It is the dark times on Orcas Island, but today, the island is blanketed in white.
I was laid low for much of the past month with RSV. As I return to normal I am reminded that normal for me is depressed, anxious, and tired.
I’m grappling with uncertainties around money, as my part-time job is about to end. My plans to move to Olympia to attend Evergreen are delayed to the fall quarter of 2023 due to the peculiarities of the financial aid system.
The holidays are a difficult time for me. I experience a tension between my fantasy of what the holidays are, and the reality. My fantasy is a Norman Rockwell painting of a riotous extended family gathering around the hearth, drinking wintery drinks, drunk on oxytocin and a felt sense of belonging.
This was never the case in my family of origin, which is something I woke up to during my own healing work. For the past three years my holidays have been fairly solitary. Which is painful, but honestly, not so different from my years of family gatherings. The through line of loneliness is much the same, but I can say the stress of fraught family dynamics is greatly reduced. So, a mixed bag.
Squirrel and I talked about it last month:
While I was sick I allowed my vocational work, the videos and writing, to go silent. I experienced the lack of vocational work as a loss of direction and purpose. The weeks passed in a shuffling meander.
But recently I’ve resumed filming and writing, and can feel a spark to my days.
This solstice period, give the gift of marketable insights on the Human Condition. Give the gift of The Standard Rainbow Hour.
After a month or so of quiet, I posted a new Squirrel video. Every time I post a video, I engage in a ritual of reading the viewer comments and responding. My trademark reply is some formulation of the emojis for heart, squirrel, and swirly star:
I vary them to let people know that I am not cutting and pasting. Because Mister Rogers would never cut and paste.
With my latest video, I used a TikTok feature I’ve never used before, which is the video reply. Squirrel constantly receives requests for video topics. I bookmark them in TikTok so I can revisit them. Sometimes I base videos on viewer questions. This time I used the reply feature to respond directly to the viewer. I wonder if they see it on their side, or if it’s lost in the chaos of TikTok.
Regardless, the steady stream of viewer comments is like a trail of bread crumbs for me. I gain sustenance from them, and a path forward. Lead on, little squirrel.
You can support my efforts on Patreon
P.S. Here are some renderings of Squirrel n’ friends that I created with the AI image generator, DALL-E 2. I’m gobsmacked by the quality of the renderings, and rather worried for the world of human artists.
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ADVENTURES IN GRIEF AND PRAISE
This is part two of my series on grief work (see part one).
I am among neighbors. We are in a gorgeous white clapboard churchy building on a gorgeous little island. The October air is brisk outside but inside a gas stove keeps us cozy.
We have gathered for a community grief ritual, my second foray into grief work (my first experience was a men’s grief ritual in September).
We begin with a game of sorts. Hayley, one of our facilitators, invites us to rise from our seated circle and mingle. We walk and swirl like a school of fish. Then Hayley asks us to stop and face the nearest person.
I turn to a woman a few years younger than I. We make eye contact and I can feel a frisson of recognition. We know each other by first name, but little else.
Hayley encourages us to make physical contact.
The neighbor and I hold hands. I’m not at all used to this. My body thrums with something close to anxiety.
Hayley encourages us to simply look at one another.
This is harder still, but I dive in, I gaze into my neighbor’s eyes. A faint klaxon blares from decades ago, when eyes were not at all safe for me. I ignore it and keep breathing and keep gazing.
I don’t know what she sees. But I see a woman’s face. I see eyes, with their improbable blown glass irises. The eyes move in little adjustments, the eyelids blink. And suddenly, I have this uncanny, spooky feeling of falling into her eyes. Of tumbling in and meeting another consciousness. I’ve seen this person around town for years but in this moment I’m finally meeting her.
This extraordinary connection came about in all of 30 seconds.
And then Hayley offers a prompt that brings to mind the suffering of the world and I experience one of the great intimacies of my life. This person, this neighbor, begins to silently cry as she holds my gaze and my hands.
And I intuit, in this moment, that my job is to stay with her. To meet her gaze, to be with her in her sorrow.
We do not speak, but we are communicating deeply.
And so begins my second grief ritual, right here on Orcas Island.
A month prior, and another beginning.
It begins in a silly way. Some 25 men have gathered in a forest meadow in the Olympic Peninsula. We’ve set up our tents. We’ve chatted with a brittle, nervous energy. Some of us are friends, some of us are strangers.
We are mostly younger men in our thirties and forties, but among us is an elder, Laurence. He is to be our guide for the weekend. He has an intent gaze, a gravitational presence. He is not prone to small talk. We circle up for the first time and he tells us to do a silly thing. Which is to walk out of the meadow and walk back in.
Because, as he explains, we have not formally entered the Space.
This feels silly to me, as in, arbitrary, a game we are playing. But I’m here to play along so I walk with the others. Laurence plays a solemn drum beat. It is sunset and then it is very dark. We process through a rutted path in the woods. And then we pass through a natural arbor of old cedars. And one by one, we enter the meadow.
We are in a silent queue. I can see the silhouette of Laurence mumbling something to each man in turn.
And as I shuffle forward, something cracks quite suddenly and grief wells up from my gut, up my throat, and out my face.
All the silly things—The drumming, the procession, the little loop back to the meadow—coalesce into something not at all silly. Something very ancient and very human. And the irony peels off me like snake skin.
A voice says to the terrified wounded little boy in me: This is for you.
And as grief drags my face down like a palsy I am before Laurence and he says in his deep baritone:
Welcome to the healing ground. You are not alone.
And of course, I break apart.
I am walking in the meadow after our second wailing ritual of the weekend, a riotous dance on one of the last warm days of the year. I am barefoot and shirtless, which is very out of character. I’m walking to my tent to grab something and I feel this oddness in my body. My feet seem to be bouncing off the earth. I’m walking in a relaxed lope like…I belong here. I see men walking by and instead of a jolt of fear I feel love. I can feel the hay poking the soles of my feet and it’s fine. My gut, usually an early warning system of vague sour sensations, is quiet.
I realize that the strange feeling, the feeling of bouncing through the meadow, is what it feels like to actually be here. To not be in a dissociated, traumatized fog. To not be, in the words of John Mulaney, a brain moving from room to room. To be a male-bodied human being walking among his fellows and walking on the surface of the earth, which is to say, walking home.
A couple hours later our meadow is visited by a delegation of women and children. They are the greater community—Neighbors, partners, family—come to greet us. We’ve been warned about this but I have no idea what to expect. And I have to say, I feel, for the first time that weekend, something like a jolt of fear. STRANGERS!
We circle up in the meadow, the men and the community alike. There is a curious energy in that meadow. The men are docile, quiet, content, openhearted, gentle as lambs. The community brings a new energy, the kids goofing around, the women standing tall. Among the women, some clear leaders, who tell us that they have prepared something for us. That we are to line up and be welcomed.
And so we do, we line up like wedding couples, arm in arm, elders at the front. And then unfolds the most sublime and loving experience of my forty years, a ceremony later described to me as the Angel Wash.
The women line up in two rows in a kind of gauntlet, and we process down the aisle they form. As we pass through, they sing to us, brush us with cedar boughs, touch us gently, speak affirmations into our ears. Through watery eyes I make an effort to look each woman in the eye as I pass. And all I see is the warmest compassion.
As we near the end of the aisle, we each, in turn, step into a basin of flowered water. And I have the novel and humbling experience of having my feet washed, dried and oiled, like I’ve wandered into the Book of John.
And then the men circle up in a tent and the women surround us in a larger circle. And the women take turns thanking us for our grief work. And I feel relief and realize I’ve been holding a story that we’ve been self-indulgent this weekend. Three days for grieving! While the community cares for the kids, takes care of the homes, carries on with daily life.
But no, they say:
Thank you for doing this work. If only your brothers did this work too.
When you embrace your feminine, it allows us to step into our masculine. *At this point, two hippie women in flowing dresses grunted and chest-bumped.
Help us to raise our boys right.
It’s sexy to see a man doing his personal work.
And then, we celebrated, sang, and danced, well into the evening.
In my second ritual weekend, we closed with another Angel Wash. This time, though, we washed one another.
I was delighted when I finally learned the lyrics of the song, which I’ll share here:
I behold you beautiful one
I behold you child of the earth and sun
Let my love wash over you
Let my love watch over you
Each of us had the opportunity to walk through a loving gauntlet of our neighbors. And each of us had many opportunities to lavish our neighbors with love.
I found that, with my height, I could hold each person’s head in my hands. And just as it was a novel experience for me, I could tell it was a novel experience for many of them. Neighbors of all ages and genders. Bearded young men, white-haired elders, young mothers. Many of us wept. Our hearts were wide open.
And all the while, we sang.
This month, at the Orcas Public Library, I went to see a talk by the Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses. And he told us that, in the Samish language, the word for singing is also the word for crying.
During the weekend, Laurence told us that his West African grief mentors, Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé, participated in various rituals in their home village every 10 days or so. Much of their time was spent in ritual, or prepping for the next ritual.
I can’t think of time better spent.
I’m going to skip to the end and give you the gold.
Elders in the world of grief work talk about grief and praise. What does that mean? It means that grief and praise are two sides of the same coin. It means that grief is loving something that is lost, and praise is loving something that is not lost (yet).
That surrendering to grief opens you to that rare thing, the feeling of truly being alive. That a ready access to grief is matched by a ready access to gratitude, to love, to praise.
That grief is the royal road to what you truly love. To the deepest human connection with your fellows.
There’s a dangerous myth in Western society that grief is maudlin, life-sapping, the road to death. When in fact, it is the *resistance* to grief that robs the body of liveliness, that leads to a kind of walking death.
Grief elders warn us of what comes from this flight from grief:
A society gripped by an unspeakable fear. A society that cannot praise life because it cannot grieve loss. We live like teenagers, as if we will never die…and are not dying this very moment.
Estranged from death, we kill each other, ourselves, and our natural home with careless ease. Estranged from praise, we wander this life without knowing its excruciating preciousness. Naturally, we numb ourselves. Naturally, we lash out. Naturally, we despair.
And when death does come, as it will, we are unprepared for one of the only absolute certainties of our life. And so we go out in a state of struggle, or perhaps worse, a state of denial. And somewhere in us, a deep knowing, that in denying death, we have failed to truly live our “one wild and precious life.”
I cannot imagine a worse fate.
And so the way forward is, in Francis Weller’s words, an apprenticeship with grief. So that we might reacquaint ourselves with life.
The Angel Wash song was written in the Salish Sea bioregion by Saphir Lewis and Rafe Pearlman. The melody is by Aimee Ringle and Aimee Kelley.
Here’s a community ritual version, much like the version I encountered.
Here’s a studio version.
Tis the season for my old project, Santa’s Little Secret Service.
Photo: Zachary Lara