The nights are getting chillier and the ground is covered in frost by morning.
On days like this, even getting out of from under the warm covers to start the day requires deliberate intention. There’s a choice to be made. You have to ready yourself. Same with stepping outside in the cold—you have to attend to the transition between the cozy heat inside and the bite of cold on the other side of the door. One by one, the layers pile on.
Something about the pace of this season lends itself to reflection and writing. It has always been so. “In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling. The storytellers begin by calling upon those who came before who passed the stories onto us, for we are only messengers.”
So begins Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist and Potawatomi citizen Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’ve been reading this book and savoring how it puts indigenous knowledge in conversation with science. I’m captivated especially by Kimmerer’s discussion of how indigenous languages shape an entirely different worldview from the one English carries.
English is a noun-based language, a language of objects and ownership. Potawatomi and languages like it work in verbs. It’s a language of animacy, of relationships, and of dynamics. There are also very few uses of the word “it,” mostly reserved for inanimate human-made things. Kimmerer explains:
Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say “What is it?” And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is.
Yawe— the animate to be. I am, you are, s/he is. To speak of those possessed with life and spirit we must say yawe. By what linguistic conﬂuence do Yahweh of the Old Testament and yawe of the New World both fall from the mouths of the reverent? Isn’t this just what it means, to be, to have the breath of life within, to be the offspring of creation? The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world.
This kinship with the animate world is expressed in other indigenous languages in different ways. Writer Martin Prechtel explains, for example, that “belonging to” is as close to “being” as the Tzutujil language gets. “One cannot say, ‘She is a mother,’ for instance. In Tzutujil, you can only call someone a mother by saying whose mother she is, whom she belongs to.” Without the thought construction of “to be,” everything functions as metaphor or a relationship, rather than a static, objective reality.
Prechtel suggests that if we wish to learn a new way of seeing, we can focus less on learning a new language and more on experimenting with using English without “to be.” And Kimmerer suggests that when we encounter tracks in the woods, we say, “Someone has been here.” She even posits trying out replacements for “it,” and pitches “ki” and “kin” as the singular and plural pronouns for the more-than-human world. So when you look up at the sky and see geese in a V formation, you might say, “Look! Kin are flying south for winter!”
At the speed of daily life, my mind operates on autopilot and my words fail. Even in writing this piece I rely on “is.” I recognize the mindfulness required to switch language habits, the way I have to pause and use “they” pronouns for a nonbinary friend or the way I have to catch myself from calling my daughter “Sylvie” instead of “Sylvia” as she prefers.
As I contemplate the coming winter, I hunger for a season to be deliberate and slow. To attend to the language that can transition me from a worldview of empire to a worldview of right relationship with creation.
These are the rhythms on my mind as I consider the upcoming Word and World Women’s Writing Retreat. I’m welcoming that time and space as an opportunity to draw close around the heart and hearth, to bask in good company. I’m eager for the chance to devote some attention to language and storytelling, and to ready myself to step out of my comfort zone into the bracing night air.
Please considering joining us for this retreat:
Heart and Hearth: A Writing Retreat for Women
Facilitated by Kate Foran, Joyce Hollyday, and Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Friday, January 11 at 6pm to Sunday, January 13 at 1pm.
$250. Scholarships available.
Hosted by Word and World
In the heart of winter, come nurture your spirit at a hearth of warmth and creativity. This retreat is for women of all ages who want to take some time apart to reflect, write, and sit among a circle of supportive sisters. We will keep a rhythm of solitude and gathering, with space to share with one another what we’re writing, for those who would like to. Writing prompts will be provided for those who want them. No writing experience is required. You are welcome whether you want to take a first step toward putting words on paper or are in the throes of writing the next best-selling novel or book of poetry. There’s sure to be fun and feasting, stories and songs to keep us warm around the fire as well.
The retreat will be held at Skyline Retreat Center (5650 Sandhill Road, Almont MI, 48003) in Focus Hall. It is about an hour outside of Detroit, MI.
The retreat cost includes programming, housing, food, and linens. Meals provided Friday dinner through Sunday lunch.
Register HERE by December 1.