The Sunflower, and Other Musings

I’m not one to subscribe to the idea that everything happens for a reason, or that there is some pre-ordained plan that the universe or God or what have you has set in motion.

I think it’s pretty clear that we are here imbued with free will, which supersedes the idea that no matter what our choices, we are rooted in and routed through a pre-set path of experiences.

I believe what we do have, is a beautiful and profound ability to walk through the experiences, the joys and the pain of this life and to absorb them and react to them in ways that help us evolve spiritually. To identify patterns and shapes and ideas that inspire more empathy for others, more understanding of ourselves and more ownership of our responsibility to one another.

While I believe in karmic responsibility, I don’t believe, for example, that the struggles my little Bean is having are a result or punishment for the mistakes I’ve made in the past, or the karmic debt I most certainly owe for them. I don’t believe in a state of being that would exact retribution for my flaws and mistakes from such a pure shiny soul.

I think my struggle here is to understand the things about which I feel guilty and how I choose to forgive myself for them. That is somewhat painful work that needs to be done within me, and this situation has inspired much of that for me.

I also believe that God, whatever he or she may really be, is probably more benign and beautifully detached from the individual nuances of every sentient life than organized religion would have us consider, because whatever God is, he or she or it is something with a greater and more perfect understanding of free will and all its ramifications–it’s atrocities as well as its possibilities for greatness.

I also believe that a day will come for all of us, when our spirits will outgrow the physical matter that confines them. One day for all of us, these bodies we enjoy, will no longer have the strength or capacity to animate our souls. And frankly, I believe our souls will one day have better and bigger things to do than to cling desperately to a configuration of cells and tissue, however much we have grown attached to them and grateful for them.

I’ve come to this belief system mostly by viewing it up close. First, when I said goodbye to my sweet brother, who at 20 years old, decided one day that his spirit had much better things to do than to stay in a body that tried very hard for a very long time to tether him to this world. He was very calm the day he died. He was very accepting of it, and was ready to stop struggling for physical form. We were all with him, he was surrounded by love. We said goodbye.

We’re attached to the physical presence of those we love because that is the means by which we first get to experience their spirit and soul. But it is not the only means. I haven’t seen or touched my brother in 15 years and I never will again with these eyes or hands. But I still love him as deeply and literally as if he were sitting right next to me.

A few years ago, I lost a close friend. The first female friend I made in California, she was my neighbor, my sister; a wonderful mother, a prolific gardener and a profoundly empathetic human who taught me so much by example about how I want to walk through this life.

She died at home, surrounded by love and friends and family. She was not calm and did struggle. While the last few days and weeks leading up to her death, she took steps toward accepting it, I absolutely respect her desire to battle to the last possible moment. Her three young sons were with her and I know how hard it was for her to leave them.

A week or so after she died, I was visiting and hanging out with the boys. Her two-year-old son crawled into my lap to read a book, but first looked up at me and said: “Where’s my mom?”

Of course I had no answer. I don’t know for sure where she is. But I do know she was here, and like my brother before her, she left her mark on many many people.

A week or so before she died, I was visiting and lay in bed with her talking. She was drifting off into sleep after a massage from her sister and a potent painkiller. The room smelled of lavender oil and clean sheets.

We talked a lot about a lot of things in those last few weeks, my experience with my brother, my thoughts about what might come next for us all. At the time I was a little more skeptical about things like faith, especially the ways in which my own sense of spirituality did not conform or overlap with traditional religious beliefs about the afterlife.

This is something she had been pondering and exploring as her cancer progressed. It brought her peace.

She whispered to me:, softly, near to sleep “I know you don’t believe, don’t know what to believe. But I want you to know, when I am gone, I will show you….I will do something…..put some color in the sky…something.”

I kissed her forehead and said: “I would like that very much.

She died in June, just before her 40th birthday. As had been my ritual since meeting her and her family, I spent fourth of july with them in Huntington Beach.

As I approached her yard that day, I was accosted by her garden. It seemed every blossom she had recently touched, every seed she had every lovingly tended had decided to burst into its most perfect and vibrant possibility. Lining the front gate were her sunflowers, standing sentry like an soldiers of welcome and beauty.
As I got closer and reached for the gate to open it, marveling at the sight, a breeze lifted the sunflower nearest me, and it turned to look directly at me with the brightest, biggest most glorious face I have ever seen in a sunflower not in a picture or for sale in a store.

It took my breath away. I was speechless.

I looked at her husband who was standing in the yard smiling and said: “Whoah, this garden.”

“I know, right?” he replied. “It’s Dani.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. I call it up often actually.

I think part of our job here is to figure out how to share so much of ourselves while we can that there is something of us left around for our loved ones to encounter when we’re inevitably gone.

I feel like animals have an innate ability to do this. For the most part, they don’t withhold themselves from us. The more open we are to them, the more they will meet us in that shared space of connection, and the more of them we will have in our hearts when they leave us behind.

I am grateful for having learned more about this of late. I cherish every moment of this experience, including the pain, it comes with it’s own sort of inherent cleansing power.


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