THE AUGUST RITUAL

by angeliska on August 9, 2021

Every year when August rolls around, my body reminds me how full of pain this month has been for me – by keeping me awake until the wee hours, joints aching, mind buzzing with anxiety, and my nervous system cycling through all the motions of survival mode. This day, August 8th – my mother’s death day, and every day since, for the past 35 years carry the echoes of all the ways my life was splintered into fragments after she walked through that door, from her body into some other version of reality. August 29th, Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, blowing my roof off and ripping massive holes in my life there, and destroying the homes, lives, and communities of countless others. Some wounds never fully heal. Maybe the scar fades away, but you feel that rough ache in your bones every time it storms. Healing is not linear, which is why these heavy anniversaries cause flare up of unwieldy emotions, of fear, of memories that our bodies hang onto and keep holding, even when our minds forget. I can’t stop thinking about how this current trauma we’re all living through will continue to affect us, years from now – especially when the idea of it being over one day feels like a distant dream. As I write this, hospitals are running out of beds as coronavirus cases surge, due to the proliferation of the new Delta variant, allowed to mutate by all the people who chose not to receive life-saving vaccines. Those people are rapidly filling up ICU units, making it impossible for anyone else who needs critical care to receive help. We are in Stage 5 here in Austin again. What comes after Stage 5? I really don’t want to know.

I’m already feeling a helpless rage flood my body when I scroll back to posts from the beginning of all this, made by people I used to think I had something in common with (spirituality and compassion, ha) – talking about how this virus was part of some nefarious global conspiracy. Seventy-two weeks or so later, and more than 614,000 people dead, I’m asking those people to tell me now what it’s all about – because I’m sure all the families of those who lost loved ones to an entirely preventable virus would love to know, too. I have grieved for so many friendships and spiritual communities lost, when people of incredible privilege chose spiritual bypassing, selfishness, and delusion over social responsibility and community care. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand the level of cognitive dissonance they’ve subscribed to, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over my horror at seeing people who supposedly had devoted themselves to healing and enlightenment choose massive harm and idiocy instead. I’m still undergoing a pretty huge crisis of faith, and have stepped away from many of my spiritual teachers and practices, due to my immense disappointment at how they’ve chosen to basically ignore the fact that we’ve been in a mass death event for a year and half now. I was shocked to see so many leaders turning away from the moment where we truly needed them most – to speak clearly and passionately on how we need to step up and protect on another, on mysteries to be found in solitude and isolation, and to offer comfort and wisdom in a time of death and loss on such a large scale. With very few exceptions, most failed to rise to the task – choosing toxic positivity, ableism, and pseudoscience over care, reason, and nuance. As someone who is committed to devoting my life to compassionate spiritual service, it nearly broke me to witness so many people I once respected utterly fail their communities by choosing damaging nonsense, instead of showing up in the way we really needed.

My own journey with loss and the work I do holding space for people going through big life transitions has shown me very directly how profoundly bereft our culture and society is when it comes to acknowledging the ravaging effects that the death of our loved ones has on our lives. Living through a global pandemic has shown me all the worst ways we have come to live in a deeply death-denying and grief-denying society. I know that this inability to sit with the ugly truth of our mortality has fed the roots of the many of conspiracy theories about Covid being some kind of hoax as well as people’s refusal to wear masks, get vaccinated, or even take the most basic precautions to protect themselves and others.

When the pandemic began back in March of 2020, I started buying books about grieving – stocking up on them like other people were socking away cans of soup and rolls of toilet paper. I already had plenty of those, being the kind of person whose trauma tends to manifest in a constant need to be prepared for the apparent inevitability of any disaster. As if the extra bags of dried beans and rice and the loops of catastrophic thinking will somehow stave off any future apocalypses, both emotional and climate or war related. I remember those dark moments of that spring, having panic attacks about running out of dog food while doomscrolling the news reports, my lungs filling up with fluid as I struggled to catch my breath. I was still trying to recover from what was likely Covid-19, acquired in New Orleans in that late February Mardi Gras.

It took months for my lungs to fully heal, but I couldn’t get a test back then, because they still were basically only testing people who seemed to be actively dying. I rewrote my will, and tried to get my dad and stepmom to discuss a plan with me for what we’d do if they got seriously ill. My dad still didn’t understand at the time why it wasn’t safe to go do his monthly song sessions, where folk musicians would gather in a small enclosed room with no ventilation and sing loudly. There was so much we didn’t understand then about what was to come, but one thing I was sure of – big grief was coming, probably for me, likely for many, and I knew that no one was going to know how to deal with it. I was terrified for my beloved elders, for the family I still have left – my parents, my aunts and uncles, and my teachers, most especially. I was so sure I’d end up losing at least some if not all of them to this hideous virus, but miraculously (so far, knock wood) they’ve all managed to avoid coming down with it. I figured that even if I didn’t lose anyone I loved, people close to me likely would, and my clients would – and so, I bought Pema Chodron’s Welcoming the Unwelcome, Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, The Crying Book, by Heather Christle, and The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, by Martín Prechtel. I feel like I know a lot of about grief, from experiencing so much of it firsthand – but it’s one of my missions in this life to be able to support others through these experiences, and I always have more to learn about this work of deep feeling.

It feels dangerous right now to breathe a sigh of relief, and feel like we all dodged a bullet, even though most of the people in my life are now vaccinated, and hopefully will be protected from death and serious illness (though perhaps not Long Covid, unfortunately), should they contract the virus at this point – and I am so unbelievably grateful for that fact. I think it’s partially the fact that so many of us remained untouched by the wildfire that raged through so many other communities, along with the lack of images of the seriously ill and dying people that made the AIDS crisis really hit home that has contributed to a sense of unreality, or invincibility for a lot of people. For some reason the images of mass graves being dug, or freezer trucks converted into mobile morgues in New York, of intubated patients clutching latex gloves filled with warm water for comfort, meant to simulate the hands of their loved ones, who they weren’t able to hold as they lay dying – none of those seemed to make any impact on the thousands of people who’ve had a very different experience of this pandemic, blithely going about their lives, and around in public, maskless, undistanced, unvaccinated. I hate to admit it, but I’m running out of sympathy for those people – especially as I talk with my friends and family who are health care workers, exhausted and totally depleted of compassion because of what they’ve been having to deal with for the past year and a half now.

Out of all of the above though, the images that have stayed with me and hit the deepest are photographs from drugstores of empty racks of sympathy cards – all sold out, due to mass demand. Now that the delta variant is bringing the crows home to roost, I wonder if we’ll see more runs on Hallmark cards (as well as toilet paper, thermometers, and pulse oximeters), or has all the sympathy dried up as people become numb to the constant flood of loss? We don’t honor death the way many of our ancestors did during the influenza pandemics of 1918, weaving elaborate wreaths made from our loved ones tresses, and months wearing mourning garb in yards of black crepe, and jet jewelry. I wish we hadn’t lost all our rituals, or had them taken away from us by the cults of capitalism and convenience. I was never a big fan of sympathy cards, with their saccharine, trite platitudes – but something about the idea of this being our one common way of expressing care when someone is going through a personal tragedy has become more meaningful to me, over the years. Especially in this last one, as most deaths went without the rituals of funeral and memorials services, of rowdy wakes and sitting shiva. The cards I received over the past year meant so much to me, and brought me a lot of comfort in my darker days. Sympathy used to feel like lukewarm pity to me, but I’ve come to realize that even if someone can’t totally empathize with a major loss, they can show that they care – and these days, that goes a long way. I’ve often wanted to create a line of sympathy cards that feel more heartfelt and authentic than what you can generally find at the grocery store – and perhaps I’ll have to, before all this is done. I know that receiving a handwritten letter or note in the mail is a dying art, and it warms my heart to see that we haven’t forgotten it completely.

The writing I do here is my ritual, the thing that marks time for me, that shows me where I am in this journey of grieving – though it often feels impossible to properly convey everything I want to say about what I’m feeling, and experiencing, as I walk this rough road. All I can do is keep trying. Death doesn’t take holidays, I’ve discovered – and manages to creep in to our lives even when we’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the obvious effects of the plague. I learned that lesson the hard way – in that none of the losses I’m grieving this year weren’t due to Covid. I’d had that feeling that I’d be going through some grieving when this all, but I wasn’t in any way prepared for who death chose to pluck from my life, or how. These deaths all felt horribly sudden and shocking – and were all incredibly traumatic, even the ones I’d had some time to prepare for.

I’ve learned over the years, that all the losses I’ve gone through have a way of echoing into the cavern of that one huge loss – the one that shaped everything I’ve become since age seven, when my mother died, and really even before that, when her illness started carrying her further and further away from me, and everyone who loved her. All the losses I’m holding from this past year or so (two in 2020, and two in 2021) feel too big to talk about. They’re like ganglion cysts, tangled up around my veins – I can’t separate them easily. I’ve been trying to get to this part in my writing all day, and I keep getting up and walking circles around my house, being with the hot August winds blowing, and the golden afternoon sun, and the ripening tomatoes. I come back inside to my noisy air conditioner and the candles on my mother’s altar burning brightly and call on her spirit to help me find the words to tell you what and who I’ve lost.

First there was Lowkey, my ancient kitty – I managed to write about him, and how he died, in the first days of the new year. But then the freeze came, that brutal winter storm that brought my state to its knees, covering Texas in thick blankets of ice and snow, and hobbling our power grid. Trauma on top on trauma on top of trauma. Hundreds of people died. Homes flooded with broken pipes, countless gardens and trees were destroyed, including mine. My garden came back, mostly – but I was pretty devastated by waves of PTSD from remembering what we all went though with Hurricane Katrina, and how similarly, that natural disaster’s worst effects were entirely preventable, if the people in power had done their jobs right. The pandemic is bringing up a lot of that again, too. As soon as the thaw came, I was able to take my beloved dog Grrizelda in for what I thought was an appointment to remove a rotten tooth. It turned out to be an aggressive melanoma. She died less than a month later. I’ve wanted to write about what her death did to me, but it has felt too raw, too close. I don’t know how to get any words around it. It’s too much, though – too big for one day.

I have too much to hold, too much to say – and I want to do them all justice, the beloved ones I’ve lost. Our complex relationships. My dog, my daemon. My Uncles. Jimbo, and Don. They deserve their own writings. I don’t know why I thought I could squash it all into one big piece – except that I’ve been trained to, by this fucked up culture we live in, to believe that grief is only allowed to exist in a certain time and space, a tidy allotment, that one anniversary a year that we offer to it. As if it doesn’t constantly spill over, go on and on, and messily colors everything else in our lives. Grief is the red sock that dyes the rest of your laundry pink. You can keep trying to separate it out, but it always finds a way of sneaking back in.

I’m so sad and angry today. I want to direct my anger outward, because I’m tired of crying, and I’m tired of writing, and my body hurts a lot today. I’m angry that we live in a culture that is so shitty and fucked up around death that most people can’t even acknowledge it – or be bothered to try and prevent it. I’m angry at people who don’t know the difference between the actuality of death and the experience of loss, & try to tell me how to feel because physics. These things are not the same thing: DEATH ≠ GRIEF. I’m angry at preventable death. I’m angry at all the people who are blithe or callous about death, because they’ve never had their life completely ripped apart when someone totally essential to their existence just disappears FOREVER. This pandemic, where over 614,000 have died in this country alone, really hits different for those of us who’ve had our lives shattered by death & loss.

My feelings are too big for this one little container, but I know that writing it all out, and being witnessed in it helps me more than anything else – especially after so many decades of hiding my grief from everyone around me. Suppressing all of that will make you sicker than anything – and I mean that on every level. I’m crying a lot today, all week, all year really – broken open in a hard way, but a good way. Really learning to cry, to let my whole body grieve, was truly the greatest gift I’ve received from all the unbearable losses I’ve experienced in this life. There have been so many. Learning to cry and let it out is part of why I’m still here walking this earth. I forget sometimes that I don’t have to do it all at once. I created this space, (this blog or website, or whatever it is now) many years ago as a space to write and share my life, to celebrate the beauty I see in the world, and often, to eulogize my dead, and process and honor my losses, my loved ones who have gone beyond. There are many reasons why I started to neglect writing and sharing here, not all of which are entirely clear to me yet, but I feel a need to reclaim it for myself. Perhaps there’s a bit a freedom in the fact that I think few people still have the attention spans to read blogs, and long form writing. I know most people do subscription services with personal essays that go right to your inbox, and I know from my own experience that I let those pile up and never really read them, even if I intend to. So, if you’re reading this right now, it’s because you care, on some level – and I truly appreciate that. Being seen in this hard work and heavy lifting of grief truly does make it lighter for me. I’ve joked that this space has just become my “dead mom blog” because I’ve really only been coming back to write in it on this day, and then when Lowkey died. That might shift eventually, as I figure out what I want to do with all the writing I’ve done here about my journey with my mom, and her death – but I don’t mind this container being held as a space for my grief for a little while longer, because I have a LOT of it, and because we don’t make enough spaces for grief, these days. And we desperately need to. It’s literally killing us, not to. A huge part of why this pandemic is so out of control in this country has to do with the fact that so many people are deeply in denial about their own mortality – to the point of inventing conspiracy theories to avoid looking at it.

I feel completely helpless to do much about it, other than keep speaking and writing truth, even if that alienates me from those in my life who are too terrified by the idea of death to take their thumbs out of their ears. Nothing is ever going to feel like enough, in the face of so much loss, but maybe if I can carve out a space here again to write about grief, it will help anyone who happens to stumble across it. I know it helps me, and honestly – that’s enough. So, I’m going to make a promise to myself here – with you, kind reader, as my witness: I’m going to come back and write about my dog, and my uncles. I’m going to share them here, because I need to, and because they deserve to be known. What I know, and what I feel I’m allowed to share, about their lives and deaths, and about our relationships – it needs to have a tangible space for me. Grief demands that of us, though we often fail to acknowledge it. It’s why we need the rituals, the altars, the ofrendas, the photographs and memorial portraits, the eulogies and obituaries and gravestones. We carve it out in stone because otherwise, our dead just fade away like dust. Like they never existed, like their deaths didn’t completely reshape our realities. Remembering them, and making a space to hold all those memories, gives them a space to be immortal, to be something other than just suddenly and irrevocably gone, even in this little ephemeral corner of the internet.

So maybe you’ll come back and join me to read the rest of it. I’d be very honored, if you did. And perhaps what I share here will inspire you to find your own little corner of space, wherever you can in your life, to make space for your dead. I invite you to try it, if that idea calls to you – and if you need help with it, please reach out. This is part of the work I do in the world – and as much as I wish I wouldn’t have had to experience so much loss in this life, I know I wouldn’t be able to offer the medicine I have, bitter as it sometimes is, had I not been traversing these black and treacherous mountain ranges. I’ve got some big hikes ahead here – so I’m very grateful for your hand in mine. Thank you for being here in this, with me.

I dedicate this grief work to the memory of my mother, Maggie – who gave me life, and whose death shaped my path.
Thank you, mama, for everything.

If you’d like to read more about this journey
of grieving, honoring, and remembering my mother,
here is an archive of my writings about her:

FALLING STARS + CACTUS FLOWERS
DOUBLE ETERNITY
MY ANGELIC INHERITANCE / THE HOLOGRAPHIC WILL
38 ON AUGUST THE 8TH
30 YEARS – SEIZURES
888 – HONEY BABE, I’M BOUND TO RIDE – DON’T YOU WANNA GO?
WILD BLUE YONDER
NO ROOM IN MY HEART FOR THE BLUES
FAMILY VACATION – HANK WILLIAMS’ GRAVE
STAR-CROSSED TROUBADOURS
Foxes in the Rain
Triumvirate Lemniscate
Gustav + Mama – August 8th

2 comments

Beloved One, once again, you have left me speechless with the depth of your writing and self exploration. Know that I love you and hold you, always.

by Karimomma on August 9, 2021 at 6:55 pm. Reply #

❤️💔❤️

by Michael on August 9, 2021 at 7:25 pm. Reply #

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