Michael Ortiz Hill

The old stories tell of something wild and untameable, grievous, terrifying or just plain strange that cuts through the heart of experience.

A young Navajo man told me when he gave up the bottle, "The Singers say liquor belongs to Coyote; so I gave it back to him."

"What do you mean that it belongs to Coyote?" I asked.

"Well, they say that First Man laid all the stars out on a rug and one by one was placing them in the sky all orderly and Coyote came and watched, full of impatience. When he had enough, Coyote grabbed the blanket and scattered the stars down the middle of the sky. Coyote just can't stand too much harmony. He likes liquor; so I gave it back to him. The Singers, you know, sometimes their ceremonies can bring us back to beauty, but they can't get rid of the streak of craziness in the sky. That's permanent."

My Navajo friend had seen Coyote's reflection at the bottom of a bottle, but one way or another we all walk or wobble between First Man's delicate and loving ordering of the Cosmos and the Trickster's irrepressible need to throw it askew. I like this story because it places us all, vulnerable and very alive, in border country. And the borderlands apparently are a place where one meets the extraordinary.

It had been only two days since I'd returned from Africa, body sluggish with jet lag, to be sure, but beyond that my soul uprooted from another dimension of time. I'd been in "the village of the ancestors," the continuation of my apprenticeship as a healer in the tradition of the water spirits. My mind just wasn't in America, in fact couldn't imagine quite how to get there. Such was my dilemma as I stepped out of the elevator to start night shift as a floor nurse at a large urban hospital in Los Angeles.

The old dream of wading through molasses, the flash of movement all around me but my body lumbering. I tried to meet the necessary stress, took to the poison -- half a dozen cups of coffee, but it all seemed so unreal. "You are in a different mind," said my friend Annie. Indeed.

A Buddhist prayer says, "Sentient beings are numberless -- I vow to save them." But occasionally this oath is startled into something like "Buddhas are numberless -- I vow to recognize them." At 2:00 a.m. I was assigned to admitting a fifty-two year old Buddha from emergency room. Hydrocephalic, born with water on the brain.

A small body, his head hugely swollen, feet and hands curled in on themselves, benevolent and inscrutable. At his bedside I was suddenly and quietly if not in America, at least in the present moment. As I performed the routine admission interview, I felt both at ease and awkward -- at ease because I knew I was with a being completely lacking judgment of me, awkward because I couldn't for a moment grasp who he was. Complex or simple? An imbecile or a saint? His father had died, he told me, and his mother (his only caretaker) was getting old. He couldn't walk and was in constant pain but was completely without complaint of any sort. "You are a remarkable man," I said. "You carry your suffering with such grace." Did he understand these words?

"Thank you," he replied. I think he understood, but part of the mystery of the meeting was that there was no way of telling.

An abscess in the foot, ugly but easily treated with antibiotics. I cleaned out the wound and wrapped it in gauze -- the undeniable pleasure of a gesture akin to loving. I call this man the Buddha because he called forth loving, called it from a cloud of disorientation.

He could be loved, this wizened child or whoever he was, but he could not be healed of his fate. The fate that has marked him is the fate he will die with. He was born to a particular community -- one that most of us will join, never willingly. He is of the tribe of the incurables.

As a young man, I was given to the idea that the evidence of a true bearer of the medicine is the miracle: The lame walk and the blind see. Such healings happen. I've seen them, participated in them, been astonished and moved by them. For this I sing my medicine songs -- always will -- but lately I'm thinking that perhaps the soul of a healer is most truly revealed by the incurables, those who reduce us to mere hopeless loving: those we cannot fix, often cannot even alter.

January 1, 2000. For three days a small community gathered with my wife Deena Metzger and I to pray and hold council and invite the next millennium. The Messiah once again did not arrive but apparently was inclined to send a young angel in his stead by the name of Jason.

A couple of dozen of us were sunk in deep, serious discussion -- how are we to live given the anguish of the world? We were interrupted by noises in the next room like an animal being tortured: the advent of Jason. But what sounded like pain, his mother explained, were Jason's cries of ecstacy.

"How can we make him feel welcome," I asked.

"He likes to drum," she replied.

And so Jason's caretaker brought him in, Brain damaged since birth, flailing against the drum skin, drooling, grunting, laughing -- when I say "the advent of Jason," I mean this thirteen year old wild child completed the circle and thereby consecrated a little community.

How is it that the incurables heal us -- the madman at the street corner, the woman shattered by war, grandmother a bit demented, your child with metastatic cancer? How small we would be without them, how narrow our preoccupations: self-certain, complacent, blind. The healer knows well his or her own wound, knows that incurability belongs to the fact that one was born human. Nonetheless, it is always possible that one might be healed of lovelessness. Miracles do happen.