Healing My Grief with Creativity, Part 2
Maybe a greater acceptance of death can inspire me to live every day with more delightful intention. Every breath is a blessing.
January 23, 2019
I work through the morning answering emails, but by lunchtime I notice an uneasiness; I feel off-center. I have more tasks to do, but the heaviness in my chest has returned. My meditative art session yesterday opened up my grief, mollified some of my sadness… but there is still more to feel. Again, I confront the mind-heart conflict: To express or not express what is in my heart. Today I quickly decide to fulfill my needs for peace, tranquility, and beauty. There is no other way… Trust the process… It is a clear, sunny day with temperatures in the 60’s. I will visit Mother Nature, sit with her in solitude, inhale her sweet air, commune with her plants and creatures, and grieve.
In his book Writing to Awaken, Mark Matousek, defines solitude as, “rich, inspiring, and restful; replete with space and possibility…time alone is precious, a refuge where you can practice meeting yourself in the mirror of the blank page.” Yes, that is what I will do. I will run into Mother Nature’s open arms and meet my sadness on the pages of my journal. I trust will be comforted. She is my refuge.
When I enter the wetlands park, I see an osprey hovering over a pond. In a split second, the bird tilts nose-down, its white belly flashing in the sun, and hits the water head-first: Splash! The raptor emerges sans fish, then ascends back up the sky to re-strategize. Better luck next time, buddy. I approach the visitor pavilion then pass by the boardwalk loop where several photographers, some outfitted in camo gear, have set their cameras on tripods. I select a secondary walking path with no people visible. Solitude. Solitude. I walk with my journal in hand, binoculars hanging from one shoulder, and enter the present moment. I chuckle as I consider the drama inherent in watching an osprey hunting. Mother Nature’s live action shows are so much better than any movie. Instinctively, I scan the ponds on either side of me and name the native wading birds and waterfowl, my feathered friends:
Great-blue heron, anhinga, cormorant, white ibis, coot, common gallinule, wood stork, limpkin… yes, all the usual suspects… Krr-eeeow!
Krr-eeeow! Krr-eeeow! gurble gurble… those limpkins, they make such a racket… how would I describe their call to someone who has never heard it… a caterwaul? yes, that word fits… The call volume is so intense, much louder than any other bird’s here… a high-pitched cry followed by a low guttural rattle… what are they declaring so forcefully, I wonder? I’m here! I’m hungry! I’m here! I’m hungry! Maybe.
Limpkins are such beautiful birds: A cross between a heron and an ibis, sporting nut-brown feathers with triangular white flecks, and long curved beaks, perfect for dislodging apple snails from their shells. They often leave behind empty shell clusters along the pond edges… so many apple snail cemeteries…
Oh, a feather on the ground! Check it out. Brown plume, white tip… a flight feather? Probably from a limpkin… Oh, feather, what do you have to teach me? What would you say if you could speak? “A bird made me, I flew to the heavens, my aerial feats are over now, let me inspire you…” Ah! I almost dropped it… The wind is blustery today! A winter’s wind… but not uncomfortable. As soon as the sun’s heat on my neck and shoulders feels a bit much, the breeze cools me down. Homeostasis, balance. That’s what I came here for. To grieve and return to center… Okay, let’s do this. I find a spot on the trail to sit down, a raised grass mound next to a pond. I settle and begin to write these and other observations in my journal.
After about 20 minutes, I survey the area. There’s no sign of approaching runners or walkers. No alligators crept up near me while I was writing. All is safe. I lie on my back on the grass and stretch out into a starfish, palms facing up. I am like an alligator, basking in the sun, resting and digesting. I gaze at the white clouds set against the bright blue sky. Mother Nature sure can sure paint scenery with perfect contrast.
The wind is pushing clouds across the sky, but the breeze feels good on my face, like a lover’s caress. I close my eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Be here now. Enjoy this precious gift of time. As I soak in the sun’s heat, my thoughts turn to the people close to me who have died over the last four years: My father in March, 2015; my mother in August, 2016; a cherished cousin in January, 2018; and an aunt in November, 2018. And now my friend, Judy. The tears start to flow and I let them come. Then some sobs. More tears. More sobs. Then stillness. My sinuses are full to overflowing. I open my eyes, sit up, and reach into my purse for a tissue. I glance at the pond and spy a hawk-like raptor circling around the edges. Is it a hawk? No… No! It’s a Snail kite!
I feel overjoyed to see the snail kite, a rare bird sighting here (the bird is listed as endangered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection). In recent months snail kite sightings have increased here, however, due to the invasive apple snail breeding proliferation. Also, some researchers found a snail kite nest in a nearby preserve—an auspicious sign! My trick to identifying this dark-bodied raptor: A broad, white horizontal band extends across the underside of their dark tail, so when the bird turns mid-flight the band catches the sun. I fumble for my phone to capture a photo or video; after about a minute I stop. Trying to record this moment will take me out of this moment. Just enjoy. So, I do. For several more minutes, I watch the snail kite riding the air currents, hovering then swooping gracefully to water level, skimming the surface, then ascending again. A lovely dance of flight.
Wait… What are those little birds? Swallows! Have they been here this whole time? About a dozen bat-shaped daredevils with triangular wings and cut-out tails dart, dip, circle, and glide effortlessly around the pond at speed, flashing their white undersides. Talk about avian eye candy… How I wish I had been born a bird! And how I wish I could handle the wind currents as well as they do… little aerial acrobats. The snail kite eventually lands on a tree branch on the far side of the pond, the swallows disperse, and my nature microcosm returns to stillness. I notice I feel more settled, more centered than before I arrived.
I reach in my pocket and pull out the brown feather I found earlier. The feather inspires me to create some artwork before I leave. I begin picking up rocks from the crushed gravel path and follow my intuition. I make a stone mandala in honor of those whom I have lost in recent years. As I place each rock in a circle, I give thanks for the wisdom I gained from knowing each person. I think especially of my friend, Judy, a fellow bird-lover. I dig a small hole with my index finger and place the feather in the center of the inner circle. In Sanskrit, “mandala” means “sacred circle.” A friend once elaborated on this definition: The circle becomes sacred because of what you put inside it. That idea resonates for me. Making mandalas reminds me that even when I feel broken, I am whole. There is always space to grow. Who will find this mandala after I leave? What they will think about it? Maybe it will arouse their curiosity. Maybe it will somehow help them feel more whole if they are feeling broken, like me.
On my walk back to the visitor pavilion, I contemplate the variety of plants growing around the perimeter of the ponds. I don’t know many of the plant names (I’m more of a birder than a botanist), but I notice some plants are growing new shoots while others are decomposing. Water lettuce and some wild grasses, for instance, are green and thriving, but adjacent to them patches of dried-out lotus pods lean over their tall brown stalks, dejectedly; they are like tired soccer players hanging their heads after a loss as they walk off the field. In addition to the plants, I notice the remnants of a disemboweled fish and a mess of brown feathers on the grass (probably from a limpkin). Which predator leaves only feathers? Alligators would eat the bird whole. Maybe a bobcat?
I reach the pavilion area and sit down on a warm wooden bench; it feels good to rest. I check the time on my phone. I don’t want to leave. I wish I could stay and don thick, rubber waders, slide quietly into the ponds, stand still as a heron, and watch the multitudes of wading birds up-close as they stalk and catch frogs and snakes in their pointed beaks. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Ghosts,” about the vagaries of mortality. In the last few lines she alludes to a dream in which she witnesses a calf’s birth, then imagines kneeling down next to the mother and baby: “in my dream I knelt down and asked them / to make room for me.” Yes, Mary. Yes. I hear your longing to connect with that beauty… I share it, friend. I wish the herons, anhingas, cormorants, and wood storks could make room for me. I imagine digging two holes, one for each foot, and planting myself here in the wetlands. I imagine shedding my skin and growing next to the tall grasses in Spring. I imagine weathering the fierce summer storms, the torrential rains, and the winter cold snaps. And by the end of Winter-Spring, I imagine keeling over like the lotus pods, ready to call it a lifetime. Maybe I become food or shelter for some fellow creature. Maybe my seeds will germinate and reproduce more of me. Or, maybe I am already dirt.
As I soak up a few last minutes of the sun’s rays, I notice two park rangers standing nearby, clad in brown uniforms, gazing upwards. What do they see? I hear the soft cheep! cheep! cheep! calls overhead before I focus my binoculars. Oh, my! High in the sky, two circling birds come into view: White heads, yellow beaks, dark bodies, wings akimbo, white tails… unmistakable. A pair of bald eagles. Oh, Mother Nature, you never, ever disappoint! God, I love this place. My heart lives here, even if I do not. I’m so grateful for this day, for the peace, the quiet, the solitude, the presence of it all.
Visiting Mother Nature in solitude reminds me that I am made of the same stuff as other living things, and we share one destiny: Every day that we live, we come one day closer to death. One day, my breath, the source of life, will stop. And one day, like all other living things, I will become part of the landscape. As I write this, I feel a pang in my heart and I wonder, is that a morbid consideration? I don’t know. It’s the truth. Maybe a greater acceptance of death can inspire me to live every day with more delightful intention, to know absolutely that every breath is a blessing.