On joy and sorrows entangled

“Dead Stars” – by Ada Limón

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

For the first time in more years than I can begin to count, I did not plan to receive or offer ashes for Lent this year. No plans to smudge or be smudged. No service, no ceremony. No ash, no glitter ash, even. I felt no specific refusal, but deep and mysterious currents of longing and loss that I am trying to trace, and listen to, and learn from. A nest of trying.

Over the last handful of years, slowly and then suddenly, I lost my place of religious belonging. Spiritual violence, religious trauma, denominational disconnection, vocational uncertainty. I am disoriented, but reorienting. Lost, but finding my way. Uprooted, but rerooting. Deciding to survive more, to love harder.

Ash Wednesday, alone in a small candlelight room, tears in my eyes, I surprised myself. I found myself pinching the candle wick between my fingers, and marking my forehead. I looked in the mirror, and saw how these last years have aged me. I feel worn. Mortal. A dead star, too. I know I am not the only one who is feeling untethered, undone, unmoored. Permeable to loss, and so much aliveness, too. So very, very mortal. And so I found some ash, some burnt remains, some remnant of dead stars. My mouth full of dust, I wish to reclaim the rising. 

I am experimenting with this Lenten season, inviting it to realign me with lifeforce, the rising, divinity dispersed, the wild aliveness humming through this world, sacred enfleshments of this entangled, interconnected, interdependent earthly life. To lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Ross Gay writes about how sorrow and joy are entangled, inseparable. Joy, he insists, is not only entangled with pain, suffering, and sorrow; joy emerges from how we care for each other through. “What if joy, instead of refuge or relief form heartbreak, is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks?” Gay invites us to invite sorrow in, to “make sorrow some tea from the lemon balm in the garden,” so this Lent I have been practicing doing just that.

Gay’s Inciting Joy is keeping me company during these 40+ days; his wondering about what incites joy, as well as what joy incites, is care-ing and carrying me through. I’m asking the same questions of aliveness. What incites aliveness? What does aliveness incite? Each day, I am paying attention to what has broken my heart, what is breaking my heart, as well as who and what is helping me carry the heartbreak.

Walking in an ice storm because I needed to move, to feel the tension between freezing and thawing. I took my tears to the trees, all of us icing over, and sat on the cold ground, and we groaned together.

As a tsunami of anti-trans and anti-queer legislation sweeps across so many statehouses including my own, asking with others What do we need? What do we have to offer? and cooking a giant pot of soup and opening space and extending an invitation to trans beloveds and queer dears and lgb lovelies and the cishet kin practicing solidarity to come and gather together, nourishment for body and soul.

Snowdrops spotted and shared by both my mom and sister, the first of Spring, sending me out to look in what have become all the familiar places. I didn’t find snowdrops but I did spot crocus, hints of bright yellow and deep purple emerging from still thawing earth.

A walk with an old friend on a day when everything seemed to be crumbling. I didn’t say how my world was falling apart, but at one point she bent down and gently picked up a worm that was stranded on the sidewalk and placed their wiggling body in wet earth, and the next day she left homemade bread on the porch and I savored it, toasted, soft boiled eggs salted by the remnants of the sea and my tears.

An afternoon spent talking lathes and woodgrains over malts with two gentle men late in their lives, one beloved to me one met just that day, both so deeply kind. The particular tender generosity of sharing wisdom accumulated through a long life sensing its impending end.

Driving through states that have or are trying to outlaw trans existence, criminalize trans aliveness, punishing trans survival, to gather with a handful of other queer and trans religious leaders to dream and scheme about disrupting spiritual violence, collectively imagining how we might, together, get free from the violence etched and compounded through each interlocking manifestation of supremacy.

“My hunch,” Gay writes, “is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. And that that solidarity might incite further joy. Which might invite further solidarity. And so on. My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow–which does not necessarily mean we have the same sorrows, but that we, in common, sorrow–might draw us together. It might depolarize us and de-atomize us enough that we can consider what, in common, we love. And though attending to what we hate in common is too often all the rage (and it happens also to be very big business), noticing what we love in common, and studying that, might help us survive. It’s why I think of joy, which gets us to love, as being a practice of survival.”

May it be so, may it become so.

Anna Blaedel (they/them) is co-director and co-founder at enfleshed, where they tend to the theopoetic intersections of spiritual, academic, and activist engagement. Anna chaplains University of Iowa students, and is a doctoral candidate in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division on Religion. Waking before dawn, lingering in poetry, being an aunt, retreating to the woods or their basement woodshop, tending the garden, sharing silence, and feeding people delicious food are some of Anna’s favorite things.

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