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A Season of Relinquishment

A Season of Relinquishment

This is the season of relinquishment.

In October 2010, right around this time, I stood near the bank of Laurel Run, the Chesapeake Watershed stream that falls down Pine Grove Mountain to Slab Cabin Creek. I was in the mountains outside State College. My brother carried the box, heavier than you’d think, with my father’s ashes. Inside, a clear plastic bag held all that we had remaining of his body.

My mother had brought cups we could use to scatter the ashes in the woods. I wanted to use my hands. I wanted to feel the smooth, sandy feeling on my skin.

I carefully placed several handfuls beneath the laurel and the rhododendron growing near the banks of Laurel Run. And then I tossed some onto some leaf litter, where the green leaves had turned red and then brown and were settling to earth.

I looked and there were ashes under my fingernails. I tossed again.

The wind came up just for a moment, and I was surrounded by an eddy of my father’s ashes. They got into my clothes, my hair. The wind caught me, and I gasped and breathed in enough that I coughed.

It took me a moment to react. Should I be alarmed? Disgusted? Or maybe have some profound memento mori experience of remembering that I, too, will die and dissipate into ashes and dust, into member and nothingness. In the end, though, I threw my head back into that saucy breeze and laughed for joy.

My father’s ashes, my father’s body, some significant part of my father’s being, transformed by the energy of fire, was in me, around me, a part of me.

That moment of blessedness, of connection, followed on the heels of relinquishment. Of taking some fundamental condition of my father’s being – the remnants of his body – and letting them go. Tossing them where the squirrels ran, and eventually watching ashes float down the river away and out of sight toward the Atlantic Ocean. Somehow, by relinquishing, I gained unlooked for joy, connection, and peace. And they are what have remained.

This is the season of relinquishment.

In that part of the world one of the great climatic blessings is having four seasons. Other places have milder temperatures, beautiful beaches, or lush jungle. We, though, do our hearts a disservice if we deny the beauty of four seasons.

Further, Nature is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, the great revealer, the revelation, the manifestation of Divine Mind. For many of us in many cultures at this time of year, the quickening wind, the falling mercury, and the shortening days reminds of our ancestors.

The Gaelic Celts call it the thinning of the veils between the worlds, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. We know that one day, we will join the condition of our beloved dead, and now is the season of the year when they are closest. They whisper their stores of memory and of wisdom in the crackling fires and the chilling streams.

If we listen to things, if we look to the plant life around us, we see relinquishment, we see slowing down. The sap recedes and the leaves fall. They do not insist that they have one more thing to do before they go. They, these leaves, do not claim that the spring to come cannot be trusted. They let go. They fall. They make room. And the tree waits.

This is the season of relinquishment.

This is the time of pruning back, of the squash vine rotting where it had bloomed in the summer garden. Turning black and brown with fertile putrefaction.

Relinquishment is not failure. Does the squash vine fail because it sighs into earth and gives its body back? Does the maple leaf fail because it changes, letting its rich green turn to scarlet? Does it fail because it falls? Is there anything else more useful—or beautiful—it should be doing?

This question of the leaf’s value may sound ridiculous. Of course the leaf is doing exactly what it is designed to do. Of courses it is playing its part. But don’t we ask ourselves whether abandoning a project makes us lazy? Don’t we wonder whether getting off a committee will terminally disappoint our friends? Don’t we fear that we are indispensable? Don’t we hope that we are?

As in so many things, the consideration of death draws us close to other things in our lives. What is there, like the squash on the vine, like the relationship that has outlived its promise, like the beloved one who needs to let this body go…what are the other things we need to let go? What are the small things we could relinquish to make room for more repose and restoration? To make room for others? To make room for blessings we cannot even begin to see from here. Where and what are we called to relinquish?

This is the season of relinquishment.

Sometimes, things will be wrenched from us. Sometimes things that seem fixed, settled, and beautiful seem to explode in ways we cannot give up gently. It is no moral failing on our part that life wrenches things from us when we aren’t ready or willing.

We will relinquish in this life. We will. We do.

But relinquishment is not the same as giving up. Rather, we are making space as the leaf does, as the squash vine does, as the wind itself does. We can choose the manner of our relinquishments – not always, but sometimes. Sometimes we will resist with everything we have—denial, anger, bargaining—and sometimes it takes a while for our hands to stop trying to grasp so hard what is already gone.

This is the season of relinquishment.

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.


This poem reminds me of many things – events, experiences, feelings …but especially my father’s death. In some way, I will always hold him against my bones, knowing my life depends upon him. Nonetheless, scattering his ashes was a relinquishing – a gentling of the grip of grief, a letting go that permitted new grace to enter.

Circumstances were such that I was not at my father’s bedside when he shuffled off this mortal coil. I was not there to keep vigil, and I did not let go then. Not then, that August night-morning when he died. Not until we scattered his ashes in October.

It wasn’t until I could see, feel, and—as it turned out—taste the ongoing nature of life that I was able to relinquish the insistence that my father was not really gone. Until that October day, I was held fixed by grief, longing only for what could no longer be.

Relinquishment is not the end of grief. Sometimes it is the beginning of truly grieving. Sometimes it is as it was for me, an opening to a new phase of grief, a kind of deepening, gentling, maturing grief. A grief that doesn’t grasp, but mourns with sweetness and memory.

I am not claiming that death necessarily leaves joy and connection in its wake. Grief can crush us to the ground and leave us there. I do believe, though, in the very center of myself, that we are all always connected, that we are never separated by time or distance or condition of being. We are changed. We are like the water that must evaporate if it wants to pass the desert.

And for the change to come – and we don’t know what it will be – we must let go, fall into the abyss of unknowing, and relinquish who it is we think we are. Every relinquishment is our own letting go, our own death of whatever size or shape. And it is death, after all, that ushers life to its pride of place.

Blessed be this season of relinquishment.

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