Season 1, Episode 1 of one of the funniest webshow/podcast series I’ve ever seen:
Season 1, Episode 1 of one of the funniest webshow/podcast series I’ve ever seen:
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.
This has been circulating on the Internet for a while now, but it’s still good for a laugh. Someone went over to the Church Sign Generator and created this fictitious war of words between two churches in the same small town.
I know which of the churches I’d be going to!
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.
A friend and blogger—or, to be more specific, a blogger I admire who has become an online friend—has challenged me to participate in a meme called “Books that influenced my reading of the Bible.” As he writes in his post on the subject,
There is one of those memes going around in which people volunteer a list of books that influenced their readings of the Bible. The rules say that works are not limited to Biblical studies literature, but can include religious works or works of literature. The list is nominally set at 5 books, but that is obviously an arbitrary number, and I have more than 5 books to list here.
And then he tagged me. You heard me right: he tagged me. I am, of course, utterly powerless to refuse.
But I can at least refashion to rules to my own advantage. I’m going to broaden the category very slightly. Instead of books that influenced my reading of the Bible, I’m going to recast it as books that influenced my religious worldview and moved me away from seeing scripture as verbum Dei and more as a collection of documents that recorded groups’ and individuals’ encounters with the Great Mystery and their attempts to understand and interpret that interaction. (Boy, that was a long sentence!) Continue reading
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
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.
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
The New York Times
No one would mistake the Stone Age ivory carving for a Venus de Milo. The voluptuous woman depicted is, to say the least, earthier, with huge, projecting breasts and sexually explicit genitalia.
Nicholas J. Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who found the small carving in a cave last year, says it is at least 35,000 years old, “one of the oldest known examples of figurative art” in the world. It is about 5,000 years older than some other so-called Venus artifacts made by early populations of Homo sapiens in Europe.
Another archaeologist, Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in England, agrees and goes on to remark on the obvious. By modern standards, he says, the figurine’s blatant sexuality “could be seen as bordering on the pornographic.” Continue reading
By John Otis, Time Magazine
Although his parents urged him to study medicine, Jimmy Weiskopf dropped out of college and in the 1970s moved to Colombia, where he eventually began to focus on a different kind of elixir. The New York City native became an early advocate for the hallucinogenic plant mixture ayahuasca. For centuries, Amazonian Indians have been drinking ayahuasca, also known as yaje — a combination of the ayahuasca vine, tree bark and other plants — to achieve a trancelike state that they believe cleanses body and mind and enables communication with spirits. Weiskopf, who has published a 688-page tome about ayahuasca, was once among a tiny coterie of foreigners using the potion, but these days he has lots of company. (Read “Colombia’s Drug Extraditions: Are They Worth It?”)
Word of ayahuasca’s healing properties has brought a growing number of New Age tourists from the U.S. and Europe, some of whom pay thousands of dollars to stay at jungle lodges where Indian medicine men guide them through all-night ayahuasca rituals. Sting and Tori Amos have admitted sampling it in Latin America, where it is legal, as has Paul Simon, who chronicled the experience in his song “Spirit Voices.” “It heals the body and the spirit,” says Eustacio Payaguaje, 51, a Cofán Indian shaman who regularly treks to Bogotá to lead weekend ayahuasca ceremonies in the city. “It is medicine for the soul.” (Read “The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.”) Continue reading
I have always been fascinated by maps. Not handsome, historical maps, but ones I might actually use. These days I spend an absurd amount of time on Google Maps or finding myself frustrated by various trip routing software. I’ve just bought a cheapo GPS for my car.
Part of it is that I get lost rather easily. For a while, when Indigo Bunting lived in Maryland and her husband lived in Vermont (both because of job demands), she was flying up to see him periodically and I would pick her up from the airport, one I have been to dozens and dozens of times. And every single time, on the trip back home, I would take a wrong turn somewhere and get us lost. Twice, maybe three times, I have picked up a friend at Orlando International and have gone west toward Tampa instead of east toward home. I think I make the mistake of thinking I can talk and drive at the same time, when I can barely manage to do even one of them adequately.
The deeper pull of maps seems to be tied to two things: a sense of being lost in the world, and needing some kind of spiritual cartography program that will help me navigate life a little better; and the notion that the inner landscape of the soul can be described, at least symbolically, in an image that is found in the iconography of countless cultures.
The indigenous peoples of this continent (though I prefer the Canadian term, “First Nations”) call this image the Medicine Wheel.
Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his song night after night.
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.
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