Happy Fall-- a time of endings and beginnings. This summer I spent a lot of time communing with rivers and creeks, meditating on how to go with the flow. My new medicine story "Wild Bill Wisdom" reflects this theme.
This newsletter marks the end of my 13-years working at M'Illumino in Seattle (The building is soon to be demolished and replaced with a new apartment building). Please come visit me at my new Seattle area and Woodinville locations. Check out my 2nd edition new Audio Lessons and free Video lessons. I've had requests to offer a Tree Medicine Retreat in the Spring 2017. If you are interested in attending a nature retreat next spring, please write me. Thanks for sharing this with your friends, family and colleagues.
In celebration of 30 years of practice, the following story features Wild Bill, whose journey with AIDS shaped my life and early bodywork career.
MEDICINE STORY: "Wild Bill Wisdom"
When I began my bodywork career in 1986, I had dreams of working with only "healthy" people who wanted to expand their consciousness.
However, as a new, self-employed massage therapist, I needed to get as much experience as possible. Fast.
I ended up volunteering in one of the only areas possible at that time: giving weekly massages to full-blown AIDS patients until the patient died. So much for lofty intentions. Trickster Coyote had other plans for me.
In the mid-1980s, AIDS patients were the 'untouchables' of our society, with shameful, painful death sentence. At 25, I had little experience with death and terminal illness. After taking a few workshops on how to work with dying people, infectious diseases and grief, I dove into a world of heavy-duty healing.
My first case remains imprinted in my memory. I can still hear the echo of my heels clicking along the linoleum floors of the nursing home, reverberating against the drab, yellow walls. I felt I was walking into a thick, pungent cloud of impending death. The smell of stale urine, nervous sweat, acrid chemicals mixed with noxious lemon-like detergents penetrated my nose and clung to my clothes and hair.
I pulled back a beige curtain where a tall, hallow-cheeked man with greasy hair. He lay inert with glazed eyes staring off into space. His long, emaciated frame with huge feet poked out from the sheets. The hospital bed appeared uncomfortably too short, like a child's bed. His boney legs and knees formed sharp rooflines under the sheets. I'd been told he was a 23, gay, recently transplanted from the East Coast with no family or visitors in the area. His saggy arms were riddled with scabby, purple sores and paper thin skin. He spent body looked depressed and frail as a holocaust survivor. I gulped and gathered my strength. I reviewed my protocols for safety, looking for any open or oozing sores which required me to wear gloves.
I spoke into his ear, "Hi Rick, I'm Annie. I'm here to give you a massage. Would you like that?...
Are there any areas you want me to avoid?....
My heart pounded in my throat. I began holding his limp hand for a moment, feeling for some kind of life force and then lightly stroked my way up his arm. It was like massaging a dying butterfly. I witnessed the passage of youth and beauty under my hands.
After working with a few of these men over the next year, I was assigned a new client in his 60's named Wild Bill. For Stage IV (End Stage diagnosis), Bill was very much alive and kicking compared to my other AIDS patients and even most of my other "healthy" clients. The throaty revving of his Harley Davidson Hog outside my window announced his arrival. Wild Bill strode into my office in his full-leather-with-chaps, gay biker regalia.
His broad chest, bushy salt-and-pepper beard, pink cheeks and shit-eating grin always made me feel like I could be living a lot, lot more than I was. His lips often burst open with saliva and radiated a boundless sense of testosterone. (Yes, I was careful and stayed clear of spitting range...) His little stomach paunch rolled when he laughed. He liked to cook, passionately followed politics and environmental issues, smoked pot and loved the Grateful Dead-- along with his wall-to-ceiling collection of vinyl records in every genre that spanned the length of his home.
Bill had recently come out and left his wife and family of grown kids after a lifetime of being a stable, married man. He was retired and a well-loved, high school science teacher. Sadly after he came out, one of his beloved daughter's, who was my age, cut off all communications with him.
On our first meeting, Bill gave me his classic bear-crushing hug with a hearty laugh. We instantly liked one another. However, after a year and a half of massages at my office, his condition worsened where he couldn't travel by himself anymore. I gave him sessions at his home and afterward spent time with him having tea or listening to his music library. At one point after taking a grief workshop, I felt I should prepare Bill for the dying process:
"So, Bill. I'm wondering if you've thought much about dying?" I asked.
He looked at me briefly and then quipped, "I'd rather not."
End of conversation. His message was clear. I nodded, humbled. Why waste another precious moment of living focused on dying?
On one of my last visits, Bill asked me to take him to a special art exhibition he was excited to see. He'd been homebound for weeks with stomach infections and was anxious he could make the journey with his diarrhea. Before we left, we couldn't find his glasses. He was mostly blind without them, and the whole trip to the exhibit seemed pointless if he couldn't see the art. I searched every inch of the house and then crawled on my hands and knees through his front yard's tangled wildflower patch. No glasses.
Bill sighed and smiled bravely, "It's OK, Annie. Let's just go anyway without the glasses. We might as well use the tickets, and you can tell me what the paintings look like."
I helped him into my car and we weaved through the mobs of people at the exhibit. He leaned heavily onto my elbow and his cane, as we shuffled slowly toward the artwork.
"Ok, What's that?" He pointed at an ornate,18th-century church painting from Russia and then turned to me, bringing his good ear closer.
I felt like I was immediately transported into a real Socrates Cave Allegory: where people who were trapped in a cave were trying to perceive what "reality" was beyond their cave. They looked at shadows of objects projected from the outside world that were reflected against the wall inside. Except, here I was on the other side of the cave wall, responsible to describe the real images that Bill was seeing!
"Ah, OK, Bill. This painting is by Dimitri ... 1761..."
I stammered a bit, feeling suddenly overwhelmed by my responsibility. I had no idea how to describe this ornate, iconic scene in the painting. Instant sweat trickled down my neck and armpits. I was mortified that other people at the gallery might come closer and mistake me for a docent who really knew these paintings. I kicked myself for not studying more art history or having a broader vocabulary or simply trusting my own expression.
Bill waited for more, his hand on my arm. I continued, "Umm, the artist is using a lot of deep reds, cadmium red maybe, and rich golds.... in arching lines with dozens of men flanking Jesus, umm....they are sitting holding books with Jesus, who is sitting in the middle in a gold tunic with a halo. It's quite elegant."
Did I even remotely describe the painting? What message did this artwork have?
Embarrassed by my paltry words, I prayed no one else heard me. I knew Bill wanted a juicy description while I reduced the symbolism of intricate figures, lines and techniques into a simple cartoon. This was probably Bill's last time at a precious exhibit, his last time outside anywhere. I felt totally inadequate in the most difficult test of my life.
Bill hung on every word I said, paused with reflection and finally nodded with approval for us to move on to the next painting. After describing four or five paintings, I was utterly exhausted and noticed Bill's face had turned ashen.
"I've got to get out of here," Bill muttered, wheezing unsteadily on his feet. "Now," he urged.
I guided him out from the throngs of people as quickly as possible and drove him home just in time to make it to the bathroom. As I helped him into his bed, his arm accidentally swung down the floor by his bedstand.
"Look!" he cried with a big smile, eyes twinkling as he brought his arm up. He held up his black rimmed glasses for me to see.
"Ha, Ha! Here they were, right by the bed on the floor, the whole time!"
He did a little happy dance and we both cracked up, slapping our thighs in hysterics. Bill recounted how I'd crawled around his house and yard on my hands and knees. We were both so happy he found his glasses that the whole adventure seemed worth it! Coyote Trickster had given us a real lesson in flowing with the unexpected.
My adventures with Wild Bill continue to remind me to:
- Go with the flow
- Take courage to explore what is in front of me
- Remember how we need one another to discover and express the deeper messages in life.
- Laugh with the wild, unexpected turns
If you are experiencing frustration with trying to control the circumstances of your life, I hope Wild Bill's attitude can help you kick up your heels when fate deals you an unexpected roadblock.
Wild Bill continues to inspire me to find and express the juice in life. Drink up to the last drop!
Thanks for reading. I enjoy hearing from you.
(My first ride on Bill's Harley Davidson Hog)
Missed past newsletters? Check my archives for past medicine story articles