July 30, 2020
On Embodied Healing and Honoring the Collective with Desiree Thompson
“There is something that feels urgent about figuring out what we need to be able to feel okay and safe in the embodiments that we already carry. That to me feels like the best way to honor Earth as a resource that is not infinite, to counter notions of capitalist consumption, and to give respect to the traditions and the cultures that hold and carry this wisdom internally.” - Desiree Thompson, Nana Catherine’s Apothecary
Desiree in the Sycamore apothecary.
What was it that called you to create Nana Catherine’s Apothecary? What was the significance and power of naming it “Nana Catherine’s” Apothecary, as opposed to something else?
“My entrance into this work wasn’t glamorous. It almost, on an ego level, didn’t feel like a choice. I had constructed this really performative persona for myself that was based around doing something that would be validated by a large number of people. I have an art background, and at that time, was working towards being a curator. I was very interested in a job that was fast-paced, centered around working in art but kind of had this celebrity aspect to it. I was very interested in a means of keeping myself safe, but really I was keeping myself small. I was not at all able to keep up with the pace of that life. I had struggles with mental health--particularly depression, anxiety, and very drastic mood swings. My interest in what it meant to feel well came from a very selfish ‘what do I need to do to get rid of these very inconvenient aspects of myself, so I can go back to whatever kind of life is going to make people like me; to give me enough money to protect myself from being hurt?’
It wasn’t until I tried acupuncture that I was like, ‘what if part of your healing meant accepting that you’re not broken?’ I think there’s something really seductive about thinking that you’re broken, because it either means that you feel like you have no control over what’s happening or you feel like you have total control. The latter is where I tended towards: this idea that I could cherry-pick parts of me, to be able to curate myself to fit in with society. Luckily, my body and my ancestors were like ‘this is not why you were called here. This is not the highest expression of yourself.’
I don’t talk about this very often, but I think it’s important for people to know. I had an episode that would clinically be diagnosed as a psychotic break. I was experiencing myself in a very dissociative way. But what came through was the first time that I experienced hearing ancestors speaking to me. This was a choice point for me: ‘do you want to continue to be working in a way that dishonors who you are and the gifts that you carry, or do you wanna do what you came here to do?’
I look at that as an initiation, and an invitation to add energy work and spiritual practice to the ways that I had been caring for myself (therapy and medication).
At that point, the first ancestor that I recognized or felt connected to was my Nana Catherine. She is, or was, my paternal grandmother. I’m named for her: Desiree Catherine. She died when my dad was 14. I never met her. I knew that I wanted to name it after her because she came to me when I was really scared about this shift that my life had taken and, really, this opening in what it means to have deeper interactions with how I experience reality. I felt her presence and I felt safe and supported in exploring these areas. The apothecary part comes from my maternal great, great grandmother Annie Brooks (Nana Dear) who had a general store in North Philly. I feel like a lot of what I’m doing is returning; giving honor to both of those women.”
Nana Catherine pictured inside the room where Desiree practices.
How has your own journey as an energetic being shaped and impacted your journey as an energy worker? Why have you chosen to work primarily within the mediums you have (reiki, alchemy, herbalism, inner child work, among some others) to help bring healing energy to other beings?
“I think being ethnically Black American, there are lots of feelings of separation and disconnection particularly from the body and from aspects of honoring and being able to trust intuition. You know, I’m descended from American children of slavery so this is generations of the type of chronic violence and trauma that would make being embodied and being present in your day to day reality almost like, torturous. There’s this idea that we are bereft of culture and a lot of cultural qualities that were indigenous to us we no longer are connected to. So many of us have very fraught relationships with our ancestors. There are still questions and lack of knowledge about what it means to be connected to your energy or your spirit. I always say plants are our first ancestors, the elements are our first ancestors. I didn’t have a tradition that I could lean back on. Learning about plants, that’s really where my physical journey begins to understand more about my own energy and how my body works.
From there, I started being very interested in West African spiritual systems, East Asian spiritual systems, anything that was not white or that viewed healing as a matter of symptoms but instead like ‘what does balance look like for you?’ Working with herbs and building a relationship with plants was a low-stress permission for me to explore and get curious about myself. From there, I went on what I like to call a divination spree. I was obsessed with having people tell me about what I needed. One tarot reader was like, ‘I feel like you should learn reiki.’
A lot of the trainings that I did were desperate. I always started out with, ‘how do I want my life to feel? What do I want my experience of my life to be? What do I want to bring into this life that feels more of ease and less pressure?’ Reiki for me was about being okay with what you don’t see, and not having to have something concrete and physical for you to know it’s real. The practice of reiki opened something in me for what was possible. I’d come up against so much of what was not possible in the art world, in the world of Western medicine. Energy work, reiki, in particular, opened up what it meant for healing to be done collectively and to be done with simple tools, like your hands, proximity, breath, awareness. I also thought energy work felt really familiar, as a Black person. This is my opinion, but it’s part of that spiritual evolution, especially with being oppressed that we are learned to be tapped into different frequencies and helped us to make choices for ourselves the best that we could.”
Details from Desiree’s space in the apothecary.
I understand that you just transitioned from working individually to becoming a member of the Sycamore collective? How has that transition impacted your journey, and perhaps even your collective-oriented work?
“It shocked me, what that transition felt like and meant for me. I was moving from a couple of different contexts. I had my own studio space in North Philly. When my family migrated from the South, that’s where they came. That’s familiar for me. The neighborhood I was in was not gentrified. It felt like a very familiar and supportive space for me to experiment. I was also over-top of two incredible businesses, the Sable Collective and Duafe Natural Hair Salon so there was this literal shoulders and foundation that I could rest upon while I let myself unfold unto myself. I knew intuitively that I wasn’t going to be there for a long time, but I knew that I had to get over the fear of having relationships with people. There’s this way in which I performed a lot of my relationships. There’s an aspect to this practice that is extremely healing for me because I learned what it could look like to be safe to have relationships with people, and how many forms that could take.
It was probably about 10 months in that I started getting a call that the next level was working in community with people, and I was like ‘nah.’ But the call is the call, and the journey is the journey. Kelly actually came to see me and there was this radical idea in their mind that was like ‘what if I took over this lease with other practitioners?’ Immediately I was like, ‘this is the window.’ The move to West Philly was also really hard, in a part that was gentrified. In the 90s, I started underground at Penn and this part of the neighborhood was where you’d go to be and not have to deal with that institution. To return here and for things to be so different, there was a lot of grief. There was also grief again about having to share space with other people, because again it’s that trigger for me that’s like ‘stay hidden, there gonna see you.’ But I knew enough about my life and how it works for me that I was like, ‘this is the next level.’ It also helped that the people who are in this space are fucking incredible.
It was really rough initially, but the more I do it the better I get. At first it was like, there’s too much noise. Then I was like, relax, you’re trying to over control. There was a moment I was like, ‘see this is how it was done, any kind of healing or ritual work. It wasn’t done in perfect isolation in a sterile environment. It was done while kids were running around and laughing and people were cooking and sharing.’ The unlearning is constant. I was able to feel the strength that I was doing knowing that other folks were in there also working. It just magnifies it.”
Marsha P. Johnson pictured, framed in the apothecary.
Outside of your listed offerings and connections, are there any practices you’ve implemented or traditions you draw from in your personal ritual of caring for yourself? Which practices do you often find yourself most strongly in relation with?
“I think what ritual looks like for me has changed. It changes all the time, which I think is something that I don’t know is talked about enough. Ritual is designed to be very dynamic; it’s something that is supposed to be able to meet you where you are, which is going to be different. When I first started learning about ritual, which I wasn’t raised with, prayer is probably the first place where ritual came up for me. What it means to pray, and how you pray is something that also will change. For me, I’m a nature baby. Being in the woods and being by the beach, being outside in general under the sky is prayer for me. When I’m afraid, I look to nature and the elements to reflect or model to me what it means to be big, to be connected to everything, to be supported in a way that is available always.
A lot of ritual for me evolves around having a relationship with the elements. I love fire, I’m an Aries. Being with fire, whether that’s lighting a candle and being still or giving things to the fire like burning beliefs about myself that no longer serve me. That was critical for me when I first started untangling the ways that I showed up to the world that were based on things that weren’t innate to me, like the need to be validated or to show people that I was worth being in spaces. I would write them on paper and give them to the fire as a way of alchemizing my fear and returning it to me as an understanding that was about instead being interested in what I already possessed. Water is a big one, I love baths. That’s where I do a lot of my ‘still downloading’ or what I call receiving messages from Spirit. Water is such a great teacher in what it means to be fluid, in what it means to trust, to be able to move in a way that keeps you moving forward but also allows for the things that come up in your path. Ritual, I believe, is about being in gratitude and also having it feel good. I feel like a lot of what I do now is around calling in and thanking the elements and calling in and thanking my ancestors.”
What advice would you give to a person who has found themselves on the path of spiritualism or energy work and is seeking to grow their connection to their craft and the sacred energy? What is one piece of guidance you wish someone had given you when you had just become aware of your journey as an energy worker?
“This process is really about you. It’s really for you and about you, and anything that you do with that is going to be directly related to how well you’re in relationship with yourself, like how well you allow emotion to show up on your body or your ability to receive. Are you okay with receiving help, energy, guidance, wisdom? Or are you just used to giving? There’s this aspect of learning or looking at healing as being in a relationship with understanding and coming to know and coming to give attention to yourself first that is critical. I think sometimes there is a rush to understand or come to know yourself through external means or external tools. I think that being able to know and bring more of yourself into your lived experience is a gentler and more respectful way to go about this journey or what it means for you to feel well then to focus on trying to move yourself to where I am now or someplace that I think I should be or where I want to be now because this place is really painful. You know, what do I need to be with myself and this pain? It may feel like a very small thing but it’s a very different energy to approach yourself with. It’s like, ‘how do I understand that who I am right now is the strongest medicine I possess?’
The other thing I think that it’s about is cultivating a practice of discernment between when it’s called healing and calling back those fractured pieces of yourself and when it’s time for acceptance of what is. I think there can be this overindulgence in being healed, and there are aspects of you that are always going to be away or maybe not what you thought or what you hoped for yourself but I think this is what it means to understand that we are in connection to our bodies, to each other, and to nature. There are parts that maybe it’s more about how we foster a relationship to it, rather than how we heal out of it.”
Desiree with her monstera plant.
How has spiritualism shaped and impacted your entrepreneurial journey? What do you feel is the potential of accepting alternative forms of currency? What do you feel is the importance of providing this work and accessible rates in this age of commercialized self-care, climate change, and co-opted and appropriated spiritual traditions?
“I have a very interesting relationship with money and economics. I’m much more interested in resources, figuring out what I need, and being open to many different ways to get it. I feel like money is cool but it’s just a tool and it has been completely exploited at this point. Especially because the way that money operates, particularly in the West, is based on the exploitation of labor and overconsumption. For me, I wanted to be based on what was organic for me to offer and it was important for that to be my value because it’s very easy to move from your values when money becomes the central growth point, which in business that’s literally what it is and so that’s not my growth point. That’s not to trivialize money, but when I was building this practice, I knew that it had to make space for who I am and the things that I value, and had to be more than just a way for me to sustain myself. It needed to be a way for me to show up and offer things in ways that aren’t quite available or popular. I likely will not grow in the way that other businesses will grow.
There’s ways in which I also want to try to kind of queer how to be in business and what it means to be in business. What if business is literally just sustaining, learning how to operate and get all the juice out of where you are now, and figuring out how relationships and connections build resource? That’s why I’m very into barter and pay what you wish. I feel like it gives honor to what it meant to be in community with folks. You had a gift and you had something to offer, they had a gift and they had something to offer, and you exchanged it. It helps remind us of the things that we inherit, maybe they don’t have a dollar value in society but they are no less valuable. In the wellness industry, I feel like we need to get a little more imaginative with how we show up in the spaces. This idea of charging what you’re worth, absolutely. If that’s important to you, think about how you can be fed and have your worth acknowledged that is outside of money, ways that are not directly related to this time equals money equation. I’m always interested in ways that we can honor our gifts as more of an exchange while not also blocking access to folks.
Our own presence and trust of ourselves is the greatest tool we could ever possess and it also can’t be taken away from us. I come from a line of folks that didn’t have a plethora of herbs or tools to work with, but still were able to grow and keep their magic. All I’m asking for us is to examine how we can make this more sustainable because resources are finite. There’s always gonna be a cost, so I self-care in and of itself, I would love for people to think of it more as self-response which most of the time don’t look like something external. It looks like shifting, and changing, and listening to what is required at any given moment.”