Monday, April 5, 2010

Pete the Medicine Man

Pete has died. He was my mother's companion for 16 years. The love of her life she says.

Pete was an American Indian and a Medicine man. He was very important to his tribe. He trained no one to follow him. He has fixed medicine twice for me. The first time I didn't really believe and it didn't work. The second time, ten years later, I believed, and it worked for a while. He gave me medicine to treat sadness and suicidal thoughts. He fixed medicine quite a lot for my mother. She always deeply believed.

I've watched Pete fix medicine in the kitchen. He would sit at the kitchen table with a plastic bucket in front of him. In the bucket was water and herbs and leaves. He would take a straw, chant softly, and blow bubbles into the water. The air bubbles carried his chanted prayers into the water. Then he would set the bucket aside with a particular piece of colored, cotton cloth covering it. The sickness was to be absorbed by the cloth, that was thrown away later, and by the money or presents that was given to him. Some of the presents were fancy hand beaded things, moccasins or clothing or jewelry, that my mother keeps on display in a special cabinet. I bet a museum would love to get their hands on those Indian handicrafts.

Originally the sickness was to be absorbed by an animal and the medicine man was given a chicken. Money replaced the chicken, and I think that some of the presents Pete received were given in thanks for healing, I don't know exactly if all of them were intended to absorb the illness of the patient. Strictly speaking the medicine man was never supposed to "sell" his medicine, it was simply asked for and then freely given. The consequence to the medicine man for selling his medicine was death. Money became part of the asking process not to profit Pete, but to be the material that the sickness went into. If there was nothing given to the medicine man to receive the sickness, then the sickness would have gone directly into the medicine man. I payed Pete $75 for my medicine and my mother made a gift of a red piece of cotton cloth. Pete thought red was my color.

Eventually the water filled with organic parts that was in the plastic bucket was poured into a glass jar and could be transported and used. The way you used this now holy water is you stood in your shower or bathtub, naked. You poured part of the water over your head and turned in a specific direction, east to west or west to east. You turned in a complete circle. You spread the wetness over as much of your whole body as possible. Then the next day you did it again until all of the water was used up.

I can tell you that standing naked at room temperature, and then pouring room temperature water over your head causes a shock. It is like taking a cold shower. But I also wonder if temperature wasn't the only cause of the shock to your mind. Perhaps it was the medicine.

There were restrictions after you used the medicine over what you could eat. You could never eat turkey (Pete and mom always had chicken on Thanksgiving) or the innards of an animal. That meant for me no sausage or peperoni on my pizza. And you couldn't eat steak that was attached to a bone. If you ate any of these foods the illness would return.

My mother told me a story about the use of Pete's medicine that troubles me. I guess it is a story of desperate person in a desperate situation. My mother is apparently determined not to be a victim and to get her way. At any price. My mother, in telling me this story, wanted to illustrate the variety and potency of Pete's medicine. But what I heard was a whisper of ugly things, that I try my best to avoid.

I've always known that I had it in me to kill another person, but of course I have never been put in a situation to do so. And I know that I can wish death upon another person, even, a person I love. I have a savage side, a hidden dark side to me. It comes out in my drawings especially, where there are scenes of violence. At one of my art shows the gallery owner was so disturbed by the subtle violence in my art that she put out a sign that my show was not appropriate for young children. But happily most of my life I've struggled to be a good person. The only things I've crushed or broken in anger are at worst, a cell phone that I threw against a brick wall and a work of art from Spain that I attacked with a fork. Savagery and death and violence are confined to my art, they do not define the type of person I am. When I have been hit, three times in my life, I never hit back. But the blackness that I sense that I have in me I get from my parents. I am the offspring of people with a dark side. Oh my family is the ultimate in civilized. They are all good, upstanding citizens. Nice, friendly people who love each other a lot. But every now and then cracks appear and I see nothing less then the will to destroy.

So this is the story my mother told me.

Pete and my mother were living in a large mansion. The mansion has three stories, a carriage house over a separate garage, and many rooms. Pete and my mom used for themselves the mansion's kitchen, library (as a bedroom) and grand living room with its attached dining room. Every one of the other rooms, eleven in all, could be rented out to tenants.

Because they lived where they also conducted business, they were careful about who they rented rooms to. The roomers could not have guests or cook food in their rooms. The roomers had to be a type of lonesome person, and a quiet, private person. Everyone had to be respectful of everyone else. When I was a child, and my grandparents owned this mansion, I remember the rule that you could not speak in the hallways. Literally, renters could not greet other renters in the hallway. I remember whispering a lot. My mother once said, in a spirit of jest, that you had to be a zombie to want to rent a room and live there.

My mother is very, very careful who she rents a room to because if there is a problem with a roomer, because of the extensive legal rights of the renter, it can easily take up to six months to evict a roomer. And of course, during the entire eviction process, they are living for free and potentially can cause mischief.

My mother told me that she had a roomer who had not paid his rent for a long time. In the rooming house rent is paid from week to week. She asked Pete (who was a big Indian man, tall and heavy) to knock on this renter's door and ask him to come down to the kitchen to speak with her. After Pete knocked, and delivered my mother's message, the renter called the police. When the police arrived to the rooming house the renter said that Pete had forced his way into his room and was harassing him. A lie, but a sign too that the renter was not going to be evicted without a nasty fight.

That the police were called angered my mother greatly. She felt that the rooming house was her house, the place where she lived, and she felt that the calling of the police was a great threat to her personally. This renter was not just a business loss, he was a bad man and an evil man. She asked Pete if Pete could fix medicine to get the man to leave. Pete said yes, but that he might be leaving "feet first". This medicine could cause death. My mother told Pete to go ahead and fix the medicine anyway. Whatever Pete put together, it was physical, and he hid it in the renter's room while the renter was out. Then Pete told my mom to stay out of the renter's room while the medicine worked.

It had been my habit for my mother to go through all the renter's rooms while they were out and empty their garbage cans. This little act of kindness by the owner of the rooming house has been established by my grandparents for a reason. Many a time my grandmother found flat irons or curling irons left on or lights left on, which she turned off so that there would not be a fire or an increase in the electric bill. Once, while picking up the garbage, my grandmother found the owner of the room dead in bed. It was a convenience for the renter not to empty their own garbage but it also served the purpose of letting the owner of the business know exactly what was going on in the rooms from day to day. But while the medicine worked, my mother left this renter's garbage can alone.

Almost immediately after the medicine was fixed the the renter returned to the rooming house after having been badly beaten. My mom saw him and his face was black and blue from bruises and he was missing front teeth. The next thing that happened is that he started to lose strength. His body grew weaker and it became more and more difficult for him to walk the stairs up to the floor his room was on. Eventually he was so physically weak that he could not climb the stair case, and he called social services. People came and moved his things out. He was gone. A little while later my mother saw him about town, walking down the street, strong and spry. So evidently the damage done, besides the missing teeth, was not permanent. After he left the the rooming house the ill effect of Pete's medicine stopped.

If I were in my mother's position I don't know if I could ask for such medicine to be used. It was like she asked Pete to aim a loaded pistol at this man's body. But if I had a loaded pistol in a night stand drawer, and there was an intruder at night that my husband shot, would I feel great grief at his death? Or if I shot him, instead of my husband, would my grief be any different? I would prefer to shoot, with the possibility of killing, than be beaten, robbed, or raped. Somehow I am afraid that this does not make me a very good Christian. I don't know, in my heart, how sacred I hold life to be.

It is my feverish wish, that as I grow older, I hold life as more and more sacred. This is the only antidote I can think of that might quench the violence in the dark side of my mind.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for leaving that great comment on my latest blog entry. I always enjoy reading about your thoughts and ideas.

    Honesty is a quality that I'm very drawn to in myself and in others. You are an exceptionally honest person. That is such a good thing. Most people try to deny their negative sides, but you are strong enough not to. I have seen the darker side to myself too. I try to see myself as a tolerant person, but when I was abused a part of me became closed and intolerant. And when I fell head first into acute psychosis at age 36 and thought I was being followed and judged by a group of people, again I became intolerant. I was so caught up in the seeming injustice of my situation that I lost sight of the precious reality all around me. Not completely, but enough to set me adrift for several years. My journals of that time are filled with me trying to analyze my main abuser and his group, especially his mother and his wife. It was only when I tried to embrace compassion for myself and my voices that some of my darkness began to fade, but I had to go through 3 breakdowns first. I was stubborn.

    Personally, I am a pacifist. I've been in life threatening situations with my ex-boyfriend. On a couple of occasions he mentioned getting a gun, which I was definitely against. I knew that if I were very afraid, which I often was, that I could be tempted to use the gun and hurt, perhaps kill, my boyfriend and, to me, even the idea of it was intolerable. I decided that I would rather die than take someone else's life or become an abuser myself. I saw the darker side of my boyfriend repeatedly and it was remorseless. That was mind boggling to me. I would be crying and pleading and his heart stayed stone. I began to realize that my boyfriend was not only addicted to alcohol, but that he was, in a way, addicted to his own violent nature.
    He was mentally ill. The cycle of abuse began before he was born and he chose at some point to continue it. I knew for me it had to stop. I even told myself that if I became pregnant that I would probably have an abortion, something I did not want to face, but I couldn't see bringing an infant into such a situation. I am fortunate in that I never had to make such a dire choice. But even now, I am judging my ex-boyfriend when I should be feeling a deep compassion for the pain in his life that led him to become abusive. It's like a Catch 22. I admire people who are deeply compassionate, especially towards their abusers. I still will try to emulate them.

    So, Karen, just know that you are not alone in having a darker side, but I agree holding life to be sacred is a good goal to try and reach.
    And I think you can get there. But remember to be good to yourself, lovingkind. That's what I have to work on too. Because if you stay judgmental about yourself, it will block you from being tolerant of others again and again.

    I really have been enjoying responding to your writing. You make me think. You seem to have many life stories to tell. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir of essays?

    Stay well,



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