That night, I call my friend and spiritual mentor Mbali Creazzo. Mbali would call herself a "medicine woman." She is South African, but her family moved to England when she was three because of apartheid. She has a "wise woman" way about her: quiet, peaceful, insightful. She chooses her words carefully. She may not seem all that remarkable when you're in her presence, but she has a ripple effect on you. She is the person who introduced me to the concept of the 29 Gifts "prescription," and in many ways I feel I owe her my life.
My husband Mark and I met Mbali in 2005, when we knew her as just Toni, our next-door neighbor. We were living near Lake Merritt in Oakland, to get a break from the frenetic bustle of San Francisco. A couple of times a week she and I would carpool for the twenty-minute trip to work. I had a high-stress job with an ad agency, and she worked at The Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Hospital. She is actually one of the innovative healers who helped guide and shape the programs at the institute, where they marry Western medicine with various forms of alternative medicine. We were friendly, but not really friends. About six months after we met, she made plans to go to South Africa for a couple of weeks to visit some relatives. She knocked on our door and politely asked whether Mark and I would feed her cats while she was away. We were glad to help.
The first time I walked into Toni's apartment, I nearly stumbled over a large altar on the floor by the front door. Beside a vase of flowers stood an open bottle of vodka, which perplexed me because I knew she didn't drink. There were also a bowl full of ash, piles of rocks and shells, and a number of African statues that looked fierce and intimidating.
I had been exploring various forms of spirituality over the years and have several friends with altars in their homes, but most of them just held some pretty crystals and maybe some angel cards or even a cross. But the contents of this altar freaked me out a little. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of; Toni was a caring, loving woman who lived to help people. Regardless, while I tended to the cats, I skirted around that altar, giving it a wide berth. I wanted to ask her about it when she got back but decided against it. I figured if she wanted to tell me about her spiritual practice, she would.