The one about…a magical Easter

The days are getting longer and so much warmer. The March winds have subsided, making way for the April showers and now sunshine; Spring is well and truly here. The earth is responding. Blossom is falling, daffodils have all but been and gone, the bluebells are resounding as they carpet floor of the woods, the dawn chorus is echoing and new green shoots are sprouting in every tree and bush; the world around us is coming back to life and it’s magical!

Magic: the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Magic must be at work out there because there is something mysterious and supernatural about the way nature seemingly dies during autumn and resurrects in the spring! Ok, so if I’d paid more attention in A level biology maybe it wouldn’t seem so mysterious and I’m not sure if nature can be supernatural so maybe magic isn’t the right word but in the same way that a good magician creates awe and wonder, so does nature when we stop, look and listen!

I read a book during lent, written by a magician called Nate Staniforth, his book is called Real Magic. If you can afford it, buy it, if you can’t ask me and you can borrow my copy. It’s awesome!

Nate tells a story of a performance he gave to a hostile audience, inviting the most aggressive looking member, a guy called Marcus, to hold a wallet containing a lottery ticket with pre-chosen numbers printed. He then chooses six unknown people at random, not pre warned, to give him a number between 1 and 50…I guess you see where this going! The numbers given by the audience match the numbers on the ticket in the wallet. This is how he described the moment the brutish guy holding the wallet reacts:

“Get the f*** out of here, man. What the f***?” The audience is watching Marcus ascend to a sort of crazed delirium….I want you to see his face. I want you to see the joy, the open, unaffected joy. It’s the kind of joy that reminds you that what you mistook for dull, uninspired brutishness a moment before was actually just weight-the weight of worry, of pain, of anxiety, of the world-and for a moment it has gone, and the face that shines without it is extraordinary.

The universal truth of this particular story is that we all need, want, maybe even crave those moments where we lose the weight of the world and experience the wonder of it.

What if that’s what Easter offers? What if a story about death and resurrection offers us that moment of, as Nate describes;

“not knowing, a moment of wonderment, of joy, and of innocence. It reminds us that it’s ok not to have all the answers or all the information-that we can move on with our lives anyway. And that we should, because we will never have enough information.”

What if the debate about the facts, the ‘information’ about whether Jesus actually rises from the dead, misses the point as much as the debate about how the magician hid the coin, knew the numbers or seemingly sliced through the body! What if that debate isn’t where it’s at? What if instead Easter invites us deeper into awe and wonder? What if Easter invites us to lose ourselves, our worries, our insecurities, our fears and move, for a while, into the wonder of it all before stepping back into reality, still shaking our head in disbelief but with a new found sense of, what if that’s true? What if resurrection is real, what if there is hope? What if we all were able to live from that place rather than a place of doubt and despair? What if the Jesus story invites us to believe, not in the accuracies of historical events, but in wonder, possibility and a preferred future? What if Jesus invites us all to live with the wonder of resurrection knowing that whatever deaths we face there is always hope? What if Easter opens the doors of possibility to something bigger, inexplicable and seemingly impossible, leaving us all hoping that the resurrection is for real!

The one about…the necessary wildness.

The markings on the ground suggested that the place had once known civilisation. The concrete giving way to the green shoots of life as they pushed their way through. The faded paint marks were covered in moss and mud while the brambles entwined around the fallen metal poles that had once stood as the entrance to something. The bridge looked unnecessary, the entrance barred as the exit stopped abruptly in mid air, the steps down long since fallen, hard to decipher what it had once crossed. The edges of the concrete flooring blurred into the surrounding landscape and it was only a matter of time before nature completely reclaimed the space as its own.

It seems that, left to it’s own devices, the natural world is intent on restoring everything to what it once was.

I imagine something similar would happen to us if we weren’t so good at maintaining our civilised selves.

We often conform to the expectations of job, marriage or children. We so dutifully follow the well trodden route of school, study and career. We settle down, earn enough money to support the comfortable lifestyle that we expect to live and we raise children to do the same. Is that what it’s really all about? What happens if we stop, for a while, with the upkeep of this civilised existence and allow it all to degenerate? What if we allow the cracks to appear and the wildness of our inner being to take over? What if, just for a moment we allow ourselves to be reclaimed by nature?

It seems we put a lot of effort into fighting decay; exercise, healthy eating, not to mention the skin care regimes, Botox and hair colouring; all often an attempt to keep our bodies at the peak of condition or disguise the evidence of the toll time takes on us. We can’t really fight it though, nature always wins.

Maybe it’s important to acknowledge the natural course that life follows; to acknowledge that our bodies will change, decline and eventually be reclaimed back into the dust they were once a part of. Maybe as we do that we find that we’re able to hold life in a different way? What if we accept we can’t maintain our civilised existence forever and that one day we’ll all be reclaimed by soul or spirit into a mystery we are yet to comprehend?

The question is whether we’re willing to acknowledge the reality of our own decay and death. What if our wild, uncivilised selves long for a life that is authentic and honest instead of one that keeps us just far enough away from that reality? What if the maintenance of our lives too often comes at a cost and keeps us living at a distance from each other, too scared to admit to who we really are?

Maybe there’s a wisdom to the ancient concept of Shabbat or Sabbath, of a day set aside for rest and recreation. Maybe it’s important to take time to reconnect with ourselves, others and the Divine. It’s not easy to stop or slow down in a world that values busyness and production above all else. It sounds a little crazy to our 24/7/365 society but what if stepping aside from the everyday either for an hour, or an afternoon, or even a week or two allows us to see the beauty that we’d forgotten existed because we’re so busy maintaining what we have? What if that kind of rhythm to life is important if we’re going to embrace the wildness? What if the concept of Sabbath is an inspired approach to living which keeps us more in tune with our own heartbeat and more at peace with reality! What if, when we choose to immerse ourselves in stillness rather than busyness, we find there’s not such a distance between the wildness of our souls and our otherwise civilised existence.

The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…mourning

mourn

/mɔːn/

verb

feel or show sorrow for the death of (someone), typically by following conventions such as the wearing of black clothes.

feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Mourning can take many forms and opportunities to mourn can vary. We mourn the loss of a job or relationship. The realisation that a situation has changed and we’re not going to do life in quite the same way can leave us feeling bereft of familiar routines, experiences or places and a type of mourning takes place. Most commonly though, when we talk of mourning, we talk of it in relation to physical death.

Mourning death varies from culture to culture. In the UK we’re often quite ordered and reserved, a viewing of the body is generally only for immediate family and the work of preparing the body for burial is left to a funeral director. Funerals are often solemn occasions, followed by burial or cremation and then a shared meal with family and friends.

In other parts of the world though the deceased’s body stays with the family, openly on view for visitors to pay their respects. Some cultures are very vocal and express their grief with wailing or song. Some cultures have set mourning periods with rituals that have to be observed.

Across the world, however it’s carried out, mourning is recognised as an outward expression of grief, a more visible, tangible display of those feelings we hold inside.

Mourning isn’t just culturally influenced, our personality, previous experiences and relationship to the deceased also influence when, where and how we mourn. However we practice mourning, however prescriptive our tribes methods of mourning are, mourning is a healthy part of the grieving process.

There ability and need to mourn privately has its place and is unique to the individual but there is something beautiful that occurs when a community comes together to mourn. While each individual holds their own thoughts and feelings the act of sharing together allows a deeper sense of solidarity and understanding to be expressed. In coming together there’s also somehow a recognition that the need to mourn isn’t always in proportion to the loss experienced. This shared experience is often one which strengthens community and unites those who participate. Mourning together goes further though because it allows space for community members to comfort each other, to stand alongside each other, it requires courage to admit feelings and to hold others feelings alongside our own.

It seems that often as we mourn what’s taking place is an admission of those feelings that are deepest within us. For most people death within the community or family stirs our deepest fears about our own mortality. It’s as though death reminds us how vulnerable we are and how uncertain life is. Maybe death isn’t just the loss of someone but also the loss of our own innocence and security and a reminder that we can’t hold anything too tightly.

What if this is why mourning is so essential? What if mourning allows us to feel those fears, to let them surface and to acknowledge them in the presence of others who share those feelings too.

So as those feelings of sadness and fear surface, as moments of despair, hopelessness and grief manifest what if we choose not to avoid feeling? What if we’re not too quick to distract ourselves from feeling? What if we choose not to bury those feelings underneath the mundanity of life or deny their existence but what if instead we allow ourselves to feel, to embrace feeling and to be embraced because what if that’s where we find life?

Mourning is painful, mourning requires vulnerability but what if, in doing so, we create an opportunity to know ourselves a little more, to allow others in and to allow love to comfort and heal? Maybe it’s good for us to mourn…

The one about…grief

Devastatingly sad news, like the death of someone you all knew and admired, someone who inspired others, affects everyone in the community. We all cope in different ways for many reasons, maybe because of the intensity, or not, of relationship; maybe because of our differing personalities; maybe because of previous experiences of grief and loss. Some will cry, some will be angry, others will be quiet, some will behave as though nothing’s changed. Some will have to be strong and brave despite their own feelings, to allow the younger members of the community to mourn. There is no right way to mourn, grief, however it’s expressed, is valid.

When the grief hits, however it hits, we will need to stand with each other and to allow each other to grieve. This might require courage; courage to talk, courage to listen and courage to love. We might need to allow each other to express feelings in unique ways; to talk, cry, shout, draw, write, think, however best allows us to move forwards…because we will move forwards.

Life calls us onwards, even when for a while death causes us to pause and wait indefinitely in a place that we don’t really want to be. Death awakens us to feelings we’ve often subdued, denied, hidden or maybe never experienced before and reminds us that one day death will meet us personally. Death is real. Yet, until the time death meets us, a time we don’t know for certain, life invites us to live; to adventure. Life asks us to journey with those emotions and to live, fully alive, knowing joy, pain, sadness, fear, anger and love…because they all belong. Those emotions travel with us and the hope is that somehow we allow love to take the lead, the other emotions will have their place, they will need to make room for each other but love must win. For now, because we love, we’ll grieve.

I’ll leave you with the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, taken from her Instagram account after the death of her partner and best friend…

People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.

Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.

The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.

Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.

I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing.

The one about…death (part 3) That’s it… for now!

It’s possibly one of the biggest existential questions. That question we ask ourselves in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep, the one we try to ignore, the one that some days we convince ourselves isn’t relevant. That one question that never goes away! “What happens when I die”? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Will I be OK?

It’s a question that we’re often not good at finding a place or time to discuss, although that said I read in the news this week of a ‘Coffin club’ in Hastings where people meet to assemble and decorate their own flat pack coffins, it seems it’s not only a money saving enterprise but also an opportunity to ‘break down taboos’ about death and allow conversation! I like that!

Some countries and cultures do seem to more naturally embrace death. They allow death in rather than keep it at a distance. Relatives embalm the body themselves or family and close friends dig the grave or the body is kept in the house for a few days, somehow it’s less removed from life, more a part of life, an embracing of the rhythm of the universe. Alongside the embracing, the remembering and celebrating are invited in too; rather just left to funerals or anniversaries, lives are commemorated with annual celebrations. Communities and individuals celebrating and remembering those who are gone.

I’ve been watching a series on Netflix about Jack Whitehall travelling with his father across Europe. They visited the Merry Cemetery in Romania where all the gravestones were hand carved with cartoon portraits of how the deceased met their fate! There are pictures of trains, cars, decapitation, drowning…death is not seen as a sad or solemn occasion but as a gateway to something better, death is celebrated as a joyous moment in the transition to the afterlife.

In the previous series Jack and his dad toured Southeast Asia, visiting a temple in Vietnam to take part in a Buddhist ceremony. They purchased items made from paper, anything from paper money to mobile phones or laptops to motorbikes, tea sets, bath tubs…anything their loved one would of enjoyed whilst on earth or anything thought to be interesting or useful to the deceased now! The items were then burnt as a way of sending them to the deceased. There was something about the conversation that occurred whilst choosing the appropriate items, something about remembering what people enjoyed and imagining what they’d think to life now that created an energy, a kind of joy.

If you’ve ever watched the film ‘Coco’ you’ll know that in Mexico they celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. National Geographic describes the annual festival:

Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones. The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning.

The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative

There’s so much to the festival it’s worth reading up on. I have friends in the UK who are considering adopting some of the customs instead of celebrating Halloween, are start of a new tradtion maybe, that’s really quite beautiful!

It seems that in all these festivals, in all the tradtions and rituals that are created, that there’s something about providing a way to remember and celebrate life while at the same time there’s a recognition that there’s an afterlife, that those being remembered are, well, somewhere!

So what do people believe about life after death?

Wikipedia offers a simplistic overview!

Afterlife (also referred to as life after death) is the concept that an essential part of an individual’s identity or the stream of consciousness continues to manifest after the death of the physical body. According to various ideas about the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul or spirit, of an individual, which carries with it and may confer personal identity or, on the contrary, may not, as in Indian nirvana.

In some views, this continued existence often takes place in a spiritual realm, and in other popular views, the individual may be reborninto this world and begin the life cycle over again, likely with no memory of what they have done in the past. In this latter view, such rebirths and deaths may take place over and over again continuously until the individual gains entry to a spiritual realm or Otherworld.

I know that there’s so much to unpack in that, so much that could be said. But here’s the thing, Richard Rohr, one of the people who inspires me most, said

When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors, approximations, and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the Holy.

Any language we try to give to the afterlife, words like ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘soul’, and all the stories, explanations or imagery that goes with those words can only be a pointer, or a metaphor, because no-one has the definitive answer. We’re all trying to understand, trying to give meaning to something we may have witnessed but have not fully experienced.

When I think about death, about leaving those I love and about those I’ve loved leaving me, for me it only makes sense if this life is part of bigger story told by the universe; the on-going story of creation where we have our part to play in the care and creation of the world. Where the story is a meta-narrative with love as the main theme. Christianity talks of the ‘Kingdom of God’, a realm beyond, yet within, the one we experience where love does reign and life can be fully lived. What if there’s something in that? What if somehow we transition from this life into eternity in a similar way to the way we transition from the womb to what we’ve come to know as life. What if being born again isn’t some random Christian terminology but actually a helpful way of understanding death? What if we find in death the fullness of love and life? What if in death those we’ve loved are held by this love? What if we can trust that when our time comes, we will be too?

I don’t know, they’re only words…and sometimes words aren’t enough!😉

The one about…death (part two- or is there?!)

I’ve been thinking about death all week and wondering why we don’t find it easy to talk about. I don’t think it’s because we’re not interested, it’s the one thing that affects everyone, no matter who they are, how much they have or what they do. I also can’t imagine that it’s because we don’t have anything to say. Most people I know have encountered death in some form and even if that’s not the case I’d be surprised if they’ve never thought about it. So why don’t we talk about it more?

I guess partly because it’s painful, the grief can be overwhelming and when you know you’re not going to hold it together it’s easier not to talk. I’ve been there, I get that. Yet even when that raw, seemingly relentless, suffocating kind of grief begins to ease a little we’re still reluctant to talk. It’s awkward, maybe we’re worried we’ll scare someone with our story or our thoughts, maybe we’re fearful of offending someone, of saying the wrong thing, of making it worse. Maybe were sacred that what we feel or think isn’t ‘normal’ and we’ll sound a little crazy! But what if what we’re actually most afraid of is death itself?

Part of the problem with death (other than the glaringly obvious finality of it) is that we don’t really know much about it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know when it will happen, we don’t know how it will happen and we don’t know where it will happen and we don’t really know what happens other than the physical symptoms?! One thing we do know is that it will happen! It will happen, despite the wrinkle cream, the hair colourants or any of our other attempts to stay looking young. It will happen despite the over indulgence in wine or work or retail therapy or social media, despite any of our attempts to keep busy, any of our attempts to distract ourselves from reality, to not to have to think too deeply about life…despite all that, death will still happen! We can choose to keep ignoring it or we can start to embrace thoughts and conversations about it…because there’s something about facing our fears, something about sharing our thoughts with others that helps. It helps us realise we’re not alone, helps it’s realise what is ‘normal’ and helps us form more of an understanding about what we believe might happen when we die.

Now, I am not dead (as far as I know) and having never died I simply don’t have the answer to the ‘what happens’ question. I know there are a plethera of opinions and postulations about what happens next. Some people, go for a belief in oblivion, nihilism, the understanding that there is nothing more. Somehow for me that falls short, I guess I’ve sensed something more in my encounters with death.

The night my dad died, after seeing the sheet covering his head, I didn’t go back into the room. The funeral directors took him away. I went to visit him, his body, in the funeral home a couple of days later with a family friend. She stood at a distance as I walked to the table he lay on. I stared at him, he looked as though he was sleeping. I touched his cheek really gently, more out of intrigue than anything else. I remember just watching him, hoping he’d wake up. He didn’t. I’ve no idea how long I stood there for, no tears, just a kind of awe and confusion and wonder and lostness….an eleven year old encountering something there just weren’t the words for.

The reality is that words are limiting. We can’t really describe what happens when we witness death, all of our words fall short, they don’t fully capture what we experience or how we feel.

I remember looking at his body, touching him, bemused by the familiarity and yet the unrecognizable, the memories that his face had shared and the emptiness staring out. What made him “him” had gone. Gone where? I don’t know, but there was a strong sense that something bigger than physical death had occurred. There was something about spirit, essence, aura, soul, something more, something deeper that I didn’t have words for, something I couldn’t fully comprehend, something had changed.

I don’t know if all of that’s just a desperate attempt to convince myself that there’s something more than this life, stirred by my cultural and religious beliefs and fuelled by not wanting to accept that some of those I’ve loved are no longer here. Or if there really is something more. I’ve never met anyone who’s encountered death so closely and written it off as a matter of fact with a ”that’s that done then”.

I know not everyone’s encounter with death is as straightforward as I’ve described but often when we do find ourselves able to talk about those final moments, when the initial shock and pain have subsided, we use words like beauty, stillness, mystery, as though the moment of passing is something deeply spiritual. We talk of it being a privilege to have shared in that moment, to be part of something so much bigger than the now.

One thing I have realised as I’ve thought more about death is that those with a strong shared cultural or religious certainty seem more able to talk about death. Those who have a framework for what happens next seem more able to hold it, deal with it, interact with it.

So I guess the next question to wrestle with is ‘what do I believe happens next’? If I don’t believe in oblivion, if I do believe there’s something more then what might that look like? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Are we reincarnated into something our someone else? Is any of the next life dependant on this life? Is this life part of a bigger story told by the universe and does love have anything to do with it? I think there needs to be a part three!