Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

A Tribute of Love

In setting their intention, one couple cuts their guest list and creates a small, family wedding in the remote mountains of Washington State.

Sam and Julia knew that their future was bound to this place: the Pacific Northwest. Since meeting in college back in Maryland, they had traveled the world together, visiting over a dozen National Parks in more than 5 countries. Nature had come to define for them their own story. Exhilarating ascents, disorienting twists and turns, surprising changes in weather, sudden darkness. They learned new skills to best address this new territory. They dropped old habits that no longer served. They set out on a new path together that would take them away from their homes and families.

On the way, they fell deeply in love. Together, they explored the highest mountains of lush Peru, the jungles of Central America, the bays of Florida, the glaciers of Alaska, and the immense Sequoias of California’s central coast. But when they both landed jobs in the Puget Sound area, they got busy settling in, enjoying weekends in the Olympic National Park and Mt. Baker National Park. In this landscape—and nowhere else—they could imagine a good future of their own making.

And when they decided to marry, they knew they wanted their wedding to take place in this region of the country they loved. How perfect, then, that they chose to hold their wedding in the North Cascades. For there is wildness, peacefulness, and abundance. The special place they chose, near Washington Pass, also offered their guests plenty of fresh air and fishing and starry nights.

Their guest list, they knew, would be a small, select group of people. Those closest to them, those most invested in the life they were pursuing far away from those very ones they wanted near to them: their families. And the couple used the money they would have spent on a large, destination-type wedding with a caterer, musicians, and pretty venue, to instead help their loved ones make the trip out. Once here, they hoped, their families would understand why they planned to settle so far from their families.

“We want to invite only our parents and siblings,” they told me at our first meeting at a coffee shop. “We want them to fall in love with Washington State just as we have. Only then will they understand why we can’t go home, why we must start our married lives here.”

Julia’s family met Sam’s family over the week they spent together around the wedding. The couple had rented a large cabin that comfortably but modestly housed them all.

And when it was time to begin the wedding ceremony, we all gathered near the river outside. Sam’s family had helped construct the supports for the chuppa and his 3 brothers and a cousin now held it over our heads, protecting the couple from a hot summer wind. Its cover was a collage of photographs from all of the adventures Julia and Sam had enjoyed together. First the Bride, then the Groom, honored their parents for their unconditional love and their own enduring marriages.

Just before offering their vows, Sam and Julia read a poem they had written together, “Climbing Mountains,” which ended with:

Some look at mountains as a hurdle,

We look at them as an endeavor,

Never trying to go around a mountain,

But rather climbing it together.

At the end of their ceremony, they broke a glass to the shouts of “mazel tov!” And the mountain echoed their voices, the river gurgled, and the winds brought a freshening coolness just as the sun set behind them.

The power of this couple’s vision was so beautiful! In honoring their families in this special wedding trip, they also honored their own love and their future together. I know their parents were sad to say goodbye, when the time came. But what a gift they took with them: the memory of a special, loving tribute wedding, honoring this couple’s families and the love between them.

A Perfect Wedding Site in the Mountains

Flowers for Thanksgiving

“I think that real friendship always makes us feel such sweet gratitude, because the world almost always seems like a very hard desert, and the flowers that grow there seem to grow against such high odds.” Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

At this season of Thanksgiving, I look back over the year’s ceremonies with a deep sense of gratitude. Weddings, Celebrations of Life, Anniversaries are the flowers in the desert, the coming together of many different folks connected by a single thread—and a thousand threads—to honor life.

One of the biggest surprises for me has been the recurrent thread of friendship in my work. My clients and their ceremonies have encouraged me to broaden my definition of friendship. For I’ve seen so many examples of friendship where I never expected it:

  •  The middle-aged daughter who, at the last moment, invited her long-estranged biological father to her mother’s memorial. She extended all she could offer him, her hand in simple friendship. And he, after sitting beside her in the front row, being welcomed by her other family members and listening to the stories of this woman’s—his first love’s—life, he was overcome with gratitude. She was grateful that she could welcome him back into the family (having suffered the loss of her beloved mother, she yet gained a father). While he was grateful for the opportunity and invitation to form a friendship with this daughter he never knew.
  • This year, wedding couple after wedding couple exchanged vows that promised friendship as well as love. For some couples, friendship meant accepting each other as they are and also accepting who they might become. For others, friendship meant simple equality. One couple even defined their marriage within their spoken vows as the formal recognition of their enduring friendship over any other virtue.
  • A widow, in recalling her first impressions of her future husband, told me that as a woman of 19, she had known she’d finally met the man she would be real friends with until death did them part. They were married 60 years until his death last Spring.
  • A couple at the end of their marriage, no longer “in love,” but instead treasuring the enduring friendship that has motivates them to help each other and their family through this difficult transition. They want a word other than “divorce” to describe the changes impacting their relationship. For they will always consider each other as the best of friends.

Witnessing such profound expressions of friendship, friendships that stretch the traditional definitions of the word itself, has deepened my own gratitude of those instances of friendship all around me. The odds against us can be so high. We must try to remember to also see and appreciate the flowers that grow in the “very hard desert,” the beautiful friendship that abounds all around us.

The Music of Love

David and Nicole first met while working in a musical theater production. Nicole was a dancer and singer, while David was a musician, playing the guitar onstage for different musical numbers. Whenever she could, Nicole secretly watched David from afar. She looked forward to each rehearsal as a chance to see him!

By the show’s performance dates, Nicole was smitten. Her best friend, Heidi, encouraged her to ask him out. After the wrap party, she made sure to walk him out to his car, and, by gathering every ounce of courage she could muster, Nicole did indeed ask David to meet her the next week for lunch at the local mall.

At the appointed time, Nicole stood waiting. Would David come? Would he be as sweet outside their shared world of community theater as he was inside? And as David approached her, he thought to himself, “She is so beautiful!”

Their first real chance to talk to each other, to begin to get to know each other, showed to them both all the things they shared: previous marriages, adventurousness, love of family, love of music, and dedication to a vision of life as what you make it. They each knew by the end of that afternoon that they had made a good friend.

There was no music playing when David proposed to Nicole the next year. Instead, they were standing on the ocean’s shore, on a beach enveloped in fog and mist. The wind and the waves provided the sound that marked this profound moment in their love story.

I knew, in the months before their wedding date as I helped them envision their wedding ceremony, that David wanted to offer Nicole a musical serenade. While he would write his own spoken vows to her, there was more he wanted to say to her. He turned to the language of music to honor her and to express his heart in ways that words could never do.

He took a while to consider her favorite songs: “Close to You” by the Carpenters, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He expertly wove them into a musical medley that spoke the language of love.

And in their wedding ceremony, just before they offered their vows to each other, he picked up his beautiful electric guitar and, sitting on a low stool, played his love for her before their audience of beloved family and friends.

Guests gasped. Strong men cried. Heidi, Nicole’s maid of honor, sobbed quietly. It was such a beautiful, timeless moment. The bride? She stood there looking at this man who would soon be her husband—and there was such love in her eyes. Nicole did not cry. She smiled and slowly swayed to the sound, feeling the music of love.

“Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime . . . .”

It was as if Nicole and David were standing alone up there onstage, and he was playing just for her.

The Compassion of Scars

“But the real voice, that of the spirit, is saying to us: Be quiet, listen, feel. Be kind. Accept differences, even those of Divine belief, for there is no ‘truth’ in these things, only lessons. Learn from the differences. Feed your neighbour. Take your anger out on an untilled field. Liberally apply compassion, especially to yourself, for if we’re not compassionate about our own foibles and screw-ups, then we can’t authentically be compassionate toward others. We’re all in the same foundering boat. It’s our scars that unite us.” –Bruce Cockburn’s autobiography, Rumours Of Glory

In my small town, you get used to seeing some people often. The checker at the only grocery store within 10 miles is one example. She is in her early twenties, strong, quick in movement, and vivacious. She looks you in the eye, but only long enough to make the transaction, then she concludes it with a courteous “Thank you!”

Seeing her always reminds me to think about scars, physical ones and emotional ones, as she has a scar running the length of her face from above her forehead, down the bridge of her nose, across one cheek, then down to her jawline, just inches back from her chin. And it’s wide. It says “I AM A SCAR. I COVER WHERE THIS POOR GIRL ONCE WAS CUT OPEN AND HURT. SHE CRIED AND BLED. THEN I SLOWLY FORMED. I NOW COVER WHAT ONCE WAS EXPOSED. At least that is what my own mother’s heart hears that scar say to me whenever I see her.

I’ve never asked her about it. Years in the college classroom have taught me to see past the physical student to the person within—such that I sometimes miss the all-important external clues to one person’s journey. I really should pay closer attention. But I’m always occupied thinking about the less physical realities we all share. And anyway, we’re taught it’s impolite to mention people’s scars, unless they do so first.

Greeting me in the checkout line one day, which is gloriously short in a small town grocery store, she said, “Hi,” then quickly pulled my groceries over the reader and dropped them into my bags. While I fiddled with the credit card machine, I noted her looking over at the man in line directly behind me. I had noticed him wandering toward the frozen food case while I was shopping. I’d guess he was in his early 30s and was buying ice cream. He moved in a tenuous way that said, “I’m not from here.”

Being a resort town, we get used to outside visitors, and they often do stick out. But we love it. It keeps things fresh. And we get to show them how friendly and helpful the rural west really is.  We have to see ourselves as a community. With the wildfires and floods, on top of our somewhat isolated location in the heart of Washington State, we often have to rely on each other for help and support. And we are often called upon to assist others.

Waiting for my next electronic prompt as I paid my bill, the checker said with a smile: “Where’d you get yours?” This was addressed to the guy. He smiled and answered kindly, “A skiing accident about ten years ago. You?” Only then did I see his own scar, that started at his ear and crossed the bridge of his nose, ending just above his lip. “I fell out of my car seat when I was 2,” she quickly said. They kept smiling at each other, comfortably, and as I left, I heard them speaking like old friends. I had witnessed a moment of immediate, honest friendship between these two strangers.

These two and their scars taught me something I needed to learn: the metaphor of the scar is so simple, as it suggests a permanent marker, a wound that is now healed but ever-present. But now I saw it differently. They were bonded by their scars. They saw each other’s scar and simply called it out. And the very act of doing so created a momentary, yet palpable, bond between them. It was as if a lasso had materialized over their heads and captured them simultaneously in its circle.

Singers by Everett DuPen, 1943

If only we could see that all of us carry with us a place that was sliced open by a jagged door latch or a broken ski pole or a shiny scalpel or desolate poverty or a dangerous parent or a lost pregnancy or an attacker. Loss and grief are natural elements in our human lives.

If only we could reach across the void that separates us from each other and say, “Hi! Where’d you get yours? Oh, I see. Mine, yeah. Well, paper or plastic?”

Life leaves marks on all of us. Our scars are a part of us. And these facts should serve to open us up to each other, especially to those we love. What if, like this momentary couple, we accepted our own and others’ scars as facts? What if we asked and answered a simple question: “How? When? Where?”

These two regular people seemed to me like the most godly of humans that day. From them I learned an important lesson: We are bound together by our human scars.

It Is Really That Simple

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” Mahatma Gandhi.

My wedding couples sometimes ask me for referrals to pre-marital counselors. They share their concerns that maybe, no matter how much they love one another, they won’t “do it right.” So they want to learn from someone who can teach them how to succeed. I understand. Marriage is a huge decision, and some of us don’t have inspiring role models to follow in crafting a healthy one. 

 

What do you think is the secret to a successful marriage? Do you know?

Kindness.

That’s it. Just kindness.

Not the presence or absence of children.

Not the couples’ sexual relationship.

Not socio-economic pressures.

And not whether they married earlier or later in life.

But researchers firmly believe, based on peer-reviewed data that has been replicated in numerous studies over the last four decades, that the strongest predictor of a good marriage is the presence of kindness.

“Your own soul is nourished when you are kind; it is destroyed when you are cruel.” (Proverbs)

Kindness toward another involves many, many behaviors: compassion, concern, empathy, respect, care, humor, helpfulness. Partners show kindness by requesting connection with the other. “Would you like a warm-up?” “Thanks for taking the mail with you.” “Enjoy your work-out!” “What would you like to do on Saturday?” Kindness can also include acts of silence and quiet acceptance without judgement.

And partners who receive kind behaviors can also show kindness by gratefully acknowledging the giver: by putting down the smart phone, making eye contact, smiling at the other, and just actively listening. “Oh, Saturday might be a great day to walk together. Maybe we could talk about your frustrating week.” The Gottmans called this responding “turning toward” as opposed to “turning away.”

The kernel of this relationship research comes out of my own state, Washington, where Dr.s Julie Schwarz Gottman and John Gottman have conducted the Gottman Institute for over 40 years now. Their research, combined with that of Robert Levenson and many others, has focused on what behaviors predict that any committed relationship will last.

And researchers have studied loving relationships of all kinds and found similar indicators. For both straight and LGBTQ couples, being treated with kindness and having the kindness you offer your partner accepted and appreciated is central to a relationship’s success.

On the other hand, predictably, behaviors the Gottmans call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, will doom a couple to misery. Any of these four weapons can, over time, destroy the atmosphere in which kindness can be offered and received. And of these, contempt is the most damaging.

Moreso, these negative behaviors result in physiological arousal (think “fight or flight”) in most of us. As our heart rate increases we become angry, we yell, we withdraw, and we lose access to our rational mind. When we feel attacked, we will reflexively either respond in kind or retreat to safety. No relationship can thrive in such an environment. And next time, we will behave defensively or with anger even before provoked. And so the spirit falters.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

(Dalai Lama)

In her 2014 article in the Atlantic Monthly about the Gottmans’ research, Emily Esfahani Smith writes of contemporary marital success: “Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?” Research has supported the findings that working hard to treat our partners with kindness is a worthy effort, and will create an environment of safety and understanding, an atmosphere in which love can grow.

Can it be that simple? Perhaps not in every single case. But the facts are strong. Credible research indicates that, when we teach young couples to exercise behaviors positive for kindness, their relationships flourish and the likelihood that they will stay together and continue to report satisfaction with their relationship is greater than for couples who do not learn these behaviors or learn them too late.

When we realize we alone are responsible for what we unpack into our relationships, when we each realize that we help set a tone by the spirit we bring to the table, we can choose whether that tone will tear down or build up.

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” (Henry James)

 

Continue reading

Letting the Light In

“Ring the bells that still can ring  Forget your perfect offering  There is a crack in everything  That's how the light gets in.”  ― Leonard Cohen

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen

The days have shortened, the air is chillier than just a few weeks ago, and where I live, the snow is beginning to fall. Yes, you and I will soon be sharing more of our time with family and friends as we celebrate the upcoming winter holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. Full of tradition and ritual, these celebrations carry with them the explicit message of gratitude, unity, peace, hope, and rebirth. Each tries to lend light to the darkening times. Each give us courage to face the changes we are undergoing.

But for many of us, this year feels very different. I’ve talked with friends and family who feel like the U.S. election has added a nuanced complexity to their interactions with others, especially with those they are closest to. Some feel unnerved, out-of-balance, and fearful with the results. And knowing that the holidays will soon be upon us just adds stress and dread.

This year, disagreements between couples about fundamental candidates, issues, or policies, can create thick walls of pain and anger. We look at this person we share a bed with and wonder: “How can they make this huge mistake?” “I thought I knew this person, but maybe I don’t.” We see a crack in this relationship that we never noticed before.

In a recent New York Times article “He Likes Trump. She Doesn’t. Can This Marriage Be Saved?” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/fashion/marriage-politics-donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0 Sridhar Pappu talks with a handful of couples who found themselves in opposite camps over the presidential elections. And their relationships had clearly hit dark times as a result. Their stories ring with disappointment, shock, and anger, expressed at their partner for supporting “the wrong” candidates. One wife said of her husband’s plan to vote for Donald Trump, “I would just be disgusted on every level . . . And also a little fearful. Disgusted on the marriage level, but fearful for our society.” Some couples Pappu interviewed even talked of divorce.

Even dating couples, Pappu noted, had either parted as a direct result of their political views or declined to begin relationships with those they were otherwise interested in after learning of their support for another candidate for president.

While many couples have found ways, no doubt, to get along regardless of their differing political beliefs, the challenge to some relationships is brought home to me. My sister and her husband voted for different presidential candidates after the exhausting election season brought to light their divergent views on issues that matter greatly to them both. These two are feeling real distance from each other after the election–and real pain as a result. They made a shaky truce: not to talk about their views. But both are suffering a sense of being misunderstood and unappreciated.

So how do we move forward in our relationships when we feel so divided from those we most cherish? How can we gather our tools for the upcoming holidays, and for the long term? I am not a therapist, but I have benefited from couples therapy, and know that we all can afford to learn more about dealing with the challenges, big and small, that every relationship faces. So I went searching for the experts’ advice for couples grappling with the post-election/pre-holiday blues.

Based on his 30 years’ experience as a marriage counselor, Craig Lambert offers his wisdom to couples feeling the strain of the election season. http://craiglamberttherapy.com/how-couples-with-different-political-views-can-survive-an-election-year/ I’ve distilled Craig’s ideas here.

First, think. Recognize that all couples share differences. Our disagreements aren’t in and of themselves warning signs. In fact, you CAN love someone who doesn’t see the world in the same way you do. You both can love each other deeply and still disagree. Truly, sometimes our love is enhanced by the very act of honoring another’s right to his or her own beliefs.

Next, act. Ask your partner to tell you why they feel the way they do. Try to listen without judging. That act of listening to someone else, paying attention, and repeating back to them their thoughts as they have stated them is one of the most powerful ways to express your love. You’re saying: I hear you. Don’t expect your partner to offer you this same opportunity, either. Give freely. Don’t keep score. Marriage is not a football game.

Finally, change. You can’t force a change in another’s viewpoint, but you can change your perspective. Like an eagle, push yourself to rise above the daily struggles and disagreements; just for a moment look at your relationship with new eyes. Does your political disagreement reflect deeper fissures in your relationship? Or does it simply make you feel uncomfortable, challenging your sense of your knowledge of another person? Ultimately, what matters more to you: the next four years of a presidential officeholder or the entire journey of years you have invested in traveling  together with this particular person? Can you see the bigger picture?

These are tough questions that will require time, attention, and hard work to answer.

Meanwhile, you both might be able to agree on a few basic ground rules to reduce the damage either of you can do to your relationship.

  1. Agree to disagree. Remember to also keep in mind what you share in common.
  2. Agree to not talk politics, if talking politics results in hurt feelings.
  3. Try to choose love and respect over judgment and disrespect. You won’t always be able to succeed in doing so, but you will get better at it. And you will be honoring your loved one by trying. And they will feel your love.
  4. Do no harm. Your behavior can communicate clear signals that your partner is not lovable or that your relationship is less important to you than ever. Sending these signals is a choice. Choose, instead, to act in loving ways.

If we are fortunate, we learn that love is not a finite thing. It can’t be measured out or kept back or given in like proportion. Our primary relationships are not tit-for-tat interactions, but full expressions of humans’ deepest and most powerful nature to love and need to feel we are loved. And this beautiful truth is one of the greatest parts of being in a loving  partnership with another person.

For now, let’s all take a deep breath, light the candle, and be inspired by the spirit of the upcoming holidays–gratitude, unity, peace, hope, and rebirth. Let’s “ring the bells that still can ring” and let the light in.

I wish you and yours a loving holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Am a Life-Cycle Celebrant: The Hands That Hold Us

In handcrafting an End of Life ceremony, I offer to create a process and a product that is itself therapeutic for my clients. This is true for every ceremony I enact; not only end of life ceremonies. At the very least, I can help others see the loving hands that hold them. And that is no small thing.

And occasionally, it is a Celebrant’s work within her or his own family that offers flashes of the potential of our ceremonies to enhance all our lives.

IMG_6023

 

My 76-year old father-in-law (my husband’s step father) emailed me from Oregon a few days before he and my mother-in-law’s annual visit to our home in North Central Washington: “I’d like to have you help me dispose of my brother Reuben’s ashes while we are there. Just a simple ceremony will do.” He offered some basic biographical information on his brother, but not much. I replied, “Yes, of course. Let’s talk when you are here and I’m sure we can create a ceremony you will be happy with.” Was I promising too much?

Like many of us, Reuben’s relationship to David was estranged at best, and his sudden passing had caused David much grief.

David and Reuben were 4 years apart, and the family had broken up when the younger Reuben was still in elementary school. Complicating matters was that Reuben seemed “slow,” but in those days, no definitive diagnosis was sought. He did graduate from high school, and worked for 40 years in a nursing home kitchen, but the family never was close: Reuben seldom saw his brother or their mother during his adult life. And their father had died years before, long after the parents’ divorce. It was as if each family member had withdrawn from all the others, and all of them had passed; and now only David remained. When his mother died, David traveled to California to settle her estate and bring her ashes home with him to Oregon, where he later held a private committal ceremony: just himself and her ashes on the beach. This time, he asked me for help.

David had visited his brother only occasionally over the years, more out of a sense of responsibility than friendship. From time to time David would send him money, but came to feel Reuben was losing control of his affairs. So recently, David had visited him to begin the process of more directly managing Reuben’s financial and medical needs.

But just six months into this process, Reuben’s landlady called: he had been found dead in his apartment, perhaps more than a week after he passed from an apparent heart attack. His body had been removed by the authorities and immediately cremated.

David and his wife, my husband’s mother Janet, now traveled to California again, this time to settle Reuben’s affairs as well as they could. In sorting through his things, spending hours in his apartment, they came to know him better. Yes, he was “simple,” but he also enjoyed, as suggested by the books lying around, photography and traveling, or at least reading about these topics. Finally, when they had settled Reuben’s affairs, they placed  the box containing his ashes in the trunk of their car and returned home.

David had kept the box in his closet at home for over a year. But now he was ready to see to the duty of creating a ceremony to honor his brother’s memory. Just as he had done twenty years before, when he dutifully committed his mother’s ashes near his home in Oregon, David, now the single surviving member of his family, would see to his own brother’s proper burial. He had heard about other end-of-life ceremonies I had created and enacted, and was hopeful that I could help him create a satisfying committal of ashes to honor his brother’s life.

As we settled into my living room to consider Reuben’s life, it became clear that, while he was grieving, David did not feel any loving connection to his brother. Theirs had been an unstable and abusive home from which he fled, eventually joining the Navy, marrying, having two sons, divorcing, and rebuilding his life. He had met my husband’s mother just before my husband and I married, and since the mid-1980s, together they had created a much more satisfying life, rich with authentic relationships and a solid foundation of humanistic values. It was those values that propelled David to see to his mother’s and brother’s committals. And he trusted me to be able to help him complete this final one with honesty and integrity.

I began our work composing Reuben’s ceremony by clearing the decks for an in-depth conversation. Of course, Reuben’s story was tied into the family story, and I took notes quickly as David shared that story with me. His Canadian parents’ estrangement after the birth of his younger brother; his mother’s desperation to get to the U.S. with her two sons and find work so she could file for divorce; their disappointed return to Toronto after her failure to get a U.S. green card or a divorce; their homelessness and hunger; her disappearance after leaving them on their father’s front steps; her second attempt to build a life with her two young sons in the U.S.; David’s own graduation from high school; and his lack of affection for anyone in his family. Reuben’s story and David’s relationship to him was all coming back, and through tears, David’s own story, too, became evident. Here was a man of almost 80 years who, for most of those full years, had not felt a close family tie to his family of origin. Yet he had cared for them the best he could.

After a couple of hours of sharing, we took a break, and later that day sat down again to consider the particular organization of Reuben’s committal of ashes ceremony. I took time to describe to my father-in-law the concept of a Celebrant ceremony with its separation, transition, and incorporation; the need for the ceremony to authentically reflect his feelings around his brother’s life and death; and of allowing the concept of intention to drive the overall plan of the ceremony. Intention, authenticity, and meaningful organization. These were all ideas David welcomed. He named his intention: to dispose of Reuben’s ashes in a respectful and honest way while expressing his deep gratitude to his chosen family for their love and support.

Once he had articulated the intention, we came up with a Ceremony Outline built around David’s selection of a riverside ceremony spot near our home, located on property we own, where we could legally hold the ceremony and David could scatter Reuben’s ashes in a swift but fairly shallow river. As a central ritual of the ceremony, David wanted to scatter the ashes alone at the river’s edge while we waited for him at the ceremony site, symbolizing the responsibility he felt to carry out this last act for his brother and family, and highlighting his return to the sacred space kept for him by his current family. We agreed to revise as needed once we reached the ceremony site.

When we arrived at the river, David chose the exact ceremony spot and our orientation in relation to the shore. I prepared our space and, when David indicated he was ready, I opened the ceremony with a single chime. In welcome, I spoke of our intention to commit Reuben’s ashes. I shared the more general biographical facts of Reuben’s life and then David gave the short eulogy. He directed his words first to Reuben, speaking to his memory, telling him he did love him. David admitted he didn’t think he would miss his brother, saying he had spent a lifetime missing him already. After expressing his grief and regret in a shaky voice, David turned to the river with the box of Reuben’s ashes in his backpack, and grabbed his walking stick. He set out purposefully toward the shore, but after a few steps he stopped, feeling unstable on his feet. My husband moved forward and offered an arm, and together they traversed the uneven cobbles toward the water. Meanwhile, I held the ceremony space, noting David’s humanist values and his humane care for his family of origin, as evidenced by his respectful treatment of them in death.

In just a few minutes, the two men, step-father and step-son, returned to the ceremony space and we welcomed David’s “homecoming.”

“Your family acknowledges your return, David, and welcomes you back among us, we who love you.”

Then we held silence for a long moment, followed by a single closing chime.

Lastly, in perhaps an uncommon use of the unity ritual placed after the completion of the ceremony, David asked us —my husband, his mother, our son, and myself—to join him in a red wine ritual, subtly acknowledging his family’s Jewish heritage. He opened the bottle, poured wine into each small glass, handed each of us a glass, and offered, “To You, My Family. Thank You for Being Here for Me.” We all drank a sip of wine, and then recorked the bottle. It was now time to go.

And we, David’s family, were ready to see him through no matter what may come. More so, we were more prepared than before to see each other through, holding each other closer than ever. My mother-in-law saw through loving eyes her aging husband, and she felt her own life more keenly; our 25 year old son saw not only his grandparents’ advancing age but his parents’ too, I know. One day, I realize, our son will be the only surviving witness able to relay the story of David’s riverside tribute to his brother. Just as the river moves on, so do our lives.

The ceremony that committed Reuben’s ashes to the universe also more clearly committed us to each other, walking us back to life, annealing our connections to one another, helping us feel the loving hands that hold us.

 

IMG_6049

Friends for Real

“I don’t know why this news is affecting me so deeply. All I want to do is go home, sit down on the couch, and cry. I can barely keep my tears in check!” my 55 year old sister uncharacteristically posted on Facebook from work the day after Prince died. Like people all over the world, she was dealing with the shock of the news—and the grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

But that was the weird thing. Prince wasn’t someone she considered “a loved one.” You’ve likely wondered over your “Noooo!” when you have learned of the death of a famous musician, sports figure, writer, or such. Why do we react to the deaths of those we have never met in much the same way we react to the death of our next door neighbor or our high school teacher? And why do some of us even react more strongly to the death of, say, Prince, than we would to news of a “real” person from our own lives?

And we’ve endured a year full of such grief. David Bowie passed earlier this year. And his death followed that of Robin Williams, which, a suicide, had left us all feeling raw. Umph. We are hurting for real.

One of the things that makes us human is our imagination. Our brains can conflate fiction and real, like when you are binge-watching your favorite series, and suddenly those characters and their lives and the settings in which they move ARE real. Likewise, we read books, learn ballads, and enjoy sitcoms not because they are “pretend” as much as the fact that they seem so real to us. They, truly, become real to us, as real as anything.

Prince and David Bowie and Robin Williams were all real people, but ones most of us never got to have dinner with or play soccer with. Yet, they were real to us, in that they became part of the fabric of our lives when they were alive. I remember watching the film “Purple Rain” at the theater in Seattle with our good friends when we were in college; we knew this was an amazing film and that Prince was highly talented. I remember the night I heard David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” for the first time on the radio. We had just moved 500 miles from home, and I was feeling scared and alone. And I remember watching television in junior high school, laughing hard at Mork’s bizarre but very gentle humor. I grew up with these people. We all did. Whether you’re 65 or 15, you know their names and they are a part, some part, some real part, of the fabric of your lives. You opened your heart to them.

Our loss of Prince and the like really is a loss of a thread of our own lives. The fabric is still intact, but there is a noticeable gap where they once were. They are gone. That gap will remain. Fortunately their work will live on and on, and future generations will discover it, just as kids today continue to discover The Beatles.

Some of my friends felt that they wanted to create a memorial for Prince. They invited friends over, listened to his music, watched videos and films, and toasted his life and work with glasses of wine. Some folks held vigils, joining together with total strangers to shine their purple flashlights and sing Prince’s songs. They recalled their relationship with him. And so they began to address their very real grief at his loss. As they should.

Princess Diana. Harper Lee. Glenn Frey. We need to mourn all of our  losses when they happen, when they leave us feeling at sea and in need of comfort. I hope we allow ourselves to take the time to play their albums, watch their films, remember their lives and accomplishments, or just talk with others who are also missing them. I hope we feel free to express our grief and honor their memories just as if they were close friends of ours. Because they were.

 

 

 

 

Finding a Future

IMG_4535Together, the couple walked slowly, meanderingly along the beach. They held hands, and the warm September sun touched their skin while the cool coastal  breeze played around them. The golden sand glistened under their feet.

At the same moment, they both saw it: a yellow agate much larger even than a walnut lay at their feet, seemingly plopped there for our couple to happen upon.

At that very moment, they were on a journey: dreaming of what might be possible, if they could but take the next big step.

They had met earlier that year on OK Cupid, and now they couldn’t imagine spending another day apart. Each had been married before, and his two near-adult children and her young daughter were in their hearts as they discussed their future together. So, I imagine, were their failed marriages. Dare they try again?

That is when they came upon the stone in the sand. Its golden glow and infinite depth of color reassured them, and felt like a beacon into their future. This beautiful but  irregularly shaped stone seemed to call to them, answering a question they had posed. Could we find happiness together?

He picked it up and held it in his hand. Hers cupped around his and they quietly wrapped their fingers around the warm rock.

What an amazing stone! Agates are frequently found along the Pacific Northwest coast. There were a few smaller ones back at the cabin on the windowsill over the kitchen sink, little treasures other visitors had found while on their beach walks. Each had its own story. Each was precious.

Now our couple had their own treasure to share.

Later that night, seated at the picnic table on the deck of the cabin, they began to speak in certainties, to envision a future . . . together. Between them on the table glowed their agate.

One year later, the cabin was overflowing with laughter, music, flowers, and the loving presence of family and close friends. The warm September evening provided the perfect backdrop to the wedding ceremony, which took place on the very deck where they had dared to dream and imagine this new chapter of their lives.

As they exchanged ring vows, the rings themselves silently stood witness to their love: their one agate had been carefully made into two stones and set onto silver settings. He placed her ring on her finger; she placed his ring on his, encircling the lifeline to the heart, wrapping each other in the warm glow of hope and renewal, strength and beauty.IMG_3914_2

2016: Time for Love

Congratulations on the beginning of a new year!

Did you know that you started this new year with a wild gift?

You Have Just Received a Great Gift!

You Have Just Been Given a Great Gift!

Let’s unwrap it. Look! It’s the gift of more time! 2016 is a Leap Year, and so will have 366 days instead of only 365.

To accommodate the actual rate at which the Earth orbits around the sun, we add a day to our calendar every four years, making up for the approximately 6 hours per year of time unaccounted for otherwise.

So “you have been given a great gift,” as Clarence, the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, tells George: the gift of 24 hours.

If I could go back to those who passed in 2015, if I could go to their families and offer them 24 more hours to spend with their loved one, do you think they’d take me up on it? Most would.

Knowing now that death would come on such and such a date, but being given the gift of a 24 hour extension, think of what a soon-to-be-deceased might do! Imagine how his or her loved ones might spend that time saying all the things they’ve only thought of too late. Time to ask those questions, Time to more fully express our gratitude and our love. Time to just be together.

But, of course, that’s not how death works. It almost always takes us on its own time schedule.

I think of those who passed in my world this year: the 58 year old woman who died suddenly in her sleep of a heart attack. The man who died the day after Christmas, in his own bed, with his family around him as he took his last breaths. The young firefighter who, home from college, died fighting a wildfire in his own hometown. I remember the baby, too, born at full term, but stillborn. Her family certainly would love to have another day with her, and she with them, I imagine.

Twenty-four hours is a long time when it’s a gift.

So, with a simple shift in our own perception, I suggest we view 2016, just as it is beginning, as a windfall. Twenty-four additional hours will be ours this year! Let’s devote ourselves to honoring those we care about for 24 hours this year, either all on February 29th or better yet, spread out over the whole year.

Let’s take time to better express and define our love for those we will someday lose or for those who will lose us. Let’s honor life by attending to it, gifting those we love with our loving attention. Let’s dedicate ourselves to spending our time mindfully engaged in loving. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

May you intentionally spend this year’s gift to you. Spread it around.

It is time for love.

 

 

 

 

No End to Love

Here at my desk in my home office, an old computer monitor serves as my bulletin board. Stuck to it via post-it notes are a number of choice quotes or ideas I have come across that have actually changed how I perceive something. And so it is my altar to human creativity! The quotes’ authors range from Job in the Old Testament to Art Garfunkle to Stephen Colbert to Bono!

IMG_3872_2

But one quote draws my attention these days as I’ve been helping create end of life ceremonies for others and as I begin the largest project I’ve taken on—co-creating the end of life ceremony with and for two separate women.

I read it over and over: “Healing can happen even when a cure does not.” This is a quote by Kit Turen, a writer and sister Life Cycle Celebrant® who practices in Washington D.C.

Each of my two clients has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and each is thinking beyond her last months to the impact her passing will have on others. Both women are very hopeful that their end of life ceremony can offer the opportunity for healing the hearts of those they love, those they will soon leave behind.

In working with them to craft their unique ceremonies, we first consider their intention—what it is each wants to accomplish through ceremony. One of them is compelled by her realization that her adult children aren’t ready for her passing. They have been actively and valiantly caring for her for many years now as she has struggled with Parkinson’s Disease, but doing so distracted them from thinking about life without her. There is so much she wants to say to them, and thinking about how she might do that through creating an end of life ceremony is healing for herself, because she knows that she is doing the ultimate mothering: she is helping them come to terms with her own mortality.

The other mother has one adult child, who needs considerable care himself due to a developmental disability. Since her initial terminal diagnosis, she has focused her energies on securing his care in a local assisted living facility. She has created a trust to take on his legal and financial responsibilities. And now, she is feeling more ready than ever to create for him and for her large circle of community an inspiring end- of-life ceremony to help them adjust to her passing when the time comes. Her intention is to inspire others at her death to think about their own lives more actively, to choose how they want to live.

Both of these women, in their final illnesses, are looking to promote healing in those they love. And in doing so, they are generating healing in themselves, taking care of what most needs to be cared for: our loved ones and the emotional legacies we leave them. Neither woman has much time left, yet each is focused on healing her own heart through healing those she loves. Healing truly can happen even when a cure does not.

Are you curious about the quote by Bono?

“There is no end to grief. And there is no end to love.”

 

 

Very Married

If I get married, I want to be very married.  ~~Audrey Hepburn

My Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay on their wedding day, May 27, 1945.

My Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay on their wedding day, May 27, 1945.

Wow. Today marks my Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay’s 70th Wedding Anniversary. Seventy years! Next month, my husband and I will celebrate our 32nd anniversary, not quite the same milestone and yet still something to honor. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a marriage last and how anyone achieves “very married” status.

My Celebrancy work brings me into contact with couples who are poised at the beginning of their marriages. Planning a wedding is formative, I realize, in helping couples define for themselves what values they wish to build into this new joint endeavor. Through creating a ceremony together, with its writing of vows and selections of readings, music, and rituals, a couple discovers more about each other and themselves.  Hopefully, this mutual dedication to a common cause will be just the first joint effort in a long, healthy marriage.

Of course, a long marriage isn’t necessarily a good marriage. Some enduring marriages unfortunately seem like old abandoned houses: rotted at the foundations, surrounded by long-dead trees and overgrown gardens, and only upright because a powerful wind hasn’t blown the shambles over, yet. Like a house of cards, one wonders how much longer the thing can stand.

Yes, we all know couples who have stayed married over the years out of “mutual disinterest.” “It’s easier to stay than to go,” they tell us, with a sad, slow shake of the head. These are the neglected marriages.

Just as heart-wrenching is another type of failed marriage, the sudden awakening. These people simply open their eyes one day and think: “I don’t love this person anymore. So why are we still married?” Over long years, they have slowly grown apart until, suddenly, nothing holds them together. Instead of forging bonds to each other, they have, usually through carelessness, been shedding them. For these couples, there is now no reason to stay and every reason to go.

So what is the recipe for a long AND good marriage? Each new marriage cuts its own path, finding its way across obstacles, changing direction when the need to do so arises. Perhaps what contributes most to a successful, loving marriage is that we choose to journey every day with this person, that we commit to this work of marriage-building while never losing sight of the love that brought us together in the first place. Marriages must change and grow as we ourselves do. But they must never lose the spark that first brought two people together.

I love the spark I see in my aunt and uncle’s wedding picture! They still share this spark today. But surely my aunt and uncle’s love for each other now is nothing like it was in 1945 when they married. How could it be? They have each lived a full life together, and such living changes a person. From their wedding day forward, life meant adjustment. They left their hometown to begin their married life in a new area. They worked hard. They lost a baby. They raised a family. They have both suffered together through major health crises, employment changes, and other challenges. Who would be surprised if their courage flagged at times, if they occasionally lost their shared vision, lost their passion for a life together. But I believe people who maintain the “spark” always find a path back to the road and grasp hands. Together they keep walking in the same direction, regardless of the difficulties.

And there has been sunshine, too, in my aunt’s and uncle’s marriage. Their long lives have thankfully brought them stability, success, and sweet family. They still live together in their own home with the help of their own children and grandchildren. Great-grandchildren, too, are constants of their days. Good neighbors check in and say hello. They practice their faith and are nourished by their spiritual community. Best of all, they enjoy each other’s company. They spend time together. They talk. They share the moments of their lives.

Their 70 years of marriage have changed Aunt Janet and Uncle Jay, but have also brought them closer and made their lives far richer than they might have been without one another’s love. After so many years, they have become very married.

Uncle Jay and Aunt Janet today: still very married!

Uncle Jay and Aunt Janet today: still very married!

 

The Power of Music

“Could you join our band and help us surprise Heather at her wedding reception?”

In just two months, my brother’s daughter would marry, and he, always one to hate parental lectures himself, no matter how well-meaning, had found a respectful way to offer up his own hard-won marital advice to his young daughter. He had wrapped his fatherly concern for her in music.

Knowing she might not hear his words if he spoke them to her, he turned to his creative skills for help. He wrote out his own lyrics—all the things any father wants to say to his daughter as she marries—and wedded those lyrics to a beautiful melody. Then, he welcomed other family members to help him express his love in song. His son, the bride’s brother, would accompany him on guitar, while his wife, the bride’s mother, and I would offer up lead vocals. My own son would devise a piano accompaniment to play on the keyboard. It would be a true family affair.

We hoped to maintain the factor of surprise over the next weeks. Emailing melodies and chords, tablatures and lyrics back and forth, we five put our hearts into helping accomplish—and keep—this surprise! We had even snuck in our one and only rehearsal late the night before the wedding, after the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner were over. Just before midnight, we decided we were ready.

At my niece’s wedding reception the next day, we at long last offered up his surprise to her. My brother found the right moment: the bride and groom were sitting in their places, sipping champagne and talking with well-wishers.

“Heather, now it’s time for a little musical surprise from your family,” he said, attracting the attention of all. Everyone looked at us, and then at the bride. She looked inquisitively at her father.

And now, she was clearly trying to make sense of it all. As we began, her eyes filled with tears. The music was working its magic on her. She listened intently as this song gently unwrapped our love and joy and hope and, yes, concern for her happiness. The message she might not have heard as clearly if spoken by Dad glided through the music and into her outstretched hands.

Music’s many guises wield such power to communicate our most complex feelings. At weddings, end-of-life ceremonies, baby welcomings, house warmings, and all ceremonies, rhythm, melody, and harmony create a lyricism that serves as a vehicle for the expression of powerful human truths, allowing us to receive those truths with equanimity and openness.

I like to imagine Heather, fifty years hence, recalling her wedding day, and the many gifts it wrought. May the love of her family be the gift that, more than any other, still resides with her. Although many of us will likely be gone by then, the musical memory of her family’s love will most certainly remain, still playing in her heart.

Mostly, I like to imagine my niece and her husband at their own family’s weddings, offering up their hard-won advice via the soothing refrains of music.IMG_3244

Losing Sight of the Shore

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore. —Andre’ Gide

 

Recently, three generations of our family attended an opening at a local art gallery.

The exhibit’s title, “The Big Sleep,” is, as you may know, a euphemism for death.

“Conversations on Finality” is the specific focus of this visual conversation created by art, a sort of “death café” for the eye, a mixed-media discussion of the various terminals we face in life. The different works frequently addressed the theme of physical death, but others took us further into this major metaphor of our lives.

One sculpture I can’t forget is a cast bronze by Steve Love. Barely bigger than your laptop and standing approximately 12 inches, “Crossing” depicts a little rowboat, just big enough for a man, a woman, and boatman holding an oar that reaches to the water below. He stands forward in the boat, and looks ahead toward the far shore as he moves the little boat through the water. Behind him sits a naked man to one side of the boat, his arms violently gripping the rail, his body tense, seeming to ask frantically, “How did I get here? How do I get back?” In stark contrast to him, in the aft of the boat sits a naked woman, motionless—she is stilled, her hands in her lap. Her gaze is not into the water or even toward the now-invisible shore she has left forever; instead, she focuses inward. She seems to be thinking: “I am here. This is what is now.”

After gathering my many initial responses, I allowed the critical part of my brain to engage. I began to see more details, like the froth in the small boat’s wake, just little hints of water and wave amazingly cast into the dark metal sculpture. The artist’s careful technique aptly described a boat not hurrying, but moving deliberately, steadily. For, why hurry? Time has no seat on the trip from life to death. This poem beside the sculpture communicates the sculpture’s end-of-life theme:

[For a bronze sculpture titled “Crossing”]

Death is a journey,
A passage.

Across the river Styx to the gates of the underworld,
Over the Jordan of Death to the promised land,
Following in a boat the sun on his journeys in the Upper Waters.
Across the Great Stream!

Our ancestors came out of the sea.
At birth we emerge from the embryonic fluid of the womb,
And into the dark churning waters we depart.

 

~Steve Love

The artist stood nearby, as we are always appreciative of in a gallery opening. Steve Love is familiar to me, as his sculpture “Twisp” was the subject of the art installation ceremony I enacted last summer at the Twisp Ponds site. I knew him to be a man of few words, a refreshing combination of humorous and erudite, and in possession of more than a little insight into life’s big themes.

“Thank you for your woman”—these are the strange words that came out of my mouth—and I motioned toward the sculpture before us. He looked into my eyes for a short moment and then gracefully answered: “You’re very welcome.”

“I can’t figure out why she, of all three figures, affects me the most. She is the least detailed and the still-est.”

“She is stoic . . . and serene,” he answered. “She has accepted what is, and does not fight it.”

That was it. Especially in comparison to the poor fellow at the side of the boat who appeared to be contemplating a panicky jump overboard and a swim back—to where?—she was instead gathering herself for this journey. She was taking stock. She had opened herself to the real, to change, and was now preparing to be transformed. She was quietly becoming.

Yes, the sculpture was about death. But not only that. It was also about how we live.

The truth is, hard change is a part of life. We need to mark important but sometimes painful passages in order to be able to, like the woman in the boat, consent to let go of the shore. Like her, we need to stop and contemplate the leaving behind in order to grasp the importance of the journey itself. This release begins the necessary transformation from was to is. Release prepares us for what will be.

As I stood in the gallery with my husband, his aging mother, and our adult son contemplating this wise artwork, I saw its relevance to how we live. In its commemoration of the journey that transformation is, this work depicts our own choice: we can try as hard as we can to resist change, or we can accept it.

Celebrancy helps us to discover new lands, because it creates ceremonies that hold sacred a vital and creative space for pause, allowing for acceptance, assessment, and contemplation before we set off toward whatever awaits off shore.IMG_1872

“Celebate? You’re a Celebate?”

That is the question I often get when people hear I am a Celebrant! My husband would surely be surprised to learn of my professional title, no?

But I quite understand the confusion. Celebrancy is a fairly new phenomenon in the U.S.; it has only been an active profession here since for 15 years or so. So maybe you haven’t heard of us.

Australia has had an active celebrancy movement for over forty years now, and England even longer than that. In those countries, celebrants compose and officiate many, and maybe most, of the civil ceremonies and some of the typically church-sponsored ceremonies that take place.

We can thank Charlotte Eulette for seeing the need in our own land. She went overseas in early 2001, the story goes, to critically assess the use of celebrants for weddings and funerals, and returned to our shores to do it better. That’s American ingenuity for you. She saw the need here for a more inclusive, expressive use of ritual to help Americans begin to heal after the 9/11 attacks, and so devised a new approach to the typical role of “officiant.” Celebrants here, as in other countries, could work more closely with people to help them compose ceremonies that would best express their values and lives.

Now, there are thousands of celebrants here, educated professionals who are celebrants because they have seen a need, studied to prepare themselves to undertake this important work, and who try to make a living doing it. I promise you: no one becomes a celebrant to make lots of money, though. We become celebrants out of an acute awareness of the need for the profession. All of us need to pause in the swift stream of life from time to time. By stopping to mark a passage–a wedding, funeral, relocation, a new baby, a new job–we better prepare ourselves for the journey. But before we get to the reason celebrancy matters, let’s define our term.

Celebrancy: the art and profession of creating and performing personalized ceremonies uniquely designed to honor clients’ own needs for meaningful weddings, end-of-life memorials, baby welcomings, retirements, pet memorials, and more. As well as working with individuals and families, celebrants also compose ceremonies for civic functions, such as art installations, new building dedications, and community healing ceremonies (such as those that followed 9/11).

A celebrant employs her or his excellent writing skills, speaking ability, love of the arts, engagement with people and our lives, respect for our need for ritual, and organizational skills to handcraft ceremonies for clients from all belief systems. Celebrancy can draw from all human cultural traditions in order to provide individuals, families, and communities the relevant ceremonies they desire. Your values. Your ceremony. Your life.

So there you have it. Being a celebrant is important, sustaining work!

Celebrate My New Blog: Confluence Ceremonies!

What Remains

Over the last 5 weeks, our beautiful Methow Valley, located in North Central Washington State, has been through many serious trials. First came the extreme heat wave and high winds in early and mid-July, then the wildfires, then the flash floods, followed by the landslides. And now, the clean-up.

One person has died, suffering a heart attack while attempting to defend his home from the fires. Countless wild and farm animals were lost as well.  Families’ hard-earned life savings were decimated.  Dreams were dashed. We are all surrounded by endings.

First and foremost, fire destroyed more than 300 homes in our valley. Imagine your home, its rooms, its history, its presence. Then imagine it destroyed by fire, now surrounded by an unrecognizable moonscape of black tree trunks, layers of ash, and creeks and rivers running black. Many of these homes were farms, with barns and fields full of cattle, horses, goats, sheep. These were lost, too. It’s really too horrible to grasp.

Brave firefighters surely saved more homes than were lost, but the trauma of evacuating while your neighbors’ houses burned is etched on memory here. As you grab the few belongings you can think of (what would you take if you were given a short amount of time to leave your home?), you know time is ticking. You say goodbye as you drive—to where?—not knowing if you’ll ever see your property again, but grateful to be alive and hopefully with those you love.

Other losses suffered here are somewhat less tangible. They include the day-to-day life endings: business owners scrambling to make ends meet, down-towns temporarily quieted as they struggle to regroup. State highways, the arteries of our rural communities, shut down. Families making huge decisions about staying or leaving, rebuilding or selling. An entire summer lost to simply trying to recover.

And perhaps most serious of the losses caused by this summer’s trials are the assumptions we have held close: the belief in the permanence of the landscape, one’s way of life as enduring, Mother Nature as gentle, home as a safe place.

The lessons are thick in the air. We are all thinking about these. And they are not abstract concepts anymore. For one community, at least, these ideas are now front and center.

To such lessons I would add one more: change provides the opportunity for transformation. Destruction and devastation have long been seen as the road to renewal. And indeed, where the ash has lain for weeks in thick, choking layers, grass is now shooting up, boasting a bright vivid green against the ravaged landscape. Foresters tell us that come Spring, we will see young pines sprouting up everywhere.

And neighbors lean in toward each other, asking the question of the summer: How are you doing? Never before has that question been so common and yet so important.

As a celebrant, my interaction with life, death, and transformation keep these realities in front of me each day. These are the natural themes of our lives and they mark the arcs of our existences. We each suffer losses in life, and struggle to right ourselves, to learn how to move forward.

But how to move forward authentically? I know for certain we are right to mourn the losses we’ve suffered, to mark the endings of the lives we lived up until this horrible thing happened. And then, I know we can begin to turn with renewed energy toward the future.

With what remains—our compassion, our renewed values, and yes, our shared loss—we have the material we need to re-imagine our lives anew.

A community is a living thing, and like farmlands or Ponderosa pines or the white-tailed deer that share our valley, our community will regenerate, taking the opportunity misfortune has given to reassess and to transform our ways of life.

Aug182014_0176

Courtesy Reflected Light Photography

I look forward to the healing and growing to come!

Ceremony and Our Inner Healer

“I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights . . . .I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.” (Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

       Photo by Thelma Achamire

Photo by Thelma Achamire

Are we ever truly lost? Humans may well have a natural predisposition toward emotional balance. Whether we think of it as “a string of guiding lights,” a hardwired equipoise, or the internal divine, our default setting is always engaged in one task: to return to a healthy state. We can see evidence of this natural state of self-care in our desire to sleep when we are stressed, in our good feelings after talking it out with a good friend, and in our dreaming life. But often, our conscious mind overrides this reflexive mode. It replays old tapes, increases anxiety (“do something!!”), and wears us down. We binge, we distract, we erupt, we self-destruct. We sabotage this innate ability to heal ourselves.

But always, there is “the other side of the facts.” If we remember to honor this amazing skill we all are inheritors of, we allow our hearts and minds to move toward emotional health. That inner healer innately knows who we are and who we can be, as Jeanette Winterson describes it in the excerpt above. What that means is that anytime we wish to, we can accept the call to restore our own well-being!

Ritual and ceremony offer one way to answer that call to health: they create a safe and rich environment outside of our daily lives, they honestly express our authentic emotional state, they help transform the moment into a concrete truth, setting us on a path toward authentic emotional growth. A well-focused memorial ceremony is a good example of this. Meaningful rituals within a service can move us onward in our suffering, in our relationship to the deceased, and in our own healing. We can share memories of all kinds with those in attendance, we can read a poem we’ve written for the deceased, we can listen to their favorite song or ask a family elder to recall the deceased’s birth. Through such rituals, we reconnect to our inner healer. We find, as we leave the ceremonial space, that we feel better, more integrated, less at sea. Through ritual and ceremony, we have rediscovered our natural ability to heal ourselves.

A ceremony’s power to heal derives not only from ritual, but from its very creation of community, cohering individuals witnessing the ceremony into an affiliated group, one of the healthiest biological structures there is. This community 1) reflects our own emotional state, 2) joins us in our expression of grief, joy, hope, 3) identifies more strongly with us because of the sharing that takes place in the ceremony, 4) brings its own creative energies and unique experience to bear on our own situation, and 5) begins to heal and transform along with us.

Ceremonies can also transform guests in very personal ways, as they act as witnesses to those more central to the ceremony. This may have happened to you. Watching the event unfold, you become a participant through your ability to identify with the mourners. In sharing this ceremony, you come to understand more deeply the value of love, care, truth, connection, compassion, and humor in your daily life. A focused ceremony actually invigorates a community of supporters, as all the natural energy of healing is restored to each member, who then focuses that healing energy on the central participants of the ceremony. Ceremony, then, reconnects us to our natural desire to affiliate with others through enhancing our connection to our inner healer.

I’ve seen deeply estranged families begin the process of authentic reconnection as a direct result of their participation in ceremony. This happens in weddings, funerals, divorce ceremonies, baby welcomings, and more. The energy created by ritual takes us out of the everyday thinking and responses, opening us up to possibility, healing, and our own power to transform. Ceremony reconnects us to that “string of guiding lights” that leads to our own inner healer, pointing to who we are and who we can become.

Our minds are powerfully focused on taking care of ourselves. We have only to attune our conscious self to our natural impulses. Ceremony and ritual help us unlearn our conscious responses to emotional stress and start to process our reality in a way that allows us to gather our energy and take the next step forward. Those lines within us—lifelines and anchor chains accessed through the benefits of ceremony–lead to our own inner healer. There he sits and waits, there she gathers her tools, ready to restore our own selves. Ready to restore the gift of being and becoming.

So, What Does “Ritual” Really Mean??

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Our rituals grow like trees: the branches look little like the roots, but both are interdependent.

Ritual is a cornerstone of celebrancy because it is a vital aspect of human life. We have discovered ancient ceremonial sites replete with figurines and flowers; large fire pits near a burial site marking perhaps a rite of passage into another realm; paint used for decoration of the body in dance or other rituals. Rituals helped early humans ask the big questions about birth, death, connection, grief, and so forth. But in the 21st century, some assert that ritual has become irrelevant. I heartily disagree! Ritual is more prevalent and useful than ever before in our history.

What is ritual? Many of us attach negative connotations to the term, thinking of dusty church services, mindless (or even dangerous!) behaviors, or mental disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when we think of rituals. Some posit that our “modern” society has distanced itself from the role of ritual as it has moved toward a more secular view of itself.

Yet in our own, private moments, don’t you and I still engage in ritual, adding a sense of the sacred to our days? A cup of coffee savored over a view of the garden gate each morning before going to work is an example of ritual. Offering a gift to a loved one on a special occasion, even wrapping it in special paper, is ritual. Singing “Happy Birthday” to honor someone’s birth date is ritual. Going out with co-workers for a drink after work to say goodbye and good luck to someone who is retiring: that’s ritual. Truly, in all walks of life people still use ritual to express our very human need to mark our personal and professional passages. We still marry and hold funerals, too. We celebrate anniversaries of many kinds. But today, we’re more often creating rituals for ourselves, and not accepting the institutionally composed, traditional rituals. This means that we are adapting ritual in order to better infuse our lives with authenticity and healing. Some religions are even revising their own rituals and ceremonies to remain relevant to spiritual life. Taken together, all these indicators lead me to contend that our rituals are more powerful and vibrant than ever!

So while some rituals we enact are traditions that have been passed down from our family or religious culture, other rituals are “new traditions” we have created to better reflect the truth of our own lives. For example, my family of origin used to gather together on most holidays, congregating at one of our homes to share food, prayer, and ourselves. This was a ritual that my aunts and uncles created when they were just starting out to help them stay connected to each other and to ensure family strength. Ceremonies helped us talk about family history, thereby calling into our midst those who had passed on. I got to know my paternal grandfather solely through the stories of my grandmother and his own children. Their recalled memories, shared over the holiday table, brought Grampa and his values alive for a new generation. And as the cousins played together and the adults conversed, our family values were expressed, taught, reinforced, and tested.

Our holiday gatherings—ceremonies in the flesh—exemplified ritual. As people arrived at the appointed time and place, the doorbell sounded a note that signaled our separation from the everyday world to the special, even sacred world of family and celebration. Each family came in proper attire (casual for 4th of July barbeques, formal for Christmas, Easter, or funerals). We all brought food and drink from our own kitchens, making our offering to the table from which we would all find sustenance, both physical and emotional. At the right time, the hosting family would call everyone together for a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we would eat, each in our correct places (the adult table and the kids’ table). There were rules about how we interacted with each other, who was served first, and who got to lead prayers, who did the dishes and who watched the kids. As we parted, hugs and kisses were freely offered and received; I remember feeling most reluctant to leave our special place to return to the workaday world!

And those good feelings stayed with us for days, our rituals creating a powerful energy that integrated into our regular lives. Next holiday, we would replay and somewhat revise the ceremonial rituals at another relative’s home. Each occasion was a ceremony that followed a general plan: separation, transition, and transformation.

From my family, I learned the rituals that gave meaning to my early life. Then, I moved across the country, became an adult, married, went to college, and had a child. Now in my adult roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, and friend, I mourned the “loss” of our family gatherings in my life, and realized I needed to recreate them. Or, maybe, “relocate” them. Life changes. I wanted rituals that held meaning for us now, not for my family back in Ohio circa 1968.

While we kept older rituals that were still meaningful to us, we were living in a different world. As we focused on our families at hand and our immediate communities, our adherence to celebrations of national and religious holidays made room for more personally transformative rites of passage. There were more weddings to attend, as our friends and siblings married. College graduations, baby welcomings, and housewarmings became more frequent. We celebrated birthdays as perhaps the greatest days in the year, partly because my husband’s grandparents and great-grandparents were still living, and we knew life was finite. Also, birthdays became so important to us because those we loved were having children, whose young lives we cherished.

We came to see that our participation in these more personal ceremonies added a richness to our lives; we felt invested in a varied community, in our friends’ and siblings’ families as we witnessed their weddings, celebrated with them the births of their children, and attended funerals for their loved ones. As our elders began to pass, we created funeral ceremonies more true to each one, utilizing rituals that had meaning for them and for us.

In my adult life, I have learned to open up to the authenticity of ceremony through performance of ritual. I have witnessed a wide variety of others’ ceremonies, informed by the participants’ own identities, histories, and values. Vietnamese, Jewish, Secular, New Age, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, gay: so many truths now inform our best rituals. One of my colleagues recently witnessed a Brazilian/East Indian wedding at a Korean Baptist church! In today’s world, no one ceremony can serve for all. And rituals serve best when we can see our own values clearly articulated by them.

Life demonstrates that rituals can be alive, adaptive, and tremendously relevant to our lives and to ourselves. Done well, rituals provide the vital building blocks of ceremony, expressing our own truths, healing our emotions, moving us forward, and creating rich communities of supporters.

In some ways, the rituals of my youth seem too narrow to me now. We never would have understood then how to integrate a gay boyfriend or even bi-racial step-children into our little White Protestant group. But fast-forward, and I believe my family and I have grown to see ourselves and our world more accurately. And more lovingly.

Time moves us forward. And each succeeding generation does, if it is wise, conscientiously adapt rituals to serve its current need for the rites of separation, transition, and transformation. That is the role for ritual in modern society: to authentically honor our passages, to mark as sacred that which truly matters in our lives, and to help us make the changes necessary to continue on our journeys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D-I-V-O-R-C-E

Did you hear: Gynneth Paltrow and her husband of ten years, Chris Martin, are ending their marriage? These two people have two families, two large careers, and two real children to sort through, all of which will surely be affected by their split. And for years to come.

Here’s the catch: they are calling their divorce not a divorce—but a “conscious uncoupling.” What’s that about? Can divorce ever be anything but d-i-v-o-r-c-e?

Zosia Bielski of Toronto’s Globe and Mail gives psychotherapist Katharine Woodward Thomas credit for having devised the term “conscious uncoupling” and its unique approach to enlightened divorce as a way to encourage healthier break-ups of couples and their families. As she and her own husband worked “honorably” together to conclude their marriage, Thomas came to see that such amicable endings are unusual. By the time most couples divorce, they may already lack trust, good will, and compassion for each other. Children suffer. Pain and guilt and grief abound.

Thomas’s official process of conscious uncoupling requires one or both parties take a five week online course (~$300) “to Release the Trauma of a Breakup, Reclaim Your Power & Reinvent Your Life.” Each couple or one of a couple works with a coach as the course progresses through subjects such as avoiding pitfalls, crafting contracts to promote positive interactions, and practicing compassion.

While kinder divorce is a laudable goal, it still rarely happens in real life. “[I]t’s time we learned how to do this better” says Thomas.

Hurray! You and I could not agree more! Let’s do divorce better. That’s where celebrancy comes in.

Celebrancy has crafted the “Divorce Ceremony” as a concrete way of addressing the grief which can surround divorce by officially marking the ending of the marriage. Doing so offers an opportunity for recasting the central relationships, transitioning the family and the community into the next stage of these relationships, and imagining a future of transformed roles and purposes. Also, a divorcing couple often wishes to honor their families (children, in-laws, and others), which the Divorce Ceremony provides space to do.

Too, crafting a divorce ceremony can help a couple articulate for themselves and their communities what their own practical vision is: will the couple both support the children? How? Where will each live? What will become of their mutual friendships and professional relationships? Constructing this ceremony with their celebrant can also help them address still deeper questions: What do they want for their own lives? Their children’s lives? What will the end of their marriage enable them to imagine for themselves? Through the ceremony they write together, a couple can effectively envision and then articulate their next chapter.

Celebrants have long been working with couples who want to compose ceremonies to mark their marriages’ endings as meaningfully as they marked their beginnings. We understand the healthful role of ceremony in helping us effectively separate, transition, and incorporate (or as Thomas says, “Release . . . Reclaim . . . [and] Reinvent,”). This three-staged process helps us clarify the present, then step out of our old lives, and into our new ones.

And Divorce Ceremonies aren’t just for those directly involved. Any marriage contains its community of supporters. So when a marriage ends, this larger community doesn’t suddenly stop caring; it is lost, it is concerned, it is grieving. Without its own chance to express and heal, that external group can sometimes turn ugly, spreading rumors, imagining the worst, hurting those already most hurt.

We all need to know how to truly move forward from divorce, and the Divorce Ceremony provides the space to do this in therapeutic ways that honor our humanity.

I’d like to see the “coupling” of Divorce Ceremonies with Conscious Uncoupling’s therapy sessions to best insure that the end of a marriage is truly a marker of healthy transformation, instead of a lifelong source of trauma, for all involved.

Divorce is divorce: a loss of hope and shared vision. But by adding ceremony to conscientious attention, couples can truly transform divorce into healthy transition, instead of the horrible, gut-churning experience many of us think it must always be.

Sources:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/celebrity-news/so-how-do-you-consciously-uncouple/article17682694/

See also:

~~Ben Zimmer’s WSJ online article on the history of the language of divorce.

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304441304579479461454199396?KEYWORDS=zimmer+divorce&mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Is Where Art and Nature Meet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow Celebrancy Supports Communities

Recently, I offered my celebrancy services to a local community art dedication. The ceremony was to mark the outdoor installation of a sculpture and commemorate the cooperative partnership that brought that art to life: the confluence of two organizations, one in the arts community and one in the fish restoration community, but both neighbors of our lovely Methow Valley in North Central Washington State.

The process that had taken us from a vision to a reality was complete, and a ceremony was in order. Everyone who had been involved in coordinating this project was in a jubilant mood! Both locals and curious vacationers gathered together. In all, about 30 people attended the dedication.

The June day was warm and bright. A cool breeze blew off the Twisp River, lightly rippling the ponds. The air was filled with the buzzing of bees and the rushing of water in the low falls between the ponds that provide nurturing habitat for endangered salmon.

As we stood in a clearing forming a circle around the new sculpture, we knew we were likewise surrounded by nesting birds, snakes, beaver, and young fawns; this is also their community. Come winter, the bears and coyotes and even cougars will call this habitat “home.” Painters, birdwatchers, elementary students, science professors, nature lovers, photographers, tourists, and everyday neighbors enjoy free access to and make use of this special space year round.

In describing to me their visions for the ceremony, both group’s directors had emphasized the importance of the positive impacts on the community of art and the local ponds that were built to help restore endangered fish runs. By placing art on paths around these ponds, the public is drawn both to the art and to the activity of care for endangered salmon. Within the environment of water, trees, river, and ponds enhanced by a rich flora and fauna across the site, the community, we hope, becomes invigorated by and reinvested in both art and nature.

In my opening remarks, I spoke about the power of art to create a “community of care” that we all, nature included, need in order to live healthy lives in healthy neighborhoods. The speakers, both groups’ directors and the artist, then filled us in on the process of bringing together this partnership and the process of creating a memorable work of art for the site.

The sculpture, titled Twisp, was created by Steve Love, a quiet man, uncomfortable speaking aloud and in front of people. He nevertheless shared his own vision of his work with us. And none of our country’s greatest orators ever uttered a more effective address. He told us of the method he uses to create art, often working in a “semi-conscious state” at first, so as to allow his pure creativity to control the work. Later, he returns to the work with a more critical eye to address structural, practical issues (how will a sculpture stand up? Can it withstand the elements?). Finally, he considers the subtext of the work, reaching deeply into it to better grasp its symbolic power and purpose.

In closing, I urged those present to see themselves as part of this community of care, an active group of neighbors whose investment in the ponds’ site and its art—and by extension the local community—makes them important partners of care and positive transformation.

Finally, my concluding blessing spoke of the timelessness of our gathering, the importance of bringing our children into this ethic of community care, and our need to be ever-mindful of our roles as neighbors of the world, part of an interconnected community of humanity and nature. Aware of art’s ability to inspire and nature’s ability to nurture us, we must reach out into our communities and actively support both.

ART DEDICATION: Twisp by Steve Love (sculpture)
June 28, 2014
Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation’s Twisp Ponds Site
Twisp, Washington

Sponsored by Methow Arts Alliance (methowarts.org) and Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation (methowsalmon.org)

“Celebate? You’re A Celebate?”

That is the question I often get when people hear I am a Celebrant! My husband would surely be surprised to learn of my professional title, no?

But I quite understand the confusion. Celebrancy is a fairly new phenomenon in the U.S.; it has only been an active profession here since for 15 years or so. So maybe you haven’t heard of us.

But Australia has had an active celebrancy movement for over forty years, and England even longer than that. In those countries, celebrants compose and officiate many, and maybe most, of the civil ceremonies and some of the church-sponsored ceremonies that take place.

We can thank Charlotte Eulette for seeing the need in our own land. She went overseas in early 2001, the story goes, to critically assess the use of celebrants for weddings and funerals, and returned to our shores to do it better. That’s American ingenuity for you.

Now, there are thousands of celebrants here, educated professionals who are celebrants because they have seen a need, studied to prepare themselves to undertake this important work, and who try to make a living doing it. I promise you: no one becomes a celebrant to make lots of money, though. We become celebrants out of an acute awareness of the need for the profession. But before we get to the reason celebrancy matters, let’s define our term.

Celebrancy: the art and profession of creating and performing personalized ceremonies uniquely designed to honor clients’ own needs for meaningful weddings, end-of-life memorials, baby welcomings, retirements, pet memorials, and more. As well as working with individuals and families, celebrants also compose ceremonies for civic functions, such as art installations, new building dedications, and community healing ceremonies (such as those that followed 9/11).

A celebrant employs her or his excellent writing skills, speaking ability, love of the arts, engagement with people and our lives, respect for our need for ritual, and organizational skills to handcraft ceremonies for clients from all belief systems. Celebrancy can draw from all human cultural traditions in order to provide individuals, families, and communities the relevant ceremonies they desire.

So there you have it. Being a celebrant is important, sustaining work!

Celebrate My New Blog: Confluence Ceremonies!

Celebrate My New Blog: Confluence Ceremonies!