We are told there is an appropriate time for grieving, that it takes a year. That you have to live through a full cycle of the seasons and the holidays before your grieving is complete. Well I know that’s not so. That grieving sometimes goes on for a long time. Its good to set aside time each year to remember. And what better time than now, as winter approaches? Please bring a photo of your beloved to add to our altar of memory. Let us remember together.
I begin with a reflection written by the brother of the UU minister Emeritus in Middleboro, Tricia Tummino. Charlie Tummino wrote this in 1991 prior to his death which happened shortly after.
Raking Leaves by Charlie Tummino, October 1991
On Saturday I was raking leaves… tons of leaves,
colorful dead leaves,
the souls of green leaves—
When my mood changed from one of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task to a kind of resignation and even to a feeling of inner peace.
The change began when I started remembering the many shades of bright green those leaves displayed in the Spring,
and then the deep, lush greens of the Summer,
and finally the reds, yellows, oranges, and browns—
both bright and muted of the Fall.
I mean, with all the beauty and joy those leaves gave us, it was the least I could do—to give them a decent burial.
So I extended my arms to pick up as big a bunch of leaves as I could, plunged my hands into the pile, and picked up hundreds of them at a clip. And with each new armful, I experienced how very light they were, how delicate!
They began to feel like the souls of deceased loved ones I have been missing, and the souls of strangers I never met, and the souls of Holocaust victims and of pogroms, and the souls of an endless variety of human beings, each beautiful in his and her own way.
I was appointed some kind of a god with the responsibility of harvesting these spirits who had found their way to my backyard. I discharged my duties and gathered as many as I could and placed them in one very large pile in the woods under the protection of some of the trees that bore them. It was the least I could do.
I felt honored to have been chosen for this job.
It was a day like this that I found myself in the woods a few weeks ago, a new place to bring my dog. The sun was at a slant, filtered as it lit up the gold forest floor, the ducks were descending onto the pond, the air was fast losing the moments of mid day warmth, and the vastness of the sky was held delicately in the thin exposed branches of the young aspen and birch. I remember one tree, all naked except three large leaves at the very top, hanging in such a way to point in one direction. In an anthropomorphic moment, I smiled thinking the wisest ones were left to point the direction for a lost wanderer, little did I know that these leaves would actually point me the way home after spending hours lost with my dog on the meandering trail.
I am not sure why I got lost, I went back the next day, and it all looked so straight forward. I know that as I was walking I was listening deep within to the narrative of the seasons in my soul. The energy and abundance of summer behind me gave spring to my step, and the winter world of mystery, darkness and repose before me gave me pause. I was in an in between place, trying to stop time, to hold on to the movement that had carried me here. Yet the leaves kept falling, reminding me of the passage of time, how close I am, how close we all are, to joining those leaves, those souls that are being drawn back into the earth.
Like Charlie, I thought of the souls I had been missing. I thought of my father and my mother during the last weeks of their lives. Moments when I wanted to stop time, to hold onto everything that had brought us to that moment. Since then, grief and memory have created their own narrative, a dance really of sorrow and joy, of strength and vulnerability.
I was told as perhaps you were too, that there is an appropriate time for grieving. That you just have to live one year, to live through the seasons, the holidays and remember all the things special to you in the cycle of that year before your grieving is complete. I know that this is not so, that sometimes grieving goes on for a long time. Grief for my mother came in each phase of my life, the start of a marriage without her, the birth of four babies without her, the challenges of mid life without her and saying goodbye to my dad without her. Now as my kids have all now passed the age I was when she died, I am so very aware that I am in unchartered parenting territory. I feel lost sometimes, and I return to my grief to find anew her presence, this time as someone who maybe there to guide me, in my final hour, an ask of the universe that for a long time I felt I could not make, since I was not there for her final hour, something I had to learn to forgive my young self for and now I find comfort and hope in that possibility of her being my final guide.
I know that those of you who brought mementos of your loved ones, or who chose a flower to add to our bouquet or who lit a candle, are also filled with memories, memories that serve as guideposts for you. Perhaps you have reached a place in your grieving that you can celebrate your loved one’s life with gratitude and joy that you have walked the path together for awhile. Perhaps, like me you are still writing the narrative of grief. It’s a narrative easy to ignore.
Buddhist teacher Joanne Halifax, said when her mom died “I felt I had a kind of choice, to be a good Buddhist, accept death and let go of my mom with great dignity, or alternatively, scour my heart out with sorrow, I decided to scour, and went to the desert with photos and letters, I sunk into the shadows of sorrow.”
Grief can be so overwhelming, this is a hard choice to make. When people turn to me in their anguish after a love one dies, I tell them , dive into your grief, pause from the busyness, write letters to your love-one, look at photos, scour your sorrow, and what feels so heavy now, will be the ballast for the guiding presence to come.
The Persian poet says,
The same well from which your laughter rises, was often times filled with your tears. And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
Is not the cup that holds our wine the very cup
That was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes our spirit,
The very wood that was hallowed by knives?
When you are joyous,
Look deep into your heart and you shall find
It is only that which has given you sorrow
That is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
I remember when my dad died, eight years ago, I thought that my experience with my mom might help, you know transferable skills, but his loss is so different, I am still trying to put it into words. I think that is why I was so taken with the memoir that Gail Caldwell wrote in her book Lets Take the Long Way Home about the death of her dear friend Caroline of lung cancer at age 49. I related to their story because she and Gail, both writers spent hours in the woods with their dogs, sharing their hearts. Gail’s words helped to give shape to my grief for my dad. She says “For months after Caroline’s death I felt the strangeness of time itself, as though some great barge carrying the rest of us had left Caroline stranded on the shore. I was raking leaves one day when I felt such a vast chasm of what was gone that I had to stop and sit down on the porch. All this raw material, from new shoots to compost in what seemed a single breath.”
I remember such a moment a few months after my dad died. I was visiting an elder at a nursing home and the scene of the residents around a table seemed so familiar that I automatically started scanning the faces of the residents looking for dad. I nearly had to sit down when I realized he wasn’t there, and never would be there. Months later, the narrative of Gail’s grief changed. Just after Gail saves her dog’s life from a vicious pit bull attack on a deserted field blurts out unexpectedly to herself, ‘the dead protect us.’ The words she says came out of her mouth with certainty, though she was unaware that she thought it until she spoke aloud. The dead protect us.
“I feel this now” she says with an almost fierce relief. “Caroline’s dying had forced me into courage to save my dog, now I had her inside me as a silent sentinel. And whether one attributes this attachment to memory or to God, it is a consolation unlike any I have known. Thou art with in.” Our hearts break open and we absorb our beloved, and as we do we are carved into different and kinder creatures.
I wonder if this consolation is possible as we absorb the little we know about the lives of the victims of violence last week. I know my heart is breaking open for how can we not love them? David and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers in their 50s, greeted everyone at the tree of life synagogue with a “Good Shabbos” every week and Joyce Fienberg, who prayed there every day after her husband’s death Melvin Wax who was “everything but the cantor”. And how can we not love Vickie Lee Jones, a grandmother who served the veterans association with a warm and giving heart, and Maurice E. Stallard, a veteran who had a kind word for all he met, both killed last week simply for being black? How can we not love them all?
It is good that we are taking time this morning to open ourselves up to feel more fully that deep channel carved through our beings and to hold all the grief of this week. Someone once said that grief is love with no place to go, an internal process of fear, panic, loneliness, guilt, longing and depression, but mourning with others transforms grief, and transforms us. I know as the losses in my own life accumulate and my narratives of grief deepen, I weep more and laugh more easily often at the same time, grateful to be alive and have companions with whom to share my life.
I hope that as each of us remember and continue to compose the narratives of grief this morning we will mourn deeply as well the beautiful lives of those killed this past week allowing the heaviness of it all to be the ballast of the love and courage and integrity that will transform the violence of white supremacy into our collective liberation. Let us, break open our hearts together.
The poet, Robert Hugh Orr, says,
They are not gone who pass beyond the clasp of hands,out from the strong embrace. They have put off their shoes,
softly to walk by day within our thoughts,
to tread at night our dream-led paths of sleep.
They are not dead who live in hearts they leave behind. In those whom they have blessed they live a life again,
And shall live through the years eternal life, and grow each day more beautiful
As time declares their good,
and proves their immortality.
They are not gone. They are not lost. They are not dead who live in hearts they leave behind. And now let us enter into a brief time of silence. (Sound of gong.)
Before we sing the last song, I offer “Pueblo Verse” by Nancy Woods from her book Many Winters
All of my life is a dance.
When I was young and feeling the earth
my steps were quick and easy.
The beat of the earth was so loud
that my drum was silent beside it.
All of my life rolled out from my feet
like my land which had no end as far as I could see. The rhythm of my life was pure and free.
As I grew older my feet kept dancing so hard
that I wore a spot in the earth.
At the same time I made a hole in the sky.
I danced to the sun and the rain
and the moon lifted me up
so that I could dance to the stars.
My head touched the clouds sometimes
and my feet danced deep in the earth
so that I became the music I danced to everywhere. It was the music of life.
Now my steps are slow and hard
And my body fails my spirit.
Yet my dance is still within me and
my song is the air I breathe.
My song insists that I keep dancing forever.
My song insists that I keep rhythm
with all of the earth and the sky.
My song insists that I will never die.
And now in our going may love bless and keep us
May the light of love shine upon us and out from within us And be gracious unto us and bring us peace.
For this is the day we are given, let us rejoice and be glad in it.