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US Woman Finds Way to Honor All World's Births and Deaths - 2003-07-08


With each passing year, it becomes more challenging to care for the world's growing population, and when healthcare systems fall short, it's children who are most likely to suffer. This year, 10.5 million children will die, 7.5 million from easily preventable causes such as diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, and malnutrition.

Of those who survive, many millions more will face social and emotional deprivations that will hinder their development, including those who have lost one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses. The numbers are so staggering, many people find it hard to put the issue into a personal perspective, so they can develop enough resolve to lend a hand. But, one writer, artist and musician has managed to do that.

How do we love every single person and forget no one?

It's words such as these that Margot Weiss says every single day at the Salt Monument, located in a rural community near the town of Longmont in the western U.S. state of Colorado.

In her quiet neighborhood, birds sing. What Margot Weiss sings is also quiet, as she honors the six billion people living on the earth, as well as those being born and those who are dying.

"At the Salt Monument, every day, we add a grain of salt for each person who's born," she said. "And welcome them, welcome to our world. Then every day, we take out a grain of salt for each person who dies. And say farewell. And those grains of salt are dissolved in water."

Using a special cup, Ms. Weiss adds roughly 360,000 grains of salt to represent the day's births, and she takes out 150,000 grains, for the deaths. She performs this ceremony at her home, near a clear cube that stands roughly 2.5 meters high and holds six billion grains of salt, one for every single person on the planet. One grain of salt is so small, you can barely see it. Six billion is so big, there is nearly one ton of salt resting silently in this crystalline box.

You know, everyone can say six billion," she said. "What is six billion?"

The Salt Monument began several years ago, when Ms. Weiss was searching for something small enough that she could count it, to help her make sense of six billion people. Salt came to mind because it's tiny, yet each grain is unique, like a snowflake… or a human being.

"The idea simply came, what if each person was a grain of salt? What would that look like? I found the tiniest little container I could, about a cubic centimeter and counted 2700 grains of salt," she said. "It was amazing, how, if you count a hundred grains of salt, it's like nothing. What we call a pinch of salt, if you literally take two fingers and pinch some salt, that would be something like 1200 grains of salt."

She had engineers build an enormous, clear cube that could withstand the weight of six billion grains of salt. She cleared out her two-car garage, and she covered every surface with unbleached muslin, creating a soft and airy space, the color of mist and salt. On tables, she placed photographs of the world's most vulnerable citizens - children.

"Every day. Every single day. Day after day, somewhere between 25,000 and 32,000 children under the age of five, die in the world, every day, due to causes related to poverty," she said.

She lifts a water-filled crystal bowl that rings like a bell when she taps it. It is here that she dissolves grains of salt for all the children and other people who have died. When she turns the bowl, the salt and water form a wispy galaxy.

"There's something really beautiful that happens in the bowl of dissolved salts," she said. "Just as in death, our individuality and the specifics of our life become dissolved in time, so too, the grains of salt become dissolved, and there's a beautiful unity."

Sometimes, Margot Weiss does these observances alone. Other times, she's joined by groups large and small. Schoolchildren, church members, and contemplative groups have all taken part in the ceremony. So have people who have lost a loved one.

"It's a powerful thing," she said, "because they really do come and take one grain of salt from the Death Cup that collected all the salt for that day's death, and watch it fall in the water and dissolve, and then to also bear witness to the 150,000 other people's loved ones who died that day. So, a lot of weeping happens here at the Salt Monument. "I have also had someone come who, there was a newborn in their family, someone who was born that day who came, and got one grain of salt, and added it into the Birth Cup and said, 'Welcome.'

"And again, falling into this cupful of salt, but knowing how treasured that little infant is. All of that, in the context of this tiny, tiny grain of salt, in the midst of pounds upon pounds upon pounds upon pounds of other grains of salt, and to be added in and say, Welcome to our world."

Margot Weiss is looking for a permanent location for the Salt Monument. And someday, she says, she hopes that someone will dissolve a grain of salt for her, then add one grain of salt for each child that has been born, as the observances at The Salt Monument continue.