Archive for the ‘death’ Tag

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.

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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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What We Do Is Us   Leave a comment

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same”, sings Gerald Manley Hopkins, that wonderful bard who observed his world so loving-wisely. You can read the poem I’m reflecting on here at this site, which includes a bite-sized biography, along with short, helpful observations.

“One thing and the same”, Hopkins says, sounding confident, like he really knows.

What? you ask. The thing we all are, a self that “[d]eals out that being indoors each one dwells”: the “indoors” we each inhabit, the self we look out from onto everything around us. Deal it out, pay it out like divination, rope or money or time.

Hopkins gets it. He goes on: “Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells”. Each self does this, it goes as itself, it “selves”, as if we are all verbs now, and everything we do speaks us and conjures us both out of and into the cosmos. To live at all is a magical act, “to be alive twice” as another poet calls it. From time to time we hear the echo of both lives, the two halves of us we can’t ignore, that kindle in us a human restlessness we can never extinguish. It’s also what we are, what we do as selves.

I’m born and I come upon myself, I gradually become self-aware, the self simply a larger and more engaging preoccupation among all the other things I do. Each of us sits in a self like we sit on benches. The bench of the self weathers in place, this place, the world of heights and depths, times and places.

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And what is the “speech” and “spell” it utters? Bard-like, Hopkins says it like he hears it: all these selves “Crying What I do is me: for that I came“.

I’m doing it right now, and it also will take me my entire life to do it completely. When my heart stops and my last breath goes out, I’ll have finished this particular doing, one turn on the spiral, whether I become the lichen near the bench or the shadow of tree-trunks or a tree or a human again, or something else “different”, says Whitman in another poem, bard singing to bard and to all of us, “different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.

Have you felt it, luck in the sunlight, possibility on your skin? There’s Druid-luck just in living, which I can know if I heed the reminders, or ignore them and suffer.  Either way, it hurts, says therapist Rollo May. I’ll suffer anyway. OK, on to do something through and around and even, if I have to, with my suffering. What I do is me: for that I came.

“Don’t you know yet?” scolds Rilke. (Damn these bards! The conversation hasn’t stopped since awen first stirred in us. One thing and the same. We recognize it in others, in the voice of the Bards, because we’re doing it too.

What? I ask again. Rilke answers, part of the Song singing all of us here, the voice at the center of things that makes music out of us all, the voice we hear in dreams and silence and sound, laughter and tears and the spaces inside us.

 

Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

…..

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things in terms of a human future;
no longer to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
to leave even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.
Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.
And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity.

Retrieval. Of course we fear death, if we’ve done it so many times before. A healthy fear of death, something I know, rather than terror of what I don’t know. I’ve done this death thing countless times already. What’s one more?

Well, a great deal. How many years to retrieve this time around, to begin to recall things I’ve never forgotten, maybe, but misplaced, thrown out, ripped up and shredded even, for decades, centuries. A self that emerges out of nothing, returns to it, and also manages a retrieval, with the help of crazy bards and singers on the edges, reminding us. Pointing us back to song that’s still singing us, notes on the wind.

What I do is me: for that I came.

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Nerds and Fear   Leave a comment

Nerds talk a lot, one way or another.  If they don’t speak, they write.  That’s annoying, because it’s often hard to get them to shut up.  And now, armed as they are with blogs and email and Twitter and Facebook and Myspace and a myriad of other venues — well, you get where I’m going with this.  More words than people on the planet, every single day.

But while not all of us are Nerds, or even nerds, one thing we all face, nerd or otherwise, is fear. Since we often do our level best not to talk about fear, why not put the nerd instinct to good use?  Resist the flow.  Be awkward, that thing nerds excel at, and talk about it.  (Along the way I get to include a Youtube link, and references to the plague, Jesus, and a medieval poem.  Good stuff — a regular pot-luck entry.)

One big fear, of course, is fear of death.  Reader, if you’ve found a sure-fire way around it, get busy marketing.  You’re set to make your fortune.  And no, I’m not talking about any Afterwards.  That’s a separate post.  I mean the process, the whole sucky thang of the roof caving in on the house, the ground floor dropping away into the basement, and the walls tumbling down. The Demolition (or Eviction, depending on your take regarding a Landlord).  The Snuff, the Blowout, the Final Exit, the Nobody Home of your life.

Have I got you thoroughly depressed, and on your weekend, too?  Sorry for that, though I won’t apologize for the topic.  If we’re going to be morbid, let’s do it right, with style and flair, and a literary reference.  Here’s your serving for the day.  There’s a well-known Middle English poem I keep coming across from time to time which partly inspired this post.  I read it in college and I’ve taught it in high school in British Lit.  Pause here for a digression — just skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next one, if you’re in an impatient mood when you read this.

Still with me?  OK. Yes, I get it — unless you’re also a fan, Middle English is next door to Old English and Beowulf and all that other stuff your high school or college English teacher inflicted on you.  Or if it wasn’t English, it was something else.  Let’s just acknowledge that at one time or another you’ve been on the receiving end of, and made to suffer for, an intellectual enthusiasm or obsession you didn’t share.  And no —  I’ve never shed the geek/nerd label since it first attached itself sometime in high school — the difference nowadays is that I make my living from it as a teacher.  It’s as if I wrote a book called Nerdiness for Fun and Profit.  Which might actually sell.  So I’ll apologize in advance for whatever my educational peers have put you through — you and my own students.

So here’s an excerpt from approximately the first half of the poem.  The spelling’s been modernized, and the few words that haven’t made it through into modern English are clear enough in context that you should be able to catch the gist without me being even more nerdy and annotating the damn thing.  But I’ll do it anyway.  And one other note:  the Latin tag in italics translates as “The fear of death disturbs me.”

In what estate so ever I be
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing.
This was the tenor of her talking: [substance, topic]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant:
“I am a musket both fair and gent; [sparrowhawk/nobly-born]
For dread of death I am all shent: [ashamed, confused]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die, I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
Timor mortis conturbat me.”

In medieval Europe death was everywhere.  People died at home, people died young, and people died from — among other things — the series of perfectly nasty plagues that swept Europe and took out a good third of the population.  Today we’ve got it easy in many ways.  Our life expectancy is twice that of the 1400s, we can usually moderate pain through medication, and many medieval diseases have been eliminated.  No, I’m not asking you to be ever so grateful and click on over to EasyDeath.com.  But what’s interesting is that the speaker of the poem isn’t concerned with pain but with uncertainty.  It’s that sense of being ambushed by an invisible assailant that adds to our fear.

There are several things to say, Druidic and otherwise, in response.  First, those who’ve had out-of-body experiences often report that they’ve lost their fear of death.  You may be one of those people yourself.  To quote Genesis (the band this time–not the book–in their song “Carpet Crawlers”), “You’ve got to get in to get out.”  Or in this case, get into other states of reality, see that this one is one among many, and that leaving this one is less of a Big Deal.  These kinds of experiences are more common than we’re lead to believe, and those who’ve had them often keep quiet about it because of the general atmosphere of fear, skepticism, and materialism that denies whole facets of human existence.  What I’ll say for victims of these mindsets is that they deserve compassion for living on the porch and never venturing into the house, never bothering to find out if there even is a house.

A powerful technique I’ve found is to send love to my fears.  I can make it a daily prayer.  If we’re worried about a difficult dying, send love to that future self which will die.  Break down the patterns of fear that sap and sabotage our present possibilities for joy.  As Jesus observed, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  And don’t worry if your love isn’t “perfect.”  Any love is a good start, an improvement on dread.  Most fear is learned.

For those of us who believe in or have had experience of other lives, the sense of deja-vu often replaces fear.  Gotta go through it all — again!

I’ll close with another citation, which I find Druidic in sensibility.  This one I ran across in school, decades back, and copied down into my journal.  The paper I’m reading from as I type this is yellowed and crinkling on the edges.   It describes a kind of initiation.  The quotation is long but I hope worthwhile for the “tough wisdom” it teaches.

The American Indian’s insistence on direct personal religious experience remains preserved when he comes into contact with Christianity:  he finds it difficult to accept experiences of the other world which are said to have happened two millennia ago and which are attested to only by a book.

An empirical attitude toward the other world is a difficult one to put into action.  It requires an emptying of the mind and the body, a humbling of the self before all other beings, “even the smallest ant.”  It is not as though the Indian [you can substitute Druid here — ADW] is “close to nature” and therefore found such an experience easier to come by than ourselves; he speaks of the journey as carrying him “to the edge of the Deep Canyon,” and he feels it as nothing less than death itself.  While he is there he sees a universe where everything is not only animate, but a person, and not only a person but a kinsman.  On his return from the journey he is reborn; he is no longer the same person he was before.  Having seen for himself the reality of the other world, he now has what William Blake called “the double vision,” as opposed to the single vision of Newton.  Alfonso Ortiz describes this double vision in the teachings of his Tewa elders, who “saw the whole of life as consisting of the dual quest for wisdom and divinity.”  It is not that the Indian has an older, simpler view of the world, to which we an Newtonian thinkers have added another dimension, but that he has a comprehensive, double view of the world, while we have lost sight of one whole dimension.

The way to his understanding is not found with the road maps of the measurable world.  One begins by finding four roads that run side by side and choosing the middle one.  The Road, once found, is cut by an impassable ravine that extends to the ends of the world.  One must go right through.  Then there is an impenetrable thicket.  Go right through.  Then there are birds making a terrible noise.  Just listen.  Then there is a place where phlegm rains down.  Don’t brush it off.  Then there is a place where the earth is burning.  Pass right through.  Then a great cliff face rises up, without a single foothold.  Walk straight through.  If you travel as far as this and someone threatens you with death, say, “I have already died.”  (Teaching of the American Earth, xx.)

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So there you have it — one of my stranger posts, oddly organized, with weird tonal shifts.  Hope you get something useful from it.  Thanks for reading.

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