Glamsient: Part 1

(A complete draft of Part 1 will be available for download soon!)

glamsient

glam-zee-uh nt

—noun

  1. 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.

Author’s Note

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

I

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.

II

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.”

“Seriously?”

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.”

“And…?”

“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.”

III

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.”

IV

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.”

I sighed.

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

V

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.

VI

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.” 

VII

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?”

“Dorian. You?”

“Chelsea.”

“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?”

“Of course!”

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.

“Israel.”

“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.

“You do?”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

    

To be continued…

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