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who can resist giant stuff?

Like mother, like daughter: Little people love gigantic things.

Eighteen hundred miles into the trip, I was lost for the first time. The drive to Grand Junction, Colorado, was my first night ride and exiting the highway I found myself in the middle of strip mall no man’s land. Of course, I was nervous – the last week and a half had been leading up to tonight. I would come to find out that the last six months had likely been leading up to tonight. Or even the last five and half years. Or just maybe, my whole life.

As I mentioned before, the scent of destiny has been trailing me like sweet perfume this whole trip. Even the frustration of getting lost seemed somehow symbolic in order to disorient any expectations of control. I had set out to Colorado to find closure with my mother.

While my adolescence with my mother was tumultuous at best, something finally started to click between us when I took a leave from college at 19 and moved home. Everybody had always said we were carbon copies of each other, not just because we were both “chatty Cathy’s,” but our similar looks with fine, toffee-colored hair, hazel eyes, button noses and barely-able-to-ride-the-ferris-wheel height. Over the course of my semester off I came to see that we actually processed the world in very different ways, which created most of the conflict and challenges between us.

Right before the Christmas during my junior year of college, our family friends gathered together to celebrate the holidays. We sat in the living room, the 12 kids and four sets of parents snuggled onto couches, chairs and the carpet, and shared what we were grateful for and what we were looking forward to in the coming year. Through tears and sniffles, I sputtered out that I was grateful for my time off the previous spring and summer, allowing me to get to know my parents as adults, and very much looking forward to having a better relationship with my mom. Afterwards, I hugged her tiny, 5 foot frame and whispered, “I love you,” in her ear. This would be the last time I would ever hug her.

Three weeks later, she lay in the Intensive Care Unit, barely filling up half the twin hospital bed. I had dropped her off for a routine outpatient surgery to remove a tiny (annoying, but benign) growth on her reproductive system that morning, expecting to have dinner with her and my family later that evening. She was in a coma for three days, caused by an unexplained post-surgical respiratory arrest, until our family decided to “pull the plug.” After being without air for several minutes while she lay in the recovery room, her brain was all but dysfunctional and recovery was impossible.

I have openly published my experiences with my mom’s unexpected death in the past as I firmly believe that death and grief are not accepted enough in our society and need to be talked about. So many of us live with grief, just as we live with other conditions, for instance, allergies for me. It is not a weakness, simply a fact of life. Mostly dormant, but sometimes flares up. For some reason death and grief are cast to the shadows with the negative stigma of a lurking grim reaper in our Western life.

Whereas most societies around the world have joyful and/or sorrowful rituals and ceremonies that recognize, grieve and let go of their loved ones, America as a culture does not. And so, it becomes fairly easy to cry a lot and think you’ve grieved, but really have just pushed the feelings way deep inside. Which is what I did from 20- to 25-years-old, until the development of excema led me in search of a more holistic solution.

And so, a series of events lead me to sit with a Marakame (or “shaman”) in Grand Junction, Colorado, who practices healing arts and ceremonies of the native Mexican tribe, the Huichol, amongst other callings. This Marakame, Deanna, who’d been practicing for a dozen years, was not going to make my skin issues go away, but address the source of the stress – grief – the ultimate culprit. The death ritual she’d perform was meant to help both me and my mom come to resolution with her traumatic death.

I was surprised by how “normal” she was, tall and lean with curly salt and pepper hair and glasses, wearing a fleece pull-over, jeans and clogs. We went out into the backyard of her ranch-style home and she made a fire underneath a tree already starting to shed its leaves for the fall. We sat in camping chairs with a wheel barrow loaded up with seasoned, dry wood between us. This was nothing like the scene from one of my favorite movies and books, The Power of One, where a barely clothed shaman dances around a chicken to cure the little boy from his “night terrors.” But then, that was in the South African bush, we were in suburban Colorado, so it made sense we were dressed.

In appreciation for the sitting, I gave her some fine chocolate, Alder wood from Oregon, and the cigar from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For the most part we just sat and talked around her fire pit in the back yard until it was time for her to do her work around 10 p.m. We discussed my road trip thus far and my journey since college, including the cross roads I felt I was at in my budding career – go the corporate route or go the unconventional path. As we talked about the death, eventually tears trickled down my face like a stream apologetically cutting through the  woods. I shared the story of our long days in the hospital and the symptoms of my grief, including my inability to access many memories including my mother previous to the trauma of her death. I was in a foreign place with basically a stranger and yet I felt safe. That the grief would not engulf me if I let it out of its cage.

I fear I’ll only dilute the meaning of the experience by trying to describe it, because most of the ceremony was happening within her. Mainly, like so many other nights on the trip so far, I just sat by the fire adding logs as the heat died down, looking at the trillion stars across the night sky and thinking about random things.

Finally, we talked about the artifacts and mementos of my mom that I had brought along and then one-by-one I hesitantly added them to the flames. There was a lock of hair, a shirt she always wore around the house, some photographs, a CD of favorite music. The cloth, paper, plastic all flashed colors into the flames in their last brilliant moments and then turned to grey ashes indistinguishable from each other. I had brought these along from Oregon as requested in a little bag, expecting that they would help the Marakame “get a feel for” my mother. I had no idea they would disappear. There was one keepsake, a small heart-shaped container I felt strongly about keeping, since it had been a special gift from my mom.

In many other cultures, from the Egyptians to Mexicans, part of the death ceremony includes a person’s belongings either being buried or burned with them. In the truest form of this tradition, everything a person owned, even the dirt and dust of his home was swept up and added to the fire in order for the person to pass on completely. While my mother was cremated, there was not a room in my home that did not have something that used to be hers and strongly reminded me of her. These are the ways that we hold on – physically, emotionally, energetically. Interestingly, it struck me the sentimental difference between things that were my mother’s versus things that she had given me as gifts. The possessions reminded me of loss, while the gifts reminded me of love. What would the world be like if the only presence we left behind was our presents? Clearly, in life we would be more preoccupied with giving than accumulating.

While it was hard to let go of her/my treasures, I was truly amazed by the power of the fire to turn everything – a lock of her hair, polyester clothing, CDs, ceramics etc. – into ashes. Ashes to ashes, right? Six months ago, I attended a different fire back in Oregon, which coincidentally this healer attended too. It was a large gathering of some 100 people from around the country and world to hear a respected speaker in the Huichol tradition. At the end of the evening around one a.m., each person was able to offer a cigar to this man and ask a heartfelt question. After mulling over questions all weekend, I had decided to ask, “How do I let go of my mom?” After giving him my cigar, he opened one eye, looked at me and said, “You don’t need a question. You need a blessing.” He took a puff of his lit cigar, pulled the ashes off the end and dotted them on my forehead like Ash Wednesday.

Curious what the blessing meant, I asked around for interpretations and then eventually went on about my life. One suggestion was that it was for protection and safe travels. Here in Colorado, the fire was similarily over around one a.m. and then I was shown to the guest room for the night. In the morning, the Marakame and I met and talked to debrief the night before. We talked about how the ceremony had been a modification of the traditional one due to the long time lapse since death and lack of actual remains, but that it had also been more than just a death ritual.

We have lost almost all connection to ritual in our culture outside of organized religion. While we may have strong traditions or habits, we don’t necessarily know or understand their meaning. In many cultures, birthdays are not significant for the date, but the growth. Given the timing, having just turned 26 it made perfect sense for the Marakame to say that this ceremony was also about my own initiation into womanhood (celebrated by the Huichol between ages 15 and 26). Six months after asking the question and just one week after my birthday, I found the answer of how to let go of my mom. It was time to set out on my own and not live within the shadow of expectations cast by others. At a certain age, we must all be initiated into adulthood – we must have to courage to let go of our parents and independently become our own person.

Within just twelve hours of arrival, I left Grand Junction with peace of mind and a strong sense of direction.

NOTE: I enjoy the company of new and old friends at monthly fires in Portland as part of the Sacred Fire Community, which I have been attending as part of the Portland hamlet since 2006. The fires, which happen around the world, are a time for people to come together for heartfelt conversation as we so often forget to do these days. You can learn more about local fires at http://www.sacredfirecommunity.org/ and plant spirit medicine healing at http://bluedeer.org/.

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26 was a defining and adventurous year for Julie Williams, a Portland, Ore.-based communications consultant.

This blog chronicles Julie's crossing of the quarter-life threshold and coming of age on her solo road trip across seven Western states from Aug.-Sept. 2008.

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