Love and Death

Home again, my exhausted brain is on random play, thinking about music, about Kimmy, about community, about death, about improvisation, all the things I immersed in on our bi-annual music gathering in the hills above Santa Cruz. I’m also thinking about the apocalyptic orange sky outside right now. 

The fires aren’t threatening us personally, but people throughout the west are watching and waiting, or watching and packing, or no longer watching but already fleeing, or caught. The air quality worsens, there’s an edgy feel to it. My lungs are already full of dirt, dust, and smoke from our trip so I don’t go out into the garden though it begs for attention.

But back to the beginning. Heading south is wide awake excitement, sights new or not seen in a while, seasonal changes in the landscape, and joy at getting away. At a rest stop a pumpkin sculpture sits alone on a picnic table. The sky is hazy with heat. 700 miles is a long stretch, and I’m diverted by all the words flashing by. So many words. Bumper stickers, trucks, RVs, rental trailers, billboards, highway signs, store signs looming against blurred skies.

The Amazon truck tells me, “There’s more to Prime, a whole truckload,” which makes no sense. Sysco’s truck says, “Follow me to your next great meal,” also nonsensical. A pickup tells me “Jesus cambio mi vida.” A Seven Feathers oil tanker says, “Follow me to Seven Feathers Casino.” Um, pass. A van goes by with a sticker, “Live laugh love and if that doesn’t work load aim fire.” What’s wrong with people? We end up at the Seven Feathers Casino rest stop anyway, and the bathroom stall door said, “Hello crackers.” OK, I smiled.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

JRR Tolkein

We make our usual stopover in Shasta with an old friend, a pleasure and a step into the past. His wife of 40 years died almost two years ago, so it’s also a visit with death and grieving and coping, and how you go on when your heart is broken. Memories roll in and out, one begets another, leading back to the present, and to future plans and hopes. Knowing him for 45 years sounds like a miracle, or like someone else. It’s puzzling.

My friends are getting older
So I guess I must be too
Without their loving kindness
I don’t know what I’d do

Greg Brown

The next morning we walk through fields of familiar wildflowers. Here at 3500′ of elevation they have a different timetable than at home, and are not yet faded. Purple burdock, blackberries and vetch, pink spirea and sweet peas, blue asters, yellow ragwort, even tangled wild asparagus. We pass a community garden vivid with sunflowers. At Sisson Meadows, a nearby wetland (dry this time of year), the skyline is dominated by Mt. Shasta and its satellite cone Shastina, in a summer guise of brown, dry, and rocky. The heat rises.

Gazing at Mt. Shasta
Mt. Shasta, over 14,000′ high, and Shastina, over 12,000′

What car space isn’t taken up by tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, ice chest, instruments, suitcases, and miscellaneous gear, we top off with loads of groceries and head up into the Soquel hills. The long winding road ends at an oasis in the trees, and I fall into the arms of dear friends. I’m here for the love medicine, the music medicine, the soul medicine.

Sometimes you find people who have open warm hearts, whose interests overlap with yours, have a similar sense of humor, sense of what’s important, sense of gravity, foolishness and laughter, melody and harmony and taste – both good and bad – and it’s home. During the pandemic they became a beating heart outside my body, calling me to communion.

All weekend we linger over tearful hugs, the post-death clinging to comfort that we’d longed for since the news of Kim’s shocking and untimely death. Comforting and being comforted continues as we swap other news as well; ill health, kids leaving for college, caretaking elderly parents, balanced out by adventures and joys, hard-earned and precious.

It’s a days-long wake, full of laughter and carousing, late night jam sessions. Tables are covered with creative, colorful, voluminous happy hour hors d’oeuvres and potluck meals. Fall brings harvests from our gardens, bright tomatoes, green beans, squash, and salads. Plus all you can eat bacon and even spam sushi. We live richly for a few days.

One couple had the brilliant idea to renew their vows over this same weekend witnessed by an adoring community, an affirmation of more and more love. More tears of course, but these were sweeter.

The altar for Kim grows with memorabilia, art, treasures, and photos to honor her life. On our last full day we gather with music, memories, dedications, and tears, trying to say what can’t be said. The love is palpable and deep, and we spread it around as best we can, as Kim would have done herself. I’m struck when someone who didn’t know her well said that her legacy of fierce love lives in each of us, rippling out to those who will never meet her. What better way to be honored? Someone else spoke the brutal truth – one day we’ll each be on that altar.

photo by Kirsten
photo by Matthew

I keep trying to put words to this gathering but there aren’t enough words, or the right words, and so I will leave it at this, a paltry attempt to bring the dust into your lungs, laughter and music into your ears, the shared gift of foods made with love to your lips, the warm hugs to your body, the ache to your limbs from nights spent on the ground or from playing music too much too long too hard, the hot sun to your scalp relieved by a cold water plunges, all in a cradle of towering redwoods that arc overhead. My camera rarely comes out, so words have to suffice, though they fall short.

The ride home is a blur. My eyes won’t stay open and my head lolls, and we get as many miles under our wheels as we can. We share the conversations, the songs played, what the beautiful children did, waxing philosophical.

The 114 degree air and now smoky skies also prod us onward, as we slice between fires. A helicopter carrying a bucket glides overhead under an orange sun. The blue-black starlings at the rest stop have their beaks open, panting I suppose. We stop for a burger at Yaks in Dunsmuir where the name tag we’re given for our food pickup is “Keyboard Warrior.” Obviously word had gotten out about Alan’s ninja accordion skills.

I’d taken a steady stream of anti-inflammatories all week, sacrificing my liver to the music gods, a trade with the devil perhaps. Once home I cut myself off, and between body aches and lack of sleep, six days later I’m still groggy. It’s taking a full week to recover from the overexuberance, and long hours in the car. Recovery takes longer each time, a reminder of what I’m actually made of. There’s no medicine for a soul scraped raw.

Everyone grieves differently. It might come in waves or settle as a heavy mantle. Our reactions may be specific or wide ranging. There’s no right or wrong way, and it doesn’t pass when you want it to. But if you can find people to be with, to grieve with you when you’re ready – well, I think that’s what life might be all about. As Ram Dass said, we’re all just walking each other home.

Old man give me endless time
Never let these ties sever
Cause heaven knows in all this fooling around
These times won’t last forever after all

Andrew Marlin, Watchhouse
Next generation, one young man teaches a few chords to another. Is there anything more full of hope?

21 thoughts on “Love and Death

  1. Nancy, I love this post, filled with stunning evocations of the inner and outer landscapes; such palpable emotion. What a rich life in music, nature and community you and Alan have built together. Thank you for sharing these moving words, which help me feel a sense of your loss and Kimmy’s legacy. Xoxo

    Stacey Meadows


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading this leaves me breathless, on every line. Breathless with the beauty of the language. Breathless with the love for Kimmy and the gorgeous altar. Breathless with your exuberance and your exhaustion. Breathless with life and with the reality of impermanence, the love and the loss. Breathless with gratitude for the next generation. Breathless for the love of embracing community I see in your photos and hear in your words. Thank you for your beautiful writing and photography.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is stunning writing, Nancy. I can almost feel that empty space left by the loss of your dear friend. But then I keep reading and realize you have pieced together something like a quilt … of words and music and memories shared by all of your family of friends. And it felt good to think of all of  you wrapped up in that kind of love. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what loss and grief and death can do to those left behind. I hope your week away was the kind of beginning you all needed to find some healing grace. Thank you for sharing  your tender 🧡 .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Nancy for taking us into your vivid world of friends, music, sorrows and joys…..not to mention the strange encounters with signs along the way…..So happy we are finding our way through the richness of our words, stories and photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “There’s no medicine for a soul scraped raw.” So many phrase stuck a chord but especially this one…it swings from grief to joy in your sentences and in your photos…reflecting sorrow et love of life. The alter upon which we will all come to rest was haunting line. Thank you once agsin, Nancy for your intimate sharing. Am so grateful.
    Love, MaryJo


  6. Nancy I tried to postca comment 3 times but WordPress didn’t recognize me?? As it has in thevpast. Anyway I so relished your post. There’s no medicine for a soul scraped raw. This line especially. Grief and joy and life until we are on the altar .

    Thank you for your sharing. Love, MaryJo

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: 100 Things That Made My Year | Rivers and Roads PDX

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