Updated: Jul 6
That you look in this city
There's something exquisite
You'll want to visit
Before the day's through!"
- "One Short Day," Wicked The Musical
Cue the dazzling lights, flashing proudly across the stage as your heartstrings leap to join the rhythm of the orchestra. The harmonies lasting just long enough for you to believe your ears have recorded them, your eyes widen in wonder trying to let in every detail. All of it builds to that one, final, glorious ending where your soul rises inside of you as your feet on the floor begin to feel peculiar. Chills run down your spine and the hair on your arms stand up for you. It's here... it's happening... the best part of every musical's title sequence. You can't help but smile, teary-eyed. The music gets louder, but still not as loud as the pounding of your heart. And then...
The song ends, and you are rudely transported back to reality. As the curtains close and scenes change, you realize that it wasn't really an emerald city after all, just an empty, wooden stage. You may think the fantasy ended with the curtain call, but it didn't. I truly believed in the Emerald City, and nearly 15 years later, sometimes I still do. In fact, if you're willing to keep a secret without questioning my sanity - I've been there. Many times. My last visit was what prompted me to write this.
My visit to the Emerald City began just as mesmerizing as one could possibly imagine. Surreal? Maybe. I prefer to describe it as "strikingly real." That's what made it so appealing - it was all so real. Everything you gazed upon looked to be within arms reach. The sights were intensely stimulating to a point where you had to rest your eyes to recover. The sounds were alluring, beckoning you to walk deeper into the heart of the city. The trumpets seized your attention so much so that you could not afford to be distracted for longer than a few seconds. Fragrances most inviting turned your head for you; you didn't have to work very hard to discern the source. And finally, the citizens. There is simply no other word to describe them other than - perfect. Their warm greetings only added to their pleasant aura, giving life to the city. You felt this urge to know them deeply. You wanted to be more than an acquaintance and belong to their world. In fact, you felt lucky to just be in their presence. Why would anyone want to leave? And yet, that is exactly what I did.
The outskirts of the city are indeed most enticing. So I wouldn't blame you for thinking me a bit odd for leaving, but I had to for my own sake. And in telling you this story, I hope to caution you to never venture to this glorious city. Fortunately, I'm not naïve; unfortunately, that means I am well aware that many of you have already visited. And once you go there, the temptation to return is stronger. If that scares you a little, it should. To truly convince you, despite all of my warnings to the contrary, I am going to take you with me. Consider this a "guided tour." Only this time, I will tell you the whole story.
We begin at the city gates. Almost at once, you notice something interesting - the gates are always open. Why are they even there, you ask? We'll get to that later. As we walk in, I want you to take a closer look at what captures your attention first - the gleaming artefacts all within reach. But, are they? Try to touch them. As you reach your hand out, your face is painted with confusion. Your fingers get so close, but never quite close enough. The objects of pleasure no matter how many times you try are always just far enough away that you can never touch them. I promise you, this is no cruel joke. You can keep trying, but to save you the heartache and frustration, we are going to move on.
Enter the orchestra. Our next stop on the tour starts right here. Can you hear the majestic trumpets? For now, they are a little faint, but as you take a step forward you can hear them getting a little louder. Let's follow them, shall we? What's fascinating is no matter what direction you turn, the sound becomes more prominent. It pleases your ears so much that you want to gratify them so you walk further and further, trying to get to the heart of the sound. We have now been walking for a few minutes, and you are still not quite satisfied. How is it that the trumpets always seem like they need to be just one decibel louder? And though the volume is in fact increasing (I am your witness - you are not crazy!), you want more. Let me stop you here. Look around. We are exactly where we started. Before you ask, no, we did not take 3 left turns. In fact, if you remember, we didn't take any turns at all! I understand how unconvincing this seems, so if you would like to attempt it again I will go with you. It's just then that you realize your legs are beginning to feel sore. We've been walking for nearly half an hour. Time feels almost irrelevant here, doesn't it? Curiosity forms in your brows again as the air fills with intoxicating aromas. You turn your head to find creamy delicacies, fresh out of the oven, just waiting to be eaten. Almost immediately, hesitancy takes over. Will I be able to touch them? These are different... see? As I hand you a pastry, I look on with a hint of pity as you devour it. You can't taste it, can you? They say half the taste is in the smell, but this is a different feeling altogether. The pastry feels chalky and tough, becoming a burden to chew, so you gulp down what's left of it. I apologize for making you go through this, but if I simply told you, would you have believed me? There is still one last thing I want you to see. Them.
They're why you're here, isn't it? Sure, the sights are captivating and the sounds magnificent, but they're the reason you really wanted to come. They all seem so regal, walking around in perfection. You admire their finery and how they carry themselves. They seem so friendly, "What could possibly be the problem here?" you demand in exasperation. My friend, that's just it. There is no problem. They are perfect. And if there's one thing we know, it's that perfect doesn't exist. I see your frown, and I want to ask you a question... what is it you really want? "To get to know them, of course!" This conversation seems pointless so you proceed to make a passerby's acquaintance. They are so articulate and engaging that you get lost in their magnetism, paralyzingly mesmerized. In fact, you can hear your voice trail off and you're unable to even respond to their simple questions. Your throat begins to choke up, and you watch in dismay as they depart gracefully. That was a rough start, let's try that again. Same arresting conversation, and same pitiful ending. What in the world is going on here?! As tears well up in your eyes, you start to feel miserable. Your efforts to blink them away are futile. Anger rises inside of you, but for the life of you, you can't figure out why. May I interject here? I've been where you are, so before you have another conversation, let me ask you again... what is it you really want? Slowly but surely, you find your voice again and the words sting almost as soon as they leave your lips - "I want to be them." What's happening to you dear friend isn't insanity, it's resentment. You feel it, don't you? Every glance at their beauty, makes you feel ugly. Every admiration of their success, makes you feel like a failure. Every reminder of their value, makes you feel worthless. You don't want to simply get to know them, you want to be them. You want to be a citizen of the Emerald City, and deep down, you think it utterly unfair that you aren't.
I think it's time I took you back to the gates. There is a sign that is easy to miss, but something tells me you won't this time. As we make our way, you hang your head in shame, hiding the tears streaming down your face. Something stops you just before the city limits. You seemed to have stepped on a notice of sorts. It reads, "NO VACANCIES." You bend down to pick it up only to realize it is engraved into the cobblestone path. How can that be? Something about this notice seems familiar though, but you can't put your finger on it. As you turn to see where I'm standing, you notice writing underneath my feet as well. Upon coming closer, you read again, "NO VACANCIES." Grabbing you by the shoulders, I turn you around back toward the city - only this time, angling your head downwards. There it is. On almost every square foot of stone, you see the same etched notice - NO VACANCIES. I wouldn't be too hard on yourself for not seeing it before. When you walk in, there are far too many things your eyes wander to that looking down is hardly an option. And even if you were to look down, it is only readable on your way out. It wouldn't be much of a way to advertise for curious visitors, would it?
Alas, we've come to the end of our tour. It was a painful one, no doubt. But you realized in one trip what I took many visits to confront - so I count that a success! The Emerald City truly is grand and exquisite, until it leaves you feeling like filthy rags with a gaping hole in your heart. And it will always leave you feeling that way because you don't belong here. You don't come to the Emerald City because you want hope, you come because you've lost sight of it. You come to the Emerald City to escape yours. You come to visit to make yourself feel worse, so that in some twisted way, you can take comfort that where you were before you entered was better. This is precisely why you always want to come back - when you think you've hit rock bottom, you go to the Emerald City to prove to yourself that you haven't. There is no "person behind the curtain" here, because the "person behind the curtain" is you. You're the reality that you have to live with. While this may sound like a somber ending, I hope it is enlightening. You see, the Emerald City and its citizens are just reflections of the darkest parts of ourselves. It's not worth it to visit. But I know something in you will always want to, and I think I know why.
There really is a City that delivers on all its promises, but it's not here yet. And until we get there, we are always going to go after its counterfeit. If you're keen, let me tell you more about it on our way out of the Emerald City... and this time, how about we close the gates?