Out Beyond the News of Good and Bad

Dahlia’s from Karen’s garden, thriving in mine with the help of heaps of compost

Observations about health, mortality, and language

Editor’s Note: Ever since Karen attended the very first PDX Death Café in 2013, I’ve been privileged to be on the receiving end of her ways of being “troubled aloud,” a practice she’s studied with Stephen Jenkinson since enrolling in the very first class of his Orphan Wisdom School. After a mastectomy occasioned by her fourth diagnosis of breast cancer in ten years, Karen wrote to a small group of women who have joined her in pondering how we come to illness, health, and dying. Even – and perhaps, especially – amidst the flurry of “death positivity” in this cultural moment in North America, I find Karen’s take on these matters rare. With her permission, I share excerpts of her recent writings here.

Yesterday was my one-week post-op check-up.

I left the visit without drains, and with permission to stop taking antibiotics, but also with the pathology report that included no cancer in my lymph nodes and no surprises or changes in the cancers that had been biopsied two months ago on diagnosis.

After the appointment, my partner and I walked out of the medical building and into the late afternoon sunshine. We stopped to admire the bees on the fragrant lavender plants and made our way to the farmer’s market where we splurged by buying morel mushrooms and two bundles of tiny asparagus shoots.

I smiled a lot at everyone on our walk along the food booths, reveling in my ability to be alive to do so. But also and quite consciously I find myself struggling with language as I watch my knee jerk response in labeling the news I’ve received as “good”.

On my mind is my longtime friend’s husband who has just been diagnosed with a rare cancer that offers him no options for treatment. He told her that as much as he’s loved raising his son and having her as his wife, he also knows he’s in the middle of the biggest thing he’s ever done. Their love is heightened, and I know well the sweet spot they have the possibility to live in the midst of.

I’ve wondered how it would be if we sought for our lives to be full rather than long, and our endings to be neither “good news” nor “bad”?

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For He So Loved the World

“A willingness to be limited, so that the world can continue whether our iteration of what we’ve come up with continues or not.”

With my three-month hiatus from community education now extended to six, and more time spent in contemplation than production, I think often of the words of caution Stephen Jenkinson offered to the 500 people crowded into the event we’d called Death:OK (Let’s Talk About It).

Those were early days in what’s since burgeoned as the “death positive” or “positive death” movement, now a media star in its own right. Conceived of in 2013 and held two years of intensive planning later, that October event was a love letter, a way of saying: We care. We’re troubled by how it is. We want better for ourselves, for those who will follow, for those who came before us. For the love of all that is in the world, seen and unseen, we have work to do.

That’s how I put it at the time.

I’ve realized since that, like many love letters, it was beating with the quickened pulse of a heady new romance, enamored of its own reflection in the pond, convinced of its own righteousness.

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PDX Death Café In the News and on the Calendar

While the public work of the Death Talk Project is still on hiatus, the next generation of PDX Death Café volunteer leaders and facilitators is continuing to respond to community requests with a busy schedule of late winter and early spring Cafés. Their work caught the notice of two local publications recently:

View the schedule of upcoming Cafés on the PDX Death Café Facebook page, or via the international Death Café website (searchable for Cafés near you).

From Portland Monthly’s February 2019 Wellness issue.

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Death Talk Project takes a three-month hiatus… 

As we come to the shortest day of the year, I’m preparing to go dark myself. Three years after founding the Death Talk Project and nearly six years since bringing Death Café to Portland, I’m stepping back from the conversation.

For the first quarter of 2019, I’m pressing the pause button. I’ll continue to serve individuals, families, and communities as a Life-Cycle Celebrant and Home Funeral Guide. And I’ll be diving more deeply into a project focused on death care practices.

But mostly I’ll be quieter, attuning my ear and seeking to sharpen my vision. A sacred pause, some call it. 

I’m sorely tempted to say more. Habit demands that I recount the year, that I take stock of all I’ve done, harvest the best of my observations and lamentations and celebrations to serve up here for you as one final feast.

But the truth is, the pause has already started. What I have to say about “death… having a moment in the sun” has either already been said or may need more time to germinate.

What began for me as an extension of the social justice work I’ve done all my life, seeing myself as a rites of passage activist, has turned me from the the rights we have in relation to death rites and other rites of passage, to the question of responsibilities.

In Fate and Destiny, mythologist Michael Meade writes about “the two adventures of life”:

We enter the marketplace of life and become part of the great exchange and the endless deals. We learn to buy and sell and to speak as best we can the language of the day. We become wet with life and accept the rules of the game to one degree or another. We buy into a way of life and live it up or fall down trying to do so….

On the first adventure there are no free lunches and all the deals have strings attached. For this is the ‘real world’ where anything can be measured and everything has a price, where life is cheap and truth is rare and hard to find.

This is as good a description as any of my five-year immersion into the contemporary clamor around how we come to death and grief in our times. It’s brought me to the threshold of Michael Meade’s second adventure:

…with its mysterious dreams and wild projects [the second adventure] sings at the edges of all the deals being made and continues to hum when the wheels threaten to fall off the wagon that keeps the market of life in motion…. The second arc of life becomes the road of release through which people step away from strict adherence to the collective rules and social conventions…. On the second adventure we open the doors and windows of the body as well as the soul in order to let eternity back into the world.

And thus I take a step back from the distractions of the marketplace of meaning-making, that I might better hear the answer to the question of to whom and what I am response-able. To put my hands to the humble, daily work that “lets eternity back into the world.”

Remembering Together

Remembrance for my father, carried in the All Souls Procession

On All Souls’ Day, a nod to Tucson’s community remembrance ceremony, the All Souls Procession

“It’s not just dying that modern America is losing touch with; it’s death rituals as well,” writes the Washington Post in the article “How Death Disappeared from Halloween”.

Citing Anita Hannig, a Brandeis University anthropology professor whose study of contemporary death practices has brought her to Oregon and into my home for deep conversation, the article notes, “As the United States becomes increasingly secular, religion’s role in making meaning out of death has shrunk. According to Hannig’s research, memorial services are becoming less and less common, and a collective honoring of the dead — something like All Souls’ Day — is practically nonexistent.”

And so on this All Souls’ Day, I tip my hat to the artists and culture makers, the multitudes of mourners who take to the parks and streets of Tucson for a weekend at this time every year, to Remember Together in the now 150,000 person All Souls Procession. Read More