Will The Circle Be Unbroken

Wild columbine, Kenai Fjords National Park

I’m home, I made it safely back from Alaska, and even though we did not get to fly in a Disney decorated 737, our planes had smooth sailing, and our flights were easy. I even experimented successfully with lower doses of anti anxiety medication, which meant that when we landed in Boston at 7 am a week ago, my mind was not addled, and I got the keys for the drive home to Maine. For this I even risked caffeinating a teeny bit (normally I am a caffeine free kind of gal, but extreme circumstances call for extreme measures-like a half regular half decaf cup of coffee sneaked from the breakfast bar at the Holiday Inn where we left our car on the edge of Southey. Extreme indeed.).

And what I have been greeted with upon return, beyond the weeds in the garden, is the obituary page in the local paper. It flies in the face of the lush abundance of the season, the life that explodes out of the ground every where you look this time of year, but summer is a dying time, as much if not more than the dark of winter. Perhaps the deaths stand out in the bright sunlight, perhaps we notice them more as our own lives stand affirmed by the ease of the warm air on our skin. Perhaps my mind is just grasping for a pattern, a framework, and ultimately a reason.

Sea otter carcass on the beach, Halibut Cove Alaska.

Sea otter carcass on the beach, Halibut Cove Alaska.

I wrote about the “circle of life” last week, in reference to my own fear of dying, and my struggle with the lack of control over my own mortality that becomes stark and naked when I board a plane. One of the things that has moved me a bit beyond this tar pit of anxiety was acknowledging the concept, central to my professional work, that everything dies and everything gets reused. Every bit of every living thing lives on in a different form, and death perpetuates all the beautiful life that we know. And it’s true, but it doesn’t make it any easier to come home and read the obituary of a 35 year old friend of the family who died of breast cancer, leaving two young children, her husband and extended family behind in this world to muddle on without her. It doesn’t make it any easier to read the obituary of a former neighbor, remembering seeing her smiling, literally submerged in the greenery of her gardens, or the obituary of a vibrant woman who played a central (and often dramatic) role in my home town, or the obituary of the mother of a friend, who I didn’t even know was sick. Of some we say “too soon, too soon”, of others “it was only a matter of time”, for most we are not ready. I know the atoms of Sarah’s body, released into the atmosphere and scattered at her family’s home are already being drawn in to plants, drawn in to the breaths we take, drawn into ocean in Blue Hill Bay. Every atom of Christine and Ann and Theresa, every atom of Joe and Kate, and Ginger, every atom of Nicene and my grand parents and my father, they’re all still out there, some in a box, a temporary holding pattern, others long released into air and soil. We couldn’t break the circle even if we wanted to, even if we tried. As for the spirit, we each have to draw our own conclusions about this, in the face of the lack of clear evidence. There is of course the evidence of the heart, but as of yet in science we have no tools to measure this, and it may be just as well.

The moon, photo courtesy of Rob Thomas.

The moon, photo courtesy of Rob Thomas.

All of this doesn’t make it any easier for the loved ones, for the community. Every loss is a fresh crater of sadness. But like craters everywhere, except for the moon, they slowly erode, washed by wind and water, covered by new growth. Their contours may persist on the landscape for millennia, but the raw surfaces ease and slowly disappear. Craters persist on the moon because there is nothing there. No life, no water, no weather, not enough atmosphere to even generate a breeze. The moon is alone, aloof, in isolation up there, I am here on this wet and juicy planet, breathing and watching it rain, doing what I always do when I bump up against the unknown. I go outside, I let the water drip off the leaves and soak me, I run through the woods and affirm that still, these atoms and this spirit are yoked together, for at least a little while longer. I go out and run because it makes me feel alive and it seems like the best way to honor the dead, to feel so alive. Life goes on, relentlessly so, in the summer. Life goes on.

Life goes on and on. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

Life goes on and on. Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

 

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Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.