I Have Been to the Apex of the Ziggurat of Light, and There's Aliens Up Thar!
Last autumn our Mystery School group began an intensive Aurum Solis magical working aimed at experiencing the energies of the seven celestial bodies, or "planets," of classical hermeticism. In the order in which they ascend on the Tree of Life, these would be: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Last Tuesday night, we officially ended this work with an uncomplicated ritual whose purpose was to integrate all of the energies of the spheres.
I will confess here that I did not perform the work for Saturn when the rest of the class did, as I was traveling abroad, but it is a planet with whom I am friends (or at least, I have grown accustomed to its, er, face), so I didn’t feel particularly empty missing out on those rituals. But the visuals that came as we invoked its rulership were really strange. I saw a Black Triangle and alien beings that resembled a cross between your garden-variety Grey and Maria from Metropolis, wearing something stolen from Emperor Ming's wardrobe. (As I type I am suddenly aware that it only took ten posts for my blog to become officially weird.) No classical images for Saturn; no Cronos, no Father Time, no Harsh Mother. Just extraterrestrials. Maybe I'll pick apart that mystery one day.
The planets, as laid out on the tree, represent a particular order of forces in a two-way evolution. You are either returning to spirit form, ascending the tree home to the Creator, or you have been given a kiss and a brown bag lunch by the Almighty and are descending the tree into what will be your physical incarnation in the classroom of Earth. On the way down, you pass through the planetary spheres, aggregating their particular influences onto your unique psychological imprint. If you can learn the vices and virtues of each of these forces, how they affect you personally, and how to use them in life, the better shot you have at becoming a well-rounded and effective individual.
Our concluding ritual was not at all active, but seated and meditative. We capped it off by mapping the planets out to specific locations on the body. This is a common hermetic exercise, but after about eight months of deliberately immersing ourselves in seven vastly different forces, this took on even more profound meaning, and I found it to be wonderfully balancing (which was, after all, the point).
To formally study and integrate the planetary forces this way into oneself is to come closer to understanding what it means to be a part of an intelligent universe, and to know that that universe is a part of you. As we say at the end of all of our workings: "As above, so below. As the universe, so the soul. As without, so within. Blessed be."
Last Train to the Garden of Earthly Delights
And how does a freshly minted planetary magician celebrate? With beer, of course!
After class I met my husband at a local bar, where our friend Stu had just finished playing a gig with his band, the Captain Blood Orchestra. Smelling of the resinous patchouli oil with which we had anointed our chakras before ritual (seriously, Ima, patchouli?!), I ordered a stein of BBK and joined my friends.
Let me say a word here about my friend Stu. I remember the first time I’d ever really looked at him – you know, when you really see a person for the first time, a private phenomenon really, because your subject is unaware that he or she is being watched. It was at a party at his apartment some years back. He was kneeling before a brass singing bowl. His feet, in sage-colored socks, curled under his pelvis in the shape of two perfect jelly beans. He was completely and thoroughly present in this tiny slice of potent liminal time, the striker poised in his hand, ready to hit the bowl. It was as though there was no one else in the room. And at that moment, it occurred to me that he looked preternaturally youthful, despite the beard he wore. Now, at the bar, the beard was gone, his hair grown long, and he looked about 17 (he’s 44). What’s in his water, I’d like to know.
When he’s not playing with the Captain Blood Orchestra, Stu is a professional writer, a published book author, a lover of baseball, art and, perhaps most of all, music.
I hadn't seen Stu in a long time.
“Now, who’s this?” Stu asks.
Of course, I don’t expect too many people outside the alternative medicine world to know the names of anyone in that field beyond Andrew Weil or Deepak Chopra. But then I remember that Stu, whose extensive vintage vinyl collection is to be envied – nay, coveted – and whose knowledge of obscure 60s trivia is downright dumbfounding, would almost certainly know my teacher through a different window.
I ask: “Do you know the band The United States of America?”
Stu’s eyes light up. “Yes, of course!" he exclaims. "That’s one of my favorite records!” (Insert Stu praising the band’s experimental, pre-electronica-genre psychedelia at length here, singing bits of their songs, etc.)
“My teacher was one of the founders of that band,” I explain, “but he left before they released their first and only record.”
“I know exactly who you're talking about. You actually know him?" Stu asks, incredulously. "That’s the guy who didn’t want to buy into the commercialism that a Columbia contract would represent and took off to become a --"
We are interrupted by a woman standing by the jukebox, yelling and gesturing wildly. Stu jumps off his stool and gives her a hug, then introduces her to us. They are working together on a book about the Monkees.
My husband seizes the moment. “OK, I’ve got to know something, because it’s bugged me ever since I was a kid,” he says. “Did Peter Tork really play the harp in that episode where he sells his soul to the devil?”
Stu’s friend assures us that Peter really did, in fact, play the harp. (But a little Internet sleuthing tells me that this is debatable.)
In a fit of nostalgia I turn to Stu’s lovely wife, Ceci, and tell her that Papa Nez was my favorite Monkee. She agrees and adds that really, there is no other option.
Stu returns to his seat beside me. “So, your teacher – what’s his name again? Michael Ag--, Michael Agnello?”
“Well, no…” I say, thinking we’ve got the wrong old hippie here. The frustration I had experienced trying to connect my herb teacher to the band while searching online appears to have returned. “I mean, his name is Michael, but --”
“Oh -- well, he probably changed his name then,” Stu says, matter-of-factly. "You should ask him."
And all of a sudden, in a parallel universe of the comic strip variety, there I was, sitting in a low-ceilinged German bar, pigeon-toed in a white dress on a beige pleather stool, with a giant beer in my hand, and a big thought bubble above my head containing the pseudo-word, "DUH." Of course. He changed his name.
I was turning this piece of the puzzle over and over again in my mind when someone -- I think it was Ceci -- said, "Sure, sometimes people change their name because they want to leave a part of their past behind."
I thought about this for a moment, and realized I couldn't agree more, declaring: "I'm sure glad I'm no longer the person I was not even 10 years ago!"
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”
-- Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
We said goodbye to Stu and Ceci. On the way home I wondered why all of this was suddenly so important to me.
Certainly we have a fascination with who the most important teachers in our lives really are, and by that I mean especially to include who they were. I think we want to know where they came from, what they came from. If you can see what their arc of evolution has been, you might find a doorway of possibility opening up for yourself to grow to the same heights. It's the whole acorn/oak thing.
For me, this kind of discovery also has to do with the value I place on lineage. Obviously I don't mean ancestral lineage here, but the inheritance of a tradition or discipline. What is my lineage? From whom do I descend? What does it mean? Is it even relevant in a case like this?
Ceci's right when she says some people change their name in order to leave the past behind. But I also think that in many cases it has more to do with re-naming oneself in order to welcome some new aspect of life rather than cutting ties to an old one -- in order to be more 'truly' named.
Ima, for example, used to be "Mary Virginia" and was a Chaucerian scholar. One day she left the university and later changed her name to one she felt was truly hers: Althea. (Oddly enough, her choice had nothing to do with her future career as an herbalist; upon first meeting her, an early teacher squinted at Ima and said, "Marshmallow, eh?" At the time, she couldn't tell whether it was a shot or a term of endearment.)
In magic, a big deal is made of naming and re-naming. To place a true name on something is to know it; to be truly named is to be powerful.
So I suppose I can look at re-naming as a way of “re-membering” -- that is, reintegrating -- oneself into a clearer reflection of one's true identity. And sometimes, in the case of Ima and maybe even Michael Agnello, your new name can lead, or at least point, to your true calling.
While the concept intrigues me, I don't see myself taking on any new names in the near future. In fact when I got married changing my last name wasn't even an option, mostly because I really like the name I already have. I guess that is because, at least right now, my name feels true to me. I suppose that if I ever become an oak this'll make it easier for people who know me to hunt up goofy acorn pictures of me and laugh.
Maybe it's already happening.
By Your Underwear, They Shall Know Ye
When I was in California last month, my friend Rachel came up with a special kind of herbal "lingerie" made entirely out of usnea, a gag entry (and subsequent winner!) in the seminar's herbal product contest. My teacher Lesley joked that the underwear would probably fit me. With Rachel's help I got them on over my jeans and stepped barefoot onto a table to model them with the utmost camp. It was pretty funny. When I returned to the land of the normal, my friend Ben said, "You've done this before!" I laughed and assured him that I had not; what kind of a girl did he take me for, anyway?
On Wednesday, the morning after my conversation with Stu, I opened my e-mail to find a note from my buddy Christina, entitled, "So, I sense some sort of a trend with you…" Attached was a seven year-old picture of myself in Wales after a masquerade at a Queen fan convention wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform (predictable, I know). I've got my back to the camera, and my skirt is hiked up to show off a pair of custom-made underwear, created specially for the occasion. Ah, Google: You must have been designed to preserve reminders of our youthful impetuosity with an eye toward embarrassing us in our later years of sobriety.
(And, touché, Ben.)
It's like calling into a well: You might know exactly what you said, but what kind of echo comes back? My declaration at the bar the night before boomeranged back to me not 12 hours later with a random photo found on the Internet. My young self looks over her shoulder at me and says, "You sure you don't like me? Are you really that different now?"
Perhaps she doesn't so much represent the past as the person I still am today. Still, she comes from a time when I was pretty clueless, continuing to try on different hats (or different undergarments, as the case may be). It has become such serious labor, this finding out of who I am and what I'm meant to be. I'm still not sure about any of it. I am reminded that if ever there is a time one deserves to have fun, it's when the real work is well underway.
My younger self also reminds me to call all parts back to me, especially the ones that have experienced the pain of pruning.
Because in the end, who am I without all the people I have been?
I once was open
And one with a travelling heart
I loved this sweet guy
Just like the fiction
And in the half-light
Just like the ocean
We fly right over
In the half light
I am a railroad track abandoned --- Jeff Buckley, "Opened Once"
Rushing in your riverbed
Arise like applause in my head
Where we both stand
This is the half-light
See me as I am
Always in love with the moon
It’s overflowing now
The minds of so many in pain
We are the smile of light that brings them rain
Where we both stand
In the half light
You saw me as I am
With the sunset
I ever happened
That I ever happened.
And in the half-light
Just like the ocean
We fly right over
In the half light
I am a railroad track abandoned --- Jeff Buckley, "Opened Once"
Just like the ocean
We fly right over
In the half light
I am a railroad track abandoned --- Jeff Buckley, "Opened Once"
I am a railroad track abandoned --- Jeff Buckley, "Opened Once"
I am a railroad track abandoned
--- Jeff Buckley, "Opened Once"
"All right ladies, here goes nothin'!"
I positioned the ancient shovel perpendicular to the ground in the middle of the orchard and jumped onto the top edge of the blade. It slid into the sandy earth easily with a muffled metallic sound. The women sitting on the lupine- and violet-speckled grass in front of me sang and drummed. Overhead hawks soared against a bright white sky, and all around us butterflies danced about, sometimes alighting on rocks to warm their new wings. In the distance we could hear the men talking as they searched the nearby woods for the perfect tree. And that is how our Beltaine began, in the late morning on May 4 on Ima's farm.
Before long we women had taken several turns with the shovel and dug a strangely perfect hole, perhaps 10 inches in diameter and about two feet deep. When we saw Star Farmer and Apollo approaching with a stripped sassafrass sapling, we decided we were finished digging. Apollo, not unaccustomed to digging slender holes (72 at a crack, to be exact) marvelled at our work. "Wow! Did you guys use a post-hole digger?" I have to admit, the hole was remarkably uniform for its narrowness and depth. "Nope," answered Freyja. "It was all that magical singing that made it so easy." I think she was right.
Several spools of wide, jewel-toned ribbon appeared, and we each chose a color. This turned out to be an intimate Beltaine, with only six of us in attendance -- four women and two men, but a fine even number nevertheless. Yellow for Apollo, turquoise for Star Farmer, emerald green for Freyja, violet for Pele, blue for Hermit, and fuschia for me. Apollo held the base of the pole while Star Farmer hammered the ends of the ribbons to the top. The women sang and lined the hole with red and yellow rose petals. Then, with a bawdy flourish, the men lowered the pole into the hole and held it straight while we women filled in the space around it with our saved earth, tamping it down firmly with our feet.
All the flowers we'd each brought for the event were laid in a large golden basket, and, equipped with floral wire, tape and clippers, we set about making floral crowns for ourselves in the grass while the loose ribbons fluttered in the breeze around the maypole. We were somewhat surprised to see Star Farmer, an architect and contractor by trade, gradually fashion a rather professional-looking crown, symmetrical, color-coordinated, and complete with a masculine touch of thorny juniper greens in the back. In fact, floral design may be his avocation; years ago, as a young man, he decided his prom date would have a corsage second-to-none by making it himself, which he did, with great success. We chatted and joked in the grass, passing the flowers and tools, putting an easy, gentle kind of magic into our crowns. When the fine mist that had started to fall became a soft rain, we took our flowers and finished making our crowns inside.
We reconvened after lunch in the orchard at the maypole, now clad in our fine ritual attire. Each of us used the break to find a special wand in the woods to be used at the main ritual later in the day. The postmodern pagan-y part of us knew that no Beltaine maypole dance would be complete without the right soundtrack, so into Freyja's boombox a Loreena McKennitt CD went.
We loosely fastened each of our crowns to our corresponding ribbons on the maypole, then quieted ourselves and grounded our thoughts as we stood in front of our crowns. Then, going clockwise around the circle, we placed our neighbor's crown on his or her head with a personal blessing. This was, I thought, welcome change from our usual talisman-making activities at these festivals, when the process becomes so very interior and rather secret. It was a lovely gesture, in a group so small and safe as this, to incorporate a blessing and charge from someone else into your own personal bit of magic.
Blessed and crowned, we began the maypole dance. Weaving over and under, in and out, we laughed and met one another's eyes as we circled the pole, around and around. Star Farmer commented that he felt as though he'd been transported back through time to another place, and I wouldn't be surprised if others felt that way too. When we got too close to the pole to weave anymore, we tied the ribbons at the bottom and stepped back to see the pattern we had created. A few gasps went up; it was beautiful. Freyja noticed that the ribbons, which had been tied off in pairs, were each tied to a color on the opposite side of the color wheel.
Then, led by Star Farmer, who carries the horse magic (in traditional Beltaine ceremonies of old, the procession would be led by the 'Obby Oss'), and Hermit with her deep drum, we traveled the trails through the forest to the sacred sites of the land to bring the May Day flowers there. First we stopped at Maple Woman, an old tree spirit in the middle of the woods. Then we placed flowers at the God's Hill and the Goddess Glade, the site of the most intense ritual working of Beltaine last year.
On the way to the Dromenon (an outdoor copy of the labyrinth at Chartres), the sky darkened and the wind picked up. When we arrived at the maze, at the center of which a special Beltaine altar was already prepared and where we were to conduct our main ritual of the day, I knelt at the entry stones and called out an earnest request: "Air Brother, sky gods and spirits of the wind! We ask that you blow the clouds away and hold off the rain until we are finished with our work. So be it!" Then we entered the labyrinth.
In the center, we opened ritual as usual by purifying the space and each other with the elements and then called upon the archangels for protection. The circular marble slab of the altar was decorated with a white cloth, flowers, a large covered painted glass maybowl, eight-inch pieces of each of our ribbons from the maypole, and a representative of each of the elements (incense, candle, water and salt).
Apollo and I stood before the others. I was so grateful for their dedication, commitment and presence. Steady, strong Hermit in her sequined red robe; quiet, wise Star Farmer in his tapestry cape, corded with green; lovely and bittersweet Freyja in her rose-colored gown, and young pixie Pele in muted tones of violet. All looked childlike and full of wonder in their crowns, holding their wands at their sides. As always, the people meant to be there are the ones who come.
Blessings of Blossoms
I talked about flowers. Beltaine is a flower festival, a time when we honor the goddess, the earth, the bearer of all life, in her maiden aspect. We honor too the return of the Sun in his full power -- this is, after all, the beginning of summer on the Wheel of the Year -- but it's really more about the goddess and the return of life and abundance, greening and flowering on earth. It is about her joyful response to the return of her lover, the Sun god, after a long and dark winter: she adorns herself with her finest robes of fragrant, colorful blooms. We do as she does, paying honor to the Sun and the active, fertile time of year his return signals by wearing our crowns of flowers.
We often take flowers for granted, as their transcendent language of joy, beauty and comfort thoroughly engages the senses, stopping short of critical thought. But flowers are, of course, much more than just a delightful accent to all our celebrations, lamentations and other rites of passage. They are the (often) arrestingly colored, flamboyantly styled, headily pefumed sex organs of a plant. If one considers the way we react to flowers, one can see that they are the only true representatives of a real cross-species sexual attraction. Everything about them says "Look at me, touch me, sense me!" The show is really for other flowers and insects -- for the sake of pollination (flower-sex), of course -- but we can't resist either. We bury our faces in blooms, inhale deeply, gaze longingly and touch softly. We take a part of the sex life of plants into our own mating rituals: we scent ourselves and our surroundings with flowers, we place them in our bedrooms, we anoint ourselves and our lovers with unguent perfumes. It seems that there is nothing or no one a bit of flower magic couldn't make more attractive.
The reason flowers do what they do so well is because they aren't agonizing over it the way we often tend to do. I suggested we direct our intentions toward three things, represented by the pre-language, pre-thought sexual qualities of flowers:
Attraction. A single flower can attract a bee from miles away. During this active, fertile time of the year, what opportunities or people would we like to attract to ourselves, no matter how remote, to help us to grow and accomplish more? The ascending Sun shines brightly upon us; how can we be ourselves more to make ourselves more attractive?
Connection. The male and female parts of a flower mature at different times to prevent self-pollination. By way of the bee mentioned above, or a favorable breeze, or even an observant human, a flower can use its powers of attraction to connect -- to mate -- with another flower far away. Once we have attracted an opportunity or person, how would we like to connect to him/her/it, and why? Is the motivation for evolution, for growth?
Creation. Within a flower is the potential of one fruit containing a number of seeds. Within each seed is the potential for a single plant. Within each plant is the potential for a number of flowers, fruits and seeds, which ultimately means that one flower, one seed, one plant, holds within it the power to create innumerable flowers, seeds, plants and fruits of its kind for the future. We are the same. What can we create as a result of the connection we have attracted to ourselves? How can we make this a meaningful part of our legacy and relationship with the world? How does this prepare us for the coming cycles of dark and light as the years roll on?
That having been said, each person was invited to come forward to receive an unguent oil blessing from me and Apollo -- a floral essential oil blend from me for a blessing of attraction and reception, and a woody essential oil from Apollo with a blessing for action and creation.
The Fire that Lives in the Tree
After receiving a blessing we poured our intentions related to attraction, connection and creation into our wands, and consecrated them with each of the elements on the altar, and then tied onto them the swatch from our ribbons. This wand would be a magical tool, a representative of the element of fire, symbolized by wood, signifying the ascent and return of the Sun at this time of year. Also, the ribbons tied to the ends of the wands would be a sort of mini-maypole reminder of this Beltaine celebration.
Once again we stood around the altar, with our newly-charged wands at the ready. I uncovered the maybowl to reveal a sweet libation of mead infused with quartered strawberries. We raised our wands above the center of the altar, ribbon-tied ends in our hands, and made ourselves antennae for the active force of the strengthening sun. "As above," we declared, then, bringing that force down into the womblike vessel of the maybowl, representing the earth, "So below!"
May we be fruitful, I thought, and full of joyful, loving creation in service only to the Divine. I certainly felt a charge. Then, producing some paper cups cleverly concealed under the altar cloth, we shared the delightful punch.
We closed the circle and departed for a feast chez Hermit. The weather held and rain did not come all night.
The Mystery of the Wailing Woman
The next morning I woke up on the top floor of an unfinished building we call Avalon Hall and asked Freyja, on the other side of the room, how she slept. She had not been feeling well all the day before and came down at dinnertime with a stiff neck and aches. "A classic Tai Yang stage of a Wind Cold Invasion," I chattered annoyingly while making a Greek salad and boiling water for her tea in the kitchen. (My inner nerd floats very near the surface and I'd just returned from my week with Herb Mom and Aba.) I tried to make Freyja sweat all night and finally we gave her a hot Benedictine punch which made her feel better before retiring. She must have had a fever while in bed because she reported chills -- but still no sweating. I pulled my earplugs out a couple of times in the middle of the night to listen to her breathing. She seemed OK.
So we let Freyja sleep in and walked over to Hermit's to make breakfast. It was a glorious morning. Sunshine, birds singing, butterflies, dew, the whole Disney package. I played short-order cook and made eggs, bacon, sausage, skillet potatoes, arugula and baby tomatoes and we ate outside. I asked how everyone had slept.
Apollo said he was fine -- except for that woman wailing inconsolably in the distance. "Did any of you guys hear her?" I looked at him as though he'd come from Mars, and said, "Apollo, that's two years in a row! That's the same woman I heard last year!" He looked at me blankly and then it dawned on him.
Last year I was given the high (and ‘high’ does not begin to describe what an incredible and profoundly transformational opportunity this was) honor of carrying the goddess-force of the land in a hieros gamos with my real-life husband. Our actions on this plane were a mirror of the turning of the seasons, and of the romance between the awakening Earth and the Sun. In other words, our ancestors thought that without human acknowledgement of the turning of the seasons, it might not happen in the heavens (as above, so below). It was a very intense working of love, fertility and abundance.
Our work was private, but for my mystery school’s observation of Beltaine that year, Ima planned a symbolic, non-sexual ritual featuring the male and female energies as embodied by the White May Queen/goddess and the Green Man, played by my friend Odin. To prepare for the altered states my role required, I camped far away from my friends in a curious part of the woods where the growth was all new and the sunlight that came through the trees created a very green floor, not found anywhere else on the land. I could see what seemed like miles into the distance through the slender, straight, young trees.
After dark on the first day of ritual and aspecting, I retired to my tent in what was fast becoming a heavy rain. I zipped myself up in my 15-degree sleeping bag and put in my earplugs to drown out the loud sounds of fat raindrops hitting my rainfly.
Some time later, I was awakened, but in a terrifying state of night paralysis, by the sound of a woman moaning pitifully. I thought I must have made the sounds myself, so loud that I had woken myself up. But I couldn't move. I heard the woman again -- this time sobbing, wailing, so inconsolably that I wondered if she were lost or had lost something or someone very dear to her. Unable to open my eyes or turn on the light, I lay there powerless to get up and investigate or even to discern for sure whether or not this was a dream. Then all of a sudden: the woman's wretched cry came right at my ear, as though she had gotten down on her hands and knees outside my tent and wailed inches away from where my head was. This sound of absolute despair and grief, so loud and sure, finally jarred me out of my paralysis. I sat straight up and tore out my earplugs. The air around me was suddenly a deafening din of rain on my tent and trees and leaves, the hissing sound of my sleeping bag’s nylon moving against nylon, and the thoroughly disheartening noise of leaks adding to not-so-new puddles on the floor of my tent. I tried to comprehend how, just moments before, the woman could sound so clear and loud despite my earplugs. I listened for her again. I didn't hear her, and it was hours before I could fall asleep again.
The next morning, Odin woke me. I unzipped the door to my pathetically soaked tent and peeked out at him. He asked how I slept. I was quite emotional and told him what had happened. He said he'd heard her too, coming from my direction. I asked him why he didn't come to check -- after all, I was the sole person camping out here, and it could have been me! I can't remember exactly what his reply was.
So, one year later, here I am sitting with Apollo and the others in Hermit's sun-dappled yard over a plate of half-eaten breakfast. And he's heard the same woman. His description of her cry -- grief-stricken, lost, full of despair – convinced me that this was the same phantom.
Gnomey, Pele's beloved and Ima's son, who's seen too much of this stuff over his 25 years or so to be surprised at much anymore, admitted he'd had an unusual experience the night before as well. He left us after dinner to read his book in the screen house, which is situated smack dab in the middle of all the communal sites of this land. Mind you, he's been walking these trails unafraid after dark for years and knows them better than any of us. He said he was about to step over the concrete threshold into the building when he felt a sudden pang of terror -- "Like something was going to jump out of the dark and stab me in the back," he said. In what seems, in hindsight, a feeble act of self-defense, he flicked on his lighter and walked to the light switch on the wall to turn it on. I know this way of thinking -- when the rational mind overrides the reptilian brain. When the light went on, he was fine.
Then Gnomey said, "Isn't Beltaine opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year?" I replied in the affirmative and I could already see where he was going. "Then isn't this one of the times of year when the veils between this world and the next are thinnest?" he continued. Why Gnomey, I think you've got it! Incidentally, Gnomey and Pele, who camped nearest to where I was frightened by the wailing woman so clearly last year, heard nothing.
Freyja appeared, looking awfully fresh for someone fighting off a bug. We told her about the woman and the dark. She reported that she'd awakened in the middle of the night, and looked out the window to discover the low moon, giant and yellow, and a strange fog that came right up to the level of the windows on the second floor. And she said she felt scared, but wanted to go out into it at the same time. "It was as though something sailed in," she said, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, "... and stayed for awhile before sailing out again."
I could have sat there and deconstructed our spooky night for hours, but it was time for us to gather at the Fairy Shrine (a special tree) for a special oracle provided by Pele, who is a pixie in human form if ever I saw one. We crowded into the small 'foyer' around the tree while Pele set up her multi-colored bells around the perimeter. A performing musician when she’s not sitting under an enchanted tree, she sang us a song she had written some years back about fairies, which goes, in part: “In each patch of light/ They’ll be/ There, behind your eyes/ They’ll be/ In the still of night/ You’ll see/ You’ll see.”
She invited each of us to draw a card from Brian Froud’s The Faerie’s Oracle, which is a deck much like the tarot, except illustrated with Froud’s unique fairy art. Then she used an accompanying book to interpret the keys. While I love fairy lore and the devas, I’m no fan of unconventional, “niche” decks, but I have to say that to my mind, each of us drew a very appropriate card/fairy and enjoyed eye-opening interpretations. (Also, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure this deck attempts to be a “tarot” anyway.) I drew “The Faerie Who Was Kissed by the Pixies,” which continued a long-running thread started in earnest for me last Yule about accepting love and being gentler with myself (and hopefully, others!).
Then Pele suggested that we each approach the bells and play one that attracted us. I liked to think of this as a way of being in touch with the hermetic Law of Vibration – each of us represents a specific, unique note resonating in a harmonious universe. Pele did a fine job of leading us into the world of fairy that morning. We set an offering of Freyja’s spiced raisin-oat-chocolate chip cookies and elderflower spritzer for the fair folk, then raised a toast to them and to a Beltaine well-done.
After a short half-hour working in the Netzach sphere of the Tree of Life gardens with Freyja, I said goodbye to the others and took Star Farmer and Hermit to the part of the forest where I slept and heard the wailing woman last year. The same slender sapling arched like a rainbow over my campground and the sun touched the ground in wide patches through the thin trees. Maybe this was once a settlement? Are these little hills burial mounds or disturbed earth from fallen trees? What is this large circular depression where no trees grow? I hung my crown of flowers on a young maple there for her, whoever she is.
Yesterday was the first evening I’ve had at home alone in weeks. I stopped at the Vietnamese bakery, picked up two banh mi and some chrysanthemum tea, and flopped onto the couch. It was good to be home, finally.
It didn’t feel that way for while, though. I was strangely emotional and actually quite sad upon leaving California after a week-long seminar coordinated by the East West School of Herbology. Even though I did miss home, I didn’t want to say goodbye to all my new friends and teachers, the beautiful redwood forest, and temperate California weather. There was some other component adding to my heavy heart which I’m still trying to put my finger on, but it could just be that emotional let-down you feel after something momentous has been completed. For me, this trip was pretty momentous. Life-changing, even, though I couldn’t tell you exactly why. But here’s an attempt.
A different way of learning
Being out of my element -- away from home, media distractions, my music, my friends, my husband, my caffeine, my wine with dinner – had the curious effect of making me feel more like myself than ever, while simultaneously causing me to do things completely out of character. Or at least I think they were out of character.
For example, I got sick for the first time in about four years. Here I am, in this beautiful setting, surrounded by all these lovely gentle people, about to meet my Herbal Aba (‘aba’ means ‘dad’ in Hebrew) and try to make a good impression, … and what happens?
I’ve prided myself on my long record of good health (no flus, colds or other maladies for over four years), so when the headache I had on the first day of the seminar wasn’t gone after 48 hours, I was concerned. I sat down to a plate of lamb tagine and lentils at dinner and couldn’t muster an appetite. I really started to worry. I was worried that I might have to miss classes. I was worried I'd fall behind. I was worried that I might get so sick, I'd throw up. I was worried that someone would know, and then I’d be remembered as “The Girl Who Threw Up.” My new friend Christina did reiki on me while her plate grew cold, which of course made me even more self-conscious, though I was grateful for her attention. The ladies at my table suggested I go lie down and see if the pain eased before our next class. Under any other circumstances I’d have pushed through, but I really didn’t feel right. I went to my room, turned off the light, convinced myself not to call my husband just to whine, and just cried there in my sleeping bag like a ninny while my heart raced for no apparent reason. I didn’t have any painkillers, and if I did, they’d have wreaked even more havoc on my empty, queasy stomach. I tried to tell myself that if I was going to get sick, I might as well do it here, where a healer was no more than three yards away at any given time.
A little while later there was a knock at the door. It was
Christina, and she had with her Susan,
an herbalist, author
and teacher at the seminar. I immediately felt like a drama queen, and my heart
sank at the thought of calling even more attention to myself, but I surrendered
and tearfully sniffled through Susan’s gentle questions and acupressure. She
helped me to calm down and urged me to stop being so self-judgmental. She also
assured me that I didn’t have to attend every class; there are more ways of
learning than just by being in class. She massaged my headache away, gave me
some Rescue Remedy, a few capsules of tulsi, a
hug, and then she departed.
Christina decided to sit with me while I decided what to do about the evening's class. Soon my headache came back with a vengeance. I decided to stay in. She decided to stay with me. I felt too sick to be uneasy about that. When the waves of nausea returned, I excused myself, calmly walked to the bathroom, and yep, threw up. Christina waited outside for me with a hot washcloth. I was so grateful. I went to bed and hoped that would be the end of it.
It was. I showed up at 7 a.m. for qi gong the next morning and after our hour was up, I felt like a million bucks. And I earned interest on that million the rest of the week.
Susan was right – there are more ways of learning than the academic kind. That night, I missed class, but I learned to be humble while at the same time acknowledging that I was worth healing, attention, and the loving concern of others. In a way, I learned to be sick.
Is my glass half vacuous*, or half full?
What else was out of character? Locking my keys in my room. Very-nearly-accidentally-possibly-maybe-let’s-not-talk-about-it setting my room on fire. Forgetting my nametag every other lecture. Singing out loud (whether I was in tune or not is another story) and smiling at others while doing it.
And, finally, regressing into some very unpleasant sixth-grade headspace.
To wit: I met Aba a couple of times at the beginning of the seminar, and he called me by name at least twice. Then, the morning after our first class with him, he’s standing behind me in the breakfast line. I say, “Good morning, Michael,” and he returns my greeting, followed by, “Tell me your name again?” He might as well have used a magic wand to turn me into a toad! At least, that’s how I felt. It’s totally irrational and certainly oversensitive and probably not at all understanding of how he must be inundated with dozens of new, goofily enthusiastic students at these things.
So I found myself over the next couple of days wishing I could be a good student and stand out, but not wanting to look like I was putting any effort into it. Result: lots of effort put into trying to appear effortless, namely, doing nothing extraordinary at all, which I think was the point. I decided to ignore the self-esteem Pac-Man and just be myself. Overall it worked, but I had to pull the choke chain on myself when I found myself keeping score. I’m glad I can at least be honest about that and look at where it all comes from.
The heart of the matter
Some months ago I had some very pronounced symptoms of what traditional Chinese medicine calls “Heart Yin deficiency” (or "Heart Yin vacuity," in *Flawsian parlance – a running joke at school because some people feel judged by the word “deficient”). Bits of wisdom and reminders about the heart kept coming up throughout the seminar (see the strawberry and Miles’ blackboard in the last post, and read further down in this entry about a special kind of tincture). Our Western energetics teacher, Spirit Bear, began his class talking about his own heart issues and the luck he’s had with linden flower. It’s just the sort of ‘there there’ herb I need.
One night, while I sat with Spirit Bear talking about humility and confidence in clinical practice, I spied a large black spider creeping from the dining room where we were into the kitchen. Spirit Bear noticed me watching it and divined the creature's appearance. First he commented that it didn't look like a "friendly" spider and considered catching it to toss it outside; he didn’t. "Not an altogether auspicious sign," he said. "Moving in the direction of the south. That's the heart and fire. Relationships. Emotions. I'd be careful around those issues and not make any quick decisions."
Looking back, I think this had to do with some of the difficulties described above. But I think I was pretty successful with damage control and prevented my sometimes hypersensitive, self-judgmental emotions from running away with the treasure.
I feel that my time spent at the seminar helped to break my heart open a little more. Somehow I feel more confident about the path of learning that I am on, even though the destination doesn’t necessarily seem any clearer. The commitment seems more solid and more joyful (appropriate joy being the positive emotion of the heart in traditional Chinese medicine), and that’s what I really need now.
But what would a healer say?
When I got home, my husband, Lugh, asked me if the seminar changed how I feel about studying herbalism, and if I can picture what my future with it will be. After all, I'd been paving this road slowly with Ima for the past few years. Had anything changed?
I told him that when I was on the plane coming home, feeling truly sad to leave, I tried to think of a comforting thought about not seeing any of these nice people for a year, and about this path and why I was on it, and the very first thing that popped into my head was, "You'll have all this time to spend sitting with the plants in the garden, and learning from them the way you love most." And I felt instantly better.
I also kind of thought that that wasn't the most noble and certainly not the most practical thing to come to mind. It wasn't, "Yes, I am here on this planet to heal others with herbs!" or "I vow to become a truly effective and spiritual healer of my generation because that is most certainly my vocation and that is how I will make the world a better place." There I was, seeing my near and far future consisting of sitting and meditating with plants.
At the close of the weekend, my new Herb Mom Lesley led us in a medicine wheel ceremony. Among other things, we journeyed astrally into the wheel to find a plant ally and were invited to bring another person in with us to heal. Lesley encouraged us to share our experiences. Many of my fellow classmates sensed overwhelming pain and suffering, and they saw themselves and fellow students donning armor and weapons to fight whatever was causing the suffering. Several brought in friends and relatives for healing and had very profound experiences around that.
But my journeys were very lonely. No one was there besides myself, not even animals or insects. I traveled under a bright but cloudy sky along a somewhat dry stream alone, with no vegetation for miles except for these reeds and rushes which covered everything and whistled in a stiff wind. Then I found myself rather literally in the center of the wheel we'd created with stones on the floor; except I'd shrunk down to about an inch high. As such, I sat on a long, flat, porous stone and just waited there by myself. The wind disappeared. The stone's pores began to breathe all around me and under me. I lay on the stone and just sensed it breathing. Then these beautiful green reeds (they somewhat resembled horsetail but were smoother and greener) began to grow out of the pores of the stone, one to each pore. They gently swayed and rippled, animated by themselves and not by wind. It looked a lot like live coral. I got up to examine one of the reeds more closely and was "instructed" to drink. Indeed, the reed was like a straw and I sipped from within the heart of the stone. The cool, sweet water ‘tasted’ ancient -- like it came from some untapped primeval spring. And that was it.
So you see -- it's not exactly the 'right' thing for a student of herbal medicine to say. It's not selfless, or about service, or harmony. It's not about alleviating the suffering of humanity. But what is it? And does it mean I’m not meant to heal others? Maybe I’m reading into this a bit too much, but I’ve never been one to take messages from Spirit lightly.
Five flavors and then some
On the much lighter and happier side: I love food. Eating is probably my favorite thing in the whole world to do. I worry sometimes, if I’m going to a convention for work, or a retreat where I won’t have much opportunity to escape the premises, that I’ll be subjected to poor cuisine. These fears were allayed at every single meal prepared for us by Ben, our chef. Bravo, Ben! Maybe next year I’ll have to do some food photography to entice even more people to come to these seminars.
I can’t call this entry complete until I tell you about a little something called “Penetrate the Heart.” Back story: I was first introduced to Ben online as a sometime-leader of our Friday herb student chats. One day in early February, he logged on and wanted to tell us about some aphrodisiac products he’d been concocting at his pharmacy for Valentine’s Day. One of these was a “cardio-genital tincture” called “Penetrate the Heart.” He wanted to know what we thought of the name. I can’t remember exactly how blunt I was with my opinion (probably very) but I told him I thought the name sounded painful, reminded me of the dreaded Three of Hearts, and in general could stand to be more sensual (for the love of sales, if nothing else!). I could sense Ben sniffing disdainfully and rolling his eyes over the Internet. He replied, “I used the word ‘penetrate’ because it was meant to be ribald.” Frankly I thought it was kind of ridiculous. I also was pretty sure I hadn’t won a new friend in Ben. (A dodgy move; I think Ben grades our tests and essays.)
Fast forward to the seminar, when I spy several of these little pink-labeled bottles of “Penetrate the Heart” sitting in a neat row on Ben’s sales table. Of course, I had to take a taste of the stuff.
Guess what. It’s fantastic. Truly a delight. And this is coming from someone who hates the perfume-y taste of damiana (second on the ingredient list). I shared some with my friends at school back home and they all had the same look on their faces, after taking a dropperful: “…What the…?” It was an epiphany for us poor souls raised on Everclear simple tinctures knocked back with a cringing yet hopeful “Well, I must do this for my health.”
I have two bottles of “Penetrate the Heart” left. I’m not a different person yet, but at least I know that the road that will (hopefully) take me there will taste sweet. Order some for yourself and tell ‘em Herbis Orbis sent you: Five Flavors Herbal Pharmacy.
Need simulacra? See pictures of my week in Santa Cruz here.
Next up: Last weekend’s Beltaine report, plus a very humble recounting of a brilliant, inspiring and breathtaking treatment Ima did of the Psyche/Eros myth.