By Ashley Henry of Portland, Oregon. Ashley describes herself as a "desert protection activist turned fish habitat restoration organizer turned campaign manager turned renewable energy and sustainability consultant."
While there are a lot of changes afoot -- including the recent announcement about Ted Wheeler's appointment -- I respectfully submit this reflection on the death of Ben Westlund. I hope that in the midst of all the political changes, people will take some time to share their own reflections and thoughts on what we can do in Ben’s memory.
I was sitting in a coffee shop when I got the call on Sunday afternoon that Ben Westlund had died. My friend, who had just boarded a plane, didn’t have time to talk because the doors were about to close, and she had to shut off her phone. I sat there sobbing in the coffee shop until I realized that I was making a bit of a scene, so I walked home and called my dear friend Peter Buckley. “Oh, Ash,” was all he could muster, and all I could do was cry. I then tried texting as an outlet for my sadness, only to discover that my friends -- once activists, now elected officials -- were at car dealerships or in grocery stores. “Ben died,” via text is not an appropriate way to deal with grief.
I needed to share this experience with someone who loved Ben like I did, so I checked Blue Oregon, but it was silent. Turns out Kari was waiting for the family to release their statement before he posted anything on the blog. I noticed that Maribeth Healey had updated her profile photo on Facebook. A great one of her and Ben. What a smile that man had. I dug through my photo files to find a few of my own, crying as I found ones of Ben making me laugh, sometimes really, really hard. God, I loved that man.
Finally, the Blue Oregon post announcing Ben’s death was up, and I could respond. And so I did. I also posted how much I loved Ben as my Facebook status update. I called my mom. I checked to see what others were writing about Ben on Blue Oregon. I imagined us all sitting at our desks or dining tables with the glow of the computer screen staring back at us. In our remarkably connected world, I found myself feeling profoundly disconnected while participating in this digital form of grieving. So there I was, just me. Living and breathing in a world without Ben Westlund in it.
The packs of sunflower seeds I’d purchased at New Seasons earlier in the week were staring me down. I’ll plant sunflowers for Ben! And then I can look forward to them blooming and shining to the whole neighborhood over the top of the fence come August. That’s what I’ll do! So I got out my pitchfork and hoe and garden gloves. The sun was still shining, but the cold front had already started moving in so the rain would arrive soon. I figured that would be perfect. I’d get the soil ready, plant the seeds, and voila! It would rain on the seeds I planted for Ben.
Alas, I read the package. Do not plant until the threat of frost has passed, it said. Sure, it’s been a warm winter. The cherry blossoms and tulip magnolias are in full bloom---a full month earlier than last year. But I figured I decided not to take the risk. I’d hold off on planting the seeds.
This gave me more time to work the soil in my backyard along the fence. It’s the perfect place for tall sunflowers. They have something to lean on if they get a bit top heavy, and when they get really tall, they peek over the top of the fence to share their sunshine with my neighbors. And I’ll be able to watch them grow from my enclosed back porch that now serves as my office.
But what to do now? How can I honor Ben? How can we honor Ben? What seeds can we plant in our communities that demonstrate how much we loved him? What would be an appropriate expression of the kind of love he had for Oregon. A love that transcended party. A love that would not stand by and let the acrimony that currently exists in Salem persist. Perhaps the threat of frost has not passed, and so there is soil to be tended first.
It’s not very often that a politician is remembered by his colleagues as making the transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader in reverse. The death of our friend Ben has provoked an outpouring of sentiments, but what would he want us to DO?