In Praise of Risks, Adventure, and Mostly Putting the Phone Down
Looking around the LA café, waiting for an oat latté, everyone I see has a neck craned down, dissolving into a small screen. I mean, can it even be called a phone at this point? It is a world. A world not in the room where I am smelling coffee beans being ground, while a light remix of a Brazilian Bossa nova song plays in the background, a breeze from the open door of a warm California air blows in… but it feels like I am perhaps the only one here… like, really here, feeling it all, as everyone else seems like they have fallen into the black hole screen, vacant and disembodied.
When I consider the question of: “How did we get here?” I remember the ‘80s and ‘90s and a time where our offline lives were still seemingly more enticing, glamorous, wild, and weird than what the online worlds could offer. No matter that you could chat sexy-like on AOL messenger for hours with strangers, there was still an allure to real life that nothing could match. A finger skimming the waistline between your shirt and jeans, the feeling of a tongue touching another tongue, a whisper tickling the inside of an ear… and café’s had people in them reading books and papers and chatting to each other. People looked out windows and daydreamed, said hello to each other… our necks were still intact, our eyes still fixed on the possibility of finding a date in the room…
Part of my own unofficial self-imposed training as a woman on a mystical path, involved traveling around the world with no phone and no plan. Nothing trained my intuition like traipsing through the streets of Rome, or a small town in Brazil, with no way to know if I was going the right direction. This lack of certainty outside of myself propelled me to ask strangers for help, again and again, and to learn to trust my intuition more than anything. Moments of connection turned into dinner invitations, long conversations on the bus, flirting in the streets, sometimes tears on the side of a dark road while lost, sometimes heart thumping anxiety, but always something real, tangible, in the blood and bones, moments that will never be forgotten.
My whole being was open for connection as I walked through the streets of Vienna and Venice with my 35 mm Canon camera around my neck, snapping photos of whomever I pleased. I had no fear when I asked people for directions, or how to say this, or that, in Italian or French or German or Czech… I developed character and grit as I hopped off and on trains and buses, fielded gropes from strange men, and scribbled in my journal while sitting on the steps of the cathedral at Chartres.
One of my earliest memories of learning to trust my intuition and living life fully happened on a weekend trip to Genova. Who goes to Genova? I’m not sure, but I picked it on the map and said: “I’m going there.” Out of all of Italy’s magical and medieval cities it wasn’t much to write home about. But I had a feeling I needed to go. At the time, I had joined an organization called "Servas”. It was a pre-couchsurfing deal where you could stay with people across the world. You had to interview to get in, and it was aimed to promote cross cultural exchange. I’d interviewed in the home of a middle-aged man who lived in the East Village. I felt no fear going to this man’s apartment on 4th and D and chatting him up while seated on his faded blue couch. I was 19 at the time. He approved me as a member and I got a book listing all the willing hosts from the countries I would be visiting.
Two months later, I am flipping through Genova’s host book from my room in Florence looking for a place to take the train to that weekend, looking for a host family with kids my age, and similar interests, since hobbies were listed in the guidebook. I land on a family with a son my age and a daughter a few years younger. I email with them from the clunky desktop at my school in Florence and the mother says her son will meet me at the train station if he is able. I worry a bit: “How will I know where to meet him? How will I know if it is him? How long should I wait?” I surrender and hope for the best, living a pre-smart phone and laptop life.
I am wearing a turban over my hair made from my old curtains that used to line my lofted bed in my shitty but artsy Avenue B apartment. The fabric is a mint green gauze, and I have taken to wrapping it around my head in some yogi-inspired kind of way. I have big shell earrings dangling from my ears and black cotton Mary Jane’s from Chinatown on my feet, with black ballet pants under a black dress. This is my daily uniform.
Outside the train station Pietro waits for me on a white 1969 Vespa. How do I know it is him? I just do.
How do I fit the helmet over my DIY turban head piece? I cannot tell you. But I do.
We zoom through the streets of Genova and I experience a sort of ecstasy I have never felt before. It is the feeling of complete freedom, inside and outside. No one in the whole world knows where I am. I am on the back of a bike in a country where I don’t know anyone. I have no one to text. Or email. No DM’s waiting for me. No smart phone. No maps. I am free.
Perhaps it is a cliché, but does it matter? We never know if we will feel the liberation we once tasted in youth, and to celebrate it and long again for it, what is the problem with that?
Pietro gets me to the apartment safely where his mom and her partner make us pasta with bright green nutty pesto and he disappears into the background of the room and doesn’t eat with us… later I hear the front door slam, and he is gone. His sister is away, and his mother and her partner are leaving to go out of town the next morning. So he and I will be there alone for the weekend. They give me blankets and things to sleep on the couch, and a key to use, and a map to get around town. Perhaps they wonder what a 19 year-old girl is doing in Genova alone. Why am I not traveling with university friends? Why Genova and not something more scenic like Cinque Terre or Venice?
I am alone because I am good at being alone. And as far as I can tell, all the kids in the NYU Florence program aren’t in art school at Tisch like me, and I don’t feel I have much in common with them. There are also kids from Duke there, and they feel even more foreign, wearing khakis and baseball caps. I have chosen the most “basic” of study abroad programs, and I did it on purpose. I could have stayed with the art school kids in Paris, or London, or Prague, but I was drawn to the most clichéd, and iconic place to visit… Florence.
Later I find out why: because I meet the spiritual community of yogis and monastics that forever change my path there in Florence. But that revelation doesn’t present itself for a few more weeks. My intuition is spot on, without Google and Instagram to cloud its potency. I am running-off source. And soul knowing.
I walk around Genova, take a ferry, have lunch, go into a museum. I think the city is quite plain for an Italian city. I feel a lonely melancholy, but I am accustomed to it.
By the time I get back to the apartment it is dusk and all is quiet. No internet to keep me company, no apps, no way to correspond with folks back home. Just quiet. I sit on the slick black leather couch in the living room while the sun sets and darkness falls around me… there is nothing to do. Just sitting there in the dark. Being. I hear the door open and Pietro walks in. His tall thin frame hangs quiet in the dark. He is a stoic, before I know what that is. He looks at me with little expression on his face and asks: “Do you want to come to a party with me?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Great, let’s go.”
He loans me a hoodie of his, even though we are still wrapped in the warmth of early September, he says it might be cold where we are going.
We get on the back of his 1969 Vespa and catapult our bodies into the night… we ride up and up and up. And I notice we are going into the mountains. The temperature is dropping. It is pitch black out, and it feels like a few hours have passed. I am in heaven on the back of the Vespa. I have no backpack, no water, no snacks, no map, no smart phone… just Pietro, me, and the black of night.
Several hours later we arrive into a thick dark forest, no moon in the sky, where EDM music is playing. Big speakers are stacked on each other in the dark and bodies mingle as moving shadows. Pietro looks at me and says: “Have fun.” And he wanders off becoming just another apparition in a sea of gray shapes.
It is an Italian punk anarchist rave kind of scene. I stand out in the hoodie and turban. I am left standing in the black forest alone. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have water. But it didn’t matter. I am not drinking, or on drugs, but it doesn’t matter.
That night, I am in a ceremony of rebirth into freedom. I am an adult. I am no longer living in my mother’s home in Marietta, Georgia. I am no longer bound to the church, the southern good-girl persona I was given, the social norms of Georgia and life in my little suburb. I am cutting cords from my parents, from traumas, from beliefs, from future visions that were implanted in me, but not mine. This is my first weekend in Italy. My first weekend living free as an adult.
I am alone in the dark forest amongst many bodies. I do not try and get to know people, or chat to folks. The music is so loud, and I barely speak any Italian and it is pitch black… so I go into my own heart, my inner world, I am met by my breath, my courage, my bare soul. I am twenty years-old, like a baby being born to sounds of boom boom boom bass and beats in a dark void, a liminal space where creation itself is pushing out something new. I am in the womb of the Goddess and I couldn’t feel better being here.
I dance all night and pray to Her. To Life. To The Great Mystery. The whole night is a cleansing of everything I know, as hours go by and I am alone. No one knows where I am. I do not know where Pietro is. No one in the world is tracking me. I am truly free. In the tar-black forest of the appenine, surrounded by strangers.
Everything I thought of as “me” slips away. I am no one. I am completely alone. It is almost as if Alexandra no longer exists… I just am. Mush. Void. Womb. Pre-life. Post-me.
I dance and pray, and I sit in meditation upon the earth that night until the sun rises. My feet are cold, and no one has come to speak with me all night, which feels quite rare. I’m not sure if they noticed I was in my own ceremony, or if I look so out of place, or if perhaps I have made myself invisible energetically, perhaps I am between personas now and do not exist. Not one person speaks to me at that Italian forest rave that night.
As the sun rose, I look up from where I am now sitting, and Pietro is there, like my Zen teacher, coming to fetch me after sending me up the mountain to meditate alone with my inner ghosts, and he calmly asks: “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes,” I say, and I stand up, Bambi legs shaky and new. We walk to the Vespa in silence. It is a moment beyond words. Dawn is being born and we are witnessing.
We begin to ride down the mountain as the sun crests pink over the trees… and the rain begins. We pull the Vespa over and sit in a hunter’s shelter on the side of the road with an old hunter and his hound, as he smokes a cigar.
We still don’t say a word. Just sit in silence together, watching the sky change colors, from deep blue, to soft purple, to blush pink, as the rain falls around us. Is this birth?My heart is the sky now, changing colors, dripping, opening, and releasing things that I didn’t have language for. I am in a great dialogue beyond words with those hills, the sky, the smoke, the hound, Pietro, Italy. My edges are melting into all of it.
It is too slippery to ride down, so Pietro hides the bike and we stand on the road and thumb a ride down to Genova. When we get back to his apartment, we barely say any words still. I take a portrait of him on black and white film. A portrait I will never forget. The look in his eyes is piercing and deep and speaks to worlds beyond this one.
I take a taxi back to the train station and say goodbye. We exchange a few letters after that. I send the portrait along with a painting of his eyes to him. It is not about romance. It is just about living fully alive. Free. In the moment. Trusting life.
As I land back in LA, in the crowded café, I wonder if the freedom before smart phones, that feeling of wide open sky in the chest and pink clouds sucking on my skin will ever return. As folks’ heads bow down into their small black boxes I wonder if they see the two year-old giggling wildly while his Mama tickles him, latté nearly spilling. Or the old man, whose face tells story after story upon wrinkle after wrinkle, just waiting to be asked about his time in the war, his immigration. As the roses on the counter open their petals as if to brag, do they cry as busy customers rush in and out texting and tapping and scrolling? Will the real beg us or force us back down and into her? Only time will tell. Perhaps it is simple, as simple as leaving the phone at home, wandering into a walk, saying hello to a stranger, saying yes, choosing life, here and now.