An Art as Ritual Reflection
Nancy inhabits a small minority of people I know who are brave enough to stay awake in the challenges of their lives. She contacted me last year for support in holding her experience of living with a chronic illness that could end her time here. Because of this condition, she has been learning how to be with isolation long before the pandemic brought its necessity to the rest of us. Her courage inspires me, and her insight about what makes life meaningful in the twilight has taught me much. In a death phobic culture such as ours, few of us are literate in how to die, and fewer still are those who in their dying process have the capacity to teach us something of substance for when it is our turn. What is worth saying, when the opportunities to say are understood to be finite? This is her gift to me, and now to you. Lean in.
Nancy D. Wood
Wolves evolved as pack animals, but sometimes, due to power struggles or other social dynamics, a member is chased off or chooses to leave, thus becoming the rare lone wolf. Humans, being far more dysfunctional than wolves, produce a lot more loners, such as myself. Once disconnected, it can be damn difficult to rejoin the human race. And really, after being badly treated and isolated for so long why would I want to? Who needs 'em?
Such became my thought pattern for much of my life. An absence of kindness and support, combined with a nomadic rootless lifestyle, made independent solitude appear to be the best option in a society that was fragmented, polarized, and unwelcoming. I used to think it was just me, a misfit, but since I wasn't communicating much with anyone, how was I to know how anyone else felt? I would eventually learn that my sense of isolation was far more common than I realized.
The word "community" was not even in my vocabulary until I stumbled upon Celo in the late 70s. I was intrigued enough to live in the area for three years, but was nowhere near ready to shed the heavy protective armor I was hauling around. When I came back 40 years later, I was hungry for a home and belonging, but still rather clueless how to go about it. I bought a house in the valley and for a year kept busy nesting and renovating. I made some connections through art and music, but programmed by a lifetime of painful relationships, I maintained a "safe" distance, wary of letting anyone get too close.
Then, in January 2018, I got sick. Just a stomach bug, I thought at first. But months passed as my condition worsened in mysterious ways. When Western medicine held no definitive answers, I focused on diet, herbs, meditation, acupuncture and other healing modalities that might make a difference. I hired whatever help I could find and would improve for a while, then I'd have another setback. I'd go through long spells when I had no strength to work, drive, take walks, garden, paint, or write. With all of my favorite activities denied me, I was dangerously close to losing my will to live as well. After all, what quality of life did I have -— afraid, in pain, and alone most of the time? How did I end up this way? Was it too late to change?
The first saving grace was learning about MY Neighbors, the local elder care network. As a new member, I could ask for help with bringing in firewood and rides to appointments. Admit that I was old and weak? Ask for help? This alone was a breakthrough. The astonishing thing was that people I knew very little or had never met were happy to lend a hand, and seemed to enjoy meeting me even when I was clearly not at my best. Bits of my ego, vanity, and pride began to wear away.
Then came the pandemic. As everyone began to experience isolation, restriction, denial of their usual pleasures, and fear of a fatal illness, and I thought, “Wow, now I've got company.” I was still physically alone most of the time, but felt a greater belonging to the human race as a whole. What a paradox — to be separate and connected at the same time! It is one thing to say that we are one in spirit, but another thing altogether to live that as the truth.
When the body fails to perform as intended, there's room for spirit to emerge and reveal its power. Having lived through many days of deep and often painful soul searching, I now know that every encounter with another human being — in person or on Zoom, through words on a page or the lyrics in a song — is an opportunity to interact with the Divine. I often forget, usually when I'm feeling low and lose touch with my own inner divinity, but a door has been opened. It's getting easier to gently remind myself of the truth of my connection to all living beings, and come back to center.
Today as I write, leaves are gently dropping en masse from the maple trees outside my window. There is no trace of wind to nudge them along, it is simply time for them to let go. Invisible to my eyes, sap is withdrawing to the root system, leaving limbs bare and dormant for now. Perhaps we humans can take our cue from Nature and pare down, reconsider our priorities, and let go of old ways that are no longer useful.
Of course, letting go doesn't generally happen all at once — it's a process. Old emotional patterns can be sticky and tenacious, requiring practice and persistence to change them. Often I find it helpful to create a ritual to loosen their grip. So, I was immensely pleased to learn that the burning of the temple was scheduled to happen on my 72nd birthday. How perfect! I was not well enough to attend in person, but given what I've learned about connectedness, might I hold that event as a means of releasing my old lone wolf tendencies? I would be home alone in body, but so very present in spirit! And though I've not been a fan of social media in the past, I gratefully viewed photographs of the burn that made it real for me. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
My body is my temple, and this body will die, timing unknown. May the eventual burning of my temple release a soul that burns brightly and has lived fully.