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.
Up in flames, the idea that old pain resolves completely one day, and is replaced by some new version of being human, where the good moods stick around forever, and all obstacles can be met graciously, without a hint of faceplanting into frailty. Up in flames, this heart, this body-mind.
A friend told me yesterday he’d raped. Up in flames, the idea that those we love are somehow members of a separate, blameless category of humans. I've known this for a long time, of course, but there's a first time for everything. A number of friends over the years have told me they've been raped, but no one had ever come out to me before as having forced another human being into sex. Now what?
My standard Buddhist strategy for not going up in flames is to fall back on the section of the Seven Branch Prayer that places me solidly within a continuum of having committed, at some point among millions of lives, every kind of transgression possible:
I confess to all evil acts committed by me
From beginningless time until now,
Influenced by the defilements,
The five that ripen immediately,
The ten non-virtuous acts,
And many more.
Basically, the whole thing has been up in flames forever. Where’s the news in a little more horror?
That’s where I went first.
Next, what came up was the memory of drowning the sick bunny I bought in Hong Kong at a time of great loneliness. White, fuzzy, sweet: what could possibly go wrong? His butthole didn’t work. Or maybe the problem was elsewhere in his body, but in any case, the bunny never once shat in the week I had him. He got frailer and sicker, and I found his suffering intolerable. To make things worse, the weekend was coming – one of the long ceremonial periods connected with Chinese ancestral observances – and a typhoon was blowing in off the Pacific. My veterinarian friend couldn’t help. Friday night, storm raging, bunny held in my hand against my chest, I filled a red plastic bucket with water, and took it out into the back yard. I plunged the bunny into it, and held him down. My story had been that he wanted to die, but his scrabbling feet at the bottom of the bucket told me that the instinct for life was strong in him, and that I was the one who wanted this death. After he stopped struggling, I used a rusty old cleaver to dig a hole under the clementine tree, while the wind whipped around, the lightning flashed, and sheets of rain came down all around us. I placed the limp little body in the hole, and covered it with wet soil.
Afterwards, I felt tainted, separated from the continuum of life by sorrow, by knowledge of myself as someone who had both reached out to a helpless being – in Hong Kong the pet- and meat-markets were intimately connected with one another – two sets of wire cages containing the same species, at either end of a long, smelly row – and who’d in the name of release turned against him when things got hard. It took a long time to shake that sense of being marked by my actions, separated from the community of being.
I told my friend this story as a way to draw close to his sense of being marked and separated by the violence he had done. I told him about the Thich Nhat Hahn poem Call Me By My True Names, where the narrator sees himself both as the young girl who drowns herself after being raped, and the pirate who raped her. I did all these things, and yet, I could tell something in me still needed to go up in flames.
My friend asked, How do you learn to call someone by their true names?
Later, having completed my sewing and photography and writing for the day, I noticed I felt ill, awful, cramped, nauseous. Standing at the kitchen sink with my husband nearby, a powerful feeling came over me, accompanied by two questions:
What would their mothers have wanted me to say to you?
Did you hurt them?
I realized, in my responses to my friend's disclosure, I'd taken an above-the-storm view. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel: the horror of being forced, abused, disregarded. I sensed into this, as the pain in the back of my neck got stronger, along with the sense of being held underwater, like the bunny years ago.
I've learned not to try to shake something like this through distraction, when I have the space and resources to let it roll on through. Timothy kindly offered to do the dishes, and I went upstairs to fill the bath. Once in, once warm, once safely in that womb of release, I listened for what wanted to come, what wanted to go up in flames. Tears – not comfortable ones – but soundless sobs, racking, shallow breaths, shuddering through the body. I remembered my date kicking me across the room after prom, and no one saying anything about it, least of all me. It was all so awful – what was there to say? Plus we were all drunk, and drunk teenagers are by definition outside the law. Who could help, among these flames? I remembered helpless childhood sorrow at being the recipient of adult rages all out of proportion to anything I might have done.
I remembered, in short, all the times my body and being have gone up in flames, hurt, helpless, unhelped. But this time was different: I could intentionally go back to the feeling of the warm water for a break. I could remember my benefactors. I could feel what I was feeling as This is what hurts feels like. Everywhere, right now, are beings who are hurt. Since beginningless time, we have hurt others, and been hurt. May we know comfort.
So this is the gift I can bring back to my friend – the possibility of allowing himself to go up in flames, consumed by the hurt he has caused. How? By allowing himself to feel fully and consciously the hurt he himself has experienced in the course of his life. This agreeing to burn is how we learn to call one another by our true names, and I am afraid that there is no alternative, if what we really want to learn is compassion. That’s not at all an appealing process, I will admit. Who wants to be reminded of drowning a bunny, twenty-plus years ago, mid-storm, tears of horror and failure mixing with rain in the freaky light of some raging storm? Who, in processing past wrong deeds, wants to enter completely into the body and being of those whose integrity we’ve transgressed? None of us, really, but then, we have no choice, if we really want to heal.
Another Thich Nhat Hahn memory: in his quiet voice, somewhere in the midst of a long Dharma talk, he pronounces:
Because we have no choice,
We must risk our hands,
To stroke the tiger’s whiskers.
The day I arrived in the tiny nuns’ community in Devon, shortly after my novice ordination, a mostly-deflated mylar tiger balloon floated down from the sky to my hand. Here, honey, it said. You’ll be going up in flames, but the good news is, I’m worth all the burn.
Knife me, said basically no one except Chris Burden, who also said, Shoot me right here. Do you ever hold a knife and, feeling the weight and potential of it in your hand, think of plunging it into the nearest-by body? I do, and while that’s not a pleasant experience, I chalk it up to something like the call of the void. Now, standing on this cliff edge, something about the abyss is singing its seductive song, and I can’t help noticing that there are some beautiful riffs in there. I can’t help respecting the void and the knife, for the truths they embody, even while no-thank-you-ing my way back to the path, the onion, the beloved business of this life, unfolding.
Tomorrow evening, I’ll make another pass at aikido, in search of further and more direct ways of dancing with knife-energy. I tried a few years ago, in Edinburgh, getting off the top deck of the bus at the Holy Crossing stop, wandering through church hallways till I came to the padded room where strong people were casually twisting one another to the floor, casually tossing one another, glorious black Japanese skirt-pants flying, across the room. At that time, the answer was clearly: No, your back, shoulder, and knees can’t take this shit. No, your relationship to violence is not presently one that allows of being in this room with any reliable sense of ground or safety. Now, I wonder how this will be. My friend, who’s been practicing with this particular micro-dojo for the last year or so, tells me it's small, awake, caring, human, well-boundaried, and yet exhilarating. She, like me, has a tai chi background, but unlike me, she’s done weapons training before, and she’s also been at this a long time. We will see. If it takes, I will get to reincarnate my friend’s Californian aikido suit from the 1980’s, as I now, in my mid-forties, enter a system of belts and drills, swords and staffs, opening my awareness and tolerance for both the knife and the void.
My friend tells me about a book by an aikidoka who trained women in prisons to understand space, energy, and boundaries. You're not allowed (surprise!) to go into a prison and teach people how to kick ass, but this woman was able to translate what she knew from aikido into what she calls Conscious Embodiment. Sign me up. Part of why I want to know all of this in my bones is because I know there’s a need to illuminate, aerate, open and release the violence in my own body-mind and heart. Part of it is also: I want to know more about how to help ground others in this way. For the past couple of weeks, one of my counseling clients and I have been working on finding embodied space and boundaries, finding real ground beneath the feet, real strength in the arms and legs, a real strike in the fists, a real sense of choosing who and what comes in, moment by moment. She’s been beating the stuffing out of a velvet chair, then stroking its pelt back into beauty.
Last week, my client brought a sheet of superhero stickers in with her, and we spent much of our session with the Hulk as guru. OK, how is he standing in this one? If you take that pose in your own body, what comes next? Smash! Boom! My space. Girls don’t often get taught this, either overtly as self-assertion and self-defense, or as horseplay. Every time I hear some parent say, My boy really needs horseplay, but it’s different with my girl, I want to cry. Do it, I want to yell. Even if she tells you she would rather braid her hair into a crown, or paint ponies, she still lives in a world where the knife and the void are both in her, and all around her. Get her used to pushing, hitting, running, kicking, falling and recovering. It makes absolutely no sense to continue pretending that violence is only a boy’s game, when we know what we know about women and girls as targets of violence.
Knife me, says the part of us that longs no longer to be alive.
Knife me, says the young woman, slicing into her arm what nothing else can ease.
Knife me. Break the dam of this suffering skin, ground me in this body that feels and bleeds.
I didn’t understand cutting until I attended an all-day Mental Health First Aid class. At one point, participants were given a questionnaire about various behaviors, and how they might relate to suicide risk. One of these was cutting. The young woman sitting next to me said matter-of-factly, Actually, for me, cutting is a way to avoid suicide, to let off steam, to ease pain before it becomes too much. Do you know what it’s like, when out of the blue someone does something so courageous you're at first not sure you heard what you heard, saw what you saw? She understood that she was in a room full of people who, for various reasons, wanted to understand how to help people in crisis. She understood that she knew first hand something that we needed to know. So she told us: I cut myself not because I want to die, but because I want to live.
Fear of pain can blind us to what's really happening. Take this from me! I can't be with it. Opening to pain, on the other hand, can open us to What Is. This feeling right here in the chest, if I follow it, what do I find? A keen knife, right between the ribs. And then? Sharper and sharper pain. And then? The heart opens wider than it’s ever gone, the pain transmutes to bliss, this body is the knife’s edge between small Me and the body of Being Itself.
Knives in this life: the Laguiole pocket knife my brother gave me, and which I once had to surrender (we here at the airport frown on that sort of thing); the trusty B- and C-grade Zwilling knives Timothy brought back from being a student in Germany; the razor-sharp green-bladed Kuhn-Rikon parer I acquired last month, and which I somehow don’t trust, because it can’t be sharpened.
Knives I don’t own, but remember: an Engelberg bread knife, whose serrated teeth reproduce the chain of the Bernese Oberalp; my uncle’s machete, beating down brush as we make our way through Jura forest; a big, fat Swiss Army knife, with a saw and a magnifying glass, gone to wherever it is that vanished things go; a rapier-shaped letter-opener in a leather scabbard on my grandfather’s leather-topped, gilt-edged desk; the horrible wooden-handled pirate knife my mother sliced roasts with, when I was a kid. A Damascene steel blade my not-quite-of-this-world friend Andrew forged, in a smithy he built himself, before the ocean took him back.
Manjushri’s bullshit-cutting sword, the one he wields overhead, a smile on his face. The one that emerges, flaming, from the center of the lotus, itself emerging from the mud of all our unhoned violence and loathing. Take from me all that is not free, goes the song to Kali. It means, Cut off these barnacles of hating and fearing; trim me clear, open me one cut at a time, so that I can grow to the full span of this being.
Here, now, I am living what it is to turn towards integrity. Strange, peeled clean, and through that peeling, ever-tuftier, evermore exactly as I am.
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.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now