Grief, Empire and the Heart
I led my first grief ritual in the UK this weekend.
In Totnes, co-led with Alana Bloom and John Scaife.
I’ve been leading grief rituals in the U.S. for years, since Sobonfu Some, the lady I learnt this form from, died. I co-led with people who had also learnt the ritual from her. We did it together.
In the UK I didn’t know who I could collaborate with. So I didn’t offer it.
Gradually, we found each other. So we did.
We did it at Bowen House, a stately home turned eco village. It had originally been built, Joy explained to me, by slave owners. Families with sugar plantations in America.
We (Britain) shipped 2 million people as slaves to America, when the U.S. was itself a British colony. They worked the sugar plantations, shaped our diet, created wealth that built Bowden House (and elsewhere of course).
There were paintings of them on the walls — the men who built, or paid for the building of, the original house. Initially I found it distasteful, evidence that our colonial history had not been faced, digested, that their paintings were still there.
During the ritual I found it helpful. Honest. Transparent.
Then here we are, doing a ritual together of Dagara Origin, from the culture of the people of Burkina Faso, a desert dwelling people who moved inland from the coast to avoid the slave traders.
In that ritual, healing from our whiteness, or from our grief, our conditioning, cracking the heart open, allowing it to feel.
I sit at the back and drum and sing, the same song, hour after hour after hour. I am ritual singer.
And I watch, compassionately, men and women cry and shake, wail and howl, moan and snot, sniff and hold each other, and allow the body and the voice to do what it needs to do to turn this huge well of pain into sound and tears and motion and let them flow, into the alter, into fire, into earth. Soften what is hard. Heal what is hurting. Grieve and release.
By the end, all the faces were transformed. Every face had 10 years taken off it, eyes bright and shiny, soft newborn-seeming people, grinning and hugging and twinkling.
We grandchildren of empire.
Some are the children of people raised to shut their hearts away in remote cupboards; son after father after son unable to develop emotional skills because they didn’t get to practice. Alcoholism and neglect and attachment difficulties. Addictions and crises of meaning, of purpose, struggles to love.
Grief is sweetest, I find, when I can be right in the middle of it. Crying it, allowing its waves through, singing it, dancing it, moving it, feeling it. It’s the not feeling it that really sucks. Dull uncomfortable discomfort, chronic. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Get me away from this.
In a totally separate project, some of us are gathering to explore how progressive values can become stronger in UK politics, and whether it’s time to create a new political party. We talk about what the challenges might be. “How can you construct a progressive movement when you’ve got this extraordinary unexplored area of imperial guilt?” Says Peter Lipman. “And when it is explored, the backlash is ferocious. In terms of what’s blocking things in this country, that’s certainly one. If you have a nation that doesn’t grapple with that, it’s just like the unexploded bomb at the heart of the US as being founded on genocide and slavery,” he acknowledges. “Britain has this unexploded bomb at its heart. How one enables a meaningful exploration of extraordinarily cruel exploitative British imperial culture that is pushed down…. It’s easy to say ‘do the inner work,’ but what is unleashed by that would be pretty dramatic.”
I think it is pretty dramatic. I think it is pretty dramatic to be safe and able to howl and wail and sob and hurt until you don’t any more in company, and be surrounded by singing, and a steady drum beat, and support and care that doesn’t ask you any questions, doesn’t even use words.
I think it’s kind of beautifully dramatic. Raw and simple and human and I find a refreshing beauty in its honesty.
When I first did a grief ritual with Sobonfu Some in 2012, I found myself having to cry three generations of tears before I could even get to my own, past a grandfather and a great grandfather who between them fought 8 years of world wars, and my mother who they so impacted, who so impacted me. Through anger into understanding, compassion, shared humanity, cultural wounding running through family systems, generation after generation.
This stops with me, I found myself saying when I was 8, 12, 20, 30. Whether it’s by not having children, or whether it’s by grieving this all out of me and healing these layers in me before I reproduce, is not quite clear yet, but I do seem to have changed.
I like to be heart to heart with my beloved. I get us to hum into our hearts just like I invite my students to, to create vibrations that help us feel them. Each rests our attention on our own heart, for a bit, before inviting each heart to relate with the other. I find my heart opening like a sunflower to his. Feeling this exchange of warm glowy energies. Softening like a warm apricot or peach. If something’s in the way, we notice it. Look at it. Care. Heal. Connect again.
Thank Everything for the heart. For the intelligence with which it scampers away in the face of the cold steal of the British Empire. For the beauty with which it can recover from years, decades, generations of suppression and concreting over.
Thanks for our tenderness. Thank you Dagara people for grief rituals. I am so so so so so so so so so so sorry Africa, world, for slavery. We white people, grieving our colonial wounding using an African ritual in a building built on the back of slaves, how on earth do we bring this into any kind of balance? What does a truth and reconciliation commission look like on this one?
That question brought John Scaife and I to silence last night as we debriefed the ritual. We have no answer but we both deeply feel the need.
Alana and John were cracking collaborators. Alana delighted in bringing all the kit and helping the group create beautiful altars which then held them deeply. After studying with Azul Thome, Alana has a lovely instinct for providing layers of sensitive ritual care and good practice. John has studied for decades with Martine Prechtel, Malidoma and Sobonfu Some, and is a medicine man, able to find just the right words for our relating with Mystery and hold some precise ritual details with rigour. I held the centre, managed the group and the time and the process, and was the ritual music Duracell bunny, playing and singing for hour after hour after hour.
It could have been more hours. We weren’t done when we had to close.
The grief is big.
With gratitude, and questions, and much appreciation for everyone there, and all that held us, including the good people and beautiful building of Bowden House.
This was the first time in the UK. Hello.