A repressed thought – isn’t that what we always write about? I think of these Tuesday mornings as Repressed Thought Regattas – all the hidden things hoist their sails, pull on their shiny satin outfits, and go shooting out into the bay of my mind, turning lazy or tight circles till somehow, they’re not so repressed anymore. These are not ordinary, holy-fuck-my-whole-family-could-drink-out-of-that-silver-cup races, empowering single victors. Instead, each boat shapes the winds, shoreline, waves, and light, so that all may move according to their natures. That’s how the Regatta works, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the company at this table.
Repressed thoughts have force, and force travels in ways that can sometimes turn ordinary features of the landscape into deadly weapons. People around here still talk about Hurricane Irene, and how it changed innocuous things into outlets for wild and raging change. A culvert turns into a firehose shooting boulders a hundred feet through the air. A covered bridge becomes a missile; a tree falls into floodwaters and is instantly flayed raw, stripped bare. What was the repressed thought? This world is not here for our convenience.
Sometimes a person can become a repressed thought in the landscape of a culture that doesn’t want to see them. Last Thursday, even though I’d slept very little the night before, I stayed up till midnight with Sr. Cynthia, watching the Olympic women’s free-skate on the nuns’ massive TV. Who was visible? THE RUSSIANS. The Old Russian, ancient and grizzled at 18, as tragic Anna Karenina. The Young Russian, pert and tutu-ed at 15, as Badass Ballerina with Knives on Her Feet. Oh, the visible Russians! What was repressed? How mothers eat their children – the two athletes share the same ice-queen coach – and the possibility that grief might have a real place in this world. Anna Karenina skated perfectly, then wept, because of course Tutu won.
Who was invisible? Two Asian skaters, one from Japan and one from Korea, who each skated beautifully, without error. Surely that is enough to guarantee being seen? But, no. The TV is interested in Russian white fairies, not Asian fairies. No, no, that should stay repressed. We’ll take the white Canadian's Swan Lake, but please, the skaters from Japan and Korea should go discreetly back to being invisible.
Only later, reading the Times online, did I see a puzzling photograph of someone who’d been even more effectively repressed – a magnificent Black skater from France. Gone. Disappeared, except for some coy reference about how she’d turned her costume inside-out, while on the ice. What? I went searching. At her best, she skates with the power of a dancer who could lift any partner she wanted to, right over her head. She skates like a runner, a panther, a trickster, a whole club on the best night ever, a force of nature. So, what the fuck, Olympic broadcasters? Why delete this woman’s power from the program? Why obsess about Tutu vs. Tragic, over there, when some very new, very fresh, important stranger is showing up, and dancing to Beyoncé in pants?
That is how repressed thought works. We don’t bother to repress thoughts that don’t really matter, because what would be the point? Who cares if you don’t like the sauce? But when emerging material effortlessly reveals the nonsense of the existing order, then we really have reason to squelch it down. Shut it out. Dismiss it. Make it invisible. The problem of disappearing the skater Mae Berenice Meite goes beyond the loss of her performance and her story. Repression has successfully crafted a narrative about a competition that belongs to two white Russian teenagers. This is a lie, and it’s impossible to live wholeheartedly, inside a lie. Under the influence of the lie, a young Black girl thinks she might love skating, sees no one like her in that world, and turns away. Another girl grows up brainwashed by the idea that tiny-fairy is the only way forward, and never owns her strength. The repressive Tutu vs. Tragic story begets a lineage of hampered lives, until it is seen for what it is, broken open, and dismantled.
Repressed thoughts are seldom completely disappeared: they poke through the membrane of consciousness like little fear-hernias, bulging and aching, refusing to go away. The current, repressed state of affairs has going for it that the earth hasn’t yet split open and swallowed your house, so that makes it safe. Of course, house-swallowing is pretty rare, so it’s not 100% likely that the new, un-repressed state would bring on this dire result, but you never know. You never know, and if you can possibly help it, you’d prefer that the house stay a house, and the bridge, a bridge. This way of thinking, of course, is more attractive for those who currently have a house, than for those who don’t. Middle-class white liberals like me, in the age of Trump, have had to hear some truths about not going back inside our safe houses, and closing the door, waiting for change to happen without much discomfort to ourselves.
Participating in more or less conservative, mostly-white, institutional Buddhism (which I’ve been involved with for more than half my life) now feels very much like going into my safe house and closing the door. I know it’s not my work right now, and yet it’s hard to let go of the affiliations that go with it, the affirmations of expertise, the orientation towards no-reward-is-my-reward that I’ve been schooled to since birth. But I can’t really embrace it, either. If I ask myself what’s important for me to be doing right now, I see I want to spend more time outside the house: more time in the South, more time talking with people less like me, and more time collaborating with and learning from new friends and colleagues. I want to spend more time with repressed-thought-incarnate, since that anyway is where I tend to feel at home.
The bay sparkles, the wind riffles the water, and the boats of today’s Repressed Thought Regatta soar out, each buoying and quickening one another into the shape of this moment.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.