Yellow is the color of my true love’s teeth in the morning, when I rise.
Yellow is a radiant heat, a ripening, an over-ripening. Look to the south and to the peak of things. I look to high noon, to saffron rice, to egg yolk, and think of all that is not-lacking in this world.
Abundance can go so many ways: into a kind of refuge permeating everything with deep okayness in the midst of want, into overindulgence. The lady is asked to go to the zoo for an MRI. The lady goes to the junkyard for a weigh-in.
We fear indulgence.
We look at the last jar of honey on the shelf in the kitchen, and are glad.
This morning, we fired up Gustav, the pellet stove, for the first time this year. It was 58° in the house, a fact that Timothy could guess from under the covers, just by how the air felt on his nose. He is a freezing-house savant. I pulled the blue porcelain bowl of baking soda out of the stove’s recesses and flipped the switch, and got in the shower. Coming out – one red-yellow spark behind the glass. I stood in a yellow towel, Timothy by my side, as we waited for the first flame of the winter to fly up to life in the darkness. We wished one another a warm and peaceable winter.
Yellow is the color of sunlight stored in trees and kindled back to life in the cold air of morning.
Yellowhammer is a bird. Yellowjacket is an extremely unpleasant wasp that flaunts its stinger on millions of Georgia bumper stickers and little flippy-flappy game-day flags.
Is yellow the color of cowardice because abundance fears loss?
Abundance, fully integrated, does not fear loss, knowing itself to be beyond bounds of this and not-this.
So they say.
There is a yellow silk jacket in my attic, brought to me in California by my grandparents, after a trip to China. It's the yellowest thing I know – buttery, soft, rich in every way, lined in finer yellow, and embroidered all over with flowers, bats, and happiness. The appliquéd white silk edges serve to frame the tulip-intensity of the body. One year, I wore it to Halloween with a gold dress, yellow lipstick, and a blonde wig. People were disappointed when I told them I was simply the color yellow, but why? Is beauty for its own sake such an affront?
Yellow doesn't care. Yellow comes up from beneath last year's once-yellow now-brown leaves and trumpets forth daffodils with tacky yellow petticoats. Yellow wears a push-up bra and rhinestones. Yellow’s got a grill with cubic zirconium dice in it, and a tie-tack the size of a quarter. Yellow sometimes kittens into orange, sometimes hyenas into gold. It does not care about your pretensions of good taste. It’s got breast implants the size of cantaloupe halves, and a citrine navel stud. It shakes its luscious butt to music whose lyrics are best not listened to with any degree of scrutiny. It doesn’t for one moment worry what anyone at church, school, work, or the Junior League might say.
Did I mention I wear black? I wear black. I think I would feel physically ill, compelled to wear yellow day in and day out. The robes the monks I trained with wore were called yellow ochre, but that's misleading. They were brown. Earth brown, bread brown. No cubic zirconium included. More like a color-deflector than a color, actually.
By contrast, the Tibetans are into some deep saffron stuff, paired with burgundy. They wear big woolly smurf-crests of yellow yarn; they paint their roofs yellow and gild everything they can afford to layer in gold, as many times over as possible. From the perspective of high frozen wasteland, this makes perfect sense. If everything is already dun, the last thing you need is more brown in the world. Holiness and color are profoundly interrelated. I remember full-sized barrels of powdered pigment, in some Lhasa hardware store: waist-high containers of red, yellow, blue, green, uncut matte and saturated.
There's a gorgeousness to the world, born of intensity. It brings clarity up out of entropy. Not: everything all jumbled, but: this one sunflower on its prickly, massive stem. Usually the flowers that stand out and declare themselves as beyond compare are white – edelweiss, white orchis; or blue– gentian, Himalayan poppy; or purple – cattleya orchid, wolfsbane. Yellow is more like a reminder of the ubiquity of beauty in the world: gorse and goldenrod, black eyed Susan and dandelion. If scarcity is your bag, and connoisseurship is what seals the sense of worth for you, then, odds are yellow’s not your thing, unless it’s peonies you’re talking about.
Years ago, a meditation student give me what felt like a lot of money, at the end of a course. Shortly afterwards, I found myself with a friend at a nursery full of peonies in bloom. Pink, red, white, and then: this miracle, coral at its deep center, radiating outward to deep lemon yellow, smelling deliciously of clean laundry and meat, sunlight and the body. I was absolutely entranced by its smell, color, irrepressible strength rising from the earth year after year into glossy leaf, fat bud, and ruffled, warm petal.
The only one left for sale was somehow mold-blighted and sad, but I took a costly chance on its recovery, planted it in the front yard, and went into more-or-less suspended disbelief. All winter, under snow and ice, I came to think I'd been ridiculous. What could justify such a price?
It sent up red shoots in March, leaves in April, three ant-nibbled, fattening buds in May. Then, on the summer solstice, opened its eye, and I remembered. Of course! At any price, this wild beauty. Two or three times a day, I came out to sniff and to admire, to weigh the remaining unopened buds in my hand, to give thanks for the gift, the waiting, and the unseen processes underground, ripening this glory.
Every golden flower in the world arises from underground work, mining the material that comes up through the roots. Rich from the roots upwards is rich without worry or conceit. Yellow grows its roots in black. It ripens connected, and does not forget. It cadmiums and chromiums, mangoes and loquats, cheetahs and lions.
The con man smiles his shy smile and the diamonds twinkle in his ears. Oh, Con Man! Is that what you are? Or, are you really selling me a free ticket to electricity powered by fairy-wings and Ent-farts, now and forever, Amen? I know enough to know that’s not really possible, but I prefer the version of this dance that we are living out together, now, on my front porch, whose view you admire. I prefer to give you a glass of water, so that you can recover from walking up our hill. I prefer to listen to your story of being laid off from Wyoming oil fields, before coming to sell Ent-farts in New Hampshire. I think of all the ridgelines fucked up by windmills, and of my father’s wry voice asking, What will power the plants on the days the Ents eat fartless foods, and there is no wind? Are you prepared to go lightless, heatless, and foodless, on those days?
Purity is a con man. Purity tries to say there is some way somewhere to live without causing harm. Be a vegetarian! Walk the way of the Buddhas! Vote for Bernie! But then, you pull up a nice bunch of organic green onions, and there's a chicken bone tangled right up in the dark roots. What then? Eat everything hydroponically? Separate from the soil completely, and rely on recycled fish-poo to feed your mesclun mix?
There is no purity. Let me say it again: there is no purity. Period. We are all tangled in one another, swapping molecules in ways sometimes gentle and sometimes the horrific. Not wanting to know doesn’t make it not so.
Yesterday, I listened to someone who describes herself as a “spiritual junkie” narrate his big insight, gathered at an ayuhuasca resort in Peru: There is no me! I’m just dissolved in the Whole, you know? What I appear to be is not what I am. And I wanted to strangle the con man Unity, who leaves adult people so ineffectual and seeky. This person travels yearly on spiritual pilgrimages, goes on retreat pretty much constantly, always seeking escape hatches from the illusion of me. But what about Me as agent? What about the possibility of saying, OK, so definitely Me is not the whole story, and that’s awesome, but in the meantime I’m going to set about cultivating body, speech and mind so that I’m able to offer something of refuge, in a world that’s shown me such grace in its teachings. I’m going to be focused on more than tripping out over digital camera glitches and old stones. I’m going to do the work it takes to become fully present here.
Self-improvement, of course, is a con man, too, as long as it takes the form of lonesome self-striving. When it shifts to service and curiosity, something else is happening.
My ayuhuasca friend talks about tripping. It was like, wow! So much richness! Clowns everywhere, and rainbows. Did you at least enjoy it? he asks me. And I remember choosing to keep going past surface sparkles and into the core of the experience opening. Not surface, but interior knowing – going into different consciousnesses, at first to experience each one’s suffering in its full horror and, later, in its secret knowing of being awake and perfectly all right, already.
I am lucky. As a painter, I've already had plenty of experience with the con man Beauty – seeing it, following it, distilling it, realizing how the richest forms of gorgeousness are supported by the gnarliest components. Muddy grays and jarring juxtapositions are the chicken bones in the roots of beauty. Grand gestures and rich colors can’t stand by themselves – they need little gremlins underground. They need the acknowledgment of sorrow, and of the ends of the painter’s knowing, beyond which the world can enter on its own, wild terms.
So when I took psilocybin, at Hopkins, in the Long-Term Meditators study, I wasn't looking for kicks. I was looking for a gateway into understanding what chaplaincy patients go through. I was looking for a proving ground on which to open up my practice and see what happens. It’s a big difference: “plant medicine” resort in the tropics, versus weird experiment station on the outskirts of a ruined city.
Self is a con man. Self is also a skillful means. This can basically be said of anything. Love is a con man, and love is also a skillful means. Work, religion, study, family, travel, friendship, all of the above, anything can go either way. How to tell? Intention. Am I in this for the rainbows on the wall, or am I in this to learn? Am I using the self, this love, this work as a way to escape from something, or am I turning back against the stream of not-knowing, and saying, Show me? I am willing to see now, though I wasn’t before.
Dance can be a con man, in the way that it offers an exit from the awkward self into the flowing, groovy self. Sometimes we need just that: Take me out of this constriction and worry, and into something loose and delicious. Give me rainbows, give me drums. But dance can also be a way to enter fully into the awkward body, letting go of the mind’s commentaries upon it. Oh, here we are, heavy and tender, hesitant and sure, bound to one another in these moments of arms wrapping, hands slapping floors, bellies slithering. Here we are, not falling for the con man who says, Everyone to the escape hatches! There’s nothing to see here, and no self anyway.
There is a self who can intend connection and kindness. There is a self who can choose to come out of dissociation and into the truth of what is right here, right now, without wishing for anything better. There is a throbbing bass note, like a freight locomotive, underneath whatever else may be happening. This, now. Not later, not someone else. This being, this moment. What’s the way, now?
The linden trees stand over us, at this now much chillier picnic table in the park. We write together, week after week, choosing the benefit of connection, gathering in faith that nothing never happens. Make space for experience to rise to the surface and it does. It does. Just keep the pen moving. Keep listening to the through line. There. There. A ballpoint trail of knowing, without knowing anything ahead of time. This, then this.
I had a dream once, where I was on a messy Indian bus with everyone – all the people and animals, and my Abbot as Buddha was driving. We came to the edge of the sea, and the bus stopped. I got off, suddenly alone on the beach, after all that time warmly jostling among plump and skinny, bald and furry. But not alone: my soul was there too. I understood that there was a metal beam – an eye-beam, an I beam – just under the surface of the water. I could walk on it, one foot carefully in front of the other, all the way across the ocean. I could never see the beam, but I could trust it, and it would carry me where I needed to go.
So here I am. Here we are, simultaneously on the bus together, and each walking her own beam. And how else would it be? Here we are, keeping our ancient promises.
Hairbrush, she says, reading the strip of paper she’s just pulled from the long-gone, now-returned box of prompts. Hairbrush? I think of awful parents banging their children’s bottoms with the bristly side of ancestral grooming tools. I think of the epic struggles my own mother had with my snarling mass of hair, when I was a little girl. What was that? My puppy-hair must have been different from the slippery eels I have now. I wonder if that means Elliot will stop forming dreads behind his ears when he grows up. If he grows up.
When I went to Burning Man sixteen years ago my hair was uniquely primed for dreading-up by constant chlorinated swimming, and by the three days of backpacking I put in, even before not-showering in the desert. By the time the whole extravaganza was done, Sierra Nevada pine-tar and playa-dust had coated themselves into my post-monastic do and yielded an intensely pleasurable sort of happy hyena fur. I remember driving into the Reno airport rental return, depositing my Chevy Malibu with its delicate desert-matte finish, and walking off into the terminal in my sunbaked body, which had seen neither shower, nor hairbrush for ten days. I felt lithe and grounded, light and vibrant, certain that my plan to show up for one day of graduate school, then bugger off to California, had been the right one.
Monastic life is a serious undertaking, or at least it was for me, and serious undertakings often require intense antidotes. That was what I was looking for, that whole first year after ditching my robes and crash-landing back into the world. Burning Man was an excellent choice – sort of like an anti-monastery, or a monastery existing in a parallel universe that shares many of the same values of community and generosity, while giving them very different expression.
I was staying with my friend Joyce, at her brother Heinrich’s camp in a pretty central part of Black Rock City. Heinrich and his crew had been going to Burning Man for years, slowly building up a following and a performance schtick around Mr. Crispy Head. A small crane lowered one of the dudes (they took turns) into a vat of boiling oil, in a special suit that allowed him to be deep-fat fried, without incurring any harm. It was totally hokey, and thrilling at the same time. People gathered for the sight of the suit disappearing slowly into the vat, the alarming smell of burnt sacrifice, and the miraculous resurrection. Meanwhile, one of the other dudes (often Heinrich, who has a beautiful, booming voice) narrated some sort of carney-story about Mr. Crispy, and his heroic willingness to face fast-food death.
The year I was there was a kind of turning point at the Crispy camp: after a decade of showing up single, several of the guys had bought their girlfriends with them, which meant: significantly less groupie-bonking, and also some tensions, as the ladies attempted to bring order and vegetables into the mix. I took one look at my probable roles in that dynamic, set up my little blue cocoon of a tent (which I slept in exactly one time), and took off to wander the playa.
At that time, and I hope some of this is still true, there was nothing money could buy in Black Rock City except ice and coffee (two substances thought so essential as to constitute life-support). You bartered for some things, and there was a parallel gift-economy, where amazing offerings were constantly happening, just because someone was feeling really generous in their own kooky way. I ate whole meals of gift-food, danced like a maniac to gift-music, and enjoyed LED-wire sculptures zooming across the deep, flat darkness of the desert landscape. A purple hopping kangaroo made of light, hovering just above the level of the earth. And I wasn’t even taking any drugs.
My own suitcase was an eclectic affair: tons of dried fruit and nuts, some good hand-cream for the desert air, some body-paint (actually it was just kids’ tempera), and some assorted weird clothing from my travels. The barter stuff came in handy when some idiot took all my stuff from a pile outside a drum circle, leaving me one Teva, but no car keys, water bottle, anti-dust scarf, or warm jacket. I spent the night with the same warm Brazilian man as the night before, and in the morning, set about bartering for help breaking into the car, and a ride to Reno, for a new key.
No hairbrush and not much else, but: happy living in community, moment-by-moment, with whatever turned up. Hello, eighty-year-old nudist in leather chaps! Hope you’ve been tending to those leathery buttocks, or else they shall be fried. Hello, Freaky the Clown. I am pretty sure we live on different planets, but look! Here we are, together, right now. I traveled world-to-world, like I had in earlier backpacking days. This was much easier: I didn't even need to ride some deathtrap goat-roofed bus over the mountains to get from one universe to the next. I could just grab a water bottle and follow my feet to the next place.
What I needed from that time was twofold. One, I needed the promiscuity of art infusing everything. I needed to see that there were people so passionate about their creativity that they were willing to work job-jobs all year, saving up to build giant temples, give away ice-cold daiquiris, dress as giant fluttering hummingbirds, or drive flamethrower-tanks through the desert. These people cared not at all about galleries and museums, and they weren’t selling anyone anything. Two, I needed tenderness, and this I found also, with my Brazilian friend, who welcomed me and let me go; with the shy man who drove me to Reno; and with an Alpha male of the Crispy camp - in an exchange that could not have been better-timed, ending as it did in my leaving for good that very dawn. O abundance of the world, un-fucked with by camp gossip! I love your smooth skin and rental truck delights as much as I love your discretion!
So I came back to graduate school with a new perspective on what is possible in the world and in art: not two different possibles, but one. I built a large papier-mâché Cow, and decorated it with the help of my friend Lori. We built a kind of stretcher-throne for the Cow, named her Vashita, and then recruited other devotees to help carry the whole thing through the streets of Atlanta, in an improvised activity that people were free to identify as protest, performance, steakhouse advertisement, campaign stunt, or Promise Keepers rally.
We walked free and scruffy-haired, bringing the profligate, beautiful strangeness of the world to whomever wanted it. We gave out candy, and we laughed.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.