Random Burn

Today I awoke in a forest.

There were lush trees, active critters, and a kind of quiet that only occurs when nature is at balance with itself. I looked around, breathing in the rich scent of vibrant foliage, and listening to the happy song of feathered souls who seemed to welcome me into their wild garden of joyful peace.

Ahhhh…

… I sighed a long exhale. This is exactly what I need. After a tough 20 months of learning how to navigate family connections outdoors, community connections online, and shifting my focus from a broader range of social influence, to the one-on-one… boots on the ground… deep in the trenches of mentoring and supporting those suffering from domestic violence… a forest reprieve is sincerely in order.

I took a few sweet and slow inhales, reflecting on the gains and losses of the last year.

I gained a renewed relationship with son who has been emotionally out of my reach for far too long. After years of misunderstood conflict, a blur of unspoken good intentions and a bridge of trust that threatened never again to be repaired, a little ray of hope emerged… and amidst a pandemic, he contacted his mom. In a time of social distancing and families struggling to define normal activity, this boy came back to me with caution, doubt and heavy family baggage, which we have clumsily navigated, but have not given up!

I gained the love of winter and non-weather dependent adventure. Heading into potentially another winter of restrictions, I am less worried about how we will cope or connect. Getting creative and brave in the cold is a fun challenge. I am so grateful for the opportunity to flex the forgotten, carefree muscles that enjoy snowy campfires, sunny snowshoe walks and blizzard shoveling (which is oddly soothing and reminiscent of my youth).

Yes, youth… it is in the rear-view mirror, as I have ‘gained’ my natural hair color back through the pandemic, grey streaks falling from my temples and framing the rounder cheeks that were well fed and over-indulged in the name of comfort and happiness. So many gains!!

A smile cracks from my lips that have just polished off an apple pastry. It was not only delicious, but deadly, as my doctor has cautioned that some precautions may be necessary soon to lower my cholesterol. Can’t believe I just mentioned having high cholesterol! Yes, my youth is evasively slipping past limbs and ligaments; like the wind I feel blowing through this forest undergrowth, gently bringing fresh oxygen to tired lungs and renewed energy to breathe.

Breathe.

I thank the gains. They are good. And, I am okay.

But there has also been loss. The woodland around me seems to dim as I turn my thoughts to the things that were taken this year.

My volunteering with community and church has shifted into almost no face-to-face interactions. Pretty tough for a gal whose primary love language is affection. The way I express love to those around me is through hugs and reassuring touch. Not much of that has happened through zoom calls, casting doubts on whether any good came of my efforts.

There has been a loss of my work role. Loss of grandparenting time. Loss of travel that was meant for celebrating important milestones. Loss of promoting and selling a book that was monumental to finish. Loss of vision for what goals and dreams lie ahead, and loss of purpose when I can not show up for my family and friends.

The losses are mounting in the darkened shadows of evergreens and underbrush. As sadness creeps along the forest floor… I must name it.

We lost people.

Daughter lost a babe who was not yet named or framed, leaving a profound impact, the depths of which are still being layered into a delicate tapestry of family identity. While she is expecting again and feeling healthy and strong, there is always an open pause for that precious unmet expectation.

Hubby’s dad left us six months ago. The pain of not being able to visit with him in the previous year will likely not subside for a while, so I reach into my recall of what grief looks like when we lose a parent, and I am reminded… no two experiences are identical. This will be different and all we can do is hold each other and wait for love to heal the things that hurt. Love will take us from this hard place to a time when we notice the joyful things again. There is no rush. There is no deadline.

Breathe. Breathe.

I closed my eyes, hoping that the forest and my mood would brighten, allowing the waves of sorrow to dissipate with each breath. But when my eyelids parted, a different scene was before me. The forest had opened into a pathway that urged me to follow.

At first the trail was rocky and ascended more steeply than I cared to tread. The sense of urgency grew, so I diligently ascended multiple switchbacks; my heart racing from the exertion of the climb, until a clearing appeared. But this was not an alpine meadow with droplet flowers or mossy mounds.

This place was decimated; the lush vegetation gone. Silver trunks stood, some still smouldering and the smell of charcoal hit my senses like the last dregs of a neglected campfire. My feet slowed to take in this wonder, as I tried to decide if this was beauty or horror ahead. Shiny, singed needles from large Pines fell from the skies, gracefully falling to cover the path ahead and provide a thick cushion for my dampening steps.

All was silent.

I turned full circle; wondering where the creatures went, wondering which direction to go, lost in the heavy hush of this recent devastation.

But, this was somehow also majestic; something that the torrent had changed, but not completely destroyed. Much was gone, yet much remained. The insistent urging lead me deeper into the thicket of blackened stumps. Stumbling toward a circle of charred evergreen trunks, I mused briefly about the irony of very little ‘green’ to behold here.

Clouds of ash puffed upwards under the weight of each step, slowing my pace and enriching this experience with a potent olfactory memory.  I had been here before, but when? I took a few more muted, sluggish steps, then came to a halt as though wet cement had swallowed my feet. Confused, I looked down and saw it… the scorched outline of a starfish.

I blinked several times to be sure I was seeing this accurately. Yes, it was a deep imprint of what looked like the outline of a starfish, and where its tube feet should have ended, there were disappearing holes into the ground that lead to blackness. How did a massive starfish find its way into the middle of a dense wood?!

Almost before that question launched fully from my consciousness, the answer was clear. Amidst the array of stubble and stumps of coniferous and deciduous giants that were able to survive partially from the blaze, some were taken fully. Engulfed by a flame so intense, even the roots of this tree were gone, leaving only an impression that it existed at all. I stared with curiosity, mentally comparing this imprint with other trees I passed along the way that had been unscathed; patches of scorched grass leading up their bark, but causing no harm, and I thought… what kind of blaze chooses like this?

Breathe. Think. Remember.

As my eyes lifted from the ground, I saw a sign posted near the edge of the starfish outline that had not been noticeable before. I moved closer, avoiding the holes left behind – half out of respect, half out of a fear of vanishing into them – to read the sign. It looked like a memorial message, perhaps lovingly placed by someone who survived the fire.

The script was simple and as I read it, my fathers familiar voice became my narrator… and I realized, I was not awake.

Random Burn – 2021

My legs buckled and smoky ash billowed out from where my knees hit the charred ground. Suddenly, I knew this place very well… too well. This place is death. And life. And, I am lost again for meaning and words.

“Good-bye, daughter”.

Throat, lungs and legs failing, I croaked out a stingy reply…

…until we meet again, Dad.

AJ