As we dive into the longest night of the year here in northern California, I’m honoring the memory of my dear friend Janice Gates, who passed away in October.
I know many of you have practiced with the two of us on yoga and meditation retreats and trainings. In my last message to you, I wrote about our joyful self-retreat together last June on the northern California coast. If this is the first you are hearing of her death, I’m so sad to bring you this news.
For almost 20 years, Janice and I celebrated the winter solstice together at my home with a potluck fireside gathering of our “mom squad” and the children we’d raised together like cousins. In her teaching, Janice often spoke of the gifts of this dark, cold season when nature calls us to gather our energy inward and nourish our deep roots.
I’ve often heard Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teach that when a loved one dies, we must look more deeply and see them in their new form—just as we can look at the December rain and see the ocean it used to be, or look at a bare winter branch and see the plum blossom hiding inside it.
“We can see our loved one in everything—in a cloud, in a child, in the breeze,” he writes in How to Live When a Loved One Dies. “And smiling, we can say, ‘Dear one, I know you are there very close to me. I know your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. I know that I have not lost you; you are always with me.’”
In my first raw days of grieving, this teaching didn’t halt the pain. So much reminded me not of Janice’s presence, but her absence: the red-lidded Tupperware in the back of my car, which I kept meaning to return after polishing off her potluck zucchini with shaved parmesan. The weeks blocked off in purple marker on my 2023 wall calendar for retreats we’d planned. The empty lakeside bench where we’d pause on our weekly walks to watch blue herons fishing.
My heart raged: I don’t want the version of my friend who is playing hide-and-seek in the realm of “no coming, no going” like a flame hiding in an unstruck match. I want my friend here in her huggable body, wrapped in her coral shawl, eyes shining like lit candles.
But as the weeks go by, I’m practicing loving Janice in other forms: In the eyes of her 20-year-old daughter, glowing just like her mom’s as she makes plans to adopt a shelter kitten. In barefoot walks on her favorite wild beaches with other friends who loved her. In my heart’s release as I roll through my spine on my yoga mat—Janice’s familiar voice in my mind reminding me to “slow down, pause, and feel.”
I’m vowing to nurture in myself the seeds of what I loved in her–her warm, available heart; her grounded presence; her love of nature; her adventurous spirit—and manifest them in the world as best I can.
I will miss my dear friend for the rest of my life. And whenever I open to love, connection, and the vast mystery that holds us all, I’ll sense her spirit.
In this solstice season–—whether you are honoring the long nights in the northern hemisphere or the long days in the southern hemisphere–I hope you, too, feel held by loved ones both present and passed. As Janice so often taught, I hope you are able to slow down, get quiet, and nourish your roots.
And I hope you can smile to the grapes that are hiding in the bare winter vines, or the trees in the pits of the summer peaches.