Five community-based healing artists are forming a new collective called Sycamore. Kelly McCarthy, the herbalist and teacher of Attic Apothecary, reached out to Maisie Sibbison- Alves, a Zen shiatsu practitioner, and Desiree Thompson, founder of Nana Catherine’s Apothecary, to build on their relationships and develop a new healing space together. Then Kelly put out a wider call for former students to join Sycamore. Dominique Matti (“Dom”)–tarot reader and essayist–and Maleata Ragin–doula, nutritionist and Reiki worker–both said yes. They all now share the former office of the Jewish Farm School. The group chats with me about their practices, mission, and dreams.
Ailbhe Pascal: Congratulations to all of you! What’s exciting to each of you about collective space?
Maleata Ragin: The opportunity to learn from each other is amazing. Even though Des and I both do energy work, we can dive into it together, and then having all these different modalities to refer folks to, helps me [to] help other people.
Dominique Matti: I come in here and sometimes I can smell Kelly’s herbs and I can hear people laughing in the back room, and it all feels in service to what I’m doing. Most of my readings are written remotely, so I worked alone for a long time.
Maisie Sibbison-Alves: I’ve also been working out of my house for the past five years, which comes with its own challenges and advantages. Having it be just me and the client, I can lose track of what the meaning is. What am I doing if it’s not in connection with a larger group? Since I’ve been [at Sycamore] I’ve felt immediately more invigorated, because of the energy of being around other practitioners, and also because of relationships; I can ask someone, “How’s your day?” and it makes such a difference.
Desiree Thompson: I was coming from my own studio, where I was really craving and feeling called to work communally. My trauma taught me, “You got yourself, it’s safer that way. Don’t let other people in.” But those old wounds were asking to be spoken to. [At Sycamore] we’re all dedicated to supporting each other and the work: Making healing accessible and flipping ideas about who is the healer.
The deepest healing can happen when you learn how to work in community with folks, who care and witness you, while also learning in similar ways. All of us support the autonomy and sovereignty of folks to heal themselves and feel empowered. I feel nourished and loved working here.
Al: Do any of you feel like you have a working definition of ‘healer’?
Kelly: Actually, I have a revulsion; I don’t call myself a healer. I’m there to assist people in doing their own healing work. I offer space, and intention, and plant connection, but I don’t call myself a healer.
Desiree: People ask me what do you do? And I say, ‘Oh I’m an energy worker,’ because whether that’s in conversation, through connection to plants, or other modalities, what happens is co-creative. I don’t create the capacity to bring about healing by myself. I ask, ‘What’s important? What do we want to pay attention to? What do we want to hold?’ I do like alchemist. What are we mixing today, what materials can we utilize to bring our awareness forward? What are activating with our own internal magic to bring about change? I’m not going to call myself an alchemist, but to me that’s what feels most accurate.
Dom: I feel most like a navigational device. I don’t know if I can define healer because I don’t know if I can define healed. It feels like an unending process that reveals more and more of itself. I feel like I’m just helping people locate themselves in their own process, and locate myself.
Maisie: I’m wondering, do I like it when healer describes other people, or is it just toward me that I feel dodgy? And I definitely don’t like it referring to practitioners. It puts so much emphasis on the practitioner and not on the person receiving the work. But, I do believe in healing, and that it is happening here in this space.
Al: Now you each have specific modalities. What brought each of you to your practices?
Maleata: When I started out after high school and college, I went from music business to financial service, right until I fully transitioned out this year. Practicing holistic nutrition, and then going back to school to learn about Complementary Alternative Medicine, came from living with a mom who has Sickle Cell Anemia. I also have PCOS (poly-cystic ovarian syndrome). I was pushed on all these medications and going through all of these side-effects: I knew there had to be a better way. PTSD got me into energy work. Originally it was just to improve my quality of life, but then I started studying more and helping friends and family, and I realized I have a passion to help everyone in my community. I use holistic wellness practices to help people live the life that they deserve.
Desiree: I was dragged by my ancestors into this work. When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I went through four different types of cognitive therapy and started taking pills. There are ways that those modalities can be helpful; I’m not one of those folks who say, ‘No Western Anything Ever,’ because I don’t think it’s realistic for those of us with so many different lived experiences. But for me I was looking for a medication or a system that would make me not me. I wanted to fix the things I thought were wrong and help my brain, my mood, my way of sensing the world, more typical. There’s no pill that can do that.
Desiree: I came to systems of Eastern medicine out of sheer desperation. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore, and energy work was the only thing I hadn’t tried yet. Connecting with ancestors in particular helped me understand the openings in myself. Black Southern and African traditions introduced me to the idea that there’s your mind, your body, your spirit, and then there’s your expansive sense of you, or who you are in connection to the earth. It opened up a whole other system of connection that I might not be able to see, but I can feel it and tap into it, and it is my inheritance. That didn’t make me asymptomatic, but I’ve been able to find new ways to care for myself and that’s where my healing and lessening of suffering happens.
Maisie: I started developing a disciplined meditation practice about ten years ago. I come from a hippie-influenced culture in Western Massachusetts, but my family definitely didn’t believe in herbalism. If you were sick, you went to the doctor. But a close family friend’s daughter’s husband has a shiatsu practice; I got a treatment from him when I was 27 and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is the answer.’ I eventually started sitting with a method teacher who had a weekly class where you could come and folks could practice on each other, which is the lineage of this practice of home shiatsu. It is folk medicine, you don’t have to be a master to give shiatsu that feels good and is beneficial, everyone is a practitioner.
Kelly: I was experiencing severe menstrual issues and was unsatisfied with doctor’s recommendations to get pregnant or take birth control, or maybe eventually get a hysterectomy. I said, ‘No, thank you.’ I’m in a DIY-punk subculture, so I was in collective houses and saw tea blends and tinctures, and thought, “What is all this?” It wasn’t part of my upbringing.
Then I took an introductory class from a woman in Minneapolis, where we went to a farm every weekend, and the more I started to learn, the more I wanted to know. It was like a tiny window opened and I dove through it. There’s no looking back once you know what you know; you see there’s endless exciting things to learn.
Dominique: I started going to a tarot circle that my friend, Jessica Dore, started at Studio 34, and that’s when I first started practicing in community. From there I started offering readings to friends and family. I started saying, “I guess if other people are having a hard time, I can read for them, too.” And then it became the main thing I was doing. It’s thrust me through a portal of things that are beyond tarot that get sucked into tarot. It feels like an avenue of help. It started because I wanted to help myself, and it became a support for others’ trying times.
Al: I hear a beautiful common thread of looking inwards and then looking outwards. In this outward moment for you all, how do you all see your work in political language/context?
Dominique: When I do tarot, I ask people to trust themselves. As above, so below, as within, so without. So much of what we have to do collectively, we have to do inside of ourselves. Tarot can provide that personal empowerment for healing.
Desiree: So many of us are living in a society that doesn’t see us as human, that doesn’t allow for the full expression of our humanity or divinity. Energy work, for me, is about a remembering and reclamation of power. External drawing of power is not sustainable nor healthy. What energy work does on a basic level is inspire rest, a pause, a stillness, a space to really feel and be with whatever is coming up, and learning to trust it.
There’s been a concerted effort to socialize us away from old practices. And my practice is about tapping into places of remembering, connection, and collecting the fragments that need calling back. Re-orienting power to where it rightly is, which is inside of each of us.
Maleata: When Des says people aren’t treated as human, unfortunately I see this a lot as a doula, particularly in hospital settings. Last week I was in a local hospital, and we know many doctors forget that pregnant people of color are living human beings. I have to remind care providers that my client deserves respect: “You need to make eye contact with her, you have to tell her what’s going on, you can’t just run in and out of the room telling her you’re busy, you need to slow down and explain why and use a different tone.”
We have to get back to a place where people have more say in terms of what happens to their bodies, empowering them to have more control over a situation. It’s very disheartening and frustrating. More needs to be done in that arena, and more people need to speak up instead of it being a taboo in huge organizations.
Maisie: Maybe it’s just my worldview and the framework I bring to my work, but I think about systems of power with every treatment. The stress that I see in my clients’ bodies: I see it on a systemic level, living under capitalism. I think our identities can make life so hard. I want people to experience something outside of just surviving, so they can imagine what is possible. But then “wellness culture” isn’t really even enough.
In my practice I work on a sliding scale that’s pretty wide, and I have a specific mission to work on people who have chronic pain that can’t be addressed with allopathic medicine, or who don’t have insurance: I just want to serve you. Also, community organizers: Pay or trade whatever you want. If I feel they need this and are not in a position to pay for it, I’m like, “Come on over, let’s do this.”
Dominique: When this year started there was so much going on in the world and in my circles, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. So I set out to gather as many tools as I could and refined my skills, and that’s what led me to realize there is so much medicine! It’s so nourishing to just know there are so many avenues and resources, there is wholeness and remembering. This space makes me feel like we have a chance.
Desiree: I love having a space where I can instantly refer people to practitioners who have shared ethics around accessibility and affordability. I like to be able to grow a community among the people who know [any of us]. I feel honored to collaborate here!
My Philly Neighbor is a project done in collaboration with Broke In Philly, a news media initiative among 19 local news organizations to provide in-depth, nuanced and solutions-oriented reporting on the issues of poverty and the push for economic justice in Philadelphia.