A Huge Life In A Tiny Box

(Sorry for the blur but this is the only picture anyone thought to take.)

A couple weekends ago we drove down to the little town in Nevada from whence my people come and buried a small box in the cemetery there.  It contained a variety of things; a seashell, photos, an old, scribbled note in a silver-plated box with blue velvet lining, a thank you card, a George Washington $1 coin from the U.S. mint presidential series, a Chinese coin, pictures of two Hindu saints, downy feathers, a secret bundle, and a handful of ashes from my mother who died over two years ago.

Some of these things belonged to her and others were things we thought she should have.  The seashell and feathers–because she adored the ocean and migrating birds.  The Hindu saints–because they guided her in life, so how much more important that they be there with her afterward?  The secret bundle–from a secret person for secret reasons known only to them.  And the ashes because they were a last, little part of her that we could come and visit whenever we felt the need.

The old note, I found a couple months after she died.  It was a short list of prayers folded up inside the silver box and stashed with her jewelry, dating from about a year before she died.  The prayers were written in this order:

1)  For an improvement in her health (which clearly didn’t work out so well).

2)  For ten million dollars invested in a trust yielding 8% a year (also a no-go). 

3)  For greater clarity (yes!…she was having amazing breakthroughs and insights during her last months).  And,

4)  A last, loving wish for enlightenment and peace for the whole world. This was the one that made me cry.  It was so like her, my mother, forever toting the world around with her in her bottomless basket of good wishes.

I spent days before leaving for Nevada sifting through the mementos of her life again–through all the deep, swirling emotions they resurrected–looking for the right pieces to place inside the box.  Because my mother believed in reincarnation I carefully tucked in the list…just in case prayers carry over from one life to the next.  The coins went in for murkier reasons even I don’t entirely understand; maybe as a token for the wealth she craved, or as an irrational but oh-so-necessary payment to the Boatman for safe passage, or perhaps just because they were made out of metal and would still be there long after the box itself decomposed.

Six of us came to sit around that small, square hole in the ground, drinking water and wine, soaking up the sun and wind, toasting her memory and telling her stories.  We had a folding chair for each of us and an extra one where we set the box.  We occasionally grew raucous, sprinkling wine over it after a toast, because sometimes remembering in the midst of great loss can just do that to you.

Before we placed the box down in the hole, I opened it one last time so we could have a look inside.  The wind rustled the downy feathers and then blew one out, whisking it over the hillside below us.  It floated above the headstones…more like a butterfly really, than the bird it came from…before finally rising higher, then higher, then higher into the sky.  We all stood transfixed and staring, following its lovely escape in surprised silence, but the same thought was in each of our minds.

Look!  Look! There she goes!

Afterwards we took handfuls of dirt, one by one, and threw them into the hole to cover the box, and with each handful we cried or laughed or were momentarily still…throwing our prayers down for her, too, along with the love of others who couldn’t be there.  With the first handful, grief overwhelmed me and I sobbed on my knees, unconsciously dragging my dirty hand across my forehead and cheeks.  I had no idea why I was doing it except that the grit across my skin felt welcome and good; raw and sharp enough to match the scraping of the wound inside me.

It was the leading edge of a brief but wild storm, and once it passed I felt calmer and lighter for it.  Cleansed and good.  Eventually we finished and, after replacing the small square of turf over the loose dirt, we packed up our things and traipsed off to the city park to eat a small picnic and finish the wine.

I like to think of that small box now, pressed down by the weight of dark, moist earth and already starting to decay, its cache of love and prayer, life and joy, seeping out into the ground like something with a half-life of ten thousand years.  It never ceases to amaze me, how relentless this great current of Life is that flows through us, spilling down from one generation to the next like a perpetual champagne fountain, as if we were ever-widening tiers of crystal flutes constantly filling and spilling simultaneously.

My mother is gone but the huge gifts of her life are still washing down through the bewildering number of other lives she altered just by existing here for a while.  They’re inside all of us who loved her and passing on into all those we love in our turn–inside everything she touched and every place she passed through.

And as of a couple weekends ago those gifts are now inside that tiny box, too, buried up in the high desert mountains where they will be leaking their grace for generations to come.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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Ghosts and Cemetery Babies

The Haunted Lodge built back in the 1920’s

And now for more from our recent trip to the Olympic rainforest.

The hubster and I were surprised to learn that Lake Quinault Lodge, where we were staying, is haunted.  Famously so.  The Lodge has been featured on a couple of supernatural-styled TV shows.

We were surprised because we heard nothing of ghosts during our first stay in 2008, even though we stayed for two whole weeks.  Perhaps the locals were too busy recovering from the recent hurricane at the time, in which case we forgive them.

Evidently, the ghost is named Beverly and she died when one of the original structures on the property (the boathouse which served as a kitchen) caught fire and burned to the ground back in the nineteen-teens.  Beverly was trapped and burned to death and she’s been hanging around the property ever since.  She’s reported to be a nice ghost and is usually detected in two favorite rooms.  (According to a helpful comment from Josh, evidently “the lodge staff call her favorite room, The Beverly Suite.”)  We were thrilled to learn that one of her haunts was the room right next door to ours, where she likes to open windows that overlook the lake.

(Once I found out about her I invited her to come over to our room a few times, but she refused to be lured.  Our windows remained firmly shut.)

The story that really got us excited though, was a personal anecdote from Michael, the activities director of the Lodge.  He once owned and ran the small mercantile/cafe across the street, and in those days guests from the Lodge regularly spilled over into his establishment.  In fact, on our first trip the hubster and I frequently haunted his cafe ourselves as the food and coffee were to die for.

(Intentional pun.)

Michael told us that one day, a woman came into the merc who was clearly agitated and it didn’t take much prompting to get her to tell him what happened.  She said she’d checked into her room earlier that day and, while unpacking her bags, turned around to discover a woman standing across the room behind her.  The guest became angry and demanded to know who she was and what she was doing in her room.  The strange woman explained that her name was Beverly and she worked at the hotel.

The guest immediately went down to complain to management that one of their employees had trespassed in her room, only to be told that they didn’t have an employee named Beverly.  She was further upset when, upon discovering her room number, management explained the trespass with the story that her room was a favorite haunt of a well known ghost named Beverly.  At this point she’d evidently had all she could take and, returning upstairs, repacked her things and left the hotel, stopping only to pick up a few sundries across the street from Michael’s mercantile on the way out of town.

I’m fascinated by these kinds of personal stories.  I always have been.   Partly for the delicious, spooky thrill involved, but even more so because of the peculiar demeanor that comes over a person who’s been involved if you can get them to talk about it in the first place.

Which usually isn’t easy because unless it’s on a hotel tour, around a campfire, or at a slumber party, we all know we’re not supposed to discuss ghosts, unseen things, or any other kind of experience that isn’t scientifically explainable yet.  At least not seriously and not if we want to have any reputation left afterwards.

I don’t understand the reasoning behind this and it bugs me.  As with so many other subjects, I believe that talking about it openly would be healthier.  I’ve always noticed when I can get a person to open up about an odd kind of experience, most of the time they’re eager to talk in a way that feels like a dam bursting.  Having to hide these things seems to build up varying degrees of internal pressure.  In cases where the experience is not particularly significant, the pressure is small and there’s no real damage done to the person keeping the secret.  But if it’s either a traumatizing event (as it clearly was for the woman who left the Lodge in a huff,) or a meaningful experience (as is often the case when the recently bereaved are experiencing a sense of presence of their lost loved one) then this pressure to remain silent can become a burden.  In a worst case scenario, it can even start to interfere with a person’s ability to cope and heal.

This strikes me as pointless and stupid.  I’m by no means opposed to verbal taboos as a general rule.  Some of them are valuable and essential.  Like not talking about sex in front of small children, or not saying cruel things about someone who died in front of someone who loved them, or not talking throughout the movie in a theater full of other people.  I’m totally on board with taboos that serve to nourish and strengthen our communal ties.

But this taboo against discussing strange, spooky, or mystical things doesn’t do that.  In fact it does exactly the opposite.  It takes a significant chunk of common human experience and puts it in the back of a closet where it can no longer be shared, explored, tested, eventually understood, and then utilized.

Poo on that.

Moving on, Quinault has a tiny, lovely cemetery that I fell in love with on our first trip and returned to take pictures of during this last visit.  Judging from the housekeeping, the ties between living and dead in this place are clearly still vibrant and celebrated.

As you’d expect of an old graveyard full of the original homesteaders and their colorful descendents, it’s fascinating to stroll around listening to the stories the headstones and other grave adornments have to tell.

I loved the patriarch of this family who was clearly a testy, old lumberjack.  Since our first visit the fern has almost completely overgrown the headstones.

Someone is still coming to sit and drink with Will here, as evidenced by the total lack of rust on the beer can.  Whoever it was left some liquor behind in one of the bottles for him.  There was an ache of memory in the gesture that moved me.

Some of the residents clearly came from money:

While others were remembered in less costly (and less enduring) ways:

Indeed, there were quite a few open areas among the gravesites and I stepped among them gingerly, hoping and praying I wasn’t walking on someone.  In a rainforest environment, anything less hardy than stone disintegrates at a rapid clip and I suspected many of the earliest grave markers were probably lost to the elements.

Here was the age-old tale of a couple who couldn’t live without each other.  Duane died in 2004:

And Maxine followed him less than a year later:

But as always the most poignant graves were those of the children.  In this cemetery there seemed to be an endearing custom of putting them to bed for a final sleep:

From youngest to oldest, here we have baby Kristan:

…little toddler Alexander:

…and six year old Trevor:

I was so glad and grateful that these children were here, in this close-knit, tiny cemetery surrounded by elders who would know who they were, who would be sure to look after them.  I know it would be harder for me, to bury a child in a big, sprawling cemetery somewhere, surrounded by strangers.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn