Laughter Unlocks a Door That Invites Us Into Living

It’s the Fool card I select, over and over, every time I get tired of the residue of tea leaves at the bottom of my cup. Tired of swirling the detritus to sculpt it into a shape that approximates meaning and familiarity. Into a clear answer that inhales and exhales within the murk. I don’t like it.

It is exhausting to be me, sometimes. To embody the heart of the Hermit, who drags her lantern along the snow to create a drama of shadows that no one else will ever see. Whose eyes glower defiantly above her white beard, as if to say, “Fuck the patriarchy!” The Hermit has no qualms about opting out and living life on her own terms. The mystic swims, while the psychopath drowns. In the Hermit’s world, equanimity is constantly dogged by the pretense of safety. Even alone, she remembers she’s always a step away from the cliff drop of a mind left to its own devices.

The Fool doesn’t really care about cliff drops and certain death. The Fool plunges into the world, empty-headed, mind clear as dawn and scrubbed clean of knowledge. The Fool smiles upon the 24-hour news cycle, scrolls Instagram and Facebook with benign indifference, and feels at home in the sound and fury of it all. The Fool takes a fervent stand on the issues, only to abandon it the next day in favor of the latest newsworthy trend. The Fool can’t be blamed for her lack of critical thinking. She is the obvious consequence of a crisis of imagination. An affable protagonist simply weighing her options, living her best life. An innocent who longs to feast on all that life has to offer. She builds her castle of dreams amid bomb-dropping drones. Children in cages. Heads of state fomenting division. Yes, there’s chaos, there’s tragedy, but who is she to waste her energy on matters that have nothing to do with her? From her experience, life is essentially good and kind. Life rewards the faithful and carefree. The Fool has never been to Switzerland, but she hears it’s quite beautiful. 

I am troubled and intrigued by this card. Flummoxed by the bucolic backdrop of alpine flowers and rocks veiled with snow, as a small dog bites at the heels of our reckless heroine and bids her not to trust so easily in what she sees. Citations are always needed. This moment, glorious as it may seem, is haunted by the ghosts of the dispossessed. 

At least, that’s what the other parts of me—pinned into place by cards like The Hermit, the High Priestess, and Justice—attempt to remind me of. I heed their lessons, and I continue to be uneasy with the hold the Fool has over me. And still, I recognize: Everybody plays the fool. Wishes to unsee and unknow all that makes one complicit in the crime of humanity. Longs for a singular adventure that will deliver us from banality and transform the mundane into a sacred puzzle. 

I may resent the Fool for her easy romanticism, but I grudgingly accord her pride of place in this unfolding panorama of my life. After all, the tarot is the Fool’s journey. And the zero card marks both beginning and end.

After Alcohol

I understand that some part of my reluctance to see my good friends yesterday had more to do with my fear of how others, even those who say they love me, will perceive me than the reality of what I will actually experience. It often goes this way: I end up having a wonderful time, although I usually expect not to. 

Yesterday, I laughed until my sides ached. I ate food so delicious that I burned my tongue in my eagerness to swallow. I didn’t check the time on my phone, or skim headlines, or send feverish texts to my sister about the last questionable thing our mother had done. Eight hours after my arrival, my insides were bubbling better than champagne and I exclaimed with genuine astonishment, “Holy shit, it’s already midnight!” 

It made me think back to my college years, to the periods when I would will myself to stay in my room, almost immovable, while others were outside partying—because I wasn’t convinced I knew how to have fun. A tower of greasy Domino’s pizza boxes became the buffer that absorbed and blocked out the ones who threatened to intrude upon my solitude. I took on the guise of a purely self-contained person who was more interested in cultivating her inner radiance than she was in being part of the outer spectacle.

Admittedly, alcohol became the smooth unguent that changed my relationship to all that. Suddenly, I could be wholly outrageous, entirely lacking in self-consciousness and capable of turning my chronically inward-looking observations into witty meta-analyses of the situation at hand, which seemed to intrigue and entice others around me.

Suddenly, I had a discernible function. With alcohol, I was no longer a loser. I was myself, myself amplified in a way that was new to me. Suddenly I had access to the pent-up boldness and creativity that had always haunted me with fantasies of the person I could be if only I weren't so scared or sad or traumatized or plain.

At the age of 22 or so, I realized I could be that person—that in some ways, she had been within me all along. The ailment of shyness seemed to be gone. I didn't give myself the time or space to test this theory. Throughout the majority of my adult life, I would not go without alcohol for more than a week or two, which would feel like a huge accomplishment, summarily dashed by a celebratory drink. I celebrated my brief stints of sobriety with alcohol, my stolen moments of clarity with a hammering hangover.

Yesterday, I didn't know how anything would pan out. Five hundred days of sobriety was easy enough without the burden of social engagement to make me doubt myself. But then, I recognized that alcohol had not been the only thing that allowed me to forge a path via courage and curiosity instead of fear and inhibition. I had made other choices. Choices that had pulled on the ripcord of all my early stories about myself—“I’m shy, I’m unlovable, I am uncool, I don't have anything interesting to offer, others will see right through me”—and sent me plummeting into free fall. In losing my sense of ground, I came into new realities.

The words in my bones aligned, suddenly, with the ones that would come flying off my tongue. It isn't that I had the right words at the right time—not always, and maybe even not often. It's that some part of me had already become accustomed to recognizing that rightness wasn't the point.

There's a photograph of me at 10 years old: hair tied severely back from my face, coke bottle glasses imperceptibly sliding off my delicate nose, starched blouse buttoned all the way to the top. To this day, I never button a blouse all the way to the top. I remember all too well the choking sensation at my throat, which made my voice sound brittle. It's a visceral memory that I choose not to revisit upon myself. That old photograph is a misguided omen pushed out from the banks of a long and winding river by a belief or an ancestor who no longer needs to be driving my future from a distant shore I left many years ago.

Yesterday's nerves were quickly assuaged by my awareness that there's more to this journey than the sensation of being penetrated by unwanted or judgmental gazes. There's also the way my own gaze penetrates, softly but decisively. The way my eyes create beauty and draw it to the surface in places where it has been bashful or unrecognized. Places where kind eyes open up to me and become portals through which I can glide, at ease, unhurried. 

I don't need to drink myself into a stupor anymore in order to experience myself or be experienced as worthy of space and attention, or to know myself as one fluid comet of energy. Tail streaming in the atmosphere. A spectacular sight to behold.

I don't have to be spectacular. I don't have to be nice. I don't have to be funny. I don't have to be in a good mood. I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be certain. I don't have to be finished, in the way I used to believe confident people always were. Complete life forms unto themselves, crafted painstakingly by a zealous artist who always ensured that her creations would be compelling and unambiguous. Archetypal characters wrought by the finest hand.

I am not a character. I'm not complete. I speak in unfinished sentences. I carry my unshed tears and jagged edges into every bright and noisy room. My conflicts are probably compelling only to a handful of people. I loom like a shadow at the edges. I am rounded corners, as well. Subtle dips into hushed conversations at candle-lit tables. The kind of unexpected reverie that makes you ask aloud, “What was I just saying?”I am all that. I do not seek to impress. Sometimes I do not seek to express. I show up, I shine, I dim. I am inconsistent. I'm a series of 41 dashed lines representing years that approximate a human life…one I am still learning to grow into.

Midnight Stroll

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. 
And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. –Robert Frost

I remember the poet’s words as the moonlight falls on the path, lighting up the plumes of mist that seem to swallow the trees like pale, ghostly shadows.

Although it’s dark, I feel as if the moon is a giant stage light, set upon this scene, where there are many players, both visible and invisible. I am in good company.

It’s a warm evening, with just a light breeze that makes me pull my shawl more tightly around my shoulders. The grass is slightly wet from the dew of the wee hours of morning, and as my bare feet touch the earth, a thrill goes up my spine: both at the slight electric crackle of the grass and the tense anticipation that builds in my heart as I wind down the path, slowly and deliberately.

I can hear the tinkle of tiny fairy voices, like bells ringing in the near distance, joining forces with the soft whoosh of the wind through the trees. In my peripheral vision I can almost see their lights: wild dancing orbs of pale blue, purple, green…twinkling like miniature stars in the foliage.

“Am I going to recognize her when I see her?” I wonder aloud. What if she is dark and subtle, and she escapes my notice? What if she comes upon me all of a sudden, and I’m so freaked out that I forget my mission and flee in the opposite direction—toward artificial lights, central heating, and my lover’s solid embrace?

I shake my head, resolved then and there. No…I am here for mystery, for uncertainty, for the puzzle I’ve been told that only I can solve. I gave up security eons ago, even though some primal part of me longs for it. But there is a force greater than all of that, and it lulled me out of bed and bade me to walk an unfamiliar path in near darkness…it bade me to relinquish my long-harbored fear of the unknown and to simply give myself over to it.

 “This had better be good,” I mutter to myself.

The sound of the bells gets even louder, and then…there she is. Almost an apparition. Almost hardly here. I see her first as more of an archetype than a solid reality: the shape of a woman not yet brought into full form. Her long, lithe body is wrapped in a cloak of deep violet fire, which also contains blazing ropes of cobalt, vermilion, and emerald.

She is beautiful, and she is terrible.

She holds a truth I have never beheld with my naked eye, and yet I’ve always known she was there. I knew ten years ago, right before the collapse of my marriage and the moment I would come to recognize as the death of my life as I knew it. I was on a beach in Hawaii, and I felt her ancient power across the screaming tides. Pele, who called for ritual sacrifice to sate the thirst of the angry Earth. Pele, whose thirst for transformation asks for nothing and demands everything.

And here she is, in this moonlit forest in upstate New York. A force of oceanic fire that has come to me, after all these years.

I don’t need to say anything. I hear her words, except they can’t be conveyed in actual words or a voice. They are a rumble, a quake, the sound of reality being cleaved from its solid foundations.

“You are not here for yourself, I know. You are here for something that is extraordinary and yet to be written. It is larger than you, or the past, or the present, or the future. it is connected to cosmic upheaval and new beginnings. For even with endings, there are beginnings. You must remember this. Don’t dwell on the fear, or the pain, or the idea that you are at the mercy of forces larger than you. You are in me. I am holding you. Come closer, into the belly of the so-called beast. Be warmed by the fire that never dies. Ask for something much larger than you think you have the courage to bear or to deserve. The old laws were meant to be broken. Enter the spirit of chaos, and within it you will form a new order. There will be much uncertainty, and much guidance. The hallmark of the soul of the old world is that it believes itself to be singular. A tiny flame that once it is snuffed out, is no more. Join your fire to the fire of the world soul. Be willing to express yourself as a dance of many flames. For that is all that the divine is. A oneness that is a many-ness. See yourself as all the flames and your sight will multiply. When you know yourself in all directions, there is nothing left to fear.”

Summer Squall

The thunder is raging and the ink-black sky fills with lightning. I can imagine Jupiter wending through the sea of clouds, his white beard hanging low to the ground, his naked loins poised for warfare, his face contorted into a grimace or a gale of rapturous laughter. We’re on his turf now.

We turn the lights down low as we eat dinner. It’s 9 p.m. and the woods of our backyard are plunged alternately in pitch blackness and an ethereal white light that is punctuated by rolling peals of thunder. We go outside and the air tastes of static and humidity and metallic foreboding.

I am wearing short shorts and a tank top because it’s 90 degrees. Sweat rolls down the insides of my arms, and I feel small gnats sticking like burrs to my hot flesh. I know I’ll end up with red welts the size of quarters all over me in the morning, but I can barely be bothered to swat them off.

I clutch Shawn’s hand as we stand on our porch, hesitating to explore further out beyond the ocean of dark lawn. Or, I should say that it is I who is hesitant. Shawn is fearless as he holds his camera up to the sky, documenting the apocalyptic storm. Is it even a storm? I’ve never heard of a storm without rain.

But there is wind. The trees crackle and shake beneath the weight of the air. Its branches carry a secret: the new residence of the great patriarch is a malformed oak that overlooks the shed beyond my bedroom window. I can almost hear his voice, calling to me. Seduction bottled in the frequency of a summer squall.

The Great Mystery

I was passing a man in the airport, a beautiful Sikh man with a burgundy turban. I may have declined any sort of alliance with him in my younger years, out of shame, out of annoyance that anyone would choose to be so visible. But I thought about this today. Today, knowing that I am still beautiful but that men do not look at me with the same hungry eyes as they used to. I thought, “Why should I not inhabit my entire body and be in my allness, regardless of who is looking or who isn’t, regardless of who has benevolent intentions and who does not?” There are people who want us to die, and some of those people are the same ones who would fuck and discard us like carcasses on the wayside when they are finished. Not merely hungry with their desire, but ravenous, and ready to eat until there is nothing left. We cannot be so solicitous of their desire. What is OUR desire? Isn’t it always to be exactly who we are, as we are, dancing in our bones with a luminosity that cannot be stolen?

In Grand Central Terminal, I thought, “We are all here to live out our piece of the Great Mystery.” Every where is a temple. I looked up at the painted dome and thought of the firmament above me, the way I beheld it when I was a child, full of angry questions. But the anger had stilled into a soft reverence.

There are times when I feel so small, so small…but if God is my lover, if the Ocean is everywhere and I am simply within her, then I can trust that they will continue to come to me, continue to show me the truth without my having to grasp at different pieces of the never-ending tapestry, just waiting for all the threads to unravel and show me the nature of things.

I don’t have to keep presencing my allness outside of me, as if the world would give me clues that have nothing to do with me, which is why I must put all my effort and willpower into the pursuit of knowledge. I can trust that I need not keep seeking. One sincere question is enough. For the right people. For the right information.

All of us are living out our own myths, and the worst thing we can do is waste our energy on envy.

I thought of that man, Taliesin (perhaps a reincarnation of the renowned medieval bard) who died with words of love on his lips. I thought of the woman who held him and prayed with and for him and his family. In that last gasp, a gesture of love and prayer between two strangers. A holiness shared between the one who was fearless and the one who feared for her own life.

I thought of the people who are bereft of hope and love, like the man ironically named Christian, who infected an entire train full of people with his hatred. I thought of all of us, and I wanted to weep. I must believe that we are in the hands of something larger, or else I’ll go crazy. I must believe that some benevolent force is stewarding the soul of that 23-year-old man whose final words were “Tell everyone on the train that I love them” into some unimaginable destiny. One that is beyond agony and our capacity (or incapacity) to hold sensation. I wanted to be able to tell him, as I stood beneath the starlit firmament of Grand Central Station, that I saw him. That I honored him. That I, too, loved him, even though we’d never met. And still, in this moment, he is within me, like a drop of cold rain calming a boiling ocean.

All pieces of the same Great Mystery, playing out a story upon some grand stage.

I won’t lie. I felt a little hopeless as I looked at my newsfeed this morning, as that same mania took me over. That same desire to be everywhere at once, to know everything, to have my fingers in many pots and to feel the thrill of a certain acquisitive triumph that only seeks to multiply itself. Yes, I know what it is to be a slave to my desire for knowing. Because otherwise, the answers won’t find me.

Obsession lacks faith. It is the ultimate nihilism.

I had so many questions, but where were the answers? And in the end, wasn’t it all futile anyway?

They want us to believe this. But if I were to come back to my center, I’d find a courage that answers hatred with truth and beauty. I’d find the answers that were naturally gravitating to me, simply because I asked. This would not elide the ugliness of the world. It wouldn’t take away the horrible things we have done to one another in the name of false gods and ideals buoyed by the deaths of so many, summiting the mountains of so many skeletons. So many broken bones. It wouldn’t change the needless ordeals. But maybe…maybe it would show us something else. It would show us, “We can survive this. Death is not the end.”

Is that the message, though? I want to make sense of all of this. What is the perceived war? Is it in our own hearts? Is it between what we instinctively know and what we’ve been told? Between love and fear? Between desire and loathing? If we didn’t loathe, if we didn’t covet, where would we be?

Permission Slip

You have permission to be unabashedly free, yourself, outside the mandates of what is considered acceptable, friendable, fuckable, American enough, enough of anything familiar or familial or similar to it. I give you permission to claim the fact that your ancestors hail from what is considered a shithole country but was the epicenter of civilization for many millennia. I give you permission to claim the parts of yourself that you do not see mirrored in popular films, TV shows, books, and other spaces that purport a certain neutrality but that still manage to give you that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach—the one you get when you are politely watching a scene to which you have no access.

The same sinking feeling you got when you were perhaps the only one who noticed the white guy in the Italian restaurant shooting daggers with his eyes at the voluble Punjabi family. The same sinking feeling you got when the fourth grader told your two blonde best friends that they looked pretty but pointedly left you out of her assessment. Because pretty isn’t for girls with glasses and oil-slick braids and noticeably dark skin. That sinking feeling also came at moments that made you visible. Visibility was always accompanied by a snigger from the outside world. Like it was all a big joke, and the only worth imaginable that they could attribute to you was as a momentary spectacle. And it was always momentary. 

People seemed to forget as quickly as they issued their offenses. Which is maybe why it makes sense that on all those talk shows where an adult would confront the kid who bullied them when they were kids, the bully would usually show up with a befuddled look on their faces. “Who are you, again? Wait, what? I did that to you?” Over time, the brain is a sieve that can only hold so much. A pity that I’m a hoarder who routinely preserves the throwaway moments. 

It’s hard to be me. It’s easy to be me. At least, that’s how I’ve decided it can be. I’m old enough to know that I can choose to exchange mortification for righteous indignation. Lately, it’s been anger, every time I think of the ignorant thing that a friend’s family member said and the fact that I did nothing to counter it. Anger at what I could have said or done, and always the shamefaced knowledge that in not doing or saying anything, I was saying OK to that mandate of smallness. In being made to feel visible, I would opportunely shrink myself into the smallest possible size so as to evade notice altogether, so as to be passed over and forgotten. I don’t want to be small. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I give myself permission to say and be the scary things. To bare the parts of me that are bold and free, not to the scrutiny of those who wouldn’t give a second thought to boxing me into one of their rude and insufficient categories but to the warm and welcoming gaze of the elements, of the stars, of the moon, of the sun. To claim my plot in the wild world of substance and recognize I will always have a home here.

The In-Between

Being in the in-between reminds me of standing at the entrance of a house where you’ve sorta been invited over but you don’t really feel welcome. After all, you’ve never met anyone there and you just can’t stand small talk. To make matters worse, it’s raining really, really hard outside and you have nowhere to go, although you are tempted to grab the newspaper on the front steps and put it over your head while you run to find cover somewhere less bright and demanding.

But you don’t want to get wet, because you hate the sensation of soggy socks that make your entire body feel damp and sticky for hours. Days, even. And yet…and yet…and yet…your friend invited you to this stupid party, and you stupidly said yes, and it’s patently clear as you gaze through the bay windows at the throngs of beautiful people gathered, laughing and talking and appearing to be raptly enmeshed in one another, that they are old friends. Thick as thieves. And there’s no room for you.

You wish it were different. You wish you could be one of those completely un-self-conscious people who just breezes into a room with a singular perfume and announces their presence. Perhaps with a bold look or an off-color remark that makes people either bristle or guffaw. You wish you could bring yourself into a space like THAT. But you’re wispy and subtle, neither here nor there. Neither East nor West. Some strange amalgamation. Some watercolor shade that’s been muddied by association one too many times.

So you sit and stare and wait, hoping that someone will notice you and invite you in. You still think, after all these years, that it’s strange to walk into people’s houses without being invited in. (Maybe that’s why you’ve always loved vampires—they’re polite.) Just as it’s strange that American people tend to wear their shoes indoors instead of leaving them arranged in neat lines atop shelves outside their homes. Shoes are dirty. They pick up the shit and detritus of every place you’ve ever been. But isn’t that kind of like people? We’re always in-between, always in the process of transitioning out of this or that, or becoming something else, always trafficking in the business of being busy, accumulating personas and heartbreaks and estimable life experiences. But never really getting to the being itself.

Once I was a shy teenager pushing my coke-bottle glasses up the bridge of my nose, feeling so fucking awkward because I had no idea who I was or where I belonged. And nobody could tell me, either. Their definitions and assumptions always fell wide of the mark. And now I’m an adult who has presumably cobbled together a few shreds of self-esteem to create a respectable garment of self-possession…and I still have no idea where I belong.

I’ve always been secretly comfortable in the margins. On the outside looking in. It’s easier to not fully belong to anything, or anyone. To not stamp oneself with the imprimatur of a righteous conviction or a wholehearted yes or a traceable surname. Only…to be held gingerly in a web of nationalities, languages, belief systems.

I don’t walk past that threshold because I know who I am, after all. And I know that I belong right here, in that place of the perpetual question mark. In that place where I get to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Winter’s Visit

Spring is my favorite season now that I live in upstate New York. In California, life drifted from one ice-blue sky to the next. Fog on the Golden Gate bridge was a wraith that always managed to sneak into my Indian summers, and palpable shards of sunlight fastened a deceptive caveat to the long nights crawling into winter solstice. 

Now, I feel my frostbitten heart warming, yielding to rain that bursts from low-hanging clouds and creates puddles of flowing grass around me. Coming out of hibernation happens so quickly here. No SADness that lingers inexplicably into June, or numb fingertips to shove into jacket pockets on days that blind eyes and heart with too-much-brightness. One day, I see the footprints of unidentified animals in blankets of snow; the next, I am drinking my morning tea beneath a canopy of waxy dark leaves that hang around me, humid and erotic, protecting me from the hum of highway traffic. 

Spring mornings are when I forget that it wasn’t always like this. A peaceful and easy transition from one season to the next. Lithesome, happy days slipping like newborns from the Earth’s womb. 

And with that, I forget that winter doesn’t die. She splits into a thousand tentacular beings and then she retreats to her windowless room, to a rusty playground full of rot and memories, to the San Gabriel Valley of my childhood. Until she returns.

Winter doesn’t like that I’ve forgotten her so easily, that I dare to traipse around with bare arms and feet and neck, that I trade in thick sweaters for sheer dresses and peasant blouses that show off my collarbones and cleavage, that the frog in my throat has become a golden ball which ripples off the walls when I speak. 

Winter doesn’t like that I’ve learned to be young again.

Winter thunders in disbelief, “How dare you? How could you? What kind of person could leave behind the only one ever loyal to her?”

On one of those spring mornings so ripe for forgetting, Winter knocks on the front door. I hear the thunk of her footsteps on the porch before she gets there. It’s unusual for me to have visitors this deep in the woods unless I’m expecting them. For a moment, I am flustered as I think about the cobwebs that have surely settled around the railings and doorknob, no doubt covering the stone mermaid and Kuan Yin who keep watch so serenely on either side of the entryway. 

When I open the door, I don’t recognize her at first. Her skin is colorless, such that a network of spidery blue veins peers through—half-erased script on a whiteboard. 

“You didn’t answer my phone calls,” she accuses as she brushes past me, her skin cold to the touch. There. I recoil at the familiarity of her sound and her skin. I am stunned by her appearance, and then my mind is whirling with the possibility that she really did call beforehand (although she doesn’t have my new number, I quickly note). 

“I’ve been traveling for so long,” she says, the statement elongating into a whine. “Don’t you have something I can eat—or can I even count on you for simple comforts?” 

“I’m making myself some lunch right now. Leftover lasagna,” I politely offer before busying myself in the kitchen. 

She lets her old cloak fall off her shoulders and into a moth-eaten pile on the living-room floor. “I didn’t eat breakfast today. Or yesterday. Or the day before,” she informs me. And darts me a venomous look, as if I have something to do with this. 

I smile as I would at an old relative I barely recognize but who still calls me by my childhood nickname and chucks me under the chin although I’m almost 40. Winter seems to know all my secrets, and the intricate forked branches of my family tree…but I wonder if she knows how many people I’ve had sex with, or what pleasure feels like in my body, or which solipsistic fantasies I indulge when I’m in a waiting room for long periods of time. I wonder if she knows that I stretched out of my skin and turned heaven, hell, and everything in between on its head in order to claim my deserving. 

I fix her a plate and simply wait. I never have to talk, because she always fills the spaces in between. With bitter complaints, corrosive laughter, needless nostalgia. And she always knows what to say to murder my better intentions and false cordiality.

She inhales the lasagna, not even bothering to use a knife and fork. Her fingernails are gray talons that rip into her meal. Tomato sauce spills from the carrion onto her napkin and rims the pale ridged lines of her mouth like a clown’s lipstick. She is ravenous. She smacks her lips and huddles over the table as if someone might snatch her plate away. 

“I’ve come for the thing I said I’d be coming for,” she burps, smiling her clown-red smile.

I shake my head. “I never made you any promises.”

“But you did. You said that you would never forget. That you wouldn’t rest until the ones who harmed you came to ugly ends. But then you left, and I’ve been traveling so long to find you. To show you that I intend to make good on what I said I would do.” 

I know better now than to engage with her when she talks to me about the past, as if I am beholden to it, to her. I told myself long ago that I would offer her my compassion, not my commiseration.

She senses that I won't be budging anytime soon. Her pupils dilate and her bottle-green eyes deepen to a furious black. She takes the plate with her half-eaten lasagna and hurls it against the wall. Pasta sticks, slides down in a defeated pulpy mass. Blood and ricotta cling to the wallpaper, and a sharp triangle of china comes dangerously close to my face. 

I force myself to stay calm. “You’re 23 years too late,” I pronounce.

Bodhisattva

I was compelled by the idea of the bodhisattva vow—this ancient, sacred contract to achieve enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings—being tied to something as base and primal as a one-night stand.

Of course, for the woman I was talking to, one-night stands were never what they seemed. Furtive trysts with men with ostentatious facial tattoos were always opportunities for sublime communion, for flowering open into the mystery at the end of the fists closed around rough hotel sheets or in the viscous flow of semen and pussy juices trickling down a body.

It reminded me of what the ancient Tantriks spoke about: We will find our nirvana in the places where most people have been scared away by the gatekeeper of shame.

Not that any of that is necessarily shameful, at least not in a conscious way. We split our lives along this Cartesian continuum of flesh and spirit, though, so even if we aren’t active believers in fleshly evil, that doesn’t mean that most of us are contemplating God in the throes of passion…although I think that’s what we should be doing.

For me, the bodhisattva vow is an opportunity to understand and integrate our basest instincts with our almost contradictory desire for liberation from all of it. It is wedding the wisdom of the dove with the knowledge of the serpent. It is saying hell yes to all of it: the flotsam and jetsam making up the cosmic particles of our souls, and the shit and piss and blood and snot making up the common ground of our animal selves.

And, of course, such a vow isn’t simply about assuming this on our own behalf, which is usually how I imagine my endeavors: as sole pursuits of a private passion, perhaps a passion whose pursuit has beneficial ripple effects for others but, all the same, one that is born from my own awareness of me as a separate self.

 A bodhisattva knows that all suffering is shared suffering. One of us cannot be free if the rest of us are in chains. I will stay behind and carry you when you are weak, sister. This is the general battle cry. Not one of defense and dispersion, but one of gathering…collecting the seeds and petals that make up the human collective and attempting to weave together a garland that reminds us of our indivisibility.

I don’t know that I want to be indivisible. I still find the notion of a separate self and a destiny all my own so appealing. I still experience myself as a quite disparate being, with my own wishes and beliefs and desires that seem to have nothing to do with the sullen-faced strangers I see on public transportation or at the grocery store. I don’t wish them harm, but why would I choose to be like Nicole? Why would I choose to offer them a dispensation of my elixir rather than keeping it all for myself?

It isn’t that others are not deserving of joy and liberation. They are. We all are, by virtue of being alive. It’s more that, while I understand the value of contributing to a collective liberation, I do not know at what cost that will come. Will I have to pour every last effort of mine into providing for others—for their bodily and spiritual needs? How is being a bodhisattva different from being a martyr to the bleakest of causes? I think I understand the difference intuitively, but I still know that it takes energy to change one’s focus such that you are beaming a soft and generous light upon others.

I am not a typically generous person. I often want to be alone. I wish that my mere presence could be a spotlight on infinity, but I have my own issues that keep me from shining that brightly. If I have not alchemized the majority of those minor and major traumas so that I can be a clear channel for diamond light, how can I truly take the vow to liberate all sentient beings? Would I be paying lip service to a grand spiritual idea instead of directly addressing the shortcomings that keep me from living that idea?

Island

The hand is a throne, and it lives in the heart. It’s where fire, earth, wind, and water coalesce and become something tangible. It’s where you are drawn when you want to be a body and simultaneously more than a body, when you want to come home to yourself and remember.

The memory goes like this: You are more than an aging carcass of bones. You are more than the changing of the tides toward ill favor or fortune. You are not the name they call you by but something quiet and held in secret. An island in the middle of a vast ocean, pure and virgin. Untouched.

You are the hidden paradise. You are the discovery at the end of a long voyage. A land of milk and honey. An earth flowing with womanhood and sweet interiors. You are the thing that made it all worth it in the end.

Every place on this island is sacrosanct. Every place has its own secrets to tell, and its own set of ancient longings. For you are not just a body or mind. No. You contain life itself. The lives of countless atoms branch off into their own cycles of breath and drama. An angry multitude competing for space in the region of the infinite.

When this happens, you must remind yourself, after all, that you are the queen of this land. It is yours to govern. Or perhaps not govern but call into coherence.

Parallel lines coalesce and pour into the valves of the heart. Beneath the crust of the Earth is a river of blood. Life undifferentiated. And you, the pulse beneath it all. Journeying to find yourself in a remote region of infinity, parceled into this small body that bleeds and goosepimples and runs and dreams and shivers in the dark stillness.

Yes, YOU must call yourself into coherence. Recall that you exist outside of time, in many dimensions. And flesh incarnate is merely a map of the cosmos with all its strange meanderings and quantum substances. It is a place where wild hearts govern and longings and griefs alike run untrammeled and free.