Posts Tagged ‘Death’

Sweat Lodge

June 25, 2012

The last official Bridging Worlds Mountain Retreat Center event is about to begin. This is the quiet before the arrival, the spirits of the land and the ancestors are gathering now to welcome the guests, I feel it viscerally.

This event has been on the calendar for a year. A young woman who did a Vision Quest with me some years ago, and who came for a sweat lodge weekend with her then boyfriend some time after that, had the vision and foresight to ask for a 3-day event in which to gather their closest loved ones during this, the week before their wedding. The power has been building, and the poignancy of the timing could not have been anticipated except by the ancient ones.

The bride’s greatly loved grandmother died rather unexpectedly just a couple of weeks ago. Her son, the bride’s father, is grieving as are the bride and her brother. All of them are attending. The family had anticipated that their mother/grandmother might be celebrating at the wedding with them, but now find themselves in some shock and grief over her loss. I just read the bride and her father’s very well-written, heart wrenching reflections about this woman’s rich life and peaceful death that were spoken at the funeral.

So we will gather, listen to each other’s hearts, work on dreams, be held by love, land and ancestral spirits as we prepare for the ancient ceremony of the sweat lodge which we will enter tomorrow evening after a day of fasting and preparation. It is a beautiful miracle that this time to enter sacred space together was already planned. I know it will help the family process events and prepare for the power and joy of a wedding so long anticipated.

And, as it turns out, as these miracles go, today is the 1-year anniversary of the death of my own beloved mother, Kathryn Whitlow. I miss her deeply. The traditional year of mourning ends this day, so possibly a corner is being turned in the journey of our souls. The universe is so precise. Exquisite. I am grateful.

And as it turns out, my daughters left just yesterday after traveling long distances to help me go through the stuff of their childhood and our family life that had been moved from California into my barn 8 years ago, untouched and unprocessed until now. The cleansing and clearing has been enormous, we sat around a big bonfire in which we thoughtfully, conscientiously burned some of it. The spirits must have wanted that done before we sweat tomorrow.

Big blessings to our dear bride and groom. May we be aligned with all of the best intentions of spirit in these days. So far, so good.

Winter Solstice, the Turning

December 21, 2011

Today is December 21st, the date given to celebrate the Winter Solstice, the darkest day in our hemisphere, the world now beginning to turn toward the light of longer days. The event has been ritually celebrated by humans since well before recorded history. We find the markings of it in such things as the ruins of Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland, revered relics that were ingeniously built to highlight the sunrise and sunset on the day of Winter Solstice. The effort and ingenuity it took to create them, as well as the lasting fascination with such sites the world over certainly suggest we might pause today and reflect what this moment in our year’s journey around the sun still might mean to us. We have modernity and the strains of holiday preparations to distract us, but I am thinking the reflection has value. And so I pause this morning to write.

In my body I feel not so much the anticipation of more light, but a buckling down for winter. In earlier ages the possibility of not surviving a winter was a cold hard reality to prepare oneself for in all of the ways one prepares. Starvation and freezing to death were only two of the ways a harsh winter might be unsurvivable. Enforced isolation was and still is a factor.

This will be my 8th winter living in remote,  high altitude terrain in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Part time residents in my area still don’t know what it is like to go through a winter there. I am finding new respect each year in the faces of my neighbors as they count how many winters I have survived there. It is a kind of respect one can only give or sense the power in receiving if you have done this particular gauntlet faithfully and repeatedly. I am uniquely initiated, and realize I even owe respect to myself for this.

But, and still, and in any case, those particular initiations are symbolic of something interior all of us at some level and to some degree experience in our deep instinctual soul in this season, marked by this day. Death and hibernation are all around. Plants, animals, insect populations die, the soil lays fallow. We see more moon and starlight than solar light. We cover our bodies in layers to defend against temperatures. Huddle around fires. Sleep more if we are lucky.

What dies inside of us? The experiences of the calendar year just completed have become essences and memories: 2011, the year when…  The new year hasn’t yet arrived, there is more to go through to bring it in. This Solstice day is a between-life moment. A time to assess the old, to determine to survive the winter and survive it well, with more awareness this time. A time for our psychic soil to lay fallow and rest before new planting and new possibility. A time for darkening. Deepening. Dying. No re-birth is possible without the death.

Let’s take this moment, not let it pass. Build our own Stonehenge in consciousness to mark it. I commit to this now.

Rites of Passage, Death and Mystery

July 14, 2011

Rituals are symbolic acts, gestures that create a relationship between individuals or communities with the larger reality. There are daily rituals, which indigenous cultures describe as maintenance rituals, and radical rituals which address larger questions and transitions in life.

Then there are Rites of Passage. These are rituals that take one from one stage of life to another and are irrevocable. Birth is an irrevocable rite of passage. You can’t put a baby back in the womb. Penetration in sexual intercourse is irrevocable; once experienced the person has moved beyond virginity. Motherhood is irrevocable. A child delivered, living or dead, turns that woman into a Mother. Death is irrevocable, a rite of passage not only for the soul who transitions but for all who have loved that soul. We are never the same after experiencing death.

Since the recent passing of my Mother, the mystery that death has represented for humans since the beginning of time is highlighted for me not so much “death is a natural part of life” as they say, but as death being a mystery.  I have experienced significant personal deaths before – including that of my first boyfriend, my father, my dog – but this one inches me closer, not to understanding death but to appreciation for mystery.

Mystery surrounds us. Every time a tiny seed becomes a plant, sweet love-making becomes a baby, a cut on the body heals – though science tries to describe it, mystery is never eliminated. Somehow the Western mind, with its addiction to reason, rationality, explanations, control and answers – along with an alarming capacity for numbing denial – robs us too often of the experience of simply reveling in mystery with a sense of wonder, allowing ourselves not to know a thing and be comfortable fools in that.

A Rite of Passage is like a tunnel, a birth canal. Whoosh, you enter another world, one you have never known before. Or, better said, by labor you enter that other world. The Rite generally, in Earth reality so far, involves pain; not that there is anything wrong with pain, but more with our acceptance of or relationship to it. The passage, and the pain, are doorways to a new reality.

Part of this mystery for me personally so far, is the life-review aspect of death. They say that in dying one’s life flashes before their eyes. I think that must be true not just for the one dying, but for those who love the one dying. For a slide-show at the Wake we found ourselves pouring through family albums that have been collecting dust for decades. Clearing out the house, family clothes, portraits, letters and treasures have to be reviewed for their meaning, present value, and where they should go next.

When I went through an extended initiation with a Nigerian shaman he wanted me not just to discover who I am now and where I want to go, but where I came from, who were my ancestors, what are their deep stories. Apparently there is no successful birth to the next life without a sense of continuity with the one left behind.

This look back for me, at the moment, is more mysterious than the look forward into the world beyond. Ahhhh. I can barely say what mystery it holds. That “other” world feels so much less mysterious to me than this.

Indigenous people infallibly teach that we need the dead, we must be in relationship to the dead. Our ancestors carry those keys for us. And the dead need us.

Mom, what can I do for you now? And now that we are birthed through this passage, how can we help each other in the new world? Let us enter together this mystery.

A Good Death

June 25, 2011

My Mother, Kathryn Whitlow, has courageously struggled with frail health for the last 6 years. During her many close calls all I could think to ask in prayer for her was that she have the gift of a good death. The idea that she might be alone, or frightened, or in an ambulance, or in great pain, confused, being fussed with by strangers or any such scenario while she made her crossing was too hard to imagine. Please, God, just let her have a good death. During rituals and prayer times, this was a constant wish.

The wish was granted today. Mama had a massive stroke last Monday. I left North Carolina the same day, my sister left Vienna, Austria, my daughter Josi and nephew Michael left New York; we all arrived at Mom’s home in Dubuque, Iowa. We got her home from the hospital on Thursday. She was in her own bed, unable to communicate except a little bit through the eyes and a tiny bit through a squeeze in the hand, but we knew she knew we were all there. We read to her, listened to music, told stories, stayed with her, laughed, cried, told her how much we love her and how much she has inspired us with her strong character our whole lives. All day yesterday she didn’t open her eyes, she seemed to have retreated a little further from us while she labored to birth herself to the next place.

Today the hospice nurse was with us as my daughter Josi was about to leave for the airport to fly to California for her cousin’s wedding. Josi was sad to leave prematurely, but we all told her Grandma would want her to represent us at the wedding. Minutes before she was to leave the nurse said, “You all should gather around her now.” She noticed a subtle change. My two sisters and I held our faces right above Mother’s face, my nephew and daughter had their faces right over her heart, a constellation of 5 faces right above her. Mom suddenly opened her eyes and looked slowly and carefully at each one of us, back and forth and around, the look of eternity in her eyes. We all told her how much we love her, that we will take care of each other, and think of her every single day. Mama closed her eyes and calmly took her last breath. We all felt that she chose this moment as she didn’t want Josi to have to miss it.

When my Father crossed over 23 years ago, his best friend Fran O’Connor walked in the hospital room that very moment. He knelt by Dad’s bed and prayed. When Mom crossed today, Fran’s son Jock, who has taken care of Mom lovingly for years, walked into the house. He knelt and prayed with us. Full circle. Too miraculous and amazing, all of it, for words.

Native American’s say that one of the best prayers you can say for a loved one is that they have a good death. I now believe a good death is one of life’s finest gifts. Mother’s death leaves us missing a grand lady, but astounded by how it all happened, more grateful than we can possibly say.

I was writing a bare bones obituary, thinking we can look at it more carefully and fill it in together later. The last line I threw in just for fun for the family was “Kathryn will be remembered as an ornery little thing with a heart of gold who inspired love and devoted admiration in everyone she met.” To my surprise they all like it and want to keep it in.

Kathryn Whitlow was a force of nature, a feisty lady who spoke her mind with frankness, without editing, apology or regret. Honest to the bone. As tender-hearted as any human I have ever known. Witty, fun, full of generosity and joy. In our last conversation, the day before her stroke I asked her how she was feeling, which I knew wasn’t too good. She said “I have nothing to complain about, only things to be grateful for.” That was her philosophy. She will remain as large in death as she was in life, a model of strength and goodness. I have been the luckiest daughter. I am unspeakably grateful.

The Living and the Dead

December 8, 2010

A friend is visiting me whose husband of 30 years, a man who was also a close friend to me and my dream analyst, died 3 months ago. We have been talking non-stop as if outside of time and space for more than 24 hours, with a little tiny bit of sleep in there somewhere. During this time visitations from not only her dear husband and my friend have been obvious and root shaking, but also those of others we have known who are now on the other side. It has been as if we were hosting a dialogue with the living and the dead, having us both in tears, awe and laughter much of the time. The veil that seems to separate the worlds is very thin. It seems so thick to those of us who are living mostly, but it is not.

We had spoken about the ancestors of this land and of our own lineages in a conversation, and delighted ourselves by inviting them to be with us and play in our space freely. Knowing that they only come to where they are welcome and invited, we asked them to join us here. We called them by name, including those whose names we don’t know, hoping that the very core of their inner selves would be with us here, not just the personas that they had had to live in the world. In the next two or three hours of time, thunderbolts of experience came into this space that we could never have anticipated, which uprooted us emotionally. We had no idea the tricks that we were invoking, or how deeply their truthfulness would invade us.

Death and Life

November 5, 2010

In excavating a poem I was looking for today, I re-encountered one I had filed written by Goethe. I was struck again by the last stanza of his poem called “Holy Longing.” This poem addressed me profoundly at a time when I felt I was suffering my own death, yet still I lived. It gave me unspeakable perspective and solace. The last stanza:

And so, as long as you haven’t experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

On comes winter now. All that was blooming and glorious dies and falls into the soil for a long cold incubation. And spring will arrive. On comes our own death now humanly and psychologically as we move into winter. Something of the psyche joins season to die, to fall into the earth, to decompose and get ready to re-seed life in the spring. Death makes life. Life makes death. Those who allow for death know life. Those who avoid and suppress it are “troubled guests on the dark earth.”

The story of Jesus says this. Don’t believe in death as we think of it, as an ending. Death brings resurrection.


Time, Space and Love

September 26, 2010

Dicksee - Romeo and Juliet

Just watched the movie Letters to Juliet. When I was a teenager I had posters on my wall of Romeo and Juliet, memorized scenes from the play which I can still recite, and lived a similar story of forbidden love except that I survived, my Romeo did not. Survivors guilt is a serious conflict.

Another story that mesmerized me completely in my youth was the story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, portrayed exquisitely in the musical movie Camelot, starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. I saw it over and over again. Now this movie, Letters to Juliet, made these many decades later, starred Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, who played Guinevere and Lancelot in  Camelot. This new movie has their characters, in a completely separate story from the Camelot’s story, find each other after 50 years of separation. A story of passionate young love,  tragic separation, which generations later turns to joy. Their love endures, the story suggests it was not a fantasy or hormonal problem, was true. (I wouldn’t tell you the movie’s outcome, except that you’ll see it in the trailers and read it on the Netflix blurb anyway. I’m not stealing the punchlines, this is what the movie is about, up front.)

The love in this story endured time, distance and separation. Currently I am haunted by the love story of a dear friend who just lost her beloved to what seems to be a very untimely death. They were crazy about each other and looking forward to growing old together, with excitement. Caring about my friend, and trying to figure out how to be a helping spirit, strongly triggers recollections of my own marriage love lost to a death of a different kind, a confusion of events that obfuscated the love and let it sink into an underworld. A sunken ship.

Letters to Juliet‘s opening had an exquisite slide show of paintings and photographs showing couples in the midst of passionate love stories. I couldn’t help  but think that the artists who painted these scenes, and the love that inspired them to paint it, are all long gone, part of our collective history.

So why trust love, why engage with it, why believe in it if its death is already in its birth? Because. Because of Hannah, who I wrote about yesterday, my 3-year-old mentor. Because life and death are one thing. Because there is no death without life, nor life without death. Because they work together to explode the heart into recognizing what is eternal. Time is an illusion, space is an illusion. Love is not. Every mystic from every tradition and every era will say the same.

Does it help us with the loss of love in this time/space continuum? Barely. Only slightly. But the facts remain.

Ferrying the River Styx

September 22, 2010

These words have occurred to me over and over today. Styx is the river in Greek mythology between earth and the underworld, and the river that the newly dead cross into the afterlife. A ferryman, Charon, transported souls across the river, taking them from one world to the next.

The image I keep seeing is that the living who love those who have just died also need ferrying. There is a river to cross, another world to enter. Not just any ferryman can transport them. There are very specific skills involved in the ferryman’s job. It has to do with an acquaintance with death; ironically death as a living thing, a passage to a different world.

I used to have a quote from Shakespeare taped next to my desk before I moved to North Carolina. I don’t remember the play it came from. It said, “Dying, once dead, there is no more dying then.” At the time the quote meant the world to me because I felt I had been killed by circumstances in my life. The words were a reassurance that after dying once “there is no more dying then.” It can’t happen again. There are different kinds of deaths, but once one happens, the other one loses its power.

Maybe the living who have experienced death then become ferrymen across the River Styx.

Universe as a System

September 18, 2010

I ran into these words by Buckminster Fuller a few days ago, and wish I could ask him to explicate them more on the subject of death.

“You cannot get out of Universe. Universe is a system… Universe is a a scenario. You are always in Universe. You can only get out of systems.”  (Synergetics, p. 85)

If you can’t get out of universe, then where to we go when we die? People think they have answers for this, but do they?

The Unsayable

September 17, 2010

The world is mostly made up of the unsayable. That is why we need poets and artists, the true ones. The dimensions that words can never touch are really what make up our experiences from one moment to the next. The tiniest bit of it is sayable. The rest is not.

I find it painful, somewhat, this isolation of seeing, feeling and experiencing so much that language cannot be a carrier for. As deeply grateful as I am for the tool of language, at this I am moment acutely aware of its limits. Death does trump everything.