Today I took in the first real harvest of apples from a tree that we planted for my Dad the second season we moved here. Tadg has always called him “Packa”, a little ones abbreviation of the more difficult “Grandpa”. The Packa tree’s ruby red fruit hung for months, darkening to a cherry-black red. Somehow our dog Bella resisted pulling these down, she culled from many of our fledgling trees. Its honey-sweet tart juices run down the back of my throat as I write this.
I hope to start work on an ancestor altar in the next week, outside in the garden. I feel more connected to my Dad now than ever. Its taken a few years for me to settle into his being gone. I have my ways of connecting with his spirit, but it is of course not the same.
I had a friend ask me about how I relate to death after doing so much work around it. He was referring to my under-graduate thesis, work in Hospice and later my focus on Psychopomp work as part of my shamanic practice.
“Is it just like, normal to you now…death?”
“Actually no, now I’m just really taken with the mystery of it.”
I hadn’t realized that until it spilled out of my mouth. The more I’m exposed to discussions on death and working with the spirits of the dead, the more I’m struck by how powerful and mysterious the transformation of death is.
It sounds quixotic I know, we think of birth and coming into this world, life itself, as being a great mystery. Death, our culture seems to say, is just an ending of something special. Death is when the great machine that is you just stops working and your spirit moves on. Meh.
I had a chance to mentor with a Bay Area artist, Fred Martin, who’s wife had died five years earlier. He had remarried and his current wife was lovingly chiding him that after five years, it was time for him to let go of the grief. Fred was working on a painting that was a part of series of large paintingts on the Tarot. When I arrived at his studio he was working on the Death Card.
|Fred Martin’s Tarot Death Card|
“Death is a doorway, and its not” I said when I saw the painting.
“That was its title, I just painted over it.”
Fred had powerfully communicated something deeply striking about death: its possible to see it as a passage to somewhere else, but it is so much more. It is a final ending, but a mysterious one that unmakes and remakes us all at once.
I’m acutely aware of this fact when I journey to work with my Fathers spirit. Sometimes he continues to appear to me in much the same way he was when he was alive, often though I’m allowed to see a glimmer of the brighter, broader spirit he has become. In truth his consciousness, his spirit, has realized itself as something much more than I understand him to be.
So how do I reconcile that with an ancestral altar festooned with photos of my Dad and others? If they have truly moved on, become something much more, how does this altar connect me to that?
Something that my training has taught me, something that the film about Stephen Jenkinson, Griefwalker illustrates in spades, is that without an honest relationship to death, dying and the deceased, there can be no community, no real culture. Somehow we have to make a circle from birth, to death, and back to life in order to build the hoop of family, village, community.
There is something there to work out, a rough grain to grind. We cannot just live in the bright light of the eternal soul, we must also tend to the rotting bones that make new life, new harvests possible. This unfolding is so much more than the rational mind can grasp.
Working in the space of an ancestral altar brings all of those elements together. The foods that will rot, candles that burn to buttery goop; and yet with all this rot, the spirits still come to celebrate with us. This is the cycle we are all living in, its one the modern world allows most of us to ignore. It has helpful signposts, ones our ancestors know well.
Jerry Garcia once referred to the Grateful Dead’s music as a signpost to a new reality. Our grateful dead, those ancestors we acknowledge at this time of year, can also lead us more into an ancient reality, help us re-weave the bonds that sustain and nourish us all. The dead know the signposts of this cycle by experience, they can help navigate them well.
Apples are such a striking fruit, my appreciation for all the hard fruits has grown immeasurably this season. While we walk through our fields rife with the brown husks of this years harvest, radiant red fruit fills our pockets, all at once celebrating and eulogizing the magnificence of life. Their fierce sweetness carries us into the darkness and reminds us of the light that beckons.
I hope you’ll find a way to work tenderly with the subject of death this season. Find some way to witness that powerful transformation, how it shapes our lives, keeps the world going, draws us all closer together. I’ll be sitting in circle with Susan Mokelke this Nov 2nd and 3rd in Carmel Valley, learning techniques many of our ancestors used to address issues surrounding death and their ancestors. I hope you’ll consider joining me.
May the sweetness of this harvest season carry us all safely through these times of great change.