15 September 2011

Rituals and Objects of the Dead

Blinking my eyes open, I slowly wake to the sound of birds outside.
The sun is setting, it's just after 6pm.
I'm lost.
A moment passes before I locate myself in time and space...I gaze up at the earth colours of the tent canopy, soft twilight filtering through the material; I open my ears now to the sounds of the birds, the warbling, whistling, twittering of a hundred little species flurrying about, nesting in for the night. Whoosh...a crow swoops dangerously low above my tent, looking for food.
Image: My tent is almost hidden amongst the bushes.

It was raining when I arrived at Deep Creek this morning - I put up my tent in the rain, then cocooned myself in it for the rest of the day.

I'mon another 3 day retreat, but in a different setting this time.

Deep Creek is a beautiful wild and mountainous bush setting at the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula, and Cobblers Hill is the smallest and most obscure of the five campgrounds within the vast conservation area. The coastline is a 3km walk away so the landscape here varies enormously - from sparse scrub to subtropical creeks and gullies, from stringybark forest to rugged clifftops overlooking the coast. It's very different to the flat, coastal landscape of Yorke Peninsula where I've retreated monthly since Mark died. Deep Creek is much closer, only an hour and a half drive south, instead of the almost 4 hour trip to Pondilowie Bay on Yorke Peninsula.

Why did I choose a different location in the opposite direction?
Perhaps to herald the relinquishment of grief, of no longer dwelling in the place where my deepest sorrow was felt. No longer dwelling there, but often visiting...

I am so lucky to have three days a month set aside for solitude. My retreats began in January, back then providing solitary time away from work and family where I could immerse myself in the cathartic process of intense grief. More recently, as my feelings around Mark's death soften, the trips away to Yorke Peninsuala had became more of a pilgrimage, a sacred act of traveling to a place of worship.

This time, travelling to a different place, the trips have acquired a new flavour.

They have become a ritual.

Ritual that is repeated without a heartfelt connection can easily become a mindless habit (though it can be effectively used to re-establish a lost connection).

I have to be vigilant...three days away could easily become a lazy holiday.

I arrive at Cobblers Hill, set up tent, dry myself off, then I sleep, all day. Its a necessary period of unconsciousness, a ritual transition to help switch my mind from worldly concerns to a quieter, receptive state.

After waking up at sunset I warm up some vegetables, eat, listen to the pitter patter of rain on the tent, then snuggle back into bed and sleep again, until morning.

Day 2 and rain falls on and off. I don't venture out. Instead I meditate, do some yoga, and read a timely book called "Objects of the Dead" by Margaret Gibson. This turns out to be a sensitive reflection on grieving and our relationship with the objects we are left with after a loved one dies (more about that below).

Day 3 is clear, occasionally overcast and windy. Finally I am ready to venture out of the tent and into the lush and beautiful bushland.

Arum Lillies

A short 45 minute walk takes me down into a tropical gully through Aaron's Creek. Arum lilies are everywhere; vast choirs of them spring forth from the bottom and sides of the running creek, beautiful lily blankets cover the gully edges. They are in full voice, singing like angels. I fall in love with lilies, am swept off my feet by their joy (and take way too many photos).

The process of taking photos makes me hone in on their unique beauty. I sense the subtle energy of the lily. It is there in the shape, the colour, the size, the properties.

Have you ever really looked at an arum lily with your natural intuitive sense...to gain understanding of its esoteric properties?

Have you noticed that the gently curled white flower and the leaf are a similar shape, it is a beautiful shape, not quite a love heart, not quite a tear, but a little of both...what does that tell us?

And the way the lily unfolds, from a shy introverted adolescent to a fully open praise-to-the-world joyful expression of a flower. The lily in full bloom resembles a trumpet, an instrument designed to herald ...... And what of the unashamed erect yellow stamen emerging from the female orifice, a phallic symbol of great beauty and elegance, parading its offerings in full view to attract bees who will help it reproduce.

I gaze upon the sea of singing heart shaped lilies and am uplifted by an angelic wave of joy.

(My granddaughter's name is Lily. I must bring her here so she can swim in this lily ocean).

After lunch I hike 6kms to Blowhole Beach and back, up and down some steep hills and over some cliffs. The view is expansive, Kangaroo Island looks surprising close on the horizon, the sound of waves crashing on rocks is hypnotically alluring.

Death is always so close.

Images: Crossing a little ravine on the way to Blowhole Beach; Approaching Blowhole Beach

Objects of the Dead

Weary from the hike, I return to the tent and read a bit more, morbidly fascinated by the stories of people who have lost loved ones and who must deal with the belongings they've left behind.

In the turbulent weeks after Mark died, I was wearing his clothing; it enveloped me in his being, embodied him around me, I felt his gentle touch, his smell, his presence. Somehow it momentarily lessened the irreversible absence of his death.

Now his clothes are packed away in a bag in the corner of my bedroom.

I would not dare to look upon them now lest they prick open my tender heart and unleash my emotional response to the transitory fact of human mortality:

as Mark died so shall I...

and so shall my children...

and so shall all my

other loved ones.

As each day passes, we are all one day closer to death.

Mark's clothing also holds the painfully physical memory of his personal suffering, his failures, his hidden demons. And layered through the same fabric are memories of my massive shock and trauma, raw feelings now confined and imprinted into a bag of clothes that sit in the corner and haunt me.

Mark's clothes, and especially his shoes, are potent reminders of his absence, of a genuine love that is lost forever; they retain his energy and my memories of him, but also memories of the intensity of my grief.

"During the grieving process the dead take up residence in the psyche of the grieving - their irreversible absence converts into an intense mental presence. On account of the very fact that we have lost him or her, the dead person is more totally present to us than he or she ever was in life.

"The people and things in our lives leave deep residues and impressions. Even without the presence of grief, objects can create an atmosphere of vague solicitation such that we become aware of living in and amidst things that have histories beyond present knowledge and the powers of recollection."

All memory is a form of haunting.

"The deceased love one becomes omnipresent to the grieving. ...the loved subject becomes the object of thought, invading the very operation of thought itself. This psychic reality of enduring love is the impossibility of forgetting."

"We never let go of those we love - our ghosts - who, in our consciousness, traverse the exclusions and divisions of past, present and future."

"OBJECTS MATTER, because they are part of us - we imprint objects and they imprint us materially, emotionally and memorially."

"Cathexis refers to the psychic charge or emotional stimulus attached to objects and figures of identification."

"Objects contain memories and, like photograph negatives, they are just waiting to be printed out."

"Objects of the dead don't inhabit only the literal space of a house, garage, shed or shop; they also occupy emotional space, forming the imprints and prompts of memory and story.

But think about it, when we die, what happens to our possessions? They move to the homes of family, friends and strangers or they are destroyed.

Death makes ALL material possessions nomadic."

"For those who believe in an after life, death never reduces a person to nothing; nor is the dead person subject to the fragmentation and dwindling of their traces in earthly existence: on the contrary, the dead are never more whole, because they return to the source of their existence - God."


In "Objects of the Dead", the author explores the power of photographic images to capture a moment in time, not just of the deceased but also of the living:

"In taking and displaying photographs we actively invite haunting as an orientation towards being and dwelling with the ghosts of former selves, those lost and departed others."

"Images of the past can become confronting, even oppressive, as people age and experience the weight of mortality and grief."

My son Nik finds it distressing to look at photos of his youth - he is reminded of the 'golden years', the joy of childhood innocence before the burden of adulthood weighed him down.

"In looking at photographic images of ourselves and others we recognise the mortality of what was and will ever be again."

Photographs of Mark hang around my house: on walls, mantelpieces, shelves, tables...I don't know how long they will stay there but they seem to be now an integral part of my private surroundings.

I suddenly realise the different energetic resonance of Mark's clothing and shoes compared to these photographs. His clothes and shoes still hold the physical and energetic traces of his fully alive body, and in their unfilled shape they are stark reminders of the human being I loved who once filled them with life. But the photographs capture only a contrived image of Mark - one fleeting moment in time - printed onto a flat, lifeless sheet of paper. The images represent, remind me of, and replace the real person in a less provocative way than the physical items so imbued with his essence.

The author ends the chapter on photographs with the following:
"The more we record our lives - obviously, deliberately and excessively - the less we live them with a sense and acceptance of the past as mortal and irretrievable. Recording technologies make time lived as a quiet, unpunctuated flow rare and unimaginable. Does it really matter if this event or this moment is not recorded for playback? No matter how much we record ourselves, we cannot overcome our mortality. The fear of complete oblivion and the unimaginable absence of our existence are both recorded and protected against in videos, photographs, personal websites and so on.

Photographs and other recording technologies record our resistance to and failure to accept oblivion."

"Human beings are bound to each other psychically and materially and the binding extends beyond the separation of death. To experience the spectrality of places and things is to be open to apprehending the ghostliness of material existence - where presence and absence partake of each other. Such an orientation towards the world is at the same time a sensuous knowledge that is ethically bound to seeing, feeling and responding to traces of others - stranger, friend, mother, sister or lover."

I am both blessed and cursed, to have a sensuous knowledge of the ghostliness of material existence.