Big business is watching you, and it doesn’t like what it sees, not one bit. Big business looks at you and sees a fundamental unwillingness to be employed, a fundamental snarky mischief with regards to its products. Big business doesn’t like that when you look at Donald Trump smirk-signaling the end of a meeting, you see empty buffoon, and not, sparkling success. Big business, basically, thinks you suck.
And that's fine, because you, my friend, are cooking up big business of your own, on the Facebook page dedicated to Wild Mushrooms of Vermont, on the trails running behind the houses and the hospital, in the stubborn, always-redeemable dreams that visit you at night. Your big business doesn’t depend on bamboozling or enslaving others, and it has no value that will ever show up on any ledger designed by man. Your big business has a relationship to failure that would make any known Board of Directors loosen their ties with horror, swallow their fear, and broadcast rejection far and wide. Your love of failure, your willingness to be broken a million times on the way to wholeness, makes no sense to that other big business we hear so much about, these days.
Fail, fail, fail. Big business is going to fail, too, but it won't like it the way you do. It won't confess it the way you do. Big business can't admit to itself – Oh, wait! That was a totally ridiculous thing to do/say/want/insist on – and now it's all torn down – and order and change can shine through again.
This morning – change and more change, the big business of situations morphing and stretching into one another. Change. I am listening to Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, wherein a hyper-empathic young Black woman invents Taoism-plus-space-travel, as the world falls apart all around her. God is change, she says. Shape God, change God. Big business is letting go of fatalism, letting go of control-freakiness, allowing change to change us, and allowing ourselves to shape change.
I don't know about tattoos – for me – but I am giving them a rehearsal in the form of a white silk wedding dress my husband bought me in a weird Portland flea market last December. Each day, I allow an image come to me, then I embroider it, tattoo it into the silk. The needle makes a popping, rushing sound, coming through the fabric. The image changes itself into shape, and then I put the dress on, and Timothy takes some photographs. So this big business looks like:
I change the dress.
The dress changes me.
My husband witnesses the changes.
I write that day’s work.
Have you ever tried putting on a wedding dress every day for three months? Have you ever thought of modifying its pristine white with whatever images and stories arise from your dreams and wanderings? I haven’t, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be a big business bringing that whole shebang with me weekly to the castle, the convent, the center for kids-who-might-go-to-jail. It’s going to be a big business bringing it to Hopi and Navajo land, to Switzerland, and wherever else. It’s not, by the standards of the form, a Big Dress, but my commitment to it is Big Business, for sure.
The biggest business of all, hands down, is the work that happens when we decide to stop hiding, to stop putting some overlay on top of What Is, and how it is showing up right now. Oh, you'd rather not be feeling this? Doing this? It's fine if you want to keep going the path of potato chips and core editing, but at some point that path runs out, and the relationship you’ve worked out with What Is becomes all there is. You’re evasive and demanding? Welcome to that, full-time. You’re chronically in need of affirmation and superiority, or denial and inferiority? Voilà! Your new home, unmediated by any of the throw pillows and snacks that once padded it out.
Am I sounding like some sandwich-board asshole on a street corner? That's not what I mean, but it IS hard to say, Your relationship with being itself is what drives all the acceptance or denial in the world, without sounding a bit apocalyptic. A bit vengeful.
What does mood matter, without a framework of meaning within which waking up is possible, and all our failures become gateways to wholeness? I struggle with this, as a baby therapist. A client comes in for their weekly 45 minute session, and their hair is on fire. We put out the fire. They come back the next week, and their hair is on fire again. We put it out. Why is their hair on fire? How could that pattern end? What are some choices that might open up a different set of possibilities?
The Zens still say, Practice like your hair’s on fire, but it strikes me that this may be a directive from a different time and place, where big business wasn't so well-versed in making sure that everyone's hair actually WAS on fire, all the time. People whenever “then” was could stop and ponder the water buffaloes. They could hunker down and be cold, with a little glimmer of coals somewhere in the darkened room. They could live without being immersed all the fucking time in one hurricane after another, till death do us part.
I like my hair long, and not in flames. Habitually, I wear it up in a messy bun (what reporters call a chignon, when they are describing the demi-deities of fashion), or in a braid, but it turns out that hair actually prefers just kind of hanging down, snaking around the shoulders, reaching for the waist one slow movement at a time. Practice like your hair is growing might be more apropos for our time, a needed a reminder that there are some things even big business can’t do a damn thing about. Like leaves falling, follicles slowly extruding a lion's or a woman's mane, lines deepening through tissues like river deltas to an ocean we can only guess at.
Today I am writing with my friend from high school, whom I haven't seen in 27 years. Big business is happening to all of us, and yet also, here we still are, alive, thinking, feeling, processing experience in the ways we know how. Big business can’t affect this – this meeting of women working intently around an improvised table, as the nimbus of a hurricane twists its way towards us on the ocean we can’t see, but know anyways. The no-value of this activity is the pearl of great price itself, the gallon of milk that keeps us going, the assurance that out beyond success and failure, right and wrong, being itself is thriving, changing, tearing itself down, and coming right back in shapes we could never imagine, till we find ourselves changing right through them, next and next, and here, now, ah.
When I dare to enter into the big business of this life, I know to a certainty that self-liberation is possible, calls me forth, dances in the marrow of each moment and situation, without end. Because – where else would it be? Exclusively in the lineages of great masters? Only at the finest tables? In the fists of those who claim power over nations? No. It’s here, in the crows’ scolding, the rumble of the garbage truck, the high squeal of some crazed driver turning corners faster than car wheels can support. The big business of freedom is always here, just waiting for us to claim our kinship with What Is.
My friend tells me in Peru they say every illness is a mother, because it births you into a new state of being, a new realization about life. I say, every illness is also a mother, as in this hurts like a mother. It hurts like someone giving birth. It hurts like being bound to someone beloved, but vulnerable, cranky, and demanding.
The left side of my head and jaw hurt like a mother, and I don’t know if that means anything more than blocked energy. Is my back molar caving in like old cheese, from the core outward? Am I developing some slow tumor, the left side to match my childhood friend’s right? Neither of these stories is worth remotely as much as the sober sense of being in the presence of pain, an intractable pattern of not-letting-go, with no sense of where relief might come from. It hurts like a mother, and I am its daughter. Or, I am its mother, tending to my stricken child. Something true and unavoidable: this body.
I practice tai chi while some women nearby tend to their children: the unknown mothers of my fellow students’ children. I choose not to have children, precisely so that I can whirl under afternoon cloudbanks, tending to this body and being. I move to a part of the lawn further from playground entreaties.
I tell my friend that I am grounded, at the moment, in my weaker parts. What does this mean? Present, but shaky. Present, while being mothered by suffering. I tell my friend that I know I need help, but I don't know what I need. Armpit farts? That's a good start. Really, I want to be held. I want my mother to be, not this stubborn soreness, but something unctuous and unbound. I understand why people get hooked on heroin, if heroin means, for a little while, your mother is unconditional ease and surrender.
Wanting. Not-wanting. My mother right now consists in bearing with the discomfort of being, as a bridge rather than a barrier to connection. Here I am, shaky, but present. I am listening. I care, and my need is immense, but contained. I won’t hurt you. I see that you and I are marvels, mothered and mothering, carrying ourselves with humor and brilliance in this world.
May we be well, O, be well, and may all our mothers be well, too –
the sullen, and the radiant
the worn-out and the glittering
the incoherent and ever-truthful mothers.
Wolf child, wolf child who are you?
Sniffing at the edges, autumn dew.
These last 2 1/2 weeks I have been intensely wolfish for me. Timothy away in the California backcountry, having wolf-adventures of his own, means Julie alone in New Hampshire with the dogs, full-time. Something happens. Dogs full-time, full-time wolf children, means being more in the forest each day, being more in the house with only dogs to share the space. Because dogs don’t engage in discursive thought, we connect through touch, nuances of voice, and immersion in the wonder of a shared, wild world.
In the morning, we take off from the end of an anodyne suburban cul-de-sac, tumble down a narrow gravel path, then climb back up through tall ferns into hemlock and beech woods, surprisingly vast for standing so near to stuccoed houses. We cross bridges slick with the previous day’s hurricane-tail rain, and thread our way between parallel rises of glaciated stone.
Elliot and Chloe stick their noses into a nest-full of wasps, who swarm and sting wherever they can reach through the deep fuzz of dog-suits. I can both feel and see the jolts, the maddening quality of unseen sharp venom. Come on, come on, I urge Elliot. Let’s get out of here! A little ways up the slope, he shakes out the pain – a tail-to-nose, nose-to-tail whirling, sending pain and insects flying, resetting his whole system. Then that’s it. No further thought of the stings, as far as I can tell. Much later in the walk, I find a wasp still burrowed in the fur at his shoulder, and fish it out with a stick. Has it stung him? Is it stinging him? Other wonders occupy his attention.
We wind up the Appalachian Trail to a higher ridge – bare granite, deep evergreen needles cushioning our steps. Somewhere far below, a faint hush of road connects home and campus. But, here as wolf children, we stand on listening feet. We sniff the air. We remember that we are vast, well-adapted, full members of this place and time and body.
The trail loops around and winds down, then, bloop! through another fern-clearing, out into the same cul-de-sac. A gateway no less wondrous than the wardrobe to Narnia, and seemingly no more visited by its near neighbors. Forest-bathed and freshly reminded of our aliveness, we hop back into the car.
In the afternoon, I take us to another big forest, also not more than ten minutes away from home. Here again, a gateway: we park at a bend in a road near an abandoned barbecue (FREE), with two ugly throw pillows balanced on top. The wilderness opens upward. On a whim I take an unmarked trail. When it ends, I head uphill, following the yellow-gold light through the leaves. We climb and fall, now on a ridge trail, passing between old, blackened mushroom-corpses, and thriving new caps just pushing up to greet new moisture. Chloe keeps a steady pace maybe fifty yards ahead, and Elliott dashes here and there, coming back every few minutes to check on me. We move in a familiar, comfortable pack-mode.
I don’t know precisely where we are. Practicing a kind of tolerance for uncertainty, I decide to keep walking till I understand. Aha! I take a sharp V back in the direction we came from, recognizing a loop I took years ago with a friend’s dog, in the winter. Yes! Here we are, there we were. The afternoon stretches open under hemlock-shade, unhurried, able to reveal itself at its own pace. We arrive at another junction, and take the path home.
Before I had dogs, before I was married, before we owned a house, sometimes weekend space would close in with a kind of dread. What am I to do with myself? Where do I belong? What will set this restless mind at ease? Now, I feel we belong here, in these words, in this studio, sleeping near each other in this quiet room. People have all kinds of theories about why being around dogs is beneficial: touch, emotional support, committed, giving relationship. All of this is true. And yet, in the life I lead with Chloe and Elliot, immersive trust in these beautiful beings’ basic desire to walk with me has been most transformative of all.
Walk with me, as a command, has deep and mutual roots. I'm the one who says it in words, and yet every day, the dogs say it in being. Walk with me. Leave behind the phantoms of what you might want to do, or think, or be. Leave the house, and come with me through this gateway into a large and thriving world which needs no ordering, to be orderly. Walk with me, to where death and life intertwine and trade places, self-evident and self-liberated.
I walk with two wolf children, one at each side, or, one in front, one behind. I sleep with one dog at my feet, and another on the floor at the foot of the bed. It is an old way: a woman living (temporarily) on her own, some animals, some writing, a garden growing wild, a forest opening onto a vastness that few people tread. We see almost no people on these expeditions: no children, no adults, no older people. Why? People are at work, or at school. Women are afraid to be alone in the woods. Hardly anyone trains their dogs to be off leash, and to come back when called. People are afraid of ticks. And yet. What about their wolf children, starving?
Moonlight marks the cycle of night-lurches with the pups. Right now, sickle moon, waxing, low in the sky at 10:30, when I gather us together for our pre-bed ritual. Chloe tends to pull back at these times, insisting on a little more quality time with this whiff of schnauzer-pee, or that cat-turd. Elliot, meanwhile, tends to pull forward, yanking onward to new adventures in weed-hosing and spirit-sniffing. Sometimes I want to spank them both. Stop, you curs! I am ready for bed, and need no further nonsense today. Let the moon chill you out. Walk with me.
But of course moonlight doesn't necessarily chill dogs out, at all. They go into nocturnal overdrive, turning on the spooky lanterns at the backs of their eyes. Black dogs, like mine, have the added advantage of literally melting into the dark, each hairtip growing endings that join with the space filling everything between here and the moon.
Without them, my incidences of being out under the moon at night would rush asymptotically towards zero, as the nights get colder, as rain buckets down on the roof, as long sections of sidewalk turn into secret toboggan runs, invisible by sodium vapor light, or by moonshade. Without my dogs, I would spend almost all my night-time either under electric light, or asleep.
Without me, who knows what the dogs would do at night? Commando raids on sleeping squirrel-nests. Wild runs in the woods, guided by their supersnouts and the odd phosphorescent mushroom. Without me, they would spend more time navigating by their own extra senses, and less time flopped out on duvet, carpet, and pillow.
Sharing the bed with Chloe and Elliot is a relatively new thing. I had felt for a while that it was what I wanted. A few times, when Elliot was younger, and suffered from Restless Dog Syndrome, I'd gone downstairs with a blanket and busted both of them out of their crates, creating a dense dog/lady pile on the couch. This took real skill: one long dog (Elliot) mashed between my body and the back cushions; one chunky dog (Chloe) curled into a tight ball at my feet. To sleep this way is to be an acrobat in suspension, a bound unit of fur, bone, flesh, and skin. I loved it, but the custom remained: dogs sleep in crates downstairs, humans sleep in rooms upstairs.
Then one night, when it came time to shut Elliot in his crate, with a last treat of the day for being a good dog, I found I could not do it. I found I cared not at all for the carpet upstairs, or for the maybe-bad things that might happen if the dogs started to think my bed was theirs. I opened up the gate at the top of the stairs, closed the toilet lid, and welcomed the beasties. A moonlight festival! No one slept especially well at first, because everything was so exciting, and because both dogs are total blanket-hogs. Then we settled down into a pattern: Chloe and Elliot on the left side of the bed, me on the right. Timothy reserves the right to dog-free carpet in his spaces, and that is fine.
By moonlight, certain forms of logic and separation simply lose their power. Oh, well. That was an OK idea, but look around… The trees are dancing their leafshadows silver on the quiet street. The metal roofs beam beacons back to the sky. What could be here, could be there also.
Maybe what is so activating about full moon light is the way it bridges night and day. I remember the summer solstice full moon, twenty-six years ago, when my friends and I walked late into the night, westwards towards Santiago de Compostela. We had been walking for so long that it was as easy as breathing, and the wide, flat path across fields called us on and on, dark shadows following, gleaming earth ahead.
In the morning there would be blisters, still, and a strange combination of tuna, peaches in syrup, and old bread for breakfast. But that would be then. Then, we would split up, as I obeyed some compulsion to follow my family's grief, my friend wound up in the hospital, and only one of us walked of her own volition to the gates of the cathedral. Meanwhile, now, we were strong, and the moon reminded us of all the spaces in-between the events we tend to fixate on.
Now, now, sitting in what is definitely early Fall, my toes are frozen in my sandals, the moon and earth are rolling on, towards another full moon, and another empty one. Last night, in the bath, celebrating the end of yet another round of coursework, I felt a part of me that dreads winter moan up inside me. Just as quickly, the one who’s known winters, moons come and gone, summers begun and ended, smiled. Let it all come, and go, and come again. In the space between earth, moon, and sun, there is room for everything, unobstructed. In the space between bones, moods, dogs’ bodies and mine, there is room for every state, suffering, healing, beginning and end, without end.
This is how I keep the moon-days now. Before, a nun, it was head-shaving day, sauna day, quiet day. Now it's pack day, writing day, knowing day, the rhythm of footfalls and breaths in this aging, knowing, loving body-mind, sharp as a crescent moon’s horns, round as a full moon’s belly.
Really, this is an essay everyone writes, and writes again. Last week, after I had finished yet another round of Chen style tai chi in the junkie park outside the Manchester library, a man stopped me to say, not in any weird way, that he'd seen me week after week, and he thought it was amazing. He told me he, too, spends time sending energy back down into the earth, where it belongs. Yes, I said, we all know how to do it – it’s just a question of whether and how we choose to follow through, taking care of our shared world. You watch, he said, sometime I’ll come join you. Of course, I said, and we’ll dance as dragons together. This wasn’t just some nicey-nicing, I could see from the movement of his weathered hands that he does know how to move energy. Some grounded, wise presence shone out from his long-secret hobo being.
So it is. This morning Chloe came to meditate with me, laying her nose on my calf. Benefactor practice, this way, is quite direct. All the beings who’ve led to Chloe. All the beings who’ve led to me. All those we’ll in turn love and support, feed and keep safe, tangle with and re-shape. This web, this endless series of meetings and transmutings, always under the changing moon.
Oh, asshat! Such a rude, satisfying word, no matter how you look at it. You are wearing the ass of some other creature, qua hat, à la Davy Crockett. You are so backwards, you are wearing your own ass as hat. The simple pleasure of a small, creative detour from asshole, to something even more phonetically satisfying. In any case, “asshat” is what Larissa pulled out of the magic box of prompts this morning (in my handwriting, I will readily admit), and so asshat is my lodestone.
I remember a Gary Larson The Far Side cartoon in which a guy walks into a raccoon bar, where all the patrons (big raccoons, surprise!) are wearing human buttocks-hats. It’s a classic, and it also seems to sum up the teachings of karma pretty nicely. Any reality in which you are walking around, thinking, Oh, what’s the harm in shooting a few of those garbage-eaters, and borrowing their fluffy tails for my personal glorification and ear-warmth? is simultaneously evolving a parallel universe in which you will walk into the Raccoon Bar one cold afternoon, and think, Shit. Can’t a person grab a beer without the sins of the whole universe coming to visit?
This morning, harried, hurried, I literally surrender my ass to Facebook, click on the ad for Fancy Mouse Underpantses, and speed-order three pair of supposedly sustainable bamboo fiber not-thongs. What tells me these were produced by anyone other than orphans confined in some flammable, rickety factory somewhere in South Asia? Nothing at all! I didn't even click on the link about Why Sustainable Fibers Matter. My ass is in a hurry for some new hats, and so, voilà! $41.35 later, my perception is: problem solved. Meanwhile, reality may be setting me up for a date, sometime soon, with an underpants factory in Bangladesh.
To be clear, this is not because the universe has it in for me, or for any of us. It’s more like this: we are the ones who get to walk around embodied, actually doing stuff, and so the universe would strongly prefer that we get our acts together, sooner rather than later. My fleeting perception that the holes and near-holes in my ancient Target underwear present a problem uniquely well-suited to being solved via Facebook-ad represents a lapse in the deeper awareness that knows, Nothing is missing right now. Nothing is out of place. $41.35 to the Nature Conservancy, to humanitarian relief, or the ACLU, might be a better way of activating resources.
I don’t mean to excuse myself, but it’s worth noticing all the asshat-conducive pressures operating in our lives: the urgent voices insisting YOU NEED THIS. LIFE WITHOUT THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. YOU ARE RUNNING A GRAVE RISK BY NOT SMITING THIS RIGHT BACK INTO THE CAVE IT CRAWLED OUT OF. We’re very good at producing and perpetuating such messages for one another, in part because we depend on them for our livelihoods, and also because it would be so lonely to be left the only asshat in town. It’s easy to see how my underwear-story is stupid, and maybe harder to acknowledge other stupidities, such as the compulsions that underlie what we call careers, political activism, spiritual life, and education. In all these areas, there is goodness to be had, and the asshat part is what gets caught up to the point of rigid, defensive identification.
I spent some time on an hourlong group supervision call this morning, which included a fellow-student whose identification with the we of her internship clinical staff felt more deeply problematic with each passing minute. This well-meaning, expert we handles an array of defective they – parents, clients – whose ignorance prevents them from receiving the benefits of what we are offering. I know how easy it is to enter into this state of mind, and I also know how much relief there is to be gained in stepping out of it. No thank you, Raccoon Bar, not this time.
Back-to-school is showing up strongly in my counseling internship right now, in the form of fear and loathing among my middle- and high-school clients. They have correctly intuited that there is some asshattery going on in the educational-industrial complex, but they don’t know yet what to do about it. I had this whole Thing planned out for one young client who is dreading the end of the summer, and then she just didn’t want to do it. Like, not one bit: literally crossing her eyes with theatrical boredom. I decided to go ahead and do a pre-emptive Raccoon Bar switch, inviting my client to take on the therapist role, while I entered earnestly into being the client. She picked a Magic Animal card at random for me to embody – Wonder – and I gave her my seat and clipboard, and a few prompts for how the intervention unfolds. She did a tremendous job, obviously relishing the chance to drive the bus. And I, in the client role, found space to talk about how I sometimes struggle, as a therapist, to share my sense of wonder with clients.
Afterwards, when I asked my young friend whether she might be willing, now, to try the intervention as client, she readily agreed, taking on the role of Protect. She found a kind of boisterous, playful, boundary-setting energy that I hope comes back to visit her often in middle-school world.
That's the thing – none of our asshattery is unworkable, and none of it is wasted, as long as we are willing to attend to it. My friend George has (or had) a bright pink shirt that says I CAME TO DANCE. It's totally the best, especially on him, and it brings up the question, what does that mean for each one of us? Do we expect some sort of decorous waltz, where no one interrupts, only the right people are present, and there’s tight security at the door? If so, then the Raccoon Bar awaits us as surely as night follows day. If, on the other hand, we are attuned to something more like a mutant mosh-pit/contradance, where literally anything might be our next partner, and we need to be equally prepared for a smoochy Lionel Richie slowdance, or a wild tarantella with the angriest hyena in the universe, then we are probably in good shape. For me, I CAME TO DANCE encompasses not really feeling like getting out of bed this morning, taking a shower anyway, holding the gate open for Chloe-the-dog as she prepares to trundle down the stairs, remaining curious about what kind of good might still come out of this Trumpish era, and allowing for the fact that I will doubtless be joining all of you for a pint at the Raccoon Bar, sometime soon.
Here is what I dreamed two nights ago:
A friend and I are by-standing outside the glass and polished wood doors of a fancy white-people church, watching people stream in for morning services. Along comes a group that includes a blonde woman in her thirties, her husband, his siblings and their mates, and her parents-in-law. The woman’s hair and makeup are perfectly done. And yet, all that she is wearing is a set of pearls and a pair of shiny, skin-tight, completely transparent pedal-pushers, with lace cuffs at the calves. I can see her butt, squeezed and varnished by this absurd garment. Of all the people entering the church, she is the only one who turns back to look at me, noticing that I have seen her. I feel her self-aware eyes and embarrassed, constrained body-language. I turn to my friend and say, did you SEE that? But I am ashamed. The woman is sentient in her predicament, and rather than gossiping about her, I know I ought to reach out to her. The inner doors of the church close for the beginning of the service. I look through a strip of glass, and a big, thuggish man glides up to confront me from the other side, as though being slid into place on a dolly. He has a shaved head, a thick body, small eyes, and a fixed expression of hate and contempt. Is he real? Not really, but I feel fear in the pit of my stomach, nevertheless. End.
When I was a kid, growing up in Atlanta in the 1980’s, rich, white Protestant Christian male supremacy wasn’t something anyone needed to spell out: it was just the way things worked. If you were a vaguely Catholic, nerdy white immigrant girl like me, you knew in your own heart of darkness where in the official social hierarchy that put you. You were not as important as the white boys, or the white girls from good families, but you were more important than most of the Asian, Latino, or Black girls. Where you ranked in relation to boys of color was a confusing tossup, the upshot of which was: stay away from them.
This social schema fit right in with the way the academics were organized at the prep school I attended from sixth grade through high school graduation. You had your smart-smart classes (I mostly lived here); your smart-dumb classes (I lived here for math); your dumb-smart classes (no idea how these went, except that they dissected cats, and AP Bio didn’t, thank God); and your dumb-dumb classes (which is where I would have lived for PE, except that, since physical prowess mattered less than intellectual accomplishment, the most kinetically gifted kids were lumped in with the most physically dissociated, like me).
If you were a person in my position, you could consciously align yourself with the white boys, in a bid for secondhand access to their privileges. Or you could simply fall in love with one of them, and find out the hard way that they, as persons, mattered more than you did. Their freedoms and stories were never intended to be yours. You could be a nice girl, and support the white boys in their accomplishments, cheering their sports games, their grunge bands, or both. Or you could be a not-nice girl, and rebel. In this case, you would not be chosen for awards and positions of leadership. You would disappear from official view, except for insistent reprimands. If anything bad happened to you, it was certainly your fault. You were no one’s.
Really, this landscape offered no refuge for the human heart. Personal connections – especially those that broke with officially accepted categories – were subjected to intense pressures. You could love someone, and have a private space of understanding together, but then that space would smash up against the rigid contours of The Way Things Are.
Ten years after high school, when I returned to Atlanta after living in Hong Kong and in England, my first post-monastic relationship was with a fellow art student, a beautiful Black man who chose the name John Blue Sky. Going out in public together was inevitable performance: people could not resist either telling us how great they thought we were, or conversely, giving us the major side-eye. Intimate space proved difficult, too. My lover wanted to assert his manhood over me, and – though I loved the contact of our bodies – I found his need for dominance repulsive. I moved house and didn’t tell him where I was. We broke up hurt and bewildered, unable to establish a safe haven of shared space.
My dream says, Wherever there is ornamental submissiveness, there is blunt domination. Wherever there is rubbernecking, compassion in action fails. Wherever prayer is done behind closed doors, wherever boundaries between holy and not-holy spaces are drawn, we set ourselves infinitely apart from one another.
Judging by the contents of my FB feed, right now many well-meaning people think that an orgy of liberal-white self-blame is helpful. Compared with nuanced self-inventory and vigorous shadow-eating, I think this strategy is pretty useless. Blame teaches nothing about finding courage to raise one’s voice, and to risk one’s hands, reaching out beyond fear and false categories. Self-loathing is poor practice for learning to stand up for what is right.
At the moment, I’m feeling drawn to learn how to fight. Tai chi practice has been life-changing, and now I want to enter the path of sparring and moving energy with a partner. A few days ago, in the last blue light of an August evening, my friend’s little son shared his karate kata, with two three-pronged knives, and I thought, I want that. I want to keep moving towards what is difficult, with curiosity and humor, and if martial arts can help me do that, then, sign me up.
Let’s say that White Crow energy is knowingly hiding facts, in order to consolidate your blamelessness. When I was younger, I was very interested in others' hypocrisy, which I didn't see in the same light as my own adolescent sneaking around. I liked sniffing out the darkness in stuffy situations, getting underneath the tablecloth and looking around in the half-light, on my hands and knees among the crumbs and stray napkins, looking up at the old gum, crusty boogers, and stray words on the banquet’s prickly underside. I wanted to undo the authority of anyone I felt was claiming power over me – especially moral power. Ha! I would say. You fuckers are just writing pulp novels about bear-rape behind closed doors. You are just snaking your feet under the bathroom stall, fishing for airport sex when you’re not busy extolling Family Values in public. It was a necessary step for surviving early adulthood in the religious and social South.
Luckily, I moved on. I understood, somehow, that when hypocrisy-hunting drops its outward focus, and comes home, it brings with it fierce defensiveness and/or self-loathing. What about you, pal? In order to remain a White Crow Hunter for very long, you need always-escalating demonstrations of the sins of others, to deflect your gorgon’s gaze from yourself. Thus, tabloids, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and much more.
White Raven energy works differently, because it’s grounded in compassion and fellow-feeling. Instead of snarking and separating, White Raven weaves black and white home together again in a new form that isn’t grey, isn’t black, isn’t white, isn’t fooled by duality, and doesn’t lapse into nonsense-oneness, either.
In my dream last night, I looked up from the street of a Swiss-German village, and saw my mother-in-law brandishing a bread she'd just baked. She was absolutely ecstatic, wanting to show me, wanting to celebrate, wanting to take her creation out into the world. No ordinary bread: a dark brown snake, intertwined with a golden snake, together forming a kind of irregular, wriggly fougasse. She left the thick-timbered walls, geraniums, and mullioned windows of the house behind her, and came running out into the street with her snake-bread, ready for whatever adventure was going to happen next. White Raven as nourishing union.
Sitting in meditation this morning, I return to the dream, bringing it into my body. Here is a white-golden snake with his head above my left shoulder, a black-blue snake with her head above my right shoulder. Weave them down, crossing at the throat, crossing at the heart, at the solar plexus, below the navel, tails out the sitting-bones. Hard to stay focused – they are snakes, alive, writhing. They are not interested in behaving themselves demurely, like the frozen caduceus on an emergency bracelet.
I need to bake this bread.
I need to make this drawing.
I need to find dark flour, to roll the snakes out in my kitchen, to oil the coils while they rise, and to seed them – flax and sesame.
I need to eat this bread.
I need to be out in the world with it, and to share it.
Robert Bosnak's embodied imagination work, which I am practicing right now, proposes that dream-images are embodied imagination-states. Each figure or character in a dream addresses a different set of possibilities for the body-mind. I experience my dream mother-in-law as expansive joy in the heart, and an open gesture in the arms. The snake-bread, I experience as an intertwining of energies: right and left, dark and light, not symmetrical, but writhing and changing.
The dream begins with a network of old, dull-red trains, pulling themselves into the village, grinding themselves to a stop. The trains are full of coal, or shadowy men, or both. They are incredibly heavy, weighted to the earth. They are the circulation of the body of the town, opaque, powerful, metal and earth. In the body, I experience them as ground, roots, earth, stability in the legs and seat.
In the dream train-station is a corner alcove, containing a tower-shaped white marble instrument that flutes all by itself. No coins needed, no visible mechanism, no musician – it simply allows air to pass through, and makes sound. If I listen in, the music is high and sweet – not annoying, as I first take it to be. It pours forth, whether anyone listens, or not. The windows in the tower may or may not be finger-stops for different notes, but there are no fingers. The top of the tower tapers to where a mouth could blow, but there is no mouth. This tower-flute, in the body, I feel as a clear channel from root to spine, and as a fluttering in the fingers.
Here, then, is an embodied dream-prescription, a White Raven soupe-du-jour recipe, for body-heart-mind and soul:
Take the deep ground and power of the train, in the lower body,
the joy in the heart and the outward motion with the arms,
the snake-paths bringing together left and right, light and dark, in living patterns of energy throughout the body, especially the belly,
the whole-spine clarity of the flute that makes music without any visible cause,
the fluttering in the fingers.
…and hold these together in the body for as long as possible, as often as possible.
White Raven will be there.
Bringing White Raven energy home in the body requires both real work, and deep relaxation. Relax does not mean fall asleep comfortably in your chair, and hope for the best. Work does not mean stiffen in your chair, solving the world’s problems as your own. In fact – what are you doing in that chair? There’s dark flour to be kneaded. There’s drawing to be done. There are tears to be wept, dogs to be combed, dreams to be dreamed, unruly snakes to be followed, coaxed, harnessed, and set free.
Elliot freaks out, goes beyond what his dog-mind can tolerate (the mailman! the horror!) and goes medieval on Chloe. She fends off his freaky ass, and one minute later, they’re pals again. White Raven knows: there’s this, and there’s that, but there’s also this-that, always dancing just beyond the categories we think we need, to keep things straight.
Mavis Staples would make a wonderful Weariness Advisor. She's never going to tell you to just chipper up. Instead, she'll point out how what you feel in your bones is essentially what countless other bones are feeling, right now. Mavis Staples will remind you that her mother, and grandmother, and all her ancestors somehow made it through, and not because their lives were any easier than yours. Mavis, I think, will not get into some pissing-match of weariness. She will look at you, suss out how much weh-weh, and how much pain, and mirror back what she sees, laughing in a deep, husky voice.
Here's something I am weary of: casual bashing of white feminists. Really, friends? When Trump and the Koch brothers and the rapine of the world are unfurling, your best bet is to reach out and bite other humans who are standing against this? Also, what do you mean, “white feminists”? Me, for example? Because I somehow ought to be wearying myself on your behalf? And why is that? Are you committed to wearying yourself on mine? Is there some kind of unwritten mutual-wearying-contract between us? Because, if so, let’s break it. Let’s stop. I officially renounce you, as a source of weariness for me; and you can officially renounce me, too. Let's just go ahead and make this broader: I renounce all beings, as sources of weariness. I refuse to be wearied by anyone. Feel free to call me a white feminist cis-het witch, if that’s unwearying to you. Just know: I am not going to take the bait. I’d rather be flying ICBMs in my dreams. I’d rather be hunting for Elliot in the woods. I’d rather meet whatever I meet, without labels.
Trump has set up weariness-centrifuges in warehouses deep under the White House and the Golf White House, to spin disgust and contention into power. You don't believe me? How else do you explain the fact that he is still in office, and hardly anyone laughs in his face? Weariness is not a force for change. It is the power of resignation. Oh, well. I guess that’s just the way it is. White feminists and Republicans are idiots, and there’s just isolated, radical me out here, carrying the banner of truth. Purge that. Remember: we are all making this up together, and no one knows how it will turn out.
You think calling me a slippery theory-word is going to undo the harm you’ve accumulated from other people calling you slippery hate-words? You think mocking my "allyship" is going to yield better results than staying open to what’s available to you? I think it's completely infantile, and it won't work. You’re looking for ways not to connect. You’re looking to protect yourself from taking responsibility for what you feel, hoping never to get hurt again. Making me say/think/do what do you think is right will only make us wearier in the long run, Friend.
Tell me what hurts.
Tell me what makes no sense.
Tell me who you are as a person, not as a label.
And I will do the same.
My Dad has a running refrain: the Democrats need to come up with something believable to say, or else we’re in for a thousand more years of trumpitude. Part of me bristles: the Republicans need to stop suckling at Satan's teats, or else we're in for a thousand more years of much worse. Radical responsibility, though, says he’s right. Standing for we are nice to everyone isn’t the same thing as having a coherent vision for this country. Where's the warrior side of the left? Where’s the willingness to say uncomfortable truths, and to scrape back to a sound foundation? Obamacare is nonsense. Necessary nonsense, granted, but not a sustainable solution. Someone needs to say: medicine is not business. Insurance is a nonsense model of paying for non-care. All of us need to agree on some guidelines about treatment, non-treatment, and what's reasonable to expect from the world and its resources. If it's left to the Republicans to be the only voice of restraint in health-care spending, the Democrats lose the opportunity to lead real conversations about life and death. I am weary of the party of the Good Breast, rainbow-bright, supportive us, vs. evil, selfish them.
Weariness makes it impossible to think straight. Someone says something, and you don't have the bandwidth to tease it apart into visible strands. So, you mean you're not a cis-het white feminist? What swamp bubbles up through that question? Which losses are you attempting to transfer from your own set of distortions, to mine? What’s that smell?
There's this argument: You have the luxury to live as though labels don't apply to you. I get it. Many times, reading, say, Tolstoy (or some much less accomplished white male), I get a gross whiff of My Experience Is Universal, Let Me Explain. It's a stinky stink, for sure. But that’s not all Tolstoy’s got to say. Alongside his overreaching voice, he’s capable of fine observations of how individual humans behave. This is so for all of us. Parts of us speak truthfully, from embodied experience, from a particular moment, from a vulnerable heart. Other, more tyrannical, universalizing parts, claim to speak to and for categories: All Black Men, All White Feminists. These statements can sometimes be temporarily useful, as a means of distancing ourselves from the burning quality of experience, but they become a direct path to weariness, if clung to for any length of time. All dogs. All old people. All mountains. The living particulars disappear behind a fog of theory and bias.
Law deals in categories, as it probably must. But the application of law should include awareness of what is happening right now. Am I acting from my human-parts, or my tyrant-parts? Am I allowing myself to see this person or situation as uniquely arising, as well as arising from systemic causes and conditions?
Thinking about all of this makes me weary. Our country makes me weary, if I let it. Trump’s weariness-centrifuges spin up dark energy of powerlessness and resentment, violence and poverty, into a reservoir connected to his bottomless thirst for being hated. This can go on for a long time, especially if his opponents refuse ever to acknowledge their own dark sides. I am a blameless victim! I am a virtuous rescuer! I am looking for someone to wrong me, and there you are.
Weariness means you stop looking for the particularity of each moment. You generalize. You fall back into patterns, and the whole thing just slips on by. Weariness is a bitter laugh-track, a wonder-proof blanket, a stinky shirt that never quite washes free of yesterday’s wearing, and a back-bending ditch in the place where you go to sleep.
Wrong envelope. Wrong clock, wrong interpretive frame. Wrongety wrong wrong. It's actually a wonderful word to say – and even better as a Mandarin syllable. Ni rong bu rong? Can you deal with it, or not? There's a retroflex French-Russian twist to this Chinese sound, and to this sentiment.
I’ve been reading up on dreamwork, of late, and it’s been bringing up some feelings about the nature of the wrong envelope. This Western Buddhist dude whose book I’ve been reading is a perfect example of Team It’s All An Illusion. He talks about removing the superficial mind, rejecting superficial dreams, and seeing through to the Clear Light. This thing's been working him for decades, making him call his dog “it,” when he knows better; making him unable to deal with meeting the eye of the camera recording his Deep Teachings on dreams. It’s painful. Painful, any way. I know what I choose is the way of no wrong envelope, nothing to remove, no place to look that isn’t holy. Oh, and, respectful pronouns for all sentient beings, up to and including “they,” for our gender-fluid furry pals.
Here’s how it is. You open a jar of natural peanut butter that's been sitting in your basement for months. The oil and the nut-stuff don't really want to mix. It's easier to keep them separate, but then, what have you got? Oil that won't sit on toast, followed by dry nut-stuff that gives you the hiccups, guaranteed. So you grab a silver-handled knife with a steel blade, which you stab into the jar a bunch of times, to prime the mixing. And then, patiently, like nothing else matters in that moment (which, it doesn't), you start stirring, careful to keep all the oil in the jar, and to reach all the dried patches deep inside. You mix the above and the below, and in so doing you wind up with something marvelous: sticky, firm, fluid, delicious. You bring the opposites together, and you dedicate yourself to doing this process over, and over, and over, like breathing, sleeping, waking, dying, and being born again. You accept that being alive is a process of enlivening matter, and enmattering spirit. You quit weh-weh wishing for unicorns and rainbows everywhere. Unicorns and rainbows insofar as they naturally occur: Super! All about that! But you don’t waste time dismissing perfectly good shitpiles, and you don’t call your dog (or anyone else’s) “it.” You wipe the knife-blade with your fingers, and share the results with the dogs: Chronic Interspecies Sticky-Snout Syndrome.
Buddhist Dream Man lives in a world of yearning only to interact with Awakened Beings in ethereal, noncorporeal, deathless ways. He wants very much not to see All the Other Crap: noisy lawnmowers, anxiety dreams, community cafés turned into snooty restaurants, rescue dogs with obdurately wild edges. He wants to avoid the taint of the wrong envelope altogether. I know I'm harshing on this guy, but I believe that his biases are a source of real, unnecessary, and widespread suffering. My dancing friend takes the awesome Finger-Gun Mudra that I learned from a client last week, points it in at his own belly, and pulls the triggers. “I’m killing my ego,” he says proudly. Really, Friend? And what will happen then? You think you’ll be well-equipped for this world if you succeed in cutting off your personality? I think you’ll just slide off toast. I think you’ll give everyone the hiccups, yourself included.
Who says personality is the wrong envelope? Lots of people, actually, but I think they're not giving the ground of being credit for it for its full reach and range of fabulousness. Are hands wrong? Noses? Knees? Why, then, personalities? Can't it better be said that the work we have to do is a process of integration? I look with serious skepticism at any tradition that requires me to remove a body part in order to succeed within it. (Luckily, it turns out the original Amazons didn’t lop off their breasts.) I feel just the same about lopping off a psychic part. I will stir the oil and the solids together. I will refuse to abandon any level of being, or any of my dreams, even the squirreliest-seeming ones.
Yesterday I dreamed I was telling an old kitchen-boss of mine all about a favorite dessert of my childhood. I had just walked into her kitchen, where she was slicing a large, flat, round bread at its equator. I asked her if it was a Tarte Tropézienne, and she said no, but I told her all about it anyway: the soft brioche, the silky, fluffy orange-flower cream in the middle, the pellet-sugar sprinkled onto the egg-wash before baking. In the morning, this is the only dream I could remember. It seemed kind of pointless, but I wrote it down anyway: no wrong envelope.
Then, moseying around Facebook, a post from my writing friend Ann caught my eye – Anne Dufourmantelle, the French philosopher and psychoanalyst, had just died, trying to rescue some children. I clicked through. It turned out that she had drowned just around the corner from Saint Tropez, off the coast of the Plage de Pampelonne, where my family used to boat on windless days. (The currents there could be very strong, so you had to choose carefully when you went.) Apparently, she had seen the warning flag on the beach go from orange to red, and instead of heading straight for shore, she had tried to reach some children whom she had spotted nearby, to bring them to safety. She drowned, and they didn’t.
I'm guessing it was mistral weather – the fierce wind that blows dark, freezing water up from the deep, and pulls everything in that part of the Mediterranean out "au large" – into the greatness of the sea, and away from shore. She took a risk – just the kind of courageous behavior she espoused in her writing – and she was pulled out into mystery.
Mixing matter and spirit brings us into the neighborhood of death, again and again, until the balance becomes more than matter can integrate. This is true whether we choose to be aware of our frequent contacts with death-energy, whether choose to accept our predicament, whether we choose to live lives of integration, or not. The De La Soul line You are living in a full-time era comes to visit from the deep. Exactly. Living in a full-time era means responding to every aspect of life as though nothing is beneath notice and attention. It means living as though there were no such thing as the wrong envelope.
Eating your shadow for breakfast is nowhere near as weird as it sounds. This morning, it looked like this: I had a dream about being at a workshop or conference where breakfast was being served family-style. Servers would appear with big oval platters covered in triangular, open-face bean-quesadilla things, and place them in the middle of round tables. Then, people would lunge for them from the various sides of the tables, plus hungry onlookers who wanted some of what they hadn’t got. In this situation, the faculty/presenters/teachers were being offered slightly tastier food than the students. They got goat cheese chunks and white cannellini beans, while the students got American cheese and refried beans. Anyway, some of the more enterprising students were like, Fuck that shit, and so the faculty tables were pretty crowded and jostly. In the dream, I felt, Ugh! What a stupid scrum! Get me out of here. Give me some peace.
I wrote the dream down as I ran the bath.
Then, in the half-lit bath, sort of spontaneously, the thought came, I don't have to think of it that way. The scrum is only a scrum if I am trying to get something for me – if I'm a grumpy teacher, a striving student, or a numbed-out anybody. But if I'm a server, things can more interesting. I can make a point of bringing food where it’s needed. I can find a corner in the kitchen and have breakfast, so that I’m able to go back in to the dining room resourced and connected. I can eat my shadow of world-fleeing, and come into a whole new space of surrender, play, and service. All of this is possible. I felt the anxious quality of the dream dissolve, as the warmth of the bathwater cradled my body and soaked into my scalp.
Eating the shadow of world-fearing and eating the shadow of world-sticking may seem like different projects, but they're closely related. With world-aversion, there's mother-fear, body-fear, and pleasure-fear. No! I do not want to be embodied. I will operate as though my mind, my spirit, my Deathless Me were some kind of unearthly visitor to this unfortunate realm. I will be, essentially, David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. My shadow will be in refusing to incarnate fully. I’ll keep a distance between me and everything, a slick, transcendent coating that claims all experiences of peace as victories for its savvy plan of control and non-committal.
I will say things like, “All experience is an illusion.” People will feel a little put off and confused, but because it sounds wise, and I’m wearing this awesome spiritual outfit, they will nod. Actually, a more correct answer would be, “Oh, honey, get over yourself, and come give me a big kiss!” Mostly that’s unlikely to happen, because David Bowie and the Blessed Virgin Mary bring up such a queasy feeling in the pit of people’s stomachs.
The shadow of world-fearing is fear of death. I won't allow myself to be a being that is subject to illness, old age, loss, and death. So I’ll identify with a deathless self, and in so doing, I’ll lose the opportunity to live fully.
The shadow of world-sticking is also a fear of death, but it shows up through a different door. In this case, there's a refusal to think at all about death, loss, illness, or old age, and so anything that arises in felt experience as a reminder of these things is pushed down. Don’t look at the severed lizard head at the foot of that hibiscus bush – look at the hibiscus blossom floating in your mai tai. Look to delight, and more delight. Flee your endings, into the arms of new beginnings. Eating the shadow of world-sticking looks like agreeing to feel the endings of things, and acknowledging the deathly in the beautiful. It means letting yourself off the hook of constantly engineering peak experience.
There is a Shadow Diner, where you can order the Incarnation Special, or the Renunciation Special, depending on what you need that morning. Actually, scratch that: the waitstaff take your pulse, listen to your dreams from the night before, and then bring you exactly what you need. Could be a little of each. Could be, that morning, you’re feeling shaky enough that you just need a metaphor-free meal. A croissant. An egg. Some sweet tea (just enough), and a warm hand on your shoulder.
At the end of the four-day trauma training I just completed, my new friend put his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You’re so loved, kid! You’re going to be just fine.” It was extravagantly kind, exactly the right thing for the Shadow Diner to send my way at that moment of groundless ending. Around me, the room dissolved, which is to say, our improvised healing community disbanded. Plans here, there, cards here, there, shadows, and light. I focused on pulling together my little box of leftover Turkish food, my pen, my shoes, my goodbyes, my signatures on the sign-in sheets, and an exit.
The sky was shadowy with storm.
I felt emptied, ill, deathly.
I went home.
Deadheaded the roses on the front of the house.
Made a drawing of souls, ground, and sky.
Went to bed, and slept as the first rain fell.
Sometimes eating your shadow feels like, Aha! And sometimes it feels like agreeing to be ill, empty, and sad. I didn’t make myself cheer up. I didn’t make myself attend to five days’ worth of emails. I went to bed, and lay down.
Have you ever had the experience of casting two shadows in daylight? I was walking back-and-forth in front of the retreat center where I often go, splashing my bare feet in a delightfully piss-warm puddle, when something alerted me to the weird. Something at the edge of consciousness. My shadow, and… my other shadow. I slowed down the walking to detect where this arose – the limit between what I knew and what was. There. Diagonally opposite, another shadow. But still only one sun, so… Stay with it. The windows on the house, bouncing back the morning sun. The next minute, the light rose to a new angle, eating my temporary second shadow.
Eating your shadow happens in layers. You can’t do too much of it at one time, or you’ll get sick. Also, you can’t set out to eat only shadow, though it will find you when you need it. Have a mango. Have a croissant. Look into them, and there is shadow, too.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now