Flotsam and Jetsam

Maybe death isn’t darkness after all, but so much light, wrapping itself around us. – Mary Oliver

Now that’s a lot of guano.

I was running the water for her bedtime bath, when Fern appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, a look of vulnerability and need in eyes just starting to brim over with tears. I bent down and took her hand and she said,

Mommy, I’m afraid to grow up.

And that was the conversation that began a journey down those internal stairs that some of us spend a whole life time never wanting to descend. I wonder if it is her age, if there is something that happens for most children around the age of four…their tiny selves solidifying as separate from mama, from babyhood…that suddenly brings in that sense of fragile mortality. While I am unsure of how it began, it is very clear from our “talks” these last few weeks that what my daughter wants to know about, is curious about, is Death.


The tone of her questions, which she will often ask me from the back seat of the car, or in the darkness just before she drifts off to sleep, centers on transitions. Can I still play with Ducky when I’m all grown up? Will you still be my mama when I’m old? Will a cloth bag turn into dirt in the compost? When I’m dead, how do I get alive again? When my body is dead, will you still bounce me on your knee? Can my body be upcycled? (That was her question, I kid you not).


Other questions center on the inner working of things…Do trees think and have brains? How did that animal die? Was it from a gun? (That question was from a short foray into the Little House books…thank you Ms. Wilder.). Why is compost different from trash? Are cars alive? How do things grow old?


I was her age when the reality of death for one and all dawned on me. I sat on my parent’s bed and asked…would I die someday? Would my parents die? As the affirmative answer tied itself like an anchor around my heart, I looked down at my feet dangling off the edge and felt like the floorboards opened underneath me. It was an awful moment, a truth impossible to process, a reality so unfair and so inescapable. The weight of that truth, with all its shock and sorrow, froze in time for me. In adulthood, I have held small chips of the ice, letting them unthaw in my hands, just small enough to handle, just big enough to still be scary.


It is in the height of summer that the reality of our existence often drapes itself over my shoulders. In the fecundity of a mid-season riverside, all is in its full power…fertility has a boisterous shout, with its roots taking nourishment from the rot underneath. The wheel of life turns merrily, and the Now is vivid. This is it. Your life. My life. And I love it so much and my feelings are really quite simple…I just don’t want it to end.


It is in my gratitude for life that I find solace. If my grief is based in a soft hearted embrace of the beauty of embodied existence, then my experience is no longer about sadness.

It’s about love.

Here’s my understatement of the year: Being alive is truly amazing!


It was by the riverside in Guerneville a few days ago that Death joined Fern and I and sat itself down for tea. For an hour and 1/2, Fern climbed on me, sat on me, hugged me and asked for cuddles as she asked me question after question about living and dying and the cycles of life. We talked about how our bodies return to the Earth and give nourishment for new life. From this nourishment grows the seed which grows the plant which feeds the bugs and butterflies and birds which feed other animals which feed other animals and time and again it all returns back to the earth, merges with the waters, blows away on the winds.

I sang Breaths to her, and she asked for it again and again.

Tis the ancestors breath, when the fire’s voice is heard

Tis the ancestors breath, in the voice of the water

Those who have died, have never never left
The Dead are not under the earth

They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth

Those who have died, have never never left
The dead have a pact with the living

They are in the woman’s breast, they are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

So listen more often to things, than to beings
Listen more often to things than to beings…

The shadows grew long over the water, an osprey flew above us, and my daughter relaxed her being into the piece of earth she knows best. The body of her Mama.


Contrary to what you might expect, the felt sense around these conversations has not been a heavy one. Fern asks her questions with penetrating exuberance, taking the answers in with complete receptivity. I do not shy away from her inquiry, instead, I lean right in. This is important stuff and I am glad that while I may have shortcomings in some aspects of parenthood (like patience), when it comes to matters of life and death, I am her rock.


Our bond has also been particularly tight these last few weeks, and when she asks me for a hug, there is an incredibly sweet experience of our hearts melting together. I had no idea that my daughter’s maturing would include this. Being alive is amazing!

Fern’s own collection of flotsam and jetsam. Why is it called flotsam and jetsam, mama? Honey…I have no idea.

As we meandered back from the sea shore yesterday, sand glued to our feet and salt in our hair, I noticed something at my feet and picked it up.

I keep telling you, I don’t make this stuff up.

On a final, lighter note, this is what happened when we got home…

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 9.55.25 AM

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 9.57.38 AM

It’s currently sitting in a bowl of water, waiting for a final scrub.

So how about you? When did your kids ask about the D word? What did you say and how was that experience for you? Even if you don’t have kids, what are your thoughts?

P.S. Thank you for all your heartfelt comments of good faith and blessings on my last post. As MB pointed out, holding all that stuff in was not good, and sharing it was healing. Time and again I am filled with gratitude for the magic of this space, of you. Being alive is amazing!


9 thoughts on “Flotsam and Jetsam

  1. i love her upcycled question!
    we got in a conversation about the difference/meaning of flotsam and jetsam with a cashier at the co-op a couple years ago that led to my finally looking it all up to figure it out. jetsam is stuff people purposely drop — jettisoned, as it were — whereas flotsam is items that fall into the sea not by choice — say, from a sinking vessel….there’s loads of laws and stuff involved is what it legal to keep, blah blah blah, but luckily it doesn’t apply to the good stuff like bird skulls and sand dollars πŸ˜‰
    now i want go back to the beach.
    hope yer skull came clean!

  2. Maybe it’s because I was already having an emotional day, but reading this made me tear up a bit (or maybe more than a bit). So beautifully written.

    I don’t have children, but I have a little sister who is 10 years younger than me, and I find myself explaining things like this to her a lot. The giant roadblock I constantly run into shows up when she asks about heaven. Since my mother is very religious (roman catholic) and I’m not, I feel pressure to reinforce this belief that when you die you and your whole body go to some paradise in the clouds (but only if you’re good), and get to shake hands with God and whatnot. What I want to explain to her–and I often do, but not to its full extent, because it conflicts with the aforementioned heaven scenario–is what you just described. That you go back to the earth and new life comes out of you. And that it happens to everyone and everything, regardless of religion or species.

    Also, sometimes I find you learn more from their questions than they do from your answers.

  3. I feel for you with this. Mia, so far is completely uninterested…although the truth is she may have ingested what she feels she needs to know from our talks with Oz already. Oscar is resolutely a scientist in his belief in death. He will steadfastly say, we die, our bodies stop pumping blood, and our brains and hearts stop, we decay then we become dirt, we go back to the ground. He has no comprehension of an afterlife and seems (at the moment but I’m sure it will change) to be unconcerned about it all ending. Just. like. that. It’s over. He asked questions probably around 4 about what happens to living things (animals and plants and fruit from memory, which led to his own assumptions about humans) when they die, and at that time we gave him very practical answers and didn’t address any possibility of what happens to our spirits our souls – as he accepted an end to our physical bodies as being it. He also doesn’t believe in god…Steve and I have been really wishy washy on that – as steve is likely an atheist and i am agnostic but open to anything we have been unable to say “yes! there is a God” we are more likely to say “yes! maybe! probably lots?, some people believe in Buddha, HIndus have lots of deities….and so it goes” in our own confusion, maybe after all of this….Oscar has decided that Steve and I are useless at teaching this and has that there isn’t one, full stop. What do you think? Have we totally crapped out at parenting as far as this subject? I feel like we’ve let him down but at the same time I’ve always been of the thinking that I’d like my children to make up their own mind without my or Steve’s preconceptions/misconceptions. I wish you could’ve taught it to him instead!
    p.s I meant to comment on your last post hon, but really felt i lacked any good words….i think the housing situation sucks, and can’t imagine what a big deep quandry you’re in…..and never be afraid of complaining on your blog, it’s yours! we love you!

    1. oh my god teeny, if i didn’t love you already, this comment would surely do it.

      NO! i don’t think you’ve let him down. i think you’ve given him freedom. spirituality is personal, and a journey we all take with our own souls. if he shows fear or grief about dying and not feeling held by religion, then you can address that and help him through his feelings. but as far as not feeding him some happily ever after death story? nah, you done good as far as i’m concerned. xoxoxo

  4. teddy just asked me today when i was going to die.
    i told him i didn’t know, but that i wasn’t afraid.

    we come and we go, i told him,

    like plants.

  5. yeah, both my kids started around 4 with the endless death questions. It started with “Mama, everyone is going to die someday.” and then a few days later when they realized that “everyone” includes us and our family and friends… well there were lots and lots of questions. My littlest thinks I’m holding out on info and keeps asking “But… How do we not die?” with this glimmer in her eye and half a smile. hmmm… xo m

  6. upcycled hehe. is that like organ donation? she is so rad.
    i personally put skulls in a flower pot or some other container with some holes in the bottom, loosely covered with a lid so big animals can’t get in, but bugs can, and the bugs finish the job without solvents so you can keep it longer (sometimes boiling and bleaching can break it down faster or pull the bones apart and then you have to re-articulate them. who has time?)

    nice chatting about skull collecting with you. πŸ™‚

    the flower picture on the beach actually hit me more than the skull, as far as eerie timing of a find. (i guess i am desensitized to skulls? as tom brown would say, the last footprint.) flowers on the beach can mean lots of different things, as people float their flowers for all types of reasons, but you know, death is one of them.

    i do think there is a time of dawning awareness right around age four for most kids, and like you i relate it to their differentiation from mama, but i don’t know how attuned to these questions most mamas are. it is hard to hear the questions, and easy to want to stifle or distract from that line of questioning. i remember it well myself, because age 4 was when i lost quite a few family members, an experience which i think has a lot to do with how i turned out as a person. i much prefer how fern and quinn are confronting it, and how it seems like it most often naturally happens- animals first, so they can take in the enormity of it a little at a time, and not have to swallow it about something so close.

    i wrote a little about quinn’s age four questions on death.


    i always like to look back on that precious, fleeting time (we of course still have this type of thing come up, but not in the long strings of questions of the stage fern is currently in). thanks for an excuse to go back in time and think about how amazing it is to be alive. πŸ˜‰

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