Invoking the Buddhist tradition of mudras (sacred teaching gestures), the Free/Not-Free thangkas feature renderings of hands in gestures suggesting various possibilities for an embodied sense of freedom. The paintings are mounted on fabric scrolls sewn from used bedsheets, echoing the form of Tibetan thangka paintings, and embodying wishes of rest, healing, and comfort. These works were first conceived as a response to the space where they will first be shown - the 4th floor hallway gallery, outside two Intensive Care Units at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Hanover, NH. I intend these works, and the texts accompanying them, to act as reminders of our human capacity for freedom in the midst of whatever situation arises.
Everything we build falls down eventually, even it’s made of stone & steel & took lifetimes & many hands to stack up. I mean, take this hospital for instance. Right now it kind of seems like the whole world. I’m standing here in this hallway & so many systems are running all around me like they’ve always been here & they always will, but that’s not true. They’ll end. I’ll end, too. If you think of it that way, then it’s kind of like we’re all in good company. Everyone in this place – the patients, staff, visitors – we’re all infinitely valuable & beloved – and we’re all also going to die at some point. Everything we build falls down eventually, and that truth brings us together, whether we like it, or not.
We were standing in the forest in Acadia, and the long summer day was still shining gold, even though we’d already been so many places since morning. The ranger had suggested going up that trail, because, he said, it was a masterpiece of trail-building. What does that even mean? I didn’t know a trail could be a masterpiece. But he was right. You could see how the men had basically rearranged the whole crazy broken mountainside into a beautiful staircase, with places to put your hands & feet, to steady yourself. They did it piece by piece, and then eighty years later, when most of these men were probably dead, we climbed their masterpiece. My husband leaned down and picked up a mushroom someone had uprooted. It shone golden-red in his palm.
If you put your hands on your heart, you can feel your heartbeat. You can feel the warmth of the body in your hands, and the warmth of your hands in your body. There’s a ribcage, a bounded space – front, back & sides. In the center of it is this tenderness, too – a kind of soreness that comes of being open to feeling whatever’s there. And then if you close your eyes & bring your attention to listening with & into your heart & the space all around you, you come to know there really is no boundary to the spaciousness of your heart’s awareness. It extends in all directions, infinitely. Hands on your heart. Hands on the universe, the mystery of being, pulsing along, beat by beat.
My mother taught me the steps & gestures, and before that, her mother taught her, and now I am teaching my daughter. Where we live, there’s a lot of prejudice against people like us, a dark history, and so studying our dancing is a way to remember who we are and take pride. This gesture is the lotus opening. We say you can’t have a lotus without mud at the roots, which means: the darkness you’ve been through is the food of your beauty, if you are willing to digest it through your roots, bring it up the stem of your awareness, and risk flowering in this world. What makes me free is: remembering I am a lotus opening in the steady light of awareness. Remembering the dancing isn’t just for me, but for my people, too.
He clasped my hands in his & told me I was free. The imp-child and the mermaids already knew this, of course, but it was kind of him to remind me. We were standing in the hallway outside the ICU where Henry lay, after his stroke. The mermaids swished around in their impractical shell-bras, and the patients lay in their back-flappy gowns, and we waited for news of Henry, one way or another. Free how, I wondered? Free to solve this terrible mess? No, definitely not. Free to run away to someplace sunny & free of IV tubes? Not that either. But maybe: free of resistance. Free to be as I am: sad, confused, tired, surprised by silly mermaids flaunting shell-bras, in the hallway outside the ICU.
You know what it’s like when you’ve been running, running, and you finally take a moment to breathe? The stuck places in your heart & your body are like, “Finally! She’s going to listen!” & then all the unfelt pain comes forward. When it does, you can choose to lean into it and feel it, bit by bit & place by place. Rah! It really hurts! No one wants to hurt. But then this funny thing happens: you can fall through the bottom of the pain to a place that’s peaceful and whole. The pain’s still there – the grief, the stuckness, or whatever – but now you’re in relationship with it, instead of running away. What makes me free is listening.
When we were younger, we traveled, too, but now it’s so much easier. Used to be, we felt we our dignity depended on doing all kinds of difficult things, looking good, being competent, and getting a good deal. But now? Pfft! They say, put on this weird skirt-thing to walk around & we put it on. Who cares? Here we are, warm, eating fruit you could never imagine in a million years, and walking around staggeringly beautiful temples built by people who sailed the oceans centuries before any of my ancestors were feeling even the tiniest bit interested in poking their noses beyond the frozen confines of Jutland, or wherever. So what if we’re two old kooks in matching hats? We’re happy. We love it here. We don’t have forever left in our lives, and so we just enjoy things as they are.
What makes you free?
You’re looking at it.
What makes you not-free?
You’re looking at it.
What makes you free?
Look, honey, I went to war.
I’ve done all this before.
Does having gone to war make
you free, or not-free?
You’re looking at it.
What makes you not-free?
Sometime I think what makes me not-free
is the difference between what I have
and what other people have.
Oh yeah? What do you have, then?
I have time to talk with people in the park.
Well, me neither. I’m retired.
I don’t worry very much about money.
Well, me neither. I get Social Security.
Aha. So maybe there’s not much
difference between what you have
& what I have.
You’re looking at it.
You know what makes me free? Stopping to talk with someone I totally don’t know, in a public place, and having a conversation about what’s going on in that moment. Like this afternoon? There was this very tired-looking young couple walking around with two little girls who were sort of antsy – like they’d been really, really good during the whole visit with Grandma who’s so sick, and now they were ready to be kids again. So I asked the girls: do you know about the bear-mother with her two little cubs on the 5th floor? And they were like, “Ooh! Bear mom! Bear babies!” Suddenly there was wonder in this place, and possibility. The parents smiled at me, and I told them where to find the sculpture, and we all went off on our ways. So much better than solemn carpet-staring, cell-phone-twiddling, or tight smiles. This carpet’s ugly, anyways.
This gesture is about receiving grace. You know? I mean, you still do what you can to make the world a better place – you start petitions, you keep learning, you eat well, you take good care of yourself & those you love. But also you let go, and accept that you don’t have all the answers. I really didn’t want to have this surgery – it scared the hell out of me, to be honest. This morning, in the dark, before leaving home, I prayed. Please let me come home to take care of my kids. Please don’t let me die. Please don’t let it hurt too bad. And then when I woke up, and realized it was already done, I felt this huge relief. Whatever else is going to happen, I’ve made it through the surgery. I sometimes think it might be harder being a doctor, than being a patient. All I had to do was let go, and accept. They have to get it right. Then again, I have cancer, and they don’t.
We were walking down the steps of the temple, having seen all we could possibly pay attention to in one morning’s time: the compassionate monkey, the wise fish, & the beautiful saints, sitting under delicate stone-carved trees with leaves almost-fluttering in millenary wind. It was getting really hot, depending on which side of the mountain you were facing. Teams of men were pressure-washing volcano-dust off the walls. Just as we were leaving, this woman came up to me & gave me a little red plastic heart. She said it was to do with the West, with kindness, and with the possibility of feeling whole in myself, in body, mind, and heart. Which is not something people tell you every day. She didn’t want money, or anything. She just gave me this little heart she said she found by the sea, and took a picture of my hands. That’s all.
You know how sometimes it feels like you have to run, and keep running, and hope your legs can keep carrying you until you reach that place you know you need to be, but have never found? I used to have a lot of dreams like that – running down airport hallways. Then, one night, I dreamed I finally arrived at a gate, but I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. When I handed my ticket to the attendant, she looked at it, and we both saw it was marked ANYWHERE, so she smiled & welcomed me aboard. I still have crazy travel dreams, with lost suitcases and whatever. But now somehow there’s also this awareness of the space around the problem – open & boundless as the sky. I can rest there.
Hang on a sec. OK. My Mom had breast cancer, and so a few years ago, I started keeping these opal skulls in my bra. I mean, there’s room in there, right? You get a little older, and everything’s softer. They don’t hurt at all. They just sit in there with my girls. Some days I carry other stuff, too – other stones, like this agate. I feel like: why not? There’s so much healing energy in the world – might as well keep some of it close to me, all the time. Doesn’t mean I think I’ll live forever. No way! I mean, hello? These are skulls. As in, where we all end up. At the same time, they are wonderful, magical. As in, where we all already are, if we look around, open our hearts, and listen. I had no idea I would meet you here. It was just like, go to this place. And here you are. Nice to meet you.
What makes me free is joy. Seriously. I love having a good time – just really letting go into the music & dancing, you know? Feeling good. But then sometimes I go too far – there’s the stuff I do to get the drugs that makes me feel bad about myself later. Like I can’t really trust myself. This is good, though. I don’t think anyone’s ever really asked me about what makes me free & what makes me not free. A freedom gesture? OK. I guess I’ll get my hippie on and do this. I think it’s got something to do with yoga? Anyway – thanks for coming out here & just sitting in the park talking with me. Peace. I’ll try to remember I’m free.
I wear purple because I am divorced. Divorce isn’t a bad thing, but I wear purple, just so people know. No more husband. Purple’s a good color. It goes well with my skin, and I feel kind of queenly, you know? Like I am paying attention to how I move in the world. I am saying, I have a face. I have a body. I am here. My friends and I came here together to visit our friend who just got a cleaning job. It’s kind of a long way to drive, especially in the winter, but the work pays better than anything you could find in our tiny town, let me tell you. They really want this place clean. Our friend says she gets to know some of the patients, and they appreciate seeing someone every day who’s just doing normal things – cleaning the toilet, clearing the cups & tissues, mopping the floor. Nothing fancy. Just taking care of their space, and kind of checking in on them, however they are. It’s easier sometimes when it’s not someone you know. You can just see how they are, and crack some joke, and though you care about them, you don’t get too tangled up in wanting.