Dad

He was my first ‘follower’.

When, after thinking and talking about it for ages, I finally started this blog as a way of writing about some of the things that I deem important, my Dad was the first one to subscribe to colemining.  Even though the blogging world was a bit of a terra incognita to him.

He always encouraged us- me and my two sisters, and pretty much anyone else who came into his charismatic sphere and stayed for any length of time- and he knew that I had things to say that needed to be said.

He was my biggest fan.

Always.

We were so very fortunate- growing up and now, as adults- to have been raised by parents (and an extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles- biological and otherwise) who encouraged us to find our own way in the world and pursue those things that most resonated with us, personally.

You see, they knew that they had raised us to be concerned about things larger than just us, that they had instilled in us the reality that we are part of a community.  They trusted us- and they trusted themselves- enough to know that they had created three responsible, independent and thinking citizens of the world.  Individuals who learned the most important lessons that can be taught- and who will hold firm to the mandate that shaped both their lives: that we are all required to do our best to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Our own paths- guided by intelligence (both inherited and nurtured) and kindness- perhaps kindness above all else- are the legacy of two wonderful people that anyone who ever met them feels privileged to have known.  Being supremely lucky, I got to have them as my parents.

When Mum was diagnosed with a form of early-onset dementia, Dad became her constant and always-doting companion and care-giver.  We often forget that our parents were people before they became our parents, but, through Mum’s long illness until her eventual death, we got to witness the playing out of a love story that Hollywood couldn’t come close to imagining.

One of their oldest, dearest friends sent this memory to me- all the way from Australia:

It is always so sad to lose one’s parents, regardless of their age or yours. It is the end of an era. Take comfort in the fact that he had a great, happy, long and useful life. When we were young and used to go out together, it was such a joy to see your parents — a couple so very much in love — I think your Dad beamed from ear to ear during the whole of their wedding ceremony! It was also the very first time that they had ever met or even heard of (her boyfriend at the time, now husband of many decades) as I was otherwise engaged, so the invitation did not include his name. Whilst other friends heartily dispproved, when I contacted your parents, they graciously said, “whoever you choose and want to bring to our wedding is alright by us. We want you to be happy and you both will always be welcome in our house” and they certainly stood by their word and the rest is history. We have never forgotten their kindness and generosity over the years.’

And this:

 ‘How time flies — it seems like yesterday when your Mum would call home to see if Rick had written and if there was a letter, she’d fly home during lunch hour to get it. So all of us knew that it HAD to be serious! Your paternal grandmother said she KNEW it WAS, as she didn’t think that your Dad was capable of holding a pen in his hand, let alone producing a letter as he had never ever written to HER when he was away so Betty HAD to be very special to get even one line from him!’

That last bit was news to me and is so veryvery ironic, I can’t even tell you.  It has become a running joke- in our family and beyond- that Dad must be on the no-fly lists of a whole bunch of countries- starting with our own.  He LOVED to write letters.  To politicians, especially.  And had NO problem AT ALL spelling out exactly where they are falling short of his expectations of them- and the responsibilities of the job to which they were elected.  (See?  I come by it honestly.)  I guess all those love letters he wrote Mum served to loosen his pen…

I lost my Dad this week.

We lost my Dad this week.  My sisters and I, and everyone who knew him.  The condolences and memories that are flooding in a constant stream into inboxes and voicemailboxes are markers of the impact that this man had on his world.

You may not be aware of it, but those of you who are kind enough to spend some of your precious time hanging with me here in the WordPress World also lost him.

All the words I write, all the truths I seek to discover and all the stories I try to tell, they all have a kernel- and sometimes a great deal more than a kernel- of my Dad at their heart.

Another of his lovely friends wrote this in an email to me today:

‘When I think of your dad I always think of him as a seeker of knowledge and truth.   I see him with his beloved books reading passages to us that he thought needed to be read aloud and discussed.

I think of him in the middle of many and varied lively conversations holding us accountable for our opinions…

I don’t need to tell you how proud he was of the three of you. He wanted you all to find your own path and pursue it with zest. He would tell us all about what was going on in your lives. (Don’t worry he didn’t divulge any of your secrets).  He loved to read your “colemining” blog and was especially touched when you wrote about your grandfather.’

Yes.  I definitely come by it honestly.  I am my father’s child.  Of that, there is no doubt.

He was proud of us.  There is, truly, no higher praise.

I was proud of him.  All my life.  The person he was filled me with constant pride and amazement.  His ethical conscience and concern with social justice was unmatched.  His life was spent in service to others- to ideals that are bigger than any one person, certainly, yet, somehow, seemed summed up in his very being.

He led by example, instilling in us the reality that boundaries- of race, religion, socioeconomic situation- are human creations– and, as such, subject to constant examination and re-evaluation.  Prejudice- of any kind- is unacceptable.  Unexamined beliefs have no place in rational discourse.  People matter.  Outdated ideologies do not.  Except as cautionary tales and reminders of how far we have evolved and developed as civilizations.

The Shuffle Daemon hit me hard, on the way home this evening.  It does that, sometimes.  Picks up on what I’m thinking and figures out just what I need to hear.

This is that morning
It’s waiting for you
The face of destiny
Standing before you

This is zero hour
Now is for you
Can you feel that power
Inside of you?

Through this priceless moment
In your possession
Answers to mysteries
Stand in succession

This is zero hour
And there’s no way back
Can you feel that power?
In its arms you’re wrapped

All through the night-time
‘Til the sun comes in
Now heaven’s open
Just to fly right in

Now you stand in that garden
This is that vision
Out on the world’s edge
It’s your baptism

This is zero hour
And your hands are free
Can you feel that power?
It’s ecstasy…

There is irony, I realize, in including a song called Heaven’s Open (the version isn’t the best quality, TBH, but it’s the only one I could find) in a post dedicated to my father.  Dad didn’t believe in heaven.  He was all about the importance of this world– and about living a life that positively affected this world.  If he believed at all in destiny– it was about the need to create and fulfill one’s own goals- schooled in experience and education and awareness and engagement with the world around him.

You gotta know that I don’t believe in heaven.  But, as I wrote in the post I reblogged yesterday, the idea of heaven, as a metaphor, or archetype, drawn from our shared mythology as a means of dealing with loss and pain, is beautiful, and so very human in its hopefulness.   So that, along with the evocative power of the lyrics of that song…

The Shuffle Daemon knows.

Mike (or, in this case, Michael) wrote the song in 1991 as part of the final album he was contractually obligated to provide for Virgin Records- with whom he had something of a contentious relationship (after he pretty much ensured the success of the label for that Branson guy with the success of Tubular Bells).  It’s a kiss off.  A lovely and elegant kiss off, but a kiss off all the same.  It’s about new beginnings- and it’s about finding the power within oneself to move past the things that have kept you stagnating.  Or imprisoned.  Or confined in any way at all.

I love Mike Oldfield.  He is a musical master.  And an interesting character.

I love my Dad.  Dad loved music.  It was a significant part of his life and he made sure that it was a significant part of ours.  He was also an interesting character.

He spent much of the last few months imprisoned by his own body, laid low by various infections that the doctors couldn’t quite seem to get a handle on controlling.

He’s not imprisoned any longer.

Thank you for giving us the tools to create our destinies, Dad.  Wrapped in the arms of the power you gave us, we will try to live up to your example.  We will leave the world a better place than the one we inherited.  Just as soon as we figure out how to navigate a world without you in it.  Which we will.  Eventually.  You taught us well.

Heaven’s Open, Dad.  Fly right in.

Until he gets you to the other side…

So the iPod shuffle daemon was at it again.  Today it was this :

I’m not sure that I can think of a better example of popular music using mythological themes and images than Chris De Burgh’s single from his 1982 album The Getaway.  The archetypal figure of the guardian to the next world- or of a liminal space that can lead onwards to enlightenment- is found in myths from many different cultures, and retains its impact when used in a pop song that is, now,  over 30 (!) years old.

The song is all about journeying, which makes it a fantastic song for road trips.  Especially ones that involve traveling along dark, deserted roads.  The lyrics evoke a sense of anticipation and mystery, and the use of the character of the Ferryman lends a sense of foreboding to the song, but wow, it can still make me tap my toes and sing along whenever I happen to hear it.

In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who ferries the newly dead across the River Styx (or the River Acheron- it depends on the source) and demands payment for the ride.  If the cash isn’t forked over,  the soul is left to wander on the far shore as a restless ghost.  Charon is featured as an important character in many Greek Hero tales.  Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas all run into him over the course of their respective adventures.

He also appears in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 3, as a forbidding old man, unwilling to let Dante on board since he is tasked with ferrying the dead to the realm of the damned, and Dante remains among the living.  Virgil pulls rank, and the two travelers are permitted passage, though it is explained that in the regular course of things only sinners have to make this crossing.  This makes sense in the context of Dante’s mythology (they are at the Gate of Hell at this point in the Divine Comedy after all) but is in contrast to the Greek tradition which requires all souls to pay their way across the river in order to gain access to the afterlife.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (which I also discussed here) the Ferryman is named Urshanabi and he acts as a companion to the King of Uruk as Gilgamesh continues his quest to rescue Enkidu from the realm of the dead.  Urshanabi teaches Gilgamesh respect of the river, Hubur- the Mesopotamian river of the dead- and of nature itself.  He is kind, and helps Gilgamesh- despite getting grief from Utnapistim for doing so.  This encounter provides part of the guidance that leads Gilgamesh to the understanding that the right order of the world, including the rules of the living and the dead, are not to be circumvented, even when the lost one is greatly beloved and mourned.

Likewise, Buddhist traditions feature the liminal character of the Ferryman who teaches respect for nature and the lessons that the river can impart to those who are willing to listen.  In some stories of the Life of the Buddha, the Ferryman refuses to let him cross since he lacks the fare.  The Buddha responds by making himself disappear and reappear on the other side of the river, much to the Ferryman’s consternation.  This story provides an etiology for the tradition in Buddhism that allows those on the path to Enlightenment to traverse ferry crossings without payment.

In his novel Siddhartha, written as an attempt to allay his own doubts regarding the purpose of life and the resulting existential malaise, and based in Buddhist teachings and mythology, Hermann Hesse presented the character of the Ferryman as a benevolent spiritual guide who aids Siddhartha in his journeying.  His name, Vasudeva, is one of the names of the god Krishna, suggesting divine intercession in the progress of Siddhartha’s adventure.

Whether a positive or negative figure, the Ferryman is always presented as the person guarding the threshold to an altered state of being: from life into death or from ignorance into wisdom.  Chris De Burgh’s Ferryman is in keeping with modern representations- a sinister figure, often pictured as a cowl-wearing skeleton, not dissimilar to the image of the Grim Reaper- which reflects our cultural fear of death and apprehension about the unknown, more in keeping with the Greek and Medieval personification of the liminal character.

Yet the hero of his song decisively and actively seeks the river and the Ferryman, despite the warnings that ‘too many men have failed before’, perhaps as part of his own Hero’s journey, and therefore more akin to the Mesopotamian and Buddhist (and 20th century interpretations of Buddhist mythology) perspectives about the paths all must take to progress through this life in an effort to gain wisdom and fulfill whatever purpose one seeks.

As such, the mythological theme as presented in the song seems to be an amalgam of the different ways of looking at the passage into a different state of being, highlighting the reality of human existence that demands change and movement from one state to another.  Stasis is not possible, and the process of change, as described in the ancient myths, can be greeted either with fear or with welcoming anticipation of lessons to be learned.

The story told in Don’t Pay the Ferryman seems to suggest that the middle path- of respect, some fearful hesitation but definite positive momentum- is the best way to navigate the trials of life.  Pretty hefty subject matter- and it’s still a great song to have on a mix tape for 21st century journeys- whether towards enlightenment or a weekend road trip up north.

*Geek Note: Listen for Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) at the bridge, reciting lines from The Tempest.  So cool.

Dreaming of You

Today I had occasion to stop and think about the way people move in and out of one’s life.  It came up over coffee with a friend.  She was remembering the loss of one her childhood companions, gone 20 years today, killed in a random skiing accident.  Her first thought when I pressed her to talk about him was that he died doing what he loved best and that fact used to give her some measure of comfort, since it defined the person he was.  She went on to talk about how, not unlike the death of pivotal politicians or celebrities, she remembered exactly what she was doing when the call came, and precisely how she sprang into action to ensure that she could get home to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that she now realizes she was in shock.  At 22 she had felt loss before, but this was the first time that a true contemporary, someone she thought would always be in the world- however distanced by circumstance- was gone.  Just gone.

I have witnessed loss, and experienced too much of my own, yet I am always interested in hearing about how people cope with the passing of those they love.  The death of loved ones is, arguably, the foundation of religious thought and speculation.  With human self-awareness and reflection upon relationships came the questioning about what happens to us when we die- not the obvious, witnessed, biological process- but about what happens to the essence of those we love.  ‘Joe’ was my brother, he helped me hunt, and we ate together around the fire and shared a tent on long winter nights.  While his body remains visible and gradually decays and returns to the earth, whatever it was that animated him, that made him who he was- his ‘Joe-ness’, if you will- is gone.  This awareness, and concern for each special, mortal, personality is something that has led to questions, and posited answers, for millennia.

Huge mythological elements of all world religions have been devoted to suggestions regarding what happens after death.  The Egyptian Underworld ruled by dismembered and resurrected Osiris, the Greek river that must be crossed with the aid of a ferryman requiring payment, the Christian ideal of heaven and despairing vision of hell, as described by myriad myth-makers, from Paul of Tarsus to Dante to Anne Rice, and countless others in between and since.   In the Ancient Near East, the dead were afforded no glorious afterlife, yet were thought to become troublesome spirits if their progeny did not observe the proper rites of burial and remembrance.  Eastern traditions honour the ancestors and preserve the memories of their forbearers with elaborate rituals.  Hinduism and Buddhism hold to the cyclical progression of life and death believing in continual return on the wheel until perfection is attained.

Most are beautiful and hopeful ways to remember those that have left us that acknowledge the importance of our connection to one another.  Death is the ultimate truth of the human condition and our stories have always sought to deal with this reality and to somehow soften the blow.  The myths suggest the possibility of reunion with those lost, and many offer the potential of return to the ultimate source and final and complete answers to all the questions we ask while alive.  Those who suffer in this life will be rewarded in the next; the evil will receive their just desserts- whether in hellfire or rebirth as a cockroach.  Myths of the afterlife are often about retribution and recompense, but the real beauty, to me, lies in the concept that those we love may be met again.

My friend is not remotely religious.  Like me, she is a student of humanity and has studied world cultures and traditions, finding value and beauty in most expressions of belief and practice that she has discovered in her studies and travels.  While she talked about the loss of her friend, and how it is incomprehensible to her that 20 years have passed, she made some cryptic comments about conversations that sounded like they took place after his death.  She didn’t even seem to be aware of this anomaly as she expressed fond remembrances.

When I gently pointed it out, she smiled somewhat sheepishly.

“You caught that, did you?  Should have known it wouldn’t get past you.  Here’s the thing…”

She then went on to explain that shortly after her friend’s death she began having remarkably vivid dreams in which he featured as the main character.  In these dreams they were both aware that he had died, but his resurrection was treated matter-of-factly.  In the beginning of them all his body lay on a bier in the middle of the intersection at the corner of the street where she grew up.  The dream would then shift to an outdoor party with a long table of friends (at times the backyard of her childhood home at others in the small public park down the street), celebrating an event of great happiness- sometimes a graduation, others a wedding or the birth of a child.  All the celebrants were always in full party get-up- dressed to the nines and all having a great time.  There was a sense of expectation, of waiting for a missing participant, but the mood was always positive.

Then the scene would shift again, and all the partygoers were transported to a nightclub, but one that looked suspiciously like the back room of the ice cream place across from the high school where she spent so much time as a teenager.  When the party was at its height, the guest of honour would finally arrive, moving a little slowly, as if still recovering from the injuries that caused his death, but with the same smile and spirit of fun that everyone remembered with so much love.

The last part of the dream always consisted of my friend and her lost one, walking alone together back to the bier in the corner intersection.  During the walk they would always discuss things of great import- concerns that were weighing on her heavily at the time or decisions that needed making.   Her friend always listened carefully and offered answers or advice, gently and without judgement.  When they reached the intersection there would be a last hug and smile and then her friend would say goodbye and carefully resume his place on the bier.

Interpreters of dreams would have a field day analyzing these recurring offerings, and my friend has studied enough psychology and religion to be aware of the many archetypal symbols and themes that are being drawn from her subconscious mind (or the Jungian collective unconscious- take your pick).

“I know, I know.  The bier placed in the liminal intersection, the celebrants awaiting the deceased… it’s a psychoanalytic cornucopia.  But the dreams, and the memory of the dreams always give me such a sense of peace and connection.  So many myth systems offer variants of ideas of reincarnation.  For some reason these dreams have always resonated with my own interpretation of some of the Celtic stories of Tir na Nog.  Somehow I always awaken from the dreams with the image in my mind of him standing on the beach of an island, looking out to sea.  He is young, completely happy and he is waiting.  He is patiently waiting until the opportunity arises for us all to be born again together.

I realize that the Celtic myths themselves don’t speak directly to that interpretation of the afterlife and reincarnation, but isn’t that part of the power of the stories we create to provide comfort through inexplicable loss?  We take what we need to be able to move on with happiness.

It’s strange though.  I have experienced other great losses; this is the only one I view in light of my version of the Celtic afterworld.  It suits him, I guess.  Eternal youth for an exceptional friend who embraced life with vigour, and the eager anticipation of reunion when the universe says it is time.  It’s naïve and romantic, but it’s how I can smile when I think about him.  Especially now, 20 years later.”

How could I not smile, in response?  Here was a perfect example of how myths impact our lives and how shared stories, and their interpretations, connect us to one another and keep alive the memories of those we have lost.  Our myths help us to deal with the unanswerable and therein lies their value.  Our human stories allow us to cope in the way that most resonates with us as individuals and as cultures.  Telling these stories connects us to one another in ways that shouldn’t be underestimated or discounted.  Myths are not ‘untruths’, as common parlance would have it.  They are invaluable representations of the deepest wells of the best (and often the worst- can’t have the positive without its flipside- balance is ever-present) of what it means to be human.