A Maidenform bra. Was that first wispy thing one of those? Two sort of peach-colored polyester triangles, off-white lace, some foam, a lot of elastic. Bony chest, little bits of flesh like someone poking a stick up under a blanket. The path forking. Before, you were more or less a human, part of Team Human, and now you’re going to be a Lady, which involves elastic, lace, and things poking up into your body. But wait! What about Team Human? I liked that. Oh, you’ll go back there when you’re older. But for now, here’s a Maidenform bra.
Maidenforming. Terraforming the surface of some new planet. Without our helpful bits of elastic, lace, and foam, this body would simply never become habitable for sentient life. Good thing your mother is available to drive you to the specialty children’s store, to root around near but not among the OshKosh B’Goshes, for your first bra.
Love, hate. I love-hate my first bra. It isn’t doing anything for me, and that’s a minus. Itching my back. Binding my proto-nipples. Smoothing the stick-pokes into slightly more rounded mounds. These don’t feel like benefits intended for me. On the other hand, I am wearing a bra! All the benefits of ladyhood are at hand! Soon, I will be negotiating entrance to said bra. I will be enjoying bracing bra-strap thwaps at the hands of my friskier peers. I will be browsing the full range of ill-fitting undergarments available to a person of small breasts and robust rib cage. I will carry on Maidenforming this body, Sluttiforming, Yogaforming, and Bridiforming it, for years.
Actually, when the Bridiforming people tell me in all seriousness that my true bra size is 30DDD, or something equally absurd, I find an ending. I go braless at my wedding. I find anything but sports bras, or what the trade calls "bralettes" (a revolting word, almost as gross as “panties”) unacceptable. I ditch my Target underwires. Every once in a while, an old yearning comes back, and I buy something lacy, full of hooks and stays, wear it twice, roll my eyes at the red welts it leaves on my skin, tuck it back into the drawer, and resume a two-step rotation of comfortable spandex.
An additional, unforeseen advantage of the sports bra: I find having a little extra fabric between my heart chakra and the world helpful. Far from the fetching Maidenform ideal, it's more like something Shantideva forgot to write into the Way of the Bodhisattva. One does not sense that Shantideva spent a lot of time considering the interconnections between underwear and the relentless, industrial-strength longing-machine that is my experience of the Bodhisattva path. Uncover the space on my chest, the bony, inverted triangle between my breasts, and the whole heart-ripping process can get unbearably intense. Better to veil it a bit, to mediate the fire and swords.
Sacred heart of Jesus, of Julie, of us all. My friend just sent me a truth bomb:
my heart is so open
Both. And. This is where we rejoin Team Human, and drop the Maidenform imperative.
I am standing around the campfire in the freezing last night of my counseling residency, with this same friend, who is about to tell me about the first time (but not the last) that his wife turned into Kali, and bit off his head. Then, instead, two more friends come out of the pleasure pavilion, and join us outside. We take turns melting the snow off our shoes, hissing into the hot ring of metal binding the fire. We are a united nations of gender. We are Team Human. We are talking about longing and desire, and how fidelity can’t be enacted by shutting down desire for all but one person, because desire’s not a thing that can be maidenformed like that. It can be squelched. It can be listened to. It can be honed and focused through vows. But there’s not an elastic, foam, lace, and wire contraption known to man that can reason it into some illusion of a permanent, pleasing shape.
I am back home, walking the dogs up the ridge we all love. There, near the place we often call our destination, something breaks through the layers of the Sacred Heart. Strong diagonal slash-marks in the snow, to one side, to the other. To amazement. The enormous owl who watched us one whole afternoon has swept down, beat the snow with her wings, seized what she wanted from the trail, and flown off. I stand within the span of those marks. Winged heart, winged being, heavy feet in boots on snow. I call Chloe, who doesn’t come, and Elliot, who bounds wildly to me, feet spread wide like wings to catch and spring off the snow. Here, now. This multi-part being, woman-formed, owl-formed, pack-formed with her dogs.
I am moving trans-human, shape-shifter. What is the shape of being a dragon – burrowing, barrel-rolling, diving, flaming, nowhere and everywhere in the bones of the world? A human-dragon. Tender, vulnerable, amoral, ancient, wise, and elemental. My friend shows me around the shrine room at the Shambala Center. Magnificent beings shine forth from colored silk – the animal stages of practice, ending with Dragon. Inscrutable, unbound from applause or disapproval, intimately embodied in the way things are. Married to a flying tiger, a portly gentleman sports eyes everywhere – a body that knows all throughout itself. Elliot snarls his fierce rebuttal of some smaller, jingle-belled dog. Seconds later I embrace his ribs, looking down into his inscrutable, untroubled eyes. I did not like that dog, and so I told him to fuck off. Simple.
The dragon isn’t my only memory from Shambhala. There, at the heart of the space, up high on the altar, is a large crystal ball wearing a shower cap. Without it, my friend tells me, the ball would magnify and concentrate the sunlight coming in from the cupola above, inevitably catching the wooden shrine on fire. The showercap is the Maidenform bra of this place, the thing that mediates pure, clear energy into something safe to interact with this world.
A dragon, perpetually consumed in being, self-satisfied, and free of ornament, immolates the concept Maidenform bra before it can even be formed. But we are not all dragon. We are human, and burn easily, setting one another aflame without knowing what we do. In kindness, inscrutable can also mean modest, gentle, equally committed to wild flight as to fleshy concern. Bounded and unbounded, dancing together. What I wish for all beings of all genders: freedom to listen unabashed to the dance that comes roiling and coiling, with love. Protection, courage, and kindness in meeting the strength that runs through us all. The inscrutable undergarments of our choice, now and forever, Amen.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now