Songs for the Sun’s Day: Biko and Fragile

If it’s not obvious why these two songs are achingly relevant right now, it should be.

Biko by Peter Gabriel

September ’77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now

Fragile by Sting

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
How fragile we are how fragile we are

Death and the Lady

14243610469_c27d51f9c3_zAs some of you may know, one of my day jobs is helping older folks manage their bills and balance their checkbooks. It’s extremely satisfying work, one of those rare instances where you can actually see your actions affecting someone’s life for the better.

But my clients are elderly. They’re entering the twilight of life. It means sometimes I lose them.

My favorite client, Mrs. Z., is currently in hospice care. She’s an opinionated, 97-year-old spitfire from West Virginia with a pretty rich fantasy life.  She’s at home, which is good, and her bed is now in the living room which is bright and lets her have visitors. If you can catch her eye, she gets an impish look and begins telling you about how she’s going to be going to Leningrad next week.  She still likes her brownies and her Vermont Country Store catalogs, though the New Yorker is a bit beyond her now.  The point is, she’s alive.

I once heard a hospice nurse say that people are never really “dying,” they’re either alive or they’re dead.  Don’t treat a live person as deceased until it actually happens. And yet the palliative care Mrs. Z is receiving falls so far short of that. Yes, she’s bed-ridden. Yes, she has a catheter. That doesn’t make her less of a person, less alive. She’s having pretty bad dizziness or vertigo, and claws at the air looking for something to steady her. All it takes is someone to hold her hands and she calms down. That’s it. Simple, human touch.  One of her aides was dismissive of Mrs. Z’s agitation, saying, “Oh, she’s just confused.”  While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any less terrifying for her. To her, it is real.  She’s dying, she’s scared, and if someone just sits and holds her hand, it’s all ok.

Mrs. Z isn’t my first dying client.  That would be K., whom I watched fade for over four months after she had fallen out of her bed in the nursing home and broke several bones.  She had memory problems, but always smiled when she had visitors.  Pretty new to the job, I didn’t really know how to interact with her, what to do. I’d run in, take care of her bills and filing, and run out again, counting myself lucky if she weren’t in her room. I found myself avoiding her, ashamed at my cowardice, but not certain how to push through it. I’d say, “Next week. Next week I’ll have some time. Next week I can be braver.”

And then she died.

I regret that I ran. I regret that I couldn’t have made that extra effort just to sit with her for a little bit as she watched the resident cockatiels from her wheelchair. And that’s the thing. It takes so little to do right by someone when they’re dying, so precious little. I didn’t need to wait for a divine thunderbolt or new research study to tell me what to do–I just needed to hold her hand.

I don’t know if I’ll get it right with Mrs. Z this time. But I do know that this time I’m not running, and I’ll be there when she needs me. I think that will be enough.

Reflections on a Beam of Light

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End of Serpents’ Comfort

Sunna’s gaze lights paper / petals float on Skollvaldr’s seas
Steel geese have torn the neck’s burden / stout twin trees of the sole twisted
The kernel of the corn sheaf bursts forth / breathing blackened corpse dust
Speak well of the small kindnesses / and rend the seethers into disregard
Sing memory’s triumph / at the sweet end of serpents’ comfort.

People say you never forget where you were. It’s true. I was walking back from fencing class in college. The sky was clear, untroubled.  It wasn’t until I called my mother and she said, “They’re gone,” that the terrible wrenching unreality of the whole thing became as crystalline as that autumn sky.

There was a reason no jet trails marred the arc of Ymir’s skull.

Last night, as I drove past Worcester, anger welled as I saw twin searchlights piercing the sky.  “What right have you?” I muttered.  “Bullshit solidarity looking to cash in on the pain of others.  You’re not New Yorkers, you don’t have the right.”  Of course by that logic, neither do I (I’m a Jersey girl).

My ex-husband couldn’t understand why this anniversary affected me so.  I didn’t lose any loved ones.  A few people from our town died, but no one I knew personally.  I wasn’t even near New York at the time.  How could I explain that the city skyline that watched over my childhood was now broken?  It was wrong, viscerally and totally wrong.  Months later, you could still smell the ash, still breathe the dead.  Would taking them into our lungs, our bodies let them live on in us?  Or would they kill us all, a slow, choking revenge of “Ground Zero Illness”?

During the Concert for New York City, Richard Gere had the bravery to plead for cooler heads, not to retaliate in kind against Al-Qaeda.  The crowd turned dark and ugly.  Gere did not abandon his pacifist stance, saying, “That’s apparently unpopular right now, but that’s all right.”   In that moment, I was ashamed.  America garnered much good will from the world after this wretched sacrifice. We have squandered it entirely.

I pulled into work as the moon was cresting the tops of the trees.  Looking out across Greenwich harbor, the twin beams of light appeared as one, a single torch that would burn until dawn.  I walked down to the sea wall and stood at the edge, smelling the swelling tide and watching my moon-shadow stretch across the rocks.  The soft, light breeze lifted my arms and for the first time in 13 years, I spoke to the dead.  I poured out my gift into the black waters and felt peace.

The new tower bears the name “One World Trade Center.”  May that be a promise as much as a prophecy.

Paths Between the Pillars

prayer1-277x300I’m about to let you in on one of my dirty little secrets.

Back in high school, and even college, I was “blessed” with the ability to be good in just about any area I chose. I became very used to success: being concert master of not one but two high school orchestras, getting into the college of my choice, getting grants to fund my studies, graduating from said college (one of the Seven Sisters) magna cum laude with departmental honors. Chalk it up to my double Capricorn nature, but I love titles. If I believed in sin, this would probably be one of mine. I’m driven by a (often unhealthy) need to be the best, running at the front of the pack.

Now, at the ripe ol’ age of 32, I’ve been forced to confront that this is not the reality of my life. I do many things well, but I’m not a leader. Not any more.

I’m an awesome beta.

You need a ritual written? Let me get out my pen. You need some props for a ceremony? Hold on, I’ve got some papier mache, duct tape, and extra fabric around here somewhere. You need a divination about your job? I have my cards right here. A protection charm? Let me get my origami paper. How about an editor? I can do that, too. Let me support you in your vision, let me help you create something magical, wonderful, grand. Hel, I can even delegate on good days.

Sometimes, I’d like to think I could be a priest, maybe when I’ve grown up a little more–maybe even clergy. The question is, how much of this comes from a desire to help and serve others, and how much is because “clergy” is seen as the “terminal degree” in the land of Paganistan. (See? There’s that darned Capricorn tendency again.)  It’s a rough and ugly question to ask, but if you’re not asking it of yourself, and you’re on a cleric’s path…well, frankly, you’re not a person I’d want mediating between me and my gods. Nornoriel Lokason wrote a great piece on boundaries and belonging. The following quote particularly struck me:

It is unrealistic to expect and *demand* that everybody immolate their entire beings and become some robot-priest/ess where their entire life is about the gods. This is why there are too many people who feel inadequate as laypeople, by the way, because some folks pontificating from on high are calling for standards that would be taxing even for full-time dedicated priests, never mind Average Jane or Joe.  There’s something to be said about having a work/life balance, and the sort of devotionalism in others that inspired me some years ago now admittedly squicks me the fuck out, because it looks extremely unbalanced, unhealthily so.

That sort of fanatical, “look at meeee!” devotionalism is hurtful, not only to the attention seekers themselves, but to those who would draw inspiration from their experiences. Public displays of piety polarize Pagans and Polytheists into those who would be king, I mean, clergy, and the rest of us hoi polloi. These are not leaders elected out of love by their communities. These are self-proclaimed hierophants, whose One True Way smacks of the worst qualities of paternalistic Evangelical  Protestantism.  It’s a crying shame, because the devotional path could have been viable for the lay person, a way to be close to the gods without having to serve anyone other than oneself and maybe one’s family. That’s not the tenor of the most recent conversations, though, and it’s the reason why I break out in spots at the phrase “devotional Polytheist.” Devotion is quickly becoming the purview of so-called priests, leaving the rest of us where, precisely?

I don’t know that I can truly offer any solutions to the disease of devotion. Perhaps it’s all just semantics, but more and more “devotion” has come to mean an all-consuming obsession with the gods, to the exclusion of a balanced and healthy lifestyle. For my own practice, I use the term “veneration” or “adoration” to describe what I do. When I venerate my ancestors of blood and soul, I invite them into my life to participate in my world as it is, complete with children, pets, housemates, and neighbors. I adore my gods, experience ecstasy with my spirits, all within the container of this very real, very mundane existence.

Blogging and social media create difficulties for the ego. “Likes” and comments and followers create a subconscious popularity contest.  Self-worth becomes attached to the approval of strangers sitting on the other side of the webs of light that connect our keyboards and screens to one another. Maybe inherent nature of the blogosphere itself is one reason why again and again issues are couched in terms of either/or, black/white, chicken/fish. I’ve got to believe there’s another road between the two pillars of “priest” and “lay.”  Maybe there’s a whole highway system in there, just waiting to be discovered. We’re Pagans. We’re Polytheists. We can break the binary patterns of our mother culture and create a true plurality of belief and praxis.

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. ~Rumi