A cherished relationship died last week, after a long period of illness. The actual cause of death remains unknown; I suspect, though, that it was just another casualty of the wars that soldiers often bring home with them if they finish a tour of duty.
It seems a cancer of the spirit exists in our human story, created or exacerbated by exposure to ruthless conflict and unyielding, heartless structure. Ignored or denied, it feeds on personal shadows and doubts until it occupies the soul of its host, where it strangles optimism, tenderness, respect and love. The natural flow of nourishment is cut off. Trust gives way to anger, fear and apathy. The illness affects everyone in the family as connections that were thriving and flexible become dry and brittle. Eventually, if left unchecked, it consumes the host--perhaps metaphorically, often physically. Premature death is the result.
All forms change and death is inevitable, I understand. Still, there are certain kinds of pain and brutality that I instinctively view as unnecessary and contrary to the natural order of things...an unclean and complex suffering that spreads like wildfire. The grief left in its wake is compounded by the utter senselessness of the disease. Wildfires, at least, make some logical sense.
Honestly, I can't claim to know what is necessary and what is not. Much as I long to blame something--anything--for this kind of event, I know that it does nothing to resolve the factual pain. It is something that must be embraced and felt through and through, so I don't pass on the crippling sickness of spirit which engendered it in the first place, and so that healing can occur. It is what It Is, and it is never, ever what I think it is.
I drive until I find myself at my favorite liminal place--the shoreline--where brine and freshness meet and merge in perfect accord. An eagle's nest overlooks the shifting, hidden depths of the sea. There is a minus tide, and the wet bones of the beach are exposed to the sunlight. I am drawn like a piece of steel to the magnetic mystery of the rock faces normally veiled in white, lacy foam...in this place, it is possible to be stricken with grief, deep in love and swimming in curiosity, all at the same time. Logic, thank God, doesn't live here. There is no pressure to explain anything, not even to myself. Tears fog up my glasses, so I take them off and let the sand and pebbles make good places for my slow steps.
At the very edge of the water, I almost stumble over the roots of an ancient tree, a marker for the forest that once existed on this spot before the land dropped into the sea during the last great quake, maybe three hundred years ago. I put my glasses back on and look at the pebbles cradled in the wooden hollows near my feet. The waves are small and wash gently over and around them; I see a golden, banded agate the size of a pigeon's egg nestled in the mix of colors and froth, and wait for the water to recede again before picking it up. I hold it to the light, and the sun bounces off the milky lines within.
Attention thus captured, a more boisterous wave sneaks up to splash my shoes; I jump back, along with an old man who has materialized to my left. "Whoa! That almost got us," he laughs, grinning at me.
I smile back, and we have a short chat about the remains of the old tree sprawled before us. I ask him if he is collecting agates, and he shows me a pocket half-full of small ones--gold, orange, gray and almost white. Impulsively, I give him the banded one in my hand, and he exclaims at its beauty. "My wife will be so tickled," he says in thanks.
My heart lurches and expands in love at the image of this man going home to his wife and presenting her with such treasure. There is some kind of blessing...
I continue on, past the edge of the cove, on a shallow beach made safe by the subdued tide. There is a woman there, combing the rocky depressions, lost in her task. I almost pass her by, but decide to ask the same question I had asked the old man just a few minutes before. "Are you collecting agates?"
Immediately, she crosses the short distance between us and shows me a sack full of all kinds of stones--not just agates, but green, red, black and composite pebbles. "I have a rock tumbler at home," she says, as if relieved to speak her passion. "You would not believe how beautifully they come out!"
"Like jewels," I reply. "My grandfather was a rock collector, down in the Southern California desert. He used to cut, polish...he had a tumbler, when I was a very small child."
She lights up. "Ah! So you know...it takes a month, and the tumbler can only do around a pound at a time...but it's so worth the wait!" I nod, and she continues, "I decided to take a 'me' day and just come down here to look. I can't help it. It feels good and brings me peace...kind of like..."
"...Like a meditation?"
"Yes," she sighs, and her shoulders relax. "Exactly. My husband thinks I'm crazy..." and suddenly, she is looking down, as if slightly ashamed. I take a deep, slow breath.
"It's ok," I tell her, wishing I could reach out and hug her, instead. "He just doesn't understand."
"No, he doesn't." The woman shakes her head, and smiles with a distant sadness. I look at her beautiful face, and tell her that I am glad to have met her, and that perhaps I would see her around...and we move on in our own perfect understanding.
I walk to a big rock spill, where seagulls keep watch. I am now wide awake and alerted to strange beauty and synchronous things. I see pieces of the blue sky sunning themselves on stones.
The bare cliff faces loom over me, casting shadows and reflecting the sea where water seeps down to the coarse sand. I am lost in the strange folds and ridges of this cold, volcanic skin, of frozen ripples and eroded explosions. I touch it, lean against it, look up where grassy fringes grow. I am where the waves normally crash, where the water is over my head and roiling, looking at another truth...hard, uncompromising, happily beaten by the tides, slowly formed, polished and occasionally shown to soft, fragile animals like myself.
I am humbled, enjoyed, amazed.
Hugging the flows of silver, turquoise, jade and rust on my way back, words fail to form. Everywhere I turn with my camera, some stunning dreamscape looks directly into me. I read it silently like a love letter, like a missive full of tough wisdom and reassuring solidity and proof that, hard as being is, the variety of beauty is endless, is there underneath, is there with or without my attention.
The message, as usual, is signed:
By the time I return to my car, I am open and washed as the stones I spent the morning--and my mourning--with. I look up to find that someone has sent flowers...not to wilt upon the grave, but to dance alive, with me.