6/9/21- Cooler, Sun and Clouds- thinking about Alabama and White Witches….
I went for a walk in the woods the other day after my monthly spinal realignment. Often I’m a little spaced out after hearing and feeling the joints of my neck popping back into place; the adjustment is often rather violent, leaving me in pain for a few days afterward before I can recover the benefit of the realignment. So I like to take a walk in the woods to balance myself, see how I am doing afterward before attempting to continue with my day. Since my physical therapist is located across town, I take the opportunity to explore one of my favorite parks in Portland that I might not otherwise visit much at all being on the other side of the river. Portland shines with many impressive urban green spaces that can actually transport one from the city for a moment. A valuable resource taken for granted by many, these parks sustain me in between visits to wilder spaces.
As I began my stroll, my body felt heavy but looser than before, my neck less tense, my feet more stable on the ground. The sun peaked through the trees from time to time as I began a familiar 3 mile circuit through old growth, across streams, passing by tarns and twisted hemlock and cedar roots. Glad I had taken the time to gather myself, I began to consider plans for the rest of the day: conscious hydration to prevent greater soreness and headaches, an online class later in the afternoon, a friend’s birthday BBQ later. As I crossed a bridge where I was noticing a downfallen tree shifting the course of the stream, a woman passed and I greeted her. Considering reports through the years of guys creeping on women in city parks, I often preemptively voice a louder, but friendly greeting to announce my presence: I’m still not sure if this calms or scares people more.
When I said hello to a slight, older woman walking a little dog, and she returned my greeting, I heard home unmistakably in her voice. Walking away from me, she turned as I mentioned how much I liked her tone; it reminded me of home. She told me she was from Alabama. I asked her name, Bobby Jean, and I told her mine. Hardly surprised by her origin after hearing that sonorous greeting, more so to find her here today, I told her that I was from Dothan, Alabama, figuring as a native she’d be familiar. Seeing that she did not register my city, I then asked her from what part of the state she hailed, and she paused with a more cautious look. She told me that she did not even know.
She had lost her parents, her whole family in something so terrible that she could not even remember exactly what had happened. She remembered little of her childhood aside from ending up on the streets of Portland at 13. A kind woman found her there, took her in and eventually placed her in a remarkably decent foster home. She had slowly picked her life up as she passed through addiction, therapy, eventually becoming a counselor for struggling teens and working for NAMI- the National Alliance of Mental Illness. It took about everything I had not to weep openly as I watched her struggle to relate what information she could recall. She witnessed the effect of her story upon me (I was already feeling a bit fragile from the neck adjustment; the shock of the wrenching tissues just below my skull can make me forget who I am for a moment) and actually consoled me not to be ashamed of showing the feeling her story had engendered in me.
Solemnly thanking her for sharing her story and telling her a bit of mine, we talked by the side of the trail like folks that had known each other for quite some time. I mentioned that my sister had been heavily involved with NAMI for over a decade in Birmingham and that members of my own family, myself included, had suffered significant challenges with mental health resulting in some very sad stories indeed. We agreed that the dialogue around mental health must continue to grow, that a more supportive dialogue was necessary though unsupported by our culture. As she shared some of the wisdom she had discovered on her path, I was of course struck by the similarity of our conclusions, the emotional and spiritual tools we had both sought and acquired for survival. I felt a definite connection with this stranger, and I kept feeling the need to hug her despite the continued awkwardness around COVID and vaccination. I think I wanted to touch the magic I sensed, for it to touch me.
As we spoke of the merits of meditation for self knowledge and calm through hardship, I was embarrassed that I could see her seeing my mind racing off in many tangential directions. I did not mean to be disrespectful with my attention, but this encounter had sent my heart and head reeling. Responding intuitively to this, Bobby Jean actually subtly engaged me in a sort of standing meditation as we continued to share and admire each other’s strength and conviction. I felt much more balanced, connected when she walked away, even though I had to take another few minutes at the bridge. My surprise at the encounter and my overwhelm at the feeling generated by it demanded some time to process even before taking another step up the trail. I think I scared a few passersby by with my sad face: I do a good one. More thoughtful than sad, I was dumbfounded that I had just walked into some heavy love and connection out of the blue that I needed very badly.
I was and am blown away by this encounter. Nor was she the first woman I’ve encountered from Alabama with an unforgettable story and presence. A few years ago when challenged by van life travel in Maui, I sat outside a friend’s place on the curb wondering as to my next move, and there appeared a hip older woman who had just returned from Alabama and a harrowing experience of reconnection with her former husband that had left her persecuted by TSA and momentarily stranded on Oahu, but having escaped the clutches of an egomaniac who was still bleeding her dry emotionally and financially as he himself succumbed to cancer. Listening to her tale that day in the street as I was meditating upon the location of my home for the evening, I was struck by the disadvantage to which her kindness had put her, by her heartbreak at the betrayal of a former lover, but mostly by her resilience. Her suffering put mine in a much clearer relief and filled me with motivation to make a better best out of whatever my situation allowed. I’ll never forget that moment. She was a teacher sent to help me persevere.
And this brings me to my point, I think. I have been very fortunate in recent years to encounter many a White Witch to guide me along my life path. I call them White Witches in high praise for the support they’ve provided by means often incomprehensible to me initially. Considering them, I am quickly reminded of the immense benefits to spiritual, mental, and physical health I’ve accrued in relationship to powerful women appearing in my life at times when most needed. Massage therapists, acupuncturists, physical therapists, healers of many sorts have aided my recovery from spinal injury, chronic pain, and the miasma of psychological dysfunction accompanying them. White Witches of alternative health have blessed my life perspective incomparably as I’ve opened myself to more complex messages intoned by the treatments they provide and to my body’s (and hence mind’s) responses to them. Moreover, the sort of relational support these women have provided has filled something missing inside me.
Not that my folks were unloving, though they may have simply found themselves with a son they’ve never quite understood. I think I can say with assurity after a number of years living in this skin, I require much bandwidth, too much for many. I require a depth from my connections that I’ve not been able to find very easily or to at times accept once found. Therefore, I am doubly thankful for the guidance and connection I’ve found through these seemingly random meetings with these magical women who teach me so much about relationship and self care at exactly the right moments in my life. Distant now a number of years from my family of origin by geography and more, I cannot deny the sustenance provided by these healing encounters and relationships. And as Bobby Jean informed me of the good things headed my way by the aura she sensed from me, I told her that I simply wanted to honor the kindness of her surprise message of hope with the good grace to live more closely aligned with the precepts we had just now been discussing, that this hope might bloom more fully for me, for everyone I might reach.
That’s more than enough for now. Thank you, Bobby Jean, for the reminder.