Banana-rama-fo-fanna – Nana! This is a silly prompt, but then, hoorah! I notice in myself a tendency to hanker for the profound, which needs to be nose-booped into realignment with the world we live in. I can’t live on what skews serious, traumatic, life-shattering, alone. It’s good to be reminded that dogs in new sweaters are profound. Banana muffins are profound. The transfer of weight from one body to another, whether in play, work, or worship, is profound.
Banana! Declares itself. How am I going to take it, in this moment? Freud-banana, caramelized banana, banana pure poetry of the sun. Banana tree has emptiness at its core, and thus is a very Buddhist plant, furling itself out from void, fruiting, dying back. Banana both is, and is not.
The toilet is where I read about embodied truth. I sit on the toilet reading about Keet Seel, the Ancient Puebloan settlement that Timothy and I did not see, but only heard about, on our recent trip out West. I see pictures of the cliff-cave “billowing” up above the empty houses and kivas. I am here, in my house, looking at houses from eight centuries ago. Where will this home be, in that amount of time? Will anything of my life be accessible to someone sitting on whatever version of a toilet will be in use, then? How do we know the traces we leave behind? The toilet whisks away Chloe’s morning barf, my poop, the remains of yesterday, and here I am, Banana, ready to begin again.
Banana pudding is one of the foods the nuns have reacquainted me with, in their house where eight hundred years lives quietly with itself. I open the door of the refrigerator, and find a tray: one pink, covered Corningware dish of soup, one bowl of salad, one foil pouch of Tony’s Lite Ranch Dressing, one apple, and four or five desserts, plus a slip of scrap paper with my name on it, in Sister Alice’s beautiful hand. Sister Alice believes in the capacity of cakes, pies, cookies, and crumbles to convey the infinite abundance of the Universe.
Yes, this is a dying order. The Sisters are all elderly, and they know no one is stepping in to lead the lives they led. But they also know holiness has its own ways of working, finds the seams in the world, keeps benevolence moving as it must. They are walking away from their own Keet Seel, leaving behind flowered bedsheets, glowing burlap paintings of Jesus, and lidded cut-glass bon-bon jars. They are walking away, and the former quarantine hospital where the Sisters live will become something else, or will stand as a memory of their way of life.
Banana-yellow is a noticeably missing ingredient in New England January. I carry a yellow flask, crack eggs for yolks’ reminder of sunlight. I pour hot baths, add frankincense and Epsom salts, osmose yellow abundance through cold-pinched limbs. Sun puddles indoors with the syrupy urgency of a miracle cure. I curl up, drink in, yellow into being, free of coldness, darkness, hardness.
The dogs and I go up into the forest at Velvet Rocks. While I need spikes to stay upright on the icy trail, they are attuned to the banana-pudding thaw of icy streams. Here’s a pool of open water, ice-rimed but wide enough for one dogsbody plié, settling into flow, liquid, thirst-slaking abundance. Elliot flops onto his side, blissfully drinking his bathwater. The dogs find bananas everywhere: in the corpses they gnaw, the deer-poops they snaffle up off the snow, and in the snow itself, so suited for rolling in ecstatic abandon. To be a dog is to transmute the ordinary and the repellent into delight. It is also to see mortal danger in the mailman, but that is another story.
I grew up setting bananas on fire. Did you? Do try this at home: in a heavy skillet, or the crappy frying pan you just brought home from the thrift store, heat an unreasonable amount of butter, or whatever vegan alternative you like. Peel the last brown banana in the bowl, or whatever feels right. Fry it/them up. Add sugar, maple syrup, or the leftover stale marshmallows from last summer’s campfire. Let everything caramelize, then pour rum over it, enough that there’s a bit to spread around. Quickly turn out all the lights, and ignite. Voila! Blue-flickering disco destruction alchemy of dessert. Too little, and you get a sad little St. Elmo’s fire, then pfft. Too much, and you get a towering inferno that will take off your arm-hair and eyebrows. (Probably better to avoid this. Still, something of a badge of honor to wind up partially body-bald from your cooking activities.) You can eat bananes flambées with ice-cream or plain yogurt, though you don’t need to.
My brother and father once flambéed a Baked Alaska so hard, they had to drop it out of self-defense, sending flaming gobbets of meringue flying onto the walls and ceiling of the dining room. My mother briefly thought she would need to evacuate my ancient grandmother into the night, but the gobbets calmed, and everyone was OK. No one mentions having licked the walls that night, but I would have.
Condoms on bananas. This never really came up in high school sex ed, though I grew up in the AIDS era of the 90s. Maybe the idea was that we were exempt? Maybe our virginal leader was ideologically opposed to sheathed bananas in the hands of unmarried girls? Did the boys sheath bananas? Things were definitely gender-differentiated in that world. Girls put on pageants, while boys ran on the track till they barfed. I am sure there were boys who prayed for glue-guns and sequins, while there were girls who would have given anything for a clean relay race, instead of a protracted power-struggle set to Steve Martin’s “King Tut.”
Bananarama! An all-woman band singing about Venus. As a kid, I was susceptible to the profundity of the pop music I liked, failing to apply to it the skepticism that came so naturally, elsewhere. Today the task seems to be: see the profound in the silly, the silly in the profound. See the ripe banana, and the hollowness at the tree’s core.
Miley Cyrus is wreckage-fucking that pendulum: farewell to childhood. The rain outside is wrecking the remaining snow. Change wrecks what we think we know. All in all, wreckage is a good word for wreckage: that hard R, not even dressed like you think it will be; that K of kaplooey; that Old Norman way of making the terrible into nouns. Wreckage. Wrack and ruin.
I’ve never lived in a house that got wrecked by a tornado, avalanche, or tsunami, so it’s easier for me to sit here in this nice, warm library, during an ice-storm, and ponder disaster. When I was in high school, a tornado tore down trees all around the house, while we watched, bewitched, in front of windows that could easily have imploded and shredded our curious faces. In these thrilling moments, we refused to sit huddled in the guest bathroom. We watched by storm-light, as the wind wrecked pines, but not our house.
Tornadoes can be the size of the world, and tsunamis the size of the ocean. There is a mountain in Washington State, tilting more towards wreckage each day. At some point it will let go, let rip, cease being mountain, and become wave. It will become its ancestors, who released an inland sea. It will channel itself into a new form.
Wreckage is a state change. Mountain becomes wave; body becomes food; darkness becomes illumination. Wreckage is loss, if the former state is more beloved than the latter. Sometimes, same-same. Ajahn Chah taught his monks to look at all their crockery as though it were already broken. Drop a plate: the shards show what was always already true. The unbroken is a temporary miracle, not an entitlement, not a guarantee.
Wreckage floats from one place to another. Smashed parts of Japan wash up on the West Coast of North America, carrying hitch-hikers in its sheltered crannies. What is wreckage to one, is haven to another, by nature’s endless, promiscuous logic. My home, your loss. My loss, your home. We eat one another with the precision of a figure-skating duet.
Wreckage is a record of what was. Hard to censor the garbage pile. Hard to censor the mind that shovels through it. Who is sifting through the wreckage, and what do they assume about the way things are? It is hard to account for such assumptions in ourselves, but it can be done. I am sifting through the wreckage of a million lifetimes, looking for what has been awake and alive, all along.
A student asks me what “suchness” means. Suchness gives and receives radiance, shining forth radioactively from everything. We stop saying stupid names like You, Me, and That Dog Who Just Barfed Again. Suchness is the Buddha as the Thus Come One. It is the wreckage of blame and shame. It straddles itself, and swings for the world like Miley Cyrus, if Miley Cyrus were the size of the ocean, the mountains, and everything.
Do we want to be wrecked by truth, by love, by the relentless progress of waking up? Mostly not. Mostly, we want what makes us look good. We want a bottomless box of chocolates, and affection that appears when it’s convenient for us. We want endless good health, and easy acceptance into the tribe.
But also: we want to be wrecked out of living a single, unchallenged perspective. We know a monophasic life is a boring life, and we need something to break open. We need to trip wildly, to allow ourselves to be danced, to surrender ourselves to bliss greater than conventional Me can contain. We want conventional Me to get roughed up a bit, to get hit by a flowing mountain of experience that leads from the ancient sea to the ocean.
Wreckage is the lump in the kudzu field where vines have eaten the house no one wanted anymore. It is glass and metal shards on the tarmac where cars have made disaster of one another. It is the lone flap that floats ashore after the plane crash at sea. It is the deer-tibia the dog drags up from that frozenmost section of woods.
Wreckage announces itself with awe and dread. This is looming, and you can't Sandra Bullock your way around it. Or it shows up as a possibility to be skillfully avoided. Here is where this is headed, if you don’t do something about it, fast. Turn now. Say no. Throw up your arms and howl like a coyote. Still it may come.
In the wreckage of the Titanic, a sapphire necklace. In the wreckage of right now, an awakened heart polishes itself. In the wreckage of the real estate market, another round of crash is already taking shape.
I am falling asleep as I write this – the wreckage of intention and attention. It’s not so unpleasant, after all: just, hard to come back from the cottony feeling in my head, to the sparse clarity of the page. The whole page collects the wreckage of a stream of consciousness, like stream-side rocks gathering plastic bottles, fishing line, and stray socks. In Bali, the beaches gather panties, school ties, women’s blouses – all washed empty of their connections with anything.
My sleepiness is connected with avoiding wreckage?
Must we like being broken?
We can appreciate mending beautifully, but it’s hard to be truly inside the wreckage phase of brokenness, and enjoy it. I keep thinking, someday I will be able to change without first feeling stuck and bounded, but then, where would all this beautiful wreckage come from?
Tenderhearted sadness – can we outsource that to elves from Cuba, like the job my printer just refused to do? Could we ask a set of albino triplets floating face-up in some weird Police Department tank of amniotic fluid to just take care of it? How about Jesus, with his Prince-y eyes? Could he be the man to take on the task?
Me? Who, me? Do you want me to feel the tenderhearted sadness? Oh, I'm sorry, but that simply won't be even a little bit possible until I've met this big deadline I’m working under, and then I'm afraid we're looking at after first-quarter reports are in. Actually, you might want to take that request over to the nonprofit down the street. They’re used to doing shitty jobs for no money, so it could be a good fit.
Tender-hearted sadness is the death of the cocktail party, the tiny, tiny print that never makes it into the holiday letter, the parents missing from the card that gets sent out with the child smiling alone. It’s the pudgy kid at the door, letting you go first, because he’s kind, and you’re bustling along full of projects and distractions. Tenderhearted sadness knows pretty much no one’s going to stop and ask, but still, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Projecting cheerful confidence squashes tenderhearted sadness.
Shooting rays of ruby red rage chases it away.
Depression coats it in thick layers of fudge frosting, crude oil, or foundation make up, till it can’t breathe.
Oh tenderhearted sadness! You are the catch in the in-breath, a crochet hook grazing the bare muscles pumping blood and life. You're a toothbrush scraping off the don't-give-a-fuck, keeping the rot at bay. Heart-rot is a real thing, and tenderhearted sadness eradicates it.
For whom? For my own sweet pup, who comes to lick my nose in the morning, all freckles and hyena-breath? Sure. But also: for every dog, cat, mouse, and bunny compressed into some wire cubicle, oozing shampoo-wounds or cancer-cells for every minute of his or her short, miserable life. For the dairy cows chained in barns all winter long. For all of us humans, deciding that our health, our enjoyment, our shiny, shiny hair is worth these miseries. Tenderhearted sadness clears the surfaces of the heart for change and action, but also sees the inextricability of the patterns that we all help set.
I reach for my heart-brush, heart-scrubber, heart-router, heart-fucking-jackhammer. No, no, no! I will not settle into the basic urge just to give the world the finger all day long, even though it is fucking 5 degrees, or whatever, and Chloe is whining that supersonic whine that is like having 100,000 mosquitoes directly inside your brain, and if I were actually Bene Gesserit, I would have killed her with my voice already, so it's good I'm not. Instead I say, Oh, Chloe! You're desperate, just in case we never let you run free again, but maybe by now you know us well enough to think shampoo experiments aren't just around the corner? I turn from dog-murdering sci-fi witch, to something human, just by hearing in her voice something that shows up in my own:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
LET ME LET ME LET ME
GET WHAT I WANT THIS TIME
Morrissey! Sometimes you are a genius of tenderhearted sadness.
Being a genius of tenderhearted sadness is part of what it takes to be a good therapist. This Behavioral Health stuff sometimes feels like a Hoover Dam on the basic task of just feeling the fucking feelings, already. When we get very busy Modifying the Behavior to Yield Better Results, I wonder if we are also just going NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH about the underlying hurt? We are building little ice-fishing huts on the frozen lake, pretending July will never come, and sink the whole construct under eely waters. Maybe July comes and we’ve somehow learned to swim, to settle into contact with the water and dolphin around. May it be so. But also maybe, we’ve been so proud of our habit-modifications, sitting there on the frozen surface, that we’ve neglected to ask what will happen when the whole thing unfreezes. In the summer around here, you can see people’s ice-fishing huts sitting around the edges of their vegetable gardens like galvanized outhouses on sled-skids. The wise fisher knows the different states of the heart, and how to navigate them, each in season.
Tenderhearted sadness undermines any kind of posture. I am busy doesn't stand a chance. I am doing a fine job just keels over sideways and goes to sleep. I'll never get it right somehow can't even contain the majesty of failure encompassed by tenderhearted sadness. It wants to, but just when it thinks it’s closing the deal, Sacred Heart rays of beauty and magnitude come bursting through, and the deal is off. Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t want us settling for some crap emo story, listening to that Smith’s album for the twenty-sixth time today. It wants us to get off our duffs and let it guide us into connection with that kid holding the door, that ray of yellow light piercing the forest before setting behind the old-folks home, that impulse to reach out and peel a clementine for the friend who’s always preparing everyone else’s food.
Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t care about whether your plan will end in three people bopping around a gloomy church basement. It wants you to try anyway, to bridge the gaps of isolation that keep us feeling alone and afraid. Tenderhearted sadness would prefer you to be ridiculous in the service of kindness, all day long, rather than careful in the pursuit of being right and looking good. It sends weird gifts in used envelopes across the country, still vaguely wreathed in glue-gun strings. It plays a stupid dance tune, hoping someone else will figure out how to shuffle-hop to it, and feel better.
Tenderhearted sadness is one civilian name of what Buddhists call bodhicitta, the awakened heart dwelling in all sentient beings, flashing forth like lightning from within the night of our misapprehensions about self and other. It's there, shining all along, even when we prefer to be mesmerized by shithole comments and fucked-up missile scares. Tenderhearted sadness is the gateway to recognizing ourselves for what we really are, and to acting skillfully in the world. Sometimes it sounds very much like Fuck it, I’m doing this thing, because no one else will, and it needs done. Sometimes it’s quieter, agreeing to offer refuge to some long-hounded horror that no one’s been willing to tuck into bed.
Always, the heart can come clean.
Always, where there’s sadness, there’s an opening.
Always, whatever’s kept sadness at bay, changes and ends.
Might as well agree to become a harbor.
Might as well scrape the barnacles off that hull with a stiff brush.
Orange is the color of artificial things (TANG), of caution-things (airport workers’ coats), and of full ripeness.
Once, when my friend Chris took me north to Belfast, I wore a scarf that I understood to be Indian sadhu-orange, but which the military took to be Orange-orange. Not a good idea to wrap your head that way, in that time and place. Have you ever been checked out through the sight of an automatic rifle, held by a soldier on top of a tank? Wearing Orange-orange, which I thought of as holy-orange, earned me that experience on the Falls Road that afternoon.
Right now in New Hampshire, we are in one of the usual periods of unusual cold, when it seems nothing could ever be orange again in this frozen-stiff landscape. And yet if I think about it: chanterelles and their lookalikes, jewelweed flowers, autumn maple leaves. Color takes a break right now, gathers itself under snow so cold it falls from pine branches with a metallic clang. In this weather, you have to take care to nourish what’s orange inside yourself, to carry it carefully into the world under layers of wool and down and whatever miracle-stuff keeps my skinny toes warm inside my tall, grey boots. I snorkel out, keeping my heart glowing warm within its sheaths.
The pellet stove burns orange all day, converting wood-dust into warm dogs and hands that can hold pencils without shaking. The fan blows on and on, turning semi-frozen Québecquois rivers into habitable space. Orange is the color of being able to live up here right now without specialized skills. Orange is deep bear fat, the skill of animals storing sunlight under their skins.
Orange: soft, like a mouthful of mango pulp, or a bite of ripe papaya. In warm climates, even fruits that don't look orange from the outside often prove to be so under husks, leathery skin, and spikes. Orange is the syrup of still noontime heat. Orange is daylight carried into night, small sticky suns broken open to slide down your tongue in the dark.
Flames dance on glass. Flames pour forth all night, heating these spaces and bodies. May all beings have their orange in this night. May a tracery of flickering sunlight run parallel to their veins, sparkling limb from limb. May all beings survive this long, cold night.
This time of year, I usually go off on retreat, but not this time. This time, no ottering in frozen fields, for me. I will be seeing clients instead, finishing up coursework, finding other ways of burning bright in the first few days of the year. I have had a lot of retreat in this life, and this year I like the idea of carrying fire forward into the world.
In winter we are like the hidden sparks of last night’s ashes. Nothing meets the eye, but make no mistake. Potent fire-seeds, little dragons hide in that dead powder, ready to flare up, given air and fuel. This is what we can be to one another: catalyst, breath of fire, reviving power and spirit.
Orangeade, Fanta, TANG, Thumsup, Kool-Aid: all the forbidden oranges of my childhood. Cheetos. Box mac and cheese. Cheezits and cheese puffs. Caution-orange. Chemical orange. I imagine alchemical substances that combine sweetness and cheesiness with flame-color. We get high on hot TANG, waiting for the bus to take us out of the Catskills. We crackle with energy, then crash, sleeping on one another’s shoulders for comfort on the long ride south.
Orange-rinds carved by my grandfather's hand into long, spiral ribbons, falling softly to his white dessert plate. My nun friends at breakfast, each preparing an orange in her own, elaborate way: sections, slices, wedges. I quarter the rind, then peel. This is the slowest of all. An orange is an opportunity to re-find the pace of ripening, and its cumulative unfurling. An orange in New Hampshire in the winter is a tropical missionary, embodying its gospel without holding back.
Orange-scented chocolate and chocolate oranges to be eaten in sections both feature among the "medicinal allowables" we eat after noon, in the monastery. We become connoisseurs of the texture and flavor of every known form of chocolate available in England. We are the Antwerp gemologists of sweets, sidling up to the tea tray with experts’ eyes and tongues. We? I do, anyway. I can detect with my starving taste buds what is in peak condition, what has gotten overheated, and what is a bit old and dusty. We have orange juice also: this is a medicine that combines queasily with soymilk, cheese, and chocolate, and which reminds us of warmth and sunlight, when neither seems possible.
Chloe and Elliot are both deep black on the outside, but inside they are bear-fat orange, and the fireworks of their dog-being go off without cease. They bark and spark and gallop, heedless of the cold, chain reactions of soul so perfect no one can explain or fathom their gifts. How to make dogs out of kibble? It is impossible, unless the whole universe – itself an impossibility – conspires to bring forth creatures in its image. I sit on this orange sofa, burning at my core, and recognize in my dogs something that is undeniably true of myself, too. Kibble into dog; ravioli into woman. Surely both are bizarre and miraculous.
Long may we flow through the cold, dark, inert times, into the ripe. Long may we burn forth, and shine.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.