Determined that not even surgery is going to stop me from fulfilling this vow, I managed to make it to another cemetery this month – and in the same trip, finally return my drastically overdue library books (they kindly waived the fees) -because this one, Pioneer Cemetery, happens to sit right next to the wonderful Knight Library at the university (unfortunately it’s named after Phil Knight of Nike, so I think of it as the Night Library, which sounds much more mysterious). After the Masonic, Pioneer is the cemetery I have visited most in Eugene, due to its age, size, location and atmosphere. I’ve done several rituals there, primarily for Hermes. It’s full of great trees, and the scent – my gods, it’s intoxicating, I think it must be incense cedar but I’m not good at telling coniferous trees apart yet.
Looking back, I can see I was being prepared for this for months. A process of progressive breaking. First, my sprained ankle back in December. I knew it had something to do with Hermes at the time, due to some personal signs, but otherwise it seemed like just an inconvenience; I had to stay fairly still for weeks, and I didn’t like the feeling of being damaged physically. Then followed a couple months of relative stagnation – stress, disconnection, interruption. Just when I thought I might get out of it, I got sick. Really sick – worst flu I can remember having. Again, laid up for weeks, and stuck in a malfunctioning body. And it had something to do with one of my personal spirits, who is connected to illness – in fact, it was almost perfectly bookended by his two holy days. This time, a very brief respite, and then the worst of it – the gallbladder emergency, pain, endoscopy, surgery. And through it all, Dionysos. I remembered that owl pellet I found last month, after praying to Him and admitting that I was not properly Open. I remembered how I felt it might foretell something difficult, emotionally and physically challenging, but I had no idea. After they extracted an organ from me, from my digestive system, filled with hard indigestible stones, I saw that owl pellet again – regurgitated, indigestible hard bones. It was disturbingly shamanic.
This was an ordeal on several levels. I faced some of my worst fears – being put under anaesthesia, for instance, and having a scope shoved down my throat. I was physically cut open and had a part of me removed. It was terrifying. And I had gone into it at my lowest point, already depleted from months of illness, anxiety, depression. And yet, where I would have thought I would simply have fallen apart, I didn’t. In fact, in the days following, as I recuperated at home with nothing but time on my hands, I felt better than I have in months. Clearer. Lighter. Free. This time, finally, the enforced stillness of body came with a stillness of mind I had desperately needed. The connection flooded back, I had powerful dreams, I prayed.
I don’t know why it works like this, but it often does. I have done enough reading on initiation rituals and shamanic ordeals to know this. Maybe some of it is in our brains. It also seems to be the way some gods do business. Certainly Dionysos is famous for tearing you apart. I wonder, would I have needed to go through this if I had been able to learn my lessons from the lesser trials? I don’t know. But regardless, this is clearly what I needed now, to shake things loose, to transform, and to do the Work that has been set before me. And so, as I have before, I find myself saying Thank You to my gods and spirits, Thank you for torturing me, Thank you for breaking me. Thank you for removing those things inside that were blocking me. I see now how to be the thing you want me to be – I know you told me and told me, but I actually get it now. I am Opened. And not just metaphorically.
This is mostly for my own later reference, but also wanted to call your attention to this site if you haven’t found it already: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It’s a list of invented words and definitions for complex feelings that have no other expression. So many of these hit home, I wanted to collect some here.
n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.
n. the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.
n. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.
n. a feeling of resonant connection with an author or artist you’ll never meet, who may have lived centuries ago and thousands of miles away but can still get inside your head and leave behind morsels of their experience, like the little piles of stones left by hikers that mark a hidden path through unfamiliar territory.
n. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life, a mood whose only known cure is the vuvuzela.
n. when your dream about someone you know skews how you feel about them all the next day, an emotion you are unable—and unwilling—to shake.
n. the intense desire to bite deeply into the forearm of someone you love.
Thanks to everyone for the well-wishes. A little more of the story – I had been having some pain for a few days but attributed it to something else entirely. On Monday night it got concerning enough that I went to Urgent Care, who saw evidence of gallstones and sent me to get an ultrasound at the ER. Not thinking it was a truly emergency situation, I went assuming I would get a diagnosis and then deal with it later, but they admitted me on the spot. Apparently my labs looked a lot worse than I felt (I do have a high pain tolerance). On Tuesday I had an endoscopy to check for stones aggravating my pancreas (I had mild pancreatitis too), and on Wednesday I had laparoscopic surgery to remove my stone-filled gallbladder. They sent me home Thursday with four small incisions in my abdomen, and some painkillers I fortunately haven’t had to use much. And, I was finally allowed to eat something after three days of total fasting. I am recuperating at home now and hope to be up and around after a few more days, though they say the full recovery period is about six weeks.
You know, a lot of spirit-workers, including myself, seek out and design intense Ordeals to transform and transcend ourselves (amongst other reasons), but there’s something to be said for the unexpected, uncontrolled Ordeal which is thrust upon us. I had to face some of my biggest fears during this (not least of which was having a scope shoved down my throat, or going under general anaesthesia for the first time). It has not left me unchanged.
I do not know what I will be on the other side of this, or how my life might change, but something big has happened. And I give great thanks to my gods and spirits who helped me through this. Once I am able to move more freely, I owe many libations.
You know how they say that if you go to Fairyland and manage to get out again, you’ll either be mad or a poet? Well, the truth is that you’ll either be just plain mad, or a mad poet, but it’s not like the poet thing will let you off the hook from the madness part. You’ll probably always be on the verge of veering off into non-functional insanity, holding on by the thin rope of your inspiration.
And the things that were familiar and comforting before will seem strange and remote. And you will have no common language with the people around you, and even the words of your art may fall on deaf ears, although you will not be able to stop it lest you fall into the abyss again. And you will still love Fairyland with all your heart, even after it has done this to you. You will always be looking for the door back in.
Sound like fun? Then I have some spirits you should meet….