Spinning Straw Into Gold

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A hard summer of loss has eased into a colorful autumn full of comforting signs and wonders, like the love and presence of supportive family and friends, a hummingbird’s kiss, encounters with a visiting butterfly, walks on the trail, and last night’s amazing full moon in eclipse. 

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A good friend asked me what was getting me through all this loss…and had I perceived any spiritual invitations? (I am blessed with many friends who are chaplains, healers, and spiritual directors; these are the types of things we ask each other: how cool is that?!) Another dear friend asked when she could come and hear stories about the pups, another profoundly loving response to loss.

It took time to discover invitations, and I’m still working on it. But the question brought to my mind the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped the bragging maiden spin straw into gold. Rumple bartered for her firstborn… but she learned his name, spoke it, and sent him packing.

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Straw is dried grain, and so many tales and parables tell us bread made from living grain is the staff of life. Straw, then, seems a natural symbol of death, loss, and grief. I’ve imagined the grief that marked this summer as straw, piling into mountains before me, waiting…

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So I’ve entered the grief and it’s entered me, and I’ve sat with it and listened and wept and watched, and now, finally, I’ve begun to spin…

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If I wove a tapestry with these golden threads, it would include images from the day my sister-in-law dropped everything, drove over an hour, arrived with a bouquet of sunflowers and zinnias, and remained tenderly present to my grief. At one point, we sat beside each other on the steps of the deck, watching dozens of butterflies flitting so energetically around and within the great purple aster that it seemed it might fly away.

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We spoke of “visits” we’ve experienced after losing those we love, that felt sense that the one who has died is able to be present in new ways. I said I’d received a few feathers from Riley and Clancy so far, nothing more. “But,” I said, “these visits never happen when I ‘expect’ them; they just seem to gift me when I most need them.”

No sooner had I said, “…need them,” than a hummingbird flew to the space between our heads and froze there, for 30 seconds or longer. Neither of us moved as the tiny bird “hovered and hummed,” its wings beating mightily, nearly brushing our cheeks. After a long while, it flew off, its message deeply held in our hearts. We hugged and then sat in silence for a few minutes, both of us tearful. Such a sacred experience, and all the better because someone I love shared it with me. Someone who also believes the proper response to mystery is awe, and silence.

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Spinning straw into gold…All the daily routines that stemmed from the dogs’ needs have vanished, and–as with any loss–there are now many holes in the day when I miss them especially dearly. If I’m home during the day, I take my camera and go out to the gardens, seeking diversions from the constant and tiring “missing.” This butterfly visited the garden another day, and stayed for a few hours. Her company offered delight and peace. When you’re grieving, such hours of respite are truly restorative. She let me follow her all around with my camera and seemed to enjoy posing from every angle.

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It’s been challenging to head out on the trail without Riley and Clancy. I tend to check both directions for bikers and walkers, and when I’m sure I’m solo, I talk to the pups, as if they were with me. I grew quiet watching this heron in the river last week. He looked like a monk doing a standing meditation, calling me to deeper reflection. One of the great gifts that comes with grief is this call to go to the center of the center of our being and houseclean, in a way. All of our values and goals and beliefs come up for inspection and reassessment. Certainly, this is another source of gold on the journey of transformation that grief creates: Grief creates.

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The pups and I celebrated our walks with parties up and down the trail for over 14 years…I’d break little treats in pieces and we’d have routine and spontaneous parties that always ended with Bridge Party. They’d each give me a paw and I would thank them for coming on the walk, and then they would get the last treat before we ran up the path to our home. A little holy communion, like our morning party.

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So it seemed fitting that Phillip and I bring wine, cheese, crackers, and our cameras down to the bridge last night for a perfect viewing of the eclipse. What a lovely Bridge Party, with owls calling, frogs and toads singing and distant coyotes howling. Their cries rose and tangled as the moon became fully eclipsed and shadows disappeared. Then it seemed that everything fell to silence. Definitely a keeper, as far as memories go, and the sense that the pups’ energy surrounded us made it all the more special.

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Something in my heart was woven back together during those magical hours on the bridge. I felt my spirit, eclipsed and resting in darkness, was ready to begin moving back towards the fullness of light again.

I’m still spinning these last piles of straw, still weaving, still healing, but so grateful for all the blessings in my life that are helping me turn the straw into gold.

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We never want to lose those we love. But we do; we will. And what saves us is the rest of those we love, and who love us. They carry us through our grief and help us see the glints of light that guide us towards greater light, until we can stand again in the sun, in joy. Gradually, we’re led towards those wonderful moments in the world when we can see its devastating beauty and the eternally renewing cycle of life. Through the love of others and the love of the world (all of which, to me, is the love of the Sacred) the grief, in its time and the time of our hearts, transmutes to golden memories, a lifetime tapestry that tells us who we are, finally, as lovers and loved.

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© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without Catherine O’Meara’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors.

Farewell to Riley

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May 12, 2001 – September 13, 2015


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 And can it be that in a world so full and busy, the loss of one small creature makes a void in any heart, so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of vast eternity can fill it up?    ~ Charles Dickens

Yes. Yes, it can.

 

© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without Catherine O’Meara’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors.

 

The Forest, Having Blown Up

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We’ve had an unexpectedly dramatically dramatic summer, and I would be most grateful if the energy that’s hurled us thus far through the green-flowered and golden weeks would flatten out a bit into some semblance of balance and peace.

But, there is too much, so let me sum up:

Part One

My soul is a broken field, plowed by pain.  ~ Sara Teasdale

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I guess we’re always, most of us, both prepared and unprepared for loss. We’re full of intellectual wisdom and knowledge about death and grief. We believe we’re fortified by these words and the stages and steps they describe.

And then we step into the land of loss, and the barren, rough landscape opens up, and every surface we encounter in this new world scrapes away at our sense of the known and bloodies our fragile attempts to touch and learn, and sucks the words out of us, and the walls that encompassed the reality we’d come to recognize and rely upon utterly fall away.

Of course, they were only made of paste and cardboard to begin with, but we had so carefully constructed the stage set that encompassed our lives for so long that we disregarded the potential for its devastation.

And how easily, and quickly, it can all collapse and be blown away.

The utter strangeness when a circle of love is broken and the presence of that circle’s heart is removed, requires tricky navigation, and, for a time following Clancy’s death, I chose not to move at all. A week after his death I turned 60 and it meant nothing but that I’d existed for another week.

I didn’t know it then, but I was ill. I had lost contact with my senses, sheltered—or hidden–so deeply within my grief that I didn’t understand that something “out there” was wrong. When I tried to move through my yoga, bicycling, and trail walks with sweet Riley, I felt like the tin man in need of oil. Every joint and muscle hurt, first a bit, and then unbelievably. I stopped trying.

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Phillip, family, friends, the four-leggeds, and the gardens helped, as they always do.

We focused on tending Riley’s loss of her lifelong companion and littermate, began to adjust to our own sadness, and I met with my wonderful physician, who helped identify the disease that had taken up residence in my body. Some knowledge does lend power, and over the past month, prescribed treatments have largely eliminated my pain. It’s being “managed,” as they say. (I say, “Hooray!”)

Gratitude always walks with grief, a partnership that, if we choose to recognize it, helps to make us whole again.

Part Two

Little by little God takes away human beauty:
Little by little the sapling withers.
Go, recite, “To whomever We give a length of days,
We also cause them to decline.”
Seek the spirit;
don’t set your heart on bones.
~Rumi

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Since I felt stronger, we traveled to an area Phillip had already explored for our retirement. Never sure if that should happen now or later, we visited the communities we found most attractive. We looked at some homes for sale. Mostly, we hiked and sat, and listened. Sweet Riley’s ability to join us on the trip proved a wonderful opportunity to reconfigure our circle of intimacy, settle into each other’s energy, and learn more about the family we are now, without Clancy’s physical presence. Knowing the felines were in good and loving care, we relaxed into the healing offered to our spirits by a landscape we love.

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On the way home, we looked at another home that intrigued us, and made an offer to buy it. It was a Friday afternoon, so I called a realtor in our hometown and arranged for her to visit Monday morning, to list Full Moon Cottage for sale. How exciting, to make a change, we thought…perhaps this was the new path Clancy’s death had created for us.

The universe had other plans. Early Monday morning, a storm propelled straight-line winds speeding across the area, and twirls of small tornado tails bobbed down, here and there, twisting bits of the world into unrecognizable designs.

A single kind of thunderous crash caused us to leap out of bed, adrenaline lending us a rather impressive athleticism. Phillip grabbed the flashlight and, through the darkness, assessed that possibly a tree or two had fallen. As the sun rose and daylight scattered across the yard, we saw instead that, without warning, and in an instant, the forest beside our home had exploded.

Part Three

My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.  ~  Mizuta Masahide

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Through a fog of dazed shock, I began to clean the decks as Phillip saved what he could of the front garden. Several of our trees had fallen, but the more dismal reality was that about 30 or 40 of our neighbor’s white pines had crashed across our front yard. There was no way we could clear the havoc ourselves.

A few hours later, covered in dirt, mud, and pine needles, we greeted the realtor, an impressive false smile frozen on her face as she stepped over branches and bravely proceeded to draw up the contract, assuring us that when the home actually came on the market, 10 days later, all would be well.

Home insurance doesn’t pay for storm damage, except for that sustained by the physical house, and we miraculously had little of that. But that’s where the miraculous aspects of the story stopped, we felt, since we did have about 40 trees, in a hundred thousand pieces, that had to be removed.

The morning after the storm, I watched as the two turkey hens we’ve come to know over the years paraded their new chicks through the rubble, over and under branches, accepting of the changed landscape and inviting me to be as well. A doe and her fawns leapt across the yard nimbly. Easy for you, I thought. Can’t you see the world’s been upended?

A few days and a small fortune later, we were left with what we called a muddy “trail of tears,” and worked about 80 hours between us lugging, raking, tossing and scraping together branches and limbs, in 91° heat and a sour funk. I mourned the little crab tree that had anchored my front garden, the vegetables and berries we’d lost, the lovely old hickory tree. A sad business indeed.

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Still, Riley seemed happy to be home, reunited with her cat buddies, and unfazed by the need to jump over or circle around trees on the trail, or stop and re-route altogether, so that was a blessing. And I was feeling physically stronger every day, another light in the darkness.

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By Friday, we decided to put off buying a new home, moving, or selling Full Moon Cottage. We were fairly spent, almost on empty, and fully exhausted.

We set down the rakes and shovels and took off our gloves and sat on the deck, sipping ice cold beer and surveying the altered scene before us.

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And we began to laugh. And, of course, we counted the many blessings that had equally fallen all around us. We had been spared injury; the house was minimally damaged, the gardens would recover, and many were still growing madly…

I shared that I’d had the Masahide quote running through my mind all week. And then I told Phillip, making a sarcastic joke, that, at least we could now receive better internet and phone reception, which the wall of white pines had always prevented. He replied, “The forest having blown up, I can now receive three bars,” which really set us off…and I knew we would be OK. Better able to see the paste and cardboard of life for what they are, we can set them aside and focus on what’s really real and lasting. Like the turkeys, and the deer, and sweet Riley, we will make our way across these losses and come to new places, feeding on the blessings that are all around us, and loving the memories of all that’s come before. Our family’s circle of love was never broken; I see that now. It’s only changed, and Clancy, and Riley, and our precious four-legged felines will always be that circle’s heart.

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© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without Catherine O’Meara’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors.

Breath of Life

Phillip, my cousin, Don, and my Aunt Mary
Phillip, my cousin, Don, and my Aunt Mary

My beloved Aunt Mary died several weeks ago, early one Sunday morning in February. She was my mother’s younger sister, but not by much, and their close bond throughout their lives always made me long for a sister, too.  It often surprised the three of us how much more I resembled my aunt in attitudes and preferences than I did my mother. And in the years since my mother died, Mary and I had become even closer, sharing e-mails and phone visits regularly.

My aunt was a remarkable person, utterly funny, charming, intelligent, and alive to the society, interests, and amusements that paraded through her days, the kind of person who had many lifelong friends, enamored children, nieces and nephews, and beholden strangers who benefited from her kindness and acts of charity. She was someone whose wit, wisdom, ready listening and encouragement were vital to making others see that a better world, or just a better day, is always possible. She had a vital spark most lack. She breathed greater life into those around her than they sustained alone.

Little foxes, early bees, squirrel, chipmunk, spring 041I write this not as a eulogy, for I cannot do her gifts or influence on my life justice in such a brief forum, but by way of sharing that my grief in losing her has been gentle and so coupled with relief at her peace that it’s traveled with me these past weeks more like a soft grey cloud than a terrible storm, as my parents’ deaths engendered. I am grateful for her gifts and presence in my life and I am grateful that she is no longer yearning to be with her husband or suffering from ill health.

But I sure miss our e-mails, visits, and shared laughter.

I was thinking of her one morning when spring beckoned more than chores and I’d wandered outside to see what the world could tell me. I saw this daffodil, so earnest in its reaching for light that the dead leaf circumscribing its leaves couldn’t restrain its rising momentum.

Fox babies, dogpark, roly-poly puppies 007That is how the dead can be with us, how grief can restrain joy…The next day, the leaf had fallen away, joining others that surrounded the plant, becoming food for its continued growth. In death, still the breath of life.

Fox babies, dogpark, roly-poly puppies 011Grief takes its own time—and must—but what a gentle reminder that winter leads to spring, and death to life. Just the kind of message my Aunt Mary would send me.

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Little foxes, early bees, squirrel, chipmunk, spring 064Another gift of spring has been these darling fox kits, just emerging from their den to smell the world and take a few tentative steps into its songs and mysteries. They make every pore of my being tingle with maternal instinct, but, like everything wild, including my own nature, they also teach me over and over again to respect their boundaries and not interfere with instinctive patterns followed for centuries. So I observe from a distance and leave them to their necessary dance. I hope they will know peace, and comfort, and joy, in whatever form these may be known by foxes. I breathe a prayer and send it to their den at night.

Little foxes, early bees, squirrel, chipmunk, spring 090I read about a wealthy inventor, futurist and engineer who believes people will, eventually, live forever, and who has hopes that his dietary, vitamin, and exercise regimen will allow him to remain healthy until this is possible.

I have no desire to live forever; I just want to be alive for all of the life granted me, and, if I’ve done it well, maybe I can feed the growth of others in their reaching for the light after I’ve gone, breathing still through their lives and the ways they love the world.

Little foxes, early bees, squirrel, chipmunk, spring 101Like my Aunt Mary.

 

© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without Catherine O’Meara’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors.

 

Hallowed Life, Hallowed Death, All-Hallowed

Autumn frost has graced the trail these past few days and walks at dawn have been startling in their beauty: all is gilded with light and dipped in diamond dust. This morning I walked in the low golden light of dawn. Frost had breathed along the sharply cut edges of the grass, leaves, and branches, and scattered their surfaces with crushed crystal.

These are images fraught with dichotomy, revealing both nature’s fragility and its endurance, for even as I photograph the brilliant colors and life encrusted with glittering flashes of light, I am recording its dying; and anticipating its springtime renewal. Everywhere we walk is both a cemetery and a nursery. Every moment holds the yin-yang diminishment balanced with the blossoming of life-death.

Traditional fall harvest celebrations also recognize the paradox of abundance and blessing amidst death and loss. We witness the waning of the year’s light and enter a time of darkness, and so all of the attendant metaphors and archetypes make their annual entrance into our conscious and unconscious pursuits and rituals: death, the shadow, the metaphysical, and the immaterial. We fear our own deterioration and death, and so we mock our decay with heightened, deliberate grotesqueries and dark humor. We’ll trick death by disguising ourselves.

Loved ones who have died often feel closer to our hearts and spirits in autumn. We yearn to connect with them; we honor our ancestors; we recall the dead with stories, and ceremonies, rituals, and reflection.

We sense our own dying as nature dies back to the earth, and we can choose to either avoid these encounters, or quietly and consciously enter and be with them, reviewing our life, “rehearsing” our death, and pondering the miracle, meaning, and mystery of both.

Death, when it’s personal to us, is a close-up, freeze-frame event with a beginning and end. When people, companions, and things we love die, we’re thrust into the sharply-focused now-now-now, followed by days and months of time smearing past as grief shudders through our lives. Our spirits and emotions stagger like clumsy giants caught in the maze of memory and loss. It is a time we often recollect as experienced in shadows, pinned like captured butterflies to grief and its unique mixture of guilt, longing, regret, and emptiness, infused with exquisite sorrow.

But the journey of grief, if we’re willing to travel all the way through it–both alone and with guides and friends to support us–allows us to gain a greater perspective regarding our loss and perhaps rest easier within our own dying. The longshot replaces the close-up, and, in retrospect, we see that death is not a finite event, but only an arc in life’s endless circle. The light returns, and we begin to feel the resurgence it offers, the blessings offered not just by the one who has died, but by the journey through loss itself. Every loss kicks up all the others, and each time we walk with them, we heal more deeply. Our compassion for others’ suffering is more finely-tuned, as is our ability to put the cares of the world into better perspective. The daily round becomes unique and precious, and the mundane is more easily recognized and treasured as miraculous.

When I accompanied the dying on their journeys, I felt blessed by those who accepted death as a natural part of life, and breathed into the journey with love. They grieved their lives and their partings, but they entered the “next arc in the circle” gracefully and with peace. This goes against our societal fear of dying, our healthcare model, and our cultural demands to stay eternally young and to deny death altogether, but most of the many people I’ve journeyed with as their lives changed worlds, have courageously and intentionally chosen this path of acceptance.

Some, of course, preferred the “battle metaphor” perpetuated by our fears and western medical model. From this perspective, death is a source of embarrassment and shame, signifying weakness and defeat. “She’s a fighter!” “Do not go gently!” Their poor bodies were usually ravaged by treatments and drugs and surgeries that may (or may not) have gained agonizing days or months, but little quality time or strength to reflect upon and integrate their dying experience in peace. Their spirits seemed to leave both angrily and broken, and bequeathed the living a legacy of tragic, even fearful memories of the ways one can die.

People who fear death become anxious and parrot popular advice, whether it’s true and helpful or not. I’ve repeatedly heard the lines, “people die the way they live” and “we all have the right to die as we choose,” but my experience has made clear to me that the choices surrounding the way one journeys with death make a huge difference to the dying person and to the peace and the energy surrounding the grief journeys of those who remain. While there isn’t a right, or wrong, or only way to face our dying, there are certainly gradations in denial and acceptance that color the experience. And I have seen that many people do not die the way they have lived; they evolve and transform during the dying experience and exit it healed, granting deep comfort to their loved ones.

The spiritual life is a constant shift between these close-up’s and longshots, freeze frames and moving pictures, encounters with death and renewal. We go within and “introspect” our responses to experiences and loss; we pull back and “extrospect” how these fit into our worldview or gain insights that lead us to alter it. We review and, in retrospect, mine our relationships, experiences, successes, and losses for enriched understanding so we may know where and who we are now. 

Autumn frost invites close-up shots just as autumn colors benefit from long shots; the spiritual life requires a balance between these: both introspection and extrospection are needed as we examine our losses, bless them, heal them as we’re able, and look for the new life they’re generating.

Befriending death, rather than fearing, avoiding, or denying it, is a way of being loving and generous to ourselves and to the entire circle of our journey, and as a practice, it opens a path of gratitude for our lives. We’re continually invited to “heal today,” so that death will be a welcoming and wide-open doorway rather than an experience we’re ill-prepared to meet. Mend, forgive, move lightly, share gratitude, express love, make peace in your life and relationships. Now.

I’m dancing with my life and therefore my death every day, for they are the same partner. And every day, I hope to breathe wisdom and balance my perspectives between long shots and close-up’s; I hope to reflect the beauty of diamond dust at dawn; I hope to feel the peace of the journey; and I hope to rest in the wisdom that it is hallowed and forever.

 

© Copyright of all visual and written materials on The Daily Round belongs solely to Catherine M. O’Meara, 2011-Present. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited, without the author’s written approval. No one is authorized to use Catherine O’Meara’s copyrighted material for material gain without the author’s engagement and written permission. All other visual, written, and linked materials are credited to their authors. Thank you, and gentle peace.