Dia de los Muertos

The circle sat quietly in sacred space, men and women. Some in chairs and some on pillows on the floor. Candles were aglow on a center altar cloth with a sparkly spider web design, as well as a small mossy animal skull, a piece of Ursula’s grandma’s hand-tatted lace, and a bowl of marigolds. It was the Day of the Dead.  Dia de los Muertos.  All Souls’ Day.

The larger, more public ritual at the Community Center had gone off well. People had brought mementos of their dear departed to create a huge altar in the west that glowed with multi-colored electric lights, fall flowers, gaudy Mexican hangings and a great deal of love evidenced by photographs, artwork, and bits of the lives of those who had passed on.

Molly had explained that many traditions considered that the veil was thin between the worlds of the living and the dead at this time of year when the leaves were falling and the harvest was mostly in.

People had spoken the names of the deaths in the previous year into the circle and everyone repeated the name twice. The tissue boxes scattered around the circle came into good use as tears flowed. At last, when it had been quiet for a bit, someone began to sing softly, “May the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by…..” Immediately everyone had joined heartily in on the chorus. “There’s another home awaiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

They had ended the circle with a woman from the city leading them in a few of the Dances of Universal Peace. Afterwards there was feasting on the food people brought that reminded them of a loved one. From blintzes to enchiladas to Ritz crackers and salami, the beloved dead had their due.

Now in this circle it was time for the smaller after-session, held this year at Charley and Ursula’s house, chosen in part for the availability of the hot tub. Joining them as usual were several not usually part of the group who had lost someone during the year and who were open to a deeper connection than the larger circle allowed.

Cindy sat with bowed head. She used to feel pressure to “produce” at these occasions and then worried that what came to her was a product of her imagination. The training of generations to doubt psychic “knowings” was hard to dispel.

I-mage-in. Magic. Imaging. Being a mage. After several years of doing this she’d acquired faith that what came through to her had relevance, so she didn’t care as much what others in this intimate circle thought. She trusted the effectiveness of the invocation at the beginning to allow in only those energies dedicated to the highest good of all beings. She was comfortable doing this in small groups where she knew most of the people. Maybe some day she would be willing to be more public but for now she still wanted some degree of invisibility.

She didn’t think of it as a séance. In fact she shuddered at the word and its connotations, especially as it was one her husband, Van, threw at her when he was being particularly skeptical of her gifts and process. But she knew it was true that she had a special connection with those who had passed over and this was the time of year when their disembodied voices seemed to press on her most forcefully and persistently. It used to be that she and June were the only ones to “receive” but increasingly in recent years others experienced connections as well. They had an agreement that whoever popped in their heads was considered to be present. Given all the people they knew who had died, it was no longer a stretch to say that the ones who appeared in their minds wanted to connect. It was always interesting to see who “showed up.” And who didn’t, which by definition wouldn’t be noticed until afterwards.

 

Molly hummed notes without a tune to herself. Others soon picked it up and it segued into toning that soared, multi-leveled and glorious. As the harmonies and disharmonies wove in and about, a palpable cone of power rose above them. Some could actually see it shimmering. June and Raven, for instance.

Suddenly, with no word or direction, the tone broke off. All of the voices fell silent. Some touched their hands to the floor to ground the energy into the earth. Some covered their hearts to take it inward. Some reached skyward to call in the dead.

Molly spoke into the silence. “As I was toning, I kept thinking of Seth – my dear work companion at ReBound – gone several years now. I could feel his energy around me wishing me well, apologizing for ways that he let his ego and insecurities get in the way and let me down. Thanking me for taking on Loki-dog until she died. This is the first time I’ve felt him in circle. Occasionally he comes to me at ReBound, though it’s hard to separate out his actual spirit presence from the memories of him associated with so many aspects of the place. Maybe there is no difference….” Her voice trailed off.

“I remember how much he loved odd metal bits,” said Owen. “He got a lot of people started welding. And he could fix anything.”

“He never met an engine he didn’t like,” laughed Alex. “When we cleared out his work area and then his house after he died, there were dozens of them.”

“He could be pretty hard headed and not everyone got along with him, especially our younger staff,” remembered Molly. “He was always so charming though, I forgave him even though perhaps I should have been harder on him for some things. We both were such rule breakers…. He sure was a teacher for me about trickster energy.“ Ursula and Raven each reached out from either side to put hands on her knees.

“Is he wanting anything from us?” asked Pia.

“I’m getting that I’m to pay a little more attention to the garden where his sculpture is… and… he wants me to do some of my own art…. I’ll try if you’ll help me, Seth.”

The group lapsed into silence again. Then Cindy spoke up, “Alex, I sense Jed here, your dear partner of so many years. Can you feel him?”

Alex began to weep softly. Ursula handed him one of the cloth hankies she kept in a basket. “There are more here if you need them. Put the used ones in the smaller basket when you’re done,” she said softly as she passed the basket around.

“The manner of Jed’s leaving was such a gift to the community,” said Charley. “I loved that day when we all came through to say goodbye to his body lying there in the bed surrounded by candles and flowers. I was so grateful you let us all take part in that. You were brave to keep the mortuary people at bay.”

“I was grateful that it worked out for me to be at his side as he died,” said Pia after several quiet heartbeats. “I saw his soul lift up. In fact, I haven’t told you this before because I was a little afraid you’d take it the wrong way, but I helped a little with my breath and hands. He was working very hard to do it well, but he needed just a little assistance in those last moments to actually leave his body.”

I’ve felt guilty that I was asleep when he passed,” said Alex. “But you helped me to understand that sometimes people need to do that last step without the presence of their loved ones. That for some it’s too difficult to leave otherwise. Still, I so wanted to be there. If I’d known how quickly he was going….”

“He wants you to be in contact with him now. He says you have some work to do together…..”

“Man, he would have hated that implication before he died – he was so science minded and so clear that pesticides and other shit killed him. So certain that death was the end…..” His voice trailed off and they all waited in silence to see if Alex himself could pick up anything.

“Blackberries,” he said finally. “Blackberries. I’m supposed to chop the brambles. What on earth can that mean?!”

“It’s not exactly on earth,” quipped June. “Perhaps it’s about clearing the path between your different worlds. And maybe teaching the rest of us about that.”

“Maybe you can come for a tarot reading soon and we can look at that more deeply,” offered Ursula.

“Don’t forget to listen to your dreams,” said Owen. “It may be a soul contract you made somehow that you have to stay connected.”

“I did have a particularly vivid dream about him recently, “ said Alex. “I knew he was trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t make out what it was.”

“Keep listening. I think that’s what he means by blackberries. Those huge tangles of prickers are in the way of you guys communicating. He’s saying he loves you very much,” said Cindy. Again there was silence to see if any more would come about Alex and Jed.

“I’m getting all sorts of local creatives flashing through,” said June. “Klaus Jordan, a painter on the Mountain who died 30 years ago and dear Brin who taught music at the Community College. I think we all need to be doing our art more no matter what the medium in order to find out more about ourselves.”

“And I just got Marta who landed here for a bit so spectacularly a few years ago with her shamanistic paintings,” said Cindy. “I think these folks will help us if we let them in and pay attention to their whisperings. We all need to clear the blackberries.”

“I’m getting something about – from? – the native peoples of the Mountain and our river,” said Charley. “They just popped into my mind anyway so I thought I’d better mention them. But I can’t…. I have no idea what they’re trying to say.”

They all sat breathing quietly, listening, reaching out…. Until finally, “Thanks to you, spirits, for coming through to us tonight,” said Owen. “We will work with your messages.”

“Ho!“ Said everyone in unison.

 

Grounding at Illahee

School family in the spring

 Ursula walked down the hill through Sitka and hemlock, salal and fern to Illahee – the little alternative school where her kids had spent their formative elementary years, leaving to go to 9th grade in the public high school across the bay. She loved this long familiar path and took it often though usually she was headed on towards Mahonia and just gave a nod and a wink to the school as she passed. There was a road to the school also, of course, but she preferred this slightly more round-about route.

She and Charley had been part of starting the school, along with Pia, Owen, and Molly, and five or six other families almost 30 years ago, when their kids were all small. They had called it “parent run” though there had been much debate about what that actually meant. Probably there was still conversation about this, though the intervening years had laid down some patterns and traditions that could be followed…. or returned to….

Ursula was no longer directly involved but still got asked to stop in now and then, either for a special class or to help untangle some crisis or another. Wrangles were inevitable in such endeavors and institutions. Somehow the school seemed to have more than its share of upheaval but she always figured it was because people were extra touchy about their children – both around their individual child’s issues and about the curriculum, not to mention the direction of the school itself.

It had been a miracle every day it lasted in those early years. It was a miracle still. And now – “blessings on us all” – some of the children of the original students were attending. In fact, Owen’s daughter Robin was chairing the Board this year. “And soon,” she thought, shivers running along her spine, “My granddaughter Menolly will be coming.”

As she approached the schoolhouse tucked into tall alder and hemlock trees she thought back on the process of building it. The land was donated after they had been operating for a couple of seasons in people’s homes and garages. It only had an old stable on it and it took a loooong year of weekend work to turn that into two classrooms, an office and a commons area. In the interim they had rented a portable classroom trailer. Pia, who was the school secretary at the time, had her “head” office in the bathroom. Things were a little fancier now and at some point, long after her family was out, the parents had added another classroom.

There were still occasional conflicts about “academics” and the “3 R’s” vs. more elemental work and play, but at least at the moment, the parents seemed comfortable with a laid back approach. She thought perhaps it was because more of her children’s generation had experienced some sort of “free” school in their growing up, even if it wasn’t until attending colleges like Evergreen or Bennington and Hampshire. In her day only Pia had any direct experience at all of another way of going at it – she’d actually gone through progressive schools back east. Ursula and the rest had only been able to feel their way by instinct. At any rate, the kids heading off into public school still did just as well as they always had over the years.

She smiled at the multi-topped cedar that graced the entrance, thanking it for the protective presence it always seemed to provide. She patted the now fading totem pole that a parent from her day had helped the kids carve. The school’s name was a Chinook jargon word meaning something like “home place,” so the pole had always seemed appropriate even if it wasn’t part of the local native culture.

Ursula thought back to Halloween two years ago, the first time she was asked to come to school as its “resident witch.” She had arrived dressed for the part all in black, complete with the classic pointy hat. Studying natural cycles was integral to the school’s learning process so the kids immediately understood the compost she brought to connect them with the season’s energy of plants dying back. The cast iron cauldron she carried it in had been an added theatrical touch.

The children had told stories of their beloved dead – grandparents, pets and one father who had died the previous year – as they placed mementos on an impromptu altar to which she added a small animal skull and a photo of her uncle whose legacy had paid for the kiln they still used. She would never forget asking Flicker that day what he had in the largish box he lugged in from the carpool. “Grandma,” he’d said succinctly. “She died this summer.”

“Can…can I see her?” little August had asked. “Nope,” came the reply. “The box is sealed.”

When they gathered for Circle she’d told them how it was a witch’s job to be consciously in tune with the seasons of life and of the year. Once upon a time all people had felt connected to the sequences of birth, growth, dying back and rebirth, but gradually the job had become relegated to a special few. Then in a terrible development – part of a growing fear of and denial of death and nature in general – those few had been persecuted and even killed for their wisdom and role in the community.

Together Ursula and the children had brainstormed a list of remnants and reminders of the old wisdom that appear at Halloween – ghosts and ghouls and harvest pumpkins, witches characterized as warty crones, and the Hispanic culture’s Dia de los Muertos skeletons. Then exchanging her pointy hat for a crown of dried flowers, she had declared it time to celebrate all that they were learning of the old ways.

 

Today a lovely hum greeted her from the classrooms as she entered Commons. Was it just her imagination or did the children themselves seem calmer now than in her day?

Cindy was on the phone in the office so Ursula just waved a greeting. She could see evidence of Owen’s regular presence in the drawings of Oregon Grape and Oxalis on the walls. He came over often to be their naturalist expert.

“Oh goodie. It’s an Ursula day!” Otter Logan, Owen’s granddaughter, appearing from the bathroom, hugged her merrily. “Come see what I’m doing.”

Ursula allowed herself be led into the West Room where most of the ten older kids were absorbed in writing in their handmade books. Nestled in the corner, one of the older girls was reading aloud to August who was apparently visiting from the younger group. From the artifacts and the children’s own artwork spread about the classroom, it looked like the group was studying the Mayans. A partially built step pyramid was on the big worktable next to well-thumbed reference books opened to pictures of jungley ruins. Someone had been working a loom that was tied to a chair in another corner like those still used in Guatemala.

Ursula admired Otter’s illustrated report on the Mayan calendar, enjoying the “best guess” spelling that had “egul” for “eagle.” “A much more sensible way to spell it,” thought Ursula.

Celeste finished what she was doing with a new little girl that Ursula had never met before, and came up to give her a hug. “It will be perfect having you talk about grounding today,” she said quietly. “I’m feeling like we could all use a little of that, especially Sedona there, who is new to us. Her folks – Mom and Grandmother – just moved to Mahonia to open a B&B. I think she has a tendency to leave her body a lot – she kind of gets to bouncing off walls and doesn’t know how to choose a project and settle in.”

Celeste turned and raising her voice to teacherly firmness, said, “It’s time to finish up and gather for Circle. Otter, do you want to go tell the Youngers that Ursula is here? Flicker, can you offer Ursula a cup of tea? And who wants to see if she wants a cushion or a chair? Remember how we like to treat our Elders.”

Ursula chucked inwardly at the idea of being an Elder, especially as Celeste was older than she was and white-haired to boot. But the truth was she rather liked getting such royal treatment. It was a nice attempt on the part of the school to begin to honor the wisdom of those with a few more years under their belts. There was a lot more conversation generally in the world these days about the need to have the Elders stay vital parts of the community rather than the marginalization pattern that had emerged in previous generations.

Soon the sliding doors between the classrooms were pushed aside and the little ones from Rhea’s group in the East Room joined the circle on the floor in the wide doorway. Ursula was now ensconced on a purple cushion, appropriately decorated with a child-painted bear.

Some of the little ones were still squirmy and the new student looked at her self-consciously. Ursula reached out to pat Anise’s patched knee, the wiggler to her left, and smiled at Sedona on her other side.

“I really like that sweater you have on. Did someone make it for you?”

“My grandma,” Sedona answered shyly, though more at ease now that she had been noticed and acknowledged. “She lives with us.”

“Cool. I’d like to meet her one of these days,” said Ursula, making a mental note to ask Celeste what the grandma’s name was. She was probably no older than Ursula herself.

“Ok, kids, have any of you ever felt all wiggly and unable to focus?” Ursula began.

“My mom says I’m like a puppy sometimes,” said Otter.

“Sounds like you dash around a lot.”

“Yesterday I felt all twitchy and I had to go outside,” volunteered another child.

“I feel like that too sometimes,” said Ursula. “And sometimes that is exactly what I need to do. But today I’m going to teach you a process that will help when you need to concentrate or get your work done. It can help each of you on your own or when you all want to focus as a group. It’s called grounding.”

“My mom does that in her Medicine Circle,” said Otter.

“Does that mean like you touch the ground?” asked another child.

“Exactly. Good thinking. So I want you all to sit cross-legged, Indian style and settle your bottoms firmly on the floor.” More wiggling ensued for a moment, of course, and excited anticipation filled the air.

“Now take a deep breath….” said Ursula demonstrating. “And another…. Now pretend there’s a string in your tummy just below your belly button. It could be brown like a root or it could be gold or white…. Or any color. Red or blue.… Now imagine that string reaching down through your body into the floor…. See it going through the crawl space and into the dirt underneath. It goes past the earthworms and the bugs and other roots and the rocks…. lots of rocks and some water…. down, down. Deeeeeep into the Earth. Miles and miles. Feel it way down there, warm and cozy, settled in like a root does in the garden. Is it still the same color?” Ursula paused to let the potent image take hold.

“Take a deep breath, you’re not forgetting to breathe are you? Now leave the string rooted there and bring your awareness back up the string. Imagine yourself rising through the dirt and stones. Bring with it the settled, calm feeling you found down there. Bring that feeling and your consciousness up past the earthworms and out into the air under our building and up into your body again. Feel that warmth deep in your body. Feel yourself still connected with the Earth but back here in your body in this room sitting in a circle together.”

Ursula breathed quietly for a minute or two and the children did too, deeply grounded. “How did that feel?” she asked at last, turning to Anise. “Let’s go around the circle.”

“I feel like we’re all connected right now into the earth like trees in the forest.”

“Me too and I feel really calm.”

“My string was yellow and it liked going past the worms. I even saw a salamander.”

“The Earth said she liked me coming to visit like that and she hopes I do this more often.”

“I don’t feel like talking yet. Maybe I’ll draw you a picture later.”

“We could all do that after Ursula goes,” offered Celeste.

“I could feel my granny down there with me. It was like she was cuddling me on her lap,” said Flicker.

“It felt like I was swimming in the earth.”

“Wow. Out of the mouths of babes,” thought Ursula as she listened to their observations on around the circle. “Why am I not surprised? Maybe next time I’ll teach them about opening their pineal gland to connect to their Third Eye.”