Death In The Family

Photo Credit: Pete Longworth

Transmutation is defined as a change in state.

A short time ago, I walked into the woods. White winter snow dressed the ground and the trees stood bare in the afternoon light. A frozen river marked the trail I walked along and the sounds of my snowshoes kept me company. Spring warmed the day with intermittent drips and the prints of animals that had walked before me settled in their melting space.

I carried two carnations.

An acting teacher named Stanford Meisner famously said that in order to grow, you have to kill your parents. It was never intended to be a literal quote, at least, it never came across that way to me. I understood that he was saying, in order to become my own person, the relationships that ushered me into life had to change.

I buried my Father in a small copse of woods: pine trees ascended in clean lines to the sky, funneling a channel of light down to his final resting place and one white carnation. I felt good about leaving him here. I thanked him for the priorities he made in his life: the blessing that has been my life directly results from his choices. The week previous, I would not have had this perspective on him or my own life.

I kept Mom close to him so that they could continue on in the fashion they’d become accustomed to, caring for one another, kindly. One red carnation, she rests near a bend in the river, and with spring now in full swing, I conjure the sounds of its gentle rolling rhythm. She took care of me in ways that I never knew I needed and my every interaction with the world is a direct result of her influence.

Entering these woods, I had wondered at the emotion that might arise from consciously uncoupling from my folks. Leaving these woods felt like the most positive thing that I could have done for our future relating. I experienced that in the letters I wrote: they expressed the most positive aspects of my relationship with each of my parents. Being able to gift these letters to my parents within the week of writing them is a blessing that has changed our way of relating.

Much of my life I have spent judging my parents based on the information I gathered as a child. Today, I am able to see that that child had no frame of reference for the interactions of adults. As a child, the emotions churning through my being were incredibly powerful, hard to feel and difficult to communicate.

The way I experienced my childhood left me thinking that distance over depth was safer. I knew that it felt better to not hurt others. I wasn’t so interested in getting hurt either. I have never been clear which was more important.

In some respects, it hasn’t been much of a life. I have traveled to interesting places and spent years on the road collecting experiences, stories, and skills. I have read great works of fiction and trashy novels. I have watched Love, Actually in three languages about twenty times. I have been in environments where all there was, was water and I have been in places where not a drop of it was found.

Through all of these expansive interactions with people, though things have been interesting, I haven’t always been available. For friendships and for lovers, things remained buffered and insulated. As an example, in Barcelona, I once lived in a Benetton ad: a mad Englishman, a lovely French woman, and a kind man from Mexico. We met while living in a hostel, where a con artist took a bunch of us out for hot chocolate on a day that it snowed. He then fled the city with a thousand euro of other peoples money.

I felt so lucky to be living with these people that I made a room behind an armoire just to be near them. It must have worked for them too, for they invited me to do so. I used to marvel at how sweet these strangers were to one another, how they made a family out of each other. I tried to be one with them; often I was so hard on myself, it was probably the trying that left me feeling awkward. I haven’t been in touch with any of them for decades.

In burying my parents, I was able to appreciate the moments they sacrificed for me, their gifts of character and value and the times I was too much to handle.

I attended two more funerals in those woods.

I buried this version of myself, the isolationist who prefers books to people. He died sad and lonely, unable to acknowledge his responsibility: for the path he walked; the ways he chose to push people away; playing the victim. His goodbye was a somber affair in a cool corner of the woods with kind attendees who spoke of always liking him and yet, never really knew his heart. He lays there in the dark, still lamenting his being as some broken thing.

The other burial was filled with celebration of a life well lived: that man I am birthing is engaged with life and says yes to it. Nestled in sunshine that shone from the south, this plot of land overlooked a narrow island shaped by the raven river’s current. He appreciates opportunities presented with gratitude and curiosity.  His rudder is love and compassion and the expansion he nourishes will leave an impact to be felt for generations.

These funerals created space for me to believe in myself. More than that, they crafted space for me to see my parents, not as my parents but as people doing the best they knew how to do, products of their own childhood. I learned compassion for them as human beings and in recognizing my old way of being, I freed the choice to choose a me that I believe in.

I wasn’t born an individual.

I was born a member of a tribe. I was raised with values and influences that have shaped the person that I am today. I pay my respects to each link in the chain of those who came before me. I learn many things at the knee of my ancestors and their influences thread through my life to this moment.

Each spring is a time of change, of new births. Each ending itself is a new beginning. Each gestation requires an act of creation.

I trust the source of all things and receive a clear signal: take care of yourself; be kind to yourself.

My work of becoming gives birth…

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