In Memory of Kathy Epling
gone from us June 14, 2015
Cesca's talk at her Garberville memorial
July 19, 2015
gone from us June 14, 2015
Cesca's talk at her Garberville memorial
July 19, 2015
I met Kathy in 1964 when we were both students at Santa Monica High School. I remember being invited to her house – improbably like a poster for “house beautiful” of the 1950s – and sat on her bed as she excitedly shared pictures of her childhood in Japan and other places her father had taken the family in his military career. We became instant friends that day, We stayed friends through college at UCLA and, as our lives took us to different places, through a correspondence and occasional visits which lasted our whole lives. In my life there has been no one else I could talk to like Kathy, and she with me. I thought of her as my sister.
I hope in all the stories today we will all get a better sense of the whole of her life, but there is one important thing I do want to say about her. I believe in her too brief life Kathy Epling achieved something very rare in today’s world. She became a great soul. A mahatma. There are many extraordinary things about her life worth remembering but to me that is the most important.
Kathy was extraordinary even as a teenager and twenty something – according to an indiscrete counselor, she was the person with the highest IQ in Santa Monica High School with its thousands of students. But Kathy was also an empath and sometimes a psychic so sensitive we joked that I didn’t even have to let her know when I was coming to visit, she would dream it, for she often did. In her twenties as she and I moved to different places and began a life long correspondence, she reported she sometimes saw ghosts, heard voices. In her early and middle years she channeled that powerful sensitivity into poetry and later essays that are some of the best I’ve ever encountered anywhere, though they have yet to be put into book form. I hope that can happen one day. She was published many times in national publications and won one of the national prizes for poetry one year. An extraordinary collection of her more recent work is still online in the archives of her two blogs, Outside the Windows and Jarvenpa’s Notebooks.
Kathy was a quiet rebel who simply would not accept the models and rules society presented for her. In the normal course of life, brilliant as she was, she would likely have gotten a PhD in Literature, taught at an Eastern college, become a prestigious poet, married a professor, gone to conferences and cocktail parties. She got a taste of that life following her first love Hillel to Europe and Connecticut in the 60’s, but in the end, she chose none of it. She followed where her heart lead, to be with her soul friend and teacher Sally Constantino when she moved with her children Ann and Frank to Garberville. Kathy came here first to share their life by the river, and then to live in town cleaning motel rooms at first, then working in the Orange Cat Bookstore with Garth’s father, John. As with Paul, she chose not to marry. It simply never made sense to her that the state should have any say in whom she loved or what their relationship meant.
I know the children she had with John and later with Paul were a revelation to Kathy. She took total delight in all three, birthing them at home with her midwife or trying to. She named them as only a poet could, Garth, Laurel Calypso, Gabriel Merlin. They were with her every day throughout their childhoods, since she decided not to send them to school where she feared they might be dulled or regimented. She read them a thousand books. Showed them how to garden and love animals. She encouraged each step they took into life, in whatever direction they wanted to go. She nurtured them to grow and become as naturally as the flowers she planted, finding what interested them in the wealth of literature and high level conversation that flowed through her houses. But they changed her even more.
From Outside the Windows blog Feb 2013 “One Starfish at a Time”
“When my first child was born after long days of labor, I was not prepared for the all engulfing love that surged through me as I held him, small, wide-eyed, fresh to this world.
It was like a shock to the heart.
Suddenly the world I had made it through okay for three decades, careless & wandering—suddenly that world was filled with hard corners and sharp edges I had never noticed. And threats from things far away (I remember thinking “must get involved now in anti-draft organizing”). And beauty, of course. Always beauty.
He was so small, six pounds of determined life, held against my skin.
He thrived and is thriving and this isn’t really about him, or about his lovely siblings, each of whom came with their own independent renewal of wonder and love and their primal reminders of how fragile our life is. His sister, but for the skills of our midwife, might have ended her life and mine on that beautiful spring day…we walked very close to the edge, and came back treasuring this life all the more. His little brother blessed us all with the peace of a wise, wild, unique soul.
I have been very lucky in my life. But the edges are always there for me; once your heart has cracked open it’s just no use trying to shut down again. The world floods through, your love floods out, you try to figure out…how do you deal with death and war and cruelty? How do you pile up enough beauty and kindness, enough hugs and “you really are okay” to sweeten an entire world that sometimes seems bent on…oh, the most absurd, the most terrible things?”
She wrote her poems during this time one line at a time, between motherhood and steady hard work. And she did more. She published a unique hand-made catalogue of books for expectant and new mothers that became a part of the lives of hundreds of women. In it she shared their stories of motherhood and her own, wrote loving poems, shared recipes and advice. And began to be shaped by the experience in ways she never expected. When Gabriel was born, she never once flinched from the commitment he would need from her: over thirty years of intense and ever-increasing daily care by the time she died. In all her letters to me, she never once made a single complaint. What she did share was her love and delight in him, expanding each year of his life.
In the course of healing Gabe of his many childhood illnesses, Kathy taught herself homeopathy and worked for years with her friend Dr. Ron to help and successfully heal others throughout the community. A girl who had once been labeled by an excited teacher as a future scientist, instead also made herself an expert in astrology, giving long elaborate readings for others, not because she necessarily believed in the direct influence of stars and moon but because she found that in the course of the process of doing a reading, she and the person she read for inevitably came to a more profound and helpful understanding of themselves. Astrology became another vehicle to love and empower the people around her.
She was also quietly but adamantly politically aware. She worked with her partner Paul and others in here community to oppose the draft and fight for the Headwaters Forest. Too peaceful of heart to be shrill, Kathy told me she did not enjoy demonstrations per se, but went to them anyway when necessary. She took the phone calls from Julia Butterfly in her tree, and supported the many valiant others who used their bodies to protect the forest giants. She and Paul offered sanctuary to young men evading the drafts of three wars, and, for years with Paul, gathered articles, wrote articles and poems, did the layout and printed Greenfuse one of the most unique political voices in America. For those decades of war, Kathy also went out, rain or shine, to stand in quiet witness to man’s acts of inhumanity with the Women in Black. She worked for decades on the alternative medicine clinic board to keep the clinic open. She went to the Midwest to tenderly help each of her parents in turn to die, and her relatives to carry on.
But I think it was in her last years, Kathy became the great soul I described in the beginning. As you know, her life became focused in the Tiger Lily bookstore she shared with Paul. Never was nor will be an enterprise more different from the corporate model. The two had long ago made the conscious choice never to make enough money to pay taxes that might be used to fund war or governmental violence in any form. Their store was instead a crossroads of love, shared stories, joy in literature and history and philosophy and constant unceasing efforts on behalf of others and the forests around them. Books were shared and discussed with enthusiasm, as often given away or exchanged as sold. There was free fruit for the hungry, warm socks or a blanket for someone who arrived cold, non-existent money somehow found to bail a beloved dog out of the pound. Efforts were made to find lost relatives, or medical care and shelter for a baby born to a homeless mother, or just provide encouragement to a sad friend locked in a distant prison. In her spare time, Kathy took trowel in hand and went out to plant flowers in every bit of bare neglected patch of earth she found. Lost animals were taken in and others promoted for homes on the internet. And so much more.
In these intense last years, Kathy, never closed herself off to the pain others felt, even when, at times like the recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, it literally almost killed her. She never ever saw people as losers or broken. She saw them always as their best selves, working with what life had thrown at them. She would do anything in her power to help them or rejoice with them, or just enjoy a passage in a book together or a new rose growing outside the window. My own path has made me a Buddhist, and there is much discussion of compassion, loving kindness, and empathetic joy in Buddhism. But in all my years, I have never met a single person who incarnated these qualities more than Kathy Epling. She developed her heart over long years in this community, not through any religious practice, but by the simple practice of paying attention to each person in front of her. The flashes of intellectual arrogance or self pity she sometimes, very humanly, showed in her youth faded away. It was love that simply filled her in her later years. She became the community’s story teller, social worker, peace maker in confrontations, wise woman, friend to all. When someone in the community once called her an enabler, she answered this way,
“I want to reclaim the term "enabler", she wrote. “I want to proudly say "yep, I do enable people, I do help them, I am not ashamed of this. I invite you to join me." When we are tiny, someone holds our hands to help us as we take our first tentative steps. They enable us to dance and run and climb. If we are fortunate, someone sometime patiently sits with us, and helps us trace letters, and make sounds, and the whole world of literacy, books, mind-adventures bursts open for us. If we are lucky, when we find ourselves lost, someone stops and points the way. I have been very lucky in my life. So now, when a man tells me, though he is a strapping big kid, that he doesn't read very well, no one taught him, he was tossed from foster care to foster care and dumped out, and gosh, he'd like to learn more--I am happy to give him books, simple books, and take a moment. When a girl trembling with cold comes to my doorway I am happy to give her a warm coat or a blanket or whatever. When a scared kid who has just tried to kill himself comes to me, I listen with all my heart and tears in my eyes and if there is something I can give or some connection I can make, then I do it. I have been so richly blessed in the opportunities in my life and I am so happy to be a channel to pass on those blessings, or those cups of water, or those sweet apples. I want to be the enabler who lets someone see another day. I want to enable life and love and happiness and connection. Don't we all want this? So to friends who say "yes, but you know you are an enabler, Kathy" I say "damn right, and proud of it"
So what happens when such an essential human being is torn so shockingly away from us? Does she go on to another life? Buddhism would say she does – and with Kathy’s ocean of good karma and strong attachment to this community I would not be at all surprised to see an unusually radiant child born among you sometime soon. Does she go to heaven? Christians, I think would say, few people could have earned it more – and Kathy was a Christian, most at home in the Society of Friends. Or perhaps it was that stark simple oblivion we all fear that took her away after a few missed breaths. But I personally find it very hard to believe a mind so filled with knowledge and commitment and love could simply become nothing – there is, after all no other kind of energy in nature that becomes nothing. Everywhere we look, both matter and energy simply change form, cycle back, renew and reshape themselves endlessly. But even if Kathy herself is no longer in hailing distance, what is still very much present is the impact she left behind in each one of us who loved her. My friend truly was a mahatma, a great soul, in how she changed each of us, enabled us to be better people, and reminded us how to pay attention to the beauty in each person in front of us. That is the part of her that is not lost. That is what we will have of her as long as we live.