Ashes and Light
The last time I went camping was with Rufus. I have a beautiful carved wooden box that holds what’s physically left of him. I have always planned on spreading his ashes in places we both loved . . . when I was ready. This weekend I put a handful of Rufus into a glass jar and took him camping in Humboldt County, one of our favorite places.
Humboldt County is 200 miles north of San Francisco and is part of the Coastal Mountain Range. This rural county has more coastline than any county in California. It has the largest old growth Redwood forest on the earth. The rugged, ancient and majestic personality of this place always tends to right size my position in the universe and at the same time makes me feel more connected.
It was a beautiful weekend filled with good friends, swimming/floating in the Eel River, starry nights and communing with nature. Unfortunately, Northern California has been hit hard this year by forest fires. While there were no fires near the campgrounds, the wind shifted on the second to the last day and brought smoke from one of the fires. It was a reminder that connection means that we also feel the pain and destruction around us—some of which we are culpable, some of which we can only bear witness.
On my last morning I planned to bring Rufus’s ashes to the river. Although the drought has dwindled the Eel River, it still has some of the most clear and beautiful water you will ever see. At 6:30 a.m. I woke to one of nature’s most obnoxious alarm clocks—the irreverent Stellar Jay. If you’ve ever heard these birds, you know they are the bossy neighbors who don’t own an “inside voice.” There was no snooze button so I pulled myself out of my cozy cocoon, got dressed, and headed to the river with Rufus.
Day was just beginning. The air was cool, the smoke had cleared, and sunlight had started her first salutation. I trudged down the path to the river with some amount of dread. What was I thinking? I should have left Rufus at home in his box. I found a spot where the river tumbled over rocks with that paradoxical sound of stillness. I sat on a large rock in the middle of the river and waited for something to happen—tears, memories, insight—but nothing happened.
Here’s the thing about waiting—you never know when—but it often becomes something else. Something shifted and I thought of my Rufus poem, “This Little Light.” Surprisingly, I found it on my phone and read it to the river, the Redwoods, the rocks, the morning—all matter of snot and tears bubbled up from within me. When I was finished, I was ready to share Rufus with this magical place.
I pulled out the jar and poured Rufus into my hand. I had the notion that I should take a picture so with one hand I held my IPhone and the other I released Rufus’s ashes into the river. Unbeknownst to me, my camera was set for burst (a series of consecutive shots). When I looked at the photos my heart leapt—I could not have staged this if I tried. The photos revealed what my heart knew—my hand had been holding the light. No words . . . only gratitude and love.
Ashes and Light
August 17, 2015
The hazy air mutes the verdant palette
Tiny grey particles float in mass formation
Smoky remnants of life
Forever changed by flames
Cruel dancing spirits that consume
Life eaten before we are finished loving
My hand holds all that remains
Ashy grit of bone, flesh and fur
How can I hold him?
How can I let him go?
The bubbling water knows
Pitter-patter of invisible paws
Belligerent shout of Stellar Jay
Sweet bird song of Varied Thrush
Wind whispers of Redwood bough
The river waits for no one yet waits for me
I open my hand
Beautiful, blazing, heartbreaking, and clear
My dad turns 90 today. I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand, resist or change him. The irony is that my journey has never been about him—it has always been about me. That’s hard for me to say because it feels like surrender. Turns out, I have some Harold in me. He’s a man who needs to be right (a stubborn Swede). However, the problem with win/loose relationships is that no one ever wins.
Over the last couple of years I have come to appreciate a different understanding of surrender—I have had glimpses of forgiveness. This is not a religious kind of forgiveness. There is no judgment based on right and wrong. This forgiveness has no interest in moral high ground or blame because it is not about the other person. It is about the gift I give myself when I let go. There are miracles on the other side of letting go—you see things—things that “holding on” have prevented you from really seeing.
The following vignette, from one of dad's hospitalizations, is one of those moments.
Dad called the house this morning sounding disorientated and frustrated. It was a strange conversation. “The door was locked,” he said with irritation. Mom assumed that he was confused and replied, “Harold, you’re not at home. You’re in the hospital in Eau Claire.” He insisted, “I couldn’t get in,” and then added, “I just wanted to give my wife a kiss.” Mom shook her head and smiled, “I’ll be there soon.” She hung up the phone and we decided that he wasn’t disorientated—he knew where he was—he just wasn’t where he wanted to be.
When we arrived in the hospital room, mom held on to her walker and stood as straight as she could; “Good morning dear.” A nurse was trying to adjust the nasogastric tube in his nose. Dad’s face lit up as he turned his head towards mom. “Oh, here’s my beloved wife,” he almost sang to the nurse. His cheeks had lost their handsome padding and his arms looked so small in the loose fabric of the hospital gown. Plastic tubes sprouted from him like tentacles. The nurse looked at mom and smiled, “Someone has been missing you.” Mom slowly moved from her walker to the side of the bed. With one hand on the bed to steady her she leaned towards dad. He opened his mouth like a hungry baby chick and on cue mom opened her mouth too. They lip-locked in a long and shaky kiss.
Everyone in the room watched—I was compelled to look and wondered if I should look away. I felt like an eight-year-old who had caught his parents in an intimate act. It was amazing—sixty-three years of marriage and these two people still felt this kind of love and passion. My parents’ big kiss ended with a lip smacking pop. It sounded like a champagne cork—a celebration. My eyes glazed over with mist as I settled into a sweet knowing—I have been conceived, cradled and raised by two people in love.
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.