Lucinda Herring and Trebbe Johnson in Conversation
NAB authors Lucinda Herring, author of the upcoming book Reimagining Death, and Trebbe Johnson, author of Radical Joy for Hard Times, came together this fall to discuss life, grief, and the connections within their work. Below is their conversation.
Trebbe Johnson (TJ): Lucinda, you and I are both writing about circumstances that many people would prefer to avoid at all costs! You write about the end of life. I write about damaged places on the Earth. Perhaps especially in our American culture, these are subjects that can seem scary and depressing. And we’re both saying, each in our own way: Not at all! In your book, Reimagining Death, you show how people can care for loved ones after they’ve died in ways that are actually beautiful, joyful, full of wonder, and even, at times, spiced with humor. I finished your book about a month ago, and I am still thinking about it.
Lucinda Herring (LH): Yes, Trebbe, it’s gratifying to see how ‘kin’ your book Radical Joy in Hard Times is to mine. Thank you for inspiring us to not turn away, but turn toward all the heartbreak and loss we feel when the natural places we love are destroyed. To feel all our emotions, and find some semblance of acceptance and healing, even joy in such an encounter. It is such a difficult thing to do, and yet, if we can support each other, perhaps it’s possible. With home funeral vigils, which are really just the way we used to care for our dead—at home, in the company of those we love and trust—we can turn back toward death, instead of retreating into our usual denial and avoidance, just as you are advocating we do with devastated natural places. We can be ourselves, and call on our instinctive capacities to bring art, ritual and beauty to a time of loss and sorrow. There are so many gifts available when we have the courage to ‘lean into the sharp points,’ as Chogyam Trungpa put it, and do so creatively. That’s what you and I are both saying.
TJ: One way to “lean into the sharp points” is to cultivate presence with that which is not the way it used to be or how I wish it could be again. In my work, I emphasize the importance for people actually to spend time in these wounded places, like clear-cut forests and polluted beaches. That’s how we discover the aliveness, beauty, and resilience of nature in all its forms. I call this practice “gazing.” In your book, you urge readers to “witness” the dying process and the burial that follows in a more conscious way. Could you say more about why witnessing is so crucial?
LH: There are many people today who have never been around a dead body in its natural state. If we have seen a corpse, it has been at a funeral home visitation where we spend a few moments gazing into an open casket, grateful that we can turn away soon and get on with our lives. That experience is a far cry from what we can receive by caring for someone’s body ourselves. When we bathe the cold unmoving form of someone we love, comb her hair and dress her one last time; when we lower her heavy, inert body down ourselves into an open grave; we receive a direct and visceral, full body understanding of what it means to ‘be dead.’ Being willing to stay present and witness this process can be so helpful and healing. It can transform our relationship to death itself.
TJ: That’s beautiful! And I’ll bet that the people you work with and guide in this way also discover that the very thing they were so reluctant to face—confronting the corpse of their loved one—fearing that to do so will debilitate them, is, in fact, a beautiful, liberating experience. People tell me that about their visits to wounded places too. They start out thinking that going to a clear-cut forest or a mountain scraped bare by mining is a very weird idea and will probably be depressing. But then they go, they share stories, they make a gift of beauty for the place… and they end up falling in love with it!
LH: I love that you encourage people to offer a gift of beauty in the midst of loss and sorrow. Your “Attending the City” event to help New Yorkers after 9/11 with their shock and grief really moved me. Having folks commit to creating some act of beauty in the city in direct response to the horror was such a wise and healing suggestion. I do the same with families and communities who are grieving a death. The beauty that emerges from hearts cracked wide open is astounding to me. It can be as simple as the tiny yellow narcissus that a young daughter placed behind her father’s ear in his casket, or as elaborate as a beloved person’s body wrapped in a white silk shroud, printed with hundreds of messages of love from around the world. Creating beauty from our pain can bring us a courage and resilience we might not otherwise feel, and a moment of solace in the storm.
TJ: I’m touched by your story of the young girl who lovingly placed a flower behind her father’s ear as he lay in his casket. One last gift, offered with love and sadness all mixed together into a gesture that is simple and direct, yet suffused with meaning for the rest of that young woman’s life. There is something mysterious and quite inexplicable that happens when we make these gestures that reach with kindness, compassion, and creativity beyond the world of the known and into that of the unknown and desperately sad. I see it happen over and over when people go to places whose loss they truly grieve and make a simple gift of beauty, and consolation for those places. I don’t know how to explain it, but it has something to do with discovering that we have the ability to touch—more than touch, really, to caress—what has saddened and frightened us. It somehow gives us courage to deal more courageously and generously with all kinds of challenges in life.
LH: Yes, and such a gesture of love can at times open doorways into the subtle realms of existence and reveal connections and synchronicities we might not otherwise be aware of as human beings. I have experienced that our willingness to be present and compassionate, and to create beauty out of suffering can draw to us the very support we might need from the natural world and from the webs of life and intelligence—seen and unseen—around us. Such support is probably always there, waiting for us to notice and receive, if we are able. It is my experience that we, as human beings, are being ‘called’ now, to wake up and to consciously partner with these larger dimensions of life again, for the welfare of all sentient beings and for the planet itself. In my experience, the threshold of death is a time when such “I-Thou” partnerships are possible. I imagine that the moments when people create art and ritual in devastated places are also gateways of possibility. Many of the stories I tell in my book express the wonder and sacred mystery of such encounters.
TJ: It’s so easy, in our normal, busy, technologically-driven lives, to forget that these “subtle realms” really do exist. The stories you tell in your book of such I-Thou encounters when people are immersed in the reality of death are so moving and beautiful. They occur as well when people are present and mindful in nature. With the gifts of beauty we make for hurt places, we don’t claim to be able to “heal” the Earth, but sometimes it seems that something like that does happen. I remember one story of a woman who was worried about the sea turtles on the Alabama coast. The female turtles only come ashore once a year, and that’s to bury their eggs in the sand. Now those eggs are endangered by ATVs, dogs, and other disturbances. With a couple of friends this woman worked with seaweed to make an image of a turtle in the sand. A few days later, she wrote me to say that a female turtle had laid her eggs right by that image! And a few days later another turtle did the same! Did the consciousness behind the gift convey something to those turtles? There’s no way of knowing. But there is such magic in stories like this.
LH: Your story is a perfect example of what can happen when human beings reach out to the natural world from a place of love, concern, and care. A tangible sense of reciprocity and dialogue between humans and nature can emerge, one that asks us to put aside our doubting dismissive minds for a time, and consider what it might mean to partner or co-create with the natural world and the subtle dimensions of life once again. What would such co-creative partnership look like, and what unknown gifts and possibilities could emerge from such a reunion? When my mother died, I had a powerful experience of working consciously with the spirits of our land during her transition, and that experience lies at the heart of my book. Somehow, such partnership helped me accept my mother’s death and find a greater ‘brightness of being’ amidst the very real pain and loss I was experiencing. Surely such co-creativity is also happening on some level when your groups gather to bear witness to the destruction and loss of the places they love. The idea that the ecology of a place can be responsive, even supportive of human beings who are present and who reach out for kinship—this is exciting, for it hints of a partnership of potential we can cultivate for the wellbeing of all. A potential that holds seeds of hope and renewal for our future. I like to think that our books are part of those seeds, Trebbe, and can be of service in these troubled times. May it be so!