Courting Mystery: Tulsi + The Technicolor Moonrise
The medicine of my world is fed by many streams— plants, flowers, stones, spirit and dreams. The most profound healing in my life has arisen from the ocean-like concurrence of all these streams. This piece is an homage to the whirlpool that it, itself, the healing.
This time last year I was officially diagnosed with Lyme disease. My story, which is long and fated and slated to be a blog post all its own, holds a special brand of medicine…and it is healing, for me, to simply be told.
Originally published in Plant Healer Magazine, this tale is an ode to the deep and multifaceted mystery of plant healing. It is the story of a medicine encounter that truly changed my life. It is a narrative of sacred basil and holy dreams. Unexpected illness and the call to bow my head to mystery. Thank you, dear readers, for reading…
// Tulsi + The Beginning //
After several months of traveling I had arrived back home to a new season of profusion and growth. Sprawling honeysuckle and dandelion, squash left on withering vines. There was a fresh crispness to the air, the subtle changes of birdsong and light. Amaranth had sprung up in the tobacco beds and the comfrey splayed out of her niche by the back door. In my absence, the garden had grown wild. What were once rows, now grew over in weed and vine and seed. The Tulsi planted up on the terraces, however, was ever-leggy, fragrant and lithe. I went, as I had gone for so many seasons before, to greet her.
For years Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) has been my beloved plant ally. She was one of the first medicinal herbs I ever grew. Continually blessed with many early summer seedlings, I often transplant Tulsi to every corner of my yard. The first year I remember placing extra starts in-between the kale and kohlrabi, tucked into overgrown apple mint plots. The next season we found that Tulsi had seeded herself in the most unexpected places: in our fire pit, and the shade gardens, a single ceramic pot left to overwinter on the porch. In the summer I gather leaves in tiny winged fistfuls. I let her get tall and bowed and lay my head between her spines to watch the bees go to and fro, balancing on her willowy curves. By the season’s end the rafters of our mudroom are always hung with thick garlands of the sweet drying herb. We string it up in the kitchen, just above the gaze of our wooden windowsills, and tie bundles to the outside of our bedroom doors. All winter long we drink the last herb of summer, throwing Tulsi leaf and flower into almost every brew.
I love Tulsi for the way she makes me feel, and what I know she can do. Tulsi has helped ease me through early seasonal allergies and indigestion after a full meal. During long hours of study, Tulsi has gently picked up my head from the nest of my arms, clearing and focusing my mind. I’ve used Tulsi to help fight off infections, colds and UTIs. Tulsi has been an ally, a familiar friend, a known entity to me for sometime. But, like most stories, this tale follows the paths unknown, straying beyond the characters or qualities we can string up and keep safe for some future era. In truth, this tale speaks to a much older faith: the insistence that no matter how much we think we know, there is always more, so much more, to understand. All beings change. Even rocks, overtime, will metamorphisize, disintegrate and grow. There is a spirit that lurks behind the familiar— and it is this mystery, and medicine, that we so diligently court.
// The Diagnosis + The Dream //
One year ago this fall, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. I started showing symptoms of Lyme within days of arriving home from a full season of travels. I had been driving for months— teaching and learning, harvesting wild foods and blazing across long sunlit highways. It began with the typical symptoms: malaise, obscure aches, brain fog. When I heard that several of the friends I’d been camping with had been diagnosed, I immediately recognized the signs.
The morning I was awaiting the call with my final test results, I had a powerful and prophetic dream. In it, I saw myself driving down the long slopes of Eastern Pennsylvania, my childhood home. At the hem of the Pocono Mountains the valleys there are long and slow, like honey poured on a cool autumn evening. If you take the time to lift your eyes, you can often see for miles. I was peacefully coasting down a particularly magnificent slope when a large line of cars came into view. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped in the middle of the road. I had to put on my brakes very suddenly, my easy downhill arrival abruptly interrupted. I wondered, for a moment, if I would even be able to stop quickly enough! With some expert maneuvering I slowed to a creaky, close-shave kind of halt, and straggled out of my vehicle to see what had spurred such a mythic hold-up.
A whole crowd of Northeasterners (who, as you know, are always perennially zooming around from one place to another) had stopped plain in the middle of the road. Why? I followed my curiosity to a crest over the valley. Something had made even these busy-minded people stop, hush, witness and gather…. When I got to the top of the crest I could finally see what event had created such a wondering crowd: It was a technicolor moonrise.
The moment was spectacular. They sky itself seemed to catch its breath. The moon rose, full and brimming, threatening to spill over into the entire sky. Like a bowl left out in the rain, the celestial silver waters swelled at the very boundaries of the night. As it rose, it cast the whole land in a halo. We gazed as she reached her fullest height and then began to change colors. From vine green to parakeet blue, hibiscus red and tangelo. I watched as one color fled into another, into the moon, into the sky. It danced on my skin and I knew I was witnessing a big change, the apex of a great cycle that was demanding me to slow down and give up on the plans I had hoped for, the destinations I thought I knew. I was being called to honor, recognize and watch— welcome in the vast arrival of the new.
I was awoken from this vibrant dream moment by the ringing of my phone. My doctor was calling with the long awaited test results. But, she didn’t need to tell me. I had already been told.
// Courting Mystery //
That day I ghosted around the house. I wasn’t sure yet what to do with myself. I knew I would have to make some hard decisions, not only about what medicine or protocols I would chose (this, I assure you, will be it’s own blogpost someday soon), but how to fit this new journey into my life. I would have to slow down. Tremendously. As suddenly as a hundred cars abandoned in the middle of the road. My life, which had been at a cross-country full throttle, would need to be completely shifted and settled. I had been driving, it seemed, at one hundred glorious miles per hour, per year, and suddenly the whole transit had to cease. This was obviously the beginning of a phase that would be both awful and awe-inspiring…and undoubtedly new. But where to start?
I went to the hill, as I often do when I’m struggling and lonely, dispirited or low. The Tulsi, so sweet and hardy, had taken care of herself in my absence. I thought, perhaps I would make myself “useful” and harvest a few basketfuls of herb to get some fresh wreathes drying in the eaves. I sat down and closed my eyes. Giving gratitude for any harvest is a comforting practice to me, but can have the possibility of becoming rote—especially when it is an herb I have planted and tended, watered and pruned. Sometimes we become so familiar with the living aspects of our lives, we cease to remember that they breathe and change, they hold their own mysteries. This time I felt called to completely clear my mind. Let go of my normal prayers or supplications and just allow the Tulsi to speak to me. She appeared immediately behind my eyes and said in a voice that sounded like sky, Look— Once again, I was witnessing the technicolor moonrise.
In one moment my understanding of Tulsi seemed to pinch and then explode outward, like the creation of a star. An inextricable link of synchronicity spun out from the center, connecting my body and this new disease, to my dreams, to this plant, to the deeper mystery behind it all.
She spoke to me in a language before words and I understood. This moment, this journey itself, would be medicine for me and Tulsi, my beloved ally, would help guide me through the biggest threshold of all. Far beyond the boundaries of what I had previously known and ascribed to this plant, she was, in essence, showing me the vastness of mystery. The beauty that can blossom when you throw away the deadlines or destinations, and approach any illness, plant or dream with a curious eye. The best way to begin is with simple humility, to simply sit and watch the techincolor moonrise.
In this one interaction, my understanding of Tulsi (and my own life) deepened as quickly as an ocean current. I felt, and heard, and was shook. It was like whale song— a transmission that is understood on such vibratory and ancient levels, and yet will never quite be able to be translated in human words.
It was the beginning, the push I needed, to embark upon this new journey with a deep trust in the mystery, my most important and ever-present guide. The experience spoke, in truth, to the heart of why I am drawn to plants and medicine, healing work and herbs. As herbalists I think we can get stuck in the ruts of what we know. We have our material medicas and our herbal actions. Our constituents, our trials, our patient-proven results. But, for me, the most profound healing and transformation has always come from places unknown. From the beginning I could have railed against my contraction of Lyme disease, investing my energy in bitterness and resistance. Instead, I poured myself into research and herbal experimentation, yes, but I also accepted, once again, my place as an apprentice to the unknown. With the guidance of Tulsi and my own dreams, the synchronicity of plants and prayer, the natural mysticism and heralds of the heart, I placed my trust in the kind of transformation that can only arise from courting such mystery.
Throughout my journey with Lyme disease, I have allowed mystery to be my weft. All else— the plant medicine and antibiotics, yoga, supplements, acupuncture and prayer— is the warp. When I first wrote this piece for Plant Healer I felt, at times, like Penelope, weaving and then unweaving, awaiting the return of Odysseus. Wishing for completion but knowing in my heart that the journey had not yet reached its end— in truth, I think it is a lifelong odyssey. Each time I try new thread, change my vision, tweak the weave until it feels stronger than before. I seek out the diversity of all the medicine in this world— plant stories and whale songs, full moons and unexpected gatherings, the humility to see how much more space there is to grow. I honor Tulsi and I keep her by my side. I remind myself daily that what I know, as Mary Oliver says, is “important and honorable, but so small! While everything else continues, unexplained and unexplainable.” Whenever I get overwhelmed or discouraged, imbalanced or unsure, I simply touch the Tulsi still bundled about my door. I come back to the unbelievable comfort of all that I do not know, and cannot see, and trust in the timely revelation of a technicolor moonrise.