Cough syrup with codeine! Cough syrup with witches’ tears! Cough syrup to help you keep down all those tedious reflexes that say no, no, no, no, no, and thus aren’t especially welcome in the meditation hall, during the department meeting, at the job interview, or at church.
I am driving to Notebook Club, listening to some Catholic priest on the radio who sounds like he’s about 27, talking about how the Church is not of the world, but in it, and how Jesus said people would hate the church because it loves Him. Which seems a pretty sassy response to the question of why people keep having to hate the church for raping their children. Nicely done, Father. You’re going to need some extra-large barrels of cough syrup for the congregation, going forward.
This past Sunday I turned in the final version of my thesis work. Then I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth, noticed something smelled funny, and stepped barefoot into a large, warm pile of dog shit. Ta-daa! Don’t expect applause, in action. I didn’t even need to take any cough syrup, because the whole thing was actually so funny, and so careful. After all, there was a bathtub right there to wash my foot in, plus a toilet to flush the poo down. No one had pooped in my bed or on the kitchen table. A dog had followed her canine intuition and chosen the place in the house that serves as an actual poo facility. End of story. Nothing to report here.
Then yesterday, in search of further celebration, I walked myself down to the thrift store closing. What’s left after several days of half-off is some pretty marginal clothing: no buttons, makes your ass look lumpy, see-through in weird ways, features an autocratic bunny appliquéd in lace on the front, sasquatch-sized. Also a basket full of watches whose batteries have run out and no one can figure out how to change them, even if there is a cute dog on the wristband. Then, inside the glass case where all the jewelry used to be, I spotted a black velvet painting of Jesus’s hands in prayer, nestled inside a rough-cut Mexican wooden frame. I asked to look at it, after passing it by a few times on my way to an empty 1950’s photo album, or a child’s latex swim cap with a fish-fin on top.
Caravaggio of the people! I imagined it in my therapist’s office, in my meditation space, in my painter’s studio, and knew every one of those places would be improved by it. I bought Jesus’s hands for half off 40 dollars and set off home, grinning. An older couple passed me by going the other way, and the lady said, “You sure know how to find the shade.” Which felt nice. If you know how to find the shade, maybe you need less cough syrup. Maybe getting out of the blistering sun and tooling around with some made-in-Mexico vintage Jesus tucked under your arm is the antidote to many of life’s aggravations.
Secretly, we, or at least I, crave aggravation. I just finally committed to something that was offered to me weeks ago and seemed too easeful to be possible. Faced with good pay, flexible hours, sensible colleagues, and an ideal location, I went looking for overwork, low pay, institutional kerfuffle, and long hours. Why? Because it seemed in some sense a proof of my sincerity. Because I needed to be validated as an employee, instead of just getting on with the work I know how to do. If you get used to the sticky soothings of cough syrup in response to your patterns of self-slavery, it’s possible to see no-slavery as a loss of sweetness.
Oh damp and sweaty sheets of my many sickbeds!
Oh, honeyed Ricola lozenges and zinc lozenges that taste of desiccation!
Oh, nostril-purging and phlegm-horfing!
You are all something to do, just like sniffing glue, just like Joey Ramone said.
Bitching and bickering is something to do. Getting ill is something to do. Feeling betrayed, feeling flattered: all things to do.
Yesterday I went up the Ridge on Moose Mountain, from which you can see the White Mountains on one side and the Greens on the other. The bears and foxes and whoever had already eaten all the blueberries, and so there was nothing at all to do. Just: sit. Just: allow space to enter the bodymind. Just: feel warm stone through the legs and seat of my rolled-up jeans. The dogs would venture out to sniff and chase, then come sit next to me for a few moments’ stillness before the next call to their attentions. I am done writing this 152-page monstrosity. I can settle down and do the work I’ve been training in forever, and get paid. This earth is vast. That person must be firing in automatic rifle down there, because that is a lot of shots in a row. There are spaces in between even that idiocy, and thus no need for cough syrup in my ears.
I don’t mean to make light of illness. It’s real. In high school, I got viral pneumonia, and for a while no one knew that was what was going on, so my cough got deeper and deeper, tearing at the ligaments that hold my chest together, tearing at my lungs. Even when you do know viral pneumonia is what’s going on, it’s hard to do much about it. Fever, coughing, cough syrup. I passed out sitting on the toilet. I passed out in bed. Meanwhile my college applications were being processed for maximum aggravation. I wanted to follow the difficult, and I found it. I wanted exhaustion, takeover by some greater force, and I found those, too.
The thing about that Jesus-hands painting I bought yesterday is that it is actually really simple: two golden-skinned hands emerging from some naugahyde-blue sleeves, all floating on a jet-black background of faintly dusty, fuzzy cloth. That’s it. It doesn’t say Jesus anywhere, and doesn’t have opinions about whether you love or hate it. On the back it is stamped MEXICO in red ink. The layers of its frame are nailed together with shiny brads. It’s both totally straightforward and deeply woo-woo. Of course I love it. It is both cough syrup, and antidote. What are we really talking about, here? The body, or the disembodied? The ordinary, or the sacred? Willingness to be honestly with What Is, or total evasion? I prop the hands up on the stovepipe in my studio, so I’ll see them each time I come in to talk to the dogs. There they are – glowing, ridiculous, sticky-sweet as syrup, and plain as the light of day.
I choose plain and fancy, sweet and empty, the truest path I can sniff out from this right-here, to the next.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now