WEEK SEVEN OF "INITIATION INTO A LIVING EARTH: AN ESSAY JOURNEY"
BY SHANTE' SOJOURN ZENITH
As humans, our sacred responsibility is to nurture beauty, expressing our gratitude to the earth for the nourishment of life. This initiation is based on what Francis Weller calls the primary gate of grief: "Everything we love we will lose.” 1 It is an invitation to feel into "the Mystery of Death and our capacity to Love.” 2 This is also the place in which we heal from the wounds of "disconnection from meaningful values" and from our inability to imagine a "hopeful and secure future." 3
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What changes after Pandora opens her box? After the monsters she contains become visible? After she thinks the world has ended, but then she wakes up the next day, and the next?
Is this the moment exhaustion sets in? A fatigue deeper than graves, thicker even than the roots of the yew tree. A resignation that churns in her body with the slow coursing of subterranean rivers under mountains.
Is this despair? This weight upon her as if the world is inverted, and it is now her inheritance alone that holds up the ground.
It is impossible to stand upright with such a heaviness in her bones, impossible to drag her body onward through life when monsters support the ground on which she walks.
All she wants to do is lie down, to feel herself supported by solid stone, to place her cheek against the surface of warm rock emanating its ancient memory of sun.
All she wants to do is cry herself into the mountain, weeping in relief at a surface strong enough to hold up her grief. As her tears flow in supple rivulets down the mountain, the pores of the rock will open to accept this generous offering of salt.
The rock remembers. Its very substance is layer upon layer of release. A solidity accumulating through the uncountable generations who have emptied their bodies into the yielding support.
As she empties herself into the plenum of rock, the heaviness upon her chest begins to release. Her jaw trembling, laments rack her breastbone, the fatigue in her limbs shaking out in her keening. Her immobility surrenders itself against the forgiving permeability of stone.
How long does she remain there, releasing her grief into the mountain? Does a moment arrive when she is complete, when she has poured all the despair that she holds into the welcoming belly of rock?
What happens at that moment of completion, when the tensions clinging to her muscles melt into the mountain like winter ice touched by the hot and eager palms of spring? When she discovers her expanded capacity for oxygen, inhaling with a sudden sensation of weightlessness. When her eyes open to see an expanse of ocean spreading out before her to the horizon. When her breath, freed from the clenching of abdominals, releases into the undulating rhythm of visiting tides.
Perhaps, in this moment, she will see how distant she has been from herself, reaching out to reassure one hand of the other’s continued existence. Perhaps she will wonder what to do with her sudden emptiness, the spaciousness made inside her by release. Perhaps, at the end of the story, that quality that some people mistook to be hope was really just an attribute of the emptiness itself.
When she finally stands, it is not her but the wind that determines the direction in which she will travel. Moving lightly in her openness, she barrels down the mountain towards the sea.
Faster she races, quickly traversing the beach, feet wet in incoming tide, running out across the surface of the waves. Her running continues still in deep waters, buoyed by sting rays and the rising bubbles of kelp fields. Whales call up to her as she passes, keening recognition from the depths. She runs so fast that her feet lift above the surface of the ocean, a momentum beyond the logic of gravity. Something else is carrying her now, her curiosity.
Who is she if she is more than herself? Who is she if inside her there is nothing left to fill, no hollow absence, the aching only of an immanence that wants so much to be born?
The Initiation of Nurturing Beauty
Whether as individuals or as a species, we live for something. We are not given life merely to survive it. What do we serve? What vision of beauty beckons us? This is the question we must ask as we pass through the initiatory portal we call climate change.
—Charles Eisenstein, "Initiation into a Living Planet" 4
In the darkened room, I place the rock on the altar. A circle of people sit listening as I tell the story of a 20 million year old extinct volcanic plug, sacred to the Chumash and Salinan peoples. This rock was the place they rowed out to every solstice to pray the sun back into the sky, the place where they mourned their dead into ancestors. For 20,000 years, the rock had been separated from the mainland. Then, two centuries ago, the ones who were my ancestors came in boats filled with dynamite and mined the rock, drastically reducing it in size. They built a causeway between the rock and the mainland to carry the stone across for masonry. Now parts of this ancient volcano are scattered through the area in the form of bridges and walls. 5 We are living in a time when the earth is in danger of dying "a death of a million cuts." 6 This ecocide is precipitating the disintegration of our global civilization and, some believe, the near-term extinction of the human species. The global narrative of resistance is fear-based. But fighting is what brought us to this precipice in the first place. The choice is not how to stop the collapse of our "normal." The choice is how we will continue to nurture what we love in the face of such ongoing loss.
Last year I travelled out to California to attend Azul Valerie Thome's training in facilitating the Grief Composting Circle. The day after the training, I visited the 20 million year old rock. The experience was surreal, tourists walked around with cameras, people walked their dogs. The grief and forced sterility coming from the ancient rock was palpable. I was pulled towards the edge between the rock and the sea, dynamited boulders still scattering the boundary. On the horizon, a boulder of black lava made the silhouette of a woman veiled in mourning. I made the climb up to her, my bare feet scraping over barnacles revealed at low tide.
"Now we should be living like a terminal patient," my teacher Azul-Valerié Thomé had said the day before. I felt such anger at hearing this. After all, she is in her fifties, deep into the arc of her life. But I was just twenty-five. I haven't had the time to fully grow into myself yet. This devastation could rob me of my adulthood, my motherhood, my elderhood. Reaching the lamenting rock, I stood on the boundary, looking out at the battlefield of scattered rocks below, dismembered fragments forgotten and displaced. John Berger's words came to mind, the words about poetry that had resonated so deeply with me in the beginning of my journey into the poetic imagination:
"Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful." 7
There is only one gate of grief on a Living Planet, the loss of everything we love. It is this mature understanding of death that allows us to live in reciprocal relationship with the earth. Something broke in the moment that we began to see "death-as-ending" instead of “death-as-cycle." Perhaps the other four gates of grief fragmented off from the primary gate in this time when our hearts began to close out of fear.
A long time I stood there, beside the wailing rock, between the raging sea and the ancient volcano above me. Here I received the knowing that my body is a vessel for these potent earth energies to be re-membered and brought back into sacred relationship. Here, I realized, staring down at the crashing waves, that even if I had the impulse to jump, that wasn't an option for me anymore. I have vowed myself into relationship with greater beings. I am needed here. A fierce exhalation came into me in feeling my belonging.
In his recently released book, Climate: A New Story, Charles Eisenstein calls for us to open to the grief of our culture's ecological devastation as a prerequisite for the healing of the earth:
"When we transmit our love of earth, mountain, water, and sea to others, and stir the grief over what has been lost; when we hold ourselves and others in the rawness of loss without jumping right away to reflexive postures of solution and blame, we are penetrated deep to the place where commitment lives." 8
The call into grieving the loss of our belonging shifts our focus from impending doom into a fierce love of beauty and aliveness. The devastation of this time is our culture's initiation into nurturing beauty, into making an offering of our love. Love carries with it an expectation of continued blossoming through a persistent engagement with our shadow, our emotions, and all that causes us to deepen and mature. Love necessitates that we continue learning, remaining conscious of our wounds in the process of being healed, our gifts in the process of blossoming. Love says no to that which does not serve the soul.
As the tide began to come in and a light rain fell, I turned away from the lamenting rock and made my way back up to the causeway. Clambering over some the rocks, my hand unconsciously fell on a stone wedged between two boulders. The stone, which seems like it has been stuck there for decades, came away in my hand. In the middle of the Grief Composting Circle the day before, grievers had held a "grief stone" like this as they grieved in the darkness. My ears still echoed with their sounds of lamenting, the deep reservoir of collective grief flowing from their bodies to the earth.
Holding the heavy stone in my hand, I knew that the volcano was giving me a "grief stone" for the grief rituals that I was going to tend. I sat there on the boulder for a long time questioning this feeling, because it went against everything I’ve been taught to take something from such an already violated place. But the gift was there for me to accept, communicated in a loud yes from the stone and the ancient rock. I made a vow to return the stone to the volcano one day, filled with the memory of all the hands who had held it as they came to grieve together, to re-member the earth back to life by the expression of their deepest longing. This ancient place needed to hear that my people do weep for the devastation we have caused.
This grieving of what we love and will lose begins to thaw the emotional anesthesia of our culture. To be an-asthetized is to literally be "without beauty." 9 I learned through performance that we can come back to beauty through experiences of deep relationship, the aisthesis that is the exchange of soul essence between beings. These moments of aisthesis are beautiful in the deepest sense, revealing how we are "embedded in life, part of the dynamic, relational structure of the world created by the concert of living beings." 10 In this time of potent death energy and separation, grieving the losses around us helps us to remember that "Life, wilderness, biodiversity, and beauty are an interlaced knot; when the cord is cut, the intricacies are lost, the entire weave undone.” 11
Moving from the larger body of our belonging, listening to the imagination of the earth, we can begin the process of weaving ourselves back in. This is as close as we can get to the ongoing process of healing, transforming "the oscillating dance on the razor’s edge of aliveness into the beauty of a new imagination of what life can mean." 12 Whatever happens, we can choose to live out the full expression of our love and the full expression of our grief. We can listen to trees and sing to rivers. We can dance with fierce aliveness, tears streaming down our faces. Our love is the gift we must give for life to continue. The question this time asks us to re-member: to what must we express our love before it is lost?
1. How are these times calling you into an initiatory encounter with grief?
2. In what ways are you called to nurture beauty?
3. To what must you express your love before it is lost?
1 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 23.
2 Thomé, Azul Valérie. “Grief Composting Circles.” SOULand, https://www.souland.org/grief- composting.html.
3 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, Page 158-254.
4 Eisenstein, Charles.“Initiation into a Living Planet.” Charles Eisenstein, 10 Sept. 2018, https://
5 Robinson, Pat. “Morro Rock, CA.” Indigenous Religous Traditions, https:// sites.coloradocollege.edu/indigenoustraditions/sacred-lands/morro-rock-ca/.
6 Eisenstein, Charles. Climate--A New Story. North Atlantic Books, 2018, Page 49.
7 Berger, John. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Reprint edition, Vintage, 1992, Page 178 Eisenstein, Charles. Climate--A New Story. North Atlantic Books, 2018, Page 50.
9 Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Living Touch of Wild Earth (Part 1). 2014, https:// www.schumachercollege.org.uk/resources/audio-video-archive/stephen-buhner-the-living- touch-of-wild-earth-part-1.
10 Weber, Andreas. Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. New Society Publishers, 2016, Page 357.
12 Weber, Andreas. Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science. New Society Publishers, 2016, Page 349.