Magical Thinking: Climate Anxiety Counseling at the Summer St. Dinner Theater

You can still get tickets to see me, Maryann Colella, Katie Pearl, and musical duo Patrick Farrell & Ben Holmes at the Summer Street Dinner Theater TONIGHT (9/26) and TOMORROW (9/27). The booth will make an appearance, as will a cloak of wonders and a song with music by the incomparable Chrissy Wolpert of the Assembly of Light Choir. Doors are at 7 pm, tickets are on a sliding scale of $15-$30, and the food will be really good.

Get your tickets HERE.

Expansion of Natural Gas Pipeline in RI/MA: Public Meeting TODAY, 9/25, 5:30 pm in Little Compton

Even if you can’t go, please let people who live in the area know about this: there’s a public meeting tonight to discuss the proposed expansion of a natural gas pipeline in Tiverton, Little Compton and Fall River.

Thursday, 9/25

5:30-7:30 pm

Little Compton Town Hall (40 Commons Rd, Little Compton RI, call (401) 635-4400 for directions)

The first meeting was apparently poorly advertised: here’s more information about it, and about the pipeline proposal and the objections to it. It’s part of this pipeline expansion, and public comment on the project is open until September 29th, so if you can’t go to the meetings, leave a comment: it takes a couple of minutes.

UPDATE: If you want to comment at the FERC, it will ask for the docket number for the project. It is CP14-96-000.

I left this comment, which you can grab if you want: “I am a Rhode Island resident writing to oppose the Algonquin Incremental Market Project’s proposed expansion of a natural gas pipeline running through Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I am concerned about on-site environmental damage, an increase in pollution in already-polluted areas, and the increased potential for burning greenhouse gases.”

Public / Participatory Art Post #5: A conversation with Linda Russo

I went to the People’s Climate March, and I walked, and then I came home. I may or may not write something about it here; I will certainly link to things other people write about it, but not right now.

In the meantime, here’s a conversation I had with poet Linda Russo — sort of a semi-mutual interview — about Climate Anxiety Counseling, public making and public listening, and vulnerability.

Thanks to Linda and to Steven Karl of Coldfront.

Marching Orders

It’s the day before the People’s Climate March. You could still decide to go. I don’t like marches, but I am going, partly because I know there are people who want to go and can’t — can’t find childcare, can’t afford the bus fare, don’t want to burn the jet fuel, don’t walk well, have to work, fear police brutality, and on and on and on.

Here’s the story of the last march I marched with. It originally appeared in Witch Fingers (DEMVNS), conjured by Xander Marro. The italicized part at the bottom is a witch song, a ritual, a spell.


Yesterday at the training, the street medics said they’d be marked with red kerchiefs and duct-tape crosses, and the lawyers said they’d be marked with neon green hats. I picked up Annette, my rideshare, between Broad and Elmwood. In the McDonald’s parking lot while she went in to get coffee and juice, groups of three or four people sat or stood around. Signs in the window across the street: CASH FOR GOLD, WE ARE FOR FREEDOM, FREE FREE SYRIA, PRIVATE PROPERTY.

People at the Park and Ride had signs too: NO MORE CARBON NO MORE COAL!, THE FOSSIL FUEL ERA IS OVER, GREEN JOBS GREEN JUSTICE IN SOMERSET. They lifted them out of the trunks of their cars and held them low; it wasn’t time to brandish them. We introduced ourselves to each other—where we live, what we do for work. I’d obeyed the emails, handouts and verbal cautions by dressing white-neutral: black jeans, small sneakers, solid-colored t-shirt, no extra jewelry, sunscreen, sun hat, cotton socks. Armor of approvability, circle of salt and compliance.

A school-bus driver drove us to Stop and Shop to pee and then to a park ringed with small trees and brush, where we clumped at the front and were sparser at the back. A very young woman made introductions into the microphone. The guy whose name was on the emails spoke about heat waves in Moscow and wheat shortages in Egypt. A union organizer spoke about just transitions. Everything everyone was saying was true, but they weren’t saying it for its truth so much as for its power to move—the spell they hoped it would be. We stirred. A baby kicked her fat legs. People slipped into the bushes to pee some more. A woman sat in a wheelchair handled by her partner, holding their sign: WE ARE SICK WITH ASTHMA, CANCER / WE ARE SICK OF GREED + COAL. As if these things were ingredients, elements to include or sub out one by one to test for the best combination, or to frown and wonder why it didn’t work this time.

A woman named Paula was introduced and climbed up to the temporary stage, wearing a bright green t-shirt (Keeper of the Mountains). She listed the men in her family, the ways mining coal had made them sicken and die. She told us that “the best water in the world” now runs black and orange. As she spoke there was a shift, a wrench and then a flow. She cried, “I won’t give you my children to feed those furnaces,” and we cried tears from a crowd of eyes, enough eyes to say we were crying.

But then two men got up and sang bland songs. Voices separated, varied in volume and hesitancy. Someone behind me shouted, “We wanna march!” and that might’ve become the incantation if we had repeated it, louder. Instead the people onstage dragged the people in the crowd through two more songs. Then the marshals (neon yellow shirts with reflective stripes) asked for volunteers to break down the stage and lined the rest of us up along the fence, red shirts (indicating the intention to be arrested) toward the front. We turned a corner out of the park, walked past a few people sitting or standing in front of their houses and a few officers with walkie-talkies, and crossed an overpass of poison ivy, bittersweet and virginia creeper.

Standing in a ring or walking through a tunnel of green growth, strength and weakness crowd together and drain apart. Officers in pairs—sometimes two cops, sometimes a cop and a National Guardsman—stand in the middle of the road. Traffic backs up. We walk on the sidewalk. Songs and chants emerge pallidly and die. A series of blue box buildings and chimneys comes into view, and what looks like an actual hill of coal. Without anyone saying “spread out” or “come on up”, our line changes shape, from column to crescent. Redshirts are at the front, hard for those at the other edges to see and hear. They hold hands and step forward.

With other people in the crowd, I cheer, in case it helps. One of the demonstration marshals, wielding his bullhorn, turns us around, and I don’t see them taken, if they go stiff or limp or move in the same way, more or less, that they moved up: freely, tractably, agreeably, except for this one thing.

As we walk past the large rocks that frame the plant entrance, a woman sitting on one of them says, “We don’t want you here. We’re paying for you to be here.” I know what she means, in a way; in another way everybody is paying for everybody to be everywhere all the time. It’s the attempt to concentrate and displace the cost that makes it cost so. The sky is turning to brass. I see and wave to and then hug D, who used to be my student; I pass her the pecan container. She talks to me about the work she’s doing, paid and volunteer, and about people we both know. We feel convivial but there’s a limit. She flinches when the woman on the rock calls out: making a separation? Or just seeing the one that’s there?

I want to know what the sound is that’s easier to let out than to get back in. When I tell about this demonstration later I’ll seem half-abashed; I’m already imagining it that way. The part of the crowd I am sips warmish water from a nipply bottle, knowing that unless we can imagine something else our chants will die away and so will the underthemes of bugs in thickets, birds in maples, worms in leaf litter and larvae in bark and the microbiomes in our intestines and eyelashes, and nothing will replace them.

D says to a boy walking near her, “You need to get to the Providence station? Kate’s taking me, she can give you a ride.” I say sure, but while we’re waiting for the shuttle bus, he slips away and texts her that he’s found a ride all the way back to Boston. It’s not until we’ve rendevous’d with Annette and merged on to 195-West that she dilates on his merits—how dreamy he is, how sterling his politics—and bangs the knee that could’ve hovered a few inches from his knee if only, if only, he’d ridden with us.

I remember that feeling exactly, and I tell her so. Annette asks who D’s talking about and then says, “Oh, I don’t know him. If I did, I’d put in a good word for you.” What a strange sense of proportion and connection this reveals or presupposes! And what I said is almost as strange—each of us as if in her own private oven.

At home, I eat rice and reheated greens, drink beer, put perfume on, burning everything as I go. What did I think would happen? Did I think the temperature would instantly drop, that the next day would dawn fair and clear, that the tiny repairs would be free to begin and would make themselves felt, like a canopy of ferns laid over the whole earth? In my side, my liver as heavy as ore.

Put your body on the line.

Put yourself on the line.

Settle with local law enforcement where the line is.

Examine the body for marks.

They can be seen.

Put your body on them.

Feel the line change.

Feel it bulge your throat.

Give tongue.

Be resolved, like a chord.

Dress decently.

No, tear your clothes for bandages.

Think of everything that might happen.

No, throw consequence to the four winds.

Be old, nearly dead, beyond caring.

Have someone to call.

Drink lots of water, but remember there are no bathrooms at the site.

Think of all the plays whose engine is the desire to bury the dead.

Reenact them.

Disturb the peace.

Pay the price of admission.

Destroy property during unlawful assembly.

Be the gaffe, gaucherie, knot in the thread.

Don’t lose that piece of paper.

Threaten economic injury.

Be mindful, be respectful.

See the bail commissioner.

Be merciful.

Public / Participatory Art Post #4: What I did, it turns out (Part 2)

This post shows how I answered the practical questions I recommend asking yourself if you’re designing a project in the same spirit as this one; these answers deal with the first and longest round of booth sessions, which I feel were truest to what I wanted to do.

I set up my booth in Burnside Park, opposite Kennedy Plaza, the big bus station downtown. I walk or take the bus through KP on my way to and from my job, and I sometimes wait there for buses to places I go less frequently (I did this even more when I was adjunct-teaching six classes at four different colleges). It’s on a direct line between home and work for me, and I’m often there on foot.

I chose KP for my booth because a lot of other people are there on foot, too: people who work downtown walking home, or to the bus or their parking spots; kids on their way home from school; people who don’t have good or safe places to stay spending the day in the park; people waiting for the buses that will take them to New York or Boston.

From going through there most days, I had noted it as a place where a lot of the people who share Providence or Rhode Island with me — people whose circumstances and categories differ widely — pass by, and where people are sometimes waiting. And that was who I wanted to talk with — people who lived in or came through Providence for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, and were themselves various in circumstance and demographic categories like age, gender, race and ability.

I wanted to be visible to passersby but not in their path for two reasons: I wanted them to be able to decide to talk with me, and I didn’t want to get in the way of people who were, for example, in a hurry to make a bus transfer. So I set up in a kind of alcove in the fence made by the entrance to Burnside Park (you can sort of see it in the picture accompanying this article). People on the sidewalk and going into the park could both see me and pass me easily.

I took up that spot on the suggestion of Jen Smith at Greater Kennedy Plaza, who directs programming in the park and helped me get the permission I needed from the city departments in charge of the area. The person who used to have her job, whom I know a bit, put me in touch with her. You may have to sniff around a little bit to find the Jen Smith equivalent in your city or neighborhood, but good places to start are the Chamber of Commerce and the Parks Department. I may have more to say about this later on because it’s a topic with lots of sidebars and ramifications. No one wanted me to pay them any money to use this spot. (I did pay a space rental fee and insurance for my spot at the Washington County Fair, $300 total.)

I opted to be there in the late afternoon/early evening, 3-6 Tuesday-Friday and 3-5 Saturday, to catch people who were coming out of school and work, as well as people in the plaza or on the move for other reasons. I limited the times each day so that I would have time to do other things, and also so that I wouldn’t burn out emotionally. Physically, I am very mobile and fairly strong, so I made my booth fully portable for two reasons: I didn’t want to have to make a structure so sturdy that it would stand up to being left outside overnight, and I didn’t want to leave it out overnight anyway in case someone took against it and decided to wreck it.

The booth, designed by me with advice from James McShane, includes a small plywood table we found on the street during our first years in Providence; a kitchen stool whose origins I have forgotten; cardboard signs made from old cartons and painted, like the table, with house paint that came with our house; dowels and a beach umbrella from Benny’s; a big newsprint pad from RISD 2nd Life (for the map of RI, to put your worries on); markers from the Brown Bookstore (to draw on the map with); three bungee cords borrowed from my mom; three big metal clips, and two small ones, borrowed from James; a fancy box I had already; thin brown and blue cardboard, lined paper and a three-ring binder from RISD 2nd Life (later I also ransacked some yard-sale pads of lined paper); a plastic poncho left over from someone’s wedding; a handtruck left over from when we moved. I probably spent about $30 on materials that were solely for the booth, but of course I bought other things, like the handtruck, at other times.

The beach umbrella was meant to help me do the booth rain or shine, but what actually happened was that when it rained, I huddled under the umbrella trying to pull its edges to simultaneously cover me and the booth while keeping it from blowing away Mary Poppins-style. Rainy days were not busy days — not because people didn’t go by but because they didn’t want to stop. Setup in the rain was okay but takedown in the rain, which happened once or twice, was hideous, because I was wrapping wet things in other wet things, stacking wet things on top of other wet things, and I myself was wet, extremely so. Also, the route to and from the site was more complicated in the rain because I had to work around puddles and clogged storm drains. After a number of chilly days (it was a chilly May) I finally learned to dress properly for the weather, especially the wind.

I also learned not to drink water before my booth shifts. I really didn’t think the bathroom thing through at all — I don’t know where I would have gone in an emergency. The main risk to the booth if I left it would, I think, have been wind — the cardboard made it into a sail — and possible hostility, though as I’ve said many times, I encountered far less hostility than I expected. Occasionally I remembered to bring a snack, and a couple of times ministering angels named Darcie Dennigan and Deb Dormody, respectively, brought one to me.

To get people to know about it, I made this site, emailed people I know about it, and started posting here about a month before I started setting up the booth. I joined Twitter and Facebook. I approached writers at the Providence Journal and the Providence Phoenix to see if they wanted to come down and write about it (they did). I put up flyers around downtown, the East Side where I work, and the West Side where I live, and a few Brown students who work on climate change mitigation and climate justice helped put up flyers as well. A lot of people who knew me, including one of those students, did come by, some to participate and some just to keep me company. A couple of people have been willing to take shifts for me — one at the Washington County Fair, one tomorrow at Providence Parking Day — but no one did this downtown. I sat there every day, 3-6 or 3-5, with my shingle hung out: THE DOCTOR IS IN.

Public Comment Opportunity on Natural Gas pipeline in Burrillville, RI

Readers, I missed the boat on this public hearing (last night, AUUUUGGGHH) about an expansion of a natural-gas-carrying pipeline in Burrillville. The articles I’ve linked above, and the public comment link below, contain information about the proposal itself and the objections to it, as well as some links to further information.

Public comment on the project is open till September 29th.

Climate Anxiety Counseling (and MORE) at Providence Park(ing) Day, 9/19!

Artist Carl Dimitri and I will be sharing Parklet #8, between Vinton and Knight Sts. on the southern side of Broadway, for Providence Park(ing) Day 2014.

There will be things to see and things to do! Please come by between 8am and 4 pm. Actual counseling hours will be 8-9 and 2-4.

I’m still looking for someone to babysit the parklet between 12:30 and 2 pm, when neither Carl nor I can be there. Please email me at my gmail address, publiclycomplex, if that person could be you! You wouldn’t have to counsel anybody.

Public/Participatory Art Post #3: What I did, it turns out (part 1)

Here’s how I answered some of the structural / project design questions I asked last time.

I wanted Climate Anxiety Counseling to help break me out of my paralysis of fear and grief. I wanted to hear what people who share Providence / RI with me were worried about — just in general, because people’s worries affect how they act (mine were certainly affecting how I acted). I also wanted to know what might be keeping people from worrying about or acting to reduce global warming, and if they imagined it (I imagine it), and how they thought about it. And I wanted, as I’ve said a couple of times, to build better ways of talking about it at all — to untie my own tongue …

… and maybe help other people untie theirs. I did want to listen to the people who spoke with me, to hear them, to recognize them, however and whoever they were while they were talking to me, which I believe can be a feature of actual counseling. I wasn’t looking for anybody to feel “better” necessarily, but closer, less isolated, more regarded. Eventually, this also developed into wanting to offer people a way to act to protect and boost the ecologies that keep us and other creatures alive.

I tried to get that offer across in a few ways: by the smallness and unpolished-ness of my booth (inviting?); by my sign, which was legible but not wholly self-explanatory (intriguing?); through an answer to the question “What is this?” that changed with time and also in response to the tone of the question and the demeanor of the person asking it. The different versions of the answer / explanation overlap a bunch, but I’m still not thrilled with any of them; I am a long-winded person, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, and I think they take too long, and if I make them shorter I end up leaving something out.

Similarly, the ratio of me talking and other people talking is out of whack and was even worse (more weighted toward me talking) in the beginning of the project. I know that not everybody wants or needs to hear what I have to say, especially advice, but I don’t really believe that. It was especially tempting to give advice when the person’s worry was something I knew about / had lived through a version of, like not knowing how to ask for help at school, or had an idea about. I had less trouble refraining from suggestions about climate anxiety and climate change, because I didn’t know what to do about those either. You can see the relevant questions I asked regularly here.

After asking permission (“Can I write down what you say?’) I noted what people said in handwritten notes that are currently bulking out a three-ring binder; what’s appeared on this site is a sampling. I was a little less strenuous about asking whether I could post what I wrote down, and I regret that, although I did make it clear that the website exists and displays what people said to me. My notes describe my interlocutors (and name the ones whose names I know) but this site doesn’t, and won’t; no public venue will show anyone’s name unless it’s someone I know and they give their permission. But that still feels like ass coverage, a little bit.

Writing as a tool for understanding has become more firmly lodged in me with each passing year, and I knew I wanted to write something with, or about, the project. I still do, and I’m still not sure whether it’s “with” or “about” or what form it will take.

I tried not to think too hard about — not to expect — what people would say to me, but I did prepare, a little, for what I would say to them. I decided I wouldn’t argue (I broke this self-imposed rule, at least twice, mostly with climate change trivializers) but I didn’t have a plan for what I’d do if someone threatened me or sexually harassed me or even tried to physically hurt me. (As it turns out, none of those things happened.) I also decided to talk with the person I was talking with as long as they wanted to talk, even when they were repeating themselves or talking with zero listening, rather than shunt them off for somebody else; I broke this rule once. I got very mildly nervous for my safety only twice. I cried on the job once.

Tune in next time for more practical considerations!