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

Come of Age: Stephen Jenkinson’s New Book

click image for the video trailer for the book
How we approach death and the dying, how or whether we remember or care for the dead – these questions are inextricably bound up with how we age, or don’t, in the dominant culture of the West – and with the disappearance of elderhood as a skilled function in these times.

I have three cartons of Stephen Jenkinson’s new book in my office pending his appearance in Portland this Fall – but you don’t have to wait. The book is available through your local independent bookseller or the Orphan Wisdom School.

Here’s what early readers have to say:

“This isn’t a book, it’s a kind of divining, the rare breed that can leave the scriber harrowed and the reader blessed.”
—Dr. Martin Shaw, author of Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia Read More

A Night Of Grief & Mystery, Portland Oct 20th

click image to watch a beautiful trailer for the tour

“We’re born to a dangerous time. Consider that affliction or consider that assignment.” ~ Stephen Jenkinson

They are nights in which love letters to life are written and read. There’s some boldness in them. They have that tone. These nights have the mark of our time upon them, and they’ve become timely, urgent, alert, steeped in mortal mystery, quixotic, with some swagger. What would you call such a thing?

Nights of Grief & Mystery. Coming to Portland on Saturday, October 20th.  Purchase ticketsShare on Facebook. Read More