A Narrow Passage
A narrow passage opens, as Donald Trump lean in towards the Western Wall. There, from between the stones, comes a somber voice, suitably framed in a dark cloud.
“There will be hell toupee,” it says.
And it is hilarious.
Trump leans in piously, his man-meringue topped with a borrowed yarmulke. Leonard Cohen, from the grave, looses his line about the killers in high places saying their prayers out loud. They’ve summoned up a thundercloud, and they’re going to hear from me.
Yes. There will be hell toupee.
But who knows? Who knows what will come of this narrow passage where we find ourselves? There’s a Gurdjieff story: his students, all exasperated by the same bore, the same boob-joke teller, dessert-hoarder, hot-water-waster, nose-picker, come to see their teacher in despair. Please, O Great One! Please send this one away! We can’t take it! Our plans for righteousness are being trampled and made a mockery of! The guru smiles in his ever-wise way, saying, My children! This one I have invited specially to join us, for he trains you as no one else can.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to talk about Those People, Over There, who can’t be bothered to stage a revolution, when the government’s so openly despoiling the poor to glut the rich. Which “those people”? You mean me, sitting here at this green mesh picnic table, with bleeding hearts and rhubarb thriving nearby, writing about a narrow passage? I’ve got other shit to do. Same goes for my pals, taking dictation from the Muse as assiduously as I am. The lady with the toddler, walking to the library? The person flying the noisy me-rocket overhead? All of us are merrily not-making revolution. Many of us are approaching whatever form of guru we have constructed in our lives, and humbly asking that the nuisance go away. But it won’t. Here we are, in our narrow passage, and there’s not a lot of room to pretend, from in here.
A long time ago, a former Buddhist monk from New Zealand, briefly my lover, taught me a Jewish song that says something like:
All of the world
is just one narrow bridge.
We must cross
and above all is
not to be limited by fear.
I thought it was incredibly beautiful, and I sang it to myself a lot, in the months after I left my job in Hong Kong, when I was traveling alone across the breadth of Asia, in search of a monastery to join.
I still think it’s beautiful, and the shape of it has changed a bit. Yes – the narrow passage. Yes – the crossing. Yes – the fear. And also now, so much curiosity in the face of fear. When do I back down? Why? When do I throw together some scurrilous photoshop job, and chuckle like a mad hyena? When do I say, wild horses could not drag me to do this stupid thing you are proposing, and when do I broadcast my own invitations to stupid plans, far and near?
The narrow passage, in other words, is broadening as I accept that every role and part of its landscape is worth exploring. Every place and role is open to me, in due time. The concept of “narrow” changes. Likely, there are only a couple of parts of the play that are calling to me in at any given moment. But this doesn’t mean that all the rest is somehow other, or irrelevant. I do my part. I am aware of the other parts, as we dance together, as we know how.
Oh, why not? Here's another Elliot-story. This week, I took Elliot and Chloe up to the woods, under heavy rain, for an afternoon romp. I had put in contact lenses, and was enjoying fog-free peripheral vision. Then, at the last possible moment, a deer turned towards the deep forest, and took off with Elliot in explosive pursuit of her pretty white rump. WHY? I fumbled the collar-zapper-remote, missed my chance, and he was gone. I felt the closing, even then, of a narrow passage between the end of this walk, and my arrival in Thetford in time to facilitate Contemplative Movement Practice with my friend Rebecca. There followed about an hour and a half of wandering, calling, driving around, checking at home, and wandering some more. I went to visit the wild orchid blooming by the trail. I talked with a kind lady, who sympathized with the plight of befriending large, fast, goofy dogs. And finally, I came home to find Elliot soggy, lacerated, full of burdock, and limping badly in his front right foot. I called my Rebecca, to tell her I’d found my beloved fool, and that we were headed to the hospital. I called Timothy to tell him the news.
There opened a new narrow passage. Here we are, sitting in the waiting room with a couple whose elderly dog is very sick. Here’s a delicious granola bar, with a morsel for your poor sliced snout. Here are kindness and mutual concern, time suddenly opening from one shape into another. Elliot and I are waiting in one room while I eat Danish cookies and he drinks from a disposable bowl. We are waiting in another room, while I flick ticks off him, onto the floor. Here comes Timothy, introducing himself at the reception desk as “Elliot’s dad.”
The doctor arrives, and her assistant skillfully slips what she calls a “nose cozy” over Elliot’s snout, to close a narrow passage where he bites everyone (let God sort them out) and runs for the hills. Orthopedic dog-exam: maximally extend and compress all possibly compromised joints, to see if dog yelps. No yelping. The assistant holds Elliot close, even though he reeks of a fine new spritzing of Skunk.
Nothing broken. Whew. As for the long cut on his nose, it’s clean, and not too deep. I find a puncture wound in his haunch, which merits some shaving and cleaning, and some antibiotics, but not much more. So: rest, pills, more cleaning. Minute by minute, Eliot looks happier and more himself. He is prancing back and forth between Timothy and I, in great smiling, wiggling arcs, barely able to contain his joy. The narrow passage of a stabbed, lamed, skunky, frozen, blinded dog closes, and a new path opens.
Here we are, with a relatively modest $126.50 to pay for this adventure, and a sound dog to bring home.
Here we are, eating soup made from cream and potatoes Timothy brings home, and asparagus grown in the beds I dug in when we first moved here.
Will there be hell toupee? Of course, and for everyone. But also, ever so much more. Mornings in the garden. Sparkly sweaters from the thrift store, and miraculously unharmed friends. The Western Wall, the narrow bridge: they will be here to contain and to witness it all.
Lost and Found
Lost and found. Those used to feel like such opposite categories – and I spent a lot of time in them. My lost keys. My yet-again lost keys. My lost phone. My lost love. My lost enthusiasms for this and that.
Now that I think about it, the category “lost” really depends a lot on being conjoined with its old pal, “my.” Once you let go of “my,” then “lost” itself becomes harder to locate. Without “me” as center, who’s to say what’s lost, and what’s found?
I remember this from reading Marie Kondo’s animist adventure in de-cluttering: if you take your sense of ownership out of an object, you can stop thinking about it as my precious, or that pain in my ass. Instead, you can feel coolly into its path through the world, and yours. Sure, somehow this thing has wound up with you – it was a present from your aunt, you bought it under the spell of some hormonal imbalance or nostalgia, it seemed like a great deal at the time – but that’s not relevant right now. What is relevant: do your paths still belong together? If your work is done, let it go to some cosmic transfer station or another. The thrift store. Re-gifting. The dump. The special at-the-dump-but-not-thrown-out shelf. Ebay. Whatever. Your paths separate.
Trevor Noah writes about this in a different way. When he was a kid, there was a dog he loved, named Foofie. Every day, he would leave for school in the morning, and when he came home, there was Foofie, waiting for him. This all worked out wonderfully. Then, one day when young Trevor was home on school holiday, to his astonishment, he saw Foofie jump over the backyard fence, and take off trotting contentedly through the streets of the neighborhood. He followed her, and soon she came to another house, where Foofie once again jumped a fence, and settled happily into her other life. There ensued a bitter canine custody battle between Trevor and another boy, both of whom were convinced that the dog was his. In the end, Trevor’s mother paid the other family some kind of bribe, and the other family let go of their claims. (Luckily, no one offered to chop Foofie in half.) From all of this, Trevor Noah says that he learned not to think of any future dogs, partners, or friends as “his.” He learned Foofie was her own dog, neither lost, nor found, but fundamentally free. I wonder if he really managed to do this. If so, then mazel tov. He is an example to us all.
Lost. Found. Somewhere else. Pema Chödron talks about the Buddhist metaphor of crossing over to the other shore in terms that are considerably less tidy than some orthodox views. She invokes the experience of being out alone on the night ocean, with no this shore, and no the other shore. She offers instead a way of practice that releases certainty in favor of openness to what is actually happening, however that is. No this shore, no the other shore, no lost, no found. Only this, now.
I am officially quite tired of careful Buddhists, of a way of life that depends always on restraint, refraining, repressing. Stay away from that door, that feeling, that impulse. If you open it, feel it, do it, you will be lost. I can say I am tired of all this now, because I have practiced it with much diligence, over years, and it has made me strong, but also limited. Now I want to know: what's behind the door? What happens if I feel the feeling? What happens if I let go of lost and found?
This past Sunday – Mother's Day – I had the experience of letting go of certain restraints around my mother, and finding something new behind the door. I called when I was tired and cranky – not a good start if restraint is the goal, but excellent if you want to start flipping through Bluebeard’s key ring, just to see what turns up. So that’s what happened. I turned the knob, and some old, desperate part of me emerged – the one who feels all is lost, and she is alone in the world. Her marriage is a mess, her work is hopeless, and no one can possibly understand the degree of sacrifice she has made in the world. OK, cool. I’ve definitely met her before, and I can feel the seduction of her part of this duet. Then, right on cue, the part of my mother who sees how I always behave in extreme ways, how I never manage to find balance, how I fail to understand the most obvious things about my life. Pathology, meet your pathologizer! You’ve found each other again, after many years apart.
And yet, something was definitely different. I could feel myself wanting to find a definitive misunderstanding between my mother and I, a definite source of blame and pain, and yet I couldn’t make it stick. I kept seeing this human being in front of me, through the Skype call, thousands of miles away. I kept feeling how no simple roll could hold either me, or her. I couldn’t make either one of us be lost, or found, and neither could she.
Now, that may not sound like much. You had a weird existential angst-match with your mom on Mother's Day? You succeeded in making both yourself and your husband cry, unlocking a door that could lead to the end of your marriage? Well, yes. All those things, and yet, all is not lost. In fact, I feel closer to my husband now, and my father, having heard from my mother what was up, sent me a kind email. He encouraged me to keep going, to keep filtering out the noise from the signal, so that what I carry in life can be what I choose to carry. I don't need to be overwhelmed. I don't need to do anything I don't want to do, out of fear of being lost.
There is a kind of carefulness required to do the letting-go practice I'm involved in now. I can't just open all the doors in Bluebeard's castle all at once. I can't declare everything found all at once. But, when one of the keys starts glowing in my pocket; or there’s tapping and shuffling coming from inside some dusty door; or I wonder about the view from that unknown room, I am free to go find out for myself. What else would I do, for goodness’ sake? Why sit around visualizing castles, when I live in one, and all the keys are in my pocket?
As with most rhetorical questions, I know the answer to this one. It's not all one, and not all the other. The visualizing, calming, and preparation give me strength and imagination when working in the world, and shape what I am willing to see in it. The work I do in the world gives me grounding that feeds the contemplative work. And as for castles – I have, somehow, landed a counseling internship that involves working in one – complete with crenellations and turrets. I enter rooms with clients who are themselves learning to navigate restraint and release; to seize what courage they can find, and reclaim parts of their being that they had thought lost.
Right Up My Valley
Right up my valley, I wrote one day, and now, that's what I've got to work with. Thanks, me of yesteryear! I can tell you are trying to make your writing legible, insofar is that's really ever possible. I can tell you're a good sport, a warden of possibilities, one who commits to finding the red thread running through this life.
Right up my valley. I am remembering a morning on Skye, with Timothy, and our friends from Vermont. I was feeling raw, having slept poorly with the tremendous rattling force of our friend’s snoring through the thin Airbnb wall. The couch had been moderately better, but not great. We were, groggily, talking about where to go walking that day. Somewhere in the landscape of this island lurks the Bad Step or the Dreadful Leap, or whatever. I was adamant: Fuck that shit. I did not come here for some jackass challenge. Show me a walk that is not about scrambling victorious over the abyss. Show me being nestled deep inside the peaty Hills.
I got desperate. Why does it always have to be like this? These passive-aggressive negotiations, this sense that I’d one hundred times rather be alone, than this. I stepped outside onto the small, rain-jeweled lawn, breathed in deep, and looked up. There – right there, precisely – were the mountains I had been drawing into my lithograph of the Dhammacakka Mudra – the wheel of the Way It Is. I stepped out of sorrow and into the landscape of primordial wisdom. There: these two tall rounded hills, with between them a walk that was right up my valley.
So I came back inside, said I knew where we should go, and no one much minded letting go of anxious possibility. We left the house, traversed narrow uncrowded lanes, parked our wrong-side-of-the-road dinkymobile, and headed out.
I got my alone-wish, walking faster than our friends, and slower than Timothy. I was alone under two rows of hills, walking in a narrow peat-groove that never once let me down. In Scotland, that far north, that late into November, the light is very short. It rakes the world from a beautiful oblique angle, within which darkness is always somehow palpable. Golden light, shining sideways, night within it.
That afternoon was a turning point for me, a letting go into the world. I signed a pact wherein I gave up old ideas of despair and accomplishment, agreeing instead to let myself be guided and enfolded. The hills held me. I did not need to mess around with the Bad Step. I could go out with my husband and friends, and nevertheless find the time in my own company (and the world’s) that I needed. A great quiet settled into my bones as I walked, a landing into being, and into trust.
As the afternoon showed signs of ending, all three parties – Timothy, characteristically up a steep scree field; our friends, walking companionably with one another; and myself, singing through my bones – found ways back to the beginning point. We loaded ourselves into the car, scattering apple-cores, and holding on to soggy sandwich wrappers.
That night was another face of the fertile darkness: a pub where it felt perfectly fine to lay down in front of the fire, a glass of dark beer, an atmosphere of quiet conversation that had lasted for hundreds of years, while the great wheeling stars roared over the hills, since far before anyone had ever thought of “inside” and “outside.”
I’ve kept this orientation towards Yin walks alive in myself since then – not as an exclusive pursuit, but as a real possibility, a balance to Yang walks that do go up, seeking high points and steepnesses. One of the places where I most often walk the dogs has both: a Yin passage along an eighteenth-century road furrowed deep into the forest; a Yang scramble up to a high, porcupine-harboring ridge. Both are good. Knowing I can choose is good.
“You’re working incredibly hard right now” is a phrase I’ve heard many times, and it’s worth looking into. Is working really hard right up my valley? Is it just a perception to address something that’s actually just the way it is? Or, is it residue from an education, from a society, that can’t value the way things reveal themselves effortlessly, if we will only listen? Of course. Yes. All of these.
Seeing clients in my therapy internship makes me feel absolutely ravenous, right now. I report this to my advising group, and someone says that she, too, was nervous and afraid when she started her internship, but now the whole thing feels much more normal. But I didn’t say nervous and afraid. I said ravenous. Can ravenous be right up my alley? Yes, I think so. Is ravenous also a way of saying that I am extending myself too much in these sessions? Probably. Some part of me feels duty-bound to fill the forty-five minutes, when probably a more sane, balanced approach would be to do about 35 minutes of intense work, with tapering-in and tapering-out periods as buffers. Everyone gets to come in softly, and leave softly, and there’s no sense of cramming and striving.
Right up my valley. It’s hard to trust, sometimes, that there is a groove carrying us somewhere – that the direction of our steps carries us in patterns that add up. We look up, and there are the very same mountains that we thought we dreamed from nowhere. We look down, and our feet are pointed not anywhere, but somewhere. We are drawn. We know without knowing. The world’s handwriting isn’t always easy to read, but it is there.
Right now, any time, great forces are moving through the world, and we are part of them, whether we know it or not. Who knows where the events of the day will incline? In a way, destination doesn’t matter. All that matters is how we meet what is in our direct field of experience.
There are hundreds of pages of text in Assessment and Evaluation waiting for me, and yet I can’t in good conscience attend to any of that, until I dig new valleys for each of the many young plants my friend gave me over the weekend. In the world’s language, and the timeframe of the wheeling stars, those young lives matter more than all the Mystical Experience Inventories and Reports of Altered States of Consciousness ever devised by clever humans. I will dig into the May-damp soil and serve life. I will find room for what is showing up on my doorstep, right up my valley.
I can feel, on waking, the clenched-up state of a being trying to figure it all out, make it into the right shape, balance this and that, so no one gets hurt, and nothing gets lost. How strange, dreaming, to forget what I know in waking life. What is right up my valley will speak to me directly. All I have to do is listen and respond.
What is it to go against the stream?
Tell me about this stream.
Tell me about what can be separated, such that “for” and “against” mean anything?
Willpower. When we extol it here in the United States of America, often what we are praising is some combination of privilege and ego-fixation. It's not fair to lay that accusation at the feet of America alone, when the same nonsense is happening everywhere. Just, here, in America, the old myth of willpower carries something more of virtue. Something more of blindness to the mechanisms that protect power and prey on weakness. The most recent shooting of an unarmed black man – a boy, really – echoes something of this, some part of how narratives unfold in contexts that no one in power much wants to talk about.
When I was a teenager in Atlanta, I went to a fancy prep school. The dominant narrative around this was that I was there because the academics were good, and this was in some ways true. It was true that I could take AP classes in lots of things. It was true, because I was good at testing, memorizing, and analyzing, that I benefited from the school’s dumb-dumb, dumb-smart, smart-dumb, and smart-smart hierarchy, and often wound up in small classes with few students. Also true, but seldom discussed, was the fact that my mother’s considerable willpower, unfocused outside the home, came to bear on my work habits. Was it because of my willpower or virtue that a highly intelligent woman surveilled my working hours and forbade me distractions? No, it was built in, a lagniappe for me, courtesy of the patriarchy. Also not discussed: My tuition was paid for from my grandfather’s and father's business successes. For women under patriarchy, access to privileged males means access to power. I could be Miss Feminist as much as I wanted at school, but the fact that I was there, and did well there, had a lot to do with not needing a scholarship, overcoming my family’s lack of social connections in Atlanta through our connection to money. So it goes. Not all one, not all the other. Smart, yes. Highly supported within certain societal arrangements, also yes.
Anyway, in an environment like that, parties manifested in a certain way. The whispered word would go out that someone's parents from one of the three conservative Protestant sister prep schools – not the hippie one, not the Catholic one – were going to be out of town. One of the huge neo-plantations on Atlanta’s leafiest streets would be empty on Saturday night, and we knew just what to do with it. A long line of shiny SUVs, a short line of scruffy Honda Civics and hand-me-down station wagons would park along the street. Kids would walk up the splendid drive between manicured azaleas, and proceed directly to the poolhouse to get shitfaced. In truth, I only really ever attended one of these things that I can remember. I wasn’t really part of this underground; mostly, my undergrounds were boozy in other ways. But I remember the feeling of relief, of restraints removed, a new openness to settling into the ridiculousness of our high school lives, in the company of other kids whom I might in daytime have seen as natural enemies, or at least preppy space aliens. We knew we were safe there. We knew, implicitly, that no one would come bother us.
Imagine now the party in the suburbs of Dallas last weekend. Same basic setup: someone's parents are out of town. The kids gather, with booze, of course. Except now, through social media, maybe there are more kids. Except also, these are largely African-American kids, and so, subject to more policing than the white children of Atlanta's surgeons, lawyers, and business executives of thirty years ago.
The neighbors call the cops, believing underage drinking is happening at the party.
What does will power look like, for the neighbor?
I want this annoying noise to stop.
I want those kids to be safe.
I'm tired of the ruckus that happens at those people’s house.
Something like that.
The police come. Except, unlike thirty years ago, they’re militarized, carrying assault rifles more appropriate to war, than to setting social boundaries. Except the kids they’re busting have been conditioned by years’ worth of stories of people just like them, shot and killed for no reason.
What does willpower look like for the kids? It looks like the will to survive.
It looks like Get me out of here, so no cop lays a finger on me.
It looks like I don't want to be expelled from school, shamed, punished, fed into a machine that starts tonight, and ends in years of solitary confinement, or a fishy death in custody.
So the kids get in their cars – or if they’re 15 – their friends’ cars – and they go.
The police arrive in their cruisers. Who knows where they've been tonight? Maybe chasing addicts’ petty burglaries. Maybe answering calls to houses where everyone pretends it's all fine, even the woman with the bleeding cheek, even though you know something’s fucked up, but you have to leave anyway. Maybe they’ve been sitting in their cruisers, bored, talking about cause, effect, missed opportunity, debt, and regret. What does willpower look like for you as a police officer, as you pull up outside the house, cars parked everywhere, woozy scared kids darting off as best they can?
It could look like remembering your own life, not so many years ago, and knowing that what these kids are doing, you've done, too.
It could look like setting aside the mass of power that's been allotted to you, and the stories you've seen on the job and on TV, and entering the situation with a clear, focused mind.
Or, unfortunately, it could look like some dark old instinct of the hunt, dressed up in virtue, and it could smell blood. It could pick up the rifle and shoot blindly into the passenger side of the car, killing the fifteen-year-old boy, destroying him in front of his brothers, before he’s even had the chance to learn his own will as a man.
Of course the boy was going to be there.
Of course the neighbor was going to call.
Of course the police was going to come.
But there so many choices around all of this, never opened, never acknowledged, and so many constraints.
We like to think that we navigate on willpower. It's somehow reassuring – a readymade explanation for all that is good and all that is bad in our lives. Much less reassuring, much more work by far, is the careful reckoning of our interconnectedness, and of the drives that move from within what we are, and have been trained to be.
Two days ago, the dogs are model citizens: on a five-hour hike, they stick with us, refrain from eating other hikers, and come joyfully when called back to our plodding human pace. Yesterday, they rush headlong to maul a porcupine, as though they had never before experienced spike-filled tongues, snouts full of quills. They, like me, know, and don’t know.
We, all of us, engage the will, and surrender. We train and remember, act and forget, maintaining hope in the face of its momentary dissolutions. Don't confuse what you will, with what you really are.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now