Category Archives: Death

The Land of the Dead: Regarding Your Recent Visit…,

I stopped writing.

There were reasons for the pause.

I needed to get my bearings, figure out where I was, and chart a course forward.

There were other reasons that cropped up along the way.

“Life stuff” – we categorize it, like it were something we could put in a box and slide under the bed, as if we weren’t swimming in it constantly.  Drowning even, when the waves catch us by surprise, and we find ourselves gulping for air.

So I stopped writing.

And I stopped reading.

And then there was a combining of households, and boxes to be filled, and what gets sold and what moves to storage, and…, life stuff.  Like I said.

But space, like time, was suddenly at a premium.

And the altar had to be put away.  All the bits and pieces carefully cleaned and wrapped and boxed.  Temporarily.  Until I can find the space for them.  Make space for them.

I stopped writing, and reading…, and talking.

To the gods.

To the spirits.

To the ancestors.

It’s the easiest thing in the world.

To let it all go, to be what this empty world we’ve created wants us to be.

I used to wonder, from time to time, about the Land of the Dead.

It is a place of dread that figures into so many of our mythologies: a grey void of a place where the dead wander, without purpose or meaning, hungry for the attention of the living.  I was never sure I believed such a place could exist.  It seemed so far removed from my personal experience of the universe we share.

The Otherworld, I had always been taught, always believed, is reflected in our own mortal realm, just as our world is reflected there.  Neither realm is wholly separate from the other, each profoundly present within and throughout the other, and still, for some of their inhabitants, frustratingly out of reach.

But where then, could we see any reflection of those ghostly fields where the dead are said to wander aimlessly?

Where, if not all around us.

Listless – Hungry – Craving.

I have found myself wandering among them in the grey realm from which they’d seek escape, if they only knew that they were trapped.  The Land of the Dead is not a mythological construct,  not even close.

We’ve built it, floor roof and walls, and we’re constantly furnishing it with all the ‘life stuff’ that we collect along the way.

And it’s not a terrible place to visit, from time to time.  We all end up spending time there eventually.  The important thing is not to get trapped there.  Never forget where you are.

Always be “Just Visiting” – because the alternative…,

JustVisiting

So here I am.

Writing again (and it’s harder to get started again, than I would have believed).

And reading.

And talking (to them, and you).

Still not sure of exactly how to get to where I want to be.

But at least I know where I was, and that’s as good a starting point as any.

Any day now I expect to receive my survey in the mail…,

“Regarding your recent visit to the Land of the Dead.”

I should probably give them a nice review.

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Filed under About this Blog, Culture, Death, Modern Life, Mythology, Spiritual Journey, Uncategorized

Time in a Bottle

I was sitting outside the other day, nursing the last few moments of a fifteen-minute break from work, just watching the traffic flow by, when my phone vibrated in my hand.

I looked down to see a text message from my wife, letting me know that she had two hours to kill between appointments and wondering if I needed anything.

In the second it took to ponder my response, I felt the huge weight of all the things that I need to get done over the next few weeks suddenly looming over me.

“I need those two hours!  Just pack ‘em up and we’ll use them later.”

I waited a few seconds to see if she’d respond to my little joke, and then I went back to work.

I’d run out of free time.

endlesstime

We have some funny notions about time.

We do our best to borrow and save and steal it, as if it were some tangible resource that we could collect and hold on to.  It is not.

Our scientists and statisticians study and measure it, seeking to quantify it and gain some measure of control.  We have none.

And with increasing frequency, we personify it, assigning to it both motive and malice.

This last year of the Common Era, 2016, seemed for many, to have provided both terrible events and heartbreaking loss in a greater than normal abundance.  The response to this, among the mostly Christian population of North America, has been to dance right past the standard platitudes regarding their own supposedly omnipresent and omnipotent deity and his grand plan for everything, and instead to spew their frustrations upon the year itself.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I pointed out how woefully out of practice this society is when it comes to idolatry.  There could be no better example than that of these last few months, wherein we’ve once again ignored a whole army of perfectly serviceable gods and goddesses, preferring instead to invent a new one upon which to vent our collective spleen.

The road back to Polytheism will surely be filled with unexpected twists and turns, but this…,

People got mad at a unit of time, and a few nights ago they celebrated its death – with the same fervor I’d expect in a blood sacrifice.

Folks, please.

Those who Spin and Measure and Cut must be rocking with laughter.

thefates

To the vast disappointment of all the numerologists in the crowd, the numbers are completely arbitrary and don’t mean anything.

Which year was it, that was our dread enemy?

AD 2016 is the popular choice – but that’s what exactly, two thousand and sixteen years after the birth of a fellow who may have been the hebrew messiah, or entirely fictional, or possibly both.  And what scant evidence we have suggests that we missed the mark by no less than a half a dozen years.  So that number is pretty meaningless.

There are other suspects, but they’re not much better…,

It has been 2769 years since the Founding or Rome in the old calendar.  But that date was also selected several hundred years after the fact and is an extremely rough approximation, so…,

Maybe we should blame 4714 of the Chinese Calendar.  The Year of the Monkey sounds like something given to causing a lot of trouble.  But if that’s the case we’d better hold onto our hats, because we are still under the gun until January 28th when the Rooster takes over.

And I suppose old 5776 on the Hebrew Calendar could be a likely enough suspect.  But this one is supposed to be counting up from the year the following the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth as depicted in the Book of Genesis, which I find pretty weird, seeing as I’ve personally visited ruins that are at least that old and geologic sites that are tens of millions of years older.

The year is a figment of our imagination.  It is a crude attempt to force time into a bottle.

But the truth is that Two-Thousand and Sixteen didn’t kill anyone, didn’t elect anyone, didn’t bomb anyone, or starve them, or spray them with rubber bullets…,

We did those things.

And we will keep doing them until we learn not to.

And if our past is any guide to the future, the numbers on the calendar won’t make a damn bit of difference along the way.

We lost some amazing people recently, Carrie and David and Prince and what seems like a thousand others, bright and powerful souls who touched our lives.  Our hearts ache with their passing, but there is no need to cast blame.  The pain we suffer is the sacrifice we offer up for the privilege of knowing them.  And my gods, the price is worth it, because I can’t imagine what our lives might have been like without them!

Nothing ended at midnight on December 31st.  Nothing began at 12:01am.

The Earth continues upon its path around the Sun.

The Fates work diligently upon the threads of our lives.

And time keeps moving.

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Filed under Culture, Death, Holidays, Modern Life, Philosophy, Uncategorized

Death Becomes You

The signs of the changing season are many and plentiful: there is a new crispness in the air, the days grow shorter, the leaves begin to fall, pumpkin spice flavoring has been injected into every consumable, and the yearly barrage of educational outreach posts from the Pagan community are making the rounds.

I used to do a fair bit of that myself.  The confluence of Pop-Culture Halloween and Pagan Samhain makes for a pretty tempting public relations opportunity.  Watch as we slide a little truth in there between your fun-sized Snickers and your yearly viewing of The Great Pumpkin.

I gave it up though, because mostly people don’t want to be bothered with it.

And of those who do show some interest, trying to explain Celtic Ancestor Night traditions to someone who’s cultural understanding of death is rooted in Western Christianity is a serious undertaking.

There’s just no easy way in.

Except that is for Dia de Muertos.

The growing popularity in the States, of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ has, on several recent occasions, given me something a little more tangible to point to.

But still, the conversations tend to go something like this…,

Me: “It’s like ‘The Day of the Dead’ but without the Sugar Skulls.”

Them: “Huh?!”

So, it seemed like the best thing to do was to just give up again, when suddenly this…,

The Book of Life

The Book of Life.

It came out in 2014, and I’ve just now watched it.

How did I miss this movie?!

It is without doubt, the best representation of a modern cultural rite of honoring the dead, that I have seen on film.  The movie is cute and funny, even while treating the subject with a particular reverence, and most importantly, it is rich and beautiful to look at.

In a time when the rotting flesh and gnashing teeth of the zombie has become a year round staple of popular culture, it is nothing short of miraculous to see the dead depicted as beings of both whimsy and grace, who care for their living descendants as fervently as we should care for them.

Do not be fooled by the corruption of the grave.

That is not death.

Death is not something that happens to us, it is something we become, and in so doing, we carry away all that is beautiful within us into that next realm.  How could what we find there be anything other than glorious to behold?

Watch the movie.  Smile and laugh at the story, even as you catch a momentary glimpse of a truth beyond our mortal reach.  Do that, and maybe you’ll understand the things we do.

We dress the graves to honor them.

We kindle the fires to light their way home.

We share with them offerings of food and drink.

We remember them to each other in the stories that we tell.

And we pray that we will be remembered when we have passed beyond the vail.

Do not fear the grave.  Death becomes you.

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An Audience of None

book of the dead

Who will judge us, and by what measure?

We closed our eyes upon the living world and awoke to find ourselves standing in the presence of a powerful being, being both jackal and man.  We do not fear him, but rather the great set of scales besides which he stands.

In one hand he carries a single feather, plucked from the wings of the goddess of truth.

He places that feather upon the scales, and then reaches out toward us, into us, and though we are not harmed, we see that he carries our heart in his easy grip.

This two he places upon the scales.

A heart weighed down with a lifetime of regrets, and a feather infused with the weight of justice.

The scales tip, one way or the other, and we are judged.

 


 

The taste of the coin lingers as the small boat finally comes to ground.

We step eagerly over the shallow rail and onto solid earth, with only a brief glance backward to see that the cloaked ferrymen is rowing away again, into the gloom from whence we came.

There are three paths before us, and three kings, sons of the sky father, the keeper of oaths.

In life, their judgements were fair and true.

In death they will not fail us.

Our story is all told, we need only an ending befitting our tale.

Was our life one of goodness, or evil, or were our deeds unremarkable, our life wasted?

The story goes on, and we are judged.

 


 

Our ticket to eternal reward has been purchased in blood.

And now, after a long sleep, we shall rise and collect our due.

All around us they gather, the people we knew and loved and feared and hated.

But we have no eyes for them, nor they for us.

Our attention is arrested by the light which drew us from the grave, a light that touches every part of us, that burns away the shadows so that we are revealed completely to him.

Did we store our treasures in the old world, or in the new?

Eternity yawns before us, and we are judged.

 

Always we have been judged.

We crave it and we fear it like no other thing.

For as long as we have walked upon this earth, we have given ourselves to the gods for judgement.  The names change as we move from tribe to tribe, as do the specific details, but in the end we imagine ourselves laid bare in the eyes of those who will rule, finally, upon the content of our lives.

I have wondered, sometimes, if the gods and the ancestors volunteered for this duty, or if we somehow pressed them into service?

Just lately, I have wondered if their long obligation might be coming to an end.

We have found a new God of Judgement, it seems, better than those we have previously known, more responsive and immediate in both its praise and especially in its condemnation.  This new god does not wait until we are dead to pronounce judgement upon us.  It watches us with a billion eyes and when we are found wanting, the punishments of this new god are immediate and scathing.  No more waiting around for the privacy of the grave, no more scriptures or doctrines to follow and uphold.

Have you guessed it?

We did this.

We reached out and opened the eyes and ears of the world.  We gathered them all together in one place, where they could speak in one voice.  And before the echoes of our celebration had died away, this shambling titan began to reach out in complete and utter condemnation of everything within reach of its great and dissonant voice.

For once, we’ve given the atheists what they wanted.  We’ve swept aside the old gods and shown that we can do things far more efficiently by ourselves.  And what a job we’ve done!

But I think I was more comfortable when Anubis was weighing our hearts against the Feather of Ma’at, than I was a few weeks ago, watching a young woman torn apart on Twitter because she didn’t put her hand over her heart when the national anthem played.

I don’t care for this new god.  It is hungry and arbitrary in a way that makes the most capricious of the old gods seem tame by comparison.

It is not a god we can fight.  There are no temples to burn or idols to smash.

If we would not give ourselves fully to this new god, we must then seek to starve it, to deny it our attentions and concern.  We must live our lives freely, without casting arbitrary judgement on others and playing our brief parts for an audience of none.

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Filed under Death, Modern Life, Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, The Gods

Maybe (a prayer)

Maybe they danced,

Talked,

Caroused,

Flirted.

Maybe they couldn’t stand the crowd and longed for the trip home.

Maybe they felt the pulsing energy around them and couldn’t tear themselves away.

Maybe…,

I don’t know.

I didn’t know them.

But I know they were beautiful.

And I know that they found beauty in each other,

And in the love and freedom that surrounded them.

And they died for it.

They died,

Because some people…,

Maybe just a few,

But too many,

Can see only ugliness in that which they do not understand.

So their lives were cut short, their spirits released.

And I wonder which God will step forward to shelter them?

Which Savior?

Which Prophet or Saint will guide their way?

If none of theirs, then I offer mine.

Freely.

May the fair Goddess on black wings guide them swiftly to better shores then these.

As worthy as any soldiers, these spirits, slain in someone else’s war.

Let her keening rise up until the heavens crack.

Until all the priests,

And the politicians,

And all who trade in fear and hate,

Have fled at last beneath the shadow of their empty pulpits.

And then,

In the quiet that follows,

Those who have eyes to see beauty,

In all of its wonderful diversity,

Will be free to dance,

And to love,

And to live,

Finally without fear.

That, my friends, may be too much to hope for.

But is such a thing too much to pray for?

It may be.

But if enough of us raise our voices,

If we join our cry with her’s,

And all the gods hear us,

Maybe not.

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Filed under Death, Modern Life, Prayer, Religion, The Gods

Fragile

The Jehovah’s Witnesses came by again this week…,

…right on schedule…,

…as I was sitting down to lunch.

-sigh-

It was the same old fellow who’s been coming by for years now, only this time he had his wife with him, which I can only remember happening once before.

We exchanged pleasantries and spoke for a few moments about work and the pleasant weather we’d been having.  Then he handed me their little monthly booklet, and began to share a sampling of his particular brand of wisdom.

All while my grilled cheese slowly cooled on its plate.

My mind wandered a bit, I must admit.

Usually I do a better job of paying attention, because however else I feel about his little visits, I know that he means well and I am always interested in better understanding what other people believe.  Otherwise, I’d have shooed him off long ago.

But I’d been looking forward to that sandwich all morning, and they’re never as good reheated as they are right off the skillet, and…,

…then he said something that DID catch my attention.

He said the we were “not built to die.”

In my mind I quickly rewound the last couple minutes and then skimmed it forward again, this time listening for content.  He’d been speaking of the subject matter of this month’s Watchtower, having to do with how people should react when a loved-one dies.  “People are always surprised by death,” he said.  “And the reason for that, is that when God made us, we were immortal.  Death always takes us by surprise because we were not built to die, and so we lack the programming to deal with it properly.”

When I caught back up to the present moment my visitor and his wife were already making their way back down my front walk.  We’d exchanged parting pleasantries, and as usual, I’d assured him that I would consider his words carefully.

And I have at that.

“Not built to die,” he said.

I couldn’t get those words out of my head as I sat, munching on my cold sandwich.

He’s a nice enough guy, but he could not possibly be more wrong.

Living is a thing that we do in absolute defiance of the odds.

And dying?

Death is not the enemy, it is hardwired into our biology.

I wonder if my door-knocking friend has ever heard of the Hayflick limit.

It turns out that the cells in our bodies can only divide themselves a set number of times.  With each division, the length of a cell’s DNA is slightly shortened, and eventually, just shy of about 60-divisions, our cells can no longer reproduce and they begin to wear out and break down.

It’s a bit like that “best if used before…,” tag that we see stamped on a loaf of bread or a carton of milk.  Barring accident or disease we’re fine up until that predetermined point, and then from there it is only a matter of time.

And this isn’t something that just happened to us one day.

It’s not an accident, and it’s not some ridiculous punishment for eating fruit off of the wrong tree in a magical garden somewhere.

If your belief is that we were designed, than that designer built us to die.  If you don’t believe in a designer, it’s still true, because the way life evolved on this planet is that it can only exist through the action of death.

Life is precious precisely because it is temporary.

****

I had another unexpected visitor this week.

Just a couple days after the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by, I arrived home from work to find a screech owl sitting in the middle of my front yard.

The sun was long set, and a bird of this kind should have been on the wing, hunting for insects and the like.  Instead, it sat almost motionless in the grass, hard to see in the darkness but still an easy target for neighborhood cats.

Assuming that it must be injured or sickly, I tipped an empty laundry basket over it, to keep it in place, and then, wearing thick gardening gloves, reached under the basket to collect the little creature and place him in a cardboard box, for ready delivery to another of my neighbors who does wild bird rescue and rehabilitation.

I’ve never held a screech owl in my hands.

They seem profoundly fragile things, and lifting it out from under the basket felt a bit like holding a feathered soap-bubble.  I was moving quickly, so as to cause as little stress as possible, so I only caught a brief glimpse of those big yellow eyes.  It made an alert sound with its beak, a bit like flicking your fingernail against a hard wood surface: tap-tap-tap.  And then it was safe in a box and, I hope, off to a speedy recovery from whatever ails it.

Holding that small creature in my hands, I could feel the fragility that is life.

For an owl, a mouse, a blade of grass, or the mightiest tree.

The soul may move on to some other place.

It may even return to live again.

But immortality for this life or any other is a false hope.

We cling to life because it is temporary, because it is fragile.

Why else do we cling to each other?

May Mushroom

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There are plenty of ways to die.

We are, as a species, both fearful and fascinated by death.  And the more time passes, the more we push back against certain boundaries, the more interconnected we become, the more preoccupied we seem to grow with the most unlikely of threats to our well being.

We spend too much of our time living in obscure ‘what-ifs’ and not enough in the now.

We give ourselves over to fear, and we grow smaller in the bargain.

So let’s take a moment and go through it.


The vast majority of us will succumb to simple mechanical failure…,

Hearts stop ticking.
The vessels grow clogged with gunk.
Oxygen delivery becomes less than efficient.
The lightning in our minds that form thought and feeling becomes turbulent.


Most of the rest of us will fall to some kind of disease…,

Infections that taint the blood or clog the lungs.
Cancers that turn our own cellular building blocks against us.


Your next most likely exit is through simple accident…,

Our balance fails us.
We regularly handle objects which are sharp or heavy.
Often we run and jump and fly and drive, because these are the things of living.
And sometimes it is the living that kills us.


A tiny few of us have our lives taken away by another…,

War takes some.
Acts of terrorism account for a handful.
But far more often, it is our own neighbors who kill us.
Or the people we love best.


There are plenty of ways to die, and the statistics don’t lie.

But we see big flashing numbers on the news and we are convinced that the thing which is least likely to take us, is the thing waiting just around the corner to do us in.  We become convinced that someone is coming for us, someone wants us dead, the knives are sharpening, the explosives are being wrapped in duct-tape, there are clocks and triggers and backpacks and high profile targets and you’d better be safe and you’d better stay safe and you’ll never be safe…!

You’ll never be safe because we are going to die.

But any one of us is 35,000 times more likely to die of a heart attack than we are in a terrorist attack.  Yet, by and large, I don’t see that many of us suddenly laying off the cheese-burgers.

Which brings us to another way to die, one I haven’t mentioned yet.

Sometimes we kill ourselves…,

And here is one place where I think the statistics DO lie, because it’s not always as straight forward as a gun to the head or an overdose of prescription meds.  Sometimes, yes, we kill ourselves all at once.  But more and more I think we’ve begun to do it so slowly that we don’t even know it’s happening.

People won’t give up eating fatty foods, but they’re sure wiling to give themselves over to fear.

Some of us can’t face a world full of (mostly imagined) boogymen without the security blanket of a weapon in our pocket.

Some of us would rather not face the world at all, when it’s so much safer to just sit in our homes and watch the news and fret about all the growing dangers outside.

And here lately, all too many of us are happy enough to switch off the very traits that make us human: our sense of compassion, our willingness to endure personal sacrifice to ease the hardship of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Make no mistake folks, we have become a culture which is living in fear.

And I don’t think I’d call that ‘living’ at all.

I find it disheartening that in this season of thanksgiving, when we are urged to count our many blessings, that bravery and generosity of spirit do not seem to number among them.

There are plenty of ways to die.

The real question is, in the long run, will we be able to live with ourselves?

Refugeess

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