The Lost Lords of Neverwhere

Alley Valkyrie —  May 2, 2014 — 20 Comments

[Author’s Note: These events took place a few years prior to this writing, and I have attempted to recall the story as accurately and honestly as possible with the acknowledgment that certain specific details have faded in my memory, specifically concerning the amounts of time that had actually elapsed over the course of these events. Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.]

“Help! Quick!”

We ran over as quickly as we could. Sprawled out in the ground, covered in mud was a young man who I knew as Kiley in the middle of what appeared to be a seizure. A girl stood over him, rolling him up onto his side as we approached. “Go find Bear,” she yelled in our direction. “Quick, go find Bear.”

I looked over at my companion who ran over with me, a short, pixyish girl who called herself Sprout. “Who’s Bear?” I asked her, silently hoping that whoever Bear was, he or she had emergency medical training. My cell phone was long dead, it was the middle of the night, and my car was many blocks away.

“Bear’s our shaman. She’s the only one who can make it stop.”

Sprout took off running, and I stayed in place there, frozen, the borders between reality and fantasy once again blurred beyond comprehension. I had overheard talk of seizures a few times over the past week, but like so much of what I had heard, I had initially taken it with a grain of salt, dismissing it as the exaggerated fantasy of attention-seeking youth. And yet, in what was rapidly becoming a noticeable pattern, at that moment the fantasy was all too real. As I stood there wondering where I could run for help, Sprout returned with another girl, one even younger and more pixyish than herself. Bear was barely five feet tall, wore a floor-length red coat, and carried herself with an authority that one wouldn’t expect from such a young, slight creature.

I stood there and watched as Bear crouched over Kiley, put her hand on his forehead, and started to chant in a low voice while waving her other hand up and down in a steady rhythm. After what seemed like only seconds, his seizures started to cease. She stood up, held her hands over him and shouted an indecipherable phrase, and before I knew it Kiley was sitting up and asking for water.

I looked at Sprout, incredulous. “What the hell was that?” I asked. “Is he epileptic?”

“Several people have had seizures over the past few weeks,” she replied. “Bear says that we’re under attack.”

“Under attack from whom?” I asked.

“Probably another street family, although I think it also might be the police. They hire psychics all the time, you know…”

I had learned very early on that trying to challenge such a belief was not only an exercise in frustration and futility, but that doing so quickly eroded the trust that had been built between us. Nonetheless it was often hard to bite my tongue. The idea that the local police department would hire psychics to afflict street kids with seizures was absolutely ludicrous as far as I was concerned. But until a few minutes before, the idea that a homeless teenage “shaman” could take away a street kid’s seizures through chanting would have seemed absurd to me as well, and I had just witnessed such a thing with my very own eyes. At that moment, anything seemed possible. I stayed silent and simply nodded.

“We have a protection ritual planned for tomorrow,” Sprout added. “We’re letting some of the others know.”

By “the others” Sprout was undoubtedly referring to members and/or heads of other street families, ones who they considered to be allies as opposed to foes. I nodded again, and excused myself to get some coffee. At that moment, I had an overwhelming need to step away and think.

The simple truth was that they were under attack, although the nature of that attack was overwhelmingly bureaucratic and systematic as opposed to the type of energetic warfare that Sprout was convinced of. Their presence was unwelcome wherever they went, and both law enforcement and the business community had taken many deliberate steps over the years in order to clear them from public space, none that have ever succeeded in the long-term. The tools and tactics changed regularly, but the constant oppression and harassment aimed towards this population had been apparent to me for years, and over that time it had become clear to me that this group and others like them were a poorly understood, harshly judged, and frequently targeted population that was literally fighting to survive in a community that openly declares their visibility to be “undesirable”.

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Most people simply refer to them as “street kids” and they self-identify as such for the most part, although many of them are in their mid-to-late twenties, and a few even older than that. The youngest among them are in their mid-teens, although as a general rule every one of them insists that they are 18. Most of them are current or former teenage runaways, and some of them have lived on the streets of Eugene for many years. In Oregon running away from home is not illegal, and while police and social service agencies often attempt to reunite runaways with their parents whenever possible, very often these runaways have fled legitimately abusive or neglectful situations and returning home is not in their best interest. For better or for worse, and sound arguments can be made for both, teens who leave home are legally allowed to fend for themselves, and many of them prefer a dangerous and unstable life on the streets over the dangerous and unstable homes that they were raised in. As a result “street families” composed mostly of young runaways can be found throughout Oregon’s urban areas. Police are often quick to profile these street families as “gangs”, and while certain individuals within the street families sometimes engage in petty crime in order to survive, these groups are anything but criminal enterprises. The family is a source of protection and solidarity for its members in the face of legitimate oppression and danger and within the familial units that the street kids create; both love and power are cultivated, recognized and shared.

Initially brought together by their commonality as runaway, at-risk, or wayward youth, what became quickly evident upon spending time with this specific street family and has been echoed in my experiences with others is the way that they have bonded together and almost universally attached themselves to a strong and deliberate shared culture and nature-based belief system, one that I have come to refer to as “street paganism.” From the outside it is best described as a cobbling together of ideas and beliefs drawn from pop culture, fantasy novels, “Wicca 101” books, games such as “Magic The Gathering,” and aspects of the West Coast counter-cultural movement. All those influences are deeply intertwined with the many realities of street culture: scarcity, mental illness, social and behavioral disorders, a culture of substance abuse and self-medicating and the psychic toll that living in constant survival mode has on a person. Additionally the runaway youth factor introduces a whole other set of factors and challenges, namely the psychological scars from abuse and neglect combined with a lack of education and social skills.

All of these influences, tendencies, and identities converge to create a day-to-day worldview and functional reality that this street family operates within, a world that can either be interpreted as an elaborately dramatic and paranoid fantasy or a legitimate shadow reality operating right next to our own. At the beginning I had assumed it to be more of a fantasy than anything else, but I had come a long way rather quickly to a point where I absolutely could not deny or otherwise explain what I was experiencing alongside them other than to simply accept it for what it was. This was a world-within-a-world, one that I would have easily scoffed at in any other circumstance. Many of them self-identified as witches, mages, warlocks, or shamans, and such identities were not only a source of personal power, but were recognized as positions of power and authority within their communities, with those who do not identify as such usually granting an unwavering respect and deference towards those who do. They were untrained and undisciplined, headstrong and often reckless, and yet they seemingly created a whole that was not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also acted as protection and container for those parts.

I thought back to the seizure and what I had witnessed. I sure didn’t think that either the police nor any rival street families were engaged in psychic attack against this group, and I was also skeptical that Bear actually had the power and skill to simply stop another person from seizing through chanting and hand gestures. But what I did know for sure was that they weren’t just faking this scenario for my benefit. While I was doubtful that the seizures were of a solely physiological origin, what had just occurred before me was anything but an act. There were legitimate factors at play here and I couldn’t help but wonder if what I had witnessed was some sort of manifestation of the severe trauma and pain that Kiley and so many others are forced to suppress in order to function and survive in the day-to-day.

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

I did not witness the ritual that Sprout and Bear had planned for the next day, but when I returned later in the day I was assured that it had been successful and that they were safe from further attack for the time being. Sure enough the seizures tapered off, although the paranoia and obsession around the idea of being psychically targeted only seemed to strengthen as the seizures faded. The belief that they were under attack was nearly universal among them as was the idea that Bear was protecting them from an ugly fate.

I thought about my own understandings of how they were under “attack” by law enforcement and the business community in light of their own beliefs about the sources and nature of such attacks. It occurred to me that I had a language and framework for understanding the realities of their oppression that they themselves lacked. I understood these attacks through policies and procedures, by interpreting and constantly revisiting information that I’ve observed and gathered through years of my paying attention to local government and the business community.  The street kids, on the other hand, understood the attacks through their personal experiences with the attitudes and energies directed at them combined with the fears and fantasies of their peers. If I had walked through life in their shoes, I thought to myself, I would very likely obsessively perceive such experiences as a constant form of psychic attack as well.

Over the next few weeks, I paid attention to their many ideas and theories, analyzing and thinking through their day-to-day habits and rituals as though I was observing an established folk religion. I noticed immediately that the more I assumed and accepted their reality as synonymous with my own, the more I was able to understand and experience the power of their connection. Their loyalty and generosity towards each other was heart-breakingly beautiful and the importance and strength of their family as an energetic unit became more and more apparent to me as the days went on.

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Some time later, I stopped by unexpectedly to drop off some fruit when I came across Kiley sprawled in the pathway, once again, in the midst of seizures. This time, I yelled for help. Two street kids ran over and I asked them if Bear was around. She was away, they told me. They did not know where she had gone, but she had been away for a few days. I looked around and saw a police car idling in a nearby parking lot. I told the kids to stay there and ran across the street. I spoke briefly with the officer and, within a minute or two, a team of paramedics pulled up and quickly approached Kiley who was still seizing on the ground, his friends kneeled over him. I ran over right behind them.

As I stood there watching, my thoughts were racing faster than ever. Was Kiley’s seizure somehow connected to Bear’s absence? If not, what was the trigger? Or was Kiley simply an epileptic? But if so, how to properly explain what I had witnessed a few weeks before?

Suddenly, one of the paramedics turned towards me, his eyes flashing with anger. “What kind of B.S. is this?” he asked me.

I stared at him, utterly confused.

“I can’t believe this crap. This kid’s faking it,” he continued. “I’ve been working this gig for nearly a decade. That’s no epileptic seizure.” He looked down at Kiley. “Get up,” he yelled. “Get up.”

I was speechless. I looked down at Kiley, writhing in the mud, his seizures slowing but not ceasing, and then back at the paramedic standing over him, yelling for him to get up. Once again, I had no idea what to think. At that moment, Kiley turned onto his other side and projectile vomited. His seizing stopped and he promptly fainted.

“Was he faking that too?” I asked.

The paramedic looked straight at me, and the anger in his eyes had turned to fear. “What kind of sorcery, what kind of trickery is this?” he asked. “Who are you? Do you know this kid?”

“I don’t know what it is,” I replied. “Who I am is none of your business. And yes, I know that kid, although not well. I came across him seizing on the ground, and I called for help. Nobody’s trying to trick you.” I nodded towards Kiley. While the one paramedic and I had been arguing, the other paramedic had revived Kiley and was checking his vital signs as he weakly sat upright.

Kiley declined the recommended trip to the hospital, and the paramedic who had revived Kiley strongly recommended that he see a doctor as soon as possible in order to be tested for epilepsy. The other paramedic was silent and I could tell by his expression and demeanor that his sense of reality had been thrown for as much of a loop as mine had been a few weeks earlier. Despite his behavior, I felt strongly empathetic toward him in that moment.

A few hours later, I sat down with Sprout to talk about the incident. “You don’t believe he was faking it, do you?” she asked me.

“No,” I replied, “but that doesn’t necessarily answer anything for me, either. I’m never quite sure what I believe anymore. As of late I feel like I’m stuck in a fantasy novel and I’m not sure which way is up.”

“Which novel?” she asked.

“Sometimes you all remind me of ‘the Lost Boys,’ other times I think of Lord of the Flies, and when I’m in these situations I often feel like the main character in Neverwhere or something similar.”

She looked over at me. I could tell by her silence that she did not recognize any of my references and yet it was obvious to me that she understood exactly what I was trying to express nonetheless.

“Well, if I put that all together, we’re the Lost Lords of Neverwhere.” she finally said to me. “That sounds like the name of a good novel. That sounds tough.”

Walking home, I thought about Bear and Kiley, whom I immediately realized would be etched in my mind forevermore as the Lost Lords of Neverwhere. It sounded tough, yes, but I hoped that besides feeling tough, this group of street kids also realized that they were not nearly as lost as so many people think they were. Their perspectives, ideas, and cultural norms are lost on most, they are lost without a place in our present society, and some of them have lost their way as a consequence of the lives they have been forced into, but overall they are anything but lost. Overall, it is what they have created and actualized within their own world, their own Neverwhere, that speaks loudest of all to me. And while I still cannot explain the specific whys behind teenage shamans and mysterious seizures, over time the experience has demonstrated a value far beyond what would be gained with the discovery of any definitive answer. Their ability to create their own reality, for better or for worse, gives me hope that some of them will one day be able to create their own proper place in the world on their own terms. In the meantime, whenever I think of the Lost Lords of Neverwhere, I am reminded that the presence of mystery does not always deliberately obscure the answer, and yet often teaches meaningful lessons that the simple answers simply can’t.

 

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Alley Valkyrie

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  • Maja

    I just wanted to say that he might not have actually be epilepsy/true seizures, there are lots of psychosomatic reasons people have pseudo-seizures and it might not be a “real” seizure but it doesn’t mean he’s intentionally faking it, if that makes sense. And there’s nothing you can do to stop a convulsion they usually just stop on their own, but I’m sure the fact that he feels comforted and supported by his friends helps him calm down.

    Sorry to be a Debby Downer, I do think this is a great article but as someone who just took a neurology exam today I felt compelled to clarify some things about seizures/epilepsy! I think that you do a lot of great work with homeless people in Oregon and I always look forward to your articles, I think they’re the most real expression of using paganism constructively to further real social justice and be introspective with out coming off as navelgazing.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I was forced to accept the reality of energy healing when my wife successfully treated a migraine of mine with Reiki. Looks to me like Bear is an untrained “natural” in such things. It would be tragic if she never hooks up with someone who can channel her talent into a real healing vocation.

    • Stacey Lawless

      It sounds to me like she has a real healing vocation already. Her people go to her for help, after all.

  • http://quakerpagan.org Cat C-B

    This is really profoundly moving. Thank you so much for sharing in such an open, personal way.

    Some of our experiences can be hard to sort through–how many of us are willing to admit that? Your willingness to be vulnerable and honest, together with your clear respect for the street families, and your compassion for their struggle makes this piece powerful.

  • Tony Rella

    This article is wonderful. In my experiences working with homeless youth, I have been amazed by the supportive, nurturing communities they’ve created for themselves, as life-sustaining as they can be. I am so glad for this window into a piece of that culture.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    For years, there has been a connection between police forces and psychics. There are publicised cases of this (with mixed results, it must be said), and has been the subject of popular media attention (in the form of fiction).

    As such, is it really that big of a leap to suppose that a force already shown to be oppressive to the demographic, utilise psychics against the homeless? I’d be surprised if there were any laws against it, after all.

    Ignoring the possibility of “psychic energy” for a moment, it is easy to suggest psychosomosis as a trigger, and cure, for the seizures.

    Either way, these events should be considered real, as the physical aspect is certainly empirically provable.

    • Friday

      You know, ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ was based on one of my favorite urban myths from my streety times. The story there being that it’s basically impracticable for government conspiracies out to oppress the little guy to use psychics for the purpose because it’s basically impossible to be simultaneously psychic and that sociopathic. (The myth is they actually tried and found it out the hard way that no one who could do that stuff was willing to, … the mythic truth about it is it’s actually pretty similar. :) )

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        I see absolutely no reason why someone cannot be psychic and sociopathic.

  • E

    Your articles always remind me to try to be a better human towards our less fortunate kin. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, this was a beautifully written article.

  • Stacey Lawless

    Fantastic article, Alley. There’s a great deal of food for thought here. Thank you for writing this up.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    Utterly beautiful piece, my friend.

    When I worked with the homeless and mentally-ill in Seattle, a story would repeat itself in their narratives so often that it seemed odd. They’d speak of “machines” under the University that would sometimes turn on and strange things would happen. As one person described it, “they turn those machines on and I feel it when they do, and I piss myself, and then I can find lost items for people.” Others agreed with this person’s assessment. Others attributed other effects to these “machines.”

    It was a bizarre story that I never made anything of until having a vision of the place they spoke of years later, with a white tower rising from the ground deep into the grey sky above it.

    What was going on? I still don’t know. But what I’ve learned of land spirits and wells of power and the permeability of the psyches of the dispossessed, I think on those stories now with a different wonder and a less dismissive approach.

    Thank you endlessly for writing this.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    The street kids have created their own tribes and find way to fulfill the needs of the groups even to the point of healers and I would assume when need be warriors and also peacemakers.

    As for reality I have my own doubts as to what is reality and what is merely our construct of it. We are by nature subjective creatures and as a result the reality re perceive is only what we can sense and understand. That may be affected no only by the differences in the quality of our five senses, but our intelligence wheither we are pattern seers or specialists, our level of education, the culture, that we have developed in, and also what we are capable of believing and not capable of believing. We tend to see and feel what we expect to see and fel and miss what we don’t expect to see or feel or whatever we think not directly affect us personally.

    This might well explain why we have no problem communicating with people who precieve similar subjective reality but talk pass th those that perceive very different reality.

    I notice in your article that as you absorbed their view of reality that you had an easier time of understanding their situation. That is very rare, for most human beings who have a need for a fixed unchangable reality, even during times of shifting reality. The ability to accept other possible realities is a great vaule for adaption. Considering that we are entering a time of weather and cimate change that may be a needed survial ability.

    Age and development can change our perception,as can severe illness, medication, being hydrated or not, any other physical, or mental or emotional stress, use of various mood changing and sense changing drugs, and even the experiencing of near dying all affect our preception of reality.

    I have gone through all of these things at various times and admit at this stage I do not competely trust any reality when I know a small chemical change in my brain can change what reality that I experience.

    What we call objective reality is more likely little more than mutually aggreed upon subjective reality and if there is an actual objective reality, we will never be able to sense but a small part.

    I am sure my cats reality is quite different from mine and that the desert plants outside have their own precieved reality as well. All of those realities are just as real as mine.

  • Friday

    Thanks for talking this stuff, Valkyrie: a couple of points that may be of use, though: Not all siezures under these circumstances are epileptic: epilepsy tends to result in someone pretty completely *checking out* to most shamanic, never mind psychosomatic help. For the sake of not starting debates, I’ll try to speak neutrally on the spiritual/magical end of things, but the stresses on kids in those linds of situations can be very significant on the nervous system, chemistry, and other factors. (There’s also the possibility of *inhalants* to look out for, though it doesn’t even have to be that. Look for paint around the nostrils or chemical smells: it’s considered a ‘third world’ problem but it happens.)

    Secondly, ‘psychic attack’ is a common complaint/malady which can be self-reinforcing. It’s a common way for charlatans of teachers to mess with people, (Usually my first suspect if someone’s under psychic attack is the techer that told them they’re under psychic attack, even, ) but also something that can be a real magical dynamic under circumstances like you describe. People tend to want to orient to and shield against threats, especially when they don’t know where they’re coming from: Can be almost like the opposite number of a witch-hunt, even, in groups. Can raise a lot of power but tends to turn back on itself. You won’t explain it psychologically or socially, not fully, cause that’s damn real enough. Most people in this readership will tend to see magic as something properly done with care and effort and discipline and not having outstanding problems to afflict the mind end of things. These kids don’t have that kind of luxury. Obviously they have to manage it, even when in it. (And I think that’s what you’re seeing there with ‘Bear.’) Even when they shouldn’t by some theories have to.

    (Yes, this all actually sounds quite legit to me. Just younger kids than I was once used to seeing. The tricky part is the siege mentality…. Not something they can be talked out of, I think, but breath work, B-vitamins, and being patient about the positivity can be good things to teach. These can be pretty scary circumstances, but people also find a way to cope. *especially* kids. If my experience holds, they just need a little more than self-defense to be maybe really something. I would try not to think that defense is the root problem. It’s a monstrous situation, but sometimes people need mosters they can hope to face. And that Bear could possibly be a real good healer for her tribe. Sounds like she’s doing the job, just might be wanting some information and better practice. )

  • RollingHerEyes

    Alley, this is a wonderful article, thank you. I too was struck by the fantasy novel feel of it all, but to me what came racing to mind was all the books by Charles DeLint. What you wrote could have been lifted straight from many of his novels, which in a funny way made it all that more real to me LOL

    I was also struck by the similarities of some of the sub-cultures I have been in or around that your experiences remind me off. Because of my life time struggle with chronic pain and clinical depression, I have for the past 35 years experienced the worlds that many homeless and/or mentally ill people live in, and the chronic feelings of unexplained and un-seeable constant threat and assault from without is very common, and quite understandable. The mentally ill, survivors of abuse, and those who live in constant survival mode are in fact under actual and societal attack: getting and maintaining government benefits like housing, disability, food stamps, financial aid, Medi-Caid, and so forth can be a constant horror story and battle against those who beat you mentally and verbally (let alone bureaucratically) with their view and assessment of you as not “worthy” enough, not of value, and basically a non-person. People in most need are the ones who have to fight the hardest to constantly prove they are worth the little help they get, and if you are malnourished, and/or mentally ill, that is often a no win situation that quickly spirals downward, which can manifest in perseptions of paranoia, physical and mental illness, all of which are quite real reactions to real siuations.

    What amazes me in your story is the vital and actually healthy coping mechanism these kids have developed. As my cultural anthropology instructor constantly reminded us that there is no “perfect” culture, neither is this one, BUT what makes a culture successful is its ability to meet the needs of its people, and help them survive and even flurish, if possible within the world they live in. This it seems to be doing quite well.

  • Joseph

    What a consignment of geriatric shoemakers.

    There’s nothing romantic about being homeless, nothing noble about poverty. There’s no beauty in begging, no spiritual insights to be found in seizures, be they physical, psychological, or attention-whoring in nature.

    If there is one thing that we as a society have suffered most the loss of, it is shame. There used to be shame associated with being on the dole, with “dropping out”, with living off the labor of others. The fact that we as a nation now coddle such individuals, and even extol them as pillars of some sort of new spiritual virtue, is not only to our great shame, but the decline of our nationhood.

    When a given behavior is dissuaded, we see less of it. When that behavior is rewarded, we see more of it. When that behavior is detrimental to society, and we do the latter, society must needs suffer.

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      I think you completely missed the part where she mentioned many of these kids are coming out of terribly abusive homes.

      She isn’t extolling them nor is she raising them up as paragons, but telling how she encountered them as they were. I think that the problem here is a sincere lack of compassion and/or reading comprehension on your end rather than of laziness on the part of the street kids.

      • Tony Rella

        Exactly. Most homeless youth have been exploited and traumatized by their families or by the system and hit the streets for sheer survival. The resources extended to these youth are limited, and the judgment and condemnation of them enormous. What is remarkable is that they are able to support each other with community and family against remarkable odds. There is beauty because they are human, and humans have the capacity for beauty whether they are begging or trading in the stock exchanges. There is also a lot of pain and trauma. These families are also imperfect and flawed.
        It is not a life I would choose for anyone. In fact, the community can become a limitation, as some youth who have opportunities to move into different lives are limited by the ambivalence about leaving the only supportive “family” they know. I don’t see any romanticism in celebrating the human capacity to survive in spite of oppressive circumstances.

  • Henry Mossbeard

    Spent a long time in this culture… The called me the top ramen shaman. They called me a street shaman. Its rough out there and these kids are living tribally and do not wish to be a part of the consumer culture. I’ve seen more and more of these kids in psychwards, they need a lot of help but they are tough and resilient and pretty amazing.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    Have you seen this 1997 article chronicling something of this sort among the street kids in Florida?

    http://www.miaminewtimes.com/1997-06-05/news/myths-over-miami/full/

  • Jayne

    “The paramedic looked straight at me, and the anger in his eyes had turned to fear. “What kind of sorcery, what kind of trickery is this?” he asked. ”

    You had me until here. People don’t really speak like this.