My friend Cherese Matthews died early this morning. I began writing this several days ago, but decided to wait until I heard of her passing to try to revise and edit it and post it.
I haven’t seen my friend Cherese in a decade, other than a couple of very brief moments here and there. There was a relationship with one of her close friends and housemates that went well for a long while, ended badly, and is slowly healing now. It seemed important at the time to allow Cherese to choose which of us to be friends with, rather than forcing a choice… and she stuck with her housemate and ally. It seemed right at the time; I missed her but didn’t press myself into her sphere or community. It seemed right and good at the time.
A few weeks ago, I got the news that she was very ill — and that the amount of time that remained until she died was probably measured in days or weeks at most, rather than months or years.
She was too weak to receive visitors. I could not see her in person. There was an exhibit of her art, a life retrospective, and there would be a gallery opening for her friends to connect and reconnect before the end. It was a few hours away, on a day when I already had commitments.
Would I come? Of course I would. Cherese was a witch, and a good one in many senses of the word. How could I not?
I rearranged my calendar somewhat, and went. Even if I could only stay for an hour or so, I had to be there.
I cannot show you much of the art. There are photographs elsewhere, I’m sure. The gallery was in the basement of a 19th century thread mill beside the river that has been converted into apartments and this gallery on the ground floor. The gallery was … sixty feet long? The right hand wall as you entered was below ground-level, and windowless. Along the left-hand wall were a series of arched windows of glass blocks — translucent but not transparent, or at least not fully so. A series of those temporary or partial walls of masonite and white paint that you so often find in cavernous gallery spaces stood at odd angles around the room, and stepped displays of sculptural elements were present, as well, with her ceremonial cape and mask on a dressmaker’s dummy on one, her decoupaged and painted kitchen table and chairs on another, and sculptures on others.
In each of the window bays, someone had arranged her sculptures on the window-sill, with a painting or a sketch or a giant poem by her (mostly done on translucent butcher paper) strung up with fishing line and binder clips from the window-frame itself. It was extraordinary to see the way that winter sunlight flashed white and brown light into the room through those glass-block windows, through that brown butcher paper and onto her sculptures — a trio of masks in one window, a self-portrait in another, a crown of white cloth and the fire-wicks that fire-spinners use. The sunlight reflected on ice floating swiftly by in the river beyond the window, and also on the churned brown water of the river itself.
I learned to spin fire in Cherese’s back yard — and I walked on a bed of hot coals, too. There’s an account of that somewhere on this blog, I think (2005 — I’ve been blogging a long time, haven’t I?) Later, I swallowed fire and breathed fire in her backyard. Still later, I attended my first and last sweat lodge in that back yard, when she poured lodge. And I attended rites of passage for teenagers and adults, and all kinds of sacred ceremonies and art happenings. More times than not, I ate soup in her kitchen and dreamed big dreams about community and sacredness and beauty.
All around the gallery were reminders of Cherese’s struggle with this illness — poems composed during the diagnosis phase of the illness, then during the chemotherapy treatment, then during the period when she decided that the acceptance of death was the right course of action. The pieces weren’t arranged in any sort of formal order, though, which meant that it was impossible to be sure that these pieces came from those periods of time. I had a brief amount of time to catch up with old friends about the course of Cherese’s illness, and on the one hand I didn’t believe it… and on the other hand, it sounded exactly like her to make each of these decisions in turn — to avoid allopathic treatment when it seemed just like a bad but temporary illness; to seek out Western medicine as it became clear that this was no ordinary illness; and then to decide on a quiet death with dignity when Western medicine reached the limits of what it could provide for her.
About a hundred people came to the gallery opening. There was a solo musician performing her favorite songs. There were docents explaining some of the artwork to people who were unfamiliar. I ran into about 10 old friends from a decade and more ago. I looked at art, and I watched other people looking at art.
And looking at all of this — I don’t think it’s too far gone to say that Cherese was a witch. Maybe she wouldn’t have described herself that way; maybe she would have called herself shaman or priestess or used some other word. But she lived on the edges of a community, and at the same time wove herself into the center of that community. The art on the walls attested to this role she had served for a decade and a half, maybe for twenty or thirty years.
Because what Cherese was, was a finder of the others. Gordon White, in his blog posts, has talked about how important it is to find the others — the people with big and weird dreams about societies and worlds and mindsets other than the one in which we currently live. And in a place like northeastern Connecticut, you’d expect that there wouldn’t be too many of those others — it’s not a densely-settled place, to begin with, and it tends to feel a bit more ordinary, a bit more mundane, than other places. Cherese didn’t believe that, though — she thought the landscape and the forest of that region was full of life, and beauty, and holiness. It comes across in her artwork, here in this gallery — and it came across in how she lived her life.
Her home was a gathering place for all the sorts of shamanism and priestessing and witchery you can imagine. There was almost always soup on the stove and bread in the oven for any visitors, of whom there were many — because feeding the body is often the first thing that has to happen before the soul can be fed. There were monthly sweat lodges at the New Moon (or was it the Full Moon? I forget). For a time, the women’s movement The Red Tent Temple met at her house, and circles of singers and chanters and drummers. There were regular fire-walks at her house in the summer.
Gradually, the work of connecting people to myth and ritual and experience expanded beyond her house. There were art installations around town, and theatrical experiences she put on with her widening circle of friends. There were walks in the woods behind her house, where she was constantly building in secret — a new sweat lodge for her community and for herself, a labyrinth of stones, sculptural arrangements of sticks and twigs and fallen branches. There were fire circles with drums and singing and dancing.
Several BNPs (Big Name Pagans) and well-known New Ager teachers came to her house — sometimes to run events; but more often to participate in hers, quietly, treading on her land and in her house with gentle feet and soft voices. Around her and her work, members of the northeastern Connecticut communities found their voices, discovered their visions for the future, and launched their own endeavors. Some of them might have happened without Cherese’s input and alliance, of course — but some of them came into being because she supported it with her time and attitude.
And all of this comes rushing back to me as I stand in the presence of her art — her huge chalk drawings on butcher paper of naked women at a fire, of angels opening in sweet surrender to the divine, her maroon and teal painted kitchen chairs, her ceremonial cape and her icons and altars altars everywhere you look around… and through it all, the light of the river plays on the walls and floor and ceilings, shining through her messages of hope for life, her anger at death come too soon, her acceptance that sickness and death is but a temporary setback for her soul.
What struck me, during my time in the gallery, reflecting on Cherese and her artwork, is how little the physical art carries of her real work — the genuine power and grace that she exercised in knitting together the lives of the people in this room. This isn’t a community that is going to fall apart just because its witch and priestess is gone — here are massage therapists and therapists, Makers and amateur thespians and costume makers, theater tech people and community elders, doctors and pharmacists, musicians and spiritual seekers, chefs and activists, helpers and hopers and visionaries, all united not to a single crazy lady in a red house on the edge of the village — but united to each other by a shared mutuality, which the great lady in the red house at the edge of the village fostered and built over twenty years… not for them, or without their help, but with their willing participation and generosity and kindness.
I don’t know that she intended to do this when she started out. But she did have a vision, at some point, in which the eastern portions of Connecticut became a cooler and more interesting and wonderful place to live and work and dream, and where anyone could test and grow their ideas about Spirit, about the sacred and the profane, and where a community of mutual aid for the creation of beauty and more-artful living could emerge.
And she succeeded.
And maybe this is, in part, what it means to be a witch — that, as the witch relaxes and surrenders into the embracing arms of Death like a long-absent friend, it is possible to see the community of grief as a people transformed, transmuted, changed, and united in new ways. It’s impossible to look around at the people gathered here to talk and remember their witch, and not think that they are something new in the world.
Maybe that is what a witch leaves behind when she dies — a community of extraordinary people who are changing the world around them, one day at a time.