Hi friends, it’s been a minute~
Today’s essay is a disorganized and very personal one, I hope you don’t mind. If you’re not up for it, I’ve got a few fun things to share that may be more your speed!
What I’m watching: Ms. Marvel— the actor who plays Kamala Khan is, unfortunately, not quite doing it for me just yet (I think her performance could use some work and I am confident that it’ll improve over time) but something about the Partition narrative of it all is hitting me with more emotions than I was expecting. Slightly relatedly, though, I am growing increasingly concerned about the MCUs ability to pull all of these different stories together into any semblance of a cohesive universe, but maybe it doesn’t matter and they don’t care and they know we’ll watch what they’re putting out regardless. Theories on this are welcome.
What I’m reading: I talk about this in the essay but Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Even if nonfiction isn’t your jam, would definitely recommend reading this essay she wrote called “The Serviceberry” which profoundly reshaped my thinking about economics, community care, and where my “default” assumptions about the world come from. And there’s an option to listen to Kimmerer narrate it!
What I’m listening to: Normal Gossip, which is exactly what it sounds like— a podcast about ordinary gossip. It’s incredible and I need everyone to listen to it. Also listening to this banger by Catie Turner about hooking up with an ex-boyfriend’s dad on repeat (aptly named “Step mom” lmao).
What I’m doing: I’ll be on a panel for historical romance creators on the 16th at 11AM. If you want to hear me chat about Dukes and class conflict, come through (it’s free & virtual)!
cw: death, grief, loss
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately:
My grandmother died on the last Wednesday in June.
Among other things, this has given me a new reason to dislike the month of June.
June has always been my least favorite month. I don’t like the heat or the oppressive humidity. The mosquitoes feast on me when I try to make the most of the evening breeze. My birthday, which always fills me annually with an unspecified sort of dread, is in June (Gemini season, baby!). I remain unconvinced of many writers’ attempts to persuade me that this is a romantic, light-soaked time of year.
At the very least, my summer seasonal depression (very different from the underlying perennial depression I endure, I assure you) and the monotony of mourning rituals has given me ample time to read, and so between a truly appalling amount of romance and fantasy (do not check my Storygraph, and yes the moth-man romance was for science), I have been listening to Braiding Sweetgrass written and narrated by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Kimmerer is a Potawatomi professor, botanist, and poet, and the thesis of her novel is simple: humans not only can, but must exist in nature. Not as indifferent observers or antagonists, but as true partners. The benefits of doing so are ample in every direction. She weaves this narrative together in a way that mirrors the title: poetry, science, and indigenous wisdom braided into an intimate collection of stories.
It’s a gorgeous book, filled with a kind of writing that is at-once soft and crisp. Kimmerer is a gifted narrator, and she fills her own words with the same kind of animism that she talks about. She’s clear about the fact that her words aren’t theoretical. Indigenous peoples have been existing in harmony with nature for centuries. Nature is abundant, she reminds us. We don’t need to scramble to hoard things we don’t need. Treat its offerings— maple syrup, pecans, sweetgrass— like a gift, she suggests. Express your gratitude. Your relationship to the natural world will change profoundly for it. Our existence as humans depends on it.
I love the way that Kimmerer writes about about gratitude and reverence, which reminds me in some ways of Mary Oliver’s work on attention. In Kimmerer’s essay about maple trees, she writes this of the trees in her front yard and the people who planted them generations ago, “Their gift to me is far greater than I have the ability to reciprocate. They’re so huge as to be nearly beyond my care, although I do scatter granules of fertilizer at their feet and turn the hose on them in summer drought. Perhaps all I can do is love them.” Oliver writes something similar in “The Summer Day”: I don’t know exactly what a prayer is // I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down // into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, // how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, // which is what I have been doing all day.
My grandmother wasn’t a botanist or a poet, but she was a gardener, which accidentally made her a little bit of both. Her father didn’t let her tend his garden when she was young and her husband kept her too busy with managing his social and professional calendar when she was middle aged, but in her later years she flourished in our backyard garden when she visited from India for Spring and Summer. She watched and watered her flowers and herbs and cherry tomatoes and green chilis with a kind of single-minded, excruciatingly patient devotion. This June, she cared for the curry leaves planted on our deck, always closely followed by my snooping cat, while she called out instructions to my dad for the vegetable plots in the yard. We were never gifted with a particularly prodigious crop yield, but she didn’t seem to mind. It was the tending that she enjoyed, more than the harvest.
It strikes me now that when I collected blooms for her mourning rituals, I snipped the very hibiscus and hydrangeas that she spent her life attending to.
In our family’s funerary custom, much of the 13-day mourning period involves rituals of charity. Some are to other people, but most are to nature. Most frequently, plantain leaves with rice are left for crows, who are believed to carry the souls of our ancestors. We’ve done this before as a ceremonial gesture during other kinds of rituals and seen limited success. I suspect we are mostly contributing to the fattening of the squirrels who live in our woods. On a surface level, I suppose the gesture is intended to cultivate more goodwill for the departed soul (good karma, if you will).
When I was reminded of the practice of feeding crows, it also revived the weird sort of fondness I have for the creatures. I love how they’re described in How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. They’re deeply intelligent creatures, capable of distinguishing and discerning human facial features and making and using tools in the wild. They mate for life and live in large families. They’re known to warn their young away from away from humans who are unkind to them and to keep grudges for years, but also for gifting their favorite humans trinkets they’ve collected. She even recounts how two crows she befriended on her balcony would do tricks in exchange for peanuts.
My mum was amused when I told her this, and suspected that our ancestors knew these things about crows before they entered textbooks. I suspect she’s right.
When my dad placed the food outside yesterday and gave his best approximation of a crow’s call, it almost made me laugh. How lovely it is that we offer them the honor of being our ancestors, and that these crows offer us the honor of visiting. How funny it is to consider my grandmother, who always wore multicolored sarees and had my favorite laugh in the entire world, turned into a bird with black plumage and a croaking caw.
In listening to Kimmerer, the rites and rituals of the past 12 days have taken on more meaning, especially for someone like me who is removed from religion at best. She writes about the power of ceremony, about the way her father always poured the first cup of coffee made at a campsite into the dirt and offered thanks to the land before taking a cup for himself. “What can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”
What does it matter that crows don’t usually come to our house? We already know that funerals are for the living. Perhaps these ceremonies are our way of giving thanks to the earth for allowing us this time with her, more than they are about conveying her to some “beyond.” A ceremony that makes a home again out of this empty place where she used to live.
But I want to confess something. I fear that in writing about my grandmother in this way, I have conveyed a kind of enlightened perspective on her passing. Timely that I am reading about our inextricability from the natural world just as my grandmother returns to it! I should be filled with gratitude for the years that I got with her.
I am, however, not grateful. I am mostly filled with a kind of horrible, expansive anger. I worry that there is a something ugly and mean left where my love for her is supposed to be. I fear I am so rotten that kindness feels like insult. I know I am so cruel that I want to lash out at people who offer me patience and empathy. I am wretchedly selfish, as if I am the only person who held her limp hand in that hospital room, as if I am the only person who had to press roses into her casket knowing that they would be incinerated together in moments, as if I am the only person who had loved her since long before I knew what love was.
I wish so badly that grief unearthed something pious and contemplative in me that would honor my grandmother’s gentleness and goodness and tenderness, but I don’t know yet how to feel anything but furious about this loss that has cracked open my ribs and carved a vital part of me out.
For now, it seems true gratitude is a step further than I’m capable of. The ceremony will have to suffice until the real thing follows. For now, I can pay attention.
I can memorize the smell of her perfume (Chanel Number 5, which is potent and not in a good way), the sound of her slow, heavy walk, the way she always had a handkerchief twisted in her in-skirt, the way she was always dusted with Ponds powder. I can think of the way she snored and the stories of her caring diligently for stray cats that would inevitably not survive Chennai streets and the scar she had between her shoulder blades that I never got around to asking how she got. I can remember how cheeky and childlike she looked when she got her hands on Cheetos, and how fiercely independent she was and how she always slept with a night light. I can remember her own borderline-perfect memory, and her insistence on being kind to people who didn’t deserve it. I can remember how much she liked watching soap operas. I can remember how much she liked Georgia weather in June.
I am hopeful that the gratitude—for her life, for anything at all— will come. After all, if the cawing this morning and the black smudges in the trees were any indication, the crows did.
As an aside, it makes me laugh that I’m using a book as lauded and literary as Braiding Sweetgrass to tell you about my grandmother. Her own reading habits tended towards mysteries and thrillers when she read in English. When my mom took her to the library they usually returned with a stack of what many consider to be “airport bookstore books”: James Patterson, Sidney Sheldon, Ken Follett, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, and the occasional obviously ghostwritten memoir. Before she passed, she was trudging (and I do mean trudging, I don’t think she ever finished it) through Inferno by Dan Brown. When I asked her how she was liking it she cheerfully told me, “I don’t understand a single thing.”
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I’m so so sorry for your loss. My grandmother died in July so I 100% understand the grief that’s now permanently attached to the season❤️
I’m so sorry for your loss, Sanjana, and I’m thinking of you and your family. Thank you for sharing your recollections. The rawness made me remember losing my maternal grandmother in the late 90s. So much of the experience is similar: the inadequacy of mourning rituals the first time, the frustration and impatience. It’s never easy.