Archive for the ‘Death and Rebirth’ Category

A few years ago I attended an animal totem workshop. We did all sorts of activities and meditations including whistling bird calls, walking around imaginary labyrinths, and re-enacting a predator/prey hunt. It was all in good fun. In the end of the thing, I had learned that my animal totems were as follows: a bat, a turtle, a bear and a…vulture.

A vulture? I thought to myself, how disgusting is that? Then I went home and read about them. As it turns out, vultures are now my top favorite animal…bats are second place. And today just happens to be vulture awareness day! So in honor of the regally hamburger-meat-headed avian, I will now speak on why I love vultures.

1. They are mysterious. Vultures hang around dead things and dead things are intriguing. Anyone who likes to hang around dead things is neat, according to me. Also, dead things hang around eerie places like dark forests or lonely roadsides. That means that vultures hang around these places too and make the places even more eerie and enigmatic.

2. Vultures not only hang around dead things, they eat dead things. As a writer, I love metaphor, and as a metaphor this is the greatest thing ever. Vultures transform death into newness. It’s like the phoenix, only it actually exists.

3. They look crazy. I read on Wikipedia that the vulture’s head is bald so that it can keep clean, something that is very important when one is a bloody carrion eater. (Imagine sticking your head into a hole full of rotten meat with no showers in sight. You’d want to have a shaved head too.) They are also huge, which I find reassuring. Vultures are huge birds that roam the earth eating evil and keeping clean.

4. A group of vultures is called a wake. I think vultures are necromancers. Seriously. I think they are.

5. My friend just informed me that the latin name for a turkey vulture is Cathartes aura. My friend thought this translated into “immaculate flight” because the vulture doesn’t appear to need to work at flying, they simply ride the currents. I read that Cathartes aura also could mean golden purifier or purifying breeze. The Pueblo Indians believed that if you wear a vulture feather it will remove evil influences (found this info here). Any way you read it, it’s sure a neat name…

6. Vultures don’t kill things, they find things that are already dead or almost dead (they have excellent sight and smell abilities) and then they eat them.

So then, a good way to enjoy Vulture Awareness Day is to take a moment and meditate upon the fact that vultures eat away the death and rot in the world, taking it into themselves and transforming it into new life. They are sacred mystical beings, despite the fact that they present themselves as profane refuse collectors. Take a moment to thank a vulture…


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Last week I found that I had a pure white eyebrow hair. Furthermore, this week was my first back to work after two months off. I’m listening to the Wailin’ Jennys. There’s nothing like a high, reedy voice with a mandolin, white eyebrow hair, and the last quiet whispers of summer to get a girl thinking about death.

Now as a metaphysician, I know that endings are a human construct. (As a kid I always loved to think about what was on the other side of the wall at the end of space. It couldn’t be more space, right? Because space was already ended! So what is it?) However, as a flesh and blood lady, I can tell you that I definitely experience endings, even knowing that they are illusionary.

I just returned from a trip to Guatemala. While I was there I went on a hike at Lago de Atitlan and, within the same span of a few hours, I saw a real live translucent butterfly, a creek bed strewn with plastic bottles and potato chip bags, a serene meditation center surrounded by immaculately tended gardens, and a machismo man in a truck running over a small black and white dog. Ends and beginnings, layer on layer.

In Brahma Kumaris meditation class we learned about the yugas–the four ages of humanity. We start with the Satya yuga–the Golden Age–which was a time of great contentment and happiness. These are then followed by the Dvapara Yuga (Silver Age), the Treta Yuga (Copper Age), and finally the Kali Yuga (Iron Age). These ages pass just like the seasons. In fact, each age shares certain attributes with a corresponding season: Golden/summer=plentiful food, restful; Silver/fall= harvest, turning inward, sweaters, campfires; Copper/winter=cold, gray, melancholy; and Iron/spring=chaotic, extremes…and the promise of a new beginning. At the end of the Kali Yuga is the Confluence, the time when the sun returns and brings back the bliss of the Golden Age.

It’s all a cycle. It will all come back around again…and next time will be even better, because we will be bringing new tools and new understandings that we hadn’t reached yet this go round. Bring on the white eyebrow hairs…

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(Jean-Baptiste Lamarck)

In the last month I have witnessed a lot of death in nature. There was the green snake killed by the scrub jay (an experience on which I wrote a blog entry). Then two weeks ago I saw a little brown bird being pecked to death by a crow. Over the weekend I saw a tiny squirrel baby separated from it’s mom, and very near death. Today I saw a badly injured jay being killed by another jay. That is a lot of nature kill in a very short period of time.

I remember reading the book Animal Wise by Ted Andrews. Andrews says that the world of nature “mirrors the magnificence of our souls.” When animals show up in our lives, they are there as messengers of the divine, to direct us on our spiritual path.

What’s my message after seeing all this killing and death in nature around me? Smite the weak? Root out the timorous and peck it to death? If I were to take Andrews literally at his word, I might  think my spiritual path had taken a decidedly Darwinian turn. That is, if I hadn’t recently read this:

Unfortunately, we conveniently “forgot” about the cooperation necessary for evolution when Charles Darwin emphasized a radically different theory about the emergence of life. He concluded 150 years ago that living organisms are perpetually embroiled in a “struggle for existence.” For Darwin, struggle and violence are not only a part of animal (human) behavior, but the principle “forces” behind evolutionary advancement. Darwin wrote of an inevitable “struggle for life” and that evolution was driven by “the war of nature, from famine and death.” Couple that with Darwin’s notion that evolution is random and you have a world [of] a series of meaningless, bloody battles for survival. (from The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton)

Darwin gave us “survival of the fittest.” He told us that if you want to win, you have to beat everybody else. But, as Lipton points out, Darwin may have gotten the scoop on this story, but he wasn’t the first scientist to have a theory on the topic. A French biologist, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck wrote a book on evolution fifty years prior to Darwin.

Not only did Lamarck present his theory fifty years before Darwin, he offered a much less harsh theory of the mechanisms of evolution. Lamarck’s theory suggested that evolution was based on an “instructive” cooperative interaction among organisms and their environment that enables life forms to survive and evolve in a dynamic world. (Biology of Belief)

Lamarck’s theory was shot down by scientists of the day and by the church, both of which adhered strongly to creationism. However, modern scientists are beginning to come back around to this theory, noting the many instances of symbiotic relationships in nature.

We need to move beyond Darwinian theory, which stresses the importance of individuals, to one that stresses the importance of the community. British scientist Timothy Lenton provides evidence that evolution is more dependent on the interaction among species than it is on the interaction of individuals within a species. Evolution becomes a matter of the survival of the fittest groups rather than the survival of the fittest individuals. (Biology of Belief)

Darwin’s theory gave rise to the ideals of modern capitalism. Get rich. It doesn’t matter who or what you destroy on the way, because they are weaker than you if they can’t beat you. Only the strong can survive and the weak don’t matter.  The oil spill isn’t really Darwin’s fault, but the way that he presented the world, as a war of individuals, certainly encourages the ideology that created it. But Lamarck knew that that which appears to be weak is a part of the strong, and by destroying it, the whole is compromised.

The green snake, the brown bird, the baby squirrel, and the jay are a part of me. The message is (right now anyway) that things (ideas, experiences, thought patterns) can be broken down and taken apart and let to leave my present existence, but through my good intents and practices, their gifts will not be forgotten or capitalized upon inappropriately. I didn’t cause the pain, but I am witness to it, and I honor the power behind it. As in nature, balance is key.

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My next door neighbor invited me to come over and watch his dog (and his cable) last friday night. I was watching an episode of the Ghost Whisperer (starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, who I last saw in that one show from the nineties…I keep thinking it was called Eight is Enough but that isn’t right…you know, the one where the parents die and the kids have to fend for themselves in a cold, hard world, even though they are all so painfully attractive that you sort of feel sorry for them? Anyway.) About halfway through, I saw an aspirin commercial. In the commercial, they showed a person’s skeleton (in electric blue, with pulsing red spots of pain, of course) inside her body as she walked along with her grandchild and her golden retriever.

The lady’s bones looked so clacky and awkward in there, like she was really a robot, or a marionette. Ever since I saw the commercial, I keep picturing what I would look like if I was just bones. (I usually picture white ones, rather than electric blue with pulsing red spots. White is more dramatic for bones.)

Sitting on the couch, legs crossed, reading a book, I’m a skeleton. Standing in front of my 5th graders, writing fractions on the board, I’m a skeleton. Lunchtime, chewing my food, inflexible white jawbone on a rubber band, up and down, up and down it goes, mechanically mashing my taco–which crumbles and falls out the sides, with no cheeks to hold it in–I’m a skeleton.

Imagine if all the flesh in the world disappeared for a day (without us dying of course, which would be impossible, as you know), and we saw what our bodies look like underneath all that fat and blood and glandage. For a little while we would be scared, because we aren’t used to our bones being visible. They move funny. Bones are what mummies are made of and mummies kill you.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from The Tibetan Book of Meditation by Lama Christie McNally:

Stop now and feel the bones beneath your skin. Think of the flesh now covering them—even now it is already in the process of rotting away, getting older by the minute. Picture how it will be in the future—see your flesh fall off and return to the earth, leaving only the pristine white of this pile of bones behind.

Oh yeah! You’re bones are under there! You are a mummy, waiting to happen. Right now, there is a skeleton encased in fat, skin, hair, glands and oily secretions, sitting on your chair scrolling through this blog entry. Gross. (But cool!)

The Bone Poem

Tell me again about the slick bones
of the skull: occipital,frontal, temporal, parietal,

and the forgiving groove of fontanels
stone-hard and stubborn. Tell me about

cervical and thoracic vertebrae rising
from the lover’s lumbar curve, about

and sternum, and floating ribs falling south.
Tell me about humerus, twisting dance of radius

and ulna, how all twenty-eight phalanges
swing open on the hand’s silent hinges.

Tell me about cane-shaped femurs, the fluted
pipe of tibia, and slender, clasping fibula,

tarsals wide and sure, and calcaneum, the calculus
of our unending path. Tell me about the smooth bowl

of the pelvis with its high and wide iliac crests,
the sacrifice of sacrum, and coccyx, memory of tail.

Tell me again about the bony tools of the ear,
how hammer, stirrup, and anvil return to us

the sounds of our small, miraculous lives.

Heather Davis

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(photo by Ingrid Taylar)

I save worms. Sometimes I’m late to work because I keep finding them, every few feet, and I feel compelled to get them off the death cement and put them back into the soft, nutritious soil. Compelled, I said. I don’t necessarily do it because I have compassion for the worms. Well, maybe a little, but I think I do it more to avoid feeling guilty for leaving them there to grind their little setae off on the ragged sidewalk. Or to be mashed by some unobservant human stomping by. How could I live with myself if I don’t do something to save them when I had the chance?

Segue: I walked down to the market today to get some lunch (friday is clam chowder day–I don’t buy it, because I don’t agree with steaming animals to death–I do get the free samples though because they are tiny and it doesn’t seem as bad as buying it).

Anyway, on the way back I sat on a stump to eat my chicken chili blanco. I was just crushing up the saltines when I saw a scrub jay fly down and drop a green snake onto the cement road, where it proceeded to peck the snake’s head until it stopped moving. Then another scrub jay flew over and the killing jay grabbed up its carnage and flew off.

My first instinct on viewing this scene was to run over and save the snake (I just wrote snack as a typo–oops) but then I thought of my blogs on death, and realized that this is all just a part of…well, life, I guess. Things die all the time. Things get eaten all the time. I probably killed more microorganisms filling my soup bowl than there are people in Eugene. Or something. Plus the snake was already very likely fatally injured and chasing the bird off would only prolong its suffering. So I just sat there and watched the thing happen.

Does it count if you save worms because you feel guilty?

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A few weeks ago I became intrigued with Vincent van Gogh. I remembered a story that a teacher told me, about how van Gogh shot himself in the stomach (which is an excruciating place to be injured) and that it took two days for him to die. His last words were, “Who knew that life could be so sad?”  (The teacher wondered why he had chosen to shoot himself in the stomach. He conjectured a guess that perhaps that is where his pain was coming from. Solve et coagula.)

It has been said that Vincent van Gogh saw the world differently than others, which is reflected in his paintings.  It is certainly true that he related with others in a very different way than was socially acceptable (beyond cutting off his own earlobe, he held his hand in a lit lantern to convince a girl’s parents to let him see her, he threatened Gauguin with a razor blade after throwing a cup of absinthe at him [on a slightly different note, after being threatened by the blade, Gauguin apparently decided to try and stare van Gogh down which is not the course that I would have chosen in that situation. Alas, I wasn’t there. Had I been, history would have certainly been very different.], and he agreed to marry a woman ten years his senior, who he didn’t love, because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Or something like that.)

Vincent suffered in his life, that is assured. He failed at dealing art, quit his teaching job because he wasn’t being paid, was fired from a missionary gig, and failed the examinations for the ministry after fifteen months of study. At this point, he decided to become an artist, despite the fact that his mother thought his drawings were “ugly.”

After this, things got a little bit depressing. He was starving most of this time because he spent his money on art supplies, he had hallucinations and heard voices in his head, he poisoned himself by eating his own paint (probably accidentally), he couldn’t sell any paintings (the only one ever sold while he was alive is pictured above) and no women wanted him except the one he didn’t love. And yet, he continued to paint every day. In his words: “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Was it really necessary for him to make that choice? What about contentment? Where does that fit in? It is my goal to be happy by not holding grudges, by not talking negatively about people, by being compassionate.  My counselor once asked me if I wanted to become Jesus and I said yes. Why not?

But she (my counselor) felt like we need conflict in our lives in order to live authentically, to continue peeling back the layers of the onion. So here’s the question: If van Gogh could have been more content, would he have been able to paint the way he did?

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Yesterday I went and spoke with an engaging woman who is finishing up her schooling in embalming. The woman, despite the fact that she is learning how to embalm/preserve bodies in the “traditional” method, is a proponent of a newly re-emerging burial method called the natural burial.

Human beings have been burying their dead for 100,000 years. It has only been in the last 100 years that the funeral industry has taken over the ritual of caring for the bodies of the dead. In the past, if her child died, a mother’s job would be to carefully wash his body, comb his hair, close his eyes and set his features for viewing before his last transition.

The idea now is nearly blasphemous. Who would ever want to do such a thing? Who would want to be that close to the empty frame of a once lively loved one?

My new friend, the soon to be embalmer, feels like we have lost an important ritual. She said that the subconscious mind needs to say goodbye, to understand that something is forever gone, to grieve. Solve et coagula. Rip it open, clean it out, let it heal.

Now what we likely see when a loved one dies is a painted up and waxed over body, filled full of formaldehyde, put into a beautiful wooden box and placed in a concrete and steel tomb underground. The ritual resides in the broccoli casserole and the scalloped potatoes, but no longer in the preparation of the body. We are now told that it is better to leave that job to the experts, who know better than us what is best. It’s a job that is too painful and difficult for the untrained.

When the ancients buried a body, the flesh was likely broken down in less than six months (depending on the soil conditions and temperature). When an embalmed body is interred it can take decades to decompose.

When I die, I would like to allow the organic process of decay to take place. I’d like the elements stored up in my body to be returned to the earth in a timely fashion. I don’t want pink #4 in my veins. I’d understand if nobody wants to wash me up, but that’d be nice too. I’ll put in a good word for you on the other side…


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