Featured

Yosemite

My favorite part was when I lowered my window to the scent of fresh pine pouring in as I neared my destination, Yosemite. 

The scenic transition from Southern to Central California goes through palm trees, deserts, valleys, mountains, rural Native American towns, and a blanket of woodsy trees signaling the emergence of a more rugged California terrain.

Photo by Courtney.

**

I drove to Ellery Lake that night.  I parked my car and turned my high beams on.  Realizing they made no difference, I turned them off and ate a sandwich under the moonlight and shining stars.  I could hear the sound of water gently lapping against the shore, but under the pitch-black sky, I couldn’t tell where the land ended and water began.  I imagined canoes floating across the lake toward campfires in the distance. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I started to make out the silhouette of pine trees and snow-capped mountains standing before me. Leaning against my car that night, the entirety of one mountain couldn’t fit in my vantage point.  I admired the snow as it glistened under the night sky and inhaled deeply.

**

Photo by Courtney.

The next day, I stopped at Lake Tioga for fresh air and quietude.  I wandered until I found a secluded area by the banks of the lake.  Taking in the vibrance of the autumn colors and crisp air, I walked into a shallow creek.  It was so cold, I don’t know how I ever submerged myself underwater during summer camp as a kid.

Photo by Courtney.

I finally made it to the park entrance where I met a friendly ranger.  “First time to Yosemite?” he asked.  “Yes, and I’m already amazed by the drive here.”  “It gets even better!” he promised, handing me a map.

Photo by Courtney.

I spent the next few days among lakes, mountains, forests, and meadows.  I wanted to enjoy the spontaneity of nature and find sacred pockets of nourishment.  I visited Lake Tenaya while enjoying the sounds of a saxophone playing in the distance.  I was amazed by the butterflies and the lake’s colorful blue and green hues. As I continued to explore, I discovered nature’s divine mysteries.

Photo by Courtney.
Photo by Courtney.

“At moments like these, the heart opens in recognition of something we cannot name.  For a moment the veils between the worlds lift and the beauty of this world awakens a memory of the inner beauty our heart knows but we have forgotten.” -L. Vaughan-Lee

Photo by Courtney.

I questioned how I had never been to Yosemite before.  Years ago, I planned to visit but canceled at the last minute due to being “on available” for a commercial I ended up not booking.  I winced at the memory, not only because I canceled a trip for a mere chance at a booking (“on available” means exactly what it sounds like), but that I put my life on hold. I remembered informing my agent that I had plans.  She told the simple truth that “clients and casting don’t care about your plans.  If they smell difficulty, they’ll cast someone else.”  Nowadays, I’d shrug and make peace with whatever wildcard decision they’d make while knowing my next booking was around the corner.  It always was.  But I simply didn’t trust back then, so I canceled my trip and waited by the phone only to learn I hadn’t been cast. 

Photo by Courtney.

I drove along the Tuolumne Meadows, empty and clear as far as the eye could see.  I spontaneously pulled over and ran from my car to the meadows and frolicked, giggling like a little kid.  Dry grass up to my knees, I considered the possibility of snakes.  I found a tall rock to sit upon while listening to the sounds of bugs and imagined the meadows awash with snow come winter.  I sat and grieved the part of me that needed to succeed in that career, and that ever put the needs of clients, casting directors, and agents above my own.  In any case, I was finally at Yosemite now.

**

Photo by Courtney.

I watched the sunrise each morning overlooking Mono Lake from my porch.  I sat in the 25-degree morning air meditating while listening to the sound of rushing water just beneath the lodge.  Curious about it, I found a hidden trail and went for a stroll. 

Photo by Courtney.

**

I visited Mono Lake one afternoon.  Mono Lake is famous for its tufa, jutting rock formations in and around its sulphuric waters.  Like the Dead Sea, one can float on Mono Lake, but the 30-degree temperature kept everyone bundled-up and dry.  Listening to the ambient sounds of Brian Eno under the setting sun, I imagined myself as an alien visiting Earth for the first time, then as myself visiting another planet for the first time.  I wasn’t sure which I liked more, but both suited the environment perfectly.  As moonlight illuminated Mono Lake’s still waters, the scene grew otherworldly. 

Photo by Courtney.
Photo by Courtney.
Photo by Courtney.
Featured

Everybody’s talking…

I always meet fascinating characters when I travel to Mexico.  I could also assume that I’m another interesting character on the great journey.  Destinations aren’t all that different from airports: a microcosm of human diversity where communication happens whether we understand it or not.  In any case, every person is like a portal into another world. We all breathe life into each other’s days in a myriad of ways that only human connection can.

**

I was in Tlacolula for its weekly tianguis.  Every Sunday, locals meet to socialize, sell, and shop at this sprawling market near the city of Oaxaca.

I wandered into a studio of street and graphic artists.  Their goal was to infuse indigenous motifs into contemporary street art representing their heritage.  As they shared their projects, I wished I could understand more Spanish. 

Tlacolula, Oaxaca. Photo by Courtney

To return to Oaxaca, I joined the queue for shared taxis.  The woman standing in front of me was Japanese.  We began conversing in Spanish…or some version of it.  She came from Osaka to study Oaxacan art to teach her students in Japan. “From Osaka to Oaxaca,” I silently mused.

A sedan pulled up, and the driver signaled all of us to get in.  I stood in disbelief, wondering how 8 adults and a driver were going to fit into this little 90s sedan.  I recalled seeing entire families and pets stacked onto motorbikes in Southeast Asia, so I knew it was possible, but it wasn’t going to be comfortable.

I squeezed into the front seat next to the Japanese woman, and as I reached to close the door, another woman got in next to me.  How naive of me. 

The Osakan and I continued conversing in Spanish while the driver interspersed with grammatical corrections.  After each of us made a statement in Spanish, he re-worked the phrase into functional Spanish, playing the role of chorus to the rest of the eagerly listening passengers.

Oaxaca. Photo by Courtney

**

I spent a day in Villahermosa, but it was so hot and humid that I decided to stay inside my hotel.  There was a shopping mall across the street, and after enough curiosity, I decided to take a stroll. 

I’ve found that mall food courts always have a Chinese restaurant.  I walked to the corner stall where a young woman was handing out eggroll samples.  Handing me a piece of eggroll, she asked in Spanish where I was from.  I explained I was from Los Angeles and was half Chinese and Mexican.  She began speaking Mandarin, but I replied in Mandarin that I didn’t speak Mandarin.  She continued in Cantonese, but I said in English that I couldn’t speak Cantonese either.  I started talking in English, but she replied in Spanish that she didn’t speak English.  We started laughing.  She called her mom to us from inside the kitchen. Her mom asked where in China my family was from.  I said Guangdong.  They got excited and explained they were also from Guangdong.  Her mom began speaking Toisan, my grandparents’ native language.  I internally facepalmed before admitting, in Spanish, that I didn’t speak Toisan either.

“Somos familia,” the young woman shrugged, handing me a small plate of fried plantains.  I’d never had platanos in a Chinese restaurant before. 

**

Tepoztlan, Morelos. Photo by Courtney

While staying in lush Tepoztlán, I befriended travelers from Acapulco who invited me to join their friends living nearby. As I smoked their homegrown marijuana, one of the friends began speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand a word.  At first, I thought she was speaking heavily accented English, but nothing made sense.  She kept talking.  Perhaps she was Chilean? I’d heard their Spanish is indecipherable to non-native speakers.  She repeated the same phrase over and over, so I assumed the marijuana was fogging up the conversation.  She gave up and said something in Spanish that actually made sense.  Turns out she was speaking Mandarin.

Malinalco, Mexico. Photo by Courtney

**

Oh, Chalma. 

While unique, it’s one of the least attractive, dirtiest towns I’ve ever been.  The owner of my hotel warned me not to eat anything there.  The short taxi drive from Malinalco to Chalma passed through rural areas where I observed crawling pilgrims carrying giant statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They also walked in large groups carrying lifesize crosses, and many bathed in the brown Chalma River.

Chalma, Mexico. Photo by Courtney

As I exited the taxi, the driver warned me to hold my bag tightly. I walked downwards into a massive covered market leading to the Chalma Cathedral.  Every vendor sold the same thing: sweets and religious items.  At the bottom of the market, I reached the cathedral on the river banks.  It was packed with worshippers during mass.

Chalma, Mexico. Photo by Courtney
Chalma, Mexico. Photo by Courtney
Chalma, Mexico. Photo by Courtney

Accompanied by live chickens, I walked along the smelly Chalma River that afternoon then decided to leave.  I walked to the bus depot, but quickly got lost and frustrated.  A taxi driver spotted me and shouted a price to return to Malinalco, which I accepted without negotiation.

Heading back, he asked lots of fun questions, like why I didn’t have children for my age.  Asking what brought me to Chalma, I explained that I was studying folk beliefs and institutional religion. He seemed curious and asked questions, but disagreed with everything I replied.  He wanted to know more about folk beliefs, so I talked about Santa Muerte.  At mention of her name, he crossed himself, then kissed the crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror.  He recited scripture then asked my thoughts.  I responded with more information about Santa Muerte.  He crossed himself and kissed the crucifix again.  I became intrigued by this ritual, so I said her name a few times more.

**

Yucatan cenote, Mexico. Photo by Courtney

A local friend invited me to a cenote in Mucuyche, somewhere in the vicinity of Mérida.  The Mayans stewarding the cenote in this sleepy, isolated village didn’t speak English or much Spanish. 

Mucuyche, Yucatan. Photo by Courtney
Mucuyche, Yucatan. Photo by Courtney

When we arrived to the cenote, we met several Scuba divers about to submerge into the abyss of Earth’s caverns, using a single rope as their guide.

“Buen viaje,” we wished them.  They reviewed hand signals, prayed, shouted in excitement, then disappeared underwater.  I went under to watch them dive lower and lower until all that remained were bubbles and darkness.  I read that the cenotes are connected by subterranean channels.  As one swims into the depths, one can find mammoth and animal bones, among other things.  Submerged remnants of the Earth and the Maya, only accessible through these portals where words lose meaning.

Yucatan cenote, Mexico. Photo by Courtney

Featured

Bethlehem: My Coming-Out Story

Every queer person has a uniquely nuanced coming-out story.  It also happens in stages.  I was fortunate to have had a kind and loving, if not strangely framed experience.

I came out to a friend on Christmas Day in Bethlehem 11 years ago.

Bethlehem, 2009. Photo by Courtney

At the time, I was living on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, where I was dancing and choreographing under the auspices of a contemporary dance company.  That’s where I met this sweet, quirky dancer from Scotland.  For Christmas, we decided to spend the day in Bethlehem to participate in festivities.

Photo by Courtney

Christmas in Bethlehem was intense.  We crossed the border wall and took a taxi to Manger Square, home of the Church of the Nativity and the Mosque of Omar.  As we neared our destination, crowds of pilgrims walked beside us, effectively blocking traffic.  We got out of the car and continued on foot with everyone else.

Bethlehem, 2009. Photo Courtney

Once we reached Manger Square, we noticed large groups of Palestinian soldiers carrying automatic rifles patrolling.  We also spotted them standing on rooftops as thousands flocked to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site of Jesus’ birthplace.  We heard familiar Christmas songs coming from inside the church.  The choir sang in Arabic as everyone else sang along in their language, including us.  We found our way inside the overwhelmingly crowded chapel but left once the singing ended. 

Bethlehem, 2009.

Feeling hungry and exhausted from the journey from Northern Israel to Bethlehem, we headed away from Manger Square to find food.  While walking, we heard sirens and honking.  We turned and saw a truck carrying 10 masked soldiers speeding down the road toward us.  We stepped aside but got stuck in an immobile crowd.  As the truck neared, we could see the soldiers holding their rifles in the shoot position, each dark barrel facing us. My friend and I gasped and instinctively grabbed each other’s hands.  The truck sped away, and we finally breathed again.  We looked at each other in disbelief and scurried away as soldiers continued to march the street.

Bethlehem, 2009. Photo by Courtney

We found a small restaurant and sat by the window savoring fresh-baked pizza.  My friend pulled out her sketchbook and began drawing eerily accurate images of the armed soldiers.  I started drawing caricatures of them.  As we drew and ate pizza, we got to talking about boys.  She wanted to know if I liked anyone.  I did, but it wasn’t a boy.  It was all very high school.  She went through the names of all the men we knew, and as I’d say “no” each time, it dawned on her that I didn’t like any of them.  She exclaimed, “It’s a girl?!”  I was honestly terrified.  I looked down at my soldier caricature and wondered how to explain myself.

Guarded.

“Yes,” was all I could say, still looking at my drawing.  She guessed correctly who I liked.  She sort of knew after spending time with us in rehearsal.  She got excited and began talking about my crush as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  Of course, it was.  But back then, I was terrified of the potential judgment and mockery.  She started telling me about the people she liked and asked what I thought.  It occurred to me that we were having a totally normal conversation without any weirdness, which felt massively relieving.  At the end of the conversation, she smiled and told me to “go for it,” to express my feelings to my crush.

Photo by Courtney

We finished our pizza and sodas and decided we’d had enough of the tension and crowds for the day.  Taxi drivers weren’t accepting new fares since traffic was completely blocked.  We weren’t sure how to get back to the checkpoint, so one of the drivers told us to walk alongside the wall until we got there.  We spent the next few hours leisurely strolling the wall admiring artwork, including several Banksy pieces, and stopped to read messages of hope, rage, pride, triumph, and struggle.  We saw images of Mahmoud Darwish, the esteemed Palestinian poet interspersed with pictures of martyrs to the Palestinian cause.  We discussed deeply the reality of where we were living and what that meant for Palestinians.  We recognized how easily we could leave.

Photo by Courtney
Photo by Courtney
Photo by Courtney
Photo by Courtney

We met Palestinian and European artists working on the wall and found a restaurant whose menu was painted on the wall.  Eager for business, the owner called out to us as we approached.  We politely declined as we had just eaten, but appreciated his sense of humor and ingenuity at the situation.  Asking how business was going, he gestured to the wall and said, “terrible,” then laughed.  It was clearly a laugh masking frustration, yet I couldn’t shake the humor of it.  It was the first time I felt the paradox of accepting multiple realities at the same time.  Business was terrible, even on the most crowded day of the year in Bethlehem.  An enormous, ugly wall blocked the view.  So rather than spend money printing menus, he had it painted on the canvas available to him.  How could I not appreciate that?  We ended up speaking with him and others as we continued along the wall, which turned out to be the highlight of our day.

Photo by Courtney

Photo by Courtney
Photo by Courtney

We crossed the checkpoint back into Jerusalem, slightly shaken and exhausted.  I had come out to a kind and loving soul and felt liberated.  I had also emerged with a higher capacity for the sharp humor and hardship of that heated place.  Even though I sometimes forget the gifts of these lessons, I am always reminded somehow.

**

Photo by Courtney
Photo by Courtney

**

Over the years I’ve realized how important normalization is.  I was lucky that the people I chose to share with were loving, open-hearted, and open-minded.  I know this is not everyone’s experience, and my heart truly goes out to anyone who has ever had a traumatic coming-out experience or cannot safely do so.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with self-identity, please reach out to The Trevor Project intervention hotline for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678 for a safe and judgment-free place to talk.  You can also reach out to the LGBT National Hotline at 888-843-4564. You are not alone.

Earth Angels

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

While sitting in Bogota’s airport awaiting a domestic flight to Pereira, I met a pregnant Colombian woman, Maria, her Dutch husband, Franz, and a mother and daughter from England.  After a long delay, we finally boarded the plane belonging to one of the country’s budget airlines.  After another delay, an announcement was made in Spanish, and everyone started huffing and grumbling.  I could tell this wasn’t going to be fun.  “Viva Colombia,” a man said aloud, exasperated.  We exited the plane and headed back inside the airport.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

The English travelers and I flocked to Maria for answers.  Our flight had been canceled, and airline staff had no clue what would happen next.  They repeatedly waved off travelers speaking English, so Maria became the unofficial translator.  I sat with Maria and Franz, thanking her for generously translating.  She expressed her frustration living in the Netherlands as a non-Dutch speaker, so she was all too happy to help.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

After an hour and a half, I grew hungry.  I could tell other passengers were also growing irritated and hungry; an apparent “hangry” attitude permeated the air.  As if on cue, airline staff began distributing free meal vouchers for restaurants located throughout the airport, some as far as different terminals.  It became a frenzy.  As I went to get my voucher, Maria stopped me.  “Just…wait,” she said ominously.  “But what if they run out?” I asked.  Maria instructed Franz to go to the nearest cafe and bring us pastries, coffee, and water.  That took care of that.

After two-thirds of the passengers disappeared on their wild goose chase, a shuttle bus arrived at the gate.  “I knew it,” Maria said.  Franz returned, and as we sat eating and drinking, Maria kept an eye and ear on the airline staff.  A woman in a smart skirt suit appeared, clearly a senior staff member.  She made a barely audible announcement in Spanish to those of us remaining at the gate.  Then an uproar happened.  All the foreigners flocked again to Maria.  “They have a private medical jet at another terminal to take us to Pereira, but they can only take 19 passengers.  They are prioritizing families with children, pregnant women, and the elderly.” 

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

I panicked at the thought of losing the one person helping me through this and that the remaining passengers would slowly start returning.  After watching the food voucher frenzy, I knew I’d be eaten alive in that crowd.  I politely asked Skirt suit when the next plane would arrive, but she ignored me.  Maria made a face, then marched up to her and the two engaged in a Spanish rapid-fire discussion.  Skirt suit peered at me and shook her head.  Then Maria said something causing Skirt suit to pause.  

“Hablas español?” she looked at me.  “No!”  

“Estas sola?”  “Yes!”

Skirt suit subtly nodded her head, and as I was about to thank her, Maria grabbed my arm and pulled me out the door as the passengers left behind began shouting.  “Get on the shuttle before she changes her mind!” Maria exclaimed.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

As the shuttle pulled away from the gate, I asked Maria what she said to convince Skirt suit to let me board the flight.  “I told her you were traveling alone, you don’t speak Spanish, and then I reminded her what country this is.  You can’t arrive after dark.” 

I sat back in my seat, humbled, grateful, and ultimately, in awe that this very pregnant woman took it upon herself to move mountains for a kid who wasn’t even hers.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

I’ve been blessed in my travels to meet divinely placed strong women who, just by existing, empower me little by little. At the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home.

Bogota, Colombia. Photo by Courtney.

Fire In My Hands

July 2020, Los Angeles, USA 

transmitting to: the evening of 29th June 2008 – London, UK

Dear Courtney,

You’re in your flat this quiet Sunday evening watching the Glastonbury Festival live on TV.  Your lights are off except for that desk lamp you love so much.  It’s late June, so your windows are open, and a gentle breeze flows in.  You look out at the Canary Wharf skyscrapers’ glittering lights and their reflection on the Thames from your 7th-floor view.

“This is a million-dollar view…for not a million dollars,” you frequently think.  How lucky you were to receive this seemingly random room assignment while studying abroad.

It’s late June, so most of the neighboring students have left.  Only the foreign students remain, milking out the remaining time on our visas. It’s quiet.  It’s summer. Summer in London has a magical air – an air of gratitude, revelry, and joy.  In Southern California, we take the summer for granted, partly because it’s year-round, and because it gets too hot.  But not Londoners.  They love their little window of sunshine and warmth in an otherwise dreary climate.  But shh, they “don’t talk about the weather.” Like it’s a national disaster.

The thought of *actually* being at Glastonbury seems so far off to you at this time.  All those people.  AllThatMud.  So watching it live on TV from the tranquility and sterility of your flat is paradise.

You’re also doing other things, not totally invested in the festival.  It’s more of a fun soundtrack to your evening than an experience.  Either way, you can feel the roar of the crowd singing and the mighty energy radiating from Glastonbury, which, relatively speaking, isn’t very far from where you are (115 miles). 

London 2008

The crowd simmers like water just before boiling as a familiar tune plays. The Verve is onstage.  Darkness.  A massive sea of people.  Cue drums. Bright lights shine.  Richard Ashcroft stands at the mic in a haze of smoke and begins singing, “Happiness, more or less…”  You stop what you’re doing.  You’re drawn in.

“How many corners do I have to turn?  How many times do I have to learn?  All the love I have is in my mind,” he sings with the immense crowd.

There is the occasional flash of cameras and lighters.  Arms are raised, but this being pre-smartphone times, there is no phone in sight.  Everyone is there.  Even from my flat in the docklands, I’m there.

My former school among the Greenwich docklands, 2008

The song continues. Then the simmer returns during a short instrumental break.  “Don’t think I’m lyin’, I’m flying, come on now,” the singer shouts, like a rallying battle cry, which it totally is.  You’re captivated.  You’re the luckiest girl in the world, but you don’t believe it yet.

I’m here to tell you now that you can believe it because it’s true. You’re in a transitional phase and things are about to get stickier. But you’re a lucky woman.  With the gift of hindsight, you will see that the Universe has always conspired for you, even when it seemed like the opposite.  In fact, those moments, periods, epochs, held the most alchemical powers to your growth.

Hyde Park, London

London.  12 years ago.  It seems so far away.  Your cells are different now.  Your mind is different now.  But your heart – the biggest heart I have ever known – is what connects us through space and time.  It gets better.  Life is grand.  Life is sweet.  If you’re feeling challenged, you’re doing it right.  But suffering is optional. I forgive you.

Remember these words, laced with wild Glastonbury energy, etched forever into your being: “All the love I have is in my mind.”

In my heart always, I love you.

Courtney

London 2008
The Verve at Glastonbury 2008. Video by Gozzy Studios, London.

A Pilgrimage, Two Goddesses, and Deliverance

2009

Tel Aviv. Photo by Courtney

Talia Landa had left Batsheva and started her own dance company, Maria Kong, whose premiere took place in Tel Aviv one night in 2009.  I made the pilgrimage from Ga’aton with a taxi to Nahariya, a train to Tel Aviv, then a taxi to the theater.  It was raining the whole time.

When I arrived at the theater, I was informed by the company manager that it was a private event for press and donors only.  Not willing to step outside in the pouring rain and backtrack all the way north, I told her I was a friend of Talia’s and that I had come from Los Angeles for this.  Not totally a lie.  She said she’d see what she could do.

Waiting awkwardly in the doorway, I saw my buddy Erez from afar and smiled as he walked over.  Upon learning I didn’t have a ticket, he offered to find one.  A quick discussion passed between him and the company manager, and a few minutes later, she procured a ticket from someone who didn’t show up.  She said it was “on the house” and to “enjoy.”

“Friends in high places,” I thought.  Curious as to where I would be sitting, I looked at the ticket and saw that it read: Sharon Eyal +1.  I froze when I realized who I’d be sitting next to.

**

I went inside the theater, and as the house lights dimmed, Sharon rushed inside to take her seat next to mine.  The curtain rose, and the four dancers stood onstage looking like creatures from another world.  They moved, they breathed, they soared.  They gave us new meaning to movement.

“Fling” by Maria Kong Dancers Company. Photographer unknown.

One section featured a violinist wearing a dress resembling a tree with massive roots burrowing into the stage floor.  Talia was onstage doing a solo performance, and the backing track was a low, bass-heavy beat.  A pulse.  Talia was one of my favorite dancers.  Whether on stage or sitting at the beach eating abulafiah, Talia had a magnetic presence that breathed life into my broken, small, scared parts.  She was a powerhouse.  Moving as only she could with a violin backing her, I was transfixed.

Tel Aviv. Photo by Courtney

As her solo progressed, Sharon started moving in the seat next to me.  At first, gently nodding her head along to the beat of the backing track.  But as Talia’s movements grew wilder and more massive, so did Sharon’s.  Transcending the audience around her, she began undulating her torso and head as large as a person confined to a theater chair could.  Her facial expression displayed her enjoyment and pleasure.  All that Talia was giving us, Sharon was reciprocating back to her.  It was very erotic.

Sharon Eyal, excerpt from a piece by L-E-V. Unknown videographer.

The show ended, and the audience was astounded.

**

I went to the bathroom, and as I washed my hands, Sharon exited her stall and joined me in the mirror to adjust her hair.  We smiled at each other through the mirror.  I had met her several times, so we weren’t total strangers, but not acquainted either. 

Sharon pulled her lipstick out of her purse and slowly applied the bright red shade onto her lips.  Mindlessly running my hands under the water, I stood there watching her through the mirror, mesmerized like a little girl observing a glamorous older woman performing a modern-day feminine ritual. 

As she touched up her makeup, I thanked her for the ticket and expressed how much I enjoyed the show.  Looking at me through the mirror, she replied, “my pleasure.”  Before leaving, she turned to me and gently placed her hand on my shoulder and smiled again.  She rubbed my shoulder for a moment, then wistfully let go, and exited the bathroom.

I stood there, letting it sink in and felt what I know now was an activation.  Then I laughed out loud.  I realized she hadn’t washed her hands.  The metaphor of sterility and dirtiness hadn’t occurred to me then as it does now. 

**

I didn’t just receive Sharon Eyal’s absent Plus One’s ticket.  I received more that night.  Sitting next to Sharon for an uninterrupted hour while Talia danced on stage, activated my life force.  Strength.  Gravity.  Two women showing up to themselves in their entirety.  They sent energy back and forth, creating a dominant, body-filling frequency in which I bathed and basked.  They gave me permission to take up space.  To be big.  To be turned on.  To be feminine.  To be dirty.  To be sensual. 

I planted those seeds somewhere deep in the desert of my heart without knowing how or if they’d grow.  Years later, they are sprouting. 

Sharon Eyal, excerpt from “In Black – 720.” Videography by Ron Arad.

Unlocking Myself in Istanbul

The small woman
Builds cages for everyone.
She
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck her head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.
-Hafiz

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

After spending a few weeks in Egypt, I had to fly home through Istanbul, Turkey.  I had a 7-hour layover and felt like leaving the airport, so I booked a hotel room and left. It was January 2019, and it was cold outside.  I had no plan and no idea how long I would stay.  I only knew that I had been to Istanbul once in 2009, and had memorable cultural and spiritual experiences.  I attended a Sema, a whirling dervish ceremony held in a Sufi mosque where I vividly remembered worshippers chanting in unison to traditional Sufi music.  I was called to this experience again, so I emailed a guy I knew and said I wanted to attend one.  He sent me a meeting place and time.

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney
Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

Seated on the women’s side of the room, I felt the casual air of friendliness among the congregants.  Most women weren’t wearing headscarves, and some of them sat in the men’s section. 

The sermon opened with a televised recording of the late imam in Turkish.  The congregants nodded when something resonated, and loudly jeered at other times.  When the sermon concluded, fruit and yogurt were served.  The musicians sat upstairs and began playing traditional instruments. 

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

The dervishes marched out single file, men and women, ranging in age from 20s-60s.  One by one, they removed their black cloak and began to whirl.  The dervishes don’t zone out, but are actually present to their experience. The euphoria sets in quickly. 

I sat in admiration as the floor became a sea of spinning white linen to the devotional sounds of 13th-century music.

**

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

**

I befriended a Turkish woman who intimidated me.  One night while walking around Beşiktaş, she yelled at hijab-wearing women.  She frequently lamented Turkey’s growing fundamentalism.  As an American, I didn’t know what watching my country slowly unraveling felt like.  It would take another year before I’d experience that, and how the topic of face masks would evoke equal scorn.

We ordered beers at a bar then abruptly left since she found the scene too “Middle Eastern douchey.” We settled onto some outdoor steps surrounded by Istanbul’s ubiquitous stray cats coming to say hello and to receive affection.   

“What are you doing about yourself?” she asked.  I started reciting stock answers I’d use in LA.  She cut me off, “Oh fuck the gays!  Fuck Hollywood!  Fuck LA!  What are you doing about yourself?!” she exclaimed.  That question was a long time coming.

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

**

One afternoon, I caught a taxi near the famous Sultanahmet Mosque, a rookie mistake.  Prime scamming spot and lord knows I look like a tourist.  The taxi driver started off nice but soon became problematic.  I wanted to get out of the car, but we were on a highway stretched along the Sea of Marmara.  He bragged about Russian women he’d slept with in between sexual propositions and racist rants against Syrian refugees.  I wasn’t sure if these were paid encounters, but I sat quietly wondering how dangerous exiting a car on the highway would be.  As we neared my destination, I gave him a decoy location and paid the fare.  He pulled a bait and switch with the notes, assuming foreigners can’t tell the difference.  I knew what he was doing and waved him off as I exited the car, but he grabbed my arm.  I pulled a note from my pocket, crumpled it, and threw it at him before leaving the vehicle. 

I left the car feeling violated and cried in the doorway of an apartment building as it began raining.  Fortunately, a kind woman was leaving the apartment and asked what happened.  I told her, and she marched outside looking for him, ready to rumble.  I thanked her and let her know she didn’t have to.  She offered taxi money, but I assured her I was okay.  Finally, she handed me a pack of tissues from her purse and gave me a hug.  That was all I really needed. 

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

I began walking to my hotel and noticed two boys digging from a dumpster.  They were speaking Arabic.  Syrians.  Every Istanbullite I met, including the taxi perv, expressed disdain over the refugees.  “They beg everywhere.”  “They don’t speak Turkish.” “They’re turning us into an Arab country.”

One of the boys climbed out of the dumpster and looked at me.  We both paused and stared at each other.  My eyes were red from crying.  His eyes struck me deeply. I felt silly standing there after having cried over losing $20 and being energetically violated by some lame taxi driver.  I wanted to reach into my purse and give the kid the remainder of my cash.  And then fear kicked in.  Though he couldn’t be older than 13, there was another boy with him, and after what just happened, I was afraid they might attack and rob me.  And yet, I stood there.  I wished I could speak Arabic.  His face grew curious.  “You matter.  You exist.  No one here is better than you.  You deserve happiness.”  I was mentally communicating to him everything I needed to hear.

What are you doing about yourself, the universe was shouting, as I walked away.

**

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

Istanbul is a city to be walked.  Strolling its narrow, hilly streets, I admired the stray cats and old city walls, street art, and the juxtaposition of grand buildings beside dilapidated piles of rubble.   

I found a rusty key on the ground one afternoon. I picked it up and kept it in my pocket with the realization that I had stayed in Istanbul to unlock missing parts of myself. I walked to Galata Bridge and retraced steps I had taken 10 years earlier. I crossed from Beyoğlu to Eminonu Pier and observed fishermen along the bridge and the numerous ferries crisscrossing the Golden Horn like fireflies.  The sun had set, and dusk was settling in as mosque floodlights illuminated each dome and minaret like a shining beacon.

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

**

I awoke to watch the sunrise over the Bosphorus from my balcony while journaling.  As the sun continued to rise, a rainbow splashed across the pages, and I booked my flight home.

Deeper healing was occurring, and I had to surrender myself to it.

Istanbul, Turkey 2019. Photo by Courtney

Jerusalem

It was 3 am in the Old City of Jerusalem.  Some friends and I wandered south from Ga’aton for an annual holiday and ended up sitting on an Old City rooftop in the eerie quiet of the night.  As we descended we heard the sounds of faint chanting coming from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Old City of Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Courtney
Old City of Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Courtney

Peeking inside, we saw Eastern Orthodox priests and nuns observing Orthodox Easter, about a week following mainstream Easter.  I had been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a number of times, usually during the day packed with tourists and pilgrims.

During my first visit to the church a few years earlier, I remembered watching people climb out of their wheelchairs to kiss the Stone of Unction on the floor.  I also remember thinking that if they got up and walked out, I’d get baptized right then and there.  Alas, no baptism for me.

Old City of Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Courtney

Tonight, however, the church was deserted save for the Orthodox priests and nuns wearing traditional garb chanting ancient scriptures.  The whole chapel smelled of incense and the illumination of hundreds of candles danced in delight creating a devout spectacle.

Trying to be respectful, my friends and I kept a safe distance from the worshippers and quietly explored the empty interiors of the massive church.  Several of my friends were Jewish, one was an atheist raised Catholic, another a self-described earth granola mama, and me, an agnostic raised Christian. 

Old City of Jerusalem, 2012. Photo by Courtney

“What’s up there?” asked one of my Jewish friends, pointing to the Rock of Calvary, the site on which it is believed Jesus’ cross stood. 

During my previous visits to the church, I was always deterred by the Disney-style line to reach the sacred site, separated from the masses by a steep staircase and a leering priest forcing people to move along.  Tourists and pilgrims would kneel before the rock, take photos (this was before the age of smartphones, so no selfies), cross themselves, and oftentimes kiss the rock.  The whole ordeal took hours of waiting in line to have several precious seconds with the stone.  Very Disney theme park indeed.

Not tonight though.  Devoid of a queue or leering gatekeeper, we climbed the steep steps to the Rock of Calvary and without thinking, immediately knelt.  We were stunned into silence.  Several Jews, an atheist, an agnostic, and an earth granola mama.  At first, it felt decadent to have the whole scene to ourselves, but we quickly got over it and surrendered.  One by one, we each went to the rock to feel it. We certainly felt the powerful energy emanating from the site, a site sacred to billions the world over for two millennia. 

Souq Al Wad, Old City of Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Courtney

After spending several minutes alone with the rock in silence, we went downstairs to the main chapel and sat in quiet gratitude and to reflect on the experience.  As we did, a large-bodied Orthodox priest with a large beard walked beside us.  He looked exactly like the character Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, but with a tall hat and layers of gold chains.  Tacky Hagrid.  

He glared at us and upon noticing one of my friends wearing shorts, yelled, “You bitch!  Get out!”  Completely shocked, we got up and glared back at him.  My friend in the shorts began crying while the rest of us expressed our discontent verbally and loudly.  Curse words and insults were said.  I didn’t care that we were in a sacred site.  I didn’t like that a clearly corrupt man could be so hateful in a home that wasn’t his.  Were Jesus present, he’d have likely said, “Chill.  I don’t mind it and neither should you.  Leave her alone.”  As we exited the church, I called him a bad Christian and said he should learn to share.

Old City of Jerusalem, 2013. Photo by Courtney

Once safely outside, we stood near the Byzantine Column, an archaeological remnant from the Byzantine Empire, and consoled our friend while decrying the lack of morality shown by a supposed holy leader.  Then something on the ground sparkled, catching my eye.  I bent down to pick up a small, shining crucifix.  I held it up for my friends to see, and we were stunned into silence yet again.  Even my crying friend froze in wonder.  “He’s listening” I heard someone say, though I’m not sure who.  Whatever it was, Jesus had our back. We laughed then made our way to Jaffa Gate to return to the modern world, baptized under the moonlight.

Old City of Jerusalem, 2012. Photo by Courtney

Goddess

I had a trip to Egypt planned for months.  Then there was a rupture.  

Rather than cancel my trip, my mom decided to join me in Egypt.  We spent 10 days traveling from Cairo to Aswan to Luxor to see Ancient Egyptian tombs, temples, and pyramids.  I’m the type of traveler who plans an itinerary well in advance, and while my travel experience has taught me the value of flexibility (because nothing ever goes to plan), this trip saw many changes.

I hadn’t originally intended to visit the Temple of Dendera near Luxor, but after some research, I decided to organize a tour to the site.  The next morning, we arrived at the hotel lobby where I approached a woman sitting in a chair and introduced myself.  “Courtney? Yes! I am your guide to Dendera, my name is Azza.” She had a warmth about her that put my mom and me at ease immediately.

The Nile River, Upper Egypt

During the 2 hour drive to the temple, the three of us spoke about all sorts of things.  Once at Dendera, Azza began her official tour introducing us to Hathor, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility and beauty, and a protector of women.  

Temple of Dendera, Qena, Egypt

In between explanations of the artwork, hieroglyphics, and Ancient Egyptian cosmogony. We often spoke of personal matters.  Azza was a single mother in a country that does not give women much agency to do so. As she spoke with such energy and passion, it became clear she was a force. She was highly educated, kind, witty, tough, multilingual, and outspoken. I asked about the adversity she faced being an independent, educated, working woman, and she didn’t mince words. She spoke honestly about her family’s opinions, as well as those in her community. She also spoke about the inherent sexism in the tourism industry, which was already evident to us back in Cairo, where we had a female tour guide.

Dendera

As we moved through the temple, we saw archaeologists working throughout the site.  Azza asked how their progress was coming along. The magic of archaeological sites is that the work is never complete, and there is always something to unearth.

Dendera

I silently walked along as Azza asked my mom about her upbringing as a Chinese-American woman, family, work, and being a single mother as well.  My mom shared our complicated family story candidly. Listening intently, Azza regarded my mom as “the smartest person in the world.”  My mom was taken by surprise, and I felt empowered to hear a woman like Azza uplifting my mom. It occurred to me that I was meant to be at this temple, a temple built in honor of a goddess representing womanhood, femininity, love, motherhood, and beauty, with two of the strongest women in Egypt at that moment.  Standing between my mom and Azza, I felt a radiance of love, strength, and empowerment, mixing with ancient-history-geek-out moments.

Dendera

There was a large image of Cleopatra behind the temple.  Unsurprisingly, most images of the famous female pharaoh were destroyed after her reign, but this one remained.  I smiled as I considered the symbolism of seeing one of the few Cleopatra images left in Egypt at a temple dedicated to a goddess. 

Dendera

As we left the site, one of the male security guards was giving Azza a hard time.  The rapid pace of Arabic flying between them grew more intense, and other guards came to spectate.  

Chismosos.

Finally given the clear to leave, Azza vented to our driver in Arabic before explaining to us what happened.  Basically, a whole lot of power tripping and nonsense.

Dendera

Upon concluding our tour, we said goodbye and remarked how joyful we were to have met. Of all the places we visited during our trip, Dendera was the most radiant and peaceful. Looking back at how the dots connected, I’m glad we ended up exactly where and with whom we were supposed to be.

Tacos y Lagrimas

“Well, I’ve been to Tulum twice now.”

“That’s not real Mexico.  You need to start with the capital.”

When my friend from Mexicali told me that Tulum didn’t count, I realized I needed to roll up my beach towel and get off the resort.

It took some time, but while going through a break up I booked a flight, packed my suitcase, and finally headed to Latin America’s superstar metropolis.

And I cried the whole time.
​I’m laughing at myself now, but back then, my god.

Mexico City

I cried during the flight.  The American guy sitting next to me absolutely noticed but positioned himself in a way that I’d have privacy and space.  What a kindness. When I eventually stopped crying, we got to chatting and he told me he was a teacher in LA meeting with his girlfriend, a teacher in San Francisco, in Mexico City. 

Mexico City

I cried in my hotel room each morning.  I flipped on the TV to watch nonsensical physical comedy in Spanish, relieved by the laugh track and absurdity.

​I cried in an Uber driving through the Centro Historico at night, recording video of the dimly lit streets filled with pedestrians, no sign of slowing down despite the late hour.

I cried on the bus to Teotihuacán.  I cried at Teotihuacán, too, but that was more out of sheer amazement.  Respite.

I even cried in a damn taqueria.

Teotihuacan, Mexico

One day I stopped crying and visited the National Museum of Anthropology where I spent several leisurely hours immersed in indigenous cultures, ancient artifacts, and maps.  I really do love maps. While taking a breath of fresh air outside, I ran into the teacher from the flight and his girlfriend.  

Really.

Mexico City

In the largest museum in a city of 9 million people, I somehow managed to run into this guy.  While introducing his girlfriend, she remarked with some familiarity, “you’re the woman from the flight.”  I assumed he told her he sat next to a crying woman during his flight. “Indeed. He told me you were both teachers!”

Mexico City

I stopped crying after that museum visit and decided to extend my stay in Mexico City.  Those initial overcast, gray days bloomed into shining, blue skies with gentle breezes and I fell in love with Mexico City in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I weren’t crying the whole damn time.

Then I went for tacos.

Mexico City
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