Lilac wine: Nina Simone sings the elixir of Spring, distilled. Summer distills itself through October sunlight on parking deck pillars, and on the nubbled yellow edges of train platforms. Lilac wine is like unicorn-horn powder. I’ve never had it. I imagine it’s pleasant. I’m glad when I hear about it, but it doesn’t have anyplace to land in this sensorium. That’s the way it is, with the edges of what I know. I can maybe locate which edge I think something might live near, but unless I’ve actually encountered it, I can’t know for sure. Lilac wine might be some awful hooch, or it might be the amritsar nectar in that silver ewer, back in Bhutan, the one with the gilt Silk Road embellishments and the peacock-feather stopper. A whole lot like fresh, clean spring water, with the possible addition of other devotees' cooties on the slender, graceful spout.
Lilac wine: nostalgia.
Lilac wine: qu’importe le flacon, pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse
Lilac wine: the sobriety of entering the senses without reservation.
I tear vigorous tendrils of wild grape off the lilacs every year. Every year, the vines come back. Every year the lilacs flower, and every year they are drowned in grape, creeper, and some unnamed, thorny-yet-decorative monster. Lilac wine is beauty crowning and drowning, asserting itself and surrendering again till rescue comes.
Is it always like this, being human? Beauty crowns, then drowns again, until we are touched again by some reminder of our true nature. In dreams sometimes I go so far into bewilderment that the focused attention of my whole being is required, in order to come back to beauty.
I am trying to go home, but I don’t know the way. Before I set out, I have to use these expensive tickets I’ve bought for Chemotherapy! The Musical. Who will go with me? And how will I find my seat?
I am running down city streets at night, but I don’t know which way to go. Which street leads back to the place where I last remembered the way home?
I wake to the yipping of coyotes, pull out one earplug, let in their perfectly wild, bewildering song, laugh, roll over, and remember breath, gravity, and field. I find my benefactors, remember bewilderment as itself, and not as the whole truth. Sleep comes again: the lilac wine of beauty, distilled and restored.
Turning towards existence with a basic desire to know involves an endless stream of remembering and forgetting. Also, it involves everything, which is a distinct problem if you are hoping to hold on to any kind of stance about Us and Them. Lilac wine drowns us all, without preference. Anoints us all. Courses through our molecules, a connective fluid.
I am walking around looking for lunch, before my train home leaves Penn Station. I notice there is hardly anything on this street that is not an enormous chain enterprise. I notice that the disused former phone booths under the scaffolding have become parking spaces for homeless people in wheelchairs. I notice one deli with two doors, offering the kind of food I actually want to eat, instead of feeling like I am settling for I should eat. Blueberries and scallions, small mozzarella balls cut in half, cold tortellini and sun-dried tomatoes. I notice how much harder it is to meet the needs of desperate-looking people outside the station. Easier to give online. Funds fly out quietly while I am not looking, and no one has to ask. If someone were to hold a cardboard sign asking for lilac wine, would I know how to answer?
A spray-painted, fat, one-eyed, navy-blue rabbit winks from the base of a train power-pillar. Stray marks of creativity are lilac wine flowing from the hands of unknown people.
Do I say enough in these essays, to take what happens, and turn it into wine for you? Sometimes what happens is still so unripe that I don’t know how to stand knee-deep in it and press out the wine. My aikido teacher, who makes wine, apologizes for the state of his grape-purpled fingernails. As a painter, I don’t mind. As a student of this precisely kind, powerful person, I don’t mind. My teacher showing me how to pin his arm behind his back twists lilac wine from what I do not know.
I am squeezing wine out of living. Do you know what it is like when you go straight towards the thing you fear most, and an opening arises where you never imagined one could be? I don’t know much about Harry Potter (I’ve only read the first book), but what I am describing is like running full tilt at the wall between Platforms 9 and 10, on desperate faith that Platform 9½ might show itself to you in this way. The hurt parts of the self are saying no, no, no, but there’s something else that wants more than anything to move beyond the safe, known, and presently visible. You run at the impossible, and something new rises to meet you.
Oh! Lilac wine. I’ve never tasted you before.
I’d heard, but I had no idea it could be this way.
Thank everything I took this risk.
Thank everything for all the times I’ve lugged out the clippers and chopped off those ever-drowning vines.
Thank everything I listened when I heard: lilac wine. The taste of home, guessed, but not till now experienced.
Yesterday I was in the city for a ten-minute appointment to renew my Swiss passport. In some ways, this was total bullshit. Expensive, time-sucky, tiring. But even so, I found I could follow the grain of the embodied city into places and moments of refuge. The gallery inside the New York Public Library, with its mashed-up prints of women wearing fountains and alligators. A small, tree-dappled metal table outside the library. The vast, golden field of Prospect Park, just right for barefoot tai chi, and for the blessing of a red-tailed hawk tearing the air overhead. Then, this morning, time for talking with my friend Louise, pressing out the wine of our lives’ truths as they are right now, while eating oatmeal, and paying attention to little Beatrix’ demonstration of the key features of her excellent pajamas.
I did not go out in quest of museums or galleries, as in the past I might have. Still, attunement to beauty was with me every step, dancing the subway rails’ uneven rhythm, feeling into the body of the world. Lilac wine is just this: the sweetness of surrendering to the ordinary-extraordinary as it is, in every moment, without hope of recompense, or of rescue.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now