Discover more from Out of the Fire
Make Lemonade from the Ashes
But first squeeze the juice of your tears, rage, and despair
It only took one day after the wildfire for the bright optimism to start:
“There are pine trees that need fire to grow!”
“It will come back quickly!”
“Now you can start over!”
I’m one of the most optimistic, cheerful, easy-going, and curious people that I know.
But in May 2022 as people virtually patted my back and said “there, there it is going to be okay” I found myself getting more and more furious.
I JUST FUCKING WENT THROUGH A MAJOR WILDFIRE AND THE GROUND IS STILL SMOKING! MY COMMUNITY IS DEVASTATED. MY LAND LOOKS LIKE MORDOR. GIVE ME A FUCKING MOMENT TO CATCH MY BREATH AND GRIEVE.
Imagine with me:
Hundreds of acres of trees burnt. Scorched bare black ground. Scattered fragments of burnt deer femurs from the many who didn’t make it. No owls, chipmunks, squirrels sounds; they’ve been vaporized by the flames. Roots continuing to burn underground in the days and weeks following the fire, leaving smoking craters. Thousands who lost their houses, livestock, livelihoods.
And then this in a high cheerful voice:
“Oh, new life will emerge faster than you can imagine!”
These are the moments when I feel keenly how we have lost the thread of what it means to be human, with human feelings and struggles.
And, I also have been the one offering high, cheerful platitudes. This writing is not about shaming or judgment; it is a exploration for all of us on how to be with pain, loss, and grief in a true and caring way.
In our striving for a positive, immediate focus on a better future, we are rushing to add sugar before someone has squeezed the juice of their experiences.
So often when we are consoling others we just want everyone to time travel from hard experience to integrated future and skip the messy, tearful, heartbroken middle.
We want to add sugar immediately and stir briskly to turn the lemons into lemonade so we can avoid the bitter tang of hurt.
But a diet full of added sugar actually rots our own strength, steadiness, and sincerity. The sweet sugar of a quickly added “it’s all going to be okay” is a form of denying the grieving process. Turning ashes and heartbreak into lemonade takes time and many more ingredients in order for it to alchemize fully.
In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America Barbara Ehrenreich challenges the assumption that positive thinking fixes all. She wrote the book after a breast cancer diagnosis, and the flood of “you must think positive to survive” messages. As a journalist, Ehrenreich thoroughly researched the history and effects of out-of-balance positive thinking.
"...we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking."
Being with grief, loss, and heartbreak is a skill, and one that we all need much more practice to embody. We need to delve into the contradiction: to be fully, vibrantly, joyfully alive we must move beyond the crust of positive thinking into the depths of embodied sorrow. When we take the time necessary to transmute sorrow, it blossoms into bone-deep, breathing, blessed joy.
I’ve been watching this video from bellowforth.com* over and over again, and noticing how the restoration of soil is similar to the healthy integration of grief after loss.
Here is how to make lemonade in our soils and psyches:
Understand that rebirth is bound together with death. After a death or loss — of an idea, of an identification, of a dream, of a beloved — there is the shock of separation, the energetic tear of loss, the sterilization of possibility, the annihilation of what is beloved.
If we try to plant too soon it would be like placing pretty flowers in plastic pots into sterile soil. On the surface it might look like healing has happened. But there is no network below to root into, and soon enough the flowers, no matter how beautiful or how lovingly they are planted, will die.
We don’t want to live our days trying to be '“cheerful” and “positive” and plant more and more flowers on the surface while we become more and more empty inside.
We must have the patience and faith to slowly restore the hidden mycelial network.
We are just now beginning to understand how much happens beneath the surface in forests and fields, in gardens and grasses, in deserts and jungles.
In simple terms: Mycelium are the unseen parts of mushrooms, long threads hidden beneath the forest floor that serve as “roots” for mushrooms. Think of them as the telephone wires of nature’s communication network. Through this network, plants and trees work with fungi in a symbiotic relationship.In healthy forests, each tree is connected to others via this network, enabling trees to share water and nutrients.
When loss happens, the familiar mycelial networks can be disrupted, or destroyed completely.
Internally, we need to take the time to simply be with the damage. We need space to feel into the emptiness and keen, rage, and weep. We need to let our animal bodies process loss through expression and ceremony, both personal and community. This allows our human mind to slowly accept and reach deeper towards new sustenance.
Then, we can start sensing glimmers of connection. Instead of perceiving ourselves as individual beings isolated and alone, our grieving opens us to new systems of nourishment. We reach towards those who also know death and grief, those whose fungal network is deeply woven with the poignant vulnerability of life.
“If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it—rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage—as the bridge we need to connect with each other. ~ Susan Cain
As we reweave ourselves into this new network below the surface, we find surprising strength: tender, compassionate, fragile, bittersweet. Our communion with life is woven into dirt and darkness and decay.
Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole reminds us that trying to avoid heartbreak, failure, and loss are “dead people goals.”
“Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure.”
Her words bring us back to the ground of longing and loss as the foundation for connection, creativity and soul nourishment:
“I’ve concluded that bittersweetness is not, as we tend to think, just a momentary feeling or event. It’s also a quiet force, a way of being, a storied tradition—as dramatically overlooked as it is brimming with human potential. It’s an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world. Most of all, bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other.”
When we integrate the bitter with the sweet we become more whole; softer, kinder, more loving. We can stand with the sorrow of others without minimizing or turning away. Each teardrop waters our inner soil, and grows mycelial threads that weave us back into invisible web of compassion.
And in our own time, still tender and longing but woven into the universal weave of loss and love, we slowly discover how to transmute our pain into real bone-blessed beauty.
In the early 1990’s a poem called The Invitation went viral on social media; a testament, I believe, to people’s desire to integrate, witness, and be witnessed in both the bitter and sweet.
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
She has been living with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) since 1984, and has reoccurring periods of two to three years where she is mostly bedbound. In an interview where she was asked about challenges in her life, she stated: "...I have come to realize that although the illness puts very real limitations on my life – I will probably never risk a trip to India, and I rarely go out in the evening, etc – it does not stop me from living my soul's deepest longing. Most of the time I can read and I can write- although I write a bit slower than I might otherwise. Even when I can't do these, I can pray and meditate and shape my day around the kind of meaning-making creativity I love.
Her invitation asks us to not find beauty outside of pain and sorrow, but through it:
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
A few days ago I stood with someone who I could see was in deep grief. I didn’t know what she was grieving; she is not on social media, we live countries apart, and our lives intersect once a year or so.
As I faced her and felt the heaviness she was carrying, I got quiet. I opened to the invisible field of loss and grief; my own, hers, the worlds.
“How are you, sweetheart?” I asked, looking into her eyes.
She spoke quietly of her husband’s recent death. Of the emptiness. Of the shock. Of her heartbreak. She honored me by sharing her depths, and we looked into each other’s souls and felt the bittersweet longing, together.
She didn’t need me to fix her, or to add sugar to her suffering. Instead, I met her where she was in her process of grief.
And in meeting others, and self, we learn to stand rooted. Connected. Compassionate. Present for it all.
Here, love meets pain.
It takes practice to find this presence, to hold this expansive love.
Sometimes I rush too quickly past my own or another’s pain. I don’t have capacity, or space. Sometimes I miss the signs of someone in grief. Sometimes I don’t know what to say. Sometimes I say the wrong thing.
Each is a learning, a humbling. An opportunity to reconnect to the vast mycelial web of experiences beneath the crust of expectations.
Healing comes when we see our failings and fears through the eyes of compassion:
Sometimes we avoid our truest grief by cycling the story of a more tangible hurt.
Sometimes we blame others for our pain.
Sometimes we harden, believing no one knows what we are going through.
Sometimes we expect others to fix us.
Sometimes our story of hurt merges into our identity.
Sometimes we carry the hard burden our history, unwilling to grieve and metabolize the past.
Sometimes we spend our energy planting flowers in sterile soil.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
May we commit to root deeper, to seek the core of our avoidance, squeeze the juice of our suffering and sit quietly in the mystery and contradiction instead of grasping the more familiar sugar of ungrounded positivity or bypassing.
And may we equally not continually feast on the slow poison of our shame, blame, or guilt.
May we learn how to sit in the center of the fire, together.
May we not shrink back from the heat, or the ashes.
Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
May my tears to water the soil of my depths.
May my sorrow to carve more beauty into my being.
May my grief to hollow out my heart to hold more healing.
May loss to empty me of illusions so I can see and embrace the suffering all around.
May despair to dissolve my old armoring and open me into embodying poignant vulnerability.
May I look into your eyes and see your lived experiences, the joy and the pain.
May I stand silently in the presence of your grief with love and tears.
May we all to stop trying to bypass the hurt