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

Indelible in the Hippocampus

The world around me as I listened to the national broadcast of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on September 27, 2018.

Honoring the Grief of Our Lives & These Times: Cultivating the Skill of Heartbrokenness

As it happened, the day before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her searing testimony in Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearing, I gave a presentation of my own. The setting was entirely different, of course – a community arts center on the North Oregon coast. And my audience was universally open-hearted and friendly.

But the topic I presented on was unexpectedly relevant to the tsunami of trauma that met Dr. Ford’s all-too-familiar story and Judge Kavanaugh’s sadly predictable response the next day.

“Honoring the Grief of Our Lives & These Times: Cultivating the Skill of Heartbrokenness” was our focus that Wednesday afternoon.

We honored what brought us to and through the “Five Gates of Grief” enumerated by Francis Weller in The Wild Edge of Sorrow (I’ve written previously about them here). The 1st Gate of Grief: the recognition that everything we love will die. The 2nd Gate: the places that have not known love – those places shut down by abuse and shame. The 3rd Gate: the sorrows of the world. The 4th Gate: what we expected and did not receive – the grief of not being born into a village. And the 5th Gate: ancestral grief.

All of these gates were blown wide open by the national attention on the event described by Dr. Ford as “indelible in the hippocampus” – the unforgettable experience of being assaulted as a teenager. Read More

The Muscle of Remembrance

Your author, quite young, with my mother and my Nonna, in our ancestral mountains in the Italian Piedmont.

On the Eve of an Ancestral Pilgrimage

We gathered around a table strewn with flower petals, each of us holding a sprig of cedar. Cedar, known by some in this part of the country as the First Ancestor. The girls, getting ready to start 6th grade in a newly-opened middle school, were asked to name a teacher or an ancestor as they laid down their sprig.

Invited to participate, I named my maternal grandmother, Elena Jenny Roland – Helen, once she became an American, Nonna to me.

She grew up in the Italian Piedmont, a region surrounded on three sides by the Alps. Our people were Waldensians, a tiny clan of Pre-Reformation Protestants whose cultural survival depended on the sanctuary of high places after being declared heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. The Waldensians arrived in Torre Pellice, what would become my grandparent’s hometown, in the early 13th century. Read More

Keeping Our Dead Afloat

Published on, photo by Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch, taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114

A mother orca’s devotion to her dead calf raises questions about how we humans carry our dead

The internet has been abuzz with news of a mother whale who for a week now, “has been carrying her dead calf on her head in an apparent act of mourning with the help of her group.”

As reported by NPR, The Whale Museum’s Jenny Atkinson says, “The thing that’s amazing about Tahlequah is that she’s … carried this calf hundreds of miles and hundreds of hours at this point, and her family is helping her.”

We humans continue to be astonished at the sentience of other beings; Atkinson says, “The first thing it tells me that is that grief isn’t owned by humans.” Rather than marvel that this grieving orca is “like us,” we might do better to wonder how we ourselves have moved so far from carrying our own dead, keeping them afloat in the ongoing stream of our lives, and counting on the help of our people, our pod, to do this heavy lifting that is more than any one should bear alone. Read More

What We Do vs What We Want: A Lament for What We’ve Lost

click image to watch Kevin Toolis discuss his father’s Irish wake

Death, according to the New York Times, is “having a moment in the sun.” Good news, or troubling?

The June 22 article, “The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life” is one of the most-forwarded links to hit my in-box and social media accounts, often accompanied by words of congratulations or encouragement.

In the midst of all that troubled me in this article (which touts death cafes, death doulas, a DeathLab, and a practice FUN-eral), I couldn’t help but think of the second-most forwarded link in recent months, a BBC video in which author Kevin Toolis talks about his father’s Irish wake, the subject of a book by that name.

“On my father’s island off the coast of Mayo,” Toolis says, “people go to the wakes of their neighbors; they see dead bodies; they touch dead bodies; they take children to those wakes. So even an ordinary life… would have seen 20, 30, 50, sometimes a hundred dead bodies.”

With this full connection to the natural cycle of life and death, the people of this place know What To Do when the dying time comes. They know how to recognize it, and how to respond. Read More