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.
I alternate between feeling as though I would like to be completely wrapped in layers and layers of padding, with of course a snorkel and some goggles to see with – and knowing that the very rawness of experience is the precious jewel. Mostly, I’ve moved into the second camp, the one where I look around, seeing the depth of pain and complexity and loss we all live through, and feel, At last! This is living.
In the paper this morning, a front page story about how illegal miners are tearing apart the forests of Madagascar to wrench sapphires from the ground there. Some French gemologist: Now we have all these huge, perfectly clear stones appearing at the gem shows! It’s really exciting. Meanwhile, skulls and bones and nests and feathers and scales, all pulverized into stinking the piles, as the slaves of the gem-seekers dig deeper into ground that, until 12 minutes ago, was Home.
The good news about metaphoric gems – the Jewel of Great Price, the Triple Gem, the Diamond Heart – is that you don't need to go to despoiling lemurs to find them. All the despoiling that anyone could ever wish for has already happened, and all you need to do is to agree to take off the snorkel, goggles, and bubble wrap, and feel what is already there. You want new, clean gems? Look into any place on earth were someone’s agreed to feel what they feel, and agree to feel it yourself. Be one of the nodes. Allow yourself to take ownership of what is most raw in your experience, and voilà! Sapphire. Diamond. Ruby. Don’t hold it too tight, or it will turn back into a pile of corpses.
Renée Daumal knew this. In his Mount Analogue, the only way to find the highest island mountain in the world is to believe that it exists, and set out in a small boat on the open ocean in search of it. Once found, the only way to pay the guides you need to climb the mountain is in the currency of gems that appear spontaneously at times of deep empathy or fellow-feeling. No faith, no mountain. No compassion, no guides.
Asanga learned this. Bubblewraps himself in a cave for 10 years, waiting for the Buddha of the future to come to him. No dice. Disgusted, he storms out of the cave. Then: sees a bird brush the top of his cliff with the edge of her wing, grooving ever so slightly deeper the indent of her ancestors’ flights into stone. Roar! Back to the cave. Patience. Bubble wrap. 10 more years. Fuck it! Leaves the cave. Drop of water falls from the top of the cliff into a deep basin carved into stone and filled with sweet water, over millennia. Noooo! More patience. Back to the cave. 30 years in. Still nothing. Gets a bit further away this time, then, meets a man brushing a huge lodestone of iron with a silk cloth, honing the needle someone someday will have extracted from said giant motherfucking stone. Loses his Buddhist mind. What? No cave, no Buddha, no 401(k), no job, no wings, what? Asanga tears his hair, his sad cave-dweller’s rags. Then comes to a dog in the road. Dog? Charismatic, and also, what’s this? Huge gaping maggoty wound in her side. Oh God! Throws himself to the dusty road, sticks his tongue out, and approaches the wound, hoping to make a bridge so the maggots can parade out, unharmed. Bam! Buddha, right there.
Asanga - good for him - says, Where have you been the last more than a couple decades, O Shiny One?
Buddha, In 30 years, this is the first time you have felt and expressed love for another being. I can't reach you, all bubblewrapped, goggled and snorkeled. But down in the dust, tongue out, maggot-rescuing, I'm right here. Jewels galore.
But don't imagine that everyone will see it that way. Asanga walks into town, overjoyed. Yes! Me and my jewel-Buddha-buddy friend are cruising the main drag in glory! But the Chamber of Commerce, still respectably padded, sees a smelly old dude in a loincloth, plus a medically disreputable canine on his shoulder. Better double-bag that. Better keep that shit away from our vulnerable citizens. Sad.
One little girl’s not fooled. Hey, Mister? What’s your friend’s name? Want a granola bar?
Something I've been feeling into, the last few days: when longing for someone else, somewhere else starts up its siren song of lemur corpses, its strip-mining of the heart’s abundance for some One True Thing, I feel into the back of the neck and shoulders (where Asanga carried his friend) and allow something to open, connect, and deepen. Wanting to bubblewrap and numb is interconnected with finding myself/the present moment/the way things are wanting. But they’re not. I reset the back of my neck, reconnect head and body, and suddenly what is there is the willingness to see and feel abundance as they are, right now and right here. Don’t need to go to Madagascar. Don’t need to extend myself to some other fantasy version of reality. Don’t need to divert the rawness of what I am feeling by spinning it into stories of if then and what if.
I can't say it's easy to do this, but I can say that having the felt sense of broadening my shoulders and opening my crown to enter the body-mind is tremendously helpful. I don't need someone to anoint me. I don't need some showy red-velvet and peeled-weasel coat to acknowledge my viable presence in this world. Body does that. Mind not wandering like a starving exile does that. Discipline and letting go of the thing-making mind does that.
My friend and his family are traveling right now in Cambodia, re-finding the roots of the son he adopted through the intercession of a pair of Canadian women then in their 20s, who simply would not leave the country, no matter how awfully dangerous to themselves, until some government somewhere would issue visas for the two dozen orphans they were keeping alive in the midst of the carnage. At the very last possible moment, the papers came through, and the women and children boarded a plane for North America, where the latter were adopted into new families.
Anyway. This morning my friend posted a photograph from a memorial on the former killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. At the edge of a green field, a tall, narrow pagoda, with glass sides, into which, packed noses-to-glass, a pile of skulls, waiting. Who's going to pick us up? Who’s going to see the maggots in our wounds, the Buddhas in our suffering? We’ve been memorialized, and who will agree now to feel our suffering, from inside the bubble wrap of this respectable casing?
That’s always the question, isn’t it? Who will agree to feel what we feel and know what we know? Who will agree to feel and know the stories of others?
I drive around listening to the Cultural Revolution for a while, then switch to apartheid. I open my heart to miners in Madagascar, and then to a drone pilot. It all feels of a piece: my skin, unwrapped, is touched, and opens.
A Maidenform bra. Was that first wispy thing one of those? Two sort of peach-colored polyester triangles, off-white lace, some foam, a lot of elastic. Bony chest, little bits of flesh like someone poking a stick up under a blanket. The path forking. Before, you were more or less a human, part of Team Human, and now you’re going to be a Lady, which involves elastic, lace, and things poking up into your body. But wait! What about Team Human? I liked that. Oh, you’ll go back there when you’re older. But for now, here’s a Maidenform bra.
Maidenforming. Terraforming the surface of some new planet. Without our helpful bits of elastic, lace, and foam, this body would simply never become habitable for sentient life. Good thing your mother is available to drive you to the specialty children’s store, to root around near but not among the OshKosh B’Goshes, for your first bra.
Love, hate. I love-hate my first bra. It isn’t doing anything for me, and that’s a minus. Itching my back. Binding my proto-nipples. Smoothing the stick-pokes into slightly more rounded mounds. These don’t feel like benefits intended for me. On the other hand, I am wearing a bra! All the benefits of ladyhood are at hand! Soon, I will be negotiating entrance to said bra. I will be enjoying bracing bra-strap thwaps at the hands of my friskier peers. I will be browsing the full range of ill-fitting undergarments available to a person of small breasts and robust rib cage. I will carry on Maidenforming this body, Sluttiforming, Yogaforming, and Bridiforming it, for years.
Actually, when the Bridiforming people tell me in all seriousness that my true bra size is 30DDD, or something equally absurd, I find an ending. I go braless at my wedding. I find anything but sports bras, or what the trade calls "bralettes" (a revolting word, almost as gross as “panties”) unacceptable. I ditch my Target underwires. Every once in a while, an old yearning comes back, and I buy something lacy, full of hooks and stays, wear it twice, roll my eyes at the red welts it leaves on my skin, tuck it back into the drawer, and resume a two-step rotation of comfortable spandex.
An additional, unforeseen advantage of the sports bra: I find having a little extra fabric between my heart chakra and the world helpful. Far from the fetching Maidenform ideal, it's more like something Shantideva forgot to write into the Way of the Bodhisattva. One does not sense that Shantideva spent a lot of time considering the interconnections between underwear and the relentless, industrial-strength longing-machine that is my experience of the Bodhisattva path. Uncover the space on my chest, the bony, inverted triangle between my breasts, and the whole heart-ripping process can get unbearably intense. Better to veil it a bit, to mediate the fire and swords.
Sacred heart of Jesus, of Julie, of us all. My friend just sent me a truth bomb:
my heart is so open
Both. And. This is where we rejoin Team Human, and drop the Maidenform imperative.
I am standing around the campfire in the freezing last night of my counseling residency, with this same friend, who is about to tell me about the first time (but not the last) that his wife turned into Kali, and bit off his head. Then, instead, two more friends come out of the pleasure pavilion, and join us outside. We take turns melting the snow off our shoes, hissing into the hot ring of metal binding the fire. We are a united nations of gender. We are Team Human. We are talking about longing and desire, and how fidelity can’t be enacted by shutting down desire for all but one person, because desire’s not a thing that can be maidenformed like that. It can be squelched. It can be listened to. It can be honed and focused through vows. But there’s not an elastic, foam, lace, and wire contraption known to man that can reason it into some illusion of a permanent, pleasing shape.
I am back home, walking the dogs up the ridge we all love. There, near the place we often call our destination, something breaks through the layers of the Sacred Heart. Strong diagonal slash-marks in the snow, to one side, to the other. To amazement. The enormous owl who watched us one whole afternoon has swept down, beat the snow with her wings, seized what she wanted from the trail, and flown off. I stand within the span of those marks. Winged heart, winged being, heavy feet in boots on snow. I call Chloe, who doesn’t come, and Elliot, who bounds wildly to me, feet spread wide like wings to catch and spring off the snow. Here, now. This multi-part being, woman-formed, owl-formed, pack-formed with her dogs.
I am moving trans-human, shape-shifter. What is the shape of being a dragon – burrowing, barrel-rolling, diving, flaming, nowhere and everywhere in the bones of the world? A human-dragon. Tender, vulnerable, amoral, ancient, wise, and elemental. My friend shows me around the shrine room at the Shambala Center. Magnificent beings shine forth from colored silk – the animal stages of practice, ending with Dragon. Inscrutable, unbound from applause or disapproval, intimately embodied in the way things are. Married to a flying tiger, a portly gentleman sports eyes everywhere – a body that knows all throughout itself. Elliot snarls his fierce rebuttal of some smaller, jingle-belled dog. Seconds later I embrace his ribs, looking down into his inscrutable, untroubled eyes. I did not like that dog, and so I told him to fuck off. Simple.
The dragon isn’t my only memory from Shambhala. There, at the heart of the space, up high on the altar, is a large crystal ball wearing a shower cap. Without it, my friend tells me, the ball would magnify and concentrate the sunlight coming in from the cupola above, inevitably catching the wooden shrine on fire. The showercap is the Maidenform bra of this place, the thing that mediates pure, clear energy into something safe to interact with this world.
A dragon, perpetually consumed in being, self-satisfied, and free of ornament, immolates the concept Maidenform bra before it can even be formed. But we are not all dragon. We are human, and burn easily, setting one another aflame without knowing what we do. In kindness, inscrutable can also mean modest, gentle, equally committed to wild flight as to fleshy concern. Bounded and unbounded, dancing together. What I wish for all beings of all genders: freedom to listen unabashed to the dance that comes roiling and coiling, with love. Protection, courage, and kindness in meeting the strength that runs through us all. The inscrutable undergarments of our choice, now and forever, Amen.
Brand-new! That means: emerged shiny and sparkly from Zeus’ head, or Yasodhara's side, which is, like, 100,000 times less icky than the usual way people show up in the world. Brand-new! No lady parts! No goo! No messy history!
Let's have a parade.
Let's eat chicken wings, and hum the old songs that are forever brand-new.
That brand-new mattress sure is comfortable! Come meet me at that new restaurant on the corner, and then maybe we can go test it out together. Brand-new sex! Yay! Brand-new me! I'll have to make sure and scrub out the bathroom extra, extra well, and check for any unwanted tufts or stains. Brand-new ideas! Out with the old! What’s the old ever done for us, besides sickness, loss, and shame? Bah to the old!
In with big budgets and instant pudding! In with prosthetic everything and cars that drive themselves, so that we can do whatever it is that we do, once things are satisfyingly new, all around.
Let's do this thing!
Let's win once and for all!
Let's break on through to the other side of new!
Here's an app that will show you how.
Here's a brush, and a form, and a box you can click.
Brand-new! Would you like to use that old address? No! Would you like to renew that old subscription? Hell, no! Would you like to plan for when you might, possibly, be less brand-new? Do not offend me, my friend, for such thoughts have zero sparkle, and they emerge from someplace far less appropriate than the unblemished foreheads of our fathers.
Our father, who art brand-new, always and forever!
Our father, who tolerates no loss and no sorrow!
Our father, who smites everything into brand-new ship-shape top condition, now and forever, Amen.
Ah, the foreheads of our fathers! I lose them at my peril.
Do not make me think of the receding hairline of my father, and the way his eyes look tired now, in between sentences, while his smiting is falling apart. Goddamn pharmaceutical companies won’t even cough up the drugs he needs to get rid of those criminals once and for all. Take an axe to them – both the convicts AND the suits. Goddamn transgender intelligence officers. What? Whoever heard of such a thing? How are we supposed to keep things brand-new around here, if we can’t count on men to be men, and drug companies to make their billions?
Don’t talk to me about animals with their legs and chests in traps.
Don’t talk to me about freezing Congolese refugee families with eight children, most of them born in camps.
Don’t talk to me about 15-year-old girls who’ve never seen the inside of a doctor's office, and don’t want their cousin’s baby.
Don’t talk to me about when pipelines fail or trains blow up.
Don’t talk to me about how volunteer church groups, while feel-goody as all get out, can’t do the work a government is supposed to do.
Don’t talk to me about where my brand-new boat came from. I earned it and that’s that.
Don’t talk to me about your weird/lonely/special kid.
Don’t talk to me about who cuts up the steers for my steaks.
Don’t talk to me about the warehouse where you have to wear a respirator to keep from passing out in chickenshit fumes.
Don't talk to me about making another fucking phone call to some answering machine in DC.
Don't talk to me about how my comfort comes at the cost of your mutilation.
Don’t tell me.
Don’t talk to me.
Don’t touch me.
Don’t come any closer.
Don’t forget to clock in.
Don’t forget to bring your ID.
Don’t forget you owe me everything.
Don’t forget, without me you’d be nothing.
Don’t forget who’s boss around here.
Don’t forget it takes years to become an expert, and when you do, there will be some brand-new science you've never heard of.
Don’t forget who’s on the podium.
Don’t forget who built this place.
Don’t forget who keeps things running.
Don’t forget you’re a taker and I am a giver.
Don’t forget the way things work around here.
Don’t forget whose world this is.
Actually, I far prefer Brand Nubian.
I enjoy transferring at some Midwestern airport that’s bristling with red-finned planes, all proudly emblazoned NWA. Did no one think to check? Did someone charismatic think, I wonder if I can set about getting a national airline to rebrand their entire fleet to Niggers With Attitude – and win? Brand-new! Niggers With Attitude on every single uniform lapel, tailfin, and smooth aluminum body. That is the kind of brand-new I can stand with. Like Banksy, inserting that brand-new Abu Ghraib figure into the Florida Disney roller coaster. Like Jenny Holtzer, running ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE among the running Dow and NASDAQ numbers in Times Square; or Komar and Melamid doing the same, except with WE BUY AND SELL AMERICAN SOULS.
What we need right now, or at least what I need, is not the kind of brand-new that is busy deodorizing its vagina and burying its war crimes under multiplying brand-new flags. Instead, it is the kind of brand-new that looks right into avoidance, rearranges its molecules, and comes up with startling, inclusive truth. We are all Charlie is easy enough to say, but how about we are all Putin, Trump, Bannon, and Conway? How about, our category errors have gone far enough, and it is time to recognize in ourselves both the very things we loathe, and the solutions to move past them? Our witch-hunts don’t work. Our bullying leads nowhere, whether it comes from the right, or the left. You can make me afraid to say what I think, but you can’t do anything transformative with that fear, and you certainly can’t use it to change what I think.
Brand-new might be: Who are you and where do you hurt? Who are you and what have been your experiences with power and its limits? Where is your map of the world rattling, and who makes you afraid of what? Brand-new might be conversations that skip categories altogether, and go instead to felt experience.
This week, the candidates for City Council in our small town will speak, and since they don't run by party affiliation, I will actually have to go meet them, to find out what they are like. Shocking! I can’t just vote straight down the ticket, as I do in larger elections, because this ticket’s not like that. I have to bestir myself, and go sniff around. Who are you? What do you want to see happen around here? If I try to talk with you about the common good, and how complex that is, how will you respond?
Our neighbor, whose beagle, Junebug, makes ecstatic ground-sniffing sounds in his backyard, has a hand-drawn sign on his lawn, because he’s running for office. One time, he gave me the leaves he'd just raked up, for compost, and later I gave him some of the tomatoes I grew. What would he do with power, if we voted him in? That’s different from voting for a set of brand-new, my-flavor abstractions, isn’t it? He’s a pleasant man who barbecues, and when he and his wife walk Junebug around the neighborhood, that dog often looks as though she’d rather be sniffing dirt.
Brand-new means no map.
Brand-new means doing the awkward work of finding out for yourself, and taking risks.
Brand-new means building tolerance for curiosity, the bright face of not knowing.
That lion ate my alpaca. I mean, I thought of her as my alpaca, but she was pretty much her own animal. And “ate” isn’t so accurate as “vigorously bit in the neck, and then semi-disemboweled.” And I’m pretty sure “that lion” is THAT lion, the one who’s been on a biting spree, the one my neighbor saw jump off the roof of his stable, that one night, and couldn’t believe the wild, muscular length of him, like a T Rex with fuzzy ears.
That lion ate my alpaca, and while I still love alpacas, spinning and knitting their lovely, soft fur, I'm thinking that building an even higher fence is a fool’s game, and it's time to get out of the lion-snacks business in these hills. I don't want to be responsible for any more deaths, and I don’t want to be part of turning against the beautiful monsters living in the shadows of these hills. I’m out. Nature Conservancy, make me a deal I can’t refuse. Like anything. At all.
That lion ate my alpaca, and in his amber eyes, I saw I wanted to be on the side of wildness. I'm going to find a safe place for Minnie and Fred, and settle them there. Then, I'm going to head back into town and figure out how to live among humans again. Poor Zelda: she was a sweet beast. I loved feeding her, and clipping her soft coat, but I didn’t know how to listen, when she turned to big brown eyes on me, saying, Honey, THAT lion is not messing around, and no matter how much disco you play in our paddock at night, or how many blazing lights you add, we are not safe here.
I liked my cowgirl life. I liked not having to use city-ordinance recycling bins, and not worrying about which side of the street to park on. I liked walking around in the buff in broad daylight, knowing alpacas don't care, and lions hunt at night. But that’s over. It’ll be nice to sleep without disco blaring and seeping between the gaps in my earplugs, and half my mind tuned to massacre. I could always go hiking on the weekends, and spend time helping out with other people’s alpacas. Rita in Montana could always use a hand.
God! I hope that crazy fucker did a clean job of it, clamping his teeth around her poor throat, so she died fast. I hope her freeze-state worked, so that she died unafraid and without pain, knowing herself as interwoven with the world, knitted more beautiful and more true than any pattern ever looped together at the ends of my needles. Poor girl. Poor Zelda. I wish I had listened sooner.
But the city! God. The city. People's cell phones and late-night yapping. People’s opinions and offenses. My own getting offended, and needing my space. The city is an echo chamber, says the cowgirl in me, and yet even as I hear this, I think, Not really. Not completely. The city has open windows just like anywhere. I’m not a lion, or an alpaca. I’m a human being, and there’s a place for me somewhere that won’t drift inexorably to the dynamics of a fortified alpaca-cult compound. Where that is, I don’t know. But somewhere.
That lion ate my alpaca, and in response, I tore down my fences, and gave him my land. That lion ate my alpaca, and I felt a fool for my experiment in dominion. Dominion’s an asshole’s game, and I’m done being an asshole, or at least that particular subspecies of asshole. It’s time I bucked up, brought my animals to safety, and quit playing this alpaca-based game of Brave Ranchers of Masada.
Somewhere, there's a two-room apartment with a big window looking out onto at least a sliver of sky, town, and hills. I can sleep in the kitchen, which will leave the whole other room for eating, playing, working, and drawing. It has built-in drawers next to the closet, so I don’t have to clutter the space. I can eat grocery store sushi in the tub, and sing to myself with my head underwater. I can walk to the park, and on good days, the green heron will be there by the pond at dusk, up on stilts, needle-faced, an absolutely still beautiful monster that the joggers and stroller people never notice.
I won’t need to brush-hog, and I won’t need anyone to put their lives at risk when the hill-fires come near. I’ll be eating tacos on the dock, seeing the lights of the city twinkling overhead, a second set of stars.
That lion ate my alpaca, and I realized it was time to get on back to the human realm, give my land back to the land, and go face what I've been fleeing. Lonely in the hills can be blamed on hills, but lonely in town calls for breaking through my shyness, making connections, remembering the things I like about people, and myself. God. What do I like about people, and myself? Well, we all have the capacity to meet change with change. We know how to make beautiful things. We know how to work with fear, sometimes, and with sadness, sometimes too. Alpacas know they’re connected to the universe, without reminding, but humans forget sometimes, and we have the ability to help each other remember.
That lion ate my alpaca, and tomorrow I'm calling to find out if the Nature Conservancy will pay to have this place torn down. Enough’s enough. That lion’s got to have a bit more room to roam, you know? And I'm tired to death of my neighbors Rambo attitudes. We’re in the wrong place, on the wrong side of too many boundaries, and I don’t need ownership as an illness.
Goodbye, Hills. Goodbye, sound of coyotes, smell of sage, hot flicker of fire-spark afternoons. Goodbye, dream of rugged independence. Goodbye tawny moon. Goodbye, fences and fear.
That lion ate my alpaca, and I hope her blood runs right down to the hot pads of his enormous feet, into his ear-tufts and lion-balls, and out to the tip of his tail. That lion ate my alpaca, and the least he can do is be the wiliest, most magnificent damn free lion to roam these precious hills. The least I can do is shout hoorah! We have not yet cleared the beautiful monsters of this earth, nor their power to force us to be brave.
Outside, the bus engine thumps, while some woman urges someone to get going. In the hills I’d never have to hear this, but since it’s true, why ever should I not hear it?
Fog. From working with patients, I know that brain-fog is one of the key symptoms of fibromyalgia, and I'm pretty sure it's a direct result of, over time, over and over, being told that one does not feel what one feels, does not know what one knows, and has not experienced the events directly connected with one’s pervasive sense of being unsafe in the world. Foggy. Well, if I don’t know what I know, and I don’t feel what I feel, and if the events of my life exist in some non-existent never-world, it’s a little hard for me to stay focused on today’s school pick-up time, the grocery list, and when to take this swarm of pills designed to defog my being into a wellness that will perhaps forevermore erase the fog, the events, the feelings, and the knowing. Frankly the fog is a big fuck you to the consensus reality I’ve been bullied to get with, these many years. Or so I imagine.
Fog. One of the difficulties of being an empath is that it can be hard to know what's my feeling, and what’s someone else's. This lack of clarity is getting better, as I settle more and more into the body's solidity, its big, firm butt on the chair, and size-eleven feet on the ground. But still. Sometimes in a room full of people sporting the full-on fog, I get lost, too. Where’s the harbor? What’s the point of any of my bright solutions, when you are trying to raise a wolf-child in a barely heated cabin in the middle of nowhere, while a feral puppy eats the furniture, and your back is being torn apart at the shoulder-blades? And you – what use have you got for what I might say, when most of your upper teeth are gone, you haven't slept in years, and pretty much no one on the planet has offered the time, space, or resources to help you unwind the never-world of neglect and abuse where you spent your formative years? The skull on your sweatshirt says, Fuck You, Mindfulness Lady, and, believe me, I get where it’s coming from. I do the meditation expert’s version of a Trump press conference, and exit the room, pretty convinced I know nothing, or feel nothing, and may not necessarily exist in any meaningful way.
As it turns out, therapy-universe has a word for this phenomenon – it's called de-skilling, and it's a classic thing that happens around people whose experiences of being diminished become externalized into a cleverness-erasing force field. It’s a superpower, and it can be really scary to interact with. What to do? Well, you could attempt to armor your heart completely, and have nothing to do with the parts of yourself & of other people that have been silenced. Or you could try to allow contact, but only within certain roles. Expert is acceptable. Skeptic also. I read yesterday about the Internet-based movement to “debunk” the Newtown school shootings, which goes as far (apparently) as to demand of parents that they disinter the bodies of their slain children, to prove that they were killed by gunshots. This impulse has a very strong WTF quality, until one realizes that, just as the Expert seeks distance through knowing-without-feeling, the Skeptic seeks distance through denying-without-feeling. Anything to avoid being de-skilled, disarmed, discombobulated, contaminated with pain and loss and horror. By contagion, both expertise and skepticism can themselves be powerful de-skilling forces.
Or, you could develop the capacity to stay grounded in your own body and experience, and then go into the fog with this awareness as a lifeline. Ask. What is it like right now? Ask. What do you feel? What do you know? Which are the parts of yourself that have been pushed off into a blurry never-land, but nevertheless have something important to say? Start to understand that nothing is in and of itself inherently foggy. That morning river road is a momentary version of something that can also be clear, bright, visible, understood. Sometimes fog clears quickly, and sometimes it sticks around all day. Fine either way. Don’t confuse the fog with the terrain.
The times I have experienced deskilling – when talking with profoundly depressed people, when teaching sullen, hung-over people – have been horrible. They've also been formative, because they’ve crystallized commitments to avoid de-skilling others in the world, to go into my own foggy places, to approach other people’s stories with a lifeline in place, and willingly enter fearful places and ideas.
A long time ago, I was assigned to teach a Writing About Language and Literature course to first-year students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This was hard. I was maybe three years older than my students, and I knew very little about teaching. What I did know, I had gleaned from the beautiful expertise of my various professors, whose polished lectures opened doors of scholarship into my birthright as a human being. You are a born participant in the vast arc of the humanities, they said.
But this model of teaching was not going to help me, here. First, I didn't know much, so, good luck with the brilliant lectures. Second, even if I had been a magnificent scholar, it wouldn't have mattered, because my students’ English comprehension, speaking, and writing skills were mostly not good. And why would they have been? All through their Cantonese-speaking childhoods, these young people had been frog-marched through English, the language of people preparing to – in the face of great uncertainty – abandon the project of colonizing them, while at the same time demanding all the attention and respect of a long-term responsible partner, instead of a love ‘em and leave ‘em abusive country-song boyfriend.
Anyway, we had a problem. I was supposed to help these kids learn to write and speak more fluently, and to do that, I needed to understand something more about the thick fog of silence that hung over the classroom. Early episodes did not go so well. Having, I thought, come up with a brilliant set of discussion questions, I was met instead with heavy, drippy clouds. I said, If you won’t talk, I won’t stay. I spun on my heel, walked out, and slammed the door so loudly I thought the cinderblock classroom building would come down on us all.
The students told me, next time, that it was not in their culture to speak up. I said that this was too bad, because it was in my job description to make them. Impasse. Then it occurred to me to wonder if, instead of inserting some new story from outside the fog, I could ask the students to report from inside it. I asked, Who are you? Where do you come from? What does it look like, where you are? What do you know and feel, what have you not been allowed to talk about, throughout your long and semi-coercive career of learning English?
So my students wrote from their lives. They interviewed one another, and wrote about one another's stories, till the fog cleared of its own accord. Not through some irresistible power of my expertise, but through having so little not-knowing and not-feeling left to feed on. The fog cleared as fog will – in its own time, in response to warmth and change.
Peru, says the very convincing white-board in the room where my friend and I, released from the grip of snow, find ourselves writing. Oh, Peru! You know about snow, don't you? You know about snow, and postsnow mud, and at the same time, your palette of electric fuchsia and orange, teal and yellow meets those things differently than we do here in New England. Why bother with grey, beige, or muted blue, when panpipes can carry color so vividly over snow? Peru, your poetics of snow are different from ours, and I salute them, while also, in some way, saluting us. We, the drippy-nosed New Englanders, negotiating our predicaments as best we can, in grey and plaid, with calm endurance.
This morning I broke some kind of code: waking, I called the plow-guy we don't exactly employ, and asked if he would come help us. Then, still awaiting his arrival, I followed Timothy's advice, and just aimed the car backwards through 7 inches of snow, hoping for the best. I got a bit marooned at the cervix, but with a little spinning and lowing, emerged. A breech birth into the world - hoorah! There was a bit of Peru in this strategy, with Krishna Das kirtans standing in for the Hail Maries I so clearly needed.
Why don't we paint bright, long-lashed eyes on the front of our cars in New England? Or cheetahs? We could certainly use them as much as the Peruvians, or the Bhutanese, who’ve not forgotten that their vehicles are the descendants of yaks and horses, and equally deserving of crowns, tinsel, colored tufts of wool, and generalized devotion, to precede the dangerous crossings ahead.
The best my soberly blue Subaru currently has to show on its rump is an out-of-date sticker for the Dartmouth cross country ski facility, which no cow, nor yak, nor horse would find comfort in, on her way up a sleety pass. But, resale value. But, the neighbors. Who cares? Why put off the exuberant delights of travel-blessing for some imagined someone, somewhere else?
Our roads are safe, but they are not failsafe, and so a practice of fervent prayer and devotion would not at all be out of place, here in New England, where the roads are steep and the brakes run out, long before the hills are done with us.
Once, in India, taking the night bus to Dharamsala, I wrangled my way onto the long bench at the front, where the driver’s friends are supposed to sit and smoke. Maybe this driver’s friends were like, No way dude! That run’s a pile of corpses. You're on your own. Anyway – there was just barely enough room there for me to stretch out completely, provided I was willing to wedge the crown of my head against the bus windshield, and my feet against a divider near the doors. This, strictly speaking, was a terrible idea. One sharp stop and boom! Concussion, broken neck. But I decided it was fine: the driver seemed steady, and between him and me, there was a perfect little Shiva-shrine, with tinsel, lights, incense, and everything. If this calm man, and that brilliant dancing god, were on board, then yes, sure, sign me up for the glass membrane over Himalayan precipices.
I've got various forms of fear of heights, originating as much in a felt physiological sense of nausea, as in childhood memories of my father's persistent fear that we would fall to our deaths. His friends had lost a child overboard in a sailing accident they never noticed till realizing their toddler was, simply, gone. For me, this fear, historically shows up when I feel like I’m in charge, and my own poor judgment has brought me into a foolish relationship with the void.
Step off this cliff, right here.
What? Whose idea of a good time is that?
Walk along this 5” trail above an abyss of icy scree.
But the fear does not show up in the same way with buses, planes, cars – situations where I’ve handed over navigation to someone else. Oh, well, I’ll think. This person’s going to do as well as they can, for the situation. Pass the snacks!
All of this is changing, as I learn to pay attention, first, only to the aspects of my experience that serve to ground me in safety. The steady feet. The breath, the Buddhist Hail Maries that focus narrative aspects of mind on what is benevolent, and invite some kind of cosmic safe driver to watch over the proceedings. I trained for many months going up and down a local fire tower, gradually growing my capacity to be with what I felt and saw, until it was big enough to enjoy the experience, without getting stuck in fearful strands of sensation.
Then, last winter, I went up to the top of a mountain in Engelberg, Switzerland, where someone clever had built a magnificent glass suspension bridge over a deep gap between mountains. Aha! I thought. Here is something to work with. I started small – walking with eyes up, holding the cable handrail as I went. Slow, steady steps, paying attention only to my own progress. Totally fine. Next, a bit faster, a bit more scope in my gaze. Still good. A kind of wild joy started to arise, borrowing for itself some of the energy that fear used to eat. I walked across, looking down through the glass slabs into the void. Amazing! I walked faster, letting go of the hand cables and enjoying the swaying of the bridge, as it danced my whole body. I opened my gaze wider, and took in the experiences of my fellow crossers: afraid, exhilarated, frozen. I counseled the fearful, and in one case, even took someone’s hand until she made it across, delighted with herself as fear drained off.
In the few hours I played around there, allowing myself to be taught, this Peru of the Alps, this high place, showed me a whole cycle of being.
Knowing the cycle, I feel its manifestations playing out again and again in the rhythms of experience. I am driving through a snowstorm to give a talk on refuge and exile at a church. It's Sunday. I am late. I'm not used to driving through heavy snow. Where will I park and unload the props of my trade? I place attention in my butt-warmed seat. I hand over solutions to something more resilient than my busy mind’s problem-solving channel. Most everyone around me is being cautious, like me, and the ones who aren't, don't freak me out. Voila! At the church, there’s a beautiful Sunday Visitors spot open, just for me. Steady, open, curious. I wonder what this will be like? And this?
I've not been to Peru, and I don't know if I'll ever make it there in this life. But the things I've learned in Tibet (the Asian high-mountain analog of Peru) and in India, and through practices originating there, carry me across the voids and cataracts of life here in New England, and wherever I go. Don’t be afraid of devotion. Open to resilience that comes from something other than masterful control, or possessing all the right answers. Put your head against the glass, stretch out next to the god, and allow experience to arise as it will, not despite but right through the fearful places. Somehow, the narrow way will yield. Somehow, we all come through to now.
I come back to the body, to the low hum of the library’s heating system, the grey industrial carpet, and the beautiful wooden table supporting our notebooks, our elbows, our intent eyes, our travels to Peru and anywhere. This, then, is the way: neither Peru, nor not-Peru, just here, not for any reason ever believing that a way through can’t be found.
The newspaper arrives, double-bagged in orange plastic, to announce the stories of the day, within which: questions, openings, possibilities. Yes, lies adorned, but also, why not, truth. I want to usher in an era of resistance that looks like devotion: beautiful, tinselly, lit in all colors, unafraid to sparkle and to laugh.
Dog drama: the dramas our dogs are assigned to act out for us, because we, in our human-suits, haven’t got one-eighth the harrumph of our beasts, in their lithe and sinewy dog-bodies. Elliot gets a particular, completely crazed look on his face, as soon as a prey-surrogate is around. He knows it's a stick, or a very manky tennis ball, and yet it is also IT – the fulfillment of his predator dreams. The ears go up, the eyes go wide, the fangy teeth sparkle. His front legs go straight – springs ready to release.
I am leaning down to pick up a stick Chloe has selected, and Elliot runs into my face, full-force. Ouch! Holy hell! My nose, my lips, my teeth! Face full of dog-drama, I taste blood.
But then I remember how tolerant Elliot and Chloe are, on the innumerable, inadvertent occasions when we kick them under the table, walk on their tails, or trip over their inert bodies, right in front of the sink. I can’t be angry with a creature who’s never been angry with me. I throw the stick. STICK! Both dogs run for it. Back home, I see a slight bloody patch on my lower lip, and decide it’s fine.
A lot of Zen koans are dog-dramas. The one my Sunday group unpacked yesterday* goes like this:
One day when Master Zhaozhou Congshen was wandering outside the monastery, he saw an old woman hoeing a field. He asked her, "What would you do if you suddenly met a fierce tiger?" She replied, “Nothing in this world frightens me,” and turned back to her hoeing. Zhaozhou roared like a tiger. She roared back at him. Zhaozhou said, “There’s still this.”
The dogs leap and twist over one another, sparring without reservation and without harm. Or, mostly without harm. One of Chloe's ears is now like a puffy hot beignet, swollen with blood from a vessel ruptured in the throes of Elliot-wrestling. She doesn't seem to care all that much about it, except maybe that it flops a little harder against her head when she runs full-tilt. There’s still this: we can still spar and play. We are still vulnerable to injury, and that shouldn’t stop play in its tracks.
Actually, there is an important distinction to be made between sudden, unexpected, intense actions, and the responses that make them into drama. Back a couple of paragraphs ago, I chose not to make drama out of the fact that Elliot ran into my face. I didn't go into he's a bad dog, or, nobody not even my dog cares about me, or even my face is ruined and my drawing students tonight will be convinced that I am living a sordid life of booze-addled violence. So, no drama. I stayed in the mainstream, where present-moment experience unfolds, and didn’t let the physical sensations go anywhere besides, ouch.
For a lot of my life, this mainstream did not feel like home. No home in the mainstream means no incentive to stay there, and so drama becomes seductive, unavoidable. I would go on excursions to the Himalayas, or to blissful samadhi states, and not want at all to come back, because I didn’t have much trust or interest in any “back” there might have been to come to.
With the help of someone far more experienced in Gabrielle Roth’s five rhythms than I, I've been listening into how an old bias for the extraordinary and the dramatic has played into how I’ve composed playlists for the dances I offer. I have an acute intuitive sense for music that opens doors into powerfully pleasant movement-states for me. That’s wonderful, and the shadow of that capacity is that I have often felt real resistance to music I felt was too ordinary, too staid. I’ve made junkie-playlists – playlists that go from high to higher, leaving no room for integration back into just being here, being human. Last night was different. Using feeling and language I’m learning from trauma-work, I titrated back and forth between intense songs and songs that felt a bit more steady. I built in dog-dramas AND periods of laying contentedly on the couch, navigating back and forth comfortably. My playlist came home from the high pass in Tibet, and opened the fridge, without resistance. Without pining for drama, there’s the ability to appreciate the overall feeling of presence, just as it is.
The name of a young activist who recently pissed me off has been, off and on this morning, in my mind like a mantra. But I can tell this is the drama-drive trying to wind itself up. Why bother? I put my attention in my butt instead. I put my attention in my feet. If a conversation with this person is to happen at some point, then it will, and letting the drama-drive shape it ahead of time won't have been a good investment of my time and energy. I can let the incident bounce off me like an over-excited puppy-dog. I can come back to where I am – startled, a bit off-balance, but basically fine. This is the practice of being able to move from wandering or hoeing, to roaring like a tiger, and back, without sticking anywhere.
“There’s still this.” I can still get stuck into drama, and I can refrain in ways that weren’t accessible to me, earlier. Observing, stuck, or not, “there’s still this” seems like a fine response.
It's colder and there's a fine new dusting of snow on the old icy crust. Elliot takes a tremendous wet dump right in the middle of the trail. Right here, one stick, one wide curl of birch bark. I nudge the poop onto the bark and hurl the whole mass towards the stone wall to my right. Whoosh! Splat. There still this, and the next thing, and the next, unfurling without end and without resistance, if we let it.
* "The Old Woman, Zhaozhou, and the Tiger," p. 135 in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, Eds. Boston: Wisdom, 2013.
good news version:
the heat under the pot is being turned up too fast, and we, being clever frogs with sensitive feet, notice what is going on, snap out of our what-could-possibly-go-wrong daze, and help one another to leap to safety.
we resume authority over the kitchen, get the cook fired, heave a great sigh, salve any singed toes, and carry on.
bad news version:
stunned, we do nothing. we are all cooked, and not in a good way.
this is not a "keep calm and carry on" kind of moment, if by "carry on" we mean "hope it all goes away." it is a "keep calm and stand firm in truth with your whole huge heart" kind of moment. it is time to feel what we are afraid of, and dedicate our resources to the cause of justice.
let's pause for some fantasy immigration Q&A with Me, shall we?
have you ever been deportable from the US?
in 1999, after living abroad for religious reasons (I was a Buddhist nun), for long enough that my green card status lapsed, I foolishly reentered this country on a tourist visa, not realizing the legal impact of what I was doing. after three months, I became deportable, and started receiving nastygrams from the INS. the worst that could have happened to me then was to be sent back to Switzerland or France (where I had citizenship). for countless other people, the alternatives are far, far scarier. my brief sojourn in the land of Immigration Hell showed me what it is like to be an unwanted, illegal person, and to have little control over where you live, work, and love. I saw pre-dawn milk-bottles full of pee, left by children and the elderly along the hours-long interview line to the INS building in Atlanta. then, with an astounding amount of help, I got my resident alien status sorted out, and returned to the path of citizenship.
have you ever been naturalized?
in 2006, I participated in a US citizenship ceremony in an Atlanta courtroom full of fellow-immigrants, including a monk from Laos, a quiet young man from Rwanda, a lady soccer-fan from Ghana, and a Chinese woman who explained how hard it is to get non-Chinese-reading officials to change your name from Wang to Wang when you get married. afterwards, the Sons of the American Revolution, in full 18th C gear, shook the living daylights out of everyone's hands in congratulations, and presented us with small American flags.
have you ever been welcomed as an immigrant?
in addition to the US, Hong Kong, Ireland, Scotland, England, Indonesia, and India have all welcomed me for long-ish stays, some of which involved working visas. in each place, I experienced generosity and trust.
have you ever felt afraid, on the basis of being a foreigner?
besides my 1999-2000 INS adventures in this country, which were at times existentially quite scary, because I believed I might lose the right to live in the country I considered home, I've experienced a few other moments where I felt threatened as a foreign national.
when I traveled in China in the 1990's, there were rules forbidding foreigners from staying in certain accommodations, or traveling to certain areas. in one hot, dusty town in Qinghai province, I went from hostel to hostel, followed closely by a disturbed young man, and a curious crowd of onlookers. no one would take me in. I felt alone and vulnerable. finally, one truly disgusting place agreed to rent me a room. I asked the waiter to walk me home after dinner, to keep a buffer between me and the (I now knew) mad outsider who was still following my every move. that night, some police officers came into my room in the middle of the night, to check my passport. luckily it was under my pillow, so I just rolled over and handed it to them. luckily, that's all they wanted.
in 1996, on the wrong train from Moscow to Prague, I was stopped at the border with Belarus. Belarus? weeks of desert sweat had blurred my Russian visa beyond recognition, and I had no other papers to justify my existence in the eyes of the border guards. they pulled me off the train, and ordered me to an office across town. I threw a total indignant hissy fit at the man behind the desk, who wearily and somewhat gallantly stamped an antidote on what was left of my visa. then, a taxi-driver bodhisattva brought me back to the station. I pressed a messy wad of small bills and coins from China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia into his hands - all that I had left in my motley pockets. rage stayed with me until I was finally back on another train to Prague. then I cried for a long time, having touched only the very outer layers of the terrible pain we humans inflict on one another in the name of Safe Borders.
we are all immigrants and refugees.
there is no such thing as an illegal person.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now