“It’s your writing, lady,” says Larissa after turning the paper this way, and that.
Big ass it is, then. I’ve got some bigass feelings. Bigass, like badass, is probably considered unmentionable by one local Honey, who once wrote me an outraged email, to say she considered me an unsuitable person to be Teaching Our Children. I had posted a message to our local listserv, praising our town librarians as badasses, because they had just appeared in a French magazine article citing their exemplary stance on Internet privacy.
Whatever. Badass, bigass. Words a person sometimes needs to describe What Is.
Larissa gives me a beautiful wooden box, tied in a green ribbon, with a real gold wax seal. Not bigass, but perfect.
“I’ll take the red leather pants in a size 2" – cited as an example of a sentence one might utter with satisfaction.
Stephanie once had a boyfriend whose main qualification was – when she would ask, “Do these pants make my ass look big?” – he would say, “Mmm-hmm.” Fair enough.
I’ll take the red shiny pants in whatever size makes me feel Mmm-hmm.
It’s hard work, maintaining anything like a sanctuary for big feelings, for the body as it is. Hardly anything in the world seems to want that, and yet, more than anything, it’s what I crave.
I go to the newspaper offices to buy a five-dollar roll of paper on which to make bigass drawings of all the selves that inhabit what sanctuary I can maintain. Laid down side-by-side, they are a surprising sweet chain of paper dolls, a dance of the bigass ladies. Twelve feet by six feet, and counting.
On the front page of the newspaper this morning – printed on that same paper, only cut down smaller, is a story about carfentanil deaths in New Hampshire. And what, you may ask, is that? Oh, elephant tranquilizers. You know, a little something to take the edge off… Seriously? Elephant tranquilizers? If you listen to the world in the ways that it communicates, this elephant tranquilizer story seems to be spelling out something about some big, bigass pain being poorly managed, in ways that seem not unrelated to another front page story: New Hampshire's incredibly poor resources for mental health care. Most states? 40 to 50 residential care spaces per 100,000 inhabitants. New Hampshire? 11.9, give or take some elephant tranquilizers.
Bigass pain. When some shadow of that comes over me – We humans have been knowing for literally thousands of years what it actually takes to live a peaceful and harmonious life, and yet, we persist in electing Donald Trump, or being Donald Trump, or fighting him with self-righteous fury – when any of that rears up for me, luckily I have the time and space and skills to deal with it. I go out into the backyard with my dogs. I ask my husband to trace my whole shape onto newsprint three times, and then I draw, following the squirrely line of my intuition, far past the point of giving up, until I can see what’s there. I take these bigass feelings, and give them shape and color, rhythm and form. I print my own news, give it sanctuary, and move on.
But what about the kid walking in long strides down our hill, a bright yellow Walmart asterisk on his back, like livery for some unarmed and underpaid mercenary force? What about him? Looking busy – or if he's lucky, actually being busy – all day in that bigass store. What sanctuary is there for whatever he’s feeling? Eight hours, ten, just enough to eat up his time but not to give him benefits, a paycheck big enough to feel it might be worth it, but small enough to keep at least part of his mind worried about how his shoes are running down, and he’s been wheezing for weeks now. Where is the space in that, to make room for the bigass work of being human?
Another bit from the newspaper this morning: a 23-year-old man caught having sex with an 83-year-old woman suffering from dementia, while on the job as an orderly, or whatever they call it these days, in a nursing home. That sounds like elephant tranquilizers to me – both in the past, and heading into the future.
Elephant tranquilizers for everyone!
Your job is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your religion is an elephant tranquilizer.
Your family, marriage, and education are all elephant tranquilizers.
Same goes for your volunteer efforts, and your careful donations here and there.
And your protest signs with hummingbirds, too.
Do I feel like those are fair statements about me and my life? Not really. So probably they don't stand up to a lot of scrutiny for everyone else on the planet, either – but there's something there. Something to acknowledge about the ways our activities tend to dance around the edges of what’s there, tend to deal in diversionary tactics, tend to avoid the bigass realities of the situations we find ourselves in.
I'm realizing, just now, that my situation is taking a sharp turn. What's been semi-sustainable for a year or more – in school full-time, working a bunch of unrelated jobs, taking care of some lovely wild mutts, producing art, writing, teaching, doing volunteer refugee work – is becoming unsustainable. The addition of two days in another town, spent doing a counseling internship, makes the whole thing bigger-assed than I have space for. So then, welcome to the club! But I don’t want that. I don’t want to let the initial signs of growing anxiety, depressed mood, frantic stuffing of things here and there, turn into my new reality. Do that, and I lose the perspective from which to be effective at all. Do that, and I will start to want tiny mouse-tranquilizers, which everyone knows are the gateway drug to elephant tranquilizers.
Instead, I will have to let go of things. Last night, my friend Jan said that what she needs help with is not committing to things, but knowing when to stop doing them. That’s true for me, too. I will have to let go of the idea of being a stalwart leader. Let go of never turning down an opportunity to be useful. Let go of practices that don't help me. Let go of looking good. I know exactly which things need to go, but I’m afraid of what might happen if they do. No one will remember me. Things will fall apart. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll re-find the space to attend fully to what matters. I’ll re-find the Mmm-hmm in whatever I choose to engage with.
Whatever happens to us happens within a framework. Since I am fortunate enough to operate within a framework that includes a lot of freedom, what might it be like to make choices that support that freedom, for myself and others? I like the idea of lots of things, but that doesn’t mean I actually have the substance to carry them.
Sojourner Truth sold photo-cards of herself, holding her knitting, in a sober a black dress and little oval glasses. Printed in red below her image is I sell the shadow to support the substance. That seems right, especially when compared to the alternative. She knew. Before, someone sold my substance to support their shadows. Now, I sell images of myself to support my work in the world. What I want for myself: her clarity of cause, purpose, and effect.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.