“It’s your writing, lady,” says Larissa after turning the paper this way, and that.
Big ass it is, then. I’ve got some bigass feelings. Bigass, like badass, is probably considered unmentionable by one local Honey, who once wrote me an outraged email, to say she considered me an unsuitable person to be Teaching Our Children. I had posted a message to our local listserv, praising our town librarians as badasses, because they had just appeared in a French magazine article citing their exemplary stance on Internet privacy.
Whatever. Badass, bigass. Words a person sometimes needs to describe What Is.
Larissa gives me a beautiful wooden box, tied in a green ribbon, with a real gold wax seal. Not bigass, but perfect.
“I’ll take the red leather pants in a size 2" – cited as an example of a sentence one might utter with satisfaction.
Stephanie once had a boyfriend whose main qualification was – when she would ask, “Do these pants make my ass look big?” – he would say, “Mmm-hmm.” Fair enough.
I’ll take the red shiny pants in whatever size makes me feel Mmm-hmm.
It’s hard work, maintaining anything like a sanctuary for big feelings, for the body as it is. Hardly anything in the world seems to want that, and yet, more than anything, it’s what I crave.
I go to the newspaper offices to buy a five-dollar roll of paper on which to make bigass drawings of all the selves that inhabit what sanctuary I can maintain. Laid down side-by-side, they are a surprising sweet chain of paper dolls, a dance of the bigass ladies. Twelve feet by six feet, and counting.
On the front page of the newspaper this morning – printed on that same paper, only cut down smaller, is a story about carfentanil deaths in New Hampshire. And what, you may ask, is that? Oh, elephant tranquilizers. You know, a little something to take the edge off… Seriously? Elephant tranquilizers? If you listen to the world in the ways that it communicates, this elephant tranquilizer story seems to be spelling out something about some big, bigass pain being poorly managed, in ways that seem not unrelated to another front page story: New Hampshire's incredibly poor resources for mental health care. Most states? 40 to 50 residential care spaces per 100,000 inhabitants. New Hampshire? 11.9, give or take some elephant tranquilizers.
Bigass pain. When some shadow of that comes over me – We humans have been knowing for literally thousands of years what it actually takes to live a peaceful and harmonious life, and yet, we persist in electing Donald Trump, or being Donald Trump, or fighting him with self-righteous fury – when any of that rears up for me, luckily I have the time and space and skills to deal with it. I go out into the backyard with my dogs. I ask my husband to trace my whole shape onto newsprint three times, and then I draw, following the squirrely line of my intuition, far past the point of giving up, until I can see what’s there. I take these bigass feelings, and give them shape and color, rhythm and form. I print my own news, give it sanctuary, and move on.
But what about the kid walking in long strides down our hill, a bright yellow Walmart asterisk on his back, like livery for some unarmed and underpaid mercenary force? What about him? Looking busy – or if he's lucky, actually being busy – all day in that bigass store. What sanctuary is there for whatever he’s feeling? Eight hours, ten, just enough to eat up his time but not to give him benefits, a paycheck big enough to feel it might be worth it, but small enough to keep at least part of his mind worried about how his shoes are running down, and he’s been wheezing for weeks now. Where is the space in that, to make room for the bigass work of being human?
Another bit from the newspaper this morning: a 23-year-old man caught having sex with an 83-year-old woman suffering from dementia, while on the job as an orderly, or whatever they call it these days, in a nursing home. That sounds like elephant tranquilizers to me – both in the past, and heading into the future.
Elephant tranquilizers for everyone!
Your job is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your religion is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your family, marriage, and education are all elephant tranquilizers.
Same goes for your volunteer efforts, and your careful donations here and there.
And your protest signs with hummingbirds, too.
Do I feel like those are fair statements about me and my life? Not really. So probably they don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny for everyone else on the planet, either – but there's something there. Something to acknowledge about the ways our activities tend to dance around the edges of what’s there, tend to deal in diversionary tactics, tend to avoid the bigass realities of the situations we find ourselves in.
I'm realizing, just now, that my situation is taking a sharp turn. What's been semi-sustainable for a year or more – in school full-time, working a bunch of unrelated jobs, taking care of some lovely wild mutts, producing art, writing, teaching, doing volunteer refugee work – is becoming unsustainable. The addition of two days in another town, spent doing a counseling internship, makes the whole thing bigger-assed than I have space for. So then, welcome to the club! But I don’t want that. I don’t want to let the initial signs of growing anxiety, depressed mood, frantic stuffing of things here and there, turn into my new reality. Do that, and I lose the perspective from which to be effective at all. Do that, and I will start to want tiny mouse-tranquilizers, which everyone knows are the gateway drug to elephant tranquilizers.
Instead, I will have to let go of things. Last night, my friend Jan said that what she needs help with is not committing to things, but knowing when to stop doing them. That’s true for me, too. I will have to let go of the idea of being a stalwart leader. Let go of never turning down an opportunity to be useful. Let go of practices that don't help me. Let go of looking good. I know exactly which things need to go, but I’m afraid of what might happen if they do. No one will remember me. Things will fall apart. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll re-find the space to attend fully to what matters. I’ll re-find the Mmm-hmm in whatever I choose to engage with.
Whatever happens to us happens within a framework. Since I am fortunate enough to operate within a framework that includes a lot of freedom, what might it be like to make choices that support that freedom, for myself and others? I like the idea of lots of things, but that doesn’t mean I actually have the substance to carry them.
Sojourner Truth sold photo-cards of herself, holding her knitting, in a sober a black dress and little oval glasses. Printed in red below her image is I sell the shadow to support the substance. That seems right, especially when compared to the alternative. She knew. Before, someone sold my substance to support their shadows. Now, I sell images of myself to support my work in the world. What I want for myself: her clarity of cause, purpose, and effect.
Whistles and bells.
Whistle while you work. A low whistle of disbelief.
Whet your whistle.
Whistle me to sleep.
Actually, no one says that.
Also, no one says, Hey! I have a great idea! Let’s all get together and put on makeup of another skin color, and then feel into what comes up. No one says, I know you’re really not allowed to change your skin color, but when there’s a taboo that ferocious, something’s got to be going on, so let’s do it. No one goes into the beauty supply store and says, Give me your most unlike-me shade. Makeup’s supposed to be about looking like some slightly more sleek version of yourself, not a patchy Frankenstein.
I wander the aisles of hair products. Apparently it is perfectly fine to want to make your hair any color of the spectrum. Where's the damn foundation? I feel like a kid shopping for condoms the first time. I finally ask the girl near the entrance where I came in, and she points right next to herself.
OK, so what’s the darkest you’ve got? I ask.
This, or this, she half-says, skeptically. She can tell that I am about to use the stuff for some off-label, maverick purpose.
OK. And is there any difference between Femme Couture (I am not making this up) in compact or liquid form?
Can you put it on with your finger?
Sure, or you can use a sponge.
Oh you mean like the ones I have from making tiny clay animals eight years ago?
I buy the compact because it’s darker. $14.97. It goes in the bottom of my backpack, and I find myself driving under the interstate, on a road I never knew existed, to go buy myself some discount lady-clothes, for my unpaid internship. The beauty-to-beauty pipeline. It makes some kind of perfect sense.
It’s hard to find time to whistle when you’ve got so much to say. I whistle at the dogs sometimes, to remind them of our shared mission. I whistle to myself, to get back on track.
At the discount lady-clothes cashier, I ask what time it is. 12:53. I am due at the high school at 1:10. Perfect. Me, the compact, a pair of pink pants intended for adventurous men, and an Anne Klein shirt with small feral polka-dots and a pussy bow (my first ever) get back in the car together, and make a beeline for the school. There’s a space right in front. I have only slightly less change than is required. It’s a go!
My job, three years in a row now, has been to talk to kids about Buddhism. I love doing this because it seems like an opportunity to embody some way of being that both adheres to what these kids are being told is good in life (I went to Yale) and radically does not (I am a childless post-monastic artist, whose current earnings profile is best described as “eccentric”). I ask the kids in the hallway, changing classes, where the religion classroom is. Some look at me like, What? Others basically confirm that I’m getting warmer. I walk in. Oh, you! It’s clear I’m not the only one here in radical improvisation mode.
I ask the kids to tell me what they want to know. This time, my favorite question is the one I hear last, from a blonde sitting not very far from me. Can you say a little bit about Nirvana? I mean, is it a goal you're working towards, and if so, how do you do that?
Oh! My! God! No-God! Buddha! Thank you for this question, on this day of wandering aisles and trying on the various identities on offer in the retailosphere.
Well, I say, there's one version of the story where Nirvana is something you Attain, and when you do, all desires fall away, and rays of light come shooting out of your head. It's essentially, irreducibly different. It’s someplace else, and being there involves a radical, permanent state-change. Then, there’s another version of the story, where Nirvana – the ability to embody wisdom and compassion – and Samsara – the experience of being stuck in suffering – are two sides of the same coin. They are both available in any moment, and anywhere you have one, you have the other.
So, for instance, sitting here talking, I could be having a suffering experience, worried about whether I will say the wrong thing, and whether I am boring you. Or I could choose instead to tune in to the space of this room, into your presence, and my body, and orient towards an intention like, May what is wise in me connect with what is wise in these young people. May our conversation create a space of wisdom and compassion. And the same goes for all of you. You could be sitting here listening for the dog-whistle in these words, the inaudible but compelling call of the acorn in you that wants to be an oak. Or you could be simply happy that no one is expecting much of you right now. Or you could be bored, or fantasizing, or whatever. All these possibilities are present right now.
The words come and tumble out, letting off a faint whistle, as of air streaming by the small hairs in my nose. It’s good enough. It’s all worked out. Forgetting and remembering, breathing in and breathing out.
I don't know what comes next. This thing Larissa is letting me host in her studio this weekend: will anyone come? It's been deafening whistle-free silence since anyone received the invitations I sent out. No wolf-whistles – that's obvious – but also no shrill cop-whistles.
Hey, you, over there! Drop that compact, and step away from the sponges.
The night I picked to do this turns out also to be the night of the fashion show in White River Junction. Two sides of the same coin: beauty and truth. Some of each is available in both places. Will anyone want to try a second skin before the catwalk? Likely not, but maybe. Will anyone go from whatever they find out through molting, to whatever they find out through molting again? Maybe. Molting is what we do, even when our skins stay looking mostly the same. We shape-shift in ways that aren’t always obvious, but, especially if were paying attention, can be profound.
Yesterday I took the dogs for a walk on the Old King’s Highway. I've never encountered anything like this mud: flat and leafy on the surface, and underneath, a liquid soup that splooshed eagerly right over the top of my sandals, ankle deep. I came to a stream, immersed my feet, baptized them clean, bluing my toes with cold, and then set out with the hounds on no known path. Wandering, early spring, dodging the mud-pits as we followed a ruined stone wall. Everything still flattened by snow and ice. We cut across and over, Chloe and Elliot sure in whatever it is that dogs sense, till I, the last to know, recognized myself only a few feet from where we started, safely away from being wholly ingested by the secret sea of mud.
We leave. We set out for who-knows-where, and listen carefully to what the world and our bodies tell us. We follow the whistling breath inside the breath back home. It doesn't matter, really, what others are saying is true. Their intimacy is real, but it is not mine. And the wonder of it is when these individual whistles and overtones, under-drones and trills are glimpsed layered, complete, together forming a song no one ever planned.
Mystery Mama, who are you, and how may I provide you with excellent service today?
I’d like a large shadow-sandwich, with a side of honesty, and the willingness to be shaken.
Chocolate, not vanilla.
That will be all the money I’ve ever had.
Please pull around to the window.
Yesterday I found out that a woman I knew in the monastery is, after many MANY years, leaving monastic life. Mystery Mama has placed her order, and now this woman is pulling around to the window, to find out what her meal will be.
Some fast food: Fuck! I need something to wear besides robes. I need someplace to live. What’s it like eating after noon?
Some very slow food: How does community work, once I drop the status of Designated Holy Person?
Will she drop that status? It comes in handy, but it also keeps you from eating many of the most nourishing foods. Mystery Mama is different from Designated Holy Person, in that nobody has any idea. It’s more like the true person of no rank than the Guru. It’s embodied and manifest, but not necessarily recognized.
Yesterday night I dreamed I had a sweet junior high school boyfriend. Our ages were indefinite. Very young. Halfway to ninety. Both. Anyway, he came and sat next to me, then shyly took hold of my hand. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. Blond boy. I could’ve stayed like that forever. This is what people said at the yoga studio this weekend, after spending some time sitting, leaning back to back with a partner. Can we do this again? Can we be one another’s Mystery Mama?
Yes. Sometimes we can, especially if we let her qualities travel freely, instead of sticking them to one person, or to ourselves, and then clamping on for dear life. Mystery Mama is never stable, does not cling in any one being. She travels. Sometimes she decides to be you, then flips right over into the eyes of the person looking at you, abandons ship from that whole scene, and turns up in the eyes of the Identified Suffering Person you’ve just met. Actually, Mystery Mama’s main game is making sure you stay attentive to every encounter, gradually attuning to her presence through letting go of ideas of where she should and shouldn’t be. Your shoulds mean nothing to her, and that is a tremendous relief.
Owl is Mystery Mama.
Rose-breasted grosbeak is Mystery Mama.
Psychology textbook is Mystery Mama, and so is the Valley Snooze.
I am Mystery Mama writing, and Mystery Mama is this hospitable ruled notebook, with its beast-loving androgyne Krishna sticker on the cover. Mystery Mama is this sudden leap into summertime from winter, and the deep channels cut through eight inches of ice still hunkered on the forest floor.
I remember when this all turned around for me, when I went from feeling like a starving orphan in the world, to being a devotee of Mystery Mama, who feels so fundamentally loved that honesty and openness have become more and more the fabric of this life.
I was on retreat. Yes, I am often on retreat, in the immersion of community without talking. We were working on compassion. Sleeping in a dorm room of spectacular snorers who woke me up with intense regularity, I had a dream. There was a magnificent mountain, part of the great wall of the Himalayas, with a spur extending down into the valley where I lived. On that spur, people had built a temple, covering the mountain-stuff, and controlling access to it. The temple was ugly, false, and manipulative, claiming for itself power that rightly belonged to both to no one, and to everyone. And yet: almost all the people of that place were gathered there, to play the game of power and belonging.
I left, and walked to the walnut orchard outside the village. There, a beautiful woman, a dancer dressed in cream and brown, black and red, living language shimmering on her simple garments, came to teach me. We sat on the ground and sorted nuts into bushel-baskets: the good, the bad, and the broken. She was patient with me. Though she could do the sorting much more quickly and accurately than I could, she wanted me to learn, and so we worked side-by-side.
The next day, in a meditation session, we were invited to bring up a benefactor – someone who'd been kind to us and who had seen us in our wholeness. So I picked the woman in the orchard, from my dream. What happened next is indescribable, except perhaps in terms of what it influenced in me, in the world.
There was an icestorm coming. More exactly, there had been a slushstorm, and now brutal cold was coming to cement the resulting thick slush into solid ice. An announcement went out at the end of the day, urging people to clear their cars before disaster struck. But no one did. It was cold. It was late.
That night, I went out under bright stars, into the deep dark stillness of the New Hampshire countryside. She loves me! I felt, She loves me! I felt, If she loves me, then I love all these random, well-meaning Buddhist people, and their cars! Suddenly, I begin to wonder if I could clear not just my car, but my neighbors’. Not just ours, but everyone’s. I threw my whole body into it, slinging wet snow off in great slushy sheets. She loves me! Mystery Mama made all this seem not just possible, but fun. Not just useful, but a positively ecstatic good time.
Since then, the sense of knowing that something can be done, and that it will be less effort to do it, than to resist it, has come back a lot. Even when I have no idea how to do it, I still know that the way will show itself. Here goes. And now this, and this. Mystery Mama can be a bit ruthless with limitations, and she can also be astonishingly generous. Remember: she’s not into the temples, structures, and ownerships of this world. Her deal is discernment: Yes, no, mend this.
I am just beginning a year of internship work for the counseling course that I am doing, and yes, no, mend this are useful responses to have around. Mystery Mama is very useful to have around, especially if I honor her shape-shifting nature. I may be “the therapist,” but “the client” is the one who knows where the upstairs toilet is, in this wacky healing castle. I may be “the therapist,” but unless I can help “the client” connect with Mystery Mama in their own self, nothing much good is going to come of our interaction.
This way of being holds challenges. What about the Important Relationships in Our Lives? Well, they change. And also: I find that I can let myself and other people off the hook much more easily than I once did, because I'm not depending on some one source to meet all my Mystery Mama needs. I’m poly-mamarus. Mama-identified in the substance and workings of this world. Which is awesome. Are you my mother, as a question, has stuck around, and opened up into a gateway for marvel, rather than an endless exile's quest.
I alternate between feeling as though I would like to be completely wrapped in layers and layers of padding, with of course a snorkel and some goggles to see with – and knowing that the very rawness of experience is the precious jewel. Mostly, I’ve moved into the second camp, the one where I look around, seeing the depth of pain and complexity and loss we all live through, and feel, At last! This is living.
In the paper this morning, a front page story about how illegal miners are tearing apart the forests of Madagascar to wrench sapphires from the ground there. Some French gemologist: Now we have all these huge, perfectly clear stones appearing at the gem shows! It’s really exciting. Meanwhile, skulls and bones and nests and feathers and scales, all pulverized into stinking the piles, as the slaves of the gem-seekers dig deeper into ground that, until 12 minutes ago, was Home.
The good news about metaphoric gems – the Jewel of Great Price, the Triple Gem, the Diamond Heart – is that you don't need to go to despoiling lemurs to find them. All the despoiling that anyone could ever wish for has already happened, and all you need to do is to agree to take off the snorkel, goggles, and bubble wrap, and feel what is already there. You want new, clean gems? Look into any place on earth were someone’s agreed to feel what they feel, and agree to feel it yourself. Be one of the nodes. Allow yourself to take ownership of what is most raw in your experience, and voilà! Sapphire. Diamond. Ruby. Don’t hold it too tight, or it will turn back into a pile of corpses.
Renée Daumal knew this. In his Mount Analogue, the only way to find the highest island mountain in the world is to believe that it exists, and set out in a small boat on the open ocean in search of it. Once found, the only way to pay the guides you need to climb the mountain is in the currency of gems that appear spontaneously at times of deep empathy or fellow-feeling. No faith, no mountain. No compassion, no guides.
Asanga learned this. Bubblewraps himself in a cave for 10 years, waiting for the Buddha of the future to come to him. No dice. Disgusted, he storms out of the cave. Then: sees a bird brush the top of his cliff with the edge of her wing, grooving ever so slightly deeper the indent of her ancestors’ flights into stone. Roar! Back to the cave. Patience. Bubble wrap. 10 more years. Fuck it! Leaves the cave. Drop of water falls from the top of the cliff into a deep basin carved into stone and filled with sweet water, over millennia. Noooo! More patience. Back to the cave. 30 years in. Still nothing. Gets a bit further away this time, then, meets a man brushing a huge lodestone of iron with a silk cloth, honing the needle someone someday will have extracted from said giant motherfucking stone. Loses his Buddhist mind. What? No cave, no Buddha, no 401(k), no job, no wings, what? Asanga tears his hair, his sad cave-dweller’s rags. Then comes to a dog in the road. Dog? Charismatic, and also, what’s this? Huge gaping maggoty wound in her side. Oh God! Throws himself to the dusty road, sticks his tongue out, and approaches the wound, hoping to make a bridge so the maggots can parade out, unharmed. Bam! Buddha, right there.
Asanga - good for him - says, Where have you been the last more than a couple decades, O Shiny One?
Buddha, In 30 years, this is the first time you have felt and expressed love for another being. I can't reach you, all bubblewrapped, goggled and snorkeled. But down in the dust, tongue out, maggot-rescuing, I'm right here. Jewels galore.
But don't imagine that everyone will see it that way. Asanga walks into town, overjoyed. Yes! Me and my jewel-Buddha-buddy friend are cruising the main drag in glory! But the Chamber of Commerce, still respectably padded, sees a smelly old dude in a loincloth, plus a medically disreputable canine on his shoulder. Better double-bag that. Better keep that shit away from our vulnerable citizens. Sad.
One little girl’s not fooled. Hey, Mister? What’s your friend’s name? Want a granola bar?
Something I've been feeling into, the last few days: when longing for someone else, somewhere else starts up its siren song of lemur corpses, its strip-mining of the heart’s abundance for some One True Thing, I feel into the back of the neck and shoulders (where Asanga carried his friend) and allow something to open, connect, and deepen. Wanting to bubblewrap and numb is interconnected with finding myself/the present moment/the way things are wanting. But they’re not. I reset the back of my neck, reconnect head and body, and suddenly what is there is the willingness to see and feel abundance as they are, right now and right here. Don’t need to go to Madagascar. Don’t need to extend myself to some other fantasy version of reality. Don’t need to divert the rawness of what I am feeling by spinning it into stories of if then and what if.
I can't say it's easy to do this, but I can say that having the felt sense of broadening my shoulders and opening my crown to enter the body-mind is tremendously helpful. I don't need someone to anoint me. I don't need some showy red-velvet and peeled-weasel coat to acknowledge my viable presence in this world. Body does that. Mind not wandering like a starving exile does that. Discipline and letting go of the thing-making mind does that.
My friend and his family are traveling right now in Cambodia, re-finding the roots of the son he adopted through the intercession of a pair of Canadian women then in their 20s, who simply would not leave the country, no matter how awfully dangerous to themselves, until some government somewhere would issue visas for the two dozen orphans they were keeping alive in the midst of the carnage. At the very last possible moment, the papers came through, and the women and children boarded a plane for North America, where the latter were adopted into new families.
Anyway. This morning my friend posted a photograph from a memorial on the former killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. At the edge of a green field, a tall, narrow pagoda, with glass sides, into which, packed noses-to-glass, a pile of skulls, waiting. Who's going to pick us up? Who’s going to see the maggots in our wounds, the Buddhas in our suffering? We’ve been memorialized, and who will agree now to feel our suffering, from inside the bubble wrap of this respectable casing?
That’s always the question, isn’t it? Who will agree to feel what we feel and know what we know? Who will agree to feel and know the stories of others?
I drive around listening to the Cultural Revolution for a while, then switch to apartheid. I open my heart to miners in Madagascar, and then to a drone pilot. It all feels of a piece: my skin, unwrapped, is touched, and opens.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.