Voices of Experience: Reconnecting and Healing with Nature ~ T. Roosevelt and Me

There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Michelle Jarvie is an author and educator from Minneapolis, MN. In her beautiful essay below, she describes how she chose to observe the 36th birthday of her deceased husband: by honoring past memories, making new ones, and incorporating the healing power of nature. Michelle invites readers to connect with her online at her website, MichelleJarvie.com. See also Amazon's description and reviews of her recently published book, Then and Now: Changed Perspectives of a Young Widow.

When my husband's urn was ready to be picked up, an unexpected wooden box sat next to it with his name and the date cremated on top. The beautiful urn, showcasing a white bird flying over deep blue waters, was heavy and obviously full. I was confused.

“James was a large man. This box contains the ashes that did not fit in the urn you selected,” I was told.

Hmmm. What was I going to do with these extra ashes? I knew where I wanted to keep the urn: next to my bed, where I could hold it anytime I wanted. It took me almost a year to decide what to do with the wooden box. Burial didn't seem appropriate, as I knew someday that's what I would do with the urn, and keeping it tucked away in my closet didn't seem very honorable.

The idea to scatter them in nature came to me one night as I dreamed about our first (and only) wedding anniversary on July 7, 2008. James had found us a tiny log cabin 15 minutes from the resort on Lake Superior where we said our wedding vows. It was a one-room place, completely finished in knotty pine with a deck as big as the entire cabin footprint. Even with the windows and doors shut, the sound of waves crashing on big boulders below was unmistakably clear. Within 30 minutes of entering that place cuddled by large pine trees and loved by birds, James took me in his arms and whispered: “I wish we could live here!”

This beauty of the North Shore is captivating for most Minnesotans; we go there to relax, rejuvenate, and feel the water's healing powers. And most of us have a hard time driving back home. Forged with the anniversary memory mentioned above, I decided to release James' extra ashes into Lake Superior from the base of that picturesque cabin. I thought it would be perfect and that I would sense he was pleased with my decision. However, the floodgate of tears accompanying this act made me question, as I drove home, when/if I'd ever want to go back. Perhaps it would be best to keep that place and those memories in sacred isolation. Or perhaps I just wasn't strong enough.

I went back for the first time last weekend.

On his would-be 36th birthday, I stopped should-ing myself and started listening. Instead of “I should play ‘The Dance’ for him on the piano as I did at his funeral,” I felt his energy wrap around me and encourage me to play a song that made my soul happy rather than melancholy. Likewise, when I felt the warm sun on my skin as I walked outside, instead of feeling emptiness that he could not enjoy it too, I decided to fill my cup with all the natural beauty this day could hold. Images of the North Shore flooded my mind, and all of the sudden, I was certain it was time to go back.

As my new husband Sean and I, along with our yellow lab, stepped onto the beach where I got married the first time, I felt a clairvoyant, spiritual connection. I was overcome with love and appreciation for both of my husbands and for the absolute, untarnished beauty of the largest freshwater lake in the world. I envisioned James carrying me off the beach after our wedding ceremony, as my wedge shoes and the shore's pebbles made a poor combination for my feet. I pointed out the collection of painted rocks that hold the names of most all who married there. And as my view panned out to the rocky point, now covered with thick icicles, I heard Sean say, “Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I'm honored.”

We talked about old memories. Then we made new memories at a lodge and state park a little farther north that night.

As I breathed in the last of that cool northern air before heading home, it occurred to me that I didn't cry at all on James' birthday. In fact, I felt whole and happy. Wow - as I type those words, I can't help but recall the years I never believed that was possible. There were so many nights spent pacing, yelling at the world, not wanting to see beauty because I was focused on the ugly. When people years out from their grief tried to help me see a sliver of hope, I dismissed them, assuming they didn't understand just how much I loved James. Now, six and a half years later, the greatest purpose in my life is being a lantern for others in grief. And I write to showcase the changed perspectives that do come after hard work and many years pass by.

I found many years ago that sometimes the hardest grief work was deciding to leave the house and immerse myself into the real world again. For a long time that didn't necessarily mean interaction with people; sometimes it just meant going for a walk. When I was open to remembering how much I loved staring at the trees, radiant red flowers, and determined weeds upending cement, a calmness drifted inside my body. When my parents retired and bought a new house on a lake, I would take a kayak into the serene middle and dip my fingers into the cool water; the sensation forced me to be present. Nature - outside of the North Shore and its memories - found a way to input beauty and mystery back into my life. No words were needed. It showed me the cycle of life and death everywhere I looked, and at times, death was even beautiful - like the gnarly branches of a leafless oak tree in winter.

Whenever possible, I try to tell others about the healing power of nature. Recently, this conversation led to some research on Teddy Roosevelt. Many people know our 26th president as either one of the four heads at Mount Rushmore OR as a conservationist, responsible for protecting our many breathtaking public lands and waters. Specifically, he secured approximately 230,000,000 acres by establishing 150 national forests, five national parks, and 51 federal bird reservations - that’s the tip of the iceberg (United States National Park Service).

However, did you know that he was also a young widower? His wife, Alice, died when he was just 26 years old - on Valentine's Day. Unbelievably, his mother, Mittie, died the exact same day, just hours before. Records reveal that he drew a large “X” in his diary that day and wrote only the following: “The light has gone out of my life.” For three years, he sought refuge from his heart's turmoil at Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota as a rancher (Jenkinson). To many, this choice was rather surprising, as he was a Harvard-educated man from a wealthy New York family. To anyone in deep grief, this choice for a new kind of life, wrapped in solitude and the beauty of nature, sounds not only understandable, but also healing.

I wonder if we would have all our exquisite parks and forests if he hadn’t suffered such loss and found that in their presence was the only place he could heal? I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that reactions to grief have often made our world a better place.

References:

Jenkinson, Clay S. "Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch: The Crown Jewel of Theodore Roosevelt National Park." Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch. Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

United States National Park Service. "Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

© 2015 by Michelle Jarvie

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