Narrow Passage

II. The Crumbling Church of Reflection

“People suffering from nervous breakdowns often do a lot of research, to find explanations for what they are undergoing. The research, of course, fails… It fails as far as we are concerned, but the unhappy fact is that it sometimes provides a spurious rationalization to the disintegrating mind…” – Philip K. Dick, Valis

I believe there is a connection between the repression of feelings I experienced growing up, the inability to accurately language my internal landscape, and the bursting forth of that very same landscape in my early twenties in ways totally monstrous and blown out of scope.

Everything inside urged to see the light of day.

It’s staggering, though, how powerful the Christian complex influences our society. I’m not someone who attended church all that much. I wasn’t raised Catholic by a long shot. My dad grew up going to Catholic schools and vowed to never let his kids have the same experience. So I was raised skeptical and Presbyterian. We played basketball in the basement of the church. I don’t remember a thing about Sunday school other than getting those donut munchkins from Dunkin Donuts. One kid loved freaking the teacher out by swallowing them whole, and when they got stuck in his throat, he punched the bulge until the donut smashed up and he swallowed it.

My recollection of the myths and parables of the bible barely exists.

After a few years of that, the pastor left, so we went searching for other churches, jumping around from congregation to congregation. My dad didn’t go all that much. My mom wanted the community and spirit that came along with church, so I joined her from time to time as she explored the Unitarian Universalists. I was first exposed to Buddhism in those truncated days. By that time, I was playing soccer more and more frequently, so soccer on Sundays became my church.

I recall a friend of mine during those times; he and his family practiced in the Cavalry tradition. They skirted that edge of Born-again fundamentalism. The parents didn’t allow their kids to be in school for Halloween. They listened to Christian music only. Etc etc. The family was nice enough though. I slept over their house a good bit. Played street hockey out front of their house. Kid stuff. One time, which pretty much spelled the slow divergence of our friendship, I received a phone call from my friend’s father asking me to join them at the Harvest Music Festival. A day full of Christian rock bands. It sounded miserable. I declined saying I had soccer on the weekends and wouldn’t be able to attend. He said to me, “You know, you could be the world’s best soccer player, you could be Pele even, but if you don’t accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, you will be going to Hell when you die.” I said, “Okay.” And hung up the phone. Even at the age of 12, it seemed absurdly ridiculous. Laughable. Such weighty words filled with the arrogance of belief. How did he KNOW?

I began dismantling the Christian complex from that age, but it still had such a stranglehold on me, on our society; when I reached young adulthood, Christ ripped and cut so deeply into my psyche to the point I thought I was the prodigal He. It brought with it an arrogance I had not really known before.

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Mostly through my high school years I maintained a shy nature. I didn’t talk with many people. I recall at soccer practice one time, two guys approached me with pondering questions about my sexuality, “Do you like girls? It doesn’t really matter one way or the other. We’re just curious…” “Mhm…” “I don’t really see you talking with them…” “I don’t really talk with many people…” “That’s true.” And they stopped with their questions. I guess they realized I was rather reclusive.

I smoked weed for the first time when I was 13 years old. It was a half-day at school and the weed put me on cloud nine. I danced goofily and swore off the education system. I remember walking around and having no idea how to interact with people. The words didn’t match the images in my mind so I just stumbled around talking strangely. By sunset, I had had enough and went home in a fog, crashing in bed for the rest of the evening and night.

The weed awoke something in me, and I decided to stop doing homework. I remember in 8th grade, a teacher approached me with her grade book. She pointed to my name. “Look at your grades,” she said. “Look. You have mostly A’s here, a couple B’s, and look at your homework grade, that’s a C- soon to be a FAIL.” It seemed absurd to me, “If I’m getting A’s and B’s on everything else,” I asked her, “what does it matter about my homework?” I don’t think she knew what to say.

She let me slide as many other teachers did as well.

There was a bit of sports privilege wrapped up in there, I believe; I started varsity soccer from the time I was a freshman. In 8th grade, I was practicing with them from time to time. The teachers knew me like they know all the students, but it doesn’t hurt to stand out in that respect.

One teacher waited half a year for an essay I was writing. She bugged me periodically threatening me with an F but also continued to bump the due date. I was writing the paper on the play Waiting For Godot, so she waited and waited and waited and I turned it in at the end of the year. I don’t recall if there was any substance to what I had written, but she got a kick out of it and gave me an A instead of an F. She heaped on praises, “I’m so glad I WAITED to read this.” Hahaha. Ugh.

Even then, school was tough at times. I have many hard feelings for those days, mostly having to do with the institution itself and how utterly depressed & alienated that makes someone like me.

After college, I returned home to substitute teach. I recall some of the teachers reminiscing about my days in school. They described me as somewhat radical, like an outsider but still able to fit in. They said I wasn’t so much a rebel just for the hell of it, but more thoughtful, not easily swayed by the crowd. I wish I had understood that in those days, because it often felt like a nightmare where I was isolated, a prisoner in my own body, held captive and gagged, unable to say what I needed to say.

That being said, it was not always like that and not a total waste. I liked drawing and writing. There was usually a book to catch my interest. The Stranger came into my life then, and in that context, it made a lot of sense. The poetry. The romantic life. The overwhelming indifference. Its association with existentialism. The lack of meaning. The lack of substance. It felt like a world I wanted to explore. Like it held a nameable secret: This is life. It is simple at times and complicated at others. Enjoy what you can. There will be struggles.

This was right around the time of 9/11 and the second large-scale invasion of Iraq.

I remember arguments in classes and for the first time marching in protests.

I recall scouring the Internet for all the news I could feast my eyes on. Almost immediately I was drawn to anarchism. From that standpoint, society made the most sense. I had a peripheral interest in The Left as well, but honestly, never read much Marx or what-have-you. I find people of that persuasion to be good comrades, but never quite identified myself as such. IMG_5382I understand there’s a lot of interplay and intertwining of thoughts and praxis, so I’m not sure it matters how I choose to identify myself in this case; so many people conflate anarchism with socialism with communism and probably just toss me right into that godforsaken realm of Cultural Marxism. Or toss me out of it. Either or. I don’t know.

We’re all so full of judgment.

Before heading off to college, I was drawn to philosophy and psychology for many reasons. Our school didn’t offer those courses, so I sought the studies out on my own. I read The Interpretation of Dreams, and honestly, a lot of it went over my head, but still, it left a greater impression than most of the books for school did. It validated a certain mode of being in the world. I agonized over the nature of my experience. How to communicate it with others. How to feel not so terribly different. How to stave off that sense of alienation. How to greater know my role in society. I remember, specifically, realizing how potent dream life is, and that book spoke to exactly that, the reality of dream-life amidst all the chaos of war and propaganda.

Between that, the sports, the weed, the desire for a more esoteric knowledge, playing music on occasion with one group of friends, and occasionally displaying art from art classes, I garnered something of a reputation for being, well, I don’t know. Mysterious? A curiosity? I’m sure there was a host of other descriptions and labels too, some less flattering than others.

I experienced my first delusions from fever right around this time too. This happened toward the start of high school. It was probably the flu, or something of the nature, right in the middle of summer. I wore a blanket. I sweated and shivered at the same time. I drank water and ate fruit. I had no idea what was going on. Absolutely mad with delusions. A few nights I spent lost in nightmares. Even upon waking, I was still caught in hallucinations. I remember believing my dad killed my best friends. It made me angry. I surged with fire and an irate desire for revenge. I woke up throwing punches at him until he restrained me. I broke down in tears. Another night I believed people broke into our house and stole all the beds and sofas. “The bastards!” I yelled. “The bastards got out the back! What are you doing! We have to get them!” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I shouted at my parents to defend the house and chase the thieves down. As I slowly started coming back to waking reality, I broke down into crying apologies. Shaking out the tears. Heaving and sobbing. Sweating and shivering.

I didn’t know what to make of that. But when I discovered the realm of shamans, I dug in deeply because it felt directly related. The ability to trek multiple realities felt all too real. Initially, it helped me make sense of my experience. I thirsted for more and more books along those lines. But eventually, I tired of reading book after book about people’s personal evolution into shamanhood. It felt like too much charlatanism. I didn’t want to be a shaman. It fascinated me, but our culture wasn’t set up for it. You couldn’t just choose to be one. It was more or less bestowed upon you by recognition, vision quests, ritual, and ceremony.

III. Theophany

“The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.” – Philip K. Dick, Valis

For the few years after I graduated from high school, into college, and post college years, I had reoccurring dreams about my high school. This isn’t uncommon. I speak with a lot of people, who, to this day, continue to dream about their high school days. The dreams usually involve stress and tests and homework. It’s no small secret that high school prepared us for the workforce. We are more or less trained to wake up early in the morning, cart off for the day, meet deadlines, attend meetings, etc etc. The reality hasn’t changed all that much, so the dreams don’t change all that much either.

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But my dreams did start to change.

It was always the same setting. I remember the bland hallways, the different entrances and exits, walking outside. I remember crossing into the park when school let out. All this showed up in my dreams with the shifting of people and emotions. I felt more or less pushed around by the bells ringing, weaving between teachers and students, under very little control of my own.

Certain dreams had me going through the motions of high school again. I remember being vaguely awake, thinking, “What the heck? Why am I doing this again? I already graduated! I even got a bachelors degree from a university! Why am I going through high school again?” The dream repeated many times in a variety of ways. It always brought with it anxiety and fear of failing and having to repeat the school year time and time again. It was a Nietzschean nightmare of eternal recurrence.

As time went on, I started gaining more and more lucidity in the dreams. I started questioning the reality of what was happening, until finally, it occurred to me, “Oh, okay. So this is a dream.” It was one of the last high school dreams I remember having.

I walked through a hallway holding a manila folder and a few papers. It was in between periods, so I went to my locker too. In the back of my mind I heard my mom reprimanding me, telling me I needed to do my homework and keep up with schoolwork.

I realized I was awake and dreaming, so I tossed the papers into the air and decided against going to class. Instead, I explored the hallways. I walked to the main office, and as I did, the walls started disappearing. In the open office, I saw people hanging out and talking, both students and staff. Why hadn’t I always socialized instead of going to class? I stood next to the proverbial water cooler where people gathered to drink water and chat. I tried chatting with them, but everyone appeared like an automaton. They only talked about a constrained program of thoughts and ideas. When I spoke outside of their realms of stored thinking, they ignored me. So I started making a scene, throwing my water cup in the air, splashing water, yelling and hollering, but no one responded. What is this charade? Is this even real? Who are these people? Am I even here? I walked down another hallway to a set of stairs. The hallways went dark and it felt post-apocalyptic. I walked up to the third floor, which had changed from a number of classrooms to being solely the art room. It was abandoned, covered in dust and cobwebs. I gingerly stepped through the cobwebs avoiding them the best I could, until I arrived in the center of the floor. Sunlight filtered in gently and picturesque. The ceilings looked like the rafters of barns. And suddenly, without warning, a giant spider appeared before my eyes, right in front of me, close enough I could see all the little individual eyes and hairs and fangs. It scared me to death. I screamed and woke up. But upon waking, the spider came with me. Apparently I scared her too, and she bolted along a thread of web from right in front of me to the corner of the bedroom. I sat up shaking. I woke up my partner at the time. Do you see that! I yelled. Do you see that! The spider darted from one corner of the room to another corner. I shifted my body and pointed. Over there! Do you see that? But she didn’t. And just like that, the spider dissolved back into the dream world.

What the.

I shook off the fear as best I could, locked the dream in my memory, and fell back to sleep. It reminded me of those fever dreams I had had when I was in middle school. Waking up and the dream world coming with me.

In retrospect, the spider as a symbol makes sense. The weaving of webs, illusions, myths, and stories. I’m often curious how memories compile to form reality. What is more real? The dream or the waking? Does it matter? They are tied so closely together in memory, why do we make the hard distinctions? I assume a lot of us, for many reasons, don’t give much weight to our dream life let alone our internal landscapes.

Especially when they’re screaming at us.

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Narrow Passage

I. Hornet’s Nest Dysphoria

“The first thing to depart in mental illness is the familiar. And what takes its place is bad news because not only can you not understand it, you also cannot communicate it to other people. The madman experiences something, but what it is or where it comes from he does not know.” – Philip K. Dick, Valis

It feels dangerous to talk about it out loud. So I take to writing it down.

The illusions of grandeur started when I was 19 or 20 years old. It was a three or four year period living in this particular hellscape. The internal world I traversed at that time was one of psychic torture swinging into bouts of ecstatic overload. It was volatile. Apocalyptic. Paranoia wove its way through my mind ceaselessly. I forever thought friends were inviting me out as a joke. Even a funeral I went to, beforehand, I had thoughts of not going because I kept thinking it was a ploy to out me as a scourge unfit for family and friendship. I had enough presence of mind to talk myself down from these thoughts, but it was difficult.

I remember hearing voices telling me I was a prophet, the reincarnation of Buddha, the second coming of Christ. I had thoughts telling me I was sent here by God to unveil secrets to those around me. Prophecies. Everything was a sign pointing me closer and closer. To what though? I don’t know. Enlightenment? Transcendence? Fulfillment of divine purpose? It must have been a click in my brain. A jolt in my being. A freak show of ego and narcissism. Chemistry out of whack and firing haywire. There were any number of rationalizations for it, but the fact of the matter was clear. This is happening. I don’t have any small doubt it is a major reason for me being a writer. I wanted to hammer those thoughts into submission. I wanted to mold them into stories more sane and relatable. Transform the language and find new words. I wanted to channel those thoughts into something less cultish. Less religious.

I also did not in the least want to walk that path into schizophrenia. Mental hospitals. Dissociative disorders. Strapped in institutions. Drugged into zombification.

I was haunted by fear. Outlandish visions. I had nightmares of being gang raped and beaten pretty regularly. I wondered if I was tortured in another life for a practice of witchcraft. I recall smoking weed with friends, and feeling the need to stop, because it felt as though I was inside everyone’s heads, hearing all their thoughts. I had no idea what to make of my experience, this unreality, this alternative world, that worked its way into my thinking, but I dealt with it on my own.

There were nights I sat in my room unsure how I made it through another day. I felt like I had zero control, like I was being pushed through life by an external force co-opting my inner will. I gave thanks and praises to whatever it was keeping me safe and harboring me through the chaos. Many times I considered taking off into the quiet life of monkhood. A monastery. A mountain. Somewhere cloistered and sacred. Practice daily ritual and meditation. I don’t recall talking about this with anyone until years later. Even then, I’ve kept very quiet about it. It certainly showed up in some of my writing, albeit thinly masked and self-ridiculed. I’m 31 now. It’s been about a decade. I feel like it’s been long enough to revisit these thoughts in earnest, because they don’t leave. They’re still in my memories. Much quieter now. Almost an absurdist abstraction. A surrealist spat at a distance. I’ve dealt with it in ways that I knew how. It’s different of course in the present. Back then, I felt forever on the brink of losing complete and total touch with reality. Like my head was exploding with archetypal upheaval.

It’s ironic in a way too. Don’t the teachings of Christ make such suggestions? At least the Nag Hammadi Texts? The kingdom of heaven is within. Christ is in each one of us. We don’t need the middleman of the priest to know our connection to the universe or god. In all probability, we don’t want the priest to corrupt our natural encounter with feminine.

At the time, I was also reading about shamans, so this archetypal energy was presenting itself simultaneously. But the modern American culture makes as much space for shamans in society as it does for prophets. So that didn’t seem like a much better path to tread. Michel Foucault wrote about the village idiot. The person where madness found a dwelling. Mircea Eliade relegated the shaman to a madman suffering schizophrenic delusions.

Given what was arising in me and what roles are acceptable to fulfill in modern society, I suffered a lot of confusion. At the same time this was happening, I felt more and more a part of me that is a woman. I remember a dream I had in which my mom and aunts and the women ancestors sat around me in a ceremonial circle as I heaved and cried and screamed, “I don’t want this! Why me!” “It is part of your gift,” they said calmly. “You must accept it or it will eat you alive.” The idea of being transgender or non-binary was barely on the periphery of my understanding, but even then, I have often felt like and continue to feel like both a man and a woman. Not one or the other, but an interweaving of both. This is part of the reason why Willow has become a chosen pen name.

I ate mushrooms for the first time when all this was happening. To be honest, I believe it helped me ground, get real, filter and integrate these thoughts.

During one journey in particular, I traveled back thousands of years. I lived in the trees and wore a loincloth. I overlooked the forest village in which we lived. It was paradisiacal. As I returned to the present day, I experienced the fall from grace and entered a period of profound sadness. How could civilization develop in such a way? So much violence toward one another and toward the earth. Violence that is both explicit and unconscious. But that trip, deep into the terrain of psyche, helped me understand the nature of those reoccurring grandiose illusions. We are complex beings. We are more than just our present life. We have memories encoded in our DNA. Our genes carry the weight of millennia. I don’t need to give my whole identity over to one particular upheaval of thought patterning.

There was another voice that said over and over again, “You are gay. You are gay. You are gay.” It was frustrating. It was clear that women turned me on. My sexual fantasies indicated as such. Men, not so much, but I was and continue to be open. Experimental. So sure, I’m gay. I feel an emotional, romantic connection with men. Not all men. A heartfelt brotherhood. But as teenagers, our touching one another was always aggressive and competitive, expressed through sports and wrestling around. There was less hugging. Little to no softer intimacy. This is something I craved much more than sexual attraction. There was this phrase “butt buddies.” It indicated that two friends were attached at the hip and vaguely implied that they were fucking one another. It was used as a derogative. A point of joking and making fun of people. Closeness with men was clearly discouraged.

I grew up in a place that was progressive and open, but still people were steeped in tradition. Homophobia existed in subtle ways. It wasn’t so much a hatred for the LGBTQ community, but more so a fear of it. “You’re gay” was a way to say, “you’re dumb.” When it came to sexuality, it seemed as though you could be either straight or gay but no in between. There were no degrees along the spectrum. Only a strong binary. Gay or straight. Man or woman. In the closet or out. Strict, defined boundaries. As someone who identifies as queer, this didn’t appear on my radar when I was younger. It was almost too complex. My whole experience was too complex for me to get a grip on.

Most of my younger days were spent in a hazy darkness. The space needed to find clearness of thinking and expression of an inner world didn’t really exist. I remember being relatively miserable. I had a few friends I could relate to on these matters, but I don’t think we had the language or concepts to describe what was happening to us. We most definitely searched though.

I understand consciousness forever ebbs and flows, changing like a chameleon depending on the context of society and individual state of mind, but still, it’s important to name the delusion.

Snake Eyes

Where does romance come from?

I’m specifically interested in the feeling of romance, but my curiosity has led me to take a quick look at the etymology of the word. To break it down, as an adjective, romance describes any language coming from Rome, i.e. the romance languages that derive from Latin. And from that point onward, those who told stories in the vernacular where known to romance. Often those stories involved knights, heroes, lovers, and adventure, hence the meaning we generally associate with it today.

I sense there is some patriarchal dismantling to be had given its formation during the days of chivalry, but I’ll save that for another time when my thoughts have delved more deeply into its origins and connotations.

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For now, let it suffice on the surface, the feeling of romance arose from a walk through the city, a section known as Kensington.

The night air remained chilly, but not terribly freezing. Nice enough for a walk under the El with the train rattling overhead. The floodlights along the avenue showcased storefronts, most closed up for the night. The metal shutters rolled down to the ground with a clang covering up the glass windows and doors. Barbershops stayed lit up with lights and music and customers into the later hours.

I was on my way to grab a steaming bowl of noodles.

I passed an AA and NA recovery building. People hung outside. Chatting lively. A fenced-in yard stood next to it. Wonky, wooden crosses dug into the ground erected on slanted angles. Across the street a Franciscan soup kitchen loomed humble and unnoticeable save the people always around. When the weather is warm, people hang there for hours on end. Even tonight, a person slept curled up tightly with blanket, snuggled into a nook between the steps and a wall to stay protected from the wind. How tired must one be to fall asleep in the cold?

I served food there once or twice. I remember talking with a monk brother about meditation and psychedelia. In his deepest trances, he saw images of Christ meditating before him, emanating blue white and golden light. I didn’t doubt his experience. He called it visceral despite it being a visual hallucination. I just looked at him like, “You’re tripping.” He traveled with a number of other monks from Wisconsin to Philadelphia stopping at other soup kitchens and churches along the way.

I find I’m often in similar places.

A few years back I attended a Quaker church hosting Buddhist monks. They wore robes like the Franciscan monks except different colors. The Buddhist monks traveled around touring cities and sacred spaces meditating through the creation of sand mandalas.

I found it fascinating.

On one night in particular they planned to play music. I arrived early with a friend, her kids, and their friends. Right away, they ran off to explore the church. I sat with the sand mandala on my own and stared into the patterns and colors, the infinitesimally small mounds arranged so delicately, appreciating the elusive magnitude of it all.

Not soon after, a grandfather and granddaughter walked in.
“Make sure you don’t stare them in the eyes!” He warned. He carried a balloon in one hand and her hand in the other.
“How come, Pop?”
“They’ll hypnotize you!”
“Oh!” The little girl looked surprised yet enchanted, filled with a million lovable questions. She couldn’t control her excitement and interest, so all those millions of questions condensed and funneled into a simple exclamation, “But how?”
“They have snakes in their eyes!”
“Oh!” She hollered again and pointed at me from across the room, “Is he one of the snake monks?”
I smiled at the question. Her grandfather looked at me and nodded his head, “Look at his eyes. He’s got snakes!” I didn’t know what to think about that response, but it amused me. They walked over to a nearby pew.

People slowly filed in. Everyone quiet and whispering. Even the kids kept their cool for the most part.

The monks ushered us over to a different area for the music. We sat in pews and they faced us. I don’t know what I expected, maybe something relaxing or soft. Which it wasn’t. These instruments, which I couldn’t name other than brass, a shaker, a scraper, a drum, probably another horn, in addition, an interspersal of throat singing, made so much clanging and discordant nonsensical sound, it jolted me awake. It crashed into my peripheral understanding of meditation and smashed it up, dancing all over it like a danse macabre. The kids kept trying to stifle their laughter, the parents kept trying to shush them, but the laughs just bubbled up and out like a creek unimpeded and joyful. It was great. The playing. The jolting. The meditation. The laughter. It felt like seeing an abundantly playful noise band.

In all my explorations of meditation, juxtaposed to what we expect, I find the nature of violence to be a consistent theme. One full moon many moons ago, I attended a chanting meditation of the Rinpoche lineage. So much of the language described how dastardly corrupt the world is, and how strong and prevailing in spirit we must be to walk through it.

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We often have this idea that peace of mind is accomplished high up in the mountains far away from society, and that’s true, it can be glimpsed at and cultivated there. But what happens when the practitioner returns to the poverty of the city? It’s a whole different world. The subtle and overt violence is striking. The gentle mask is ripped away. The air is dirty and the water’s poisoned. Are we trying to expel the darkness of life or understand it? We often have this idea that we must always be standing in the light to be healed, to acquire knowledge and wisdom, to live righteously. I think there is merit in that, but I believe wholeheartedly in living with the darkness, in continued confrontation with our demons, treading the shadowed waters. We have to be honest with ourselves. The day falls dark. The moon disappears once a month. The stars shine thousands of lightyears away. How many of them have already exploded into death?

My last semester at school, I volunteered at a soup kitchen in downtown Boston. I went once a week just about every week for a few months. We prepped food, served those who were living there and a few others who came in off the streets. It was a halfway house, so a lot of the folks were either addicts or coming out of jail or both. After serving, we ate with everyone and conversed. It seemed just about everyone wanted to talk about god. They spoke intensely and wild-eyed about their journeys discovering the divine. It pummeled them with inspiration to talk and read until their heads cracked like lightning. I was there for it. No doubt.

When we got to talking, everyone assumed I was there for a class requirement, so they acted surprised when I told them I was volunteering simply because I felt compelled. Good for you, they said. It’s not really volunteering if you’re required to do it anyhow. During that time I found myself buddying up with all kinds of people considered degenerates, drunkards, addicts, criminals etc etc more or less the demimonde, the underworld, the subterranean of castaways and outcastes. 

One day I remember slicing my thumb open terribly bad. We were cutting bagels. Blood dripped onto the table like little ink blots. The pain sat me down for a long moment. I got woozy. The blood rushed from my head. Everything flashed white.

A woman stared at me smiling, “It makes you feel alive, doesn’t it?” I looked at her bug-eyed and she smiled wider. I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up. I felt sick. But her suggestion took my mind a different route. I recovered the ground under my feet and got back to helping out.

That weekend, I drove to White Plains, New York with a friend, hopped a train to NYC and a bus to Philly. My thumb throbbed and yelled at me the whole time. I tried to practice my breathing while repeating the mantra, “Pain is an illusion. Pain is an illusion.” But that worked only vaguely. The pain faded in and out slowly, without warning, and when the pain returned, the intensity didn’t subside.

That night I arrived home, I stayed up staring at the gash, wondering about the healing process. I wanted to watch the mending occur. The coagulation. The scabbing. The slowly closing up of skin like a flower opening and closing in tune with the sun. I didn’t have the patience to stare at it that long.

At one point, my cat walked into the room. I must have been in such a daze. She appeared to motion me to follow. So I did. She sat down next to an aloe plant and looked at me in that peculiar way cats do, aloof yet expecting something. I held my hands out like, “What?” So she licked my thumb and it all made sense. Of course. Aloe. I broke off a tiny piece, spoke with it, and asked it to heal my thumb. I slept with aloe that night and the following night, and in three days time, to my amazement, the cut healed like magic. I still have a little indentation on my thumb from that.

Since that time, I’ve never experienced such quick healing with aloe specifically. I continue to use it when it’s around, but tend towards other woundworts like St. John’s.

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Only one other instance have I personally experienced rapid healing of that nature: I was pounding rebar stakes into the ground with a metal mallet hammer and it slipped down the side of the rebar and smashed my instep. Everyone knows how sensitive that area is. I yelled fuck! and took long, deep breaths. I went back to work, and afterwards, took a trip to the garden to pick a couple comfrey leaves. By the time I got home, my foot turned red and was beginning to swell. I didn’t even crush the leaves up into a poultice. I just wrapped my foot with the clean, intact comfrey leaf, securing it with an ace bandage. Before going to sleep, I brushed up on my study of it and stared into the other leaf I harvested. If you’ve never stared into a comfrey leaf, especially when you’re under the spell of pain, I recommend doing it. It is a deep leaf. It penetrates. It’s also called knit-bone. When I woke up the next morning, I had no pain in my foot and no evidence of swelling or bruising. I could walk on it with ease, but it was still sensitive to a heavy touch. It healed within a week.

I’m not saying plants work like this all the time, but it does happen.

When my friend broke her hand, I wrapped it with a comfrey poultice. Before doing so, it looked like a baseball mitt. She could barely move her fingers. Within an hour of applying the poultice, the swelling completely subsided and she could gently and slightly close her hand. When she showed it to her aunt and mom, they looked at me like I was some kind of witch.

I know it’s hard to believe, but plants really do work wonders with our bodies.