Vacuum cleaner? Whatever. Don’t talk to me about household maintenance – just trying to crack the code of how not to be numb in this world, is about all I can do right now.
Things it is very hard to get people to be sorry for you about:
It’s hard to know where to take the sorrow of having gone ahead and done the thing you weren’t supposed to do - having flown some mad and gorgeous flag of freedom, and then had it all fall apart. What else was going to happen? Well, but it still needed to happen. Well, but it still hurts. So.
There is this truth of suffering.
Here, let it be known that future vacuum cleaner references may be sparse indeed. If you are looking for a personal essay about vacuum cleaners, you may want to look somewhere else. If you are looking for a personal essay about love, complexity, delusion, wholeness, and how answers in dreams show up in weird ways, this might be an OK choice for you. You might also want to just put down the vacuum cleaner and write your own version. Nothing beats that.
There is this truth of suffering.
There is this truth of the origin of suffering.
There is this truth of the end of suffering.
There is this truth of the path leading to the end of suffering.
For the record, that’s the actual deal around suffering that often gets translated as “Buddhists believe that life is suffering.” Not the same thing, right? Anyway, even though I know what the Four Noble Truths are, I still give in to the mistaken idea that the whole point is not to suffer.
As in: Why start with that, when it’s just going to hurt?
But I don’t think avoiding suffering is the point – or at least for me, right now, it’s not the point. Better to say: here is a field guide to what hurts, and how to understand it, and how to notice when it doesn’t hurt anymore.
For the last month, since a beloved semi-sexual friendship froze out into painful misunderstanding, rights and duties, and other assorted shadows of intimacy, my body has been a mess. Low back pulling hard to the left. Left jaw clamping like a motherfucker in my sleep. General feeling of being trapped in the hall of mirrors of my own hard clench against some overwhelming grief that is always just about to break through the surface of a consciousness grown dull and tired with resistance. Hinge of the neck and head stuck fast, also on the left side. Basically: anxiety, depression, inability to connect deeply with others, because what’s deep feels too dangerous. Sound familiar? I am not going to quote any mental health statistics here, but I’m pretty sure that what I’m describing has a lot in common with states that drive many of the phenomena we love to bemoan publicly, while furtively experiencing them for ourselves.
So whose is this? At some level, obviously, mine. I reached a point where I had traveled through pacify, enrich, and magnetize, in my relationship with my friend, and the only possibility left was destroy. Destroy left a huge gap: where to find the intimacy of the conversations we had? Where to find the buffer that took pressure off my marriage? I had no answers, only loss and confusion.
I think this is also ours. Growing close to someone means allowing some of their energy, their habits, to permeate mine. When there’s pain in any part of that field (there always is), there’s also pain in the shared field, and in its aftermath. I knew this going in. I knew this going in, and yet I didn’t know how intense it would be. Junot Diaz, in his beautiful recent essay, talks about patterns of trauma-influenced relationships, as they showed up for him: approach, distance, approach, distance – disconnect. What he describes reminds me of what I experienced in the connection my friend and I nurtured but could not sustain. When two people who’ve been hurt a lot try to grow close, even the magnetic quality of their attraction becomes an obstacle. The poles flip. The attraction becomes an actualization of what is most feared. There is this truth of suffering.
What then? Bear with this. Know where I am. Know this is hard. Know my teeth are literally on edge. Remember: this is part of being human. Don’t try to figure out the future from within a body-mind in pain. Don’t rewrite the past.
I dreamed last night about a movie poster with a picture of a family on it. Mom’s face had come off, and inside the slightly bloody socket (as where a tooth has been extracted) was a younger, frightened-looking face, peering out. A movie voiceover said, “A self-rebirthing and a brownie-eating festival, all in one!” I can feel these things in my body – the less-painful right side coming back to life and feeling. Then, still in the dream, I saw a trailer for a different movie. A man and a woman sit on a couch next to one another. Gradually another woman emerges from the body of the first. The man grows transparent and disappears. Children appear. I feel deep compassion for these beings, in their changes, and maybe especially the disappeared man. I leave the dream-space where I have seen these things. Outside along the curb, there’s an old cop car or taxi waiting, with keys in the trunk lock. In the body, this is: activating the base of the spine, unlocking what’s held there, keeping attention low in the body – and not thinking so much about driving, for a while.
I can’t blame everything about this odd, uncomfortable time on the end of that very particular intimacy – there are a lot of things happening in my life right now that incline towards feeling unsettled. At some deep level, while I am choosing aikido training, it is also literally kicking my ass. Effecting a turnaround from victim stance, entanglement, or habitual disengagement, to something else, takes real work. I go into practice, and meet everything I’d like to avoid. Incompetence. Ceding ground when I should stand it. Lifelong dislike for organized sports and going upside-down.
I grieve work; I grieve workers hauled off from jobs no one else will do, milking cows no one else ever sees. I grieve cooped-up animal lives, cooped-up human lives. Sitting on a New Hampshire ridge looking out over unbroken forest as far as the eye can see, I grieve wild creatures disappearing.
Here’s where a vacuum cleaner would come in handy, as a way of clearing cobwebs, or at least sucking this whole thing together into a single bag. But those aren’t really the rules around here. As Julia Butterfly Hill asks, when we say “away,” as in “throw away,” where is that? It’s always still here, in our shared world, in the shape of our unruly hearts, in the work left to be done, some of it pleasurable and easy, and some of it bewildering, some of it impossible.
So be it. So be it with the rich layers of mud that come with the thaw – the places that look dry, till the surface cedes and you find yourself ankle-deep in the spaces the ice opened up between stones, over all those cold months. So be it with the blue jay greeting the evening, and the woodpecker’s shrill call to seeking. So be it with the keys in the trunk, the work still to be done, and the losses that are not gaps in the path, but its every step.
Crying in public does not in fact require a license, though it’s nice to have one to show the naysayers, if they turn up. Crying in public is like getting to be the egg in its shell, and the running white and yolk, all at once. Crying in public undoes the teaching that being as you are is not what you owe the world. Crying in public lets your bodily fluids run free – something this whole civilization has been set up to prevent. So if it seems daunting, you’re right.
Children used to cry in public with abandon, but I don’t see that so much anymore. Now, children are in huge strollers, eyes glued to screens. Or eyes glazed over, while their parents’ eyes are glued to screens. Screens are there to suck the tears out of us. They are hyper-absorbent energy-suckers, and all the tears have disappeared into games, apps, facebook, porn, and productivity.
I was standing in line at the post office yesterday, behind a man in a yellow coat, who started singing loudly to himself, to ward off anxiety. Then I looked up: all the advertising images bolted to the wall above the service counters were of people beaming at their screens. Their tears were being absorbed by the USPS’s new Super Predictability App. They were so happy! No wonder the man in the yellow coat was anxiety-singing: he was there to mail his almost-late taxes, and he didn’t even have a phone to dry his tears. As for me, I felt a little stupid: who goes out into the world with two boisterous monsters, mails a package to a friend, and stops by the library, all without a screen to prevent crying in public? Some people are just so thoughtless.
Crying in public is not what Sheryl Sandberg recommends, in her book, Option B. I’m only on the first CD – the first few minutes of the first CD – and I can tell that wild weeping at the post office is not the option she will be in favor of. She has already told the story of not crying at a school parents’ night, and the story of not crying at a birthday party. That is already a couple of oceans’ worth, and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot more unwept tears before I either give up on the project of listening, or reach the end.
What happens to the tears the screens suck up? They get turned into shiny things that ruin the forests and hills, either quickly, or insidiously. They’ve become a reservoir that someone’s going to have to cry, one of these days. They get funneled back into the oceans, whose levels rise, whose acidity goes up. The uncried-in-public-tears become a chain of massive hurricanes spinning up across the world, one after another, as if to say, Do you not see? Go ahead and cry the fucking tears. Please, please do not hold on to the story that you must Compose Yourself before buying bagels, or going to the doctor, or answering the question of How You Are.
What’s “in public,” anyway? Is it being in the presence of yourself? Sometimes, that is very hard. Is it one other person, besides you? I have a friend whose tears look like racking hiccups, or chopping, hacking laughter, but never run to water. Those are tears not cried in public, over and over. Is “in public” the face we show our families? I have a vivid, terrifying memory of my father breaking down in tears, in a diner near the Cloisters Museum in New York. My mother, brother, and I had no idea what to do with this. For so long, he’d been the source of my private tears, my tears at the dinner table, my tears cried with friends – and now, this? My mother, brother, and I went on eating French fries. We froze him out. There was nowhere for his crying in public to land, and so he just paid for lunch, and then we went back underground for the long subway ride I insisted on instead of a cab. My mother may have asked, What’s wrong? – but that’s really just another way of saying, Please stop.
There are so many ways of saying, Please stop, and blocking any crying in public that might arise around us. One is: You are damaged and strange, and your weeping is nothing to do with us. Please go away. Please stop. This happens a lot, around those who allow tears to leak out, the ones whose access to the ocean is momentarily or permanently opened up.
This community is fine: you are strange and damaged, and the stories you have to tell about the wrongs you suffered are nothing to do with us. Why dig up old harms? Keep your emotions to yourself. Don’t come to us with your crying in public. We have a good thing going here, and we don’t need your bad attitude. Get on board, or else fuck off. There’s one way to do this, and your crying in public isn’t it.
I remember being at a party, the Fall after my friend came back to school from a year of helping her father die of AIDS, which was also the Fall after my uncle died of leukemia. It was a standard party: a room in the front, with food; a kitchen, with booze; and a bedroom, with people’s coats and bags. My friend and I wound up on the bed together, weeping wildly. Why not? She’d just lost her father, and I had just lost a man who’d taken care of my heart. We just went for it: big, racking, beery sobs. But no! This was – even in a back bedroom – not allowed. You don’t cry at a party – or at least not unless it’s your party and you’re being adorable about it. We were not adorable – we were keening. We were meeting each other in the ocean of grief, and it was scaring the other children. Our friends gathered round to make us stop. They thought they were helping, but maybe they were just afraid.
What if crying in public were as common as looking into a screen? The argument for this winds up sounding a bit like the one for nursing in public – another transfer of fluids from inside the body to outside, happening right here, where we are singing the alphabet song, or trying to find the vegetarian corn dogs in the freezer case. Why not? Why not, if this will keep the oceans healthy, and allow each of us to reclaim the whales that we are? Why not, if the alternative is a closed system of wars, addictions, and other hells, both more and less visible?
I don’t actually, these days, cry a lot in public. I work through oceans’ worth in meditation practice – literally days on end of tears pouring unobstructed from my eyes to my chest, filling my lap, running out onto the carpet, floating the mat as a raft, out into the unknown. I sit down, I go into the body, the tears flow. Simple, unfussy, profound– the ocean.
I am writing this while a kids’ sing-along is happening in the room next door. You Are My Sunshine. Where is the You Are My Ocean of Tears song? It’s an important one, a Kali kirtan, a song from Teresa of Avila, a keening we’ve maybe lost in the back rooms of parties and the shiny screens we carry with ourselves, everywhere.
Housepaint is what my teacher Robert Reed used to call any act of just filling shit in, mindlessly, without attending to surface, body, or intention. In his world, this was a recurrent risk, because Reed often insisted on his students making enormous paintings. One of the last assignments of our Beginning Painting year was a 4 x 8’ self-portrait on crappy, thin Masonite. It is damn-ass hard to attend to every inch of something that big, to put love into it, to wrestle its edges and volumes into solutions that only it and you can find together. I never quite solved mine, though I can still see it in my mind’s eye: I’m standing three-quarters to the viewer, wearing the Irish fisherman’s sweater I’d pilfered from my friend Nico, who in turn had pilfered it from her brother, the one who became a priest, and then left the priesthood. I’m wearing my fancy cranberry-colored jeans, and looking worried, in front of a partially open doorway. Of course I’m worried: this year of discovery is ending, and I have to finish this painting without resorting to just housepainting the fucker, and walking away. I have to stay present with all 4 x 8’ of, and it’s not easy.
That painting disappeared into my friends’ basement and was never found again. Each year’s end was a stuff-cataclysm. As an artist, I was constantly making shit, and a lot of it was big. Where was it all supposed to go, during the summer? No one knew. There was a squash court. There was a basement. Other people’s parents came from Connecticut, Jersey, or whatever, but there was no way my parents were doing that, from Georgia. So when my friends offered their basement, I walked across town with my painting flopping wildly over my head, sine-waving its way into a major nuisance that blinded me as I made my way to that dank space. Which flooded. Goodbye, painting.
There’s a Buddhist Image of the teachings as a raft. You come to a river, you need a way to cross, the teachings are there as a raft. You get over to the other shore. And then, if you’re smart, you bow to the raft and leave it right there. You don’t just sling it up onto your head and walk around in 80-degree New Haven traffic, making a big fuss about going to stash it where it’ll get swamped, anyway.
But it’s hard to walk away from the things that have shown us we’re capable of being something other than mindless. And it’s hard not to get caught up in things. Lately I’ve been increasingly wary of thing-making, of the aspects of my training that incline towards making rarified objects. I have crates, boxes, and flat-files full of things I’ve made, some of them quite beautiful. But then what? They are flotilla of rafts that I am hoarding. They’re sitting there getting dusty, while I try to move on. Maybe the tension I feel in my jaw and shoulders every morning, waking up, is the weight of so many un-dropped rafts?
Housepaint is exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed. I go to Home Depot, pick out a slew of wild swatches, and have them mixed up into half-pint samples. It’s cheap, and wonderfully easy to use. But it freezes in the winter if I leave it in my studio, becoming lumpy and unsolvable. Housepaint becomes just another thing that’s hard for me to get rid of.
Right now I am in the middle of understanding how midlife crisis works for me. Everything that is dear to me becomes also everything that is holding me in place, making the feral nomad in me very, very nervous, indeed. Last night I dreamt I woke up in a house in a pasture, and when I walked outside, I saw that all the traders of the Silk Road, all the refugees and pilgrims, were walking in a tremendous line that extended to the horizon in both directions, doglegging slightly to avoid the house. I crossed the line, walked out into the pasture, stopped, and thought, Wait, where am I going? I saw the faces from faraway, the tide of movement extending from forever to forever, and momentarily forgot these were my people. I walked out of the house and into the empty pasture, turning my back on the Road, and felt immediately dispossessed, by the very act of pretending I was not among the dispossessed.
Housepaint depends on there being a house. Is there a house? Right now, yes, very much, there is. There is a house my husband and I bought seven or eight years ago, and some of its paint is starting to look very scruffy, where we’ve knocked into it going upstairs, for example.
Wanderer. Warrior. Healer. Nurse. Lover. All of these are coming up strongly right now, asking to be seen, asking not to be housepainted-over. Have I said before that Waylon Jennings’ What Makes a Man Wander is an anthem for me? I have, and yet here it is again. I want to wander, when restlessness comes burning and antsy inside me. I want to walk this long body away from housepaint, across continents, into the places that scare me. I want to be the one who walks into town dusty, finds a meal and a fire, and leaves again in the morning, traceless.
Have you noticed that this culture skews very much to housepaint? Both in terms of filling in mindlessly, and in terms of establishing a secure fort, painting its insides tastefully, and hunkering down till death do you part. Yesterday afternoon, some horrible yuppie freebie magazine arrived – Tasteful Trends, or some bullshit like that. Make Your Comfort Zone, it enticed from the cover. Fuck that shit, I thought. Fuck it straight into the recycling bin, along with all the appeals for money I can’t meet right now, because I’m broke.
It seems to be that whatever level of not-accumulating I’ve set up for myself in life, some feral beast wants the next level, always. When I was a nun, I yearned to be an arms-wandering mendicant. When I was a student, I hankered to be a backpacker. Now I am a whatever-it-is-that-I-am, and I want to ditch everything to be a nomad-therapist-healer, working out of camps no housepaint has ever seen.
Do I make any sense?
Does this world make any sense?
I can feel one way through is just to paint the damn walls, already, and quit feeding the dissatisfied one who will always, always yearn elsewhere. Maybe both can happen? Maybe almond-green walls, PLUS a license to go somewhere else, breathe different air, be reminded that crossing rivers is part of being human, and joining the lines of wanderers extending to both horizons is just as human as staying put.
I bow to the wild heart that spasms and throbs, meeting this world with the intensity and discomfort it deserves. Yesterday, outdoors on foot, making a big circle through pre-Spring woods, I thought: With this nature, it is a miracle I am still alive. I can feel the artist-angst here, and feel also how it’s been grounded, though not painted over, not now, not ever. I fall to one knee, taken by mud, and sit listening to squirrels’ scolding and old leaves’ rattling, till wandering Elliot comes to breathe love, right into my upturned face.
Lumpy crossings stick out of the floor that’s still not smoothed under that new bamboo laminate I picked out months ago. I can still see the ugly old green linoleum, plus the even older, even uglier beige linoleum, over there in the corner, underneath where the dishwasher used to be, when I still had a dishwasher, or dishes to do. When I still had a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, and stuff to put in the cupboards. When, in other words, there still was a kitchen in here, instead of a vaguely kitchen-shaped hole. I can’t even make the recipe for Jean-Paul Sartre Casserole right now, because there’s not an oven to stare at hopelessly, while nothing cooks, forever.
Lumpy crossings, I trip on you. Lumpy crossings, I try to deny you, write you out of my will, cut off your access to my bank accounts, but here you still are, ideally placed for me to stub my toes on, spill my coffee over, and crash into. Lumpy crossings, you stop me in my tracks, embarrass me in public places, and declare the ongoing disaster of being.
This morning I made my yearly visit to the Seniors of Hanover High School, to answer any and all questions about Buddhism, and to connect as best I can to the lumpy crossings of our lives. We go in a big circle around the room. Kid Two, right on cue, asks, “If Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, as a Buddhist, how do you keep going?” Aha! I say, That is a thing that drives me up a wall. Buddhism does not in fact teach that Life Is Suffering – it teaches that There Is Suffering, which is a different story. Life Is Suffering brings us only lumpy crossings, and demands that we ignore everything else as somehow irrelevant to the project of Buddhist-ing. You can definitely find people of all faiths who practice in this way, never letting go of the lumps for long enough to enjoy anything. This total wariness towards pleasure counts itself wise, sensible, and prudent, but in fact is a cowardly rejection of beauty, trust, and love. There Is Suffering, on the other hand, allows lumpy crossings as part of life – not anything to be ashamed of, not anything to push away – and integrates them into a whole fabric of being.
A couple of nights ago, I dreamed this:
I have a bike – my own bike – and I am riding it in big, concentrated circles around a pool, where others are swimming or lounging. I take special time savoring the deep mud puddles I ride through on my nubbly cross-trek tires. It is intensely satisfying to ride, to feel the mud suck and yield, to know that I can do what I need to do, for as long as I need to do it. End.
In real life, right now is the mud season in New England, when a whole winter’s worth (well – maybe most of a winter’s worth – April is still fair game) of snow melts and stands and seeps. I dig out my orange plastic boots from where they’ve been stashed in the basement, and delight in wearing them with black rubber-mounted spikes, to navigate the still-icy, very wet woods. I choose the dampest, suckiest, boggiest parts of the path, the slickest, most treacherous parts; the deepest, stillest puddles, and walk through. My socks keep me warm; my boots keep me dry; the dogs run happily amok nearby, executing blissful pliés into the snowmelt, as their Viking hearts desire. Elliot finds a pool of golden afternoon light, a pool of leaf-lined water, and lays his body down, simultaneously soaking and drinking, allowing his furs and skin to bask in this snow-bog time, when nothing much of new growth shows itself, but the old, frozen order is clearly over.
Knowing how to love this time of lumpy crossings is absolutely essential, if I’m going to live up here, if I’m going to live at all, and right now I choose both, with a sore, whole heart. The White Dress Project – last September through New Year’s Day – was a time of giddy bridehood – and I’m so glad to have had the space and willingness to live it out. Now is different, though. I have a new suit – a World War II American Red Cross Service nurse’s uniform. Combat, healing, service, blood, and death are here. It’s no nonsense, and the sewing’s different, too. This time, I’m starting with a kind of hula hoop of severed heads, using a Tibetan painting of Kurukulla, the Red Tara, for inspiration. Happy heads, angry heads, spacey heads, bridesheads, loversheads – whack! Take from me all that is not free. I stitch the heads around the waist of my nurse/warrior/healer suit, button myself into it every day, and feel what it’s like to live in this time of lumpy crossings, heartache, and mud puddles.
Lumpy crossings hold power, like the kitchen floor in the Hasidic story that has been hiding the long-sought, quested-after treasure, all along. Last night, I came home from a house concert and dinner, opened the Amazon box, took out my new set of face paints, and listened into what was coming to meet. A red cross at the forehead, with a white circle around it. Red vajra-lines extending from the corners of the eyes. White lips, white dots down the nose, white fading to pink at the brows. A fierce gaze born of mud, and letting go the pretty phases of falling in love. Something imperfect, but whole. Something wild and sparkly, unafraid of riding in wet circles around the collective, for as long as it needs to.
One of the Hanover kids comes to me after class and asks, tears in her eyes, what to do when things feel impossible. One of my meditation mentees asks if feeling more whole than usual is a normal result of compassion practice. I tell them both Yes. Feel whatever’s there. Stop giving into any idea that being good is a bulwark against future lumpy crossings. The crossings may in fact get lumpier, more painful, deeper. I may soon find puddles so vast they overtop my orange boots, and wind up walking around with two soggy snowmelt tanks fastened to my feet. This will in no way mean Stop seeking out muck. It will in no way mean Stick to the dry path. It will mean I need to find a dry pair of socks, choose a new head to stitch onto my suit, and be with whatever comes calling next.
Bottomless loss and infinite pleasure are interconnected with the simple act of finding a reasonable set of clothes to wear, to go talk with some kids about What Is, and what might be, and how to make it through this day, wholly and specifically.
This floor is a lumpy crossing. Someone’s dry-erase-markered big, sloppy black hearts onto the upholstery of this library chair. This sparkly sweater came from the thrift store down the street, which means one of those Hanover kids’ moms probably decided it was too lumpy to wear anymore, and now it’s with me. We lump along, you and I, and everyone, finding out together for ourselves what can be done, and where it leads.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.