Without Her

A little over three years ago I suffered a loss that took my breath away. It literally swept my feet from under me and changed the way I saw the world. Grief is like no other feeling on earth.  It is vast and deep and terrifying. Until you have lost someone who is so much a part of you, and so much a part of your world that the rooms in your soul echo after they leave, you cannot begin to imagine the coiling monster that is grief.

My sister passed away unexpectedly at the age of twenty four. The cause was not known at the time, and an autopsy took months, but still came back largely inconclusive. In the months between her death and the autopsy results, my family lived in limbo. There was no closure, no real explanation – just time passing, without her.

Losing my sister shook me to the core. It raised questions that I had never considered. It brought my own mortality into view. Whoever you are and however you view the world – at some point something is bound to turn your focus to the big questions. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? What is our purpose?

The big questions never baffled me when I was younger. I held easy and confident answers for all of them. Knowledge and experience are very different animals. All the philosophy in the world won’t bail you out when you are sinking.

For months I lived in a world of questions, platitudes and terrible advice. The things that people say in these circumstances are senseless and horrible. I was told to be glad I had her for that short while at least. They say that time heals all wounds. You need to put it behind you and go on living, people advised. It was her time to die.

Three years (and a bit) later, I can say with absolute certainty that time does not heal all wounds. The body is so much easier to heal than the spirit. When it is a matter of tissue and blood and bone, healing is a natural progression. The spirit does not simply clot and form a scar tissue by itself. You actually have to do the work.

It took me a long time to find the bottom of what I had thought was bottomless grief. Layer after layer I searched for answers, and only unearthed more questions.  When I finally made it through the sadness, hopelessness, bartering, guilt, rage and fury of the many stages of grief, I discovered the journey was directly into the center of my existence, and the road back was a process of examination of everything I knew. It was a road composed of the big questions.

Strangely enough, my answers to the big questions are the same now as I would have given a decade ago. They have not changed, just grown in perspective and conviction. Time has not healed my wounds. There are wounds that never heal. The nature of our existence is experience. What we believe in theory often holds true when we must live it. It is the living that matters.

I believe that when we die our bodies return to the earth. I believe that the essence of our being lives on. Energy does not cease to exist. She is in every sunrise, every blade of grass, every bird call and every star in the sky.

We live on, but never without her.

Republished with permission. Post originally appeared on Treewise

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A Tragic Tale and a Noble Sacrifice

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So many times we read of distant heroes and beautiful places that are brimming with history and tragedy and fascinating events. It is easily forgotten that the land we live on is also full of stories.

Middle Island is located on the southern bank of the Miramichi River just outside of Chatham, NB. It stretches roughly 350 meters long and 100 meters wide. On the South Eastern side there are sandy beaches and calm shallow water. The opposite side faces out into the middle of the Miramichi River. The shoreline is rocky, with much deeper water and docks.

Perhaps just as interesting as the island itself is the fact that a mile or so inland, there is a lake that is roughly the same size and shape as Middle Island. This has lead to local stories about the two being related. Some people credit leprechauns magic with the creation of Middle Island, and thereby the large hole which was left to fill with water and become the Lake.

Middle Island has a fascinating and tragic history. From roughly 1827 to 1850 the island was used sometimes as a quarantine station. Often ships full of immigrants would arrive in the New World containing passengers who were ill or who had died during the voyage. Diseases such as cholera, typhus, small pox and dysentery were common. One infected passenger could carry a disease aboard that would spread throughout the ship affecting passengers and crew alike. Weeks spent in cramped and unsanitary conditions made illness almost unavoidable once it was present.

In 1847 at the height of the Irish potato famine, immigrants were pouring in from Ireland, in search of food for hungry bellies and a way, ANY way to provide for their families. Cargo ships often sailed with a hold full of people rather than goods during this time. One such ship was the Looshtauk, which carried 462 passengers. Of these, it is estimated that 117 and possibly as many as 146 died at sea. Conditions were so bad that the captain was forced to head for the nearest port, which was Miramichi.

Port authorities in Miramichi did not know what to do with the Looshtauk. It was decided that Middle Island would be put to use once again as a quarantine station. Some temporary wooden buildings were erected, and three days after their arrival, the passengers and crew were finally allowed to land on the island.

Within a week two other ships also arrived and were directed there. Between the three ships over a hundred more people died on the island.

It is difficult in this day and age to imagine the conditions that these immigrants faced in 1847. Middle island had a couple of wooden buildings, and as people arrived and grew ill, makeshift shelters and canvas open air tents were set up to accommodate the sick. These very rough shelters were not comfortable, and they were definitely not sanitary. They would offer slight protection from the elements but no shelter at all from the mosquitoes and temperatures.

Supplies were dropped off on the mainland opposite the island and those who were healthy were able to row across and pick them up. A doctor was badly needed, to treat the suffering and dying immigrants. Some sources state that port medical officers had refused to travel to the island.

A young doctor named John Vondy volunteered to help. He was 28 years old. He agreed, knowing that once there, he must remain until the illness had passed. He was aware that this could take weeks or months.

When Vondy arrived at the island he found himself faced with over 300 patients. It is said that he worked tirelessly to relieve the suffering he found there, until finally falling ill himself. In the ultimate sacrifice, John Vondy died on Middle Island.

Today, the island is a recognized historical park. A stone cairn marks the place as an Irish burial ground, and a fifteen foot Celtic cross monument bears the words “bron bron mo bron.” (Sorrow sorrow my sorrow.) There is a walking path that circles the island and an interpretive center where visitors can learn more about the history of the place.

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Republished with permission. Originally appeared on Treewise

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The Season of Faith

No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.” ~ Hal Borland

This has been a long winter. Though the snow did not really arrive until mid December, I have found the cold months colder than I have in many years. Snow still covers everything as far as the eye can see, and I am restless from too much time spent inside. A good friend of mine from Arkansas has been teasing me with photographs of spring gardens. Where he lives, the leaves are still falling from some trees while others are just beginning to bud, and what little snow they got this year, lasted only a few weeks. While we are shoveling, he is raking. While we are purchasing seed for our gardens, he is watching bulbs sprout beautiful flowers. It seems unfair.

This is a magical and meaningful time of year in many faith communities. There are calendars, such as the Baha’i and Iranian which begin on the spring equinox each year. Jewish Passover and the Christian holy day Easter, are also celebrated at this time. In Japan they celebrate a national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day. This day and season have been recognized by many cultures for thousands of years, with feasts, stories, local traditions and spiritual celebrations.

The vernal equinox takes place in March of each year, opposite the autumnal equinox which occurs in September. It is the date when day and night are believed to be equal in length, midway between Yule and the summer solstice. In fact, whether day and night are of equal length really depends on where you are. If you are in the far North, the vernal equinox is the beginning of approximately six months of light, but in the far South it is the beginning of an equal time of darkness. For us, here in New Brunswick, this is the time when the days, which have been lengthening since Yule, reach the midway point and begin to grow longer than the night. At this time the sun is directly over the equator. The Earth is not tilting toward or away from the sun.

This year in the Northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox fell on the 20th of March. Ironically, the sun rose on this day to reveal more than a foot of fresh fallen snow, in spite of nearly two weeks of warm temperatures. It appears, for all intents and purposes as though Mother Nature has decided to extend the deep freeze a little longer.

March can be a terrible month for snowstorms at a time when we are all craving spring and fresh air and green blooming things. After two weeks of feeling hot sun on our skin, smelling the thawing earth and hearing melting water, this seems especially harsh.

Pagans celebrate the vernal equinox with the sabbat of Ostara, dedicated to the turning of the wheel and the welcoming of spring. The themes at this time are those of fertility, rebirth, spring and resurrection. There are stories and myths from many cultures that involve the resurrection of prominent figures such as Jesus Christ, the Roman god Mithras and the Egyptian god Osiris. These individuals rise from the dead, at a time when the season is changing and plants and flowers are also rising. Soon the world will awaken, and the snow will melt. Our rivers will rise and spring flowers will begin to poke their heads upward from the frozen ground in search of sunlight.

This year, my family celebrated the equinox with a snow day. There was much shoveling to be done, supper to prepare, and no sign of the sun through heavy grey clouds. We are all gardeners and outdoor lovers. We are spring fanatics in this house, and we could not have felt further from spring. Since our families are a mix of Pagan and Christian backgrounds, we tend to double up on holidays. We celebrate our own days and also celebrate other holidays with family members. This means a lot of chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs.

Eggs are a common part of celebrations at this time, from egg rolling contests to Easter egg hunts. There is an old urban legend which states that at the exact moment of the equinox, an egg can be balanced on its end and will remain upright. This is mostly fiction however, as the right egg can be balanced, ANY day of the year. It has nothing to do with gravitational effects in relation to the equinox.

Some people dye eggs in beautiful colors, or tell tales of the Easter bunny, who in some versions of the tale lays eggs. The nocturnal hare was considered by some cultures to be connected with the moon, as its gestational cycle consists of 28 days, the same as a lunar cycle. In the wild these hares create nests. Sometimes when they abandon the nest Plovers move in and use it to lay eggs. The myth about the Easter bunny laying eggs may actually come from some confusion that arose when eggs were found in what was clearly a rabbit’s nest.

Our Ostara celebration is generally a simple observation. We have supper together and, well, this year, shovel snow. We save the chocolate and candy for Easter Sunday. On the equinox we are more concerned with frost charts, which varieties of beans to plant, and how to head off problems that arose in last year’s gardens. We are talking about things like drumming by the river and swimming in the lake.

It is hard to believe that such change is so close at hand, while the world is still blanketed in white, but this is the season of faith.

Republished with permission. Originally appeared on Treewise

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Minimizing

I’ve been flirting with minimalism for a long time.

Minimalism is about having what you need. It’s about letting go of things that take up space and time that you would rather devote to something else. It’s a life style that encompasses everything from spiritual awakening to monitoring your carbon footprint. There is a form of minimalism for nearly anyone.

I consider minimalism to be a spiritual affair. Embracing empty spaces and keeping only the possessions that I use is an act of faith. I believe that I will be alright without truckloads of odds and ends. I am not afraid of wanting for anything because I believe I will have the opportunity to acquire things. I will get what I need when I need it.

Lots of people would call me a minimalist. I am not a person who hangs on to “things”. Even as a teenager, while other girls were filling scrapbooks with memento’s and photos and odds and ends I was rummaging through drawers to locate and annihilate anything I didn’t need. In my twenties I was as likely to live in a tent or a hut as a house, and paring down my possessions was a matter of necessity. As I have gotten more settled, my list of items has crept up.

These days, I have too much stuff. I live in a tiny house, with limited storage space. I chose this house on purpose – and I knew that it would severely limit the amount of stuff that I could expect to bring home. I prefer my possessions to be useful, decent looking, well maintained, multipurpose, properly stored and long lasting. I can guarantee that about half the things I own right now, do not fit those criteria.

When you settle into one residence and stay for a number of years, you bring things home. People give you things. Your junk drawer overflows and your closet suddenly houses shady characters you don’t quite recognize. I have lived in this house for long enough to have accumulated things I don’t use, don’t want or in some cases don’t even remember.

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some purging. I’ve been sorting various drawers and cabinets and really examining my possessions. I ask myself, if I charged this item rent for living here, would it have enough opportunity in any given year to work off the debt? In an embarrassing number of cases, the answer is no. If an item is not able to earn its keep, it must fall into one of two categories. It is either a sentimental item that makes me happy, or it is just “stuff” and can be removed. I am a big fan of donating unused and unsuitable possessions. I’ve practiced it most of my life.

There are things that I will never part with, even though I only enjoy them once a year – like certain Farley Mowat books I have been reading since I was in grade two. There are a few movies that I love and watch over and over. These are things I will always come back to, and consider worth having at my finger tips.

Over the next few weeks I will be continuing my purging project, and probably slipping in some spring cleaning. Most of the items I no longer wish to house will be donated to friends, family or charity or sold online. I will store a few very sentimental items that I can’t part with but don’t wish to display.

Minimalism does not have to be about creating a sterile existence and living like a monk. It can be, if you want – but in my case it is about accountability. I want to possess the things I need or enjoy, without being possessed by them. I believe that creating empty spaces encourages creativity. I know for a fact that a clean and uncluttered living space will triple my productivity, drastically boost my mood and increase my energy level.

What are you hanging on to?

Republished with permission. Originally appeared on Treewise

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My Life, Unplugged

From mid 2005 to 2008 I lived in a half built house in the woods with no electricity, no running water and no plumbing. Learning to live unplugged is an experience I think everyone should have at least once, and preferably for a couple of full cycles of the seasons.

I felt vividly alive swinging my feet from the tailgate of a pickup truck parked in the back field. I learned things with a hot coffee warming my fingers and coyote songs raising the hair on the back of my neck that they don’t teach in books.

Modern life is built around electricity. We use it to cook and clean, to charge our gadgets, to run our wifi, computers, televisions and cordless phones. We rely on electricity for entertainment, convenience and comfort. People lose count of the number of appliances that are plugged in and standing by at any given moment. Nobody notices the humming of the refrigerator. We take these luxuries for granted, and then we complain that we feel disconnected from the natural world.

When there is no fridge to keep your perishables from perishing and a hand pump is required to get water from the well, you invent all kinds of new ways to manage day to day necessities. Tasks like cooking, bathing, laundry, food handling and dish washing are no longer simple affairs. There is no time to sit around. This lifestyle requires work, and when the work is done it requires maintenance.

Life doesn’t happen the same way when you live in a shack in the woods without modern conveniences. There is no hot water tank in a house without electricity. There is a wood stove in the winter, the sun or a cook fire in the summer. Tooth brushing is not as simple as turning a tap. Making coffee involves pumping water out of the well, heating it by whichever means is available and drinking it or pouring it into a thermos to keep warm. Breakfast doesn’t come from a toaster. It comes from a chicken, or a garden, or a handful of oatmeal on the wood stove.

The food you eat is less processed when you don’t have a microwave or a freezer. Learning to shop for foods that store well and can be prepared in a variety of ways becomes very important. Growing and raising as much of your food as possible makes sense.

Contrary to popular belief, it is easier to live without electricity in the winter, when cold storage is found on the back step or in a snow bank and the wood stove that warms your house is always available to heat food or water.

Something happens. It’s not all heavy lifting and hard work. You get in touch with the seasons. You become more aware of sunrise and sunset – and if you are like me, you take twenty minutes in the morning and at night to watch them happen. You begin to pay attention to the temperatures, not the weather network. You actually notice the signs of a big frost in the days leading up to it, rather than being told. Extending the growing season becomes a matter of survival and common sense, instead of idealistic puttering and relaxation.

It makes sense to go to sleep a little while after the sun goes down. The light is gone. The day has been exhausting and rewarding. It’s time to climb into bed and rest. When you wake up the sky will be starting to turn a dark sapphire blue. It’s a colour that only happens right before the sun begins to rise. It’s the signal that a new day is fast approaching and there is work to be done.

I live in a different house now. It’s a modern house, on the grid. I enjoy my luxuries as much as the next girl and I understand the impact they have on my life. I still do a lot of the things I did when I didn’t have electricity. I enjoy a lot of the same hobbies and I still grow a lot of my food. Spending time outside and watching the weather and temperatures are high priorities for me.

Since living in the woods I pay more attention to what is plugged in and why. I understand how noisy a house is when you have electricity and appliances plugged in and what a quiet house sounds like.  Every once in a while when the power goes out and the incessant white noise stops I close my eyes and hear coyotes.

Republished with permission. Originally appeared on Treewise

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