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.

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