I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
On resisting parasitic invasions—from the poisons in our soil, to toxic masculinity in the psyche.
Part of the Spectacular Herbs series.
“And it is no mystical statement to say that love is all that can save you.” — James Baldwin
“You have made your way from the worm to the man and much within you is still worm.” — Nietzsche
Sisyphus in Love
My first wholehearted infatuation was with a boy a grade higher than me in high school who read Camus in our French class instead of the Victor Hugo Les Misérables we were assigned and smoked clove cigarettes at house parties, which were always at his house and illicit in ways that made me giddy. He introduced me to the Myth of Sisyphus in 9th grade and I was never really the same for it, my eyes reached toward the sunny hill of existential absurdity. It’s only now, writing the words clove/love adjacent and taking myself back to that aroma of smokey adolescence, that I see the word love tucked into the spice like a naked intruder throwing on the robe of middle c. What associative music language yields from memory. What relief I memorized in the scented embers. How I fell deep into infatuation-love over the slow omen of smoke and trade wars like the nihilists had paid me for my service to their legacy of broken clichés. It was great, that lazy parade-wave greatness of American teenaged daze.
Cloves, with their intoxicating almost stinging aroma, some idyllic hybrid of cinnamon’s thin catalyst and nutmeg’s rich hallucinatory nodding. Cloves like the needle between two kinds of bittersweet, like an indulgent spike in the libido through the act of smelling, arousing the desire for desire itself, the hope for the will to crave—maybe so alluring because a part of our physiology that is trapped in the subconscious, requires their antiseptic ability for healing. They unleash. They carry the instinct triggering scent of being at the mercy of our own riddling, the very smell of mining the psyche for hidden complexes. Cloves, as the flowers of confession, the dopamine they release, the love they inherit as ritual burning and the inflamed flavor they caption in levity, are the most romantic segue there is into a discussion of parasites in the west, parasitic infestations we deny and cover up, because cloves are among a handful of herbs and spices that help kill parasitic invasions throughout the human body. In me they were waking up a tendency to fall in love with the tortured genius archetype and not realize until it was already consuming me. They were arousing that capacity so that I might refine and transmute it slowly.
A couple of weeks ago I started what is popularly called a “parasite cleanse,” though it’s relatively obscure and very unpopular in the United States where narcissistic doctors have been known to say no one has parasites in America. I do this as a ritual at least once a year, usually around summer solstice, and this round it got me thinking about the snakes in these places we pretend are gardens of love, the poison in our soil, in the very foundation of our society and how eros operates therein. It got me thinking about love itself, romance, and how maybe our approach to it here is why 85% of the American population carries some kind of parasite, and why most of us ignore every symptom or attribute it to something much more shallow and easier to face and announce at a party.
Just like we don’t want to examine the resources we steal and mine and destroy as parasites ourselves in the west, we also refuse to face nature’s retaliatory grace, which is eating us alive. Here, when we love something or someone, we think that gives us the right to possess it—to own it—and we often make that our objective, cutting ourselves in half in order to unite with the desired object if that’s what’s required. We expect that object’s total hospitality. And so it makes sense that we attract equally entitled microorganisms which program us to keep doing this because it suits their biological agenda, to live on our energy undetected while we are so distracted chasing down our own depletion.
Like gods, they are omni-present phantoms. Like gods, they run our lives. In less sanctimonious cultures, children are taught methods to deworm themselves early in life. Spoonfuls of castor oil or the black seeds of the papaya, gulped down reluctantly, are a weekly protocol, so are herbs like neem or fennel after meals. All of these are lethal to parasites. In the US, children learn through osmosis that the body is something we mechanize, compartmentalize, so that if the stomach is upset we take some palliative to calm it, some branded products like Pepto Bismol™ and go right on eating the same things in the same ways without addressing any possible root cause. We are a society obsessing over symptoms in order to ignore the origins of our problems, and then acting like victims of those symptoms when they are often and simply a matter of cause and effect. We act like it’s a right of being citizens of the so-called western world to carry diseases we refuse to treat, physically, psychically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I like thinking about eros and parasitic behavior as intertwined because we often use love’s performance to distract ourselves from any other depth that isn’t as instantly gratifying and gripping. We use romantic love and lust and desire to justify disembodiment. We etch it into our summer plans, as if the whole objective of the body is possession in the west. We get pretty drastic about our entitlement to traditional union and as we think about the parasitic infections making many Americans chronically ill, trapping them in a cycle of treating isolated symptoms unaware, we can also address the parasitic impulses that this kind of denial makes imperative. How our concepts of love might be full of them, and what it might look like if we revamped the whole system, de-prioritized romantic love in the name of elevating friendship and self-love, how that strange maneuver might make us healthier, better lovers, more romantic, less infested with our own obsession with being possessed. Dangerous in the right ways—in the ways whole human beings who have managed to deflect fragmentation and can accomplish anything, and feel like anything is possible, are dangerous.
Maybe America is a parasite infecting the world, and maybe her hosts are so drunk in what passes for love they don’t realize she’s living on their blood and loathing. If we face our vulnerability to the invisible-to-the-naked-eye predators throughout the biosphere, maybe the part of the ego holding onto invincibility could devote some of its energy to notions of healing that acknowledge interdependency, so that we wouldn’t think that we need to steal all of the world’s resources and over consume them to keep ourselves safe or to feel worthy. We would at least love ourselves enough to see how it’s this habit of theft and excess and wish for dominance that’s most toxic to us.
Love like Television
Rightfully jaded-smelling, cloves begin their journey to our recognition as a dried unopened flower, which migrates from the Maluca Islands, a product of ruthless war and struggle and the west’s obsession with what it does not itself possess but feels it deserves in such excess it loses the ability to savor its value—I begin with them because it never occurred to me that what caught my sensory attention as an emblem of an ecstatic crush could also have the capacity to heal me. The body, knowing it cannot trust the average westerner to take care of it, dangles instincts along our life paths in hopes that one day we wake up and recognize the fact that emotional responses are the first sign of a plant’s functional properties, and of our need for it, sometimes even in aversion. In the days of hot Cheetos, long dance rehearsals, and very little water consumption but lots of capri sun and whatever sugar water purple drink was around, the scent of cloves stands out because it was quiet biological intervention. The crush was just a medium of delivery, one my biology would not ignore so that later in a more mature state of mind I have a positive association with something that can help heal my DNA from that causal negligence, that Americanism I felt I deserved in high school or just went along with while waiting for Sisyphus to give up his trickster ritual. Cloves contain a volatile oil called eugenol that dissolves the casing around parasite eggs so that the herbs that kill them can do their job, so that the eggs aren’t protected within the body. It’s that oil that’s responsible for the smell, for their choked up almost suffocating approach to denoting love.
Eros and Unbearable Lightness
College at Berkeley was everything I expected it to be and more, heady and ridiculous, part dream, part punishment for the dream. The boy with Sisyphus under his arm went there too, he was a year older, by the time I arrived he had failed out like any real poet might. He was working as a chef at a nearby restaurant and really into waste management. He would visit my dorm and tell me about the real world. I’m reminiscing in part because that’s how deep cleansing forces the body to go, all the way back to its sources of self-evaluation to name them and purge them and renew them. The naming is most important because it forces a form, even if an undesirable one, the less you like the name or form the quicker you’ll let your body rid itself of whatever parasitic equivalent it might be holding onto or allowing to take hold of it.
By the end of my freshman year, as I was moving into a house with some friends and over my high school baggage, I had a new infatuation, this time with a way less subtle masculine energy, a slam poet from Wisconsin who competed with Sisyphus for my attention by waxing on ad nauseum about his infantile ideas about polyamory and reading me Milan Kundera on the grassy knoll my friends and I luxurated on when we wanted to skip class or fall in love with everyone. Even at the time I knew how ridiculous it was—Kundera, the nineteen-year-old reading it to me as if he knew something, the fact that I obliged out of my insatiable curiosity at what people were willing to display if you let them reach for their edge, and the cactus rose Sisyphus brought me in an attempt to win back my affections at the start of that summer, which I kept and watered for years.
That was the exact moment in my consciousness when I started the habit, unconsciously, of being a kind of Shiva archetype, of letting men fall so in love with me they have to change in the ways that force them to repent for what they’d done to hurt me without even knowing it. There was something about toxic masculinity that I was out to destroy, and maybe something in me, some dead weight, some parasite, that would have to go with it.
In Kundera’s case, he had courted me for months while I knew he was dating other girls and when he finally “chose” me, I spent our almost six years together breaking him down. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but there is something in my survival mechanism that wouldn’t let me just forget that beginning no matter how romantic it all became. There were worms in that bright green grass. When he said you make me so happy, I saw three faces.
Wormwood contains compounds called sesquiterpene lactones that break down a parasite’s membrane. It’s used in anti-malaria medication and it is said that there is no more effective herb on the planet at ridding the body of parasites. While it does this, it also has the potential to tax the liver and give us vivid dreams and make us feel semi drunk. When it’s compound, thujone, is distilled to alcohol, it’s called absinthe. The innocence of cloves needs this kind of accomplice, needs to see all three shadows. And the love that heals through an almost poisonous shock to the system needs the bittersweet innocence to make it palatable. Having let something attached to me that I harbored mistrust of on many levels, I was taking on a kind of energetic parasite, and giving a lot of my energy trying to control it or subconsciously mistrusting myself for allowing it in, instead of waiting for the kind of love that didn’t ask that of me.
This is what I thought I had to do to find romance in America, intoxicate myself, become a little possessed, a little less self-possessed, let it take more than it gave, give even more of myself than was natural in what I thought was retaliation but was actually just a waste of energy, a system of mental and social parasites getting in the way of what I was feeling.
Love in the Time of Invisible Men
That era of unbearable lightness ended my desire for normativity, I despised the so called normal pace of being, it was unbearable. At such a young age I had been so serious, co-habitating, playing wifey, so conformist and traditional in ways that ate away at my spirit, I was performing, testing Americanism’s heartbeat as if it might save me from a destiny of rebuking it, so that when I moved to New York I was symbolically moving into a time of liberation of the archetypes, release from that specific brand of role playing. It took a year or so and new friends and rhythms, a reclaiming of habits like regular dance study that I had subjugated to be in a couple, it took reclaiming those aspects of myself to disentangle. It was in the spring I did my first parasite cleanse and a fast to accompany it that I finally broke away effectively.
Kundera was still so loyal he would bring fresh juice to my apartment while urging me to stop the cleanse because he felt its effect of driving us apart, not knowing that was my intention. I’ve found that any relationship where developing healthier habits, or carving out alone time to contemplate and experiment with new or ancient things is a point of contention, is likely a toxic one. I don’t think I could have accomplished the needed level of letting go of the idea of myself as in a couple, letting go of the work that does for the ego, without the cleanse, because I wouldn’t have given myself the time and space to think that it provided by any other means, I wouldn’t have let myself admit that I wanted my autonomy back more than anything. There would have been no reluctant epiphany. I might have continued poisoning myself in socially acceptable ways indefinitely as this society allows without reprieve.
I Loves You, Porgy
Becoming a poet, a writer, an uncompromising creative person in America, I had the advantage of coming from a family of artists, of having seen my dad accomplish that artistic actualization in his own grand, uncompromising, sometimes dangerous, way. He moved on his own terms or not at all, so that when I was free again, not in a relationship for the first time in my adult life, my new and I thought more advanced dream was a kind of alliance. I craved a creative partnership with a man who understood the hyper-functional seemingly dysfunctional habits that often accompany creative output, a union built on that mutual understanding. I wanted someone as brave and crazy and blatantly talented as my father, but as tender and attentive as myself when I’m real, a collaborator to improvise romance with. I wanted the impossible and only the impossible happens, I chant to myself.
Seduced by my own new and unnamed idea, I met a man who was reading the Miles Davis reader while I was making my way through Derrick Walcott’s Omeros. We met at a show of his at my exact pivot from break up asceticism to readiness to love again. When he asked for my number I wrote it in his Miles Davis reader (for symbolism). We both came from the tradition of black music and there was an unspoken understanding between us that had always been missing, not just from my romantic relationships, but from nearly every relationship I’d known.
Though he was much older, I instantly felt protective of him, like that Nina Simone song “He Needs Me,” I felt a sense of responsibility and fatedness, an instantaneous loyalty. And I was willfully naive, thought that a semi famous hip hop producer was telling the truth more often than that role demands. I watched myself, smiling, rise to the occasion with a level of unconditional love that felt almost mythic. He lived in Los Angeles and I in New York so I sent books and letters, wanted us to speak the same language and overcompensated for the fact that he hadn’t gone to college, by sending Foucault and Derrida and DuBois and them across the country. Also he seemed stuck, trapped in an adolescent consciousness and I wanted to shake something loose in him I guess, give him permission to be even weirder.
I started text messaging with him though I’d been against it before then and had vowed to never even get a smartphone. For the first time, under the spell of those emotions, I saw nothing as a sacrifice. I wanted the connection like I wanted air, it was autonomic and self-propelling. I never felt jealous. I knew late into the night we were both up working on our respective crafts and that was soothing, no one asking me to come to bed earlier than I wanted to. It was soothing to be falling in love with someone who couldn’t always access me and vice versa. It wasn’t until I found out that he was secretly engaged that I realized I still had some emotional parasites grazing my blood, my DNA.
I had gone from the absurdist infatuation of Sisyphus to the precocious domesticity of Kundera to the blinding iconography of Miles. I had been, through eros, digging deeper and deeper into the toxic and liberating thought forms buried in myself, and releasing them so that they could no longer live on my energy undetected, no longer function like parasites. This does not mean it would get easier I learned. More thorough and honest healing does not mean an easier time, or a finer romance, it just means more inevitable, more like deja vu sometimes. I had run from fantasy to fantasy, right back to my father, the force at the heart of my subconscious always making me feel guilty.
It would be through Miles that I would learn, in an unrelenting exercise in psycho cybernetics, just how guilty I felt for my father’s death my whole life, just how many times I have unconsciously fantasized, about what I, the child, would have done differently if my violent genius parent came back today, how I could have fixed it, made a different move, saved the life of a man who needed the peace of the other side, who needed to become his own better angel that way, whose spirit had been trapped in bad language here, who it was not up to me alone to save.
I was trying to save Miles the way I couldn’t save my father, I was enacting delayed repentance, so that even in discovering that he was a pathological liar, the part of me that blamed myself for black men helplessly trapped in their own pathologies forgave it, ate the new lies he fed me, maybe delighted in having such a big ordeal to fix like retracing my steps.
Black Walnut Hull is the third herb in the triumvirate of most parasite cleansing concoctions. Though cloves kill the eggs and the wormwood kills the living parasites in the body, Black Walnut Hull hauls both the eggs and the dead worms out of the body through the bowel. That’s the kind of love this was/is, the kind that externalizes what’s dormant inside, puts it where it must be witnessed and can no longer be denied. It asks, how much are you willing to steal from yourself in an effort to resolve your guilt for issues that were never your fault in the first place? How big of a parasite are you in your own life? And the men who have been my accomplices could never be as powerful as my own will to absolve a guilt that I had to rename as sorrow and then anger and then other-worldly exuberance, reveling in the narrow distance between who I missed most and who if given the chance I might have let devour me alive, my healer and my abuser always hovering at the same light source in my own mind, an aberration in my own concept of guilt and responsibility.
Love, what happened here?
The beauty of the triumvirate of herbs most effective at killing parasites is that they don’t just eradicate the evidence of those things not seen, they break up their life cycle, they very literally break generational curses, proving that if you stagger self-confrontation, approach it in doses instead of trying to bombard the body and psyche with the artifice of automatic recovery that western modalities often promise, if you reject the normative approach to integration and embrace rupture, you will eventually destroy self-sabotage at its root, force that impulse to die in you and find enough energy to no longer carry around its carcass. It gets macabre but there are just so many facts we don’t face about our own fetishization of toxicity and helplessness here, so many ways we disguise our own unwillingness to take responsibility for what we harbor.
There are over 1,000 different kinds of parasites that can live in the human body. At least as many nuances of eros. Each is its own subtle or extreme disaster or revelation often masquerading as something else entirely because these living supra-conscious organisms can hide in every organ including the eyes, the ears, the brain, the liver, the heart. Not acknowledging this makes us walking hearses who function under the will of the parasites, our cravings and moods can be driven by them, a percentage of our waste is theirs, they ride our souls and hijack our bodies for transport. The why still confounds me sometimes. If it’s naturally occurring in the ecosystem, why is so bad? Sade’s famous question. The question at the gate of all dangerous love. But like many of the things we falsely call natural here, parasitic overgrowth is not natural at all.
It took me years to give toxic masculinity its problem back, to stop believing it was all my fault when men I loved were sick or depressed or reckless with that love or just not worthy of it. At this stage, this solstice’s cleanse, I’m busy remembering what I’m worthy of, how not to give too much, but also not to withhold in ways that do the same damage. I can smell the cloves again, sense them, and I’m giddily walking toward their glow ignoring all the haunted signs on the bodies of men pretending to be fine for attention or anonymity, either way a drifting song. And when I reach the wavering billow of clove smoke there’s a mirror, smoke and mirrors where the other would have been, which is to say I really don’t care as much who’s there signaling healing or trying to trigger trauma to get my attention as long as I am present— no one is replacing my reflection again, I really won’t fix any man who doesn’t know he has a problem, I really won’t love like television ever again, maybe like the movies, maybe like move from around me with any parasitic tendencies. Sometimes I get a little nostalgic for my desire to be tethered, to be defined in terms of a man, but it’s a fake nostalgia that always stems from how nominally easy it would be, to be less of a threat to this society if I just satisfied a category, if I just picked a tradition I don’t identify with and tried to abide, or picked a man with a few less complexes and tried to love in pursuit of that kind of security.
Instead I focus, clock every energy that takes without giving back with heightened certainty now, I see the parasitic reflexes in every human environment so that when they activate I don’t get as distraught as I once did. Instead I become vigilant, look for the ways I’m neglecting myself and try to correct it. I have become a servant of my own laws, my own will, so much so that sometimes I want to rebel against myself for entertainment, and sometimes I do just to remind myself it’s not worth it. We can’t choose who we love and what trauma they come with, what parasites, but we can choose how, what trauma of theirs we take on, what transference, and we can decide to let the experience be an adventure instead of a punishment, and we can dismiss anyone who thinks they aren’t infested with the poison of other people’s wills, or worms and flukes and fungus dulling their emotions and intelligence until all interaction seems like a competition for resources in abject scarcity consciousness, we can tell them no one is exempt and that love is knowing when to cleanse that out, as well as when to face it and let it be, before an inability to face the demons you carry comes to define your identity.
There is no greater love
“Nigga, you aren’t abstract,” is one of the most loving phrases I’ve ever heard constructed in the English language. I can’t remember where I first found it, but if we say that to one another back and forth and in action, we will exist in love and trance, a promise. I think women who defy category and are both vulnerable and powerful and learn how to stop apologizing for it, confound a society bent on our subjugation and are hard to just accept as real, and so we have a hard time accepting ourselves as such. We attract energetic parasites for having so much to give, we ensconced ourselves in impossible archetypes for lack of other examples.
Even as a girl I embraced mythic proportions in the service of the adults around me and in love I’ve done the same as a defense and a reflex. Before you realize my power I exert it as disarming tenderness. It took years of the meditative quality of really thinking about the body as it embraces the spirit for me to realize that I don’t have to do that, that I can harness my power and still expect those I love to remember that I’m real, and cannot be taken from without boundary or reciprocation just because I have the capacity, the need really, to give. Excessive care taking, giving indiscriminately, is also parasitic to the self. Parasite cleansing to commemorate summer is really about waking the sleeping forces within, demanding that they enter into this season’s light to be named and if need be, dismantled. Simply starting the day with a cup of clove tea is enough to remind the biology what to love and what burn for kindling, what is love and vitality and what is just a story the mind and body tell themselves to make suffering glamorous and exciting.
Once the thieves leave you’re left with that uncomfortable feeling of missing the pain and struggle, and then the joie de vivre returns and you tell yourself it’s safe to smuggle yourself back in, and the reclamation is as harrowing as it is anticlimactic, clemency for the spirit that could have spent this whole lifetime neglecting itself except enough doses of the wrong kind of attachment broke the spell. We must relearn the ancient feeling of our energy being our own, of giving and receiving in balanced proportions, producing what we consume so we understand excess and deprivation on a visceral level, and we can’t do that if we don’t face that we live in a world of gross and subtle parasitic tendencies. We just have to try and be the ones who don’t need to feed on anything we don’t ourselves possess innately, to make that understanding of our own inner-resources common and uncanny at the same time. Now she pushes her own heart up the mountain, now she carries it down with a poultice of herbs and dreams to remember.
Harmony Holiday is the author of Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues and most recently Hollywood Forever. She is also the founder of Mythscience, an arts production house devoted to cross-disciplinary work that helps artists re-engage with their bodies, the Mingus School, its first series of events, and the Afrosonics archive of jazz and everyday diaspora poetics. She worked on the SOS, The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka, transcribing all of his poetry recorded with jazz accompaniment that had yet to be released in print. Harmony studied rhetoric and at UC Berkeley and taught for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She received her MFA from Columbia University and has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a NYFA Fellowship. She is currently working on a book of poems about reparations and the body, a collection of essays on the same topic, and a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.