Journeying with a Stranger in a Strange Land
In 1997 I was travelling through Mexico City and Guatemala for two weeks with a healer and her apprentices on a research-gathering trip for a book I was helping to write, Woman Who Glows in the Dark. My job, the healer told me, was to stick close to her and to watch her carefully so that I could learn firsthand about the work she did and the cultural context from which her healing tradition came. And I learned a lot from this amazingly creative, dramatic, and deeply passionate woman. This trip was one of the most incredible spiritual experiences of my life, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have gone on this magical adventure with such a diverse group of healers, yet it was also one of the most difficult and challenging things I have ever done.
It’s hard for me to know whether the trip would have been any easier if the healer I was travelling with had not been so exhausted and unhappy that her publisher had assigned a woman “not of her culture” to help her with this book. Whether intentional or not, I felt that there was a good deal of resentment, distrust, and irritation directed
toward me throughout the trip. The times that this happened really uncentered me, made me feel anxious and stressed, and made me unnecessarily worried about the fate of the book, the contract we had signed, the $50,000 book advance we had accepted, and our promise to deliver to the publisher by a certain date. I had to learn a lot about trusting in the Divine that everything would work out well, and that I would find the strength and the skills I needed to cope with whatever came up.
Yet because I believe that our souls make agreements with one another before we are born, that we make a sacred pact to do and say certain things to each other for our spiritual growth and highest good, I know this trip couldn’t have been any other way. This healer and I had to get under each other’s skin. I don’t belief that either one of us set out to deliberately hurt the other person. In fact, I believe that each of us was trying to act from what we saw as a center of integrity, even though we were often at odds, often interpreting reality in different ways, from different viewpoints. For example, when the owner of the hotel where we were staying in Mexico City sat down to join me at lunch because I was sitting alone, and asked where my friend was that afternoon, I mentioned that she and I that we were working on a book about traditional healing.
When she came back, she was furious with me because the hotel owner had “requested” that she do healing work on some of his staff. One woman had a lump in her breast that she was afraid to go and see the doctor about. Since these were poor women, they wouldn’t be expected to pay anything but a token donation and, in her traditions, this
healer could not refuse to treat people who asked. She felt exhausted, but also that she had no choice in this matter of her calling. She felt taken advantage of by the hotel owner. I, on
the other hand, was shocked to realize that she had been coming to this hotel for over a decade and that this man had no idea she was a healer. I didn’t know it was a big secret, especially because she dressed in indigenous clothing and looked like a healer.
Why Won’t She Surrender?
In retrospect, the healer and I were like two sumo wrestlers, each trying to hold her place on the mat. A big point of contention was that the healer felt that I was refusing to surrender. But I couldn’t because I didn’t trust her. “Why won’t she surrender?” I heard her mutter to herself in real perplexity one afternoon when she was giving me a spiritual cleansing with an eagle feather. On the other hand, I felt that she was making a virtue of unnecessary suffering and was unwilling to explain even the simplest of things to me, so that I often felt like I was struggling very hard to figure out what was going on around me. I felt that she was making things unnecessarily complicated and obscure when a few words would have sufficed to make everything clear and put things back into balance. And I wasn’t just travelling through a strange land, I was travelling through a sacred indigenous landscape where the rules of reality were very different from the ones we are used to here in the West in everyday life. In other words, there was some weird and wonderful shit
going on daily. And I was like Alice, tumbling down that rabbit hole.
But in the end I did surrender. I had to surrender even the desire to be liked. This part was very hard for me because I am used to being really loved by the people whose books I edit or help write. Our work together usually creates a friendship and a bond that runs very deep. It’s just the nature of the work I do, being a midwife to books, nurturing them as if they were someone’s precious children—and indeed they are my godchildren.
Coyote is the patron saint of chaos, of things flying apart, falling apart. But he is also the force that enables us to put things together in new ways. The spirit of Coyote was really working for me on this trip, because I couldn’t seem to hold onto, to control anything.
If I had not been so rattled by everything going on around me, however, I do not think I would have been so vulnerable nor so open to leaning certain things. I have never surrendered to or relied on Spirit more in my entire life, because that was all I had as the chaos whirled. During that time, I had to look at what I really believed in and to ask myself if it was real or not, because it was all the help there was. No one in that group was going to comfort me or agree with me that I should be treated better. But this gave me an
opportunity to experience Divine love and protection in a very real way.
Language is one of our most important ways of being in the world, of defending ourselves, of taking control of situations in which we feel helpless. One of the hardest things for me on this trip was not being able to speak the language because I am a person who can do anything with language, I can tell stories, build bridges, make sense out of the senseless, charm people’s hearts, make people love me. I use words to dance across the landscape of my existence. But not being able to speak was good for me, because it pulled me out of my mind and into my feelings and my intuition. Because I could not “think” my way through most situations, I had to “feel” my way. And this was a great gift.
The Limits of Understanding
Ultimately, one of the most precious gifts I received on this trip was to see the limits of understanding. We think that if only we can understand someone or something, we can own it, we can control it, we can conquer it. Big misconception. The healer began this trip by saying to me with great certainty, “You will never understand me. You will never understand my culture.” This saddened and distressed me greatly but, in the end, it finally
freed me from even the burden of understanding.
I learned that there are some things that analysis cannot help, there are some arguments that cannot be won, there are many things that cannot be understood. But we don’t have to analyze everything, win every time, understand everything, because there are some things greater than understanding: forgiveness, surrender, patience, compassion, unconditional love, the simple ability to be kind. All those years ago I wrote in my journal of the trip, “I have a big ego, and I felt a part of it die on this trip. Someday, gently and with patience, I hope that I can see my ego die more and more, because then I will be free.” I realized back then that when we release the need to be right, the need to be understood, even the need to be liked, suddenly we become invulnerable, we become warriors of love. The hummingbird lives in our hearts.
Taken to the Source of Magic
Maybe I will never be able to express how lonely, how frightened, how depressed I felt at times on that trip. At times, everything seemed like an overwhelming struggle. Because I did not speak the language, the simplest task was an ordeal—trying to find a restroom when my bladder was about to give out, ordering food, asking to make a telephone call (if there was a telephone and if it was working that day), trying to find bottled water to keep from getting dehydrated, trying to remember the phrase for “cooked well done” so that I wouldn’t get parasites from my meat, having to eat meat when I almost never do because it was “safe food”–and so many other challenges.
In spite of all this, I came back transformed for the better, and I have never been the same since. If I had not been asked by this publisher to write this book with this healer, and given a plane ticket and an expense account, I would never have received so many gifts. I got to spend nearly two weeks with an Aztec holy man who was the gentlest, most loving, most nurturing person I had ever met. He was a friend to me many times when I was in such great distress. I had an entire afternoon in one of the most beautiful museum’s in the world, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City, where I saw many Maya stela and gorgeously carved stone lintels that I had only seen in pictures before—not to mention the magnificent and enormous Sun Stone excavated in the zocolo (main square) of Mexico City in 1790. I had a life-changing encounter with one of the healer’s apprentices who told me to “Wake up and realize what a truly powerful and beautiful person you are and how much you have to teach. I want to be there when you wake up because someday you will become my teacher.” In the middle of the night in the rural village of Maya elder Don Alejandro, during the yearly festival of San Simon, a woman cast my Maya astrology chart and told me that I was born to be a powerful healer and that I would be truly happy only when I began to follow that path with my whole heart.
Over and over again, I was taken to the source of magic.
My Heart’s Desire Fulfilled
And even though this healer did not allow me to become her friend, and at times made me feel as if working with me was her “necessary evil” to get her book out there into the world, yet during the eight months we worked together I was able to bear witness to something that my heart longed for, a talented and highly creative teacher working with a community of apprentice healers.
In the end, I found my own teacher Gretchen, who is strong, loving, and kind, and my own brothers and sisters with whom I do healing work, and who I can always trust to stand by me and be at my back when times get hard and rejoice with me when times are happy. We pray together and we play together.
Giving Away Our Power
I began this blog last night, but remembering this trip has brought up an issue that I need to address right now in my life. It’s almost as if I was led to reading my old journal entries about this trip, as if it is a blessed synchronicity.
Back in 2009/2010 I lost my voice for 15 months because of lung cancer (I can happily report that I have been free of all cancer for 15 months), but during that time I could barely speak above a hoarse whisper. Last March I had the surgery in which Radiesse was injected into my left vocal cord, moving it over to the midpoint where it could be touched by the right cord when it vibrated. My voice is greatly improved, but it is still soft most of the time and a bit hoarse. Speaking in a really noisy room is a real challenge for me.
My friend Larry Garrett, who is a brilliant, generous, and talented hypnotherapist, made me a hypnotherapy CD called “Journey to a Beautiful Voice,” which is helping me immensely. This morning when I was listening to it, I found myself remembering all the things that had frustrated me and wounded my spirit during my trip with the healer. For
example, she asked me to interview all of her apprentices because she wanted me to write a chapter in the book about their experiences learning curanderismo, in their own words.
However, it was very difficult to get the students to answer any questions, which puzzled me because I had done a tremendous amount of interviewing in my life and I’m very good at winning people’s confidence and making them feel at ease. I found out later that when the healer had asked the students to talk to me, she had also instructed them to “not tell Joy any of our secrets,” so they were unsure about what to say to me and were afraid to say much. Unfortunately, this left me feeling like they didn’t want to talk to me because they didn’t trust or like me—kind of an unpleasant conundrum.
As these old memories flowed in and out of my mind while I listened to Larry’s healing words, I asked myself “Why? Why when I’m trying to recover my voice, my sense of power in the world, am I remembering old times when I felt completely disempowered? Is there some larger issue at work here that I should pay attention to?” I realized that I have also been having bladder pain on and off for the last couple of months, which my doctors can’t really diagnose since my tests keep coming back negative.
Suddenly I had an epiphany. Both of these issues are connected to power and creativity, putting oneself out there in the world. The bladder and related urinary tract organs are related to the second, or sacral, chakra, which holds the energies of creativity, control, and self-empowerment.
Then I recalled that recently a friend/editing client had told me about an insight she’d had while trying to work through her current health issues, being tired and easily susceptible to colds and allergies. She shared that while doing one of her book’s exercises on improving her health, she realized that there was a bigger issue behind her current run of illness. When she was a little girl, her mother had been gone for several months because of surgeries and hospitalization for depression. Her mom’s death had triggered the grief of that child, and put my friend’s health into a tailspin.
For me it has become clear that the issues behind my struggles to speak and my recurrent bladder pain are all about my power in the world, my self-empowerment.
A Book Is Like a Child
The book I wrote for this healer is a case in point. I no longer write other people’s books because I realize that it’s like giving away your children. People like Linda Schele and David Freidel, with whom I wrote A Forest of Kings and Maya Cosmos, really appreciated my work with them, always introduced me as their co-writer, and always made me feel welcome in their world. They truly became my friends.
But Woman Who Glows in the Dark has become like the child I gave up for adoption before she was even born. I simply hung my head and walked away without a struggle because I felt unwanted. I felt like the person the healer wanted to forget about as soon as the book was done. I don’t think this is my imagination because of all the books I have ever co-authored, ghost-written, or edited (close to 70 books now), she is the only one who did not thank me in the Acknowledgement section and she has posted the book on several websites leaving off my name as co-author, even though it’s on the cover of the book.
The truth is, I love this book. I poured my soul into this book. Writing a book is not like assembling a machine. It becomes part of you. To me, writing is the most sacred and beautiful act I can do.
In the End, No One Can Take Your Power from You
Eleanore Roosevelt once said that no one can take our power from us, that we can only give it away. And, you know, all of this happened 14 years ago. It’s past. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work on trying to understand the situation with the healer, forgiving, releasing, letting go. But, like my friend with the health issues, my issues of
self-empowerment, of creativity, of being a writer and putting myself out there in the world have come up for me again.
I think it’s pretty amazing that I figured this out in a little over twelve hours. I sat down last night to write a completely different blog, one about a mystical experience I had with an “invisible city” in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. But as I began to review the journals I wrote during November of 1997 about the trip I took with the healer, a larger
A blog is like a window into your own soul. I think what I’ve learned today is that, even after decades of work, I still have some real self-empowerment issues, self-love issues to work through. Others might push my buttons, old memories might arise. But the past does not have to have power over us. In fact, the past is long gone. We have only today.
So today, like Emily Dickinson, whose poems were her love letters to the world, I share my thoughts on how we all need to stop blaming others for not loving us enough, not accepting us for who are, not thanking us for all our hard work, not being our ally when we thought we needed them. In the final analysis, we always have the last word, and we can begin to choose our lives and how we think about ourselves. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if we never start to view ourselves with love and to acknowledge the immense power and potential we hold inside—along with what my friend Nikki calls the “armies of angels fighting on your side”—we aren’t going to change.
I have a psychotherapist friend who motto is, “Change now. If you are miserable and disappointed in the present, you can’t expect to have a happy future.” So today, now, I am willing to look at myself and change.
I’ll keep you posted.