I keep looking for a bruise to bloom, but it doesn’t come.
There’s tenderness there, in the soft flesh just before my chest becomes breast, but the skin maintains its perpetual paleness. I realize that I’d be less unsettled with a bruise, if the sensation manifested something that would fade with time. I’d feel more comfortable if I knew this tenderness would fade with time. But instead, this tenderness reminds me just how soft I am, how tender, how vulnerable.
Three days ago, I met a medicine man while I was hiking. January had forgotten to show up for work, and so it felt like spring without all the extra noise of everything trying to grow all at once. The trees kept sleeping, and so did most other creatures. Only the birds dipped around like tipsy teenagers, confused by all the empty space around their chirping. There was too much sunshine for an echo, too few leaves to dampen noise. I drove out to a spot new to me, just a half-mile out and back trail east of where I live and through a small town and over some railroad tracks. I parked and took in the helpful information and diagrams of native life and burial hills, then began on the soggy trail.
I’d been cooped up for a few days, stifled for a bit longer than that, and I was glad to be outside, glad for the reason to be doing something. The trail was soggy, but laid with last year’s leaves, so I was able to catch a foothold most steps. As I began to descend a hill, I caught sight of a man down the trail. Cowboy hat, shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, he clutched a walking stick and his shoes, letting his bare feet make easy work of the slippery terrain. Bare feet sound nice, I thought as we approached each other and as I slipped slightly as we met.
“Careful,” said the medicine man. (I did not know yet that he was a medicine man.) “It helps to have one of these.” He lifted his walking stick.
“Yeah,” I said, realizing I had received a walking stick from my grandmother a few months ago and that it was sitting in the corner of my garage. “I forgot mine at home today.”
At this point, we had both stopped and squared to each other. We had decided to properly meet each other.
“Oh, tattoos.” He pointed at the birds flying off of my right hand. “What are those about?”
“I got them in remembrance of a friend.” I touched the place where the skin was stained with ink, feeling no difference. “She’s been gone almost two years. It’s hard to believe that.”
“Yeah. I figured it was something like that. What kind of stones are those in your bracelet?” He pointed at my left wrist.
“I can’t remember their name. They’re supposed to help me communicate, I think. I got them at this place in Santa Fe last year.” (I’d asked the shopkeeper there what stones might help me in allowing creativity to flow through me–what might help me write without so much fear. But I didn’t tell her about the fear. Or the writing.) A large stone wrapped in leather cord rested against the medicine man’s chest. I felt embarrassed at not being able to tell him the stone’s name. (It’s chrysocolla. I looked it up. It is a communication stone, with energy for expression, empowerment, teaching.)
“Take it off and hold it in your hand,” the medicine man encouraged. “Feel how heavy it is.”
I assumed their weight might give him a clue as to what they were, but when I’d held them in the cup of my palm for a few beats, he interrupted my wondering how to tell him they felt about as heavy as a small stone bracelet: “May I?”
I handed him the bracelet, and he turned away from me, blowing forcefully into his hand once, then again. He held them out for me to cup in my hand again. “How heavy are they now?”
“Lighter,” I said honestly, surprised and not.
“It had collected your negative energy and needed to be cleansed. It’s a strong stone, they can get fuzzy when they are carrying too much. A smudge of sage should do it next time.”
“OK. I can do that.” I put the bracelet back on.
“I’m a healer,” the medicine man said, “a medicine man.”
“Really? How do you become a medicine man?” My seminary education nagged at me. I’ll bet he hadn’t had to get a master’s degree to do his work.
“I have authority to work with the plants and minerals for healing, to use native medicines.” He handed me a business card. “People walk around carrying all kinds of stuff. I try to help them release it. That’s why I’m here today—I had a healing ceremony a couple of nights ago during the eclipse and needed to release some energy I’d been carrying from that.”
“So you take it on yourself sometimes?” I asked. I already knew the answer. “What’s it like?”
“Well, I sure don’t walk around Wal-Mart like that,” he said. “I just feel off, almost sick. Or like I’m just about to get sick. People hold on to things and don’t know how to heal. That’s what I help to do. And then today I had to let it go.”
“Do you feel better now?” I asked.
“I’m on my way. Much better than when I got here.” He pulled a large, pink crystal from his pocket and held it in his palm. One end was perfectly faceted, and the other was rounded, lumpy. “Know what this is?”
“Rose quartz. Here.” He pressed it into my hand and left his on top of it. “What do you feel?”
I stood for a moment, blinking, then let my mind shoot backwards into my hand, “There it is.” But before I could find the word, he withdrew the stone.
“Here.” He pressed the point of the stone into my chest, above my heart. (It was at point K 27, I know now, also called the ‘Elegant Mansion’ to practitioners of acupuncture—a point that facilitates deep breathing, releasing endorphins, allowing the body to process pain.) His stance was braced as if he were pulling a sword from stone, a heavy net from deep waters, and for a moment, I feared pain. But the pressure on my chest was like that of a spoon against a can of biscuits, enough pressure for them to burst from the packaging, but not enough to harm them. There was no violence in his posture, in the stone, in any of it. The quiet of the woods settled in. He pulled his hand back quickly, and I involuntarily bent at the waist, a crackle of sensation flying through my legs.
“It’s a tough one,” he said, bracing himself and the crystal again. “Let it go.” I closed my eyes and relaxed, and this time, when he pulled, I doubled over with laughter, breathy and silly.
“Some people cry when I release something. Some people laugh. You’re good at releasing.”
“I’m trying,” I replied through a rising giddiness in my throat. I felt hot and as I shook off my jacket, I felt tenderness where the stone had been. I wonder if I’ll have a bruise.
“Some people don’t know the name of what has been released until later.” The medicine man looked at me. “But I think you already know what it is.”
“I think so.”
“How do you feel?”
We talked for a few minutes more about healing and pain, how we release it in all kinds of ways, like crying or laughing, vomiting. And we talked about how so many of us limp around with it not knowing how to release it. Not even knowing that healing is a possibility. We both began to dawdle in our responses because it was time for us to continue on our ways. I thanked him, and he turned to go. His shoes were still on the trail, so I pointed them out.
“I wouldn’t have missed those until I got to the car, and then I would have missed them sorely!” I felt pleased that I could do some small kindness for him.
The bruise still hasn’t bloomed. But the place is still tender. It doesn’t feel like pain, exactly, or like a wound that needs time. It’s more like the pain a wall might feel when a door is flung open quick and wide, surprised that the wall was there to stop it from just spinning on its hinges. I’m told that this is just how the Elegant Mansion is—“If it hurts a little when you touch it, then you’ve found it,” a friend explained.
There is much tenderness in the journey of becoming. Pain, like pleasure, alerts us of what we haven’t felt before, what we didn’t know was there, waiting just below our skin to teach us. Perhaps to heal means to listen to the echoes of those sensations until their meaning is clear. Perhaps to heal isn’t to return to a state of neutral or numb, or not-feeling. Perhaps to heal is to learn to move through the world in a state of tenderness, trusting as the soles of feet placed on the ground one step at a time.