Seeking the Grail: A Song of Death

Seeking the Grail: A Song of Death September 5, 2016

It shouldn’t surprise me; nobody gets out of here alive, as they say. But death isn’t something I expect, not when meeting and working with people my own age. I was recently on a multi-week teaching tour through Arkansas, then through Texas including Houston, Victoria, San Antonio, and Fort Hood, then on up to Kansas to Wichita and Topeka, then Kansas City Missouri, Memphis, Tennessee, then St. Louis Missouri, and then finally home. I woke up in St. Louis at my host’s house only to learn that Tisha Gill, a participant in my workshop and ritual in Topeka, had died in an apartment fire. Her mother also died.

a photograph of Tish Gill, an African-American woman, seated next to a pond
Tisha Gill / Used with permission

Later, it was discovered that the apartment fire was set intentionally by one of the other tenants of a different apartment, making Tisha and her mother’s death a homicide.

Just about a year ago I was also on tour, and during the middle of my tour, one of my hosts, David Quinn, died of complications from a chronic illness. I had been scheduled to lead a chanting and drumming circle for his group in Des Moines, and instead I ended up facilitating a memorial ritual.

David was just a bit younger than me. Tisha just a bit older.

What is the most heartbreaking for me about both of their deaths is that these were people with dreams. David was out there serving the Pagan community. As I wrote a year ago when he died,

During my time there in the labyrinth, in this little grove of trees, I felt David’s work there in the stones beneath my feet, in every brick lovingly laid into arcs set into the ground. I’ve built outdoor shrines and I know the backbreaking work that it takes. I never met this man, but I know the love, the fuel, the drive. I felt it in every brick, every single one.

David’s death is a loss for our community, and especially for his local community. He had a lot of work before him, a lot of things he had planned to do in order to lay strong foundations for the Sacred Bridges CUUPs group to serve the Pagans in Des Moines.

Tisha spoke about all sorts of dreams and plans. She was finishing a degree in chemistry. She was also a musician. She had just been to her first Pagan festival, though she’d been Pagan for a while, and she was looking forward to getting more involved. When she mentioned that she played violin and sometimes cello I told her, “Next time I come through town, you’ll have to bring along your violin. We can jam together during the chanting.” We talked a bit about music in ritual.

In Topeka I taught a workshop, “Finding Your Personal Magic,” at the home of my host Jeannie. It’s part workshop, part ritual. We talk at first about what magic is, and then what our own magic is, with a focus on our goals and dreams and plans. I then lead a discussion around how we often spill our energy out in ways that dilute our magic. We have “holes in our cup,” so to speak. Wounds in the ego. And we also slosh water out of our cup–we have poor boundaries. After the workshop portion, we transition into ritual space. Some folks took a bathroom break while others helped me decorate Jeannie’s living room with votive candles.

It’s a small group for the types of rituals I do, there were maybe 15 or so people there, so some of the ecstatic ritual techniques I employ, and some of the trance techniques, are difficult to sustain. Plus, I have to get the ritual done in time so people can get home. I like having about an hour and a half to do a ritual, because it takes about that much time for a group to get comfortable and sink into the groove of the ecstatic trance work. In this case, I had to collapse that into about a half hour ritual.

But it worked. The group was (as they often are) hesitant about singing, but I offer up really easy chants and toning that are fairly accessible even for folks that think they can’t sing. At the end we were all gathered around the flickering firelight in the center, and I remember Tisha singing her heart out.

In the ritual, we wrote down our wishes and dreams onto pieces of paper. I don’t often do this particular ritual technique, but it seemed right to do that night. We didn’t burn them in the house because that would have caused too much smoke. Instead, I promised to burn them after. (And despite what John Halstead wrote in his recent article on bad Pagan rituals, this technique actually can be quite potent when well facilitated.)

When we completed the ritual, many people had to head home pretty quickly after that since it was late. By the time we went out back with my cauldron to burn the wishes and release them to the sky, it was just five of us, including Tisha. Jeannie’s husband took a few minutes of video of us as we burned the wishes.

I wish I had something profound to say. All I’ve got is what I wrote last year. And what I wrote when my dad died. Don’t wait. Do not wait, don’t wait to live your life, don’t wait for it to be safe, don’t wait for approval, don’t wait til everything’s perfectly lined up to go do that thing you always dreamed of. Don’t wait to follow the call. Don’t wait.

I’ll leave you with this chant. I had the pleasure of facilitating a weekend ritual intensive with a group of women, the RCGI of San Antonio, and because they are skilled at singing and chanting, we were able to experiment with a chant that I adapted from the spiritual song “Oh Death,” and a line from the chant “My Body Is A Living Temple of Love.” We recorded our singing experiment, and for me it’s the best way I can articulate my feelings. I suppose it’s why I keep going back to music in my own personal practice, and in the group rituals I lead. It does more than I could ever try to capture in words.

A mixture of sorrow for those who have passed…a bit of fear that I, too, might die before my work is finished…and yet, a sense of hope that there is something out there that welcomes us home when we pass.

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