Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evoking Magic

I had the incredible fortune to get my first tour of Bastyr from Bill Mitchell. My grandmother had arranged the meeting when she knew I was interested in Naturopathic Medicine. Her daughter, Abby, (my ‘half-aunt’ or cousin) was very close with Bill. Shortly before our meeting, Abby had died tragically of a cerebral aneurysm while pregnant and, of course, the family was devastated - but I hardly knew her, having only met her once when I first moved to Seattle.

I met Bill at his office in Queen Anne and was struck by his presence instantly. Any one that has seen that office knows its dark wood desks and molding speaks of tradition. I knew little about him or about Naturopathic Medicine, but I could tell here was a human being who had journeyed far within himself. I thought that, finally, this man fits my idea of a ‘real doctor,’ one that connects with people first and medicine later. As a young 23 year old, I was somewhat in awe of this gentle, easy-going man who introduced himself with a warm smile and a strong handshake.

Throughout the course of our meeting, as we discussed natural medicine in the cafeteria and he took me through the old Wallingford campus, I began to realize how much he was mourning Abby’s death. In essence, this turned the tables on me, for here was a man twice my age who was clearly mourning someone I did not know but was part of my family, and I was at a loss about how I might help to comfort him. I realized that if Bill had thought so highly of Abby she must have been an incredible person.

Not only did Bill help introduce me to the school that day, but he gave me the gift of sharing in his grieving process. It was only through Bill that I came to appreciate and begin to know my cousin. Whether it was conscious or not on his part, he drew me closer to someone whom I had had to let go of, even before I got to know her. I doubt this was intentional, but he had that way about him, the ability to magically connect people and ideas.

The other story I wish to share about Bill takes place many years later when I was a student in the ND program. It was Botanical Medicine V, the last in the series of the botanical medicine courses in the ND program. Robin Dipasquale had arranged for Bill to come in as a guest speaker that day, and it was one of those typical days in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather wants to "do it all" in one day. We’d had a mix of sun, fast scudding clouds and intermittent rain. Most of my classmates were anticipating Bill’s lecture for the day, since you never knew what you were going to get. It might be a pharmocognosy lecture, a piece of Bill-brand naturopathic philosophy or some natural or spiritual interlude to a day of cerebral overload, and likely all three.

That day Bill came in with a basket of cedar boughs. As Robin Dipasquale later reminded me, he told us he had been riding in a car with a Native American healer and remarked to him on the bundle of cedar boughs in the back of the vehicle. The Native American man gave them to Bill, who up to that point had no idea what he was going to teach that day. He explained this as he handed out the cedar boughs and asked us to divide them up between us. He stood in front of us and said, “Today I am going to share the gift of Cedar Medicine with you,” and right on cue, the sky split and a very close bolt of lightening touched down, the thunder ripped through the classroom and a terrific hail storm began. (I'm getting goosebumps right now writing about it.) It was one of those perfect moments when the synchronicity of Bill’s spirit and intention coalesced into a very tangible phenomenon.

He had us separate each of the ‘scales’ of the cedar leaves, as he had been taught. He said through this process we would learn about Cedar. As we did this at our desks, he told us about the properties and attributes of Cedar as a medicine, its use to the indigenous people of this area and as a plant spirit. I still cherish my collection of those Cedar scales.

At times, Bill had the ability to evoke magic but in a way that was very unassuming. As many people have written in their memorials about him, he was one of the few people in the Naturopathic community to so seamlessly connect the world of western science and reductionism with the soar and joy of the esoteric world that is energy, spirit and faith. Bill was a unifier, a coupler of people and nature. I believe one of the most important lessons we can take from his life and teaching is to remember that the Vis Medicatrix Naturae is, at its root, best stimulated by re-connecting ourselves, our patients, our friends, family and community with the natural world in its purist form.

May Bill’s inspiration never die within us. Journey well, Bill.

Sean Congdon, ND '01