A Pact with the Living

Those who have died have never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth
Those who have died have never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

by Birago Diop
as adapted by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Categories: Death, Poetry Sundays | 3 Comments


Marguerite Louise Russell Bachman Smith died one year ago today, ten days shy of her eighty-eighth birthday.

It was a decent day. I’m tired, but not emotionally exhausted. My brother Darryl came by today, and I gave him Mom’s jewelry to be parceled out between his wife, my brother Dale’s wife, and their various kids. Or sold, if they don’t find anything they want to wear, or anything of sentimental value they want to keep.

Yahrtzeit means “time of [one] year” in Yiddish, and refers to the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It is customary for Jews to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I learned today is literally the “Orphan’s Kaddish.” Lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of a loved one is a minhag, or custom, that is deeply ingrained in Jewish life to honor the memory and souls of the deceased.

I didn’t have a yahrtzeit candle to light, but I had some quiet time with Mom’s spirit, as I often do in the evenings. We used to watch many of the same TV programs together, and we knew each other’s reactions so well that as we watched, we’d glance over for the expected frown or listen for the laugh.

It’s been a year of being stuck, and of getting unstuck. Mourning, at least this time, is not at all what I expected. It was a full-body experience, not so much an emotional one (though there were certainly moments . . . ).

The strangest change, I think, has been in realizing the weight of Mom’s illness, how profoundly it limited her and how she hated being limited, how she struggled against it even as she was trying to let go. In her last year, I found myself reproving her for not struggling harder; now I see that she fought harder and struggled more bravely than I ever realized, and probably more than I ever could.

I love her and miss her, certainly, but most of all I admire her and thank her.

I think W.S. Merwin said it best in his brief poem, “Separation”:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Categories: Death, Family, Judaism | 9 Comments


My parents are appearing in my dreams with disturbing frequency now.

After my father died in 1982, I saw him in dreams and dream-states only once in a while. He was about 3/4 the height he was when alive, and he was often mute or had a gag over his mouth.

Then he went away. Couldn’t access him through dreams or journeys. This phase lasted a good dozen years. When he reappeared, he was (a) of a “normal” age, neither young nor old, (b) relatively healthy, and (c) almost without exception not married to Mom. In many dreams they had been married once, but they had divorced or separated. (In waking reality, they had a three-month discussion of separation, but then he became ill, and they reconciled and were very close again.)

In the the ten months (exactly) since Mom’s death, she has appeared uniformly strong and healthy and vigorous and independent, just as I believe she always wanted to be. Sometimes she was much younger and prettier than I knew her, sometimes she was like herself in her 60s, which were a vibrant time for her.

For the last month or two, Mom and Dad have both been showing up in my dreams. When they appear in the same dream, Mom is tired but healthy, while Dad is extremely ill, walks with a cane, can’t see well, and has balance problems. They are usually long divorced, but have come together for some event or over some situation in their lives where they need to work together.

Last night Dad was cold and arrogant, listed to the left when he walked, and his left eye didn’t seem to work well. I was trying to help Mom get ready for a visit from some old friends of theirs. They were best man and matron of honor at my parents’ wedding, and remained fairly close emotionally to my parents throughout their lives, even if they weren’t always in close contact. These friends died in the early 1990s. Now last night they’re all alive, and I’m helping Mom prepare drinks and food for the party, while Dad is doing his best to annoy people.

So strange. When Mom was in her last stages, she’d talk about reuniting with Dad, and it was always with great longing and affection, as if this would be rest and home to her. By the time Dad died, they were close and loving, and he and I had the best relationship we had ever had, which has made his post-death appearances all the more confusing.

I have no doubt whatsoever that these dreams are all very Freudian or Jungian, and mean very dark things about me, me, me, but I’m fascinated at how visceral it all is: I wake up feeling terribly disturbed at seeing them together again, changed, uncomfortable, when both my hope and my honest belief is that they are happy and whole and free.

Categories: Body and Mind, Death, Dreams, Family, Spirituality | 1 Comment


Yesterday was my grand-niece Jillian’s first birthday. Six weeks after she was born, Mom got a visit from the whole tribe: my brother Darryl and his wife Janet; my niece Jenny and her husband Mike (I performed their marriage ceremony); my other niece, Tracy; and my other brother, Dale, and his wife Nilda. All so Mom could meet little Jillian. Jillie, as everyone calls her.

Mom was already starting to fade by this time last year. Dale and Nilda had tried to visit every other week, but sometimes Mom didn’t feel up to letting them come, and when they did visit, often she felt she needed to “tune out.” I think family visits just overwhelmed her.

The day everyone brought Jillie to see her great-grandma, Mom wasn’t feeling at all well, but she wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by. I think she had willed herself to hold on until after she met this precious gift of a child. Everyone crowded into Mom’s bedroom, and we all oohed and cooed and made baby noises, and then Mom got to hold her: Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, First Nations, The Medicine Wheel | 5 Comments

The Mailbox

Today’s thunderstorm came a bit earlier than usual, around lunchtime, and it was particularly violent for a while. I looked out the front door—just to enjoy the spectacle, really—and saw (to my great dismay) my mailbox, which stands on the side of the road by the driveway entrance, on the ground, in the swail that holds the runoff from the rain.

Someone had vandalized it. While it’s possible someone took a bat to it, it’s more likely that someone hit it with their car.

This is the second time that’s happened. Directly across the street from the mailbox is a neighbor’s driveway. A year or so after I moved back from Vermont, the friendly neighbors who had lived there sold the house to some faceless investor. The first set of tenants were two young women who, shall we say, Liked To Party. The parties weren’t especially loud, but there were many young men in and out, and anytime I saw people emerge from the house, they were happy and usually drunk. One day my mailbox was smashed, and the tire marks in the grass pointed directly toward their driveway. Some inebriated fool backed out too far or too fast.

So I installed a nice new mailbox. Well, the mailbox itself wasn’t quite as nice as the old one, but it came with a nice sturdy metal post, which I had a handyman set in concrete.

This mailbox saw the young women go, and the house lie dormant for a good six months. Then came an older couple—he was a church deacon and a house painter, very nice fellow—and they stayed for a year and a half. When they moved, they left rather quickly, and I never knew why, or where they were going. There was another period of dormancy, and at last the current tenants moved in.

I don’t know if they have a very large family, or a very large group of friends, but there are frequently four cars in the driveway and one parked just off the street, with lots of people coming and going. Cordial when you say hello, but clearly not folks who are inviting friendship.

Last week there were a series of arguments. Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Death, Life in Florida | 3 Comments

Dancing Shiva

The Hindu god Shiva (who has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting shiva) is usually depicted as one of the members of the great Triad, one of the three projections of the Supreme Reality, each with a specific cosmic function. Brahmā is the Creator, Vishnu is the Maintainer or Preserver, and Shiva is the Destroyer or Transformer, the dissolution that precedes re-creation. In Shaivism, the oldest of the four sects of Hinduism, Shiva is the supreme Being: creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of everything that exists.

I first encountered Shiva in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the series of interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS in 1988. He did a marvelous job of explicating the iconic image of Shiva Nataraja (Shiva, Lord of the Dance), right. Shiva does the cosmic Dance of Bliss inside a ring of fire—the world of illusion—to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for Brahma to create everything anew.

He has four arms and two legs, and every aspect of his pose is a carefully constructed symbol. Dr. Richard Stromer explains it beautifully:

The contents of the upper two of Nataraja’s outstretched hands are meant to demonstrate the eternal balance between the forces of creation and those of destruction. In the upper right hand, Shiva holds the sacred damaru, a drum in the shape of an hourglass, with which Shiva beats out the rhythm of his dance and with it the ceaseless creation of the universe and all of its infinite forms. This drum, writes Joseph Campbell, “is the drum of time, the tick of time which shuts out the knowledge of eternity,” as a result of which “we are enclosed in time.” Moreover, it is said to signify the primordial sound from which all things emanate, connoting in Heinrich Zimmer’s words “Sound, the vehicle of speech, the conveyer of revelation, tradition, incantation, magic, and divine truth.” Opposed to this force of creation as represented by the drum is the flame of extinction held in Shiva’s upper right hand. That flame symbolizes all of Shiva’s awesome powers of destruction, the terrible but necessary burning away of all things existing in time and space, the fire which, Campbell writes, “burns away the veil of time and opens our minds to eternity.” Continue reading

Categories: Art, Death, Hinduism, Psychology, Time and Space | 4 Comments

Sitting Shiva

A friend was checking in with me today—how things were going in Mom’s absence. I told her I was behaving as if I were grieving or depressed, but wasn’t generally experiencing the associated emotions of grief. Doing laundry only when I have nothing left to wear. A kitchen in greater disarray than it has ever been. Plants dying. Mom’s beloved plants, and I can’t seem to make myself water them.

She said, “It sounds like you’re sitting shiva for her. You are telling yourself—telling the world—that No, life does not just ‘go on.’ Sometimes it stops. You’ve stopped. You’re even creating symbols of death all around you. You are sitting shiva.”

In Judaism, shiva is the week-long period of grief and mourning for the seven first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. Appropriately, the word shiva means “seven.”

When you sit shiva, everything stops. You don’t leave the house, you don’t wear shoes in the house, you don’t study the scriptures except for those dolorous books of Lamentations and Job, you don’t bathe for pleasure, or do laundry, or cook for yourself. You don’t have sex, you don’t conduct business, you don’t listen to music, or watch television, or go to the movies.

You cover the mirrors, too. This was originally in response to the belief that spirits could become trapped in mirrors. Today, the ancient practice is continued under the premise that mirrors encourage vanity, and shiva should be a time of inner reflection. I think it’s more so that you don’t have to see what you look like after you’ve been crying.

But just the realization that this goy boy has been sitting shiva for his mother—not seven days, but halfway through the seventh month now—seems to have empowered me considerably. I’m about to go put a load of dishes into the dishwasher and make dinner. And I’m going to water some plants out on the porch. It’s entirely possible they’re too far gone. I know I don’t have to keep them up for her sake or anything like that. I just think I’d like to help something live again, if I can.

Categories: Death, Healing, Judaism | 7 Comments

Learning to Swim

Disturbing dreams last night; in fact, they rattled me so much that I remember ordering the dream to stop at one point. Mom and Dad and I were all traveling, but they were going on ahead without me. We were able to keep in touch with each other from our various vehicles—they shifted from cars to motorcycles to planes—and I remember having “a few more things to do” before I could join them.

When they were on their plane, I could see it up in the sky, and its wings were suddenly ripped off, and the long cylinder started flipping and turning and swinging back and forth like some grotesque carnival ride. Then it stopped, clearly ready to plummet to earth, nose straight up in the air, and it started falling, heading right for me. I said, “Stop!” and made the plane freeze; it wasn’t that I was trying to change its (and my) fate, but I didn’t want to have to experience it in the dream. I wanted to go on to other dream-things.

And I did. There were several other sequences that I forget now, but there were also repeated images of me able to swim in what appeared to be puddles on the ground but which were surprisingly deep. They were the color of coffee with cream, and they were pleasantly warm but not at all hot. I swam bravely, boldly, with people looking at me, and I didn’t care, even though I’m pretty sure I was skinny-dipping.

When I got up this morning and looked at my Raven’s Brew coffee, I noticed the name of the variety: Resurrection Blend. Continue reading

Categories: Buddhism, Death, Dreams, Food and Diet | 19 Comments

Off to Africa?

In two days I’m heading out of town for the holidays. When Dad died in 1982, Mom and I couldn’t bear to celebrate that first Christmas without him surrounded by the same old familiar things, having to put on a brave face and either be endlessly consoled or, worse, not consoled. So we decided to leave town. We drove down to Williamsburg, Virginia, and did the whole Colonial America thing. They have quite a lovely holiday celebration, and it was just so odd and so different that we thought it would be just the thing. We could be quiet and mourn in our own way, talk or not talk as we wish, and broaden our horizons just a bit.

So I thought it was an appropriate thing to do for the first Christmas without Mom. No, not Colonial Williamsburg, but a road trip. I’m heading up to Norfolk, Virginia, to spend the holidays with my old, old, old friend Jim (he’s only half a year older than I; it’s just that we’ve been friends since the age of three). He would always come over to our house in Maryland on Christmas eve and spend the night, and then we’d all open prezzies in our robes the next morning. When we moved to Florida, he spent most Christmases down here with us.

Jim bought a house a few years ago, but Mom had been too sick for me to leave her for an out-of-town visit with him. Now that he’s trying to sell it (and with the housing market the way it is, you know that’s going well!), I wanted to see it at least once, and this seemed like the perfect time to do it. We’ll have our quiet little get-together, we’ll lift a glass to Mom, and we’ll find a balance between the old and the new.

On the way up I had already decided to stop at the Waffle House my brother Darryl and I so enjoyed on the funeral trip. But as I was planning, I ran across two new potential adventures. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Spirituality | 6 Comments

Ghost in the Machine

I blame Adam. First he told me about Woot! and then he told me about the Wootalyzer. So it’s all his fault. And if it’s not his fault, then it’s Mom’s. Or Alton Brown’s. It’s definitely not mine.

Those of us who are not into Internet jargon may not be aware that “w00t!” (with zeros instead of Os) is an expression of joy, an Internet hurrah. A few days ago Adam told me about a website,, that sells overstocked items at amazingly low prices, usually one new item per day, posted at midnight Central time. When it sells out, that’s it, nothing more until the next midnight rolls around. But once every month or so they have something called a Woot-Off, in which they have smaller numbers of each item in stock, so they run them back to back. Some items, either because they have very few of them or because they’re very hot items or both, sell out in seconds. Others hang around for several minutes or, for big-ticket items, for an hour or more until they sell out.

The Wootalizer is a small program that connects to the Woot! website and sounds an alarm each time a new item is posted. This is particularly helpful during Woot-Offs when you might have something precious disappear in the time it takes the web page to reload.

The Woot-Off that started yesterday is still running today. My Wootalizer has been sounding its alarm at distressingly frequent intervals, and I’m about to silence it when up pops this set of knives by the masters of Japanese knife-making, Shun (marketed in the U.S. by Kershaw). Six knives and a bamboo knife block for $249 plus $5 shipping.

Now, I’ve been lusting after these particular knives ever since I saw Alton Brown (of Good Eats fame) extol their virtues; they were for years the only knives he would use, and he met with Shun and asked them to make a series with the blades angled for easier cutting. They made them, and he put his name (and face) on them. Together these knives regularly sell for $527 (not counting the knife block or shipping), so Woot’s price was way less than half.

Now for the weird part. Continue reading

Categories: Cooking, Death, Family | 10 Comments

A Spinning Compass

This afternoon I received a call from the hospice bereavement counselor. She was lovely, and asked all the right questions: about mood changes, support from friends and family and a spiritual community, whether I was eating properly, how I was coping, whether I had any plans for the future. I told her I thought I was doing well, but that I felt rather directionless now.

For so long I’ve been tied to Mom—whether in support mode or as full caregiver—that now I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I have so many options, so many things I want to do, a wide-open world, that I’m frankly a little overwhelmed.

I explained to her that taking care of Mom gave my days structure, even if it was often too restrictive. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Psychology | 8 Comments

The Edge of a Storm

I am not a particularly heavy sleeper. You could say I sleep like a dog, or a wolf; that is, with one ear nearly always awake, ready to pull the rest of me to alertness should the need arise. That came in handy, of course, during the years Mom was sick. We had a baby monitor in her room so I could hear her calls (or falls) in the night. But even before I became her caregiver, I would wake frequently in the night to turn over or occasionally pee (the curse of middle age), usually falling back to sleep quickly.

But this habit also means I tend to remember my dreams more easily than other people, because I, like others whose brains are similarly hardwired, go through life with a brain wave pattern significantly slower than most people (Alpha rather than the normal Beta); I’m closer to the dream state when I’m waking, and I slip into the trance or deeply meditative state (Theta) more easily. I assume that I sleep closer to Theta, whereas most people go from Delta (complete unconsciousness) to Beta (which is found in both normal REM sleep, when dreaming usually occurs, and states of extreme alertness) and back again, making dream recollection a bit more problematic.

Two nights ago I went through a rather bad patch. I encountered some familial stressors—something to do with Mom’s will and probate—and I was suddenly a young boy unable to cope. It was not so much the specter of death, or the anxiety and sadness over loss, but rather that all the months and years of exhaustion came rushing back. I found myself, once I had gotten off the phone, weeping uncontrollably, making animal noises and wailing like a professional mourner in the Middle East. When there were words, it was “Leave me ’lone!” and “Go ’way!” as if I were a battered child afraid of more abuse. It was the strangest bit of grieving I have ever experienced. I went to bed utterly spent, and woke up much saner.

Then last night, a very odd little dream. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Brain, Death, Dreams, Family | 1 Comment

Notes from . . . well, not necessarily the Dreamtime

I’ve been waking up lately with my head crammed with a bunch of disjointed thoughts. That in itself is not unusual; my head is a confusing place to navigate through. But they don’t fit neatly into a single blog post, and there’s not enough in any one of to make a post on its own, so I hope you’ll pardon the disjointedness.

*   *   *   *   *   *    *

I lost fourteen pounds last week.

I’m not, it turns out, a big proponent of weighing oneself religiously as a gauge to determine dietary success or loss. I’ve seen myself gain weight even when being scrupulously faithful to my plan, and lose weight when I’ve cheated. And gaining weight, or losing little or nothing, when I’ve struggled so hard, does nasty things to my emotional state. So I weigh once a week at most. When the weight loss slows down (it’s always fastest at the beginning of a diet, and always fastest with very heavy people), I may drop back to once a fortnight or once a month.

And I’m not even crowing about these fourteen pounds: it’s mostly water, which my body accumulated in response to the inflammation caused by the reaction to bread, and in response to the high levels of salt and sugar I consumed during the funeral trip. Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Death, Depression, Dreams, Food and Diet, Healing | 4 Comments

Change of Seasons

You know it’s fall when the Gala apples are better than sex and the cinnamon brooms are back in stock at the grocery store. Now, it’s important to have such cues here in Florida because we generally don’t get autumn temperatures until January, and then only for a month or so. Maybe the last week in December, but I can recall a number of Christmases spent around my brother’s pool, sweltering and unhappy.

Mom and I loved autumn best of the seasons. Perhaps it was because the cool, dry air felt so invigorating and freeing; perhaps it was because we were born less than a month apart at this time of year.

Today I told Tanya, the young woman who cuts my hair and used to cut Mom’s, that we had lost her. She began to cry. “I really loved her,” she said. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Great Quotes, Life in Florida, Nature | 4 Comments

Day Two

Yesterday was Day One in several significant ways. The Great Funeral Trip is done, and Mom is resting with Dad in Maryland. Now I have an empty house with all the chaos from the previous weeks still in evidence, and little time to make any sense of it since I have a bunch of work deadlines this week, not to mention Mom’s famous rum cake and my infamous CraigNog to make for the family Thanksgiving gathering.

I’m still at that stage where everything reminds me of Mom, or I say, “Mom would really love that,” or I turn to talk to her but see only a vacant chair or bed. I’m not sad or lonely, exactly, but I’m keenly feeling the lack of her physical presence.

At the same time, I feel a sudden push forward, the motivation and power to make some changes in my life that I have wished for or even attempted (and failed at) in the past. One, as I mentioned recently, is my trying to excise bread and other things made with flour from my diet. It ain’t easy. Wheat has opioids — opium-like substances that influence the brain’s endorphin receptors. These opioid peptides are physically addictive and cause asthma, obesity, and (as might be expected from a substance chemically similar to morphine) apathy.

It turns out that plants use different tactics to scare off attackers. Some plants contain poison; others just anesthetize their attackers, as wheat does with opioid peptides. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Body and Mind, Death, Food and Diet, Shamanism | 7 Comments

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