Tag Archives: death

H is for Hospice Work

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project (PBP). It’s the first one for the letter H. The illustrations are ads from a campaign for a stationary hospice in the USA. You can see the whole series in better solution at the copy writer’s website.

As you may have read in my earlier PBP post on Death, I have been participating in a weekly training course for volunteer hospice workers since early November. So let me start by giving you a few facts about the volunteer hospice training I got and the actual volunteer work I do so you get an idea where I’m coming from on this.

The last meeting of my training group will be next week, and until then we’ll have logged about 100 hours of training. That training alone was an experience I wouldn’t want to miss! We have learned communication skills, talked about ethics and how to keep a non-judgmental attitude, learned a few basics about dementia, palliative care, and what happens during the process of dying and after death, explored the role of spirituality and rituals, learned about grief and bereavement, were informed about the legal limitations of what we can and can’t do (for insurance reasons), and have done a lot of introspection about our motivations, our own experiences with illness, grief, and death. After that, there will be regular feedback for the documentation we write for the hospice service after each visit (so they know what’s going on in any given hospice relationship and how we cope with it), monthly supervision, and opportunities to do further training on particular aspects of the work we do. While I still expect to make mistakes along the way, I felt as well-trained and well-supported at this service as one can be when I began my first volunteer assignment a few weeks ago.

“My” organization is an ambulant hospice service, which means we go where the people we serve are living: into their private households, into nursing homes, and occasionally into hospitals (there is a saying: hospice is not necessarily a physical place, but it’s an attitude or concept). We serve people who are living with a terminal illness and/or their families and other close ones. What we do there is as varied as the people we serve. Some need help with running errands or doing paperwork, others need someone to talk to about difficult topics who isn’t part of their family/circle of friends, yet others need someone to just sit quietly with them and maybe hold their hand, and others yet again need someone to take care of their pets or children or plants. Sometimes we are called to visit the dying person themselves, other times we are asked to support their wife/husband/partner, adult child, or other (familial) caretaker. The basic idea is that we offer a certain amount of time (usually about three hours a week) and the people we serve decide what they want to do with that time (within the limits we stated – e.g. a volunteer may not want to work with children or dogs, may not want to cook or be able to carry heavy groceries, or may be uncomfortable in the house of a heavy smoker). It is assumed that everyone we serve can and will make their own decisions about their own lives (just as they’ve usually done for many decades before we met them), and we are to accept these decisions, even if we don’t like them or don’t agree with them. It’s not our job to judge the people we serve and we’re not supposed to “fix” anyone’s life, give them advice about what would be best for them or their families, or make decisions for them.

[Photo of an old man and a boy playing cards. Text: "Hospice isn't just about dying peacefully. It's about living until you die."]

And that brings me to the central aspect of this work for me: the element of what I want to call ego-less service. By this I mean a service that isn’t done primarily because we want something for ourselves, but because we want to serve someone else and their needs and wants. I’m using the term “ego-less” instead of “selfless” because we’re not asked to do away with our personalities/selves or give up our boundaries. A hospice volunteer is not an emotional service-bot but a human being with a unique history and personality – just like the people we serve. In fact, I believe we can only be good hospice workers if we actually have a full life to return to after our visits, and that anything else will eventually lead to burn-out.

The idea of such ego-less (or low-ego) service isn’t exactly new to me. In fact, I’ve been encountering it in various contexts (and I’m not even counting my experiences as a customer of various service professionals here). Paid work as a customer service agent via telephone. Reading intelligent BDSM novels that center on giving and receiving service (such as Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series) and talking to BDSM practitioners who are into providing (or receiving) non-sexual service. Possibly even providing tarot readings for fellow members of Aeclectic Tarot Forum and a few other friends. And now volunteer hospice work.

None of these things seem to work really well if the person providing the service does these things with an ego-centric attitude. Sure, I can “egoistically” strive to become the best customer service agent (I’ll use this example because I think it’s the most relateable one from my list) compared to my colleagues, but the quality of my service will still be measured by how well I fulfilled the needs of someone else (= the customer). There are two components to a customer service contact: emotions and facts/deeds. That means, a good customer service agent needs to first take care of people’s disappointment or anger or fear (which is usually done by listening to these emotions and validating them), and then(!) give them the information they need, or do whatever else needs to be done to solve the problem at hand (at least as much as possible). Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you received a technically good solution for your problem from a customer service provider but still felt as bad as before, if not worse. That’s usually because nobody took care of your emotions and that means you only got half of the solution you actually needed. On the other hand, if all you got was an open ear and believable sympathy but your delivery will still be late with no refund, you’re likely to still feel better than before, and to feel you’ve still received adequate service. That’s how important the “emotional labor” part of customer service is.

I believe I can take valuable lessons from my customer service experience over into my hospice work. Focusing on the needs and desires of someone else and doing something that makes them feel better was indeed a fulfilling thing to do. I actually often enjoyed dealing with the challenges of the “difficult” customers (which are usually those with strong emotions) and was proud if they were once again calm and content when I said goodbye to them after a few minutes. The difference seemed to be that I always acknowledged their feelings as appropriate, right at the beginning of the conversation. And no, I didn’t have to fake that sympathy very often: after all, I’ve been a customer of similar businesses myself and know how frustrating it is when a delivery doesn’t arrive in the specified time, when I’ve received a damaged item, when a refund isn’t issued immediately, etc. (This was definitely made easier by the fact that I usually wasn’t the one who was responsible for the original problems, so I didn’t have to confront them as my own failures.)

[Photo of two old women playing cards and laughing. Text: "Sometimes the best pain medication isn't medication."]

There is one thing, however, that I can’t and shouldn’t take over from customer service into hospice work. As a customer service agent, I was expected to take over responsibility, find a solution, and generally do all the “doing” necessary to fix the problem. As a hospice volunteer, this is the one major thing I’m not supposed to do. Sometimes that’s hard for me to do. After all, I’m a pretty good “fixer” in my everyday life. I still have a job where I’m supposed to solve problems (preferably before they come into existence), and I have a tendency to suggest solutions when someone tells me of a problem they have. (Which is why – when I’m not sure what is

desired – I’ve taken up the habit of asking if the friend in question needs me to just shut up and listen or if they want me to brainstorm potential solutions with them.)

But that’s exactly why I enjoy the challenge to do things differently in my volunteer work so much. I get to grow beyond who I am already. I get to try out and train different sides of me. Here’s one more example. As I described over in the D is for Death post, I’ve already done some hospice-related work last year when I visited people with dementia in a nursing home every week for a few months. This was a context where the skills I’m usually valued for were of very little relevance. It was irrelevant if I was good a expressing things verbally. It was irrelevant if I could argue well, understand academic texts, work with a variety of computer programs, organize events, or read obsessively. What was needed instead were my emotional capabilities – the ones that are otherwise often underestimated, ridiculed, or denied to be existing in the first place. Was I able to feel and express sympathy with someone’s sadness, grief, or anger, even if I didn’t understand why they were feeling that way in the first place, and even if I had no way of “fixing” the problem (the dementia wouldn’t go away, no matter what I did!)? Was I able to empathize with and validate all of the emotions of all of the different family members without taking sides or involving myself with their dynamics in any other way? Surprisingly, I seemed to be rather good at this for the most time, and I often went away from these encounters feeling incredibly blessed for having had them. There were some moments when the people I visited or their family members expressed profound gratitude for what I was doing – which often wasn’t doing much of anything but being there, listening, and accepting whatever came up.

So of course I get something back from this work, even though I initially started it because I felt a strong call to do something that didn’t primarily benefit myself and “people like me and my friends” (unlike my previous volunteer work of 10+ years as an organizer of countless no-budget LGBTQ subcultural events had done). I had a strong feeling that I needed to branch out and do something that wasn’t primarily about me and my interests and my idea of a good time. And yet, of course I still do something that matters to me, something I’m interested in, something that I ultimately enjoy doing. Here are some more of the benefits of this work: I often get to skip the small talk and jump right into what really matters. I get to let go of all the identity labels I usually wear and be a human being who is spending (often very intimate) time with another human being. I get to make something that is a taboo for many a little less scary and a little more accessible (often by the simple fact of telling someone what it is I do). I get to shut up and listen and let someone else call the shots for a while.

[Photo of an old man laughing and half hiding his face behind his arm. Text: "It's okay to cry when someone is dying. It's also okay to laugh."]

I’m also quietly amused by the fact that much of this almost sounds like what other people say about why they like to bottom (= be the “passive”/receptive one) in their BDSM encounters… And indeed, there seem to be some interesting similarities between BDSM service and hospice work. The focus on the needs and desires of someone else and the willingness to fulfill them if possible within the negotiated frame is probably the most obvious one. Certain communication skills (including nonverbal ones), attention to everyone’s boundaries, a heightened awareness of power dynamics, a strong emphasis on issues of consent (and ethics in general), respect for people who are into different things than you are and a generally non-judgmental attitude are other important aspects of hospice work that I’ve also encountered in connection with BDSM.

And then there’s spirituality and the idea of a spiritual service. While I haven’t been called by any particular spiritual being to do a certain kind of work as a service to either them (such as when people dedicate their volunteer work to a specific deity) or my community (such as the “classic” shamans I mentioned earlier) or both, I still see a spiritual component to my hospice work.  I’ve been trying to find words to better describe what I mean by “a spiritual component” but I’m still failing to do so right now. What I can say is that I don’t mean we constantly have deep, meaningful conversations about faith or the afterlife (or the lack thereof) with the people we serve – although the topic does come up occasionally. Maybe it really boils down to the fact that I feel inexplicably called to do this work…

And with that I unceremoniously break off and take note of the fact that I don’t have any “final” words to say on this topic, yet. I expect it will come up again in some way later on.

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Here are two further links that seemed to provide some useful information:

Hospice Foundation of America (HFA) Blog – discusses a variety of topics related to hospice work.
Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness – basic information about facing serious illness, about the dying process, and a bunch of related issues

D is for Dualities (and why so many of them aren’t very useful)

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter D. Since I noticed that I had missed talking about binaries during my earlier post about Kate Bornstein, I decided to write about dualities soon after. I actually woke up with the main idea of this post last weekend. With that background, I took it as a confirmation when the topic of “dualism” came up as a suggestion in the most recent PBP newsletter (to which I subscribed after all because I’m just too curious).

The images that accompany this post are two cards from Lorena B. Moore’s beautiful and out-of-print Ironwing Tarot, the Two of Coils and Death, respectively. The Ironwing is my current deck of the week, and I actually drew the Two of Bells yesterday during the process of choosing a new deck to use, which is why the illustrations seemed suitable.

One of the very first concepts associated with non-mainstream spirituality I encountered at around the age of 16/17 was by way of the yin-yang symbol (or, more correctly as I just learned, the tajitu symbol). You know, where two opposites make a whole and each contains a part of the other? My best friend’s boyfriend explained to me that it symbolized not only light/dark, wet/dry, hard/soft and so on, but also male/female. From that, he concluded that humans could only reach true happiness in a male/female couple. He didn’t say that gays and lesbians needed to either come around and accept the “natural” order of heterosexuality or accept their spiritual dis-ability, but I still heard it loud and clear. Back then I was hardly even bisexual, but I still noticed when someone tried to sell me their ideology as universal “nature.” So I called bullshit on him and stopped trusting that guy’s explanations of such things.

Still, there were some aspects of the concept that made sense to me, especially the one that both “sides” were needed for general balance and wholeness. That said, I didn’t believe every single one of us needed to embody exactly equal parts of the respective characteristics. I just thought that all “sides” were necessary for a whole, balanced world.

But every time I saw male/female (or even masculine/feminine) included in the list of dual opposites that were relevant for any kind of spiritual (or political) system (not just yin-yang), I winced and took a step backwards. No matter how I looked at it, that duality just didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t see any clear line between the two positions, and I also couldn’t get behind the idea that the world of gender was that simple (one of my G posts will definitely be about gender, which is why I’m not elaborating much on the topic here).

And the more I thought about the dualities on these lists, the more I found that I honestly couldn’t picture as two black and white paisley swirls making a circle together. Good/bad (or evil). Life/death. Healing/harming. Male/female. No, no, no. None of these fit even remotely into such a limited model.

A few days ago, it suddenly hit me. There are some dualities that make sense to me and which I use comfortably. Day/night. Light/dark. Quiet/loud. Hot/cold. Dry/wet. Soft/hard. I still don’t believe these things are binaries in any way. One doesn’t necessarily exclude the other, there are areas where the two merge. Which is why we have dusk, dawn, damp, lukewarm, and room volume. And all sorts of other states inbetween the respective extremes. Actually, I would argue that most of what we encounter in our daily lives is somewhere in the inbetween spaces. Therefore, most of our lives is actually some shade of gray instead of pure white or black. Or maybe it’s even a shade of green, red, blue, orange, purple, or yellow.

To get back to my original point: the general idea that – for example – hot is the opposite of cold makes sense to me. Us humans may not agree all around the world where hot and cold starts (which is why some of us still wear shorts and T-shirts when others already don jeans and sweaters), but we do agree that hot eventually leads to sweating (or boiling) and cold eventually leads to shivering (or freezing). We are even be able to measure the degree of hotness/coldness with a thermometer; and even if use a Celsius one and you use a Fahrenheit one, water still boils and freezes at the respective reference points every single time. This is not dependent on context. For me, such dualities are the simple ones. They focus on one single characteristic which is relatively easy to measure and to agree on across time and cultures. They are also relatively free of universally valid hierarchical value judgments (although of course everyone will find a point where something is too loud, too cold, or too soft). So I’m fine with these dualities, assuming they’re not thought of as mutually exclusive opposites without overlap. They are convenient. They are useful.

And then there are the other “dualities” which I don’t believe in. The ones that don’t make sense to me. I’ll skip male/female and feminine/masculine here, but they belong right on top of that list. Close contenders are things like good/bad, healing/harming, or life/death. To me, all of these things are way too complex to work well as examples for the (more or less) yin-yang model of dualities.

While we all agree that there are things that are alive and things that are dead, and that there’s a difference between them, we certainly don’t agree on what scale to use for measuring the amount of life and death in something. And this is not just a Celsius vs. Fahrenheit thing. Because life and death are so completely interwoven with culture and history that there is no independent scale for any kind of measurement available to us. Some argue that human life starts with conception, others say it starts with the first independent breath, yet others vote for some point inbetween the two. I’m sure that things like in-vitro fertilization have only complicated matters in that respect. And it gets even more complicated when it comes to the end of human life. Is someone dead when their personality as we knew it has disappeared completely? When their hearts stops beating on its own? When they don’t breathe anymore by themselves? When their brain stops working? When their physical body has been completely dissolved into something else (and what if some of that is new life?)? When their soul has completely passed over into whatever place we believe it passes over (and do we need to verify that or do we just assume it happened after a certain period of time?)? When the last person who remembered them is gone? When they’ve been reborn as something/someone else (assuming we believe there  it is such a thing as rebirth – and isn’t that another life, then, too?)? Sure, we have some sort-of agreed-upon signs we use to declare someone dead (or at least dead enough to be buried/burned), but even those seem to get more blurry with certain developments in Western medicine.

In other words, there is no way we can define even the extremes of these dualities in a way that is unambiguous, not culturally/historically specific, and not majorly influenced by someone’s values and beliefs (e.g. spiritual or ethical ones). Not to mention the whole big gray/pink/yellow/green mess in the middle. While this also emphasizes my earlier argument that most life (and death!) actually happens in just that middle mess, it’s still a much bigger mess when it comes to “big” dualities like female/male, life/death and evil/good than it is with the “small” dualities like cold/hot, dry/wet, and day/night.

That doesn’t mean I never call someone feminine, male, or dead. It just means that I can’t really draw a line between these things and their supposed counterparts, and that I don’t even find them particularly helpful to describe what I’m actually talking about. At best, they work as a rough orientation and a kind of guidepost for the kind of territory we may be entering. It might help to think of them as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one.

(Yes, I know that even my duality of big/small issues here doesn’t hold up under close philosophical scrutiny. I don’t mind. It worked well enough to make my point, I think, and that’s all I wanted from it today. If you’re sure the thing is dead, feel free to dissect it. ;-) )

D is for Death

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter D.

My interest in death is a relatively recent one. While I sometimes joke that I might have become a gothic if I was willing to devote more time to perfecting my appearance (clothing, make-up, hair), I could never identify with this subculture’s obsession with death. Sure, I enjoy a good vampire story every now and then (not that vampires are technically dead), and I’ve worn my share of skulls and crossbones, but that’s about it. Death just wasn’t anything that happened in my life.

And when death first did happen in my life, when my grandfather died as I was about 16, it still left me pretty cold. I hadn’t liked him in life, we never were close, so his death didn’t actually concern me much. I do remember silently (and rather cynically) telling him “do it better the next time round” at the funeral. I think I had the impression he hadn’t been a very happy man as I knew him, and he also didn’t seem to have made my mother (and her brother?) very happy. He wasn’t directly abusive, as far as I know, just not emotionally available. Still, death remained detached from my life.

When my grandmother died, I was 28. Her death was a long and slow one, and it began when her dementia got more and more pronounced. She had been a very important person during my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and I loved her very much. We mostly lived in the same city (except for three years when my family relocated due to my father’s job situation), but I had moved away for good at 21, so I only saw her a couple of times a year. Her world became smaller and smaller, until she stopped leaving her apartment altogether (except for rare accompanied visits to the doctor). Looking back, I wish I had known more about dementia back then so I had been able to better understand her world in those last few years. As it was, I just felt that she slowly disappeared into a loop of forgetfulness and only peeked out of that very rarely. I did what I could to make her look at me once again with that very particular twinkle in her eyes. In the very end, she had to move to a nursing home, where I visited her once. I remember pushing her outside in her wheelchair. She eventually said (as she had done several times before on different occasions) “I think the dear Lord has forgotten me,” which I took to mean she wouldn’t mind if he summoned her into the Heaven (her imagery, not mine) sometime soon. So I told her something to the effect that she could go if she wanted to because I somehow believed she needed that permission (no idea why, really).

Anyhow, eventually she did die. I expected myself to cry and be very sad because she had been so important in my life, but I found that I didn’t feel much at first. She had been very old (90+ years), she had been on her way out for years and years, so this was hardly a shock. Especially since I had the feeling she had been ready to go for quite a while. I found the funeral pretty terrible. It was held in a chapel-like room of a funeral home, by a pastor who hadn’t known her and who had written his speech after interviewing one or two of her three sons. There was only a sentence or two about her attitude towards us grandchildren, which felt completely out of balance to me – after all, she had been a grandmother for nearly half of her life, and a very active and present one at that! I was completely surprised to learn that she had loved to sing, and silently promised that I would accept the heritage of the singing (a promise which I still have to fulfill – but I’m slowly inching my way towards that, starting from a position where I’d never sing in anyone’s presence). It was a Christian funeral, and that felt very alien to me. That said, I was surprised how moved I still was and that I actually started crying in the end. I didn’t think of myself as much of a spiritual person back then, but I clearly remember “sending” a spiral to balance/counter the sign of the cross the pastor made at the end. It went right through the cross. Again, I have no idea where that impulse came from.

In the late summer of 2008, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He got chemotherapy, he got surgery, and for a while it all seemed hopeful. I still massively increased the frequency of my visits with my parents (whom I had seen maybe once or twice a year before) and ended up going there every other weekend or so. In that winter, he went back into the hospital, and I remember the whole family visiting him in there on Christmas. I sat by his bed, talking to him, and he gave my an article about “modern” ways of organizing work he thought I’d be interested in. I made him an envelope full of collages that were meant to show him what memories of our shared life I cherished and that I loved him just the way he was. I told him I was proud to be his daughter and that I loved him. I also saw him cry, for the first and only time. That moment still has a very special place in my heart.

There was talk of him moving into a hospice, and my sister and I went to check out the one in my parents’ hometown (a wonderful place that felt completely right to me). We also thought about  bringing him home again, but I don’t think that ever really was an option for my mother. I don’t remember any medical details, just that there was to be another surgery, and that I had a very bad feeling about it, fearing he wouldn’t survive the operation. I even opened a thread on a tarot forum I was a member of and asked people to pray and send good energy to him. The outpouring of love from total strangers was incredible, and I felt very blessed by it. Anyhow, for whatever reason, the surgery was postponed a few days, and I still believe that this was partly why he did survive it. So that’s how he started the year 2009: fresh out of surgery, but with the devastating result that his whole belly was full of metastases and that the surgeons hadn’t even tried to remove any of them. That was when death finally became a resident in my life.

A few days later, the whole hospital had to be evacuated so that four old war bombs in the area could be safely defused (or detonated). That didn’t add much to a peaceful recovery from that surgery for him. After the bomb action was over, he was transferred to the palliative care ward. I’m not entirely sure why he didn’t move into the hospice but I think it was considered too strenuous for him. (I’m surprised myself how little I remember of the medical facts and related issues, but since I got most of the information by phone, and my auditory memory is not the best, that might account for some of that. And then I think I was simply focused on other things, like the emotional situation of everyone.) About a week later, I went to a workshop to build a frame drum (I hadn’t even successfully journeyed back then, but for some reason I knew I needed to make a drum). The following Monday, I received a letter from my university, telling me that my Master’s thesis proposal had been accepted and that I now had four months to write its 80-100 pages. What timing.

The next day, I got a phone call from my sister that I should come to my parents’ hometown because it looked as if my father would die soon. I threw a few things into a bag, called my workplace, my Beloved called his, and off we went (my Beloved driving us). I think we were about half an hour from the hospital, still on the autobahn, when my mother called and told me that my father had just died. I said I definitely wanted to see him and that they should wait for me there. We hung up, and a few minutes later, the clouds right in front of us opened up in a peculiar shape and I saw a beam of sunlight in beautiful colors. I was certain that this had been a sign from my Dad, saying goodbye to me.

We arrived at the hospital, were greeted by my sister who took us to his room (I hadn’t been there before). He was lying in his bed, his hands on his chest, one on top of the other, his chin supported by a plastic thingie to prevent his head from falling forward. He was oddly yellow. I went over and touched his hands, looking at his dead face, which looked like him and yet not really like him. We hung around in the room for a while, eating bland cookies and drinking tea or coffee. It was a very liminal time, with him being both there and gone. Eventually, we went home to my mother’s place, taking a big plastic bag full of his clothes (not sure why I remember this detail so well).

After that, there was a flurry of activity. A funeral home had to be called, a date for the service had to be set, an obituary and funeral service invitations had to be worded and designed, clothes had to be picked, etc. My parents had decided and prepared a lot of things beforehand, so it was a comparatively organized and smooth process. I felt strange about using the same funeral home that had handled things when my grandmother died, but I didn’t argue (the experience of having someone try and sell their “prettifying dead people skills” to me/us was still pretty jarring to me). Since my father wasn’t a member of any church and didn’t believe in any god (as far as I know), we had to decide what to do about a speech. I offered to write something and read it myself. Then my sister also wanted to write and read something. And then we decided to ask a cousin of my father to add a third part of the speech and say something about their youth which we as his children of course hadn’t witnessed. My sister initially found she was overwhelmed with the task of writing a speech, despite wanting to do so, and wanted to use somebody else’s words instead. Eventually, I was able to coach her in writing in her own words and helped her edit the text to something that flowed nicely. It was very odd how easily my mother, my sister, and I were able to agree on the fundamental things, given how very different our personalities are and how often we disagree otherwise. It was a beautiful experience.

On the day of the service, I felt very official. I knew I had a role to fulfill, and a part of me felt that I had taken on parts in our family dynamic that had previously been my father’s (my mother did a similar thing in a different way when she started wearing his sweaters, his wedding band, and used the frame from his glasses when she had to get new ones for herself). I felt very much like my father’s daughter, more than ever before. I was incredibly grateful that we had had time to say the important things, that we had gotten some extra time by the postponing of the second surgery, and that he had been in my life. I smiled, I nodded to people, I checked in with the funeral home people who were in charge of starting the music and the end of the service, and I generally provided structure for everyone. My father’s cousin started the service, telling stories of their youth, stopping to cry a bit, and weaving a thread to the present. He ended by putting a tenderly wrapped potato onto the coffin, because that was something my father had mentioned to him when he asked him about something he missed. I was deeply touched by that gesture. My sister was next, and she did wonderfully, especially since public speaking isn’t something she’s used to. She also stopped to cry at some point. As the older sister, I went last. I stood behind the lectern, looked out at all these people who had known my Dad and cared enough about him to come to his funeral, even if I didn’t know at least a third of them, and started reading. I was glad I didn’t also cry, but somehow that was not the time for it. Instead, I beamed all over my face because I was so grateful and the service was so perfect. I ended with announcing the music my father had picked himself: What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. After that, people lit candles or put down a rose on/near his coffin, and slowly we all went outside. I smiled some more, I shook hands, I talked to people, and we were told over and over again how beautiful and moving the service had been.

I was proud of us and how well we had done. I was surprised by how right I felt in the role of the speaker at this funeral. I was stunned how unusual our DIY service apparently had been, when it seemed the only way to do this properly to me (meaning, that a funeral speech should preferably be held by people who had known and loved the person who died, not by some random professional who had no real connection to anyone present). I was equally stunned to hear how creepy or, well, unusual many people found the idea of touching a dead person. And ever since then, I have had a strong feeling that I was supposed to do something “around death.”

I paid more attention to things one could do in relation to death. I read stuff. I started to find dead animals that I had to take care of in one way or the other. And in late January 2011, I finally went to a volunteer fair to check out the local organizations that provide hospice work. It seemed that I was supposed to work with the dying and their close ones. I found one organization that enabled me to start visiting people (all of whom had serious dementia, which taught me a whole lot of Very Important Things in itself) in a nursing home they cooperated with. I ended up visiting three people once or twice who then died. In two of the cases I also met some of the family members and talked to them in the function of a hospice volunteer. This work has always left me very fulfilled, even though (or probably because) it had not been about me at all. My job was to give my time and attention to whatever I found on any given day. My job was to stay and be there and listen. And I found that I did surprisingly well, given that I’m often more of a talker and “fixer” than a listener and someone who just accepts things/people. There are also some side effects that I didn’t plan on. I’ve become more conscious of the value of life. I’m even less willing to waste time with things I consider pointless. My priorities have shifted. I also eventually realized that I started hoping that everyone would have the chance of saying goodbye to life and loved ones instead of being ripped from life completely unexpectedly. I’m also not hoping for a sudden (read, unexpected) death for myself anymore.

The actual hospice training was meant to start in late fall last year, but I changed organizations immediately before that (I had found that while the original one was fair enough, the new one is a much better fit for me). So that’s what I’m doing right now: getting properly trained to volunteer with that new hospice service. The course will run until the end of March, but – due to my experience – I’m officially in their files as an available volunteer already, which means they could call me any day and ask me to start visiting someone again.

To this day, I am not quite sure why death suddenly became a topic I need to work with, but my gut feeling is very clear on that (there were umpteen other volunteer jobs at that fair alone that I also found interesting and worthwhile, but it was clear they weren’t meant for me). So, basically, I’m just trusting the Universe here to let me know where I need to go. Maybe a part of this has to do with death being such a taboo in most of the Western world. Maybe I can adapt my skills in creating ways for people to talk about taboo subjects that I acquired around the topic of sex. Maybe I will only find out later what this is all about. And that’s fine with me. For the time being, I just need to know that it’s the thing for me to do.

New deck interview: Key to the Kingdom

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Since I want to try out the Key to the Kingdom transformation cards but don’t have any pressing question right now, I’m going to do a new deck interview again (it’s been a while – the last one I did was in October, with the Margarete Petersen deck!).

Since the cards are accompanied by a short verse each (printed in the sturdy little companion book), this will be a kind of carto-bibliomancy reading – which sounds exactly like my cup of tea!

What do I need to learn from you during this week?Four of Clubs

Four keys in four colors (red, blue, yellow, gray) form a diamond-shaped frame on a black background. Inside the frame is a little picture of a monkey crouching on the grass in front of a sunset (or sunrise). I’m thinking of my “monkey brain” here, of the part of my mind that keeps jumping from topic to topic, question to question, idea to idea in a restless, endless quest for input, inspiration, and also plain old entertainment. The four keys seem to really limit the area in which the monkey can move, so I take this to mean I should focus on this deck itself and not drift off into vaguely related explorations of the internet (no matter how wonderful they are at times). Four is also a stable number for me, which is emphasized by the solid shape the four keys make. So this card calls for a stable and limited focus this week – and I assume that doesn’t just go for the times when I actually use the deck.

I am a gold lock.
I am a gold key.

I am a silver lock.
I am a silver key.

I am a brass lock.
I am a brass key.

I am a lead lock.
I am a lead key.

I am a monk lock.
I am a monkey.

~ author unknown

Four metals, fitting together lock and key. And then religion/spirituality (monk) and playful curiosity (monkey) fitting together the same way. This is perfect. I am indeed at my most spiritual when I am playing and exploring (for the record: that’s not the only way for me to be spiritual, but it’s an important one). Then I can experience flow, forget the time, feel at home in the world, and be challenged in just the right way. Boundaries dissolve, and the present is the only time that counts. Needless to say this only works when there is effortless focus (meaning the focus itself doesn’t require any effort, although the activity at hand may well be strenuous).

How can I learn best from you?Six of Spades

This card shows a skull with six spade-shaped openings for eye sockets, nose and teeth. It has been entered by a centipede which now looks out curiously and maybe a little surprised through one of the eye sockets. I don’t much like real-life centipedes, but this one is pretty cute. I imagine it moves like the purple “bad guy” monster Randall from the Pixar animation film Monsters. Inc.

Centipedes also remind me of the Devil card of the Ironwing Tarot, where there is a huge centipede that reads as a spiritual intrusion into someone’s body to me. This is probably due to the fact that the Ironwing card came up in connection with my father’s cancer that he died of exactly three years ago today.

Okay, but what does it all mean here? My various associations make me think I would learn best from this deck by not being afraid of odd connections and seemingly random juxtapositions but by instead letting it take me wherever it wants to go.

Life is jest,
And all things show it;
I thought so once,
But now I know it.

~ John Gay

Once again, I’m amazed at how well the verse fits with what I saw in the card image before I even read it. Yes, it is entirely possible to associate a silly animated movie with my father’s death and not find it disrespectful in the least. In fact, I think he would have appreciated it, since he did have a quick wit and a great, dry humor. By assuming an open-minded, curious attitude (look at the expression on the centipede’s face!), even scary things can become interesting and not-so-scary after all (case in point: seeing and touching my father’s dead body just an hour or so after he died).

Our future relationship?Ten of Diamonds

A snake with a diamond pattern lies in an S-shape on the ground. Snakes are important to me, and have been so in various ways for at least twenty years, so I take this to mean the deck will be a keeper. The letter S also suggests writing and language, which means I might even use the deck as prompts for creative writing at one point.

Barefoot I went and made no sound;
The earth was hot beneath:
The air was quivering around,
The circling kestrel eyed the ground
And hung above the heath.

There in the pathway stretched along
The lovely serpent lay:
She reared not up the heath among,
She bowed her head, she sheathed her tongue,
And shining stole away.

Fair was the brave embroidered dress,
Fairer the gold eyes shone:
Loving her not, yet did I bless
The fallen angel’s comeliness;
And gazed when she had gone.

~ Ruth Pitter

I hope it doesn’t sound too arrogant when I say I believe this is how some people regard me. They see that I have fallen away from what they consider good and proper, but they also can’t deny the beauty and allure of that. And – back to my own perspective – sometimes it’s unnecessary to fight when one can just as well leave and do one’s own thing elsewhere.

—–

Oh yes. I was right in buying this deck – it really is as much of a gem as I suspected. Plus, the cards have a really nice size, they are easy to shuffle, and their glossiness serves to bring out the images well. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up to frequent shuffling. The companion book is also really nice. It has color illustrations of all card images in their original size, and the verse on the opposite page. It is neatly bound into a sturdy hardback cover and even comes with a red ribbon page marker attached. The only thing I don’t like as much is the dust jacket (but then I almost never like these much, even though I see their purpose), and that’s really me looking very hard for something to complain about.

Great first impression, Key to the Kingdom!

From Fool to Trickster by way of Death?

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Tomorrow is a meeting of my hospice work volunteer group (a bit like supervision), so I thought I’d ask about that today.

For a spread, I picked one that Amanda04 posted on AT today (she says it’s from the Tarot Nova fortune-telling spread sheet and has no name).

—-1—-
2–3–4

1. What’s At HandFree Spirit / Wandering Minstrel (Fool)

Will I feel like a fool again because I’m following my own “guiding light” in my own way? The last time, I said that I wanted to focus on a specific kind of hospice work and the woman who runs these meetings questioned my motives for that in front of the whole group. While I understand why she wanted to find out a bit more about my motivations (and actually suggested she ask me instead of assuming things), I still felt judged by her before she even asked the question, let alone heard my reply.

By the way: I’m sorry, dear readers, if these frequent references about being oh-so-different are getting on your nerves already. But it is an almost daily experience for me to feel very much unlike “the others.” You see, I’m not just into strange things like tarot and shamanism, but I’m also queer myself and partnered with a transgendered person, and I’m one of those high-IQ people — combined that makes for countless opportunities nearly every day and in nearly all circumstances to feel very, very “different” from whatever the majority is in terms of gender, sexuality, relationships, IQ, and/or spirituality…). In other words, it’s just how my life is. So if these references bore or annoy you, please just scroll past them or click away altogether since — unlike me — presumably you do have the luxury to just go elsewhere to be more comfortable.

But now let’s get back to the reading I meant to do.

2. Past InfluencesSpiral Dance / Six of Fire

Wow, this is surely a very, very persistent card! Third appearance in three days and as many readings!

Today, I’m zooming in on the large foot at the right edge of the card. What kind of creature does it belong to? Looks like a big bird of prey to me (an owl perhaps?). Or maybe it is a cat’s paw? *googling images to compare* *cat paw wins*

So, there’s a mysterious intrusion, not quite visible, not entirely in the picture, but still “there”, still present. Could be referring to what I said above about the last meeting and me feeling like a “monster” due to the reaction to my request. (I had wanted to focus on visiting people who were in the final phase of dying instead of visiting people who could very well live another five years. Have you ever tried to explain why you wanted to be with the dying rather than with the living? Let me assure you, you will feel like a monster at some point, no matter how good your intentions are…)

3. Ponder ThisSpirit of Change / Rebirth (Death)

The baby looks much older than it actually is, which makes me think that the woman who runs the hospice service may have a hard time with my seemingly inappropriate “maturity” when it comes to my volunteer work. I haven’t even completed the training, yet, but I’m already asking for something that even many experienced hospice volunteers find very difficult. It seems as if I come across as asychronous within myself. I’ll keep that idea in mind for the meeting tomorrow. I think she may also want to be a bit more of a teacher to me instead of an equal.

Of course, this is also about death as such here, which is why I believe I might benefit from pondering the main topic of my volunteer work some more. After all, it is a difficult thing to handle for many of us, and the woman may be wondering about my seriousness/trustworthiness if she perceives me as too eager to be around dying people. (The issue of trustworthiness is further underlined by the Magician-like appearance of the wizard here.)

Finally, this could also point to a chance for a new start between the two of us.

4. What To DoThe Trickster / Page of Air

I take this bird to be a raven, despite its very un-raven-like shape (but Raven is indeed a trickster in several First Nations cultures/mythologies from the Pacific Northwest to Siberia, so I’ll go with the card title here). The role of a trickster is to break rules and conventions, which usually leads to positive results (sometimes for everyone but them). They are also big on shapeshifting (including gender changes).

Maybe I can turn my oddness (as indicated by the Free Spirit) into such a role so that it will contribute to positive outcomes? At the very least this tells me to stay true to myself and not conform to any rules that don’t feel right to me.

——-

Okay, any other reflections on this reading will have to wait — I’m too tired to make much sense anymore today. I have a feeling that I’ve meandered away from my initial focus again, resulting in making this not exactly my best post or reading, but I’ll publish it nonetheless.