Janet Bayly, the Mahara Gallery director, invited me to take part in an unusual series of forums about Speaking Truth To Power, intended to inspire people to take action against social injustice and about climate change. In the forums, every Saturday for a month, four participants were to speak for five minutes each about their experiences in speaking up for social, environmental, political or cultural injustice, about ‘[their] own journeys’, before a more general discussion. I was intrigued. I said Yes.
Mahara is Kapiti’s public gallery, in Waikanae, near Wellington, and I rarely go there. I wanted to be at all the forums, to learn from an amazing range of participants, but because of other commitments I made it only to the one before the one I spoke at. And Mandy Hager and Tina Makereti, the writers who spoke that week, completely changed my thinking about what I might contribute. My warm thanks to them.
I’d planned to chat for five minutes, as I usually do. Instead, I spent the next week thinking through what I thought and felt in response to Mandy and Tina. And writing about it, in an attempt to understand an element of my work that I usually ignore.
Here’s an slightly expanded version of what I prepared and delivered, a kind of work-in-progress.
I’m here because Janet Bayly kindly invited me. The last time we worked together under the same roof we were at 26 Harris Street near the Wellington Public Library, in 1980, when she worked upstairs at Photoforum and I worked downstairs at the Women’s Gallery. I remember her as a fine photographer, who worked very hard and with great success to support and promote the work of other photographers. And when I consider Mahara, its record of exhibitions, publications and associated programmes, it reminds me that at Photoforum Janet was very very good at building and maintaining community. It moves me that Janet’s imagination, artistic sensibility, intellect, integrity, hard work, generosity and activism have made Mahara an outstanding public gallery space that responds beautifully to the natural environment around us on the Kapiti coast, to the people who belong here, to their histories and to their children and within all this to significant New Zealand artists who happen to be women, like Robyn Kahukiwa and Frances Hodgkins. I can’t wait for her to return to serious photography, enriched by her experiences here.
And when I thought about what I might contribute to today’s conversation I wondered if I might wear a version of what I wore in 1980, as an activist. I have some French paratrooper overalls at home, my ancient dykey boots, a new Complex Female Protagonist cap. And I thought that maybe you’d all like to see some of the bee-loved and neonic-free plants I grow, to hear about my plans for hives in trees.
But last week at this forum novelist and activist Mandy Hager said that when she writes about social and environmental issues she wants to squeeze her readers’ hearts and Tina Makereti, who also writes fiction, agreed with her.
They reminded me of what novelist and activist Alice Walker’s written, that The way forward is with a broken heart.
So I’ve been thinking about how grief can affect speaking truth to power, how the love and grief that come from a squeezed, broken heart affect my work, and how I’ve learned to manage the grief so that my broken heart’s also a light heart, at least some of the time.
I believe that most activists are optimists: Yes we can make a difference. I believe that most of us are motivated by love. But I also know that activism is hard work and that some of us are more resilient than others. So we need to consider how we approach grief.
Because if we get lost in grief it’s more difficult to problem-solve, to give and receive support within alliances, to be assertive and to appreciate the assertiveness of others. Because if we get lost in grief, we burn out. And because, as many of us know, grief affects the immune system.
Too many activists in my life have become chronically ill or died too young. Mostly women. Especially Maori women. On this coast I remember Tungia Baker.
Especially lesbians. Barb Macdonald and Sharon Alston were Women’s Gallery co-ordinators who both died young from cancers.
Especially single mothers— research in Scandinavia shows that even there, where single mothers are well supported, single mothers have a lower life expectancy that other women.
And some women are all three of these things.
So, in case it’s useful for any of you — and I know there are people in this room whose wisdom on this topic far surpasses mine — here’s how I respond to grief, as an activist and as a human being.
You’re probably familiar with the Kübler-Ross stages of grief following loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I’ve found Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work useful when I have a permanent loss in my domestic life, like the end of a relationship through death or for another reason. When that happens there’s usually no way through except letting the process play out: the tears, the rage, the days in bed, the slow coming back to life.
But Kübler-Ross is also useful when my heart’s squeezed or broken by less immediately personal daily griefs, griefs that are acute, a bit like a sudden cold. When a girl’s strapped into explosives and used as a bomb, in Nigeria. Or when Diablo Cody, the writer of that wonderful and feminist film Juno, signs up to write a Barbie film. Then, if I can — and I can’t always — I consciously short circuit the process, to whip through to a kind of acceptance, by doing something that isn’t on Kübler-Ross’ list. I take a little counter-action. It happened, it breaks my heart, but there are things I can do. After that bombing I can share the Facebook link to the #bringbackourgirls campaign, or make a small donation to the Lovatt Foundation’s home for orphan girls in northern Nigeria. When my heart’s squeezed by the Diablo Cody news — and yes, I do know that if anyone can write a Barbie film for today, it’s Diablo Cody — I can make a small contribution to a women’s film project that Mattel Toys will never invest in but may be a fabulous alternative.
I use similar techniques to move forward with a broken heart when I engage with a longterm project on an issue that grieves me, like the low participation of women writers and directors in feature film-making. Explore how I can help. Get to work on research and problem-solving, alongside others. Persist with quiet and public repetition of the facts, regardless of the silencing techniques that are used. Respond to the unexpected with curiosity and imagination. But within this kind of sustained and often difficult commitment, I have to do more than recognise and address the inevitable grief (once I’ve distinguished it from disappointment, equally inevitable but less debilitating and easier to deal with). I have to build and rebuild resilience. And find joy.
Because if I don’t, the grief can become chronic, always there, for years and years. Harmful to me and to my work. And sometimes harmful to the people I love. Especially that anger element included in Kübler-Ross’s paradigm, although anger can be a wonderful spur to positive action. But the other stages also affect what I do, sometimes for far too long.
Take denial. Denial has many layers I think. It can provide a nice rest and I notice that when I’m in denial I go to a lot of movies. That isn’t necessarily a problem. But denial can also preclude effective problem-solving, because the data I’m working with excludes an uncomfortable, grief-inducing fact or two.
Bargaining’s a tricky one. When I grieve, in the bargaining stage I attempt to placate more, to please, hoping that this will help, particularly with some ‘insider’ women, those whose primary loyalty I know will always be to their own career advancement (and yes, I too hang onto my privilege when it suits me). I stumble off my path. Janet Frame wrote about one aspect of this bargaining component:
I can read some of my books and see that I was toadying to the viewpoint of men. I’d sit down and write and it would be something he said — and I’m freed from that now. But it took some time.
But then I hear something, or remember something. The other day I heard Selma director Ava DuVernay say If your dream only includes you it is too small. And I’m back.
Depression– When I lust for Whittaker’s strawberry-filled chocolate. When I forget to pay an invoice and lose my receipts. When the whole house is dusty and I don’t respond to beautiful invitations. When I’m irritable and I just want to sleep and sleep. A nasty mixture of unresolved anger and denial. Well, most of you are familiar with depression, I imagine. It varies from person to person and you don’t need to know more about mine.
Overall, the trick for me is to recognise what I’m feeling and doing and track back to their causation, to a specific grief. And then to do what I can to reach the acceptance stage. I’ve got a list of nourishing activities that may help me. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. Always happy to hear of a possible addition.
Playtime and laughter with people I love who aren’t directly involved in the work. Warm, reciprocal, relationships with trusted comrades who listen closely to my concerns, ask good questions and give me hugs. Similar online relationships with fellow makers and activists I’ll never met in person but whose stories and images encourage and entertain me. Extended time on my own without phone or other devices. Making things with my hands. Writing something for fun. Artist dates, also for fun and for nourishment– reading, watching, listening, looking and otherwise participating. Healthy eating (I recommend Lifefoods Raw Organic Cacao for a health-enhancing shot of chocolate). Qi gong to support my energy flow and my immune system. A close relationship with the natural world of my garden and the community garden outside my front door. When I engage with any of these things, my broken heart is more likely to become stronger and lighter and more open and I’m more likely to take action that’s as beautiful and useful as I can make it.
Does this make sense? Today, there’ll probably be more urgent issues to discuss but I’m very curious about what all of you do to deal with grief and want to encourage you to talk more often about how — as activists in it for the long haul — we can best live with grief and find joy. How we can be tender with ourselves when we grieve? And tender with others when they’re caught in their own grieving processes? The world needs many many activists right now, broken hearts and all, speaking truth to power. So let’s look after ourselves.