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Grieving is how flowers bloom: an invitation

Before you read any further, I invite you to take a moment to watch this clip from National Geographic: a time-lapse video of various plants abloom. Seriously, hit the link, and go watch the video. If there’s still time, come back and continue reading. I can wait. 

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Did you see those beautiful membranous symphonies in their yawning? In their curling inflections? Did you feel the ancient and abiding yearning in their exuberant display of colours and patterns? Does the video of flowers blooming feel like a refreshing interruption of business-as-usual? Do you feel grateful for having just witnessed that earthly spectacle? I do – and for more reasons than are apparent.

Let me explain why those blooming flowers are storied in more ways than may be obvious to you.

Perhaps the most haunting sequence of words I have ever read was written by Francis Weller:

“Everything we love, we will lose.”

I have known loss, and still do. It is not pleasant or dainty. In the midst of suffering and pain, there is hardly any poetry or prose. Life is hard. Like you, I do not look forward to losing those I love – even though I know I will. That our lives are conditioned by loss feels certain and incontrovertible. Not only will we suffer unspeakable losses, we are ourselves children of loss: our very existence is a fragile composition of erasure and absences. We are ‘human’ diagonally – in negotiation with the manifold nonhuman others that comprise us.

The loss that Weller speaks about is thus not merely ‘personal’. It fans out and latches on to the Anthropocene – the geological age we inhabit that is defined by extinction, displacement and death. We live in a time when coastal cities and communities are at a risk of losing their ways of life because of rising water levels due to global warming; in a time when climatic temporalities remind us that history is not a man-made product; and, in moments when we are forced to consider that our children will most likely grow up in a world without the Great Barrier Reef, without clean air, and without easily accessible water.

Another defining characteristic of the Anthropocene is the ironic poverty of imagination in otherwise democratic systems. Not only are we confronted by dilemmas that resist easy definition or solutions, we seem inclined to reproducing the familiar in an attempt to fix the problematic.

So, what then? What is there to do about all of this? About philanthropy as a device for self-enrichment? About activism as a creature of the status quo? About not knowing what to do?

I hear in Weller’s axiom about loss (“Everything we love, we will lose”) more than a static declaration. I hear a dynamic invitation. A longing to meet grief head-on. Because grief is generative. She opens up things that were once bound up and secure, exposes them to the elements, and therefore facilitates change.

At least, as far as it concerns the flowers in the video (linked above), grief is an indispensable ally. In 2011, a group of Harvard physicists leaned in to study the mechanisms of the flower’s bloom. We know that flowers bloom to attract pollinators and thus to survive. But how do they generate enough force to curl open in summertime? What processes trigger this seminal publication of telluric and arboreal passion? In the study of the lily, it was noted that blooming works “because plants build up ‘instabilities’.” Instabilities happen when certain “cells (in stems, roots and lily blossoms) elongate more than others”, constituting excessive growth that strains the rest of the plant. This excessive growth or mismatch at the edges coaxes the petals to bend over backwards, curling them up “like a smile.” When researchers surgically removed the excess, blooming did not happen with the usual elegance we associate with the phenomenon (You can read more about this study here).

In a sense that is more than metaphorical, grief is the coming apart of things. It is the material unraveling of edges, the peeling back of awkward tips. In a more than human world, grief need not be tethered to ‘internal subjective experiences’ or ‘states of mind’. Grief is a public event, not a private affair. I cannot help but imagine that the plant’s blossom is a grieving. In noticing this, I realize that grief is not just a response to loss, it is a response to excess. It is how things bleed into each other. It is the dynamism of material flows melting into each other, shape-shifting at the instance of a touch. Grief is part of the motif of change.

I think we need room to grieve today. I wonder what might happen if we prepared the conditions for grief by accounting for the material excessiveness that escapes our control, that humbles our attempts to save our planet, that disturbs the idea that we are apart from our environments. Since grief makes tender boundaries, might grieving help facilitate perceptual shifts that allow us to notice the world differently? Might a structured hesitation to jump into solution-ing, and a desire to stay with the troubling effectuate new capacities for engaging our most haunting crises? 

These inquiries are at the heart of a weekend workshop I will be hosting at the Rowe Center in Massachusetts, this November. I call it “The Times are Urgent, Let us Slow Down.” People from across the United States will join me in slowly creating a sanctuary of grief, a safe place for bleeding – where we can meet and be met by forces outside of our control. The pollinators of the next. By grieving we will be touching our ‘long bodies’, our excessive forms that flow with the world in symphonies of touch and retreat. And then we will be weaving new genres of hope – not hope as escape or absolution, but hope as shapeshifting. Hope as surrender. Hope as loss.

I invite you to register and join us – especially if you feel with me that we need another way of responding to our deepest crises. And also if you know that what you love you will lose – but that this is not a statement of despair, but an invitation to meet grief and her travelling companion: gratitude.

Bayo Akomolafe

[The Rowe Center is excited to hold this event. Seats are filling up. We invite you to take the plunge today.]

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Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.