The Medicine Cabinet
by Susan Dickman

But how to begin? With a simple sponge and water? With plain warm water and a sea sponge, the type, perhaps, harvested naturally without harming the local flora or fauna of the long brackish Pacific that hundreds of thousands of times a day kisses the Baja sands and the Baja reef and its million dollar industry of papas-and-tequila-vomiting tourists standing at the water’s edge in the late middle of the night/their vacation/their life/the century, polluting the virgin anemone sucking up the rock lime?

Begin with a natural sea sponge hand-harvested by poetry-loving divers on the Baja coastline, from the shore 350 miles south of where you once resided, where you grew and birthed your first-born, where you came to believe naturally in the curative effects of ocean, salt air, rolling hills of chaparral brown in the haze-filled summers, verdant green in winter. Where you wondered at the mystery of dolphins swimming in schools offshore, at the perpetual sun, at a yoga class in which you witnessed the face of God during shivasana, the Dead Man’s pose. Begin with the assumption that strolling the aisles of the market, the ambient Muzak toying with your ears, patchouli-scented flax and hemp clothing enveloping you, all could be right in the world even if you didn’t have the money for free-range chickens or organic ruby red chard every week. Begin with the notion that somehow all of that supermarket wandering would awaken something in you and lead you towards greater physical and emotional health even if you couldn’t afford it one iota.

Bach Flower Remedies

Who had first recommended them for the awkward, wayward son, the out-of-synch-with-the-world-child, the boy who easily preferred the company of plants and his imaginary universe populated with its imaginary friends to the real life world of the preschool classroom with its not-so-subtle Lord of the Flies undercurrent? Was it the nineteen year old juggling Waldorf teacher with flowing blonde hair and the poetic name despite her predilection for shoving her young charges into cabinets, or the friend (then not friend; then friend; then not friend; then friend; then not friend; then friend again) who had saved the life of her leukemic child using Chinese herbs prescribed by an old man who spoke no English, the type of man Bill Moyers might profile, this Doctor Lau on 18th Street in Chinatown, whose daughters held court for him in translation on Saturday mornings? But the flower remedies—clematis, walnut, aspen, and the lovely and alchemic mixing of tinctures in their tiny brown bottles with rubber-tipped droppers, distilled drops of blooms gathered in England, the civilized land of high tea and faeries–organic flowers plucked, pressed, produced and bottled (bottled: the essences of flowers bottled, petal-free) by the descendants or proponents of a 19th century docile, flower-doting scientist, Mister Bach, who believed not simply that lovely flowers were lovely and gave off particular vibrations, but that drinking drops of their essences, suspended in a solution of brandy and diluted in warm water would produce curative results for the nervous, anxious, tearful, fearful, aggressive, angry or sick at heart. Rescue Remedy, a popular blend of five flowers is commonly used today by air travelers post-9/11, CEOs of drowning corporations, stay-at-home mothers thrust suddenly into the workplace via divorce, overly bright children who read the Encyclopedia of Space at bedtime and learn that in several billion years or so the last black hole will swallow the last red giant, and the mothers of those children.

Bee and Flower

Without quite realizing how or when it occurred, you had begun asking yourself rather inane questions for such a smart girl, such as: would using a different soap help one achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment? Did sandalwood scented soap made by Buddhist nuns in China make a difference? Did it matter that you’d left behind the factory-driven, mass produced pure white Ivory of your parents’ home which somehow never failed to incite in you images of Nazi Europe and the bodies of Jews in bulldozed mountains (shock treatment courtesy of a Hebrew school workout guided by well-meaning, grand-scale, catastrophic-thinking teachers who knew little to nothing about the minds of young children), their collective fat melted down to produce soap for the officers, their wives and children? Did it matter that you’d left your parent’s beloved Ivory behind for anything but? Did you catch the irony of the origin of the soap you had discovered and loved best? In Israel, of all places, you unearthed glycerins made in Germany, and used them to soap your perfectly fine but untouched-by-boys (to your complete surprise and shame) body in the coming-through-the-window late afternoon sunshine of the flimsy kibbutz shower. And later on, the Trotskyite cousin you adored appeared even more charming with his knowledge of such soaps, and you wondered which scent he favored most in his Berlin apartment, green apple or lemon? Still the question remained: could small cheap patchouli-scented bars of soap manage to enlighten your threadbare worn soul?

Cold Cures, a variety

Remember the days when the children’s systems were delicate and not to be tampered with by chemical compounds that sounded poisonous but might actually relieve their suffering? The pregnant and/or lactating years of little sleep, of nursing babies in a spot of sun on the futon couch in winter while drowsily reading beautifully produced texts about natural remedies, homeopathics and heat and cold producing foods? The years of mental note-taking—cinnamon for the one with the persistent allergenic and/or nervous throat-clearing, carrots and almonds during the winter months, and above all, avoid lemons, too tart for his disposition—and obscure grocery lists consisting of roots and herbs, tinctures and pastes? The sleep-deprived, mumbling mother holding a baby in a cotton sack wrapped tight against her chest and a toddler’s hand in hers, wandering through the market, landing the primo table at the coffeeshop, the table near the window and an outlet for her laptop, the mother’s head buzzing with Latin phrases she had never learned in college but carried instead on the labels of blue plastic tubes filled with sugar pellets that would (mostly fail to) keep the children’s constant colds at bay. Pulsatilla, wind flower, for the easily weepy; Kali Sulfuricum or Muriaticum depending on the balance of salts in the body; Belladonna, derived from a poisonous vine; Aconitum Nappelus for sudden onset of symptoms. In between sips of strong coffee and the New wavering between alternating fits of belief and disbelief.

Deodorant Stick, Advanced European Formula

Purchased in Boulder, Colorado years before, at a natural food mart where, when asked what type of grocery bags were preferred, you and your old college friend burst out laughing and answered, “Hemp.” Natural deodorant to block the natural scent of your strange turning inward, to mask the effect of your changing life’s direction. Your friend’s home with its adult furniture and clean wood floors, its view of the Flatirons from the rose-filled yard, the child’s room neat and sweet and natural, wool-stuffed dolls and wood toy house, watercolor paintings of a world gone right. Sunlight, coffee, the mountain air balanced with summer storm and just the right amount of wind. Red wine and barbecue, cat and dog, an excellent parent-to-child ratio, the morning newspaper: nothing out of place in that scheme of life, nothing rotting or in need of an innovative witch-hazel and oak-derived odor blocker.

Heartbreak, remedy for

Ignatia Amara, it was called, billed to aid with “nervous hypersensitivy to everyday stress,” but in the Materia Medica, that lovely leather-bound bible with its flowing script and unnervingly simplistic descriptions of cause and effect, it specified those particular sugar pills as the remedy for heartbreak. But you were barely at the fresh, rain-scented beginning of that malady and didn’t yet know how multifaceted heartbreak could be, how many rainbow flavored varieties it appeared in. That question—how many types of heartbreak were there in this infinitude of this life?—would take you years to even begin exploring. In the meantime, wasn’t there always the possibility of a shady rumor of a chance that a remedy for heartbreak could at least do some sort of work via placebo effect and take your mind off the constant racing, thumping vibrato of your overworked heart? Wasn’t it likely as not that a remedy for heartbreak could make you think for a moment that the panic of losing the ground beneath you might stop, if only for one New York minute?

Incense, Nag Champa

It was Dawn’s brand you bought a few months before leaving the Golden State, the state that people loved to admire and deride, the first place in your life where you made friends with the kinds of people most likely to be granola queens, earth mothers by day and lap dancers by night, godless and searching, filled to the brim with yogic awareness and tantric knowledge, peddling blue-green algae, earth’s most abundant and most natural resource. Dawn, with her breezy apartment filled with toddlers and wooden toys, a patio jungle of tall potted trees and a hammock, wind-chimes, an oversized wagon in which to haul kids to the park, and a sturdy German shepherd to watch over her charges. Dawn, with her fresh-baked muffins and good coffee, inviting in the mothers dropping off each morning as if we were part of the childcare: we were the mothercare. Dawn, her talk of higher self ascending, her evenings of ashtanga yoga to wear her down and get herself to sleep because her husband had stopped touching her, her weekend sexcapades and return Monday morning to tell the tales. Lighting a stick of nag champa as the coffee brewed, as the house filled with the sounds of children in the playroom, and the scent of organic banana nut muffins wafting from the kitchen while she murmured about whom she had fucked and where and how. Two sticks left in the box, years old and stale, and you can’t light them or toss them out because it might mean that the west coast might just drop into the poorly named boiling hiss of the ocean. You might just find the scent of what you left behind, and gladly at the time, in your clothes and hair for longer than you could bear.


But perhaps the heart of the medicine cabinet’s dirt lies with the sand-encrusted, milked bone-dry tube of body lotion made from the mineral rich salt of the deadest body of water on earth. In the place that made you feel the most alive despite its scent of death, the place you fled to after high school to pick oranges, good confused Jewish kid that you were growing up in a non-observant household, believing the half-baked bread of yearning of the poets despite your encounters, later, with the other half of the world, the half obscured by the moon of that tiny state of war dropped like a miracle or a sad joke into the flat, placid Mediterranean. Sadder, or funnier, still, was the fact that you could walk into any Arab grocery Stateside and find dreamy Palestinian girls using it as manna, a cure-all for dry skin and lost-and-found homelands. It all reminded you of the Palestinian siblings you had met in Montreal as you waited for the airplane for Chicago, where you lived on the north side and they lived on the south, and you looked politely through the wedding pictures of the brother, the one who sat cracking gum while his sister told their family’s stories, who had returned to wed his bride and then left without her, intending to return for her the following year. Later you exchanged travel itineraries, and when the sister flipped her glossy hair and asked, “What?! You didn’t visit Nablus?!” and you had answered, “What?! You didn’t set foot in Tel Aviv?!” you both stopped talking and looked steadily at one another, the toddler wobbling and weaving between you and the flimsy airport lounge seats, and admitted that you had sojourned in vastly different countries. The girl nodded, applying her Dead Sea salt-filled lotion to her sun-chapped hands, and turned from you to read her magazine.

Pushing the empty tube aside, you peer behind it but discover in the cabinet no cure for an irrational craving complete with warring cultures, no explanation of genetic memory or salve to quench a desire for intense heat, sweaty bodies jostling the crowded streets. No more purifying illusions of a magical salt to rub into the skin and bathe one in the atmosphere that makes no logical sense. The tube is empty.

That Crazy Doctor

Is he in the medicine cabinet, too? His sugar pills, his strange cures, his white bottles and salves and chicken-free diet. The doctor in the strip mall near the lake, the mall with the sexy Spanish sounding name and condo complex at the shore where senior citizens made-believe they had retired to Florida despite the chill in January, the doctor who was once, who used to be, a psychiatrist before he got into whatever it was he called it that he now practiced. That crazy doctor whom you took the wayward, out-of-synch boy to see but who left him down the hall and examined the mother instead, had her hold her arm still while he tested her muscles and called a colleague in Los Angeles to verify and interpret shifting sets of numbers, answering “uh-huh” and spastically transcribing numerical divinations on a white legal pad. That crazy doctor who yarned on and on about the effects of genetic memory on the awkward, genius boy, explained an ancient Russian-Jewish curse involving chickens, and pronounced the boy’s problems as those commonly traced to a pox related to chicken, all poxes being related. The solution was to cure him, one, with a homeopathic pox remedy and, two, with the immediate cessation of all fowl products. No Chicken Kiev, no Sunday morning omelets, no egg pasta or chicken noodle soup or chocolate chip cookies or birthday cake that wasn’t vegan. Chickens were the root cause of a genetic problem specific to Russian Jews and produced in them brilliant children with autistic-like symptoms. That crazy doctor who charged you an arm and a leg to test your muscles while the wayward, out-of-sync child sat in the cool waiting room down the hall reading the latest issue of Scientific American. That crazy doctor who filled you with the heady fantasy that there was a cure, a way to reach the boy, a sound method of balancing the child who had arrived in the world too bright and too aware; but when you returned home to report on his credentials and relay what he had transcribed, you found the folded up set of notes he had written were a sham, made no sense, and you no longer remembered why he had not seemed, at the time, as crazy as he truly was.

Wart Removal System

One evening at bedtime you noticed, in the twelfth year of his life, on the bottom of the boy’s tender young foot, a genetic tattoo, a carbon copy of your own blemish, the one that had developed late in pregnancy and had never gone away. So banal and ugly on your own foot, it shouldn’t have surprised you, and yet it took your breath away with its location, and with his shy stutter as he inched his way along the interrogative, Don’t you have the same thing? But a week later it had vanished of its own accord, no need for salves and creams that failed to do the trick, caustic bloodroot, black duct tape, prescriptions meant to shrink the thing until removed by laser only to grow back again, because you had learned to look upon it as a record, a symbol, a symptom of your numerous mistakes, a rubric for decisions made in haste, love or bad faith. Perhaps you had purchased the tube because the name—“Clear Away”– had made you feel hopeful and assured: rock-solid proof that ways existed to remove the curse of having lived with dreams, proof that there was a method to clear away the past, blaze a new trail this late in life, that with enough hard work and chemical bonding and sloughing off of that tough outer layer of skin, a new one would emerge, a new self could be called into creation, proof that, warts and all, this knotted up life brimming with mistakes enough for two, belonged to you and you alone, and that you would somehow begin to learn to love it after all.

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