January 13, 2010
By Jude Rittenhouse
Only two of the past dozen winters have been consistently snowy here on Rhode Island’s shore. We often get rain while snow is falling to the north but, as 2009 flowed into 2010, temperatures got stuck below freezing. Estuaries and salt ponds clogged with ice. On days like this one, snow stretches its white disguise interrupted only by stone walls and trees. Beyond this illusion of a black and white landscape, ocean wears a perfect blue, reflecting an unrelenting cloudless sky. NPR reports that produce and citrus crops in Florida will suffer from this extended cold enveloping the entire East Coast. How little control we humans have, despite all our technology, despite our desire for certainty.
Having previously lived in Ohio’s snowbelt, Chicago, Boulder, and Milwaukee; I’m almost growing used to the kind of skin-ripping cold I knew before my life on this more moderate coast. I’m reminded how humans can become accustomed to and bear almost anything. Almost. Yesterday, my neighbor told me she had received a late-night call, informing her that her youngest brother had committed suicide. This call came soon after a crisis in her mother’s health that required a transfer to ICU. After years of a solitary life plagued by excruciating daily headaches, possibly around the time his mother’s health deteriorated and crashed, this man felt he could bear no more. I think of his pain, his mother’s, his sisters’ and brother’s. Extremities of physical and emotional pain need companionship. Although my neighbor and I rarely connect, we feel comforted, knowing that we are nearby in emergencies—a word so akin to the plural form of emergence.
In the final days of 2009 as a new decade prepared to begin, I wrote in my journal about connections, about life and death, reality and illusion. On the evening of December 29th while watching a waxing gibbous moon rise high enough to cast a long and deceptive shadow, I noticed the maple outside my office window. This tree has three forks growing from its trunk, yet the shadow cast by moon made it appear to lose one of its selves, revealing only two of its trio. I didn’t know where this image would lead on that evening when I’d been up since 3AM, when I was tired yet deeply awake. I had been watching a video of Peter, Paul and Mary—a Christmas gift from my precious only sister. She had watched the trio on TV in Illinois before the holidays and thought of me, so went on-line, ordered the disc, and sent it to connect across the twelve hundred miles separating us.
My love and I saw Peter, Paul and Mary perform in Providence last year, just months before Mary died. I wondered on this end of a decade night: are they now two? Or, like that maple’s shadow proclaims, is death an illusion made of angles, shadow, light? That same day, I had received a 1992 photo of my mother and long-dead father laughing on their couch in Illinois. My youngest brother in Washington emailed it to his five siblings scattered across the country. This brother, like so many people, recently became unemployed, despite nearly two decades of service with the same company. In what began as something verging on an act of financial desperation, he has set in motion the probability that he’ll soon leave to work in a Middle Eastern country for a year, assuming he survives that year. Distance, separation, connection, disconnection: these felt kindred to that illusion of a two-forked tree-shadow stretching across our yard while ocean’s skin turned to a smoke-like mist. As temperatures drop near zero, ocean’s omnipresent invisible mist freezes, gets exposed by light hitting ice crystals.
Earth brings such surprises when we let her. When we cease our false certainty. When we release each belief, every known. That night, as I floated in exhaustion’s foamy wake wondering what is true, earth answered me with evidences that proclaimed the falseness of absence. At what temperature would my father’s laughter once again become audible? What trick of light might erase my mother’s dementia? Is Alzheimer’s disease like that gibbous moon casting a temporary false image? When dawn’s raspberry tongue licks the sleep from my eyes, will I once again see the truth of my mother? Daylight shows me that maple’s trilogy. When I listen, I hear all the old voices singing.
My mother is still teaching me. She seems happiest when she lets go of trying to know. At those times, her anxieties vanish. She relaxes into whatever the moment presents to her, no longer agitated about what may or may not be coming, about what she should have done or should be doing. Her best moments seem to come when those around her exude happiness, love, or just a simple calmness. Yet earth does bring physical difficulties: being in a body means that we feel pain and loss. The lessons here are intricate and muscular, like a ballet. They refuse to be stripped naked and nailed down into an oversimplified logic of sentences. So I’ll go into this temporary leaving with a poem, trusting that this dance of connections will continue emerging.
Today’s light hides
night’s nations of constellations.
Exposes the bones
of sky, ocean, trees, stones. Imagine
each of us living
like those unseen stars: from our molten
hearts. Each soul
doing its part of what we came, together,
to do. We
could not help but inspire each other.
Could not help
but help but each other bear
truth. Which is to say:
the illusion of unbearable losses. Come
with me now
beyond shadows cast by light’s inevitable
the nature of form and substance: being
in bodies. Hurtling
along with earth’s slow deaths and rebirths
beneath the intolerable speed
After I had written this entry, news about the earthquake in Haiti began to overwhelm us all. The magnitude of physical losses continues to clarify as the cold wave here breaks and snow begins to melt. Far to the south, people kneel against earth, digging with their bare hands, desperate to save those who may still be saved. No wonder we often prefer to focus on light and its warmth. Earth’s hard surprises become far too real, and her heavy body feels dangerous. Times like these remind us of our precariousness, our fragility. They also teach us that, physically, we are all we have. When we remember this, we also become what saves us.
Jude Rittenhouse has received a Writer’s Grant from the Vermont Studio Center, a first place short story award, and various poetry awards. In addition to her holistic practice, Integrated Healing Services, Jude teaches at conferences, retreats, schools, hospitals, alternative health centers, and domestic violence shelters. She is also an inspirational speaker and presenter for literary audiences, cancer survivors, spiritual gatherings, high school and college students, and other groups. In all of her endeavors, she strives to empower others as they explore their unique journeys toward wholeness.
To learn more about her holistic practice or to inquire about her poetry chapbook, Living In Skin, contact: Jude@JudeRittenhouse.com or call (401) 348-8079.
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