good news version:
the heat under the pot is being turned up too fast, and we, being clever frogs with sensitive feet, notice what is going on, snap out of our what-could-possibly-go-wrong daze, and help one another to leap to safety.
we resume authority over the kitchen, get the cook fired, heave a great sigh, salve any singed toes, and carry on.
bad news version:
stunned, we do nothing. we are all cooked, and not in a good way.
this is not a "keep calm and carry on" kind of moment, if by "carry on" we mean "hope it all goes away." it is a "keep calm and stand firm in truth with your whole huge heart" kind of moment. it is time to feel what we are afraid of, and dedicate our resources to the cause of justice.
let's pause for some fantasy immigration Q&A with Me, shall we?
have you ever been deportable from the US?
in 1999, after living abroad for religious reasons (I was a Buddhist nun), for long enough that my green card status lapsed, I foolishly reentered this country on a tourist visa, not realizing the legal impact of what I was doing. after three months, I became deportable, and started receiving nastygrams from the INS. the worst that could have happened to me then was to be sent back to Switzerland or France (where I had citizenship). for countless other people, the alternatives are far, far scarier. my brief sojourn in the land of Immigration Hell showed me what it is like to be an unwanted, illegal person, and to have little control over where you live, work, and love. I saw pre-dawn milk-bottles full of pee, left by children and the elderly along the hours-long interview line to the INS building in Atlanta. then, with an astounding amount of help, I got my resident alien status sorted out, and returned to the path of citizenship.
have you ever been naturalized?
in 2006, I participated in a US citizenship ceremony in an Atlanta courtroom full of fellow-immigrants, including a monk from Laos, a quiet young man from Rwanda, a lady soccer-fan from Ghana, and a Chinese woman who explained how hard it is to get non-Chinese-reading officials to change your name from Wang to Wang when you get married. afterwards, the Sons of the American Revolution, in full 18th C gear, shook the living daylights out of everyone's hands in congratulations, and presented us with small American flags.
have you ever been welcomed as an immigrant?
in addition to the US, Hong Kong, Ireland, Scotland, England, Indonesia, and India have all welcomed me for long-ish stays, some of which involved working visas. in each place, I experienced generosity and trust.
have you ever felt afraid, on the basis of being a foreigner?
besides my 1999-2000 INS adventures in this country, which were at times existentially quite scary, because I believed I might lose the right to live in the country I considered home, I've experienced a few other moments where I felt threatened as a foreign national.
when I traveled in China in the 1990's, there were rules forbidding foreigners from staying in certain accommodations, or traveling to certain areas. in one hot, dusty town in Qinghai province, I went from hostel to hostel, followed closely by a disturbed young man, and a curious crowd of onlookers. no one would take me in. I felt alone and vulnerable. finally, one truly disgusting place agreed to rent me a room. I asked the waiter to walk me home after dinner, to keep a buffer between me and the (I now knew) mad outsider who was still following my every move. that night, some police officers came into my room in the middle of the night, to check my passport. luckily it was under my pillow, so I just rolled over and handed it to them. luckily, that's all they wanted.
in 1996, on the wrong train from Moscow to Prague, I was stopped at the border with Belarus. Belarus? weeks of desert sweat had blurred my Russian visa beyond recognition, and I had no other papers to justify my existence in the eyes of the border guards. they pulled me off the train, and ordered me to an office across town. I threw a total indignant hissy fit at the man behind the desk, who wearily and somewhat gallantly stamped an antidote on what was left of my visa. then, a taxi-driver bodhisattva brought me back to the station. I pressed a messy wad of small bills and coins from China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia into his hands - all that I had left in my motley pockets. rage stayed with me until I was finally back on another train to Prague. then I cried for a long time, having touched only the very outer layers of the terrible pain we humans inflict on one another in the name of Safe Borders.
we are all immigrants and refugees.
there is no such thing as an illegal person.
Fortunately, I have no idea what’s happening here, and mostly, I’m giving up trying to shape it in any particular way. Mostly. The muscles deep inside my shoulders will tell you that’s not the whole story. Some factions are still desperate to script the whole universe – but they are small, squirrely factions – and nobody much votes for them these days, since, being too crotchety for bearing children, they are losing out on a strategy that works brilliantly for other extremists, elsewhere. No quiver-full of control freaks here – just the old-fashioned ones I’ve been working with for years.
Deep breath. There is something extraordinary in the way things work, once the monkey-paws withdraw their death-grip. In the past, whenever I’ve heard someone extol the virtues of a) living in intentional community, or b) living in a small town, I’ve found it hard to roll only my inner eyes, and not to give away my real feeling of, Holy Jesus help me! Please not that, ever again. Too-small town, too-nosy nuns – recipe for disaster, only relieved by getting out of town. But here, and this Upper Valley where I live, there’s just the right number of humans, cushioned by just the right number of trees, hills, squirrels, bobcats, and deer.
Packing up dozens of lamps with friends yesterday, I came across long, wide bands of lint stuffed into plastic wrappers, like giant non-absorbent maxi-pads. Slotted in-between the copper-finish lamp of the little girl straddling her horse, the vaguely funereal marble lamp, and the ceramic base made by former Czech refugee, the maxi-packers made space. The objects all knew they were in a box together, but they could keep quiet about it.
Just so, drinking hot chocolate with my mother, I see a posse of ladies composed of all kinds of people I’ve never fit together in my mind before. Here we are. My mother and I spooning pudding-like cocoa out of small china cups, as the woman who showed my work, and the woman who lent the sound system for our Refuge Dance spoon their own treats out of cups, next door. We are aware that we are all in the same box together, and it is civilized. Fortunately, we have our own talents. Fortunately, we’re all joined together by kindness. Fortunately, we’re free to come and go as we wish, without the grasp of any monkey-paws moving us around.
Vicky the librarian meets Notebook Club in front of the circulation desk with a biography of John Cheever that she's pretty sure belongs to one of us. She's had it for weeks, she says. She's been keeping it safe. I have no idea, but it's so kind. Fortunately if no one claims it, it can go straight to the maw of the monster book sale and be redeemed. I saw the dump guy last week ripping covers off paperbacks and tossing them in the mixed paper heap, so I won’t do that to Mr. Cheever, even though I suspect that even at the book sale, ripping covers off has to be part of what the volunteers do to maintain sanity in the face of dinged-up boxes full of moldy crossword books.
Fortunately, I don't deal with material donations all the time. Part of me loves it – there's so much richness in people exposing the contents of their attics and basements – and part of me wants to burn everything I own and live in an empty yurt. Repairing, mending, caring for the material things in our lives is essential, and can also be a vast distraction. This past week, when my parents were visiting from Switzerland, was a tremendous stuff-fest. The stuff of food. Three times a day, something specific to eat – something to be transported, ordered, processed, melted, baked. And on top of that, the hospital of broken lamps for refugee households. Every single mis-wired, shadeless, hopeless piece of illumination we’ve been given, or scrounged, brought to the surface for tending. The floor lamp with a broken neck, the white glass lamp with a busted dimmer, the desk lamp that is a perfect tool for setting your house on fire. All of it. My dad is officially a power systems engineer, and yet, here he was, pulling apart wobbly, corroded bits, setting them plumb, putting them back together. My specialty was the gold spray paint that so hopefully conceals years of scarring and neglect. We were a good team, with my mother taking care of de-encrusting the grit and pall of old history.
Was this wise, all this eating, all this lamp-fiddling? Mostly yes. It didn't keep my mom and I from talking about death as we lapped up chocolate so thick two paddles are required to keep it spinning out of solid form. It gave us a door into connection. On the tikkun olam/heal the world front, re-enabling dead lamps to shine isn’t a bad idea.
Fortunately, projects end. Two people wrote to ask me about donating lamps this morning. No for you, and for you, too. Hold on to those blessings. I am done. I will sleep again past 5:30, and begin attending to something else in life.
Fortunately, something else will arise, without my having to go pawing around for it, and fortunately, I don’t have to cook up my own plan for what that will be. I have no idea, fortunately.
The muscles in my shoulders say, Can we please just have some time where exactly nothing is driving time forward? Can we plop John Cheever in a corner, not worry about the missing finial, and read a book? That sounds utterly reasonable, after weeks away, weeks with family, weeks of swimming the strange with-the-stream against-the-stream stroke of intensive improvisation.
Fortunately, I have decided to be the single least-informed American of the Trump presidency. I am opting out. I mean, people can tell me stuff, and I will try to understand why it’s important to them, but I’m not going to make any effort at all to top off my daily glass of hateful nitwittery. My mind-space will be dedicated to whatever is arising on the things I can actually do something about front, with generous pauses for those linty maxi-pads of doing nothing. The dogs are masters of this – sitting around belly-up, or with paws curled around decoratively. Fortunately, they remind me that just sitting around can be done with full attention.
Elliot and Chloe lay in their crates nose-to-thigh, or lounge on the couch with their heads on the armrests. Fortunately no one's enlisted them in an experiment requiring their complete desanguination, freezing, and resuscitation. Fortunately, we don't require them to hunt. Fortunately, we keep the dogs in kibbles, and we keep ourselves in tempeh. Fortunately, there’s no such thing as a canine membership in the NRA, and Elliot doesn’t have the thumbs anyway, so the postman is safe.
Fortunately also, this writing can wander and meander unprocessed and unscrutinized. I will read it out, and it will river on. I feel the tiredness behind my eyes and in my shoulders, but so be it. Fortunately, like a beloved dog, I can simply let it be.
Under the bridge. Under the boardwalk. Under the weather. Understand?
This, exactly, is pretty much all there is. This levitating baby strapped to the front of his mother’s body in the coffee line. This warm café, with the foaming milk snorkel-sounds. These conversations ongoing, as the snorkel ceases, and someone pounds out the pack of grounds from a spent espresso. This. Under my skin, which turns out not really to be such a different place than the table next door, where two men talk about misdemeanors.
Ice clash! Plastic cup. Cool air, right arm, where the door’s exhalation has traveled.
Under the bridge is a place of getting-rid-of. A place of exiling-till-trollhood. This horrible nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach, just after I smash down to the ice, and land full force on my capacious bottom. This kickball horror – it's happened again. Except this time I don’t exile it under the bridge. I open to it. Hello, fear, shame, surprise, horror. Hello, wildebeest on her knees with the lions loping towards me. I feel you. I refuse to want something besides you. Ouch. You really are something, and I can take care of you without flinching away. May everyone falling to their butts, or their knees, or anywhere, be OK. May no one actually throw up from the horror of being upended again and again in this life. Though I suspect we will.
Timothy and I went to see Manchester by the Sea on Saturday, more or less because it has that aura of Serious Movie that occasionally motivates us out of the house and into the popcorn temple of trauma. That movie is so full of things under the bridge that there’s hardly anything left above the bridge, or anywhere else in the visible landscape. That movie is so crowded in its underbridge, so claustrophobic and ambitious in the amount of crap it is shoving out of sight, that it serves as a two hour PSA for the invention of psychotherapy as a means of decluttering society’s underbridge, one white New Englander at a time.
Constantly, in the film, as someone comes close to actual contact with anything, there's a flinch – I've got to go, and THAT's got no business out here, above ground. Everyone is wearing one of those emergency buttons on a necklace, and what the button does when you press it, is shove things under the bridge, into the dark, dank, steep places littered with slippery leaves. You know you will fall on your ass or your knees if you ever go there. So you don’t.
I didn't love the movie. For one thing, Albinoni's adagios should never be allowed in the soundtrack of a film that's attempting to be about emotional repression. It's just not fair: you can't call in the Italian cavalry to bring emotion back on screen, when your characters are doing everything they can to get rid of it. I don’t know what music you’re allowed to use, in that case – maybe none. Maybe that’s the no-license you are given. Albinoni is for 9/11, and 9/11 sucked the life out of it, until further notice, and significant personal work on the spaces under all our bridges.
Actually, when we talk about America's infrastructure problems, we are usually talking about the bridges themselves, but not troubling ourselves even a tiny bit with whatever fester-fest is happening under them. The suicides know: get me under there as soon as possible! The bungee jumpers, who seem like such badasses, can only handle a speedy boinging dip under there, then whoosh! Right back up. They wind up upside down, like the opposite of that baby who’s probably still in here somewhere, but still tethered topside. Does that count? They’re interested in space, not ground.
So what am I talking about, here? I'm talking about actually feeling the backlog of unfelt feelings we most of us are carrying around within ourselves, having build bridges and bypasses over what we know and feel. I met with my cousin while I was in Switzerland last month, and she was despairing at all the things no one ever owns up to in our family. That's a start, but it's not the whole story, until there's a clear sense of all the things we ourselves don't own up to. I remember a passage from Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow, where he talks about being a young, righteous poet, trying to write about those stiff men in ties, strangling off what they feel, in order to set all the wars in motion. The poem couldn't work, and though he was young, he was seasoned enough to know it. He changed the pronouns – we, the stiff men who strangle our feelings. The poem worked. He had owned something. He had blown up one of the bypasses inside himself, forcing himself to walk down the slippery slope to the edge of a river of sorrow, and wade or swim or pay the ferryman to get across, and arduously back up the other side.
God! Crossing rivers without a bridge is really fucking scary. Is that really what I'm advocating here? Seems like yes. Seems like at least once, every river of feeling needs the intimacy of a non--flyover crossing. With mules and a raft. With stripping off all your clothes and piling them into a plastic bag you try to hold overhead while your feet feel blindly on the riverbed for each pulling step. With frozen feet. With a chance to find the bright bottles half-buried in mud, and the darting crayfish.
I think this is connected with why I want to cross the Atlantic by boat sometime – in some boat small enough to feel the texture of the ocean, the waves, the wind, the precarity of being in-between. So many times – must be hundreds of times – I have gotten on board an airplane, settled in with my books, my little screen, and my complementary mini-drinks, and calmly bridged my way across the reality of the Atlantic. But we Buddhists are really into ocean – ocean-mind, ocean-heart. What's up with six-hour quickies watching Frozen with the sound off, while bending the edges of my vegetarianism (that shrimp is SO already dead. If I eat it, who suffers? mmm.)
It's hard, all this. Hard unless the ocean-wide refuge quality of experience is there, saying it's OK. You can feel the massive bruise that will inhabit your right buttock for who knows how long. You can bear to wait for your half-wild dog to make his frozen, mud-encrusted way back to you, at some undetermined time, on this cold morning. It can be borne. I’m going to take an intuitive leap here, and say that this is the rainbow-deal between God and Noah. Yes, the flood came, but in this ship you’ve built– let's call it the SS Mindfulness – you’ve made it. Not swept away. Not destroyed when all the bridges went all at once, and you found yourself in a whole world turned underbridge. So that’s it. From now on your relationship with ocean is changed. You’ve crossed. You’ve weathered. Nothing can sink you again, because even then, even when you go under, you understand that you equals ocean, ocean equals you, and it’s all good.
Where do I book a Noah-Crossing? Right here: lucky ticket. This fathom-long body, with its mind.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now