The ancient Hanged Man is the center of attention, oddly modern in straight lines and upright, bloodless repose.
I am at a funeral mass in a church that is a testament to privilege, from the pale polished wood of vaulted ceilings to the delicate stained glass windows, graceful allegories of allegiance and ardor.
My dead friend rests in a simple urn among flowers and photos. I am here to honor him, but the incense filled air and steady droning of apocrypha ease me into images from my past life.
I am in fourth grade, sitting next to my classmate, Stanley Szymanski, enthralled by the drama and special effects of a Black Friar production of the “Stations of the Cross.” As our bones vibrate to the crashes of recorded thunder and our hearts flutter to the rhythmic flashes lightening that signal the death of that Hanged Man, Stanley reaches over, grabs my hand, and whispers “Let’s get hitched.”
I am somewhere in my pre-teens, standing next to my father, who smells vaguely of Old Spice and who subtly hums along with the inspiring choir. He is tall and strong next to me, and, for the first time, I feel stirrings of some kind of desire. Someday I will learn about Electra, and I will take courses in psychology, and I will understand.
When I return home after the funeral service, I finish reading a book I requested from its author because, these days, I am even more fascinated by death and the processes of dying than I was as a child growing up above the viewing rooms in my father’s funeral home.
I also am a fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, so I tend to have an affinity for archetypes, and Polishing the Bones by Jungian Analyst Penelope Tarasuk tells of a journey that embraces both of my passions.
It is a unique story – one that can only evolve between two very creative, introspective, and unique individuals as they embark upon a shared journey to unravel and understand, first, who they are as patient and therapist and, finally, as companions on a final pilgrimage.
Tarasuk invests eight years in partnering with her “client” to prepare for the inevitable, which comes later than sooner and provides a richness of inner growth for both.
Theirs is not an experience that can be easily duplicated, but it does offer tremendous insight into how it is possible use the limitations of mortality to spark creative energies and insight.
More than 25 years ago, I was fortunate enough to pair with a therapist who used Jungian and Shamanistic techniques to help me explore my own dreams and demons. I wrote about it in an essay that was published in 1990 in a psychotherapy journal, Voices.
If you are interested, you can read it here: shadows2
I have a unique relationship with death. My father was an undertaker, and we lived in an apartment above his business. Contemplating death and dying — my own and others’ — has been a part of my life since childhood. I have sat vigil during the hours and days of the deaths of both of my parents. At the age of 77, I am closing in on my final years. I have no control over when or why I will die; but I am learning about the choices I have about “how”. What I have come to believe is that it doesn’t matter what one believes about an “after-life”; what is important is to live fully while embracing the fact that we, after all, are all “terminal.” Those individuals whose religious beliefs preclude them from participating in such a process can follow the dictates of their religions, but those of us who have different beliefs should be allowed to make our own choices.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is once again considering a Death with Dignity bill. Modeled on the Oregon law, H 1991, Compassionate Care for the Terminally Ill Act, would give terminally ill people more freedom, control, and peace of mind at the end of their lives. It is called “The End of Life Options Act”. I noticed that both the Northampton City Council and the Amherst Town Meeting passed resolutions in early November that called on the legislature to enact “The End of Life Options Act” (H1194 and S1225). I urge other municipalities to become familiar with the intent of this bill and take action to lend their support.
Seven out of 10 Americans who support the end-of-life option allowing qualified terminally ill people to end their lives through physician-prescribed medications support having a process to enable terminal patients to choose how they want to die. Such laws have enacted and practiced successfully in other states. I believe this bill has strong safeguards to ensure that no one – including people with disabilities, the frail elderly, and the low-income –could be coerced or pressured to end their lives rather than live longer or seek continued treatment for their terminal illness.
This is NOT assisted suicide, but rather an option to give people the right to choose to end their suffering (and that of their family) when faced with a prolonged and painful dying process.
I support this bill because I have sat by the beds of both parents as they suffered through their last days and hours of pain before death took them. When my father was in the last stages of pancreatic cancer in 1984, thankfully, we were able to use the services of Visiting Nurses (this was before Hospice was available) to give him drops of morphine while he lay in his bed, gasping for air and enduring a level of pain I can’t even imagine. It took him three days to finally die.
My mother, who died at the age of 94 in the “Comfort Care” unit of a hospital, hung on for a week with renal failure, until I finally insisted that the doctor increase her morphine dosage. A “Death with Dignity” Act would have spared both my parents painful deaths that, at that point, were inevitable anyway.
Please join me in contacting the co-chairs of the Joint Public Health Committee: Sen. Jason Lewis (firstname.lastname@example.org, 617-722-1206) and Rep. Kate Hogan (email@example.com, 617-722-2130). Urge them to pass H1194 before the deadline in early February.
That sound has been a long-time coming, mostly because the cultural context for male-female interaction has been dominated by a male world view, a perspective influenced by both biological/hormonal as well as environmental/experiential histories. The myth of the superior Alpha Male, unfortunately, still endures in our society.
While some men continue to evolve beyond the influence of adolescent hormones and cultural aberrations and learn to interact with women as respected equals, others still cling to the mistaken notion that women are their inferiors and exist mostly as the means to fulfill their unrealistic fantasies. The worlds of sports, entertainment, and politics are well-populated with ego-driven men who relish asserting the power of their popularity and wealth. These men are many of the ones who are currently being “outed” for their long histories of sexually harassing women.
For women, sexual harassment ranges from an unwanted kiss or sexual comment, to the extremes of rape and pedophilia. But, it seems to me that it is unfair to judge the evil of all incidents of “sexual harassment” by the same standards.
Several years ago, when I volunteered in the Alzheimer unit at an upscale assisted living center, one sad 90 year old gentleman kept trying to pat my butt. Each time I saw him coming, I would try to grab his hand before it grabbed me. Sometimes I succeeded; sometimes I didn’t. He was 90 years old and suffering from dementia. I did not feel sexually harassed.
Like many of the men over 65, he grew up in a cultural context in which men expected men to “come on” to women as an assertion of their male egos. That is why the older politicians and entertainers who have been notorious for the sexual harassment of women don’t think it’s such a big deal. They don’t have a clue that the really big deal is that they never grew out of their limited understandings of women and never emotionally evolved into mature, responsible adults males. I can excuse (and gently correct) a 90 year old man with dementia when he makes a grab, because he is on the very low end of the harasser spectrum.
But It’s another thing to be a powerful elder male still engaging in sexual harassment (like Donald Trump and Roy Moore). It is also another thing to be a powerful elder male who did some stupid adolescent pranks in his early years, has proven that he has evolved way past that kind of behavior, and is embarrassed and apologetic about those past transgressions (like Al Franken). Punching someone is not as horrendous as murder; trying to kiss someone is not as bad as forcing more intimate sexual contact.
Most women neither expect nor want any of those advances, but, as we have been reading in countless current confessions, women usually feel powerless to resist, afraid to lose whatever the harassers had the power to take away from them.
For whatever reason, they didn’t slap their harassers when it happened, so they are slapping back now, loud and hard. They are setting an example for other women who felt and might feel powerless to tell their harassers to stop, to back off, to show respect and not condescension.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever being harassed, except maybe by the nuns in elementary school, who definitely felt obliged to assert their power over us puny kids in the most unappealing ways.
Maybe it was that I was careful to appropriately dress for every occasion, well aware of the visual signals that purposeful cleavage and a short, tight skirt tend to send to the eager male eye. That is not to say that I never used what limited assets I had to give those signals; but my doing so was a conscious choice, with a consensual expectation and an acceptance of responsibility for what came next.
And that is the responsibility that we women need to take for how we present ourselves to the world of the puerile assumptions of some males. We need to stand against misogyny where it surfaces, and discredit the advertising media that keeps presenting women as sexual objects and therefore encourages the cultural context that we need to reveal, revise, and reform, We need to engage life (as suggested by Camille Paglia) with wary vigilance, personal responsibility, and enough self-assurance to assert our right to hear the sound of our one hand, slapping.
As I was strolling around my peaceful and gun-free, politically Republican neighborhood just now, I had this epiphany. Well, really, Freud had it before me, but sometimes a cigar IS more than just a cigar.
Posts on FB made me contemplate how I feel about guns – and penises. Because I don’t dislike either, and believe that each has a legitimate place in life. While I don’t want or own a gun, that has not been the case in my past life as far as penises go. But I really wouldn’t want to walk around the street seeing either of them hanging out of insecure men’s pants.
Guns and penises. Think about it (and I’m sure many psychologists continue to do so). Just the word “cock” brings up images of both artifacts. And you can use either to “shoot your wad.” Each can be used for violence, and it is usually men who use both for both.
They are both useful, in their place. And both can be dangerous in the wrong hands. (ahem)
I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as my research shows, all of the mass shootings and bombings in America have been perpetrated by men. (I think they were all white men, but that’s not the point here).
Penises and guns. I’d bet my bippy that men who are out-of-control gun fanatics also have some sort of issue about their penises. If you can’t shoot one as well or as often as you want to, how about shooting off the other. If you can’t display your penis in public because it’s illegal, then display your gun, right?
Oh, yes. Guns are fun to shoot. So is sex. But there is a time and a place.
I think it’s interesting that gun fanatics say “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” I bet that they feel the same way about their penises.
Yes, there are plenty of women who like to shoot guns too. There is sense of power (I am told) in shooting off an automatic weapon. I understand needing to feel some kind of power in a culture that has made so many of us, men and women, feel impotent. Power and impotence. Guns and penises.
I have a 15 year old grandson, who plays Grand Theft Auto. I also have a daughter and son-in-law who continually have conversations with him about the the issue of guns and violence, and long ago taught him the difference between fantasy and reality. Actually, the three of them sometimes game together. But it’s their thing, not mine; I play Candy Crush Saga.
Guns and penises. I think there needs to be a whole lot more research into how their essences overlap.
Now, you might bring up the issue of breast feeding in public as some sort of parallel to guns and penises. I have my own middle-of-the-road feelings about that, too.
There are about 2.5 million women in America whose challenges of aging makes it difficult for us to participate physically in many of the RESISTANCE activities. As a 77 year old who doesn’t drive after dark (and so can’t attend any evening meetings), has bad knees and can’t march, I am limited in how I can contribute. We send letters and faxes and postcards. We make pink pussy hats for marchers to wear. And we agonize on Facebook and among ourselves about how we will be able to survive this last quarter of our lives in a nation with an administration made up of individuals who have no empathy for anyone who is not rich and powerful? How can we make our collective elder voices heard?
I believe that we need to get angry. Very very mad. Nasty. Irreverent. We need to embrace our nature as wise, experienced, intelligent elder women. CRONES. It’s not a bad word. It’s a powerful word because there’s both mystery, and fear, and respect, and — even — awe, historically associated with the image of a sword-wielding, gray-haired woman, with a crow companion. They once called us witches, but we know better. CRONE. WITCH. WISE WOMAN. We need to figure out how to make ourselves visible and heard — because, indeed, elder women are virtually invisible out in society. (Unless they are rich and powerful, and even then, they cannot expect to be treated with respect and admiration.)
I invite all progressively-minded elder women, all Crones tired of being ignored and marginalized, to come here and rant with me. We care. We care about fighting for the rights of people, of animals, of our endangered planet. We care about adding our issues and voices to those of all of the other marginalized folks in our American communities. What can we do to add our strengths to further the Resistance?
Use the comment option to suggest topics to rant over (your lazy doctor, the disrespectful bus driver, the impatience of store clerks…) I do not delete expletives because I use them myself. And also suggest ways we can join our significant talents and creativity to fight the powers that are destroying all we have worked for all of our lives.
I moderate comments, so trolls will be ignored.
Spread the word among the Crones you know and love. This is one place where you can let your power growl and rant. A place to gather and share what we know, what we hope, what we demand.
I am no longer with my extended family for the holidays. Our life’s lessons have brought us to different places, literally and metaphorically. But there was an important time that we shared, and I celebrate those times of endearing family gatherings, before our realities diverged and they developed a need to pray for me.
And so I post these, remembering my extended family with nostalgia and also with an appreciation for even the tenuous connections that still exist.
They pray. I write.
Vigil Eve (“Wigilia’ 1950)
There was no mistaking this immigrant clan
for anything but a matriarchy,
bringing from its Polish homeland
the fundamentals of family, earthy foods,
a deference to the will of the grayest female.
The men earned hard money, revered their vodka.
as it was on the farms of the old country.
The rest was woman’s right and work.
So, when the magical time of Vigil Eve drew near
the men disappeared into their smokey enclaves
to share storied fatherland memories,
while the women gathered in her kitchen
a determined lineage of daughters,
by birth and marriage, armed with
the culinary legacies of generations.
Her enameled kitchen table, an assembly line
of dough, tools, bowls of rich concoctions,
filled with reflections of final farm harvests.
For days, they rolled floured, filled and pinched,
boiled, browned and layered.
We children sat at the floor, eye level to legs
in a corner of the steamy kitchen,
playing with scraps of pasty dough,
lulled by the soft humming of female voices,
the steady rumble of snowy urban streets.
The night of Vigil Eve flowed with prayers and feasting,
as full families gathered at the gray lady’s call,
reviving ancient rites of pine and light,
to sing the language and history of their people
carried across oceans of fear and hope.
They sang of homeland yearnings for freedom and faith,
of the tears of mountaineers displaced and despaired,
of the battles of heroes to free the heart’s land,
of mystical mothers and magical births.
Generations of voices in harmony
drifted through the lace-curtained windows
opened to the cold winter night, the night
when animals talked, wishes were granted,
and ancient rituals forged the bonds of blood.
Heart of Rom
(an earlier version published in The Berkshire Review, Volume 4, 1996)
Cyganka! My grandmother scolds,
as I bound off the front stoop
onto the wet city street,
propelled by the promise of stolen kisses
and the musky taste of Tangee
still slick on my lips.
Gypsy. Even the word brings blood
blood rushing to the pit of my stomach.
How I wish for the wild hair,
dark eyes, skin like old copper,
for a power ancient as the land,
the sweep of continents
and countless untamed hearts.
She ruled us with her will,
that Polish grandmother –
a small strong-handed woman
with a voice of faith-forged mettle
and a back turned straight against
truths too bold to hold.
Yet, they tell me once, as I lay young and dying,
she revealed her family secrets:
holy candles, crystal cups, vials of spirits, leeches,
while my mother watched from shadows
fighting demons with her eyes.
They tell me, when the priest arrived,
surprised to find the child alive,
he never commented on the faint red circles
following the tender length of spine,
the scattering of blood marks along the back
like ancient glyphs on altar stone.
I am going to Maine with two friends next week. While there, I am going to put to rest what remains of the guilt and sorrow and regret regarding my relationship with my mother.
The other day I went and spent some time with a good friend, and who is also a healer of souls carrying burdens of regret and guilt. Ed Tick began as my therapist and over these 30 years, that relationship blossomed into a friendship. I still reach out to him when I am troubled, and I visited him earlier this week in his new home not far from where I now live.
The result is that, next week, in Maine, as part of solidifying this new phase of my life on which I have embarked, I will do a ritual to let go of stuff that needs to be freed. I will build a fire, read this last missive to my mom, and then burn the paper. And then burn the triptych with her images — sending her history as a woman to soar with the gulls.
In preparation, I have set up a little altar to honor the good parts of my relationship with my mother, who died five years ago. I have her wedding ring that I put on a chain, and beads from the old red coral necklace (that has been a part of my matriarchal lineage for several generations) that I made into another necklace. I will wear these during the ritual, but, for now, they are a part of the altar. One of the few things I have left of hers is her old statue of Saint Anthony, the heretic converter. I’m sure that she prayed to him all of the time to convert this heretic. It didn’t work, but this icon,one of her favorites, has become mine. Maybe I like him because he holds a lily. And a child. And an open book. In my poetic heresy, I can interpret that any way I like.
So, here is what I will read. And what I will burn. In place of prayer, I write. Here and wherever. Because I can.
If we become the mother
we wanted, our children
grow the roots and wings
of our lost early yearnings,
Our daughters become
the women we wish we were,
our sons the men we dreamed.
But too often we succumb
to the echo of her voice,
caught in the tangle
of a cord never cut.
There is no burying our mothers,
though we lay them deep.
They live in us one way or other,
whether we heed or not.
I am sorry, Mom, that I was not the daughter you wanted. I’m sorry that you were not the mother I wanted. I know that you tried your best to be the best kind of mother that you knew how to be – the kind your mother was. And I did my best to break away from that kind of suffocating tradition.
Yet, despite how I disappointed you over and over, you were always there for me when I needed you. Because that is what the mothers in our family do, And that is how the best parts of you still live on in me – in the kind of mother I have finally become.
I’m sorry that your last years were filled with such turmoil. I wish I had made better choices about how to give you the care you needed. I guess it was my turn to try my best. That was all either of us could ever do.
I’m sorry that your last days were not what you had always hoped they would be – to die at home, in your own bed, with family around you. I did the best I could, Mom. I tried to make sure that you didn’t suffer. Instead, I suffered for you, and that was OK because it meant that in those last days I kept you safe from enduring some unnecessary familial narcissistic tyranny.
There were good times and bad times during the last of the years that we lived together. I like remembering the time we had then to talk and laugh, to dance the polka, to sing all of the old songs, to share our memories of times that were good for us both. I liked that I was finally able to do things for you that you really appreciated, that made you feel good. Because I know there were many other times before that when I made you feel bad.
All of those years as I struggled to grow up, I never really saw you the way that others did. You would have been glad to hear what cousin Cristine wrote to me about you after you died. She said:
I remember the enigmatic smile she always wore, like the one in The Portrait. I never remember her upset or angry. She was always dressed impeccably and I remember her love for Ferragamo shoes. Odd what we remember from our past — the strange minute things that become permanent strong memories and the important things that fade away. I always remember the bathroom at your house on Nepperhan — the l-o-n-g narrow pink bathroom with a door at each end (how cool!) and how it always smelled of green Palmolive soap. I remember your mom cooking and running back and forth to the kitchen and not sitting down and enjoying her own meal.
Someday, I will write a poem about that “enigmatic smile,” which I now think was a biting back of your disappointment and frustration for the parts of your life that you were never allowed to make your own — but I was too wrapped up in my own selfish agendas to realize that.
I don’t know if you were aware of much during your last days, but there was a sea gull who spent most of each day screeching from and pacing on the roof outside the window of your hospital room. This is what I found out about sea gulls:
Sea Gulls are messengers from the gods, especially ancient Celtic deities. They bridge the gap between the living world and the spirit world. Opening yourself to their energy enables you to communicate with the other side. Sea Gull can also give you the ability to soar above your problems and see things from above. Seeing all the different viewpoints.
So tonight I am here at the ocean, communing with the messenger seagulls, sending this message into the wind, into the endless sky: I miss you, mom, I’m glad we had some good last days together, and I wish we had been able to be closer, sooner. I release what is not worth carrying, and I cherish what is left: the comfort that, at the end, we knew how much we loved each other.
I am obsessed with the conviction that our human race is devolving because we are losing our capacity for empathy. And I am not alone in believing that is the root of all of the evil in this world.
On the other hand, there is increasing research that is proving how other mammalian species are actually evolving in their capacity to feel and demonstrate empathy. All you have to do is do an online search for “animal empathy,” and you can spend the rest of the day being amazed and gratified at the increasingly widespread “humane” behaviors of our non-human brothers and sisters. (Do an online search for any of the areas of human violence in the world today – shootings, rapes, war zones…. — and you will spend the rest of the day, perhaps, starting to believe as I do.)
The tendency for humans seems to be violent. An online search for “human violence” will provide support for that assertion.
But it’s really more complicated – and overwhelming – than most folks are willing to admit.
Individual research projects are showing that there are complex connections among the healthy functioning of the brain’s “empathy spot,” the levels of the aggression hormone testosterone, the harmful psychological (and, perhaps neural) effects of violent sports/games/language, and this crisis of morality that is plaguing our species.
Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.
And so we have rampant misogyny, bigotry, border disputes, extreme nationalism, racism,war, violence of all kinds.
In other words, patients with anterior insular lesions had a hard time evaluating the emotional state of people in pain and feeling empathy for them, compared to the controls and the patients with anterior cingulate cortex lesions,” said the researchers.
This area of the brain that has been proven to be affected by a variety of variables, including testosterone levels and exposure to violent media.
One of Baron-Cohen’s longitudinal studies – which began 10 years ago – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the “empathy circuits” of the developing brain.
Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women. So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.
New preliminary findings suggest that brain activation is altered in normal youths with significant past violent media exposure while viewing violent video games.
The reasons for our devolution are obviously complicated and involve some combination of nature and nurture and the opposite of nurture. As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on denying how we actually are encouraging a diminishment of empathy in favor of greed, selfish amorality, and vested interests — whether they be political, religious, economic, or national.
Of course, it’s easier to deny – from climate change to chemical food contamination, to promoting and glorifying violence – than it is to tackle the daunting job of trying to undo what we have done. But if we don’t, we will be a dead species before long. We will destroy ourselves from the simple lack of empathy.
I am hoping that some less corporate-manipulated and more holistic researchers will be able to bring together all of the factors that are pushing our species over the precipice of widespread violence and come up with a convincing argument for the necessity to put the brakes on across the board. Coming up with a plan after that is maybe more than government is capable of now. But if we don’t….
Having been a fan of speculative fiction my whole life and witnessing the manifestations of many of those “fictional” speculations, I don’t hold much hope.