We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Posts tagged death

Legacy

Imbolc                                                            Valentine Moon

Writing.  Learning about the craft 20 years after devoting myself to it.  Yes, I admit it.  Kate was right.  Though I don’t recall, she says she urged me to go to the Loft way back, back in the days after I left the Presbytery.  Now I am.  To learn about publishing and about serious revision.  She’s often more clear about my vocation than I am.  Strange, but true.

The third phase continues to shimmer in front of me, a veiled space not yet known, the part of life that lies on boundary with the undiscovered country which doubles its resonance as if a great bronze tocsin tolls; though still faraway, its sound grows stronger with each passing day.

So. Legacy, then.  What will remain of mine when I cross the veil and enter that other world?  Of course there will be the vague collation of memories in children and grand-children, the sort of hazy recollection that fades with each passing generation.  Of course. There will be, too, the even gauzier remnants of actions taken:  those apartments and houses on the West Bank, a strengthened legislative program at the Sierra Club, work for non-profits and affordable housing through various groups, but in these my print lies barely visible, as it should be, but it means that connection will soon be lost.  If it has not been lost already.

Where I have most hope lies in the words I have written, like my father before me.  No wonder then that as the third phase beckons and the life of the past recedes writing becomes more important.  There is a sense in which legacy is a thing of vanity only and in that regard insignificant, after all most of us travel that last ancientrail unknown soon after we have set out.  There is, though, another sense in which legacy matters because it matters; that is, the legacy continues to entertain, to provoke, to evoke, to engage not in the world of the hereafter but in the world that is here after we are.

It is to this sort of legacy that I aspire and its persistence through time will depend on the quality of the work and thought I bring to it.  I know it seems perverse from some perspectives but I do not care about my legacy while I live.  Fame or money or recognition do not matter.  Only the work.  If any of them would come, I would choose money for the freedom it would give Kate and me to travel.  Recognition matters to me only as affirmation of labor’s worth.  But I value my work myself, so it is not needed.

 

A Third Phase Entry: Learning How to Die

Beltane                                              New Garlic Moon

Whew.  Over to Riverfalls (east into Wisconsin, about an hour) for Warren’s father’s funeral.  Then, in rush hour, out to St. Louis Park for the Woolly meeting this month at the Woodfire Grill. (west of the Cities)  So much driving.

Funerals.  The wedding equivalent of our age range.  We meet friends there, catch up, honor the family and the final journey.  Then we go home, secretly glad we were attending another funeral, not being featured.

Though.  We agreed tonight, Mark, Scott, Bill, Frank and myself, that what we learn from Moon’s recent death, Warren’s father and mother, Sheryl’s father and mother, Bill and Regina’s confrontation with cancer, is how to die.  It is the end of this phase of life as surely as a degree ended the first phase, career and family the second.

It is this that changed at our retreat two weeks ago.  We acknowledge and are ready to learn how to die.  And how to live until we do.  It is a joy and a true blessing to have men ready to walk down this ancientrail together.  And to be one of them.

Yet More Loss

Beltane                                                              Beltane Moon

Got back from the retreat about 12:30.  Took a shower, rested a bit, then hopped in the car for Moon’s reviewal at Washburn-McCreavy in Bloomington.

The bulk of the mourners were Chinese, the Fong family, but there were friends of Scott and of Yin who, like me, are round eyes.   A bowl of red envelopes, take one please, sat next to cards of hand-written calligraphy and a second bowl of hard candy.  An order of service for the funeral the next day had a color photograph of Moon on the cover.

Moon lay in a casket at the end of the first hall, hands crossed over her chest, fabric work and calligraphy with her.  Next to the coffin a video played, showing pictures from Moon’s life, including one with a curly headed Yin, young and beautiful.

Mourners wore red bands to indicate celebration of Moon’s life, though a few wore black bands to indicate her centenary; while 97 at her death, Chinese custom adds four years, so her age according to Chinese tradition was 101.

There were the usual clots of well-wishers gathered around person they know, wandering from board to board of photographs and watching, again, the video shown in two places in a hall separate from the reviewal room itself.

I spoke to Yin, then to Scott, said we’d talk later and left.

When I got home, I had an e-mail from Warren that his father, Wayne, whom he had put in hospice care only Wednesday, had completed his journey.  Warren’s phrase.  Warren, referencing the end of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, said he thought his Dad might last longer, but “he was in a faster canoe.”

These are times of transition, of change, of loss, of gathering in the lessons of a lifetime and using them for this third, last phase of our own journeys.  We knew it before the retreat and now we have fresh and poignant evidence.

 

Memory and Forgiveness and Death

Winter                                           First Moon of the New Year

Finished the Art of Fielding.  A book about striving and letting go, about loving and letting go, about baseball and Moby Dick, about heterosexuality and homosexuality, about living and dying.  All in the compass of northeastern Wisconsin, around Door County.  A fine read.

In the movie Patton, George C. Scott as Patton, in reviewing a harsh slap to a soldier with shell-shock, what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome, recalls the morale of the other soldiers in the Third Army, “It was,” he says, in an explanation and a confession, “on my mind.”  Scott’s gravely delivery has lodged this sentence in my mind.

It reveals to me the awful and the beautiful truth about memory.  We can stand condemned by our past, but in our remembrance of things past (proust), we can confess in that Catholic way, a heartfelt acknowledgment of our complicity and yet our need and our opportunity to live beyond it and, if necessary, in spite of it.

This thought occurs to me after Marian Wolfe’s funeral, after all funerals, all deaths.  Whether there is a great judge who puts your soul on the scale against a feather or a sudden extinction, the moment after death is no different than the next moment in life.

This may seem a shocking thought, but consider.  At any one moment in time we carry what miners call an overburden, the piled up soil and stones and boulders and tree roots and unessential rock of our life experience.  At any one moment in time, too, we may cease to be.  In fact, at some moment, soon or late, we will cease to be.  And the moment after we die is no different than the one that comes next.  Right now.

Think of it.  When we die, that living slate gets wiped clean, a lifetime folds up and gets tucked away.  This is the same opportunity we each have, every moment, if we can only open ourselves to our past, receive it in all its humanness, accept it and move on.

You may say we live in the memory of others.  Well, the memory of you lives on in the lives and memories of others, also perhaps in land you’ve loved, books you’ve written, paintings you’ve created, houses you’ve built, quilts you’ve made, but these are not you.  They are the memory, the imprint of you.

You are that whole universe lived within your Self, in the body and in the mind and in the spirit or the soul.  That others can never know, can never see, can never experience.  That universe experiences its apocalypse at the moment of your death.

This is very liberating.  We need only accept the death of our private universe to realize how tiny each event that looms so large in our memory is.  It will be swept away.

Hmm. getting tired here and don’t want to dig this further right now.  But its important to me anyhow.

 

Let’s Stop It

Lughnasa                                           Waning Harvest Moon

Death.  We generally agree it should come to us unbidden, at a time unknown and in a manner uncertain.  Cultures sanction the unwilling death of another, outside of war, as murder, the taking of life.

Laws provide penalties for murder.  They vary in length of prison time and occasionally in type, the instances of capital punishment.

Today in the news are two different executions, one in Texas and one in Georgia.  The first killed a white supremacist who attached a black Texan to his truck and drove until he died.  The second was a black man accused of killing a guard.  Many, many people had become convinced of his innocence.

Now both men have moved past the pale of earthly justice.  Their penalties render them forever beyond forgiveness, findings of innocence or redemption.

Here is my question.  Since their deaths were unwilling and outside of war, can the state be held as anything less than a murderer?

We have the rituals of justice, the patina of equity, but the rolls of those executed tell a different story.  It is a punishment most often meted out in the South and often, too often, to poor people and again too often, to poor people of color.

How we can turn aside this culture of death and state sanctioned murder is unclear to me.  I wish it could be done.  I’m sad tonight about the deaths of both of these men, just as I was sad to hear of the death of James Byrd Jr and would have been sad had I heard of the death of the guard.  I’m sadder still that I live in a time and a nation that cannot see itself through the eyes of those it kills.

 

Fall-ing

Lughnasa                                                  Waxing Harvest Moon

As August slides away and the sky shifts its colors toward deeper hues, an inner barometer detects higher emotional pressures.  The atmosphere weighs more, cuing those momentary pauses, breaks in attention.  It may signal a storm ahead, but more likely the prediction carries gray skies and mist, perhaps early morning fog.

Melancholy comes calling this time of year, an acquaintance, maybe a friend, of long standing.  Mom died in October, 1964, 47 years ago, a year longer than she lived.

Her death came at different moments in life for all of us.  Mark, 5 at her death, has few memories of her; she lingers in his past as a faint spirit, an enigma.  Mary, 12, has more, a young girl heading into adolescence, becoming a woman, missed the guidance a mature woman could give as she made that critical transition.  At 17 my life had already begun to pull away from the family, in my senior year of high school, the last, college plans in the making, I had her longest of all, only a brief time less than Dad.

When that dark angel comes, and he comes for us all, finality is the hardest lesson to absorb.  No more mom.  No more.  Memories, yes, but memories fade and change as life goes on and here all three of us are, 47 years later.  47 years.  A lifetime.

Why a friend?  How could melancholy be a friend?  Well, in this way.  As life patters on, this event following the other, we can become accustomed to its rhythms, lost in its small decisions and its casual absorption of our energy.  So lost, in fact, that we forget the Self that carries us forward, the Self into which we live and which lives itself into us.

Melancholy can turn us away from the day to day and cause us again to walk down the stairs leading to what Ira Progoff calls the Inner Cathedral.  We often forget this quiet place within, our own sanctuary, and melancholy can call us to visit it again.

So, yes, melancholy can be a friend of the Self, a guide back into the depths and resources of your Self.

Yama

Beltane                                                                                Waxing Garlic Moon

Still learning about fruit tree management.  Gonna go out and inspect the fruit trees one by one on a ladder this morning.  Then, mid-morning, the bees.  Later, tai-chi starts up again.

A busy week ahead so tomorrow is a Latin day.  I will be in the story of Pentheus for some time, Book III: 509-730.

Death.  A friend whose brother is dying and whose wife has been diagnosed with cancer said the other night, “I can feel them circling.”  This is, I imagine, a frequent sensation as we enter this last stage of life, no longer attending weddings so much as funerals.

The wonderful mandala and one thanka we have at the MIA speak to this.  They both celebrate Yama, the Lord of Death.  In Tibetan Buddhism Yama has a distinct role, he moves us toward enlightenment by teaching us how to reconcile with our own death.  A key move for Yama involves getting each person to embrace their own death, not shrink from it, or fear it, but understanding it as only the end point to this particular life.  In Tibetan Buddhism this has importance because the dying persons emotional state at death has a lot to do with the next incarnation.

In my (our) case I find Yama an important god because coming to grips with our own death does liberate us (can liberate us).  Yama represents that sacred force moving within us that wants us to live today because we know we may (will) die tomorrow.  When our fear of dying crimps our will to live (fully), then death has taken hold of us too early.  Instead, by accepting the eventual and definite reality of our own death, we can paradoxically gain new energy for living a full, rich, authentic life.

Knocking on the Door

Beltane                                                                             New Last Frost Moon

There are times and this is one of them, when death seems behind every door.  My friend Bill has learned that his wife’s cancer is stage 4.  A grave diagnosis with a grave prognosis.   American’s exult in the streets over the death of Osama Bin Laden.  A friend sent out a quote from Martin Luther King* that expressed my feelings.  Today Vega, one of our younger dogs, tested positive for Lyme’s disease.  Not a big deal, treatable, unless the kidney is involved.  Hers may be.  If it is?  Difficult to impossible to treat.

Since I started today already in somewhat of a funk, all this darkness hovering around has reinforced it, made the day two or three shades grayer.

Death does not surprise us.  It lurks beside us all our born days until the last one.  Its reality, its starkness, its finality, especially that last one, passing from the quick to the dead, still strike heavy hammer blows to the heart.

Death’s most severe wounds come from the source of our greatest joy, love.  Without love death counts only as an incident, something happening to someone else, an event of little consequence.  We know this each day we read the obituary pages.  Even the death of someone we have known, but not loved, does not shake us at our foundations.  When, however, death comes to call for one close and important in our lives, the very bound of love lacerates the heart, accelerates our fear, amplifies our sense of loss. READ MORE »

Obits Optimists

Imbolc                                                                       Waning Bridgit Moon

The most optimistic page in the newspaper?  The obituaries.  Every day and especially on Sundays I see evidence of the hopefulness and optimism of Minnesota citizens.  I imagine it’s the same everywhere.  With no evidence for an afterlife at all, let alone a particular one, person after person greets their mother and father, relaxes in the arms of their Lord and Savior Jesus, are welcomed by God the Father or pass over to their next adventure.  The range of metaphysical perspectives may be narrow, usually encompassing some version of the Christian afterlife or the less well understood world of late 19th century spiritualism, the passing over folks, but the confidence and clarity braces me every time I read it.

I’ve not done a comprehensive study of obituaries, let alone a cross cultural one (though it would be fascinating), but it seems likely each place has its own, culturally specific brand of confidence about the unseen world.  In ancient Rome a favorite epitaph mentioned here before:  I was not.  I was.  I am not.  I don’t care. represents a very different take on the after death experience, one more in tune with my own existentialist one, though I’m not as nihilistic.  I do care, at least now, about my death, though, with my Roman fellow travelers, I’m pretty sure that after death I won’t care either.

This kind of optimism has ancient roots.  Certain Neanderthal remains have been found with ochre painted on the body, indicating some thoughts about life after the grave.  Just what that thought was, of course, we have no idea, but burying a body and decorating it moves well beyond the animal world’s relative disregard for their dead; relative because elephants do have mourning rituals*.

The new atheists like to lampoon all this as magical thinking or evidence that the human race has not yet grown up, but there are ways of looking at it.  To my mind it is a poetic, metaphoric way of declaring that the person’s memory will live on among there descendants and friends.  It also a means of consolation in the face of a forever event, perhaps the first one the family has experienced.  Since there is no evidence, it is possible that one of the many perspectives has got it right.

Long ago I made a pact, a version of Pascal’s wager, with the afterlife.  I will live my life in as straightforward and useful a way as I can, being true to my own understanding of the world.  With Camus I stand with those who would make the trip toward the great river of death easier for all.  If, as I suspect, death is a personal extinction event, then the wager ends.  If there is a supernatural being who cares about living entities and their future, then the minor or even major screw ups in my life will be forgiven since their/its perspective will embrace all things, giving a context to any individual life that even the most forgiving friend cannot.  Either way, I’m ok. READ MORE »

The Truth from Ruth

Imbolc                                                                New (Bridgit) Moon

A couple of things I’ve been intending to write here.  First, granddaughter Ruth.  At gymnastics she was given a bracelet with a word on it.  She removed one cube with a particular 6702011-01-15_0625letter and showed it to her mother.  “Look, mommy, I got a bracelet with my name on it.”  Sure enough the bracelet read Ruth.  It was only later that her mom discovered it had been handed by a Christian woman to this Jewish young girl.  The bracelet originally read, Truth.

Another Ruth story.  In a store with her mother, Jen, and Tennessee Grandmother, Barb, a clerk complimented Ruth on her color sense.  “Oh,” Ruth said, “I’m an artist.”

Something else I enjoy are authentic obituaries, where the usual formula of passing on, entering heaven, being received by Jesus or into God’s arms get replaced with something it’s obvious someone said.   A recent favorite from a 50-year old man, “Good-bye and bite me.”  Says a lot.  Good epitaph material.  The classic for me was, “We thank Jesus for this fine Norwegian.”  Another one this week, which I don’t remember all together, went, “He liked his Camels, his whiskey, and ?I think it was, his women.”  Give me honesty or give me death.  Or both.

June 2017
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