Editor’s note: Today’s offering includes references to addiction, mental illness, and suicide.
The house is quiet and mostly dark tonight. Candlelight softens the shadows in the room. Burning incense fills this sacred space with softly drifting wisps of smoke, and the rich aromas of myrrh and balsam pine soothe me. My thoughts drift with the smoke, through the warmth of the light and into the darkness, in search of the peace and stillness that were once in easy abundance at this time of year.
I long held an exceptional fondness for the fall and winter holiday season, beginning with Samhain and going through the calendar New Year. I have traveled countless miles down the roads of grief and healing since my youngest daughter’s death nearly four years ago, but this time of year will likely always be difficult for me. For reasons only she will ever know, the cycle of Beth’s illnesses intensified every November, spiraling more and more out of control. Until the last winter of her life, she always returned to us in the spring, and always on March 21st. Before I possessed knowledge of all that the name implies, I used to call her my own dark Persephone.
I wrote this poem during some of her darkest days, which were also some of mine.
She is drowning in these rainy grey skies;
her November storms always hit hardest.
She is fierce and angry, lashing out at the shore instead of swimming for it.
She turns her head away from the light and fights herself with every breath.
She kicks and screams and shows no mercy for herself or for anyone else.
Because of the timing of Beth’s yearly descent and the unending storms of anger and fear, it became too painful to celebrate traditional holidays. However, after time spent acknowledging our journey on the Crow Road to her death and time working on healing since then, over the past two years I reached a point in my own journey where it became even more painful to let those holidays slip silently by.
Now I am the one swimming, and I choose to move towards the shore. Moving further away from uncertainty and foreboding, moving deeper into peace. The thoughts of that old bounty of sorrow stay with me for a few more minutes until I let them drift away with the smoke.
I will never know the answers to myriad questions about Beth’s illnesses and addiction issues. Still, I consider myself fortunate that there were times during the final years of her life when she was able and willing to share her insights about her troubles. Society is often quick to dismiss the humanity and intellect of people it considers to be not normal, or other, but people who knew and loved Beth knew the keenness and depth of her insight and intelligence. She could offer sound advice, encouragement, and compassion for every trouble but her own.
I take a deep breath and hold the memory of her kindness of spirit, making it a companion to the warm scent of balsam pine, fixing the association between this seasonal scent and fond memories. I exhale slowly, releasing the memories to float away with the smoke, and I light another candle. I sit quietly with the darkness and candlelight, allowing my mind to wander on its own, not forcing any particular direction of thought.
The coronavirus and its attendant, necessary restrictions bring an extra layer of difficulty to the holidays this year, I must acknowledge. The light from the candles around me seems to flicker and fade. The weight of the darkness presses in.
The creation of new traditions has been a sovereign specific for years of grief and darkness. It seems that they are denied to me this year, and I will deeply miss making crafts with my oldest daughter and daughter-in-law, baking cookies with everyone, and sharing holiday meals, but I will not let go of these special days again. I recall stories of how our ancestors “made do,” and the sacrifices they endured in order to live through World War II and other times of upheaval and trial, and I am inspired to create new ways to share our celebrations – adapting the adaptations.
I sit with these thoughts, sifting the sadness from the happy memories and plans. The former I send drifting up and away; the latter I hold in my heart for a few moments longer. The candle I poured last Yuletide is nearby. I fetch it and place it on the altar.
The scent of bayberry summons my mother’s Christmas magic. It mingles with images of Kate and Emily sitting at my dining room table last year, laughing and talking over the scattered mess of scented candle wax, glass jars, and wicks. I know that this scent will always trigger memories and happy thoughts of being with people I love. I light the candle, and it adds its warmth to the darkness.
The word “with” slides around in the dark places of my mind, staying away from the edges of the light. My fingers slide over the soft rabbit pelt serving as an altar cloth. The darkness is no longer a thing to be feared. Neither are memories. I become the wolf, moving with confidence, moving with the darkness instead of through it, tracking that word to the source. Seeing through these eyes in the dark it becomes easier to follow the light. Before much time has passed, I find a place of stillness. The wolf recedes, and I am myself again. Smoke still swirls around me, moving in and out of the light, rising, rising, rising.
Some of the best advice I ever received came from my daughter, then 24 years old and in the fight of her life. Beth frequently talked about maintaining an attitude of gratitude and about learning how to process difficult emotions and situations without becoming overwhelmed by them. Then one day she wrote this: “Sitting with my problems, not in them. When your brain takes you nowhere, make a gratitude list and between every one list a positive affirmation.”
When we talked later that night, I asked her to explain what the first sentence meant to her. Her immediate response was to laugh and share an anecdote about the difference between knowing there is dog poo in the grass and stepping in it. We both laughed, then sat together in silence. After a while, she said, “Like this, mom. I know what my problems are, but I don’t have to let them overwhelm my life. Sometimes, I can just be in the moment and that moment is all that matters. Focusing on gratitude helps me to remember that.”
Leaning back from the power of this memory, leaning into the power of my daughter, I take several deep, slow breaths. Myrrh and balsam pine. I open my eyes to the soft glow of candlelight. Warmth and love. I light another candle and ever so gently pour her wisdom into the flame.
Sitting with my problems, not in them. Mindfully moving from a place of gratitude when I feel tired or stuck and my brain takes me nowhere. I used to practice this advice daily and often shared it with other people. Somehow in the shuffle and tumult of life in a changing world, I forgot. I do not mean that I forgot to be grateful, but I forgot the power that grows from a daily practice of gratitude and affirmation.
I am grateful for memories that sustain hope.
I am a kind and loving person.
I am grateful for the opportunity to create new memories.
I am worthy of happiness.
I am grateful for loved ones who brighten my life.
I am deserving of love.
I am grateful for all those doing their part to see us through these troubled times.
I am enough.
The house is still quiet. There is now more light than darkness in the circle in front of me. The incense has almost burned out, but the smoke and the mingled scents still linger. Myrrh and balsam pine. Peace and stillness.
In this holiday season, I wish all reading this peace and stillness.