Dancing in my Mother's Slippers

1.  Who will want to read Circles?

Circles is a book for anyone who ponders his or her relationship with death or the end of life. It shares experiences surrounding these matters from various points of view: the bereaved, the dying, those who are anticipating death themselves or are anticipating the death of a loved one. Elders have told me they value the book because it is a gentle way to get in touch with their thoughts and feelings as they prepare for their own eventual transition. Circles can offer comfort and support to those who are bereaved, and also to some people who have received a terminal diagnosis or who are close to death.

Health practitioners and other professionals who work with clients in an end-of-life context say the prayers enhance their capacity for compassion with dying patients and their families, and help them to be sensitive to what their patients may be experiencing. Circles is an excellent book for students preparing to do end-of-life work professionally, and for hospital, hospice, and bereavement center volunteers.

2.  How can I offer this book to a person who is dying, or to a person who is recently bereaved? 

Before you offer Circles, it is important to get a sense of where a person is in their process. Some people who are terminally ill are ready to talk about death, while others find it unsettling to look closely at what they may soon experience. In bereavement, it can also be too soon. A person’s attention may be on other urgent details, or they may not yet be ready to revisit memories that could trigger deep responses. For some people, Circles can be a vehicle for opening such a topic. For others, it may be helpful to first ask your loved one, “Are you worried about anything?” or “What have you been thinking about lately?” and see how they respond. You might say, “I’ve been reading a book of prayers. Would you like me to read one to you?” Be sure to choose a prayer that seems to suit their current state of mind.

3.  What are some good ways to use Circles?

Circles can be read alone or shared with others, read aloud or silently, singly or all together, as one might read any book of poetry or prayers. The prayers are a comforting addition to prayer circles, memorials and other heartful gatherings. They can also be used individually, as journaling prompts, or in group discussion, to invite an inner exploration of one’s relationship with end-of-life issues; by professionals who work with clients, patients, or congregants within an end-of-life context; and by families who want to use it as a gentle way to open hard-to-begin conversations about what they are experiencing or may experience in the future.

4.  Do you have to be Jewish to appreciate Circles?

No, Circles is appropriate for readers regardless of their spiritual perspective. Although some Hebrew words are used in the prayers, the experiences are universal. They cross religious, cultural, spiritual, and psychological boundaries in ways that can engage people with many different world views. Please note that there is a glossary on this website to help with Hebrew words and concepts.

5.  I notice that in this entire book of prayers, you never use the word “God.” Why is that?

 There are forty names of the Ineffable in Circles. “God” is probably the most commonly used name in Western culture. For some people of faith, it is the only name that really works. But I wanted these prayers to be accessible also to people who don’t think of themselves as religious, or as people of faith. I wanted the prayers to be accessible to any person who has ever felt awe, or who has felt wrenched apart by a death or an impending death, regardless of their spiritual practices or awareness. I wanted to offer a sense of intimacy, a possibility of relationship with the vast Wholeness we sometimes call God. People of faith who have read Circles often tell me they appreciate the way the names enhance their experience of the Divine.

6.  Why did you name the book Circles?

Life seems to me to be built like a spiral. I’ve noticed that similar issues present themselves in my life over and over again. Challenges arise, get addressed, resolve, and come around again, full circle, as we say, and when they come around, they are addressed, perhaps, with a greater degree of maturity and equanimity. I like that image. That’s why I’ve chosen the symbol of the nautilus shell for the cover of Circles. The spiral can go on indefinitely, around and around, expanding further and further, getting broader and broader, more vast.

Circles are a symbol of wholeness and continuity, and for me there is comfort in that. Circles remind me that everything I see or experience will change, will pass by, and another, sometimes similar thing will take its place. Circles symbolize the cyclical nature of life. Everywhere we look, we find circles.

7.  How do readers react to Circles

These prayers touch people deeply. The prayers carry people to memories, to familiar feelings, to a sensation of being seen and understood. One person wrote to me, “My oldest friend doesn’t understand. She has no idea. I read your poem ‘My Comforter...’ [Shiva] and know that you do.” Another said that when the prayers are read aloud, she is carried back to the comfort and intimacy of childhood as she listened to her parents read to her. Both men and women have felt strong responses to the prayers: ill people, well people, bereaved people, elders, middle-aged people. I am moved by the powerful and personal response readers have to Circles.

Because readers have expressed that the prayers are even more powerful when they are read aloud, I am reading the prayers for a Circles audio CD which will be available sometime in 2010.

8.  Did you write these prayers based on your own experience?

Some of the prayers are based on my experience with the deaths of my parents. Some are drawn from time shared with friends, relatives, and congregants who were critically ill or in transition. They are also heavily influenced by my work with other people who have experienced loss. In some way, though, every death is connected to my parents’ deaths, because whenever I am in relationship with death, my thoughts are filtered through my experience of their passing.

9.  Why did you write Circles?

All around me I see people suffering as they contemplate their own death or grieve the death of others. I want to offer comfort, and also to offer the possibility that within our suffering is an opportunity to grow and heal and transform ourselves. I want to share my own sense of awe at this possibility.

10.  What was your process in creating Circles?

I knew I wanted to write eighteen prayers, as the number eighteen symbolizes “life” in Jewish tradition. I wrote a long list of possible themes. In the morning I would sit up in bed with my Pilot extra-fine black rolling ball pen and my yellow legal pad, and I'd read through the list until one of the themes would catch my attention. I would meditate briefly, and my meditation made space for the prayer to enter my mind from a vaster place. A few prayers needed substantial editing, but most of them came through pretty much as they are in the book. Writing Circles was a profound experience because I felt so open to inspiration as I wrote, and because I wrote it in an expanded state.

11.  What books have you read about end-of-life that have been most helpful to you?

On this website is a list of books and other resources I have found to be helpful. The book that helped me most with a day-to-day understanding of my own grief process is How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, by Therese Rando. One book that my mother and I both read before she died that helped us a lot was Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Everything I’ve read by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross about death and dying, and by Stephen Levine, has been valuable to me. It is interesting to me that reading my own journals helped me significantly, because I was able to see that over time I had changed and grown and that my grief also had changed.

12. What especially helped you during your time of bereavement?

Writing in my journal was valuable because it gave me a chance to express feelings I wasn’t ready to speak about with other people. It gave me insights about what I was experiencing and helped me to think things through when I encountered challenges. I learned a lot about myself and my relationships with loved ones, both living and dead. Reading books about grief and healing helped. Talking with friends who had also experienced loss was a tremendous comfort and their insights taught me how I myself could cope with my new life. My husband, Lance, consistently provided patient, kind and loving support, and our cat, Maya, was a constant source of nurturing attention.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Fayegail Mandell Bisaccia. All Rights Reserved. Design by LightWerx Media.
Sunset photo © 2006 Benjamin Fisher. Portraits by Shianna Walker, Georgia King, and Lance Bisaccia.
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