1. The title of your new book is Walking the Twilight Path. How exactly do you define such a path?
The twilight path walks in the places between: between life and death, between darkness and light, between the realm of spirits and the world of the flesh. Because it dares to approach the issue of death and personal mortality, the twilight path may initially seem like a dark path. But it is really a path of balance, for in the process of coming to terms with the reality of death, we cannot help but learn to appreciate the precious gift of life. It is a path I recommend for anyone who feels a strong pull toward the world of spirits and for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the relationship between death and life.
2. For most, death is a rather macabre topic. What draws you to this darker subject?
I was born with a life-threatening heart defect that could only be corrected through a series of risky surgeries. During at least one of these operations, I had a near death experience. This had a significant impact on me. First, it changed my views on death and mortality. I was no longer afraid of dying, since I knew through experience that some portion of us survives bodily death. Being free from this fear, I was also more inclined to live life to its fullest. I think this is one of the reasons that I’ve accomplished so much in my thirty-five years. If I get it in my head to do something, like record a music CD, I do it. I do it because I can, and I do it because I might not have the opportunity to do it again, and that opportunity is something precious I know not to waste. It’s not about dwelling morbidly on the fact that everything eventually comes to an end: it’s more about realizing that such an inevitable end demands that we live in the present with as much conviction as possible. How terrible is it, really, to realize that the brevity of life makes every moment precious? I think there’s a profound wisdom in the realization, and I may never have discovered that wisdom if it weren’t for my own brush with death.
3. Death is probably the number one fear for most humans. Why should we not be afraid of this transition?
If we believe that the soul endures beyond the end of the physical body, death loses a lot of its sting. As much as many people fear it, death is still a natural and necessary function. It clears the way for new growth, allowing the world to constantly regenerate and change. We see this lesson all around us in the natural world. Things grow in spring, ripen in summer, and are harvested in the fall. Then, during winter, the land becomes barren. That cold sleep of winter inevitably gives way to spring, but all of the seasons are part of an integral cycle. The cast-off leaves and dead plant matter of one growing season become the fertilizing mulch of the next. When we apply this to humans, there’s no denying that some deaths are tragic, but most of the tragedy exists for those who are left behind. For the dead, death is a transition and a release. It allows them to embark upon a new cycle, refreshed and renewed. Although it can be very intimidating to stand on the threshold of that change, the change itself is liberating.
4. Is there something about this time of year, the time of Samhain and the Pagan New Year, that makes approaching the “threshold of death” easier?
There is a certain magick on the air this time of year, isn’t there? I’ve noticed it and responded to it since I was a child – there’s this kind of excitement that wells up in me and it seems as if the very air trembles with the possibility of being. Of course, the ancient Celts cut right to the chase and suggested that this was a time of thresholds – not just the threshold between winter and summer, but also between death and life. Samhain, especially, is a time when the wall between the worlds grows thin, and spirits find it easier to connect with the living. I think, for those of us who are sensitive to that, we should always make an effort to reach back and try to communicate. The voices of the dead are carried to us on what seems like an uncertain radio signal – it often fades in and out, and at times, all the real content is drowned out by static. Samhain is a time when that radio signal achieves a special point of clarity. If you “tune in” around this time of the year in public or in private rites, you’ll be pleased with the results.
5. Is it true that graveyards are generally haunted, or at least rife with spirits? Would that make them good places to walk the path between life and death?
There are conflicting views on how haunted a graveyard can be. The ancient Greeks, for example, placed such significance of the proper burial of a corpse, that many of their restless dead are tied directly to their bones. Here in the modern world, many mediums will assert that the dead do not walk near their remains, preferring instead to linger near the people and places that were important to them in life. But this argues against that feeling so many of us get the moment we cross beneath the cemetery gate and are standing in that somber city of the dead. So what is it about cemeteries? In my opinion, cemeteries are places that we have set aside for the dead. As such, they become powerful symbols of connection. When you walk among the stones, you are walking among the very memories of the dead. This puts us in a special frame of mind, and that frame of mind makes us more receptive to contact from spirits. We begin reaching out and, regardless of whether or not the spirits are tied to their graves, they are sensitive to that receptivity. They hear us thinking about them, and they can feel us reaching out, and so, they gather in that space that we have specifically set aside for them. Because of this, cemeteries are very potent locations for those who wish to walk the twilight path. They are grand, physical embodiments of the threshold between the living and the dead, and because they speak to us on such a profound level, they help open us up to that work.
6. How do you recommend people walk the twilight path?
The twilight path is not strictly about death. It is also about living. Twilight implies a balance, and the successful practitioner will learn to see the elegant symmetry inherent in the fact that all things bloom only to fade. There is a strong undercurrent of the Buddhist appreciation for impermanence in this path, and comprehending that current will serve the practitioner well. Impermanence tells us that this moment will not last, but it is rendered all the more precious because it cannot be sustained forever. Furthermore, one should learn how to appreciate all these transitory joys of the world without seeking to cling to them. This is another aspect of the balance that one must attain in their ideal pursuit of this path: appreciating both life and death, learning to cherish things while also learning to let them go.
7. Do we really need to experience death to be fully alive?
First, let me say that we can accept death and even embrace the energies it represents without literally dying. However, even when a death and rebirth is strictly symbolic, it is nevertheless a powerful and profoundly transformative experience. Because death has been so denied in our culture, it is very important that we explore it and come to terms with its presence in our lives. We need to become actively engaged with this force, rather than passively allowing it to influence us. By learning to stare unflinchingly into that yawning abyss, we are taking control of an aspect of our lives that yields great power, primarily in a sense of liberation and a release from fear.
8. How do you integrate this path into your own life?
I work primarily as a “speaker for the dead.” This means that, when the dead need a voice in ritual, I speak for them and, when possible, I allow them to speak through me. Sometimes, this means that I am called in to investigate a haunting, to act as a spirit medium. In this case, I reach out to the restless spirits and find out why they linger. If they’re causing trouble for a family, I work as a mediator, relaying messages between the living and the dead until an agreement can be reached and everyone can continue their existence in peace.
In my capacity as a Pagan priest, I officiate at memorial services. I view this as both an honor and a very sacred duty. When performing a funeral, it is my job to make certain that the dead are remembered not only with grief but also with joy. If the pain of the family is keeping a spirit from moving on, I use the ritual to help release both the living and the dead from their pain so that, by the end of things, proper healing has begun and everyone is content to move on. This past summer, I was given the honor of officiating at the memorial service of Denessa Smith. Denessa was an amazing Pagan who worked tirelessly to promote tolerance, especially in our schools. She founded the Tempest Smith Foundation in memory of her daughter, and she was taken far too soon: she would have turned 43 a month after her death. Denessa hadn’t wanted a funeral, exactly, but the community she had touched needed some way of honoring her and allowing itself to move on. This duty given to me, to write the memorial service and to guide an entire community through the process of healing their grief – this was a pinnacle of my work with the twilight path.