Dying Practice

Sage Knight

“Walk around the room…Allow your movements to take you…without knowledge of the next direction…Move your body…and feel. Include the feeling of breath and pause…paying special attention to the pause….”

We are dying.

“If you’re feeling nervous, I invite you to include that. If you’re waiting, include the feeling of waiting. This moment is an extraordinary moment…”

A dozen of us, all Medicine Dancers, walk through a sunlit yoga studio just east of the Church in Ocean Park, bare feet taking “final” steps on a hardwood floor. An altar stands in the northwest corner. On it rests a photo of Colleen’s stepdad, who passed eight days prior, two years after his wife. A few stones, a bracelet, a bowl sit next to the photo on a cotton cloth draped over a small table. In front of the altar is a basket of persimmons Diane brought from a tree her own father had planted.

Colleen’s husband, Fred Sugerman, is speaking, laying a path of crumbs in the woods. He doesn’t know the way but he’s willing to hold space for a five-hour communal exploration.

He turns the music off and we sit in a circle.

“This is a sacred practice,” he says. “There’s no right way to die.” He tells a story of a “spiritual” man who’d spent years preparing for his death then, in his last two weeks, died in fear.

“There’s nothing we can do to prepare, but we can be present in the moment, and in living well, we practice dying well.”

Fred invites us to lie on the floor, create a sense of personal space, close our eyes and begin to move, paying attention to the head, then the face, neck, shoulders, etc., all the way down the body. By the end, I am moving with careful attention to my whole being.

Once we’re in our bodies, Fred asks us to find a partner. It’s almost time to die. But first, he offers three questions about life and death.

My partner and I answer the first question. Our banter is easy and light, and we go into detail. I tell him my “Sea of Squirrels” story: Driving cross country in 2003 on a family road trip, we came to a long stretch of road, empty of vehicles but densely populated with rodents. No matter how slowly we drove, squirrels darted in front of us at the last second. Each time we slammed on the breaks. They seemed to like it. We were frazzled.

The road stretched on forever and the kids were watching our every move. After twenty minutes of stress, we caved, accelerated to a whopping 20 mph. Then we heard that unmistakable thump. From that point on, when I see a squirrel in the road, I wonder: Accident? Or, are these guys, like the mice in “Hitchhikers Guide,” in charge? My partner laughs and Fred calls time.

I have no desire to die today, so I suggest my partner go first. I’ll witness.

At the end of the 20-minute process, he requests another 30 seconds, to be still. I am hungry and ask if he’s okay doing this part alone, but he says no. So, I stay. When he opens his eyes, I escape into the side room, step gingerly over pillows, mats and purses, find my Trader Joe’s insulated bag, pull out a cold yam, and begin nibbling. I also check my phone and see a text from my daughter asking if I’ll be at choir rehearsal. She’s not sung with us since the ‘90s, when at five years old, she opened a concert. Now she’s back and I want to go. Do I live or do I die?

Back in the room, a woman, five months pregnant, asks if we’ll be taking a break to eat. Fred suggests we do that, and I think, “Perfect! I can leave, live and die another time.” But for some reason I stay.

It’s my turn. There is a playground out back, and I tell Fred I’m going outside. While my partner grabs a blanket, Fred strongly requests I stay in the room, within the group container.

“Of course, do what you need to,” he adds, closing the back door.

“Thank you,” I reply, opening it again. I cannot die indoors.

My partner wraps the blanket around his shoulders and follows. To my surprise, I am totally into “dying.” God bless the power of ritual. On one side of the yard two chairs perch on a wall. I clamber up, sit in one and, center-stage, declare that I will live like my daughter, who began her most recent show by taking a shower onstage, her brother standing on a chair, wearing a full-length, blue-sequined, women’s ice-skating outfit and holding a metal watering can. As he pours water, steam rises and we hear Ember singing “Fields of Gold.” After a few minutes, she peers out from behind the curtain and says, “Oh! I didn’t notice you here!” and the show begins. When it’s her time to die, she’ll be ready.

I cavort around the yard, then drape myself over a fallen log, spent. Looking up, I fall in love with a tree and her dancing leaves. I am complete.

My partner lifts me in his arms, but we discover there is no exit except the way we came out. He puts me down and we climb the front porch and go in brand new.

In the closing meditation, I feel no sadness for leaving anyone or anything except my body, this beautiful, sweet community of harmonious cells I know as “me.” When I go, please wrap me in a simple cloth or wood box, that the soil may reclaim me and I may feed the trees, who give me air to live. Until then, you’ll find me in the playground, laughing, crying and breaking rules.


Sage Knight is alive and well, living at Top o’ Topanga with Shiloh, the Golden Retriever. Visit us at www.SageKnight.com. You can find Fred Sugerman at www.MedicineDance.com and Ember Knight on Facebook.


Sage Knight

Sage is alive and well, living at Top o’Topanga with Shiloh, the Golden Retriever. Visit her at www.SageKnight.com.

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