On the weekend, friends came to dinner and after we’d eaten, just as they were preparing to leave, one friend asked me if I believed in an afterlife, a consciousness after this one. The way he looked at me, I knew that he knew what my answer would be. Not that I have a clear answer or a sense of an afterlife that corresponds with the Christian one I was raised to believe in — though I found myself quite firmly rejecting that Christian belief system when I was ten and spent an afternoon looking at photographs of the liberation of Belsen. I remember asking my parents how a just god could allow such things to happen — the Shoah as well as other events in human history — and they were at a loss to answer. And I knew that the god I had been raised to believe in didn’t — or couldn’t possibly — exist. (Not as I was taught he existed. And in those years, it was clear that god was male.) Because my friend is a poet as well as a commercial fisherman, I knew that he would understand me if I used the language of metaphor and the cycles of nature to try to explain what I thought happened after we die. Every year, about this time, we go to the salmon-bearing creek near us to watch the coho salmon excavate their redds and lay their eggs. They have come so far to do this and they find the creek — a small one, emptying into a long lake eventually draining into the ocean — they were born in. After the females have laid their eggs and the males have fertilized those eggs, the salmon die and eagles, coyotes, bears, wolves, and other animals feed on what’s left of the bodies. To see the live bodies hover in the water where generations of fish have undulated, expelled eggs or milt, died, and then emerged from the gravel to develop into an organism capable of swimming as far as Alaska, only to return again,purposefully and deliberately, is to think of life as everlasting. Not necessarily our own but what outlives us is part of us. We’re part of what goes forever. We’ve done our best to both damage these cycles (I’d like to think we haven’t done it willfully but that’s perhaps generous) and to ensure their vitality and endurance.
This is not a post about religion or dogma. It’s about how we live and how we accommodate death and rebirth. I’m just home from yet another test to determine how long I will continue on the earth in this state — sentient, lively, alert; and the news today was reasonably good — and when I open a file of the work I am currently revising, I see that my own preoccupations have been with consciousness and what it means for some time now. My whole life. And the lives that came before me and those that will continue after me. Fish, faithful dogs, beloved family members, the tiny remnants of birds who’ve hit the windows, friends who departed in joy or in pain…I told my friend I believed in ghosts and that I saw them regularly. I do. And I’m grateful for that.
“I wish to be with you in any way I can.” — Ovid, Tristia 5 79-80
On my desk, folders and envelopes of papers, some of them in pieces – the remains of my grandmother’s life in Alberta, before she met my grandfather and after. She married him in 1920, a widow with 8 children and another buried in the cemetery where her first husband and her younger brother are also buried. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do. My grandmother is in my hands, my body, the way I peg sheets to the line on a summer morning, or chop garlic for my own version of česnečka. I am the mother of sons and a daughter who are her great-grandchildren, though they only know her through a couple of photographs, some stories, a long folk-song of food they hear when I sing her praises: her soup, her striky, her rich perogies, cabbage rolls tender as butter.