Lumpy crossings stick out of the floor that’s still not smoothed under that new bamboo laminate I picked out months ago. I can still see the ugly old green linoleum, plus the even older, even uglier beige linoleum, over there in the corner, underneath where the dishwasher used to be, when I still had a dishwasher, or dishes to do. When I still had a stove, a sink, a refrigerator, and stuff to put in the cupboards. When, in other words, there still was a kitchen in here, instead of a vaguely kitchen-shaped hole. I can’t even make the recipe for Jean-Paul Sartre Casserole right now, because there’s not an oven to stare at hopelessly, while nothing cooks, forever.
Lumpy crossings, I trip on you. Lumpy crossings, I try to deny you, write you out of my will, cut off your access to my bank accounts, but here you still are, ideally placed for me to stub my toes on, spill my coffee over, and crash into. Lumpy crossings, you stop me in my tracks, embarrass me in public places, and declare the ongoing disaster of being.
This morning I made my yearly visit to the Seniors of Hanover High School, to answer any and all questions about Buddhism, and to connect as best I can to the lumpy crossings of our lives. We go in a big circle around the room. Kid Two, right on cue, asks, “If Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, as a Buddhist, how do you keep going?” Aha! I say, That is a thing that drives me up a wall. Buddhism does not in fact teach that Life Is Suffering – it teaches that There Is Suffering, which is a different story. Life Is Suffering brings us only lumpy crossings, and demands that we ignore everything else as somehow irrelevant to the project of Buddhist-ing. You can definitely find people of all faiths who practice in this way, never letting go of the lumps for long enough to enjoy anything. This total wariness towards pleasure counts itself wise, sensible, and prudent, but in fact is a cowardly rejection of beauty, trust, and love. There Is Suffering, on the other hand, allows lumpy crossings as part of life – not anything to be ashamed of, not anything to push away – and integrates them into a whole fabric of being.
A couple of nights ago, I dreamed this:
I have a bike – my own bike – and I am riding it in big, concentrated circles around a pool, where others are swimming or lounging. I take special time savoring the deep mud puddles I ride through on my nubbly cross-trek tires. It is intensely satisfying to ride, to feel the mud suck and yield, to know that I can do what I need to do, for as long as I need to do it. End.
In real life, right now is the mud season in New England, when a whole winter’s worth (well – maybe most of a winter’s worth – April is still fair game) of snow melts and stands and seeps. I dig out my orange plastic boots from where they’ve been stashed in the basement, and delight in wearing them with black rubber-mounted spikes, to navigate the still-icy, very wet woods. I choose the dampest, suckiest, boggiest parts of the path, the slickest, most treacherous parts; the deepest, stillest puddles, and walk through. My socks keep me warm; my boots keep me dry; the dogs run happily amok nearby, executing blissful pliés into the snowmelt, as their Viking hearts desire. Elliot finds a pool of golden afternoon light, a pool of leaf-lined water, and lays his body down, simultaneously soaking and drinking, allowing his furs and skin to bask in this snow-bog time, when nothing much of new growth shows itself, but the old, frozen order is clearly over.
Knowing how to love this time of lumpy crossings is absolutely essential, if I’m going to live up here, if I’m going to live at all, and right now I choose both, with a sore, whole heart. The White Dress Project – last September through New Year’s Day – was a time of giddy bridehood – and I’m so glad to have had the space and willingness to live it out. Now is different, though. I have a new suit – a World War II American Red Cross Service nurse’s uniform. Combat, healing, service, blood, and death are here. It’s no nonsense, and the sewing’s different, too. This time, I’m starting with a kind of hula hoop of severed heads, using a Tibetan painting of Kurukulla, the Red Tara, for inspiration. Happy heads, angry heads, spacey heads, bridesheads, loversheads – whack! Take from me all that is not free. I stitch the heads around the waist of my nurse/warrior/healer suit, button myself into it every day, and feel what it’s like to live in this time of lumpy crossings, heartache, and mud puddles.
Lumpy crossings hold power, like the kitchen floor in the Hasidic story that has been hiding the long-sought, quested-after treasure, all along. Last night, I came home from a house concert and dinner, opened the Amazon box, took out my new set of face paints, and listened into what was coming to meet. A red cross at the forehead, with a white circle around it. Red vajra-lines extending from the corners of the eyes. White lips, white dots down the nose, white fading to pink at the brows. A fierce gaze born of mud, and letting go the pretty phases of falling in love. Something imperfect, but whole. Something wild and sparkly, unafraid of riding in wet circles around the collective, for as long as it needs to.
One of the Hanover kids comes to me after class and asks, tears in her eyes, what to do when things feel impossible. One of my meditation mentees asks if feeling more whole than usual is a normal result of compassion practice. I tell them both Yes. Feel whatever’s there. Stop giving into any idea that being good is a bulwark against future lumpy crossings. The crossings may in fact get lumpier, more painful, deeper. I may soon find puddles so vast they overtop my orange boots, and wind up walking around with two soggy snowmelt tanks fastened to my feet. This will in no way mean Stop seeking out muck. It will in no way mean Stick to the dry path. It will mean I need to find a dry pair of socks, choose a new head to stitch onto my suit, and be with whatever comes calling next.
Bottomless loss and infinite pleasure are interconnected with the simple act of finding a reasonable set of clothes to wear, to go talk with some kids about What Is, and what might be, and how to make it through this day, wholly and specifically.
This floor is a lumpy crossing. Someone’s dry-erase-markered big, sloppy black hearts onto the upholstery of this library chair. This sparkly sweater came from the thrift store down the street, which means one of those Hanover kids’ moms probably decided it was too lumpy to wear anymore, and now it’s with me. We lump along, you and I, and everyone, finding out together for ourselves what can be done, and where it leads.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now