It’s been a very folded in kind of time. I’ve been away from writing, from social media, from connecting with so many people and from engaging outwards. On November 30th, 2022 it will be two years since my beloved Lev/heart sister Jolie, May her memory be for a Blessing/zichrona l’vracha, left this earth. And, it’s gutted me in more ways than I could have known. It was not just her leaving this earth, it’s the violence of it, the sudden nature of her being gone so quickly. There have been many other really hard wind lashings in my world over the last few years that have depleted me down to the dregs. I’ve felt more like tissue paper than sinew and flesh. Tissue paper doesn’t have much to bring to the table when life gets hard.
So, as this crescent moon marking the beginning of this winter month of Kislev comes in, I’ve decided to plant a tiny seed of hope. How do I move forward when the waves of wounding and wrongness are so big. The answer has been, I don’t. I have just been lashed to the ground. You can’t fight a class five storm, you just have to survive it, surrender to it, hope that wherever you are now will be protected enough that you can emerge. The landscape will be radically different, landmarks and people and roads and ways that were familiar are all changed and unrecognizable or simply gone.
My hubris and arrogance have been scoured away or whittled down as well. To find myself failing and fallen in many areas of my life has been brutal, but also just what is. I’ve had to surrender to the truth of being unable to rise up and meet challenges or situations that I was formerly completely able to navigate. Not so much anymore.
Despite trying to create boundaries around my grief and all the tasks connected to managing Jolie’s death and her estate, the gates continually are breached. All the skills I used to have only working in small measures and moments. The terrain of difficulty has remained firmly the same. Added to Jolie’s leaving there’s been the ongoing serious illness of another beloved, the suicide of a 17 year old whose family I am close with, a global pandemic and pandemic-related craziness and many other deaths and painful challenges. I’m also responsible for managing my husband’s software design business, our own aging bodies and their changes, our parents needs and their homes and I could go on and on. I want to be present for those I love and the responsibilities I’ve taken on and doing so is no longer easy. I have felt whipped about. I’ve had to move within this landscape as best I could, and finding out that my best just doesn’t always make things work, or better, adds to the feelings of failure and grief.
So, hiding in my bedroom, under the covers, listening to a book on my phone or watching some program on my ipad, distracting me from the piles of paperwork or condolences I haven’t written is where I’ve been. The protection I’ve had, which so many people don’t have, is a safe and warm place to be, despite the storms raging outside and around me. The protection of a loving husband and his ability to provide for our financial needs, the protection of family support and friends who reach out to me and who put up with and are there, even if it takes me weeks or months to get back to them, all make a difference. The gift of being able to order food delivered to my door, so I don’t have to cook or shop so much. Having groceries delivered sometimes and having a Goddaughter on hand to clean and help me. These protections have been crucial and I feel blessed even from down under.
The piles are so big and the backlog of stuff that I have to do seems absolutely insurmountable. So, I avoid them a lot of the time, and many things fall through the cracks as a result. As I find ways to poke out my head a little, I rely on the seasonal reality of life. There will be ebbs and flows, rain, snow, storm and then sunlight, gentle breezes and grasses poking through the earth. The moon will wax and wain and so will I.
While studying up to lead a women’s Rosh Chodesh ritual for this month of Kislev, I read about how the word for this winter month can be broken down into two parts: Kis/Pocket and Lev/Heart. This pairing penetrated through the blankets and layers and I realized I wanted to tuck something into that pocket in my heart. I wanted to tuck Tikvah/Hope into the warm, blood red musculature of my heart. Not a tissue paper heart, my hardworking through it all, pumping every second since it was formed in my mother’s womb over 58 years ago, my strong and true heart. While I’ve been heart-broken in so many ways, my actual heart has continued to pump out a steady beat, a ba bum, baa, baa bum. So, in this time of cold and dark and grieving I have planted a seed in the folded pocket of my heart. I invite you to do the same, put your hand on your heart, let it rest there, feel your heart and find a pocket there to fold a seed into.
May there be space for your seeds to rest and reach out tendrils and roots and to sprout when and where you need them to.
This picture inspires me, every day. I look at the faces of these Eastern European Jewish women, these warrior women, who endured, or whose progeny endured pogroms, violence, poverty, plagues, the Shoah, and who knows what else. They not only endured it, some of them survived to pray and to make family, connections, friendships, partnerships and eventually me and my children. We are the seedlets from their wombs. I love their strong proud faces, their soft smiles and the looks of endurance, the crags carved into their faces. And, and…none of them are a size four! All of the women pictured here are zaftig, even the birthday girl/woman/crone. These were women of girth and ground. Women who stood their ground and who worked and lived hard. This is my lineage.
I have this Sephardic lineage running through me from the line of my father and his family. That lineage is more exalted and wealthy, and this line comes with art and rich stories. I know more about the men in this lineage. But I knew my grandmother Perla bat Doña Aicha Bendavid v’ Don José Barchilon, zichrona l’vracha, and her artwork is all over my home. My grandfather Chaim or Jaimé Cohen ben Don Aaron Cohen v’ Dona Sol de Ohana, z”l was the patriarch of my life and in their Moroccan home I learned to cook, to appreciate rich colors, smells and the life of warmth and passion that Morocco is. That lineage flows through my blood and I consider myself more Moroccan than any other nationality. My father’s grandfather was the head Rabbi of Tangier.
Somehow, I’m here/Hi Ney Ni. I hope I make it to 100 and have grandchildren or great grandchildren standing behind me and a giant cake full of candles, like the matriarch above. I’ll be very ready to go at that point, but my death date or pull date, as I like to call it, is in the hands of the Divine. While I’m here on this earth, there’s lots and lots to do. There is also so much information, data, waves of images and messages, emails, texts and Instagram posts, tweets, alerts, podcasts, zoom chats, protests to attend, meals to cook, medicines to make and folks to help die and folks to help heal and…..it goes on.
As Rabbi Tarfon z”l who lived and died in the first century B.C.E. says:
“You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it; if you have learned much Torah, great shall be your reward, for He who hires you will surely repay you for your toil; yet the requital of the pious is in the future.“
from Pirkei Avot a text written down based on oral teachings in the first century B.C.E.
So, I’m not obligated to finish this work, but I am not free to desist from it either. This is not just my mantra, it is the mantra of most of the hardworking, justice seeking, world healing folks I love and connect with. The English translation here is not reflective of the feeling that the Hebrew has or the poetry of the teaching.
The future quoted here isOlam Ha Ba in Hebrew. This translates more closely as The World to Come, which could be tomorrow or in a thousand years. It’s in the hands of the Creator or you, what the World to Come is, it’s a verb form, a world that is coming, it’s not yet here, but it’s on the way. If you are able you can feel it, or sense it. The veil between this world/Olam Ha Zeh and Olam Ha Ba is very thin for some of us.
I long for Olam Ha Ba, sometimes with such an ache in my being that the tears and sobs flow out of me for hours. There’s just too much damn suffering, ugliness, meanness and stupidity down here on this planet for me to bear sometimes. And yet, bear it I must. I cannot bear it though, if I watch the news or listen to the news or imbibe the news in any form currently available.
I’m afraid I’m going to be burned at the stake for admitting that I do not participate in the news cycle. I don’t own a television, I don’t stream CNN live or watch the Trevor Noah Show or listen to NPR or Rachel Maddow or NBC, CBS, BBC, etc… you get my point. I get plenty of news from all of the people in my life who share tidbits with me. I generally know about something big within hours of it happening. Sometimes a day will go by before whatever “news” crisis, on the planet folks are spinning about, circles around and reaches me. I do not let the currents of world events, as reported on by others, who often wish for me to be hooked by their versions of the story, dictate my direction or life.
That being said, there is a trusted source of information that I am completely involved in. That makom/source is my cellular core knowing. This knowing will literally take me down to the ground when there are mass deaths or huge traumas on the planet. I have an internal weather vane that is tuned to certain frequencies. In the last two years, I’ve gone to ground in a huge way, before the news informed the world of these horrors. When Covid hit this world in a big way, I was already in a cave of my own making. I curled up in a ball, like a fox or a bear and I hibernated. I do this when I need to replenish or when the waves of the world hit me like a tsunami.
I could barely get out of bed for months, not because I was physically sick, but because the pain of the thousands of people dying in fear and alone was a tidal wave for me. I’m very sensitive, not really the right word, to death, my internal channel is tuned to the other side. When there are mass events of death, I feel it, not because I’m watching the news coverage about it, because I don’t do that, but because I’m just wired that way. I was bone deep tired and unable to rise up. I was sheltering in place before that was actually called for.
So, I went to ground, curled up in my cave/bedroom. I emerged very infrequently to eat an apple or take a bath. My husband had to fend for himself mostly. He’s used to my weird and wild ways. He would lie down next to me and tell me he loved me and ask what he could do, if anything. Mostly, he just accepted me and loved me. He is an Agnostic and doesn’t believe in a Divine Creator and cannot comprehend 98% of what I tell him I am experiencing. Miraculously, he doesn’t need to understand me, or take me apart and make sense of me, to love me. He’s just wired that way, wired to love me and I’m wired to love him and it works, amazingly well.
When I touch my man or am held by him, all my cells align and take a kind of deep breath. It’s a truly profound experience for me and it still happens to this day, 33 years since we first kissed, I feel the current of wholeness course through my body. It makes my toes curl, my heart race. I am giddy and soothed all at the same time.
There’s nothing subtle or mild about me or how I feel, love, pray, and live. I’m a lot to handle and as the husband of a dear friend of mine once said about me. “Jeez, could you have some f—–g enthusiasm already!” Which I translated as the usual, you’re just TOO MUCH!
And, I am too much, for a lot of folks, which isn’t really important, because I’m used to that now and I’m in really good company…but back to my cave. I didn’t share the depth of what was going on for me with anyone besides my husband. A few folks were worried about me since they weren’t seeing my posts and I was generally absent from so many activities online and elsewhere. Even when I’m in my cave, I still take care of what has to be taken care of, what is mine to take care of, like my parents and my children. Or when someone’s son in my community was murdered and they needed support to get their son’s body washed and prepared for burial, according to Jewish tradition. They needed to witness and lovingly wrap their beloved in a shroud with prayers during Covid. Everybody worries about you and thinks you’re crazy for extending yourself and endangering yourself to make that happen. But, this is exactly the kind of thing that pulls me, like a magnet from underneath the covers or the depths of my sanctuary cave. The call to serve and to do what is mine, not someone else’s to do.
The other call that came in, when I was deep in the depths of the pain of the world, was when George Floyd, z”l, was murdered. It was like an electric shock to my system and I just jumped out of my bed and started cooking and making medicines and cleaning and doing everything I could, in what I like to call Full-On-Nicole fashion. Even though the pain was searing, the call to make kindness alive and to help folks feel heard and seen and loved during this time of trauma and exposition of the true nature of our society, was stronger than the need to be curled up feeling the anguish. For me, the call came in and it came in loud and strong and clear.
I didn’t see the death of this man on the news. I felt it in my bones. I am a woman awash with the world’s doings. Life on this planet, the life of this planet is not something I am separated from, none of us are. When there is harm or grace, we all feel it. Whether it is a slight blip in our heart-beat or it takes us down to the ground, or out to our studios, or into the streets, we are all part of the same story.
In my tradition we say a prayer called the Shema, we say it three times a day. It cannot be completely translated. It’s a call to being and a chant and a reminder. The prayer itself is just a few words, but it is followed by a few paragraphs of prayers reminding us that if we adhere to this teaching the rain will fall in its season and the cattle will be happy and all will align, but if we fail to heed this call and we worship idols (like the television, entertainment industry, sports games, the stock market or the Kardashians) the rain won’t fall in its season and there will be famine, plague and basically consequences to our NOT taking care of each other and the planet. This is not the Holy One cursing us, this is us cursing ourselves, causing the damage by not heeding the call of the Shema.
Listen, Hear, All you tribe of Israel, all you who wrestle with the Divine, the idea of the Divine, Hear this, all of you who struggle to make the world a place of decency and kindness, who stumble and fall down, who make mistakes, but get back up again, and again, listen you tribe of humans of all colors and religions and creeds and genders,
WE ARE ALL ONE!
We are all One, the Divinity is All One, is all encompassing, is everywhere at all times, holding us, watching us, shepherding us, rooting for us, wailing for us and with us as we stumble and fumble about. The Creator is with us and is through us and is us.
This call to Listen, to Hear, which implies you are directing yourself towards something perhaps not always loud or obvious, something that requires your active attention; this is something that I cannot ignore. I’ve always been a being who feels the blood trickle down my leg when the person next to me falls down and the skin on their leg cracks open, I get this in my body, it’s not an idea in my head, it literally fills my head and body like a gong sounding through my whole being.
I am awash in the feelings of this world and often of the next world as well. Sometimes folks who’ve crossed over are looking for support or help, especially if they died suddenly or violently, or they just have something they need to communicate before they move on to their next bathing of light, where they can be awash in the Creator’s love for them. Sometimes folks here on this earth are in so much pain it leaps out of their bodies and finds its way to me.
So, crazy as this makes me look and sound to those of you in the world who cannot see the dead moving through the room, like a waft of steam rising from a tea cup, or who don’t recognize the connections between things as being all part of some giant and unwinding narrative we are players in, I am very much affirming, again and again, that I am a woman awash in all of this.
Why do I need to assert this? There are many reasons, but the strongest call right now has to do with wanting to witness for folks that you can be fully awake, aware, and open, and also closed, quiet and taking care of yourself. There is no one way to serve. Maybe you need to go to ground, take a sabbatical or a break or just crawl under the covers for a week or months. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed or mentally ill. It might just mean you are a human feeling the throbbing heart of our times and needing to be with all of what that is. Or maybe you do better going to a rally or a protest or writing hundreds of postcards or keeping track of all the lies and stories on the screens so that you can be a witness to what is actually being said. As long as it doesn’t poison you and make you forget how to enjoy the buds on the trees or the way the Holy One paints the sky each night, or the smile of your beloved, or just that we’re all in this together, imbibe away.
We’re most of us in good, good, really good company. We all have work to do that is uniquely ours. I hope you find your way through and into the places you need to be in and that you notice when your engagement with the “news” takes you away from loving, living and giving.
The real news is this, we are here on this earth for an eye-blink, even if we live to be a hundred years old, and while we are here, we have a task to continue working on, the work of making the world a better reflection of the love, kindness, intelligence, justice, harmony and Oneness it was meant to be and it is becoming, even if we cannot see its emergence yet.
A popping, crackling fire, it is cold, very cold, as only an Irish night can be. Five years ago now, my solstice fire on the Isle of Eire kept me warm and took me deep into the Winter Solstice time of change and birth. I had a sister come visit, we made garlands for the trees, had a festive meal, and made offerings in songs, tears and some good Irish whiskey.
This spinning planet will continue spinning and I’ll keep spinning on it, but my dear beloved Jolie left this earth on November 30, 2020, ten days after learning she had ovarian cancer. I had been getting ready, and coordinating with friends and family re: who would be traveling to her in Ashland for her surgery, who would be there before and after, and who could cook meals locally. We never got to that point.
I find I don’t know how to continue writing, after the sentence “we never got to that point.”
I mean who was expecting that? Jolie thought she was dying and that the cancer had moved into her lungs, but I thought she was overwhelmed and scared and in pain and afraid. I was wrong. She was all those things as well, but she was also very, very sick. She had been unwell, struggling with tummy issues (or so we thought). I think that during the Covid 19 pandemic, many folks went to the doctor less often, and she thought her issues were dietary, not ovarian. I can’t know all the reasons her cancer was so severe and took her life so quickly. Perhaps she’d had it for years and misinterpreted the symptoms. Jolie has had a sensitive stomach and nature for as long as I’ve known her, which is over twenty years. She’s also had a troubled history with her female organs.
She couldn’t eat gluten, dairy, caffeine or alcohol and she also avoided sugar. She was a fiercely healthy woman in so many ways. She probably spent more time outdoors than anyone else I know. She hiked, biked, slept, walked, dreamed and lived in nature all the time. She would set up her bed outdoors when the weather was nice. Her preferred environment was always a wild and outdoor one.
Now, she is flying free and singing with the angels, or she’s an eagle or she’s lounging somewhere resting in glory, these are my most fervent wishes and dreams for her, a real end to her profound and deep suffering. She was a fiercely joyous person at times but also someone who keenly felt the pain of the earth, the pain of others, her own pain and she just was tuned to the hurt channel a lot of the time.
She and I had a disagreement about life after death, we had many, over the course of our friendship. She remembered coming into her body as an infant, being born and feeling very unhappy about how much suffering she was going to have to endure and she insisted her first memory was this sense of pain and anguish. She further was afraid that this cycle of pain would repeat and that she wouldn’t get off this spinning wheel of suffering.
For a Jewish girl, she had some serious pagan beliefs. Actually, she probably considered herself more of a pagan than a Jew. She was a deep lover of the earth, of Native spiritual traditions. She studied with various tribal elders, learned rituals from them as well as worked for different Native nations around the world throughout her life. She studied Buddhism and Hinduism. She loved the Enneagram and we disagreed about that as well. One of my last promises to her, after a fight we’d had, was that I’d read the section pertinent to me (in her opinion) and go over the chapter with her to explore areas I needed to grow and change in. She would do the same with me for her chapter. I don’t remember now what number I am in the Enneagram. I’m sorry, sister, I won’t be following through with this task, now that you’re not here. The Enneagram is not for me.
I’m firmly a Jewish Curandera/Healer/Witch myself. Jolie and I danced our Judaism together and she came more into a relationship with it as our friendship grew and she saw that there was a deeply rooted earth-based nature to Judaism and that she didn’t have to hide who she was or water down her Wild Woman ways to be a Jew. In recent years she was teaching and working within several Jewish communities, not outside of them, actively a member and engaged with them. We went over her lesson plans and ideas often and she wanted me to co-teach with her for years. Something, I never had the time for, and which now I most deeply regret.
Back to our argument. Jolie was pretty sure that she wouldn’t just be going onto some heavenly realm after she died. Let’s be clear, this discussion of ours happened over many years, not close to her death. We spoke about everything and always went deep. She’s someone who never withheld her truth with me and I with her. All subjects and secrets were shared. I told her, I’d already had a conversation with the Holy One and clearly stated my preference to NOT be coming back around. This lifetime has whacked me pretty hard and I don’t want to do anything over or again. I’ll miss love-making and cuddling with my husband, spending time with my friends and family, flower arranging and the flavors of food, but none of these are worth another round for me. I also have a deep homesickness for singing with the Heavenly chorus.
When I pray and I can go deep, I feel as if I’m touching the tiniest fringe of being in the Divine Presence and the longing I feel is in my cells and soul deep. I honestly can’t wait to be on the other side. This doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to get there, but Olam Ha Ba/The World to Come, for me is a place of great light, comfort, Shalom/Peace and praise.
I told Jolie, I thought she was wrong, her memory of pain and suffering wasn’t wrong, but the idea that we have to continue suffering on the other side and repeat stuff just doesn’t resonate for me. So, I made a deal with Jolie. I told her:
“Listen if I’m wrong and you’re right, in another 300 years or so, when we’ve both been good and dead for awhile, let’s agree to meet up and you can point out the error of my ways and have a good laugh at my expense. If I’m right, then there will be no meet up, other than as we both recognize one another on the other side as two voices in a choir of Holy energies and voices soaring through the universe in great joy and wonderment. That’s what I’m looking forward to!” We laughed and she said some part of her hoped I was right and she was wrong.
I’m not worried, I know she’s free from suffering now. I’ve seen her soaring and felt her voice directing me. I have been grieving her hard and its been complicated by the fact that she made me the executor of her estate. So, I haven’t been able to cry or just be devastated because I’ve had to remain functional to ensure the care of her cats, home, and make sure her affairs don’t fall apart. But when someone you love dies and dies suddenly, you need to fall apart. So, finally I had myself a good cry and then I got a message from her.
I got a strong call from Jolie to go do a Mikveh and then to come home and have a fire circle for her. It’s January, it’s cold at the lagoon. It’s Covid times, having folks over is not recommended. But, Jolie, on the other side isn’t too concerned about these things. I’ve posted on my YouTube channel my post Mikveh thoughts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Be6vyEdEUQ&t=1s
So, I made a few phone calls to local folks who knew and loved Jolie to see if any of them wanted to come to the fire circle to sing songs and tell stories and cry. I’d set up the chairs six feet apart and provide hot soup and tea and some Irish whiskey too. It was a last minute decision and most folks were not able to show up, but two friends did, so it was perfect because three is a sacred number for me and for Jolie. Additionally, I let folks know we would be gathering and to light a candle or join us virtually in remembering her and so our circle was actually a bit larger.
A day after the circle I got an email from another dear friend of Jolie’s telling me that my message to hold a fire circle for her and do Mikveh came on the 49th day since her death. This is the day in the Buddhist tradition when the soul can leave the Bardoand is released for their next adventure, whatever that might be. So, even though I sensed she was free, she may also have been hovering around all of us who loved her and missed her and she chose to communicate with me in a sort of snub your nose kind of silly way by leaving her message with me on the 49th day since her death.
The spiritual technology that Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Native peoples and Jews have around death is profound. Different ideas and teachings and yet very similar practices in terms of honoring the dead and praying for them and making offerings and taking good, good care of the folks left behind.
This is true of any good religious community. We are not all the same in how we live, but we are all going to die, regardless of which tradition we grow up in or come into. How we cross that river is not up to us and what happens on the other side is truly a mystery. My certainty is not really a certainty, it’s a strong feeling, a kind of tuning of my soul with the other side. I’ve danced with angels and heard from folks who have crossed over. I’m very aware that the veil between here and there is a shimmery thin wisp of a thing. So, my visions and ideas feel right to me and sharing them with Jolie, helped her feel a little better about what might be the case for her.
Our last conversation was right before her mother arrived on Friday afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving. I told her I’d seen Jolie sitting at the base of a giant Mama Oak Tree with squirrels running and playing at her feet and gathering acorns and an eagle flying around in circles and keening a powerful song. She loved hearing this. We talked about whether she and her mother had to wear masks and I told her I thought they both needed to, since her mom was flying in from San Diego to Ashland and had been exposed to lots of germs. I was worried for Jolie’s health and for her mother’s. Jolie died two days later early Monday morning, with her mother present, most likely from a pulmonary embolism caused by the swelling and fluid in her body. It was terrible for Jolie’s mother to have to watch her daughter collapse suddenly and not be able to be resuscitated. Jolie did leave this world in a terrible way, terrible for those of us left behind who loved her.
I have so much more to say, but I want to tell the Winter Solstice in Ireland story, so now I’ll head back there. I was on my silent solo retreat, which was supposed to be a full year. I was writing to folks and got several letters from Jolie in tremendous pain. I decided to call her and when I did she asked if she could come visit for two weeks during Solstice and for the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, Hanukkah was early that year and had already come and gone. She couldn’t bear being alone for the holidays and wanted to be with someone she loved and who loved her and who she felt safe with. I prayed on this and got a strong sense that I should say yes. I’d been alone and on retreat at Holy Hill Hermitage in Skreen, Ireland for six months by that time. She got permission to come stay in one of the cabins on the land and she agreed to give me lots of spaciousness and to honor whatever my needs were for silence and quiet within the context of our visit. She just needed a friend and someone to connect to.
So, my sweet wild sister showed up at the Hermitage. I didn’t know it, until she got there, but my very loud, wild, Jewish self was desperately lonely for someone of her ilk. The monks, nuns and other hermits were all very fond of me, but regularly reminding me to keep my voice to a whisper or to slow down. There wasn’t a lot of interaction, but there were weekly optional Sunday lunches, cooked by the monks and nuns and work days when you could help out with the grounds or cleaning and some talking was required to navigate the tasks at hand.
When Jolie arrived, everyone sort of got it, this is Jewish, this is not just Nicole. Additionally, Jolie was with me during Christmas, which is always a less than fun time for me, for lots of reasons. Part of my healing journey in Ireland, involved coming into a deeper relationship with Christian practice from a truly Holy place, where the folks practicing were profoundly engaged and real practitioners. I’d already decided to cook Christmas dinner for all the folks who were at the Hermitage, so they could worship and no one would have to come down and do the cooking. Jolie helped me make the feast for our fellow hermits and that was both fun, ironic and silly. I told the community, I wouldn’t cook a ham, but I’d do a Turkey and all the fixins.’
Jolie also brought so much into my life that seems obvious now, but at the time just didn’t make sense or happen without her. So, for our Solstice gathering, she helped me make these orange and birdseed balls. I’d developed a very active conversation with my cabin’s bird visitors and loved feeding them and seeing them on the other side of my window while meditating. Jolie also had me drape and decorate the bushes and trees around my cabin, a very pagan thing to do! Luckily, my cabin was down a small hill and the flora around it was not too visible. Jolie liked being a rebel, so the Jewish witches, decorated the bushes around their silent cabins on Solstice for the faeries, angels and the birds. We also made a fire pit since there was no way she was going to go through the night of Winter Solstice without a fire.
So, behind my cabin we made a small circle of rocks and when it got dark we made our fire, wrapped up in lots of layers, and since it wasn’t raining, we sang and chanted and did powerful ritual. We shared and cried and danced around our fire at the Catholic monastery. Two Wild Jewish Witches being Wild Women together in the dark. This moment paired with cooking Christmas dinner for our Catholic brothers and sisters felt truly like a Tikkun/Healing for all the women, witches and Jews who had been thwarted, burned or killed at the hands of the Christian communities over millennia. Our solstice fire was a glorious reclaiming space kind of liminal moment of mirth, healing and wildness in the middle of a very sacred, kind and beautiful Catholic place.
Now, not only do I miss Jolie, like an ache in my gut, but I am also left missing the quiet and the dark I had there and what I call my bone time too. I miss the sounds of birds and water flowing in the stream outside my window and the wind, the whirling, whirling wind. Those were the only sounds I heard for months.
Here, where the noise is constant, and birdsong is a background to pumps, heaters, cars, humans in communication with each other and the cacophony that is a town, I think back to my time of Solstice quiet and shared solitude with the Holy Hill monastics and Jolie, my soul-sister who came to visit.
I make a wish and set my intention/Kavannah to one day be there again, in the quiet and the deep, deep nourishing dark, where I can dance again with the stars and sing to them and hear their refrain. Jolie won’t be with me in person anymore. Our rendezvous will now be in a few hundred years, or I’ll find her in all the spaces of my dreams and visions and when she calls out to me in the voice of the hawk, eagle, squirrel or flower that catches my eye and says, “notice me, I’m here with a message for you.”
I miss you Jolie, thank you for being my sister, my brave, wild sister.
During the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we look deeply at ourselves and contemplate many teachings about who we are, how we have behaved and what we need to do to correct our behaviors, mend our relationships with self, with others, with the planet and with the Divine, all of which are connected. We also work with a piece of liturgy that talks about who will die in the coming year and how that will come to be. We contemplate our mortality, our aging and the reality that not everyone present with us today will be here next year because some of us will die between now and then. Our great mystic, prophet and inspired musician Leonard Cohen, z”l, took the words directly from this prayer in his song, “Who by Fire.” He added somethings and took out somethings, but the tone of his song, is exactly the tone of the Yamim Noraim, deep, contemplative, scary, awake and facing who we are and what our end may be.
As Jewish people, we know death intimately, and have never hidden from the fact that life is precious and extremely fleeting. It must be lived well, every day. In Pirkei Avot/The Sayings/Teachings of our Fathers, which is a very pithy book of teachings by the great rabbis from over 2500 years ago, it says:
Do Teshuvah/Return/Repent one day before you die.
So, as we spin around the globe and think about who might be calling on us, at this time, I want to address our brokenness and how to get back to something a little closer to wholeness.
We live in a country called the United States of America. We are certainly not united in many ways and in others we are. Our mainstream culture is obsessed with youth, beauty (as narrowly defined by current social values, which have nothing to do with actual beauty) and health (also narrowly defined and biased). You are beautiful and valued and seen in our culture, if you conform to the aforementioned standards, which are flawed beyond belief.
Additionally we are phobic, fearful and avoid everything to do with aging or death. I’m not talking about all the creams, diets and classes you can take to help you “feel young” or look younger. These are not addressing the beauty of aging, of wrinkles and gray hair and tissues that soften. They don’t address the wisdom developed that should be treasured behind each line on our faces. Very few folks understand that we have abandoned our elders, we have abandoned their bodies, their needs and their wisdom. We do this in multiple ways, but one of the most egregious is the insistence on looking young or not showing your age. In other times and places, our aging was seen and is seen as a sign of our having survived, of our having information and wisdom and offerings to give.
Evelyn Ghoram, by Helen Redman 2001
These women, painted by my mother, were brave and strong. They were not afraid to have their story lines painted and the maps of their sorrows and joys are clearly visible. It is a testament to their courage and strength as powerful women, not afraid of who they were or who they are. My mother, as a feminist artist, has never seen anyone’s lines, bumps, body differences of size, shape, color or texture as anything other than rich fodder for her palette. In this, she is fairly unique, and while there are other artists who may have her love of line, I haven’t seen too many other artists who embrace their aging, and that of others. This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been frustrated by the physical challenges and the emotional and cultural ones, but she doesn’t devalue herself or others based on this. She’s never dyed her hair or taken hormones to make herself look younger or seem younger.
Ellen Kalal, z”l, by Helen Redman 2003
There is no judgment on my part of folks who do this, we should adorn ourselves as we wish and that includes hair color. If hormones are a good idea for you to take, based on your doctor’s directives, then they should be taken. It’s the trying to look attractive all the time, or younger than we are that I am commenting on. It’s a falsehood that serves no one.
When we hide from death and dying and try to outrun their reality we cripple ourselves and those around us from being able to learn from our life experiences, from preparing for our physical end so we can ease that passing for those we love and who love us and from offering/downloading our wisdom to others, the younger generation. If we aren’t seen as valuable or wise, who wants our information? If we don’t prepare for our deaths, when they come, and they will always come, we will not be ready in anyway, physically, emotionally, and most importantly spiritually.
Preparing for the passage to the other side is often seen as the purview of religious folks. We are often seen as intellectually challenged and mentally missing some critical intelligence and/or the ability to be rational or have discernment. We believe in an afterlife, of which there is no “scientific” proof. We think you can prepare for that and we have developed technologies and texts and artwork and teachings around it that are rich, ancient and of tremendous value. I know more about the Jewish teachings than any others, but I have studied how death is seen and looked at across this world and across religions. I don’t need to agree with how other folks see the end to value their own roadmaps of the territory.
I know my Jewish road map very well because I am the Co-Chair of my local Hevra Kadisha (Sacred Society/Burial Society). I have been present for and helped prepare many folks for burial in the over 20 years that I have served in this position. I’ve been preparing for this since I was a little girl. If you look back to the picture at the beginning of this post, you’ll see me at a grave, placing stones or playing with the rocks at my sister’s grave. I used to go to the cemetery, all the time, with my father as a little girl.
When I got older I’d go with my girlfriends Gretchen Reinhardt and Carolyn Powelson, after dance class. We were young, agile, beautiful and not afraid of our graveyard. There was a small creek/stream running through our cemetery. We would fish out the broken headstones, the vandalized headstones from the creek. We would dance among the graves. I’m not sure who began this practice, but it came naturally to us. Gretchen and Carolyn were my dance friends, but they were also part of my Quaker youth group.
What’s relevant here is that we were religious girls, we were part of a community, and for Gretchen and Carolyn, families that had a relationship to Spirit, to Holiness, and to honoring elders. My mother honored elderly folk in the aforementioned visual arts way. My father was a Moroccan man whose elderly father was someone he treasured and maintained a correspondence with that was rich and long. My grandfather Jaimé/Chaim Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 101. His father, my great grandfather, Aaron Ha-Cohen, z”l, lived to be 104 and was the chief rabbi of Tangiers, Morocco. In our families, aging and the elderly were of value.
So, in my young and agile youth, I imbibed the rich milk of caring about and valuing elders and aging. Also, we didn’t own a television until I was older. I was not parked in front of a screen in my youth. Unfortunately, due to COVID 19, and our culture’s love of youth and beauty, this is not going to be the story for many young people. How will they learn the value of elders if they are only shown models who are thin or anorexic and no one with a wrinkle graces their screens unless they are evil hags/witches/old women or nasty old men out to kill them or scare them?
In the fairy tales of my youth, there were old evil hags and nasty old men out to kill one, but there were also wise old folks and elders to heed. I know there are some good models now in the mainstream, but this isn’t enough. We need to embrace aging in our families, in our conversations, in our institutions. We need to talk about dying and the parameters around it. Do the folks we love want to be buried, cremated, transported after they die? What do we want? Where do you want to be buried or scattered. What music do you love and want played at your memorial service?
How do you want to be remembered?
This question is the crux of the matter. Have you lived your life the way you wanted? Have you shared your wisdom with others? Have you found some sense of what might help you be less afraid of this major door you will be going through? Folks have elaborate birth plans and moving plans and career plans, but somehow having a death plan has not become as common. I am saying this with a tinge of humor. Of course very few folks have a death plan, unless they have an illness that is fatal and the time to craft one. Why wait?
We all have a fatal disease whose end is death.
No one gets out alive.
So, let’s work on this as Americans, as Westerners. If you are not part of a religious culture or a tribal one, there are still lots of places for you to go. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife to prepare for your death. You can get your plan together on this side of the line.
In terms of looking at the map of what happens once you leave this earth physically, that is rich food for another post….not to worry, I’ve got lots to say and share and until then, try steeping yourself in the literature or practices of some culture or group who has great wisdom and technology around all of this afterlife territory. We are actually the outliers in not looking at this territory and there is a rich body of work, the world over, to explore. Since you cannot travel easily right now to another country or place, try picking up a book or searching for afterlife beliefs of someone Aboriginal or Cherokee or Jewish or Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist or Ancestor Worshiping or of an African Shaman or any number of other folks’ ideas. Travel in your mind and heart somewhere different and see what resonates for you.
I’ll join you there in that liminal space. I’m also available to help support and work with you. Feel free to reach out to me with your questions about where to start or your fears or ideas.
Hi Ney Ni/I am here. Actually, I’m here now, but I may not be tomorrow.
Been very slowed down for quite some time. Bouts of movement and activity happen in relationship to what needs attending to, but I’m generally not in a rush at all anymore. This has been my preferred setting for self since going away on retreat four years ago. My going to ground has been interrupted by emergencies of either a medical nature or life and death related issues for folks in my family or community.
I no longer have the koach/strength or inclination to be industrious or the way most folks who know me knew me. This puts me at odds with most of the modern world and certainly is a really new way of walking on this earth. I’ve never been fast moving, in terms of walking, running or swimming. Steady as she goes, I can walk a long time, if the pace is slow, same with swimming. I’m super fast when I need to be, addressing an emergency or tending to something time-specific.
What is pulling my attention currently is trying to come to terms with NOT doing and not rushing and not engaging so much with others and the world. This current time of Corona Virus and social distancing has been helpful for me in this regard. I lament the reason for needing to social distance, but having the time to be down has been very helpful. I haven’t wanted to Zoom in groups either. I really don’t want to interact with folks in groups in any format. So, in order to interact or move, I’ve chosen to walk with various friends when I can. We walk responsibly and social distance and go to the Arcata Marsh or in my neighborhood, one on one.
It’s more of a challenge to be on semi-retreat and going to ground in the face of the horrors of the last few weeks. It’s critical to remember that this terrible hatred and violence we are seeing is systematic and very old and entrenched. There’s nothing new here. I saw a video interview with Ava Du Vernay by Ellen Degeneres and I found Ava’s point that the difference in this particular situation with George Floyd’s murder was that the cameras were not just on the victim’s face, but that the multiple videos of coverage showed all the people, the murderer as he was murdering, the bystanders as they were by-standing and the man as he was being murdered and begging for his life. I have not watched any of the footage of him being murdered. I cannot ingest those images, but I do believe in hearing about them and learning about them. I don’t watch rape, murder or beating up of other humans. I have no filter and violence impacts my bones and my heart and my breathing.
My bandwidth has decreased and I’m honoring that.
So, how can I support those who are rising up when I am laying down? I do so in my prayers and in my heart, and by emerging from my silence online for over six months. This situation requires a response. I’m not offline completely and I’m not in my cabin in Ireland far away. I’m just on my own personal retreat recovering from knee surgery in December and navigating this time in my life of connecting and caring for family members that are far away and elderly. I’ve not been silent or unconnected to the folks in my life that need me and with whom I have primary ties and commitments to. This retreat of mine has been about increasing the space in between my interactions with others and letting my being expand and breathe into stillness, quiet, being horizontal and in the dark and watching more movies and shows than I’ve ever done. I believe in the power of story and watching how we tell stories and the stories we tell is something that helps me navigate whatever is going on for me. Lately, I’ve been on a French comedy string of films and am now dreaming in French, which makes me très heureuse/very happy.
And, I’ve been grieving deeply and profoundly several tremendous losses in my life which have truly impacted my joy and natural bounce. I’m not alone in this either, even if I’m curled up in my bed feeling my pain, I know it is connected to the grief of all the people who are losing and have lost loved ones in this time of Covid 19 and due to racism, climate change, greed and fear. Many of us are grieving having a criminal, misogynistic, violent hate-mongering leader in charge of our country. I’ve been grieving this since he was elected and I’m still not recovered and sadly the cost to our planet and to all of our lives has been enormous and it’s not done yet. I think of him as a biblical character, as the pharaoh whose heart was hardened by the Holy One and who was ultimately the precursor to our liberation. May this time of liberation come soon, but if it is still a long way off, I know it will still come.
Folks who support “he who shall not be named,” are still grieving. There is not a single person on this planet who isn’t impacted by all the folks dying alone, without family nearby. When souls leave a body, they need escorts and help and prayers or song and when those aren’t present there’s a time of fear and pain and confusion for those who have died or been murdered. When we also can’t gather to remember or say goodbye, this has a huge cost. So, the suffering of this weighs heavy on us all.
All people have guardian angels or energetic helpers to welcome them as they cross over. I know this, I don’t believe it, it is firmament for me. I am not like others in this regard. Death to me is a transition and a crossing. It is an end to this form of living, but not any kind of end. I can and do swim in the waters of death more than most folks. I connect with folks who’ve left this earth and ask for their help and receive it. I’ve written about this before, so if you are here for the first time, check out my post More than One.
I have hope for our planet and those beings on it who are angry, suffering, put-down, being killed and hunted or just alone and sad. How and why I have hope is connected to my expanding the space and time between things and to my perspective. I can grieve and have hope. I can be sad and outraged and still walk with kindness and integrity and tenderness. I can look at the long sweep of history and recall that there has never been a time when people with more had power over those with less and that in the long arc of our time on this planet there has been a slow movement towards the good. This doesn’t mean we aren’t in a downward cycle, but like the water wheel, we will rise up again. Unlike the endless cycle of ugly and hopeful, there is another deeper well we can draw from. In that well are all those working for others, loving others, loving the planet, taking to the streets in solidarity, educating us all about racism and privilege. All the comedians, the artists, the educators, the nurses, the sanitation workers, the UPS drivers, the post office clerks, the grocery clerks, the folks who every day do their jobs and offer a smile or just do what needs doing are who we can draw strength and hope from. These folks, us, we are a far greater force than that other force.
I know this, it is not my belief, it is firmament.