“Our grief–our feelings, as words and actions, images and practices–can open up cracks in the walls of the system. It can also pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy and solidarity. It can discomfort the stories told from above that would have us believe we aren’t human or deserving of life-affirming lives–or for that matter, life affirming deaths.”
-Cindy Milstein in the prologue to Rebellious Mourning
Last week, I collaborated on a grief circle workshop at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum, facilitated by Cindy Milstein. Cindy edited the anthology Rebellious Mourning and invited three contributors from the area–myself, Harmony Hazard, and Scott Campbell–to present alongside them. Cindy framed the conversation beautifully, sharing experiences of resistance and grief from their family and the Jewish anarchist communities they belong to; Harmony spoke powerfully about the language of mourning and politics of cancer; and Scott, who contributed a translated letter from Mirtha Luz Pérez Robledo to the anthology, grappled with the question, “What does it mean to translate grief?” (Our friend Lee Sandusky wasn’t present, although you should definitely read her piece about offering humanitarian aid in the US-Mexico borderlands.)
I led a writing exercise as my contribution to the evening. This exercise was tied to a communal altar Cindy set up before the event and invited each participant to add something to. I thought that writing about our objects might allow us to reflect on how seemingly-personal instances of grief–illness, death, eviction–are connected to larger systems of oppression, from capitalism to climate change to white supremacy. After taking a few moments to place objects on the altar, I led the group through the following generative/reflective prompts:
1. Start by describing the object you brought today (or the object you would have brought) physically. What do it look, feel, sound, taste, and smell like? What does it feel like in your hand? What is it made of? (3 minutes)
2. Write the story of the object. Where did it come from? Who does it remind you of? What does it symbolize? Why did you choose to place it on the altar tonight? Feel free to be as specific and personal as you would like. (4 minutes)
3. Take a minute to write down, trying to keep your pencil on the page, any words that come to mind when you think of your object. Don’t try to edit yourself as you write—just let the list of words flow and see what comes. (2 minute)
4. What is your object a metaphor or symbol for? (2 minutes)
5. Finally, drawing on everything you’ve written down, take a moment to reflect on how your object relates to the concept of collective mourning or healing. How does it, as Cindy says in the introduction to Rebellious Mourning, “shine a light on what those in power try to make invisible” or honor those who do? How does your object reflect a grief that can, quoting Cindy again, “open cracks in the walls of the system?” (4 minutes)
Invite those who want to to share.
Because this exercise focused so strongly on the altar, I thought carefully about what I wanted to put on it. I knew I wanted it to be edible–I’m deeply interested in the way recipes are used to honor the dead–and after some research, I came across the tradition of funeral biscuits. I added honey to them because in many cultures around the world, the dead were and are buried or honored with honey. Then I thought about nettle. Nettle, which is often considered a weed and derided for its’ stinging hairs, grows on disturbed ground and in the foundations of abandoned buildings. It flourishes in those “waste places,” providing an incredible array of health benefits and nutrients to those who harvest and use it as food and/or medicine. The herb felt like an apt metaphor for many of my radical, anarchist, feminist, and queer teachers and ancestors, all of whom came from rocky lives and unstable ground, but tirelessly strove for collective liberation and to build a new world in the shell of the old. I know the names of some of these teachers and ancestors–I write about a few of them in my piece for Rebellious Mourning–but there are many names I’ll never know, that have been lost to time, marginalization, and repression. I made these cookies for them.
Nettle & Honey Shortbread
1/4 cup dried nettle leaf
2.5 cups of flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking soda
3 sticks (1.5 cups) of unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup honey
Special Equipment: medium baking tray, unwaxed baking/parchment paper, electric mixer, clean coffee grinder or mortar and pestle
1. Preheat the oven to 300º. Butter or oil a medium-sized rimmed baking tray (mine is kind of large–12 x 15 inches–for a smaller one you might just have to increase the baking time by a bit later on), then line it with parchment paper.
2. Measure out 1/4 cup dried nettle leaf, then powder it using a clean coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Add it to a bowl with the flour, salt, and baking powder; then whisk all those dry ingredients together.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed for 3 minutes, or until it’s fluffy. Add the honey, and beat for 2 minutes more. Finally, add the flour mixture and mix on low until it is just incorporated.
4. Spread the dough in your baking tray, all the way to the edges. (I find this part sort of tricky and like to use a combo of the back of a metal spoon and my fingers.) Chill the tray in the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes.
5. Pull the tray out of the freezer and pierce the dough all over with a fork. Bake the shortbread, rotating it halfway through, for 30-40 minutes. (You want the edges of the shortbread to be golden brown–push it a little more toward the golden brown side of things if you want the shortbread to be crisper.) When it is done, take it out of the oven and trim the edges. Cut the rest of the shortbread into desired shapes while it is still warm in the pan. (you can do bars, or getting fancy and do get fancy and do triangles and stuff!) When the cookies are fully cooled, you can remove them from the tray and store them in an airtight container, where they’ll stay good for about 4 days!