I do still have this guilt reflex, where I’m like, oh God, I’ve just ended up as this weird kind of memoirist. I just do strange deconstructed memoir. And this isn’t exactly what I intended to happen, but somehow I feel like that’s just the vantage point from which I feel able to do an analysis. I don’t want to do a PhD and sit in a library for five years, or all the things you might have to do to get to a point where you can start from the intellect. But then I really like that Nietzsche idea of all philosophy is autobiography, that seems true. -Hannah Black
I haven’t sat down to do this since the last day of the Confluence on Whidbey Island. That was about two weeks ago. I can feel both the desire to do it and the résistance. I love just letting it all stream out. I discover so much about myself. But it also takes this very specific kind of effort, it is not so much a making-effort as an isometric holding open. Almost like holding my breath. Or not blinking.
I just got back from Ottawa. My brother just had another baby. Now that I’m not including names of course I won’t include the name of the baby here. But wow! That name. It is hanging around me, in my aural environment. It is louder than anything else like an echo in reverse. The baby herself has been here for nine months, and while she knows much more about us than we do about her she has already been here. But her name. What Clarissa Pinkola Estes says is her calling, it is here now too. Pulsing and red and making a deep rich sound all around me. Little being. Family.
Clue: The changing of the names is the beginning, my few and fearless readers. This is essay #20. By essay #23 we begin a reckless, vital transformation.
“Accurate mimesis is a European obsession, which isn’t to say it’s bad but only that it could be dispensed with.” –Hannah Black
I’ve been thinking so much about family. I wonder what is going to come through me tonight. I think it will be about family, and about those ultra-special “just friends” who have saved my life over and over again. I wonder if they even know it. The way they hug me. The way they always get together when I come to town. That one is so dear to me, that in all these wondrous places in the world my dear friends get together when I am around. It makes me feel a sense of the depth of my own being, the deep roots of my soul that transcend this place. That they celebrate when I arrive. The way that they listen, and feel with me. In Vancouver after our second training Flowstate and I went to Queen V’s and were joined by the Beatbox, Vertical Voice and his new (not so new now) surprise wife, Strategie. It was a wonderful time. First, when we arrived, I immediately lay down on Queen V’s floor and put my feet up on her couch. That is how you know you are in a place of love! And I just relaxed. Vertical Voice was grooving on Queen V’s new ukelele, a big one, which she had specially made, and which has an F hole on the side, so the sound comes right up to the singer. Beautiful. And then Queen and Flow wanted to taste test the whiskeys we were going to drink. So Flow started dripping it into my mouth with the red and white striped straw Queen uses to warm up her gorgeous voice. Decadent restoration.
I am suddenly reminded of my trip to Luxor last September (2016). I passed my thirty eighth birthday there. In fact, the lovely people I work with threw a little evening surprise party for me at the centre, complete with cake, tears, songs, poetry and local children. I was working for the Elisa Sedanoui foundation, a project that she called Funtasia. Elisa (now what? pseudonym? Do I not name the organization? I guess maybe I don’t. We’ll call her Luminous. She is a super model. Before I met her I wondered what that meant, what it would feel like, especially with my deep complexes about beauty. But it was different. She is beautiful at such an extreme that I didn’t find myself shrinking near her, it is as if that is simply a talent she has, not a scale which we are all judged against. It’s more whole than that. I felt like her physical beauty actually cast a light in which I even felt more graceful and feminine. And, she was playing it down. But the light still shone through. It wasn’t so much features as a light. I learned that from her. Something wonderful to learn about beauty that I learned both from this smart, sharp, fierce, visionary super model and from my beloved started-as-scribbles drawings. They have both taught me that beauty is not a spot on the beautiful-ugly spectrum. It’s a light that shines from deep inside, from being wholly yourself. Tonight at dinner Dancing Poet told me I feel softer, and more contained. That’s it. This is my path to my beauty.
I’m going to write to you about Egypt right now, but I want to return to what happened in Seattle and Vancouver after the Confluence, as well.
It was my first time in the Middle East. With my features and body I felt a certain kind of acceptance, right from the plane ride people were speaking to me in Arabic and assuming I was Egyptian. I don’t usually like it when people point out my looks or my body, but in this case for some reason I welcomed it and it felt like a benediction. I was travelling with Bright Cheeks, who is the manager of the program. We travelled quite well together, though we had some sticky spots while working. I can be a little ruthless when I work, even though the whole of the work is always swimming and surrounded on all sides by an almost clenching hyper-positivity. But I could tell that Bright Cheeks needed just a little more edge in order to help redirect some dynamics in the group. The group of facilitators was made of mostly women, and three men. Most of the women kept their hair covered and wore long skirts and covered arms, or else a full black overdress. The sun was extremely hot. I couldn’t drink water fast enough. Got heatstroke twice.
When we got to Luxor we took a taxi in the dark. I saw the Colossus at Memnon, I could not believe their incredible size. They were sitting there, with the night world shimmering behind them as if the sheer weight of them held the whole past in place. We got to our hotel, down a cobble path lined with palms, after bronze dirt roads, all along a wall that had been built to keep the desert out of the village which stretched out on the other side. My room was enormous, and had a thatch roof very high, mosquito nets on all three beds (though I was alone) a hard pillow, big windows. The hotel was made of a soft red stone, the whole thing. In the morning I woke up and took my melodica to the rooftop. I watched the sun rise over Luxor. On my other side I could see, barely a couple of hundred feet away, the low, worn, ancient, dear, welcoming Mount Thebes. The yellow desert. The high blue sky. The dawn breaking. I played to the mountain, and I heard it play back, and it went on and on, the beauty, the language of that land, the singing of the ancient past which was there, right there. The people in the hotel were extraordinarily nice, and the food, cooked by a wonderful chef who had worked at the five star Winter Palace on the other side of the Nile, but had given it up to be here and had a crooked knowing smile as he passed around his miraculous falafel.
We worked, and while the work was interesting to me, and I had a number of breakthroughs in my own practice because of the newness of so many for the variables (this is where I came up with my model for mastering facilitation activities: intention/essentials/obstacles/magic), and because Bright Cheeks and the brilliant journalist who was acting as a translator, the Shining Skeptic, who was from Cairo and wore thin silk screened T shirts and skinny jeans and her long hair loose, reminding me of my cool cousins in Pune. The work was very interesting. It was fascinating to watch the women and men interact, to draw out aspects of it, the individualism, the boldness, that is rampant in other places in this line of work. And yet to preserve the warm humility, the smooth social rhythms. It broke me down in many ways, the complexity of the work, the glaring sun, the familiarity of it, the translation, the kids, and the way this work can travel, and how beautiful and whole and questionable and flexible and simple and yet how challenging it is. But beyond the work there was an experience that I want to tell you. I had a couple of days off at one point. One of them I spent kind of resting, because I had gotten heatstroke and then some kind of food poisoning from a bread one woman insisted I eat because her mother had made it just for our group. But the second day I had to go to see the tombs. I couldn’t be in Luxor and see nothing of the Valleys of Kings and Queens.
I was not going to be able to cross the Nile and see the temples and palaces on the East Bank. But on the West Bank, where we were, were the tombs. This is where the ancient pharaohs knew to build their trembling, monumental gateways to the other side. It’s flickering everywhere in the air. Timeless power. One of our participants, her brother drove a van, so he came by around one o’clock after lunch to pick me up. I had my sunglasses, my long yellow silk tunic from my dad, my precious red and white cotton scarf that I was given on my first of these work trips, in 2009, when I traveled with Charlie to Bangalore. My blue leather slip-ons. I hopped into the car. He asked me what I wanted to see. The Valley of Kings, the Valley of Queens? I wanted to see both. He wasn’t sure it would be possible. We went first to the Queen Hatshepsut’s temple. As he drove along he showed me some small houses dug into the side of a hill. The village there had been displaced, because ruins were found underneath it. There were people carving soft white stone. There were military police stationed here and there, mostly near the monuments. I rode with my hand out the window, floating on the warm air. I felt so at home here, though I spoke none of the language. People were so kind, the food was delicious, the village was full of sweet faces and goats, the corn grew very high and deep green, and the desert was very very wide and the Mount Thebes was there just behind that wall, right there the whole time.
As we pulled up to the tomb something happened to my sense of time. I’m not sure exactly what happened. I felt a shift in me as soon as I saw her place. Three high stories, carved deep right into the high red mountain. Near it were other ruins Abdul told me what they were but I don’t recall a word. My sense were being sucked into this monument. I’d never felt anything like it. When I got out Abdul said suddenly, don’t buy anything. I walked up to the ticket gate and purchased my ticket for forty Egyptian dollars. Because of all the trouble in Egypt people had been telling me about the tourism industry in Luxor and how devastating it was for so many people. Now I saw it for myself. There were no other tourists around. The parking lot was empty. I took my ticket in hand and walked into the long corridor. It was lined with merchants. One of them asked me where I was from. You Egyptian, he asked, in English. I said I was from Canada and he said, Canada Dry! He said, come here, I will give you good price. His wooden statues and cotton dresses and other Egyptian looking kitsch was piled and pouring out of a small stall. One of the other merchants heard him, and as I walked they stared and shouted Canada Dry! Canada Dry! I walked down the lines of them, possibly about fifty men in long white or blue cotton kurtas, and I heeded Abdul’s advice. I could tell that if I bought anything I would never get through that gamut.
Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharoah of the eighteenth dynasty, and the second known female Pharoah. -Wikipedia
On the other side of the tunnel of stalls was Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb. I walked the long red road and arrived at the bottom of the yellow stairs. There were two stumps of trees. A placard read that they were thousands of years old, and had been brought there by a visiting foreign King and lived their lives out there at the foot of these magnificent stairs. I began to walk up them, but there on the ground floor a man called to me. Madam, he said, and then Miss, come here. There were three floors, one on the bottom, at least half a kilometre wide, and then another and a little platform, and another stretched way up at the top of the stairs, and above that all the red mountain towered. I went with him. As I approached the wall I began to slow. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The hieroglyphs, the walls covered in the pieces the hands, the paint, the eyes, the symbols, the bodies. He began to show me around them, pointing out stories and characters. Then he moved the rope. I reached out my hand and ran it over the walls. He was smiling at me. He took me around to where her actual tomb was, behind a cluster of pillars, he let me step into that cool darkness. I felt something in there. Even now all these months later, I can’t describe it at all. A feeling. A beingness. He showed me how the gods drank form the teat of Horus as a cow. It was all power, these images. I could feel it all. The emanations. Was it in my imagination? But this whole humongous place was a testament to imagination. To the far far forward projections of the imaginations of a class of people (gods?) who sucked power up and spat it out thousands of years into the future. It felt familiar.
I walked slowly up the stairs, and I felt a strong presence behind me, as if I were being followed. I turned three times but there was never anyone there. At the top of the stairs was an old man in a long blue cotton kurta and a white turban. He began to show me more, more of the hieroglyphs, more of the stories, the long door shaped plaque that described the Polish archeologists who had opened this site (turned out to be the grandfather of Bright Cheeks herself!). I was the only tourist in this magnificent place. The images lined the walls, thousands and thousands of them. The narrative though I couldn’t understand it, enveloped me. As I left I walked slowly down those ancient steps and again, I had the strong feeling of being followed. As I neared the half way point of the stairs a bus pulled up and at least fifty European tourists poured out. Another bus behind it. The first driver offered to drive me back to the parking lot, but I walked, in the blazing sun with my red scarf on my head, I let the hot wind blow over me, and remind me of things I never knew. I made my way back to the van. I felt restored, after Charlie’s death, Maji’s death, Helen’s death. After heatstroke and food poisoning, after months on the road, Atlanta, Jamaica, South Africa, Italy. This hour in the tomb of a queen from 3500 years ago felt as healing as a couple of nights in my own bed.
I now needed to see the Valley of Kings. But Abdul said there was no way, I had been in the tomb four ours. How, four? It felt like one. Not more. Less than one. He shrugged with a smile and said I only had an hour, it would take fifteen minutes to get there, there was no point. But I insisted. First, there was no other time I would be able to go, we were still working. This was my only time off. But second, and much more urgently, there was a magnetic pull in my solar plexus. He drove. Again, I was the only tourist there. A few people were in the parking lot, leaving. The ticket man charged me full price even though there was only half an hour left. He tried to encourage me not to go in, not to waste my money. I went in. There were two guides there. They took me to one of the tombs. Ramses the III. Inside, it had remained dark for thousands of years, and it was all painted. The stories were there, again, this time in vivid blues, yellows, reds, greens. The hand of the artist was very different. I couldn’t move my eyes. The two guides asked me if I was a doctor. Doctor? They kept calling me. I held my mouth open as I walked, as if the magic of this work could enter by there as well as by my eyes. I wanted to see one more tomb. No, he said, there is no time. The police will be here. Please. He shook his head no the whole time, and he held my hand to run, took me and it was already locked. The police will come he said. But he saw my eyes, I guess. Or he saw into a heart I forgot somewhere along a soul’s journey on this planet. I don’t know. He called over another guide, this one looked more like a guard. I heard him say the word, Doctor. I got to go in. I was in there five minutes. I can’t recall what I saw. All of it is a blur, in my mind’s eye. I only recall a graffiti carved in, a French man’s name and the date, 1847. But in my heart I felt satisfied. When we came out there was a motorcycle waiting. I pressed some dollars into the guide’s hand and hopped onto a motorcycle. The guides were already all gone, the tombs were empty, the sun was low and the whole place seethed with an otherworldly glimmer. I sped through them on the back of this man’s motorcycle. The guides were all crowded and leaning against the walls. They hooted and called as I sailed past them. They were smiling, waving. I returned to the car. You saw nothing, right, asked Abdul. They wouldn’t let you. No, I said, I saw two tombs. He looked at his watch. Impossible he said, you were not gone twenty minutes. It was impossible. But there it was. There was something of a returning in that one half day. The rest of the trip felt like the regular magic of my work. Even the spectacular Habu Temple which was right near the hotel (we also worked just a few steps away from the hotel) while it was gorgeous and terrifying (four storey relief wall of all the penises of vanquished enemies) and enormous, and while I got to sing in one of the rooms where the priests used to chant, and it stood all the hair up all over my body to hear that echo come back, it was that one day where something happened that my soul knows and my mind cannot relate. There was a clearing of something, and a returning.
I wonder, as I think of my new little niece, who is barely thirty hours old right now, (but in a very real way is also nine months old), about our souls. The experiences of my little lifetime have made it impossible for me not to believe in the soul. Yet, what is it? When the egg and the sperm relate, is it simply a collaboration of soul and more of itself, is every atom in the world full full of soul? Is there nothing but soul in the whole inside-out of everything? Or does something slip through, from somewhere to here? I’m inclined to think the first, but then experiences like this one make me wonder. Where are the feelings, where is the content stored? Is this Jung’s collective unconscious? Do the Akashic records sometimes open up and slide their files into our synaptic labyrinths? The deep dark matter of us, that is what I return to time and again in these essays. That there is an inside more inside than any organ, or sap, or glittering diamond. Deeper than the sea bottom. More nothing than air. A dark. So dark it has no opposite and therefore cannot be called dark. A Non. Limitless. Illimitable. My niece came from there and will return to it. It is not an Away. It is a profound Here. A Now. Invisible to the beings of time. But holding us, holding us afloat in the rolling gravity hills of space. Holding us together by our bloody umbilical cords. Holding us in place by our magnetic feet. Holding us like children, like nuzzling bees, like kicking baby birds almost free of the safe and smothering egg’s shell. Holding us and sending us our dreams and dreaming us up up into great big oak trees and teeny tiny like neon spider mites. Keeping us together. The intimacy of infinity.