New Ways of Being

and Healing Outside

A conversation between Sonji Shah

and Maymana Arefin

Illustrations by Camila Fudissaku

Cover of Issue #15

This article is part of Issue #15

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misery’s co-facilitators, Sonji Shah and Maymana Arefin, discuss how we can redefine our relationships with nature and create spaces for queer joy and healing outside racial capitalism.

misery is a mental health collective and sober club night for queer, trans and intersex Black people and people of colour (QTIBPOC) based in London. In 2021, the misery medicine: plant magic programme was launched - a series of free, monthly herbalism walks for Black people and people of colour to learn about local plants and fungi, to explore their medicinal histories and connect with human and non-human kin alike. Each month, participants are invited to spend time with and meditate alongside particular herbs, share teas and make medicine together with a team of nature facilitators and community medical herbalists. After exploring a vast array of green spaces all over London, UK, including Wanstead Flats, Tottenham Marshes, Hampstead Heath and Beckenham Place Park, the programme shifted in 2023 to monthly gatherings in a regular location to prioritise accessibility. The simple act of being outside, together, and in a healing space, has quickly become a focus of the programme.

Sonji Shah I’d love to reflect upon how misery started as a sober club night and has now evolved into the plant magic programme.

Maymana Arefin To me, it’s all about providing different types of healing. Because healing can look so different to each person, right? Being able to dance can be a medicine but also learning about the healing properties of plants and fungi… the two can definitely be linked.

Sonji They also both relate a lot to the body and to connecting to the body. Moving the body in one way can be really freeing on a dance floor. And then in nature, you feel the sort of expansiveness where you don’t need to be performing for anyone or hold your body in a cramped way because there’s more space - space to let go of the heaviness.

Maymana Exactly - in fact, it’s difficult to describe the feeling that we’ve had at previous misery medicine gatherings. Like you said, that expansiveness of being outside - I really notice how “held” it feels: like a container for how people are feeling. Also, being in a big group of other Black people and people of colour, and a lot of queer and trans folks within that, feels so powerful - that’s the best word I can think of to describe it - there’s such a strength in being able to feel that power while being outdoors, which is, unfortunately, a lot of the time not the case in places where we’re not the majority. We don’t necessarily feel safe outside. In the English countryside, you’ll be constantly vigilant… there are so many reasons why you might not feel that strength. But the power is really palpable at the gatherings.

Sonji Definitely. Learning about the different plants and their uses and seeing how people interact differently with the plants, whether it’s holding or touching a plant, or even speaking to a plant - there’s space to practise a different kind of relationship with nature, which can then open up different relationships with each other in a way.

Maymana In my own work, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to reframe my relationship with the natural world - specifically with fungi, but also with plants - mostly on walks by myself. Whereas when we’re in that group, it’s like taking a step back from your usual relationships with non-human kin. You’re learning and relearning - experiencing them through your senses. And there are a lot of other non-verbal things going on in that relationship and communication. It reminds me that there’s space to rethink my relationships with myself, with other people - it all just opens up. Like a really intimate rethinking of care. We don’t always have to default to our assumptions, we can actually listen, take some time to hear what they are sharing - and then the same thing extends outward to other relationships.

Sonji Like listening in a different way. Not just auditory but with all your senses.

Maymana I guess because we can’t easily communicate with plants, fungi and other non-human beings, we can’t use the default of language; we have to find these other kinds of non-verbal, sensory ways of being with them.

Historically, there’s been such a colonial emphasis on rationality, speaking our thoughts into being, and communicating with others in often combative ways. This is about learning to be more receptive to other beings.

I’ll talk to people at the gatherings and they’ll be connecting with their inner child - remembering these fantastical stories they’d conjure up about spirits living in the trees... we’re leaning into that storytelling space really.
Maymana Arefin

Sonji That colonial impulse of taking, having sort of a specific use in mind already - it’s a very specific relationship. Rather than the multitude of relationships that emerges when you listen differently. Like with some plants you can even do harm by touching them.

Maymana For real. In fact, the plant that comes to mind when you said that is one that grows in Bangladesh that I grew up around. They grew on my grandparents’ rooftop and I was completely mesmerised by them at a really young age. Maybe you know them, they’re the ones that we call lojjaboti because when you touch them, they close up - the leaves delicately fold in on themselves.

Sonji Is it a mimosa?

Maymana Yeah! Mimosa pudica. We’d play for ages, waiting for it to re-open and then everybody would touch it again. The thing is, my older cousin once told me: “Don’t do that too much, they will get tired and use up their energy.” She might have even said: “It will get confused.” I was blown away and remember thinking: “What do you mean it will get confused?!” But it was because by opening up and closing repeatedly, the plant could get exhausted. As a kid, I thought: “Wow!” I didn’t realise something so deep could be going on for a plant.

Sonji Definitely, and it shows how language forms around our cultural connections as well. In German, the word mimose is often used in a slightly derogatory way, to describe a sensitive person. And the etymology of “mimosa” also goes back to “mime”, as something expressive, and mimicking animal behaviour.

It also reminded me of little fantasy stories I used to make up, about tiny creatures that lived in the environments I saw when walking around by myself. The creatures adapted to wherever they were living and I’d imagine them just playing around or doing random activities.

Maymana Yes, we can be so playful. It’s a chance to be curious... we’re all relearning how to have these relationships in a more dynamic way.

Sonji It’s great to see how at misery gatherings these interactions take all kinds of shapes, like songs, stories, poems, drawings.

Maymana Completely! I’ll talk to people at the gatherings and they’ll be connecting with their inner child - remembering these fantastical stories they’d conjure up about spirits living in the trees... we’re leaning into that storytelling space really.

Sonji Plus, it’s not like a linear, whitewashed version of healing - like wellness - in order to be more productive.

Maymana Like just to be a better, more efficient cog in capitalism.

Sonji Instead, we’re focusing on napping and resting as a routine, process, ritual... whatever you want to call it. It takes out that outcome-driven version of healing, from point A to B. In nature, nothing is really linear but seasonal, cyclical...

Maymana So true. Nature is so abundant as a way of understanding the world. Once I started being attuned to what different seasons of the year are like, what’s going on for animals and plants, the more I’ve become in touch with what my body feels. I feel more affirmed in my needs, for example, to rest or to move slower throughout the year - rather than being focused on productivity. It’s like, nature kind of just does.

Sonji It’s a whole reframing of western metaphysics, and the logic that’s underlying what we learn, how we build things, all that. I think that’s one of the main evils of western metaphysics: it determines what is imaginable and what isn’t, and then it becomes hard to break out of that and imagine something else.

Maymana Yes! The reason so many of us need to heal in the first place is because of the trauma of capitalism - it’s that cycle and wanting to break out. I’m thinking of adrienne maree brown (activist, facilitator and the writer of several books including Emergent Strategy) when she said: “We’re constantly trapped in someone else’s imagination.” We’re always needing to produce, always exhausted and subjected to these enormous pressures in order to live. Realistically, no human can bear that for their whole lives. It further politicises nature because then we’re saying: “No, in this space, it is possible to create an anti-capitalist, decolonial methodology.” Because we’re just here existing - there’s no ulterior motive, no capitalist fantasy to fulfil.

Sonji Exactly! It’s seeing nature as part of us too. Not at a distance or through categorisation - to be looked at, examined, scrutinised or studied in a way that is so detached from us - but rather it’s always been a crucial part of living life.

Maymana Yes, that reminds me of this phrase in the Qur’an about how humans were made from clay. I come back to that often. It reminds me that this isn’t just theoretical: we are a part of nature. We are literally made from the constituents of other living beings and we’ll return to the earth when we die as well.

Sonji For me, a huge part of the healing is also bringing yourself into the present. Focusing on something so small rather than being overwhelmed with information.

It’s that relating to an otherness that feels relevant to being queer too. Being with others in a way that allows you to just be, being your full self without having to discipline your body in a certain way.
Sonji Shah

Maymana Really, Eurocentric science is only just catching up with this idea of close focus for practices like mindfulness - which has obviously been completely co-opted now. Or even gratitude practices that have been practised in the global south for centuries... mindful attention to details in our environment can be such a grounding activity.

Sonji It’s that relating to an otherness that feels relevant to being queer too. Being with others in a way that allows you to just be, being your full self without having to discipline your body in a certain way. I’ve been trying to listen to my body more, for example, to lie down when I want to. I think being in nature gives me courage to do that, to relearn intuition, to build a home in myself. That’s fundamental to queerness and imagining alternative ways of being.

Maymana It links to access too. I’ve been in a lot of community spaces in London, often specifically for Black people and people of colour (BPOC), and I haven’t felt the same level of sensitivity to people’s needs as I have in misery spaces. That empowers people to tune into their own needs. Without sounding trite, it’s like we’re doing something outside of the restrictions of heteronormativity, and frankly ableism too - by caring about access needs. And knowing our own needs in a situation is also a route to experiencing queer joy.

We also all need spaces for rest. The way that modern society is designed and the expectations on our bodies, especially as BPOC, are so unjust. It reminds me of this very powerful book by Tricia Hersey, Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto. The writer is a Black woman in the US whose dad passed away from what she names as “capitalist grind culture”. She basically argues that we should demand rest as our divine human right. There’s a real feeling of celebrating our bodies in that.

And it’s not to be taken for granted because in the vast majority of spaces, I would not feel comfortable as a small brown woman to be able to just lie down in a public space and sleep, for example. I rarely feel safe to do that. To be able to create a space where, essentially, a huge group of strangers are able to rest together outside, and all feeling safe enough to do that - that’s amazing. Plus, there’s a sense of community. Because the gatherings simultaneously hold the starts of new relationships and the deepening of old ones - friends, long-term partners, dates, strangers... we’re witnessing all these different stages at once within a group.

Sonji Yes, and as you said, that in itself poses a challenge to heteronormativity. To build meaningful connections outside of a sanctified heteronormative unit. State institutions are often set up to encourage heteronormative living, in terms of housing, healthcare, tax systems, for example. It makes life easier, cheaper, or more liveable. Whereas nature is almost like a radical alternative because it provides inspiration for living in so many different ways. I feel like we’re learning how to relate outside of restrictive institutions, how to struggle through the experiments.

Maymana I really agree. I keep coming back to that community aspect. It’s surprising, because a lot of us come with anxiety, newcomers understandably feel apprehensive, to see how everyone is always so welcomed. It feels like as QTIBPOC, we have always had to do this - we’ve had to find or create these little safe pockets within society where we can exist freely. And so even across this huge spectrum of experiences in the group, you witness that strong value of being there with each other, modelling togetherness. That’s been really inspiring.

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A conversation between

Sonji Shah

Sonji Shah (they/them) is a writer and researcher, invested in building queer, decolonial futures. They enjoy creative writing and using playful ap… Learn more


Maymana Arefin

Maymana Arefin (she/they) is a nature guide, facilitator, writer and community gardener based in south London. Through leading nature immersions, p… Learn more

Illustrations by

Camila Fudissaku

Camila Fudissaku is an illustrator and art director who lives in São Paulo. She is currently the art director of several Brazilian magazines and ha… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #15

Cover of  Issue #15
Healing Rootedness Community

The themes in this issue include healing in community; the interconnectedness of mind, body, and environment; queer joy and healing; identity and m…

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