This has not been my year. This has not been many people’s year. At first I tried to sugar coat it, telling myself that maybe things would get better… but they only got worse and then worse and then even worse. It all started with an outbreak of contagious walking pneumonia in my small town of six hundred people. There is only one bank, one pharmacy, one cafe and we all touched the same doors, the same bank machine… Walking pneumonia slowly takes your breath and energy away lasting from one to two months. You wheeze like an asthmatic, nap all the time, and can barely lift a finger. Everyone caught it, everyone. I had it for the full months of May and June and it turned into a sinus infection I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t plant my garden, I couldn’t clean my house, I couldn’t work my job. I would end up on the ground gasping for breath.
After multiple doctor visits I finally shook it at the beginning of July. My garden was late getting planted and a lot of potted plants died while they waited for me, but many more made it into the ground to my relief. And then the drought came. Don’t tell the farmers that climate change isn’t real. First they’ll punch you. Then they’ll weep uncontrollably. The Valley is known for its endless rolling green hills of fertile farms and many lost their crops this summer. My dug well ran dry. That was a bad day. My father hooked up the house to the cistern without checking the water first. It was contaminated and smelled like rotten sea water with maybe a dead snake or two in it. All the pipes in my house were contaminated, I had to wash dishes with that water and bathe my son in it even though it wasn’t safe. No filter would’ve been good enough. The cistern would have to be cleaned and bleached out but unfortunately it is pretty much inaccessible in my basement.
I put my foot down and we let the dug well recover, flushed out the pipes, and then restricted the well’s use to run the house only. The cistern later ran out from me using it only sparingly to water the garden. The plants loved the disgusting water. The rains still didn’t come. My only hope was to pump water from the creek to use for the garden… but the pump was broken. My father replaced it only to learn the whole line out to the creek was damaged. No water. It’s not a city person problem, but it’s real out here. I have three sources of water and all of them failed. Imagine not being able to even drink a glass of water from the tap let alone wash dishes, do laundry, take a shower, water your plants… My plants died. The ones that didn’t die from the drought died from worms and beetles. I lost not just my potatoes to potato beetles, but also all of my belladonna (they’re both nightshades, now you know). I lost my whole henbane crop and almost all of my root vegetables. The plants who did survive did poorly. I’m a plant person, so it’s like watching your beloveds die around you while you are helpless to do anything. I should’ve known it was foreshadowing.
August came with only more sadness. My mother’s mother, Grandma Mary, passed away a week before my birthday. I had loved her dearly and she was very special to me and always treated me like I was special too. We were both Leos and had many happy adventures together. She had been a teacher for special needs children and in retirement had travelled the world. She loved going to the symphony and art museums and always took me with her. I’d even lived with her in Toronto for a brief time when I was 19 before her Alzheimer’s had fully set in. She died a couple weeks shy of her 93rd birthday, in her room with family and her favourite music playing. Not even a week later my father’s father, my Poppa, died too. He’d been in and out of the hospital for years and had given us so many scares the priest had given him last rights seven times before. We thought this was just another scare because he always bounced back. But he didn’t wake up this time. Poppa was 83 and left behind his wife since the age of 19 and the huge family they’d created together and a close community full of friends and loved ones. Everyone loved Poppa, you couldn’t help it. He was so loud, disarming and friendly with his twinkling black eyes and Irish gift of the gab.
On my birthday weekend my family and I travelled to Montreal and Ottawa to bury them both. My Grandma was cremated and buried next to my Grandpa who’d died 3o years earlier. We each placed pink roses into her grave, said farewell and then went to a restaurant after and celebrated her life. It was simple and beautiful, in a beautiful part of Montreal full of ancient trees. My Poppa was given the full Irish Catholic funeral with the two day wake, the black limos and hearse, and the full service in his church just a walk away from his house he’d lived in for the past 50 years. The church was packed and four priests showed up, not because it’s required, but because they had all loved him. His four sons, grandson, and grandson-in laws carried his casket to the graveyard behind the church and we buried him. There was a big reception after in the hall. Then just family met at my grandparents’ house after everything else and my uncles drank the cask of 45 year old Irish whiskey my Poppa had saved for his funeral and we put on the old Irish music and sang and my cousin danced for us while the great grandchildren played.
Maybe a week later I found out I am pregnant with my second child. Unlike my son, this one is a surprise, but a very welcome one for me and my partner and our families. A week after finding out it was time to fly off to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in New Mexico. Three planes from Canada and a lot of vomit later, I made it the airport in El Paso, Texas… and then was stranded by my ride at the airport. Oh yeah, I panicked. I didn’t have any contact info for the event and don’t own a cellphone. I thought I was going to have to go home, but a lovely lady at the info booth worked hard for an hour to figure out how to get me to the event site and a shuttle driver even turned around to come and get me. I thanked him and then the old cowboy sitting next to him for coming back for me. The cowboy said “I’m nobody important and ain’t in no rush.” I’d never met a real cowboy before, despite having lived in ranch country in the Okanagan. This one was in his late 70s and still working. Both were the sweetest men and offered to drive me all the way up the hotel for free, but thankfully the organizers had sent down a lovely woman to pick me up for the conference. We drove through a monsoon, hail, and a double rainbow up further and further into the mountains until the dry desert turned into spruce and oaks and ravens.
I was supposed to tent because the hotel was completely booked, but the camping was much further away then insinuated and when I arrived the ground was completely covered in hail the size of golf balls along with an insane monsoon of sheet rain, thunder, and lightning. Luckily, the awesome organizer Kiva Rose found a solution. Another woman who was going to camp was able to get a room last minute in a hotel at the bottom of the hill from the conference site and was willing to share. And that is how I met the lovely Green Heart Woman, Gina. We were both so happy to get out of the weather and avoid tenting in the monster hail. We read tarot for each other and kept the room nicely smudged. It was worth it to have to hike up the mountain to get to the conference workshops. I taught my presentation on the history, folklore, and medicinal uses of Belladonna, Datura, Henbane, and Mandrake to a full room and let people try out samples of my ointments after. The presentation was recorded, but I’m still waiting to find out if it turned out well enough to be usable (there were a lot of recordings made). The paper I wrote for the presentation can be downloaded with the 2016 Conference E-book here.
It was really hard to choose which presentations to attend. They all sounded amazing, but many were scheduled at the same time. My little moleskin notebook is packed full of notes. I enjoyed meeting and talking to Guido Masé, Dave Meesters, Jen Stovall, Rebecca Altman, and Jacques, a bone-setter and herbal healer from Québec. I met massage therapists, vendors, witches, herbalists in training, and fellow Canadians. Meeting and talking to all the wonderful people really made the event for me. So many green hearted plant people in one place and so many people shared their love of their favourite nightshades with me.
Guido fascinated me with the experiences of his medicinal uses of tinctures of datura and hemlock in his clinical herbal practice and urged me to speak up and go legit with my nightshade medicines. Because of him and one of his presentations on the future and legality of herbalism, I’m looking into willingly going through the formal process of asking Health Canada (our equivalent of the FDA) to scrutinize my ointments and creation processes so I can obtain NHPs (natural health product numbers) for my nightshade ointments. Dave, a fellow fan of Dale Pendell, talked about sun medicine vs moon medicine. Dave wrote this amazing piece called Dark Medicines: On Seeing Patients with ‘Bad Habits’ which I adore and I asked him to collaborate on some writing over the winter and he said yes. For those wondering or guessing, this was a very witchcraft, folk magic, fairy faith, and animist friendly conference.
After I returned home, caught up on endless shipping and product packaging, I thought maybe things would get better now. Maybe Saturn’s long retrograde had finally gone fully direct. I was wrong of course. This dark year took away a lot of my ability to hope. I was wrangling my freckled, curly headed toddler while trying to pack to go to a family reunion for Canadian Thanksgiving when I heard from a good friend back on the West coast in Seattle. He wanted to let me know our friend Seb had killed themself, he’d found them dead under a tree. Seb was one of my best friends and favourite people in the whole world. The friend you have who you want every other friend of yours to meet. An amazing artist in any medium they touched, an amazing cook, a forager, herbalist, gardener, shaman, healer, bone collector… Seb could do or make anything. They were awesome.
I looked at Seb’s prints and paintings on my walls and fridge, I looked at the woodcarvings they’d made me beside my bed, I looked at the perfect witch hat mushroom lamp they’d crafted, and I saw their homemade jams, vinegars, and pine sugar in my pantry. I cried and cried until snot ran down my face. Seb had had not just a dark year, but two dark years of constant bad luck and I think the heaviness of the hopelessness overwhelmed and crushed them. You feel so much more helpless when you lose a loved one over suicide than natural old age. There was nothing I could do or my friends could do. We all chipped in to pay for Seb’s cremation and memorial services. We all shared happy memories, our favourite works of Seb’s art, and gave comfort to one another. It’s still hard to look at facebook, it’s only been just over a week. Seb suffered from depression and PTSD. No matter how loved they were or how wonderful, smart, and funny everyone knew they were, Seb would never believe it about themself. I hope that part of them is gone now and they see it’s true: they are an amazing, wonderful, loving being who was well loved by everyone who knew them in life.
Seb is not the only one with a dark year, and I know I am not the only other one with a dark year. I have so many friends and acquaintances locally and afar who have had a very bad year in different degrees. My intent in sharing my year of death with you is not to depress you, but to make you realize your year could maybe have been darker. Some of my friends lost their children, some lost their water, their livestock, their health… One of my mother’s classic sayings is “life’s not fair and then you die.” She would say it whenever me or my sister were whining over something she knew was small in the grand scheme of things. This dark year has taught me life is short. Appreciate what you have and who you have because it can all be taken away. We’ve seen so much taken away from people across the world this year by earthquakes, hurricanes, war, and hate. Love deeply and fearlessly, spend more time with family and friends, learn how to say no to things that do not serve you, and yes to things that are good for you (even if you are scared or it means change). Learn how to ask for what you need from the people in your life and listen to them in kind. Life is short, so go live it.