Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson

Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

Not a Fan of Funerals

In memory of Terry Robare
Member of Many Hearts, One Spirit
Who Made Her Transition September 13, 2018

Despite having written previously about attending them (A Tale of Two Funerals, March 5, 2018), I’m not a big fan of funerals, especially as they are conducted in modern American society.  I find them macabre and disturbing.  I despise the trite comments: “He looks like he could just sit up and start talking to us”. No, he doesn’t.  He looks dead. “The flowers are just lovely.” Does no one remember that the original purpose of flowers and candles by the coffin was to hide the scent of decay?

I scorn remarks which transmute the character of the deceased into saintly values.  Few of us are without personality flaws, and being dead does not erase a lifetime of bad temperament, nor confer sainthood.  I cringe when listening to a minister who is not just a stranger to me, but who often barely knew the deceased, turn from eulogizing to proselytizing.  (“Hey! Think about it, people!  The old so-and-so is lying here dead, and your time is coming! So, hie yourself back into the fold, pronto!”)  I’ve even been heard to say that if anyone holds a funeral for me, I will most definitely come back and haunt them. I mean it, too.

No, for many reasons I despise funerals and can rarely be persuaded to attend one, except for the sake of speaking to a few of those who are grieving the most. Even then, my appearance at any funeral calling is brief.  Open or closed, I frankly avoid the casket, contenting myself with signing the guestbook, examining photos, or watching the life-video the family has put together, perhaps hoping that from these I might glean in-depth knowledge of  or at least a sense the essence of the life lived by the person who has passed.

Memorial services or  celebrations of life–those are another matter. Those I attend gladly, and come away, if saddened, also refreshed and satisfied. I happily attend Talking Stick ceremonies (blog post December 10, 2017, Another Talking Stick) and wakes, where I can hear stories about the life of the deceased–little things that I might otherwise  never have known. For the same reason, I am pleased to write eulogies: to share memories of the one who has passed.

That is, I think,  the true essence of saying farewell to someone who has made their journey to the other side of the Veil: their story. The little memories of a lifetime, well-lived or otherwise, that comprise that person.  The rounded viewpoint given to us about an individual when someone other than an immediate family member or minister speaks of them, for those individuals often tell stories only of the deceased’s legend.  I want to see beyond the legend and the myth to the reality of the human being: flawed, wondrous, judgmental, open, accepting, confused, contradictory, thoughtful–complete.

The ancient Egyptians believed that if our names were forgotten, our souls ceased to exist, and therefore (although they preserved the body, believing it would reanimate in the afterlife) did all they could to ensure that their names would be spoken and remembered. They were, in a sense, correct, for our names are the heading at the top of our story. And perhaps that is why I despise modern funerals: for it is not the body of our loved one which needs to be remembered; it is their story.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.

My Life in Photos

There is shortcut file on my computer desktop titled, “My Life in Photos”.

This is a fairly unusual file to be maintained by a person who is well-known among all her friends and family, to hide her face from every camera. (“Point that camera at me,” I have been heard to say, “and I will turn you into a frog.” And, if they persist, I instruct, “Start picking out your lily pad!”)

The simple truth is that I take horrifically bad pictures. Some individuals are gifted with just that flawless bone structure, that enviable arrangement of facial features, so that the play of light and shadow in the two-dimensional image of a photo results in loveliness. In fact, years ago when I lived in Charleston, I knew such a woman.  To meet her on the street, one would have said she was plain, even unattractive.  Yet in photographs,  even without makeup,  her face was striking and remarkable.

I am not such a woman. I’m as plain as the proverbial mud fence—except in photographs, in which I look like a bowl of undercooked oatmeal.

So for me to have a file representing the highlights of my 64 years of life through photographic evidence is not only unusual, but was damned difficult to assemble. Nevertheless, I put it together and am even now in the process of turning it into a PowerPoint show, a storytelling event, eventually to be (I hope, and when I’ve acquired a few technical skills now absent) recreated as a video slide show, complete with music.

But the important aspect of this project is the reason I am doing it: because, several times in the past years, I’ve had to hunt through my collections of photographs for pictures of friends or family members who have recently died. To do this is to be assaulted by mixed emotions—heavy feelings that are hard to bear when one is already grieving.  Each time, too, I’ve wondered if the pictures I’ve chosen were the ones that this person would really have wanted to represent her life.  Which of these, I pondered, would have been her favorite photo of herself?

Which might she not have really much liked?  Is this a photo she would have preferred had never been taken?  An event she wanted to forget?

And while the act of looking through old photographs was wondrous and painful, time constraints limited what might have been a nostalgic journey through another’s life. The photos had to be located and selected quickly to be prepared for a funeral or memorial service.  There just wasn’t time to pick the perfect set of pictures to represent someone’s entire existence on this earth.

2000 Rebecca Xmas Crop

And so, for my survivors, this job will be already done. The photos will be chosen, the stories behind each of them told.  The one photo of my adult self that I have ever truly liked will be there and labeled as such; the events that I saw as the highlights of my existence will be arranged chronologically. If others choose to add to those memories with photographs representing memories of their own, they’ll be free to do so.  But the difficult work of recreating the important moments of my life  will be done.

It will be a special and loving farewell to those I love best, demonstrating how much I cared for them: that there exists an album of photographs of the woman who, always and forever, simply hated to have her picture taken.