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An Altar to the Dead

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

A montage of my living experiences with the those who have passed:

I am 12 years old and I have a dream. My Grandma DD comes to me and tells me to get up. She is wearing a beautiful, flowing, white gown and a radiant smile. I’ve never seen her so happy.

“I have come to say goodbye!” She tells me and gives me a big hug.

This surprises me because DD isn’t known for being a big hugger and she isn’t crazy about goodbyes either! Then she just lifts off the ground and starts to fly away, waving at me and dancing in air. She laughs and turns a flip above me and her laughter is still in my ears as my dad shakes me awake with tears in his eyes to tell me that DD has passed on. In my half awake stupor, I don’t understand why he’s crying when I just saw how happy she was.

I have just graduated high school and am road tripping to my commune in Nevada with three of my best friends. We are invincible and wild with the freedom of these first months of adulthood. We pay for our own gas, get out of a speeding ticket and stop in Jackpot Nevada to play the slot machines. We drive 14 hours without sleeping and arrive at Home Farm well after midnight to find a note saying one of our beloved community members has passed on. We are humbled and shocked by the news, but try to sleep anyway. At the sound of my friend’s breath deepening into soft snores, I quietly sneak out of bed and go out to stand under the quilt of stars in the desert night sky.

"Susannah is gone," I think dumbly, "I can’t believe it."

The woman who taught me how to make cinnamon rolls and who cooked me my school lunches for years. One of the main matriarchs of our commune with her glittering nose ring, magical laughing eyes and long colorful skirts. Gone. I feel empty and confused and too ripped open to cry.

Suddenly everything around me shifts. It’s subtle and I can’t quite tell what’s going on, but it feels like the whole desert has started humming, vibrating and swaying. The crickets have stopped singing, yet I can hear a faint something somewhere in the distance. There’s a heaviness to the air. It presses in on me and constricts my breathing. I don’t understand what is happening and wonder for a moment if this is an earth quake or an alien sighting. The celestial music gets louder and the crickets join in again creating a cacophony that’s both sweet and dissonant - building and building to a great crescendo. Just when I don’t think I can take the sound or the pressure anymore, the full moon pops up - just a tiny but bright curve over the mountains in the East. She is big and round and orange and her sudden presence in the night sky feels celebrated by the entire universe. I watch the moon rise and I just “know” Susannah is in there. She’s in that moon. I make her a few promises and I say goodbye.

I’m in college and wake from a dead sleep with a start. I hear a voice say to me “Jenna go light a candle for your grandpa.”

I get up and sit at my altar and light a candle. I pray for my grandpa and think of all the good memories I can conjure of him. Around 1 am, a soft peacefulness descends upon me and I know it’s time to blow out the light. The next morning, the phone rings and it’s my mom telling me my grandpa Woody has passes peacefully in the night. I want to say, “I know…”

It’s one of my first trips without my daughters and we’ve gathered for my Grandma Nada’s memorial. This is the first time my mom’s side of the family has all been in the same place for, I don’t know how long. My Grandma wanted her ashes placed on the mountainside by Shambala Center, Colorado so here we are in this high desert trying to find a good rock to sit on and a way to say goodbye.

My aunt brings out a box and explains that one of the nurses at the care center where my grandma lived her last years really loved and appreciated Nada for her little one liners of wisdom. She liked this so much, she started writing them down on little strips of paper and putting them in this box. My aunt suggests we each take turns reading “Nada’isms” from the box as a way to celebrate her. It’s uncanny as we begin to read, how each person receives a perfect message on this piece of paper for where they are in their lives right now. When the box comes to me, I feel the heaviness of the wood and the whisper of my grandma in there. I pull my piece out and she calls me out in only the way Nada can- telling me I have to shine my light even if that means I’m in the spotlight. It’s true, I have been hiding and it’s time to come out into the light again. Everyone’s paper says what they need to hear and I know that this is Nada’s final gift to us all. Even now, every time I am about to go out on stage I say a prayer to my Grandma Nada and feel her supporting the musical artist in me.

I've been spending time with him and his daughter since I found out about the stage four cancer. Days turn into these amorphous mind games filled with a bizarre variety of conversations ranging from "are you afraid to die?" to "if you could get any tattoo or piercing what would it be and why?" I stay as long as I can, but eventually I have to go home. It's a strange feeling to hug this man, who was as much of a father to me as my own was, for what I know will be the last time. I don't cry on the way home, I push the pain of death and cancer deep down inside somewhere. Some days later I'm driving down the street in SW Portland and a rush passes through my body just as the song "You Are Not Alone" by Micheal Jackson comes on the radio. I know he has gone and later that day I get the call from his daughter. Finally the tears come...

Our house has a ghost. I’m pretty sure I know who it is because he was such a big part of our lives and his life ended so suddenly and so young. I can feel that he is trying to find the light, but because the only light he thinks he can see is our family and our house, doors keep slamming, lights flicker on and off, objects are moved or missing. I do several meditations where I try to show him that there is a bigger and brighter light than our house waiting for him. We only make it so far together - I am not a good navigator for the dead, being that I’m still corporeal. I ask for the help of Archangel Gabriel. I ask that this confused soul find a way to a much bigger light than the unsatisfying glow of our home. It’s been over a year now since a door has mysteriously slammed so I like to think he finally found his way.

There are so many ways to work with the dead. Sometimes they need our help. More often, we need theirs because of their wonderfully non-earth-bound perspective. But isn’t it nice to know we are never truly alone? Through my spiritual searchings I have found wonderful accounts on how different cultures treat the dead. Ancient Aztec cultures believed the souls of their dead had to travel through nine worlds to get back to Source and that this journey could take decades, so they would put altars out for them with candles and food to light and nourish the journey. This is similar to the “altares” that are created during the celebratory time of El Dia De Los Muertos. The Ancient Yogis and European initiates both said that when a person dies, the soul enters something called “Kama Loka” where it relives that entire life except backwards and from the perspective of those it affected. Depending on how the person lived her/his life, this time can be wonderful or quite painful. In other cultures they dedicate morning and night times to reading aloud to the dead they believe this practice keeps them company and feeds them with words.

Every day, I ask friends and family who have passed on for help, guidance and advice. I ask them for strength or clarity in the form of a sign or a message. Those little communique always come through accompanied with a deep knowing and sense of peace. They say that this time of the year, the veils between the dead and living are thin. This has never been a scary or creepy thought for me, but rather a comforting one filled with unconditional love and support. And so may it be for you…

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