Lilac wine: Nina Simone sings the elixir of Spring, distilled. Summer distills itself through October sunlight on parking deck pillars, and on the nubbled yellow edges of train platforms. Lilac wine is like unicorn-horn powder. I’ve never had it. I imagine it’s pleasant. I’m glad when I hear about it, but it doesn’t have anyplace to land in this sensorium. That’s the way it is, with the edges of what I know. I can maybe locate which edge I think something might live near, but unless I’ve actually encountered it, I can’t know for sure. Lilac wine might be some awful hooch, or it might be the amritsar nectar in that silver ewer, back in Bhutan, the one with the gilt Silk Road embellishments and the peacock-feather stopper. A whole lot like fresh, clean spring water, with the possible addition of other devotees' cooties on the slender, graceful spout.
Lilac wine: nostalgia.
Lilac wine: qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse
Lilac wine: the sobriety of entering the senses without reservation.
I tear vigorous tendrils of wild grape off the lilacs every year. Every year, the vines come back. Every year the lilacs flower, and every year they are drowned in grape, creeper, and some unnamed, thorny-yet-decorative monster. Lilac wine is beauty crowning and drowning, asserting itself and surrendering again till rescue comes.
Is it always like this, being human? Beauty crowns, then drowns again, until we are touched again by some reminder of our true nature. In dreams sometimes I go so far into bewilderment that the focused attention of my whole being is required, in order to come back to beauty.
I am trying to go home, but I don’t know the way. Before I set out, I have to use these expensive tickets I’ve bought for Chemotherapy! The Musical. Who will go with me? And how will I find my seat?
I am running down city streets at night, but I don’t know which way to go. Which street leads back to the place where I last remembered the way home?
I wake to the yipping of coyotes, pull out one earplug, let in their perfectly wild, bewildering song, laugh, roll over, and remember breath, gravity, and field. I find my benefactors, remember bewilderment as itself, and not as the whole truth. Sleep comes again: the lilac wine of beauty, distilled and restored.
Turning towards existence with a basic desire to know involves an endless stream of remembering and forgetting. Also, it involves everything, which is a distinct problem if you are hoping to hold on to any kind of stance about Us and Them. Lilac wine drowns us all, without preference. Anoints us all. Courses through our molecules, a connective fluid.
I am walking around looking for lunch, before my train home leaves Penn Station. I notice there is hardly anything on this street that is not an enormous chain enterprise. I notice that the disused former phone booths under the scaffolding have become parking spaces for homeless people in wheelchairs. I notice one deli with two doors, offering the kind of food I actually want to eat, instead of feeling like I am settling for I should eat. Blueberries and scallions, small mozzarella balls cut in half, cold tortellini and sun-dried tomatoes. I notice how much harder it is to meet the needs of desperate-looking people outside the station. Easier to give online. Funds fly out quietly while I am not looking, and no one has to ask. If someone were to hold a cardboard sign asking for lilac wine, would I know how to answer?
A spray-painted, fat, one-eyed, navy-blue rabbit winks from the base of a train power-pillar. Stray marks of creativity are lilac wine flowing from the hands of unknown people.
Do I say enough in these essays, to take what happens, and turn it into wine for you? Sometimes what happens is still so unripe that I don’t know how to stand knee-deep in it and press out the wine. My aikido teacher, who makes wine, apologizes for the state of his grape-purpled fingernails. As a painter, I don’t mind. As a student of this precisely kind, powerful person, I don’t mind. My teacher showing me how to pin his arm behind his back twists lilac wine from what I do not know.
I am squeezing wine out of living. Do you know what it is like when you go straight towards the thing you fear most, and an opening arises where you never imagined one could be? I don’t know much about Harry Potter (I’ve only read the first book), but what I am describing is like running full tilt at the wall between Platforms 9 and 10, on desperate faith that Platform 9½ might show itself to you in this way. The hurt parts of the self are saying no, no, no, but there’s something else that wants more than anything to move beyond the safe, known, and presently visible. You run at the impossible, and something new rises to meet you.
Oh! Lilac wine. I’ve never tasted you before.
I’d heard, but I had no idea it could be this way.
Thank everything I took this risk.
Thank everything for all the times I’ve lugged out the clippers and chopped off those ever-drowning vines.
Thank everything I listened when I heard: lilac wine. The taste of home, guessed, but not till now experienced.
Yesterday I was in the city for a ten-minute appointment to renew my Swiss passport. In some ways, this was total bullshit. Expensive, time-sucky, tiring. But even so, I found I could follow the grain of the embodied city into places and moments of refuge. The gallery inside the New York Public Library, with its mashed-up prints of women wearing fountains and alligators. A small, tree-dappled metal table outside the library. The vast, golden field of Prospect Park, just right for barefoot tai chi, and for the blessing of a red-tailed hawk tearing the air overhead. Then, this morning, time for talking with my friend Louise, pressing out the wine of our lives’ truths as they are right now, while eating oatmeal, and paying attention to little Beatrix’ demonstration of the key features of her excellent pajamas.
I did not go out in quest of museums or galleries, as in the past I might have. Still, attunement to beauty was with me every step, dancing the subway rails’ uneven rhythm, feeling into the body of the world. Lilac wine is just this: the sweetness of surrendering to the ordinary-extraordinary as it is, in every moment, without hope of recompense, or of rescue.
Up in flames, the idea that old pain resolves completely one day, and is replaced by some new version of being human, where the good moods stick around forever, and all obstacles can be met graciously, without a hint of faceplanting into frailty. Up in flames, this heart, this body-mind.
A friend told me yesterday he’d raped. Up in flames, the idea that those we love are somehow members of a separate, blameless category of humans. I've known this for a long time, of course, but there's a first time for everything. A number of friends over the years have told me they've been raped, but no one had ever come out to me before as having forced another human being into sex. Now what?
My standard Buddhist strategy for not going up in flames is to fall back on the section of the Seven Branch Prayer that places me solidly within a continuum of having committed, at some point among millions of lives, every kind of transgression possible:
I confess to all evil acts committed by me
From beginningless time until now,
Influenced by the defilements,
The five that ripen immediately,
The ten non-virtuous acts,
And many more.
Basically, the whole thing has been up in flames forever. Where’s the news in a little more horror?
That’s where I went first.
Next, what came up was the memory of drowning the sick bunny I bought in Hong Kong at a time of great loneliness. White, fuzzy, sweet: what could possibly go wrong? His butthole didn’t work. Or maybe the problem was elsewhere in his body, but in any case, the bunny never once shat in the week I had him. He got frailer and sicker, and I found his suffering intolerable. To make things worse, the weekend was coming – one of the long ceremonial periods connected with Chinese ancestral observances – and a typhoon was blowing in off the Pacific. My veterinarian friend couldn’t help. Friday night, storm raging, bunny held in my hand against my chest, I filled a red plastic bucket with water, and took it out into the back yard. I plunged the bunny into it, and held him down. My story had been that he wanted to die, but his scrabbling feet at the bottom of the bucket told me that the instinct for life was strong in him, and that I was the one who wanted this death. After he stopped struggling, I used a rusty old cleaver to dig a hole under the clementine tree, while the wind whipped around, the lightning flashed, and sheets of rain came down all around us. I placed the limp little body in the hole, and covered it with wet soil.
Afterwards, I felt tainted, separated from the continuum of life by sorrow, by knowledge of myself as someone who had both reached out to a helpless being – in Hong Kong the pet- and meat-markets were intimately connected with one another – two sets of wire cages containing the same species, at either end of a long, smelly row – and who’d in the name of release turned against him when things got hard. It took a long time to shake that sense of being marked by my actions, separated from the community of being.
I told my friend this story as a way to draw close to his sense of being marked and separated by the violence he had done. I told him about the Thich Nhat Hahn poem Call Me By My True Names, where the narrator sees himself both as the young girl who drowns herself after being raped, and the pirate who raped her. I did all these things, and yet, I could tell something in me still needed to go up in flames.
My friend asked, How do you learn to call someone by their true names?
Later, having completed my sewing and photography and writing for the day, I noticed I felt ill, awful, cramped, nauseous. Standing at the kitchen sink with my husband nearby, a powerful feeling came over me, accompanied by two questions:
What would their mothers have wanted me to say to you?
Did you hurt them?
I realized, in my responses to my friend's disclosure, I'd taken an above-the-storm view. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel: the horror of being forced, abused, disregarded. I sensed into this, as the pain in the back of my neck got stronger, along with the sense of being held underwater, like the bunny years ago.
I've learned not to try to shake something like this through distraction, when I have the space and resources to let it roll on through. Timothy kindly offered to do the dishes, and I went upstairs to fill the bath. Once in, once warm, once safely in that womb of release, I listened for what wanted to come, what wanted to go up in flames. Tears – not comfortable ones – but soundless sobs, racking, shallow breaths, shuddering through the body. I remembered my date kicking me across the room after prom, and no one saying anything about it, least of all me. It was all so awful – what was there to say? Plus we were all drunk, and drunk teenagers are by definition outside the law. Who could help, among these flames? I remembered helpless childhood sorrow at being the recipient of adult rages all out of proportion to anything I might have done.
I remembered, in short, all the times my body and being have gone up in flames, hurt, helpless, unhelped. But this time was different: I could intentionally go back to the feeling of the warm water for a break. I could remember my benefactors. I could feel what I was feeling as This is what hurts feels like. Everywhere, right now, are beings who are hurt. Since beginningless time, we have hurt others, and been hurt. May we know comfort.
So this is the gift I can bring back to my friend – the possibility of allowing himself to go up in flames, consumed by the hurt he has caused. How? By allowing himself to feel fully and consciously the hurt he himself has experienced in the course of his life. This agreeing to burn is how we learn to call one another by our true names, and I am afraid that there is no alternative, if what we really want to learn is compassion. That’s not at all an appealing process, I will admit. Who wants to be reminded of drowning a bunny, twenty-plus years ago, mid-storm, tears of horror and failure mixing with rain in the freaky light of some raging storm? Who, in processing past wrong deeds, wants to enter completely into the body and being of those whose integrity we’ve transgressed? None of us, really, but then, we have no choice, if we really want to heal.
Another Thich Nhat Hahn memory: in his quiet voice, somewhere in the midst of a long Dharma talk, he pronounces:
Because we have no choice,
We must risk our hands,
To stroke the tiger’s whiskers.
The day I arrived in the tiny nuns’ community in Devon, shortly after my novice ordination, a mostly-deflated mylar tiger balloon floated down from the sky to my hand. Here, honey, it said. You’ll be going up in flames, but the good news is, I’m worth all the burn.
Knife me, said basically no one except Chris Burden, who also said, Shoot me right here. Do you ever hold a knife and, feeling the weight and potential of it in your hand, think of plunging it into the nearest-by body? I do, and while that’s not a pleasant experience, I chalk it up to something like the call of the void. Now, standing on this cliff edge, something about the abyss is singing its seductive song, and I can’t help noticing that there are some beautiful riffs in there. I can’t help respecting the void and the knife, for the truths they embody, even while no-thank-you-ing my way back to the path, the onion, the beloved business of this life, unfolding.
Tomorrow evening, I’ll make another pass at aikido, in search of further and more direct ways of dancing with knife-energy. I tried a few years ago, in Edinburgh, getting off the top deck of the bus at the Holy Crossing stop, wandering through church hallways till I came to the padded room where strong people were casually twisting one another to the floor, casually tossing one another, glorious black Japanese skirt-pants flying, across the room. At that time, the answer was clearly: No, your back, shoulder, and knees can’t take this shit. No, your relationship to violence is not presently one that allows of being in this room with any reliable sense of ground or safety. Now, I wonder how this will be. My friend, who’s been practicing with this particular micro-dojo for the last year or so, tells me it's small, awake, caring, human, well-boundaried, and yet exhilarating. She, like me, has a tai chi background, but unlike me, she’s done weapons training before, and she’s also been at this a long time. We will see. If it takes, I will get to reincarnate my friend’s Californian aikido suit from the 1980’s, as I now, in my mid-forties, enter a system of belts and drills, swords and staffs, opening my awareness and tolerance for both the knife and the void.
My friend tells me about a book by an aikidoka who trained women in prisons to understand space, energy, and boundaries. You're not allowed (surprise!) to go into a prison and teach people how to kick ass, but this woman was able to translate what she knew from aikido into what she calls Conscious Embodiment. Sign me up. Part of why I want to know all of this in my bones is because I know there’s a need to illuminate, aerate, open and release the violence in my own body-mind and heart. Part of it is also: I want to know more about how to help ground others in this way. For the past couple of weeks, one of my counseling clients and I have been working on finding embodied space and boundaries, finding real ground beneath the feet, real strength in the arms and legs, a real strike in the fists, a real sense of choosing who and what comes in, moment by moment. She’s been beating the stuffing out of a velvet chair, then stroking its pelt back into beauty.
Last week, my client brought a sheet of superhero stickers in with her, and we spent much of our session with the Hulk as guru. OK, how is he standing in this one? If you take that pose in your own body, what comes next? Smash! Boom! My space. Girls don’t often get taught this, either overtly as self-assertion and self-defense, or as horseplay. Every time I hear some parent say, My boy really needs horseplay, but it’s different with my girl, I want to cry. Do it, I want to yell. Even if she tells you she would rather braid her hair into a crown, or paint ponies, she still lives in a world where the knife and the void are both in her, and all around her. Get her used to pushing, hitting, running, kicking, falling and recovering. It makes absolutely no sense to continue pretending that violence is only a boy’s game, when we know what we know about women and girls as targets of violence.
Knife me, says the part of us that longs no longer to be alive.
Knife me, says the young woman, slicing into her arm what nothing else can ease.
Knife me. Break the dam of this suffering skin, ground me in this body that feels and bleeds.
I didn’t understand cutting until I attended an all-day Mental Health First Aid class. At one point, participants were given a questionnaire about various behaviors, and how they might relate to suicide risk. One of these was cutting. The young woman sitting next to me said matter-of-factly, Actually, for me, cutting is a way to avoid suicide, to let off steam, to ease pain before it becomes too much. Do you know what it’s like, when out of the blue someone does something so courageous you're at first not sure you heard what you heard, saw what you saw? She understood that she was in a room full of people who, for various reasons, wanted to understand how to help people in crisis. She understood that she knew first hand something that we needed to know. So she told us: I cut myself not because I want to die, but because I want to live.
Fear of pain can blind us to what's really happening. Take this from me! I can't be with it. Opening to pain, on the other hand, can open us to What Is. This feeling right here in the chest, if I follow it, what do I find? A keen knife, right between the ribs. And then? Sharper and sharper pain. And then? The heart opens wider than it’s ever gone, the pain transmutes to bliss, this body is the knife’s edge between small Me and the body of Being Itself.
Knives in this life: the Laguiole pocket knife my brother gave me, and which I once had to surrender (we here at the airport frown on that sort of thing); the trusty B- and C-grade Zwilling knives Timothy brought back from being a student in Germany; the razor-sharp green-bladed Kuhn-Rikon parer I acquired last month, and which I somehow don’t trust, because it can’t be sharpened.
Knives I don’t own, but remember: an Engelberg bread knife, whose serrated teeth reproduce the chain of the Bernese Oberalp; my uncle’s machete, beating down brush as we make our way through Jura forest; a big, fat Swiss Army knife, with a saw and a magnifying glass, gone to wherever it is that vanished things go; a rapier-shaped letter-opener in a leather scabbard on my grandfather’s leather-topped, gilt-edged desk; the horrible wooden-handled pirate knife my mother sliced roasts with, when I was a kid. A Damascene steel blade my not-quite-of-this-world friend Andrew forged, in a smithy he built himself, before the ocean took him back.
Manjushri’s bullshit-cutting sword, the one he wields overhead, a smile on his face. The one that emerges, flaming, from the center of the lotus, itself emerging from the mud of all our unhoned violence and loathing. Take from me all that is not free, goes the song to Kali. It means, Cut off these barnacles of hating and fearing; trim me clear, open me one cut at a time, so that I can grow to the full span of this being.
Here, now, I am living what it is to turn towards integrity. Strange, peeled clean, and through that peeling, ever-tuftier, evermore exactly as I am.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now