Grief Inquiry 1

Hello friends.

This is the first of four weeks of shared inquiry around grief.

I am trying to metabolize the isolations of this time. I feel the huge zoom-out of awareness that has come with so much coordinated loss. I desire many small ceremonies.

These prompts are an effort to bring a quality of presence to what already is, so that we can recognize and tend the processing we’re doing together. So we can let sticky spirits move through. So we can pre-figure collective transformation. But, mostly, so we can treat as precious what is precious.

If you want accountability or feedback or just to build connection, I would love to hear your reflections. Please join my mailing list, send me an email. This week is a writing prompt; the next weeks will vary in the material in which I invite you to respond. 

I include below my own writing about the experience this week that helped me find the prompt. Feel free to read before you do your own inquiry – or to save that receiving for later to give you the most open field to check in with yourself.

Who has shared their grief with you lately? 

Consider moments of conflict or confusion inside trusted connections. Consider habitual friction. 

Sometimes grief can manifest as anger, disappointment, or an effort to maintain control.

Sometimes grief is the shadow of joy, or threaded through a reach or push: desire, hope, demand. 

When someone shared their grief with you, where were you? Did that environment (time/ space) hold you as you tried to connect?

This week, my younger kiddo and I went to Smith and Bybee to wander around together. In the bright canopy of heart-shaped cottonwood leaves, an abundance of birds danced and spoke to each other. A brown bunny ran across the path. The birds sounded like the leaves looked: uncountable, entirely fresh. Under and over the sonic basket of trills and chips and warbles was the low grind and crash of the trains, the steady woosh of Marine Drive, the dopplering airplane sound of air rapidly torn open. 

She had asked me to “go on a hike.” She knows this is a connector for us. When she realized where I had brought her, she said, “This is not a hike. I don’t want to walk on pavement. I want to walk on earth and sticks.” As she often feels sick in the car, and we hadn’t packed anything to eat, I had chosen the closest of our regular destinations. I wanted to explain my decision-making process to her (as I just tried to explain it here). I felt this was something I could fix; I wanted her to know I was taking her preferences in. “Next Wednesday we can pack a picnic and go to a waterfall.” Her head remained bowed, her voice behind her mask small and bitten back: “I wanted to be away from people except people who really tried to go there. I wanted to walk on the ground and rocks.”

I let the air move around us. Noticed irritation. Felt impatient. Remembered my tools. Asked, “Are you feeling disappointed?” Her gaze lifted back up.

She led the way down one of the already dusty little paths that goes to the water’s edge. As we bent under branches she talked about the dead little deer we saw curled up with its head on wrong, the last time we were here. When we found the spot, I was not surprised to see it gone. “Someone cleaned it up, I guess,” I said. She stood looking at the bed of earth where that altar to change had been, and was no longer. I noted how the clump of yellow pond Iris on which I saw the very first bloom then – back in March – was now covered in flowers. We sat to watch the Geese parents bend their black necks toward their fuzzy babies as they picked at the short plants along the opposite edge of the water. As we made our way back to the main path, Clara said, “I wanted to go somewhere where when a deer dies it can stay there.”

On the next little diversion, we touched a big tree wrapped with chicken wire. Clara stepped on a big plantain and bent it, then stopped to prop it upright and firm the dirt around. As she was doing this, a neighbor thistle poked her hand. She spoke to them, playfully offended: “I’m sorry, I know you were just defending your friend, but that was rude.” We sat together, watching the reflections break to show tiny fishes making tiny currents in the murk. She said, “I wanted to go somewhere where the trees aren’t wrapped up to keep the beavers from biting them. I know they want to protect the trees, but that’s what beavers like to do.”

We discovered an abandoned bird nest built over a pile of lichen she had stuffed into a tree notch to make a fairy bed six weeks before. She climbed over a branch bridge. Made a caterpillar friend.

Toward the end of our ramble, we came upon a big wooden structure. With interest, she asked, “ooh, what’s that?” I pointed up: “to hold the power lines.” She sighed, her eyes returning to earth. “Oh.” – sarcastic: “Glad that’s here.” 

Where the stablizing lines ran into the water, we watched tree swallows loop and dip. I felt her sadness thick like the mud she dug her stick into, unearthing partly decomposed leaf skeletons. I knew she was not only sad that we had taken a different walk than she imagined. Of course, we can call it that. I too want to believe that we can escape the harm. Use our privilege to leave it behind. Plan better next time. Let this place, this day be the problem, the disappointment. As though this marsh weren’t holding us all as well as it possibly could.

Overhead, military jets shredded the atmosphere. We covered our ears. The vibration poured through. The swallows continued to loop. I imagined their little ears. Can they close them? It lasted too long. Finally, the cushing dome of sound moved on, chasing the jets through the sky. I put my arm around my kid. “I’m really sorry, kiddo.” I said, “I want it to be different, between people and the earth.” She leaned into me. “It’s not your fault.”

What she meant was, “let’s not make this about you.” I resisted saying more, about each of us doing our part, capitalism, colonialism, however I might try to explain that she’s right, and still there’s stuff we can do, even if it’s small… She knew the truth. Everything we needed was already there. The chorus of life slowly resumed. I held her. I said, “I’m still really sorry.” And we sat like that, with the grief, til we were ready to go.

thank you, norma

4.22

at the online conference

the zen teacher

norma, whose people are

from the island called oahu

on the side where it rains

everyday for

200 years on the chinese side and 

3,000 years on the native side,

spoke of

each place saying

the ocean they call the pacific

the country sometimes

called america

i felt the spaciousness of that naming

as today

the sounds of the birds at waking

smashed me to the bed with joy and fear

how glorious to be woken by bird song

how horrible to live

in a world without birds

with only bird alarm sounds and bird stories

and bird stuffies and bird poems

and no birds

as though the naming erased the thing 

being named

john a powell said identity

becomes more important

when it is attacked

harder, stacked

like scar tissue that

can’t flow to respond to new

conditions, contradictions

a boundary is any place where movement happens

any movement is across

a space

if we allow for the space

then there is a boundary

to negotiate

between the land and its name

between one ancestral train

and the one that flows the other way

tugging, contradicting

for a time, loving

for a time, dying

crossing between

overlap of

cells in this body

ancestors sleep edge bird song

the molecular yes/no that holds 

the globule edge

between past and future

also a boundary

constantly

reconfiguring

one side memory-phillic one side 

memory-phobic the binding, 

the cross over

not unified but glorified

the birds call

the birds die

not all together

but one, one, one

at a time

wants and needs

3.29.09

Spring comes on apace.  Buds nearly opening on JD’s cherry; the white magnolias by the Chinese garden in full bloom.  Must take a walk around the neighborhood to see if any of our favorites from last year are going yet.  Odd to think of how much suspense and unknowing was packed into this week a year ago.  We walked around, full of potential (and heartburn), with no idea what we were getting into.  I remember being fairly calm about the whole thing, but feeling the dam about to burst with all the force of new experience behind it.  It hasn’t stopped for a moment since then.  This I failed to imagine.  Before her it seems like life was something of a patchwork, in which I could be absorbed in one thing for a time and then walk away from it completely, to something else.  Only now do I recognize the peacefulness and quiet there was in having only myself, my internal world and consciousness . . . Jeff is right that Zelda is like a low hum that never goes away.  Her color is on everything now and has been for nearly a year … and will be my whole life if I am so lucky?

When you are bigger, I want you to know these things about the year after you were born: we were together all the time.  I did everything for you.  Your father, too.  He worked endlessly to make you happy, to keep you from crying or to stop it if it started.  We fed you bite by bite, our hands like bird mouths, alternating as we placed bits and pieces on your tongue.  I almost never refused you the breast.  Until the last month or so of this year, I literally always gave it if you asked.  And you asked, on and off, all day long and all night long; every hour, or half hour, or three hours.  When you were sick, I held you without pause all day and night, sleeping sitting up leaning against pillows that your father placed carefully for me.  You never liked to lie on your back, or your stomach.  You liked to stand on our laps, or sit, facing forward, in our arms, leaning your head into life.  For the first week after you were born, you would fall asleep on your father’s chest, your head over his heart and your arms splayed.  He loved it.  You are sleeping now, sitting on my lap in your pouch, your legs wrapped round my waist.  Occasionally turning your head from side to side against my chest, murmuring in your throat.  Your hands, for once, hang limp.  I look around at all the mothers in this world, at the grocery, on the street, in the parks and restaurants and pools, and marvel: they all did this?  Lived this endlessly devoted existence?  Waited days upon days to shower, stood at the sink up to the elbows in dishes with a yelling child yanking their pants off?  I am awed.  

Your papa is concerned about justice.  He sleeps alone, in the other bedroom.  He feels guilty that I have no choice but to wrestle with you all night long, always hoping you will remain asleep a little longer this time, or go back to sleep a little quicker.  If you are restless, if you are teething or on the edge of some developmental leap, or if you are just the way you are and wake again and again and cry and struggle against sleep or its opposite and kick me in the belly and smack my face with your little hands, then that is simply the nature of my night.  You rule my world.  And perhaps there will be a time when you read this and are indignant.  You see these words as complaint, or believe that I am trying to tell you that you owe me something.  But that is not the case.  I knew, every step of the way, that I was choosing to never turn you down, to never deny you the physical assurance and comfort and attention that you believe you need.  I knew that we made the choice to bring you into our lives and that giving you all of ourselves would be, for us, a necessary part of that choice.  Your dad and I – oh, babe – we love each other so much.  We had no idea what we were going to give up in this first year to be able to give you what we believed you needed.  But when your dad worries about justice, I tell him, we are here. And now she’s here. We’re bound to each other. That’s justice.    

As we move into the second year of your life I will have to turn you down more.  I will have to ask more of you, and more of myself, to do this.  In many ways, this year has been very simple: you have done a wonderful job of taking care of yourself.  You have let me know what you need and have taken it.  (I hope so much that you will always be able to do this: to state your needs, to unapologetically accept what is offered to you when you ask for it.  It is a wonderful thing to live in this world as an animal, with a deep understanding of need and family (those who must and will give you what you need, and to whom you must do the same) and the judgments left aside.)  I have not had to decipher your wants from your needs, as I will have to do each day for many years, and occasionally, after that, forever.  In regards to you, I will have to do this for myself as well, and your papa for himself; we will want things from and for you that we do not need, and I hope that we will have the sense to back away from these things if you do not also want them.  

***

today’s photo is of

today’s photo is of 

Me as the framer, behind the camera. I am not visible. And yet, I am always present in what I choose to show, in how I am reflected in the moments I witness, cultivate, memorialize, study.

When I first conceived of the desire to make a writing practice out of witnessing my younger self through the lenses of cameras held by adults who surrounded me as a child, it was because I was so moved and awed by the results of a similar practice as shared by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, on her website and instagram. 

As I daily published the first three of these explorations this week, I mentioned this connection, hoping to point anyone interested toward the path of her work, which I honor as highly as any I’ve been exposed to in my life. What I feel toward Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a creative devotion, and a spiritual one.

Then, a friend asked me to consider the harm of showing up in social media space as a white person, examining and displaying my white girlhood, and naming a connection to the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs – without naming the Blackness of her work, the Blackness of the being and belonging she remembers and embodies, and the cultural dominance of whiteness, which gives me access that I haven’t truly earned.

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I thought of another new friend, Moe Bowstern, a white poet, gnc neighbor witch, who has been so steady in her accountability to the ig project she’s been doing daily since back in March that it has become a touchstone of my own pandemic experience. A part of this accountability has been charting her decolonial and anti-racist un-learning in public, as she receives loving feedback and and reframes from a place of growth.

These posts are my favorites often, because god yes do we all need so much modeling of repair! The violence of whiteness makes us fear being seen as vulnerable, in process, interdependent. Protecting ourselves, we cannot grow. Paralyzed, we solidify the power structure with the illusion that power connotes competence.

Emergence depends on collaborative presence; we have to fall sometimes to feel the ground. Most of us don’t trust that others will help us up if we haven’t felt it. 

I’m coming to love fucking up and falling apart because I trust that I will be loved into growth. Love is shaped so many ways, you know? But. And. No one can love me into growth if I am not there first, fingers in the dirt, landing in the humility of my unconditional belonging to Earth. For a white person in white dominant culture, this feels especially important, especially fraught. Who do I harm when I don’t have a practice of melting this perverse, pervasive insistence on my infallibility?

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I knew that I had come to the project with the larger intention of witnessing cultural forces acting on my child body. How was I welcomed into whiteness? How did my body learn to perform the gender assigned to me? When did I learn to smile and play innocent ignorance, at the cost of developing my ability to witness and interrupt harm? Was I always seeking a cultural holding that would make me less lonely? Was I always wandering into the spirit world? Did the people around me know? Did I wonder then about how and why our structures were so restrictive, so hollow? Did I suspect? Did I notice the holes? 

These questions are rooted in cultivated curiosity about my participation in genocidal patterns. I have felt again and again how each of our unlearning of cruelty is essential for our collective freedom. I write again and again in letters to incarcerated humans on the land we call Oregon: none of us are free until all of us are free. I believe this with my whole self. And, as I experience when I get to listen to or read Alexis Pauline Gumbs, we are all already free, already in the unfolding of love, already fully accompanied. 

It is each of our responsibility – opportunity? – to feel this, to help breathe this truth into the collective body. But. And. Although my practice is pointed toward remembering the truth that Alexis Pauline Gumbs seems by her nature to know, bearing witness to what is in the way of that paradise, as a white person in a white dominated world, defines the shape of my own work. I cannot shirk the difference there. Any skipped step is subtly in service to the status quo.

Receiving my friend’s reflection, I felt how I had pointed the lens. What was inside my frame and what was not. Yes, the child self I was studying was at the mercy of cultural forces beyond her control. But the adult self I am revisits these touchstones in choice. 

I get access to Alexis Pauline Gumbs as a writer and teacher: a Black Feminist writer whose poetry is also a guide to practice. My experience of her practice is that it celebrates Blackness, love, and collectivity. In the introduction to their Finding Our Way conversation, Prentis Hemphill says, “In her work and in her way of being, Alexis illuminates the Black Feminist path forward which is the path of our ultimate liberation.”

I identify with Prentis Hemphill’s use of the word ‘our’ in this statement, even though – indeed, because – I understand that the ultimate liberation they reference is not framed around my freedom or lack thereof.

Unlike Alexis Pauline Gumbs, I am not a Black Feminist scholar. I am not in devoted, direct relationship with the women and queer people, living and dead, who have shaped that movement. I am not Black. Like all of us, I have ancestors who would today be considered Black. Like all of us, I live today because of their thriving. But that honor is not mine in this life. 

Further, my recent ancestry is shaped by potent patterns of harm that both allowed my people to survive, and traumatized their relationships with Earth, Life, and Spirit. Along with love and labor, the unconditional support of the Earth, and the often conditional support of their relatives and communities, my ancestors made their ways to me by acquiesing to and perpetuating racism, settler colonialism, and murderous patriarchal christian capitalism. We learned to lie, and to forget. We learned to keep each other numb by shutting down empathy and shaming connection categorically. In these patterns, everyone suffers. But the suffering, and the responsibility, and the healing – look different depending on the places we’re held in the pattern. 

Holding this difference is the only way for me, as a white person, to enter a room where Black women thrive. Really, holding the difference, I might see that I don’t belong in that room at all. And, because of Black Abundance, I could still be filled with wisdom, just sitting in the hall.

Like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “my creative practice and my spiritual practice are the same practice.” I think this is true for Moe, too, and for the friend who gently called me in. I offer unconditional appreciation to these three, today, in their very different places in the constellation, for their influence in my practice. I offer, especially, gratitude and humility to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, her ancestors, and our shared Earth, as I acknowledge how easy it is for me, as a white-bodied adult with the encouragement of educational privilege and social media speed, to pick and choose what I use and what I show, without sufficient context or patience to honor the integrity of how each of us knows what we know. 

I make an offering of this photograph, of my first born child in the arms of my mother, whose first born daughter, I am. A reminder of the pace I know in my body, of this particular cellular unfolding of love. This is the pace at which I want to practice. In this granular intimacy. With grief and vulnerability and dedication and joy.

Let me belong

In 1983 I prayed to ducks
a few geese, sometimes a seagull

I went out to them, dressed, with my toes covered
Driven by coach to the edge of their water hostel

Or, if I had the choice, in my nightgown
Bare feet on dew spiked suburban lawn

Disordered places
Web of relations hidden, gone

Ceremonial scent of Juniper
Offering bag in my pink paw

Always together, tied by love
Powerful smack of wings above

Floating, iridescent grace
Cupped in a palm of reflected space

Peers on the ground, familar toddlers:
side to side, shoulder sway strut

Yet – they could leave at any time
Shake their tails – fast – down the wide asphalt

Delicately, then, show what you’ve brought
Adults away – you’ll scare them off!

The bag often deeper than my arm was long

The holy task of crumbling, giving to ground

The song

Of desert morning light
sparkle of the night’s wetness

ascending to sky

Ring chain of calls
Here are my gifts

Let me belong

On the phone

Little mama, talking to the spirits.

Hello? hello?

The solace of women all around, modeled in the kitchen, on the shows

Alone? So often alone at home? Repetitive jobs to do, babies to hold

Pick up the phone

Cradle it to your tender face, ask to be held

To be known

(After Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes beautiful reflective poems connecting to elements, ancestors, childhood, and more than human family on her website and on instagram.)

To be revealed

After Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes beautiful reflective poems connecting to elements, ancestors, childhood, and more than human family on her website and on instagram.

I find a lot of photos, deep in the front closet, that turn my stomach a bit. That tender one, me, already trying to be … I find others where I am caught in a moment of authentic connection with the photographer, or with my inner world, with spirit, with Earth. I find photos made by me, as I found my way to the safe space behind the lens. I find photos that I am in, which I also made, family – human, tree – without which I would not be, bunched around me.

When I was photographing at p:ear, I would chat the young people up who spent time there, show them my camera, see if they were interested in touching it. The light, simple plastic quality of a Holga is a ready invitation: not familiar, also not intimidating. I would suggest a swap: I make an image of them, they make an image of me. 

One of my favorite youth to chat with – we, especially she, could run the words of daily pain, delight, hope and harm up the philosophy flag pole for hours – taught me a practice. She said when she photographs herself (describing dysphoria, grief, pleasure, attraction, a desire to present, a desire to be revealed – alllll the portrait wisdom), she can only get through the desire to run from capture… by taking a breath. Breathe in, breathe out, click. Tied together in the act of portraiture, we did that. Frame; breathe in; breathe out; click. She held the camera, we did it. I held the camera, we did it. 

She was beautiful. Dark eyes, pig tails, sharp jaw, torn plaid dress open at the chest. I was maybe a bit in love with her. While also holding my boundaries: mentor, adult. She kept hers too, in her way, quiet then brassy, on estrogen and off, housed and not. On days that I saw her there, I know my face showed how I felt. Her willingness to let everything else disappear for hours with me, her face when I understood, showed something too. Would those faces have showed in our photos?

Turned out the camera was set to bulb for rolls and rolls that I didn’t get developed until too late to know, before my time there ran out. So everything was unsalvageably blurred. We looked at the prints together; probably I gave her one to keep. We agreed that the movement of breath was visible.

Now I sit with this school portrait – studio session? at, maybe, seven, and see how I was holding my breath. Holding my teeth. Holding a smile. Holding a plastic log or edge of a piece of furniture. At the center of attention, warm lights on me, a formality, an excitement, a little urgency. Not yet able to feel the relief when it is over and my spirit slides back in. Not yet able to give myself permission to feel the relief. Heart in throat; throat in mouth. Sit up, look here. Apple cheeks, bright eyes.

Who was I looking at, with the lights in my eyes? Aware of being seen, but floating in the blank between me and whatever it is they see. Aware of the projection, caught in the dream of controlling the narrative by fulfilling it. Not yet aware of my own tightness, trying to present, hoping to be revealed. 

My face is the face of a secret. Mischievous. Holding my breath. The secret of relief, of expansion, of yelling, running, dress mussing. The secret of anger. The secret: nothing will please, everything will please. The secret of real mountains, real trees. Their bodies.

The knowing that this representation somehow matters. Like the collar: a merengue around my small neck, a wimple, a clown suit. Now I seem to recall, that dress a copy of one I had for my doll, something I asked for. In it, maybe I could love myself as I loved her? Ceremony of lights, sit up, smile, hold still. The display of a white girl child, hoping to look like a doll. Some armor I knew, from generations, how to live within, how to use.

A representation of aspens, clouds, mountains. Fall color frozen in time. A representation of childhood. A representation of a person with a secret, which is her own wild life.

Hello love. Hello me. Feel that breath? Step outside, let it free.

Parenting Practice 2

Begin in a moment when you feel relaxed and at ease in your body.

While sitting in a comfortable chair, holding the baby.

While the kids are breathing in their sleep and you have given yourself permission to rest.

While reading a book to an interested, relaxed child.

While on a walk, watching a toddler study the world with all their senses.

While witnessing an older child as they share something with you they care about.

Notice your feet in this moment.

Then your belly.

Feel all your skin; how you are contained by the air around you.

Follow that containment back into your belly.

In the bowl of your pelvis: the location where this child began, whether in your body or in another’s.

The place where their own future children rest now in possibility.

That place in your body has a tone, a pulse.

Has weight.

As you notice yourself here, can you imagine this place in your body getting heavier?

Can you imagine your gentle breath expanding in this place?

Can you feel yourself settle down – warm, heavy – into this place, as a baby settles into sleep in your arms?

Stay with this sensation for as long as you like. Revisit it as often as you like.

Notice when it is hard to access this feeling. Notice if you are avoiding this place in your body.

I’ll suggest that, regardless of how you relate to yourself, this refuge is always there.

Can you check to see if this feels true to you?