I blamed it on the ayahuasca. And the body harness. In both instances, there was a tree. And there were voices.
“I am Mother, I am Mother, I am Mother,” she said. Her resolve smacked my ass into the hardwood floor.
The mud-colored liquid stung on the way down, and I immediately regretted the swallow in the same way I regretted so many others in my life. Mouthfuls of shame, grief, unhappiness, guilt, and remorse washed over me once again. I said yes to ingesting an illegal substance and showed up to an acquaintance’s woodsy cottage in Pasadena with a floor pillow and a beach towel I found in the trunk of my car. Aficionados of the “medicine” will appreciate the lack of preparation on my part and nod in my direction, a recognition of the first-timer glow. Eleven others, experienced and equipped, arrived with sleeping bags, fluffy blankets, roll-up mattresses, and their sleep pillows to experience the medicine in five-star comfort.
I sat cross-legged on my Costco extra-plush beach towel and placed the euro-sized floor pillow on my lap. Not that I was self-conscious of my fifty-something belly, although there was that, always, but more I sensed I needed to seek some last comfort before possibly losing control of my bowels in front of a group of strangers. And where was my acquaintance anyway? It was her place, after all. I assumed she would greet me upon arrival, excited I had taken her up on the offer of exploring the medicine together, safely ensconced in her over-priced rental. I had known her for years. We often talked about her spiritual pursuits, and she became a quasi-guide for me; she was of the mind that people come into each other’s lives when they were needed most. I held on to that. It made sense at the time. We touched base every three weeks when she used to do my nails. She called herself the Nail Guru, and I was happy to listen to her adventures. She swore by ayahuasca even though she said the medicine had become tainted with dark energy. “It’s just not clean anymore,” she had said while she filed my nails. The air full of foreboding, my visions of dark forests and shady men committing terrible acts to make a profit—I maybe should have listened to my own inside voice I was expert at ignoring.
She finally made an appearance, wearing a cute hippie skirt (I mean, if I’m being honest, totally adorable—she really pulled it off), making eye contact with everyone, so that they all noticed when she entered the living room/dining room, which had been cleared of all its furnishings. She had a great sense of style which I admired, and even though I also saw her “dark energy” at times when she would dig too deep and make my cuticles bleed—“Your skin is so dry, you should really take cuticle care seriously”—I thought she might hug me and gift me with a really cool smudge stick, which was so her and also such a great gift to give out when people came to your home to do illegal drugs from the Amazon rain forest. When she made her way toward me, she noticed my meager belongings. “Oh, love, is that all you brought? Didn’t I tell you what you would need? It must have somehow slipped my mind. I’ll get you a blanket.” I nodded, grateful.
I was sitting quietly on my flat pallet, watching the participants prepare their spaces, when the Shaman approached me. Shaman Georges. The spelling confused me, and I was never sure how to pronounce it, so I just started referring to him in my mind as Shaman Gorgeous because he really was. He kneeled in front of me and told me not to resist, to go where the medicine led me. It sounded easy enough. Until it wasn’t. When I closed my eyes, ancient serpents writhed and swirled while my body rocked back and forth, clutching my purge container (a clear plastic Ziploc bowl with a blue lid I had to pay an extra $2.25 for upon arrival at Nail Guru’s abode) and trying in vain to comfort my mind. I fanned at my face with my hand, even though I wasn’t hot—a way to control the uncontrollable. From the thick black sponge that was now my brain, it squished, “I am Mother.” Abuelita, the voice was called. Abuelita’s insistence forced me to confront my life, and each time I told her I understood, she repeated her command, unwilling to accept anything other than one hundred percent compliance. I continued to self-soothe by rocking back and forth, ugly cried—when I looked in the mirror later that night, I had popped a blood vessel in my eye from all the focused urgent crying, I mean purging—and breathed so hard through my mouth I started to hyperventilate. Shaman’s wife, a truly lovely creature, kneeled in front of me—everyone kneeled but me. How envious I was of their supple joints. She said, “Give me your hands.”
I stared back at her. Give you my hands? My plastic hands were attached to my arms made of rubber and were now stretched out into the marble universe, trying to latch onto maternal energy and melt. Obviously.
Her next request was more difficult: “Place your hands flat in front of you.”
I stared back at her. Lady, they’re plastic hands, with a bend at the knuckles. She lifted my synthetic hands, shook a bottle, and sprayed. The cold water hit my palms and woke me the fuck up. I noticed Wifey’s braids, she really did look the part of Shaman Wife: twenties, pretty, an effortless seventies throw-back style, helping people her number two objective, committed partner number one. Her kind gaze, non-judgmental, bore into me, and for the first time in Jesus, like five hours, someone saw me. I was rescued.
“Rub your hands together.”
“Rub your hands together.” Still, nothing. It simply did not compute. She brought my hands together for me. “It’s like praying,” she said.
I can do this.
Then the kicker: “Now smell them.” Why was she being so mean? So many steps. She pushed my hands to my face. “Now breathe,” she said. The scent hit my nostrils and traveled to the back of my skull. The black sponge calcified, and my thoughts returned—human lady thoughts. No more black serpent eel creatures. No more spinning.
Just then, my neighbor— Wait! I had a neighbor! She had been to my right the entire time. My neighbor tossed a crystal onto my borrowed blanket. “It wants you. Your energy.”
“I had all my crystals lined up for protection and this one kept rolling off my cushion and onto your blanket. It was meant to be.”
Thank you. I hoped my face conveyed my thanks because I hadn’t been able to speak since I knocked back the shot glass filled to the brim with the medicine like a party-girl pro. That moment had jettisoned me back to the nineties, sitting on a bar stool at The Hub in downtown Tampa, the smoke of clove cigarettes hung in the air, black clad theatre people crowding the bar for dollar drink night, and for a split second, I enjoyed the nineties in a way I never had when I was actually there.
My body decided it had had enough and lay down, robotic, and wrapped the blanket around my torso and up under my chin. I clutched the crystal to my chest. I was shivering, suddenly cold and sleepy. Thankful for the simple gesture of a blanket. It was everything I needed. Abuelita’s voice echoed in the darkness: “This is what you need. This is what you need.” I floated and slept. My eyes opened to the sight of a skylight in the ceiling I hadn’t noticed before. The vibrant green leaves of a large tree swayed in the wind, the branches flexible, moving with the breeze, not against it, scraping the skylight. The lovely browns of the bark—did I ever see all the hues in nature? And the sky, clear cerulean. I cried. At the beauty of it all. At myself for never noticing. I felt connected, like my body would rise and push through the skylight, and I would float over Pasadena, back to East Hollywood, back to my pillow-top mattress because, fuck, my back ached from the hardwood floors. I ventured outside to pee because we weren’t allowed in the bathroom. Apparently, at the last ayahuasca gathering, there was a cloggage. I couldn’t get any more information on the matter other than “full-stop cloggage.” My guess is it was significant. Once I emptied my bladder in the toilet tent in the backyard, I sat on the grass—it was silky under my bare feet. I talked to my mother, who was sitting in an oak tree. She listened for three hours, and I shared with her all the things she had missed. I made her laugh, and for once, I didn’t cry when I said her name.
“Come on, Boss Lady, you can do it, what does yer shirt say then,” said the New Zealand-accented voice of Ropes Guy, and I cursed the “Be Strong, Belong” slogan-ed t-shirt I wore that day months later, when again, I really should have listened to my inside voice that knew my likes and dislikes. It tried in vain to tell me by loosening my bowels that morning. This outdoor excursion is not meant for me or my fifty-ish, plus-sized body. But my commitment to excellence in all I did had me ignoring my inside voice once again.
The body-hugging harness dug into the left side of my inner thigh. I felt lopsided but didn’t say anything, repeating a pattern of silence that defined my life, because I was busy staring into the caring blue eyes of my new co-worker who knew I didn’t want to perch on the tiny rope. It was a new job. All the things we couldn’t see just outside our peripheral vision. All the things we didn’t know, lurking. The faculty and staff were all gung-ho, outdoorsy types. They. Were. Into. It. All. And every August was something different to start off the new school year in a fun and interesting way. One year, it was a foodie fest. Another, a craft fair. My year, ropes course. I knew I should have never taken the job.
I clung to the tree. The right side of my body abdicated the left, my right knee locked, and my right hip jammed. Complete, total, emotional breakdown. In front of employees I had just met that morning, people I would need to evaluate in the coming months.
I had avoided the body harness the entire morning. If I participated in the trust activity, I bargained, perhaps the blindfold would be equal compensation for the harness. It was not. I acquiesced soon after the prodding of Ropes Guy and the pleading of the well-meaning Kool-Aid drinking employees that didn’t have fifty-five-year-old bodies.
It seemed easy enough from the ground. Climb the ladder, hop onto three slender rungs that protruded out from the trunk, and push up off them until I reached the rope, thirty feet above the beaming faces that believed life was generous and for everyone. Their voices called out, “Come on, you can do it, you’ve got this!” I didn’t want to let them down. I clung. I hugged. I swore. Then the shaking started. It began at my feet. Then worked its way up my thighs. I imagined everyone could see my shuddering ass, a scared white lady clinging to the side of the tree. I didn’t care they might be laughing. What I cared about was that they were feeling sorry for me, embarrassed to have to watch someone they didn’t know lose their shit. I felt alone. Then my arms started to give out. My fingers had grasped as much bark as they possibly could, and splinters poked under my nails.
“Please, let me down. I can’t do it.” The audible sigh drifted up and stung my cheek; the other fifty-something guy had done it, why couldn’t the new chick? He weighed more, even. They shrugged. And walked away.
Ropes Guy took pity on me and finally heaved my aching body, quivering legs, and red, swollen face down to the ground, where I landed unceremoniously on all fours. My new boss avoided my eyes and unhooked the tangled harness that hugged my body. My climbing buddy waved at me from his roost; he had conquered his fears. He dove off the rope, landed on his own two feet, high-fived Ropes Guy, and de-harnessed with pride.
The endless day had finally reached its culminating exercise—a closing circle, of course. I just wanted to be in my car, with the windows up, listening to anything—a podcast, a book on tape, a wailing cat in heat—anything other than the sound of these voices in this clearing. We held hands and talked about facing our fears. Something about talking increases connection and strengthens bonds, Ropes Guy said. I watched everyone when they spoke. Their moments made the circle laugh. When my turn came, a hushed quiet took hold of the circle. I looked down at the pine needles that covered the ground. No one spoke. They knew. I reeked of shame and humiliation. I would never recover. After the energy clap, I hightailed back to my car, called in sick on Monday, and never looked back.
Blame, then, was perhaps the wrong word to describe what happened. It was the combination of the two, the precise mixture of a Peruvian root with a climbing apparatus, that yielded enlightenment. Both occasions taught me lessons in consensual participation with my own life. I have consent. A revelation.
I hugged a tree and learned how to say no, hell no, to the things I didn’t want to do. And I learned how to connect with the voice inside that whispered I am Mother over and over and felt the warmth of my mother’s hand when it cradled mine. I curled up inside her palm and swung.