In my final year of college, my B.A. in Intercultural Studies required me to take a daily accelerated Spanish class. Thus I met Ñacuñán Sáez, the dazzlingly urbane young professor from Argentina who had recently come via Italy and Oxford to our tiny liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Ñacuñan spoke four languages, adored Maria Callas, and showed up at his first faculty dinner party amongst the snowshoes, mufflers and plaid lumberjack coats of the Berkshire Mountains sporting a white dinner jacket and carrying a bottle of Campari.
Ñacuñán taught with theatricality and flair, keeping us students awake and interested, even at the ungodly hour of 8.30 am each day. The sample sentences he concocted as grammar exercises were gems of Latin American magical realism, provoking laughter as well as thoughtful discussion about different beliefs, realities and worlds.
We forged a close friendship right away. Perhaps because we both spoke French and had lived in Paris, or because we had the same sense of humour and laughed our heads off over everything – whatever the reasons, we spent a lot of time together, sharing meals, music, movies, and many late nights.
It was 1985. In Argentina the dictatorship reigned. Ñacuñán’s favourite cousin had been ‘disappeared’ by the junta. Anguished by her fate, he spoke of his wish to communicate with her spirit, to send her love and give her comfort. Thus we began, carefully, to share our thoughts about life after death. Ñacuñán’s Indian abuela – she who had given him his unpronounceable name – had told him death was nothing to fear, that there is another world after this one. Such was our talk.
One night I had a terrible dream: Ñacuñán is driving a car up to some kind of border crossing. A young soldier shoots him with an assault rifle through the car window. The car crashes through a white wooden barrier by a guard booth. I run to the dying Ñacu, reaching to him through the shot-out window. I am crying, but he gazes at me calmly, in utter peace. ‘Do not be afraid,’ he tells me. ‘It’s all right. Look where I am going!’ Beyond us, behind a range of rounded mountains, an extraordinary golden light fills the sky.
I woke in a sweat, shaken to the bone. The dream stayed with me. I did not plan to tell him, but he sensed my distress and the next night persuaded me to recount the dream. I told him that I recognised the light, from a near-death experience I had had the previous year, and how it was not only light, but an indescribable radiance of overwhelming benevolent love.
Ñacuñán was quiet, staring into the flames of the open fire. He finally said that if it were a true dream and he did end up dying that way, he would find comfort in knowing that it was clearly part of a greater plan. And then he said he had always had a feeling that he would die before turning 40. He was at that time 31 years old.
Seven years passed. I was living in London. One December morning I received a phone call from Massachusetts, telling me Ñacuñán was dead. A student on a rampage with a semiautomatic assault rifle shot him through the window of his car at the entrance to campus, and the car crashed through the white wooden barrier at the security booth, just as I had seen in my dream. They say he died instantly. It was 3 days before his 38th birthday.
That night Wayne Lo also killed a student, Galen Gibson, and wounded four other people. Then his rifle jammed, a miracle that no doubt saved many lives.
Galen’s father Gregory Gibson wrote a book about his struggle to come to terms with his son’s murder, and became an advocate for the prevention of gun violence. In 1999, Wayne Lo, serving life in prison, wrote to Gregory Gibson, asking for forgiveness. Gregory wrote back, out of a wish, as he said, to ‘put something into the situation other than hatred and rage‘, and they began a dialogue which has continued for twenty years. In 2017, they recorded a three-minute conversation on StoryCorps, touching on the themes of remorse, forgiveness, understanding and the ease of buying guns.
Twenty-seven years after his death, I still remember Ñacuñán. In my mind I carry on our conversations about the mysteries of life, death, destiny, and the light beyond light. So many enormous questions remain.
What can we do to prevent gun violence and school shootings? How can people learn to choose forgiveness over revenge? Can a murderer ever atone for his crimes? Why do innocent people die? Is our moment of death predetermined, and is it possible to recognise and even trust it when it comes? What is that extraordinary light so common in near-death experiences?
And how could the details of a death have been foreseen in a dream? This still haunts me. A physicist friend told me recently about retropsychokinesis, the idea that certain events might be so momentous that an imprint of them somehow ripples both forward and back through what we call linear time, causing prophetic visions or dreams like the one I had in 1986. I have heard of other cases. There is also a theory that people who have had near-death experiences (as I did, in 1984) ‘tend to manifest a variety of psychic abilities afterward that are an inherent part of their transformation’. (1)
I wish Ñacuñán were here so we could talk about all of this. He would surely have some profound insights to share, maybe a quote from Krishnamurti, and an irreverent joke to make us laugh at the great tragicomic mystery of existence.
Rest in peace, Ñacuñán. Fue una alegría tenerte.
(1) Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience, by Dr Kenneth Ring (1984), p 51.
On his website, Dr Kenneth Ring writes, ‘Based on the information of those who had reported [near-death experiences], the moment of death was often one of unparalleled beauty, peace and comfort – a feeling of total love and total acceptance. This was possible even for those involved in horrible accidents in which they suffered very serious injuries. Dr. Ring found there was a tremendous comfort potential in this information for people who were facing death.’ http://kenring.org
Gone Boy, A Walkabout: A father’s search for truth in his son’s murder, by Gregory Gibson (1999).
‘Man and His Son’s Slayer Unite to Ask Why’ https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/041200rampage-killers.html
Obituary for Ñacuñán Sáez: http://articles.courant.com/1992-12-19/news/0000108364_1_italian-spanish-teaching-assistant
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987, and is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred at Canterbury Christ Church University in England. Her primary research in Balkan and Greek villages seeks out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. In 2018 Laura was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild in recognition of her ‘significant and lasting contribution to dance as a sacred art’. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications, including Re-Enchanting the Academy, Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, She Rises! Vol. 2, Inanna’s Ascent, Revisioning Medusa, and Spiritual Herstories – Call of the Soul in Dance Research. Laura is also Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture. She lives in Canterbury, Greece, and the Findhorn community in Scotland.
14 thoughts on “A Dream of Death and the Light Beyond Light: Remembering Ñacuñán by Laura Shannon”
Thank you so much for sharing this story Laura. How wonderful to imagine the joyous splendor of Nacunan.
I have no remotely adequate words or thoughts to offer in the face of so much devastating tragedy, including the situation in Argentina which still haunts, through memories of the news at the time, and the dispositions of friends who escaped.
Just wanted to say that though I’d never heard the term, retropsychokinesis, that definition is exactly how I’ve often described many many experiences I and those close to me have had. It’s as common as, say, having an allergy. Even mundane events like waking up after an inexplicable ten or eleven hours of deep sleep only to find that unexpected events of the next 24-36 hours preclude having any sleep at all.
Our exquisitely evolved bodies are cognizant of so much more than our modern minds.
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I am sure you are right and these experiences, based in the wisdom of the body, are much more common than most people realise, largely because not many people talk about them openly. I am glad to hear that this is familiar to you too.
What a stunning story! What to do about guns? My solution is probably impossible, but I think they should all be melted down and the metal used to make statues. One of those statues could show us your friend Ñacuñán.
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What a beautiful idea – it brings tears to my eyes.
It reminds me of the little badges made from melted-down metal from both US and Soviet missiles after the INF treaty was ratified in 1988. These were sold in England by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – I don’t know if you also had them in the US.
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I will be pondering this post for a long time. Thank you for writing and sharing.
Beautiful and tender, Laura. Thank you.
I had a much more subtle hint of such a thing when doing a Tarot reading for myself many, many years ago. Though I knew very little about the Tarot, I dimly sensed that the cards were foretelling the death of my father. It perturbed me so much that I never used the cards again; my father was murdered senselessly in a robbery a few years later. A few days after he died, he appeared in a dream and said something like “you don’t think I would leave without saying good-bye, do you?” and asked me to take care of my mother.
Yes weapons beyond my comprehension are much too easily available, but perhaps even worse is our huge societal tragedy of drug addiction and the poverty of our non-nurturing no-culture. There is so little I understand, but thank G-d for our love-generating dancing.
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Elizabeth, dear, I am so sorry about the loss of your father. I can imagine how shaken you were after your own experience of foresight. For me it was terrible to think that somehow I had been able to foresee a tragedy, yet was not able to prevent it. I think for a long time I carried something like survivor’s guilt – or is there such a thing as seer’s guilt? Cassandra syndrome, maybe?
The dream and my own near-death experience gave me two glimpses of an unspeakably vast, cosmic light of love – a power which I have to hope will ultimately prove stronger than the evil forces of the three epidemics you name: the easily available deadly weapons; the huge scope of drug addiction now; ‘the poverty of our non-nurturing no-culture’.
You also speak of the power of our ‘love-generating dancing’, and I believe that this does have the power to transform and heal. As divided as people in the US now over Trumpism, we in the UK are just as divided right now over Brexit. And yet every time we come together and join hands in the circle to dance, we are manifesting a higher power, a conscious choice for unity and connection which is stronger than all that divides us.
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Ah, Laura, I remember that time. We had met almost 10 years before and we talked when this happened. Galen was the son of neighbors who lived up the street from a friend. It felt so odd to know people affected by both deaths. Reading about it touches my heart once again.
Thank you for sharing the experience of the golden light. It helps me to know that death is not to be feared.
I don’t know what to do about guns and their easy use in violence. I am horrified and frustrated by each shooting I hear about and by peoples’ inability to act effectively.
I do know about choosing forgiveness over revenge, a choice I made over 30 years ago. It allows for a life with more inner peace and love, and to look at what to bring into the world in a positive way, instead of always looking and clenching in anger (I know that one too well, and am grateful that I was able to let it go).
I have also experienced dreams where I knew something without being told, or where I was someplace before/without ever being there. A week ago, someone I follow posted a video from London, and I knew the park from my dreams of being in England (haven’t been there since I was 4 months old). Life is strange and terrible, and it is strange and wonderful.
Continue talking with your teacher, I am sure he has more to share with you. Blessings, Iris (Faith)
Iris, how wonderful to hear from you. I remember that you had had that connection to people who knew Galen. So many lives were altered by their deaths – this was back in a time when school shootings were relatively rare in the US. Most people I knew the Berkshires before then didn’t even lock their doors. That all changed afterwards.
But now I am starting to think that perhaps some lives have been changed also in a positive way. I have been in awe of Galen’s father Gregory and his choice to seek forgiveness and dialogue instead of ‘putting more hatred and rage into the situation’ – this is the same message you describe, choosing forgiveness over revenge. People who can do this and model it for others are truly great teachers. It is indeed all extremely mysterious but I think these small acts and choices towards love, towards the great goodness, away from anger and fear, are the stepping stones through the murk of these difficult times when it is so hard to see a way forward.
I am also glad to hear about your prophetic/insightful dreams. You are so intuitive, I am not at all surprised that you have this capacity. I wonder whether everyone is born with some degree of innate ability, but then our ‘non-nurturing no-culture’, as Elizabeth describes it above, stomps it out of most people at an early age…?
Bless you and your own choices towards life and forgiveness. You continue to inspire me, after all these years.
Thank you so much for sharing this. It resonates deeply for me, in many ways. We need more of this in the world!
Thanks, too, for highlighting the gun issues. Yes, if only they could be turned into something beautiful ofer useful.
Lots of love to you, Laura.
Thank you, Laura, for introducing us to the warmth and life and brilliance of Nacunan. So many very hard things, and so much beauty and love. With questions raised that defy explanation in everyday reality. I can only stand in wonder. As I did at the death bed of my aunt, a straight-forward Welsh-woman called Anita Jones, who gazed at the six of us assembled around her, and out of her cancer-wasted face smiled a smile of such radiance it was dazzling. And then she didn’t bother with any of us anymore, not even with her beloved husband. Her eyes looked up towards the hospital ceiling, but what she saw there none of the rest of us could see. Whatever it was, her face told us it was beautiful beyond measure. And then, very simply, she stopped breathing. It was a great privilege and comfort to witness such a death. And to have the possibility of thinking that all the cruelty, whether of violent death or searing disease, may still, and ultimately, be held in a realm of love.
My love to you, Laura – and honour to Nacunan,
Thank you, Laura
I first heard a similar description of The Light when Gillian told me about her near-death experience as a child. So this part of your post touches me deeply at this time. However, I also appreciate that you tell a story of forgiveness and remorse connected with Nacunan’s death. Hearing such stories behind a story, my heart can open more easily to compassion.
Laura, somehow I missed this when it was first posted, but I am so glad to have finally seen it. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Lovely tribute to a lovely man. I met him only once through a dear friend who was so angered by his senseless death she attended Lo’s trial.
He was very kind to my mother and emanated charm. I thought of this meeting yesterday and found this article which I forwarded to my friend…I hope he knows that he continues to be remembered and loved.