Healing the Scars That Separate Us

I am still chock-full of the week I spent in Toronto at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It lived up to its slogan—the Promise of Inclusion and the Power of Love. We were more than 7,500 people gathered with the intention of exploring our spiritual beliefs (with no aim to convert), healing the scars of separation from one another and from Mother Earth (with a focus on climate change), and strengthening the bonds of respect among us.

We are brown and black and red and white and yellow. We wear monk’s garb from traditions around the globe and blue jeans and saris and clerical collars and turbans, feathers and beads, headscarves and dress suits and sweatshirts. As I make the trek between the North and the South Buildings of the Toronto Convention Center I hear the rhythms of a dozen languages. At any given hour I can choose among sessions like a Hindu puja, a Celtic Samhein celebration to honor our beloved dead, the teachings of an Ojibway elder, or the lunch Sikhs serve every day as a gift. The offerings seem endless. In the breakout portion of an Interfaith Dialogue session I (who belong to no formal religion) am grouped with a female Mormon pastor, an East Indian Catholic nun, a Baha’i, and a UK woman who calls herself a street pastor. She says she scrapes drunk teens up off the sidewalk to get them home safely.

11.17:18 Toronto colors pxlThirty people attend the session I facilitate—“Honoring, Healing and Connecting with Deceased Beloveds”—including clergy from three faiths. After we each write a letter to someone we love who has died, one participant is moved to share that she was adopted and her birth mother had died before they could meet. She has written to her and is clearly thrilled to discover a new way to make this connection.

The next morning I huddle beneath a small shelter with many others in a steady November rain to participate in a Maya fire ceremony. At the end of my session a participant had made the inspired suggestion that instead of bringing the letters home to burn as I’d planned, maybe I could put them in the sacred fire the Canadian indigenous people have kept going 24/7 throughout the Parliament. This fire burns near where I stand right now.

11.17.18 Toronto fire pxlI had already meant to attend this ceremony, so I decided I would show up early to ask about the letters. It’s a challenge to find anyone in this crowded event; when the Guatemalan Maya shaman and her US escort, walked right by me that afternoon I was astonished. Nana Maria not only agreed to burn the letters, she explained that part of the ceremony’s purpose is to honor the dead. I should have known, for now is the time when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest and contact is most readily made. That’s why there are holidays like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Zuni and Hopi Ancestors Days, All Saint’s Day, the Celtic Samhein, in the US, Veteran’s Day, and in Canada, Remembrance Day.

11.17.18 Toronto letters pxlIn the ceremony, I volunteer to hold the red candle for the East, spreading my umbrella to protect it. Besides honoring our dead, Nana Maria tells us we are here to honor the places we come from, which I think means where I live. The moment I realize she means our birthplaces, I am transported into a sweet and deep connection with Bloomington, Indiana, where I only lived for the first four months of my life. The cold rain transforms into a blessing and mingles with my tears as we pray and toss copal into the flames.

At the ceremony’s completion, the tiny shaman takes the letters in her gnarled hands, prays in Tz’utujil over both me and the letters, kisses them, has me kiss them, and tosses them into the fire. I overflow with the conviction that there could be no more fitting blessing for these communications with our beloved dead and that they have been received.

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Before I left for Toronto, I had a profound conversation with Simon Brown of the UK’s Past Lives Podcast, which you may access through the following link: https://bit.ly/2z8FmX1

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

Surviving in the Dark: Teddy Bears, “Blankies,” and PJs

It’s that time of year when I’m counting the days until the return of the light on the Winter Solstice. It’s that time of year when one bumpy little mound called Guadalupe Mountain that sits on the horizon southwest of our home, gets ravenous for light and devours the sun, gulping it down at 4:30, turning the afternoon into night. It eats the light like there is no tomorrow, which is what worries me about this long darkness—that it will never end.

I need my silly sky-blue flannel pajamas printed with fluffy cumulous clouds and tiny stars, anything to comfort me in the fourteen-hour dark. I can handle snow and cold, that’s what down jackets and boots rated for minus zero are designed for, but the darkness is another matter. When my friend in Alaska posts a picture on Facebook of the last rays of direct sunlight to hit her home until spring, I cannot fathom how she stands it.

Yet this week the days will get longer (at least in theory) by seconds every day. In actuality, Guadalupe Mountain’s hunger for light will have not yet been fully assuaged. The moment of each day’s sunset will be determined by the mountain’s peaks and valleys until finally, when January is mostly gone, it will hunker down, light-satiated at last, and wait, quietly, for its next November meal.

At its best, this darkness is an interior, introspective time, but in combination with December’s festivities it tends to magnify new grief and bring up older ones. This is the season of my parents’ deaths, sixteen days apart, thirty-three years ago. Within recent weeks I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from friends about two mothers, a brother, a sister, a cousin, a friend, and a dog who have died. They slip away, the darkness facilitating their transition.

How do we comfort ourselves in the holidays, when this time of being with those we love brings our missing of them to the surface? Just as how we grieve is unique, so is what we do to comfort ourselves. We can wear our cloudy PJs until they’re threadbare like a woman who wore her deceased father’s sweater until it raveled apart. My widowed friend makes “bed muffins” from her husband’s shirts, rice-filled pillows to heat in the microwave and snuggle against in bed. After her husband’s death, she brought the outside kittens he was allergic to inside to snuggle in the empty bed with her too. If taking a teddy bear to bed brings comfort, I say do it, no matter what our age. Nobody will know unless we tell them.

A grieving daughter decorates a tree in her mother’s home to cheer her as she sells the furniture and pots and pans, sorts through boxes of crumbling photos. After my daughter Randi’s death one of my “blankies” was my mantra practice. I was sure that if I let that go, the dam would break, I’d be flooded not just with tears, but with some muck so unmanageable I would lose my hold on life. The gift? How this strengthened and cemented my spiritual practice. I figure if it got me through her death it is to be relied on for anything that will ever come my way.

I am a glutton for books, but I’m particular about their quality. After Randi’s death the level of my reading material plummeted. Later I realized this was because I could not read anything that successfully stirred up my emotions. Some glom onto books about the grieving process. I read to escape my grief. Others struggle to read at all. Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking that at first, after her husband’s death, she could only read headlines.

I recall accepting an invitation for some holiday meal not long after Randi’s death. Was it Thanksgiving? My memory of that time is so jumbled. When we got up that morning, the thought of sitting at a table full of cheerful people was suddenly terrifying; we canceled. Yet when we’re ready, on those special days, at the holiday dinner tables, we can look for some way to include our dead beloveds. This may be unspoken—a favorite dish cooked, a wreath on the door that was a gift handmade by our beloved. If the death is really fresh we may want to set a place at the table for this person.  We did that the first Christmas after Randi’s death, placing her photo on the plate. It was both bittersweet and satisfying to include her in this manner.

My family celebrated the first Christmas after my parents’ deaths in their home. Before we ate I raised my glass to propose a toast: “To those who are present and those who are… At the word “absent” I broke into wracking sobs. Everybody let me cry. I didn’t jump up and go hide in the bathroom. I didn’t apologize. It was a perfect reflection of the reality that our attempt to celebrate was taking place in the very room where my mother had died one month earlier and that, though life would go on, it would never be quite the same. That toast and my tears were a deep, deep comfort.

May you each find your own particular way to bring light and comfort to these dark days and to your holidays.

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

Tiny Ways to Honor the Dead

 

Doing something to honor a person we love who is no longer in a body pleases the heart and satisfies the soul. It is a kiss through the veil. Activity is natural to us. We miss our regular acts of service and love—making a meal, sending a card, buying a gift, placing a phone call. Death stymies us. At every turn we face a detour sign that blocks our natural impulse to connect.

Of course, we honor our dead in traditional ways like headstones and crypts and arrays of flowers. We endow scholarships, fund benches in parks, start charitable foundations, dedicate books (that’s me). There are also really personal ways that can ease the sting of our thwarted impulse to connect. Here’s one that arose spontaneously for me.

As I was preparing to take down an unhealthy tree on the far edge of our land I noticed how sculptural its bare branches looked. I stood back, wondering, if I left the rest standing, how turn it into an art project. Over lunch I asked my visual artist husband what he might put on this tree. “I’ll think of something,” he said. “I’ll add it to my list.” I wanted something that could happen in the next hour.

Suddenly my deceased daughter’s sun-hats came to mind. A bag of them had been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years. I counted them. There were thirteen hats. I went out to the tree. It had thirteen branches.

That’s how Randi’s Hat Tree came to be. It has no plaque. It pleases me that her hats make passers-by laugh. You won’t count thirteen hats in the photo though. Some have been sacrificed to snow and wind. The rest are drooping and shredding and fading. One branch has broken off. Within a few years there will be no more hats. I find this temporary quality gratifying. It’s our love that lasts. I don’t need a marble monument to remind me of that.

Here are a few ideas for what you could do in the name of a dear dead one:

Plant a tree, a rose, a wildflower bed. Watch it grow, wither, and bloom again in the spring.

Give a quarter to a homeless person. Say, “This is from my mother…”

Offer up today’s practice—prayers, mantra, meditation—to honor someone beloved.

Balance a pebble on a fencepost as you walk by.

Put up a birdhouse.

Spend ten minutes weeding the library’s flower bed

Walk to the corner and back again as a gift to your beloved.

In what tiny ways have you honored someone? If you try some of my ways, what was it like when you saw that pebble on the fencepost the next week? Or when bluebirds nested in the birdhouse? Or the next time you saw a homeless person? Did any of this ease the sting of a moment’s grief? What happened over time?  I’d love to have you share these on my website at www.anniemattingley.com.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released by Hampton Roads on October 6, 2017. Pre-order on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Find out more on my Book Page.

 

 

A Chair for the Dead

An odd little chair used to sit in the corner of my weaving studio, more in the way than useful. I can’t recall how it came to be ours, but someone had cut down its legs so most people found it way too low, though it fit my five-foot frame perfectly.

When I read about the practice of placing an old chair in the yard as an invitation to include a deceased family member in our ongoing lives, I took this chair out near our picnic table for my deceased daughter Randi. Later I moved it away from easy view under the shade of a huge juniper tree. The next summer I sat beside it often as I wrote. Somehow it was solace just to be near that chair.

The backstory of this practice began in the 19th century, post-Civil War southern United States where African-Americans, many of them former slaves or their descendants, had a long history of suppression of their cultural and artistic expressions. Not to be restrained, they found a way to create art in their yards from cast-off objects that appeared, to outsiders, to be just plain old junk.

This junk has hidden meanings encoded into it like a secret language and yard art is often used to commemorate beloveds who have died. What looks like only a wrecked pedal sewing machine rusting away in the rain, to the family honors their grandmother. An assemblage of broken-handled shovels and rakes, a blackened wrench, half a pair of pliers lying about in an apparently random pile may have been carefully arranged as a memorial to a hardworking father.

And a chair, with its cane seat sagging or broken rungs or wobbly legs, is an invitation to a beloved’s spirit that says, “You are welcome here. We love you. We still heed your words and your wisdom.”

Nestled up against our latilla fence, Randi’s chair could be seen from half my house. I worried that someone might sit in it, though no one ever did. It stayed there for a year, until I felt called to move it further away. I wondered if I was putting it in the shade to protect my daughter’s fair skin, as if that could matter to her anymore. Now I can’t see the chair without deliberately visiting it, which I did frequently at first and seldom do anymore. I’ve noticed its paint is peeling. This all seems to reflect the evolution of my grieving from a constant and pressing awareness to a more occasional one.

I like the secrecy of the language hidden within this chair. I like that no one asks why it’s there, that it’s simultaneously public and quite private. It holds another layer of secret meaning as well. Because of its African-American roots it honors the multi-racial mix of our family. I am Caucasian, as was my daughter. This chair commemorates her choice to partner with an African-American man and the mixed-race arm of our family line they began together.

If you have ever driven through the southwestern United States you may have seen small white crosses along the highways. Some are elaborately decorated. Some have names or dates painted on them. These crosses are called descansos (descanso means “rest” in Spanish). Each one commemorates someone who has died in an automobile accident, yet another way of honoring the memory of the dead. It is touching to drive by as families gather to refurbish these crosses or to add a circle of stones.

We humans want and need to maintain connection with and to honor those who have died. My personal experiences and the research for my book show me that the dead also want to keep in contact with us. Whether we put an old rocking chair in the yard or a small pebble by our apartment door or a descanso by the road, any of these can help to keep the connection with a dead beloved strong.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July. www.anniemattingley.com