No smoking is going to resolve the dread that seeps up into your bones in that house.
I mean: you could smoke lots of stuff, and temporarily visit some other realms, but not one of them is going to go right into the heart of the dread and say:
You’re part of me
And while I don’t like that one bit,
I recognize you.
Hello, smoking dread, like an eel steeped in the fumes of whatever smoldering fire cooked you up slowly.
Applewood-smoked dread, or hickory. Perhaps ancestral-mahogany-smoked. Smoke-and-mirrors-smoked. What’s that smell? Nothing. Stop being so sensitive. What’s that taste? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why does everything have to be so complicated, with you?
No smoking means no gesture to deflect whatever is showing up like a hollow in the belly. I used to admire smokers on train platforms because they were the only ones who truly looked like they had something satisfying to do. Me, the reader, notebook-scribbler, photographer? None of those seemed nearly so self-contained. The smokers stood staring squint-eyed down the track, absorbed in their own slow cooking.
Smoking – casual smoking everywhere. I have childhood memories of almost all the men in my family smoking, and even occasionally my glamorous aunts and rebellious cousin. Pipes and cigarettes, hand-rolled and pre-made, in holders and between fingers. My father smoked till I was maybe eight, then quit one day without telling anyone. It was a while before we noticed. No more whirling ashtray with a central button to send smoking mess down into an inner compartment. No more smoky TV golf. My grandfather, though, never quit. It stayed with him till death, and through tuberculosis. A steady diet of Benson & Hedges Lights smoked through a black Bakelite holder.
Luckily, I hated the taste of these, even though I tried very hard to take them on as a rite of passage into adulthood. It was easy to steal a few from the square Swedish cut-glass holder on the dining room table, or from the sweet-smelling, red-felt lined silver box in the living room. Cigarettes were like fizzy water or butter: a condiment, a necessity of daily life. I lit them in the orchard and failed find any sense in which joy ensued. Plus, I knew my lungs were vulnerable to bronchitis. I quit before I started.
Smoking is now a blurred category. Timothy’s students vape in the back of the classroom, from devices they charge on their laptops. You don’t need to smoke, anymore, to get high. Chewable, skin-transmitted, ingested, snack-formed, cell-phone-analogue forms of high are increasingly everywhere, and in some sense that’s great. Physical pain and anxiety respond to these, and soothing comes to places that have never been other than jangled and horrified.
But still the dread. What about it? This morning I didn’t want to leave the house, didn’t want to deal with the snow-covered car or the slick roads, but the dogs are non-negotiable. You can’t give them something to smoke and expect them to feel satisfied without real forest-time. So I skidded up the hill, released the monsters into their beloved freedom, and spent a long while walking, listening to the snowfall, noticing how very joyful the whole thing was. And surprising. My moods are by now fairly well-known to me, but the world continues to be full of wonder. If I'd stayed home, if I’d gone into some other kind of work-pattern, I would have missed the opportunity to be with this moment of surrender to snow, animal-nature, and quiet. I might have tried to smoke my dread away, when all it really wanted was to get outside of itself and touch the world.
Non-smoking is relatively new. When I was little, you could smoke on the plane, as a matter of course. I don’t have clear memories of what that was like, but it must’ve been awful. You could smoke in the airport, in a restaurant, at someone else’s house. You could smoke in a meeting with your kid’s teacher? Maybe not, and not in church either. But basically, it was assumed that smoking was strongly related to breathing for some people, so you just had to put up with it.
Smoking was standing up for yourself as a woman. My mother read Redbook, and among the cookie recipes and child-rearing tips, the Virginia Slims ads were lone beacons of feminist rebellion. I’m smoking to show them they can’t boss me around. In Time magazine, which my dad read, it was more like, I’m smoking because your rules can’t contain this rugged outdoor man. Or, We smoke together because we are just that kind of irrepressibly fun bunch!
When Stephanie went to Ireland as an exchange student at Trinity, she started smoking in earnest. Marlboro reds, unfiltered. She lost a lot of weight, on her special cigarette/potato/butter/sex diet, and bought a beautiful golden satin dress, which looked amazing on her. Later, when she was ill, the oncologists wanted her to stop smoking, even though the cancer was in her brain, not her lungs. She did, but she asked them to tell her if or when it was clear enough that the cancer was killing her, so she could go back to smoking. They did. She smoked a lot in the last year of her life, squinting into the backyard with that same look I’d admired on the train-smokers, years before. It helped with the dread, I imagine. It brought her out into the backyard, where she could watch her dog Bettye enjoy the sunlight and the grass.
I wish smoking were something more people could do from a place of abundance, and less a place of compulsion. I have grown this plant, tended it, seen it go through its phases, and now I’m rolling it up, for soothing, for contemplation, and as an offering of gratitude to all that is good. In theory, that’s happening more often these days, in Vermont where people are allowed to grow two cannabis plants for personal use. (Is that a per person, per year quota? Do children count as part of the household? Does a single mom with a toddler get four plants?) There’s something forty-acres-and-a-mule about this scenario, or at least in my imagination there is. It feels different from the gas-station or grocery-store transactions I witness from time to time: expensive, impersonal, unsatisfying.
I don’t smoke, but that doesn’t make me immune from compulsive patterns. Listening for the various alert sounds my phone makes, triple-checking Facebook after I post a story. These are reflexive gestures overlaid on some deeper need for soothing and connection. I come back to belly-center, heart-center, wisdom-eye-center. All of it is smoking with the fires of birth, old age, and death – and simultaneously radiant with What Is. I dive back into the roots and span of this awake body, and find vastness to contain whatever dread has come a-calling.
The monster is under the bed. The old stories are under the bed. My fears of being cast away in the midst of Thanksgiving are under the bed. Meet me under the bed. Hold me under the bed, until the under and the over don’t matter anymore.
Under the bed and under the boardwalk and under the weather.
Actually, right now I am flying well above the weather, over maybe Nova Scotia, and it is looking pretty fucking cold out there. Frankfurt to Boston in what amounts to a flying bed. I would hurt myself if I tried to get under here, plus I would miss all the tasty snacks that Nina the therapist-in-training and her colleagues keep bringing my way. Snow drifts in wide valleys. Cat-belly clouds rippling over the surface of the earth like there are no borders and no boundaries. There are no borders and no boundaries.
Under the bed is where Elliot’s and Chloe’s and Timothy’s and my hair all drift together in silky dust-cloud nebulae. Under the bed is where virgin carpet lives, never harassed by vacuuming, never stained, never worn down by feet or paws. Under the bed is the preserve of old watercolor paintings of flowers by Timothy’s Nana, that I once thought I might draw on top of, echoing a cave wall’s accumulation of layered mammoths and deer. I have not done this. Under the bed are Nana’s untouched Japanese ladies and roses.
We are flying over a giant breach in the clouds, through which, more clouds can be glimpsed under the bed. Someone’s pulled back the covers, and underneath are more covers. It’s covers all the way down, except it can’t be. Nova Scotia’s down there somewhere. My home is down there somewhere, and my bed, and Chloe and Elliot at the Puppy Hoosegow. We fly over cover of cloud. We fly under cover of sky.
Thanksgiving brings monsters out from under my bed. Instead of feeling thankful and producing perfect pies, the parts of me that have never felt loved in this world come forward to declare their griefs. I’ve never been wanted here. You can’t see me unless I wear the ill-fitting clothes of my ancestors. I am not a ghost. I am here, even if you don’t want to see me, and I feel like an idiot for traveling all this way to see you. This time, I understand these parts aren’t going to find what they need, alone. I text my brother, I know in some way this is silly, but could you come see me? I am downstairs, under the bed, having a hard time. He shows up. He listens. The exile parts feel a little less unpresentable and alone. My dad joins us. It’s an under-the-bed conference. It doesn’t matter whether what I am saying makes sense. I say it and am heard and welcomed back. We all go upstairs and eat together.
We are flying over two more long rents in the clouds. Maybe it’s important for ruptures to arise, so that there’s some airflow between the over- and under-the-bed realms? Otherwise they would forget about one another, and drift apart.
I have just finished reading a friend’s long memoir, which reads in part like a long invitation to come under the bed, or stay under the bed, or welcome him back out from under the bed and into the light. There are sections where I read and am asleep, and sections where I read and am electrified by the strangeness or power or resonance of what I am receiving.
We are flying over the covers.
By the time I finally reach home, I will feel like a monster who needs a bed to crawl into, not under. It’s possible my whole driveway is a sheet of ice. It’s possible I won’t even be able to drive in and will need to pick-axe my way home. Possible but not likely.
Once, I saw bewildered anguish flicker across a friend’s eyes. I must have let my desire show, he said, before shoving the whole thing back under the bed. How do we decide who and what lives in our beds, or under them? Under the bed can be OK for a little while, to release the pressure of remembering all the lines, up top, but it’s really no place to live. Fuck the script. Fuck the fucking-script, especially. Let it go. What do you feel like? More kissing. This. Not that. You. Not you. Tenderness. An end to the sense of being alone in my monsterhood.
What happens when desire goes under the bed? Snacking. This new phone. My calendar. Proxy-wars, both internal and external. My head tells me that I exist, but the signals from my body are weak. I can’t get through. I feel mean. I notice how people swallow and laugh nervously. I forget that I clear my throat and am nervous, too, when I feel there’s no space for desire to emerge openly in the world. I forget I snore. Desire can actually be quite friendly in its chaotic intensity. I might not get what I want, but there won’t be any doubt I’m alive.
The clouds part for good and now we are flying over a snowy landscape tunneled and riddled with roads. People are down there. I can’t see where they live or where their beds are, but I can see the tracks of their desires in the paths snaking outwards from a river basin across huge white fields of snow. No one can stay under the bed forever, and once we’re out, our migrations dance the shape of the world.
Shoulder pads make women into linebackers and linebackers into tanks.
Shoulder pads could double as codpieces or bra-pumper-uppers in a pinch, but usually don’t.
In the 1980’s shoulder pads were key: many of my memories of moving from girls’ clothes into women’s involve them. The jackets of course had them – big meaty ones – but then also the V-neck cotton sweaters, dresses, and coats. It became possible to wear two or three layers of shoulder pads on top of one another, like some upper-body Pea Princess bracing against the pain of the world through her foamy, foamy armor.
The pads folded in half along their vertical axes and were covered with slippery polyester material. It was easy to get them bunched up in weird ways, even when only one layer was involved in that day’s outfit. Pads of any kind share this property: the ones inside swimsuits and cheap bras; the ones I wore between my legs until the Gospel of Tampon came to save me from misaligned adhesive and innocent pubic hairs ripped out before their time. Pads depend on some static notion of the body, improved. Don’t move so much! We are addressing your flaws, lacks, and leaks. Be still. We know what is best for you.
I had a fuchsia mohair coat with a huge black plaid pattern early in high school – it was obnoxious and I loved it. The lining was silky raspberry-colored stuff and the shoulder pads were legend. I have distinct memories of wearing it at debate tournaments, paired with a striped gold lamé skirt my aunt had made for me, and some kind of giant hot-glue-gunned bow in my hair. I needed all that to enter into the high-speed bouts of verbal sparring that were four-man cross-ex debate. I needed them for a field where smart girls were encouraged to enter, but not to win. If I looked flamboyant enough, maybe I could tell myself the visual assault was what cost my partner and I the match, and not the many ways our gender disqualified us from being taken seriously. If I’d showed up straight, and still lost despite getting it all right, my heart would have broken. Fight for a crappy plastic trophy in ridiculous shoulder pads and lose – you can write the whole thing off as a nerd’s game you were never really in. Fight in earnest and lose, when you know the judges and odds were always stacked against you – and real pain will find you.
There are no shoulder pads in my clothes anymore. No room for them, really. In this climate, with the number of layers required for survival rising daily, everything needs to be streamlined to fit together. Which are the under-sweaters, and which the over? Which are the under-coats? I tromped through this morning’s slush and rainfall in two pairs of pants, two sweaters, and two jackets. And this is only the beginning. Till at least May, I will need layer upon layer of unpadded clothing to keep me safe.
Besides the climate-related reasons for going padless, I also feel something shifting around the kinds of pain I expose myself to and the ways I respond to it. Today, you’d not find me at a South Georgia debate tournament, barking away the weekend on a sporadic diet of cheese dip, NoDoz, and Diet Coke. You’d not find me trying to argue some kid into submission over proper US policy in Central America, or sitting through a bleary-eyed ceremony were neither winning nor losing offer relief. There are places I won’t go these days, and South Georgia high school debate tournament are some of them, even though the grownups are supposed to come back and serve as judges.
Then there’s an unpadded way of being with pain. Last night I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the film about Freddie Mercury and Queen. I went because something about Freddie Mercury’s embodied joy and sexuality interested me – because in his unpadded Live Aid performance, his body told me something of my own potential. And, oh my goodness, I cried. There was a choice point: hold the tears in check or melt into them. I melted, and they rolled down my cheeks to soak the inside of my collar. Some deep nonverbal grief arose – for how hard it is to be human, for how hard it is to live one’s truth and stay connected to others, for courage in the face of the death sentence we all carry, but seldom account for. I cried a bucket of tears in the movie, then more in the car, and still more at home. I took the precaution of surrounding myself with fur: my fake fur bolero, my real dogs, my newly-acquired old mink cape. Some unpadded sobs came wanting voice and I gave them voice, till they subsided and I noticed I was hungry, empty, and free. Sobs, then avocado and fake chicken nuggets. That was the unpadded order of things.
Still there are some forms of padding that feel non-optional. Nipples are forbidden, so padding in the bra. Straightforward female wrath is forbidden, so carefully couched, nonviolently communicated requests. Drop the first, and your chest becomes an outlaw state. Drop the second, and the relationships you hold most dear feel in danger of rupture. What have I done? Nipples out, wrath out, is there a place for me in this world? Maybe, maybe not. Freddie Mercury’s nipples were pretty much out, and there was a big place for him in this world, until AIDS cut his life short.
This week I took a daily-practice photograph of myself in my Suit with the zips undone to my waist. My nipples aren’t showing, and yet, it’s pretty unpadded, in a way that many men wouldn’t think twice about, with regards to their own bodies. Bare-chested at the beach, at the picnic, while running. Why not? Natural. Duh. But for a woman, bare-chested in the USA in 2018 Means Something. It didn’t in France in 1978, when I was a child, but here and now it does. I am the Madonna of 108 Eyes, breasts unpadded, Suit unpadded, unsure of where this places me within the cosmology of my connections. Will Facebook take this down? Will my friends wish I’d kept a little more padding on, or think I have finally gone too far? Risk, padding. Risk, padding. So it goes. I warm my being at the fires of nakedness, getting as close as I dare, without going up in flames.
Vermin’s just another word for nothing left to lose
And nothing’s all my drawers left me.
Vermin good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my mousies, you see.
La de da
La de da de da de da da
I like mice, and mice like me. If you live in New Hampshire, any sane rodent is going to do her best to find her way into your house. Negative twenty-two degrees, or the spoon drawer? Duh. Eternal snowfall of the endless winter, or curled up in a boot in the basement? Honey, please. I like mice, and mice like me, my house, and the places formerly assigned to hold cutlery and kitchen implements. It’s not like I’m a mouse-hoarder, or anything – I don’t precisely collect them – it’s just that I don’t despise them and destroy them, either.
A few times we used a hav-a-hart trap in the middle of winter. There would be a sweet brown field mouse in the morning, bright eyes, little delicate hands and feet. Now what? I would scoop up the cage, an old sock full of walnuts and raisins, and head up to the forest at the top of the hill. We would scout out a hollow among tree roots – I’d stuff in the woolly bits and food, do a little chanting, and release the creature with best wishes.
That was all pre-dogs. Now the mice don’t leave the cover of their wall-dens and cupboard-fortresses. They hunker down and do their dances far from where we can see. I know they’re still around, because new turds appear in the drawer where we keep clips and rubber bands – things that are three-quarters of the way to being garbage, without ever quite arriving. Twice, we’ve reached for the glass pitcher we use for water when guests come to visit and found a dead mouse inside. Mostly what I feel, then, is sorrow. Dear furry one! What a terrible way to die. I hope you did not suffer, trapped, alone, for long. Now we keep the mouth of the pitcher covered in cling film. It’s a weird thing to have to remember, but not hard to do.
Vermin is a word that can only be used without an understanding of interbeing. You need a hard and fast (and false) understanding of life to be able to thrust any living creature into so toxic a category of Other. Is your toenail vermin? Your nose? Your mother? No? Well, neither is that mouse, who’s been your grandmother millions of times. To whom you’ve given birth. Who’s fed you. Vermin is as vermin sees.
My friend sent me a recording he made of Brian Turner's poem, “Hwy 1,” which evokes the convoy routes of the war in Iraq as the descendants of the ancient Spice Road, and scries traveling ghosts, both old and new. In the poem, a soldier casually shoots a crane from the road. Was the soldier seeing vermin? Did holding a gun put a vermin-filter over his eyes? Did going to war change what and how he saw? How did my condemnation and indifference bring soldier and bird together in this way? Before, I would never have asked this question. Being against the war in Iraq made me incurious about what happened there, and I didn’t want any of it coming close enough to my heart to contaminate it. Stay away! I put up a vermin-filter against Bush, the war, and military violence.
That is changing. Some kind of veil is lifting, pulling away with it my resistance to seeing male suffering and male experience. It’s risky, because my former anger and rejection were ways of shielding myself from experiences where I felt treated as a paradoxically seductive form of vermin. Not whole, not human, not interesting and complete and worth knowing. I decided over time not to come close to male worlds because approach felt unsafe. Not safe from the outside. Not safe from the inside either, harboring as I was a whole ancient, enculturated register of poor boundaries. Serve the men. Seek the men. Attend the men. Fuck all that. I would just stay away. I would vermin them: seductive, but dangerous. This is an exaggeration for sure, but it is a way of describing the Othering I engaged in. Mutual assured destruction, said the foreign-policy of my youth. Mutual uneasy distance, said the best strategy I could manage, for much of my life. And now, part of what I am working with in this moment is the courage to stand in a certain kind of brotherly tenderness with men, that also incorporates owning desire and its unpredictable flows.
I have a kind of creepy ex-cop neighbor – or at least, I’ve seen him as creepy ever since he came unannounced to my studio at night with his Doberman bitch on a short leash. She peed on my floor. No one else was home (again – pre-dogs), and as he explained how he’d been watching me build my space over many weeks, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Now I see maybe he thought he was reaching out to a fellow artist, and couldn’t understand how his behavior could be perceived as creepy. Anyway, I saw this same neighbor again today, standing outside our polling place, holding signs for himself as a candidate. As I walked up, he thanked me for coming to vote, and I greeted him. For the first time I could see the valiance of his endless candidacies in a staunchly Democratic town that will never elect him. I could see in his quest something akin to my own stubborn practices. True, I will never vote for him, or for anyone whose approach to abortion rights is that “women have the right to become mothers,” but I don’t see him as dangerously Other anymore. I see someone willing to be vulnerable and public about what he believes. My vermin-veil against him is thinning.
Is that what the woo-woo contingent means, when they say The Veil Is Thin? If so, I’m all for it. Let the veils thin. Let the cheering be for something other than separation and scorn. My friend, a veteran, spoke to me from outside a Trump rally this weekend. He wasn’t especially close, but I could still hear the roars of approval as Trump’s voice stoked and thickened vermin-veils at stadium scale.
Maybe tenderness doesn’t work at that scale? If you ask someone about Millions of Mice Invading Our Homes, or Those Immigrant Hordes Coming to Take Over Our Country, they’re likely to respond with more horror than they would to that little creature with the hands so much like mine, or that nice man who’s been feeding me all these many years. Contact, tenderness, and specificity, are all risky, and the work of building up confidence to embody them is its own deep path. I swing a sword, dance like a Valkyrie, speak up when it is uncomfortable to do so, and pay attention to what does not fit, all so I can come closer to interbeing with others, without being overwhelmed.
The air has been leaking slowly out of my tires for weeks now, and so last night just before closing time at the tire bazaar, I finally went in to have them checked. The man at the front desk sloughed me off. He called me, “Miss,” which, as a forty-six year old, six-foot woman wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit with eyes sewn all over it, had me wondering about his veils. Then he tried to sell me on buying new rims. Whatever. Because I actually noticed the all-caps warning clause on the paper he asked me to sign, he grudgingly told me to come back the next day, to have the lugs on my wheels checked.
In the morning Front Desk Man called me “Miss” again, and then uttered a magical sentence: Ask any of the guys out there for a re-torque and a re-learn. Exactly, I thought. That is what I am after. I stood for a while, watching a man about my age whale on my wheels with a wrench, so hard the whole car shook with each effort. Something in me was touched by the physical effort he was making, the commitment of exerting his will so completely for something that was just a routine part of his workday. That was the re-torque. The re-learn involved a more mysterious and nuanced dialogue, which at first didn’t seem to be going anywhere. More men gathered around the car, clearly wondering about something. I left the safety of my observer’s stance and came forward with what I’d noticed in my own explorations. They listened. I listened. More checking. None of us knew. We huddled together not-knowing, noticing how similar our hands were to one another’s, taking one another’s side. In that moment, there was no space for vermin, only beings, tending to one another along the endless road home.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now