Looking at your face
now you have become ready to die
is like kneeling at an old gravestone
on an afternoon with no sun, trying to read
the white chiselings of the poem
in the white stone. –Galway Kinnell
If you, my friend, have never read the poems of Galway Kinnell, you must rectify this immediately; that is, if you want to know that it is possible, even here, to produce something that is wholly perfect and sacred and of this world, even in the next. I always think of his poems during the passages of my life, and I discovered one today, just as I am going through the passing of her mother with a dear friend.
It is a day after many days of storms.
Having been washed and washed, the air glitters;
small heaped cumuli blow across the sky; a shower
visible against the firs douses the crocuses.
We knew it would happen one day this week.
Now, when I learn you have died, I go
to the open door and look across at New Hampshire
and see that there, too, the sun is bright
and clouds are making their shadowy ways along the horizon;
and I think: How could it not have been today?
In another room, Keri Te Kanawa is singing
the Laudate Dominum of Mozart, very faintly,
as if in the past, to those who once sat
in the steel seat of the old mowing machine,
cheerful descendent of the scythe of the grim reaper,
and drew the cutter bars little
reciprocating triangles through the grass
to make the stalks lie down in sunshine.
Could you have walked in the dark early this morning
and found yourself grown completely tired
of the successes and failures of medicine,
of your year of pain and despair remitted briefly
now and then by hope that had that leaden taste?
Did you glimpse in first light the world as you loved it
and see that, now, it was not wrong to die
and that, on dying, you would leave
your beloved in a day like paradise?
Near sunrise did you loosen your hold a little?
How could you not already have felt blessed for good,
having these last days spoken your whole heart to him,
who spoke his whole heart to you, so that in the silence
he would not feel a single word was missing?
How could you not have slipped into a spell,
in full daylight, as he lay next to you,
with his arms around you, as they have been,
it must have seemed, all your life?
How could your cheek not press a moment to his cheek,
which presses itself to yours from now on?
How could you not rise and go, with all that light
at the window, those arms around you, and the sound,
coming or going, hard to say, of a single-engine
plane in the distance that no one else hears? –Galway Kinnell
Although the young might not agree with me, I am learning, as I grow older, that it has marked benefits, and one of them is the process of dying. The reality, of course, is that we are continually dying from the time we are born, and it is as much a part of life as the act of birth, but it is only with the growth of age and, hopefully, wisdom, that we come to really appreciate it. As Albus Dumbledore, in Harry Potter, remarked, “To the enlightened mind, death is but the next great adventure.” And so it is, as far as I can tell. As my soulfriend Carol is reminding me, the death of another is also the death–and birth–of large chunks of one’s own selfhood too. And we are having the opportunity to examine and appreciate this just now, as her very elderly mother has begun that final journey, the one we take after all the small ones, and the one that begins the next phase, which I suspect is considerably easier in terms of facility. But it is not easy for the one who experiences herself as being “left,” and it is not easy to watch the one who is “leaving” go through what often looks like terrible suffering. But it is instructive, too, and if we pay attention, and if the one dying is even the least bit awake, we learn that what we call death is really birth, which begins the cycle of dying again. In this culture, we think of it as a linear process, but I am more and more convinced it is circular.
Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away
into the next room.
I am I, and you are you;
whatever we were to each other,
that, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name,
speak to me in the easy way
which you always used,
put no difference in your tone,
wear no forced air
of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we shared together.
Let my name ever be
the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all
that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval, somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well.
–Henry Scott Holland
I have experienced the deaths of several beloved teachers in recent years, and these, no doubt because they were very awakened souls who were dying, convinced me that death really is like that: a new office, another room. . . But my experience of these beings in this new state convince me that much falls away in terms of actual and imagined burdens: my dearly loved teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan is, these days, simply radiant with enthusiasm and encouragement. He was like that when he was here, but he had to deal with all that we do deal with on this plane: sorrows, resentments, the ego that is so necessary for ballast here, and he doesn’t seem encumbered by those now. How exciting and encouraging this is! As I grow, these experiences, this connection with the infinite realities of the universe(s), all convince me that life here and hereafter improves vastly with each leap into the unknown that we make.
But I digress, as always. I wanted to say something about the powerful and poignant death of our mothers. These thoughts come from a wholly feminine perspective, because having lost both my parents in recent years, I can say that the death of my father did not have the impact on me that the death of my mother and other women in my family did. My case is different from Carol’s, because I was not close to my parents: both of them were personality disordered, probably from profound wounding and trauma they experienced as children, and my mother was a severe alcoholic. To this day, I wish I could have been more tolerant of their problems, but of course as such parents will, they did me a great deal of harm and not only facilitated my becoming who I am now, but made it fairly hellish to get here, and there is still considerable work to be done. “Toxic parents” is the phrase commonly used in these situations, but I gave as good as I got in many ways, it is just that they were supposed to be the parents, not me: but my story is not remotely uncommon, and I have almost grown dispassionate in the telling of it. In fact, I have almost grown bored with it. Praise Godhead from Whom all blessings flow!
In my soulfriend’s case, while she had the usual conflicts that arise between mothers and daughters in the individuation phase, she loves her mother greatly and is experiencing great grief in watching her ascent and letting her go. What a blessing! For me, who was mostly relieved when both my parents moved on, it is a marvel to see this. And yet. . .
My mother, poor woman, lies tonight
in her last bed. It’s snowing, for her, in the darkness.
I swallow down the goodbyes I won’t get to use,
tasteless, with wretched mouth-water;
whatever we are, she and I, we’re nearly cured. –Galway Kinnell
Recently, I was chatting with the salesperson at the cosmetic counter where I occasionally cave in and buy a few overpriced products, and we were remarking on exactly this topic: how our mothers live on in us, whether we want them to or not. She quoted someone, some famous personality she couldn’t remember, as saying that at some point in our lives, we look down at our hand and see our mother’s hand coming out of our sleeve. The age spots. The thin, shriveled, but strong fingers, which either do or do not resemble our mother’s physically, but viscerally remind us of that in us which will repeat and evolve itself for generation after generation. And this is where Carol and I are one with all women, for the great, dark feminine principle is the world-soul Goddess that thinks herself and grows herself and weaves herself all through the thoughts and dreams of her mind which we ourselves are.
My mother died in the Springtime when we lived in Alaska and she in Florida. During that summer, not only did her sister, the favorite aunt who cared for me when I was a child and offered a counterbalancing sanity to my mother’s overall insanity, but the adopted and very mentally ill sister I had been estranged from for years, both died as well. “The Family from Hell” is the phrase oft-used (and only half-jokingly) among social workers and mental health professionals, and that was my family. . . and it is, today, part of me. And during that one summer, it was as if there was a “die-off” of the entire feminine in my family, leaving only my daughters and I. I am afraid that someone reading this might think “oh, you poor thing,” in reading my own account, but that isn’t necessary: what was necessary, after all the resentment and rage and grief and other emotions I went through in growing away from these women had worn itself out, was to begin to learn, accept and facilitate the part of that dark goddess that had birthed itself in this branch of her being. And in the end, to give as much respect, grief and honor as I could accord to her/them.
So, as I sit with my soulfriend while she goes through a very different experience, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that despite our clinging to the experiences and the connections that bring us to this larger realization that we are thoughts in the mind of these archetypes that bring us into being for the purpose of the evolution of God(dess) in humanity, we have the opportunity to not just grieve and rage at the apparent, but to savor the growth in divine awareness that is evolving through us. As I said to Carol in an email, “I was thinking, last night, that when we really know the loss of our mother is imminent, it is not only our grief over this person who literally birthed and raised us….it is that a part of ourselves is departing, a great, dark chunk of the feminine that is deeply ourselves… I think that, in reality, that the part of ourselves that is our mother is actually preparing for a great leap which leads to an even greater incorporation into our beings, but it is like any new phase of realization: it begins by feeling like death. Even though my relationship with my mother was not a loving or even kind one, it is clear to me that the mother within never dies. The soul has so many dimensions and each has a journey, but they live on in us, too, and I can remember when that concept did not make me happy; but I now see that we have to come to terms with it, and I suppose with other deaths, as well.” But I think it is the death of our mothers and the other women who raised us that affects us most profoundly, as that part of us that has never left the Great Mother prepares to continue its journey.
But these are all very cerebral ideas until we realize them in our gut, and even then we are left with our current reality, which is that we are human beings, and can’t be anything else . . . until we can.
. . . one day the streets all over the world will be empty–
already in heaven, listen, the golden cobblestones have fallen still–
everyone’s arms will be empty, everyone’s mouth, the Derry earth.
It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all.
That is how we have learned, the embrace is all. –Galway Kinnell