Nonfiction

"...down deep at the molecular heart of life, the trees and we are essentially identical. We both use nucleic acids for heredity; we both use proteins as enzymes to control the chemistry of our cells. Most significantly, we both use precisely the same code book for translating nucleic acid information into protein information, as do virtually all other creatures on the planet"–Carl Sagan

The Grounding

by Kathryn Magendie

Most days, I hide inside my log house in Maggie Valley, hunched over my computer, listening to my characters tell me what to do. Often, the only voices I hear for days, other than my husband's patient one telling me it's time to eat or I really do need to take the phone call, are those of my characters stomping around in my head. Even when I'm not alone, I often feel encapsulated in my own universe, where all the planets whiz by, circling around, all the stars and moon, all the heavenly bodies are separate from me as I whirl in my own solitude. But this day, I'm on my way to a two-day retreat in a secluded valley sanctuary fifty miles away.

I exit the interstate and drive the curving road until I arrive. Under a massive buckeye, I park, grab my matt, pillow, snacks, and follow the others into the building. Despite the assault of actual human contact, I am comforted by the beauty and serenity the sanctuary offers.

After removing my shoes, I look for a place to sit, either on the floor, or in chairs provided in a semi-circle facing our leader, who I will refer to as Teacher. He sits cross-legged on the floor, while above him glows a circle window: moon, sun, womb, and eternity-a nice touch. Most of us are in the well-over-thirty age category, with the exception of one younger-than-thirty woman. There are only three men in attendance, not including Teacher. I plop in a comfortable leg-less chair and wait.

Teacher's demeanor is appropriately Zen-like. I try to imagine him petulant, stamping his foot and hollering, "I'm sick of people! Everyone wants something from me." Teacher looks at me as if reading my mind, and I give him a big smile, as if I've been thinking purified thoughts of running stream water over rocks and pebbles.

He says in a melodiously calm voice, "I see light everywhere, emanating from all of you. There is gold over there, and here, I see a bright light from this person." He lists to the side until his head lies on the floor, and looks at me, "Light up and out and even through her seat."

I squirm on said seat.

Teacher wriggles over to me on his hands and knees, and holds out his hand for me to take, which I do, while thinking, Don't touch me. Don't talk to me. I may bite.

He introduces himself, and asks my name. I answer, "Uh, Kuh-Kathryn."

He asks what I do, and I say, "Um, heehee, writer."

Teacher lets go of my hand and asks, "What did you feel?"

I'm confused, and say, "Haha. Well, um, actually." I scrub my face with my hand to give me time to think. "I didn't feel anything." Teacher flashes a disappointed look, here, then gone. So I add, "I mean, that's what I'm afraid of, that I won't feel anything." I clamp my lips shut.

Teacher resumes his cross-legged posture at the front of the room. He tells us he had been near-death, and accidentally found a way to self-heal, and as well, found he could heal others. It's easy to be hypnotized by his tranquil but energized voice filled with the certainty of who he is in this world, satisfied with the choices he has made. He tells us that leaning against a tree or lying upon the earth will take away our pain and heal us, as it did him. He says we will all learn how to become healers.

It is a lovely thought.

Memory of the Time
Memory of the Time, Art Print
Faye Heller

We start with massaging our right foot. Teacher says it is the American Way of wearing shoes, especially constrictive ones, that interferes with good health. I recall my barefoot childhood, and how my feet were as tough as any old shoe-leather. I think of the contests we kids had to see who could walk across the sharpest rocks, the hottest asphalt.

We massage, kneed, push, pull, our right foot and toes. Sitting on the floor hunched over is getting to me, so I ask, "Is it okay if I take my pain medicine now?" There is a challenge in my voice, as if to say, "well, I'm in pain, so what are you going to do about it?"

Teacher asks, "Where are you in pain?"

Immediately regretful, I say, "Back. Legs." It's an old boring story, my chronic pain. An alien who became permanently attached, suckered onto my body. No amount of begging, yoga, crying, or medicine, will unhook its awful tendrils. The alien remains day upon days, hour upon hours, and minute upon minutes, until I forgot it was an alien, and it became a part of who I am. I swallow half a pill.

Teacher asks us to stand and walk about the room to "collect data" on how different we now feel on our right side. Everyone circles the room, some shouting out how they feel. I stop to look out the windows at the swaying trees and pretend to collect data. I know if you massage an area and do not massage another, of course they'll feel different. We are binary creatures, cut us in half, and what will happen? If something occurs to one side and not the other, we surely know a difference. I cop a yoga move and act mysterious.

"Everyone back to your places," Teacher says.

Someone takes my chair. I huffily think, Now where will I sit? That was my spot. But then I'm glad to go to the back, away from the prying eyes of Teacher.

Teacher tells us we will learn to ground ourselves through our feet. He stands, and we stand with him. He stomps his feet, and says, "I want you to stomp your feet so that you become aware of your feet."

Stomp our feet to become aware of our feet? But I dutifully do it, along with everyone else.

Teacher continues, "Now, close your eyes and concentrate on your feet. Only how your feet connect to the ground. Concentrate." Pause. "Feet." Pause. "And if you lose that connection, stomp your feet again." Pause. "Concentrate. Your feet against the ground."

I try to concentrate. I hear a truck engine. I peek and look at people's feet. I think about something that happened last week. I look at the trees outside. My feet are cold. Around me, I hear sighs of serene pleasure, and wonder what they are thinking or feeling that I am not. My back and legs begin to complain louder, like nasty spoiled children who think they never get enough attention, who exhausts everyone around them. My anatomy is bratty like that.

Next, Teacher instructs us to thump our hands against our chest, and then lay them against our heart to soften our chests until we see our heart. I do this, but I'm thinking how fickle the heart is. How hearts are broken, how hearts deceive, how hearts are there to pump our blood until for some glitch in our biochemistry they decide to stop and kill us on the spot, as Heart murdered my brother David, as Heart almost took away my brother Tommy.

I miss what Teacher is saying next, so I pretend to look wise.

On a pad of paper, Teacher draws a lying down figure eight-the symbol of eternity, or maybe DNA. He instructs us to draw matching symbols on our chests using our fingers, and then says, "Find a partner. Collect data together."

I inwardly groan. What if no one wants me, and I'll stand alone while everyone else has a partner? I pretend I'm okay with that. A Quiet Woman turns to me with a smile and asks, "Want to partner up?" and I feel gratefully relieved.

On instruction, we stomp, ground, figure eight our hearts. I ask Quiet Woman, "Okay, what did you feel?"

She says warm and generous things.

She asks, "What did you feel?"

I shrug apologetically. "Um, nothing."

My back and legs are pulling a temper tantrum, and I take the other half of my pain pill. Perhaps Teacher saw me, because he says, "Let's all heal Kathryn's pain so we'll all be happy."

I have a sudden shame cover me. I know I'm not the only person in the room with pain. During our data collecting, I've learned a few things from the people around me. Quiet Woman had polio as a child and deals with pain and limitation, Kind Eyes has leg pain, Silent One lost a son, and I'm sure there are more hidden stories of pain and loss.

I say, "Do I have to believe for it to work?" What I really mean is, Stop. Do it to someone else who needs it more.

Teacher says, "You do not have to believe."

Doesn't one have to believe something? But I am silent. While they are concentrating on me, I deflect it, and imagine their healing thoughts like friendly shards of glass, breaking away from me, and impaling those who need it more, like Quiet Woman. Entering their body, dissolving into their bloodstream.

I wonder if my previously bright shining light is turning murky and dark, and if Teacher sees the change in me. I want to go to the little cabin I've rented for the night and lie upon the quilted bed, eat chocolate, watch television or read a good book.

Again my mind wanders out the window and to the trees, and I miss instruction. Quiet Woman turns to me and we face each other again. We ground our feet, and then hold our hands to our hearts. After a time, Quiet Woman reaches out to take my hand. I keep my head down, feet planted firmly together-I become contained, rigid, inaccessible.

When I look up, Quiet Woman is looking at me and I am struck by who she is. I mean it when I say in awe, "You are a good person."

She answers back, "So are you." And I wonder if that is true.

Teacher wants us to collect more data.

I know human contact is essential to earth beings. The affects often spiritual, but not necessarily magical. Without human touch, we wither. Even so, I cringe from touch far too often. I pipe up and tell the room how everyone has their own territorial space. That if you step up to a person and into that space, they will lean back, or step away from you. I say that these exercises are asking us to get into each other's territorial space. I shrug, because I'm sure that's the whole idea, to step into the un-comfort zone this weekend. Everyone smiles and keeps collecting data.

After lunch, we are told to go outside and stand next to a tree of our choice. We first do our grounding-the-feet exercise, and our hands-to-heart exercise. I'm cheating consistently now, listening to the sounds that distract-the men working on the building next to us, the wind through the trees, my thoughts. We are supposed to partner up, but I defy and go outside alone.

I've already seen the tree I want. The willow is bent and crooked and has hardly any leaves on it. It stands next to two other trees, as if for support, as if their beauty makes up for its defects. I stand in the middle of the tree circle, and feel a calming as I lean against my tree, feel its ancient life tattoo upon my back. I consider how millions of people who live in the city take their vacations to a place where nature is at its most raw: the ocean, the mountains, the rivers and streams, the forest. Just as humans must have contact with each other, so must they with nature. Among the trees, I am a part of something greater than myself.

I recognize when one is in a calming place, endorphins are released, and one feels renewed. There is science to it, for we are biological creatures with electrical impulses, instincts, cognitive brain matter, and the subconscious. Anything Teacher says can happen if one wants it bad enough. If suggestion is coupled with a strong want, then miracles occur, however brief they may be, or if lucky, however lasting.

We go back inside and do our feet stomping and grounding, and our heart thrumping again. By the time a few people ask questions, and receive what I perceive as mystical-vague answers, I'm ready to go. As Teacher told us, it is all about perceptions, and my perceptions are that this isn't working for me. I'm focusing on how I can't wait to eat alone at the restaurant on the grounds and then walk back to my quiet cabin, alone. As if I'm never alone, as if being alone is the most rewarding thing I can do for myself. When four o'clock comes, I do not hesitate, but am the first one out the room and gone.

That evening, after a solitary meal, I take my dessert with me to enjoy alone in bed. But instead of feeling wonderful and serene, I am violently ill. My body retches and releases vile substances. My dinner projectiles from me, and still I am not empty, for my body finds every speck of moisture and hurls it out of me. I wonder if I soaked in negatives ions, took them back to my cabin, where they swelled inside me until I exploded. I curl in a fetal position upon the bed, my own white blanket from home wrapped around me, and when the nausea waves up, I groan, "No, not again, please no," before I lurch back into the bathroom, doubled over in pain. I am shaken by chills so violent my body becomes rigid, trembling, teeth clattering against each other. From outside my window, a wind picks up, and I hear the branches rubbing, the leaves swaying, the trunks creaking a song of: "Sleep, calm, sleep, calm, sleep calm, we are with you."

I wake, blink. I'm alive. I'm surprised I can get up, drink coffee, eat peanut butter crackers, shower, and everything stays in its proper orifices. I wonder, how did the others fair? For Teacher said we'd come back feeling better, that our lights would be bright, that we'd be changed for the better. Instead, I walk in the room ragged and sore and exhausted.

When Teacher asks how our evening went,

Someone says, "I had so much energy, and then I slept well."

Someone says, "I took a wonderful nap."

Someone says, "The greatest night of my life with wonderful dreams!"

I say, "I was disgustingly sick until three in the morning."

Teacher assures me it works differently for everyone, but I wonder if he wishes I weren't in his retreat.

Teacher asks us to close our eyes and imagine colors. I first visualize a deep blue, but pushing up through that blueness comes red, until Red pulses and grows and shoves away Blue. Red explodes in flames, and a fiery wall of heat blazes.

When Teacher asks for data, I say, "I saw Red. Flames of red pushing away my blue."

Young Woman excuses herself to go outside, and I feel as if she is my little sister. I worry about her, wondering if I'm responsible for her upset, with all my negative energies exploding about the room.

Teacher says, "Red. Yes. Anytime someone sees red it means physical or emotional disorder." He eyes me. "Most times emotional disorder."

I lift up my hands and say, "Oh great! That figures."

Young Woman comes back with dirt under her nails, and tells us how she saw Red too, and how she had to bury old things in the earth. I want to say to her, "With time and distance and burying and then digging up and then burying again, you will grow strong." There are other women who know this, those who lean towards her, all of us her big sisters.

Then it happens and I'm not prepared for it.

Teacher asks us to cradle our arms as though we're rocking a baby. My arms are too heavy. I look at all those arms cradling those imaginary babies, and my eyes begin to itch and sting. I pretend I'm thirsty, so I can turn away to drink, while secretly wiping my leaking eyes. Back at the circle, Teacher tells us to love ourselves, love our hearts. All the tears of the ages of my life are threatening to spill out, and I become afraid I'll begin sobbing, making puddles of secrets all about my non-grounded feet, rising tears, rising up and flooding the room, until everyone is scrambling to get away, floating debris and bodies in the waste of my grief. A harsh and lonely and terrible sorrow overcomes me.

Teacher asks, "How did that make you feel?"

Someone says, "I felt warm and giving."

Someone says, "I felt loving."

I say, "I felt incredibly sad."

I'm beginning to feel like Charlie Brown in "The Great Pumpkin," when the other children opened their Trick or Treat bags and said, "Oh, I got bubblegum," or, "I got a candy bar," or "I got a popcorn ball," Charlie Brown continually opened his bag and said, "I got a rock." Damn.

We go outside again, this time to lie upon the earth. It's a clear-sky day, and the workers are gone, leaving silence, but it's chillier than it was on Saturday, and I'm doubtful I'll be able to lie on the cold ground. However, when I do, I immediately feel better. The wind pushes the trees back and forth back and forth, and I'm hypnotized by them. The grass is not cold, and in fact, I am warm, cradled by Momma Earth.

I wonder why Teacher stays inside.

I tell Quiet Woman, "I'm making myself too vulnerable in front of strangers."

She laughs, but kindly says, "You need to get over that."

I smile, turn my face to the sun.

We are joined by Dark Woman and Soft Woman, and we begin to chat. I feel a belonging and don't mind it. I'm not sure what the assignment was, but how wonderful Earth feels against me as the earlier Red is replaced by the natural colors of our world. I don't want to go back inside, but we all have to. When we scramble from the ground, Dark Woman hurts her knee, and we women rush to help her. Women are natural healers-laying on of hands, clicking of tongues, speaking in warm whispers how everything will be okay, we are with you.

Back inside, Teacher tells us we must learn the true definition of forgiveness. That forgiveness should be a relinquishing. He says we will learn to love those we are angry with-for anger, along with fear, creates burdens on health. I already know stressors can harden our soft insides, make us tighten into a hunch, lose our pliability. Much of what Teacher says is common sense-relinquishing the negativity and replacing it with the positive will make us feel better.

We're to pick a specific person who hurt us and we're to tell our partner their name, forgive them, and even say we love them. Teacher shows us with Gentle Woman. I watch her face as she says the words, but does not mean them, though she struggles to make it true.

When done, she says, "This is hard." And I think, no shit, huh?

I say to Teacher, "Don't you think some people are unlovable? Who don't deserve our giving thoughts? Like, molesters, beaters, murderers, and others who damage people?" And I wonder if I've let something slip.

He says, "Certainly there are those who may be unlovable."

I center myself in the control I learned as a little girl and perfected as an adult. My face regains its smooth lines of unemotion, but my body is tensed, waiting. I plant my feet together. My teeth are the only thing grounding.

I partner with Bold Woman and Gentle Woman. Gentle Woman tries again to forgive the one who aggrieved her. I say, "Picture her as a little baby. I mean, she's probably hurting, and at one time she was innocent and little before someone may have done something to change that."

Gentle Woman says, "Yes, that's what I'm trying to do."

We turn to Bold Woman, and ask, "Who do you need to forgive?"

She answers, "No one, I've already done this. I've forgiven and put all of that away."

I think how I'd like to kick the ass of all who've hurt those in this room. I move on to kicking the ass of those who've hurt my family and my friends. I'm doing some satisfying mental kick-ass and it is good. Instead of forgiving and loving and pretending I'm okay with it, I'm a Charles Bronson, full-throttle revenge on those who caused good people pain.

My partners are saying, "Hey, it's your turn."

"Oh, yeah," I say, and have this awful image-a line of people who have damaged me, beginning when I had no power as a little girl, up until I found my power in my late thirties and left my first husband, when I said, "enough."

And from that line of people, one is trying to hunker down and hide. I pick Him.

I close my eyes, ground my feet, head bowed-not bowed as in prayer, but because I recognize how I don't want anyone to see any emotions that may sneak onto my face. I say, "I forgive..." and stop.

My partners murmur encouragement.

I say, "I forgive you, Him." And I feel a little sick, because I don't really. This stupid little man who slithered into my young life.

My partners say, "Imagine Him a baby."

His face appears full-force to me. The face I haven't seen since I was thirteen years old. His dark-rimmed glasses, his short-cut hair, his sneaky eyes, his thin lips. His head is disembodied, floating behind my eye lids. And instead of forgiveness, I see my fist punch him in the nose. Ah, a satisfying crunch. I punch Him again, again, and say, "I'm punching the bastard in the nose." Red, red, flows.

My partners won't accept punching noses. So, I picture Him as an old dying man, lying alone, wrinkled and gray and sick with his regrets eating him alive, maggot regrets. Then I see him as a young boy, running in Keds and rolled up jeans, climbing a fruit tree and taking a bite from a juicy apple. I take a deep breath. I say, "I forgive you and I love you because I'm picturing you as an old man, and then as a little boy. I forgive that old man. I love that little boy."

I open my eyes, and do feel some release. But, all the others are still in line, waiting, and I am a bit exhausted by all the loving and forgiving I have to give to people I'd rather punch in the nose. Worse, I hate that I've let a little secret out. One of those that remained shrouded in dark cloth, wrapped tightly, wound about until no light or air could get to it. I'd lifted the layers, allowed light in, and showed bits of its contents to two women I hardly know yet felt connected to in the womanhood of man. I wonder; is it the forgiving and the loving, or the releasing that feels like relinquishing?

Teacher asks, "How do you feel?"

Someone says, "I feel free."

Someone says, "I feel warmth and light."

I say, "I want to throw up."

We partner up one more time, with instructions to remember to ground our feet to the earth. "Concentrate," Teacher reminds, "Only your feet." Pause. "Fall into the earth."

My open eyes wander to the trees, since it is there I feel the calm concentration of my body as it pertains to and relates to Earth.

Teacher says, "This time, forgive yourselves something specific."

I ask my partner, Dark Woman, to go first. I've seen her weep a few times. I wonder what would happen if everyone in the room released the tears constricting our hearts so we can't love freely. I wonder if we captured those tears and siphoned them into a desert, salty salty tears replenishing what has dried up, how many oceans could we create?

My partner asks to forgive herself for overreacting to things. She says, "I love you, Dark Woman." Her eyes are bright and full of sincerity.

My turn. "I forgive myself for disconnecting from people." I clear my throat, "And, I..." I try again, "Uh, I love you Kathryn." It sounds silly, but I almost think I believe it.

Then Teacher asks Quiet Woman to come inside the circle so he can do a healing on her.

I think, "Oh no." For I've seen how hope is dashed. It's happened to me over the years-the doctors, the surgery, the physical therapy, the needles, the medicines, the painkillers, the well-meaning prayers, the acupuncture. All have failed.

Quiet Woman's back is to me, and she stands a bit crooked. I know that stance of one whose body mechanics have betrayed. Teacher stands in front of her and asks her to ground her feet, place hands to heart. He moves his hands about, his face set in calm lines, but with a bit of a strange smile there, he bends his knees and moves his body, all silent. This dance goes on for a minute or two before he finally releases Quiet Woman. She serenely walks back to the circle, her face full of hope. I feel sad.

Young Woman says, "Let me take a photo of everyone's feet, in that circle of sun."

The round window above has let in sun all the day and the light circle had moved around the room, touching each of us in turn, until it expanded up and out as an egg. We giggle like kids as we sit in our own non-perfect circle and put our bare feet together.

Young Woman lifts her foot so its shadow can be in the photo, and clicks the shutter to capture the image.

Teacher winds up the two days by asking if we have any final thoughts to share about our experiences, or anything left unsaid needing to be said.

Someone says, "I feel ready to face the world."

Someone says, "I see things so differently."

I say, "It's nice to see the heart as something that can love and not as an organ of doom."

Ah. There you go.

There is talk about meeting again, but I feel myself slip back into my reclusive skin, ready to go home to my mountain, even if I do envy them for wanting to keep the connections. It hits me slam bam that maybe I'm reclusive because I'm afraid the more I'm around people, the more of myself I will reveal. That instead of the characters and personifications I let pass though my writings, they will know the real me.

I study Teacher, thinking how he shared with us his poignant moments: his dying body now alive; his lost connection to his mother only found again after her death; his sincere wish for people to be happy. I wonder if he is truly happy all the time. He turns to me and smiles. I smile back.

Before I leave to go home, I ground my feet, become a part of the whole, a piece in the puzzle of the entire universe-I let myself feel firmly grounded, and then I leave the room, get in my car, and drive away from the trees, the people, the Teacher, drive away from them all.

Kathryn Magendie is a freelance writer/editor, and Senior Editor/Newsletter Editor at Rose & Thorn Literary Ezine. She has written, is writing, and will ever-more be writing novels, short stories, essays, and a few sad but hopeful poems. She has been published here and there. Visit her at www.kathrynmagendie.com.

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