave indistinguishable from the whole, a continuous ebb and flow like the breath. I look at the water, but I can’t see the waves. They come from an ocean away to crest and crash, swell and fall, but I cannot see them.
I see my Gramma on her hospital bed, our hands together, entering a pact.
I wiped my face with my sleeves. The ocean called. I am hundreds of miles from family, hours from friends — away and alone. The waves, perpetual motion of beginnings and endings. I used the sound of the ocean to come back to my body. I listen. My body needs to move.
The trailhead takes me to a steep climb. My heart’s weight drags my feet. At the top, wind blows over the bald peak. I sit behind a boulder, pressing my body against it to shield the wind. I sit and absorb the world as is was. The new reality pressed upon me, the hillsides flowed towards the ocean, older than history, witness to geological change. I see her in the hills. My heart drained from me. I let it break open further and further. The rock below me hurts my body with it’s hardness.
The path curves in narrow twists down the mountain. Shrubs and trees flank both sides. To the right, a chickadee alights on a branch. I slow my pace. It looked at me, stayed with me, moving in bursts to the next branch and the next and the next. Looking at me. Blinking. Motioning with its head.
Finally, I stop with tears in my eyes and whisper, “Hello, Gramma.”
The chickadee flies into the forest, my smile upon its wings.
“Ever since my Gramma died, I feel like I took a wrong turn. Like this whole thing has been a mistake. Visiting different friends, traveling all over, but I didn’t spend enough time with her. The fall quarter started weeks ago and I’m not there. I’ve just flitting around from place to place having a grand old time, not thinking about the rest of my life.”
“But you’re writing! You’re living your dream,” Steff said.
“I’ve sacrificed way too much too much for this stupid dream. Even if it wasn’t perfect, I left my career, something I loved doing, for something that might never give me a paycheck or advance me in life. I’m cleaning people’s houses and doing odd jobs. It’s hard work. I’m literally tired all the time. And even with all the flexibility and travel, I didn’t spend enough time with her at the end. This is the wrong path. It wouldn’t be so hard if it was the right path. Everything would be easy. It would be aligned,” I shook my head. “I’m repulsed by my choices. Tying to put words down eats at my heart because it feels so stupid. It’s too painful. I want nothing to do with it.”
Steff was quiet. She looked out to the hills and oaks.“This is your block coming from a different angle, saying the same thing and doing the same thing to you. Your Grandma would not tell you to give up on your dream or to let the fire within you die — not on account of her. The road to your dream isn’t always going to be easy. Reality still exists. Be gentle with yourself. Let your writing take all the time it needs. Like a fern stalk unfurling, let it take its time and unfurl naturally. Don’t judge it. Don’t judge yourself. Forgive yourself.”
“I was so selfish. Galavanting around, freewheeling; counting it as progress if I journal for ten minutes in the morning before I go off. I haven’t made anything, and what I have made sucks.”
“You can’t beat yourself up right now. You did what you thought was right at the time. Maybe it was foolish. Maybe it was wise. It’s what you chose and you can’t change that. You have to move forward from here. You can still make something with your life. You can still make a lot.”
I leaned against my folded legs and put my head on my hand.
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” she said. “We’ll do a moon ceremony. The full moon is in a couple days. Intentions combined with the energy of the moon is a powerful thing. I have something to release as well.”
“Oh yes, tell me.”
“You’re not going to like this,” she said. “It’s time for me to move on from here.”
“What? You’re leaving? Why?”
“James used to be grateful and appreciative. But things have changed. He’s making me feel like I’m never doing enough or I’m doing it wrong. He always has some complaint and he gets angry. Says he’s treating me too well and paying me too much for what I’m doing. I only get $50 a week plus the room and meals, but I’m the one preparing our food! He has nothing to do but find fault. I’m not going to waste my energy and dilute my power because of his inner bullshit. I’m on a mission. He’s got something going on, but I won’t let him suck me dry. My life and my work is a service. And how am I going to be of service to anyone if I am hurting and drained?”
Steff’s words hurt my stomach, but I couldn’t be selfish. “I had no idea you’ve been going through this.”
“It’s been a few weeks, but it’s getting worse and worse. I didn’t want it to change your perception of him, so I didn’t tell you. My bones are telling me it’s time.”
I wanted to cry, but I swelled them, “Thank you for telling me. I wish you had told me sooner. I’m sad to lose you as a neighbor, but I’m glad you’re sticking up for yourself and doing what’s right for you. It takes a lot of courage.”
“All for the journey.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’m chasing that free rent and forest life. It’s good for my soul. A friend of a friend in Nor Cal has a permaculture situation I can work on. Feels right. It’s important that you follow your intuition because the more you follow your intuition the stronger it gets. When you can get into the flow of intuition, then stuff starts to really fall into place.”
“Following your heart is the best thing you can do,” despite my misgivings, I knew it was true.
“The best thing. Don’t you feel that your Gramma would tell you to keep following your heart?”
I considered the question for a moment and felt the answer deep within, “she would. I know she would.”
An hour before dawn, chimes woke me from a deep, dreamless sleep. I pulled myself from the comfort of cushions and pillows. My body urged me to stay in bed.
I flicked on the dim light over the stove and leaned against the counter, filling the kettle with water.
Through the windows, headlights bumbled along the dirt road until they paused at the gate. Steff’s slim silhouette cast a long shadow as she unlocked it.
She entered the house and walked on bare feet, a muted tapping on hardwood.
“Good morning,” she whispered.
“Good morning. I put blankets and pillows next to the back door.”
“I’ll set up.”
I shook fragrant, loose tea leaves into the teapot and filled it with hot water. Carrying two mugs in my other hand, I walked onto the back patio bathed in moonlight and still air. Steff created a nest of pillows and blankets and sat facing the westward moon.
“Full moon is a time for release,” Steff said when I sat down. She lit two candles. “We keep candles on our altar to remind us of where we come from and that it is in everything — connecting us to everything. She handed me a small bundle. “Burning cedar is said to aid in the release process. I wrapped this one myself. Light it and connect to your breath. As you smell the cedar, focus on what you’re releasing.”
The candle’s tiny flame lit the cedar, creating a large flame. Removing the bundle, I blew out it’s fire into a bright red line, burning the tips of the leaves, intensifying with my exhale. I swirled the smoke around me in wide circles. Within the circle, I envisioned a large rock wall crumbling.
I handed Steff the smudge, she placed it into the flame to renew it’s burn. “Like the candle and the cedar, sharing the light does not diminish ours, it only creates more light.”
The smoke formed wide, serpentine trails.
“Before we begin,” Steff said, “let’s give witness to our intentions. I am releasing hurt and resentment, so that I can continue my journey with light feet and trust in the movement of my life. I am calling in forgiveness for James to free my heart.”
“I am releasing the attachment I have to my block so that I can free my voice and live from my heart. I call in self-forgiveness and self-love to free myself from the prison I’ve built. I call for trust in my path, my heart, and my dream.”
Steff filled our teacups. I lifted mine to the moon, toasting her, looking at her reflection in the water. Imbuing the water with her energy and power before bringing it into my body. I felt it’s warmth in my mouth flow down my throat and into my belly.
We drank the entire pot of tea in silence and finished as the moon dipped below the ridge and the sun brought light to the land.
“I’m ready to let it all go,” Steff said. “It’s intense and sad. I can’t believe I let them eat away at my confidence and make me second guess myself.”
“May the moon take our pain and make it reborn.”
“We have to take drastic measures sometimes,” she said. “That’s part of learning about yourself. Leaving my beautiful garden that I’ve spend so much time and energy learning about and tending for the past year. It’s my baby, my best friend. But I have to let it go, even though that means it won’t be cared for the same anymore and plants might die. I have to be where I can live in peace so I can grow and flourish with my plants, become who I want to be. I don’t want to put bad vibes into the plants, anger and frustration. I don’t want to hold onto that.”
I turned to Steff, to see her as she was in the moment. Her obsidian eyes shone with passion.
“Our dreams might not be fulfilled today or tomorrow,” she continued. “But I’ll tell you what you have to take it as it is. You never stop doing the things you have to do to be your best. You want to transcend something? It takes work. Everyday. Just because you did it one day or twice, you meditated once and you feel great, and you think you let it go. Yeah fucking right. It doesn’t happen. Everyday is a day where you need to do that. There is no red-pill-blue-pill to solve your problems or get you where you want to be with yourself. You gotta show up, doing the damn thing. Healing yourself. Writing the words. Making the medicine. Tending the plants. You’re not just gonna believe an affirmation if you say it once. But if you’re telling yourself that everyday then one day you’re going to think ‘yes, that is me.’ Doing the practice everyday, no matter what the practice is — that’s how you’re going to do it. Drinking tea as a prayer in the moonlight, it’s a symbolic gesture. One thread in the fabric of your practice. I’m not going to find the best situation until I get clear within myself about my work, my right to do my work my way, and to deeply appreciate myself and my work.” She gestured to the moon, “this is easy. But this,” she touched her heart, “is hard. Worth it, but hard. You have to release until it reveals only what is true.”
“The eternal flame burning inside a pristine jewel.”
We walked to Steff’s car, her suitcases sat in the back seat. She put her arms out and we hugged.
“I’ll see you again,” she said. “We’ll meet up again. So much will be healed.”
The foothills, still brown after another dry fall, looked drab below the clouds. It was cold, but I wanted to hike. I chose a trail I’d never explored.
Minutes after stepping onto the trail, I finally oriented when I spotted the trail marker — a small, wooden, weather-worn, rectangle nailed to a tree, the word “trail” and an arrow carved into it.
I walked along boulders, intuitively choosing the direction as the trail split into deer paths. My growing nervousness told me I’d be better off with a buddy. I missed Steff, but she was hours away.
I pushed aside my nerves, my life was not ruled by limitations anymore. I let go of my block. Just to make sure, I built cairns. Then there would be no excuse for fear. Stacking the rocks, I told myself to positive, thoughts create your reality, I wouldn’t get lost. I continued this way. Pushing away the fear and heartache, covering it over with positive sayings, only to have it rush back, bigger than before. My body tensed from the struggle.
I turned to face my loneliness, the background, pervasive loneliness that I felt every time an adventure with a friend ended, — alone on the road or at a job. I sat in meditation, observing my inner landscape, becoming aware of the shape and location of my emotions that had long been pushed down and covered over. I looked back at the trail, the cairn I just stacked. I saw my nervous wandering, my desire to be on the trail just for the sake of adventure, the year of traveling, the desire to become something more, the cost of it all — I should have spent more time with my Gramma. Broke and alone, a dark hole of regret filled the center of my chest.
I couldn’t stay in that one place — with my pain. I got up and continued the path. I was made of peace, that the core of my being was love. I repeated the words as I stepped, as I built more cairns, pushing and pulling, stomping and stacking. A battle against my heart.
Tears came to my eyes. I sat on a rock and let myself cry. What was the gain from this past year? The loss didn’t make sense in the face of my loneliness and regret.
I looked past the trees, clouds puffed beyond the mountains. I closed my eyes. To feel my breath. To drop in and acknowledge the turmoil. I breathed and heard birdsong, voices together, bringing me back. I opened my eyes and took in the landscape. A small, bent tree grew out of a boulder nearby. I heard her say: “Seek wisdom from taller trees who have weathered countless storms.” My tears stopped.
As the air dried my cheeks, I scooped the painful emotions from my chest and surrender them to a light, whole and gentle, that spread outward and softened the edges of my heart.
I followed my cairns down the mountain.
I met Lisa when I first entered the gig economy. I was working for a friend of James’ on a cliffside property in preparation for a funeral, cleaning three buildings: the main house, bath house, and the temple, a two story pagoda structure with sharp eaves and a pointed roof, ornately pained with red, white, blue and gold. When I arrived, John, the owner, gave me tour and pointed out the areas that needed the most attention. He took a picture off a dusty mantle to show me Corry before wiping his face. “A tragedy,” he managed to say.
I held the picture. Corry’s black hair, tied into two long braids complimented his round, russet face and bright smile. I smiled with him as I was told everyone did. He wasn’t wearing any shoes.
I cleaned for three days, rushing with only hours left before the family arrived.
I finished just as the first cars pulled in. I stepped outside the house, taking my suitcase to my car. Walking towards me — I thought it was Corry. But it was a woman, enshrouded in sadness, the ocean behind her. I touched my heart as she neared. She frowned slightly and enfolded me in her arms, like the wings of a hawk, into a long hug that invited my heart to soften.
“I want you to know that I didn’t bill John for my time cleaning the temple,” I searched her eyes.
They filled with tears as she squeezed my arm and put her hand to her heart before continuing inside.
I saw her again months later at local barbecues and gatherings. We developed a friendship.
Now she sat beside me. Streaks of silver shimmered against her black hair. Her dark, expressive eyes wrinkled at the corners like the tiny, delicate feathers on a bird’s face, strong cheekbones and small, sloped nose — familiar as the earth.
“You knew to call me,” her shy smile crossed her round face. Her slender hand reached to hold mine.
“Everything is so much harder now.”
“And winter is not so far away,” she nodded.
“I can’t find rest.”
She rocked a few times, “life on the road is tiring. As we move into winter, give yourself this time to rest and journey within.”
“I think part of this year was pushing everything away — the pain of loving my job, but never getting ahead. I left it all to chase something new, but now with my Gramma’s death, I feel so isolated. I don’t want to go within — I don’t want to be present with all this pain.”
Lisa gazed into the trees before turning to face me. “When I was young, my best friend died when he was twenty-three; his younger sister died a year later from the grief. I was alone and miserable, trying to find my way without them. Their mother was so selfish and made their passing even harder. I was isolated with emotion and had to figure it out on my own and I learned to do what was best for my healing with just one thing each day.
“Immediately after Corry died, his dad went back to work, his brother went camping with friends and I drove to the Southwest to where much of my family lives and to ancestral sites. I needed the time to be alone. I needed privacy to cry my heart out, to only deal with what I was feeling and not anyone else’s feelings. I didn’t want to be around anyone because I didn’t want anyone feeling bad for not being able to help me. I gave myself that time to be with my creator, to unload my own grief and turn to the one thing I could do each day to help.
“As soon as I started my trip, Corry showed up, encouraging me, telling me I could do this, that he loved me and he was protecting me. He showed me through signs, little messages that I could understand. It gave me the benefit of hope.
“When I got home ten days later, his friends, the people he loved, were having bonfire gatherings at Willow creek. Many of his friends were like my own kids, kids he grew up with. I was drowning in my own sadness, but to honor my son’s life, I needed to help those he loved. When I showed up, I remember the shadows on their faces. The bonfire raging, the ocean sounds behind us. They were crying, and their faces in the bonfire light, the shadows from the fire illuminated the pain. I felt the weight of it. Corry was the glue that held them together. He was the loving center of it all. And for most of us — definitely for me — that pain, that new reality, was our personal hell.”
Her words brought tears to her eyes and mine.
“But I went down there, in all my sadness, to hold them in theirs, to show them love as Corry would. I spent time with them — loving them and holding them as their closest link to Corry. I gave each of them the opportunity to voice who Corry was to each of them. I held them. And it hurt. It hurt them to talk about the memories and it hurt me to hear. It hurt them to look into my face because he looked exactly like me.
“But because I had taken that time to do what I needed, I could give to them. I could hold them and be present with their emotions, I could give them the space to do what they needed to do. I gave them the time and space and held them as witnesses to say their healthiest ‘goodbye for now.’ I allowed them to feel comfortable about doing what they needed to do — to do what worked best for them and to know that what is good for one, may not be good for another. I told them, find one thing each day to help.
“I had to bring them out of the feelings of isolation and misery that I had felt when my best friend passed. I needed to give them the encouragement and hope Corry gave to me on my trip. It scared them that our family members all did something different and that we didn’t do it together. But we gave them permission to do what they needed to do without feeling selfish.
“After so many of these bonfires, to mourn and process, there was a deep breath, a sigh of relief. After we talked and cried and talked and cried, we realized we could talk about him and not hurt each other. We had released enough of his death, to focus on his life. Giving everyone the time and opportunity, I had to be present for them, to hold them in the love Corry would have shared. We became the support for each other, and we felt supported — that has meant everything.
“But my sadness — the all-consuming sadness. It was like a bubble. I could barely see out of the sadness. I got lost in the sadness. I needed to find a way to come back, to be here. I didn’t want to get stuck in that place and it was all I could do — just one thing each day. But it’s the one little thing on top of the other. And they build on each other. I could I started being present with what I was feeling. Listening to myself for how to help. I realized that now instead of thinking about my son and having feelings of love, I was thinking about him and feeling so much sadness. I needed to focus on him and establishing a connection with him and watching for how he’s communicating with me. I looked for signs. And then they started coming more and more. For everyone the sign is different. It’s a communication that maybe only you understand. But you know it when it’s happening.”
“The day my Gramma passed, I saw her in the hills and a little bird. But I thought I was imagining it.”
Lisa nodded. “Some people run from the signs. They push it away until they don’t see them anymore. They think it’s better not to feel. But I say be grateful, don’t run away, say thank you, I see you. Same with your emotions. Don’t run from them. Acknowledge them. Receive them, embrace them, and only then can you transform them.”
“How do you transform the emotions?”
“It’s hard. It’s hard. And it takes time. Be present with them even if they’re painful. Allow yourself to feel, invite yourself to feel. When I closed to the pain, I closed to everything, and couldn’t read the signs. My process is to clean and make my space feel relaxing and safe enough to cry. I listen to what’s going on inside and give myself permission to do what I need. And then I cry as much as I need to cry until I’m done. And then I create. When the feelings are soft from all the tears, I create with the pain, and sometimes it’s beautiful. That’s the basic goodness inside each of us. Healing, creating, processing, moving emotions out of my body. The pain is transferred into the art. And then I can look at the art and understand my pain better, understand myself better. I can look at it and even think it’s beautiful. Moving the emotion into the art helped me with communication — I can talk about the pain now and not totally lose it.”
“Right now, I can’t write. I was blocked before, but now I am ultra-blocked. I get a sentence written in a day if I’m lucky. The changing scenery inspires me, but it hasn’t translated onto the page. I can’t even cough it up.”
“Sometimes, I can’t write. It’s too much like talking and sometimes that’s too hard. But I can draw or I can etch wood,” she pointed her long fingers to the sky and then reached into her bag, producing a notebook. “I brought something to show you” She opened the notebook and turned the pages. Drawings, sketches, watercolors, writings. “I take this with me everywhere, so that if I feel like expressing myself I can. Everything here is symbolic. Sometimes my sadness is the stormy ocean, and I’m a little rowboat. I represent everything in symbols. I draw the signs I receive. And it’s all a growing process. I’m not the greatest at drawing, but I’m practicing and trying new techniques. If I have something in mind and I don’t know how to create it, I start with the basic shapes. Create something out of the pain, transform it. That’s the basic goodness. It’s who we are to create and transform, understand and love. My son taught me that more than anyone and I honor him when I give that to myself and others. Just as he would.” She turned to a page with only writing. “This one little paragraph has taken a long time to come out. Months. It is so painful.” Tears streamed down her face. “I’m writing to another mother who recently lost her daughter. And the reason I am able to write about it is because I have opened to what I feel. I’ve kept his life and released his death. Give yourself all the time you need, and don’t rush it. Be gentle with yourself. Sometimes when it gets real bad, I go to the earth and put my bare hands and feet on the ground — on the Great Mother — the provider, in her enormity,” Lisa waved an arm at the space around us. “I put my bare hands and feet on the ground and I ask Her to help me.”
I touched my heart and struggled to find the right words to express my gratitude for the wisdom she shared.
“Helping others, sharing my experience — and the way I’m healing — is a privilege and a responsibility. It gives me joy to share the way Corry has shown up for me immediately with love and protection. The connection — it’s what I want for all of us.”
Listening to myself, I drove north up the veins of California covered in pavement. My friend, Muse, had space for me in her North Oakland flat.
“I’m doing at least one thing everyday to help me in my grief. And it’s also helping my block,” I said.
“Sounds healthy,” Muse tossed her dark, wild hair over her shoulders. “I like that you’re no longer referring to is as your block.”
“I’m letting go of my identification with it. The other day, I remembered that when I would fall into sadness, my Gramma would tell me to ‘get busy and help someone else.’ I think I want to volunteer.”
“Don’t just think about it, let’s manifest you some healing!” Muse opened her laptop. “Here — a volunteer directory. There’s a lot of categories, you could find anything. Jesus. Everyone needs help.”
“I’d like to do something with homeless people,” I said. “If there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s really hard being homeless. I mean, I have never gone hungry or slept on the streets in the danger and cold. I’ve only slept under the stars by choice and I have a strong support network. But constantly organizing a place to stay — even with James — not having a place to come back to that’s mine with all my stuff and my own bed — it’s emotionally draining.”
“I don’t know how you’re doing it. I need at least one home base. I need my sanctuary” Muse said as she scrolled through homeless listings.
I stopped her at the Gill Tract Farm. “An urban farm could be cool! I’d love to get my hands in the dirt. What does it say?”
“‘Focuses on issues of food justice and urban farming.’”
The next morning, grey clouds hung over the city, seemingly reflected in the long, cracked rivers of cement. Buildings loomed with oppressive corners, trash collected in gutters. At the cross of a street — an open space breaking from the concrete — a whispering of the great outdoors. I pulled off the street into the one lane alley; the open space on one side, a fence enclosing the Gill Tract Farm on the other.
The smell of wet earth greeted me as I stepped out of my car. Drizzle enveloped us in tender embrace — and it would have been peaceful, except for the traffic, rushing hurriedly through the intersection, only stopping as the lights changed.
A woman with a kind face in the volunteer office informed me of my supreme timing — they were planting lavender to attract pollinators and sell at their free and donation-based farm stand.
“Do you serve a lot of homeless people?”
“It’s a mix. People drive up in their luxury car. We get people who obviously don’t have money stopping by. We’ve had a lot of people who are ill, undergoing cancer treatment or with an auto-immune disease, that will come and get our vegetables because they don’t have enough money for the organic product they need for juicing.”
I felt a lightness of being as I walked the grounds, past rows of greens, to the other volunteers.The project leader, Paul, handed me a shovel and showed me how much compost to add into each hole before putting the plant into the ground.
As we worked, Paul told me the farm acts as an open-air research facility for sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternatives to pesticides and herbicides; it has a medicinal herb garden with over 150 herbs; they host free workshops to teach and inspire; neurology patients use the farm for physical therapy; preschool through university students take experiential farming and gardening classes; women’s groups visit to paint; and in the past two years they’d harvested over 30,000 pounds of organic produce and distributed that for free or by donation throughout the community.
“This farm is as boundless as the earth itself,” I patted the earth around the plant, knowing it would continually give and regenerate and give.
“But guess what?” Paul said. “This rich agricultural land is also prime real estate. UC Berkeley owns the land and has been trying to close the farm and sell it for commercial “development.” It was donated to the school in 1945 and acre by acre they’ve been selling it off. It was 100 acres back then and now it’s only 20. But they still want to pave over the last 20 and put in an organic grocery store.”
“How ironic,” I shook my head. “I’m honestly not surprised. In 1945 the Public University lived up to its ideals of producing well-rounded intellectuals and benefiting the community. They knew their role in society. Today they are more like degree factories, used by the corporate model, looking for more ways to give administrators raises and the school bigger buildings. Meanwhile they neglect and degrade the actual teaching and learning.”
“Public universities don’t function like they used to. Once ‘The Great Equalizer,’ now reduced to locking the farm gates, disrupting research, cutting down orchards, throwing out bee hives, and kicking out community members with riot police.”
“Are you kidding me?!” I stopped shoveling the earth.
“I wish. The university is a continual threat.”
I put compost into the hole I had dug and nestled a plant into it’s new home. I ran my fingers along its tender, young leaves, wishing I could protect it.
With rain-matted hair, dirt under my nails, and a full heart, I went back to Muse’s house.
“I have something for you,” she brought out a gift wrapped in tissue paper looked like a bouquet of flowers.“It’s for the work you’re doing with your block.”
I pulled the ribbon, releasing its tie. Inside the paper, silk wrapped around itself. Unfurling the silk revealed long rainbows attached to fans, the silk tracing every movement of my hand as I exclaimed my love for them.
“They’re not just beautiful. If you’re willing, these fans can be medicine. The block is making you small. It’s confining. These will get you take up space, express yourself in new ways, and move that stagnant energy.”
“Is it that obvious?”
Muse laughed, “you’re hyper-aware of what your art looks like. Use these to create without worrying what it looks like and to remember the value of being a beginner. Just express and express and express. Your block is within — you’re holding onto it and holding yourself back.”
I couldn’t stay in the concrete matrix for long and sought refuge in the Sierra Nevada foothills. At the trailhead, Pines and Redwoods reached for the sky, their roots spreading through the ground. For a moment, I stood still, acknowledging the exchange between myself and the trees — I breathe their air; they breathe mine — we are made of each other’s elements.
Bird song filled the air around me as the rush faded into the distance.
Despite the beauty and enjoyment, I caught myself wondering how long I would stay in the area, stomping unconsciously on the living Earth, seeing Nature without noticing any of it. Lost in thought again. I stopped and connected to my breath.
“Breathing in, I am walking the in forest.
Breathing out, I watch Nature reveal Her mystery.”
I closed my eyes and listened to singing birds, my skin absorbed the warmth of sunbeams that filtered past branches, spilling onto the forest floor. Just when I opened my eyes, a bee flew next to my face. It went straight to the flowers, little yellow bells to sound the shift as winter turned to Spring.
Resuming my course, slowly, without rush. I passed a stream. A grey frog bellyflopped into an eddy.
A stump off the path — somewhere to sit and slow down. Birds sang as leaves swayed in the breeze. Wildflowers appeared as I looked into the brush. A goldfinch alighted on a nearby branch and looked at me, tilting its little head and blinking.
The forest, alive with miracles of communication; my presence allowed me to receive them!
I visited my friend, Ty, while he produced an album with two friends. With cool mountain air in my lungs and gravel crunching under my feet, I smiled to the manzanita trees glowing red in early light and to the pine trees standing like forest guardians. Dew rested among us, brown leaves blanketed the ground, fresh shoots pushed through them. Moisture adorned foliage with drops that sparkled and glittered, soon to be transformed by afternoon sun. I held a bag of fresh madeleine cookies to treat my friends.
Through the studio door, a drastic shift from the healing abundance outside.
Willow, the singer, hunched on a barstool next to microphones. Her eyes drooped. She gave a meek smile and lifeless hug. Deep, dark circles around Matt’s eyes made him look ill; Ty, though friendly, had an edge of frustration in his voice.
A flash of happiness lit their faces when I produced the cookies.
I listened to a track they wanted to share, silently noting my reactions.
When it finished they answered unasked questions. They hadn’t finished, it had a different style than anything else on the album.
I paused to find the right words. The song lacked depth to my ears, but on top of frayed emotions, in this early stage of development I could destroy the tender, young shoot with criticism. “I love the lyrics and the round towards the end. I found myself expecting lower tones in the instrumentals. It seems like it’s mostly in a higher range; lower sounds might create balance.”
They pitched ideas to create the effect. It seemed I pointed to what they already knew. I them for sharing with me and let them get back to work.
I felt uneasy. I expected to find my friends excited and having fun, riding the high of creative expression and collaboration. They said they appreciated my feedback, but maybe the timing was wrong or it was too harsh. I wondered if they felt bad about my visit.
I drove to the river through mountainsides filled with pines and manzanitas, cedars and cottonwoods. On a boulder, in the sun, I listened to the water’s peaceful rush and gave myself permission to become part of the forest. I placed my fingers into its cold, knowing it traveled from the Sierras. My emotions and the river — impermanent. I soaked in the tranquil sound, the love and care I had showed myself to relax back into presence. Full of love, I brought out my notebook. Words shifted and moved me in currents to the present moment, bringing me deeper and more connected to myself and the forest.
I arrived at the studio with two large pizza boxes. They sat motionless, dumbfounded. Willow’s eyes glistened with tears. And I knew the feeling of running on empty and receiving an unanticipated act of kindness and love. It felt like breaking a hardened surface, revealing a beautiful softness.
We stepped into the open air, leaving the stuffiness to the studio. They brightened even more when they discovered gourmet toppings.
In between bites Willow said, “We haven’t come outside and spent time as a group together. This is nice. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I thought you might enjoy a little bourgeois pizza picnic.”
“And thank you for stopping by this morning. You’re like an angel appearing at the doorway,” she said.
“There’s something on my heart to express, and I’m getting into the practice of expressing more,” I said. “I know you want your music to be healing and nourishing, so you have to consider the energy and intention you’re putting into it. You cannot give what you do not have. Your work will be more healing and nourishing for others if you nourish yourself as you know best.”
“What would artistic nourishment even look like for me?” Willow asked aloud.
I paused and considered her words, “that sounds like the start of a powerful journey.”
Alone again, I opened my inner eye to look within. I saw my energy leaks, my areas of drain and malnourishment. I saw the loneliness and uncertainty I felt in the past year living homefree, time lost worrying about where to go, which friend could host me, where to make a buck, and how I could shift the moving parts to make it happen.
For the last two weeks I broke from constant travel and stayed in a cottage on my uncle’s property beneath the pines. It was the longest I’d stayed in any one place for a year.
Despite the difficulties, I loved the adventure of transience. I loved the way it forced me to stabilize within the present moment. I loved the minimalism. Would settling into one place end Glamsient?
I walked from the cottage to a nearby pond. Its beauty seeped into my bones. Still water reflected clouds, and looking into its depths, my mind became quiet. I connected to Nature’s healing presence.
I looked back at the cottage. It was time. For my art, I would make this my home.