“Never turn your back on the ocean.” A teaching offered to me as a youngster. Living close to the Oregon Coast where sleeper waves can heave logs on to shore or wash an unsuspecting walker out to sea in an eye-blink, it is a sound piece of wisdom. Even as I connect in my being to the sea as “Mother Ocean,” I was reminded of this on a recent visit when I was knee deep in water seconds after noting the waves were a good 20 feet out and seemed to be biding their time, lapping more than galloping. She wanted my attention—“Daughter, something is stirring.” Something is stirring.
I invite you to visit a farmers’ market this time of year. The abundance flows from the stalls. I fill my bags with local produce even though I know, I mean I KNOW, I won’t get through everything. I am only feeding one person after all. But the fruits and veggies looked so delicious and autumn is underfoot as the first leaves begin to fall. It won’t be much longer and Sweet Sue peaches, Brandywine tomatoes, and Brooks prunes (reminiscent of my childhood) will disappear until next year.
Sunday marks nine weeks since I returned from my spiritual journey, “Sojourning with Grief.” As many weeks returned to this home as I was immersed in my Celtic homeland. I want to write something wise or profound about my growth and insights. And there are many insights spinning in my head and heart. But the truth is I am tired and the threads that I try to hold onto are too thin to be woven into any kind of cohesive tapestry. Instead I am offering a few random thoughts.
My body moves in water more like thick, embroidery floss through a needlepoint canvas than a dolphin crossing oceans. I am not a proficient swimmer but water feels familiar and lap swimming is as much a spiritual practice for me as exercise. Only after completing a restless hour swimming on Monday the 15th did I become aware that day, July 15th, marked three months since I took my first steps on the shores of Scotland. I couldn’t settle into the present moment of water flowing over my shoulders, spilling down my spine, and splashing behind my kicking feet, but I didn’t know why. Instead I was distracted by the pain in my left leg that lingers since I fell hiking over two weeks ago; frustrated I can’t walk this land and reacquaint myself with these trees and hills. Distracted by strands of past conversations that dropped into my head, following them into thickets of brambles that poked and scratched me and serve no purpose but to hurt. Back and forth I swam, trying to release the distractions.
My half-open eyes see a cathedral in the darkness of my bedroom before I realize I am home. I hear the first notes of birdsong as the light peaks over the horizon and I float with them across the ocean to another land I also call home. What was familiar seems out of place and old routines lie in a jumble on the floor. In my first week home I lost cash, my spare prescription glasses, and my patience while driving. One of the few things that feels grounding is returning to lap swimming. Somehow the fluidity of water settles me. Crossing the threshold home after Sojourning with Grief has brought me into an old place with new eyes. The familiar is now unfamiliar. I am disoriented.
Once, when I had a yard, I bought a packet of wildflower seeds, a mix where you scatter them and wait to see what arises from the earth. Poppies, coreopsis, wallflowers, alyssum, phlox, flax…whatever would take hold. And in my garden I had plants I set into the soil with specific intention. Roses, daffodils, lavender. This sojourn has been a scattering of seeds and in the center was the planting of one intention-to return some of my mother’s cremains to the land of her birth. Last week in the company of her two remaining cousins, I offered her back to the land. My mother-a beautiful English rose.
“What can you teach me?” I ask this question to the rocks and stones I meet on my sojourn. To hear even the faintest reply I must slow my inner clock to ancient time. To liminal time. For the souls that reside in the salt-and-pepper speckled gneiss, the chalkboard black slate, the meringue layers of limestone, and pigeon grays of common igneous hued surfaces I tread on, caress, sit and lean upon speak an unfamiliar language. I have felt an intimate connection with rock and stone during this sojourn. In the wild places, I place my hand against a rock face and wait. Sometimes the warmth of sun fills my palm, or the cool of shadow absorbs into my skin. Rough edges prod my fingertips to ask deeper questions. “What edges of yours need smoothing?” Or “Are those rough edges part of a wildness you need to keep?” Many of the rocks have facial features, as if they are trying to communicate in way we can understand if only we would stand still for a moment longer.
The organ music echoed against the stone walls and deep into the inner chambers of my heart. I couldn’t pick up my car until noon my first morning in Wales. Always on the lookout for an old cemetery, I wandered to St. Giles’ Parish Church, a couple of blocks from my hotel. What I discovered instead was a 16th century church with a love of today’s community and openness to the stranger. As I wandered the aisles I noticed room for toddlers to play in the back and heard the clanging of dishes and took in the savory aroma as a noontime meal was being prepared. Most likely for those in need. The volunteers that busied themselves were interested in why I was there and shared about the history. And then it began—the organ music. The organist stroked the keys and weighed in on the peddles and the church filled with music. I was privy to her practicing for the 12:30 free Monday recital. I sat and absorbed as many notes as I could before I needed to move on. Little did I know how I needed that music to live within my body the rest of the week.
The breeze off the North Sea while welcoming, held reminders that the ocean has her own mind. One moment it would comfort around my shoulders like the knit scarves I have of my mother’s, the next it would pick up the pace and smack my cheek as if to say, “never underestimate me.” It was the last three miles of this “walk” known as the the Coast-to-Coast across Northern England, which our group of twelve walkers and one guide began thirteen days ago in St. Bees by the Irish Sea and were now completing in Robin Hood’s Bay. Just over 200 miles. Hiking, scrambling, bouldering, striding, climbing, fording streams, and at times, simply walking, we had made it. Most of us exhausted and spent (that was me.)
A journey through loss is full of contrasts, like the first miles walking the Coast-to-Coast. On my left, the Irish Sea thrums the coastline in a constant beat. The day is mild, winds mustering only enough bluster to cool the sweat off my skin. Guillemots and fulmars are hunkering into the stony crags, ready to nest for the season. Those in flight offer their sea song. Strange how sea birds do not have the soft songs of the wrens and robins that wake me back home. Have they developed their sharp sound to compete with the rise and fall of the ocean?
Derry. Three full days visiting a city and the surrounding countryside that sparked a thirst I didn’t know I had. A thirst to know more about this land, the people who live here, and the stories that lay unheard in the rocks, hills, and river bottoms of the people who inhabited the land long before the Irish settled here (those stories only seen in a few relics.) This final day open for reflecting and resting before I begin the Coast-to-Coast on Sunday. Not much “doing” today. More about being.
Loss is the invitation slipped into your mailbox. You can choose to open it, chuck it in recycling, or set it aside to respond to later. When you do read the invitation, there is no address to set out toward. The RSVP simply says, “be kind to yourself as you set out.” It does offer one piece of advice: “Ask Grief to accompany you. Grief will be a generous companion.”
Connections. That is one theme that is emerging as day four comes to a close. Making them. Missing them. Connecting with others, self, ancients, ocean, rocks, trees, birds, sheep…the list is long. The more I slow, the more open I am to connecting to who or whatever is presented.
The long flight to Amsterdam was offset by periods sleep. Being able to recline almost to horizontal with a blanket and pillows allowed sprinkles of dreams to dot my inner landscape and I saw dragons flying alongside the plane, watching over us all. The reverberation of the Friday night blessing still lingered in my body and Loreena McKennitt’s song, Ancient Pines, echoed in the background. I was at peace. When awake, Jamie, the flight attendant, would offer a warm wash cloth, snack, or other kindness and I kept saying “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The sojourn has officially begun…sweetly and with whimsy. And with yet a reminder to let go and hold things loosely. When I did my 24 hour pre-check in, my flight no longer existed! Calls to Alaska Airline (I was using miles and going through one of their partners-Icelandic Air) had them searching for answers. I must say I had the BEST customer service, but no answers, and only an old confirmation number and phone numbers to call. All roads finally led to Delta Airlines, where my flight had been rerouted to Amsterdam. Pre-check-in was not available and I would be leaving two and a half hours earlier, but other than that, no major issues. I would just have to check in the old fashioned way: at the airport counter.
Funny how Grief will turn our heads and hearts toward the past before we step into the unknown. Five years ago: my mother still living, and I, struggling with her fading. Five years ago: still married, the hard decision to divorce loitering in the shadows waiting for courage to arrive. Five years ago: mired in stress, I drew solace in my work as a hospice chaplain. Five years ago: the trees gathered my heart in, knowing I was a sojourner in spirit if not yet in body. Knew I would be returning over and over to them for guidance and healing.
“I am a becoming.” In philosophy “becoming” means the process of coming to be something or of passing into a state. That one sentence was all that sputtered from my pen the other night as I meditated in preparation for my eight-week sojourn home. I am a becoming. It didn’t make sense. But then much of what has been unfolding in my life the last six months has less to do with making sense and more about letting go. Less about analyzing loss and more about holding Grief’s hand and saying “yes” to the journey.
The last few weeks I’ve been scattered. My focus, my usual gift of staying on task, gone. Blogging at least once a month. Gone. Sitting and reading a book for more than five minutes. Gone. Thankfully being able to sink into music-still here. To find solace in walking and swimming-still here. See, this Friday is the first anniversary of my mother’s death—her “deathiversary.” I know it’s coming. I’ve even planned a ritual for the day. But still the scattering of my thoughts like forest fire ash on wind-soaked days has caught me off guard. I’ve given up on most of my “to do” list, choosing instead to tumble into this day, this week, this moment.
The fulcrum of the winter solstice has passed and the subtle lengthening of days has begun. It is as gentle as a lover’s gaze, this passing between dark and light. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we had clear skies and the crowning, full moon was visible as the rains and winds that pounded our streets and drummed our hearts the day before had scampered out of town.
In two weeks Day will shake off sleep and stretch arms open earlier each morning. Night will shake off my shoulders minute by minute as I wake to walk with the rising sun. Winter solstice is close. The tipping point between longest night and shortest day.