My Small Offerings

Some months ago, I was sitting in a meeting with several of my peers and the conversation wandered to the topic of pets and the, in my opinion, ever-exasperating debate of dogs versus cats. As we went around the room declaring our stances I was met with the usual appall at my calm pronouncement that I don’t like either and that my preferred relationship with animals is that we each stay in our separate corners. One of my friends, in an effort to redeem me in the eyes of our dismayed crowd, asked if I at least have plants. I replied negatively and was met with a response I had never before considered in all of my experience with the perpetual pet debate. It was something along the lines of, and I paraphrase, So you’re the only living being in your home??

That was something I had never considered. I pondered that idea for a moment, but a fleeting one.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains that Potawatomi culture (and many other Native North American cultures) holds human and nonhuman life in similar regard. In Potawatomi language there is a distinct pronoun for nonhuman living beings, parallel to he or she for human beings. Plants, trees, lakes, etc. are honored for their contributions to daily life just as we honor the people who add to our lives.

I was intrigued by this paradigm that ascribed to nature a value I had never imagined. I always appreciate a new perspective, but again, I filed it away.

Then, some weeks ago, I was introduced to the word “ecocide.”

Ecocide, noun; destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action. (Google).

I heard this word from Yoalli Rodriguez, scholar of environmental racism, ecological grief, and other equally impressive disciplines. In her interview on the For The Wild podcast, Rodriguez delves into the collective grieving of a particular Indigenous community in Oaxaca as the lagoons in their ancestral lands slowly die due to ecocide enacted by the Mexican State. I was struck by the word’s conspicuous similitude to the more common (at least in my line of work) “homicide,” “femicide,” and “suicide.” I was also struck by her explanation of a people grieving for their nonhuman community members, the lagoons.

This time, I reflected for more than a fleeting moment. This community in Oaxaca, and many others all around the world are grieving the loss of loved ones, nonhuman loved ones, but loved nonetheless. And, as Kimmerer explained in her book, these natural beings that are disappearing are not strangers, but family members with whom many Indigenous peoples have had reciprocal, life-sustaining relationships for generations.

I don’t consider myself a participant in this grieving. How can I be when I am only just now learning of the higher value of these dying natural beings, their value independent of my use of them? However, I too know grief, as many of us do. And I don’t believe that empathy is worth much without action.

So, I began to think of what I can do, and here’s what I came up with: 1) learn more, the obvious step one to any change-making. I’ll strive to learn more about the long-held and cherished relationships between earth and people, specifically Indigenous peoples. And 2) I bought a plant. I figured it was time to make some space in my home and heart for another living being.

Many cultures have traditions or rituals of paying respects to those that our grieving. These are my small offerings.



Beauty and Beast: On Grief and Care

There is the Turkish word hüzün, which cannot be translated into English. Instead of meaning a simple sadness or suffering it denotes a collective, Istanbul-wide phenomenon that some call spiritual, some call nostalgic, but the one thing we know for sure is that the word exists because it is pridefully shared with others. The ideal is not to escape this suffering, but to carry this suffering.

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin

For my eighth birthday – the one that occurred just weeks after my father’s untimely death – one of my aunts gifted me a special copy of Beauty and the Beast. At first glance it appeared to be a run of the mill Disney picture book, but further inspection revealed that I, along with my brother and cousins, were included in the story as Belle’s friends and helpers. Despite my indifference to princesses at the time, and my growing recognition of and annoyance with Disney’s portrayal of princesses as I got older, this gift is the sole reason that, to this day, I have an answer to the terribly unoriginal question Who is your favorite Disney princess? I still take this 30-page knock-off book – containing a story that I now consider highly problematic – with me everywhere I live because it is one of very few bright spots in what I remember as a very dark time.

I want to say that grief is ugly, or horrid, or awful. But grief is also two-faced in that it manages to be both beauty and beast simultaneously. Grief has an incredible talent for warping perception. Sibel, the protagonist in The Four Humors, is buckling under the weight of grief after the death of her father. She is losing herself while also indulging her wonder by searching for a new self. She exhibits impressive fortitude, or stubbornness, by expressly ignoring the concerns of others and continuing her off beat path through grief.

Sibel eats. Sibel gains weight. Sibel smokes. Sibel is sometimes mean. Sibel walks, but is actually marching due to the sheer tiredness of life. Sibel lies, to everyone, at different times. Sibel is ill, and Sibel is selfish. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

But Sibel also cares, immensely. Sibel cares for the comfort of her lover in a strange land. Sibel cares for her grandmother and Sibel cares for her baby sister, both of whom are dying in different ways. Sibel cares to know her great aunt despite her unforgivable past. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

The next time I find I must reacquaint with grief, I hope I allow myself to do so with as much poetry and shamelessness and collective melancholy as Sibel; if even just for one day.

Sibel embarks on her summer in Istanbul with a directive to care and a need to grieve. One might wonder if the two can be done simultaneously, but from Sibel it’s learned they are one in the same: beauty and beast.