“Such a meeting cannot be planned, for that would be plotting, trying to manipulate fate … The stranger’s eyes penetrate the woman’s inner being; his very presence awakens the dormant sacred prostitute and the sensuous feminine nature contained therein.”
–Nancy Qualls–Corbett, The Sacred Prostitute
New York City, 2009
The weather was dreadful—typical for February in New York City. Sleet fell from ominous clouds; illuminated grey-green by the glow of electric light. Pedestrians walking with uncharacteristic slowness planted their feet gingerly to avoid slipping in the slush. Cheap black umbrellas collided and turned inside out in the wind. The radiators in the old office building hissed and clanked, cranking heat in such waves we had to throw open the window. Outside the temperature was frigid.
I stood there watching the activity on Broadway from my office on the sixth floor. Work was wrapping up and I was debating my plan for the evening. I’d been invited to a salon at my friend’s loft but my motivation had been dampened by the weather. I toyed with the idea of going home for a warm bath instead.
“Trust me. Come,” Francis had said over the phone when I called a few days earlier for more info. He said H was a self-mastery instructor who worked with hedge fund billionaires and famous artists. I couldn’t see the relevance for myself and honestly wasn’t much interested in what a celebrity coach might have to say. I was a yogi, devoted to ancient eastern traditions and philosophies. Spiritually, I considered myself a purist. But, the invitation had been compelling and Francis had written that afternoon, as if sensing my hesitation:
Please come. I’ve been wanting you to meet H forever. Tonight is a good opportunity. He never makes public appearances and the group will be small, intimate. It wouldn’t be the same without you.
I went back to the computer on my desk and searched for H again, hoping to find some detail that would either turn me off or compel me out into the night. Nothing—he didn’t exist according to the internet. All I had to go on was Francis’ description and his desire to see me there. I sighed. The city had a way of drawing me out in those days—even in dismal weather—and the event was only a block from where I was in SoHo. Francis, New York, you win. I put on my coat and boots.
As I trudged down Broadway, my mind was still on my clients, marital problems, the monotony of the day…normalcy. I had no idea then that I was walking into the beginning of the end of “normal” for me.
Inside the loft was warm and illuminated. Young media types stood chatting around the room in small clusters. Francis ran towards me as I stood in the doorway removing wet layers and shaking the snow from my hair. He grabbed me in a bear hug and I laughed as his radiant smile released me from awkwardness and anticipation. All hesitation left me.
Francis was like a brother to me. “I’m a mess,” I said. He touched my face gently, “You look beautiful…a sight for sore eyes.” We caught up briefly and then he dragged me by the hand back to his office where a few men sat in conversation. I recognized H immediately. He looked uptown, out of place downtown, but in command of everything. The younger men treated him with deference and obsequious attention.
Francis introduced me and H bowed slightly, but did not take my extended hand. I felt instantly self-conscious…not insecure, but literally more conscious of myself, my every movement. I took a seat that one of the men offered.
H was turning a book over in his large, strong hands. I noticed that he wore a golden signet ring on his right hand. Francis’ business partner was animated as he described the book to H. I read the title from where I was sitting, A Gnostic History of the World. I could tell H was being polite as he nodded and flipped through the pages. Startled, I realized I could also feel him in my mind, watching me watch him. He looked up at me with an expression so blank and direct I froze.
“Have you read it?” he asked me. His voice was thickly accented and melodic: Israeli. I realized I hadn’t considered before coming where he might be from or how he would look.
“No, I haven’t.” I could barely consider the book as his gaze held mine. It seemed he was asking me about something else anyway.
“Would you like to?”
Before I could answer, Francis jumped up to greet some newcomers. “We should start soon,” he said as he ran to the door again.
We all stood. I saw that H was shorter than the other men and built solidly. He was dressed in a crisp white dress shirt, navy blazer, and jeans. He was probably in his early forties with clean shaven brown skin and dark eyes. His black hair clipped short. I wouldn’t have described him as handsome, but arresting. He looked groomed in the way I associated with midtown finance guys, which felt out of place in this Soho loft full of creatives in beards and plaids. Out of place? Yes. But, also unexpected. I realized most of the yoga scene downtown and the “spiritual” leaders I had encountered were bohemian, hippie, or actually Indian or Tibetan. I’d never met such a buttoned up guru.
Francis called us towards the front of the loft where folding chairs were set up in rows. I sat in the second row next to some old friends. I stole a glance at H who was patiently waiting for the crowd to settle. His face registered nothing. As bodies whirled around him, moving to their places, he stood absolutely still. Francis offered a warm introduction to our speaker. I barely remember the content that night. It was months after the Great Recession of 2008 and I know H spoke about the depressed economy, how to handle fear, and the need for cultural innovation. He referenced the state motto of New York, Excelsior, and pointed to its meaning: “Ever Upward” as a mantra for the times.
Soon, I would know the brilliance of H intimately. I would come to see him as extraordinary, powerful, even dangerous. But this night, the only night I ever saw him address a group of people, I found the talk to be a disappointment.
The experience of listening to him was more like deciphering a riddle than being swept off my feet. Measured and deliberate, he seemed sure of himself, but uncomfortable presenting to a group—almost like an alien or a person from another time. Most confounding was his pronounced lack of self-consciousness. I was used to polished presenters in the world of advertising and entertainment; behaving like actors, they strove to win over their audience, persuade, enroll them in the topic. H seemed not to care at all how the audience was receiving him. Now I understand that was true: he truly didn’t care whether we got it or liked it. He was there to share his wisdom, whether it was received or not was up to us.
By the time the talk ended, I’d pretty much dismissed H. I felt my curiosity had been sated. Looking back now I flinch at how quickly I put him in a box; how arrogant I was to assume I knew anything about him. How many extraordinary people do we miss this way? I know now that I wasn’t able to see or feel him fully that night—I was still asleep. Hypnotized.
After the talk I became interested in networking and mingling with friends and acquaintances. I was a social butterfly in those days and liked to be the last to leave a party. After a while, Francis moved the remaining few of us towards the door, shut the lights, and locked up behind us. We stood in a tight cluster, talking excitedly in the hallway, bundled in our coats and hats. Someone pushed the button for the elevator.
I don’t recall if I was talking or listening there in the hallway when I was caught by his eyes. I do remember being arrested by their depth and stillness—he looked into me and I couldn’t move. We may have been introduced earlier in the evening, but this was the real moment of meeting. He had complete possession of me.
I hadn’t known H was still present. I’d lost track of him in the loft and now here he was waiting for the elevator, but slightly apart from the chattering crowd. He wasn’t with anyone, wasn’t talking to anyone. In fact, the thought crossed my mind later that he might have been there just for me in that moment (truly, maybe he only ever existed for me). He was there to deliver this look.
I felt it through every cell in my body as if he could penetrate the superficial self; bypassing the charade to connect with something of equal profundity within me—something I didn’t yet know myself. It wasn’t amorous or assessing like the looks I was used to from men; but, timeless and knowing. I felt I’d been recognized. As H and I stood there locked in this silent reunion, the rest of the group fell away from my awareness. Something inside me was awakened.
All of this lasted seconds. No one else noticed anything. When the elevator arrived to carry us down to the ground floor everyone stepped in and I realized I was trembling. A deep fear had been touched at my core. At the time, I think I was scared others might see how exposed I was. Or maybe it was a fear of being drawn closer into H’s now apparent gravitational pull, consumed by his power. Later, I would understand it as the fear of stepping into my destiny. No turning back.
As we piled into the small box—young people crowded intimately and even sensuously up against each other—I knew there was nowhere to hide now. My hiding days were done. When the doors opened into the lobby I raced towards the street, unable even to say goodbye to the others, wanting to get away. I stepped out into the mass of rushing bodies on Broadway. Relieved, at least temporarily, to be lost in the crowd again.
Reflections and Invitations…What Happens Now?
Hi friends. Wow…it feels amazing to share this start with you. What I am most enjoying is the heady sensation of embarking on a long adventure with you—full of twists and turns and unexpected events. I feel more certain than ever that each week your comments and curiosities will be key to helping us unfold this retreading of history. So, here are some of my requests/suggestions:
Use the comments—Please put your questions, comments, and curiosities in the comments below. Let’s see what others are thinking. Let’s riff. I will receive the comments deeply and weave them into the next week’s installment.
Note - I may eventually use the text feature on the app to make our conversations more interactive and natural.
Be skeptical of your narrator—Because the story is about my own personal experience and it happened in the past when I was literally a different person, I know there are things that I am missing. I am telling the story, but you may have a better perspective than me. Also, my inability to see is precisely why I got entangled—why we have a story at all! If you feel skeptical about something I do or say, let me know. Ask questions. If you are wondering about a character, let me know. Let’s *see* it all more precisely together. The heroine is extremely imperfect and not trustworthy due to her blindspots. This is part of what I want to bring into better focus.
Intuit, feel into it, bring your wisdom—I am a decent writer, but not a great one. That’s fine! What I am actually better at is facilitating conscious group process. I really hope to make this a well-written and exciting literary journey, but we’re not trying to write the Great American Novel here. We are trying to use art and collective storytelling as a tool to heal the past and therefore, the present. As we get deeper into the action, you may have a strong intuition about something…I want you to trust that, bring it forward. It’s not so much about keeping the story and characters consistent or believable or whatever as it is about alchemizing what needs to be transmuted.
Subscribe!—I will start posting these chapters behind the paywall either next week or the following. I’d like to encourage as many of you as possible to subscribe if you’re excited about getting into this story. After every 4th chapter, there will be a ZOOM forum to discuss and feel into the action.
THANK YOU, my friends, for your precious attention. 🙏🏻
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First of all, I love your writing. Second, I so wish I had the time to participate more fully in your brilliant project. As you know, it’s a process I’ve been experimenting with myself. Unfortunately, less is more for me in 2023 in terms of projects and collaborations.
I've just read both of these pieces you posted Schuyler, only this morning.
Upon finishing the first one (with the background on this project you're inviting us to collaborate with you about), I found myself quite interested, but not all that "stimulated" nor feeling a tremendous amount of resonance.
However, opening up this substack webpage, and realizing when your story "started" (in early 2009), i suddenly found myself electrified!
And the fact that this first "chapter" took place in NYC also generated a tremendous "pull" for me.
i'm still very much in processing mode however, so it may be that what i have to offer (so immediately after having been exposed to so much, and finding the complexity and layering of all that would seem to be contained in both what you've already done in regard to all this, and where i sense you want (us?) to go, to be so rich that i've not yet really managed to wrap my mind around all of the threads) isn't all that valuable. But whether my mind is able to "grasp" what's being offered, my soul is now fully captivated, so i am going to do my best to share what i *feel* about all this. Again though, take heed, it may be that the feedback coming from me is way too much about me.... Forwarned is forearmed.
Beyond the timing detail that "hooked me" (which i'll not go into right now), what i find so damn compelling is the dynamic which exists around *connection*. Specifically (as this has been an issue for me my whole life, but mainly many decades ago, before i found my wonderful partner) in the ways i myself have not understood "boundaries". And even more specifically, how, when i was young, that i may have been seeking something that i lacked, and yet believing what i was seeking was romantic love and/or a sexual relationship (or relationships?). So yeah, what i'm interested in has to do with the prior history (before 2009) you brought with you around this dimension: how sexuality, romantic desire, and a seeking of perhaps a connection that might be completely orthogonal to those things, but likely far deeper than what most modern humans are willing to admit we want. Whether we find that in a lover, a partner, a spouse, a friend, or, for those luckiest among us, in many of those "categories" and/or others, and for the truly blessed, not just in a single person, but in several.
With the benefit of hindsight (and perhaps through the lens of probing your earlier relationships and how "deep" some/many of them might have been, though this doesn't have to be explicitly written as part of the story you/we are trying to build about Katherine), my invitation would be to try to figure out where you were in 2009 with respect to seeking that "depth" (as my intuition tells me that is key here!), and a desire (whether you were confused as I was when i was young about believing that the "way" to get there was via romantic love and/or a relationship with a sexual "energy" to it) to "bond at the level of souls" (i.e. in a way that goes beyond what most ever attain) with a person or persons who might have been spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, constitutionally, and/or behaviorally "compatible" with you.
But again, please feel free to disregard my own "response" and/or advice if it doesn't resonate. It may very well be that what has come up for me is "my own" stuff to work through as best i can, rather than anything that might provide helpful guidance in terms of where this project "wants to go"...