The Witness

In my journey yesterday, I asked what I need to do in order to be more courageous. I saw three black birds fly in an isosceles triangle overhead. I noticed the word CUNEO mounted in fading capital letters atop an old brick building. I saw a small biracial girl dance along the street in her pink shoes as her mother affixed a stony stare upon her phone. When I closed my eyes, the persistent afterimages of these living symbols popped like fireworks against my eyelids.

I saw a path between two lines of boulders, almost as if I were in a trench. In this parched place, the ocean unmistakably became my guide. The ocean came and sanded off the perpetually jagged edges of the war-ravaged terrain. The ocean came and came and came in orgiastic bliss, as I knew she always would. She said, “Wed your small rage to my large rage, and we will be tremendous. You will always feel brave when you are with me.”

I could feel my scream uncurling from me as the glassy tidal edge of her crested up to form a cobra’s head far above the land. There would always be ocean, the blood of this planet in which I was merely swimming.

And if I learned to locate myself in ocean, not through conquest and sheer will but via reciprocity and the permission to be almost fully subsumed by her, I would always be safe—or as close to safe as humanly possible.


In the dreamwork class, I hear the soft refrain of a song I used to love, especially in the summer of 2000, when all of me felt wide awake and like I was gliding through the most beautiful myth. It's strange to think that was 21 years ago: enough time to make an adult of legal drinking age, enough time for a new life to commence and old wounds to scarify.

The ocean is alive here too, in this place of shifting squares on a black screen, full of pixilated faces. In the journey, the ocean licked my wounds with her salt. In the journey, the ocean assured me that I could sync my heart to the heartbeat of the Earth, be cradled in her endless molten center and recall that I am in and of her. And if I ever were to find myself flailing and drowning in the midst of a storm-tossed sea, the ocean would force my eyes open and teach my feeble legs to kick. She would return me to my massive Earth heart—my desire to live, which is an anagram of my desire to die.  

The ocean would remind me that the ancestors are still with me, and she’d teach me to walk through the ruins of the past, through history’s snatches of song and spectacle, but never to make the mistake of fashioning for myself a home inside them. The Earth is a tomb from which beautiful flowers grow. Maybe I am one of those flowers. Maybe I am one of the consequences of death, melded synergistically to continuous becoming.

(This is why it is so important to acknowledge the Indigenous stewards of the land, how they are not just historical aberrations to pay lip service to. They are still here. They never left. Even though this place honors decidedly dead things and the many forces that contribute to the deadening.)

As I dreamed awake in that spare lot on a city street, clumps of overgrown grass brushing up against my sandaled feet, I thought of everything that had ever stood on this land: plants, trees, stones, humans, buildings. I thought about the rain-soaked soil beneath my feet and the many times I would say to myself, “Anywhere but here,” and visualize a fine filament of energy reaching from me into the depths—magnetizing the light and spirit of many other subterranean places, and many other filaments of light connecting back to disaffected teenagers in other parts of the world who were perhaps having similar musings.  

Can we be somewhere else simply by summoning the threads that connect us to the Chain of All Being? If consciousness is a superhighway of the soul, maybe it's possible not to go from here to there, but to bring there here—to dose this terrifying mundane violent moment with the cool waters of the Pacific and the sun-kissed stone of virtually untrodden lands.


I am writing to the person who never knew me as well as I wanted to be known. To the one who saw me as a symbol of something they hated or something they loved. To the one who saw me as a reminder that was meant for them only. To the one who looked into my eyes and asked, “What does it mean?” rather than, “What is she thinking?” To the one who welcomed me as a dark omen from the universe rather than an untenable encounter with an independent other. I am writing to my adversaries, who touched the live wires within me, not from the tender desire to get close, but from the intention of reckless hurt.  

Sometimes I think of these people; sometimes I think, How dare they. How dare they continue to throb inside my heart and invade my most intimate moments with their injuries. It occurs at the most random times. When it does, what sometimes startles me out of my self-righteous reverie is the consideration that someone else out there might be feeling exactly the same way about me. “How dare she!”

Whose nemesis, am I, unbeknownst to myself? Whose scars have I unsutured without recognizing my own trespass?  

I must keep remembering the music that enables me to sway on the balls and heels of my feet while remaining rooted to the earth. I must honor the dead things that grow me alive and are not immortalized by the gods of capitalism. I must remember that the root of the words humility and human refers to the earth. I must enlarge my own possibilities.

I am not separate from the sprawling Earth—from its many livings and dyings…its beautiful accidents and regrettable mistakes. I will have to keep dying to myself, assent to being made and unmade, in order to be reborn. I still taste the grass in my body. I still taste the tang of the Earth as its pops its green against my teeth and tongue.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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