Under the bridge. Under the boardwalk. Under the weather. Understand?
This, exactly, is pretty much all there is. This levitating baby strapped to the front of his mother’s body in the coffee line. This warm café, with the foaming milk snorkel-sounds. These conversations ongoing, as the snorkel ceases, and someone pounds out the pack of grounds from a spent espresso. This. Under my skin, which turns out not really to be such a different place than the table next door, where two men talk about misdemeanors.
Ice clash! Plastic cup. Cool air, right arm, where the door’s exhalation has traveled.
Under the bridge is a place of getting-rid-of. A place of exiling-till-trollhood. This horrible nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach, just after I smash down to the ice, and land full force on my capacious bottom. This kickball horror – it's happened again. Except this time I don’t exile it under the bridge. I open to it. Hello, fear, shame, surprise, horror. Hello, wildebeest on her knees with the lions loping towards me. I feel you. I refuse to want something besides you. Ouch. You really are something, and I can take care of you without flinching away. May everyone falling to their butts, or their knees, or anywhere, be OK. May no one actually throw up from the horror of being upended again and again in this life. Though I suspect we will.
Timothy and I went to see Manchester by the Sea on Saturday, more or less because it has that aura of Serious Movie that occasionally motivates us out of the house and into the popcorn temple of trauma. That movie is so full of things under the bridge that there’s hardly anything left above the bridge, or anywhere else in the visible landscape. That movie is so crowded in its underbridge, so claustrophobic and ambitious in the amount of crap it is shoving out of sight, that it serves as a two hour PSA for the invention of psychotherapy as a means of decluttering society’s underbridge, one white New Englander at a time.
Constantly, in the film, as someone comes close to actual contact with anything, there's a flinch – I've got to go, and THAT's got no business out here, above ground. Everyone is wearing one of those emergency buttons on a necklace, and what the button does when you press it, is shove things under the bridge, into the dark, dank, steep places littered with slippery leaves. You know you will fall on your ass or your knees if you ever go there. So you don’t.
I didn't love the movie. For one thing, Albinoni's adagios should never be allowed in the soundtrack of a film that's attempting to be about emotional repression. It's just not fair: you can't call in the Italian cavalry to bring emotion back on screen, when your characters are doing everything they can to get rid of it. I don’t know what music you’re allowed to use, in that case – maybe none. Maybe that’s the no-license you are given. Albinoni is for 9/11, and 9/11 sucked the life out of it, until further notice, and significant personal work on the spaces under all our bridges.
Actually, when we talk about America's infrastructure problems, we are usually talking about the bridges themselves, but not troubling ourselves even a tiny bit with whatever fester-fest is happening under them. The suicides know: get me under there as soon as possible! The bungee jumpers, who seem like such badasses, can only handle a speedy boinging dip under there, then whoosh! Right back up. They wind up upside down, like the opposite of that baby who’s probably still in here somewhere, but still tethered topside. Does that count? They’re interested in space, not ground.
So what am I talking about, here? I'm talking about actually feeling the backlog of unfelt feelings we most of us are carrying around within ourselves, having build bridges and bypasses over what we know and feel. I met with my cousin while I was in Switzerland last month, and she was despairing at all the things no one ever owns up to in our family. That's a start, but it's not the whole story, until there's a clear sense of all the things we ourselves don't own up to. I remember a passage from Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow, where he talks about being a young, righteous poet, trying to write about those stiff men in ties, strangling off what they feel, in order to set all the wars in motion. The poem couldn't work, and though he was young, he was seasoned enough to know it. He changed the pronouns – we, the stiff men who strangle our feelings. The poem worked. He had owned something. He had blown up one of the bypasses inside himself, forcing himself to walk down the slippery slope to the edge of a river of sorrow, and wade or swim or pay the ferryman to get across, and arduously back up the other side.
God! Crossing rivers without a bridge is really fucking scary. Is that really what I'm advocating here? Seems like yes. Seems like at least once, every river of feeling needs the intimacy of a non--flyover crossing. With mules and a raft. With stripping off all your clothes and piling them into a plastic bag you try to hold overhead while your feet feel blindly on the riverbed for each pulling step. With frozen feet. With a chance to find the bright bottles half-buried in mud, and the darting crayfish.
I think this is connected with why I want to cross the Atlantic by boat sometime – in some boat small enough to feel the texture of the ocean, the waves, the wind, the precarity of being in-between. So many times – must be hundreds of times – I have gotten on board an airplane, settled in with my books, my little screen, and my complementary mini-drinks, and calmly bridged my way across the reality of the Atlantic. But we Buddhists are really into ocean – ocean-mind, ocean-heart. What's up with six-hour quickies watching Frozen with the sound off, while bending the edges of my vegetarianism (that shrimp is SO already dead. If I eat it, who suffers? mmm.)
It's hard, all this. Hard unless the ocean-wide refuge quality of experience is there, saying it's OK. You can feel the massive bruise that will inhabit your right buttock for who knows how long. You can bear to wait for your half-wild dog to make his frozen, mud-encrusted way back to you, at some undetermined time, on this cold morning. It can be borne. I’m going to take an intuitive leap here, and say that this is the rainbow-deal between God and Noah. Yes, the flood came, but in this ship you’ve built– let's call it the SS Mindfulness – you’ve made it. Not swept away. Not destroyed when all the bridges went all at once, and you found yourself in a whole world turned underbridge. So that’s it. From now on your relationship with ocean is changed. You’ve crossed. You’ve weathered. Nothing can sink you again, because even then, even when you go under, you understand that you equals ocean, ocean equals you, and it’s all good.
Where do I book a Noah-Crossing? Right here: lucky ticket. This fathom-long body, with its mind.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now