May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.
–Mary Oliver, excerpted from "Prayer," Evidence: Poems
I recently went out to the desert for a week of retreat. Last Christmas I had a pulmonary embolism while in Vienna. Coming so close to the reality of my own death demanded more reflection, more time to be present to what this experience was opening up in my heart. I knew the desert was the place of fierceness calling to me.
In my first few days I found myself deeply drawn to images of death. In New Mexico there are these wonderful figures everywhere of skeletons dressed in various clothing. They are in celebration of Day of the Dead and invite us into a different relationship with death.
Even the carving of St. Francis on the heavy wood doors of the cathedral showed a skull at his feet and I was reminded that he refers to "Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape" in his poem "Canticle of the Sun."
I drove out to the stunning red rocks of Ghost Ranch and standing there in the desert heat and sun I found myself in the presence of an ancient wisdom. The desert spares no one, but in welcoming her in, my life is made inifinitely richer. Before my experience with near-death at Christmas I cherished my life and those I love, but there is now a fierceness within me. I know on a visceral level how precious each day is.
Jean Leloup, author of Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition writes: "In the desert it is impossible to forget who and what we are. Our fragility brings us back to the Living One, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being.’ We discover again our essential axis…. The memory of the Living One quickens life within us. It centers us on the contemplation of the One who is at the heart of who we are.” In the desert I remembered my essential axis and found my deep center again.
Toward the end of the week I participated in a Jungian-based expressive arts retreat, inspired by the work of Marion Woodman. Essentially it is a way of bringing work with archetypes and inner symbols even more deeply into the life of the body. Much of the work focuses on movement. During our last session we were led through a guided meditation and movement experience. We had been working with a fairy tale as our guiding theme about the places in our lives that have been dismembered and hidden away. The meditation was a journey to begin reclaiming those parts and bring them back to wholeness.
The facilitator began by putting on a piece of music that irritated me at first. It was loud and fast and I was tired at that point with a migraine brewing. But as I slowly released my resistance into the dance, I discovered tears waiting there for me. As the afternoon unfolded we moved between quiet reflective spaces and more expressive, dynamic movement and I found myself weeping again and again. I love dance and movement and have been practicing yoga for years, deepening my practice of yin yoga especially these last couple of years. And yet here I was discovering that there was something of my inner dancer who has been locked away. When I explored this further I realized it happened when my mother died eight years ago. Somehow my grief didn't have room for the full dance. As I re-entered my grief from this new place I found myself connected to a renewed source of energy. I blessed myself with my tears as I danced the emergence of this part of me. And toward the end of the experience I invited my mother to dance with me. She had been in a wheelchair for many years before her too-early death, but in my dance we were both wild and free.
Outside the Cathedral there is a marvelous statue of St. Francis dancing. In the summer months it is a fountain and so he appears to be dancing across the water with abandon. When I returned home the poem above by Mary Oliver found me and my heart quickened. This was my lesson from the desert: I will one day return to ash and in the days until then I will dance my deep sorrow as well as my passionate joy. And when I am ash scattered in the ocean, I will continue to dance.