One by one, the children shuffled to the front of the line, side-stepping black jacks and wag-a-bitjies, for their turn beside the earth-brown hole. It was freshly dug, and freshly wet with river water, which caused its secrets to whisper up towards us. Each one in the group held a connection to the departed. His seven grandchildren (two babes in arms), his niece, his nephew, his five children, his brother, his daughter-in-law, his son-in-law, his brother, his sister-in-law, and his widow, all took turns to hold the dust that had become his body, and scatter it into the earth. A white stinkwood sapling was placed on top, and dirt filled in around. Only the river spoke as the soil rose up above the roots, and the few birds not made drowsy by the noontime sun. The trees of the bushveld made a dappled canopy above us all, throwing down sweet shadows tossed in with patches of light. The atmosphere was subdued but not heavy. The act was an untethering of a soul. It was a ritual made of memories but rooted in the present. Because traveling forward means leaving some things behind.
When the group had dispersed, and the sapling was being marked with rocks, and protected by a line of rope, I gathered up dishes from our picnic lunch and took them down to the water. I wanted to feel its flow over my hands, to let it guide me into the next moment. There was oil residue on the plates from the mayonnaise, tomato, and avocado we had squashed into our sandwiches. I picked up handfuls of silt to rub it off. Then I fanned out the dish into the current, feeling it pull and play against my hand. The mid-winter sun bounced off the river, hitting scattered rocks as it flew. The water was icy, so cold that it felt like a thousand tiny needles were stabbing into my fingers. When I finished the plates, I stacked them on the dry crackling grass, and climbed onto a rock with a silver wake. Acacia and wattle hemmed the banks. I was out of sight, and alone, something quite unusual for a mother of young children. And yet I was surrounded by life: invisible creatures thronged around me, leaves and stems curled into being, elements rushed through, silence welled up from beneath. The quiet scattering of the ashes had subdued me, but in another way I was curiously elated. Such a mindful observing of death was also a celebration of life. As the sun poured into the valley, and the river sang a thousand songs, the brevity and sweetness of life was so tangible I could feel it between my palms. I was in the middle of it. The lives of those who had gone before me stretched out like wings from between my shoulder-blades. I was here, in this place in the world, in part because of my husband’s father. Just as I was there because of my parents, and their parents before them. A web of ancestors, both human and non-human stretched out behind me, and for a moment I could sense every one of them. No doubt the web flowed out before me too, but that was beyond my imagining. I saw myself, and my line of ancestors, as the tiny links we are. I felt small, and immensely valuable. Death was there too, but not as a specter. He sat beside me as a friend, and I drank in every drop of the elixir he handed to me.
This post was written in exchange for a treatment by Colleen of the Midlands House of Healing. She has a deep and intimate relationship with her ancestors, which she places front and center every Sunday evening, when she cleans her house, lights a stick of sage and a row of candles, and puts out a tray of food and drink. She has been connected to the amadlozi in her life by a Zulu shaman, but these are rituals shared by cultures around the world. In my twenties traveling around Thailand, I saw ornate little dollhouses outside most homes, where spirits could find rest. When I lived in Taiwan, every bike ride was accompanied by shrine-spotting among the rice paddies. Like these cultural mainstays, Colleen is at once both down-to-earth and otherworldly. She provides support to her clients going through important life changes, many of which involve transitions in and out of this world, and all of which salute the passing of time in some way.
For me, setting aside one day each month to dedicate to my well-being in a holistic session that encompasses both body and spirit has a subtle but important effect on all my days. The act of journeying towards Colleen’s home, which I know she has prepared with prayer and warmth and care, and the act of laying my naked body on her table, surrendering to her ministrations to my muscles, and the energy work that she does, sculpt my intentions to live life inside out. Skin-to-skin with the world, both feet in every day, a prayer of gratitude on my lips, love and service the exacting task-masters of both my strength and my softness - these are some of my guiding principles, and they require action. It is not enough to believe in my own value if I do not act on it. It is not enough to believe in the value I can bring others and then sit idle. Take what steps you can towards peace and joy and gratitude. When the way is steep, make them small steps. But take them.
To book a session with Colleen contact her on 084 603 0604.
Hello and welcome:) I am a South African artist and mama who believes in mindfulness and living on purpose. I love traveling, reading, yoga, leading our family business, and eating delicious food in beautiful places. And tea. I love tea. Pour yourself a cup and settle in for a read.