Of the Mountains
My curandera doesn't speak a word of Spanish, so she brings along her six-year-old granddaughter to translate her Chatín into Spanish. She tells me that she can't help me at all with my insurance-salesman eye problem. She says it's the fault of el aire --- the air. So I dig through my repository of ailments and come up with one almost as good (or as bad).
"A lot of times I wake up at 3 am and try to get back to sleep and I can't," I tell her. There is a special pith to my sleeplessness that I don't tell her about: if the Sand Man doesn't come to visit within a couple of hours, the Panic Man comes in his stead.
She tells me to take off my shirt and lay down on the bed. It smells of sweat and old hair pomade. My curandera stands there for a few minutes. She says nothing. Is she shy --- awed by this great hulking 6'4" 185 pound grizzled old gringo who came in his beat-up wheelchair? Or is it the language barrier? Since she speaks only Chatín, we certainly can't exchange any pleasantries ("What nice feet you have, Granny.")
After a few moments, she pulls out a bunch of basil --- rich, smelly basil from the Sierra foothills --- and blends it with Vicks Vapo-rub. She pastes this concoction all over my backside and frontside, reaching down to cover my groin with it, smearing it all over my knees and shanks. Then she has me sit up, mixes some other herbs and buds to steep in the local firewater --- mescal --- and lathers this atop of me and the Vicks. It reminds me of the fraternity initiation ceremonies we had when I was in high school where they took us out in the fields at midnight and dumped all sorts of repulsive smelly oils, liquids, and other unmentionables over our bodies, and made us walk home in the dark.
Then she takes an egg, and --- muttering Chatín wisdom to herself --- rubs it over my shoulders and back and face and forehead. I want to feel something, something holy, something spiritual --- but I have to admit that all I feel is impending deafness because, as the bruja is working me over, there's this huge blast of a voice drifting through the room. I thought it might be the mountain gods but, in truth, it's the local vocena. Lacking newspapers and radio stations, loudspeakers are used to get messages out about food for sale, government directives, rare telephone calls, and emergencies. In this case, a very noisy lady is broadcasting in terrible fidelity the fact that she has pollo destacado --- fresh disjointed chicken --- for sale.
After twenty minutes of rub-a-dub and incantations, the witch tells her granddaughter to explain to me that I am done, and that I am not to bathe until the next morning, and that I'm to pay her fifty pesos (about five dollars). Since I have no change, I give her 100 pesos, which will probably screw up the going rate of witch-cure for this part of Oaxaca over the foreseeable future.
On the way home, I ask José why the old lady spat all over the floor as she was rubbing her revolting concoction all over me. I thought it a bit uncouth, considering the magic of the situation. "She was spitting out the chingaderas (the shit) that she found in your body," he tells me. He says that he has seen brujas spitting out splinters, pieces of wood, and even rocks that they extract from their patient's bodies.
When I get home, I try to take a nap, but the mixture of Vicks Vaporub and mescal and the tiny leaves and buds and miscellaneous plant spikes makes me so itchy and wriggly and stinky that I can't sleep. After a few hours of this, I say to hell with her instructions and take a nice long hot shower. And that's when my troubles begin.
For alas, dear reader, I should have taken my curandera's advice much more seriously. The next night, I sleep, as usual, from ten until about three. And then I wake up, and nothing (meditation, self-hypnosis, appeals to the great Chatín gods, pills) can get me back to sleep. Since I truncated her cure, I figure, she has truncated my sleep. Over the next few days, my insomnia is worse than it's ever been. At least, pre-bruja, I could usually coax myself back to sleep. But, now: nothing doing. I toss and turn and just as I am about to drop off, there is this Chatín muttering in my ear, saying, You're trying to go to sleep. This immediately brings me wide awake.
I go to my friend Anna for advice. She grew up in Sweden, moved here in 1983, and has lived here ever since. She says that if you believe in witchcraft it works. "It's powerful stuff," she tells me. She also offers to loan me her witch if I have some other problems I want to address. "Don't worry about your sleep," she says. "It'll come back. These things always need a few days to take hold."
And she's right. Soon enough, sleep begins to envelop me. I'm ecstatic. Nine, ten hours a night. Pure, unfettered, restful sleep. The best I've had in years. I'm all for making contact with the American Sleep Disorder Association, to tell their members to drop their pills and come to Oaxaca so I can put them in touch with my sweet old Lady of the Mountains. I'm even thinking of learning her language so I can get her to tell me how the hell she does it. Can you see me running my own home-town sleep clinic with this magic in my pocket?
And that one starts me to thinking. I mean...how about...the Big One? In 1952, my body went from age eighteen to age seventy-five, overnight. I've been in bed, on crutches, in a wheelchair, on a gurney for more than two-thirds of my life. What would happen if I went back to the village, and she asks me what I want, and I say, very casually, "Well, you see. I haven't been able to walk since 1952. I know it's a lot to ask, but I was thinking that...you know...maybe you could...."
I mean, hell, if she can handle simple-assed sleep disorders, what might she do with the paralyzed-for-life? My sweet old Chatín from the mountains.
Let's do the big one, mother.
The one I no longer dare think about.
Make me a late-blooming dancer, bicyclist, long-distance runner, mountain climber, mother.
§ § §
The old lady is no slouch. She knows what was going on in my little pea-brain. That very night, she sends me a dream. Just to warn me about this mountain-climbing shit.
It's a dream about Superman. Christopher Reeve is starring in dual roles: as Superman. and as his older twin, Superman II.
They go everywhere side-by-side, these two Supermen --- two peas in a pod. You never doubt for a moment that they are the Original Superman Twins --- with that boyish Reeve smile, that confident way, both of them fearless.
Good dream. Direct pipeline from my curandera. Telling me that she has forgiven me my transgression of not doing exactly what she told me. But also telling me that this stuff ain't for playing around with. And that I'd better not get any funny ideas. What with my twin and all.--- L. W. Milam
§ § §Note Some of my readers have told me that they had some trouble with the ending to the story. They said they didn't quite understand the dream, and its pertinence to that which had gone before.
I tried to explain that a Chatín curandera would never send over a dream that we could understand by western, Cartesian logic.
I say this with some certainty because I'm a dream collector. I have 200 journals filled with them, thousands of them, some going all the way back to 1956. (My Jungian analyst from back then was also a dream collector. He showed me how to do it. "Leave a notebook on your nightstand, Lorenzo --- with a pen or pencil. First thing on waking up, start writing...")
After forty-five years tramping around in acres of my own dreams, I think I have figured out why they are there, and what they are ready to give to those of us who want to listen, or to see.
During the day, our minds are too occluded to permit us to see through the fog into the wide-screen, full-color, stereo sense-around, 4-D, dreamtime movie house. It's only at night when we turn off the noise and fireworks called living and reality and the day-to-day that we can get into this Bijou of the soul.
Dreams are pure gestalt --- gestalt brain-laser graphics. If you cut a piece out of a laser photograph, and blow it up, it contains (fuzzy, but it's there) most of the whole picture. The dream machine --- as Nabokov called it --- has a similar power: the parts contain the whole. It is an artful, word-free, non-western, non-logical, sound-and-light show --- projecting ongoing visions on the screen of the psyche for other parts of the "I" to watch.
These projections are commentary, honest and true, a true vision of what's going on out there in the so-called Real World.
The projectionist doesn't use written words or any of the logical processes of the daytime self. Rather, dreams are fast-moving, fast-changing moving-pictures (in the original sense of the word) showing us bits and pieces of the soul in action. I tell you, for I have found it so, that dreams contain most of the singular truths of our lives and worlds. The're encoded, but they're honest and true movies from the heart.
We always have the option of filling in the parts to get the real picture, using the Enigma code machine built into our subconscious. It's there, if we want, when we want, when we need it --- and I can think of times when I needed it badly. It's there if we care to know the truth. Although sometimes we'll think we're better off without it.
§ § §
Jung saw the characters in our dreams and in our lives as shadows and archetypes. Whether it was Zeus for the ancients, Caesar for the Romans, Jesus for the Christians, or Superman for us kids of the forties --- these figures to represent the the other sides of us, devils and heroes.
Before he fell from his horse, Christopher Reeve was one of the heroes; he still is, but now it is a fallen one. He has became twins with every other crip in the world. He was Superman; he may still be Superman --- but he is the Superman who will fly no more.
No matter how strong he is, no matter how brave, funny, wise; no matter how filled with energy and love, wit and prayer, no matter how rich --- Christopher Reeve will never more be riding horseback or climbing mountains.
In the dream, there is Reeve, with his shadow Superman I. There is also Superman II, the Twin. My curandera --- or better, that part of her lodged within me (in computers, it's called a "cookie") --- knew the way my mind worked, so she sent me a moving picture in which I could see me and my twins, Christopher Reeve Superman I & II in action. She thus pitted dream fantasy against dream reality within me.
In that way, by having a chance to see the twin that abides in my soul, I was shown that what we may want --- want badly --- must, at times, remain safely in the world of fantasy.