Oh, monster under the bed, today’s your day to romp, even if you are a miniature horse named Fluffy. Today's your day to shake your tiny mane, and poop in the minivan on your way to a rich harvest of equally miniature good ‘n’ plentys (why does anyone eat that?), kitkats, and weird, sticky jackolantern lollipops. Today’s your day, monster!
Today's the day we park our regular monsters in my studio, so they don't eat any trick-or-treaters. Today's the day I carve the pumpkin I bought for $9.60 at the nursery, into a bear’s head with braces, or a salamander with a stuffed-up nose, or Fred Astaire’s skull, or whatever. You tell me, monster: it’s your day.
Recently, I started hanging out with people who talk about The Veil Being Thin at this time of the year. Part of me thinks, What? How is it, at any other time? And part of me thinks, Super! Let us all agree to a time of the year when the imagination gets to come out from under the bed, and be heard.
I wonder how this Thin Veil theory interacts with the subsequent emotional intensities or stupefactions of Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Quick, thicken that shit up again, the family’s coming to town! Or is it through the thinness that we glimpse all the monsters of disappointment, bereftness, not-met-ness, that stick around through New Year’s, when we are once again released to go back under the bed, and lick our wounds?
I personally aim to keep my monsters well-fed and groomed, to romp with them at least once a day, and to respect their need to take up space. Yesterday, at the end of a long dance weekend, I stepped into a witness role, and saw much that was delicate to the point of inertia. Much that seemed disconnected from a planet where there’s a lot going down. I watched, and as I watched, feeling the quietude of the room, something rose up in me. I took a deep breath, parked my glasses in a corner, closed my eyes, and went in. Crawling backwards, fast, then slow. One hand sweeping the ground, and then amplifying the sweep into a scrub. I am the mad washerwoman-monster, getting shit done! Wake up! There is shit to do! Both hands scrubbing, whole body, putting my back into it, collecting all the dust of the don’t-care mind onto my black clothes. Stumbling, then up drumming with my heels, leaping, spinning. I am the monster dancing at the edge of dissolution! Everything falls apart, but there’s no sense in letting what’s good slide to ruin it before its time. Sure, my knees are fucked, especially the right one, but they’re also wildly strong, and I am dancing the palpable quality of getting work done in the world. Once this day’s work is done, rest comes cleanly. Not abdication, but repair.
Monster under the bed, who put you there? If we flip this whole thing over, and now I am under there with the dusty towel, and you're reading James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld, how long does it take for us to turn into one another? What might it be like to be what we are, while also being allied with that greater awareness that takes no sides? What if we Murphy bed the whole thing now, and so we're standing vertically with a mattress between us? Then we do a little sideways slam-dance, bringing down into ourselves what it is that tangles us with the stars’ cold radiance (plus a little plaster), and bringing up into ourselves what roots us in the earth’s primordial warmth (plus some dust-bunnies).
If we trade roles thoroughly enough, spaciously enough, we wind up wise to them. That's what reincarnation is for, once we let go of needing it as an assertion of lineage. Oh yeah, I tried that once. It was pretty delicious, while it lasted. It was wildly suffery, when it ended.
I dream of living in an apartment with young people who leave their radios on in the kitchen, and have noisy sex behind closed doors. Are the radios supposed to mask the sex noise? It doesn’t work. In the dream, I have a cougar’s desire for young flesh (yes, Bill Clinton, I understand), but not, luckily, a clear path to access. It's too gross, going beyond leering into interrupting the flow of what is rightly a young person's game. I know that monster, and I'm sure, more times than I can count, I've played the grosser role. Try something new. Be trustworthy. Know the monster well enough to know that it won’t really burn you alive to be lonely for awhile.
Reading back on my words before time’s up is a monster – it's the one that wants this all to come out right, intelligible, clear. Fuck that. Nothing I'm writing makes sense until the whole shape of it has been allowed to shuffle out from under the bed. That’s true of everything. Let it come, let it show its true shape. I let go of the illusion that I know the whole shape, when all I can see is a snout and a pair of bright eyes. There could still be wings, or a roach’s butt, or flippers. Only don’t know.
Tonight I will be doing a kind of Audubon field count: Who shows up wearing someone else's monster, or their own? Who comes from the country, livestock in tow? Who is willing to tell me something of themselves, their imagination, what's come out, and where it’s going? And who is just a little freeloader, convinced, somehow, that the treasure’s in the bag, out there, at the next house, just a bit further and stickier?
Last year I was a trick-or-treat worker on Berkeley's golden strip, in the oasis of my friend Michelle's beautiful Alice Wonderland. The lines were absurd: miles long, adorable, compulsive, a press of need and accomplishment. And what were we handing out? Little finger-traps, to bind people together just long enough that our monsters had to talk to one another. Shit! We’re stuck! Somehow, the bed’s flipped, and we’re both underneath. Relax. Make eye contact. Move towards what binds you, until it releases of its own accord.
I'll probably just go to Price Chopper and get five pounds’ worth of safely wrapped nonsense to hand out. That's what fits. But I'll find a way to talk with all tonight's little fiends. Tell me something true. Show me something real. Do me a dance. OK, now, we are somewhere, together. You’re welcome.
Fluffy the horse stands patiently in the midst of his cowboy-clad family. He's not thinking much about anything. It's OK being out at night, because his people are there. It's OK being the monster over the bed, once everyone recognizes that they've been there, too.
Every other day or so, a new Oh my fucking God, the world will end if you don’t vote Republican! flyer will arrive in our mailbox. They don’t bother sending us the ones that are more like, Yay! We Republicans will do great things for you and your patriotic family, Mrs. Rosenkoetter! Somehow, they know that’s hopeless. Or maybe those flyers don’t exist at all. Instead, we seem to be recipients of a dystopian children’s books series, for which someone somewhere in Trumptown has employed a renegade, failed illustrator of patriarchal teddy bear stories.
The first in the series is, basically, a pop-up book about how, if the Republicans aren’t in charge, Iran is going to detonate nuclear bombs on Lake Winnipesaukee and in Manchester, New Hampshire. On the front is a weird post-industrial-town/lakeside-fishing-village mashup. Inside, Kaplooey! A giant storm cloud of fire envelops all of it, while the Iranians cackle madly, and those pussy Democrats wish they’d only had the good sense to be a little manlier. Their locker rooms have been empty for too long, and now, we all have to pay.
The second installment in this gloom and doom library makes use of the cutout technique used in truly beautiful books, like the one about the baby bunny, the flashlight, and the moon, where strategic holes through the pages let you see something new, depending on how they’re flipped. Except, this designer flunked out of kids’ book world for a reason, and so, the same fucking image is there, no matter what you do. You might say this is a visual analog for the kind of obsessive thought so valued by zealot Republicans. Look at any thing in the universe and see: Lower taxes! Keep the immigrants out! Don't let the women and brown people distract you from greatness!
Anyway. The front of the card features two Caucasian men with large assault rifles, something Republicans are generally quite in favor of. Except, see, instead of regular guys in ski masks, these are white dudes in vaguely Palestinian scarves, pretending to be Iranians, and so now you should be scared. Through a red cross-hair-shaped cutout, you see an Asian family running happily outdoors. Open up, and now there's only one of the gun-dudes, and you can see the whole family, plus a vignette of a mom and daughter, seen from behind. Asian families of New Hampshire! Watch out! Heavily armed white men pretending to be Iranians are coming after your family, unless you vote Republican!
I think the card would work better if on the outside it was the mailman, and on the inside, the Kalashnikovs. Mailman-as-terrorist is what Chloe and Elliot seem to experience every day, so under my plan, at least the card would make sense to dogs?
What I want to know is: who looks at these cards and thinks, Why yes! Nuclear annihilation of New Hampshire mill towns and lakeside pleasure-places is a real concern to me in this election, and so I am very happy to elect a bunch of truth-dodging government-haters to the government. I agree that people in a country halfway across the world, armed with hypothetical weapons that do not exist, are of more concern to me then the total nut jobs right around the corner who, thanks to you, Republicans, have countless ways of arming themselves to the teeth, and slaughtering anyone they don’t like.
Thinking this way, storm clouds roil in my chest, this way and that way. I conjure up idiot Others, and I play into the games these paranoid mailers propose. There's an Us – aware, rational, well in possession of the right solutions for everyone – and there’s a Them – unaware, irrational, bent on the destruction of all that is good in the world.
Recently, a friend brought up that vaguely Native American meme about feeding the Fear-Wolf or feeding the Wolf of Compassion. What I am finding out is that those two are actually the same animal, and his name is sometimes Elliot.
This morning, in the fog, we three round a corner, and Elliot is off. Fast and strong, he is at the bottom of the valley, he is running straight for the highway, he is streaking, loping, galloping, totally free. Nothing I can say with the zapper collar or with my voice makes any difference, and anyway, free, running in unfamiliar woods, potentially near danger, I don’t want to madden him with pain. I stand where I am, with Chloe, who whimpers a little, rolls in pine straw, and stays near me. I call. I send a little pulses from the collar, at intervals, to remind him: You are not just the Running Free Wolf, you are also the Sofa and Kibbles Wolf.
After – I don't know – 15 minutes, he comes back. Ears down, finely soaked in cloud-breath, panting from his race. I push him down gently, tell him he's home, ask him to walk with me. He stays by my side for the rest of the walk. Chloe bites him a little to remind him of what’s what. Elliot is the Fear Wolf, who storms at anything that frightens him. He is the Coming Home Wolf, who curls up with me on the newly-legal couch. He is the Running Free Wolf, whose heart and legs and lungs want nothing more than to compass the whole earth, with its squirrels and skunks and porcupines, its soft leaves underpaw and vast arching trees above.
This morning I see the title, Why Good People Do Bad Things. That about sums it up, doesn’t it? I wish we could all just get in the habit of admitting that we're complicated, and wild, and take responsibility for that.
Yesterday, on my way home from Wonderwell, I went the long way, which is to say that the long way took me, and when I drove past the trailhead, I knew to turn around. Parked, got out, walked over the little wooden bridge, followed my nose. Up, up, up, walking over dried bog and dark grey stones the size of horse-heads. Walking across passages of just-downed maple leaves and just-downed beech leaves, around a marsh and onwards, knowing I was being pulled somewhere. Then – a gap – a mat of boot-worn hemlock roots – a miracle of perfectly flat water ringed in trees, held quiet in the hollow of this high valley. Ah! Here. This place of beauty and balance, born of knowing to trust the world and myself. I was wolfless, on this walk – no dogs to track or to tame – just moving grateful across the land, as part of it. A knowing part, a breathing part, a balancing-on-stones-in-clogs part.
Neither for nor against, is where we are at our deepest, and yet, how much time do most of us spend there? When we are fascinated with the storm clouds and the made-up horror stories, we have no chance to see the sky, or to notice how We, as Good Wolf have a whole lot in common with Them, as Bad Wolf. We can’t even imagine we’re the same species, let alone the same-same animal, eating with the same mouth, and shitting with the same furry butthole.
While I was wandering wolfless and speechless at Cole Pond, Timothy was in other woods, with the dogs. Climbing, on the way home, he looked up to see an enormous she-bear, with two cubs. Immediately, he went to leash the dogs, and yet: the ones we often call our Sweet Bears recognized no danger in these Bears, and likewise with that wild family. They all knew without telling: same-same animals.
According to time-honored ritual, Larissa pulls this week's prompt from the box: paisley. I think to myself, Paisley is only one letter off from parsley, Precisely, Larissa chimes in, Well you could write about parsley, if you wanted to.
Hive-mind lightnings across the table, across the world, through the pages of type in the just-right book that falls into your hands when you are busy looking for something else. Hive-mind is the beautiful weather patterns of the truth that we are all connected.
Giving voice to serendipity works, so long as it references the present moment. Did you just see that? Yes. Wow. OK – what were we doing? Writing about Paisley-Parsleys. Where hive-mind doesn’t work is as an appurtenance of the woo-woo self. We have all had the experience of trying to describe this amazing thing that happened, back in that special place, with that special person. For me - both as speaker and as listener - these experiences are usually tinged with loss. The speaker is longing for a past peak experience. The listener feels left out of something perceived as more significant than the present moment. Over time, this sense of loss reveals itself as nonsense, tied up with the delusion that there are Special Moments in life, and then there’s all that regular crap. All that regular crap turns out to be the only place where we can notice the through-line linking us to Being itself.
This morning, I woke up at 4 AM with snot-clogged nostrils, and my body feeling bruised and exhausted. Then, more sleep, which I wanted more than anything to stay in. Comforter, comfort me, keep me in your warm, grey half-life. But I had committed to this day, and so I rose. Dentist first – uncomfortable. Not only can I not breathe, I cannot speak around the mouth-guard used to keep myself from clenching my teeth to smithereens. Resin taste. Drill. Biting, biting, biting. And then, done. No charge. I see the kindness and integrity of my dentist. She's worked hard to install this implant in my quantum mouth, with its Schroedinger’s teeth rotating and shifting, more than anything with roots ought to be able to. I see the hydrangea outside, glorious in its autumn fade to ultraviolet, grey, and fuchsia. Just as I am leaving, I turn back and open my empty mouth-guard box. I pull the doorknob to the examining rooms. Right there, I see my dental hygienist, running forward with the guard itself, forgotten/not-forgotten. We had the same thought at the same time, I say. She smiles. The whole exchange takes maybe five seconds. Hive-mind. Moving parts, leaves on a single great tree, whose body we glimpse in the snotty mornings of this life.
As I drive to Notebook Club, I settle my eyes on the flight of golden leaves scintillating in the bright, clean air. See this. Do not abandon your post. You are here to know the world as it shows itself through you and all around you.
There's a different, more ludicrous form of hive-mind happening here in the café, as different people's orders get mixed up and reassigned in unpredictable combinations. My sandwich arrives in a box, with ham, instead of on a plate, without. Goes away, comes back, still with ham, but now on a tiny plate. Then it turns out I need a box anyway, to take half of it home. Oh well. Larissa gets me a box, while asking for her vanished scramble. Getting there a bit by bit is the way it is, and we get fed, somehow. Our daily bread.
I used to want absolutely minimal perfection – to predict the precise action needed to catalyze resolution. Now I see things differently. I accept that my actions may be squirrely and flawed. Keeping my intentions clear is the important part.
Yesterday, on my way to dance , there was a homeless-looking person with a cardboard sign at the bottom of the exit ramp. At the stop sign I looked over and saw a slight young woman. A kid, really. Her sign said HUNGRY. It said TRAVELIN. I waved at her, and drove on. What might it be like to be in that body right now? The news sank in. Cold. Dark coming. Alone in the middle of nowhere. What would that body want, and what could I do about it? Follow the sign: food. I drove to the deli nearby and ordered the day’s last bit of Cream of Chicken soup, with some toasted cheddar-bread. Waited. Stupid proliferation of awkward, unbalanced packaging: foam, plastic, paper, everything that offends my sensibilities. But still. The lady at the counter and I agree that it is a beautiful evening. We agree that the leaves will stick around a while, and maybe they will.
I drive back to the girl, and park behind another car with its blinkers on. Two smiling young dudes, who, having just dropped off some pizza, pass the baton to me.
Sweetheart, I say, I brought you some soup. I dropped it on the way to you, so it's a bit messy.
Oh, you’re so kind! She says, absolving me in some way I have just now realized I needed.
I ask if she’s got somewhere to stay.
Oh, you know, I usually just go somewhere and start a fire.
What? She sees my alarm.
Someone’s coming to pick me up, and I’m almost home.
Which is it, the barn-fire, or the homecoming, or both?
Just then, a police car pulls up, lights blazing. A fat, stern-faced cop.
What’s your name?
Are you going to tell me your real name?
In stopping, I have helped to bridge something and something else. This girl is no longer alone. I tell her, I need to go. Take care of yourself. I tell him, Be kind to her. He ignores me; she smiles, I turn, to find a kind-looking woman cop just behind me, parked where the young pizza-dudes just were. We are hive-minding this intervention, the one that says, You are not alone. We see you. We, the people who wish you no harm, will stop and take notice of you, will extend ourselves to meet you and be met. Be safe. You are with us.
I arrive to a bit of chaos in dance-land. The sound system is refusing to play music, flashing instead a message no one's ever seen before, which flashes (over and over) the one word: PROTECT! PROTECT! Fair enough. That's where we need to be, sometimes. I turn the whole thing off and back again. Victory! The connection is made, but in some way that no one completely understands, it required human hands on both ends. See me. Hold me. Notice me in my vulnerability. Take time away from whatever obsession’s been riding you, to step into the role this moment requires of you.
We dance, together and apart, efforting through when the mind lags behind the body, shedding the layers of resistance between going through the motions and truly being in motion. Sophie’s built the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue into the playlist, and I enter completely, swaggering and hooting along with Mick, in this sacred-ordinary space, in this body, mind, and breath.
The misunderstanding is between the nose and the tail, between the whisker sticking out from under my chin, and the hair sprouting from my big toe. True story: I am in the TSA line in Boston, and I turn down the handsome, gray-haired man in front of me – the one with the Akron Ohio T-shirt and the ponytail – when he tries to let me go first through the woo-woo scanner. “You’ve got to go sometime,” I say with a smile. I look down and see that both of his second toes have silver rings on them. Cool. The misunderstanding is in thinking that we know anything, ever, about any category of beings, as a category. So, boom: here’s a middle-aged white guy from Akron with beautiful manners and sexy toes. Take that, “Trump Nation,” as an abstract, enveloping concept.
It is a misunderstanding to say that we can’t know anything about one another, in the particular.
It is a misunderstanding to think that the work of understanding one another is a naïve illusion.
It is a misunderstanding to let ourselves off the hook in this way, to refuse to do the work of understanding joy and suffering in one another. We mistake our own joys and sufferings as somehow occurring either a) as a rule to which all others will conform, or b) as unknowable and unique. If either of those things were true, we would be screwed, and there would be no point whatsoever to the actual facts on the ground, which are: we live together. We are bound up in one another. We breathe one another and carry one another under the skin.
I take my car in for an oil change and a new filter. The place I've been going to has just gone through some kind of a coup, so that everyone I am familiar with is gone, the dealership has a new goofy name, and I have no real basis for trusting what's going on. But still: I experience delight in the simple interaction of handing over my keys, and getting them back from the same blonde-haired stranger – the first woman I’ve ever seen in the Service Department. Stranger. Fellow human. Good morning.
The woman who sells me coffee and a breakfast sandwich congratulates me on being able to dig out my loyalty card from the recesses of my overstuffed wallet. “Good job!” She smiles. I say she sounds like a person who lives with either dogs, or children. “Yes – I have six kids, so I’m used to seeing how little things can be a struggle.” I tell her how, with no kids, dogs have been my introduction to lavish daily praise. Now I find myself using the same language with little kids, as with my two mutts. It’s a good way to live, we agree.
The misunderstanding is that when we encounter something difficult, something has gone wrong. If this were true, then somehow the plan for us, in this existence, would be to waft around not bumping into anything, not learning anything, not expanding what we know in any way. It’s telling, I think, that some people imagine this stress-free vagueness as what Heaven would be like. You get issued your ever-stainless white robe and your perfectly-tuned harp, your twenty-five-year-old’s body and your worry-free mind, and you wander around some boundless sunny place forever, feet never quite touching the ground, because there IS no ground. There is no integrity of contact with the Earth, saying, remember you are of this, and you will go back to it. In Heaven there is no going back, and no going forward. There is no compassionate understanding of Hell because, as my fourth-grade self recognized intuitively, if you did know of others in Hell, your wafting around in aimless bliss would in that very moment become impossible.
The misunderstanding is that when I am feeling hopeless and trapped about something, those feelings are the whole truth. The misunderstanding is that my perception of the situation encompasses it totally and accurately. I ask the I Ching: Dear Uncle I Ching please tell me about this situation that’s been feeling stuck and static for awhile. I don’t know how to change it, but I know that it has fallen out of aliveness. I Ching says: Inner Truth – know what you know and feel what you feel. I feel I wish the members of the meditation group that I have been leading for the last couple of years would have an active and deepening practice outside the group. I feel I need a peer group of other teachers to learn from. I feel I am done being a student in the meditation practice program that I’ve been part of for the past two years. I feel I need help to be able to transition, each Sunday, from teaching meditation to facilitating dance. That’s what I feel. Then, I Ching says, Innocence, The Unexpected. Do not fall into the misunderstanding of thinking that you know how things are going down. Hold to what you feel and sense in your own experience, and allow yourself to be surprised.
One student, who has often said that she finds meditation an alienating experience, announces that she’s leaving soon for a week-long silent retreat with a Zen teacher. My fellow facilitator tells me that she really doesn’t mind helping to get the dance space ready. I’m told I may soon be teaching in the meditation practice program, which would mean access to a new peer group. Hold to what you know. Allow all else to be don’t-know, held not as needless suffering, but as the unfolding of creation on its own, powerful terms.
I scratch my chin – turtleneck-time, and the body is adjusting to new confinements, new sensations of heat, cold, socks, sweaters, big wooly scarves. Living in New England is a good counter to the misunderstanding that comfort is somehow due us at all times. It gets cold. This season of family holidays rolls in, making me reëxamine the somewhat hermitty life that Timothy and I lead. For Halloween with no children and two big barky dogs, we will park the dogs in the studio, and welcome the neighborhood kids, plus the little rural kids who come from places too sparsely populated to support fruitful wandering as a zombie-ninja-geisha. We will step up. Then Thanksgiving, a holiday that sets my lady-hackles on high alert. Really? Today? Women cooking His Favorite Bla-bla and doing endless dishes, while the football drones on? That's part of my discomfort, and then there's also the sense of displacement: no children, parents in Europe and on the West Coast, friends far-flung and occupied with their own families means for me: some fear of loneliness, of somehow not reaching the desirable quota of fellowship and satisfaction.
The best Thanksgiving I've ever experienced was the year that Timothy and I spent hiking the Perimeter Trail, all around Sewanee, Tennessee. In the four and a half years that I had been teaching there, we'd seen bits and pieces of the route, and this was our last chance to knit it all together, closing the circle. We started at dawn, and walked the entire day - twenty-three miles around the known world - until finally ambling back through downtown at dusk. We stopped to eat tasty things, to bask in the sun, and then we moved on, and on. The only hard part was coming home to a minimally-furnished apartment, just the two of us, some potatoes and a pie, ghosts of Feast all around us. Ghosts of Feast are a misunderstanding of where joy comes from. They fail to see what is whole, right here, in its current, surprising, just-right form.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now