Meredith Little - Love Never Dies
By Annie O'Shaughnessy
I first heard about Meredith when Roderick MacIver of Heron Dance came back from his trip to interview Meredith and her husband Steven five years ago. Together they founded and ran The School of Lost Borders, which uses the power of the natural world and a mix of teachings from native American mentors, to create meaningful rites of passage for people of all ages.
Meredith Little is a wise and radiant being. Rod said, “Meredith is probably the gentlest person I have ever met. So full of love. Even the way she walks is peaceful.” It did not surprise me to learn she had been witness to the deaths of three people very close to her. Meredith has spent thousands of hours listening to people’s stories and helping them through to another phase of their lives.
Steven suffered from a degenerative lung disease for 10 years before he died 18 months ago. I have wanted to talk to Meredith, not just about this passage, but to simply listen to her story. Near the end of his life, they took the first steps of trying to bring their rites of passage work together with hospice work.
I began our conversation by talking about how I've wanted to do an issue on the subject of death and loss for a long time, but I was nervous since death is such a taboo topic in our culture. She replied:
Meredith: My feeling is that our discomfort with these topics in our culture reflects our fear of the natural cycles of death and rebirth within our lives — the mini-deaths that happen during the change from one phase of our lives to the next. There's a tremendous drive for comfort and security. Often, if we're going through a difficult time personally, there is the perception that we must have done something wrong, that we have a problem that we need to fix. These perceptions make it very difficult for us to move through to the next phase. In trying to “fix” ourselves we often halt the process, preventing us from doing what we need: to go inside and be self reflective, to challenge our values, and look at the story about our self that might have worked for one phase of our life, but is only getting in the way of moving into the next phase.
Around the world indigenous people recognize that if there aren’t meaningful ways of enabling their people to “die” to one phase, to face the chaos and challenges of self, in order to move into the next phase in a renewed and expanded way, then that energy leaks out in destructive ways in the culture. My feeling is that this is happening a lot now. We're so afraid of change and challenge and risk that we're forgetting how to die. We see dying as a failure — from the little deaths of our lives to the big one. How often do we hear in our culture today that there is such a thing as a good death or a bad death? And that a good death is dependent on having been “spiritually evolved”, having done things right, having lived well. This makes it very difficult to face with peace the painful struggle of dealing with one’s own death when it comes.
In our culture if we get sick the implication that we often hear is that we haven't eaten right, or we haven't prayed right, we haven't done what we should do, something is lacking. This is dangerous. That makes it very uncomfortable to be in the truth of our pain and also the truth of the beauty that can be present. Death as with birth, is a fascinating time when the veil between the worlds lifts for a moment and there's a sense of numinosity, a place that is both the most physical and also seemingly, the most sacred place. The opportunity is there for the sacred and the profane to become one for a moment.
Annie: When you talked with Rod years ago for a Heron Dance interview, you talked about your father's death, and you said to Rod, "out of the beauty of that death I was able to consciously choose to commit myself to the love of Steven", and you talked about the lifting of the veil. Reflecting on that, I wrote later that it is so hard for people to allow themselves to think about death as baring any gifts. There's guilt in thinking that something good could come of someone else's death. But if we can't speak of it then how can these gifts manifest?
In this year and a half since Steven has died, one thing that has become clear to me is that at the same place where there is absolute grief, loss, and the sensation of being torn apart, there is also absolute love, joy, and creativity. That somehow life-wording and death-wording both come from the same root. When one is cracked open even the joy and the love is painful.
When we try to squeeze grief into one definition of all this despair and loss and tears, then we've missed the opportunity to experience something that is natural within us, that gives us at the same moment a huge rage for life and creativity.
There is a phrase that I heard a year and a half ago that went: ecstasy is when grief and beauty collide. Grief rides along with beauty and beauty with grief. This idea I knew in my heart and in my life, but I had not put words to it because it is contrary to how we are taught to avoid grief at all costs. Hearing that phrase shifted things for me in an important way. I didn’t need to be so afraid of loss anymore.
Meredith: Yes, I remember a time when I was on one of my solo fasts in the desert. As often happens on a fast, I was feeling a certain questioning in my life, and certain despair, wondering what it was that carries me on, what is was that could say YES to life. And the answer came, “Beauty.” Maybe around the next corner there will be a moment of beauty. In some ways I see that beauty comes as simple moments of authenticity. They are moments so often found amidst suffering. They can be found in the midst of war. They can be found in a hospital where a mother is losing a child. They are often the places in life where everything is stripped away and all that is left is that moment. To be able to touch a moment of that with someone else does not necessarily give meaning to life – meaning to me is somehow a rational thing – but it makes the next moment worth living for! (Laughter).
Annie: You worked alongside Steven for 30 years, what are you doing now that he is no longer there?
Meredith: When Stephen died the only thing that I could do was trust was my body. My psyche was cycling and recycling and recycling the pain of Steven's pain - everything that has to happen in order to integrate what's going on. My mind was totally unreliable. And sense of spirit? I had no idea where Steven was. So the only thing that I could rely on was my body, which knew what it liked and what it didn't like. And the thought of doing any of the old work that Steven and I had done for the last 30 years just made me ill. When I finally reached a point where I was able to look up and around a little bit, the only thing that made any sense to me was the last work we had only just begun to do, which was the work of bringing the worlds of hospice and rites of passage together.
In part, I took up this work because it was still where I lived. And simply because so many of the pieces were in front of me. In particular there was Scott, the hospice doctor who had been midwiving Steven and I through the last months of Stephen’s life.
Earlier, I mentioned the gifts of my father’s passing. The gift that I felt Steven left at that door was, in many ways, Scott. We both loved him, respected him and he had the same passion to bring these two worlds together too: The world of rites of passage education that we had worked within through The School of Lost Borders and the world of Hospice work. After Steven died, people started asking us to come and teach. So in looking around at the pieces I said, “I have to say ‘yes’ and see where this goes, I have to. It's the only thing that feels right. God knows where it's going to go. And if I am going to do it I want to do it big. Why not? I have nothing to lose.”
Since Steven’s death a year and a 1/2 ago, Scott and I have begun specifically to work to bring the populations that care for the dying — hospice nurses, doctors, volunteer or caregivers — together with rights of passage guides, to talk more deeply about the indigenous way of seeing the cycles of living and dying, and the wisdom that comes out of that worldview. We challenge them to look at the conscious or unconscious story that they carry about death in their own life, and the cultural story. We put them out on the land in evocative ways, fasting and alone, to be with some of the questions that arise out of the mix of these world. Out there they can rediscover their own personal story that also includes the truth of the modern world – a world that has a lot of violence in it, and a lot of conflicting values about how we're supposed to be with death. A story that shows them how to live in that world, how to reconnect with what they know consciously or unconsciously in their bodies and psyches about the natural cycles of living and dying. And in our listening to these stories we see emerge for each person a new, personal way of embracing the truth of all these worldviews, the stories and perspectives. We hear the story of how the modern, more mechanized worldview has, in many ways, taken the sacred out of life, but also the many gifts that have come from medical and scientific advances.
I am fascinated with where these conversations are taking people. I see that they move people to be much more accepting and trusting of their own values and feeling. How they grow more comfortable with their discomfort over death, over being with the dying. I see how they allow people to access enormous amounts of compassion. I see curiosity and open eyed fascination about the magic of life and death. I see them coming out of it with a drive to be there for people who are going through hard times, of feeling as if they have something important to offer at the death beds of friends and family. This process helps them to see that we don't have to go there with answers, it's going there with open curiosity, the ability to listen, and the ability to support somebody in their own way of dying without judgment. And being able to put aside the judgments that our culture carries about how we should be with our own dying process and other people dying.
Annie: Yes. We are taught to cling to life at all costs.
Annie: And despite signs that our loved ones might be ready to die, when it comes down to it we really don't want to let them.
Meredith: No. We don't know how to let them go. We're not taught how to let them go. Much less to feel that it is O.K. to let them go.
Annie: My father has done hospice work for a long tome. And he told me once how the dying person would often want to spend time with him rather than their own family. He thought maybe this was because he was able to just sit with them and listen to them, and read to them. And that the family would come laden with their issues, wanting to reconcile old disputes, wanting to hold off death, clinging. It made me think about how we really don’t know how to be with the dying. We don’t know how to be with the handicapped either.
When my best friend became a quadriplegic at age 18, I saw her with the metal halo on her head in the hospital, completely paralyzed. I didn't know how to be with that. It scared me and I ran away from it. My life worth was based on my physical strength, my athleticism. I did not know how to be with her. There was something so naked about it. How do I possibly relate to her, how do I give her comfort. I have always been sad that I was not prepared to be with her in her suffering. So part of why I asked for this interview is to ask how do you talk to someone who is dying?
Meredith: Not knowing how is the reason why so many people are dying in isolation, which is the worse kind of death. The thing that is so fascinating is that the way we sit with people who are going through a significant life passage – a mini-death – is very similar to the way we need to sit with the dying. So what I have learned through the rites of passage work through the School of lost Borders is very similar to what a Hospice worker would learn over years of working with the dying. It is the learning that comes from holding a container for the passage, either from one phase of life to the next or from one life to the next. The teaching is about how to listen, how not to impose our own judgments or values, compassion. And the lessons do not come from book learning but from literally being with people who are dying in all the different ways people “die.”
Annie: In his book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Studs Terkel records the stories of those who have had very close experiences with death.
Meredith: Yes. Say more. What is it that you see?
Annie: Well, that death is a time of truth telling, of telling the story of our lives – to create meaning. Many of us who are ethnic “mutts’ without cultural roots or customs search for ways to learn our story. We try on different cultural hats: Native American, Buddhist, Mayan, etc– to regain a sense of our story. But the hats rarely fit well. What I got from the book is that what we most need when we pass from one phase of our life to the next, or from this life to the next is the opportunity to tell our story whole, without judgment and with celebration and gratitude. I love the simplicity of this because it allows me to enter into it. As a workshop leader I can create the space for these transitions with my open heart. It allows me to feel like I can serve people during life changes without a PHD in Psychology.
Meredith: Yes and I think that a lot of times those credentials can get in the way of coming with an open heart. Many of the credentials we have encourage us to believe that we can solve the problem. It’s not an attitude that helps those who are dying.
Annie: Four years ago Rod asked you what was the most rewarding aspect of your life and you answered: “The opportunity to be truly intimate with people, and to recognize and know that someone on the street might look very different from who I am, but that I could come to love them.”
That is an incredible thing to know. Has your answer to that question changed over the years?
Meredith: Oh no! That is absolutely part of my core. That's what I live for; I have been blessed in my life and my work with The School of Lost Borders, to live in a way that reinforces the values that come out of that, that come out of being intimate with people quickly and deeply. That being my life is an incredible gift. I think that that is where just about everyone wishes to be, in a place that there is authenticity, where there's not going to be judgment, but the freedom to be able to talk about what's real, what they feel deeply about. The hunger in us to touch in that way is huge. Again it has a lot to do with not needing to judge how people decide to live their lives, or what their values are, just something that is deeper than our differences. These are those moments of beauty we talked about. I live for those moments of beauty.
I have now been with four people at their deathbed who have been very very close to me and I know those were moments of beauty. Even as they were moments of being torn apart. You know I think that it gets down to the capacity to love. Walking down the street and knowing that I could be in a circle with someone and within hours come to love them, it has deepened my ability to love. And being with people who are dying who I love deeply and going through their grief with them and their peace and their joy and whatever it is that comes up, and staying with it, even as it is tearing me apart only fills me just as deeply. As deep as I can go in my own “being torn apart.” And taking the risk of truly grieving I get that much more capacity to love. It make me sad to see so many people today who sense that it's really not safe to love that deeply.
Annie: What do you think about love?
Meredith: I don't know what love is. I think that in some ways its grace. Love to me feels very personal but even when I say that, it's not something that I make happen. So it's like grace coming into me. My capacity to care. They way I seem to have been taught about love is that it is very personal and then it over flows into love in a bigger more general way for the world, for people who are hurting. But it doesn't have authenticity to me unless it comes from something that's very personal; it's not an objective thing. I see that for other people it feels more universal and floods in and they become a channel for Love. You see what I am saying? I think that it is different for some people.
You asked what blocks love. I don't know. I just know that the more that I can trust myself and trust love; to have it be O.K. when I am not feeling loved, to have love challenged and tested, to go through the struggle of it, to trust that I don’t have to always be loving. As long as I just trust that what I am feeling is the right place and to embody it, the faster that it's going to teach me the bigger things.
Annie: That trust is really hard. I think so many people can relate to the desire to be a loving person, but the need to always be loving, often pushes truth aside. And without that authenticity and honesty in relationship we lose the opportunity for something much larger, expansive and transformative from happening. Our truth cannot be forgotten in our efforts to be good and loving.
Meredith: Again it gets back to the fear of the little deaths. In our culture today we try so badly to push the shadow away; we don't know how to deal with the shadow. We haven't been given many tools. And I think that is part of the reason why our kids are having such a hard time, because the shadow is there and they aren’t taught how to be with it so they think their crazy. I mean how many times have we heard this: There can't be light without shadow.
Annie: The shadow side of human nature is represented in a strange way in our culture. We can’t talk on a personal, authentic level about our shadow side, but we can watch the Geraldo Rivera show and see someone talk about their pain as a sort of emotional exhibitionism. The more shocking the better. There is a strange mix in our culture of holding it all in and being “fine”, or being completely naked. I think trends in our popular culture represent our yearnings. We yearn for real dialogue so popular culture spins that in a way that will make money.
Meredith: It's like extreme sports. To me that is a mirror that shows we're not taking the natural risks in our life so we're trying to do it in the extreme sports way.
Annie: So where do you find your strength when your strength is lagging and how do you honor yourself, love yourself?
Meredith: I don't know. I feel like I just fumble through.
Annie: So you don’t consciously do things for yourself to nourish yourself or do you just trust?
Meredith: Well where I live is my sanctuary. Here at Three Creeks I don't have to talk for weeks at a time. The only sound is the sound of the birds and the bees. And I need that. I need a significant amount of time where there's no other stimulation. So that I do my work, and I still have my own time where I can integrate what's going on and somehow get quiet. That doesn't mean that my time alone is a nice, peaceful and easy time, because of course all of my selves shows up at every moment! (Laughter)
I suppose I take care of myself by entering into something that I feel passionate about that is bigger than me. I feel like the work Scott and I are doing is bigger than us and that by seeing what it brings out of people I feel like its serving. And I need that selfishly. To feel like I am serving something bigger than myself.
Annie: You had ten years of living with Stephen’s illness before he died. I have always been curious how the long process of Stephen’s dying was for you internally, if you shared all of your struggles with him or if you dealt with a lot of it on your own. For someone like you, who has committed her life to rites of passage work, it must have been a fascinating, complicated trip.
Meredith: Yes, that’s the truth! I think number one is there is nothing more we can do but just “show up.” I found certainly I had thought about how it will be for me when Steven dies -what will I do, what will my life look like. And by being able to imagine that I was able to get strength. But, ultimately the journey has been about… oh there is so much… In the two years since he has died it has been about having to live in the moment. It has been about having the courage more and more to make decisions and to plan ahead. While he was dying it was learning how to let go, let go, let go. We had a progression of things we had to let go of in those last years. From stepping more and more back from our work, to letting go of so many of the things we used to enjoy doing together, to letting go of identity that we had with each other and individually; there were just huge teaching about letting go and taking risks. And I knew going in that there there's no way I could really prepare for when he was gone. Or, that the only way that I could prepare was to have the courage to live fully in each moment of the last years of his life. And to relax in the knowledge that all of it was preparing me for what was after Steven. And ultimately just as we had to let go of the definition of our relationship in so many ways in order for the new definition to happen in the same way I had to let go of any concepts of how it would all feel when he was physically gone.
I don’t know…Love is an incredible thing. It’s such a gift because it's the thing that enables death somehow. It allows for the letting go that has to happen.
Love doesn't die that I know.
All of those years: the risk of sharing everything, of loving each other, of hating each other, growing together, stretching our relationship into new definitions, all of that taught me so much, that it was worth the equal amount of grief and loss. It was just worth it.
Annie: There is poem by a Heron Dance subscriber, Lillian Jackman, which ends:
can you tell me, does it matter to
the heart who opens it?
does it matter to the heart whether
it is cleaved with force or tenderness?
and is the light any less pleased,
any less persistent as it streams
through the fissures, finally
illuminating the interior?
Our capacity to feel grief, joy, pain, seems to exponentially increase our capacity to love.
Meredith: Absolutely. Again, it is what the Right's of Passage work was all about, the understanding that by suffering, by stepping into the chaos and being challenged, and by “dying”, by letting go, we are reborn more emotionally whole and capable and more spiritually enlarged. There is the natural cycle of living and dying. And there we are at the thresh hold, the “thrashing hold” where all the chaff is blown away and really the only thing that is left is what is really deeply important. And then we step into the new world in a bigger way, expanded way. That is the natural way. And if we're not willing to take the risks of pain and loss and death we're not going to grow. And so we have a lot of what traditional people would say are uninitiated people who are making decisions for us who don't have that kind of expanded sense of compassion and understanding. And that's scary.
Annie: Yes, without that we have no firm footing.
Thank you Meredith. It was a gift to talk with you.
Meredith: Yes you’re a joy and it was nice to meet you. It was wonderful to meet you, finally.
This interview first appeared in Issue 47 of Heron Dance, now out of print. Annie plans to write a book based on this interviews and others.