The day after Christmas, in search of medieval ruins and a good hike, Tom and I drove an hour from Le Broc to Chateauneuf, one of many medieval villages scattered across the foothills above the Mediterranean Coast. They’re so numerous that at night their lights look like constellations in a vast sky.
The trail started out on a steep incline, well-marked by a path of loose stones. Then it leveled off, winding through low bushes, oaks, and pines. We climbed wide stone steps to the ruins of the castle of Chateauneuf. It stood in crumbling splendor on the site where it had been built in 1132. The sense of place and the passage of centuries was palpable. I imagined people still living nearby with ancestors who had been part of this village. I grew up in Southern California where everyone has come from somewhere else, and nothing stays the same. I felt a kind of visceral longing to connect with the ghosts of the human community that had dwelt in this place.
I touched the stones and ran my hand along curved walls covered in dry moss. As the sun passed its zenith, and shadows began to define spaces, I discovered an arched entryway into a cavernous room, so eroded that it looked like an open mouth. It beckoned me, this portal, to enter the dark interior. Crossing the threshold felt like falling out of time as I know it. Once inside, I crouched comfortably on the smooth dirt floor, and looked around. The interior was like a womb. I could feel the still air, and smell its earthiness. All the accoutrements of my identity in the outside world as a psychologist, an artist, a writer, seemed to fall away. And I felt like I belonged there in my basic humanness.
As we continued our walk through the ruins, I was drawn to portals, intrigued by the variety of sizes and shapes: rectangles, squares, and even one that looked like a heart. The last one I entered was a narrow room with a vaulted ceiling, illuminated by light streaming in through the doorway. I could see my way to the back wall, stepping around rocks scattered across the floor. When I turned around, rather than having an inward experience, the light seemed to be calling me out into the day, to rejoin Tom and resume our hike.
Back on the trail I fell in behind Tom, and thought about portals I’ve opened in the last decade of my life, some incredibly beautiful, and others heartbreaking. I’m writing about some of them in Whole of Life. But what came to mind was Christmas day, just the day before.
We were invited to Nice for a family lunch in celebration of the holiday. Mariel, our host, is a figurative painter whose passion and inspiration for her art is the opera. Being welcomed into her home was like crossing a threshold onto what I imagine a stage set of La Traviata would look like: red brocade walls, heavy velvet curtains, and beautiful antiques. But best of all was the art…not classical French, but magnificent contemporary, figurative paintings, many larger than life in vision and design, created by Mariel and Ivan, her friend of many years and an artist she represents. Even before champagne was served, I felt drunk on the images, and the feelings they aroused in me. A portal had been opened, and I do not yet know where it will lead.
When we got home that night, I googled the word portal, curious about its origin. It comes from medieval Latin, portale, and means “like a gate, a doorway.” The Old French word is portal. I would love to hear about your experience of entering a portal that changed your life. Our sabbatical in Le Broc is certainly changing mine.