Episode 41 – Rituals for Writers

To a writer, the blank screen or a blank piece of paper can be exciting or daunting. A blinking cursor can be a beacon to our calling or a signal of danger ahead. Writers create for the masses but do so in isolation. 

It’s November. To a fiction writer, November signals the internet-based creative writing project called National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Participants set a goal of writing a 50,000 word manuscript during November. Just a draft — a rough draft. The point is to produce, not polish. Claiming victory is on an honor system.  

To gear up for NaNoWriMo, writers might research, outline the plot, create character sketches. They might also stock up on M&Ms, or carrot sticks, or wine. If you want to know more about this annual challenge, go to nanowrimo.org

Years ago, whenever I started a new writing project, I bought purple pens.  I also got a new hairstyle. I didn’t realize I did that until one day I showed my hairdresser a picture of a style I wanted to try and she said, “Oh, you must be starting a new book.”  I was.  

You might first create a vision board for the plot of your book, or select music to play while you write. My friend Sharon Schulze writes to the soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans. You might buy a new candle, or hike a new trail, or make a good-luck-meal of black beans and rice. These various activities all have a common intent: to enable the writer to create a good story.  

THE BLACK DEATH AND THE PRINTING PRESS

Writers want to be read. The reading audience would be small if every copy of every book still had to be scrawled by hand on sheepskin or bark, or bone, or banana leaves. Fortunately, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. That was in 1440. The world changed. With books suddenly available to the masses, people were motivated  to learn how to read. Knowledge spread in a way it never had before. 

Keep in mind that just a hundred years before the printing press was invented, the pandemic known as the Black Death had decimated Europe. That was 1347. At the time, people belonged to one of four classes: 

  • The nobility — These were the people with titles and money who ruled over everyone else. 
  • The warriors — These were the people with swords and horses who fought for and were paid by the nobility. 
  • The church — These were the priests who prayed for the eternal salvation of others, especially the nobility who supported the churches.  
  • The peasants — These were the people who worked the land, grew the food, and raised all the animals for the nobility, the church, and the warriors. Illiteracy was common among the peasants.    
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Episode 40 – Home Funerals

 

Widow mourns in cemetery

When the time comes, which do you want: a funeral home or a home funeral? Burial or cremation? Fancy casket or cardboard box?  Ashes in an urn or scattered someplace special?  Who have you told about what you want? No one? I’m not surprised. Death hasn’t been a popular topic of conversation — until now. That’s because of an emerging “death positive” movement. 

 

Our first exposure to death usually comes in childhood. As a kid, I remember driving from Virginia to Pennsylvania several times a year to visit with my grandparents, Nana Mom and Pappy. 

 

They lived in a big house on a hill in Altoona. Cousins from Ohio and Washington DC would all come at the same time. We would gather on the enclosed front porch. It was long and narrow with lots of windows and a cracked linoleum floor. It also had a red swing big enough to hold 3 or 4 of us at the same time. There were kid-sized chairs, a kid-sized desk filled with crayons and the pretty fronts of old Christmas cards, a deck of playing cards, and a ceramic wall-vase filled with flowers my grandmother made with wire and crepe paper. She once told me she didn’t use the porch. I told her I didn't understand why she'd have a room she didn't use. She said it  was for the grandchildren. 

When the cousins gathered, we filled the porch with laughter and silly songs. Just off the porch, inside the main part of the house, was the living room. On the right side of the room was a couch, several chairs, and a small table for the wooden radio. After Pappy went blind, he spent his days sitting there listening to music and news. He smoked a pipe that made the room smell like vanilla. There were windows on that side of the room. 

I always assumed the left side of the room was the dining room. It had a long table decorated with a lace runner and a glass vase. But we never ate there. There weren’t any chairs. There weren’t any windows, either. I don’t remember details about the wallpaper except that it was dark. The whole room was dark. Gloomy. Creepy. To get from the porch to the kitchen where the adults always gathered, you had to walk past the creepy room. I always hurried.  

One day, I decided that at nine years old, it was time I faced my fears. 

In addition to the long table, there was a china cabinet and a buffet — more evidence that this was a dining room. On the top of the buffet was a lace doily and a large bowl and pitcher. 

I waited until my cousins were all on the porch, the adults all in the backyard garden. I slowly pulled open the top drawer of the buffet. I had a feeling it wasn’t filled with Christmas cards. I was right. 

Inside were long, white taper candles, unused. There was a white tablecloth, or maybe it was a sheet, plain, pressed and folded. There was a pile of white napkins, though they looked more like ordinary wash cloths. There was a brand new cake of Sweetheart soap. Everyone knew Nana Mom loved the oval white soap with the lacy design around the edge. There was a string of rosaries — big dark beads, smooth and shiny, with a silver crucifix. There was another crucifix, too, a big one. It was the kind that had a hidden compartment on the back. I released the latch. Inside was a small candle, a book of matches, a tiny glass bottle. I quickly closed the compartment. 

I had always been a good catechism student. I knew what I had stumbled upon. If I had any doubts, they disappeared when I saw the thin, paper booklet, about 5 x 7. On the cover was a picture of Jesus. He was holding a sheet and it looked like he was changing a bed. The booklet was titled Death Can Be Joyous: The Sacrament of Extreme Unction.  

I had found the items used for the Last Anointing, the sacrament given by a priest to people when they were near death. But why were these items in Nana Mom’s dining room? 

I went to the back yard where she, my mother, and my aunt were bent over picking vegetables. As though I would be doing my grandparents a big favor, I announced that I had begun cleaning and rearranging that gloomy dining room. Nana Mom bolted upright, the green bell peppers in her apron falling to the ground. 

I knew how Nana Mom looked when she was angry. I had seen it plenty of times when my Uncle Bud came home drunk. No, the look on her face wasn’t anger. She was upset in a different way. I heard my mother say something to my grandmother and heard my grandmother say, “No. I’ll talk to her.” 

My grandmother took me inside, through the pantry, past the wringer washing machine, through the kitchen,  right up to the edge of the gloomy room.  She looked relieved to see that nothing had been disturbed.  

She put her arm around my shoulders and said, “This is where we care for our dead.” 

I stared straight ahead. “On the table?” 

“Yes,” she said, and I felt her hand tremble. 

She explained how she and my aunts or women from the church would cover the table with several sheets, fill the pitcher with water, pour it into the bowl, soak the white cloths, and wash the body. They’d dress the body and wait for the priest. He would administer the last rites. 

Over the course of another day or two, friends and family would come to pay their respects. Someone would sit with the body, all through the night. People would say prayers and tell stories. They’d always bring food to share. Yes, people cried. They laughed, too. 

I said it sounded like a party. She said it was, in a different way. I had more questions, but a stillness had settled on Nana Mom and I got the feeling she didn’t want to talk any more. 

I forgot all about the dark parlor until six or seven years later when my mom died. We lived in Virginia. Our house didn’t have a parlor. So my mom’s body wound up at a funeral home. I had never been inside one before. Nothing about the place or the service felt like a celebration. 

After the Virginia funeral, my mom’s body was put on a train and taken to her childhood home in Pennsylvania. Not to Nana Mom’s parlor, to another funeral home. In a span of a few days, I’d been inside two funeral homes. They were both dark, tip-toe quiet, sad places. In both, a priest said some generic prayers, and assured us that my mother was in a better place. Better? Better than being with me and my sisters? My BS-detector went off. 

We left the Pennsylvania funeral home and drove in a long procession out of town and up in the mountains to a little cemetery in a village where Nana Mom had grown up. My sisters and I held hands and watched the casket as it was lowered into the ground. Right after our mother died, I’d been instructed to pick out an outfit for her to wear. I remember wondering for just a second if I should get her pocketbook, too, and then realizing how foolish that was. The concept, the customs, the finality of death — it was all so new, so confusing, so unfair. 

THE EMERGING DEATH POSITIVE MOVEMENT

That was July of 1963. Fast-forward to now, October of 2020. Not only have I been to a lot of funerals, I’ve just completed a certification course in funerals taught by the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, the same organization that taught me the history and structure of rituals in general, and wedding rituals in particular. 

One of the most surprising and encouraging things I learned was that there is a death-positive movement being shared across the country. The movement can take different forms. Here are four:  

  1. Death Cafes: These are informal gatherings where people share cake, tea, and conversation about death in order to make the most of their finite lives. 
  2. Death Doulas: These are people who are trained to provide non-medical and non-judgmental support to those who are dying. 
  3. Speaking Grief:  In their own words, Speaking Grief is  “a public media initiative aimed at creating a more grief-aware society by validating the experience of grievers and helping to guide those who wish to support them.” 
  4. Home Funerals: If you go to the website: homefuneralalliance.org, you’ll find a Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State. It was written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance. Here’s the first sentence: “Keeping or bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state for bathing, dressing, private viewing, and ceremony as the family chooses.” 

The laws governing what happens after that vary by state. For instance, some states have a limit on how long you can keep the body at your house, with or without preservation. 

Some states require a licensed funeral director to remove the body from your house. 

Some states have a mandatory waiting period before a body can be cremated. 

There are practical realities to be considered, too. For instance, here in New England the ground can freeze for months, making winter burials impossible. And, just because a family can legally bring a body home for a certain number of days, that doesn’t mean every family would want to. 

I know we live in a busy world. Funeral homes often schedule a two-hour wake the day before the burial. It gives people time to sign a guest book, look at photos of the deceased, stand in line to offer condolences to the family, even view the deceased if there is an open casket. People can be on their way in twenty to forty minutes. Is it efficient? I guess. Is it meaningful? I’m not convinced. But when you don’t know you have options, you settle. 

I think of the two- and three-day funerals my grandparents held in their parlor. I picture neighbors, friends and family filling the house for days — cooking, cleaning, and comforting the family. I imagine friends telling stories about the deceased — funny stories, sad stories, stories told in colorful language and punctuated with cups of black coffee and shots of brown whiskey.  

Instinct tells me that the grieving process is best supported when loved ones are given a safe space and plenty of time to feel the gamut of emotions and say good-bye. 

A simple coffin with flowers and a candle

If it falls to you to make funeral arrangements for someone, here are two things you might want to know:  

  1. Embalming the body is not always required. Check your state’s laws. 
  2. You don’t have to purchase a fancy casket. You can purchase, or make, a plain wooden box. In some states, you can use a cardboard box. Again, check your state’s laws.  

If you do use a plain box for the casket, you can decorate it. Do so at the wake. Have the guests, especially the children, paint flowers, write words. Use stickers. Use Sharpies. Use glitter.

THE RITUAL: The Memory Box

As I record this episode, the Covid19 virus has killed more than 200,000 people here in the United States. Many of them died in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of family. 

Because the virus is so contagious, funerals are being bypassed in favor of a memorial service to be held at some future date. In the meantime, there might be a brief graveside service for immediate family only, or a simple ceremony with the cremated ashes. 

The force of the virus, the inability to say good-bye, the pain of losing a loved one, and the absence of the funerary rituals we’re used to — they shatter us, and leave us in shock. 

That’s when ritual can help.  Will it take away the pain? Make everything better? No. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that. 

What ritual can do is acknowledge the pain in a way that gives form to those first, tenuous steps toward healing. That’s how the journey to wholeness begins, no matter how much time passes before those first steps are taken. 

Because of the pandemic, I created a ritual I call The Memory Box. I think it would be helpful for anyone who has lost a loved one at any time, and particularly helpful for children. 

Young child holding a candle

Many years ago, I interviewed John Carmon from the Carmon Community Funeral Homes and Mary Keane, founder of Mary’s Place, a Center for Grieving Children and Families in Windsor, Connecticut. Mary was an oncology nurse-clinician. She noticed that, “All too often, children are the forgotten grievers.” As a funeral director, John Carmon had seen it, too. Working together, they made Mary’s Place a reality. 

During the interview, Mary talked about the importance of giving grieving children a way to express their feelings and how the arts can help. 

As I record this episode, Halloween is right around the corner. There are many places online where you can buy a small, wooden box in the shape of a coffin. I’m talking about little boxes, about six inches long, not quite two inches high. These boxes are unfinished, the kind used in craft projects. They sell for around $5 each. Of course, you can use any box, even a little cardboard box. 

In ancient Greece and Rome, people would create what's called a “wind tomb.” This pile of earth shaped like the belly of a pregnant woman served as the grave of a loved one whose body was lost at sea or in a war or natural disaster. I talked about that in podcast episode 33, “A Gathering of Ancestors.” The wind tomb gave the grieving family something to focus on as they connected with the spirit of their lost loved one. 

The Memory Box does the same thing. The concept is simple. 

  1. Paint the box or miniature coffin. Decorate it with flowers, trees, hearts, stars. Write messages. Add stickers. Glue on crystals. Or keep it plain. Whatever you don, don’t rush this step. Your actions will help you focus on your loss. And while that will likely be painful, it can also be healing.    
  2. Put something inside the coffin or box to represent the loved one who has died. That might be a thumbnail photo, or a small shell, an acorn, a dried rosebud, a ribbon, a pocket knife. Write a letter or draw a picture. Fold it up and put it in the coffin. Help a child make two matching stretchy bracelets, one to put into the coffin and one to wear. 
  3. Bury the coffin in the backyard and mark the space with a special stone or statue or plant. Or, place the coffin in a special place in your home where you can see it. My mom died 57 years ago. To this day, I talk to her picture. Having something on which to focus helps me remember. 
  4. If you’re keeping the little coffin or box in your home you can place it inside a larger box. Craft stores have lots of them. They’re made of heavy cardboard. They come in different colors, patterns, and sizes. At birthdays and holidays, encourage children to add a letter or a drawing to the box. 

If you have the honor of helping a family who has lost a loved one, keep The Memory Box ritual in mind. It can be an activity the family does in the days and weeks after the service.  

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, please consider this ritual. Sometimes a ritual as simple as this one can have a profound effect. In the meantime, may the day come soon when your first thought about your loved one won’t be painful.   

Death Cafes

Imagine six or seven adults of varying ages gathered in a library, or bookstore, or someone’s living room (pre-Covid). They’re sipping tea, eating cake, and talking about where they want to be when they die. The facilitator asks what music you want at your funeral. Or how you want to be remembered? Or simply, what made you decide to join us? 

There is no formal organization to a Death Cafe, no speakers, no agenda. It’s a discussion group, not a support group, not a counseling session. It’s not a place for people to sell things, or promote services. In fact, the questions I mentioned are typical of what the facilitator might ask only if the conversation lags. It doesn’t usually lag. Quite the contrary. Given the opportunity, people have a lot to say about death. Being able to talk about death makes people more aware that we don’t live forever…and if we aren’t really LIVING, it’s time to change that. 

For a lot more information, including a quick start guide so you can host your own Death Cafe, go to the website: deathcafe.com 

Death Doulas

When death is imminent, you might find it comforting to know about Death Doulas. These are people who help the dying plan their last days. A Death Doula’s support might be emotional, spiritual, or physical, or any combination of all three. 

For instance, a death doula might help a dying person see the value of the life he or she led. Or might help with unfinished business. A death doula might use music, or guided visualization to ease the dying person’s transition from this world to whatever lies beyond. Doulas help the families, too, both during and after the death of their loved one. 

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) is a nonprofit organization. Their model of care shaped the first hospice doula program in the United States. You can find information, ideas, and inspiration on their website: inelda.org  

For a fascinating exploration of death, I recommend the book Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living. It’s by Brandy Schillace. The book came out in 2015. At the time, death wasn’t on my radar the way it is now. The Covid pandemic has changed the focus for many of us. 

The author looks at cultures all over the world and talks about their rituals around death. She talks about what drove those of us in the western world to sanitize death. And she points out that, with people living longer than they ever did, talking about our mortality has become more and more taboo. Friends, we need to change that.   

How?  Here are 3 ideas:  

  1.  Read obituaries. I had to do that for my course on funerals. What an eye-opener!  Obituaries today go far beyond name, age, date of death, survived by, info for calling hours and funeral, and where to send flowers and/or on-line condolences.  Today’s obituaries tell stories, sometimes from the point of the view of the deceased. As I read some of them, I thought, good, that person really lived. May it be so for all of us. 
  2. Write your own obituary. I had to do that for my course on funerals, too. Writing it made me uncomfortable, to put it mildly. You don’t need to show your obituary to anyone. You can write it and delete it. Or, save it in a file that can be accessed after you die. Looking at your life can give you a sense of peace. Or, it can motivate change. 
  3. Start a conversation about death with someone your own age or older.  An easy way to do that is to tell the person you listened to a podcast about death and it’s got you thinking about what you want for your own funeral. If you find it hard to get the conversation started, send the person a link to this article and/or the podcast episode. Ask the person to listen because you need to talk about what’s in the episode with someone you trust. 

In case you’re wondering, Nana Mom lived one month shy of her 101st birthday. By that time, she was living with a niece. 

I don’t know who owns the big house on the hill now. It has probably been renovated to achieve an open concept. That’s what I see on all the remodeling television shows.  Who knows? Perhaps with the growing death-positive movement and the increased interest in home funerals, people will want parlors again.  

 

Mentioned in this post: 

The Celebrant Foundation & Institute  <http://celebrantinstitute.org

Death Cafe <http://deathcafe.com

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) <http://inelda.org

Speaking Grief  <http://speakinggrief.org

National Home Funeral Alliance <http://homefuneralalliance.org

(This is where you’ll find the Quick Guide to Home Funerals by State written by Josh Clocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and Lee Webster from the National Home Funeral Alliance.)

Mary’s Place  <http://marysplacect.org

Carmon Community Funeral Homes  <http://carmonfuneralhome.com

Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living by Brandy Schillace

 

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Episode 39: Funeral Rituals for the Death of a Marriage

Rocky Road ritual with rose quartz and black stones

Most couples don’t get married expecting to get divorced. But when a marriage is dissolved, can ritual help the couple move on? 

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I believe rituals can help the couple navigate one of the most stressful events in a person’s life: divorce. 

You won’t find any legal advice here. Nor will you find professional counseling. Instead, you’ll find two rituals: 

  1.  Rocky Road — This is a marriage maintenance ritual. I created it to help couples avoid the inevitable potholes that, unless repaired, can create a chasm,  destroy the bridge, and lead to divorce. I’ll also tell you how one woman used the ritual to help her through a painful divorce. 
  1.  Untying the Knot — When the rocky road goes off the cliff and the couple decides to go their separate ways, this ritual is designed to help them discover the gifts in their relationship, no matter how brief or long the marriage lasted.  
Close up of a breaking rope on white

As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I’ve officiated more than 150 weddings. There’s a moment in every ceremony, even the smallest of elopements, when the couple stands in front of me, hold hands, and listen as I ask the question. You know the one. It includes the words:  “…to honor and to respect, to love and to cherish, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, as long as you both shall live?”   

 

As my couples listen to those words, I imagine how hopeful they feel about the future. Sometimes, they get choked up. Sometimes, they giggle. Sometimes, a lip quivers or a tear falls. Sometimes, they eagerly say, “I do!” before I’ve completed the question. So, it’s sad when the marriage is dissolved. It means the dream died. 

 

Or does it? 

 

As heretical as this might sound, I don’t believe that all marriages are meant to last. 

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Gifts from the Ancestors: A Ritual for Samhain

Samhain ritual

This ritual was initially designed to be performed with a group. At the end of the ritual, I suggest ways it can be adapted as a virtual ritual.  

Prepare in advance:

Each person who plans to attend is told in advance to bring a photo of a deceased loved one and a stone the person considers special. 

If no photo is available, write the name of the loved one on a piece of paper. 

If the name of the ancestor isn’t known, write the qualities the ancestor might have possessed. It is not necessary to know your family tree. This ritual is to connect you with the spirit of your ancestors. What you don’t know, you can imagine.  Continue reading

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Episode 38 – Funerals for Pets

Old man talking to his dog while cat resting in his lap

 

The love people have for their pets can be seen on the calendar, from National Love Your Pet Day in February, to National Pet Day in September, to World Animal Day in October. So, what do we do when a beloved pet dies? How do we celebrate the life that gave unconditional love? 

 

STATS ON PET OWNERS

Every other year, the National Pet Owners Survey provides valuable information for pet owners and supporting industries. 

The 2020-2021 survey gathered approximately 15,000 responses, and covered dogs, cats, birds, small animals, reptiles, freshwater fish, saltwater fish, and horses and, for the first time, chickens. 

Here are a few of their findings: 

  • About 67 percent of households in the U.S. have at least one pet.
  • More than 63 million American households own at least one dog. 
  • More than 42 million American households own at least one cat. 
  • There are 94 million cats and 89 million dogs in American households. I’m guessing that’s because more households are likely to have multiple cats than multiple dogs,
  • As for the most abundant household pet… Can you guess?  Fish. The National Pet Owners Survey says there are nearly 160 million of them in glass bowls and tanks across the country.
  • And here’s the last statistic I want to share, again, from The National Pet Owners 2019 survey:  Americans spent more than $75 billion on their pets in 2019. That number includes food, supplies, medicines, veterinary care, live animal purchases and grooming and boarding. 

It’s clear. The love owners have for their pets is real.  And that’s what makes the death of a pet so hard. 

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Episode 37: Croning – A Ritual for a Woman of a Certain Age

 

Proud Crone

She's a woman of “a certain age.”  Our culture thinks those words are better than saying “she’s old.” Well, I am a woman of a certain age. I am certain of who I am,  certain of what I want, and certain of what I have to offer. I’m 72 and I’m a crone. I claimed that title in a ritual called croning. 

Last month, I spoke to the Women’s Mystical Collective in Austin, Texas — via Zoom.  One of the organizers, K, had found my website and podcast through an Internet search. She asked if I would speak to the group about rituals. 

It wasn’t until the night of my presentation that I learned that K’s Internet search was born of personal frustration.  She was looking for a ritual that honored one of the most dramatic changes in a woman’s life. Because of posts I had written about the triple Goddess known as Maiden, Mother, Crone, Google directed her to me.  

In the course of a lifetime, humans undergo various rites of passage. Some are dictated by culture or religion. Among them, a bar or bat mitzvah, a quinceanera, a confirmation. Some rites of passage are universal, such as  a wedding or the birth of a child. Each of those events involves at least one other person. In most cases, all of the events involve giving gifts. The giving of gifts is one of the ways society recognizes the significance of these events.

A croning ritual is different. 

For one thing, a woman can perform her own croning ritual, all by herself. Still, as with any rite of passage, it’s good to have family and friends  witness the transformation.  Continue reading

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Episode 36: Colored – A Black Lives Matter Ritual

 

At 9 years old, I didn’t care that my mother wasn’t funny like Lucille Ball, or that she didn’t wear circle skirts and twirl around the house like Loretta Young, or that she was no longer pretty like Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. I wanted my mother to be brave, like Annie Oakley. Not long after Rosa Parks sat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in the whites-only section, I found out how brave my mother really was — and that Black Lives Matter. 

Let me set the scene…

On the afternoon of Dec 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in a local department store, got on a public bus and took a seat in the section reserved for white people. Her actions, her arrest, and the bus boycott that followed became a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement. 

I was the oldest of three girls, living in the suburbs of Portsmouth, Virginia, with my parents and sisters, Laurie, age 6, and Eileen, age 3. My dad was in the Navy and my mother didn’t drive. When we needed groceries and my dad was at sea, one of the other Navy wives drove my mother to the commissary on the base. When we needed something from the “civilian” world, we walked to the end of our street and waited for the city bus that would take us downtown. It came by several times a day.  

We didn’t go downtown often, maybe once every other month, if that. When we did, it was an event. Getting everyone dressed and fed in time for the morning bus brought its own challenges. My mother often sent me ahead to flag down the bus. Not because she dawdled.  She simply couldn’t walk fast any more.  Continue reading

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Episode 35 / Fairies: How I See Them. How You Can, Too.

 

On April 29, I received an email from Singapore. The writer said that people in her country don’t believe in fairies. She does. But when she talks about fairies, people think she’s crazy. She wanted to know “how to find, see, meet the fairies during Beltane.” 

I answered her from my heart. I doubt it was what she wanted to hear. 

To me, fairies are thought forms of good energy — helpful spirits — invisible and accessible. My belief was shaped in childhood. As a girl, I had a vivid imagination.  I remember when my dad planted a tree in our front yard. He said it was a Chinese Elm. I was certain that the roots went all the way to China, and that if I wanted to go there, all I had to do was dig under the tree.  I remember when a traveling photographer took my little sister's photo dressed in a cowboy outfit, sitting on the photographer's pony. He gave my sister a horseshoe. Later, when my father told my sister she could absolutely not have a pony, she planted the horseshoe under the elm, believing she could grow a pony. At the wise age of seven, I knew horses came from farms, not trees. But what if there was a horse farm in China?  

My dad planted two gardenia bushes by the front steps. On summer nights, when the gardenias were in full bloom, I would sit on the steps, snip off a green, waxy leaf, and use my fingernails to carve out a face. I was certain that there were spirits trapped in the leaves and that if I could give them a face, they would have a voice and be free. The hardest part to make was the mouth. I had to break the backbone of the leaf. The kids who lived in the house behind ours had an abusive father. Often, after being beaten, the girl who was my age would come looking for me. I got used to seeing the swelling, the burns, the bruises and belt welts. I showed her how to make a face in a gardenia leaf. Continue reading

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Episode 34: Love Knots – A Nautical Wedding Ritual

Actual knots used in a wedding ritual for a couple who loves to sail.

Long ago, when sailors navigated by the stars, when seabirds carried the spirits of sailors lost at sea, and when everyone knew that the bust of a naked woman on the bow of a ship could calm rough waters, a sailor would carry a cord with three knots. Bound in each was the wind itself. 

As a writer, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” After three historical romance novels, a novella, a play, and several print and online magazine articles, I’ve learned to recognize the fertile soil where ideas grow. Several years ago, when one of my couples, Chelsea and Bill, told me they loved sailing and that their ceremony would be held on the waterfront of the historic seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, I got an idea. 

Thanks to another project I’m working on, I have a small library of books on maritime lore. With a little research, I selected the knots I wanted to use in the wedding. I watched videos on YouTube to learn how to tie them. The first two were easy. The knot in the shape of a heart proved more challenging. 

I practiced with ribbon, clothesline rope, and shoelaces. Finally, with a rustic heart in hand, I went to Home Depot. I explained my situation to one of the clerks. He enlisted help from another. Together, they found the perfect rope — flexible with a white pearl finish appropriate for a wedding. 

On the day of the wedding, I met with the three people Chelsea and Bill had selected to participate in the ritual. I gave each a pre-fashioned knot and a card with a corresponding blessing for the bride and groom. 

Here’s how I introduced the ritual during the ceremony: 

Here in Mystic Seaport, the history and lore of sailing surrounds us. Knots are a big part of that world. We associate knots with sailors, but they aren’t the only people known for tying knots. Knots are a part of our lives, too. We tie ribbons in hair, cord on packages, and laces on shoes. Some knots are for utility, some for beauty. 

It was the same in the Old World, too. Back then, when a sailor put out to sea, he carried a knot he had tied on a windy day. Should he veer from the Tradewinds and get stuck on the doldrums without wind to fill his sails, he would untie the knot and free the wind.  Continue reading

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Episode 33 |A Gathering of Ancestors

Collage of vintage wedding and family photos

On the wind, you dreamed

On the water, you traveled

On the land, you settled

On my family tree, you grew

Famines, fires and floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, wars, genocide, persecutions and plagues and more.  

Centuries of these catastrophes have left their marks all over the world. “Death counts” are estimated, declared, and recorded for posterity

What about the “life counts”?  That’s how I describe those who avoided, escaped, endured, somehow survived the catastrophes of their lifetime. These are the healthy, the strong, the resourceful, the resilient, the skilled, and of course, the lucky. Somewhere among them are your ancestors. Whether or not you know who sits on the branches of your family tree, they existed. You are the living proof.

Cultures the world over believe in the power of the ancestors to influence the lives of the living. So, in times of trouble — like now — it’s good to call on your ancestors for help. How? Through ritual. 

 

SEEING THE ANCESTORS 

It helps to know how some cultures “see” their ancestors. In many of the seasonal rituals I lead, I invite the spirits of the ancestors. Cultures all over the world recognize their ancestors. Some see them in:

  • Butterflies, especially the ghostly white ones
  • Massive old trees
  • Sacred mountains
  • Stones
  • Stars, especially those in the Milky Way
  • Plants that reseed themselves, such as corn and grain

Many cultures see white butterflies as ancestors.

Continue reading
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