Knife me, said basically no one except Chris Burden, who also said, Shoot me right here. Do you ever hold a knife and, feeling the weight and potential of it in your hand, think of plunging it into the nearest-by body? I do, and while that’s not a pleasant experience, I chalk it up to something like the call of the void. Now, standing on this cliff edge, something about the abyss is singing its seductive song, and I can’t help noticing that there are some beautiful riffs in there. I can’t help respecting the void and the knife, for the truths they embody, even while no-thank-you-ing my way back to the path, the onion, the beloved business of this life, unfolding.
Tomorrow evening, I’ll make another pass at aikido, in search of further and more direct ways of dancing with knife-energy. I tried a few years ago, in Edinburgh, getting off the top deck of the bus at the Holy Crossing stop, wandering through church hallways till I came to the padded room where strong people were casually twisting one another to the floor, casually tossing one another, glorious black Japanese skirt-pants flying, across the room. At that time, the answer was clearly: No, your back, shoulder, and knees can’t take this shit. No, your relationship to violence is not presently one that allows of being in this room with any reliable sense of ground or safety. Now, I wonder how this will be. My friend, who’s been practicing with this particular micro-dojo for the last year or so, tells me it's small, awake, caring, human, well-boundaried, and yet exhilarating. She, like me, has a tai chi background, but unlike me, she’s done weapons training before, and she’s also been at this a long time. We will see. If it takes, I will get to reincarnate my friend’s Californian aikido suit from the 1980’s, as I now, in my mid-forties, enter a system of belts and drills, swords and staffs, opening my awareness and tolerance for both the knife and the void.
My friend tells me about a book by an aikidoka who trained women in prisons to understand space, energy, and boundaries. You're not allowed (surprise!) to go into a prison and teach people how to kick ass, but this woman was able to translate what she knew from aikido into what she calls Conscious Embodiment. Sign me up. Part of why I want to know all of this in my bones is because I know there’s a need to illuminate, aerate, open and release the violence in my own body-mind and heart. Part of it is also: I want to know more about how to help ground others in this way. For the past couple of weeks, one of my counseling clients and I have been working on finding embodied space and boundaries, finding real ground beneath the feet, real strength in the arms and legs, a real strike in the fists, a real sense of choosing who and what comes in, moment by moment. She’s been beating the stuffing out of a velvet chair, then stroking its pelt back into beauty.
Last week, my client brought a sheet of superhero stickers in with her, and we spent much of our session with the Hulk as guru. OK, how is he standing in this one? If you take that pose in your own body, what comes next? Smash! Boom! My space. Girls don’t often get taught this, either overtly as self-assertion and self-defense, or as horseplay. Every time I hear some parent say, My boy really needs horseplay, but it’s different with my girl, I want to cry. Do it, I want to yell. Even if she tells you she would rather braid her hair into a crown, or paint ponies, she still lives in a world where the knife and the void are both in her, and all around her. Get her used to pushing, hitting, running, kicking, falling and recovering. It makes absolutely no sense to continue pretending that violence is only a boy’s game, when we know what we know about women and girls as targets of violence.
Knife me, says the part of us that longs no longer to be alive.
Knife me, says the young woman, slicing into her arm what nothing else can ease.
Knife me. Break the dam of this suffering skin, ground me in this body that feels and bleeds.
I didn’t understand cutting until I attended an all-day Mental Health First Aid class. At one point, participants were given a questionnaire about various behaviors, and how they might relate to suicide risk. One of these was cutting. The young woman sitting next to me said matter-of-factly, Actually, for me, cutting is a way to avoid suicide, to let off steam, to ease pain before it becomes too much. Do you know what it’s like, when out of the blue someone does something so courageous you're at first not sure you heard what you heard, saw what you saw? She understood that she was in a room full of people who, for various reasons, wanted to understand how to help people in crisis. She understood that she knew first hand something that we needed to know. So she told us: I cut myself not because I want to die, but because I want to live.
Fear of pain can blind us to what's really happening. Take this from me! I can't be with it. Opening to pain, on the other hand, can open us to What Is. This feeling right here in the chest, if I follow it, what do I find? A keen knife, right between the ribs. And then? Sharper and sharper pain. And then? The heart opens wider than it’s ever gone, the pain transmutes to bliss, this body is the knife’s edge between small Me and the body of Being Itself.
Knives in this life: the Laguiole pocket knife my brother gave me, and which I once had to surrender (we here at the airport frown on that sort of thing); the trusty B- and C-grade Zwilling knives Timothy brought back from being a student in Germany; the razor-sharp green-bladed Kuhn-Rikon parer I acquired last month, and which I somehow don’t trust, because it can’t be sharpened.
Knives I don’t own, but remember: an Engelberg bread knife, whose serrated teeth reproduce the chain of the Bernese Oberalp; my uncle’s machete, beating down brush as we make our way through Jura forest; a big, fat Swiss Army knife, with a saw and a magnifying glass, gone to wherever it is that vanished things go; a rapier-shaped letter-opener in a leather scabbard on my grandfather’s leather-topped, gilt-edged desk; the horrible wooden-handled pirate knife my mother sliced roasts with, when I was a kid. A Damascene steel blade my not-quite-of-this-world friend Andrew forged, in a smithy he built himself, before the ocean took him back.
Manjushri’s bullshit-cutting sword, the one he wields overhead, a smile on his face. The one that emerges, flaming, from the center of the lotus, itself emerging from the mud of all our unhoned violence and loathing. Take from me all that is not free, goes the song to Kali. It means, Cut off these barnacles of hating and fearing; trim me clear, open me one cut at a time, so that I can grow to the full span of this being.
Here, now, I am living what it is to turn towards integrity. Strange, peeled clean, and through that peeling, ever-tuftier, evermore exactly as I am.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.