During my four years of a self-imposed exile/major Underworld initiation on the island of Oahu (translation: a military marriage that uprooted me from everything I’d cherished in my life prior), I used to teach literature and writing at the undergraduate level…mostly to active-duty military personnel working on attaining their bachelors’ degrees between deployments. Honestly, it was a Kafkaesque arrangement–I never in a million years would have seen any of it coming. But happen, it did.
And I made the decision to teach for a variety of reasons: first, I wanted to work in a way that would actually put my advanced education to use, as well as share my immense love for literature in the English language and help people become critical thinkers and more effective communicators; second, the nature of the work was very time-consuming–my classes were five-hours-long each–and I was desperate to spend as little time alone while my then-husband was sent off to war (let’s just call it “Operation: Enduring Bullshit” because these were the Bush Years and the Orwellian motto of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” was very much en vogue) because otherwise the depression and anxiety I felt in my empty Navy wife house in Pearl Harbor were just too overwhelming (I attempted suicide twice during those four years); and third, I wanted to better acclimate myself to the strange subculture of life as a military dependent in which I found myself, and I thought the best course of action would be to simultaneously “give back to the community” whilst trying to gain a better understanding of living within it–its plethora of rules, its penchant for acronyms dropped into casual conversation with dizzying speed, its organizational structure rooted in hierarchical, phallocentric thinking. Much alien. Very Kafka. Wow.
The fact that I taught classes via the satellite campuses of colleges and universities on actual military bases on Oahu really helped me achieve that third objective in teaching, as well as enforce the Kafkaesque sensibility. I endured the sounds of rounds of ammunition being fired and ordinance detonated while teaching at Schofield Barracks near the island’s North Shore. (As an aside, the Ret. Green Beret Army colonel I used to report to once told me that Schofield is the loveliest military base on the planet; nestled as it is in the lush Waianae Mountains with the Pacific a stone’s throw away, I believed it.) My classrooms at Marine Corps Base Hawaii were near a helicopter launch pad, and my ones in Hickam Air Force Base were located inside an actual hangar, so I was always competing with the deafening sounds of aviation at work.
The sailors, Marines, and soldiers who filled my classes were hard-working and immensely respectful of me as their teacher (the airmen, not so much–they were lazy, sexist, and filled with an outrageous sense of entitlement: no wonder the Air Force is the butt of the other Armed Services’ jokes, i.e., “the Chair Force”). Admittedly, I had to “sell” them on the concept of why studying English literature matters in their chosen lives of military service and self-sacrifice: Being able to quote poetry at length used to be considered the hallmark of a civilized person not that long ago, I’d tell them.
They weren’t impressed. Seats filled with mostly men, their arms folded across their chests. “So what?” was the collective response I gathered in the deafening silence with all eyes turned on me.
So I had to bring out the English-major-equivalent of a Big Gun.
And I did: I pulled it out of my government-issued United States Navy backpack and I plopped it with great ceremony onto my speaker’s podium. Thickest book ever–thicker than any Bible (which, I passionately argued, was itself a literary work first and foremost, the one subject to the most editing in the course of human history and the history of publishing). No, it wasn’t the complete works of Shakespeare. Nor was it Chaucer, nor was it Dante’s Divine Comedy (though I have an immense fondness for all those works and their authors). The thud of the book resonated throughout the room and commanded everyone’s attention. (I was always very impressed at the way my students were conditioned to sit at attention, and how they always answered my questions with prompt shouts of “No, Professor!” “Yes, Professor!” “No, Ma’am!” “Yes, Ma’am!” as if I were their drill sergeant.)
The book in question was a work of literary criticism: The Western Canon by the American literary academic juggernaut, Harold Bloom, a mammoth polemic (published in 1994) against what Bloom decried as “the School of Resentment,” i.e., the cabal of mostly Deconstructionist-led Postmodernists who argue that there is no such thing as literature; that the entries in a phone book, to paraphrase another American critic, Stanley Fish, are on the same wavelength, aesthetically and psychologically, as the complete works of Jane Austen. I call Bullshit, was Harold Bloom’s several-hundred-page response with The Western Canon.
“If for no other reason, this is why you should care–and believe me, at the end of this 10-week term, you will care–about literature,” I’d say, waving Bloom’s hefty tome overhead for all to see. “As Bloom tells us in the opening pages of his magnum opus, literature matters because it’s the only secular teaching tool we have that prepares us for our deaths. It’s all we’ve got, culturally speaking, that reflects our own mortality back to us in striking, memorable ways–haunting ways–and asks for our immediate responses. You will not read the authors we’re going to read over the course of this semester and walk away from each encounter unchanged. Whether it’s trying to come to grips with Hamlet’s paralysis or figuring out what Sylvia Plath means in ‘Lady Lazarus,’ these encounters with mortality are ultimately your encounter with your own. So yes, this is why you should and will care very much about literature in the English language before our time together is over.”
Oh, I definitely had their attention then. Uncrossed arms. Leaning forward in their seats, hanging on my every word, not unlike the hapless Wedding Guest transfixed by the beguiling Ancient Mariner’s narrative spell in Coleridge’s 1787 seafaring epic poem of crime and redemption, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (not surprisingly, this poem turned out to be a favorite among my students who were sailors and Marines, as was Joseph Conrad’s nautical-themed 1909 short story, “The Secret Sharer.” They ate those works up, generating wonderfully thoughtful class discussions and writing glorious essay responses during final exams).
What could I say at that point to alleviate the chords I’d struck–that they’d been “unmanned” by me and the power of literature in such a surprising fashion?
“I’m going to go on this journey with you,” I’d add. “These works prompt new responses from me each time I read them. That’s the beauty of literature; that’s why it’s art. That’s why it’s not the same thing as the writing that goes into a TV commercial or a billboard. It makes you see things with Beginner’s Mind every time you reread what you think is a familiar story or a well-heard poem. Its staying power lies in the heart, not the head–and you will know this to be true in those trying times in your life when you’re looking for words of comfort.”
And here I’d invariably display my own woundedness, my own frequent encounters of using literature to help me process the various deaths and forms of loss, abandonment, and re-visioning (re-seeing) I experienced by (a) moving to Oahu to marry someone, completely uprooting all that was known and dear to me in the process, so that I could be a stranger in a strange land; and (b) remythologizing myself in the process, redefining who I thought “me” was and the story/stories I told about myself to myself and others. (As an aside, the Persephone-Hades-Demeter dynamic was a powerful archetypal current operating in my life all those years.)
Literature always depicts transformation. Death is transformation. Literature depicts death.
What about rebirth? If not literal rebirth into some post-death soulscape–explorations that are the subject of works as diverse as the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (or Book of Going Forth by Day) and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy–then rebirth certainly into a higher state of self-awareness. Literary characters usually achieve this (the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises excepted).
I’m writing about all of these things and charting my adventures in Underworld country once again–mediated by the power of Logos, the cosmic ordering principle made possible through speech–because my life, my family, and my heart have once again been touched by death, and it’s to literature’s salvific power I turn.
Because I don’t know what else to do. Because this is how, since my brother met an untimely, violent death at the age of 20, a week before my 17th birthday, I’ve conditioned myself to respond. This is the only shield I know how to erect before the unblinking and steadfast Medusan gaze of the horror of the gaping grave, the reality that transfixes us with its awful finality, with its heart of darkness.
The short story is this: my kuma (loosely translated as “cousin” in English, but that’s inadequate) Kristina, who was cemented to my family in a special way, in Serbian culture, by being my mother’s goddaughter (making us all kumovi, or related through spirit instead of blood), lost her battle to metastasized breast cancer last night. Kristina, who was an incredibly fit marathon runner, who ate healthy her entire life, and who came from a family devoid of cancer in its history, was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 38. Chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy seemed to be the final word: we were all so jubilant when we received the news in 2013, when Kristina was my age (41), that the cancer had gone into remission. She resumed her work as an attorney in Los Angeles. She sang, with her high school sweetheart of a husband, Jason, in their rock band. To everyone’s shock, her cancer returned aggressively last Thanksgiving weekend, out of nowhere, metastasizing into her liver and brain with alarming growth. As of the end of last month, she was faring badly in the ICU, not responding well to the latest rounds of chemo and the global radiation used to treat the 30+ small tumors in her brain alone.
On April 17, she was diagnosed with complete liver failure and sent home to die. The hospital assigned hospice care workers. Kristina became unconscious, but on Sunday the 19th, she came to, and asked her beloved husband if, in fact, this time around she was really dying. All last week, she would flit into and out of consciousness, holding lengthy conversations with people–her husband, her brother Steven, my mother. A devout Serbian Orthodox Christian, Kristina never once bemoaned her fate; she was eager to see Christ face to face and join her dead mother and her dead brother Mitch in heaven.
Last night, around 11:20 p.m. Chicago time, Kristina died. She was 43 years old.
Jason reports that she died with an expansive smile on her face, and I of course immediately thought of Dante’s vision of the Empyrean in Paradiso, the third book in the Divine Comedy, when the Roman writer Virgil, Dante’s guide, leads him atop a mountain and Dante is able to behold the Virgin Mother surrounded by swirling concentric circles of Archangels, Powers, and Thrones, each in its hierarchy, singing eternally unto the majestic Mater Salvatoris. If anyone were entitled to have a vision of the Empyrean, it’s Kristina.
Even though I had been marshaling prayers in support of a peaceful transition for her–a very diverse prayer group comprised of our families and the Serbian-American communities both here in Chicago and in Los Angeles (Kristina was very active in the parish of St. George’s Serbian Orthodox Church) as well as my Pagan friends in the Fellowship of Isis in Chicago, northern California, and the U.K. and Ireland plus Pagan friends of all traditions plus shamans, Buddhists, Reformed Jews, and Protestant friends both local to me as well as located far away–and I knew, at an intellectual level, that her death would be imminent, the news of Kristina’s death has left me reeling in shock.
“E caddi come, corpo morto cade” / “And then I fell, as a dead body falls” –Dante Alighieri, L’Inferno
As no stranger to death in the family, the visceral experience of grief is familiar–what feels like a pick-axe tearing apart chunks of my chest, starting with a pain radiating from the center of my ribs, between my breasts–but the heartache is new and unique. Kristina was not my brother; she was not both sets of grandparents; she was not my 34-year-old cousin, Tsola, who also died of breast cancer (that she didn’t even know she had); she was not my mother’s brother; she was not my mother’s sisters; she was not my father’s brother’s son, who took his own life at the age of 28 because the civil wars in Yugoslavia drove him mad; she was not my father’s brother, who died of complications from diabetes.
Kristina was Kristina. A selfless, courageous, uncomplaining woman. A woman whose inner beauty and outer beauty mirrored each other. A woman who loved her husband Jason as constantly as the sun warms the earth and gives it life; they were inseparable in the 29 years that they came to know each other as soulmates. Kristina had a husky voice and a raucous, innocent laugh whose peals were infectious and made you laugh too. Kristina loved to dance and she was doing so, despite having resumed chemo and radiation, this past New Year’s Eve. This is how I want to remember her, loving life despite adversity and giving thanks and praise to her God for allowing her to experience all of it:
You know that human civilization is the playground of the god Hermes when we give and receive word of family deaths on social networks. This is where the role of the psychopompos now resides.
How am I faring? It’s not good. What I’m experiencing feels like the onset of cardiac arrest. That pick-axe tearing my chest apart pain is worsening.
Suffice it so say, I’m not getting any work done at the office. I have mascara running down my face. My nose is red and runny from blowing my nose so often and truly, even though I haven’t eaten since this morning, I know I could easily vomit.
So to whom should I turn? My boss, asking to be excused for the remainder of the day and for bereavement time off? My fiance, whom my mother notified about Kristina’s death before I even knew about it?
No, I’m turning to my Goddesses–Dark Goddesses who know all too well what grief means. Goddesses Who have held the stiffening, cold body of Their brother–the body that underwent proper treatment prior to being consigned to the halls of the Duat on the west bank of the Nile, the gleaming Underworld. I turn to Nebet-Het and Aset, or Nephthys and Isis. I turn to a specific literary work called The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys, old funerary texts inscribed on a papyrus that’s now housed in the Berlin Museum. The cries that issue from Isis on learning of Osiris’ death, let those be my cries for Kristina:
Glorify his soul! Establish his dead body!
Praise his spirit! Give breath to his nostrils and to his parched throat!
May Kristina’s body be rendered strong to stand before its dread Judge;
May she be rendered True of Voice to account for her life on this earth.
May her throat have its thirst slaked with the Waters of Life; may its coolness refresh her.
May she stand in the gleaming light of the rightness of the deeds she performed, commendable deeds
May the recounting of those deeds have her name inscribed for all everlastingness in the Book of Life
May her mother, Mira, and her brother, Mitch, welcome her immediately–may there be no impediment to their reunion.
To continue with the Lamentations: now it’s Nebet-Het’s turn:
Behold the excellent sistrum-bearer! Come to thy temple!
Cause thy heart to rejoice, for thy enemies are not!
All thy sister-goddesses are at thy side and behind thy couch,
Calling upon thee with weeping–yet thou art prostrate upon thy bed!
Hearken unto the beautiful words uttered by us and by every noble one among us!
Subdue thou every sorrow which is in the hearts of us thy sisters,
Oh thou strong one among the gods,–strong among men who behold thee!
We come before thee, oh prince, our lord
Live before us, desiring to behold thee
Turn not thou away thy face before us
Sweeten our hearts when we behold thee, oh prince!
Beautify our hearts when we behold thee
I, Nephthys, thy sister, I love thee:
Thy foes are subdued, there is not one remaining.
Lo, I am with thee; I shall protect thy limbs for ever, eternally.
May whatever form of spiritual malevolence that might appear before Kristina be instantly expelled from her midst;
she shall not be caught in its trap.
May Kristina be escorted at all times by her Shining Ones, her Beloved Dead, her Angels–
May mighty Mikael brandish His sword of flaming righteousness to rebuke all unwholesome wights that may try to
lay traps for Kristina; she shall not be caught in their traps.
Kristina is unfettered, loosened is she.
Unfettered is her voice; she shall be rendered True of Voice.
Unfettered from all dis-ease is she, loosened is she.
Unfettered are her eyes, which bless her with clarity in Amenti.
Unfettered are her limbs, which clasp onto the shoulders of her mother and brother to lead the way.
Unfettered are her feet, which move forward with ease.
Unfettered is her mind; she shall be rendered Great in Memory.
Unfettered from all dis-ease is she, loosened is she.
Kristina has been restored in her proper body, the light-filled vessel meant for her sojourn.
She travels the way in peace, power, and protection.
Aset stands behind her; Nebet-Het before her.
Anpu makes glorious her body for Judgment; the dross falls away, the corruptible falls away.
Kristina’s heart is made strong; her stomach is made strong; her lungs are made strong; her breasts are made strong; her intestines are made strong.
Kristina is being led into the Hall of the Double Ma’at, and she will emerge victorious. The verdict will be light as a feather.
From here on earth, I send my lamentations up through the ventilation ducts of my office. Tear-streaked and hurting, I send my prayers of protection and peace up. With my heart torn asunder, I send my prayers up. There can be no other way.
I miss you, Kristina. I love you, Kristina. I am blessed to have known you for the short time that you were with us. We may have had differing religious views, but I have always admired your unflinching strength of character in the face of unspeakable pain, your uncomplaining attitude, your steadfast devotion to your Christ. May you join Him and the Communion of Saints you so ardently spoke of. I will always love you fiercely. I will tend your grave with honor and love.
May you rest in peace. With Hamlet on the brain again, indulge me by letting me quote, “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
As my late Gardnerian Wiccan High Priestess taught my former covenmates and I in the Temple of the Sacred Stones,
“We will meet, and know, and love one another again.”
May it be so.
- adjunct college teaching
- breast cancer
- Dante Alighieri
- Dark Goddess
- Harold Bloom
- Kemetic polytheism
- literary criticism
- Serbian culture
- Serbian Orthdox Christianity
- The Divine Comedy
- The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys
- United States Armed Forces