Peru, says the very convincing white-board in the room where my friend and I, released from the grip of snow, find ourselves writing. Oh, Peru! You know about snow, don't you? You know about snow, and postsnow mud, and at the same time, your palette of electric fuchsia and orange, teal and yellow meets those things differently than we do here in New England. Why bother with grey, beige, or muted blue, when panpipes can carry color so vividly over snow? Peru, your poetics of snow are different from ours, and I salute them, while also, in some way, saluting us. We, the drippy-nosed New Englanders, negotiating our predicaments as best we can, in grey and plaid, with calm endurance.
This morning I broke some kind of code: waking, I called the plow-guy we don't exactly employ, and asked if he would come help us. Then, still awaiting his arrival, I followed Timothy's advice, and just aimed the car backwards through 7 inches of snow, hoping for the best. I got a bit marooned at the cervix, but with a little spinning and lowing, emerged. A breech birth into the world - hoorah! There was a bit of Peru in this strategy, with Krishna Das kirtans standing in for the Hail Maries I so clearly needed.
Why don't we paint bright, long-lashed eyes on the front of our cars in New England? Or cheetahs? We could certainly use them as much as the Peruvians, or the Bhutanese, who’ve not forgotten that their vehicles are the descendants of yaks and horses, and equally deserving of crowns, tinsel, colored tufts of wool, and generalized devotion, to precede the dangerous crossings ahead.
The best my soberly blue Subaru currently has to show on its rump is an out-of-date sticker for the Dartmouth cross country ski facility, which no cow, nor yak, nor horse would find comfort in, on her way up a sleety pass. But, resale value. But, the neighbors. Who cares? Why put off the exuberant delights of travel-blessing for some imagined someone, somewhere else?
Our roads are safe, but they are not failsafe, and so a practice of fervent prayer and devotion would not at all be out of place, here in New England, where the roads are steep and the brakes run out, long before the hills are done with us.
Once, in India, taking the night bus to Dharamsala, I wrangled my way onto the long bench at the front, where the driver’s friends are supposed to sit and smoke. Maybe this driver’s friends were like, No way dude! That run’s a pile of corpses. You're on your own. Anyway – there was just barely enough room there for me to stretch out completely, provided I was willing to wedge the crown of my head against the bus windshield, and my feet against a divider near the doors. This, strictly speaking, was a terrible idea. One sharp stop and boom! Concussion, broken neck. But I decided it was fine: the driver seemed steady, and between him and me, there was a perfect little Shiva-shrine, with tinsel, lights, incense, and everything. If this calm man, and that brilliant dancing god, were on board, then yes, sure, sign me up for the glass membrane over Himalayan precipices.
I've got various forms of fear of heights, originating as much in a felt physiological sense of nausea, as in childhood memories of my father's persistent fear that we would fall to our deaths. His friends had lost a child overboard in a sailing accident they never noticed till realizing their toddler was, simply, gone. For me, this fear, historically shows up when I feel like I’m in charge, and my own poor judgment has brought me into a foolish relationship with the void.
Step off this cliff, right here.
What? Whose idea of a good time is that?
Walk along this 5” trail above an abyss of icy scree.
But the fear does not show up in the same way with buses, planes, cars – situations where I’ve handed over navigation to someone else. Oh, well, I’ll think. This person’s going to do as well as they can, for the situation. Pass the snacks!
All of this is changing, as I learn to pay attention, first, only to the aspects of my experience that serve to ground me in safety. The steady feet. The breath, the Buddhist Hail Maries that focus narrative aspects of mind on what is benevolent, and invite some kind of cosmic safe driver to watch over the proceedings. I trained for many months going up and down a local fire tower, gradually growing my capacity to be with what I felt and saw, until it was big enough to enjoy the experience, without getting stuck in fearful strands of sensation.
Then, last winter, I went up to the top of a mountain in Engelberg, Switzerland, where someone clever had built a magnificent glass suspension bridge over a deep gap between mountains. Aha! I thought. Here is something to work with. I started small – walking with eyes up, holding the cable handrail as I went. Slow, steady steps, paying attention only to my own progress. Totally fine. Next, a bit faster, a bit more scope in my gaze. Still good. A kind of wild joy started to arise, borrowing for itself some of the energy that fear used to eat. I walked across, looking down through the glass slabs into the void. Amazing! I walked faster, letting go of the hand cables and enjoying the swaying of the bridge, as it danced my whole body. I opened my gaze wider, and took in the experiences of my fellow crossers: afraid, exhilarated, frozen. I counseled the fearful, and in one case, even took someone’s hand until she made it across, delighted with herself as fear drained off.
In the few hours I played around there, allowing myself to be taught, this Peru of the Alps, this high place, showed me a whole cycle of being.
Knowing the cycle, I feel its manifestations playing out again and again in the rhythms of experience. I am driving through a snowstorm to give a talk on refuge and exile at a church. It's Sunday. I am late. I'm not used to driving through heavy snow. Where will I park and unload the props of my trade? I place attention in my butt-warmed seat. I hand over solutions to something more resilient than my busy mind’s problem-solving channel. Most everyone around me is being cautious, like me, and the ones who aren't, don't freak me out. Voila! At the church, there’s a beautiful Sunday Visitors spot open, just for me. Steady, open, curious. I wonder what this will be like? And this?
I've not been to Peru, and I don't know if I'll ever make it there in this life. But the things I've learned in Tibet (the Asian high-mountain analog of Peru) and in India, and through practices originating there, carry me across the voids and cataracts of life here in New England, and wherever I go. Don’t be afraid of devotion. Open to resilience that comes from something other than masterful control, or possessing all the right answers. Put your head against the glass, stretch out next to the god, and allow experience to arise as it will, not despite but right through the fearful places. Somehow, the narrow way will yield. Somehow, we all come through to now.
I come back to the body, to the low hum of the library’s heating system, the grey industrial carpet, and the beautiful wooden table supporting our notebooks, our elbows, our intent eyes, our travels to Peru and anywhere. This, then, is the way: neither Peru, nor not-Peru, just here, not for any reason ever believing that a way through can’t be found.
The newspaper arrives, double-bagged in orange plastic, to announce the stories of the day, within which: questions, openings, possibilities. Yes, lies adorned, but also, why not, truth. I want to usher in an era of resistance that looks like devotion: beautiful, tinselly, lit in all colors, unafraid to sparkle and to laugh.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.