Category Archives: dying

Many Happy Returns

Birth, Death and Friendship

“It’s all one big day.  The sun is a maypole and we are winding away.

How many moments, reflected like diamonds, gather around you

to light up your way?” – Time to Go/ The Levins

***

The return journey around the sun is an opportunity for reflection. As the date of my entry point into the world approaches again, I have been thinking a lot about how our lives are intertwined.

I have never officially participated in a birthday maypole dance, which is traditional on May Day for some, but while I was living in California there was one morning that passed for one. My wife Julia decided to orchestrate a sweet celebration for me by secretly inviting two of my closest friends to town.  There is a dream like quality of discovering two familiar faces that inhabit your heart but not your daily space suddenly appearing behind a door. Time excused itself and the spaciousness that surrounds all things momentarily expanded, imbuing the surprise with an elongated sense of being inside and outside of myself simultaneously.

This occurred the day before my birthday. There was much rejoicing late into the evening. Music, reveling, creating new memories to laugh about.  Some friendships pick up right where you left off.  I fell into sweet dreams which were shaken up the next morning when my cousin phoned to tell me that my uncle Jeff had passed away during the night.

My mom’s brother Jeff was my holy goof. Sometimes, he would rake his two-day stubble across my face suddenly in an enthusiastic ritual of affection. His natural earthy musk would be mingled with apple cider vinegar, which he would practically bathe in to promote good health. To this day, this act reminds me that love is something that can playfully invade your private space.

Jeff was a beautiful synthesis of Baba Ram Dass and Woody Allen. He had the understanding of how we are more than our bodies while maintaining enough of the episodic-neurotic New Yorker to keep things real. I had just been down to see him in the hospital the week before. He had been singing to the nurses.

His message to us all during his battle with cancer was to be at peace. He had been an actor and a dancer.  Instead of losing a leg and being dismantled piece by piece, he decided it was best to take his curtain call. He managed to be released from the hospital and with his powers of intention, slipped away quietly in the night.

I entered the living room that morning, with my uncle now a part of me. Julia and my friends were there for me but I felt Jeff was with me, as well. Somehow, even closer than before he left. There was an unspoken reassurance that our journey together was not tragically linear.

I put on one of my favorite records, which is Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood. All of us began to dance around the living room. I sang along with the lyric, “Join the chorus if you can. It will make of you an honest man.” Again, there was the sense of being inside and outside of myself simultaneously.

The doorbell rang. It was my neighbors and their little girl bringing me a gift. The sun streamed in as I knelt down to receive the wreath of Spring flowers she had woven for me.  My neighbor’s daughter had long blonde hair and little red checks. There were flowers in her hair, as well, and in the golden light, she looked like a cherubic faery. We invited them to join our dance, winding around each other, taking up the invisible ribbons, celebrating the life that was ours to share.

This was many years ago. Yet, even though those friends and neighbors are far away, I am still intertwined with them. As for my uncle, I offer up this new lyric to him and for all of us holding the memory of someone dear while we celebrating our entrances and exits on this grand stage.

“I cried because I lost you.

I lived because I loved you.

I laugh because I knew you.

I’m vast because I’m with you.”

Many happy returns!

 

The Threshold Choir- Singing healing into dying.

Grief Literacy

When Death comes it will be a final opportunity for dignity. Will we clutch frantically “Can I have more?”  “What else can I take?” or will we be granted the serenity to know that we were granted an entire world, an entire life of free will.  Perfect your reaction now.
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After a late night gig on Friday in CT and an early morning gig on Saturday in NJ, Julia and I spent our Saturday night off driving three hours to an 80’s party in North Hampton Mass.  We decided that while the allure of the couch and the tube would be delightful, that we would make the effort to go see sweet friends.
On the way we listened to Bill Bryson’s memoir about the 50’s.  He was discussing how society back then was indestructible.  It was a group held belief that all food was good for you, that smoking and drinking was good for you.  There were x-ray machines in the shoe stores to bathe you from head to toe to get your shoe size.  There were bombs tested in Nevada and families in Las Vegas had picnics to watch and would line up as the men with Geiger counters came around to see how radioactive they were. It was a lark.
One of our friends from The Boxcar Lilies was throwing the 80’s party and put on Talking Heads and B-52s for us to dance to.  The Lilies are three strong and in-depth women that sing and play instruments together.  Their men folk are all rugged, huge- hearted talented gents.  One of them,  Erik Hoffner is a photographer and writer.  He turned us on to Stephen Jenkinson and an interview he just published with Stephen in the latest Sun magazine.
 Stephen Jenkinson is an author, a spiritual teacher, farmer and activist.  His message is not that we are indestructible but are, especially in North America, suffering from “grief illiteracy.” We do not know how to acknowledge our own death or be faithful witnesses to each other’s dying.  We act as if things are normal, right up to the end, “Death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life and gives you the chance to live, because it says, “Here’s the bad news: “It’s not going to last. Here’s the good news, “It’s not going to last.”
I had mentioned during our 80’s party how important as it was as an adult to pull back in the summer, stop working long enough to experience the stillness and expansive space summer can offer. Something that we knew as kids.
Stephen Jenkinson talks about the cultures that used initiation to create a mini-death between childhood and becoming adults to teach us, respectfully, to take responsibility and transition from being self-absorbed to becoming conscious of our lives and those around us.
Pema Chodron cites the problem with going up to the mountain to transcend is that there are those who are suffering left behind.  She suggests going into the heart of the earth and being able to be with the grief here.
Stephen Jenkinson also says, “There’s no withdrawing or running or transcending.  Stay here. Stay long enough that the grief can have its way with you, and you begin to realize that this grief is a wisdom, a recognition that human beings are maintained by the death of other living things…Your better self is born of grief… You can live your life as someone who has an enduring obligation to that which has kept you alive.” We can remember and be human.
Last night we went into the city to see a production of The 39 Steps and the four actors playing all the parts, bringing expertise physical comedy to the adventure of life, fraught with death, brought  the realization home.  While we are here, we can develop ourselves and our skills and share them to the best of our ability while we can. Acknowledging the finite, we can keep the story going, pass it down through the decades and centuries to prepare the decaying quilt for future generations to marvel at  and maintain.  May the patch we contribute engender wonder.
Stephen Jenkinson- The Meaning of Death: