Stepping Over The Edge: Chop Wood, Walk Through Darkness

shamanism Stepping over the edge

When I awoke the muscles just below my sternum were churning like a pot of snakes. It felt like that four square inches of my body had just run a marathon – the pain from its exhaustion was more than I could take. Waves of strange energy rolled through me as I tried to clear sleep from my head. Pulling aside the covers I stretched and contorted in as many ways as I could think of. After about four or five minutes the muscles stopped their rippling. Another day in the shamanic recovery ward.

This month my hospital bed was a pull-out couch at my friend Anna’s cabin in the woods. I’d actually been there for several months, barely able to do more than dream. It wasn’t unusual for me to sleep twenty hours at a time, never really leaving the dreamworld completely. Anna was one of the few people who trusted what I was going through. The couch was more of a space sacrifice than you might imagine, her entire home couldn’t have been more than 600 square ft. To this day she is one of my most cherished Anam Chara’s.

Time to scrub my face hard with very cold water. The guy standing in the mirror looked as much like a pathetic loser as I felt. I was almost entirely dependent on Annas hospitality. The occasional charity check from my parents accounted for about 1/2 of my food and nothing else. I was incapable of sustaining a romantic relationship, even though I’d fallen deeply in love. She realized I was not really able to take care of myself, much less show up for someone else. Hard to have any self esteem when you rely on everyone but yourself for survival, and can’t have a partner.

Anna provided me with wood chopping chores, just the therapy I needed. What day was it? When would she be home? What time was it? The sun was out and she was gone. It was time to chop wood.

Last night I was surrounded by at least a dozen spirits, they were tossing me around like laundry in a dryer. Maybe that’s what my muscles were feeling. Two halves of myself had been joined together in a new way. My solar plexus felt like the seat of myself, where I draw my tangible sense of identity. In this latest dream healing, the spirits were gifting me with a new wholeness there. My sore muscles were a reflection of the miraculous healing.

Another blessing of Anna’s – she lived in the woods, specifically the redwoods. I crouched in the sparse pockets of light to warm up before working on my wood pile, the Jays chattering at my arrival. The pile was mostly done, the result of a few weeks of wood chopping therapy. My work with Amy was over, I just felt it in my bones. She’d retrieved nine soul pieces over three years. The last one was especially exhausting. “It was like I had a vacuum cleaner. I was sucking up tiny pieces of you.” I lay crumpled on the floor for a few minutes before heading out her door and back to California, not really understanding the many days of integration that awaited me.

As each soul piece was returned I felt more connected to my own path, an important blessing when your life is in shambles. With the spirits help I was able to trust my tenuous process, finding a way to put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t like that my path was leaving me penniless and homeless, still it was my path, that was worth quite a bit to me.

Place a piece of wood on the block. This one is a good size, I might be able to get it with one good hit. “Swack!”, ouch that hurts! My solar plexus resisted, the wood split only 1/2 way through. Breath, relax the shoulders. “Make your swings big”, I coached myself “wide like in Iado class. Start with the hips, breath, like you were throwing Sensei in Aikido. Let the arc flow naturally.” I’d learned to let the wood stick to the ax when it needed to. One more good swing and it exploded into pieces small enough to fit in Anna’s stove. That didn’t hurt so much. There really is something to this chop wood/carry water thing. Taking apart the wood was helping me put myself back together.

Since walking out Amys door, Shamanism had become less of an ecstatic gift and more of a slow march through the dark night of my soul. My own brightness might be growing, but only when I was willing to lay down and let the darkness take me where it may. Would I ever be able to care for myself again? This was such a narrow passage for me. Believing in myself was the hardest part. Hasn’t that always been true for me?

I spent a satisfying hour swinging the ax before starting to forage for a meal. I never finished that woodpile. Anna arrived home with the news it was time for me to leave. By anyones account I’d overstayed my welcome by about a hundred days. Her personal life no longer had room for me to share her small space. It was very difficult for her even to bring this up – thankfully our friendship survived it.

Time for my shamanic recovery ward to be moved. I found a new home (albeit with a dirt floor) and work at a friends house. He was fixing up an old shed to be a guest cottage for rent. So long as it was being fixed up and I was helping out, I was welcomed to stay there.

My dreams took a darker turn there. Maybe it was the rotting wood and dirt floor or the months of process work leading up to this last move. My dreams lost their color, for a year all I could dream in was black and white. Monsters pursued me there, sometimes catching and consuming me. These were the days when I felt my sanity hanging by a thread. The must and dankness of that time clung to me for years.

After the skunks moved in I started to awaken to burning eyes at about 2am. Not asleep or awake I’d look down to see rats crawling beneath my skin, quick lumps chewing their way through my veins. When they broke through to the surface they’d bear their twisted fangs at me revealing the rot they were swallowing.
I came to believe the skunks were actually helping me push toxins out of my blood, burning through my pores and forcing my body to wake up and react. Skunks hunted rats through my corpse. Days, weeks and months passed. Eventually the darkness purged itself. Time to put a floor in the cottage. The skunks moved on, I was chased in dreams less and color began to return to that landscape. One foot in front of the other. Another piece of wood on the block.

The new tenant who moved into the cottage was a fellow Aikido Student who soon became a brother and another Anam Chara. We turned the garage into a makeshift dojo and I began training again. I was weaker and less skilled than I’d ever been, but it felt good to move. Chopping wood turned into being thrown to the mat and a thousand sword cuts a day. Movement brings hope to the stricken.
I imagine the spirits thought: “Finally! We’ve got him just where we want him. Now his life can really begin.” They made a new life for me in that dark crossing, it looked like nothing I expected or wanted my life to be.

Years before in the same college town, only a few blocks away from my dirt-bottomed skunk-studio, I’d taken a bit of advice from Joseph Campbell and turned it on its head. It led me to Pandoras box. With Coyotes help I opened it and climbed in with the abandon of youth. I was eaten alive and spat back out here, a little more ragged and a lot more myself. Now it was time to learn to journey to where Coyotes, Skunks and Bears could teach me about the sacredness of all things.

– back to introduction – previous chapter: Coyote Friendnext chapter: Bone Journey

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