together it happens
Building a Community Safety Net
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The experience of grief and loss is one that runs through all of our veins.
There are no exceptions.
I, as a sculptural clay artist, create keepsakes and cremation urns. I offer comfort to others while the creative process has been my safety net – my way of healing – all of my life. Three years ago, after the loss of my husband to cancer, a friend, also living with loss, introduced me to a group of people gathering monthly, who openly talk about dying and supporting those experiencing loss. They became my second safety net – towards healing.
While attending these gatherings, I realized I had been carrying grief with me – since the very day of my husband’s diagnosis. Four years later, after his passing, I was wanting to re-enter the living world. But guilt was running through these same veins as the loss and grief, simultaneously fighting for my attention.
I have sketched and journaled for years. It is and was my release, my vent, my conversation with me, myself, and – the spirit world. As a widow, while sitting at a park bench, I witnessed firsthand, an intimate dialogue between my deceased husband – a grandpa – and a future grandchild. It was a profound experience. I was experiencing a love like none other. One that crossed boundaries of those ‘on the other side’ with those living.
Healing is important. Not only for me, but for this world, which is filled with so much loss and grief, that we don’t want to talk about.
I finally realized I was not only the holder of a message for my grandchildren, but I was a holder of a message for the world. To be shared!
This book, Dear One – A Message of Love About Grief, Loss, and the Art of Healing, is filled with that exact message. To listen for the spirit and love of those who have crossed over – no matter what age – speaking to us through nature to help us heal.
My healing continues, and my message to you is this: Do not close the door on those who have crossed over.
They are very near…if we choose to hear.
Our story of healing – is just the beginning.
Following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the city of Minneapolis, MN erupted in social unrest. As a photographer and storyteller, I wanted to document what was happening in my community. So, the morning after many businesses had burned down, I interviewed neighbors who were working to help clean up the property damage.
I was more than slightly nervous to be approaching people and asking them to be vulnerable with me, in the middle of a pandemic, and during what could be a very delicate, traumatic, or volatile time for them personally.
Every single person that I spoke with was more than willing to participate, many even sharing their deepest fears and hopes with me. During this tumultuous time, I was inspired by witnessing residents of all backgrounds and beliefs coming together to support their community, recognize systemic racism and injustice, and share their impactful stories. There was a great sense of compassion, care, and togetherness that made me hopeful for the future.
Photo by Amy Anderson.
I am a nurse by trade with years of experience in birth to death. In June my family experienced a death. It was one that we were not prepared for but knew it was coming sooner than later. My father-in-law had been receiving dialysis for approximately five years. (He was hospitalized for this very same thing in January of 2020.) He was in the hospital all week which not everyone in the family knew. My husband found out Thursday night and by Friday am he found out he was going to be taken off of dialysis. His body was not able to handle it anymore. Needless to say, there were a lot of thoughts and feelings going thru everyone at this time. He was brought home to say goodbye and get things in order. He entered hospice on Saturday, he was going about his day as he normally did get up and eat and sit in his favorite recliner and sleep. He had many visitors come thru the house over the next few days along with all of his children. The last few days of his life were beautiful because all of his children were present and his family and friends all visited him. Since I am a nurse I was present to meet with the hospice nurse and family. I was there to administer the medications he was on. I was able to inform the family of the changes as they were happening. One night I administered the medications and was planning to go home but ended up staying as he had some apnea. At that time we called the two sons who were not there. There was a point in time when two of the sons were going to leave to do an errand and I told them they needed to stay due to the breathing changes. I told all the adult children and his wife to gather around their loved ones. He ended up dying with all of his children around him along with them holding his hands.
Nine months into isolation and I am taking inventory. Connections to beings outside of my husband, dog and three incredibly old sheep – slim. The sadness for humanity and the earth – scores high. Our public health crisis for loneliness and diseases of despair are rising. We are torn away from each other just when we need our social relationships more than ever before. Research tells us that our connections can decrease suffering, support resilience, and help us move forward. Yet in isolation, how do we find the connections we need to support our mental health and wellbeing?
Perhaps we start with the knowing that we are not alone. We belong to each other. It is our responsibility to care for each other, as best and as often as we can – which for the moment can mean a lot of zoom calls. We also belong to the earth. When we do not have the support, the elders, the community to mentor us; when we have lost the old ways of gathering in circles and listening to stories, it is wonderful to remember we still have the earth. That Great Grandmother Oak, the wild or whispering wind, the grove of aspens with their yellow quaking leaves, the hoot owls, the rhythm of the seasons, the moon, the majestic sandhill cranes are all there to listen to us and to tell their stories. We are mentored, always. Stories and wisdom abound in nature. The stillness of nature can lead me to the stillness in my heart. The trails on my farm walk me through the paths I am making to my own life’s meaning.
My pilgrimage in this wintry season of letting go, will also be a pilgrimage through the winters of my losses. I am learning to be a grief pilgrim, connecting to the wilderness as my guide. Surrendering my sadness to nature, I listen as in a dream to the wordless, resilient answers that bridge me to my soul and strengthen my spirit. Nature is always ready to tend to our needs by helping to connect us to our own inner nature and wisdom. A walk into the woods, a bike ride through a park, or simply opening a window are all opportunities to ask, to listen, and to say thank you.
With heavy boots I walk now through the cold snow to the woodlands. In the Spring, I will find my feet back on the soft grasses again, weaving through patches of wild violets on my way to visit Great Grandmother Oak. She teaches me how to stay open and present through both barren and flowering seasons. That’s the way of it, isn’t it? We struggle, we suffer, we experience joy. Beautiful to remember that through it all, we have constant and precious companions. We belong, to each other and to the earth.
When my husband died in an accident, the heartbreaking and sudden loss was profoundly comforted by the overwhelming love and support from longstanding friendships to people who shared their story of meeting my husband once and were touched by his kindness. It is times like these that the generosity of presence can be so healing for everyone.
At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.
Berry’s poem has long been my favorite. I think since memorizing Rudyard Kipling’s “if” in Mr. O’Connor’s, 8th grade English class, “A Purification” is the closest I have come to loading a poem to memory. Perhaps revisiting the two poems together may fill a later day for me. Berry’s Poem I think fits here with the Outhouse Garden Shed.
The start of this story came to the forefront of my thinking on a Zoom call, entitle Sacred Circle. There were four people on the call, and Mary Ann invited us each to share a word. For me “Reclaim” found my tongue, I struggled in my mind “…was it renew or reclaim?” I was thinking of the enjoyment I had while building the shed pictured above. The shed had been built from salvaged pallets to shelter my collection of worn out garden tools. Simple, material reclaimed from the waste stream. On the call our next challenge was to explain our word.
It surprised me that in the opening of my explanation I wept. The space was supportive with the tears. The story I had begun shifted direction. It was still the same story, but I understood it differently in that moment. Something ancestral was in this space. In my mind’s eye flashed sheds of my past built by me, my brother, father, and uncle. Builds that almost exclusively relied on the cast-off waste of moments in time and place. The round sawn edges of rough milled lumber to build a shack at Uncle Joe’s Cabin. Years later moving the much older round sawn sided outhouse on that same land. Piece by piece, he and I would de-side, roll the frame on logs and re-side the outhouse. Over four days it was a game, as if it were a 3D puzzle with a place for poop.
Our shed growing up was built with the tongue & groove paneling and flooring my siblings and I salvaged, with our father, from the homes across the street, that the hospital would soon demolish to pave into a parking lot. The second story and wood stove we added to a garden shed, on the eve of our sister’s wedding, a simple monastic space my brother would call home for nearly a decade. The shed he and his, now wife, built with me fully of scrap dumpstered from a set strike at the Jungle Theater, it was my birthday request and filled me with thanks. That shed still stands, though we have long since sold that house, it is roofed with the topper from a Ford pick-up truck I had scrapped after the gas tank fell off. It is in us, the men in my family. It is an art validated as such when the McKnight Foundation Commissioned my brother and a friend to build a salvaged material shack on the patio of their new headquarters on the Mississippi river. Today, as I celebrated this latest shack and worked the story of it to meet the word reclaim a new thread of wonder stitched together these men I love.
The Sara Bareilles song “You Matter to Me” activated my Vagus Nerve. I thought, “wow, what has this got to do with scrap sheds?” One thing in common among the men in my family of which I speak is that we had our children late or not at all. Both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. For my brother and me, our sons were all born after both Uncle Joe and our dad, his brother, died. What I felt through with my words, was the need I felt to see, save, and hold these off-cast things. It was a statement on some level, a cultural critique, of the potential in what we don’t see, and instead describe as task and burden – waste. Yet deeper, it was a sooth of a hurt I find it hard to acknowledge, feeling, myself, a cast-off burden at the root of my being. Could these pallets be the puppet of my acting out the injured little self I had not yet learned to sooth, but for surrogates of garbage sheds and service work? Really, now as a nurse in palliative care working with cardiac patients – nurturing loss in the heart. The Sara Bareilles song is from the Broadway musical is titled for the service work I engaged earlier in my career, “The Waitress.”
What is worth noting is the context of caring, is in this moment of feeling I was in circle with three women, two I knew and one a stranger. Though we were connected over the computer, the space was one of safety and genuine caring, and in that space, I was able to be an honest witness to my emotional self. That was the value, for me, of this caring moment.
Even now, I can think about getting off the call and texting my brother, “can you talk to me about all the sheds we have built and their stories?”
As impactful as that moment was, I was almost instantly ready to run from it. On some level this story as I begin it, was another attempt to run. What helps me again is the reach in seeing Mary Ann-‘s offer, her invitation is to describe a caring moment.
With kindness I was invited to a call and was met by others in that space. An intention was set for us each to hold a caring presence, and I believe we did that – I did that and felt that. What it earned for me was a moment I will hold, in which I learned to see and hold a suffering in me. One beautifully human component of the moment was that it was shared, with three other souls. On some level the poem, photo, and story give context to what I felt. But with thanks I acknowledge, the caring moment was orchestrated, intentional and loving – my value was greater because I was willing to embrace the invitation to relationship extended to me. There are contexts that we all carry. Knowing that caring is within reach, potent and energizing is a good practice to grow in ourselves and in community.
Thank You for Caring.
Rick & Kirsten
How neighbors, family and friends helped us when we needed it most.
On July 29th covid19 struck our family. Despite following all the rules Rick tested positive for covid on July 29th and Kirsten tested positive a week later. In the middle of this was our 11-year-old daughter whose world was turned upside down. A hospital stay of five days for Rick and 26 days of quarantine for our daughter. What we found in all of this was how caring people can be. Rick was in his second day in the hospital when the text, emails and phone calls started. Even after he left the hospital and came home, we were blessed with the thoughtful care that we received. Here are just a few examples: For over a week we never even thought about breakfast, lunch or dinner. A group of friends divided up days and delivered food to our doorstep, knowing that we weren’t healthy enough yet to find a way to make our own meals. We had a family send us a $75 door dash gift card. Not knowing what door dash was, we quickly learned that it was a lifesaver as we spent most of August shutdown in our house. We had neighbors drop off meals and pizza for Clara. We had a friend drop off some things from target for us that we couldn’t get out and get ourselves. All these things were truly an amazing blessing to all of us. Two other things stay with us. Kirsten’s brother, wife and family drove from Appleton, Wisconsin to spend an hour and half visiting us. They stood in the driveway and we sat in the garage. They have three girls about our daughters age and the smile on our daughter’s face was something we, her parents will never forget. They came just to say we care, how can we help and what do you need. Another thing that we were amazed at was the gifts people brought over to our daughter. They were things for her to do, crafts for her to make or games for her to play. Things that would occupy an 11-year old’s mind so she could maybe spend some time not worrying about her parents. The outpouring of messages, text, calls, facetime and emails was something that helped us navigate our way through covid and the isolation that you feel. It was a terrible time for our family, but the care and compassion of our neighbors, family and friends was truly something that three months later we are still humbled by. The blessing of covid is seeing the goodness in people, the caring that people have for each other. Now we wonder, how can we as a family pay back that love and generosity that people so freely gave to us?
I will tell you that my next door neighbor had an accident the other day working at a Grain Elevator and lost part of his little finger. He had a huge pile of leaves, twigs, etc. and my wife and I hauled two large trailer loads to the local Good Thunder compost pile. He was so very appreciated that we would do that for him. He is 89 years old by the way. It was our way of helping him out before the snow arrived.
I also volunteered to help two brothers combine a huge field of corn which they needed help getting the combine loads of corn across/around large swamp and low area that would’ve sunk a bigger truck/semi. So, I spent time in the field helping them complete their field by just showing up and asking them to put me to work. Maybe this is too Corny!! but it was my way of putting some smiles on their faces with this very busy fall season of beautiful crops.
All are welcome to help make a joyful noise every Friday at 5 o’clock to remind us that we are not alone.
We will get through the pandemic.
We are in solidarity with those who are trying to create more caring communities with all our eyes turned toward the tragedy of the George Floyd killing three miles from our block.
Led by Garth, the unofficial Governor of Harriet Avenue, who starts the noise making with his special whistle and his big kettle drum, the south side rings with spoons banging pots and pans, cow bells, trumpets, people clapping, cymbals clashing and every other kind of thing folks find to make a noise. For five minutes we make a joyful noise and then we sing a song. Children dance in the street. The dogs bark. Our mail man Dave drives his mail car through the crowd honking all the way. “Yay Dave,” everyone shouts.
After the racket dies down, fire pits are lit in front yards and folks sit around, wearing masks and keeping social distancing in play and talk about anything and everything.
People are smiling. We live in the BEST COMMUNITY EVER!
We are in this together. Share your story with us.
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