The Prediction of a Personal Essay of Major Proportions, called, “How we Finally Disposed of Dad’s Ashes”

It’s going to be all about how I finally talk my stepmother into parting with my father’s ashes. She will agree that it is about time; they’ve been in her closet since 1988 and this trip she’s taking me and my son on to Kauai in a week, is the perfect opportunity to release his ashes in a place he would have loved to have been able to visit.

At least, I hope she will agree.

I just sent her the email and entitled it, “Idea.” The content is only one sentence long, and not my usual five lines–more like one and a half, and it’s a simple question, though the depth of its meaning is voluminous and historical in our little circle. There should be no need to elaborate on why it’s a brilliant idea; he loved the ocean, the beach, the surf, shells, rocks, the hot, hot sun, and would have loved nothing more in life than to split to a place like Hawaii and spend the rest of his days beach-combing and drinking beers at sunset, on the sand.

A closet is the wrong place.

If I’d had my way, I would have had some of those ashes a ways back, and spread some in places I’ve visited and maybe had epiphanies about life and death, like Zion, or Tulum, Mexico. He would have loved the layers of blue, blue water and the sun-bleached, worn down ruins of the Mayans, the iguanas, and drinking Corona’s at dusk by the sea, but my stepmother was firm about not “taking some out.”

So, it’s been the closet.

Over the last twenty-plus years, since I’ve moved three thousand miles away, we haven’t been able to come up with a plan for my father’s ashes, though we have discussed it several times. She mentioned Key West, a place he would remember fondly, were he still here, or out at sea in the Atlantic somewhere, and it was definitely mentioned that a vacation somewhere together might be an appropriate time.

That was maybe twelve years ago. My stepmom has come out to Oregon to visit me almost every year since I have lived here, I think. That is like close to twenty times. Never once did we discuss spreading his ashes in any of the wondrous places we have traveled to, like Mt Hood, or the Redwoods, or the flower studded cliffs of the wild Oregon coast. I never mentioned it; I guess I thought she would feel that the west coast didn’t really fit into her narrative of him, that he somehow belonged on the east coast.

But now, it’s been so long. I’ve even lived on the east coast for two years recently, not an hour from my stepmother, and somehow, during that time, it didn’t come up, even though we visited some of our old beaches. I might have made a remark about the box when she was cleaning out her closet, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes my commentary only runs in my head, thankfully. I don’t think we were avoiding it. I think it has been so long now that avoiding it isn’t even an issue.

We are headed to Kauai in just six days; me, my stepmom, and my twelve year old son.

And maybe, my dad. If he can make it out of that corner in my stepmom’s closet, with the shoe boxes on top of him. And we will take him down the Wailua River in a canoe, because he loved canoeing, and we will take him to the volcano, and the beach, and we will prop up that brown-paper wrapped box with us while we watch the sunset, sipping beers, and we will say meaningful things about him and tell stories to my son, who will laugh and feel sorry that he missed knowing such a wonderful person, and we will release his ashes to the wind and sea, and later, back at home, I will reflect deeply and write about it, and have some kind of closure about his death.


Transcriptional Bursting, Minecraft, and Active Listening

–by Heather Murphy

Sometimes, people are talking to me and I’m not really listening, not all the way. It’s not that I’m faking it, I’m not; though my dad says there are a quadrillion synapses in the human nervous system, there are a finite number of them I’m capable of firing in a given day without falling into a short-circuited heap onto an unswept floor. Certain things will be processed with as much critical thinking muscle as it takes to blink, or take in oxygen.

There are keywords that prick up my ears: Mom, hungry, food, chocolate, late, sex, please, and my first name are about the length of it, however.

I am not always in this state of not-really-listening. In fact, much of the time, I can be eagerly attentive, letting my natural curiosity and piqued interest lead me to all sorts of stories and information. But if I am writing, or recalling, or attempting to make four tasty dishes appear simultaneously on the table with steam still emanating from them, I might not hear the details of your new minecraft world. I might miss the fact that the furnace filter needs to be changed. And I might only nod my head and mumble into the oven when my dad comes over for dinner early to inform me that Transcriptional Bursting is messenger RNAs being produced from a DNA template.

Not-really-listening happens when I am pushing the limits of my neurological abilities. If I am working out a problem in my head, I can’t tune in to the voices all around me.

As I typed the last sentence—which sounded like the inner dialog of a schizophrenic, I know–I lied: “Yes,” to a question my husband asked me, and even mustered eye contact and a smile, and I have no idea what subject he was even attempting to discuss with me. His voice was calm and friendly, and currently, he seems happy to keep chattering sweetly as I bang away on the keyboard with the limited amount of time I have to do so before other people’s stomachs drag me unceremoniously away.

Though multitasking has become the modus operandi of our culture, I find it difficult to type an interesting blog, on-the-fly, and listen to people talk about the installation process for a spa filter. At least that’s what I think he was talking about—I didn’t hear any keywords, or sense distress, so I could not tell you with any certainty, but I hear the motor of the thing now, so I’ve taken liberties, extrapolating. The brain is wonderful that way.

But hearing is not listening. Listening requires that you be all-there to hear the words. You cannot do so if you are elsewhere, in your mind, working out your important problems. Listening can be a kind of magic, where you take in information and suffuse it with your own insights, emotional responses, memories, and wisdom, and create the rich dynamic of communication with another person by feeding this back to them. How can you do that and roast brussel sprouts at the same time?

Active listening as a psychology term was coined by Carl Rogers. It involves listening closely and attentively, then paraphrasing, at opportune moments, to let the speaker know you are abreast of the situation. In my family, we set time aside specifically for this, since too much of the time, there are distractions. Keeping open and interested lines of communication with my children is crucial to all of us. When I actively listen, I can pry, interject, question, learn, laugh, and deepen my understanding of the people I care to hear.

Rapidly, we are moving into a time of communication overload, which is really cloaked scarcity. It is a bitter irony that the more online and gadget communicating people are doing now, the less face to face contact they are having with real live people. Active listening will become a lost art, or somehow used as flattery for the exploitation of stupid people with money, and that is a shame. When you listen, you learn.