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Precious Life is Slipping Away

japhie ritual fan
my son making a ritual fan for his great grandmother’s river ceremony
On Saturday morning my last living grandparent died. It feels like a fortress has fallen and death will come next for my parents, then me. The permanence of it is sinking in. Whatever stories I didn’t gather I won’t gather, and the remaining stories we do have will fade away, like all the photos in the dumpster when we cleaned out the condo after my other grandparents died. 
She was 96. She got to hold her great granddaughter before she died, and a stroke before her last stroke made her more appreciative, effusive, and loving, which allowed great healing for my aunt, uncle, and mom.
Amazingly she died when my whole family–minus my mom and aunt who stayed with my grandmother–was gathered together on the Tuolumne River, carrying on the family camp tradition that she created in those mountains, on that river. She went as a girl, my mom went as a girl, I went as a girl, and now I bring my baby girl. She died in the morning of our last day there, giving us enough time to create an evening ritual. We gathered on the banks of the river and took turns sailing off objects with stories of appreciation and wishes for safe travel to the other side. I believe her spirit was with us.
The next day I got to visit the family camp that burned down. Every building that hadn’t changed, that had been exactly the same since I was thirty and twenty and thirteen and three, was completely gone. But I wasn’t devastated. Three years have passed and I knew it was gone. Instead I felt comforted by what was still there: the place, the rocks, the spot on the Tuolumne River where I want my ashes spread. Thankfully, some things change shape very slowly.
My grandmother wasn’t the kindest person. She was self absorbed, she struggled with empathy and compassion, and she could be sharp tongued and mean. I’ve heard we are genetically most similar to our grandparents, and I haven’t always been comfortable with my resemblance to her. But anyone who has tried to fundamentally change who they are knows that all qualities have their flip side and I appreciate her legacy of strong will, independence, and ferocity, as well as her intelligence, love of travel, and mermaid blood.
A friend recently died from an ectopic pregnancy. She was younger than me, and had two boys. We don’t know how much time we have. On our last night at family camp three years ago as the ashes of the rim fire were falling all around us it didn’t occur to me that our camp could burn down. I hope my life is long and rich with a relatively easy exit like my grandmother’s, and that my grandchildren can be there shaking ritual rattles, sailing pinecones and wishes for me down the Tuolumne River.
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I’m Getting a Hot Tub!

IMG_0036I’m buying a hot tub. I can’t believe it. I’m really going to do it. All my life I have wanted a hot tub. As a kid I couldn’t understand why every grown-up who could didn’t have one. I’d dig ditches and my sweet father would line them with plastic sheets and boil pot after pot of hot water and dump it in. Once, when I had the chicken pox, I spent an entire week in the bath: talking on the phone, eating, and doing homework.

I spent my twenties seeking soaking: from Osento–that funky women-only spa with the naked sunbathing deck in the middle of The Mission, to Sykes, Cougar, Big Caliente, and the free Berkeley hot tub in someone’s backyard, accessible if you had a friend who knew the code. One salty foggy morning a friend led me down the cliffs near Stinson Beach, where we were greeted by a steamy spring full of jubilant hippies, a gathering only possible at the full moon’s super low tides. Another quiet early morning outside of Taos a lover and I descended some steep cliffs to the Rio Grande to share a spring with an old Indian man, soaking his arthritic legs after a previous day of hunting. Gradually other folks came by to talk about the moose seen earlier, a rare and auspicious occurrence that created a sense of temporary but sacred community.

My thirties were a dry time full of striving towards adulthood: I don’t even think I took baths. I got married, completed my doctorate, bought and remodeled remodeled a home, got a career staff position in a counseling center, and had a baby. At thirty-five I began to feel like a ghost and spent the second half of that decade trying to shed the trappings of adulthood that didn’t fit me: an unhealthy marriage, high-stress full-time employment with little autonomy, and house-poor home ownership.

Why Not Now?

Now I’m 41. “Middle Aged.” Someday has arrived and I’m done with seeking approval or permission from some nebulous authority. Who is the authority? Am I the authority? Am I a grownup? I think I’m a grownup!

The Garden Starship

I’ve started asking “Why not now?” If there’s something missing, is there a way I can make it happen with the resources I currently have? For example: the Garden Starship. I love our 600 square foot home but wish we had a guest room. I found myself not fully living here now thinking, “Someday I’ll have a home with a guest room, then life will really be grand!” But why not now?  Could we now? We got a 1968 Aloha trailer off Craigslist and painted it orange with purple stars. Sometimes the littlest things–for me, putting herb-flower-feather arrangements on neatly folded towels–can be deeply fulfilling. We put the trailer on AirBnB and now there’s a significant inflow of money that allows me to invest more in my home. It makes practical sense now to spend money and time gardening and even practical sense to buy a hot tub!

During my Saturn Return I used The Artists Way to work my way out of the turmoil that also met the criteria for a depressive episode. One writing exercise asks you to choose five imaginary lives. A few of mine: cowgirl, singer/songwriter, mermaid, therapist. Therapist was the only one that made practical sense. That career path had never crossed my mind but it felt right intuitively and I went for it. I have never regretted it and it has been deeply fulfilling. Until now I haven’t thought to ask for more, but what if I can fulfill in some form all the diverse and myriad parts of me? Like be wild and independent (my interpretation of a cowgirl), make up songs on the ukelele, and be a mermaid in a hot tub? And so my friends, I leave you with this:

Make space in your life for daydreams then listen to them. There might be a modest way for them to take form here now. You are the authority. Is there a step you can take? Maybe it’s not so crazy. Maybe you can.


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Engagement Grief

IMG_5853Choosing someone to spend the rest of your life with involves grief. “Decide” has the same root as “suicide” and “homicide”; it means you are killing off your other options to embrace this one. Yes, it is beautiful: you have chosen someone you love so much. Likely you are highly compatible, perhaps you are going to create a family together, and you’re choosing to share your life journeys. There is security, a feeling of being chosen and special, there is giddiness, excitement, and there’s rest.

But what about the grief? With every relationship there are things you won’t get. You’ve chosen to commit to this person so those things aren’t deal breakers, but they are important. It’s normal to feel sadness, confusion, resentment, and anger soon after the engagement. There is real loss that needs grieving. For instance, you might never have sex with anyone else. That is a big deal! There may be things your partner won’t do, or can’t. If you identify as bisexual, this one’s obvious. And chemistry, even if it’s great, tends to settle with time.

Now is the time to grieve all the things you’re losing. Let yourself feel the weight of them, and let them be big things. Maybe your partner isn’t a morning person, or a night owl, and you are. That might be really sad! For the rest of your life, you’re going to wake up happy next to someone who can’t share that with you, or stay up late alone. Perhaps you disagree about the way you make and care for your home. That is a difficult, every day thing. Maybe you’re an artist and your partner can’t really understand or enter that world with you. Maybe you love sushi, or backpacking, or musicals and your partner is just never going to share those things with you. Maybe choosing this partner means choosing a certain geography or lifestyle. Even if you like it it still means grieving the geographies or lifestyles that may now be closed off to you. That’s sad! Let yourself feel how really sad that is.

It’s important to let yourself feel the weight of all this. Face it, feel it, grieve it, and let it go. Give yourself the time and space to work through it: write about it and have conversations with friends, a counselor, your partner. When planning all the logistical details of the wedding, don’t neglect the emotional work behind the ritual. Do the grief work so you can arrive at grounded celebration. It is through grief that we find gratitude. By facing, accepting and letting go of what isn’t you can wholeheartedly enjoy and cherish what is.

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We Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye

Eighty-nine percent of relationships end.* So why do we consider them failures for ending, or worse, consider ourselves failures for having so many “failed” relationships? Relationships are glorious cauldrons of growth, and often one of us outgrows the cauldron and is ready for something new. This can be painful and sad, but it is also beautiful. How can we celebrate the growth and gifts a partnership has given us while also holding the the hurts and resentments? How about a ritual? I recommend creating one around these six steps**:

1) Express resentments: Take turns sharing with each other all of the resentments you are currently feeling. While one person shares, the other listens.

2) Express apologies: Now take turns expressing everything you’re sorry for. Some apologies might match up with the resentments, others won’t. Only express what feels authentic; there may be things you’re not ready to apologize for and that’s ok. Again, take turns sharing while the other person listens.

3) Forgive what you can: Forgive your partner for anything you’re ready to forgive them for. This doesn’t necessarily mean you condone their behavior; it just means you understand their actions in light of their limitations.

IMG_3660_10244) Share everything you’re thankful for: What did you get from this relationship and what are you taking away? New knowledge and skills, experiences, specific things your partner did, or ways they supported you and allowed you to grow.

5) Share everything you loved and will miss: Let yourself grieve in the presence of the other person. Let them know how much they and your relationship meant to you.

6) Say goodbye to the relationship in whatever way feels right: Maybe you each share some hopes for the other and together blow out a candle.

I recommend setting up the space to be beautiful and sacred, as you might do for a wedding. Perhaps you burn some sage or sweetgrass or light candles. Maybe you even have witnesses, the family of friends who supported you as a couple.

Recently I had the honor of facilitating such a ritual for some friends and it was as beautiful and moving as some of my favorite weddings. If your partner is unwilling to do this with you you can have a friend or therapist stand in for them and listen as you share your feelings. If you have done or do this, please post or share your experience below!


*A statistic we came up with at Steve Bearman’s Power of Goodbye workshop by adding all the participants’ relationships and then counting how many of them ended. The true statistic is likely higher considering we included current relationships and probably some of those have ended by now too.
**Abbreviated from Steve Bearman’s Six Steps for Completing Relationships.