The Holy Ghost of Fire

…In preparation for publication of my first book, I am going to be publishing excerpts from both versions (English and Polish) on the blog. Here is a chapter from the English book, ‘Wild Medicine: A Journey to Zimbabwe.’


“I have done nothing except by revelation.”

 – St. Jeanne D’Arc 

As a teenager I remember falling in love with the figure of Joan of Arc. To me, she was so beautiful in her courage, faith, and simple humility. I read of her plight and shuddered at those final images of Joan dying in the way she most feared – by fire. That will never happen to me, I thought. We don’t burn witches anymore. (How little I knew about witch hunts then!) Yet there is another kind of fire that I did not know of – one that, paradoxically, consumes yet does not kill. This is the fire that erupted in my body at the age of twelve years old. I spent the next fifteen years managing a diagnosis that I was told would be forever. The fire never went away. It changed, morphed, got creative and attacked new parts of my body, wore down my will, and whittled at my heart the way that constant physical pain will do. The strange thing was that the fire in my body, though sometimes so painful that killing myself seemed like a pragmatic choice (if only I had the courage), never otherwise threatened my life in any detectable way. That is why I began to call the thing that came to me, the ghost of fire in my body. Yes, that’s better.

I was one of these people who carried in my body a ghost of fire that every practitioner – from allopathic doctors to new-age healers – wanted to cure. My symptoms were mysterious and complex and erratic; even from the age of twelve, when I was first diagnosed, I was told that my illness was unpredictable. Never mind that it grew into a predictable unpredictability – from the age of fourteen, up through the age of twenty-seven, I never really experienced a remission. Naproxen to prednisone to methotrexate to Enbrel to remicade to prednisone to naproxen to humira to methotrexate to prednisone were the drugs shuffled into my body in turn like playing cards deftly laid out on a blackjack table; nobody told me about side effects. Nobody explained to me potential long-term consequences. My parents – those frightened Polish immigrants – said nothing. If I mentioned what I thought was a potential side effect of a medication, I was told to keep quiet. They didn’t know what to do, how to help, and in their helplessness and worry they expected me to pretend that everything was okay. Until I was eighteen, every doctor said remission was still possible. 

After I turned eighteen, moved cities to go to college, changed doctors, exhibited new symptoms – well, those priests of the white lab coats stopped telling stories like that. As a patient, you notice which stories stop being told. You notice the changes in language. You notice when your doctors move from clearing to managing, from improving to maintaining, from short term to long term. You notice when other people start gambling away your possibilities for the promise of some kind of a life (albeit a painful one). Illness makes us sensitive that way: we feel when stories of hope stop knocking at our door. Maybe at first the change is so gradual that you barely notice, until one day, when you are injecting yourself with some poison-drug-chemical yet again, and you wonder – what happened to my life? What happened that this thing that I could have grown out of, I never grew out of? What happened that the most hopeful prediction for how things could be, was not the one that came true?

This particular story – the story of doing a life-review in a bathroom, whether you are injecting yourself with the last of your heroin, or medically-necessary if poisonous medication, or taking a pregnancy test, or masking the tears that your body is squeezing out in panic and alarm – is told often. Otherwise known as the story of the rock-bottom, it is the place where we dive down to recover lost dreams, in order to bounce back to the surface again and continue swimming, this time in the right direction  

(more than often, this means swimming upstream – so the Salmon say).

Or so the story goes. It’s an interesting story, because, for all of its truth and for the hope that it contains, it also advocates that the only solution to a hopeless case is more pain. And perhaps that is sometimes true. It certainly seemed true for me. 

The first remission I ever experienced came when I was twenty-seven years old, and it was given to me by some combination of an iboga ceremony and several ayahuasca ceremonies. To me, it was a gift given to me by the spirit of Ayahuasca, in one particular ceremony I did by myself out in the Sonoran Desert. The spirit of the plant came, and showed me walking a difficult and heavy path. Running right next to me was the very same path, in the very same forest – albeit an easy, light path. She grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and moved me from the path I was on to the easier path.

The flareups ceased after that. I was so convinced of my remission, that when the fire came back a year and a half later, consuming my body piecemeal with flames from hell, I initially refused to believe what was happening. My denial did me no good, and more pain is precisely what led to a series of catharses that opened my life, changed my world, gave me my soul, healed my heart, and led me towards Home. Illness is all about Home, after all. It comes as the foreign thing that aims to burn you out of yourself. The struggle that ensues, the struggle that is a non-struggle, the struggle that must ultimately be a surrender, is one that finds us home again. Because home is love and we are love also.  

Joan’s fire burned her skin. Mine burned my gut, my joints, my hair follicles, and later my spine, my brain – my whole body burned. From deep within, in a place underneath my soul, giant hell-hounds clamped my joints with boulder-like teeth, refusing to let go. Later, when some things helped me and others didn’t, when I had dreams of my body inside of the body of a lion, running across the savannah, when the body inside of my body emerged as a dancing being of light from a body immobilized by pain, a body that could not get up, that could not stand, that could not walk itself to the kitchen, when my dead Brother came to me in dreams and mountains spoke to me out of centuries of reverie, I began to feel a delicate web of meaning slowly weave itself around me. This web of meaning is seen as insane in our materialistic society, devoutly married to theories of randomness – yet I could not deny that as I processed the torrents of pain coming through my body, as I learned to pay attention to them with love, my whole life changed.

As within, so without. As below, so above. As in my heart, so my feet follow, walk a tangled road. The limps acquired are with me still. My shattered and torn heart is still a thing I am growing into. I don’t expect anybody to accept or believe me. I only know what I know to be true – a road of unexpected and unexplored and exploded stories that burst their way into my life, as if they had a right, as if doors were not made for them, as if they … there I am, running out of metaphor again and falling off of the cliff I’ve built for myself. Pay me no mind. I have a story to tell. 

Lend me your ear. Bend down. Feel your legs. Or don’t, if you can’t. Touch the Earth, if you can. If not, ask somebody to spoon some up for you. Lick it with a hairy and eager tongue. Once upon a time a ghost of fire raged in my body, before it turned into a golden lion and led me across the world until I found myself home…

Living in the paradox of pain as meaning-making and life-shifting was a necessary part of getting better. Much later, when I worked my way through seeming generations of cycles of abuse, when spirits entered my body on vision quests, when my Aunt died and came to me in my dreams, when my dead Brother stopped by in waking life – the web of meaning or insanity tightened. 

Thus, I came to the crossroads of my own fate – do I accept the calling of the fire as being more real than the illness? Do I enter into Ceremony, sing to my Ancestors and dance with the Mysteries and the stars, or do I go back to the rational Doctors, tail between my legs?

There was never any choice, really. The urgency of our Times calls for us to follow the steady and unrelenting voice of our hearts. Ultimately, I could never refuse the path of my Soul. There was too much love there. Now, the challenge is to live the choice I made. Thus, I invite you to come with me on the twisting journey of this decision – a journey of beauty, and deep stories, and grief, and trauma, and pain, and the grace and gentle forgiveness at the center of it all. 

This book is an invitation to break-down how-to’s, to stop telling people exactly what and how to respond to illness. I say this with bland hypocrisy, because I like to be told what to do as much as anybody else (with a guarantee that it will make me smarter, faster, more beautiful, more productive, etc.). But it has not worked for me. Being told what to do did not heal me. The wild road, the road we are all called to, is to appreciate the uniqueness of our selves, and so the uniqueness and the story of what afflicts and challenges us. And maybe in that wild road we can find a way into the bodies inside of our bodies. That is when we can dance with the Mysteries, proper. They are waiting for us, I promise you.

When I was twenty-seven years old, my younger brother Alexander died. He died of drugs, overdosed in that apartment in Warsaw where we grew up together. The night before he died, I almost called him, had the impulse all the way in Arizona, where my parents had emigrated to, where I had been trying to live what is called a normal life for a year, the place my brother always wanted to return to after he fled to Poland, pursued by an addiction, a broken spine, traumas in the mental hospitals, and many broken relationships. Immigrants have running in their blood, and Alexander had a magnificent genius inside of him that only compelled him further. (It may be an encouraging thought, that our Soul will never give up on us, but sometimes that looks like the journey of my brother – a man hounded by trauma the whole of his short life.) Alexander never did go back to Arizona, in the end. I remember sitting in a coffeeshop in Tucson at midnight, the night before he died, sad and hungry for affection, having just finished editing work, thinking that I would call somebody in Poland to ease that dastardly loneliness of the night. I thought of calling Alexander, and then quickly changed my mind – ‘he’ll just talk to me about drugs,’ said my brain. An exhausting thought, which I so clearly remember. 

He may very well have been injecting himself with the street morphine that killed him at that very moment. I will never know for sure.

The next day my Aunt Kasia tried to call me to tell me that my brother is dead. I didn’t pick up. I was taking a nap, sleeping on military cot I had on permanent loan from my mom’s house, in an unfurnished apartment before going to substitute as a music teacher for a friend of mine. I woke up half-heartedly and checked my e-mail. My father had sent a message to everyone in the family, with the headline: Alexander died today. There was nothing in the body of the e-mail, just that shocking headline. I remember running outside, into the sun. My body didn’t know what to do with itself. I called my aunt back and from then on tried to understand the thing that was not supposed to have happened. 

Alexander was and is so very, very important. Even these years later, his loss seems unbearably sad. Yet even now, I feel the privilege of loving him. What a blessed thing, to grieve because of somebody so beautiful, so magnificent, so big-hearted – to miss love itself. Truly, we can be grateful when our greatest pains have at their heart a big love like this one.

We were a terrible family, to tell the truth. We were sick, each one of us individually and together, collectively. Abuse and trauma and historical grief and immigration twisted the relationships between us, so that none of us could see each other or relate to one another. Family was an experience of heart-break for me, over and over again. We were a sad people, cursed. Those curses of the real variety, that replay tragedy, and know nothing else – abuse, severed contacts, police involvement, divorce, drugs, estrangement, abandonment, explosions of anger and blame, small and large, at every turn. I experienced family life as an ever-increasing pile of guilt – I could not understand how what felt like deep love inside of me wouldn’t translate into real relationship with those people whose faces were closest to my own. And then there was my brother Alexander, who each one of us in our family had tried to save. We all failed. Thus, tragedy grew until I lived that paradox of living, and simultaneously being unable to imagine living with myself another moment. 

And then came the fire, with its grand and incisive demands: Forgive yourself. Follow your heart. Hear the call. Your body is a vessel for Spirit. There is no other way.


Ceremony in Peru: My Conversation with Madre Ayahuasca 

ME: How do I learn to forgive?

MADRECITA: You must learn to forgive yourself first. And that is the hardest thing. 

ME: How do I learn to forgive myself?

MADRECITA: When you love yourself you forgive yourself. Can you love yourself, as you are? 

ME: I love myself, I just wish I didn’t have so much baggage.

MADRECITA: There is no separation between you and your baggage. You are a whole. You are one. 

ME: But then why do I even need to forgive myself?

MADRECITA: You were forged in the fire. Can you forgive the flame? 

Forgiveness is a grace that allows us to be forged in the flame of our lives, whatever our tragedies may be. Mine was the cry of a tired creature that spent many years lost, looking for love in all the wrong places. My prayers had always been launched out of a deep need to breathe, out of survival. Why were my prayers not heard sooner? The fire sang the call of a wild Earth ripping into the kaleidoscopic cracks of my yearning heart. Thus the dance of wild medicine courts redemption itself.

This is a book for people who have known deep pain and who were unsatisfied by the attempts of theory, psychology, psychiatry, medicine systems (all kinds) – to put their suffering in order. This is a book for people who cannot stuff the square peg of their life into the neat, round hole that theories and philosophies and faiths present. This is a messy book. In it I will tell the story of illness and coming back into health and of health dissolving into illness, of ceremony and love and wild medicine. I will cry for my brother, who died. I will rhapsodize about a broken family of immigrants. I will dance with the mysteries. I will talk about the care that those on the other side have for us. I will talk about relationship. I will talk about illness, and death, and addiction, and how the world sustains us, or takes our life – and how it doesn’t matter, because love is everywhere. I will talk about Zimbabwe, and Poland, and the mystery of Home. And in writing, I will do my best to forgive the fire that forged me. Forgive me, reader. It is still a flame that licks my feet every once in a while. It is hard to forgive oneself. Hardest, perhaps, to forgive life for oneself. 

In dancing my feet into the dirt with the words my heart carries, I wish to steal out of the clamped jaws of the Leviathan of sickness, some wild glimmer of possibility within any state of deep pain. I don’t do it to teach you. I do it, because the fire that I am trying to forgive is also the fire that fuels my anger at any surface-oriented, boxed in, theoretical, and shallow approach to the experience of illness. I do it to offer some perspective and maybe some hope, to those of us called to Spirit through pain. I do it because if illness taught me anything, it is that those who know, don’t speak. And though the Tao-Te-Ching instructs us to stay still in a wordless silence, I am compelled to speak of all of the surprising things I discovered as my road was being re-directioned towards home – home in my body, my body in home – things that nobody told me before, but that perhaps everyone knows. Like how the dead come to us. Or how plants reach out to us in dreams and waking life. How love is the center, the goal, the process, the journey and the destination, all in one.

Ultimately, the road of Spirit leads one way: this is a way where there are no rules, but there are laws. We often get so caught up in following rules that we forget the laws. Or when we discover that there are no rules, we discard the laws as well. Yet it is the laws that stage this worldly play, and as herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner writes, “it is the trees who are the teachers of the law.” 

One of the laws I learned from the trees: every illness is a call to transformation, and therefore every illness is a shamanic illness. What does that mean? The term Shamanic Illness is a horse beaten to death in the New Age rink, but fundamentally it means to open up to the spirit of the thing – the illness, the person, the soul. This is not new, certainly. Newness is overrated, anyway, and analysis is a vulture that preys on the carcass of a good story. Me, I would like to begin with the story, and keep that story alive – and if somebody does come to pick at the story with the knife of analysis, then let them feed the story rather than feed themselves on the story’s mangled remains. Let her come and poke and question the story in deference to a thing very much alive. A story lived, and a life incomplete. Let my breath give my story the weight it needs to stretch its body and feel oh-so-very-good.

Not like the sick body, which is where this story hooked its first claw into me, and did not let go. No, that pain is not what this story needs to feel. 

And yet the sick body is where I begin, because that is where the shamanic illness came to visit me, during one of these many earthen-days, before I had ever heard of shamans, or chronic illnesses, or auto-immune disease, or Ancestors, or Zimbabwe, or plant spirits, or Ceremony, back when I was a twelve-year-old obsessed with one dream only: I wanted to be the best violinist I could be. I wanted to travel the world and play my violin and delight people everywhere. I wanted to compose beautiful music and then play it on the violin and make all of those people happy. I didn’t think in specifics. The most specific I felt I needed to get was with scales, intonation, and memorization of long concertos. The details of world travel and performance and money would work themselves out, I was sure.

Into this picture tore a bad knee, that turned into a bad leg, that turned into a surgery, and then into a diagnosis of what at the time was known as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. 

This diagnosis was not yet a shamanic illness. I was too young to even psychologize it, the way I was later encouraged to understand my condition.

What I learned eventually, is that to walk the gift of a shamanic illness – to turn your face towards your Ancestors and in all humility say yes to a dark and lonely road veiled in complete mystery and lined with thousands of many-colored fears – is a rite of passage, an initiation, a transformation, with the spicy twang of the possibility of death ever-present. So no, there is no one cure for cancer, or one shaman who can cure all cancers, because every illness is its own journey and therefore, its own story. To find the story of the illness is paramount, the story that wants to be told, carried, brought back from the land of those-who-did-not-die.  

When the flareups return, they call from deep in my joints and I don’t want to believe them. At first, I call it a strain in my knees. I go to Walgreens and buy every kind of knee wrap and knee brace I can find. Money becomes immaterial. Every amount can be spent on purging my body of the deep call. I never felt the flareups to come from such a deep part of myself, as if my soul was embedded deep in my joints. The call to alert me… to what, exactly? I can’t know yet. I only know that my brother is dead, my family is at odds with me, I am faking my way through a life that is not working, and I have just started rehearsing a play about how Ayahuasca helped my body into its first ever remission after fifteen years of nonstop pain. I only know that Africa calls me, but somehow I am unable to go. I only know that I have lost faith in my life, in myself, and I am ready to beg for any pittance of love thrown at me from any direction. I only know that old men prey on me and I let them. I only know that from within that whole mess, at some point, somewhere, I once prayed a prayer and somebody on the other side is holding me to it.

The prayer? Home. 

Can the answer to a prayer be illness?

Ever so humbly (ever so unfortunately): Yes. 

When my brother Alexander died, the stagnation, confusion, and deep self-loathing that had been eating away at my life, whittling me down to the brittle and weary bones of a life so isolated and sad it was really not at all worth living, that impasse shifted suddenly into a fast-paced journey of grief, fire and initiation. The empty pretense I had been living exploded all at once into colorful and cackling flames, and my body burned in pain like nothing I imagined was possible and certainly not survivable.

And for the first time – and maybe it was my brother’s spirit who strong-armed the willful and stubborn needle of my slow internal compass – I turned away from doctors, medications, pages of futile prognoses all spelling out ‘disability for shortened-life’, multitudes of vague diagnoses, and instead directed my frightened child’s face towards the fire. I let myself be consumed. 

And after that, everything changed.