For a Blessing

Tonight I will attend a Sabbath service with the local Reform Jewish congregation for the first time. A friend of my mom’s who as a teenager survived Bergen-Belsen died last week, and her name will be on the list of those for whom the congregation will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

I met Bella and her husband Henry once, and I vividly remember Henry saying, “Who could have imagined all of this,” waving his hand around to indicate the Red Robin where we were eating, his and Bella’s entire life in the U.S., children, a home, “when we were in the camps?”

At a symposium on climate change this week, a communications professor said that if you want people to change their behavior, you need to communicate a sense of concern and also a sense of hope. If only the dire effects of climate change are presented, people will not act. They will feel powerless against what seems to be an inevitable and bleak future.

Hope and uncertainty are intimately related.

I wonder how or whether people maintained hope in the concentration camps, in that place where they didn’t have the ability to make choices that would change their situation, with uncertainty about whether they would wake up in the morning but absolute certainty about what they would wake up to.

The Kaddish makes no mention of those who have died. It is a hymn of praise to God and a request for God’s peace. It must have been spoken thousands of times a day during the Holocaust.

Bella returned to Bergen-Belsen once and gave a public talk while she was there. I cannot imagine the strength either journey demanded—the journey of survival or the journey of return, but the latter must have required a deep sense of possibility.

May Bella’s memory be for a blessing. May our lives be blessed with hope.

Welcoming Autumn

Autumn is always hard for me. From the end of strawberry season to getting up in the dark, nothing about this time of transition flows smoothly.

Toward the end of August I start to feel summer’s fullness slipping away. During the longest days of the year, I could sink into the world’s ripening with trust. Autumn, on the other hand, brings a death, and we never know what waits on the other side of dying, whether the small deaths scattered throughout life or the one that ends our existence.

A friend recently sent me a Rilke poem about this emptying time of year. At first glance, it’s not encouraging:

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

We may be tempted to run from the loneliness, but let’s not miss that this season invites us into the vastness of our hearts, a place we might not hang out very often. That vastness can scare us as it opens up the mystery of our selves, an uncharted territory whose exploration demands some solitude, some loneliness.

Perhaps all endings open up unforeseen space. They enlarge us in ways we could not have predicted; they tumble us into our surprisingly spacious hearts because suddenly nowhere else has anything relevant to say.

Rilke gives instructions for how to navigate autumn: “Be earth now, and evensong.” Though he warns that it won’t be pleasant—“The days go numb, the wind/ sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.”—I love the idea of being earth, that nurturing home that accepts everything back into itself regardless of what form a life took. Whether it was kind or harsh, generative or walled in, earth waits to receive it without judgment or exception.

Summer offers us a dwelling place, but in autumn, we must become the home for all that we have been the previous year, all that is passing away within us. We must stand on that vast plain and welcome our failures and endings and missed opportunities into the soil of our hearts. It is big enough to hold them and deep enough to transform them because there, as Rilke concludes, “he who began it all/ can feel you when he reaches for you.”

Coming and Going

A friend recently texted a group of us a photo of her delightful new grandson not long after his birth. The previous text to this particular group communicated a moment of caring for her dying father.

Seeing this entering and leaving the world in such close proximity brought home to me how natural both stages are. We are not designed to stick around.

I once heard about an indigenous people—I don’t recall where they live—who instead of considering death the opposite of life considers it the opposite of birth. We arrive on this planet, spend some time here, and depart. We come into being, we exist, and we cease to be.

Richard Rohr says, “Your life is not about you. You are about life.” We participate in this cosmic evolution, this ongoing creation, but we are not the point. Perhaps getting this backward makes us reticent to even think about our own ending.

Of course the idea of not existing is terrifying because all we have consciously known is existence, but if we considered the significance of our existence differently, maybe leaving it would be less scary. We are not so much individual identities walking around as we are parts of a greater whole.

We can see it concretely in the DNA passed on from my friend’s father to his great grandson. In a very real way those genes form them but don’t belong to them. The people are expressions of the genes, which existed before them and will continue after them.

In a similar way, we are each expressions of Spirit. In her book God’s Ecstasy, Beatrice Bruteau likens God to the dancer and creation to the dance. Though a dance can be broken down into individual movements, it’s the relationship between the movements, the flow of movement, the giving way of one movement to the next, that makes it a dance.

Each movement is beautiful and necessary and significant. Without any one movement, the dance is not the same. At the same time, every bend of the knees and arch of the back exists only for the dance.

A dance is ephemeral, and so are we. It’s also beautiful, and so are we—in our being born, in our living, and in our dying.

Incarnate Endings

I dug my first grave this week. There’s simply no way to deny the physicality of life when you’re standing in a three-foot deep hole the purpose of which is to prevent animals from digging up the body of your mom’s dog.

I am not generally good with dead beings, and I was worried about my reaction when taking Brave Soul out of the box and folding back the sheet to see where her head was. To my surprise, she looked peaceful rather than disturbingly dead. She had been sick for a long time, and even her body seemed glad to be at rest. It was the first time I could imagine participating in the ritual of washing a loved one to prepare her for burial.

The day before, I had watched a master taxidermist prepare a condor carcass. At first, I internally shied away, but a friend and I had been discussing the material nature of love. It doesn’t get much more material than a man with a deep respect and affection for birds finding just the right place to poke a sharp metal rod through the skin. This collection of feathers, bones, and skin used to be a condor and is still matter, still existent in its own right, still a manifestation of love, just a different manifestation now.

While we’re alive, our spirit and our body are one. That’s incarnation. In another context, this same friend quoted a Buddhist teacher as saying, “I am a body” as opposed to “I have a body.” A body isn’t something to transcend during life. It is our existence.

There will come a time when we are no longer a body, when we are no longer part of creation in the way we’re familiar with. As we covered Brave Soul’s body with dirt, Mom said, “Take care of her, Mother Earth,” which struck me as a truth. Regardless of our beliefs, the matter of which we are composed will return to Earth’s embrace in one way or another.

I don’t know what happens to our spirits. Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of dying as “leaving the planet.” I thought that maybe Brave Soul paused on her way out, cocking her head at us before she ran off across the field.

How My Cat Taught Me about Death and Christmas

One possible Advent practice is to take your cat to the vet to get six teeth extracted and then wait two and a half days for said cat to eat and drink again. After trying this myself, I recommend shopping instead.

During the cat not eating period, I decided to worry despite some pretty wise people—like, for example, the Son of God—advising against it. Occasionally I paused and told myself to relax; Tux, my cat, was not dying, and if he were, that would be OK.

I realize this whole “death is OK” thing is a bit of a jump, but I’d just come back from a retreat at which Jim Finley told this story:

Say you’re on a cruise ship and you fall overboard. You yell for help, but no one hears you and the ship sails away. There you are all alone in the water, and you realize that if you try to swim, you won’t last long. But if you float, you can last a lot longer (for those of you realists, it’s tropical water and you’re not wearing cotton), but you can only float if you relax. So you lie there relaxing really hard. After a while, you come to an internal place where, though you will continue to do your best to float, you know you’re probably going to die and you don’t have a problem with that anymore. Then the ship comes back and rescues you and you’re incredibly grateful, but you know you’ll never be the same again.

In his poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Dylan Thomas writes, “Though lovers be lost love shall not.” Perhaps that’s what we would realize if we were floating in the ocean, that we have a “deathless nature” within us, as Finley would put it, that the essence of us, the lovers, is a love without beginning or end.

In reality, we’re all already in that ocean. At the retreat, there was a woman in her seventies who radiated joy all weekend. When I thanked her for it, she said she was so grateful to have someone talk about dying because her friends and acquaintances never did.

It seems a bit out of season, perhaps, to write about death when we are preparing to celebrate a birth. But this particular birth happened to show us our “invincible preciousness,” as Finley says, the eternal at the center of and woven through this passing creation. We are all part of the love that will never be lost. May an awareness of that love be born in our hearts this Christmas.


Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Wishing everyone peace and joy during whichever holidays you celebrate.

The Whole Death and Resurrection Thing in 360 Words

Spending time away from California reminds me that things die on a regular basis.

A couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C., I walked past a house with a bunch of pots in the front yard. Inside each pot was a dead plant, and I thought, “Why doesn’t this person remove some of these dead plants?” Then I looked around and remembered that this is what all plants look like in much of the world at the end of winter.

One of my least favorite parts of the Lenten and Easter season is this whole death and resurrection business. I’m OK with resurrection, but death—not so appealing. Do they have to go together? Couldn’t we all just agree that resurrection is far more pleasant and skip straight to that part?

Pretty much all of creation appears to answer no to that question. Nothing lasts, from flowers to humans to solar systems.

But this existence of ours also answers that death is not possible without resurrection. From stardust becoming humans to compost becoming next year’s garden, there are no permanent ends, only transformation.

I’m not trying to reduce Easter to the turn of the seasons. I am suggesting that separating death and resurrection is pulling apart two steps in a single process. Death is not a thing in and of itself. Death is step one of resurrection.

I suspect this is not going to make the small deaths that we endure as we grow in this life more fun. We won’t all be clamoring to go on the death ride at Disneyland (well, unless it’s really good). The peeling away of layers of our ego, the very real loss of health or dreams—we may or may not be able to weather these more gracefully knowing that they are not permanent. After all, as Jim Finley says about the Crucifixion, Jesus did not handle it well: he sweat blood, he felt abandoned.

So why does it matter that our endings and letting gos, our transformed re-emergence and everything in between are part of a whole? Because that means we are always, regardless of our present circumstances, heading toward Easter morning.

How to Die Like a Tree

During a walk with a friend this week, we saw a huge, dead tree lying on the ground, all in one piece with its base exposed. It looked as if it had toppled over gently at the end of a full life. My friend said he had heard that if you eat organic food, you die simply, easily, and all in a moment, like the tree. I said, “That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Then the meaning of my words echoed in my mind, and I was surprised that they didn’t completely freak me out. I have been thinking more about this whole death thing, perhaps because my parents are getting older, perhaps because I am.

I have another friend who I’m sure is going to leave this life exactly as that tree did—peacefully. He’s in his late eighties, recently had a stroke, and quickly made a full recovery. In an email he wrote afterward he said, “Mortality is real.”

I wonder how to live with a daily awareness of this fact. I don’t mean I want to cash in my retirement fund and travel to Iceland because tomorrow could be my last day, but rather how does one move in the world in a way that holds an awareness of our own transitory nature?

It might have something to do with not holding on so hard. To whatever—the way things are, the way we want them to be, the happy things, the sad things, the terrible, the wonderful. Not because they don’t matter but because they are passing.

Perhaps living with that awareness is like Buddhist monks building a mandala. They place each grain of sand with intent, attention, presence, and love until they’ve constructed an intricate, gorgeous piece of art and worship. They never hurry. Then they sweep it all away and pour the sand into a creek to be carried to the ocean.

The reason to construct the mandala is not the mandala’s future form because, ultimately, it doesn’t have one. The reason to construct the mandala is the act of constructing it. So the way to live today, given that one day we won’t be here, is with intent, attention, presence, and love toward what is happening today.

Gee, if it’s that simple, I should have it down by noon.