Alternate History: 5/17, 4/30

[Note: I took 2 days a week off during the first round of Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions, so this is an alternate history from a day I’ve already visited.]

5/17/14

I’m worried about the environment in the big picture, but I don’t have time to think about that in my own life right now. I have to hustle what I can to take care of my child and me. Recycling and what’s happening to our earth, it does bother me, but I’m not in a stable place where I can give time–what’s that called, to volunteer right now.

*

4/30/15

The next day, we took over the maternity ward of Women and Infants Hospital, and we made sure it had all the things we needed–the heart monitors and the disinfectant, the places to squat or pace. We took over the grocery store and got S some foods she wanted but couldn’t afford, and some vitamins and medicines we knew about. One of us turned a room in their house over to S so she had someplace to live–no lead paint, no mold–and when she couldn’t get along with that person, another person offered. S soaked her swollen feet in water gathered in rain barrels and cooled in the basement.

Three or four of us, one a midwife and one a nurse practitioner, went with her to the hospital and helped her give birth to the baby; we stayed with her while she tried to get it to nurse, and mixed formula and goat milk when after several days it couldn’t figure out how to latch on. She and the other people there to give birth or recover from it talked and griped and moved about freely, with plenty to eat, plenty of light, plenty of rest, plenty of people to take over so they could bathe or sleep. Some of them stayed there with their babies for months. Some of them left their babies there and never came back. Some left for part of the day and came back at night.

Our care of the person that S’s baby would become continued beyond their gestation, their birth, their childhood; our care of S, the people who’d had their babies alongside her, those babies and the people they became, each other, and the plants and animals among us ebbed and flowed, but never faltered. We took over labs and cultured more vaccines; we took over banks and tore up their offgassing plastic carpets; we built farms on great rafts of floating plants and shrines to laugh, cry and rage in; we buried or burned or devoured the dead, with reverence.

But before all that happened, S came back to the house–no lead paint, no mold–with her baby, a hookup for formula and goat milk, a brace to straighten out the turned-in feet, and a plan to go on the night watch when she got restless or consumed with the fury of being responsible for a helpless grub. The person whose house it had been went out back, where in the compost heap springtails and microbes were doing the work of turning the leaves and coffee grounds and potato peels into more dirt, to think about herself, and the child she had decided not to have, and the child and grown woman who lived in her house with her now, and her sisters, and the woman who had grown old and lost her mind slowly in that house long before; and all the other versions of the story.

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Alternate Histories: 6/6, 4/29

[Note: I took 2 days a week off during the first round of Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions, so this is an alternate history from a day I’ve already visited.]

6/6/14

[These three were a couple and their friend who came up together.]

How do you imagine helping other people, sustaining other people?

Person 1: That’s both a really specific and a really abstract question.

Person 2: Well, on a really concrete level we would shelter people if we had to. [Hugs Person 3.] We have a lot of room.

Person 1: It assumes we’ll be the ones who have the shelter.

Person 3: Well, it’s fair to assume we’ll be more likely to have it than some other people.

Person 2: That’s true. People who are on the coast, who are on the floodplain —

Person 3: I was thinking more of people in island nations. And I’m thinking about California. … My building would probably be fucked, but I’m on the 3rd floor. I’ll have to go in and out through the window.

Person 2: We think we have more protection than we do.

*

4/29/15

Between them, W and GG and K had named one thing that turns the middle of these stories to fog: when you can think about them, they’re far away and somewhere else. When you’re in the middle of them, it’s harder to think about them, because you’re trying to keep afloat. Yet in a disaster, a crisis—they knew, because they’d seen it–many people behave beautifully, generously, turning not just themselves but their institutions and premises over to response.

W and GG and K said to each other: what if we switched the order in time? A crisis is a moment of intensification and change: for better, for worse. Or better for some and worse for others.

Because there is no away, because it makes the most sense to start where you are, W and GG and K began to take their premises and their institutions apart with the help of their colleagues, who listened to them; with the help of their students, who asked them questions; with the help of the people who had once worked invisibly for them, who stopped working.

Their plans changed. They’d thought to make the university into a house of refuge, and that worked for a while, until it exceeded its capacity; they wanted to make it a training center for survival, and to some extent it was; they’d thought to make it a place of inquiry again, but all people had were questions. So they made it into a place of resource, a fountain that poured out everything it had until it was gone, a spring that ran for a while and then ran dry, while people who had been nourished by it took their nourishment elsewhere to do other things, and the bramble and the rat snake and the vole and the poison ivy and the fox and the wild rose—early inhabitants and entrenched colonizers—began to uproot and to wander.

If something ends, still it was there once.

Alternate Histories: 5/30, 4/28

[Note: I took 2 days a week off during the first round of Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions, so this is an alternate history from a day I’ve already visited.]

5/30/14

When my mom goes into a store for more than 5 minutes, I turn her car off. I think people should carpool more … Polar bears are gonna go extinct in our lifetime, ’cause the ice caps are melting and there’s nowhere for them to live.

I think a lot of people feel like oh, polar bears, that’s really far away, that’s not connected to me.

Or like it’s not even going to affect them. But it is. And what’s gonna happen to the human race if there’s an entire ice age? Only the strong are gonna survive. Like the infertility thing with the chemicals in everything — some people aren’t gonna breed because of BPA.

Is that a strength thing though?

I guess I mean adaptability strength, not muscle strength.

*

4/28/15

The next day, BB stopped on her way home to buy herself a present, a bracelet. She ran the pad of her thumb over the plastic jewels.

What would happen in a year without making, a year where no one made anything new? No new nitrile gloves, no new IV tubes or clips; no garbage bags, no twisty-ties; no insulating tape for windows? Only what’s already in the warehouses and on the shelves. How long would it take to run out?

Bisphenol-A “is pseudo-persistent in the environment because of continual inputs.”

Six or so years later, BB walked along that same sidewalk with her nibling, her brother’s child, pointing at pigeons, at chalk drawings, at micromeadows of grasses and mosses and broadleaved plants rooting down through the cracks.

We used to call people born in a shared set of years a “generation,” putting a price on their ability to make more people, but the seven or so years of many intersex babies, layered into the record like a glittering stratum in soil, changed that.

Most of these babies became children, teenagers, adults. They did whatever they happened to feel like about gender, in the loving regard of parents and uncles and grandmas and older siblings. In thin and scarce times, some things aren’t as important as they once were. A baby that survives is a perfect baby. A child that lives is a perfect child.

Other mammals and fish, too, were born into the intersex stratum, and some kinds, already strained by overconsumption or industrial destruction of their homes, disappeared. Some took their predators, parasites and symbiotes with them. Some held on quietly, in smaller populations.

By the time the human intersex stratum grew up, overconsumption and industrial destruction of homes were no longer perennial, continual inputs into the soil and water of the world. Like some of the living beings they’d harmed, they were vanishingly rare, then gone.

A subset of complete living beings, similar in age, lived in most of the possible kinds of relation with the complete living beings around them.

Alternate Histories: 5/23, 4/27

[Note: I took 2 days a week off during the first round of Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions, so this is an alternate history from a day I’ve already visited.]

5/23/14

I work a lot on climate change, and my anxiety is that more knowledge won’t help. I’m in the university, in a place of power, and in a position of power in the world, and so I get listened to, but I’m worried that people outside that won’t listen to me, and that the strategies I choose to focus on might not do anything positive.

What would be positive? 

That’s the thing, I haven’t defined that for what I’m doing. We can say 2 degrees C, but we already know we’re gonna go past that, and that’s not what it’s about–it’s about how it affects people. … And like it or not, people are watching what’s happening on campuses. Now that they’re looking at us, what are we gonna say?

*

4/27/15

VV is a revelator. She travels where people request her, and they do request her. Where she visits, she helps residents find, name and strengthen every relationship, every habit, every cultural pattern and every social and physical structure they already have that will help them sustain each other and their nonhuman neighbors of all sizes. What she learns from them she can also offer to the people of the next town.

Some of the tools they use together are old: manipulating and enriching shorelines, like the first people of the coasts, to create clam beds. Some are new: the rows of tiny panels she calls “solar clotheslines”, hanging from and feeding into electrical wires, turning to catch the sun at every hour, in flat places where buildings are far apart. Some are perennial: loyalty, emulation, patience, pride. Calibrations of privacy. Remedies.

VV travels with R. R is an unraveler. Their job is to weaken the structures and practices that harm the people in a given place, that keep them only alive enough to work, that isolate them one from the other without their desire, that starve them, that shame them. As they get more of what they need from what VV reveals, they depend less and less on what R unravels.

All revelators and unravelers start in the places they’re most from. That’s how they know each other and learn to work together; they have at least one alley in common, one extreme weather event, one field, one bout of shameful history. Even there, of course, they ask a lot of questions.

Alternate Histories: 5/15, 4/26

5/15/14

The economy. Jobs. I’m going to Florida because I’m living in a shelter here. My mom lives down there.

Do you get along?

Yeah, as long as I can find a job down there —

[Her sons are looking through the RI organism cards.]

Boy 1: I don’t like that one.

[I hand him the woodchuck.] (Is this one good?)

Yeah. What is this? Can I have this pencil?

[He goes to take the pencil and/or a dollar out of the donation jar.]

No, I need that.

Boy 2: Do you have any good ones? Can I look at these? Do you have any sharks?

How do you feel about a spider?

Yeah, a spider.

Boy 1: Do you have any other spiders?

*

4/26/15

The following week, H and TT moved with their mom to their abuela’s house outside of Naples, not too far from the state forest. “Fakahatchee!” the boys giggled and then turned shy. But as their mom and their abuela slowly learned to live together again, smoking Black and Milds on the steps of the house and flicking palmetto bugs away from their feet, the boys started to explore.

It was summer, almost too hot to move, and the woods were buggy but cool. From older kids in the neighborhood, they learned about paths and places to avoid, and how to sit still if you saw an alligator, or if you wanted to watch a lizard or hear a bird, and to never throw any sugar away there and always apologize if you broke off a branch or the spirits would get you.

But what spirits? It was their abuela who told them about the Calusa people who used to live there. “You know what’s funny,” she said, lighting another Black and Mild, “after white people came in here, some of the Calusa people went to Cuba, and you know that’s where my family and your abuelo’s family come from. And my tias used to always say that we were part Calusa and part negra and part Spanish. Up here, white people tore up all the things they built, and they still always wanna be digging them up, but the Calusa were fierce. Like you, fierce men like you,” but they could never tell if she was teasing or not.

If they could keep out of alligators’ ways and recognize cottonmouths, if they could avoid slipping on slick moss in the swampy parts and pick ticks off them after playing in the grassy parts, if they remembered to keep on good terms with the spirits, they would be all right. From other people, they were safe. But if they got careless, if they didn’t use their senses and their knowledge, if they didn’t learn fast, they might die fast, medium or slow; of a broken neck, of drowning, of snakebite, of insect-borne virus. Or they might crush a plant that was last of its kind, muddy a stream that needed to run clear, insult an ancestor who’d had enough to put up with. They could hasten the effects of seeping salt and creeping heat, or they could bring themselves into line with with woods and water and centipedes and spiders, leopard frogs and gray foxes and green anoles and algae, so they might all live in it and live through it, for a while.

Alternate Histories: 5/20, 4/25

5/20/14

[Note: I took 2 days a week off during the first round of Climate Anxiety Counseling sessions, so this is an alternate history from a day I’ve already visited.]

I own a rainwear company. I wasn’t sure if this was flip or genuine.

Genuine. So when you hear about the climate changing, do you think like–we can do more with this or–

We don’t use it as a marketing thing. It came about because I like biking. So much of what you hear about climate has a lot of negativity, and bike riding is a positive thing. But it’s difficult to give up your car–you’re exposed to the weather. So we wanted to make rainwear that would be accessible–not accessible pricewise, unfortunately–but we hoped it would help people make that transition to get out of the car, without saying all these things. Like, “This is cool,” not, “We’re all doomed.” I work with bike advocates and they say that it’s the same with helmets–when you talk about safety, no one’s gonna do it. You can’t get people to help you. How can you make it positive? I don’t know how you do that with climate change.

*

4/26/15

The next day, X took inventory. She noted everything that was in her office, from computer monitor to paperclips; how many yards of waterproof polyester and water-resistant corduroy were in the warehouse; how many rivets and grommets and zippers they’d already paid for. She noted each mile of road on her way home from work, each streetlight, each stop sign, each square of municipal ironwork, each varicose crack in the bike lane, each sparrow-filled yew bush, each person inching along with a cane or striding boldly or mincing or pushing a stroller. In her kitchen, she noted the plastic takeout container full of oatmeal and the jar of cloves that had followed her through three apartment; thumbing through her phone, she looked at her friends’ and brothers’ and suppliers’ names and tiny faces. She read her electric bill and her gas bill, and thought about the people who had put them in their envelopes and mailed them to her. She saw herself in a net of all these things and people.

She thought, I’m good at making things. I’m good at making people want the things I make, even if they don’t need them. Making desire. Water falls from the sky and rolls off fabric I paid someone else to stitch together, using a third person’s money. It soaks into whatever cracks and capillaries it can find. What I make, what I have a lot of, can stand between something wet and something dry.

And so the finished raincoats went to protesters in New York and Baltimore, stuffed into the luggage compartments of buses, and the waterproof polyester lined small-scale irrigation systems and mended leaky roofs. (It turned out that the water-resistant corduroy wasn’t good for much.) A community library took the computer and a person who found paperclips very soothing took the paperclips, and people from the fast-food place on the first floor squatted the office as their union headquarters. Suppliers’ and manufacturers’ names and tiny faces melted from X’s phone like sugar in the rain, and so, after a few bouts of hot questions and cool answers, did those of her brothers.

We’ll take it all away from you, said the world X knew best.

You can’t, said X, noting the world within the world, growing and dying all the time.

As long as there are prices, someone will have to pay them. X had kept one raincoat for herself, as a relic and reminder, but also to keep herself dry. Her phone still worked with barely a hiccup, and she wondered why. She set out on her bike for the foot of the nearest cell tower, to try and find out.

Alternate Histories: 6/7, 4/24

6/7/14

When the world ends, there isn’t anything you’re gonna do. I don’t dwell on it like that, but I do think about it. What are you gonna do, walk around with masks on? There’s gotta be airflow from somewhere! But I mean, what are you really gonna do? The most important thing is air. You gonna make filters? You can’t even drink the water. The water supplies, the machines, ain’t nobody gonna filter the water. People are starting to be like, “We’re gonna kill him and drink his blood, we’re thirsty.” If I get a toothache, who’s gonna pull my tooth? If I get these plastic boobs, one pop, who’s gonna be my doctor? And medical — there’s certain people that depend on insulin, what are they gonna do? They’re just gonna die, there’s no two ways about it. Like me, I’m insulin dependent. The biggest thing is air … “Close your eyes and we’ll pretend that’s not [BB] we eatin’.” There’s gonna be the eaters and the — eaters and the entrees. I’ll be a good entree. One leg alone will feed five families. That lady over there, she’ll be a good meal.

*

4/24/15

About 18 years later, BB died.

Before she died, she and her nieces had talked about what she wanted them to do with her corpse. They had walked and wheeled out together to sit in the groveyards. They’d looked at pictures of the raptor platforms, though most of them were too far away from where the family lived. And they’d gone to the rendering house when a niece’s friend died.

When BB died, her nieces and their neighbors washed her and wrapped her in a sheet, singing to her. When the songs were over, what they held was no longer BB, but a corpse. Corpses are strange, and it is fearful to make them useful, but when BB was alive, no one made use of her body and mind.

BB’s nieces brought the corpse to the rendering house and helped to cut it into pieces that humans could eat. The bones they would grind up and pour into the ocean in a year. They cooked and ate the pieces of the corpse, a little each day, during that year. After they poured the dust of the bones into the ocean, they could talk to BB again, and they often did, telling her what the grandnephews, who were alive, were doing and how BB’s old friend, who was alive, was just as rude as ever.

Alternate Histories: 6/6, 4/23

6/6/14

I’d rather talk about global anxieties than personal anxieties! I have to talk about it! Auuugh! I just wanna shred things! I think the most impending one seems to be that there are a lot of people and places that could quickly be gone and nobody seems to give a shit about that. Like is this just another form of watching people die because they’re different from you. What island cultures will be gone? And people are just like, “Yup, that’s the deal.” And the other thing is seeing people talking enthusiastically about the profits to be made from water. Like, “How can we monetize this? Here’s the opportunities in this.”

*

4/23/15

In the following year of the drought, growers in the San Joaquin Valley agreed to phase out their crops over the next three years. As they’d involved and tangled so many other people in creating the drought, they prepared to untangle them slowly.

Individual farm managers worked to learn what else the people who’d been picking fruit could do: medicine-mixing, carpentry, speaking with the dead, tinkering with machinery, sign-lettering, smelling out a lie, butchering a goat, sorting out a dispute, weaving a rope, preventing a pregnancy. Some of the older people had grown food in their home towns, enough for a few people at a time. Could everyone who was on the land at the moment stay there, if they wanted to, if they let the monocultures wither, planted and foraged with care, lived more in line with the temperatures and the weather and helped the soil to recover? Would there be water enough for that?

If you’re dishonest with us, said the people who’d been picking fruit, if you try to hurt or shoot us, if you bring police or soldiers in to destroy us, we’ll kill you. You understand, we’ve never known you to act right. You need to prove yourselves to us.

If I tell you that the growers said Yes, we understand, will you believe me? You believe me when it goes the other way–the menace, the suspicion, flowing from strength toward weakness–because you’ve seen it, or maybe you’ve lived it, or someone has told you about it. But there’s nothing natural about that. It’s not gravity itself, but alignment with a certain set of forces. There are others.

Yes, we understand, the growers said.

On the loose and crumbling rocks of the Great Divide, on the mountains that cast the rain shadow, rivers flow downhill both ways, and female grizzlies climb up with their cubs to protect them from male grizzlies, who want to kill the babies that aren’t theirs. The rocks are too loose, too slippery; the males can’t manage there. The females barely can–they have to walk carefully. The babies are fine. Of course some of them do die, and of course some of them do grow up to prowl, frustrated, at the edge of the loose rock, where they can’t climb.

People aren’t the same as bears. After all these years, people aren’t even the same as other people. We can choose what we learn, the forms and sites of our danger and our safety, the direction of the flow of our justice and our mercy.

Alternate Histories: 6/5, 4/22

6/5/14

[These two came up together.]

Her: I’m not worried about that.

What are you worried about?

I don’t know — dying?

Him: I don’t fear that. Not really. I just live, knowing that everything’s gonna come to an end, just live life while you’re alive.

Is that your philosophy too?

Her: I guess, if I can?

Him: But lemme ask you something. You know the Bermuda Triangle? You think global warming has anything to do with the Bermuda Triangle?

Her: I blame it on God.

[I give them the pileated woodpecker RI organism card.]

Her: I hate these things! When I grew up in East Greenwich, they would always be outside my window, [makes woodpecker sound effect].

Him: Yeah but she almost had a panic attack the other day when we were down here. There were these birds that were beating up this other bird, and like trying to have sex with it and stuff and it looked like it had a broken leg, and she was freaking out. I called Animal Control and they said Animal Control don’t come for pigeons. Just like the cops don’t come to the ghetto.

*

4/22/14

There are two versions of this story: one where Y and JJ continue to fuck with each other and one where they don’t. But in both versions of the story, they can be tender to each other and to the open world. Either one of them can leave anytime, because while they’re finding out whether they like each other enough to stick around, we will be building so many places where they can sleep.

If they have a baby, maybe Y can’t really trust her mom anymore but she has three sisters and a brother living, a nana, her nana’s girlfriend, a bunch of good friends, JJ’s mom and aunts, and the buildings and streets they all grew up calling the ghetto–a place where someone stronger than you packs you in, pushes you together–they’ve made into a tough open structure, flexible, with holes to spend the wind and a thousand opportunities for departure and return. Y’s sister walks the baby through the streets at night with about 10 other people, some carrying babies, one or two walking dogs, silently or speaking quietly so as not to disturb the sleepers. They are the night watch.

This has become a story about sleep because everyone needs sleep in plenty and in this story, they can have as much as they want most of the time, unless there’s a flood or a storm or a fire. If a baby is hungry or someone is sick and needs care, there are plenty of people to take turns rising from their beds and falling back into their beds. If a coyote’s whining or a set of starlings making robot noises, trees creaking, maybeetles whacking against the screen, spirits abroad, those are just things that happen in the night. But nights are mostly quiet, certainly free of gunfire, certainly free of the invasive weight of a body you don’t want near you. Maybe Y and JJ don’t have a baby because she doesn’t want to, maybe they think about it and decide against it, maybe she wants to go elsewhere, maybe he does, maybe her nana and her nana’s girlfriend do. Just as they take turns sleeping, they can take turns leaving.

There are as many versions of this story as there are places where Y and JJ can sleep, together or not together. Sleep safely, wake up, walk whole: the more we build, the more versions of the story there can be.

Climate Anxiety Counseling in Kennedy Plaza/Burnside Park: The Doctor Will Be In!

I’ll be offering Climate Anxiety Counseling in person again throughout the month of May, in Burnside Park, across from Kennedy Plaza (same place as before).

I’ll be at the booth 3-6 pm on these days:

Tuesday May 5th-Friday May 8th

Tuesday May 12th-Friday May 15th

Tuesday May 19th

Tuesday May 26th-Friday May 29th

FURTHER BULLETINS AS EVENTS WARRANT! Thanks to the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy for helping me get set up.