Death has come to set up shop in the “rag and bone shop” of my heart this month.
We buried an extraordinary woman last week – we, the friends who’d known her since we were 12, the doting husband who gave the past five years of his life unstintingly to her journey through illness, the children who will go into full adulthood without her voice and laughter, advice, and the constant fuel of unstinting support.
There have been other jolts of friends and relatives who’ve died too young. They all crowd into the room together, and define this January as an in-between time – a pause that separates those solid shores of regularity that we call “normal life.” From this place, I’ve been able to see the ordinary — commerce, conversation, errands, meetings — for what they too often are, the means of preserving my life, but not necessarily of breaking it open.
Death has done this breaking. It has cast up bits of the past I’d thought were long buried, and offered wisdom that at other times just blows by me. I’ve had little choice but allow the deeper rhythms and realities of life to move in with their heightened presence, their questions.
This has been an unexpected gift.
Every atom in our beings resists loss, and the visceral aftershocks linger for years. But this winter, perhaps because death has been such a relentless visitor, I am much more aware of the mystery of rebirth and resurrection that lies at the very heart of death.
The creative life, lived over many years, has taught me what I know best about death and transformation. Any new venture — writing, or piece of visual art — demands that I surrender totally to its unexpected emergence, and all of the accompanying unknowns. The “me” who first steps up to the page remains only as artifact: a distant referent, a source. Ego and even the self-awareness that is essential to the more walking-around parts of life, must be completely suspended if authentic creativity is to happen. There is no shortcut and no bypasses.
Whenever I sit to compose a poem, or create a collage, I must consent, inwardly, to cross a threshold into liminality. “I” as the world knows me dies. Bring me back to “reality” too soon, and the poem is stillborn.
Most of our actions are organized to buffer us from the demands of the liminal. If only we are competent enough, in control, if only we stay productively occupied and “moving forward,” we won’t have to experience any kind of death. But this robs us of the possibility of new life, and real connection with the Creative Source – the divine, God, the cosmic heart.
The hard truth of wisdom is that when we try to protect ourselves from incompleteness, uncertainty, and death, we wall off the possibility of epiphany and joy.
This, I suppose you could say, has been my chief “epiphany” this Epiphany season. New life emerges from even the most wrenching and painful deaths. It can be no other way.
Our friend, Laurie, taught us all this in her own confrontation with transformational mystery. As soon as she was diagnosed with cancer, she avidly pursued alternative therapies, visualization, prayer, and pilgrimages. Over and over, she asked God what was being asked of her in this ultimate sacrifice of her life in an untimely death.
Finally, last spring, she applied for and was accepted as a pilgrim to Lourdes in the company of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta. When she returned, we met for lunch.
She told me of the pageantry and care extended to the traveling ill on the part of the support teams that travel with the pilgrims. She recounted the anticipation, and hope, and the prayers that literally walked alongside her as she was shepherded to the shrine. And then she told me about standing in the waters where pilgrims for centuries have prayed for cures.
“I didn’t feel the magic of healing,” she told me. “Suddenly the years of struggle and resistance fell away, and for the first time, I cried. I cried and cried and cried, knowing at last that I was mortal, that I would die.”
When it was over, she realized that she had been liberated from a huge boulder that had weighed her down. She had fully surrendered her resistance to what it was that would happen, whatever that was.
With that surrender came a new surge of energy and presence. In the final six months of her life, she hosted dinner parties and teas, shared images she’d collected of great sculpture and paintings, went out to lunch, had as many visitors as her strength allowed.
Her creative spirit was on fire, and all of us who knew her were indelibly effected by it.
In this liminal time, I think of her and those others who, as the prayer book says, “we see no longer,” and I hear the question that they ask across the great divide: are you letting the Creative Source break into your life? Are you willing to die a little, in order to become?