Tenderhearted sadness – can we outsource that to elves from Cuba, like the job my printer just refused to do? Could we ask a set of albino triplets floating face-up in some weird Police Department tank of amniotic fluid to just take care of it? How about Jesus, with his Prince-y eyes? Could he be the man to take on the task?
Me? Who, me? Do you want me to feel the tenderhearted sadness? Oh, I'm sorry, but that simply won't be even a little bit possible until I've met this big deadline I’m working under, and then I'm afraid we're looking at after first-quarter reports are in. Actually, you might want to take that request over to the nonprofit down the street. They’re used to doing shitty jobs for no money, so it could be a good fit.
Tender-hearted sadness is the death of the cocktail party, the tiny, tiny print that never makes it into the holiday letter, the parents missing from the card that gets sent out with the child smiling alone. It’s the pudgy kid at the door, letting you go first, because he’s kind, and you’re bustling along full of projects and distractions. Tenderhearted sadness knows pretty much no one’s going to stop and ask, but still, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Projecting cheerful confidence squashes tenderhearted sadness.
Shooting rays of ruby red rage chases it away.
Depression coats it in thick layers of fudge frosting, crude oil, or foundation make up, till it can’t breathe.
Oh tenderhearted sadness! You are the catch in the in-breath, a crochet hook grazing the bare muscles pumping blood and life. You're a toothbrush scraping off the don't-give-a-fuck, keeping the rot at bay. Heart-rot is a real thing, and tenderhearted sadness eradicates it.
For whom? For my own sweet pup, who comes to lick my nose in the morning, all freckles and hyena-breath? Sure. But also: for every dog, cat, mouse, and bunny compressed into some wire cubicle, oozing shampoo-wounds or cancer-cells for every minute of his or her short, miserable life. For the dairy cows chained in barns all winter long. For all of us humans, deciding that our health, our enjoyment, our shiny, shiny hair is worth these miseries. Tenderhearted sadness clears the surfaces of the heart for change and action, but also sees the inextricability of the patterns that we all help set.
I reach for my heart-brush, heart-scrubber, heart-router, heart-fucking-jackhammer. No, no, no! I will not settle into the basic urge just to give the world the finger all day long, even though it is fucking 5 degrees, or whatever, and Chloe is whining that supersonic whine that is like having 100,000 mosquitoes directly inside your brain, and if I were actually Bene Gesserit, I would have killed her with my voice already, so it's good I'm not. Instead I say, Oh, Chloe! You're desperate, just in case we never let you run free again, but maybe by now you know us well enough to think shampoo experiments aren't just around the corner? I turn from dog-murdering sci-fi witch, to something human, just by hearing in her voice something that shows up in my own:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
LET ME LET ME LET ME
GET WHAT I WANT THIS TIME
Morrissey! Sometimes you are a genius of tenderhearted sadness.
Being a genius of tenderhearted sadness is part of what it takes to be a good therapist. This Behavioral Health stuff sometimes feels like a Hoover Dam on the basic task of just feeling the fucking feelings, already. When we get very busy Modifying the Behavior to Yield Better Results, I wonder if we are also just going NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH about the underlying hurt? We are building little ice-fishing huts on the frozen lake, pretending July will never come, and sink the whole construct under eely waters. Maybe July comes and we’ve somehow learned to swim, to settle into contact with the water and dolphin around. May it be so. But also maybe, we’ve been so proud of our habit-modifications, sitting there on the frozen surface, that we’ve neglected to ask what will happen when the whole thing unfreezes. In the summer around here, you can see people’s ice-fishing huts sitting around the edges of their vegetable gardens like galvanized outhouses on sled-skids. The wise fisher knows the different states of the heart, and how to navigate them, each in season.
Tenderhearted sadness undermines any kind of posture. I am busy doesn't stand a chance. I am doing a fine job just keels over sideways and goes to sleep. I'll never get it right somehow can't even contain the majesty of failure encompassed by tenderhearted sadness. It wants to, but just when it thinks it’s closing the deal, Sacred Heart rays of beauty and magnitude come bursting through, and the deal is off. Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t want us settling for some crap emo story, listening to that Smith’s album for the twenty-sixth time today. It wants us to get off our duffs and let it guide us into connection with that kid holding the door, that ray of yellow light piercing the forest before setting behind the old-folks home, that impulse to reach out and peel a clementine for the friend who’s always preparing everyone else’s food.
Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t care about whether your plan will end in three people bopping around a gloomy church basement. It wants you to try anyway, to bridge the gaps of isolation that keep us feeling alone and afraid. Tenderhearted sadness would prefer you to be ridiculous in the service of kindness, all day long, rather than careful in the pursuit of being right and looking good. It sends weird gifts in used envelopes across the country, still vaguely wreathed in glue-gun strings. It plays a stupid dance tune, hoping someone else will figure out how to shuffle-hop to it, and feel better.
Tenderhearted sadness is one civilian name of what Buddhists call bodhicitta, the awakened heart dwelling in all sentient beings, flashing forth like lightning from within the night of our misapprehensions about self and other. It's there, shining all along, even when we prefer to be mesmerized by shithole comments and fucked-up missile scares. Tenderhearted sadness is the gateway to recognizing ourselves for what we really are, and to acting skillfully in the world. Sometimes it sounds very much like Fuck it, I’m doing this thing, because no one else will, and it needs done. Sometimes it’s quieter, agreeing to offer refuge to some long-hounded horror that no one’s been willing to tuck into bed.
Always, the heart can come clean.
Always, where there’s sadness, there’s an opening.
Always, whatever’s kept sadness at bay, changes and ends.
Might as well agree to become a harbor.
Might as well scrape the barnacles off that hull with a stiff brush.
Orange is the color of artificial things (TANG), of caution-things (airport workers’ coats), and of full ripeness.
Once, when my friend Chris took me north to Belfast, I wore a scarf that I understood to be Indian sadhu-orange, but which the military took to be Orange-orange. Not a good idea to wrap your head that way, in that time and place. Have you ever been checked out through the sight of an automatic rifle, held by a soldier on top of a tank? Wearing Orange-orange, which I thought of as holy-orange, earned me that experience on the Falls Road that afternoon.
Right now in New Hampshire, we are in one of the usual periods of unusual cold, when it seems nothing could ever be orange again in this frozen-stiff landscape. And yet if I think about it: chanterelles and their lookalikes, jewelweed flowers, autumn maple leaves. Color takes a break right now, gathers itself under snow so cold it falls from pine branches with a metallic clang. In this weather, you have to take care to nourish what’s orange inside yourself, to carry it carefully into the world under layers of wool and down and whatever miracle-stuff keeps my skinny toes warm inside my tall, grey boots. I snorkel out, keeping my heart glowing warm within its sheaths.
The pellet stove burns orange all day, converting wood-dust into warm dogs and hands that can hold pencils without shaking. The fan blows on and on, turning semi-frozen Québecquois rivers into habitable space. Orange is the color of being able to live up here right now without specialized skills. Orange is deep bear fat, the skill of animals storing sunlight under their skins.
Orange: soft, like a mouthful of mango pulp, or a bite of ripe papaya. In warm climates, even fruits that don't look orange from the outside often prove to be so under husks, leathery skin, and spikes. Orange is the syrup of still noontime heat. Orange is daylight carried into night, small sticky suns broken open to slide down your tongue in the dark.
Flames dance on glass. Flames pour forth all night, heating these spaces and bodies. May all beings have their orange in this night. May a tracery of flickering sunlight run parallel to their veins, sparkling limb from limb. May all beings survive this long, cold night.
This time of year, I usually go off on retreat, but not this time. This time, no ottering in frozen fields, for me. I will be seeing clients instead, finishing up coursework, finding other ways of burning bright in the first few days of the year. I have had a lot of retreat in this life, and this year I like the idea of carrying fire forward into the world.
In winter we are like the hidden sparks of last night’s ashes. Nothing meets the eye, but make no mistake. Potent fire-seeds, little dragons hide in that dead powder, ready to flare up, given air and fuel. This is what we can be to one another: catalyst, breath of fire, reviving power and spirit.
Orangeade, Fanta, TANG, Thumsup, Kool-Aid: all the forbidden oranges of my childhood. Cheetos. Box mac and cheese. Cheezits and cheese puffs. Caution-orange. Chemical orange. I imagine alchemical substances that combine sweetness and cheesiness with flame-color. We get high on hot TANG, waiting for the bus to take us out of the Catskills. We crackle with energy, then crash, sleeping on one another’s shoulders for comfort on the long ride south.
Orange-rinds carved by my grandfather's hand into long, spiral ribbons, falling softly to his white dessert plate. My nun friends at breakfast, each preparing an orange in her own, elaborate way: sections, slices, wedges. I quarter the rind, then peel. This is the slowest of all. An orange is an opportunity to re-find the pace of ripening, and its cumulative unfurling. An orange in New Hampshire in the winter is a tropical missionary, embodying its gospel without holding back.
Orange-scented chocolate and chocolate oranges to be eaten in sections both feature among the "medicinal allowables" we eat after noon, in the monastery. We become connoisseurs of the texture and flavor of every known form of chocolate available in England. We are the Antwerp gemologists of sweets, sidling up to the tea tray with experts’ eyes and tongues. We? I do, anyway. I can detect with my starving taste buds what is in peak condition, what has gotten overheated, and what is a bit old and dusty. We have orange juice also: this is a medicine that combines queasily with soymilk, cheese, and chocolate, and which reminds us of warmth and sunlight, when neither seems possible.
Chloe and Elliot are both deep black on the outside, but inside they are bear-fat orange, and the fireworks of their dog-being go off without cease. They bark and spark and gallop, heedless of the cold, chain reactions of soul so perfect no one can explain or fathom their gifts. How to make dogs out of kibble? It is impossible, unless the whole universe – itself an impossibility – conspires to bring forth creatures in its image. I sit on this orange sofa, burning at my core, and recognize in my dogs something that is undeniably true of myself, too. Kibble into dog; ravioli into woman. Surely both are bizarre and miraculous.
Long may we flow through the cold, dark, inert times, into the ripe. Long may we burn forth, and shine.
Is laissez-faire an invitation to exploitation and entropy, or a recognition of the inherent Buddhahood of everything, shining forth unstoppably? Depends on who’s speaking, and what they might imagine is in it for them. Is there a laissez-vivre? A laissez-entendre? Are we interested in the results of our actions all across the board, or only for ourselves and our close tribe?
Timothy and I got into a tiff about tax policy this morning, because I basically didn't want to talk about it, even though I had initiated the conversation. By the time he answered, I was already reading (again) about the local woman whose husband poured lye all over her. It melted her face and eyes, and then she had to have a face transplant. In the end, he died in prison, she forgives him, and I don't care about the details of the tax bill, because my brain is full of pain. I just want to drink my coffee, while allowing the day’s quota of horrors to roll off my back. Laissez-faire. You know.
There is this: how do we consume the pain of the world? Are we seeing real beings in real situations? At the end of the day, I click open a link that takes me to a story about famine in Venezuela. Children and their parents have so little to eat that babies are dying of malnutrition, and women of childbearing age are lined up in hospital beds to be sterilized for free. Yes: awful. Beyond the facts-awful is another, maybe more profound kind of awful. Where are these people’s actual stories? Who are they? In opening up this window, I’ve tapped into a version of these beings that is voiceless, historyless, statistical, and powerless. There is a kind of laissez-faire in this journalism. We go in, we gather facts and pictures of dead babies, and we leave again.
What has transpired? Is anyone helped? Do I know more about human nature, human strength and vulnerability? I know more about some of the more painful births that beings take, and there's a desire to fill a U-Haul full of American excess and head South, but no one’s soul has been given a path to speak to mine, or vice-versa. Why do I keep reading, viewing material that only laissez’s viewing, but opens no real window into faire?
Deep friendship is a funnel for voice, body, and heart. It takes time and courage to keep opening to someone else's stories, and to our own. Stories build on each other, too. I listen deeply, speak deeply from what’s stuck and broken, free and whole, and then recognize these qualities in the further stories that come inevitably in their wake. This is a kind of built wisdom that depends as much on allowing – laissez – as it does on doing – faire. I come back again and again to wanting to feel and to know. You tell me, I tell you. Something real is growing.
By contrast, the children in Venezuela can only tell me that their coffins are small and white, their mothers weigh sixty-six pounds, and one of the ways that small children can die is of heart failure. Sometimes there are wings stuck to the opening through which those who love the recently dead can weep. The image sticks: a winged coffin carried through muddy water by skinny brown children. But the story isn’t really told: the channel for story isn’t open.
This is why I read memoir. Memoir is by definition an open channel for story, a way of training the heart in telling and receiving story. I am not saying, Let me click this one link and consume the statistics and particulars of your horror. Instead I say, I have hours and hours to drive. Talk to me. Tell me what happened, and what the alternatives are. Tell me what it’s like to be silenced, and to demand to be heard. There is room in me for what you have to tell me. I am ready to adapt my ears to your language. Tell me.
Not all memoir is an open channel for story. Sometimes it is instead a bludgeon – Here Is How Life Should Be Lived. I drop these very quickly. Here Is the Story of My Glory. No thank you. Some books are all faire and no laissez, and I've long passed the time in my life when I long for someone else to tell me which certitudes to adopt.
Great faith, great doubt, great determination – where is the laissez-faire in that? In the last few weeks I've been conducting interviews with students I’m mentoring in a year-long meditation program. Faith, doubt, determination. How much of this process is Me, Doing Things? Well, Me has to agree to meditate daily. Me has to be willing to wrestle with the undoing components of the practice – actually, a kind of défaire – and Me has to be willing to put up with the often sandpapery touch of organized religion. Beyond that is a lot of laissez – allowing practice, intuition, and lived experience to shape us.
My friend Rebecca recently taught me the wonderful word cledon – an oracle arising from a seemingly chance occurrence. That’s a way of laissez-faire: the universe wants me to wake up, is reaching out to me again and again, and I will laissez myself be faired. I will listen, and act accordingly.
I resist the economists who have shaped this beautiful, receptive phrase into code for Fuck the Poor, the Land, the Animals, and Everyone Else. That's not it all what it's meant to be, not if you believe that all beings are profoundly interconnected wisdom-beings. Then, it makes no sense to imagine that society inclines to the good of some, but not all. It makes no sense to allow greed to rampage through the tax code, and violence to rampage through households, public spaces, and foreign policy.
If I and all beings are primordially Buddha, then laissez-faire looks like wide and reverent curiosity for what is trying to show itself through us, moment by moment. A purple mohair coat winks from the trash can. Just exactly the right companions are waving from the back of the room, or from the stage. The soft nose of love pokes out of a burrow in the trail, and instead of startling away, I stay to catch the shape of its snout, and come back later, with toast.
Internal laissez-faire shouldn’t be about abuse and entropy, any more than the external version. I stop letting dirty clothes unseat me from the place I need to sit, to write down my dreams. I stop letting crappy moods tell me they're all that is. I step up to the actual contents of my dreams: squirrelly and lyrical, vast and petty. I laissez the course of dream inform the faire of waking life.
Strong back, soft belly. Weak back, armored heart. Never leave the house. Never talk to strangers. Never let them see you sweat. Tears are for sissies. Personal armor comes in many forms. What does it take, to feel safe? What assurances do we require from others? What are we willing to put up with, and to what end?
A Facebook ad offers a kind of serrated plastic stabby-ring, with a pink outer layer, intended for women to wear on their fingers while jogging. The ad begins with pictures and stories of two (gorgeous) women who were murdered while out on their daily runs, and cites “these incidents” as the reason why women might be nervous about exercising alone. So, why not buy this affordable, attractive plastic accessory, possibly designed to poke people’s eyes out, though we won’t say that, because it’s gross?
Does personal armor have to be attractive? Does it have to be cheap? What about just walking around like a grumpy warthog all the time? Wouldn’t that in some ways be easier?
Sometimes, people who have suffered awful abuse use extra weight or bulky clothes to build a barrier between themselves and the world. Thick foundation makeup can do the same thing, and glasses, too. When I go to aikido practice, I have to wear my contact lenses, and thus feel doubly vulnerable: a beginner, face stripped of her habitual armor. Dancing’s different. In the safe space of improvisational movement, sometimes I skip both contact lenses and glasses, allowing blurred edges to settle into wholeness and ease.
I've never tried on the kind of body armor that police and military people wear. Is it grounding, like the lead apron at the dentist’s? Does it ease anxiety, like a Temple Grandin people-squeezer; or does it crush you to the earth, the way altitude sickness does? Encased in military-grade personal armor, is it possible to feel touched by another person? Is it possible to feel welcomed by the spaces you enter, and to feel that the spaces you leave might miss you? I will have to ask my friend who is a veteran.
Armor shifts. A story begins: some being walks towards danger unarmed, seemingly unprotected. The story continues towards the miraculous, or towards martyrdom; but really, I'm not sure these are different stories. Some being, unarmored, meets what she meets. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, she is released, exclaiming, Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether gone, hoorah! That is the aspiration, and sometimes the reality. Also sometimes:
I don’t want to die!
I don’t want to deal with this!
I am so tired of this crap.
I’m familiar with a kind of personal armor that looks like: if I just mindfulness hard enough, I won’t fall apart anymore, otherwise known as, if I just squeeze hard enough, I’ll be shitting diamonds in no time. Now I don’t think that’s how it actually works, and my sense is that wanting to patch together some kind of Eightfold Armor is a perversion of the human heart. I haven’t always felt this way. During my monastic jihad phase (why does it feel so risky to write jihad?), I was all about rooting out defilements, and streamlining myself into a form of being so thin and clear that nothing could stick to it. I would become a human Stealth Bomber, orbiting the earth at such a high altitudes that nothing could touch me. Coated in special invisibility paint, I would communicate with the mother-planet only when I needed fuel. That was what part of me wanted.
Then I would wake up, and step in bare feet on the latest mouse-spleen that Sita-the-cat had left on the carpet. I would enjoy working with a friend to shape canned tuna into a monastic buffet Leviathan. I would, inevitably, fall in love again with the world, with some monk, and with the clay sticking to my heavy boots, as I clomped up the hill to my homeless home.
I mindfulnessed pretty fucking hard in those years, having joined the Foreign Legion of mindfulnessing. And still: I would fall apart, and it would be extra-hard, because I had set not-falling-apart, not being touched, as my measure of success. I was supposed to be a Stealth Bomber, a Hopeless Diamond, not some hungry, skinny person trying to hose down a very unhappy cat. I was supposed to watch my mind, to nip delusion in the bud, in hopes of never having to return to this vale of tears.
These days, I can't say that I'm always super-stoked about this vale of tears, this ocean of sorrows, but at least I'm turning towards it with a sense that this a perfectly reasonable place to be, given human birth. Oh! This is anxiety, not some terrible existential mistake. This is doubt. This is longing. This is falling for the nine-hundredth time into the hole labeled My Family Doesn’t Understand Me, which seems to widen noticeably around the holidays, especially during years where I prepare to make the pilgrimage back to the old country.
What if I just called this season The End Times, in honor of the hinge of the year, and the deep dive into darkness that we in the Northern Hemisphere are currently making together? (Thanks, Southern Hemisphere, for holding the torch of daylight, while we go down. We’ll return the favor in June.) That would be a way of dropping the armor of I Am Supposed to Be Enjoying This, and settling into curiosity. I wonder what will happen beyond the end of the world, this time?
I am transforming a little book formerly known as Letter from an Airman to His Mother into a Christmas gift for my mother. It's growing intuitively: a gold nugget, an engraved horse on a black background, jellyfish at night, dusk-colored butterflies, a river-womb. The original text was some young man's exhortation to his mom not to be sorry if the Luftwaffe shot him down. I'm using the bones of his armored book to make anti-armor, a declaration of the unknown, a strange and watery mirror through which the energy of an open heart might pulse. It’s a chance to try something new, to go from posturing into feeling, to be torn apart, and come back transformed. Who knows what this will bring? My gluey fingers touch the pages, sensing their way towards some new, unarmored truth.
The closest I’ve come to a regular date with a laundromat is my relationship with the dusty room under the apartment building on Lafayette Drive that was my last home in Atlanta. There was some trick to fooling its dryer into restarting, which was important, as one cycle was never enough. You would reach into its cavities, tickle a certain spot – and whoosh! The ancient beast would lumber back to life for another round of tumbling, tangling, and scorching. Dust would fly, the ancient lint would with mingle with the new, and out would emerge all the clothing I needed for another week’s Catholic school teaching.
My first year at the school, I never wore any underwear. I had reached some kind of underground agreement with my animal self: You show up and keep growling and biting to a minimum, and I will leave your hindquarters unbound. Deal? Deal. In my defense, at the time I didn't know how to find underpants that weren’t actively oppressive to wear. I was also still close enough to my hard-core monastic minimalism that I squirmed at the idea of buying useless garments. Money was for art supplies. Money was for food, rent, travel, and shows. Underpants, especially the ridiculous thong-things that everybody’s equally ridiculous low-rise jeans were always flashing? I don’t think so. Less to put in my weekly wash in the basement; less to organize in my dresser. So I checked the girls’ uniforms for modesty when I was asked to do so, but always with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. At or below the knee, but secretly: no knickers necessary. The girls wore skorts. Who would have known?
We bought a house. We bought a house, and when we did, I could hardly believe our luck: two massive, chiming machines, gleaming white, side-by-side. The washer shakes the whole house with its spin cycle, as though we are about to take off in a convoy over the mountains. We have two laundry baskets now, and maybe more, because Timothy works in finer gradations than merely clean/not-clean. (He’s a nondual laundricist, which I think is related to being a philosopher.) In short, after many years of suboptimal laundry lives, we are all sorted out. I appreciate this, and yet I’m aware that this is exactly the sort of comfort that keeps people from making revolution in the streets. You become more or less able to pay your bills whenever they arrive, you learn to shop for comfortable underwear (it exists! It’ll cost you, but it’s there), and the hungry wolf gleam in your eyes gets muted by drawers full of clean, well-folded clothes.
That's the thing. When I was still a nun, laundry was an ordeal. First, since you only owned two sets of clothes, and they were white, and you lived in the middle of a mudfield, you had to clean them all the time. Second, “laundry,” meant buckets left soaking in chilly, uncomfortable places. Third, when it was cold, sometimes there was no choice but to set everything to line-dry outdoors, from thence to pluck it, stiff as a board, at whatever point you decided it was “dry.” Sometimes, there was a sort of suspended indoors rack, and that was much better – your clothes actually did dry, and there was something magical about wandering in the warm, close fug of hanging brown and white monastic whatnots, under half-light.
At no point in any of that process could a person forget want, dirt, and cyclical work. Monastic laundry was an exercise in scarcity, precarity, and inconvenience – it kept the wolf-gleam in your eyes. It kept you aware of the labor inherent in being alive, and some of the inconveniences of poverty. It also meant, I think, that we didn’t fear poverty: there we were, in the midst of some version of it, and yet basically OK. Still drinking cups of tea, and wandering winter fields with our souls alive and yearning. Not comfortable, no, but look: so many socks belonging to so many feet. So many muck-buckets of robes going through the self-same cycles as mine.
It's not always easy, when the system is working like magic for you, to remember that it's not working like magic for everyone. In fact, what looks like magic for you most likely looks like malediction for someone else. Remember a few weeks ago, when American Airlines canceled all their flights into Delhi, due to poor air quality? Well – it turns out that India is the American fossil fuels industry’s laundromat. Crunch tar sands into fuel (already a very bad idea), and you’re left with residues so horrible that they’re not even allowed to exist in this country. What to do? Sell it to India of course, so they can burn it while making all the stuff we buy over here. It’s truly ingenious! We have crap we want off our hands. They will pay to launder it for us, and return attractive goods. Hoorah! Magic. Except: the residues in question – called petcoke (which makes them sound like a cross between a virtual animal and something you snort off a mirror) – contain seventeen times the levels of sulfur allowed in coal in this country.
India-as-laundromat-and-magic-goose isn't working out so great for India. Do we ever ask what happens to the dirty air and water, downstream of our new, clean stuff? Once, I was driving through rural Georgia when a horrible sight stopped me. There, off the side of the road, was an open, gushing pool, full of black water. Truly, unnaturally black. Black-black. I pulled into the compound, got out of my car, and asked what this was. Oh, blue jeans, you know? There’s a Wrangler plant just up the road, and this is where we process their dye-baths. I had never thought about this. How do you get clothes dark, and what happens next? The liquid I was looking at would have melted flesh from bone, I felt sure. Everywhere, every pair of jeans requires this. Not magic: pools of poison, kept very far indeed from retail shelves and advertising campaigns.
My friend’s friend wanted to know about meat, and so they slaughtered her duck together. The body of this animal, in their hands. Plucking, gutting, cleaning, cracking bones, cooking, eating. In this way, we know. The other way – I’ll have the duck, please – we don’t. When we launder our experience of grit and consequences, we are left uprooted and anxious. A young man comes to see me, wanting to learn about the roots of his anxiety. Here’s an answer: Your blue jeans. Here are some more: The stuff you buy, that’s made in India. The Bear’s Ears, desecrated and mined. Generations of children with damaged lungs. Endless war.
The young man’s mother wants to know if his anxiety is her fault, and I ask if she knows about the epidemic that’s been sending people to the ER all over the place. Has she been tapping everyone from here to Oakland who shows up to the hospital in the middle of the night, convinced they’re dying? Busy lady. She laughs. Together, we can do the laundry, but it’s going to require getting messy, and we’re going to have to stop outsourcing our dirty work to those who can least afford to do it.
Hyena. O Hyena. No one makes charismatic calendars of you. No one photographs you against the sunlight, with the wind riffling your furs. Your furs are gobbeted with carrion, and as for the sun, well, you’re not in the habit of posing nobly for it. Hyena, you show up to eat whatever’s not moving fast enough to get away, and you don't bother much with whether it’s dead or not-dead. As long as chunks of it will fit between your powerful jaws, well, you're golden. Not golden. No, you're never that. Fed. And that is your gift.
Hyena will eat the faces off sleeping people, and that's obviously horrible, but it's worth pointing out she'll eat the butts off dead wildebeest, too. It's not like Hyena is looking for sleepers to maul. She's a meat-seeking missile, and not very particular about what she finds. You’ll never see Hyena in that episode of Portlandia where the couple asks too many questions about the chicken’s provenance, and wind up living in an abusive farm-cult. Hyena doesn’t care. Is it meat? Can my jaws fit around it? Voila.
Actually, I wonder. Would Hyena care for the chickens horribly immured in Tyson meat-silos? Or would she slink away, horrified by a stench even Hyena can't abide? Stack upon stack of de-beaked, de-clawed, near-immobile birds, shitting on each other's heads while fattening relentlessly on the powdered remains of their ancestors. Hyena turns to the house, looking for something juicier, with sleep apnea.
Lately I've been feeling Hyena energy a lot in myself, as a kind of irresistible pull towards the dark underbelly of things that would prefer to remain all bright face, all the time. I walk in, sniff something hidden, and my jaws tighten. Hyena-nose, knows. Here’s a thing that no one wants to acknowledge. Here's a question that brings the whole endeavor out of its conventional disequilibrium. So, why are we doing things this way? When we say this, don't we really mean that? When you come home, and I want to bite your face, what does that mean?
Carrying Hyena energy to term is exhausting, not least because nobody wants to always be the dark fairy at the feast. Couldn't I just once be a fairy who actually receives an engraved invitation, and has a golden bowl with her name on it waiting at the table? Couldn’t I happily piece together my cashmere fairy-outfit, while humming pleasant spells to myself? Right now, no. Right now, this is not my work.
What I mean by carrying hyena energy to term is not some Rosemary’s Baby kind of scenario at all. Instead, it's a commitment to being with old pain when it wakes up, squalling, and finding out how to feel it without fearing it. I am walking down a logging road in the far North of New Hampshire with Timothy, when it starts up. No one will ever love me. There is no place for me in this world, and my voice cannot be heard. Ah. Hyena starts eating my insides, but I’m not willing to let her have that meal. So, what else could be present? I realize I need to poop. I tell Timothy, There’s some old pain rearing up right now, plus, I need to poop. He stops with Elliot, and Chloe follows me into an old, logged clearing off a side road. Which tree? That one: small, maple, deciduous, off to the side, good for leaning against. Poop! Out comes some hyena, kindly met by frosty ground. Wet leaves make excellent toilet paper, and Chloe is a good woods-pooping mentor. What else? My voice. My voice is strangled from the inside right now. Timothy suggests Here Comes the Sun, which is not on Hyena’s Top 40, but works fine as a warm-up. We come to Slewgundy, a fine, smooth oxbow in the Dead Diamond River. More voicework – sounding, squawking, singing together, voices building as we, sure enough, drink in the sun. Chloe and Elliot dry their river-soaked hyena-furs on the rocky shore.
On the way home, we sing round after round, weaving our voices together in harmony and listening. Did I know that Hyena wanted sentimental Thich Nhat Hahn songs? No, not at all. Would it work again? Definitely not as a formula, but as a general approach, noticing that Hyena is waking up, and attending to her, feels essential.
O Hyena – you are eating away the dead parts of the world, the habits that no longer work, the sad magic of pretending. You are welcome to that work, and if I steer you away sometimes from what is sleeping, but not dead, I thank you for the reminder to wake up.
People have wolf t-shirts and wolf notebooks. Every conservation organization in the US wants me to send back the nickel they’ve hot-glued to their mailing, and Save the Wolf. PETA and the ASPCA share gruesome urgings to end cruelty in dog-world. But nobody ever asked me to protect the Hyena. That’s a mission I’ve had to come to all by myself, a secret commitment that no one’s going to salute via free, personalized holiday greeting cards and mailing labels. So be it.
Day after day, I embroider my white wedding dress, and day after day I wear it for the photographic record I am keeping. The white dress, surprisingly, is my Hyena suit – the one that shows me to myself. Here, naked, in long-johns, in boots, on new snow. Here, shedding all the old agreements not to speak of this, and not to notice that. Timothy has a Hyena suit too, which includes one of the first items of non-white clothing I owned after leaving the monastery. It’s a brown fleece jacket that somehow wound up in a plastic bin full of stinking, rotten potatoes. After that, it was so horrible to be around that he left it out on the front lawn in the snow and mud for a whole winter. In spring, he washed it, and started wearing it again, paired with some tattered fleece pants from a long-ago expedition to Torres del Paine.
The suit becomes a corpse.
The corpse lays out in the open.
Time and water, wind, snow, and rain bleach its bones.
And it comes back.
It comes back.
When experience has been marked by horror and pain, it can take a long time for all that to work its way through. It can take strong jaws to chew your way out, and the willingness to risk being hurt and hurting others. The creature’s not going to be an easy ally: she’s going to snarl and bite and snap, and you’ll need a steady hand at the back of her neck when she’s preparing to lash out. You’ll need to learn to choose what she meets, and when. You’ll need to learn how to open old cages that neither of you really needs, any more.
Distress can be hard to measure, or even to detect. The cost of learning to detect it in others is learning to tolerate it in oneself.
I am hiking in the woods at twilight with the dogs. It's not a trail I know well, and post-storm, the corpses of large downed trees hide the way. Finally, when I get to the low cliff with the knob of cold quartz in it, I call the dogs back to me, and head back down hill. Elliot and Chloe can’t imagine that the trail isn’t plain to me, and so they’re of no use in finding it. Loose, fresh-fallen leaves blanket so many possibilities for what could be a path; and yet, luckily, whoever painted the salmon-orange blazes out here did a thorough job. I keep myself focused on each next passage, each next mark on each next trunk, and put aside the feeling that there’s something here that wants to be lost. So going, we find our way to the bridge just before the road. I keep my distress low, to keep my senses sharp.
Once back in the car I’m filled with a deep sadness that seems to intensify as daylight ebbs away. Quarter to five, in the dark. No wonder people don’t want to feel what they feel, I tell myself. Again, something wants to be lost, but instead, I stay with what I’m feeling. There is no place for me in this world. There is no known way forward. I feel distress, for sure, but also a kind of deep love towards it, which transforms it into a kind of pleasurable, lived intensity.
I notice I want to stop at the store for coconut milk and tea. Am I even allowed to go into the co-op with a tear-stained face? I can feel the distressing old story that I most certainly am not allowed to be seen this way. Then, that distress eases as I think, Really? When I'm sad and want to cup of tea, I should withhold that comfort? I park in an empty section of the lot, so the dogs won't feel the need to defend my Subaru to the death. I wipe my face with my sleeve, re-knot my hair, make sure there are no leaves or squirrels caught in it, and tell the dogs I’ll be back soon.
I wonder if anyone else in there is having a hard time? I wonder, as I walk toward the brightly lit sliding glass doors. This question becomes a guiding curiosity, as I walk around the aisles. Is anyone else feeling the ghost of the holidays like some cyclical curse of exile? Is anyone else in here shopping for warmth and care of a bruised heart? Oh, yes. Yes, oh, yes. There’s the thin, beautiful young woman so paralyzed by the whole process of being here that her eyes can’t meet the shelves, let alone anyone’s gaze. There’s the older woman standing by the dairy case with her friend, looking for a product that isn’t there, while the man restocking the various milks can neither confirm nor deny the reality of her desires.
Wait a minute! She’s looking for what I’m looking for, and she’s totally right: it’s not there. There’s a flash of recognition: her distress, my distress, and then some subjective experience of these two needs soothing one another out. Long may we prosper! I exclaim at the end of our second round of conversation, and I really feel this. She tells me she felt, before we talked, like she'd been hallucinating, but now she know she's fine. What we were looking for wasn’t exactly the same thing, but it doesn’t matter: the experience of meeting one another in that lostness has shifted each of us back to ground.
My friend Sam, who died about three weeks ago now, had a cutoff black t-shirt he’d printed himself, which said:
She who can’t be found
is the one I’m looking for.
He knew a lot, I suspect, about how acknowledging unfulfillable longing moves it from being a source of distress, into something holy and connected. That connectedness can live anywhere we remember it.
I forget all my embroidery thread at home when I go down to Manchester, and so after first ransacking the supplies at the castle to find a single length of conch-pink floss, I take myself to Hobby Lobby to expand my palette. I've never seen a retail space quite so overwhelming as this hanger-sized depot of female creativity, subverted to profit and bad jobs in China. Truly: people here longing, and buying glitter reindeer; people there longing, and flocking glitter reindeer for miserable wages.
Somehow inevitably, after I track down my thread, I find myself in the wedding-crap aisle. First, I notice that Hobby Lobby’s ideal of marriage is still very much A Man and A Woman – their in-house brand is Mr. & Mrs. Still, if you’re gay and hoping to deploy a lot of China-made crap at your special day, you’re in luck, because all Mr. & Mrs. brand wedding accessories are 50% off. You can buy double, and pass off the unused half of it all to the matching same-sex couple (Mr. & Mr. to your Mrs. & Mrs.) down the road. Ha. You’ll have to get more creative with the cake-toppers, because those mini-people are fused together, and sometimes there’s a cross thrown in for extra blob-heft. Probably this should be a warning: Danger! Distress ensues when marriage is envisioned as a blobbing-together of human-units and flower-shaped crosses. Beware! Mandatorily-tiny white women sheltered in the arms of mandatorily-tall white men may not exist, and are in any case not clinically guaranteed to lead happy lives.
I stop shuddering and become curious. What is here? I notice a rack of very small cast-plastic frames, intended for conveying table place-assignments. They are spectacularly ugly, in a way that tips over into beauty, and I find myself thinking of all the longings enshrined in this vast, cynical wonderland. I see the woman composing a green tulle wreath in her cart; I see the woman buying a talking goose for her baby granddaughter to dance with. It strikes me that the black Mr. & Mrs frames might be wonderful for
SHE WHO CAN’T BE FOUND
IS THE ONE I’M LOOKING FOR
I see myself making up a hundred and eight of these, and hot-gluing them all over the towns where Sam once lived. But then, sensing the distress in such an over-gesture, I scale myself back. Sam made one shirt; I can make two frames; and then see. I bring myself back from the brink of craft-store madness, re-center in intimate remembering, and head for the registers.
The next room will be the one where suddenly, everything fits together perfectly, and no one looks at me like I am from outer space. It will be amazing! Suddenly I will find that it's possible to simply welcome all my parts, and find that they are welcome, too, without all the tiresome shape-shifting and self-editing that all the other rooms seem to require. I won’t be told, This is a Buddhist/psychological/professional/scientific/family-friendly/academic/arts-based room, so kindly take your bag of eels someplace else. Nope. The next room will be the one where my bag of eels, and your bag of giraffes, and his bag of dicks will all be welcome, just as they are. Did I just write bag of dicks? Shit. I guess I’m in that room already.
One male friend once made an impassioned plea to another male friend, who’d just said bag of dicks with great relish, to please never use that phrase again. I get it. I super-get-it. Why take what’s tender and sensitive, honest to the point of inability to hide its true likes and dislikes, and put it in a bag of ridicule? No, no, no. Still, what are we going to do with the current room, the one where all of a sudden, all the lady-people, plus some of the men-people, are talking about all the assault and rape and hurt? It’s very tempting to want bags for all of that, to want bags for all the perpetrators, to want to shove all of it back into some room, maybe the one it all came from in the first place?
But that room is crumbling, and all the bags have holes, through which eels and penises and inconvenient truths are wriggling out. Via Facebook, my friend Shakeema recently introduced me to a genius who, under the name of Sailor J, publishes dystopian YouTube beauty tutorials. At one point, she explains, Perhaps in a better world, women wouldn’t need to contour, seeing as it has nothing to do with experimentation, or artistry. Since it’s simply for the dick, we have to do it. Damn! That woman knows how to shred some bags. Out come all the things that have nothing to do with anything even vaguely satisfying, but we have to do them. Brr! There goes homework, there goes biting your tongue, there goes being pleasant when you feel like a bag of hyenas. There goes forgetting altogether what you wanted, because this is what you have to do.
As she attempts to erase her nose with makeup, Sailor J explains, Men love pterodactyls, sealing her place in my heart forever.
The next room will be where we actually pay attention to and acknowledge how we feel, versus obsessing about how we think everyone else should feel. In that room, we’ll keep opening the possibility that there’s space for feeling what we feel, without being pushed around by it.
How about that Mr. Alabama Senator, in the next room? Wouldn’t it be great if he could respond to the current round of denouncements sort of like this:
When I was 32, and working as a district attorney, I felt incredibly lonely. I hadn’t earned enough yet to feel I was worthy of marrying anyone, and to be honest, I was dead scared of what I knew about myself. You see, when I was a kid there wasn’t anyone around I could talk to about sexual desire. In church it sounded like all that was supposed to stay in the next room until I was married, but then, what about what was already happening in my body? I was fourteen, and something was burning me up from the inside that nobody had any words for. My father was a good man, but hard, and I’d’ve sooner talked with him about the plague, than about what I was feeling in my body. Then I heard some other boys talking about Jolie from down the road, and how she’d let you touch her down there, if you brought her a dollar. This surprised me. Jolie? Her dad and brothers were men no one talked to, and there was something side-eyed about that whole house… But if a dallor was going to get me closer to the next room without having to wait for marriage, you can bet I was going to do what it took to earn and spend that dollar. That's where it started. Jolie made it clear what I was allowed to do with her, but one day I forced her to go further, and then what? She didn't have anyone she could turn to, because the deal was rotten from the start. I started forcing myself on her pretty regularly after school, knowing no one would help her, and I started telling myself that it was her fault all along for being a slut. But I hated myself every time I came, and I guess I never learned how else to work with desire. So, yeah, of course, there I was at thirty-two, still looking for Jolie at fourteen in every girl in town I thought I could use, and some others besides. I know this doesn't excuse what I've done, but honestly, can you tell me how else this could’ve turned out? Do you really think I’m the only one in the Senate who’s got this problem? Can you help me in some way?
If Mr. Alabama could say this, it would open the entrance to the next room, the one where the current round of denunciations would turn a corner into vulnerability. We're getting way better at outing evil and abuse, and that's incredibly important. But we’re also going to need to get better at confession, restitution, rehabilitation, and systematic reform in the weeks and months and years to come, for any kind of real progress to take hold.
I read this morning that Republicans are requesting that Jeff Sessions should step in as a write-in candidate for the Senate job he left only a few months ago. Quick! Tie the eels back up again! Close the door to that room! Avoid change at any cost! We do not want to hear about your teen-rape past, and we do not want to acknowledge that anyone except Our Righteous Father should hold power, ever.
Given his behavior so far, and the respectablility he still enjoys, I'd say the odds of Mr. Alabama ever admitting wrongdoing are pretty fucking slim. I'd say the odds of any of his compatriots coming out about their own shady pasts are virtually nonexistent. But how great would it be if Jeff sessions, instead of standing by, or agreeing to backtrack, said something like this:
No, I'm sorry. If the point here is whether past sexual violence precludes government service, I'm going to have to step down, too. You see, like my colleague here, no one ever helped me understand desire when I was a kid, and I've been carrying around my own dark stories for years. I’ve been getting away with everything I can, ever since I learned that’s how the world works. So you’re going to have to find another solution. Like maybe Jolie Smith? I hear she’s been doing excellent work representing her district.
The next room always requires a password made of risk. Today, because we have no choice, we must risk our hands, reaching out to understand one another. Brr! But I don’t want to touch a rapist. Quite possibly true. Don’t.
There are rooms and rooms full of garbage, with methane flames burning off the extra gas. There are rooms and rooms of truths no one wants told, because no one wants to be seen in the company of those truths. And yet, listening into the body, all the keys are there, and every once in a while, the right door opens.
In my teenagerhood, I considered New York City the locus of all things cool, sleek, loud, sophisticated, and beautiful. It was the opposite of the South and the suburbs, where I lived. My senior year I went with three other girls to stay with a friend’s mom, who was then working as an Episcopal priest in Jersey City. She was wonderful with us, taking us to lunch at La Mela in Little Italy; to Canal Jeans and Pearl Paint; to see Gypsy on Broadway. We ate and walked and bought our way through the city, sucking in everything from the vast expanse of sky available at the top of the Empire State building to the deep earth-rumblings of the subway. I remember the taste of tart tomato sauce and lush elastic mozzarella cushioning eggplant fried in more olive oil than I’d ever imagined possible. That trip was an opening into another world, one not mediated by my family’s ideas of what was right, wrong, or in good taste. In important ways, I began to understand that while my family was well-traveled - cosmopolitan, even - there were important tranches of the world that they knew nothing about, and some of those realms held real treasure for me.
When I chose to go to Yale, I entered into another relationship with New York City, one mediated by my friendship with Stephanie (who’d been my best friend in high school and was attending Barnard), and by my love of making and witnessing art. I’d take the Metro-North train down to the city to visit Stephanie maybe twice a year, and then a couple more times to see art shows and frequent the photo- and paint-emporia for studio supplies.
When I moved into an unfurnished off-campus apartment in 1993, I went to Chinatown to buy a futon, which I carried home on my back from New Haven Station – an arduous task that matched my then-allegiance towards frugality and self-sufficiency. The futon never stopped smelling of the weird chemicals it was steeped in, but never mind. By then, I, too, reeked of chemistry from the darkroom, and so it was a match.
I have never been so cold as in New York City, on an ill-considered visit that must've coincided with a spell back in the US from my post-graduate stint with the Yale China Association. Back then, I thought about what to do much more from the perspective of how it would look from the outside, rather than how it would feel from the inside. So whatever jacket I may have had was totally inadequate to the wind blasting down dark canyons between buildings. Back then, Starbucks was a new phenomenon, one that had crept in while I was away in Asia. I remember shivering in one Starbucks after another, taking shelter on my New York-dyslexic journeys through the city. True, my legs probably did look nice in their thin black tights, but, what the fuck? I felt on the verge of death, disoriented and freezing, as I tried to find places that shouldn’t have been hard to locate, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This business of my not orienting to the same grid that seems so obvious to New York City dwellers has been ongoing for me, with the only period of respite coming during the year when Timothy was teaching at NYU, and had a studio apartment in faculty housing on Bleecker Street. Then, I gradually did what I think all city-people do: I started to form a network of connections between the above-ground world and the world of subterranean passages. I learned to sight a kind of intimate constellation marked out in embodied experiences: here is the burrito joint with the small courtyard garden out back. Here’s the patisserie with the almond croissants so close to home that they’re still warm when you untie the box’ red-and-white striped string. Here’s the movie theater that shows arid documentaries, and the one with the six-legged rat. Here’s the way to the river. My frozen inability to distinguish directions began to thaw, and I started to know, when I popped my head back above ground like a gopher, which way to go.
Just last week, I returned to New York City for 10 minutes of bureaucratic process at the Swiss Consulate in Midtown. I boarded an early morning bus, after Timothy dropped me off, found out I had bought a ticket for the wrong month, and also that the bus was sold out. I hunkered down in the back seat and waited. Sure enough – someone no-showed, the bus started moving, and I found myself among sleepy others making the long journey south.
When the bus dropped us off outside Grand Central Station, I was immediately aware of feeling basically not-attuned to the energy of this hard, fast, noisy place. I made my way to the marketplace inside, found all the surfaces too slippery, and proceeded into the main hall. Magnificent, yes, but also somehow scuffed and fretful. Down to the food court, sniffing around: What’s good to eat? What does the body want? I circumambulated, aware of how strange it felt to be seeking nourishment deep underground, with so many strangers. The longest line was for a burger joint whose sister I’d tried with a friend years ago, so I went there, savoring the companionship of the wait, and the opportunity to really see people, now that I had a digital food-alarm to justify my observer’s stance. The food, when it came, was coldish. In my haste to find a table refuge-place, I forgot to pick up salt, mustard and ketchup, lacking the city-rat’s instinct for refinements that may cost jostling, but pay off in pleasure.
I found I did not want to cram experience in. I found my NH instincts for open spaces and comfortable roosts stayed with me, and so I sat and read in the dappled sunlight outside the New York Public Library till it was time for my appointment. After ten minutes of fingerprinting and photo-taking, I took the train to Brooklyn, and gravitated toward the exact spot my friend Louise and I, and her then-newborn baby, had enjoyed in Prospect park a few years ago. Shoes off, feet connecting with ground, heart opening to the vast blue sky and this unexpected miracle of a midcity meadow, I moved through my tai chi forms, allowing them to do their work of anchoring body, mind, and space.
Staying with Louise and her family nearby was a continuation of this way of being. By necessity, by homing instinct, my friends’ lives are not lives of outward-seeking and outward-seeming, but rather of nurture and carefully cultivated domestic space. Louise makes pizza, and her now-talkative, alert little daughter negotiates how to eat this her way (no olives!). We make our companionable way through a ritual of dinner that could be happening anywhere from the Hopi Reservation to Brussels.
New York City, once a miracle of becoming and locus of longing, is now for me a series of bodily impressions, a network of friendships, a reminder that the strategies for self-regulation that serve me well in semi-rural New England can serve me well anywhere. I ride the subway to catch the train home from Penn Station. I am aware of the violence that could unfurl right now, in any place where people gather. I am aware, too, of the solidity of my feet on the ground, as a loose dance flows between my hips and the rails’ uneven surfaces; between this body and our swaying, beautiful, shared world.
Lilac wine: Nina Simone sings the elixir of Spring, distilled. Summer distills itself through October sunlight on parking deck pillars, and on the nubbled yellow edges of train platforms. Lilac wine is like unicorn-horn powder. I’ve never had it. I imagine it’s pleasant. I’m glad when I hear about it, but it doesn’t have anyplace to land in this sensorium. That’s the way it is, with the edges of what I know. I can maybe locate which edge I think something might live near, but unless I’ve actually encountered it, I can’t know for sure. Lilac wine might be some awful hooch, or it might be the amritsar nectar in that silver ewer, back in Bhutan, the one with the gilt Silk Road embellishments and the peacock-feather stopper. A whole lot like fresh, clean spring water, with the possible addition of other devotees' cooties on the slender, graceful spout.
Lilac wine: nostalgia.
Lilac wine: qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse
Lilac wine: the sobriety of entering the senses without reservation.
I tear vigorous tendrils of wild grape off the lilacs every year. Every year, the vines come back. Every year the lilacs flower, and every year they are drowned in grape, creeper, and some unnamed, thorny-yet-decorative monster. Lilac wine is beauty crowning and drowning, asserting itself and surrendering again till rescue comes.
Is it always like this, being human? Beauty crowns, then drowns again, until we are touched again by some reminder of our true nature. In dreams sometimes I go so far into bewilderment that the focused attention of my whole being is required, in order to come back to beauty.
I am trying to go home, but I don’t know the way. Before I set out, I have to use these expensive tickets I’ve bought for Chemotherapy! The Musical. Who will go with me? And how will I find my seat?
I am running down city streets at night, but I don’t know which way to go. Which street leads back to the place where I last remembered the way home?
I wake to the yipping of coyotes, pull out one earplug, let in their perfectly wild, bewildering song, laugh, roll over, and remember breath, gravity, and field. I find my benefactors, remember bewilderment as itself, and not as the whole truth. Sleep comes again: the lilac wine of beauty, distilled and restored.
Turning towards existence with a basic desire to know involves an endless stream of remembering and forgetting. Also, it involves everything, which is a distinct problem if you are hoping to hold on to any kind of stance about Us and Them. Lilac wine drowns us all, without preference. Anoints us all. Courses through our molecules, a connective fluid.
I am walking around looking for lunch, before my train home leaves Penn Station. I notice there is hardly anything on this street that is not an enormous chain enterprise. I notice that the disused former phone booths under the scaffolding have become parking spaces for homeless people in wheelchairs. I notice one deli with two doors, offering the kind of food I actually want to eat, instead of feeling like I am settling for I should eat. Blueberries and scallions, small mozzarella balls cut in half, cold tortellini and sun-dried tomatoes. I notice how much harder it is to meet the needs of desperate-looking people outside the station. Easier to give online. Funds fly out quietly while I am not looking, and no one has to ask. If someone were to hold a cardboard sign asking for lilac wine, would I know how to answer?
A spray-painted, fat, one-eyed, navy-blue rabbit winks from the base of a train power-pillar. Stray marks of creativity are lilac wine flowing from the hands of unknown people.
Do I say enough in these essays, to take what happens, and turn it into wine for you? Sometimes what happens is still so unripe that I don’t know how to stand knee-deep in it and press out the wine. My aikido teacher, who makes wine, apologizes for the state of his grape-purpled fingernails. As a painter, I don’t mind. As a student of this precisely kind, powerful person, I don’t mind. My teacher showing me how to pin his arm behind his back twists lilac wine from what I do not know.
I am squeezing wine out of living. Do you know what it is like when you go straight towards the thing you fear most, and an opening arises where you never imagined one could be? I don’t know much about Harry Potter (I’ve only read the first book), but what I am describing is like running full tilt at the wall between Platforms 9 and 10, on desperate faith that Platform 9½ might show itself to you in this way. The hurt parts of the self are saying no, no, no, but there’s something else that wants more than anything to move beyond the safe, known, and presently visible. You run at the impossible, and something new rises to meet you.
Oh! Lilac wine. I’ve never tasted you before.
I’d heard, but I had no idea it could be this way.
Thank everything I took this risk.
Thank everything for all the times I’ve lugged out the clippers and chopped off those ever-drowning vines.
Thank everything I listened when I heard: lilac wine. The taste of home, guessed, but not till now experienced.
Yesterday I was in the city for a ten-minute appointment to renew my Swiss passport. In some ways, this was total bullshit. Expensive, time-sucky, tiring. But even so, I found I could follow the grain of the embodied city into places and moments of refuge. The gallery inside the New York Public Library, with its mashed-up prints of women wearing fountains and alligators. A small, tree-dappled metal table outside the library. The vast, golden field of Prospect Park, just right for barefoot tai chi, and for the blessing of a red-tailed hawk tearing the air overhead. Then, this morning, time for talking with my friend Louise, pressing out the wine of our lives’ truths as they are right now, while eating oatmeal, and paying attention to little Beatrix’ demonstration of the key features of her excellent pajamas.
I did not go out in quest of museums or galleries, as in the past I might have. Still, attunement to beauty was with me every step, dancing the subway rails’ uneven rhythm, feeling into the body of the world. Lilac wine is just this: the sweetness of surrendering to the ordinary-extraordinary as it is, in every moment, without hope of recompense, or of rescue.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now