In Praise of the Little Ones

Michael Ortiz Hill

The medicine tradition that I was initiated into in Zimbabwe – the ngoma of the water spirits – says that the ancestors call one to be a medicine man by sacred illness. Mandaza Kandemwa saw in me the classical symptoms of water spirit disease: powerful dreams and visions, an empathy that incapacitates, a life rich in tragedy. The only cure for this affliction is to be initiated as a practitioner of tribal medicine.

The spirits that afflict becomes allies in healing others.

The prayer is simple: thank you God for visiting upon me this illness.
Teach me how to listen for the spirit of illness is in its own right a powerful healer.

My life has been shaped -- physically and spiritually -- by the little ones. How can I but sing their praises?

The ancient Chinese spoke of ji’, "the smallest possible thing," almost invisible, which is "the precise place where turn and change happens" as Stephen Karcher puts it.

In Africa I call the little ones njuzu, the water spirits who are the agents of healing and transformation.

I'll speak chronologically though the little ones don't really live in the time that we big boned mammals share. They do share with us being born, living and dying – the tender vulnerability of being mortal - but they seem to descend from timelessness.

My first meeting of the little ones was in every respect fated. My mother's womb was a broth of mercury as was her mouth. Mercurys’ deft hands shaped my fetal brain and spine as it was developing. I was mercurial long before my birth and almost 50 year after my nervous system torqued towards multiple sclerosis, who I call the Guest. I’ve apprenticed with the Guest to learn about healing these last four years.

Praise be to Mercury, the friendliest of the gods. Fleetfooted, stealthy, clever beyond telling. By the time I was diagnosed with a toxic level of mercury I had a long ritual alliance with Mercury – the one the Yoruba call Eshu Elegba.

My healing proceeded from familiarity.

Elemental mercury is a methylated -- transformed to its most lethal form -- by bacteria in the mouth and in the river beds of California. Those rude alchemists, the 49ers, rendered California mercurial -- using mercury to process gold. Now
mercury amalgams in the teeth of the dead cremated and sent skyward mix with the forty eight tons from coal burning power plants.

The water we drink.

The air we breathe.

The food we eat and the teeth we eat with. Mercury is the god of connections and yes, I gestated with him.

I am connected to a poisoned planet in her duress through Mercury.

Common jeopardy.

At-one-ment with a poisoned planet in her duress has been mediated by the bacteria that delivered him to the pith of my karma.

My second initiation by the little ones was a colony of staphylococcus in the basin at my navel when I was a week old and the big guns were pulled out -- sulfa drugs – to which we found I was allergic.

I recieved the last rites.

Hoc est corpus meum.

This is my body.

In Tibetan Buddhism it is said we choose the circumstances of our birth. What was I thinking floating about in the bardo that I would choose to be born into an intimate knowledge of torture?

It took a few decades from that my infantile initiation to find my way out of the horror and terror of being embodied. And it's been only recently that I have found my way out of the consequences of the mercurial womb. This is the way of the little ones. Their work is deep and thorough and requires a complete transformation of the self. “Time” as we dimwitted humans understand it, is quite irrelevant.

But -- back to the "ordinary time" of my non-ordinary adolescence.

Homage to Sarcoptes scabiei that lowely arthropod that saved my life.

I thought I was at the bottom when I got scabies. I've been homeless for two years, had snapped with psychosis, fell in love and moved with dear Peggy to an apartment in the Haight. There was no decent garbage to eat in San Francisco so I ate at St. Anthony's dining hall with the derelicts and junkies and whores and "so it comes to this and wasn't it a long way down" sings Leonard Cohen.

A long way indeed but longer still with scabies

Unlike its cousin, the dinosaur lobster, scabies is a mere mite, pregnant with little mitelets. She crawls under the skin to lay her eggs which hatch into nymphs, mature into adults and are dead a month later,

I a sarcophagi of these dead little ones.

The mercy of them was twofold. They saved me from AIDS. My efforts to whore myself were greatly unsuccessful. Who wants to screw a pretty boy covered with open sores who cant stop itching?

Altogether not sexy.

AIDS, unnamed then in 1975, was percolating in the bath houses of San Francisco.

The second blessing of these children of God is that they delivered me to the bottom from which I've since constructed a vibrant life.

There are things one cannot know and until one has been undone.

And then there is the sweet water spirit schistasoma, affectionately known as bilharzia.
Bilharzia is a snail parasite that inhabits fresh water in Zimbabwe. I was in fact, in an ecstatic water spirit ritual in Mashvingo when they slid under my skin and laid eggs in the lattice of my central nervous system. So began initiation proper into the way of sacred illness which is fundamental to my training as medicine man.

I was with my wife Deena Metzger and she was doing a ritual on behalf of Mandaza Kandemwa with whom I was I was apprenticing. I felt a certain "white boys smartass" spirit rising up in me, very much wanting to offer advice because I'm the expert am I not? I did have the good sense to give them over to the intelligence of what they were in and climbed into a pool of water to pray.

I was, in the water, “displaced from myself” – which is to say the three stooges
(me, myself and I) momentarily died. I could see what Mandaza had long impressed upon me – that rituals such as Deena and he were in are not performed by people at all.

“We are their arm and their hands,” says Mandaza.

I stepped through a door that afternoon and in a week I was numb from the waist
down: peripheral neuropathy.

When I returned to America a neurologist told me I was likely undiagnosable and so I remained for a few years until I stopped having reliable use of my legs. It was then I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

And so praise be again to the little ones -- the millions of generations of bacteria that allowed a mercury to have his way with me, the bilharzias which softened my neurosystem and – voila’ – the Guest arriving with such panache!

And so it is my body as zoo for the invisibles. Not difficult to remember the rigors of their ministrations but what I most remember is their kindness.

They have completed a labor that I could not have done, what is undoable by any act of will. They have, perhaps, rounded off my apprenticeship.