Skunks in My Chest

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Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can ‘t order a poem like you can order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

Naomi Shihab Nye from Red Suitcase.

I don’t remember when I realized it, but when I announced to my family that a pair of skunks had taken up residence beneath my ribcage, the revelation didn’t seem to catch them by surprise.

“I coulda told you that,” was Noah’s reply. Lilly concurred (as she does). And Paula asked if I wanted the number for animal control.

“Nah, I think I’m gonna sit with them for a bit,” I said.

So everyone got up and put their dishes in the sink. Even though the empty dishwasher was less than a foot away.

* * *
I get why Ernest Mann’s wife cried when she was presented with those skunks. I’ve felt like crying at times too. And not just after a noxious aeration.Sometimes it’s a burden knowing you’re walking around with something so volatile. Even when they’re not bothered by anything, you know they could be set off by the slightest provocation and then you’d have this repulsive odious cloud hanging over you.

I started googling for solutions but then got directed to all of these chat boards and then started to read the comments and-. Well, take my word for it, don’t read the comments.

So I started flipping through the Yoga Sutras instead, and sure enough, I found something. It wasn’t specifically about skunks but it’s been useful:

II-10 Recognizing inherent impulses eliminates the causes of suffering at a subtle level.

te: these (referring back to the five causes of suffering which are 1) not seeing clearly (avidya), 2) the story of who I think I am (asmita), 3) attachments (raga), 4) aversions (dvesha), and 5) fear of things slipping away (abhinives(h)ah))
pratiprasava: ceasing to produce, to cultivate a countermovement
heyah: what one must leave behind, abandon, avoid
suksmah(a): subtle, fine, feeble, insignificant

The above sutra talks about seeds planted in our conscience but it might as well be talking about skunks in the rib cage.

The fact that we are alive and interacting with others is the only prerequisite skunks need to become activated, alarmed and thus end up spraying you and everything in your radius. (This much was obvious to me already). But their presence alone need not be cause for concern (aha!); there are ways to work with them (see, I knew it!).

The sutra suggests we can watche those seeds emerge if we turn our attention towards our heart, the area right below the breast bone. Practice will eventually lead our attention, effortlessly, into that place, for an extended period of time.  Until then, it helps to regularly check in there, simply to make contact with the naturally occurring flow of activity in that space.

By doing that, I began falling in love with my skunks, just like Ernest Mann:

The inhale comes by and they shift. An exhale leaves, they sometimes shudder. So sweet. And when I’m in different positions (standing, sitting, lying down, etc.) they adapt accordingly. They’re actually quite malleable even though I assumed they were just trigger happy stinkers.

Like the sutra suggests, a raised tail doesn’t have to mean, “Run for the hills and grab the tomato juice!”

If I catch things early enough, they settle.  If I don’t, the next sutra has some strategies:

1) I can divert their attention
2) I can reframe it
3) I can ask for help (be it to the skunk gods – the Lord of the Glands – or whomever)

But here’s the other thing: there’s no escaping the stink. In one of the longest sutra-s in the collection, sutra II.15 confirms this:

It tells us that the wise person realizes that there’s always going to be a trigger: whether it’s time passing too slowly or too quickly, unrealistic desires and whims,  or my tendency to try domesticating something which is inherently wild.

So yes, we’re encouraged, “avoid future provocations where we can,” but also, “get to know your skunks.”

Oh yeah: did I forget to mention? Under your rib cage? You’ve got em too.

And they have such beautiful eyes.



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