Obituary for Tigger Ratbane: Love holds the planets in their courses
My little dog Tigger Ratbane, died in 2013.
He would have been 15 in February 2015.. He had several complicated medical problems, but what got him in the end was an unexpected and very fast growing tumour.
I said at the end of his life he was held together with love, and I meant it almost literally. The week before he died he was entertaining an elderly woman with dementia. He still liked to trot around the block and sniff and pee, and he was still mostly cheerful, but he was tired.
I missed him hugely. All the places we walked, and I would not have known about otherwise. Our daily routine, to which he was always faithful, right down to the little piece of cheese he got before he went to bed in his box. There were many little spaces in my day, and some big ones.
Love is to our spiritual world as gravity is to the physical. It holds the planets in their courses. It binds us to the real earth, and lets us move in our destinies. I cannot say more about love. Language fails me here.
I can say something about how it is to love and be loved by someone from another species. This is remarkable, and yet it happens in households all over the world, and has done since the first brave children bonded with the first clever wolf puppies. What foresight. I still have no idea how we communicate across species - and yet I can still say that Tigger and I loved each other.
I have always been wary of anthropomorphism. I never liked being called 'Mummy' regarding the animals in my household, because I did not give birth to them. They are not children. They are not to be treated like human children, because that demeans them.
We demand contradictory things of animals. We want them to be like us, so we can relate to them and empathise with them. We say 'The chimpanzee is sitting like that because she is sad', or 'The sparrow is eating his tea'. Thus we ascribe human qualities to them. We also want them to be different from us, in several ways. Better than us, so we can aspire to qualities we think of as noble. We say, 'Animals would never be so cruel'. Lesser than us, so we can eat them or exploit them. We then other them - we say 'It's OK they don't feel things like we do'. All of these attitudes somehow exist concurrently, often within the same person. All of them might for all we know be incredibly wrong. Our relationship with animals is complex and more fraught than we think, and I suspect it is a new frontier in the area of civil rights and social inclusiveness.
It is this contradictory sameness and difference that backgrounds my wonder at how Tigger and I communicated. Maybe I am incredibly wrong, but I do feel he loved and was loved, and that love was his purpose. He came from love and he goes to love.
Now he is buried in our yard, wrapped in a linen shroud and facing Mecca. He had a kind of Muslim funeral; I chanted a prayer in Arabic for him. This was my idea of a theological joke. All animals are Muslims, as I have said in an earlier post. Islam means submission and animals, who do not have free will in Islam, thus submit naturally to the will of God. But in Islamic lore only one dog, the dog who guarded the Seven Sleepers goes to heaven. My joke is that Tigger gets to be the second dog.
Tigger Ratbane aka Tigger the Tiny Taco Terrier
When my grandmother died, my uncle said 'Now we are elders'.
Somehow, in their fifties, in other words, thinking of themselves as middle aged, my uncle and his siblings had become elders. They did nothing to achieve this. I t happened because with the death of my grandmother, there was no one left alive from their parents' generation. That was all.
They had no preparation of course. No training or social sanction or rite of passage. A gap in the generational stream had opened up and they just naturally filled it. Nothing was required of them. In fact, once my uncle acknowledged it, the conversation moved on to discuss more important things such as money and what to do next. There is little call for genuine eldership in our society and my older relatives had no particular desire for it anyway. Life went on.
My parents are dead. I have three living aunts and uncles but I am aware that soon I will become an elder. The gap will open up, and I will step into it, along with siblings and cousins and so on. I wonder if it will be any different. Will the younger generation look up to me? I doubt it. They are no fools, especially the ones in my family. I will need something to be looked up to for that to happen.
I used to work with people with intellectual disabilities, and one of them was a man in his late fifties. His mother had raised him with the fear of God and the desire for duty. When she died, he was bereft. I am an orphan, he said, and he was right.
He set out to find new parents. He decided, not without sophistication, that his sister would be his mother and his brother would be his father. He knew that they were not his parents and could not replace his actual mother and father. But he had a crashing need for place holders. Someone had to hold that role for him, or he would disintegrate. He could not subsist in the orphanage of his mind.
When our parents die, if we are older adults ourselves, we become both elders and orphans. We grieve like that. Neither state, elder or orphan, gets any traction with the society around us. Both are slightly old fashioned words. As orphans, we are pulled back slightly towards our childhoods, asking who will help us now or who will judge us now. As elders, we are pulled forward into somewhere we probably don't want to be. We don't want to be old and we don't want to take any responsibility for it. We are sceptical and disappointed. I think this pull-between-states leads to stasis, and turns grief into resentment sometimes.
I absolutely don't blame the young people in my life for their distrust of my generation. We have been crap role models. We have had little to offer them and have left them to themselves. So I would like to become an elder. I would like to step consciously into the state of eldership, and find others who are doing that too. I suspect we will have more to give than we think.
The picture is taken from outside a 'retirement village' house. It's a dire place, in my opinion, but the lack of trees makes for wonderful big sky dawnings.
The three of them had been stealing cars for some time. For these guys, Unlawful Taking of Motor Vehicles was their main form of transport. All of them had troubled histories, with intergenerational social problems. Two of them were in the care of our child protection services. The oldest, Glen McAllister, was 16, and his co offenders were his thirteen year old brother Craig and a thirteen year old friend, Brooklyn Taylor.
In short, they fled Police, drove at very high speed in the inner city, went through the road spikes laid for them and crashed into a pole, where the car caught fire. They were identified through dental records. This very happened recently in my town. Social media locally are still abuzz with it. My work takes me to the area where they were well known, and people were talking about them wherever I went. I also dipped into the comments sections from the media reporting, probably to my detriment. (Don’t read the comments! I tell people. Never read the comments!)
There seemed to be two views. One was that these were difficult kids and the situation was a tragedy. The sense of loss was acute. These were our boys, even though we hadn’t a clue what to do about them, and we went home that night and lectured our own teens about cars and drugs and alcohol and crime. If we were looking for blame, it lay with the system that had let them down. They were kids, after all, with their whole futures ahead of them. Their frontal lobes had not fully developed. My wise friend, who has had her share of similar tragedy and is related to one of the boys, was clear that these kids died because of decisions made decades ago, by grandparents and parents. For her, the message was to wake up and engage with your children, as she had done, fighting against the odds to do so.
The other view was that these kids were out of control and were old enough to know right from wrong. They were responsible for their own actions. They had been badly taught, for sure, and their parents and the system around them did a lax job, but at the end of the day the boys themselves had decided to run from the Police and the outcome was more than inevitable. It was deserved. We should think of the victims, and the kids themselves were not victims. Their victims were the people whose cars they had stolen. It was just as well no one else was killed. These kids were not our kids. Our kids don’t behave like that. These three boys were a mini crime wave, and our fear is that their criminality must at some point spill over into our lives. Our neighbourhoods are not safe from them, and there are others like them.
Two hundred years ago, thirteen-year old boys were hanged for stealing. People would have gone to their executions, and cheered as the trapdoor slammed shut. I had imagined, up until last week, that nowadays we would consider hanging thirteen-year old boys to be disproportionate. Clearly I was wrong. One of the themes of the media comments was that these boys deserved to die. Possibly if you asked ‘Do you think thirteen year olds who steal cars and run from the Police deserve to die?’ those who have made such trenchant comments on social media would back the truck up a little. Well, maybe not die, exactly, but they damn well need to take responsibility for their actions and they are no great loss to society. I would not be the one to hang them for their crimes, but what happened to them (dying in a burning car that was too on fire for rescuers to come to their aid) was a form of natural justice, surely. If they were my sons, of course I would not think they should die, but they are not my sons. They are young criminals. My sons would not behave like this.
I fail to see the nuance. I am being obtuse. You think thirteen year old boys who steal cars and run from Police should die; you think this how they take responsibility for their actions? Is this a sort of rough karma?
You can’t think like this unless you see the boys as Other. To think like this you have to say they are Not Like Us Regular Folk. They are Not Us.
It is very natural to ‘other’ others. We gravitate to people like us, whatever that means. We are clannish creatures. I remember hitch hiking as a young person in an isolated part of Northland, and being picked up by a local farmer. You don’t want to go to that valley, he said. You can’t trust the people from that valley. They’re not like us. I struggled not to laugh. He was talking about people who lived an hour away by car. And yet our clannishness flies in the face of the evidence. Heavens, the concept of race, for example, has largely been debunked, and about time. We all on this earth have far more in common than we think, and part of what we share is the grief and anger and fear when it all goes wrong for some of us. Were these boys human beings living on the planet? Yes? So of course these were our boys. We are all together.
Now, the stats. I am sorry to say to those about to launch into a moral panic, that the big longitudinal research shows that:
When the first studies of juvenile delinquency (as it was called then) were made, in the early nineteen sixties, researchers took an interest in what the young people themselves said about stealing cars and driving fast. They described a sensation of care-lessness. They did not care, and they had no cares. The moment of loss of control was liberating and both annihilating of the self, and empowering the self, at the same time. This kind of risk taking has always had its appeal, whether it is toxoplasmosis-induced, or socially sanctioned in the case of war time heroism, or just being bad ass. Some of us are wired for it. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Moreover, there is a section of Western late capitalist society where it actually makes sense to severely discount the future. This is the section of society where the three boys lived, among those who are poor and precarious. Here is an example of discounting the future. Generally, women who have their children later in life do better. Delaying child bearing makes economic and social sense. Teen pregnancy is a social problem. However, for the very poor and precarious, there is actually no advantage to delaying child bearing. Women in this social class age rapidly, have shorter life spans than richer women, and have unstable relationships. Things will never be stable enough for them to meet the ideal standards for beginning a family. By the time you are 38 you are a grandmother, and you probably are beginning to develop health problems. So do it now, find someone to love you now. In fact, do everything now.
There is no future more severely discounted than that of a boy in a car travelling at 130 kms in an inner city area, with the Police after him.
While I am interested in the deaths of these boys and the social and historical context, I am truly weirded out by the social media response. I have mentioned the two opposing views above which surface in conversation and in the comments sections of news websites. The social media pages of those involved in the case tell a stranger story.
There is a need among young people to be part of the drama and close to the action. Social media obviates this. In 2007, in Christchurch, a young man drove his car into a group of partygoers, killing two and injuring others. It was a large party that had got out of control, and a proportionately large number of the town’s teens were involved. Everyone knew someone who knew someone. Back then, social media consisted of texting and MSN. There was a flurry of texting and messaging, as the young people tried to position themselves close to the action. Someone had died, no they hadn’t, someone was in hospital and my sister’s friend’s cousin is with her, or maybe it is someone else, and so on. It was a tricky and inexact business, manoeuvring oneself into the frame. Now, it is much easier, less complicated, and instant.
The boys became heroes overnight. The spot where they died attracted not just the usual flowers, but tributes of cans of alcohol, cigarettes, and disturbing messages along the lines of we love you, and we will be with you soon. These themes continued into their Facebook pages. Social media commentary is of course disinhibiting, and people are more likely to behave in an uncivil fashion online. If the first comment on a thread is negative, the whole story is more likely to be seen in a negative light. Negative comments have more effect than positive ones. You can guarantee more heat than light.
When the families weighed in, things got weirder. Glen McAllister was named after his uncle, Glen senior, who murdered a man he did not know, and then killed himself, in 1989. Craig was named after his father. Craig senior spoke to media and attempted to distance himself from the events in 1989, and the deaths of his sons. He talked on Facebook about his distress, and then undermined his statements about himself by asking people to give him Ritalin in the comments section. He was viewed online wearing a cap that said RIP – FTP (Fuck the Police). Inflammatory? Or just a way of grieving when your locus of control is entirely external?
The boys’ mother Juanita Hickey attracted controversy by doing burnouts as a memorial tribute to her sons. "Mum did this for you two xxxx the average chicky don't burnout like that haha bet u boys loved it," Hickey wrote on her Facebook page. In response to some pretty staunch criticism she wrote:
“Might not be other people's way of honoring their loved ones, however it was OUR WAY! There is no right or wrong in how we grieve or celebrate a loss of loved ones so all the judgmental people, walk in my shoes before you act perfect. I'm as solid as they come. My boys it would have been your style so meh to the haters."
Juanita has a point. Grieving is about symbols. There is a bit of a tradition of burnouts at funerals. Not all funerals are Anglo Saxon and reserved. Among that group of people who are poor and precarious, and perhaps criminogenic, symbols are more important than articulate speeches and formalities. I have been to some funerals in the past that were not exactly classy. Instead, they were immediate, embodied, visceral and personal. In these spaces all raw tragedy emerges. Previously antagonistic and grieving family members find they get on like a house on fire – in fact sometimes there are no survivors, at least emotionally.
Juanita’s method of grieving also hits a nerve because that is not what mothers do. Mothers are supposed to be, well, mothery. They are supposed to be warm and present and self sacrificial, and to have endless empathy and time and cake and work hard and know every damn thing. They are not supposed to do burn outs, even on their best days. We guilt on mothers a lot. When you are a mother, you are the centre of a web of need. The threads of the web are held tight by the tension of competing needs. Let one thread go slack, and someone misses out. Usually it’s you. I imagine Juanita was a mother who let those threads go all the time. I imagine she made terrible choices in a milieu where choice was limited. I imagine she thought that love was enough, and her love was made fraught by her own needs. Let her grieve.
The issue of Glen’s naming is interesting to me because again it emphasizes the value of symbols in this subculture. What is it like to be named after an uncle who was a murderer? In the family, maybe it was framed as grief. Maybe it was an old family name that just had to go somewhere. There are often traditions of naming children after the dead. Perhaps the fact that Glen senior murdered someone was of little importance, compared with the need to mark his loss onto the next generation.
The events around the murder were rehashed in the public forum of Facebook. Craig senior was involved on that night in 1989, and was hauled over the coals for it. He blamed others, of course, and expressed that sort of twisted guilt that tried to show himself as trying to do the right thing, somehow, even though he plainly wasn’t, but it wasn’t his fault, not at all.
My hunch is that an event like a murder/suicide bleeds through the collective psyche of a family for generations. Nothing comes out of the blue. Back in 1989 Craig and Glen were skinheads involved in crime. Trouble begat trouble. Grief begat grief, and guilt begat guilt and twisted in on itself. Now three boys are dead, and so it goes.
So what can we do? I will tell you what I did, because what I can do here is almost unique. I do Shamanic psychopomp work, which is finding the souls of those who have died, and ensuring they go to where they need to be. Sometimes souls get stuck in ‘interworlds’ and this is where they get into trouble. From there they can haunt us, or they just sit there suffering. I undertake a journey into the interworld, accompanied by Power Animals who work with me for this purpose, and I help out.
I am not going to tell you the details, because this stuff always sounds far fetched and is unprovable, and it sometimes breaches a person’s privacy to describe it. However I will say this. When I find a soul stuck, I need to persuade it of three things:
So, imagine this. A boy with no attachments. A boy with no positive memories. He knows he is dead and he knows he is in a bad place, but it is no worse than anywhere else from his perspective. There is no one he wants to go to be with. There is no memory of somewhere he felt safe and loved, where he wants to return. One place is as bad as another. He does not care, and he has no cares. He has nothing, which was what he always had. It is a long and harrowing task to lift his poor head, talk to him straight, and help him move.
That is all.
No, not quite, because you may be wondering what this has to do with death care. I say, lots, because all of these issues are soaked in death. It is easier and much less controversial to think about the care around death – how we die, and how to care for our dead, and how to grieve. This article is in fact discussing these things, obliquely. The mess of death. The wrong of death. The chaotic risk of death. Thanatos at his most primal, and our society at its worst.
As a small child I was deeply impressed by a trip to the movies. I remember the building, then in the Art Deco style, with its fluted columns set into the walls and deep crimson carpets. Sound was muted in the depth. I would climb the outsized stairs, hugging the plush lined wall. There was the glowing warm smell of popcorn – food that existed nowhere else in the world. Then I would enter downwards into a dark realm, and wonders and marvels would be shown to me, many of them barely comprehensible. I called the movie theatre ‘the place with the quiet stairs’. Equally remarkable was the expectation that none of this was expected to change me. I would emerge afterwards into the afternoon light, and everything was as usual. An indeterminate amount of time would have passed – I could have been in there for days. And yet this was supposed to be mere fun.
This was my first experience with what is called in Greek literature a katabasis. A katabasis is literally a trip from the mountains to the coast, or riding into a defile. There must be a sense of downward movement, darkening and narrowing. Metaphorically, it is a journey into darkness, the ‘valley of death’ perhaps. The difference between a katabasis and the similar concept of nekyia is that with a katabasis you come out. But it is still a trip into the underworld, the world of death and transformation. Remember, when the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar enters the Underworld to save her lover, she has to strip. Each layer of clothing has to go, and finally her skin, and she reaches her goal as her truest, barest psychic self. Each katabasis has this shamanic element.
When I used to work with people in crisis, I would see our interactions as a katabasis - not always, not even most of the time, but sometimes. It would be like this: We ride our horses into the defile. The light dims. Sound is at a remove. We travel together, through a valley of grief and distress and fear. I would like to say that they lead me into the katabasis, and I lead them out, but it not that simple. While we are in there, it is my job to keep us moving, to keep safe, to remember the sky still shines above us somewhere. But in the end, we ride in together, and we ride out.
Afterwards, I would often feel that days have passed, when it has been only an hour or so. Time runs soft in the valley of death. Extraneous stimuli gradually return. Tears are dried and other people join us. Sometimes I would ask the person I was working with if they too have experienced the katabasis, and they would know what I mean.
Some of us understand the darkness better than others. We court our darkness, ask questions of it, explore it by any means we have. We ride into the defile with joy in our hearts, for we know that we will be shown wonders and marvels. We play the risks. We know these experiences are transformative.
When I ride into the defile with someone, I must not kid myself that I am having the same experience that they are. The valley of death is my domain; I know my ground, and within limits I come and go. The darkness becomes me, it calls to me and its entities welcome me. I am learning to welcome discomfort and the unknown. My companions are fearful, because of course know what they have to lose. They need to trust me, and I am often astounded that they do.
It would be doubly inspiring to the think that they leave their grief and fear in the valley of death. They don’t. However, that strange and desperate uniqueness the katabasis imparts often leads to a new view. When we emerge blinking into the quotidian light, things look a little different, a new meaning emerges with us, and perhaps a way forward.
Please note: This is a piece about the suicide of a young person. It is a true story. It contains some graphic material.
Charlotte is 15. She has been going out with Kyle for about four months. It has not been an easy ride, and she argues with him one night on Messenger. Upset, she goes to the medicine cabinet and takes a handful of paracetamol tablets. She texts Kyle, and a few other people, and tucks herself into bed, still crying. She hears shouting, and then there is the car ride to the hospital, and then she sleeps.
She wakes in the hospital, and her phone is full of texts and some missed calls. The only ones that matter are Kyle's, and his are worrying. He says he feels betrayed; she had promised him she would stop self harming. She texts him. He does not text back. She phones him. He does not answer. Charlotte is scared now. He always said he would be there for her. She phones the landline, and Carrie, Kyle's little sister, answers. She takes the phone to Kyle.
Carrie, who is 12, is off school today and she has spent the afternoon watching the tech guy install the new TV. He is helpful, and chats with her as he sets up Netflix. After he has gone, she watches half a movie. Then the phone rings. It's Charlotte, and she sounds worried.
Carrie takes the phone upstairs and knocks on Kyle's bedroom door, but as usual he doesn't bother answering her. She goes in. Kyle is hanging in his wardrobe, a thin cord around his neck. Because the cord has cut his throat, the confined space of the wardrobe drips with blood. He has voided his bowels and bladder. Carrie has never seen anything so unimaginably dead.
With a presence of mind she didn't know she had, she hits 111 on the phone she is already carrying. Then she rings her mum, Tina. All she can say is 'Get home, get home...'
First on the scene is Omar, the ambulance officer and his colleague. Omar cuts down Kyle, lays him carefully on his bed, and waits. There is nothing else to do.
Tina arrives home after getting Carrie's panicked call. The ambulance is in the driveway. Perhaps there has been an accident. She runs into Kyle's room, sees him, sees Carrie, and then the world just caves in. She flings herself at Omar, screaming, vomiting, dragging herself down his body, now on the floor, Omar's voice, this stranger, saying something, it is all over, Carrie is with her.
Omar finishes his shift. Because he didn't have to take Kyle to hospital, he is supposedly ready for his next job as soon as he's changed his uniform. He gets home. Jen has fed the kids and is getting ready for work. They have about twenty minutes together. He tells her about Kyle and finds he is actually quite shaky in his hands and a bit tearful. I can ring in sick, says Jen. It's OK, Omar says. I'll put the girls to bed and watch a bit of Top Gear and I will be OK.
Jen drives to work, to the hospital where she works as a nurse in the emergency department. She is assigned Charlotte to care for.
The TV guy has gone to his next job, unaware that a young man was killing himself in the bedroom at the house he connected up earlier that day.
So, I am an admirer of Gus Van Sant's film Elephant, which is about the Columbine High School shootings, as seen from that one day in the lives of many different people at the school. I assume it is called Elephant after the proverb about the blind people who were asked about the elephant. They all felt the elephant. The one who felt the ear thought an elephant was like a giant leaf. The one who felt the side of the elephant thought it was like a wall. The one who felt its tail thought it was like a rope. Nobody knows all of the elephant.
I wanted to tell this story from the points of view of everybody except Kyle, who is almost a hidden character, even though the story is all about him.
Because this is real life, however, there are sequels. They go on and out for ever. Here is one.
Kyle's funeral takes place five days later. The first wash of horror and grief has passed. The funeral is huge. There is a lot of crying and hugging. You could say teens love drama, but teens also have compassion and very easily put themselves in each other's shoes. Charlotte is not at the funeral. But Dezrae is. She was Kyle's best friend.
Dezrae's big sister Broghan stands in the doorway of the chapel, too scared to go in. A part of her life is in that coffin. She didn't know Kyle well, but she remembers her own suicide attempt two months previously. She doesn't want to see Kyle. If she saw his face, his dead face, she may see reflected in it, her own.
This could go either way. Suicides can run in waves. Broghan could think, well, it was that easy, it is just that bit more possible now to do it again. But Broghan has used her time wisely. She has confided in people she trusts, and over the last five days she has talked to Dezrae, her annoying little sister who is nothing but a selfish cow most of the time, in ways she never thought she would. Now Dezrae and she are allies. They know how much they love each other. Broghan stands in the doorway of the chapel, too scared to go in. But now there is love, enough love to go round, enough for all the world, enough to live.
Shamans use many methods of divination and wisdom-access, and I have been trained in the use of crystals, casting sets and dream work. Each of these methods involve entering a Shamanic state of consciousness and respectfully approaching the keeper of the knowledge. They are thus semi-ecstatic methods. I go into a light trance and while I remember everything that goes on, I am not quite myself, and the messages I relay are from the world of the spirits. There is a perfomative aspect to the work. I rattle and move and it's a bit noisy and fun to watch.
I have settled on Runes as the best method for me, after some years of working with them on and off. I am now on my second set of home made Rune staves. The making and consecrating of the Rune staves involved several rituals and took its own time.
The Runes are an ancient magical alphabet used in Northern European cultures. I use the Elder Futhark which is Norse in origin. The Norse God Odin hung on a tree for nine days and nine nights and sacrificed himself to himself, in order to bring us the Runes. This was in truth a Shamanic ordeal. However it was the Goddess Freya who taught him how to use them. Rune wisdom in old Norse culture is typically female. It is a careful, deep wisdom that is often obtained the hard way. Rune reading has been an honorable discipline for me.
While the Runes have a specific cultural history, they are not culture-specific. I see no reason why anyone from any culture might not use them, in the same way that I may use the I Ching for example. They happen to suit me. Some Runes have been used by contemporary Neo-Fascists, and I abhor this and see it as a mean spirited travesty. My research shows no racism among the medieval Norse people (other that the usual human stupidity, I suppose!).
I offer readings in Shamanic Rune wisdom. We formulate a question together, and I need not know what it is. I perform a ritual, and throw the Rune staves onto a white cloth. I am then guided to pick three, and to interpret them. I also offer bindrunes - where Runes are artistically combined in a talisman or charm for protection or guidance. I work only with transcendent and compassionate spirits. I am kind and honest, and will honour your privacy and wellbeing.
He walks now by feeling the ground with his feet, and he can't see the soup down the front of his shirt. Yet he can tell the change in the weather by the plumage of a bird, and the change of the seasons by the colour of the hills.
He can't hear his wife telling him dinner is ready, and the TV has to be disturbingly loud. Yet he stirs when the spur winged plovers call overhead.
He sits in the sun on his stool outside the tiny retirement 'village' house and complains that it's cold, and people are unfriendly. He remembers his childhood in the country, where his father built him and his brothers a hut and they played, fought, experimented and grew together. It was an idyll. Even at the time, it was.
The memories are desperately acute. The smell of the grass and the long golden light of evenings in the hills are like a calling. If pressed, he would agree that if he went back to his childhood home it would be different now from how it was, that this is just longing and loneliness, but that is not how it feels when his head is on his chest and the past flows gently in under his eyelids.
It is not just depression and the beginnings of dementia, although it is also those things. And it is not just remembering. There is a deep imperative here, to spread his whole life out before him in these moments he has left, to raise up and widen his gaze to take in everything that matters, now, to become the sky and the fields and the mountains where his spirit is beginning to roam. It's not 'living in the past', it's preparing, pausing, taking stock. In Egyptian religion, the scales of Ma'at weigh the soul against a feather. Only if it is lighter does the soul go paradise. This man is weighing his soul.
My close friend Lawrie had a misspent youth; in fact it was said to his face: ‘You’ve got a lot of teeth for a cheeky c*nt’, and it was true. By the time I met him he had mellowed a lot, but he still had his rocket launcher.
One of nature’s engineers, Lawrie had gone to school to eat his lunch, but he had learned elsewhere by asking himself questions like: ‘What happens if I put that in there?’ He also liked things that exploded. He had a quality collection of weapons. So it was fairly understandable that he would build himself a rocket launcher out of bits and pieces of crap from hardware stores and people’s left overs. He said he just wanted to see if he could do it, but I suspect his other motive was protecting his cannabis plantation. This was a serious piece of kit, I mean, a bring-down-a-helicopter piece of kit. Whenever Lawrie fired it, there was a Police investigation into the lights and bangs in the night sky. Lawrie leads a charmed life, that boy. I have seen the thing. It is made of plastic pipe and papier mache, would you believe, but its wiring is amazingly sophisticated.
Which brings me to Darren. Darren helped with the wiring. Darren was Lawrie’s mentor, and inspiration. Older, stocky, bearded, indestructible, a talented artist and a ferocious intellect. He was I guess a redneck environmentalist, a very local entity, who lived in a house he built himself in the deep countryside. I never met him. He died of cancer, and it was Lawrie’s great grief that he was not a part of that. Darren’s new partner had no time for Darren’s old crew. Lawrie was shut out.
Lawrie wanted to farewell Darren in his own way. He got the bros together and a party was held in the wilderness near Darren’s house. All day, while everyone else drank and smoked, Lawrie built the rockets, putting into each of the nine, the ashes of his friend and mentor. He had buried the hatchet with Darren’s partner. It took some negotiation and was good for both of them. I was invited to this party, and I knew no one except Lawrie himself. So I walked with the women down to the river. They talked about Darren. He was a man of influence. Everyone had a story, and it all went back to Darren’s wisdom, creativity and generosity. He was above all a teacher, of life and skills. The younger people all had learned from him a piece of practical wisdom, whether it be hunting or painting or the evils of Government intervention. He was truly missed. I say this without irony – we may never see his like again. Darren was a true rugged individualist and there is less and less space for such people.
That night, with friends and family gathered in the wilderness, Lawrie fired off all nine rockets, each containing Darren’s ashes. The sky lit up. There was even a sonic boom. Birds shrieked and flew. After the mighty sound receded, and the cheers died away, there was the sweetest silence. Lawrie then gave one of the briefest and most reverent eulogies I have heard. He said this:
‘Darren’s ashes will go into the river and the river will go into the sea’.
And so it was.
I spend a bit of time in cemeteries. Perhaps that is why I noticed two recent minor news stories that were televised here, about death, grief and reverence.
The first was about the headstone of the grave of James Kingi, member of the Mongrel Mob gang. There had been objections to the city council about this headstone, which carried Mongrel Mob insignia. A woman whose relative was buried next to James felt the headstone was offensive. The council was considering a bylaw against offensive headstones.
Well, as a keen cemetery walker I could get offended about quite a few things. I could get offended about gravesites I consider tasteless or unfortunate. I could also consider the tightly held norms of the headstones – how men are remembered for their hobbies and women for their relationships, how religious sentiment (safe in the arms of the Lord) has given way to a more individualized and personal placement of toys, flowers and photos, how cultural diversity is expressed.
The other story was about the funeral of a young man called Troy Kahui. His friends showed the proper respect by doing burnouts in their cars outside the funeral home. Police were called and the young friends were arrested for endangering the public. Troy's mother, not a car enthusiast herself, was disappointed with the Police response. She felt his friends were giving him the sendoff he would have wanted. She was right.
What is reverence? It is one of the most mysterious and beautiful virtues, and one of my favourites. Reverence is full of surprises. It hides in plain sight. It is wonderfully accessible and yet often missed.
A definition comes from The Virtues Project:
'An awareness of the sacredness of life. Living with wonder and faith. Having a routine of reflection'.
In our society public grief is very limited, if you want to be socially acceptable. And we have little sense of the liminal - few rites of passage for example. So we can undergo our death rituals with not even a sniff of reverence, and we barely notice.
A young man dies of cancer. His funeral is large, as they usually are for the young, and mostly the preserve of the family. Lots of aunts, lots of hugs, little cousins, sandwiches, the crematorium booked for an hour and the next funeral party waiting as everyone leaves. At the 'after party' some uncles get ridiculously drunk, and there are more little cousins twirling in their fairy dresses.
Blessed reverence comes to his friends the next night. They meet up more or less accidentally. They light a fire on the beach where he used to surf. They smoke probably too much pot and cry more than they expect. They talk about him, only a little, but they feel his life as it streamed through their lives, and they feel it streaming still.
Ash was our half mad half grown kitten. Our dog Tigger found him on the street and played with him for a bit. Days later, he turned up at our place and Tigger invited him in. We failed to find his original owner, and so he stayed. He was part Abyssinian, and part moggy, and preternaturally bright. He wrecked our carpet and kept us up at night. He was a wanderer, and faithless with it. Tigger, however, adored him. They would play together for hours.
We had him only a couple of months. The second time he went missing, it was for days. In the end I rang the city council, and yes they had found him, dead on the side of the road. They take a note of the dead cats they find. I burst into tears and asked to come and get him. The woman on the phone gently and awkwardly explained that I could not come for him, that they didn’t, they umm, they, well, he wasn’t…that I needed to understand…
So there was no body. Nothing to fare well.
We all know how to farewell pets. When I was a child, our next door neighbour’s guinea pig Rusty died while they were away and I was looking after him. Even though he wasn’t ours, we buried him in their yard and laid flowers and said good bye. When my daughter was at kindergarten, Sapphire the kindergarten budgie died and everyone brought a flower for his grave. He was buried with due ceremony at the end of the morning class and the whole community was involved.
For Ash, we just had the memory.
Nevertheless we wanted to say good bye and to show him we cared, to ease his passing to the Happy Hunting Ground, which I now think is in Shamanic terms the Lower World. We dug a hole. We treated it like a grave. I put some food in it, and his brush, and we gathered with some friends. We all wrote on small pieces of paper things we liked about Ash, and we threw them into the hole. We filled in the hole. We sang. We walked away.
We have several graves of beloved pets in our yard, and I count Ash’s as one of them even though his body is not there. We knew him briefly but his life was the whole of his life, and he was worth memorialising. Love to Ash.
Karen Effie Deathcare: Christchurch New Zealand
Death ceremony in New Zealand has undergone many changes. Among Pakeha, there is a move towards more personalised ceremonies.
Maori tangihanga ideas are spreading into other cultures. We now talk about home funerals and eco-burials. We have more choices now, but we are often regrettably unaware of them.
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