I finished yet another fast, from sundown on Monday, August 4th until sundown Tuesday, August 5th. This year, that day was Tisha B’Av. The Jewish day starts at sundown in the evening and goes until the following sundown. “…And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” B’reishit/Genesis 1:5
As my Rabbi Naomi Steinberg says:
“Every year in midsummer the Jewish calendar brings us a challenge – the holy day of Tisha B’Av, the Tenth of the lunar month of Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE, and also the day when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and driven from Spain in 1492.”
It’s a really, really, really bad day. Many years either Hiroshima or Nagasaki day is also falling on or around Tisha B’Av. I used to fast on those days when I was younger, before I ever connected with my Judaism. The thought of eating or drinking on a day when so many innocent people were murdered just has never been something I could stomach. When I learned of the Jewish fast, it was one more link in my chain of connection to Torah and to Judaism.
This is just always a VERY horrific time of year. It has been for Jewish people for thousands of years. It is Now in Israel, it is Now in Palestine, it is Now in Syria, it is Now in Somalia, it is Now in Afghanistan, it is Now in Pakistan, it is Now in Nigeria. It is NOW everywhere that folks kill and maim and wound each other for reasons that have never and will never make sense to me. While I seek out and look for understanding and guidance around death, I have never wanted to encourage or support killing. I am always and still a pacifist.
Even so, death has been part of my journey in life from the beginning. My mother was six months pregnant with me when my almost two-year old sister Paula Andrée Barchilon died. I came into the world with death at my heels and connected to a sister who left the earth before I entered it. We crossed and have crossed paths, all my life, in a liminal space, in an other kind of place.
So, death has never been far away or to be avoided as a subject of exploration and study. I used to go to the cemetery where my sister was buried as a young girl. It was a quiet and special place for me, almost a secret place because it was never crowded with living folks and it was calm and ordered and beautiful. When I was a young teen my dancing partners and I used to go there in the summers. We would try to restore the graves that had been vandalized. There was a small creek running through the graveyard and idiots would break off grave-stones and throw them in this water. We would be in our leotards which were very similar to one-piece swimsuits and wade into the water and try to heft these pieces of gravestone out of the water. We would then attempt to locate the grave they went with. I remember doing this as if it were yesterday. I also remember sitting at my sister’s grave and talking to her.
I wasn’t born yet when she died, so my relationship with her was completely something happening in my heart and soul. She was my first angel, my first guide beyond this world. This connection to death started in the womb, but has continued in me as a beat that I was tuned to and interested in. All my life I have sought out knowledge and information around death.
I have also studied how other culture’s navigate and approach death and the afterlife. For almost all cultures there is something beyond this world. It is only recently that the Religion of Proof in Physical Evidence has come to the foreground of many folks’ ideas about death. I have no need to change anyone’s mind or convert anyone. People believe and engage across a great divide and along a continuum from absolute rejection and negation of anything Holy or Divine to complete engagement and relationship with Holiness. Death is a part of that dance, regardless of what you believe or don’t believe. We are all going to die as are the people we love and the ones we hate. Death is a sure and constant reality.
One of the underlying reasons for my Jubilee retreat revolves around my desire to prepare folks, as best I can, for the eventuality of my death. I hope it is fifty years from now. I’m in reasonably good health and don’t anticipate leaving this earth anytime soon. Nevertheless, I don’t know the pull-date on the Nicole Andrée Barchilon Frank label.
As I contemplate taking a retreat to look at death more fully and to give folks an opportunity to encounter my physical absence, it is with a heavy heart and a desire to grapple with something completely impossible. I need to have the freedom to yell, rage and engage with the Divine around all of this. I cannot do that with anyone other than the Holy One and I need the space and time, one needs in an intimate relationship, to tackle really hard issues. It’s not a short conversation.
…to be continued….
Nicole writes to you about death and life from her very active home in Bayside, where she will now attend to watering her garden and doing the laundry (two very mundane but solidly of this world kinds of tasks).
This piece was originally published in the Mad River Union, on August 6th, 2014. It has been slightly altered for this post.