Prison has its own unique intense density of mortality.
It is death that brings you there.
And not just actual death, however common, often maybe even murder, but it’s the death of a life lived on the outside, it’s the death of freedom, by whatever dark things that lead to it. And not just from what dark thing you did to bring you there, but what was done to you – a death of innocence, the earliest losses, abuses, traumas, that wash you away in their dark wake to do those things which will permanently frame you, into concrete & metal, for the rest of your lifetime – the decades upon decades upon decades, your 105 to life sentence…
And then there’s the death behind those walls.
The disappearances in those harsh, hard & cold spaces, of identities, of spirit, of expression, of humanness, into the hole, or the decades-long friendships gone in a transfer or reentry, the death of all the loved ones, lives lived on the outside while yours passes away, slowly, forever on the inside. Maybe at great cost, you’d be allowed the moment to stand in shackles at the deathbed of the most intimate relation, or over the dead body of your father, or maybe only just by phonecall to your dying grandpa’s ear, the only member of your family who still cares about you…
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again now.
I told the men & I’ll tell them again.
And when I, they & you think I’ve said it enough,
I’ll say it again to make sure we all get it:
I am absolutely clear that I gain far more from my visits with these men than I can imagine I’m possibly able to give.
I am pressed up against my own prison bars, with tears streaming down my face, face-to-face with all the ways I’ve caged myself. I am rarely more clear than when I am with these men, that the numbers of those imprisoned are greater on the outside than those numbered on the inside. And there is far more work being done by these men to create meaning & hope than most any of us will ever have to do in a lifetime. So, when I go inside, my prison meets theirs. It’s like what Lilla Watson said, quoted in Chelsea's song "Your Liberation," a song she wrote after our first visit to MCI & one she played for the men on our return this week: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
And the work. The work it takes to NOT be a product of our environment - we’re all faced with it. The work it takes to face & go through the pain we carry. Scott & Morgan sang it in their lyrics to the men, to us, during this visit: “The pain in your heart, that’s the truth breaking through.”
And these men broke through this week… we all did. And in the way our events work, less like an open mic & more like an opening, not just a chance to share that poem or song you know so well, but instead more like a chance to share the grief you know, your intimacy with sorrow, your heartbreak holding. Some of the men stepped out from behind the startlingly breathtaking creative output they’ve spent thousands of hours crafting & just sat in front of us, in front of their community, to cry.
While the creative work of these men is like nothing you’ve ever heard before [& GOD I wish I could share it ALL with ALL of you], there is still nothing like the man who sat before us crying, too overwhelmed to perform, because he’ll never see his Grandpa who’s fading away on his deathbed at this very moment. Or the man who writes words as expertly as you breathe stand in front of us only to say the names, through tears, of his three friends who just got out this month only to die within three days of their “freedom” from a shared overdose huddled in a room together, killed by the drugs their bodies were too long unprepared to do, or any of the long list of what the men shared & have lived through that I’ll save you the heartbreak of having to read here…
And please do not burden me with your complications;
By choosing forgiveness & love through vulnerability & connection,
I have my own complications to bear...
And I’m still feeling & reeling from it all today.
I had a good cry this morning as some of the parts, much of my heart left in Ohio, finally catches up to me. There is no experience I’ve ever had in my life that leaves me feeling how this kind of community leaves me feeling. There is nothing like sitting with those men, laughing & crying in some little room in the middle of prison, tucked out of sight in the great sprawl of Ohio, talking about trauma or poetry, who they killed or who got left behind, getting out or never getting out… while simultaneously in the next room, you can hear the music & laughter & voices of your beautiful friends who have come to do this with you.
And doing You're Going to Die's Alive Inside project, I’m often reminded of Joseph Campbell’s words:
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, & the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
But I’m angry with Joseph Campbell for those words, & not just because what it might mean or not mean for those men, but because of the burden of such bliss… to know what you’re supposed to do while it simultaneously breaks your heart. So much of the trust depends on following the meager bread crumbs, which in themselves are significant reminders for what absolutely matters more than anything else in life, but sometimes crumbs are hard to find & often they’re inadequate at satiating hunger... But this work, my friends & these men we’ve met on the inside, are bread loaves.
I’m left wondering what it is I’m trying to say here.
I wasn’t sure when I started writing what it was either.
So, I can only trust those things that have stayed with me since walking out those prison gates…
A loaf of bread one man gave me the morning after our first shows, when we returned the following day to more intimately talk & workshop the experience, he said to us, to me, with the kind of words that can only come from his verbal spirit, through his unique angelic glow:
“Every night I go to sleep & pray that I’ll wake up somewhere else…
Well, today I did.”
Prison has its own unique intense density of mortality.
My friend Mary died Saturday at midnight.
She’d asked that there be, what I think she would call, an untraditional Shiva - three nights of gathering in her home, friends & family, everyone welcome, to share food & drink, stories, poems & songs. And I am so sincerely glad I made it to the first of those gatherings, the day after the midnight of her death.
I brought a bowl of oranges with me. I shared a story about sitting with Mary only a month ago, in the very room we all gathered; I shared how we ate oranges together, talking about healing & creativity & the work of being alive. I told them that I brought the oranges for everyone because of a story Mary told me about a meditative practice she’d done at Spirit Rock – to sit & eat an orange for an entire hour. The way Mary spoke, you were compelled to listen, totally… & her sharing a simple story about eating an orange seemed to me a meditative practice in itself. To sit & eat your orange ever so slowly, with the greatest of patient presence, one bite at a time, one chew at a time, one swallow at a time, to make that orange last a whole hour & to completely relish every part, while it ever so slowly disappears. And now, especially now, I won’t ever eat an orange again without thinking of Mary.
And the bowl I brought the oranges in was cracked with a small hole. I told them it’s a bowl a dear friend gave my wife & I as a wedding gift over ten years ago. Instead of bringing the oranges in a grocery bag, I wanted to bring them in a bowl, so I brought them in that handmade pottery, the bowl I broke that needed fixing. A bowl I could only finally let go of now, when a friend of mine, who’d fought this cancer through countless surgeries & treatments, through all the cracks & holes that cancer put through her body, after being given four months to live, survived, LIVED, twenty years, until last night at midnight when she finally let go of her bowl.
She’d been moved by these women from Stanford’s ICU, within hours of accepting she was ready, after Mary herself told them: “I want to go home to die.” And these women got her there. And within 5 hours she died. This is how Mary readied herself for death: by knowing it could happen, knowing what she wanted & how she wanted it to go, & setting up the community to follow through with her wishes.
So there we were, less than 24 hours later, by Mary’s wish, huddled in the warmth of her living room, a room in which I’d sat with her only a month before. I cried in the corner, listening to her community, mostly women, share her story powerfully & unabashedly, tenderly holding one another with touch & presence & listening. Her community doing right by their friend, in the face of so much that can make it so difficult or seemingly impossible, during one of the hardest times of life, they did as Mary asked of them. It is their offering to all of us, however hard it is, that it can be done how we need it done – just use your life to do the work & create the community who can do it with you.
I feel responsible to share Mary’s story. Actually, I feel seriously compelled to, particularly because of the woman who yelled out at Mary’s Shiva, waving her arm about the room in command, “You writers out there, write about this! Share this story! People need to hear it!” It’s a story of determination & creation & layers of transformation; it’s about the power of life in the face of death, an existence of healing, beginning to end, dependent on a precious balance between holding on & letting go.
After my wedding over ten years ago, my dad sent me a letter warning me to protect myself, to be careful because I’d be hurt letting people in, that the result of being vulnerable & open to others is pain. And it dawned on me years later that I agree with him. He’s right. It’s true. We will be hurt & heartbroken. And because of this fact, I think as a culture we may even have an unconscious tendency to keep our lives small, our communities closed, only a few reserved spots for family & close friends... if that. And so then… Less heartbreak? Less to lose? Less at stake? But the difference between my dad & I is that I choose life knowing it will hurt, accepting that pain is a part of wholly loving it. If I hadn’t made that choice, if I’d taken his advice, if I’d shut down emotionally after my mom died & refused to go through such loss ever again, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I would’ve never started doing this work in death & dying, never started showing up to do art with cancer patients at their bedside, & so most definitely I would have never met Miss Mary Isham.
Before I left Mary’s Shiva, I saw a little piece of artwork out of the corner of my eye: a tiny metal tree, mostly flattened against the wall, but layered three-dimensionally, a wire sculpture, it’s branches leafless & barren, but for one red robin sitting upon one lone branch. Life amidst death. In the wake of this loss today, I can’t help but feel a layer of how meaningless & heartbreaking life can often seem... but looking at that tree, gathered in that room filled with grief & love, laughter & life, I also can’t deny how beautiful it all is. So incredibly, mesmerizingly beautiful. And so worthwhile.
My friend Mary died Saturday at midnight,
at home, at peace, surrounded by loving friends,
just like she wanted…
STARLINGS IN WINTER
Chunky & noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise & spin
over & over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous & noble things.
I want to be light & frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful & afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
– Mary Oliver
After years of working in the death & dying conversation, after suffering some of my greatest personal losses of a lifetime, & sorrowfully positive that there are so many more losses to come (namely, everything), it takes so much for me to trust that the only way to get through the heartbreak of life is by accepting & engaging with it.
And wow, how absolutely raised I was in my family & this culture to avoid that pain at all costs. To turn off the hurt anyway possible, to numb out, often with unconscious subtlety - a pint of ice cream & the next great action movie - & sometimes unabashedly conscious - with drugs or booze. We will go so far to avoid pain that we kill ourselves, often slowly, with the deepest addicted commitment. I want to write that again, because as of late, it strikes me as so totally at the heart of our issues as a culture:
WE WILL KILL OURSELVES TO AVOID PAIN.
And oh how much pain there is to avoid. It's the very reason I understand when people hear about You're Going to Die & respond with, "No thank you! Not for me."
It is so hard to go there.
But go there we will. Eventually. No matter what.
And my heart, my being, my spirit, regularly reminds me of the truth: the only way I'll gain from the pain of it all is by feeling it. And the only way anyone else I ever meet will learn from the heartbreak I've gone through, is by my letting go into it. Practicing pain. Allowing it to show up fully in my life, like it so naturally, eventually does.
“Suffering is a misunderstanding. [...] It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger & injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain & that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it & running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, & there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort & happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin
Death, heartbreak, pain, suffering... it's a part of our past, our future & deep in the midst of life today. And while I think I need to simultaneously practice balancing all of the hurt with engagement in joy & embodying lightness whenever I can, the hardest parts of life are closer than we sometimes admit. We may as well acknowledge & source them to inspire our greater, deeper, vaster life, so while we're alive we can show up as fully & completely as we possibly can... for ourselves, but maybe, & most importantly, for one another.
[Artwork collab with Hey Leon Media!]
I woke up today before the family, longing for a little quiet time in the overcast glow of a soon-to-be-rainy morning, & fittingly, on what turns out to be World AIDS Day, I finally sat down to read this article Chelsea Coleman sent me earlier this week...
As a child, I remember the fear that came with grossly inaccurate information the media, education & religious systems taught us about the epidemic. To the point, I’m embarrassed to admit, that it wasn’t until I was shockingly older that I learned AIDS wasn’t homosexually-caused. To THINK what it meant for that entire community to have a killer, of pandemic proportions, taking the lives of most your loved ones, & to have it initially branded with the searing words: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. That imbedding of tremendous shaming & guilt & traumatically heart-shattering grief, & on top of that, to be abandoned by whole communities, by whole families, to die, in many cases, totally alone.
And for me this morning, visiting this inspiring & heartbreaking story of Ruth Coker Burks, the gift of history with which we’re so often irresponsible, dismissive or deny altogether, emerges to teach me again... My lesson from this story is a reinforcement in a belief I strengthen with each day I grow older, the more & more present I allow myself to be with my own deep grief & the grief of others, that the absolute only reason we are here is to take care of one another, to show up for each other, no matter the circumstances.
We post this today for all the dead, for all the people that loved them, but also for the grief & trauma we inherit from the sometimes brokenness of humanity, as a historic reminder to remember & honor the work of all people the likes of Ruth Coker Burks, those who show up when so many don’t, so we might find love, peace & most importantly healing, for the dead & all of us who are still responsible for their care.
For my mom, on the anniversary of her death...
This morning during my swim, in the meditative monotony of those endless laps, considering things I might feel compelled enough to share today, this favorite meme popped into my head. I've enjoyed reading it over the years, whenever it emerges again & again on the wave tips of the viral social media ocean, & made my own version of it for You’re Going to Die earlier this year.
I think it's hilarious. But this morning, maybe because of the ways I'm feeling about life lately, I thought about the wording with new meaning. I love how language changes, if you sit with it long enough or revisit it again & again.
When I thought about these words this morning, instead of humorously considering everything between birth & death as some ridiculous unanswerable question, I read, "What the fuck is this?" as a question begging to be answered. And urgently, with a cuss word for emphasis! Asking ME to answer it. COMPELLING me to. What the fuck IS this? And in the wake of that new meaning, I felt the responsibility that comes with considering the question in that light. That filling in the "in between" is ALWAYS up to me. When you consider the question as a call to action, a request for definition, an opportunity to create, or a chance to show up however you can... well then, this little silly meme feels like the WORLD to me today. It feels like ALL the possibilities of my LIFE.
And I imagine falling asleep last night to an On Being interview with Rachel Naomi Remen set my mind open this morning to reading this little meme in a totally different way. She tells the “story of the birthday of the world,” a story her Orthodox rabbi mystic grandfather told her:
“In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It's a very important story for our times. That we heal the world one heart at a time. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. Restoring the world. It's the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It's not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It's about healing the world that touches you, that's around you. And that’s where our power is.”
So, you tell me, & you've got the preciously finite time between your birth & your death, no more, no less, to answer it: WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?
Part of why You're Going to Die is so personally precious to me is because it regularly asks that I take responsibility for my own death; even imbedded in the most mundane logistic & organizational details I have this truth gazing back at me: I’M GOING TO DIE. And it’s intimately my work in a uniquely necessary way that might be different for you. And for that reason, it’s important that this movement & nonprofit is run by non-priests, non-doctors, non-therapists, non-“I WENT TO SCHOOL TO FIGURE THIS DEATH THING OUT IN A WAY YOU NEVER DID,” so it can remind all of us that our death is ours, & so awesomely valuable & LIFE-CHANGING that we should never completely hand it over to anyone else, but instead treat it as much our life’s work as all the living we so readily [sometimes begrudgingly] take responsibility for every day. And wildly, believe it or not, treating death with that level of honor & respect can actually deeply inspire how we take responsibility [sometimes begrudgingly!] for the living we do every day.
And that absolutely doesn’t mean we should never need or get help from a professional, someone who has done so much work to be able to help others, with the wise guidance & insight we deserve from those people... but right now, in your life, take every useful opportunity available to do the work of accepting, owning, integrating, sourcing, maybe even embracing & loving, your own death while you still can, while you’re still alive to do it.
Oh. And of course, per usual: GAWD IT’S ALL SO HARD. I hope my being in this life & my work with death offers at least that - the acknowledgement, the listening, the understanding, that it’s hard & we’re not alone in that fact.
To think about death is hard. So very hard.
It’s impossible to fathom and sometimes debilitating in its all-consuming and inconceivable magnitude. It can be anxiety-inducing at least and terrifying at most. And in some ways, seems to make life harder. But, maybe that's the point.
The work of remaining conscious of your mortality, in the hardest of ways, confronts your life like no other truth can.
How can you argue over a parking space in light of your finite existence?
How can you justify stressing about money when you consider the fact you won’t exist someday?How can you appropriate our current culture’s notion of “success” when you’ll be gone someday and eventually entirely forgotten?
How can you buy more and more “stuff” when you’ll inevitably lose everything, all of it?
Why can’t you forgive and forget in the context of our shared mortality?
Why can’t you quit the poisonous and destructive parts and patterns of your life when you remember how preciously fragile you are?
How can you work a job you hate if you're going to die?
So, what is death asking of you?
Maybe the point isn’t to quit your job and leave your family and move to Hollywood to finally become the famous actor you always wanted to be. But maybe death is asking you to be more present where you’re at, with what you have, accept it all and give yourself to it completely. It’s the work of your death to get answers to life's questions with the clearest perspective. In this day and age, with as many options as we have in life, with as much as we’re overwhelmingly faced with individually and globally, getting clear on anything AT ALL is an incredible feat. So figuring out what really matters in your life SHOULD be hard! And maybe the answer actually is to quit your job and leave your family and move to Hollywood. Is it?
Death asks you to go beneath the surface. Death asks you to go deeper. Death asks that you shed falsity and triviality. Death leaves no room for bullshit. Death brings up our issues with jarring clarity and offers the opportunity to shed them. Death sometimes demands vulnerability while asking us to make room for more aliveness. Yes. If your job sucks, but you feel like you have to do it to make money, your eventual death, maybe even tomorrow, could be confronting. BUT THAT’S THE POINT. It should be hard to do something you don’t really want to do, but think you have to, when you consider that you might die tomorrow. It should make you intensely focused on why you're yelling at your kid AGAIN when they spilled their milk AGAIN when you consider you AND your own child will die someday. And maybe your mortality can offer the clarity of understanding that while sometimes spilt milk does deserve a good cry, mostly it probably doesn't.
It’s easy to sensationalize death, or to think it overly dramatic, or unhealthily obsessive to ponder this inevitability so much, but the act of engaging with this part of being alive can dissolve our caked, blurry, worn and dusty edges, if we let it. Like, right now, during the most alive part of your existence, when death seems impossible. And when people say, “I don’t have time for that. Death is for the dying. I’m busy being alive. It's too stressful. It's too much,” I’d argue that we do PLENTY of TOO MUCH in just being alive. Plenty of stressing about living. Plenty of making money. Plenty of buying things. Plenty of working too hard. Plenty of screen time. Plenty of consumption. Plenty of numbing out and triviality and hurrying and waste and distraction. Plenty of frantically trying to be SO alive that we''ll somehow immortalize ourselves and hopefully NEVER DIE please God please NEVER ever ever NEVER WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO AVOID DEATH AND NOT THINK ABOUT THE FACT THAT ME AND EVERYONE I LOVE WILL EVENTUALLY DIE??????
If my years of experience sitting with dying people has taught me anything, if watching my mom and my mother-in-law die left any impression on me, it’s that DEATH IS HARD. If a ravenously starving lion showed up right now, wherever you are, and cornered you for its meal of the day, or if you got a terminal cancer diagnosis right now from your doctor, the threat of death would be very real. Your fear and fight or flight would be an adequate response to being suddenly SO close to not existing at all. So of course considering your death before it happens, in as much advance as possible, would most certainly bring up so, so much for you. Too much. But isn’t that what it deserves? Isn’t that what your life and death deserves? It should do that. That’s how it’s effective. That’s how it works.
Life is precious because you're going to die.
How you live your life deserves regular consideration of that fact.
And while sometimes contemplating death will instantly release you, free you, help you let go, joyfully and in inspiring ways... still other times it will destroy you and the understanding you thought you’d figured out about being alive. Sometimes it will be too much. And sometimes it will make room for more aliveness than ever before. And so, much of the work in considering mortality is your great balancing act. Your death acknowledged by the balance of just the right kind aliveness. The balance of DEATH with being ALIVE. Your death has the potential, in sometimes difficult and deeply challenging ways, to train you to live well.
Death does not forget.
And eventually, when it has to, it will remind you.
So, in the meantime, pay it the respect it deserves...
Do not forget death.
If you keep telling everyone else to CREATE ‘CAUSE MY GAWD YOU’RE GOING TO DIE you’d better damn well be creating yourself, so you do, you draw or type your simple silly thoughts & ideas, the creatively conscious mortal compulsions you can’t quite shake, like skeletons holding hands because we should because we’re ALL of us going to die someday, until the simple arrival of the surreal & wild moment in this ongoing blissfully baffling unfolding, when Nancy L Williams sends you a photo of her tattoo inspired by your tiny mortal reminder & even though you know YOU & EVERYONE YOU KNOW & EVERYONE YOU DON’T & EVERYONE’S ARMS & EVERYONE’S TATTOOS & EVERYONE’S DRAWINGS & TYPEWRITINGS & EVERYTHING ALL OF IT WILL ALL BE GONE & FORGOTTEN SOMEDAY, you realize, as inevitable as it all is, as meaningless & hard as life is sometimes, you still get to be alive with all of it for a little precious time & watch the heartbreaking beauty of all of it fall away, one by one, until you do too & wow... what a view.
One thing I keep learning doing this work, and need to, is that opening up to the hardest & most devastating parts of life has the potential to reveal the most worthy and wonderful parts of being alive. And there are people, so many of them, just behind the thinnest walls you pass as you go through your everyday life, getting treatments and healing, expanding & opening, dying or becoming more fully alive than ever before.
I walked into this cancer patient’s hospital room yesterday doing my work with UCSF Art for Recover and left with the deep impact of someone I’ll never forget.
Tears welling up in his electric eyes, looking out the window at a horizon of construction sites, but seeing it like the last most precious thing he’d ever see, he said these words to me like they’re the only thing that matters... and I got the message: “We spend so much time chasing what we want out of life, we forget that we’re actually living the dream. We have the apple in our hand and maybe all we need to do is shine it a bit to see how perfect it is...”
And I love his sign... because it encourages us to hold on to what’s worth fighting for while honoring what we must let go.
It feels like something sacred my words will gently press against here.
Like, they won’t get inside it, but they’ll alight upon it.
I don’t know what it is, but it’s just beyond my words.
Recently, I read a manifesto for things ending well, and of the 10 wonderful things listed, Number 8 sweetly awkwardly struck me like an old memory I’d long since forgotten. Number 8 said:
Belong to a place. Give your place a name and refer to yourself with that name. Say: “I am Andrew of the Old Tomato Factory.” Say: “I am Ann of Green Acres.” Say you belong to a river or a grove of shagbark hickories or a community of black vultures. Bury your dead ancestors in your place even if you don’t have ashes. Get some ashes from somewhere and bury those. Bake a loaf of bread from your great grandmother’s recipe and bury that loaf in the backyard. Bury your father’s baseball glove. Notice how well the radishes grow where you planted that body of ancestry. Imagine how your death will feed this place you belong to. Tell your community about this.
I read it again and again.
The bread stuck with me, in particular. To sweat over an oven, to home-make a loaf from a recipe of the dead, and to take that glistening fresh alive thing and bury it in their name, just outside your backdoor. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
And so, this Christmas, I made a batch of my Grandmother's toffee and I buried it. I went out back and sat down next to the plot of yard that also holds my son’s dead fish Namo. I closed my eyes into the cold December sunlight. It wasn’t much, but it was so quiet. I paid attention. I looked for the breeze. I paused a lot, got still, and touched the earth with my hands. I dug a little hole there like a child. I felt like one. I felt childish, a forty-year-old man alone in his backyard, sitting on the ground like a dream. And it felt good. It felt alive. I looked into the planet through my little dug doorway, and I dropped my Grandma Catherine’s toffee into space. And it fit. Perfectly. Feel me brushing the soil over it with my fingers. Feel me pressing and patting it down softly, firmly. Listen to the birds make their noise overhead. I’m breathing. I’m leaning in. My thoughts were with my Grandma. And it was sweet and lovely and I missed her and let myself.
And then, of course, the sudden, very clear afterthought, perhaps as I stood to walk inside, maybe many hours later, but remembered like a constant in me, a forever running vein through my being, I thought…
I hope to live in a way that someone sits present and peaceful when I'm dead, filled with love and memory in the dirt with thoughts of me.
Because as much as this is about my Grandma and how I actively bring her into the world now that she's dead, it is also, potently, completely, sincerely about me.
I'm going to die.
And how I'll be here after I die starts with me, now. Sitting in my backyard in the dirt, I'm sitting with that. Because "Imagine how your death will feed this place you belong to..."
And I realize now, as my words press gently against what’s sacred, that it’s you.
I’m writing here about you.
You’re what’s sacred.
You mortal. You sweet dying thing. You twinkling star. You breeze. You breath.
So share stories about her at Christmas dinner.
Laugh and cry about the things you miss most about her.
Watch home videos of her and weep in all the arms of everyone she left behind.
Say her name.
And be childlike in the dirt for her.
For her, be all the ways a child is, for no one grieves or rejoices like a child.
Make Christmas toffee and bury it.
But do bury them. Always unabashedly.
Bury them again and again and again and again…
And we’ll do the same for you.
At the memorial service for my mom, it poured torrentially on the Episcopalian roof we gathered under, as if she was crying from the clouds. And our crying echoed up against hers. And when we crowded out of the church lobby, readying to disperse our mourning gathering, the clouds split and a rainbow shot through the sky, a glowing grief sponge arched like an embrace, gently encouraging us to step into our lives without her. And when my sister and I left home, driving off with the last few belongings we cared to take of her life, we looked in the rearview mirror and saw another rainbow streak the sky, like a goodbye as our grief trailed south, leaving her death behind us.
And so, she is rainbows now.
And when my mother-in-law, that fiercely loving, busily fluttering woman, who her husband would fondly call his “hummingbird,” lay still, dying in her hospital bed at home, not 30 feet away, just outside her front door, a mother hummingbird with her eggs suddenly appeared at eye level on the bend of a palm frond, sitting vigil over her babies. Every exit and entrance into the opening death portal that was my mother-in-law’s home those last days of her life was accented by this bird quietly warming her babies before their hatching. And the hummingbirds won’t stop reminding us, all these years later, of our mother; countless fantastic stories of this bird with its infinity wings, magically visiting us, so often it might be the only bird chirp I recognize when I hear it.
And so, she is hummingbirds now.
And when my wife sings “You Are My Sunshine” to my son, he bursts into tears, perhaps feeling my wife’s great grief wrapped in that song, but maybe he’s crying because it’s his Grammy, singing it through her daughter, singing it to her grandson. And she’s there. As real as real can be.
And I ask myself, “Is it real? How can it be real?”
Even in those moments of seemingly undeniable miracle.
When I drove away from my mom’s empty apartment for the last time, with that rainbow in my rearview, there were only a handful of things I took, intentional keepsakes of growing up – measuring spoons with which she scooped and poured parts of so many recipes, a magnet bottle opener that perched out of reach on our refrigerator door, a picture of her holding me with her free arm clasping both my sister’s hands… not much, but all the ways I cared to have her around now that she’d died. One other thing I took that day was a book I grabbed for no conscious reason at all, I just took it on an impulse, a book I’d never read, one her sister gave her back in the 1960s: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
A day later we poured her ashes out into the ocean at Point Reyes. Like a little boy, totally lost, I stood with my older sister, next to that old ancient artifact of shipping, that broken beacon of another time, watching the grey dust of my mom swirl and dip out into the frothing waters that broke against the cliffs. I left there alone, driving back to my life in Los Angeles, with her spoons and her book, but with half of me stuck in that portal our dead drag us into, with all those parts combined, part of my heart and mind and spirit still with my mom, wherever she’d gone.
So I took my time heading south. I took Highway 1 that runs along the time warp coast of middle California, and stopped in Big Sur after dark, looking for a place to stay in a town I’d never visited. For some reason, attributing it to my grieving unrest at the time, I passed on the first four perfectly accommodating options, to finally find myself in the lobby of Big Sur Lodge. As I waited for the nightshift clerk to help me, for him to finish with the customer standing at the front desk, the office door opened...
The person that stepped through that door was the only student, other than my best friends, who’d had a close relationship with my mom when I was in high school. Someone I’d personally never been very close to, but one of those acquaintances you have fond memories of, but quickly lose touch with after graduation. Of all the towns and all the lodges, of all the times... it was her. We cried in one another's arms when I told her Mom had died. And of course I'd be staying here for the night! Of course you can have a three-bedroom cabin, with a full kitchen, a hot tub and a fireplace for practically nothing! Of course. Of course. Of course. Like arriving home when home has died. And the next morning, when I checked out at the front desk to say thank you and goodbye, my friend wasn’t working, but she’d left me a gift:
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
And even now, even as I write it out, it feels dramatically unreal and impossible.
Is it real? It’s just a coincidence, right? How can it be real, Mom?
Why don't we accept these after death experiences of our loved ones for simply what they are - a chance to be with those we've lost, as surreal as it might be, as different and maybe even unfamiliar, but somehow, someway as real as if they’re still alive? And instead of thinking we need a belief system to confirm or deny these moments, why not let them be, as wonderfully spirited and magical and yes, seemingly impossible, as they are, without further answers needed?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl’s account of experiences during the holocaust is less about why it happened and far more about how people survived it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. He describes a moment, amidst the constant onslaught of all-consuming wet, cold, dark prison terrors, when his thoughts, for survival’s sake, turned to his young wife, by then lost to him in some unknown way, somewhere else in the nightmare of those times:
“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
“I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out […] but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’”
So, look around you and be comforted by how you find them.
Seek them in your dreams and enjoy your time together.
Creatively open and revel in how you receive them.
It takes the work of opening up. That’s it.
You don’t need to do anything else.
They just want to be with you.
After these losses in my life, all these years later, it’s just another way I’ve found that death, and the space it thrusts us in, where we are so broken open, where there are often no clear answers and so much is unknown, can sometimes be an incredibly powerful, childlike, wondrous, limitless, freeing place for us to be... and like surprised children, eyes wide and mouths agape, we might let ourselves float there, inspiring our being in unimaginable ways and radically informing our greater lives, our greater living.
As I type this, my high school best friend’s funeral is taking place.
I couldn’t attend because my son graduates from preschool today or I live too far away or I have a job and need to work to support my family or maybe, the truth is, we just aren’t a part of one another’s life anymore.
But when I found out he’d suddenly, unexpectedly died, I cried.
On Facebook, a mutual best friend posted pictures of us in the wake of the news – an image of us squashed into a photo booth, our big heads smashed together, grinning and laughing like crazy idiots, another photo of us smiling in the sunshine of a vividly memorable Northern California off-road adventure and another with us dressed as cheerleaders [yeah – another story for another time]. But when I looked at these photos, holding memories I haven’t revisited in two decades, it opened me up.
I sat down and wept.
We really stopped being close during the last year or two of high school. From there, we moved along life’s trajectories, our individual paths, similar, parallelish realities, and lost touch like childhood friends often do. We went to different colleges, found our different jobs, moved to different places. We married and had two children each. I haven’t seen him in person or heard his voice in over 20 years. And of course, like most people that lose touch, whether they were best buddies, classmates, casual friends, acquaintances, lovers, enemies, student council members, teammates, neighbors, however strong or weak the original connection, almost all of us are brought back together in the age of the internet. My friend and I were “reunited” by Facebook. And yet even still, other than a handful of online messages, catching up on life, references to our time in high school, the good and the bad, sincere offerings to reunite in person, that’s it.
But, as unknown as he is to me now, our trajectories still meet somewhere in the past, the lines of life go back to a friendship, our beings can be traced into the midst of simple, potent nostalgia, to a memory caught somewhere in time, where we lay on our backs, in the cover of night, under the sprawling, hanging canopy of the universe, in an empty lot around the corner from his childhood home, we were best friends together, sharing a rich, formative time of our lives and staring at the stars pinned up in the incomprehensible spread, the infinite making our little friendship and our great human existence both meaningless and like total and complete belonging.
And now, just like that meaningless pressed up against that belonging, it’s as if we’re a part of one another’s lives almost as powerfully as we aren’t. And the ways that we aren’t a part of one another’s lives, they’re so very known. These lives we created, so separate, yet so similar. Grieving for the wife and two children he leaves behind, while still living a life with mine, it cut straight through the chest. That truth, coupled with the memories that make up our friendship, broke my heart.
Do I post all over Facebook about it?
Do I claim I’ve lost the greatest friend a guy could ever have and ever will again?
Do I dismiss it as sad, but considering I hardly knew him anymore, I need to stop being dramatic and just move on with my life?
How do I grieve when the only thing I have left is a pile of old photos and faded memories?
This loss is mine. This part of my life, this fact of my history, this piece of who I am today, whatever it brings up, it only matters that I make space for it. Our loss deserves to be honored. The lost deserve to be mourned, for all the ways they were a part of our lives, and for all the ways they are a part of life.
The point is to open up.
The point is to remember.
The point is he died and you will too.
But for now, you’re alive… the rest is up to you.
Make room for death; make room for life.
Happy Birthday, Mom.
This morning I told your grandson that today's your birthday. He abruptly replied, "Oh." And then, "You miss her a lot." I said yes & started crying, tears instantly streaming down my cheeks. He ran away & lay face-first into the couch & cried. I told him to come back & when he did, I held him in my arms. He said he cried, because I cried. I told him that it was alright to cry & that sometimes we love people so much that we have to. And with no prompting, maybe even to make himself feel better, he told me you're okay now & that you're in heaven & he's the first person I've ever believed when they said it...
I told him that we're here because of you. And even now, as I type those words, as I type that truth, I'm crying, filled with feeling for it. When I told him that you were still here, that you're in us, pointing at his chest, he told me you are in all of us, our whole family. And then he added, "She's in everyone in the world." And as strange as it seems to type that out now, I believed him when he said that, too.
But I'm sorry I forget.
You are working hard to be in my life all the time...
I want you to know that I'm present to that today.
And I'm practicing remembering you outside of me.
For after all, where are you in this world if I don't speak you?
Where are you in this world if I don't LIVE you?
You are the first reason I am here.
And now, it's my responsibility to be the last reason you are, too.
If I don't make choices to live you while I'm here, then you aren't.
And I hope my son tells people after I've died when it's my birthday. I hope that I live in a way that demands it.
Thank you for all of this, this whole life that I have.
You are reminding me,
that after I die,
I'll be in this world, too...
Today, on your birthday, you are in this world, Mom...
I love you.
For a long time I thought I made my mom die.
Thanksgiving week, she slept so deeply, dying rapidly next to a small plate of mashed potatoes and stuffing, in her room on a tiny twin mattress that moved far too easily. If you sat on it or leaned against, it would slide like a doll’s bed across the room. I thought I stayed away too much, but she was doing the work of departure; I couldn't be near her, for I'd have had to hold on to her and that bed too hard for her to go... So she went that week and quickly.
When we got her to the hospital, the day after Thanksgiving, somehow finally realizing, like we’d seen it on that morning’s news, the great undeniable surprise that she was dying, the last stretch of her life happened in only a handful of hours. I know I was young and did it the only way I knew how... dramatically, emotionally, out of my mind. I moved when I was told, out of the way of suddenly frantic, scrambling nurses [“Why are you all moving so quickly? Are you as surprised as I am?”]. I called everyone I could think of, not to just tell them what was happening, but to escape, alive, hysterical, sobbing, notifying diligently, but existing, one raving call at a time. And when it was time, I bowed my head for prayer because someone older brought a priest in and said we should. For years I thought I’d been more swept away by her death than present to it.
But ultimately, in retrospect – no – not retrospect – what an inadequate word to use when your mother rips out of your life, dragging your being halfway through the death portal, changing you completely and forever. Not retrospect. It’s revelation. Specifically revelation defined as: the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. That kind of revelation. I realize in revelation, unearthed from great reality-destroying loss, that we were there, my sister and I, leaning over that mother exit that lay between us, crying, helpless, but massaging her legs and loving her. I learned then, if I was ever to have the honor of being at the edge of someone’s deathbed, that’s just what I’m supposed to do: Be there.
And then I made my mom die. Or so I thought for years. When she looked at my sister and I from her hospital bed, across the greatest of chasms, spanning from the edge of me to her little face, in the smallest, whitest of rooms, in the one moment of clarity I recall her having, the one single thing I remember her saying to us that entire last week of her life, she asked us what we thought about life support. And all I could do was wordlessly stand and cry. And not long after that she died. My mother died. Behold my tears. But that was my answer. And that was my job, too. Only now I understand that I did it well. I helplessly wept and let go well. She needed permission and my tears told her it was okay. And I got to whisper, "I love you. It's okay," into her ear over and over. That's what I was supposed to do. And that’s all.
I didn’t make my mom die. I let her die.
I loved her and told her so. I told her it’s okay. And it is.
And for that, I know now, I am her good son.
My 4-year-old son walked into the kitchen this morning to tell us his fish had died in the night. Admittedly, my knee-jerk reaction, or the thought that first emerged, probably a result of my own childhood "death of a pet" experience, was a quick toilet flush. But, as hard as it was, as unsure as I felt, I put off getting to work on time, my wife and I stopped, we kneeled, we listened and made time for a burial, not to mention a surprising amount of emotion, from all of us...
We buried Namo in the backyard and talked about what happens when things die and how dead things help new things grow. My son said he wanted to go to a "Die Museum" and wanted to know if his fish would be alive again... and he cried. And we cried. A lot of tears over such a simple thing, but, even though a portal of daunting unanswered questions seemed officially open for my son, I knew it was our responsibility to deal with the loss in as sacred a way as possible. In a culture where there is such little time made for grief, using any chance we get to acknowledge the great truth of life - that all things die - is our choice, not only as parents, but as human beings. And I don't mean forcing the discussion whenever possible, but making space for real loss, however small, creates movement for all the grief we might have riding under the surface of daily life...
When my son cried out: "I'm thinking of Namo never dying again!" or when he almost instantly started talking about his own death and, eventually, ours, I wept hard and held him... I could feel all the grief pour out, the sorrow I feel when my children suffer, the pain I feel knowing what they stand to lose in this life, but also responsible for opening my arms to the questions, even though I don't always feel like I have the answers.
After the burial, I held my one-year-old daughter in our backyard, at my feet a tiny fish grave, and above us a flock of little yellow birds flew through our tree and out into the neighborhood, all in an instant, with my little girl making her big O-mouth excited face. In that moment, feeling much more alive than before my son stepped into the kitchen, I stood between a little death and so much life, I felt it richly, deeply present to what we must go through, what our children must go through, but very alive and maybe even courageous...