I've only really yelled about three times in my life. By yell, I mean the primordial, spontaneous, guttural, flesh-and-bone sound that comes from a place that has more in common with woodsmoke and hide shelters from deep human history, than the central heating and square structures of our modern world.
This kind of yell is arresting, and it's only in extreme moments when it has come forth for me. The first time was in a hidden grove of redwoods in California when I heard a hermit thrush sing high in the treetops, and I realized how peaceful the earth was, at its core or in its natural state, compared to what humans have done to it. I yelled and cried as I sat with my feet in a cold stream, near a tree older than modern civilization.
The second time, I screamed into the mossy ground of a boreal spruce forest on an island in Maine, at a complete loss about how to handle an impossible situation between myself and two other people.
But the third time I yelled was in a farmhouse overlooking a small valley with a creek flowing through the bottom. This time, one year ago, seemed like a culmination. I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the large windows at the sloping hill and creek below, listening to a podcast about grief.
The podcast narrator was named Wilson Wewa, a member of the northern Paiute tribe. He was telling a Pauite story about a grieving woman and the sage grouse, and how the sage grouse helped her understand how to handle grief. When he spoke the words "Endless grief can make us sick", I pressed pause. As the words sank in, I felt a mixture of emotions.
Aware of it or not, I have been dealing with grief and ambiguous loss for many years. Some of the deepest facets of that grief have been revealed only gradually, while others have been more obvious. But one particularly traumatic experience, that happened on the island in Maine, really came to the forefront in that moment, when he said "Endless grief can make us sick." I just screamed. And when I finished screaming, I started crying.
Endless grief—a kind of grief that cannot be dealt with, forgotten, or healed in any way that a person knows—can indeed make a person sick. Mentally, physically, emotionally: it is a physical burden that weighs down almost unconsciously; a spiritual kind of weight. Physiologically, it is said that emotional remembrance of things like grief and fear live in the amygdala. Basically, the amygdala stores information about what is threatening, in an attempt to keep a person safe.
So to have a release, like yelling, might do something to those memories and feelings that get physically stuck in our bodies and minds. Maybe it's a challenge to the "safety" of leaving such things unexpressed. After all, suppression of something always seems safer than pulling out the ugliness, naming it, looking into the void, and dealing with it. Yet the main difficulty of an experience like ambiguous loss or grief is that even if a person really wants to deal with something, they still can't let it go. It is like that thing has embedded itself in their body and mind. At least, that's how it feels to me.
This pattern of yelling that I have gone through seems like an accidental process in three parts. First, in the redwoods, I yelled out of anger. The second time, on the island in Maine, out of a sense of powerlessness: the realization that the anger I felt could do nothing, even for something as small and seemingly simple as a friendship. And the third time, I yelled from a sense of acceptance. I had finally been able to accept certain losses in my life. Or at least I had come to understand, and really feel, that loss is inevitable. And sometimes there's just nothing a person can do about this kind of loss.
There are many yells, and many reasons to yell. I got thinking about yelling in this way because of a project, called Yelling Choir, that my friend Maxx Katz recently started. She has organized a group of people into a choir that speaks in the language of yelling.
A few weeks ago, Maxx shared a video of Yelling Choir's performance at the American Choral Directors Association conference in Spokane. My memory of Maxx's yell goes like this: It started high and clear. It went on for a long time. I can't remember how long. Then it slowly dropped register, became harsher and gruffer. Her arms dropped with the pitch. Then the yell became almost guttural and slowly tapered off. Like it died, or that the thing that gave birth to it, had lost some of its force. It faded like a flame slowly flickering out, on the tip of a burning log.
Hearing the yell, my hackles raised. It sent shivers down my back and neck. I simultaneously didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I should laugh, cry, or do both.
Maybe it helps that I know the yeller. Maxx is my roommate. I have gotten to know her well over the few months we've lived together. I have heard of some of the pain and burdens and grief she carries each day. Yet she is an incredibly strong and powerful woman, to be living with certain chronic conditions, yet almost always smiling and positive. She takes joy in others successes, rather than turning the lens on herself. Which, I've found, is a really rare trait.
So to know Maxx gave the performance, of Yelling Choir in Spokane, a different feeling. I knew some of her background. I knew something about where her yell came from.
From time to time in life, there are experiences we go through so serious, so dark, so painful, so horrendous, so challenging, that there is really no bright side to them. There is no way to laugh them off. The only thing that can be done for things like these is, in my experience, is to embrace them. To laugh, to joke, to make light, in other words—to try and use a language not native to these feelings is to disrespect them. It may actually drive the damage and darkness even deeper. To embrace them, then, is to use a language they understand: one of outbound grief, fatigue, keening, wailing, yelling. Something rarely heard, and not very allowed, in this cultural moment.
What I've been taught: when someone ends up yelling, it's believed that they've lost control. They've broken agreements. Or that they are asserting something, daring others to take it to another level. But all types of yelling are not the same. And, isn't there something important about "losing control?" Why is it so important that we remain controlled, and thus, invulnerable, at all moments? What are we protecting? In my experience, to remain always in control would not have allowed me to express and learn from anger, powerlessness, and acceptance.
To sit with aloneness, pain, suffering, loss, and grief takes a special kind of strength. But I really believe that sitting with these feelings, inhabiting them, getting to know them, is not a depressive practice. I believe acknowledging and honoring the darkness is the only way out of it. The only way to truly transform it, is to fully inhabit it, and then to emerge again into the light. To me, Maxx's project gives a voice to this experience.
My process of learning from grief and loss through yelling has taught me the power of something that at first seems frightening, out of control, and destructive. It has underlined the fact, very personally for me, that there are two inextricable sides to every facet of life, experience, reality. And it has taught me that this kind of work is is necessary: to give voice to our anger, our grief, our power, and our loss.
I also wrote a poem about grief last year: