Sunday, December 25, 2016

Night Vision

In the earliest hours of morning our thoughts connect 
 two worlds.  Dreams open doors into a fluid world. In daylight the thick shell of the world hides from 
us from the truth we seek. 
We forget the stars are still there. 

This is my story of remembering.  It is one of many, for when we are not forgetting, we are remembering.  And each story tries to remember, but in the telling it falls short.  So the Storyteller is born again.

In the middle of November I was not sleeping well.  One particularly windy night I lay in bed, staring into the darkness and listening to the forest howl outside my window.  As I drifted between waking and sleeping a vision began to form, one I did not welcome.  I saw a darkness surround all beings, enveloping the earth.  It was thick, a cloud of deep thick charcoal fog.  I entered into it and saw with my heart its fullness.  Suffering.  So much suffering.  It was not just suffering to come, it was suffering that had been and it was suffering that is.  It was all existing in one place and one time.  I saw it with my entire being and I lay in bed weeping.

It was 3 in the morning and I was sobbing, trying not to wake Dale.  I lay there for an hour.  All beings, humans, animals, trees and the earth itself all wept with me.

Untitled Work in Progress

This was a pretty dark place, even for me.

After an hour I knew I had to get out of bed and go into the woods. I woke Dale.  He was concerned when he saw that I was crying. I told him. He said, “Take a flashlight.”

At first I didn’t turn on the flashlight.  I wasn’t in a hurry, so I thought I could just step slowly and carefully, letting my vision adjust to this very dark night.  It was a Wisconsin November.  So there were dry brittle leaves everywhere, and, on a windy night like this, they tend to pile up.  So, my first fright came when I stepped into a pile of leaves that wasn’t there the night before.  My foot lifted the leaves, taken up by the wind, farther than I would have imagined. I was surrounded by the sound of rustling leaves and my pounding heart.  In the blackness I stood frozen, hearing movement all around, and I decided I wasn’t so opposed to the flashlight after all.

The Wind

At that point it occurred to me that I would rather see a creature of the night before stepping into its space, so the light stayed on as I carefully made my way to a special spot in the forest of pines.  It is a place where a large tree has lain fallen for years, so much so that younger trees grow through it.  Animals take shelter in it.  Moss grows on it.  I have always loved this spot.  When I got there it took me awhile to find a comfortable seat.  The woods feel ominous at night. I chose to have my back against a young tree, something to lean on, and it gave me a small sense of protection. 

The wind was still blowing fitfully, shaking the trees and loosening their dead.  Before turing off my flashlight I scanned my perimeter for potential Widow Makers, or in this case Widower Makers.  Then, with a touch of my thumb, total darkness.

House of the Woods

Oh how hard it was to keep that light off.  A breaking branch a few feet from me was enough to make me freeze.  For what seemed like hours, but was more likely 30 minutes, I sat frozen.  My eyes were wide open, but, at first, I saw nothing.  Slowly I began to see.  There seemed to be a substance to the air, as if every single molecule was coming out of hiding.  The air, the trees, the leaves and I were all tiny dots vibrating in and out of my sight.  Looking up I saw a falling star.  In this light the trees are the negative space, and the distant stars are the positive space.  For a moment I was neither light nor dark, I was only perception, as everything around me changed from one to the other.


For an hour at least my thoughts bounced back and forth between wonder and terror.  Of course I could calmly remind myself the biggest danger that night was a coyote.  But a noisy rustle in the black space around me made me imagine more.  Believe it or not, this was the first moment I recognized a connection between my choice to sit in the woods and the story of Siddhartha.  As the account of his becoming the Buddha is told, Siddhartha despaired at the suffering in the world.  His search for an answer led him to sit under a Bodhi tree, meditating outdoors for seven days and seven nights.  My 2 hours in the cold on a fallen tree paled in comparison to his 168 hours. I laughed at all the times I sat on a comfortable cushion in my heated home to meditate.  Nature is essential to awakening us to this life, and we humans so often hide from it.  In a terrible separation from the earth I had forgotten the lessons it has to teach me.  In my darkest moment, I remembered, and I stepped outside.  To be inside of our deepest consciousness we have to be outside in the Natural World, not inside of the Manmade World.  To the degree to which we the Modern Humans have violently torn ourselves from our connection to nature, we have suffered.

I swear I remember there being a moment in the story of enlightenment where a giant cat approaches Siddhartha.  So, I thought, maybe I needn’t be quite so fearful.  A lion or tiger would be bad. Back to fear. Forgetting.

Deep Sleeper - Intermediary

Of course the point wasn’t Lions and Tigers and Bears.  We do have occasional bears and wolves and even the rare cougar sighting in this part of the State. I knew there was a reason I was out there in the cold and it wasn’t to try to guess which wild beast would eat me for dinner.  I could fear the wind, the animals, even the possibility of a human in the woods, probably most dangerous of all.  I had to let it all go. The most frightening part of being alone in the darkness in the woods was also the most awakening.  Remembering. 

I began to look each fear squarely in its face and release it.  I soon found myself remembering them all, from paralyzing terrors to the less obvious ones. The ones that linger for days, muted and pale but persistent in their nagging.  People who had frightened me, I saw their fear.  People that had hurt me, I saw their pain.  People I had frightened and people I had hurt, I saw my blindness.  I saw fear and pain passed on from parent to child, from master to slave, from teacher to student.  Acts of violence replacing the wisdom of old with inherited pain and terror.  Victim becomes perpetrator and the lamb becomes the hungry beast at the door. There was no bad, no good, no dark, no light. Only attaching and letting go.  With each passing fear I felt an infinite lightness that cannot be expressed with words, although LOVE is a good one to try.  This was a special kind of night vision.  Seeing through the dark.    

Artic Spirits

It was at this point I realized the woods were becoming more and more visible in the earliest light of the day.  As I had passed through the darkest hour of the morning I had seen through at least some of my blindness.  As the trees became solid, once again I could connect each sound with its source.  I looked up at the sky.  Not a single star in my sight.  I would have to go on memory.  Remembering.  I got up, a little stiff, and walked toward the house.  I would put on some coffee and try to talk about this.  The things the darkness commands us to know. Fears are only passing moments, but we give them strength when we try to suppress them.  In their suppression they are squeezed and wiggled into our souls and the passing darkness takes a solid heavy form.  This heavy load is so light in its release.  Walking back to my warm house I knew I would struggle to find the words to tell this story. And in the telling they would fall short. And the storyteller is born again.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I Dream of Marrakech

I traveled to Marrakech in February 2006, but I am still dreaming.  I am dreaming about pools and tears and bridges. Today they are waking dreams.

February, 2006
Several days before my trip I had a vivid dream.  

I sat at a Luncheon in the Grass in a Palace Courtyard.  The businessmen I sat with wore old black and grey wool suits.  They spoke with confidence, talking about themselves.  Always talking about themselves.  I was naked, sitting silently.  When a large shadow cast over us, I looked up to see one of the Castles floating over our heads.  I rose and walked to a nearby pool.  There was a sign that said "No Swimming."  I dove in.

I swam underwater in blackness for a long time. When I finally reached a place where I could see, I was swimming in a large room filled with ornate carpets and lush pillows.  Brass and silver shimmered from every wall and tabletop.  I swam through this underwater room, marveling at its treasures.

When I left for Marrakech I was profoundly unprepared. I had planned to travel with my sweetheart and traveling companion, Guy.   I flew to Germany to meet with him and plan our trip, but at the last minute he was unable to go, and I decided I would go alone.  I am not sure why I insisted, perhaps it was a Knowing that is thickened in the light of day but so fluid in dreams.  I was stubborn.  I had to go.  I packed my bags and bought a round trip ticket from Frankfurt to Marrakech, and I dove.

I had received the name and address of an enterprising woman in the Medina, the Old City, who took in guests.  She would be the one to teach me the ways of Marrakech.  Or so I thought.

Rita picked me up despite the four-hour delay of my layover at Casablanca, which meant our first meeting took place at 1:30 am in the Marrakech airport.  She was good humored and direct, and I knew I would like her.  Winding through the maze-like streets at 2 am, the alleyways and tunnels that led to her house, I was so captivated by her stories and tidbits of local wisdom, I failed to pay attention to the myriad of turns.  We ended up at a heavy wooden door that I soon learned would take greater concentration to find on my own. 

We walked into Rita's home and I was taken to my room.  To get there we had to walk through a majestic main hall.  It was the room in my dream, filled with lush carpet,  soft couches, piles of pillows, hookahs, silver trays and brass lamps.  

In the earliest hour of dawn I heard the prayers from the Mosques.  I sat upright, eyes wide open.  I listened. These were voices I had heard before.

    The next day was a whirlwind.  I struggled to keep up with Rita through the endless maze of the Souks, the magically chaotic markets of the old city in Marrakech. We emerged from their damp darkness into the blinding sunlight of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the center of the old city, encountering everything from languid snake charmers and smoky fish fries to the persistent hawking of henna painters. Without a break, we hopped into a cab and were swept away to the newer neighborhoods, where the roads widened to accomodate more modern cars and trucks.  I realized that some streets in Marrakech actually do have traffic lights and directional signs, even a Pizza Hut and a McDonalds.  Before I could get my bearings,  I was cast out into that “modern” neighborhood, where, after a soporific lunch of olives and bread and couscous and lamb, Rita, over mint teas, informed me that I could find my own way home.  I swallowed my last sip of hot tea, scorching my throat, but I knew better than to kneel down and grab her skirt and beg her to stay.  So there I was, negotiating my check in broken French, while trying desperately to memorize the map on my lap.  Hours later I found my way back to the house, with the help of three eager young boys who saw me circle the block a few times.  I was busy trying to look like I was walking in circles on purpose.  They got a few dirham each and giggled at my foolishness.  

I’ve always been a diver, not a wader, in the waters of life, with an absurd amount of good fortune, and some bad. Survival skills are necessary.  Alway rely on intuition and never show fear.  This we know in the deepest recesses of our animal selves - the predator looks for weakness.  So I walked everywhere, covering the streets of Marrakech as if that were something I do everyday.  I would have to rely on the kindness and signals of strangers to guide me through the two weeks.  I watched people closely, and I made a few friends.  I walked because taxi drivers immediately knew from my broken French and reluctance to argue they could get away with a higher fee.  I explored the city of Marrakech on foot with nothing but a backpack, camera, sketchbook, a few hundred dirham and a desire to take in the warmth of every single daylight hour.

At night I stayed in, for the first few days that is.  But soon enough I discovered that in Marrakech there are countless men who would love to show an American woman around.  The unemployment rate is high and these young men are creative, resourceful and relentless in their attempts to scratch out a meager day to day living. Many are also sincerely curious about the world outside of the only one they’ve ever known.  I was emboldened by the confidence one acquires after surviving days alone in a foreign country, and perhaps this confidence blinded me to obvious dangers.  I had no intention of betraying my boyfriend back in Germany, but I yearned to experience the city as only a local can... and one needs a local to do that.  I spent another couple of days learning how to communicate with these determined young men, differentiating between the harmless players and their moodier counterparts.  It was mostly intuition that led me to my new guides, who asked for very little from me.  I clearly stated my boundaries, I was looking for a platonic escort.  I didn't have much money, so I didn't ask for much.  I listened to their stories and shared mine.  I was beginning to enjoy the city not only by day, but by night, when an escort is needed.  I was careful, never alone with my new friends, but I took chances too, in order to see what only a Moroccan in Marrakech can see.  The reward for my risk was a night to be remembered.  The first stop was at the Men’s Bar, where I witnessed laughter and storytelling, in arabic, offering an untranslated glimpse into this secret world.  This was followed by a concert in a nearby basement club full of middle class men and women.   The Classical Morrocan musicians lifted my heart far above the underground bar.  And when a tall and timelessly dressed man took the stage, I was transfixed.  He had this "Rat Pack meets Cohen" style, and similarly, an air of confidence.  His voice was otherwordly.  I knew that night I loved this city and its people.  I felt like the luckiest of travelers.  I convinced my new Moroccan friend to hold hands and skip back to Old City. He was surprisingly unembarrassed by this request and we laughed, sang and jokingly shared stories on the long walk back to Gita's house.

When I think back to this night, ten years later, I wonder... Was I just being childish?  Was I sprinkling the world around me with imagined stardust and magic that never was?  Maybe life is just the cynical black and white photo, as some would later hold to my face?  A street wise Moroccan hustler and a terribly naive American?  I scour my journals, even now.  I can see I was aware of the details of this situation, under the microscope of rational thought. There, in my dog earred notebook, I can find a linear account of events that will never look or sound anything like the story that stitches together my dream life and my waking life.  

How is one to decide?  One can look at the double rainbow and see a diagram of optical phenomena, light and prisms.  Empirical date with a rational conclusion.  When taken in the context of the limits of the human eye we get a scientifically accurate version of reality.  But, when taken in with every sense, without limits, we get something completely different.  We are left with the what and the why that remains.  We rely on poetry and dreams to give those form.  

Any magic that did occur that night in Marrakech was overshadowed the next morning, when I got an earful from a shocked and concerned Rita. She was not at all interested in my adventure.  I tried to tell her about my evening’s guide, Khaled, his love of music, his command of the English language and his respectful manners on our long walk.  She interrupted with her definitive conclusion. Khaled is a gigolo, and I am a naïve fool, trusting the most untrustworthy of all - Moroccans.  I was startled.  I objected.  The night had been nothing but magic.  I swayed to beautiful music, and I witnessed camaraderie between men that I had never before been so fortunate to encounter. I had been accompanied by a friend who talked to me as if we had met centuries before.  I felt connected to Moroccan people and their lives. I was filled with nothing less than a love of humanity. But she hammered away at my Fantasy with her Reality.  So, I promised.  No more late nights.  I was angry at her, a white woman in someone else's country, sweeping the population under her exotic rug. I saw her judging an entire group of people by their collective response to poverty rather their individual actions.  Nonetheless, I decided to respect my hostess, who felt responsible for my safety.  She pointed out that I was a thoughtless girlfriend to my worried sweetheart in Germany, who had called one evening while I was out.  I loved Guy, and I knew he would be fine once I saw him in person again.  Yet, this dose of guilt and shame brought me back to the world she inhabited.  She pointed out that all eyes were on me, being the outsider.  I questioned my own instincts.  I did not want to shame her.  My confidence in my dreams was tenous, belonging to only me, and the sounds and colors of my dreams faded under the blinding light of judgement. 

That afternoon I went, alone, to the bank to take out money for shopping in the souks, which I also intended to do alone.  I met with Khaled and told him my evening adventures had come to an end.  We sat and sipped espresso in Jemaa el-Fnaa.  I told him how the voices of prayer from the temples made me feel like I had lived here in another life.  He told me that he secretly wished to be a Buddhist. He said my travelers luck had come from traveling with an open heart.  We knew we could see each other as we truly are, beyond our differences, and for that we were thankful.  We said our goodbyes.   Friends for life, but not in this lifetime.  At seven pm, before the sun had set, I was a tourist once again, heading back to Gita's house with my passport, credit card and 2500 dirham.  

As I rounded the last corner before Rita’s wooden door, which I could finally find without outside help, a boy in dark dirty clothes ran towards me.  He must have been hiding behind a corner, it seemed as if he came out of nowhere.  His eyes were wide open, staring at me, huge dark pupils shaking. He held some jagged weapon in his hand, swinging it wildly.  I couldn’t tell if it was a knife, or just a rough piece of metal.  His movements reduced it to a shiny blur.  I threw out my arms to protect myself, and in the process, my backpack slid down my arm to the ground. 

As soon as my bag dropped the boy pounced on it.  Remembering the bag’s contents, I felt a surge of adrenaline, but it was combined with healthy self-preservation, so I kept my distance as I tried to block the thief from running to the street, screaming with all that my lungs could offer.  The startled boy turned and ran down the dead end street, and I followed.  I thought I had him cornered, until he struggled with a door at the end of the alley and ran into an empty house.

Within the old city the streets are narrow, surrounded by crude plaster walls and heavy wooden doors.  Their austere simplicity is broken only with the ornate Hands of Fatima.  These hang on the doors, a welcoming symbol revealing the kind and generous people that live inside the hard exteriors. The earthy smells of donkey carts and cat urine accompany you down musty dark labyrinths.  But inside the homes one is greeted with incense and spice. Those given the opportunity to pass through one of the big wooden doors enter another world of three and four story homes, once grandiose tiled palatial estates, with open patios, orange, lemon and lime trees, fountains and rooftop terraces. These terraces serve as a convenient escape route if you’re an agile 18-year-old boy. I was hoping this boy wasn’t as agile as he looked.

At this point a small crowd had gathered.  A couple of neighborhood men ran into the house,  returning empty handed and pointing at the sky.  The rooftop terrace.  My passport.  I sank down to the ground with my head in my hands.

Eventually something had to be done, and a weathered hand reached down to pull me out of my crumpled heap.  Two men from the neighborhood volunteered to walk me to the night station to see the police.  Rita was busy with a new group of visitors in her house.  The neighborhood men were kind hearted, trying hard to comfort me with French and Arabic words I couldn’t understand.  I knew I had little choice at this point.  I was slipping into a catatonic state, and I went along with the strangers.  It was a long walk, and when we got there we were not the only people in need of police attention, so we sat in a large room with cement walls.  A couple of rows of tired Moroccans, some frightened, some resigned, stood across from one big metal desk.  On the desk was a single vintage manual typewriter.  Propped against the wall was a young man with a bandage over his eye, bleeding.  Within an hour there was a puddle of blood below him. The officer in charge noticed me noticing the blood and signaled his subordinates with a glance and a thrust of his head. One of them grabbed a scrap piece of paper and threw it over the blood.  The paper pushed the blood in all directions, and it oozed out from the sides.  It was left like that, paper and blood, for the remaining three hours.  So was the bleeding man; he was still leaning against the wall when I left.

I was sitting anxiously upright on a rickety metal folding chair in that room, shivering to the rhythm of the buzzing fluorescent bulbs, when a small Algerian man on a motorcycle pulled up. My two neighborhood helpers took me outside to meet him. His name was Hussein. He was another man from the neighborhood, but he spoke English quite well and took over the job as my police liaison and translator.  I would spend over thirty hours with this man in the next five days.  He was small, but with a fatherly air, and he lead me around by the hand.  Later I would learn he was two weeks older than me.  People age quickly on the streets of Marrakech.

Hussein and I had to deliver a report to the Jemaa el-Fnaa station, so he directed me to the back of his bike.  We flew through the narrow streets past donkeys, cats, people and cars.   From my very first day in Morocco I had witnessed the motorcyclists, who seemed like maniacs, flailing themselves through the chaos of the old city, beeping their horns wildly rather than slowing down to avoid hitting a passerby.  I have to admit, for five minutes on the back of Hussein’s motorcycle I just enjoyed the ride, holding on, leaning back, and closing my bloodshot eyes.  Sometimes when you lose all the cords that tie you to your fears, you really just let go and enjoy the moment.  It was a ride I will never forget. 
We returned to the night station only to wait another hour, until finally my report was taken, on recycled scrap paper with carbon sheets between them, with the vintage typewriter slowly tapping out the Arabic characters as translated by Hussein.  Every detail was taken, questions were asked over and over.  When we left the station for the second time it was close to midnight and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  Hussein took me to a stall in the market, run by one of his many friends, and we ate fried fish with bread, potatoes and mashed eggplant.  I would have sworn over my Lonely Planet guidebook that it was the best food I had ever tasted.  Penniless, I returned to Rita’s house to fill her in on the events of the evening.  I went to bed at 1:30 that night, lying under too many heavy blankets, staring at the ceiling, swallowed up by a new type of loneliness.  Exhaustion eventually granted me a few hours of uneasy sleep.

The next morning I had a 10 am appointment at the main city police station.  Hussein picked me up at the door.  We took a taxi this time, it was far and we were running late.  I didn’t eat much breakfast, thinking this would be pretty quick, just more forms.  In retrospect I see that I was in denial.  We waited for about 2 hours when Hussein informed me that a bribe would speed things up.  I pointed out that having been robbed, I wasn’t really in a position to pay many bribes.  But I had a little bit of money left.  The bribes turned out to be small but effective ways to speed up the process from impossibly and unbearably slow to a little less impossibly and unbearably slow.  With my own eyes I was beginning to understand a tiny bit about the life of a Moroccan policeman.  I felt no need for judgment, especially considering a hundred dirham bribe added up to no more than 10 dollars, a meager, if relative, display of corruption. 

The day progressed as we walked from station to station, waiting, waiting, filling out forms, waiting.  Then at 2 pm a cell phone call came in from the tourist station in the old city.  They didn’t say exactly why I had to report there, but Hussein optimistically predicted that they had found my bag.  I sped up my step.  Turns out they had searched the house the boy had broken into, deduced the most likely rooftop escape route, and eventually discovered a number of hastily discarded items.  I walked into a station full of men, each holding a different item from my bag.  First I saw a small pointy faced young man in a baseball cap with my wallet, minus cash, of course.  I saw my sketchbook in the palm of a chubby fresh-faced gentleman.  An older man with uneven teeth dangled my pencil case.  I looked back and forth between the men, trying to spot my passport.  My heart began to sink again, when, at the last moment the chief, a big man with a stern mouth and laughing eyes, stood up from behind his desk and held up that precious black booklet.  I think they had conspired that moment that for dramatic effect, and it worked… those four plain clothed Moroccan cops were suddenly transformed from overworked and sometimes brutal civil servants into my heros.

The next step, in the adjoining office, with an entirely new group of officers, took four hours: the documentation of every single item that had been recovered.  That meant every item, down to the photo of my eighteen-year-old daughter in my wallet and what she wrote on back. (To MOM love 4ever heart Candance)  The man seated next to me looked like a gentle giant; he carefully picked up each item in his large hands, then asked another man, apparently his boss, if he should write it down and how. Later I found out the giant was in training, first day on the job. His boss looked like he could star in an American action movie.  He was muscular and direct, with an air of authority with undertones of violence, that could only come from a hard life lived with confidence.  He answered the questions with short, mildly irritated quips, and he was manipulative, doling out small tokens of kindness when necessary, just enough to make everyone else in the room eager to please. But when we got to Guy’s mini flashlight, buried in my bag, our hero became a little boy with a new toy.  I was tempted to let him keep it, desiring one of those coveted tokens of kindness all for myself. But I wasn’t about to give away Guy’s flashlight, my symbolic connection to the boyfriend I had left in Frankfurt, a place and a person I would have given anything to transport myself to at that moment.

At one point in this long day (10 hours in all, without a single break) I had to go to the bathroom.  I could tell that was a problem, seeing the men look at each other with pained expressions.  At my insistence, the giant-in-training led me to a heavy door.  Two shoeless young men hovered behind it.  My guardian shooed them away and pointed to a stall that smelled even worse than it looked.  When I returned to my seat in the office, wondering if I would ever rid myself of the acrid scent, Hussein whispered to me that I had just been in the men’s jail.   

The police documented the entire contents of my bag.  My backpack was my purse, toiletry bag and work sack, including everything from nail clippers to birth control pills.  Embarrassed, I passed those as allergy meds, dramatically acting out a sneezing attack.  Eventually we were sent to the Jemaa el Fnaa station, and I still didn’t have my belongings.  I was beginning to feel a little confused about the delay, until Hussein reminded me we would need a little more money to get it all back.  It took a 100-dirham note, and I  had my passport, sketchbook, pencils and empty wallet.  It was now after 8 pm.  Hussein took me to the café on the square and once again I ate like the Nomad Queen.  I had never tasted anything so delicious as a little olive oil and spice mashed into eggplant.
I was beginning to learn, by this time, that the boy who had robbed me had committed many other crimes.  The stall owners and food vendors of the Medina told me of his unpunished violations, from purse snatching to breaking and entering in neighborhood shops. No one had been able to incarcerate him, and I was informed the reason was his mother and his aunt. For reasons I never completely understood, the women in this boys family held a lot of influence among their neighbors.  They were able to convince every victim to forgive the boy, which in Marrakech means you’re free to go.  I was told, over and over, by the people off the neighborhood, if the boy were captured before I flew back to Frankfurt, I would be the one to decide his fate, and therefore the fate of the neighborhood.  I silently hoped the boy would elude the police until after my Saturday flight.

Two nights later I was woken from a deep sleep at 11 pm.  I was told the police were staking out the roof, because the boy was home and might try to escape when they knock on his front door.  I had been sleeping off a peaceful day of walking through Marrakech and sketching; since I had lost both money and camera, this was my one source of entertainment.  I got up, slumber instantly replaced by dread.  An hour later I heard the boy yelling and moaning as the police dragged him away.  I sat in Rita’s office with my hands in my lap, frozen.  The police soon knocked on our door.  I was told to report to the closest station at 10 the next morning.

The next morning I walked into the Jemaa el Fnaa station and saw the boy, Abdul, handcuffed to a radiator and sitting in a metal chair. He was wearing the same dark clothes as Sunday night.  He looked at me and nodded in recognition.  He didn’t try to feign innocence.  His honesty was a relief to me as much as it broke my heart.  He was sober and looked like a teenage boy, not the edgy criminal I encountered days before.  Above the officer’s desk was a framed portrait of the Moroccan king, Hussein VII.  I looked from the Royal Hussein to my humble Hussein to Abdul, handcuffed and frightened.  I wondered what each of them would be like born into other circumstances.  At one point everyone left the room, leaving me alone with Abdul.  We looked at each other, both agonizing in our own thoughts. He said some things in French, things about not realizing what he was doing, the drugs, being sorry.  My eyes filled with unwanted tears and I felt a reluctant numbness creep through my body and mind.

Just when I thought this was coming to an end, the women arrived.  Abdul’s mother, sister and aunt surrounded me.  The women cried, cajoled, begged, and threatened.  I didn’t understand a word, but I didn’t need to, their tone expressed enough.  I said no.  I didn’t feel any righteousness about my position, only a lack of choice.  It had to be the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.  To this day I wonder if it was the right one, if there was a right one.  I had been convinced by the people of the neighborhood, and my own experience with the boy’s wild behavior at the robbery, that I had to choose justice and truth.  But the ways of the Moroccan police confused me, no one would advise me.  They continued to tell me conflicting stories, he will be in jail for three years.  He will be sentenced to three years but he will serve six months.   He’ll get out in a month.  He’ll clean up from his drug use.  He’ll suffer.   He’ll rob again.  It was clear that they would not let me go until I made a decision.  I wished for a feeling of certainty.  It never came.

The police found out that Abdul had pawned my camera in Casablanca, and they actually drove the 3 hour trip there and back to retrieve it.  So, once again, on Friday evening, hours before my early morning flight, I was standing in front of the police station.  I stood outside for 2 hours, waiting to be called in.   The camera seemed so insignificant at this point, but I obeyed the orders to show up and wait.  

I had spent that entire day with Hussein, waiting.  I bought him lunch and gave him some money and gifts to show my appreciation for his generosity and kindness.  I pulled the trinkets out of my bag, colored markers, a pair of earrings, a wind up toy from an American gift shop. I felt embarrassed I didn’t have more to offer.  Hussein was happy, and graciously accepted my meager offerings.  He then took me for a final walk in Marrakech.  We walked for what seemed hours, to a lake by the White Palace, a historic site where the Black Sultan drowned several centuries before.  I understood the need to tell these stories, to get me to see the empire that once was. To remind me this was not always a crumbling theatre for curious tourists. I wiggled my numb toes and squinted my eyes and tried to see.  At first all I saw was the dull shell of an ancient palace flanked by a pool of green murky water.  And then, for a fleeting moment, caught between an animated phrase and a patch of shimmering sun there it was.  The lake was now filled with royal boaters, the gold threads in their robes glistening in the sun.  A prized fish splashed loudly before it disappeared under the deep blue water.  A palace, a pool, I listened to Hussein and I dove.  He shared story after story, with what I had come to see as typical Moroccan generosity.  That afternoon, with my feet swollen and my clothing in need of a good wash, I enjoyed the embellishment. The stories expanded with each telling, and the hours of that afternoon expanded for them.  I felt the longing behind each word.  Morocco surrounded me like arms of a tattered old emperor with glistening eyes.  The sun was setting as the stories faded. 

After this long day on foot we returned to the police station in darkness, where I was instructed to wait.  I fell asleep for a few seconds at a time, swaying on my feet outside the station.  At 10pm a motorcycle pulled up, carrying two men and my camera. Once again I had to face the boy and the women, this time for over an hour.  I told them over and over again it wasn’t about the camera, the money or my passport.  It was about the violence. I was trying to do the right thing.  I wore out Abdul’s aunt, then his sister, and then another woman whose identity I never understood, one by one they gave in to my stubborn resolve.  At last it was just Abdul’s mother and I, with Hussein interpreting.  I tried everything, appealing to her sense of civic responsibility, fear of violence, disdain for drug use, but to no avail.  Maybe it was the wisdom of exhaustion, I decided to talk to this woman about my most intimate secrets, rather than broad ideals.  I confided in her as if she were a trusted friend.  Looking directly into her eyes, I began to relate the story of my own personal heartbreak: the story of my son, who would have been Abdul’s age, if not for the acts of a violent man.  As I told my story I felt the gap between us close.   Two mothers, two heartbreaking stories.  The culture, the language, the things that separated us no longer defined us.  As I spoke, I realized years of secrecy and pain were melting away under my feet, and I saw the lines slowly change on the face of the woman before me.  Then she kissed  both my cheeks, and with my hands in hers, she uttered four words I will never forget, four words I would love to learn in every living language.  “I see your humanity.”  She took my face into her hands and we just stood there.  Then she just walked away.  I took in a long last look at the night crowds of Jemaa el-Fnaa.  The sea of faces had lost their strangeness.  I turned to say goodnight to Hussein and headed back to my room, for one last night in my Moroccan bed.  

Before I left, Rita told me I was the hero of the neighborhood.  I knew this was not true for everyone.  The plane took off.  I was seated between two very austere men in traditional garb.  I cried for over an hour.  They sat quietly at my sides.  One handed me a handkerchief.  No words were exchanged.

When I got off the plane in Germany,  I finally told my story.  I had kept it a secret.  While in Morocco, I didn’t think it would do any good to make anyone worried, so I never said a word to my family and friends.  It felt so good to finally have the words come out of my mouth, but every word separated me from the people I left behind.  I felt like any telling of my story was a betrayal to what really happened.  My words sounded hollow.  They fell flat at my feet.  Sometimes I think the two real things about my connection to Marrakech were the two dreams I had, one a few days before I arrived and one the night after I left.

Falling asleep that night I looked at Guy in the darkness and I saw his face transform into theirs, first Abdul, then Hussein, then Khaled.  

I dreamt I was on a balcony watching a musical.  The set was filled with the Moorish columns and tiles.  The dancers were the people of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the vendors, the policemen, Abdul, his mother, Hussein, and Khaled.  I stood and swayed with the music, loving the dance, loving the people in the dance.  Then the music changed, it became horribly loud and discordant.  More police, ones I had never seen before, stormed on stage and began to beat everyone with batons.  I screamed.  I leaned over the balcony, reaching for my friends.  

Out of nowhere a hand pulled me back.

“There is nothing you can do from here”

I woke with tears in my eyes.  There was no bridge from my new velvet balcony seat to the crumbling stage.  

December, 2016
It is time to build bridges.  I hope it's not too late.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Manifesto of a Solitary Artist in the Age of Unenlightenment

A Confession, a Conclusion, a Manifesto….
Otherwise titled, Five Years in the Journey of a Artist in the Age of Unenlightenment
Otherwise titled… Onward!

Five years ago I sat a table with a small group of friends and revealed to them my decision to step away from the world.  I don’t think I said “drop out” because I knew I had to remain attached enough to put food on my table and pay the rent.  And I wanted to try, for once, to put 100% of my effort into surviving financially as an artist.  But, I explained, I don’t believe in it anymore… the BIG LIE, that I have to make my money this way (at the time I operated a successful tourist shop in Fish Creek, WI)  and all the little lies that I swallow in order to make that happen.  I moved out of the city and into this little doublewide in the woods and started making my exit…

Within a year my “step away” was a giant leap into the unknown and uncertainty of the path less traveled.  I closed my shop, and I sold or gave away most everything that remained.  I kept what I needed to work from home as a eco-conscious artist, working with repurposed materials and selling in a few local galleries and online.   It was a dramatic change of lifestyle and work and income.   

It didn’t take long before the little savings I had was gone.  The simple choice of whether to drive to town depended as much on gas money as the environmental consequences.  I had cornered myself into a life of quiet solitary work (which I wanted) and financial precariousness (much more than I expected)  and the stress of trying to succeed at something in these circumstances.  

I am not writing this to tell you about reducing trips to the dump and the pump.  There are plenty of resources on the internet if you want to learn about that.  I’m sure there are people doing a better job than I am.  What I want to share is the psychological impact this leap had on me and my life, my relationships and, in the end, my definition of self.  What i didn’t realize, while revealing my decision at that table five years ago, was dropping out of the system would mean emptying my life of the activity and thought that filled every work day.  And it would be scary to be that empty.

We are all born into a culture and we are a part of that culture.  And that culture is a part of us.  As many people already realize, in a racist culture, the members, even when they are abhorrent to the IDEA of racism, still have elements of it in them.  That is true for every distinguishing feature of the culture you exist in.  As we are in the universe and the universe is in us, WE ARE IN THE CULTURE AND THE CULTURE IS IN US.  And this culture we live in, this American Dream, it is a state of heightened consumerism.  Everything we do is somehow measured and compared, every breath, every step is broken apart into quantitative measurements.  We lay prostrate to the system waiting for the final numbers of our worth.   When you’re not productive in the system, you are invisible.  You are certainly not a success.  

That was the hard part… 

We not only consume products of the system, we are the products and the consumers and the means of production.  Even if all you are producing is another version of the lie.  Stepping away means unraveling oneself from these roles, and refusing to lie to yourself.  When you start to really separate yourself from the culture you live in there is a dangerous thing that happens, you lose your sense of self.  This is evident when you are a solitary and, for the most part, unrecognized artist.  Being a solitary and unrecognized artist had always made it possible for me to be true to myself.  I have always been free of the pressures of academia and fashion and trends, whether intellectual or aesthetic. But here I was taking a leap of faith that I could survive financially as an artist and still retain my artistic freedom. I had no idea what a psychologically dangerous pit I was falling into.  

I didn’t expect the loss of my connection to this world I was raised in and lived in to be so difficult.  I thought I had already let it go.  I had rejected Capitalism and Consumer Culture and I had embraced Simple Living.  At first I was elated to be free and told friends how great it felt.  Fairly soon after the initial elation I had a health crisis that was nearly debilitating.  My entire body was covered in a rash, a terribly itchy uncomfortable rash that lasted almost two years.  During this time I buried myself in work and distanced myself from friends.  I established strong boundaries, many of which were healthy and necessary, but for awhile I built a wall around myself.  I spent hours in solitude and lived a quasi hermit’s life and had a love/hate relationship with my own existence.  (I need to add I did this with a caring partner on a similar path)  Without the distractions of the world and work I had once buried myself in, I found new distractions, everything from Netflix series about aliens to the strange new world of social media marketing.   I was painfully aware of the emptiness of these new distractions.  The biggest distraction was still so firmly rooted in me I didn’t see it for another couple of years, the addiction to work, productiveness and the dream of success.  But, despite how hard I worked, I was not all that successful, just scraping by.

I started feeling frustrated and lost.  I felt a range of emotions from hopelessness to jealousy.  As much as my rational brain told me otherwise, my feelings told me I was a victim.  I experienced mild depression and that was new for me, and scary.  I mentally chastised myself for every missed opportunity in life, leading me to a place of emptiness.  I felt like a failure and still, at this point, did not realize the emptiness I felt was just the temporary emptiness that results when you empty your life of the things that no longer fulfill you.  
That depression grew into discontent and longing.  I literally drove and walked all over Door County (and the state of Wisconsin) wishing I had a different life.  Every house, farm or commercial building that was for sale could take me on an imaginary journey into some dream existence… sometimes lasting days or weeks.  

Sometimes, while driving around and looking at old farms and shops for sale, I saw myself through the watcher’s gaze and I saw the desperation in this search.  I have no money in the bank.  I knew this search would have to stop.  I could see it for what it was, another attempt to validate myself.  In the sheer transparency of my desperation I finally saw it, what I was beating myself up about, what i was perceiving as failure, what I was desperately trying to fill.  The Void. 

And then came the real grieving.  The tears.  That process that may look like the worst to someone looking in, but is really the best.  The new me that emerged from all this pain of letting go reconnected with my deeper self.  All the parts of me that had never fit into this culture flooded back into my consciousness, orphans from unfinished chapters in the life of a outsider.  I was successfully making it through my difficult journey.  The tears, which now I see to be the true release, freed me from the guilt of perceived failure and the fear of a perceived lack of belonging and the longing for something that I didn’t need.

I had learned what I needed most to learn, that the simple concept of consumption isn’t just about buying and selling; those are simply the forms that dominate our economy. They overshadow the way in which the mentality of consumption destroys our spirit and our humanity.  I think it was a dramatic lesson for me only because as a solitary artist and social outsider my life had been kidnapped by the concept of my art as a product and my purpose as a producer.  In this new cottage industry economy it is easy to fall into that trap.  I confused my artistic journey with the journey of the many “makers” in this new economy, but that is not who I am.   Just as I had to come to terms with the realization that i do not fit into the world of academia, nor into the commercial art world, I am not a “maker” in this new economy, one which pushes artists to be slickly marketed production machines.  (Note there are many people who fulfill the role of "maker' and remain true to their artisan values and I am not referring to them.  Being a new field, it is pursued with passion by many but is also manipulated by larger forces.)  What I finally awakened to is the realization that my journey as an artist has to be absolutely authentic and tireless, and like no other journey that has ever come before me.  Success, whether measured by money, production, or social acceptance, should have no role in the motivation of the artist.  The only success is to be alive and to continue to create something for the world that reflects ones true existence in the world.  There are no models or templates or guidebooks, only hard work and intuition.  I have no intention to stop working.  But my work no longer depends on the narrow definitions of “productivity” and worldly success.  I am working even harder, because I have come to realize it is my soul’s work.  

I have something new to bring with me for the steps and leaps ahead.  A sense of peace like none I’ve ever experienced cropped up in the emptiness left my my “dropping out.”  The only thing I feel I need to fill the space with is love and the work of love, which is different for every person.  We are all here fulfilling an individual path that can’t be separated from the whole of the paths, the movement of the world and its beings.  All each of us needs to do is answer that for ourselves, not letting any one person or system or culture tell us what that is.  What an energizing truth.  It fills us with the energy we need to do the work that must be done.  We need to be in service to bring forth love rather than drain love from the world.  Because this is where the REAL WORK begins.

I will try hard to never forget how awful the rashes, the anger and angst and depression felt each time I am tempted by distractions, lulled into sleep or seduced by false dreams of “success”.  Because I am in the culture and cannot drop out.  That is the lesson.  I have been in it all along and now I feel whole enough to be in it without being seduced or sickened.  I envision myself walking through it with my head held up and my back straight and my eyes wide open, in a direction that I have never headed before.  As the true artist I have always been.  

That is my Manifesto.  An artist in the Age of Unenlightenment.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Dreams and Visions - paintings in their raw states

I have made two decisions this month.
One is to leave paintings in their raw state.
The Other is to share all of my visions, even the ones I have been quiet about.

I don't turn on a lightbulb. I see in the darkness and find my way through it.
What i see in the dark, i can't see in the light. Not yet. Go deep, wake up. One day you will do both. 

We are in Kali time. I am Usha. My time is not here yet, but I am preparing for it.

In Kali time the darkness makes the others remember. We are not smaller than the one controlling the story. We control our story. We heal and are unafraid of the darkness.

The governments of the world call it post-colonial. We ARE living in a Neo-colonial world

My ancestors came to me in a dream. They were refugees from a war with no winners. 
They were seeking shelter in my cellar.
I asked the smaller man in front of the group, 
"How did you get in?"
he said,
"We always find a way in."
I was afraid I could not care for them and I left them.
They left me.  For many years they were hidden in darkness and unknown to me.

I promised to stop hiding from the darkness of the world, 
as I promised to not let my grief for the world blind me.
I promised to walk out into the darkness and face every fear.
They are coming back to me.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Holes in the Fabric of Forgetting

Ancestry Cloth has become my life's work.  It has become my metaphor, a metaphor for the immigrant, for the nomad, for the wanderer.  It is a daily meditation, weaving together a forgetful monochromatic present with the colors and patterns just beyond memory.

When I'm cutting and stitching, I think about Indigenous People around the world, who were ripped from their homes and taught to forget.  When I listen to the elders speak at Standing Rock I know what was almost lost, a wisdom for the present that we need for our survival.  Despite the suffering, the abuse and the losses along the way,  Indigenous People, by some miraculous triumph of the human spirit, have survived.  The survivors of the world have created a strong and beautiful mosaic of memories from the shards that were not completely lost in the rape of their cultures.

I think of the dream I had as a child, everyone around me turned to skeletons as I hid to save my skin.  I can't get this dream out of my mind, my childhood nightmare haunts my waking hours. It is no wonder I sew.  I sew this cloth, made of layers and layers of past and present.  I am creating a new skin.  It often looks like the hide of a animal.  Sometimes I see earth and the fire within, and sometimes it is a topography of the soul.  Other times I see rhythms of a distant dance, ebbing and flowing through the holes in the fabric of forgetting.. 

I am making a new skin for the skeletons: connective tissue for myself and my human family.  I am making a cloth to cover our bones and to make us remember.  They are the Time Traveling Champion Capes for defending the spirit.  They are the Memory Headdresses for channeling what we already know.

They are dresses of Armor, to warm us in the cold and steel our nerves when we cannot see through the darkness our forgetfulness has left us.  They are the ceremonial attire for the dancer who spins to the music that brings collective memories back to the surface.

They are the wardrobe for the Nomad on her long Journey Home.

Special thanks to photographer Kara Counard
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