Laying flat on my back under the Cottonwoods I squint up through leaves, sunlight and white, wispy clouds to the blue, blue sky at the top of it all. The sand is cold and leaf-littered, and I can hear every little step the squirrels and rabbits take on their rapid journeys from bush to bush. I close my eyes, and when I open them, a great, gold leaf is tumbling towards me. I almost reach up to catch it before it lands, but at the last minute let it settle on my face, slide and tangle into my hair. Beside me, the river is singing her song, my song, the chant that creates the core of the world. Ever-changing, constant and flowing. The leaves and sand and water seem like my skin, like the part of me that connects me to me through all the names, lives, ecstasies and trauma I’ve been through in the last twenty-seven years.
Someone said, maybe it was the Buddha, that life is suffering. I grew up in a religion that also said that life was suffering, that we were just waiting to die to get to the good part. I say both are equally full of shit. You can quote me on that.
I don’t come at this from a pleasant, suburban backyard of normalcy where discomfort or wounds were on the other side of the city or something only seen on TV. Nah, I come from a lifetime of physical abuse so bad that my teeth are still loose and my skin still marred by scars that will never disappear. From years of addiction, prostitution, self-mutilation, semi-starvation and a deep, abiding rage. I know what suffering is, I’ve seen it in the eyes of a woman as she died from gunshot wounds, in the twisted mouth of a boy kicking his dog to death, in the shaking hands of my best friend as she paid her last bit of food money for a fix, and in the mirror as I miscarried my baby at sixteen. I held onto it with fierce attachment even as life tried to loosen my grip and give me love.
Pain is a part of life. A part that hopefully teaches us something and opens us up for a deeper, fuller appreciation of bliss and joy. Suffering is a place we put ourselves, a choice. It’s to be subjected to something, to allow something. To suffer is to give up our power, and our participation in the process of co-creating life.
I’ve known bliss too. Swinging for hours beneath a maple tree, laughing out loud while I swung my little sister by her hands, swimming so deep into the ocean that it was black and cold and full of invisible life. The exhilaration of a flat out run in a forest I know by heart, the sweet surrender to a cold winter river and love that makes me shiver with the depth of it. Sometimes bliss comes rushing into me on the stem of a leaf fluttering down to my face. Bliss is not just the endless pursuit of happiness or something outside of us we have to find and possess but rather a quality we embody and become.
Life is simple, complex, outrageous, miraculous, tortuous, agonizing, gorgeous, ecstatic and ever so strange. It’s the pulse beneath our skin, the medicine in our touch and the wisdom of the world we are rooted in. Wake up, and drink in the medicine of pain and bliss. Let the leaves slide over your skin.