Back to the Sea

Mother, carry me,
Child I will always be,
Mother, carry me,
Back to the sea.

My sister and daughter and I wind our voices together in a song new yet ancient, returning from the Oregon coast. It would be the last trip I would take with my sister. My daughter, at eleven, was a skinny sprite who invited her aunt again and again to come back, with her sand castles and stick-writing and cartwheels.

“I can’t help but think I would have gotten well if I’d come here to heal instead of the hospital.”  After a year and a half, Cathy had chosen to leave a well-respected residential treatment center without her doctor’s agreement. Her dissociation made this risky, but she had long ago left her healthy self behind. And so we were all giving it our best shot by taking her back to the sea.

The sea wasn’t a long-term solution to her mental illness. Within a year her candle flame waned and wafted out. I was now the One Who Lived, the one who moved on with my life. Also the one who cleaned up a lot of messes.

The first year after her death I took a day of solitude at the ocean to grieve and to cry, echoing her hope in the healing powers of the ocean.  All the painful memories bubbled to the surface. And the sea seemed to wash away the pain.

Thus came about the yearly ritual. Solitude and silence for a day or two. Sound of ocean. Settling of thoughts. Being the feet in the sand. Woman being alive, grateful for the past year. Emptying and clearing for what may come.

For the past twenty years, I’ve taken a few days out of my life around the time of my birthday to clear my windshield of the flies and bugs and sticky things.

It’s always a holy time of being transported by saltwater, sea air, gulls, wind, and Her Majesty herself, the Sea. My family and friends respect this way of mine. They know that I will return more myself than before.

Every year I spend at least a full day in silence, which implies solitude, since I have a lifelong habit of distracting myself through conversation with anyone in a 25-foot radius. This year, however, I felt like a radical change. These days I’m making a practice of breaking my own rules. So I flipped the ritual and allowed one person, my beloved husband, to join me for a day at the beach. It’s a simple hour-long drive from where I live, and yet it’s a trip we don’t often take together. (He’s a “mountain man” and I’m an “ocean woman,” or at least that’s the story I made up.)

And so, on July 15th, my midsummer birthday, I did the “normal” thing. My husband and I went on a walk on the beach. And out to eat together at a nice restaurant. For the first time in seven months of knee surgeries, I was able to pull myself over the dunes and walk a half a mile on my new knees.

It was a great day of celebration. After all, if I am indeed This One who Lived, I’ll need those knees and appreciate that husband for a while yet. These are the things I’ll be savoring and remembering, perhaps, as I retreat to the silence of solitude this weekend. Cleaning my windows and preparing for this next year of life.

While I listen to my grown-up daughter’s CD version of Back to the Sea (originally by Diana Hull),

What are your rituals of grief? Celebration? Where do you find solace? Solitude? What personal rituals hold you together? What needs to be freshened?

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