Living Like Sweetgrass

Transforming the landscape
Photo by Oliver

sweet is the grass that clears my mind

The forces of creation and destruction are so tightly linked that sometimes we can’t tell where one begins and the other leaves off.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass is a perennial grass with hollow stems and underground rhizomes. It has a purple, red, and white hairless base and can grow to about 30 inches tall. … This aromatic grass is found in wetlands, wet meadows, and marshes—all environments that are in decline due to human impact and the climate crisis.

Museum of Natural History, University of Colorado Boulder

My daughter and family gave me the book Braiding Sweetgrass for Christmas and at the rate I am going through the book, it will take a year—a readers delight of pause and reflect. The above quote by Kimmerer captured my imagination and has been lurking in the shadows of my mind for the past couple of weeks.

I think we all know deep within our bones the truth of creation and destruction as in the ocean and a wave. The ocean is a force of creation. One that is life giving and one that also takes life when the ocean forms a wave that wipes out a village. When this happens is not a defined moment but a continual ongoing process, one within the other. It is the wind within the air that takes down life, trees, and animals and is still the air we breathe to survive. It is the fire that cooks our food and warms us that burns our homes, people, animals, and forests.

What then is creation and destruction within each of us? This one is harder to see and acknowledge. I see it in our journey as humans to wholeness. I see it in the body that is moving to death and housing a spirit that is alive and creating. We know it in unwanted change that comes our way demanding that we think differently, view the world through a different lens, open our hearts to those whom we had disregarded. We all have these points in our lives when we recognize not only the growth and regeneration but the coming apart, the breaking of heart, that happens in the process. Not a moment but a process that awakens us to our own life experience. At times this can be painfully difficult, and it feels like we are being torn asunder. It can feel like a part of us is dying when in truth we are also opening to creation within ourselves.

When I hiked El Camino in 2017 with my sister, Di, the path to Rabanal, increasing in elevation, requiring our focus, our dexterity, and our will, became a visceral experience of destruction within construction. In my journal, I write, we walk more miles of forest and farmland and then on up a steep grade with a path filled with shale. We climb 255 meters and the last 2.5 kilometers of distance through what Di, terms “Golgotha”, the hill in Jerusalem which was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. We climb through paths of shale with each step tiring and challenging as the shale slides beneath our feet. Further along we encounter a fence that runs along the trail for a few miles and is lined with crosses that people have made from sticks, branches, and bits of cloth, left over the years, and attached to the fence in various ways. There is no way to really prepare for this day. It is one of images, reflections, and exhaustion.

The Shale Path

This unfolding of effort, exhaustion, and recognition was not a point but an awareness—our destruction within our construction. The entire journey was an unfolding of self, an enlarging of self, a recognition of self within Self, the Sacred, the Holy.

“Golgatha”

While we were just building our strength after barely a week of hiking, this point of the journey felt like we were beginning to be taken apart. It did not start here, nor did it end at the destination of the trip. It is life, the ongoing process of humanity. Later that night trying to sleep in exhaustion and cold, I felt like I had regressed to my six-year-old self, wanting warmth, comfort, and feeling lost in a sea of emotion and thoughts of suffering that the images and experiences of the day highlighted for me with many religious depictions and training from childhood floating through my mind. In this dark moment, I felt like I was merely surviving but, in truth, I was thriving.

There was a seed of truth that I awakened to during this night that allowed for change in me and an opening to joy in the subsequent days. Suffering is not the goal, nor is it of value in and of itself. Suffering is not the same as pain; my suffering was being created by my desire for all that was not available to me on this night, with old emotions, memories, and attitudes running through me, and my concern for tomorrow and how we were going to make it if we went on in the way we were currently managing things.

There is an adage that states “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Pain can be experienced at an emotional, physical, psychological, or spiritual level but it is how we create our stories around our pain or painful experience, our fears that form, our willful desires that get triggered, that creates our suffering. Our suffering happens when we ignore or try to stifle that which is painful rather than fully feeling, allowing, and bringing awareness to our experience. I felt relief over the next couple of days as I gradually opened to my feelings and could choose to change my thinking and thereby my full experience as it unfolded—creation within destruction— realizing that we could accommodate this pilgrimage to our needs, that there is not one way to walk the Camino nor life itself. As Di was being injured physically, we could create options that best suited us, allowing our hearts to open to the challenges and the joys before us in each day, supporting ourselves and each other.

It thrives along disturbed edges.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

We all long for peace, love, and comfort, and it is hard to understand anything thriving in “disturbed edges” as sweetgrass does. When I attempt to relate this statement to my life, I remember arriving at an understanding developed over the years that my body needs warmth, warm moist food, stability, and routine that I can count on. You can keep your disturbed edges, thank you very much! For years I disregarded what my body needed as I disengaged from my body and put my interests elsewhere. I now understand; it is not in the comfort and ease I seek through which I grow, as that keeps me stable and in a resting point, nor is it through the suffering that comes from ignoring or resenting, as that keeps me blind and my heart closed, it is through opening to the disturbed edges of my mind, my life, the losses, the discomfort, as well as the beauty and the joys that bring me to awakening, to freedom of choice, and to mindful compassionate living, for myself and others.

Do we merely survive, or do we thrive? Surviving allows us to move from one thing to another making sure we have what we need to make it through, trying to avoid pain while trying to feel love and some measure of happiness. To thrive, we don’t run from the pain but enter it with our whole being, letting it create within us. Like sweetgrass that grows in areas of decline and sends out its rhizomes deep within the earth stabilizing the land and creating new life that will mature to fullness all down the line, we accept the fullness of our lives in pain, comfort, joy, and sorrow, and send out the sweetness of self to bring new life into the world in joy and forgiveness, and kindness.

I want to be like sweetgrass, thriving along disturbed edges. But hey, give me a calm routine day, any day, and I will joyfully rest for a bit in its stable support.

On Going Resource List

  • Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through The Ways Of Animals by Jamie Sams and David Carson
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
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