Don’t Fear The Reaper

“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again. Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some strange new guise.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson 

In the last couple of weeks not only have I been running several grief groups at school, but I have also been working with quite a few of my own on-going clients who have recently experienced the death of a loved one. When doing grief work with children the question- “Miss Mary Anne, what happens when you die?” inevitably comes up at some point during the conversation. How can you answer that question for anyone who is in mourning, let alone a seven year old? Despite my best efforts at using evasive social work-y questions such as, “What do YOU think happens?” (gotta love answering a question with a question), kids always want to know what I personally think. My typical response in the past has been- “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know.”

This is a quandary great philosophical minds have been contemplating for millennia, and so much of it is rooted in faith and what religious institutions dictate. This puts me in a bind because, if you have been reading my blog you will know, that I don’t, and never have fit into any one religious genre. I have no religious text or spiritual leader to enlighten me (and despite things being a bit challenging sometimes, I actually prefer it that way). So I have never been able to say with any real conviction that I know what happens for sure when you kick the bucket. I struggle with the notion- that you die, your body is put into the ground where it rots, and that’s it. There has to be something more, otherwise life seems sort of meaningless. As a result, I have always gravitated toward the concept of reincarnation because intellectually it makes sense to me. Everything is made of energy and science has proven that energy can never be lost or destroyed, just transferred. This is a pretty simplistic explanation of reincarnation I know, but I have never heard any other good arguments for or against it.

Then in December, while I was perusing Half Price Books looking for gifts for family members, I stumbled across a book called Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr. Brian Weiss in the spirituality section. The book is based on Weiss’s practice as a psychologist, and looked really interesting, so I wrote down the name and checked it out of the library for some light reading while I was on Christmas break. (Is it sad that mental health non-fiction is my idea of a “fun” read?)

The book revolves around “Catherine” a client who sought Weiss’s help in dealing with many debilitating phobias and anxiety. Weiss treated her with standard psychotherapy for eighteen months, (that’s a long ass time to be in therapy) with little to no improvement, when he decided to try hypnotherapy and regression techniques to get to the “root” of her problems. Even these strategies weren’t working very well until Weiss got the idea to suggest that she “remember the time when her symptoms began” while she was under hypnosis. What ended up happening was Catherine started talking about past life experiences she had hundreds and thousands of years ago in many different parts of the world. The craziest thing of all? After re-experiencing her past lives (and many past life deaths), her symptoms completely disappeared. Since then, Weiss has regressed hundreds of people and been able to later validate much of the detailed information clients have given about a particular culture or place where they lived in another life.

The theory I find the most interesting, however, is with all his experience he has discovered that clients will “recognize” people from their current lives again and again as people they loved or cared about in lives past. This has lead Weiss to believe that souls travel together across time in groups or “soul families,” which usually consists of 4-5 souls who end up being family and friends, plus one “soul mate.” (Maybe there is something to what my psychic friend told me after all, if you don’t know what I am talking about see my previous post here.) The idea that people who are near and dear to you right now have probably been family members, lovers, and friends throughout all your previous lives is such an intriguing concept.

I believe Weiss’s work could bring a lot of peace to grieving family members, or to those who struggle with their own mortality. Many people are terrified of death and dying, and as such, take extreme measures to avoid talking about it/and or to curtail death for as long as they can. Weiss makes a wonderful comment about this in another one of his books- Only Love Is Real (yes I ended up reading them all, I am a nerd). He says-

“Our bodies and souls are like cars and their drivers. Always remember you are the driver and not the car. Don’t identify with the vehicle. The emphasis these days on prolonging the duration of our lives, on living to one hundred year of age or more, is madness. It’s like keeping your old Ford going past 200,000 miles, past 300,000. The body of the car is rusting out, the transmission has been rebuilt five times, things are falling off the engine, and yet you refuse to turn it in. Meanwhile, there is a brand new Corvette waiting for you right around the corner. All you have to do is gently step out of the old Ford and slide into the beautiful Corvette. The driver, the soul, never changes. Only the car.”
I am not going to lie, even now after reading Weiss’s work, when children ask me what I think about death I still try to avoid answering 1) because it’s not my place to tell them what to believe and 2) because I have no idea how the hell you explain reincarnation to a child. Regardless, in my own life I can’t help but take solace in the knowledge that death is not necessarily an ending, but a new beginning. A beginning that will surely be filled with loved ones lost and found yet again.
I may not be ready yet to take Death by its cold clammy hand and skip off into the afterlife throwing daisies in my wake, for one thing I don’t believe my work in this life is done yet, but when it is my time I would like to think I will go peacefully rather than kicking and screaming. Throwing tantrums are for little ones and God only knows I deal with enough of that at work. Besides, when I am a crusty old geezer I would much rather trade in my beat up old Caddy for a shiny red Mustang convertible and wave sayonara to the geriatric ward as I drive off into the sunset and a new life… Wouldn’t you?
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Is It A Bird? Is It A Plane? No, It’s Just Another Crazy Homeless Man…

When I was still in elementary school, like most kiddos, I wanted to grow up to have superpowers. I thought being able to transform into animals would be pretty awesome (I read waaayyy too many Animorphs books), but if I couldn’t have that I would have settled for being able to fly or having x-ray vision. And like most children (and some adults I know), I was deeply disappointed when I grew up and none of these special abilities came to fruition. However, life did see it fit to bless (or curse) me with one particular skill, and that is the ability to make people feel completely at ease around me, even if I have known them for all of five minutes.

There must be something about my persona that gives off the vibe to strangers that I am to be trusted with their deepest, darkest, secrets. As a counselor who interviews families on a daily basis about personal traumas, many of which contain extremely sensitive information, this comes in really handy. In my personal life though, it can be just down right awkward, and as a result I am not unaccustomed to weird conversations with people I hardly know.

When I was a senior in high school I worked as a waitress at IHOP, and had the pleasure of engaging in a long conversation with a bizarre elderly man in a ten gallon cowboy hat about how beautiful my hands were, and how he wanted to photograph them holding a pearl necklace. (At seventeen, I was savvy enough in the ways of the world to know that a “pearl necklace” could be a code word for a creepy sexual favor, never mind the fact that my fingers were usually burned from carrying hot plates and I perpetually smelled like maple syrup. Maybe the aroma of pancakes is an aphrodisiac for dirty old men, who knows?…) I was later told by a reputable source that he really was a legitimate photographer who was just “a little eccentric” (I think “a little” was an understatement).

Then when I was in college working in the registrar’s office, a middle aged woman came in and made a same day transcript request. As I was getting the necessary documents together she mentioned she needed them because she was applying to seminary. I made the usual polite comments and then she dropped the religion bomb on me-

“Do you believe in God, darling?” (She was one of those fun people who love to use terms of endearment on complete strangers…)

“I don’t really know what I believe. I guess I haven’t really figured it out yet.”

This was back during my “I’m angry with God,” and your typical “I am trying to find myself” phase. Questions like these made me really uncomfortable because they usually ended in your standard- “Oh, you don’t know Jesus? Well let me spend the next 20 minutes trying to convert you then!” type of conversation. However, I was spared that lecture and what she actually said was-

“Oh that’s okay honey, you’ll figure it out someday. I can tell by your aura that you are a very spiritual person…”

I was flabbergasted. How do you respond to someone who has just told you they can see your aura? It was truly a bizarre conversation, even more so because her words ended up being strangely prophetic. The absurdity of these conversations at the time effectively seared them permanently into my memory, never to be forgotten. This phenomenon doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it inevitably strikes a chord. I had the pleasure (or pain) of having another one of these conversations last week.

While at work the other day, (I am sensing a pattern here, all the weirdness seems to happen to me while I am working, maybe I should quit and be a hobo…) I was talking with an acquaintance who has recently discovered that she herself has some pretty awesome psychic superpowers. What started out as an ability to do her own muscle testing for supplements, similar to to what Chris does at CAaWC, has quickly developed into being able to test others even from long distances and answer questions about the future. In the course of our conversation I happened to mention I was in the process of getting divorced which, FYI, is probably not information you should casually drop around someone who is psychic, unless you are prepared to receive some crazy spiritual advice. After making the socially acceptable sympathetic remarks she then proceeded to say-

“Can I ask a question for you?” (Meaning ask a question to whatever source she taps into to get her psychic answers…)

“Sure.” At this point I was intensely curious. She went really quiet and still for a couple of seconds and then came back with-

“You can stop worrying about whether you made the right decision or not, he wasn’t your soul mate.”

Slightly skeptical, but intrigued, I couldn’t help but ask, “Well, have I at least met my soul mate then?”

Again, she got real quiet and after a few seconds-

“No, he’s not in your life yet, but your soul mate will be your companion (as opposed to a friend or a relative, which she later explained). So when you meet him DON’T SCREW IT UP!…

You would think this would have been good news, but as I am discovering as of late, our minds are not always rational when it comes to affairs of the heart. By the time I drove home that night I was in a full blown existential crisis that sounded a little something like this…

“SHIT, what if I meet him and I don’t know it? What if I blow it and miss my chance? The world is a big place, he could be anywhere! Where in the hell should I even start looking?! What if I don’t meet him until I am like 50 years old? By that time I will probably be so cynical I will be a crazy old cat lady and he will take one look at me and head for the nearest exist. Fuck, fuck, fuck I am going to be alone for the rest of my natural life…” (Yeah, I told you it wasn’t rational. I sometimes think I am closer to the crazy cat lady scenario than I care to admit.)

Instead of being soothed I felt angry, frustrated, and incredibly and heartbreakingly lonely. It took several late nights of karaoke and copious amounts of coffee to bring me back out of my funk.

Whether I believe in prophecy or not, now that I have had a couple of days to process the experience I have decided that maybe it won’t be so bad after all. Dating and searching for “the one” could be fun when I decide to test the romantic waters again someday. As long as it doesn’t turn into a bad episode of “How I Met Your Mother” I will be fine. (I stopped watching that show after about the fourth season because I got so frustrated with it, and I am pretty sure we STILL don’t know who the mother is. If I were those kids I would smack Bob Saget for taking so fucking long to get to the point of the story…)

We already know that the superpowers of our youth don’t really exist, so maybe spiritual superpowers don’t exist either. Maybe people who claim to have them are making it all up, I dunno. The rational part of my brain wants to dismiss the whole thing as a hoax, while another, equally logical part of myself is willing to admit that there are many things in this world that I don’t fully comprehend and maybe never will. What I do know is that my own personal superpower appears to be drawing crazy people like flies to honey. Case in point, just last night on my way to the coffee shop, ironically enough to work on this very blog post, my friend John and I were accosted by a homeless man in the parking lot asking for money. Even after I told him I had no cash to share with him he thanked me and then proceeded to spend the next five minutes telling me his entire life story. Once finished, Dwayne (that was his name I learned) then said “God bless you” and asked for a group hug. Normally strangers touching me really freaks me out, but this time something inside me said “Aw, what the hell, why not?” So I hugged crazy homeless Dwayne in that coffee shop parking lot on campus at ten-o-clock at night.

At some point in your life you just have to accept what you are and embrace the madness…literally and figuratively.

Hello God? It’s me, Mary Anne…

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-Robert Frost

I am almost hesitant to write this month because spirituality is such a personal thing and I generally only share my beliefs with others who I deeply trust and are open minded, but I promised to be raw and authentic so here goes…

What if I told you I talked to God? You’d probably be like- So what? Lots of people talk God, it’s called “prayer,” duh. Okay, so what if I said I not only talk to God, but God talks back? Then you would probably start taking measurements for my straight jacket and make a reservation for a stay at the local looney bin, but it’s true. I have conversations with God, (or the “Great Inspirerer” as I prefer to address It…) and I will get to that in a minute, but first it may be helpful to know how I got to this point.

I grew up in an extremely conservative and religious part of Ohio. Almost all of my friends went to church and about 95% of them were Catholic. I, personally, was raised Methodist and did the whole sunday school and confirmation song and dance, but even at a tender young age I always questioned what I was told ( and for those who know me well this should come as no big surprise). As a result, this often got me into a lot of trouble.

I remember a specific example early on of a time when I made my confirmation teacher angry (or maybe just frustrated, I am not sure you could truly make Leah mad…) because I couldn’t understand why the only way you could know God was “through Jesus”. It didn’t make any sense, especially considering we had just covered the Trinity a week before. Weren’t they the same guy?! (Try successfully explaining THAT to a ten year old.) I just couldn’t wrap my mind around this idea of God being inaccessible without a mediator, so I chose, rather reluctantly I might add because it went against what  I was being taught at the time, to ignore these lessons and believe what felt right to me. And so began my journey of taking the “spiritual road less traveled.” A journey that, at times, has been very tumultuous but in the end deeply satisfying.

As I said, I grew up in a conservative town so for me- a person with an extremely liberal belief system, I stuck out like a sore thumb. High school was rough and if I wasn’t told I was going to hell at least a couple of times a school week, then it hadn’t been a very good week. Not that I ever intentionally antagonized my conservative peers, no sir, not me (mischievous grin).

Then, when I was about seventeen, I went through a typical teenage crisis of faith and gave God a big “Fuck you!” I denied spirituality of any sort for a couple of years, but always felt something was missing and in college started looking for something that really fit me. I went through an interesting (and sometimes rather entertaining) foray through the “isms”… Atheism, Agnosticism, Deism, Buddhism, Paganism, etc., and some of these things came close but never really “clicked”.

Finally, about two years ago I read several books that completely changed my entire outlook on religion. The first book, Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner, I came across by accident. I had picked it up because it was a book on journaling, something I am very passionate about. (Rather than spend a lot of money on a shrink I write obsessively instead, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.) I didn’t realize it was also a spiritual book until I was a couple chapters in and at that point I almost considered putting it down. However, it wasn’t a- “I’m going to cram my beliefs down your throat” sort of book so I continued to read it. It nearly blew my mind when I finally realized where Conner was going with it- she was suggesting that you could write to God and God would actually respond right there on the page! Here was proof that someone, a seemingly sane person, was having a authentic, personal conversation with the Source without needing an interpreter. (Sorry Jesus, while I have an immense amount of respect for you- no one likes a middle man.) Naturally I was skeptical at first and when I tried it out for myself it felt weird and unnatural because I just couldn’t let go of preconceived ideas about how you should talk to the Almighty. So I gave up thinking it was stupid and sort of crazy. God, however, can be persistent.

Enter book two into my life- Conversations With God- by Neale Donald Walsch (this is actually a multi-book series) where yet again my beliefs about God were turned upside down. Here is another person
doing essentially the exact same thing that Conner proposed in her book (though I am pretty sure Conversations With God was published first) and with AMAZING results. In a nutshell, the conversation Walsch has with God in these books is absolutely breath-taking and well worth the time it takes to read all of them.

So feeling slightly less crazy, after all now there were at least two other people in the world doing it, I again attempted my own conversation, this time with much better results. Today, not only do I have heartfelt chats with God on almost a daily basis, but I would also go so far as to say we have become *GASP* friends!

You don’t have to believe me, you can even call me crazy if you want, that’s okay. What I do know is that some of the poetry and insights that come out of my pen during these conversations does NOT come from anywhere inside me (for one thing I am not that eloquent). I also know that these conversations have changed my life in that- I am no longer as fearful of making mistakes, or believing in the “wrong” religion, or even of death itself because the Deity I have come to know and love is never judgmental, is always supportive, and loves me unconditionally no matter how bad I screw up. In fact, I think it’s high time you met my good friend the Great Inspirerer, so without further adieu here is a snippet from one of our conversations…

(This is an excerpt from a journal entry from a couple months ago during which I was having a particularly rough week. I chose this conversation to share with you because I think it is one of the most beautiful and comforting things anyone has ever said to me.)

October 22, 2012
(Me) I feel so weary and burdened.
Give it to me.
I feel so angry and frustrated I want to scream.
Give it to me. 
I feel guilty and sad because I feel like a complete and utter failure and weak and helpless.
Give it to me child.
Take it, I don’t want it anymore.
I will take it Dearheart and know this… On the darkest of nights I am the beacon lighting your way. I am your shelter and your protection from the violent storm. I am the warmth and love that envelopes you and lets you know that it will be okay. I am your champion, I will fight for you, along side you, every step of the way. I am your steady dependable rock, your foundation that will never crack or crumble. I am fierce and brave and strength incarnate and more importantly, as I am all these things so too are YOU because we are One. Where you go, I shall follow and what I am, so too shall you be as we are not separate but part of the Whole. Find strength and comfort in that, Dearheart… Whenever you feel weak or scared or angry, call upon me, call upon my strength and courage and know that you too are strong and courageous.

I frequently look back on this entry when I am lonely or scared and every time I feel the warmth and love I did the first time I received this reassuring message.

So maybe in the end I haven’t completely convinced you that having conversations with God isn’t utterly insane,to be fair it took awhile to get used to the idea myself, but at this point I try not to worry too much about what everyone else thinks. After all the many long and sometimes painful years of searching, this beautiful relationship I have with my Creator makes me feel like I have finally come home.

And that’s exactly where I want to be.