What the Tree Trunk Said

Part 1

I don’t know what kind of tree it was or where it came from. Clearly, Hurricane Nate brought it.  Maybe the hurricane took it down and threw it into the sea. Maybe it was a fall from some other time that dislodged from its resting place in the current of so much water and launched downstream. If I were to guess, I’d say it probably floated to us from the south because hurricane winds seem to me to blow from the southwest. Although, I don’t know. This hurricane was like no other, and I wasn’t here. It was early October 2017, and I was in Milan in the middle of my own hurricane.

I came home to Tamarindo, a stunned widow, in November after five months that lasted five years. The sky in Tamarindo had cleared by then, the electricity was restored, fallen limbs were cleared away, and it looked almost like nothing had happened. I might have looked that way too, at first glance.

I went to the beach to gather my thoughts a little, and when I saw it, I froze and sucked in my breath. In the middle of the beach on the rock reef that juts out into the water, where tidepools form at low tide and fishermen toss their lines, was the dead body of an unimaginably enormous tree. The force of water needed to throw this giant up out of the sea onto the rocks is inconceivable. And yet there it was.

And there it stayed.

I thought surely the next 10 foot tide would move it, but no. Or maybe the next tropical storm system. But no. All of us picked our way across the sharp lava rocks sooner or later to have a look at this marvel. Tourists took their picture beside it. Novios carved their names or initials into it. It became part of our landscape, part of our story.

From the first moment I saw it, I felt a strange affinity for that tree trunk. I think it’s weird that at essentially the moment Pio died, a hurricane unleashed on Tamarindo. I’m not trying to connect the two in any direct metaphysical way—I promise I’m not. But in my mind, the two things are absolutely connected. Nobody who lives in this town will forget that hurricane. And neither will I.

I stared at the trunk of that dead tree on my beach walks. I felt sympathy for it–both of us, hurricane victims. Both of us washed up here in Tamarindo, waiting to see what happens next. Both of us getting pared down by sun, wind, rain. Both of us in the middle of the water, sand, and sky. I felt like if I could get a good photo of it, it would be my self-portrait. What is left of a giant thing after it is destroyed.

I’ve lived at the beach long enough to know that tree trunks, no matter how big they are or where they wash up, don’t stay there forever. Eventually another hurricane comes, or a big swell or a hard rain, and they move. Sand shifts, and they sink and are buried, only to reappear another year after we’ve forgotten where they are. I hoped I didn’t meet up with this giant in the surf the day it dislodged, that it wouldn’t harm any of the boats anchored nearby, depending on which direction it took when it rolled free.

Part 2

In September 2019 I went back to Italy. I already told you about that pilgrimage disguised as a vacation, so I won’t make you read it all again. It was an important trip and marks a turning point of some kind that I have not yet identified. I came back in the beginning of October, lighter in more places than just my wallet.

I went to the beach to gather my thoughts a little, and when I saw it, I froze and sucked in my breath. Impossible: my tree was gone. A September storm must have dislodged it while I was gone and took it away. I knew that eventually it would move, but I thought it was still to big and too heavy.  I thought I would watch it go.  But it both came and went during my two important trips to Italy.

While I was trying to fit that into my surprised mind, I saw something else that stopped me again, and right there under the mid-morning sun in front of God and everybody, I burst into tears.  Up ahead of me, the giant tree trunk was laying on the sand.

Out of the ocean, from its place half-in half-out of the water, onto the dry land.  I knew immediately and without a doubt that there is a message for me in this. And I knew exactly what it is:

If two years is long enough to move a fallen giant like me, it’s long enough to move you.

 

That’s what the tree trunk said.

Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel like no amount of time is long enough. But I always beg for clear messages and one thing is for sure: that was a really big tree.


Together

How to Be Okay When You’re Not

I thought you might like a suggestion about how to be okay when you’re not. Because it happens to all of us and it’s good to have a plan.

This is mine:

I go to the beach.  Of course.  Because I can.  But you don’t need a beach to do this.  I sit in the sand and curl up into a little ball, like a seated fetal position. That’s the position I take when I’m really bad. When I’m kind of okay, I might sit cross legged. If I’m good, just feel like I need a huddle with all of my selves, I might sort of lie back on my elbows. It doesn’t matter.

I reach my finger out and trace a circle around me–all the way around–in the sand. It could be a big circle or a little circle—it doesn’t matter. The less okay I am, the smaller I make the circle, like a tighter hug.

I don’t know where I got this from, but it’s been with me for a long time, and I am pretty sure I didn’t make it up. If I did, it’s one of those things that can’t I be the first one to have invented.

This is how to be okay whether or not you are.

The important thing is to close the circle. You may not believe this until you try it, but you can feel the circle close. Something happens. I swear. No, I am not insane. Try it. If you can’t get to the beach, sit on your living room floor and draw an invisible circle. Sit in the driveway and draw a circle with chalk. You’ll see what I mean.

I tell myself that everything that is me is inside the circle. Definitions are important when you’re not okay. Basic definitions. Inside the circle: Diana. Outside the circle: not-Diana. Having something you can be completely sure of is a fabulous place to start when you’re not really okay. And it rocks when you are.

I tell myself that inside the circle, everything is alright. There is enough air. The sand is holding me up. Nothing hurts. My heart is beating just the way it’s supposed to. My lungs are doing a great job of breathing. Everything essential is just fine. I tell myself everything I absolutely need is inside the circle with me. Intestines, for example.

And everything/everybody that is not-me must stay out while the circle is closed. When I’m especially not-okay, I write things in the sand outside the circle. The first letters of names, usually. People, living or not, who, no matter how much I love them, are not me. Only I am allowed inside the circle. I have to be in here alone to be okay, and you have to stay out. Sometimes I review a list of things and people who are not me, mentally telling them they have to stay out right now, setting them on the other side of the line.

It becomes easier and easier to breathe.

I explain to myself that inside the circle, everything is alright. Nothing is missing. Here are my two hands, each with 10 fingers. I have plenty of teeth and enough hair. My legs take me everywhere I need to go. If I am hungry, it is by choice.  Outside the circle, everything can be as wrong as it is, but inside the circle, everything is accounted for, working, in place. It is the only spot in the universe where everything is alright.

I just sit there. Sometimes I close my eyes. Sometimes, if I’m not having a good day, I might cry a little. I don’t usually, but it’s not impossible. So if you walk by on the beach and happen to see me, don’t worry. It’s just salt water. And don’t talk to me. I can’t talk when I’m in the circle. I mean, I don’t want to. That’s not generally a problem either because I think there’s something about the circle that makes you invisible to most people. I’m not kidding. You’ll see what I mean when you try it.

Then when I feel a little better–or the tide is coming in, or my back starts to hurt, or the mosquitoes are biting me, or I can tell I’ve had enough sun, or I’m thinking about how my cats are hungry—I reach out with my hands and open the circle. I make a door in it.

And the rest of the world comes rushing in. But it’s alright. Because on some very basic level, I have remembered that I am still here and there are at least some ways in which I am okay. And that, as I said, is a fabulous place to start.

Try it. It works.

Slowly Like Snow

you said take me home
to the sea and
i promised
i would

neither of us imagined then
on those last days of
pain patches and tireless visitors
the weight
of a carry-on bag
with ashes

i tried to lift it
into the space above
my seat on the plane but
couldn’t
the gentleman who helped
eyed me strangely

when the plane took off pointing
toward the endless Atlantic, i
reached for your hand
i really did
but your hand wasn’t there
it was in tiny pieces in
the overhead compartment
and i had only air
to hold on to

i cried then
as we lifted
everyone could see me

you said take me home
to the sea
and i promised

i went down into the water
with your teeth and
your bones pressed into
my skin
and watched
as the tiny pieces
fell slowly like snow
around me

Sand

Ashes

I have some things to say about ashes—human ashes, the kind I live with.  I thought you might be curious.  I was.  Pio’s ashes came to me in a rectangular stainless steel box that the Comune di Milano considers appropriate for traveling.  The box is sealed shut because in Italy it is illegal to spread human ashes. I didn’t bother to find out why.  I don’t actually care why.  I will just say that it took a mighty amount of determination for me to get into that box.   Having him (“him”) sealed in there by somebody who felt is was not alright for him to come out just about drove me nuts.

I got it.   It’s a story for another day—but I got it.

And this is what I want to tell you:  cremation ashes look like sand.  They do not look like wood ashes, and they’re not flakey like that.  They’re heavy like sand.  I asked my faithful friend Google about it and s/he explained that the only thing left after a person is cremated, are bones.  It makes sense.  Everything else is water, and turns into steam or smoke, I suppose.  The bones are then ground to tiny pieces and called “ashes.”  What they really are is sand.

Does that gross you out?  I hope not.  There’s nothing yucky about ashes–that’s the whole point of them.  Does it scare you?  Well.  These are the things we need to sit with.  Starting now, or you can wait until you have no choice.  It makes you sad?  Good.  You’re supposed to be sad about sad things.  Sadness is unsettling when it is a stranger, but when it grows to be familiar, not so much.

Sand

Where I live, the sand is made mostly of tiny pieces of shells.  Some coral.  Some stones.  How long does it take a shell to become sand after the animal that made it dies?  I think that should be a unit for measuring time.  The beach is made up of bones.

Bones

I sit on the beach and run sand through my fingers.  Push my toes into it.  Look at the little bones of all of the things that ever lived.  Think about how everything together equals una sola cosa.  I tell myself it’s ok.

How long does it take for water molecules that rise to the sky from a crematorium in Milan to become a cloud above Costa Rica?  I lie in the sand when the wind is whipping and let it pelt me.  Get in my ears and bury itself in my hair.  Everything that is, is made of everything that was.  I tell myself it’s ok.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

But you have to find a way to open yourself up wide enough to let it inside you.  You’ll suffocate, otherwise.  The more you’re afraid or the more you fight, the worse.  You have to put your fingers in the ashes and the sand and you have to let all the little bones pour through your fingers.  You just do.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Put your ear to the ground, to the sand, and listen to the bones of everything.

 

 

 

My Window

You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months.  It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now.   I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.

You wonder how I am.

What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.

I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.

This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.

You wonder what you should say if you see me.

Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.

No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company.  So, again—you’re fine.

Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.

But don’t

Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.

And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.

Ashes

Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.

 

I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window.  If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.

Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing.  And then I will be better than I am.  The ocean is big enough for everything.