Nina Simons: Bridging the Worlds
The following speech was delivered by Nina Simons at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
View the full keynote video here.
There are fewer and fewer things I know for certain anymore, but one of them is this: We are living through ‘tween times. Times when we are navigating between worlds – bridging paradigms, generations, belief systems and stories that are dying.
From a culture built upon fear, greed, manipulation and hate – toward ways of living and being together based upon love, mutuality, sufficiency, regeneration, respect and valuing differences.
Within the context of Mother Earth, we and all our kin are traversing between the grief of mass extinctions, toxicity, warming oceans and climate conditions that threaten everything – and an abundance of rapidly emergent innovations and collaborations – urban and localized food sheds, biomimicry, restored cultures and lifeways, clean watersheds, solar power, social healing and a world that works for all.
We are straddling the old world – the civilization that’s dying – and the one that we’re all midwifing toward a healthy, regenerative and diversified birth. Sometimes it can feel awkward and scary, but it’s also a super exciting place to be.That’s what Bioneers is all about, for me – making the new world that’s being born visible and palpable, in all its glorious pluralism, in community.
What’s needed in order to bridge worlds? I thought I’d share with you some of my learning this year.
My beloved mother, Rhea Selma Cantor Simons Goodman, died just 7 weeks ago, after several months of declining health and hospice. While I gave her the best end of life possible, It was my closest direct encounter with death to date. As a result, I am feeling suspended between worlds myself now.
She was a very vibrant, creative and joyful spirit, and perhaps like many mothers – was also challenging in some ways. Over time, she had also become one of my closest friends. As this loss is so central to my inner world right now, both breaking my heart and somehow enlarging it, I cannot not talk about it.
In the last dozen years of her life, I saw her change, reshaping the texture of her life by becoming more of who she aspired to be. Her radio show “Living Juicy” was a gift to her community, and over 20 years of practice, she became really good at it. She danced and sang, and developed lasting friendships, and as she died, she savored a resulting abundance of intimacy and love – as much as she could possibly receive.
She showed me how we can remake ourselves at any age; by choosing consciously and repeatedly, by practicing and holding ourselves accountable, we can create new neural pathways that help us become who we most yearn to be.
When I first learned of her life-threatening illness, my complex and busy life suddenly distilled into single-focus, and became crystal clear. There was nothing more important to me than to offer my mother the best, most loving and physically supportive end of life possible. For me, it seemed like an opportunity to walk my talk, to put my devotional love into action. When I showed up prepared for the deep, end-of-life reviews I’d imagined – and found her intently focused on living another eight years, I learned that I had to throw away my plans – and surrender to her own sovereignty, choices and time frame. This was about serving her best transition, and not my own ego – or even my desire for healing, resolution and a graceful death.
So I had to practice a deep level of acceptance in each moment, staying present with the truth of wherever she was, whatever she chose, in her own true time. When she insisted on shopping for clothes, I accompanied her, releasing my misgivings and surrendering creatively. With music blasting, we swing-danced down the center aisle of Forever 21, two old broads, giggling all the way. That evening, as we named our WILMAT (a ritual that’s short for What I Loved Most About Today), that dancing was a star-kissed moment. I realized there was less and less she could control in her life, she who had savored her own autonomy for so long.
Whether loving someone toward dying, letting go of life, or living through a dying civilization, I learned it’s essential to honor our dignity and sovereignty, since we’re losing so much else. Acts of kindness, respect and mutuality must become our currency. Watching the nightly news, serial disasters spawn panic – with fear, outrage, loss and tensions mounting – speed and reactivity are on the rise.
As her dying neared, time became distorted, disorienting and elastic. Waiting for death to find her, for her to reach her own right moment to let go felt interminably long, and then I felt guilty for wishing it might come sooner. That impatience is so familiar, as it’s haunted my experience of the snail’s pace of change in the ecological, political and cultural worlds.
As I sat at my mother’s bedside, single focused on her passage, my sense of self-worth as linked to work peeled away. I knew in a deeper way that we all have varying parts to play, in bridging worlds, in hospicing the old system and bringing forth the new, And that I was just where I needed to be. At her bedside, during her last week, I felt the ‘reality’ of this physical world meet the invisible world, the energetic realm, the place where hunches are born. I walked each day in a dreamlike state, filled with sorrow and aliveness, feeling myself an eavesdropper to another world. I had imagined that hospicing her through her illness for months might prepare me for her death, but it didn’t.
As the weeks pass, I miss her closeness, her voice and there’s a hole in my heart where the reliability of her love used to live. But I remember she’s still alive in me, now. And in the many invisible worlds that hold me.
The mystery of what happens after death preoccupies me. After she died, I could sense her presence, strongly and near at hand, for weeks. There’s a new curiosity being born in me, for how her essence might show up around me in others, or in dreams, for how I know she’ll be with me forever, or at least to the milky way and back.
I’m wide awake to the fragility of health in this toxic world. The impermanence of life is much realer to me now. Death’s nearness makes living shinier, more crystalline, full moons are fuller, foxes more breathtaking, laughter and wildness and freedom more precious. But the changes in my inner world are deep and foundational. I’m so aware now of how we remake ourselves every day, with every choice. Cultivating ourselves, to grow into our soul’s seed assignment, before we die.
A friend who knows the Mayan cosmology suggested I need to befriend the Death Mother, who lives in the South. While the Life Mother in the North is nurturing, fertile and generous, the Death Mother rules boundaries, limits and appropriate endings. I realize that throughout my devotion to Mother Life, I’ve focused largely on the fertility, the pollination, the wondrous and hopeful regeneration of seasons, perennials, cycles and systems.
Now, to better prepare myself for bridging the worlds, I’m focusing more on the beauty of a snag that stays standing, becoming habitat for crows, eagles and woodpeckers, and the insects and mycelium who return it to become nourishment for the next cycle of the soil’s creation. I’ve long believed that our collective focus on beginnings – while avoiding endings, and on progress, at the expense of history, lineage and tradition Is a relic of the patriarchal, colonial and capitalist systems we were all raised with. Finding that same bias in myself is humbling.
To bring all of our selves to this moment of pivotal change, isn’t facing the true danger of this time, the realities of all that’s dying, a necessary balance, medicine and motivator?
My grief arises often, and it’s close to the surface. When it comes in waves, I encourage myself to feel it fully. For the loss of my mother, for the loss of our mother, for the children and people of all colors in cages, for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, for the whales and dolphins, coral reefs and elephants,
For the rivers and for the wildlands.
I am both mourning and outraged by – the mangling of truth and pummeling of justice, the rapacious devastation of lands and peoples and of our young experiment in democracy. I am thankful to remember that grief is coupled with joy – that the deeper we can feel our sadness, the more fire and joy we’ll kindle in our hearts, and the greater our capacity to act on behalf of what the Earth and our love are calling us toward.
What I believe we need most to bridge the worlds, and survive this tween time in a good way, is leading from the heart. And remembering our connections to the invisible world, our devotion to Earth, to embodied truth, to all our kin, to ancestors, to dreamtime and to intuition.
I close with excerpts from a poem by Joy Harjo, this country’s first Indigenous Poet Laureate, who belongs to the Muscogee tribal nation. I read it as a prayer.
It’s called: For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet
Put down that bag of potato chips,
that white bread, that bottle of pop.
Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.
Open the door, then close it behind you.
Take a breath offered by friendly winds.
They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.
Give it back with gratitude.
If you sing it will give your spirit lift
to fly to the stars’ ears and back.
Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you
since you were a dream planting itself
precisely within your parents’ desire.
Be respectful of the small insects, birds
and animal people who accompany you.
Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans
have brought down upon them.
The heart knows the way though there may be
high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers,
massacres, wars, and those who will despise you
because they despise themselves.
Watch your mind. Without training, it might run away
and leave your heart for the immense human feast
set by the thieves of time.
Do not hold regrets.
When you find your way to the circle,
to the fire kept burning by the
keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.
You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.
Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.
Let go the pain you are holding in your mind,
your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet.
Ask for forgiveness.
Call upon the help of those who love you.
These helpers take many forms:
animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.
Call your spirit back.
It may be caught in corners and creases
of shame, judgment, and human abuse.
You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.
Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.
Welcome your spirit back from its wandering.
It may return in pieces, in tatters.
Gather them together.
They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
Then, you must do this:
the next person find their way through the dark.
May it be so. Thank you.