In loving memory of Devine Elden
by Penny Allport
Welcome to the hitch’n post, the bitch’n post and the psychiatric unit all in one, I heard a voice call across the busy store I had entered.
It was November 1, 1988, when I ducked in off a street in Steveston, sheltering myself from a cold West Coast November day. Although visibly engaged, a woman looked up and smiled brightly to greet me. Even across the room I could see her blue eyes dancing on her round face, a thick jet-black bundle of hair tied up on her head.
Jet Lag Travel Boutique was filled with women combing racks of clothes, scarves and shiny things under glass cases. The owner, Devine Elden, flitted from one woman to the next, straightening a collar, flinging a scarf over the shoulder of another, gliding through narrow spaces between bulging racks to grab a necklace and return, just in time to place it around the neck of yet another woman emerging from a change room in an outfit clearly on the edge of her comfort zone.
As a former psychiatric nurse and flight attendant, Devine united her love of fashion and care for women, to open what she liked to call, her own kind of clinic.
I imagine Devine was wearing one of the jumpsuits she had designed, made of parachute material, especially for traveling women like herself. The jumpsuits came in all sizes and a variety of bright colors from fuschia to royal blue, bright red and black. Light weight and easily rolled into a small bundle. Women flocked from far and wide, some leaving with more than one in their bag.
Devine seemed to have more than two hands and eyes, and moved like an apparition, showing up where she was needed, just at the right time.
It was definitely right timing for me.
I was twenty-four, had just sold most of my belongings, quite my job, left a relationship, friends and family and moved three thousand miles across the country and away from the only home I had known.
Where are you from? Devine asked.
Rather than engage in a conversation about myself, I changed the subject and said,
You look like you need help.
I was surprised at my words, and the fact I had never worked in a retail store.
In Ontario I had left a well paying clerical job of six years with a police department, benefit package, paid holidays and union protection, realizing I could no longer tolerate the daily dose of despair and indiscretions of a small city population, where everyone knew everyone. Admittedly I had grown cynical with humans and sad at life, burdened by work and chronic pain, the result of a car accident six years earlier.
When I said, you look like you need help, Devine immediately replied, can you work Sundays?
I was twenty-four, with no job prospects or idea of what I wanted to do next. I liked the idea of being in this bustling place, where a kind of happiness I’d not felt in years seemed abundant.
Although I didn’t purchase anything Devine gifted me with a pair of Swaroski crystal earrings from a stand on the corner of the till, and we agreed to meet the following Sunday.
I soon realized this mysterious woman almost gave away more than she sold. She seemed to delight in gifting women with a necklace or belt, scarf or earrings to go with the outfit they had purchased.
And regardless of whether they purchased something everyone left with an angel pin on their shoulder, or angel coin slipped into their hand along with a blessing.
Attitude of gratitude, she would say, as she buckled a belt around the waste of a woman fresh out of the change room, Each one, teach one, as she encouraged another to try on something outrageous and out of character.
When I think of her now I imagine her like a Fashion Shaman, wielding her platitudes that somehow sounded fresh coming from a sincere and simple interest in loving and caring for people.
She knew what Abraham Maslow knew when he said,
What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.
When I arrived the following Sunday Devine immediately gave me keys to the shop and hired me to work Sundays, as the sleepy little village grew busy on weekends. And, she confessed, she was almost incapable of writing up a bill with taxes and taking payment properly by herself!
I loved those Sundays. Devine’s infectious attitude of gratitude softened the edges of cynicism in me, and her genuine love and care for humans cracked the tough layer of protection grown around my broken heart.
Gratitude seemed to flow in and around Devine.
For the thirty years I’ve known her, during which I came to call her my crazy other mother, an endless stream of people have come through her caring gaze, store and home. It was, and is still, stunning to me that a woman who could barely – if at all – balance her cheque book, ran a successful retail store for over twenty-five years. She would laugh and say, I’m just a funnel for God’s money!
She inspired me to open my own kind of clinic, marrying my love of cross-cultural Earth based wisdom traditions and metaphysics in the form of a small bookstore and Yoga studio. Our stores were one block apart and the path between them was worn like a well tramped deer trail in the forest.
The path disappeared after I sold the store to follow another call and Devine sold Jet Lag to retire. The path between our hearts grew stronger as we deepened through years of sitting by her fire, surrounded by hoards of angels, she sometimes dispatched into people’s care when she felt called.
Five years ago Devine was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her spine, physically breaking her back. Usually not operable with folks over 75, the report of doctors who assessed her read, “75 year old woman in a 55 year old body.” They recommended surgery, which she accepted.
Devine began to dispense her legacy, angels and Devinisms, as we came to call them, with even more vigor. She felt the five years given to her after her surgery, and especially this last year after radiation treatments for another tumor on her shoulder, were for her to get packed …. or unpacked as it seemed to be.
Devine wrote thank you cards to friends, enclosing fresh one hundred dollar bills encouraging them to take the family to dinner, or share a family event together. At thanksgiving dinner she gave everyone in attendance a crisp red fifty-dollar bill, encouraging us all to do some random act of kindness with it.
She donated enough money to SOS Children’s Village to support an aging out apartment for young people in their village.
Devine told me from an early age she discovered when you give your best to others, the best comes back to you. In these last years she was overwhelmed at what came back. My cup runneth over, she would say.
Devine’s home, which she called the house of the open door, swung in both directions, as a host of neighbors and friends showed up in the last years, months and days to bring porridge, her favorite latte, macaroni and cheese, cleaning services, rides to doctor’s appointments and more. A Devine Care Home was the reflection of years of being a good friend, neighbor and community partner. Devine discovered the gift of receiving, as the village tended her now.
A year ago Devine began to seriously consider Medical Assistance in Dying. She grew tired of the daily need for increasing medications to mask the growing pain in her body, and the mental cloud that was forming in tandem. Her conversations with me were an open place to voice her wishes in regards to medical care, and her growing interest in what was on the other side of life. I worried at times that because of my experience with MAiD she was encouraged, and at the same time could feel that with or without me she would die the way she lived – on her own terms.
It was both my honor and challenge to walk with Devine in the last year of her life, listening and accepting her wishes for herself, even when I wanted something else. My heart, pulled in opposing directions cracked wide open in the tension of a growing capacity to feel both …… and
“To whom much is given, much is expected.” She would say.
I’ve had enough sorrow to really appreciate joy, and enough joy to really appreciate sorrow. I’m excited for what’s happening.
I’m done here, and I’m ready for my next assignment.
It’s not easy to die, you know. It’s not easy to leave this earth and all of my friends.
Imagine! Devine said to me at lunch one day! I’m leaving this beautiful world!!
Not many people are angry when a baby is born. She said. People have to let go of their anger around death, especially as we age.
We need to change the atmosphere of people’s thinking about dying.
Dying is the other side of birth.
No one’s listening to the dying. She said one evening as we sat in the glow of her white lights and furniture, a fire flickering and cups of tea in hand, No one asks, now how is your dying today?
I felt her teaching me daily. What a concept – now how is your dying today? And more than a concept I could feel the difference viscerally in my body, as she never used the word fight or battle when speaking of the cancer.
Devine named the tumor on her shoulder Prickles, and would sometimes say, Now Prickles, settle down – I have a few more things to do here. We joked that Prickles was now the angel, or maybe a little devil, on her shoulder.
And in her writings to her friends and family she wrote, We are all a sacred part of each other’s journey, that’s what makes us friends. Remember I loved you all.
As she set her date and began to inform others of her departure drawing near, with a twinkle in her dimming blue eyes, Devine would say – I want everyone to know I’m going to be on the Social Committee in the other ethera, look for me, as I will be waiting to Welcome you.
We laughed at how her prayer each night as she closed her store for 26 years, and had taught me to close mine with,
Thank you Lord for those who came and went, and especially those who paid the rent,
spoke to both the seen and unseen ones who had supported her. She had faith in angels, both winged and earthy.
Devine died on December 30th, 2018, leaving on Flight 000 – Heaven Bound, as she liked to call her death. With the fuel of her attitude of gratitude, a host of friends and family around her, she made her way with a kind of grace that wrenched and wrought the hearts of all who knew her.
Before her death she arranged for a local Anglican Minister and I to collaborate on her service. The reach of her wings went wide and deep. She was a renaissance woman, maverick pioneering spirit, faithful lover of God and Mystery. She was my Soul Mother.
In these months that have passed as I continue to digest the huge absence of her physical presence, I sometimes lie awake at night imagining her now, dressing the angels in colored jumpsuits and accessories to match, whispering some sweet something in their ear and sending them back to us here on earth.
I’m not coming back, she informed us, but I will be around, she added as we witnessed her leave, surrounded by prayers and a sacred mantra on her lips.