Thursday, December 28, 2006

Death: A Journey for the Living as well as the Dead

"Baldur hath ridden over Gyoll's bridge, and yonder lieth the way he took to the abodes of death."

-The Death of Baldur

Eleven days ago, my friend Jason took his own life. Death almost always has the power to shock us, but this one was quite unexpected, and senseless. It shook the foundations of my life, and the lives of all my friends that I have in common with Jason- it shook me out of one life and sent me spinning into another.

On one hand, life was and is good- I cannot complain about my life, and its many blessings. Wyrd has spun out such wonderful circumstances for me and those closest to me, the greatest of which was the emergence of my beloved daughter from the life-giving powers of this world. All around me, the bounty of my life is evident. There is no want, no lack of food or money or shelter and most importantly, no lack of love. I feel peace with the world because of my faith and I have a great mirror- the mirror of Wyrd and the wisdom of the old times- to look into to give me guidance when I feel that I need it. I couldn't be happier.

And so, when death comes so unexpectedly, as some twists of Wyrd are wont, our faiths are tested, and we seek for the way to proceed. Like the dead, a journey is required of us.

When I heard the news of Jason's death, I was naturally bewildered and disbelieving. Few people can believe such a thing up front; I thought it was a false report or a prank- Jason wasn't past putting people on with such pranks. But the warning in my gut wouldn't go away- deep down, I knew he was dead. And oddly enough, though I have now sat through his visitation, his funeral and burial, it seems that the reality hasn't sunk in to the deepest level; I found myself walking through my home a few days ago wondering if anyone had called Jason to invite him to one of the bonfires we were holding in his honor.

It's always best to get started journeying early, and so we wake up and get ready. My awakening came with the news of Jason's death. I say "awakening" because few things can shock us out of our sleep-like lives like death can. As a Wyrd-worker, I make an effort to work with more vivid, altered states of consciousness, and I make an effort to "see" the hidden details of life that most people miss. But no amount of trance-work can awaken you like the bitter reality of what we call "death", especially when it affects you directly.

It is a common human failing- what Wulf the Seidman from Brian Bates' work "The Way of Wyrd" calls the "fungus" that grows in our minds: we assume that we all have so many years left to live, so much so that a dream-life takes over in our brains. We put off today what we assume we'll be able to do later, even though there may be no "later". Death is our constant companion, and the sorcerer, as well as the warrior, must accept that death may come for us today, any day, at any moment.

It's one thing to say it, but something else to really put your whole mind and body into it. This isn't a clever mind game; this isn't just some line of wisdom you read in a book or see on a screen. This is death, the sometimes violent destruction of our lich or our bodies; it is the end of our dearly loved and familiar routines and activities, a farewell to our friends, and the release of the fetch and the mind into the vast and mysterious reaches beyond this world of animals, growing things, and human beings. It is a forced shove into a distant, unknown shore, and we can lose our wits easily in such a radical change.

I'd like to make this totally clear, to remind myself as much as to remind you- and you can't be reminded of this enough: the time to be alive and truly aware is now. Wyrd only gives us this moment, right now. It may truly seem like it, but there is no future out there somewhere, waiting for us. What you have- what everyone has- is here and now, wherever you are, whatever you are. Do not trust in a hope for some fantasy future that you have dreamed of in your head. Do not assume that your friends and family will be there with you, one day far from now, to discuss with you about the good times you had long ago. Let the future arise as it will; we don't live there. It is impossible to live in a place that doesn't yet exist.

This is where I woke up. I woke up to my responsibility as Seidman to be here and now. I was asleep; I slept too long. Giantish powers, the seductive variety that creep through human lives, had lured me to a half-awake state where I was zoning out. Deadly knots of Wyrd took the life of someone near to me, and the shock of it has reverberated strongly, shaking open my deeper senses. Then off I went to do what I had to do, and to see what I had to see, as Wyrd kept weaving. I would like to share some of that journey with you now.

I met Jason in 1999. He was one of the baristas in the coffee shop I managed back then. I remember him vividly, as a long-haired, bright young man who knew everything about coffee and who had a penchant for Rumi poetry. He introduced me to Rumi, actually. The last thing my physical eyes saw of Jason in this world was the short-haired, wax-statue looking corpse lying in a coffin in a christian church. That was a few days ago. Somewhere in-between my first meeting and my final view of what remained of Jason's body, was the life of a man who was a radical mystic in his own right, a wild lord of the party, a scholar and a writer who finally succumbed to dark forces that drew him into destructive confusion and depression and led him to despair and death.

I foolishly always imagined that years from now, I'd hear about Jason doing this or that, or living in this place or that place, and that he and I would remember those times we were younger men and living back in LA. That future never existed, and Wyrd will never weave it. I failed Jason in a way- a way that I won't fail my friends again, to honor his death: I won't look at someone for the future I may have with them. I will look at people in the now. That is Wyrd-scrying, that is Wyrd-sight. We miss so much because we are gazing, without realizing it, into dark shadows of futures that don't exist and pasts that can no longer be seen in that way.

Death makes all true Heathens step up to the plate and say goodbye in our own way. The first steps on my journey were to plan Jason's funeral rites. I knew that I'd have to sit through the rites that Jason's family would put on for him, but those weren't his real funeral rites. Jason had left the Christianity he was born into long ago, taking up his spiritual home in the path of ecstatic mysticism and philosophical Taoism. His Christian funeral was an alien drone of noise and commotion around his body, and around his soul, that he would not have appreciated.

More than ever, I came to realize that the old saying was true: modern (read: Christian) funerals are for the living, not the dead. My Heathen rites for Jason were all for him, for the welfare of his soul on his journey. I do not begrudge Jason's family their right and need to give him the send-off that their religion called for. But I do know that Jason would have wanted something different. He was going to get it from me, and from his other friends who were more in touch with his eccentric tastes and his non-ordinary spiritual path.

Yes, the Christian rites were for the Christians. They wept, sang, prayed, and at the end, they walked away from the casket sitting on the burial ground, looking back with longing in their eyes. I wanted to yell at them all that Jason wasn't trapped in that box; he wasn't stuck in his grave. There was nothing there for them to look back at; Jason was free; he had become a part of the world in a new way, a broader way, and he was still just as much "here", just as much a part of the world as he ever was. And we are all parts of that world, meaning we are still in an intimate relationship with Jason.

I did learn something important, from being at Jason's visitation ceremony. I saw nearly every person I knew cry. I saw his parents hugging everyone and seeing hundreds of people, including many strangers, crying their eyes out for Jason. I realized that grief was easier for the family to bear if it was shared. Grief is a great weight, as I am now very aware, and when so many people grieve with you, it does seem easier to bear.

The gathering I attended the night of the visitation was awesome. I saw so many friends from "the old days", back when we all lived here in this city together, back when we were closer. I saw people that I missed, and I didn't realize how much I missed them until I saw them again. I drank and drank, and I didn't sleep. When I was dropped off at my home by 5:30 AM, I still didn't want to sleep. Instead, I went down to the woods and the trails that Jason used to love, and I watched the sun come up. Every sound of every bird was purely musical; my eyes certainly were opened in a new way. I promised myself that I'd unload all my thoughts on the first person I came across that morning- and Wyrd saw to it that a kindly old gent from the local neighborhood and his big white dog came walking down the levee.

I introduced myself, and told him what a fine prize he'd just won: to hear my sad story at the crack of dawn. This fine man took it well, like a real champ: we walked his dog together, and talked about life and death. We finally parted, and he told me that death presented everyone with a chance to make something good out of misfortune. He said a subtle, noble truth to me- he said that we all had a chance to change our relationships with one another, to look deeper into things, and to make a good thing out of the bad. It may be simple sounding, but this advice is deeper than the ocean. Every moment is already a new chance for things to change; death is the same, but with a deeper motivation to do so.

By the time the funeral and burial was over, I felt spiritually and emotionally drained- totally thin and wasted inside. A strange species of depression set in, but Thorgrimm and I still went out to the water's rim and did the first Blot for Jason's journey. That night, the water was beautiful, and the night was silent and vast. The temperature was perfect. I sang the Hagalaz-songs, opening the Helgrind, and made our single flame.

Thorgrimm used our hammer to do the Hammer-rite and I prayed to He who should be invoked to guide the dead safely through the dangers of the Hel-way: the Allfather. We lifted a horn of ale, of Jason's favorite ale, and it was made powerful by the Allfather. We drank some of it. We poured the rest into a wooden bowl, and sprinkled ourselves with it using a hlauteinn of holly-evergreen. We gave it to the ground, we prayed and spoke to Jason.

Allfather is the world-creating spirit who guides all souls down the Hel-way, to their rest. Or should I say, he once did; does he still? I believe so, but we must never forget that humans have a duty to maintain a reciprocal relationship with the Gods, and today, so few people consciously do so. When humans largely forget the Gods, it's not that the Gods forget us, but that we close our minds to their presence and to what they wish for us. The Allfather's holy kindred reach for us; how many reach back? How many of us would go down the Hel-way with the Allfather, when he appeared for us at death? Would we think of him as a figment of our dying imaginations, or would we fear him as some evil spirit, as the Christians call him?

When a person dies, I believe that the next Nine Nights that follow is especially sacred to their journey. After a few days of unconsciousness, I believe that their minds, re-clad in a subtle body, arises into a new, subtle consciousness, and is then faced by its own death-vision, and enters into the experience of the Hel-way, the transitional experience that falls between this world and whatever other world the dead may find their way to, in accordance with their own Wyrd. All of the dead must first go to the deeps of Hel, the Underworld, before they either find their way to a resting place in the deep, or move on to another world.

There's so much we don't know about the experience of the dead, and indeed, much can't be known. The death experience is highly individualistic. One thing is certain- for the Heathen faithful, to die is to "see Odin"- to meet the guide of souls, if we can or will recieve him.

In the time of the Nine Nights, at least three Blots should be done; the first for Allfather to guide the journeyer, the second for the ancestors and guardian spirit of the journeyer to help him or her, and the last for Urd, the Fate-weaver, She who is queen over the dead in Hel. All are done for a single purpose: to see that the dead be helped. To see that they be given the power to maintain their wits through the dark visions and spiritual dangers of the journey. Ill-wights and trollish powers can assault the person who wanders down the Hel-way, especially if they go unawares or without preparation. The greatest danger of the death-journey is that we will lose our wits, succumb to full unconsciousness, and be drawn into the deepest dark of Hel's halls, losing our will and motivation and the fire of our spirits.

It takes a strong, vibrant person in this life to master death, but it is not impossible. And most people need help. That's why we have the Fetch-guardians sent to us by Allfather, and the Allfather himself; this is why we have our spiritual friends and the ancestral powers that watch over us. Even in death, we get by with help from our friends, our kin, and our Gods.

But most of all, we must entreat mighty Urd, the Fate-weaver, whose noose falls on all of us when our time for death, our own doom, has come.

So Thorgrimm and I invoked first the Allfather, and rightly so, for the Allfather also lost his son. He knows what the family and friends of Jason are going through. He lost his son to the dark of Hel, but more importantly, the Allfather knows what awaits, what lies beyond; he knows the great completion of all things. He whispered this secret into his son's ear on his funeral pyre. The rite was powerful; by this time, we knew that Jason wasn't so far down the Hel-way that he couldn't hear us. I know that he could still experience so much, perhaps clearly, perhaps indistinctly. But our rites for him were effective because calling his name has the power to attract his now-released mindstream to experience our rite for him.

We prayed to the Allfather to guide Jason; Allfather is the God to whom all the wise seek to commune with at occassions of death, because He is not just all-wise, but he is a shape-shifter; he is a Turnskin; he can appear in whatever form he wants. In his great wisdom, we asked that he would appear to Jason in whatever form Jason needed to see to trust him, to follow him, to learn from him. Wisdom can spare us all from death in a very real sense of the word, and when we are on the Hel-way, Wisdom can spare us from the terrors that follow death. We asked the Allfather, who knows precisely what form to appear in for Jason, to go and help Jason. No wight could be wiser than Allfather; his wisdom is the wisdom that we all need, alive or dead.

Is praying to the Gods enough? Can it stem the tide of grief, close the doors of the suffering death inevitably brings to the living and the dead? As Heathens, we have no choice but to trust in the old wisdom. There is no room for second-guessing ourselves or our ancestors. Our ancestors are clear on this, perfectly clear: death is not the end of life, but a transition into new conscious experiences.

But how do we prepare for death? Surely we can't trust that the Gods will rush in to rescue us from death, and trust in funeral rites and the goodwill of those we leave behind. No, we need to concentrate on two things before we die: Wisdom and Right Living.

Wisdom is too great a topic to discuss here and now; in some way, I discuss it at length in nearly every post I make to this blog. Here, I need to focus on right living. Wisdom comes to most as a consequence of right living, anyway. Right living means living a noble life, following the standards of nobility set down in the holy lores of our ancestors.

I do not believe that these standards are human-serving standards that were invented by human beings for human purposes. I believe that they were taught to our ancestors by the Gods, as standards of living that reflect a greater reality, not only a human one, but a godly one. When you live a life of brave and self-sacrificing support for the community of consciousness and life, when you live a life of generosity and hospitality, and when you life a life where you don't compromise with your love and loyalty for the Gods and family and kindred, you are not just being a good human; you are being a Godly human. You are channeling and invoking the Gods, the divine power of Raidho, the mystery of right order for the Cosmos. You are unfolding the Rune or Mystery of Mannaz in its greatest form: the human being who manifests the spirit of the Gods, which is within us all.

That is how you prepare for death. A person who lives rightly invokes the Gods and the protection of the Rune of Right Order for the Cosmos, so much so that even death cannot fully dim that order. Your wits remain about you even before the darkest assaults of the giantish powers. The Gods are with you. To live a life of true god-like nobility is to bridge heaven and earth, Asgard and Midgard. And that affects this life as well as the next.

Jason died and entered into the light of spirit- the Spirit that Allfather breathed into all people. I've often chuckled at the pervasive connections we hear of with death and "seeing the light", the typical experience that so many "near death experience" people report. That light is no light from heaven; it's the light of what we are. It's the light of the spirit of the Gods that dwells in us. When we die, we experience it clearly again, without the dullness of our senses to dim it out for us. Did jason recognize it for what it was? I don't know. I hope that the Allfather appeared in Jason's death-vision and revealed that truth to him.

I hope he helped Jason to keep his wits and shared his wisdom. I hope that Jason has found rest, and indeed, in my heart, I know that Jason's journey will end in good places. Jason died right as the Twelve Nights of Yule came upon us; no time of year is more powerful, for the living or the dead. I know that this made Jason's transition easier and better. It may have added more dangers, but so many offerings and rites have now been done for him that I know the Gods protected him, along with his ancestral powers.

I'd like to share one more thing that I saw at the burial. I saw Jason's grandparents walking away from the casket, and I saw one of his grandmothers stop and turn and point to the casket, as though she wanted to be helped back to it. She appeared to need help walking. She pointed to the flowers on top of the casket, and from my angle, I could see the young man helping her reach up and take a red and a white flower off of the top, and hand them to her. This grandmotherly lady seemed very weak, but her eyes were huge and round, like my baby daughter's. She wanted flowers to remember her grandson by; she looked at the flowers like they were the most precious things in the world.

At this moment, a great understanding rushed over me; Jason had a duty that I believe he failed in. Many of us fail it in many ways, but his death's greatest failure was this: he had a duty to his family. I don't get along so well with my family at all times, but I've made it a point to realize that we have to accept our families for who they are, and try to be patient and understanding with them. This doesn't mean that we must let our families walk all over us, but that we have to recognize them for who and what they are, and try to be patient if we can. Jason had a strained relationship with his parents; everyone knew that. But he, as an open-minded, intelligent son had a duty to be open-minded and bear, within reason, what shortcomings his parents may have had in their understanding of him.

We all have that duty, if we truly want to call ourselves "open-minded". The open-minded have to take up the slack of those who are rigid and unwilling to see from a broader perspective. We have to accept our families and live our lives, being there for them if we can. To choose death now, as Jason did, only placed a terrible burden on his grandparents, as well as everyone else, and I won't ever forget that poor grandmother I saw go back for those flowers.

Let me be clear on something: I believe that my friend was killed by giantish powers, by powers of confusion and destructive behavior that overpowered his better senses. His mind was made unstable and dangerous, and he took his own life, though I do not believe that he was making sane judgments at the moment he did what he did. These are dangers that we must all struggle against, every day of our lives.

Do not let up your guard for even a moment; the best and the brightest of any generation can fall victim to these powers, because they are giantish- the urge to oblivion, the destructive forces that lead people to abuse themselves, their own minds and bodies, and the minds and bodies of others; the beastly, selfish urges that lead to the pit of loss of control and loss of consciousness, which lead us away from our humanity in the best sense of the word.

Believe in the Gods. Accept that the light of the Godly Spirit is in you and put your trust in it. Trust them, and trust the best that is in you. Do not let the messengers of Giants or Trollish forces into your life; they do not come to set up a camp and then leave the next day- they come as conquerers. They seek the same destruction now, in the cosmos of each human mind and body, that they will finally bring to the worlds at Ragnarok.

Be present, here and now, with your friends. Watch out for them. Be aware of the things they say and do, and look below the surface. Tell your friends how much you appreciate them, and how open and willing you are to speak to them, about anything they want to talk about. If you are a friend or kin to someone, be a friend, be kin. The "place" where we meet one another, and celebrate our friendship or kinship is in communication. That's how souls interact. So do it, and together, our chances are better of navigating the stormy seas of dangerous Wyrd that life will cast us into.

My journey is not yet over. Jason's death simply helped me to shake awake on my journey, and Gods willing, I'll stay more awake, until the end. Whether or not there is a true "ending" is another story altogether. Jason was a good man. He is still a good man, gone to his Fate in another valley, another hall, another world. I miss him, and I still celebrate our friendship. Perhaps he will live again, or perhaps Wyrd will see that he only rises again into the renewed world that is to come. Either way, wherever Jason is, that will certainly be a good place to be.