What is real? Honoring the profound, abiding beauty of the soul

Some cultures choose November to celebrate the eternal and transitory nature of the human soul.

With optimistic hospitality, they build small altars offering traditional gifts and familiar décor, believing the soul returns annually for a brief period to visit the humans it left behind.

I like to think that’s true. Who wouldn’t want to spend a cool autumn evening sipping tea with a wise grandma, counting stars with a beloved father, reading a bedtime story to a precious child?

This year, on a river path near our house, a group of creative people, including our friend Rae Blom, perfectly repurposed abandoned grottos near a cemetery to put together a Day of the Dead tribute.

All of the displays are beautiful, but Rae’s took my breath away. Her Velveteen Rabbit inspired altar, with its crisp white child’s nightgown, pink cradle and stuffed bunny, stole my heart. I saw it on a sunny afternoon, and then crept back, through a scary graveyard and dark woods, to see it again, lit against the night sky.

Rae and Derek Blom lost their seven-year old daughter Emma to cancer nine years ago. They honor her every day, but particularly at the American Cancer Society’s annual Soleburner Run, when they lead a large and boisterous team of generous contributors.

Though more solitary, the Day of the Dead tribute also leaves a lasting impact. Rae built that altar with an artist’s eye and a mother’s heart. It represents Emma, sweetly innocent, perpetually profound.

Is it real, this gentle coaxing of souls? For that answer, I defer to Margery Williams’ Skin Horse.

If someone loves you, then it’s real.

Long shot
Set against the river, the “What is Real” display looked ethereal, even in the daylight.
Blom grotto
The tiny gown, pink cradle, soft blanket and stuffed bunny stole my heart.
What is real
What is real? “Real isn’t how you are made…It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you, then you become Real.”
Night view
At night, the display looks especially beautiful. A river runs behind it and the lights reflecting off the river form a perfect backdrop.
Rae Blom Grotto Installation
Built with an artist’s eye and a mother’s heart.
If you go, there are other displays as well.
This one offers an opportunity…
Listen for a response
…to write a question, and listen for a response.
Apples and Roses
Apples and roses made a simple tribute in this display.
Green Hoodie
This one freaked me out, mostly due to green hoodie on top. I have my own 1987 model green hoodie wearer, so this one gave me the chills.
Nels Edward Anderson
A lovely tribute to Nels Edward Anderson, made me want to learn more about the man.
Anderson long view
Fall leaves and tall trees added a natural depth of color and symbolism. The grottos are located just west of the Refuge and just east of Peabody Park in Appleton. They will be up through November.

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