When I was a kid, in the suburbs of Atlanta, the concept "demon-slaying laugh" was nothing I had encountered yet. Yes, I knew about snorting ginger ale out your nose while watching Monty Python. Yes, I knew about mocking Mr. Hell Toupee, after Bible class. I knew that sometimes the elements of the world could come together in combinations that wrestled something out of the body that went far beyond the yes/no/I don't know menu that school and home life seemed to require. But a demon-slaying laugh? No, that I hadn’t come up against. It hadn’t shown up in academic subjects, at Mass (which involved zero laughter), in PE class, or in the informal curriculum of my self-conscious, unconscious immigrant family.
Someone found out that a troupe of Tibetan monks was coming to perform at the Academy of Medicine. Of course, medicine is exactly what the monks were, but at the time, the location just seemed odd and interesting. REM and the B-52s played at the Fox; bigger acts were in stadiums; and scruffy punk bands had their own beer-sticky venues, half-glimpsed in the dark of all-ages shows. But the Academy of Medicine – a small Greek temple, respectfully surrounded by neat azaleas and parking lot – was something new.
My whole family decided to go. This is worth looking at, because, like any rebellious teenager, I was convinced that my parents were total idiots who hated me, and I knew I hated them. Had this been true, I doubt they would have forked over the hefty whatever-it-it was, and agreed to make a family outing of it. Maybe they were intrigued. My mother had loved all things Tibetan from girlhood, reading Tintin au Tibet and Le Troisième Oeuil. Her grandmother had some kind of Buddha on the mantlepiece in the living room, which once disgorged countless tiny prayer scrolls from a hidden cavity. My father did not seem Tibet-curious, but who knows? He may have been the one to find out about the monks in the first place, through the university where he taught electrical engineering. We all went.
Polite audience, good clothes, thick carpet. This I had all encountered before, on expeditions to the Atlanta Symphony, where my parents had season tickets, and to which they brought my brother and I for expensive naps from time to time. I could recognize some of the beauty of that music, but the passivity of being in the audience in that venerable hall never failed to bring me to sleep. I came to believe that the velvet upholstery was basted in unconsciousness, permeated with it. Anyway. Until the monks came out, everything seemed more or less familiar, even though their origin story – learned people exiled and dispossessed from their homeland – interested me.
Then they appeared. Tasseled, hatted, rainbowed, with long brass fart-o-phones, with skull-staffs, with masks both terrifying and splendid. That was all for the eyes. With deep rumbling of voice, high fluting, and clashing of symbols, for the ears. With expansion of body-space, throat, and belly – a visceral sense of breadth, joining and possibility. I knew, right then, in my fifteen-year-old body – that what they were up to concerned me, too, somehow. The leap I couldn’t make in a symphony concert – to seeing in the musicians’ prowess some sign of my own potential – for some reason I could manage, witnessing these monks in their wild saffron smurf-hats and heavy wine-colored cloaks. What they had to say to me was the equivalent of a two-hour immersion in demon-slaying laughter.
Don’t believe what you think you are.
Don’t believe what others tell you you are.
Don’t look to vengeance and competition for what you are.
Expand! Open! Drop your poisons into space and see them changed.
Those voices, which could be in two or three different places at the same time, meeting, writhing and dancing together, male and female, shook open man-roles and lady-roles, pretty and ugly, me and you. Also, unlike ballet, which I'd already been ejected from, these dances stomped AND flew. They fought AND surrendered. They did not rely on anyone else to do the heavy lifting, or to be lifted. Each monk was his own partner, and the partner of all the others, as well as of some far larger harmony brought into being through their collective, multi-sensory, whole-hearted action.
Seeing the those monks that night, at fifteen, with my family, at the Academy of Medicine in Atlanta, was as much an experience of art as it was an experience of spiritual awakening. I knew, even then, in my bones, that these categories didn’t really make sense as separate pursuits. You don’t need a separate demon-slaying laugh to deal with religion, and another one for aesthetics, and a third for sexism, etc. A real, whole-being demon-slaying laugh takes care of all of this at once, with war, stinginess, racism, insecurity, and professional ambition all falling simultaneously, if you let them. If you let the laugh go deep, and do its work.
Art is matter, and so is religion, and so it goes for entheogens, falling in love, and aching heartbreak. Only the small versions of ourselves, hoping for protection from the full reach of the demons’ laughter, attempt to box our up experiences into categories. We want to keep the transformative potential of what we know separate from certain cherished reaches of our lives. We want to keep this over here, and that over there, and we don’t much like stories that ask, Who’s the demon around here, anyway?
It's true – the monks didn't physically move into my family’s living room, hanging out on the wicker armchairs and berber carpet, to aid the transformation of my being. They had other stuff to do, other minds to open, and further funds to gather for their resurgent monastic school. Also, there was no need, because I was already on my way to other transformative experiences: a single acid trip, the love of a sweet blond boy, a ticket to college emerging from a thin, white envelope.
When we turn our resources and attention exclusively to science, theory, or formal education, we are relying on reason alone to do the job of the demon-slaying laugh, and this is absurd. A lecture and slideshow about the monks would not have touched the parts of me that opened to their embodied courage and fierce truth – their voices, costumes, and choreography, and the penetrating force of their meditation practice. You can read recipes all day long, and never know a thing about how searing heat turns bubbly gloop into bread. You can feel fire, and never know the taste and feel of crust breaking into food.
That concert, that evening, those voices and moving bodies, that path. All called to me in ways that I have kept answering ever since, astonished by the pull of a demon-slaying, demon-disarming laugh that rises from the earth, rolling out from my body, as from yours, in great pealing waves.
Meanwhile, back home, something is happening between those two dogs. They could be biting each other, or stretching up onto the counter to leave tooth-marks in the butter. Meanwhile, back home, something is cooking. It could be the thing you knew you were making for dinner, or it could be the unforeseen results of actions undertaken long ago. It could be that old container of power-kraut on the lower shelf in the fridge, reaching ferment escape velocity, and oozing its way free, among the jars of condiments and bags of greens. It could be all the questions you’ve not known to ask, not dared to feel. It could be today’s sense of isolation, with a side of sore throat. Meanwhile, back home, everything you’ve not had the heart to sort, everything you’ve acquired lightly and not resolved, is sitting in boxes that also contain the socks you want to wear today. It’s slowly filling up the attic, and the basement, and even though you’ve read Marie Kondo, you know the day when you have the time to deal with any of this is not dawning anytime soon. Meanwhile, back home, a sort of insulation layer made of stuff is keeping things from crashing into each other, or making too loud a noise.
Meanwhile, back home, four different kinds of raspberries are thriving, and the rhubarb is neck-high, with wild lacework flowers collapsing onto huge, shiny leaves. It's all so lush that you burst out laughing to see it all, leaning lavishly in the direction of chaos.
Meanwhile, back home, another woodchuck has moved in under the studio, and no one’s yet taken the time to go pee on his hole, inviting him, meanwhile, to make a home elsewhere. The tables and chairs in there still look a lot like they did a couple of weeks ago. Nothing much has happened, and yet now, when the dogs are in there, they listen for the woodchuck’s subterranean doings, beneath the paint-stained, dusty concrete.
Meanwhile, back home, I wonder about home as a real possibility in this world. Is it even possible to be met completely by someone else? Is wishing to be met completely by someone else the best way, meanwhile, to have no home? I get out of bed late, still tired from my long airport purgatory, still tired from so much Internet consumption in unwanted places. A friend sends me the name and title of a book addressed to men, to tell them how to be men. Apparently, it involves blooming women and the world into being. I’m very glad not to be, meanwhile, at home with someone whose conception of himself, women, and the world subscribes to this mythology. There are women, yes, who want to be “bloomed into life” at the end of some man’s cock, but I am not one of them. I prefer, in these arrangements, the dancing dakini’s staff. Here is my masculine. Here is my feminine. Here we are, at home.
Meanwhile, back home, I am still making piles of this and that, which clutter the kitchen table, and the need to be moved, so we can eat. Being in graduate school this time around involves so many books. Taken individually, I could enjoy most of them, but in their waves, I realize I see them like weird beaching creatures, flopping in heaps here and there. I would like a book-free life for a few months or years – a chance for all those words to settle in and down and turn into coral, moray eels, or plankton, as the case may be. Into beluga whales. Into sunfish the size of small houses.
Meanwhile, back home, each time I take a break from watching the news, something freshly horrible happens. Is everyone reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth again? Because here is a good place to find out about young men who are drawn into jihad, even though they grew up right here, and hand out Halloween candy to children. Maybe it’s not all jihad through and through in there: also, family. Also, girlfriends. Also, music, love of the body, love of life. Meanwhile, back home, we all could afford to step up our game a little, learning how to give peace and fellow-feeling the same degree of glamour that we attribute to violence and war. I love the new Wonder Woman movie, but if you look at how paltry the few scenes of peace are, you can tell we have a problem. What’s a little waltzing, to millions of flying kicks and sword-strikes? Meanwhile, back home, we need to remember that waking up in crumpled blankets, and wandering aimlessly in the garden is at least as worthwhile as kicking someone in the head.
Meanwhile, back home, no one is quite sure what to do about anything, in large part because there are too many things. Food things, medicine things, debt things, things falling apart things. When it's like this, it's hard to settle enough to do anything even moderately well. Facebook starts to have lots to say. Email about this-and-that starts to have lots to say. Meanwhile, the peonies sprawl unstaked, or they are staked, but there’s no string to bind them together. Meanwhile, the letter doesn’t get written, and the waves of books don’t get read at all.
Meanwhile, of course, the ocean is still there – the “show me your face before your parents were born” ocean, oceanically getting on with things just fine, thanks. Yes, it knows you really don't want to get a cold right now, and it would actually appreciate a couple of weeks free from problem-solving and being harnessed. It gnaws at the iron posts of all your plans, not because it has anything against them, but because it’s salty, and that’s that.
Meanwhile, back home in the body, there is the edge of fever, the sense that someone's turned the heat up inside my eyeballs, and I could use another few hours of sleep. Feet and bottom are fine: solid, living, and squishy. Meanwhile, right here, I am at home.
What are friends for? I'm a little stumped here, which is a feeling I often get when I have something important, but a bit prickly, to say. This morning, laying in bed, I was mulling over the couples-therapy demo video I streamed last night. (Yes, this is a real occupational hazard of being a counseling student.) Anyway, the session featured a method for which I have great respect – and yet, I could not get over my sense of uneasiness. WTF are you doing, good people? There is no way to solve what is transpiring between you, without first solving what is happening inside each of you. Also, WTF, good people? That man needs to fucking mow the lawn, and that is that.
What I was feeling is how very definitely I conceive of change as an individual pursuit, whose pleasant side effects include improved interpersonal relationships. I don't, in other words, believe in Doing It for the Marriage, or Doing It for the Family. I believe, in part, that friends are for reminding you that the work of getting on with your life is yours alone. They can’t do it for you, and they can’t even tell you what it is.
This orientation is I think a direct descendent of the family and social dynamics I grew up with. I learned quickly that if I depended on friends, parents, teachers, or family members, to tell me what to do, I pretty quickly wound up in roles and situations that did not feel right. I wound up with some kid's acne-face in mine, his nail-bitten fingers in my underpants. I wound up at a debate tournament every weekend, speed-snarking my way through arguments about Manuel Noriega and Integrated Pest Management. I wound up clearing the table, while my male relatives sat on their duffs. I wound up, in other words, unhappy.
It took me a long time to completely absorb the implications of this discovery. If friends, family, teachers, and the world in general aren’t there to tell you what to do, then why do they insist on telling you the opposite? Why are they so fucking upset, when you decline?
Most people are scared of doing the against-the-stream work of figuring out what they actually think, are, and should be doing. And if you start declining their invitations to go along with the stream, it begins to point out, rather uncomfortably, that something else is possible.
So then, what are friends for? Something like: one bird grawks somewhere in the forest, and another one cascade-tweets. A third sussurates, just under the note of the breeze in the pine boughs, and now we have a triangle that marks space. Now we have an echo of the unobstructed space that permeates our experience – inner and outer, upper and lower, and all around. Friends are for bearing witness to the truths that come pouring out of us like an uninterrupted stream of black ink on white ruled pages, or like a finger writing on the surface of the ocean.
I remember listening to an interview between Tami Simon, who founded the publishing company Sounds True, and her teacher, Reggie Ray. "So," she said, "you call yourself a Vajra Master. That's kind of a big title. What does it mean to you?" And he answered, “A Vajra Master is someone who, when you come at them wanting to give away your power, won’t take it.” So that’s another thing friends are for. When you show up really looking for someone to be your victim/ persecutor/ rescuer, your friend does a Melania hand-flick (only nicer, hopefully) and puts you right back in the saddle. What do you already know about this? Why are you shying away from knowing what you know?
Friends are for opening up possibilities that you might not otherwise make space for. My friend Stephanie, in developing brain cancer at age 30, opened the world of accelerated mortality much sooner than either of us thought we would be meeting it. She stepped right into the worlds of intracranial surgery, American Cancer Society lodges, and being actually told by a doctor that if you don't feel like it, flossing isn’t such a pressing concern. She opened the space of residential hospice care, and the way people call the ambulance anyway, just in case.
Friends are for making parts of our shared landscape visible in ways that it wouldn't otherwise be. Sure, I heard about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the flat ways that the radio could broadcast it for me, but it wasn't until I had a student who was a recent veteran that the whole thing began to seem real to me, in terms that could map onto my own experience of being human. This sweet man, with his angel drawings and utter devotion to his mother, was out there. Same goes for the refugee crisis: one thing when it’s a global catastrophe, and another when it’s your friend, fighting for her life with her life.
The Buddha described friendship with the image of two acrobats. The first one’s job is to walk holding a tall pole, and the second one’s job is to balance up there. How do we help each other, they asked? And the Buddha said, The best way to help each other is by doing everything you each can do, to do your own job well. He didn't say, What a stupid job. Why don’t you consider doing something a bit less precarious? Maybe that was in the second session, after the acrobats had sorted their codependency issues a bit more.
Anyway, that image strikes me as a kind of ur-myth for my own marriage and friendships. I spend very little time indeed trying to solve my friends’ problems, or asking them to solve mine. Instead, I focus on trying to do the best I can, maintaining moment-to-moment balance, and asking myself about whatever it is I’m trying to do. Am I feeling miserable and wobbly because the role I am trying to inhabit was invented by some ancient Indian acrobat-part, dwelling deep inside me? If so, re-assess. What would be a more fitting way to walk down this road? Whom have I asked to carry me on a pole, and how can I let them know they don’t have to? Whom am I carrying? How do I put them down?
Friends are for learning the limits of my strength and the boundaries I keep in the world. Friends are for laughing like hyenas when I come in, dusty and exhausted from another round of acrobatting on the open road. Friends are for savoring the moments of joy, truth, grief, and focus that arise spontaneously from letting go of stories and distractions.
Friends are for falling in love with, in the maybe-safe laboratory of unfolding stories that intersect and diverge. They are the catbird calling out from the edge of the garden, the beloved silhouette glimpsed just ahead in the parking lot, the mystery of how we arise and cease, for ourselves as for one another.
A narrow passage opens, as Donald Trump lean in towards the Western Wall. There, from between the stones, comes a somber voice, suitably framed in a dark cloud.
“There will be hell toupee,” it says.
And it is hilarious.
Trump leans in piously, his man-meringue topped with a borrowed yarmulke. Leonard Cohen, from the grave, looses his line about the killers in high places saying their prayers out loud. They’ve summoned up a thundercloud, and they’re going to hear from me.
Yes. There will be hell toupee.
But who knows? Who knows what will come of this narrow passage where we find ourselves? There’s a Gurdjieff story: his students, all exasperated by the same bore, the same boob-joke teller, dessert-hoarder, hot-water-waster, nose-picker, come to see their teacher in despair. Please, O Great One! Please send this one away! We can’t take it! Our plans for righteousness are being trampled and made a mockery of! The guru smiles in his ever-wise way, saying, My children! This one I have invited specially to join us, for he trains you as no one else can.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to talk about Those People, Over There, who can’t be bothered to stage a revolution, when the government’s so openly despoiling the poor to glut the rich. Which “those people”? You mean me, sitting here at this green mesh picnic table, with bleeding hearts and rhubarb thriving nearby, writing about a narrow passage? I’ve got other shit to do. Same goes for my pals, taking dictation from the Muse as assiduously as I am. The lady with the toddler, walking to the library? The person flying the noisy me-rocket overhead? All of us are merrily not-making revolution. Many of us are approaching whatever form of guru we have constructed in our lives, and humbly asking that the nuisance go away. But it won’t. Here we are, in our narrow passage, and there’s not a lot of room to pretend, from in here.
A long time ago, a former Buddhist monk from New Zealand, briefly my lover, taught me a Jewish song that says something like:
All of the world
is just one narrow bridge.
We must cross
and above all is
not to be limited by fear.
I thought it was incredibly beautiful, and I sang it to myself a lot, in the months after I left my job in Hong Kong, when I was traveling alone across the breadth of Asia, in search of a monastery to join.
I still think it’s beautiful, and the shape of it has changed a bit. Yes – the narrow passage. Yes – the crossing. Yes – the fear. And also now, so much curiosity in the face of fear. When do I back down? Why? When do I throw together some scurrilous photoshop job, and chuckle like a mad hyena? When do I say, wild horses could not drag me to do this stupid thing you are proposing, and when do I broadcast my own invitations to stupid plans, far and near?
The narrow passage, in other words, is broadening as I accept that every role and part of its landscape is worth exploring. Every place and role is open to me, in due time. The concept of “narrow” changes. Likely, there are only a couple of parts of the play that are calling to me in at any given moment. But this doesn’t mean that all the rest is somehow other, or irrelevant. I do my part. I am aware of the other parts, as we dance together, as we know how.
Oh, why not? Here's another Elliot-story. This week, I took Elliot and Chloe up to the woods, under heavy rain, for an afternoon romp. I had put in contact lenses, and was enjoying fog-free peripheral vision. Then, at the last possible moment, a deer turned towards the deep forest, and took off with Elliot in explosive pursuit of her pretty white rump. WHY? I fumbled the collar-zapper-remote, missed my chance, and he was gone. I felt the closing, even then, of a narrow passage between the end of this walk, and my arrival in Thetford in time to facilitate Contemplative Movement Practice with my friend Rebecca. There followed about an hour and a half of wandering, calling, driving around, checking at home, and wandering some more. I went to visit the wild orchid blooming by the trail. I talked with a kind lady, who sympathized with the plight of befriending large, fast, goofy dogs. And finally, I came home to find Elliot soggy, lacerated, full of burdock, and limping badly in his front right foot. I called my Rebecca, to tell her I’d found my beloved fool, and that we were headed to the hospital. I called Timothy to tell him the news.
There opened a new narrow passage. Here we are, sitting in the waiting room with a couple whose elderly dog is very sick. Here’s a delicious granola bar, with a morsel for your poor sliced snout. Here are kindness and mutual concern, time suddenly opening from one shape into another. Elliot and I are waiting in one room while I eat Danish cookies and he drinks from a disposable bowl. We are waiting in another room, while I flick ticks off him, onto the floor. Here comes Timothy, introducing himself at the reception desk as “Elliot’s dad.”
The doctor arrives, and her assistant skillfully slips what she calls a “nose cozy” over Elliot’s snout, to close a narrow passage where he bites everyone (let God sort them out) and runs for the hills. Orthopedic dog-exam: maximally extend and compress all possibly compromised joints, to see if dog yelps. No yelping. The assistant holds Elliot close, even though he reeks of a fine new spritzing of Skunk.
Nothing broken. Whew. As for the long cut on his nose, it’s clean, and not too deep. I find a puncture wound in his haunch, which merits some shaving and cleaning, and some antibiotics, but not much more. So: rest, pills, more cleaning. Minute by minute, Eliot looks happier and more himself. He is prancing back and forth between Timothy and I, in great smiling, wiggling arcs, barely able to contain his joy. The narrow passage of a stabbed, lamed, skunky, frozen, blinded dog closes, and a new path opens.
Here we are, with a relatively modest $126.50 to pay for this adventure, and a sound dog to bring home.
Here we are, eating soup made from cream and potatoes Timothy brings home, and asparagus grown in the beds I dug in when we first moved here.
Will there be hell toupee? Of course, and for everyone. But also, ever so much more. Mornings in the garden. Sparkly sweaters from the thrift store, and miraculously unharmed friends. The Western Wall, the narrow bridge: they will be here to contain and to witness it all.
Lost and found. Those used to feel like such opposite categories – and I spent a lot of time in them. My lost keys. My yet-again lost keys. My lost phone. My lost love. My lost enthusiasms for this and that.
Now that I think about it, the category “lost” really depends a lot on being conjoined with its old pal, “my.” Once you let go of “my,” then “lost” itself becomes harder to locate. Without “me” as center, who’s to say what’s lost, and what’s found?
I remember this from reading Marie Kondo’s animist adventure in de-cluttering: if you take your sense of ownership out of an object, you can stop thinking about it as my precious, or that pain in my ass. Instead, you can feel coolly into its path through the world, and yours. Sure, somehow this thing has wound up with you – it was a present from your aunt, you bought it under the spell of some hormonal imbalance or nostalgia, it seemed like a great deal at the time – but that’s not relevant right now. What is relevant: do your paths still belong together? If your work is done, let it go to some cosmic transfer station or another. The thrift store. Re-gifting. The dump. The special at-the-dump-but-not-thrown-out shelf. Ebay. Whatever. Your paths separate.
Trevor Noah writes about this in a different way. When he was a kid, there was a dog he loved, named Foofie. Every day, he would leave for school in the morning, and when he came home, there was Foofie, waiting for him. This all worked out wonderfully. Then, one day when young Trevor was home on school holiday, to his astonishment, he saw Foofie jump over the backyard fence, and take off trotting contentedly through the streets of the neighborhood. He followed her, and soon she came to another house, where Foofie once again jumped a fence, and settled happily into her other life. There ensued a bitter canine custody battle between Trevor and another boy, both of whom were convinced that the dog was his. In the end, Trevor’s mother paid the other family some kind of bribe, and the other family let go of their claims. (Luckily, no one offered to chop Foofie in half.) From all of this, Trevor Noah says that he learned not to think of any future dogs, partners, or friends as “his.” He learned Foofie was her own dog, neither lost, nor found, but fundamentally free. I wonder if he really managed to do this. If so, then mazel tov. He is an example to us all.
Lost. Found. Somewhere else. Pema Chödron talks about the Buddhist metaphor of crossing over to the other shore in terms that are considerably less tidy than some orthodox views. She invokes the experience of being out alone on the night ocean, with no this shore, and no the other shore. She offers instead a way of practice that releases certainty in favor of openness to what is actually happening, however that is. No this shore, no the other shore, no lost, no found. Only this, now.
I am officially quite tired of careful Buddhists, of a way of life that depends always on restraint, refraining, repressing. Stay away from that door, that feeling, that impulse. If you open it, feel it, do it, you will be lost. I can say I am tired of all this now, because I have practiced it with much diligence, over years, and it has made me strong, but also limited. Now I want to know: what's behind the door? What happens if I feel the feeling? What happens if I let go of lost and found?
This past Sunday – Mother's Day – I had the experience of letting go of certain restraints around my mother, and finding something new behind the door. I called when I was tired and cranky – not a good start if restraint is the goal, but excellent if you want to start flipping through Bluebeard’s key ring, just to see what turns up. So that’s what happened. I turned the knob, and some old, desperate part of me emerged – the one who feels all is lost, and she is alone in the world. Her marriage is a mess, her work is hopeless, and no one can possibly understand the degree of sacrifice she has made in the world. OK, cool. I’ve definitely met her before, and I can feel the seduction of her part of this duet. Then, right on cue, the part of my mother who sees how I always behave in extreme ways, how I never manage to find balance, how I fail to understand the most obvious things about my life. Pathology, meet your pathologizer! You’ve found each other again, after many years apart.
And yet, something was definitely different. I could feel myself wanting to find a definitive misunderstanding between my mother and I, a definite source of blame and pain, and yet I couldn’t make it stick. I kept seeing this human being in front of me, through the Skype call, thousands of miles away. I kept feeling how no simple roll could hold either me, or her. I couldn’t make either one of us be lost, or found, and neither could she.
Now, that may not sound like much. You had a weird existential angst-match with your mom on Mother's Day? You succeeded in making both yourself and your husband cry, unlocking a door that could lead to the end of your marriage? Well, yes. All those things, and yet, all is not lost. In fact, I feel closer to my husband now, and my father, having heard from my mother what was up, sent me a kind email. He encouraged me to keep going, to keep filtering out the noise from the signal, so that what I carry in life can be what I choose to carry. I don't need to be overwhelmed. I don't need to do anything I don't want to do, out of fear of being lost.
There is a kind of carefulness required to do the letting-go practice I'm involved in now. I can't just open all the doors in Bluebeard's castle all at once. I can't declare everything found all at once. But, when one of the keys starts glowing in my pocket; or there’s tapping and shuffling coming from inside some dusty door; or I wonder about the view from that unknown room, I am free to go find out for myself. What else would I do, for goodness’ sake? Why sit around visualizing castles, when I live in one, and all the keys are in my pocket?
As with most rhetorical questions, I know the answer to this one. It's not all one, and not all the other. The visualizing, calming, and preparation give me strength and imagination when working in the world, and shape what I am willing to see in it. The work I do in the world gives me grounding that feeds the contemplative work. And as for castles – I have, somehow, landed a counseling internship that involves working in one – complete with crenellations and turrets. I enter rooms with clients who are themselves learning to navigate restraint and release; to seize what courage they can find, and reclaim parts of their being that they had thought lost.
Right up my valley, I wrote one day, and now, that's what I've got to work with. Thanks, me of yesteryear! I can tell you are trying to make your writing legible, insofar is that's really ever possible. I can tell you're a good sport, a warden of possibilities, one who commits to finding the red thread running through this life.
Right up my valley. I am remembering a morning on Skye, with Timothy, and our friends from Vermont. I was feeling raw, having slept poorly with the tremendous rattling force of our friend’s snoring through the thin Airbnb wall. The couch had been moderately better, but not great. We were, groggily, talking about where to go walking that day. Somewhere in the landscape of this island lurks the Bad Step or the Dreadful Leap, or whatever. I was adamant: Fuck that shit. I did not come here for some jackass challenge. Show me a walk that is not about scrambling victorious over the abyss. Show me being nestled deep inside the peaty Hills.
I got desperate. Why does it always have to be like this? These passive-aggressive negotiations, this sense that I’d one hundred times rather be alone, than this. I stepped outside onto the small, rain-jeweled lawn, breathed in deep, and looked up. There – right there, precisely – were the mountains I had been drawing into my lithograph of the Dhammacakka Mudra – the wheel of the Way It Is. I stepped out of sorrow and into the landscape of primordial wisdom. There: these two tall rounded hills, with between them a walk that was right up my valley.
So I came back inside, said I knew where we should go, and no one much minded letting go of anxious possibility. We left the house, traversed narrow uncrowded lanes, parked our wrong-side-of-the-road dinkymobile, and headed out.
I got my alone-wish, walking faster than our friends, and slower than Timothy. I was alone under two rows of hills, walking in a narrow peat-groove that never once let me down. In Scotland, that far north, that late into November, the light is very short. It rakes the world from a beautiful oblique angle, within which darkness is always somehow palpable. Golden light, shining sideways, night within it.
That afternoon was a turning point for me, a letting go into the world. I signed a pact wherein I gave up old ideas of despair and accomplishment, agreeing instead to let myself be guided and enfolded. The hills held me. I did not need to mess around with the Bad Step. I could go out with my husband and friends, and nevertheless find the time in my own company (and the world’s) that I needed. A great quiet settled into my bones as I walked, a landing into being, and into trust.
As the afternoon showed signs of ending, all three parties – Timothy, characteristically up a steep scree field; our friends, walking companionably with one another; and myself, singing through my bones – found ways back to the beginning point. We loaded ourselves into the car, scattering apple-cores, and holding on to soggy sandwich wrappers.
That night was another face of the fertile darkness: a pub where it felt perfectly fine to lay down in front of the fire, a glass of dark beer, an atmosphere of quiet conversation that had lasted for hundreds of years, while the great wheeling stars roared over the hills, since far before anyone had ever thought of “inside” and “outside.”
I’ve kept this orientation towards Yin walks alive in myself since then – not as an exclusive pursuit, but as a real possibility, a balance to Yang walks that do go up, seeking high points and steepnesses. One of the places where I most often walk the dogs has both: a Yin passage along an eighteenth-century road furrowed deep into the forest; a Yang scramble up to a high, porcupine-harboring ridge. Both are good. Knowing I can choose is good.
“You’re working incredibly hard right now” is a phrase I’ve heard many times, and it’s worth looking into. Is working really hard right up my valley? Is it just a perception to address something that’s actually just the way it is? Or, is it residue from an education, from a society, that can’t value the way things reveal themselves effortlessly, if we will only listen? Of course. Yes. All of these.
Seeing clients in my therapy internship makes me feel absolutely ravenous, right now. I report this to my advising group, and someone says that she, too, was nervous and afraid when she started her internship, but now the whole thing feels much more normal. But I didn’t say nervous and afraid. I said ravenous. Can ravenous be right up my alley? Yes, I think so. Is ravenous also a way of saying that I am extending myself too much in these sessions? Probably. Some part of me feels duty-bound to fill the forty-five minutes, when probably a more sane, balanced approach would be to do about 35 minutes of intense work, with tapering-in and tapering-out periods as buffers. Everyone gets to come in softly, and leave softly, and there’s no sense of cramming and striving.
Right up my valley. It’s hard to trust, sometimes, that there is a groove carrying us somewhere – that the direction of our steps carries us in patterns that add up. We look up, and there are the very same mountains that we thought we dreamed from nowhere. We look down, and our feet are pointed not anywhere, but somewhere. We are drawn. We know without knowing. The world’s handwriting isn’t always easy to read, but it is there.
Right now, any time, great forces are moving through the world, and we are part of them, whether we know it or not. Who knows where the events of the day will incline? In a way, destination doesn’t matter. All that matters is how we meet what is in our direct field of experience.
There are hundreds of pages of text in Assessment and Evaluation waiting for me, and yet I can’t in good conscience attend to any of that, until I dig new valleys for each of the many young plants my friend gave me over the weekend. In the world’s language, and the timeframe of the wheeling stars, those young lives matter more than all the Mystical Experience Inventories and Reports of Altered States of Consciousness ever devised by clever humans. I will dig into the May-damp soil and serve life. I will find room for what is showing up on my doorstep, right up my valley.
I can feel, on waking, the clenched-up state of a being trying to figure it all out, make it into the right shape, balance this and that, so no one gets hurt, and nothing gets lost. How strange, dreaming, to forget what I know in waking life. What is right up my valley will speak to me directly. All I have to do is listen and respond.
What is it to go against the stream?
Tell me about this stream.
Tell me about what can be separated, such that “for” and “against” mean anything?
Willpower. When we extol it here in the United States of America, often what we are praising is some combination of privilege and ego-fixation. It's not fair to lay that accusation at the feet of America alone, when the same nonsense is happening everywhere. Just, here, in America, the old myth of willpower carries something more of virtue. Something more of blindness to the mechanisms that protect power and prey on weakness. The most recent shooting of an unarmed black man – a boy, really – echoes something of this, some part of how narratives unfold in contexts that no one in power much wants to talk about.
When I was a teenager in Atlanta, I went to a fancy prep school. The dominant narrative around this was that I was there because the academics were good, and this was in some ways true. It was true that I could take AP classes in lots of things. It was true, because I was good at testing, memorizing, and analyzing, that I benefited from the school’s dumb-dumb, dumb-smart, smart-dumb, and smart-smart hierarchy, and often wound up in small classes with few students. Also true, but seldom discussed, was the fact that my mother’s considerable willpower, unfocused outside the home, came to bear on my work habits. Was it because of my willpower or virtue that a highly intelligent woman surveilled my working hours and forbade me distractions? No, it was built in, a lagniappe for me, courtesy of the patriarchy. Also not discussed: My tuition was paid for from my grandfather’s and father's business successes. For women under patriarchy, access to privileged males means access to power. I could be Miss Feminist as much as I wanted at school, but the fact that I was there, and did well there, had a lot to do with not needing a scholarship, overcoming my family’s lack of social connections in Atlanta through our connection to money. So it goes. Not all one, not all the other. Smart, yes. Highly supported within certain societal arrangements, also yes.
Anyway, in an environment like that, parties manifested in a certain way. The whispered word would go out that someone's parents from one of the three conservative Protestant sister prep schools – not the hippie one, not the Catholic one – were going to be out of town. One of the huge neo-plantations on Atlanta’s leafiest streets would be empty on Saturday night, and we knew just what to do with it. A long line of shiny SUVs, a short line of scruffy Honda Civics and hand-me-down station wagons would park along the street. Kids would walk up the splendid drive between manicured azaleas, and proceed directly to the poolhouse to get shitfaced. In truth, I only really ever attended one of these things that I can remember. I wasn’t really part of this underground; mostly, my undergrounds were boozy in other ways. But I remember the feeling of relief, of restraints removed, a new openness to settling into the ridiculousness of our high school lives, in the company of other kids whom I might in daytime have seen as natural enemies, or at least preppy space aliens. We knew we were safe there. We knew, implicitly, that no one would come bother us.
Imagine now the party in the suburbs of Dallas last weekend. Same basic setup: someone's parents are out of town. The kids gather, with booze, of course. Except now, through social media, maybe there are more kids. Except also, these are largely African-American kids, and so, subject to more policing than the white children of Atlanta's surgeons, lawyers, and business executives of thirty years ago.
The neighbors call the cops, believing underage drinking is happening at the party.
What does will power look like, for the neighbor?
I want this annoying noise to stop.
I want those kids to be safe.
I'm tired of the ruckus that happens at those people’s house.
Something like that.
The police come. Except, unlike thirty years ago, they’re militarized, carrying assault rifles more appropriate to war, than to setting social boundaries. Except the kids they’re busting have been conditioned by years’ worth of stories of people just like them, shot and killed for no reason.
What does willpower look like for the kids? It looks like the will to survive.
It looks like Get me out of here, so no cop lays a finger on me.
It looks like I don't want to be expelled from school, shamed, punished, fed into a machine that starts tonight, and ends in years of solitary confinement, or a fishy death in custody.
So the kids get in their cars – or if they’re 15 – their friends’ cars – and they go.
The police arrive in their cruisers. Who knows where they've been tonight? Maybe chasing addicts’ petty burglaries. Maybe answering calls to houses where everyone pretends it's all fine, even the woman with the bleeding cheek, even though you know something’s fucked up, but you have to leave anyway. Maybe they’ve been sitting in their cruisers, bored, talking about cause, effect, missed opportunity, debt, and regret. What does willpower look like for you as a police officer, as you pull up outside the house, cars parked everywhere, woozy scared kids darting off as best they can?
It could look like remembering your own life, not so many years ago, and knowing that what these kids are doing, you've done, too.
It could look like setting aside the mass of power that's been allotted to you, and the stories you've seen on the job and on TV, and entering the situation with a clear, focused mind.
Or, unfortunately, it could look like some dark old instinct of the hunt, dressed up in virtue, and it could smell blood. It could pick up the rifle and shoot blindly into the passenger side of the car, killing the fifteen-year-old boy, destroying him in front of his brothers, before he’s even had the chance to learn his own will as a man.
Of course the boy was going to be there.
Of course the neighbor was going to call.
Of course the police was going to come.
But there so many choices around all of this, never opened, never acknowledged, and so many constraints.
We like to think that we navigate on willpower. It's somehow reassuring – a readymade explanation for all that is good and all that is bad in our lives. Much less reassuring, much more work by far, is the careful reckoning of our interconnectedness, and of the drives that move from within what we are, and have been trained to be.
Two days ago, the dogs are model citizens: on a five-hour hike, they stick with us, refrain from eating other hikers, and come joyfully when called back to our plodding human pace. Yesterday, they rush headlong to maul a porcupine, as though they had never before experienced spike-filled tongues, snouts full of quills. They, like me, know, and don’t know.
We, all of us, engage the will, and surrender. We train and remember, act and forget, maintaining hope in the face of its momentary dissolutions. Don't confuse what you will, with what you really are.
“It’s your writing, lady,” says Larissa after turning the paper this way, and that.
Big ass it is, then. I’ve got some bigass feelings. Bigass, like badass, is probably considered unmentionable by one local Honey, who once wrote me an outraged email, to say she considered me an unsuitable person to be Teaching Our Children. I had posted a message to our local listserv, praising our town librarians as badasses, because they had just appeared in a French magazine article citing their exemplary stance on Internet privacy.
Whatever. Badass, bigass. Words a person sometimes needs to describe What Is.
Larissa gives me a beautiful wooden box, tied in a green ribbon, with a real gold wax seal. Not bigass, but perfect.
“I’ll take the red leather pants in a size 2" – cited as an example of a sentence one might utter with satisfaction.
Stephanie once had a boyfriend whose main qualification was – when she would ask, “Do these pants make my ass look big?” – he would say, “Mmm-hmm.” Fair enough.
I’ll take the red shiny pants in whatever size makes me feel Mmm-hmm.
It’s hard work, maintaining anything like a sanctuary for big feelings, for the body as it is. Hardly anything in the world seems to want that, and yet, more than anything, it’s what I crave.
I go to the newspaper offices to buy a five-dollar roll of paper on which to make bigass drawings of all the selves that inhabit what sanctuary I can maintain. Laid down side-by-side, they are a surprising sweet chain of paper dolls, a dance of the bigass ladies. Twelve feet by six feet, and counting.
On the front page of the newspaper this morning – printed on that same paper, only cut down smaller, is a story about carfentanil deaths in New Hampshire. And what, you may ask, is that? Oh, elephant tranquilizers. You know, a little something to take the edge off… Seriously? Elephant tranquilizers? If you listen to the world in the ways that it communicates, this elephant tranquilizer story seems to be spelling out something about some big, bigass pain being poorly managed, in ways that seem not unrelated to another front page story: New Hampshire's incredibly poor resources for mental health care. Most states? 40 to 50 residential care spaces per 100,000 inhabitants. New Hampshire? 11.9, give or take some elephant tranquilizers.
Bigass pain. When some shadow of that comes over me – We humans have been knowing for literally thousands of years what it actually takes to live a peaceful and harmonious life, and yet, we persist in electing Donald Trump, or being Donald Trump, or fighting him with self-righteous fury – when any of that rears up for me, luckily I have the time and space and skills to deal with it. I go out into the backyard with my dogs. I ask my husband to trace my whole shape onto newsprint three times, and then I draw, following the squirrely line of my intuition, far past the point of giving up, until I can see what’s there. I take these bigass feelings, and give them shape and color, rhythm and form. I print my own news, give it sanctuary, and move on.
But what about the kid walking in long strides down our hill, a bright yellow Walmart asterisk on his back, like livery for some unarmed and underpaid mercenary force? What about him? Looking busy – or if he's lucky, actually being busy – all day in that bigass store. What sanctuary is there for whatever he’s feeling? Eight hours, ten, just enough to eat up his time but not to give him benefits, a paycheck big enough to feel it might be worth it, but small enough to keep at least part of his mind worried about how his shoes are running down, and he’s been wheezing for weeks now. Where is the space in that, to make room for the bigass work of being human?
Another bit from the newspaper this morning: a 23-year-old man caught having sex with an 83-year-old woman suffering from dementia, while on the job as an orderly, or whatever they call it these days, in a nursing home. That sounds like elephant tranquilizers to me – both in the past, and heading into the future.
Elephant tranquilizers for everyone!
Your job is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your religion is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your family, marriage, and education are all elephant tranquilizers.
Same goes for your volunteer efforts, and your careful donations here and there.
And your protest signs with hummingbirds, too.
Do I feel like those are fair statements about me and my life? Not really. So probably they don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny for everyone else on the planet, either – but there's something there. Something to acknowledge about the ways our activities tend to dance around the edges of what’s there, tend to deal in diversionary tactics, tend to avoid the bigass realities of the situations we find ourselves in.
I'm realizing, just now, that my situation is taking a sharp turn. What's been semi-sustainable for a year or more – in school full-time, working a bunch of unrelated jobs, taking care of some lovely wild mutts, producing art, writing, teaching, doing volunteer refugee work – is becoming unsustainable. The addition of two days in another town, spent doing a counseling internship, makes the whole thing bigger-assed than I have space for. So then, welcome to the club! But I don’t want that. I don’t want to let the initial signs of growing anxiety, depressed mood, frantic stuffing of things here and there, turn into my new reality. Do that, and I lose the perspective from which to be effective at all. Do that, and I will start to want tiny mouse-tranquilizers, which everyone knows are the gateway drug to elephant tranquilizers.
Instead, I will have to let go of things. Last night, my friend Jan said that what she needs help with is not committing to things, but knowing when to stop doing them. That’s true for me, too. I will have to let go of the idea of being a stalwart leader. Let go of never turning down an opportunity to be useful. Let go of practices that don't help me. Let go of looking good. I know exactly which things need to go, but I’m afraid of what might happen if they do. No one will remember me. Things will fall apart. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll re-find the space to attend fully to what matters. I’ll re-find the Mmm-hmm in whatever I choose to engage with.
Whatever happens to us happens within a framework. Since I am fortunate enough to operate within a framework that includes a lot of freedom, what might it be like to make choices that support that freedom, for myself and others? I like the idea of lots of things, but that doesn’t mean I actually have the substance to carry them.
Sojourner Truth sold photo-cards of herself, holding her knitting, in a sober a black dress and little oval glasses. Printed in red below her image is I sell the shadow to support the substance. That seems right, especially when compared to the alternative. She knew. Before, someone sold my substance to support their shadows. Now, I sell images of myself to support my work in the world. What I want for myself: her clarity of cause, purpose, and effect.
Whistles and bells.
Whistle while you work. A low whistle of disbelief.
Whet your whistle.
Whistle me to sleep.
Actually, no one says that.
Also, no one says, Hey! I have a great idea! Let’s all get together and put on makeup of another skin color, and then feel into what comes up. No one says, I know you’re really not allowed to change your skin color, but when there’s a taboo that ferocious, something’s got to be going on, so let’s do it. No one goes into the beauty supply store and says, Give me your most unlike-me shade. Makeup’s supposed to be about looking like some slightly more sleek version of yourself, not a patchy Frankenstein.
I wander the aisles of hair products. Apparently it is perfectly fine to want to make your hair any color of the spectrum. Where's the damn foundation? I feel like a kid shopping for condoms the first time. I finally ask the girl near the entrance where I came in, and she points right next to herself.
OK, so what’s the darkest you’ve got? I ask.
This, or this, she half-says, skeptically. She can tell that I am about to use the stuff for some off-label, maverick purpose.
OK. And is there any difference between Femme Couture (I am not making this up) in compact or liquid form?
Can you put it on with your finger?
Sure, or you can use a sponge.
Oh you mean like the ones I have from making tiny clay animals eight years ago?
I buy the compact because it’s darker. $14.97. It goes in the bottom of my backpack, and I find myself driving under the interstate, on a road I never knew existed, to go buy myself some discount lady-clothes, for my unpaid internship. The beauty-to-beauty pipeline. It makes some kind of perfect sense.
It’s hard to find time to whistle when you’ve got so much to say. I whistle at the dogs sometimes, to remind them of our shared mission. I whistle to myself, to get back on track.
At the discount lady-clothes cashier, I ask what time it is. 12:53. I am due at the high school at 1:10. Perfect. Me, the compact, a pair of pink pants intended for adventurous men, and an Anne Klein shirt with small feral polka-dots and a pussy bow (my first ever) get back in the car together, and make a beeline for the school. There’s a space right in front. I have only slightly less change than is required. It’s a go!
My job, three years in a row now, has been to talk to kids about Buddhism. I love doing this because it seems like an opportunity to embody some way of being that both adheres to what these kids are being told is good in life (I went to Yale) and radically does not (I am a childless post-monastic artist, whose current earnings profile is best described as “eccentric”). I ask the kids in the hallway, changing classes, where the religion classroom is. Some look at me like, What? Others basically confirm that I’m getting warmer. I walk in. Oh, you! It’s clear I’m not the only one here in radical improvisation mode.
I ask the kids to tell me what they want to know. This time, my favorite question is the one I hear last, from a blonde sitting not very far from me. Can you say a little bit about Nirvana? I mean, is it a goal you're working towards, and if so, how do you do that?
Oh! My! God! No-God! Buddha! Thank you for this question, on this day of wandering aisles and trying on the various identities on offer in the retailosphere.
Well, I say, there's one version of the story where Nirvana is something you Attain, and when you do, all desires fall away, and rays of light come shooting out of your head. It's essentially, irreducibly different. It’s someplace else, and being there involves a radical, permanent state-change. Then, there’s another version of the story, where Nirvana – the ability to embody wisdom and compassion – and Samsara – the experience of being stuck in suffering – are two sides of the same coin. They are both available in any moment, and anywhere you have one, you have the other.
So, for instance, sitting here talking, I could be having a suffering experience, worried about whether I will say the wrong thing, and whether I am boring you. Or I could choose instead to tune in to the space of this room, into your presence, and my body, and orient towards an intention like, May what is wise in me connect with what is wise in these young people. May our conversation create a space of wisdom and compassion. And the same goes for all of you. You could be sitting here listening for the dog-whistle in these words, the inaudible but compelling call of the acorn in you that wants to be an oak. Or you could be simply happy that no one is expecting much of you right now. Or you could be bored, or fantasizing, or whatever. All these possibilities are present right now.
The words come and tumble out, letting off a faint whistle, as of air streaming by the small hairs in my nose. It’s good enough. It’s all worked out. Forgetting and remembering, breathing in and breathing out.
I don't know what comes next. This thing Larissa is letting me host in her studio this weekend: will anyone come? It's been deafening whistle-free silence since anyone received the invitations I sent out. No wolf-whistles – that's obvious – but also no shrill cop-whistles.
Hey, you, over there! Drop that compact, and step away from the sponges.
The night I picked to do this turns out also to be the night of the fashion show in White River Junction. Two sides of the same coin: beauty and truth. Some of each is available in both places. Will anyone want to try a second skin before the catwalk? Likely not, but maybe. Will anyone go from whatever they find out through molting, to whatever they find out through molting again? Maybe. Molting is what we do, even when our skins stay looking mostly the same. We shape-shift in ways that aren’t always obvious, but, especially if were paying attention, can be profound.
Yesterday I took the dogs for a walk on the Old King’s Highway. I've never encountered anything like this mud: flat and leafy on the surface, and underneath, a liquid soup that splooshed eagerly right over the top of my sandals, ankle deep. I came to a stream, immersed my feet, baptized them clean, bluing my toes with cold, and then set out with the hounds on no known path. Wandering, early spring, dodging the mud-pits as we followed a ruined stone wall. Everything still flattened by snow and ice. We cut across and over, Chloe and Elliot sure in whatever it is that dogs sense, till I, the last to know, recognized myself only a few feet from where we started, safely away from being wholly ingested by the secret sea of mud.
We leave. We set out for who-knows-where, and listen carefully to what the world and our bodies tell us. We follow the whistling breath inside the breath back home. It doesn't matter, really, what others are saying is true. Their intimacy is real, but it is not mine. And the wonder of it is when these individual whistles and overtones, under-drones and trills are glimpsed layered, complete, together forming a song no one ever planned.
Mystery Mama, who are you, and how may I provide you with excellent service today?
I’d like a large shadow-sandwich, with a side of honesty, and the willingness to be shaken.
Chocolate, not vanilla.
That will be all the money I’ve ever had.
Please pull around to the window.
Yesterday I found out that a woman I knew in the monastery is, after many MANY years, leaving monastic life. Mystery Mama has placed her order, and now this woman is pulling around to the window, to find out what her meal will be.
Some fast food: Fuck! I need something to wear besides robes. I need someplace to live. What’s it like eating after noon?
Some very slow food: How does community work, once I drop the status of Designated Holy Person?
Will she drop that status? It comes in handy, but it also keeps you from eating many of the most nourishing foods. Mystery Mama is different from Designated Holy Person, in that nobody has any idea. It’s more like the true person of no rank than the Guru. It’s embodied and manifest, but not necessarily recognized.
Yesterday night I dreamed I had a sweet junior high school boyfriend. Our ages were indefinite. Very young. Halfway to ninety. Both. Anyway, he came and sat next to me, then shyly took hold of my hand. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. Blond boy. I could’ve stayed like that forever. This is what people said at the yoga studio this weekend, after spending some time sitting, leaning back to back with a partner. Can we do this again? Can we be one another’s Mystery Mama?
Yes. Sometimes we can, especially if we let her qualities travel freely, instead of sticking them to one person, or to ourselves, and then clamping on for dear life. Mystery Mama is never stable, does not cling in any one being. She travels. Sometimes she decides to be you, then flips right over into the eyes of the person looking at you, abandons ship from that whole scene, and turns up in the eyes of the Identified Suffering Person you’ve just met. Actually, Mystery Mama’s main game is making sure you stay attentive to every encounter, gradually attuning to her presence through letting go of ideas of where she should and shouldn’t be. Your shoulds mean nothing to her, and that is a tremendous relief.
Owl is Mystery Mama.
Rose-breasted grosbeak is Mystery Mama.
Psychology textbook is Mystery Mama, and so is the Valley Snooze.
I am Mystery Mama writing, and Mystery Mama is this hospitable ruled notebook, with its beast-loving androgyne Krishna sticker on the cover. Mystery Mama is this sudden leap into summertime from winter, and the deep channels cut through eight inches of ice still hunkered on the forest floor.
I remember when this all turned around for me, when I went from feeling like a starving orphan in the world, to being a devotee of Mystery Mama, who feels so fundamentally loved that honesty and openness have become more and more the fabric of this life.
I was on retreat. Yes, I am often on retreat, in the immersion of community without talking. We were working on compassion. Sleeping in a dorm room of spectacular snorers who woke me up with intense regularity, I had a dream. There was a magnificent mountain, part of the great wall of the Himalayas, with a spur extending down into the valley where I lived. On that spur, people had built a temple, covering the mountain-stuff, and controlling access to it. The temple was ugly, false, and manipulative, claiming for itself power that rightly belonged to both to no one, and to everyone. And yet: almost all the people of that place were gathered there, to play the game of power and belonging.
I left, and walked to the walnut orchard outside the village. There, a beautiful woman, a dancer dressed in cream and brown, black and red, living language shimmering on her simple garments, came to teach me. We sat on the ground and sorted nuts into bushel-baskets: the good, the bad, and the broken. She was patient with me. Though she could do the sorting much more quickly and accurately than I could, she wanted me to learn, and so we worked side-by-side.
The next day, in a meditation session, we were invited to bring up a benefactor – someone who'd been kind to us and who had seen us in our wholeness. So I picked the woman in the orchard, from my dream. What happened next is indescribable, except perhaps in terms of what it influenced in me, in the world.
There was an icestorm coming. More exactly, there had been a slushstorm, and now brutal cold was coming to cement the resulting thick slush into solid ice. An announcement went out at the end of the day, urging people to clear their cars before disaster struck. But no one did. It was cold. It was late.
That night, I went out under bright stars, into the deep dark stillness of the New Hampshire countryside. She loves me! I felt, She loves me! I felt, If she loves me, then I love all these random, well-meaning Buddhist people, and their cars! Suddenly, I begin to wonder if I could clear not just my car, but my neighbors’. Not just ours, but everyone’s. I threw my whole body into it, slinging wet snow off in great slushy sheets. She loves me! Mystery Mama made all this seem not just possible, but fun. Not just useful, but a positively ecstatic good time.
Since then, the sense of knowing that something can be done, and that it will be less effort to do it, than to resist it, has come back a lot. Even when I have no idea how to do it, I still know that the way will show itself. Here goes. And now this, and this. Mystery Mama can be a bit ruthless with limitations, and she can also be astonishingly generous. Remember: she’s not into the temples, structures, and ownerships of this world. Her deal is discernment: Yes, no, mend this.
I am just beginning a year of internship work for the counseling course that I am doing, and yes, no, mend this are useful responses to have around. Mystery Mama is very useful to have around, especially if I honor her shape-shifting nature. I may be “the therapist,” but “the client” is the one who knows where the upstairs toilet is, in this wacky healing castle. I may be “the therapist,” but unless I can help “the client” connect with Mystery Mama in their own self, nothing much good is going to come of our interaction.
This way of being holds challenges. What about the Important Relationships in Our Lives? Well, they change. And also: I find that I can let myself and other people off the hook much more easily than I once did, because I'm not depending on some one source to meet all my Mystery Mama needs. I’m poly-mamarus. Mama-identified in the substance and workings of this world. Which is awesome. Are you my mother, as a question, has stuck around, and opened up into a gateway for marvel, rather than an endless exile's quest.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now