My Pagan Grandma

Having just returned home from my grandmother’s funeral (which finally gave me the much-needed, and quite palpable, sense of closure I’ve been seeking for weeks), I think it’s time to start regularly blogging again.  Before I can write about anything else, though, I have to get this off my chest.  While it seems odd and unusually personal to talk about the eulogy, I need to say what I didn’t say to the rest of the family . . .

My mother and I decided to write and deliver the eulogy together, which was especially fitting since the three of us were/are so close. (A side note: my mother, grandmother and I share(d) the exact same pair of green-grey hazel eyes, with flecks of gold and blue and brown.  Chameleon eyes that change color based upon whatever we wear.  I remember the three of us once stood in front of a mirror, marveling at the fact that our eyes were completely identical, down to even the tiniest fleck of gold.  We joked about being an alternative version of The Maiden (The Youth?), The Mother, and The Crone, and eventually decided we were either the Three Graces or the Three Furies, depending upon our mood . . . and we all certainly know how to effectively lay a curse . . . but I digress.)

Anyway, when I was first writing the eulogy, I was struggling with the fact that there would be a combination of numerous fundamentalist evangelical types as well as several rather vocal atheists attending my grandmother’s funeral.  I didn’t particularly want to offend anyone (in any other context, I wouldn’t give a fuck, but I know the last thing my grandmother would have wanted would be a conflict between family members at her memorial).  I also didn’t want to make the eulogy all about me, which was especially difficult since so many of the things my grandmother and I shared were unique to us.  But with my mother’s (and my wonderful husband’s) help, I think we successfully walked the tightrope in our ability to both pay tribute to that amazing woman, as well as highlighting (or alluding to) aspects of her life that weren’t necessarily widely known.  I mentioned the Gods, I mentioned the myths, and I even re-told one of Grandma’s favorite myths – the story of Baucis and Philemon, those two generous souls loved by the Gods, two souls and two trees forever entwined.

Because the fact is, Grandma was a pagan.  She loved ancient Greece, the Greek myths, and the Greek Gods.  We talked about this subject constantly, from my earliest childhood memories to the last conversation we had a month before her death.  She visited Greece with her beloved sister, saw the temples of the Gods (including Delphi), and years later she and I poured libations of wine together over her sister’s grave.  We spoke in detail about what I would do to help her soul cross over to the Western Lands, and this conversation involved the Orphic gold tablets, Plato’s Phaedrus, and Hermes the Guide of Souls.  She was a deeply spiritual (one might even say mystical) person, and she had no interest whatsoever in contemporary monotheistic faiths.  And while I naturally didn’t broadcast this at her funeral, my Grandma did NOT like Xtianity (or for that matter, the vast majority of fundamentalist Xtians).  Much of this was for political reasons, but she also didn’t like churches, and she had a particularly strong dislike of the Xtian Bible.  I will never forget one day (over a Tarot reading I was giving her, by the way) when the topic of the Bible came up and she said to me (these are her own words):  “I tried to read that book once.  It was obviously written by humans, and it was terribly written.  I couldn’t understand most of it, and what I could understand I didn’t agree with.  What a horrible book!  You could use it to justify just about anything. And those crazy people who follow it are some of the most hateful, judgmental, ignorant, and downright violent people in history!  They read that book, they ‘get religion,’ and they turn into monsters!  They destroyed our culture [ancient Greece], and they’d love to destroy this one.  It’s just horrible . . . if those people ever take over here we’re moving back to Greece!”

That was my Grandma.  I’ve written elsewhere about her impact on my life, and there’s so much more I could say (and probably will say), but for now it’s time to turn the page.

Perhaps the best part (and by far the most surprising part) of the whole funeral experience is that two of my relatives read between the lines of what my mom and I were saying during the eulogy, and afterwards came out to me as being pagan themselves!  I thought my mom, my husband, and I were the only ones left in this family, and yet there they were. And we connected.  We compared notes on our particular pagan paths, and I was able to tell them much more about what Grandma actually believed (and in the future I eventually hope to share with them the great bulk of pagan, mythical, and supernatural family lore I’ve collected over the years).  I would never have guessed in a million years that there were other living pagans in my family, but I do know my pagan Grandma would be proud of us all, proud that we are continuing the Old Ways.

Grandma, I am now speaking directly to you:  May our souls forever be connected. May our shared love for the Greek myths and the Greek Gods be remembered. What is remembered, lives.


A Solstice Passing . . .

Last night my beloved grandmother died.  My husband, my mother, and I were in my hometown, at her bedside, for the last few days (which is why I haven’t been posting).  She was an amazing woman, my Greek grandmother, and we’ve always had a very special bond.  She was the first person to introduce me to the Greek myths as a child, reading me the myths as I sat on her lap.  She bought me my first book of Greek mythology (which transformed my life in so many wonderful ways), she visited Greece when I was a child and brought me back many stories and pictures of the homeland, and she was one of the few people in my family (apart from my mother and my husband) who completely understood my spiritual beliefs.  Whenever we talked about the gods, the myths, and the ancient religion, it turns out that she even shared many of my beliefs about the gods and the divine.  Before I went to France last month, we spoke on the phone for about an hour . . . we talked about death, the soul, the afterlife, and the gods.  We talked about ideas from the Orphic tablets, Plato’s Phaedo, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Buddhist Pure Land Sutras.  We talked at length about Hermes as the Guide of Souls.  She told me she was ready, that she’d been ready ever since my grandfather died a few years ago (they were married almost sixty-five years, and she honestly couldn’t endure life without him).  Every fiber of my being told me that she was close to death, and I offered to help her cross over when the time came.  We discussed specific rituals and prayers and texts.  And for the past few days (and for the next 49 or so) her transition from this world to the next has been my entire focus.  I am at peace with her passing, and know that Hermes the Guide of Souls has taken her by the hand and is leading her to the Western Lands, to the Isles of the Blessed.  But the last few days have been incredibly difficult, and I am completely tapped out, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  I will definitely write more about her when I am ready (and I will be giving the eulogy at her memorial), but right now much of what I feel can be found in a very special poem.  You see, my grandmother was named after a poem.  She continued this literary tradition by naming my mother after Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.  My mother then named me Ryan (which means “Little King” or “Little Prince”) in homage to The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  And my grandmother was named after the last poem written by Edgar Allan Poe.  Her name was Annabel Lee.  My beloved Grandma Anne – the beautiful Annabel Lee.  And while the poem is of course about a bride instead of a grandmother, everything I feel at this moment can be found here:

Annabel Lee
by Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love —
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me —
Yes! — that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we —
Of many far wiser than we —
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The Passing of a Childhood Hero: Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Today marks the passing of one of my childhood heroes, Maurice Sendak, a gay man whose beautiful books brightened the lives of millions of children.  His partner of 50 years (!), Dr. Eugene Glynn, died in May 2007, and Sendak publicly came out in an interview with the New York Times 2008.

As a child, I was positively obsessed and enchanted with Where the Wild Things Are . . . I completely identified with lonely and imaginative Max.  Sendak’s description and illustration of when “the walls became the world all around” was a perfect description of my own flights of fantasy and imagined adventures within the four walls of my own room.  I can’t imagine a child out there who couldn’t relate to the line, “Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

Even now, as an adult, my current writing journal has Max on the cover:

Chicken Soup with Rice and Alligators All Around were likewise favorites, and I still remember dancing around in my Superman pajamas-with-feet to the Carole King song Sendak illustrated/animated for a TV special:

And let’s not forget the gorgeously illustrated Outside Over There, which was Jim Henson’s inspiration for Labyrinth (one of my two favorite childhood movies, along with Alice in Wonderland), and which Sendak said drew from his own haunted childhood memories of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which he worked through by inserting into the narrative the protective older sister, Ida, who was based on his own sister.

In college, Pandora and I took a course in Children’s Literature taught by Dr. Hamida Bosmajian, a renowned scholar and personal mentor of mine.  We analyzed the archetypal imagery and astute psychology of Where the Wild Things Are and the delightful In the Night Kitchen (another childhood favorite), but it was Dr. Bosmajian’s award-winning analysis of Sendak’s lesser-known book Dear Mili that blew me away (see her essay Hidden Grief:  Maurice Sendak’s Dear Mili and the Limitations of Holocaust Picture Books).

The Wikipedia bibliography only lists Sendak as the illustrator of Dear Mili, since the text comes from a fairy tale by Wilhelm Grimm which was rediscovered in 1983.  However, Sendak’s powerful illustrations completely transform the tale into a nuanced reflection on the Holocaust.  As Bosmajian describes:  “Though he follows Grimm’s narrative line, Sendak tells an altogether different story by means of a hidden pattern through which he expresses his grief over two losses that are mutually dependent:  the first is the Holocaust in which members of his extended family were murdered; the second is the loss of naiveté with which he could cherish his affection and affinity for German romanticism”.  Sendak subverts the narrative by subtly inserting a complex web of images (including Anne Frank, Auschwitz, and Mozart) into the text.  Sendak’s Dear Mili is ultimately a profound and disturbing work of literature.

Also, like nearly every other artist and writer in Western civilization, Sendak was certainly influenced by ancient Greece.  This is exemplified in his strange and intense illustrations for Heinrich von Kleist’s lyrical drama, Penthesilea (based on the battle between Achilles and the Amazons during the Trojan War), which are an excellent example of Sendak’s mature work intended for adults:

But Sendak, who had no children of his own (and who, remarkably, answered ALL his fan letters from kids!), is mostly known and justly praised for his compassionate understanding of children, as the following lovely quotes by Sendak show:

“There is no such thing as fantasy unrelated to reality.” – Maurice Sendak

“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.” – Maurice Sendak

“And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.” – Maurice Sendak

“Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.” – Maurice Sendak

“We’ve educated children to think that spontaneity is inappropriate. Children are willing to expose themselves to experiences. We aren’t. Grownups always say they protect their children, but they’re really protecting themselves. Besides, you can’t protect children. They know everything.” – Maurice Sendak

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” – Maurice Sendak

And while Maurice Sendak is often described as an atheist, I find the following quote especially relevant to my post on the subject of Poet-Heroes yesterday:

“Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain.” – Maurice Sendak

May Maurice Sendak be reunited with his life partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, and may they join the illustrious company of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mozart somewhere in the Western Lands.

“Let the wild rumpus start!”

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