(Note: This came all at once, in an unusually concise flood of thoughts. And while I usually edit the fuck out of my work, arguably a little too much, in the spirit of how this came through I am leaving it unchanged and unedited. My apologies in advance if its a little rambling and wordy.)
* * * * *
“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”
Those were the words of Ceridwen, first to Rhyd, and then later aimed directly at me in relation to this pilgrimage.
At the time, I thought I knew what they meant. And while I was not necessarily wrong, I failed to remember that meaning is often layered and flaked, not so different from the pain au chocolat that I’ve been enjoying here every morning in France.
More to the point, I took her words as metaphor. It turns out they were meant to be taken as literal.
* * * * *
“Look there, there, in the darkness. Do you see? That’s you… that’s who you really are.”
Years ago, deep in the dark woods of Oregon, I found myself for the first time.
I was an angry but determined anarchist witch-punk in my early twenties, born and raised a stone’s throw away from the rooftops of Manhattan, who very much thought that I understood things like forests and witch-punks and what it meant to be free. And yet, I was deeply wounded, deeply vulnerable, and floundering despite all my efforts to find my way in the world.
And it was against that backdrop in early 2004, while ‘working’ as a photographer for NYC Indymedia, that I happened upon a chance meeting with forest defenders from Oregon, who over the course of a week or so had charmed me with a spell that I could only describe as the pull of freedom.
“We’ve just started occupying a new unit at Straw Devil, women and trans folks only. You should come out there with us. We are building something big”
At the time, I felt small and insignificant, trapped in the bustle and flow of a city that was ‘home’ and yet often did not feel as such, and as the words left their lips my universe shuddered for a moment. A crack erupted from the pavement, so to speak, and something quickly started to grow.
And so I went out West, knowing nothing of where I was headed or what I was heading into. All I knew was that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I wasn’t going to find it in the cracks of the sidewalks of Brooklyn.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In the woods, in the darkness, isolated by miles of old-growth forest and thirty or so fellow anarchist witch-punks, I understood for the first time what it meant to be free. I understood for the first time what it meant to love something so much that you would risk everything you had to defend it. One could argue that for the first time in my life I had found the hill I was willing to die on.
And yet, I was not really free, at least not in the way my fellow forest-dwelling witch-punks were. I was a tourist, a traveler from a city far away that had taken a month out of her life to have an experience, while everyone else out there in the woods was simply living their life. While I experienced a liberation that I had never before experienced, I also felt like a tourist amongst natives, like a trapped animal in a cage surrounded by those who both had and at the same time did not need permission to wander the wild.
After a few weeks, when I had to leave, they did not quite understand.
“I have bills to pay,” I tried to explain. “And a mess of kittens at home and a partner who loves me, and obligations that I can’t just shrug away as much as I want to stay.”
They nodded, but I could tell that under the surface they still regarded my decision with both confusion and pity. Just as I had never known such freedom, they had never known such chains. And while in the woods we were as one, upon my departure it was clear to all of that despite our bonds, we came from two different worlds, them and I.
I thought I could just go back to the world I had left behind, carrying with me the lessons I learned so that I could integrate them into the life I had before I had left.
But it was never the same. There was nothing that could take me back to who I was before. And yet I tried, tried to integrate the old understandings with the new, tried to incorporate pieces of what I had left with the pieces that I had picked up in the darkness of the woods.
But the entire time, I felt the nagging, I felt the hovering. I knew.
Looking back, the gods were riding me and I was refusing to listen. I felt a loyalty to the life I had built in Brooklyn, to the people intertwined in that existence, to the unfulfilled dreams that I thought would fit into that life and that mold.
It took three years, a lightning strike, and a nervous breakdown for me to finally acknowledge what the gods had been trying to tell me the entire time.
And so I left everything, and in retrospect I did so in a less-than-graceful manner. My apartment, my partner, my worldly possessions, all were sacrificed on the altar of what it was that I had discovered in the darkness. And in the fall of 2007, I packed my van with everything I could fit and drove three-thousand miles to the town that had captured my heart three years earlier : Eugene, Oregon.
But when I arrived, the community that I left my life behind in order to join had itself disappeared. The Green Scare and its chilling after-effects had decimated the forest defense community of Oregon, and despite searching long and hard I could not find a single one of my anarchist witch-punk comrades who had taught me in the forest what it meant to be free.
And yet, I was there, once again with nothing to lose, and was determined not to regret my actions and my decisions, so I settled down as best I could and tried to make it work.
For a few years, I was happy enough. I could support myself despite the struggles of both physical and neurological disabilities. I had carved a life out for myself that I was not ashamed of, a life that I could respect and that others respected.
And yet, I was still not free.
By the summer of 2011, increasingly frustrated with what had at that point become a tedious and trapping routine, I once again felt the pangs of wanderlust. I had long ago given up on every rediscovering that part of me that I had once found in the darkness of the woods. And yet I needed a change. And so once again I started the process of selling my possessions, packing my boxes, and planning a move to the Bay Area.
And then Occupy hit, a month before my planned departure date. And once again I felt a pull I could not ignore, a whiff of revolution in the air, a chance at another taste of freedom, albeit on different terms.
So I stayed. And while there were moments of freedom, and moments that were truly revolutionary, Occupy died within a few months. But I was lifted up by a windy remnant of that moment, and over the next three years I went from an impoverished, disabled anarchist witch-punk to one of the most recognizable and powerful political figures in town.
But the success of the latter depended very much on occluding the former, naturally, and while I spent three glorious years effectively scaring the shit out of the powers that be in that town, I did so at great expense to my own psyche and well-being.
When one effectively challenges power, power strikes back. And strike back they did, despite what I had successfully occluded in order to protect myself. They found their way through, found their way to hurt me, from boycotts to blacklists and outright threats. I responded first in strength, successfully testing the limits of my strategies through the seven-month Whoville encampment, but when Whoville finally fell, I fell as well. The price of Whoville’s success was my own sanity and safety, and in the spring of 2014, I fled Eugene for Portland with my tail behind my legs.
At that point, I wasn’t even thinking of freedom, just safety. All I wanted was anonymity, the absence of present danger, and perhaps a chance to pull myself out of poverty. And yet none of those things came to fruition, and the toll that my work in Eugene had taken on me only became more evident in the months after I fled. I felt like a refugee, exiled from my community, with little support and few friends in a city that had never really spoken to me.
Once again, I tried to make it work. And I put on a big smile and reminded myself to count my blessings and denied until I was blue in the face what was obvious to so many.
I was miserable. For the past two years, I’ve felt without purpose. I’ve been drifting in an abyss of my own triggers and traumas. I tried to channel that pain into my writing, and while I have produced many pieces that I’m proud of in that period, the vast majority of the time has been wasted. I had never felt so stuck.
And then, once again the gods came knocking.
A year ago, Sara-la-Kali showed up on my doorstep, asking me to fulfill an old promise.
Having nothing to lose, I said yes, both out of love and obligation, but also admittedly out of fear of saying no.
And similar to when I said yes to the anarchist witch-punks years ago, a small crack tore in the fabric of my reality at that moment that I said yes, and the universe started to shift in ways I couldn’t necessarily comprehend nor explain at the time.
I’ve written about those shifts a bit. What I wrote here was also very relevant to this pilgrimage, although I didn’t quite understand the extent of that at the time.
I tried many times over the past six months to back out. Nobody, neither gods nor community, would let me.
In retrospect, I have nothing but thanks. But at the time, I held nothing but fear.
* * * * *
The gods tricked me to get me here. I can’t blame them, of course, as I’ve made it obvious to them (and everyone else) over the years that I still don’t know how to listen.
I made this trip for them. I thought it was about them. I came here for the gods, and for my ancestors.
I never would have done it for myself.
And of course, they knew that. And, of course, it turns out that this trip is very much about me instead. Its about me having to face uncomfortable truths. Its about me having to reconcile a painful childhood and an adulthood marked with bitterness and struggle. Its about me having to bury and/or release what I cannot change, to break myself down and then put the pieces back together.
A few months before I left, a bit of a bombshell was dropped on me, one I didn’t take too well at the time. Its still too raw to speak of it plainly yet, but I’m comfortable in saying that it has forced me to re-evaluate my entire life through a new lens. And for the first time in my life, I have context and clarity for my struggles, especially my childhood and my long-term estrangement from my family that I am only now starting to repair.
I knew that the timing was no coincidence… I understood on some level that there was a reason behind the timing of that bombshell. And I knew that being thousands of miles from home was a good place to process such information. But I still saw that as secondary to my obligations to those both above and below.
* * * * *
I have very little French blood, but I have never felt more at home than I do on French soil. And that in itself is an important reminder about the artificial constructs known as ‘borders’ and ‘nations’. For the most part I am not genetically tied to this specific country and people, but I am very much tied to this landmass, to this continent, and to the gods and spirits that reside here.
Absent from this landmass is the anger, the un-tempered resonance of the ghosts and spirits that haunt the American landscape, ghosts and spirits that will never truly rest, and rightfully so, due to the genocide that was committed against them. And while there are plenty of angry ghosts and spirits here as well, they are older, they are tempered, they are at home in the landscape and mostly at peace with the people who currently inhabit it.
From the very first day, I felt that so strongly. And for every day since, my understanding of both this place as well as what lies underneath in the land of my birth becomes ever and ever clearer. Not only has my relationship with both places become clearer, but more importantly, as I watch America crumble from an ocean away, the reason for her crumbling also becomes ever clearer.
* * * * *
I stepped foot on this land, and this land here knew my name. And I immediately felt at home.
It took me a week or so to shake the toxic resonance of America off of and out of myself, but once I did, I understood why I was here.
I fulfilled my obligation to Sara-la-Kali, and then paid tribute to the indebtedness I felt towards Walter Benjamin, and then allowed myself to truly just be.
And then, the déjà vu. And then the recognition that I had come full-circle.
When we first got to Rennes, I realized immediately that I had already been here. At least in my dreams I had. We had originally planned to camp just outside of town, but a random stranger on Facebook invited us to stay at his place, and we gladly accepted.
And when I entered his house, it was so familiar, a little too familiar. As was our host, who immediately felt like an old friend, like kin. As was this town itself. As was the strong sense of history and belonging that resonates every time my feet hit the pavement of this 2000-year old town.
It took me a few days in Rennes to understand exactly what I was feeling, but when I did, it was profound. It was the freedom that I had originally discovered in the forest all those years ago.
* * * * *
Americans talk a lot about ‘freedom’, but they are clueless to what it actually means. For far too many Americans, ‘freedom’ means having the right to own guns and as many houses as you want and the biggest car you can handle and the legal permission to spout racism and xenophobia. Any intrusion on those ‘rights’ is seen as a curtailment of ‘freedom’.
The French speak of freedom as well, but their concept is much more grounded in reality than the American concept. The French understand and tie the concept of ‘freedom’ to an authentic way of living, one which does not demand 70 hours of labor per week in return for the ‘freedom’ to live in starvation conditions. Here, ‘freedom’ is closely tied to the social contract that in a sense is the true religion of this country, not to artificially constructed ‘rights’ that in reality will never be granted to all.
Here, ‘freedom’ is reflected in the joyous attitudes that surround one here, in the way of being that I still don’t know how to describe in words but which reverberates from every corner and sidewalk-crack of cities such as Rennes. While this country is far from perfect, when folks speak of ‘freedom’ here it has an actual meaning.
And here, I feel free. Not just in mind, but in body as well.
At least half of my health issues have completely disappeared in a few short weeks. I am eating better, sleeping better, and in less pain than I have ever been in my entire adult life. Here, I can keep food down. Here, I am not reliant on Xanax and Adderall in order to function. Here, it does not take me an hour to get out of bed. Here, I enjoy the mornings.
Here, I feel safe, perhaps for the first time ever. I am not living in fear, I am not constantly looking over my shoulder, I do not shrink in fright when I am approached by a stranger.
Here, I have found the person that I haven’t known since those long nights in the darkness of the woods. I have become re-acquainted with my young, anarchist, witch-punk self, but with the added wisdom of the struggles and challenges which I have endured over the past twelve years.
“I feel like I’m finally seeing the you that you always talked about, the you that I knew was in there somewhere,” Rhyd said to me. “I feel like I’m seeing the real you for the first time.”
It hurt to hear, as it was a reflection of what I have been suppressing for so long, of the state of panic and survival that I have existed in for most of my adult life. And yet I knew how true it was.
Here, I finally feel at home. I feel at peace with the person I was, the person I have become, and the person I have the potential to become. But similarly to those moments in the woods, I am once again only a tourist among the natives. I yet again must return to a life I have left, one with responsibilities and obligations to others. I yet again must surrender this freedom in a little over two weeks.
But unlike last time, I know what that means. This time, I know what I’m in for when I return. I know that it will never be the same. I know that I can’t simply integrate these lessons into the life I left behind in hopes that it will make it slightly more bearable.
And I know that this time I can’t delude myself into thinking otherwise.
I know that if I ignore what I know this time around, the gods will kick my ass. And they won’t do it kindly.
* * * * *
It was Saturday afternoon in the anarchist bar in Rennes. And despite severe social anxiety and a significant language barrier, I felt as though I was surrounded by old friends.
Not just friends, but kin. Because while friends may hang out with you at bars and attend your parties and check up on you once in a while, kin will have your back.
What does this mean, kin? It means that when a group of homophobes throw bottles and scream obscenities at your best friend and his adorable partner for daring to express their desire in public, they drop everything and take off after the homophobes in pursuit as fast as they can. And you know that if they had caught them, they would deliver justice the old-fashioned way.
What does this mean, kin? It means that when your adorable host-turned-kin suggests that you read some cards for the folks sitting around the table, you do so without thinking and without fear, despite the fact that its been years since you’ve read cards for strangers, despite the fact that you’ve had at least four beers at that point, despite your social anxiety, and despite the fact that your French is far from perfect.
And you not only do so, you do so without fear. Because trust. Because freedom. Because kin.
And you nail each reading, each time, without them even asking questions first. Because love. Because trust. Because kin.
And then, without really considering the potential consequences of what you are about to do, you think of home and turn the cards on yourself.
And what lies before you is anything but the concise, inspiring messages that those cards delivered for others.
And yet you know what it means. And yet you trust it anyway. Because you know this place is magic, and you know you are magic, and you know that its a message that you needed to hear.
Just like all the other messages, the ones you’ve ignored for years, the ones you’ve turned on their heads, the ones you’ve gone running and hiding and screaming from.
But this time, you know.
Because you’ve finally allowed yourself to stare into the cauldron, finally allowed yourself to feel the heat of the tower, finally allowed yourself to understand what the future holds, despite the terror that is inherent in that knowledge.
Because in that knowledge, lies your freedom.