Cliffhanger is what prompted my brother and his friend Keith to ninja-rappel down Keith’s mother’s apartment building in Atlanta. They watched the film over and over at the bargain matinée, and then decided they knew enough to do the deed. The deal was, they had to have good timing, because half the façade was glass, and the other half, balconies. Balcony-bounce: good news for young ninjas. Window-bounce: not so much. They cliffhangered their way down successfully, making space for their wildness where others simply saw Home.
Cliffhanger implies just this kind of suspense, suspension, an in-between state that just can’t last, and shouldn’t. Get out of there! Find the secret code, punch it in, and emerge into this May morning, in the company of noisy mockingbirds and feeding bees. Leave the bunker. Ditch the falling tower and rejoin the commonwealth of beings.
Right now, working on my thesis project, I have to remind myself again and again to leave the transcription software, open the door, and go outside. The transcription can wait mid-sentence, if need be, a mini-cliffhanger, while I go out to admire the asparagus shooting up. While I go out to bob around in the warm-water pool with round ladies in sturdy one-piece bathing suits.
The opposite of Cliffhanger is aqua-aerobics. You bounce around in the water, playing its resistance against the strength in your body, realizing there’s absolutely no place to fall, no void, and no drowning. Aqua-aerobics is the underachiever’s dream exercise, and it is also a good way to release all the tension of listening for what comes next, earbuds jammed into my ears, parsing meaning and structure from rivers of words. What did she say? What did she mean? Why did I ask this question, instead of that one?
I am writing about the embodied sexuality of long-term women Buddhist practitioners. I am buzzing with stories. I am listening for the unsaid within the said, for the heart of what it is to be waking up in this world as a woman. What happens? What happened?
The bees know, but they’re not saying. The noisy mockingbird might know, but is speaking in someone else’s voice.
Cliffhanger. Poised between a dilemma and its outcome. This is ending so fast! This is ending so slowly! The crabapple flowers smell of everything lovely and fruitful, honey and wildness pouring over the fence without end. The crabapple is a cliffhanger whose answer is Spring. Later, other answers will come.
I feel, this morning, into the countless generations of women ancestors whose job has been to soften male worlds into beauty and wisdom. Fuck that shit, I think. Fuck being caged and made small, and then asked to make sure things smell nice around the place. Crabapple is planted in one place, and draws the bees, but as far as I can tell, no one’s deeply invested in telling her that Real Trees, Important Trees are essentially different than she is. Cliffhanger: what happens when, age forty-six, functionally before the beginning of some new life, marriage comes to seem a ceremony I’ve been groomed for, and no longer wish to enact? Marriage comes to seem like a tower needing exit, as soon as possible, via ninja-rappel if necessary, but more likely slowly, down the stairs, with frequent stops for aqua-aerobics along the way.
I can feel old stories rousing themselves in the cellar. Go out alone, and who will keep you safe? Go out alone, and who will pay the bills? Give up this perfectly reasonable, kind man, and enter the territory of loose witches beyond the edges of things. There’s a mighty chorus whose job it is to keep me on the safe side, away from the cliff, up the tower, in place, rooted like the crabapple tree, though not a tree by nature.
Cliffhanger: what to do with the buzzing, wild energy of Spring, when at least overtly, not much in the world seems to want it? Wild doesn’t get shit transcribed. Wild crashes in to old ladies in the aqua-aerobics pool. Wild rejoices with unleashed skinny mutts exploding from the trailhead, running pell-mell, and laying down in every mud-puddle between here and home, twice if possible. Wild’s not necessarily who you want to meet at the bend in the path, and wild may not settle down to dinnertime like a good girl. Wild might smell like crabapple one minute, and fox turds the next. What to do?
Well, get up early, make a list. Squander as little time on nonsense as possible. Keep connected to wild in ways that don’t tear the tower down while you’re still living in it. Find a place to build a dwelling that’s not a tower, and keep adding to it, day by day. If you are the tree, you can’t fall out of it.
Cliffhanger is a way of forcing all of everything into some will she/won’t she funnel, when actually, maybe Her Hasty Escape isn’t the best plan, after all. Ground and roots; tower and pool; crown and all the new leaves that can only come in their own time. One day, there is absolutely nothing at all showing on the surface, and the next, purple-tipped asparagus wands are vying with each other to see who can penis out the furthest in the space of one afternoon.
Do we believe – do I believe – that there’s actual work to be done in this world, and the Universe would like me to please keep getting my shit together, because it’s actually kind of pressing? Yes. Yes I do. Well then, fuck the chorus in the cellar. It’s important to keep coming back to whatever supports real growth, and not to get distracted by cliffhangers with names like I cannot bear this for another moment or Not this crap again. It is important to stay connected with path, allowing only a minimum daily allotment for eye-rolling, or wishing the kitchen cupboards contained something more snackable than a hand-me-down bag of panko crumbs, an ancient can of cherry pie filling, and some vinegar. Cookies would be great, but it’s not much of a cliffhanger to imagine how fast I would try to use them to muffle the voices in the cellar, all to no avail.
No, there really is no solution here, other than to keep doing the work I know I need to do, to build the space I will live in, and to understand that cliffhanger is a construct that makes no sense, in light of how long we’ve all been at this. Beginningless time does not allow for narrow funnels, only steady work, with a sense of possibility opening around every tight corner.
Falling doesn’t sound so appealing, in general. It sounds dangerous, inconvenient, painful, and potentially injurious. It sounds out-of-control and embarrassing. Falling sounds like things winding up not at all precisely where we’d like them. Like drool on our shirt. Like mud on the seat of our pants. Like affection or hatred, landing in places we really wish they wouldn’t. Falling sounds like every pain in the ass we’ve ever encountered, and so, no thanks, really. We’ll take climbing, or sashaying along, or even boring old sitting, any day.
This preference for control over wild wipeout is pretty much what the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta seeks to dismantle, relentlessly, and possibly for our own good. It goes piece by piece, in a way I’ve heard described as a side effect of the oral tradition through which it has been transmitted, and which also happens to be necessary, to get through the armoring we carry around.
Form is not self. If form were self, then form would not be accompanied by affliction, and it would be possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
That’s pretty clear, already, but just to make sure, the Sutta continues:
Just so, since form is not self, form is accompanied by affliction, and it is not possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not-thus.’
Whap! We fall into some alternate reality, where toning and trimming, waxing and tucking, shaping and exercising make no sense at all in any of the old ways. Sure – go to yoga class, keep your nose-hairs from growing down into your mustache. But also, realize that none of these things can really be filed in the self-improvement drawer. They can be considered in the same general framework as keeping the sink free of dirty dishes, or picking up stray lube-packets from the edge of the woods, but they cannot be seen truthfully as I Am Improving My Self. They can’t fall into that category and stick, with any degree of truthfulness.
What do you think? Is form permanent or impermanent? Impermanent. And things that are impermanent, can they be considered reliably satisfying? No. And of something that is unreliable, impermanent, and subject to decay, can we say, ‘This is mine, this is me, this is my self?’ Nope.
Here’s a list of questions a good lawyer would never let her client get tangled up in. For starters, who said we should be able to depend on any external thing for satisfaction? Precisely. That’s where this whole thing is going. It’s pointing the spear back at us. We can sort of see, once the package has been opened, and the thin layer of tissue paper has fallen out, that these new swim trunks aren’t going to be the salvation of us, after all. But it’s harder to see that about our minds, bodies, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. We want very much to be able to improve those into some state where they won’t fall or fail, and what this series of questions is trying to get us to do, is to receive all of these with the same degree of not-grasping that we can sometimes muster for seemingly lesser things. Sometimes. Those swim trunks? In the first few seconds of maybe-ownership, they look pretty grand. Soft, stylish, promising to cover our rumps and new squidgy bits with grace and aplomb. It’s only later we find out the velcro is in a stupid place, and the zipper’s not going to last long, in ocean saltwater. We send them back, feeling virtuous.
What happens next? What happens if we can learn to work with all the components of our constructed selves in a way that falls open a little bit, or a lot?
Honestly, part of what happens is: we feel queasy, seasick, and like we might throw up if everything doesn’t fall back together right away into a shape that might be wildly uncomfortable, but at least has a shape. In the beginning drawing classes I teach, the time we spend learning to look at negative shape is very difficult for some people. There’s a visceral aversion to focusing on not-things, on space, on the unknown, unfelt matrix, within which all the stuff that preoccupies us is unfolding. People get angry; people get fearful. It can feel like I am the mean witch, stealing everyone’s binky, over and over again. If I let go of looking at that jar/chair/basket, how will I possibly be able to see? Where will I be? If I let go of me and my opinions, where will I fall through to? It’s not at all appealing.
And it’s also not at all the whole story. Many us have received such strong, painful training in overriding what we feel, think, and want that we first need to become quite ferocious in expressing these human impulses. We need to know them, before we can honestly make space around them. The point of learning how to see and draw negative shape is not to make weird flat drawings of the gaps between things, forever. Instead, with much time, patience, and training, we become able to switch back and forth at will, to come closer to an accounting of reality that weds the impermanent and the deathless, the thing-view and the space-view, without fixed preference for either.
Falling into relationship with Being Itself is an ideal for which there are lots of skilled ad-reps loose in the world, making it sound like bliss, blue sky, realization, hoorah! Don’t believe them. The more space intensifies, the more things do, as well. There’s a kind of interrelationship at work. More seeing means also becoming more aware of not-seeing. More rising means more falling.
Thus, with wise discernment of things as they are, a practitioner comes to see: for any form, past, present, or future, refined or coarse, internal or external, better or worse, far or near, ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’
Is that our big invitation to the Depersonalization Ball, where we wind up with all our tendencies to dissociate validated, once and for all? I don’t think so. I don’t live so. What actually seems to happen is something more like compassionate curiosity. Wow. I really went for it, in this morning’s argument over the hot-water kettle. That came together in a way that makes divorce over beverage-habits feel like a real possibility. I wonder what is happening here? I wonder if divorce is where the story of these two people is actually inclining? I wonder how the spaces between and inside this situation are influencing each other?
I don’t need to manifest a nicer self. I don’t need to pussyfoot around this uncomfortable pattern. I don’t need to fall into the idea that It Will Always Be Like This. But I do wonder: is it helpful, to keep sharing these spaces?
Falling is also falling into the possibility of walking away. What is this like right now? What would not-this be like? What have I been telling myself about the way things are, the way I am, the way we are, the way you are, that keeps generating these particular shapes? What limits me to perceive space, but not shape; shape, but not space?
Depending on whose translation you are reading, the denouement (literally, unbinding) of the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta can sound like a clinically-inadvisable total bummer, in which the Mary Kay pink Cadillac reward for hard practice is “estrangement” or “weariness” towards form, self, other, and every possible anything. To me, that language reeks of ill-humor, bad breath, and eyebrow-stubble. More promising is “disenchantment.” What is it like to let go of our illusions about ourselves and others, and as a result, love more deeply, not less? What is it like to fall out of infatuation, and into something that depends less on frantic editing?
Falling can be unbinding, and unbinding, love.
Vacuum cleaner? Whatever. Don’t talk to me about household maintenance – just trying to crack the code of how not to be numb in this world, is about all I can do right now.
Things it is very hard to get people to be sorry for you about:
It’s hard to know where to take the sorrow of having gone ahead and done the thing you weren’t supposed to do - having flown some mad and gorgeous flag of freedom, and then had it all fall apart. What else was going to happen? Well, but it still needed to happen. Well, but it still hurts. So.
There is this truth of suffering.
Here, let it be known that future vacuum cleaner references may be sparse indeed. If you are looking for a personal essay about vacuum cleaners, you may want to look somewhere else. If you are looking for a personal essay about love, complexity, delusion, wholeness, and how answers in dreams show up in weird ways, this might be an OK choice for you. You might also want to just put down the vacuum cleaner and write your own version. Nothing beats that.
There is this truth of suffering.
There is this truth of the origin of suffering.
There is this truth of the end of suffering.
There is this truth of the path leading to the end of suffering.
For the record, that’s the actual deal around suffering that often gets translated as “Buddhists believe that life is suffering.” Not the same thing, right? Anyway, even though I know what the Four Noble Truths are, I still give in to the mistaken idea that the whole point is not to suffer.
As in: Why start with that, when it’s just going to hurt?
But I don’t think avoiding suffering is the point – or at least for me, right now, it’s not the point. Better to say: here is a field guide to what hurts, and how to understand it, and how to notice when it doesn’t hurt anymore.
For the last month, since a beloved semi-sexual friendship froze out into painful misunderstanding, rights and duties, and other assorted shadows of intimacy, my body has been a mess. Low back pulling hard to the left. Left jaw clamping like a motherfucker in my sleep. General feeling of being trapped in the hall of mirrors of my own hard clench against some overwhelming grief that is always just about to break through the surface of a consciousness grown dull and tired with resistance. Hinge of the neck and head stuck fast, also on the left side. Basically: anxiety, depression, inability to connect deeply with others, because what’s deep feels too dangerous. Sound familiar? I am not going to quote any mental health statistics here, but I’m pretty sure that what I’m describing has a lot in common with states that drive many of the phenomena we love to bemoan publicly, while furtively experiencing them for ourselves.
So whose is this? At some level, obviously, mine. I reached a point where I had traveled through pacify, enrich, and magnetize, in my relationship with my friend, and the only possibility left was destroy. Destroy left a huge gap: where to find the intimacy of the conversations we had? Where to find the buffer that took pressure off my marriage? I had no answers, only loss and confusion.
I think this is also ours. Growing close to someone means allowing some of their energy, their habits, to permeate mine. When there’s pain in any part of that field (there always is), there’s also pain in the shared field, and in its aftermath. I knew this going in. I knew this going in, and yet I didn’t know how intense it would be. Junot Diaz, in his beautiful recent essay, talks about patterns of trauma-influenced relationships, as they showed up for him: approach, distance, approach, distance – disconnect. What he describes reminds me of what I experienced in the connection my friend and I nurtured but could not sustain. When two people who’ve been hurt a lot try to grow close, even the magnetic quality of their attraction becomes an obstacle. The poles flip. The attraction becomes an actualization of what is most feared. There is this truth of suffering.
What then? Bear with this. Know where I am. Know this is hard. Know my teeth are literally on edge. Remember: this is part of being human. Don’t try to figure out the future from within a body-mind in pain. Don’t rewrite the past.
I dreamed last night about a movie poster with a picture of a family on it. Mom’s face had come off, and inside the slightly bloody socket (as where a tooth has been extracted) was a younger, frightened-looking face, peering out. A movie voiceover said, “A self-rebirthing and a brownie-eating festival, all in one!” I can feel these things in my body – the less-painful right side coming back to life and feeling. Then, still in the dream, I saw a trailer for a different movie. A man and a woman sit on a couch next to one another. Gradually another woman emerges from the body of the first. The man grows transparent and disappears. Children appear. I feel deep compassion for these beings, in their changes, and maybe especially the disappeared man. I leave the dream-space where I have seen these things. Outside along the curb, there’s an old cop car or taxi waiting, with keys in the trunk lock. In the body, this is: activating the base of the spine, unlocking what’s held there, keeping attention low in the body – and not thinking so much about driving, for a while.
I can’t blame everything about this odd, uncomfortable time on the end of that very particular intimacy – there are a lot of things happening in my life right now that incline towards feeling unsettled. At some deep level, while I am choosing aikido training, it is also literally kicking my ass. Effecting a turnaround from victim stance, entanglement, or habitual disengagement, to something else, takes real work. I go into practice, and meet everything I’d like to avoid. Incompetence. Ceding ground when I should stand it. Lifelong dislike for organized sports and going upside-down.
I grieve work; I grieve workers hauled off from jobs no one else will do, milking cows no one else ever sees. I grieve cooped-up animal lives, cooped-up human lives. Sitting on a New Hampshire ridge looking out over unbroken forest as far as the eye can see, I grieve wild creatures disappearing.
Here’s where a vacuum cleaner would come in handy, as a way of clearing cobwebs, or at least sucking this whole thing together into a single bag. But those aren’t really the rules around here. As Julia Butterfly Hill asks, when we say “away,” as in “throw away,” where is that? It’s always still here, in our shared world, in the shape of our unruly hearts, in the work left to be done, some of it pleasurable and easy, and some of it bewildering, some of it impossible.
So be it. So be it with the rich layers of mud that come with the thaw – the places that look dry, till the surface cedes and you find yourself ankle-deep in the spaces the ice opened up between stones, over all those cold months. So be it with the blue jay greeting the evening, and the woodpecker’s shrill call to seeking. So be it with the keys in the trunk, the work still to be done, and the losses that are not gaps in the path, but its every step.
Crying in public does not in fact require a license, though it’s nice to have one to show the naysayers, if they turn up. Crying in public is like getting to be the egg in its shell, and the running white and yolk, all at once. Crying in public undoes the teaching that being as you are is not what you owe the world. Crying in public lets your bodily fluids run free – something this whole civilization has been set up to prevent. So if it seems daunting, you’re right.
Children used to cry in public with abandon, but I don’t see that so much anymore. Now, children are in huge strollers, eyes glued to screens. Or eyes glazed over, while their parents’ eyes are glued to screens. Screens are there to suck the tears out of us. They are hyper-absorbent energy-suckers, and all the tears have disappeared into games, apps, facebook, porn, and productivity.
I was standing in line at the post office yesterday, behind a man in a yellow coat, who started singing loudly to himself, to ward off anxiety. Then I looked up: all the advertising images bolted to the wall above the service counters were of people beaming at their screens. Their tears were being absorbed by the USPS’s new Super Predictability App. They were so happy! No wonder the man in the yellow coat was anxiety-singing: he was there to mail his almost-late taxes, and he didn’t even have a phone to dry his tears. As for me, I felt a little stupid: who goes out into the world with two boisterous monsters, mails a package to a friend, and stops by the library, all without a screen to prevent crying in public? Some people are just so thoughtless.
Crying in public is not what Sheryl Sandberg recommends, in her book, Option B. I’m only on the first CD – the first few minutes of the first CD – and I can tell that wild weeping at the post office is not the option she will be in favor of. She has already told the story of not crying at a school parents’ night, and the story of not crying at a birthday party. That is already a couple of oceans’ worth, and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot more unwept tears before I either give up on the project of listening, or reach the end.
What happens to the tears the screens suck up? They get turned into shiny things that ruin the forests and hills, either quickly, or insidiously. They’ve become a reservoir that someone’s going to have to cry, one of these days. They get funneled back into the oceans, whose levels rise, whose acidity goes up. The uncried-in-public-tears become a chain of massive hurricanes spinning up across the world, one after another, as if to say, Do you not see? Go ahead and cry the fucking tears. Please, please do not hold on to the story that you must Compose Yourself before buying bagels, or going to the doctor, or answering the question of How You Are.
What’s “in public,” anyway? Is it being in the presence of yourself? Sometimes, that is very hard. Is it one other person, besides you? I have a friend whose tears look like racking hiccups, or chopping, hacking laughter, but never run to water. Those are tears not cried in public, over and over. Is “in public” the face we show our families? I have a vivid, terrifying memory of my father breaking down in tears, in a diner near the Cloisters Museum in New York. My mother, brother, and I had no idea what to do with this. For so long, he’d been the source of my private tears, my tears at the dinner table, my tears cried with friends – and now, this? My mother, brother, and I went on eating French fries. We froze him out. There was nowhere for his crying in public to land, and so he just paid for lunch, and then we went back underground for the long subway ride I insisted on instead of a cab. My mother may have asked, What’s wrong? – but that’s really just another way of saying, Please stop.
There are so many ways of saying, Please stop, and blocking any crying in public that might arise around us. One is: You are damaged and strange, and your weeping is nothing to do with us. Please go away. Please stop. This happens a lot, around those who allow tears to leak out, the ones whose access to the ocean is momentarily or permanently opened up.
This community is fine: you are strange and damaged, and the stories you have to tell about the wrongs you suffered are nothing to do with us. Why dig up old harms? Keep your emotions to yourself. Don’t come to us with your crying in public. We have a good thing going here, and we don’t need your bad attitude. Get on board, or else fuck off. There’s one way to do this, and your crying in public isn’t it.
I remember being at a party, the Fall after my friend came back to school from a year of helping her father die of AIDS, which was also the Fall after my uncle died of leukemia. It was a standard party: a room in the front, with food; a kitchen, with booze; and a bedroom, with people’s coats and bags. My friend and I wound up on the bed together, weeping wildly. Why not? She’d just lost her father, and I had just lost a man who’d taken care of my heart. We just went for it: big, racking, beery sobs. But no! This was – even in a back bedroom – not allowed. You don’t cry at a party – or at least not unless it’s your party and you’re being adorable about it. We were not adorable – we were keening. We were meeting each other in the ocean of grief, and it was scaring the other children. Our friends gathered round to make us stop. They thought they were helping, but maybe they were just afraid.
What if crying in public were as common as looking into a screen? The argument for this winds up sounding a bit like the one for nursing in public – another transfer of fluids from inside the body to outside, happening right here, where we are singing the alphabet song, or trying to find the vegetarian corn dogs in the freezer case. Why not? Why not, if this will keep the oceans healthy, and allow each of us to reclaim the whales that we are? Why not, if the alternative is a closed system of wars, addictions, and other hells, both more and less visible?
I don’t actually, these days, cry a lot in public. I work through oceans’ worth in meditation practice – literally days on end of tears pouring unobstructed from my eyes to my chest, filling my lap, running out onto the carpet, floating the mat as a raft, out into the unknown. I sit down, I go into the body, the tears flow. Simple, unfussy, profound– the ocean.
I am writing this while a kids’ sing-along is happening in the room next door. You Are My Sunshine. Where is the You Are My Ocean of Tears song? It’s an important one, a Kali kirtan, a song from Teresa of Avila, a keening we’ve maybe lost in the back rooms of parties and the shiny screens we carry with ourselves, everywhere.
Housepaint is what my teacher Robert Reed used to call any act of just filling shit in, mindlessly, without attending to surface, body, or intention. In his world, this was a recurrent risk, because Reed often insisted on his students making enormous paintings. One of the last assignments of our Beginning Painting year was a 4 x 8’ self-portrait on crappy, thin Masonite. It is damn-ass hard to attend to every inch of something that big, to put love into it, to wrestle its edges and volumes into solutions that only it and you can find together. I never quite solved mine, though I can still see it in my mind’s eye: I’m standing three-quarters to the viewer, wearing the Irish fisherman’s sweater I’d pilfered from my friend Nico, who in turn had pilfered it from her brother, the one who became a priest, and then left the priesthood. I’m wearing my fancy cranberry-colored jeans, and looking worried, in front of a partially open doorway. Of course I’m worried: this year of discovery is ending, and I have to finish this painting without resorting to just housepainting the fucker, and walking away. I have to stay present with all 4 x 8’ of, and it’s not easy.
That painting disappeared into my friends’ basement and was never found again. Each year’s end was a stuff-cataclysm. As an artist, I was constantly making shit, and a lot of it was big. Where was it all supposed to go, during the summer? No one knew. There was a squash court. There was a basement. Other people’s parents came from Connecticut, Jersey, or whatever, but there was no way my parents were doing that, from Georgia. So when my friends offered their basement, I walked across town with my painting flopping wildly over my head, sine-waving its way into a major nuisance that blinded me as I made my way to that dank space. Which flooded. Goodbye, painting.
There’s a Buddhist Image of the teachings as a raft. You come to a river, you need a way to cross, the teachings are there as a raft. You get over to the other shore. And then, if you’re smart, you bow to the raft and leave it right there. You don’t just sling it up onto your head and walk around in 80-degree New Haven traffic, making a big fuss about going to stash it where it’ll get swamped, anyway.
But it’s hard to walk away from the things that have shown us we’re capable of being something other than mindless. And it’s hard not to get caught up in things. Lately I’ve been increasingly wary of thing-making, of the aspects of my training that incline towards making rarified objects. I have crates, boxes, and flat-files full of things I’ve made, some of them quite beautiful. But then what? They are flotilla of rafts that I am hoarding. They’re sitting there getting dusty, while I try to move on. Maybe the tension I feel in my jaw and shoulders every morning, waking up, is the weight of so many un-dropped rafts?
Housepaint is exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed. I go to Home Depot, pick out a slew of wild swatches, and have them mixed up into half-pint samples. It’s cheap, and wonderfully easy to use. But it freezes in the winter if I leave it in my studio, becoming lumpy and unsolvable. Housepaint becomes just another thing that’s hard for me to get rid of.
Right now I am in the middle of understanding how midlife crisis works for me. Everything that is dear to me becomes also everything that is holding me in place, making the feral nomad in me very, very nervous, indeed. Last night I dreamt I woke up in a house in a pasture, and when I walked outside, I saw that all the traders of the Silk Road, all the refugees and pilgrims, were walking in a tremendous line that extended to the horizon in both directions, doglegging slightly to avoid the house. I crossed the line, walked out into the pasture, stopped, and thought, Wait, where am I going? I saw the faces from faraway, the tide of movement extending from forever to forever, and momentarily forgot these were my people. I walked out of the house and into the empty pasture, turning my back on the Road, and felt immediately dispossessed, by the very act of pretending I was not among the dispossessed.
Housepaint depends on there being a house. Is there a house? Right now, yes, very much, there is. There is a house my husband and I bought seven or eight years ago, and some of its paint is starting to look very scruffy, where we’ve knocked into it going upstairs, for example.
Wanderer. Warrior. Healer. Nurse. Lover. All of these are coming up strongly right now, asking to be seen, asking not to be housepainted-over. Have I said before that Waylon Jennings’ What Makes a Man Wander is an anthem for me? I have, and yet here it is again. I want to wander, when restlessness comes burning and antsy inside me. I want to walk this long body away from housepaint, across continents, into the places that scare me. I want to be the one who walks into town dusty, finds a meal and a fire, and leaves again in the morning, traceless.
Have you noticed that this culture skews very much to housepaint? Both in terms of filling in mindlessly, and in terms of establishing a secure fort, painting its insides tastefully, and hunkering down till death do you part. Yesterday afternoon, some horrible yuppie freebie magazine arrived – Tasteful Trends, or some bullshit like that. Make Your Comfort Zone, it enticed from the cover. Fuck that shit, I thought. Fuck it straight into the recycling bin, along with all the appeals for money I can’t meet right now, because I’m broke.
It seems to be that whatever level of not-accumulating I’ve set up for myself in life, some feral beast wants the next level, always. When I was a nun, I yearned to be an arms-wandering mendicant. When I was a student, I hankered to be a backpacker. Now I am a whatever-it-is-that-I-am, and I want to ditch everything to be a nomad-therapist-healer, working out of camps no housepaint has ever seen.
Do I make any sense?
Does this world make any sense?
I can feel one way through is just to paint the damn walls, already, and quit feeding the dissatisfied one who will always, always yearn elsewhere. Maybe both can happen? Maybe almond-green walls, PLUS a license to go somewhere else, breathe different air, be reminded that crossing rivers is part of being human, and joining the lines of wanderers extending to both horizons is just as human as staying put.
I bow to the wild heart that spasms and throbs, meeting this world with the intensity and discomfort it deserves. Yesterday, outdoors on foot, making a big circle through pre-Spring woods, I thought: With this nature, it is a miracle I am still alive. I can feel the artist-angst here, and feel also how it’s been grounded, though not painted over, not now, not ever. I fall to one knee, taken by mud, and sit listening to squirrels’ scolding and old leaves’ rattling, till wandering Elliot comes to breathe love, right into my upturned face.
Lumpy crossings stick out of the floor that’s still not smoothed under that new bamboo laminate I picked out months ago. I can still see the ugly old green linoleum, plus the even older, even uglier beige linoleum, over there in the corner, underneath where the dishwasher used to be, when I still had a dishwasher, or dishes to do. When I still had a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, and stuff to put in the cupboards. When, in other words, there still was a kitchen in here, instead of a vaguely kitchen-shaped hole. I can’t even make the recipe for Jean-Paul Sartre Casserole right now, because there’s not an oven to stare at hopelessly, while nothing cooks, forever.
Lumpy crossings, I trip on you. Lumpy crossings, I try to deny you, write you out of my will, cut off your access to my bank accounts, but here you still are, ideally placed for me to stub my toes on, spill my coffee over, and crash into. Lumpy crossings, you stop me in my tracks, embarrass me in public places, and declare the ongoing disaster of being.
This morning I made my yearly visit to the Seniors of Hanover High School, to answer any and all questions about Buddhism, and to connect as best I can to the lumpy crossings of our lives. We go in a big circle around the room. Kid Two, right on cue, asks, “If Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, as a Buddhist, how do you keep going?” Aha! I say, That is a thing that drives me up a wall. Buddhism does not in fact teach that Life Is Suffering – it teaches that There Is Suffering, which is a different story. Life Is Suffering brings us only lumpy crossings, and demands that we ignore everything else as somehow irrelevant to the project of Buddhist-ing. You can definitely find people of all faiths who practice in this way, never letting go of the lumps for long enough to enjoy anything. This total wariness towards pleasure counts itself wise, sensible, and prudent, but in fact is a cowardly rejection of beauty, trust, and love. There Is Suffering, on the other hand, allows lumpy crossings as part of life – not anything to be ashamed of, not anything to push away – and integrates them into a whole fabric of being.
A couple of nights ago, I dreamed this:
I have a bike – my own bike – and I am riding it in big, concentrated circles around a pool, where others are swimming or lounging. I take special time savoring the deep mud puddles I ride through on my nubbly cross-trek tires. It is intensely satisfying to ride, to feel the mud suck and yield, to know that I can do what I need to do, for as long as I need to do it. End.
In real life, right now is the mud season in New England, when a whole winter’s worth (well – maybe most of a winter’s worth – April is still fair game) of snow melts and stands and seeps. I dig out my orange plastic boots from where they’ve been stashed in the basement, and delight in wearing them with black rubber-mounted spikes, to navigate the still-icy, very wet woods. I choose the dampest, suckiest, boggiest parts of the path, the slickest, most treacherous parts; the deepest, stillest puddles, and walk through. My socks keep me warm; my boots keep me dry; the dogs run happily amok nearby, executing blissful pliés into the snowmelt, as their Viking hearts desire. Elliot finds a pool of golden afternoon light, a pool of leaf-lined water, and lays his body down, simultaneously soaking and drinking, allowing his furs and skin to bask in this snow-bog time, when nothing much of new growth shows itself, but the old, frozen order is clearly over.
Knowing how to love this time of lumpy crossings is absolutely essential, if I’m going to live up here, if I’m going to live at all, and right now I choose both, with a sore, whole heart. The White Dress Project – last September through New Year’s Day – was a time of giddy bridehood – and I’m so glad to have had the space and willingness to live it out. Now is different, though. I have a new suit – a World War II American Red Cross Service nurse’s uniform. Combat, healing, service, blood, and death are here. It’s no nonsense, and the sewing’s different, too. This time, I’m starting with a kind of hula hoop of severed heads, using a Tibetan painting of Kurukulla, the Red Tara, for inspiration. Happy heads, angry heads, spacey heads, bridesheads, loversheads – whack! Take from me all that is not free. I stitch the heads around the waist of my nurse/warrior/healer suit, button myself into it every day, and feel what it’s like to live in this time of lumpy crossings, heartache, and mud puddles.
Lumpy crossings hold power, like the kitchen floor in the Hasidic story that has been hiding the long-sought, quested-after treasure, all along. Last night, I came home from a house concert and dinner, opened the Amazon box, took out my new set of face paints, and listened into what was coming to meet. A red cross at the forehead, with a white circle around it. Red vajra-lines extending from the corners of the eyes. White lips, white dots down the nose, white fading to pink at the brows. A fierce gaze born of mud, and letting go the pretty phases of falling in love. Something imperfect, but whole. Something wild and sparkly, unafraid of riding in wet circles around the collective, for as long as it needs to.
One of the Hanover kids comes to me after class and asks, tears in her eyes, what to do when things feel impossible. One of my meditation mentees asks if feeling more whole than usual is a normal result of compassion practice. I tell them both Yes. Feel whatever’s there. Stop giving into any idea that being good is a bulwark against future lumpy crossings. The crossings may in fact get lumpier, more painful, deeper. I may soon find puddles so vast they overtop my orange boots, and wind up walking around with two soggy snowmelt tanks fastened to my feet. This will in no way mean Stop seeking out muck. It will in no way mean Stick to the dry path. It will mean I need to find a dry pair of socks, choose a new head to stitch onto my suit, and be with whatever comes calling next.
Bottomless loss and infinite pleasure are interconnected with the simple act of finding a reasonable set of clothes to wear, to go talk with some kids about What Is, and what might be, and how to make it through this day, wholly and specifically.
This floor is a lumpy crossing. Someone’s dry-erase-markered big, sloppy black hearts onto the upholstery of this library chair. This sparkly sweater came from the thrift store down the street, which means one of those Hanover kids’ moms probably decided it was too lumpy to wear anymore, and now it’s with me. We lump along, you and I, and everyone, finding out together for ourselves what can be done, and where it leads.
Waxy nubbins come pebbling out of my ears. Do my ears create them, or do they come percolating out of my brain, a byproduct of tired thoughts, feral thoughts, lusting thoughts, thoughts of transgressions past, present, and future? There: I reach into my right ear, and extract a waxy nubbin, right on cue. The right ear is the greater nubbin-producer, just as the right nostril is the more profligate booger-factory. Why? Maybe being the dominant side creates more friction, more exhaust, more of a cycle of boom and bust.
Waxy nubbins. Who’s to say that embodiment isn’t an excuse for the universe to experience itself picking its own ears? If I were the universe I’d want to experience myself in dogs’ morning eye-boogers, long hair with split ends, behind-the-ear grease, and soft cheek-down. I would not be satisfied with triumphal arches and nebulae – I would require all that bodies do, think, and be. If I were the universe I would take pleasure in the workings of the world, the way stray threads stick to clothing long after a project is done, the way paint feathers into small channels on dry skin, the way toenails gnarl to protect feet from the wear of weight-bearing. I would commit to these things, and maybe I would remember not to complain of them.
If Oprah, Mindy, and Reese’s characters had richer relationships to their glamorous, absurd getups, this might have been a way to save the Wrinkle in Time movie. It’s not absolutely clear in the film, but those characters’ shapes are meant to emerge from this intention: We are billion-year-old angel-stars. For the sake of communication, we are taking on bodies. Bodies are not 100% our bag, but since they are what it takes to connect with you humans, we’re in. Here’s where something important could happen: the Mrses could pass through the filter of Hollywood lady-being, and comment freely on the rules they discover therein. Jesus fucking Christ! Who can run in a hoop skirt? If someone doesn’t stop freak-teasing my hair, and get these stupid crystals off my face, I swear I’m going right into the starcloud, and I’ll never, ever come back. There would be an opportunity to look at Hair and Makeup not as a given of female embodiment, but as a set of conventions that no cosmic being could ever take at face value.
A similar thing happens in the Wonder Woman movie. Because the protagonists’ guides (and the filmmakers) are invested in ideas of female modesty, beauty, and ca.1917 fashion, as soon as the character leaves the Island of the Amazons, she is hustled into some silly tweed outfit, without the chance to consider what might actually suit her needs and her nature. The Mrses and Wonder Woman pass into female form all glammed up, and in so doing, lose the chance to live out their waxy nubbins. They lose the chance to be fully human and fully divine.
Fully human AND fully divine makes us humans deeply nervous. We prefer splitting: either Jesus was fully divine (and never really touched down here on Earth), or he was fully human (and all that God stuff is superstition). The same goes for the Buddha, and for any prophet, guru, or great teacher. Split positions like these leave intact our limited views of what we as humans can be, and set up our hankering for some Other, quite unlike us, whose blessings or faults underwrite everything that happens here on Earth.
Did Jesus have sex? If no, then hoorah! We can dismiss the complicated realm of our sexualities as Not Relevant to the Spirit. If yes, and he was God, then what would that mean? He was a person, in a body, and also divine. He loved someone else, also human, also divine, and something happened here on earth that implicates all of us.
But, but, but: he was murdered. If he was God, why did he allow this to come to pass? Because being broken is part of being whole. Because getting everything right, and showing up in your whole self, is no guarantee of not coming to terrible harm. Because now maybe we can stop blaming people when awful things happen to them. Because the price of becoming human is pain.
I wanted Ava du Vernay’s movie to be wonderful, and in some ways, it was. Her greeting at the beginning of the screening delighted me: Hoorah! Here is this woman of color, Hollywood director, bright with her talent and success, taking time to express gratitude for me and my neighbor, out here snarfing popcorn on a Saturday night. Oprah’s good witch, Reese’s snarky one, and Mindy’s Rumi-quoting one all provide glimpses of the feminine divine. But there is something kind of shallow and superficial about the whole enterprise – it’s too happy with its glitter to engage meaningfully with the waxy nubbins of the story. I’m not satisfied anymore with absolute evil (the It’s gnarly black neurons) and absolute good (Oprah, 40 feet tall, immobilized by some costumer’s overreach). Can’t the Mrses be a little greedy? Can’t the It have been made so through some primordial wound? Can’t Charles Wallace be a bit of a shit, without this depending entirely on demon-possession?
Anyway, the path I am walking is a path of waxy nubbins, owning the shadows that keep me anchored in this tall body, this personality, this biography with its eases and sorrows. I am a healer and a monster; a maker of mistakes; a listener, and a filler of the ears of the world with nonsense. I have seen Harvey Weinstein, and he is me. I understand that attention to what is grubby, worn, and outside set narratives, is the safeguard that halts rogue ideas and delusions.
All of this, of course, informs the consent culture I say I want. Staying connected, moment to moment with another person requires my willingness to let go of what I think I want, what I think I want to be, and what I want the other to be and want. But, but, but, I want to be an ageless Angel with glitter lipstick and crystals spangling my brows. Tough. Right now, you’re pestering. Right now, you are frozen, he’s frozen, the whole world has gone lifeless. Right now, you have no choice but to recognize a story, falling apart. You can come back to What Is, and fall in love with that. You can force and suffer. You can collapse and suffer. All of these choices are here for you, but as for any possibility of a nubbins-free story, we’re sorry, but that just died.
What is it like, when we consent to be as we are? Scary, strange, quiet, magnificent, impossible. I pick up a round paintbrush and draw a clear red line down from my hairline to my chin. Then another line, from ear to ear. The lines become a double-vajra. The field around my eyes goes pink. Then white spots, silver bands, spears down my arms, another spear to my heart, ribs across my throat. No choice, then, but to wander in the snow, to ask to be seen, to put on my Healer/Warrior/Nurse Suit. No choice but to come eat ravioli with you, my beloveds, stars, booger-makers, fellow-delusionists, and heroes.
A repressed thought – isn’t that what we always write about? I think of these Tuesday mornings as Repressed Thought Regattas – all the hidden things hoist their sails, pull on their shiny satin outfits, and go shooting out into the bay of my mind, turning lazy or tight circles till somehow, they’re not so repressed anymore. These are not ordinary, holy-fuck-my-whole-family-could-drink-out-of-that-silver-cup races, empowering single victors. Instead, each boat shapes the winds, shoreline, waves, and light, so that all may move according to their natures. That’s how the Regatta works, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the company at this table.
Repressed thoughts have force, and force travels in ways that can sometimes turn ordinary features of the landscape into deadly weapons. People around here still talk about Hurricane Irene, and how it changed innocuous things into outlets for wild and raging change. A culvert turns into a firehose shooting boulders a hundred feet through the air. A covered bridge becomes a missile; a tree falls into floodwaters and is instantly flayed raw, stripped bare. What was the repressed thought? This world is not here for our convenience.
Sometimes a person can become a repressed thought in the landscape of a culture that doesn’t want to see them. Last Thursday, even though I’d slept very little the night before, I stayed up till midnight with Sr. Cynthia, watching the Olympic women’s free-skate on the nuns’ massive TV. Who was visible? THE RUSSIANS. The Old Russian, ancient and grizzled at 18, as tragic Anna Karenina. The Young Russian, pert and tutu-ed at 15, as Badass Ballerina with Knives on Her Feet. Oh, the visible Russians! What was repressed? How mothers eat their children – the two athletes share the same ice-queen coach – and the possibility that grief might have a real place in this world. Anna Karenina skated perfectly, then wept, because of course Tutu won.
Who was invisible? Two Asian skaters, one from Japan and one from Korea, who each skated beautifully, without error. Surely that is enough to guarantee being seen? But, no. The TV is interested in Russian white fairies, not Asian fairies. No, no, that should stay repressed. We’ll take the white Canadian's Swan Lake, but please, the skaters from Japan and Korea should go discreetly back to being invisible.
Only later, reading the Times online, did I see a puzzling photograph of someone who’d been even more effectively repressed – a magnificent Black skater from France. Gone. Disappeared, except for some coy reference about how she’d turned her costume inside-out, while on the ice. What? I went searching. At her best, she skates with the power of a dancer who could lift any partner she wanted to, right over her head. She skates like a runner, a panther, a trickster, a whole club on the best night ever, a force of nature. So, what the fuck, Olympic broadcasters? Why delete this woman’s power from the program? Why obsess about Tutu vs. Tragic, over there, when some very new, very fresh, important stranger is showing up, and dancing to Beyoncé in pants?
That is how repressed thought works. We don’t bother to repress thoughts that don’t really matter, because what would be the point? Who cares if you don’t like the sauce? But when emerging material effortlessly reveals the nonsense of the existing order, then we really have reason to squelch it down. Shut it out. Dismiss it. Make it invisible. The problem of disappearing the skater Mae Berenice Meite goes beyond the loss of her performance and her story. Repression has successfully crafted a narrative about a competition that belongs to two white Russian teenagers. This is a lie, and it’s impossible to live wholeheartedly, inside a lie. Under the influence of the lie, a young Black girl thinks she might love skating, sees no one like her in that world, and turns away. Another girl grows up brainwashed by the idea that tiny-fairy is the only way forward, and never owns her strength. The repressive Tutu vs. Tragic story begets a lineage of hampered lives, until it is seen for what it is, broken open, and dismantled.
Repressed thoughts are seldom completely disappeared: they poke through the membrane of consciousness like little fear-hernias, bulging and aching, refusing to go away. The current, repressed state of affairs has going for it that the earth hasn’t yet split open and swallowed your house, so that makes it safe. Of course, house-swallowing is pretty rare, so it’s not 100% likely that the new, un-repressed state would bring on this dire result, but you never know. You never know, and if you can possibly help it, you’d prefer that the house stay a house, and the bridge, a bridge. This way of thinking, of course, is more attractive for those who currently have a house, than for those who don’t. Middle-class white liberals like me, in the age of Trump, have had to hear some truths about not going back inside our safe houses, and closing the door, waiting for change to happen without much discomfort to ourselves.
Participating in more or less conservative, mostly-white, institutional Buddhism (which I’ve been involved with for more than half my life) now feels very much like going into my safe house and closing the door. I know it’s not my work right now, and yet it’s hard to let go of the affiliations that go with it, the affirmations of expertise, the orientation towards no-reward-is-my-reward that I’ve been schooled to since birth. But I can’t really embrace it, either. If I ask myself what’s important for me to be doing right now, I see I want to spend more time outside the house: more time in the South, more time talking with people less like me, and more time collaborating with and learning from new friends and colleagues. I want to spend more time with repressed-thought-incarnate, since that anyway is where I tend to feel at home.
The bay sparkles, the wind riffles the water, and the boats of today’s Repressed Thought Regatta soar out, each buoying and quickening one another into the shape of this moment.
What if all our ideas about desire are upside-down, pointed the wrong way, picked up by the wrong end, like grabbing a shovel by the blade and trying to dig a hole? What if, by shaping/shoving/pointing desire, splashing and thudding it around, we are failing to see that, all along, desire simply Is, needs no confirmation, no affirmation, no this-job or that-job? Desire can be experienced as a force, a field, moving through, without requiring any particular sort of rite. I lay here with you, eyes focusing only to the very short distance that they can, and I feel how desire animates the spaces through and in these bodies. Doesn’t mean must anything. Doesn’t mean shape up, act out, prove this, deny that. Just: Is. There is more risk in writing about this, than about a banana, or my dogs. My dogs have in some sense been de-sexed, but I have not. Still-sexed, I lay here, and allow desire to flow through without any particular sense of where it ought to go. What form, what rite, what observance? These are all several steps down from the experience I am describing.
In the next room, a bell goes off.
Outside: February fog.
Old pain in the side of my neck, warning, Don’t simplify, don’t pretend, keep finding the voice to say what must be said, upside-down.
I am writing about desire as a force. I am sitting in a body, in a room, in a city I once knew well. Which way is home? I swallow the big white tablet that helps fight off the sinus infection that would otherwise leave me upside-down with fever, chills, desire compressed down to a simple wish not to be so ill anymore.
What happens when you simultaneously decide to follow desire in its course, and to drop the desire-scripts you’ve built and absorbed over lifetimes? Answer: sometimes, not much. Sometimes what Tantra looks like is being able to bear with the uncertainty of how desire interacts with complex, layered beings, once the scripts have all been turned upside-down.
Yesterday, on the skybridge to my flight, I stood in front of a group of college kids. One of them was trying to bully another into coming to his bed that night because she owed him from not having made the effort to go see him the night before. This is some serious bullshit, I was thinking, and dangerous. But the student sort of shook herself off, and said, Brian, you’re being a butt! I thought, Good girl. Then Brian started in again, belittling her and what she said. I turned around. In case you need a voice from the outside to hear this, you ARE being a butt. I smiled. The student was surprised, but not angry. Something in him wanted to let go of the desire to hurt his friend, the desire to make hurtful claims. I turned his butt upside-down, and he settled.
Have you noticed the sometimes very fishy relationship between what we say we want, and what actually turns up? We say we want this experience, this person, this connection, but what we are really saying is we want our idea of these things. When these ideas meet a more unpredictable situation, it can be hard not to feel turned upside-down. I fly far from home, come to a city that used to be home, and find myself taking a shower, eating breakfast, practicing tai chi in the warm, foggy morning air. What need to go to Gaia? When body, speech, and mind are all in accordance, every well will be your Gaia. Waking up is accepting being upside-down, right-side up, wherever you go. Waking up is not minding so much, being upside-down.
Have you ever tried the neti pot? For me, holding a weird teapot upside-down into my stuffy nose feels very much like self-waterboarding. Luckily, there’s another version, a plastic squeeze bottle you fill with saline and squirt up one nostril. If you look down, and keep breathing through your mouth, the water percolates back out the other nostril, minus about 75% of the drowning sensations associated with the neti pot. You’re still upside-down, breathing water, something the body doesn’t like to do, but it’s OK. The water flows in, flows out, taking with it all the muck you’ve been manufacturing up your snout. Goodbye!
Upside-down sometimes leads to rightside-up. With aikido, I am beginning, just barely, to accept how upside down can land you in a place that’s more resilient than anywhere resistance goes. Let the arm be open. Let the weight of the body find ground without stiffening. Here I am, upside-down, but not broken. I still have no idea how experienced students take their enormous flying falls, but that knowing either will, or won’t come. I can’t desire it into being.
Upside-down foggy morning. Three? Four? Hours of sleep, and yet bright, and yet pen moving across paper, and yet purpose, possibility, kindness. How do we shape ourselves to limitations that keep us upside-down? How do we cramp our sense of the possible, the allowable, the fields that hold and underlie all the particulars of our desires? I am traveling in a city that was once my home, and I am at home in this body that is in no way a city. Fields of sound: the sirens we don’t hear in small-town New Hampshire. Trucks rumbling with supplies to keep massive, phantom stores open and humming.
I do not know where this goes, and it is not my responsibility to know. Upside-down means: maybe something strange is happening, but fundamentally you understand bewilderment and how to recover from it. Upside-down means you have some sense of where your axes are, and how to come back into alignment. Eating toast and drinking tea are not upside-down. Tai chi in the fog with sirens is not upside-down, even if you have forgotten some transitional movements between up and down.
I sit here rightside-up, feeling the force of desire, the force of sunlight rising in the east. I feel the way a labyrinth can open either way: masculine or feminine, each one leading curve on curve, inwards, upside-down, rightside-up, towards a core where all journeys meet. I cover a large white sheet of paper with thin black letters made of breath, of being here, of turning inside-out, outside-in, with ease. Pearly grey is not the upside-down of day. It is the core, and I am here to meet it. Desire, end of desire, breathing in, breathing out. Taking in, releasing. Here we are.
Unconscionable. A young woman calls Spirit Airlines to double-check that it is OK to bring her miniature hamster on the plane. Sure, sure, whatever, the airline says. Buy your ticket. (Would things have gone down differently on Soul Airlines, if there were such a thing?) On the day of the flight, the young woman arrives at the airport with the hamster, Pebbles. What happens next? Does the young woman good-girl reveal the hamster? Does the hamster peek her nose out of a pocket? Does the hamster squeak out a rendering of La Cucaracha, from inside her tiny carrier? Who knows? The person at the desk says, No hamster. What? No hamster? But I checked. But you said. But I need to go home for surgery. Perhaps you could flush the hamster down the toilet? But this is Pebbles, my friend. Can I rent a car? I am too young, and there are no cars. Can I ride the bus? The bus is slow and scary. Can I retract the hamster-showing? Oh, no. Here I am in this stainless-steel stall, looking at Pebbles in my hand. She is scared. I am scared. My stomach is turning inside out the way it does when I know something really bad is happening but I don’t know how to stop it. I put Pebbles in the toilet, and push the button for an industrial-strength flush. I almost throw up into that same toilet. What have I done? Wanting to get home, I have driven a wedge between myself and any true sense of home I might feel, from now into an unknown future.
Unconscionable: the parts of us that see the use or uselessness of other beings, but not their innate worth. The parts of us that issue death-warrants for the sake of protocol. The parts of us that obey those orders. The parts of us that want to be good, to be praised, to be in line with the laws, and will push the button, pull the trigger, drop the ballot in the box, and make the phone call to keep ourselves clean.
In a culture without Trickster, without Holy Mother Life and Death, we will forget true protection, true refuge, resistance, and the importance of breaking unjust laws. We will become easily cowed. What happens to our young tricksters, our love of all creatures, when we are small? Are they held to be wicked, in need of reform and better manners? Then we wind up working for Spirit. We wind up giving the order to flush the hamster, and obeying.
A client tells me a story of catching butterflies as a boy, loving their beautiful colors and shapes, especially the majesty of Luna moth’s pale green moons and furred feelers. One day, the boy shows his father, who marches him downstairs to the basement workshop, and tells him to put the fluttering creature in a can of acetone, to kill her. (Every father-ogre has a killing can.) The boy obeys, though he doesn’t want to. The father shows his son how to pin the creature’s beautiful corpse for display. At school, at home, the boy is praised for the kill, for the trophy, so he finds more creatures and kills them, even though he still only wants to catch them, look at them, and set them free.
Unconscionable: forcing a child to kill wonder. Praising a child for overriding love into cold use. Unconscionable: the parent knows best, and refuses any knowing that comes from the child. The child’s wish becomes irrelevant, feeble, shameful. Something in the man is stuck at the point of release, and needs help to let go, to run free, to open again into a relationship with life that is not focused on trophy and hidden pain.
Right now I am in the middle of what surely is not, but feels like the longest living stretch of sinus bullshit endured by a human. I wake like a prickly squid, closing my eyes to sunlight, refusing connection with the world or any of its inhabitants. I am a mess, and the goo juddering out of my snout is disgusting. Slowly, slowly, I come back. Could it be that someone else, somewhere, is also feeling ill? Maybe…Shame, shame: I am laying around like an unfresh, prickly squid, when others have cancer-ebola-leprosy-tuberculosis? Could it be that someone else, somewhere, is also feeling shame? Softening. Pain in my head. This also. Every discomfort I can allow, name, and feel, becomes a bridge into the heart of being. Before, I did not know what this is like, but now, through my own experience, I do. May we be well. May this be well.
I remember my dream from last night: I am in Chögyam Trungpa’s office – dark wood, big table. On a page in my dream-notebook, I am drawing the iris of an eye, rendering radiating lines in delicate pencil marks. Meanwhile, running head to toe, beyond, above, and below, are waves and waves of desire, like a magnetic force field. It’s incredibly strong, very uncomfortable, exhilarating, impersonal, and yet very much experienced in this body-mind, right now. I keep drawing the eye, to anchor myself. Unconscionable: to confuse this force with an individual being. To confuse it with myself. This force can be met, enjoyed, and endured in the presence of a carefully drawn “I,” but it is not to be thrown out or splashed around. I can ground it, pay attention to how it moves, feel its arising and passing away, as long as I understand what is showing up, and the risks involved.
To test for the safety of handling another person’s body with your own, use lemon juice to detect minute skin-breaks. To test for the safety of handling another person’s soul with your own, understand that no such safety exists. Understand that, in addition to trickster parts in all of us, there are mean parts, kind parts, awake parts, and unconscionable parts. Know that soul-breaks are inevitable, and that what breaks is not actually all of what we are.
I am in Trungpa’s office in the dream. Is he there? Is he not-there? Yes. I go to sleep reading his wife’s memoir, a book largely bereft of feeling. I did this/that; Rinpoche did this/that. At the point when I am setting the book down, Trungpa is about to administer LSD to his inner council, as part of a late-night meeting to resolve an ugly interpersonal power impasse. Unconscionable? I don’t know. Maybe the LSD is a way of invoking a force-field like the one in my dream, something so overwhelming that careful moment-to-moment attention is the only feasible response.
I am in the midst of a time
Anticipatory grief, anticipatory love, anticipatory awareness of the ways things go. These can help to build conscience, as long as we are aware that none of them are valid maps for what will actually transpire in the powerful field of the moment.
I walk into the airport with Pebbles safely tucked into a pocket of my sweatshirt. I’ve taken care to write her a bulletproof Emotional Support Document, signed by myself as Dr. Harrumph, printed on swanky card stock, with an impressive border. But really, who wants to fuck with all of that? Once we clear TSA, I add alfalfa to the pocket, velcro it shut, and make sure the air-holes are free. I choose an aisle seat, and get up a couple of times during the flight to let Pebbles run around on the small bathroom floor, having first made sure the toilet lid is safely closed. Together, we are flying home. We are always coming home, together.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now