American Civic Life

We Die. That May Be the Meaning of Life: An Interview with Jen Bailey

November 7, 2021

“Remember, the elements with no more life in them support the elements that are still living. Therefore, don’t skimp on the bark and go straight for the orchids. Each element is necessary to bring balance to your lei.”

These were the instructions given to me and three other grieving Black women in a lei-making workshop in Honolulu earlier this year. We had come to Hawaii to take part in a grief retreat that sought to guide participants in “grieving well” after experiencing loss.

It is said that when one comes to Hawaii, the first thing one should do is take in the earth and establish a sense of harmony with the place. Thus we began our journey by taking in a variety of flowers, grasses, tree bark, and leaves to make lei. Lei are not just strings of orchids and plumeria. They often contain hard parts like shells and dead things like bark. When making lei it is important to understand the role each plays in bringing harmony to the design. The beautiful, living parts need to be bolstered by the hard, dead parts for the structure to hold up.

As I sat threading blossoms on strands of dead grass, I came to think of making lei as a metaphor for my grief. Though there is no universal roadmap for navigating grief, IFYC alum the Rev. Jennifer Bailey’s new book, “To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope,” helped me imagine a way forward. Somehow, someway, I needed to take my losses and allow them to shape the new phase of life I was entering. I needed to name what I had lost and listen for what wanted to emerge. Through each of Jen’s letters, readers are reminded that through sharing our vulnerabilities we open ourselves to deeper human connections that can promote our personal healing and expand our appreciation of life and new beginnings.

I spoke with Jen recently about her inspiration for the book and her hopes for those who read it.

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