NORA L. JAMIESON
July 14, 2019
I haven’t written since March and feel the need to let you know where I am. I’ve just returned from a meditation retreat at Wonderwell, where I’m enrolled in the Margha Program, I’m still seeing a few clients, painting with Elisabeth Moss, and writing with writing group. I’ve joined Writing Your Grief, a group started by the Megan Devine who wrote It’s OK That You’re Not OK. Convening Full Moon and Elder Council is happening. All sounds good, right?
And it is, in a way, from the outside it may seem that I am doing what some might call recovery, getting back to life, etc, etc. Whew, we don’t have to think about her grief any more or help her carry it. But that’s not how it works. There is no recovery, grief is not an illness. There is carrying. There is learning to carry one’s grief lovingly. Even though every impulse screams, STOP, I cannot take another minute of this pain. To let it pour out when is wells up and won’t be denied, to trust its intelligence. So I am living a double life. I have one foot in the underworld of grief, the other world, which is right here where Allan is, and in the world of activity and trying to find my path. Or rather, waiting for my path to find me. I just walked the paths in our woods, and since Allan is not here to groom them they are a mess, sometimes I just stood and had to orient myself to where to step next. And I thought, this is like my life, I don’t know the path, I don’t know the future, or at least, I don’t live in the delusion anymore that I think I do. I have no aspirations except to live from the heart, which often hurts like hell. While on retreat I read an interview with Lama Tsultrim Allione, whose beloved husband, David, died several years ago from a heart attack in the night. Quietly. The interviewer was asking her a list of those likes, dislikes (why do they do that?) and asked her what is misery to her. She replied, grief and loneliness. I remember her saying once that for all her practice, all the years of sitting and long retreats, even though she is a Lama, she was not prepared for this. I remember attending David’s bardo ceremony, with Allan, at the end of 49 days since his death. Allan and I happened to be in New Mexico and drove to Colorado, through mountains which absolutely mesmerized Allan with their beauty. There was a film of David made two years before his death. The interviewer asked him if he had plans for the future at Tara Mandala, and he said, well I don’t plan on going anywhere. Within two years he had left his body.
So I am going through the motions of my life, except when I am really deeply engaged with people I am right there, but living with loneliness for Allan and constant grief. I’ve joined the Grief Revolution also Megan Devine’s group, and post many things from Megan on Facebook. It’s hard to believe what people have to endure from those who can’t possibly know what this is like. I, thankfully, have had only a few instances where I’m stunned and speechless by what loved ones say. I’m blessed in that way. And if I know someone can’t be with my grief, then I take a break from contact, because it’s too painful. All grief is equal but it is not the same. We may go through it differently, but I see a definite pattern at least in the people who are open about it. When your long time beloved dies, it has a different effect on your physiology than when someone dies who you love but don’t live with, aren’t intimate with, it is equal but not the same. It is still painful, deep bows, but not the same. I can still feel my biochemistry adjusting itself, reeling without touch, without the synchronization of our hearts, minds, breathing, physicality. My heart is often out of rhythm, it doesn’t know where to synchronize, it’s finding its way, I hope. Sometimes I feel I could topple with the disorientation of not having him to lean on, or him to lean on me. Where is my place? Sometimes deep fear will seize me, larger than the fear I live with every day. And I believe it is this deep unconscious, biological missing of the “other half.” A phrase I used to disparage, thinking it meant women didn’t have their whole self in relationship. I had both, my whole self and my other half. But now my whole self seems to have wandered off into other realms. Thank Goddess for the women who mirror back to me that they see me, that I am still here. That my essential Self is still present.
I almost left the retreat, a huge tsunami of grief washed over me. The environment was so reminiscent of our time spent in Vermont, our retreats of the early years with no electricity, gas lighting, no water and lots of ideas, inspirations, reading amongst the loons, paddling and wandering time to when we were older walking the road in Cabot with Roxie, talking or not. All the words and concepts of the lectures flooded me because I was trying to listen and understand, ever the good student. Well, that’s another thing, the brain does not work as it used to. And I am less interested in concepts, analysis, but more called to direct experience of life. Except right now, that direct experience is searing almost daily.
I want to keep a foot in the other world and I want to hurt less, and the more I want to hurt less, the more I hurt. It’s a constant practice of hand to heart, saying you’re welcome to be here, anxious, bereft, loneliness, a particular hollowness where I should be, where he should be. Sometimes I can, often I can’t be welcoming, and find myself doubled over in pain with no witness of compassion. It seems so anyway, until I ask, as Lama Liz asked me at the retreat, who is the one noticing all the pain. That is me.
This weekend Petra was here, she came so I wouldn’t be alone on return from the retreat and because she loves to be here. And because we love each other. We did planting, talking, reading, mowing the “lawn”, moved some things to the swap shack, cried, cried a lot, well I did anyway, she held me. I love her so. She has been a blessed gift from this terrible loss. The kindness of people I hardly know is astounding, while I’m shocked that close friends have moved away. The village that gathered around Allan’s death has dispersed, people that were in my life are not now. Perhaps another day. I understand it’s scary to be with someone who doesn’t hold back, who doesn’t pretend it’s all OK now. Impermanence is life. I turned 70 this month. I am old now. And grateful for that. My aspiration is to live from the heart, to be useful to those who can use what I have to offer, to love unconditionally and to make contact with Allan. I have faith that as my grief becomes softer I will hear and feel him more often, that he is right here always. I have more faith that life continues, there is no death, as Allan said when he came in the first dream, death is a state of mind. And I pray that someday I again find some kind of peace in my heart in solitude. I crave a peaceful heart.
I’m so grateful for steadfast friends, wise women who lead me through, those who know this takes years to soften. Who don’t assume that because I’m involved in activities of life that I’m OK. And I am learning, in the most terrible of ways, a true apprenticeship to impermanence and the Dark Mother, that everything we love will physically die. I am grateful to have been loved by Allan, and still. He is the best thing that ever happened to me.
We need to find a way to remove the stigma of shame from grieving openly, to speaking openly, to allowing the time it takes within all the different circumstances of our lives. Grief is terrible, it is tender, it is a teacher we don’t want, it is the other side of love. Grieving needs village. When you grieve openly, you’re holding grief for all of us, like holding open the gate. We will all go there in some way. How can we hold each other if we don’t know how to be present with patience, with not trying to fix, learning how to withstand what other’s grief opens up in our stories, our own fears.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Eighteen months on June 24th. I can hardly believe it still.
Much love, Nora
On March 24, Allan will have been dead for fifteen months. Fifteen months. Several people have mentioned that I haven’t written in a while. I was surprised to see that I hadn’t posted anything since 2018. I wanted to check in with you, there was, is?, an invisible wall, as well as intense grief that stopped me. And confusion. After all what more is there is say? So again I don’t know what’s coming, whether I’ll send it or what I need to say. The rituals have been done, an altar of memory lives in my heart and those who love him.
On his first year anniversary, December 24, a few beloved women gathered to perform the ritual of marking the first year since Allan’s dying. We lit a fire in the fire pit, ceremoniously walked up the to the Ancestor Shrine, where we made offerings of tobacco and whiskey, and removed the prayer flags we had made and carried them down to the fire where we burned them releasing the prayers to help Allan on his journey to the Ancestors. We made prayers for his journey, drummed and sang and I stepped over a thread I’d spun using a drop spindle, a threshold I’d made from Allan’s and my colors.
That’s all I knew. The marking of the year. But what is the threshold? Was I stepping into a new life? No. It was an acknowledgment that I’d gone through a year in the underworld, a place I still lived with occasional risings. And it was a threshold over which I’d hoped to weave a new relationship with Allan. I’ve been told that the more the grief abates the more one can feel the presence of the Beloved.
Yet every movement in that direction, each change – removing Allan’s desk and putting mine in his office, now our office, moving his clothing along to those who needed it, changing the bedroom around, shredding a material life, holds the possibility of plunging me back into very intense grief, fear, an almost existential abandonment. It was/is confusing and relentless, then will ease up for a few days, then return.
In Tear Soup, a wonderful book about grief, it is written that the first year is hell and the second isn’t much better. That’s true for me. So far. Yet I’ve engaged with life, seeing a few clients which I find gratifying and I feel present to them, painting this process of grief in Elisabeth Moss’ process painting Sangha, rejoining writing group. Going through motions, yet not yet alive, not yet wanting to live because the pain is intense when it comes. I miss the wild spark of possibility I always carried and I pray she is there waiting to push up through the soil.
So I didn’t write because I don’t know where I am, my compass is spinning and has not come round to my North Star. It’s too soon. I am always relieved and frightened both, when a veteran of such grief says to me, “oh you’re so new into this journey,” because it’s felt like a hundred years already. And yet, what less could I expect when grieving a thirty-seven year soulful relationship? Last year I knew I was in the underworld, no denying it. I knew where I was, like Erishkigal in hell.
This year I live in the land of heart ache visiting the upper world occasionally. Yet that’s an odd experience, because I feel like I’m visiting, literally, the upper world. Your world, the world where I mistakenly assume people aren’t in fresh grief, the world that goes on. But I am really still in the underworld. Do I even exist in the upper world? I know I am made real in those moments of honest connection with other people, who acknowledge this journey, who have taken it, and whose presence I acknowledge. But still in between and not knowing where life is taking me, where soul is taking me. How am I being rewoven, how are Allan and I being rewoven together. It requires a kind of surrender not resignation.
This week I felt something shift, some little shift that I cannot name or even see in my daily life. A friend said, it sounds like a faith door opened up, and that feels right as I sense Allan with me a little more than I did. Or rather, I have faith that he is here. Even as I write this I am hesitant to name it, because I know tomorrow it could all shift again.
Walking in the woods this morning, it dawned on me that the descent part of this journey is a definitive event. At least it was for me, I can remember the moment when my body said no more and took me down. And it is definitive for the community. At such times community knows when one’s beloved dies, there is a descent, and we mark it with a funeral and food, and love and offers of help. And the bereaved, though they don’t know where they are, are mirrored by the community. In the best of situations, the community conveys you are here, you belong to us, we know you’re confused, that your world is completely shredded. And “we will hold a place for you”.
And yet, in my experience, we don’t have such customs for the returning. And so while there is a community around the descent, there is not a formal communal understanding for witnessing and welcoming the grieving back into life. It is a poverty of our culture that we do not mirror back to them what the community sees they have brought back from their descent, which allows the one who slowly re-emerges to know where she is. I think probably most of us kind of bleed back into life quietly, full of confusion, full of a kind of estrangement from our former selves and lives. Maybe some people have fallen away thinking this is taking too long or simple because life is racing and demanding. If it weren’t for the women who are willing to tell me they see the subtle shifts, or a sparkle in my eye, that I’m returning even though I don’t know it, who hold a place for me, who hold the faith for me, I wouldn’t have a place to stand. Those returning from descent need to be welcomed, their transition needs to be marked somehow. Other cultures know this.
Francis Weller, in response to a woman’s question about returning from Vision Quest and feeling so lonely because noone in her life could relate to what she’d been through and did not welcome her back into community, said that now that she knows that is needed, she must give it to others. A step toward creating a different culture around descent.
Instead, in our Western culture, we wait for the grieving to make the overture, to bring themselves back into life. War veterans are expected to blend in, return to family, find their own healing resources. We’ve all assumed it. She’ll know when she’s ready, he’ll be his old self a year from now. No. We need to say to each other “I see you. I see your suffering and I see your healing and I see your gifts and we/I welcome your tiny steps back to us.” Don’t we all long for this?
But we cannot know to welcome anyone back from their descent if we don’t know of it. And we live in a culture of silence about such deep sorrow, such raw emotion. Muriel Rukseyer wrote, “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” I believe if all people spoke and expressed the truth of their grief, in the workplace, at home, with friends, the world would split open. Grief about the death of loved ones, of species, the defilement of the sacred, of clean air, water, the unspeakable horrors of war and on and on. If we did this in community, which is vital, it would build our courage to face that everything we love will die, that healing is possible. It would develop our understanding of our own suppressed grief, we would acknowledge our broken hearts. How can we have community, hold a place for each other when we’re estranged, silent? We suffer from isolation, my grief counselor once said to me that disconnection is hell. And I agree. And our culture is in it. But we can make a new culture, yet not without acknowledging that our unacknowledged grief is terrible.
So this is where I am, grieving Allan, grieving my old life, talking to the trees, talking to him as I walk the trails, wondering what will become of me, who am I becoming, some days in utter despair, some focused for three hours on painting, thinking of nothing but painting, feeling maybe life is possible. What will I return with and will anyone benefit from it or want it but knowing that what calls to me is soul, love, becoming a real human being and Elder. And to all those who are with me, know the depths of this year for me, who have stood by and continue to, deep, deep, bows of gratitude.
Love to you and blessings on your house and people,
“Your absence goes through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” M. S. Merwin
I have been feeling the need to write to you, but often times I’ve been so low I couldn’t bring myself to again say what seems like the same words over and over. And I hesitated because for many of you this is Holiday season. Yet I’ve heard from some wondering where I am, whether I am OK and so I’m writing. Again I don’t know what I’ll say.
In three days, last year, Allan will die. I say it this way because for me this is the way it feels, not that I am anticipating his anniversary but that I am anticipating his dying. It is cellular, bone deep, as are the tears that continue to come, the missing that stitches everything with its color. I have again gone through the experiences of loss, fear, empty and wondering what will happen to me, because it does not feel like a matter of will, except for that deeply embedded life given will to have a life that is vital. And yet my heart still, most often, does not want to live, does not want to walk on alone, without Allan’s physical presence. This is bereavement. It has no pattern really, it is full of longing and realization, again and again, that the Beloved is not returning. That he no longer needs his toothbrush or all the shirts I gave him as Solstice presents, nor the empty stack of note cards he always kept handy to write thoughts, ideas for books, questions. His writing space has not been disturbed, except by the proverbial mice with whom he seemed to struck a truce, every once in a while I go sit there, not yet having the heart to read his latest writing, his little notes are a view right into his soul. Where ever Allan parked himself for long there were little pieces of paper with notes. I thumb through the card catalogue a map of his mind and heart.
My body carries on, she walks me in the woods, she eats, she sleeps, takes baths, visits with friends, and grieves. Lately I’ve wondered if my soul has gone away with him, that spark of inspiration, that sense of the deep holy of this path that I’ve lost track of, or who has lost track of me these past few weeks.
I speak to his picture every day and ask him to be with me, walk with me through this life. A medium I consulted told me that Allan and I will continue to work together, that his work here is not done, nor is mine, that we will be collaborating in some way, perhaps through the writing.
That everything we believed before he died, he finds is true.
And now it is the Solstice, a day we’ve celebrated in the Earth Spirit Council House for going on for 15 years, I believe this is the first year we will not sit. This was Allan’s favorite ritual, to sit among community in Holy silence and laughter. I remember our last Solstice last year, sitting on the front porch bundled in winter coat and blanket, smoking the last smoke of his daily ritual of one smoke a day, Holy time for him. He and Roxie and I. The sky was clear and it was very cold. He rolled the wheelchair over to the edge of the porch, scattered the tobacco and said Great Spirit, I mean no disrespect I know this isn’t my tradition, I thank you for this life and please watch over my family. I’m sure he made a variation of that prayer every evening. Tonight I will light a small fire in the wood stove given the rain, at 5:23 to mark the shortest day and the longest night. May it be luminous.
On the day of his anniversary, at 12:15 Petra, Anne and I will light a fire and burn the prayer flags that galloped in the wild wind the moment of his death, the prayer hoop we made him and installed at the ancestor shrine the morning of his memorial and the dried flowers from the memorial, with whisky, and tobacco and prayers. And other things. Petra will leave mid day and I will spend the rest of the time alone. At first this frightened me, yet now it seems that time is perhaps between Allan and I. I’ll join a friend’s family the next day for dinner.
That day I walk over some kind of threshold, I don’t know what kind or what will come from the marking of the year, all I know is that I have relived his dying since Thanksgiving, the grief pulling from the bone marrow and the last two days have been a bit less intense. Mercy. I’ve learned though that the waves, the tsunamis come with their own deep knowing. I know death and grieving are Holy paths because if allowed to, they break open the heart and eventually deep empathy and real compassion can deepen. Yet lately, in the depth of pain I’ve just wished for it to be over, my body and heart have had enough, I feel as though I’ve crawled through this year. I’m sure many of you recognize what I’m talking about and I can’t imagine the pain of multiple losses that we read of every day. Martin Prechtel said that all wars are because of unmetabolized grief. If you can’t grieve your heart can’t open.
But when the heart breaks open we learn what is important, just as the dying, in their wrestling with death, become aware of what is important in life. There are so many working to have us realize this long before we die, to live as true human beings. Things that seemed important fall away, and I know that is happening for me. At times I am aware of a different kind of love, a softening and embracing that has deepened. I remember all the angels sent my way, from amazing practitioners who love, surprise visits exquisitely timed with my deepest grief, friends who fiercely hold me through this time. Phone calls in my darkest hours. Those who still want to come walk Roxie from time to time.
And oftentimes I am just shaking with fear that my world has been shredded, that I will grow old without Allan beside me. The loneliness, the absence colors my every day. I’m always surprised when someone tells me they’ve enjoyed my company, or have been gifted by sitting with me. I’ve not yet felt joy, or deep pleasure for long, but I have felt the sun on my face, and noticed beauty of Roxie’s face, the embrace of friends, the enormous kindness in people, just waiting to be invited in, to be spiritually employed. And the wisdom that magically emerges from the heart when there is strong need. I truly don’t know if I’d be here without this holding. No one would choose grief, no one would choose to feel this deep loss, and I believe that is, in part, because we have no communal structures in place to hold us through this time, no communal places to come together and grieve.
I long for days of deep engagement, for usefulness, to feel the beauty and wonder of the earth and gratitude. I pray to develop the deep skill of holding the pain and the wonder as necessary parts of the great round and the same time. To feel Allan’s spirit accompanying me. And I pray for the Temple to reveal the ways in which she will next be a Refuge and my role in that.
These are my prayers this Solstice, and that the wounding of the world opens us into deep grief as a path to true compassion and love.