Is laissez-faire an invitation to exploitation and entropy, or a recognition of the inherent Buddhahood of everything, shining forth unstoppably? Depends on who’s speaking, and what they might imagine is in it for them. Is there a laissez-vivre? A laissez-entendre? Are we interested in the results of our actions all across the board, or only for ourselves and our close tribe?
Timothy and I got into a tiff about tax policy this morning, because I basically didn't want to talk about it, even though I had initiated the conversation. By the time he answered, I was already reading (again) about the local woman whose husband poured lye all over her. It melted her face and eyes, and then she had to have a face transplant. In the end, he died in prison, she forgives him, and I don't care about the details of the tax bill, because my brain is full of pain. I just want to drink my coffee, while allowing the day’s quota of horrors to roll off my back. Laissez-faire. You know.
There is this: how do we consume the pain of the world? Are we seeing real beings in real situations? At the end of the day, I click open a link that takes me to a story about famine in Venezuela. Children and their parents have so little to eat that babies are dying of malnutrition, and women of childbearing age are lined up in hospital beds to be sterilized for free. Yes: awful. Beyond the facts-awful is another, maybe more profound kind of awful. Where are these people’s actual stories? Who are they? In opening up this window, I’ve tapped into a version of these beings that is voiceless, historyless, statistical, and powerless. There is a kind of laissez-faire in this journalism. We go in, we gather facts and pictures of dead babies, and we leave again.
What has transpired? Is anyone helped? Do I know more about human nature, human strength and vulnerability? I know more about some of the more painful births that beings take, and there's a desire to fill a U-Haul full of American excess and head South, but no one’s soul has been given a path to speak to mine, or vice-versa. Why do I keep reading, viewing material that only laissez’s viewing, but opens no real window into faire?
Deep friendship is a funnel for voice, body, and heart. It takes time and courage to keep opening to someone else's stories, and to our own. Stories build on each other, too. I listen deeply, speak deeply from what’s stuck and broken, free and whole, and then recognize these qualities in the further stories that come inevitably in their wake. This is a kind of built wisdom that depends as much on allowing – laissez – as it does on doing – faire. I come back again and again to wanting to feel and to know. You tell me, I tell you. Something real is growing.
By contrast, the children in Venezuela can only tell me that their coffins are small and white, their mothers weigh sixty-six pounds, and one of the ways that small children can die is of heart failure. Sometimes there are wings stuck to the opening through which those who love the recently dead can weep. The image sticks: a winged coffin carried through muddy water by skinny brown children. But the story isn’t really told: the channel for story isn’t open.
This is why I read memoir. Memoir is by definition an open channel for story, a way of training the heart in telling and receiving story. I am not saying, Let me click this one link and consume the statistics and particulars of your horror. Instead I say, I have hours and hours to drive. Talk to me. Tell me what happened, and what the alternatives are. Tell me what it’s like to be silenced, and to demand to be heard. There is room in me for what you have to tell me. I am ready to adapt my ears to your language. Tell me.
Not all memoir is an open channel for story. Sometimes it is instead a bludgeon – Here Is How Life Should Be Lived. I drop these very quickly. Here Is the Story of My Glory. No thank you. Some books are all faire and no laissez, and I've long passed the time in my life when I long for someone else to tell me which certitudes to adopt.
Great faith, great doubt, great determination – where is the laissez-faire in that? In the last few weeks I've been conducting interviews with students I’m mentoring in a year-long meditation program. Faith, doubt, determination. How much of this process is Me, Doing Things? Well, Me has to agree to meditate daily. Me has to be willing to wrestle with the undoing components of the practice – actually, a kind of défaire – and Me has to be willing to put up with the often sandpapery touch of organized religion. Beyond that is a lot of laissez – allowing practice, intuition, and lived experience to shape us.
My friend Rebecca recently taught me the wonderful word cledon – an oracle arising from a seemingly chance occurrence. That’s a way of laissez-faire: the universe wants me to wake up, is reaching out to me again and again, and I will laissez myself be faired. I will listen, and act accordingly.
I resist the economists who have shaped this beautiful, receptive phrase into code for Fuck the Poor, the Land, the Animals, and Everyone Else. That's not it all what it's meant to be, not if you believe that all beings are profoundly interconnected wisdom-beings. Then, it makes no sense to imagine that society inclines to the good of some, but not all. It makes no sense to allow greed to rampage through the tax code, and violence to rampage through households, public spaces, and foreign policy.
If I and all beings are primordially Buddha, then laissez-faire looks like wide and reverent curiosity for what is trying to show itself through us, moment by moment. A purple mohair coat winks from the trash can. Just exactly the right companions are waving from the back of the room, or from the stage. The soft nose of love pokes out of a burrow in the trail, and instead of startling away, I stay to catch the shape of its snout, and come back later, with toast.
Internal laissez-faire shouldn’t be about abuse and entropy, any more than the external version. I stop letting dirty clothes unseat me from the place I need to sit, to write down my dreams. I stop letting crappy moods tell me they're all that is. I step up to the actual contents of my dreams: squirrelly and lyrical, vast and petty. I laissez the course of dream inform the faire of waking life.
Strong back, soft belly. Weak back, armored heart. Never leave the house. Never talk to strangers. Never let them see you sweat. Tears are for sissies. Personal armor comes in many forms. What does it take, to feel safe? What assurances do we require from others? What are we willing to put up with, and to what end?
A Facebook ad offers a kind of serrated plastic stabby-ring, with a pink outer layer, intended for women to wear on their fingers while jogging. The ad begins with pictures and stories of two (gorgeous) women who were murdered while out on their daily runs, and cites “these incidents” as the reason why women might be nervous about exercising alone. So, why not buy this affordable, attractive plastic accessory, possibly designed to poke people’s eyes out, though we won’t say that, because it’s gross?
Does personal armor have to be attractive? Does it have to be cheap? What about just walking around like a grumpy warthog all the time? Wouldn’t that in some ways be easier?
Sometimes, people who have suffered awful abuse use extra weight or bulky clothes to build a barrier between themselves and the world. Thick foundation makeup can do the same thing, and glasses, too. When I go to aikido practice, I have to wear my contact lenses, and thus feel doubly vulnerable: a beginner, face stripped of her habitual armor. Dancing’s different. In the safe space of improvisational movement, sometimes I skip both contact lenses and glasses, allowing blurred edges to settle into wholeness and ease.
I've never tried on the kind of body armor that police and military people wear. Is it grounding, like the lead apron at the dentist’s? Does it ease anxiety, like a Temple Grandin people-squeezer; or does it crush you to the earth, the way altitude sickness does? Encased in military-grade personal armor, is it possible to feel touched by another person? Is it possible to feel welcomed by the spaces you enter, and to feel that the spaces you leave might miss you? I will have to ask my friend who is a veteran.
Armor shifts. A story begins: some being walks towards danger unarmed, seemingly unprotected. The story continues towards the miraculous, or towards martyrdom; but really, I'm not sure these are different stories. Some being, unarmored, meets what she meets. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, she is released, exclaiming, Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether gone, hoorah! That is the aspiration, and sometimes the reality. Also sometimes:
I don’t want to die!
I don’t want to deal with this!
I am so tired of this crap.
I’m familiar with a kind of personal armor that looks like: if I just mindfulness hard enough, I won’t fall apart anymore, otherwise known as, if I just squeeze hard enough, I’ll be shitting diamonds in no time. Now I don’t think that’s how it actually works, and my sense is that wanting to patch together some kind of Eightfold Armor is a perversion of the human heart. I haven’t always felt this way. During my monastic jihad phase (why does it feel so risky to write jihad?), I was all about rooting out defilements, and streamlining myself into a form of being so thin and clear that nothing could stick to it. I would become a human Stealth Bomber, orbiting the earth at such a high altitudes that nothing could touch me. Coated in special invisibility paint, I would communicate with the mother-planet only when I needed fuel. That was what part of me wanted.
Then I would wake up, and step in bare feet on the latest mouse-spleen that Sita-the-cat had left on the carpet. I would enjoy working with a friend to shape canned tuna into a monastic buffet Leviathan. I would, inevitably, fall in love again with the world, with some monk, and with the clay sticking to my heavy boots, as I clomped up the hill to my homeless home.
I mindfulnessed pretty fucking hard in those years, having joined the Foreign Legion of mindfulnessing. And still: I would fall apart, and it would be extra-hard, because I had set not-falling-apart, not being touched, as my measure of success. I was supposed to be a Stealth Bomber, a Hopeless Diamond, not some hungry, skinny person trying to hose down a very unhappy cat. I was supposed to watch my mind, to nip delusion in the bud, in hopes of never having to return to this vale of tears.
These days, I can't say that I'm always super-stoked about this vale of tears, this ocean of sorrows, but at least I'm turning towards it with a sense that this a perfectly reasonable place to be, given human birth. Oh! This is anxiety, not some terrible existential mistake. This is doubt. This is longing. This is falling for the nine-hundredth time into the hole labeled My Family Doesn’t Understand Me, which seems to widen noticeably around the holidays, especially during years where I prepare to make the pilgrimage back to the old country.
What if I just called this season The End Times, in honor of the hinge of the year, and the deep dive into darkness that we in the Northern Hemisphere are currently making together? (Thanks, Southern Hemisphere, for holding the torch of daylight, while we go down. We’ll return the favor in June.) That would be a way of dropping the armor of I Am Supposed to Be Enjoying This, and settling into curiosity. I wonder what will happen beyond the end of the world, this time?
I am transforming a little book formerly known as Letter from an Airman to His Mother into a Christmas gift for my mother. It's growing intuitively: a gold nugget, an engraved horse on a black background, jellyfish at night, dusk-colored butterflies, a river-womb. The original text was some young man's exhortation to his mom not to be sorry if the Luftwaffe shot him down. I'm using the bones of his armored book to make anti-armor, a declaration of the unknown, a strange and watery mirror through which the energy of an open heart might pulse. It’s a chance to try something new, to go from posturing into feeling, to be torn apart, and come back transformed. Who knows what this will bring? My gluey fingers touch the pages, sensing their way towards some new, unarmored truth.
The closest I’ve come to a regular date with a laundromat is my relationship with the dusty room under the apartment building on Lafayette Drive that was my last home in Atlanta. There was some trick to fooling its dryer into restarting, which was important, as one cycle was never enough. You would reach into its cavities, tickle a certain spot – and whoosh! The ancient beast would lumber back to life for another round of tumbling, tangling, and scorching. Dust would fly, the ancient lint would with mingle with the new, and out would emerge all the clothing I needed for another week’s Catholic school teaching.
My first year at the school, I never wore any underwear. I had reached some kind of underground agreement with my animal self: You show up and keep growling and biting to a minimum, and I will leave your hindquarters unbound. Deal? Deal. In my defense, at the time I didn't know how to find underpants that weren’t actively oppressive to wear. I was also still close enough to my hard-core monastic minimalism that I squirmed at the idea of buying useless garments. Money was for art supplies. Money was for food, rent, travel, and shows. Underpants, especially the ridiculous thong-things that everybody’s equally ridiculous low-rise jeans were always flashing? I don’t think so. Less to put in my weekly wash in the basement; less to organize in my dresser. So I checked the girls’ uniforms for modesty when I was asked to do so, but always with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. At or below the knee, but secretly: no knickers necessary. The girls wore skorts. Who would have known?
We bought a house. We bought a house, and when we did, I could hardly believe our luck: two massive, chiming machines, gleaming white, side-by-side. The washer shakes the whole house with its spin cycle, as though we are about to take off in a convoy over the mountains. We have two laundry baskets now, and maybe more, because Timothy works in finer gradations than merely clean/not-clean. (He’s a nondual laundricist, which I think is related to being a philosopher.) In short, after many years of suboptimal laundry lives, we are all sorted out. I appreciate this, and yet I’m aware that this is exactly the sort of comfort that keeps people from making revolution in the streets. You become more or less able to pay your bills whenever they arrive, you learn to shop for comfortable underwear (it exists! It’ll cost you, but it’s there), and the hungry wolf gleam in your eyes gets muted by drawers full of clean, well-folded clothes.
That's the thing. When I was still a nun, laundry was an ordeal. First, since you only owned two sets of clothes, and they were white, and you lived in the middle of a mudfield, you had to clean them all the time. Second, “laundry,” meant buckets left soaking in chilly, uncomfortable places. Third, when it was cold, sometimes there was no choice but to set everything to line-dry outdoors, from thence to pluck it, stiff as a board, at whatever point you decided it was “dry.” Sometimes, there was a sort of suspended indoors rack, and that was much better – your clothes actually did dry, and there was something magical about wandering in the warm, close fug of hanging brown and white monastic whatnots, under half-light.
At no point in any of that process could a person forget want, dirt, and cyclical work. Monastic laundry was an exercise in scarcity, precarity, and inconvenience – it kept the wolf-gleam in your eyes. It kept you aware of the labor inherent in being alive, and some of the inconveniences of poverty. It also meant, I think, that we didn’t fear poverty: there we were, in the midst of some version of it, and yet basically OK. Still drinking cups of tea, and wandering winter fields with our souls alive and yearning. Not comfortable, no, but look: so many socks belonging to so many feet. So many muck-buckets of robes going through the self-same cycles as mine.
It's not always easy, when the system is working like magic for you, to remember that it's not working like magic for everyone. In fact, what looks like magic for you most likely looks like malediction for someone else. Remember a few weeks ago, when American Airlines canceled all their flights into Delhi, due to poor air quality? Well – it turns out that India is the American fossil fuels industry’s laundromat. Crunch tar sands into fuel (already a very bad idea), and you’re left with residues so horrible that they’re not even allowed to exist in this country. What to do? Sell it to India of course, so they can burn it while making all the stuff we buy over here. It’s truly ingenious! We have crap we want off our hands. They will pay to launder it for us, and return attractive goods. Hoorah! Magic. Except: the residues in question – called petcoke (which makes them sound like a cross between a virtual animal and something you snort off a mirror) – contain seventeen times the levels of sulfur allowed in coal in this country.
India-as-laundromat-and-magic-goose isn't working out so great for India. Do we ever ask what happens to the dirty air and water, downstream of our new, clean stuff? Once, I was driving through rural Georgia when a horrible sight stopped me. There, off the side of the road, was an open, gushing pool, full of black water. Truly, unnaturally black. Black-black. I pulled into the compound, got out of my car, and asked what this was. Oh, blue jeans, you know? There’s a Wrangler plant just up the road, and this is where we process their dye-baths. I had never thought about this. How do you get clothes dark, and what happens next? The liquid I was looking at would have melted flesh from bone, I felt sure. Everywhere, every pair of jeans requires this. Not magic: pools of poison, kept very far indeed from retail shelves and advertising campaigns.
My friend’s friend wanted to know about meat, and so they slaughtered her duck together. The body of this animal, in their hands. Plucking, gutting, cleaning, cracking bones, cooking, eating. In this way, we know. The other way – I’ll have the duck, please – we don’t. When we launder our experience of grit and consequences, we are left uprooted and anxious. A young man comes to see me, wanting to learn about the roots of his anxiety. Here’s an answer: Your blue jeans. Here are some more: The stuff you buy, that’s made in India. The Bear’s Ears, desecrated and mined. Generations of children with damaged lungs. Endless war.
The young man’s mother wants to know if his anxiety is her fault, and I ask if she knows about the epidemic that’s been sending people to the ER all over the place. Has she been tapping everyone from here to Oakland who shows up to the hospital in the middle of the night, convinced they’re dying? Busy lady. She laughs. Together, we can do the laundry, but it’s going to require getting messy, and we’re going to have to stop outsourcing our dirty work to those who can least afford to do it.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.