By the time the scraps of last year got swept up and the new weavings of this one began, I was desperate. I had spent three days in bed, shuttered in my room with a migraine that refused to quit. My husband’s words tried to steady me, “just take your meds and sleep it off. Sleep is the only thing that ever helps.” Each night I went to bed hoping the pain would be gone when I woke up in the morning. Then morning would come and I’d be right back to square one, the wound-less ache, mimicking a bullet to the temple, cycled on repeat.
As often happens during these episodes, all my hope was replaced with hopelessness, my plans with powerlessness, my best intentions with inability to carry them out. Chronic pain doesn’t just steal from you; it steals from the person you hoped to be. My husband canceled the New Year’s Eve party we were scheduled to host, blacked out our bedroom windows, and kept our kids quiet as I buried my head in the covers, relenting to the agenda of the pain.
The migraines started a handful of years ago and since then I’ve tried almost everything to get rid of them. I’ve done every type of fad or elimination diet, cutting out gluten and sugar, grains, and caffeine. I’ve lived on nothing but bone broth for a month. I have employed the fruit basket of experts—neurologists and naturopaths, psychotherapists, massage therapists and reflexologists—to no avail. I have lost money on snake-oil scam doctors. I have tried different forms of medication and massage, meditation and prayer. I’ve employed a litany of herbal and plant-based remedies, epigenetics and biofeedback. Nothing can touch the pain.
The medical diagnosis? Complex Migraine Syndrome. The more spiritual or naturopathic diagnosis? Trauma lodged in the body manifesting as pain. I’ll save the laundry list of traumas for another day, but the reality is that whatever the cause, the impact is all-consuming. On the worst weeks, these way-more-than-headaches materialize as Sporadic Hemipleigic Migraine, impairing my vision and making one half of my body numb and mostly useless, copycatting the symptoms of stroke. Sometimes it gets so bad I land in loud, ammonia-washed Emergency Rooms and MRI cocoons, just to be given the same meds and sent home with the same diagnosis, the same instructions to go home and sleep it off. So I do, and I hear my life and the world go by while I close my eyes as tight as I possibly can. I miss events for my kids and miss out on the joy of seeing their faces for days. Once in awhile I’ll wake in the middle of the cloud of pain to a soft hand on my cheek, the voice of one of my sons whispering, “Love you, mom,” before he backs out of the blackened room. In those moments, sometimes all I can do is cry quiet tears until I fall into another medicated sleep.
This time, as one decade ended and the next began, I counted the three days of pain behind me and untold more ahead, and sunk into that old familiar, “I’ll do anything to get rid of the pain” place. I spied the little ring box, wrapped like a present, on the desk in my room while walking to the bathroom. My friend Nicole had given it to me after visiting a holy site last summer at El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. The box held dirt, “holy dirt” collected from a well on the property of this church.
As the story goes, in 1810 a man was led into the desert hills in the night, following a bright light that led him to a well. In the well, he found sacred crucifix and, despite removing it from the well, the crucifix kept reappearing time and time again in its original home. So they hallowed the well, built a church around it, and claimed it as holy ground. Since then generations have come from all over, some walking on weeks-long pilgrimages and others catching a ride on an air-conditioned tour bus, to put their hands in the holy dirt, which is said to have healing powers. Sometimes they leave parts of their old sick lives behind, wheelchairs and crutches hung like talismans on the walls outside the chapel.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I looked at that little blue box of dirt and wanted it to heal me. After so many failed attempts at getting rid of the pain, I wanted that dirt to be, for me, the mystical substance it was rumored to be for others. I wanted all of those Bible stories my parents read me as a kid, the ones my dad preached every Sunday, about Jesus meeting someone sick and saying, “Your faith has made you well,” to be my story. I wanted the divine hand of God to reach me through that grit, to touch my pain, and take it away. So I put my finger into it, making one index fingerprint mark in the dust. Then rubbed the fine rust-tinged powder onto my temples, across my forehead like ashes on Ash Wednesday, and on the base of my skull.
I walked to the bathroom, feeling a bit woozy, dust-covered and gritty, then I took a shower and washed it all off. I sat on the floor of the shower, the water beating down harder than usual on the back of my neck, and said out loud so it echoed, “Okay. I surrender. Whatever you want to do with this pain, I give in.” As I punctuated the last syllable, a presence of total love wrapped me up like a mother wraps a child who wakes with a bad dream. The presence spoke deep in my being, in a place deeper than pain and the plans it wrecks, “I am not going to leave you. You are not alone.”
When I was small, I was told that God was three persons in one, and that those beings were wildly creative. They stood around making art: firmament and earth, stars and whales, oceans and inchworms. At the end of their art project they realized something was still missing; they wanted a different kind of creature to love, one who had their imprint, who belonged to them. So they came up with another collaborative art project, their most beloved one yet, and they took dirt and mixed it with their own God-breath and formed the first human being, and then, the second.
It always made sense to me back then, my longing to be close-up to the dirt, to dig into it and make something good of it, just like the mysterious, three-in-one God had done. After all, this dirt was the stuff I was made of. It felt natural to dig up piles of the stuff and add water. So I kept myself low made sure to let my fingers touch it any chance I got—mud pies in the summer on Nana’s front porch, sinking my toes into every sandy coast, breaking up the earth of every plowed-up field in my path, poking into every moles hole, and gently brushing each moss-covered root.
The dirt became a part of me. I can map out the mile markers of my story by the shade of earth my knees were stained with, the mud that caked the edges of my white socks. The dirt conjures up memory the way photographs can. I can trace a scene back to the land it unfolded on, whether red brick (Zaire, Africa), rusty copper (the Texas Panhandle), dried scab blood (the American Midwest), or almost-black earth(The Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland). Africa was hot-blooded sensory sweetness, the musk of rotted fruit on the earth and the glowing of lightning bugs crawling in the bottom of the black hole in the outhouse. The midwest was alfalfa fields and an old Ford pick-up truck, songs made up and sung in solitary by a lazy creek. I can still see the black peat moss earth on the coast of Northern Ireland where they dug a deep hole, buried my maternal Grandmother’s body, and covered it with matching dark granite. I will never forget the brown-crayon clay where my dad’s body is laid to rest in the countryside of Missouri.
I always start each new year with a word. It’s a tradition my dad set in stone for me before he died, and I am always happy to follow in his wise and loving footsteps. This new year, this new decade, I decided my word was going to be “heal.” Ironically, I picked it before the cluster of migraines hit, before the cancelled party, before the index finger rubbing holy dirt on a tired and desperate body. I picked it before the Presence showed up in the shower refusing to leave me alone in my pain. It’s as if that creatively loving force went before me and helped me pick it.
The holy dirt didn’t fix me, at least not for good. I finished my shower, had a few hours of slight reprieve, and then the pain came back with a vengeance for day number four. But eventually the migraine backed away, slipping down the back of my neck and sneaking out my right shirt sleeve like slithering bandit. The dirt didn’t take away the pain, but it did give me a gift. The more I grow into mid-life and think back on those stories I heard as a child of the great healer, the more I empathize with those weak, sick, and hurting ones who drew near to him. Sometimes they reached out and grabbed a dirty hem on his clothes. Sometimes they crawled to get to him. Sometimes they closed their eyes as he made mud pies and crafted the most elemental remedies out of dirt and spit. But always they left the encounter being truly seen, heard in their pain, not alone.
The many forms of dirt that have marked my life. The holy dirt on my desk, now imprinted with my right index finger, reminds me of the power that is found in our pain. The dirts all come together to form a tapestry, reminding me of what a mystery real healing is. I am certain I picked the right word for this year, not because anything has fixed my particular brand of chronic pain, but because healing comes in many forms. And that moment of in the shower? It isn’t the first time that kind of thing has happened in the midst of agony. My pain has given way to glimpses of the greatest wonders, to Divine Love breaking through the cracks in my frame, more times than I can count. I am proof that what happens in the dirt, as well as in these mud-and-spit bodies of ours, is sacred and holy ground. These bodies of ours are holy sites, elemental yet ripe for transcendance; if not from our pain, then right in the well of it.
This is the fourth part in a series from Ash Parsons on Embodiment.
Cover photo by Sabine van Straaten.