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California Dreams and Realities

I came for the healing power of the sea.

I came to complete – literally and symbolically – my coast-to-coast journey.

I’d envisioned my Cali arrival vividly, in my mind’s eye, since before the odyssey began last June, before the two false starts and house and health troubles that dragged me back home and kept me there ‘til late November. Then, tentatively, desperately, against doctor’s orders, I set out for the third (and final) time.

Traversing 12 states, traveling 4,000 circuitous miles over five months, I’ve tried not to obsess over my ultimate maritime destination, because I know: it’s about the journey.

But standing at the ocean’s edge, the sparkling blue Pacific before me, sun warming my face and Santa Ana winds whirling my hair, the reality is even better than the dream.

I step closer, feel the icy water lap over my feet, reach up to my knees; and gasp as I count seven waves, for good luck, offering my prayer to Yemanja, Goddess of the Sea.

I hesitate, watching the frothy waves crest and crash, spraying me with foam, undertow tugging at my legs.

Contrary to my vision, I am not wearing a wet suit.

I don’t need one, I bite my lip. Inhaling a breath into my belly, I reach my arms overhead, squeeze my eyes shut, and dolphin-dive in.

Then, up from the depths I pop, yelping with shock and delight, splashing water, tasting salt, fully cleansed, fully healed, my journey, now, complete.

Or is it? I wonder, hazily, lazily, hair dripping, skin shivering, as I wrap my fluttery sarong around my waist and settle down onto the warm sand.

What is healed, what is complete?

I watch a pair of surfers saunter by. Reaching behind my back, I grasp my low lumbar: the scoliosis hump seems softened, the burning pain along the illiac crest cooled, the ever-present prickling in my left thigh muted.

Have my lumbar distortions miraculously disappeared?

Spine reclined against a boulder, I feel my shoulders relax, the squished disk between vertebrae open. I smile up at a startling blue sky just as a squadron formation of pelicans passes overhead, casting oblong shadows against the red Del Mar cliffs.

Has the pain receded, like the tide, but forever?

Who’s to say?

I’ve experienced so many little miracles on this journey. Just getting my broken body out of DC, drawn by the invitation to the Arkansas Writer’s Colony, away from the spine surgeon with his glinting scalpel, was the first miracle.

The doctor had said: “You will never be straight…we’ll have to monitor the curve…with time and gravity, bone could impinge on vital organs.”

That was back in November, when I could not sit or stand or walk, forget about ever running again. Standing at the kitchen counter to cut veggies, before the bathroom mirror to comb my hair, negotiating life’s basics, was excruciating. I’d just begun PT and was learning about my posture, my compensating coping mechanisms which, over a lifetime, in an attempt to hold myself upright, had worsened the damage.

And then there were five moves in four months, trying to, dying to, get on the journey road, only to be yanked home repeatedly. “Well,” said one PT I’d interviewed who specialized in the Schroth Method. “No one I know, much less someone with severe scoliosis, would be able to withstand that kind of punishment.”

It's mid-May: I'm 2 months late for my X-rays.

It took me a year to get where I am.

Along the journey road, everyplace I’ve been, I’ve found healers – or they’ve found me – Puebloan shaman and yoga therapists and myofascial release specialists and wholistic fitness experts – who have sung and chanted over me, cleansed my energy with herbs and prayers, massaged my clenched muscles, opened up calcified joints, and helped me to release old, dark, ancestral pain.

I’m not going home.

I have taken matters into my own hands.

I’ve started every single day, wherever I am, down on the ground – on the floorboards of my one-room bunkhouse – on a rocky cliff overlooking Death Hollow canyon – on cement patios and sandy riverbanks and motel room carpets – flowing through my sacred yoga routine.

I am strong, now; I can hike 10 miles over slickrock, trudge through sand, traverse rivers.

I am not going home.

My California dreamin’ has just begun, and unfolds in vivid purple, green and gold, the colors of Mardi Gras.

I’ve timed my Pacific Coast arrival to coincide with Gator by the Bay, a festival of Loosiana music and dance, food and culture, on sunny San Diego’s Spanish Landing.

Another little miracle: I am taking Caroline my Precious Crooked Spine out dancing!

Off with the desert khakis and dusty hiking boots, I wear a breezy sundress for the festive occasion; only, the winds off the water are so darn chilly, I pull a pair of linen pants beneath my dress and zip-up my jacket.

Under the football field sized tent, throbbing with the zydeco pulse of humanity, I two-step to the washboard beat with maskless abandon. Soulful accordion chords reverberate in my belly. My partner for this dance, David from Philly, spins and tugs, turns and dips me.

I am a little out of dance shape – a little breathless – though I am getting the hang of it, again, head dizzy with the joy of twisting, push-pull motion – if my back isn’t feeling a bit of a nag, particularly on the waltz where I, the follower, must step backwards, trusting the leader to guide me, counterclockwise, around and through and alongside other circling dancers, like bumper cars, squeezing my eyes shut, hoping we don’t crash.

“Somebody scream!” booms Geno Delefose, band leader, into his microphone.

And in response, a unified cry goes up to the top of the tent, my raspy voice joining in.

As much as I appreciated my months in the wilderness – from the vacant, ancient canyonlands of Escalante to the Mojave desert austerity of Joshua Tree, communing with nature, kissing rocks, singing to the trees – I am captivated, if not a bit overwhelmed, by this bubbling, bouncing, cheering, flouncing flesh-and-blood of humanity.

Scent of steamed crawfish, sip of cold beer, chatter and hugs from friends, old and new, a second line parade marches by, and I step in.

After two days of revelry, I am exhausted, every bone and muscle in my body, in my face, feet and hands, joyfully alive.

I fall asleep that night, on the couch of a pair of musician friends, to the sound of airy Brazilian lullabies.

When I awaken, the next morning, I’m still tired. I have a sore throat.

“No wonder,” my host friends tell me, “dancing for two days, the chilly Santa Ana winds, hot and cold, and all the spring allergens…”

“Yes,” I nod in agreement, inhaling the scent of jasmine floating in from the patio, as the purple Jacarandas in full, ferocious bloom, sway on the street on the morning breeze.

Only it’s not allergies.

I will get a text from David Dancer, already back in Philly.

He has tested positive for Covid.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I’m also angry, though not at him. How come I hadn’t masked up? Why’d I delay my third booster? I deride myself.

I take a home test: it’s negative. I’m hopeful. I don’t have time to be sick.

Now out of the wilderness and in the city, I have a litany of long-delayed chores: a 40k checkup on the VW, my roving home, a long-awaited haircut, grocery and drug store errands, packages to mail. I also have friends and family to meet – long-lost West coast connections who are part of my healing journey – fellow Peace Corps Mexico friend – Long Beach cousin and her new husband – the ‘Bans off our Bodies’ march in LA. I’ve got to cram it all in.

But my sore throat worsens, my voice deepens an octave. I attribute it to the screaming: What do we want, justice, when do we want it, now!

I’ve staved-off Coronavirus for two years; it’s certainly not part of my California Dream. I have no fever. I can taste and smell. It’s just allergies.

It takes two days to get the PCR test results; my cousin in Pasadena with two toddlers won’t let me visit until I’m clear.

I’m not clear.

I’m positive.

Strangely, the news comes as a relief because, at least, I know what’s wrong. It also comes with shame and worry. I have potentially exposed so many.

By now, at my aunt’s house in Orange County, I have nowhere else to go. Getting ill on the road is difficult; contracting Covid is impossible. Auntie reluctantly, graciously agrees to keep me. I quarantine in the basement. We put up plastic. She brings me piping hot Vietnamese beef broth.

My heart swells with gratitude as the warm broth soothes me.

When I reach out to local friends to report the bad news, they joke that I’m a super-spreader, though it’s not that funny. We dub me the #travelingtornado, which is funny. I hack-laugh into my elbow at the meme they send me via text.

Miraculously, all of them, other than one other festival dance partner, even my 74-year-old auntie, remains healthy.

After five days of denial – of running and dancing and marching around SoCal – I am forced to rest, to heal.

Because the journey must continue.

California is a big, beautiful state. Santa Barbara, Pasadena, Morro Bay, the High Sierras…

My California dreamin’, now tinged with a bit of reality, has just begun.

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