Cover Photo: Photo by Emily Metcalf
Photo by Emily Metcalf

Mourning Mask

“I hold the mask up to the moon, I ask for the moon to speak to the mask and thus me, and give me direction for my mourning walk.”

Above the black silhouettes, rises a thick column of smoke, and baby dots of fire alit beauteous orange soar skyward on their journey to the unknown cosmos above. The specks of fire and spirit dance and swirl around in individual patterns that smirk at me and smile. As I lose myself in the sparks and looking skyward, they perform amazing sonnets and display patterns and dances that are intoxifying. I am sober, but it is 5am and the evening has been long and rainy, though now it is dry and the moon is out, as are many stars, lingering hopeful above my head.

The evening has been lush with music, dancing, and performances done by our small tribe on Lopez. Many are my friends, but this is the first night I have stayed all night. This winter solstice ceremony extends well into the light hours that follow the longest night of the year. Earlier in the evening, I was approached by two of the women that organize the event, one is my massage therapist, and one is a lady I have known in the community, but am not particularly close to.

“Emily!” They shout in unison. I am speaking to someone and apparently they were dancing around, waving their hands energetically to get my attention. Finally, when they realized that these supposed subtleties were not working, both of them shouted my name and touched me on the shoulder. Nicola and Faith walk me away from the circle and express that they wish to talk about something. It is 1am, and we have been dancing and celebrating around the massive bonfire now for a good eight hours. The rain has stopped, and the 11pm exodus occurred awhile before. They explain to me that they are searching for someone to wear the Mourning Mask, a hand carved mask for the upcoming grief and death ceremony that is going to happen in a few minutes. They both had a succinct instinctual prodding, and thought of me for the job. I had never even seen the ceremony before, but I accepted and explained I was honored.

We then walk up a small hill to a square white tent illuminated like a glowing jellyfish in the night. As I walk into the tent I am greeted with twenty or so hand-carved and magical masks. Faith soon shows me the Mourning Mask and explains to me that I will wear this mask and a wool cape about my shoulders. She explains that each mask has its own energy and presence, and that I should spend a few moments with it. When I put it on, I will simply take on the energy and move and do whatever speaks to me.

As my friend Charlie, wearing the Death Mask, enters the performance, he walks around the fire looking every member of the circle intentionally in the face. I did not get to experience this part of the ceremony, but having seen the mask, I can imagine being shocked into an emotional awareness of the reality of death while looking upon it. I stand back from the circle with the mask I will wear. I look at it, the wrinkles on its forehead, the blue accents and the reddish tears marked in two streaks coming down from each small slit that I would be looking through. I hold the mask up to the moon, I ask for the moon to speak to the mask and thus me, and give me direction for my mourning walk.

Back inside the tent I place the mask on my face. There is not much room to breathe. We walk down to the fire and Cedar, dressed in a black cloak over his head, is my guide. Then I am there, at the entrance to the fire. I enter in and emotions overtake me. I am shuddering with grief and sadness. I channel this and interpret it into movements with my hands and body in a spiritual and solicitous display of mourning. Slowly I make my way around the circle, and by the time I enter where I came in, I have gone through a whole evolution, expressing what one goes through in grief and deep, deep sadness. I became a magical mourning spirit telling the story of suffering to all. Behind the mask I had the freedom to express, not just express, act out what lies deepest in all of our bodies, bones and spirits.

I am not exactly sure what it is that I am grieving. Maybe it is for my brain and having lost reality so many times, and for my psyche. Maybe it is for the life I did not get to live, maybe it is for our planet.

The light is beginning to show in the sky, and I am sitting around the fire, eyes glazed, and heart warm. I cannot fully comprehend all of the compassion and love I have experienced in a night so full and so long. I am thankful for the coming of the light. I am hurdled into a whole new realm and reality, and in it are so many kindling souls. In exhaustion, I savor the last moments of this long night. Who knew the dark could be full of so much light.


Sometime hopefully in Winter or Spring of 2018, my book Glass Slippers - A Journey of Mental Illness, will be available on Amazon and bookshops in the San Juan Islands. I am currently working on my second book Memiorish, which may also be out in 2018 or early 2019. I write on my blog www.welcometothegrit.squarespace.com. Thanks for reading!