It’s hard to write when you are cracking yourself up, but I’ll take that problem anytime, over the hard-to-write that comes from tears pooling at the lower rim of your glasses.
Junk food, oh, junk food! Cotton candy clouds of ecstatic-bad-for-you. I am reminded of my friend Deanne’s Dear Sugar Daddy poem, a pornographic festival of her now-relinquished passion for sweets, which she performs in a sultry flurry of blonde hair and big, winning smiles. Deanne is the queen of naming junk food for what it is – an addiction – while simultaneously extolling the pleasures of swooning into its sticky embrace.
I grew up in a household mostly ruled by my mother’s authority in food, which inclined to Grapenuts and organ meats over Dingdongs and Coke. I was in college when soda started showing up in her refrigerator – a treat she wanted for her youngest, my brother, but could never quite stomach when I was living in the house. Something about loose morals in the young female? My brother drank whole milk, while I was commanded to 2%. Frosted Mini Wheats for my brother, frozen cheesy bits for him. Am I remembering this right? Am I making this shit up from the part of me called Orphan Black Sheep Daughter? Maybe, maybe not.
Anyway, when I left home for college and left my mother’s rules behind, I did fatten up, in layers made of beer, dining hall omelettes, lasagna, and whole round loaves of brown raisin bread stolen from the kitchen, while my friends and I wrote all-night papers. I didn’t really have that much access to hard-core junk food unless I bought it myself, and I was perpetually broke. But desserts took their toll, in conjunction with my then-disdain for all forms of exercise besides wild dancing at parties. I remember buying cranberry-colored jeans in a bigger size. I remember the fug of long study, and being often quite ill. On one bronchitis-motivated visit to Undergraduate Health Services, the nurse told me to stop smoking, and I replied indignantly that I’d never started in the first place. I didn’t quite know it then, but my young person’s disembodiment allowance was running out. For the first 20 or so years of my life, environment, youth, and a high metabolism had stood in for what would soon require a much more active commitment to the body’s thriving.
Yesterday I went to my first Deep Water class, the latest development in my love affair with Old Lady Aqua Aerobics. Not old lady: mature lady. Strong lady of many years. Anyway, it was awesome. In the water, I don’t have to worry about fucking up my knees. I can totally go for it, and not get injured. I can stretch to what feels like 8 feet long, and there’s no problem. Splash like an orca. Bounce around. I could feel my muscles unknot and the young horse part of me whinnying and perking up her ears. If it doesn’t hurt and I don’t care how foolish it might look, lots and lots can happen. In this way, some of the cheap thrills of junk food can show up in the midst of something that nourishes the body, instead of rotting its teeth and inflaming its joints. I was potato-chip-ecstatic, and yet left the pool empty and clear, rather than holding yet another crappy wrapper to add to the world’s reefs of bad ideas.
When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take my brother and I to McDonald’s for Happy Meals, which were to us the stuff of total bliss. We would get McNuggets. Plastic garbage-toys! Fries! Sauce in little space-packets. Puzzles to solve, right there on the box. I don’t know if I noticed then that the prizes ended up being a pain to know what to do with, afterwards. I don’t know if that food disagreed with my young body. Probably not. Probably it just pitched into the project of constructing a six-foot Julie from all available materials.
To be fair, my mom would also sometimes take us on junk food adventures. Her favorite was Long John Silver’s, and we liked it there, too. I remember especially the chunks of Fry Itself that always wound up in the bottom of the box, underneath the fish and other creatures. How exciting! You could let go of the batter as an envelope for actual food, and just mainline the crispy stuff straight. Tartar sauce was like mayonnaise, but also sweet and crunchy. Yes, my mother was possibly the only person in Fresno special-ordering brains from the grocery store, but she also knew good junk food when she saw it. She knew when to surrender, and was not one of the hyper-vigilant parents who enforced no-birthday-cake rules. Instead, she let us eat other kids’ rosy sheet-cakes, and baked for us: amazing rabbit-shaped confections with bowties and M&Ms for eyes.
If I move away from the cozily retrospective and look into where I am now, junk-food-wise, I see the tensions around my desire/not-desire to take up the challenge of eating a totally plant-based diet. At certain times, the choice feels completely self-evident: Duh. Stop participating in patterns of agriculture that harm animals. End of story. But then Timothy brings home leftover pastries and bread pudding. What then? The food already exists. What’s the harm in eating it? Or I’ll start thinking about how there are organic, pasture-based dairies right around here, with seemingly high standards for animal welfare. Meanwhile, I have no idea how the fancy almond-coconut creamer I’ve switched to for my tea is produced. Its manufacturers could be clearcutting the last wild habitat of the Sweetnosed Lemur to make that stuff, for all I know. They’re definitely flying it in from somewhere, because New Hampshire and Vermont are known for their cows, but not their palm-groves. And the coconut stuff comes in disposable, indestructible packaging, while the milk arrives in endlessly reused glass bottles.
Pretty much anything I eat will have some junk food components – some traceable pathways for harm to myself, to others, or to both. Even the admirable farmers who grow our CSA use a shit-ton of plastic bags. Even the local scrappy bulk-food wholesaler can’t resist sending me home with a half-dozen one-pound plasticized portions each week. The junk element is pervasive and inevitable.
I stop at the gas station for potato chips and encounter the sacred feminine. Wherever we show up, we show up in our wholeness, if we let ourselves notice. Cashewgurt (or at least the kind I tried) tastes pretty awful to me. Vegan pâté, by contrast, is delicious, especially with butter-sautéed chanterelles on toast. In the wrong frame of mind, I feel there’s nothing on this earth that could possibly nourish me. Other times, I’ll eat Little Debbie Nutty Bars with certainty that the universe cares deeply for each one of us.
I drink a glass of leftover rosé with ice cubes in it, unwinding from the knots that have arisen in the course of this day. A sense of humor returns: Oh, yes! I sure did get myself into a pickle there, but that’s not the last word, and anyway, pickles aren’t junk food.
Cough syrup with codeine! Cough syrup with witches’ tears! Cough syrup to help you keep down all those tedious reflexes that say no, no, no, no, no, and thus aren’t especially welcome in the meditation hall, during the department meeting, at the job interview, or at church.
I am driving to Notebook Club, listening to some Catholic priest on the radio who sounds like he’s about 27, talking about how the Church is not of the world, but in it, and how Jesus said people would hate the church because it loves Him. Which seems a pretty sassy response to the question of why people keep having to hate the church for raping their children. Nicely done, Father. You’re going to need some extra-large barrels of cough syrup for the congregation, going forward.
This past Sunday I turned in the final version of my thesis work. Then I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth, noticed something smelled funny, and stepped barefoot into a large, warm pile of dog shit. Ta-daa! Don’t expect applause, in action. I didn’t even need to take any cough syrup, because the whole thing was actually so funny, and so careful. After all, there was a bathtub right there to wash my foot in, plus a toilet to flush the poo down. No one had pooped in my bed or on the kitchen table. A dog had followed her canine intuition and chosen the place in the house that serves as an actual poo facility. End of story. Nothing to report here.
Then yesterday, in search of further celebration, I walked myself down to the thrift store closing. What’s left after several days of half-off is some pretty marginal clothing: no buttons, makes your ass look lumpy, see-through in weird ways, features an autocratic bunny appliquéd in lace on the front, sasquatch-sized. Also a basket full of watches whose batteries have run out and no one can figure out how to change them, even if there is a cute dog on the wristband. Then, inside the glass case where all the jewelry used to be, I spotted a black velvet painting of Jesus’s hands in prayer, nestled inside a rough-cut Mexican wooden frame. I asked to look at it, after passing it by a few times on my way to an empty 1950’s photo album, or a child’s latex swim cap with a fish-fin on top.
Caravaggio of the people! I imagined it in my therapist’s office, in my meditation space, in my painter’s studio, and knew every one of those places would be improved by it. I bought Jesus’s hands for half off 40 dollars and set off home, grinning. An older couple passed me by going the other way, and the lady said, “You sure know how to find the shade.” Which felt nice. If you know how to find the shade, maybe you need less cough syrup. Maybe getting out of the blistering sun and tooling around with some made-in-Mexico vintage Jesus tucked under your arm is the antidote to many of life’s aggravations.
Secretly, we, or at least I, crave aggravation. I just finally committed to something that was offered to me weeks ago and seemed too easeful to be possible. Faced with good pay, flexible hours, sensible colleagues, and an ideal location, I went looking for overwork, low pay, institutional kerfuffle, and long hours. Why? Because it seemed in some sense a proof of my sincerity. Because I needed to be validated as an employee, instead of just getting on with the work I know how to do. If you get used to the sticky soothings of cough syrup in response to your patterns of self-slavery, it’s possible to see no-slavery as a loss of sweetness.
Oh damp and sweaty sheets of my many sickbeds!
Oh, honeyed Ricola lozenges and zinc lozenges that taste of desiccation!
Oh, nostril-purging and phlegm-horfing!
You are all something to do, just like sniffing glue, just like Joey Ramone said.
Bitching and bickering is something to do. Getting ill is something to do. Feeling betrayed, feeling flattered: all things to do.
Yesterday I went up the Ridge on Moose Mountain, from which you can see the White Mountains on one side and the Greens on the other. The bears and foxes and whoever had already eaten all the blueberries, and so there was nothing at all to do. Just: sit. Just: allow space to enter the bodymind. Just: feel warm stone through the legs and seat of my rolled-up jeans. The dogs would venture out to sniff and chase, then come sit next to me for a few moments’ stillness before the next call to their attentions. I am done writing this 152-page monstrosity. I can settle down and do the work I’ve been training in forever, and get paid. This earth is vast. That person must be firing in automatic rifle down there, because that is a lot of shots in a row. There are spaces in between even that idiocy, and thus no need for cough syrup in my ears.
I don’t mean to make light of illness. It’s real. In high school, I got viral pneumonia, and for a while no one knew that was what was going on, so my cough got deeper and deeper, tearing at the ligaments that hold my chest together, tearing at my lungs. Even when you do know viral pneumonia is what’s going on, it’s hard to do much about it. Fever, coughing, cough syrup. I passed out sitting on the toilet. I passed out in bed. Meanwhile my college applications were being processed for maximum aggravation. I wanted to follow the difficult, and I found it. I wanted exhaustion, takeover by some greater force, and I found those, too.
The thing about that Jesus-hands painting I bought yesterday is that it is actually really simple: two golden-skinned hands emerging from some naugahyde-blue sleeves, all floating on a jet-black background of faintly dusty, fuzzy cloth. That’s it. It doesn’t say Jesus anywhere, and doesn’t have opinions about whether you love or hate it. On the back it is stamped MEXICO in red ink. The layers of its frame are nailed together with shiny brads. It’s both totally straightforward and deeply woo-woo. Of course I love it. It is both cough syrup, and antidote. What are we really talking about, here? The body, or the disembodied? The ordinary, or the sacred? Willingness to be honestly with What Is, or total evasion? I prop the hands up on the stovepipe in my studio, so I’ll see them each time I come in to talk to the dogs. There they are – glowing, ridiculous, sticky-sweet as syrup, and plain as the light of day.
I choose plain and fancy, sweet and empty, the truest path I can sniff out from this right-here, to the next.
We don’t know much about subways, around here, unless you count the woodchucks’ burrows, and the squirrels’, and that one weird one, I couldn’t figure out who lived there, but whoever it was had three perfect red amanita growing in their front yard. Yes, there are ways under around here, subways among the underbodies of mushrooms and ferns, hemlocks and beech, dogfeet, and the feet of deer.
Elliot finally killed the woodchuck that lived under my studio. I say “the” but probably it’s more like “one of the.” Someone has been gnawing on the siding since this happened, and my guess is that those teeth belong to another member of that clan. Anyway – yes – I let the dogs out that morning, and they ran out, straight to the woodchuck’s corner. Chloe came back when I called to get in the car, but not Elliot. I called again, and he appeared, with the woodchuck’s portly body held in his jaws. “Oh, fuck, dogs!” I exclaimed in shock. “Fuck!” Elliot put the body down and got in the car, like I asked him to. A gift. A surrender. Fuck.
For various reasons, we have about six snow shovels lined up against the house, even though it is August. I picked up two metal ones, and scooped the woodchuck’s body up in one shovel, having first rolled it over with the other. Heavy. Very dead, though intact as far as I could see. I walked over to the sumac at the edge of the garden, carrying the body with the shovel, and then paused. Belly up. Strong teeth, dark whiskers, muscles relaxed. Something released a little more inside his body, and some urine trickled out.
I had a job interview to get to, plus I needed to get the dogs out into the woods beforehand. Having no time for a proper woodchuck funeral, I rolled the body out of the shovel, onto the shady ground under the trees, and walked away.
A grave is a subway.
For the next few days, the woodchuck would often come to mind. Was he really dead? Could’ve been an amazingly strong freeze response? I spotted his grey-brown-white fur among the blackberry leaves. Dead. Should I have buried him? I’d be walking in the woods under bright-blue skies and think, No. Better to have a sky burial and the chance to transform above ground. At night, I would sometimes get a strong sea-miasma smell of decomposing woodchuck. Hello, friend. Who knows what you will be next? You are free.
A diagnosis is a subway.
Right around the time all this was happening with Elliot and the woodchuck and the charnel grounds, my mom was navigating the transition between the initial, urgent manifestation of her cancer, and its subsequent steps. She texted me that her chemo would require “un boîtier” to be implanted in her chest. I freaked out. “Un boîtier”? That could be the size of a Tonka truck. Don’t go cutting up my mom to stick large foreign objects in her body, you disembodied medicine-ghouls! I talked with her. She told me the thing to be subwayed under her skin is the size of a five-franc piece. “It needs to be done,” she told me. It’s okay, insofar as any of this is okay.
Fear is a subway.
All fungal growth is the visible part of endless subways. The night after my mom went in to have her chemo port implanted, I ate black trumpet mushrooms I’d foraged from the top of the hill we live on. I texted my mom a picture of one of these in my hand, telling her that as I harvested them, I thought of her father, dead now some thirty years. “Trompettes de la mort,” she texted me back. Death is a subway leading back into appreciating my ancestors, who spent a lot of time hunting animals and mushrooms, and training dogs to help them do these things.
Memory is a subway.
I eat the dark mushrooms, sautéed in butter, with a single, long green onion from the garden, and mashed potatoes. My mother would’ve used shallots, but I like the double-foraged quality of this improvised recipe. I even like cleaning the black tunnels and shaggy skins off the potatoes before I cook them. Nothing’s perfect here: a meal from the subways. I don’t really taste death’s trumpets as I eat them, but then, isn’t that how it goes?
Transition is a subway.
Job interviews, job letters, speculations and agreements. I am on a train and I’m not sure where it goes, or which station will be the right one at which to disembark. I step off sometimes, run my fingers over the golden mosaic tiles, lapis squares, monuments of what’s above, or what has been. Then I wait for the next train to come along and carry me in its hard, plastic seats, its upholstered velvet seats, its clattering tunnels of connection.
You don’t want to stay in the subway too long, lest your eyes turn red and your skin rabbit-white and transparent. The woodchuck had to leave his borough for dandelion greens and marigolds. Most days, this worked out fine. One day, it didn’t.
From inside the subway, it’s easy to forget the qualities of the above-ground world – its brightness and busyness. It’s easy to get lulled by darkness and endless movement without commitment or stopping and staking a claim. I know the dark-dragon quality of the subway, and its power, but I also know that human life, this human life, can’t be lived there without surfacing.
I make mistakes, screw up the calendar, go into the places that scare me, and meet them. It’s not obvious how these awkward, searching steps add up, only, I know they work better than refraining does. They work better than staying in subways that bar memory, bar mourning, bar the clarity of struggle, and bury the wide-open sky.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.