My herbal teacher started every class with a recitation of lineage:
My name is Gina McGarry. My teacher was Rosemary Gladstar, whose teacher was Juliette de Baïracli Levy, whose teachers were the Romani gypsies.
I carried this opening recitation into my own teaching, working backwards through the generations of people who had refined and nursed the knowledge that allowed me and—through me—my students to step into deep relationship with the medicine plants.
In over eighty hours of herbal training, it was this five-minute recitation which cracked open hearts and most prepared students to step into the work ahead. Knowing they were part of a lineage of Medicine Keepers created a profound sense of trust and belonging.
For many, at odds with their families and out-of-sync with religious codes, this was the first time they felt a part of something which stretched back through the ages, anchoring them to ancestral energy.
At my first herbal conference, I briefly met Juliette de Baïracli Levy. I was awestruck not because she was a world-renowned writer on herbs and veterinary practices but because she was the twice great-grandmother of the Medicine I carried in my heart. I would not be the woman I am today if Juliette, whom I never knew personally, hadn’t shared her wisdom.
Within the herbal community, a deep reverence is nurtured for lineage and the lessons only many years of living can distill. The wisdom keepers who carry and pass knowledge, teacher to student, generation to generation, are honored and cared for. The elders at that first herbal conference had trails of young people refreshing their tea, bringing them chairs, and running countless errands.
As I watch the influx of new healers and baby shamans on my Instagram and Facebook feeds, a large part of me rejoices. Knowing that this knowledge—seeded by so many hands over so many generations—is in full burgeoning bloom brings tears to my eyes.
…one which we’ve worked so hard to establish. When we don’t link ourselves into the chain of knowledge passed hand-to-hand we lack a sense of support, of groundedness, on our path.
We lose the awe and honor of being a trusted keeper of hard-won medicine passed generation to generation.
And perhaps most importantly, we lose the person who gently chides us to work harder, to learn deeper, and to explore the vast reaches of our consciousness and come into a better way of being.
It was late autumn in Ireland when I began seeing dead birds in the cow’s field. I was gathering hawthorn berries and noticed the small black bodies under the power line. I remember coming in the back door, shucking hat and boots and delivering a basket of berries to Gina.
There are dead birds under the power line, I reported. Maybe we should call the power company.
Gina looked up from where she was sorting the berries. You left them there? she asked.
Um, yes? I said wondering what the heck else I was supposed to do.
Take care of them, she instructed. It’s time you learned to deal with death.
Building a cairn for small broken bird bodies was as much a part of my studies as memorizing the Latin names of the members of the Rosaceae family.
These universal metaphors and symbols are powerful stuff. They awaken ancient knowings within us by mere exposure. Your teacher needn’t have decades of knowledge: if she shares with you a bit about the patterns of nature, your own inner-knowing will spark and you’ll find your way to deeper relationship.
This allows for democratization of wisdom: those who are but a step further on the path can turn back and help the next person in turn.
It is beautiful and a bit miraculous: the symbols are the keys and anyone can pass you a set.
When I look at gorgeous photos of herbal mandalas on Instagram or hear a friend’s excitement about learning essential oils from the Sales Team Leader at Big Name Essential Oil Company, I can’t help but wonder:
Who will insist she bury the birds to learn the lessons of life and death?
Who will call her to task when she steps out of integrity with herself?
Which ancestors will whisper secrets as she moves into the dark forests of her calling?
How do we assure connection to the lines of lineage and pass on the tradition of honoring the elders of our sacred tribe?
My sister did her Master’s degree in Haifa, where she fell in love with an Israeli man. Their courtship was conducted in running shoes—first jogging on the beaches of the Mediterranean and later in airports running to catch Trans-Atlantic flights.
Now she and her family live in Israel. Summers are when we gather here in the States to catch up, hang out and try to find meals that everyone—the gluten intolerant, the meat loving, the vegetarians and the vegans—will eat.
One afternoon my sixteen-year-old nephew and I were chatting on the deck. I’ve lost the entirety of the conversation but this bit stood out starkly against the blue-gray backdrop of the bay:
Jewish Holidays are all the same. They go like this:
They hate us.
They tried to kill us.
…It gets boring after a while.
My nephew was jocular as he made this pronouncement but a sliver of horror edged toward my heart.
And then images from Charlottesville: chanting zealots bring “they hate us” from past tense to present.
Oppression gets into your DNA. How many bloodlines carry this double helix of fear and anger?
Years ago I did a semester abroad in Rome. My closest friends were a group of German students also studying in Italy. Generations after World War II, my German friends still felt deep shame for the Holocaust…and me? I didn’t mention my German friends to my Jewish family because I wasn’t sure it was okay to have German friends.
Hate and oppression become a Pandora’s box that future generations have to unpack.
How do we transmute our feelings of helplessness into healing? Rose petal elixir and hawthorn tea aren’t going to do the trick.
Hate and anger seem monolithic and unapproachable.
Shifting our focus from the macro to the micro, from the greater vision to actionable steps, lets us move from idealism into empathic action.
I grew a business at the juncture of healing and nature because I wanted to save the world. Yet every action I took as a person, or we took as a business, felt inconsequential, one grain of sand in the vast Saharan desert.
When we started to work with a branding person on the business, we were asked to think about our raison d’être a little differently than we had in the past. We defined our top-tier vision for the world, our ideal (this is all the Wonder Woman stuff, like keeping plants and animals and even humans from going extinct). This top-tier vision is our greatest prayer, our utopian vision, our driving force.
Next thing we had to think about was supporting that ideal vision. What actions could we promise to take (a promise we will always fulfill) toward making the ideal a reality. And so we made a brand promise to nurture the people who nurture the planet.
And something amazing happened: clearly defining the vision as separate from the action that supports it helped me understand how I could actually make a difference in the world.
While I don’t know how to keep the plants on the list of endangered species from becoming extinct, I do know how to nurture people. I’m pretty good at it. It’s doable and at the end of the day I can assess how well I did at nurturing.
So I’ve been applying this thinking to the frisson of hate rippling through our world. What’s my ideal? A world where people cherish diversity and can disagree without violence.
What’s the promise I can make toward this vision? The action steps I will take over and over again?
I came up with two (and maybe these will inspire you to find yours):
1. I will use my voice…
…because each of us who raises our voice or our pen gives someone else the courage to say “this is not okay.” I can use my voice to plant seeds of courage so someone can say to their father or neighbor or childhood friend “Let’s talk about this hate that’s happening in our country.” It’s these small conversations which can actually be heard and create change: I know my blog is preaching to the choir; my goal is to make sure the choir knows they are not alone.
2. I will blow up the myth of homogenization.
Hate wants to think in terms of stereotypes. Jews, Lesbians, Blacks…
But we’re all unique beings, no two the same. We are singular and a part of this larger thing called humanity.
Always keep 2 pieces of paper in your pockets. One says, “I am a speck of dust;” the other, “The world was created for me.” (Rabbi Bunim)
It’s time for each of us to shine his or her own unique light. We’re not stereotypes, we’re individuals with unique gifts to share.
But we have to do more than simply step into the power of being our true selves—we’ve gotta take that shiny self out in the world and be kind. Look people in the eye. Listen to them. Extend your empathy in all directions.
It’s easy to hate a stereotype, it’s harder to hate a person who’s standing in front of you offering a smile or a kind word or a cookie.
Small action steps toward a larger vision.
Need more inspiration? Listen to the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville, talk about what we all can do to honor Heather’s death.
Tell me, what’s your vision for the world? And what’s your promise to the world and yourself?
“Everything’s sacred,” she wrote… with her thumbs, I’m figuring, since this was Instagram.
Maybe she would have written more had she had a few fingers at her disposal.
But maybe not.
Sacred is trending and witch is a fad, so much so that Vogue (yes, the fashion magazine Vogue) recently had a “witchy week” and featured photos of altars grabbed from… you guessed it… Instagram.
A woman on Facebook told me this trend is helping more women to connect with their inner witch…
….then she proceeded to tell me she couldn’t work with smokey quartz because it’s dark and she hasn’t yet learned to work with her own darkness, let alone a stone’s darkness.
Who’s feeding her this drivel, I wondered, and how much is she paying for it?
The drive toward witchiness is propelled by a deep-seated yearning for a seat at life’s table and a meal that’s rich, deep, satisfying and full of wonderment. I get it and I too desire it with my whole vibrating being.
But as is the way with trends, this longing is being met on the surface, with luscious faerie photography and gorgeous Instagram altars. It’s a feast for the eyes, but unless it goes deeper, your soul will still be leaving hungry.
Don’t get me wrong: beauty, in and of itself, can connect you deeply with spirit. Your soul is fed through your senses– that’s how you replenish and refill. But not everything spiritual is beautiful. Sometimes the landscape of the soul is dark, dank, and covered in snot. Those moments aren’t artfully arranged or filled with flowers and glittering crystals.
And yes, this too, is sacred: it’s the catharsis which allows us to turn pain and fear and anger into compost to fertilize new growth (…and if you tell someone that while they’re pulling themselves out of the pit of despair, you may end up with a very sacred black eye).
But acknowledging the sanctity of snot doesn’t—by any stretch—mean everything is sacred.
Conscious cruelty, nihilism, acts which greedily take life or energy, for no reason other than to see it destroyed? These are the definition of profane.
And if we don’t see them as such, or we forget about sacred’s shadow while we’re arranging beautiful altars for our Instagram feed, we’re stepping into neither spirituality nor power.
It’s easy to excuse each others’ platitudes saying “Oh, well, it’s just Facebook.” But mindfulness demands more from us.
And you’re missing a key component of wisdom: the open channel between head and heart. This marriage of thought and feeling connects you with other people from a place of empathy, allowing for meaningful dialogue about the stuff that matters.
And when you connect with stuff that matters? Your soul begins to feel pleasantly full.
Find what makes your soul sing and dance with it. Pull it close, feel it’s heartbeat, know it’s layered dimensions. This connection is the essence of the spirit, the truth of being spiritual.
It’s the connection that matters. Everything else—the sage smudge, the altar, the raven feathers—are simply tools to help you get there.
Once you find this connection, don’t diminish it or you with spiritual platitudes. Romance your life, look it deep in the eye, and refuse to look away… not even to snap a photo for Instagram.
What if stories are soul maps to heal what is broken?
Remember the movie Erin Brockovich?
In case you never saw it, here’s the 20-second recap:
Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts) is a down-on-her-luck single mom desperately searching for a job. Unfortunately what she finds instead is a car accident. She sues the doctor who hit her but the Universe is unforgiving and she loses her case.
With nowhere else to turn, she browbeats her accident attorney into hiring her as a clerk at his office. While doing the filing, Erin notices some medical records tucked into a file for a real estate deal. She gets curious, does some digging, and uncovers a huge environmental pollution cover-up by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which she doggedly pursues—with the help of said lawyer—successfully exposing the crime and getting reparations for the victims.
I haven’t seen the movie in years so I was pretty surprised when a friend explained that she’d taken her new job because of Erin Brockovich.
Huh? I thought.
Here’s the thing my friend focused on: Erin takes a seemingly dead-end, no-respect kinda job and, with a bit of gumption, uses it as a launch pad to save the state of California. Okay, maybe half the state of California, but you get my point: dead-end job leads to a calling of super-hero proportions.
My friend was nine-to-five hesitant. Actually let’s call a spade a spade: there was no way on God’s green earth she was gonna do the nine-to-five thing. She felt like taking a regular job would keep her from stepping into her “real” work in the world. But seeing Erin Brockovich gave her a new story. She was able to over-ride the story in her head once she had a new one to take its place.
What this seemingly odd chain of events showed me was the importance of story in our lives.
My friend couldn’t comprehend a nine-to-five job being anything other than a soul-numbing drag until she was shown a story which flipped her assumptions on their little hard heads. Watching Erin Brockovich gave her the story of a different path forward.
My brain spooled back to grad school. My mother was hardly speaking to me and my father was in “fix it” mode because I was dating a woman. In the emotional chaos of that time what actually unraveled me was the realization that I now stood outside the stories. That every single fairy tale or novel where girl meets boy was no longer about me.
When I look back at my own life I see how adrift I felt when there were no stories to guide me: when my medical doctor said to me I can tell you’re sick. Western medicine isn’t going to have any answers but maybe Chinese medicine or Ayurveda will I didn’t look for a story of someone who had healed through non-Western means. Instead I stumbled around Manhattan, visiting homeopaths in dark basement offices and high-end acupuncturists with a year’s worth of rent hanging on the modern art-clad walls of their waiting rooms.
I felt disembodied and map-less because my old story—that medical doctors could heal everything—was no longer true but I hadn’t found or even looked for a story to take its place.
I hadn’t realized I needed a story.
Which got me thinking: what if, the next time you (or I) get stuck, we search out a better story? What if we actively and consciously look for the tale which lets us break through our preconceived notions and find an unexpected solution to our problems?
“If you believe in only facts and forget stories, your brain will live, but your heart will die.”
— Cassandra Clare
Or maybe stories let us access superpowers we don’t realize we possess.
And thank goodness, right? ‘Cause I can think of a couple of states in need of saving.
Oh, and by the way, Erin Brockovich is still out there uncovering environmental travesties. Find her at https://www.facebook.com/ErinBrockovichOfficial/.
We gain a year, a “birthday,” at the end of the cycle.
So you’re born, you make it through a year, and you get the tally mark for that year (your first birthday) when it’s complete and you’re beginning your second year.
I’ve made it through 48 years and I’m embarking on the forty-ninth…. which is feeling pretty friggin’ profound. So I’m taking stock… and sharing the bounty of this glorious, messy life:
1. You’re gonna get pushback for staying true to you… and that’s okay.
When you step outside other people’s notions of how things should be done, you’re gonna get some pushback… and that’s actually not a bad thing. Pushback makes you dig deep and find your stick-to-it-ness, your grit. Finding this deep well of self will get you through the times when you’re the only one who believes in your vision.
2. Most things that advance society happen outside the lines.
From Marie Curie to Steve Jobs, people who create change have a willingness to push ideas that seem impossible, absurd, revolutionary, or counter-culture. So see number 1, then dig in, dig deep, and stay true to you.
3. Bringing something new into the world will stir up a bit of chaos.
Creativity isn’t neat. It doesn’t start at 9 and end at 5. It’s okay to be messy, to experiment, to screw up, to change course… When you do, you’re probably gonna get some pushback. See number 1.
4. Reading it in a book or hearing someone else describe something is not the same as true knowing.
To know a thing you need to experience it: taste it, smell it, feel it. You need to see how your body dances with it and your soul sings to it. Book knowledge is someone else’s knowing; take it from your head to your heart to your hands to make it your own. And don’t just do this once and call it good. Take the time to practice and master it. You don’t know how to bake a cake just ’cause you did it once; you know how to bake a cake when you can replace missing ingredients with what’s available in your cupboards because you understand the fundamental make-up of cake.
5. Buying into someone else’s wellness plan is a disservice to your body.
Taking an herb or supplement ’cause your BFF takes it is simply absurd. Your body came into this world unique and it becomes more so with every experience and germ you encounter. Tending to your body takes empathy and respect and commitment. It is so worth it to find people who can support you and let them help you to stay healthy and whole (before you get sick). ‘Cause your body? It’s your most important tool for connecting with your spirit and living your dreams.
6. Buying into someone else’s spirituality is a disservice to your soul.
You’re never gonna find your own truth if you keep buying into someone else’s. Your DNA is built on the memory of generations and your soul on the imprint of stars. Tune in, check in, and see what your body knows. You might be surprised.
7. Follow your gut even if your head doesn’t know why.
To be a whole person you’ve gotta live in your whole being. So get out of your brain. Do a gut check and listen to this non-verbal but oh-so-wise part of yourself.
8. When you engage deeply with life, it engages with you.
Ever watch a bird and find it watching you back? The world is vibrant and alive and oh-so-magical when you give it a chance to be.
9. Go with the weird superpowers.
At my retreats I’ve started doing this… thing: I read people’s auras while I’m smudging them (LOL— I always wanted to be psychic— maybe it’s finally happened! Happy Birthday to me!). But seriously, it’s totally oddball and I love it. The smoke seems to tell me stories, igniting my intuition and letting me see deep and true. Yeah, I could resist. But why? There’s so much joy in giving in to your superpowers, whatever shade of weird they might be.
So go forth and live weird, be engaged, create a little chaos, and be true to you. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it as a birthday present for me. ‘Cause I truly believe that the only way we’re gonna push to needle and overcome some of the situations our society has gotten itself into is if each of us shows up as our best, truest, deepest self.
Ever Wondered “Can Natural Products Hurt Me?”
I got a call a few weeks back from a local restaurateur asking me if I had any idea how to help one of her waiters detox from Kratom.
Kratom is an Asian herb which has become popular in the past few years for pain. Her server had started taking it, without much research or thought, ’cause “hey, it’s natural!”
This type of flimsy reasoning makes my head spin and fire shoot from my bulging eyeballs. Really, people? Have you not heard of earthquakes, and poison mushrooms, and those nasty little spiders which lay their eggs under your skin? Whatever convinced you that nature is kind?
Thinking things are safe because they’re natural is an idea which has grown out of three things.
1. One hundred years of pharmaceutical companies campaigning hard to convince us that natural remedies are ineffective.
Why do they need us to believe this? Because they can’t patent an herb and, one hundred years ago, their competition was herbs and homeopathics. So we’re told that natural remedies don’t do much; what we really need is a patented and scientifically-proven drug.
They’ve done a great job with marketing! So much so that even people like you, who regularly use natural products, are muddle-headed about it: on the one hand, you believe they work. On the other hand, you’ve subconsciously bought into the drug companies’ schtick and it’s softened your view of the efficacy of natural products. Your conscious mind translates this mishmash as “natural products are safe.”
2. Living in places that are relatively tame.
Most of us no longer live in a world dominated by wild things, unless you count rats and humans who have gone feral. If you were foraging for food, you’d know for certain that Holly and Yew berries, despite being plump, pretty, and oh-so-natural, can kill you.
If you were a farmer and watched coyote eat your sheep and sat up at night with a cow sick from munching butterfly milkweed, you’d have no delusions that natural means safe.
3. Trusting experts instead of ourselves.
Another by-product of our current medical model is trusting experts to the point that, in a pinch or a hurry, we’re gonna trust someone else instead of thinking and aggressively researching for ourselves. We learned from a young age to listen to our doctor even if it went against the wisdom of our bodies.
Medically-speaking we’ve been conditioned to do as we’re told which, unfortunately, means we’re predisposed to give credence to some random-ass internet site.
These three proclivities are a dangerous combo ’cause I’ve got news for you:
Kratom, the herb I was called about, contains alkaloids in amounts similar to opium and to hallucinogenic mushrooms, which makes it no better for daily use than other opioids.
Here’s how I teach about the potency of different herbal preparations:
Imagine fire. Start with the smallest of flame, a lit match or a tea light. Now grow the flame to fill a lantern or fireplace. Finally, picture a glassblowing forge, heat crackling the air.
In terms of herbal products, your most gentle product—a flower essence—isn’t even the lit match. It’s a picture of fire. This energy medicine reminds your body that it knows fire, that it can remember how to be warm.
Next in strength is a tea or a vinegar, a gentle candle flame. It takes a lot of candles to light a room!
Then there’s tincture—alcohol extract—this is a hearth fire, capable of lighting a room and cooking your dinner. In other words, capable of catalyzing transformation.
Finally there are essential oils. These are concentrates. They’re the forge, able to melt metal and glass, to quickly shift substance from one form to another. While metaphorically speaking that sounds very exciting, I know you don’t actually want to melt your insides—some oils will do the equivalent of that if you ingest them.
The airborne volatiles from essential oils penetrate the mucus membranes in your nose and hit your bloodstream pretty quickly, which makes inhalation the preferred therapeutic method. I’m not gonna say you never want to ingest an essential oil but, because they’re a heavy-duty concentrate, you need a high level of knowledge to do this safely. If you’re not willing to put in the years of study to make these decisions from a place of wisdom, stick to inhaling!
Beyond preparation of the herbs, there’s the chemical composition of the plant itself.
This is were Kratom comes in. Alkaloids are pretty tough on the body for a number of reasons.
I think it’s important here to remind you who I am: Hi. My name’s Maia Toll, registered herbalist with The American Herbalists Guild. I own two herb stores—one in Philadelphia, one in Asheville—and an online shop at www.herbiary.com. I LOVE botanicals. I spent a year in Ireland studying with a traditional medicine woman and have taught everywhere from the jungles of Peru to the University of Pennsylvania. Most importantly: I don’t want you to be scared. I want you to be smart.
A few days back, I got an email from a past student who is creating an herb and permaculture program for the prison system. She wrote “the act of making medicine from something you grow is a profoundly powerful act of self care.” I couldn’t agree more.
Something deep, profound, and ancient happens when you step into this medicine with your mind and your heart, your body and your soul.
Botanical medicine is an entry into alchemy. It’s a way to remember yourself and to re-engage with healing on all levels.
I invite you to step into this wisdom. To remember that plants have personalities and potencies, just like people. Nature is a myriad of things: kind is only one possibility.
I always love to hear from you: scroll down to share your experience working with plant medicine.