“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”
Ernesto “Che” Guevara
As I write this, it is a Sunday, and as is my usual practice, I find myself at work, in my office, sitting at my desk. I took a break to sit in silence for 15 minutes – some would call it meditation – an attempt to stay faithful to a practice a group of us developed over the past few months to support a friend who was dying. Every Sunday at noon, we stop what we’re doing and come together in a kind of virtual, spiritual space and sit, breathe and be.
Inspired by the book, The Power of Eight by Lynne McTaggart, we also physically met in our home once a month – until it burned to the ground – to socialize, harmonize and galvanize our energies as we focused on our shared, sacred goal. It was a small but intense effort to join in a group meditation to love our friend, Pamela into remission, recovery and complete healing. We did not succeed.
Exactly one month ago as I write this, she passed. Shortly before she departed, our group met for the last time with our lovely Pamela at the home she and her partner, Dr. Jim Collins, shared. Aggressive tumors in her throat were slowly strangling her. She could barely eat, drink or breathe. Her suffering was immense, and yet she remained the perfect picture of gentleness and grace right up to her final moments on this earth.
Pamela radiated life. Her eyes sparkled. She drenched us with her sweet gratitude and kindness even then. I thought she was so beautiful that evening I offered to take her picture but she deftly declined my request, slightly incredulous and amused at the idea that I found her quietly resplendent as she stood at death’s door. And for a moment I felt foolish and a little embarrassed as if I had disrespected her somehow and possibly violated the holiness of a sacred life that was at its end.
There were nine of us, counting Pamela, and we sat in a kind of circle of couches and chairs, Pamela on one couch, her partner and spiritual guide, Jim, sitting just to her left and the rest of us completing the circle. We took turns opening our hearts, sharing our love with her, calming her fears, creating a safe space for her to laugh and feel light in the midst of her serious, hallowed task, the final step for any sentient creature. Her life in those final weeks had been a period of savoring “last things.” She knew there would be the last time she made her bed. The last time she gazed at her much-loved garden. Her last cup of tea. Her life came more alive knowing that it was reaching its conclusion. Time had run out and at the same time it stood still in moments of clear-eyed, lucid attention.
She was grateful for her friends. She spoke of this often as her cancer slowly consumed her life. She had no idea how many people loved her and how much. In her final weeks, she marveled at that, like someone who discovered a forgotten and priceless treasure in a dusty drawer. She held that love like it was something physical, like a fine jewel, something to be admired and cherished in the midst of incalculable pain.
She was sad to leave us. She had plans. She wanted to start a science-based school that would educate people to become warriors of love and social justice, a community of citizens who might seek the truth, speak the truth and ultimately be the truth and create a world of peace and health. She was a dreamer. But more than that, she was a doer.
She was all about action. She didn’t just talk. She made things happen. In the spirit of one of her heroes, Che Guevara, she was a “revolutionary of love.” She was devoted to her community, staging dozens of events at Shasta College, where she taught English for over twenty years. Years ago, she and Jim, a master gardener, started and ran the Teaching Garden at the college.
She was once voted Excellent Educator of the Year. Her students loved her and she loved them. She was passionate, intensely loyal and for those of us who knew her well, loved her deeply.
And Pamela was a poet. Everyone who knew her knew that about her. It was written right there in her email address. She loved words and loved their ability to express feelings that popped out at the reader or listener in powerful, evocative and provocative ways. And a lot of her poems were about promoting peace and justice because that is who she was.
She was my co-host on our Wake-Up Call radio program on KCNR back in 2010 and 2011 and later she developed her own radio program on KKRN in recent years called Dig This!, a program that devoted itself to environmental and social justice issues.
She believed in peace among people and nations and recognized that peace wasn’t possible without justice. In her life, Pamela fought for these things, in part because, like many of us, she had been hurt. And lucky for us, she turned her pain into love and compassion for others who also knew what it meant to suffer. She loved the underdog, the unfortunate ones, the lost souls, the overlooked but talented, bright lights in her community and classroom.
She was fierce in her determination to help create a world that was kind, safe and secure for animals and people. She hated the worst in the human, the way we create social structures that favor the few and harm the multitude, how we avoid telling ourselves the truth about our institutions of power and wealth and how we stifle, marginalize and in some cases, kill our dreamers, the lovers of light and truth.
Pamela’s relatives lived far from her so she converted her special friends into her family. She reached out and invited a few of us to be her spiritual siblings and her best and dearest friends and for those of us she chose, it was a deep and profound blessing. For over a decade, some of us met every few months in Pamela and Jim’s home for what she called the Think Tank where we would take turns sharing our deepest concerns about political and social justice issues and spiritual truths while eating, drinking and deeply caring for one another.
Pamela was always the optimist and believed in her friends. If she hadn’t heard from me for a while, she would send me an email merely to ask how I am doing. She was always genuinely concerned. If her friends weren’t happy, she wanted to be there for us. I trusted Pamela deeply. I could always count on her being there. She was purely and truly devoted to the well-being of her friends. She was always kind, loving and encouraging with all of us even while she struggled with intense feelings of anger at various corruptions and injustices that plague our world.
Some of us were fortunate to be with Pamela at the end. Before she died, Pamela slipped into unconsciousness and I found myself surprised as I realized I would never speak with her again. It was as if some part of my mind refused to believe what another part knew would happen. I suddenly wanted her back and began regretting not insisting she listen as I carefully explained how special she was to me and so many others and how much I loved her and valued her friendship in my life.
A powerful silence stood vigil in the room that evening, all of us surrendering to the reverence of respectful regard; crying softly, focusing on loving our friend and wishing her well in whatever comes next. She seemed to be sleeping and I cherished the calm, steady sound of her breathing. She appeared to let go and sink into a tranquil rest, surrounded by her family of friends who were devoted to her and her well-being. She drew her last breath at exactly midnight. Hospice was called.
Pamela’s death and the Carr fire a week later permanently changed me in ways I am still seeking to process. To me, the two tragedies will be forever linked, like being gut-punched twice. A great light of love and love of light vanished from view and then a terrible, dangerous darkness arrived, dragging behind it an avalanche of flame and fury that dissolved our home and so many others.
Pamela made a difference with her students, in our community and among those of us blessed to know and love her. She inspired us, loved us and believed in us and left her mark on our hearts and souls. It may require years before I fully understand the meaning of Pamela’s death and the devastation that descended a week later. But I do know that the meaning of her life was about creating and nurturing community and service to others.
In our final time together, Pamala focused on our lives not her death, our beginnings, not her ending. She continued to love. She continued to care. She remained concerned about the people and the issues that truly mattered to her. Pamela’s life exemplified seeking connections with others who shared her passion for making a better world. If she were here, she would be one of the leaders, assisting our community in its efforts to find recovery and healing. And like Pamela, we can dream big and follow her example of seeking a better world for people everywhere. Before she passed, I asked Pamela if she had any ideas for her obituary. She sent me the following:
Pamela Spoto was born in Paradise, CA. She died at her home in Redding due to cancer. She is survived by her mother, father, two brothers and three nieces. And she is survived by her most dedicated partner, Jim. Her group of wise and big-hearted friends have helped her make it through these months of challenging times.
You could say Pamela was an advocate for mother Earth and ALL the species that live in this great web of life; she believed we need all the threads of life to survive—not just the ones that produce profit. Some of her champions were Chris Hedges, Malcolm X, Vandana Shiva and Cornell West. All men and women of great courage and wisdom and proponents of social justice.
She taught at Shasta College for over twenty years, including environmental themes in classes; she brought profoundly intelligent speakers to campus; she loved truth-telling. She was a poet and hosted community radio shows—to help educate and inspire.
Her best advice: eat organic and local, don’t buy GMOs (if you want to stay healthy), hold peace and love in your heart, and just be kind.
Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote, “Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”
For those of us fortunate enough to know Pamela, she was our revolutionary of love. She transformed our world and left a large hole in it that will never be filled. We miss her like hell.