I began writing this invitation yesterday, the 24th of June, a special day in the traditions of Old Europe, by which I mean something between pre-Christian and syncretic-Christian Europe, when (I would like to believe) Christian traditions were still earthbound, in the way Celtic Christianity was earthbound — and, in fact, Celtic Christianity bears a closer resemblance to Eastern Orthodox forms of Christianity, the Constantinople side from the Roman-Byzantine split, than the Roman Catholicism that subsumed it, most aggressively after the Catholic Emancipation period in the late 18th-early 19th c. — but I digress. June 24th is the day of Sânziana/Sânziene, a day I remember from childhood as festive, itchy (from riding on top of hay in the horse-drawn cart?), noisy with bees and the vibration of the whole earth ripening as the days lengthened; we would gather Sânziene (Lady’s Bedstraw, in English) from the fields, plait them into garlands for our heads, throw them later onto the roof, for good harvest. I remember many previous years’ wreaths on the rooftops in my grandparents’ village of Posmuș. Born just before this holiday, I bear the name of my grandmother, Sânziana Uilean. In remembering the dead, I mean to talk to you about death, grief, and ritual.
I am transitioning back into the wider container of my life/ the world after being held in the container of the residential retreat I attended last week in the UK. To say it was a special space is a wild understatement; it was a space for personal and collective healing and renewal unlike any I have experienced, and I know I will be reflecting on it for a long time. In the meantime, I have wanted to identify some of the things that made it so special, to unpack the deep care with which it was organized/ held. I also want to acknowledge the kind of time required for this: it took the organizers over a year to build their own connections and to identify/ gather the resources they needed; it took time, too, to solicit, select and prepare the group of participants.
In very practical terms, during the retreat, care came in the form of:
- a gentle, peaceful environment at the Quadrangle, surrounded by trees, fields, wildflowers, birds, bees, herbs, and a river in which one could bathe
- nourishing, anti-inflammatory food by the artist-chef Raju Rage
- a designated support person who was present but also not fully participating in the program (for the 2 white-bodied participants in the predominantly POC group, there was also an explicit offer to seek support space with one of the white-bodied organizers — this is care for everyone).
- experienced, trauma-and-resilience-informed facilitators who created a solid yet flexible container, meaning that there was a schedule (safety) and permission/ willingness to adjust the schedule (freedom), depending on the evolving spirit of the group, i.e. foregoing some directed activities, in order to create room for more spacious integration activities, such as art-making (I played with watercolors, mostly), when the facilitators sensed the group was heavy and tired (normal responses to processing grief, but also to being in communal space after spending so much of the pandemic in isolation, or in vigilant care to preserve physical distance).
- attention to difference within/ and embodied experience — this might seem obvious in this context, but is worth naming directly
There were many other forms of attention and care, but these are the ones that stand out most at the moment. I thought about Lelo (who was meant to come, but couldn’t because of her yet indeterminate asylum status; who was, in a sense, the reason I was there) a lot, we called her in — and her griefs — a few times. She wasn’t there physically, but she was there.
While at the retreat, care for self and community came with increasing ease. For my part: waking up early, having time alone to write, breathe, do my self-hypnosis exercises (in that beautiful spot in the photo above, I was the one who opened those shutters every morning), and continue with my running program, sometimes to dip myself in the river. Making these decisions, which seems to require so much activation energy at home, felt natural. I woke just before my alarm. Hardly spent any time scrolling in the morning.
Part of the transition back to this bigger container has been about allowing things to be a little bumpy, to feel the edge of the encroaching rush and panic (deadlines, bills, administrative tasks) with more kindness, patience and reassurance that I DO know how to ration my defenses. The transition has also been about trying to greet the life I left briefly with new eyes, to see what has changed. In the world, in me.
For example, one of the spaces I became fond of early during the pandemic (inspired by one of É’s class assignments) is a vacant lot near where I live, and I had kind of forgotten this friend in recent months. This lot, which is not particularly attractive at first glance, teaches me about attention, beauty and liberation. I see it sectioned by the metal fencing. I see it through the fencing, unobstructed. I encounter it again, remembering how gradually I let go of the need to civilize it in my mind. Allowed myself to accept it as it is, which was a way of accepting myself, though I find that hard to explain. When I give this lot my attention, I liberate myself from the need to order, domesticate, delineate and accumulate. The day will come when this lot will be developed (and Land knows we need affordable housing, if only that could be its fate), but for now its beauty and function survive and thrive in benign neglect. Dublin 8, with all its concrete and ponies, is a monument to benign (and not so benign) neglect. Wild things grow here. This wildness is precarious and precious.
I didn’t have any Sânziene, so I followed an Italian ritual for this time of year, the “Acqua di San Giovanni,” or the “Water of Saint John,” referring to the baptism of St. John, which is celebrated by many Christians on this day. I gathered flowers and herbs and put them outside in a bowl of water overnight, then washed my face with the water in the morning. I shared this ritual with participants from the retreat, some of whom also performed the ritual. This gave me a much needed feeling of continuity — of form — across the bridge from one container to another.
And in thinking of form, what holds the chaotic uncertainty of life and the heart-stilling certainty of death, I thought about this poem by C. Dale Young. I will humbly suggest that it takes a few readings (out loud, if possible) to gather the sense, and the Cancerian emotionality (I know he is talking about the other cancer), through the formal eloquence of its sound. As with so many elegies after W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” the grief is contained (but just barely) within the poem’s dirge-like rhythm and grammatic eloquence.
Cancer and Complaint at Midsummer
by C. Dale Young
Because the silence of the dead,
that blue expanse of sky about
to ashen here above my head,
is easily ignored, our tears
are blamed on flowers whitening limbs
of trees, the very air, with hymns
of summer pollen no one hears
except for women—old, devout.
And now, these humid months, dispute
them not: midsummer has no name
among the dead, no Latin root
to which it can be traced, no swarm
of conjugations to decipher.
So little left to write this summer,
my mind now weak in handling form,
which I still cling to just the same.
The lectionary, too, is talking about death. In the Gospel of Mark, at least.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (for this week it is: CDaleYoung); the video conference link is: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021