In David and Suzanne’s kitchen, 7:00pm, night has fallen and a mist has risen over the trees. Except for the deer grazing in the garden, I have not seen nor spoken to another soul for twelve hours. All this time, I have been immersed in writing about David’s suicide; hypothesizing, re-tracing my steps/our steps, feeling into what wanted to be written, trying to understand something that was just out of reach. But just now, I put on Keith Jarrett’s improvised piece called Paris. It is a piece I have listened to often. With its centers alternating between melodic and chaotic, it reminds me of the process I/we have gone through since David’s death. This time, the chaotic parts felt haunting – I almost turned the music off but something stopped me. Something made me want to hang in there; listen to the slow unfolding into what I know is a melodious, heart-opening end. I was washing dishes when Jarrett began playing the finale. I put the dishes down, dried my hands and stood in the kitchen swaying to the melody. I had already lit candles so the atmosphere was warm and my gaze fell upon a large framed photograph of a Balinese boy (maybe 8 or 9 years old), dark hair, dark sparkling eyes, his hands earth-stained past the wrist but folded in prayer. I have long thought his eyes, his face, held many of David’s features. As I listened to the music and looked at the boy’s face, I began to dance for David. Not just for David but to David. And a question rose in my mind, “what if John O’Donoghue is right that what might seem dark, destructive and forlorn to me/us, might be a destiny that looks different from inside the eternal script?” What if there is some rightness, some wholeness about David’s death; even the fact that it was a suicide? It is so easy to try to make meaning out of tragic events; to try to analyze the person’s motives and find where they fit in some developmental hierarchy and where he went wrong or what we all missed. But what if none of that matters? What if – despite the reality of the destruction it left in its wake – David’s suicide was neither right nor wrong, neither cowardly nor courageous but rather just the next step in the destiny that his life had always contained. What might be possible if I/we were to hold his death in this way? In this moment, what is possible is that I have fallen into a state of peace.
“Unity ties everything together – including joy, happiness and laughter, but also including loss, death and betrayal. A thing which truly has unity partakes of everything. And through that everything, there must be sadness…..if a thing is truly alive, one can feel its own death within it, even while it lives. It is this, above all, that we mark when we see a living work of art or the grass on a living hillside.” (CA)
During the thirty-three years of knowing David, our friendship had many phases. When we first met in our late 20s, we were companions in the realm of suffering. We were both lost souls, looking for some clear path through this life, some center that might give life meaning. I felt a simpatico with David, a mutuality of experience that, later, he often referred to as “surviving the trenches together.” When our lives took divergent paths – his to the world of retail import/export and mine to the world of college and a career as a psychotherapist – we saw each other infrequently. Both of us were working hard to create living structure but while he was creating it externally (on his land), I was creating it internally. When I saw him during this time, I was aware that – underneath a charming, intelligent exterior – a certain sadness clung to him and I often felt a chilling sense of fear that I can only now understand as my ability to feel David’s death within him. While we all carry our ending with us, I now know that the shadow of David’s death was closer and more pronounced than most. I now know that – always – even in the best of times, David had more than one foot in the other world.
When he met/married Suzanne and they became friends of ours, David and I grew a new respect for who the other had become. I found a deep respect for what he had accomplished; how he had pulled his life out of the trenches and created so much beauty around him, beauty that he generously shared with others. And I believe, he respected who I had become – no longer the party-girl across the hall, David came to know and appreciate the quieter depths in me. I also came to know about David’s life-long pursuit of the “spiritual.” A seeker from an early age, he was a rigorous reader and follower of everyone from Krishnamurti to Jason Brown. He had been meditating for years and in the last decade, had been experiencing states of mystical union that he pursued like a hungry man pursues food. I believe that to really be living structure, a spiritual path (an ascent) must be answered by its opposite, that our loftiest illuminations must descend into an integrated embodiment and it is this that did not happen for David. When he spoke of his “spiritual” experiences, I (and others) felt left on the outside as if there was a lack of interpenetration between David’s center and my own. I would go so far as to say that he resisted this interpenetration – that non-separateness went against some structure at the very core of his being. And in quiet moments, I still felt an unnamed pain in him. Though he was surrounded by the grace and beauty of the living structures he had created, I sometimes wondered what I couldn’t see.
Christopher Alexander says that a “thing does not get its unity from being beautiful. The unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected and that every center helps every other center…..the result of that helping between centers is beautiful in the sense that it fills us with life, reminds us of ordinary everyday things, reminds us of the messiness and goodness of life.”
What I now know is that while beautiful, David was not (in a way that would have mattered) deeply connected to other living centers; that he did not ask for help from many of the people who loved him. Few knew of the depth of darkness he lived with. He asked for help only from a few and in the end, he ended his life alone. If there is luminous ground to be found in this death, it would be in the way the community has come together. Each of us has had to face unanswerable questions and live into/with feelings that sometimes felt impossible to bear. I have experienced latent aspects of myself come to the surface – I have more compassion; I also understand and am less afraid of the dark side of human life. There have been moments I have lived more vividly and more intensely because of the grief. I have felt more vulnerability and more unity with the preciousness of life. And – because of the community around me – I have learned more about how to carry and be carried.
For those of you who have followed me on this written journey, I leave you with this poem:
As you huddle around the torn silence, each by this lonely deed exiled to a solitary confinement of soul, may some small glow from what has been lost return like the kindness of candlelight.
As your eyes strain to sift this sudden wall of dark and no one can say why in such a forsaken, secret way, this death was sent for…..may one of the lovely hours of memory return like a field of ease these graveled days.
May the angel of wisdom enter this ruin of absence and quiet your minds to receive this bitter chalice so that you do not damage yourselves by attending only at the hungry altar of regret and anger and guilt.
May you be given some inkling that there could be something else at work and that what to you now seems dark, destructive and forlorn, might be a destiny that looks different from inside the eternal script.
May vision be granted to you to see this with the eyes of providence. May your loss become a sanctuary where new presence will dwell to refine and enrich the rest of your life with courage and compassion.
And may your lost loved one enter into the beauty of eternal tranquility, in that place where there is no more sorrow or separation or mourning or tears.
There is a path of square, white stones that runs through the land from the main house to the Kudus house. From above, it looks like the spinal column of a giant mammal or like the S-shaped curve of a great-blue heron’s neck in flight. The stones came from China and were – at one time – washing stones upon which Chinese women scrubbed their clothing. On some of the stones, there is a faint etching as of hands washing away the hard edges over time. I have always loved walking this path. Because of it’s size, the shape of each stone, their placement on the earth, walking the path requires a certain attention, requires that one go slowly enough not to fall but for me, I have gone slowly so that I might feel the history that each stone carries. It has always been a devotional walk for me, where my mind is quieted by the mere fact of my slowness, where – when the path leads up and over a small rise in the land – grazing deer often come into view. The day after David’s suicide, I walked that path many times, trying to find some center in the midst of the storm. It was in walking this path that the idea for a community grief ritual emerged.
I am no stranger to grief nor I am a stranger to the grief of others. But this grief, the grief of a torn community, contained so many complexities of feeling, so many unanswerable questions, so many projections, so much rage and confusion and shock, that I knew the ritual needed to be created as a “center” that could hold a wide range of complexity. As I began to talk to Suzanne and others about the idea, the intention for the ritual began to clarify: we, as a community, needed something to unify us because although we were unified by the fact of David’s death, there was a certain aloneness we each felt, a certain hesitation to speak all of what we were thinking/feeling, a certain holding back (which was necessary in those first moments) of much of the more difficult things to speak. So, out of the rubble, a ritual came into being, a ritual in which each part was carefully thought through, a ritual in which the co-leaders paid careful attention to the question: what has to happen next to preserve wholeness?
A week after David’s death, thirty-five of us gathered around the hearth in Suzanne’s living room. We made it clear that everything and anything was welcome in the circle; that this was not for David, not a memorial for him but rather this was for us, the beginning steps of our healing journey that for many, had only just begun. We made it clear that some of what would be said/felt/shared might be challenging to hear, that there was no right or wrong way to do this and we gave people utter permission to leave if – at any time – it became too much. For the next three hours, everything was there. Betrayal and rage were there. Bitterness and confusion were there. Recollections of love were there as were recollections of secrecy. The deer came and grazed outside the glass doors. The sunset over the southwest was the color of blood. In listening to the voices of others, I felt each was speaking for a part of me. I felt connected to something larger than death – I felt connected to life. We chanted. Water was poured. Tea was shared. In the end, there was laughter. Christopher Alexander syas that “a thing which truly has unity partakes of everything.” After the ritual ended, there was a palpable shift, some quality within me (and within others) had changed.
Since then, there have been several other rituals: a ritual involving moving David’s ashes into an Indonesian urn; a ritual taking-down of the community altar that had served as a place for friends and family to meditate; and a ritual to bless the land so that it might find the next pair of hands to be its steward. Each of these rituals had recursive aspects – aspects that were repeated like the chanting, like the feeling of sadness – and each served as the base for the ritual that followed. Even though the future rituals were not pre-determined, they were latent in what went before and emerged or were drawn forth/evoked by what had gone before. Each ritual was a living structure (in and of itself); each was rooted in feeling; each enlarged my (our) connection to life and have actually – at times – made possible the experience of joy. “The sense of the thing reached – a sadness which connects me to the “I” in these cases – does appear to me as an actual thing which I reach, which then becomes visible, like a foggy landscape on a brilliant day becomes visible through the darkening lace of the thin gossamer window curtain.” (CA)
NEWS OF DEATH
Last night they called with news of death,
not knowing what I would say.
I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields,
making the grass lie flat.”
I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash,
covering the orchard wall.”
I wanted to say,
“The fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”
They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.
For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “HE is no longer here,”
that the night put its arm around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.”
The news of David’s death, that it was suicide, shattered me and tore a hole in the fabric of a large, extended community. For me, suicide goes against the natural order of things and with David, it stood in stark contrast to the living structure he had built his life around. Although there were those of us who knew of his ongoing struggle with darkness, we had not expected his end to come in this way. That it did, caused me (and many others) to question not only David but also our own perceptions of him. What had we missed? What had we ignored? What aspects of our own internal structure had us miss the weakness at David’s center; a weakness that made it possible for him to go against life, rejecting all it has to offer, not only its demands and harsh realities but also the love, the unity, the grace that was so much a part of David’s existence?
That first morning after the call, many of us gathered to be with Suzanne. While we did our best to “hold” her in the most devastating moment of her life, we were all also carrying our own grief, confusion and rage. There was a palpable dissonance in the atmosphere, between and among us and on the land itself: the energies of a violent death were colliding with the beauty and sacredness of the place. The sense of unity that had always existed there was shattered. Also shattered was the sense of people coming together for communion with each other, with the land and its creatures and with David and Suzanne. Surrounded by all David had created, some of us felt a distinct loss of a certain center of gravity. In the midst of this, I began asking the question, “what is needed here? what needs to happen for us to begin creating centers out of this rubble?” By the end of the day, I began to hear “in the far distance, the strains of something, like a faintly heard tune…..I strained to listen for it, trying to catch it, and doing my best to bring this half-heard whisper of a being out” as an idea. It was from this question and my willingness to listen to the whisper of an answer that the idea for a community grief ritual emerged.
In order to examine how David’s suicide is (or might be) a center; and how one might create centers out of the rubble of this death; how one might go slowly enough to allow the “what needs to happen next to preserve wholeness” to arise; I must first set a context by speaking of David’s life and my relationship with him. Although I knew David for over thirty years, the deepest part of our relationship developed when he met and married Suzanne and when the four of us (including Richard) spent many long evenings together, mostly on their 17 acres of land on Vashon Island.
Before David met Suzanne and before Richard and I became part of their lives, David spent a decade creating living structure on this land. From the moment he bought it, he focused on the wholeness of the place and at each step in the unfolding process of creation, he did the thing which was most consistent with wholeness. There was a devotional atmosphere, where he had the time and his mind was concentrated on the step-by-step nature of the slow unfolding from a bare piece of land to a center where many people found sanctuary. Not only was the land carefully planted and tended but each of the buildings on the land – the main house, the Kudus house, the Chinese house and the moon-viewing hut – had an atmosphere of beauty and grace which, for many, seemed to reflect something of the sacred, as if our eternal soul, our existence, and the trees on this land, the creatures, the stones, the various buildings were all entangled, related to each other. It has been on this land that I have come closest to experiencing that I am of the world, that I partake of the world, and it is in this relation that my real connection with the universe may be understood and experienced by me.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t just the land and the various centers created on it that caused such a feeling of relatedness, it was also what the four of us created in the evenings we spent together. Each time we were together – not just once or twice but repeatedly – my own existence grew, extended, was stretched out towards something larger than my individual self. It was in the relationship(s) between and among the four of us that we each felt that we had grown larger than before our time together; that, somehow, (I will speak for myself here) the best there was in me came to the surface, inside me, drawn out by the presence of the place and the people, almost as if it rose up in me to meet the same thing in each of them. Like the Balinese wood carving in the photograph above (whose whirls and whorls and spirals and deep interlocks that occur when two wholes are near each other, one partially penetrating the other, knitting the two together), each of us got more life from the existence of each other and the unity we formed together.
This unity I felt, the sense of a sacred whole, made David’s suicide not only shocking but as if by dying in a way that was not in the natural order of things, he had torn the very fabric of wholeness he had created.
I feel the sap rising in me…..something is beginning to thaw deep in my roots and I am listening to what/when it will be ripe. I know it has something to do with the color red – I have been seeing red everywhere…..not a deep, dense red but the kind of red that has a luminous quality that shines through it. I see it when I close my eyes – I see it when I walk through the world. That color is also woven through with strands of music/lyrics from the movie Les Miserables – which, itself, is luminous. The song is titled Red & Black. The words are, “Red, the blood of angry men. Black, the dark of ages past. Red, a world about to dawn. Black, the night that ends at last. Red, I feel my soul on fire. Black, my world when She’s not in it. Red, the color of desire. Black, the color of depair.” Again, I am moving by impulse and felt sense, here, not knowing where this is leading, watching the rise and fall of the sap, the pull towards the sun, the return to the underground of waiting. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. A world about to dawn. The color of desire.
The impulse for this painting arose in a conversation with my mentor. He was talking about the years he spent in the Brooks Range of Alaska; how, at one point, he had been silent for so long, all he could hear was the sound of the natural world and the beating of his own heart. He told me how, in that moment, he began to hear an unfamiliar sound and that when he listened more deeply, leaned towards the sound, he realized that what he was hearing was the sap rising in the trees. Because of the deep, quiet field my mentor and I often sat in together, was able to take in not only the images but the felt sense of the Brooks Range. The idea of “sap rising” became a felt sense in my body, a feeling that matched the flow of my own blood. I began to think of the sound of sap rising as one part of the billion-tongued symphony of creation and I knew I had to render this sense in paint.
I am not a painter, have had little formal training, but the pull was so strong that when Richard and I headed for the Oregon coast for a time of solitude and rest, I brought along oil paints, a single canvas and the sheet music from one of Bach’s cello suites. I brought no brushes, only my own hands/fingers and a single knife.
From the moment I put the first paint on the canvas, the whole piece unfolded without effort. I intuitively knew what to do each step of the way and because I was working with oil, I was able to cover and re-cover those aspects of the painting that did not preserve the structure of the whole. I cut/pasted musical notes onto the canvas, painted over some, partially hid others. Perhaps because we were on vacation and I was not bound by the structure of time, I was able to let the painting unfold and intuitively follow where ”it” wanted to go.
Since then, I have painted at least 15 paintings of trees…..none of them carry the stillness, the music, the magic of the first. That first painting is so deeply at home in me that even now, three years later, I can feel the surge of delight, the sense of music, when I put it above our mantel in the winter.
This is some of what I want to explore in my project. When does an impulse arise in me that has to be followed? What are the conditions that make me “ripe” to listen deeply enough to hear the impulse? What conditions allow something to be created from that space?
I do not know where this will lead – as I said before, this is only a beginning.
For several months, I have been living with these questions: what would happen if the essence of who I am came forward in a congruent way? What if the quietest of what I’m really about came forward into the world? What might happen? What might be possible?
Last week, I was in Ohio with my family, a chaotic, 4-generational family where alcoholism, drug addiction and anger have been part of the daily diet for decades. I always enter this family with some trepidation but this year, because of my brother’s sobriety, I entered with more open curiosity than in the past. It was a good week, a “sobering” week, a week of honesty and tears and laughter. In fact, on the last day of my visit, I was sorry that the week had come to an end. That night – as is our usual way – the whole family was scheduled to gather for a farewell barbecue. I went to my brother’s house early to help with food preparation but instead, had the opportunity to sit with my 4-year old nephew, Eleazar, while he napped. Azar (as he is called) had been acting out and his father sensed it was time for a nap. Coming inside reluctantly, he laid down on the couch and asked me if I would sit with him while he slept. I would never pass up an opportunity for this kind of quiet intimacy with him so I sat on the couch, Azar’s legs across my lap with my right hand on his heart. He tucked his arms behind his head and almost immediately, began the process of falling asleep. I closed my eyes and felt the twitching of his small body letting go. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and let my own body soften. Inhale. Exhale. Soften. With my hand on his heart, I imagined sending all my love for him into his still developing body. Silently, I apologized to him for all he’s seen in his short life and all he is likely to see/experience/know in the years to come. I prayed that life might be kind to him. Inhale. Exhale. Soften. As I continued to breathe, I began to feel the edges of myself dissolving and the sounds around me grew more obvious - Azar’s breathing, robin song outside the window, voices in the back yard, my sister-in-law washing dishes. Within and around and between these sounds, I could feel the presence of a deep quiet. The quiet seemed to be both within me and without and it seemed to reach far into the sky, as far out as the stars and gallaxies beyond. I felt as if Azar and I were being held by a vastness beyond my comprehension and for whatever reason, noone interrupted this state; noone walked into the room or called out for my help or even wondered where I was. Azar slept for 90 minutes and when he woke, both of us were in a completely quiet state.
Once, I heard a story about Carl Jung, about a time he was dancing with an African tribe and he felt the dance become violent (I believe he even felt it as violence directed at him). In that moment, he decided to shift his energetic pattern (so to speak), to insert a different pattern into the dance than the one that seemed to be emerging. The person who told this story said that he had been successful, that the violence had shifted and the energy of the whole dance had changed. The storyteller was asking the obvious question about the power of this and about how we might each apply this to our experience of the world. That night with my family, I felt like I changed the dance. I entered the “fray” with the quietness inside my body and the whole family seemed different. The usual bickering and crass language and undercurrent of tension was gone. The conversation was more connected; the touching of the children more gentle; there was a softness to everybody and every interaction that is rare. Was it just me – my experience because of my inner state? I don’t think so. I think something actually happened in the field of those of us who were gathered….the particles of each person were changed and the connections between us were made different.
I don’t begin to claim that I “understand” how this is possible….I just “know” that it is. I also know that there was something about my tapping into the essence of a child sleeping, that pure uncontaminated essence, that acted as a portal and gave me access to a spaciousness and quiet that seemed attuned to the rhythm of life itself. This is what I want more of in my life. This is what I am listening for.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the wild geese, hight in the clean blue air are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over over announcing your place
in the family of things.
This poem speaks to me of the implicit and explicit listening that happens in the relational space between ourselves and others, in the relational space between ourselves and the world. Tell me about your despair and I will tell you mine implies that I will listen to you and I will trust that you will listen to me. But how do we listen? Can we listen for despair in the silences between words – a silence that is perhaps not warm and spacious but tight and cold? Can we listen for it in the droop of a shoulder or the sudden tear or the slight break in a person’s voice? And then, for me, the question becomes “can that despair be held in the wider world (as Mary Oliver suggests it can), in the many ways the world calls to us? Can we open a space that both contains our interiority and also allows us to be called forward by the wild geese, by the cat in heat, by the homeless man at the onramp to I-90, by the voices of children next door, by the colors of sunset over the Olympics, by a friend’s voice on the other end of the line, by a group of people focusing on their big toe?
Recently, I was sitting with a friend, a friend who has been lonely much of her life. It had been raining all day but near sunset, there were glimpses of sunlight through the clouds. As I listened to my friend’s words, the tears in her eyes, I was aware of my own helplessness to change her situation, aware of a kind of “deadness” in the relational space between us and simultaneously aware of the changing light in the room. I allowed my awareness to stay inside my body while also allowing myself to listen to the calls of the world: the changing light, the last robin songs of the day, a slight breeze through the leaves of the sycamore trees, an occasional car driving by. I kept my gaze focused on my friend and gradually, the room lightened and a broad beam of fading sunlight landed on her, on the wall behind her, creating shadows from the leaves outside. I watched her countenance change as she allowed herself to respond to the “call” the world was making to her. We looked at each other, without saying anything, and the energy in the room shifted. Moments later, she said, “Maybe I’m not as alone as I think.”
What allowed this moment to happen? It could have gone another way for this person or for someone else but it didn’t. A moment opened for this person when a connection between feeling and listening restored a “broken” connection? A moment opened when she listened with her ”child’s sense of belonging” intact.