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.
The rejection was written in less than 144 characters:
Not Interested (STOP).
Like a tweet or a modern-day telegram.
I stare at the words, my mind spooling backward to earlier in the day: Asheville crowded with summer tourists, a confused woman in a blue Camry in the wrong lane. I opened a gap in the relentless traffic on Merrimon Avenue and let her through. She plowed forward, oblivious to everything but her own panicked disorientation. Where’s my wave? I thought.
I wave at the hopeful part of me, the part that really wanted this, and give myself an hour for sad and disconsolate.
Not Interested (STOP).
‘Cause if I know anything, it’s this: wallowing in the dirty water of your failure only gets you a bladder infection. It’s a good way to waste a life.
I could break your heart (and you could break mine) with stories of our rejections, our failures, our almost-rans and not-quite-good-enoughs.
But hear me on this:
Let it ignite your desire.
And then you do what desire dictates: you move toward this thing you love. This thing that drives you. You find a back door, an open window, a never-before-used path.
You re-find your self-faith by putting one foot in front of the other and recreating your world.
Twelve hours later I have 3 new proposals sent.
This is success.
Tell me about a triumph. Tell me about a time (past, or present, or future) when failure fueled you forward. Comments are below!
Blogging is an act of faith.
Three years ago, when this blog graduated from random occurrence to weekly newsletter, I didn’t realize I was making a commitment to noticing the curious and the intriguing, the magic in the ordinary, the way the light reflects off a dew-splattered leaf or the scent of rosemary in the afternoon sun.
I didn’t know that in bleak moments when life seems annoying or painful or heart-wrenching, I would still be finding lessons and bright spots because I had made a promise to both myself and you to create something worth reading every Sunday morning.
I didn’t understand that blogging would become my act of communion, first with the world around me and then with you. (more…)
I’m going to ask you a question.
Don’t think about it. Don’t research it. Simply notice the first answer that flashes through your mind.
What animal are you?
Tune into your body, your animal self. Feel into your toes and see if you can sense the beating of your heart.
Now ask your body, your physical self, which animal it’s most like.
No changing the answer! This is your body’s truth.
And this is mine.
Hold on! Before you scamper to the comments to write how I should love my body, before you diagnose me as having a self-esteem issue, let me tell you a story.
I’m lucky to be friends with my acupuncturist. I don’t know which came first, the friendship or the acupuncture, but at this point they’re completely entwined.
So I’m lying on the table, there’s a lavender pillow on my eyes, and the needles are doing their thing. We’re talking quietly and I’m bemoaning my constant need for tune-ups. I mutter my old riff: I wanted to be a sturdy Volvo, but instead I’m a Fiat. Constantly in the shop. Fix it again, Tony!
My friend replies, I’ve been thinking about my body lately. My animal-self. I’ve spent a lot of time working on loving my self, on self-image. But it’s all in my mind, it’s mental exercises. So I’ve been working on feeling my body, my animal self, and asking it what it needs.
We continue talking. Exploring being grateful to our kidneys, our liver. Acknowledging how much energy our bodies use in our work, holding space for people to heal.
And every time she says “my body, my animal self,” I think elephant.
Here’s the thing: it’s hard to hate an elephant.
It’s hard to be angry at an elephant for being, well, an elephant.
My choice of elephant was not my brain insulting my body, it was my body speaking its truth. And in researching it a bit it’s spot-on right down to the powerful sense of small to compensate for poor eyesight and bad peripheral vision (I have a partially paralyzed eye that doesn’t move outward so, like the elephant, I have to turn my whole head to see to the side).
Acknowledging my elephant self is actually comforting; it makes it easier for me to love me. Because an elephant simply is an elephant. It doesn’t need to be anything else.
And I love elephants for what they are. It never occurs to me to think of what they aren’t.
So what are you?
Not what animal do you like or what’s your totem. I want to know, when you reach down into your skin, what animal resonates there.
Share with me. And tell me how it feels to acknowledge your inner elephant… or jaguar… or mouse… or cricket. Tell me how it feels to live in your skin and love it for what it is.