After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.
My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.
My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

Cora'sGirls
My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Growing up on Long Island in the Sixties, I have fond memories of celebrating Halloween with family, neighborhood friends and school mates. To be outside at night in the cold and dark was an adventure. It was a time when knocking on the doors of neighbors, some rarely seen, and catching a glimpse of their lives was mysteriously tolerated.

Deb Halloween

Halloween didn’t start on October 31st, but in the preparations that took place in the weeks before. First, we would have to come up with an idea for a costume, which included time spent imagining who we wanted to be this year. This was my favorite part never having had a clear sense of who I was anyway – so I enjoyed thinking about characters that had caught my fancy and what it would take to assume their likeness. Although we did occasionally purchase a costume in the store, often times we made our own.

DI HalloweenAnd, because my big sister’s birthday was October 28, she usually had a party with her friends where I could at least tag along to see what the big kids were up to. There was a lot more to Halloween than just the big day of Trick or Treating.

 It was around Halloween that my neighbor friend Regina, invited me over to watch a movie that she liked. Regina loved movies, and for the most part I shared her tastes although it was a struggle for me to endure watching four hours of Gone With the Wind with her.

That day we watched To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie we both came to love so much that we looked forward to watching it again every Halloween season. Except for the last scene, the movie didn’t have that much to do with Halloween, or did it? The ending scene takes place near Halloween and finds siblings Jem and Scout walking alone in the woods returning home from a school pageant. Scout, dressed up as a ham, is walking home with Jem when they are viciously attacked by Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella Violet Ewell, the accuser in a trial in which the children’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson, a black man Mayella accused of raping her. The children are rescued by the mysterious neighbor Boo, who they had never seen before but had only heard stories about. Boo must have followed the children to the pageant and so is able to defend them from Bob Ewell’s attacks as the children make their way home.

As a child watching this film, I loved Scout’s character; a feisty young tomboy, ever curious and not very fond of conventions like wearing a dress to school. The movie’s depiction of the rural south in the 1930’s intrigued me with its poignant portrayal of racial tensions and the blatant mistreatment of blacks. This was something I was vaguely aware of from my parents, but had not seen firsthand in my northeastern home in NY.

Watching this film in later years I have File:To-kill-a-mockingbird.jpgcome to appreciate the social relevance of the film, not only for the awful plight of Tom Robinson and blacks in general, but also for the character of Boo, a man who might be too sensitive for this world, rumored to only go out at night and ironically feared by the children for never having seen or known him except through stories and rumors.

The movie is a perfectly fitting reminder that Halloween remains relevant to us as it invites us to try on other costumes and imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, especially those we don’t understand. As well, Halloween is yet another convergence of pagan (Celtic or possibly Germanic) sensibilities that found their way into western christianity, primarily through Catholicism. Catholics adopted All Saints Day as a holy day in remembrance of the dead to coincide with the pagan celebration of Samhain, the time of the year leading into the dark winter months when both the gods of the harvest and the ancestors needed our attention, propitiation and participation in the cycle of life.

From Wiki:

“At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left for the Aos Sí.[31][32][33][34] The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes.[35] Places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them.[36] The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night or day of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.”

This day of the dead, All Saints day, has more recently been associated with the occult and demons, or those spiritual beings who would harm us. Halloween in some protestant churches is now known as Reformation Day, celebrating their separation from the Catholic church. But I think the sensibility found in post-reformation theology that holds to the view that the dead are no longer with us, resting in Abraham’s bosum; untouchable and unknowlable to us, might have more to do with keeping clear the separation between the spiritual and material realms. A preference for dayworld over the underworld suggests that nothing immaterial can be trusted; all spirits are demons. I often wonder how much this theology has led to the materialistic view so prevalant in western science and modern culture that says that nothing unseen exists.

But, when we close ourselves off to the spirit world, we let go of the ancestors too; their history, wounds, sufferings and especially our living connection to them which remains hidden in us, haunting our world.

Let the mockingbird remind us through her ability to mimic the song of many birds how much we might glean with eyes open for all that is seen and unseen, especially from the dead – whose struggles, fears, failings, dreams and humanity may show us something about ourselves – something hidden, afraid to come out of the house, something we need to know.

Aunt Bunny’s Postcards

My great, great Aunt Bunny remains a lifelong source of inspiration for me. She was my father’s, mother’s, father’s, sister. Born in 1875 1877, two years after Carl Gustav Jung, she died in 1965, when I was only 7. She lived in an old house on Maple Avenue in Patchogue, Long Island NY, a couple of miles away from where I lived until my move west in 1991.

Anna Rebecca SmithI clearly remember visiting her somewhat exotic house as a young child. I knew she liked me, and for a young child that is so important to know, especially from an adult that is not your parent.

Aunt Bunny’s house was very old and she had a lot of stuff, everywhere. She would let me go through the bottom drawer of a dresser of some sort that she had in her living room. She collected many things, but was not a pack rat.

Aunt Bunny never married, had a live-in female companion (ooh!), was very opinionated, played pipe organ in the Methodist church, taught piano to local children, including my grandmother on my mother’s side. Yes, she was, next to my grandfather on my father’s side, my favorite relative outside of my immediate family.

I loved visiting her and being in her house. She collected exotic stuff, much of which was from her travels around the country and the world. Happily, my dad recently passed along some of the things that he kept that she had collected – including postcards, cigarette cards, letters, stamps, and currency from around the world.

Although never having met her, my husband shares my love of Aunt Bunny’s collections and is currently scanning her postcard collection. He wants to start a blog and share these wonderful glimpses into another time with you. I told him to go for it and have offered to help him set up his blog. So, if any of you have tips on picture-friendly templates, let me know. It might be awhile before his blog is ready to go live, but I am very excited about it and hope it is ready to share sometime this month.

I will have more stories of Aunt Bunny and her amazing life, which continues to inspire me even though she has been dead for so many years.

Strong words from another strong woman, Thanks Joni:

You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now
You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show em you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die