(In memorium, Robert Elliott, Post-modern Shaman,
September 9, 1927 – March 21, 2006)
At the turning of the year from 1969 to 1970,
The first time you journeyed
To the Land of the Dead,
Some of us were very young
Or hadn’t even been born.
That’s when – and how -- you became a shaman.
You had magic before that, but we didn’t know it,
And you learned more afterwards,
When you took up your shaman’s staff as serious fun,
One of the few nonpsychologists
Michael Harner ever trained.
Here is some more magic I learned from you:
Because the world has many silly things in it,
Your most characteristic, every-day sort of magic
Has always been humor.
You were not too discriminating about it:
Satire, practical jokes, wry commentary,
Romantic comedies, puns,
The Sufi stories of Nasrudin,
Clever turns of phrase, even dirty jokes
Yes, yes, we have all heard that humor is a defense!
You don’t have to be a psychologist to know
That this was how you coped
With pain and loneliness,
And even at times used it
As a substitute for revealing
How you really felt.
But the deeper truth is that
Your gentle humor magic was a way
Of connecting without hurting others,
For in your humor
People are silly not evil,
And you were right there
Being silly with them, too.
You raised gently laughing at yourself to such an art,
That I have only recently learned
That many people do not think
Being called “self-deprecating”
Is a compliment.
So this is one side of the true magic of humor,
To wear your life with levity
And to treat yourself and others gently.
The other side is even richer,
For it is joy, lightness of being,
The joke opening into the eternal.
And so in this vein, you loved to quote
That crusty old Gestalt therapist,
Sheldon Kopp, who said,
“If you meet the Buddha on the road,
But I am quite sure that now
You and Lord Buddha
Have met up on the Way,
And it’s jokes you hit him with, not sticks.
Lao Tse is there too,
Three old guys in a melee free-for-all
Throwing stories at each other,
Of human foibles and moments
Of surprising and profound grace.
This is the magic of the laughing Buddha.
2. Hiding in Mid-Air
When we were children, you taught us,
It’s better to be second best.
“Why?,” we’d ask, our minds reeling
From the unexpected and counter-intuitive advice.
And you would explain that there is
Too much pressure if you are number one,
Always looking over your shoulder,
For the others catching up.
As second best, you could be almost as good,
But escape the pressure, the jealousy,
And the responsibility,
And have much more fun doing it.
And while this is good advice, it turns out to be
One of your more difficult magics.
Not like the cantrip for dispelling rowdy children
By flinging a slipper at them,
Or the spontaneous multiplication of library records
In the corner of the living room,
That I always had to undo
When I came home from college.
No, it’s a piece of magic that your wife and children
Fail at time and again
As much as they try.
And you too could not escape
The unmagic of sometimes being first,
Of sometimes standing out,
Of having people look to you for leadership.
Oh, well! You’d seem to say,
Sometimes the semi-invisibility spell fails,
And people start expecting you to lead them.
The important thing for this magic, however,
Is that we have to go on trying
To achieve second place;
And this will help other people
Figure things out for themselves.
And most of us I am sure will agree with you:
It’s certainly more fun to lead from behind,
And an excellent place to use humor.
3. Love the Magician
You must have started as a small child,
Collecting things: Books, coins, cards;
And have gone on from there,
To experiences: music, movies, food, places;
Then to people: Ann, your kids, your friends;
And finally to God.
Your love of things and experiences
Was not a substitute for,
But really a bridge to loving people,
An apprenticeship in attachment,
Exactly as Kierkegaard described it,
In Stages on Life’s Way.
And certainly, as a small child,
I knew this from you,
As you opened for me
Your old boxes of army memorabilia,
Photos, even you old school report cards,
Like sacred treasures.
And I felt connected to you, special, loved.
And you did something like that, for each of us;
We each got a piece of you.
We may have wanted more,
But we each got a piece or two.
For me it was my love of music and an ability
To get up in front of people and say things.
Everybody here, got something special from you,
That’s why they’re here.
Some of us experienced this as a thing;
Some of us experienced it as an experience,
But we all got some piece of you.
And in all of it, through you,
Some small manifestation of God.
4. The Magic of Passing
From early childhood, I feared your death
As much as my own, believing you to be fragile.
For a period of several years, I nagged you repeatedly,
Trying unsuccessfully to get you to stop smoking,
And succeeded only in making both of us feel terrible.
This was such a powerful symbol for me that
I used to have nightmares that a girl I loved
Had started to smoke,
And I took up running the day after reading
Not exercizing was as harmful as smoking.
And then there were your worsening episodes
Of pancreatitis, striking you during the night,
Usually at Christmas.
I learned that someone I loved could suddenly
Become ill in the night, and be taken away.
But these brushes with death gave you life instead,
And you renewed yourself, and have lived
Another 36 years, until now.
So it’s ironic that lung cancer should take you,
After all of that.
As we waited vigil with you those last few days,
We watched you make your final journey
To the Land of the Dead.
First, your body was trying to go, but you were not,
Then you were ready to go, but your body was not,
Like a family trying to leave on vacation,
Where someone keeps forgetting something,
And going back for it.
That last day, we gathered, sang songs,
And said things to you;
I read you the first part of this poem,
And we waited, tricked by the false endings,
Like the Sibelius Fifth Symphony.
We began to grow impatient. Are we there yet?
Just over the next hill, you seemed to say.
We followed. Then there was a great struggle,
Like Jacob wrestlingwith the angel all night.
Two parts were fighting:
The part that was ready to leave,
And the part that still wanted to keep going.
Finally, we said, let’s accept the part
That wants to keep living, and rest a while,
So it doesn’t feel our impatience with it anymore.
And then it calmed, and you began to groan,
Like your power animal the bear, or like you always
Used to do when you got up in the morning,
Or after a particularly good meal.
And Mother said, let’s all groan with you,
So we did, a family of bears groaning with you,
To give you company. Ahhhhh! Ahhh!
What does it mean? It isn’t pain,
But a kind of primal creature being,
Like all creation groaning.
Then you walked further on, into the process,
Breathing further and further apart,
Until that space stretched to infinity,
Like a curve suddenly going to asymptote,
And you had spun off on your journey,
Passing escape velocity, on your way home.
We were left, caught between exaltation
At your sudden success, the launch of your journey,
Our pride and admiration for your courage
In your struggle to be born into the universe…
…And your yawning absence, a hole in the world,
Where you had been,
Now ringing like the aftertone of a bell.
What will we do now? Everything has changed;
The world is changed.
It is a time of danger; we can hurt each other,
Past repair, if we are not careful.
And yet you are still here, not just in us,
But all around us. Like that echo,
You have touched everything here,
It has all been handled, seen, smelled,
Heard, and loved by you.
You are nowhere… and everywhere,
We miss you… and you are with us,
You have fallen… and we have gone over the rapids with you.
Floating on without you,
We ride your current forward into our lives.
Is this present-absence your greatest magic?