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

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