Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

As Trump Reduces Wilderness, I Dare to Dream…

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Canyonlands, Utah

Behind the smoke screen of daily drama in the media, you may have noticed that our President is busy dismantling protection for our wild lands. He has approved a recommendation to reduce protection for Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah—part of the vast land that became protected by the stroke of Clinton’s pen.

It just so happens that this very week, I’ve been reading Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by Terry Tempest Williams    Her poetic eloquence, intellectual rigor and passionate defense of the land clearly represents a different world than the one inhabited by our current leadership.

How then, I ask myself, can we bridge these two worlds? How can we—even with less poetic voices—be convincing advocates for the wild, untouched, precious areas in our country and in our lives?

Way back in 1995, Tempest Williams testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Forest & Public Lands Management, objecting to a wilderness bill:

“Mr. Chairman, if you know wilderness in the way you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate. We must ask ourselves as Americans, ‘Can we really survive the worship of our own destructiveness?’”

These issues are, of course, not new. Most wilderness has been created by visionary Presidents. amidst the protest of those whose pocketbooks are lined by extracting resources or developing wild land. Now the vision must come from the people.

Is it any coincidence that this is going on amidst sexual scandals and women speaking out in behalf of their own bodies, as never before? I think not. Women have had good reason to fear speaking about the abuse and disrespect the feminine has been suffering for millennia.

Mother Earth has a body too, and cannot speak for herself except through storms, earthquakes and other responses to the changes she is experiencing. Remember the film Koyaanisqatsi–Life Out of Balance?

“We have forgotten the option of restraint.”

This is not about politics; it is about what we want our legacy to be as human beings.

“It is no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of compassion.”

When I consulted for organizations who were experiencing internal dysfunction or financial problems, I always returned them to the foundational level of values. Why were they in existence besides making money? What contribution did they want to make? I must ask myself these questions as I go about my own business.

“A nation’s appetite for beauty transcends a state’s hunger for greed.”

I have a voracious appetite for beauty. How about you? I understand greed and the necessity to make a living. And, I stand with communities like the Pachamama Alliance , Bioneers and many conservation organizations, whose voices echo warnings from indigenous elders and the spirits of the the Grandmothers, Grandfathers and ancient ones.

We can find ways to speak in behalf of restraint, of compassion, of love for beauty, of hunger for the wild in the land and in ourselves.

“Who has the strength to see this wave of destruction as a wave of renewal?” Something quickens in me; I think it is hope. I remember:

“We can give birth to deep change, creating a commitment of compassion toward all living things. Our human-centered point of view can evolve into an Earth-centered one….Is this too much to dream? Who imposes restraint on our imagination?”

 

All quotes are from Red, by Terry Tempest Williams

This piece also appears on Huffington Post here.

 

Three Lessons for Now from an Ancient First Nations Culture

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Taking off in a small Turboprop from Vancouver, we left urban life for the Haida Gwaii, a cluster of islands 60 miles west of mainland B.C., and about the same distance from the Alaskan panhandle. Named the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1798, the Haida Nation ceremonially returned the name to the British Crown in 2010. “Haida Gwaii” means “the place, or islands of The People.”

The Haida creation story tells of Raven, a supernatural being, cracking open a clam shell. The Haida People emerged from the shell, and the human race was born. Found objects on the islands have been carbon-dated to 12,500 years ago. One village has been continually inhabited for 1,000 years.

Where had I been? Why did I not know about this tribe? This would be an adventure full of humbling information and lessons that seem very relevant now, during these chaotic and challenging times.

In his fascinating book, The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant  writes that for many, the Haida Gwaii “represent a kind of ‘soul home,’ a wild, native Eden…The islands provide a link to how things were before the arrival of Europeans as well as a glimpse of a possible future.”

We would visit the northern Graham island, where Natives and non-Natives live together and the Haida culture exhibits its resiliency. Then we would don our warmest clothes, climb onto a zodiac wearing oilskin suits over our parkas, and be guided to the southern islands and into the Gwaii Haanas. This National Park Reserve and Heritage Site where we would visit ruins of ancient villages, is accessible only by seaplane or boat.

 

Everywhere we went, we heard about how the Haida have survived through a remarkable story of human endurance. So I listened very carefully for hints about how we, in the midst of a national and planetary crisis, will survive as well.

The lessons I learned were similar to my learnings from visiting and studying other indigenous cultures. There are solid principles that surviving ancient cultures seem to share. They are rooted in the spiritual realm.

For the Haida, supernatural, unseen forces come “out of concealment” and often take the form of humans. And so, like the relationship between land, sea and sky, boundaries between the seen and the unseen are fluid and in constant change.

 

What does not change are several key principles that we would do well to take seriously.

  1. “Yahguundang” does not translate directly into English, but the closest word is “respect” for all things: land, water, air, the supernatural, our ancestors, and each other.

2. From Yahguundang comes the corollary, the “privilege of responsibility.” Haida attorney and artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson writes, “The Haida Gwaii (the land) and the supernatural beings decided to believe in us and entrusted us with stewardship or our home and each other.”

3. Humans are part of the natural world and are not superior to animals or other humans.

What would have to change if we lived by these principles?

It’s true that there are hierarchies in the Haida world view and tradition. They divide their ecology into three realms: creatures of the sea, land and sky. Each is organized by rank, with an animal at the top. Killer Whale is chief of the ocean people; Bear is chief of the forest people; and Eagle is chief of sky creatures. Humans are born into one of two “moieties” or groups: the Raven or the Eagle moiety is passed down by the mother, and so is the crest and dozens of clan identifications.

But these designations do not mean “power over” another; they seem to have to do more with respect, honoring and belonging.

How do these laws play out in their culture? That will be the subject of four more articles in this series about the Haida Gwaii and the lessons that we might glean from them. I’ll touch lightly on highlights of their arts and culture; their ecology; their resilience; and their spirituality.

Coming home from the Haida Gwaii in late July and re-entering the crazy world of deteriorating geopolitics, rhetoric and the dumbing down of debate and dialogue makes me more convinced than ever that we need to look at the wisdom we have inherited from our indigenous neighbors. It’s not about going back; it’s about re-membering, putting back together a way of being that has to do with who we truly are and what life really means to us.

For what principle would you really take a stand?

 

 

This post also appears on a Huffpost blog.

 

5 Lessons for Surfing the Waves of Change

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

When my breasts were just buds, my Dad taught me how to be a surfer girl. I grew up in Southern California, and we spent our family vacations at San Clemente, camping every day by the Trestle, still a well-known surfing spot. We’d set up an umbrella, get out the Coppertone oil (yep, I had the darkest tan in town) and buy the best cheeseburgers in the universe at the stand on the beach. Every year I’d push the envelope a bit more.

At first I was only allowed to wade into chest-high surf. I could enjoy that, because the angle of the ocean floor is very shallow there, making series of waves. I would ride the little waves on my canvas mat (pre-boogie boards), while my Dad would venture out to the men-only spot way out where the big waves break.

Already, you can see there are metaphors coming (and you may know, I love ‘em.) My Dad was teaching me how to venture into men-only territory in the world of my future. What he didn’t know is that he was also a spiritual teacher. Today I’m in my 70’s, and I’m more amazed than ever at how big the surf is, even in Arizona. The world seems almost consumed by huge waves of change, and I feel more out of control than ever. Maybe I can’t make waves the way I once thought I could. These days it’s enough to just surf them.

So here are some surfing principles my Dad taught me that you could adopt for navigating turbulent times:

1. Dive under oncoming waves. To get out into the action, you have to go against the incoming waves. The trick: Don’t let them blast you in the face and knock you over. Go deeper than the incoming and surface on the back side of them.

Comment: If this metaphor works, it means trying to “Go deeper” instead of “Rise above it.”

2. Wait for the right wave for you to ride. Don’t start with a giant one, or even assume those are the best. Don’t crowd in front of someone already riding the wave. Pick the one that just beckons.

Comment: Guess this falls under the category of picking your battles–and your thrills!

3.  If you get caught in a riptide, don’t fight it. Be observant and try swimming parallel to the beach until you can catch a wave that will take you to shore.

Comment: Of course you’ll run into unseen forces that are big and dangerous, so be alert and stay calm and humble.

4. When you want to catch a wave, paddle like hell. You have to work for your thrill. Now let the ave carry you. See how you can work with it. What can you do to increase your still and your fun?

Comment: What if life is all about putting everything into the present moment?

5. Respect the ocean. It’s much larger than you are. It can be loads of fun and beautiful, and it can also kill you.

Comment: Like life.

How these principles worked was: Dad would take me out to the zone of big waves where I couldn’t touch. When the right wave came, he would give me a big push on my canvas mat, and off I’d go, paddling like hell until the wave took me. It was a great ride all the way in to the beach. In later years, I’d use fins to catch my own wave and then get up on my knees on the mat once the wave broke, tall and strong in my pink-striped one piece. Not hot, not cool, just me.

Thanks, Dad, for the mentoring. Even though I never made it onto a surfboard, all these years later I can still taste the salt air.

Bringing Billy Home: A Tribute to a Fallen Marine

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Some families appear to be elected, even ordained, to teach the rest of us about loss and suffering, and about the love and resilience that helps us bear the unbearable.

I met one of these families this week during an emotional reunion of the 3 Marine squadrons where Lt. William Ryan served in Viet Nam. My husband, Jon Trachta, served in one of these squadrons, so I went with him to Washington, D.C. for three days of events.

The keystone event was the funeral with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on May 10, 48 years after Lt. Ryan died on a mission in Laos. His remains were found and identified in January, allowing the family to plan for this event, called “Bringing Billy Home.”

Hundreds of mourners gathered on a hillside where a caisson led by 7 white horses received the flag-draped coffin. Ospreys flew over in the missing man formation, where one peels off and the rest continue. The family walked behind the caisson, followed by a procession of Ryan’s Marine brothers and the hundreds of family friends in attendance. (Arlington officials claimed it was the largest funeral there in memory.) It was hard to say which was more heart breaking: the family, the crowd, the ceremony, or my husband’s tears.

At the funeral site, Marines lifted the flag and folded it in slow motion. A Brigadier General carried it over to Ryan’s son, Mike, handing it to him and expressing condolences to his wife and children.

The full tragedy was that Mike’s mother, Judy, had been buried the day before—May 9. Literally the day after finding out that her first husband’s remains had been identified, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on January 17. She died April 11.This was after losing her second husband in March– the only father Mike remembered. For Mike, this string of losses is simply incomprehensible.

Gary Bain, the pilot who flew with Ryan, his backseater, knelt at the coffin and placed the patch from his flight jacket on top of the flowers. Gary, who spoke later at a dinner for the 46 fellow Marines who travelled to the event, admits to having struggled mightily with survivor’s guilt. He still does not know why, after agreeing they would eject, Ryan’s ejection seat was not freed. Hopefully Gary’s struggle has come full circle, and he has now been brought “home” as well.

As Jon and I watch video and photos, we are both moved by so many aspects of our journey. Of course the beauty of the ceremony and the reunion is bittersweet, overshadowed by the tragedy of war that brought us all together in the first place.

Jon has taught me that the bravery he exhibited in the 240 missions he flew was motivated by brotherhood. The mystique of the Marines has less to do with God and country than with being willing to die for another human who is your brother—or now, your sister.

I’ve not had to risk my life in war, and so I understand that I don’t understand. There is probably no way I can really know what these men have all been through and what it means in the secret chambers of their hearts. But one thing is clear: “Semper fidelis” has to do with love.

I imagine that’s what also motivated my own father, a bomber pilot who was shot down and killed in World War II when I was 21 months old. He flew the plane down while everyone else got out except his bombardier, who was trapped beneath the cockpit. His mother and my mother waited in anguish for four months of his being missing, until one of the survivors wrote my mother and told her he counted the chutes and saw the plane explode. So I do know something about how families are affected.

And so I’m left with the prayer that the love I witnessed last week continues, and that the beauty of the honor and ritual and ceremony continues. May we find a way as a species to love and honor each other without having to resort to war. In the same way that Mike and his family will find the resilience to live and love beyond their losses, may we find a way to recover from battling each other and find the beauty and honor encoded in every life.

If it’s true that “home is where the heart is,” then may all warriors and their families find their way home.

 

This post is also on HuffPost and can be seen at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5918f315e4b00ccaae9ea459.

The Secrets in a Rose

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Photo by Pamela Hale

What do you see when you look at the center of this rose? What emotions do you feel?

When it appeared as one of spring’s first offerings in my garden, I marveled at the perfection of the folds and their graceful sweep. And, I am drawn to the center, wondering in awe at the source of this creation.

The center of all flowers must contain the mystery, the source of their blooming, the secret behind their fragrance and the perfection of their beauty. And of course, if we were to tear the rose apart to discover the secret, we would destroy it. Somehow it is the very form the mystery takes that is part of its perfection. The mystery unfolds on its own, in its own time and in its own way. Just as we do. Just as life does.

I’ve long associated the rose with the power of the Virgin Mary, especially since I live in Tucson, a region where the Virgin of Guadalupe is very present. My husband and I have visited the chapel and shrine to her in Mexico, where a peasant named Juan Diego had an encounter with her and found an imprint of roses inside his poncho afterwards.

For me, the energy and power of the Virgin Mary is paired with Mary Magdalene and the other Marys in the Christian tradition, and the rose reminds me of all of them. They are, for me, aspects of the Divine Feminine that we need desperately now, regardless of our religious beliefs.

And so I was delighted, after I took this photo, to read this article (https://www.thoughtco.com/sacred-roses-spiritual-symbolism-rose-123989 )on the sacred symbolism of the rose that expanded its meaning for me. It turns out that the rose is a key symbol dating from pre-Christian times and associated with devotion to the goddess Venus. For Muslims, roses are symbols of the soul, and are sprinkled through the ecstatic poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Hindus and Buddhists consider than to be expressions of spiritual joy. And when the fragrance of the rose is present and roses cannot be seen, God is at work.

As for the “mystic rose,” as the Virgin Mary is called, I had never thought of the prayer Catholics offer to her being the “rosary.” The repetition of the rosary is meant to be like a “spiritual bouquet” offered to The Virgin. And since women are particularly devoted to her, she is a powerful spiritual ally for the feminine principle.

I learned that essential rose oil vibrates at 320 megahertz of electrical energy, the highest vibration of any oil. The nearest competitor is lavender at 118. It was humbling to learn that a healthy brain vibrates at a range of 71-90!

If a loved one gives you a rose, no wonder it’s considered a sign of true love. And pay attention to the color. White is said to represent purity, red represents sacrifice and passion, yellow suggests wisdom and joy, and lavender symbolizes wonder, awe and positive change.

I say, be your own lover and give yourself a rose. And you might consider that an invitation for a miracle or angelic encounter. When the deep power of femininity is called forth, mysteries can be solved, wisdom revealed, and the perfection of Beauty can become the medicine for all ills.

 

This post can also be seen on Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58e17d4be4b03c2b30f6a7c2

Seeing Our Way Through the Pachakutiq

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

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The latest earthquake in Japan is said to be an aftershock from the one in 2011, and that means among other things that Mother Earth set a big change in motion back then, and the effects are still going on. Perhaps our electoral, political and psychic earthquake in the U.S. is an aftershock too, a manifestation of unseen forces of change that were already at work long ago.

The ancient Inka people of Peru and their current descendants refer to the pachakutiq, the force that turns the world upside down. The force was named after Pachakutiq Inka Yupanki, 1438-1471, the ruler who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into the Inca Empire.

Pachakutiq was a conqueror, an empire builder, whose name meant “he who overturns space and time.” But even Pachakutiq had to ultimately bow to death and to Mother Earth, whose power reminds us that we actually are not in charge here.

We live a multi-dimensional life, whether we are conscious of it or not. In our personal world, the pachakutiq occurs when we’re faced with a personal earthquake like a divorce or death of a loved one, or loss of a job. In the collective world, a pachakutiq has occurred with the recent US election, and the aftershocks continue. And in the cosmic dimension, the force you might call God or the Great Mystery is at work too, in ways that are unseen.

What do we do in times of the pachakutiq?

My brother-in-law taught me a lesson about this years ago, when he was suddenly stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome. Within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, he was unable to dress himself and bound to a wheelchair. By the time I saw him in a rehab facility, he was paralyzed neck down.

“How are you doing emotionally, Bob?” I asked timidly, knowing this was a pathetic, inadequate question.

“Oh, I’m actually fine, now that I made the psychological adjustment,” he answered quickly, as if he had been expecting the question.

“Come on, Bob,” I countered. “How can you make a psychological adjustment to being paralyzed?”

“Oh, but that’s the point. You must.” He had worked this through. “And now that I’ve made it, see those toes on my left foot? You come back next week and I’ll be moving them.”

Clearly he wasn’t paralyzed psychologically, and that’s because he had moved to acceptance. I’m sure he didn’t like being paralyzed, so acceptance didn’t mean approval. It meant he had ceased to allow shock to numb him into a state of denial where action is impossible.

I’m only now moving into a state of acceptance about the election. It does appear that it actually happened, and it also appears that it’s as bad as we originally thought. Given the severity of the aftershocks and the probability of many more, what do we do?

Bob pointed out back then that when we’re dealt a bad hand, we naturally want to give it back. Acceptance means we give up that fantasy. Now we can play our hand, even if it’s not the one we wanted.

Elizabeth Gilbert posed the question, “Who do I want to be in this situation?” Thank you, Elizabeth.

I want to look at the world through two lenses simultaneously, and to have the near view and the big picture work together, even though they seem opposed.

The big picture is that I’m a little creature in a magnificent creation, making me both tiny and grand, a formless bit of the Life force swimming in the great cosmic soup. So out of the big picture lens, I want to see everything as part of the One Being, part of Love. Despite appearances and conditions.

Out of the other lens I see smelly garbage I need to take out, and our latest empire builder making horrifying appointments that seem to overturn time and space. In this dimension, I will not be paralyzed or silent, but will stand for the truth I see with all my heart, wearing as much beauty as I can muster, and perhaps some combat boots hiding under the silk.

We must hold both truths to be self evident: that this is a sacred time when it is foolish to meet the beast with his own energy of fear; and that real Love can be fierce, shaking us all into a place of humility. If we can put these two views together, perhaps that will give us depth perception.

I do not forget that Bob did get up out of that bed and walk again, and even play his own version of tennis. He did not do this out of a desire to conquer, but out of a love for life. And, I know he prayed. I will do the same.

This piece also appeared in Huffington Post, and can be seen at:  Link to article.

The Power of Ritual and Ceremony

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

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The smoke from the copal grew thicker in the room, as Apab’yan fed the small container fire with the granules of incense, and his prayers. People seated around him and behind him prayed too, mesmerized now by the hypnotic chanting in the Mayan language, punctuated by English phrases so we could all track where the prayers were being directed.

The room was darkened in order to suggest the atmosphere of the caves where this water ceremony is usually performed. A bowl of water resting on the table received the blessing, and participants would eventually be offered sips of it, as in communion. Finally, roses were dipped into the water and used to shake drops of water on all those gathered.

It was a potent blessing, because the intimacy and power of ritual transcends cultures, language differences and even philosophical details. Spirit is Spirit in any language. And the language of Spirit is ceremony.

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Apab’yan Tew a Guatemalan Maya Daykeeper and spiritual guide, came to the U.S. as a guest of Kenosis Spirit Keepers, a non-profit headed by Carla Woody. Her spiritual travel programs bring North American people together with indigenous leaders. Whether in Hopi land, Peru, Bolivia, or Chiapas, Mexico, the traveler experiences first hand the reality that we are one.

In this case, a crowd of about fifty gathered at St. Philips in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson for a special event co-sponsored by Tacheria Interfaith Spirituality Center. Apab’yan taught us a bit about the Maya worldview, and then graced us with a water ceremony never before performed outside the mountain caves where foreigners are not permitted.

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And what was the result? Why do indigenous people continue to do ceremony, and what can we gain from participating?

First, there is a palpable power, a felt presence. It is both humbling and empowering. It is a mystery, summoned by a humble shaman.

Ritual and ceremony go beyond words. Through work with the elements: fire, water, smoke, and sacred objects, an atmosphere of mystery took over our rational minds and transported us to another way of being. The sounds of singing and chanting evidently impressed the birds outside, since they began to sing in response.

Culturally we are starved for ritual and ceremony and for experiences of awe and wonder. Indigenous people from all over the world continue to make such experiences central to their lives. We can learn from this.

You don’t have to be a daykeeper or a shaman or a spiritual guide to perform ceremony. Create a simple ritual you can do in your own home or in the back yard. Choose a surface that will serve as an altar. Decide how you’ll make sound: with a drum, a rattle, or with your voice. How will you add fire? A candle will do. And water? Just fill a small bowl. Place stones or sacred objects of yours in an arrangement. Say a prayer. Sing a song of praise.

Apab’yan teaches that this is a way of giving back, when we have received so much. He learned this from his village in the Guatemalan highlands, where people have very little. Gratitude doesn’t cost a cent, but it’s a way to repay whatever spirits you’d like to thank for all your blessings.

 

 

 

 

 

Women Holding the Long Lens

Monday, January 11th, 2016

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I’m visiting family and marveling at how long my grandchildren’s arms and legs have grown, how my daughter has become an inventive and creative cook, and how my ex husband has turned into a gentle friend. As this year just begins to unfold, I’m aware of the longer arc, and of the graceful way life changes the way the path looked …way back then.

I’m reminded of the story of how an apparent tragedy occurs, only to become s portal for a fortuitous event, that then morphs into the doorway for another downturn. Age at least provides a lens for the long story, and presents an option not to get too caught up in the drama and apparent truths of each chapter of this wild and beautiful journey.

On this annual solo road trip, I visit family, see old friends, and will end up with seven close women friends who have been a group for over 35 years. We’ve watched each other meet obstacles, embrace blessings, and survive dramas great and small. Perhaps to balance out the complexity of our own sagas, we always pepper our reunion with as many movies as possible, separated by walks on the beach, home cooked food and less wine than we used to drink.

In our seventies, we know we face losses in the upcoming episodes of our reunion series. One of us has already lost a partner to a sudden, deadly heart attack. Another is recovering from a knee replacement and can’t make it this year. What will it be like when our numbers thin? How will we all get to our destination if we’re disabled? Who will die first, and how will we deal with that?

These kinds of questions are a reality of aging, and yet so far there is a saving grace. We have each other. Friendships forged at a progressive Episcopal church we all attended back in the day, our shared values run deep. We taught each others’ children in Sunday school, and so we care who they’ve married and how their children are doing. We also care whether each woman is finding joy, discovering new meaning, and whether she can take a good joke.

We all have common political views, and so we complain about the state of the world. But these are women who are change-makers. We haven’t given up. Back in the 70’s we named ourselves the Women’s Quilting and Terrorist Society, which we thought was funny then. Now we just use the initials, but the desire to shake things up is still very much alive.

Everything has changed for the one whose husband turned out to be gay and still is her best friend. For the one who lives close to the bone, after using all her savings taking care of her father. For the one whose bitter divorce was healed by a surprise passionate romance and marriage, ending in her partner’s sudden death.

And nothing has changed. The big arc of our lives is trained by faith in the unseen. The dramas in each chapter have been tamed by good humor. And the shards of old stories are held in a sacred pot by women who will treasure them, laughing and crying together until we can’t do it in person any more

This year I salute these women and all women and men who come together in groups, urging you to put these meetings first, even when it’s hard to put the important ahead of the seemingly urgent. Every time you meet, you put money in the pot. And the older you get, the wealthier you feel, finding that life is made, after all, not of victories or defeats, but of the stream of love embedded in the entire adventure.

 

This post is also available on Huffington Post at my author archive, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pamela-hale/. Your comments there or here are appreciated.

Honoring Death as Part of Life

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

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On the night of Nov. 1, the whole central plaza of most Mexican cities is ringed with altars (or “ofrendas”) like this one. Each is a unique creation made by family and friends to honor a loved one who has passed to the spiritual realm. When I spent two weeks around Dia de Los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, it was a carnival-like atmosphere, with music, vendors and crowds–and yet the process is a serious and meaningful one that honors death as part of life.

I felt again how wonderful it would be if we had a tradition in our country to collectively honor the dead. After all, death is even more a part of every life than Columbus Day or some of the other holidays we observe.

As Octavio Paz put it: “A civilization that denies death, ends up denying life.” Food for thought, no? And Mexicans have been celebrating some form of Day of the Dead for 300 years. 

When you look at this altar, perhaps what you see is the vibrant marigolds, the image of the skeleton (the “catrina,” or figure of the skeleton dressed and participating in life), candles and photos. What you may not see is the layers of symbolism encoded here. (I am drawing on information in a 2013 article in the San Miguel paper by Jade Arroyo.)

Here are some of the symbols:  The altar itself welcomes souls (children on Nov 1 and adults on Nov. 2) and guides them to loved ones’ homes. They are called “ofrendas”(offerings) because altars are for saints, and most of us aren’t those! The image of the skull is a tribute to one’s ancestors. The seven steps or levels in the ofrenda are traditional and represent the stages the soul must pass through before finally getting to rest. Items are places accordingly, so that on the top is a picture of a saint or the Virgin and the person being honored. On lower levels are salt, bread, favorite foods, and finally a representation of earth, usually done with seeds or corn.

Some ofrendas have just three levels: heaven, earth and the underworld. All of them include flowers, especially marigolds (called cempaxuchitl, their ancient indigenous name), baby’s breath and cockscombs. White flowers represent heaven, yellow the earth and purple, mourning. Sugar skulls are eaten or broken down when the ofrenda is dismantled. Often copal incense is included, as is pan de muerto, bread baked especially for Dia de los Muertos.

The cut paper banners that flew over the entire Jardin (as the plaza is called in San Miguel) represent wind and the joy of living. Candles can mark the four directions. Water is offered in clear glasses for the spirit’s thirst and is the energy of life. The person’s favorite foods are offered, along with folk art like catrinas, alfeniques (sugar figurines) and paper chains.

I always put up a Day of the Dead ofrenda of sorts in my house, and this year I’m particularly aware of honoring not only our relatives, but also our Mexican brothers and sisters. I don’t want to borrow this tradition in the spirit of cultural appropriation, but rather in the spirit of gratitude and honoring. In a country thirsty for rich symbolism, ritual and ceremony, we can be particularly glad when we’re inspired to honor all the dimensions of life in a beautiful way.

This article was adapted from a post that appeared at theSpiritedWoman.com, and also appears in the Huffington Post GPS for the Soul.

A New Window on the World

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

My Window on the World

I’m writing you from my bed. I’ve been here a good deal since my surgery six days ago. I do get around on my scooter walker, and also have a wheel chair we used today for my first post-op visit to the doctor. Things are going well on the whole–and this land out the window is an important spot for the healing I still have ahead.

The Sutherland Valley where I live is a beautiful, unspoiled place on the edge of the wild, and has been my healing sanctuary ever since we moved here 14 years ago. Then, I was in the middle of chemo treatment for my first round of breast cancer. These mountains and this land have been a comfort and source of beauty and inspiration for what seems like too many physical challenges.

And yet, I keep recovering, keep learning, keep being inspired, keep finding that life still holds magic and mystery and unanswered questions and unexplored territory that compels me to answer a call.

The view out the window beckons me to enter the majesty of life, even when I am trapped in pain or limitations. Look at all there is! The endless, ever-changing play of light, the land moving from parched to green and back. The line of shadow that seems to be an impassible boundary but is not. Shadow and light. Beauty.

Beauty is my medicine, and I am graced with it all around me. Even in this season that I’ve always proclaimed to hate I find wonders.

So I will write to you from here, musing about the view outside this window, showing you some of its moods, and sharing some of mine. I’m not sure what to expect on this next journey of healing, but I’m on it. Committed. On the way. What will be revealed–in the landscape, in my own nature? How will my foot and the rest of my being respond to this surgery? How will I begin to walk when the time comes?

It is way too soon to know. This is a time for quiet. For being, not doing. For resting, not working. And yet writing is part of my solace and my reaching outside these four walls for contact, for dialogue.

Questions for you to ponder:

  • What do you do and how do you respond when you are sequestered and limited?
  • What is your part in the journey of healing? How do you work with your body? Your emotions?
  • How does the land around you participate in your process? Do you feel energy from the mountains, or water sources or land features nearby?
  • How do you make larger meaning out of an illness or surgical procedure, even if chosen? How do you turn it into an opportunity?

These are questions I’ll be pondering in coming weeks. Let me know your thoughts!