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.
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.
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 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.
The day comes when you are the daughter, not the chaplain. You are grateful for your experiences and for the lessons other daughters and sons have taught you when you walked beside them. Relieved that you invited families to trust the journey of their loved ones and to practice self-care, so that you too can hear the echo of your own words as you sit and watch your mother meander from this world toward the next.
I’ll be honest, Thanksgiving was not easy this year. Oh, it ended on an upbeat note as I enjoyed dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend at his extended family’s home, but it began with the ever present reminder that my ninety-year old mother is declining and any expectations need to be set aside in order to meet her where she is in any given moment. I am on my own grief journey with her through Alzheimer’s and what a holiday looked like last year, or the year before, or a decade ago, can not be reproduced in 2017 like a Facebook memory.
On Mother’s Day I had brunch with my mom at her assisted living. She turned ninety the week before and her family and friends gathered to celebrate. Fifty-seven years old and I still have a mother. For this I am thankful. I have been blessed with two children, now adults, so am also called “mom.” As a recent newcomer to Facebook, I took the time to scroll through the posts of friends, to “heart” and post comments for their remembrances and gratitude of mothers, grandmothers, children. It seemed important to acknowledge both the joys and the losses.
Most of my friends and co-workers have bid “good riddance" to 2016, even amidst births, memorable vacations, graduations, and other life milestones. Maybe that extra leap day tipped the scales. Maybe it was the election and other turmoil around the globe. I know I felt heaviness both personally and in a community context. My divorce was finalized in February after 33 years of marriage, my mother’s unfolding Alzheimer’s disease increased use of blackout curtains to conceal her memories, and on the 29th of December my pug companion of 15 1/2 years took his last breath.
December 17th, my father’s birthday. My dad would have turned 93 this year if he had lived so long. He lived to 63, barely. Funny how grief can linger submerged for a decade or two or even close to three and then bob to the surface for no apparent reason. Or maybe there is a reason—a mother with Alzheimer’s who, as she drifts farther out in a sea of old memories, brings my father up a lot, stirring my own recollections. She still gets peeved with him for “leaving” so long ago, knowing it wasn’t a choice.
My pug, Hugo, turned 15 today, June 26. I remember the day we, my then 13 year-old daughter, 10 year-old son, and 74 year-old mother, drove to Southern Oregon to pick him up. A hot mid-August day, a day we had been anticipating after months of research and deciding on what type of dog to get for our family of four. My mother volunteered to go with us and let us use her car as it was more reliable. We brought a puppy toy, blankets and towels, water bowl and a tiny harness. We brought excited hearts, ideas for names and promises of being consistent on training and chores. I don’t remember much else about how the day unfolded except the scared whimper of a puppy, held between my children in the backseat until he finally slept, and our own oohing and awing at how soft and cute he was and the joy he would bring.
Kevin Kling told a lovely story of when pots and pans could talk. I’m paraphrasing, but here is the essence of the story: A man had two pots. Every day he would take his two pots down to the stream and fill them up with his day’s supply of water and carefully walk home along the dusty path. Over time, one of his pots became worn and cracked and began leaking water. By the time he got home, over half the water would have dripped out along the path. The pot said to the man, “you need to replace me with a new pot. I am no longer serving my purpose.” The man said to the pot, “Look back down the path. See, there are wildflowers growing where your drops have fallen.”
On of my favorite radio programs/podcasts is OnBeing with host Krista Tippett. On their website it says it is a “public radio conversation” as well as “publisher and public event convener.” Speakers explore the question of “what it means to be human and how do we want to live.” The website goes on the say: “We explore these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact.”
Grief is its own creature. I think it lives in the ocean. Maybe it has power over it or even is the ocean. At least from what I’ve experienced the metaphors that lie in the waves, the depths, the storms, the tides, the vastness and even the days of calm seem to mirror much of what I’ve heard in the stories of those who share their grief journey with me and in my own grief experiences.