This series of posts is an expansion on an article I wrote for Hagstone Publishing’s Stone, Root, and Bone. Some portions of the posts are unchanged from the original article, but I’ve added thoughts and ideas, making it far too long to be a single post.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”
Even as a child I was enamored with nature (though I was really afraid of bugs - a topic for another post entirely). One errand-running day when I was in elementary school, my mother and I bought lunch from a grocery store deli counter. Our small town stretched out along the shore of Little Traverse Bay, a sparkling half-circle of icy water carved out of the edges of Lake Michigan. And behind the grocery store strip mall, a gravel lane allowed access to a place where the ground dropped abruptly to a strip of rough shore where driftwood, sea glass, and Petoskey stones washed up among the larger rocks.
That day, we sat on the rocks and ate our sandwiches, then decided to explore a bit of the narrow beach. Walking along the water’s edge, we came upon a tiny cove carved into the sharply rising land. The water held in this round inlet was perfectly still, unlike the ceaselessly busy waves of the bay. The earth rose up sharply all around the semi-circle of stillness, held in place by ropey, twisting tree roots that cascaded from the top of the small bluff to the still surface of the water at its base. In the dim shade, the tree trunks and branches were black silhouettes against a haze of fresh green leaves, and though we were near a busy parking lot and a busier street, here it was hushed, silent except for the lapping of water against the rocks at the mouth of the cove. I stood in complete awe, struck dumb by the beauty of the place. And though I had no language for it at the time, I knew this place was especially sacred, saturated with holiness, inhabited by mighty spirits who had, no doubt, been there long before businesses knocked down the rest of the trees and paved the land for parking lots and strip malls. I felt my own smallness, my own insignificance in the presence of these beings, but rather than being unpleasant the sensation came as a delicious shiver of rightness. This was a place someone could belong to, a place someone could be claimed by. A place someone could revere with all her heart.
But seconds later my delight evaporated as I looked down from the trees and their cascading roots to the crescent of sand between the bluff and the water. The ground here was littered with empty beer cans, food wrappers, plastic bags, cigarette butts, and an abandoned sock. And looking at the litter I couldn’t help it: I burst into tears. I remember saying to my mother “I just don’t understand why people don’t care.”
But of course those words couldn’t convey what I was really feeling. At the time I didn’t know the word desecration. I couldn’t explain the sick, kicked-in-the-gut feeling I was experiencing, the awful hurt coursing through my whole body. My mother was a fundamentalist xtian and there was no space in my training for the idea of a tree, a body of water, a quiet cove on the shores of a lake having a living, sentient spirit, much less being worthy of reverence and devotion. And while my parents considered themselves nature lovers and would never litter carelessly - and might even be angered by the sight of such disrespect - they would never feel what I felt that day, the agony of a sacred place dishonored.
To my mother’s credit, she didn’t laugh at my tears or mock me. But she had no answers or comfort to offer me either. So that day I left a place I might have come to love and treasure with a crack in my heart and tried, for the next decade, not to remember that sharp moment of pain.
For years since that day, the story I told myself about the desecration of the cove - when I allowed myself to think of it at all - was one of defeat, anguish, and hopelessness. It was a story of irredeemable humanity, a hopelessly broken bond between the earth and the human race. It’s only recently I’ve begun to consider seeing that day, that desecrated place, in a different light.
Because the story of that day could have been different. Had I been a different sort of child - one who felt some sense of personal power, one who had been permitted to act on the world around me as well as being acted upon - I might have allowed myself to become angry instead of heartbroken. I might have found a trash bag, cleaned up the mess, and started visiting the place regularly to look after it. But growing up in an abusive home with a smothering mother, I learned the safety of powerlessness at a tender age. Doing things increased my chances of doing something wrong, and being punished for it. So that day - and many days, in many places after - I felt the wound without allowing it to push me to act.
And after each wounding came the retreat: I escaped into stories, into intellectual pursuits that kept me indoors and inside my head. Eventually I forgot to step back out again.
I went to college and made friends who shared the all-too-common view of nature as inert, a commodity to be managed. I attended classes where, at best, I was encouraged to be a good steward of the resources that rightfully belonged to humanity. The ache subsided, taking with it the numinous shiver of sacred spaces out under the sky. My brain filled with the histories, ideas, and words of dead white men. My spirit emptied of the magic of moonlight on water and sunlight through leaves. I kept myself too busy to notice.
Until a summer night just after my college graduation, when my friends and I decided to relieve our boredom - and temporarily forget our uncertainty about our futures - by setting out under a full moon for a nighttime walk in the campus nature preserve. The air was heavy with humidity, but the heat of the day had lifted, and we swam through the thick, cool air with pleasure. As we crossed the athletic fields and approached the trees, the eerie music of frogs lifted on the night air, and at that moment my whole body thrummed like a plucked guitar string, touched by something I’d decided years ago was nothing more than childish imagination. The spirits drew close, and freed from my preoccupation with Milton and Whitman, economics and philosophy, exams and term papers, I could no longer ignore their presence.
That moment might have been delicious, but it set in motion a spiritual crisis that would in time drive me from the arms of the church and into relationship with all manner of Gods and spirits - and with the land themself. And with the return of awe and awareness came the grief my adolescent self tried to leave behind on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Dealing with this returning pain, I’ve come to understand that, in order to love the land, we must be willing to feel our grief.
It hurts to love the land. And the more we love them, the more we engage with their spirits, the more it hurts. It’s a daily struggle to connect with these spirits, with this sacred world, and not be torn apart by how much it hurts to watch it be destroyed piece by piece. How do we face reality without being swallowed by despair and fear? How do we hold onto the love when it is so fraught with grief? I’ve struggled with this for a long time, and I still don’t have a perfect solution. But in meditation, reading, praying, doing ceremony, and consulting tarot and oracles, I’ve been given a few ideas that I think might help us. I’ll explore one idea at a time in a short series of posts.
This week, I’d like to contemplate the idea of allowing joyful love, reverence, and grief to coexist within us. It’s hard to do, and requires practice, but to feel the love, we need to feel the grief, and vice versa.
How, then, do we relax into our grief, while holding onto hope and any sense of personal power? I imagine many books could be written on the topic, and we’d still be left with a lot of questions. And I’m still wrestling with my own sorrow, still struggling to allow myself to rest in my grief when I need to. But here are a few things that help me.
Let yourself feel it.
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it
against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”
Love and pain are inextricable. Love of every kind is twined with loss, because our bodies and the bodies of those we love are temporary. It doesn’t matter if the one you love is human or not: To be close to a being with a body is to be, sooner or later, wounded by the pain of loss.
And yet. The very intensity of our grief and pain shows us the depth of our love. After all, the certainty of loss is what gives love its tender urgency. We recognize someone or someplace is precious partly because we know how it will hurt to lose them. And in the case of loving the land, our lives depend on loving species and spaces whose precious life is under threat.
I’ve struggled against grief for most of my life. In my birth family, sorrow was considered a sign of weakness, and even worse, a lack of faith in the xtian God. I was taught that if my religion was true, my default setting would be happiness, or at least contentment, regardless of circumstances. I assumed that my frequent, prolonged bouts of depression and grief were signs that I was doing life wrong, that I was secretly a bad person. That if I was good enough, if I did everything right, I would be happy most of the time. And after I walked away from the church, I got sucked into the toxic positivity so prevalent in the new age community. It is only in the last few years that I encountered the concept of painful emotions as valuable, and valid, human experiences. Not enjoyable! But important nonetheless.
Therapy taught me how resisting our painful feelings actually makes them worse, not better. For one thing, whatever we try to suppress will always feel scarier and harder and worse than the things we face. For another, we expend a lot of energy when we try to force the bad feelings to go away. It seems so counter intuitive, but giving space and respect to our grief is an important step in finding peace. Not because the grief goes away completely when we make space for it, but because when we let ourselves feel our sorrow, the tension eases, and the sorrow becomes less sharp and scary. When we stop suppressing the “negative” emotions, we find, surprisingly, that we can hold grief and joy and love and all our other emotions simultaneously. Joy becomes easier to hold when we stop bracing ourselves against sorrow so tightly we can’t breathe.
I know everyone talks about it all the time, but I can’t tell you how much therapy has helped me specifically with my relationship with grief. It’s very easy to tell someone to make peace with their sadness, but actually doing so is incredibly difficult - especially in a society permeated with toxic productivity and toxic positivity. It isn’t always easy, but if you can manage to get into therapy, I can’t recommend it enough.
Honor it with ritual.
We must honor the grief. We can do this with ceremony: little funerals for what’s been lost, giving ourselves a moment, or a day, to mourn what we’ll never get back. I dislike the funeral structures that are most prevalent in the U.S., but effective ceremony can be a powerful way to honor grief. More than once I've created my own small, simple ceremonies to say goodbye and express my sadness and found them to be very comforting. Many spiritual and religious traditions have rituals around grief and mourning, so take time to find one that feels comfortable to you. Our rituals can be as simple as writing in journals, writing poetry no one reads, writing letters to say goodbye to the lost ones, or just acknowledging our loss and having a good cry.
Be gentle with yourself (and others).
One important way we can honor our grief is being kind to ourselves when we begin to really feel it. We live in a culture that pathologizes grief, but grief over very real devastation is an appropriate emotional response. Allowing ourselves to feel sorrow is an act of courage. As we awaken to long suppressed emotions, we can nurture ourselves and each other with compassion and tenderness. We can practice true self care, which goes beyond bubble baths and flowers to deeply nourishing foods, adequate rest, exercise, and long talks with friends or therapists if we need help processing our emotions.
Make friends with plants
We can also turn to our beloved plant allies for comfort and soothing.
Rose family plants, especially rose and hawthorn, are some of the kindest allies when learning to navigate grief. I enjoy a tea of rose petals with hawthorn leaves and flowers (or berries) to sooth my heart when grief feels sharp and thorny. And when I don’t have the spoons for faffing about with loose herbs and infusers, I make a cup of Tulsi Rose tea (made by Organic India).
Dandelions understand how we are affected by grief, but also understand joy. When the dandelions are blooming, I like to sit with them on a sunny day, or maybe sprawl out in a patch of dandelions, to be reminded of joy and cheer when I’m feeling hopeless and glum. When the dandelions aren’t blooming, sometimes I’ll have a warm cup of roasted dandelion root tea (there’s a nice one by Traditional Medicinals) or “herbal coffee” (I love the one from Mountain Rose Herbs).
Violets, in my experience, can help to ease the tangled pain of unexpressed, trapped grief. I like to steep fresh violets overnight in mead for this purpose (white wine is also lovely, if you can drink it). Violet infused honey is a delicious - and long-lasting - way to capture the fragrant, flavorful magic of violets. I have often found that these mild preparations can sometimes lead to weeping, though, as the grief we’re holding onto is freed. I find the weeping to be an enormous relief, but still … be aware violets might help you cry.
Of course, any plant you have a loving relationship with can be a comforting friend, so the options I share aren't the only ones.
For many of us, wound means truth. In a sugared world, holding your gaze to something broken, bereft, or damaged seems like the deepest position we can take. We see this way of thinking move all the way through the modern arts. It’s what gets the big grants. Myths say no, that the deepest position is the taking of that underworld information and allowing it to gestate into a lived wisdom that, by its expression, contains something generative.
The wound is part of a passage, not the end in itself. It can rattle, scream, and shout, but there has to be a tacit blessing at its core.
Many stories we are holding close right now have the scream but not the gift. It is an enormous seduction on the part of the West to suggest that jabbing your pen around in the debris of your pain is enough. It’s not. It’s a trick to keep you from doing something more useful. That’s uninitiated behaviour masquerading as wisdom. Lead is not gold, no matter how many times you shake it at the sun.
Martin Shaw - Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia
It is necessary, at times, to let the grief press us hard against the earth, but once we are there we would do best to worship as well as wallow. By all means, be brought low by grief. But then let’s recognize the gift of having an earth to be pressed against. From here we’re in the perfect position to kiss the ground. From here we can listen to the roots of trees and plants slowly twining together, to the thread-like feet of spiders and ants. And we can remember they are a miracle.
Yes, we need to feel our grief. We need to mourn. But we also need to choose, in spite of our grief, to love what remains - to love it fiercely, and whole-heartedly … and joyfully. What good is honoring and revering the earth if we’re unable to rejoice in the beauty and grace of what lives and breathes all around us? Those oaks across the street dance in the wind just as beautifully as they would if the forests weren’t disappearing and the rivers weren’t poisoned. The crows in my front yard laugh and play tricks on each other gleefully, regardless of what is happening elsewhere. What is good and glorious still deserves to be celebrated and appreciated. Taking delight in the beauty of the world isn’t a betrayal of what is threatened. If we only allow ourselves to respond to the land with grief, anger, or fear, how will we find the strength to take appropriate action? And how will we maintain a vibrant, spiritual connection to the earth if we are already mourning her as lost?
Even if I’m just sitting somewhere looking at a tree or the sky, I’m reminded of the love and connection that lies beneath the sadness - and at the same time, makes it more bearable. Or, if I’m having an extremely low spoons day, staring out the window at a tree, or looking at beautiful photos or videos of beautiful outdoor spaces can soothe my ragged feelings. Finding some way to engage joyfully with the land can help us remember the earth is still here, still our home, and still beautiful.
Recognize its importance.
One place we find a surprising approach to pain and sorrow is in “The Cauldron of Poesy,” a 7th century Irish poem about the source of poetic inspiration. The poem describes the idea of three cauldrons which exist in every person: The cauldron of incubation (sometimes translated as the cauldron of warming), the cauldron of motion, and the cauldron of wisdom. It’s a complex poem with any number of possible interpretations, and long articles and even books have been written about it, so I can barely scrape the surface here. But one important idea within the poem is the idea that the cauldrons - especially the ones of motion and of wisdom - are born on their side in most people, and to master poetry and other arts, one must work to turn them upright. And, according to the poem, “the Cauldron of Motion must be turned by sorrow or joy.” Four categories of sorrow are then listed: “Longing, grief, the sorrows of jealousy and the discipline of pilgrimage to holy places.”
I know I'm not doing the poem any kind of justice with my little synopsis, so if you'd like to understand it better I recommend Erynn Rowan Laurie's translation and interpretation.
The idea of grief and longing as the fuel of divine, poetic inspiration is one I haven’t seen in many other places, but it has really helped some things click into place for me. Denying or fighting against our emotions puts us in conflict with ourselves, because our emotions are us. And being at odds with our own feelings constricts us, shuts us down, prevents us from being whole people, and blocks the flow of inspiration. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I know for me, blocked energies and constricted emotions intensify feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.
On the other hand, creative expression honors both the joy and the pain of living in the world. At the very least it gives us an emotional outlet. But there's also something so empowering about creating something beautiful, even if its an expression of painful emotions. Letting sorrow and joy coexist in us offers new fuel for the creative process. I'd never suggest you should find a way to feel more pain so you can be more creative, but I can't deny there's a mysterious connection between suffering, healing, and creative acts. Our grief has value as surely as our joy does, however hard that may be to accept (at least for me).
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