tatiana de la tierra
I am sucking on the stem of fresh white sage. Well, I’m trying to. The healer is looking at me and I look away, intent on my task. “Breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose,” she’d instructed while handing me the herb.
“It’s impossible,” I say, pulling the sage from my lips and dangling it on my lap.
“You’re stuck in your throat,” she says. I feel like I’m being accused of something.
“It’s impossible,” I repeat. “It’s totally dense. It’s blocked.” It’s like trying to breathe in through a plugged up straw.
“It’s you, it’s not the plant,” she says. She gets another one, breaks off the stem and hands it to me.
Again, I try to inhale, suck in anything, even a miniscule amount of air via this little plant. But I get nothing except frustration. I’m looking around the room, at the carpeted floor, at the walls; I look anywhere except at her. She cackles. I hate her.
“This is what I came here for?” I blurt out. How did I get into this? I hadn’t bothered to find out exactly what this healer does, how much she charges, or what to expect. A friend recommended her and I’d made the appointment via email when I heard the Chumash medicine woman was in the area.
“I can feel your hostility,” she says. “Why are you so hostile? If you go to the doctor and he tells you to breathe in, you do it.”
The sage is on my lap again and I’m looking at the floor. “You’re ridiculing me for not being able to breathe,” I finally say. I want to strangle her.
“I’m not trying to humiliate you,” she says, cackling once more. “Look at how you abuse yourself.”
My instinct tells me to leave. Who the hell does she think she is? Yet I’d driven nearly a hundred miles just for this appointment.
She gets up, comes back with a huge gourd full of herbs. “Smell,” she says. I bring them up to my nose and inhale. It’s good to feel herbs on my face, but I smell nothing.
“I don’t have a sense of smell,” I say.
The medicine woman instructs me to feel around with my right hand and select a handful. This, I love. Feeling crunchy earthy plants that seem to speak to me as I touch them. I grab a huge bunch and place it atop a cloth on the table. I grab another bunch with my left hand.
“Roll it up and hold it together with yarn,” she instructs. I am making a bandana that will go around my head. I can’t figure out how to do this well and struggle for a long time. Little herbs spill out, the cloth opens up, the yarn gets tangled. It takes me a while but I manage to complete the task.
I’ve got two bunches of sage hanging from my neck and I’m wearing a bandanna full of dried herbs around the top of my head. The healer hands me a deck of Medicine Cards and tells me to shuffle them, spread them out, pick one with my right hand and one with left. I pick Dog with my right hand and Buffalo with my left.
“I hate dogs,” I declare. “I’m a cat person.” In the Medicine Cards book, I read about dogs being service-oriented and about the White Buffalo Woman who smoked a prayer pipe in the Lakota tradition. I remind myself to smoke tobacco in ceremony.
“Why couldn’t I have gotten something like a dolphin?”
“You could have, if you’d picked it.”
She tells me to choose one of two huge gourds and leaves the room for a while. She comes back carrying the gourd I chose. It’s hot and heavy; she places it on my lap. It feels good, solid and warm, this witch’s brew with herbs boiling in dark waters.
“You’re going to do four rounds of a sweat,” she says. The first is to greet the herbs, the second is for the herbs to see me, the third is for the herbs to spin me, and the fourth is a surprise. All I have to do is sit back and commune with the plant spirits. She drapes a cloth over my head. The whole world disappears.
I fall in a trance to the steam of hot herbs. I have visions. I remember something I’d forgotten. I am so happy in this steamy cocoon. I hold the gourd into my body like a long-lost lover. I fall asleep on her womb.
When the cloths come off, my face is wet and moist.
I lie down on a massage table. The medicine woman arranges things on top of my body. Deer antlers on my feet, rabbit fur around my hands, and the wings of a hawk on my sternum. She rubs her hands and places them on my head. Soon after, she’s coughing and gurgling. She goes into another room to expel my chaos.
“I’m just getting some of the pulses back. You’ve been shut down for so long,” she says.
If only she knew how alive I am now, I think. What a miracle it is that I’m alive.
I drive home with my car full of herbs and the second edition of a book: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West: Cultural and Scientific Basis for Their Use by Cecilia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr. The book features hundreds of herbs, each with a color photograph, traditional uses, active constituents, and recommendations for use. It’s a great compendium of plants in this part of the world, one that unites me once again with the spirit of the herbs.
As instructed, I make a cup of hot chocolate with a leaf of mugwort before going to bed. I will fall asleep with a plant-stuffed bandana around my neck. When I wake up, I’ll put a leaf of sage into my drinking water. Then, I’ll smoke a bowl of tobacco.
Thanks, Chumash medicine woman. I’ll remember your words, after I kicked off the deer antlers: “You’re going to heal, in spite of yourself.”