Wednesday, February 7, 2007

My Dear Spirit Buddy

One of my dear spirit buddies and teachers, Bill Mitchell, died the night before last of a broken heart. His son Noah, aged 27, had died suddenly in the morning, and Bill died that night in his sleep.

For many of us who went through Bastyr University's naturopathic medical training program (and there are more than 1000 of us now), Dr. Bill Mitchell was an extraordinary combination of hero/icon and brother/uncle/friend.

He was Dr. Bastyr's lineage holder. Like Dr. Bastyr, Bill was unfailingly kind, humble, generous with his time and skills and knowledge. Like Dr. Bastyr, he was brilliant, deeply rooted in the traditional wisdom and history of our medicine, yet always learning and studying and incorporating new discoveries.

Unlike dear Dr. Bastyr, Bill was also a dazzling and inspiring lecturer and public speaker. He spoke tirelessly to many kinds of audiences on behalf of Bastyr University and naturopathic medicine, and was always willing to give his time and energy to benefit the students. In class we were awed by his vast and penetrating understanding of the biochemical structures and mechanisms of humans, plants and nutrients, watching in amazement as he rapidly sketched molecular formulae and relationships on the board. Even more amazing, though, is that he was able to (relatively painlessly) transfer the basics of all of that knowledge to all of us. And at the same time, he was fluent in many other fields: the history and anthropology of healing and medicine, classical philosophy and spiritual literature, cosmology, the mysteries of the human psyche, and much more.

For the first 15 or 16 years that I knew Bill, I really mostly just knew of him, and he didn't really know me. Like many of my school mates, I was in awe of that brilliance, of his robust connection to the natural world, and his weirdness -- little realizing how weird I was going to turn out to be myself.

In 2002, when I started a two year stint as Assistant Dean in the Naturopathic Medicine department at Bastyr, one of my first and favorite assignments was to support Bill's teaching of a new elective course, the prototype for a series meant to embody and make explicit the part of Bastyr's mission statement that emphasizes education and services that "integrate mind, body, spirit and nature". I got to talk with him often on the phone and meet with him to create the syllabus and course requirements and other things he was not so interested in. He told me early on that "the syllabus can't really be created until after the course is over, because I won't know till then what Spirit's going to want me to say." Then we laughed for a long time and knew that we understood each other, and ever since then we have loved each other.

I last saw Bill a couple of months ago over lunch at a little restaurant near his office. He talked about an idea of leaving his practice to his daughter, who is also a naturopathic doctor, and maybe leaving this city where he had been for so many years, about going to a place where he could swim for hours in the warm ocean. Our last interaction, though, was by email, which turned out to be a pretty reliable way to keep very loose track of his moonbeam self. I had written him to describe a dream I'd had of him on New Year's Eve, where I had been so happy to run into him because I needed to ask him a question about Dr. Bastyr's practice. In my dream, he'd said, "Well, that means Dr. Bastyr has something to tell you!" and pulled a large phone out his jacket, to connect me with Dr. Bastyr (who died in 1995). Then I woke up. Bill's email reply to me was "Wow what a great dream. Dr. Bastyr healed you. You knew you were being healed. He didn't say a lot. And he worked on your back and neck. Love and laughter in the new year. Bill"

Bill had ravishingly hard times in the past few years, enough to break a heart many times over. He was scoured out from the inside and became almost transparent; you could see the light shining straight through him. He let all the hardship pour through him like a great river, and it only increased his own radiance.

It turned out that I often had occasion to weep in Bill's presence, for very varied reasons. He never minded, it was always OK with him. I know that it's OK with him, now, too. Leaning on his presence was like leaning on a mountain. And that's still true, too.

The soundtrack for my day yesterday, before I had heard about Bill, happened to be Joni Mitchell's Blue, and her song A Case of You has gotten woven now into the missing him that rises up today:

I remember
that time you told me
you said,
'love is touching souls'
you've touched mine
Part of you
pours out of me
in these lines from time to time

You're in my blood
like holy wine

And from Hildegard von Bingen, one of Bill's patron saints, about whom he was exceedingly knowledgeable:

I am the one whose praise echoes on high.
I adorn all the earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.
I am led by the spirit to feed the purest streams.
I am the rain coming from the dew
that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.
I am the yearning for good.

Bill inspired and deepened all of us who came into orbit around him with his radiant connection to the ordinary holiness of this world, his trust in and deep love affair with nature, his relationship with the spirit of life and with some inexhaustible source of big true love. It has been astonishing and marvelous to realize how many of us, truly thousands of students and patients and colleagues, had friendships with him that were special and intimate, infused with his kindness and joy. His strong presence, his clear gaze, and his big laugh and quirky sense of humor simultaneously rooted us and lifted us up. And through all the suffering of the last few years, he didn't hide away from us. He allowed us in, to keep him some company, and to offer our bits of support in the face of devastating remorse and grief – and to feel that you are able to give a little something to someone who has given you very much is in turn a great gift.

Bill was our hero, and our sweet heart. He lives on now in all of us who adored him. May his memory be always a blessing and joy.

Christy Lee-Engel, ND '92, and MSA '95
January 26, 2007