Friday, August 01, 2008

Life in the Raw:
A Journey from Fear to Faith

This is where i get to be brave,
calling my pain by its name(s)
and releasing myself from the story
that pain tells me about myself.
I am the storyteller now.
This is just one of a million courageous acts
that I am making for my own healing.
I am not alone …

Blues Record/Improvising Peace: A Journal of Interactive Healing

Sunday, July 13: Escape from the City of Demons

At 5:30 in the morning, I wheel my luggage down the darkened hallway of my apartment building, en route to San Diego. I encounter no one by the bank of golden mailboxes, on the elevator, or in the underground parking garage now gashed with the murky rays of dawn. No one witnesses my escape.

The drive will take two hours. I’m functioning on two hours of sleep, since I always wait until the last minute to do laundry and pack. I promised my friend E. that I would attend church with him in San Diego, and in two-and-a-half hours, the sanctuary walls will be awash with song. I have to hurry.

I’m not fleeing Los Angeles at daybreak simply to hear a sermon in a distant city or to visit an old friend. Later in the afternoon, I will check into the Optimum Health Institute in Lemon Grove, California for a week-long stay. Weary pilgrims from all over the world seek refuge in this branch of the Free Sacred Trinity Church, hoping that a diet of raw foods, meditation and prayer can heal their diseases. My wounds are more emotional than physical. I can’t pinpoint exactly what ails me, but I’m desperate to get away — especially from myself.

It’s strange that I’m on my way to service, and that I’m voluntarily participating in a program with spiritual origins, since I haven’t prayed in months. My heart feels orphaned. I’m mad at God. I feel afraid all the time, like my life will always be a muddle of missed opportunities and thorny regrets. I feel alone, without purpose or motivation. But especially, I feel loveless, as if I’ve never known the Almighty’s caress. Lack of love in the City of Angels, especially a dearth of self-love, is dangerous.

Few cars dot the road on this early Sunday morning. The city still slumbers, hung over from a night of cheap drinks and expensive dreams. In the hazy distance, the downtown skyscrapers seem to be fading out of existence. After merging onto the 5 Freeway, I rummage in my tote bag for a CD. I want to blast Busta Rhymes or Teena Marie to stay awake on my travels and to detract from the pain constantly lodged on a shelf of my heart.

As I turn on the stereo, gospel streams from my speakers. I’m surprised, because my radio is always tuned to Pacifica, and hymns are the last thing I expect to hear from that political station. An unfamiliar song by Smokie Norful fills the car:

Though it seems like life is over/and your tragedy has no end/don't count yourself out of the game, no not yet/Pull it back together and drive right back in/It's going to work out/in time …

The lyrics loosen a knot in my chest. I feel the blues bubbling up, clogging my throat, threatening to cascade down my cheeks. I try to blink back tears, but soon nothing can staunch the flow. I have never felt so emotionally fragile, like I’m not only losing my mind, but I’m enjoying the process. I’m worried that other drivers will see my damp face and think I’m crazy. I feel my mascara coursing an inky path down my skin and onto my dress. Once my makeup wears off, there will be no reapplication. I have packed no lipstick, foundation or eye shadow for my journey. Since everyone at OHI will be detoxing on a diet of living foods and juices, participants are encouraged to forego fragrances, chemicals and other hindrances to health. This policy suits me just fine. I want to let it all go. I want to cast off the designer sorrow I’ve acquired in Los Angeles and allow my true self to emerge.

I pull into the gravelly parking lot of the church twenty minutes early. E. texts me that he’s running late, so I find a seat at the back of the sanctuary, closest to the exit. I’m nervous. Within ten minutes, I have rushed to the restroom three times. I want to bolt out of the tabernacle like some demon seed scalded with holy water. E. joins me just as the organist begins to play. After a sermon I am too preoccupied to focus on, we head to Souplantation for lunch. My friend thinks I’m quirky, but then so do most people who meet me. He watches as I pile salad on my plate and shun the commercial dressings lined up on the counter like a toxic rainbow. He calls my natural hairstyle “Afrocentric” and worries that OHI is a cult. I try to explain to him that I won’t be brainwashed, that I’m simply going away for my own healing. It’s either the Optimum Health Institute or the convent. Or the psych ward. A black woman’s blues unconnected to men or money befuddles him. But he says he’ll pray for me.

E. and I embrace one last time and then head down our own separate stretches of highway. Loneliness rings my throat, leaks from my lashes. My life seems to be a series of solo voyages. Nearly twelve years ago, I hopped a Greyhound Bus from Norristown, Pennsylvania for the sunnier climes of San Diego. What was supposed to be a two-month visit with friends turned into an 18-month odyssey. I slept on the floors, couches and futons of other people, and worked humiliating, low-paying telemarketing gigs, as I tried to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Then a decade ago, I departed San Diego for the siren’s song of Los Angeles. There was no fanfare, no broken glass and confetti littered bon voyage when I left. I had no family or friends in the City of Angels, but I believed my destiny awaited me as a screenwriter. I never imagined that I’d return to this pretty coastal town on the lip of Tijuana broken down, lost and in the throes of despair. I try to convince myself that every place I’ve been to in my life — real or figurative, every triumph and every heartache — has only served to make me stronger. Riding the wave of this thought, I pull up to the gates of the Optimum Health Institute.

I envisioned OHI as some Amish-type settlement tucked in the armpit of civilization, nestled among oak trees and fields of clover. I was wrong. The campus is located in the middle of a quiet residential street, just down the road from Target, Bank of America and an Arco gas station. As the automatic gate closes behind my car, I realize that I will be spending the next seven days of my life away from all that is familiar: No friends, no family, no laptop, no cyberspace, no blogs, no news, no Internet porn, no masturbating myself into a coma. But I need this solitude to sort out my thoughts and emotions, and to empower myself.

At 2:00 p.m. when I walk up to the front office to register, I notice that there aren’t many people fanning themselves in patio chairs or traipsing across the manicured lawns. I’m grateful for the anonymity. My eyes are still red-rimmed from crying, and I don’t want to stand out like a scared kid on the first day of school. I grab my room key and retreat to #72, which I have all to myself. I initially booked a double-occupancy room because it was cheaper, but I quickly changed my reservation when I learned that we have to self-administer enemas every day as part of our detox.

As I cross the campus, I see twin hummingbirds flitting between the regal arms of a bird of paradise flower. Butterflies float daintily by. It’s as if the Almighty has made this 129-mile trip down the highway with me. Once inside my room, I unpack within fifteen minutes instead of leaving my clothes in my luggage for days, as I normally do. But I feel as though I’m on the cusp of a major life change, a re-birthing process. I want to make a fresh start. The day before, I threw away most of my chemical-laden cosmetics (couldn’t part ways with the M.A.C. makeup just yet), and for the first time in my life purchased all-natural deodorant, soap and toothpaste. I’m pleased to learn that OHI features organic flax seed soap in the bathroom, and all the water on the campus is filtered and reverse-osmosis — even in the shower.

A few hours later, the “First Weekers,” as we are called, line up on the front lawn for a tour of the compound. I have traded in my Sunday best for a pair of jeans and a cotton top. Wearing no makeup or jewelry, I feel so plain, the antithesis of Venus. I’m struggling to embrace my natural beauty. Most of the guests are middle-aged and white, but I see a smattering of brown faces in the crowd of about 30. Our guide is munching on purslane, an edible weed that he plucked from the OHI grounds. He offers this bitter bounty to us. As I accept a leaf from his fingers, I know there is no turning back now. I want to wring as many new experiences from my stay as possible. Never before would I have accepted a strange plant from a strange man not knowing if he had washed his hands. But now? I’m ready for anything. This is boot camp for the beleaguered, life in the raw.

Our group marches down a meandering lane, past a little chapel complete with stained glass windows, past a gurgling outdoor water fountain. We come to a stop in a courtyard beneath a carob tree, and our guide gives us a glimpse into his history. He is a missionary, someone who has completed a three-week stay at OHI, and who lives and volunteers at the retreat for at least three months. I wonder how it would feel to be a missionary. For the past few months, I have flirted with the idea of becoming a nun, of leaving starlets, silicone and the industry behind. I just want to live in a small safe place where I can sleep, write and read all day. But even as I yearn for solitude, I crave the company of others.

In the lessening light, the Second and Third Weekers join us on the lawn. Now even more people of color gather, and I’m grateful for the community and kinship. We form a prayer circle to bless our dinner and to meditate on the word of the day: acceptance. I clasp the hands nearest me. This is an alien sensation, because hailing from an undemonstrative clan, I’m not used to hugging or touching other folks. But for the next seven days, these strangers will be my family.

Finally, it’s dinner time, and I try not to sprint to the multipurpose room. I haven’t eaten since the Souplantation at noon. I’m looking forward to having all of my meals prepared each day, knowing that everything is 100 percent raw. Tonight’s menu consists of sauerkraut, seed cheese, sprouts and a dehydrated cracker. I see several guests glancing curiously at the evening’s fare as if they have mistakenly picked up a plate of earthworms. There is an array of homemade seasonings on the table, and people are drowning their dinner in dulse flakes, kelp, garlic and gomashio. I feel like a raw rock star since I’ve been eating living foods for three months, and I’m ready to dig in.

I shake seasonings on my meal and then look around for a place to sit. The coming week will be a whirlwind of information and activities. In preparation for that, OHI has provided all participants with a planner so we can keep track of our water, wheatgrass and rejuvelac intake, note our daily exercise and classes, journal our thoughts and make entries in our gratitude diaries. I feel like a scientist performing an important experiment, concocting a formula of hope and self-recovery.

As I carry my plate and planner out of the dining area, I hear a familiar voice calling my name …

From my journal, July 13: I accept myself, no matter what my hair, or skin, or thighs or butt look like. I am a divine being, a child of God. I am worthy and valuable. I. ACCEPT. MYSELF. I am giving my body a chance to heal, and my emotions are healing as well. I trust God. I trust the process. All is well in my world.


cy said...

wishing u continued wellness and radiance sis. abrazos.



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