Archive for the ‘Carolyn’s Non-fiction writing’ Category

We can grieve and work at the same time.  In fact, we must.

When a death occurs, we immediately move to tend the body, inform the community, prepare to gather and feed the mourners. It’s a false picture to imagine the bereaved having nothing to do but sit around crying. The time right after a death is filled with unavoidable activity.

Post-election with the triumph of Trump so many of us are having a death experience. We imagined that the values and aspirations expressed – if not lived – when this country was founded would surely prevail. We could not imagine that a man who … well, you know the list of all those he has targeted with the most repellant words and actions.

We might be tempted to dissolve into our own private grief and shock. Some of us might even have the protection of privilege to do so if we, say, are white or a Christian or live in a blue bubble. But to move through the death experience work is required.

This idea of grief and work going together is not abstract to me. Ten days after my partner John died in a car crash, I had a job interview. I’d just helped John through a work transition and he was helping me through mine. Now he was gone and I felt my very survival depended on getting this job. I went for a second interview and labored over my test assignment. I started that job 31 days after John’s death. In the immediate aftermath, I worked and I grieved. I am not special in this regard. This is the norm. The necessity of lives changed by death demand action.

So what is the action to take?

There is no one action to take, no magic medicine available. To move through this national death experience will requires a whole ecosystem of actions. Some more heart-centered and focused on immediate support. Others strategic and electoral to move us toward the greater vision we have choice to keep working toward.

I don’t have the answer on action, but here are some offerings out of the grief experience

Listen to and Support Those Who This Death Experience Impacts the Most

People want to rush to make the grief disappear. The grief is not going away. You can’t make it go away. Better to listen to it.

On my morning drive, I heard the lesbian feminist African American writer and activist Barbara Smith say that now she knows she is a third class citizen and that she would not be smiling at any point today. A first action step for those of us not on Trump’s target list is to listen to the devastation that his election has created.

As you listen to individuals and organizations most targeted, you will hear requests for action to be taken. Do what is requested. Sign up for national action lists like Color of Change or Showing Up for Racial Justice. Reach out in your local community to mosques or immigrant organizations. These are just examples.

Don’t Let Your Grief Keep You from the Good

My sister is a good grief companion. Talking in the early hours of the morning, she said, “I am going to take one positive action each day to counter the messages of hate. I am going to sign up right now for the community meal at the church in support of the refugee family we are sponsoring. I can do this.”

Gather with others who are committed to the good to find the energy and inspiration to move forward.

Go Through the Fire

There is no way out. We must move through what has been exposed by this election’s results. No, we can’t escape to Canada. We have to clean up our own mess (and they don’t want us anyway).

What we are facing is not a new reality. And the deadly implications of inequality are already well known by the communities targeted by Trump. But those of us more privileged are now having to face up to the results of trying to sweep under the rug the systemic impacts of enslavement, genocide, and sexism that were the realities behind the values and aspirations that were just words in our founding documents.

This morning I woke looking for a quote from James Baldwin I’d recently read and remembered as inspiring. I returned to the words and found them to be more sobering then I remembered, but also more necessary.

“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophesy, recreated from the Bible is song by a slave is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.” James Baldwin

We did not achieve Baldwin’s vision in his lifetime nor yet today. We are now in the fire. There is danger and death here. Hope may be irrelevant. The rainbow invisible.

But Baldwin’s exhortation to Love still stands.

I have been surprised to find through my grief experience that Death does not end Love. And I don’t mean the kind of romantic, every-thing-is-happy love, but the Love that tells a harsh truth or weathers a betrayal and still opens a river within us to follow its flow forward. This Love demands risks. This Love will no doubt drive us to make mistakes. But this Love is not destroyed by Death and calls out to us to recognize it lifting even from the fire and follow it to act for the good of the whole.

Yes, we can still choose Love.


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Going to Sun WaterfallThe essential insight I have to offer is this:  Grief changes.

You change and the grief changes, and it all flows, yes, like a river with its white water and frozen edges, its quiet stretches and unfamiliar banks (though some surprise you with their beauty). Then the river reaches the ocean, and what you thought you knew dissolves again.

Is it too dramatic to say that I beg you to remember that grief changes? Still, I make this plea.  Remember this when your emotions rise, when someone gives you advice, when you learn about the models and phases and essential truths of grief, even when you read my words that follow.

Because when you loose the one you love, you will hear things; they might terrify, they might comfort, but either way try not to be too attached to the feelings that rise.  Because change will have its way with you, and you will move again out into the water – with all its turbulence, with all its nurture.

When my partner John died In November 20121, I found myself immediately in white water; out of control, banging my head on hidden rocks. Desperate to right myself, I started reading down the shelf on grief at the library. Over and over again I read, “You will grieve forever.” This strikes me as a dangerous statement to make to the newly bereaved because when my loss was fresh I was utterly broken inside. I stood as my least resourceful self pulling these books from the shelf.

In those days, “you will grieve forever” pinned my life to a board of pain and I didn’t have the imagination to see anything other than that board bobbing and sinking in dark waters.

I struggled against this statement offered as truth. Wanted to say, “No, I will heal.” I looked and found the root of the word heal connects back to the idea of whole. I wanted to be whole again. But I wasn’t sure how. I needed something steady to stand on to start the search for this wholeness.

Because, yes, you do need – you can have – something to support you in the waters of grief so almost as much as I want you to remember that your grief will change, I want you to forget that there are no maps to grief, that no one grieves like you, that each grief is unique.

Grief, after all, is well-known terrain. Its pangs come only after birth, sex, and death on the list of human adventures we undertake or into which we are thrust. Surely, there is a story that resonates with yours and shines some light into the darkness that holds you. Maybe you would feel less alone if you heard that story.

The current in grief literature that emphasizes individual healing without timeline or clear markers grows from a positive impetus: to release us from following the straightjacket of a model or a proscribed timeline.  We are free then to grieve as we need.  But freedom is not our essential need at the beginning. We are too free, released from the known life and tumbling. The need is for places to rest. Yes, we still tumble, but we can find resting places to gather our strength in the stories of grievers from across the ages and across the street.

When John died I heard all these stories from people that I knew but hadn’t met. They told me about death in their life. Only then did I meet them. These stories helped me. A woman whose teenaged son had died told me about the strange and unavoidable pain of the grocery store, that this was the place where her heart cracked as she passed by the peanut butter jars. So when I tried to take the tea from the shelf and couldn’t, I understood, I knew, I felt less alone.

The Gods and Goddesses, too, might tell you their stories. You don’t need to believe. Belief is flimsy before death’s stirring of oceanic emotions untamable by the mind where belief lives.

I had beliefs. At John’s memorial circle, I read, “there is no birth, there is no death.” This resonated with my belief in the indestructibility of energy and the continuation of spirit. But then the days of absence followed, unexpected and utterly undeniable. Experience slapped my face: there was Death.

DGT IsisBut then there was Isis. When her husband-brother Osiris is murdered, she is wild with grief and seeks his body. Twice she works to bring him back to life. The second time she reassembles his mutilated corpse into a whole with a spark of being and conceives a child. Death overtakes her, but she makes something new from its reality. As I spent time with her story and her energy, she worked her magic on me.  I, too, had taken a journey to claim John’s body, and then had to reassemble -that is to re-member – who he had been and who we were together. Out of this, I wrote. Just words at first, but then they took the form of poetry, Tarot rituals, musings on nature. I, too, took something from Death.

The Isis tale is often told as one of her conquering Death, but this is not what I see in the story now. In the end, Osiris does not return to the land of the living. He becomes the God of the Underworld, welcomes the dead to their new dwelling. Although ruler of the Underworld, he is a green God who is also remembered in spring’s rebirth that comes out of the rest of Death.

Isis releases Osiris to his new calling. Though she sometimes visits him in the Underworld, she remains in the land of the living. She raises her son, seeks justice, offers compassion, becomes the Goddess of 10,000 Names. They continue their journeys but now in different places and with different tasks. There is no denying Death in her story. There is no denying Life in her story. There is both Life and Death and they are twined together into a knot of the everlasting.  

There are so many stories; perhaps you’ll need a different one to support you. You might need to see yourself in the mirror of the Greek Goddess Demeter who sits unmoving and brings the natural world to a halt when her daughter Persephone is taken to the Underworld. Later you might be inspired by the Norse giantess Skadi who when the Gods kill her father, storms their hall demanding that since they have taken him from her, they must give something in return: laughter and a husband.

Stories are dynamic. You don’t understand them as much as come into relationship with them and their invitations. They change when you change so they are as fluid as grief. They are a boat to ride in over the waves.

So that one day, you rise above to look into the water – calm or still raging – and see the fullness of your personal story. You’ll see its uniqueness – because it is true that the story of you and your loved one in this encounter with Death is utterly unique – and you’ll see its outline is the same as so many stories. And then you will be whole, not because you are fixed, but because you are part of a larger story, eternal rhythms, a cycle of Life-Death-Life. You are part of the Whole.


At this time, I believe this to be an early piece of a longer narrative that will include my story but connect it to others stories and examples of how to move through and with what I was calling grief for short-hand, but what I now call Love-Death-Awakening cycle. I’ll be sharing that narrative as part of my Dark Moon Circle monthly series, which will also include prompts for readers own movement to wholeness.  Sign up for that before March 16th to get the first installment.

[Image credits: Waterfall photo by John. Isis and Osiris is from the Dark Goddess Tarot by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince.]

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It was easier for me to travel across the whole country and claim my partner John’s body than it was for Michael Brown’s mother to cross a few feet of pavement in Ferguson, Missouri.  

John was killed in a car crash in Montana while I was home in Massachusetts.  We are not sure when it happened.  Was it late at night or early in the foggy morning?  The car went off the road and into an irrigation ditch.  It came to a halt upside down in the water, partially obscured by a tree.  Much later in the day, someone noticed something odd and called the police.

A local police officer and a State Highway patrol officer responded.  They saw John’s body suspended in the water.  You don’t survive long in the water so they must have suspected he was dead, but still they jumped into the ditch, into the muddy November water filled with broken glass and twisted metal to free him from the car. 

They brought his body to the bank, called an ambulance, and began trying to identify who he was.  Identification was hard because John’s wallet must have fallen out into the water.  The crash force must also have knocked off the silver bracelets that he wore. The police officer who finally called me was doing a delicate dance between fully confirming John’s identity and figuring out my relationship to him.  I started sobbing when he said, “He didn’t make it.”  I apologized asking him to repeat what he has said a number of times.  He said, “It’s OK.  You’re doing fine.” 

He was reassuring as he kept asking questions to confirm John’s identity.  I asked about the bracelets and he didn’t remember seeing them.  He must have said something about comparing a picture taken of John at the crash site to the license picture on file at the Montana DMV.  I said, “I want to see the pictures you took.”  “Oh, no,” he replied in a quiet tone. He let the O out slowly.  He was protecting me.  I’d see John soon enough.

As soon as the police realized that John and I were partners , all the people and institutions with which I interacted acted compassionately and helpfully to bring me to him – possibly even bending the rules to make it happen (explained more fully here). I remember the director of the funeral home to which his body was transferred talking about “receiving John’s body” and waiting for me to arrive.

That was what I needed because I can not tell where this urge, this longing, this desperation comes from – it must be deep in the human psyche – but I wanted his body.  I knew he was dead but I had to be with his body: to see him; to pray over him; to touch him, no matter how cold; to press my forehead on his chest and let tears and snot and pain come out of me.

Lesley McSpadden is Michael Brown’s mother.  Our experiences of the death of our loved ones are worlds apart. I imagine that you have heard about Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager killed by a police officer on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. If you don’t already know it: yes, I am white.

Lesley McSpadden and other members of his family were nearby when Michael was shot six times in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, there were many people near by and some of them immediately began recording what happened on cell phone cameras.  This is what they saw and shared:

  • The police officer did not try to resuscitate Michael Brown.  He seems not to have even checked to see if there was a pulse or possibility that the teenager was alive.
  • The body lay in the street uncovered.  Michael Brown’s blood spread out over the street.  This is such a disturbing image that mainstream media warns watchers about the graphic nature of what they will see or even blurs out the image.  This is the scene that Michael’s family came upon.
  • Michael Brown’s uncle seems to be the first family member to arrive.  In a video, he is a large man in blue who comes toward the body and is about to bend down to touch his nephew.  A police officer runs toward him and pushes him away and back behind police tape.  The police offer seems to be yelling at him, seems agitated.
  • I don’t know when Lesley McSpadden arrived. Did she her child’s body fallen in the street, face pressed to the pavement, blood in a long streak?  Or was she there after they finally put a white sheet over the body?  Even with the sheet, her child’s feet and blood were visible.  A neighbor describes her interaction with the police.  She said, “Why y’all got my son out in the street?”  A police officer responded, “You can’t see your son. You need to calm yourself down.”
  • About four hours after he died, Michael Brown’s body was loaded into a dark vehicle covered in a blue tarp.

I so sadly see my experience and Lesley McSpadden’s experience as parallel opposites.  In each instance where I was offered comfort and protection, she was shown coldness and distain.  I so sadly see the treatment of John’s body and Michael’s body as parallel opposites.  John’s body was offered respect.  Michael’s body was not.

How we treat the bodies of our dead is important.  Our oldest wisdom tales teach us to respect the body even when the breath of life has left it.  The Egyptian Goddess Isis searched for the body of her beloved Osiris, not once but twice.  The second time, when Osiris’ body is chopped into 14 pieces, Isis invents mummification and rituals for dead that are important for soul of the deceased and for the healing of those left behind.  Antigone from Greek myth defies the laws of the king to bury her brother with proper ritual rather than leave him to the elements because she must answer to a divine law higher than the king’s.  Christianity stresses the importance of preserving the body so that it can be resurrected when Christ returns.

What happened to Michael Brown’s body was a profound failure:  of institutions and systems meant to serve, of the human heart’s ability to feel compassion and see itself in the suffering of others. Yes, I am talking about racism and classism and compassion all together.  There is so much data on how race creates inequality in the United States and how white people benefit from it that I know we aren’t stuck here because we need more information.  We don’t need more information; we need to admit how that information plays outs in our lives and be with the uncomfortable feelings that arise.

So feel what you feel as hear about how Lesley McSpadden was treated. If you can, go look for some of the unedited video of Michael Brown’s body in the street and feel what comes up as you look at it. If it’s your way, pray, perhaps for the soul of Michael Brown, for the comfort of his family, for forgiveness of us all, for the strength to be part of making things right. We will need action as well as prayer.  But first let your heart crack open.

The community of Ferguson has let its heart crack open.  Immediately people were saying, ‘This isn’t right.”  They gathered.  They were in shock.  They were angry.  They have been called protestors, at best, peaceful protestors.  I think of them grieving.  They have had to push through so much to do this grieving. They’ve had to walk through tear gas and face loaded assault rifles.  I thank them for this that they have done at such cost, for the honoring of Michael Brown and his family; for the ancient work of mourning the dead they are doing, for the service they are performing for the whole nation to open the door for us to move toward wholeness.

My grief is a private grief, but our grief for Michael Brown is a collective grief.  He belongs to all of us.  The people of Ferguson are our neighbors.  When someone dies in your neighborhood, you offer support.  It can be so here.

None of us wants the terrible things that cause grief to have happened, but I’ve been surprised to find that grief is a privilege that opens us up to that which is greater than ourselves.  After the roller coaster of emotion when we are crazed or numb, being supported to go through grief can actually enlarge us. Beliefs fall apart and something new takes their place.  Today we may believe that we don’t know what to do or that things can never change, but going through grief rather than ignoring it can unravel that.  The impossible can be possible.

8/25 Note:  This morning I learned that Lesley McSpadden had not seen her son’s body until yesterday.  It took me less than 2 days, less than 40 hours to reach John’s body all the way across the coutnry, and it both tore me apart and helped me find peace.  It took Lesley McSpadden more that 14 days, nearly 360 hours to go be with her son.  This cracks my heart open. I hope it cracks other hearts open.

[Two places for further resources for reflection and action:  I appreciate the work and spiritual-activist perspective of Thorne Coyle who reminds us that where ever we are there is work to do in our communities – and that love and anger are connected.  And, as I think of the people in Ferguson and Missouri as my neighbors in this country that we share, I’ve been glad that I know of the long and deep work of Jamala Rogers and the Organization for Black Struggle; they are on the ground in Ferguson today and doing long-term justice work that helps us all.]






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All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber

Yes, I thought my journey today was a short circuit around the Smith College campus, lovely and well groomed.  This was what I knew.

But there were wild eruptions beneath the tended beauty.

Dark-dot tadpoles with their manic tails swarmed the pond’s edge. Above them, surely mountainous in their small view, a full grown frog. Hind legs mucky grey to match the mud from which it rose but from the back starts a new-leaf green that smooths the whole of this frog’s head.  An unblinking eye; the stillness in which it wants to hide.

So much life in this small spot. I could encircle the whole of it in my two arms.  But, of course, if I tried water, tadpoles, frog would all flow out.  They are beyond my grasp and move on in tune to spring’s quick beat.

Buber also invites me to look at my journey through grief.  The start in tidal waves that overcame my boat of self: swamped and treading new-strange waters.

I was not the first to go on this journey, though it seemed I was because I hadn’t heard about this pain.  How could anyone else have felt this way and not have spoken of it?  Of course, this journey had been spoken but I didn’t know to listen below the words; this first grief can be described but it cannot be captured.  You know it when you know it.

And once I met grief, I thought I was on one kind of journey: all full of pain with the instructions to be brave.

But the secret destination of grief is not pain.

The waters do calm, become like the edge of the pond. I can be like the frog then; rising from the muck but new green and listening. I am listening for my dear departed one.  The messages can dart in from any direction.

I no longer listen for words.  We don’t have words together anymore – and even in life words failed us, probably more often than not.

But I feel the rise and fall of my chest when I remember breakfasts followed by walk down the street and how he cheered me and all my projects on.

I feel my feet sturdy when I stand in the room where he painted the window’s key stones purple.

I feel energy enter my left hand and move up my body when I dare – yes, I dare – to receive what I can only call love flowing from my beloved in his new place.

And that’s it then:  the secret journey of grief is not pain.  The secret journey of grief is love.

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There is plenty of contemporary writing about grief and mourning, but I’ve found it to be very clinical and its focus on the individual isolating. As a society, we have forgotten that the Goddess and Her Stories are guides for our grief and mourning, but She hasn’t forgotten us. She remains as She Who Watches and comes to us when we are in need, even when we don’t turn to Her.

She Who Watches showed me Her face as the Egyptian Goddess Isis, and Her story has been as a guide for me to creative mourning. Yes, even in the deepest loss, Isis shows us how that the new is being born.

DGT Isis

Isis from The Dark Goddess Tarot

There are many version of her story.  I will share with you a version of that story that has 5 parts; you might call them tasks that Isis assists us to complete:

  • Wild grief, weeping, and seeking.
  • Finding the Beloved Dead in Unexpected Places.
  • Re-membering.
  • Conception of new life.
  • Shapeshifting for the Living and the Dead.

Continue reading on my Art of Change Tarot blog

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I have started a series of poetic nature meditations inspired by the many wonderful photos I have.  I’ve been posting them to my Tarot blog, but they certainly fit the themes of this blog as well.  Periodically, I’ll let you know about the offerings over there so you can decide if you want to make a cyber trip.  Unlike today’s New England weather, travel is easy and there is no snow in cyberspace!

Gate of Water

John at Water Edge








Dream of Water

Trail of Cedars Close







Gate of Fire

Burn and growth 2 of Wands







Dream of Fire


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With the help of friends, I scattered John’s ashes in a field destined for flowers in a place that he loved.  I thought mostly about how his ashes would mix with and feed the blooming flowers, but the field is ever changing.  It buds and blooms and decays and disappears.  In September all of these life-death processes exist side by side.

Two weeks ago they plowed over the field.  I knew it would happen and, yet, seeing the empty field hurt, brought John’s absence into sharp focus.  OK, the field will be my teacher of loss, I thought. But this week when I returned, the field was green again!  Winter rye, that potent soil fixer, was already growing and greening the plowed rows again. Life and death are in a dance together and we do well to learn its power.

What follows is a glimpse into that changing field interspersed with quotes from Normandi Ellis’s Awakening Osiris:  The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Phanes Press, 1988).  It’s a book of John’s that when I pulled it off the shelf this past winter brought me great comfort.

The Field

“I am like that old [Egyptian God] Osiris waking in the night. Drunk on the cool wine of darkness, I eat the bread of life and die. I know. I am blessed by mortality. I am a field enduring, growing wheat one year, barley the next, tangled flowing papyrus, a hill of sand. I am ever after changing, while the eye of the watcher shines and takes me in” (p.52).

Just scattered with ash

New field slant

“Even nothing can not last. The seed laid into the void must grow.  The candle’s only purpose is to shine in the darkness. Bread is meant to be ground for pulp in the teeth. The function of life is to have something to offer death. Ah, but the spirit lies always between, coming and going in and out of heaven, filling and leaving the houses of earth” (p. 58)

First flower

First Flower

“I come forth from the edge of heaven. … A half moon, I sail on the edge of heaven.  The wheat in my field has sprung up in straight rows.  I am guardian against forgetfulness, keeping watch, moving on” (p. 134).

Full flower

Full Bee in Sunflower


Full Yellow Flowers

Full Sunflowers against purples

“If you stood on a summer’s morning on the banks under a brilliant sky, you would see the thousand petals and say that together they make the lotus. But if you lived in its heart, invisible from without, you might see how the ecstasy at its fragrant core gives rise to its thousand petals. What is beautiful is always that which is itself essence, a certainty of being. I marvel at myself and the things of the earth” (p.167).

Descent begins


“The snake observed with amber eyes. He motioned toward a door that opened from air into air. ‘If that is so, can your heart name the name of this gate?’

‘Being,’ I said.

‘And the lands on either side?’

‘Creation and destruction.’

‘Pass then, [Eternal One],’ he said.

The snake withdrew and the multicolored birds gathered, circling in the dark, gathering me, lifting me up. I stepped through and nothing changed, yet I had entered heaven” (p. 192-3).

The fall

Fall with shadow

“The truth of what we all our knowing is both light and dark. Men are always dying and waking. The rhythm between we call life. In the night I turn and face myself, the many howling, laughing, pausing in the body of one. Some miracle is about to happen. Some new man unseen wishes to rise and speak. I walk in darkness feeling darkness on my skin. Dawn always begins in the bones. … Death maters, as does life. As it ends it begins again. Knowing that is both my comfort and my fear” (p. 218).

The empty field, the sun set, the moon

Empty Plowed field

Empty Sunset

Empty Moon

“In the land of the sun, in the season of the end, I climb the highest hill. The moon is a sliver caught in the trees. Entering night I carry the lamp. Though no man sees it, I shine my light into darkness. See who even a single beam cuts through so the path lies clear. The wolves run frightened.  Still no great harm comes to [one] who walks unafraid to die” (p. 167).

The field greening again

Winter Rye

“I wait to come forth by day again. My body turns to greening. I wait to give birth into dream, to give form to the peace in my heart. I shall be a man of the earth shaping the things of the god. I am light entering fire, coming forth and shining through darkness. May I walk beneath blue heaven singing, my heart telling the story of light. I am a man blessed by becoming millions and millions of time” (p. 105)

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