A Self in Three Parts

1. Runaway (Gabriola Island, Canada)

I spend my days scrambling through forests and looking for fossilised jellyfish. I walk for hours towards the mountains on the horizon, but there is always an ocean between us. My nails are strong and naked and caked with earth, but no matter how much I surrender to the outside world all I can feel is the pulse of my Self. A union with what’s within telling me I need to get out.

The ferries have names like Shoal, Orca, Arbutus. I wonder what I’d be called if I were a ferry. Despite how connected I feel to my Self presently, I feel a complete dissociation from my name. Attaching to something so arbitrary as a four letter appellation seems somehow incongruent with this depth of selfhood I’m experiencing. This connection is ineffable, akin to an intuitive umbilical cord; the simple profundity of being who I am, where I am, when I am. Is that just presence? Or a result of presence? Philosophise as I might, the ferry horn is blowing and my arrival on the tiny island is imminent. Solitude, clean air. Old-growth trees and houses built of reclaimed materials. Artists and craftspeople and healers and lumberjacks. There are mountains on the horizon and a resounding stillness in my core, a silence that signals peace as opposed to loneliness.

I have come to be a healer’s apprentice for a year, an unexpected opportunity that presented itself at a time of real stagnation in life. I had felt like an old Yorkshire Tea bag left on the counter a few days too long, growing a crust-like skin onto its surface. The crust dissolved into the Pacific, and my leaves scattered themselves in the water as the ferry delivered me where I was going.

I don’t understand how the water is this glassy in the midst of a snow storm, but it contributes to the intriguing-yet-sinister magic of my arrival. I am both geographically remote, experiencing a profound disconnect to the external world, and yet deeply connected to my inner ocean. How do I reconcile these seemingly contradictory states of (dis)connection?

My “teacher” offers to collect me from the ferry and I gratefully accept. In the summer I had walked to the house from the harbour, through the woods and into a spell, but it is winter and the spell has come to get me. We hug and share conscious eye contact that makes me uncomfortable.

His eyes are piercing. The man standing before me looks like a goblin, which can sometimes be endearing. Keith Richards epitomises an endearing goblin, but this man is far from endearing. “Wow,” he says, licking his lips in a deliberately salacious manner, “aren’t you just yummy.” I stare at the 76-year-old, at once a ball of light and a dimmer to my own. I don’t know what to say and my body feels weird; she is calm, but she is rigid, as though shielding herself from him. The shield is brittle and he will try to break it. I can see it in his gaze. The creases around his eyes reveal decades of laughter and secrets that never want to be revealed.

That night something in my umbilical intuition will tell me to lock my bedroom door. I will be afraid that he will hear me turn the lock. I will continue to hold fear in my skin. My intuition will begin to shout and scream as the days go by, just as he does the night I run away.

2. Angelina (Los Angeles, California)

I am an ethnographer. Do I tell myself this to justify the $10 coffee and croissant and ritualised people-watching? The flaneur-ethnographer pipeline is well trodden, and at present I am in the trenches, aka MARU on Hillhurst in Los Feliz, LA.

I have recently acquired acrylic nails, but they are not part of a costume nor do they function as disguise. They are fodder for a different corner of my Self to feed off. Questionable Shrek-green acrylics and a purple notebook embossed with gold fairies is an odd combination that somehow draws people to me. Either that, or it’s an energy thing. In this state I feel like an all-seeing ‘I’(though not omniscient). A wallflower rather than a girl with a God-complex. I seek to understand those I don’t know in the hopes of piecing together the fragments of my Self I once knew as a whole. Do I feel guilty using them as research? Not really. My interest and subsequent engagement is totally sincere. Perhaps they find this arresting. Whatsmore, it is always them who offer up their Selves, never me coercing it out. In the sharing of their humanity they act as a mirror to my own.

“Would you believe me if I told you I was a felon who had been to prison three times?” I look up.

“Well, yeah, because you just told me so.”

There is a sincerity in his tone and eyes that signals truth-telling. Whatsmore, I don’t know why someone would joke about this in the first place. My right index finger tickles. The acrylics are awake, and listening.

“Now I love marine biology, man. I have a set-up in my house and I study the water composition of my son’s fish tank. I started noticing how different corals impacted how quickly the water needed changing. Life is crazy.”

I look at him with my ears. My vision and ability to listen have become one and I can do nothing but.

“What do you go by ‘round these parts?”

My insides flutter because I have always wanted to be asked my name in this way. It’s so… old Hollywood. Where better to be asked, then, than Hollywood itself? I want to hug his voice with its rasp and warmth and earnestness. You can tell by the way it carries he also has a great sense of humour. I give him my name but I keep my words to a minimum; my job here is not to take space but to hold it.

Hearing my Self say my name, I think back to the ferry last month when I couldn’t connect to anything so arbitrary, and I notice how being consecrated in an external reality is now thoroughly comforting. I hold onto his name. He must feel at ease because words stream from his mouth into the estuary between us, and just like the ocean I ferried across to return to my Self, this stranger and I are now traversing the waters of the collective conscious, on separate journeys but sharing this stretch. There is, of course, evident irony in his hobby being marine biology. We talk for a while, and I am grateful for his willingness to share his story. I don’t ask questions, but I listen to his answers. He speaks of curiosity and change and fish and family and driving buses and compassion. He laughs raspy laughs and welcomes me to his hometown. Then we say goodbye, forever.

That night I take to the stoop where my acrylics desperately morph into a grasp on my pen as I try to document the day. I look blankly at the page, unable to scribe the depth of human experience and connection I had felt. It was raw and pure and simple and complex and… human. The man who had opened himself to a total stranger and who had lived a life completely different to my own had not only strengthened my connection to the world around me. His words had stuck like glue that dripped down the walls inside me, making its way to the shards of my splintered self and sticking them back together, slowly.

3. Union (Mexico City, Mexico)

He made me cut off my acrylics. Ok, he didn’t make me, but the 43% of me that resents him tells me that he did.

He forced me into a state of dissociation, I argue, severing me from who I had been, who I was becoming!

That’s a bit dramatic. I wasn’t forced, and I didn’t dissociate. I went bouldering, and they were just acrylics. I wince at how submissive I become with the slightest hint of male acknowledgement. He had been the first person I met upon arrival in Mexico City. Casa de las Brujas. That was where we met; a verdant, turreted art-deco building where he lived and where I stayed for only one night. He saw me arrive with my worldly possessions and he laughed because I was staying on the fourth floor and there was no elevator. His eyes were curious. He offered to help me carry my bags upstairs. He then offered me psilocybin and chamomile tea. I said yes and wondered if he would become a friend or a lover.

Would I have reconsidered his bouldering invitation had I had the foresight to realise that it was also an invitation to denude my fingers, a part of my body that holds so much insecurity? They are small, too small, and look like what I imagine Keith Richards’ fingers would look like if he were smaller. But I can’t help thinking that the removal of my acrylics rendered me Keith Richards sans goblin fingers. And if the man didn’t have those, would he even be Keith Richards? 

I did not get acrylics to become someone else. It was Los Angeles and I was a fresh cult-runaway drinking expensive coffees and meeting bizarre, brilliant characters. I got the acrylics to explore the parameters of my own selfhood. Acrylic me wouldn’t need to emphasise this - she would stand strong and long-fingered in self-assurance.

The expression ‘come out of your shell’ implies a state of self-actualisation, an emboldening of confidence, but the moment my nails were stripped of their toxic, plastic shell, I felt like I retreated into my own. All because of a rock-climbing invitation. It’s funny now I look at it, but I mourned something that evening, and it wasn’t just poorly applied fake nails. Maybe I hadn’t retreated into my shell so much as returned to a level of interiority that my nails had clawed their way out of. Green talons dug deep into the foundations of materiality and exteriority. The irony is, if I had kept them I wouldn’t have been able to grasp the rock-climbing holds, and I would much rather lose a nail than my grip.

That night as I went home and ate two-too-many tacos, I considered the implications of this loss. Was it really a loss, or was it heralding a return to parts of myself recently adrift? Was it a question of physicality or perspective? I can never un-live what I experienced with those nails. That time was something greater than I could’ve anticipated. It saw me run away from danger and who I thought I was becoming, to safety, California, community and Mexico. It marked a departure, a change, and an arrival at a new beginning. I wound up where I had wanted to be all along following only dreams and intuition, going to Brazilian psychedelic rock concerts with my 70-year-old landlord and being invited rock-climbing by a triple Leo with ocean eyes, and here I was thinking about the loss of my fake nails.

There is something deliciously ironic about meaningful, lasting impacts resulting from the addition of something totally unnatural. At some point in the past few months, the pieces of broken Self that had once felt so strong had gradually pieced together, and with that I had reestablished a connection to the world around me. Things had begun to align, within and with-out. The severing of my plastic talons marked the completion of this process. From a connection to Self but not the outside, to connecting with others but not myself, I had finally arrived at the point where the two meet. Maybe it’s in the totality of duality that we find union.


Lily is a UK-born writer working between Montreal, London and Mexico City. She has a Substack called Mustard-Dijon which chronicles streams of consciousness-esque essays and occasional short-form fiction. She also writes reviews of contemporary art shows and odes to balconies. Find her here .

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