I was strolling along a grassy knoll in Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green when out of nowhere, a cat ran across my path. I tried to side-step away, trying desperately to give the cat enough time to clear out before I stepped on him. I managed to twist my legs up and I could feel my weight pulling itself down, gaining momentum. Instead of colliding with the unforgiving pavement, I watched the ground open up beneath me and I fell into a rabbit-hole wide enough that my body never scraped the sides. I fell down down down, watching the earth get browner as I went until I landed in a strange room with a giant wooden door. On it hung a sign that read, “Welcome to Amsterdam.” I reached out to grab the handle, but it disappeared as my hand came close, and with it, the door started to form fault lines, breaking apart right before my eyes until it had dissolved into air.
I took a step over the threshold, waiting for a jolt of electricity or some other indication that I wasn’t welcome here. Nothing happened, so I continued walking until I came across a sign that said “Vondelpark.” I looked down: fragrant green grass stretching under my feet. I looked up: the sky was purple as the sun set behind the trees. The air had a strange smell, like skunks and tobacco cigarettes all in one, but it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. I noticed what looked suspiciously like a particularly fat “cigarette” hanging out of one woman’s mouth, and she seemed mighty proud, like it was the prized trophy on her mantel. I especially adored – though from a distance – the man who wore a panda suit made entirely out of balloons, as well as the guy who was twirling his baton, smearing the light into streaks that flew circles across the growing night.
I decided then and there that I liked this mysterious new land, and would try to make the most of my time there, no matter how much or how little time that would end up being. Sitting on a bench eating my elaborate dinner of lobster and four-cheese ravioli (read: thermos rice) and watching the sun turn from purple to pink and back again, I heard a familiar laugh over my shoulder. I turned around and found one of my roommates Courtney, and another friend Jenny. They must have fallen down the rabbit-hole too! I thought to myself, hollering at them and waving my arms. After we sang Kumbaya for a few minutes, it was telepathically agreed to go to the other side of town that night, to a place that Courtney had heard of called “The Red Light District.” We expected to find lots of pretty red lights and thought this sounded magnificent.
After fortifying ourselves with nourishment and the lovely sight of a hostel cat named Zoey that looked suspiciously like Jess’ cat Zoey back in the homeland, we headed out to find the tram. We didn’t know how to operate this strange metal bread loaf that moved along the tracks, but it was similar enough to a train, and we simply followed what others were doing. I had my trusty map with me, which I couldn’t trust at all because Wonderland is notoriously hard to find on any maps (or maybe the real problem is that I can’t read maps). We knew something was wrong pretty quickly though when the stops sounded more foreign with each minute and the view outside the window started looking more suburban than magical. I turned my map inside out and realized that I had absolutely no idea how to read it, but knew in my gut that we needed to get off and catch a metal bread loaf going in the opposite direction.
When we finally stumbled off the train at the right stop a few light years later, we were on the doorstep of a carnival. The sun had set long ago and the neon lights stretched for miles into the sky. I followed the ferris wheel around with my eyes, felt the wind from the machines that whirled and twisted and swooshed people off the ground, threatening to drop them on their heads as they were lifted upside down. The air smelled like fried corn and unwashed dog, an interesting twist on fried corndogs. Tentatively, we took a step into this circus, scared that maybe it was all an illusion and would disappear the moment we tried to enter. But the circus remained, and we walked slowly between the ticket and food booths, watching as people puffed on spliffs and got cotton candy (made of real cotton) stuck between their fingers. How strange! we said to each other. Who lets a circus fall from the sky and land in the middle of a city? It looked like it could pack itself up and be whisked away in the blink of an eye, perched precariously as it was against the skyline of old brick and stone buildings.
We saw the glow of the red lights before we entered the street. At first, we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary: there was a road and some buildings that were crowned with neon red lights, the canal stretching between the two sides. But then, as our eyes began to adjust to the glow of the red lights, the street dissolved, leaving another identical street in its place. Except this street was full of groups of men smiling from ear to ear everywhere, which seemed strange. And then we noticed the windows. Windows lined up along the street, taking up the whole fronts of the buildings. Windows cordoned off with the same glowing red lights. Windows that framed the gyrating hips and sky-high breasts of women who looked like aliens, a species of perfection far beyond anything mere humans could ever hope to achieve.
These alien women in their little glass boxes in space looked at me with such intensity that I felt myself losing control over my thoughts. If one of them had told me to jump into the canal, I would have. It was bizarre, ogling at these alien women who get paid to be ogled. It was a conundrum: as a self-respecting feminist woman, should I have respected their choices or should I have been ashamed for them for letting themselves be reduced sex objects? And why can’t I stop looking at them?! I never found my answers in the g-strings of the red light district, though I did try. I didn’t find any answers in the window display of sex toys either, which included an interesting selection of power tools.
Sleeping in Wonderland is like blinking. I laid my head on the pillow and then in the same breath, I was in a line that zigzagged around a brick church with a tall bell tower, in the middle of the city. The wind pulled at the hairs on my neck, sending chills tiptoeing down my back. I pulled my gloves on and noticed across the street something called “The Homomonument,” which was in fact a monument to all the homos in Wonderland. Standing in line in Wonderland is like standing in line. It moves slowly and you get impatient and your feet start to hurt, no frills about it. I didn’t know where I was going, but it seemed like a lot of people also wanted to go there too, so it seemed like a worthwhile thing to try, even if I had to wait 2 and 1/2 hours to do so. It was when I got to the door that I realized I was about to enter the home of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl so famous that even us mere humans back in the homeland know who she is. I never thought I’d get to go to her house. Not even Wonderland could escape the wrath of one man’s war against the world.
Going through Anne’s house was an emotional roller coaster. I’d always read about Hitler’s war from the safety of my bed in the homeland, but never had I been in a space where the experience of that war was lived. Wonderland was full of surprises, and an emotional punch in the gut was not something I was expecting. I walked on the same floors Anne and her family walked on. I saw the pictures she hung up on her wall so the dingy space, crowned by windows with blackout curtains, wasn’t quite so depressing. I saw the very diary she wrote in that would one day go on to become a story of the world, a lesson in humanity that few people will be able to forget.
I felt the presence of a weight sitting on my chest, and I tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in constant fear of being exposed, as Anne did. The most powerful part of the museum was a picture of Anne’s class when she was around first grade age. Next to each student was a number, and off to the side, each numbered face was given a name. And each of them was given a place of death. 9 of the 13 children didn’t survive the Holocaust; they died a handful of years after that very photo was taken. It just doesn’t seem real, that humans can do such things to other humans. Even seeing the evidence right in front of me and walking on that ground couldn’t make it feel like anything more than a story. I think you call that privilege, even in Wonderland.
I closed my eyes again for a moment, just taking in the gravity of the space I was in, and the space that I occupy in the world as a free woman with choices and rights. When I opened my eyes, I was standing in front of a pair of silver gates, beautifully scrolled and shining in the sunlight. I looked around me and saw no one, heard not a sound. I reached out to the gates, gave them a little push before they started opening on their own. Slowly, I began to hear the sound of a pipe organ playing a happy tune, like that of a Merry-Go-Round. I stepped over the threshold and down the long bush-lined walkway. Behind me, the gates soundlessly pulled themselves back, sealing me in. I was not afraid. Instead, I felt greatly at ease, like I had somehow ended up exactly where I’d always needed to be. I emerged from the long path at the base of a fountain shaped like the seed head of a dandelion, the water spray mist forming the little wisps flying away on the wind. The pipe organ music was loud now, coming from a music box manned by no one. In another world, it would have been eerie. There, then, it felt like I was connected to everything that ever was and ever would be. I felt the earth breathing beneath my feet.
Beyond the fountain, I could go left or right. The wind blew from behind me and pushed me where I was meant to go; I relaxed and let the wind take me. I walked through a low-hanging cloud, feeling the wet tickle of moisture on my cheeks, and came out in a garden full of flowers. Tulips up to my knees grew in manicured patches, bursting in reds and yellows and whites brighter than anything artificial ever could be. The flowers seemed to absorb and reflect the sunlight so that the light bounced off the tulip petals, making them look beyond life. They were soft to the touch between my fingers, like a lamb’s ear.
I looked up, past the first garden and saw, stretching as far as I could see, garden after garden of blooming tulips mixed in with other flowers. I wanted to run through them. I wanted to lay in them and curl up like a cat. I wandered up and down the rows, grown in perfect lines, circles, and even shapes like American footballs until I came upon a maze cut from a swath of bush. I felt my way through and came out at fence, behind which stood a peacock, his feathers puffed up and trembling with the effort. He was beautiful, but his mate, licking her feathers on the fence post, was not interested. She turned her back to him and he let his feathers fall back down to his sides, forlorn. I watched the baby goats run circles around the pen next to the peacocks, and watched as the fat of baby pot-belly pigs dragged on the ground as they ate.
I waved goodbye to the animals and curved along the path, looking around each corner to find a new stretch of flowers, walking through sweet bursts of perfume and underneath wooden pergolas thick with vines. I came out at the base of a long winding path made up of tulips, which ended at a tall wooden windmill. I followed along beside the flowers and climbed the stairs up to the top of windmill so that I could look out over the tulip fields that lay beyond, reaching out to the horizon. I could have stayed there forever, surrounded by those colors that symbolized life. But there was more to see, so I closed my eyes, and when I opened them…
I was standing before a painting. The colors were swirled, the lines indefinite and yet somehow precise. Every stroke carefully considered and pulled across the canvas by expert hands. I recognized the painting faintly, like seeing it in a life before this one. I wanted to reach out and touch the vase of flowers captured in oils, but knew that this would be taboo even in Wonderland. I moved to the next painting, which showed a tall cypress tree with two young women walking past it. The colors were vivid and it brought me back to the weeping willow I used to watch dance in the wind in my backyard. It also made me think of my roommate Jess; the two women looked just like us, arms hooked, exploring the world together, sharing secrets. I moved to the next painting, sky blue background against striking white flowers on thin sweeps of branch.
I moved to the next painting, looked into the eyes of the man who created all these works of art as he slowly slipped into madness: Vincent Van Gogh. He winked at me before reaching his hands to the sides of the frame, pulling himself out of the painting to stand next to me. Without a word, he took my hand and led me to a pair of paintings hanging side by side. One was of a dark foreboding sky hanging low over a wheat field. The one beside it was of a tangle of vines in different colors.. I understood then that the wheat field was the place he’d ended up shooting himself in shortly after painting the field, after a stint spent in a mental institution. Most people assumed this was his last painting, an ominous omen, but he shook his head – streaked with lines like that of a lion’s fur, only full of color – and pointed to the unfinished one. This, he meant, was his last painting. I watched him look at it with his head tilted, and wondered what he was thinking. I wondered what he’d been thinking when he decided he couldn’t finish it, when he was walking out in the field with a gun in his pocket.
Feeling like it was time to leave him alone to ponder his life’s work on his own, I reached out to touch his shoulder but blinked just before my hand was there, and when I opened my eyes, I was in another art gallery. In the distance, I could hear club music and voices laughing, squeezing themselves through a faraway door that I might never find in this labyrinth of rooms. The first room had nothing but a bent saw in it and a mountain of wood with square holes cut out of it like a giant lattice. The next room had a painting of a woman with neon lips and a statue of a woman with her hands squeezing her breasts.
I wandered through rooms with stained glass, lamps of all shapes and sizes hanging from the ceiling, rooms with nothing in them at all, rooms filled with only paintings of sexual organs thinly disguised as zippers or hammers. Andy Warhol, after his Campbell Soup days, moved onto stitching sequences of the same photo together in groups of four, one of which focused solely on the male body. I ran into another person every once in a while, but it was like they saw right through me. It was like I was walking straight through the walls, through the paintings by Monet and Van Gogh until I was outside in the cold wind, the modern white reach of the museum building shielding me from whatever lurked beyond the reach of the lamp-post’s light. I let my eyes close, feeling my head fall against my pillow.
When I opened them, I was standing in front of a painting of a woman carrying a man’s head on a silver platter, his blood spraying out of his neck. I felt a tickle against my neck, and knew my roommate Abbie was there with me in spirit. She embodies that painting, mind, soul, and blood-stained spirit. I let my feet take me through the rooms of the building. I heard the echo of voices against the walls, but saw no other people. I was alone as I stood for a lifetime in front of Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” watching the woman pour her glass of milk for eternity, never getting to take a drink or deliver it to her mistress. I felt the presence of artists from hundreds of years ago, their energies channeled into the canvases that hung in front of me in big gilded frames.
I could feel my fingers picking up a blank canvas, the fear welling in my chest, and putting that first telling stroke across the surface that unlocks and unleashes a million strokes to follow, each more confident than the last. I closed my eyes, thinking, I am Claude Monet. I am Johannes Vermeer. I am Frans Hals. I am Rembrandt. I am Jan Steen. I am creation; I am energy channeled through fingers that find the right words on a keyboard. I am an artist of a different kind, but I can still feel their triumph, their failure. I could feel their purpose hanging in the frames on the walls, captured in the echoes coming off the walls; I could feel my purpose, stirring in the tips of my fingers, just aching for a pen and something to write on.
When I opened my eyes again, I was standing in front of thick glass separating me from a coral reef. A fan blew into the aquarium from above, simulating the push and pull of ocean currents. Sea anemones and other aquatic life swayed in the warm breeze coming from the fan, hanging on to the coral or rocks for dear life while reaching, reaching for the wide world of water beyond. I walked from one glass portal to the next, falling into a new world with each one. A lizard without legs, slithering up the glass. A snake with a body so long that while his head rested on one side of the aquarium, his body rested comfortable in the coil on the other side. Bright red starfish, fish in neon pink and brilliant violet blues. A lionfish with fins the equivalent of a peacock’s feathers, striped red and white and stunning against the stark blue of the water.
It was clear I was in some sort of zoo, but not like any zoo I’d ever been in. Tulips blossoming along the grass that stretched between animal houses, palm trees lounging in the cool breeze, a waterfall throwing spray across the wooden bridge, concrete steps leading up into the sky to somewhere unknown. I watched as the lions pulled meat off the bone, as an elephant walked circles around her pen smiling at me as she went. Walking through the butterfly garden, I felt tropical leaves brushing against the palms of my hands while the wind from butterfly wings brushed up against my cheek. Dressed in full winter gear, my skin began to collect pools of sweat along my back in the humid oasis, but I just couldn’t stop watching the brilliant blue butterflies chase one another around while the brown patterned ones, designed by nature to look like a much fiercer beast than they are, suckled on brown bananas cut in half and roasting in the heat.
I let the paths that twisted in no direction that made any sense take me where they wanted to go, straight into the gorilla house, where I saw a gorilla hunched in the corner, her chin held pensively in her hand while she stared off in the distance. As I approached the glass slowly, I saw cradled in the nook of her arm, a baby gorilla with a face so relaxed and open to the world that I wanted to reach out touch it.
“Would you like to hold her?” the mother asked me. My head snapped from the baby’s face to the mother’s. The glass that had been there was suddenly gone, and though I should have been afraid, I felt nothing but a deep sense of calm. “Yes,” I said truthfully. The mother gorilla handed her baby, just a few weeks old, up and I cradled him in my arms. “She’s going to grow up to be the leader of our tribe, you know,” the mother gorilla said, looking up at her baby with proud eyes. I handed the baby gorilla back to its mother as she stood up to meet my outstretched arms. “But first,” she said, “we have to go see an otter about a key.” “A key to what?” I asked her. And why does the otter have it? I thought to myself. She stepped over the threshold where the glass once stood and began walking on three legs – the other cupping her baby – to the open doors. “To the gates of Long Ago, of course,” she said, “so we can be with our kind before any of this,” she gestured to the concrete that surrounded us, “was here.” And then she was gone. I understood then, the answer to my second question. Why wouldn’t an otter have the key? It’s Wonderland, of course!
Content with what I’d seen in the zoo of dreams, I let my eyes close and felt my feet touch down gently on something soft. I took a breath in and smelled fresh cut grass. I opened my eyes, squinting into the sun and realized that I was back in Vondelpark, where I’d started what seemed like a lifetime ago. The sky was clear of all clouds as people on bikes whizzed past me. In my hand, I found a fresh cup of steamed milk, and I took a sip: the perfect temperature. I walked around the lake, finding a bench to sit on while I watched the sun move slowly across the sky. The water shimmered in the light as balloons, released from the hands of kids wearing party dresses, floated up on the wind until I could no longer see them anymore.
I knew that it was nearly time to go; I could feel the ground shifting. Soon the rabbit-hole would open itself beside me once again, and when it did, I would willingly jump into it so that another cat didn’t have to risk its life directing traffic into and out of Wonderland. I was okay to go back to the homeland, or at least to somewhere that made more sense, where glass didn’t dissolve and streets didn’t change before my eyes. Where famous dead painters don’t climb out of paintings to give me personal tours of their artwork. Wonderland taught me how to trust that even when things aren’t as expected, they can still turn out okay. Better than okay, even. The smallest things can change your life. The smallest things can bring you the most joy. There’s magic in the world to be discovered, and I know now that my legs and heart can lead me there if I let them. And I have Wonderland to thank for that lesson.
As I circled back to the entrance of the park, I saw the grass pulling apart to reveal a human-sized hole. No one else seemed to notice it but me. I walked up to it, prepared to jump in when a giant tulip started rising from below. The petals, a soft pink, bowed their head at me in greeting and held out a stem leaf for me to shake. The flower was attached to a platform that had just enough room for me beside the tulip’s stem, so I stepped on and held onto the soft stem. Wonderland slowly began to disappear as the tulip descended into the ground. Goodbye, I said as the sunshine on Vondelpark’s lake disappeared. I let my eyes closed, not sure where I would end up next, but knowing that wherever it was, I would make the most of it.
I let my hands release from the stem of the tulip and felt the soft wind of motion, my feet leaving the ground for a moment, settling gently back down. I opened my eyes to find a golden gate. Confident this time, I pushed at the latch, swinging the gates open. I walked through, feeling the jumble of nerves in my stomach worrying about what might happen. Immediately, I saw a sign: “Welcome to what comes next.” I smiled as I read it, letting the words and all the unknowns they carried be a reason to keep going, not to turn back.
I take another step.