Vacuum cleaner? Whatever. Don’t talk to me about household maintenance – just trying to crack the code of how not to be numb in this world, is about all I can do right now.
Things it is very hard to get people to be sorry for you about:
It’s hard to know where to take the sorrow of having gone ahead and done the thing you weren’t supposed to do - having flown some mad and gorgeous flag of freedom, and then had it all fall apart. What else was going to happen? Well, but it still needed to happen. Well, but it still hurts. So.
There is this truth of suffering.
Here, let it be known that future vacuum cleaner references may be sparse indeed. If you are looking for a personal essay about vacuum cleaners, you may want to look somewhere else. If you are looking for a personal essay about love, complexity, delusion, wholeness, and how answers in dreams show up in weird ways, this might be an OK choice for you. You might also want to just put down the vacuum cleaner and write your own version. Nothing beats that.
There is this truth of suffering.
There is this truth of the origin of suffering.
There is this truth of the end of suffering.
There is this truth of the path leading to the end of suffering.
For the record, that’s the actual deal around suffering that often gets translated as “Buddhists believe that life is suffering.” Not the same thing, right? Anyway, even though I know what the Four Noble Truths are, I still give in to the mistaken idea that the whole point is not to suffer.
As in: Why start with that, when it’s just going to hurt?
But I don’t think avoiding suffering is the point – or at least for me, right now, it’s not the point. Better to say: here is a field guide to what hurts, and how to understand it, and how to notice when it doesn’t hurt anymore.
For the last month, since a beloved semi-sexual friendship froze out into painful misunderstanding, rights and duties, and other assorted shadows of intimacy, my body has been a mess. Low back pulling hard to the left. Left jaw clamping like a motherfucker in my sleep. General feeling of being trapped in the hall of mirrors of my own hard clench against some overwhelming grief that is always just about to break through the surface of a consciousness grown dull and tired with resistance. Hinge of the neck and head stuck fast, also on the left side. Basically: anxiety, depression, inability to connect deeply with others, because what’s deep feels too dangerous. Sound familiar? I am not going to quote any mental health statistics here, but I’m pretty sure that what I’m describing has a lot in common with states that drive many of the phenomena we love to bemoan publicly, while furtively experiencing them for ourselves.
So whose is this? At some level, obviously, mine. I reached a point where I had traveled through pacify, enrich, and magnetize, in my relationship with my friend, and the only possibility left was destroy. Destroy left a huge gap: where to find the intimacy of the conversations we had? Where to find the buffer that took pressure off my marriage? I had no answers, only loss and confusion.
I think this is also ours. Growing close to someone means allowing some of their energy, their habits, to permeate mine. When there’s pain in any part of that field (there always is), there’s also pain in the shared field, and in its aftermath. I knew this going in. I knew this going in, and yet I didn’t know how intense it would be. Junot Diaz, in his beautiful recent essay, talks about patterns of trauma-influenced relationships, as they showed up for him: approach, distance, approach, distance – disconnect. What he describes reminds me of what I experienced in the connection my friend and I nurtured but could not sustain. When two people who’ve been hurt a lot try to grow close, even the magnetic quality of their attraction becomes an obstacle. The poles flip. The attraction becomes an actualization of what is most feared. There is this truth of suffering.
What then? Bear with this. Know where I am. Know this is hard. Know my teeth are literally on edge. Remember: this is part of being human. Don’t try to figure out the future from within a body-mind in pain. Don’t rewrite the past.
I dreamed last night about a movie poster with a picture of a family on it. Mom’s face had come off, and inside the slightly bloody socket (as where a tooth has been extracted) was a younger, frightened-looking face, peering out. A movie voiceover said, “A self-rebirthing and a brownie-eating festival, all in one!” I can feel these things in my body – the less-painful right side coming back to life and feeling. Then, still in the dream, I saw a trailer for a different movie. A man and a woman sit on a couch next to one another. Gradually another woman emerges from the body of the first. The man grows transparent and disappears. Children appear. I feel deep compassion for these beings, in their changes, and maybe especially the disappeared man. I leave the dream-space where I have seen these things. Outside along the curb, there’s an old cop car or taxi waiting, with keys in the trunk lock. In the body, this is: activating the base of the spine, unlocking what’s held there, keeping attention low in the body – and not thinking so much about driving, for a while.
I can’t blame everything about this odd, uncomfortable time on the end of that very particular intimacy – there are a lot of things happening in my life right now that incline towards feeling unsettled. At some deep level, while I am choosing aikido training, it is also literally kicking my ass. Effecting a turnaround from victim stance, entanglement, or habitual disengagement, to something else, takes real work. I go into practice, and meet everything I’d like to avoid. Incompetence. Ceding ground when I should stand it. Lifelong dislike for organized sports and going upside-down.
I grieve work; I grieve workers hauled off from jobs no one else will do, milking cows no one else ever sees. I grieve cooped-up animal lives, cooped-up human lives. Sitting on a New Hampshire ridge looking out over unbroken forest as far as the eye can see, I grieve wild creatures disappearing.
Here’s where a vacuum cleaner would come in handy, as a way of clearing cobwebs, or at least sucking this whole thing together into a single bag. But those aren’t really the rules around here. As Julia Butterfly Hill asks, when we say “away,” as in “throw away,” where is that? It’s always still here, in our shared world, in the shape of our unruly hearts, in the work left to be done, some of it pleasurable and easy, and some of it bewildering, some of it impossible.
So be it. So be it with the rich layers of mud that come with the thaw – the places that look dry, till the surface cedes and you find yourself ankle-deep in the spaces the ice opened up between stones, over all those cold months. So be it with the blue jay greeting the evening, and the woodpecker’s shrill call to seeking. So be it with the keys in the trunk, the work still to be done, and the losses that are not gaps in the path, but its every step.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.