Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Monday, June 22, 2015


I spent the weekend before the Charleston church shooting in Providence, Rhode Island, attending a grief workshop facilitated by Carolyn Baker. Carolyn led us in a ritual in the West African tradition of Malidoma and Subonfu Some.
My beautiful teacher, Carolyn Baker.

One way Carolyn readied us for grieving was to tell us folktales while drumming. She usually began with something like "a long time ago or a short time ago or whatever time it was." Right away, because I couldn't place the story in time, I--I'll speak only for myself--could disengage some other habitual expectations. Where was it taking place? I didn't need to know. If a dead father walked into a village, weren't there dead fathers everywhere? Villages everywhere? If a long-delayed tear was shed by a man and drunk by a woman, couldn't that happen in my town, and wouldn't my town be changed by it?

With the drumming serving as a sort of universal pulse, I could have been sitting anywhere in the world or living in any time. I could accept that caring for an ancestor required picking the maggots off one side of his body and polishing the gold on the other side. Of course it did. Why wouldn't it?

I won't tell you much about the grief ritual itself except to say that it was simple, it lasted a couple of hours, and for most of us, it "worked." That is, we were able to sink into the experience, feel our grief fully and release it, achieve a sense of emptiness and ease. For now. Grieving must be done regularly. I will need to grieve again before long and will have to find a community in my home town to grieve with. You can't do this kind of work alone.

We'd all come to Carolyn's workshop with different losses to grieve. For me, and for some others, I think, family losses and the slipping away of a livable planet intersected as one loss. I was able to cry for both.

We grieved in the presence of photographs of our ancestors. I'm only beginning to look into how people outside western communities think of their forebears. In my experience, when a loved one dies, a service is held, his or her life is remembered and celebrated, we say goodbye, and the body is cremated or buried. In other parts of the world, there is no goodbye. Those who have died are still part of the community, maybe the most important part. They strengthen the living, grieve alongside them, advise them, and require their attention.

The shootings in Charleston on June 17 didn't surprise me very much.  I've been there, seen the elegant colors its bricks are painted, bricks made by slaves from the clay of alligator-infested tidal rivers. I've visited the slave market, which has been turned into a shopping center where crafts once practiced by slaves are sold as artsy souvenirs. I've seen the barbed wire placed on top of the walls around some of the oldest homes after the slave rebellion in Haiti in1791. Charleston whites were scared to death by what happened in Haiti, and they must be scared still since that barbed wire is regularly refreshed. I've looked out on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Confederate artillery fired the first salvos of the Civil War on the Union garrison there. I've seen the Confederate flag flying everywhere, sometimes just above what's called the Gadsden flag, popular these days with the Tea Party.

Gadsden Flag
Tourists crowd Charleston's streets. Its venerable, perfectly preserved hotels fill up with destination weddings. The restaurants are so epicurean I don't have the vocabulary to describe them. Charleston's permanent residents are white.

Black people, descendants of slaves, live around Charleston, on its outskirts. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, dating from the time when the slaves of Charleston proper needed a church near where they lived, is in white territory. How could a kid like Dylann Roof--imagine his ancestors if you dare--be expected to tolerate that?

I live in a bigger world since Carolyn's workshop, but it's a dying world, a little closer to death every day. I will need to grieve regularly. These last few days I'm grieving for the people a white supremacist killed, for their grieving ancestors, and for their grieving children.