Part 1: _________ Anxiety
After a week, I’ve honed and adapted my explanation for people who stop: “So the thing I’m most anxious about right now is how the changing climate is gonna affect Rhode Island, because I live here and I love it here. So I wanted to find out if other people were anxious about that, or what they’re anxious about. Is there anything you’re anxious about, that’s pressing on your mind?” This seems to be the right amount of leading — some people take that opening to offer up a fear about the years to come, and some still go with something mainly personal. Multiple people, of many ages, have come up and declared, or called out while walking or driving by, “Anxiety counseling! I need that!”, seeming to not see the word at the top of the sign.
Some of the conversations I’ve had about more intimate anxieties, especially with people my age or younger, have drawn out generous, direct responses. They say talking to me has been helpful and sound like they mean it. They ask what stresses me out, what I’m worried about. They say I’m doing a good thing. Sometimes people who have things to say about the climate agree that I’m doing a good thing, but not as frequently.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people who stop with climate anxiety have read the same articles I have, or heard the same sound bites. Some remember them clearly, some remember them in a mixed-up way, conflating poles, for example, or remembering key words but talking about them vaguely. The two climate change deniers who’ve come by–fewer than I expected–have been surprisingly sound-bite free; they were curmudgeonly and direct, and only the first was smug. I ended up having a real conversation with the second one about how to show love. I wonder if he was as surprised as I was. I wonder if he realized that we were doing what he was talking about.
Part 2: During the Years of Our Idyll I Cried Constantly
I fell apart on Day 4, the day I did an extra shift for Bike to Work day. I was talking to someone who’d read a pretty specific battery of articles: one about ocean acidification in, I think, the Guardian, one about insect deforestation in the New York Times. The worst-case scenarios. The doomsayers. That was the first day I cried on the site, on my first shift; after my second shift, in bruising wind and sideways rain, I came home and cried to my husband at the table, in the kitchen, on the couch.
The following two days were beautiful, warm and bright. Yesterday I bought plants at the Southside Community Land Trust Plant Sale, for the pots and beds around my beautiful house. I hung out laundry in the backyard. Today, James and I took a picnic to Roger Williams Park. I took field notes for organism cards. We saw a ruby-throated hummingbird and we were both so excited.
Two days in a row, I recommended to two different people a strategy for handling fear: ask yourself, what if the thing I’m afraid of actually happened? Imagine how it would go if you opted to be alone, instead of spending time with someone who treats you “like a tourist town”, as one person told me. What would happen? What would you do? And what would you do after that? Imagine your way not just through but after the thing you’re afraid of, I suggested.
With these predictions, or projections, there is no “after.” There is no “through.” Imagining the worst that could happen isn’t working for me; it is beyond imagination. Thinking about being dead used to bother me a lot more; knowing that the world would go on without me seemed like a cliche or even an insult, not like a forlorn hope, the way it sometimes does now.
What do I do with these projections, or predictions? Do I believe them? As the many people of faith who’ve spoken to me at the booth could attest, believing is different than knowing–than being sure. I think this is part of what confuses many people about global climate change and eco-catastrophe — including, possibly, the two deniers and their ilk. Scientists and others have written that using the language of belief about climate change is misleading, because people conflate “belief” and “opinion”, making it sound like it’s up for debate. When something happens to us, we switch from believing to knowing. But for something that hasn’t happened yet, we have to believe, or disbelieve, or fear, or hope, or work.
(Content note for Part 3: thoughts of suicide, which I am not going to act on, so keep your hair on)
Part 3: “I Am Just Going Outside and May Be Some Time.”
Southern Polar explorer Lawrence Oates is supposed to have used that as his exit line before stepping out into the blizzard that would kill him, hoping that without having to account for his weakness and share their provisions, his companions would make it home.
This year, I’ve thought semi-seriously about whether the world would prefer my room to my company: my carbon-laden exhalations, the fuel I burn to stay warm and get from place to place, the nonbiodegradable garbage that despite my efforts I deposit in landfills, the wastes my body adds to the water system. The damage I do. These thoughts were idle. I have no plans to take my life; I’m not even willing to change it in ways that might be more likely to “make a difference,” whatever those ways might be, whatever that difference could be. At least two people have stood at the booth and said to me, “I wish there was something I could do.” I feel like there probably is, but I don’t know what, and without knowing, all I can think of to do is this.
Oates’s companions died nine days later (not, apparently, before noting down his last words in a diary). Accounts of his end tend to praise his stoic heroism, even though it neither saved his companions nor comforted them. I am not a hero and I’m done being stoic. I want to talk about this. I want to talk about it with you. Here’s to Week 2.
Money raised so far for Environmental Justice League of RI: $21.74
Rhode Island sites for which people have expressed concern, either in conversation or on the map:
John Curran Reservoir being deforested and polluted by state projects
Coastal erosion in Riverside, RI
Street runoff and drainage into the ocean at Scarborough Beach