It’s humid from last night’s summer rain and much earlier than I would normally be up on a Sunday. I’m incredulously eying an impressive network of cardboard scraps duct taped to the sidewalk in an effort to tamp down electrical cords for who-knows-what. It’s this place between inventiveness and absurdity that I love about New York.
I round the corner to my café, stepping carefully off the curb. Airplane size liquor bottles and falafel foils are Greenwich Village’s weekend tumbleweeds, and the street cleaners have yet to make their rounds.
I make my way to my spot against the roomful of shifting strangers and begin wooing back my caffeine rituals after over a three week hiatus. Every hand in sight is occupied: a phone, a newspaper, a cappuccino, a dog leash. It’s this place between industriousness and agitation that exhausts me about New York.
Today I tell myself my tasks are simple: feel, remember, breathe, write.
It’s been exactly two weeks since I returned from my retreat with the Eagle Condor Alliance that I booked without a shred of research, only a glowing review from my friend Johny—albeit a friend who I would entrust with the lives of my children (my hypothetical, forever nonexistent children who I invoke exclusively for making dramatic points). Johny is that perfect combination of playful cynicism and an unwavering sanguine worldview that makes for complete and automatic trust. He’s the guy you ask for the truth because he’ll give it to you in a way that you can actually hear.
The day after I return Johny and I take a long, meandering walk in the city and he tells me my experience back home will feel like holding a fistful of sand. Today my memory is fresh and my heart is full. And when I open my palm, I can feel the soft powder of my time on the mountain brimming. But next week, he says, I’ll unfurl my fingers to find just a little missing.
And then a little more. And then a little more. Maybe only a pinch—but enough to notice—enough to remind me to hold on tight. And he’s not wrong.
On the mountain what’s important felt so unquestionably self-evident, written plainly on perfect white linen in only a few simple words, stapled to your forehead and tethered to your heart. Now back home I still know these words. I can recite them to you. But why are their contours starting to feel out of focus? How do I keep them from becoming just shapes?
It strikes me just how much responsibility we have as curators and guardians of our words, and how delicate and ephemeral they sometimes are. No stone commandments. No lightning bolts. Instead maybe just a shadow seen from the corner of your eye that tells you where your sun is. A timid ember that requires careful, patient fanning every single day. And even when your stewardship wanes, it never really goes out—you’ve only just forgotten to remember.
When my friends ask me how my trip was I feel my body immediately lift and brighten. “It was amazing,” I say. “Incredible.” Then they wait for more words.
I reach for narrative because it’s something my brain can understand, hold onto, and recapitulate. Stories have clean edges we all can see. I talk about my fellow travelers, about the design of the ceremonies, the flow of the week, the food, the baby cows that let us pet them outside our house.
At camp before our first yagé ceremony our retreat facilitators Jesse and Bobby counsel us not to try and append narrative to our ‘pintas’—or visions—brought on by the Ayahuasca. “Narrative is only the ego trying to makes sense of things. This is a feeling medicine, not a thinking one.” This is why they say children have an easier time with the medicine, and why it’s so essential for adults to surrender. That indelicate compass of logic you swear by doesn’t work around here. Only your intuition knows the way.
How do I tell my mom what I’ve learned? My friends? How do I even tell my journal?
How do I explain that it’s like bathing in a feeling more ancient than the stars that reminds you who you are? But back home I feel so clumsy still, not quite sure how the spigot works. Not even quite sure why I would want to turn it back on.
Only two weeks ago when I boarded my plane in Medellín the experience still lived in my belly, swelled in my heart. It was specific and articulated. I could tell you its name, its texture and timbre. But now as the days pass that feeling becomes more and more faint. It climbs up the back of my neck on its last breaths to refashion itself as a memory.
It makes me think of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi in which things are always either evolving or devolving from nothingness. It is the acceptance and reverence of this transience as an aesthetic. “A simple grass hut fashioned from a bed of rushes will eventually disappear, but it will still remain in the memory of the person who made it and those who are told of it. Wabi-sabi in its purest form is about these delicate traces at the borders of nothingness. Nothingness is not empty space—it is instead alive with possibilities.”
I finish my coffee, tidy my table and make the short walk back to the small studio apartment I share with my cantankerous cat Eugene O’Neill. He’s excellent company, but my thoughts are with my Colombia family, now scattered again all across the planet. I wonder if any of them might be walking home right now too—in Seattle or Israel, Switzerland or Syria—back to their lives and back to the very things that brought us all to the jungle in the first place. It was only ten days we sang, ate, cried, laughed, and sweated together. Only ten days—so how is it that I can miss them so much?
But maybe today I’m starting to understand. We make our family wherever we go. And though this does not diminish the family we’ve already made, perhaps I can make my Colombia in New York too. Family, after all, is paramount. We’ll need them when things get hard. We’ll want them when things are beautiful.
Though I am only just a novice student, I do know one thing as well as I know my own name: no matter how much love, connection and gratitude we cultivate, life will never be without its heartaches or hurricanes. I aspire to be no zen-master, no shamanic protégé. I’m just a woman in a coffee shop with a pen somewhere between the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building, trying to live a good life with all her flaws and fears in tow. But the next time I look up at the sky and see it start to blacken, I believe I will meet it with a reclaimed sense of strength, trust, respect and humility.
When the storm finally passes, I may ask myself, “How did you ever know you would make it through?” And I will say, “Because I learned from my family that even when things become very, very difficult, you smile and say ‘Thank you.’”
When I run south along the Hudson River in the early evening the sinking summer sun blinds me just enough that it’s easier to close my eyes completely and let my feet snap beneath me in a silent vote of confidence. As each step catches in momentary suspension I trust my body to carry me to the next. They say all our suffering is self-created, and in the private dark behind my eyelids my mind turns over the same tired, beaten thoughts.
They jangle and clank against the walls of my body with each connecting stride. Most are now no more than smooth tumbled sea glass, no sharp edges for me to grab onto—no defining shapes to pluck out of the constellation of thoughts. Now just heavy blocks I insist on carrying along as treasure or talisman, rattling around in the hollows of my limbs and torso. Smaller bits collect in my fingers and toes. It’s painful, mostly—arthritic, crunchy. I mistake all the racket for music, but my body knows it’s just noise.
Today of all days something feels different—some new tenor to the air. The world feels more temporary, more like a gift. How might I be more nimble to explore it? The memory in my legs carries me to the southern tip of the island. The tide brushes against the shore where the old fish market once stood, and I think how much I miss the bustle and the stink.
I stop without thinking to unscrew my left hand. It pops off as easily as a mannequin’s, and I empty the sea glass into the dirty city water. I rest for a moment and do the same with my right, which is more difficult. Then each foot—and for this I must bounce on the free one to shake out the last noisy shards from my joints, all the way up the trunks of my legs and up to my belly, out onto the pavement.
As I screw back on my feet I realize I may topple over with the new, unbalanced swaying weight of my head. I wrap my palms broadly across my crown and with a counter clockwise snap, I pluck off the top of my skull, quickly, while no one is looking. I stoop, bending forward in a toe-touch stretch to let the final contents clamour from inside and onto the ground. Yellow, red, and blue, some milky and semi-translucent, some green, some white. They seem so much less impressive than I remember when I first placed them there, first buried them deep in my body for safe keeping.
There, over the mound, the drowsy sun whispers an invocation through their surface that is too faint for me to hear. But I’m already gone, already picking up pace.