WHOEVER CAN SEE THIS NO LONGER NEEDS TO ATTAIN ANYTHING
“Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the Earth.”
–Isabelle Eberhardt, The Oblivion Seekers
I’m on the Q train, talking to a friend about the ex-boyfriend she had seen the night before. She recently returned from Mexico City, where she spent 18 months getting to know the father she grew up wondering about. The day before she drove into the city with her ex to shop for hiking boots. He works as a data collector for a research project on tobacco advertising-- travels the country, sleeps in hotels, and makes notes about the cigarette ads on billboards, bus shelters, and deli counters. Mostly he drives rental cars around generic but unfamiliar highways alone.
“His approach to life is to try to find the void,” my friend says. “And I find that so corny. I’m trying to have a life I can enjoy.” I imagine him in the driver’s seat, his blue eyes full of reflected highway light: emptied of all meaning, lost in the pure form of landscape. My friend is skeptical of rich, white men from moderately happy suburban families who approach authenticity through a fixation on emptiness. And, I suspect, through relationships with her.
On another day I’m on the Q train alone, going the opposite direction. The train is hurled out of the tunnel and into a blinding beam of sunlight. I have to stop reading, close my eyes against its aggressive brilliance. We run alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, over the glistening East River, lined with white light. I feel like I’m lying on my back and staring at the sun. I kick myself upright, I wait for another tunnel.
My friend with the ex who wants to be the Jack Kerouac of 21st century electronic music is buying hiking boots so she can spend a month in the Sonoran desert. She’ll camp in a borrowed tent on the outskirts of an old lady’s property a handful of miles from the Mexican border, hiking unkept trails to deliver gallons of water and cans of food to unsuspecting travelers on their journey north. Not seeking the void, but inhabiting the hottest desert in Mexico and the most barren, exposed climate I’ve ever witnessed. Maybe it only appears barren to me because I’m used to the thick chaparral and redwoods of California, and the creosote, ocotillo, and occasional saguaro don’t provide the kind of shelter I’m used to. The trails are littered with objects from the people who crossed them: toothbrushes, razors, coke cans, backpacks. In some places, bodies, wrecked by the sun.
I gravitate to the emptiness of the desert; it overwhelms me. I imagine that if I could build a life in that climate I could finally come to terms with myself: there would be no hiding. After 28 years of living in large, coastal cities, in rented apartments that have simultaneous glamour and dishabilitation, I want to buy a small, one-story house on the outskirts of a desert town, grow a cactus garden, live alone. I tell all my friends about it even though I’m afraid I couldn’t actually survive this life, without subways, moisture, a certain density of bodies out on the street. I might dry out.
I started dreaming about the desert at a time when I couldn’t stand clutter, although in retrospect what I considered clutter probably just looked like illness and tumult. I had lost the blue vein running through my life and suddenly it became crowded with irrelevant furniture. I moved between sublets in the city where I grew up, never staying more than a month anywhere. I became accustomed to the upheaval coming every few weeks, extracting my errant belongings from homes that were fully functional without them. Why bother with boxes and sorting when you are only going to another stranger’s house for a another couple weeks, when you can pack your things like groceries into tote bags. Why bother committing to any part of it, when all of life is upending.
There was never anything appealing to me about peripatetically shuffling through apartments, waking up in new bedrooms with light patterns on the floor I never learned to recognize. My constant motion was just one facet of an inability to think more than two weeks in advance. When I saw other people applying to graduate programs, signing leases, buying plane tickets, RSVPing to events, I watched with baffled wonder. It wasn’t neutral: I looked on the normalcy, ongoingness, and overwhelming acceptance of time’s continuum with disgust. I existed outside of it, with no pride nor a desire to participate in the time-spun flurry I witnessed all around. I quit my job, I didn’t even think of looking for another one. I saw through it.
The desert showed up on the horizon of my mind while I was caught in this vertiginous circuit. The city began to feel stifling, full of people and things I wanted nothing from. I felt crowded by the buildings, the street corners saturated with memories, the acquaintances I avoided making eye contact with on the bus. I imagined the desert as a space stripped of signifiers, vegetation that only reminded me of itself, contourless stretches of space with no marking signs.
The problem with this fantasy was that I lacked the focus to carry it out, or perhaps some part of my mind knew that to realize it would be another kind of annihilation. I thought about arriving in southern Arizona with only a backpack of things, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy the plane ticket. Instead, I went to visit my grandmother in Phoenix—a sculpted, suburban desert packed with manufactured homes. I had been going there since I was a child, when I marveled at the clean emptiness of the sidewalks and the identical houses, how people could tell them apart based on the position of a cactus or the color of the doormat. This time I came alone. My grandma would wake up early, finishing two newspapers, a crossword puzzle, and some burnt toast before I found her in the kitchen. She told me stories about her childhood in Mumbai, how she used to skip school and run down to the river with her best friend where they played violin and flute next to the rushing water. In contrast to the solitary, sedentary life my grandmother has lived for the past 30 years, her high school years sound replete with adventure and innocent mischief. At 16, under her father’s wishes, she took a boat to England to attend college. I can hear the dark cadence of loneliness creep into her voice as she describes the seasick weeks on the boat. I imagine her standing alone on the ship’s deck, looking out at the infinite ocean, blue-grey and roiling in every direction.
When I return to my coastal, wind-swept hometown, I try to put the questions that have been clogging my brain out of immediate reach. I move into a tiny, doorless room and paint the walls bright orange. I get another job, one that involves running after seven year-old children and wearing a whistle around my neck. I spend mornings sitting on the back steps of another apartment that isn’t mine, drinking coffee out of a glass jar, watching birds cluster in the dense wisteria vine. Kale and collard greens grow in the garden in neat rows. Sometimes I pick them, sauté them with garlic and olive oil, and make tea from the pineapple mint growing in an unruly bush to the side. I try to set normalizing routines, wake up at a reasonable hour, cook delicate things that grow from the ground. I try to crowd the emptiness out with the quotidien: the drugstore, the newspaper, dinner. I am still living on a separate, glassed-in plane, but I put up little struggles of resistance against it, determined to ride my bike to work and teach seven year-olds to do things I know nothing about, like gardening and map-making. To give the appearance of trying.
Eighteen months before something had come loose in my chest, like a rib or a vertebrae sliding out of its rightful place to rest uncomfortably against another form of tissue. It didn’t feel like a break: no sound of snapping, nothing recognizable as pain. It felt like looking down at the city from a nauseating height, when the fear of falling is submerged in the desire to witness the fall. When the image of the descent intrudes so aggressively into your vision, it crowds out the sense of standing still. I saw the grid of confining lines that had settled my life up until that moment. I let myself become bottomless, aware that I was dropping through the floor at an unconstrained pace while I stood at the whiteboard or took attendance. The laws of nature that I previously accepted fluttered away like loose notebook pages. I laughed at the foolish belief in structure while I imitated the people around me, scurrying through tunnels and dutifully carving out their lives. Their diligence, and gravity, were confounding.
In June my job ends with the school year. The kids are shrieking with anticipation of freedom, at the age when just the idea of wide open days is enough to make you feel euphoric. My cousin is planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and invites me to come. The trip is only for two weeks, but in my mind it becomes much longer. I’m packing things to bring with me-- a borrowed sleeping bag, internal frame backpack, one of those creepy plastic bladders to hold water on your back while you hike. I also start packing the rest of my things into boxes. I pack terribly, and when I go through the boxes years later I feel sick looking at the mess of their contents: books and journals mixed with old clothes, broken jewelry, and pounds of unopened mail. At the time the point was not organization, but concealment.
We get on the road later than expected, and after buying groceries from the co-op and a water purifier from an outdoors store, we’re on windy, sun-soaked Highway 580. Shuttling past Stanford University and its rolling green hills, we switch to I-5, past a shallow reservoir encircled by pine trees. With eight lanes separated by a low concrete wall, the highway feels like an ample, upturned palm as it cuts through the flattened, grass-covered Earth. The green signs with white lettering are soothingly plain, and I watch the words come into focus as we hurtle towards them. The farther inland we get, the more signs we see for state prisons: Corcoran, Solano, Kern Valley. Listed on the road signs next to the more innocuous gas station and truck stop exits, the facilities surround us, but they’re impossible to see from the highway, which shows only the golden grass that grows everywhere. At the time, California was not yet scorched by the drought that would depress the Central Valley below sea level. It was still riding its reigning illusion-- siphoning water from the southwest to populate the coast, pumping rivers dry to saturate fallow farmland, stealing people from the cities to hide in concrete cells behind surveillance fencing. The dryness of California is unlike the Arizona desert: crowded with development, that ugly reminder of human excess. We eat trail mix and listen to a mix tape from 2001 with Lauryn Hill on it, the wind too loud to hear the words.
We approach the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center after two days and a late-night stop to sleep at a campground near an Indian Reservation. After driving on a barren stretch of Highway 40 across state lines, the entrance to the national park is bustling with restaurants, hotels, activity. I logically understood that the park was a tourist destination drawing people from all over the world, but when I envisioned the Grand Canyon I imagined facing down an incomparable abyss, not circling for parking and registering our campsite and vehicle. There are trolleys that cart tourists around the canyon’s south rim en masse, and like the other self-serious backpackers, I resent this orchestrated disneyland, wanting to nurse a fantasy about being alone with the rock, sand, depth, and terror of open space. Wanting the highest intensity of natural beauty, preserved and separated from evidence of human society, but somehow with running water that’s safe to drink. The trolleys, fancy lodges, and gift shop are there not only to make money but to puncture the balloonlike illusion of our rugged independence. We thought we were wild city women setting off to live a rugged cowboy dream for two weeks, but upon arriving realized we were just like everyone else.
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
The most widely recited sutra in Mahayana Buddhism is called the Prajnaparamita, often translated as “the heart of perfect wisdom.” It tells the story of a Sariputra, a young student who seeks guidance from Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion who has chosen to postpone enlightenment in order to guide less advanced beings away from suffering. Avalokitesvara declares that all things are fundamentally empty, and emptiness contains all things. “All dharmas are marked by emptiness, not born and not dying, not stained and not pure, not gaining and not losing.” There is no wisdom and nothing to attain. The sutra ends with the heart of perfect wisdom mantra: “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.” I’ve seen these lines translated as “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!,” showing the path Sariputra must take beyond the illusory belief in fixed objects and his own discrete self. Another way they’re translated is, “gone, gone, gone to the other shore, attained the other shore without ever having left, enlightenment, welcome!” It’s this part that I’m most interested in: going to the other shore without ever having left. Getting to that awakened shore requires no attainment, no knowledge, no traveling. This shore is the same as the other shore when we see that its essence is nothingness, that the essence of nothingness is all things. The journey to the other shore can become its own obstacle to awakening: to truly see through it is to realize that there is nowhere to get to, nothing to understand.
All voids are different and all emptiness is the same: the same gravitational force sucks us into different caverns, the same echo rings out across their striated walls. From the inside, there appears to be no difference. The black hole my life had been pulled into looked very similar to the heart of perfect wisdom: I had perfected the wisdom that nothing held any meaning, that people who believed in the fictions of work and relationships and markers of time were fools, that this endless black space rippling out in all directions was the truth, though not everyone (almost no one) could see it. Emptiness reinforces itself and denies everything above its surface. For some time before I entered the void, but had spent months staring down its tunnels, I imagined my sadness was a giant sea creature, so big and so hungry that it consumed everything in the water, including me. I was swirling around in the monster’s oceanic belly with fish and rocks and coral, with seals and sharks and whales even, with the contents of my room and of my mind. There were no other people there, but I was left to make a home in this animal, past the point of resistance, already swallowed by an insatiable creature whose pathos devoured everything in sight. It was a way to give in to the feeling, to embrace the terrifying lack of control I felt when I woke up, empty arms shrieking.
What I’m trying to say is that I walked in a sun-struck daze the nine miles to the bottom of the canyon. It was beautiful, and my backpack was heavy and rubbed raw red stripes across my back, or it was terrifying, and the sun burned through my sunscreen and singed my skin. I was talking to my cousin, I was drinking water through the camelback straw while I walked, I was thinking about moving back to New York and all the feelings that kind of movement could displace. I was thinking about a boy I had left there waiting for me to come back, or so I imagined, and wondering if I could drag him into the void, use him to climb my way out. I was being young and wild and fearless, I thought, I was being reckless and refusing to think about the future or feel confined by the past, I thought, I was being brave and grown-up and 22 and 23 and 24 and 25 all at once. I knew I was unstable in my mind, but I was unwilling to see how unstable my body was as I pushed it through the motions. I got to the bottom of the canyon, the gush of the Colorado River and the crevice that opened up around it, lightheaded with hyponatremia and nausea, unable to see any of it, just relieved that I could stop walking. It was a familiar feeling, when my head would leave my body and hover about ten feet above it, and I welcomed it with a tired recognition. Here, another way out. I set up my sleeping bag in a nest of red ants and lay down in the direct sunlight.
When I got up the sun was setting at a horizon many miles above my head. The layers of rock forming rough, broken rings around the river glowed purple, red, and amber in the low light. I staggered up a few yards of the Bright Angel Trail to a flat, wide rock and climbed onto it, feeling its sharp ridges and uncompromising heft beneath my back and head. My brain was fogged over with hunger, the kind that obscures all reason and makes you slur your words. But I was alone so I didn’t talk; I took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out my backpack, flattened by the weight of my sleeping bag, clothes, and water. I ate the sandwich dizzily, overwhelmed by instinct, immune to the irrelevance of flavor and texture. As I watched the sky darken and the darkness set into the canyon like fatigue sets into bone, I sent my breath out like a prayer into the crags of Precambrian rock. I am too desperate to be an atheist, and in the moments when I feel the close presence of death I pray to all the gods I can think of for a kind of mercy I haven’t yet learned to offer myself. At the edge of the river cutting deep below the continental crust, I thought I had also hit bottom and chosen to survive. Only now do I know that I had many more cycles to spin through before the allure of this particular escape started to wear itself out. I fell asleep that night in my sleeping bag, on the hard, packed dirt of the riverbed, holding my worn-out body in my arms. I remember that the stars were the brightest I had ever seen, and likely will ever see. I remember their searing white light with reverence, even though while I watched them my head was lit up with a headache burning like a brushfire across my skull. I remember the imagery and ignore the pain it was impressed with because I am determined to offer myself some simple marks of beauty. That night I surrendered to the emptiness and watched it stretch out like its own highway: endless, going nowhere.
Raia Small is a writer, activist, and barista living in Brooklyn, New York. Her poems have been published in Two Hawks Quarterly, and her journalism has been published in Make/shift Magazine. Small's writing engages affective labor, mental illness, Marxism, feminism, and the aesthetics of feeling.