The Meaning We’ve Made

by Georgia & Eden Wall

Eden & Georgia, Easter 1991.

My sister and I have been sharing a home for the past eight weeks — the longest we’ve lived together since I left for college in 2004. When shelter-in-place in New York City began in March, I joined my sister in her home upstate. We sleep and work across the hall from one another, spending our days working on our computers, taking walks around the block, cooking variations on the same dinner each night, and processing together all that has unfolded in our country in the past few months.

Last year, I started a business creating ceremonies with and for people to acknowledge specific events or life transitions. About the time that I began this work, my sister left her job at a Brooklyn startup to return to school to pursue a masters in social work. Our interests and our paths are divergent but — the past few weeks as we’ve sat across the hall from one another — have revealed the ways in which they overlap.

Physically side-by-side but situated deeply within our respective worlds, we are both considering how to contextualize our work and our services within a world that’s rapidly changing around us each moment. As we do, we — like many others — have been confronting questions big and small. Most of all, we find ourselves asking how we got here and where we’ll go next.

At the intersection of mine and my sisters’ interests and fields of practice lies a core idea: humans are — and have always been — meaning makers. At times, we as humans are aware of the meaning we’re making and, in turn, the environment we’re creating for ourselves. At other times, the meaning-making process is subconscious and effectively automatic. It seems that the more deeply embedded we are within a certain system the less likely we are to be conscious of its construction and its constraints. The dominant paradigms can be especially challenging to recognize and confront for those of us who largely benefit from their design. As white, cis-gendered women with a great deal of privilege and access, the dominant paradigm is one that, for the most part, holds us up. In our conversations with each other, our partners, our parents and our white communities, my sister and I have come to recognize the ways in which we are not even aware of our constructed reality — largely because it was constructed for us by our white ancestors. Even when people can acknowledge that these systems are in fact constructed (and are deeply flawed and harmful), we’ve seen the fear and resistance in our own predominantly white communities to letting go and envisioning alternatives. Take for instance how many of us white people are just now waking up to the lived reality of people like George Floyd and all those who experience daily violence at the hands of white supremacy.

Eden shared with me a theory called social constructionism that she learned in one of her courses this year which argues a similar point. Our lives, interactions, and symbols are co-constructed and then assumed as reality. A concrete example is money: we all mutually agree that money holds some value and we make decisions and transactions based on that shared meaning. A more abstract, but equally compelling, example is identity: our self-identities are constructed through socialization — and in many ways depend on interactions and relationships with others in order to exist. In short, our existence and experience cannot be separated from the meaning we make of it. Many forms of therapy (narrative therapy, for one) aim to support people in this process of examining the meaning they make of their identities, experiences, and lives. When people realize the agency they have in reclaiming and retelling the narratives of their lives, both the experience and the outcomes can be liberating.

As a Ceremonialist, this possibility for personal reclamation is one of the reasons I don’t work within a certain tradition or practice. Instead, my approach, similar to narrative therapy, is to work with my clients to construct a ceremony unique to their lived experience — one that supports them in producing a narrative that serves them best.

I myself grew up with very few ceremonial practices. Most of the traditions I did inherit — holidays like Halloween or Thanksgiving, and rituals of weddings and funerals — were practiced without much consideration or thought to their origins or connotations. These ceremonies, like many parts of our paradigm, did not accurately reflect my lived experience and, as such, were often largely devoid of meaning for me. While they likely held meaning when they were first created, by the time they had reached me, these ceremonies had been stripped of much of the essence that was there from the start. In recent weeks, I have examined my ceremony work within the context of whiteness — and specifically my particular legacy of whiteness which is effectively disconnected from the culture and land my ancestors came from: Italy, Syria, England and Ireland. I see a similar relationship to whiteness reflected in a number of the white people I know and work with. It is from this place of estrangement that white people are at best vulnerable to complacency (by accepting without critical thought the meaning the dominant culture provides) and at worst perpetrators of violent appropriation (even an earnest search for a paradigm alternative to the dominant one often leads to co-opting other cultures’ rituals and ceremonies). Without a handle on our own roots, we grasp at other people’s. In my work, I hope to support people in re-examining passive practices and co-discovering intentional ones.

Reflecting on our lived experience and values is an essential practice that might support people (specifically white people) in finding new and personal techniques for meaning making. Creative introspection — whether expressed through art, therapy, ceremony or activism — is essential in our process as we attempt to loosen our grip on the paradigms we live in that are, for one reason or another, no longer serving us. When we loosen our grip, we become more agile and creative in our meaning-making, which is especially crucial in moments of breakdown and crisis.

I see this playing out today in peoples’ experience with death, dying and grief resulting from a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities. Eden spoke with me about disenfranchised grief, a grief experience that is not accepted or sanctioned by the public or society at large — that is cut off in some way. Our culturally agreed upon modes of memorializing and mourning have been taken from us due to quarantine, leaving many without the tools to properly grieve their loved ones. When there is a breakdown like this in a paradigm, people are asked to process grief and imagine new ways of honoring and mourning those who have passed. This presents an opportunity, though incredibly painful, to create new traditions and practices, maybe more personal and reflective of the unique experience.

Acknowledging our constructed reality and engaging in modes of new meaning-making seems especially necessary today. We are being called by the current condition of the world, by a pandemic that is reshaping the way we relate to one another and by Black leaders and thinkers who are guiding us and demanding justice. We are being called from all directions to engage in a creative, imaginative act of recognizing that we live in narrative and that narrative can be interrogated and reimagined.

Yesterday I left my sister’s home and landed back in my one bedroom apartment in Queens. Nothing we discovered side-by-side or said to one another during these past few months together is entirely original or necessarily new — the ideas not mine or ours to claim. Even so, the opportunity to unpack our conditioning together was a beautiful one. We traversed and reflected on our shared journey as sisters with similarities explained by not only nature but also nurture: the neighborhood we grew up in, the values we were taught, the teachers we learned from, and the family culture we lived within. There were more questions than answers but in the process we did discover our shared commitment to active meaning-making and beyond this, the importance that we remain vigilant in examining the problematic meanings we carry within us as we step into roles facilitating others in their process. As we move forward, we stand together and alongside those we work with in an ongoing process of meaning examining, meaning undoing and meaning creation.