To gaze too long at the abyss
forces you to see
beyond your capacity
which brings you
to your knees. The dark
earth cracks and a vast
Void like a black door
opens. There is no light
so bright as that which shines
from the darkness—
But first you must be
ready to be buried
alive, choking for air,
a way out.
Your bones must be
picked clean, leaving
only small white
chips and fragments
Then the door
becomes a port
of entry. Don’t expect to breathe
normally. This is not
a tunnel to life
everlasting. This is the dark
womb in which new life forms.
In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the worsening Covid pandemic, I contemplated buying a small house for my family. On a hill called Evergreen Acres with a view of Mount Okemo in Vermont, surrounded by birch, pine, spruce, oak and maple trees, with a wide area of grass, moss and wild raspberry bushes, it called to me as a refuge from the storms rattling the world.
We had rented this house for decades, starting when my two daughters were children in summer camp. It was now for sale and my husband Roger and I reached for it as a safe haven from the Covid virus where my now grown daughters Esther—at risk because of her disabilities—and Anna—at risk because she received daily doses of methadone at an urban clinic—might receive the gift of the trees.
In the car we decided we would go forward, turned off the A/C and opened the windows to inhale the fresh Vermont air. In this exact moment of our joy, we heard a loud thump.
I think something flew into the car said Roger. We had both heard a flapping. Looking at the back seat, we saw a trail of blood and feathers ending under the front passenger seat. There we found a stunning juvenile red-tailed hawk. It was dead.
My initiation into shamanic ways of knowing began with trial-by-fire motherhood. I dreamed my first child Aaron’s birth and struggle for life just before he was born in 1981. I dreamed his death two months later. A year after Aaron, pregnant with Anna, I dreamed her light-filled birth. I had a vision of my third child with a cloud over her head. Esther was born with a mysterious neurological disorder and multiple disabilities. I have dreamed world events as well, including a deadly viral epidemic that turned out to be AIDS and the seasonal dysregulation of “climate change” before the term was coined. At critical moments throughout my life, dreams and visions have warned and guided me in ways that are deemed irrational in modern ‘civilization’ but have always been intrinsic to the shamanic worldview.
When the hawk crashed and died in our car, I knew at once this was an omen. Someone in my family would die this year. I didn’t know who. I prayed with all my heart to be wrong. That the angel of death would fly over our house and not descend on the small fragment of my family remaining after the Holocaust.
Six months later, my beautiful daughter Anna was dead.
II . Anna’s Light
Welcomed into this world with great joy, Anna was a soul lit up by a light so intense that the obstetrician, looking into her eyes, called her a laser beam. Her eyes turned from blue to green and back again like the sea. Her nickname in grade school was Sunny. Her radiant beauty, inner and outer, was charismatic.
Anna had many gifts. She was an artist who specialized in pictures of animals—lions, tigers, panthers, salamanders, frogs, turtles. She was a self-taught cook whose culinary artistry was all about nourishing people and won her jobs at three-star restaurants. She was a talented photographer equally at home taking pictures of bucolic ponds and rough boys.
From her earliest days, Anna’s love for and communion with animals was profound. She made few distinctions about which animals were lovable and which weren’t. Though her cuddly friends—a succession of cats and her adored dog Kylee—were nearest and dearest to her, she was also known to pick up and kiss a slug.
Anna seemed preternaturally aware of the harm that came to innocent creatures. As a young child, she frequently asked me why humans were so cruel to animals. One of her earliest artworks was a laminated plate divided in the center. On one side were a fox and rabbit scampering in the grass. On the other side were animal furs hanging in a showroom. On the bottom, she wrote Save the Animals! She was six.
Anna was a born empath and gifted intuitive. I discovered her ability to read minds early on when, at the age of two, she spoke my thoughts. Her empathic connection to others and to the world was her greatest strength and greatest burden—a gift that put her at risk. When Anna asked me to tell her a story, she didn’t want to hear only happy endings. A story wasn’t complete unless it was “happy, sad, angry, and scary.” All the colors on the human emotional palette needed to be known and absorbed by her. She had no filters, imbibing everything around her, the good and the bad.
Anna’s sensitivity to suffering animated her kindness to friends and strangers. She could also flip it into humor, cracking people up with her genius for seeing the funny side of human weakness and dire events.
Everyone who knew Anna predicted a golden future for her.
III. Anna was Drawn to the Dark. She Needed to Know it
Inside Anna was a raw beating heart that soaked up the world’s tears and troubles—an abiding sorrow for suffering humanity and fierce outrage at human cruelty and folly. She was magnetized by the dark side of life, the grim underbelly of America. Racism, antisemitism, violence against girls and women and animals, poverty, injustice hit her with ferocious force. As the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors, the transgenerational trauma of genocide was part of Anna’s inheritance. Refusing spiritual bromides and glib consolations, she bore an intensity of pain that needed strong medicine.
Opiates became that medicine. The first time I did heroin, she once told me, was the first time I felt I belonged in the world.
When Anna was three, her sister Esther arrived, born with a mysterious neurological disorder. Inordinately fragile, with a host of medical issues, disabilities, pain syndromes, problems with mobility, balance and coordination, and early-onset osteopenia, Esther was unsafe in the world. She fell and broke easily—ten bones before she was ten years old. The periods of time that she wasn’t suffering from injury, illness, or pain were lulls in continual storms.
When Anna was 16, Esther had a terrifying grand mal seizure at the dinner table. It solidified in Anna’s mind that nothing she experienced would ever be as dire as what her sister had to endure. Her ongoing witness to her sister’s endless suffering led Anna to believe that her own pain and needs didn’t matter.
Roping herself in, Anna got smaller as Esther got larger. Esther went on to live a life filled with love, friends, community, music, pain and joy. While Anna seemed bound on a downward course to see how it was for others who didn’t have her abilities, talents, intelligence, beauty, or privileges. Her life seemed to ask the question: What would it be like to have none of these blessings?
After college, Anna moved into an apartment in midtown Manhattan. The day I helped her move in, I felt a shiver of premonition that this would be the place that brought her down. A year later, on the cusp of 2007, I got a phone call from a friend of Anna’s who had bumped into her on the street. You’d better come here, she said. Anna needs to get out of here or die.
What I found the next day was an unrecognizable shadow of my beautiful girl. Anna had found a dark corner of the city where months of drug use culminated in a 10-day run on crack, heroin and benzos that would have killed her without her friend’s intervention.
For the next eight years, Anna tried to rise up, only to fall again and renew her climb. On her long way down she found what it was like to live at the margins. To have no money. No job. No home. To go to prison when no treatment center would take her in. To be so desperate that she sold her mouth for a fix. To be bound to the ‘liquid chains’ of methadone, the treatment for heroin addiction that was more addictive than heroin. To have a knife at her throat. To be raped by a fellow addict. To see her buddy overdose and die on the floor of her apartment as she tried to resuscitate him.
I prayed incessantly—to Tara, the Spirits, the Ancestors, God. I worked with shamans who journeyed to exorcise Anna’s demons and bring back broken pieces of her soul. I invited the dark spirits and hungry ghosts to feast on my body, to make of myself a meal that would further the healing of Anna’s lost soul, in the Buddhist practice of Chod. And in a comparable Jewish mystical practice called Gufa, I invited the spirits of darkness to a feast in their honor, feeding them toxins from around the world mixed with the milk of lovingkindness.
There was a time when, for our own self-preservation, we had to refuse Anna entry to our home. We drove her to a homeless shelter and left her there. But it wasn’t long before we took her back in, fearing, quite reasonably, that the street would kill her. Against all advice from 12-step programs about ‘enabling,’ my mother’s heart refused to ‘detach.’ As Anna slid down, I tried to consciously accompany her and let her know I would never abandon her. I followed her to dark rendezvous with dealers. I tricked her into getting caught by the police who brought her to court for her own protection, where she was mandated to treatment as a mortal risk to herself. I sat with her in her bedroom as she shot her drug into her veins; and when she asked me why I said: So that you will no longer have to lie to me about what you’re doing. So that you can get honest and know that I know and that I still love you.
To dwell in hell on earth and bring her light into the darkest corners of human experience. This seems to have been Anna’s karma.
Anna learned in her sojourns among the druggies and dealers in Manhattan to trust no one. But it took years for this lesson to sink in. She had a core understanding that privilege didn’t make anybody better than the ‘lowest of the low’ and that even lost souls deserved respect. Like Anne Frank, a strong part of Anna believed that most people were essentially good at heart.
In a way, she reminded me of my father Jacob—whose essential innocence outlasted the Holocaust. Jacob, like Anna, had riveting eyes—blue pools of light that seemed to radiate kind-heartedness and goodness. In the dark night of Holocaust, he never stole from anyone, even when he was starving. Like Jacob, Anna kept a moral compass in hell. Like most addicts, she stole from her family and rationalized it by thinking we were financially comfortable enough to not be hurt by it. But she drew the line at her sister’s disability check. She understood why addicts stole for their drug. But she couldn’t fathom how they could rip off someone suffering from the same affliction. It took Anna a long time to recognize that her moral code didn’t apply in the amoral world in which only the next fix mattered.
Wracked with guilt for having stolen from us, even in the depths of her worst days, she would engage me in urgent spiritual questions about sin, punishment, and redemption—
Do you think there’s a separate hell for bad people like Hitler, child abusers and rapists than there is for people who are essentially good but do bad things sometimes for drugs? Do you think if you’re a good person at heart but do bad things that you can still go to heaven?
Anna was in awe of her grandparents—the courage it took to survive the Holocaust with their integrity, compassion, and love intact. By comparison, she always felt unworthy. Did Anna need to test her courage? To experience her own hell on earth to see if she could survive it?
In the early days of her attempts at recovery, Anna wrote a manuscript called No Such Thing as a Weekend Junkie telling her story of the harsh, crazy world of addiction and the acts of generosity and kindness within it. She wanted to show the ‘normal’ world the parallel universe of the Underneath, inhabited by the countless addicts in their midst. She wanted to help others suffering the same soul-sickness. She never finished it.
Anna used heroin to feel she belonged to the world. She used it to escape the world. She used it to feel more. She used it to feel less. Heroin was her best friend. It was her worst enemy.
Ultimately, after all I’ve learned about its social, cultural, economic, genetic, biochemical, neurological, psychological and spiritual dimensions, I’ve concluded that addiction of this kind is a mystery. Most horrifying is the demonic way the drug takes possession of the addict. There were years when it seemed that Anna’s heart and soul were nowhere to be found. To continue to try to discern her soul when it was under the spell of dark forces, her light when it seemed to have gone out, required an enormous effort to find within ourselves the ability to love someone who was unrecognizable as our daughter.
This much I know: the light Anna brought into the abyss was darkened but never extinguished.
IV. Coming Back to the Light
What turned Anna back from the drug life was not AA meetings. Not her various inpatient and outpatient treatment programs. Not religion. It was love. The love of her parents and sister, but especially the love of her life and their mutual devotion. K had done time in the Underneath and climbed up. She was a recovering addict with eight years clean who rescued Anna by seeing past the depredations of addiction into Anna’s good heart and bright soul. She made Anna believe she could live without heroin, without pills. With love alone.
Anna’s return to life also had everything to do with a rescue dog named Kylee, who we adopted at the start of Anna’s journey toward recovery. Of all of Anna’s beloved animals, Kylee was the supreme love of her life. She fit right into our family: an ultra-sensitive dog who took only one trial with a rigged-up bell on a doorknob that I rang as a signal to go out and do her business, before she got the knack of it and rang the bell herself—training us to take her out even when she didn’t have to urinate. Before leaving the house, Kylee rounded up all members of the family and herded us out the door. She was more than a family dog. She was our family’s spirit animal.
Anna’s recovery lasted for six years, a span in which she lived as fully as she could, enjoying the love of her partner K, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with K, Roger, me, Esther, and Esther’s boyfriend Jonathan. Sitting around the table, laughing and saying our thank yous before our celebratory meals. Enjoying the natural beauty of Vermont. These were the days we savored and I thank the spirits for them. Because I know that Anna could have died any time from the moment I scooped her up in Manhattan. She lived for fourteen years after that day.
In October of 2020, Kylee became terminally ill with kidney disease. The vet said he’d never seen a dog who fought dying as hard as she did. Knowing that, as our protector, Kylee would struggle to stay alive through any amount of pain, seeing her unable to eat or drink, we made the heart-rending decision to euthanize her. Anna sat with Kylee in the backseat and fed her last treats as we drove Kylee to her death.
Kylee died in late October, 2020. Anna died three months later.
V. The Ancestors
Before there was Anna, there was Aaron.
Whereas Anna came in with eyes like fire, Aaron’s were the deep pools of an old soul. I dreamed that he would arrive in my eighth month and his life would be precarious. Born with a mysterious brain injury, without the ability to suck or swallow, Aaron lived at Boston Children’s Hospital and died in our arms on the ICU. It’s impossible to express in words what I know to be true: that Aaron’s 66 days on earth were a complete lifetime.
At his funeral, looking down at Aaron’s tiny casket, I heard a whisper in my right ear—You are looking in the wrong place. I looked up and saw the light of Aaron’s blue eyes, radiating through the heavens, conveying a silent message as clear as any voice I’ve ever heard—I’m alright.
Unfathomably, the day I buried my baby I knew the peace that surpasses understanding. For days and years afterwards, I saw Aaron’s spirit as an indigo light, always bringing with it an expansive, ecstatic sense of Oneness with the Universe.
Aaron was my initiation into the world of Spirit. I’d been a social activist and humanist, not a spiritual seeker. Through Aaron, I saw that there was more to reality than meets the eye. As real as the suffering of children in this world, there is a parallel reality in which angelic beings accompany us even, and perhaps especially, in our most terrible moments. We are larger than our egos. We outlive our bodies.
Nowadays, when I need to be reminded of the presence of the angels, I remember Aaron.
A reluctant mystic, for years I sidelined my visions, fearful of embracing a radically ‘non-rational’ way of seeing. But after Aaron, I began a daily spiritual practice of prayer and meditation. Praying to the Spirits and Ancestors, I begin and end by chanting Om, which is really three sounds—AUM. In Sanskrit, these syllables represent creation, manifestation, and destruction. The sound vibrates in my throat and in the air and brings me instantly to the altered state that is the ground of shamanic work. I dedicate the first Om to the Ancestors. The second to the Spirits that have guided me—Tree, Wolf, Spider, and Hawk, among others. And the third to my children who have gone before me. I ask for help, express my gratitude, and surrender to the mysteries of my life.
The first thing I pray for is, in the Yiddish, koyech. Roughly translated it means strength—not only or even primarily physical but emotional and spiritual—the capacity to weather the worst storms and carry on in the face of disaster.
I address the tzadikkim—the holy ones who have, through their strength and wisdom, kept the Jewish people going through generations of expulsion, persecution, and annihilation. And the Lamed Vav, the 36 souls alive in each generation who, because of their merit and ability to absorb the suffering of the Jewish people and of all the world, enable the world to continue. In Jewish lore, without the Lamed Vav the world would cease to exist. Hidden among us, they are the humblest of the humble, unrecognizable because they do not appear to be exceptional by worldly standards. Only their hearts are exceptional—their capacity for lovingkindness, compassion, and sacrifice. I pray for healing for friends and family and all sentient beings and the courage to be with what is.
When I picture the Ancestors I see my parents, Aidla and Jacob Greenspan. My mother’s entire family of five siblings and most of my father’s family of 11, and their extended families died in the Lodz Ghetto and in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Aidla was the spiritual and moral compass of our family. The four pillars of her character were integrity, humility, wisdom, and kindness. More than anyone I know, Aidla took reality straight. “We have to take it. We have no choice” was a repeated mantra. All of four feet ten inches, she was a powerhouse of koyech who lived for ninety-eight years.
Blessed with extraordinary intelligence and a profound curiosity to understand the world, Aidla taught herself English and read book after book about the Holocaust, trying to understand the incomprehensible. She never stooped to envy, greed, arrogance or selfishness. Her greatest weakness was a penchant for Entenmann’s chocolate cake in the afternoon. Her passion to know was insatiable and the vast knowledge she carried in her memory was astonishing. Aidla lived with a radical humility I have never seen in anyone else—except Anna.
Aidla’s true religion was kindness. Always eager to teach the lessons she’d learned from the Holocaust, at the age of ninety-three, she gave a talk at Harvard University called “The Unique Challenge of the Later Years: What Do We Hold Onto and What Do We Let Go Of? in which she said:
“Everyone needs to feel they have a legacy. I hold onto the legacy of survivors of genocide—never to forget what happened. We must to be kind to each other, to treat people kindly no matter what their religion or political affiliations. We are one people and we should help each other. To do away with genocide and racism. The atrocities of the Hitler years taught us that. This is the legacy to teach our children and grandchildren.”
In Anna’s eulogy for Grandma, she said:
“Some people turn to movies or books for heroes. I never had to do that because I had a real live hero in my family, my Grandma, the only one of her family left alive after the Holocaust. I can’t even imagine how anyone could live through what she lived through. She had every reason to be bitter but she wasn’t. She was loving and kind.”
With her unbounded respect for Grandma, Anna was too humble to see that Aidla’s courage and kindness were a legacy that extended to her.
Aidla would not have survived without Jacob who she married just before Hitler marched into Poland. Five foot four inches, with a wiry frame that packed enormous energy, he did twice the work of most men and took on Aidla’s labor as well in the Soviet gulag in which they were imprisoned.
Jacob loved nothing more in the world than to do something for others. Born in abject poverty, he and his ten siblings shared the tiny space of an apartment in his Polish stetl. Two slept under the dining table, two on top. The other seven were fortunate enough to share one bedroom. In America, he made hats for a living and as soon as he began to earn money, he began to save it for his children and to give it away.
The essence of Jacob was generosity and a quality of joyful innocence. How he managed to maintain these qualities after his sojourn in the Inferno and with the lifelong grief he carried was a mystery to me. With his slightly mischievous grin, blazing eyes, he had a zest for life that was matched by Anna’s before the drug took her. Perhaps it was the life force of her grandparents that enabled Anna to survive as long as she did.
Jacob was an orthodox Jew, Aidla an agnostic. They both prayed to the Ancestors and believed in the reunion of souls after death.
VI. The Deathless Place
In the summer of 2010, in the middle of the period of the gravest danger to Anna, I did a Vision Quest to seek guidance from the spirits. Wracked with physical ailments and in a state of agony about the imminence of death in Anna’s life, I could barely walk. I created a Medicine Wheel inside the house on Evergreen Acres.
In the middle of the night before, I had been called to the deck of the house, where I saw three Orb Weaver spiders weaving two of the largest, most intricate spiral wheel-shaped webs I’d ever seen. The next morning, seated on the floor near the Altar that contained, among numerous artifacts, statues of Tara and Kwan Yin and pictures of my greatest spiritual teachers—my children—I beseeched Grandmother Spider: Please help me!
In trance, I found myself collapsing slowly downward from sitting position, going deeper and deeper down into darkness, finally dropping through the Black Door to absolute dark.
You mustn’t be afraid to die were the first words I heard.
I was impatient, waiting for something to “happen” that would remove my suffering.
Don’t wait. Just be.
Throughout this timeless time, I was being taught patience—to be uncomfortable, without recourse, without exit, to be present without “waiting” for anything to happen, without expectations.
I felt Spider’s qualities: creativity, night vision, diligence, patience, strength, endurance, and the capacity to sacrifice for her young. I felt a web-like covering over my body, particularly my breasts and belly. Wrapped in this covering, my pain disappeared.
Looking into the absolute dark, I saw round formations like pinwheels of ineffably bright light, shining out from the darkness.
Where am I?
You are in the Deathless place.
I prayed for Anna and for healing throughout the lineage of Aidla Olszer Greenspan and Jacob Greenspan so that only goodness and the force of Life be present for Anna.
I am weaving the future said Spider. I thanked her.
Is there anything more I should do?
Pray each day.
Afterwards, I returned to the deck. Two spiders in one web were in stasis, wrapped in a white covering. The spider in the second web was busy at work weaving the future from her body for her young ones.
Anna lived for 11 years after this Vision.
There is no light so bright as that light which shines from the darkness.
These words from the Zohar describe my vision with Spider. The Deathless place, not beyond but within the suffering of the innocent and the agonies of existence in a world hell-bent on its own destruction, is not a place that we would call ‘comfortable.’ It is a place of reckoning with what is, a place one goes in great, unendurable pain and sorrow for all that is endangered and lost, where an absolute acceptance of the unbearable somehow yields a sense of deathlessness. The light in the Deathless place is mysteriously ecstatic. It can be found only through surrender to the death of all that one treasures.
Help me to listen. Help me to see. Help me to know. Help me to be.
This is the prayer that I have said since Spider advised me to pray.I have done my best to listen beyond the five senses. To see beyond the veil of this life. To know with the heart. And the hardest of these in the escalating chaos, madness, disease, and cataclysm of these times, is to just Be with the destruction and loss, not to turn away.
VII. This is the End of the World
These were Anna’s first words when she heard about the COVID pandemic.
Anna understood that hell on earth was not something in the distant future; it was Now. She knew this from her life as an active addict and from thirteen years of treatment with a drug that was harder to kick than heroin. Her survival on methadone was bound up in an end-of-the-world scenario that unfolded in front of her eyes each morning.
Hieronymus Bosch couldn’t have painted anything more hellish than Methadone Mile—a square mile of homeless shelters and methadone clinics that constitutes the ghetto to which most of Boston’s addicts are consigned. Each day dozens of homeless addicts pile onto the streets after the shelters close, where they inject themselves in the open air, fuck and defecate on the sidewalks and wander around out of their minds.
These are the most voiceless, marginalized, desperate people on the face of the earth. No one is lower than a junkie. Dehumanized, mistreated, untreated, ghettoized and stigmatized, seen as criminals rather than lost souls, junkies are throwaway humans who, until recently, didn’t even merit an accurate death count. Mobile morgues were invented to hold their corpses when funeral homes were full-up with dead addicts.
Junkie is the term reserved for those who live outside so-called ‘civilized’ life. Perhaps civilization requires them in order to turn attention away from its own monstrous failures and mortal sins. The treatment of junkies as throwaway garbage is parallel to what we do to the Earth and its myriad life forms.
The sensitive ones were the first to die in the Holocaust, Aidla once said. Anna turned to heroin as medicine for her ultra-sensitivity. Methadone Mile scraped away at her sensitive skin until it was raw. Still, she courageously lived clean and sober within the parameters of a life limited by methadone—until the Covid pandemic hit and her recovery began to erode. Isolated and confined, shut away from her family as Roger, Esther and I quarantined for our protection, viscerally pained by the world’s suffering, American fascism, and the death of her spirit animal, Anna’s ability to navigate these troubled waters without her medicine crumbled.
Death is very close. This was the message of Hawk. In this apocalyptic time, it is the message for all of us.
VIII. Death on the ICU
If you want to see your daughter alive, come now. This was what I heard from an ICU nurse in the middle of a cold night last February. Like millions of others, we were not allowed to be with Anna as she lay dying. The nurse made an exception to the COVID rules to allow us to say good-bye.
Anna’s passing was not a peaceful nod-out overdose but a brutal death of endocarditis, a bacterial overgrowth on her aortic valve that started with undiscovered sepsis followed by a stroke. The doctors tried their best to save her life, including a last-minute emergency surgery to rebuild her broken heart.
Just days before, Anna was praising me for the release of The Heroin Addict’s Mother, my memoir in poetry. Reading the poems, she said, feeling the pain she’d caused our family, made her very sad. When I responded Don’t feel bad. That’s all in the past, I had no idea that Anna had been using off and on the entire year of the pandemic. And she had no idea she was already dying.
It’s ok for me to feel bad Mumsy, she said. It just means I have a heart and I’m not an asshole. These words, followed by I love you, were the last words I heard Anna speak.
When the ICU called, I ran to wake up Esther. She was already sitting up in bed, saying: “We have to go to the hospital! Anna needs us right now.”
What we saw wasn’t Anna. Her green eyes, almost shut, had an eerie yellow hue. My beautiful girl was gone, her light extinguished. We took her hands in ours and let her know she was free to go and to be with Grandma, Grandpa and Kylee. We will always miss you. We will always love you.
Literally and figuratively, Anna died of a broken heart. Rescued by love, she lived as long as she could until the world crashed around her and she with it. She was thirty-eight years old.
The shaman who worked with Anna as she struggled to get out from under heroin’s spell and who journeyed for her during her last days on earth, received this message: Anna’s struggles were an incredible contribution to an ongoing battle with spirits of darkness.
At her funeral, the Rabbi who knew Anna since childhood said: According to Jewish teachings, there are rare souls filled with a light so bright that it cannot be contained in this world. Anna was one of them.
IX. No Refuge
I bought the house at Evergreen Acres as a refuge. The message of Hawk was that there is no refuge (though the more privileged among us are somewhat protected from the worst). Through my Ancestors, I have been blessed to know that the most cruel and unbearable suffering can be borne and witnessed. What I am given to understand is that what we are facing now in the world is a mounting worldwide catastrophe in which the whole world, as Elie Wiesel once said, has become Jewish. As a species we have set in motion technological, political, economic, and mass psychological processes that have wrecked the substratum of sustainable life on earth.
As I write, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just declared a Code Red for humanity.
Anyone with my ancestry knows that some social forces are irreversible. At a certain point the forces that became industrialized genocide could not be stopped. The madness had reached a point of no return.
We are in such a time again. The forces of destruction cannot be reversed. At best, they can be somewhat mitigated. We are facing a global Collapse that is already in process. Scientists have repeatedly underestimated the red zone for the planet in their time-line of predictions.
Everyone in the world now is in a state of profound grief. Many are unable to bear it and are sinking into despair, rage, hatred, delusion, madness. Others, who have lost children, parents, friends, neighbors, have no choice but to be aware. If we are to stay the course, the only refuge is to embrace the radical uncertainty, chaos, mass death and sorrow of life in the world. To maintain the light of vision in the darkness.
This is what the Spirits and Ancestors have been communicating to me, as I read them.
In the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto, as Nazi tanks rolled in, the ghetto fighters held them off. They were not fighting for their lives, which they knew were over. They were fighting to die with dignity and to leave a message for future generations, should there be any, that Jews remained human in the face of the most formidable and cruel campaign of dehumanization and genocide in the history of the world. We might take our model from these fighters. Our weapons are not guns but our awareness of what we are losing and the insistence that Life is valuable in the face of all in our world that would insist otherwise. What is called for now is not hope but faith. Faith in Life as it is. By some mysterious cosmic calculus, our love for the world and our awareness of the threat to Life on earth matters. Our defense of life in whatever ways we can muster—without expectations—matters. Our ability to resist division and dehumanization matters.
Don’t be afraid to die. Weave Life for the future. This is the message of Grandmother Spider.
X. When the Gates of Heaven are Closed to Prayers, They are Open to Tears
The last words of my eulogy at Anna’s funeral addressed her directly:
Anna my laser beam child, my beautiful girl, you’re free now, your light unbounded and undimmed by the darkness you battled. You’ve become who you always were: brave soul, bright spirit. Freed from the damage to your body and the burdens of wrestling with your demons, may you find beyond peace the joy that you spread to us, left here to miss you for the rest of our days.
When I finished speaking, three flocks of geese flew in formation just above my head, in three great waves of noisy splendor.
In the following days, I received messages from Anna to look for the birds. In a vision, I was led to a street where I saw, painted on the sidewalk, a huge drawing of a white peace dove. In a thick trellis of climbing ivy, I heard the noisy twittering of what seemed like a large number of sparrows, but I couldn’t see them. The wind on a windless morning blew my front porch door open and I heard the loud song of many birds coming from the juniper tree in front of the house. Again, they were audible but invisible.
The sight and sounds of birds have been a source of solace to me in these long days since Anna’s death. At the same time, I know that birds are dying in epidemic numbers due to disease, fires, floods, drought and other disasters brought on by climate crisis.
I see Anna now, just to my left, her green eyes a pattern of radiant energy. Her smile transmits a warm kindness. She tells me Mumsy, it’s ok. Esther and Roger too feel her warmth, her kindness and reassurance.
I am grateful for this comfort, but it doesn’t obviate my tears. I cry for Anna and all the Annas. I cry for the birds, the trees, for all living creatures. My tears flow into the endless rivers of sorrow throughout the world.
During the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally pray for forgiveness. Sincere repentance, it is said, will soften God’s decree of who shall live and who shall die, written during these days. In the final minutes of Yom Kippur, the Gates of Heaven are closed. The Talmud tells us: When the gates of heaven are closed to prayers, they are open to tears.
Perhaps, in these dark days, our tears for the world are the purest form of prayer.
Hawk first came to me after my mother’s death. Rarely seen in my urban neighborhood, two announced themselves in the next few days. One flew so close I could hear the whooshing of wings. The second sat on the backyard fence, calmly eating a squirrel, as though to say what dies becomes food.
The hawk that crashed and died in my car will forever be burned into my consciousness. I buried it in a spot sacred to me, in the woods of Ludlow.
This week, when I arrive at Evergreen Acres, Anna’s absence scalds me with burning grief. I open the screen door to the front deck and look out at the trees. Sitting on a birch branch is a red-tailed hawk, looking straight ahead in my direction. I am dumbfounded, filled with what the ancient Jews called awe—a combination of wonder and terror. As I stand there, I get the sense that Hawk is greeting me, welcoming me to Evergreen Acres. And with that, he flies off.
Roger and I decide to drive and take a walk on Andover Road, a favorite Vermont spot with breathtaking views of soft blue-grey-lavender mountains on both sides of the ridge. We park the car at the small cemetery and walk the ridge silently, lost in our thoughts, our longing and grief for Anna.
This is a place I feel acutely the absence of Kylee, who loved to walk ahead of us, nibbling on the grass at the side of the road, stopping to take a good look at the horses fenced in just ahead near the red-barned farm, turning around every so often to look back and check on us.
After some time, we turn back. When we reach the car, there, on the ground, is a single exquisite red-tailed hawk feather.
Simultaneously, we both look up at the sky and say, Thank you.
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About the Author
Miriam Greenspan, M.Ed., LMHC, is a renowned psychotherapist, author, and speaker whose pioneering book, A New Approach to Women and Therapy, helped define the field of feminist therapy. Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair won the 2004 Nautilus Award in psychology for “books that make a contribution to conscious living and positive social change.” Miriam’s most recent book, The Heroin Addict’s Mother (2021), offers an intimate memoir that serves as a poetry of witness to the expanding opiate epidemic. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Spirituality & Health, Ms., Shambhala Sun, Psychology Today, Tikkun, Huffington Post, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.
www.miriamgreenspan.com and www.theheroinaddictsmother.com