Meeting Sacred Illness
by Michael Ortiz Hill
THIS little book is about initiation: the transformation of illness into sacred illness. It is about dis-memberment and re-membering, the dis-integration of a life and re-integration into a new life. It is an intimately personal story but not personal at all. As a nurse and a healer I ve seen this story live the afflicted in so many ways but the core is archetypal, long preceeding the life of any human being. It is, indeed, one of the oldest stories of healing in the medicine ways people have kept faith with for thousands of years.
All true stories are individual, authenticity itself being a most peculiar event. My story is unique as is yours but if we walk the way of sacred illness we meet in the common ordeal of being stripped to the truth of our lives unto the moment of rebirth. The gift of illness, should we attend to its relentless questioning, makes us real. Being made real is what transforms illness into sacrament.
Illness delivers us to a path that can broaden and deepen in its generosity. I hope by telling my story your path might be illuminated.
Dis-membering and Re-membering
MY first introduction to sacred illness began in Zimbabwe, 1996, a mixed community of Shona and Ndebele tribespeople. A young woman joined us in abject confusion. She’d been found sleeping naked in the street in downtown Bulawayo. Her wild statements indicated she was not “mad.” Rather she was suffering from an extreme case of water spirit disease. My friend, Mandaza Kandemwa, a profound healer (nganga) of Shona ethnicity, began initiating her into the ritual tradition of the water spirits, for that is the only way to heal water spirit disease. Thus initiated she could practice as a nganga herself.
The water spirits are the oldest of the midzimu, the invisibles, sometimes called the ancestors though they are beneath and before any genealogical lineage. They call someone to the vocation of healing and peacemaking by visiting water spirit disease on them. I met Mandaza when I was had come to Zimbabwe to talk to a dreamteller about the dreams I’d collected from black Americans that seemed to have African patterns. Mandaza could see in me a “typical water spirit person”: vivid dreams and waking visions, afflicted with an empathy that incapacitates, swings of emotion, perpetual stomach problems, a life history rich in tragedy. Initiation reconciles with these old spirits so they become allies as one heals others. It was then that I entered my first initiation as a nganga.
And this initiation into sacred illness? How does one speak of the illness that undoes one even as it heals? How does one tell the story about the undoing of one’s story? Who is the self that bears witness to the undoing of the self? Does one contrive a self to tell the story? And who is this contrived self? Is he at all an honorable fellow? A trustworthy witness?
All lies in retrospect and all retrospect lies. The land of memory is terra incognita but what of the land of the disintegration of the memories that I knew as terra firma? The place of memory is always contested ground, isn’t it? What is true? And what a tissue of lies rendered believable?
In this lonely place do I sing the body electric, the gimpy walk, the curious torque of mind? Do I sing through the invisible wound that so shapes me, the lesions in my brain stem, frontal lobe, corpus collusum, trailing down the core of my spine through throat and heart chakra? This wound some call multiple sclerosis I call the Guest. MS is an autoimmune disease. The self attacking the self. For that reason I cannot call the Guest an enemy. The deep questions are how to be hospitable to one so fierce in his wisdom.
Dare I encourage the Guest to sing?
Dare I not?
IT began like this. My wife, Deena Metzger, and I were to fly to Liberia to assist our friends Cynthia Travis and Bill Saa with their extraordinary vision of peacemaking in that ravaged country. Their non-profit, Everyday Ghandis, works with grassroots peacemakers in West Africa and they were called to revive the “feasting rites” so disrupted by the brutal civil war. With feasting the dead are able to “cross the river” to the land of the ancestors. Without feasting the dead are disoriented and sometimes dangerous. War might then proceed from the brittle, fragile peace.
It was roughly a month before our flight that Deena and I went for our vaccines. Some were required, like Yellow Fever. Some recommended. The travel doctor suggested that I have a meningitis vaccine and Deena asked if that was safe with my multiple sclerosis diagnosis. He assured us it was.
“Are you sure?”
So much for certainty.
My descent into the inner sanctum of the Guest began simply enough. First I started losing movement on my right side, often unable to lift the foot, often falling on the street or rushing to the bathroom. Within a week I couldn’t drive, my eyes going. Blindness? That happens with MS but I didn’t know. In fact I didn’t know anything. Spiritually, darkness was coming towards me. Light was being sucked away.
I had two weeks to recover use of my faculties before we flew to West Africa. Although I was skeptical I approached my neurologist, Dr. Shimizu, for an order of Decadron.
As a nurse I knew Decadron well. A steroid, it brings down the swelling of the nervous system when the patient is taken by an exacerbation of MS. It also routinely deprives patients of sleeps and drives them nuts. For twenty years I’d seen this as a caretaker. I’ve often said, “give me death. I’m ready—but please dear God don’t make me a patient!” But here I was, Decadron taper: beginning with six milligrams and titrating slowly to one. Fourteen days of what seems like sheer madness to those who hold you dear.
“Fourteen days!” my wife scoffs. “More like a month and a half. You do an injustice to others who go through this if you make it smaller.” She is right, of course. I was quite bent. But such a passage only makes sense within the story of descent and emergence. After fourteen days I began emerging. Began.
I knew Decadron to be a “sundowner” drug. At first the days are bright and cheerful. Six expressos over breakfast with a dear friend. But then sleeplessness begins eroding away the habitual mind and one is taken into that essential loneliness of being swept by visions you know to be impossibly true though no one else can see them. There could be no argument with what others see; you know exactly why they think you mad. It is after midnight and through to the rising of the sun that Decadron truly called the Guest to sing.
Having tried for so long to live the life that was larger than life I found myself suddenly so much smaller than I imagined. Unable to walk, write, drive, make love. Unable to wield a spoon or fork. Drooling as my wife fed me. Unable to speak. Unable to find the English words for simple statements. Strangely unafraid, unable to find fear anywhere—not out of great courage rather the bliss of imbecility. And so I found myself laughing and laughing. Unable to stop speaking. Unable to convince those closest to me I’m not a danger to myself. Writhing all night, every night refusing the temptation of even longing for sleep.
How did I imagine illness could be a tidy affair? I am a nurse am I not? Yes the untidy psyche but please not incontinent of urine, no wet blanket or wet rug, no spilled urinals or urinals not found, no peeing in my boot as recourse in the parking lot of Seven Eleven. And certainly not incontinent of stool, beshitting myself for the third time, this morning running through the cold air naked again catching a portion in my hand. And so I ask, in the dead of night, do the gods give a rusty goddamn what I refuse? I refuse the obscene fate, paralyzed, covered in shit, Deena’s undoing as she approaches seventy. Deena’s quite healthy but lives without illusion. She could live to ninety or this could be her last year. Whatever she might offer in this life now is the time to do so. Tell me—do the gods give a fig?
The Guest is a bluesman isn’t he? But within this sorrow song the paring away of history, memory, the self made up of various fictions. It is in this I met the sacred ground of dis-memberment.
The radical clarity of decadron is so insane in its pitch that soon one begins disintegrating: one’s self images, pristine, precisely shaped, now a sugar cube dissolving in warm water. This dissolving of self, this flux between the falling apart of MS and the disintegration of Decadron followed the vivid sensual truth of memory—not “as if it were just yesterday” but that it be the truth of now undiminished by the passage of time. It was over the edge of memory that I began the death of my deaths.
It’s 1972, Redlands, California and I’m a fifteen year old driven mad by the war. Night after night the same dream. I’m in Vietnam, a fire fight. I must kill or be killed, kill and perhaps be killed. I’m paralyzed. I awake in a sweat. I am Catholic, crazy with Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi, Silent Night and Jingle Bells smeared across America and everyday I pass by a Marine Corps recruitment sign in front of the post office and I’d hallucinate “Marine Corpse.” Truth in advertising.
Four years later, homeless in Santa Cruz to the north. My friend Chuck, a bit deranged, meets me on the street in apparent ecstasy. “Cambodia has been liberated,” he tells me. We both weep. Chuck is a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and this is the best news either of us had heard out of Southeast Asia for years.
Just three days into Decadron and memories begin cascading, cascading and I watch
“The Weather Underground,” a superb documentary on the Weathermen. Footage of Timothy Leary, soon to be sprung from the California Men’s Colony by the Underground. Leary walking across the lawn inside the prison (I remember visiting my friends there). Walking across the lawn, children playing while Mom visits Dad in his orange jump suit. Remember especially the lobby inside thick with cigarette smoke. Tex Watson, of Manson family fame, preaching Jesus to a fellow prisoner on my left and further to my left in the corner, the guard Garcia, cruel of face but clearly bored.
Jimmy was, in my mind, an older man, a mentor: street smart, funny: all of twenty-four. He was greatly entertained when I spoke of the “black mystique.” “Yeah we got lots of that in prison here. You wouldn’t believe how full of ‘mystique’ we all are.”
These memories were the beginning of the death of the death of a young hero. Not the
death I so longed for but that longing for death dying on the soiled sheets of a middle-aged man and his Guest.
The young man, aspiring to be a hero, climbs into a story, gestates there, makes the story very real, reality itself. And then the illness that yearns to be sacred, which is to say yearns toward authenticity and meaning, disintegrates what has seemed for so long to be meaning itself. The melting away of persona is the Guest’s most excellent gift, the moment of his song that calls for freedom. It is this that makes illness sacred.
BEFORE I’d met Jimmy I’d gone to the forest to be alone and pray. Three years homeless and I didn’t know what I lived for. During my month of solitude I read George Jackson’s account of time in prison. Eldridge Cleaver. Malcolm X’s autobiography. It was clear that the revolution was behind bars. And it was black.
When I emerged from the woods I picked up the Berkeley Barb and looked for politically motivated black prisoners who were seeking pen pals.
For five years I probably wasn’t a member of the Black Liberation Army. Or was I? My friends in prison were or were not members of the BLA.We were or weren’t going to southern Italy to train with the PLO at the country estate of a woman in the Italian Communist Party. We were or were not going to Rhodesia to fight apartheid. The fog of untruth was so thick and I was so eager to be accepted that I cannot claim that I have any sense of what this chapter of my life was about though it shaped much of who I was to become.Was I a patsy? Well I did volunteer didn’t I? Willingly and willfully gullible. I was, after all, a brother. But who was Jimmy and the mastermind Trevor other than two young black guys with a shared fondness for Lenin, Chairman Mao and Earth, Wind and Fire?
Curious, isn’t it, says the Guest, that this seminal story upon which you’ve rooted much of your adult life might not be in the least true. He enjoys his laughter, this Guest. A real card. Curious indeed.
This I know to be true. For those five years when I was or was not an exceptionally pale black revolutionary my daily meditation was whether or not I’d be willing to pick up the gun. My old nightmares returned. Is it heroic to be killed because of your hesitancy to kill another? We know this to be a common but unspoken story as taps are played over coffins draped in flags. Buried in what is unspoken all soldiers are unknown.
The most fortunate of educations to spend those years with that dread question: do I pick up the gun or not? Two things tipped the scale. The birth of my daughter, her drooling and her dirty diapers. And the news from Cambodia, the hell of Nixon’s war deepened and thickened by its “liberators”: Pol Pot with his dreams of Rousseau aiming to “Year Zero.” Not in this life will I kill another.
I did end up in Rhodesia twenty years later. Now Zimbabwe and, blabbermouth that I am, I told this story to Mandaza on the eve of my initiation. He in turn told the tribe, “He is Shona like us. Like us he is Ndebele. He almost fought in our War of Independence.” Privately, he told me, “I know why you didn’t fight in our war. Your spirits are peacemakers. They are not warriors.”
Among so many people the young man goes to the edge of the world to gather stories to bring back to the tribe about the nature of life at the edge of the world. The stories of death barely avoided are most prized.
For example when in San Salvador when the country was gripped by civil war, I walked the streets when the death squads roamed, thinking, I’m risking my life that I might return with a story.
For years after my first initiation in Africa a story that the hero told was that he was accepted as a medicine man by these dear souls who had known the boot heel of white supremacy because, he said, he almost fought alongside them. Yet once Mandaza told me I was trusted for my tears.
The hero is a storyteller. He is entranced by his own stories to be sure. A legend in his own mind. But the sheer pleasure of an audience! A private hallucination now a shared sacrament! He meditates for years on end, prays for deliverance, and then the Guest arrives at his door.
The Guest is an undoer of stories. He is the one who leads through the gate of not-knowing. Is he then the Redeemer? Not such a happy ending or maybe just don’t splice an ending midway through the story. The Guest is a very unsentimental teacher.
I climb out of bed. Two hours of sleep after dawn. I’m halfway through my Decadron taper. Seven days. My wife in the library, counseling a client when I fall and hit my ribs on my newly acquired walker. I fall on my right side where I have little strength and for ten minutes refuse calling out for help. I lay patiently aware that I’ve quite fallen out of the cinematic frame. I mean would I watch a movie with this dead space, the protagonist, once a hero, unable to find his way to his feet without assistance? I never notice that I lived my life as if an invisible camera was recording for posterity. Eventually I am able to roll onto my belly and get halfway up on a single knee, push my face against the bed and voila I’m almost bipedal. I do not tell Deena about my fall and assure that I slept well.
It hurts when I laugh. When I cry. When I breathe too deeply. Did I break my ribs?
When the client’s gone Deena feeds me. Delicious ginger and turmeric soup. Pureed. I drool from my right cheek and she wipes the drool. When she does this a second and then third time I burst into tears.
“I’m not a child! I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!” I shout like a two-year old. “I can feed myself!” But alas I can’t. Not without making a complete mess.
After lunch I draw to myself the lucidity of the truly paranoid. We’ve only just begun and
I can see how weary Deena is and how worried.
“Listen baby. I know this story. I’m a nurse. It goes like this: the newly handicapped spouse will push the limits of what he is capable of cause he’s gotta know what he can do. Otherwise it’s all despair. His dignity depends on it though occasionally he will fall on his face.
“His wife on the other hand will hover over him and preempt his independence cause she’s scared. That’s the script so you know. Whatever anger flies between us during this time is not for a moment personal.”
Of course she could see that I was trying to convince her to get out of my face and we leapt immediately into the contest of wills that I knew to be scripted. How clever I was! Now I am the triumphant two year old only occasionally physically trying to gasp a lost word with my right hand. “Como se dice en Ingles?” I’d say since Spanish would come sometimes before English. Only a full bladder could interrupt a good fight. I’ve peed my pants altogether too many times of late and could see that the coast was clear to the toilet, Akasha, our wolf asleep in the bedroom. I leapt to my feet, yes heroically, to make a beeline only to fall after three steps.
Akasha is a phenomenal healer, her squeals nipping the bud of any impulse toward self-pity. Quick to my side she can’t bear to see a loved one bawling and demands instant demonstration of love. Laughing and crying, I petted the underside of her belly and soon she folds into reassurance.
“You won that one, baby. I’m sorry,” I tell Deena.
Isn’t the two-year old the avatar of the hero archetype? Imperfectly potty trained. Walking, falling, getting up. Learning to talk. The master of chaos becoming the master of order. Fierce in his independence and furious if anyone impedes his obvious maturity.
That seemed to be the story of the day. I was learning to walk, slowly. I was learning to not pee all over myself. Even more slowly. Thinking was emerging in conversation. Deena and I fought frequently, suffering our love. Such were my days. But, as I said, it was night when Decadron invited the Guests wild song. It was at night that the Guest insisted I sing the truth of my life.
I found myself composing an essay in my mind: What Western Medicine Doesn’t Know About Drugs. We look at Decadron as a pharmaceutical like so many, its untamed nature compensated with another: in my case the “sleeper” Ambien, which I also knew as a nurse was likely to throw me over the edge.
Among my people in Zimbabwe I’ve used ipopo in the rites of death so critical for initiation. The herb is called respectfully Ambuya (Grandmother) and one approaches her with the old songs and ritual decorum for she is very wise. In the north of the country, deep in the Zambezi basin, the Tonga tribe use bangi and for the Bushmen of Botswana its dagga. Among Buddhist monks in Asia it’s the reiki mushroom that deepens meditation and in Mexico among the Mazatec it is los ninos ( the psilocybe mushrooms). Peyote cactus is a profound sacrament among so many Christian and traditional Native Americans. If one has any knowledge at all of cross-cultural and intertribal medicine traditions one can only be stunned at the naivete with which an ally like Decadron is administered. Of course I approached the drug with fear but my training in Africa held me in good stead. What if I were to treat it as spirit medicine, allow it to mount me or ride it where it would? Decadron was more than useful in the necessary falling apart of a false self.
AT night the death of the hero’s death continued apace. After I had seen that my sojourn with the BLA was possibly fiction I found all the stories that made me larger than life equally suspect. It is the end of a young man when the heroic aspiration, which he took to be the unique truth of his uniqueness, bleeds into historical stereotype, his passions that of the collective at its most unconscious.
Night after night the big story of myself stripped like the black bark of a willow switch peeled to white and raw, fresh pain. My awkward body was beginning to feel limber, my fat body lithe.
I was working in the wreckage of San Salvador, after the earthquake. 1986. At night I’d climb onto the roof of the Hotel Colon, and look north to the Guazapa volcano. Just fifteen kilometers from the capital, for years guerilla held territory.
Flash of fields of red light. Carpet bombing? I’ve always said so. My perverse longing for Vietnam. Likely heat lightening. Or just very quiet bombs.
Strip the bark away. Strip. Strip.
Parque Balboa where the death squads take their victims, shoot them at the cliffside, give them to the vultures. I walk two kilometers to the killing fields, past a concession playing Elvis’ “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true”.
I have an almost pornographic need to be with the dead. A lurid desire to see the wet, raw core of war.
A couple makes love in the bushes. I look away at the circling vultures and those perched on the rocks. I meditate with them. Watch them watch El Salvador.
Strip. Strip. To the white, raw pain. A manchild hungry to comprehend what is incomprehensible.
A month later I am in Esteli, Nicaragua studying Spanish and living with Dr. Lazaro, a Sandinista pediatrician, and his family. The contras had come the previous night and tortured, murdered a teenage boy in a cornfield. Reagan’s freedom fighters. I accompanied much of the city in a funeral procession. As he was lowered down his older sisters restrained wailing mamá, who wanted to throw herself into the grave.
That evening I got quite drunk with a couple of fellow “Sandalistas,” young Americans bearing witness to the crucifixion of this little country. Hunger was pervasive because of the sanctions. American warships off the Atlantic coast and troops doing war games north in Honduras, a hundred miles away. Should it come to invasion, how to greet the GIs? Few of us could think about anything else.
When I returned to Dr. Lazaro’s house it was dark, the family asleep. Ten o’clock, late by Nicaraguan standards. I didn’t want to wake anybody, didn’t want to be seen so shamelessly drunk, so I climbed the tree near the gate and straddled the high cement fence. Soon I heard whispering on the other side. I hesitated and then announced myself.
For an hour I sat with Dr. Lazaro, his pistol in his lap, his hands shaking. Over and over again, he said, “You came that close to going home in a body bag.” He had the gun trained on me presuming I was contra instead of a drunken American who didn’t know how to deport himself in a war zone. He explained the stakes. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that your death doesn’t belong to you? Your President Reagan is looking for any excuse to invade this county and me killing you would be sufficient!”
And on and on. Stripping to the raw white pain, stripping away the young hero to the story of a young tourist in hell.
My friend Peter Levitt says that whomever claims he has a special connection to Spirit is a thief. Have I not always been such a thief?
And so it is that the hero gets older, ripens from the delusions of a young man to the delusions of an older man. As the death of the hero’s death kicked my crutches from me, I found myself veering to the death of the death of noble one, venerable bugger that he is.
I began cultivating the noble one’s death right after my father passed when I was twenty. I was systematic, assiduous. First I had to make myself noble, of course.
“O ye of noble birth!” says the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Simultaneous with my ventures in prison I trained with Lama Sogyal on how to prepare for death and how to find my way after death through the “in between” space of the bardo. I was intrigued that in Tibetan Buddhism all is bardo, all is space, and so the preparation for death is the same as living the present fully.
Simultaneous with my years with Sogyal I was a hospice volunteer. My daughter Nicole had just been born into my arms so I thought that of tending to the dying as a form of midwifery. And from there I became a nurse.
The young man longed for a heroic death, the well placed bullet that would declare once and for all that he lived his life for the poor and would withhold nothing from them. The older man wanted a noble death to confirm a noble life. Death the ultimate and final gift showing without a question his life-long generosity. I’ve witnessed such deaths. I’ve helped midwife them. And damn if I was going to be deprived of mine!
This fetish, of course, is the refuge of the ridiculous. Narcissism is a venus fly trap, omnivorous, snatching whatever flies free—which is to say everything—and making it “mine.” Nothing is exempt from its hunger, nothing not seduced by its poetry. I recycled my noble death through a thousand and one patients. Vicariously each death was “my” dress rehearsal. Am I to be, now, the hapless soul made holy by a neuromuscular disease, by the yielding of my legs, my mind?
Get a grip.
This private folklore has been refined and refined again to the point of being almost scripture.
And then there’s that other realm of fantasy, the hero on the fast track to nobility, barrelassing to Buddhahood.
On my fortieth birthday I went off to the forest to spend four months alone in my hermit cave. After three months I was haunted by memory, detail after detail of the transgressions of my adolescence. I decided I had raped a madwoman, not knowing I had done so at the time. Naming it other than “rape.”
Had I? Not really. I didn’t coerce her, she resisted nothing nor did she passively succumb fearing violence. When she called out “Danny”—the name of another homeless longhair—I stopped.
All this was tainted and unjustifiable. I manipulated her for sure. Like so many memories of that time, ambiguous and sticky but far from rape. Nonetheless I wrote of it as such, published it even, as a feminist morality tale. Why would I lie? And to whom?
Poor St. Anthony, alone for twenty years, conjuring demons and by the grace of God defeating them. And me, just a few months alone following that path. I needed to demonize myself because I couldn’t bear the boy I had been. Solitude was the machinery of catharsis, forgiving those who had violated me as I yielded to God’s forgiveness. In ethical matters I am for sure an autodidact, especially when it comes to women. I had declared myself a feminist before I knew a man could be one. I was sixteen.
In the fiction of the rape I was scoured clean. Forgiven I could start again. I knew I was vulnerable to evil so I walked, I believe, with more care and humility. Did I then believe the lie? Well yes. Then.
I’ve always been a sucker for stories about those who’ve done evil and let their heart break. The possibility of any such story being true gives me reason for hope because we all know how rare it is. My daughter tells me that when she heard that Hitler committed suicide, young as she was, she thought that he could not bear what he had wrought. In my case the story of the rape falls squarely in the category of “isn’t it true that Michael is larger than life.” How utterly embarrassing my secret desire to be remembered as a feminist saint.
The Decadron is tapering to one milligram from the original six. I am beginning to sleep four hours at a stretch. At three A.M. I thumb through the catalogue of my possible deaths. Those I’ve aspired to and those I outright reject.
Ché Guevara? Why not Camilo Torres, priest revolutionary gunned down in the jungles of Columbia? Or better—Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Oscar Romero. The peacemakers.
How about Thomas Merton? Nah. Too accidental. Fifty three years old—my father’s age when he died! Just a week after Merton sees the Buddha in Ceylon among the statuary he takes his Catholic self to a conference in Thailand on interreligious dialogue and electrocutes his ass on a hotel fan!
Then there’s the Great Bandini, tight rope artist extraordinaire. He slipped on a banana peel and snapped his neck.
Of course I’m attracted to the Zen master who asked his befuddled monks whether they had ever seen anyone die standing on his head. While they look sideways at each other stammering, he stands on his head, stops breathing and enters parinirvana. What style! I’d blow it though. I know that. I’m too much of a ham to pull off the Zen thing and although I’ve always wanted to be remembered as a Zen Idiot, I suspect I’d just be an idiot plain and simple.
And so I take this catalogue, thousands of pages thick, to the recycling. I’ve lived my life as if my death were mail ordered, but from whom? And until it arrives, no doubt nicely wrapped, the endless rehearsals of the mind. The rehearsals were essential as rehearsals are for any great act: heroic, noble, certainly not ridiculous, sordid, meaningless, arbitrary.
I’ve crafted my life around the fantasy of the perfect death, all of my spiritual life funneled that I might meet it with aplomb, but now I say let death fly free of my fantasies, free of my crafting of an overly large self. Que viva la muerte libre! Que viva!
And why not let the damn Guest run free as well, unimprisoned by my noble agendas. Que viva la Guest libre! Que viva!
I awake before Deena, walk slowly into the living room without the walker, without even my walking stick. I’m insistent about not falling. I’ve woken her up too many times with the “crash.” Deprived of sleep from my chaos, she’s working full time in our house seeing clients.
I read a little book about Thomas Merton and am stunned to find my eyes not only good but far better than they’ve been in a couple of years. I’d finally conceded to my middle aged self—reading glasses—but now not necessary. I’m not holding the book at arm’s distance.
I take a pen to clean paper and write, “I love you Deena.” After three attempts its readable though clearly the script of a palsied five year old. When Deena awakes I make her tea. My gate is slow and deliberate—I’ve fallen many times with a child’s impulse to show off. But I can’t help but show off my writing.
There is such a terrible distance between us. Unbearable really. The mania of Decadron has worn her thin and it has made me singularly unable to give words to what I am going through. I speak too fast and too long, give her not a moment to speak her truth. What must be said never is. There is no context. How do I speak of the death of my deaths without sounding mad? I am giddy with resurrection, for the moment not willing to distinguish between the frivolous and the sensible because everything is possible. “MS is the best thing that ever happened to me, can’t you see! I’d recommend it to anybody! Surely some wicked doctor could cultivate a strain of temporary MS so your legs and mind and bladder and eyes…” She is less than enthused when I sing her my redoing of Madonna: “Just like a baby,” I croon, “just like the very first time.”
“I found a piece of your shit wrapped in newspaper in your office,” she says. “What’s that about?” I stop sober.
I explain to her that I was afraid of beshitting myself again and so I wrapped it up, tamale-like. “I didn’t want you to know. I was humiliated.”
I thought that I had thrown it in the outdoor garbage. Had I hallucinated that? Possibly. Did I do this twice? Maybe.
Deena has been stripped down, naked but for her shadow. I’ve never seen her more frightened. Never have I suffered so much as the object of her fear. Maddening to each of us to be the subject of that insight that we’ve both long used in our healing practices: in an intimate couple the disease of either belongs to both. Both of us taken down, gasping, drowning. Both of us skinned alive, flesh corroding. Both straining for the music of survival.
“This is harder than my father’s death, harder than my cancer and mastectomy,” she says, sobbing. Harder, she says than the death of her friend, soul mate, Barbara Myerhoff. “This is the invasion of the body snatchers. You have been taken over. Who have you become? I don’t recognize you.”
As I listen I realize she thought I was not returning, even thought perhaps dying. This shocks me. The story I know I’m in is so completely different. How can it be that a couple sharing such a remarkable marriage and living under the same roof could actually be on completely different continents? She really thought I had snapped because of the MS itself. I knew Decadron to be Decadron and sleep was becoming possible. The hyperanimation would pass. Meanwhile I was writing again! I could walk! I could read without glasses and my concerns about blindness faded behind me! I wasn’t drooling as much!
IT was obvious that Deena and I needed to be separate a while before we drove each other crazy. For myself solitude beckoned, for alone I could tell this story to myself and perhaps understand a little of it.
It is the oldest of the old stories, isn’t it? Not for a moment personal but when you live it, intimate to the bone. The man called to be a shaman presents himself before his elder, in this case a grizzled old fellow who goes by the name “the Guest.” The Guest invites a guest, Decadron, and together they tear him asunder, dis-member him so not even his wife recognizes him. The stories, in fact, that made him recognizable to himself have been thrown to the crows.
And so I come to this place, Pema Osel Ling, a Buddhist retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains to meditate and re-member a new self. This is the oldest story of initiation on this dear green planet and I seem to be in it.
But like all stories it demands simple sequence, point A to point B, when in fact an extensive community has been re-membering me in prayer and ritual for weeks now. My story, thus far—Michael writhing as Deena falls apart—is really untrue or at least very much incomplete. In a layered story so much happens simultaneously. Throughout this time I writhed and sometimes fell asleep on a bed of prayers. And I awoke on a bed of prayers.
My oldest friend, Jay Salter, came down at the edge of my falling apart. “You are an advanced scout, brother.” Jay always recollecting his mortal self. “Yes,” I laugh. “Onward into the dark!” He bathed me when I was unable to get in and out of the tub by myself. Out of sheer shyness I hadn’t let him see me naked since I was a fifteen-year-old boy. He reminded me occasionally that I was bonkers, that it wasn‘t just Deena being a control freak.
My daughter Nicole also met me at the threshold. We staggered into the night together and caught a movie. The vastness of the big wide world!
When we came out a beggar sat on the sidewalk near the marquee. She with a cough and the night being frigid. She with a missing leg. I remember such cold nights when I was homeless.
We called for a taxi to take Marilyn to a cheap hotel, gave her eighty dollars for the driver, a room and bite to eat. As we tried helping her into the cab she was taken with paranoia, the driver Guatamalan and she raw in some racial wound. I apologized to the driver and gave him a tip.
Nicole suggested we drive her ourselves, so we went on an odyssey, the three of us. We bought her some candy, fruit and a fifth of bourbon to warm her limbs. After three attempts we found a vacant hotel. Having her wait in the car with Nicole, I went into the office and parlayed the currency of my handicapped self that this frightened handicapped woman might be warm.
I never had this kind of adventure with my daughter. To conspire in a random act of kindness. Her openness and warmth, her lack of judgement. I could see the kind of adult she has become at twenty-seven. In this I was re-membered.
Nicole returned home to Oregon and the next week I received a letter from her. “Have you allowed yourself to grieve?” she asked. “Have you allowed others to hold you while you released yourself completely to healing? I believe this time for fighting to keep normalcy has to end in order for deeper healing to begin. You must allow others to care for you now not as a child but with compassion and respect for this great undoing you are undergoing. Sit with yourself, reflect deeply on your current struggle and allow yourself to come undone. You are safe with your loved ones nearby and the loving earth beneath you. My sweet father, this is my prayer for you.”
When such a letter comes from an adult child one is re-membered. I assured her that her advice was well received, that I was quite falling to pieces.
Circles of healers and me submitting to their art. Ursula Popp was first and as I tried to yield to her craniosacral manipulation—the very air of subtlety—I was surprised by my spasmodic resistance. I’d been reading of the transfer of slaves from the Carolinas to Liberia knowing that some might be kin, and ancestor having held slaves there in the 19th Century. “This wound is at least two centuries deep,” I said, knowing that in my body she was healing a history that long preceded me. I could scarcely lay still.
Dr. Richard Grossman with his needles and his wacky humor, the trust of peers.
Sometimes my rare sleep came with his treatments.
Dr. Bill Gray, my homeopath, evaluating me in a cold outdoor café as my legs would not take me upstairs to his office.
And then the healers acting from a great distance. I’d meditate and receive the ministrations of Dr. Karen Brummel-Smith in Florida; Leslie Fell who Mandaza and I initiated in Africa working from Canada. Wouter, “the last of the Neolithic healers,” doing me from the UK and Flor de Mayo, a Mayan chiman, casting her thread from Santa Fe.
Deena and I spent a day together before I went off to solitude—telling the stories and forgiving this season of anger. I understand that she wasn’t so much afraid of me—though she sometimes was—but afraid for me and us. She thought I was lost and there was nothing she could do. Gingerly she tested the water. “Is it possible you are back?” “Yes. I’m back.”
The relief of sanity, pausing before each other’s beauty—weathered bliss to be sure. I think of the story of Chuang Tzu listening to the complaint of the lumberjack before a gnarled oak. “Look at this tree! Hah! It’s useless! You can’t cut a straight plank from a tree like this!” Deena and I are such trees—tender to each other’s asymmetry. Her one breast. I once told her two breasted women seem a bit unnatural to me. My stuttered walk and my mad mind. When she gave me my walking stick she said, “this is not because you’re debilitated. It is because you now must lean on the ancestors.” As I enter solitude I know we’re both each other’s walking stick.
I started reading the writings of the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, when I was fourteen. I was taken by his memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, and through my adolescence I thought I’d become a monk. I was even more taken by his writing on solitude and they planted in me an inexorable longing. Since then I returned to the woods occasionally to spend weeks or months alone in prayer and reflection. Solitude had been my mistress and I’ve been faithful through two marriages.
As a young man I set sail on the longings of a monk who so much wanted to be alone but rarely was. For twenty-five years the abbot at Gethsemane Monastery sabotaged his longing and Merton conceded obediently. After all was a monk not a communal fellow? His efforts to be transferred to a Camaldolese Monastery that honored the vocation of solitude were rejected. Merton’s books brought in substantial royalties.
Finally three years before his death he had a little hermitage at Gethsemane. He taught friends the secret route and some taught their friends. It was here he wrote his exquisite essays on solitude and contemplation that have so influenced the Catholic world. Now the vocation of the hermit is widely accepted.
I told this story to my friend John Seeley, formerly my analyst. “I laid the foundation of my spiritual life on Merton’s longing! By the time I was twenty I had more opportunity to be alone than he ever did. He wrote so beautifully about solitude but died without being able to live it. I didn’t know this until now.”
“I guess the only truthful thing you can say about anyone’s identity is tautalogical: ‘I am that which I am,’” replied John.
“‘I am that which I am.’ Not ‘I am a hermit.’ Sounds like Popeye to me.”
John laughed. “Actually it’s what God said to Moses on Sinai.”
“Is Popeye then the Messiah?”
Here I am alone and the Guest can’t resist a wisecrack:
“Let me get this straight. Your life as an African witchdoctor begins with a story that probably wasn’t true. Either that or the fact that you weep at the drop of a hat, is that it? And your spiritual life is rooted in the waters of longing of a long dead monk who could scarcely find a moment alone but wrote so beautifully about the virtues of solitude. Right. And this is what you call a ‘life story’? This is a ‘self’? This your path to becoming a ‘human being’? Melt away brother! Melt away!”
Spoken like a true blue Buddhist, Mr. Guest.
Pema Osel Ling is lovely. One hundred and sixty acres of redwoods and deep solitude. It is here where I melt in a tiny cabin, twelve by twelve. My company are the stellar jays and the squirrels. I’m told that the Tibetan Lama, Tharchin Rinpoche, is in the redwoods somewhere but I’ve yet to see him. If my dis-memberment was about the death of my deaths it is here where I re-member to re-member.
As I settled in I corrected the manuscript of Sacred Illness, Sacred Medicine soon to be published by Elik. Perhaps now I can hear Deena’s words from her keynote address at the American Holistic Medical Association conference. I’d come out of solitude on my grandfather’s land to be at the event, was just adjusting to the scent of other people, when she surprised me by using my apprenticeship with MS as part of her talk.
“Michael sometimes speaks of the spirit of MS. He means that he, as patient and healer, is apprenticing to the disease and what it reveals about the needs and nature of the body and the body politic. MS is an inflammatory autoimmune disease of the central nervous system wherein damaged nerve fibers are unable to fully or reliably transmit communication signals to the rest of the body. It is a disease on the rise in a society, a world, that is enraged, violent, and militant….We think Michael succumbed to MS because we must learn to heal our inflamed hearts and souls and he has the capacity to address this. Don’t give yourself to being healed until you know the story of the disease,” says Deena.
I couldn’t quite understand these words when she spoke them. Perhaps this is the way it is with disease. It inheres so much in one’s character that you are the last to see it—until you fall apart. Decadron! The great anti-inflammatory! What me inflamed? Inflammatory? On fire? Setting fires? Playing with fire? Sweet pacifist Buddhist hippie me? And yet my life tells the story of an inflamed sense of self, fire forever seeking more fire, forever the nostalgia for Vietnam knowing it only in my nightmares. Hearth and home for me has been mostly the stoking of hearth. I was most myself in the flames.
My first night alone I consult my private oracle, Amor Fati. My question is “who speaks to me as I move into solitude here?” The card is a photograph of my sixty year old self. My artist friend, Stephan Hewitt, superannuated a picture of me from my wedding with Deena. The sixty year old is one of five “older brothers,” aged fifty to ninety.
The gent looks like a good egg, serious, melancholy. Hangs a bit beneath the eyes and jowls but altogether handsome and a snappy dresser. His hair has receded and the hair that remains is quite gray. He calls himself the Silver Fox. I call him “SF” and much enjoy sharing my time alone with he and the Guest.
SF hails from the spring of 2016. Given how confusing and clearly important this time has been I inquire his insight. After all he know the Guest better than I. Using Stephen Karcher’s translation of the I Ching, Total I Ching:Myths for Change,and three pennies, his answer is direct and stunning in its precision.
Hexagram 23. Stripping. “Strip away old ideas, eliminate what is outmoded and worn
out…Literally, Stripping represents the first burial or exposure of the corpse to animals and elements, when the flesh is rotted and stripped away.”
The sixty year old doesn’t lie, does he? Four changing lines, three in the inner trigram—which means this is a cycle of stripping away my whole inner life for the sake of renewal.
First changing line—that place where the life force enters the root of the intimate self: “This means what is below can disappear. You have to confront basic questions of support and intimacy, the place where you feel at home. It isn’t working now. Strip the old away. Take a stand for change.”
“Don’t turn this into a ghost to be gotten rid of,” it continues. And the second line, in the heart of the interior, concurs: “don’t turn this into a ghost.” And the third changing line more thorough and emphatic— “This is letting go of both above and below. The time is now. Do it! Strip away the old. By taking decisive action you can renew yourself and your relations. This is not a mistake. Don’t be sidetracked.”
“Stripping means something is rotten.”
The Guest, not to be mistaken for “a ghost to be exorcised,” smiles like the Buddha cat that has swallowed a canary. For myself my first week alone was pure hell. I stumbled over the fourth changing line:
“This is slicing close to calamity. You are getting carried away with the renovation of your life and are about to do serious harm. This is not what this time is about. Pull back, let go for now, or you may see yourself alone.”
Slicing close to calamity? That can only mean my marriage. It has been so harsh. I’ve left the land of Decadron, its profundity and frivolity, far behind and I’m beginning to see who I was those weeks through Deena’s eyes. It is bitter beyond telling.
I spend a week ripening in my pain, meditating and refusing the almost physical temptation to call. Then I do.
“You are not leaving me are you? It’s been very hard here. I’m beginning to see who I was these weeks through your eyes and I am so sorry that I frightened you so.”
Her response was simple and when we were not wresting in the mud she had said it when we were together. “None of this was your fault, Michael. Both of us were beyond what we could handle.” And, “we’ve been together nineteen years. You think I’d leave? I’m not that kind of girl.”
( Later I read Karcher elaborating on the Silver Fox’s wisdom in his unpublished Crossline Omens and Trigram texts: “You have found the central illusion causing the disorder. This will free you from affliction, but you must act slowly and carefully. Hide your light for now and accept the difficult task. Do not over-react to your previous timidity or you will release a swarm of angry ghosts. Pull back from the crisis and return to yourself. Difficult though this may be, it is not a mistake. These comings and goings release bound energy. Co-operate with the ongoing process of change.”
With this I’m released to the Hermit, which is to say the solitary company of the SF and the Guest. We three break bread together. SF’s words echo from the future and I try to understand their implications.
The moon has been filling to the brim and this morning, long before sunrise, it spilled through the window and woke me up. I left the Guest asleep and sat across him doing tonglen on his behalf.
Tonglen, in Vajrayana Buddhism, is a meditation of compassion. One inhales the suffering of another and exhales loving kindness. Sometimes I’d do it on behalf of patients in the hospital: the wretched, the dying, the bereft, the lonely, the homeless and deranged. As a spiritual practice it cuts through the reflexive fear, the territoriality of ego that imagines another’s suffering as contagious, dangerous.
I can’t project that onto the Guest for he has been impeccable. He sleeps like a baby now, naked, his breath soft, his back to me. I inhale the roseate wound through the core of the spine, through heart and throat chakra. Brain stem, corpus collosum and frontal lobe. I exhale loving kindness and my own scalp tingles.
After an hour I find myself drowsy and curl up with him in bed. In the morning he is gone. Where? Perhaps picking wild mushrooms for the evening meal. I saw boletas and chanterelle below in the redwoods.
I think of the Guest as one of those Japanese monks. Unsui he made of cloud and water. He left me a note:
“These words, like all, being insufficient must nonetheless be said.”
“What you call dis-membering is the most private of private matters but re-membering is not. That crow that eats the remains of the noble one and the young hero—he re-members. The Silver Fox re-members. The ones you pass on the street re-member you.
“When one falls ill one falls into the net of community. The community is the matrix of re-membering, beginning with kin, old friends, new friends extending out through the field of strangers to the community of living beings—the stellar jay, the quail. Did you imagine that the self could re-member itself?
Without this re-membering you remain unknown to yourself, a stranger in the strange land of yourself.
“The community gives the Guest a place in the world.
“And that you have made a fool of yourself? Have we not all done so? Beware the seduction of perfection, the succubi of perfectability. The perfect life, crafted by the perfect death? The Grim Reaper’s got better things to do. The disease tidy and conveniently arranged? Aren’t we all born between shit and piss?
“Step out of framing your life by your most certain death. Now is the time to give the gift that you would give. Give the gift perpetually, unimpeded presence. Waste not a moment, yes, but let each moment be unimpeded by urgency. Who was it who said there is no time not to love?
“Leave behind your house and home for it is on fire. It has burned for years like this and your mere presence feeds the flames. Let ash be ash. Let the dead bury the dead then learn about heroism and nobility. You knew nothing. You still know nothing.
“Look kindly on the boy you once were for he has survived a world of violence.
“Chop wood, carry water and clean up your shit! Make some tea and meditate. Watch the stellars squawk and peck at the rice you threw into the wild strawberries. Meditate. Chop wood, carry water and clean up your damn shit already. Give rice to the finches and the quail. And don’t forget the doves.
“This is the way of the Buddha ancestors.”
IT has been several weeks now since I was at Pema Osel Ling. At first I wept quite a lot, was occasionally enraged. What life was I to live? I felt no impulse to find it. The noble and heroic one quite gone, their familiar willfulness gone as well.
I dreamt a woman came to sell some computer doo-dad. “It will make your computer work so much faster.” Faster? Why would I want faster? Efficiency. More and more effectiveness. Why would I want much of anything? “Besides,” I explained, “I won’t be needing a computer. I’ll be committing suicide in a couple of months.” I said this very matter of fact without the least drama. Suicide? The thought stapled to the dread of paralysis? I leave the dream to rest, uninterpreted.
But now I am here, home, the rain pouring down and the sound of wind whistling. Yes I left behind a burning house that had been the only house I ever knew. Most curious the life sculpted hour after hour, year after year, within a hallucination and then by some grace the hallucination is revealed even as it crumbles. “Revealed” because it was never really visible to me and with all its sound, fury and fire never would I have seen it as a place of confinement. But now I walk out apparently free. My gait is sometimes almost normal. A different body and mind. Even my recent history seems not long past but the story of someone else altogether. Deena assures me I have changed though I scarcely notice it. If I have changed perhaps, like the hallucination, it is too close to the bone to even see. She fusses much that I secretly purchased a dozen cobalt blue wine glasses wanting to smuggle them one by one onto the shelf above the sink to replace those broken. I imagined her sudden astonishment but alas the glasses I purchased were rather larger than the original so I’d sabotaged my devious act of love. Deena, on the other hand, was surprised that I’d even noticed that we needed cobalt blue glasses and even more surprised that I knew where to buy them. “Women will understand this story. Put it in your essay.” And so here it is.
I confess that I was sometimes too preoccupied with my noble fate to much take note that I lived in a house. For a long time it was the nostalgia for my years of homelessness, especially when the winter got wet and bitter cold. Later I so much longed for those months in my hermits cave diligently crafting my death. But now the story of the young hero and the noble one became at first buffoonery and later irrelevant. I take an inordinate pleasure in the ordinary—gathering wood, washing dishes, shopping, sitting in the bathtub with Deena and laughing. A life gathers to me without my insisting on it.
A Letter to Our Community on the
End of a Siege and the Voices of Frogs
DURING the June fire season of 2004, it rained briefly and we heard frogs in the gully by the grove of oaks, but we didn’t believe that they lived alongside us, that they had always been among us, that we lived among them. This time, in the season of storms on the eve of the New Year, we peered into the night, hopeful but unsure. Then before midnight, when the storms ceased briefly, we walked in the park to the pond where we knew we would hear the frogs singing. After the ordeal and its precise madness, the spirits who’d ravaged us completely, released us once again to the celestial music of frogs and the stars.
It was exactly the way it’s told in the stories: You are taken down. You are stripped of everything. You are skinned alive and boiled down to the elements. So much taken away, so much lost, so much reduced, so much betrayed. Sometimes only the shadow remains of who you were. You wander alone without knowing how or where to go. You lose the power to speak and to pray. You do not recognize each other or yourself. Only when there is nothing left, someone and something begin to cohere.
Lives, we had thought we would offer and devote entirely and endlessly to the world, reversed and required all our energy for simple survival. Work, we had done easily before and with some grace, demanded monumental efforts. The smallest gestures and activities that had long been automatic required new focus, attention and appreciation. Friends we had gathered in camaraderie on behalf of the world now offered themselves to maintain us on the simplest level. Illness that we had tried to understand metaphorically for the sake of healing ravaged us exactly with its particular, most real and terrible knowledge. Nothing was abstract or remote or theoretical. The messenger or affliction that Michael called ‘The Guest” and I warily referred to as “a teacher,” settled in, impervious in the moment, it seemed, to any mediation through understanding or respect. Only our original belief that disease afflicts the family as much as the individual, that it rests in the couple or the marriage or the community, that no one is immune to its impact, that no one escapes anguish or torment and that we all suffer its common jeopardy remained an undeniable truth as we both went mad.
And in this way, what took us down simultaneously raised us up. What looked like hell turned out to be merely an interminable season in the underworld, opening, eventually, to a new light. Another common life stumbled out of dissolution on to its feet. We are recognizably the same and yet entirely different. It could have happened in so many different ways, but those who are fortunate suffer the torment that is designed precisely for them. In this way, we were lucky as no one is exempt from the imprint of the finger of God.
Everything changed and changing. Now, more than ever, we do not know how we will live. All structures we thought were sound and permanent are now to be imagined and rebuilt for the future and for the new lives we hope are emerging. The restoration of our bodies and souls are to be sought alone and then with the help of others and then with each other.
Dear friends and companions on this journey: We have been sustained by your prayers, by the simplest and most intricate of gestures, all equally generous, by the gifts that have come and continue in an endless stream, and by the days of companionship, community, and of solitude, equally kind.
We thank you. And we thank the gods whose activity we recognized even during the worst of our afflictions. We knew we would not be able to do or be what we hope we will do and be without enduring the anguish that has lasted exactly as long as it has needed to last. Healers are not immune to illness. To the contrary, they are educated and trained by it. Without such knowing in their bones they cannot do their work well. If they are fortunate they will learn to meet it well. If they are fortunate they learn something about healing that is real and may be useful for others. If they are fortunate, something is revealed to them that may also be healing for the world. Counting such blessings, we stand together and bow before the strange benevolence that has brought us to this place.
This is being written and enacted on the New Year. From the global misery of 2004, we have somehow garnered gratitude for 2005 with the profound hope that we will be so informed by suffering that we will learn the alphabet of compassion and prevention and that we will find and adhere to the Way that is aligned with beauty, the natural world and the divine.
And so, as we close, we pray with and for the music of the frogs that are, themselves, so besieged on our planet. If we are to heal, then we must create a world in which healing is possible. If we are to heal then we must create a world where the frogs and their watery land is healed as well. We do not want, ever, to forget this.
– Deena Metzger