Lying Down to Sorrow: On the Work That Lies Ahead
A conversation with Trebbe Johnson and Francis Weller
In the fall of 2018, authors Trebbe Johnson and Francis Weller initiated a conversation that we anticipated would be rich, unexpected, and offer something vital to our readers. The conversation began, then was disrupted weeks later as climate change-driven fires ravaged Northern California. The devastation wrought by the wildfires brought with it new senses of loss and uncertainty, new depths of grief and spaciousness. It’s within this spaciousness, should we be able to hold it, that we can lie down and listen—to learn a new language for what’s now being asked of us.
These times are unprecedented; as Francis notes in his new ebook, “There is nothing ordinary about these days of viruses and deaths, masks and social distancing. Our language has adapted to the pandemic. We speak of peaks and ventilators, hot zones and flattening the curve, washing hands and wiping down surfaces….We have entered a time of descent that takes us down into a different geography….We are hunkered down. Down being the operative word. From the perspective of soul, down is holy ground.”
So down, into the holy, and into the depths we go. As Trebbe says, a wounded place is still itself—but itself after undergoing all these trials.” We now face a new wounding, a changing collective self, a different set of trials: an invitation to open, soften, and deepen into bittersweet sorrow. Read on below.
Trebbe Johnson: Francis, I’m so happy for the opportunity to have a conversation with you about our work, since we are both dedicated to the encounter with grief as a passageway to new outlets of vitality, creativity, and empowerment. Your book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, has been very important to me in my work of finding and making beauty in wounded places. As you write, To live a life of soul means living with sensitivity to the plight of the planet. Finding a soulful way of living with the plight of the planet is what my book and my work, Radical Joy for Hard Times, are all about.
You emphasize the importance of the approach to grief. Rather than barging into the process with a fighting attitude, we must approach grief with reverence, with curiosity, with mindful expectation. In my book I also talk about bringing ourselves mindfully to damaged places like a clear-cut forest, a mine site, or a twilight sky no longer visited by bats. I emphasize the importance of actually visiting these places and spending time with them, not just reflecting meditatively on them from afar. Only a body-to-place encounter stirs in us both our deep love for these places and our enormous grief for what has happened to them. And yet, here too, we don’t just barge in. We enter gently.
Could you say more about cultivating a gentle, mindful approach to grief?
Francis Weller: Entering the terrain of grief is akin to entering ritual space. The poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said, Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground. We approach the ground with reverence, with respect and a degree of humility. We turn toward these tender and vulnerable places, both internally and in the world, with the intention of honoring them, tending them, not so much to fix them. I have often said that grief is not a problem to be solved, but a presence awaiting witnessing.
It is challenging for many of us to imagine grief as something sacred, much less something to approach with reverence. Our cultural, and I would add, our psychological conditioning bend us toward avoidance of this difficult guest. We see sorrow as something to muscle our way through or deny altogether. We live in the shadow of the heroic archetype, which compels us to rise above, to be in control, to always be positive. But what happens when a child dies, or a marriage dissolves, a home turns to ash, or we come upon a place that has been damaged by our industrial machinery to fill our incessant hunger for more? The pull is downward, toward the ground. All of our strategies fail and we are asked to enter the great hall of sorrows.
In my psychotherapy practice and in the grief rituals I have offered over the last twenty years, I have had the opportunity to escort many individuals into a new and intimate relationship with grief. It is a kind of homecoming, a return to a ground where the connection to soul is deeply felt.
You write, “Only a body-to-place encounter stirs in us both our deep love for these places and our enormous grief for what has happened to them.” I fully agree. Love and grief fully entangled. How have you learned to hold this powerful tension in a sustainable way?
TJ: I actually grasped the necessity of holding this difficult balance when I was very young. My father was an alcoholic who would be filled with remorse the morning after one of his drunken rages, and he’d promise never again to hit my mother or upturn our house. I was pretty young when I figured out that those calamities were, in fact, almost certain to happen again. I felt a kind of urgent necessity to hold onto that realization, lest I get pulled into an insanity of pretending what was real wasn’t real. I couldn’t share that knowledge with my family, but I could take it into my backyard, where the trees, the birds, the insects, the birth, the death, the decay affirmed for me that beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, grief and love are all deeply true and eternally co-existing. For my whole life, this has seemed like the most essential reality to hold onto: that two concepts that are apparently wildly opposite can be held gently in balance, like a feather in each hand. And that, if you can do that, you’ll survive.
That’s really the essence of Radical Joy for Hard Times—the experience of going to a place that you’ve considered broken or ugly and facing it, not by trying to fix it, but just being with it. In that state of respectful, open awareness, beauty often pierces in surprising ways. We hold sorrow and beauty together, knowing both are real. We don’t have to choose.
You’ve talked about how “softening” toward grief enables us to be with it in a more conscious way. I think that was what was happening with me with the painful awareness of my family that I brought to my yard. What kind of softening can we practice as so many of us suffer the immense grief about climate change, the loss of forests and coral, the extinction of so many animals and insects and plants, the destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods?
FW: That is an important question. How do we remain soft and open to our grief when the losses are overwhelming? The list of what is disappearing from our world is immense: forests, coral, animals, glaciers, languages, living culture, and on and on. The sheer weight of these sorrows is enormous.
It takes tremendous courage to keep opening our hearts and turning our faces into the winds of loss. The central question is, what do we require to face the tidal surge of sorrows in our time? Our ability to remain open and soft to the encroaching losses is dependent upon having the elements we need available to us: community, ritual, and the sacred. Grief has always been communal and, for the most part, held in the context of ritual and the sacred. Big arms, an enormous vista of imagination, and robust gestures of grief and gratitude are what grant us the courage to keep leaning into the world. When we are given the essential requirements to work with our grief, we are able to keep it warm and pliable. And that is the main thing with grief: to keep it warm. This is an old idea from alchemy. The material in the vessel had to be kept warm for it to change and become something new. We keep it warm through our attention, our affection, our efforts, our simple noticing.
Grief is an amazing solvent, capable of softening the hardest places in our hearts. For grief to offer us this grace, however, we have to stay engaged with it. Staying open to the great tears in the body of the earth is not something we simply endure, but something by which we are deeply affected. We have to go there, as you said, to enter the terrain and be touched by it. Full engagement.
All of this takes interior fortitude. Without some degree of ballast, our little ship of self can easily capsize when the waves of grief arrive on our shores. What practices do you do to stay steady and responsive to what you encounter in your work in the world?
TJ: Your comparison of the process of keeping grief “warm” reminds me of something I read once in a book about alchemy by Henri Corbin and that has been meaningful to me when I go to places under assault. He pointed out that in the alchemical process, glass is melted down again and again until, finally, “it is still itself but itself after undergoing all those trials.” In answer to your question, Francis, I often think of that when I go to a farm that’s been fracked, or a river that’s polluted with agricultural waste, or even a big parking lot that used to be a wetland. I say to myself, “It’s still itself, but itself after undergoing all those trials.” And that leads to reflection about what this “self” is when it refers to a place. I try to find the “memory” of the place in what is there. I’m also attentive to my own responses to the place, which can range from outrage at what has happened to deep grief to delight in nature’s stubborn resilience. I love walking and sitting in places that have come under assault. I feel like I’m with a sweet being who is doing its best to make do under difficult circumstances. I think of it as hospice care for the Earth. Attending to places in need, with others or alone, is something I think will keep us sane as the places we love face increasing challenges in the years to come.
[Several weeks pass before we resume our conversation.]
FW: My apologies for the break in our conversation. As you know, Sonoma County was hit, once again, with a severe wildfire which burned 77,000 acres. More than 100,000 of us were evacuated from our homes in the early morning hours for nearly a week. We are still reeling from the 2017 fires, so our nervous systems are highly sensitive to another disturbance like this. Trauma and loss in abundance. So too, were countless acts of kindness and generosity. Recalling that grief and gratitude are eternal sisters helps us hold all that is arising in this moment.
The emerging reality of our times is uncertainty. Many things are no longer predictable. Even our sense of the future seems unsure. The frequent fires we are experiencing, the erratic weather patterns leaving areas parched or flooded, sustained sea rise. These are the emergent collective traumas that affect the psyche no differently than violence or lingering neglect in a child. We are now living in a time of chronic anxiety. How we respond to these times is what matters most.
I imagine you crossing the threshold into a space that has been desecrated or damaged. Thresholds invite mystery and a degree of vulnerability. We don’t know what we will encounter or discover. I love how receptive you become to the spirit of the place when you walk into a damaged terrain. Our usual response is to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering. To walk toward the unknown, as you do, requires a fierce mind and a courageous heart. I know when I have encountered clear-cut forests, I experience a shudder that courses through my body. It feels as though that is our spiritual obligation—to register in our bodies the rips and tears in the fabric of the world. If we don’t, who will? We are not separate from the clear-cut, or the suffocated river, or the parking lot. I feel we are receptor sites by which the sorrows and beauty of the place are experienced and given expression. Your work is testament to this truth.
TJ: Francis, I’m so sorry you and my other California friends have been living with this trauma of wildfires. When I heard about all the evacuations and knew you’d been affected, I kept checking the fire maps, wondering what was happening and how you were doing. I heard a woman on the radio say that Californians now suffer anxiety six months of the year, anticipating the fire season and then, when it arrives, trying to live from day to day with the uncertainty of what’s going to be required of them, what will happen to their homes. This is the territory where the grief work you do and Radical Joy for Hard Times really meet. I believe that, as more and more people confront the reality of climate change, on top of all the other ecological threats they’re already living with, like mountaintop mining, gas fracking, industrial pollution, that opening up to ways of finding and making beauty together will be more and more crucial. Because, as you say, how we respond to crisis is the most crucial thing of all. And no matter what’s going on in our lives, no matter how bad it gets, the one thing we can always do is give beauty and generosity—to the Earth and to other humans.
And, really, when you give to the Earth, humans flourish too. I read an article a few months after the terrible fires in Santa Rosa two years ago, of how people from the Coffey Park neighborhood began returning to where their houses had been and decorating them for the holidays. They put up Christmas trees with battery-powered lights. Someone wrote a funny note to Santa Claus with their temporary address and put it on the mailbox that was still standing. A little girl did a dance around the newly decorated tree. In this place where people had lost everything, they returned, they faced the cinders and the unrecognizable plots that had been their homes…and they made beauty together. Through that action, they found friendship, strength, and courage.
Yeats wrote: “Now that the ladders have fallen / I must lie down where all ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” In other words, when we can face what we most don’t want to face, that’s when we open ourselves up to amazement.
FW: Thank you for your concern and kind thoughts about our circumstances here in California. What you shared is true. There is a persistent presence of anxiety much of the year for us living here. But we are clearly not alone. As I write, much of Australia is being besieged by wildfires. The idea of somehow being immune from the impacts of climate disruption is quickly fading.
The fragment of Yeats you shared is also fitting. Our ladders are falling and there is a deep recognition in his imagery that we will be asked to return, again and again, to the often unwanted and unwelcome presence of loss and sorrow. And we must lie down there, as he says, and learn what this difficult place asks of us.
We are clearly in a time of descent, and we are being pulled into difficult and unavoidable circumstances. Descent leads us into darkness, into the unknown. Our usual associations with darkness, however, are not good, but rather ominous. I want to advocate for another way of perceiving the darkness; as the ground of aliveness much like the earth is riddled with microbes and mycelium bringing life to the myriad of roots that uphold the green world. Darkness as rich, fecund and vital, possessing wild possibilities. In truth, we have no idea what is coming. Models and forecasts are helpful but don’t quiet the anxious heart. For that, we need to engage the deep mystery that is enfolding us. We are being asked to develop faith in the darkness, in the unseen and maybe even unknowable places. In this territory, our core skills of listening and imagination will be essential as a means of granting us a degree of resilience.
The farmer/poet Wendell Berry, said, “It all turns on affection.” I feel this is true. We will attend to the challenges we face in the coming years, only with a heart that is open to loving the world as it is. And the aperture of the heart is broken open to love through the encounter with beauty, as your work illustrates.
It won’t be survival of the fittest or most well-armed, that lies ahead for us. It will be uncovered in our mutually entangled lives. That is the work that lies ahead.