Relationship Matters: Grief, Joy, and the Land (Nov. 3, 2019)

These are some of the readings and words I shared during a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, VT on November 3, 2019. I’ve modified some elements since the original preaching date.

Children’s message: Importance of our names
what are your names? my name is Charis. Sometimes people mess it up. Does anyone ever get your name a little bit wrong? What happens then?…

There’s a mountain near here called Ascutney—have you heard of it? Have you been there? I grew up right near it, and I just love it so much. Do you have places that you really love?

view from the side of Cas Cad Nac

Well, I wanted to tell you that I learned that Ascutney has another name, an older name—Cas Cad Nac. This name is the name the native people, the Abenaki, use for that mountain. When people came from Europe to take this land, they got the name of the mountain wrong, and the Abenaki didn’t have enough power to make sure it stayed the right name.

And I wonder, what happens when we get the name of a place wrong? What do you think?


The Remedies

Half on the Earth, half in the heart,
the remedies for all the things
which grieve us wait for those who know thewords to use to find them.
Penobscot people used to make

a medicine for cancer from Mayapple
and South American people knew
the quinine cure for malaria

a thousand years ago.
But it is not just in the roots,
the stems, the leaves,

the thousand flowers
that healing lies.

Half of it lives within the words
the healer speaks.

And when the final time has come
for one to leave this Earth

there are no cures,
for Death is only
part of Life, not a disease.
Half on the Earth, half in the heart,
the remedies for all our pains
wait for the songs of healing.

– Joseph Bruchac

Over the last decade, I’ve written a lot of academic papers—articles, chapters, blog posts. That kind of writing often asks me to present, in the beginning, an argument. And then to demonstrate why the argument matters, or could be true, through the rest of the written work.

A sermon, obviously, is a different kind of writing. A different way of inhabiting words, space, time—a different way of sharing. One of the reasons it is different lies in the way that sermons invite us to speak, and to listen, from our hearts and spirits, as well as with our minds. So, honoring all these ways we can enter into a conversation together as I speak the words I’ve written down, I’ll tell you what the argument of this sermon would be, if it had an argument. It is this:

Relationship matters.

And now it’s possible that you’re sitting there thinking, sheesh, I got up and out of the cozy warm house on this Sunday morning to come hear something I already know is true? Maybe, and if so, you can tell me at coffee hour what you think about relationship, and where I may go wrong in my thinking about it with you in the coming minutes. I welcome such conversations—after all, they are part of making relationship happen.

I arrive at thinking about relationship today because I wanted to talk with you about land, and place, and learning with the places we live. I wanted to talk about what a difference it makes to stay in one place long enough, and to pay attention enough, to actually learn the landscape, to learn the changes and nuances of that place through season turn and the waxing and waning of community, politics, and the moon. I wanted to talk about what it might mean to imagine that the land loves us back—as we attend to and learn to love the land, in a place, maybe it, too, learns to love us.

And I realized I couldn’t have this conversation with you without taking into account the processes of healing that I think we are called to do, with the land, and with each other. This healing work must, by virtue of being a process, take time; and it must, we must, attend not only to joy, connection and feelings of belonging in place, on the land—we must also attend to the ways the land holds stories of violence and fear. The ways that our bodies, and our fellow humans’ bodies, also hold stories of joy alongside grief. The ways that joy and grief emerge out of the land, out of our bodies, as of-this-moment—and also, always, in connection with all the moments have come before. The way that time bends upon itself and all the pasts are always present with us, held in the landscape. So that’s what I’ll talk about today: healing, land, time, and relationship.

Here, in Springfield, we are in ndakinna–the Wabanaki word for this land, which is Abenaki territory. It stretches from what settlers call Maine and Nova Scotia through all of what we call New England to just west of the Hudson River, north through the southern parts of what we call Quebec and south to what we call Connecticut. Joseph Bruchac, the poet we just heard from, is Abenaki, and has been telling stories and holding land-based knowledge for his people for his whole adult life. In The Remedies, he tells us about the ways that Penobscot knowledge about plant medicines has been around since well before European arrival on this continent, and he tells us this by way of tenderly describing the relation between people, plant, and disease. He tells us that the songs, the words of healing are what activate the medicines of the earth. That the good words of a human make the connection between the planet and another human who is in need—and maybe, too, with the needs of the earth, with the land and place we’re in.

It seems to me that we are always in the midst of this work he talks about—looking for the words to share with a suffering friend, or how to talk about the love we have for this earth, as she literally burns and drowns in front of us. This is what I mean when I say that we are called to this work, the work of weaving together again the relations among people, and among people and land, and between human stories and land stories. This reweaving of relations is the web with which we can learn, again, to hold each other in love.

Bruchac describes the work of healing human bodies as a relational work between humans and the earth. This is on my mind as I think about the fact that sometimes, the only words to offer towards suffering are contained in silent witness. Also, words are only part of the equation Bruchac presents to us.

The earth.
The Heart.
The plant.
The person.
The other person.

Suddenly, our field of vision is full with lives and presence. The Remedies in this poem are about earth, words, bodies—they are about the relation between these elements, and the ways that we learn to pay attention to those relations. Learn to speak them. Learn to hold them in a good way. What does it mean, to you, in the fabric of your own life, to be in good relationship with the earth, with the land?

I’ll tell you one of the ways I think about this for myself. All the relationships matter, which means that I think not just of my sense of belonging and connection, but also of the long histories that have made it possible for me to be here on this land, in this place I call home. The stories of how my ancestors came and stole land, wrote and broke treaties, and committed violent acts. This is where it gets harder for me to look at, to think about.

I’m a settler in this place. My people came to this continent from Scotland, Germany, England, between 1619 and now, settling in Massachusetts, California, Virginia. My parents and I moved to Weathersfield from Maryland when I was too young to remember, and I don’t know any other home. I love it here, and it feels meaningfully home. And it is not mine. This is land, this is a place, that holds the story of the ongoing process of settler colonialism. What right do I have to feel like I am at home here?

Part of our human inheritance is the necessity of holding joy alongside grief, remembering that people kill others, as well as give others pleasure. We cannot look at only one side of this coin when we seeking to do justice to what Bruchac tells us is the work of healing.

The earth.
The heart.
The plant.
The person.
The other person.

Many of us come to church for solace. I would imagine that discussing settler colonialism and its violence is not exactly what you think of first when you think about solace. However, I would like to invite you into the possibility that, even if it is difficult to hear and sit with, the kinds of connection and relation that become possible when we sit with pain are, themselves, a gift of solace. At the very least, the act of bearing witness is a way of being in relationship. It is into a space of witness and presence I invite you, again.

I work with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice as a Program Leader and sometimes as a curriculum developer.  In fall 2019, I had the honor to join my fellow program leaders and CSJ staff for a training in Minneapolis, Minnesota, territory of the Dakota and Anishnaabe. Mni Sota means land of many waters—some of you may be familiar with the Dakota word Mni, which means water, from the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, in which some people were able to remember and proclaim together that mni wiconi—water is life.

In Mni sota, we spent a full day with Reverent Jim Bear Jacobs, a Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican man, and Pastor Danny Givens, a Black clergyman, both of whom grew up in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Together, they’ve created a place-based storytelling tour grounded in their own lives as well as in their communities’ historical and current experiences of violence, survival, and healing.

Our group was silent. We were silent, listening, the whole day, as we traveled from site to site, hearing the stories they shared with us. We were silent, bearing witness, being present in place, because the stories we heard ranged from horrifying to incomprehensible. Our bodies tensed; our shoulders hunched; our stomachs turned over. On the land listening, we were silent. In the vans while driving between sites, we made silly, unrelated jokes and talked about television programs. It was too much to hold, otherwise. Our group of fourteen, all of us leaders in spiritually grounded social justice work through the UUCSJ, black and white and Filipino and Latinx, from the United States, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, listened silently, holding space in the places we were called into with Jim Bear and Pastor Danny’s stories.

We started where the Minnesota River and the Mississippi river meet, river confluence, fertile, alive.

It is the place of Dakota Genesis.

It is the site of a U.S. Army concentration camp where Natives were imprisoned.

It is a place of Birth. Life. Genocide.

Measles and other illnesses claimed three or four people a night over that winter that the Army kept Dakota people imprisoned there, in the passive genocide of attrition. In order to ensure their relatives were treated with dignity after they died, many who were imprisoned buried their loved ones under their own feet inside the stockade.

After that winter, it became illegal to be Dakota in the territory of Minnesota. Those people who were imprisoned were taken on a ferry down the river.

Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs called this, then, the place where the Minnesota and the Mississippi Rivers meet, a place of genesis and genocide.

People alive, here, now, live in a land that still tells these stories.

Pastor Danny wove his story starting with the stump where the ferry docked to take away the Dakota, The stump was also where the ferry docked bringing 75 black men and women looking for freedom. Then more, and more. Up the Mississippi towards a life that was more possible than it was way down south, where black lives did not matter. Still don’t, not as much as white ones. That river traces so many contours of history and presents—just like the land around it.

We ended the day in the Philando Castile Community Peace Garden in St. Paul, a small site on a grassy hillock between a five lane road and a fenced in basketball court on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair. Here, Pastor Givens reminded us of the story of Philando Divall Castile, a young man shot by a police officer through the window of his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ car, while she live-streamed the encounter on Facebook.

Pastor Danny told us about the sequence of events that brought him into deep relationship, and the hope that springs from the necessary work of grief with the spot now called the Peace Garden. And Jim Bear Jacobs also told us a story. He told us how, when Philando was shot, he and some members of his congregation were out of cell range, visiting the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It wasn’t until a few hours later, after they had witnessed the site and its mass graves, when they were driving back, that they started to get the texts, the facebook messages, the calls. Another young black man murdered by police.
One of his parishioners, from the back of the van, asked him, “when will it fucking end?” And that’s the question he left us with, there in the Philando Castile Community Peace Garden, surrounded by the memories of Philando’s life and dignity, and the loud struggle of his death.

All of this, grounded in a place. A strip of grass, between a fairground and a thoroughfare. All of this, held in the soil of the earth. All of this, intersections of murdered black men and indigenous genocide, held together, in the bodies of the men who shared the story of their relationship to that place, who embody joy and possibility, seeking connection.

Take a breath.
Place a hand on your heart, or over your stomach. Bring your attention into your body.
Where does this sit with you?
What are you feeling right now?

The depth and breadth of the weaving that Jim Bear Jacobs and Pastor Danny Givens were able to communicate to us was both devastating and enlightening, leading me to wonder other kinds of stories are available, out there in the world, that I don’t know about.

These hours revealed to me how little I know about this place I live, even having tried to pay attention for most of my life. What are the memories that are in the land around me, that haven’t been awoken by the kind of healing song of human words that Bruchac talks about, that Pastor Danny and Rev. Jim Bear are deep in singing? What kinds of stories can my own body tell, in relation to land and landscape?

Growing up with Ascutney, the hikes, the falls, my favorite mountain.

Growing up with the hemlock grove: walking there with my dad, past the quartz boulder, up around the place where the microburst opened the forest canopy, building the fairy houses, sitting the soft needled silent floor, listening, the sunlight slanting as though waiting for something.

These places called me back from wandering the earth in my human feet, as poet Joy Harjo puts it. Call me back to recommitting to place as an adult. Learning my whole-self relation to place: listening, learning from books and other humans how to know the land—ecological histories, farmers’ knowledge and love of seasons and landscape.

But also looking and listening out on the land itself. Just going out there to pay attention and see what’s there, not for exercise or to harvest or to work. Just sitting, or walking, watching bugs, birds, and trees, through the seasons. Learning what the medicine plants have to teach me about where they like to grow, and how to work with them.

All of these practices and stories create a feeling of home and belonging for me—they create the possibility for joy. On top of these long histories of grief and suffering, layered in with joy and determination, I am convinced that I can figure out how to be in relationship with the land in a way that doesn’t close off the possibility for joy, for belonging, for home, with and for Abenaki folks. With and for black folks and people of color.

Based on that conviction, I think that my joy and sense of belonging are not my own—rather, they are only real if I work on making it possible for everyone to feel at home in their places. This means building relationships, over long periods of slow time, through land, through story, through talking to one person, then another, then another. Learning deeper, listening deeper, slowing down.

Returning to how the words of the healer can weave back together things that have been injured or torn, I offer this question back to you.

What would it mean to weave ourselves into good relationship with this land, and this place, and all of its people, knowing that there are stories upon stories upon stories of both grief and joy held together in the very dirt under our feet?

David Whyte, poet, has good words to share with us in closing.


if you move carefully
through the forest

like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

-David Whyte