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.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.