“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our sense to grow sharper.” - William Butler Yeats
It’s funny. Everyone – the scientists, historians, film makers, billionaires, inventors – manifest, write, fund, create, patent and theorize from the false premise that our beings are the oldest presence in the universe. We don’t say that. We talk about all of the things that fascinate us. Listen, there’s religion and, for sure, there are the authentics who will, ego-less, bow humbly, chant and worship a supreme being of un-quantifiable mercy, generosity and goodness. And they bless us all, these Samaritans of unquestionable faith and devout posture. But for the love of Allah, Gautama Buddha, Krishna, Jehovah and Yahweh, there is the creation of world defining religions in these societies of mankind. We practice religion, not faith. We offer quick fix solutions, not hope. As a race, humanity is ambivalent or, at the very least existential about the existence of God. We are not organic or authentic about a relationship with a supreme creator. We are about ourselves. We don’t serve ‘He who sits high on the throne’.
All the New Age theorists have put out this theory: that we are 700 billion souls divided from one, experiencing ourselves anew in a moment by moment unfolding. Whew… that’ll bake a noodle or two. But, I think, the New Age theorists all want to get paid, no less than George Lucas of Star Wars or Stan Lee of Marvel Comic fame, for their creation of a completely compelling -though fictionalized- creative universe that is fascinating to millions if not billions. Maybe it’s just the cynical investment banker in me but why can’t all these New Age mystics just say, “I always wanted to make blockbuster movies or create comic book empires of action figures and graphic novels?” I say, author your own bible! Call it, say, ‘Paradise Now!’ God is in all of us? He is in none of us! Don’t get me started on these New Age characters – ha! Because I am almost one of them.
Now, my Haitian Facebook friend is Astryd Crystalle de Papouloute (I just call her, to her delight, ‘L’amour de Mon Coeur’ for short when I am enamored… but on most days, I let ‘Oeil Cosmique’ suffice, rolling my tongue over the “r’s”, clicking the the “q’s” with perfect francophone proficiency). Astryd - she get’s it. She tells me her human resource co-workers all call her Jamiroquai and I haven’t figured that one out yet. But it could have something to do with her having large auburn cosmic eyes in the plain of day. Those eyes suggest that she is from another galaxy, or perhaps it is that we all live in galaxy with supernatural comings and goings, magic as plain as day. Astryd knows these unspoken things. I know because she just shocked the reality out of me. I’m standing here in a forest of quiet towering trees… epic beings… all alone, quivering in the cold. Well, not quite.
Astyrd and I friended on Facebook less than two years ago and became co-simpatico quickly. Both painters, photographers and survivors of the corporate jungles seeking to leave mundane existences of the corporate world and take flight amongst a group of egalitarian artists. I found her artifice on Snapchat and Instagram and connected with her there too. I’m married so the relationship has been platonic, but she is a beautiful woman. Everything she does is with elegance. It’s with beauty and timelessness and grace. It is with largess and humility. On Instagram, she takes these photos and they are… special. She will only post on Instagram or Snapchat, then repost on Facebook or Twitter, where they are protected from the copyright pirates that social media has made of all of us.
I’m not sure how she does it – but those photos all reflect a different calm being. They all reflect a peculiar disassociation with the mendacity of everyday living. Simple things – forks and spoons – hung from chandeliers in such a way that we see we are now voraciously consuming the light of day. Or, a photo of a simple pink cap embossed with the words, “Too Fly Not to Fly” and a little green, red and black hot air balloon suggest that greatness or adventure are simply choices. Or a photo of an off-white stucco and brick wall with the graffiti “97 problems” and then the sneaky little caption “well, that’s two down”. This, to me, suggests that there is much more at work in the world than our own bliss, our own seeking, our own misery and epiphanies. There is a cogency. We live in a galaxy of literal metaphors- like signposts. We are all part and parcel of a larger organism breathing, sleeping, walking and thinking – we are cells – and I am like a cell in a body travelling from the vertebrae to the cortex and transforming from a blood cell into a brain cell.
Why am I changing? No one seems to know or take notice of it.
Now, don’t ask me why I did this. As I told you earlier, I am married. And I was not under any illusions of how Astyd felt about our relationship. She’s been respectful, even doting of my wife, our daughter and son and… golden retriever, Lion King. All the photos I post of my beautiful family are always given likes, hearts and thumbs up and sometimes even a comment, “great shot!” or “nice one” by Astryd. But, sometimes when I am communicating with Astryd… it could just be a moment but I swear the gravity in my heart zeroes out. I float. I’ll confess: I’m in love with her beauty, the beauty in her work. And it’s not platonic. At least I don’t think it is. It’s refreshing, reinvigorating. Hypnotic. Fascinating. Inspiring. I read something the other day and it resonated with me in my 51 year young heart – reminded me of when Stephanie my wife and I were first dating:
“The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.” - Rumi, The Illuminated Rumi
Not sure why, but it meant something to me that got my eyes moist – not tearing, just a little damp with some authentic emotion. Astryd liked it too. Then she confessed about an impulse purchase she made on Kayak for a flight to Yosemite National Park to complete her Ansel Adams homage project for a SoHo gallery showing in 2 months. I could not resist- I went on Expedia as she was going on and on about the details and purchased a roundtrip ticket to Fresno Yosemite International Airport and a Hertz car rental. So, there was something of me being an infidel to my most sacred vows but there was also something in the spacing of her words, the emotion around them that told me there was something outside of our human concerns that informed her decision. And this just inspired me to hit the purchase button after I put my credit card information in.
But imagine my shock when I found I was alone in my fascination. When I got there and was checking into the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, there was no reservation under Astryd Crystalle de Papouloute. Nothing either at the Toulumne Meadows Lodge. Just me, my gold Visa Goldman Sachs card and my Subaru rental.
It’s day, so I decide I’ll treat myself to lunch, and complete my own homage to the late great Ansel Adams whose photography helped to establish the American West and black and white photos as fine art. I set my Samsung 7 camera on sepia and kill the flash, intent on being an original fraud (no black and white photos here!). The drive up is slow and methodical, climbing nearly 3000 miles with little or no phone reception and enough silence to quiet all the thin thoughts running in teams through my head.
Soon, I’m sitting in front of a lake as quiet as a stream, looking at the reflection of a snow-capped mountain, picking sweet meat from a cluster of green grapes, sipping alkalized water, breathing crisp air and wondering about nothing in particular. The season is changing and leaves on the tree are deadening, changing hues from bright green chloroform to crunchy oranges, robust reds and dull yellows. The evergreen, however are absolute in their authority.
I see Stephanie tried to call me but there is little or no reception out here – I send a text letting her know I am okay and on the open grass, falling asleep, getting rest from what is more than likely hangover rather than my jet lag on the short flight from Monterey to Fresno. When I wake up, shadows have begun to fall but I feel rested and inspired. In my notes app, I begin to finish composing a contract proposal for a client and pull a flask of Courvoisier from my tweed jacket pocket and say to myself, ‘stop working and start living’. The owner of Via Italia Trattoria who I bank and service in my little town, promised if I could complete a collection, he would sponsor a dinner and put my work up for display.
‘Let’s live or die with this art thing’ I decide to myself.
The flask contents are settling and I am looking at the world through the lens of my Samsung Galaxy S7, a small handheld devise with infinitely more power, focus and clarity than any Hasselblad medium format camera Ansel Adams ever used. If it’s in him, I figure, it’s in me. We are all born to experience, reflect, perceive, project and perfect. Soon though, the brown fluid puts me asleep by the lake. And when I wake up the mountains and trees are in evening shadows. There is intelligence out here. I look up at a North star piercing day time reality. It’s mesmerizing like a solitaire diamond. I hear crickets beginning to do their work and the wind isn’t so quiet anymore.
Suddenly, I see things I had forgotten for many lifetimes. Things embedded in my ancestral memory. I see phantom men standing in trees and getting swallowed whole, over and over and over again. I see original souls dressed in tiger eye stones, leather, silver customized jewelry, feathers, cowrie shells and gems peeking from behind the clouds. And I don’t make a sound. I don’t make a peep because I don’t want to be next. I am reverent and humbled. I want to be now, and I don’t want to be before either. In the here and now is where I want to be. On that thought, I hear eagles overhead laughing in crows and guffaws and agreeing with me. I stand my ground and close my eyes. When I open them, I take out my cell phone and begin shooting photos, but what I see of what I take disgusts me. I see shots that remind me of the Ansel Adams photography but I see nothing of what I wish to reflect. What I am experiencing. I become silent with discontent and scream out loud for the wilderness to hear my howl.
“These are plain days. See me!” I am thinking, “Let me continue to see you – magnificence, unending mystery, loving immaculately” And soon, my eyes acclimate to the fact that the old giant original souls are in the trees. They are in the eye connected to an infinite mind. They inform the coyotes who know to stay clear of the lime stone by the lake for there is man creature not of this space looking into things he had once forgotten. They are in the body of the bears eating the salmon and trout and recycling the energy for another time, another way of being, converting peace into aggression. They are towering beings of evergreens – we live by their safety, in the presence of their maleficence, bounty and imagination. These are the keeper of the planets. How long does this tree take to grow from acorn to towering? What are the energy exchanges with the boundless? What are the contracts?
So, the absolute chaos of which we humans survive, control, discipline is controlling us and not the other way around. I remember that when she married me, Stephanie was the most lovely creature I had ever seen. She was a goddess looking for a simply, wonderful existence. I was hypnotized and recreated in a moment. I remember looking at her like I do at the North Star and forgetting everything that came before her. I remember knowing we would have a long road but hit all the milestones and enjoy our lives together. I remember my soul devoured her at once. I remember Crystalle being born and how different emotional portals opened within my soul, experiencing a grace and patience I did not know I possessed and the unlimited fire of a protector. I remember little Stephen looking up to me with large eyes filled with so much love he seemed aglow and speaking at three to say, “Thank you Daddy for being you. Being my man.”
I shoot for two more hours and get the hell out those woods and take a red eye flight back home in to the safety, predictability and protection of pines in my neck of the woods. I’m surprised when I look at the photos getting home at midnight how well they turned out – how they reflect mystery, presence and largess I wanted to express. Sometimes, I am too involved in what I think. Pardon the pun, so apropos, but I can’t see the trees for the forest.
So, of course, Astryd calls me and asks how I’ve been. I ask her how her trip to Yosemite, the great outdoors, went. She says, without the slightest hint of duality “I never went. I stayed here, took a penalty and rolled the miles for later, another flight of fancy.”
I’m not stunned because of everything I have seen, felt, experienced, thought, dreamed of in the last couple of days. But I am aware that there is that strange quality of other-worldliness in her voice – the same thing that got me at first.
“I went out to rendezvous. Meet you.”
“I know” she says matter of fact, “I knew you would.”
“So what was the point of all that then?”
She continues, “I thought you needed to go O.G. old soul. Too much time on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Time to re-connect with the central source. Did you get that energy for your work?”
I want to say, “I thought of you the whole time.” But instead I say, “You’re the devil.” She laughs, not coarse and irreverent, but gently and elegant,
“Some would say so my friend. But we know differently don’t we? I’ve also heard I’m a siren and femme fatale too. We know I am the best artist friend you never had. Did you get the inspiration for the project at Via Italia Trattoria – the Italian eatery the Chinese guy owns? The one who wants to be a gallery owner and go into business with you?”
It actually went over really well and the owner Eddie Chen set a late winter date, buying three of the prints for my asking at $500 a piece. We set up a joint commission structure and date for a late January showing. He has a group of investors coming in from China who will be looking for culture, Americana and souvenirs for their time in the States. So, I ask her, instead, “How old are you?”
“Too young to think about getting romantically involved with you. But just old enough to inspire you to your best work.”
“What are you working on now then… friend?”, I ask her, resigned.
“I’ve been going through the city, subway surfing, running around in my Nike workout gear, matching winter scarf, ear muffs and bunny boots, with a Canon EOS Rebel and shooting old men. Primarily upper East side – they have a certain flair and GQ pimp thing going on” She laughs – it’s really quite sweet. “ I dunno. They see something when they see me.” Or, I think to myself, it’s hormonal… at the very least, testosterone driven. She continues “ I can’t put my finger on it but it’s magical. And with the way NYC is turning from summer sun and poems to winter prose and reflection... It says something. I think I’ve got a platform with an editor I met at the Huffington Post. I might even have an in for the Atlantic and a photo essay.”
I look outside my window overlooking the ocean lapping up the shores and I realize suddenly Madame Astryd is there, just like the men in the trees, calmly taking me in. Was I stalking her? Finding her on Instagram, LinkedIN… Googling every known reference for Astryd. She was stalking me and doing so on a much higher frequency. She is there in the waves crashing the shore violently, bubbling with cold salt and even more casual disdain for the sand, rock and clay on the shoreline. She is there looking at me – is it contempt? No, it’s a study, I decide evenly. Full lips glimmering with sunset reds and oranges, eyes cast down upon me. How do I know she is even everything she posts on all of these accounts? How could one soul create this sort of chaos, beauty, reflection and still decide to walk the planet as one of us?
“My James Antonio… are you ok? Are you there?” She says it so sweetly. But I am silent. I am growing. Experiencing. Expanding. Like those ancients I saw peeking from behind the clouds or the mystics I saw dive into trees, I am more. More than I could ever be by myself, on my lonesome. I am part and parcel of a continuum, outside of time, undivided by thought, known by few and so many all at once. “You do know what the acronym OG stands for, right? Original gravity…”
Just then, Stephanie walks in the living room – I look out the side of my eye, something about arranging dead flowers out of the vase, clipping their rotting stems and arranging them on the coffee table, just so. “James…” she says more to herself,” how do these look to you? Too gothic, right?”
I give her an enthusiastic thumbs up and motion I am on the phone calmly.
“Oh, sorry sweetie I didn’t see that. Who are you on the phone with?”
I place my finger over the mike on my Samsung Galaxy and whisper loud, “Astryd. Remember, the artist in Brooklyn?”
“Astryd. I haven’t heard that name for months now. How is she? Tell her I said hello. I think Tiffany is going needs help with her Spanish homework and I’ve got a social marketing networking event I’m leaving for.” She says all this leaving for the kitchen, something sizzling on the stove. She has a Lululemon outfit on from yoga this afternoon. It’s stretchy and wrapping every god given curve gorgeously – it’s also in an iridescent serpent pattern. If you ask me, I’d say the workout outfits are better suited as lingerie – If we are being fair, at the very least it is a hybrid- half Namaste/half Sex-sells billions. These Lulumon creations are how we ended up with Stephen. I’m clear about that – remember the sweat on her back seeping into the mesh material of a black Lycra and her skin glistening, every pore calling every cell in my DNA.
But I want to get back to what I was saying a couple days ago about more than just ourselves. More than what we think. We’re not the gods. God is God. But sometimes we have incredible power, and its not what you think it is. And its not what you are lead to believe it is. And in the Christian Orthodox, that’s not so unreasonable is it? I mean, we are all created in God’s image, right?
I say we’re a half moment from the ancient Egyptian Akhnaton and his world redefining thought that there is but one God. Before him, there were Nut, Nekhbet the vulture goddess, Osiris and Ptah, the God of all creation. That’s all this Jesus thing is, an extension ancient Egyptian Orthodoxy. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m as hopeful, obedient, faithful and loving as the next human but isn’t this Jesus thing just a sound bite? Evangelical… politics? Constitutional… organization? Do we live in a Christian world or do we live in world where Jesus is worshiped? Jesus didn’t worship Jesus. Jesus was not a Christian. His followers didn’t call themselves Christians. But we got this Catholic world empire church with it’s fancy priest in fancy robes, C-Span and MSNBC reporting on the Pope; Disney and Fox Television all giving rise to a society of commercial and mass media fanatics. This is the matter that consumes us all. We worship our own product. But we haven’t begun to even get remotely close to the truth. Of reality, dreams, our true power.
The galaxies and all of the cosmos play dust in nebulas, the light year travel of ideas and spirits, black holes of endless depression, coronal stars, luminous red novas, pulsar rays or yellow hyper-giants. We really haven’t begun to fathom how we are all just clay and putty matter in dream dust walking the light of day? How we are all giants asleep. How all of our dreams, fantasies and ideas are really just cosmic signals in play. The ones who listen are the ones awake in their dream, defining. How we are all just experiencing in the fantastic dream of so-called reality?
Stephanie convinces me that I should go with her to the networking event in downtown at the Hyatt Regency but I know she just wants to hold hands getting in and out of the car. She says to me, opening the door for her – “James, you are a good man. Not perfect, but good. Your new work with the photography is good. But you are a great man. I think it’s important for you to hear me say that.” Everything she says and does reminds me that Monterey is home.
So now I know, or I remember again, the world is filled to the brim with ordinary mendacity magic, idiocy… as well as wonderfully grim hauntings, oh… and some of that serendipity too.
Patrick A. Howell is an award-winning banker, business leader, entrepreneur and writer. His first work was published with the UC Berkeley African American Literary Review and Quarterly Black Book Review. At Cal Berkeley, he co-founded Diatribe - a People of Color News Collective. Mr. Howell is a frequent contributing writer to the Huffington Post, Tishman Review's Craft Talk series, Into the Void and is a Good Men Project Blue Box Columnist. He has been cited in national platforms as equities.com, NBC BLK and The Grio. Howell’s integrated book of poetry-design, “Yes, We Be' was published by Jacar Press in February of 2018. This summer he graduated the Leopardi Writer's Conference in Recanati Italy to complete work on 'Quarter 'til Judgment Day', a coming of age experimental fiction work.