You might be wondering, my Herbal Medicine teacher said last Monday, as you sped down the highway after work, why on Earth you decided to take this class! It’s an hour away, and you’re tired. You don’t yet know the reason. But I’ll tell you– it’s not for nothing. None of it is for nothing.
She was looking directly at me, and speaking directly to me, as I was the only one in the class who had worked 9-5 then driven directly to the mountains, an hour away, for this class. I’d told her this as I arrived, apologizing for being 10 minutes late, head spinning from the low blood sugar I’d just treated with grape juice, which hadn’t restored my body and mind quite yet. She told me to help myself to tea, then seeing how frenzied I was, said, No, no, no, I’ll get it for you.
We walked around the gardens in the last melt of daylight and she showed us all of her plants and said, Mind the fallen walnuts, we don’t need a twisted ankle. We tasted plants and bruised them. She showed us her apothecary. Amber glass bottles lined thin wooden shelves, rows and rows of powdered herbs the color of earth in clear quart jars. Everything felt like a secret, unearthed. This, I thought, taking it in. I want to know all of this.
How I ended up there, in that apothecary, in those gardens, how I will keep ending up there each Monday for weeks to come, is a long story. I can best sum it up as: I’m seeking something. Some unsung understanding. A purpose I can feel in my chest, but can’t yet call by name.
I’ve had a chronic illness for 11 years now, but it wasn’t until this past year that I started feeling like I had one. Feeling it marrow deep. Not all the time, but enough of the time to have been forced in the last handful of months to take a closer look at the way I live my life, the choices I make, who and what I spend my time with, the habits I’ve picked up along the way. This is a scary thing to do. It doesn’t take long to discover what could use some adjusting. Or eliminating altogether.
Chronic illness is a teacher. Some of us have to learn young.
Once I began to feel the weight of diabetes, the depth of it, and once I began to unravel the spider silk of a very intricate web, I felt swallowed whole. I felt lost. Illness. It felt too big to hold in my body. It felt too big for any of our bodies, individual and collective. It felt too big to speak out loud, or even write down. So I went to nature, because it is the biggest and truest and most alive thing I know.
“Don’t be afraid to suffer—take your heaviness and give it back to the earth’s own weight; the mountains are heavy, the oceans are heavy.” –Rilke
Last Fall, I started going to the Blue Ridge mountains every Friday, as the leaves changed. Sometimes with my roommate and sometimes alone, climbing to the tops and sitting on thick sheets of rock for hours. When I didn’t have enough time off of work for that, I went to the James River, or Pocahontas State Park and walked in miles-long circles through the forest.
When my blood sugar is rising and falling and rising in an infuriating and sickening rhythm, I tell myself that my blood is just like the tides of the ocean. Always moving, always changing: high tide, low tide. Nothing of Life stays unchanged. This is the alchemy of nature.
We can try so hard to hold ourselves steady, but there are so many forces at work here, altering everything around us and within us. Perhaps the tide has tried a time or two to stay in place, tired of sloshing about. And yet, the moon has other ideas. This is the nature of nature.
I took a writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed last summer, and she talked about our “Dark Teachers.” The difficult experiences, people, and obstacles that inform us and shift us and bring us to our knees and break us open.
When she spoke of this, I first thought of illness. For years and years and years, I refused anyone’s suggestion that I might live the life I do because I was in some way informed by my disease. That perhaps I was brave enough to move to foreign countries alone because living with diabetes had taught me courage, had shown me with a swift hand at a young age how things can transpire. I refused the idea that my appreciation of this brilliantly brief life has been amplified by this dark thing.
No no no, I smiled my I Am Uncomfortable smile, This is just who I am. This is my nature.
Why would I give the thing that has made my life so damn difficult any credit in the beauty?
I’ll never be able to say how I might’ve been had I not been diagnosed with diabetes. I was just becoming, teetering on the edge of childhood, tender adolescence, when my body unraveled and I had to learn a new way to live inside of it. For many traumas or Defining Moments, there is a clear, defined line: Before and After, Death and Re-birth. But I can’t seem to see it that way. I’ve turned it over and over again in my mind, but it all bleeds together. A slow drip in the bucket of Growing Up.
But you know… I can’t think of a thing that, upon encountering it, hasn’t taught me something. To be alive is to be learning. I’ve had plenty of dark teachers, but thank god, I’ve had even more of the opposite. Some, like Cheryl, I can’t believe I ever met in person. I’ll never forget that. Some I see almost every day; some I’ll never see again. But to all of them, wherever they are, I say Thank You.
Of course, all along, my Dark Teacher has been teaching me. Handing me jagged gifts. I just didn’t know it, or I didn’t accept it. I didn’t believe for a long time that there could be one speck of light in the darkness.
Yet, the moon has other ideas. This is the nature of nature.
And none of it is for nothing.