Tag Archives: healing

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)

he gave me a backpack, he showed me the way

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His last gift to me was a backpack.  A royal blue, 60 liter, Gregory backpacking pack. Rugged, heavy, built for the wilderness and paid for with drug money, or maybe it was stolen. He smiled while he extended the pack and I felt his glassy, bloodshot eyes trying to read my face. I hesitated, as this gift-giving stank of another tactic to delay me in throwing his ass out of the house we bought three years earlier with the blind optimism of newlyweds. A new build, as young as our marriage. I can recall the smell of the fresh plywood as we wandered through the partially framed-out structure the day we signed the purchase agreement. We were two children playing house in a half-built skeleton, wondering where the ceiling fan would hang in the living room.  If I had known what demons lurked in the shadows of the not-so-distant future I would have fallen to my knees in the construction dust and screamed.  Instead, I innocently grasped his sweaty hand with mine and contemplated ceiling fans. It was better that way, better not to know of the impending storm. It wasn’t long, after all, before the demons stepped into the light; we saw their faces and whispered their names, and began the long slog of suffering which brought us, too-thin and broken, to that moment under the whirring ceiling fan when he handed me a backpack. A bulky manufacturer’s tag swung back and forth in the circulating air and the body of the pack was slightly slumped, begging to be filled with camping gear. My toes curled on the standard-issue, builders-grey carpeting while I steadied my face, trying to suppress delight at the pack so as not to confuse the giver, for I had no delight left for him. But I smiled, I couldn’t help myself, and I took the backpack from his shaky grip. Sliding it on my thin shoulders it felt foreign, but somehow right.

How did he know I needed that backpack? He was nearly as shattered as a person can be, consumed by addiction and rocked with grief. Was he informed by whatever love for me that remained lodged in his big, broken heart? Was some higher force working through this tortured man, transforming selfishness into charity? I may never know, but this gift, this final act of generosity in our doomed marriage, was the answer to the question I had yet to articulate.  In giving me a backpack he showed me the door to my salvation , although I didn’t walk through it in earnest for many more years.  I had more suffering to do.  I had to fall further before I was ready to rise.

Oh, and I have risen!  Nature has soothed me.  Freedom has saved me. And this pack has been with me through it all, my trusted companion while I strolled through forest meadows, gazed at the sea, smelled temple incense and gulped thin mountain air. We shared the adventures he and I only dreamed of. It has traveled in trucks, planes, trains, but mostly on my sweaty back. We have been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and baked in the desert sun. I have kicked dust on it, I have thread wildflowers through its numerous straps. I have dropped it, propped it, hung it, slugged it. It is starting to show its age, but I still adventure with it proudly.  From misery to ecstasy, we have been through a lot together.

a survivor

I have become preoccupied with survival.  The art of endurance, of strength, of balancing precariously between life and death and miraculously making it.  I pour over manuals to learn and re-learn wilderness navigation techniques, insurance against getting lost. I do presses and pull ups and push ups in the rediculously-early morning, a rehearsal in pulling myself up and out of impending disaster.  I lose myself in memoirs of surviving avalanches, plane crashes, sinking ships. I run down city streets to prepare myself for climbing mountains. I tie myself on to ropes and learn to climb on delicate foot holds, squeeze precarious handholds, and fall, when necessary, safely, gracefully.  I practice breathing deeply, so when I feel fear building up I can just as easily let it slide away, the back and forth of waves crashing on a beach then being pulled back to sea.  The study of survival is a preoccupation which eats up, in its various permutations, most of my free time.

My degree of obsession seems funny to me because I am already a survivor. I have fallen, bruised and bloodied, to the lowest levels and climbed back up again. I have lost myself in the darkest realms and found my way back to the light.  I have worked through searing pain. I have made it, am making it, again and again.

Survival isn’t an endpoint, but a gateway. It only matters if there is a promise of life beyond the blackness of the rabbit hole. Every battle needs its prize. So perhaps these survival exercises I perform in relative comfort are more than preparation for future challenges.  They help me relive the story of my life and unleash the wisdom loosely folded in the challenges and the failures and the victories of my past.   In the consuming rituals of knot tying, trip planning, pushing and pulling and repairing and strengthening, I am reminded daily that I am a warrior, and mine is a life worth fighting for.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, February 2014

a sweet contradiction

The holiday season harbors a sweet contradiction.  We gather around full tables.  We feast until our stomachs protest, until we collapse on the couch in a food coma.  We eat and we drink and we enjoy the bounties of the year, the gifts of our family and friends.  It feels good, so very, very good.

And it is a simultaneously a season of longing. quiet moments masking an internal cacophony of regret and longing and grief and sadness.  We miss the ones who are far away, the ones we have lost.  The ones that are gone, the ones that were never here. We want things to be different, we want what we cannot have. 

This Thanksgiving I remembered my friend, who died 17 years ago in a car crash. She has now been dead as long as she was alive. I was mourning her absence, feeling the echoing hole that her departure left inside of me so many years ago, and in that moment of missing her a turkey vulture soared above me, the Great Purifier. Call it God, call it science, but there is a mysterious force around us and above us.  Something which takes the dead and decaying and turns it into life, into that which sustains us. And in a strange dance we can transform grief into merriment, our losses into the joy and essence of life

Life is an undulation, it is a gentle swaying between the dark and the light.  A step forward, a slide backward. So we gather for another holiday.  We hold each others hands while old songs play on the radio and we laugh about the days which live on in our memories and collective recollections. We are sad, but our grief allows us to feel more poignantly the joys of what we do have.  We can taste the sweetness of pie and the tartness of the cranberries and we can take it all in, every bite.  In this way we honor the ghosts that haunt the quiet moments, but embrace the living, embrace our life.

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Ozark butterfly, July 2013

released from optimism

I sort through the vestiges of a past life.  A fifth grade report card.  Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter.  Photographs.

I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles.  I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?

Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.

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Chacala, Nayarit. Age 16.

Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism.  I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.

But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement.  It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now.  I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.

The now is the only place where I find peace.

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Sierra Ancha Wilderness. October 2013.

 

the blessing of being alive

DSC_0043Sometimes, I feel as if nothing I do matters.  I have struggled and fought and I have failed.  Oh, have I failed, in a million small ways, and in a few pretty large ways too.  Some days I feel weak and worthless.  But yesterday helped me see a bit clearer.

Yesterday, I attended a memorial service for a patient.  Her name was Angie, and she died at 45 from breast cancer.  The ceremony was held in a garden space, where a stand of trees stood proudly in the middle of barren desert.  In this oasis we were sheltered us from the Arizona sun, still so unrelenting even in late September. Native voices and drumming sliced through the air, carrying our prayers of healing and sobs of grief high in to the heavens.  We honored the four directions, the circle of life and all its infinite passages.  We held hands, a rainbow of humans from all walks of life, touched by this one woman. Years of addiction had scarred the hearts of some, yet there, under the shade trees, there was healing and love and hope for all of us. We were united in grief, united in being alive.

In this sacred space, I received kind words of gratitude for the care I gave to this woman while she was alive. I felt her community honor me as a healer to the sick and a friend to their loved one. Her case worker and strongest supporter during the last year of her life presented me with a print of a dragonfly, a symbol not only of the community where she lived but as symbol of transformation, of rebirth. It was how Angie wanted to be remembered.  She is now in the spirit of the dragonflies. She is liberated and omnipresent and I believe she is still here.  In a way, her illness gave her the medicine to be everywhere and everything, to transform from a homeless crack addict to an inspiration, a visionary, a healer.

I felt some apprehension about attending the service, as it promised to crack open my own barely contained well of grief (which it did). And sometimes it is hard to accept gratitude. I want to cast aside the humble thanks of others and say “its only my job.”  But it’s not “only my job.” It is a blessing and an honor and a calling. I couldn’t save Angie from cancer, nobody could. At times I couldn’t even lessen the pain.  But I walked beside her, I was at the door of her final passage.  I was a part of humanity’s best side, the wide embrace, the soothing words that call forth light in the darkness.  I was part of an easing of her burden, part of her finding wholeness even while she was dying. I was part of a miracle.

We all know about the shadow side of our civilization.  We slaughter, we rape, we decimate, we wreak havoc on the earth. Sometimes, I can’t bear being a human, can’t face being a tiny limb of the global curse. But yesterday, I felt honored to be alive, to be a person, to be a part of a community wider than my own mangled thoughts, my own voice pleading in the darkness.

A single wave is meaningless, yet the collective tide can carve canyons and move mountains.

I am honored to be part of this mysterious force.

the lesson of Yellowstone

If you have been there, you understand.  You have breathed the sulfurous aroma near the geysers and gasped at the wildlife and crunched lodgepole pine needles beneath your feet and smiled, transfixed the intoxicating combination of the timeless and transient in this very special place. I was recently in Yellowstone with my family, and it is everything that has ever been said and more. It is that great.

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The visitation happened at the Mud Volcano. It was a relatively warm day, and between the geothermal heat and foul odors belching from fumaroles, it wasn’t entirely pleasant to stand near the features. My 7-year-old niece was crying from the bad smells, while the older girl, a Chinese exchange student, said wistfully “I wish I could see a bison right now!”

And then he appeared, a solo bull, lumbering towards the Black Dragon’s Cauldron, emerging through the steam from the mudpot. He approached the banks of boiling, murky water and stood silently appraising his onlookers, the only perceptible movement being an occasional swish of the tail. The chatter of the crowd died off  to murmur and an occasional, breathy oh, wow.  

His eyes were shiny, black orbs, and I felt as though he was gazing at my very soul. I saw myself as if through the eyes this enormous creature, a survivor, one of the few of his kind which continue to roam in the wilds of the American West.  In the act of releasing that which I loved the most, have been driven nearly mad with sadness. Loss has broken my heart into a million pieces that rattle like bones in the quiet of the night.  I am not often the stoic bison, gazing upon the loss of my kind with an accepting tail swish.  I am hurt, I am angry, I fight futile wars which leave me depleted and even more brokenhearted.  

But still, somehow, I am okay. And so are you. This is the message I received from the bison on that hot afternoon in Yellowstone.  Change is constant, loss is inevitable, and sometimes even the earth beneath our feet can feel unstable, volatile. Our vision may become clouded by the smoke from fiery destruction, the steam from cooking up a new life, a new beginning. Sometimes, our heart hurts. But in the end, we somehow find wholeness in our losses.  We have, as living beings on earth, inherited the legacy of courageous survival.