“The gods are making it clear that I really need to walk more,” I said to Rhyd as we walked through downtown Portland on the way to the bus stop.
“But I’ll admit it, I’m stubborn. I really like my bike. And I know I’m screwing myself over on many levels, from simply needing to be in shape for the trip to the whole ‘let’s not ignore the gods’ thing. But dammit, my bike. I’m a creature of habit, and walking everywhere just screws with my routine. And yes, I know how that sounds. I really just need to suck it up and walk. They’re getting louder about it.”
He nodded. We had just spent the Fourth of July weekend discussing the various destinations and meanings of the pilgrimage path that had been laid out to us a few months earlier and which had been consistently revealing itself to us further as the weeks progressed. Our departure was still ten months away, but it had been made very apparent to both of us that the journey that had been demanded of us had already been initiated as far as the will of the gods was concerned. An unfolding was in the process, and while that process was far from complete it was clear that the journey was going to require significant walking, including a few hundred miles along a route considered by the ancients to be the literal path to the end of the world.
After Rhyd boarded the bus back to Seattle, I spent the walk back to my building reiterating to myself that I was going to start using my feet to run my errands. But as I walked under the Steel Bridge, I suddenly remembered the package I had waiting at the FedEx center, and my previous thoughts were forgotten as I instinctively decided to bike over to retrieve it.
At that exact moment, my eye briefly drifted toward the haphazard pile of bicycle wheels that had been continuously shrinking and then growing again for the past few months. A mountain of metal and rubber, the pile was covered with a tarp and doubled as both a visual barrier and physical perch for the man I knew lived behind it, a man who I had nicknamed the ‘bridge shaman.’
The bridge shaman wore a long, black duster jacket, accentuated with a striking combination of aluminum can tabs and small animal bones hanging off the flaps. He had several animal teeth hanging around his neck, carried a wooden staff adorned with various markings, and seemed to wield sole authority over the small homeless community living under the bridge. I knew not his specific craft nor his origins, but I regarded him with the same combination of wariness and respect that I did toward any otherworldly figures who do not specifically reveal themselves as either friend or foe.
But when my eyes drifted toward the pile of bike wheels, which happened to be the very same moment that I had decided to ride my bike to the FedEx office, I saw a pair of boots rising up from the top of the pile. My eyes followed the boots, and the next thing I knew I was staring right up at the bridge shaman himself. His eyes met mine and flashed angrily.
I looked away, immediately making a conscious decision that I simply wasn’t going to allow his reaction to have any significance or meaning at that moment. I nodded toward him and then continued on toward my building, fumbling for my keys so that I could unlock my bike as soon as I got to the rack.
I turned the corner and froze. My bike was locked to the rack where I had last left it, but the wheels had been crudely removed, the brake lines and chain having been ripped off and damaged in the process.
I reflected immediately to my conversations with Rhyd, my various interactions with and messages from the gods that prompted my conversations with him, and then to the bridge shaman and my conscious decision to ignore the flash in his eyes. And while I briefly acknowledged what was being laid out very obviously in front of me, at the same time I was simply not in the mood to entertain or accept it. My anger at the immediate situation overpowered my ability to accept my fate in the face of meaning, and I turned around and stormed back to the bridge.
As I approached the underpass, I spotted the bridge shaman, who had repositioned himself from the pile of bicycle wheels and was now perched on the guardrail at the entrance to the underpass as though he had been expecting my arrival. I took a deep breath, trying to quell my rage as I knew that diplomacy would get me further than anger.
“I think its possible you may have my tires,” I called out to him once I was in earshot, pointing toward the tarped-up mountain just behind where he was positioned. “They went missing this morning, and I would love to have them back.”
“Why would you think I had your tires?” he sneered.
As I glanced again at the pile of tires, I noticed a familiar looking one peeking out from the edge of the tarp. I turned toward my building for a moment, and then back toward the bridge shaman.
“Because your pile is taller than it was yesterday and my building is right over there. And because that one sticking out there looks just like one of mine.”
He jumped off the guardrail and approached me menacingly, stopping less than a foot away from my face. I immediately noticed his knife, prominently strapped to his waist, and then quickly glanced down to my own knife on my boot.
“Those aren’t even my tires. Those belong to my community. And yours aren’t in there.”
“And how do you know that mine aren’t in there?” I asked angrily, immediately regretting my words the moment they left my mouth.
“BECAUSE I SAID SO,” he bellowed as he stepped in toward me. I jumped back, reaching for my knife just as he reached for his. He saw my hand move and instinctively stepped back as he realized I was also armed.
As he backed off, his eyes flashed just as they had when I had passed him earlier in the day. And in that flash, the entirety of what I had been both deliberately as well as subconsciously ignoring hit me all at once. I suddenly knew exactly what I had done, exactly what this was about, and exactly what was about to happen, and yet I had no choice in the moment but to stand there and allow the scene to play itself out to its logical conclusion.
“Now you listen to me right now. There are no tires here. Not yours, not anyone’s. And you’re not here anymore either, do you understand? You better turn around and go, and I don’t want to see you anywhere near this spot again, you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME? GO.”
I nodded and obliged, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Not only had the option of biking just been forcibly removed from my choices until further notice, I had also just cut off my only direct access point between my building and the downtown area, which meant that any given errand would require my walking the equivalent of at least four blocks out of the way in order to avoid the underpass.
[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]
Not only was I walking, I was taking the long way until further notice, until the bridge shaman decided to move on.
I headed back to my building, frustrated by the realization that I was once again experiencing that one crucial lesson, the one that never seems to stick despite its simplicity and despite how many times I had already learned it. Gods will often have their way whether you cooperate with them or not.
It was day two of Many Gods West, and by mid-day I didn’t have much left in me. It was a combination of several factors: the stress of travel, adjusting to a large group of very powerful people, and the consistent pull of the familiar dead from the lake shore directly behind the hotel. My energy had been divided and subsequently depleted by all three, and I was debating on whether to take a nap or not when I walked past Sannion, smoking a cigarette in front of the hotel.
I stopped to say hello, and he asked me if I was planning on attending the Bakcheion ritual that night. I expressed that I was feeling rather drained, and he smiled and told me that he wanted to give me something that would help to bring me back and center me.
A few minutes later, one of the other members of the Bakcheion found me in the lobby, and handed me a teabag as well as a woven bracelet with a talisman of sorts hanging through it. Having a significant aversion to anything tied against my skin, I wove and then tied the bracelet into the top eye of my right boot, and then went to find some hot water for the tea. A few hours later, I was feeling myself again, and attending the ritual that night was one of the highlights of my weekend at the conference.
And being a rather superstitious type, I left the woven charm tied to the top of my right boot after the ritual was concluded, where it remains to this day. And while I don’t know and can’t vouch for the exact meaning or power of the charm, nor can I single out any singular effect it has had on me alone since the day of the ritual, the charm quickly revealed itself as a very specific and powerful beacon in regards to others.
[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]
It goes where I go, often traveling several miles per day at dog’s eye level. And for the most part, it serves as an invisible accessory; very few notice it at all. But fitting of an object constructed by Dionysians, those who do notice it are almost exclusively in varied states of intoxication and/or madness. And when they notice it, they fixate on it excitedly, asking me what it is, often asking to touch it with a pleading but respectful tone in their voice or sometimes even asking if I would be willing to part with it for a price.
Which, upon reflection, means that the charm actually does create a specific effect that it has on me alone. It reinforces the irrelevance of the concept of ‘belief’ in the face of what consistently reveals itself to be, as to ‘believe’ supposes that one could ‘choose’ not to believe. What is has a way of presenting itself as truth whether I’m in the mood to ‘believe’ in it or not.
On foot, my patterns and rituals realigned themselves as my daily pace slowed down and my route subsequently transitioned. While a five-minute journey should had become a twenty-minute one in theory, in reality the very process of walking combined with my low-latent inhibition had resulted in an entire series of new rituals and relations that created many holes for time to leak through, so to speak.
In lieu of my being able to travel westward on foot via the underpass, I diverted my route up and then down the Broadway Bridge, carving out a daily path that I quickly dubbed ‘The Voyage of the 81 Steps’ in honor of the number of stairs that it took to reach the top. Once at the top of the bridge, the descent back down the ramp leading to the Pearl District was fraught with various distractions and obstacles as an unusually dangerous intersection led down to a narrow sidewalk overrun with both pigeons and their feces.
It was in my first week on this new route that I started to notice frequent yelling and cursing from others who walked up and down the ramp, as the pigeons perched above on the light-post would regularly poop on those who walked below. I laughed every time I heard someone cry out until the fourth or fifth day when I was also pelted with a significant dose of bird shit, which admittedly made the overall situation much less funny.
Since it was impossible to avoid walking below the birds as the light-post was the same width as the ramp, the next day I decided to start acknowledging the pigeons, offering them peanuts, and asking them not to poop on me. While not wanting to be shat on was a big part of my motivation, a bigger part of me simply wanted to see if such actions would be effective. And, of course, a very small but very persistent part of me wanted to yet again test my relationship to coincidence.
Three weeks later, after witnessing countless folks pelted by poo while completely avoiding such a fate myself despite my frequency on the ramp, I deemed the experiment a success. Pigeons were no different from people or gods, in that even simple attempts at communication and mutual respect often went a long way.
The significance, demands, and implications of our pilgrimage continued to unfold with an ever-greater frequency as the days progressed. It was obvious that revelations were coming out of every corner if I simply chose to accept that what I was perceiving as reality, and yet there’s a seductive illusion of control in denying such realities, an illusion that also functions as a defense mechanism when it all becomes a little too much.
And it was a little too much that day. Deep in my head, walking down the ramp, I found myself angrily ruminating on the idea of coincidence as it stands in opposition to meaning, questioning my sanity for the umpteenth time as I struggled to not only make sense out of everything that was being revealed but also struggled to reconcile the fact that I had to make sense out of it in the first place and could not merely dismiss it as coincidence.
If only I could, I thought to myself angrily, stewing in such muddled frustration that for the first time in six weeks I neglected to acknowledge the pigeons on the light-post above me.
They acknowledged me, however. At the exact moment I found myself envying those who had the luxury of dismissing such synchronicities of meaning, the pigeons acknowledged me with simultaneous shots of poo to my head, neck, and back.
And of course, I didn’t have the luxury of dismissing any of it.
“That was meta,” I shouted up toward the light-post as I turned around to head home and shower.
“Very meta. Good one. Nice job.”
[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]
“Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question. Perhaps you should read my thoughts, line them up like soldiers…” – Tori Amos, ‘Police Me’
It may have been a Tori song, but it was Nimue who was singing it in my ear.
I heard it as I woke up. I heard it consistently throughout those random cracks in time during the day when the mind is momentarily unoccupied and the other world can seep through. I heard it when I deliberately invoked silence and stillness. And I heard it throughout my dreams. I knew not what it meant, but it persisted.
The song was once again in my head as I walked toward the post office, through the crowd of hustlers and transients that congregated just south of Union Station. Head down, I was humming the very line that was haunting me when someone jumped right in front of me. I halted and looked up to see a noticeably strung-out homeless man blocking my path.
His eyes fixated on mine for a moment as his lips started to move.
“That red-headed bitch… I can’t get her out of my head,” he mumbled at me. He jumped twice in place, and on the third jump he moved aside so I could pass.
“Red-headed banshee bitch,” he continued. “Don’t listen to her. Don’t listen to any of them, you hear? It doesn’t leave, never leaves your head.” His voice had risen at the end, teetering on the border between civil speech and primal scream.
His eyes widened. “Don’t listen,” he repeated. “You hear?”
I nodded, not knowing exactly what to think. I briefly pictured the red-headed singer whose tune had been haunting me for the past several weeks, then nodded again at him.
“Yes, I hear”, I said, and walked away from him as fast as I could.
“Never before have I been so deeply entrenched in my own story, so to speak. And I have no idea how to even begin to write about it,” I said to her over early-morning coffee.
“I know we’re both writers, but I’ll admit I can’t really relate to what you’re struggling with, as much as I wish I could,” she said to me sympathetically. “I’ve never met any gods, let alone have I ever tried to write about them. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.”
“But I don’t actually write about the gods at all,” I argued. “Not directly, anyway. I actually go out of my way not to write about my interactions and relations with the gods themselves, but instead I focus on where those interactions take me and the conclusions they lead me to.”
“And yet that’s failing you now.”
I nodded. It was not only failing me, it was driving me to madness.
“Why?” she asked.
“Why what? Why is it failing? Or why I don’t write about the gods?”
She laughed. “Dare I say the answer to your question is found in your question? Start with the second one. Why don’t you write about the gods?”
My face reacted instantly in horror as I recalled the song lyric incident near Union Station a few weeks prior. I momentarily fixated on my companion’s bright red hair, all too terrifyingly aware that the tendency that I was struggling so greatly to both write about and explain to her was manifesting itself in the very moment.
She smiled innocently, unaware of that manifestation and equally unaware of what a loaded question she had put forth. I racked my brain for a neutralizing response but quickly realized I had nothing to wield but the truth.
“Because those conclusions are much easier for me to defend than those relationships. Because it does not damage my psyche for someone to tell me that my politics and my viewpoints are delusional, as that’s a step removed from the accusation that I am delusional as a whole, which does damage my psyche and which I open myself up to very easily by directly writing about my interactions with the gods. I feel vulnerable enough as it is with what I already put out there.”
“Ok, now the first half of the question. Why is that strategy now failing?”
I thought for a moment. “Because this one’s just too real. And I’m at a loss at how to describe it, to relate it, while keeping it contained enough so that it feels safe.”
“But it’s not safe,” she said quietly.
She stared into her coffee cup for a moment before she continued. “Again, I can’t conceive of what the gods are like, but it’s obvious from way over here that whatever it is you experience is very, very real. And as much as I don’t understand it, the only explanation that makes any sense to me at all is the very one that you seem to accept without question while at the same time you fight it with everything you have. You are trapped in that contradiction, and I think that by trying to feel safe you only fuel it.”
I sighed, trying to settle the internal discomfort that always came with uncomfortable truths. She was absolutely right. I did internally fight it with everything I could muster. I had never asked to be gods-bothered or anything of the sort. I could handle the realities and consequences most of the time, but my inability to either ignore or express the sea of meaning I was drowning in had pushed me to the edge of madness. And it was always in those moments, teetering at the edge, that I often most desperately wished that it was all indeed just a delusion. And yet I knew it was anything but.
“I don’t think you’re looking for advice,” she continued after a long silence. “I think you’re looking for permission. And I think that the only force that can grant that you that permission is within.”
The dreams had officially become a significant interruption. Although that’s not even quite right, as they were anything but dreams. They were most active and most traumatizing during sleep, sure, but I knew to distinguish mere dreams from visions, and these were definitely of the latter category.
And yet, knowing they were more than dreams did not produce nearly as much anxiety as the content of the visions themselves. Constant scenes, of war, violence, carnage, which had first started appearing the summer before but had only become a nightly phenomenon since around the time of the new year. I didn’t know what the scenes were, nor did I necessarily want to know, but there were a few key impressions, most notable of bombed-out towns and stone ruins, that simply would not leave my head no matter how hard I tried.
I had these very images in and hanging over my head as I went out on my daily walk on an unusually cold day, taking a slightly longer route with the hopes that potential distractions would empty my mind a bit. I bought myself a coffee and wandered through downtown, inadvertently disassociating myself from the goings-on around me as I tried to clear my head.
Without realizing it, I found myself randomly stumbling through the aisles at Powell’s a few hours later, having indeed become distracted after wandering in to use the bathroom. I wasn’t searching for anything specific, but after walking around in the cold for so long there as something quite comforting about the cramped, crowded aisles of books, and so I methodically wandered up and down the aisles clutching my coffee while trying my best to shake off various troubles.
The aisles at Powell’s. [Photo by InSapphoWeTrust]
And then out of nowhere a book fell off the shelf just to the right of me, knocking my right foot and landing on its spine, flipping the book open to the center. I bent over to pick it up and when I brought the book to eye-level I saw my dreams of bombs and ruins staring back up at me.
The photos were scenes from the Spanish Civil War, of battles that took place in the very towns that we were set to walk through as part of our pilgrimage, which was now only a few months away. I turned the page, and the images on the next page were also familiar from my dreams and visions. I closed my eyes for a minute, suddenly trying my hardest to clearly recall what I had been trying so hard to block out for weeks, and then stared back at the page again.
As I stood there, the words I had taken to heart on the ramp a few months back ran through my mind, and I resisted the urge to crave the luxuries of ‘coincidence’. And suddenly, standing right there in the middle of the aisle, connections started to form and yet-unasked questions started to answer themselves without warning. The pilgrimage. The bike. The walking. The dead. The dreams and the not-dreams. The unknowing emissaries. The touched prophets. The book that just fell in front of me.
Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question.
I put the book back on the shelf and ran out of the bookstore, desperately needing air. I walked around the block, composed myself, bought another coffee, and then went back in to buy the book.
The book, of course, was no longer on the shelf when I returned, despite the fact that I had carefully placed it in an unassuming spot. And for once, I simply surrendered to what was before my eyes without feeling a need for answers, without feeling the need to either deny the significance of it all or to analyze the significance to death. After all, the book had served its purpose, and I hadn’t even gone looking for answers.
I’m at Pantheacon, and I’m in the women’s bathroom.
Except I’m not in the bathroom. I’m sitting in the stall, but it’s not really the stall, I’m no longer really in San Jose, and the harsh lighting has been replaced by a murky darkness.
Part of me knows that I am in middle of a flashback, and yet most of me is already too far gone, once again reliving the same terrifying series of moments that has held me captive for eleven years. The stall has evaporated into a dark, wooden shack. The wind is howling outside, rattling the walls around me as I desperately try to remain upright, remain present, simply remain.
In my hand is a plate of rice and beans. White rice, black beans, on a soggy paper plate that is starting to give on the right-hand side, the side that my hand is clutching. My hand is shaking like a leaf and the rice and beans are shaking along with it, creating a blurry optical illusion that is greatly enhanced by the kaleidoscopic effects of my tear-blurred eyes.
There is a firm hand grasping my leg, trying to still my shaking, trying to ground me just enough so that I can listen to what she is saying. Attached to that hand is an older figure, wrapped in robes, who evokes equal parts wise-woman and desert warrior. Seated at the same level, I tower over her physically, and yet she looms much larger than I in the moment.
She is speaking softly, her voice gravelly but strong, the cadence of her voice evoking a calming, lulling effect. I stare down at the rice and beans again, fixated on the sagging plate, as her voice slowly makes its way into my head. Her accent strikes a place of comforting familiarity, momentarily bringing me back to Brooklyn, bringing me back home to my front stoop and to the endless conversations that I used to have with my elderly Israeli neighbor in Park Slope. She then squeezes my leg harder and I once again come back, remembering instantly that I am far from Brooklyn, far from the comforts of my stoop and my former neighbor.
I have never met her before, but I knew to trust the folks who brought me to her. Or did they bring her to me? My body and my being jolt at the realization that I are unable to recall. I don’t even know how they found me. Did someone else bring them to me first? Did they give me the rice and beans? If not, who did?
My brain hiccups, momentarily halting my shaking, and her grip on my leg tightens again. I look up into her eyes, trying desperately to focus on her, and only then do I realize that she has been speaking to me since I sat down. I realize that I trust her too, that I trust her completely, and that I don’t know why but it does not matter. I try with everything I have to tune into her voice long enough to actually hear.
“I want you to follow my finger. And remember to breathe.”
I start to breathe, and I follow her finger. Up, down, left, right. Over and over and over again. And suddenly time and consciousness start to blur even further, and all that remains in that moment is darkness, repetition, and a consistent reminder to breathe. Not only does darkness envelop the moment, but the moment envelops into itself and by the time I think I’ve come back I don’t know whether I had just lost minutes or hours, or what actually transpired in that little shack once she started to move her finger and talk.
At one point, the sagging plate lost the battle with the rice and beans, but the plate was subtle enough in its surrender that I didn’t even notice as I followed her finger, clinging to her words, trying desperately to simply remain.
And when she concluded, when she let go of my leg with a release of finality and a pat, I did come back, or at least I thought I did at the time. It would take me many years to accept the fact that I could never truly come back from such a thing, but at that moment enough of my being was restored that I could potentially fathom the idea of walking out of the little shack on my own two feet and continuing on with whatever it was that one is supposed to do after they brush up so closely with death.
I can’t even speak, can’t even comprehend, can’t even find words to thank her. I simply start to shake and cry uncontrollably. She reaches over and embraces me, soothing me with both her arms and her voice. I drop the plate of rice and beans to the floor and allow myself to simply be held.
And then I slowly come to and open my eyes and I’m once again staring at a wooden slatted door. The variety of noises and voices behind that door snap me instantly back as I realize that I’m sitting on a toilet seat in a bathroom stall at the DoubleTree and there are people in line waiting their turn. And I can’t help but note the irony in that just as in the very moment that I had just re-lived, once again I have no idea whether I’ve been sitting there for minutes or for hours and I can’t stop shaking.
I quickly slap some water on my face in an attempt to bring myself back, hurrying as I realize that I have no idea how long I’ve been out of my booth. I look in the mirror for a minute to make sure I look presentable enough to fake it for the next few hours, and as I breathe a sigh of relief at the person reflected back it occurs to me that everything I have become, everything I have been able to sustain, everything I hold and have kept intact would likely have not been possible, would possibly not be at all if not for her intervention.
You likely owe her your life, I confided to my mirror-self, finally giving voice to a truth that I had been holding this entire time but could never actually admit.
I walk out of the bathroom and past the info table, trying my best to shake off the intensity of what had just occurred, while trying even harder at a subconscious level to deny the very actuality of any of it. Unlike my struggles around the luxury of coincidence, blocking this reality out had become an effective and reliable short-term coping mechanism over the years. As I walk around the info table, I absentmindedly stare blankly toward the smaller tables that are positioned right outside the vendor room, and as I turn at the end of the info table toward the vendor room door my gaze inadvertently drifts to the left.
And there she is, sitting right next to the door, looking right at me.
The wise woman, the desert warrior. The one who I had just reminded my mirror-self had likely saved my life. The one who holds my truth. The only one who knows that one piece of my story better than I do. There she is, thirty feet from the bathroom, sitting right there next to the door.
My mind flashes back to the shack again as I stare at her in disbelief. For once, I couldn’t fathom trying to dismiss the enormous significance of her presence, especially in congruity with the flashback I just had and the realization while staring in the mirror. My body starts to shake as my stomach pulls itself into the tightest knot imaginable.
She recognizes me and her face immediately lights up. I pull up a chair and sit down, pulling the chair in tight next to her so as not to block the flow of traffic. She reaches across to hug me and once again I am momentarily pulled back to the shack, to the grip on my leg and the embrace and the plate of rice and beans that slipped from my hand. I hug her back while kicking my left leg with my right foot in a desperate attempt to once again remain while doing everything in my power to compose myself emotionally, acutely aware that we are in a very public space.
“How have you been?” she asks me softly after we finished embracing.
My mouth opens and words start to flow out, uncontrollably at first. I’m not able to harness what’s coming out; nor does it present itself in any easily identifiable order, but she seems to understand me all the same. I babble, she nods, time blurs once more. I shift from kicking my shin to crushing my left toes with my right heel, trying to be conscious of physical impact while lacking any other way to keep myself in my skin. I breathe. I try to calm. Eventually my heel relaxes. Eventually my babbling ceases.
“I think of you often, always wonder how you are doing,” she says, and I finally lose control and briefly burst into tears.
“Sometimes I’m fine, but lately… all of it… it’s just too much, too much meaning… it’s so suffocating…. it suffocates me whether I accept it or deny it. And I can’t turn it off, it never stops, never. Even just now. Right here, the fact that you’re here and I’m here right now, there it is again. I can’t escape it no matter where I turn.”
“No, perhaps you can’t escape it”, she said. “But I know in my heart that you will figure out what you need to do to process it all, to understand and heal from it all. You just mentioned to me a moment ago that you’re a writer now. Maybe you just need to try writing about it.”
“The very thought terrifies the shit out of me,” I said softly.
“And that’s exactly why you need to do it,” she said with a smile.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.