What’s Left?

I read a fascinating book by Peter Ward called Life As We Do Not Know It regarding NASA’s search for alien life. While 99.9% of the book was way over my head, one thing he said stuck with me. How can we expect to find alien life when we haven’t found all life on this planet? Basically, we redefine ‘life’ because as science changes and new discoveries are made, that definition of what life is also has to change.

If we must redefine our definition of what ‘life’ is, so, too, must we redefine how life changes and is altered by the death of the physical body.

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Please be kind and respectful in your comments here, because I’m going to move into a topic that people not only feel strongly about, but also one that many feel must be pushed on others who feel differently. Please tell us how you feel, but don’t tell us we have to feel the same way.

I tried different religions but never found one that fit. I personally feel religion was simply early man’s first attempt at a moral code. I don’t believe in some great hereafter, and I don’t believe people go to heaven or hell, or some other variation of that theme, after death.

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Yet, when you lose a loved one, beliefs on the afterlife get seriously challenged. Because we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to believe they are gone forever, beyond our reach, or beyond any hope of ever seeing them again. So how do you reconcile love and loss with no afterlife?

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I’m not ready too say there is nothing after death. My siblings and I had an unexplained moment when our dad died. We were far apart at the time, in our individual homes, and didn’t realize we’d each had similar experiences until days later. But even with that mystery, I don’t believe in some heavenly afterlife.

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I just don’t think it is something we can know or understand, or maybe even wrap our minds around. I think people’s attempts to define it in the language of religion are limiting something that is unknown because we, as humans, are also limited in our knowledge of the world around us.

I don’t believe in some all-knowing god. But I also can’t truly say, after that experience with dad, that there is nothing afterwards. I just have to settle for ‘I don’t know’ and try to accept that it helps not one iota with the loss that comes from death.

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We are made of energy, or as some say, we are made of stars. I think that energy dissipates, maybe stays around, maybe becomes something new, maybe swirls out there in the universe forming new planets and new life. Who knows? I sure don’t.

If I haven’t learned about all the life that exists, then how can I begin to fathom all the possibilities of what happens to life when it transitions, or dissipates, or moves on, or simply ceases?

Mom's wedding

I hope that there is something after death mainly because it eases loss. That comes from selfish longing, not from some sense of fear about what will happen to me. Personally I’ll be happy fertilizing some trees.

But for those I have loved and lost, I hope they are among the stars.

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The House That Wandered

Our house was built in 1928. At some point in the 1930s, it went for a stroll and never came back. It also took a few other houses with it.

They originally were beside a whitewater river but they got tired of floodwaters seeping under their foundations and inside their walls. So off they went, on the hunt for a drier location.

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They ended up on the other side of the highway, where they still sit to this day.

I like to cross the highway and wander down to the river, where the forest is slowly reclaiming those places. In some areas, it’s obvious, but in other areas you have to know what you’re looking for, to find the spots where the houses used to be.

For instance, a row of young trees that is just a little too straight for nature.

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That reminds me of when we had a parking area installed. Our friend wouldn’t put in a square area, saying all landscaping should be about moving people away from the straight lines we live in. That nature doesn’t like squares.

But anyway, some areas over there in the woods are more subtle. There is a plant blooming right now. More of a twig, actually. It only catches the eye because of the cluster of little purple flowers. The plant is non-native and is left over from the days when someone planted the shrub in their yard. The yard is long gone. The house is long gone. But children of that shrub have spread and occasionally a tiny one pops up where it shouldn’t be, and happily blooms.

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There are old railroad tracks, half-buried in moss and forest floor. Glimpses can be caught of the rails as they peter out in the woods. It gives a sense of mystery. Where did they go? Where did they come from? What was it like when they were in use? They weren’t used by full-size trains, but for smaller units carrying supplies. But it stirs the curiosity when you stumble across a section of rails seemingly not connected to anything, out in the woods.

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It’s interesting to me how your eye can be drawn to those straight lines, even if you don’t know that a community used to thrive there. Those lines don’t belong along the river, between the trees, among the rocks, under the moss. And so you see them, almost like a haunting, or a shadow of what once was.

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Maple tree, moss, and a nice crop of licorice root

I wonder sometimes what memories get absorbed into the walls of an old home. What voices the wood might remember, what stories, or what dramas. Do they remember the feel of roots reaching down and branches reaching up, when the boards were trees?

And I wonder sometimes if the house remembers the rush of water, the sounds of it, the feel of cold snow-melt flowing around its frame.

Or if it just sits on its foundation, quietly hibernating, maybe dreaming of the next walk it will take, and where it might go.

Who knows where I might wake up one morning.

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The Language of Barks

When we moved to our current home, it was the first time my husband’s princess, Vala, had a view other than woods. There was a road that an occasional car went by. Once in a while an elderly lady walked her dog by. Occasionally ‘Santa’ would go past on a bicycle. Supposedly to lose weight but his pace is so sedate his bushy white beard barely stirs.

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That whole new world became hers to give loud commentary on. Squirrel? Bird? Her own cat sitting on his own porch? Everything was announced. And not only did she bark, she also body-slammed the huge picture window. One day I watched her hit the window so hard she actually did a backflip off the window onto the floor. Obviously that was a serious safety issue that couldn’t continue.

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And of course that barking infuriated me. She wouldn’t listen, she wouldn’t stop, the more I yelled the worse she got…until a friend explained how a dog’s brain worked. That she didn’t equate my yelling with her barking. That in her mind there was this horrible thing in the yard that she told me about and then I got upset so that must be a REALLY HORRIBLE thing that needed more announcing.

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Needless to say it took a bit to retrain both of us. My husband also built a big sturdy gate to keep her away from the window. The fact that she quickly learned to open the gate is another story.

At this point, she knows to bark and tell us something is going on, but she’s much better at stopping when told. She only body-slams the window when her arch nemesis goes by, but that’s also another story.

And I have learned to interpret her many barks so I also no longer need to rush to the window to see what is going on. Remember, we live in a community of maybe twenty-five people. Not a lot goes on even on a busy day. But when she barked, I had to run. Like I said, we’ve both needed training.

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Our ‘back yard’

There is a rather sedate bark that says somebody is going for a walk. There’s a more high-pitched bark that says ‘Zoe is out again!’ That’s come in handy because Zoe is the neighbor’s dog who isn’t supposed to be out again.

And there’s the frantic OH MY GOD IT’S THE UPS MAN!!! bark followed by the OH MY GOD HE’S COMING TO THE DOOR!!! extremely more frantic bark.

The UPS driver is terrified of her. She’s a Rottweiler and she’s barking madly at the window. I keep telling him to trust me enough to allow me to open the door. Because once the door is open, her job of alerting us is done and she loves everyone. Seriously. She’s a sweet girl. She is most emphatically not the guard dog in our family. That job belongs to our old lumpy girl, Arwen.

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Caught in the act

Matter of fact, the one and only time in Vala’s life when she actually listened to me and came immediately when I called was when she was running from a bear. She flew right inside the cabin then turned as if to say ‘hope you’ll be okay out there’.

But anyway, the UPS guy doesn’t trust me. He now stands out near the street and waits for me to come to him. I hate it when my husband orders something heavy.

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So for the past week we’ve been down with the flu, which triggers latent asthma so I end up sleeping sitting up. A couple nights ago I was out in the living room sleeping in the recliner, when I woke up about three a.m. to an odd sound.

Vala was growling.

No barking, no dramatic body-slamming. Just this actually quite sinister sounding growl. I’d never heard her do that before. So, a bit nervously, I peeked out the curtain. And saw nothing. But she was on her perch, staring out the window, and still growling. I waited and watched. And here, coming through the trees and into the front yard was a lone coyote. I hit the porch light and it took off, and all was fine.

I realized two things from that odd little moment.

  1. When Vala is barking her fool head off and body-slamming the windows, it’s all for show. Maybe even just a show for us so we believe she’s doing her job.
  2. Or maybe there is a little guard dog inside her and maybe when she’s being quiet is when we need to pay attention.

Or more likely, she was being so quiet because that was the one thing she didn’t want noticing her.

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