Foresight at the Death Café
I went to my first Death Café at the end of Feb, 2020.
It was at the United Church in Picton and the pastor was this friendly spirited woman whom I've met a few times. A group of ten huddled around a table supplied with tea and biscuits, primed yet nervous about the topic. A lady with short scruffy hair in her fifties spoke up, saying she was going to moderate. We introduced ourselves around the circle. Only a couple folks were men and I would say none except my husband and I were under 45. I remember realizing this and thinking about what age people typically reflect on dying...is it when somebody close passes away?
The pandemic was just a flutter in Canada's air vents that February. During the Café I remember getting worked up around the injustice of leaving our elderly to rot in "care homes". Some shuffled in their seats, while others scrunched their eyebrows at me, or let their mouths hang open just a bit. I hit a nerve by making them uncomfortable around a taboo subject, a tendency I do not shy from in my public and private life.
It's just that for me, my death awakening was when my father got sick in 2011. In 2014, my mother could not take care of him at home (he was a wanderer and we couldn't bar all the doors, among other things), so he moved into a care residence downtown. The staff were lovely, friendly and overworked, but he was still locked into the fifth floor most of the time, because of the wandering. His quality of life diminished, being overly medicated, contained, and ill. The air was stale. The tray food was school-cafeteria-meets-prison (sorry). I met a fair few folks there who never seemed to have visitors. A lot of them smoked on the patio and I didn't judge. Sometimes it's all you can do, fondle an addiction to numb out pain. Escape.
So this is why I made the circle uncomfortable, because I don't get why we cart our elderly, ill and disabled off to care homes. I mean, it's seen as efficient, maybe convenient, but do most people want to live and die in one? I'd estimate 90% at least do not. By hiding away people who can no longer (largely) manage independent living, disallowing them in our homes and to exist in public, communal life, we banish the wise and magical quality that comes with old age from the collective psyche, rendering it inaccesible to the next generation.
I think we've come to neglect the elder because we're out of touch with our Life/Death/Life nature. It's what runs the seasons, the cycle of the moon and tides. When you look around, it's obvious decay begets new life. Rejection or unawareness of this causes an immobilizing fear of death and dying and illness and aging and all that, since we are taught to view life as linear and therefore non-cyclical. This rhetoric is all over advertising, telling you to be "ageless" and embrace "radiant youth" evermore. We're told we're only desirable as young, sexy, nubial versions of ourselves: a Lolita.* Not with body hair, grey hair, wrinkles, warts, big ears and noses. Broken and worn-out body parts. Forgetful minds.
"Put them away, they are no longer productive."
Wisdom of the (S)ages
Let's look to historical archetypes** for healthy examples of fierce, wise and integrated elders.
The Crone and Senex together make up the Sage, the wise old person. A Crone is a post-menopausal person whereas a Senex is typically an "old man". They are talked about as archetypal figures rather than someone you'd refer to offhandedly, like, "Oh Jane's reached her Croneship". It's interesting because the Sage psychologically represents the peak of individuation*** according to Carl Jung. Its antithesis is the Puer Aeternus, or the eternal child, which I think our society is a little stuck in. Classic Sage archetypes in pop culture are Gandalf, Yoda and probably Morgan Freeman in any movie. I'll talk about a couple from around the world that stand out for me.
Baba Yaga is the archetypal Crone and Wild Mother figure in Slavic folklore. I don't think she'd be caught dead in a nursing home! After all, she's run wild in story form for thousands of years. "Baba" means midwife, and also grandmother; "Yaga" has a few meanings, one of them being "witch". It's said her home is a hut mobilized by chicken legs, which scuttles around the dense forest. She's known for her cooking, healing abilities, cannibalism and unforgiving judgment. She does look hella scary in most portraits, and there is in fact a bad horror movie villanizing her. More recently, she's been made into a feminist icon. She intrigues me; (1) because I am half a Slav; (2) because she's not all sweet and Virgin Mary-y, but more ambiguous, like Mother Nature; and (3) she bridges terrain between this world and the other. She is not a Death Goddess, like Kali, or Hel, instead using insights from the spirit world to inform her judgment of her visitors. If someone is pure of heart, they will pass her tests and be rewarded, like in the tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful.
I like how Jungian analyst and poet, Claudia Pinkola Estés sees grandparents as the midwives guiding life's transitional phases, like young adulthood, illness, and dying. I know so much about life is accessible on Google but lived experiences are irreplaceable, especially when it comes to passing wisdom down to successive generations. Can Google or YouTube do that? (We shall see).
An example of the Senex in Arab culture is Bab'Aziz, where "Baba" doesn't mean grandmother, but father. The film Bab'Aziz is about a wise blind dervish who traverses the Tunisian desert with his cute granddaughter in search of a grand Sufi gathering. The director Nacer Khemir in 2011 said he wanted to depict, "an open, tolerant and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom...an Islam that is different from the one depicted by the media in the aftermath of 9/11." My husband who's of Levantine ilk told me Bab'Aziz represents the Arab Senex, or wise man throughout the georegion. Please watch this film, if you have an evening to spare: it's a work of art and poetry. Totally nonlinear and engrossing. If you like Rumi, you'll be taken in (be sure to watch on a large screen). Instead of describing what Bab'Aziz's like, I'll let you absorb this scene:
In it, Bab'Aziz asks Hassan, a young wandering Sufi, to bury him in the desert sands after he dies. Hassan ends up being the soul Bab'Aziz, the Senex, chose to transmit his last wisdom. He says to the boy;
"Hassan, my son, don't be sad on my wedding night."
"Your wedding night?", asks Hassan.
"Yes, my marriage with eternity."
I am a fiend for this priceless wisdom, that I can't pretend to fully understand. It's like a Zen Koan that calls you to reflect, or a bell, or a steeple of silence...
Remember, just because we don't yet understand something (or someone), doesn't mean it's useless.
Please please, connect with your grandparents, if they are still here, in whatever way is realistic for you. Whether that's a letter, FaceTime or check-in. Little homemade gifts or flowers. Taking them out for a walk or having tea in their kitsch living room. They'll forgive you when you forget to, I'm sure, but try to make it a habit. It's like a seed you water without knowing what exactly it will produce, but understanding its potential. If you have kids, connect them with your parents, and whichever family members are left. See if you can even co-habit (I know modern families aren't usually set up to do this, physically or psychologically).
Sardinia, a Blue Zone****, has some of the highest numbers of centenarians in the world. It's natural there for grandparents to live with their grandchildren. They impart wisdom, dietary traditions, love, and share childcare. In those homes, the kids grow up with less disease and experience greater successes later on. It's this virtuous circle that accounts for their extraordinary longevity too. Food for thought...as 54% of Americans end up in nursing homes. Can we do better here?
To reclaim your own senescence, embrace your aging bodymind. We're always aging but that doesn't have to be a weakness, it can be a strength. A superpower! Senescence is your highway to living like a Sage.
* a fictional young girl imagined by Russian-American Vladimir Nabokov in his 1955 novel of the same name
** inborn, universal models of people, behaviours and personalities that are passed on intergenerationally as envisioned by psychologist Carl Jung
*** a process of human development whereby an individual becomes their unique, whole self, which is a separate identity from their parents and others around them
**** regions of the world where the demographic lives much longer than the average global life expectancy, like in Okinawa, Sardinia, Nicoya, or Icaria
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