The Circle of Life Brings Comfort

Grief is a horrible thing to experience, and it washes over all of us sooner or later. Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

Personally, I take great solace from the evidence all around us of rebirth and renewal. I will pass away one day, but someone or something will step in to take my place. It will grow through me or out of me or in spite of me or because of me. Nature will out. That’s why Spring is such a glorious, vitalizing time, after the death of Winter.

Recently, this photograph showed up on my cell phone wallpaper, and it really caught my imagination. I mean, here’s a ship, half sunken, abandoned, rusting and rotting away, and enough sand and soil has gathered within it’s broken hull to provide a place for trees to sprout. A ship becomes an island. That intrigues me.

I learned that this hulk started its life in 1863 as the SS City of Adelaide, a steam ship. It was built in Scotland, and had a regular route between Melbourne, Sydney, Honolulu and San Francisco. In 1890 its boilers and engines were removed and 4 masts were added.

By 1902, this vessel was only fit to be a hulk for coal storage, It caught fire in 1912, and it took days to put the fire out. In 1915, the hull was stripped, and what was left was sent off to Magnetic Island to become a breakwater on the coast, but it never quite made it. It ran aground in Cockle Bay, and has been there ever since, slowly turning into an island. During WWII, the hulk was used for bombing practice, but one of the planes accidentally hit a mast, and 4 military men were killed.

I like this story. Created by man and a slave to man’s whims, then attacked by its creators and then tragic retaliation. This thing has now become part of nature. Talk about the circle of life.

While researching this post, I came across many other vessels that are now sporting trees, including this abandoned ship outside of Anacortes, Washington, and also the SS Ayrfield in Sydney.

Mother Nature reclaims everything, if only we leave her alone to do her thing. When I die, I’d like to become compost and nurture a tree in an abandoned ship. I think that would be very satisfying.

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Mid-Month Marvels: PeaceTrees Vietnam

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’m calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

I first learned of PeaceTrees Vietnam because my Unitarian Universalist church donates the proceeds from its collection plate once a month to various charities, and this was the charity in question for January. It’s a Seattle based nonprofit, and it just so happens that an article about it had come out in The Seattle Times that very day as well.

This organization was born out of grief, as many profound things often are. Jerilyn Brusseau, the founder, lost her brother, Dan Cheney, when his helicopter was shot down during the Vietnam War. She knew that her grief was also the grief of countless other families, both in America and Vietnam. Healing was needed. She imagined both groups coming together to turn battlefields into places where new trees would be planted.

Fast forward to 1995, when the United States resumed full diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. That’s when this organization was finally able to take flight, both literally and figuratively. Much traveling ensued to make the necessary connections. The plan had expanded by then, because there is so much unexploded ordinance from the war that nothing could be peacefully planted on these former battlefields, let alone trees.

According to The Seattle Times article mentioned above, the US has dropped three times more bombs on Vietnam than they had on both fighting theaters in World War II. The heaviest bombing occurred in Quang Tri province, which is PeaceTrees Vietnam’s focal point. Only 11 of the 3,500 villages in this province escaped the bombing. The failure rate for these cluster bombs, shells, landmines and grenades was so significant that it’s estimated that 800,000 tons of unexploded bombs were left behind in the country, and to this day they still take out innocent children and farmers who are simply trying to survive to a shocking degree. There is much work to be done.

For the past 25 years, PeaceTrees Vietnam has been doing that work. They sponsored munitions experts to train landmine clearing teams. They educated children and families about avoiding bombs. They opened a landmine education center for children.

As the land began to become habitable again, PeaceTrees began building homes, kindergartens, libraries and community centers. They also have a scholarship program, and in addition they teach farmers how to grow black pepper in the now farmable fields.

I am very intrigued by the citizen diplomacy trips they hold each year. They allow you to travel to Vietnam and meet the people, visit the schools, watch the demining in action, and plant trees. There’s also time for tourism in the large cities. I’d love to take that trip someday. I think it would allow me to see the country in more depth than a simple tourist jaunt would.

The work must continue. Just recently, after some major flooding and the accompanying landslides, seven 500-pound bombs were exposed and had to be dealt with. Only 20% of the land has been cleared.

To learn how you can help support this organization in its noble efforts, please visit their website here. And since you’ve taken the time to read this far, perhaps take a moment to look about you and appreciate the fact that you can most likely walk anywhere in your area without worry about being blown to pieces. It must be terrifying not to have that sense of confidence. People in Vietnam are sometimes blown up while working in their backyard gardens. Next time I’m harvesting my garlic I vow to remember just how lucky I am.

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In Honor of the 200,000

By the time you read this, we’ll have blasted past 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in America, with no end in sight. That’s an inconceivable figure. Its so large that most of us can’t accept it.

That’s 200,000 grandparents, parents, siblings, children, friends, loved ones. Every single one lived and laughed and worked and loved and mattered. If each of those people only had 5 people on earth who loved them (a very conservative figure, in my estimation), then there are 1 million grieving people out there, right now, and it has only been 6 months.

We were all devastated by the victims of 9/11. Now imagine that 9/11 happened more than 67 times over, or basically every other day since this pandemic started. That’s what would have to happen to get to 200,000 deaths in that tragedy.

This is a grizzly thought, but given the average height in America is 5’6”, if you lined up the 200,000 dead head to toe along some rural highway, they would stretch for 208.33 miles. Driving at 52 mph, it would take you more than 4 hours to pass all those bodies. Seriously, that’s a lot of soul-crushing loss.

And lest we forget, dying of COVID-19 is a horrible way to go. Each one of those people suffered. Each one struggled to breathe. Each one felt as if he or she were drowning in their own bodies. And they weren’t even able to have a loved one there for comfort. They died all alone.

And the vast majority of these people died needlessly. Other countries have demonstrated that the death toll doesn’t need to be this high. Our COVID-19 death toll is 597 deaths per million Americans. That may not seem like much until you compare it to other countries. New Zealand has had 5 COVID-19 deaths per million. Japan has had less than 12 deaths per million. Venezuela has had 17 deaths per million. Greece has had 29 deaths per million. Australia, 32 deaths per million. Egypt, 57 deaths per million. What’s it going to take before we realize that something is seriously wrong with the way we’re handling this virus?

We need a leader who leads by example. One who doesn’t disparage those who wear a mask. One who does not encourage his base to congregate, maskless and shoulder to shoulder, to worship him. We need adequate testing. We need accurate reporting. We need financial support. We need supplies for frontline workers as well as the general population. We need a president who actually listens to his own staff, multiple members of whom have come forward to say that they’ve begged him to wear a mask, to set an example, to only share accurate information rather than insane speculation, and not politicize this virus.

In honor of the 200,000 people who can no longer do so, please be sure to vote in the upcoming election. Their silence was forced upon them. We have to speak for them. Please vote.

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Unresolved Issues

A few years ago, long after someone I loved very much had died, I discovered that he had done something pretty much inexcusable. The thing is, what am I supposed to do with that? I can’t fight with him. I can’t hear his side of the story. I can’t kick his sorry butt out of my life. Having died, he’s pretty much trapped in amber, forever there, and yet not there. I’ll never know the full story. I’ll never know what possessed him to do something that awful.

And on the other side of the coin, when I was about 6 years old, in a fit of pique because my grandmother had broken a beloved toy of mine due to her failing vision, I called her stupid. And then she died shortly thereafter. I never got to apologize. It brings tears to my eyes whenever I think about it. It’s not like she did it on purpose. I hope she knew I was being a silly child. I hope she forgave me. I’ll never know.

I think the worst part of grief is the unfinished business. The things you never get to say. The things you never get to hear. The questions that will never be answered. Part of you seems forever frozen in time.

I’m thinking about this today, because I heard a great quote on Tales from the Loop, a TV show that I’m binge watching.

“Things are special because they don’t last.”

That’s very true. If we all lived forever, our relationships wouldn’t be special. They’d probably become tedious and we’d definitely take them for granted. There’d be no issues to resolve because we’d probably stop caring. We’d know each other so well that we’d have it all figured out, and nothing would really matter. Forever is a long time.

So I’m going to try to focus on the fact that there were special things in my unresolved relationships. There was good. I hope this will smooth out the amber that they are encased in in my heart. Because I hate having them surrounded by raw, jagged shards. It hurts.

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My Fraught Relationship with Harvest Moon

The first time I heard the song Harvest Moon by Neil Young was around 2016. That surprises me, because the song came out in 1992 and I love Neil Young. How did this one pass me by? Of all his songs, this one is now my favorite. But every time I hear it, it hits me in the gut.

The first time I heard it, I was in a bar with a couple friends. I hadn’t been in the Seattle area for very long, and I was feeling very much like I didn’t fit in out here and never would. I was still grieving the abrupt and unexpected death of my boyfriend, and I felt extremely fragile.

On top of all that, this was a crowded venue with a live band. I only knew my two friends, but they knew pretty much everyone. I always feel marginalized in crowds, but this situation seemed to magnify those feelings.

And then the band started playing Harvest Moon, and like magic, everyone paired off and started to dance. Everyone, that is, except me and three guys across the room who weren’t looking at me at all. It was such a romantic moment. You could just feel the love. And I was all alone.

I missed my late boyfriend so much that it was a physical ache in my very core. And I felt as though I would feel this bad for the rest of my life. I had no idea how I’d survive that.

“Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again…”

I burst into tears. I retreated to the bathroom. And then I had to leave. I cried all the way home.

Now, whenever I hear Harvest Moon, I remember that night. But fortunately things have changed for me. I did find love once more. I am no longer lonely. I can’t believe that I get to be happy again. I look forward to dancing with my husband to that song someday, should the situation present itself.

But I’ll probably still have a tiny tear in my eye, even as I smile and thank my lucky stars. Music can sure evoke deep and complex emotions, can’t it?

Harvest moon

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Don’t Give Me Grief

Etymology fascinates me. Where do words and phrases come from? I’m constantly intrigued.

Just the other day, I heard someone say, “Don’t give me grief.”

Grief and its verb, grieving, are states that I’m all too familiar with. It’s a natural part of life to be devastated by the loss of someone you love. It’s also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But to say that grief can be given, as if you can box it up and hand it to someone, like the world’s most ill-conceived birthday present, is a bit of a stretch. It’s also kind of insulting to the griever.

No, grief is too personal for that. It’s not something that is presented to you, fully formed, from some outside source. It’s what you feel. It comes from your very heart and soul.

No two people grieve alike. There’s no standard timeline (and anyone who tries to force you into one is clueless and rude). There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve.

Your grief is all yours. You most likely don’t want it. You can’t be blamed for wishing it would go away and leave you alone. But grief is the state in which all of us get to reside, at one time or another. In all probability, you enter that realm without warning, and have to blaze your own trail, in hopes of coming out the other side, much altered, but hopefully stronger for it.

Grief is caused by the loss of someone. It strikes me as wrong to say that it is given to you by someone. After all, it’s not as if you can say, “return to sender.”

Don’t give me grief about this. I know what I’m talking about.

A box o' grief

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Helpless Stress

Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.

No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.

It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.

The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”

If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.

You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.

Helpless Stress

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What Took You So Long?

It’s heartbreaking when a beloved dog dies. People who don’t have pets don’t understand, really. They become like your children. Only, if you lose a child, there’s a vast support network. When you lose a dog, people expect you to snap out of it. They nervously offer up something about the Rainbow Bridge, and then they feel like their job is done. They don’t want to dwell on it. That makes it really hard to grieve.

I’ve lost a lot of dogs in my lifetime. It absolutely destroys me, every single time. But I try to comfort myself with the fact that I always do all that I can to give my dogs safe, happy, love-filled, and comfortable lives. And they give me so much love in return. There’s no greater gift. “You are my person, so here is my heart.” It’s a rare human who is that generous.

The last time one of my dogs passed away, some fool said, “You can always replace him with another one.” I nearly lost it. My dog is not like a toothbrush. It’s not like just any old dog will do. “Honey, while you’re out, can you pick me up a carton of milk and a new dog?” None of my dogs could ever be replaced.

Having said that, though, you’ll probably be surprised at what I am going to say next. I sincerely believe that when you lose a dog, you really should get another dog as soon as possible. That’s what I have always done.

No, I don’t mean the dog you lost can be replaced. In fact, no two dogs are alike. I’ve had a unique relationship with every single pet I’ve owned.

The reason you should get another dog, and soon, is that you are needed. There are so many dogs out there who are desperate for love and nurturing. You have a lot of love to give.

I know many people who have been so heartbroken by the loss of a dog that they never get another. That devastates me when I think about it. Because there’s a dog out there somewhere that is supposed to be loved by you, and that dog isn’t getting that love. It’s so sad.

I know the pain of loss is horrific. I know that you don’t want to go through that again. But do you also want to never experience that kind of love again? How can you pass that up? There’s a dog out there, just waiting for you. And when you go get him, he’ll say, “What took you so long?”

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Keeping Christmas

In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge utters a line that I’ll never forget: “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” As detestable as Scrooge may be at first, that sentiment has always made sense to me. Christmas should never be forced upon anyone.

Part of the reason that I see a spike in jumpers at my drawbridge at this time of year is that when you’re depressed, being told that you’re supposed to be merry simply because it’s that time of the year is, well… depressing. It’s almost as if you have to bear an additional burden of guilt during this season, because you’re not feeling all Joy to the World.

And people seem to forget that there are as many ways to celebrate the holiday as there are celebrants. Some people are extremely devout and focus on that aspect of the holiday. Others are secular and celebrate mainly due to family tradition. Some people go all out, filing their yards with a million lights, synchronized to music, and buying gifts for even the most distant of relatives. Others are very quiet and discrete in their observance of the day. Some don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Everyone has a right to keep Christmas (or not keep it, for that matter) in their own way.

I must confess that for a few years, there, I wasn’t really keeping Christmas at all. When Chuck, the love of my life, died in 2014, I just couldn’t find it within me to even acknowledge the day, really. I didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t exchange gifts or go to any holiday events. In fact, I basically did my best each year to keep my head down and pretend the holiday didn’t exist.

Since I’m not a Christian, my Christmas focus has always been about love and family and warmth and togetherness. And suddenly I found myself all alone. I really didn’t see the point in even trying to go through the motions, when that tsunami of grief was liable to wash over me at even the most unexpected of times. I wandered through an emotional wasteland, where all the mistletoe had long-since withered.

This year, though, I’m starting to slowly lift my head and come out amongst the living again. I’ve attended a lot of holiday events both alone and with friends. And while I still can’t justify the expense and effort of putting up a tree and decorating it when I’d surely be the only one to see it, I did decide to decorate in my own special way. The first step was taking my Christmas box out of mothballs.

I pulled out my Christmas lights, and affixed them to my bedroom wall in the shape of a (decidedly abstract) tree. (Those Command removable hooks are one of life’s great inventions.) I replaced those lights that had burned out, and that process made me reflect on the passage of time.

Decorating was a bittersweet experience. I realized that on some level I had really missed my Christmas ornaments. They’re almost like family members that I had been neglecting. Each one has a story. There was the Nisse that my grandmother brought from Denmark. There were the many ornaments my mother made for me, and some that I made as a child. Many are keepsakes that I got during various vacations, which brought back happy memories. Some were gifts from friends. I chose a few of my favorite ornaments to hang on my abstract wall tree, and I must say, they made me smile.

And then, like a blade through my heart, I came across this ornament that I had made for Chuck. I had forgotten all about it. I held it in my hand and tried not to cry. But I decided to hang it anyway, because he will always be a part of me.

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Another hard moment: Deeper in my Christmas box I came across the stocking that I had cross stitched for Chuck. I can’t remember if I ever had the opportunity to fill it for him. We only had 4 years together, and I don’t know when I made it. But I decided to hang it on my mantel so that the stocking I made for myself wouldn’t look quite so lonely. (I haven’t had a mantel since 2010, so it seemed worth decorating. Nice to use it for something more than a place to show off my book, which incidentally, makes a great gift. Just sayin’.)

After I finished decorating, I looked around, and felt rather proud of myself. Yes, I’m still alone. Yes there were tears in this process. There will probably always be tears. But I’m home. It feels like home.

To celebrate, I participated in one more tried-and-true holiday tradition: The annual humiliation of the uncooperative dog.

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From my house to yours: Happy Holidays!

Facebook Drops a Bomb

Recently I got an e-mail from Facebook. “Today is Chuck’s birthday! Let him know you’re thinking about him!” A better question would be, when am I not thinking about him? Since his death my life hasn’t been the same.

Were it not for Facebook I might have made it through that day without the occasional heart squeeze of memory. It might have been business as usual. I might not have been sitting here in a blue funk.

This is not the first hand grenade Facebook has dropped into my life. It does this “memories” thing, which I’ve turned off in my settings on multiple occasions, but it always seems to pop back on. Memories of Chuck. Memories of beloved dogs that have since passed away. Memories of my cock-eyed optimism that never quite panned out. It sucks.

I don’t suppose it’s Facebook’s fault that I lay my life out on their site for the world to see. They don’t know which memories are happy and which ones I’d like to forget, or at the very least, remember at a time of my choosing. Their algorithms don’t allow for the fact that context changes. People change. Memories change.

And then to make matters worse, I went and visited Chuck’s still active Facebook page. (I just can’t quit him.) He was so loved. And I saw a picture of him that I’d never seen before. That cut right to the heart of me. There he was, sitting, being his unwittingly sexy self. I wonder what he was talking about? He was smoking a cigar. I hated when he did that. But if I could have him back, he could smoke one every single day, for all I’d care.

So far, the joy I get from connecting with friends and family on Facebook far outweighs the occasional shiv to my ribs that it delivers. I guess it’s not Facebook plunging the knife in, really. It’s life. It’s just life.

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Chuck.

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