Kiliii Yuyan grew up in the United States, the son of Han Chinese immigrants.
His parents both ambitiously took themselves off to medical school, leaving Kiliii and his brother often in the care of his grandmother, who told him stories and gently introduced him to his indigenous self, without him even realizing. She was Nanai, of the people of Siberian Russia’s Amur River, but he didn’t discover her indigenous identity until she was on her deathbed.
He became an outdoor photographer, shooting for REI and Outside magazine, but was increasingly drawn to explore subsistence cultures, to investigate ways of living with the land that are less about recreation and more about inter-relation, seeking a kind of personal reconciliation of his blood-lines, wanting to find out if it’s possible for a modern person to learn to see the world through native eyes.
Most recently, that quest has taken him on a three-year immersion above the Arctic Circle with the Inupiat people on Alaska’s North Slope, where he documented the traditional bow whale hunt on the melting sea ice. He went down to Standing Rock. His photography has become a kind of activism — a way not just to make art, or make a living, but to make an impact.
We recently connected. He needed to craft a professional biography. We had collaborated on a magazine article about primitive living workshops that allowed people to practice Stone Age survival skills — I’d penned 3,000 words, inspired by his images. Now I was trying to pen just 300, inspired by his life’s work.
In the end, it came down to one word.
It was like the keystone that unlocked everything.
The word was hope.
Someone had told Yuyan that his work across disparate projects had a common theme: survival. It took us a couple of conversations to spin that on its head. The essence of his photography, documenting indigenous cultures and subsistence lifestyles against a backdrop of ecological upheaval, is not survival, or decolonization, or rewilding, or the need to reconnect with nature. It’s not loss or destruction or disaster or collapse.
Hope that we can tap the essential connection to nature that has kept traditional cultures alive for millennia, and craft an alternate future, by valuing community, culture and the earth over and above all the other bling and bullshit that passes for treasure these days.
Nayyirah Waheed, a poet I have been following on Instagram, dropped this in my lap the other morning: “Pick a word like you pick a melon. Examine its skin. Its weight. Its viscosity. Its sound. Its texture. Its ability to be juice and meat.”
One word, with the ability to both refreshen and sustain you.
One word, with the ability to go before you, introduce you, gather up all who will come to your aid, announce your intentions, invite cosmic assistance…
You know where I’m getting to with all this, right? It is the first week of the New Year, after all.
And I believe in the power of a single word as much as I believe in words as armies — in books and tomes and poems, marching out to transform the world…
I mean, of course I do. I’m not building bridges, injecting you with Botox or installing drywall right now.
So pick a word. Any word. Step right up. And choose.
Something with heft, with juice.
Something that makes you laugh. Or sink deeper into your own skin.
My friend, who chose the word “community” for herself for 2018, offered me up “permission” — permission to be imperfect, to be sexy, to be weak, to take up space.
A psychologist I recently interviewed offered the word “okayness” — a permission to stop striving and see things with a Buddhist or mindfulness filter — not good or bad, just there, just okayness. A futurist and sustainability writer I admire says we need to replace the word “resilience” with “ruggedization.”
A yoga teacher dropped the Sanskrit word “santosha” on us last month, at the beginning of a class.
I’d been working on an article about happiness for several weeks, when I walked into the studio. I was chewing on this word, happiness, wondering how to crack it open — who to talk to about it. Who has it? Who knows about it? Who is an expert? Does the cancer survivor have better insight? What about the regular MDMA user? The therapeutic MDMA user? Is it conceptually different if you’re indigenous?
And then the teacher began to speak. About santosha. Meaning: contentment. Meaning: acceptance.
My brain shifted. Acceptance as the key to unlocking a kind of steady-state happiness?
Acceptance, to me, had always meant resignation. Accept it. Suck it up. Deal.
But suddenly I realized, it’s not.
Acceptance is contentment. They’re not a path to each other but the same thing, interchangable. Acceptance does not mean resignation. It means receiving gift, receiving everything, as it flows. It means acknowledging the flow.
Accept: help when it is offered. Comfort when it is offered. Love when it is offered. The space that is around you. The gifts you have been given. The brightness that is inherent in you.
A few days later, lying on the yoga mat, two more words came to me. (Look, I have a four year old. I haven’t gone to the toilet uninterrupted since the kid’s arrival. Corpse pose is literally the only place I can ever have a quiet moment to myself. And all conversations, even those with myself, are interrupted, episodic. So yes, it does take at least three yoga classes to choose my word.) Two words fluttered by, chasing each other like dragonflies wrestling and mating — release, and receive.
That’s how to practice resilience. Release. Let go. Disappointment, plans, expectations? Oh, well. Baggage, bitterness, boring old hang-ups. Release. With a big out-breath. And then, acceptance being the gateway to happiness: open up to receive what comes next. Because something always will.