I am writing this on the one year anniversary of the second terrible phone call of 2020, late evening news of my friend’s death earlier that morning. I am thinking about Glenn today, his kindness and wit, his generous spirit, the hours long conversations about poetry and community, the way he encouraged me to step into queer, faithful spaces. THIS space started with a lot of his encouragement. I am also thinking today about his family, particularly his daughter, Philippa, who wrote a tribute to him/ note on grief that I really needed to read today.
At the end of her note, Philippa writes, “Be willing to adjust your life to the absence of someone before adjusting your boundaries for someone.” I love this advice. It is especially appropriate today as I had wanted to share part of a text I am reading (for the upcoming residential retreat on grief, embodiment and healing justice), which talks specifically about grief and boundaries. This is from Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow by Breeshia Wade, a Zen Buddhist chaplain/ death doula/ end of life carer with Southern Baptist cultural-religious roots.
Accountability and Boundaries
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
Edward Mote (1834)
When we aren’t mindful or aware of our own grief, we can’t be accountable for how it harms us and others. As a result, we inadvertently make other people responsible for our suffering. Frequently our relationship to boundaries is shaped by our relationship to grief, and the consequences of not attending to grief, as it relates to boundaries, are expressed inter-personally and systemically.
Early on I touched on how capitalism functions by manipulating our grief, encouraging us to disregard our own boundaries and the boundaries of others. It is important to develop our own boundaries and to be conscious of them when entering into any type of relationship, while still creating space to reevaluate and craft new limits as relationships progress.
Being respectful of the boundaries of others requires us to be honest about our own needs, what we are seeking within the relationship, how we want to feel, what we need from the other person, and what we’re willing and able to give. Relationships aren’t only as good as what we can get from others, but they also aren’t only as good as what others can get from us. Being a good friend, a good partner or a good colleague does not require us to be selfless. Having needs is human, and denying those needs, even in a well-meaning attempt to make space for others, leads us to obtain those needs in other ways, usually by manipulating people and situations in order to coerce them into giving us what we feel too guilty to ask for directly. That is, failing to articulate what we want to be freely given will eventually cause us to take those things ourselves without consent. And the people around us can feel this happening, even if they are unable to pinpoint exactly what they are experiencing. This leads to people in relationship with us feeling resentment or exasperation, able to feel that they are being taken advantage of but unable to articulate how or why without looking like the bad guy.
Our poor boundaries with others are often an extension of bad boundaries within ourselves. This can look like an inability or unwillingness to recognize our own limits, or to enforce those limits when they are pressed on by others. It can also look like a refusal to claim our own agency and power when we have it. And it is often influenced by our socialization.
For example, many men are socialized to be paternalistic in their care for others, which can lead to their inadvertently taking on more than they can actually handle in a given situation or accidentally hijacking the agency of the person they are helping. A lot of Black women are used to pushing through even when we are wounded and tired, simply because we believe that we have to and that we have no one else to depend on. While in some cases that is true, in others we have more support than we realize, but we are afraid of reaching out. Sometimes this is because we are afraid of being “too much,” given that society has socialized us to believe that our presence, our anger, and our grief is overwhelming. Sometimes it’s because we haven’t updated our narrative of being alone and unsupported. Frequently we just don’t want to appear weak, out of fear of being exploited. Even though most of us aren’t intentional about our boundaries, our social location impacts the way our lack of mindfulness is perceived and experienced.
Systemic oppression places unrealistic expectations on all of us. Men aren’t supposed to cry or have vulnerabilities. Women are supposed to be caregivers no matter what. Black people are supposed to be unbreakable. And white people are supposed to be the arbiters of good news and change. In the case of Black women specifically, we often have poor boundaries with self and others because we are socialized to pick up the slack within our relationships. Furthermore, our environments often place unrealistic expectations on us, out of disregard for our humanity, so we learn to bear more than we can take. Most of us have at least one experience, in either the workplace or the academy, where we felt that our boundaries were not respected. When we either can’t or don’t listen to ourselves and push to our physical, mental and emotional limits, we end up having poor boundaries that are encouraged by the environment we are in, environments that don’t respect us. This impacts the people around us because they are then called to pick up the slack within the relationship. When they get tired of picking up the slack, we risk being left isolated and alone.
The central thesis of the book is that unexamined/ unexpressed/ unhealed grief about our finitude and the finitude of loved ones not only blocks our ability to see others as sovereign Others, but often leads us to harm others in the attempt to continue to deny and avoid that grief. Collectively, this process perpetuates the systems of dominance we live with today. Consequently, confronting grief — and really, any of the more uncomfortable and unattractive shadow sides of our psyches — is not simply an individual act of healing, but a political and just act. Whatever we do to support ourselves and others to face grief is a political and just act. If I’m honest, this work is what I really want to do, part of why I continue to think about finishing training as a chaplain, part of why this space has been important to me. I also dream about a culture that is in general less death phobic, not that we’re not afraid of death, which is a tall order, but that we face this fear, that we talk about it more.
By the way, I included the Baptist hymn above, as she does at the start of every chapter, for a particular reason. This is maybe a topic for another day, but I like so much that she is a practicing Buddhist who continues to draw spiritual strength from the religious tradition that formed her, in this case, the hymns of her Southern Baptist upbringing. I don’t know exactly what it has to do with one’s relationship to grief, maybe something about one’s ability to hold contradictions in the same hand, or to face everything, especially where love and pain are mixed together (Wade identifies herself as queer, it can’t have been easy loving Jesus and women growing up in the Church). Anyway, I would love to talk about this a bit because one of the things that led me to apply to a Christian theology program, despite having no interest in Christianity as religious practice, was a growing, nagging unease around many Western Buddhists’ hurry to replace one religious system for another, often disavowing a Christian or Jewish upbringing in order to become Buddhist. There’s also something there about boundaries, the boundaries of cultural identity and religious faith.
I don’t know what to do with the lectionary this week! But happy to talk about it if anyone has thoughts.
And here are two poems about grief (and other things). One thing I never seem to get around to is compiling a collection of poems about death and grief, to have them handy when needed, maybe even to memorize a few.
by Bob Hicok
almost eulogy, is nearly dearly
beloved, I am un-gathered here
where you are not, I confess
I obsess, repent myself to feel
this speaking’s more than the creaking
of a pew in an empty church, where
as a tyke, surrounded by absence
I was priestly asked to think of
as love, I couldn’t wrap my mind
around such a zilch, whereas you
I touch and smell in the rough flesh
of memory, the word sonically
wants to be remember me, in my head
at least, you thrive some, you die some
daily in this weird-ass and misty mix
of ghost and gone, to which
I address what pretends to be
litany but is no more
evolved than this stuck
list: come back, come home
After the Funeral
by Felicity Sheehy
I rode trains for long mornings
in the autumn light, stunned
at the substance of things:
the dense boots of working men,
the orange spark of tickets.
I sat in window seats
with my hat in my hands,
my face unspoiled in the glass,
flickering over county lines,
over country homes and stables.
Incredible were the women
who sat close by: one knitting
a scarf in thin yellow stripes;
another holding a screen,
and so lit from beneath, as if
by a candle. I watched a man
cut his nails with the precision
of a priest, lining the slim moons
across vinyl seats. And the look
of the whole world, just beyond
the trackline: the children
standing in mapled shadows;
their mothers, smoothing their coats.
I’d watch these little scenes
for what seemed like hours, perfect
in their glassy frames, moving
through like a rainfall
or the deep note of a bell.
When the train stopped
in a clatter of workday sound,
I would try to hold them there
a while longer. But they were
like anything glimpsed
for a second from a silver tunnel,
and fixed in the dark hour
of the mind: clearer at a distance,
clearer, now, in passing.
Coffee Hour is a lightly facilitated, gently theological online space where you are welcome, no religious commitment assumed or expected. It happens every week at 1-2pm Irish time. The password changes (for this week it is: BreeshiaWade); the video conference link is: https://meet.jit.si/CoffeeHourWithFriends2021