Archive for the ‘grief’ Tag

Love in 5 Movements

Some two years ago I commented: “… a devotional practice undertaken with love over time generates a momentum no finite thing can contain”. More than ever I’ve found that’s true, in ways easy and hard.

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a play of shadow and light

But what if you’re not devotionally minded? What does that even mean, anyway? Beyond humans and pets, who is there to be devoted to? (Some politicians and holy folks keep shedding our trust like snakes wriggling out of old dead skin.) Or if not an incarnate being, how can you be devoted to something (or someone) invisible? Gods may just not do it for you. And as for “momentum”: momentum toward what? I hear you, questioner. I hear you.

“You keep using these words,” goes the oft-quoted meme from The Princess Bride, “but I do not think they mean what you think they mean”. So do they mean anything?

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This morning my wife and I received word that a beloved friend just passed away yesterday in his wife’s arms. He was in his mid-60s, and his death wasn’t from the virus. So “plugged in” he was, to the cosmos, to the pulse-beat of things, to the endless possibilities of his life as a lacrosse coach, high school teacher, father, husband, and spiritual mentor to many, that it’s impossible to feel sad for him. But we sure feel sad for us, for his wife and son and many friends, for the prospect of no longer being able to hug him, talk with him, listen to his stories and his corny humor, his remarkable spiritual journeys and example, and the impact of his deep humility and love on everyone he met. He remarked in passing some months ago that he knew where he was going in “the next step along the journey”, and I’m convinced he did, that his words applied to his passing as much as to anything else. More to the point, we can know, too, if it’s something we want and need and choose to know. Where am I going, after all? Where are we all? No reason to make an idol out of him, something he would have detested. Every reason to make the most of the inspiration he provided.

As Ursula LeGuin writes in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it”.

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Grief is an energy flow, like so much else. So is love. Of course that’s not all they are, but I’ve found it’s often helpful to understand them in that way, to see how I can begin to provide a clear channel for their flow, rather than block or wallow or some other reaction. As with grief and love, provide a channel for inspiration, too. Learn how not to fear them, hoard or repulse them, how to see them as part of life, how each of us handles them somewhat differently, how to honor and respect them. Pit or portal? says a Native American elder. What will we make of such experiences? Part of their power is that in the end no one can rush them. They take their own time.

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the first of three loads for next winter

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“When I am among the trees”, writes Mary Oliver in a poem by that title,

especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often …

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So I walk, and bow as I go.

Druids and Death

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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Full Moon Reflection 2: More and Less

Compassion has no religion.  Silence is not always indifference.  O great, listening, witnessing world, you too have something to say, something you always are saying, without words.  What comfort we can offer, miles and lives away from the families of the Sandy Hook school victims, and from other, newer sufferers since then, may consist of not filling the airwaves and spiritual spaces further, with our own shock or anger or sadness or dismay, or whatever other responses events may next provoke in us.  Even if we do not know the families or victims or any of those touched by an event, we may send sympathy, because we are not stones.  This is prayer, too.  But every turn of the world changes us because we’re in it together.  A great service is to love those who need love, and not merely to feel, to emote.  We can do more than relive pain, especially another’s pain, or make it ours.  Suffering needs no extra rehearsals, no practice.  There’s always more than enough to go around.

We’re not stones, but we may raise them into a cairn, a act that by its solidity and palpable weight can lift suffering even a little, if it may, stone by stone.  Let earth bear a portion of  the weight.  Allow this elemental power of Earth to transmute, to compost and transform, as it does all else that comes to it.  The turning of the year again toward light in the middle of winter, the planet doing again what the planet does each year, can be solace too, earth re-establishing its balance.  Soothing motion of the familiar, wordless touch with its animal comfort.  Moon growing again towards fullness, light on the world in the middle of darkness.

But sometimes we hate comfort.  Too often solace can reek of appeasement.  We stiffen.  One more easing is too many.  Intolerable.  Like words — already more than enough.  With no ready target we seek out whatever will serve, anything to shut up the noise, the roar of raw nerves jangling.  Anodyne.  Oblivion, even, at least for a while.

Grief is too steady a companion.  It knows us, it seems, deeper than a lover.  OK, we get it.  Pain too has something to say that will not be denied.  We make a place for it, and it moves in, gets comfortable, settles down for too long.  (How long is memory?  Is recollection what we consist of?  Do we relive, instead of living new? Does this become our only, instead of our also?)

When words do not do, I bring silence to the altar.  When I cannot pray, then that is my prayer, just the act of moving toward the altar, a center, a focus.

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The house has cooled overnight when I get up to write this.  In between the last two paragraphs, I open the door of the woodstove to put in another two logs.  In a turtleneck and sweats, I sit on the floor, feet toward the fire, with my laptop where its name says.  Warmth, says the body, unrepentant in loving what it loves.  Warmth too, radiating from the electrical current flowing through the machine I write with.  So little, but a little.  A start.

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