“Letter in Autumn” by Donald Hall
We are the ones who grieve – we, the living, that is. It’s not something we like to dwell on, but most of us learn early that bound up with the joy we find in the people we love is accepting the fact that we will lose them, as they will lose us.
It is part of the ebb and flow of existence. And yet, we can be forgiven our reluctance to own up to it, to look in the eyes of those dearest to us and know that the time we have with each other is brief. And still, it is given to us to make peace, to find meaning, even in those losses we find it hardest to bear.
All of this begins with how we grieve. My colleague Mark Belletini notes that the word “grief” serves as a handy abstraction, rather than as an expression of anything precise. For, everyone’s grief is different since it emerges from our own unique experiences of and relationships to the people we’ve known and lost.
And not only that: it changes. Donald Hall’s poem is a good expression of that. Sixth months after his wife’s death, the immediate intensity of his loss has faded, yet still she inhabits the space around him. A certain quality of light at dusk, the slips from fortune cookies, mixed-up dreams, the dog carrying a slipper from the bedroom, all such things can revive a memory, a moment in time, and a new strain of sadness wells in our chests again.
As the poet Kevin Young puts it, “grief might be easy If there wasn’t still such beauty – would be far simpler if the silver maple didn’t thrust its leaves into flame, trusting that spring will find it again.”
Once again we feel the sharp edge of loss, something we had imagined ourselves over with. But the path of grief, we learn, is not linear. It may double back or flame up with an intensity we had never experienced before. And it shapes how we go about remembering.
This fall will be the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, and while much of the intensity around it has faded I’m often surprised by how at times he’ll just pop into my life. One of the ways I remember him most fondly is as a gardener, and so it’s not uncommon, especially at mid-summer when the flowers are at their fullest that I imagine him in the garden with me surveying the scene with undisguised pleasure.
Grief is odd in the way that it is at once so intensely personal and yet also universal. There is a Buddhist story around that: It seems a grieving mother once went to the Buddha and begged him to raise her dead child back to life. He refused at first, but she continued to plead with him. Finally he agreed to work the magic if she would provide for him a certain kind of mustard seed found only in the homes of families who have never been visited with death or grief.
So, she headed off to the village and visited home after home. But, of course, she could not find the life-restoring seed because no household had been spared death or grief. Learning this, she herself offered the families comfort. She cooked for them and reached out to them in their grief. She returned to the Buddha, and together they buried her child.
So, part of living with our sadness is accepting our grief, and also opening our eyes to its universality. It doesn’t lessen our sadness to do so, but it can provide a way for our compassion grow, to help us see that not only is grief a universal experience but also that we, too, may be the comforters, our experience can open our hearts to others.
This is part of the special learning that we can find in an ancient ritual of remembrance that our service today is centered in arising from a Buddhist tradition in Japan. It’s called Obon, and it, too, is centered in a story. Here it is: It involves a direct disciple of the Buddha known as Mogallan, one who was especially known for his keen powers of insight.
It seems that Mogallan was curious to know how his mother was faring in the afterlife. So he used his powers to search her out. To his dismay, he discovered that she was suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts, people who had died in violent or unhappy ways. Mogallan made several efforts to release her, but each failed. Finally he asked the Buddha how he might free his mother. The Buddha told him that the way to do that was to give a special feast to a gathering of disciples who were just ending a summer meditation retreat. The feast, he was told, must be given with no concern for himself, but entirely out of compassion for the disciples.
Mogallan did so, and the story says that as the disciples ate, Mogallan was able to see his mother being released from the hell where she had been trapped. His joy then spread to the disciples enjoying their meal, making it a festive occasion in the community.
Each year the Obon festival is held at around this time of year, at midsummer, in July or August, and it is seen as a time of celebration and remembrance, a moment to take a break in the flow of daily life and invite our ancestors back into our lives. It is a moment to appreciate them and send them our joy, while reminding us also that the compassion we feel mustn’t end with our families but extend to all beings.
Obon is celebrated in private homes and public ceremonies. At their homes, people often hang lanterns by their front doors to invite the spirits of their ancestors to return. Many also visit gravesites, where they wash the markers and burn incense or leave food offerings. Celebrations held in public parks remember the feast that Mogallan offered the disciplines with food, fireworks, drumming and stylized dancing.
The dances often invoke the Flower Garland Sutra, a Buddhist text that contains the famous image of Indra’s net: a net stretching infinitely in all directions, with a jewel positioned at each “eye” or intersection, each jewel reflecting and reflected by every other jewel, showing that all things, while distinctive in themselves, interpenetrate all other things through space and time.
So, while the festival is a celebration of remembrance, it extends that remembering beyond individual descendants, to offer honor to all in the great chain of being.
Among the words often spoken at Obon observations are those contained in a passage called the Golden Chain:
I am a link in the chain of love.
I must keep my link bright and strong.
I will try to be kind to every living thing.
I will try to think beautiful thoughts, say beautiful words and do beautiful deeds.
May every link in the chain be strong, and may we have peace.
The ceremony closes with floating lanterns being placed into rivers, lakes or seas to guide the spirits back to their world.
The period of the Obon ceremonies, which date back to around the 7th century, is one of the busiest holiday seasons of the year in Japan, full of travel and family gatherings. How many still hold to the literal stories of the spirit world is unclear, but it remains a season of gratitude and giving.
Our culture, meanwhile, suffers for the lack of remembrance. Scattered to the four winds, many of us lose any sense of coherence and history, of being a part of something larger, and with that we lose a deeper sense of connection across time and distance with a larger humankind and ultimately the great Web of being.
Years ago, the writer Thomas Berry argued that “we cannot discover ourselves without first discovering the universe, the Earth, and the imperatives of our being.” What Berry called “the dream of Earth” has as its premise that everything working within us, down to our genetic code arises from the processes that connect us deeply to all things. “The human is less a being on the Earth or in the Universe,” he says, “than a dimension of the Earth, of the Universe itself.”
Indeed, when we get in touch with our descendants we are carried deep into time. This is a good time of year for it, because at this moment in the turning of the seasons we can feel the Earth well past its equilibrium point at the summer solstice tipping toward autumn, with its many losses. In tune with the seasons, we can turn back again to our loved ones and the busy lives we share.
We and all things are bound up together and it is something to celebrate, so that while in time we lose the ones we love from our presence they are, in fact, never lost. They persist in our memory, in our hearts, in all of the ways that they changed our world. And those endure as they are remembered.
Mark Belletini, who I spoke of earlier, in his new book, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” relates what seemed to him at the time an odd experience. His mother had died a few days before and he was in the car driving to deliver her eulogy. Listening to music as afternoon light filtered in the window, he said, he was suddenly filled with a sense of joy and thanks.
Images of her life, images of her face raced by, he said. “I felt in my bones and tingling on the surface of my skin a deep, deep gratitude, a joyous sense of satisfaction that my life had been so blessed.”
He felt a voice inside question him: “You are driving up to deliver the eulogy for your mother and you are spilling over with joy and thanks?” But the answer came easily: this, too, was grieving. He had shed the tears and felt the sadness: they were still there. But the joy was real, too.
Our grief and the remembrances that come of it, Mark argues, is a gift that, he says, “blesses and illumines our mortality and our very existence in this world.” It is ultimately an affirmation that our lives and the lives of those we love, and in the end all lives – matter.
How we grieve, how we remember clears the way to compassion that opens and soothes our hearts, that reanimates our tired souls, that shows a way when it seems there is none to be found.
May we so remember and be remembered.