For as long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams about my dad dying.
The details were always fuzzy, but the pang of loss so sharp I remember it still. I’d fall to the ground sobbing, clinging to his feet, before waking up disoriented with wet, raw cheeks.
Growing up, dreams about losing my childhood best friend weren’t rare either. She’d disappear into a blinding light while I scrambled to pull her back, frantic despair spreading through each vein until it consumed me entirely.
Today, this fear lingers. More than one missed call from my mom, or a “call me when you can” text, quickens my breath. Anxiety slowly builds as I fumble to call her back, quick to evaluate her tone.
A few years ago, a friend drove 592 miles to see me and I recall with clarity the day she was on the road. I sat at my office cube fidgeting and distracted, checking my phone for a call or text of reassurance. I feared an accident, a blown tire, or a slipped glance at 80 mph.
I was studying in Hungary during my brother’s first deployment. With no precedent or warning, whether in a café or sitting on the tram, my eyes would well up. I’d quietly plead with God for Luke’s safety, all while trying to reason my emotions out of a panic.
My greatest fear is not my own death, but the loss of those I love. Though it is not a fear rooted in personal experience, for I have been spared the unexpected loss that many suffer. If I examine the source of this fear, then, I find it is rooted in love, the consuming love I have for the people in my life, and in stories: stories of others’ losses, accidents, assaults, miscarriages, cancers, and strokes.
While the permeating joy and latent fear of love have ebbed and flowed in the recesses of my consciousness for as long as I can remember, never have I felt them more acutely than over the past 12 months.
Last year, I serendipitously fell in love. I was beginning my final semester of college and emerging from the darkest season of my life. My focus was on self-care, a new internship I had recently started, and planning for life after graduation.
Meeting Martín was the last thing I anticipated and it put me in a delirious shock. It felt like the best news in the world delivered at once in human form. It was so unexpected, it took several months for our relationship to sink in and even feel real. I still marvel at the grace and miracle of it all, and I hope I always will.
As I reflect on the past year together, I realize just how profoundly our relationship has grown me. While our love is a source of great joy, it also daily reveals my selfishness and chronic flaws that are easily hidden from others.
It is no wonder that we are wired to love; it is the very force that refines us, molding us into the greatest versions of ourselves. It fills out the skeletons of our lives and puts flesh on the bones of our days—giving them purpose and meaning.
While my relationship with Martín has indeed refined me and brought my life immense beauty and joy, it has also heightened my fear of loss. When I say goodbye or hang up the phone, I fear it is the last time. I envision car accidents and worry over migraines that might indicate an illness. Though often latent, at times this fear abruptly surfaces and pierces my chest.
From the passenger's seat, I watch his eyes focus on the road. While the credits roll, I feel his heartbeat against my skin. Cooking dinner, sipping coffee, reading… these mundane moments catch me. I press his palm into mine and draw him closer; convinced that if I just hold him tight enough, his breath will never cease.
To choose love, to choose openness to the world, is the most courageous thing we can do. It is a brave, hopeful act to love despite our fear of this fleeting, fragile life.
As Mary Oliver writes:
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Feeling everything deeply is my enduring blessing and gut-wrenching curse, yet it has never made love less worth pursuing. It is a simple truth of life that love is, and will always be, the source of our greatest joy and grief—and to embrace this dissonance, to love wholly despite our fears, is to live courageously. While it may not minimize our fear or the agony of loss, finding contentment in grey spaces of tension and uncertainty fosters a posture of openhandedness. It enables us to hold our loved ones lightly, nourishing gratitude and respect for the sacred fragility of life.
Guest post by Sarah Holle
It has been a year of grief.
It has been a year of death, abuse, depression, and anxiety; of deception, unjust legal and political systems, mysterious health problems, and financial uncertainty.
Throughout this year I have felt isolation set in as I try to make sense of it all. I have drawn away at times, crippled by the overwhelming amount of suffering experienced at once. Yet I have found rest in the vast beauty of nature and comfort in the non-judgmental spirits of plants. They create a restorative atmosphere, content to simply exist and sit with you and those around you.
The flowers do not have an agenda and do not try to change who you are, yet you walk away a changed person after experiencing their patience and ease through life.
This fall I was at work on the urban farm doing a final harvest and clean up for the season. My body was exhausted from weeks of strenuous labor. I find time and time again that Mother Earth humbly puts us in our place every day we work with her, reminding us of her capability to give and take.
I sat on the ground to spare my hurting back and began individually pulling each collard green leaf from the stem, carefully inspecting each one for bug damage, as well as admiring the intricacies of how each leaf had formed.
The farm is a beautiful space for meditation and I began reflecting on the yoga sutra 2.46, which loosely translates to “practice each posture with grace and ease.” I believe this applies to all parts of life, being mindful in how we move, think, and react. So as I sat in the farm, I harvested each plant with grace and ease, feeling a connection to each one and acknowledging its life and vitality. The plants had endured the harsh Minnesota weather, taking a beating from the summer heat and autumn cold, still they remain beautiful and resilient—not to mention delicious and nourishing.
Just days before, I was sitting in a forest outside of Portland grieving the unexpected loss of my cousin Andy. Sage and lavender incenses burned as the river gently flowed and the trees rustled in the wind, reminding me that Andy’s spirit is here and can’t be erased.
Andy had lavender growing outside his house; an herb that has calming properties and multifaceted use, and one that I use to calm the increasingly frequent anxiety attacks that wash over me. As I approached Andy’s house, it was as if his lavender plants were guarding the entrance, marking his home as a place of peace, tranquility, and mindfulness.
His home was minimalistic and mindfully arranged. There were books of wisdom lying around, a small Buddha on the mantel, and wholesome food still fresh in the pantry. I know Andy was on a journey of finding peace within himself and with the earth, but I will no longer be able to ask of the enlightenment he discovered.
However, I can follow the way Andy lived and find enlightenment of my own. In this season of grief, I have realized each moment is worth recognizing and living with grace and ease, since we don’t know what the next moment will bring.
Nature has been my teacher in this. Plants—whether collard greens or lavender—have trained me in mindfulness and brought me healing and rest during a year of grief.
As I have experienced this for myself, I’ve also realized the troubling disconnect between our society and the natural world today. We have forgotten how to listen to the instincts that our ancestors used to live by. Our world has become so cluttered with noise and distraction, and yet we wonder why we feel overwhelmed and experience such staggering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
I became more aware of our present disconnect with nature while living in Kona, Hawaii. There, the land is everything—it is a place of healing and spiritual encounter, it is a central part of Hawaii’s history and native culture, and it shapes the way people live. Witnessing the central role of nature in Hawaiian life grew my fascination with plants and deepened my own sense of connection to the earth.
The earth holds many mysteries we have tried to understand through religion, as well as the beliefs, traditions, and sacred texts passed down from our ancestors. But if we mindfully studied the living organisms around us, how they exist and interact in their complex ecosystems, we can glimpse these mysteries and gain a further understanding of how we are so deeply intertwined.
I’ve found throughout this challenging year that returning to nature, resting in the beauty of a sunset or an immeasurable mountain range, brings perspective to the suffering we experience. It doesn’t discredit our thoughts or feelings, rather the vastness of the earth as well as the small intricacies of nature reminds us that we are not alone.
I challenge you to engage with the natural world and discover this for yourself. Whether it is examining the intricate patterns of your wood table or the leaves of a houseplant, or taking a walk outside, notice how welcoming the earth is to your soul—and let that transform you.
Sarah Holle is an urban farmer and yoga instructor from Minneapolis, MN.
She studied Food Systems and Horticulture at the University of Minnesota and is passionate about stewarding sustainable landscapes and communities. If you don’t see her biking around Minneapolis with coffee in hand, you can probably find her on a hike out West—referencing her favorite Western Wild Flowers Guide Book.
This post is part of a series on belonging, in which I'm exploring the idea of belonging as well as sharing stories, expressions, and experiences of belonging from my life and others. Please email me if you’d like to share your story, discuss this topic, or be notified when new blogs are posted.