Distress can be hard to measure, or even to detect. The cost of learning to detect it in others is learning to tolerate it in oneself.
I am hiking in the woods at twilight with the dogs. It's not a trail I know well, and post-storm, the corpses of large downed trees hide the way. Finally, when I get to the low cliff with the knob of cold quartz in it, I call the dogs back to me, and head back down hill. Elliot and Chloe can’t imagine that the trail isn’t plain to me, and so they’re of no use in finding it. Loose, fresh-fallen leaves blanket so many possibilities for what could be a path; and yet, luckily, whoever painted the salmon-orange blazes out here did a thorough job. I keep myself focused on each next passage, each next mark on each next trunk, and put aside the feeling that there’s something here that wants to be lost. So going, we find our way to the bridge just before the road. I keep my distress low, to keep my senses sharp.
Once back in the car I’m filled with a deep sadness that seems to intensify as daylight ebbs away. Quarter to five, in the dark. No wonder people don’t want to feel what they feel, I tell myself. Again, something wants to be lost, but instead, I stay with what I’m feeling. There is no place for me in this world. There is no known way forward. I feel distress, for sure, but also a kind of deep love towards it, which transforms it into a kind of pleasurable, lived intensity.
I notice I want to stop at the store for coconut milk and tea. Am I even allowed to go into the co-op with a tear-stained face? I can feel the distressing old story that I most certainly am not allowed to be seen this way. Then, that distress eases as I think, Really? When I'm sad and want to cup of tea, I should withhold that comfort? I park in an empty section of the lot, so the dogs won't feel the need to defend my Subaru to the death. I wipe my face with my sleeve, re-knot my hair, make sure there are no leaves or squirrels caught in it, and tell the dogs I’ll be back soon.
I wonder if anyone else in there is having a hard time? I wonder, as I walk toward the brightly lit sliding glass doors. This question becomes a guiding curiosity, as I walk around the aisles. Is anyone else feeling the ghost of the holidays like some cyclical curse of exile? Is anyone else in here shopping for warmth and care of a bruised heart? Oh, yes. Yes, oh, yes. There’s the thin, beautiful young woman so paralyzed by the whole process of being here that her eyes can’t meet the shelves, let alone anyone’s gaze. There’s the older woman standing by the dairy case with her friend, looking for a product that isn’t there, while the man restocking the various milks can neither confirm nor deny the reality of her desires.
Wait a minute! She’s looking for what I’m looking for, and she’s totally right: it’s not there. There’s a flash of recognition: her distress, my distress, and then some subjective experience of these two needs soothing one another out. Long may we prosper! I exclaim at the end of our second round of conversation, and I really feel this. She tells me she felt, before we talked, like she'd been hallucinating, but now she know she's fine. What we were looking for wasn’t exactly the same thing, but it doesn’t matter: the experience of meeting one another in that lostness has shifted each of us back to ground.
My friend Sam, who died about three weeks ago now, had a cutoff black t-shirt he’d printed himself, which said:
She who can’t be found
is the one I’m looking for.
He knew a lot, I suspect, about how acknowledging unfulfillable longing moves it from being a source of distress, into something holy and connected. That connectedness can live anywhere we remember it.
I forget all my embroidery thread at home when I go down to Manchester, and so after first ransacking the supplies at the castle to find a single length of conch-pink floss, I take myself to Hobby Lobby to expand my palette. I've never seen a retail space quite so overwhelming as this hanger-sized depot of female creativity, subverted to profit and bad jobs in China. Truly: people here longing, and buying glitter reindeer; people there longing, and flocking glitter reindeer for miserable wages.
Somehow inevitably, after I track down my thread, I find myself in the wedding-crap aisle. First, I notice that Hobby Lobby’s ideal of marriage is still very much A Man and A Woman – their in-house brand is Mr. & Mrs. Still, if you’re gay and hoping to deploy a lot of China-made crap at your special day, you’re in luck, because all Mr. & Mrs. brand wedding accessories are 50% off. You can buy double, and pass off the unused half of it all to the matching same-sex couple (Mr. & Mr. to your Mrs. & Mrs.) down the road. Ha. You’ll have to get more creative with the cake-toppers, because those mini-people are fused together, and sometimes there’s a cross thrown in for extra blob-heft. Probably this should be a warning: Danger! Distress ensues when marriage is envisioned as a blobbing-together of human-units and flower-shaped crosses. Beware! Mandatorily-tiny white women sheltered in the arms of mandatorily-tall white men may not exist, and are in any case not clinically guaranteed to lead happy lives.
I stop shuddering and become curious. What is here? I notice a rack of very small cast-plastic frames, intended for conveying table place-assignments. They are spectacularly ugly, in a way that tips over into beauty, and I find myself thinking of all the longings enshrined in this vast, cynical wonderland. I see the woman composing a green tulle wreath in her cart; I see the woman buying a talking goose for her baby granddaughter to dance with. It strikes me that the black Mr. & Mrs frames might be wonderful for
SHE WHO CAN’T BE FOUND
IS THE ONE I’M LOOKING FOR
I see myself making up a hundred and eight of these, and hot-gluing them all over the towns where Sam once lived. But then, sensing the distress in such an over-gesture, I scale myself back. Sam made one shirt; I can make two frames; and then see. I bring myself back from the brink of craft-store madness, re-center in intimate remembering, and head for the registers.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.