Category: death


I started working on my first few doula training assignments after Rora went to sleep last night (and after I woke up 2 hours later, after falling asleep nursing her).

One of the first assignments was to write about an experience of someone dying, and look for similarities with the process of birth.  After writing until 2am, I realized that it’s Halloween today!  What a treat, to be exploring death on the day we honor the spirits that have crossed over!

Here’s what I wrote:

I was able to be with my maternal Grandma in the last two days of her life, through her death, and afterwards with my family as we processed the experience.  Being with her as she transitioned out of her body brought me to a deeper awareness of that sacred time between the spirit world and the physical world – and in fact, taught me tangibly that there isn’t such a clear distinction!

She was in a bed provided by hospice, set up in the living room of my aunt’s house.  We tried to make that space quiet and focused, but too often we became chatty and irreverent – and she clearly let us know that it was “TOO MUCH!”.  She didn’t like people casually talking or moving too quickly.  She wanted things done to her slowly, ever slower.  She wanted water, right up to her last hours, after she had refused food and medicine for days.  She wanted sunshine, and fresh air in the room.  Over the last two days, she wanted less and less restricting her body – first the pillows around her had to be a certain way, then no blankets covering her legs, then her shirt needed to be unbuttoned, then it came off altogether.  The oxygen tube around her neck was a constant irritation, and we finally removed it so she could be more comfortable.  She was adamant that she didn’t want anything to prolong her death – “Why is it taking so LONG?”

She often seemed frustrated when we didn’t understand what she was talking about, when she spoke out in the midst of a trance/sleep state.  She was experiencing something that none of the rest of us were experiencing, and we could often only guess at what she meant.  When we “got it”, she was clearly relieved and grateful.  She liked to be sung to, and gently touched.  She didn’t want to be alone.  She wanted to make sure she wasn’t being a burden to any of us, and at the same time, she clearly asked for what she wanted and needed.  “I might never taste carrot juice again if I don’t get some now!” Her social inhibitions mostly evaporated, making clear requests without politeness.  “I’m being myself for the first time.”

The day she died, the energetic shift in the hours beforehand was tangible to all of us on some level, though I don’t know how consciously.  We didn’t know she was going to die that day, but we all made significant changes that, looking back, indicated some awareness that everything was changing.  We spoke more softly, moved cellphones out of the room, and cleared the bedside clutter that had accumulated, replacing it with a few photographs and flowers.  We hung a blue curtain in the window, to soften the light.  Two of my aunts spent the day finding peace with each other, and were honoring each other over my grandma’s body when she took her last breath.

In the moments immediately after her heart stopped beating, we gathered in the room and celebrated her transition.  One aunt yelled “Hallelujah!” in a loving mimic of my faith-filled grandma.  I felt her spirit throughout the room, filling the space in a slow expansion.  I felt her on my body, in my body, and growing to encompass and permeate the whole house, then the city and the mountains and the globe and the stars and eventually the Whole Universe.  As I felt her spirit, I felt a taste of that Wholeness, an awareness that the only difference between the physical world and the spirit world is a perceived experience of the limitations of space and time.

I see clear parallels between death and birth after being with Grandma through her journey: the absolute need for sacred space, the slowing of time, the need for us to let her do and be and say whatever she needed and wanted to.  We were there to serve her, to honor her, and to witness her journey.  We responded to her requests and tried to intuit what she might want, but never forced her to do something that we thought she should do.  I guess the big difference between birth and death is that once you know someone is dying, there’s no need to fear death, or work to prevent it.  With birth, there remains the possibility (and thus the fear?) that the mother or baby could die, so we walk the balance between pursuing life and accepting death… while with someone ready to die, it’s just about surrender.

But then again, maybe birth is a different kind of surrender — surrendering to life.

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I helped kill a cow this morning… a steer, actually.  We keep all the females around until they’re done producing milk.  All the males that are born go to the “beefie” herd and are slaughtered at about 3 years old.  I moved here almost three and a half years ago, and joined the milking crew almost immediately.  I probably saw this one as a calf, and maybe even helped with his birth. Today I was a part of his death.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal die before.  I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Death happen.  I’ve seen plenty of dead creatures — just last week my partner Free found a recently-hit deer on the side of the road, and he hauled it home in the back of his truck and we spent half of our date skinning and gutting it.  We stayed up until 2 in the morning while he butchered the meat.  I mostly watched.  I was fascinated by the process, and even more than that, by the concept of something living as an independent being becoming an inanimate hunk of matter.  When I returned to Twin Oaks the next day, I asked Woody to let me know the next time he was going to kill a cow.

I almost didn’t go  this morning.  I woke up early and laid in bed for awhile, trying to imagine what it would be like to see a cow die… such a huge creature, an animal that I’ve worked with so intimately as a milker, an animal that I grew so fond of that I eventually gave up milking and stopped eating dairy products.  After about a year, I returned to eating cheese and butter, though I didn’t start milking again until just a few months ago when the dairy crew was sparse and needed some help getting shifts covered.  And then this morning, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in the other end of our dairy program.

I was running late because of my hesitation, and I had to jog to catch up with the crew of eight other people who were already on their way from the barn to get the steer from the “beefie” pasture.  When we arrived, Woody went through the gate with a bucket of grain to choose which one would be killed.  The steers were curious at first, but each one backed away quickly when Woody approached.  It seemed, though I don’t know if it’s true, that they recognized Woody as the one who took cows away and never brought them back.  He finally separated one large steer, and coaxed it through the gate.  Once through, it started running and bucking in the open field, then calmed down and walked slowly as the group loosely surrounded it.  Another helper held the bucket of grain to his mouth when he paused, teasing him forward.  As he walked away from his herd, I had a distinct awareness of his separation from the others as a predecessor to his death.  He was quite alone.

He came easily most of the way, then stopped suddenly when we got close to the barn.  Woody said it might have been the sound of the tractor turning the compost — I think it was the steer sensing what he was moving towards.  Perhaps it was the energy of the barn where so many others had been killed, perhaps it was the intention growing in each of us, or just Woody, as we guided him closer.  Regardless, he was spooked, and we had a wild few minutes trying to corral him and keep him from running down the road.  We finally got him going back towards the barn, and he actually ran directly to the corner where Woody has killed all the cows — 5 so far this year, including this one.

Once he was in the corner, he was able to smell the blood from the previous kills.  We had gathered around fairly tightly so he couldn’t bolt, and he let out a load of shit and then started turning and pacing and snorting and kicking.  Woody picked up the shotgun and loaded a bullet.  The more experienced helpers covered their ears — I was transfixed by the steer, watching and feeling his fear.

The shot surprised me; Woody got him right under the ear and he immediately dropped.  Suddenly this lively and active creature was collapsed on its side, unmoving, in a heap in the dirt.  Woody grabbed a knife and immediately started severing the head from the body to cut the spinal cord and let the arteries empty.  Once done, he tossed the head to the side for Elona, one of his more experienced helpers, to cut out the tongue.  Once the head was off, the body still moved, muscles responding even without the central command of the brain.  We waited before doing anything else while the legs kicked aggressively and blood continued to drain from the neck.  Woody turned on classical music in the barn and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette.  I watched intently, tears streaming down my face from the intensity.  Watching life suddenly evaporate, seeing the transition from alive to dead… the union of body and spirit separates, body unites with earth and spirit unites with Spirit.

The rest seems mundane after that initial moment.  The rest, I could handle easily.  Woody cut around the anus and loosened up the bowel muscles as well as he could, then tied off the end with a rope to keep it tidy.  Elona worked on the other end, cutting away the trachea and the gullet from the neck.  She tied a rope on her end, and then started opening the abdomen, careful not to puncture the stomach, so we could pull out all the guts and internal organs at once.

Once gutted (the heart, liver, and fat judiciously removed and placed in cold water for storage), Woody cut off the two hind hooves just below the ankles and strung chains between the two bones on each leg.  The chains were hooked to a piece of equipment that I’m sure has a name, a broad piece of wood hooked onto a chain that went through a pulley at the top of the barn.  One of the helpers worked the pulley to slowly drag the carcass into the barn and raise it off the floor so we could begin skinning it.  Yes, “we”, and not the “royal we”.  Woody called me in the barn, and someone handed me a knife.  Up until this point I had been mostly an observer, helping at times with pulling on a rope or moving a cinderblock to help lever the body into a better position.  At this point I felt ready to engage more in the process — we were far enough away from the time that the thing in front of me had been a living creature.  It wasn’t really moving anymore, except when my knife sliced into a muscle and it involuntarily twitched… which was actually quite fun to watch.

Woody showed me how to pull away the hide with one hand and gracefully cut it away from the fat and muscle beneath.  I liked the work, and I enthusiastically dove in.  Others had already gone by then, and I was glad to help at last; I had been frustrated that I felt so reluctant and useless before when there had been so many people and I was caught up in the intensity of Death.

It seemed like it took us about 45 minutes to skin the whole thing, pausing at intervals to hoist the body higher so we could work at eye-level.  Finally, Woody cut off the two front hooves and put aside the hide for a friend in town to tan it.  He hung the limp tail next to four others on a nearby beam, his way of tallying for the year.

I thanked Woody and walked up the gravel road back to the courtyard, and my room.  I washed my hands, noting that the soap was made of beef tallow, and then went up to lunch and ate a cheese sandwich.

Full Circle

Full circle — I’m back with the cows.

For those of you who have been reading from the beginning, you’ll remember my early days as a cow-milker.  I stopped almost 2 years ago after a much-loved Jersey died of mastitis and I began questioning the ethics of domesticated animals.  I was exploring my own capacity for wildness, and I started to despise myself for helping train the wildness out of these creatures I had grown to love.  I stopped eating dairy and eggs… I was a vegan for nearly a year and then slowly started slipping into my old eating habits.  It was just too hard to find food that met my diet when I traveled by Greyhound, and  when certain people cooked on the commune (there are “vegan options” at every meal, and sometimes — albeit rarely —  that’s just a tray of green beans).

And now I’m back in the barn.  A large portion of the dairy crew has been off the farm on vacation for the past week, and the dairy manager asked me if I’d mind coming down and helping out to ease the labor on the remaining crew.  I’d been thinking about going back to milking for awhile, and I was glad for the opportunity to check things out again.  I’ve been doing the afternoon chores, giving bottles to the calves and grain to the teenagers and filling all the water tanks in the different pastures.  My body remembers the barn and the cows.  I easily swing my legs through the fence and slip my body as always between the poles into the calfyard without thinking.  I navigate the rowdy teens, charging confidently to the grain trough with the bucket held high, warding off hungry heiffers and rambunctious young males.   I’ve also been helping out the morning milkers, herding the cows and doing small tasks around the barn.  I easily remember the heft of the full milk cans, stooping and lifting from my legs to gracefully heave them into the cooler.   When I’m herding, I again slip into the energetic space of aligning myself with the cows’ intentions, and using compassion and suggestion to get them to understand mine.

I love being with these animals again.  I remember how much they have to teach me.

I just had my first “dancing date” with Piper, our oldest member here at 81 years.  She’s the vanguard for identifying and highlighting the needs of elders in the community, and it’s quite an endeavor.  We’re having to find the balance of needs and wants in a new context.  Is social interaction a need or a want for someone who’s fairly immobile?  Should someone providing social interaction get labor credits for their time?

Piper has a care group to help her determine her needs and figure out how to get them met.  A few weeks ago, one of the members of the care group asked me if I’d be willing to dance with Piper for a half hour each week.  She wants exercise, and she wants to do it through dancing.  So today I took my CDs and my dancing pants up to the Bijou, a large room where I regularly dance alone, and Piper and I danced.  We put on some drumming music, and moved around the room, sometimes dancing seperately, sometimes mirroring each other, and once she showed me a partner move she liked to do when she was younger.  While we danced she told me about being unhappy in a marriage when she was in her 20s, and how she discovered dancing as a retreat from that.  We chatted about other things, and sometimes stayed silent, moving the whole time.  She asked for slower music at the end, and we cooled down to some songs of soft piano.  It was a treat, and I’m excited to do it again.  Being with her brought to mind thoughts of my grandmother, who died in May.  I’m honored to get to share this time with Piper, in part as a tribute to my grandmother, who I wish I could have danced with more.

Another tango, another time

another tango, another time

We scattered my grandmother’s ashes around her farm last week.  Not all of them, because the family wants her to be buried in the cemetery next to her husband.  Most of the ashes are still in the plastic bag, closed inside the black and green plastic box that “Cremains” come in (“cremated remains”, trendily shortened and combined, like “Craisins”).

My grandmother died almost three weeks ago.  She got in her car to drive to church, and was found the next day by the person who came out to fix the tractor.  She was still in the car, key in the ignition, battery dead.  I went home for a week and a half and stayed at my dad’s place, running errands and mowing grass and generally being helpful.  I can get up to three weeks of labor credits from Twin Oaks to come home for a family “emergency” like this.  It’s nice to not have to worry about making up labor when I get back to the community.  I like being able to be at Home for all of this intensity, and I realized a while I was there that it’s as much for my own mental health as it is to be helpful to my family.

I’d been curious about my lack of emotion after responding to the initial shock of hearing she had died.  I expected more grieving, more crying, more sadness.  I found myself experiencing it more on an intellectual level, thinking about what death might be like and philosophizing on the nature of dying, and the nature of Life (much like last year, when my aunt died).  People would hug me and tell me how sorry they were for me, and I didn’t feel any sorrow, or any need for theirs.  I would say that I was glad to be home with my family, which was true.

Grief finally came at the memorial service.  My family sat in the front row of the church, and two enlarged photos of my grandmother were resting on easels just a few feet in front of us.  Every time I looked at one of the pictures, it became real for me in a way it hadn’t been up to that point.  I had busied myself with being the helpful daughter, dutifully taking care of details and supporting my dad, encouraging him to be emotional and running errands with my rented car.  It didn’t feel like a defense against hard emotion — in fact, I wanted to be feeling something deeper.  I went out to her farm with my journal and wrote, I walked through the woods that had been such a key part of my childhood.  I looked thorough old photos and I read through letters on her desk.  Nothing really made it into my emotional center, until the service last Tuesday night.  The power of ceremony, making it real.  Even though the Methodist jargon didn’t quite resonate, I was able to translate most of it to be meaningful and significant in its own way.

I found my deepest emotion with the ashes at the farm the next morning.  My brother and my dad and I went out early, before my brother headed off to the airport.  We put some of her ashes around the peace pole we erected a few years ago in tribute to Grandmother and her late husband.  We took some up to the “picnic spot” and scattered them in the fire pit where we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows as kids.  We threw some into the wind, towards the wild pastures and forest.  We scattered some in the flowerbed in front of her house, and watered them into the soil.  I realized we had honored the four elements, and at the flowerbed, after watering, I sang a song I learned here at Twin Oaks: “The river is flowing, flowing and growing, the river is flowing down to the sea.  Mother carry me, your child I will always be.  Mother carry me down to the sea.”  We finished by putting some ashes in the old garden (“to new growth!”, I shouted), and then emptying the rest of our small portion into the stump of a recently-cut tree, dead and decaying from the inside (“for companionship in decomposition,” I whispered).

I’m back at Twin Oaks now, getting back into the swing of life here.  It’s muggy and hot, especially in the tofu hut with all of the steaming bean curds and boiling water.  Whew! The garden is in full swing (strawberries at every meal, and snap peas and snow peas and broccoli and zucchini…) and the fruit trees are abundant.  I eat mulberries right off the branch for breakfast after I go for a morning swim in the pond.  I love my life here, and I love my family and home in Cincinnati.  While I was in Ohio, I imagined what it would be like to move back there and live out at the farm, build a community there.  Being back here, it becomes a much more complicated question.  Am I willing to walk away from here yet?  What of this could I bring with me?  Am I willing to start from scratch, and build it?  Who?  How?  Money?  When?  Really?

Grieving and Growing

Last night we had our Samhain ritual, the pagan spiritual part of Halloween. It’s the pagan New Year, the time when we acknowledge how thin the veil between the spiritual world and the physical world really is. We remember and grieve for who and what has died, acknowledging that “all that has passed comes around again, nothing fades forever, all that’s remembered lives” (so goes one of the chants). And then we celebrate the babies that have been born in the past year, passing from the ethereal world to the physical.

Twin Oaks has a graveyard in one of our forests, high on a hill at the far end of the community, and we held most of the ritual in the large pasture that sprawls out beyond the graveyard’s trees. After creating sacred space and drawing forth our most divine and wise selves, we traveled to “the Land of the Dead” (the graveyard), passing through a black veil as we entered. In the ritual, this space was the world where the non-physical reigns, where what has withdrawn from the physical world emerges. In the past, I’ve experienced this space metaphorically, doing the work in my head to feel the significance of the ritual and this space. And then last night, as we were walking though the forest, I felt immense grief welling up in me. I started crying, and then sobbing. At first I was worried what the people next to me would think, that they would be concerned for my sanity or be uncomfortable. But this is what we create this space for, to give ourselves the opportunity to grieve.

We had stopped around a grave and I sank down to my knees and curled up in a ball, my head resting on the earth, and I allowed myself to immerse in sadness and mourning. The intensity of the feeling reached a depth I don’t often feel in day-to-day experience, being completely consumed by an emotion — having no thoughts, just feeling. The grief wasn’t specific or directed for me… some people called out what they were mourning (people who have died, children in pain, the state of our country, the destruction of the earth) and my grief felt deeper with every word they spoke. I felt connected with a universal experience of grief and sadness.

I realize that I felt able to do this because I felt safe. This is my home, and the people facilitating the ritual are folks who I trust. I knew that, having created the space for mourning, they would also guide us in moving out of that space. The power of community — feeling safe, trusting.

We emerged from the Land of the Dead after being led through a trance to talk with a spirit. We returned to our circle in the pasture and spoke of dreams and moving foward in Life, intentionally creating the world we want to live in. We called out the names of the children who were born in the last year, celebrating and welcoming their lives. We danced the Spiral Dance, singing:

Let it begin with each step we take, and

let it begin with each change we make, and

let it begin with each chain we break, and

let it begin every time we awake.

I stopped milking the cows. I can’t do it anymore.

I loved milking the cows because I loved working with them. I loved the interaction beyond words — trying to communicate with another being that doesn’t understand my language stretches my capacity for communication… I couldn’t speak to them about what I wanted, so I had to operate on a different level. Bovine telepathy? Not really… but doesn’t it seem like animals (especially dogs) can read your mind? It works on an energetic level, beyond words and even overt actions.

I loved working with the cows because they helped me explore myself. My first four hours in the morning were spent beyond verbal communication, remembering to be intentional and present — because if I wasn’t, I’d get kicked! After a couple close swipes at my head, I understood that being intentional about handling the cows teats was a matter of respecting them. I’d want anyone handling my teats to be intentional, not just absently groping around. I’ve had times where I should have delivered a kick to the head!

Things started shifting for me when Santana died last month. I felt the weight of her life. I realized she had spent her entire life in service (slavery?) to us, providing us with calves and milk and getting grain and hay in return. I started looking at the cows differently. I grasped that they’re living their lives from the same source as I am living mine, and what I want most in my life is freedom. We control these cows, forcing them to live the way that we want them to live so that they can provide us with the milk and meat we want.

Soon after Santana’s death we were training a young heifer (a female who hasn’t calved before). We train them by leading them into the barn with a bucket of grain, getting them used to walking up the concrete steps into a gated stall where there’s grain waiting for them. We shut the gate, they munch on grain, we take their milk. This heifer, Poppy, hadn’t been barn trained before, and she didn’t simply saunter into the barn the way our older cows do. She wanted to explore, to look around, to rub noses with the cows on the other side of the fence. And she wasn’t all that interested in the grain I had to offer. As I started trying to coerce her, I felt a sense of dominance rising in me: “You’ve got to do this because I say so.” And that felt so foreign, so opposite of what I’m trying to cultivate in my life, that I had to stop and think about it. Is this really just for me and my friends? Out of our desire to have milk? Is there anything in this for Poppy at all? If she doesn’t care about the grain, she has no vested interest in entering that fucking barn. We teach the cows that the grain is what they want, just like mainstream culture teaches us that money and cell phones and fast food and makeup is what we want!

I struggled with this as I continued to work with Poppy. The more she refused my manipulation, the more upset I felt about what I was trying to do. I saw a wildness in her that I loved, that I desire in myself, and I was attempting to train it out of her??? I couldn’t do it.

that was a saturday, the day of our dairy crew meeting. I went to the meeting at lunch and announced I was going to take a break from milking to explore these feelings more, and to see if I was resolved about this enough that I could stop eating dairy. Because of course, if I feel philosophically opposed to domesticating and milking the cows, the followup is to not benefit from it. So I stopped eating cheese, which had been a main staple of my diet here because we make our own — everything from cheddar to romano to gouda — and it’s delicious and fresh. And now I see that its creation is reliant on the domestication and manipulation of these animals that I respect so intensely. It hasn’t been hard at all to stop eating dairy. It hits me too deeply.

I was a vegan for a while in college, but that was more of a political decision. “I’m an activist, I’m a radical, I should be a vegan”… or something like that. So when it got too difficult to cook vegan food (when I was fired from the vegan restaurant I worked at), the cheese pizza my friends ordered from PapaJohn’s was too tempting. I said I was a “freegan” for awhile (I won’t BUY food with animal products in it, but if it’s already been purchased it won’t hurt for me to eat it!), and then the slope just got too slippery and I went back to indulging in cheese and milk chocolate again.

this time it feels different. I’m coming at it from the other side… instead of “I should be a vegan, so I’m not going to eat dairy products”, it’s “I can’t participate in this oppression, so I’m not going to eat dairy products… I guess that means I’m a vegan”.