White Man’s Footprint: The Cure Grows Close to the Wound
I was chatting with a friend recently who told me that the best cure for poison ivy (that he had ever found) was in the juices of the jewelweed, commonly found growing right beside poison ivy. This reminded me of something that was shared in my Natural Therapeutics class, by the founder of our school. He shared with us the idea that the cure for any ailment or disease can be found within a ten mile radius of where the afflicted person lives. This train of thought naturally led me to contemplating my favorite weed, the benevolent and humble plantain herb.
I first discovered wild plantain after a friend and neighbor introduced me to it. Soon, I was spotting it everywhere. Along the rocky trails at Stephenson Preserve, in between cracks of pavement, in our community garden at work. It grows just about everywhere in this country. The little plant was prolific, and yet so humble and hidden I had never noticed it until it was pointed out to me.
I was told that it was a great remedy for insect bites and minor skin wounds of all kinds, which I soon discovered to be true after I applied some to my burning ankles after standing too close to a fire ant mound.
Later through my own research I discovered that it was also edible and nutritious, especially the young leaves, and that the Native Americans called the plant “White Man’s Footprint,” since it seemed to show up in areas that the white settlers invaded. Plantain seems to pop up most often in “disturbed soils,” areas that have been ploughed and trampled: a response of nature to the wounds created by man.
Upon reading Braiding Sweetgrass (a book I emphatically recommend to everyone), I was reminded again about of the wisdom of this humble little weed:
“Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regard to limits. But Plantain is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but ‘naturalized.’ This is the same term we use for the foreign-born when they become citizens in our country.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
I can only hope that we can learn from this little plant, how to become native to a place by our reverence, our curiosity, and our eagerness to help heal the places that have been disturbed, while remaining humble and persistent. It is my sincerest hope that we as a nation begin doing this often quiet work so that we can be proud of the footsteps we create, and leave this world better than we found it. It may well be that the cure to what ails us is already there, under our feet, growing in the cracks rent by the problem.
One of the most interesting principles that keeps coming to the surface for me, during this year of study at NMSNT, is that the human body is, and perhaps all bodies are, holographic; holographic in the sense that each part contains information of the whole.
I first became aware of this concept a few years ago from my friend Barbara, who practices acupuncture. She administers auricular (ear) acupuncture sessions for people with PTSD. She explained to me how all of the organs and body parts have corresponding points on the ear, and that you can treat virtually all imbalances in the body on the ears alone.
Studying and practicing foot reflexology recently sold me completely on the concept, and now I find that I am treating every part of the body as the whole body. From the feet, to the hands, the ears, the face, all parts of the body contain information about the whole person. Observing the sternum a few months ago it became obvious to me that it was also a reflection of the spine, the little xiphoid process a perfect nod to the sacrum/coccyx, so I pay more attention to the sternum now with the intention of treating the spine.
In Ayurvedic diagnosis, as well as TCM, the tongue is also examined carefully, as it is thought to reveal exactly the state and condition of the internal organs. Observing the tongue and using a tongue scrapper in the morning has been a common practice in the east for millennia. A classmate of mine recently shared that since the tongue is connected to the internal organs via a connective tissue lining (I'm blanking on the name of this at the moment), which is suspended from the hyoid bone in the throat, scrapping the tongue really does "massage" the internal organs. More on tongue scrapping here.
I think that as we learn and experience more of our undeniable interconnectedness, it will be harder and harder to justify the type of symptom suppressive practices that are so commonly offered in mainstream health care. You can't do something to one part of the body without affecting the whole.
And maybe, as we start to realize the unity present within the diversity of our own bodies, the more eager we will be to embrace each other, and attend to the unified health of our planetary body.
According to the philosophy of Natural Therapeutics, when you're on the path to healing, it's common for symptoms to get worse before they get better, we call this the "healing crisis."
Nature Cure describes a healing crisis as "an acute reaction, resulting from the ascendancy of Nature's forces over disease conditions. Its tendency is towards recovery, and it is, therefore, in conformity with Nature's constructive principle."
People in my NMSNT community also call it "going acute."
"I went acute last week" a friend of mine said recently. I got the message. She had been through a healing crisis. I understood the principle behind the phenomenon- once you are healthy enough to deal with the real nasty shit that's accumulated in your system, your body takes advantage of your good health to get down to the nitty gritty. You're doing everything right- and things seem to be getting worse.
I had seen women at SafePlace go through healing crises. I saw it happen enough that I would warn clients who came into our transitional housing program about it. After being stuck in survival mode for so long, and then finally having a safe place to live, things were finally stable enough for the person to process everything that had happened to them. And it usually freaked them out.
But it wasn't until recently that I actually experienced it myself- on a small scale.
It was the first day of my cycle. I was used to having painful menstrual cramps. They usually lasted 4-6 hours and were manageable enough that I could work or sleep through them. But this time they were more intense then they've ever been and lasted 8 hours. From midnight until 8am the next morning I was crippled with abdominal pain. It was the same pain I'd always experienced but ramped up to the point where I couldn't numb it or ignore it and I was up all night with it and finally surrendered and just listened to it. And despite having gotten no sleep, after it passed, I felt great.
But over the next few weeks I started to worry. Was this going to happen again? Was every month going to be a repeat, or worse? Would I have to (gasp) go to a doctor?
I was bracing myself, but the next cycle came, and was over in three days, with very little discomfort at all.
This month was even easier. And I can finally say that for the first time in my life, I am having what I would call a "healthy" cycle. My body is no longer screaming at me and it's doing its job efficiently. I even forgot it was time this month, when I failed to have the usual irritability/tears that let me know I'm about to start bleeding.
I can't pinpoint the change that allowed this to happen. Maybe it's the work I've been doing through my school. Maybe it's because I've been eating well. Maybe it's a natural result of being in a truly healthy relationship for the first time in my life. Honestly, I don't care why. I'm just grateful for the reminder that when you make positive changes in your life, things really do change.
I have seen mothers go through this before.
She’s been hurt. The police get called. Child Protective Services gets involved.
She is fleeing abuse and staying in a shelter.
They say that she’s “combative,” “non-cooperative,” and “unstable.” Lots of phones are called. Lots of papers are shuffled, and decisions are made well before anyone appears before a judge.
The day comes, and a defiant mother shows up to court with her head held high, exhausted and mad as hell, but confident that no one is capable of taking her child from her arms.
And then, they do.
It is the single most tragic thing I have ever witnessed.
And this time, it knocked me off my center.
I watched, dumb, as she fell apart. I rode the waves of her grief, and I felt like I, too, was drowning in it.
How could they do this? To take her child away. To put him in an unfamiliar place, with people he barely knows.
Why can’t they just help her?
I spent the rest of the day and the majority of the next in a daze. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I dragged myself around, sullen, and aching. The deep pain that was still resounding in my body turned to anger, and I felt it brim behind my eyes, seeking someone to blame, before I surrendered it to tears.
I was confused. Why was the pain so different this time, why did it feel like it was seeping into my bones and changing me so profoundly?
It doesn’t belong to me, I thought,
before realizing that,
it actually belongs to all of us.
It is a violation of nature and a crime against humanity to forcibly remove a child from its mother.
Personally, I am at a very safe distance from a threat of this kind, but still, my body knows it like a haunting memory, and I see it all around me, crying out for attention right now, and getting it.
I see it in the faces of immigrant parents
who have been separated from their children.
Thank God we are seeing it.
I also see it in the scar on the face of the earth
where a forest has been clear cut.
I see it in the body of the deer, the dog, the skunk,
who was stuck by a car and left to rot on the pavement.
I see it everywhere, and when I feel into the enormity of our violation against nature, it brings me to my knees and close to despair.
After a few weeks of grieving, and what I feared was her giving up,
I saw this mother again with her head heal high and her game plan in motion.
I realized, with some relief, that Mothers don't give up.
And Nature doesn't either.
After class on Sunday I went walking with my dog through the nature preserve near my home, enjoying the subtle shift between day and night. In the distance I heard an owl, softly cooing. And then a few moments later another owl, with a lower voice, or perhaps farther away, gave a knowing reply. I remembered the work we did in class as I walked, and began thinking about the beliefs and values which underpin my skills as a hiker and lover of the woods. I recalled myself saying to my partner in class that the belief I carry that enables my ability as a hiker has something to do with acknowledging that we are, ourselves, a part of nature. That our lives are interdependent and interwoven with the lives of plants and animals. And that being in nature is simply healthy for us.
As I continued around the bend it dawned on my that my even deeper belief is that the forest itself, and everything in it, is conscious and aware. And that everything in the natural world has something to teach us.
I communed with this belief as I emerged from the thickness of the forest and turned onto the bright open dirt path leading back to the neighborhood.
The feathery hoot of the owls wafted above me, and I stopped in my tracks to get a sense of where they were.
A few paces ahead, and up, I spotted the first owl. Alighted on a powerline, and looking down at me with calm surprise. I bowed to him as an offering of friendship and humility, and found myself wondering what his teaching was, and how to model an exemplar such as this fine screech owl.
A little farther up the trail I heard his comrade. And found him resting in a treetop, visible against the fading glow of the western horizon. I stood underneath and asked again inwardly, what is your teaching? How do you do what you do? The owl turned and looked down at me, and I stared back up, openly. As I watched the bird rotate his head to peer directly behind itself, I recalled a story from class about a consultant who was paid $25,000 a day to fix problems within companies. The secret to his success was his ability to look at the problem from every angle, until the right perspective was found, and it ceased to be a difficult problem at all.
To see things from all perspectives, and to do so from on high, in a detached, curious, and objective way, seemed to me, to be the teaching of this owl.
The next morning I watched the doves outside my window walk up and down the branches of the big oak trees in the backyard. Curious, I asked again, what is your teaching, dove? How are you so good at what you do?
The dove softly beat its tail, up and down, up and down, as it walked and rotated on the branch. As it turned toward me, I noticed its chest and wings formed a heart shape, and I smiled as I realized its message was about the heart. About the rhythm, the tenderness, and the innocence of the heart.
A crow swooped down and landed on the same branch and after a moment I heard him say, even before I asked the question, logic.
Wisdom, the inner eye. Tenderness, the original heart. Logic, the pure mind.
Upon completing this short passage, and looking for a thumbnail image, I do a google image search for “owl medicine” and find the picture above. A nice reminder that these three teachers have many more students than just myself.
It is my first morning alone in India. My traveling companion, Maria, has left for Paris, and I find myself wandering the streets of Varanasi, taking in the sights and sounds with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Walking along the ghats, a young boy approaches me. He smiles widely and shows me a water balloon with purple fluid in it. I shake my head at him and say “no,” but as soon as my back is to him he slams me, and all at once, me and my belongings are covered in purple dye. I run after him, and he disappears above the ghats, laughing. I want to laugh too- but I can’t. Instead, I duck into an abandoned temple to hide, feeling angry and ridiculous.
On my walk home I feel like a walking target. I can feel the beginnings of my moon blood starting to flow, and the usual stares and comments from men as I walk home are getting under my skin in a way that makes me boil. All of the suppressed resentment I have felt since arriving in India is surfacing and I don’t know what to do with it. I decide to write it all down and it pours out of me, hot and angry, and fluid. I’m sick of being a woman in India, I write. I proceed to air out my grievances, most of which have to do with Indian men, and once it is complete I know I have to share it with someone. So I post it on social media. It is International Women’s Day, and I see posts with radiant, smiling women everywhere. As soon as I have posted the message, I take a breath and pray to the Divine Mother. I apologize for my anger, ask her for grace, and let a few tears fall as an involuntary oblation.
After a few hours I’m restless and hungry and venture out of my room. Something feels different. I feel lighter and hardly notice the comments of passing men and pushy touts. Later, I am browsing the racks of clothing at a local store as the salesman is encouraging me to sit down and have chai. I agree and he orders a younger man to go get the tea. This family owns a dog- a dachshund- they are the first Indian people I have met who own a dog (like, let it live in their house, own it). As we are sipping tea the younger man introduces himself and we start to chat about Varanasi, and what to see and do here. He is a student at the university, and is studying Spanish. This is his family’s shop. I’m struck by how kind he is, and leave the store with more items than I actually want or need. On my way out he flags me down and offers to take me to the most famous temples, if I’m interested in seeing them. Am I interested in seeing the holy temples of Varanasi? You bet I am. Normally I would never accept an offer from a stranger to be my tour guide, and especially not in a foreign country. But I found myself saying yes, eagerly. I trusted this guy.
The next day I am walking back to my hotel, to meet Ayush, my tour guide, when a motor bike pulls up beside me, and I suddenly realize that this is my ride. He smiles warmly and motions for me to jump on. I have never been on the back of a bike, and feel my legs trembling, but I still trust this guy, and in a few moments, we are weaving in and out of the beautiful chaos of Varanasi. I am so thrilled, I can’t believe it. This is fun.
The next few days are a whirlwind of incredible temples, amazing food, and great conversation. I am treated with so much care and respect by this sweet young man, who never tries to come onto me, or asks anything of me in return for his time, care, and effort. I have seen things that I would never have been able to see if left to my own devices.
At the Vishwanath temple we are able to get right in, bypassing the line of worshipers that weaves down the tight streets of the old city. After receiving a blessing from the temple priest, who humorously throws a garland of flowers over my head, I whisper a wish into the ear of a statue of Nandi the bull, and I know, deep within my heart, that this prayer will be answered.
I book a plane for Delhi a few days before Holi with the intention of ending up in Rishikesh for the Holiday. Ayush finds a cab to take me to the airport and we part ways. I have fallen in love with him, but in a way that is so pure and so clean, I am not the least bit ashamed of it.
I realize, upon leaving Varanasi, that my prayer for Grace was answered. It was as if Mother India herself, heard me in my moment of weakness, and responded by showing me the kind and courageous men who I had been neglecting to see amid the clamour of the more obvious jerks. I left Varanasi a few days after meeting Ayush, but his impression stayed with me. And for the rest of my journey, I continued to meet Indian men who treated me with kindness and respect, and cleared away obstacles from my path, without asking anything in return. In the end, and to my total surprise, it was India’s men who made my journey so safe and comfortable. I realized during this experience, that it is natural for men to take care of women. I had been so accustomed to shunning ideas like this one, which historically have been used as excuses for disempowering women, that this revelation came as a bit of a shock. It is natural for men to take care of women. Any by “take care” what I really mean is, honor. What is unnatural, is for men to treat women like objects, or like untouchables, or like infants. What is unnatural, is for men to dishonor women, and vise versa.
I am still learning about the mysterious nature of Grace, so I can’t really tell you what it is. But I do know that it was the spirit of Grace that responded to me that day, my first day alone in India. And that She is always there, waiting for us to be ready to let go of our suffering.
This was the question on my mind a few mornings ago.
I was walking my dog through the woods above Barton Creek and was mentally calculating the time it would take for us to do a quick loop around the trail, sprint back to the car, drive home, jump in the shower, gather food, drink a cup of coffee, and jet off to work. I wasn't even planning on hiking down to the water until I reached the edge of the hill where I was planning on turning back, and suddenly Luna races down to the bottom, and stares up at me, daring me to follow.
Just to the edge of the water, I think. And then I'm at the water, smiling into my reflection among the clear pools forming along the bank, and I hear my inner Knowing ask me, why not bathe here this morning?
It's that perfect time of year, when the rains have filled the aquifer and the creek is full of fresh spring water. The color of the water captures me. It's a soft opalescent blue, and is so still I can see straight to the bottom.
My inner Knowing stared at me, like my dog had done at the bottom on the hill, daring me to give in and let go of my typical, frantic morning routine.
Yes, I replied to it, with a shy grin, I was going to take a bath anyway...why not here?
I find my favorite spot a little ways down the creek, hidden behind a grove of trees. I slip out of my clothes and step out onto a rock, warm from the early morning sun. The sunlight itself feels like a bath and I let it wash over me. I feel like I am smiling through ever pore of my body. The utter naturalness of this moment embraces and renews me, and I feel the Knowing within me smoothing over the events that lay before me, letting all my obligations know that I will be there in due time, that this time I am taking for myself is serving to make everything else better that is yet to come.
Luna is in the water first, with a splash, and I dive in after her, opening my eyes under the water in the cool blue and pausing near the bottom, before the air pulls me back up towards the surface. I float and dive and let my body take over my movements while my mind floats blissfully upon the water. I am Alive. The spring and the sun and my nakedness affirm to me that yes, I am alive, and I was made for this.
I later wonder how many opportunities like this I pass up due to business or shyness or fear. I feel so grateful that I allowed this unplanned moment to flower in my day, and I carried it with me for the rest of the day like a little jewel in my pocket. Touching it when faced with an unpleasant situation, and remembering that I am Alive, that I was born to feel alive, and that life is full of unplanned moments, and that it is within the uncertainty of the unknown that the most precious treasures are hidden.
For months I had been spinning my wheels, irritated and unhappy at my job, looking for a new city to move to, a new group to join, a new technique to learn, anything to alleviate this feeling of going nowhere. Unhealthy habits had crept back into my life like opportunistic pests sensing my weakness. I just wanted to feel better. To feel like I was doing what I was meant to be doing. And in all that effort to be doing, I lost my being.
Due to the stress, the unhealthy habits, and the vicious cycle that these two factors seem to always enable, my meditation practice had tampered off to a few minutes every morning before I started my day. I clung to this like a life raft, and indeed it was, and still is, a practice that keeps me afloat during precarious times.
My short morning meditations had started to develop a common theme. Depending on when I woke up, I would sit for a while, or simply pause in my little mediation room and bow for a few minutes, but one element silently crept in and began to tie everything together as my prayers evolved from a myriad of requests to one simple plea:
Guide me. Guide me through this day.
Lead me to the people who need me and to the people I need, too.
Lead me forward towards that which my soul is longing for.
I'm here. I'm listening. Just guide me.
Something about the act of just admitting now lost I felt was a huge relief, and became the most peaceful part of my day. Surrendering control, even for a moment, and allowing myself to commit to being open to what lay ahead- without any idea about what it could be- became my morning ritual.
And so when I received an email from my yoga community announcing a four month training in India that would be personally taught by the spiritual head of Kriya Yoga International, instead of dismissing it as a opportunity that I was neither prepared for or worthy of and moving onto the next email, I paused, listened within, and quickly realized that this was a door that was standing wide open, as an answer to my inner prayer, and was mine if I chose to accept it. Everything within me shouted "yes!" And it would still take months of deliberation, being struck by flying objects (seriously) and subsequently coming into exactly enough money to pay for the program expenses before I finally committed. But the Knowing never budged, because I never stopped trusting it.
The Knowing has to be surrendered to. Every morning, if possible. Every moment, every breath- even better. The Knowing may ask you to do really scary things. Jump out of comfort zones and into the unknown. It will never push you. But will quietly wait, patiently, while you run in circles here and there, drive yourself crazy in all of your effort to figure things out and establish security, and will still be there once you have collapsed in exhaustion. It will be smiling slightly, sitting calmly and will ask you one more time, "are you ready to let go, and be led?"
I trusted that Knowing across an ocean and all over a country I had never been to. It took care of me every step of the way. And I'm still struggling to let go of wanting to control life. But my grip is much looser and my faith in the Knowing, much stronger. And whenever I find myself running in circles and collapsing again into a puddle of confusion, I remember that calm smile, and the path that is illuminated just beyond it, just bright enough for me to see where to take the next step.