Druids and Death   Leave a comment

No, this isn’t the D&D you’re looking for. Or perhaps it is.

Last month, on the way home from our nephew’s Southern wedding, my wife and I met my two Pennsylvania cousins for breakfast. We hadn’t gotten together since their father, my uncle, passed on almost two years ago. In his mid-90s, he’d wanted a minimal funeral: “No reason to prolong your grief, or spend money doing so”, he’d said. The rite ended up so modest and unannounced only his daughters and grandkids attended. We were just hearing details now.

rhodo-may19

Our front-yard rhododendrons, with winter-kill on top, and the lower (snow-protected) green branches

Because of course funerals are very much for the living, too. And in spite of our callous and oblivious Western cultures so uncomfortable and unhelpful around death, we don’t “get over” grief after any fixed period of time. My younger cousin, I know, still carries hers around, like a tight knot in her chest, a cannonball of hurt.

“We’re not supposed to die!” she exclaimed at our breakfast, and I bit my tongue not to offer Druid things to her, knowing she still took a hard Evangelical Christian line about death: that it’s a punishment for sin, not a natural part of a cycle in worlds of time and space; that it’s a penalty for disobedience, not the consequence of wearing bodies that will, over time, wear out. Are autumn and winter unnatural?

Sometimes you just need to be heard in your grief, without judgment, without reply or attempts at comfort that, for you, ring false. No need to argue about death, for anyone’s sakes. I only hope she’ll find upcoming deaths, and her own, not a punishment but another step on our long journey.

Of course Druids no more “believe the same thing” than any other group of contrary, year-marked, and opinionated humans. One of my techniques, field-tested over my decades, if I can remember to turn to it — rather than bothering with belief, or non-belief — is to ask how is it true? When or where is it true, has it been true, will or can it be true again? These, to my mind, are larger, “better” questions, questions that still sidetrack me very helpfully, and fascinate me — much more than trying to lock down the moving target of “what a person can reasonably be expected to believe these days”. The answers, often spinning on to more questions, also fit poet Mary Oliver’s criteria: “so many questions more beautiful than answers”. Yup, says my inner Druid, trust the bards on this one, too.

Or as an artist friend said last night in Brandon VT, at her first major show of approximately 40 exquisite watercolors, quoting her mentor: the artist’s job (all our jobs, really) is to “deepen the mystery”, to pay attention.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I don’t so much believe in life after death as I suspect there’s life after death. It’s a hunch, an itch, a ripple up and down the spine, one way to make sense of too many experiences that otherwise don’t fit. This life is already so strange and unexpected, that to be here at all is no more or less unlikely than to continue after the change of death.

Another way to understand it: any “afterlife” has already begun. I just wasn’t paying attention. This is the afterlife of my previous life: what am I gonna do with it? Fried chicken and beer, operas and curry, sex and drugs, art and amazement, fasting and penance, profit and politics — each of us finds a set of pleasures and purposes to round out the strangeness of being here at all, along with any other projects we try our hands at.

Or, with a turn toward pop culture, with some Appropriation for Druid Purposes: “Ye best start believin’ in ghost stories, Miss Turner”, says Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Carribean. “Ye’re in one!”

Alastair Reid writes in his poem “Curiosity“:

… that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do.

And because you know I rely on our bards to heal and guide us, here’s Mary Oliver again, one of our master Bards, on grief, with a perfect Druid triad:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Another chance for Bards to have the last word:  a page of ten particularly apt poems on the immense range of our griefs and losses.

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