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.
Hopeless Diamond. No dangling above Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts for you. Also, no woo-woo curse for you. No Smithsonian magazine cover, no lockdown inch-thick Plexiglas display for you. Hopeless Diamond, you are something altogether more secret and more rare, more common and more obvious. Why deny you? You are here: patched-up Narcotic Anonymous plaid shirt, unboxed heart, improbable midwinter daffodil stalk.
The Zens talk about the True Person of No Rank. Maybe that person has the unofficial, off-budget rank of Hopeless Diamond. Toast-crumbs in the corners of her mouth, old Cheetos bags under the seats of her salt-rimed car, stains on her hoodie: these are the regalia of No Rank. Spit-bubbles and misspelled words. Inexplicable falls between slick parking-lot lines. Inability to remember what’s-her-face's name, to save your life. Clumsy invitations and misdirected emails. Slowly, over a lifetime, we sink through the ranks. We get better at relaxing into hopelessness. No better thing, elsewhere. No meeting to run off to.
What would it be like to become a? Already this is framed outside No Rank. What if I succeeded in? What if they finally noticed? What if we could just?
If Hopeless Diamond has any question, it begins, I wonder, and even so, from the low places, wondering gives way to noticing ripples in the field of What Is. Ah: this goes this way, and this stays blocked for now. Give up entirely here, and there lets go. Interesting… How can flowing straight to the low, loathsome places not be a dead end? Dante descends through the circles of Hell, and is shat out the other end, onto the still, starlit ground of Purgatory. He’s lost his teacher and guide, seen every possible form of suffering, and winds up alone someplace he could not have imagined. Out from the frozen reaches into something perfectly hopeless, and alive.
We’ve all ended up places we couldn’t have imagined, alive, looking around in the faint, but palpable light. No rank, no place. Just, here. Here in the dark forest, where there’s a new friend, after all, and the light drifts just enough to confirm that there are trees. We listen with our feet, with our whole bodies; we listen with the forest, and it lets us walk for hours, steadily, unknown path, unknown destination, hopelessly alive. A clearing: fireflies. A hilltop: the vault of Heaven opens on the shortest night of the year.
The original Hopeless Diamond is an awkward flying thing, a swindle engineered by people of rank so secret as to be nonexistent. Build a thing strange enough, and the searching eyes of enemies spin in their sockets without taking purchase, look elsewhere, lose connection. Seeking sleek missile-bristling eagles, reconnaissance misses a scrambled lump, its facets pointing so many directions as to bend space into nonsense. No rank is not universally without danger: both proto-Diamonds crashed. There’s a reason most of us like rank. There’s a reason most of us like hope.
Elliot and Chloe are for sure Hopeless Diamonds, beginning with the question, “What breed are they?” They are what happens when certain Southern dog-packs get together and fuck at will, over many generations. Biggish, black, thick-coated, long-toothed, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irascible, and undeterred. But, breed? Hopeless somethings. Diamond monsters. Sometimes, very restrained, very respectful. Yes, we will sit on the side of the trail, and accede to your desire that we not have knife-fights with every passing Golden. And other times, impossible, unruleable, adamantine. Elliot takes off after my friend and her dog, and there is nothing I can do about it. Collar-zapping may tone him down, and my friend’s calm discipline works smoothly. Nothing terrible happens, but what unfolds is clearly outside the scope of my Rank ordering Elliot's. Now someone else’s beast is the one not to be deterred: he follows Chloe and Elliot and I off the trail, picks a fight, and gets a skirmish. Well, they sorted out THAT debate, says the dog’s unperturbed companion, walking off. No rank, no problem.
Yes, we are Hopeless Diamonds together. These humans, these animals, this cold forest at the close of day. I find a place to lay down in the sun, to gaze up at the wide blue sky as the dogs sit patiently at my side. Hopelessly wonderful feeling of my back cradled in crunchy new snow. Green hemlock needles illuminated from within. Our breaths are tiny diamonds suspended in the freezing, lambent air.
What Is does not like rank or mastery. What Is changes, and change destroys hierarchy, cozy agreements, and coercive ones. I stand much taller than the dogs; I lay down, and they tower over me. I dangle above Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts; I sink in mud under miles of dark ocean water. This is the truth. This is the way that cannot separate itself from any living being, because, how? No Rank means dancing from one state into the next without losing hope, because all there is worth hoping for is the grace already built into the matter of our bodies and souls.
I have work to do: we all do.
I am in training: we all are.
I am in love: we all love.
I vow not to let the wrestlings of false rank, the jinglings of tacky crystals, sideline me from what is really to be done. Sure, I love a blingy set of teeth, a bedazzled t-shirt, a chandelier dripping with rainbows. Hoorah for all that. But also, importantly, hoorah for the stillness of morning, receiving love into this body of No Rank. Hoorah for what refuses to be trained, ordered, licensed, prescribed. Hoorah for the tough ice-patches on northward slopes that won’t let go of their hardness till April. Hoorah for unseen, unknown dignity and endurance. Hoorah for diamonds so small they coat the blade of the saw that cuts the bone, freeing change, one stroke, one breath, one clean moment of hopelessness at a time.
The Hopeless Diamond is always right here, shining forth from the heart of this sometimes painful, always-whole body.
Banana-rama-fo-fanna – Nana! This is a silly prompt, but then, hoorah! I notice in myself a tendency to hanker for the profound, which needs to be nose-booped into realignment with the world we live in. I can’t live on what skews serious, traumatic, life-shattering, alone. It’s good to be reminded that dogs in new sweaters are profound. Banana muffins are profound. The transfer of weight from one body to another, whether in play, work, or worship, is profound.
Banana! Declares itself. How am I going to take it, in this moment? Freud-banana, caramelized banana, banana pure poetry of the sun. Banana tree has emptiness at its core, and thus is a very Buddhist plant, furling itself out from void, fruiting, dying back. Banana both is, and is not.
The toilet is where I read about embodied truth. I sit on the toilet reading about Keet Seel, the Ancient Puebloan settlement that Timothy and I did not see, but only heard about, on our recent trip out West. I see pictures of the cliff-cave “billowing” up above the empty houses and kivas. I am here, in my house, looking at houses from eight centuries ago. Where will this home be, in that amount of time? Will anything of my life be accessible to someone sitting on whatever version of a toilet will be in use, then? How do we know the traces we leave behind? The toilet whisks away Chloe’s morning barf, my poop, the remains of yesterday, and here I am, Banana, ready to begin again.
Banana pudding is one of the foods the nuns have reacquainted me with, in their house where eight hundred years lives quietly with itself. I open the door of the refrigerator, and find a tray: one pink, covered Corningware dish of soup, one bowl of salad, one foil pouch of Tony’s Lite Ranch Dressing, one apple, and four or five desserts, plus a slip of scrap paper with my name on it, in Sister Alice’s beautiful hand. Sister Alice believes in the capacity of cakes, pies, cookies, and crumbles to convey the infinite abundance of the Universe.
Yes, this is a dying order. The Sisters are all elderly, and they know no one is stepping in to lead the lives they led. But they also know holiness has its own ways of working, finds the seams in the world, keeps benevolence moving as it must. They are walking away from their own Keet Seel, leaving behind flowered bedsheets, glowing burlap paintings of Jesus, and lidded cut-glass bon-bon jars. They are walking away, and the former quarantine hospital where the Sisters live will become something else, or will stand as a memory of their way of life.
Banana-yellow is a noticeably missing ingredient in New England January. I carry a yellow flask, crack eggs for yolks’ reminder of sunlight. I pour hot baths, add frankincense and Epsom salts, osmose yellow abundance through cold-pinched limbs. Sun puddles indoors with the syrupy urgency of a miracle cure. I curl up, drink in, yellow into being, free of coldness, darkness, hardness.
The dogs and I go up into the forest at Velvet Rocks. While I need spikes to stay upright on the icy trail, they are attuned to the banana-pudding thaw of icy streams. Here’s a pool of open water, ice-rimed but wide enough for one dogsbody plié, settling into flow, liquid, thirst-slaking abundance. Elliot flops onto his side, blissfully drinking his bathwater. The dogs find bananas everywhere: in the corpses they gnaw, the deer-poops they snaffle up off the snow, and in the snow itself, so suited for rolling in ecstatic abandon. To be a dog is to transmute the ordinary and the repellent into delight. It is also to see mortal danger in the mailman, but that is another story.
I grew up setting bananas on fire. Did you? Do try this at home: in a heavy skillet, or the crappy frying pan you just brought home from the thrift store, heat an unreasonable amount of butter, or whatever vegan alternative you like. Peel the last brown banana in the bowl, or whatever feels right. Fry it/them up. Add sugar, maple syrup, or the leftover stale marshmallows from last summer’s campfire. Let everything caramelize, then pour rum over it, enough that there’s a bit to spread around. Quickly turn out all the lights, and ignite. Voila! Blue-flickering disco destruction alchemy of dessert. Too little, and you get a sad little St. Elmo’s fire, then pfft. Too much, and you get a towering inferno that will take off your arm-hair and eyebrows. (Probably better to avoid this. Still, something of a badge of honor to wind up partially body-bald from your cooking activities.) You can eat bananes flambées with ice-cream or plain yogurt, though you don’t need to.
My brother and father once flambéed a Baked Alaska so hard, they had to drop it out of self-defense, sending flaming gobbets of meringue flying onto the walls and ceiling of the dining room. My mother briefly thought she would need to evacuate my ancient grandmother into the night, but the gobbets calmed, and everyone was OK. No one mentions having licked the walls that night, but I would have.
Condoms on bananas. This never really came up in high school sex ed, though I grew up in the AIDS era of the 90s. Maybe the idea was that we were exempt? Maybe our virginal leader was ideologically opposed to sheathed bananas in the hands of unmarried girls? Did the boys sheath bananas? Things were definitely gender-differentiated in that world. Girls put on pageants, while boys ran on the track till they barfed. I am sure there were boys who prayed for glue-guns and sequins, while there were girls who would have given anything for a clean relay race, instead of a protracted power-struggle set to Steve Martin’s “King Tut.”
Bananarama! An all-woman band singing about Venus. As a kid, I was susceptible to the profundity of the pop music I liked, failing to apply to it the skepticism that came so naturally, elsewhere. Today the task seems to be: see the profound in the silly, the silly in the profound. See the ripe banana, and the hollowness at the tree’s core.
Miley Cyrus is wreckage-fucking that pendulum: farewell to childhood. The rain outside is wrecking the remaining snow. Change wrecks what we think we know. All in all, wreckage is a good word for wreckage: that hard R, not even dressed like you think it will be; that K of kaplooey; that Old Norman way of making the terrible into nouns. Wreckage. Wrack and ruin.
I’ve never lived in a house that got wrecked by a tornado, avalanche, or tsunami, so it’s easier for me to sit here in this nice, warm library, during an ice-storm, and ponder disaster. When I was in high school, a tornado tore down trees all around the house, while we watched, bewitched, in front of windows that could easily have imploded and shredded our curious faces. In these thrilling moments, we refused to sit huddled in the guest bathroom. We watched by storm-light, as the wind wrecked pines, but not our house.
Tornadoes can be the size of the world, and tsunamis the size of the ocean. There is a mountain in Washington State, tilting more towards wreckage each day. At some point it will let go, let rip, cease being mountain, and become wave. It will become its ancestors, who released an inland sea. It will channel itself into a new form.
Wreckage is a state change. Mountain becomes wave; body becomes food; darkness becomes illumination. Wreckage is loss, if the former state is more beloved than the latter. Sometimes, same-same. Ajahn Chah taught his monks to look at all their crockery as though it were already broken. Drop a plate: the shards show what was always already true. The unbroken is a temporary miracle, not an entitlement, not a guarantee.
Wreckage floats from one place to another. Smashed parts of Japan wash up on the West Coast of North America, carrying hitch-hikers in its sheltered crannies. What is wreckage to one, is haven to another, by nature’s endless, promiscuous logic. My home, your loss. My loss, your home. We eat one another with the precision of a figure-skating duet.
Wreckage is a record of what was. Hard to censor the garbage pile. Hard to censor the mind that shovels through it. Who is sifting through the wreckage, and what do they assume about the way things are? It is hard to account for such assumptions in ourselves, but it can be done. I am sifting through the wreckage of a million lifetimes, looking for what has been awake and alive, all along.
A student asks me what “suchness” means. Suchness gives and receives radiance, shining forth radioactively from everything. We stop saying stupid names like You, Me, and That Dog Who Just Barfed Again. Suchness is the Buddha as the Thus Come One. It is the wreckage of blame and shame. It straddles itself, and swings for the world like Miley Cyrus, if Miley Cyrus were the size of the ocean, the mountains, and everything.
Do we want to be wrecked by truth, by love, by the relentless progress of waking up? Mostly not. Mostly, we want what makes us look good. We want a bottomless box of chocolates, and affection that appears when it’s convenient for us. We want endless good health, and easy acceptance into the tribe.
But also: we want to be wrecked out of living a single, unchallenged perspective. We know a monophasic life is a boring life, and we need something to break open. We need to trip wildly, to allow ourselves to be danced, to surrender ourselves to bliss greater than conventional Me can contain. We want conventional Me to get roughed up a bit, to get hit by a flowing mountain of experience that leads from the ancient sea to the ocean.
Wreckage is the lump in the kudzu field where vines have eaten the house no one wanted anymore. It is glass and metal shards on the tarmac where cars have made disaster of one another. It is the lone flap that floats ashore after the plane crash at sea. It is the deer-tibia the dog drags up from that frozenmost section of woods.
Wreckage announces itself with awe and dread. This is looming, and you can't Sandra Bullock your way around it. Or it shows up as a possibility to be skillfully avoided. Here is where this is headed, if you don’t do something about it, fast. Turn now. Say no. Throw up your arms and howl like a coyote. Still it may come.
In the wreckage of the Titanic, a sapphire necklace. In the wreckage of right now, an awakened heart polishes itself. In the wreckage of the real estate market, another round of crash is already taking shape.
I am falling asleep as I write this – the wreckage of intention and attention. It’s not so unpleasant, after all: just, hard to come back from the cottony feeling in my head, to the sparse clarity of the page. The whole page collects the wreckage of a stream of consciousness, like stream-side rocks gathering plastic bottles, fishing line, and stray socks. In Bali, the beaches gather panties, school ties, women’s blouses – all washed empty of their connections with anything.
My sleepiness is connected with avoiding wreckage?
Must we like being broken?
We can appreciate mending beautifully, but it’s hard to be truly inside the wreckage phase of brokenness, and enjoy it. I keep thinking, someday I will be able to change without first feeling stuck and bounded, but then, where would all this beautiful wreckage come from?
Tenderhearted sadness – can we outsource that to elves from Cuba, like the job my printer just refused to do? Could we ask a set of albino triplets floating face-up in some weird Police Department tank of amniotic fluid to just take care of it? How about Jesus, with his Prince-y eyes? Could he be the man to take on the task?
Me? Who, me? Do you want me to feel the tenderhearted sadness? Oh, I'm sorry, but that simply won't be even a little bit possible until I've met this big deadline I’m working under, and then I'm afraid we're looking at after first-quarter reports are in. Actually, you might want to take that request over to the nonprofit down the street. They’re used to doing shitty jobs for no money, so it could be a good fit.
Tender-hearted sadness is the death of the cocktail party, the tiny, tiny print that never makes it into the holiday letter, the parents missing from the card that gets sent out with the child smiling alone. It’s the pudgy kid at the door, letting you go first, because he’s kind, and you’re bustling along full of projects and distractions. Tenderhearted sadness knows pretty much no one’s going to stop and ask, but still, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Projecting cheerful confidence squashes tenderhearted sadness.
Shooting rays of ruby red rage chases it away.
Depression coats it in thick layers of fudge frosting, crude oil, or foundation make up, till it can’t breathe.
Oh tenderhearted sadness! You are the catch in the in-breath, a crochet hook grazing the bare muscles pumping blood and life. You're a toothbrush scraping off the don't-give-a-fuck, keeping the rot at bay. Heart-rot is a real thing, and tenderhearted sadness eradicates it.
For whom? For my own sweet pup, who comes to lick my nose in the morning, all freckles and hyena-breath? Sure. But also: for every dog, cat, mouse, and bunny compressed into some wire cubicle, oozing shampoo-wounds or cancer-cells for every minute of his or her short, miserable life. For the dairy cows chained in barns all winter long. For all of us humans, deciding that our health, our enjoyment, our shiny, shiny hair is worth these miseries. Tenderhearted sadness clears the surfaces of the heart for change and action, but also sees the inextricability of the patterns that we all help set.
I reach for my heart-brush, heart-scrubber, heart-router, heart-fucking-jackhammer. No, no, no! I will not settle into the basic urge just to give the world the finger all day long, even though it is fucking 5 degrees, or whatever, and Chloe is whining that supersonic whine that is like having 100,000 mosquitoes directly inside your brain, and if I were actually Bene Gesserit, I would have killed her with my voice already, so it's good I'm not. Instead I say, Oh, Chloe! You're desperate, just in case we never let you run free again, but maybe by now you know us well enough to think shampoo experiments aren't just around the corner? I turn from dog-murdering sci-fi witch, to something human, just by hearing in her voice something that shows up in my own:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
LET ME LET ME LET ME
GET WHAT I WANT THIS TIME
Morrissey! Sometimes you are a genius of tenderhearted sadness.
Being a genius of tenderhearted sadness is part of what it takes to be a good therapist. This Behavioral Health stuff sometimes feels like a Hoover Dam on the basic task of just feeling the fucking feelings, already. When we get very busy Modifying the Behavior to Yield Better Results, I wonder if we are also just going NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH about the underlying hurt? We are building little ice-fishing huts on the frozen lake, pretending July will never come, and sink the whole construct under eely waters. Maybe July comes and we’ve somehow learned to swim, to settle into contact with the water and dolphin around. May it be so. But also maybe, we’ve been so proud of our habit-modifications, sitting there on the frozen surface, that we’ve neglected to ask what will happen when the whole thing unfreezes. In the summer around here, you can see people’s ice-fishing huts sitting around the edges of their vegetable gardens like galvanized outhouses on sled-skids. The wise fisher knows the different states of the heart, and how to navigate them, each in season.
Tenderhearted sadness undermines any kind of posture. I am busy doesn't stand a chance. I am doing a fine job just keels over sideways and goes to sleep. I'll never get it right somehow can't even contain the majesty of failure encompassed by tenderhearted sadness. It wants to, but just when it thinks it’s closing the deal, Sacred Heart rays of beauty and magnitude come bursting through, and the deal is off. Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t want us settling for some crap emo story, listening to that Smith’s album for the twenty-sixth time today. It wants us to get off our duffs and let it guide us into connection with that kid holding the door, that ray of yellow light piercing the forest before setting behind the old-folks home, that impulse to reach out and peel a clementine for the friend who’s always preparing everyone else’s food.
Tenderhearted sadness doesn’t care about whether your plan will end in three people bopping around a gloomy church basement. It wants you to try anyway, to bridge the gaps of isolation that keep us feeling alone and afraid. Tenderhearted sadness would prefer you to be ridiculous in the service of kindness, all day long, rather than careful in the pursuit of being right and looking good. It sends weird gifts in used envelopes across the country, still vaguely wreathed in glue-gun strings. It plays a stupid dance tune, hoping someone else will figure out how to shuffle-hop to it, and feel better.
Tenderhearted sadness is one civilian name of what Buddhists call bodhicitta, the awakened heart dwelling in all sentient beings, flashing forth like lightning from within the night of our misapprehensions about self and other. It's there, shining all along, even when we prefer to be mesmerized by shithole comments and fucked-up missile scares. Tenderhearted sadness is the gateway to recognizing ourselves for what we really are, and to acting skillfully in the world. Sometimes it sounds very much like Fuck it, I’m doing this thing, because no one else will, and it needs done. Sometimes it’s quieter, agreeing to offer refuge to some long-hounded horror that no one’s been willing to tuck into bed.
Always, the heart can come clean.
Always, where there’s sadness, there’s an opening.
Always, whatever’s kept sadness at bay, changes and ends.
Might as well agree to become a harbor.
Might as well scrape the barnacles off that hull with a stiff brush.
Orange is the color of artificial things (TANG), of caution-things (airport workers’ coats), and of full ripeness.
Once, when my friend Chris took me north to Belfast, I wore a scarf that I understood to be Indian sadhu-orange, but which the military took to be Orange-orange. Not a good idea to wrap your head that way, in that time and place. Have you ever been checked out through the sight of an automatic rifle, held by a soldier on top of a tank? Wearing Orange-orange, which I thought of as holy-orange, earned me that experience on the Falls Road that afternoon.
Right now in New Hampshire, we are in one of the usual periods of unusual cold, when it seems nothing could ever be orange again in this frozen-stiff landscape. And yet if I think about it: chanterelles and their lookalikes, jewelweed flowers, autumn maple leaves. Color takes a break right now, gathers itself under snow so cold it falls from pine branches with a metallic clang. In this weather, you have to take care to nourish what’s orange inside yourself, to carry it carefully into the world under layers of wool and down and whatever miracle-stuff keeps my skinny toes warm inside my tall, grey boots. I snorkel out, keeping my heart glowing warm within its sheaths.
The pellet stove burns orange all day, converting wood-dust into warm dogs and hands that can hold pencils without shaking. The fan blows on and on, turning semi-frozen Québecquois rivers into habitable space. Orange is the color of being able to live up here right now without specialized skills. Orange is deep bear fat, the skill of animals storing sunlight under their skins.
Orange: soft, like a mouthful of mango pulp, or a bite of ripe papaya. In warm climates, even fruits that don't look orange from the outside often prove to be so under husks, leathery skin, and spikes. Orange is the syrup of still noontime heat. Orange is daylight carried into night, small sticky suns broken open to slide down your tongue in the dark.
Flames dance on glass. Flames pour forth all night, heating these spaces and bodies. May all beings have their orange in this night. May a tracery of flickering sunlight run parallel to their veins, sparkling limb from limb. May all beings survive this long, cold night.
This time of year, I usually go off on retreat, but not this time. This time, no ottering in frozen fields, for me. I will be seeing clients instead, finishing up coursework, finding other ways of burning bright in the first few days of the year. I have had a lot of retreat in this life, and this year I like the idea of carrying fire forward into the world.
In winter we are like the hidden sparks of last night’s ashes. Nothing meets the eye, but make no mistake. Potent fire-seeds, little dragons hide in that dead powder, ready to flare up, given air and fuel. This is what we can be to one another: catalyst, breath of fire, reviving power and spirit.
Orangeade, Fanta, TANG, Thumsup, Kool-Aid: all the forbidden oranges of my childhood. Cheetos. Box mac and cheese. Cheezits and cheese puffs. Caution-orange. Chemical orange. I imagine alchemical substances that combine sweetness and cheesiness with flame-color. We get high on hot TANG, waiting for the bus to take us out of the Catskills. We crackle with energy, then crash, sleeping on one another’s shoulders for comfort on the long ride south.
Orange-rinds carved by my grandfather's hand into long, spiral ribbons, falling softly to his white dessert plate. My nun friends at breakfast, each preparing an orange in her own, elaborate way: sections, slices, wedges. I quarter the rind, then peel. This is the slowest of all. An orange is an opportunity to re-find the pace of ripening, and its cumulative unfurling. An orange in New Hampshire in the winter is a tropical missionary, embodying its gospel without holding back.
Orange-scented chocolate and chocolate oranges to be eaten in sections both feature among the "medicinal allowables" we eat after noon, in the monastery. We become connoisseurs of the texture and flavor of every known form of chocolate available in England. We are the Antwerp gemologists of sweets, sidling up to the tea tray with experts’ eyes and tongues. We? I do, anyway. I can detect with my starving taste buds what is in peak condition, what has gotten overheated, and what is a bit old and dusty. We have orange juice also: this is a medicine that combines queasily with soymilk, cheese, and chocolate, and which reminds us of warmth and sunlight, when neither seems possible.
Chloe and Elliot are both deep black on the outside, but inside they are bear-fat orange, and the fireworks of their dog-being go off without cease. They bark and spark and gallop, heedless of the cold, chain reactions of soul so perfect no one can explain or fathom their gifts. How to make dogs out of kibble? It is impossible, unless the whole universe – itself an impossibility – conspires to bring forth creatures in its image. I sit on this orange sofa, burning at my core, and recognize in my dogs something that is undeniably true of myself, too. Kibble into dog; ravioli into woman. Surely both are bizarre and miraculous.
Long may we flow through the cold, dark, inert times, into the ripe. Long may we burn forth, and shine.
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.
Hyena. O Hyena. No one makes charismatic calendars of you. No one photographs you against the sunlight, with the wind riffling your furs. Your furs are gobbeted with carrion, and as for the sun, well, you’re not in the habit of posing nobly for it. Hyena, you show up to eat whatever’s not moving fast enough to get away, and you don't bother much with whether it’s dead or not-dead. As long as chunks of it will fit between your powerful jaws, well, you're golden. Not golden. No, you're never that. Fed. And that is your gift.
Hyena will eat the faces off sleeping people, and that's obviously horrible, but it's worth pointing out she'll eat the butts off dead wildebeest, too. It's not like Hyena is looking for sleepers to maul. She's a meat-seeking missile, and not very particular about what she finds. You’ll never see Hyena in that episode of Portlandia where the couple asks too many questions about the chicken’s provenance, and wind up living in an abusive farm-cult. Hyena doesn’t care. Is it meat? Can my jaws fit around it? Voila.
Actually, I wonder. Would Hyena care for the chickens horribly immured in Tyson meat-silos? Or would she slink away, horrified by a stench even Hyena can't abide? Stack upon stack of de-beaked, de-clawed, near-immobile birds, shitting on each other's heads while fattening relentlessly on the powdered remains of their ancestors. Hyena turns to the house, looking for something juicier, with sleep apnea.
Lately I've been feeling Hyena energy a lot in myself, as a kind of irresistible pull towards the dark underbelly of things that would prefer to remain all bright face, all the time. I walk in, sniff something hidden, and my jaws tighten. Hyena-nose, knows. Here’s a thing that no one wants to acknowledge. Here's a question that brings the whole endeavor out of its conventional disequilibrium. So, why are we doing things this way? When we say this, don't we really mean that? When you come home, and I want to bite your face, what does that mean?
Carrying Hyena energy to term is exhausting, not least because nobody wants to always be the dark fairy at the feast. Couldn't I just once be a fairy who actually receives an engraved invitation, and has a golden bowl with her name on it waiting at the table? Couldn’t I happily piece together my cashmere fairy-outfit, while humming pleasant spells to myself? Right now, no. Right now, this is not my work.
What I mean by carrying hyena energy to term is not some Rosemary’s Baby kind of scenario at all. Instead, it's a commitment to being with old pain when it wakes up, squalling, and finding out how to feel it without fearing it. I am walking down a logging road in the far North of New Hampshire with Timothy, when it starts up. No one will ever love me. There is no place for me in this world, and my voice cannot be heard. Ah. Hyena starts eating my insides, but I’m not willing to let her have that meal. So, what else could be present? I realize I need to poop. I tell Timothy, There’s some old pain rearing up right now, plus, I need to poop. He stops with Elliot, and Chloe follows me into an old, logged clearing off a side road. Which tree? That one: small, maple, deciduous, off to the side, good for leaning against. Poop! Out comes some hyena, kindly met by frosty ground. Wet leaves make excellent toilet paper, and Chloe is a good woods-pooping mentor. What else? My voice. My voice is strangled from the inside right now. Timothy suggests Here Comes the Sun, which is not on Hyena’s Top 40, but works fine as a warm-up. We come to Slewgundy, a fine, smooth oxbow in the Dead Diamond River. More voicework – sounding, squawking, singing together, voices building as we, sure enough, drink in the sun. Chloe and Elliot dry their river-soaked hyena-furs on the rocky shore.
On the way home, we sing round after round, weaving our voices together in harmony and listening. Did I know that Hyena wanted sentimental Thich Nhat Hahn songs? No, not at all. Would it work again? Definitely not as a formula, but as a general approach, noticing that Hyena is waking up, and attending to her, feels essential.
O Hyena – you are eating away the dead parts of the world, the habits that no longer work, the sad magic of pretending. You are welcome to that work, and if I steer you away sometimes from what is sleeping, but not dead, I thank you for the reminder to wake up.
People have wolf t-shirts and wolf notebooks. Every conservation organization in the US wants me to send back the nickel they’ve hot-glued to their mailing, and Save the Wolf. PETA and the ASPCA share gruesome urgings to end cruelty in dog-world. But nobody ever asked me to protect the Hyena. That’s a mission I’ve had to come to all by myself, a secret commitment that no one’s going to salute via free, personalized holiday greeting cards and mailing labels. So be it.
Day after day, I embroider my white wedding dress, and day after day I wear it for the photographic record I am keeping. The white dress, surprisingly, is my Hyena suit – the one that shows me to myself. Here, naked, in long-johns, in boots, on new snow. Here, shedding all the old agreements not to speak of this, and not to notice that. Timothy has a Hyena suit too, which includes one of the first items of non-white clothing I owned after leaving the monastery. It’s a brown fleece jacket that somehow wound up in a plastic bin full of stinking, rotten potatoes. After that, it was so horrible to be around that he left it out on the front lawn in the snow and mud for a whole winter. In spring, he washed it, and started wearing it again, paired with some tattered fleece pants from a long-ago expedition to Torres del Paine.
The suit becomes a corpse.
The corpse lays out in the open.
Time and water, wind, snow, and rain bleach its bones.
And it comes back.
It comes back.
When experience has been marked by horror and pain, it can take a long time for all that to work its way through. It can take strong jaws to chew your way out, and the willingness to risk being hurt and hurting others. The creature’s not going to be an easy ally: she’s going to snarl and bite and snap, and you’ll need a steady hand at the back of her neck when she’s preparing to lash out. You’ll need to learn to choose what she meets, and when. You’ll need to learn how to open old cages that neither of you really needs, any more.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now