The Wound is Where the Change Begins

Yesterday was the third anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death. Today I find myself reflecting on perhaps his best known words:

there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light comes in.

This Samhain season, the darkness around us seems especially heavy, almost impenetrable at times. Our individual worries and struggles flow together with the collective pain of a culture and a planet in peril. The temptation to surrender to that darkness, to allow it to swallow us whole, can be immense.

There can absolutely be value in going to that place of surrender – but only if we do not stay there.

Samhain is indeed a time of entering the darkness – but it is a passageway, a gate, not a destination. We go into the hidden world, entering through the cracks, searching in the darkness for the place where light was born, returning through the same gate at Beltaine.

In a recent essay, Martin Shaw wrote:

For many of us, wound means truth. In a sugared world, holding your gaze to something broken, bereft or damaged seems like the deepest, most articulate position we can take. We see this move all the way through the modern arts. It’s what gets the big grants. Myths say no. The deepest position is the taking of that underworld information and allowing it to gestate into a lived wisdom that, by its expression, contains something generative. The wound is part of a passage, not the end in itself. It can rattle, scream and shout, but there has to be a tacit blessing, or gift, at its core.

His words brought back the memory of what the Usnea lichen told me years ago, early on in my healing journey.

Usnea first spoke to me in the late spring and early summer of 2007, when I was wandering the Bangor City Forest, my heart breaking as I felt someone who had seen and touched and transformed me deeply slipping out of my life. (I had yet to learn that nobody who touches and is touched that deeply really ever disappears from your life forever.) Usnea reached his green threads into the cracks in my heart and began working to awaken my primal memory of my connection to all things.

Usnea worked deeply within me in the seasons to come, inviting me to enter into deep connection with the forests of Maine, to find meaning and purpose and community in my kinship with the living spirits that pulsed through Hemlock and Spruce and White Pine and Lady Slipper and Trillium and Ghost Pipe.

But I was not ready to believe that was enough.

So I moved to the city and took a job as a curator of other people’s stories of pain – helping people whose lives had been devastated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan try to tell their stories in the media. But the media had grown weary of war stories. And the repetition of the litany of suffering seemed to bring more pain to the people telling the stories, instead of healing.

So I went to the forest again, and fasted and prayed in a spot just above a stream flowing into the Pemigiwasset River. By the third day, it was all I could do to to stumble to the edge of the ten foot stone circle that marked the boundary of my world.

Just beyond that border, I saw a fallen hemlock branch covered in lichen -- and among the lichens, a patch of Usnea that seemed to glow with a pale light. Usnea is a lichen made up of long, grey-green threads commonly called "old man's beard." To protect the trees that it grows on from infection, Usnea produces antibacterial and anti-fungal compounds that also serve as very powerful medicine for humans and other animals.

From somewhere inside my chest, I heard the voice of the lichen speaking, telling me that the lichen would often grow in the places where the tree was wounded, that the wounds themselves called forth the medicine. A song began to rise inside me:

"The wound is where the healing comes,
The wound is where the change begins!

Break on open and feel again,
Break on open and dream again,
Break on open and grow again,
Break on open and live again!"

As I sang out loud, cycling through the chant again and again, questions and contradictions I had been struggling with began to resolve themselves.

Central was the conflict I felt between the political work I have dedicated my adult life to up to now and the healing work that I have been powerfully drawn to in recent years. More and more it has been working to bring people together with plants that can support the healing of their bodies, minds, and spirits that has made me feel most alive. But strong voices inside me had been insisting that I had a responsibility to be part of political and cultural transformation.

That dichotomy fell away. I thought of the people who have come into my life and the pain they are living with. And I came to understand how opening to the reality of the trauma they have suffered reveals much about the fundamental disease at the heart of our culture that gave rise to the violence that brought such devastation into their lives. But knowing the wound was not the endpoint – it was the beginning. Usnea was telling me "the wound is where the change begins," then by coming to know the nature of those wounds I would also come to know the wild, living medicines that would help bring wounded bodies, minds, and spirits back to health. And the most essential part of that medicine was and is connection with the living world itself.

In the myth of the Fisher King, the king sits on a throne by the water's edge, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his thigh. And because the king is wounded, the land has become barren. The wound never heals, because everyone is afraid to ask the one question that would stop the bleeding and restore the king and the land to health -- "What is the source of the wound?" The answer to the question lies beneath the waters the king is afraid to dive into.

The reverse of the Fisher King is the Tarot's King of Cups. The King of Cups is the King who has dived into the waters of the unconscious, come to terms with the darkness, and emerged transformed -- he sits on his throne holding a cup that overflows with healing water. As the bearer of the chalice, he is a servant of the Great Goddess, the cup a symbol of Her womb, of the darkness from which light emerged.

In the dark half of the year, plants send their energy down into the roots which reach into the darkness, into the place of beginnings and endings. But we are learning now that those roots see and seek light. In springtime, they awaken and reach deeper and grow new tendrils in response to the flow of light downward from leaves and shoots through trunk or stem.

In this dark of the year, may you too see and seek the light.

Want to learn more about the magic and medicine of this season?

Seán has recorded an hour-long talk exploring Samhain lore, bone medicine and bone memory, and medicines for navigating the dark time of the year. It ends with a meditation focused on sending gratitude to our ancestors.

Seán is also available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.

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