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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

DEATH

DEATH


 
The friend who gave me this word––death––did not exactly give it to me. Lydia wrote me that she had been wondering what I believed about death, and I decided to try to respond by taking on the word. Try is the operative word, because what can I possibly say about something so literally life-altering for the one who dies and the ones who are left? In any space and especially in so small a space as this.
 
The most basic truth is that death is a mystery, no matter how often or how close we get to it. What do we really know for sure? I knew death when my little sister died when I was thirteen. I faced death when I tried to end my own life. I have had close friends die under various circumstances. I have worked in hospice and prepared the bodies of the dead, and still, it is a mystery, just as love is a mystery.
 
My friend, at the end of her query offered a Spanish saying, "Se acabaron, y solo la tristeza les da vida," which roughly translates, "They have finished, and only sorrow gives them life." I happen to know that Lydia has been deeply affected recently by the deaths of dear loved ones. This saying suggests to me that she is pondering less about death itself and more about what happens after death.
 
Almost thirty years ago one of my closest friends died of AIDS-related complications. At one time ours was the sort of friendship that caused us to double up in helpless laughter as we walked the streets of San Francisco. At other times we shared some of the deepest spiritual conversations. We thought it would always be that way. Then our relationship underwent some cuts and abrasions that we'd been unable or unwilling to heal. This went on for a few years prior to his death, as we ended all communication. Kevin, a mutual friend, arranged for us to have a phone conversation between a coastal California town and Glen's deathbed in New Zealand. A few hours before we were to talk, Kevin called to tell me Glen had died. I couldn't stop crying, as Kevin simply listened. I was mourning my loss, Glen's loss, and the world's loss, but I was also mourning the missed opportunity to make things right between us.
 
What happened afterwards, though, touches on that profound Spanish saying. I felt Glen's presence with me and around me so strongly for the next three days, and during that time, it seemed that everything sharp and painful between us was healed. I don't recall if I spoke any words to him like, "I'm sorry." I think of it now as a wordless time of healing, and I was intensely grateful to Glen for staying on this plane, so we could make things round.
 
I tell this story to say that I do think that there is life after death. I believe that I experienced a little piece of what Glen's life was after his death. I have also, in my attempts to better understand death, read many people's accounts of their life-after-death experiences. First I read Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody. More recently I read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Life After Death, recounting her experiences as a physician attending children with terminal illnesses. These books and the stories in them have bolstered my belief that death is not the end of life but a transition to something else––something we have an inkling of, but that is mostly a mystery. This belief is what drew me to ask Wayne Dale Matthysse if I could repost his mini-essay that I called "Form." And it was that essay that inspired my friend Lydia to ask her question about what I believed. It's this belief that draws me to the expression, "She walked on," the way many of my Native friends describe the death of someone loved and respected. They walked on to their next life experience.
 
I'm not sure it's our sorrow that keeps our loved ones alive after they've died. Perhaps it's joy, which is not to be confused with happiness. Joy is made up of contrastive elements––happiness, yes. But also sorrow, thrill, fullness, emptiness, pain, delight. Joy is the stuff of all the parts of Life, so why should it not be joy that keeps our loved ones alive? I once read this quote from an anonymous source at the funeral of my very good neighbor: "Joy is the elixir of life. Joy is what enables us to remember all our dead loves with a smile for what they gave us rather than only the agony of losing them."
 

The word death was brought to you by Lydia Lopez, painter and writer, Cheyenne's third grade teacher, and my former colleague.

 

For more thoughts on life after death, you may enjoy my allegory of judgment and the unexpected in the afterlife, "Surprised by Paradise ,"published in [Spaces]

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MIST

Photo: Therese Krzywinski

MIST

 

 
The double decker bus waits on the dock where the hydrofoils used to depart Copenhagen for Malmö. It's summertime in the far North.
 
I dreamed of visiting England ever since I fell in love with Brit Lit in high school. Later the mist surrounding the myth of King Arthur, his magical advisor Merlin, and Morgaine of the Fairies drew me even more powerfully. On this trip, I plan to visit the places attached to the myth—Avalon, Glastonbury, Tintagel, and the great stone circle at Avebury. Tingling with excitement, I climb to the top deck where my seat will fold into a bed at night.
 
I will arrive in London the following afternoon, sleep that night in a Piccadilly hotel, expecting to take a train west toward Glastonbury the next morning. Only I can't. Upon checking in at my hotel, I learn that no buses or trains will be running the next day, due to a countrywide rail strike. There is little to do but book another night in Piccadilly and spend the strike day in London. Determined to make this an Arthurian trip, I walk to the British Museum and choose the Celtic and Roman exhibits from a time shrouded in mist—Arthur's time. I imagine Morgaine weaving her magic into the ancient, woad-dyed fabrics. I see Merlin wearing the golden torc that now lies behind glass. My mind transforms an age-old sword into to the legendary Excalibur.
 
The strike cuts a day off of my time in England, and I know I won't be able to make it to Tintagel––Arthur's legendary birthplace with all the mystery surrounding his conception. That evening TV news regales me with another disappointment. More than 100,000 people will be descending on Glastonbury for its world-famous music festival. This does not sound like the meditative experience I've been imagining. First the strike, now the concert. Perhaps for the first time, I embrace the notion that obstacles signify entrance into a sacred journey, every hurdle turning my tour into a pilgrimage. Despite the discouraging news of the festival, I board a train for Bath the next morning, uncertain what lies ahead but still resolute. In Bath I go to a travel board and book a room in a family home––a precursor to airbnb––in the town of Bradford on Avon. The house turns out to be a hefty walk from the town center. The family provides a hearty English breakfast but no other meals, so after settling, I walk back into town for a pub supper, taking my food to a picnic table overlooking the Avon.
 
I am still ruminating about how I will deal with the anticipated crowds in Glastonbury, a town that many traditions have regarded as a holy place. I notice a sign for a hermitage that served as a hostel for Glastonbury pilgrims in Medieval days. I decide to walk the upward winding trail to see the small limestone chapel. The building is closed, and at first I view this as another obstacle. It turns out to tender an opening.
 
An intimate garden, filled with summer blossoms, surrounds the chapel, and I find a seat on a bench there. I close my eyes and begin to meditate. Almost immediately an often-repeated scene from The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley's feminist telling of the Arthur myth, comes to me. In this version it is Morgaine, not Arthur, who is the central character.  Raised to be a priestess to the Goddess on the sacred isle of Avalon, it is her power I will channel, though I don't think of what transpires in precisely that way.
 
Impossibly, yet utterly real, Avalon co-exists with Glastonbury in Bradley's story. Avalon is veiled and protected from the outer world and the uninitiated by impenetrable mists. These worlds––one devoted to the primacy of Nature and the Goddess who sustains it, the other to the recently arrived Christian God––will eventually not be able to continue to exist on the same island, despite the continued assertion by Merlin and the bishops that there is only one God, regardless of name, belief, and practice.
 
The image that comes to me in meditation is of Morgaine entering the Avalon boat, standing upright in the prow, raising her arms and speaking the words of power that raise the mists, taking her away from Glastonbury and onto the sacred isle. In my meditation, I see that, as Morgaine raised the mists in times past, with my holy purpose, I can lower the mists and shut out the clamor of the festival crowd.
 
In the morning I leave for Glastonbury. And indeed, I have lowered the mists between the festival and the places I've wanted to experience––the Holy Well, the Tor, and Glastonbury Abbey. In point of fact, unbeknownst to me, the Glastonbury Music Festival has always been located ten miles outside the town––the mists drawn down.

 

It is in the ruins of the Abbey that I am blessed with a deep spiritual experience. I sit on the low remains of a stone wall, surrounded by open arches that once were windows within the broken lines of the sanctuary. Sunlight gleams on the grassy floor. And I have the sudden, overpowering sense that I have been here before, long, long ago, in another life. Spirit in this place far transcends the religions that competed in Morgaine's time.
 
The word mist was brought to you by Therese Krzywinski, who lives in Bergen, Norway, where mist is a common feature among the city's seven mountains and the sea.


 
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WALK

WALK
 

 

Walking is good for lots of things. Getting from here to there and back again. Building up bone. Seeing the things we miss when we're driving or even bicycling. Slowing down. And it's good for writing.
 
I first read the word flâneur in Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir of a family's netsuke collection. I had to look up the word and found that it means "a man who saunters or strolls around observing urban life." Characters in this story, particularly when in Paris, did just that. Frequently. When I ran across flâneur again, it was in the Sigrid Nunez novel, The Friend. There is a passage in which a male writer speaks about going about as a flâneur when his writing is not flowing. He speculates that women writers can't be flâneurs because they will be interrupted too often in their pensive strolling by males in pursuit of them.
 
I, however, a female writer, dispute that writer's off-putting statement with some prickliness, having often engaged in flânerie precisely when I've gotten gummed up on a page. Strolling is one of the very best ways to jiggle my thoughts loose.
 
Seized up or not, when I'm writing, I habitually set my timer for 30 minutes, go for a ten-minute walk, come back for another 30-minute composing stint, and so on, for the first seven or eight hours of the day. Aside from not letting my body turn into a pretzel, this also keeps my mind limber.
 
I often have the most trouble getting started. The beginning, we're told, must be just right, must pull the reader in; this, of course, sets us up to get stuck right off the bat. But I can get jammed anywhere along the way, feeling as if I can barely trudge on through words as thick as oatmeal. The conventional advice then is to write badly in order to write well. A professor of mine called it "writing your way there," an expression that's a bit like strolling, and I like that way of thinking better. Nevertheless, the lines may refuse to shimmer. Or the angle is somehow cockeyed.
 
Turning myself into a flâneur at that point is a little like giving up, which turns out to be the necessary surrender. I don the appropriate clothing and footwear, and step outside. Walking in a forest, a desert wilderness, or on a prairie is always lovely. But it is not necessary. In fact, part of the original definition of flaneur has to do with sauntering through an urban setting. Usually my flânerie will take place for five minutes, beginning at my front door, include a turn-around, and then take five minutes back. Amazingly enough, that's usually the right amount of time to give my mind a good wiggle.
 
At the outset, I might plan to simply stroll. I observe the available bits of nature on some commonplace street—the iridescent green, blue and black beetle clinging to a hollyhock stalk, the little white bindweed blossoms with their small heart-shaped leaves.
 
And then, without premeditation, my attention turns to that congested passage. The thoughts stroll through my mind, and, on one unremarkable step forward, I know that the passage needs to begin in an entirely different spot than I first thought. A kind of settling takes place within me, an inner smile. There might be a smile on my face, too, but I'm not aware of that. I once had a student accuse me of smiling too much. "No one's that happy," she said. I think that means I'm mostly not aware of smiling a lot of the time when I am.
 
Back at home I remove whatever outdoor wear I'd donned. I feel a level of excitement, of purpose that is now possible. Flânerie has proffered a slant entry into the piece, and that makes it fun, tantalizing. There's a spark now in place of the lackluster, the pedestrian.
 

 

The word walk has been brought to you by Catherine Robinson, coauthor of my next book, who walks far more now than she did when I first met her.
 
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FORM

FORM


A Guest Post
By
Wayne Dale Matthysse


 
I have been faced with death more than most people have… although I suppose numbers really don't matter. When someone you have loved is taken from you, there is an emptiness that is not easily filled and then there's that back-burner reminder that one day, you too must pass through that Veil of uncertainty.
 
I was always comforted by the fact that, as a Christian, I would eventually be resurrected when Jesus returned and be given a new body just like he was given… except I was a little concerned, because his new body still carried the scars of his crucifixion and, well… I had lost a finger at the age of ten, the vision in one eye from shrapnel at the age of 20, and at the age of 30 had my gallbladder removed. Plus, I have some scars from other minor surgeries and wounds that make me less than attractive, and I wondered if I would be happy throughout eternity living in the same body as I had here. The excess weight I have always tried to lose would also be a burden in Heaven, although without a Coca-Cola vending machine, perhaps I could lose some of it. Another question would also come to mind at times; of what age would my new body be and would I have a choice in deciding or would I just have to accept the body given to me?
 
These questions seem so childish now and the thought of having a resurrected body seems so utterly absurd to me. You see… I have now come to realize that death is not the end of Life, it is only the end of form. Life is formless and is Eternal and therefore cannot be destroyed. This now is my source of comfort… and knowing that there will be no period of waiting for eternity to start but rather just an awakening on the other side of the Veil, is something I can actually look forward to. The Essence of who I am, will not change… but the form I have been attached to will no longer be a burden.
 
The word FORM and the reflection on it has been brought to you by Wayne Dale Matthysse, a friend I've known longer than most. Wayne has been intimately acquainted with death as a medic in Vietnam and as the co-founder of an AIDS Hospice, now Wat Opot Children's Community in Takeo Province, Cambodia.
 

 

Comments are always appreciated! If you'd like to see YOUR WORD become a story, poem or reflection, send me one in the comments. Or send it privately, using the "Contact" tab. Or maybe you'd like to offer a guest post. Just let me know!
 If you like what you see here, please consider subscribing at http://www.annaredsand.com/newsletter.htm 
 

If you already subscribe, please invite a friend(s) who would enjoy WORDS FROM FRIENDS to subscribe. Thanks in advance!

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