Human Parts
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Human Parts

Visualizing Collective Loss

A Memorial Meadow

Yellow poppy unfolding in early morning light
Eschscholzia californica

Last October, I stood in my seacoast yard, listening to the waves and grieving the death of my wonderful Aunt Kathy from pancreatic cancer. My landscaper pressed me for a decision about mulching a ledge-filled patch of earth with a tiny view of the water. It begged for something other than lawn, but I could scarcely listen to the man or the land.

I’d hit my breaking point. Five people left our circle during the year. None died from the virus. Without that point of contact with the frightful reality of the pandemic, against the background of global suffering, I felt selfish and ashamed of my own sorrows. I tucked each new loss away to be dealt with later, so I wouldn’t further burden others.

I’m not alone, I know. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country lost loved ones without the closure of the usual rituals and fellowship that carve space for us to deal with the loss of that particular and extraordinary person. But that knowledge only distances me further from my own reckoning.

In prior grief counseling I’ve learned that when grief gets pushed underground for too long, it undermines our lives. Often, incomplete grief produces illness, addiction, depression, numbness, anger. We need to process loss, even when it does not seem we have the right to do so.

Numb. I felt nothing. Standing in my yard, listening to the birds and soft surf sounds, my sorrow-deadened brain escaped my landscaper’s mulch lecture by travelling to Kathy’s wild meadow in Spokane. It thrived in the high desert, humming with life: birds, flowers, unusual grasses. Low maintenance, low-water use, and life-sustaining.

I took in a deep breath, expecting sage. I got seaweed. Thud. Reality.

The landscaper was still waiting. My brain sparked to life. Words fell out of my mouth.

“No grass. No mulch. A meadow, I think.”

As I bumbled around, estimating the plants I’d need to make a meadow-inspired garden, my phone pinged with the latest death statistics. 216,073 that day, expected to rise to 1/4 million by planting time in November. That spark I felt fizzled. I couldn’t imagine the friends and families of 216,073 fellow Americans, each feeling some version of my own sorrow, postponing memorials until a safer time.

I’m a visual storyteller. I struggled to picture that number so I could come to terms with it.

Wandering aimlessly around the yard, I bent to appreciate the fading violet of a mid-autumn aster. I wondered what 216,073 flowers would look like. What would standing among them feel like?

I paced off the ground. Roughly one quarter of an acre, mixed sun and shade, a mixture of ledge, good soil, and deep mud. I imagined zones: butterflies here, hummingbirds there, flowers to attract beneficial insects near the veggie garden, some plants that like their feet wet, and some tall flowers for the goldfinches to land on. I imagined walking it with my uncle. Remembering. Wanting to hug him.

In the first hint of healing, I remembered the landscaper’s name. Alex. Alex and I settled on a mix of mostly native perennials and biennials from compatible regions across the country, a seed for every soul. We also incorporated some beneficial, naturalized non-native plants, because to exclude them felt like turning my back on the rest of the world.

Ocean edge of the memorial meadow in spring 2020
Ocean edge of the memorial meadow in spring 2020

We ordered some 260,000 seeds, estimated by weight — a little more than the number of people we thought would be gone at planting time in November.

As it happens, we underestimated by 30,000. 290,133 people had died from the virus by our Dec 12 planting time. By February 27th, the day I saw the first snowdrops, 504,654 people had died.

snowdrops in granite crevice
First Memorial Meadow flowers: February 27th, 2021

No matter how many seeds we plant, or how many flowers this garden produces, the meadow will not provide a strong visual for grappling with that number of deaths. Nevertheless, it helps me face my sorrow, keeps it in perspective, and gives me a way to walk with it, while creating space for the grief of so many others.

Admittedly, a meadow is an acquired taste. From a distance it looks chaotic. Messy. Much like humanity, its most beautiful moments are up close and personal. A diverse array of little jewels lurk buried in the tall grass, and they draw in pollinators and birds — providing another giddy layer of unpredictable beauty.

A soothing magic flows from discovering old and new friends, delighting in their varied personalities, and — inevitably — mourning their passing.

Entrance to the meadow mid-July

But healing has also come to me through the creative process itself. This ephemeral work in seeds and love gives me a daily excuse to leave the house. Take photos. Reflect. Write. Connect.

In a thoughtful piece on Sober Nation, Nadia Sheikh writes:

The process we go through to create our art, to transform a mental image into something physical, is a reflection of our thought processes…Much like paying attention to how we feel physically, the creative arts allow us to check in with our mental well-being and emotional state.

My mental state reflects back to me as an unorganized tangle of hidden beauty. Hope and reality duke it out like a Monarda-versus-smartweed turf battle.

In my meadow, hope wins.

The initial idea of visualizing the losses in the form of a single photo of thousands of flowers may never be a literal reality. Nevertheless, I go out each morning, hoping to capture that one precious unicorn on film.

During this first season, I hope (there’s that word again) to create a kind of virtual meadow-walk out of the images I do capture. In future stories, I’ll share some of the personalities that make up this mad tangle of flora — in my meadow, and in my heart.

(If you find a photograph that reminds you of a loved one, please feel free to use it for any memorial or comforting, noncommercial purpose.)

Whether you choose to plant your own meadow, or walk with me virtually in mine, together, perhaps we can find a way to grapple with the sorrow, and plant seeds of a more joyful, meaningful future.

I hope this project breathes a little light, beauty and peace into your day.

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