Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.
— Seamus Heaney
The shaman is a middle-aged white woman. The shaman has a mobile-phone number with a Santa Cruz, California, area code. The shaman is probably Jewish, or once was. The shaman has light-brown hair that hangs straight and slack, an artless cut that brushes her shoulders. The shaman is wearing colorful striped pants of Central-American-by-way-of-head-shop origin and a T-shirt that reads, Santa Fe Dirt Shirt. The shaman wears no shoes.
I sit across from the shaman in the small spare room where she practices her craft. The fluorescent overhead lights are off, and a single lamp casts a dim glow. The painted concrete floors are cool to the touch. There are white walls, two chairs, a table, and a folded futon mattress on the floor. In the corner is a porcelain sink with separate hot and cold taps, the kind I imagine I would find in a room to which a kidnapper or an evil king or an evil, kidnapping king might confine me.
The shaman leans in and asks, “How are you doing?” and I burst into tears.
Make no mistake: I am excruciatingly aware of what kind of white person visits a shaman, and that I am now such a person. I have been reminded of it constantly over the past few days: when I saw the ad in the back of Natural Awakenings, a hippie-healing advertising circular; when I e-mailed the shaman to ask about her fees; when I took two buses to get to her office; when she opened the door; when she closed it behind me. Each time, I thought: This is some egregious white-person shit, right here.
And I am also in so much pain that I’m not sure I can carry it anymore. I am desperate enough to try any remedy.
On the outside nothing is happening in my life. I am depressed, obviously. I work from home. I just moved to the South and don’t know anyone, and the weather is excruciatingly hot and humid, and my girlfriend is out of town, so I have sort of stopped leaving the house.
I drift through the hours. I wait as long as possible before starting the work I have to turn in for my weekly deadline, and then I stay awake chain-smoking and swilling Diet Coke for days. The rest of the week I wake up late and let the dog out into the overgrown backyard and shuffle to the shop around the corner for a bagel and an extra-large Diet Coke with lots of ice. I eat; I refill my drink; I shuffle back home and into bed. Maybe I watch TV. Sometimes I read, pulling books off my shelves at random. More often I just lie there. I’m not bored. I’m someplace beyond boredom.
On the outside nothing is happening, but on the inside everything is collapsing, and I’m not sure why, or even what “everything” is.
For the first time in more than a decade I am not in therapy. My excuse is that I’ve just moved across the country, and finding a new therapist is hard, but really I am exhausted from the violence of scraping out an old wound or tearing apart the connective tissues of my coping mechanisms or deliberately snapping some fragile emotional bone so it can heal again properly. The effort of dislodging my secrets and shame from wherever they live inside me was staggering. All this undoing — it’s no wonder I told my last therapist, before I finally left her after ten years, that I still feel broken.
I’ve decided I need to stop trying to heal in order to actually do it, so my life no longer orbits the sun of the Therapeutic Hour. I am in free fall, pulled by some other gravity. I think about dying a lot. I’m not sure who or what might help me.
My theologian girlfriend has a book by a woman who is both a therapist and an indigenous Latin American healer. The author writes about pulling darkness out of people, about helping them find allies inside themselves. When I read it, I was most moved by the story she tells of a woman who uses the “wolf energy” inside her to heal her wounds. I was skeptical, but I also envied this wolf-woman.
Then I saw the ad.
Some things I have tried to believe in: tarot, yoga, God, Judaism, therapy, class mobility, acupuncture, Reiki, astrology, aura photography, Bach flower essences, women’s colleges, psychiatry, history, telepathy, the metaphysical and healing properties of gemstones, meditation, Saint Anthony, my parents.
The shaman is named Ellen. Ellen’s brand of shamanism appears to involve some profoundly embarrassing exercises. Before we can, as her ad put it, “journey into the shamanic realms,” she says we have to “wake up” my energy, which has something to do with chakras and deep breathing. Chakras: the usual new-age suspect. We pick and choose from the world’s ancient healing practices as if they were pictures to be cut from magazines and stuck on some spiritual vision board. But I’m willing to try anything at this point. I am playing the desperate depressed person’s version of the improv game “Yes, and,” in which someone proposes a scenario, and the next person says, “Yes, and . . .” before adding to it. So I stand in a kind of half squat and hold my hands along my center as Ellen instructs.
Ellen is doing this with me, which I guess should make me feel less embarrassed, but it’s too much like looking into an absurd and earnest mirror. We’re taking deep breaths and sort of bouncing in and out of the squats.
“You have all this red and orange energy, this fire in your root chakra and your sacral chakra,” she says to me. “Very powerful!”
I feel shyly pleased despite myself. She waves her hands over her hips and pelvis to show me where she means. But the energy isn’t flowing all the way through me, she says.
Ellen keeps moaning and grunting and encouraging me to make more noise. Primal sounds are not in my repertoire, but I’m playing “Yes, and,” so I let out some halfhearted attempts. I am surprised when my breath catches in my throat and I start weeping. I cry and breathe and choke and cry. I feel so, so stupid and so, so relieved.
Sometimes I wonder if my father was the evil, kidnapping king. There was a room. The lights were always on, and the door was always open — because there was nothing to hide, because nothing happened in that place. There is nothing to remember. Pale flesh and coarse, dark hair and a mountain of a belly. Hands that lingered too long. A weight that wouldn’t move. No, nothing to remember.
There is a room. The lights shine in my eyes, and his frame fills the doorway: the king, my captor. He wants to lie down next to me. Here is his heavy body too close to mine on my bed, the hairs of his exposed stomach almost black against ghost-white skin, his weight on top of my covers so that I can’t pull them around me. I am inching away and holding myself rigid and asking him to leave, but he mumbles that he just wants to rest. I am eleven or twelve, and my father is asleep in my bed, and I can’t get him to leave.
Sometimes my thighs burn, but I don’t know why. There is nothing to remember.
After I’ve cried my way through another round of deep breathing, it’s time to “journey.” Obviously — because I am the sort of person who picks a shaman from the classifieds — I want to know what my power animal is. So I am eager to get started. Ellen has me lie on the futon mattress (of course) on a cheap Indian-print throw (of course) and then pulls out a drum (of course). She is going to usher me into Another Realm with a slow, steady drumbeat and a guttural song in a language I am pretty sure is native only to select San Francisco yoga studios.
I think I am supposed to be falling into some kind of trance, but I’m not. Then Ellen’s cellphone rings, and she scrambles to silence it. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she says, laughing.
“It’s no problem,” I say. “Sometimes the shaman just needs to take a call.” For some reason this incident makes me like her more, and I give in a little. We continue.
Ellen slowly beats the drum as she tells me to imagine a verdant riverbank. I can smell the dirt and the water. I can see the tall, skinny trees, the light through their leaves. She tells me that I happen upon a canoe, and there it is: dark green, the paint scratched and scraped. I’m supposed to float in the canoe down the river, and all the animals of the spirit world will be on the banks, she says. That’s where I’ll meet my power animal, who will climb into the canoe with me.
I have not been able to let go of my awareness of the room and the real-world situation I am in, so I have to force myself to see the animals, which makes me feel as if I’m faking it. I make myself imagine a blackbird, a bear, my cat. How cool would it be if my cat, Noodles, turned out to be my power animal? Maybe I am supposed to just pick one. I try to think Noodles into the canoe, imagining the cat’s tawny fur, soft paw pads, and imperious gaze. It doesn’t work. And then a pink earthworm appears on the canoe bench opposite me.
An earthworm? That is not a cool power animal. I want a better one. The earthworm doesn’t go away, though. I tell Ellen I can’t see anything yet because I am hoping I’m wrong.
“I’ll help you find it,” she says. More guttural noises. “It’s Buffalo,” she says. “Your power animal is Buffalo.”
I should be satisfied with that, because it is much cooler than an earthworm, but I’m surprised to find that I’m not. It doesn’t fit me and feels somewhat absurd, like a generic crowd pleaser. Telling me my power animal is Buffalo is like telling a four-year-old boy he’s going to grow up to be a firefighter instead of a middle manager. I think my power animal actually is the earthworm.
“I’m pretty sure it’s an earthworm,” I say.
“Maybe it’s Buffalo and Worm,” she says. “You can have more than one power animal.”
But that seems like cheating.
Now Ellen says I am supposed to get out of the imaginary canoe and find a place to rest.
I am a veteran of enough meditation groups that I have a go-to “happy place” in my head. It’s a quiet room. The floorboards are wide and cool. The walls are gray, like a horizon where the winter sky meets the ocean. Light streams through white curtains over open windows. In the quiet room I am always tucked into a bed with clean white sheets. Is there a sink in this room, too? I can’t remember. I am so happy to be heading toward the quiet room. I’ve got the worm riding on my shoulder, and I’ve inserted the buffalo into the scene, ambling along behind us, just in case Ellen knows something I don’t. Though I’m not sure there’s enough space for the buffalo in the quiet room, I figure my unconscious will know what to do when we get there.
But the quiet room is not where I am supposed to go. Ellen keeps talking, telling me I am on a path. She tells me to imagine I’m “someplace in nature.” She says this as if she knows I’m trying to take refuge in civilization. I resent that a little. I have never in my life chosen nature over air conditioning, and I shouldn’t have to start now, on my psychic journey.
If I weren’t so helplessly committed to saying, “Yes, and,” I would probably try to force the quiet room to appear. Instead there is a clearing, and it is beautiful. God damn it, Ellen. Why do you have to be right?
The trees around the clearing are so tall it’s like there’s a sky above the sky, the two split by a canopy of bright-green leaves drunk with chlorophyll. The sunlight moves through them the way it does in my oldest memories, anointing everything with flashes of radiance that the wind chases and scatters.
I am in the clearing now, in this room that’s not a room. I can’t even really hear what Ellen is telling me anymore. She sits with my body in some other world.
I can see inside the trees. I can see beneath their skin. I can lay my hand on the place where, underneath the bark, a dark decay has eaten away at the living wood.
From far away Ellen asks me, What is it? or maybe, What do you know about it? The decay has to come out, I tell her. It has to come out because this tree is dying. What can you do to save it? If this were therapy and the rot were inside me, I would mercilessly scrape it out, but somehow I realize I can’t do that to the tree without killing it.
Her voice drifts through to me, rustles the leaves in the clearing. What could you do?
I know without knowing: The worm. The worm can do it. It will take weeks, months, but the worm can get it all.
After I’ve surfaced from wherever I’ve been, Ellen seems sure that these scraps of sound and light and presence are meaningful, but I don’t know what to believe about what’s just happened to me. I don’t know if anything happened at all. I feel lighter, calmer, as if the caring, nurturing mother I’ve never had — a mother nothing like my own — has put a cool hand on my feverish forehead. But I’m not sure it means anything. The drumming, the grunting — a part of me thinks this pastiche of stolen rituals can’t possibly be more than a snake oil we white folks buy because we want to live in a world that is alive with signs and symbols.
In the days and weeks that follow, I see worms everywhere, but maybe it’s just because I live in a climate where it rains for a half-hour most afternoons. I want to believe that Ellen did something for me that I couldn’t have done for myself, that the worm came from somewhere outside of me. (An Ancient Realm? The Spirit World?) I want the insight to be real, maybe even a little magical, more than a neural misfire during a waking dream.
But nothing seems to change. My parents are still dead. The ghosts of my father’s hands on my thighs still haunt me. I am still tired, broken, and depressed. No one can lay a palm over the place inside me where rank decay is eating me up. The visions weren’t real. The pile of Styrofoam soda cups by my bed is.
Maybe my pain made me so desperate to find meaning that I just willed myself to see something.
And yet somehow it made sense to me when Ellen held a hand over my chest and said, “There’s absence here, something missing,” and an answer rose up in me from somewhere beneath thought.
“Someone took something from me,” I said, knowing the words only as I spoke them. “When I was young, someone took something from me, and I need it back.”
A few weeks later I sit across from another woman, a therapist I am auditioning. I am slumped over in a milder version of the same misery that brought me to Ellen. Over a transom the sun pours its old news from millions of miles away. The room is cool and quiet. The therapist is, too. Quiet, I mean.
I would never ordinarily admit to having seen a shaman, especially not to someone I don’t know, especially not to a therapist. I know how it sounds. I know how it makes me sound. But I am too depressed to be defensive. I tell her, haltingly, about my vision of the tree.
She doesn’t say anything — or, at least, she doesn’t say the wrong thing. Nor does she seem to want me to disassemble myself for her or demonstrate the brute strength with which I can carve out my wounds. When she holds my gaze, it is not a challenge. She just wants to see what’s there. I like her, I think. What I don’t know yet is that she will be the first person I tell about my father.
It will take months, years. I can get it all.