The Lady in the Sky meets Jennifer at the co-op in Northampton, just like Jennifer meets Larissa and I at the Tuckerbox in White River Junction. She's got a sun sending off rays, and a rainbow, which is pretty much what's embroidered on the shirt the Lady in the Internet gave me last Tuesday.
That lady's name is Rhiannon. She posted on the Upper Valley Listserv that she was looking for someone to finish embroidering a shirt she had started thirty-five years ago & never finished, and while I am pretty clear that most requests posted on the internet have nothing to do with me, it was somehow immediately clear to me that this one was my work.
I agreed to meet her at work, down the street from the King Arthur Flour factory, parking on the frozen tundra of a corporate headquarters' front drive. Sure enough, her smile was waiting for me, swimming in the gloomy green space beyond the receptionist's desk. Rhiannon led me past metal turbine blades and down a fluorescent corridor, into a boardroom featuring ever more fan blades along its periphery, and numerous Fan Blade Awards on the wall.
She brought out a grey plastic co-op bag, and as she did so, a white mask of grief came over her eyes, as her face turned red. Then the opposite: red mask of grief, white face, This handoff was clearly a Something for Rhiannon. She composed herself, reached into the bag, and pulled out a pale denim Wrangler shirt with tremendous 1970's collar points. It had eyelet lace trim at all its margins, a butterfly on one cuff, rainbows over both chest pockets, and an unfinished landscape over the embroidered yoke. The unfinished second butterfly, hills, and pine trees had been marked out in pencil by Rhiannon's artist friend, thirty-five years ago.
Something had stopped.
Some rainbow-clock had frozen, and in that frozen time, Rhiannon's body had swollen and stilled.
Pulling this shirt out of the bag and explaining it to me, Rhiannon was looking at something frozen, maybe dead, maybe just emerging. Not easy, but she had decided that she was going to show it all to me, and so she reached into the bag again, and this time pulled out a more worn & wrinkled denim shirt. It had LASSIES stenciled in big black gothic letters on the yoke, and more rudimentary embroidery at the pockets and cuffs.
So, maybe, if it's not too much, and you'd like it, I'll give you this shirt, too? This one's from the high school drum and bugle corps I was in.
Really? That's amazing. I love that it says LASSIES on the back.
You do? I think a lot of people would be put off by that.
No, I think it's great.
Rhiannon's tears are back, and somehow I feel they are more connected with release than they are with loss. Giving away these objects to a stranger, she is reconnecting with their life. She reaches into the bag a third time, and pulls out a ziplock of threads and needles - some still in their packages, some neatly split and knotted, some poked through ancient brown scraps of burlap. Here are the tools you'll need, she says.
I tell Rhiannon that I'll keep her posted about what happens with the shirts - where they go, who wears them, and how the unfinished one looks, once all the designs are accounted for. I thank her, and she thanks me, saying she's been reading Marie Kondo's book about de-cluttering, and she totally gets it, about how objects need to circulate in the world, or else they sadden the spaces they linger in.
When I get home, there are two new emails from Rhiannon: links to YouTube videos of performances by the modern-day Lassies of Springfield, Missouri. The first one's okay, but the second one really gets me:
These girls, in their kilts and sporrans, spats and knee-socks, clean white shirts and sashes. These drums, these military rhythms. The pure seduction of war, youth, and certitude buoyed by inexperience. First comes the generalissima, in her piled-high polar-bear fur headpiece and scepter. She was chosen for this role because when she high-steps, she's the Lady in the Sky, drumming the earth into order with her feet. She whistles, and the others come marching, lines and lines of girls holding their whole school rapt, their whole world rapt, demanding the precise order of beats and feet and imperatives.
Now tears are running down my face. These Lassies - I imagine Rhiannon marching among them, bare knees flashing. We are here for one shining moment, and many ordinary ones. We shuck our finery and wear long johns. We choose our battles and are chosen. May we all grow wise, and stay limber.
A few days later, I sit down with the shirt, thread, and needles. Rhiannon of thirty-five years ago is clearly a more skilled embroiderer than I am. So be it. One wonky little tree in pale green. A slightly smoother one, mid-green. A positively easy, if sort-of twisted, dark green one. Some sun-rays. Done for now. Timothy asks if I'll add anything of my own, and the first thing that comes to mind is a jewel-barfing mongoose, like the one the King of the North hangs out with, in Tibetan iconography. Maybe so. The mongoose is a blessing-bestowing varmint, and this whole shirt escapade is a cascading system of blessings.
Rhiannon is a writer, and this is her dream-shirt. It will travel with the Inner Beauty circus. It will be a reminder to stay true to finery in all its forms as skillful means. Little Natalie's sonic finery. Making a playlist for her mother's birthday party, she puts her whole heart into it. She is unembarrassed in a way I could never have managed at her age, when I was far too self-conscious for high-stepping in spats, or inviting my mother's friends to dance with me to It's Raining Men.
The Lady in the Sky, with her rainbows and incomplete dark hills, is here to say, Find the true form of this passing form, then let it go by, but not too soon. It breaks down, and you let it, but not before the dance. Not before the full presence of each step, not before knowing that all along, everyone has been stepping their parts in the line, putting in their stitches in the pattern, drawn here, drawn there, complete & incomplete at every stage.
Look up from your plate: the Lady in the Sky is right there, her words and images pointing in different directions, to keep you flexible. The blades are spinning. The meetings happen by chance and by design. The effortlessness of connection takes over, once all other imperatives lose their force.
There's a new hole in my head:
…a dental implant socket. Fortunately, the whole time Dr. Fucini - the Tooth Fairy's Burly Avatar - was cutting, drilling, implanting, & sewing up, I was visualizing the Thikse Buddha watching over me with benevolent eyes:
I lay on the table receiving love & relaxing the body part by part, feeling into its wholeness & groundedness. A perfectly ordinary, perfectly helpful way to live through what could have been quite distressing. Thanks be to all who have ever taught me to be with discomfort! Here is the mantra of awakening mind, as taught to me by Lama Willa Miller.
May all beings everywhere learn to be with pain, and may all beings receive beautiful care, as I did.
Resist, says the train, in large flowing rust-colored script. Resist thinking these cars will only pass once. Resist thinking they are bound to trundle past a second time. There is no knowing either of these things.
The wall next to me exhales a winter breath from between two bricks. What's back there? Who's breathing? What if all resistance to winter were to pass? Resist thinking it will never stop snowing. Resist thinking we'll pass straight on to April, with only a muddy pause in between. None of it is worth sticking to.
The wall cools the skin of my forearm, and the train has stopped. Two dozen cars of non-odorized liquid petroleum gas - enough to blow up downtown White River Junction ten times over, I think, and then resist the train of thought that might entail.
Resist, subsist, desist: so many intentional words, so much volition, with at their root some sense of a darkness, against which effort is the only bulwark.
Penn of Penn & Teller says: I am already doing all the raping and killing I want to do, which is zero. I don't need rules to keep me from raping and killing. What if, under all our resistance and effort lies the great heart of compassion - the birthright that, more than anything, wants us to wake up, to be free, to know ourselves for what we truly are?
Mingled smells of egg and vinegar. This morning, Larissa and I are it for Notebook Club. We've been holiday-exiled to Tuckerbox, and there's a lot more happening here than at the library. No Canes of the Elders of Lebanon. Instead, the train, the baristas talking, another table behind me comparing cell phones and talking about time. "Oh, no!" No resistance there. Knives and forks on plates. The phone rings. "What time will you get out?" Resisting some degree of distraction, anchoring attention, while still aware of all this new life. Larissa looks to the door.
Talking earlier, about all the ways to be in the world: how different & how interdependent. Somehow, the task is to figure out one's way of being, and allow that way to draw one like a magnet. But what if some ways of being are rent with suffering? Yes, what if?
"A watched pot never boils," says the your man behind the counter. "Right, guys?"
What if the suffering we encounter is the one and only possible fuel for the journey we need to take? What if it swamps us, breaks our hearts, drives us mad? Yes, what if?
Chai, the lottery, choices, no-choices.
I can feel into my hands, and know that I am alive. On my left wrist, a sloppy, shaggy mass of blessing cords, including the Bodhisattva Vow cord from the Winter Retreat, now on its third knotting:
I am learning that a blessing cord made of slippery nylon requires constant reaffirmation and frequent assistance. So, you'd like to be a Bodhisattva? OK. Just remember - not about you alone, ever. Do not resist the help that comes to you. Your neighbor, Jack, eighty-one years old, will snowplow your driveway. Your husband will help keep your Buddhist paraphernalia in order. Your dog will wake you. Welcome to the blessing cord made flesh.
Someone comes in with jingling buckles on their combat boots, and I think DOG. I hope DOG. I am obsessed with the salvific properties of DOG.
We are about to test out the theory that having two dogs is a good idea. It's debatable, actually. Two tumultuous and vigorous monsters, in addition to the two human monsters already present? Maybe. I am aware of Chloe hurtling towards her death seven times as fast as I am (theoretically), and so I want to cultivate non-resistance to her dog-happiness.
So, you would like a dog-boyfriend to come live with us? OK. We can try that. We can try having me let go of some more of my control & resistance. You've already nosed your way into sniffing me awake in the mostly-dark of 5:17AM.
Elliot the dog is a goofus. He's big, and has lion-yellow eyes. His foster-mom says the wind passes between his ears, but we are not taking him on to solve quadratic equations. We're taking him on for the chance to run and roll in the woods, to have a pack friend, to flare the freckles on his long nose and smell a full dog's freedom, now and then. We'll see.
Resist the story of it will work.
Resist the story of it won't work.
Resist the need to be a salvific presence anywhere.
I have been listening to Patti Smith's memoir, M Train, and one of the most amazing things to me is the complete lack of striving toward anything I find there. Partly, she's depressed a lot of the time, and also, partly, she's not haunted by Bodhisattva vows and oft-retied knots. She gets up whenever the hell she gets up, pulls on her watch cap, boots, and coat, and goes to drink coffee. She travels to London to sit around in her hotel room watching crime shows on TV. She writes in her notebook, and whatever she has written, she reads back aloud, so that I can listen to it on the way to tai chi, or to buy olives, or whatever.
There's not a lot more, and at the same time. there's everything. Patti Smith becomes a kind of possibility in the world: useless and harmless, bearing witness to the silliness of striving & the incontrovertible truth that there is great heart underneath it all. People come to her door and invite her to come to the ocean. She buys a beat-up cottage near the beach in Rockaway, paying cash for it by simply accepting all the invitations people have been trying to issue her for years. She doesn't name-drop. Her cat barfs on her pillow. She grieves her husband, and her children seemingly stay away. That's it, and that's all anyone ever needs.
Just sitting here with whatever arises makes space for the world to be seen. Clear forest pool, with Guns 'n' Roses in the background. Jennifer comes to introduce herself. She's new, she's looking for friendship, she's lovely. Had Larissa and I been running around declaring things, instead of hunched over our notebooks, this meeting would not have happened. Who knows what would? It might have been full of grace.
Two kids come to our house on Saturday, canvassing for Kasich. Chloe goes into full-bore death-hyena mode, fear-mohawk standing on end. She doesn't vote Republican. One of the canvassers is wearing a Dartmouth Crew cap, and I think, For fuck's sake! Don't you have any idea how the world works? Timothy thinks they're OK. He might not be sabotage-voting for Trump anymore.
Two days in a row, I do not go to canvas for Bernie, even though I enthused on Facebook that I would. Why not? I don't really know that he'd be a better president than Hillary, and I know Patti Smith wouldn't bother. Plus, there are things I want to do at home, like move firewood, write questions that might or might not prove inscrutable, and eat lasagna.
Good citizenship comes in many forms, many recipes of resistance and non-resistance. Today, Martin Luther King Day 2016, I write in praise of all of them.
You may say to yourself, I can't afford the ticket, but really, what else are you going to spend on? If you can't afford the ticket, next thing you know, it's the chicken, and soon enough, you're spiraling down some self-initiated pity-parade of not-this & not-that, and that's really no way to live, now is it?
David Bowie knew he could not only afford the ticket, but fucking print it on hammered gold in freshly squeezed squid ink, hand it to himself in the guise of alien ticket-taker, and zoom off to whatever destination his vast imagination was conjuring at that moment. Like breakfast. Like union with the sexy wild things under the stairs. Like a laugh bigger than anything tickets buy or don't buy.
I will miss David Bowie, and yet in a sense I've been missing him all along. The dates of my childhood - 1972, 1973, 1975, 1980 - dates when I was learning to crawl & then to walk & then to speak & read & draw wild scrawls & princesses in big skirts - are dates when he was learning how to love Japan, how to fritz his brain into malleability, and how to embody deathless cool, so that I & everyone learning to listen to him would have an image of what wild and queenly elegance - heroic alienation and good heart - might look like in this world.
In a sense, David Bowie as he is in my universe does not change, except for the tender reminder that "the artist died at home, surrounded by his family and friends." My friend Larissa says that knowing David Bowie died helps her feel OK about dying, too, knowing that she will be in good company.
When my grandfather died in 1990, my parents went back to France for the funeral, and my brother and I stayed in the States. I have no recollection where Adrian spent that fortnight - with some friend of his, I suppose. I do know that I went to Stephanie's house, and I remember that I was really, really sick - feverish, snotty, weak. I didn't go to school the whole time, laying, instead, on the floor in Stephanie's basement, watching The Man Who Fell to Earth again and again.
Partly, I needed to start all aver again because I kept falling asleep. Partly, because what I was registering made no sense. Bowie is Christ, descended to be among us, misunderstood and reviled, though not (as I remember) particularly inclined towards healing the sick and comforting the widows. Maybe he would, though. Probably if David Bowie had met my suddenly widowed grandmother, he would have turned his mirrored eyes on her with compassion born of seeing from a great distance, and of losing contact with home as a present and real possibility.
So I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth, and had fever-dreams, and never could sort out how the arc of the story went, except for the obvious. We do not belong here, but come from elsewhere, in our unearthly beauty. Tragically adolescent and adolescently tragic, I drank this up. I knew this to be true. I realized the mirror contact-lenses probably hurt a lot, and I appreciated Bowie's discipline in wearing them for my benefit.
My grandfather, now that I think about it, had a bit of The Man Who Fell to Earth about him. He loved us, you could tell that, but he wasn't really on the same plane with us. His hearing was pretty bad, and he found listening to my very vocal, a bit twittery, grandmother hard sometimes. At meals, you could see him turning down his hearing aid.
He walked into the woods to die, as best we can tell. He knew where he went, which was the coldest darkest place, the one likeliest to put his weakened heart over its limit, and set him free. He died in the woods, and the black and gold clock in the living room stopped, never to be wound again. He became The Man Who Fell to Earth, having decided he could, after all, afford the ticket. Long after dark, my uncle and his dogs went to find my grandfather's body, to bring it home safe from animals & whatever other dangers might approach a freed body, out in the open.
Did I ever see a doctor? I don't think so. I think I fevered and lay, drinking ginger ales and watching TV, in between psychedelic naps. Besides Bowie, the other stream that kept coming up onscreen was a BBC documentary about Stonehenge, involving dudes in big headphones listening to what? the earth? I would fall asleep, and they would be there again, in their underground command center, listening, while the radar arm swept the small round screen, blipping out the secrets of it all. Eventually, as the fevers passed, I came to realize that the basic premise of the documentary seemed to be that you could draw a straight line from Stonehenge to any other point in England. Wow! Check that out!
As the fever cleared some more, I realized you could draw a straight line between the couch in Stephanie's basement and any point in the known & unknown universe, which was either way more cool, or totally deflating, depending on which ticket you chose to afford.
Not sure - what's the ticket now? There's a basic listening: this, then that. Yesterday, speaking with my new nun friend, Tenzin Pelyang, I said,"There's a core certainty, and everything arranges itself around it, in service." That seems fine. Stay with that, with the opening around refuge, with the dance of the beautiful monsters, and the sense of more and more wanting to let go of grudge.
That old friend is a weird fucker. Fine. True enough. But in the presence of an invitation to renew friendship, does it really make sense to allow grudge to tell me I can't afford the ticket? In the presence of death, can grudge make any sense? In the presence of a stream of blessings, holding on to some cruddy bit of bank with all my might is foolish, killing as it does all possibility of swimming, splashing, drowning into deep mossy pools and bouncing back, a sparkling bubble refusing to stay fixed anywhere.
The universe (in the form of an Amazon glitch) sent my friend a super-deluxe heated, bidet-squirting, blow-drying toilet seat that plays music of a sort, and she decided to count it as a blessing. She decided she could afford the ticket, because no one was asking her to pay for it in the first place.
That's really more like it, isn't it? Ultimately, no one's asking for a ticket, except the one whose price is letting go of having & not-having mind, which sounds awful, till we realize that that mind is the source of all our scarcities. We learn that the mind before & inside & below having & not-having is a golden ticket in every box, a little song of sheer delight.
David Bowie, when you died, I hope that song was with you. Pure delight, a ticket to anywhere.
Leave the house.
Yes, absolutely, you must leave the house and
step onto the snow, whose surface
slams like a storm door.
You are fracturing the world.
You are making room for the world.
Step out and listen. Not every step falls through.
Heel is a drum. Toe is another drum,
and both in concert with the snow
tell your eyes
YELLOW / BLUE / YELLOW / WHITE
The shadows tell you
The thin powder on the surface tells you
Your ballet lessons were not a waste
Your sitting at a teal-beige desk containing State of California textbooks was not a waste
Your thousands of hours of sleepy distracted numbed jonesing meditation were not a waste.
These are how you built the attention you bring to hearing the dry beech leaves flutter, and to
fluttering your mittened hands in return.
These are what built your body to fly circling over the stubble-field's bright mirror of snow.
You have left the house for the world.
Twist in and around, pelvis and shoulders guiding,
birch saplings guiding
woodpecker so close
heavy feet in boots.
This morning is the morning of training bearing fruit in no-training.
These steps say all of your training was worthwhile, every bit,
and here is why you no longer need it,
and here is this high bright call fleeting,
fluting at the edge of field and forest,
world and world.
No go inside to sit some more,
bowing first to the wild masters all around,
complete and steady in their truths.
Begin with the certainty of a song,
the beautiful monster of a certainty.
Ask, Monster, is this your truest form?
In this certainty, can your scales glitter, answering the full bright sun?
Can your wings unfurl, reaching till your jingling metal claws lift from the ground of their own accord?
Or, are you Leviathan in a tin can?
Monster, you and I can do better than this certainty.
Find your benefactors: phoenix, hoopoe, rainbow,
every dragon that ever guarded the pearl of great price.
And I'll find mine.
That's the in-breath.
with benefactors opening our back,
something smells a little musty up front,
something sounds a little bit like
You nutty fuckers are working my last compassionate nerve,
and given how much I'm doing for you,
you could try just a little bit harder to be worth my efforts,
We're done trying, Monster.
That's the out-breath.
Everyone's hands are beautiful
Everyone's chest is beautiful
Everyone's monsters are beautiful.
You and I
You and I
All of us
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now