Giving Death Space

I have yet to watch Halt and Catch Fire, but some words in a recent review of the series by Todd VanDerWerff caught my attention.

“The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens,” VanDerWerff writes.

“It’s not the shock of the moment. The important thing about … death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain?

The reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant,” he contends, “is because those shows give their deaths space … what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.”

His words stayed with me because these days I frequent that space, as do many others this year, surrounded by the unspoolings of our lifetimes.

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Throughout our lives, we move in and out of that space, depending upon where we are in the trajectory of our own life events. It’s an archeological museum set in a jungle of memories that we visit in our minds – a museum where the exhibits are photographs and letters; the artifacts are gifts received and things passed down; the audio-visual components are fragments of conversations, the memory of a laugh, the reciting of a little poem written long ago and captured on a cellphone.

But what’s really on display is the magical realism of memory.

In the beginning, when the loss is fresh, the museum never seems to close. But as days and weeks pass, the museum – almost imperceptibly – starts changing its hours. It pops up unexpectedly during dark hours, like the Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Or at an art gallery. Or sprinkled throughout the 65,000 hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent. 

I learned about art and books from my mother, and I like that she’s still alive in these moments, popping in for surprise visits – never staying long enough for a cup of tea or chat, but leaving an impression every bit as vivid as what I’ve always thought of as reality.

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Like dreams, these memory moments are ephemeral, yet still wickedly visceral. I’ve come to count on them in that empty stretch of space, the wake of her leaving.

And so, I decided to take my house off the market and I’m not going out as much for now. Instead I’m giving this recent death space, while staying open to surprises and marveling at what pops up to play with my mind when I least expect it.

Like this fragment of an interview with Father Greg Boyle I happened to catch today on NPR. He was asked if he was scared of death. No, he replied. Then, quoting the Dalai Lama, he explained:

“It’s not the end, it’s just a change of clothing.”

 

[all photography by me ~ from Barcelona, Seattle & Asheville]

 

 

 

Never Never Land

When I was in middle school, my mother succumbed to what was then the new trend of writing and sending out copies of “the Annual Christmas Letter.” Each of the five of us had our own small paragraph in which she deftly summed up an entire year in just a few lines.

The year I turned 14, I was a bit dismayed to read that my paragraph in the Christmas letter contained the following: “Kristin once again dressed up for Halloween, perhaps this will be the last year.” The sigh of “will she ever grow up?” was not lost between the lines.

Fortunately for all, the appeal of writing an annual missive soon waned for my mother and she resumed sending each friend and relative a handwritten card.

And I eventually moved to Asheville – the land where everyone, regardless of age, still loves to dress up.

Every day of the year.

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Finding a Magical Japanese Dragon & a Cupcake on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachia can be a magical place – often when you least expect it. For example, a few months ago, while hiking in the Smokies, Tom and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a collection of woodland trolls.

But on today’s hike – roughly 1969 miles south of Katahdin, Maine – the magical encounter was with a burly hiker with the unlikely name of “Cupcake.”

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Does this man look like a cupcake to you?

No matter. Experienced AT thru-hiker and blogger Evans Prater explains that trail names often describe a quirk, habit, or funny mishap a hiker has endured. These nicknames add to the sense of uniqueness of each hiker – to the sense of escape, personal discovery and soul-searching each individual is on the Trail to experience. Hikers are are given the freedom of a new life and a new identity by the simple act of changing their names.

In the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, there is a split second when you first look at something, a moment when all you experience is the form the universe has created. And it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists – an acceptance of the universe just as it actually is – nameless, formless.

And so it was with “Cupcake.” I did not ask him how he got his name or who gave it to him. It didn’t matter.

I was more interested in the stories in his trail weary skin – especially the fantastic, colorful creature crawling up his leg, baring its sharp fangs at me.

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“It’s a Kirin,” Cupcake explained, “a Japanese mythological creature.”

Japanese? I asked.

“I’m a quarter Japanese,” replied the burly, red-haired, Scottish, lumberjack-looking dude matter-of-factly, as if I was unable to tell from his appearance.

Research later revealed that Kirin is the Japanese form of the Chinese “qilin.” The kirin is often depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail instead of the tail of a lion. It is also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot.

Kirins are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. They are usually depicted with raised forelegs, flames around their bodies and wings to help them fly across the sky – all of which may help inspire weary hikers on a 2,190 mile trek.

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They are extremely gentle creatures and never step on grass and insects as they move around – very much in keeping with the philosophy of nature-respecting, long distance hikers.

A Kirin is also a good omen – thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. They appear when all is right with the world.

And so it was this afternoon, as we briefly crossed paths on the Appalachian Trail and compared body art – one, a day-hiker with flowers inked on her leg; the other, a thru-hiker committed to months on the AT with a Japanese dragon on his.

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A brief exchange stories, the sighting of a magical creature, hours spent in fresh air and the ancient beauty of the Smokies.

Moments when all was right with the world.

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Wishing Cupcake good trail karma over his next two thousand miles …

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… and whatever lies beyond.

 

 

What Lies Beneath…

One morning, a few months after we moved into the Ashevillage (back when we lived in the house we lived in before moving into Casa Mia), I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and staring out the window…

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when I saw a car pull into the top of my long driveway.

That wasn’t unusual and so I waited to see if it would drive on down to the house or just turn around – as cars pulling into my driveway often did.

But neither happened.

Instead, I watched as the car door opened and someone got out.  Then whoever that person was walked around to the trunk of the car and pulled out a shovel.

That’s a bit odd, I thought, continuing to soap the dishes and stare out the window.

The stranger closed the trunk and then, shovel in hand, walked down the road along the top of my garden.

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About half way down the the property line, there looms a rather large metal power pole.  It’s not very attractive, but the forsythia has always been so voracious on the hillside

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I figured at some point it would win the battle for control of the landscape and cover up the tower.

The person (I still couldn’t tell if it was a male or female) stopped at the large metal power pole, looked around, and then started digging around the base of it.  In my garden.

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Eyes still glued to the scene unfolding on the hillside, I dried my hands.

My rational self quickly tried to take control of the situation – perhaps it was someone from the city utilities department?  But the not-so-rational voice inside my head didn’t for one moment believe it.  Weird stuff was going on up there, for sure.

The stranger continued digging away feverishly around the base of the power tower.  The dirt flew for a few more moments and then stopped.

The stranger knelt down, pulled something from the pocket of his or her coat, and put it in the ground.

What the heck?!  I wondered.

(Actually, my thought cloud contained a different word, but for the sake of the general readership, I won’t use it here.)

A moment later, the shovel was back at work, covering up the evidence.

Fascinated, I continued to watch.

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A few moments later,  the stranger got up, swept off the dirt from his or her coat, and walked back to the car at the top of my driveway and got in.  The car reversed out of the driveway and drove away.

In case you’re wondering why didn’t I just go out there and ask what was going on –

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well, this is Appalachia and many people in these mountains have guns and I’d heard that on occasion they do actually use them.

And a homeowner interfering with the burying of evidence in her garden just might be such an occasion, I thought….

So in the end, I did nothing until after the stranger had vanished.

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Then I climbed up the hill to check out the area around the base of the tower, but apart from some disturbed dirt, nothing else seemed amiss.

Several days later, the phone rang.

It was Laurel, the lovely woman from whom I’d bought the house.  She had purchased it to renovate and re-sell, but had not actually lived in it herself.

We chatted for awhile and then I mentioned the stranger with the shovel.

Oh, that was me!  she laughed.

That was you?  I asked, incredulous.  What on earth were you doing?

Burying crystals, she explained.  It was something I meant to do before you moved in to the house, to protect you.

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Concerned about potential negative energies emanating from the large metal power pole, Laurel had handcrafted pieces of orgonite – a mixture of catalyzed fiberglass resin with metal shavings, particles and powders – and buried them around the base.

After a little research, I had a better understanding of her gift.  Orgonite is believed to have positive energy and helps create an electromagnetic-free zone.  Crystals buried pointing away from your own home are thought to help deflect negative energy or transform it into positive energy.

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What an incredibly wonderful introduction to life in the Ashevillage.

Ten years later, I am sure it is still there, buried somewhere under all that forsythia and sending out good vibes to the new inhabitants of the house on the hillside.