An Ode to my Nikon FG

Sometimes, it feels like centuries since I was growing up–not so much in the passage of time, but in the way things were done. Waiting for a phone call meant circling the kitchen for hours on end, possibly toting the boxy cordless down the hall and back for as long as it didn’t ring. Recording a school show or family holiday required a giant contraption that only my father was equipped to handle, resulting in innumerable home movies that would make you seasick just to watch. Vacation photos needed to be taken to the local photo lab and picked up days later, shared with family at gatherings and holidays sometimes months after the actual trip had ended. We have boxes of seemingly ancient Kodak prints filed in flimsy plastic albums that came free at some of the nicer labs. Now,  I can instantly show the world which latte I ordered today or get instant feedback on which dress to buy. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think of how far we’ve progressed in just a handful of decades.

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My grandfather was something of a technological revolutionary, working on computers back when they were the size of entire buildings, so naturally he was the first person I knew to own a digital camera. For my 16th birthday, he gifted me with a boxy Hewlett-Packard point-and-shoot, equipped with one whole megapixel and then some, less than most phones come with now. At the time, it was a novelty. Rather than waiting a week or more to see evidence of the misadventures of my friends and classmates, we could view them instantly on the little LCD screen. If someone’s nose looked too big, or someone’s hair was blown unflatteringly, we could delete it and snap another. I could collect them on my hard drive, no physical clutter acquired. But then, in the Great Desktop Crash of ’04, I lost them all.

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I can’t blame that crash for the attitudes I developed towards photography afterwards. It was also the social conditioning that came with our march towards Instagram and Snapchat that led me to feel like photography was disposable, something trivial and without consequence. I never took cameras on vacations, choosing to write down my experiences or commit them to detailed, purposeful memory. The camera was cumbersome, and I would rather enjoy living in a moment than stopping to dig a recording device out of my purse, boot it up, and fiddle with the settings until I trusted it to capture the scene. When my last digital camera died in 2012, I never bothered to replace it.

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Then, I found my dad’s old Nikon. Specifically a Nikon FG, with a metal body and several glass lenses, heavier than any camera I’ve ever held before, with a vintage Mickey Mouse strap. Both the camera and the strap were an engagement gift from my mother, after months of researching stats and performance and consumer reports. Sitting forgotten in the basement for years, the battery had died and the roll of film inside had expired, but it was otherwise flawless. And now it was mine. Oddly, there’s something comforting about its weight, the way the aperture clicks into place, the heavy thunk of the curtain when the shutter is hit. Rather than simply capturing a moment, taking the picture becomes its own moment. Each photo documents not only what is in front of the lens, but the ritual that accompanies it: determining the aperture size, focussing the lens, checking the light meter, setting the shutter speed, hitting the shutter, advancing the film… The roll becomes a meditation, a series of practiced movements that produce a sense of oneness with the scene. A zen in which I am merely part of the setting, and the camera is the organ by which I can achieve it. Every exposure is precious, an experiment in light and form, waiting to be revealed when I wash away the excess silver.

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When I open the reel and look at the film for the first time, there’s an anxiety released with it. The negative images feel so alien, not at all like the images I thought I took, and sometimes even after printing I don’t remember the picture in front of me. It’s not exactly how my eye remembers it. But it’s almost always how my heart recalls it. A sense of placid calm, a dreamy anticipation, a distant sadness, these are the real subjects. More than any model or flower or mountain rage, the feelings we get from them are the reason to hit the shutter.

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Since my adventures with the Nikon, I’ve amassed an arsenal of old cameras: a Canon Rebel, a Minolta 110 Zoom, a reproduction Diana F+, each producing a totally different sort of image. But when I pack my bag for adventures unknown, it’s the Nikon that finds its way inside. Our love affair isn’t over yet, and despite the age gap between us, I suspect we have many years of tenderness before us. I might find myself out with another camera on occasion, but nothing has been able to replace the feeling I get with my Nikon in-hand.

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One Small Part of Forever: Radio Omens and the Wisdom of Stevie Nicks

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Sometimes, things don’t quite go as planned. When I set my intentions for 2014, I cast out my nets for opportunity, travel, and good times with friends and family. But like any road we travel, we sometimes hit some bumps along the way–and just weeks into the year, I’ve been faced with some particularly impressive potholes. It’s frustrating: just when you resign to put all the bad behind you and achieve better in the future, that negativity places itself directly in your path again. But that doesn’t mean the Universe isn’t listening.

In December, I came across my old copy of Belladonna–once inside my car, it kept a firm hold on my CD player for the better part of the month. The songs were familiar, the music all part of distant memories of my adolescent years–but it was as if I was hearing the lyrics for the first time. Perhaps now, as an adult, I connected with them on a different level, but it was as if everything I was thinking about life was reflected back at me. Although the CD player in my car has spun a few albums since, I’ve been hearing Stevie’s words everywhere–I can’t seem to turn on a radio or be near a sound system without hearing one of her classics. I’ve even heard a few Fleetwood Mac gems. Some people would probably tell me it’s a coincidence, or that her involvement with a certain smash hit television series has renewed some of her public interest, but I can’t help but feel that the Universe might be trying to tell me something.

Listen carefully to the lyrics–think of them as an incantation for peace of mind. No matter what life throws at you, you are infinite. Within you are all the tools you will ever need to overcome any situation. The Universe has not given you anything you cannot handle because you can handle anything. Just reach inside yourself and draw out your power. You are a magical creature, “one small part of forever”…

New Skies and Uncharted Paths: the Magic of New Years

Oh, what a ride it’s been! We’re closing in on the final hours of 2013 and in just a few more days we’ll be staring into the glittering newness that is 2014. These post-holiday days are perfect to sit back and reflect on the lessons we’ve learned, the goals we’re going to set, the places we’ve been, and where we want to go. For some, New Year’s Eve is a time to celebrate the passing of the old year with friends, drowning fears and anxieties at the bottoms of ever-full glasses; for others, it’s a chance to ring in the new year with a romantic flourish, staring into the eyes of a lover or counting down the minutes to midnight to fall into the arms of a pretty stranger. To me, New Year’s Eve is one of the most magical nights of the year, so thick with potential that intentions hang in the air in front of us. It begs for contemplation, divination, and meditation.

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2013 was a year of facing truths. Challenges were posed and met head-on, revealing strengths and talents we never knew we had. We found our way out of the darkness, learning how to shine all on our own, banishing shadows of doubt from our path. Not everything we saw was beautiful–we’ve witnessed true ugliness at times, but as long as we learned to cast it aside and look for the lesson, nothing was in vain. We’re stronger people for the experiences we’ve had. 2013 reopened wounds for me–it was full of fear, sadness, and profound loss. But it taught me how to grieve, it strengthened my resolve, showed me that I have stores of courage. It taught me that I am a dazzling, magical creature that rises out of desolation and regenerates endlessly. 2013 brought back my magic. I won’t let that magic slip away in 2014. I plan on reading every tome that falls into my path, seeking new knowledge and stretching my magical muscles regularly using new and exciting methods and tools. I will tune my instrument, add to my repertoire, and build my understanding of my personal universe and how to control it.

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In 2013, I learned how to be a World-Weilding Web Warrior and met fabulous friends both new and old in the City of Roses. I traipsed after ghosts and gods and visited one of my oldest friends in the ever-magical Crescent City. This year, I plan to take more of America by storm, drinking in new and different skylines and sunsets, but I also plan on expanding my literal horizons, bringing myself to the shores of new and foreign lands. I want to breathe the air of my ancestors, walk the same ground as my beloved’s forebears, feel their wind, learn their magic, sleep their nights. I want to smell every perfume in Paris and Milan and taste every tea in London and Kiev. In 2014, I firmly intend to make this happen. My wanderlust has been too long unsatisfied, and 2014 is going to be my Super-Sagittarian Gypsy-Witch Wonder Year full of new skies, uncharted paths, and changing winds.

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So while will ring in the new year surrounded by beautiful strangers in festive streets or huddled with close friends in dark clubs and bars, I’ll be lighting candles and flipping cards, setting my intentions and channeling all my positive energies to make 2014 the best year yet. Not just the best year, but the Wonder Year…

Handcrafted Happiness: holiday misery and gifting handmade

Since just after midnight the day after Halloween, we’ve been barraged with a constant stream of Christmas commercials. Whether it’s in glossy print between magazine articles, on during breaks in our favourite television must-sees, or spoken rapid-fire by a radio DJ, we’ve heard about every product, every sale, and every shopping destination within fifty miles. Our inboxes have been flooded with messages boasting the best deals, our mailboxes are stuffed with catalogs, and everywhere we look there’s something newer, better, and shinier than what we originally set out to find. We’re on holiday overload and it’s exhausting. During a time of year when we should be sitting back, reflecting on our year, and enjoying time with our most beloved friends and family members, we’re fighting each other for parking spots at the mall and resenting the togetherness that might be keeping us away from the necessary shopping. It’s enough to drive even the most level-headed person mad.

Working in the retail and service industry, I see some of the season’s worst moments unfold right in front of me. It’s hard not to resent the holidays when it turns people into monsters before your very eyes, but it has an uncanny way of changing people. Suddenly, having friends is a chore. Family members are needy money-drains, more obligation than joy. Loved ones are reduced to a check mark on a to-do list, the sooner done the better. And there’s no living with anyone until that list is completely crossed off. But it doesn’t need to be that way. The thing is, the people who love us want us to be happy–and if buying gifts makes you miserable, they would probably rather you not!

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In the past, I’ve felt that gifting handmade presents to my friends and family was a cheap cop-out, and handing them homemade trinkets felt like a let-down. After all, they spent hard-earned money on me, searching the malls and shops until they had found just the right trinket: I had spent a few hours at my work table, scribbling down pictures and words. For some pieces, I went big and bought frames. But the reception was never as chilly as I anticipated. In fact, people seemed to like receiving paintings or pencil drawings. Years later, there was no greater thrill than receiving a handmade piece from my artsier, craftier friends. Art is no small effort. It can brighten a room, liven up a workspace, start a conversation between people where words might have never happened. There’s something truly magical about holding a personalized gift in your hands; you can almost feel the thought and effort seeping out of it. Knowing the amount of time and care put into creating a singular, unique piece especially for you is intoxicating.

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A drawing or painting of something beloved by a friend or family member is a wonderful gift–try painting an ornament or sculpting a small trinket for their tree. If you’re not an artist, don’t worry! There are plenty of ways to show you care with something handmade. Find their favourite stones and make a piece of jewelry, or decorate something for their home. Use colourful paper to modge-podge the outside of a jar candle, or cover a pillar candle with epsom salts for a wintery effect. Sift through Facebook photos to find a favourite snapshot or dive through their Instagram for pictures of pets, vacation memories, or hangout snaps and print them on photo paper. Then, make a frame from found objects or simply paint one from your local craft store to personalize it. Don’t fret if you aren’t crafty–a tin of cookies is a classic handmade gift. Bake a few batches of gingerbread, sugar cookies, pinwheels, and whoopee pies and tuck them into a colourful tin for transport: everyone loves a sugary holiday treat.

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This year, I spent my time in a veritable mad science lab sniffing and mixing and pouring to concoct the perfect perfume for my friends, infusing it with healing stones and topping it off with decorative labels. I probably spent more time working on it than I would have picking up things at the mall, and fragrance oils aren’t necessarily cheap, but it saved me the stress and anxiety of battling other shoppers for that perfect sweater or pair of gloves. I’d much rather spend my time off tucked into a cozy, sweet-smelling corner listening to Spotify radio and contemplating my friends’ favourite smells than hustling through department stores, grabbing things just to have a package to hand off on Christmas Day–and at the end of the day, it saves more than just me from the holiday stresses–no one really wants another pair of clearance gloves or a discounted scarf anyway!

 

An Anniversary of Being

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Ten years ago, I sat at a table in a small cafe surrounded by three generations of my close-knit family. As I stared into the candle that flickered between us, I knew something was brewing–I was turning 16, and I knew it was going to be a big year. Things had been changing so quickly for me, in my home, in my life, and in my soul. Not all those changes were comfortable: the friends I’d had since childhood were starting to drift apart, my family was undergoing a sort of reconstruction, and my health was still in decline. But there was a lot to be excited about too, like my plans to apply to art school, my newly-cultivated interests and hobbies, and an expanding group of like-minded friends that accepted me for who I was instead of who I had been as a kid. My sense of style was evolving, becoming more reflective of my burgeoning personality. I was downloading music from the Sisters of Mercy, London After Midnight, and the Cure, all bands that were new to me at the time. I was in the throws of my first love, an affair that would open my eyes to previously unfathomable highs and equally astonishing lows all in a whirlwind year-and-a-half. Sixteen was going to be my biggest year yet and ultimately, the year that defined much of who I am as a person today.

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My life has always been a series of deaths and rebirths. As a child, I had only seen what seemed to be the horribly unfair breakdowns, but at sixteen I began to understand that those cataclysmic collapses were a necessary part of the improvement process. If nothing ever fell apart, we would have no reason to grow as individuals. I was beginning to explore my spirituality, laying aside a fairly traditional Roman Catholic upbringing in favor of new age religions that fell in line with my individual belief system. I added books by Alastair Crowley, Allan Kardec, and Margot Adler to my studies. The entire world was alive with magic.

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At the same time, my appearance became as much of an art as the drawings I compulsively produced. I was asserting my independence through miniskirts and colored tights, platformed mary-janes and neon cat collars. My eyeliner was a feat of dexterity, winged out to my temples and often swirled down around my cheekbones. Hilarity aside, it was a major stride towards my personal aesthetic that I had never previously explored. Sure, I had perused fashion magazines in doctors’ waiting rooms and bookstore cafes, but I had never really taken a personal interest in them. At sixteen, I began not only looking, but buying magazines from New York, the UK, Japan, and Italy to feed my flirtation with fashion.

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It’s hard to believe a full decade has passed. The person I am today can be directly traced to that sixteen-year-old and all the radical changes that were brewing inside her. Today feels less like my birthday and more like an anniversary of who I became–a magical, independent spirit who looks forward more than back. And I feel like twenty-six is going to be just as big as sixteen.This year, I’m going to manifest my own destiny instead of waiting for it to happen to me. I’m going to take all my wild Sagittarian desires into my own hands to make them a reality–the world is waiting, and I refuse to disappoint. I’m rededicating myself to the destiny I want, rather than surrender to the reality that people expect. I’m casting off the skins of hopelessness that have weighed me down for years and adopting new can-do colours. Anything is possible if you really want it, and trust me, I want it. It might have taken me another ten years to realize that was true, but everything happens in its own time. Now is mine.

The Art of Memory-Making with the Darling Clandestine Halloween Suite

Oversized sweaters, drapey scarves, leather jackets, pumpkin-spiced everything–these are just a few of my favourite things about Fall. When October hits, I can count on cheesy horror movies every night, spicy lattes, and going flat broke on spooky clothing, dark makeup, and limited seasonal perfumes. When I look back on Autumns past, I remember flashes of orange and red beneath my Docs, the scent of pumpkins and pie spice wafting through the sleeves of my faux jacket as I lug my portfolio out of my car. I remember thick, ambered chocolate and sticky-sweet Halloween candies drifting up as I fill pages in my sketchbook at the cafe.

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But this Autumn has been different. It’s been mossy forest trails and dusky rose gardens, cold darkroom chemistry and silver emulsions. This autumn needed a new olfactory soundtrack. Enter the Darling Clandestine Halloween Four-Scent Suite. There’s a reason DarlingClandestine is one of my favourite perfumeries: nothing can be expected, except quality and creativity. Presented in dropper-topped glass bottles, they appear every bit the mad alchemical product that perfume really is. The sleek, clean lines add an elegance to them, and they have an air of quack medical serums and elixirs when displayed together with my other DarlingClandestine bottles. But rather than claiming to soothe a colicky child or cure a woman’s ills, the labels are a series of breathtaking, beautifully-composed photographs by Leif Johnson. Each image depicts an almost eerily-calm landscape inhabited by a lone figure, like a snapshot from a long-ago memory, or a glimpse into a dream where the beach is our rational mind and the water is our emotional state. From the outside, it seems these were made for a season of darkroom sorcery and adventures behind the lens.

Like any scent, though, the real magic comes out on the skin. I was immediately drawn to Squander, with its crisp apple and creamy sandalwood, the ghost of cloves and spices like trails of exotic cigarillo smoke in brisk evening air. It’s everything I ever really look for in a Fall scent, replete with memories but hungry for more. Wither, too, pulled me in at first sniff: immediately leather boots and cool mists, it springs to life as a juicy berry and foliage scent when it hits my skin. It’s blue and green, purple and black, algid and zoetic. Spurn, by contrast, is a warm, tart red, like pomegranate wine aged in sweet oak barrels. It has a distinctly dry, leafy quality underneath the initial spike of fruit that makes it a distinctly cold-weather scent, to be paired with fire-lit gatherings and brisk evening excursions. It was Falter that shocked me, totally unlike anything I would have expected from a Fall seasonal perfume. All sweet grasses and green herbs, it’s a swirling, misty haze of a scent. It’s the foggy Reservation trails I’ve followed, the small, tender greens that spring up between layers of leaves fallen years before. There’s something rich and buttery like squash or smashed white pumpkin beneath it all, giving it a hint of not-unpleasant decay–life returning to its base elements in order to feed the new generation.

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When I wear a Darling Clandestine perfume, I’m not just wearing a series of notes, I’m wearing a mood. It sets the pace for the moments I will live and the memories I will create that day, it helps to set my frame of mind. Safe to say, these are not saccharine moods set by sweet, hard candies or pumpkin pie–there’s a time and a place for those things, but this Fall hasn’t seen many of them. My Fall has been rich with adventure, the intoxicating burn of creativity, and I need moods that will turn my days into works of art. There is no doubt in my mind that these perfumes will be a unique part of the memories I create this season, tinging them with a sweetness all their own.

An Ideal Future: propelling forward

On any given day, I have two or three drafts written, waiting for final photos to be added and one last proof before going live. Photos take me a long time to edit and finalize, and I do try to take them all myself whenever possible. But right now, there are five–five–drafts waiting for me to finish them.

What have I been doing? Aside from the obvious (work, school, and life in general), I’ve been trying to figure out exactly which direction I want to go in. You’ve seen several sides of me now–you’ve seen the makeup addict, the makeup artist, the artist, the writer, and the witch–but sometimes I still feel like there’s something missing. At home, I often wonder where I’m headed: I work my day job as a makeup artist, I’m finishing my degree in studio arts, but how to do I reconcile my passions with my job, or make a living with my dreams?

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When I envision my ideal future, what I would most like my life to be, I see a small apartment on the lower east side, and cliche as it sounds, a typewriter by a window where I can drink coffee and look down on the city I love and write. I see myself with my dog in sidewalk cafes, a blue-haired bundle of sweaters and scarves, tapping words into my iPad or sketching characters onto paper. I love makeup and the beauty culture, but I don’t see myself living in it for the rest of my life–art is my passion, in all of its forms, and I desperately want to immerse myself fully in it. Certainly, I’ve worked hard to get where I am now, and I recognize that I am where I should be at this present time. But sometimes, I get lost in the fact that I’m not yet accomplished in the areas I want to be. On the good days, being a part of people’s precious memories is enough–knowing that I’ve helped them feel beautiful on important occasions and particular moments of their lives is immensely gratifying. But on the bad days, I worry that the time I spend surrounded by powders and creams is taking up too much of my attention and that I’ll never get ahead as an artist or a writer because of it. Quitting or cutting back is not an option because that’s where the money is right now, and we all have to live.

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So what am I doing with those precious spare moments to propel myself towards that ideal future? Sometimes, I’m not so sure. But I have decided that this is the year I finish the novel I’ve been working at for the past three years. I was afraid that it would sit unfinished on my hard drive for the rest of eternity, but the words have started flowing again and I know that in the next few months I can definitely squeeze out the last of them. Fiction was my first love, and I’m more than thrilled to be working with it again. And once I finish this one, two more neglected projects are nipping at my brain, begging for completion.

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I’ll admit I’ve lapsed in painting again, but I’ve found a new fascination in photography. Armed with my father’s old Nikon FG, I’ve been taking a course in photography and development that’s instilled in me a true appreciation for a medium I never before considered. There’s something so zen about holding that camera, adjusting the aperture, the shutter speed, checking the light meter and focussing just so on the subject, and then just letting it go–all you can do is hit that button and wait until you get into the darkroom to see if you got the shot. When I was little, the camera was sacred: it was taken on family vacations, a fixture at all holiday gatherings, and it was to be touched only by skilled adult hands. Film was also something special–frames were precious and not to be wasted on anything you didn’t want to remember forever. Digital photography almost ruined me. When I got my first digital camera (a 3 megapixel HP point-and-shoot gifted to me by my ever-technologically-savvy grandfather), it turned photos into something disposable. Once they were uploaded, they could sit forever on my hard drive. Prints were nothing more than streaky printouts on an inkjet, and once I got a new computer most of them were deleted, un-missed. With paintings, I can put imagination into something tangible. Photography never seemed more than documentary to me. But not everyone sees the world the same way, and there’s more imagination that reality to some…

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So that’s what I’ve been up to, Internet. The radio silence isn’t really silence at all. I’m simply gathering myself, collecting the bits and pieces I’d like to share. Eventually, I need to learn to stop combing through things unit they’re perfect–they never will be, and there’s a sort of charm in imperfection anyway.

Ghosts and Gods on the Mississippi: Part II

On the last night of my first trip to New Orleans, I sat in a bar on Pirates’ Alley crying into my absinthe. It was impossible to fathom the trip back home, going back to my daily grind after a week in a city so magical I could hardly believe it existed. As she lit another cube of sugar on fire for me, the bartender told me she had relocated from her home in Hawaii after an extended stay in NOLA. Even spellbound as I was, it was hard for me to imagine leaving a tropical paradise for anything, but she was as much part of her new city as any one of the locals around us. On my second trip, I found myself joking with a woman in a magic shop that I couldn’t see myself leaving this time around–as it turned out, she too was a transplant, lured in by the siren’s song of the city and helpless to its pull. She told me that she had visited frequently when she lived in Brooklyn, but the anxiety around leaving was always so intense that she simply decided it was easier to stay than to face the heartache of tearing herself away.

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The more I talked, the more I realized how many of the people I encountered in this city were pulled there by its magnetism and simply never bothered to break away. For me, the city’s appeal lies mostly in its history, its rich traditions and folklore tempered with magic and peppered with scandal. According to legend, Marie Laveau cursed New Orleans, dooming its residents to live forever within the city limits, never breaking free of its magnetism. Others claim the Mississippi River pull people in and refuse to release them. But no one argues that there is an inescapable gravity, and once you’re in it’s impossible to escape.

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My week in NOLA was a whirlwind as I tumbled after ghosts and gods, making wishes and manifesting desires. The thought of returning home, resuming work, picking up where I left off felt like a very distant dream that I simply couldn’t fathom being a reality. But it became very clear to me that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way–while I felt the city call to me, so many others before had succumbed to its siren song. Most people that I talked to were transplants, coming for days that turned to years and I began to wonder if I really ever needed to return. On my last day, I sat on the banks of the Mississippi River, a voodoo wishing bean in my palm, I contemplated what I really wanted out of life. As I listened to the ebb and flow of the water around me, the wail of a steamboat jarring me out of my trance, I realized that at that moment I simply wanted to be in New Orleans.

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Certainly, New York has its share of transplants–people come from every location and walk of life to make a name for themselves, determined to prove their worth and show off their skills in high-powered jobs or the city’s artistic arenas. But New Orleans isn’t a business hot-spot and the city certainly doesn’t ooze money and prestige. It seems instead that people come to soak in the laissez-faire attitude or set their lives against the rich historical backdrop the city offers. A tour guide (and American History major from Kansas City, MI) remarked to me that while Tom Waits described New York as a “big ship, and the water’s on fire,” he liked to think of New Orleans as a scrambled Etch-A-Sketch, always in a state of chaos, never quite forming a cohesive picture. One of the few natives I met on my trip told me that the politics are corrupt, the jobs all suck, but no matter where he went he always ended up back in NOLA. No other place pulled him in the way his home had, and it’s clear to him now that he can never leave.

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Others view the city as a sort of dreamland, where having nothing to prove means anything is possible. New Orleans fostered the artistic vision and passion of two ladies who now own successful shops in the French Quarter after so many other cities had failed to ignite that flame. Locals are fiercely proud of their town and support home talent–the work of writers, painters, sculptors, and photographers are available everywhere you look. On the night before my flight home, I met with the incomparable Marita, shop owner, artist, and event coordinator, to show me what had cemented her stay and turned her vacation into a permanent arrangement. She led me through the haze of Bourbon Street bars and clubs, listening to original music and classic jazz, watching drunken revelers through the eyes of a seasoned local. Some time around midnight, I found myself on a gallery overlooking the infamous stretch of bars and souvenir shops, in a space my hostess told me she had thought about turning into a vampire bar once upon a time. As we stared down into the street, still densely populated despite officially being a Tuesday morning, we couldn’t help smiling. “It’s amazing to think that not that much has changed here,” she said dreamily, as if peering through the blanket of humidity in the air to see the city in its golden age. The sense of timelessness undoubtedly fosters the imagination of the creative types that call New Orleans home, and in that moment my heart simultaneously swelled and sank, consumed by beauty and mourning another stay now at an end. “Don’t worry,” Marita told me as we approached my hotel, “you’ll be back soon.”

Ghosts and Gods on the Mississippi: Part I

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My body may live in the New York metro area, but my spirit undoubtedly lives in New Orleans. I grew up reading the lurid purple prose of Anne Rice, her seductive vampire anti-heroes stalking the banquettes of the Crescent City that I longed to explore on my own. Later, I discovered Poppy Z Brite, her modern strain of vampirism singing to my post-punk soul. In my mind, I mapped the landmarks I needed to see for myself, knowing that if I felt their magic from afar, it was worth seeing in person.

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When I was 21, I got my first opportunity. O and I had been dating for 3 years, and we planned an elaborate New Orleans getaway to mark the occasion. Barely grown past my baby-bat stage, it was everything I had dreamed and more. We took walking tours, hung out in bars on Pirates Alley, and scoured every bookstore in town for signed copies of personal favourites. We spoke with local artists and discovered some of the most interesting and less-traveled spots in the French Quarter. By the time we departed, I felt like I had left a piece of my heart in the city, another Ghost to add to its collection.

When midnight struck on January 1, 2013, I never believed Viktoria when she told me that this was the year I came back to see her. While I’ve known her for half my life, I thought for sure it was wishful thinking–we met up for two days during my last visit, eating beignets at the Cafe du Monde and shopping around the French Quarter in waist cinchers and impossible skirts. My last trip was a celebration of my 21st birthday, but she was celebrating her 25th this year and I managed to wrangle another trip out of the occasion.

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I have no problem traveling alone. I’m an independent adventurer, and exploring new sights and sounds makes my Sagittarian heart sing. As something of a control freak, I’m none-too-fond of air travel, but I know that I order to see the world, it’s a necessary evil–merely hours of inconvenience before days of excitement. Once I touch ground, I’m a whirlwind of energy, hungry for new experiences–and New Orleans has plenty to offer. I booked a room in the historic Hotel Ste-Helene, a converted townhouse in the Vieux Carré, just steps from some of my favourite places in the city. Armed with my trusty Ariat boots, I mapped out everything I needed to see and set off on foot, my preferred method of transportation. When you take busses or cabs, it’s easy to let the scenery speed past unnoticed, but when you walk you’re forced to observe every detail, digest it, even discover new destinations. Some of my now-favourite spots started as detours and diversions along my way.

The last time I was in the city, we caught sight of the Boutique du Vampyre from the steps of Rev Zombie’s and knew it was a must-see. Unfortunately, we always caught it between hours. It remained a beautiful mystery for years between visits, while I stalked their website and wondered at their stock. Naturally, it was at the top of my list this time around–the first morning of my first day, Viktoria and I set off for St Ann. The shop itself is small but packed with curiosities from (ironically?) silver jewelry to books to prints and paintings. But the best part of the visit was the proprietress, Marita, who also books the French Quarter vampire and ghost tours and is a veritable wealth of creepy knowledge. After chatting about art and voodoo, she gave us a map with some of the city’s most bizarre must-sees–which is how I found myself at Muriel’s.

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One of the best ways to gather info on the city’s flavor and history is by talking to its many bartenders: according to the one at Muriel’s, the now-restaurant was once the home of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, a Creole gentleman who loved his family almost as much as he loved his city’s nightlife, complete with all its drinking and gambling. After betting away his entire fortune one evening, he put the deed to his house on the line–and lost. Rather than face his family and explain his disgrace, he sequestered himself away and committed suicide. The restaurant now reports the usual ghostly activity–moving objects, broken glasses, inexplicable mists and shimmering lights–but none of the staff seems to feel threatened by the spirit. In a city so rife with ghosts, they’ve learned how to handle themselves: at the base of the staircase leading up to Jourdan’s place of death, they set a table for two, complete with glasses full of wine and plates of bread. The upstairs room has been converted into a sort of otherworldly lounge, and I spent countless moments reclining on its plush velvet furniture, soaking in the ambient red light and drinking up the magic of the place.

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I’m always looking to tap the magic vein, to feel that hidden pulse under my fingers and New Orleans has the strongest heartbeat I’ve ever felt. At home, it’s the people that create the stories–walking into a building or a home, you feel the energy of the people that spend their days there, writing their stories with these places as their settings. But in NOLA, you get the sense that the buildings themselves are alive, and that you’re immensely lucky to take part in their stories, hundreds of years old, even if only for a moment. What’s more amazing is the number of people that also feel it–there are shrines and offerings everywhere, from cemeteries to shops, for gods, ancestors, saints, and spirits. Signs and symbols are drawn on brick walls and stone sidewalks, and everything seems to have a life of its own. Tracing their lines and kneeling at their altars, you can’t help but feel like your luck will change, that Fate is smiling down on you as long as you leave it a cigarette or a stiff drink for later.

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Blossoms and Bulbs: Everyday Symbolism and the Lily

Magic is the thin silver thread that holds together the tapestry of our perception–it’s easy to lose track of it in the weave. Sometimes, it sits on the surface, dazzlingly bright as it reflects our own light back at us and we wonder how we ever lost sight of it. At other times, it dips below, hiding beneath layers of the mundane–at those times, we need to trust that it’s still there. Luckily, the universe has so many ways of reassuring us that magic is all around if only we look hard enough… Think back to a time where you were deeply involved in a personal issue–maybe work wasn’t going well, or you were arguing with a loved one. During a moment where your mind was at rest, or there was a lull in your thoughts, you might have noticed something odd. There was something out of place, or perhaps simply something oddly vibrant or distinct in your perception–you were meant to notice it at that exact time. When we’re not listening, ignoring some vital lesson in life, the Universe has a way of making sure we pay attention.

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Recently, my boyfriend and I took a wrong turn while heading back to the car in a part of town we had never explored before. I knew we were headed the wrong way, but he walked with purpose and determination ahead of me. At the corner, we stopped–in the heat wave, the perfume of sweet flowers was so intense it couldn’t be ignored. There at the corner was a gigantic stalk of stargazer lilies. Stargazers hold a particular fascination for me: I love their velvet petals, the variation in their colours, the vibrant spots and stripes they develop. Several years ago, I even had one tattooed on my body. It struck us both instantly that this stalk was the reason we were walking out of our way that day. We were simply guided there because we were meant to see it.

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Since then, I’ve been seeing lilies far more often. Of course, the skeptic could say that they’re simply in season, but they only seem to come to me when my mind is feeling less than magical–after a long and frustrating car trip, after a tiresome day at work, after mulling over some extremely confusing and troubling issues, I begin to notice lilies that never seemed to be there before. And lilies are a powerful symbol. Traditionally associated with purity and innocence, they can be seen as a symbol for spiritual cleansing. Most fascinating to me, however, is their connection to growth–Emily Dickenson regarded it as a metaphor for the development of the soul. In dreams, it can be a message of encouragement, and it is depicted on the Ace of Pentacles in the traditional Rider-Waite tarot deck, a card that can herald rewards and fresh starts.

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Lilies are also present on the Rider-Waite Magician, a card of potential and personal power. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that if one dreams of casting aside a lily, it symbolizes the abuse of personal power. Similarly, we might infer that coming upon an abundance of blooming lilies can signify coming into one’s own blossoming personal power. While my life is absent of lilies today, I was reminded of my lily encounters when a speaker on the radio recited the following quote from Anais Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Sometimes, all the pieces fit together perfectly. If they don’t, don’t worry–when the time is right, the Universe will allow you to see clearly. Until then, continue to look around you. Be vigilant. Don’t let the day’s issues cloud your light, and keep sight of what really matters–that thin silver thread.