Hyena. O Hyena. No one makes charismatic calendars of you. No one photographs you against the sunlight, with the wind riffling your furs. Your furs are gobbeted with carrion, and as for the sun, well, you’re not in the habit of posing nobly for it. Hyena, you show up to eat whatever’s not moving fast enough to get away, and you don't bother much with whether it’s dead or not-dead. As long as chunks of it will fit between your powerful jaws, well, you're golden. Not golden. No, you're never that. Fed. And that is your gift.
Hyena will eat the faces off sleeping people, and that's obviously horrible, but it's worth pointing out she'll eat the butts off dead wildebeest, too. It's not like Hyena is looking for sleepers to maul. She's a meat-seeking missile, and not very particular about what she finds. You’ll never see Hyena in that episode of Portlandia where the couple asks too many questions about the chicken’s provenance, and wind up living in an abusive farm-cult. Hyena doesn’t care. Is it meat? Can my jaws fit around it? Voila.
Actually, I wonder. Would Hyena care for the chickens horribly immured in Tyson meat-silos? Or would she slink away, horrified by a stench even Hyena can't abide? Stack upon stack of de-beaked, de-clawed, near-immobile birds, shitting on each other's heads while fattening relentlessly on the powdered remains of their ancestors. Hyena turns to the house, looking for something juicier, with sleep apnea.
Lately I've been feeling Hyena energy a lot in myself, as a kind of irresistible pull towards the dark underbelly of things that would prefer to remain all bright face, all the time. I walk in, sniff something hidden, and my jaws tighten. Hyena-nose, knows. Here’s a thing that no one wants to acknowledge. Here's a question that brings the whole endeavor out of its conventional disequilibrium. So, why are we doing things this way? When we say this, don't we really mean that? When you come home, and I want to bite your face, what does that mean?
Carrying Hyena energy to term is exhausting, not least because nobody wants to always be the dark fairy at the feast. Couldn't I just once be a fairy who actually receives an engraved invitation, and has a golden bowl with her name on it waiting at the table? Couldn’t I happily piece together my cashmere fairy-outfit, while humming pleasant spells to myself? Right now, no. Right now, this is not my work.
What I mean by carrying hyena energy to term is not some Rosemary’s Baby kind of scenario at all. Instead, it's a commitment to being with old pain when it wakes up, squalling, and finding out how to feel it without fearing it. I am walking down a logging road in the far North of New Hampshire with Timothy, when it starts up. No one will ever love me. There is no place for me in this world, and my voice cannot be heard. Ah. Hyena starts eating my insides, but I’m not willing to let her have that meal. So, what else could be present? I realize I need to poop. I tell Timothy, There’s some old pain rearing up right now, plus, I need to poop. He stops with Elliot, and Chloe follows me into an old, logged clearing off a side road. Which tree? That one: small, maple, deciduous, off to the side, good for leaning against. Poop! Out comes some hyena, kindly met by frosty ground. Wet leaves make excellent toilet paper, and Chloe is a good woods-pooping mentor. What else? My voice. My voice is strangled from the inside right now. Timothy suggests Here Comes the Sun, which is not on Hyena’s Top 40, but works fine as a warm-up. We come to Slewgundy, a fine, smooth oxbow in the Dead Diamond River. More voicework – sounding, squawking, singing together, voices building as we, sure enough, drink in the sun. Chloe and Elliot dry their river-soaked hyena-furs on the rocky shore.
On the way home, we sing round after round, weaving our voices together in harmony and listening. Did I know that Hyena wanted sentimental Thich Nhat Hahn songs? No, not at all. Would it work again? Definitely not as a formula, but as a general approach, noticing that Hyena is waking up, and attending to her, feels essential.
O Hyena – you are eating away the dead parts of the world, the habits that no longer work, the sad magic of pretending. You are welcome to that work, and if I steer you away sometimes from what is sleeping, but not dead, I thank you for the reminder to wake up.
People have wolf t-shirts and wolf notebooks. Every conservation organization in the US wants me to send back the nickel they’ve hot-glued to their mailing, and Save the Wolf. PETA and the ASPCA share gruesome urgings to end cruelty in dog-world. But nobody ever asked me to protect the Hyena. That’s a mission I’ve had to come to all by myself, a secret commitment that no one’s going to salute via free, personalized holiday greeting cards and mailing labels. So be it.
Day after day, I embroider my white wedding dress, and day after day I wear it for the photographic record I am keeping. The white dress, surprisingly, is my Hyena suit – the one that shows me to myself. Here, naked, in long-johns, in boots, on new snow. Here, shedding all the old agreements not to speak of this, and not to notice that. Timothy has a Hyena suit too, which includes one of the first items of non-white clothing I owned after leaving the monastery. It’s a brown fleece jacket that somehow wound up in a plastic bin full of stinking, rotten potatoes. After that, it was so horrible to be around that he left it out on the front lawn in the snow and mud for a whole winter. In spring, he washed it, and started wearing it again, paired with some tattered fleece pants from a long-ago expedition to Torres del Paine.
The suit becomes a corpse.
The corpse lays out in the open.
Time and water, wind, snow, and rain bleach its bones.
And it comes back.
It comes back.
When experience has been marked by horror and pain, it can take a long time for all that to work its way through. It can take strong jaws to chew your way out, and the willingness to risk being hurt and hurting others. The creature’s not going to be an easy ally: she’s going to snarl and bite and snap, and you’ll need a steady hand at the back of her neck when she’s preparing to lash out. You’ll need to learn to choose what she meets, and when. You’ll need to learn how to open old cages that neither of you really needs, any more.
Distress can be hard to measure, or even to detect. The cost of learning to detect it in others is learning to tolerate it in oneself.
I am hiking in the woods at twilight with the dogs. It's not a trail I know well, and post-storm, the corpses of large downed trees hide the way. Finally, when I get to the low cliff with the knob of cold quartz in it, I call the dogs back to me, and head back down hill. Elliot and Chloe can’t imagine that the trail isn’t plain to me, and so they’re of no use in finding it. Loose, fresh-fallen leaves blanket so many possibilities for what could be a path; and yet, luckily, whoever painted the salmon-orange blazes out here did a thorough job. I keep myself focused on each next passage, each next mark on each next trunk, and put aside the feeling that there’s something here that wants to be lost. So going, we find our way to the bridge just before the road. I keep my distress low, to keep my senses sharp.
Once back in the car I’m filled with a deep sadness that seems to intensify as daylight ebbs away. Quarter to five, in the dark. No wonder people don’t want to feel what they feel, I tell myself. Again, something wants to be lost, but instead, I stay with what I’m feeling. There is no place for me in this world. There is no known way forward. I feel distress, for sure, but also a kind of deep love towards it, which transforms it into a kind of pleasurable, lived intensity.
I notice I want to stop at the store for coconut milk and tea. Am I even allowed to go into the co-op with a tear-stained face? I can feel the distressing old story that I most certainly am not allowed to be seen this way. Then, that distress eases as I think, Really? When I'm sad and want to cup of tea, I should withhold that comfort? I park in an empty section of the lot, so the dogs won't feel the need to defend my Subaru to the death. I wipe my face with my sleeve, re-knot my hair, make sure there are no leaves or squirrels caught in it, and tell the dogs I’ll be back soon.
I wonder if anyone else in there is having a hard time? I wonder, as I walk toward the brightly lit sliding glass doors. This question becomes a guiding curiosity, as I walk around the aisles. Is anyone else feeling the ghost of the holidays like some cyclical curse of exile? Is anyone else in here shopping for warmth and care of a bruised heart? Oh, yes. Yes, oh, yes. There’s the thin, beautiful young woman so paralyzed by the whole process of being here that her eyes can’t meet the shelves, let alone anyone’s gaze. There’s the older woman standing by the dairy case with her friend, looking for a product that isn’t there, while the man restocking the various milks can neither confirm nor deny the reality of her desires.
Wait a minute! She’s looking for what I’m looking for, and she’s totally right: it’s not there. There’s a flash of recognition: her distress, my distress, and then some subjective experience of these two needs soothing one another out. Long may we prosper! I exclaim at the end of our second round of conversation, and I really feel this. She tells me she felt, before we talked, like she'd been hallucinating, but now she know she's fine. What we were looking for wasn’t exactly the same thing, but it doesn’t matter: the experience of meeting one another in that lostness has shifted each of us back to ground.
My friend Sam, who died about three weeks ago now, had a cutoff black t-shirt he’d printed himself, which said:
She who can’t be found
is the one I’m looking for.
He knew a lot, I suspect, about how acknowledging unfulfillable longing moves it from being a source of distress, into something holy and connected. That connectedness can live anywhere we remember it.
I forget all my embroidery thread at home when I go down to Manchester, and so after first ransacking the supplies at the castle to find a single length of conch-pink floss, I take myself to Hobby Lobby to expand my palette. I've never seen a retail space quite so overwhelming as this hanger-sized depot of female creativity, subverted to profit and bad jobs in China. Truly: people here longing, and buying glitter reindeer; people there longing, and flocking glitter reindeer for miserable wages.
Somehow inevitably, after I track down my thread, I find myself in the wedding-crap aisle. First, I notice that Hobby Lobby’s ideal of marriage is still very much A Man and A Woman – their in-house brand is Mr. & Mrs. Still, if you’re gay and hoping to deploy a lot of China-made crap at your special day, you’re in luck, because all Mr. & Mrs. brand wedding accessories are 50% off. You can buy double, and pass off the unused half of it all to the matching same-sex couple (Mr. & Mr. to your Mrs. & Mrs.) down the road. Ha. You’ll have to get more creative with the cake-toppers, because those mini-people are fused together, and sometimes there’s a cross thrown in for extra blob-heft. Probably this should be a warning: Danger! Distress ensues when marriage is envisioned as a blobbing-together of human-units and flower-shaped crosses. Beware! Mandatorily-tiny white women sheltered in the arms of mandatorily-tall white men may not exist, and are in any case not clinically guaranteed to lead happy lives.
I stop shuddering and become curious. What is here? I notice a rack of very small cast-plastic frames, intended for conveying table place-assignments. They are spectacularly ugly, in a way that tips over into beauty, and I find myself thinking of all the longings enshrined in this vast, cynical wonderland. I see the woman composing a green tulle wreath in her cart; I see the woman buying a talking goose for her baby granddaughter to dance with. It strikes me that the black Mr. & Mrs frames might be wonderful for
SHE WHO CAN’T BE FOUND
IS THE ONE I’M LOOKING FOR
I see myself making up a hundred and eight of these, and hot-gluing them all over the towns where Sam once lived. But then, sensing the distress in such an over-gesture, I scale myself back. Sam made one shirt; I can make two frames; and then see. I bring myself back from the brink of craft-store madness, re-center in intimate remembering, and head for the registers.
The next room will be the one where suddenly, everything fits together perfectly, and no one looks at me like I am from outer space. It will be amazing! Suddenly I will find that it's possible to simply welcome all my parts, and find that they are welcome, too, without all the tiresome shape-shifting and self-editing that all the other rooms seem to require. I won’t be told, This is a Buddhist/psychological/professional/scientific/family-friendly/academic/arts-based room, so kindly take your bag of eels someplace else. Nope. The next room will be the one where my bag of eels, and your bag of giraffes, and his bag of dicks will all be welcome, just as they are. Did I just write bag of dicks? Shit. I guess I’m in that room already.
One male friend once made an impassioned plea to another male friend, who’d just said bag of dicks with great relish, to please never use that phrase again. I get it. I super-get-it. Why take what’s tender and sensitive, honest to the point of inability to hide its true likes and dislikes, and put it in a bag of ridicule? No, no, no. Still, what are we going to do with the current room, the one where all of a sudden, all the lady-people, plus some of the men-people, are talking about all the assault and rape and hurt? It’s very tempting to want bags for all of that, to want bags for all the perpetrators, to want to shove all of it back into some room, maybe the one it all came from in the first place?
But that room is crumbling, and all the bags have holes, through which eels and penises and inconvenient truths are wriggling out. Via Facebook, my friend Shakeema recently introduced me to a genius who, under the name of Sailor J, publishes dystopian YouTube beauty tutorials. At one point, she explains, Perhaps in a better world, women wouldn’t need to contour, seeing as it has nothing to do with experimentation, or artistry. Since it’s simply for the dick, we have to do it. Damn! That woman knows how to shred some bags. Out come all the things that have nothing to do with anything even vaguely satisfying, but we have to do them. Brr! There goes homework, there goes biting your tongue, there goes being pleasant when you feel like a bag of hyenas. There goes forgetting altogether what you wanted, because this is what you have to do.
As she attempts to erase her nose with makeup, Sailor J explains, Men love pterodactyls, sealing her place in my heart forever.
The next room will be where we actually pay attention to and acknowledge how we feel, versus obsessing about how we think everyone else should feel. In that room, we’ll keep opening the possibility that there’s space for feeling what we feel, without being pushed around by it.
How about that Mr. Alabama Senator, in the next room? Wouldn’t it be great if he could respond to the current round of denouncements sort of like this:
When I was 32, and working as a district attorney, I felt incredibly lonely. I hadn’t earned enough yet to feel I was worthy of marrying anyone, and to be honest, I was dead scared of what I knew about myself. You see, when I was a kid there wasn’t anyone around I could talk to about sexual desire. In church it sounded like all that was supposed to stay in the next room until I was married, but then, what about what was already happening in my body? I was fourteen, and something was burning me up from the inside that nobody had any words for. My father was a good man, but hard, and I’d’ve sooner talked with him about the plague, than about what I was feeling in my body. Then I heard some other boys talking about Jolie from down the road, and how she’d let you touch her down there, if you brought her a dollar. This surprised me. Jolie? Her dad and brothers were men no one talked to, and there was something side-eyed about that whole house… But if a dallor was going to get me closer to the next room without having to wait for marriage, you can bet I was going to do what it took to earn and spend that dollar. That's where it started. Jolie made it clear what I was allowed to do with her, but one day I forced her to go further, and then what? She didn't have anyone she could turn to, because the deal was rotten from the start. I started forcing myself on her pretty regularly after school, knowing no one would help her, and I started telling myself that it was her fault all along for being a slut. But I hated myself every time I came, and I guess I never learned how else to work with desire. So, yeah, of course, there I was at thirty-two, still looking for Jolie at fourteen in every girl in town I thought I could use, and some others besides. I know this doesn't excuse what I've done, but honestly, can you tell me how else this could’ve turned out? Do you really think I’m the only one in the Senate who’s got this problem? Can you help me in some way?
If Mr. Alabama could say this, it would open the entrance to the next room, the one where the current round of denunciations would turn a corner into vulnerability. We're getting way better at outing evil and abuse, and that's incredibly important. But we’re also going to need to get better at confession, restitution, rehabilitation, and systematic reform in the weeks and months and years to come, for any kind of real progress to take hold.
I read this morning that Republicans are requesting that Jeff Sessions should step in as a write-in candidate for the Senate job he left only a few months ago. Quick! Tie the eels back up again! Close the door to that room! Avoid change at any cost! We do not want to hear about your teen-rape past, and we do not want to acknowledge that anyone except Our Righteous Father should hold power, ever.
Given his behavior so far, and the respectablility he still enjoys, I'd say the odds of Mr. Alabama ever admitting wrongdoing are pretty fucking slim. I'd say the odds of any of his compatriots coming out about their own shady pasts are virtually nonexistent. But how great would it be if Jeff sessions, instead of standing by, or agreeing to backtrack, said something like this:
No, I'm sorry. If the point here is whether past sexual violence precludes government service, I'm going to have to step down, too. You see, like my colleague here, no one ever helped me understand desire when I was a kid, and I've been carrying around my own dark stories for years. I’ve been getting away with everything I can, ever since I learned that’s how the world works. So you’re going to have to find another solution. Like maybe Jolie Smith? I hear she’s been doing excellent work representing her district.
The next room always requires a password made of risk. Today, because we have no choice, we must risk our hands, reaching out to understand one another. Brr! But I don’t want to touch a rapist. Quite possibly true. Don’t.
There are rooms and rooms full of garbage, with methane flames burning off the extra gas. There are rooms and rooms of truths no one wants told, because no one wants to be seen in the company of those truths. And yet, listening into the body, all the keys are there, and every once in a while, the right door opens.
In my teenagerhood, I considered New York City the locus of all things cool, sleek, loud, sophisticated, and beautiful. It was the opposite of the South and the suburbs, where I lived. My senior year I went with three other girls to stay with a friend’s mom, who was then working as an Episcopal priest in Jersey City. She was wonderful with us, taking us to lunch at La Mela in Little Italy; to Canal Jeans and Pearl Paint; to see Gypsy on Broadway. We ate and walked and bought our way through the city, sucking in everything from the vast expanse of sky available at the top of the Empire State building to the deep earth-rumblings of the subway. I remember the taste of tart tomato sauce and lush elastic mozzarella cushioning eggplant fried in more olive oil than I’d ever imagined possible. That trip was an opening into another world, one not mediated by my family’s ideas of what was right, wrong, or in good taste. In important ways, I began to understand that while my family was well-traveled - cosmopolitan, even - there were important tranches of the world that they knew nothing about, and some of those realms held real treasure for me.
When I chose to go to Yale, I entered into another relationship with New York City, one mediated by my friendship with Stephanie (who’d been my best friend in high school and was attending Barnard), and by my love of making and witnessing art. I’d take the Metro-North train down to the city to visit Stephanie maybe twice a year, and then a couple more times to see art shows and frequent the photo- and paint-emporia for studio supplies.
When I moved into an unfurnished off-campus apartment in 1993, I went to Chinatown to buy a futon, which I carried home on my back from New Haven Station – an arduous task that matched my then-allegiance towards frugality and self-sufficiency. The futon never stopped smelling of the weird chemicals it was steeped in, but never mind. By then, I, too, reeked of chemistry from the darkroom, and so it was a match.
I have never been so cold as in New York City, on an ill-considered visit that must've coincided with a spell back in the US from my post-graduate stint with the Yale China Association. Back then, I thought about what to do much more from the perspective of how it would look from the outside, rather than how it would feel from the inside. So whatever jacket I may have had was totally inadequate to the wind blasting down dark canyons between buildings. Back then, Starbucks was a new phenomenon, one that had crept in while I was away in Asia. I remember shivering in one Starbucks after another, taking shelter on my New York-dyslexic journeys through the city. True, my legs probably did look nice in their thin black tights, but, what the fuck? I felt on the verge of death, disoriented and freezing, as I tried to find places that shouldn’t have been hard to locate, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This business of my not orienting to the same grid that seems so obvious to New York City dwellers has been ongoing for me, with the only period of respite coming during the year when Timothy was teaching at NYU, and had a studio apartment in faculty housing on Bleecker Street. Then, I gradually did what I think all city-people do: I started to form a network of connections between the above-ground world and the world of subterranean passages. I learned to sight a kind of intimate constellation marked out in embodied experiences: here is the burrito joint with the small courtyard garden out back. Here’s the patisserie with the almond croissants so close to home that they’re still warm when you untie the box’ red-and-white striped string. Here’s the movie theater that shows arid documentaries, and the one with the six-legged rat. Here’s the way to the river. My frozen inability to distinguish directions began to thaw, and I started to know, when I popped my head back above ground like a gopher, which way to go.
Just last week, I returned to New York City for 10 minutes of bureaucratic process at the Swiss Consulate in Midtown. I boarded an early morning bus, after Timothy dropped me off, found out I had bought a ticket for the wrong month, and also that the bus was sold out. I hunkered down in the back seat and waited. Sure enough – someone no-showed, the bus started moving, and I found myself among sleepy others making the long journey south.
When the bus dropped us off outside Grand Central Station, I was immediately aware of feeling basically not-attuned to the energy of this hard, fast, noisy place. I made my way to the marketplace inside, found all the surfaces too slippery, and proceeded into the main hall. Magnificent, yes, but also somehow scuffed and fretful. Down to the food court, sniffing around: What’s good to eat? What does the body want? I circumambulated, aware of how strange it felt to be seeking nourishment deep underground, with so many strangers. The longest line was for a burger joint whose sister I’d tried with a friend years ago, so I went there, savoring the companionship of the wait, and the opportunity to really see people, now that I had a digital food-alarm to justify my observer’s stance. The food, when it came, was coldish. In my haste to find a table refuge-place, I forgot to pick up salt, mustard and ketchup, lacking the city-rat’s instinct for refinements that may cost jostling, but pay off in pleasure.
I found I did not want to cram experience in. I found my NH instincts for open spaces and comfortable roosts stayed with me, and so I sat and read in the dappled sunlight outside the New York Public Library till it was time for my appointment. After ten minutes of fingerprinting and photo-taking, I took the train to Brooklyn, and gravitated toward the exact spot my friend Louise and I, and her then-newborn baby, had enjoyed in Prospect park a few years ago. Shoes off, feet connecting with ground, heart opening to the vast blue sky and this unexpected miracle of a midcity meadow, I moved through my tai chi forms, allowing them to do their work of anchoring body, mind, and space.
Staying with Louise and her family nearby was a continuation of this way of being. By necessity, by homing instinct, my friends’ lives are not lives of outward-seeking and outward-seeming, but rather of nurture and carefully cultivated domestic space. Louise makes pizza, and her now-talkative, alert little daughter negotiates how to eat this her way (no olives!). We make our companionable way through a ritual of dinner that could be happening anywhere from the Hopi Reservation to Brussels.
New York City, once a miracle of becoming and locus of longing, is now for me a series of bodily impressions, a network of friendships, a reminder that the strategies for self-regulation that serve me well in semi-rural New England can serve me well anywhere. I ride the subway to catch the train home from Penn Station. I am aware of the violence that could unfurl right now, in any place where people gather. I am aware, too, of the solidity of my feet on the ground, as a loose dance flows between my hips and the rails’ uneven surfaces; between this body and our swaying, beautiful, shared world.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.