Strong back, soft belly. Weak back, armored heart. Never leave the house. Never talk to strangers. Never let them see you sweat. Tears are for sissies. Personal armor comes in many forms. What does it take, to feel safe? What assurances do we require from others? What are we willing to put up with, and to what end?
A Facebook ad offers a kind of serrated plastic stabby-ring, with a pink outer layer, intended for women to wear on their fingers while jogging. The ad begins with pictures and stories of two (gorgeous) women who were murdered while out on their daily runs, and cites “these incidents” as the reason why women might be nervous about exercising alone. So, why not buy this affordable, attractive plastic accessory, possibly designed to poke people’s eyes out, though we won’t say that, because it’s gross?
Does personal armor have to be attractive? Does it have to be cheap? What about just walking around like a grumpy warthog all the time? Wouldn’t that in some ways be easier?
Sometimes, people who have suffered awful abuse use extra weight or bulky clothes to build a barrier between themselves and the world. Thick foundation makeup can do the same thing, and glasses, too. When I go to aikido practice, I have to wear my contact lenses, and thus feel doubly vulnerable: a beginner, face stripped of her habitual armor. Dancing’s different. In the safe space of improvisational movement, sometimes I skip both contact lenses and glasses, allowing blurred edges to settle into wholeness and ease.
I've never tried on the kind of body armor that police and military people wear. Is it grounding, like the lead apron at the dentist’s? Does it ease anxiety, like a Temple Grandin people-squeezer; or does it crush you to the earth, the way altitude sickness does? Encased in military-grade personal armor, is it possible to feel touched by another person? Is it possible to feel welcomed by the spaces you enter, and to feel that the spaces you leave might miss you? I will have to ask my friend who is a veteran.
Armor shifts. A story begins: some being walks towards danger unarmed, seemingly unprotected. The story continues towards the miraculous, or towards martyrdom; but really, I'm not sure these are different stories. Some being, unarmored, meets what she meets. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, she is released, exclaiming, Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether gone, hoorah! That is the aspiration, and sometimes the reality. Also sometimes:
I don’t want to die!
I don’t want to deal with this!
I am so tired of this crap.
I’m familiar with a kind of personal armor that looks like: if I just mindfulness hard enough, I won’t fall apart anymore, otherwise known as, if I just squeeze hard enough, I’ll be shitting diamonds in no time. Now I don’t think that’s how it actually works, and my sense is that wanting to patch together some kind of Eightfold Armor is a perversion of the human heart. I haven’t always felt this way. During my monastic jihad phase (why does it feel so risky to write jihad?), I was all about rooting out defilements, and streamlining myself into a form of being so thin and clear that nothing could stick to it. I would become a human Stealth Bomber, orbiting the earth at such a high altitudes that nothing could touch me. Coated in special invisibility paint, I would communicate with the mother-planet only when I needed fuel. That was what part of me wanted.
Then I would wake up, and step in bare feet on the latest mouse-spleen that Sita-the-cat had left on the carpet. I would enjoy working with a friend to shape canned tuna into a monastic buffet Leviathan. I would, inevitably, fall in love again with the world, with some monk, and with the clay sticking to my heavy boots, as I clomped up the hill to my homeless home.
I mindfulnessed pretty fucking hard in those years, having joined the Foreign Legion of mindfulnessing. And still: I would fall apart, and it would be extra-hard, because I had set not-falling-apart, not being touched, as my measure of success. I was supposed to be a Stealth Bomber, a Hopeless Diamond, not some hungry, skinny person trying to hose down a very unhappy cat. I was supposed to watch my mind, to nip delusion in the bud, in hopes of never having to return to this vale of tears.
These days, I can't say that I'm always super-stoked about this vale of tears, this ocean of sorrows, but at least I'm turning towards it with a sense that this a perfectly reasonable place to be, given human birth. Oh! This is anxiety, not some terrible existential mistake. This is doubt. This is longing. This is falling for the nine-hundredth time into the hole labeled My Family Doesn’t Understand Me, which seems to widen noticeably around the holidays, especially during years where I prepare to make the pilgrimage back to the old country.
What if I just called this season The End Times, in honor of the hinge of the year, and the deep dive into darkness that we in the Northern Hemisphere are currently making together? (Thanks, Southern Hemisphere, for holding the torch of daylight, while we go down. We’ll return the favor in June.) That would be a way of dropping the armor of I Am Supposed to Be Enjoying This, and settling into curiosity. I wonder what will happen beyond the end of the world, this time?
I am transforming a little book formerly known as Letter from an Airman to His Mother into a Christmas gift for my mother. It's growing intuitively: a gold nugget, an engraved horse on a black background, jellyfish at night, dusk-colored butterflies, a river-womb. The original text was some young man's exhortation to his mom not to be sorry if the Luftwaffe shot him down. I'm using the bones of his armored book to make anti-armor, a declaration of the unknown, a strange and watery mirror through which the energy of an open heart might pulse. It’s a chance to try something new, to go from posturing into feeling, to be torn apart, and come back transformed. Who knows what this will bring? My gluey fingers touch the pages, sensing their way towards some new, unarmored truth.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.