Here are some lyrics I wrote on the evening (in August 2006) I found out about my mother’s death:
May you lie in the arms of your father who loves you
These few ragged minutes we are apart
I’ll wait for you the way you did for me
Every wish that is not for love is vanity
Take my pen and pledge this for me
You are the arc of every story
The only life thats ever been
We all touched what you touched
We all saw what you saw
And all the kindness in your heart
Is why we’ll hope for evermore.
You do what you can to get through grief, even when getting through it seems impossible. Musicians, artists, writers grasp onto the implements of expression – thats how we know we are still holding on, by the scratch and rustle, every day leaving marks. ‘Now’ waits behind the grief stricken like a warm engine, its presence insistent but impersonal. For a long while, nothing seems real.
I have been reminded of grief’s journey by the deaths, in the last two weeks, of two elderly men, fathers of people who I know, one in Pittsburgh, the other in Melbourne. The week before these events, my own father appeared strongly in my dreams, an unusual occurrence,and my mother too.
So last week, by the light of the strawberry moon, I went for a walk in Allegheny Cemetery with the intention of doing a little ritual, to give thanks for being alive, ask for help for the grieving, and say hi to Mum and Dad.
Allegheny Cemetery is one of America’s oldest and largest cemeteries and surely one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful tributes to mortality. As far as the eye can see, there are stone monuments flung out amongst the the lush hills and oaks and maples, like a sculpture park. Some display the wealth of Pittsburgh’s deceased elite, family surnames like Baum and Vandergrift hammered into soaring columns and white marble pillars. The private mausoleums of great families line many of the cemetery roads, like small Greek temples. Their wrought iron gates appear to have been shut decades ago and never reopened. At the other extreme, there are the hundreds of small grey gravestones of the 19th century poor, so weathered with time that all that is barely legible is the date of death, sometimes not even that. My favorites figures are the angels – soaring in various poses of elevated feeling, eternally caring underneath the grime and oxidisation of age, never forgetting the names of the long gone people they hover over. I wander down the heavily wooded paths of Allegheny Cemetery every day (as does Tanya), and it has become my sacred place, my sanctuary.
My new buddy John accompanied me. He too felt the need to say hello to his mum who died of cancer a few years ago, and to make some wishes for the summer ahead. The cemetery revealed its night beauty: gold headstone inscriptions winking in the moonlight, immense pillars and statues looming even taller than in the day, palely glowing, fireflies sparkling and moving fast through the silhouettes of trees. It felt like walking through a mysterious ancient city.
After we found a nice high spot with views of the city, I laid out my Tibetan prayer rug and a handful of objects of significance, including some things belonging to Mum and Grandma. We said our private prayers, then ended up chatting about far less spiritual matters such as camera lenses (John is a highly gifted photographer around town and also columnist for the local gay mag Out) and also the old favorite, how to scrape together a living from creative projects. I had had several LBIs (Latest Big Ideas) which all stood a chance of making money, but was finding it hard to summon the energy to push them ahead. As we walked back to 45th St under the pulsing moon, I asked whoever was listening, for good measure, for a bit of help on the abundance front.
Death defying adventures
One thing you can say about the thought of death (and its handmaiden, the life-threatening illness) is they can lead you on some adventures. My adventures began in Melbourne only days after the initial breast cancer diagnosis, spinning me round-eyed into the worlds of ‘healers’ who try to push death away using sometimes the most startling of means.
Jeff was a ‘vibrational healer’ who also used ‘color therapy’. I must have seen Jeff very early on in the cancer diagnosis (January 2007) as he was quick to offer the opinion that I didn’t have cancer. Not really. It was some kind of energetic malfunction, but he could help jimmy it all back into place. Our session consisted of my lying down in his comfortable suburban lounge room with many large rocks (crystals) placed on my body. Jeff shook and rattled a variety of Tibetan instruments over my (hopefully steadily recharging) energy field, scaring the bejeebers out of me every now and then when he bonged one of his Tibetan singing bowls. After the session, I felt exactly the same, but Jeff pressed a small patch of purple paper into my hand and told me to wear it on my person for several weeks. That should do the trick. Upon leaving, I admired Jeff’s collection of singing bowls, and he told me repeatedly I looked “biologically very young”. That remark alone I thought made the $60 fee worthwhile.
I also found myself sitting in what felt like a psychiatrists’ office with Carmel, a ‘medical intuitive’ and healer who dressed more like a successful real estate businesswoman than a shaman. Perhaps it was because we were both (silently) put off by each other’s shoes (my pale blue runners, her canary yellow leather pumps) that Carmel’s intuition about my condition was less than spot on. She pronounced that surgery would find that cancer had spread to my lymph nodes – but after the operation a few days later, we found, to my enormous relief, that it hadn’t. She also glared at me and indicated that I had anger issues which I needed to let go of. I didn’t feel that great about handing over dosh to Carmel as I slumped out of her office, more shaken than when I went in.
In mid 2007, I undertook Reiki sessions to help with healing from months of radiotherapy treatments. I was fortunate enough to meet Grant – a particularly gifted practitioner. Grant seemed to have acquired extraordinary powers due to having almost died from testicular cancer. He had strong friends in high places – a couple of weeks before he was given his shock diagnosis, he was paralysed on his way to the lavatory one night by a white light that embraced him and held him close for some time. Then the cancer diagnoses came, with metastases in his lungs, back. At one time he was so weakened by the chemo, he couldn’t get out of his hospital bed. He told me he used to try and stay awake as much as possible because he was so afraid that he would not wake up if he fell asleep. But he pulled through. He was glowing with health now, and gratefully credits his cancer experience with having “woken him up” to his soul’s destiny. Which was to become a healer, a Reiki master. I found Grant’s story all the more remarkable because his day job was as a policeman. When I asked him if his colleagues knew about his double-life, he laughed and said no, they wouldn’t understand.
Grant was one of those practitioners who could sense things about your body/ energy field without you saying anything. For example, he would say “your kidneys are hurting today” when all I’d done is just say hello and lay down – and he would be right. He was developing the ability the sense internal organs with his hands. His powerful friends were also on hand to help him out – on a couple of occasions, when Grant took his hands away from one part of my body, and moved onto another part, the sensation of two hands pressing down remained. I had the very strong sense of another presence in the room, that his hands were moving inside the hands of another body – another being. Later, he told me that he often called on Isis to help with healing. I was very grateful she decided to drop in on me.
Grant said to me on a couple of occasions – “Your heart is all in pieces, its completely shattered. I’m trying to put it back together”. I reflected that it was not everyday a law enforcement officer offered to put your heart back together….
Back then, I didn’t need memento moris to remind me of the shortness of life and the miracle of existence. But now, two and a half years later, on the other side of the world, as my life is in the process of being reconstructed from the ground up, I find myself grateful that Allegheny Cemetery has taken over the roles of both mortality reminder, and healer. In a gentler way. And its free.
The banjo: the “happiest sound in the world”
The short promotional films that Tanya, Scott and I did for CitiParks are now being shown around Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks at their outdoor movie screenings over the next few months (Tanya has put them up on her YouTube channel here). And as spring ripens into summer, I am trying to get basic life infrastructure rebuilt. First and foremost, a car must be purchased, so I am better set up for work opportunities and I can actually acquire and lug musical equipment around again. And the second purchasing priority, I have decided, is a banjo.
According to the Pittsburgh Banjo Club, the banjo is not only “America’s Native Instrument” it is also, “the happiest sound in the world”. They may well have a point. One of my favorite albums of recent years is William Elliot Whitmore’s “Hymns for the Hopeless” all raw banjo-based punk-bluegrass meditations on death. Despite all the lyrics about watching true love get interred in “boxes of pine”, and losing the will to live, the album never fails to get me in a toe tapping mood and puts a grin on my face every time I hear it. It must be the banjo. I intend to learn it.
With the beautiful weather, both Tanya and I are itching to hit the road again. Tanya and Scott are hoping to make a few short trips and explore more of south west Pennsylvania. John and I have also started to plan a big road trip for August. An Americana music road trip. The trip will involve going into the heartland of bluegrass territory – the Appalachians, through West Virginia, down through Kentucky, into Tennessee and country music heartland, Nashville, Dollywood!, back up home through the back roads of North Carolina (home of the Moog synthesiser) and Virginia. John will document the musicians and the landscape with photos and video, I’ll be the geek with the digital Zoom recorder and the notebook. And just like a line out of ‘Oh Suzannah!’ written by Stephen Foster, one of Pittsburgh’s most famous sons, who is buried Allegheny Cemetery, I fully intend to travel across the South with ” a banjo on my knee”:-)