Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Celebrating A Life: Going to a "Living Wake"

A week ago on Saturday afternoon, I attended what can best be called a "living wake" for a 95-year old man I've known for over 15 years. The gathering of family and friends was called "A Wake for Jake". It seemed to me while I was there that the occasion had many of the elements of a celebration for sharing an ethical will with your loved ones.

Jake had decided that he wanted a celebration of his life while he was still alive. No need to wait for death to celebrate this man's life! With Jake's attitude about life and way of being in the world, it was just the right thing to be doing for a man who has touched so many people with his presence in their lives.

After some sharing of food and drink as people gathered in a local bookstore Jake loves (even becoming an investor when the independent store was on the verge of closing its doors), a women read some of her favorite "Jake poems" and a couple sang two songs for the special occasion. Then, with two men at his side and cane in hand, Jake slowly made his way up the two steps to the stage. He had been sitting in a recliner next to the stage before the festivities began, having quiet conversations with individuals who came up to greet and speak privately with him.

Once he was settled on the stool on stage and the microphone adjusted for him, Jake expressed his gratitude to everyone who came to celebrate his life and began speaking about what has been most important in his life. In his deep, gravelly voice Jake said that at his age people often asked him, "What's it all about?" He tells them, "Life's a dance. You've been given a birthday gift of a trip on Spaceship Earth. She's a sturdy vessel, but she spins and twists and turns as she makes her way through time and space. What you need most is a sense of balance. When you're up on deck you're expected to join in a dance of contradictions where every action has its opposite and each act's a game of chance. I tell them that I manage to keep my balance by the way I do my dance."

As he continued, Jake spoke of the importance of trusting yourself and speaking from your heart -- of using words with care instead of chattering on to hear your own voice. He spoke of keeping the joy of learning alive in your life . . . of exploring and discovering something new each day . . . of the importance of art and poetry to enrich your life . . . of the "magical" nature of every human being.

Jake talked about the value of playfulness and asked us to remember to play ... to dance and sing to the music that is our lives ... to fully express our unique selves. And he asked us to work for peace by speaking from our heart to people we meet as we travel the world -- letting them know our desire for peace and that the words and actions of our government do not represent the true heart of the American people.

Jake asked his son to come on stage and read a poem from his collection, A Bird in My Mouth: Poems to Wake Up To. I was moved to tears by Jake's heartfelt words of fatherly pride in the life and accomplishments of his son (while sensing some of my own grief over never hearing such words from my father). After hearing Jake's poem, his teenage grandson came on stage and read his own "I am from ..." poem (receiving an enthusiastic response from the audience). Father, son, grandson ... three generations celebrating life together ... sharing words that had both heart and meaning to each other and us all.

What followed was a stream of people from the audience coming to the stage to express their gratitude for a well-loved man who made a difference in their lives. Both women and men, ranging in age from late 30's to late 60's, spoke with their heart's voice about Jake's importance to them and his influence on their "thinking and doing" of their lives.

When I took my turn at the mike, I recalled (with Jake's help since I had earlier spoken privately with him) how we first met at one of the men's gatherings I initiated in 1991. My memory of the gathering was one of feeling incredibly blessed by the presence of a male elder -- a rare "old man" in a group of mostly "mid-life" men.

Jake remembered a large circle of men sitting stoically -- waiting for something to "do" (something we did lots of in those first gatherings!). He finally got up and went to the center of the circle and silently "did his dance" -- crouching to the floor and gathering energy from the earth with his arms, then slowly, slowly moving to a standing position, stretching his arms to the heavens. I don't remember what the rest of us men surrounding him did -- but we most likely "gave him a hand" -- perhaps even a standing ovation!

Jake interjected, telling the celebration audience that he had then suggested that the men split into two groups and go off to separate rooms to "create our own dance" -- and come back together to perform for one another. So we did. And from that night on, many of the men gathered in similar men's circles, men's support groups, and men's gatherings -- becoming part of a "men's movement" that lasted nearly ten years before quietly passing away without a "wake" to celebrate its amazing -- but far too short -- life. (But that's another story for another blog).

I stepped away from the microphone after telling Jake and the audience how blessed I had felt by his presence at that first men's gathering and what a blessing it was to be here to celebrate him today. Later, when the spontaneous sharing by audience members had ended, I went to say "good-bye" to Jake who once again, was relaxing in the recliner next to the stage. We didn't say much ... just exchanged a kiss ... and looked into each other's eyes ... both knowing that this could be our last, living moment together.

Afterwards, as I was thinking about this "living wake" experience and its relevance to sharing an ethical will, I recalled Jake's poem, Dancing My Dilemma, in which he writes a "Chorus":

So let's go / get off the stool!
Do your own creative dance
While you still have the chance
Take your life in your hands
Find the meaning / to your being
And the balance / to your life
With the power and the skill
Of your own / creative will
Trust your heart / and DO YOUR DANCE!

Thank you, dear Jake, for trusting your heart and doing your dance with us on Spaceship Earth!
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