Between letters & sounds

Gravity is a force of belonging that every living thing on earth shares. There’s a pull to the center. We feel this when we stand in mountain pose, arranging the physical and energetic sense of ourselves around the body’s plumb line.

It’s a rebar of radiance at the center of each existence.

We feel this in corpse pose as we release the back body into the support of the ground, the front body softening to the sky.

I’ve held on to a postcard, a tinted vintage photograph, showing an American Indian burial, a corpse face up on an elevated platform exposed to the sky. The credit reads: “From the studio of Charlotte M. Pinkerton, Chicago, ILL.” Hanging from the platform is a round, feathered dream catcher and what looks to be a scabbard holding a rifle or sword.

Happy kid in the backyard!

From a young age, I wondered about death and burial customs. I guess I was a weird kid. In my defense, my dad was a professor of material culture (stuff) and his best friend at the university was an archaeologist (dead stuff). They took students, and sometimes my brother and me, on trips to Meso-American sites. My dad also taught film studies and, being four years younger than my brother, I saw campy zombie films at a tender age, in grungy downtown theaters and while waiting out the hours in the back of a summer school classroom full of undergrads.

My mom’s side of the family were “jack” Mormons, meaning they’d flapped the tarp of history to shake off religion.

But the dust of tradition blew back, anyhow, and stuck to them.

I canned produce with my grandmother during hot Nevada summers and was tasked with ironing and setting the table.

Mormons believe that, in heaven, everyone reunites with their loved ones, and everyone is fully grown. That didn’t sit well with my grandmother, who quarreled with her sisters and cousins, left her husband, and felt tremendous guilt over the death of her young son. She was scared right up until the end, and died alone in an assisted living facility, unable to outrun the ghouls of fear, shame and regret.

My other grandmother decided early on that she wanted her ashes scattered at a desert lake she loved, no marker. This appeals to me, too. I’ve heard that Vikings set the deceased on a raft, set fire to it, and pushed it out to sea. It seemed to me – like hair clipped at the salon and swept into a dust bin to be tossed away, or fingernails clipped and deposited in the garbage, or baby teeth that tumble from gums to be set under pillows, removed and replaced with a shiny quarter – that the rest of the corporeal body would just go away, too.

In my childhood neighborhood an abandoned hospital that had once occupied a whole city block became rubble, overrun with weeds. We played there, of course. It was known to the kids as Dirt Hill.

Any kid with imagination wondered about the people who might have died there.

We ourselves buried dead rats there in the somber ritualistic play of childhood before the internet.

The rented brick house on D.C.’s Capitol Hill where I grew up dated back to the 19th century. Digging holes for flower seeds, I unearthed china dolls and bits of metal. During summers at my great aunt’s Utah ranch, we found arrowheads and grinding stones.

Clearly, land continues and, in my mind, those who walk it collapse, dissolve, disintegrate, are picked apart in burial pyres, burned to ash and absorbed by land and water. Or eaten by sharks as in the movie “Jaws,” which I saw as a little kid.

In the first few weeks after moving back to D.C. in 2015, after decades in California, I traveled back to Capitol Hill to a simple park of sidewalk and lawn that had been the weedy Dirt Hill lot. The neighborhood’s changed.

In the more formal city park across the street – where I once sold woven pot holders with my friend Jane (who died in college when struck by a car while riding her bicycle), where I once ran as fast as I could with my good white dog by my side (who also died long since) – there was only one person, a weary-looking man who gathered his belongings when he saw me and moved on.

If years of writing and teaching and meditating have taught me anything, it is that life’s joy is found at the fulcrum of seeming opposites as well as contrasts and conflicts.

We contrive oppositions in order to define. But they are still merely arrangements of a mental board game. The seesaw of past and future, for example, is easier to see, and to feel, after all, memories and hopes dangle at each end, but that still point, the present, is peace.

The old St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

On an earlier visit to D.C., before moving back, I accompanied my mom to a service at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, in the city’s southwest quadrant. The church itself was to be razed to make way for condos. We attended on the last day of a long-running homeless breakfast service, and the second-to-last church service. The rector, Martha, conducted a warm, meaningful service that emphasized the need to listen to others’ stories. Before the current building was erected, the parishioners had met at Hogate’s Restaurant. This time, while a new, smaller building was being constructed adjacent to the condos, the community would meet in the common room of an apartment complex and at a neighboring church.

The parish seemed part of this cycle of flowing in and out of the community, and the people seemed untroubled by the change.

Maybe they are established in the spirit of breath, aligned with the rhythms of their neighborhood and their beliefs, able to express the faith that makes a nest in joy. 

I’ve heard it said that the whole world is doing yoga all the time; the yogis are just naming it. If every movement, every word, is a prayer then we can take it with us.

The second time my mom got cancer and it looked grim, I was baptized in the narthex of St. Augustine’s at her request. The community did not know me, but they knew her. The priest welcomed me and talked me through my beliefs, much as the Episcopal priest who had married Matt and me a few years earlier had done. Both priests (gone now) were good guys with senses of humor and a real acceptance of human foibles.

At this church that had welcomed me, as I read and sang the prayers, the links to Buddhism and yoga struck me.

It’s as if we are all bees being nourished by flowers, some the same and some different, and doing our bee waggle to show others where we found the nectar, then going back to the hive to make something of it. 

After this final church service at St. Augustine’s, the rector conducted a closing of the community garden before it would be wiped smooth by a backhoe.

We never know, when we start something, where it will end up.

The only way I have found to make or do anything with a pure heart is to do my best and then surrender.

Like Mary Oliver suggests, “Maybe just looking and listening is the real work. Maybe the world without us is the real poem.”

Maybe spirit, embodied as breath, is the spaces between letters and sounds.

Maybe spirit lives at the bottom of each exhalation, the moment when the swimmer rises for a breath.

Maybe love is just to surrender to our own and others’ stories. Because even our stories aren’t our own. They are just fingers pointing to the moon.