Who’s your Psychopomp?


As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.



The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.


I Dream of Etherica: life changing dream #2

People who say that life is short are generally not old. Although I have not yet achieved old old age, that apparently starts at  85, I sometimes feel like Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando who started out as one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers and ended up as a Victorian mother. I seem to have had that many lives since I was born, although they have all been uni-sex.

One of my lives was esoteric. I meditated twice a day and joined in group meditation at the full and new moon. Every day, I visualized three lighted triangles in partnership with two others (per triangle) in far reaching places -Texas, England, France, South Africa, Australia- to bring light and peace into the world. I read the works of Alice Bailey, submitted essays to the Arcane School and attended conferences in New York City at the full moon in Taurus . We were concerned about world events and considered them in the light of the truth that Alice Bailey had channeled from the being we called the Tibetan.

Now it is true as time went on that I wondered why I never got published in the school’s monthly magazine, whereas my friend, who could afford to donate much more than I, often did. Clearly, I was a poor judge of my own worth. And as I observed the thin, harried, quarrelsome people running the conferences, I wondered if that was what enlightenment looked like.

This was the me that arrived in Los Angeles one August morning about 20 years ago. In the rose-patterened journal, # 23, in my backpack, I had just been making notes: “Tension of heart energy expressed in terms of giving to others- expenditure of spiritual energy can overcome fatigue…”

But not in this case.

My brother, Rob, was supposed to be there to meet me. I hadn’t seen him for seven years. He was flying in from his home in Paris. My daughter met me instead and told me he had been delayed. I was disappointed, I was hot and I was exhausted.

“Take a nap,” Julia said and her husband seconded the motion.

I had my 5 year-old grandson’s room while he was with his father. I lay down on his little futon. I listened. Good. The Buddhist woman next door, who assaulted our ears with her loud, angry chanting, was silent. I breathed deeply and fell asleep.

I dreamed I was on a plane on the way back to Toronto, but something was wrong. We made an emergency landing in a high desert airfield. I was looking out the window at something like snow that was blowing up into dirty little drifts.

I turned to the man next to me and said, to my surprise, “Do you think we are dead?’

“Yes,” he said.

We were herded into the airport waiting room, the walls of which were alternately plum, fuchsia and orange, each one edged with the colour of the wall next to it. We were at loose ends, milling about in vague expectancy. I was frankly appalled at the sheer tastelessness of what was, by all accounts, heaven.

Above us, an LED sign fired up, telling us that our first class would be at 10 p.m. Great! Just what I longed for! Heaven is an evening class!

It was 10:10 already. All I wanted was a shower and some rest. Resentfully, I followed the crowd up a curving, adobe staircase. (Don’t ask me. The journal says “adobe”.) Resentfully. The others were chattering merrily as if they were on a cruise. I was thinking how summer-camp, how awful. I didn’t fit in here either.

At the top, I heard joyful greetings. Each person was greeting an assigned teacher, whom they instantly recognized because they looked alike. A swarthy Mediterranean man had met his Spanish-looking teacher. A bull of a man with a short neck had met a broad-shouldered teacher who could be his twin. Each pair withdrew to a plum-colored banquette to begin orientation. They were all talking animatedly.

Except me. I was standing all alone. Bereft again.

What karmic debt was this? What failure of positivity? I had clearly not tried hard enough. I wanted to cry. And I was very angry. I wanted to clean myself up. I wanted to lie down. Lay my burden down. Oh damn.

Then someone clattered down the stairs that curved up to the third floor. She was running. She was smiling ear to ear – thin, pale, intense woman dressed in flowing, flapping, filmy prints of plum and fuchsia and orange.

“Hello, hello,” she cried, “So sorry I’m late. I’m Etherica. I’ll be your instructor. You can call me Dea, that is “of God”.

Her draped arms were held out, ready for an embrace. She was beaming, smiling broadly but more than that. Her eyes were wide and bright and intensely focused on my face, as if she were beaming light and love as she bore down on me. LIke one of those TV preachers or self-help gurus.  But she was also tripping on her gown and, unforgivably for me as a teacher, she was late.

My stomach revolted. I thought I would vomit. This was my  angel! This was how I seemed to others! Flighty, incompetent, ungrounded, and showering a blaze of brightness that made them want to wipe it off. She was not genuine. She was not …what…. She was not real. She could not, please God, be what I was meant to be.


I struggled awake, tangled in the wet sheet. I gasped for air in the stifling room. I stood straight up. Oh bad idea. Low blood pressure. I sat back down. Put my head between my knees. I could hear Julia treating a patient in the next room. I was in Los Angeles.  I was still alive. Etherica might be waiting for me, but she’d have to wait a while yet.

When I was able to get to the kitchen and had blurted out the whole sorry story to my son-in-law, he found it vastly amusing. “Sambo’s”, he chortled. “You died and went to a Sambo’s.”

He had to do a footnote for this uninformed Canadian. Sambo’s, he said, was a franchised restaurant that specializes in pancakes. Ah, as in the story of Little Bl….., how non pc.

“You’re really spooked. Don’t want to die?”

“It’s not the dying. That’s bad enough, but is that what I am – desiccated, flakey, ineffective, nervous…”

An unwise question to ask a son-in-law but at that moment the phone rang. He picked it up. I could hear the person at the other end, saying, “This is North West Airlines. Mr Hood’s bags have arrived and will be delivered before five.”

“And Mr Hood?” my son-in-law asked.


“Mr Hood has arrived as well?”

“Good” said the man and hung up.

Where, I wondered is Rob. How could his bags be here and he not? I cursed Air Canada for showing that movie about Judgement City on my flight down.

My son-in-law took his shaken mother-in-law out, down to the beach apartment to make up a bed for Rob. My urgent need to prevent myself from ending up in Sambo heaven with Etherica had to be put on hold.

When we arrived back home on Washington Way, a van labelled  AirServ stood in front of the house and a delivery man with his phone to his ear was pounding on the door, yelling, “Pick it up. Pick it up. I know you’re in there. Well finally… I’ve got your bags here. Where am I? Right at your door. Your single storey brown house..” He turned to look at us as we came up the walk and Julia threw open the door.

“I think you have our bags there,” my son-in-law said pleasantly.

In the evening, the front room changed from a consulting room back into a living room and we were there watching television when I suddenly got to my feet and opened the door. Rob was getting out of a car across the street.

“Hi there, Sis,” he yelled. “I lost somebody. I’ll be right back”.

Back in the car. he made a U-turn and vanished up Abbot Kinney. We stood shivering in the cool desert air until he came roaring back followed by another car. He stood in the middle of the street speaking rapid French at the people in it. We must meet his friends, hear the story of the lost bags, of being questioned in Amsterdam as suspected terrorists because they were bagless and much, much more.

He had blown back into my life, this force of nature, he who had been stabbed on a train platform in Bombay, spent a week in jail in Turkey and as a camera man had had compartments that no one could ever find.

While Julia and her husband were working we walked on the beach and Rob talked, “And so I said to him, ‘Monsieur Godard, films are not made with trucks. Films are made with people – directors and actors.’ quel triumph…”

We drove north up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, where there was no room at the inn but he conned the hostess into letting us have a table. I had been a vegetarian for ten years but I ordered chicken.

“I remember you, Sis,” he said. You used to laugh. You could laugh at anything. You had a root canal that went wrong. You were in agony for weeks and you had people splitting their sides. You’re the one who taught me how to laugh.” He put down his fork. “What happened to you?”

Probably only Rob could have said that to me. Even so, a list of what had happened unfurled  in my mind and I started to cry.

“It’s okay to cry,” he said, taking my hand, “but, when you get around to it, it’s better to laugh.”

And so it was that what Etherica started, Rob finished, and I gave it all up. I gave up esoteric study and triangles of light and group meditation and terrible earnestness. I gave up flowing prints. I gave up a whole bunch of friends who didn’t laugh either. I ate meat.

That night after he had registered us at the Carmel Motor Lodge, he came out and said, “I told her you were my sister. I think she believed me,” and he fell over the steering wheel in gales of laughter.