Confluence Ceremonies

Marking Your Life's Important Moments

Year: 2016

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?” 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. 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.



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.



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.