Reflections on Death and Transformation
by Sherry Gamble ©1988
I am a Pagan. The last of my crops are in. I’ve preserved, dried, salted and stored every last ounce of food I can find to prepare for what might be a long deadly winter. Many of us will not survive to see the sun return. Everything around me is dying. The colors are fading. I know what lies ahead. I pray to my winter gods for kindness, but it’s hard not to feel fear.
I live in harmony with nature. I know the cycles of the year and the cycles of life. The dead feed my crops. I work toward a better life and I know that I am not alone. The Divine is within me. I am a part of the life force in every living thing, that which has come before and those yet to come.
At this time of year there is so much death around me. The spirits of relatives and friends seem so near, or perhaps the memories and tears return more easily. There are ghosts I must face, the emotions of loss – anger, confusion, sadness, and even joy for those no longer suffering. It is a comfort to know that life never ends and that I am a part of the circle.
In another reality this is 1988, 1 live in the city, and I’ve checked my supplies of frozen fish sticks and microwave popcorn. I do not have to worry about physical exercise until the spring. I have time to sit and think about this past cycle and the year to come.
I started to write this before the sudden death of a brother. Now as I finish it, death is very near and very real. in my grief, I faced my adversaries – my fears about death, my need to be in control, my anger that some things make no sense, my attachments in life and my fear of changing the status quo.
Most deaths make no sense to us. Unless someone dies in old age. we ask “Why did this have to happen?” I know a women who for fifteen years believed God had taken her daughter from her because she hadn’t been a “good” mother. Death as God’s punishment for our faults? Being kinder or more considerate will not delay anyone’s death. it makes no more sense to believe someone died when he did because he was happy, but in our grief we need for things to make sense. We need a rational explanation, to feel we have everything under control. We never will.
Most of us believe we’ll live fairly long lives and do most of the things we want to do before it’s over. Our egos take a real blow when we realize we have very little control over the most important “decision” about our lives-its length and its ending. I’m ‘ not afraid of death itself. There are too many unknowns. What I really fear is that death may come before I’m ready.
I looked at the man in the coffin and I remembered him talking two days before his death about the book he thought he had 30 years left to write. Tears came easily, not just for his book and dreams, but for my own.
I’d rather not think life will end too soon. if I had only six months more to live, what would I do differently to make each day more rewarding, more fulfilling? Some of us would make temporary changes, then quickly fall back into old safe patterns. With sadness we wonder what it would take for us to really want to change.
The irony of living to a ripe old age is having to lose the ones we’ve loved along the way – not just by death but sometimes by choice. Frequently we outgrow the people or things we’ve become attached to. But letting go is hard. We tend to stick with the known even when we know it isn’t the greatest. Anything seems better than nothing. What if our friends do reinforce our negativity? If our job leaves no room for growth? If our love needs something we can no longer give?
In his interviews with journalist Bill Moyers, mythologist Joseph Campbell repeatedly talked of man’s need to find his “bliss”, to create a personal heaven here in this life. The ideal heaven of eternal pleasure after death cannot be counted on. Infinity is a concept of time and space on the material, physical plane, Since matter Is energy (Einstein) and matter cannot be destroyed, only transformed, physical death reduces us to pure basic energy forms. Our energy may live eternally, infinitely, but after death our ability to feel time and space will end. We’ll never know we’re in Heaven. Even if we believe in reincarnation, that our energy form will come back into another physical life, we have no guarantee that life will be better, only different. our only guarantee of heaven is to havethe courage to change our present lives, find our bliss now, here on earth and help and allow those we love to find theirs by letting go.
I create change, and change is loss. As a magician,l am learning not only to change my reality at will but to also change the way I perceive my reality, it is easy to see that one man’s beach weather is another man’s drought, it is much harder to watch the beauty in the flames burning down your house and look forward to the new and different home you will create. It is hardest yet to willingly put a torch to life as you now know it, to your very being, your personality, your perceptions of self and the fears you hold on to that keep you from changing. Once I expressed to a dear friend my frustration with his seeming unwillingness to change certain patterns of behavior. He replied that he was forty-two years old and this was the way he probably always would be. He seemed comfortable and secure with his definition of self. He had a comfortable, if not blissful, daily routine, a sense of security in the known, and he saw no reason to change much of anything. But within a year, the lives of loved ones around him had changed so drastically that his own sense of self was shattered, out of control. To quote Helen Keller, “Security is mostly a superstition … It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of human beings as a whole experience it … Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
Traditionally, the approach of winter, the autumn of life, has been the time of year to face our physical fears. We put on the costumes of death, ghosts and goblins, the skeletons of hunger and the creations of our worst nightmares, and say “You don’t scare me!” We also expose a part of ourselves we are normally too afraid to show the public. or even admit to ourselves we want to feel. We shift our shapes and extend the boundaries of who we are.
So after agonizing for six weeks about what to wear to the costume party, some of us remove our izod sweaters and put on something really tacky with fringe, or we cross-dress. We paint our faces as clowns, and maybe it actually feels good to be brazen and to make others laugh. Maybe we become a little less afraid of being thought a clown, of not being what we think others expect us to be. To shape shift, to put on the costumes and act out of character (yet act out a part of ourselves we wish we could be) allows us to push past the limits we set for ourselves. A shy person who dresses as Groucho Marx, who talks to everyone, who makes wisecracks all night and gets laughs, can never fully go back into her shell once the make-up is off. The transformation has started.
When I was a teenager, I wore red a lot. People said it was my favorite color. Yet now I tell myself I can’t wear red. When did this happen? And why? I know when I started believing I couldn’t sing. I’d warble away and my mother would say, “Sherry, surely you can’t feel that bad!” But a part of the adult me wanted to believe I could sing. knew I could sing. So the shaman in me faced my fear and decided to lead a three-day chanting workshop. True, I may never be Linda Ronstadt, but no one ran screaming from the room, and by the third day, I was singing a cappella with a voice from deep within me I never knew I had. Once I’ve worn red, and like the way I feel in red, I will have pushed my limits one step further out, and I will have come one step closer to removing the words “I can’t do that” from my vocabulary, I can cross the boundaries of reality. I can become my spirit animal. I can fly, or become one with a rock. I can love and be lovable. I can pursue any career. The old me will no longer exist. The dance will have begun.
Number XIII in most tarot decks is the Death or Transformation card. This rarely signifies physical death, but usually total change (voluntary or involuntary) and the sometimes sudden and unexpected, yet logical conclusion of existing conditions. Transformation is the end of a cycle, a releasing, letting go, a surrender to rebirth and new beginnings. In the Crowley deck. Death is dancing joyfully, his scythe releasing bubbles of new life. At the bottom of the card is the scorpion, who when trapped, stings itself and dies. This lowest level is the person who can’t deal with major change and just wants to curl up and die, or becomes passive and waits for someone else to come along and make things better. At the top is the soaring eagle, the person with the courage to free himself, willing to consciously surrender to the unknown of death and transformation to change and to grow.
Early in my shamanic training, I looked forward to the Death card appearing in a spread. Now I know how hard it is to surrender to and truly accept the loss of anything and everything I may hold dear-not just my life, but my job, independence, friends, family, lover. looks and/or my sanity. Hardest of all is to lose one’s faith at the same time. No one else can go through this with you. You alone must feel out of control, in pain and confusion, and fearful of the black hole that exists before rebirth.
To step into this void knowingly, willingly – to change careers, or to leave a long marriage of convenience which has been killing your soul. and to do this with no back-up plans – is to accept that within you is a part of the life force of the universe that will see you through. You surrender your judgments and preconceived notions of what is best. good or bad, and open yourself to all possibilities. Your new life has no limits or boundaries. You are totally free to find your bliss.
The dance of death is the realization that you will survive the loss of who you thought you were, who and what you thought you needed, what you thought you could control. You smile with the sad excitement and anticipation of who or what you will become.
I am a Pagan. Just as the world around me changes with the cycles of the day, the season, the years, I too am flowing, ever changing. I have my times of growth, my times of dormancy and rest. I weather all storms because I allow myself to bend. The winter approaching may be harsh and seemingly unending, but within me and within the Earth I have planted the seeds of change that will blossom as new life in the Spring.