Climate Anxiety Counseling at the Providence Fringe Festival (Day 22)

Weather: Cooling off from a hot day, humid, gusty at first then calm

Number of people: 16 stoppers

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 9

People who asked, and received, permission to take a picture: 2

Conversations between people previously unknown to one another: 1

People who recognized and commented on the Peanuts reference: 1

Number of business cards or flyers proffered and received: 2

Leftover packages of Small State Seeds given away: 4

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $7.80. Thanks to whoever put in the 5-spot!

 

 

Observations:

Many fewer people passed by than when I was in KP / Burnside Park. Could have been the location, could have been the time of day (6-9 pm as opposed to my usual 3-6).

 

There also weren’t a lot of walk-by commenters. Because traffic is slow on Westminster St., I could see a lot of people rubbernecking the sign from their cars.

 

 

Lots of couples. There was a weird pattern of one member of a couple volunteering the other for counseling, which is not allowed, so I had to re-ask the person if they actually wanted to do it.

 

Questions people asked that were not about the booth:

 

Do you have any money you could spare?

Does anyone think this is about Scientology?

Is there anyone in there? Is the door open?

Is it free parking here at night?

When does the show start?

Do you know of a place called DV8?

Do you know where Civil is?

What time does it kick off in there?

 

Some conversations:

[These two were a couple.]

 

Person 1: Recycling. I do it, not just bottles and stuff but old things being used again. not thrown away.

 

Person 2: Water. I worry that it’s not clean enough. There’s places in RI where it’s filtered, and places where it’s filtered less. 

 

*

 

— I think there needs to be a radical shift and I don’t think it’ll happen soon enough, because it’s people in power who will be least affected by a change in climate, or any change, and by the time it affects them it’ll be too late. People are already being affected, animals are being affected, but it’s not noticeable enough, and we don’t see things changing quickly enough. People’s rights are being ignored. Even something like these changes to the bus routes is affecting people, people are standing around and not being able to get places. But somebody has decided that it’s a good thing, so they just do it. It’s even affecting me, so imagine if I was someone who had five jobs, and I was trying to get to work. It’s noticeable when it’s you, so imagine how it is for people who have less privilege than you do.

 

How can people who don’t have much status take care of each other?

 

By spending the time that you have to help other people. I think there’s a problem, with environmental issues, where there’s an expectation that everyone should do the same amount. People should just take any time that they have. Like with the bus, if you see that a person is confused, you should point the way, if you know it. Share the information you have that someone else doesn’t. But I don’t really expect that of people. 

 

Do you expect it of yourself?

 

Yeah, but I don’t always live up to my expectations. If you have the time and the means–if you have privilege, use what you have. There’s that problem of people going into places and being like, “I’m trying to help you.” I think we really need a non-hierarchical society, but not anarchy. Democracy could work if it wasn’t tied to capitalism — we do need some sort of structure, some idea of what society should be.

 

*

 

I try not to worry about anything. And I’ve lived in RI my entire life.

 

Can you say one thing you love about RI?

 

It’s comfortable. I don’t have to think about it.

 

*

 

How to get a job — how to change my job. I recently quit a job on a cruise ship, it really wasn’t for me, and I have a bunch of questions, like, “Where the hell am I going?” I’m thinking about school, thinking about working for a nonprofit but that’s down the line … I took the cruise job, but it wasn’t what I thought it would be, and I’m like, “Am I gonna just keep picking things up and dropping them?”

 

*

 

I’m anxious about long-term goals, 20-year goals. Like, I can’t have kids, we’re all gonna be fighting for water!

 

How do you think people could take care of each other in a time like that?

 

I don’t know. People’s jobs right now aren’t set up for a future where we share more things. A lot of skills for jobs, if the systems we have now fall down, people won’t have a way to like grow food, or share food. I’m really glad my partner is a farmer, but I think, what if we ever break up? And not just survival, but leisure activities — people won’t be able to go to the cinema, or get Netflix. People will have to rethink the way they have fun and relax.

 

*

 

[These two were parent and child.]

 

Person 1: I have a friend with coastal property, and I was asking her, “Are you concerned about climate change, and she was like, ‘No.’ Just, ‘No.'”

 

Did you get into it with her?

 

Person 1: Well, we were drinking rose by the gallon, so no.

 

I think a lot of times people don’t want to be the one who pees on the conversational parade.

 

Person 1: Oh, no, we have these discussions with people.

 

Person 2: I had an issue with my roommate — they’re up here to help me move into a new place. She had so many plastic bottles she had her own gyre in the ocean. She bought bottled water by the case. And when I tried to sort it out for her, like trash, trash, recyling, she was all, ‘Are you going all Martha Stewart on me?’ How do you get through to people like that?

 

*

 

I just wanna vent the fact that we’re killing all the animals and there’s just so much fuckin’ garbage and it scares the shit out of me — the thing that hurts me is what we do to these poor fuckin’ animals, we kill the animals so we can be fat and ignorant, so I can sit and watch a football game and cut it up and be happy …

 

I really appreciate and am grateful for you saying, “This hurts me, this pisses me off.”

 

Well, with all the devastation, you’re gonna find people who are at the opposite extreme.

 

*

[These two were a couple; Person 2 joined the conversation later.]

 

Person 1: I actually work in solar — I do everything but install. I was just at this 3-4 hour regulation meeting about distributed generation. There are people who are spending time processing a path to a solarized RI, and I’m from just over the state line in MA, which has one of the top 3 state solar programs in the country.   I’m primarily a filmmaker and a painter, my greatest love is making things, but it’s hard to combine that with engendering any kind of change in a really pragmatic way. A lot of it is grunt work — any business has its finding, minding, grinding. And solar is a kind of Wild West. Rules change, and you have to relearn everything each time, and a lot of it seems obstructionist. But if you have part of a brain, you can apply that brain to power. The only thing is that you have less time, less energy, for making art, and at the end of the day you’re a nutjob. The most concerning thing for me is just human nature. It’s shocking that the species has survived at all …

 

Person 2: I have hope for the planet.

 

What’s the source of your hope?

 

Person 2: I don’t know what the source of my hope is. I try to be optimistic — I think that — yeah, I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll be different — represent the hope side a bi. If you don’t hope, why do anything?

 

Person 1: He balances me out. I’m kind of the Eeyore in the relationship. 

 

Person 2: I think I’m more Pooh. Eat honey, try to cheer up Eeyore when she’s depressed. Also, I have a daughter, and I would like her to have a world that’s okay.

 

*

 

[These two were a couple.]

 

Person 1: I commute to Boston, and I try to take the train, but it’s not a good experience. It doesn’t seem very healthy. I prefer to take it, but sometimes I wish I could just drive. It is nice to just be able to sit, and I feel good about not having to rely on a car for transportation. And once you get into Boston it’s not hard to get around — they have that bikeshare … Sometimes it does come down to convenience — sometimes it’s more convenient to drive.

 

Person 2: What’s that saying, when the pain of staying the same is more than the pain of changing?

 

I think one thing I worry about with climate change is that by the time the pain of staying the same reaches people, especially people who make big decisions, things will be really really bad.

 

Person 2: Yeah, ’cause it does feel abstract. We’re conditioned to be able to change the way we’re thinking about things — we always rationalize it. And then people feel safe, like, “Oh, the weatherman said it was okay.” It’d be interesting to do something about the rituals people do to make themselves feel safe. Sometimes it makes me feel safer to point out other people’s problems — like, “Look what they’re doing!” or, “Well, if I think about it, that will protect me against it …” When there are extreme arguments, it makes me feel like I’m being scolded, and I start getting defensive and thinking, “It couldn’t be that bad!”

 

What would give you the opposite reaction to that?

 

The option to do something practical. An article that’s like, This is how you can garden at home: “Oh, I can be a part of something.”

 

*

 

I’m worried about getting through the weekend. I’m working the whole festival, I’m performing, so I’m worried about how’s the performance gonna be, is the acting and writing gonna be good, are people gonna show up, what if something goes horribly wrong?

 

*

 

My biggest concern that nobody’s talking enough about is the change of crop patterns. I heard somebody talking about changing crop patterns on the radio, but I’ve really heard very little about it, and I’ve been concerned about it for 20 years. The breadbasket of our country is gonna move to Canada and our economy’s gonna be shot. Whether people believe it’s manmade or not, what can be grown in our country is gonna change, and people can’t just rebuild infrastructure. Land rights, water rights, everything’s geared toward the existing infrastructure. I mean, that’s just one thing. You read about it happening in other places. In the developing world, changes in insect patterns, malaria mosquitos showing up in areas that used to be safe. It’s not just that the water’s gonna rise, or we’re gonna have storms … There was one project that started 10, 15 years ago — I think the Ford Motor company was involved with it.

 

That’s funny.

 

It’s not funny. It was amazing that people at Ford were so concerned. It was called Ceres, an initiative out of Boston, and they were pulling together people, industries, investment funds to look at climate change and make the case that if you don’t divest from industries that put a lot of carbon into the air, then it’s going to come back to bite you. Quite a few pension plans were on board, city and state pension funds, and reinsurance companies — the insurance for the insurance, because insurance companies were saying, “We cannot continue to insure against storms, storm damage.” People doing some big-picture work that you didn’t think was possible. One thing I think is good that comes out of RI right now — this could be because of the lack of good-paying jobs — is the attention paid to urban agriculture. That seems to be growing in this area, cropping up more and more.

 

I have a car in Providence and I don’t really need one. In a lot of ways Providence even makes it hard to have a car. You have to fight for parking spots, you have to pay for parking. It’s bad for the environment and for your personal economy. I got one because I thought it would be hard to get around without one, but it really isn’t.

 

What do you use it for?

 

Grocery shopping. And to help other people move their shit, so me having a car is good for other people. Maybe I could share a car — some friends of mine were talking about that. I used to pay for a parking spot, but now I walk to work. It takes longer, but it’s nicer … What else?  It’s not so easy to compost in RI. Isn’t it illegal?

 

No, I think there’s a service you can hire to pick it up for you.

 

*

 

The day’s poem:

 

Didn’t you used to be a bruise

years ago what were you thinking of

leaning over your educational materials

from burnished to burning

the sun and the grain

we don’t grow here

we don’t crop up

along the roads

tough flora coated in oil

a list of acts past and gone

will you look at it again

will you ever look at it again

under your own steam

on your own dime

like a lie of the land

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Prepping

The last interlocutor at the booth stayed and talked for a long time, till the very end of the shift. She introduced herself to me, though I’m not going to use her name here. She is Black, has a shaved nape, and uses one of those combined walking/sitting things; she sat on it to talk with me. It was clear that she’d walked climate change, ecological devastation, and social disorder forward in her mind. She brought up concrete things that no one had mentioned all month: things like dental care, things like insulin.
I think of her as I put a fresh Band-Aid on my big toe, whose front skin I stubbed off because I’m spatially incompetent and insist on wearing flip-flops outdoors. This is the sixteenth or seventeenth Band-Aid I’ve put on this wound, not counting the one my friend gave me (I stubbed the toe in question on the way to her house). I don’t know how the Band-Aids got to the stores where she and I bought them. On a truck from the airport in a package brought by a van driven by a person? Packed by someone, packaged by someone. I have no idea how Band-Aids are made.

 

 

I wonder if it’s Band-Aids that two of my early interlocutors were thinking of when they said, “It’s too late for us to maintain some semblance of the comfortable life we’ve all been living.” “We won’t be able to keep up this lifestyle,” another person said. “Lifestyle” is a word I discourage my students from using because it suggests an opposition of style to substance, and that one is essential while the other is decorative. It makes adornment seem like the whole thing — like when you’re living, you’re adorning yourself, rich in choices and free of all other considerations, and that these adornments make your self, whether they’re blood diamonds or the cider vinegar you wash your hair with instead of shampoo. I thought of my last interlocutor too when I did the booth reprise at the Burnside Music Series, where I spoke with a woman from Maine whose town is “reskilling”, building a community root cellar and a community toolshed, determining who’s a seamstress and who has horses. These things have practical potential, even the horses; they also have style.

 

I drafted this essay with a ballpoint pen I bought, in a notebook I bought, sipping a lemonade I bought, sitting with my bandaged toe outside a business that sold me the lemonade and also sells coffee and pastries and bread. A white van with “Westbond Tennis Services” detailed on it, red with a drop-shadow, stops at a light in front of the business and me. The sun is hot and bright, thinning the crescent of shade I’m sitting in swathed in sunscreen and the sneaking suspicion that these things will last forever. If my anticipation of doom lives between my solar plexus and my pelvis, its opposite lives just under the living part of my skin, the largest organ in the human body. And if I’m going to live, I need food, right? I need water, I need shelter, I need to take care of myself.

 
I reread M.F.K Fisher’s essay “How Not to Be an Earthworm” in How to Cook a Wolf, the annotated edition. Of emergency rations, she wrote in 1942 and let stand in 1954, “It is often a delicate point, now, to decide when common sense ends and hoarding begins.” To have not just enough but more than enough. To have not just more than enough but more than someone else. (“We’re gonna be looking at our neighbors for fresh water, for anything we can eat,” said the woman from Maine.) That’s how we got into this mess, I am tempted to say. Fisher writes practically and kindly about sustaining not only life but pleasure in conditions of acute emergency, and her book as a whole is a guide to feeling fat in thin times. But she has little to say, except in a bracketed 1954 addendum at the beginning of the chapter, about how to survive chronic deprivation, a state of being without return or restoration.

 
In 1954, my father was seven in New York City, attending P.S 26. Throughout the years of his schooling, he was drilled to “duck and cover” under his desk when an alarm sounded. My father’s an artist and has made a number of works that respond to the fear and inanity of this proceeding, and what it taught people about the appropriate responses to possible doom and certain doom. He and I have talked about living under a shadow, about various disproportions between threat and response. What was this combination of fear and falsehood supposed to do for children? For the adults in whose care they rested? How can anyone prepare?

 

 

My friend’s husband came down to talk to me at the booth. They share a six-year-old and a ten-month-old. He spoke to me first about “social unrest and collapse because of food and water shortages” as we burn through our reserves. “They’re saying corn is going to be a luxury. Especially with kids, it’s very concerning.” My beautiful dad, who has taught me to love words and to look deeper, and who through his searching practice of art and healing teaches me daily that it is possible to change the way one moves in and is moved by the world, is 67, around the age of many people who stand in offices and make the decisions that will draw more and more toward themselves, more and more away from other people. Do they remember cowering under their desks? Are they lining the shelves of the bunkers in their minds? If feelings matter to how they spur actions, what makes the difference in the kind of action–what makes one person respond to fear by gathering, as my last interlocutor did, “enough food for the entire neighborhood,” city, state, planet, world?

 
“Have you heard of this thing called prepping?” asked my early interlocutor. “They’re stockpiling food, they’re stockpiling ammunition … and when they’re calculating what they need to feel as if they’re prepared, the unit of preparation is a family. ‘I got a husband, two kids and a dog, and we’re gonna need this much for the dog.'” She was, I think, talking about the TV show Doomsday Preppers, which I haven’t seen. The National Geographic channel, where it airs, says it “explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Unique in their beliefs, motivations, and strategies, preppers will go to whatever lengths they can to make sure they are prepared for any of life’s uncertainties.” (Wikipedia adds blandly, “Dräger Equipment, Wise Food Storage Company and the United States Gold Bureau are sponsors of the show.”) The description itself is silly: they don’t mean “any of life’s uncertainties”, they mean “things they don’t want to happen”.

 
Idle speculation, philosophizing, catastrophizing, all style and no substance: these too are the skills our grandparents had, and the ones they passed on. Who cares why? What we need to do, and soon, is to make it harder for the aforementioned decision-makers — the head hoarders in charge — to make abusive decisions, as a former colleague pointed out somewhat sharply: ” It shouldn’t be about individuals sharing what they have, it should be about changing structures so that nobody has to rely on somebody else’s goodwill.”

 

 
“I think what skills I have that would be useful,” said another friend, talking with me at the booth while her downy-headed baby slept in his stroller. “We make beer and wine, we could trade those with people, and I’m not a big gardener but I can grow things.” I thought of her too when the woman from Maine, who might have been in her 50s or 60s, told me earnestly of her town’s efforts to “relearn the skills our grandparents had.” The skill of nursing children dying of lockjaw, typhoid and “summer complaint”? The skill of shitting in a privy, of fighting off bullies or rapists at a public bathhouse, of sitting still while someone pulls your tooth with pliers and without anesthetic? In fact, many people do or undergo these things now (including people who are grandparents and great-grandparents), because they lack access to plumbing or disinfectant or the specialized skills of others; nor do I want to downplay the genuinely useful things my great-grandparents could do that I can’t, which may have had their roots in pleasure as well as in endurance. My point is that if it’s a question of style, you can pick and choose.

 
The skills my baby’s grandparents will have, if I have a baby, will include emotional risk-taking, cooking, glaze-mixing, sewing, making people laugh; they will include ducking and covering and attempting to reconcile impossibilities. I asked people, often, at the booth, “How do you imagine helping other people in this hard future?” Some said, explicitly, that they would not: “I think when it’s in complete survival mode, it gets to be every man for himself.”

 
“So you don’t think people depend on each other?” I asked.

 
“No, I do think people depend on each other,” he said. He was from Federal Hill, “back when it was all Italian. From ’53 to ’70, the late ’60s, those were very tough times and it was a very poor neighborhood. But I had a great childhood. Big family, everyone knew each other. It was very tough, we were very poor, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.”

 
If I have a baby, is it more true than it once was that she might not live to grow up? Or less? When life was more fragile, with more gangrene and less reliable food sources (and seamstresses and horses), people still lived between always and never — some stored grain, some built elaborate tombs. People who have kids often mentioned them at the booth: Will he have clean water to drink? What kind of world will they face? And my friend’s husband spoke of his children as somehow tying him to the world: “If I were alone I wouldn’t mind so much, I could just jump in the river with rocks in my pockets.” I discouraged this, pointing out that the river is so shallow and full of runoff that you’d have better luck lying in it until it poisoned you than you would drowning. People say all the time that you can’t prepare for parenthood.