Tag Archives: death

Thursday: The Storm

Thursday morning, I went to town with my mask, met one of our egg suppliers and bought several dozen eggs, visited the grocery store and thanked the young man sanitizing grocery carts and controlling the number of people allowed inside. One of my sons is doing the same work in Denver, and as I went back to the car with loaded plastic grocery bags dangling from my hands, I thought of him.

On the way home it began to rain.

April 10, 2020

An hour later, snow was falling in thick, wet clumps, filling the air and coating every surface it touched.

Six hours later, as night fell, we had several inches of snow and the air swirled with flakes, smaller and harder now as the warmth of the day faded. The power began to flicker as we watched TV. We turned off our computers and unplugged them.

At bedtime, I cracked a window open and crawled under the covers to read. The power stuttered over and over, making our carbon monoxide detector beep and my office electronics in the adjoining room click and clack.

I turned out the light and thought of the smothering weight of the snow on the roof above me, how quickly it was accumulating and how typical that an April storm just before Easter would be the worst of the season. Plows passed by, their lights shining through my unshielded windows, illuminating my room in flashes and moving stripes of light.

Sometime around 10:00 p.m. the power went out for good. The house was abruptly silenced, but the night outside was filled with sound and movement. The storm was like an immense creature padding around the house, breathing in erratic gulps, thumping, pawing, scrabbling. The trees groaned and soughed in their wooden throats, the merciless blanketing snow pressing down on their bodies and limbs.

At 12:40 a.m. a long, slumping crash filled the night. I lay, tense and fearful, listening. Was that part of our roof? Had the deck torn away from the house? I turned on my small LED reading light, thrust myself into robe and slippers and went downstairs.

Dark. The lights we usually leave on in the kitchen and living room were out, of course, along with the bathroom nightlight. Outside the large window over our dining table, nothing but soft, formless white, except for a great black shadow between the barn and the trunk of a 200-year-old maple alongside the driveway.

A black shadow, taller than a man and longer than a car. A black shadow in a white night. I strained to see clearly, but it was impossible to make out any details. I let my eyes move up the tree trunk. Was the top of the tree still there, or had it fallen away?

I went back up the stairs, feeling sick and pretty sure we’d lost the tree. Had it hit the barn? If so, there was nothing I could do about it.

Pond, April 10, 2020

I lay in bed, listening to the storm and the beleaguered forest. It was like a battle between the violent, inexorable snow and the patient, giant trees. Creaks, cracks, booms, explosions, and the muffled sound of crashes and heavy bodies falling filled the night. I knew some of what I was hearing was transformers blowing and electrical noise, but I couldn’t tell how much. I wept for the trees as the storm rent and tore at them, bearing them down with its cold, white weight.

I checked my small battery-operated clock at 3:30 a.m. Dawn was not far away. I felt calmer, and now I heard only the hush of heavy snowfall. The weight on the roof above my head felt less ominous. I blew my nose, flipped over my pillow and turned onto my side, finding sleep at last.

At 6:30 a.m., my partner and I looked out the front window at the shattered maple, which had fallen onto an old apple and snapped it like a toothpick, as well as tearing all the limbs off one side of a younger, healthier maple near it. The fallen tree did not hit the barn, or our cars, or the house.

Downed maple, April 10, 2020

Fourteen inches of heavy snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, though lazily. We went from window to window, seeing trees split, snapped and torn in every direction. Several had fallen across our pond. Our favorite swamp maple, every year the earliest to turn and the most intensely colored, had split down through the trunk, each heavy branch peeling away like a banana peel until it rested on the ground. Shrubs, branches and wires hung flat and low, bowed with the terrible weight of the clinging snow. Many trees were broken but still clasped in the arms of their neighbors.

My partner called the power company on his cell and got a recorded message saying the estimated time of power returning was 11:15 p.m. the day before! Not encouraging.

We spent most of the day in the living room, near the wood stove, each with a blanket and a book. Clouds surged across the sky, bringing periods of heavy snow interspersed with lighter showers. Plows and sand trucks went by, but we saw no tree service or power trucks. We boiled water on the wood stove for tea, scrambled eggs, heated soup, fed the fire. I felt thick-headed and wretched—too much crying, too much devastation, too little sleep. We had no power; no Internet; no more than a trickle of water, inadequate to flush the toilet. Our cell phones were not fully charged.

I felt utterly cut off and isolated, and too tired to make any sensible plans to help myself.

Before it was fully dark, I went to bed, lit a candle, and reread Rosamunde Pilcher, the most comforting author I know. After blowing out the candle, I lay absorbing the quiet. The storm was over. The injured, dead and dying trees were silent, now beginning the long work of rotting or healing. I knew we had months of work in front of us, too, with chainsaw, hatchet, splitter and wheelbarrow. We will not need to buy firewood this summer.

I turned onto my side and fell into a dark well of sleep.

April 10, 2020

Just Deserts

Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:

I get what I deserve
I deserve what I get

I have it,
therefore I deserve it

I deserve it
because I have it.

You have not got it
therefore you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
because you have not got it

You have not got it
because you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
therefore you have not got it.
R.D. Laing, Knots

This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!

So, what does it mean to deserve something?

Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?

Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?

Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!

The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe that we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?

No. I don’t believe that.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Bookshelves page) has taught me that life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.

There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.

Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.

We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

We will discover—we are discovering—that we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.

Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws that govern the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.

As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.

The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, that I’m joyfully letting go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.

As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”

My daily crime.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Descansos

Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.

We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity that was integral to our lives. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.

I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.

In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.

Photo by eddie howell on Unsplash

Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.

Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.

Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones that need the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.

It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.

A good time to allow ourselves to rest in peace.

My daily crime.

Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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