Let’s Talk About Me, Part Two
Leona Tockey (1925-2015)
Leona Tockey had one hell of a story, or in mythological terms, a cycle of stories all centering around a heroic figure who traditionally leaves the comfort of the known, descends into the underworld and returns sadder but wiser. Born in 1925 in Montana, she suffered years of sexual abuse by her father and survived by repressing her memories. During World War Two she worked as a “Rosie the Riveter.” She married immediately after the war, raised five children and lived a conventional middle-class life as a religious educator – at least until, amid the turmoil of the 1960s, the memories began to return.
In her mid-fifties she returned to college and became a feminist and a psychotherapist. Her healing involved writing a 1995 memoir, Forget the Night, that told her own painful story. Writing such a book forces one to experience the pain and the shame of it all over again. It means descending to the underworld once again. Completing it and becoming a public figure and mentor to other survivors of abuse means living with the memories on a constant basis. It means walking with one’s ghosts.
Leona had already intuited the value of connecting her wounds to her gifts and converting those wounds into art, into forms of story telling. Then the underworld opened up again. Between 1984 and 1989 she had lost Tag, her husband of almost forty years and two of her adult sons, Tom and Brad, to disease and death. A third son became a lifelong victim of mental illness and has been institutionalized much of his life. It took some time, but her soul demanded that she make something out of her tragedies or she would simply perish with grief, as so many people do. She made art because it meant her survival. And she was very clear that she was a survivor, not a victim. Indeed, she became a nationally recognized expert in the treatment of sex abuse survivors. Her best known workshop was titled “The Miracle of Forgetting.”
When I met her on Day of the Dead in 1991, Leona was performing – as she had been doing for years – a one-woman play. In it, she wore a series of homemade masks to tell the tale of her losses. But the masks, rather than fencing her off from her audience in a “fourth wall”, actually served to bring everyone into her story. Once inside it, once we accepted the invitation to experience (her) reality without censuring any of it, we were able, surprisingly, to access our own pain, even if it rarely matched the intensity of Leona’s. When the play ended, we were a community, even if it was temporary. This was Leona’s performance, but like the Greek Tragedy it was modeled upon, it sank us so deeply into the depths of human suffering that we could identify a profoundly human commonality of feeling.
Whether as therapist, dancer, drummer or storyteller, Leona knew the value of authentic ritual. And even though she was a generation older than many of her friends, she plunged fully into its possibilities, spending much time with Michael Meade as well as being a founding member of the ritual healing village that Malidoma and Sobonfu Some´ created in 1995 and that has lasted to this day.
Around that time my wife and I began to facilitate our own Day of the Dead grief ritual, and Leona attended almost every year, for at least fifteen years. This focus on ritual and the necessity of grieving was what first brought us three together. Leona knew – better than anyone I’ve ever met – that the kind of losses she had experienced never heal completely, and that the spirits of the dead require our regular attention throughout life. Our indigenous teachers had made it clear: we help the dead move on fully to the Other World with our grief and our beauty. If we don’t, they may become ghosts rather than ancestors. They may haunt us rather than assist us.
Leona never, never, shrank from a confrontation or the opportunity to speak truth. She’d spent too many years not doing that, and she wasn’t about to retreat into the passive stance of her early gender conditioning. One year, she brought something to the grief ritual that annoyed me at first. This was Berkeley, after all, and we were of one mind when it came to protesting and grieving our government’s criminal invasion of Iraq and the mass slaughter that had ensued. Leona brought an American flag folded into a triangle.
She had received it at the funeral of one of her sons, a veteran. Leona’s politics were as radical as ours, but she knew the value of a ritual object that has been invested with deep emotion. She told his story and that of her other dead son and that of her late husband. She had told these stories at previous gatherings (and would continue to do so at future ones), but this time, the presence of that flag, which had been soaked repeatedly with her tears, brought us all more deeply into the great hall of our common grief. Below the politics, she implied, lay the human essence that we would have shared with anyone who’d experienced loss, and who hadn’t? One year, she brought a poem she’d written:
Happy Birthday, Little Boy
Balloons of red and white and blue,
Paper hats and eight red candles
On a birthday cake
He rips the colored paper, to grasp
His dreamed of present
In the desert sands a boy grown
To be a man
Stealthily enters a darkened home
Another boy of eight will never grow to be a man.
A mother’s piercing scream,
Holds her bleeding son,
Screams of helplessness
Screams of rage,
Carried on the waters
A million miles away.
Another mother’s tears embrace a casket
Draped with a flag.
Oh, my children, what have we done to you?
A man is always someone’s little boy;
A woman is always someone’s little girl;
A mother’s womb, cries out
In the emptiness….
Oh, My children, what have we done to you?
Although Leona regularly attended our poetry salons, she rarely contributed a poem. But she often recognized an opening and, again, found the opportunity to relate one or more of those stories of loss. Always, this talk would deepen everyone’s experience. That’s not to imply that she was a morose person. Indeed, she was the epitome of the old African wisdom teaching: the more we open to the darkness of existence, including our own repressed sadness, the more we open to its opposite. We experience intensities and ecstasies of joy and laughter that we would never have known otherwise. She also knew that the joy (she was not a New Age person) was a very thin place without its attendant grief. She could joyfully dance her grief and tearfully express her joy.
Then, in a very short period in her late seventies, Leona retired, sold her house and had major heart surgery. The insurance industry will tell you that at that age, any one of those huge transitions could be a killer. But she embraced her new life with a brood of grandchildren, her daughter and her one functional son Laurie, a minister who served prison populations.
That is, until he died in an auto accident when she was 79. A third dead son, another traumatic grief for her to experience and metabolize without turning away from the darkness. Another opening of the underworld. She held it all together, the love and the loss, she refused to fall into despair, and she was grateful. She joined a writer’s workshop, where she began another autobiography with these words:
I have six grandchildren. Only one of them has a living father. Their fathers are my sons and I owe them the stories their fathers will never be able to tell them.
In her 81st year, she met Levell Holmes at the workshop and fell in love. This experience brought all the old losses back; loving a man meant that he would die and leave her. Opening to love at her age was a profound struggle, but she accepted it all. She wrote of “…the spoiling I get there as a bonus in my already abundant life. Can you believe he has convinced me it makes him happy?”
In 2012 Levell died. And she survived another loss. Elders show us how to survive loss. Elders show us how to live life in its fullness.
And they show us how to become elders ourselves. Here are her “Instructions for Novice Elder”:
1 – Be aware of withholding your wisdom. Look always for opportunities to practice expression.
2 – Break at least one “rule” every day, either yours or someone else’s.
3 – Play as much as possible, night and day. Play most of the time. Buy yourself lots of toys.
4 – Laugh. Giggle. Learn to cackle. It is especially important to do this in inappropriate places & times. Be as inappropriate as possible.
5 – Speak the TRUTH, as you perceive it. It is most valuable when you learn to say your truth is the truth, whether anyone believes it or not.
6 – Be on the alert for mystery and magic. Bring it to people’s attention. Say things like, “No, this is not reasonable. This is magic.”
7 – Eat well. Sleep as much as you want. Exercise. It’s later than you think.
8 – Make love at every opportunity.
9 – Never forget you are a role model for all maidens, matrons & mothers. You have a sacred responsibility to fulfill the obligations of your training.
10 – Get as much help & advice from your mentor as you want or need.
Do not forget that you do not know what you are doing. You never did; you just thought you did. Now you know that you don’t know and THAT is WISDOM…ENJOY
In this world in which true elders have mostly been replaced by “olders”, even the images of what an elder should be have been diminished: one-dimensional New Age images of kindly old men with white beards and sweet grandmothers sipping tea under flowering vines. True enough, but people like Leona learn to drop the veneer of niceness. She could be fierce when the situation required. She had become more of who she had been born to be, not less. She could cut someone’s grandiosity down when others were satisfied to be polite and not make waves.
But more often she was willing to bless. If she cared for others, she didn’t wait for them to say they loved her; she voiced her affection for them. She helped initiate younger women. She could see their gifts even if they couldn’t, and she would encourage them to offer those gifts to the world (in the old way, by writing them a letter). And those gifts, as she knew so well, were and are always intimately associated with one’s original wounds.
Indeed, her style of blessing expressed this mystery. One might begin speaking with her about some important personal or social issue. But eventually (like the entertaining narcissists she superficially resembled), she would dominate the conversation and ramble on and on, often bringing her old and well-known personal losses back into the room. She was needy – but if we were honest with ourselves wouldn’t we admit that we all are? She just had to tell her story once again. She was shamelessly self-referential.
But this is where she differed profoundly from those other shameless narcissists, indeed from anyone else I’ve ever met. No matter how long she would ramble, and long past the point when I’d been wondering when she’d tire out, when I might be struggling to maintain my attention, she would bring her monologue around to a comment, or many, that related her story, her insights and her advice directly to the issue that one of us had begun with. It was astounding, and it was always worth the wait. It was worth the struggle to pay attention. That’s a teaching, right there.
I remember Ram Dass, back in the seventies, responding to a question about healing one’s neuroses: “You never lose your neuroses; you just lose interest in them.” Leona had found a way to use her grief, her rage and even her neediness in the service of others. She had found her gift (after all, she’d been a therapist) in her wound. Michael Meade has said that only those who are capable of cursing are capable of truly blessing. Such people – unlike those conventional narcissists – are curious about others. She could bless because she knew her wounds inside out. That was her greatest gift to me. Her shamelessness encouraged all around her to embrace the own shameless expression of our own gifts. She inspired people to embody their better selves.
Days before her 86th birthday, her daughter convinced her to go midnight shopping on Black Friday. She stayed out until 3:00 AM and wrote a hilarious account of the good time she had. She got herself a tattoo.
And as late as her 88th year, Leona would still find someone to drive her to our Day of the Dead Rituals. These are full day events, and they are tiring even for younger people. She had to sit while we were all dancing and chanting. But even in those last years, she’d struggle to her feet for a few moments at least to join us in the dance of grief and gratitude.
That year she wrote about the past:
It is haunting me, in my dreams and in my unconscious: knocking, knocking, knocking and keeping me awake…My ear remembers Tag’s voice telling me Tom was killed and I can still hear my own voice scream when Suzanne told me Laurie was killed…If I let it be there it will pass. If I fight with it, it will be stuck in my body. I hear my Chinese acupuncturist say, ‘In China, when a mother’s firstborn son dies, she will weep forever.’
But she also wrote:
We could slide into pessimism and darkness or we can choose each day, to count our blessing. I pray for myself to have wisdom in faith; hope in the power of love; and the grace to smile when I see angels all around me…I remembered many handsome young men who spoke with me and gave me a hug and I knew the Goddess / Great Mother was blessing me and I said ‘Thank you.’…Most of all, I am no longer lost in the land of the dead.
The great Greek playwright Sophocles said of himself and his esteemed rival Euripides: “I show people as they might be, and he shows people as they are.” Leona could do both.
What’s the truth of a life? Only the sum of one’s impact on everyone she met. Everyone has his or her blind spots, prejudices and unfulfilled longings. Who knows the whole story? Who cares? Who doesn’t wish (too late) that he/she had asked more questions, filled in the blank areas of memory? Perhaps there’s a reason why we usually retain only the “best” (a very subjective notion) memories. We remember people at their best, those moments when they embodied our highest aspirations, because we need to picture their essence, their “original medicine”. Maybe even more importantly, we need to see everyone in terms of who they can be, not only as who they are. What we need to remember is possibility. That’s another thing that true elders teach us. Glimpsing their original medicine, we are reminded to imagine our own.
Leona spent her last years in a residence for seniors, where she complained that she had to live among “old” people. She had nearly completed her second book before the final diagnosis and she was brought to her daughter’s house for home hospice a few months before her 90th birthday. Right up until the drugs kicked in to relieve the pain and she mercifully slipped into unconsciousness, she remained irreverent, opinionated, silly, unafraid (after all, hadn’t she suffered far more than anything death might offer?) and, of course, talkative. She loved these words by Mary Oliver:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
And she admired this African proverb: When death comes, let it find you alive. Close to death, Leona asked her friend Rico to bring as many copies of Forget the Night as he could carry to Burning Man and create a shrine at the temple to burn. Long before, the Dagara elders had told her that she herself was an elder and needed to “sit in her chair” to recognize what they said. So Rico created a literal chair out of her own books at Burning Man and burned them.
Her grandchild Spencer wrote:
My grandmother wanted everyone to know this: “I am a dancer, I am a swimmer, I am a writer, I am a thinker, I laugh and I cry. And I am not this body…” Leona touched so many lives in so many different ways. Many friends have everlasting memories with her. Many protégés have memorable teachings. Many people knew her as a free thinker, a writer, a neighbor who always welcomed champagne filled conversations. She was a therapist, who helped people reach their inner light. She was a speaker who helped people grieve. I knew her to ride roller coasters, making clam chowder every Christmas Eve. I knew her perfume bottle that spritzed me like the old movies. I knew her over sized couch was best for sleepovers, and there were never early mornings. I knew that nothing was planned in our adventures but that we would see where the day took us. I knew her to be the one to go get tattooed and then get hers bigger than ours! I knew her strong warm embrace, her unconditional love. I knew her as Maleona, my grandmother.
Her memorial service brought many of the facets of her life together, beginning with African drumming and ending with a Baptist sermon. Many of us were so fortunate to have her as our elder. May our beauty and our grief aid her in her journey to the Other World. Then she will be our ancestor.
Leona left us another poem, written several years before:
Please do not forget me.
Remember my voice:
Wise words, babble, whispers and
raucous laughter. A witch’s cackle,
softness, soothing, singing, loud and
noisy in inappropriate places…
Please do not forget me.
Remember my eyes;
If you wanted to look,
You could see my soul.
Laughing, crying, judging, angry.
Loving, dancing, joyful.
All I ever wanted you to do was look.
See me and not yourself; or some other
Person who is not me.
Remember how I listened and held you
In my arms.
I wept with you and for you.
I opened my heart to your darkness
And never ever didn’t see your inner light.
And if you didn’t know I love you
Perhaps you never really saw me.
Please remember me…