Loss and Healing

Here is the talk I gave at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver on Sunday, December 30, 2012 as part of our annual Fire Communion.

Loss and Healing

Opening remarks – Context of the World Transition, Loss and Healing

– Mary Bennett

We are gathered today to mark the transition from the old year to the new year – As the song goes: Fast away the old year passes. While the winter solstice marks a natural shift in the universe marking the moment after which the days get longer and the nights shorter, New Year’s Eve is made up – A convenience to agree on certain kinds of secular acts – such as donating money to be valid in this tax year and an excuse for one last party in December.

It can provide a reminder to us to reflect on the past year, to acknowledge the highs and the lows and get ready to step into the new year.

If the solstice marks an outer, natural shift in the relation of earth to sun, the end of the calendar year can mark an inner, spiritual shift as we “let go” of the past and prepare to greet the future. The end of the calendar year can mark an inner shift in awareness, intention and commitment that can mean that although outer changes between midnight December 31 and whenever we wake up on January 1 are imperceptible, the change in mindset can mean big changes over the following months.

In our world right now during December, several significant events have occurred that some are predicting will be tipping points for societal change.

In the U.S. many are hoping the Newtown Connecticut murder of 20 children and 6 school staff will be the event that results in a change in gun control laws in that country.

On our side of the 49th parallel, the nationwide and now international movement called Idle No More continues to gain grassroots support. The leaders call for rallies to be peaceful, even joyful and welcoming to all – natives and non-natives join in round dances and drum circles in shopping malls. The website states: We welcome creative acts and encourage people to generate peaceful ways to build community and defend the earth. Simultaneously, Chief Theresa Spence began a fast on Dec 11. She asks for a meeting between First Nations representatives and the Prime Minister and Governor General.

Again many feel this movement has stronger and broader support and may portend a fundamental shift in our government’s relations with First Nations people and the natural environment.

We move through planetary changes of the solstice that bring us out from the Dark of Winter to national and international events to you and your “one wild and precious life.”

This annual fire communion is a time for you to think of whether there is something in your own life that you are wanting to label as “no more”.

And now… let’s sing together Hymn #55 – Dark of Winter

THIS PLACE

During the month of December I feel particularly grateful – even sentimental – about the good fortune to have found this place. And today when I consider the topic of “loss and healing” I am flooded with memories of losses that have been commemorated within these walls–publicly and privately.

This place has known loss and yet it also provides a healing space for those of us in despair after bereavement or while adjusting to other new life circumstances. It is even a place to receive our holiday season wrappings and excess baggage that we want to let go. Next Sunday, bring your styrofoam and plastic bags for recycling!

We are not what a friend of mine refers to as a “happy clappy” church but when someone raw with emotion expresses it, people reach over and say, “We’re glad you’re here.” I’m glad you’re here. And I’m glad I’m here too.

We are made aware of time passing here. As well as memorial services, we are also reminded of new lives beginning. I love to hear the babies murmuring (even crying) during Steven’s sermons – uttering an affirmation to us that life goes on.

I like watching the children turn into youth and occasionally, yes, return as adults and take their place here at the pulpit.

We live, we die. We laugh, we cry.”

The tears shed here; along with the laughter and singing and worry and shock all go into these walls and makes this our sacred place.

We are now keepers of the dream.”

LOSS AS BROADER CONCEPT…

But we experience losses in many ways. Yes, we lose people through death; but we also can lose someone through a relationship breakdown, through their growing up and just neighbours moving away from the neighbourhood.

We can lose something (like a job); like an election, like an argument.

We may lose our faith; lose all fear; lose heart; lose confidence;

we lose our innocence; lose balance; lose a sense of self.

I might lose my keys; a library book; my wallet.

Whatever the loss, it shakes up our world-view and our view of our self in that world.

Who are we without our job; our partner; our parent?

Even the more mundane items can be stressful when, as is invariably the case, the loss represents something larger to us.

POSITIVE CHANGE – It’s still a “loss” when you choose to “lose” it.

Losing a job through being fired or laid off shakes up our sense of identity and confidence. But so can getting a new job or a promotion where after a brief period we uncover the increased (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations that people have of us although we know we are the same person just with a new title.

Many losses are like the layers of an onion They are peeled away as we reveal layers and layers of smaller losses that are part of the major change we have gone through.

LOSS AND GAIN

Even when loss is balanced by gain it can be bittersweet. (especially as we age and get a bit sentimental and nostalgic).

We make a mistake however in not acknowledging the loss that is a part of virtually every gain.

FOOD PROCESSOR ELEGY

There may be objects in our lives that we think have zero emotional content attached to them, but I don’t seem to have any of those kinds of objects. I seem to invest most of my objects with symbolism, memory and meaning.

While Christmas shopping this year, I found a shiny new food processor on sale at almost half-price at London Drugs and brought it home. Displacing the “workhorse” I’d had for 30 years – they don’t make them like that anymore! It will take me a while to bond with the new appliance. It doesn’t fit in the same spot as it’s a bit bigger. It came with a manual that added “Danger. Laceration danger. Handle carefully” after each step of the set up instructions. It made me feel I’d let go of a trusted and reliable old friend for a kitchen appliance terrorist that refused to stay in the cupboard.

The old food processor had a crack in the bowl; and other than the chopper blade, all other blades had broken long ago, so I could no longer slice and shred, just chop.

For someone with loss issues so large that retiring a food processor can be an emotional even spiritual experience, thank goodness for Freecycle.org. If you don’t know about this website, here’s how it works. I go to freecycle.org and sign in. Click “make a post” and check OFFER. I put in my location – Kitsilano (don’t need to reveal anything more than that) and then I typed in something of an obituary to the appliance. “Excellent working order. 30 years old. works fine. Only has a chopper blade.” And I added an optional confession of abandonment: “I bought myself a new one.”

Within hours half a dozen people had sent me email messages telling me how much they would value the chance to give the food processor a new home. I chose Amy – and within a few more hours, she’d picked it up from under the bench out front and sent me a note of gratitude.

In Poetry as Spiritual Practice (reading, writing and using poetry in your daily rituals, aspirations and intentions), Robert McDowell includes a chapter called: Elegy: Celebration and Letting Go.

Reading this I felt that what I put on freecycle was less than the appliance deserved, so I’d like to mention it here that it had been with me through seven moves, children growing from age 10 to over 40. I fondly remember the first party I hosted with this new helpmate beside me: the menu for the evening could be summed up as: pureed everything, although the pear mousse is all that I can specifically recall. It was a good food processor. And although we have separated I am glad that it is serving Amy well. May they have many good times together.

If nothing else believe in art!

There is an art gallery in the downtown eastside that is called Chapel Arts because it was previously a funeral home. Their slogan is: If nothing else, believe in art.

I’m going to share a few examples of art that helps either the artists and/or the viewers to heal after loss.

DEATH AND ART

Using the art form of social media, Caitlin Doughty, a licensed mortician has a youtube video series called: Ask a Mortician and a blog called The Order of the Good Death.

I heard her interviewed on CBC Q by Jian Ghomeshi and went to read more about this bubbly 28-year old. Order members include writers, artists, fashion designers as well as morticians and death midwives.

Richard Harris was an antique collector and seller. He started to collect anatomical drawings and quickly switched to art just about skulls and skeletons. A show called Morbid Curiosity including 1,000 works which range from 2000 B.C.E. to the present, from fine art to ephemera, and from Mexican to Japanese to Tibetan to European artist traditions,  was shown last year in Chicago. I watched an interview with Harris – an ebullient, cheerful man who speaks fairly rapidly and has a sparkle in his eye. He admits that people are often expecting something different. This is what he says:

I collect images of  “Death” because I am a visual person who takes in information best visually. As I have gotten older the thought of my own demise has begun to enter my conscious thoughts. The universality of “Death,” with the realization that we will all die, encouraged me to begin the conversation of my mortality visually rather than talking or reading about it. I believe that there is a larger audience who might also be more comfortable beginning that discussion in a visual way, which is why I always thought of my collection in terms of a public exhibition.

In the artistic genre of film-making, Canada’s Sarah Polley’s first directing challenge was Away From Her, a story of aging, loss of memory and loss of identity. One of the more poignant scenes is when Gordon Pinsent arrives to find his wife, always elegant and dignified, wearing a rather tatty old sweater. “That is not your sweater,” he keeps repeating as a chorus between other stanzas of: “we had a good life together. We loved each other. These are not just my words. You said it yourself.”

That is not your sweater.”

Her most recent film The Stories We Tell is a documentary exploring her own experience when she found that the father she grew up with was not her biological father. The secret is discovered by a journalist with whom she successfully pleads to keep it safe, but she then embarks on a five-year journey of uncovering the story – or rather the stories – from her family members.

In 2011, at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival, although the plays are chosen as a lottery, the theme of Death and loss was big that year.

One I saw was: This is Cancer – written and performed by Bruce Horak.

He defends his right to do what truly is an irreverent – and jaw-dropping – performance because of his personal connection with cancer. He is a cancer survivor and his father and grandfather both died of cancer.

And indeed the few who complain about his insensitivity are far outbalanced by

others who thank him for the “catharsis” the show can provide.

There are many other examples. Locally, if you’ve never spent Halloween at Mountainview Cemetery – for their All Soul’s Eve events – you should check it out. There are several days of participative workshops, on sugar-skull making and shrine making. The cemetery has an open house – with lights, decor, music, film.

SUMMARY: By its nature art takes us to a non-rational world which is where we are anyways when dealing with serious losses. Making art requires risk – to explore feelings and ideas that are new – and scary. Enjoying art opens up channels of perception and allows empathy to come from some of the least likely sources. Art takes a person out of the mundane to a world of significance and profundity.

If nothing else… believe in art – and community.

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One Comment to “Loss and Healing”

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

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