In September, I helped a friend build a toolkit to prepare for the death of a family member that they wouldn’t be able to be physically present for. That toolkit included a prayer to offer upon first learning of the death. In this time when so many of us will experience that same physically isolated loss, I thought it might be helpful to others, and my friend graciously agreed to let me share it.
In a time when we are barred from many of the conventional rituals of death, spontaneity and organic growth of ritual can be the best way to go – individualized rituals of the heart that truly reflect who your beloved was and who you are. But I find that in that moment when you first hear that someone close to you has died, a shocked numbness often descends. You know you want to do something, but your brain can’t quite get together the what. Having a set prayer or action you can call on every time helps your voice and body keep moving while your brain catches up. If your religion or culture doesn’t have something like this, I humbly invite you to use these words.
A Prayer Upon Learning of a Death
[NAME], I honor the body that you were The words you spoke The passions that moved you The love you shared The life you lived.
These were not always easy to live Or to live with But they were always you, And I honor you in that wholeness.
I grieve that you are no longer a living presence in my life I regret that I could not be with you at the end I allow myself to hurt and to heal Whatever form that takes However long it takes
Whole and holy Earth, take back the body of [NAME] that was formed from you Make new forms and lives from it May a piece of [NAME]’s life infuse the new lives that grow from it. May the passing forms of this life and the tears of our grief sustain the web of your creation.
Yom Kippur was last week, and I found it trickier to integrate into my Pagan practice. While Rosh Hashanah has several lovely rituals that felt easy to respectfully adapt, Yom Kippur is literally 25 hours of fasting and asking God to put away the smitey stick for another year, which jars with my beliefs about sin and the sacred. Also, the Yom Kippur machzor is approximately 20 billion pages long and includes stuff like the men thanking God that they aren’t women. So I took a while to find my bearings with this holiest of Jewish holy days.
I remembered something Rabbi Anne Brener says in her incredible book Mourning and Mitzvah and dug out my copy. It took me a minute to find the quote, but it was well worth the search. Rabbi Brener writes:
On Yom Kippur, traditional Jews wear a kittel, the white garment in which they will one day be buried. They recite the Viddui, a prayer of confession similar to the one recited by a dying person during the last moments before death. During the period preceding Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to put things right between themselves and others, as if there would be no other opportunity for such repentance.
See, the idea is that during the Days of Awe, God records every living person’s fate for the year to come and then seals that fate on Yom Kippur. And while some say that sincere repentance on Yom Kippur might sway God to change your fate, others argue (it’s Judaism, folks; theological debate is pretty much the name of the game) that All Decisions Are Final, and that the reason to atone on Yom Kippur is that, if you’re fated to die in the coming year, you want to face that fate with as clear a conscience as possible. As I read Rabbi Brener’s words, my observance took a shape: how would I live if I knew this was my last year of life?
I also shifted the focus of my observances to allow self-compassion. I wanted most to acknowledge the harms I’ve caused myself, the Earth, and other living beings, made what amends are possible, and figure out how to do better from now on, rather than just keep focusing on what a terrible person I was for having messed up in the first place. This clashes somewhat with the traditional mood of Yom Kippur, but my therapist was proud. 😀
Tuesday evening I cast my circle and performed a very pared-down version of the evening service, tweaked to align with my naturalistic beliefs (all my Psalms, for instance, came from the incomparable Earth Psalmsby Angela Magara [Z”L]). I wore as much white as I own (I don’t have a kittel, but making one is for sure on my to-do list now) and a fringed shawl that, while nothing like a tallis, fulfilled a similar role in keeping me focused on my obligations. I started Wednesday morning with a shortened version of the morning service and read the book of Jonah as instructed (anyone else think it has the weirdest ending?). Wednesday evening I undertook a short meditation where Spouse and I sat in a sterile medical office while a doctor told me that I had Madeupenitus and had, with or without treatment, exactly one year to live.
Then I opened a spreadsheet on my phone. Not the most sacred act, I know, but in no time flat I had 30+ items under “things I would do if I had a year to live.” Once the spreadsheet was filled in, I went outside to complete the (once again, highly abridged) Neilah, the service that closes the Yom Kippur observances, and to open my circle.
No, I didn’t fast; I didn’t feel right taking the day off from work, and I knew better than to try to put in a full workday while fasting. Maybe some year. We’ll see.
On Thursday, when I had more time and a bigger screen, I opened my spreadsheet and split the items in it into two columns: Do and Hold. That is, I want to do some of these things now, prognosis or no prognosis, while others will wait until that (heh) deadline is staring me in the face. Some people would say that if I would do something immediately if I knew I were dying, I should do it immediately now, but that isn’t always practical or desirable. For instance, if I knew today that I absolutely only had a year to live, I would buy a plot in one of our local green burial grounds. But I won’t do it without the prognosis, because I hope to live long enough that one of my preferred options – conservation burial or natural organic reduction (human composting) – has become legal and viable in my state. Don’t worry – my Do list has plenty to keep me busy in the year to come, whether I kick off before next Yom Kippur or not.
And there you have it: all the Yom Kippur that’s fit to print. While the actual ritual is still very much a work in progress, I feel confident saying that I will observe this holiday again in the years to come. Assuming my name’s in the Book of Life.
Before my parents got married, they made a deal: they would raise daughters Christian (Mom’s faith) and sons Jewish (Dad’s). I have many feels about this, most of them cranky. I was AFAB, so I grew up Christian, and I felt like I wasn’t even supposed to notice Judaism, beyond lighting the chanukiah every year and having the odd dinner-table debate about how to milk a chicken.
Now that I’m no longer Christian or a daughter, I feel pulled to reconnect with that erased part of my ancestry. I have -0% interest in converting, but I’m slowly and cautiously integrating small bits of practice and culture when I feel I can do so in ways that respect both Judaism and my own beliefs and values.
The Days of Awe – the period spanning from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – feel especially resonant to me. I find something powerful in the idea of a time of year set aside for honestly and compassionately assessing myself, acknowledging my shortcomings and committing to doing better in the year ahead. I also experience it as mirroring a similar period of reflection between Fall Equinox and Samhain (a period that often encompasses the Days of Awe).
So both nights I lit a candle and recited a naturalistic Pagan version of the Rosh Hashanah blessing that would surely have raised many an ancestral eyebrow. Yesterday at lunch (couldn’t quite get my act together to do it Sunday) I ate apples with honey to bring more sweetness into my life. And yesterday after work I stood at my current favorite spot along Nahar HaMississippi and prayed my own tashlich, ridding myself of the immobilizing guilt of the year’s wrongdoings. I don’t have a shofar, but maybe next year I’ll honk my recorder a few times.
And that was my Rosh Hashanah observance. Most of my Jewish relatives might’ve looked askance at it, but it felt right to me. In the days to come I hope to review and revise one or more of my end-of-life documents, look for ways to “re-up” my social and environmental activism, and spend as much time as possible in contemplation and experience of awe and humility.
Shana tova 5783! Here’s to a sweet year on this sacred Earth. Blessed be.
Image description:8 apple wedges on a blue plate. A jar of honey is just visible on the table behind the plate. Photo by the author.
Near the northern tip of the 32,000 acres that make up Minnesota’s Itasca State Park lies the spot most everyone1 considers the headwaters of Mníšošethąka—the river also known as the Mississippi. My beloved spouse and I have recently returned from our pilgrimage there.
This trip didn’t start as a pilgrimage. After Lior finished their Masters degree in May of 2021, I said, “I’ve done a pretty good job of supporting you and keeping the household running while you were in grad school. We should do something to celebrate me.”
It took a while, because life kept giving us lemons (and I kept doing a pretty good job of supporting Lior and keeping the household running, if I do say so myself), but eventually we started planning a journey to the Mississippi headwaters, which neither of us had taken before.
Some small, quiet part of me called it a pilgrimage from the beginning. But only in the last month or so of planning did that part step forward so I could start calling it a pilgrimage for real,2 rather than “a trip” or “I guess it’s sort of like a pilgrimage, maybe?”
I grew up with the understanding that the concept of pilgrimage was reserved for members of well-established religions making well-established journeys. Muslims performing the hajj, Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago.
In reality, a pilgrimage is any journey to a sacred site undertaken for religious reasons, and people of all religions can make them. I’m working to deepen my spiritual relationship with the Mississippi River, so the headwaters felt like a perfect pilgrimage destination. Once I felt comfortable saying “This will be a pilgrimage,” the journey shifted into something deeper for me, even when it was still in the planning stages.
One traditional aspect of pilgrimage that I really dig is the idea that you make it not just for yourself but for/with/on behalf of all your coreligionists who aren’t there with you. That concept helped me feel connected both to the non-human nature that surrounded me at every step of the journey and to wonderful, messy, human communities of Pagans. The week before we left, I posted in select corners of social media that Lior and I were making this pilgrimage, and that anyone who had a message for the headwaters could share it with me and I’d pass it along when we arrived.3 Ultimately, no one took me up on the offer, but just knowing that I’d put the word out, and that other people knew what I was doing, helped me feel the love and support of my fellow-Pagans as I stood on that shore.
CARRYING IT OUT
I really wanted to make sure the entire trip feel incorporated into the pilgrimage, not just our actual time at the headwaters. We cast a circle right before we got in the car to leave our house and set up our travel altar and gathered a few spoonfuls of soil at every stop.4 Those few simple acts of intention added a spiritual depth that was exactly what this journey needed, even if in most other ways, it felt like every other road trip we’ve been on together—gas station snack foods of questionable nutrition, pictures of clouds taken from speeding passenger windows, car-dancing to Poliça and Sudan Archives.
Left to our own devices, Lior and I aren’t much for flashy rituals. When we arrived at the headwaters, we greeted the river with a simple hello and the same song we sing to it every time we travel across or alongside it in our neck of the woods. We gathered some water into small bottles and some rocks into pockets. I left a small hair clipping in a clump of weeds along the bank. I took off my shoes and socks and stood ankle-deep in the ice-cold water.5 And then we sat by the river, simply being in its presence and taking in the beauty of the day.
All told, we were probably at the headwaters just under an hour. Our hearts could’ve stayed all day, but our stomachs and bladders drew us back to food and bathrooms.
That night, I shared one last token with Lior: pilgrimage badges6 I’d made for both the headwaters themselves and for Baxter/Brainerd, our major stop coming and going. Just a fun reminder of our pilgrimage. Besides dirt. And rocks. And water. And Itasca stickers. And soooo many pictures.
Then we came home.
And that, dear readers, is the story of our Mníšošethąka headwaters pilgrimage. It wasn’t profoundly life-changing the way Pagans often get taught that experiences like this “should be.” There is no “should” for religious experiences. This journey connected me more deeply to a Mystery that is dear to my heart. It was the best gift I could’ve asked for myself.
I recently came across a series of articles from 2016 about a geologist who believes that the Mississippi headwaters are actually in South Dakota. But for any number of reasons, we were not going to go to South Dakota. Wasn’t happening.
Until posting this blog entry, I only called it this to other Pagans. The older I get, the less inclined or obligated I feel to argue with non-Pagans or other kinds of Pagans who want to dispute my right to claim certain words and concepts for my own practice. So, if you want to dispute my right to use “pilgrimage” in this context… have fun disputing yourself, ’cause I’m not gonna engage.
Here’s one of the first things I learned when I started learning and practicing the Reclaiming tradition:
I am my own authority, rooted in community.
I’ll get to “rooted in Community” in later posts; today I’m looking at being my own spiritual authority. This doesn’t mean I’m free to run around doing whatever I want. It means that only I say how I understand the divine and how I connect to it. No one else tells me how to believe or what to do about my beliefs, not my teachers or fellow practitioners, not the tradition itself. Reclaiming, like all ecstatic Pagan traditions, values personal relationship with the sacred, which must start with a personal understanding of what the sacred is.
Lemme me tell ya: that can be terrifying. I’m a lifelong people-pleaser who struggles to decide what to have for dinner if there’s the least chance that my choice will negatively impact someone else. Believing that only I can determine my spiritual foundation is sometimes a very big ask.
On the other hand, I’ve gone the dogma route, both Christian and Pagan. I’ve been part of groups and traditions where the people in charge tried to tell the rest of us what to believe and how to practice. It doesn’t work for me. Because it’s true: only I can know how I perceive the sacred and how I best connect with it. This is why I hold spiritual autonomy as one of my central spiritual values. The ability to craft my own personal relationship with the secret, however I understand it, is a precious gift. I never want to take it for granted.
Photo by Amy Treasure via Unsplash. Image description: a person in a hooded coat walking along a dirt path through trees. Their back is to the camera, and their gaze points downward.
I sometimes struggle to wrap my mind around the concept of wholeness. Yeah, I know, I chose it, but I can’t always articulate what I mean by it.
Earth is a materially closed system. Everything that was, is, and will be on this planet is made of the same stuff, endlessly broken down and reassembled in new forms. That’s one of the most incredible facts I know. We are literally our Ancestors remade–all the Ancestors, from the birth of this sacred planet forward. I love that. I honor it.
Wholeness to me also means repair. Repairing myself, repairing communities, repairing the world. True repair means first acknowledging what’s broken. No singing “We Are the World” together and then moving on like everything’s great and we’re all one now. I have to face the harms done, both by me and mine and to us. I have to learn when and how to make reparations for what I’ve done, when and how to demand accountability for what I’ve experienced, and, unfortunately, when and how to excise the parts that can’t or won’t be healed, so that what remains can be whole.
I don’t know that I’ll ever attain fullwholeness in my own life, let alone in the whole world. But I have the whole world as a role model, and that inspires me to keep trying every day.