The bridge is swaying because someone is walking like an oompaloompa. The bridge is empty and dark, swaying over the Sarapiqui river, until three glowing pairs of eyes appear at the far end, and the bridge is full. The bridge is a construct in the canopy, a voyeur's dream, a shortcut over butterflies the color of the ringing sky.
When we say bridge, we mean a way of avoiding the full consequences of our journeys. Have you ever forded a river that was too strong for you? Step in on bare feet, or in clumsy boots, and feel the full force of the landscape's direction pulling you, indifferent to where it was you thought you were going. Struggle on, diagonally upstream, forming a kind of bridge with your will and with your steps. You may wish for a stronger structure, but for now this is it.
And sometimes this now opens. You see: this path I have been following is really a goat-dream, a scampering of hooves unconfined by human lumbering. You see: this going against the grain of the landscape is an effort that will have to carry you over muddy cliffs and between boulders, across all the natural inclinations to fall, to stop, to die.
You see the cruise boats not so far below you, surreal pagoda viewing platforms fore and aft, and you think: These people out on their moving bridges can see me. They will see if I fall from this cliff to the water & maybe they will find my body, drowned. They will gasp and gawk. Or, they will see me on all fours, clawing the slippery ground for purchase, as I make a bridge around this Heavenly Lake with my body.
If I fall, it may take a long time for anyone to figure out who I was.
We walk up to the Needle Beach in our faded life-vests, in our triple-glazing of sun-goo, in our hats & sunglasses, sun-shirts & water-shoes. It is the day after Good Friday village processions of Crucified Jesus and Dead Jesus, and while everyone knows it is a solemn day, it is also a good day to come and meet the sea. There are meat smoke and rum, fruit juice and sex on the wind, and a small sky-blue boat with a white canopy is bridging the distance between sea and land.
There, tied to the side of the boat, is the body of a man. He's tied at the belly, and so his head and arms and legs drift in the water as the boat approaches. As the boat approaches, so does the crowd forming on the shore, smart phones ready to say: This is real. This is happening. There is a bridge between life and death and someone has crossed it, leaving evidence of a body that doesn't mind having its head underwater, if that's what it takes. No one knows who he was.
Shocking. You can know about death, you can have been present with dying and with the dead, and still feel the tide sucking out at your feet and chest, in the presence of a body that does not care, head above or below or anywhere, in relation to the water.
Under my breath, holding my homemade bamboo and fiberglass kayak paddle, I chant the verse for the dead:
Anicca vata sankhara,
Three times, and then the verse for the living:
Aciram vata' yam kayo
Two bridges: You are released. I acknowledge that your head, underwater, will be mine.
No one is in the water: the sea eats dead people. But it's hot, and so I wade in. The sea cools me, and I feel, in its ebb and lapping, the ocean-bridge that makes no distinction: life as woman-body, life as sea-worm-body, same, same. White light, the child, returning to the mother, white light.
We rumble across a ditch, on a bridge made of railroad ties placed one next to the other, held together who-knows-how. Volare, says the bus, but this moving is very much an earth-story.
Another bus: we have spent the Himalayan night huddled in our seats, as the torrent flowed and released ceaselessly before us, clean across the one road to anywhere. You can see by the sides of the river the places where pylons have been driven for a bridge no one's bothered to build. Not the arrogant soldiers with their paranoid weapons, and not the skinny, dark boys from Bihar they've brought up here in rags to do the real work.
Morning comes, and while the flow might be somewhat less, near dawn, the glacier still sleeping under cool blankets of cloud, dawn is not when the army chooses to send the same phlegmatic soldier on the same puny bulldozer. More like blazing midmorning, and the same ridiculous plan that failed utterly to make a road from a waterfall last night, before we were told to sleep on the bus and make do.
The shy man and his little yellow toy wander into the river, just where it shoulders from one steep drop, before entering another. Our Leh-to-Manali bus driver tells us all to get out, then noses his craft up to first in line. Scraping, rumbling. The whole man-and-digger block threatens to go over the edge, as the shovel thrusts blind, shifting boulders on the river floor to make - what? An invisible bridge, the only possible link between this-and-that for all the petrol tankers and tourist land cruisers, the buses and motorcycles, looky-loos and merchants, pirates and traders of this road.
Nothing has changed, bridge-wise, and yet suddenly we are all being called back, challo-challo, to get back on the bus, and the doors slam shut, and forty-odd Sikhs Buddhists Muslims Hindus pan-Pagans and Atheists are holding our breath as we drive into the torrent grinding gears grinding boulders, swaying against the force of the landscape, as we, improbably, push our way to the other side in a collective shuddering exhale. The rest of that whole long day, I keep turning my head back to look along the road, to see who else has made it over this not-bridge, and the answer seems to be: no one.
We cross the Rohtang (Pile of Corpses) Pass, and come to corn-sellers smoking cobs over charcoal by the side of the road, and dark-skinned Dravidian ladies in pink snow-suits, feeling cold in their bodies for the first time in their lives. Above the torrent: disaster, a cloud-burst never seen before. And below: no passage.
A bridge is a shortcut, yes. It is also a possibility. From this thing to the next, putting off for now the real and present possibility of joining the dead in their indifference to this, or that, here, or there, now, or never.
Dance music takes you straight down the toilet, and out into a big, dark space at the center of the earth, if you let it. I suggest you let it. Ride that slippery lady-voice, that insinuatingly erratic bass beat straight through the hips feet & back, down the toilet. Go on! What else were you planning on doing, here in this place where March is still snow and sheets of ice, in this world where so many invitations to freedom turn out to be only more goody-goody evasions of your own power?
In my memory, there's a man in full cowboy regalia, long hair, leather chaps, bolo tie, the whole ridiculous nine yards. He's Italian, or Serbian, so in other words, a zealot cowboy convert. He's behind an elaborate DJ mixing deck and amps, and behind him is the sea. OK, no: immediately there are boulders, and then the sea. Serbian Cowboy Guy is not actually doing anything to the mixing deck, or the amps. What he IS doing, is exhorting a thin blond person, an androgyne in a black nylon jumpsuit that says DJ in stylized Thompson Twins lettering, front and back. Open! Let the music in! The dancer/DJ is wearing thick headphones, connected to nothing but the sea air. There is no way he/she is hearing any of the cowboy's exhortations. There's only this weird deep dance, this sort of tectonic pulsing through the hips back & knees, limp mohawk flapping, feet rising and falling in the swim of riding the dance beat straight down the toilet, straight out to sea, straight to the middle of the earth.
And, God! The whole thing is massively silly & at the same time (& I recognize I write about this a lot), it is transcendent. Cowboy Man & the Sea & DJ Androgyne are getting into it with the Universe & with this song called Poison Lips, that owes a lot to Donna Summer. They are leaving a lot of baggage behind. They are stepping into and at the same time destroying role after role, without any sense of patrolling the edges of their artifice. I know, I see it's nonsense, and at the same time, I am moved.
I am moved by people turning up to dance to whatever playlist I cobble together from the Sea & the Mongol Hordes & the California yogaheads & all the scraps & tips & hunches that come visit at playlist time. People come & they dance. Sometimes they come & they wind up sobbing in the lobby, and that's OK. Once I'm engaged with the space in the middle of the earth, my job is to keep that connection open in the room & let it take the forms it will take or won't take, for each person.
One flies around the room in beautiful Broadway form, kicking and twirling with inexorable energy. One stomps deep enough to resonate through the hardwood floor through the basement & into the permafrost under the building. Two bop around like polite wedding guests. One re-finds her ballet training, and another is the gypsy of her pre-motherhood. The space is open. Come on in.
Dance music gets a bad rap - silly, frivolous, hedonistic, not as serious as "real" rock or jazz. But I think the real discomfort some people have with it is that a lot of dance music gives your thinking mind exactly zero to engage with, and demands, in a straight-down-the-toilet way, that you move your body. Dance music insists that you take the risk of seeing where your hips take you when your brain finally lets go of the reins, and you might not like that insistence. You might put up some aesthetic defense to protect yourself from being exposed in public, flailing around hips-first on a trip down the toilet.
Like anything, dance takes time and practice and trust. Last year, twice, I really hurt my knee, dancing with abandon. Some part of me mourned - how sad to be incapacitated, just when my self-consciousness has finally ebbed enough to throw myself wholly into movement. Following the best advice we could fine, my pup and I underwent twin knee surgeries, which meant no dancing for several months. I waited, nurtured, and listened. I gimped. And then one day I realized my knee was back online. I could spend an hour dancing on tip-toes, spinning, jumping, stomping, without pain. Initially my feet took a beating - puddling up in blood blisters & peeling back, but week by week I know this body is becoming a stronger and more resilient container for dance.
For me, dance doesn't stand in isolation. Tai chi helps to open, strengthen & stretch. It gives dragon-body, anchored to the ground, the better to sink and jump. It teaches to move energy fluidly while always coming from the center of the earth. Meditation opens the space of dancing - so the experience is not just this one constrained body moving - it's the room, the walls, everyone, the deep stillness at the heart of every movement.
I know it's in some sense deeply silly to sit at my laptop getting stiff-necked, writing about the wonders of being embodied. But there are experiences I want to give voice to, saying: the sacred and the silly are one. If you are hoping for the Kingdom of God, ride some slinky disco beat down the toilet. Go on. There's good company down there, and you won't ever have to worry about progress again.
Writing from a NH Spring that looks like sheets of ice and micro-spikes, I can feel the blood pulsing in my chest, and the anticipation of gathering the dance together tonight. I know nothing could be more essential to opening heart mind & body, here in this warm & active place, here in this winter without end, this quiet space, this noisy space.
Even as a child I knew - hearing Blondie waft up from the campground disco on the beach - that dance is part of what it means to move beyond the rules and limits and unsaid blocks of the world, and into something large & pliant, elegant and dangerous, welcoming and elusive. I leaned my cheek against the wooden slats of the sliding door and promised myself I would dance, when I could, as much as possible, in the dark.
I shake my joints loose.
I shake my patterns loose.
I become a black crow, a ronin, a storm.
Hair flying, moving awkwardly, moving gracefully, moving not to be seen but to be.
I'd Rather Be, says my friend Molly's minivan sticker.
Yes. I'd rather be.
I want people to see in this way what I see, which is the end of all silos, the seamless monument. How shall I remember you? asks the student. Build me a seamless monument, says the teacher, such that there are no unimportant people or places, no sacred & no profane.
Dance twits are like yoga twits, meditation twits, running twits, and diet twits. They don't help. There's no way to talk someone into dance-as-practice.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now