Merry Christmas, dear Friends. See you next week.
I’ve lived on the East Coast most of my life, but five months ago, I moved to Sedona, Arizona. I felt called here after the death of my husband. Others migrants have told me they felt called too, and none that I’ve met can say why, exactly. It probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that we heard the call and we came. We think we are here for a reason. Whatever that reason may be, one thing is sure: I’ve landed in a great classroom.
Last week, I went with one of my new friends to visit a Hopi reservation. “It’s about a two hour drive from Sedona,” she said. “Plan to spend the day.” A group of people from Sedona have, for the past eleven years, brought clothes and food at Christmastime to the Tewa people who live on the reservation. I said yes. And then, I wished I’d said no.
Native American blood runs through my veins, thanks to my grandfather who was either full-blooded or part Cherokee. This connection to native peoples has always called out to me – like Sedona – but I have had no contact with my grandfather’s people, and no meaningful contact with any Native Americans. My grandfather died when I was young, but I remember him. I have a photograph of him on my piano. He is seated, handsome and straight, with his six children in front (the oldest died), the baby, my Uncle Robert, on his knee, my father, the oldest boy, standing tall and solemn to his left. Standing behind the children and next to him is my grandmother, a white woman, who, I believe, was from an Irish indentured family, and for whom I am named. Not many records were kept of people like these, and my family has no documentation of their births, their marriage (which was illegal in the South) or their deaths.
I can just imagine what their lives must have been like, living in South Carolina in the late eighteen hundreds, a white woman and a man of color. No, I guess I can’t. I can only imagine one true thing about them, and that is that it must have taken a great deal of love to keep them together. And alive.
My new friend said that the visit to the reservation would be a “connection” for me. In the days before we were to go, and while helping to pack boxes of canned goods, pasta, coffee, hand lotions, and other basics, I began to feel…a growing resentment. “If we hadn’t taken everything from them,” my mind said, “we wouldn’t have to be doing this at all.” I recalled photographs of white hunters, posing proudly for the camera before mountains of buffalo hides, careless mercenaries who left carcasses to rot on the plains while they sold hides for profit and robbed an entire people of their source of food. I went through every wrong, every bit of treachery, every broken promise made to a people whose lands, customs, languages, and freedom were taken from them. I was not in a good frame of mind when we left. I pictured the people we were going to see – humiliated and angry, horribly poor, unwilling recipients of charity who would tolerate our presence and our presents because of their great need. I became more apprehensive as we drove through a vast plain, on a road that stretched to the horizon, where long, long ago, the buffalo were indeed plentiful, and where now there was nothing except the magnificence of mesa land.
As the cars were unloaded at the community center in a place called Polacca, my friend said, “Come with me and meet the elders.” Seated along a long hallway were beautifully dressed white-haired men and women who had come to represent the Tewa people. As I went along the line to greet them, each of them smiled, took my hand in theirs, and welcomed me as if I were their daughter. I found it hard to hold back the tears as I went along, for what I saw was not what I had expected. There was a great…clarity…about these old people, a gentleness, a serenity. It was as if they were saying to me, “It’s all right. We know who we are.” Some of them were in wheelchairs. Others held canes, still others looked robust and fit, but in each lined face what I saw was my grandfather.
I learned that we were not to distribute what we had brought to Tewa families. The elders would receive the gifts and they would distribute to the families most in need. And I learned something else. When I saw the great room of the community center with tables around the wall, I realized that the boxes that I’d help put together were just the tip of the iceberg. There were tables laden with hand-knitted caps, blankets, frozen turkeys, sacks of potatoes, and all manner of vegetables and commodities. The businesses of Sedona, the stores, and ordinary citizens had sent mountains of gifts. One word came to my mind: reconciliation.
One elder after another stepped to the microphone to address the group. Some spoke in their native language with an interpreter. They were gracious, appreciative, warm, funny, and above all, welcoming. We were, after all, visitors. This was their home, their land, and they opened their hearts to us. Afterwards, I learned, we were to be hosted by a Hopi family and given lunch. There was a big Christmas tree in the room, with hand-made decorations, and they invited each one of us to come and take one. Mine was a painted baby’s rattle. There were mounds of homemade donuts for us (which were incredibly delicious) and large urns of coffee.
As the elders walked by each table and chose the gifts they were to distribute, they stopped to chat. I stood at the table with the knitted caps. They took their time in choosing. There is something about people who live close to the land that gives them a certain…surety. Like my grandfather, who was a farmer, their movements were unhurried. Their gaze was steady, and age gave them an aura of wisdom and dignity. What struck me was that they were familiar. They were like family, like the family I visited in South Carolina when I was a little girl. They brought back my loved ones who have been gone for a long time. They were my grandfather, my father, my aunts and uncles who live now in a photograph on my piano and to whom I speak each night before I go to sleep. They were people who knew how to give, but more importantly, they were people who knew how to receive.
To Be Continued
The holidays can be an awful time of year for parents who have lost a child, or sons or daughters who have lost a parent. Whether you celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just a vacation with the person who is now in Spirit, the music, the decorations, the planned family gatherings, all make the separation sharper and the loneliness deeper.
The first Christmas without my son Eddie, and the first Christmas without my husband Bill, were like that for me. Eddie died in late September. By Christmastime, my heart was ripped apart. There would be no gifts for Eddie, no seat for him at the table. When my ex-husband suggested we make a dinner for my three daughters and have a tree with decorations, I was overcome with anger. As I was giving vent over the telephone to my rage about decorating, wondering how he could think about decorations with Eddie gone and cursing Christmas forever, I heard a noise in my hallway. While my ex stayed on the line, I went to investigate. Seeing nothing, I opened the closet door and there, on the floor, were all of my Christmas decorations. Nothing else had fallen. Nothing was broken. Shaking like a leaf, I whispered, “I hear you Eddie, I hear you.” Although our Christmas dinner was sad beyond belief, there was a tree and a dinner, and I have decorated for my daughters ever since.
My first Christmas without Bill was also a time of deep loneliness. Nothing – nobody – takes the place of that one person who used to make the holiday and everything around it better for you. Christmas was Bill’s thing. He loved it like nobody else I know, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I miss his joy around this time of the year, and I probably always will.
But I write this blog hoping that, if you are in grief or loneliness, you might see yourself in me and know that you are not alone and that all is not lost. At first, I was so blinded by grief that all else was hidden from me. There is a time for grief, there is even a time for blindness, but what I have evidence of, what I talk about, and what I have written about in my book, is the nearness of the ones we love, those dear to our hearts who seem to be gone. But Nobody’s Gone for Good.
For some, that knowledge is not enough, for although there is evidence of their nearness, the heartbreak of being in one dimension while your loved one is in another is all too real. It is too with you.
Eddie passed into spirit thirty-seven years ago, and Bill seven years ago. The promise of “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” did not come true for me for a long time, but the hard work of progression toward it began with With Eddie’s Christmas message. He began it for me. He helped me to open my mind; he helped me to become willing to leave behind everything I believed, everything I thought I knew, everything I had been taught about death, and about life. I read. I prayed. I spent hours in meditation. It took years, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was emptying a mind hard-wired to believe that the only things that were real were those I could conceive, touch, or see. The most important gift of this “emptying” was what was came to fill it – the knowing that I was not separate from the Universe, not separate from Eddie, not separate from Bill, not separate from anyone, whether or not I shared a dimension with them.
This is a tall order, I know, but it is also true that with this awareness, peace and comfort have been given to me over time. These gifts have never left me; they have only become more precious with the years. The more I am willing to let go of my preconceived ideas, the more gifts I receive. Next week I will tell you the story of my visit to a Hopi reservation and the Tewa people I met there. I will tell you how they changed my mind, one of the greatest gifts one could ever hope to receive.
This is about my cat. Well, yes and no. It’s about my cat, but like everything else in my life, what’s happening at any given time is more than it appears to be. Especially the things that are disturbing. Those, my dear friends, are always about lessons.
Sedona is a place where lessons seem to be more, shall we say…vibrant. This place is not a pink spiritual cloud upon which one floats about in a constant state of bliss. On the contrary. This is where lessons reach the 2.0 level. It’s where things get refined.
Back to my cat, Dorian Gray. Dorian and I have been in a struggle ever since we got here, four months ago. He was an outside cat back in Maryland. He was born free, ruled the neighborhood, and hunted like a country cat, which is what he was. I live in a sedate, closed complex here in Sedona, where pets are not allowed to run free. (Somebody told me it’s really about dogs.) I’ve also been warned about the coyotes, who roam and prey on cats. Successfully. Dorian doesn’t know about coyotes, and has continued to try to get out at night, his hitherto roaming time. I have kept him inside, giving rise to night howls. This other-worldly caterwauling (now I know why they call it that) took its toll on me. I became sleep deprived and irritable. It was like having a hangover. Every. Single. Day.
I tried putting a harness on Dorian to give him walks. I got him into it once. We went outside, and he was terrified because he was restrained and couldn’t protect himself like he was used to doing. I tried to take it off, and he scratched and bit me, something he has never, ever done. I had to take him to the vet so that one person could hold him and another person could remove it.
I tried the vet’s prescription for Prozac. That turned him into an animal I didn’t recognize – a lethargic little thing with all of the joie de vivre gone out of him. And it tasted like holy hell. (I tried a bit on my finger.) One time, after I administered it (it was a syrup), he foamed at the mouth. That was the end of Prozac by mouth. I tried a cream version that is put on the inner ear. Still not good for this little animal. I tried a natural remedy, a calming botanical, which made him happier. And it had no side effects. We spent a few quiet nights when I actually got some sleep, and then, it happened. Dorian escaped. Now there is no going back.
I have a small patio. When I first arrived, I hired a handyman to cover the open fence with chicken wire. I bought more wiring and gerrymandered it all around the top and sides to prevent him from climbing over the first chicken wire. When I was finished, it looked like a crazy person did it. No matter how it looked, at least – I thought – I could give him a place to be with fresh air and sunshine. But Dorian saw it as a cage without a roof. He kept looking for the loophole in my engineering, and finally, after studying it for four months, he found it. When I went out to check on him, he was gone. In a panic, I got in my car and scoured the neighborhood, looking for him. I climbed down the rocky wash in back of my house – something stupid for someone my age to do. I saw him in the wash, Dorian saw me, and he ran. Frustrated, I climbed back up, came home and cried. After a while, he was back at the patio door, crying to come in.
Now we come to the lesson. For over four months, I have been suffering with this cat. And I mean suffering, because I love him and I am afraid of losing him. Love? Suffering? They come as a pair, sorry to say. I feel guilty because I have deprived him of the only life he has ever known, and I feel selfish, because I have kept him as my companion, whether he wanted to be or not. I’ve brought him to a strange place and forced him to do his business in a box, which has destroyed his privacy and humiliated him. He lets me know that. To his credit, he has changed a bit. Since we’ve been here, he’s taken to lying on top of me when I watch TV in bed. He puts his little head on my chest and goes to sleep. He’s never been a cuddler, but he’s turned into one. I let him sleep in my bed now since he has no fleas and never gets dirty. He’s become more loving, more endearing, and I’ve gotten more dependent on him to be here with me. This is undoubtedly a trick of the Universe. Something to make the lesson a little more…costly.
The day after he escaped, I let him out the front door. After another night of howling, I was angry and woozy, and just wanted some relief. “If he doesn’t come home, he doesn’t come home,” I thought, and I cried again. My neighbor rang my doorbell soon afterwards, and there he was. He had gone to the wrong door. They’re all blue and they all look alike.
There is something going on here, and I need to know what it is. That is the key to my spirituality. It’s the seeking, the finding out, the exploration of suffering. I’ve spent a great deal of my life exploring grief. God knows, I’ve had my share of it. If you’re new to this blog, you should know that my seventeen-year-old son died a long time ago, and that my husband died seven years ago. I’ve learned a few things about suffering. But grief, like any other major challenge, has its lessons and gifts. Suffering is part of life on this plane. What’s important to me is to discover how it is working for me and for my soul, which by the way, has ordered these lessons for me. Ah, but that’s for another day, another blog.
Dorian, my teacher this time, is showing me what little control I have over things, how I need to stop fighting life and the Universe to hold onto something that really doesn’t belong to me. He is showing me that he, like all creatures, is free to live and free to die in his own way, in his own time. My daily prayer is that God will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I couldn’t hold on to my son, and I couldn’t hold on to my husband, my mother, or my father. I couldn’t keep them with me forever. I couldn’t keep them “safe.” I accepted these things over time, and you would think I’d have learned this lesson by now. Apparently not. This is, after all, the 2.0 version of lesson-learning.
I’ve thought about it, and I’ve come up with several reasons why I am trying to hold on to this cat by opposing a Force of Nature. That isn’t even sane. I have bad memories of my first pet and how she died. I vowed that I would not let anything like that happen to Dorian. I made a promise to myself that I am not able to keep. Dorian was my husband’s cat. Am I trying to hold on to him by holding on to the little animal who was so close to him?
To let this animal be who he is, who he insists on being, I have to risk going through grief again, something I desperately don’t want to do. There are undoubtedly more underlying factors to understand, but as a friend said to me today, “More will be revealed.” I told her I keep looking for it, and then she said something even wiser: “Don’t look for it,” she said. “It will come to you.” Something else I had forgotten.
It is a bright, wintry day here, and I let Dorian out back again. (I still can’t bring myself to let him out at night when the coyotes roam.) He climbed to the top of the wall separating me from my neighbor (I have removed the crazy looking obstacles), held his head up to the fresh air and sniffed. The sky was bright blue and the tree in back was golden in the sun. The breeze lifted his fur, ever so slightly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so beautiful or so happy. And then he jumped down, and was gone.
Before I went to the movies this afternoon (my wise friend invited me to keep my mind off my suffering), I decided to look a few doors away for Dorian, and I found him. His territory is not that large, at least not yet. There he was, backing out slowly, ever so slowly, from the driveway, his fur fluffed to make him look twice his size. Evidently, he had seen something threatening. I walked slowly toward him, picked him up, and as I carried him home, I whispered into his little face. He looked up at me with gratitude and love. I put him down on the bed and went to the movies.