A.K. Reader: On the Death of my Mentor, Kathryn (1993)

Suddenly, this afternoon, I knew I had to post this old essay. Laura, you will understand why.





by Ann Kreilkamp

This essay was first published in Crone Chronicles, #15, Spring Equinox 1993.


I am on the table for a massage session with Chris. She tells me she is getting an image of a great white owl. “Now, when I work on your left shoulder.” Oh? I consider this. Shrug it off.

 That night Ellen shows me her completed talking stick, an owl. This reminds me of the image Chris saw. I am startled. For several days I have been wondering whether to include the story of Kathryn in this issue of Crone.

The night Kathryn Tempest died, she told her granddaughter, Terry Tempest Williams, that there were owls outside. Terry didn’t pay much attention; there hadn’t been owls in Salt Lake City for 50 years. At dawn, Terry wandered out into her grandmother’s backyard. There were two owls, facing each other, dancing on top of a telephone pole. Terry is a naturalist. Her grandmother, in her dying, presented her with a sign, a miracle of nature. (For more of what Terry saw and experienced during that time, see her extraordinary book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Pantheon, 1991).

 So Kathryn is talking to me again. As a great white owl, she is tapping me on my left shoulder.

I wrote what follows in the summer of 1989, a month after Kathryn died. Several weeks later, I published the first edition of the Crone Chronicles. Looking back now, on the timing of those two events, I have a feeling that her death and the emergence of this journal are connected.

Terry tells me Kathryn didn’t wake up until she was 50 years old. That’s when she began to read Krishnamurti, during the 1950s, when everybody around her was asleep. The two of us are talking exactly one month to the day after Kathryn’s death, at the “ripe old age” of 84, the year the planet Uranus returned to the exact place it occupied during the moment of her birth.

Kathryn had been my mentor for the last several years. I had even dared, in my farewell letter to her only weeks before she died, to call her my “spiritual grandmother.” Shortly after that she sent a message to me, through Terry, saying “Yes, it is true, you are my granddaughter.”

So, in this conversation in which Terry will go on to detail the extraordinary events of the nighttime hours before Kathryn’s death at dawn, we are kin, granddaughters, privileged receivers of a tradition so exquisitely and grandly done that neither of us feel we can possibly carry on.

“And when she woke up,” Terry continues, “she found herself still the matriarch of a huge extended Mormon family, in which many of the men held high posts in the church and the women were busy raising large broods of children.”

Terry pauses here. A hush fills the room, as we allow our separate memories of her to come into view. How alone she must have felt! How isolated! I recall the last three-hour luncheon in which the two of us indulged ourselves.

Kathryn and I were at an expensive restaurant. The kind where they serve you so slowly that they don’t mind how long you sit there. We expected it to take three hours. It always did. Each time we met like this, two or three times a year since our first meeting in 1984 — she would be in Jackson or I in Salt Lake City — we would find, to our surprise, that when we did finally look at our watches, three full hours had passed. I have never met anyone with whom I could so consistently lost track of time.

That particular day we had been sitting in a booth, oblivious, as usual, to everyone around us. Eyes flashing, intensely talking, we were both the same age, we were ageless, timeless, we were talking about the structures that form us collectively, structures that are revealed in our dreams, our visions, stories from our lives.

Then, as if moved by the same impulse, we both looked at our watches. Yes. 2:50 PM. We must stop now. Jack will be here to pick her up in ten more minutes.

I stood up first, and went to get her fur coat. (She was a queenly Leo, and always dressed grandly). She stood for me to put it around her shoulders. Then, in one of those rare moments in which time swells to a near standstill, revealing details clearly, in themselves, in their relations to others — in one of those moments I watched Kathryn slowly turn to face the world outside the charmed circle of our intimacy. Her face, which moments before had been glowing with the continuous discovery process stimulated by our interaction, was now dead, lifeless, masked. She began to walk slowly out of the room.

I was stunned. Shocked by the change in her. “Kathryn!” I cried, walking quickly to catch up, “Do you see what you just did? A moment ago you were with me, intensely alive, burning with energy and desire. And then when you turned around so that others could see you, all of a sudden you became an old woman.”

Time swelled again. Her head loomed in on me, eyes huge, staring, a shock wave passing slowly over the intricate design of the skin on her face. I was in shock myself; both for my impulsive comment, and dreading what would come next. I could feel her appraising me, taking me in all at once. Then, breaking the tension, she smiled, clearly pleased to have learned something.

That was in January of this year, 1989. In May, I dropped everything to make a sudden trip to Salt Lake City. It was to be our last meeting, and we both knew it. I went directly to her house. We wouldn’t be going out to lunch as usual; she was now too weak, too sick with the cancer that was to release her only one month later.

Instead, she had announced over the phone that I would have the privilege of sitting with her in her private study. I had been admitted once before into this small serene aquamarine room. Her own deeply interior and symbolic paintings graced the walls. Above the desk were several long shelves holding her collection of Jungian works, and a large sign in calligraphy, KNOW THYSELF.

During the long drive down I was wondering just how weak or sick I would find her. I had no idea how long she would be able to visit with me. All I knew is, when I heard the doctors had found yet another tumor, I felt intuitively that she would soon be leaving us. Was moved to go see her immediately. Wanted to be with her while she was still lucid.

To my surprise, Kathryn greeted me at the door with her usual regal dress and manner. She was a bit thinner, she walked carefully, and a perfectly coifed grey wig covered her bald head. Aside from these slight changes, and aside from what I would now describe as a subtle attitude of internal resolve beginning to engrave her long patrician face, one would never have known that she had already embarked on her final journey.

We ended up spending exactly three hours together that day too. Terry told me later that she had had several bad nights in a row, that she rested all the day before and that morning too, in preparation for my visit. She wanted to be in good shape, Terry said. “She wanted to see you as much as you wanted to see her.”

Our conversation roamed the usual distances, now including death as a subject, her death, immanent. She said she hadn’t quite accepted it yet, but that she had made out a will the week before. She said she still didn’t know if there was anything on the other side. I asked her if she had ever astral projected. “No.” “Well,” I said, “once you do this you know, beyond a doubt, that you are not your body.”

I went on to talk of my experiences in this occult realm, stressing the way they had changed my way of looking at life and death. She didn’t seem to be listening to me. Was off in some remote internal space. I was frightened of the distance between us, upset and abashed by her nearness to what was for me still so far away.

What right had I, a woman in the prime of life, to teach an old dying woman about what lies beyond?

This confusion of feelings agitated me, so much so that my mind automatically became engaged in an attempt to cover them up. On an unconscious level, I didn’t want to face the fact of my essential ignorance of what she was beginning to encounter. On a deeper level, I was terrified of feeling my fear of separation, of impending loss. Meanwhile, my conscious intention was to persuade her to believe what I believe, that there is life after death (and that therefore she wouldn’t really go away, wouldn’t abandon me).

I found myself becoming furious with her doubts. Was shocked that this most eminent Jungian scholar and student of human dreaming had not recognized what I see as the central fact of earthly human existence! I wanted her to believe. Wanted to be able to quell her doubting.

I thought I was trying to help ease her passage from this world to the next. In reality, I was desperately needing our connection to continue beyond her approaching death.

I can say all this now. Can recognize the unconscious underpinnings of my conscious intent. Can see how my rational arguments for life after death were being fueled by strong emotional undercurrents that I was unable to acknowledge at the time. Had I been more centered within myself then, had I been able to discern the various levels of my response to her, our conversation might have deepened to acknowledge more directly the finality of this visit. I am saddened now by the fact that I was not able to share more directly my pain at the prospect of losing her.

That is how I would now describe the complexity of my internal process at the time. What she received from me, however, was something else entirely. I could sense her discomfort as I talked. Could tell she was experiencing me as righteous, dogmatic, overbearing. And perhaps her sickness was heightening her sensitivity to my fiery personality. My recognition of her response to me made me panic; I went into overdrive, talking even faster, more intensely.

She looked at me after I had finished my impassioned speech and said, slowly, quietly, “You know, Ann, the older I get, the less I know.”

This stung me. I could feel her, in her gentle, but pointed way, letting me know that I had gone too far. That I was being presumptuous. That I had a lot to learn. I felt stung by her remark, and simultaneously grateful. The way I often felt, actually, in her presence; she stirred up things in me that I couldn’t ignore.

The moment passed. We moved on to other things, though I was still smarting inside. I know she sensed my hurt. And was moved to help me through it with praise. It was at this point that she told me that when she recounted to others how I had told her she suddenly became old when turning around to face the world outside, her listeners were uniformly shocked at my audacity. “They either thought you were awful for saying that, or they realized you must have been quite a friend to be able to tell me such a thing.”

I was one of the few people on earth with whom she could express her whole self, uncensored by the constraints of an unexamined world-view. The passion of her nature propelled her on an endless search, the heroine’s quest for the meaning of life. Yet her great age had distilled detachment from passion; she possessed the ability to see herself and others from an enormous distance, finding humor in our most fervent investigations. What truths she had gleaned over her many years, she took them too with a grain of salt.

She was fearless and uncompromising in her need to discover, for herself, and by herself, the fundamental laws of her own nature. The one exception to this was what seemed to me to be uncharacteristic obeisance to the medical profession, a willingness to give her bodily being over to her doctors without question, to trust completely in their way of looking at her, their prescription for her future.

When I talked to Terry later, she said she also found her submissiveness to the doctors’ world-view puzzling, given her grandmother’s fiercely independent nature. We agreed then that her attitude seemed to be more generational than individual.

I will always remember something she told me pointedly, not once, but many times. (Apparently she didn’t think I was listening. And maybe I wasn’t. At least not the way I am now.) “I couldn’t have gone around preaching what I found to others,” she said. “They wouldn’t have understood me, they would have been hurt, or upset, or angry. They would have thought of me as ungrateful, or wrongheaded, or crazy.”

From the first time we met I had detected in her an extraordinary inner strength. Her presence was large; wherever she sat was the center of things. She would inhabit a serene and untroubled space, attentive to her surroundings without being attached to them, fascinated by the ongoing stories of others’ lives without being tempted to judge them. These qualities were what had drawn me to her in the first place. I meditate upon them in remembering her. I hope someday to embrace them, embody them; I pray that I prove worthy of the trust she placed in me.

I have a feeling that it was the very isolation produced by awakening in the middle of her huge and bustling family which in turn created in her that hidden inner reserve, that strength. And it was probably that isolation which made her so very happy to know me, another person, besides her granddaughter and one or two others, with whom she could really talk, who shared her preoccupation with the inner life, the realm beyond the visible.

The day Kathryn died Terry called and left the fact and the time of her death as a message on my phone. Acting on a hunch, I set up the astrological chart for that moment in Salt Lake City.

In order to appreciate the full impact of that chart on me, I need to fill in some more background information. Please bear with me, as to do this I must also describe certain technical elements within astrology.

After my final visit with her grandmother, I had spent time with Terry, and told her, upon leaving, that I would send her a tape outlining what I thought would be the most significant times for Kathryn in the months ahead. The day after arriving home I made this tape, looking at her birthchart especially in terms of the planet Pluto, since Pluto had been emphasized by temporary aspects to other planets in every significant event of her history with cancer — the onset of it, operations for it, its reoccurrence on several occasions, etc.

Pluto is the planet which symbolizes the power of death and regeneration. Moving at the rate of only two or three degrees per year, it signifies slow moving epochal changes which operate upon us from deep within. Working below the level of personal identity, Pluto operates at the cellular level. Its transformations are those which concern the evolving nature of our very existence. Pluto has long been associated with cancer and other seemingly inexorable disease processes, as well as with the seemingly miraculous power of the human being to spontaneously reverse the course of any disease.

In Kathryn’s birthchart, Pluto is in the sign of Gemini, as it was for the entire generation born during the first decade of this century. These were the years of the Einsteinian revolution in physics. Pluto in Gemini signifies deep transformation in the way the mind works. It also bestows a consciousness which values objectivity, rationality, and skepticism — all qualities which Kathryn possessed in abundance.

In Kathryn’s chart Pluto is elevated, occupying the 10th house of the path, its position preeminent in her birthchart. In her case, the objective consciousness was turned inward, her Plutonian power used to probe the depths of the psyche, to investigate the self which was doing the knowing.

In the tape I made for Terry, I mentioned the end of June as a time when energies would be high — a likely time, given the trajectory she was on, to leave this planet. During that time, there would be a rare convergence of several unusual planetary alignments: transit Uranus, signifying sudden changes, would be directly upon the same point it occupied at her birth (it was crossing back and forth over that point for the first and only time in her life during all of her 84th, and final, year); transit Mars, symbolic of assertive energy, would be returning to its natal place for the first time in two years; and most significantly, for the first time in 12 years the expansive and philosophical planet Jupiter would be directly upon the exact degree occupied by her original Pluto.

In fact, Kathryn’s soul did utilize these expansive energies of the end of June to leave this life.

I watched intently as my computer began to print out the “birth chart for her death” (this is no contradiction, if we remember that the end of one cycle is the beginning of another). What I saw made my spine freeze. There, on the Ascendant of her death chart, was the precise degree occupied by Pluto at her birth.

 In order to appreciate what this means, we need to consider that the Ascendant, the degree on the chart which rises in the east at the moment for which the chart is cast, moves at the speed of one degree every four minutes. Kathryn waited for exactly that narrow window in time to leave this planet. And she did so in her full Plutonian power, her genius for objectivity now calmly entraining to the rushing wind transporting her to the worlds beyond.

It is difficult for me to convey just how extraordinarily significant this is. The Ascendant, as the point where one expresses oneself directly into the world, is symbolically one’s “window to the world.” Since it moves so quickly, the Ascendant is the most personal point in the chart, unique to the person who was born at that moment in that place. Kathryn, in her dying, used that same window to leave this world. In her final moment as an embodied spirit, she gave me an extraordinary confirmation of my work as an astrologer. Her soul showed a remarkable precision, an exacting finesse, in waiting until that very moment when the zodiacal point which had been occupied by the planet Pluto at her birth–Pluto, the planet which had been consistently correlated with her disease process, and which was now activated again by the expansive and philosophical planet Jupiter — she waited until that very moment when Pluto was briefly illumined by the swiftly moving Ascendant, to breathe her last.

 Kathryn, in her final initiation on this planet, gifted both Terry and myself with supernatural signs. Her soul was saying yes to us, to the trajectories we are individually traveling.

A few days after her death I had the following dream:

I am out on my daily walk. I’m in a trusting, innocent state of mind. I see a shepherd type dog about 30 feet away, sniffing at some bushes. Suddenly he sees me, and in deadly silence charges me swiftly, as if he had been shot out of a cannon. He viciously attacks me. I become utterly enraged, start yelling, flailing with my arms and legs. I am more vicious than the dog is. He runs off with his tail between his legs.

The dream was so strong it woke me up. I identified the dog’s anger as that of the suppressed rage of the man I was seeing at the time. Was glad that I had shown such surprising strength in the dream, since I have a history of being fearful of dog attacks.

Three days later, I was out walking in the early morning. Was internally experiencing the same kind of innocent trusting space as in the dream. I see a shepherd type dog about 30 feet away, sniffing at some bushes. All of a sudden he sees me, and exactly as in the dream, rushes me silently like he was shot out of a cannon. In the few seconds it takes him to cross those 30 feet I slip into an altered state. His swiftness is now experienced in slow motion. I make ready for the attack.

As the dog attacks me, biting viciously, I become a human volcano, utterly enraged, screaming at him, kicking viciously, my own attacks so quick and so lethal that he suddenly turns tail and runs.

The entire episode had lasted not more than one minute. The adrenaline released by my defense was so powerful that it left me weak-kneed, and I walked the rest of the way home shaking, crying, shocked at both what had occurred and at the dream which it had so exactly repeated.

Within three weeks of that occasion I broke up with the man with whom I had been involved for two years. The break up was sudden, unexpected, and explosive. Since that time a flood of feelings have been unleashing. Feelings of rage, of sadness, a mourning for this relationship; these feelings trigger deeper feelings — of the same order but stronger and long buried; of a deep deep sadness that no amount of weeping seems to still. It is as if that dream and the replay of the dream in reality unleashed a plug in my feeling life. As if it signaled the beginning of a new phase in my life, wherein I finally begin to acknowledge and express my deeper instinctive emotional nature.

Oddly enough, I happened to note the time of the dog attack as it occurred: 7:50 am. Was toying with the idea of setting up an astrological chart for that moment, but it was not until my most intimate female friend urged me to do it, that I actually found myself watching intently as the printer spit out the astronomical pattern for that moment.

Again, there was a sort of replay, my spine freezing as I noted the Ascendant of this chart was crossing over my natal Pluto as the dog was attacking, exactly. It was as if Kathryn were there, showing me the correlation between the two of us, equating her own death and resurrection with a death and resurrection in myself. As she timed her death to the passage of the swiftly moving Ascendant of June 27 over her natal Pluto, so had my unconscious timed the death of a lifetime of repressed feelings to the passage of the swiftly moving Ascendant of July 4 over my natal Pluto.

The meaning of this uncanny synchronicity revealed itself through reversal: as Kathryn had to learn to leave her body behind in order to surrender to the fullness of a larger life beyond earth, so I had to learn to truly enter my body — its instinctive life, the life of the pure and innocent flow of feeling — in order to surrender to the fullness of a larger life here on earth.

Suddenly, as I stood there contemplating this chart in awe and wonder, I remembered the very last thing Kathryn had told Terry to tell me, only weeks before she died. At the time, her final words to me had seemed true enough, but somewhat ordinary. I had expected something more profound. “Tell Ann,” Kathryn had said to Terry, “tell Ann to stay in her feelings, and let go of her mind.”








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