The Journey Inward

Yesterday I visited a nearby mountain park to get an added dose of nature before I head home at the end of the week.  I hadn’t really thought it out very well, because I stepped onto the Lakeside Trail in my traditional open-toe shoes, instead of something more trail appropriate.  I could have turned back early on, but the path kept calling me forward… and so forward I went.  The ‘lake’ was more of a reservoir, and was not round like many lakes back home, but more like a wide river with end caps.  I started my journey, like most adventures in life, without expectation or awareness of what I might find or experience along the way.  At the beginning of the trail, as I traveled counter-clockwise on the map, I found a bench at water’s edge, and so I sat for a moment to contemplate the beauty before me.  The water was filled with all sorts of plant life, and there were trees that had fallen on the bank and into the lake, that were left to become a part of the landscape, creating homes for the creatures that live there.  As I sat there, I would occasionally hear a sound that informed me that something was moving in the water, but each time I heard it, I would look and see nothing more than a slight ripple.  It reminded me of how we often assume that a situation is how we perceive it, based on what we can see on the surface, but how reality is that there is often something of greater depth actually going on beneath the surface.  I took a moment to honor all that was present which I could not see, and then I continued my walk.

Next, I came to a boardwalk structure that crossed the water, and before I was half way across, I gasped to see a young deer with antlers grazing on plant life in shallow water.  This is not something we get to see where I come from, and the sight took my breath away before it brought me to tears.  A couple who were hiking in the opposite direction came upon us, and respectfully stood quietly for a few minutes before gently passing.  I thought about how magick happens throughout our lives, if we are open to it, and how special it can be to have it all to ourselves at times, and also to be blessed to share it with others.  I could have stayed all day to simply stand witness to such grace and beauty, but I decided to offer my gratitude for this moment, and asked to be WOWed again somewhere along my journey.  I was not disappointed.

As I moved forward on the path, having no idea where it would take me, or if I would regret not having turned back for better hiking gear, I couldn’t help but think about my personal life experience with the Artemis Archetype.  After all, the stag is one of her most sacred symbols, and the mountain forest is her realm.  I might turn a curve along this winding path and see her in the distance drawing back her bow.  I thought about how alone I felt on this path, as I could hear no human sound at this point.  I realized that my footwear could betray me on a path filled with tree roots and loose stones, or how I might slip and fall somewhere on this journey and that no one would be around to see me, hear me, or come to my rescue.  It made me think about how unprepared I have been throughout life for the obstacles that would appear in my life, leaving me hurt or disappointed by the actions of others.  But then I realized that my travels with Artemis have always been that way.  I may have had the support of my band of nymphs that I call my Tribe, but the work that I did to move through self-loathing to find my true self-worth and value was always a solitary journey.  It never mattered how emphatically others would assure me of how worthy they found me, I could never find it to be true until I felt it for myself.  And every betrayal and wound I’ve received has always led to learning and the positive evolution of my soul.  And so…  I chose to continue… believing that I was well protected, and that I would find more moments of magick if I simply refused to give up on myself.

As I moved further into the forest, and away from view of the lake, the feeling of solitude grew more profound.  I realized how similar this world that belongs to Artemis resembles the world that belongs to Persephone.  In the non-patriarchal version of her tale, she has chosen to go into the underworld to welcome the souls who have transitioned from the world of the living and are now seeking passage through the veil.  On this lonely mountain path, I could feel the isolation of one’s journey from human form into the mystery of what comes next.  There might be loved ones present to hold your hand for a while, but at some point… you must move forward on your own.  But then I realized through much of my hike that I would hear a recurring sound that was lacking form.  I imagined that it might be the sound of hooves on forest floor, an unseen squirrel or chipmunk, or a bird taking flight in the canopy above.  The message that I received from this awareness was that our perception of aloneness throughout our sacred journey is an illusion.  Even when we cannot see others around us, the truth is that we are never alone.  Whether it be the consciousness that we can step into to deliver strength in a moment of weakness – becoming the warrior and rescuing ourselves, or the presence of guides and loved ones that some of us may never connect with and recognize without the support of a medium, or at the end of life – as witnessed by Hospice Nurses again and again, as their patients acknowledge days or moments before death, alerting them to call the family, for departure time is near.

As I walked the Lakeside Trail, wondering if it would ever come to an end, I walked through fear and kept going.  I walked through solitude, and realized I wasn’t really alone.  I walked through self-doubt and negative self-talk about the foolishness of being ill-prepared, and I kept moving forward.  I walked for three hours straight, and never grew weary.  I acknowledged that my twice-weekly time in the gym had been time well spent, as my legs were strong enough to carry me up hill and down again without complaint.  I passed an occasional human, and while I was glad to see them and smiled as they passed, I was also grateful to continue on my own.  I realized that walking with Artemis brought me to this place… where being alone with myself is a wonderful place to be.  Once filled with self-loathing, I now feel that I make for really great company, and I was so happy to be walking with my own best friend… ME.  As I began to hear the sound of traffic on the mountain road upon which I entered the park, I was pleased to be coming full circle.  I had hoped to be shown the blessings of nature, and I was rewarded with three different deer sightings, each bringing me to tears.  For three hours, I was honored to walk beside two Goddesses who are ever present in my life, and I bowed my head to Persephone in reverence for the guidance and comfort she provides as I explore the path to the underworld, hoping to be one of her torchbearers in the future… holding the hands of those transitioning from human form, until they are finally able to see those who shall greet them on the other side.

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Mountain Music

I am sitting on the porch of my friends’ Tennessee home, and the breeze offers a slight chill as it plays with my hair while the lowering sun caresses my skin with warmth.  A variety of birds are singing their evening songs which speak of a beautiful day blessed by sunshine and the smell of sweet grass.  Several are dancing around the nearby feeder, reminding me that the term ‘eats like a bird’ doesn’t mean what most people assume.    My friend lost his sweet mother last year, and this space that we are blessed to enjoy was lovingly referred to by that kind and generous woman as Mockingbird Cottage.  Her gentle spirit still surrounds us in this heavenly place. and I can sense that she is near… laughing at the hungry birds at play, and recalling the way the wind once felt against her skin on a cool summer evening.  She and I close our eyes and breathe deeply of this moment of shared peace and solitude.  We anticipate the arrival of fireflies within the next hour.

I drove up on Friday, and the journey was pleasant as the companion I chose read to me his words of experience and wisdom with the voice of a philosopher.  I downloaded required reading for my end of life doula coursework through Audibles, and Stephen Jenkinson’s voice fed my mind throughout my ten hour journey with his thoughts on palliative care from his book called DIE WISE: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.   Eight hours of reading remains, and he has already given me so much to think about… mostly about the way that death, though it is the one guarantee that comes with birth, is something that most people fear and run from.  Many of his patients who chose palliative care when a diagnosis became a prognosis would later come to curse the effectiveness of their treatment, as it was keeping them alive long past their wish to continue.  In other words, it may have given them more time, but it did not necessarily give them more ‘life’… just more suffering.  That kind of took my breath away.  It made me think more clearly about the wording I would use in my advance directive, the official forms which will state my wishes for end of life care.

It also made me think about the act of dying, and the choices one makes for how to spend their final days once a deadline has been given.  And if one would choose to do things any differently, at that point, (assuming the body was able) why we would wait until we’ve been given a deadline to start living in a way that would finally feed our soul.  Should we not be spending all of our days that way?  I mean, the day we are born the one thing that is certain is that we will also die.  It seems to me that there is always a deadline, its just that the expiration date is hidden beneath the fold of awareness.

I wonder what that might look like for me… a well-fed soul, and I believe that it looks something like sitting outside on a summer evening to hear the cacophony of birds chirping, cicadas humming, and distant dogs barking.  It also looks like valuable time spent connecting with dear friends, and making new ones at a mountain art festival.  It looks like smiling at the tiny green bug that just landed on the keyboard, and resting until it is ready to take flight.  It looks like taking the time to dive into a topic that once felt overwhelming and frightening, so that I may one day be of service in a way that transcends and ascends my former level and ability of caring.  It looks like choosing to fill the rest of my days, be they long or few, with greater purpose and meaning.

Sitting here, in this sacred space outdoors, with the spirit of this sweet lady that I was blessed to know and shall always adore, I can list the messages that nature has delivered for my inability to hear her voice.  The symbolism of the mockingbird is overcoming fear.  The symbolism of the hummingbird, whose presence inspired the urge to write, is lightness of being and enjoyment of life, as well as the reminder to be more present.  The symbolism of the fireflies for whom we wait, is self-illumination, guidance and freedom.  As I glance over my shoulder to see if they have yet arrived, I see a cardinal at the feeder and smile to myself to realize that the symbolism of this particular bird is a reminder to realize the importance of your purpose in life… while for some, it informs them of the presence of a loved one lost.  She knows I’m thinking of her and that I know she is here… affirmed by a glance before me to see that cardinal making his way across the darkening yard, stopping to look back at me from a moment’s perch atop the umbrella in the yard.

I am grateful for this time that I have given myself… to explore the depths of my soul before stepping blindly into a new chapter that might be less than fulfilling, to breathe deeply with gratitude for the beauty of nature and for that which we cannot see or hear without the courage to open our hearts.  After all, love is not something visible to the eye… it can only be felt with the heart.  So, I dare you, dear ones to close your eyes and open your hearts.  There are messages flashing before you, like the fireflies who have just arrived.  I’d love for you to join me in this reverie of light and flight!  Tell me…  what do you see?

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The Umbrella Principle

There are five things, according to Dr. Ira Byock who wrote Dying Well, that can bring comfort and closure at the end of life.  In each of our relationships, as we near the end of our days, we may pass through the veil without regret if we are able to tell those we love the following:  Forgive Me, I Forgive You, Thank You, I Love You, Goodbye.  My study of end of life doula work has opened a portal for conversations with others about their own experiences with death, and I am grateful for these opportunities.  There is obviously overwhelming heartbreak involved in each story, but there is also a call to mindfulness, and at times… grace.

But what about the relationships that never have such closure, because those who were departing did not exactly plan to leave their bodies behind quite so soon… or because they were too fearful to broach such topics with those they love?  If life is filled with lessons, perhaps unexpected loss is a reminder to each of us that such endeavors need not wait for the clarity of a terminal diagnosis.

Though my parents and I hope to be in each others’ lives for years to come, we have taken time here and there to discuss our thoughts.  With their recent update to their “Last Will and Testament” documents, which came with buying a new house up the street from me, Mom and Dad each completed the “Five Wishes” form, which provides a format to help us consider our end of life wishes.  A few items for consideration are who can speak for your healthcare needs when you are not able to speak for yourself, in what situation would you deny life-saving efforts, who would you like at your bedside as your spirit returns to its original energetic form (that’s my wording, of course), and how you’d like the body you’ve left behind to be cared for at that time.

As my friend and I connected from opposite corners of the country to discuss her experiences, I shared with her the memory of the departure of a mutual friend of ours in the late 90’s.  He was only 32, and though he had a serious diagnosis, a side-door illness swooped in and took him from us with unexpected haste.  I can see his final days, dimly lit, in the back of my mind.  He had refused to discuss his wishes with his partner, and as we set to the task of planning and arranging his memorial service, the grief seemed greater for the fear of getting something wrong.  At the time, my (then) partner and I were only 28, but within weeks of our friend’s celebration of life, we celebrated our own with official documents that stated our wishes should one of us be lost to the other without warning.  As for the stories my friend shared with me, she suffered a few tragic losses in her youth, but one that was expected was that of her grandmother.  Now, her grandmother had been incredibly mindful of her wishes, and was mostly clear… mostly.  She had planned and even executed her entire funerary arrangement… right down to purchasing the flowers for her casket and securing transport of her body from hospital to funeral home.  Her loved ones would not need to do anything but grieve at her loss.  However, her advance directive left for her doctors to follow was not so clear, and there was some confusion.  In other words, if you are ready to go, but you’ve not declined life-sustaining treatment with your healthcare providers (and your health surrogate), they are honor bound to provide them.

I know that the end of life is a difficult subject for most of us to consider, but I wonder if it might be easier to think about it a little differently.  You know how it seems to rain when you don’t have an umbrella, and how when you are mindful enough to carry one, no matter how dark it gets the rain never comes?  Well, that’s how I see this form of preparation.  Not that having these discussions with loved ones and securing official documentation of your preferences will keep the inevitable at bay… after all, it is the one guarantee in life that is presented on the day we are born.  But I submit for your consideration that if you have done the work of mindfully caring and sharing your authentic wishes for a peaceful transition from this world to the mystery of what comes next, you will gift yourself and those you love great freedom to live each day fully present.  I updated my own documents before my last trip abroad, in case I were to fall off of a cliff in Ireland, and I recently wrote a ritual of departure for such an occasion though I’m not sure of when I will next enjoy such adventure.  It was a surprisingly cathartic exercise.

All of that said, I would like to take a moment to tell you that if I have ever wronged you or caused you harm in any way, I am deeply sorry and I hope that you will forgive me.  If you ever wronged me or caused me harm in any way, I have come to understand from my own deep regret that such actions likely came through suffering of some kind, and I forgive you.  For your presence in my life and for even the tiniest expressions of kindness and care, I offer you my gratitude.  For the love that you have offered so freely, not only to me but to your family, your friends, your community, our planet and all of Her beloved creatures… I love you more.  There’s one more thing… but I’m not quite ready to say goodbye (I hope).  For now, I’ll bid thee hail and farewell until we meet again.

If you are interested in learning more about determining your own advance directive, you can check out this link:
http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3277 , you can also google Five Wishes.

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Sacred Ceremony

I was first introduced to sacred ceremony in 1992 at a workshop on feminine spirituality.  In my circle it is also referred to as ‘ritual’, but since those unfamiliar with the practice may have only heard the term followed with the word ‘sacrifice’, I prefer the above.  Sacred ceremonies you may be familiar with would be a child’s christening or a wedding.  If you consider how important these rites of passage are for the child / the couple, and their community, understand that there are many moments in all of our lives that deserve to be marked and celebrated… and that the act of doing so will make the milestone or accomplishment more sacred.  At times, there are obstacles to overcome, like a great loss, heartbreak, or regrets that get in the way of our own progress.  This is when I find the art of ceremony to be most rewarding, and deeply healing.

We lost a beloved member of our community to leukemia in November.  In December a conversation with her widow revealed that she wasn’t sleeping well, and that she was having trouble dealing with emotions of anger and bitterness toward an organization that had mistreated her beloved a few years before her death.  The betrayal our dear one suffered led her into a spiral of depression and a crisis of identity from which she never really recovered.  I assured my friend that her love left behind all of those worries with her body, and that she carried them no longer… which is what she surely would wish for those who survived her.  I offered suggestions for cutting off from that energy and asked her to let me know if she needed support in doing so.  At our next check-in she affirmed her desire for help in letting go.

So, we came together at the dark of moon.  Lakeside and surrounding a brilliant bowl of fire, we set an altar of our reverence with a photo of our beloved’s beautiful smiling face – radiant with sunshine, along with a few sacred symbols and her guitar, with which she had formerly serenaded us all at campfires past.  With the couple who had eagerly introduced our beloved to her wife a quarter century before, and another couple from their shared inner circle, this gathering was not a memorial for we had done that exceptionally well in the fall.  This was an intentional ceremony of release for those who remained to face life without the presence of a sacred soul held dear.

These were the words that stated our purpose and intention for this ceremony:
“We gather to reconnect this sacred circle, and to support one another in the process of letting go.  As we let go of that which does not belong to us, or that which no longer serves us… we are lighter and liberated for the work of mapping the path forward.  We honor the darkness, for it was surely illuminated by the light of love.  We have lost a great light in our lives for whom we grieve, but we find that while in the physical world there was rarely enough time to deeply connect… and now… beyond the confines of the body… we are able to commune with her spirit without interruption.  Lynn is no longer limited.  Our beloved is not gone from us, she is right here in this sacred space, and in our hearts.  Her smile is brighter than this flame, and her laughter and her song are lifted upon smoke and breeze.  The process of letting go allows us to pull her closer, as walls and barriers crumble and fall away.”

As I led our circle through a guided visualization, we journeyed into an ancient passage tomb where we would become aware of all that we carried from which we would now seek freedom and release.  As we emerged into the light and back to our circle, we each took the time to write down every thought and realization discovered.  We listed our regrets and our fears, our feelings of bitterness and sorrow, along with any words left unspoken to be carried to the expansive and ever present being of our beloved… no longer in human form.  When every last word was written, they were carried to the flames and set alight with our heart’s desire for transformation… each page burning into ash within a small stone basin, then carried to the water’s edge.  There, we symbolically cut cords attached to people who no longer would have ownership of our spiritual real estate, as we reached to the essence of water Herself… the Lady of the Lake… asking for Her mercy and Her love to receive our words, cleansed and purified by fire, to be blessed and consecrated then transformed and transmuted as dust became fluid.

We returned to fire circle, and we shared stories and sang songs… after all, this was one of her very favorite things… and then we concluded our work with these words:
“With open hearts and untethered spirits, we cast our nets forth into the wisdom of all that is, anticipating the limitless abundance the Universe delivers with grace and ease, for which we are eternally grateful.”  And so, we are.

I know that our ceremony was blessed with great love and that the one that we can no longer see with our eyes remains ever present.  She is in the garden with her love, she is at the fireside with dear friends, and she is sitting across from me as I write.  Her laughter rises on billows of incense, and the flickering candle is the twinkle in her eye.  It is not that we miss her any less than we did when the great void was opened that terrible day in Autumn, it is simply that we have chosen to carry her with us as we carry on.  We were so blessed.  We ARE so blessed!

(Psyche Weeping by Kinuko Y. Craft)

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Second Sunday Sensations

Bliss, joy, happiness, comfort, healing, sighs of relief, deep belly laughter, tears of shared sorrow, and the ultimate level of gratitude for these shared sacred days.  Many people get dressed each Sunday and make their way to a house of worship that meets their spiritual needs, and there, if they are really lucky, they find community.  I was raised Unitarian, but I’ve never really been a church-goer.  To me, the service was never as fulfilling as the community connectedness that would follow.  Long ago, I chose to cut out the middle minister.  There are still times when I may find solace in having that sacred place in which to connect.  On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, for example… I found myself numbly making the drive to our sanctuary, seeking comfort within a room of like minds and warm hearts.  Minutes from an executive airport and an international airport, I will never forget the eerie vacancy of the skies that could be seen through horizon windows.  I recall very little about what was spoken, but felt a sense of shared shock, fear, heartbreak, uncertainty, and dismay.  I do recall my own words… for my sorrow was mingled with joy.  On this terrible, horrible, tragic, no-good day, my Tribe sister was in Colorado giving birth to sweet Whimsy.  To me, she was a symbol of hope in the darkest of times.  In just three months she will be seventeen, and she couldn’t possibly shine more brightly… always our beacon of shining brilliance and great pride.

The last community trauma did not lead me to church, though many did gather there for comfort, for support, for counseling, to find someone – anyone who could help hold a shattered soul together until healing could someday be found.  It was two years ago this week… I remember that I had been visiting a friend in North Florida that weekend, and for some reason that Saturday night, I felt restless and chose to drive home rather than to stay another night.  I don’t know what was on my mind during that three hour drive, but if my thoughts were troubled or petty they would soon be completely annihilated… along with 49 sacred souls.

For more than a decade, a small group of committed friends within my circle have gathered for Second Sunday Supper.  Each month we assemble in someone’s kitchen, and there we cook together and wine flows into glasses, while our hearts are filled and overflow with pure love and adoration for the grace and beauty of our togetherness.  I believe that if there was no food present, we would still feel well-nourished at our parting.

Two years ago, we gathered in the home of dear friends who have since moved away.  That morning we had all risen with the most tragic news, and though we had a commitment to brunch together, we had to ensure we could still gather – as one of our hosts was a member of the police department.  In a different role, and gratefully never in harm’s way, he had not been called in, and we all felt it especially necessary to gather our hearts into one place, a group hug from which we would wish to never emerge.  Upon arrival, words were difficult to share through throats swollen from primal screams and flowing tears.  Reports were coming in from comrades…  20 confirmed dead…  23 confirmed dead… 30… 35…  42….  breathless and shattered… 49 monumental losses to our beloved community.  Tears would dry and fall again.  Together we waxed on about shared dreams of a world that celebrates the authentic beauty of every individual, where self-hatred and familial denial of one’s truth could only lead to such a violent atrocity in books of fiction, and the reality of an automatic rifle in the hands of a civilian was as far-fetched as Marvin the Martian’s ray gun, pointed at Bugs Bunny on the surface of Mars… only to be found in a world of cartoon fantasy.  A convoy of refrigerated trucks would never be required, for the inadequacy of space in the county morgue.

Gratefully, most of our Second Sundays are free from such horror and sorrow.  Music plays, friends gather, food is prepared, wine is poured, bloody marys are built, stories are shared, laughter is raised, and hearts are soothed and refilled with enough love and light to carry us through the next four weeks, until we recreate this glory in another kitchen.  These people are the sacred tenders of our communal hearth fire.  Embers could never be darkened with their careful commitment.

Today we will gather in my home, and I hope that tradition will serve the quote of a friend who once said:  “Walking into Melissa’s house is like walking into a hug.”  Each guest will be greeted with more than welcome… with more than nice to see you, but with overwhelming relief as pieces of hearts are reunited and once again made whole.  We are a tiny community, madly in love with the souls of one another.  Together, we are facing a battle with cancer and ongoing treatment, the continuing grief of a dear friend lost suddenly and way too soon, we will be missing friends whose home now requires a flight or a long day’s drive to reach, we will wait for the arrival of a friend in his 70’s who went back to work to make ends meet, we will provide updates of the health and wellness of our aging parents, as well as our own aging bodies and the surprises that arise in midlife, and possibly share stories about workplace drama – or the lack-of-a-workplace bliss, as the case may be.

But all of this seriousness will be soothed and comforted by the smiles, hugs, laughter, plans for a destination wedding in the fall for two of our beloveds, and the rapt attention of each sacred being who helps to fill this space, my personal house of worship, with the love that we seek, the commitment we sustain, and the light that we share.  Oh, yeah… and by the food and wine, too.  🙂

Wishing you a Second Sunday filled with your own personal version of soul-filling, heart lifting, voice raising, complete and utter bliss.

(The First Supper by Jane Evershed)

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The Love of a Good Cat – Part Two

It was three months before I could bring myself to consider bringing new love into my life.  Whenever I imagined adopting, the first thoughts that came to mind were those of suffering and sorrow.  But one day, it happened.  I thought about having a new furry companion, and the fear did not come.  I posted that awareness on facebook, and got an immediate reply.  A friend had two cats that needed rescue.  They were not littermates, but had grown up together, two strays adopted by an elderly couple who could no longer care for them.  I saw the photos and learned about their story.  I wasn’t sure I was ready, but as I drove to the grocery store, I imagined that I would change their names to Morgan and Arthur, in honor of one of my favorite tales of ancient Camelot.  Driving home, I was arguing with myself about the prospect, and when I settled in to watch the next episode of a series I was watching, the episode that played featured a character that believed he was King Arthur.  Then, that same evening, while scrolling through my facebook newsfeed, I saw a painting that my friend had posted… it was Morgan Le Fey bearing Arthur back to Avalon with his mortal wound.  And so it was… I went to meet Morgan and Arthur, and there the three of us fell in love.  Released from their protective cages, he circled around me and stepped into the nest of my ‘easy pose’ crossed legs and curled up, closed his eyes and purred.  She walked around me and gave me a ‘wap-wap’, which is what I came to call her hip-bump gesture that is like a love nip, but gentler.  The carriers were on the floor and open, and she walked right into hers.  So, we closed the door, and placed Arthur into his carrier, and we were off!  They were both pretty skittish for a while, but they warmed up to their new home pretty quickly.  Within a couple of days, we were family… though it would take some time for Morgan to remain out in the open whenever an outsider would enter her domain.  If there was a knock on the door, she would run into the bedroom and hide under the bed.  That really didn’t change until Arthur was gone.  You see, Arthur was madly, possessively in love with me.  We had a morning ritual, and he would sit in my lap as I did my hair and makeup before work.  Whenever I was seated, he was there.  He had this way of curling into my lap or on my chest, if I was reclining, and he would look up at me with these eyes that are so difficult to describe.  Perhaps people who have had that deep kind of soul-love would recognize my meaning… but I had never felt so loved and adored as I did through his eyes.  I often wondered if he had come into my life to show me how it would feel when it arrived, and not to settle for anything less.  My new babies were already six years old when they came to live with me.  Morgan was extremely laid back, and very passive, while Arthur was the opposite.  He was much like the Winnie the Pooh character, Tigger.  He had springs in his toes, and he had boundless energy.  He would be lounging in my lap and then suddenly dart across the room, with my belly as his springboard.  If Morgan was ever on my lap when he arrived, she would quickly get the message and move out of the way.  I hated the way she was so submissive to him, but she wouldn’t go far.  He would be close to my heart, and she would be right by my side.  Then one day… everything changed.  It was February in Florida, and the weather was beautiful.  I had carefully stepped out the front door to get the mail from the box, and as I stepped back in, closing the door behind me, I announced to Arthur that I was going to open the window.  We called it cat tv, because the sound of it rising would bring both of them immediately to the window for their inspection of the external world.  Always.  I mean that Arthur would NEVER not come to the sound of the window being lifted… until this day.  It took only a minute for me to feel that something was terribly wrong, and my brain went completely fuzzy.  I think of it like the old days of television, when you would flip channels and there would be those that were empty, and only grey and black dots would appear, and the sound of white noise would ring out through the speaker.  That’s what happened to my brain when Arthur did not take his place at the open window.  Morgan didn’t come either, but she was asleep in the window seat in the library, where she is at this moment of writing.  I ran through the house looking for him, because it was absolutely impossible that he could have gotten out of the house.  I literally looked into the refrigerator three times.  Seriously… static and white noise.  I posted my panic on facebook:  “I CANNOT FIND ARTHUR AND I AM TOTALLY FREAKING OUT!”  My parents were buying a house up the street from me, but at the time they still lived 45 minutes away.  I called my mother in tears, as I walked up the street calling his name.  She asked if she should come, and I told her it would be okay.  The weird thing about my exploration outside of the house was that, although there were several stray cats on my block, not a single one of them was about.  I did not find Arthur.  As I was walking back to the house, my massage therapist was arriving for a previously scheduled appointment.  She offered to help me look for him, but I felt so sure (still fuzzy) that when I climbed onto the table, Arthur would appear at my feet, as he always did, to purr through my healing session.   But he didn’t.  A missed phone call and a knock on the door while I was on the table, revealed my knight in shining armor, Jim.  He saw my post, and put his nearly blind mother into his truck, and drove to my house to help look for Arthur.  He knocked on the door and said, he thought he might be in the side yard, and I dressed and stepped out to look.  There was a grey tabby cat in my side yard, and he looked quite panicked.  I called his name, but I think that what was happening to me must have been happening to him, as well.  I looked at him, never having seen him outside before, and my brain could not definitively be sure that this cat was mine.  The static just grew louder.  As I slowly tried to approach, his eyes grew wider, and he turned and dashed through a hole beneath the fence that is between my side yard and the elevated highway that runs beyond it.  The highway is a story above my land, so he was not in any danger, but there was no way to go after him, because there was no gate.  Jim had driven around to confirm, and then returned to my yard.  He was in my backyard when he saw Arthur, crouched down as if in a hole, his head peeking out, and panting.  Then he jumped and dashed.  As I was sending off my massage therapist, Jim came to the door and told me he thought he could see him, and led me to the side yard fence.  There, just on the other side of the fence at the base of a tree, was Arthur.  He was very close to a hole in the fence, as if considering to come back through, but he was no longer breathing.  He was dead.  I screamed and wailed the anguish of one whose heart has been yanked from her body.  Two hours had passed since he mysteriously escaped and the weird static moved into my head.  He was never in danger of being hit by a car, but he was gone.  I called my parents, but my mother was en route to my house, and my father had to listen to my cries for help.  I asked him to call his brother, Uncle Mike and to have him come with wire cutters.  I couldn’t get to the other side of the fence, and I had to get to him!  I tried calling Uncle Mike, but he did not answer.  Then, as I had reached my hand through the hole in the fence, I realized that I could touch his hind legs… therefore, I could pull him through to me.  And that’s what I did.  I tugged his hind legs, and I pulled the lifeless body of my sweet boy, the most profound and pure love I had ever experienced in my life, through the hole in the fence and lifted his body onto my breathless chest.  My whole body heaved with my sorrow.  None of this made any sense.  Jim and his sweet Mama endured my sobs, as they drove me to the place where we could take my beloved for cremation.  Eula had run her own funeral home for decades, and Jim had grown up knowing how to care for those who were grieving.  It’s as if exactly the right caregivers were delivered to me at my most dire time of need.  I was numb by the time we returned to the house, and I was grateful that my mother was there to greet us.  Morgan was safely inside, and I’m unsure of her awareness of her brother’s departure at that time.  Over the days that would follow, though, she began to blossom in the absence of Arthur’s oppression.  And though I loved him dearly, I was glad for the opportunity to see the side of Morgan that he would never let shine.  I was heartbroken for the loss of his love, but she and I came to fall in love deeply over the weeks and months ahead.  She eventually took his place next to my face at bedtime, when previously she had been relegated to sleep by my feet.  He was such a bully to her.  Without his presence, she became even more courageous upon the arrival of friends, and now she doesn’t hide for anyone.  We have our own morning rituals now, though they are different from the ones he and I shared.  Morgan climbs into bed, and next to my face, where she proceeds to give me my morning facial.  Then she climbs over me, to the back of my neck, and presses one paw against my skin, poking me like Simon’s cat (a popular animated character) until I give in and get up to feed her, be it 4am or 7am.

It took me quite some time to recover from the shock and horror of that awful day.  We were in a very uncomfortable era at work, as my beloved boss had stepped down after the takeover of our board of directors.  My new boss did not have empathy in her top strengths.  I cried as she unfeelingly expressed the death of her own family dog, and I knew she would have no patience for my inner turmoil that still plagued me three months after Arthur’s death.  So, I engaged a therapist who specializes in EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) to overcome my trauma.  After two sessions I was able to recount the story of Arthur’s loss without bursting into uncontrollable sobs, and I was finally able to fall asleep without my mind going to that place at the side of my house, where his body lay lifeless and my heart was ripped from my being.  Remembering one of the ‘signs’ I received two years before this moment, I searched for the image I had seen when I was talking myself through fear of illness and loss.  It was the painting of Morgan Le Fey directing the boat that would carry her wounded brother back to Avalon… where the mists would heal and protect the once and future king.

To comfort my grief, I spent the weeks following Arthur’s death doing meaningful retail therapy.  I had a ring engraved with “Arthur – King of My Heart”, and I ordered another ring with a pink stone called Morganite, that was coincidentally a stone for healing trauma, though I bought it for her namesake.  I already had a ring that I had made when Nightshade died, that had her name next to Gwydion’s.  And finally, I had each of their portraits printed on canvas and hung them in a place where they would be viewed by all who visit this sacred space… and it will always be known that THEY are my ‘happy’.

Upon mention of my need to write about these important losses, a friend affirmed that the loss of her cats were a far greater blow to her soul than those of her parents.  We both agree that there is something to the daily commitment, the unconditional love, the complete responsibility we have to our pets, and the inability to communicate with them to clearly understand their wants, their needs, and their suffering.  Without this ability to know for sure, we may make the mistake of selfishly holding onto them longer than is morally correct.  I definitely felt that way about Gwydion’s ending… I kept him too long.  It strongly effected how I dealt with Nightshade’s end of life, as she had not stopped eating when I chose to let her go, but she was waking soaked in urine fairly regularly, and it seemed beneath her great dignity.  Some would say that it may have been Arthur’s time to die, as many cats will leave their humans, to die alone – away from their sorrowful view.  But he was so young and energetic, I have not yet let go of the awareness that he would likely still be with me today, if he had not stared out that window for two years, thinking how AMAZING it all appeared from that safe and limiting place he was perched, only to find out that it was vast and terrifying to be on the other side of the window.  I feel that his heart couldn’t take the expanse, and I own some of that responsibility to this day.  As my fifth and only surviving cat, Morgan is probably the best cared for of them all.  I have learned a great deal about what to do, right and wrong, for their care.  I only wish I’d known twenty-five years ago what I know today.  Each furry soul has touched my heart in a special way… they are never far from reach.  Nightshade, especially, shows up in my dreams on a regular basis.

As I wrap up this chapter of loss, Morgan is standing before me, at the edge of my computer, awaiting my undivided attention.  Time to move forward…

(oil painting by Sandra Bierman)sandra bierman twobabes

The Love of a Good Cat – Part One

I am currently in the  midst of a deep dive of self discovery, which requires a review of my personal experience with death. I thought I had completed the task remarkably unscathed when another question in the curriculum was posed about comfort in receiving emotional support, such as a hug, from strangers.

At first, I couldn’t think of an instance… until I realized that I had only written about the humans that I have lost, and had not written about my beloved pets.  In my adult and independent life, in other words, since I moved out of my parents’ home, I have loved, nurtured, and cared for cats.  Of five furry babies that have blessed my life, I have lost four.  Each loss was devastating.  When I compare these losses to my human ones, I recognize that the suffering at their loss was extensive.  I imagine the reason is multi-tiered, and multi-teared.  First of all, I was completely responsible for their care and well-being.  If they suffered, it was because of my neglect or inability to understand their needs.  If only they could speak, or I could understand their language.  That leaves a world of opportunity for self-flagellation.  Secondly, unlike the people I have lost, my pets have been with me every single day, through prosperity and hardship, anywhere from two years to nineteen years.  Finally, unlike most relationships in life, they loved me without condition, even when I felt unlovable… and they each played an important role in nurturing my identity, and possibly my self-worth.

I must start at the beginning, though the first cat-love that I lost was not by death.  Stevie came into my life at precisely the moment that my whole life was changing, and in fact, she was a catalyst for some of that change.  I was living with four roommates, when this Sterling Persian beauty found her way into my parents’ backyard.  We figured she had been abandoned when someone moved away, but now that I reflect on how she appeared to us, and how she disappeared from my life four years later, I wonder.  My living situation at the time was up for renewal, and when Stevie appeared, it was clear that my roommates were not agreeable to bringing a house cat into the fold, and so it was that this tiny angel entered my life to change the trajectory of my youth.  I was 23 that year, and my parents co-signed for me to buy my own condo.  That condo was not just our home, it was the birthplace of my Tribe, the hub of my new spiritual journey, a meeting place for my young adult group, a nest to welcome a loving partner, and a safe place for dear friends to rest their heads when they were in need.  That level of independence enabled my freedom for growth and community building, which never could have happened while sharing a home with multiple people on different paths.  I shall always believe that Stevie arrived for that purpose.

A couple of years later, I brought home a tiny black kitten, that I named Nightshade.  Attention:  Never name a pet after a poisonous herb… it may just live up to the title.  Ha!  This girl was a tiny terrorist.  She was constantly getting into trouble.  I have heard mothers of toddlers repeatedly urge their energetic child to stop what they are doing, and Nightshade was my source of empathy for them.  I don’t think they ever really became friends, but Stevie tolerated the tiny tornado… for a while.  When we moved out of the condo and into a house, there was a hole in the wall where the dryer would vent.  We assessed it and foolishly believed there was no way they could get out, and in the morning, I was devastated to find that Stevie was gone.  She had been in my life for four years, the entirety of my time in the condo that housed my becoming.  I searched the neighborhood for her to no avail.  I sobbed and wailed for my loss and abandonment, and for my failure to keep her safe.  When I reflected on her time with me and why she had gone, besides the fact that I was sure Nightshade had pushed her through that hole, I determined that she was the resident angel to get me through that four-year period of transformation and growth, and that there was someone else in need that she was meant to serve.

In my grief for Stevie’s loss, came my partner’s desire for my comfort.  Interestingly, I ran into a former co-worker I had not seen in a couple of years, since I adopted Nightshade from her.  She shared that her daughter was moving back home, and that she had a kitten that she would not allow her to keep.  Enter Gwydion.  He was the yang to Nightshade’s yin… our bringer of light.  She was mischievous and he was curious.  She was independent and only allowed herself to be loved on her terms, and he was pure love and affection.  Nightshade was a black domestic short hair and Gwydion was a Norwegian Forest Cat with long white with black and grey fur.  The markings around his face, as a kitten, gave him a look that made you think of Barbra Streisand (I don’t know how, but I wasn’t the only one who could see it).   As a baby, my goddess daughter could lean on him and he would not move or run, but just sit patiently in her support.  After I had gone to bed, I swear he would call out to me, “Mama!  Mama!”  He would lie down next to his food dish and pull out one crunchy morsel at a time onto the floor, and only once out of the bowl would he consume his meal, which made for an adorable companion to Nightshade’s ‘water dance’, a funny way that she would tap her front and hind feet before she would drink from the water fountain.  At twenty pounds, Gwydion wasn’t a lap cat, I think he was aware of his mass, and so he would only sit beside you to receive your affection.  In his later years, I was finally able to convince him to sit on my lap.  He would come to my feet and look up at me with love and expectation.  I would lift him onto my knee, and he would sit, like a tiny human leaning against the arm of the comfy chair, with his elbow perched just so.  From this vantage, I could rub his fluffy belly, and he would purr with delight… as would I.  He liked to lie on the hardwood floor with his belly exposed, which is why my brother dubbed him – Throw Rug.  It was in his thirteenth year that everything went wrong.  It’s disturbing to me how many things I had missed in his decline.  We tend to think that they are just getting older when they slow down or start to limp… must be arthritis.  I had witnessed him lying down to pee once or twice, but his doctor and I assumed the typical male cat issue with UTI, and we treated with antibiotics.  I should have taken him in for x-rays immediately, but his doctor came to the house, and I felt I was saving him the stress of being carried outside of the home and into a strange office with other animals.  It wasn’t until I was sitting on the floor one night, stroking him as he sat upon the ottoman at eye level, when I slid my hand down his hind leg.  There beneath white fluff, was a swollen mass above his ankle joint.  My heart stopped.  I called his doctor, and she arranged for him to be seen the next day at our local hospital.  The tests reflected my worst fears… cancer.  The only logical solution for a young cat would have been amputation, but Gwydie was not young, and there was something happening in his belly that couldn’t be determined without further testing, but it was likely the spreading cancer, hot to the touch.  I am sickened to think about all of the things I could have done differently for his care.  I struggled to get pills into him, and so I often didn’t force it.  He couldn’t stand to pee, so I just kept papers on the floor.  It was only ten years ago, why didn’t I have liquid pain meds and absorbent pee pads?  My anam-cara, a soul friend I met that August in Ireland, had a friend who could psychically communicate with animals, and she sent me a written recording of what she received from her connection with Gwydion, as I sought his guidance for what to do for him.  I would have given anything to hear his voice in a way I could interpret and understand.  The following is what Mary transcribed:

“11/19/2008 pm / Communication with Gwydion for Melissa

I’ve been waiting… my person Melissa talks to me all the time.  I’m one lucky cat.
Q:  Are you in pain?  A:  Discomfort is a better description.  My kitten days are long gone.  This is my path now.  I am like a butterfly – metamorphosis is what I am doing.  Tell Melissa to notice butterflies, especially yellow ones.  I am like that.  I began as a cute kitten – became a loving cat – and now I am aged.  It is natural.  It is the design.  I will be like the butterfly one day – I will be light and free and I will fly away.  I’ll not be away from Melissa but I will fly away from this physical body that you see – handsome as it is.  Its time has almost come.  We’ll walk a few more trails together and face a few more trials together and then I’ll metamorphose.
Q:  Is walking difficult?  A:  This body cannot do all it could but it still serves me.  I do okay.
Q:  Ok if Melissa carries you?  Touches you?  A:  Love in any form is what I absorb.  I try not to cause sadness.  Now I am taking on a lot of Melissa’s sadness.  It is heavy for me.  I do not wish to bring her sadness.  It is the way of things.  I hear her tears and know she does not fully understand / grasp this metamorphosis.  I’ll be here until she does.  The shift will come and I will be free like the butterfly.
Q:  Message for Melissa?  A:  We journey together.  We always have.  We always will.  There may be a kitten in her future – sent by me (smile).  But I must save that surprise until later.  Blinky. Blinky. (note – no idea what this means and no clues were provided)
Q:  Do you want Melissa to help you move onto spirit?  A:  She has lots of helpers.  When the time is right, I’ll go on.  It may be spring – like the butterflies.  It doesn’t really matter that much – time – physical – cycling.  It is time now for me to slow down.  I don’t mind.  Business as usual, for now.
Q:  What can Melissa do for you?  A:  She is already doing everything for me.  I am warm, well fed, and happy.  This body will not last but I will.  Melissa and I will always share a special warmth – our hearts beat together now and in spirit.  WE are love.  That is our language.  Time for sleep now.  G’night.

Another intuitive friend at work told me she connected with him, and that he said I would know it was his time to go when he no longer cared for his food.

When that day came, I was terrified.  I tried liquefying salmon, but he refused to eat.  And when I came home from work that night, he was sitting beneath the Yule tree, and looked back at me as I entered from the kitchen.  I walked over and picked him up, carried him to the paper so he could release his bladder.  Then, I carried him to the water bowl for him to drink.  This was when I realized that the cancer in his leg had severed the bone.  His foot flipped in an unnatural position.  I screamed and cried, and called his doctor.  She would come the next day, but couldn’t arrive before 2pm.  I carried my beloved boy to bed, and there we would stay, our final spooning love fest.  On December 11, 2008, I sent an email to friends and family and attached a picture of my boy.  This is what I wrote:

“I let Gwydion go yesterday.  It was time… We had a love fest in bed for about 18 hours… we talked about our many blessings… we cuddled and caressed, and both felt completely enveloped by our love for one another, as well as the love of our family and friends.

Dr. Martinez came to us in my room at 2pm.  My parents and Julie (his beloved cat sitter) were there in person, and VJ, my Tribe, and others were there in spirit.  I curled my body around his, and placed my arm so my hand was over his heart and my heart was mournfully beating against his back, as I whispered ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ into his ear with kisses.  He left his body in my arms at 3:32pm.  I was so lucky to have such a beautiful parting with him… not in some cold, bright office, but in the warmth and soft comfort of my bed… where I was safe to wail and sob, clutch and kiss him all the way to the other side.

I reflect on how he came into my life… and know that he was a gift from the Universe, and that somehow… our souls had chosen one another.  I am so lucky he chose me.  And we are so lucky that all of you love us… and we are grateful.  Now Nightshade and I are finding a new way to exist.  It is sad and quiet in our house… and so we invite you to stop by anytime to help fill the emptiness.

With great love and abundant gratitude for your love and support, Melissa”

I received dozens of supportive replies from family and friends.  All were compassionate, caring, and offered their loving support to help Nightshade and me through the darkness.  My sister-in-love often commented when visiting that last year, about how she witnessed my care for Gwydion in his infirmity.  In her email, she affirmed, “You gave Gwydion (she actually called him Gideon, and often called Nightshade Lampshade, but I found that terribly endearing) so much love… more love than I’ve seen humans give each other sometimes…”  I hope he felt it, because he deserved the world for all of the love he delivered.  When he was gone, and because Nightshade was so limited in her affection, I realized what a love-sponge he was.  I could pour everything I had into him, and he would receive it and reflect it back to me.  Life was a great deal lonelier in his absence.  But eventually, my girl and I found our way.

The day that came forward in my memory, with the question of how I feel about receiving comfort from strangers was a few years back when Nightshade died.  She had been with me for nineteen years, and she was a cat that only a mother could love.  She looked so inviting to pet, but then she would most likely snap and growl if you tried.  She would follow my friends into the bathroom, but then hiss at them when she realized they were not me… and then she would hiss at them when they were feeling most vulnerable, if you know what I mean.  She also had a thing for sharing her disdain with me by peeing on things.  Seriously, no one taught me more about unconditional love and co-dependency than Nightshade.  If she wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy.  Ha!  She was an integral part of my identity, as I saw it.  When it was time to let her go, she was nearly two decades upon the earth, and had lost her vision and her continence.  I finally found the courage to have her doctor come, when she was waking each morning soaked in urine.  That was no way for a goddess, as she recalled the Egyptians to have worshiped her, to live.  Unlike my experience with Gwydion, I felt that this should be a more intimate release.  Nightshade really didn’t like other humans very much, and so it felt right for it to be just the two of us at the end.  She growled when the doctor arrived, she was never a big fan of her visits.  She received her shot, and I pulled her onto my chest as her breathing stopped and only one broken heartbeat remained.

The next morning, I woke and felt overwhelmed by the emptiness of my home.  She was so small, and yet she took up so much room.  I couldn’t breathe inside the vacuous space of her absence.  So, I got into my car and I drove.  I figured I would just go somewhere for breakfast, but it was difficult to focus.  I drove to one place, and they could not seat me… and so I drove to the opposite side of town, where I found a table and sat down.  It was difficult to prevent my tears from falling, and throughout my dining experience, I would find composure and lose it again multiple times.  Looking back, I feel sorry for the burden that must have been to other diners.  However, it was in this place that I experienced incredible kindness and humanity.  One woman came to my table and said to me, “If you would receive it, I would like to offer you a hug.”  I couldn’t speak, but I accepted.  She hugged me in a way that was not foreign or guarded.  This perfect stranger held space for me, and she literally held me in my grief.  When it was time to pay the check, I learned that a different couple had paid my tab as they departed.  It was one of those moments that was life affirming.  I know that had I reached, a whole host of friends would have come to my door to provide the love and support that I needed.  And yet, I was so lost and confused in mourning, that I could not manage the thought required to do so.  The Universe still managed to deliver exactly what I needed at that moment… a bit of kindness and compassion.  What a beautiful world.  So, to answer the question about my comfort in being hugged by a stranger… I am completely comfortable with the kindness and compassion of another’s embrace, be they old friend or new friend.

all-you-really-need-in-life-is-the-love-of-a-good-george-boot