Whistles and bells.
Whistle while you work. A low whistle of disbelief.
Whet your whistle.
Whistle me to sleep.
Actually, no one says that.
Also, no one says, Hey! I have a great idea! Let’s all get together and put on makeup of another skin color, and then feel into what comes up. No one says, I know you’re really not allowed to change your skin color, but when there’s a taboo that ferocious, something’s got to be going on, so let’s do it. No one goes into the beauty supply store and says, Give me your most unlike-me shade. Makeup’s supposed to be about looking like some slightly more sleek version of yourself, not a patchy Frankenstein.
I wander the aisles of hair products. Apparently it is perfectly fine to want to make your hair any color of the spectrum. Where's the damn foundation? I feel like a kid shopping for condoms the first time. I finally ask the girl near the entrance where I came in, and she points right next to herself.
OK, so what’s the darkest you’ve got? I ask.
This, or this, she half-says, skeptically. She can tell that I am about to use the stuff for some off-label, maverick purpose.
OK. And is there any difference between Femme Couture (I am not making this up) in compact or liquid form?
Can you put it on with your finger?
Sure, or you can use a sponge.
Oh you mean like the ones I have from making tiny clay animals eight years ago?
I buy the compact because it’s darker. $14.97. It goes in the bottom of my backpack, and I find myself driving under the interstate, on a road I never knew existed, to go buy myself some discount lady-clothes, for my unpaid internship. The beauty-to-beauty pipeline. It makes some kind of perfect sense.
It’s hard to find time to whistle when you’ve got so much to say. I whistle at the dogs sometimes, to remind them of our shared mission. I whistle to myself, to get back on track.
At the discount lady-clothes cashier, I ask what time it is. 12:53. I am due at the high school at 1:10. Perfect. Me, the compact, a pair of pink pants intended for adventurous men, and an Anne Klein shirt with small feral polka-dots and a pussy bow (my first ever) get back in the car together, and make a beeline for the school. There’s a space right in front. I have only slightly less change than is required. It’s a go!
My job, three years in a row now, has been to talk to kids about Buddhism. I love doing this because it seems like an opportunity to embody some way of being that both adheres to what these kids are being told is good in life (I went to Yale) and radically does not (I am a childless post-monastic artist, whose current earnings profile is best described as “eccentric”). I ask the kids in the hallway, changing classes, where the religion classroom is. Some look at me like, What? Others basically confirm that I’m getting warmer. I walk in. Oh, you! It’s clear I’m not the only one here in radical improvisation mode.
I ask the kids to tell me what they want to know. This time, my favorite question is the one I hear last, from a blonde sitting not very far from me. Can you say a little bit about Nirvana? I mean, is it a goal you're working towards, and if so, how do you do that?
Oh! My! God! No-God! Buddha! Thank you for this question, on this day of wandering aisles and trying on the various identities on offer in the retailosphere.
Well, I say, there's one version of the story where Nirvana is something you Attain, and when you do, all desires fall away, and rays of light come shooting out of your head. It's essentially, irreducibly different. It’s someplace else, and being there involves a radical, permanent state-change. Then, there’s another version of the story, where Nirvana – the ability to embody wisdom and compassion – and Samsara – the experience of being stuck in suffering – are two sides of the same coin. They are both available in any moment, and anywhere you have one, you have the other.
So, for instance, sitting here talking, I could be having a suffering experience, worried about whether I will say the wrong thing, and whether I am boring you. Or I could choose instead to tune in to the space of this room, into your presence, and my body, and orient towards an intention like, May what is wise in me connect with what is wise in these young people. May our conversation create a space of wisdom and compassion. And the same goes for all of you. You could be sitting here listening for the dog-whistle in these words, the inaudible but compelling call of the acorn in you that wants to be an oak. Or you could be simply happy that no one is expecting much of you right now. Or you could be bored, or fantasizing, or whatever. All these possibilities are present right now.
The words come and tumble out, letting off a faint whistle, as of air streaming by the small hairs in my nose. It’s good enough. It’s all worked out. Forgetting and remembering, breathing in and breathing out.
I don't know what comes next. This thing Larissa is letting me host in her studio this weekend: will anyone come? It's been deafening whistle-free silence since anyone received the invitations I sent out. No wolf-whistles – that's obvious – but also no shrill cop-whistles.
Hey, you, over there! Drop that compact, and step away from the sponges.
The night I picked to do this turns out also to be the night of the fashion show in White River Junction. Two sides of the same coin: beauty and truth. Some of each is available in both places. Will anyone want to try a second skin before the catwalk? Likely not, but maybe. Will anyone go from whatever they find out through molting, to whatever they find out through molting again? Maybe. Molting is what we do, even when our skins stay looking mostly the same. We shape-shift in ways that aren’t always obvious, but, especially if were paying attention, can be profound.
Yesterday I took the dogs for a walk on the Old King’s Highway. I've never encountered anything like this mud: flat and leafy on the surface, and underneath, a liquid soup that splooshed eagerly right over the top of my sandals, ankle deep. I came to a stream, immersed my feet, baptized them clean, bluing my toes with cold, and then set out with the hounds on no known path. Wandering, early spring, dodging the mud-pits as we followed a ruined stone wall. Everything still flattened by snow and ice. We cut across and over, Chloe and Elliot sure in whatever it is that dogs sense, till I, the last to know, recognized myself only a few feet from where we started, safely away from being wholly ingested by the secret sea of mud.
We leave. We set out for who-knows-where, and listen carefully to what the world and our bodies tell us. We follow the whistling breath inside the breath back home. It doesn't matter, really, what others are saying is true. Their intimacy is real, but it is not mine. And the wonder of it is when these individual whistles and overtones, under-drones and trills are glimpsed layered, complete, together forming a song no one ever planned.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now