She's a Lady
[The Ayahuasca Monologues] • I have known her for four years, but until last night, I had never truly known her.
In the years since I first met her, in the years since I first was brought to her, bent and broken, wanting to die, needing to exit the pain of this world, and she saved me, I have struggled with a way to appropriately express my appreciation and reverence for her, The Great Mother, Aya Spirit, Gaia, Grandmother of All Creation. For how can you properly thank that which gave you life, or in my case and that of thousands of others, gave us rebirth, a new life, a fresh start? How do you honor that love which is so beyond you in a way that even begins to approach the gifts you were given?
As I have written before, I was at my lowest in January of 2006, four months out of prison and I was preparing to kill myself. Grappling with being an ex-convict in today’s America is crushing. I felt my entire life had been ruined, over a victimless “crime.” I could not find work, as none of my professional colleagues would return my calls. With very few, very loyal exceptions, my friends and family were nowhere to be found. I must have scared them. Although their concerns were baseless, no one knew if I was being watched, and some thought I might be working as a police informant and had circulated rumors to that effect. I sealed their distrust of me shortly after my release when, in a desperate and unstable frame of mind, I attended a large community event, became blackout drunk (among other states of consciousness), and proceeded to be "that guy" all night, utterly humiliating myself (you know, like, I decided to play drums for the band who was booked for the party, while they were in the middle of their set, with their own drummer, of course). I woke up face down on the floor, alone, in a cold and windy warehouse loft in Chicago, and that was the last I was invited anywhere. To make matters worse, no one in media or publishing seemed interested in hearing my story the way it really happened, they were only interested how my prison experience would translate into dollars for them.
Without work, and needing employment to stay on parole and out of prison, the only job I could get in post-9/11 background-check-happy America was at Trader Joe’s working the 6pm-2am shift for $8.00 an hour. I stocked shelves all night with poor quality “organic” food, while my half-wit co-workers (you know the types that work at Trader Joes) watched out for people buying Charles Shaw wine and then dragged them over to where I was working to point at me and guffaw, “we got us a real Charles Shaw here. Go ahead dude, show them your ID!” Eventually they made me a nametag that read, “Yes, my name really is Charles Shaw,” and made me wear it.
This became a metaphor for how my life was not supposed to turn out. I was 35 and a joke, and as far as I could see, this was as good as it was ever gonna get. So naturally, I sought refuge in that which had seduced me for years, and easily slipped back into my crack addiction for a month or two. By the time the New Year rolled around, I was done with living. I had just clawed my way out of a crack addiction over the last four years. There was no way I was going back. I would much rather be dead. That was when, just in the knick of time, a friend saw the trouble I was in and she convinced me to postpone my suicide for just two weeks in order to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, which I had never done.
That ceremony took place in an apartment on the West Side of Chicago, a decidedly un-Peruvian setting. In the room were fifteen initiates, and only three had taken the medicine before. It was facilitated by a mutual friend who for these purposes we will call "Soul Trek." Soul Trek had learned about the medicine from another gringo who had studied with a Peruvian shaman, but he made his own brew and had a decidedly post-modern attitude about it, which he finally told me about last night when we shared a circle together for the first time in three years, since he had left Chicago to take the medicine and its healing to others around the country.
"When aya first spoke to me," he said, "she said, I've been wearing this same party dress for 5,000 years, and it's time for me to get a makeover. I need you to help me do that. I need you to take me to a new place, and introduce me to new people."
Soul Trek does not consider himself a "shaman." He believes that shamans, who are traditionally male, act as intermediaries between us and the spirit world, but that they are not necessary. And over time, like any priesthood, they have lost themselves in self-importance and orthodoxy.
"Anytime you have a shaman, you have dogma, and anytime you have dogma, you do not have the true experience of God."
Neither of us have ever taken ayahuasca in native environments. I have either been in an urban setting, or deep in some ancient American forest. Both Soul Trek and I share the belief that we Americans by and large should leave Peru alone. "Ayahuasca tourism" is fraught with a number of critical moral quandaries, and is neither sustainable nor accessible for large numbers of people. Those who can afford to go should bring the practice back to the States and create circles in their communities, so that the ceremonies happen for everyone on the land on which they live, which is the entire point, because each land base has its own identity and needs. The medicine is meant to reach us now. She is seeking us out, asking us to meet her halfway, to bring her into our homes. Like she frees us, she is asking to be freed, for she is tired of the orthodoxy that has imprisoned her, and she wants out. Her message was meant for all, and it was not meant to be mitigated through others, particularly men.
For four years I took this medicine regularly, each time asking Grandmother to heal me. And for four years she gave me that, without question, because it was where I met here and it was what I asked for. But throughout that time, our relationship was one-sided, and she remained to me an elusive mystery. There was a force that healed me, but I could not tell you who that force was, until last night.
This time around, in a house south of San Francisco on the Pacific coast, I did not ask for healing. This time I entered strong and asked her only to show me that which she felt I needed to see, to take me wherever she felt I needed to go. And when she finally emerged, I was pulled into the experience that is the living expression of the Aya Spirit, and for the first time, she showed me a little of who she is. And what I realized, what I finally understood, is that she may be known as Grandmother, but she's a virile, sensuous, complex woman.
From the depths of darkness she began to bubble out with the music. Surrounding us and providing the soundtrack for the journey was a playlist of devotional singing in many languages and styles. As if she was feeding on the energy of the women's singing voices, she slowly grew inside me, first peeking out at me, staring me in the eyes to see if I had the courage and presence to stare back in intimate junction. Then she grabbed hold of me, wrapping her arms and legs around me and squeezing me, surging like a woman letting go.
You came to me for healing and I gave you that, she told me. But I am not the Giving Tree, I am not just here for you to take from me. I appreciate the reverence, but I am a woman, I need to be loved and nurtured and stroked. If I trust you and you hold me close, I'll tell you all my secrets.
She was complex, teasing, a saucy minx. She had grace and poise and endless allure. She was a lady, and slowly she pulled me in closer and closer. Then, she took me in completely, and I was flooded with bliss. I wept.
As I swirled with her though a kaleidoscopic universe, she showed me how the woman is, why she is, and how she functions. She showed me the women in my life, and the power and patience that they wield. Her face was that of my partner, my lover, but her heart was the collective heart of all the women who had chosen to love me, the women I had loved, the ones who carried to me the message of my true self and my mission in this world. Ayla, Azula, Amanda, Erin, Jada, Kara, Katie, KC, Liz, Michelle, Niema, Ora, Sonia, Tamara. These are the names of the priestesses who taught me to love. And it was their mothers who taught them to love, either by example or through their missteps. And my partner's mother Gaye taught her to love, and her Abuela taught her father to love the world and share that love with all. It's simple she said, if you love us and treat us with respect, we'll give you everything.
And then she showed me my mother, who I have struggled with all my life, and who I have not spoken to in years, since this rebirth of mine began through this medicine. And the medicine told me that there is no real healing until the child heals the bond with the mother. I had spent my first four years with the Great Mother learning love for the first time, but now she showed me how much love my mother had given me, and how much love her mother, my grandmother Frances, gave her, and the love my grandmother June gave my father. Although so much water had flowed downstream, and so much sand had blown from the beach, for the first time in my life I was able to see all the complexities of my mother and her circumstances, and all I felt was love and compassion. I knew it was time to reach out to her and begin to heal that bond.
During the ceremony a woman in our group was struggling deeply with her relationship with her mother, and I began to absorb her emotional state empathically, a blessing and a curse I have possessed my whole life, being an exceptionally sensitive Pisces (or whatever). When she reemerged from her journey, we sat and talked together and I told her I sensed her turmoil (her purges were epic). We shared our mutual experiences and helped each other make sense of our relationships with our mothers, and gain a sense of peace about it all. The relief on her face as we parted said it all.
Later, another man in our circle would tell me, without knowing my background and having never read “Exile Nation,” that he had been a crack addict, was shot ten times by police after robbing a convenience store in the late 1980s, died, was brought back to life, sent to prison, and then left to try and put together his life. Some twenty years later, he is a warm, loving, creative man. But all these years he's struggled with his past and how to share it with others, and move past it. As I began to share my life with him, he smiled and then cried, for he finally saw that he was not alone, and that someone had articulated for him his experience so that others far and wide would understand. When he hugged me, it was clear he had been freed.
Ayahuasca gave me healing. It gave me my life back. And this time Ayahuasca asked me to love her back, to keep feeding the cycle that brings love and life into this world, and share that love and healing with others. Over time the women in my life have shown me the same, in their own ways, and I finally reached a place where I saw them, truly saw them, and that made everything about it real. There is a Hebrew verse that reads, “Al tistakel b’kankan,elah b’mah sheyesh bo,” or “Don’t look at a container but rather at what is in it.” When I journeyed again last night with Grandmother, I got to see her, truly see her, and she seduced me, and I fell in love. In her seduction of cosmic lovemaking, I swallowed her fluid, took her in, and she transformed me. I emerged with an afterglow, but also with a renewed sense of purpose, and an entirely novel sensation of peace. I clung to my partner as tears streamed down both of our faces. I love you, we said, I love you I love you I love you.
I love you, Mother. I love you, Mom.
Anything of any value I have ever learned in life, I have learned from the Women.
Image courtesy of NASATweet