On the Remarkable Potential of Grief

I’m glad to say that all is not sorrowful. I have just celebrated my dear older sister’s 40th birthday. There was merriment as we luxuriated and romped around our old family home. Doggerel verse was declaimed in her name, songs were sung, and coastal walks were claimed. My newborn nephew Rowan was there also – a gurgling, ham-fisted delight! Ah – the passage of time..

And now 2016 is here. Stretching invitingly before us. There is much for me to be thankful for, excited about and engaged with. This is set to be the year we find our home in Devon, launch our new retreat business, and translate some of the learning of these last years, studies and travels into a tangible experience of benefit for others. Scary and delicious! Who knows what will actualize? All I know is that it’s time to step up and into the next phase of life. And it’s a whole lot easier to do that when you’ve got some fine listening to soothe you along the way.. Here’s Ryley Walker’s live rendition of On The Banks of The Old Kishwaukee should you want some as we delve into the uncomfortable territory of grief..

There were certain pivotal moments in the Becoming Indigenous course during which grief shifted from the fringes of my awareness into centre stage. Our teachers had a beautiful range of different responses to the horrors of where we find ourselves, and the enormity of what we face. Some deeply proactive – Louis Fox (film), Atossa Soltani (activism) and Drew Dellinger (poetry) spreading information, educating and activating. Some more ceremonial: Pat Macabe, Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook, Linda Lorimer and Carolyn Hillier, bringing rich lineage of how to engage with the worlds behind the veil. And some more focused on using the grief as a means to finding soul purpose: Bill Plotkin, Colin Campbell, Lucy Hinton and Tim Mac Macartney. All engaging generously and inspiringly with their gifts to help heed the call.

One of the practices we undertook in our amazing introduction to indigeneity was an overnight 24 hour fast and wild vigil.Tree-of-Life-Meditation Time almost stood still, measured only by the imperceptible movement of the moon, which, over the course of the hours, arced in luminous post-fullness across the blackened sky. My mind ranged impatiently, exhaustedly, listlessly, illuminatedly over that vast expanse of moments. I returned with many gifts: in the midst of that vast silence a meeting with a busily bungling badger, face to face; sight of the fluid, fleeting slink of fox across dusked fields; dragon, in my dreaming.

But, nestled amidst the vigil trove, was a less welcome awareness. Despite being in the depths of the Dartington Estate, over the course of the entire night I encountered only three wild creatures. I had anticipated the sound-stirrings of unnamable life throughout the night – rustles, twig-cracks, flutterings that would set my heart alight with wild imagining. I was met with devastating silence. I can count the number of owl hoots I heard on one hand. And the refrain “Where are my animal brothers and sisters? Where have they gone?” has haunted me since.

Surrendering to this loss is the only way I know.images-3 Taking all the actions that will support the emergence of a different future, yes, but surrendering to the oceanic sadness that sits just beneath the urgent doing, the desperate distracting, even the artful activist-ing, feels like an interesting and fertile way through.

Bayo Akomolefe, our poetic philosopher-psychotherapist-teacher, whose infectious humour and intelligence crackle in his words, facilitated an exercise that dissolved my sense of blame, guilt, rage, and righteousness over the destruction we are reaping on our world. The systems, the peoples, the nations, the individuals morphed into each other, leaving only love standing. The love that “bears all things”. “The times are urgent…”, he is fond of saying, “…we must slow down”. For how can a solution that springs from the consciousness that created the problem, solve a crisis as complex as the one we are facing? I found, to my surprise and delight, that the sense of disruption to my usual rationale and the significant discomfort that ensued, then harmonized into a sense of greater possibility not lead by logic alone. Through the acknowledgement of and emotional immersion into my own inability to solve this problem, suddenly room for something else was possible.

The price for creating a space within ourselves for an emergent possibility is the letting go of certainty, absolutes, binaries. That means experiencing VULNERABILITY. If we’re not holding a fixed cognitive position we can feel what’s there, what’s so often denied in our everyday attempts to navigate life in a culture that over-values logic, achievement, the material and the illusion of safety this creates. The cost of that illusion is now becoming apparent – the illusion is shattering.. See Bayo’s brilliant talk at Dartington to get a richer flavour of what I mean.

As a result of this I am now engaged in working to support the movement into culturally-sanctioned expressions of grief. As Francis Weller so insightfully explains, without witnessing grief remains dry. In the past tribal societies had their grieving rituals – every week if not more often. It was never meant to be a solo experience! In this validated acknowledgement of the profound losses that our very existence ensures, we are given a catalytic container in which our grief can transform, fulfilling Rumi’s assertion that “Tears water the garden of your soul”.5-stages-of-grief

I often think of Dylan Thomas’ incandescent injunction “Rage, rage against the dying of the day” as the culturally sanctioned response to loss. Despite recognising the defiant strength and yearning I always feel a sadness when I hear them because I experience them as a further discouragement to revealing the softer, deeper, more potentially transformative emotion of sadness that rests untapped beneath reactive anger.

So I am now part of a Grief Composting Circle. It’s a community initiative to enable all those who want to touch and transform their grief – to allow it to be witnessed as it is, in relation to whatever it comes from. It’s a true priviledge to be a part of it. It will be offered monthly and we’ll see where it goes. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/events/815165645258604/

We are drawing from the work of Joanna Macy, Francis Weller, Stephen Jenkinson, Sobonfu and more. Francis Weller gives an extraordinarily clear-sighted, elegant explanation of the place of grief in our contemporary culture illustrating why it can be so difficult to successfully grieve, and the consequences of this on ourselves and our world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaI-4c92Mqo  It’s not too long and truly worth coming back to if you don’t have time to watch it now.

images-2May we each find our optimal pathways through that which must be felt, and create the conditions for others to do the same, so that we can make the shift that must be made. And recognise that it might not go in a neat, straight line!

Rachel Carson’s Natural Wonder

The story of the life and work of the American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson is one of my sources of strength and inspiration.  If you’ve heard of her it’s most likely to be through her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which brought environmental concerns, and more specifically the dangers of using chemical pesticides on the land, to an unprecedented proportion of the American public.  In doing so it sparked an international controversy with the chemical companies going up in arms, fiercely denying her claims. But the American government took note and DDT and other chemicals were banned just a year after the book’s publication. And the grassroots environmental movement that the book inspired led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Movement. Some book.

Rachel Carson showed incredible strength of character in the midst of the controversy when she was subject to derision, lawsuits and fierce personal insults – she spoke in court whilst she was suffering from breast cancer and remained serene in the face of her attackers, sure of her facts and sensitive in her delivery of them.

She had a deep love of nature and desire to protect it, and she coupled this with her gift of writing – she was, in a sense, a poet who wrote on behalf of the land and this story alone is inspiring. But there’s a chance that we might find it difficult to relate entirely, what with our limited knowledge of ecology and not being in perhaps quite the right place at the right time to bring about change on such a scale.  How can we relate this to our own humble lives?

Luckily there’s more.  Before writing Silent Spring, Carson wrote an essay for Women’s Home Companion called ‘Help Your Child to Wonder’.  She very much wanted to expand it for a book but the pesticide controversy created by Silent Spring overwhelmed her energies and it was published as The Sense Of Wonder posthumously without further augmentation.

Carson believed passionately that one of the most important ways to safeguard the natural world was for us to cultivate our sense of wonder for it – for us to keep alive that freshness with which we saw the natural world for the first time.  She also believed that the most fertile time for nurturing this sense was in childhood, and so in The Sense of Wonder she shares with us her prescription for doing this, describing how she and her three year old grandnephew Roger spend time together enjoying the woodlands and shores near her house.  There’s a strong emphasis on exploring nature with feelings and emotions, to use all our senses, for what we love we will want to learn about and protect.  Her writing is just beautiful, perhaps you’ll agree:

“One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness.  Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us.  Together we laughed for pure joy – he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.  But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us.”

“We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug.  We have let him join us in the dark living room before the big picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower toward the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames and finding a thousand diamonds in the rocks on the shore as the light strikes the flakes of mica embedded in them.  I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing.  He told me it would, in his own way, when we had a full moon the night after his arrival last summer.  He sat quietly on my lap for some time, watching the moon and the water and all the night sky, and then he whispered, “I’m glad we came.”

This is what gives me the most hope from the story of Carson’s life and work – her answer to how we can all make a small but profound contribution to nature’s protection no matter how large or small our sphere of influence appears to be – we can all, in our own way, keep alive our sense of wonder and protect it in children.