One evening, not but a few months ago, I was transported to the center of the universe. How I got there I’m unsure. It didn’t matter at the time. All that mattered was that I had made it, and now I stood (or floated?) before the very consciousness that embodies the entire universe. In the starry darkness, I knew that this entity existed and flowed out of the even darker circular void directly in front of me, like a black hole in reverse.
This consciousness didn’t speak, but it communicated with me. I could hear its ‘thoughts’ in my own mind. It invited me to ask the question I’ve always wanted to ask. I paused for the slightest second, a pattern of hesitancy that had grown with me my entire life. Hesitancy, self-doubt, shame, humility. An entire lifetime’s worth of weight. But the next second I became weightless, and I asked my question without speaking. “What is the purpose of all of this? What does it mean?” It wasn’t particularly eloquent, but it was the question I most burned to understand.
I could sense a palpable compassion beaming from that dark center of the universe. It wrapped me in invisible arms and responded calmly but forcefully, “Love. That is all. Love is all that matters in life.”
If this were a scene in a movie, I would have scoffed at the cliché of it all. But in that moment, it wasn’t about the words that were conveyed. It was the feeling that suddenly overtook me. The consciousness entity began to pulse, radiating a soft, all-encompassing warmth that could only be described as Pure Love.
It washed over me, through me, into my cells, calmed my brain, and opened my own heart to the ultimate answer of the universe. I hung there in suspension, absorbing these waves and realizing that the one thought running through my mind was, “Yes. This is it. How could I have not known?” I felt no desire to be anything, to do anything, to accomplish anything. I already had. I was there, radiating with the only true energy that exists.
It was so powerful I would have cried, except there was no need for tears in such a loving state. It wasn’t ecstatic; it was serene, gentle, and timeless. It was as if I had returned to the ultimate womb, rolling in warm waves of love and gratitude with no expectations or projections or worries. This was the most powerful feeling I had ever felt within my body, and it came not only from that conscious entity but also from within myself.
As quickly as the love manifested, it washed away and I had fallen back into a series of nonsensical dreams, eventually to wake and recall just the slightest hint of that ultimate feeling of love. Technically it was all a dream, of course. I don’t believe that I actually travelled to the center of the physical universe. But this was one of those dreams that stays with my body for some time, like the remnants of light that slowly dim after switching off an incandescent bulb.
And while dreams are an expression of the mind, they certainly give us opportunities to connect subconsciously with deeper physical, mental, and emotional frequencies then we may be consciously aware of. I remember one time when I was caught up in a particularly tragic dream in which I was sobbing profusely, and I awoke still sobbing with a pillow soaked through from my tears. The emotion was real then, just as real as the ultimate love.
What I mean to say is that while I didn’t physically travel anywhere at the speed of light that night, I have no doubt that I traveled deep within myself and somehow penetrated a thickly guarded barrier behind which rests an everlasting fountain of love. I can’t help but think that we all have that fountain, that core, that energy, deep within us, buried under years of trauma, exhaustion, abuse, betrayal, and general adulting.
What I felt was real, unadulterated love. It was breathtaking. It made every cell in my body buzz with a knowing that calmed all questions, all doubts, all yearning. That feeling only lasting a few dream moments, but my own mind, my own body created that feeling – it throbbed in my stomach and radiated through me as if burning away all pain and suffering – so I have to think that feeling is possible to achieve in ‘waking life’ as well.
And I suppose that’s the whole point of this thing. To find whatever means allows you to dig through all the material distraction down to that little pulsing core of love. It has no doubt that it exists, so why should we doubt it? Even now, as I struggle to remember just how joyful and fulfilling that love energy of my dreams felt, I know it’s still in there somewhere, calmy waiting for me to rediscover it. It’s not the center to the universe that will answer our ‘whys’, but a journey to the center of ourselves. The universe may begin and end and begin again, but the energy that drives it exists always. And that energy pulses through each of us.
I don’t have the answers (not that we need any) to how to find that love, that completeness, again. I don’t know if I’m on the “right” path, or if I’ll ever find my way back to the center of the maze again. But I did find it, once. I have to think that’s something. Even as I doubt myself constantly, some part of my being is saying, “Look! You have it! It’s right here.” And maybe I’ll trust that voice again one day.
Have you ever found that center of the maze? Perhaps you are lucky enough to be sitting there calmly even now! I’d love to know how others experience ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, and ‘love.’ We are all winding through this journey both together and alone. For that I am grateful.
I’ve shared the below ramblings in case there is someone, somewhere, out there who has had a similar experience or is going through one right now, who may be able to relate in some small way. So much of ourselves is locked away inside our minds, unable to be expressed through language. This is my feeble attempt to capture a tiny portion of my experience in words, for anyone out there struggling with a transition, questioning their life’s purpose, or looking for a sign that it’s time to change.
I think I died recently.
Not physically, of course; but some piece of ‘me’, the person I was, passed on and left a naked, shivering soul in its wake, a soul whose layers of identity have not yet fully developed. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. The process started a few months ago, subtly at first, when I began feeling the unrest that comes with an acute bout of doubting one’s life path, one’s career, one’s values. Then the pangs of unrest grew to waves of questioning what I should change, what direction I should aim for, who I should be, what I should let go of. The universe reached down into the churning water and offered me a hand in the form of a career change – one that would pull me out of academia, out of science communication, out of the safety and security of a well-worn path. But that safety and security had been suffocating me, even if it allowed me to work from home and make my own schedule and not feel huge amounts of stress.
Why was I so unhappy in that security? I still don’t fully know. Partly, I felt that my growth was stunted – even as I was finding joy in new hobbies and interests, there was a nagging feeling that I wasn’t realizing my potential, and that my heart wasn’t beating with joy in my work. And that troubled me. My work colleagues and supervisors were lovely people, and I appreciated the mission of the work – it just wasn’t my mission anymore. I had also become jaded with some of the aspects of my line of work, had lost enthusiasm for communicating on social media, for aspects of academic science and the disconnect I felt between that science and what we should be doing to heal our planet. It was a lot of things really.
So when the universe reached down to me as I churned in those waters of doubt and curiosity and fear and wonder, I took a leap of faith and grabbed that hand. It came in the form of a completely different line of work, with a non-profit focused on ancient yoga, meditation, philosophy, and wellness practices. I know this non-profit intimately, as I’ve studied with the head monk for a number of years. Now I would be working for him. My heart leaped, but stomach dropped, my mind whirled. I listened to my gut as best I could but still had no real idea whether this was the opportunity that would push my personal growth and nurture self-fulfillment. This is not a chill yoga studio job, this is a job that requires huge inputs of energy, attention to detail, dedication, vision, and stamina. In fact it’s more than a job – it’s a commitment to a vision about how to live, about preserving sacred knowledge and upholding traditions that I still don’t fully understand. It’s about opening oneself up to scrutiny, shedding any sense of what ‘should’ be, and of diving head first into a different worldview. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to do it successfully. All I knew is that I had asked for a shift, and the shift came to me. I had to at least give it a shot.
Before officially starting this new job, I journeyed up to Monterey and Carmel, California, a region I used to live in and where part of my heart still lies to this day. It was a beautiful week of reconnecting with dear friends, building deeper relationships, wandering the magical coastal trails and marveling at Monterey pines, oak woodlands, and fields overflowing with wildflowers. My heart grew as I spent time gardening, cooking, connecting with beautiful people in ways that I could never adequately express gratitude for. Every little moment was a deep joy. And, as a dear, wise mentor once told me – Joy and Love vibrate at the same energetic frequency.
Then came the day I had to drive back home. It was a strange mix of feelings – leaving a place I had already left years ago, to go back to a place that was both older and newer to me. But this time it felt different. My body tried to hold me back. The magic of that place had caught me in its delicate web. As I began my drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway, the visceral pain hit me. That’s when the tears burst forth, my heart exploded, and my death began.
The convulsions were like little earthquakes of emotion that had stored up for years, waiting for this moment to release and rip me open. Tears rolled down my cheek and neck and soaked my shirt as my beloved Monterey faded into the coastal mist in my rearview mirror. The sobbing was unusual for me, foreign, as if I was watching someone else’s emotional outburst from outside my own skin. I let it flow as best I could as I stared out over the crumbling cliffs and deep roaring ocean below, mentally telling myself to keep both hands on the steering wheel. There was a point along the drive where Big Sur was behind me and I knew that after this next curve of the road it would be gone from view. It felt like a definitive transition point from north to south, from my past self to whatever self was about to manifest. I had to pull over at a dirt turnout and just breathe. I wasn’t ready yet. I needed to soak in that past for just a bit longer. I watched deep blue waves crash in slow motion against the cliff bottoms, white water swirling and disappearing back into the blue. I absorbed the layers of mountains stretching beyond view in both directions, linking land to water, capturing clouds, pouring themselves into the ocean. I reminded myself that that place is still there, it will always be there. That place and those memories and love I have for it exist and evolve just as I do (or don’t). You can never go ‘back’ but you can always circle forward.
Eventually, the tears dried up a bit and an internal shift gently nudged me that it was time to continue my drive south, ‘back’ home, ‘forward’ into the next phase of my journey, where I was leaving the comfort of a ‘safe’ job for one that would undoubtedly push all my boundaries and test my limits. I felt overwhelmed, numb. But with a deep breath, I pulled my car back onto the highway and looked forward. New waves of tears hit me throughout the drive, but I kept going, kept being.
I didn’t know how to express it then, but more recently I listened to a recording by Byron Katie, a practitioner of self-inquiry (whom another dear friend brought to my attention). Katie described a difficult time in her life in which she ‘died to self’. She realized that the person she identified as herself no longer existed, had never really existed, and she had to come to terms with what that meant for her life and how she related to other people as a result. At first it was jarring for her – she cried for weeks, months, she said – but eventually she realized that the death freed her from false identification. The tears became tears of joy and wonder at the magic of life. She was, she is, we all are something, but we don’t need to be a certain ‘thing’. We give ourselves and objects names so that we can relate to each other, but beyond those names we are all connected in a continuum of experience.
Every word she said rang true to me. Katie described how telling people her name felt like a lie, even calling a chair a chair felt deceptive, because that’s not really what it is, it’s just the closest approximation we can give via language. More and more over time I’ve felt untrue when I describe who I am to people. “My name is Kristen,” I’d say, but I’d wince. Who is Kristen, really? “I’m a science communicator.” Lie! What does that even mean? I didn’t feel connected to my work or that description of myself anymore. I felt like the world was much broader, that I was a small piece of something massive, something indescribable, and my life’s goal was to understand what that was just a bit better. When I heard Katie describe a very similar process of self-shedding, of re-establishing what it meant for her to negotiate the world around her, it clicked into place for me. Aha! I thought. I, too, had died to myself. Perhaps I had not had the full spiritual awakening that Katie described, but it did feel like a death followed by the beginnings of a re-birth, painful and freeing at the same time, tears filled first with sorrow then with gratitude.
A large piece of my former self died after that trip, or thanks to that trip, and the emotional response that accompanied it told me that my body and mind were shedding the weight of that identity which had held me down for so long, like a chain keeping me just beneath the surface of the ocean. Identities can end up suffocating us, whether they define our job, our family role, our ethical standpoints, or our lifestyle choices. Shedding some of my identity was terrifying, heart-breaking, but ultimately so healing. If nothing else, quitting my previous job and throwing myself into the waves of unknown gave me that gift. At least I can now reach the surface and take a breath before dipping under again. Without death, we cannot have renewal. Nature knows this, but us humans tend to forget. Re-visiting Monterey, a place so meaningful to me, also gave me that gift. It opened me to the links between past, present, and future; of the beauty in each moment and the potential in the next. Even if my new job, or my new layers of ‘identity’ that inevitably build up like plaque, eventually need to be sloughed off again, that emotional release I experienced (and continue to experience) will have been worth it. And that’s what I have to remind myself each day, especially the days when I feel useless, or out of place, or wistful.
During the first few weeks of my new job aka my new ‘life’, my emotional state continued to fluctuate wildly. I was still shedding the last bits of that old layer of identity, often via tears. During my drives to work, I started listening to the podcast on Non-violent Communication by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (recommended by yet another wonderful friend).
Besides providing the soothing comfort of listening to the voice of man who sounds like Mr. Rogers describe concepts like compassion and self-awareness, the podcast also magically pulled together everything I had been feeling, experiencing, and learning over the last few months. Life is beautiful like that. You don’t necessarily need to know what you are doing or where you are going, just have enough faith to know you are where you need to be in this moment. And as I sat in my car on my new hour commute to my new job-that’s-much-more-than-a-job, I started to feel more confident about those little moments.
Nonviolent communication emphasizes deep listening, to ourselves and to others, as a way to express compassionately what our needs are and how we can honor and fulfill each other’s needs. Our entire language – how we speak to others and what we think about ourselves – can shift away from assumptions about who and what we are, toward more fluid and meaningful concepts about what we need to grow and how we can cultivate empathy together. I realized that my internal dialogue is incredibly judgmental and static (as is the case for many of us, presumably).
My recent ‘dying of self’ had cracked open a new way of seeing that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t have the proper language or context to understand it. How can oneself die? It’s only possible if we understand that we are fluid, changing entities that are always in a process of death and birth. Dr. Rosenberg explains how we limit ourselves and our needs through ‘I am’-heavy language that weighs us down and keeps us locked in identities (I am American, I am lazy, I am old, I am strong, I am weak), instead of language that indicates how we feel or what we need in a particular time and context (I am tired today, I need to rest). Society has used static language to reinforce power structures, create loyalty, incite war, and make people believe they fit into a particular box. We only exist in the boxes we create for ourselves.
A few days after I started listening to the nonviolent communication podcast, I was sitting with Swami at the end of the workday as we wrapped up. “Our organization is based upon nonviolent communication,” he said to me. “Clear communication is very important for maintaining transparency and strong sense of fellowship.” I blinked and nodded my head. I hadn’t mentioned the podcast to him. This was one of those brief moments that countered all the self-doubt, the waves of fear and questioning, the agonizing over whether I made the right decision to change my life. Here was a little dose of magic, life connecting dots for me, of providing a little overlap in the various streams of thought and meaning in my life. Maybe it was a coincidence, but maybe it was a gentle squeeze from the universe to let me know it will be alright. Everything is connected, I am right where I should be in this moment.
On my drive south from Monterey, I made one other stop, at the General Store in Big Sur. I wanted to extend my time along the central coast for as long as possible, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. So I stopped and dawdled for a bit. When I came out of the store, I noticed a table strewn with paintings and sketches, in the middle of which sat a sign that said “Free Art.” Usually I’m too shy to approach people and risk opening up a dialogue in such a case, but today was unusual. I had nothing to lose. I walked up to the table and greeted the man sitting quietly beside it, presumably the artist. He wore an old baseball cap, his skin was ruddy and softly wrinkled from years of central coast sun, and when he smiled I saw he had a few teeth missing. He radiated a calm, gentle energy.
One of his art portfolios was spread open on the table and a painting caught my eye immediately. It depicted a spiral, emanating from sort of sea serpent that only materialized after a few moments of observing the painting. I was intrigued and asked the man about it. “If you asked me about any other piece of art, I could tell you the story of it. But this one, I don’t know. I just had to paint it, and I kept painting until I felt it was done.” He looked up at me and continued, “You should take it.” It reminded me of the Fibonacci spiral, a concept that had come up in recent discussions with Swami, and with friends. The Golden Ratio, found throughout nature and the inspiration for much of classical architecture and art. I gladly accepted the art, telling the man this meant more than he knew to me, especially on that day. “Wait one moment,” he replied. “Just sit down here, open up to a page in one of these poetry books” – he motioned to the stack of books on the table beside his sketches – “and I’ll be right back.” I opened one of the books to a page of poetry about surrendering to God and life, and one about just sitting without expectation. He came back within minutes, and handed me a sticker with an image of cliffs and ocean and sunshine, and the words ‘Love Warriors, Big Sir’ printed across the top. I smiled and thanked him. Magical moments of joy amidst sorrow. I continued on my journey south after that, retaining the memory of that connection even as I rolled with the waves of emotion that swept through me for the rest of the drive.
Fast forward to last week, I’d been working in my new position for a few weeks and while I’ve still been adjusting to the dramatic change, I’ve been finding my center a little more each day. I have no doubt the emotional waves will continue to pour in and out, but now I am grateful for those too, for how they clear out my system, allow me to feel deeply, and to guide me toward truth. One of our projects last week at work was to create an outline for our website redesign. My task was to research how to use the Fibonacci sequence and Golden Ratio as the foundation of the visual aesthetic. Boom, full circle yet again. The connections are always there, ready to pull you back into the flow whenever you feel yourself hurdling into the far reaches of deep space. I don’t know where the flow is taking me (if anywhere); maybe it’s meant to take us deeper into ourselves until we realize we are each the center – and the periphery.
For most of my life I’ve felt that I’ve walked in the cracks in between identities, always feeling the internal battle associated with seeing ‘both sides’. I shrink back from conflict and violence, because I feel the fear and sorrow on all sides that create that violence, and I understand it. I want to placate it, but that is not always my place. I see why people defend their values so strongly, yet I see how useless and hurtful that can be. I understand why people are drawn to patriotism, or individualism, or religious fervor, or a belief in the scientific method. But I cannot align myself with any of those things. It has been the main frustration in my life though perhaps it has given me opportunities to find clarity. I thought perhaps throwing myself into this new line of work would finally allow me to pull myself out of the crack and land on a shore of solid beliefs that align with a particular community – but now I don’t think that is my destiny. I think I will always be following the cracks in between, walking the harder path, the one with more shadows and shades, unable to climb up onto one side of the other for long. I’ve never ‘fit in’, but what is there to fit into? What I am now realizing is that perhaps instead I am re-calibrating. I am not denying one thing (e.g., science) for another (e.g., eastern philosophy); I am instead finding my way through the center, realizing the value of each perspective and slowly accumulating the wisdom to understand the limitations of any one lens, no matter how encompassing it may be. The path between need not be lonely, if you give fully to yourself.
But who am I to know? None of us really knows, and that’s the thing too. We are all spiraling around each other in this mathematical sequence that most of us never even recognize, creating a constellation of human experience meant to propel us toward self-realization, if we choose to flow in that direction. And if we don’t? Well that’s ok too. The universe is still here, and we are still floating in it. And there’s always Netflix. And when Netflix is no more, perhaps we’ll go back to the stories of the stars.
This is a short fiction piece I wrote nearly 10 years ago, while living in Australia. I can’t remember what my mindset was exactly at the time, or where the inspiration came from. I suspect I was getting close to the end of my time in that country, contemplating what my next step down life’s path would be, and where I belonged. While the story centers on literal death, for me it was an exploration of death of one’s past ‘self’, and of recognizing who you are in the moment, what powers the pulse of your life blood, and what connects you to the world around you. It’s odd to look back at my writing from so long ago and recognize both the naivety and the power behind a 20-something’s expanding mind. Who was I then? Only the person I would become today.
In the balmy heat of a mid-summer day, Sadie floated in the shallow, salty sea like a weightless leaf bobbing on the surface. Her sun-streaked auburn hair swirled around her in slow motion as she drifted. The sun penetrated her porcelain skin, turning it nearly as pink as the heart-shaped sunglasses poised on top of her head. She was mesmerized by the tiny microcosm of activity beside her—a highway of green ants, their translucent bellies gleaming in the sun, commuting along the weathered bark of a mangrove branch that hung just above the water’s surface. Her eye followed the living trail to a spot where one mass of ants was in the midst of consuming a long-expired butterfly. Each ant used its mandibles like a knife and fork, slicing portable pieces of wing and body and carrying it dutifully onward to wherever it was destined to return. Sadie wondered how the insects knew exactly where to go, or what to bring back. She tried to track a particular ant all the way along its journey, but found that each time she tried, the individual soon blended in with all the others, as if these hundreds of tiny creatures were just cells of one gigantic organism. Indeed, this ‘organism’ had arms and legs, streams of tiny dots that seemed to connect fluidly wherever they travelled. It was beautiful, she thought; frightening too. She was lulled into a trance by these winding, searching appendages. She imagined them streaming out to her, engulfing her, piercing her skin effortlessly to feast upon her life-giving flesh.
“Do they really have boxing kangaroos over there?” Sadie had asked her mother when, at the age of twelve, she was told that they would be moving to Australia. She received a shrug in response. Sadie tried again. “Don’t they have all the world’s deadliest animals? You can barely handle finding a little spider in the bathtub.”
Her mom paused, looking at her distractedly from behind limp strands of dark curls. “Look, I know this move isn’t going to be easy, Sadie, but I…but we don’t have a choice at this point.” It was as if she hadn’t even heard her daughter, but rather was answering a question that had been nagging her own mind. “Think of it like an adventure, like we’re in an Indiana Jones movie.” Her words were meant to conjure a smile, but they fell flat on Sadie’s expectant ears. She thought she remembered a time when her mother had showed authentic emotion, but of course things had changed. She told herself she understood, at least as well as a pre-adolescent girl could understand such nuanced sentiments.
“How long will we be living there?” Sadie asked, trying to read her mother’s eyes. She didn’t ask why they were moving. That, she knew. She knew from the way her mother had detached herself from everything familiar over the past few months. How, long before the move, she had packed away the family albums, locked away keepsakes, and bottled up her own feelings along with everything else. Since Sadie’s father had died, her mom had steadily withdrawn from all aspects of their life in California, as if the very idea of continuing to live there was too painful for her. For Sadie, however, it felt like abandonment. It’s not that she didn’t love an adventure—normally the prospect of living in a foreign country, especially one full of exotic animals and tropical environments, would be a dream come true. But to leave her home behind was like cutting the last living string connecting Sadie to her father. She wasn’t ready.
“It depends,” her mom answered absent-mindedly as she stuffed a ragged wool sweater into a box with the words ‘TO GIVE AWAY’ written on it in sloppy block letters. Depended on what, her mom didn’t specify, as she never did anymore. To Sadie, it meant, ‘as long as I need before I can be myself again’. In other words, maybe years. Maybe forever.
As a cloud passed overhead and cast a creeping shadow over her, Sadie shuddered, as if awaking from a spell. Looking around her, she realized she had drifted quite some way from where she had entered the ocean. She flipped over onto her stomach and paddled toward the wide, flat rocks along the shore, taking care to avoid the stag horn corals whose branches jutted from the seabed like giant stilettos. Once on land, she stood facing the bay where she had been swimming, the bay that had become so familiar to her over the past few years. Her pale frame was a smudge against the black rocks and vibrant blue of the water. Her mind was elsewhere, lost in memory.
Outside, the first true chill of winter has finally rolled in with a heavy fog that blankets the southern California hillsides. Inside a cozy stucco house nestled at the edge of a scrub oak woodland, Sadie watches her father perform magic. She is enthralled as he pulls a wondrous mountain of gooey marshmallow, melted chocolate, and graham crackers out of the microwave and places it delicately in her eager hands.
S’mores—most Australians had never heard of them. To Sadie, they were an emblem of another life. The memory was one of the few vivid fragments of her father that she remembered. The loving wrinkles that appeared around his eyes each time he smiled (what color were those eyes, though?); a reddish beard speckled with grey that quivered when he laughed (what did it sound like?). He had reminded Sadie of Santa Claus at times, except that he was tall and slim. But his boisterous cheer seemed to fill a much bigger space than his meagre frame.
It was Sadie’s father who first nurtured her fascination of the natural world. He often led her on hikes through the foothills beyond their backyard, Sadie trotting merrily behind him as she detoured through labyrinthine bushes and under half toppled logs. The name of their valley, ‘Conejo’, meant rabbit in Spanish, and there certainly were plenty of rabbits scampering about. They, along with families of quails, squirrels, blue jays, and countless other animals, made their home in this tree-studded grassland. The oak trees captivated Sadie most. They seemed to rule over the land like solitary lions on an African Savannah—nobly poised and ancient, timeless in the eyes of a little girl. They generously nourished the squirrels and birds with their acorns, and provided shade for Sadie and her father when they sat for a rest. The two would sit there for what seemed like hours, listening to the breeze rattle through pockets of sagebrush as it carried dandelions off into the unknown. Something about this environment grounded Sadie, even at a young age. She could feel the blood course potently in her veins, as if it drew its strength from this place. She would squeeze her father’s hand, and without looking, know he was smiling.
After his death, Sadie’s mom had refused to remove any of her husband’s belongings, the neat rack of shirts and slacks still hanging in the closet, his razor and shaving cream in the bathroom, his stacks of books about backpacking, dirt biking, and amateur photography strewn about the house. Everything remained as it had when he had still been around to give life to them, and her mom could not bear to destroy the illusion of his presence. Sadie’s grandparents had finally offered their help, carefully packing and storing all of the sensitive belongings whose memories faintly lingered in their wake. The series of goodbyes—to teachers, to friends, to adults whom she barely knew—was all a blur to Sadie, just like her father’s funeral. A black haze of fearful hugs, sidelong glances, and unfamiliar tears; all but her own, which came only when she was alone in bed at night, and then they came silently. No sobs, no sniffles, just a gentle flowing stream that pooled in her pillow and warmed one side of her face like a tender caress until she fell asleep. By the time she had boarded the plane with her mother, her existence in California felt like an extended dream.
That was five years ago. Sadie’s new life in Australia has started out rocky; making new friends was difficult, and her mom worked long hours at the university. But at the end of each school day, Sadie would toss off her starchy uniform in exchange for bathing suit, board shorts, and flip flops, and be off to find her sanctuary in the outdoor wonderland of her sub-tropical home. Over time she won the favour of her Australian school mates, who ogled at her accent and made up fancy stories about her California existence. Now in her senior year, Sadie was still trying to make up her mind where to go to college, whether to stay in Australia, her adopted home, or go back to the states, a place that by now seemed so distant.
Lost in thought, Sadie had by now unconsciously followed the artery of scurrying ants onto shore, where they flowed from the tree branch and disappeared into a cluster of larger mangroves. These trees appeared to Sadie to float in mid-air, held aloft by a tangle of buttressing roots that wound up and down, in and out of the shallow water like petrified serpents, eternally tangled. These countless roots bulged at precarious angles from a single trunk, stretching out as if grasping for something beyond their reach. She felt like an intruder in this world that smelled both of mossy decay and green re-birth. Her bare feet crunched loudly over centuries’ worth of coral rubble strewn about along the shoreline. Rubble, as if these bleached and brittle fragments were the ancient ruins of a fallen civilization. In a way, they were—once forming brilliant colonies of living creatures that together formed the basis of a vibrant ecosystem.
Below the water’s surface lay a labyrinth of branches and roots where newborn fish chased insects and each other in the shadows. Their tiny home was as gentle as bathwater, a protected bubble that would one day give way to stronger currents, fiercer threats, and bigger unknowns. Little leafy shoots poked sprightly out of the water beneath their towering parents, a vision of what they too would one day become if their struggle for existence succeeded. The sun filtered softly through the canopy into the water and reflected bright yellows and oranges, leaves dissolving back into the basic nutrients that once flowed through their living veins. These leaves belonged here, were meant to live and die here.
Sadie’s mind, though it had only just reached adulthood, was wise beyond its years and knew that Sadie’s fate lay elsewhere. This was not her home. It would never be her home, she felt, as much as the bouncing marsupials and crested birds enthralled her, as much as she loved calling the wilderness ‘bush’ or ‘outback’, or was lulled by the relaxed twang of a tropical accent. No. Sadie’s life blood still stemmed from that other place, on another coastline across the ocean. She knew that somewhere over the horizon before her, it still existed, waiting for her to return. This southern land where she now stood held many promises, offered much for the soul. But one day the native oak trees of her home would sing to her; the thick, smoky scent of sagebrush would travel with the wind to find her.
As she turned her back to the water her eyes sparkled, and although her lips didn’t move, they hinted a knowing smile, as if she had overheard a secret whispered among the trees. She sauntered off along the beach, leaving only the faintest of footprints behind in the sand.