Grief and Cultural Transformation

Acknowledging the distance between vision and a more beautiful world

By Alla Guelber

As I sat in a session at Living the New Economy, a five-day gathering of leaders in articulating and developing the emerging new economy, hot crocodile tears streamed down my face.

All of a sudden, everything that I had been feeling hit me like a raging torrent.

During this exciting, inspiring conference, my dear mentor and friend Mark Lakeman, architect and permaculture designer, as well as founder of the City Repair Project shared not only his vision for the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” (to borrow a phrase from Charles Eisenstein), but the reality that he experiences in his day-to-day life in Portland, Oregon.

As Mark spoke, in the inspiring overtones of a great orator, he took us all on a journey like a raft on a river, coming across magical and inspiring possibilities for a different way of being in our modern, industrialized cities, stopping for a brief interlude at the world’s first 24-hour solar-powered T-Station, then perhaps over to the Cat Palace, a little meander to the chicken coop shaped like a lovely, giant red-beaked chicken, and back over to the beautiful mandala painted in the middle of his neighbourhood intersection, acting as the universal cross-roads where people meet, interact, and foster strong community ties.

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

The Block Repair activity looks at ways to create more connectivity and connection on the neighbourhood level. Mark Lakeman is in front. (Taken at the Living the New Economy, 2014)

These brightly-painted amenities are not merely interesting art installations or functional public infrastructure. Through the dialogues that lead to their creation and ongoing upkeep, the development of these interventions have resulted in tangible improvements to quality of life, safety, and community integration in the neighbourhoods where they were created, and expanded to influence the overall culture in Portland and beyond. Find out more about the Planet Repair Institute in Portland.

This time, as I absorbed Mark’s stories and reflected on my own experiences with community building, it hit me, with ever-increasing intensity: the wide chasm between my reality and the world that I yearn to live in.

I took in the presentation with two other dear friends – Lindsay Meads of reGenerate Design and Kym Chi of Giggling Chi Tree. Earlier in 2014, along with urban designer Natalia Zoldak, the four of us had hosted Mark in our home city, Calgary, for five days of inspiring workshops on urban placemaking and permaculture through a grassroots project, City Repair Calgary.

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

The poster from all of the learning engagements that City Repair Calgary hosted in July 2014

All this to say, I had already been deeply steeped in exploring alternative possibilities for urban living and in many ways had my finger on the pulse of creating this more beautiful world that my heart knows is possible.

And yet, there is still a chasm between my day-to-day reality and the world I want to live in.

As I say this, I’m quick to try to minimize my pain, to reframe this experience and start listing all of the people, opportunities and amazing examples of community that I have been truly blessed to experience in my life (for a few links, see below). The opportunities to travel and study in Oregon, work directly with a visionary like Mark Lakeman and bring him to teach in Calgary, have all been life-changing opportunities.

To have the time, opportunity and access to information that allows me to imagine this different future is an immense privilege, and I constantly remind myself of the many gifts I have received in my life. But that is not the point in this instant.

When grief comes, there is a reason.

This way of life that I envision emerges from what we know in our hearts, in our bones, in our cellular memories – or in many of the great ancient cities that we fly to visit on vacation. This is the way people are supposed to live. This is the way we have lived for millennia in towns and villages across the world. Where neighbours know each other, where families live in close proximity, where the wellbeing of each individual is a crucial contributor to the wellbeing of the entire community.

And it was in this remembering, and in the grief that comes with a sense of alienation and disconnect, that I broke down and let the torrent of tears cleanse my heart.

“Grief is an act of transformation.” This was one of the key ideas that emerged on a panel of strong, inspiring women on the Remembrance Day panel hosted at that same conference in 2015.

On that panel, four visionary women from across British Columbia shared the different ways that they have experienced the need to move through the powerful emotions we experience as we go through the storm of sociocultural transition.

Mark and his colleagues, friends, and collaborators have instigated a powerful cultural transformation in their city. The oft-parodied experience of Portlandia isn’t just about pickling strange objects or ironically putting birds on things.

The underlying reality is that there is a major experiment going on with a radically different way to engage with communities and neighbours in all manner of life interaction. And no, Portland (or Victoria, or Vancouver) isn’t some magical fairyland, but there are many things they are getting right in those cities. Not solely based on the quirkiness of the city’s residents, but by design. And, increasingly, major transformations are starting to take place in Calgary’s urban landscape as well, creating more opportunities for community interaction and citizen empowerment.

As we move from the old economy and the new, we experience periods of grief and we need to create opportunities to let ourselves feel those feelings. It is not a smooth, linear process. There are set-backs, confusion, reflection, regrouping, and an eventual re-inspiration to head back out into the fray. DSC_0483

As I started to process my experiences and posted about them on Facebook, comments started coming in from my friends and colleagues.

“All the words and facts in the world won’t change a thing until people move from guilt to grief to gratitude. Cultural transformation will have to happen out of love and compassion not guilt and fear,” added one friend.

“Grief is necessary to keep people humble and remind them of things that cannot be changed and remind them of things that can,” expanded another.

Grieving Rituals

One person who has helped me learn about the transformative power of grief is Sarah Kerr, of Soul Passages, a death midwife and ceremonialist.

Sarah has great gifts in helping people who are ill or near death prepare for crossing over, and creating the appropriate rituals and ceremonies that help both the individuals who are dying or experiencing a major loss and their families to be able to embrace the change they are going through with grace and humility.

While I have not experienced Sarah’s rituals in the context of death, I regularly attend her New Moon Rituals and recently joined the Community Healers’ Council.

Sarah teaches that the more we are able to transition gracefully between all of the smaller starts and ends to the cycles of life, the more gracefully we will be able to handle the ‘big ones.’

Attending the New Moon Ritual is about letting go of the previous month, and any challenges or impediments might have arisen, grounding in the experience of the present moment, and setting intentions for what might happen in the coming cycle.

Grief and gratitude come from the same place.

Only when we truly experience the deep grief of human experience can we return back into our hearts to experience the emotion that sits on the other end of that spectrum.

As the heart breaks, the heart breaks open.

Joanna Macy is an elder in the movement to create a space for grief as part of the essential process for reconnection and “coming back to life”. She calls her process The Work that Reconnects. Writing, teaching and facilitating extensively over the past 50 years, Macy has created a powerful framework for moving through personal and societal transition. (More on her revolutionary work in future blog posts). She writes:

“In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to suffer with is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our world as lover, world as self.”  Find out more about The Work that Reconnects.

Back to the day-to-day

Gratitude for the beauty and abudance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

Gratitude for the beauty and abundance of nature is important in the process of recovery.

I experience chronic pain and fatigue on a daily basis. Some days are better than others. Some days I feel far too tired to go on and I am mired in a fog of sadness and despondency about the difficulty of this physical existence. My mind can leap and run far beyond the constraints of my challenged body, and I am often at odds between the thoughts, ideas, plans and projects that my mind cooks up and the very real constraints imposed on me by my physical limitations.

Other days, my heart brims with gratitude for even the shortest experience of vitality and energy. I am able to connect to the infinite source of energy and love that exists in this universe, and step outside of the false perception that my physical experience of this reality can limit me in any way.

These polarities exist within my own body, and they exist within our shifting world.

We all carry the grief of what we have lost and the grief of what’s broken in our world. We also all carry the deep propensity for love, hope, healing and interconnectedness.

Whether it’s the shooting pain in my hip, or the deep pain of witnessing polluted waterways and overloaded landfills, there is palpable sadness in the ways that so much does not work or flow in my – and our shared global – present reality.

And this sadness, this indescribably deep grief, needs to be felt.

I have learned, when working through my chronic pain, that in the body, physical and emotional pain is not separate.

Emotions, when not expressed as feelings, can become lodged in the body in the form of physical pain.

Could it be that all of the immense and senseless ugliness that we see in our external environment is an outward manifestation of all this unexpressed, unprocessed inner grief?

It is only through truly deeply feeling the grief of the world can we start to transform these intense emotions into tangible actions that lead to larger-scale change.

Deepening the understanding of grief as a process of transformation
Books

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in Without Going Crazy By Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible, and other works by Charles Eisenstein

The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martin Prechtel

Inspiring people and organizations

Mark Lakeman, Planet Repair Institute and The City Repair Project (Based in Portland, Oregon)

Joanna Macy and her work (Based in Berkeley, California)

Living the New Economy Conference (Based in Victoria, BC)

Healing Cities Institute (Based in Vancouver, BC)

reGenerate Design (Based in Calgary, AB)

Giggling Chi Tree (Based in Roberts Creek, BC)