Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Tag: death

Burnt Trees and Butterflies

I woke up feeling unsettled and uncertain. My emotions were raw. My eyes burned. My throat was dry. I tried to settle into my spiritual practice of reading while I drank my morning coffee, but I couldn’t focus on the page. My skin couldn’t contain my feelings. I wanted, I needed, to combust. I left my cabin to hike in the woods. 

But not any woods. For 360 degrees around me there were charred trees and blackened soil. Lodge pole pines had been stripped of their evergreen needles. Some trees stood without shame in their nakedness. Others bowed to the ground or leaned on neighbors. I thought I could still smell smoke. But it was probably my imagination. Or maybe, it was just the lingering odor in my hair and clothes from using the wood burning stove in my cabin the morning before. 

The East Troublesome Fire was first reported on October 21, 2020, near Kremmling, Colorado. Within a week, winds were as high as 60 MPH. The fire jumped Highway 34. Even without much fuel above tree line, it jumped the Continental Divide. When it was finally done, 193,812 acres of forest had been burned.

Still, on my walk almost a year later, there were signs of life. Yellow and purple flowers bloomed in ashen dirt. Carpets of green grass looked all the more verdant against fallen tree trunks turned to glistening charcoal. Miniature Aspen trees shimmered in the morning light, promising to turn gold when the air grew colder. First, I heard, and then I saw a small creek bouncing over rocks singing a song of hope. A single small yellow butterfly fluttered by, dancing in the sun.

Death gives way to life. It’s the way the world works. Broken hearts mend. Shattered dreams give birth to new inspiration. Even if we are not mended to be like new, we are wiser and maybe even stronger at the broken places. In the church we call it a miracle, resurrection. 

I rolled my eyes at the cliché. It is a trope, and it is true. 

But what is also true is that the trees burned. There is new life, but first comes death. We don’t get new beginnings without endings. What needs to die in me for something new to be born? What empty hopes, false selves, or rotted out beliefs do I need to set on fire so that latent seeds can sprout? 

I ease off the boulder where I sat to think and walked back to my cabin. I open and close my fists to try to unclench my heart. There is so much I resist letting go. I study my hands and suspect I have only been holding smoke. 

One True Thing

As we sat on my back patio listening to the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire and eating peach pie, a friend told me the story of the February night he nearly drowned in Lake Michigan. He had jumped in to save his dog. Good Samaritans were able to pull the dog to safety but they had to leave my friend in the water while they went for help. He tried to pull himself onto the ice, but it broke beneath him. He couldn’t climb the ten-foot retaining wall. With his fingertips he clung to a narrow gap in the concrete, only his head above water. He doesn’t know how much time went by, but he lost his grip on the crevice when his hands froze with the palms flat. His head dipped again and again under the water. With each dunk, he could feel the heat whoosh off his head. He thought three things. One, if this were how he died his ex would be totally vindicated. Two, his mother deserved better. Three, life, what the hell was that supposed to be? And then he thought, if these were the last moments of his life he should say something out loud that was absolutely true.

That’s where he paused in his story and looked me in the eye and asked, “What would you have said?”   My thoughts froze in the icy water. The only words that came to mind were “Help!” and “Fuck.” I could not think of a single, absolutely true thing to say.

As we sat on my back patio, hearing the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire, and eating peach pie I was so relieved that he there was to tell me this story. And so angry that he was such an idiot that we almost weren’t.

He looked at me, waiting for an answer. I felt my hands sliding down the slick, icy concrete. Nothing. I shook my head. “What did you say?” I asked. “There is only love,” he responded. “Love in relationships is life giving. Love in neighborhoods is community. Love in systems is justice.” Until I have an answer of my own, I’ll borrow his: “There is only love.”


Oh, You Again

It was so great to not have to write about Jesus for a whole week. Or even think about him much. Such freedom to write about grief, sex, longing, and my dog, and not have to think about what Jesus would say, or do, or feel, or even if he existed in the same ways that he is remembered. What a gift to not have to put my words through the sieve of “do I really believe this?” and “what will my congregation think?”

I loved being at Kenyon College with my tribe for the Kenyon Writers Institute Beyond Walls. The people at the Institute were other clergy and crazy religious types so I didn’t have to explain to them what I do or what it’s like. I didn’t have to wade through their preconceptions of a pastor and then redefine my role for them. Yes, women in my tradition can be ordained. Yes I can get married. Yes my work is meaningful – and sometimes boring and frustrating. No, I don’t just sit and think important thoughts and counsel people. I also call the exterminator when the ants are back, worry about a balanced budget, and negotiate with the Boy Scouts their use of our building. And I didn’t have to deal with the constant barrage of how the church is dying or get overwhelmed by ways to make worship zing. What a relief.

And I didn’t have to talk about Jesus. I have nothing against Jesus. I know some people talk about him as a confidant, a bosom buddy. They sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and really mean it. For me, Jesus is a more troublesome companion. He at once demands everything and claims that his yoke is easy.

When I got back to the church, the most important thing I did was visit a woman who was dying and her family. We didn’t talk about Jesus at all. We talked about who she had been, about their family, her progressive illness, their experience in these final days. I read scripture. We prayed.

We didn’t talk about Jesus at all.


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