In 1997, feeling a bit lost and unsure of my place in the world, I went to Ecuador with my parents and brother.
David and I had been married less than a year. He was in grad school and couldn’t accompany us. I was on summer break from my teaching gig at Trapp Elementary and had just been accepted into grad school myself to study Library Science. We were planning our futures, talking houses and mortgages and living wills and car insurance and the possibility of becoming parents. Adulting had turned out to be equal parts exciting and terrifying, so a two-week vacation with my family seemed like just the reality break I needed.
We met up with Julio Montesinos, an Ecuadorian painter. He talked about his craft, showed us one incredible painting after another. He was into magical realism, working solely in acrylic. One painting in particular captivated me.
It depicts two young boys leaning against a burlap sack. Behind them, the wall melts into a telescopic view of the universe. Around them, marbles float in the air, chiaroscuro highlighting them from some unseen, and physically impossible light source. Each is a cat’s eye marble, which are created from injecting a curved, infinity shape into a piece of round glass of contrasting color. One child holds a bright green marble to his eye, as if looking down the long corridor of his life.
“It’s about opportunity,” Julio whispered to me in his thickly accented English. “Artists here are usually poor, as our people cannot afford such luxuries as pictures for their walls. My father painted. He was poor. I paint. I am poor. But as a child, I would look at the sky through a marble and see infinite possibility. No matter who you are on this earth, looking up,” and here he gestured with a finger towards the heavens, “is the same for everybody. The magic is available to us all”.
I thought about that child with his green marble and how he didn’t know what his future held, but was willing to believe it could be a fairy-tale. I too felt uncertain about life, but not necessarily enchanted with it. I had signed my name to far too many triplicate forms that year: tax forms, work contracts, a student loan, 401k forms, insurance forms, a will, a construction loan and a rental agreement. I had applied for a driver’s license and passport in my new name. Everything felt grown-up and serious. I feared magic was something that only used to be.
That afternoon, Julio drove us to El Cajas, a national park outside of Cuenca. We drove for what seemed like hours. Upon entering the park, Julio drove the truck up. And up. And up. There were no roads or traffic; he just drove on the grass. Cajas, which means the boxes, is over 100 square miles of tundra. When finally the truck stopped and we rolled out, we all drew deep, gaspy breaths, attempting to acclimate to the altitude. We were currently beyond the cloud forest, 4,300 feet above sea level. Julio told us that there were 19 plant species, including the quinua “paper trees”, endemic to Cajas, meaning they aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.
We stood and stared, green grass and blue sky as far as our eyes could see, the blue only rent occasionally as a condor swopped by. There were no other people, no buildings, nothing made by human hands. We could have been the only five people in the world.
It was beautiful. It was magical.
I went off by myself to meditate, careful not to stray too far. I sat to breathe, realizing with a start it had been… (what, days? weeks? too long anyway) since I had meditated. I settled in, hyperconscious of my jagged, strained breath.
Time is elastic at that elevation. I was gone 15 minutes or an hour. I have no idea. I know that I sat there until I fell back into my groove. I sat until I felt myself slipping into my own skin, reconnecting to my younger, more trusting self. At some point, I opened my eyes and stretched my arms overhead. Then I dropped my hands to the ground and…
my hand landed on a green marble. A green, cat’s eye marble.
I gasped. Completely alone in the literal middle of nowhere and I found a green cat’s eye marble exactly like the one in Julio’s painting. I walked up to the others and just held my hand out. The five of us wordlessly formed a circle, stared at the enchanted talisman lying in my palm, tears sliding down our faces. We all gaped at one another, cautious not to break the spell with words.
Julio picked up the marble and held it to his eye, glancing through the infinity sign towards the heavenly light. I heard a click, noticed that my brother Ian had photographed that moment. And for my birthday that year, my brother painted that moment, honoring the flash when magic reentered my realm.