the 13th guest

img_0844A lost diamond, a black star, a water dragon.  Rubies formed under her skin and worked their way up to the surface.  It hurt and itched.

Oh, I’m tired.  I can’t.  I already wrote a fairy tale. Here is a magical thing that actually happened: the old witch, the 13th guest, showing up at the party with an uncomfortable blessing.

Mid-life crisis is no joke.  Over the course of two years, starting when I was 45, a lot of my social life unraveled.  Friends moved away, or stopped returning phone calls, or said things that I found very hard to forgive.  It was brutal.  Even though I knew it wasn’t about me, it was hard not to take all these abandonments personally.

But I was building a new life: making new friends, reconnecting with old ones who’d drifted away.  I was making the best of it, or so I thought.  I had no idea it was about to get better.

Last spring, E recommended a book: The Wild Edge of Sorrow, by Francis Weller.  The premise of the book is that we must all undertake “an apprenticeship with sorrow.”  We are built to seek meaning from our losses through ritual, in community with others.

Well.  There’s something you don’t hear every day.

Summer came, and it was rough for a lot of the people around me.  Two friends had breast cancer scares.  Two men I know were diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Somebody’s 21-year-old son was killed in a horrible car accident.   Someone else’s young niece died suddenly and unexpectedly from an intestinal obstruction.

I was grateful to be close enough to one of these tragedies to be able to help.  My friend whose niece died has a huge garden.  The day before she got the news, I had been helping her harvest tomatoes.  When she texted me to say she was leaving town for the funeral, I thought of all the tomatoes on her porch.  They would be lost to insects and rot if someone didn’t do something soon.  She wasn’t going to have time to deal with them.  I got in my car, drove to her house, and took charge of the tomato situation.

When she got back from the funeral, I listened to the whole awful story of it.  Then I told her about the book I’d been reading in the spring.  While I was reading the book, the two of us had been building a labyrinth.  I wondered if she would be interested in having a grief ritual, perhaps incorporating the labyrinth.

“Yes,” she said.

It took weeks to find room for it in her schedule.  By the time six of us gathered at the entrance of the labyrinth, most of the leaves had fallen in the sumac grove that surrounded it.  We stood in a circle and held hands.

“Welcome,” I began.  Somehow it was E’s voice that emerged from my throat, soft as water that wears away stone.  I said that sorrow comes to all of us, not because there’s anything wrong with us or with the world, but because we are all eventually going to lose everything we love.  And it is this, even more than love and laughter, that has the power to bring us all together.  We cannot prevent grief, or undo it.  All we can do is refuse to turn away from it, in ourselves and in others.

Because of the fallen leaves, the path was less clear than when we’d first built the labyrinth.  But we found our way, one by one, to the center.  When we had all arrived, we took turns speaking about what had brought us there.  I went first, with the story that I can’t tell in my mother’s house.  The one that starts with “When I was nine” and ends with “in this way, I am an orphan.”  Each of us, when we had finished speaking, placed a stone in a bowl of water.  One of us didn’t speak.  She knelt on the ground, holding her rock, for a long time.  Eventually I knelt with her.  I didn’t want her to be alone.

Afterwards, as we made our way out of the labyrinth, I could hear that some of the others were crying.  But I was filled with a fierce joy.

We gave the water in the bowl to a small nut tree, and I invited everyone to walk to the river with me to give the stones back.  I threw the first stone into the river and surprised myself by shouting “May I release the idea that I’m not good enough and I don’t belong anywhere! That’s bullshit, and it serves no one!”

Other people stepped forward to throw stones and release things like their quickness to judge, and their resistance to feeling all of their feelings.  It was magic.

I feel unqualified to do this work.  I don’t have any formal training.  But I also feel like it needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it in my community.  At least I can say that I’ve had a long apprenticeship with sorrow.  And I know better than to wait for an invitation that will never come.

Francis Weller suggests approaching the work aesthetically rather than moralistically. “Come to the work with an eye toward how it affects you, touches you, moves you, like a painting or a moving piece of music,” he says. “Many works of art are not pretty, but they are powerful and touch us in deep ways. Coming to our experience with an appreciation for its dark beauty opens us to seeing it in a vastly different light.”

What a story I’ve had!  Better than anything I could have made up.  And it’s not over yet.

I have a fantasy in which I lead a grief ritual on the beach near my stepsister’s house, and my whole family is there and we’re all crying together.  I don’t know how to get there, but some part of me is always scheming about it.

All of you out there, unable to speak yet: this stone is for you.  Thank you for being here.  I see you.  I know it hurts.  I hope you find your voice.