An Ode to the Music of Movement (excerpt from the book, 'Wild Medicine: A Journey to Zimbabwe')
the following is an excerpted chapter from my upcoming book, ‘Wild Medicine: A Journey to Zimbabwe’
AN ODE TO THE MUSIC OF MOVEMENT
“If your heart is a friend of time, nothing can destroy you.”
-The Famished Road, Ben Okri
As a violinist, I have spent much of my life learning and re-learning the art of timing. At first, it was the timing kept on the leash of a metronome, one I practiced with for hours and hours and hours.
Tock tock tock tock Tock tock tock tock
The voice of the metronome sounds, calling for my body to organize itself in space and listen.
TICK tok tok TICK tok tok
I learned the subtle ways of feeling when I myself was rushing. I learned that a good musician always stays on the back side of the beat and that breathing is important all of the time.
Tock tock ta-tock tock ta-tock tock ta-tock tock
Without breath, we cannot know if we are going too fast or too slow.
Without breath, the rhythm of the ceremony is disrupted.
As a musician, I learned to feel the the skeleton of the cathedral of time – my body in time. I felt time not as a continuum, a thread, but rather as a mass of stuff around me – clouds of potentialities waiting to be ironed out into the roads we then walk with our feet. Time, I learned, only exists when you are playing music. Music erupts our grey monotone drone of a life into heightened time, where it matters if you are on the front or the back side of the beat; where your intention towards the beat matters. Time is only real when you are already engaged. In that sense, passing the time makes simultaneously all the sense in the world, and no sense at all. When time passes you by, it is those clouds of potentialities that are dissipating. They never found their song. When Time finds its Song, then a Story is born. And both Ceremony and Song are Stories.
These lessons served me well, though I had to forget them many times over, first.
My body came with a love of music that sustained me through hours of practice, an eagerness to participate in the extremely competitive field of classical violin playing, as well as a divine flaw – a hamartia – that would render all of that useless: at the age of twelve, after standing for three days playing violin at a street fair, my left knee swelled up and a cyst in the back of the knee burst. Doctor Brown told my thoroughly skeptical and paranoid Polish Father that surgery was the only option available (in retrospect, it wasn’t), and so under the knife went my knee. The blood tests confirmed that I had an auto-immune condition diagnosed at the time as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. I was very lucky; my father, a professor at the University of Arizona, had excellent health insurance, and I happened upon rheumatologists who were true angels (the kind whose wings are in full-fledged view).
We think it wrong when a child falls ill. Maybe that is why doctors seem to have more patience and a gentler care for you when you are small, than what you might encounter as an adult, when what seemed to be an episode in the past, turns into a life-long sentence, sinking you deeper and deeper into a quagmire of ‘this is just how it is’, sucked into the quick sands of ‘this is how it will be forever.’
Chronic Illness – whether Autoimmune Illness or the Mental Illness my younger brother Alexander was later diagnosed with – is a Catch-22, or an impossible paradox, for anybody who receives such a gift from life. Well, we say that we receive a gift from life, but really, we receive an interpretation. Only now, as an adult, and maybe with the changing and haughty sashay of the hips of the Times, can I see the struggle of all of those bucking their diagnoses like bulls at a rodeo.
Anybody who takes a chronic diagnosis home, and tells themselves: I want to learn what this thing is really – that person immediately must live a double-life. The first life is the one that is diagnosed and designated by society – the doctor said, the expert noted, the court ruled… etc. The other life is the voice of our Soul that attempts to claw its way to the hard surface of the things-we-agree-to-know-to-be-true, and say the Truly-True-Thing: this illness does not define me, it is not an illness, it is a voice, it is a spirit, it is my soul, it is a catharsis, it is a course-corrector.
This illness is a calling in a mask.
The double-life, if we are so lucky, must crack at some point. Ultimately, in my experience, these are two separate roads. They may run side by side for a while, but there is a point of radical splitting off, when the road of the Soul breaks off in an arc pointing the other direction, and we are given a choice: the calling or the diagnosis. I am not saying that people have to choose technological medicine or herbal medicine, allopathic or alternative. We can do both, or neither. To have the choice between medicines be the most difficult thing, would in itself be too easy, and the ever-so-elegant Universe does not actually desire for us that kind of an easy simplicity. But the way that one sees the journey, the outlook, the goal, and the direction – therefore, the meanings of the symptoms and the episodes – they do vary. Orientation is key. The ability to hear the deep mythology and the cry of the soul is an art that those of us touched by Spirit in the form of illness must learn – not just for ourselves, mind you.
My friends, we are all in this together.
I lived my life with the determination not to be ruled by the illness. I easily and willingly walked into that cliché of ‘sick person who lives their life the way they want, until illness pushes them into another direction.’ I was a poster child for can-do coping with auto-immune realities. Had you looked at me throughout those many years, you would have seen an independent and capable doomed-by-diagnosis cripple. My fierce commitment to the violin felt, always, like kupinda nemwenje mudziva, entering with a candle into the water – as the Shona saying goes. What was the use of learning a fine technical artistic skill when the days of my joints were numbered? Still, there was a thrill in the decision to walk the path of my heart and not the path of a diagnosis that really only told me of one potential, bleak future. One I had not lived yet.
This has always struck me as a strange tendency in the medical professions – the way in which diagnosis and forecasting is accepted as a reasonable and rational method and basis for decision-making. Patients go to doctors and ask ‘what can I expect?’ As if a doctor can ever explain to you what it feels like to wake up in the morning and not be able to climb out of bed and stand on your own two legs, which only a few weeks ago seemed to work just fine. No doctor can explain to you the reality of wrestling with the angel of your own body, and therefore, no doctor can tell you what a ‘reasonable’ response to such a battle could or would be. Anything becomes reasonable then. Not just crying, no. Not just despair. Joy becomes as reasonable as anything else. Playing the violin at night for the trees becomes very rational. Why not? Finishing music school. Going to Zimbabwe. Why not? Who can ever tell you how to live your precious life, whatever the state of your body or mind?
For most of those years – my teens, my twenties – I thought that I had to fight my illness. I tried all of the alternative methods I could find, but the inflammation always showed up, in one way or another. Over time, the medications I took to keep the inflammation down, in their boredom and in order to keep my life interesting, spawned children in the form of strange side effects, episodes borrowed from the life of other, foreign diagnoses which ultimately caused me to have to change medications or take a break. This was an exhausting living, and it gave me the feeling of living on borrowed time. Later, when I was told over and over again by people who had just met me that I seem to be in a hurry all of the time, I felt like they didn’t see that part of me – the part that knows there is only so much time before the next episode renders you stiff and in pain and wanting to fall off of the horribly material and angular Earth into the pleasant ocean of disembodied Universe – to throw off this mortal coil, as wrote Cousin Shakespeare.
This approach, though useful for a time, did me no good in listening to the calling in the mask that was the illness itself. Until finally, at the age of twenty-seven, exhausted and bald and overmedicated and under-loved, I went in despair to the plants and their sacred ceremonies, and it was they who helped me turn, finally, towards the cry of my soul. The illness had not been a flaw, you see – it had been the call of my Ancestors, teaching me that the space in my body was a space for the spirits of song, dance, and story.
The journey that took me there was not a journey of a system, a religion, a therapy, a drug, a method, a psychologist or a teacher. It was a colorful flow dancing me towards the things that made my heart beat faster. A journey of going into the Earth; a journey of wild medicine.
Not an easy journey, that one, especially considering the paradigms our developed cultures are working with. Sick people are not told to turn to the Earth. They are over-regulated, and over-directed, and it is very difficult to touch your own wild nature when you are told what to do, what to take, what to eat, how to live in every aspect.
“Whoever was beaten by this Angel
Went away proud and strengthened,
And great from that harsh hand,
That kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.”
-The Man Watching, Rainer Maria Rilke
Doctors have colonized illness with expressions of the surface; patients have gone mute because they are either not allowed to, or they do not have the words to express the deep experience and story of illness. Wild Medicine happens in that deep experience, the experience of the spontaneous and loving touch of Wild Earth upon our souls. Wild Medicine happens when we meet our own death, and when pain turns into something other – when pain turns into death turns into birth (and what human being has ever been able to describe birth adequately with words, words that are so very clumsy?)
The first time I remember this feeling of having my voice taken out of me, was at the end of my second year of a Master’s degree at Yale University. It was a difficult time. A lonely time. Yale was not a place where deep friendship could flower. The machinery of academia devoured any sincerity in human relations, it seemed to me. Some combination of Ancestral timing (the worst, by our human standards!) loneliness, trauma, medications, and bitter stress caused the auto-immune condition – the ghost of fire in my body – to take a rapid turn for the worse. There was pain, and bleeding, and my hair fell out and the world changed. I felt like some connection between myself and the outer world had been severed. All I could do adequately, was cry. There was a forced nakedness in the experience, a kind of rape of self that I still don’t know how to describe.
Years of chronic pain has taught me how little I know, or we know, about these experiences. We have such nice words with which to replace the feelings. Auto-immune is such a clean word: auto, like automobile, like something that drives on its own, automatically, the automatic auto automated – and then immune. Immune, like immune to fear, immune to failure, or immune to disease. Immunity, like those vaccines that are meant to protect us against all of the random and unfair things that plague the universe. Flareup sounds like a hysterical outcry at a community meeting regarding the types of drinks served, or the colors the chairs will be painted – an event that requires a little tuning and toning down, a bit of water, a sedative maybe, or, in extreme cases, a tranquilizer. Not much more. A flareup makes a big fuss about nothing at all. Auto-immune flareups are not words that do justice to the fire in the body and the soul that these experiences amount to.
The flareups I experienced were internal, until my hair fell out. Baldness was a horribly painful brand. However, as much as people insist that hair-loss is a vanity issue, having experienced it, I can attest to something else. Being bald made my energy turn inside out. There was a powerlessness that came with it. Some years later, a good friend of mine and a Kundalini Yoga practitioner and teacher told me that in Kundalini Yoga our hair holds a piece of our subtle body. When she told me that, I had greater understanding into my feelings of disconnection from the world as a result of hair-loss.
I remember walking one day during that time at Yale, in the cold Spring, and seeing a friend of mine, a fellow poet and student of philosophy, standing on the sidewalk with her bicycle. I greeted her and she looked at me as if I was a stranger. It took her some moments to recognize me and return the greeting. I wasn’t at all surprised. I had the same reaction to my own face in the mirror every morning in the bathroom. Something about me was changing, shifting. My spirit was having a walled-off conversation with my soul, and I was not invited. It wasn’t that my hair was funny looking. It was initiation. I didn’t see it yet, but I was being pulled and prepared for Zimbabwe. Being called will do that, you see. It will change your aspect, in every way – all of your aspects, all of the many masks you know, and especially, the ones of which you are not aware. Being called means living on a battlefield, wrestling with Spirit at every moment. You can only lose, I assure you. And you must lose gallantly. Spirit will not allow it any other way.
In illness, nothing is what it seems. Illness is the ultimate test, because it is a road of constant interpretation. You can never take somebody else’s word for what a thing means. This is true in all of life, but in the context of illness your life depends on the interpretation. The interpretation is the story. The truth will light the fire of the story from the inside and you will be able to gather the strength and energy to do seemingly impossible things.
Like die, over and over again.
The strange zombie-illness that took me down down deep down into the belly of a nightmare-tarred earth had me at death’s door numerous times. In time, however, over years of heart-wrenching initiation, my voice came back, as did my hair, in a series of magical miracles, and a turning towards the voice of my Soul and the Earth. Somewhere along the way, Life claimed me. It didn’t have to, but it did. The little people living in nature came in numbers and danced in ceremony while banging on my eardrums. Impossible to ignore, that.
It is an encouraging thought, that the zombie-illnesses afflicting us are only what they seem to be, and nothing more. They point their fingers at the real zombies in our lives, and demand an answer: how are we going to breathe these things alive with the Living Winds?
My auto-immune illness was pain on side-effect on pain on life-interruption on pain – for many years. I took the well-worn, and what I thought was noble route of refusing to bow or change plans or relent in the face of a changing and monstrous and mysterious chimera. I had no idea what face my condition would turn towards me next, but I knew that I myself was a separate person with dreams and aspirations – first and foremost, that of being a musician.
I am also Polish, and we are hopelessly romantic by cultural tendency. So at the first opportunity, I told myself straight: this illness will not rule my life.
Perhaps it was a queenly stance, and it did serve me well. I had the opportunity to finish college, and travel the world on a fellowship. I played as a club violinist in Poland and finished a Master’s degree at Yale. I biked from Poland to Greece one summer, by myself, on a heavy bike I bought second-hand from a man who had planned on giving it to his then-girlfriend the day he proposed marriage. (Seeing the bike, dusty and wrapped in cobwebs in his basement, in the shadow of his resigned face, told me exactly what happened on that miserable and fateful day. Still, the bike serves me to this day, and rode faithfully across the 1,000 mile trip all the way to Greece.)
All of these things, however, gave me the opportunity to avoid the message that my Ancestors were sending into the crooks, cracks, crannies, and cricks of my body. My Ancestors were gathering the scraps of anything they could find in my life and their own, and building a fire, and stoking the flame, and all I could feel was something burning me alive.
My diagnosis was forever. There was no hope, there was only management.
I’m sure you know the feeling. It seems like ‘forever’, is a more and more common diagnosis these days. Nothing definitive. Just a vague sense of doom and weakness highlighting our very-mortal state.
(No wonder we fantasize about cures, isn’t it?)
Still, I would ask you to consider: next time you go to the doctor and they give you a prognosis, consider that they are wrong. Consider that they do not know. Consider that despite all of their expertise, few doctors have been professional patients, have had that chunk of their life occupied with the strange meanderings of symptoms that Western Medicine attempts to corral into meaning, the way it hooks bulls onto their own anger, and calls this one-sided victory a well-fought battle. The battle of the bull-illness and torreador medic (who can come in many forms, I assure you), is simply unfair.
Consider then, that they do not know, and consider that your soul knows better and none of us know anything anyway.
Consider that life has always been stranger than fiction and has little regard for what some of those lucky enough to call themselves well-distanced objectives, call ‘facts.’
Consider that there are other actors, other places, other worlds, other lives, other possibilities.
Consider a life changed, enchanted, en-magicked, ensouled.
Consider that this can be done with or without Jesus, and that healing is not a religion, nor is your soul trapped in a set of laws or belief systems or rules.
Choose to consider, my friends, that Healing is the road to Love.
As I write this a part of me still wonders what it is exactly, this healing thing, but Healing as I know it, has taken me towards Love and not away from it, and so if I believe anything at all, these days, it is the benevolence of an Earth who is not yet sick of our existence, despite all of our efforts to make it so. I can’t tell you about systems or rules or how this healing will come about or what you can do to make it faster and more palatable. I can tell you about Ceremony, which is a form of consecrated surrender. I can tell you about Ritual which calls in Miracles. And of course, what I can tell you first, is that very first thing: meet Healing with your whole self. Because it is coming, as surely as the illness came to you – the illness comes holding the healing deep inside of itself, at its core. In this life, every question comes with an answer hidden in its very own self. (The question, like Saint-Exupery’s desert in the Little Prince, hides a secret in its depths, and it is that which makes it beautiful…)
So the healing is coming to you, so the changes are coming, so the path becomes rocky, and the mountain steep, and the jarred edges of the slope of the mountain become the thing you look beyond to see the valley below and the sun above. The jarred edge is the windowsill of enchantment. It’s hard to remember that, as we stay skewered on the horror of the knife-edges of rock. I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten.
Wild Medicine is not so much a system as it is a commitment to waking up – a commitment to the Ancestors who always find us first. Wild Medicine led me to the ceremonies and spirit mediums of an old Earth on the Old Continent of Africa where to know something is to become it. And so, my friend, to know your illness, you become the illness, and then you transform it from the inside. To know is to claim, to love, to master the ability to transform. To befriend is to come into relationship. To build relationship is to build love and respect and to transform each other with love and respect. To listen to your body is not just to listen to your body but it is to transform and to change your body. This is what I learned. This is when the spirits started to come in and out of my body and I became aware that the flareups that had seemed so medicalized before, were actually the tail of a ghost of fire that had claimed me early in life. How many years had I spent running away from the thing that wanted to keep me alive? What a confusion muddled and spun the wheels of my sockets in frantic madness, in order to run run run from the thing that was calling me home. What a confusion resulted from all of this, when I still had trouble understanding that up was down, and down was up – and that home away from home was home, and home was not home away from home, and that home was actually away. Away from. Away from what I knew before.
Your Soul knows. That’s the first thing. So take heart and take heed. Your soul knows everything. Your Soul loves you. Your Soul keeps you. The Earth loves you and keeps you. There is nothing to be afraid of. Your Soul knows. That’s the first most important thing. Everything else is less important and follows after.
The first thing is first: Your Soul loves you. Take heart. Take breath.
Look up, chin towards the proud mountain peaks, those ones who know what it is to live with dignity.