Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on August 19, 2018.
My brother John died on June 15 2018. This month he would have been 61. He was as tall as I, but weighed a muscular and lean 230 pounds. I thought that he looked good at 250. He was incredibly strong and athletic. He led a healthy lifestyle. It just seemed obvious to me that I would die before he did. The fact it didn’t happen that way changes something fundamental about my life. There’s the obvious hole – grief and sadness – and another way to address my grief through a connection with John, for now. It seems to me that John and I have been in contact since his death, in fact it seems obvious, though I realize it’s not obvious for any of you. Therefore, you are obviously free to believe or silently discount anything that I say, though I hope you realize that I would not speak so openly if I did not believe it was important.
It seems to me that John has easily shed his actualized athletic self, and wishes there be an expression of his spiritual self, something that may not have been as fully expressed or shared to the degree possible. That’s one reason that I felt compelled to give this talk today.
Much of what follows is adapted from the talk I gave at his memorial on June 24 to over 250 people – a mixed group to be sure. I wasn’t sure how well the talk would go, but I realized I needed to put worry aside. John desired that I be courageous. As luck would have it, a speaker from his workplace – Hennepin County Medical Center – brought up the topic of John’s spiritual practices at work, which he labeled as Native American practices. John worked as a rehabilitation specialist. They loved and respected what John brought to that job, including his spirituality. So the topic was introduced just prior to my talk.
I was kayaking with John on May 26, the last time I saw him alive. We had a good conversation. He was so strong he lifted me out of the kayak onto the dock. Anyway, we saw these huge carp, right next to our kayaks. When we got back to the house John shared how large the carp were. I discounted his testimony, suggesting they were smaller. John had been 100% accurate and I knew it. It is my tendency, I realized as I drove home, I understate things in order to preserve the possibility of being perceived as a reliable witness. So now, as John would have it, I’m going to tell a few stories of Mystery, Mystery with a capital M. You are free to decide if you think I’m a reliable witness.
On June 15th, a Friday, I realized his son Luke was calling (even I have caller ID). Luke told me that John had collapsed suddenly on the golf course. There was no heartbeat, and he was being given CPR. I had been a CPR instructor, and the reality of the minutes passing flashed outcomes. And I had an intuition. The conclusion: John had died. There was nothing I could do about it. Then Luke said, “If you have medicine, now is the time to use it.” I could not refuse his request. So we hung up, and I was immediately charged with my quest. I walked to the bedroom and was going to go to the closet and get my drum. But a rattle came off the top shelf from across the room, by itself, and rolled in my direction. I decided to use the rattle. I sang and danced until I was exhausted. And it seemed to me there was enough activity in John’s heart to justify his being helicoptered from Hinckley to Hennepin County Medical Center. Luke called right on schedule and confirmed my belief. I spent the next 45 minutes in the world of shamanic prayer searching for a miracle. I vividly experienced John and I reliving important events, but I had difficulty linking to the present. Then John’s wife called and told me that John was officially declared dead shortly after arriving to the emergency room. I was not surprised, but I was shocked. I cried. I sobbed. Later, I thought about the rattle. Things do not jump off the shelf by themselves. I quieted my troubled mind in search of insight. The rattle had actually rolled out of an indentation in the fur where it was resting. It felt like the rattle was animated by my heightened emotional state, and through a link to John’s energetic signature. Some of that energy came from the shock that John felt – just like me. It seemed like John was communicating through the rattle. But really, it’s all Mystery, and there’s a lot I don’t know. But it seems to me that John is alive in Mystery, and he he wanted us to know. The animated rattle was the best he could do to send a tangible message, though I’m told by a reliable witness, my nephew, that there was a shared and numinous encounter with a cecropia moth that night – a rare close-up encounter. The family still has a framed cecropia moth that John mounted as a boy. They were rare back then as well.
A week before John died, he liked a photo I’d posted on Facebook. I was surprised, because John didn’t like Facebook, rarely participated, and told me he’d quit. But he saw this photo, and I knew that it linked to a memory. The photo was of a cougar in a slip canyon in Utah. The memory was John’s vision quest in Utah in 1988. He asked me to be his guide. I told him that he needed to find his own questing spot, and once there, it was important for him to draw a circle around himself in the sand. Then I took up a vigil. The next morning he reported to me that he’d made that circle in the sand in a place of his choosing, but at some point he fell asleep. He said that when he woke, there were fresh cougar tracks in the sand, the huge paws walking directly up to his circle and stopping there, then turning and walking away. That’s Mystery.
John and I took medicine walks together. John had an uncanny ability to find things. We were pottery shard searching in Utah, and I saw John pull a shard from beneath the sand.
For 10 years (from 1987 to 1996), we’d travel to Reeds Landing, south of Lake Pepin, to stalk the spirit of Eagle. Eagles were an endangered species at that time, and that’s where you had to go to find them. We always canoed over to the wild Wisconsin side of the river, and did feather quests. In March of 1990 we got caught on the wrong side of the river. When we returned to our canoe to re-cross, the ice flows from Lake Pepin were in full float, like miniature icebergs. Chunks of ice filled the river. Their speed and determination were awesome, like witnessing a mighty storm raging laterally over the water. It was impossible to cross. John and I looked at each other. We both knew how large Lake Pepin is. Now that the ice flows had begun, it would be days before it was safe to cross. John suggested that we hike through the brush to the road a few miles east, and then find a way back to the car.
The plan sounded reasonable to a healthy hiker. But to me, at the time, it was absurd. My back and body simply wouldn’t allow it. I calmly told my brother that I had nothing left. I could not make the hike.
He suggested that if I could just get to the road and wait, he’d get the car.
A few years earlier, John told me he came to this area without a canoe and hiked in and out from the road in question. He said the few miles back to the Wisconsin highway were nearly impassable, and felt like 10 miles. He had described the experience as an ordeal, something he would never do again. Reminding him of his previous experience, I told him I couldn’t do it. The situation was starting to sink in. John was getting scared. He had no idea what we were going to do.
I looked upstream at the seemingly endless supply of ice headed our way. But for some reason I wasn’t nervous. We had been on a medicine walk; we should use our Medicine. The words came from the tip of a feather to my tongue: “Go with the flow.”
The words had a calming affect, and I let them settle before continuing. I suggested we go to our sacred spot on the other side of the hill. Once there, sing Power songs, smoke the sacred pipe, and vision a way through the ice flows.
John suspended belief and judgment. He agreed without discussion. Mindfully, we retreated to our sacred spot and went to work. Somehow, in my bones, I felt we’d be all right. We prayed and sang for maybe half an hour. Then I knew. It was time.
We returned to the canoe. The river had opened up for us, just enough space to paddle across. It felt like the parting of the Red Sea. Once across, we sat and watched as our pathway across the river collapsed into ice in about a minute. The river became dense with ice flows again, with no end in sight. We had crossed at our only opportunity, and took a moment to give thanks.
Whether I’m a reliable witness or not, the choice of what to believe is always yours.
My experience suggests that whenever there is the death of a well-loved being, there is an opening in the world. I’m suggesting there are relationships that preserve a degree of openness even after death removes the physical. When our hearts are open we can be a channel for the love – for the specific love that was created, nurtured, and shared – and for the true love that shines through cracks in our living and dying. You may find intimacy that the departure will highlight, an intimacy that tugs at the core of our being. That’s what John has done, is still doing with me. And I’m going to suggest that the love isn’t exclusive. John, or what is shared from John/Jim, would like to touch each of your hearts, provide a moment of feeling alive in the way each of us, in our own way, can experience the aliveness of Being. We can become aware of love and intimacy in the fullness of our experience, even within the challenges of grief.
When our dearly loved depart, we can invite that love into the background of our life. Just bow in love and gratitude, a gesture from your heart. Bow as often and as long as you’d like.
About a week or so after John died, my nephew had a question: “Can I talk with John.” My quick response was, “No.” Then I hesitated, and said, “I have another answer, a qualified yes.” I felt goosebumps as I said it and told him so. Then I said, “It’s not like a séance where we all hold hands and someone channels his spirit while the lights flicker. Most of that sort of thing has always been fake.” I let that settle a little. Then said,
“It’s mostly about knowing how to listen, and being comfortable with silence. It’s also about making a link, though in your case it feels like John is reaching out to you.” Again, I paused. Then said,
“Communication can feel like inspired guidance. Communication can be visceral, a feeling in our body that is informative. Communication can be an unexpected voice in our head.” I paused again before continuing:
“So, for now the answer is yes, but we have to be open and discerning. It’s helpful to cultivate the prepared mind, which is ready for the moment to communicate its potential, and ready to realize the limits of our understanding. Maybe nothing happens. That would be better than creating false projections – deciding what we want to hear. But I feel there will at least be love.”
I added that I was aware of several elderly women who had communicated to me that they spoke with their late husbands on a regular basis. I knew they had confided in me because they trusted me and because they were unsure if this could be spoken. In both cases, the women were clearly healthy in the usual ways – there was no question of psychosis, obsession, or withdrawal into an imaginary world. So I told them both that it sounded like a good idea to me. I told my nephew that I really had no idea if their communication was actual or self-generated comfort. It didn’t matter. But I also don’t discount the possibility that their communication was genuine and informative.
I recently had a knowing about ancestor worship, which can be genuine connection or superficial ritual. When it worked, the community came together through ancestral songs, poems, sagas, and general spiritual reverence as a way of connecting with the energetic signature and the skills that the deceased ancestor had actualized in their life. There may be a link, connecting through something important they owned or made. Or it might be like attracting a muse. In the Greco-Roman world the muse and the genius were energetic forces, like spirits, that came to you from the outside if you were both alert and worthy – that is, the proper recipient to bring those gifts into the world. Their Soul has a desire to share. We could liken this to transpersonal consciousness communicating gifts that are specifically ours to nurture. And when it comes from our dearly departed, there is a qualified potential that we receive from what their lives have actualized – love, character ideals, things we shared, or skills that they valued in their life. We have a qualified potential to receive what the Celts and Saxons called Luck. In the case of a great leader and protector, their ancestor gift may be support and protection to the tribe, for as long as that energy is vital and renewable. I say we have a qualified potential because the universe is Mystery and we live with the law of impermanence in all things.
Your body is away from me
But there is a window open
from my heart to yours.
From this window, like the moon
I keep sending news secretly.
That hole of grief that I referred to in the opening paragraph has become a two-way portal into which I give my grief, love, and remembrance. And what I get in return is love, general encouragement, open-hearted support, and the occasional shared moment – like when you get the sense that someone not present is thinking warm thoughts about you, or when you intuit someone nearby before you see or hear them. I try to be careful not to project into that portal, not to fantasize my experience. It’s just a way to access who he was and who he is becoming, while still letting go of the fact that he has left and I really don’t know where his experience will take him. That’s a private matter between John and Mystery. And I do realize that this connection that I’ve been feeling may not last or feel as genuine over time. That too, is impermanence. The future, my future and his, is Mystery.
Thank you for your kind attention.