I believe in wooden floors. Aging, scuffed-up wooden floors.
Three years ago, my Aunt Jean died. Her death was the first of my parents’ generation and it cut close. An independent woman, she was my childhood role model. Like her, I was not interested in marrying a man or raising a family. Years later, I would discover I was gay and while my aunt’s sexuality has always been murky, her spirited individuality was always clear.
After her memorial service, I felt anxious around my family. I couldn’t help but think, Who’s next? and We are all next. Back in Colorado, I felt sealed off from friends, yet oddly, more empathetic with strangers. For months, I was caught between anxiety and tenderness, exhaustion and numbness. Later, I would understand a single word for what I was experiencing: grief.
I tried to fight the feelings. I took long walks. Sat under trees. Attended Quaker Meeting. Nothing seemed to help. Then a friend invited me to a gathering of gay Quakers at Ghost Ranch.
New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch is surrounded by stunning canyons and red rock mesas, yet it was a small, dimly-lit room that made the difference for me. There, I took part in worship-sharing, a contemplative activity that intersperses silence with speaking from the heart.
As we settled into silence, my thoughts returned to my aunt. For the first time since her death, I realized that while I was experiencing grief, I had resisted actively grieving. Why?
As I reflected on this, I stared at the wooden floor beneath my feet. Once, I could tell, it had been painted and polished. Over the intervening years, thousands of feet had walked on it, hundreds of chairs had scraped against it. The sun had warmed it, the night air chilled it, until the polish and paint and even its level plane had worn away. In their place, I could see its winding wood grain—more beautiful than any paint or polish. The worn floor was also closer to what it had once been—a living tree.
When I finally spoke, I told the group how my aunt’s death had made me feel scuffed up and walked on, heated and chilled, but also, how it had scraped away a few of my outer layers.
Most human beings face horrors far beyond my experiences, and to their pain I cannot begin to speak. But for those of us weathering life’s more standard pain, I offer this: The feelings that accompany death, loss, and disappointment need not be resented, denied, or wished away. If we are lucky, life’s experiences, both the good and painful, will bring us closer to our true essence, revealing our own personal wood grain.
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