Ashes – My Messy, Beautiful

A few months ago someone I know liked a business on Facebook that creates cremation urns.

You know how we like stuff on social media. Sugar sweet piles of puppies, spinning dolphins who live in crystal blue seas, dazzling rainbow sunsets in far off lands. We like sleeping newborns, political jokes, break dancing toddlers, important messages, pleas for prayers and hundreds and hundreds of photos that we cannot unsee and occasionally we wish we could. Social media descends on our lives every day like so many birds, assailing us with images that remind us of days long since lived, or of places where we one day hope to go.

We scroll down, down, down… clicking on the occasional link that someone we truly like has posted or for whatever reason catches our eye at the moment.

Well, it turns out that on social media there’s a bunch of us that like cremation urns.

I guess.

Urns are tenderly created bowls of earth made for the purpose of housing ashes. Dedicated to offering a space in which one’s remains can be kept safe and sacred, they have been used by many civilizations across thousands of years. Like seemingly everything else on the planet, today you can buy them on Amazon.

You can bury ashes. You can scatter them. You can keep them. You can do whatever you feel is right, and you can possibly almost forget about them because they may be tucked into a brown paper bag in your closet, by the neatly folded sweaters that you never actually wear.

Truth: just seeing this “like” of urns on Facebook destroyed me a little bit for a few minutes.

A portion of my sister’s ashes has been housed unceremoniously in a paper bag on a shelf in my closet in my bedroom for over eight years now. Safely out of sight in a quiet corner, I rarely notice them. Occasionally I get up there to sort out sweaters and whoa – there they are.

It never, ever occurred to me to acquire an urn until I saw that Facebook post.

A few months after she died, my family and I scattered my sister’s ashes in the way back of my parents’ generous backyard, close to the basketball court where she spent plenty of time dribbling, free throwing, rebounding, and laughing (I didn’t play but I paid attention).

A breeze nudged the warmth of the day aside, but did little to temper our feelings. My feelings were red-hot, smoking, passionate in the anger I felt toward my sister’s death. Not toward my sister. Never ever toward her. Well, maybe just a little bit.

WHY had she gone out that day? Why to work? Why on a bike?

Why Why Why?

Then a roaring crippling sadness tumbled down the mountainside trapping me beneath its weight.

We said nothing as each of us in turn gently tossed her ashes across the creeping green ground cover that blankets this bit of land and protects it from erosion and drought.

The physical and poignant process of scattering my sister’s ashes is one that remains matchless in its depth, love and sorrow in my experience to the present day.

All the spoken words before and during and after her memorial service were beautiful and brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. I loved all the words, all the voices. They lifted and carried our family through those bleak days, but when it was my turn to hold my sister’s ashes in my bare hands I couldn’t have stood it if anyone dared whisper another goddamn word.

Hushed, we scattered some of her ashes in silence, then trekked back indoors. Our hearts and bodies were heavy.

The days and weeks afterward happened, and we began again to do the sorts of things we used to do. I moved again, and kept waking up every day.

But some of her – a piece of her – was kept aside for me. My husband and I moved a few months later, and among the boxes I tucked a flimsy paper bag full of ashes. It may have traveled on my carry-on, or lay beneath clothing in a suitcase… I cannot remember anymore.

Should I house my sister’s remains within an urn?

Do people really have urns any more?

Who imagined they would sell so well on Amazon?

I did a little research, but not much. Did you know you can turn yourself into a tree when you die? There are biodegradable urns made from coconut shells, and inside they contain seeds. You can even pick the type of plant you would like to be.

Even after eight years, it’s still too hard and horrible and impossible. I’ve been dreaming lately, and they aren’t good dreams. I believe my sister would forgive me for hitting the pause button a few times in my journey toward accepting her absence.

So I am satisfied with the paper bag in the closet. It is her life that I remember – not her remains – as I move throughout my days, as I sleep, struggle, smile, cry and think — this is the way in which I know and honor her.

I am not going to procure an urn anytime soon.

But I am going to make more of an effort to honor her memory, and realize that the life that I am living is the only one I’ve got, and love the lives around me to pieces more often. I can appreciate the joyful messiness that is parenting, working, living, loving, and being.

And the funny thing is that I feel pretty okay today, actually, a feeling I thought would never come back when my sister died. I feel happy, humbled, and realize that happiness is fleeting – is cannot be sustained. It can’t really be caught, either. I think it’s more a consequence of being in the world as one should be for the moment.

And since life is just a series of moments (as social media would confirm), I feel happy to be among them today.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! 

grande girasol

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You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds. ~Henry David Thoreau

Beginning to write

After a rough start to the week (a terrible, horrible, no-good Monday morning), today’s daybreak presented a new beginning. An angel must have silently joined us because there were hugs and smiles and winks and sleepy, hungry bedheaded boys at the breakfast table. A brief clothing negotiation with the youngest threatened the peace but worked itself out (he won’t wear anything but short pants; there is a chill in the air now but still, he won’t tolerate long pants).

I steal a moment to set an intention for the day. I have been running. Not far, not fast. I have eliminated the clutter in the living room. I have begun to frame the story for a – - - I hesitate to claim it. But I am writing something that I hope people will read. I am also reading something that kept me up last night almost breathless as I whirled in the fantasy of a story of a magical circus set in the late 1800s. The words gave me pause as I could never ever hope to write such a story. But maybe. I can try.

There will be characters. There will be conflict. There will surely be tears.

Seeking transformation, she notes that one cannot change without sacrifice.

Seeking respite, she chooses lightly and sleeps deeply.

Seeking healing, she wonders how it feels to fly.

For everything there is a season

The first summer without my sister I ran and cried and sweated in our nation’s capital. I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved three thousand miles away. I grew no sunflowers.

The second summer without my sister I logged many miles on the roads, slept very little, trembled with anxiety, and took our new puppy to the dog parks where we could both burn off energy and smile at strangers. He entered my life at a time when I was at a loss for knowing what to do next. He looked like this.

We lived in an apartment across the street from friendly gangsters who paid us no attention. I started to admire other people’s backyard gardens, but I still grew no sunflowers.

The third summer without my sister I lived in a home where we built a deck and my husband cleared a space for a garden. All I planted that season were sunflower seeds. I sat on the deck every night with a glass of wine watching the empty garden space and rocking our new baby.

Before my eyes the seeds took root and the magic that is found in a garden began.

In a large patch of dirt, shoots of green began to grow up, up, up, and much like Jack’s beanstalk, they appeared to reach the clouds.

By summer’s end this was our garden.

The fourth and fifth summers I grew fewer sunflowers but they were no less spectacular. And I still cried almost every night, but sometimes just for a moment when the tears threatened and sparkled and I’d blink them back and inhale sharply to make them disappear.

The sixth summer our sons were three years and one year old, respectively, and I planted dozens of seeds, but only a single sunflower grew that season.

Just one.

Had birds stolen the seeds?

Did my garden get flooded by Portland rains just one too many times?

I sent loving thoughts to the one brave bloom in the earth, but it didn’t last the season. One day I went out to find it crumpled on the ground, its seeds scattered by a squirrel or a crow. It was attacked. I tried to keep the entire incident in perspective (it was just a flower, for goodness sake), but I confess feeling really miserable about the loss of this particular flower.

The seventh summer after my sister died I managed to grow about half a dozen sunflowers in a patchy sort of amateur arrangement.

This year marks the eighth season of light since she left us.

My husband tenderly prepared the space. Together our boys and I planted the seeds, and most took root within a few days. Tiny, vulnerable shots of green began to appear.

The stems broke through the earth.

The fragile stalks grew tougher as they reached for the sun.

Today the light signals the plants to flower and the garden offers transformative healing and gentle hope in the presence of the sun.

This is what our garden looks like today – mid-season. We are on our way to a burst of color from at least thirty sunflowers, miniature, tall and giant.

P.S. We’re also growing a bit more in our humble garden. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a jalapeño. We’ve already eaten all the lettuce.

Found the Marbles

When it rains in your coffee go outside

This morning the skies opened up again, and so I drank my coffee black, with a little rain, and wondered where I’d stashed my boots.

I’ve been reading a wonderful blog created by a woman who specializes in life coaching and healing through spiritual strategies that sometimes seem impractical, if not ineffective, due to my personal resistance to exploring a world beyond my own. Still, I’m drawn to the possibility of the existence of spiritual allies as well as the recognition of energy that is present within and outside our physical selves. The blogger describes the influence of the world’s storms of outer energy on our personal ability to cope and to heal in a manner that is easy to relate to and understand.

I’ve always loved a good earth-shaking thunderstorm. The kind that lights up the night with powerful flashes of kinetic electricity, and the lights suddenly go out and everyone scrambles to find matches and candles. I wonder if a tree has been struck and if a green-faced witch will whiz by the window with an evil laugh.

Storms have a way of reminding us that we are not in control, but that we do have choices.

Do we linger outside as harsh winds topple trees? When lightening strikes, do we duck under a tree? Seek shelter? Run?

Do we wait out the storm in refuge or do we cultivate stress by remaining in the eye of the storm, surrounded by forces that limit our vision and space?

Inner chaos resembles outer chaos experienced during a thunderstorm. In the blog written by Harmony Marie Harrison, an intervention for overcoming inner chaos rang especially true to me.

Get out in Nature.

Harmony writes:

Nature doesn’t take these energetic storms personally. In fact, Nature doesn’t take any storm personally, regardless of how destructive it might be.

Get offline, get some distance from human culture, and feel the wildness of real weather on your skin — the heat of the sun, the spin of the wind, the mud beneath your feet.

This may be the most important thing you could possibly do.

This isn’t hard to do. I live in a city in which parks, river and forest play a starring role. In ninety minutes I can reach the coast by car, or if I head east I can climb a mountain. But more often than not, I work indoors, write indoors, and entertain indoors. Even my runs have felt a bit indoor-ish lately as I run the exact same sidewalked route through my neighborhood.

As a result, I’ve felt stifled in my attempts to be creative at work or at play. I haven’t felt the wind in my hair or white hot sand beneath my feet for what feels like forever. My own inner chaos means nights spent awake instead of sleeping, time spent worrying instead of just being.

Get out in Nature, she wrote.

I’m listening.

This weekend I’m heading to the trails for my run. I am eager to greet the quiet of the fire road as it winds through the forest.

I will leave my worries in the woods.

What are your strategies for shaking off the indoor dust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Found the Marbles

Eight days in and counting…

We’re a week into the New Year. So far, so good, I guess.

Except.

Three days ago I got an x-ray of my foot that indicated no fracture (you may recall I’ve been dealing with a sprained ankle since September). Rather than feeling relieved, I was annoyed. Another difficult-if-not-impossible-to-diagnose condition that is complicating my life.

On the up side, I immediately made an appointment to visit an acupuncture clinic on the east side of Portland. The acupuncturist was very sweet and rather young, but I was completely satisfied when I left the building. Twenty or so tiny needles were placed lightly and meaningfully into various parts of my body and I relaxed in a warm recliner among others receiving treatment for about an hour. If you haven’t considered acupuncture, I encourage you to do so. The literature suggests acupuncture is highly effective to treat a variety of issues ranging from back pain to addiction. I won’t elaborate here, but it truly is remarkable.

Despite taking steps to heal, I’m not happy about not running. When I was a teenager, I once made an “I like” list. I did this to cheer me up, but it didn’t work. A close friend countered me by creating an “I hate” list and it hurt my feelings. But today I believe she must have gotten better results. Sometimes the best thing to do is truly and authentically vent about all that’s wrong, uninspired, and hurtful in the world then try and cover up what you’re really feeling.

That said, I do tend to look on the bright side (this blog is called Sunshine and Salad, after all), and I’ve been prompted to write about a few of those things that make life worth living, even when it feels like it’s not. Enjoy it (or counter with an I hate list of your own – I’d love to hear it).

Food and Drink I deeply appreciate the first sip of coffee I take in the morning. The aroma of freshly ground beans. Knowing those beans were organically and ethically grown, tended, harvested, roasted and sold. Remembering my gig managing a ranch in southern Mexico where I learned what coffee plants look like, and how incredibly hard it is to be a picker, reminds me of what’s important.

Relationships My girlfriends are the best. I frequently fantasize about meeting one day in some undisclosed tropical location to run and play and laugh and sleep and eat and drink and talk. And talk. And talk. No kids. No partners. Just us girls. For now, I enjoy the moments when we gather for a quick coffee, a run, an e-mail, or a phone call.

Travel I cherish a cloudless sky on a camping trip. Have you seen the moon tonight? (If not, please stop reading, go outside and say something out loud to the moon). We’ve already made reservations to camp at Wallowa Lake State Park and Tumalo State Park in Oregon this summer. Wallowa’s campground is surrounded on three sides by 9,000 feet tall snow-capped mountains and faces a large, clear lake. Making camping plans with friends makes me feel that summer isn’t quite so far away.

Surprises Actually I don’t like surprises very much. But it’s always sweet when my husband brings home flowers for no reason, or leads me outside to show me the miniature conifer that he planted in the garden while I was at the store. In the midst of Winter, its diminutive tenderness makes me smile.

Parenting When I ask my eldest if he would like something and he responds politely, “Si, por favor”, it feels good.

When I ask my youngest for a kiss and he smacks directly into me with a big, wet, enthusiastic smooch, it is indescribable.

Pets I’m not too psyched about pet care these days, but really, it doesn’t take much. He goes running with my husband most days, and hangs out at home on his bed or near the heater, and rises during meal time so he can beg for treats. He’s a sweet, mellow, crazy black Lab and I love him.

Miscellaneous/Other These days I love reading (what’s new?), writing and watching. Work is going well, though it has taken the path of a soap opera here and there during the past six months. While committed to contribute as long as I am fortunateenough to work there, a small part of my brain is taking in the dialogue and the drama to inform my experience down the road. Physiologically, I’ve been at a standstill lately, and so that doesn’t belong in any sort of “I like” list. So I’ll just say I’m grateful to have four working limbs and a lifetime of activity that should, and will, encourage activity despite a painful yet non broken foot (Hello

swimming pool!)

Sunday Surf with Authentic Parenting and Hobo MamaI’m joining Authentic Parenting and Hobo Mama for Sunday Surf. Share your best reading of the week, and link up your post at either blog!

For more great reading, visit Hobo Mama or Authentic Parenting for the latest Sunday Surf and linky.

Happy Surfing!

Lovelinks is open! Take a look and cast your vote!

Inked in Portland

As the calendar year comes to a close, it seems right to take a look at the past several months, and that includes a visual inspection. My ankle is still healing, and I’ve scheduled an appointment with a wonderful acupuncturist. I’m also playing phone tag with a massage therapist who practices energy healing and am looking forward to spending an hour or so with her early in the new year.

Physically, I guess I look pretty normal, but I’m quick to find plenty of faults. There is one place on my body, however, that I treat kindly. I have a small permanent word inscripted on my lower left leg.

In Spanish, girar means to turn. Sol = sun.

So girasol literally translates as “the sun turns”.

In English, we call it a sunflower.

This is my story.

Once upon a time, I entered a building with a scrap of paper in hand,  torn from the printer, a single word on the page: Girasol.

It was in a font which name I can no longer remember.

“Can I help you?” the guy at the front desk asked kindly. His words were muddled as I took in the unfamiliar  scene. Photographs and images and signs covered every inch of space, walls, tables, even windows. It was a wild mix of art and graphic design, romantic and scary and strange, and distracting.

“Um, I’d like a tattoo”.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place!”

It’s interesting how someone whose arms and legs and other body parts bear images of fear and oddity and words in other languages can be such a nice and friendly person.

I wondered, as I always do, about the meaning behind the artwork on his skin.

For fifty dollars cash, I was brought back into an open space where three or four other people were having permanent ink etched into their backs, shoulders, and hands. I handed over my scrap of paper.

“No problem. It’ll take less than ten minutes”, he said. And he got to work.

Don’t believe what they say. Getting a tattoo hurts.

It was a fascinating experience. I wasn’t particularly young, and this wasn’t an impulsive decision. The artist worked quickly and quietly, glancing up every few minutes to check on my pain threshold. Before I knew it, the design was complete.

I needed something to mark the permanence of absence. I needed the mark not to remember, but to represent that, which now lives, in my mind and in the wind and in the energy of those spaces on the earth that we do not fully understand.

My sister’s favorite flower was the sunflower.

It was the fourth anniversary of my sister’s death.

The End.