dreaming bill

(Updated 2/15/07: There will be two memorial services for Bill at Bastyr University, one on Friday Feb. 23 at 5:30 pm in the chapel, moving to the fire circle on the hill above the herb garden at 6:30. The second will be the following day, Saturday Feb 24, a formal service in the chapel at 2 pm that will be webcast)

My spirit buddy and teacher, Dr. 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. They both died of myocardial infarction ("heart attack").

Bill was one of the co-founders of the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine, where I went to medical school, which has since grown up to become Bastyr University.

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 his brilliance, 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 he didn't hide from it or hide it from those of us who orbited him.

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
and 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.