Saturday, March 03, 2007

a story can never have too many shamans [1]


Sometimes you need to try a story out on a willing friend before you’re sure it will survive the telling. I’ve been carrying this one around with me since my return from Guatemala, and had a chance to air it out recently – I didn’t see it coming – he asked, and, after some hesitation, I spilled. It felt a little strange bringing it forward, but lucky for me my friend is a good listener and compassionate to boot, so he left me feeling like maybe there’s value to this story. Which made me think that maybe I would post it here too.

If you’ve been following detritus for any length of time, you know that 2006 was a bruiser for me. We kicked it off in high style on the first day of the new year with an email from my ex- -- received late in the night, without warning, that read:

Subject: I just got some terrible news

My Dad just called and said that he just learned that Tom Defore just died yesterday. I haven’t received any details yet from his family except that he was camping with some friends and fell off the side of a cliff at night.

dry run

I have a short list of people that I would lay my life on the line for, and TD4 was one. There’s something about losing someone you love that knocks a hole in your world – a stranger approached me at Tom’s memorial service and said exactly that. “You look like you have a hole blown right through you.” And I did.

That pretty much set the stage for the year to come.

Brillig would die next – my sweet little Russian Blue who had been with me for sixteen years. She was sick for about six months with kidney failure. My husband and I cared for her intensively with subcutaneous drips and special diets and a whole lot of loving and fussing. When she was gone there was a hole between us too.

zen cat

Soon after that I would speak at an industry conference and manage to come down with a whopper of a bronchial infection. The fever started during the Q&A and continued through the follow up interviews that I did with a couple of the industry rags. Reading the articles later it was clear that I didn’t. Quite. Manage. To articulate my ideas.

I laid up in my hotel room the following day with a fever that approached 103, having canceled my plans to drive through Joshua Tree and visit my grandparents in Arizona – a drive that I was living, hoping, dreaming for. I wanted to grieve in the desert. I needed to cry. Instead I got on a plane and headed home. Returned to the job that was killing me the next Monday, continued to work 60 hour weeks and commute three to four hours a day and watch my hair fall out in big clumps from the stress.

All of this laid the stage for the pneumonia that would visit me in April, the same time an old friend came out to play. I spent the last day of her visit in bed with that fever again, and all of the next week, trying not to die.

But of course, I was aware that things were very bad, and so I did what I could to find a way through it. The job was a problem. It was fancy-pants and all that, with a great title and responsibilities, but not enough staffing or budget to do the things we needed to do in a reasonable work week. And it was killing me. So I got out.

And I started to blog. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed needed needed to blog. Just as I needed to Flickr. I needed to do something to wake up that sleeping part of my brain and heart that I put on hold to work excessively long weeks and make piles of money for someone else that I would never see. I needed to remember who I was and what really mattered to me. Strange how blogging can do that if you let it.

But still there was this hole.

And then Kathryn died.

kathryn in the field

Once you’ve lived for a while with grief you forget what it’s like to live without it. It soaks into everything like a sponge, dampening your world.

The bronchial thing continued to be a problem. All year long I cycled through infection after infection after infection. In addition to the docs who gave me the pills I needed to get through it, I started to see an acupuncturist. She went to work on my lungs. She told me that in Chinese medicine it’s believed that grief settles in the lungs and causes all kinds of problems. She also said to me: “There’s an authentic sadness about you. You don’t seem depressed – depression is stuck anger – you seem really, really sad.”

And then I went to Guatemala.

As my friend said last weekend: “So it sounds like the Guatemala trip was really hard.” It was. I got sick again – more lung stuff, accompanied by the fear that the one last antibiotic available to me -- I had developed allergies to the others, in the course of my illness -- afraid too that this last one would also prove to be poison. And it was cold in the highlands. No central heating, high altitudes, not enough blankets. I shivered and whimpered and wished I was home.

The anniversary of Tom’s death was approaching, and on one day in particular, my head and heart and mind were flooded with thoughts of Tom. Not entirely accurate: they were flooded with thoughts of his death. How he died. That he died. That one small step took him away. From me. From all of us. From the rich, varied, enduring life that he lived.


And I holed myself away and cried. My phlegm production was especially impressive, layered as it was on top of the infection that I was incubating.

So the stage is set: I’m fucking miserable.

Tangential to all of this I’m traveling with some really nice folks and seeing some really great things. We’re traveling with Nick, Kathryn’s husband, through country that we've traveled with them both before, which means her ghost is traveling with us. We stop in Chichicastenango and I make an offering at the central church – and I ask, please, finally, can I have a break from all this? From the grief. From the tears that live in my lungs.

On the second day of the new year we visit Iximché, a post-classic Mayan site that’s just enough beautiful to take your breath away. The sky is blue and the sun is shining and cuddly cumulous clouds float by so close that you feel you can reach and out and touch them. I lay on my back on the top of a mound for a while and imagine doing exactly that.

There’s nothing I love doing more than laying on my back and feeling the earth solid beneath me and seeing the sky high above me. I don’t know why that is, but it comforts me like no other mother.

As a group we head to the far end of the site, in the company of Luis Morales, a Mayan Shaman who has joined us for the day. We intend to have a new fire ceremony.

And so we do.

Our Shaman arranges the fire. He lays down copal incense. He has prepared herbs and grasses and sprinkled them with salt. Much of this he lays around the perimeter of what will be our fire. He lays four colors of candles to each of the four directions: North. West. South. East. In the center he sets a bundle of green and blue candles: these are for the World Tree. The Axis Mundi.

He lights the blue and green candles and we begin our prayers. We pray to the lords of the twenty days who govern the passage of time. We pray to our ancestors. We hold them in our heart and thank them for our inheritance. We acknowledge our responsibilities. We stand; we kneel. The gravel of the ground cuts into my knees. The smoke of the incense blows over me. The mountain sun shines down. I’ve taken off my hat and before the hours have passed I will be deeply sunburned. I blow my nose. I have a cold and I’m crying.

Several times we traverse the circle and add to the fire: A candle. A splash of rum. A handful of sweet-smelling herbs. I remember Tom. I remember my Bompa. I remember Kathryn. I remember Brillig. I wonder can standing in the sun and praying to the days and to the ancestors really make a difference? Either way, it’s a beautiful day, and I’m enjoying this. The focus. The intention. The voice of our Shaman. His Mayan prayers. His explanations in Spanish. And in the smoke a phrase fills my mind. It’s unexpected and it sticks, playing itself over and over, like a mantra.

How you lived; not how you left.

Later I think more about it and realize that this is what has soaked my days – not memories of the ones I’ve lost, but memories of the ways they left their lives. Thoughts of Tom slipping off the cliff. Of Kathryn collapsing in the shower. Of Brillig on the table at the vet – the fear. The life leaving her.

Thoughts of wanting to undo what is done.

But right then I just let the thought play itself in my brain, and let the tears soak my face and the smoke sting my eyes.

“Did it stick?” my friend wants to know, as I wrap up the telling for the first time. Catharsis is one thing – the misery leading up to it, the transcendent moment that results from ritual. Folks have studied it, written of it, know that it can happen.

But undoing the “how they left” is something altogether different, and replacing it with older memories, faded moments, is a difficult thing to do. Thoughts become more persistent with repetition – they wear a groove in your soul. They become part of you.

It did. It stuck.

My days are different now. The grief has a different cast. It may just be the passage of time, but the memories that run through my mind are of my friends when they were living -- not when they were dying. I can feel the flame that used to flicker inside me before the tears dampened its light. I'm not as sad. And just recently I thought of Tom, of something he said once, that was perfectly appropriate and entirely odd and insightful, just like it always was, and I laughed.


[1] Many thanks to b1-67er for the title of this post. And for asking.


litwit said...

This: the loveliest thing. I'm glad—ever so glad—you made it through.

suttonhoo said...

thanks, friend. me too.

anniemcq said...

Gorgeous. I'm so glad to hear that your deep well of grief is being replenished with some light for a change.

Lolabola said...

great writing, thanks for sharing it

Jillian said...

I often check in here when I'm too busy to read the New York Times thoroughly. You catch what I'd normally read, and more.
Some people struggle so sweetly, and with a generosity of spirit, turning outwards while the world is collapsing within.
I lost a dear friend last year, too, Grant McLennan one of the members of the musical group, the Go Betweens. I hadn't seen him in a long time, but he was a close and central part of a time in my life I cherish. He was so young -- 48 -- and there was a global outpouring of grief over his death, his talent and character were so appreciated. I was struggling to go back into writing at the time, and Grant, when I was younger, was always someone I found myself in a corner with somewhere talking about books. It didn't seem fair that he'd die so young when he had so much to offer and was such a beautiful writer.
A community of creative friends, that I've started to find on Flickr and through my blog has made everything worthwhile: it's intelligent admiration I think, and a kind of collaboration I hadn't imagined would be possible.
Joseph Campbell said read other people's myths, that's where the symbols come through most strongly. You've clearly seen and embraced this. I reached for the Hindu myths and Ganesh, the patron saint of writers sits on my desk. You were the first person on Flickr to call me a friend. I'm grateful for that.

suttonhoo said...

thanks, friends.

and Jillian: Flickr mail on its way.

worth noting: a Roman Catholic nun quietly joined our circle just as the ceremony was getting underway, and participated for the duration.

someone told me once that we owe our friends nothing more than to listen. if we do that right, we celebrate their happiness with them, and cry with them in their pain. and that is everything.

so thanks again. for everything.

heather lorin said...

I've sensed a change in you since the new year - now I understand. So glad to hear it.

anne said...

no one compares to those b1 boys for their listening skills

narthex said...

a slow tropical storm came through my insides when i read this. precipitation. understanding and empathy. there are some similarities in your experiences. they remind me that we aren't alone from those who are present and those who have moved on.

it is strange to admit but i do think our sense of suffering; our method of it, does evolve and somehow we learn to live again.

a friend asked me ealier this year, "so how long have you been finding solace in flickr [and in your blog]?" it's funny because at that point we had not talked in seven years but it took him not much time to see what i was doing.

thank you and thanks for your courage in sharing your story.

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