Terry Tempest Williams, Eve Ensler, Valarie Kaur & Nina Simons: Grief, Sacred Rage, Reckoning, and Revolutionary Love
For too long women in general and women of color even more pointedly have been told to suppress their grief and rage in the name of love and forgiveness. No more. How do we reclaim our emotions in the labor of loving others? What might authentic reckoning, apology, and transformation look like, personally and politically, and where would they ultimately lead us?
Following is a transcript of a conversation between four extraordinary writers, activists and thought leaders of our era: Terry Tempest Williams, Eve Ensler, Valarie Kaur and Nina Simons.
Terry Tempest Williams, one of the greatest living authors from the American West, is also a longtime award-winning conservationist and activist, who has taken on, among other issues, nuclear testing, the Iraq War, the neglect of women’s health, and the destruction of nature, especially in her beloved “Red Rock” region of her native Utah and in Alaska.
Eve Ensler, Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and one of the world’s most important activists on behalf of women’s rights, is the author of many plays, including, most famously the extraordinarily influential and impactful The Vagina Monologues, which has been performed all over the globe in 50 or so languages.
Valarie Kaur, born into a family of Sikh farmers who settled in California in 1913, is a seasoned civil rights activist, award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, faith leader, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which seeks to champion love as a public ethic and wellspring for social action.
Nina Simons, co-founder of Bioneers and its Chief Relationship Strategist, is also co-founder of Women Bridging Worlds and Connecting Women Leading Change.
VALARIE: I am deeply grateful, deeply grateful to be here in this moment next to these. They are my sisters, they are my godmothers, they return me to the fight.
I look at you, and I see how you’ve moved through this world, and I want to last like you. And I want to know how. This is my question to you: What has made you brave enough in these years to keep showing up with love despite everything anyway?
EVE: People like you. Really. I think of you. I think of the magnificence of you and the younger generations, and we don’t dare give up. What will we say to the people who come after us? We are all a chain of evolving humanity, and if we quit, it doesn’t get to go on. That’s just that. But also, I’m of the Beckett school: If I can’t go on, I must go on, I will go on. And why not? The alternative is not going on, and that does not seem appealing.
Also, I am here because of my sisters. I am here because I am in a community of Bioneers, I’m in a community of One Billion Rising, I’m in a community of V-Day, I’m a community of activists, of sisters and brothers all around the world, who have made a commitment that is bigger than me. It’s not about us. I’m old. I’m done. And I’m okay with that. But my commitment is to life; it’s to something much bigger than me. And I think once you get hooked to that thing, that bigger thing, then it isn’t about you anymore.
So you’re in pain, so get over it. So you feel sad, so get over it. Get connected to the bigger thing.
And I just want to say one other thing: There’s a woman named Jane who is my inspiration. She’s at the City of Joy in the Congo. I met Jane nine years ago, and Jane suffered some of the worst violence I’ve ever heard of on the planet, and I’ve heard a lot of violence – raped, and her insides were destroyed. She came to a hospital for five years, went back to her community and got raped even worse, tied to a tree for a month, almost died, was impregnated by soldiers. I’m telling you this because it’s a public story. When I met Jane nine years ago, she was broken, and her body was broken. She was in the hospital eight years, undergoing nine operations. Today, Jane is literally a Bodhisattva. She is a light. She is the light. She’s one of the leaders at City of Joy. She lifts up the other women. Her life is devoted to the health and welfare and radicalization of her sisters.
I look at Jane, and I think, ‘What fucking problem could I possibly have?’
I really hold her—I have a picture of her. I have pictures of her all over, because she represents to me what happens when your light gets hooked up to the divine. It’s just not about you anymore. It’s about taking that poison and turning it to medicine, taking that pain and turning it to power. And I think the way to go on is to get hooked up.
TERRY: There are days when I wonder how I can get up in the morning. And you must feel that too. In those days, I’m aware of the limits of my own imagination. But what I have learned is that imaginations shared create collaboration, and in collaboration we find community, and in community anything is possible. That’s how I go on.
I agree, it’s not about the individual, it’s about the community, both human and wild. Most of my life I’m feral. And when I can’t contain myself, I howl. To me, joy is a sibling of grief. And it is parented by love.
NINA: When my mother was dying, I reached a point where I knew that I needed to be held in community. So I would come home from my mother’s house at night, and I would write these letters, and both Eve and Terry were on the receiving end of them. I didn’t need answers back, I just needed to know that they knew what was going on in my life. It was such a gift to know that that net of connection, that web, was there for me, and that these magnificent women were helping hold it. That’s how we get through.
VALARIE: We are each other’s midwives.
NINA: Yes, exactly. Midwives and hospice workers.
VALARIE: It made me want to share this with you. This word love, which is on our lips, and it’s also such a triggering word. I feel like culture has butchered this word. And when I am thinking about what we’re talking about, I come back to this word. I’m a lawyer, so I never use the word love in public. They’re going to eat you alive if you talk about love when you’re trying to fight the good fight.
My daughter is 11 months, my son is 4 years old now. The moment that he was put on my chest, I had that rush of oxytocin. It’s a falling in love. Most of the time when our culture talks about love, they’re talking about that rush of feeling, being swept away, and it’s delicious, and it’s delirious, and it’s what we live for. It’s glorious. And it’s fleeting. And it’s something that happens to you, right? We fall in love like we fall into a jar of honey. It’s something that happens to you if you’re lucky. That’s our only definition of love. Then we are told that love is the most important thing in our lives, and yet it’s something that we have little control over. No wonder so many of us are so anxious about what it means to love.
What would it mean to expand that definition? I didn’t know until this weeping, sobbing, shaking feeling, that rush and falling into love. I looked over at my mother, who had been my midwife this whole time, and she’s unpacking her back, getting ready to feed me. And I realized like my mother had never stopped laboring for me.
My mother had an arranged marriage when she was 18. She and my father decided, “Our daughter is not going to have this kind of life; she’s going to be able to be free.” I thought I wasn’t supposed to be like my mother, and all this time she was showing me what love actually is. Love is more than a rush of feeling. Love is sweet labor. It is fierce. It is bloody. It is imperfect. It is demanding. It is life-giving. And it is a choice that we make over, and over, and over again.
It’s not just one feeling, it’s all the feelings. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger is the force that protects that which is loved. We need to move through all of these emotions in the labor.
So I want to ask you about rage, because you touched upon it. You talked about how rage is the site for healing, that perhaps we move through the rage to find healing. What do you do with your rage?
TERRY: For me, it’s always through action. What is the gesture? What is the action shared?
My brother took his life a year ago. Dan Tempest. He was a beautiful human being, an artist, a philosopher. He loved language. He was a working man. He worked the frack lines in North Dakota. He worked in our family business. He also banded migrating birds.
Three months before he took his life, he called me and said, “I bought the rope.” And we had a conversation. He said, “I’m eroding. I am eroding. And you are in denial.” And he said, “I’m fucked. You’re fucked. The Earth is fucked. You have to wake up.”
And I just said, “Dan, I will never give up on you. I will never give up on the Earth.”
The last thing he said to me was, “I’m going under. Knock if need be.” I never did.
I realized in those moments, it’s not the big gestures. You know, we think we can save a landscape, a species. I’m haunted by what if I had just knocked. The small things, the small gestures. We would have held each other.
EVE: Rage is such an interesting thing. I was filled with it for so many years, and it was such a motivator. It got me to do a lot. It compelled me, and compelled me, and compelled me. But it has a particular energy that is not always kind, not always inclusive, not always aware. It’s got a very specific trajectory. And I don’t like that anymore. I don’t want to be ruled by rage anymore. It doesn’t sit well inside me.
I don’t think we can deny rage, but I think the transformation of rage is really critical. What I do with rage is I write. What I do with rage is I dance. What I do with rage is be more generous than I thought I could be. I push it further. I give more. I give more. I give more, go past that point.
The other night I was with my dear friend Pat Mitchell, whose book Becoming a Dangerous Woman just came out. We were talking about what it means to be dangerous. Being dangerous right now is loving. That is really the most dangerous thing we can do. And by that, I mean really loving, really giving to people, really seeing people, really experiencing everyone around you and tuning in to their suffering or their needs or their trauma or their feelings. Being loving, to me, is really about not hoarding.
We have a terrible tendency on the left which has been conditioned into us, I think, by deprivation rations, by capitalist programming, by a competitive paradigm. We think that if one person gets something in our movement, it’s going to take away from somebody else, even if we’re all fighting for the same issues. To me, loving and being dangerous is saying, “Here, have it. Take it. We all get to have it. I’m going to support you completely and totally, even if I have jealousy, even if I have competitive feelings. Actually, the more I have of that, the more I’m going to give you.”
I used to have a rule for myself: If I ever was jealous of my women friends for their success, I had to buy them a present. So for a period of a year, women were getting lots of presents from me. It retrained and retaught and reprogrammed that part in myself that always thinks, ‘If she gets it, I don’t get; if she moves ahead, I don’t; if she rises up, I fall.’ It’s completely a lie. When your sisters rise, you rise. Period.
NINA: I’m inclined to add that I’ve been wrestling with a question of anger for a long time. I felt like I grew up in a household in which it wasn’t safe to express anger at all. I grew up thinking, ‘Okay, well is there something healthy about anger that I can wrap my heart around? What does that look like?’ My best clue so far comes from a woman named Karla McLaren, who wrote a book called The Language of Emotions. She says that anger is your body’s way of telling you that a boundary has been trespassed.
I find that I’m more interested in outrage than in rage. As women, we have had so much conditioning to not express anger or outrage. But we live in a world where babies are born with over 200 exogenous chemicals in their bodies from birth. If that’s not trespassing a boundary, what is? And we should have all been out on the streets about that a long time ago.
I feel like I’m in this inquiry about: How do we reclaim healthy outrage? Because it’s part of what can fuel us into the action that’s so needed.
VALARIE: I resonate with that. Growing up in a Punjabi household, I learned how to suppress my rage. To be good, to be loving, meant to not be angry. My mother was very sad for many years, but it was just rage turned inward. Oftentimes it would come out in a flash of rage over things that don’t matter. Watching my mother on her journey actually gave me permission to start to explore and unleash the rage inside of me. Because when rage is turned inward, we know that it wreaks havoc on the body.
I experience an encounter of sexual assault when I was a kid, and for many, many years, I had a lot of dysfunctions in my body, in my pelvic floor. I didn’t know how to solve them. I went to every kind of doctor until I met a mentor, Tommy, who worked with trauma lodged in the body as much as in the mind. He helped me imagine that moment when the assault took place, and becoming a tiger. So I started growling. I roared. And before I knew it, in my mind, I was ripping into this boy’s body. I was letting myself experience violent, even murderous rage inside of myself.
Afterward, I said, “Tell me what happened.” My mentor said, “Well, where is your assailant?” And as the tiger, I sniffed the floor. There were just bloody clothes on the ground. I looked up, and there he was. But he wasn’t this monster who had power over me. He was a frail, wounded kid, whose parents were dysfunctional, whose father was an alcoholic who beat his mother. He, himself was so wounded. He didn’t know how to love. I could see his wound only after going through my rage and letting it run its course. I could reclaim the fight impulse in my own body.
What Tommy did is he gave me a safe container for my rage. And once we have safe containers for our rage, then maybe what’s left over is the kind of outrage that you’re talking about, Nina, that allows us to wonder again about the people who hurt us. What are the cultures and institutions that authorize them to hurt me?
EVE: That’s beautiful.
A few days ago, I moderated this incredible panel in New York on why we should care about Brazil. There were beautiful people on this panel – Caetano Veloso and Glen Greenwald and Petra Costa, who’s made a beautiful film called Edge of Democracy that everybody should watch. There was a woman named Celia Xakriaba, who’s from the Xakriaba tribe. She’s one of the leading Indigenous women fighting to protect Indigenous People and the Amazon. She wrote me this week, and she said, “When we marched on the Capitol, we didn’t have guns. We didn’t have anything that the opposition had. What we had was our singing. Our singing was so strong that we went into the Congress, and they couldn’t stop us.” And I just feel … have a power in us—I’m going to say this as women—that we haven’t even begun to tap into. We have a power in us that we don’t even recognize yet, I’m promising you.
Between the years of rapes, the years of burnings, the years of undoings, the years of oppression, our power has been pushed down and pushed down. But it is beginning to emerge. When this power emerges, it is so much more powerful than violence. It is so much more powerful than guns. I promise you, when this power emerges, we won’t even recognize this world as we know it.
Our goal now is to unlock the obstacles that are preventing that power to come through in each and every one of us. We have to be bold now.
They danced and sang their way into Congress. I have seen this all over the world with One Billion Rising: women dancing their ways into situations they never dreamed they could get into, because our power is in our bodies. It’s in our bodies. And when we untap, untangle, uncap all those things that have been put like stones, like boulders, like meanness on top of ourselves, I promise you, we will know where we’re going. We will know the way, and we will know how to get there. So the work is to get your bodies free.
NINA: I want to ask you what authentic reckoning, apology, and transformation might look like personally and politically? Where will they ultimately lead us?
VALARIE: I do believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times, that the only way that we are going to confront the racism and patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism and greed and hate and the white nativist forces that are rising in America, and the supremacist movements that are rising around the world, is if we show up to the labor. The only way we will be able to show up to the labor and last is if we show up with love through love. Love for others, love for ourselves, and love even for our opponents, which is the refusal to dehumanize them.
I believe that the only way we can practice love is in communities and pockets, and when we do that, we experience what we’ve been experiencing here. We experience the world that we want. We feel it in our bodies. I have felt it in my body, this sense of community and transparency and bravery. That’s the world that we’re birthing. We get glimpses of it when we create pockets of it large enough for us to inhabit and occupy it together.
TERRY: I have two images. If I’m honest, what the reckoning looks like for me is to stay home. Years ago I wrote a sentence: The most radical act we can commit is to stay home. That’s the reckoning for me. No more flights. No more distractions. But to really do the work in our own communities, with the gifts that are ours, whether it’s working in local schools, whether it’s restoring the lens where we live, and really working on that local scale.
Each of us has gifts that only we can do, that we can offer up in the name of community, as a piece of this larger mosaic at this moment in time. We have to really ask ourselves in the deepest humility: “What is my gift? How can I go deeper and offer it up in the name of community?”
EVE: I think we keep going at them. We keep using their tools and their language and their energy to go at them, and we’re always going to lose on those terms, because we’ll never be that greedy, we’ll never be that mean, we’ll never be that thoughtless, we’ll never be that cruel. What’s calling me lately is how do we go under? How do we really figure out how we’ve gotten here? What’s been done to people that have driven them to do the things they’ve done?
I had the privilege of working at Bedford Correctional Facility for eight years in a group with long-term women prisoners who had done violent crimes. Those women really educated me. Every week they would go deeper through writing to really investigate why had they done what they’d done. I’ve just never been with people who were so honest and so real.
What I learned in that process is that nobody’s ever really thought about their lives. Life has just happened to people. Then they wake up one day, and they’re in a marriage, and they don’t know how they got there. Or they’re in a jail cell, and they don’t know how they got there, or they’re in a job, and they’re like, “What am I doing here? What happened?”
I think part of what we have to do is really think about our lives. How do we get here individually? How do we get here as a community? And how do we get here as a country? And we have to start really making amends.
I hear white people say all the time, “Well, I’m not responsible for the people who came before me.” And I always want to laugh and say, “We’re responsible for everything. We are responsible for everything. Period.”
What legacy runs through you that you have to make amends for? What story has gone through your cellular makeup that you need to clean up?
I also think we have to go above, and by that, I mean we have to go to the mystical. We have to go to the divine. We have to open the next pathways through plant medicine, and through all kinds of plants that will take us to another zone. I can only share my own experience that I think the journeying and doing plant medicine has been the most profound experience of my life. It has opened the pathways to another dimension. It has allowed me to see myself in ways I could not see myself standing here. It has opened my heart beyond any capacity I thought it could open.
I feel blessed that plants brought me to the Mother, that plants brought me to the vine, that plants taught me who my real mother is. I know who my mother is now. We all have a mother. And she is sacred, and she is generous, and she is patient, and she is merciful.
I think the Mother made us. We’re her creations. Why would she want us destroyed if she created us? She wants us to change. She wants us to be the children she wanted us to be. That’s what she’s calling us to do. She’s an old, divine, loving entity that created all of this. And it’s our job to cherish her, to protect her with our lives, to go the distance so that we get to all be here in a new time, in a new world, in a new transformation.