Angel

Angel

Azrael’s name is one that we fear;

Mentioned in whispers on the edge of a tear,

Standing in doorways, or sat by our bed,

Azrael’s face is the one that we dread.

Azrael’s eyes are pits of dark flames.

Filled with compassion, he plays no sick games.

Watching the dying, he waits as a friend;

Azrael’s comfort is there to the end.

Azrael’s sword is the coldest of steel;

Cutting so fast there’s no pain to feel.

Flaming with pity, icy with care,

Azrael’s sword cuts straight and fair.

Azrael’s wings are the feathers of night;

Unfurled in the darkness, they shine without light.

A fragrance of lilies, a touch of cold earth,

Azrael’s wings bring forth a new birth.

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

 

Endings and beginnings ~ why you need to grieve for the past before you can begin anew

I’ve always loved Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry but the following poem was recently brought back to my attention by a musical version of it by Natalie Marchant.

Spring and Fall:

to a Young Child

 Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as the heart grows older
   It will come to such sights colder
   By and by, nor spare a sigh
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
   And yet you will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow’s springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

For those of you that are not poetically inclined, the poem is addressed to a young girl who is distressed that the leaves of her favourite woodland are falling. For a child, the seasons have not yet become predictable and the certainty that we as adults may feel that the spring will come and the trees with again be crowned in green is not present. The grief of the child is palpable in the words Hopkins writes; she is too young to have the assurance of spring. And yet, Hopkins does not dismiss this. Indeed, he says that even though as she grows older and becomes more hardened to such things, she will still weep for such things because the origin of the sorrow will always remain. Essentially a poem about the grief our own mortality can bring us, it is one of such compassion and understanding of a particularly sensitive child that I felt it speak to me personally.

Death has become the last great taboo in our culture and the thing that divides us most. People would rather not think about their own mortality at all and those who do are labelled as morbid or negative. Yet the fact remains that we all die. How and where and when are the great unknowns. And what comes next, if anything, is the greatest mystery of them all. Unlike children who learn by experience that after the great unleaving of the trees in Autumn and the cold, cold days of Winter, the Spring returns without fail, we cannot discover by experience and rest easy in that knowledge.

So the smaller deaths in life, the partings and the endings, become focuses for our anxiety and need for reassurance. Moving house, as I have done many times, becomes a grief beyond the mere hassle. So much of my life has been bound up within those walls. Changing jobs. The death of others close to me. All these endings. They’re hard to bear. Really hard to bear. And the temptation is to leap ahead for comfort, to try and see the future where things do not hurt. To know that the Spring will come again.

And yet, this is something that denies the reality of the moment. The death of a friend even when you are sure in your heart that death is not the final curtain but a change of state, should hurt. It needs to, because it returns you to a state of innocence, that of Margaret in the poem, where you grieve in a pure state.

In our busy society, without time or inclination for either rites of passage or time to grieve, to be allowed to grieve is a blessing. It allows healing to happen. If you cut that time short, you cut yourself. And the longer you defer or postpone or refuse that grieving, the more you may find waiting for you later.

  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve, because in some ways, you are grieving for yourself as well. 

Being in the Moment- a reality check

Being in the Moment- a reality check

I started writing something about being in the moment a week or so ago and circumstances made sure I never finished the article. I was trying to explore how I feel about the people I call Bright-siders (from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided”, “Smile or die” in the UK ) who always seem to find a good side to everything. Ms Ehrenreich was herself suitably appalled, not by solely by her breast cancer, but also by the movement that seems to exist that declares that far from being a catastrophe, breast cancer might just be the very best thing that has ever happened to you. 

I’ve heard this sort of thing before and it’s never ceased to amaze me how people can do this. Forgive my cynicism but hold on one moment…Cancer is good? While I am willing to accept and understand that after a serious event in one’s own life, it is possible to see collateral benefits of that devastating illness, that heartache, that bereavement, that job loss or that destructive divorce, I must stress that this can surely only be afterwards and only apply to your own acceptance of the outcome.  

The other train of thought that has been thundering through my mind lately has been that I simply do not understand how those who speak of the Bright-side also speak about being in the moment. Now being in the moment is a buzz word, an “IN” concept. I have heard of it first via Zen Buddhist practices and subsequently in almost every self help manual I’ve ever come across. Basically the practise consists of seeking to maintain the mind(and therefore the self) entirely in the present moment, without looking either ahead at the future or back at the past. Forgive me if I have oversimplified or misunderstood this but this is how I have understood it. In self help manuals it then stresses that doing this somehow magically transforms everything. I’ve read and heard comments to the effect that when a person started to live more in the moment, their life was transformed. I don’t understand this. I understand that a detachment from either the future or the past can be very liberating but it is the same people who preach this who also tend to be Brightsiders. The two are incompatible.  

Imagine the scenario. Life is going very badly for whatever reason. To try and improve it one tries to seek the good within the bad. This automatically pulls you out of the present moment and into the future, of seeing where this experience will benefit you or where it may take you. 

Pain is probably the most effective teacher of being in the moment. Serious chronic pain, or sudden acute pain catapult you into the moment by moment endurance of life. I don’t recommend either form of pain. Grief too, is another effective teacher of being in the moment, though most of us seek any sort of comfort we can to escape the unendurable agony of losing someone. In both these cases, this is where the Brightsiders have the most difficulty in coping. Pain and grief make you exist moment by moment and it’s then for me, the futility of trying to find a good in bad becomes most evident. What’s good in the death of someone I love? Nothing. That they were loved and that they are beyond pain now is besides the point. Those are tattered rags of comfort that flutter in the roaring gale of pain.

 Later, perhaps, comes philosophy and acceptance. Later comes the realisation that the void their loss brought has been filled by something else that could never have come before. But these are things one can see(truly see, not imagine in an orgy of denial) later. At the time, these are not just irrelevant but inconceivable to someone who has truly lived through the moment by moment, inch by inch of pain and grief. 

There are times when people offer words of comfort that seem to proceed from a need to relieve our pain. These words, sincerely meant, can be poorly received. A parent who has lost a baby does not want to hear their baby is safe in the arms of Jesus; she wants that baby in her arms.

 I have no answers. I walked to work today, fighting tears. I wanted to escape into my mental landscape where the sorrow I face does not exist. I did not; I found I could not. I realised also that joy is the dark sister of sorrow. No, I make no mistake here. Joy is what balances the sorrows of our life, but joy makes us complacent. Joy makes us believe we are beloved and chosen by God for special care and favours. So when sorrow comes, we believe ourselves to be cursed, or abandoned or that the joy we once felt was an illusion because how can something be that bright and that beautiful and that fleeting? Sorrow is as much a gift from God as joy is. For every birth there is a death, for every day, a night. You cannot have one without the other and while we crave the light, we demonise the dark. Dark and light are two sides of the same thing, just as joy and sorrow are twins joined at the heart. Ever noticed that the place we are said to feel both emotions is the heart? 

I do not wish to be in the moment now but I seem to have little choice but to take one day, one hour, one moment at a time and live as the day takes me. And my God, it hurts.

Night Shift

Night Shift

(for those who wait with the dying)

 

 

I want to hold back Death:

Impossible of course,

But every time I try,

Standing in the way,

Arms outstretched

As if to halt

A bolting horse,

It passes through

As if I, not it,

Were insubstantial mist.

And I feel a touch

Across my face

Of trailing cobwebs

Or frosted feathers

Stiff with ice.

 

Belief(or lack thereof)

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with belief. I’ve stopped believing in things most people believe in and I hang onto beliefs many folks have long given up on, for far longer than you’d imagine. I believed in Father Christmas long after everyone else had decided it was definitely your mum and dad; I still do, to tell you the truth. It’s based on some fairly complex metaphysics these days, but back at age five, it was based on the empirical evidence of my own ears. You see, I heard the sleigh bells on the roof, one Christmas. The fact(eagerly pointed out to me by my older brother) that we lived in a Victorian house with a system of interconnecting chimneys, and I surely heard the sound transmitted from downstairs fireplace to my bedroom fireplace, where my father sat wrapping a jingly toy by the fire, and not from the roof as I thought, simply didn’t dent my belief that father Christmas was a real entity. I still believe it, now aged almost 43.

I don’t for example believe in Red Nose Day or Children in Need, Sport Aid or any of the other media fuelled charity blow outs this country seems to delight in. My bus driver today wore a red curly wig and a red nose; I suspect he wasn’t happy about it but you can’t go against the mass without jeopardising your place by the fire. I fully accept they raise a massive amount of much needed money for great causes. But I don’t believe they are the best way. They actually create charity fatigue; people get fed up with it and it’s a fair bet many give out of guilt and a fear of looking mean. I also have a cynical concern that a vast amount of the money raised vanishes in costs and administration.

I also don’t believe in the essential goodness of people, despite plenty of evidence experienced personally. This is based largely on statistics; in short, the sums just don’t add up.  If people were basically good, then the world would not be in the mess it seems to be in right now.

My current belief in God wavers; I suspect God not only exists and I’d also be willing to bet that He/She is basically benign. But also mainly unknowable. If you haven’t ever read “Mister God, this is Anna,” I’d highly recommend it; I think it ought to be required reading at every Bible college, vicar factory, theological college and seminary in the world. In one section, Anna, the eponymous heroine(an eight year old orphan) is watching some ants and tried to explain to Fyn, the author, that however much she loves the ants, there is no way for her to ever convey that love to the ants. Too much of a gulf exists for her to be able to make the ants know of her love. For me, in many ways, this is how I feel, a slightly enlightened ant, knowing that God is unknowable to me in my ant state but having a dim idea that he/she exists and probably loves me.

But, being me, the biggest thing I don’t and cannot believe in, is simply myself.

I have tried. Endlessly. And without success. Others do; others tell me I should believe in myself. I am told I have plenty to believe in, but when I try, nada.

I understand that faith is a gift, a grace if you like. I had a friend who was dying, some years ago. I spent a lot of time with him, massaging his feet and listening and talking. He wanted to believe in God, he really did. He envied his wife and her faith, but even though he wanted to, he simply never reached a point fo faith. I went to see him up until five days before his death, when cellular breakdown meant I could no longer touch his feet without causing serum to leak through his skin; he was the first person who I saw after death. I stood in the room while my husband said the prayers for the dead, holding hands with the family and friends and I could feel him in the room, a peaceful presence. His shell looked very peaceful and it no longer looked even remotely like him. I had the very strong feeling he knew now what he had been unable to believe in life, and it was good. His spirit appeared a few days later to a family member who had been unable to get to visit in the last days; he told her he was surrounded by light, and that it was just wonderful and then he vanished.

I’d like to be given a gift of faith, not just in God, because I have that to some extent, but in myself.