Like a boss.

Magic only ever seems to make sense in retrospect. I mean, how often do you even see it for what it is while it’s happening? And so it was with David Bowie’s death. On some level I always knew that he stood out from the crowd of even the rock’n’roll icons, but he has been famous my whole life: Until today, I have never lived in a world where David Bowie wasn’t a star. Indeed, as with many girls of my generation, you could say he had quite an impact on my development. But as is so often the case with something that’s just part of the foundation of your world (and magic in general) even when you think you get it, you don’t realize how important it was until afterwards.

No doubt like many of you, a couple days ago I read Gordon’s review of Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, liked the music a lot, nodded along (nudge nudge wink wink) with the suggestion that there are–have always been–layers of occult meaning beneath Bowie’s lyrics and personae.

And then Bowie drops the mic and exits stage left like a fucking boss. A wizard boss. Leaving what you realize, in retrospect, is maybe the best and most humorous TTFN letter of all time.

For months I’ve been struggling with stupefying brain fog that makes it difficult to even have coherent thoughts, let alone remember them long enough to write them down, and I’m no brilliant cultural commentator in the best of times. So I don’t have anything clever or insightful to sum this up. It just felt like I had to mark the moment somehow, with people who would understand. I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this one over for a long time.



In pagan Spain, Part III

In Part I, if you missed it, I wrote about the paganness of bullfighting; in Part II I wrote about Andalucía’s Virgin Mother goddesses. In Part III, we talk about Jesus…

Hospital de la Caridad retablo by Pedro Roldan

My ramblings about “pagan” Spain are not just a matter of ethnographic interest. It’s the broader themes they touch on, which have been tapping at my mental window for the latter half of 2015, that are the juicy bits. In particular, death and sacrifice. I haven’t met many non-Latin Westerners who aren’t at least a little uncomfortable with bullfighting, for example; and yet animal sacrifice is something some pagans are quite comfortable with, as are many African and diasporic religions. I believe a big chunk of our bad feels about bullfighting come from the misapprehension of it as merely an entertainment; but regardless, I believe a sober reflection on bullfighting and how it makes us feel can help us dig a little deeper into what sacrifice means, why we do (or don’t) it, what values it enacts, our relationship (as humans, as priest/esses, as devotees, etc. etc.) to the sacrificee, and how best to go about performing a sacrifice. A life unexamined is wasted, but a religion unexamined is dangerous to all concerned.

With Jesus we come back around to sacrifice, since in Christian theology his crucifixion was said to be the ultimate sacrifice, that renders any other unnecessary forever. That sacrifice wrote a blank check to the cosmos. In the Spanish context, though, it seems that it’s a check that needs to be signed again every year through ritual reenactment. That’s hardly unusual in the context of pagan Mediterranean religions, but you don’t see it too much in mainstream Christianity.

There’s been some discussion of animal sacrifice in comments on the Well of Galabes blog (the comments about sacrifice are somewhat peripheral to the subject of the blog post). If I remember correctly, one person said they would have no part of blood sacrifice and any deity who would demand it is, if not actually evil, then certainly not the sort one wants to associate with. Someone else said, if you have a problem sacrificing chickens I sure hope you’re not eating meat because hello, hypocrisy? And yet another person said something like, slaughtering animals was a normal part of life until very recently, and dedicating to a deity a death that was going to happen regardless just makes sense. It’s like inviting the deity over for dinner.

This latter approach makes a lot of sense to me. I have to be honest–if and when I ever find myself keeping livestock, I am not going to be the one slaughtering it. It’s not a moral virtue on my part–quite the contrary, in fact–it’s just a personal limitation, even a weakness if you will. I think our society’s squeamishness around death is both silly and damaging to the dying and the grieving–which, let’s face it, is all of us at various times–but even so, I don’t think animal slaughter was ever meant to be ho-hum. When you bring about someone else’s death, that should matter to you. You should take it seriously and reflect on your own mortality and that of the deceased. It should be uncomfortable enough that you can’t ever undertake it lightly or in excess. A little ritual hedging around the event can only help.

On the other hand, I believe it was the anthropologist Michael Taussig who said that sacrifice is not about an exchange (“Hey, thanks for all that rain you’ve been sending our way; here, have a virgin,” or, “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll give you a chicken”) but is instead a way of entering a non-normal state of being that enables communion with the deity/ies. (It’s been many years since I read that, so I might be garbling it a bit.) I wonder (because I don’t remember) whether Taussig was viewing sacrifice as an essentially taboo activity that, in left-hand path fashion, acts to liberate the participants from stultifying social norms.

Greer writes, in the Galabes post linked above:

“When Christianity first emerged, after all, it did so in a world where the practice of animal sacrifice was a normal part of religious worship; everybody knew from personal experience what was involved in killing an animal in honor of a god and feasting on its flesh. In that context, reenacting the sacrificial death of Christ and ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood must have packed emotional force of an intensity and concreteness that can barely be imagined today. Even now, though, the Mass is edgy stuff; the symbolic cannibalism at its heart reaches straight down into primal desires and fears about eating and being eaten—and that’s an important part of what gives it its power.”

Gordon proposes that in sacrifice,

“…the non-physical recipients are fed not by the things they accrue, but by the things we deny ourselves….To me, this implies that the awareness of lack in our consciousness is the actual ‘sacrifice’, the actual ‘currency’, that is exchanged between the physical and the non-physical.”

That works for explaining how our offerings are received, but not so much in the case of an animal that is ritually slaughtered but then eaten by the humans involved, because arguably, the people might not otherwise have been about to eat that chicken, but they would probably have been eating a chicken. I don’t find the lack argument totally persuasive; it may well be true some of the time, but it can’t explain all the forms of sacrifice. My own experience isn’t sufficient to have formed a strong opinion on this though.

Yet thinking about the “awareness of lack” brings me back to the grieving that is so central to Andalucían religion. (Incidentally, grief also forms the main subject matter of flamenco songs, which is part of why people look so tortured when dancing to the “deep song.”*) Grief is the ultimate awareness of lack. If, as Gordon says, our non-physical neighbors are fascinated by lack, something they don’t experience, then the entities honored as various Virgins and Christs must be loving 20th/21st-century Spain.

I keep coming back to the question, how–and why?–does one celebrate grief? That’s what I see happening in Sevilla’s Holy Week rituals (and indeed Spanish comedy as well). But it proves that it can be done. Perhaps even that it should be done, sometimes.

Death more generally runs through (what I consider to be) Andalucía’s pagan traditions like an underground river. You may not see it clearly, but you can always hear it burbling away beneath. For people who know how to enjoy life so well (¡fiesta y siesta!), Spaniards have always struck me as quite morbid. Actually, I’m sure that’s no accident. If they are unusually preoccupied with their own mortality, they arguably have reason to be: just in the 20th-21st centuries they endured a tremendous amount of wealth inequality with grinding poverty for most, a vicious civil war, an oppressive dictatorship (which many perversely love in retrospect), regime change, drought and famine, and a collapsed economy. I noticed when I lived there how, in addition to preferring their Virgins to be depicted in a state of eternal mourning, they like their Christs battered and bloody. In Spain they want a Jesus who really knows what it means to suffer.

El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)
El Cachorro (Cristo de la Expiracion)

There’s a famous story about the artist who sculpted one of Sevilla’s images of Jesus, popularly known as El Cachorro (The Puppy). The artist, Francisco Ruiz Gijón, couldn’t get the look of agony on the face right, until one evening when he stumbled upon a Gypsy man–whose nickname was The Puppy–dying of a knife wound in an alley. Now that was how Jesus should look! (I imagine Ruiz Gijón whipping out his sketchbook on the spot, to The Puppy’s brief but no less massive consternation.)

In Sevilla, the wee hours between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Jesus ostensibly died, are far more socially important than Easter Sunday is. Which is kind of funny when you think about it: The central mystery of Christianity is not supposed to be Christ’s death but his resurrection. Osiris was also defined by his resurrection, and though he was often depicted as a mummy, it seems to me (not an Egyptologist here) that he’s mostly depicted alive. Even when he’s dead, Isis is usually in the midst of reviving him or he has ripe grain growing from his body. So what’s with all the gory Jesus iconography?

Well, you can’t resurrect unless you first die. Part of Jesus’ mythology is that he is human (among other things), so by definition his body has to be able to die. Evidently this is something Spanish people (Andaluzes anyway) can really connect with. Likewise, maybe they identify better with a Virgin Mary who grieves because they too know grief and find the deepest wells of empathy within it.

Yes, when it comes to Spanish Jesus, the deader the better. One might even say it’s a case of overkill. One might say the same about bullfighting, even if one regards that as a ritual sacrifice. In turn I wonder, are we to learn from this that a more torturous sacrifice has more juju? Must the sacrificee be put to the test in order to prove himself** worthy of the best possible completion of his life? Are these things relevant to the non-physical honorees of the sacrifice at all, or do they only matter within human categories?

As I mentioned in my last post, there is something very Attis-like about Andalucían Jesus. I’m not saying that he “is” Attis in the sense of direct continuity with that specific deity in pre-Christian contexts, but modern Spanish Jesus certainly seems to play a similar role. The annual reenactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death in springtime, with his body subsequently transforming into bread/food/grain, and the repeated bull sacrifices from spring through autumn, smack of agrarian fertility concerns. I also want to emphasize that I do not see parallels exclusively with Attis; there are obvious parallels that can be drawn between Spanish Jesus and Osiris, Horus, and Mithra, for example. None of this is about one-to-one correlations but about specific iterations of enduring themes and mythic truths, and to a lesser extent playing around with how we understand the category “pagan.”

Make of it what you will.

*There are folkloric forms of flamenco grouped under the rubric of “little song,” in contrast to the more classical deep song. They tend to be danced in a more upbeat style, but even there, the songs are almost always about grief.

**Jesus and bulls all being male, I use the masculine pronoun deliberately here. It does beg the question of what the female role(s) in this passion play might be–grieving only, or something more?

How to help a grieving person

I just got done reading Deb’s latest post which couldn’t be more timely for me given my mom’s recent death. It got me thinking, maybe people would like to hear some thoughts about how they can help someone who is grieving, from someone who is grieving. This may come across as whiny or kvetchy but I don’t care too much because if you have been in this position, you will understand, and if you haven’t, you will understand someday. There’s not much use to anyone else if I can’t be honest about the process, after all.

Since my mom’s death not quite two weeks ago, friends and relatives have called or emailed to offer support. I have also received some lovely supportive messages as comments here. It is much appreciated. Many people have said something like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” and that got me thinking: what might they do?

I am not a person who is comfortable asking for help. It’s not just a matter of being too proud–although yeah, I admit, that has often been a factor–but more than that I just don’t know what would be helpful. That has never been more true than now, when I cannot really think straight. It might seem that because I am still blogging here regularly, I am mentally ok; but I can assure you that I am several tacos short of a combination plate, cognitively speaking. What I write here is basically stream-of-consciousness verbal diarrhea. Whereas I am utterly incapable of writing, say, an obituary. I have great difficulty concentrating, no attention span, and zero ability to plan ahead. I am managing (poorly) by making lots of lists, eating lots of sugar, and sleeping a lot (also poorly). I feel sad and/or lonely and/or baffled in waves, and in between I feel stressed out and worried.

One of my close friends, though she lives in a different state, asked me if she could order me a pizza or some Thai food or something online. That was a freaking brilliant idea. Because I can barely feed myself. No joke, I have only been able to cook a meal for myself twice in the past couple weeks (soup, both times). Well, I did make a couple batches of pesto but I don’t consider throwing stuff into a blender, and then eating directly out of the blender, to be cooking. Open flame and I are not a good combination right now. So I’ve had a lot of meals of toast, or fast food that normally would disgust me but now it’s like, sure, whatever, who cares, I don’t know.

When I started taking care of my mom, she was already too sick to move to where I lived, so I moved in with her. Now that she is dead, I have to get everything packed and moved out ASAP, probably by the 1st of November, or else I will have to pay nearly $1000 rent (for an apartment of less than 500 square feet because California…but I digress). (How deathy is that timing, by the way?) My back is a mess, in part because I had to pick my mom up off the floor a couple weeks ago and even an emaciated person is damn hard to lift when they are limp and unconscious, so carrying heavy boxes is pretty much out of the question. But I can’t afford to hire movers either. Hmm.

But then to my surprise, my dad stepped up awesomely. This is a big deal because my parents divorced when I was four, and it was ugly, people. They didn’t speak to each other except to exchange legal threats–which were not empty threats, I might add–until my college graduation and then seeing them try to make nice with each other for my sake was chilling. But since my mom got sick they started to thaw a little, and each would even ask me how the other was doing. Still, I would never have predicted that this would bring me and my dad so much closer. He was much more upset than I thought he’d be, and literally dropped everything and drove five hours to be with me and help me get boxes and just do the annoying daily stuff that needs doing.

By contrast, my cousin asked if I needed help, and I said I needed money (my last paycheck is delayed pending receipt of the death certificate). She told me to ask my dad. I said I might need a place to stay when I move out of here, and she said I could stay at her place but only if I put my baby dog in a boarding kennel (which is so not happening). So that was, in fact, not remotely helpful.

Some people seem to think that what I need is to talk to them on the phone. That actually isn’t helpful to me. I can’t spare the time when I should be packing, and talking on the phone takes a lot of energy which I don’t have in abundance. Also–quelle surprise–it makes me sad. Besides, I have always hated talking on the phone.

Notifying people of my mom’s death has been the hardest thing to do. At first I would start crying, which was frustrating because the lady on the electric company customer service line really doesn’t want to hear some stranger blubbering at her. In my family, one does not cry in public, like, ever. Strong emotions? Lock. That. Shit. Down. Crying–or for that matter even laughing loudly–is for when you are sure you’re absolutely alone and you can lock the door and close the blinds and drink yourself into oblivion. Now, I think losing a loved one should mean you get a free pass to cry however much you want, but I admit I feel oddly awkward doing it over the phone. Even after I stopped unexpectedly bursting into tears, there are still a lot of agencies to notify, in particular if your loved one was elderly and received Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid or housing assistance. Everybody has their own paperwork that needs filling out.

My mom’s hospice nurse said that many people need to remain “task-oriented” to get through their bereavement. I don’t see how that’s even possible, but as Deb points out in her post, that is certainly what the typical American job demands, and indeed what many of the people around us demand. Most of the people who know me or knew my mom genuinely do want to help, but most live out of state and there’s not much they can do from afar; of those who are local, I think most probably have no idea how to help. Thinking back to when I knew bereaved people but had not yet lost a loved one myself, I don’t think I quite knew how either. So in case you too feel a little clueless in these situations, here are my suggestions (and I also recommend this other article by Deb):

The bereaved person will probably not be able to think straight and will be overwhelmed with bureaucratic paperwork. Do not expect them to be able to tell you how to help. Especially if they have never lost someone close to them before, they are probably fumbling along figuring it out as they go. They are not likely to know what they need until they’ve already figured out how to get by without it because it wasn’t there when they needed it. Self-care is also likely to be very low on their list of priorities. Consider dropping off or ordering them some food that actually has some nutritive value, or maybe washing the dishes for them. Simple food is fine; otherwise they are likely to not eat at all. Or to eat at McDonald’s, which is even worse.

For that matter, maybe you could help drive the bereaved to places they need to go. I am running on autopilot these days and am freaked out by how not-fully-focused I am when I have to drive. I mean you don’t have to chauffeur the person everywhere they need to go, but on longer or more distressing trips (e.g., to the funeral home) it would be great.

Another helpful thing would be to take over some of the notification duties, especially if there are a lot of people or agencies to notify. There are people I still haven’t been able to bring myself to tell. It would be super nice if someone could take some of that off my hands.

If the bereaved has to move out of the home, offering to make some runs to the library or Salvation Army or whatever to drop off donations would be swell. Or even, if you are physically up to it, helping with the move.

Do not ask the bereaved person to help you with your own stuff, or to chitchat on the phone or whatever. If nothing else, they should feel free to drop off the radar for a while. I’m not saying you should completely ignore the person, but talking about one’s bereavement isn’t nearly as therapeutic as you might think. And it should be done on their terms.

I think it’s nice for the bereaved to hear that their loved one was important to others too.  If you knew the deceased, and can honestly say something nice about what they meant to you, tell the bereaved. It creates a little sense of bonding or community at a time when the bereaved is probably pretty lonely.

And now here are some more examples of people helping brilliantly:

My friends got together and sent me a beautiful bouquet. Some people think sending flowers is cliché, but I actually found it really touching. It’s also something my mom would have loved; I don’t know if my friends realize that, but whatever, it makes it special to me. There is something nice about having that tangible symbol that is surprisingly comforting. Plus, it smells a lot better in here now.

A couple of my friends have offered me and my dog a place in their homes, rent-free, indefinitely, as well as substantial loans, and in one case even a temporary job prospect in the future. That is some top-notch helping right there.

A good friend of my mom’s regularly messages me on Facebook or by email to say she loves me and loved my mom and feels blessed to have had us in her life. She doesn’t ask me to call her, or go out and be fun, but conversely it’s clear that she is available if I want to do those things. This gives me many good feels. She also sent a fruit and cheese basket, which is cool because there’s food in it.

For the grieving person, I would pass on a bit of advice my mom had to give me many times. She said, People need to help. Let them. The wisdom in that is finally beginning to sink in. If you do know you need something, of course, whether it be alone time or groceries or (as in my case) wine, just say it loud and proud. Granted, a lot of people suck spectacularly at helping, when they even bother. Some people will get weird and uncomfortable, which is to be expected because our whole culture is weird and uncomfortable around death and grief. That is not your problem. But you may be surprised who steps up if you give them the chance, and moreover, you deserve all that care and attention and more right now. So let them help.

Season of the dead

In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)
In Ictu Oculi by Juan de Valdes Leal (1671)

I see that death is still in the air. I use Feedly to aggregate the blogs I follow, and today it greeted me with this post by Deb about visiting the beloved dead; this one about Undertaking LA, the “progressive funeral parlor” which happens to be handling my mother’s mortal remains at this very moment; the first in a promised series of posts on the Shinto way of death; this one which isn’t actually about death per se, but made me think of death because the Welsh god Gwyn ap Nudd is a psychopomp and underworld power associated with the Wild Hunt; and this one which also isn’t about death but references death, the descent into the underworld, and resurrection in the Maya cosmological context.

I’m sensing a theme here.

Not that that is entirely unexpected. There’s just something about the end of October…is it only a northern hemisphere thing? There’s Samhain/Halloween, the Chrysanthemum Festival (lunar date), Día de los Muertos, and not coincidentally the sign of Scorpio. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, but it seems like it ain’t what it used to be. Am I merely becoming crotchety in my middle age? People don’t seem to put the thought and care into it that they used to. This year I keep seeing things about “trunk-or-treating,” which I guess is more of this helicopter parent stuff where children aren’t allowed to go out at night and roam the neighborhood, even in the safety of their packs. For comparison, when my mom was a kid, they took the trick part of trick-or-treat seriously, stealing yard furniture and garbage cans, TPing people’s houses, throwing handfuls of dry corn kernels at their doors to make a racket, and so on. I think we should bring back Mischief Night. And when I was a kid, we rode around unrestrained in the back of a pickup truck, and later, having moved to the city, we went out with one adult who maintained a respectful distance. Sorry, but “trunk-or-treat” is a fucking travesty. Do not do this to your children. “Controlled and safe” is the antithesis of Halloween, and it might just be What’s Wrong With the World Today.

Anyway, up until my late 20s I guess, Halloween never disappointed. It was exciting because you just never knew what would happen, what with the disguises and being out late, the sugar rush and alcohol buzz, chill weather, and that whiff of liminality and leaf litter in the air. I remember when it changed–well, I don’t remember the calendar year, but I remember how it went down. My friend Heather made a bid to host the annual grad student Halloween party. She went all out with the decorations, I mean she even turned the crawlspace in her basement into a barrow full of treasure and ghosts. It was beautiful, spooky, and really captured the proper insouciant mood. But she unwittingly pissed off the woman who had hosted the previous couple years, who gave her the cold shoulder, some people didn’t even show up, and everything got really awkward. Heather was bummed. From then on, the previous hostess got her hostessing hegemony back, but the Halloween party became just another standing-around-drinking-and-listening-to-’90s music thing. It never again lived up to the sense of anticipation.

Maybe it was just something that happened within my circle of acquaintances (I hope so). Or maybe it was a reflection of a wider trend. My sense is that there is a magical current at this time of year into which one can tap, but it requires more than just fancy dress, a little sexual license, and booze. For me it seems to be some combination of beauty, a sense of mortality, and a willingness to think mythically and aim to misbehave. Suspension of disbelief is critical. I’ve long wanted to host a dumb supper but haven’t been able to assemble a right-minded list of guests. One day, though…

That actually was kind of a digression. My mom died last Sunday, on the New Moon which I think was rather stylish timing on her part. It was peaceful, and so far as I could tell, painless. The most unexpected aspect of grief, I am finding, is catastrophic brain fog. My dad says bereavement takes a lot of processing and one can’t expect to be operating at full mental capacity for quite a while. Taking care of myself, especially cooking, is surprisingly difficult. It just requires too much advance planning and too much attention span. If this post seems unusually rambly or flaky, that would be why.

So now I am packing and sorting and donating and throwing away in preparation to move (on which more later in another post, when I can think better). Sorting through a loved one’s belongings is a strange feeling. There are artifacts that mean nothing to you, that you have never seen and may not even be able to identify, yet which were lovingly curated for decades. It doesn’t seem right to throw them away, but needs must. For the first time I’m starting to see my mom as a person independent of me, the child. I mean, intellectually I knew that, but I never understood it till now. In some sense, I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to my mom, but she’s never been more of a mystery to me.

Weirdest of all is that I found a skeleton in the closet.

Oh, you think that’s a metaphor? Nope, I found a literal skeleton in a box in the closet. When I opened the box all I could see was crumpled newspaper; I picked up a piece and teeth fell out. I looked down to see a clump of ancient hair and vertebrae in my hand. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have archaeologists for parents, but I must say I was astounded that my mom didn’t tell me about it. I mean, that’s a hell of a thing to spring on a person. But it certainly is fitting for the season.

And so it begins

World's cutest psychopomp?
World’s cutest psychopomp?

Today one of my mom’s hospice nurses told me my mom has probably 2 days to 2 weeks left. I’ve been expecting this for four years, but it still came as a surprise. When she started “actively transitioning,” as they call it, about three days ago, I thought it was just one of her rough patches. She has them periodically (don’t we all?).

Caution: TMI ahead, maybe. I think this post has the most Goth tag-list of all time. If you want a firsthand account of how one person is dealing with a loved one’s death and dying body and with the grief, read on; if not, my next post will be on something different.

At first I thought I would just skip over the gross bits, but then I thought, people should know this and all this mincing about delicately and using euphemisms like “actively transitioning” and so on doesn’t really do anyone any good.

My mom takes opioid pain medications, which cause major constipation. As I understand it, they interrupt the nerve signals in the intestines or something. Stool softeners and laxatives aren’t terribly effective, at least not for someone on as many meds as my mom is, so things get pretty packed in there. A couple days ago, our apartment started to smell strongly of fecal matter–I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, it smells like a zoo enclosure. It’ll make your eyes water, and nothing makes it go away or covers it up. I thought maybe my mom had finally moved her bowels, but when I went to clean her up, there was nothing there. Today when the nurse came I asked her, if there’s no poo, why does it smell like poo in here?

I could see the surprise on her face. “I guess nobody told you anything, huh?,” she said. It is the smell, it turns out, of a body in the final stages of shutting down. I had no idea. I thought she would smell sick, maybe. Didn’t know she would smell like her intestines are on the outside. There is also a lot of mucus, not sure what that’s all about. (Just FYI.)

From here on the prognosis is that my mom will be slipping more and more often into a semi-comatose state until she finally dies. She drinks little, eats nothing, her digestive system has already shut down, so barring some miraculous turnaround, she doesn’t have long left. My job is to administer meds so that she’s not in pain or fear.

In some ways I feel like her life should never have been prolonged to the point that she suffers this much. The worst part is seeing her in a way that I know she would once have considered terribly undignified and embarrassing (and maybe still does). I think, this just shows how messed up our societal priorities have become. Yesterday (or day before?) a Right to Die act was passed here in California; but I doubt a fighter like my mom would ever have made the final decision to do herself in, and I’m not sure I’d have had the guts. But then I feel like a hypocrite because if I applied the same logic to her childhood, she would have died when she had polio, or maybe whooping cough, and I would never have been born.

So today has been an emotional whirlwind. First I was numb, then I started to shake a little. Then I was sad, then I was overwhelmed with shame for every selfish thought and cross word. Then I was angry and frustrated that I had put off dealing with practicalities like selling my mom’s china and crystal (hey, anybody want any vintage china or crystal?) and the furniture I can’t take with me, or getting the power of attorney form notarized. Then I was scared. For a long time there was this weird mix of sad and scared and ashamed. Dread at the thought of having to notify people while emotionally ragged. There were little hints of relief around the edges. Worry–what happens if/when I can’t afford the cremation? I have no savings, and my employment dies along with my mom; how will I support myself during the time it takes to get her affairs in order, knowing that I’ll be leaving right afterward? Now I’m back to mostly numb again, but filled with compassion and contrition. Tears are always just offstage though, waiting for their cue. I wish more than anything my friends were here, but I’m glad nobody’s around to see me ugly-cry.

And most of all, over and over: Not yet. Not now. I’m not ready. Just a little more time. I want to do something, but there’s nothing to be done.

But of course it’s not about me. For days Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” has been going through my head; listen to it from the perspective of a parent speaking to a child, or an adult child speaking to their parent. I never thought of it that way before this experience, but now it’s like the soundtrack of this whole experience.

I have a few more posts scheduled in the pipeline, but I may be writing less for a while. On the other hand, maybe I won’t be able to stop writing. I mean frankly I’m surprised I’m writing this.

Liar, Liar, pants on fire: more death

Paris Montmarte cemetery

Ok, so I lied. I said I was going to give you all a break on the ghoulish 8th-house, deathy stuff, but it turns out I’m not ready yet.

See, other people keep contributing awesome stuff that gives me all kinds of new nuances and angles to think about, and I can’t think without writing (can’t stop won’t stop). The synchronicity, or maybe more accurately the circularity, of blogging about these topics while others are also thinking and writing about it–see this post from Deb Castellano and this one from Stacey–both on the same day!…well, it feels really magical actually. And reassuring. All the feels!

I mean there are so many feels that it’s really hard to process. It’s like being underwater and not knowing which way is up anymore, your lungs ache, scarily empty, and your arms are tired and helpless, and you desperately need to swim for the surface but you have no idea where that is. All you can do is stop struggling and let yourself float, and hope you make it back to air before you run out, though you know you might not. You are basically asking a panicked animal to make a calm, conscious, counterintuitive decision.

But then at the same time, there’s this bizarre beauty to the experience. Or, I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sicko, but I think Stacey hit the nail bang on the head when she says:

“This also forces me to notice that I . . . kind of like? . . . being around people who are processing grief. I worry that this is horribly morbid, and what the hell is wrong with me, but this is the great mystery and I think there’s something holy about the grieving process.”

Yes. That.

The Japanese (of course it would be the Japanese) have a name for that sense of mystery, holiness, and melancholy-with-a-soupçon-of-ennui: mono no aware 物の哀れ. A non-literal translation that captures the feeling might go something like, “Alas! Everything ends…” In this point of view, that intensifies the beauty and preciousness of life. We will always be longing to plumb the mysteries of existence, and we’ll die before we get there…but the longing itself adds savor and depth.

I wish I could say I just sit here and bask in the poignant autumnal glory of it all, but the truth is this brings out the bitch in me. There’s nothing romantic about this, dear readers. Caring for someone who’s dying involves such an abundance of bodily fluids and excreta and whining and tantrums and pain…and that’s just me. (Buh dum CHING!) Seriously though, death is not for the squeamish, lemme tell ya. There’s a reason I never became a nurse. It’s called “emptying bedpans” and “cleaning up vomit.” Of all the seven deadly sins, the one I struggle with most is Pride. It’s not that I’m arrogant, but rather that I have an inflated sense of my own dignity and cleanliness. The number one thing this gig has taught me is humility, and it’s a lesson that I have to learn the hard way, over and over.

(For my fellow astro-nerds, transiting Saturn is going through my 8th house (death) until November of this year, squaring my natal Saturn in the 6th (caregiving), and has just moved off my progressed Moon (feelings, mothers) in the 8th–and this is a balsamic moon, the last phase of the lunation cycle and the one associated with death. Meanwhile, until Spring 2017 transiting Pluto (god of death) is running back and forth over my progressed Sun (identity) as it goes from direct, to retrograde, to direct again. Jupiter (more! more! more!) is also in my 6th house of caregiving and service right now. Now all that death would sound totally badass if I were a goth kid, but Saturn is slopping a big steaming glob of middle-aged responsibility, filial duty, and life-evaluation on my plate.)

There are a lot of weird effects of getting this up-close-and-personal with death. For the past couple months I’ve been unable to do any magic. I want to, I’m just unable to muster up the energy and focus. And my gut says I need to let it be for now. On the other hand, a few days ago I saw a ghost for the first time since I was like three years old. In the interim, I have heard ghosts stomping around, had them temporarily steal my keys, seen them in my mind’s eye during hynogogic states, and felt them clairsentiently (is that a word?), but I haven’t seen them with my actual physical eyes. A few days ago I was walking my dog and saw an elderly lady in a pink chenille bathrobe walking up, only to find when I looked straight on that she wasn’t there, at least, not in a corporeal sense. This is a huge deal for me since it could mean the restoration of an ability I lost long ago.

Is it weird that I’m talking so much about this? I don’t want to bore you, but I feel like death, and the deeply personal experiences surrounding death, need to be brought into the light. Maybe it’s a sort of calling for me right now, and it’s part of the Shiva current that keeps popping up. This shit isn’t glamorous or exciting–least of all as it manifests in my life–but it’s real. I very much look forward to Deb’s forthcoming Books of the Dead blog series, which she predicts will be “one part research, two parts personal sharing, one part witchcraft and one part folklore/mythos.  What will bind all of this chaos together will be actual Books of the Dead.” See, because that’s what we need more of. It’s a kind of psychopompery (another word I made up). (Maybe I should have called this blog Psychopomp and Circumstance lolz.) I know I can’t do it justice by myself, but now there are more voices in the chorus, and as Stacey says, it’s like death is in the air right now. I hope that makes for one hell of a Halloween.

So I retract my promise of no more death talk, though don’t worry, I am going to mix things up a bit.

Death and taxes: or, how capitalism harshed my morbid mellow

memento mori

Sorry for all the death stuff, dear readers. I hope I’m not bringing you down. Still, it’s something we all must deal with, for in the end, we all come to dust.

My grandma told me that when she was a kid in Appalachia, “funerarials,” as she called them, lasted three days. On the first day, the living sat in overnight vigil at home with the deceased. On the second day, the deceased was embalmed, and on the third was the burial followed by a memorial feast. I always thought that sounded nice, minus the embalming part. I’ve always loved the idea of wakes. I used to say I didn’t want any kind of funeral for myself, because I felt like I wouldn’t need it (being dead) and I didn’t want to put the burden of the cost and organizing all the details on my bereaved loved ones (though I can only assume there would be throngs and throngs of them).

My mom says she doesn’t want any funeral or memorial service, and in one sense that’s a relief because I rather doubt I would be capable of organizing such a thing. Plus almost all her friends are dead already. But as I think about it, it makes me really sad that a good person who lived an interesting life should be sent away without a celebration of that life. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the rest of the family cannot wait for my mom to die. It’s not because my mom was a difficult or cruel or obnoxious person, nor is it because they want to get their hands on a big inheritance. No, it’s for one simple reason: she’s inconvenient. They don’t want to be bothered with her. And they aren’t. I do everything that needs doing, I pay for everything that needs paying. They live in the same city and they cannot even be bothered to call my mom, let alone come visit her.

This is an injustice to my mom and to me. Do I even need to say that these people have some serious *issues* when it comes to death? That’s what it really comes down to. Seeing my mom, even thinking about her, is inconvenient because it would force them to face up to not only mortality itself but all the gross bodily deterioration, loneliness, and fear that leads up to it.

Unfortunately if our family has a legacy it is The Grudge. Very small offenses can get you blacklisted for life. There are two parts of my family–each descended from one of my mom’s sisters–that haven’t spoken to each other or even so much as exchanged Christmas cards for decades. While her sisters were alive, my mom managed to be a bridge between them, but after my aunts died and my mom got sick, the family fissioned. Although my relatives can be surprisingly generous at times (mostly with stuff you don’t need), suffice to say if you stumble along the road they don’t stop to lend a hand. I’ve survived this long because I stay innocuous and don’t get sick much.

My ancestors and I have a lot to talk about.

So anyway, I found out about The Order of the Good Death via Blood & Coffee and it’s a great concept. (Check out the blog, there are some very interesting articles there.) Modern Western society has a seriously messed up relationship to death, which is to say, really no relationship at all. I was struck by this post by Anne Crossey: Whereas she and I agree that many societal ills can be laid at the doorstep of what she calls “death-denying ideologies,” she attributes them to deluded belief in a nonexistent afterlife, while I think it’s the fear that there is no afterlife that leads to death-denial. After about 200 centuries of increasingly reductionist, scientistic, atheist materialism, I think most people alive today have thoroughly absorbed the idea that there is no afterlife. They may be struggling with it, they may have faith in spite of their fears, but the people of magic know the cognitive dissonance that comes with the fight to keep hold of knowledge–even empirical, directly-experienced knowledge–while being constantly bombarded and mocked by contrary messages. I wouldn’t say that an unchallenged, hegemonic belief in an afterlife would remove all death’s fear or grief, but it is quite clear to me that our death-denial derives from our materialism, and not vice versa. Regardless of whether or how you conceive of an afterlife, dying, that most liminal of places, is inevitably and immanently numinous. But if your worldview cannot admit the numinous, then death is just rot and failure and the end of our dearest illusions, Forward Progress and Productivity and Ever Greater Acquisition. Not something your average American can handle. I think every person who waits in line for the latest iToy should have to spend at least a month in corpse meditation and hospice work.

Moving on. (No pun intended.)

I know my mom wants to be cremated, but I would prefer to biodegrade if possible, so I clicked on the OGD’s natural burial link. There I noticed (as I have elsewhere since I started researching this stuff) that cemeteries, the Neptune Society, basically any organization that deals with dead bodies, seem very loath to talk prices. I suppose this is viewed as crass, but I’ve also observed that any product or service where they don’t tell you the price up front is going to be more than you can afford.

And so it is with death.

funeral industry

And it pisses me off.

It’s a good thing my mom wants to be cremated, because I can’t afford anything else. My mom isn’t leaving behind any estate, any estate she did have would be taken by Medicare as reimbursement anyway. I have no problem with morticians or other death professionals (deathfessionals?) being recompensed for their time, effort, skill, and expertise, except in the larger sense that I am not a fan of capitalist exchange dynamics and the monetization of human relationships. Unfortunately, we live in a society where you gotta make money to live, and deathfessionals deserve to live too. I suspect–call me crazy here, but I suspect–that deathfessionals don’t get into that biz full of champagne wishes and caviar dreams. But as I think about some of the efficient, green, time-honored ways to facilitate a body’s decomposition, or touching stories about honoring the dead and faring-them-well, I realize that I and countless other Americans can’t afford any of these things. In the US, a cemetery plot is real estate, and priced accordingly. A coffin can cost you as much as a downpayment on a house. According to the New York Times, the average cost of an American funeral is $6,000. That article I linked makes it sound like it’s super cheap to bury someone at home, but think about it–Are you going to be able to dig the burial yourself, or will you need to hire help? Will you need legal advice on how to obtain the necessary permits? Are you going to have to refrigerate the body while you get the permits and dig the hole, and do you have the facilities (or, e.g., dry ice)? Do you own rural or semi-rural land on which to bury your loved one?

And don’t lets forget that the State and the “funeral industry” have to get their grubby paws in on the matter:

“Recently [this article was written in 2009], some states, with the backing of the funeral industry, have considered restricting the practice of home funerals. Oregon legislators last month passed a bill that would require death midwives to be licensed, something no state currently does.”

(I have learned through my experience with herbalism that we must be very, very grateful for those few vocations that don’t require licensure and regulation.)

At the beginning of this post I apologized for talking so much about death. But you know, it’s something we could all stand to talk about a little more. As I’ve worked through the process of stewarding my mom into death, I realize that not only do I need to talk much more with her about what a good death means to her, but I also need to talk to my friends–my family of choice and, for all the reasons I mentioned above, the only family I could hope to depend on to send me off well–about my own good death. Let’s not end up as hungry ghosts. Let’s all have the good deaths we deserve.