Molecularly Rearranged

February 28, 2011

In June of 2006, Ona’s beloved nephew, Nick, was stabbed to death.  Nick, Ona says, embodied the new male paradigm: strong and smart, with heart of gold (well, she wrote “a heart of god,” which we both like even better), and a smile that illuminated everything around him.

Ona says she sometimes misses his physical presence so much that she feels like “a Picasso, twisted, with a huge hole in my chest and an ache that has no name.”

She wrote this poem in response to my invitation to sit inside the fire of grief.

Inside and Surrounded


I live with the wound every day, every breath.

It has become an integral part of the fiber of my being.

It has opened me, tearing me raw like a can opener tears at the metal of a can –

jagged edges which in turn tear flesh.


It bothers some people that I cry easily –

the opening of the wound has made me not care.

I weep, in deep pain or joy – they both look the same.


This wound has tended me,

has shaped me into a woman I do not remember being –

it has redistributed my molecular structure to the core.


I sit in it, surrounded by it:

it is the hole torn in my chest that lets in the universe.


The child that was,

the flesh that resembled my face (though born of my sister’s body),

the towering strength of running back force

does not stand before me any longer,

yet he informs my every breath.

Somehow being in the wound has brought me even closer to him.


In the physical separation the bond that is deepest abides.

To sit in the wound, permeated by its informing,

is to look into Nick’s eyes

through to the realm of expansion and listen …




Time Steals

February 18, 2011

One of the many platitudes with which well-meaning friends and acquaintances try to comfort us when we have lost someone very dear to us is this one: time heals.  But I’d like to explore the opposite phenomenon: time steals.  It steals the immediacy of our loved one’s presence in our lives.  The more time passes after their death, the farther away our life together grows.  This can be an extremely painful part of the early phases of the mourning process, and one for which our support system often neglects to support us!

Jenny’s car wreck happened a week after we returned from a vacation in Hawaii.  While swimming in the ocean, I had cut my foot on coral, and traveled home with a deep gash.  When Jenny died, my foot was just beginning to heal.  I remember having this irrational desire for the healing process to slow down and stop, because the pain of that wound connected me to a time when my daughter was alive, and we stood in the shallow water of the South Pacific, holding hands and squealing as we watched the tropical fish swimming around our feet.

As I sit with people who are freshly grieving, I often hear things like this: “I dread when his subscription to Surfer Magazine expires, because then I will really know he is gone.”  “I am using her shampoo and lotion, because it makes me feel closer to her, but it’s almost gone.  Then what?”  “His aroma is fading from his clothes.  I go into his closet and inhale his shirts, but I can’t smell him anymore.”  “I left her room exactly as it was, but it’s starting to feel like a museum exhibit, and not a real place.  Today I threw away her toothbrush, and collapsed on the bathroom floor, sobbing.  Her toothbrush!”

Around two weeks after Jenny died, I was sitting at the table with Jeff, moving the food around on my plate, finding it almost impossible to do something as life-sustaining as eating when my child was dead.  Suddenly I realized that the growing anxiety roiling in my gut had something to do with the fact that that Jenny and I had never been separated this long.

Once, when Jenny was around nine, I taught a workshop in Mexico.  Jenny stayed with my best friend, whose daughter was Jenny’s best friend, and I was able to speak with her on the telephone every few days.  Before I left for the airport, Jenny had stashed a surprise package wrapped in a piece of pink felt in the bottom of my suitcase: a framed picture of herself on my lap when she was four, a note telling me to be happy and assuring me that she would kiss my picture every night before she went to sleep, and a box of grape “nerds,” her favorite candy.  So I didn’t feel severed from my daughter.  I knew it was temporary.  Separation by death is a rending of the most basic fabric of relationship.  It cannot be repaired.

Yet something else can take its place: a new metaphysical connection will fill in the space left behind by the physical connection.  We cannot know this when we are newly grieving, and it’s pointless to dwell on it, because in the beginning that is nothing but an abstract concept.  It utterly fades in light of the blazing fire of loss.  Still, there are things we can do to cultivate this new relationship – gently and naturally – even as we allow ourselves to feel the full reality of what we have lost.

Inventing rituals and dedicating projects in honor of your loved one is a powerful way to find our new path together.  Lighting a candle next to their picture on a regular basis can become a tangible means for invoking their presence and offering our love.  Running a marathon or singing in a concert, publishing a poem or feeding the homeless, we can offer the experience – either publicly declared or privately held – to the memory of our loved one.  On a future visit to Hawaii after Jenny’s death, I leapt off a forty-foot cliff into a volcanic pool below – something I never would have done before this loss had rendered me fearless – and as I plummeted through the air I screamed, “This is for you, Jen!”  It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

I still enact rituals on a regular basis, from arranging a vase of flowers beside her picture every week to decorating the Celtic cross on the side of the road where she crashed on the anniversary of her death.  Every time I write a book or give a talk, I invoke Jenny’s assistance.  Each story I tell about her erases the distance between us.  Jenny is part of everything I do now – especially the beautiful, wonderful, playful things.  The temperamental teenager has given way to an impish angel who guides my steps to an authentic life, and keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

This new, metaphysical relationship did not happen overnight.  First I had to fully show up for the hard work of conscious grieving, neither minimizing my pain nor using spiritual concepts to check out from reality.  I had to say yes to the fire, even as everything in me was saying no to the burning.  A part of me had to die with her death, to be transfigured into a being who could hang out with a spirit.


Inner Revolution

February 13, 2011

The day after the people of Egypt pulled off their non-violent revolution last week, I sat with a newly grieving widow as she wondered when, if ever, she would feel whole again.  I recalled an interview I heard on Democracy Now! the day before, in which Amy Goodman asked a long-time human rights activist to what she attributed this miraculous event.  The woman responded that every revolution happens at the perfect time.  In other words, the years of struggle and tears finally ripen into the perfect set of conditions, and we break free from tyranny.

Not that grief is tyrannical (although it certainly can feel that way, can’t it?), nor that we are ever free from its power to transform us, but that there comes a time when we are no longer crushed by sorrow.  We have integrated our loss into the fabric of who we are.  We learn to live with the amputation, finding a new center of balance, standing up on life’s surfboard once again.  An inner revolution takes place, and the timing is perfect.

We all grieve in our own way, following our own mysterious path of the heart.  There is no formula, no timeline, no set of rules about how you or anyone else should move through the mourning process.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ phases of grief (denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are helpful signs along the road that help us realize we are not crazy or alone, that many others have traveled this way before us, and survived.  Yet each of us must navigate our own grief odyssey, and the less self-recrimination we foist on ourselves during this painful time, the more fully we will drink of the secret medicine that lies at the heart of our suffering, the truth that sets us free.


Room For Us All

February 10, 2011

In my new book, a collaboration with iconographer-priest Father Bill McNichols, Mother of God Similar to Fire (Orbis Books), we reach out to the Divine Feminine and affirm the paradox of the broken heart: it can hold more love.

This is my prayer to Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores (p. 39):

Mother of suffering,

you carry the grief of the whole world

in your boundless, shattered heart.

Please, carry mine.

I know that the broken-open container

of your Mother’s Heart

has room for us all:

for the women of Iraq and Rwanda,

Afghanistan and Bosnia,

Darfur and Burma,

Palestine and Israel,

whose innocent children are sacrificed every day

as victims of these senseless wars;

for parents in Los Angeles and Albuquerque,

London and Buenos Aires,

whose sons and daughters are killed in sudden car wrecks,

or die of lingering cancers,

or wrestle with the demons of addiction,

or languish in prison systems

specially designed to breed violence and hatred.

Your own sorrow has rendered you invincible, Mother.

I cannot bear these losses alone.

Please share them with me.

Last week, all the natural gas in northern New Mexico was cut off without any warning.  It was a Thursday morning and, following a snowstorm, the temperatures had fallen to 20 degrees below zero for two nights in a row.  The same cold front had assaulted West Texas, and apparently the gas consumers there had used up all the fuel in the pipeline before it could make its way to us.  Or something like that.  No one is disclosing the truth about how such a disaster could have happened.

All we know is that we spent six days without heat or hot water, our homes growing colder and colder, so that the floors and walls themselves began to radiate the chill into every cell of our bodies.  In the meantime, we were being assured that the gas company, supported by the Red Cross and National Guard, were doing everything in their power to restore fuel.  They just couldn’t be sure when that would be.  Our community rallied in the most beautiful way to support and care for its most vulnerable members.

At last, we were able to reconnect our natural gas and begin to thaw our heating systems and bathe with blessed hot water.  A little late for me: I’ve come down with a nasty flu.  Every joint aches as if I had been run over by a truck, and I am so congested I can hardly breathe.

I am taking all of this as good news.

At the risk of sounding like a self-sacrifice zealot, I would like to share why it is that this unanticipated fuel crisis and my subsequent ill-health have become welcome reminders of my inter-connectedness with all beings who suffer.

In the midst of the discomfort and anxiety of being unable to heat our homes, cook our food, or bathe our bodies during deep winter, it occurred to me that much of the world lives in a state of lack every day: lack of basic resources; lack of clean water; lack of essential nourishment; lack of a warm safe place to lie down and be replenished.  When I checked on Fr. Bill during the third day of the crisis, he expressed this sense of sacred interdependence when he said, “It’s okay.  This gives me a chance to participate in a small way with the suffering of the world.”  I stopped complaining on the spot.

Now, too sick to go about my regular business, I am catapulted into a kind of altered state – not unlike the disconnected feeling we get in the wake of a sudden death – and this affords me some fresh perspective.  I do not take this body for granted.  All over the world, people are suffering from life-threatening illness and debilitating pain.  Since I already feel so miserable, it is a small move for me to yield to my condition instead of fighting it, and open myself to the pain of everyone everywhere who is at this very moment enduring physical anguish.

In Tibetan Buddhism, this practice is known as tonglen: taking and sending.  When you experience pain, whether emotional or physical, you are invited to breathe it in, along with the pain of all beings who might also be suffering in this particular way, and then breathe out relief from suffering, for yourself and all beings.  In fully showing up for the experience of pain, we may find that we are able to carry our own and others’ suffering in a much more spacious, tender, and compassionate way.  There’s nothing like a disaster to present us with the opportunity to engage this transformational tool!

For great instructions about this practice, be sure to check out Pema Chodren’s teachings on Shambhala’s website:

Until next time, be well and warm.  I’m going back to bed.




Ann Saint John Hawley

February 1, 2011

Last Thursday, I sat with my 91-year-old friend Ann as she was taking her last breaths and slowly, with exceeding grace, slipping away from this world.

At her funeral yesterday, even as her children and grandchildren were weeping to imagine a world without Ann in it, there was a sweet sense of rightness pervading the sanctuary.  This was a life fully and beautifully lived, a death gently embraced, a work masterfully completed.  For me, as Ann’s friend, it was a balm that soothed the wound inflicted by the loss of so many loved ones who have died young and tragically.

Ann was a student of mine two decades ago when I began teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies classes at the local college.  In her 70s, she was still an active learner, stretching her vast mind ever wider as if to encompass all the wonder of the universe.  A prolific artist, life-long dancer, and widow of a much-loved country doctor, Ann had raised six children, who were now each raising children and grandchildren of their own.  In the midst of a lifetime of loving dedication to her family, Ann had managed to produce a staggering body of work.  I cherish the painting she gave us as a wedding gift: “Ramakrishna in Ecstasy.”  It depicts a nude man sprawled on his side in a yogic pose, a wild smile on his toothy face.  She said she made this piece after reading about the early 20th century saint who loved all religions and had a special devotion to the Divine Mother.  You can feel the passion and joy in every brush stroke.

I vividly recall the final presentation Ann did for my Eastern Religions class.  She gave a slide show of “a year in the life of a lotus pond” which she had shot while her husband was in residency in the Southeast, and she read aloud from her journals from that period.  She emphasized the symbolism of the lotus, whose roots sink deep into the muddy water, feeding on the muck, and whose exquisite blossoms reach for the sun.

When my mother, Susanna Starr – who is 15 years or so younger than Ann– began research for a book she was writing called “50 and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being (, she was looking for inspiring elders and I connected her with Ann.  They became instant soul-sisters.  My mom, too, embraces life with quiet abandon and turns it all into art.

So even though Ann took my classes, attended my readings (always sending me bouquets of flowers in colored glass vases, accompanied by hand-painted cards and heart-felt words), bought all my books and foisted them on everyone she knew, telling everybody what a “spiritual genius” I was, it was I who was Ann’s student, up to the very end, and beyond.

I am grateful for the wild and tender touch of this shaman’s hand in my life.  Godspeed, Ann.