Hardcore Shamanism Pt 3: No Blood From This Turnip
I ordered Harner’s book and sent an e-mail to one of the shaman assistants:
Now that the original energy from the intro to shamanism class has faded, I’m feeling that it’s not the right time for me to do the Level I class, so I’d like to withdraw from that. I understand there is a fee for this. Fine. Please deduct whatever that is and refund my money.
I figured that would be the end of my involvement with the Foundation of the Sacred Stream; a refund would come in the mail in a couple of weeks, and I’d walk away with a few good stories to tell friends over food and drinks. I’d couch myself as misguided and bumbling and hopefully people would chuckle. Four days later the assistant replied that their policy is that they “don’t give refunds,” and that I could apply the $275, minus “a 10% administrative fee” towards a future class. I wrote back that I had no intention of taking another class and would they please reconsider. “This is not a reasonable policy,” I added with a flourish, “and makes me concerned about the integrity of your organization.” Later that day I got an email addressed to a handful of people asking for a ride to the very workshop I’d paid for. I switched from wimpy frog to angry bear mode, and fired off an e-mail to the entire group:
I’m curious how you got my email. I have second thoughts about studying with Isa and I asked for a refund for this class—last week. They waited several days to get back to me—until after my check was cashed and they’re refusing to give me a refund, which really puts up red flags for me.
The next day I heard from the other shamanic helper, who accused me of spreading “untruths” and “negativity,” and demanded that I cease my “libelous and harassing” behavior. She cc’d an attorney. Other highlights of her e-mail: their refund policy is “clearly stated,” my request for a refund is a “highly unreasonable expectation,” my paying for a class and changing my mind is a “highly unusual circumstance,” my no longer wanting to take classes with them is “another highly unusual circumstance.” She’d toyed with making an exception for me, but “in light of recent events,” no way.
Wearing a jeweled turban, psychic Bela Lugosi, a.k.a. Prince Scaliano, lisps, “Spirits are strongly displeased with those who are skeptical.” Then he growls, “Please do not refer to my calling as a business.”
Old unusual me wrote back:
I said nothing libelous—I just expressed my experience. I’m asking you one more time to please move beyond this and give me the refund, rather than persisting with this unprofessional punishment mode. That way we can both let go of this and move on.
Letting go and moving on is a totally New Age concept. I was meeting them on their own ground; I had an inkling of hope. A few days later, having received no response, I wrote again, a group email to Gucciardi and both helpers, reiterating my position and ending with a plea: “$275 cannot possibly mean a lot to your organization, but for my lifestyle, it means a lot.” The litigious helper answered that I was welcome to apply my tuition, “less a 10% administration fee of $27.50,” to a future class. They were going to hold on to my money with the tenacity of a pit bull and there was nothing I could do to get it back.
I know how these things work. I will be held up as the infidel who has problems and whose negativity is trying to hurt the organization, and the organization will grow stronger through its efforts to heal the thorn called Dodie Bellamy. Not returning my money because I misbehaved feels so Old Testament, so unlike the Eskimos’ forgiveness of Steven Seagal. I imagine a remake. Seagal sneaks out, tries to run off with the sled, the dogs attack, the Eskimos run outside. “It’s highly unusual to tamper with Eskimo property,” the medicine man exclaims. “You’ll have to pay.” A cell phone snaps open and his beautiful Chinese Indian daughter calls Eskimo police. Seagal goes to jail instead of blowing up the oil rig to save Mother Earth.
In my dream wherever I go Gucciardi’s disciples appear before me. They’re dressed rather preppy, like Scientologists. “Come back to us,” they intone ominously. Over and over I shake my head.
During my two weeks worth of refund-haggling emails, something strange happens to me, I start writing this story. I write it in the evening, write first thing in the morning, soon I’m writing it on a pad in the middle of the night, writing when I’m supposed to be reading student fiction, writing in the middle of a movie. I have all this energy—$275 worth of energy, which has blasted away my writer’s block. Driving home from acupuncture, ideas come to me, I pull out my notebook at a stop light, scribble notes, scribble more notes at every stoplight on Market Street from Castro to Van Ness. I’m so excited I walk around with a smile on my face. When someone asks me how I am, I say “Fine!” instead of my usual noncommittal “Okay.” When you’re writing really hard, who needs workshops, who needs drumming, meditation, Craig’s List shamanism. You’re sitting in the seat of power with this razor-sharp focus and everything you require rushes in through your senses, mysteriously realigns itself and flows out through your fingers and into the keyboard. When they’re in the heat of it, all writers are crazy as Rumi.
Gordon Johnson, author of Rez Dogs Eat Beans: “No authentic person of power that I know of would consent to participate in anything commercial. There is an occasional Indian guy or woman who will lead sweats for money, but they are usually dismissed by the people as whacko.”
In a tribal world, where no money is exchanged between shaman and client, there are no refund disputes, no core shamanic precedents. The medicine woman decides to consult her animal guides. She lies on the floor, closes her eyes and covers them with an eye pillow; the coolness of silk and the weight of flaxseed press into her inner darkness. Lavender mingles with burning sage. She takes a deep breath, allowing the purified air to move through her. Her helpers stand on either side. One of them begins beating a rawhide drum, its rhythm incessant and familiar as her own heartbeat. She finds herself standing beside a giant redwood with an arched opening at its base. The medicine woman enters and looks down into a long tunnel. Fox is waiting for her, clinging to the side of the tunnel, banging his tail against it to the beat of the drum. Together they leap into the tunnel. Fox, ever playful, twirls and swan-dives ahead of her, leads her around thrilling curves and free-falls until they land on solid ground. It is an ancient forest, with a narrow path cutting through the dense foliage. Fox darts forward along the path, leaping and scampering, every now and again mischievously hiding behind bushes. The medicine woman follows along as best she can, shaking her head at Fox’s playfulness. Pine needles crunch beneath her Birkenstocked feet. Eventually they come upon The Circle of the White Elephants. The White Elephants are tall and imposing, but kindly. Fox settles down and bows his head in reverence. “Hello, White Elephants,” the medicine woman says. “Hello medicine woman, what brings you hence this morn?” “These tears, this heart is very heavy,” she says humbly. “How may we help you?” bray the elephants. The medicine woman says, “I don’t know what to do about this Dodie Bellamy. She has defiled our sacred current.” The White Elephants ponder for a moment, then say, “Tell her great hardships and suffering will come if she does not have a change of heart. You must teach her to fear the White Elephants.” They stare off into the distance, intently, as if the collective power of their vision could pierce the veil of the middle world. Then they raise their trunks in the direction of their vision and chant to the rhythm of the drumming, “Keep yon Dodie’s money, keep yon Dodie’s money.”
Liling Gao, my acupuncturist, suggests that I stand for half an hour facing a tree to strengthen my chi. Face a white poplar to strengthen lung chi, a willow for spleen chi, an apple for heart chi. After she takes the needles out I walk over to Golden Gate Park, which is only a block away. Golden Gate Park is far from the wilds, a kind of pre-processed nature, but I live on a concrete alley. In front of my Victorian a scraggly bottle brush tree grows from a hole cut in the sidewalk. Down the block wine barrels that have been sawed in half are scattered in front of an apartment building, holding lush happy plants that someone I’ve never seen waters and prunes. The only other signs of life are a few more hole-in-the-sidewalk trees and the homeless men who sleep in the doorways of Tony’s auto body shop. Karen Montalbano, my chiropractor, is also right around the corner from the park. I’ve been coming to the Inner Sunset at least once a month for the past five years—I’ve bought shoes, boots, incense, a down coat, jacket, sandpaper, peaches, aspirin, bought more second hand clothes than I can remember, drank Starbucks, eaten Thai, Pakistani, raw, Chinese, and comfort food, used the bank machine, gone to the post office, stopped for gas—but this is the first time while visiting Liling or Karen that I’ve taken a walk in the park. So I’m strolling through Golden Gate Park and the trees are so fucking big, totally grand and I remember the trees in Bloomington, Indiana, it’s 1971 and I’m on psilocybin, as always I flee my apartment and head towards campus to hang out with the trees that surround the student union, even though it’s only six blocks away, it feels like miles and every inch of it I want to stop and stay there forever, it’s all so fascinating, but the trees beckon, and as always I’m amazed when I find my way here, like how did I know which way to go, the trees are so grand, they’re fucking amazing, shimmering with being, I feel their aliveness, I don’t symbolize it, don’t torque it into a narrative, I just stand there and breathe it in. I don’t like music much; it’s too powerful, too all-encompassing, too human culture. I don’t like sex either; it’s too powerful, too all-encompassing, and I don’t feel all that much down there—it’s more of a pervasive full body arousal that doesn’t want any rubbing or releasing. Vivid green, gigantic, the trees don’t talk to me, don’t telepathically transmit messages from other worlds, their aliveness is so thick I can see the air around them vibrating. Softness, comfort. No meaning. The trees vibrate through the sunset and into the coolness of the darkening air.