Death & the Afterlife

Life turned upside down a few months ago, flipped inside out and imploded, as it does on occasion. Total nightmare.

Oddly enough, when my world came undone, I was writing about seasonal triggers and the fact that I’m not a huge fan of October, its startling shock-of-blue sky and outrageously ostentatious trees, due to the fact that so many traumatic events have occurred in my life during that particular month. Call it prophecy, or even a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will—each makes for an interesting topic of conversation in its own right; either way, my essay heralded yet another disaster, which presented itself on the high heels of October’s habitually melodramatic arrival. So predictable. But despite the inevitable sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the constant hypervigilance I always seem to experience at this time of year, I was still utterly, hopelessly unprepared. God help me.

‘Well, isn’t that just the way,’ my Grandma H. would say. I can almost hear it now.

Transformation often comes calling when I’m doing my best to avoid it. Change never seems to arrive when I’m on the ball, all jacked up and equipped like MacGyver, but instead, it usually appears when I’m hiding at the back of the closet, shaking in my boots behind moth-eaten coats, or in my ratty housecoat, obliviously watching old reruns of Three’s Company on the couch with my good buddies, Ben & Jerry. And while it may knock gently at first, much like the Big Bad Wolf of the Three Little Pigs fame, change doesn’t typically wait too long before it huffs and puffs, and blows the whole house down…

Miraculously, I managed to crawl through the remaining weeks on scraped hands and bloody knees, until I reached the other side of October. Unfortunately, I’d survived only to be blindsided by another seismic shift a few weeks later. The earth trembled beneath my feet. Hurricane force winds of change blasted through my life with such magnitude, the air was sucked out of my lungs, and for days, I couldn’t breathe. Roots shaken, I was forced to bend so far, in every possible direction, I thought I’d break.

“I’m not bamboo, dammit, I’m a human being!” I screamed at the universe.

I had no idea how much more I could take, but I knew it wasn’t a lot, because every day, waking up to face another sunrise, I could hardly believe I was still here. It felt like death, and in a way, I suppose it was. A part of me had to die, so that a truer, more authentic part of me could finally begin to live. And here we are, at last, ready to confront the purple elephant in the room.

What happened?

But it’s not really about what happened (death), in my opinion, what’s most important is what came next (the afterlife), and since this is my story, I get to tell it however I like. So, anyways, I died—figuratively speaking—and after that, everything fell apart for a bit, as you might expect. I stopped going to class, couldn’t eat or sleep, and most days, didn’t even bother to get dressed or brush my teeth before I took the kids to school. Apparently, the dead have no pride.

Honestly, life just seemed far more bearable when I had some peace and quiet, coziness, warmth, and soft, comfortable things against my skin: my starry sky flannel pajamas, a divorce hoodie sent from a new friend, an old pair of yoga pants. The rest simply required more effort than I was able to muster. I walked a dark, lonely road at the edge of an overgrown forest, and although sensed a light in the distance, it was pitch-black where I stood. Couldn’t even see my hands in front of face, let alone two steps ahead, as I stumbled blindly into unfamiliar territory, ready to take my chances. Sometimes the unknown is better than the devil you know.

There were many moments I wanted to quit, stop moving forward, and just sit by the swamp of sadness until it pulled me under. But I refused to give up. Through was the only way out.

“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost

It’s taken time to dig my way out of the wreckage and build a new normal.

In the beginning, for days on end, I paced the rooms of my suddenly-too-big house, moving this or that. Scrolled social media incessantly, searching for something… I still haven’t figured out what it was. Wandered the empty beach alone. Ate too much junk food. Soaked my sorrows in a scorching hot tub, lathered my body in lotions fragrant with essential oils, and bundled up in blankets to watch sappy movies with my dog, who nuzzled my ears as I bawled into her fur.

I snuggled with my children, took time to breathe, and slowly settled into a new way of being in the world. I sat with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, though I desperately ached to run from it, and for the first time ever, in the History of Me, I understood that the fires of pain had a purpose, not unlike fire-fallow cultivation, a slash-and-burn agricultural technique used to clear land for new growth. On a deeply personal level, I experienced a similar process of ground-clearing, cultivation for new life.

I welcomed it. Watched orange flames burn the old away. Exhaled.

Ah, quietness.

When it was over, I leaned into the stillness, and just listened. Tuned out external voices and tuned in to the perfect rhythm of my strong heart beating in my chest. Every day, even if it seemed next to impossible, I found something to delight in, because when it hurts, the best medicine is joy. Joy opens the door to gratitude, and gratitude is a direct path to love, healing, and abundance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not happy-go-lucky in the face of chaos by any stretch of the imagination, and there have been many times I have felt terribly ill-equipped to handle the challenges before me, particularly recently. I think it’s normal. Any death is brutal. But in the afterlife, among the ruins and devastation, the little things have given me a reason to carry on, filled my soul, and kept hope alive.

On the last full moon before Christmas Day, November’s Mourning Moon, I stood outside and performed a private ritual under the stars. Ritual is important, because it adds power and gives meaning to significant occasions in our lives, and in this case, it really seemed to matter. I wrote down a list of what I intended to release and let it dissolve in a glass of water drenched in moonlight. I let go. And since that night, the light at the end of this long, gloomy road has gotten brighter. I’m almost there.

I have nearly reached the other side.

*

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an axe to the prison wall.

Escape.

Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You’re covered with thick clouds.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon

comes out now.

 

“Quietness,” by Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

*

For My Trail Angels:

Besides the regular conversations my tribe lovingly accepted as par for the course lately, which have basically saved me, nearly every other day, a friend or neighbor has also gone the extra mile to remind me I am seen, loved, and never alone. My beloved trail angels. In her inspirational and highly acclaimed memoir, “Girl in the Woods,” Aspen Matis describes trail angels, kindred souls who leave goodies, such as bags of fresh fruit and jugs of clean water, along the path for through-hikers (another trail term for those who travel the entire length of the PCT). In my own life’s journey, I’ve met my fair share of trail angels, people who kept me going strong along the way through their generous gifts of love…

I hope every single one know how truly grateful, and deeply honoured, I am.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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