I am allergic to Cipro, which causes elephantiasis-hives in my hands, groin, and armpits.
I am allergic to the word “panties.”
I am allergic to the word.
I am allergic to the feeling.
I am allergic to the mindset that created the word.
I am allergic to my own lazy thinking, and yours also.
I am allergic to either/or, and all the ills that spring from it.
I am allergic to Trump.
I am allergic to the collapse that Trump induces in others.
I am allergic to the puffing-up that Trump induces in others.
I am aware that allergies are battles.
I am aware that battles give the body a sense of aliveness.
I am aware that my body is alive even when I don’t have grapefruit-sized hives or virulent disagreements, but that either of these can have a tonic effect.
I am allergic to the brown dust coating anything that stays unmoved in my studio for more than one day. Where does it come from, this Lebanese dust? It is the crumbling of unmoved things. It is dog-fur powder, and the earth releasing from between muddy dog-toes. It is whatever was on top of the rafters that didn’t get sealed in when the insulation guys turned the whole place into a snow cave. I am allergic to the reminders of what a big fucking mess I am likely to leave behind, stuff-wise, when I die. Also, the big fucking messes everyone in my family is likely to leave behind.
When my husband and his friend parked the moving truck with his stuff outside the house and opened the rolling door, everything had tumbled into a heap, because our street is so steep. I took one look at that heap, and could only imagine setting fire to it, right there, right then. I was having an allergy to the idea of cluttering up our new house with old crap. I was having an auto-immune response to domestic life.
I am allergic to the itchy feeling at the back of my throat. I am allergic to the middle finger on my right hand turning grey the minute the temperature drops below thirty-five degrees. I am allergic to being soothed. Don’t try to soothe me when I’m feeling allergic – it will go poorly.
Once when Timothy was having an allergic reaction brought on by hiking through chest-high grass and we didn’t have any drugs along to help, I lay him down on a sleeping mat to cool off. I helped him breathe more slowly and held a damp cloth to his forehead. Slowly he brought himself out of the panic of allergy. Slowly his body remembered the existence of something other than battle.
Elliot is allergic to the propane delivery man, who came this morning. It’s confusing to him when I don’t endorse his sense of the apocalypse. One part of him is geared to attack, remove, protect. And then another part wants to align with what I’m telling him, which is, Shhh. It’s OK. I can see in his body how hard this is: his hackles are up, his teeth are bared, and he’s whimpering. I tell them to go in his crate and lay down. When he can do this, the fear passes. He doesn’t need to be in charge. The battle ends. He stands down. But it’s hard. It’s hard to let go of a good allergy, once it gets going.
I’m allergic to this election. It’s true. In one week, another round of we’re-not-sure, but… and late-night elect-o-meters will begin. When I’m having an allergy attack to election results, the worst possible feelings about other people show up as a symptom of battle. How could they? How COULD they? Giant hives form on my brain, and I need to lay down.
What is hypoallergenic?
Do a bunch of rabbits always have to be recruited into battle, to figure this out?
What if I committed, no matter what happens a week from now, to not think the worst of everyone? I would need to lay down in a hypoallergenic place like a safety closet and curl up with my dogs (who don’t care about elections). There, my hackles could come down and my whimpering could subside. I would learn there how not to gloat or grind my teeth, how to reflect on the vulnerable imperfection of our human systems.
I wonder how much discomfort I could commit to, towards undoing the allergies I have harbored all my life, the ones I’ve caught from others, and the ones I cooked up on my own? It could be like a dance-a-thon. Each minute I spent sitting in the fires of snotty-nosed not-liking would be a dollar for a good cause, a balm, an ending. All night, loathing by loathing, I would burn, and you could join me. We would wear our best itchy costumes and support one another through the shivers, swellings, shit fits, sneezes, wheezes, and barks of the detox-process of laying down arms. The buffet would be covered in everything we hate. We would nibble our way through canned mandarin oranges, green kool-aid, frosted lemon cookies, lima beans, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and gnarly fruit taffee. We’d emerge exhausted the next morning, emptied, cleansed, and free to move around unhindered by what we once thought we could not abide.
Shilly-shallying makes a lot of sense, when the other options are hyperventilation or total collapse. Some forms of shilly-shallying are in fact quite pleasant, and even useful. Feeling paralyzed by that email you really need to send? Fear not! The anemones, raspberries, and roses need cutting back. The dahlias need digging up.
I dug up the dahlias that my friend at the women’s advocacy center gave me this spring, in the form of a brain-sized clump of root. When I put them in, I really had no idea what I was doing. I broke off bits and buried them here and there – among the tomatoes, behind the lavender – proceeding with all the deliberateness and expertise of a squirrel in a nut-frenzy. Then, also like a squirrel, I forgot all about them. There were other things to shilly-shally about.
Gradually, dark-stemmed, frondy-leaved creatures started to poke up in a kind of circle-chorus around the garden.
I did nothing for them, just watched. As everything else started to die off this Fall, they gained momentum, eventually shouting a deep-red chord of impossible complexity and grace. Then the frost came, and they withered overnight.
I dug up the dahlias and saw that each original root-bit had transformed itself into a multi-breasted fertility goddess, nodes and nodes of dahlia packed together into yam-like clusters of useless, harmless beauty. I loved them even more then, knowing that what I had taken for the dahlias’ shilly-shallying period was in fact root-building, storing up for the wild blooming yet to come.
Get it? I’m a little annoyed at myself for this metaphor, but it seems inescapable. Plants I took to be meh-meh shilly-shallying while the lilies and peonies Made an Effort were in fact following their own fertile, invisible cycle. I dug up the dahlias yesterday to keep them safe over the winter, and found that my friend’s gift had quadrupled during its obscurity in the ordinary-extraordinary ground. Next year we can have dahlias out the wazoo, or I can give dahlias to everyone I know. Either would be fine. I will keep the roots in the dark, unfreezing cellar for their long winter’s rest.
In fact, my own shilly-shallying can be a way of quietly working out the steps between where I am now and the places that scare me. Maybe my fear of that email is actually grounded in not yet having the tools and resources I need to elicit the responses I wish for. Better to wait, to grow root and depth, than to send another ill-formed squawk into the already-crowded airspaces of the world. I look for ways to find relationships with what’s already here, to ask rich and squirrely questions, without hope of immediate reply. My friend, in a similar place of transitions, says, “I know my rhythms.” Yes. Sometimes I do, too. I do the Shilly-Shally Samba and the Shilly-Shally Shake. I learn Shilly-Shally Stillness.
Out the small square window of this library room where we write on a cherry-wood table, some late leaves cling to the tops of otherwise bare branches. Who’s to say whether they are shilly-shallying or not? So much of what I call standstill is actually ripening. So much of what later appears in imagination begins imperceptibly. Here I am, laying down under gradually thickening covers, to sleep, clench my teeth and elbows, and dream. What will that accomplish? My mother, a chronic insomniac, complains of the waste of time that sleep (or in her case, serial novel-reading) represents. I don’t feel that way, welcoming instead the opportunity to breathe, to let go of control, to dream of beautiful old houses, handmade weapons, and communities fully-formed without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I sleep, I dream, my soul’s roots grow deep and fertile as the breasts of a grape-bodied goddess.
Soon I will be shouting in flowers.
Soon I will wither to the ground.
Soon I will be dug up for storage, and planted again when the ground is soft enough for shoveling.
This weekly writing itself has a quality of shilly-shallying, of lingering long enough in the company of my own experience to allow its cycles of growth and dying back. Often I finish with a sense of not-knowing how any of what has come through my hand fits together. Then I read it out loud and find: Yes. There is a thread, a chorus, a weaving-together. I did not know how word would follow word, or what form the finished creature might take. Only generous shilly-shallying has revealed what is here. Only time, space, and acceptance.
“I’ve never regretted time spent on the cushion,” says my Art and Dharma friend, and I know I’ve never regretted the kind of shilly-shallying that parts the curtains of intention, opening itself to listen deeper than thought.
My shrinking hat won’t fit over the new realities that are swelling up like shaggy manes from the ground of being. That hat doesn’t stand a chance, now that a full-grown Buddha-bump is sprouting and swelling its way up through the confines of my formerly-stable skull-pan. That hat’s going to need a glide-out, like those RV’s where the dining room sort of ectoplasms its way out into the neighbor’s campsite, once you’ve got the generator hooked up. It’s going to need an elasticized panel, a pregnant princess’ tasteful bulge-suit. Really, we called those things blight-outs when we traveled near them. What’s the point of going camping if you need so much crap around you that you’ve basically just re-created your whole cluttered lair in the great outdoors?
My shrinking hat may not actually be shrinking at all: just yesterday, when the afternoon air felt raw and it was time to go out in the woods, I pulled it down from the shelf and found that it still fits. My grandmother knitted it for my mother when she was a girl, I think, which means it’s maybe sixty years old, and there it is – still fitting. It looks like something that a peasant in a Brueghel painting would wear while shitting behind a log, except it’s red. Same floppy earpieces, same central seam across the hemispheres of my brain. I try not to shit in the woods on dayhikes, but I pee gleefully, enjoying the opportunity to contribute to the forest ecology. My hat is also a scarf, thanks to my grandmother’s ingenuity. It’s like being a bloodhound with long floppy ears you can choose to tie under your chin. Or like long floppy breasts you can choose to throw over your shoulders while you run. Even sixty years from now, when I am hundred and six years old, I don’t think my breasts will be able to do that. Maybe, though. You never know, when you’re talking about crone-powers.
My shrinking hat is made up of all the stories of what should happen, but can’t. This email, that clever initiative, this undone task – all of these knit themselves into a sort of matted cap that does its best to keep the Buddha-bulge from bulging. It’s a head-erection-preventer. Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned a secret: I can take off my shrinking hat! I can forget about tasks, brain-expansion, enlightenment, or the password to that thing I need to take care of. I can let it all go. Sometimes being Without Hat is the best plan.
To keep my hat, my head, my heart from shrinking, I need to keep coming back to what’s actually happening, a surprising percentage of which is painful, at least on first exposure. It’s painful to be stuck with whatever longing shines through, and painful to abandon that longing. It’s painful to come out of dissociating and painful to meet what’s behind it. Here is this wanting to be seen and attended to, this tender ache for contact. Here I am, X marks the spot, in one role: longed-for. Here I am, longing. Aha! Now the whole dynamic can be seen without shrinking. This is what it is like. This is what it is like. Hat on, hat off, here in the burning quality of being alive.
My friend posted a series of snarky, and yet more or less kind, photo-commentaries on the fashions at a recent royal wedding. At such events, hats are apt to shrink, to mushroom, to mutate. One woman wears a tiny bull’s-eye out, of which seven or eight blue, plumed arrows appear to be jutting. Another sports some significant section of a bear. Knock knock, writes the commentator, Who’s there? No one. Why do I love looking at these pictures so much? Because, finery. Because, beauty, and an escape from my own daily jeans and clogs. What is certainly shrinking is my willingness to be inconvenienced in any way by my clothing, but I admire in some sense those who wear arrows jutting out of their heads for the sake of style. That same woman’s dress is so cut-through with lacy openings as to give the distinct impression of a darkness between her blonde legs. A dare is being made: I dare you to look at me, in my arrows, in the shrinking area of my dress, and see me as whole, unblemished, and clear.
Who gave us the power to shrink one another’s hats? Who said, one day in preschool, Your jobs with one another will be to impinge on space and expression in such a way that joy, vitality, loud feathery squawks, and abysses of grief are no longer possible? Not the children themselves, but those placed in charge of larger numbers of them than can be lovingly corralled at once. I used to watch the long lines of SUVs dropping off children at the school where I taught, and wonder, Really? What is it about me, about us, that gives you any sense that we will do a better job of spending time with your children, these many hours, than you yourself could? I watched the tides of dropping-off, the tides of picking-up, with a sense of how we shrink our days, our lives, into shapes that, while moderately convenient and (in a teacher’s case) deemed necessary for survival, do not honor the wholeness of what we are. Not that homeschooling is much better, necessarily. Just: what the fuck are we doing, shrinking ourselves into geometry classrooms and early-morning devotionals read from stapled-together newsprint journalettes?
My shrinking hat is a MAGA cap sitting on the head of Kanye West as he freestyles his way through and obeisance to Trump. My MAGA cap is my wish to be taken seriously and paid some attention in the world. Good attention, bad attention: it doesn’t matter. What matters is not to be shrunk into oblivion. What matters is to expand into voice, crowd, channeling fear into a collective wave. What matters is that greatness is the opposite of shrinking. Under this hat, anything could happen, so you’d better watch out. There could be armies in here, whole mountains of rich coal, the obedience of millions. This hat refuses to shrink, or to tell anyone what greatness really is. I won’t take this hat off for anyone. It’s here to stay, and all your mushroomy hippie-hats, your lady-hats with arrows sticking out of them, your grandmother-hats, and any other hats having to do with shady dealings south of the border, can go fuck themselves.
This hat is a pre-existing condition.
This hat is a caste-marker.
Some people still travel with hat-boxes: beautiful Black church ladies, Orthodox men, and probably people who go to royal weddings. I’ve seen the first two personally, and the last one is a guess. Royal wedding fascinator-boxes might look a bit like the tubes that single-malt bottles come in, except taller and featherier. Timothy and I have talked about trying to fly with Chloe and Elliot, not as companion animals, but as fashion.
An Elliot hat.
Knock knock. Who’s there?
A Chloe coat with a tail.
Neither of the dogs are willing to shrink, so these plans are unlikely to work.
Baby shoes. Oh, God, baby shoes– the thing I have been avoiding assiduously ever since age nine, when I decided that baby-having was not for me. Not. For. Me. People would say, Strange little girl, you will grow out of this! Baby shoes go with motherhood, and motherhood is what little girls grow up and aspire to. And even though, physically, I was only four and a half or five feet tall, I could feel the hugeness of my NO extend its roots down through the basement ping-pong tables, through stacks of old suitcases, through roughly-disturbed earth, through mole-holes and shrew-holes into bedrock, down through layers and layers of ancient time to
I’m not sure I was believed, then, but I’m pretty sure this whole no-saying was a little spooky for some adults. What to do with a female child whose NO negates so many of the yeses she’s supposed to gravitate towards? I was at the same time giving some yeses. Yes, I’ll learn to read, to write, though I’ll insist on handwriting one-quarter the scale you require. But no to baby shoes. No to baby dolls. No to wishing to be anyone’s baby, soon replaced by another baby, and another.
It’s true I sometimes refer to my two large furry monsters as offspring, but all the times we’ve tried velcroing shoes to their paws – to help heal wounds – have been chewing, spazzing, swamp-shoe-drowning fiascoes. Chloe’s original set of four is now down to one, and Elliott’s larger, more recent set has maybe two. That’s it. No baby shoes for my offspring. Barefoot and not-pregnant, for all of us.
I don’t have anything against other people’s baby shoes, within reason. It took me four months to locate a pair of grey leather booties with smiling diplodocuses on them for my dear friend’s little daughter. When I found them, I knew: Yes! These! I had come to the pharmacy with my father in search of cancer-support drugs for my mother, and these baby shoes surprised me with their clear perfection.
You aren’t supposed to say anything, these days, about how many babies it might be wise for any one person to have. Just like you aren’t supposed to say anything about military spending, or how public support for the town golf course basically adds up to the opposite of the vagina tax women pay on everything from haircuts to jeans to paychecks. Babies are meant to be surrounded by a veil of nothing-to-say-here, unless of course they’re unborn, in which case many people will have a lot to say.
My NO to baby shoes started firmly in the domain of the personal: I did not want to be tethered to a small person. I did not want the mother-role as I saw it performed by the women around me. I saw, felt, breathed the rage my mother experienced at having to go everywhere with us, when my dad could scarcely be corralled to bring his talk-radio-infused Volvo to afternoon school-pick up. I knew we were a weight. I knew we were an impediment. I knew she loved us, and I knew she raged at having to be with us. Nothing like that for me, thanks.
But then I grew up in an era where world population started exploding. One year, in social studies class, the right answer was three billion, and then the next there were four. I wasn’t such a scientifically-oriented kid, but even so, I could tell this meant trouble. Where would everyone fit? What would we eat? What would we do? What would so many more of us mean for all the other creatures, who so often made more sense to me than humans did? Baby shoes started to seem like a sinister cover-up for a global disaster in the making. Quit it, everyone! I wanted to yell. Quit it, Southern girls talking about your weddings-to-be, and the names of your children-to-be. The world is on fire with baby shoes, and you’re just making it worse.
Living in New Hampshire and Vermont, as I do, means living at some distance from the fire. Our populations are aging and shrinking, while our forests are expanding. Or something close to that. We have water; we have land; I can go any number of wildish public places all around my house to loose my dogs and let them run free. I go back to Atlanta, though, where I grew up, and it’s immediately clear that the whole place is on fire with traffic, with heat, with new housing and shops and megamarkets everywhere. All of which are ways of not-saying: on fire with baby shoes. Places I once knew as deserted, open, wild, are now endowed with big parking lots, if they exist at all. Quick trips across town to the movies are now sluggish odysseys down vexed rivers of big, impatient cars with the windows rolled up.
The city is on fire.
The roads are on fire.
The houses are on fire.
The world is on fire with baby shoes.
Little pink ones and blue ones with fire-trucks on them.
The world is on fire with aging-not-dying.
The birds are disappearing.
The butterflies are disappearing.
The bees are disappearing.
Our patience with one another is wearing thin.
If you see all of being as conscious, as I do, and believe in diversity of being as essential, as I do, then what is happening now can only be described as abomination. Grinding up the mountains and forests and villages and workers and young lives and old lives and black and brown and poor lives into one kind of food to feed the wide-open mouths of new white babies is no kind of way to live.
Yesterday I spent time I probably could have done something else with, responding to a white Christian conservative, who had exclaimed piteously that all he and his political ilk are doing is fighting a defensive war to be allowed to raise their families in peace. In peace? What peace? When your baby shoes require mass incarceration, endless war, atrocities at the border, and the destruction of public lands for private gain, peace is not what you bring. I wrote what I could. I did not say, but should have, that white American humans with their baby shoes are some of the most dangerous animals ever to roam the planet, all under the guise of being righteously cuddly and protective. Give me a velociraptor any day.
I have no memory of the baby shoes I may have worn, except maybe the idea that my grandmother may have knit or crocheted some for me. I was cared for well enough, as a child, to survive, to find NO, to open my eyes and heart to the wholeness of this world.
Let us know how many babies is enough.
Let us know we can say NO.
Let us not forget the babies of other creatures.
Let us not fucking eat the babies of other creatures, especially without acknowledging that that is what we do.
Gray leather baby shoes with green leather diplodocuses on them. One sweet, chubby, smiling daughter, long-desired, much-adored. A YES radiating throughout many lives. May all children be so received and so treasured. And may we not forget that other ways of YES, other ways of treasuring are open to us. I have given birth to no one, and yet I love, and yet am free.
The shelves in our mud room are lined with Timothy’s and my large-person shoes: sandals, muck boots, hiking boots, sneakers. It is enough, as I knew it would be, age nine, refusing baby dolls, pretty-lady dolls, and mother-play.
Halfway up the path is no place to eat your sandwich. If you’re going to eat that sandwich, wait till the clearing in the trees, where you can look down on the field shaped like a wood cutter’s axe. Wait till the windblown top, where ravens will eat your crumbs. Wait till you’re back at the trailhead, if good sense tells you to turn back. Halfway is no place to eat that sandwich. You’ll just feel bloated, and anyway, the field shaped like an axe is beautiful to look at.
Halfway measures have a bad reputation, but if what you’re measuring is essentially bad news, halfway’s more than enough. Stop while you’ve only done half the harm you could, and things will be better. It’s true that you’ll miss out on the full-catastrophe thrill that so many of us are chasing after, these days. Halfway idiocy is less glamorous than the whole deal, but the cleanup afterwards is much less of a drag.
That town is halfway to Hades, exclaims someone fictional in the Southern Memories Center of my brain. Does that mean far? Does that mean actually quite close? The mid-nineties edition of the Lonely Planet China guidebook claimed that Goldmud was a local call from Hell. When I got there, it wasn’t halfway bad. More like all the way: dusty, expensive, debased, depressing. Maybe the worst bus ride of my life took off from Goldmud. Halfway up the mountain, we got a flat tire, which, looking at the state of the tires when we all got off to wait for something to happen, wasn’t halfway surprising. When whatever it was had happened, and we took off again, I’m halfway sure we left behind an old Tibetan man in a dust-colored coat. That bus took us more than halfway to Hades.
Halfway-sure is a weird state to be in. As in, I think that’s true, but I’m not positive that impression is coming from someplace trustworthy. Could be intuition. Could be fear. Could be a story from the vast swamp of TV-generated narratives. Could be I can’t be bothered, or I am too scared to turn around and check the back rows of the bus for an old man in a dust-colored coat. What if we left him halfway up the mountain? He’s actually probably better prepared to deal with that problem than most people. After all, those halfway-falling-off Tibetan nomad coats convert into sleeping bags. I’m halfway sure we left an old man in cracked classes somewhere out there, in a muddy sheep pasture halfway up a mountain.
As part of this whole collective mess that we here in the United States appear to be in, it’s probably a good thing that there are some swing-voters halfway committed to their opinions, but it’s also kind of mysterious. How can anyone be kind of iffy on whether it’s okay to commit sexual assault with impunity? If I listen, I find out. Oh, some people just make such a big deal out of everything. Can’t they just relax? I mean, come on – they won’t even show the Roadrunner cartoons on TV anymore, because they’re too violent? What is the world coming to? People hold halfway opinions because allowing pain – our own, and that of others – to touch us is (duh!) painful. Better to be distracted. Better to be angry. Better to stay halfway connected to experience and move along.
Halfway-voting is the way it works in this country, on a good day. Half of those allowed to vote, which to begin with is by no means everyone. Halfway I’m too busy. Halfway it hurts to think about it. Halfway what does it matter anyway? I halfway thought I would travel South and do voter registration work this Fall, but then I all-the-way didn’t. Life has a way of continuing to require efforts in place, even when halfway good ideas might lead us somewhere else. The wood needs stacking. The dogs can’t be walked or fed halfway, and neither can I.
Halfway is related to I have half a mind to… which really means, I am going to threaten you with [whatever], and hope very much that you back down, because going any further will require efforts of me that I do not wish to make. It’s a shitty little pattern, and it reminds me of something that happened once down South. My friend and I went for a hike into Tallulah Gorge, in the mountains of Georgia. We saw a water moccasin coiled on a stone, just right where a person might step on a snake. We kept walking, taking care not to step on snakes. The river grew as we walked, and so did the heat of the day. When we got to a wide place at the bottom of the gorge, we at first waited patiently for the church group on the opposite shore to be done with their tunafish, and scram, so we could swim. We didn’t have bathing suits, and we wanted to eat our sandwiches after we swam. But they stuck around, and stuck around some more, piously clothed and mayonnaise-glazed. Fuckers! Eventually, we just stripped and swam anyway.
Then, on the way back up, having forded river-water up to our necks and gotten our clothes wet anyway, we encountered a Ranger in full tan and olive garb. Looking really angry with us, he growled, If I’d seen what they saw, I would’ve had to arrest you. Those mayonnaise-Christians had snitched on us! My friend and I entertained ourselves the whole way back, imagining this Ranger somehow trying to wrestle two wet, naked Miss Monsters in handcuffs up the canyon. We found this hilarious. We were not even halfway scared of the Ranger, or of the church group, even though they all had half a mind to see us arrested.
Halfway to Heaven
Halfway to Eternity
Halfway to Hell
What bullshit. Who’s measuring?
I have half a mind to box their ears.
I am halfway to the end of this life. Oh, really?
I am halfway to the end of the story. How do I know?
Larissa is the one who keeps time, and she’s sitting on the floor in the corner, where I couldn’t see her phone if I tried.
Anyone halfway conscious
Anyone with halfway decent credentials
Anyone with half a heart
Anyone with half a brain
Where are all the other halves? What are they made of? Is it all dark matter? All fake news? An agglomeration of the bits that get sucked out of people, when they’re re-adjusted?
Seriously, where is all the rest of the baking, hearting, and cocking?
Could we have it back, please? There seems to be bit of a crisis going on, out here. I’m crossing out words, and that’s not really part of how all this is supposed to work. Stream-of-consciousness doesn’t mean, halfway what’s actually bubbling up, and halfway some reservations about all that. Can I eat my sandwich yet? I’m hungry, and that field shaped like an axe might be totally different now. Someone could’ve cut down the whole forest around it with an axe. The trees up on the ridge could’ve grown tall and covered up the view. I don’t halfway want my sandwich now.
I want it all the way.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.