One glorious day last autumn, I was in a terrible mood and just needed to get out the house. As I was zooming off to the local churchyard with the dog and camera, I saw two tearful faces running behind the car.
Even though I’d been trying to escape their bickering in the first place, I stopped the car and the kids jumped in.
A remarkable peace fell over us as soon as we started looking at the graves.
Churchyards are all about love and loss –
About grief but also about those cherished years of life that went before.
The inscription on this gravestone says:
And wept over.
We left the graveyard as friends, all petty arguments forgotten.
For the dead do offer the living some comfort:
A reminder that we only have this life
And it becomes what we make it.
“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” -Sri Chinmoy
For more stories, please visit: Our World.
After leaving the claustrophobia and old ghosts of the World War I bunkers that I told you about last week,
(This shot is taken inside the bunker looking out)
I felt a strong need to enjoy the blue bowl of the sky; to reconnect with the pulsing life of nature; to laugh.
Oscar obliged me by jumping into a nearby lake.
Much refreshed, I decided to hike up the stony hill and say hello to some ancient skeletons.
As you approach, the twisted silhouette of an old tree
Marks the spot of a Bronze Age grave:
Dead bodies were buried under these stones about 3,000 years ago
And now the sun and wind and rain have worked in harmony with time
To teach us the lesson that we come from the earth
And one day will return there.
For more history, please visit: Our World.
And do visit Strewn Ashes to read her delightful poem about the bunkers!
The end of October and beginning of November is a time of reflection about the dead – and ultimately the meaning of life.
In many European countries, people visit the graves of their loved ones and light candles in remembrance of them.
Other parts of the world celebrate more exuberantly. Take my birthplace, Mexico, for example.
Last week, we visited the Museum of Ethnography – a museum whose mission is to help us broaden our perspective of the world.
There was an exhibition celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
This celebration is thousands of years old: originating from the Aztec times, it has adapted and mixed with Catholic traditions so that you can find altars in people’s homes, laden down with offerings, skeletons, photos of the dead and crosses.
One popular figure is La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skull), which depicts an upper class lady, and serves as a reminder that even though we might have pretensions of importance due to riches or class, death is the great equalizer.
The living make exotic skulls out of sugar and in some places in Mexico, they have joyous picnics at the gravesides of the departed.
I like the idea of remembering people who gave meaning to your life while feasting and laughing and remembering the good times with them. After all, this is probably the best way of helping their memory live on.
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” — Saroyan
For more traditions, please visit: My World.
I met an acquaintance last week, who honoured me with a sad story from his childhood. I have weaved this tale from my imagination, so even though the details are fiction, the core of the story is true.
I can see him as he was back then, a bright seven-year-old holding the hand of his beloved father. Together they enter the concert hall, settle down amidst the plinging of instruments warming up. He likes it there in the darkness, hand in hand with the person he loves most.
The spotlight on stage picks out the young violinist as he becomes one with his instrument, his body an elongated note of music. The boy holding his father’s hand floats away on the music, carried on its shoulders to new heights of love and inspiration.
“I want to play like that for my father,” he says. For the next few years, he practises his love, playing it out with every stroke of the bow on string.
At last, after six years, he is ready for his own concert; his own spotlight.
I see him there – trembling on the stage – caressing the violin with his bow, creating beautiful notes that he leaves at this father’s proud feet as a gift.
The father’s love for his boy is reflected in his tears.
Soon after the boy gives his first concert, his father dies.
And the boy never picks up the violin again.
That young boy is now over 60 years old with children and grandchildren of his own. Yet he told me his story with love and tears in his eyes. Such is the power of love.
For more slices of life, please visit: My World!
I sat there in the brilliant evening sunshine, blinking back the tears. Pretending it was the sun in my eyes that had dazzled me when, in fact, it was the book I had just finished.
If you haven’t read The Book Thief by the Australian writer Markus Zusak – then you must!
It is a tale of dark times in Nazi Germany, of Jews and hiding and concentration camps. A tale narrated by Death as he reluctantly travels the world bearing the souls of the dead.
Or – in the words of the blurb in the back:
This novel is narrated by Death
It’s a small story about a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter and quite a lot of thievery.
The protagonist of the story is Liesel, a foster child who arrives on Himmel Street to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann. It is she who is the book thief, finding relief from life in words.
As the narrator Death says at the end of the book:
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant.”
Now, you might think that this book would be very depressing given its subject matter. But it isn’t – the book is comical, and written with such compassion and wit, that it transcends all the evil and sadness of the human race to dazzle and remind us of the kindness of people under pressure.
It is moving, thought-provoking, life affirming and magical.
I have a treat in store for you today! Instead of reading my rantings, you can read those of Braja from Lost and Found in India.
It all started out like this: I – an innocent bystander – just stumbled across her blog one day. It made me laugh, it made me ponder. I started leaving comments, and before you know it, I was hooked! (Sad, but true.)
Then, last week, somewhere in the middle of a long post, I discovered that she liked to do guest blogs. Not satisfied with her large gaggle of followers and her hundreds of visitors, she was shamelessly looking for even more exposure on other people’s blogs!
Great idea, I thought! Because her blog is a long stream of consciousness in hilarity. Yes – folks! She is shamelessly funny and witty. She can have you rolling around the aisles in laughter.
But not this time. I asked her to write about what she had lost (you know – her marbles, her way) and what she had found in India, and she wrote a piece about … well … death, memories, who we are. She thought it would fit in well with some of my previous posts about the death of my mother-in-law recently.
And do you know what? She’s absolutely right! This may not have you guffawing, but it is a gift: a very personal account of what makes us who we are. Thank you, Braja, for entrusting me with this!
And now – sit back and enjoy, dear readers!
TO EVERY THING, A SEASON…
A subject that is both delicate and most applicable to all of us, because, as the Bible says, “To every thing there is a season;…a time to be born, and a time to die…”
This is about death. Sorry…
I was eight years old when death knocked on my door, barged into my life, and left its muddy prints throughout every room. When it left, it took my father with it, and the world changed, leaving me with only the memories of a child. Can we trust memories? Does a pale memory, aged over time, give off a light strong enough to leak into the cracked features of stories chiseled into the solid rock of a child’s mind? Or would truth—factual accounts in black and white—actually spoil the preciousness, the essence of memories? Maybe it doesn’t even matter if they’re real. They made us, but would we change if we knew the truth? Maybe we’ve made them our truth, taken the edge off the memories, just as dust motes in a shaft of light filter the harshness, blurring the edges, leaving a memory soft, recognizable—claimable. That’s possibly more like it.
There are cultures in the world that celebrate death. Are we missing something? My childhood memories after the death of my father may sound okay if I related them to you, but there was no one celebrating then. It seems everything about death has to be realized in hindsight. Nothing is apparent at the time; only that things have changed inevitably. Before my father died, my life was interwoven with my brothers, my sisters, my mother: we did things as a family. While death effected differently as individuals, collectively it fractured us. Sometimes learning is like stepping off a cliff: There’s no going back once you know it. That’s how death felt to me when I was eight years old.
Child psychologists tell us the first five years determine what sort of person we become. In that case, I’m the quintessential Aussie: suburban, ordinary, sun-kissed; a smattering of freckles across my nose, zinc cream daubed on like war paint. Beaches and “old” cars and big families. Vegemite sandwiches, blue-check school uniforms and cloth library bags. Church on Sundays, roast lunch, a drive to Gran’s place in the afternoon. Beaches and tents and caravans during the holidays; hot Christmas days, wooden-framed Morris Major station wagons, Army issue everything, sixties furniture because there was nothing else, not because it was ‘retro.’ Barbecues and home-made clothes; Old Spice aftershave and Gossamer hair spray; knitted jumpers with strange patterns, sports on weekends, muddy soccer boots; Tupperware parties, the Men’s Lounge, “shandies” and Navy Cut cigarettes in glass-blown ashtrays. I guess these memories are important, because we’re a product of our youth. We were little and grew into big people; how that happened has a huge effect on who we are, but it’s not everything. If it was, life would be simple. Maybe.
I felt the ramifications of death right into my twenties. That’s what happens when it’s not dealt with, and I definitely hadn’t faced up to the death of my father. No one in our family talked about Dad’s death. It was the unspeakable. That was bound to make for some extraordinary times. Then again, trauma takes ordinary beyond passe. Ordinary memories can’t compare to the electric, mind-slamming, all-consuming reputation of a good trauma. They limp into insignificance, a blank space. After a while, without realizing it, they evaporate, and then all that’s left is the trauma. With a blink of the eye, the trauma has become the ordinary.
The fallout has to happen somewhere. For me it happened in my teens, but I didn’t feel the effects until my twenties. We all of us, my four brothers and sisters and myself, stumbled into our teenage years in a fog, reeling from the sudden and violent death of our wonderful, happy, kind, loving father. No one ‘dealt’ with us. There was nothing to say, nothing to read, no courses to attend to learn how to cope. It was 1972, and self-help was 20 years away, or might as well have been. We entered a period of our lives that should have been carefree and happy and full of warm memories, a solid building block for future successes, family lives, and careers, hobbling instead with invisible fractures and unbearable burdens.
Both my brothers became Hare Krishnas. That surprised me. I thought Paul, the oldest, was the most intelligent person I knew. How could he join some weirdo cult? But then Neil and his wife, Karen, joined. I still didn’t believe it would happen to me. Although it was 20 years after death first visited me, I would say that death was the reason I turned to religion. In a way, there was nowhere else to turn. When all else fails…
Actually religion is probably the wrong word for it. Calling it that would limit what I can say, and maybe block someone from hearing. Even to me it has ugly, worn out, connotations. Religion is a word, it doesn’t mean anything. I used to drink religiously. Didn’t get me far. So let’s scrub the ‘religion’ bit. Call it what it is. No cheap words. Spirituality; the real thing. The search for the self. The Holy Grail….the hunt for red October (okay, just kidding…)
As we trip through life, sooner or later we have to ask: how am I doing? Will I be happy when I reach the end ask, “How did I do?” I guess it’s an inevitable question if we have any conscience. It’s not fashionable these days to have a conscience though, is it? We’re supposed to experience everything and go through life without “taking on the guilt” for how we affected other people. But I don’t know if that’s really possible. Guilt’s okay, sometimes. It’s like a checking system. It is the conscience. So I don’t think it can be ignored. Like most things, it’s only a problem when it’s in excess.
There are regrets—they’ve camped outside the door of my mind and are peacefully protesting my ignorance of them. They aren’t making too much noise: they seem to have some respect, at least, for the contemplation of death and dying…good for them. Shall I let them in? Maybe I’ll end up regretting addressing my regrets—where does it end? Then again, perhaps that’s meant to be a private meeting, that one…not fit for public consumption. Some things should remain sacred, after all.
There’s a mad woman near where I live. (Actually, there are probably a whole lot of them now that I think of it, but I’ll try not to get sidetracked…) This one in particular, she’s Indian of course, because I live in India. But she covers her face with layers and layers of white face powder. The result isn’t that she looks whiter, but rather like a very strange shade of grayish-brown sludge. Almost a dead body pallor—quite bizarre. I see her every night from my roof, just around sunset. She wanders through the park next to my house on her way to the temple. She makes me smile, this woman. She also makes me think a lot of things. Like, at the end of it all, when we’re facing death—and I would say this applies whether we’re ready for it or not—it doesn’t matter how we see ourselves; or how we want to see ourselves. All that matters is what we are.
The problem is there’s no school or college or university that actually teaches us who we are, what we are. I mean, think about it…all that study, all those years, all those supposedly intelligent people leaving the hallowed halls of education in droves to make their mark on the world—none of them even know who they are. So what if they ‘achieve’ something in this short and mostly bleak life? What does it mean at the end? In the same way that white face powder is not going to make that woman white, so no amount of education or success in this world is going to give any information on who we really are.
And I think it’s good to know that before we die. How we do it is up to each of us individually. Embrace it, it’s not so bad. I can honestly feel that death is positive. We have a habit of making it negative, but it’s not. It’s ok. It happens. And we can embrace it and transcend it and that is an amazing thing.
It is the funeral of Sir Pe’s mother today. Over a hundred people from all over the world will be there, in a corner of England, to say good-bye. The kids and I could not attend so we will be lighting a candle in her memory today.
Before she left us, she organized a big party at her favourite restaurant. The one by the sea where she loved to sit and gaze at the waves. So, today, she has forbidden sad faces: she wants us to celebrate her life, not mourn her departure.
Not to say in grief, “She is no more,” but to be thankful that she was.
“So when tomorrow starts without me,
don’t think we’re far apart,
For every time you think of me,
I’m right here in your heart.”
For a caterpillar, this may seem like the end of the journey,
But for a butterfly, it is only the beginning.
It is with great sadness that I write this today. My mother-in-law passed away this morning. One of her last wishes was that we all celebrate her life instead of her passing away.
This is in her honour.
Photo by Aleks Dush
DO NOT STAND AT MY GRAVE AND WEEP
By Mary Elizabeth Frye – 1932
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.