Climate Anxiety Counseling and Future Mapping with Rejin Leys on Governor’s Island, NY: 7/13/19

Weather: hot and bright and muggy; not bad in the shade

Number of people: 9 stoppers

Pages of notes: 20, but a smaller notebook than usual, so ~12 normal-sized pages

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 1

Pictures taken with permission: 3

Pictures taken without permission: 1

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 0

Money raised for Tooth and Nail Community Support Collective: I didn’t collect money this time.

Observations:

This was during a scheduled, arts-and-culture-related time, in front of a house where artists were gathered to make art about water (the link goes to a record of last year’s residency) and where other organizing and informational efforts related to climate change were going on in the houses nearby. The island is a slight, though not huge, pain in the ass to get to—you have to make a point of it, and some people were making a point of getting there to see the arts-and-culture-related things; some people were also there mainly to picnic and have a good time. Many of the people who spoke with us were residents or participants in the houses.

In that post, I’ll also write more about the way that Rejin Leys (artist-in-residence, collaborator, and friend) and I planned this collaboration, what actually happened, and what we learned from that. For now I will say that either before or instead of talking with me, people who stopped by our table were being invited (by Rejin) to draw a “blind contour” map of the continental US in order to think about borders, coastlines, and change. Here are two:

[IMAGE: two drawings of the map of the continental US, drawn while looking at the map but without looking at the drawing, on paper handmade with Poland Spring labels.]

The upcoming post will include more and better examples of the maps. Because of this exercise, I started many (but not all) conversations by asking, “How did it feel to do that drawing?” Note that in the conversations, italics are me, plain type is the interlocutor, and R (also in italics) is Rejin speaking.

Some conversations:

How did it feel to do that drawing?

I liked it actually. I already knew starting out that it was going to be totally inaccurate. I wanted to draw in the shapes of the places. It was a chance for me to practice nonattachment–[attachment] makes my life more difficult. It’s nice to feel like I didn’t need [the drawing] to be anything.

Does attachment affect the way you think about the future?

Yes. I have really severe anxiety and depression and they [contribute to] an inability to live in the present. I’m always looking to the future—not just 30 years from now when everything is horrible, but little things that are happening in the next few days, and every mistake I’ve made in my past. It’s obsessive and it’s bad—I can’t sleep. So having a moment to let go of all that is really nice.

What are some ways that you look for moments to let go of it?

That’s a hard question to answer, because when you’re so deep in it, any attempt to get out of it results in feeling guilty for taking time—like, “I need to rest, but do I deserve that?” I know that, I do recognize that, and I try and hold that but I don’t know how. I’m here and I’m recognizing that [moment]. But I think more to the point is the acknowledging that it’s happening–”This is a moment when I felt this—how do I keep this moment?”

What’s a change in the world that would free you?

Knowing that people cared more about, in particular about things like climate change but in general that you could count on people for more empathy. … So many people are all, “I have mine and screw you, unless it actually impacts me—my sister, my mother, my brother.” And maybe not even then. It’s hard to get people to care if they can’t personally go, “It affects me,” yet.

How is caring about it part of your day?

You have of course your little things that you do, like recycling—

I’m gonna stop you for a second. We can come back to the things that you do, but I also want to know how it feels. How the caring feels on the day-to-day.

I think about it a lot, especially because I’m from Florida, which will be underwater. I mean, the form it takes is anxiety, because I start to be very anxious about the loss. It kills me. It absolutely kills me. I’m so stymied by the fact that people don’t care. I feel so impotent to do anything. It’s very frustrating. I’m just this one little person, and I do what I can, but I’m not always doing what I can.

What are the things you do with other people that have to do with this?

I make art with other people a lot. I’m a big fan of collaboration. When I make art it’s generally to impart something to people about stuff based in the environment. I love to teach and to make things entertaining but also hopefully make people think about stuff more than they would have. My sculptures are all made of garbage, I try to have as little impact as possible—art can be super toxic too. 

Can you tell me more about Florida?

There was just a bad red tide. There are dead things washing up all the time, and it stinks. And then you contrast that with the constant need to be pristine for the tourists—there are trucks that come and pick up the seaweed. It feeds itself. I’d love to see less attachment to the idea of perfection, this ideal. They keep replenishing the beach—they dredge the waterways, and there are all these beautiful shells, but it’s because we’re killing these creatures. But nobody says anything and they keep doing it because people want their beautiful shells.

R: It seems like they see the coastline less as a part of nature and more as someone’s garden.

As a theme park. They want to be able to use it an unlimited amount, then they leave and don’t ever think about it again. That’s something that I try to deal with in my work. I want people to care. If the world were a smaller place– It’s cheesy, but the Mad Max apocalypse, something like that is the direct consequence that will cleanse the Earth. We’ve been here for nothing, no time.

How does thinking about that play into your trouble with attachment?

Cataclysmic change is actually comforting to me. When I get really crazy it helps me, to think I’m nothing. If you’re watching an animal documentary, it’s like, “This blue-footed booby doesn’t give a shit about me.” It helps me to zoom out and go, “We’ll be gone and that’ll be the best thing that could’ve happened.” Because we’re such a speck, such a small kind of meaningless speck.

So it sort of sounds like—a lot of people, with climate change, they feel like they don’t matter enough, and you said some stuff like that too earlier, but with this it seems like you’re trying not to feel like you matter too much.

If we matter too much then we think, we follow this Great Chain of Being…we think everything else is here to serve us. I get so frustrated alone in my house: Why do we think we’re more important than this grass?

So with that in mind then, you said you like to collaborate. How could you collaborate not just with other humans but with the rest of the living world?

Cultivating the wild, cultivating wild spaces. This is really hard for me. There’s a value in being uncomfortable. We can have less and we can survive. That’s something that everybody, that a lot of people, myself included, could benefit from, is accepting less in the way of comfort. You’ll get used to it, you’ll get over it.

*

I work in environmental policy and I am dealing very frequently with having to be very aware of the very terrible forecast. Climate anxiety is very real for me and my colleagues. Office conversation in other places, you think of it as light and easy, and it might start out that way but then it’ll take a turn toward some article that someone saw. It’s strange having conversations about terrible things in this casual way. I think you’re forced to ignore it to a large extent.

Can you leave it at work?

Not really. I try not to take it over into too many of my conversations with my wife and other people.

Have you seen any motion while you’ve been doing the work that you’re doing or does it mostly feel like spinning your wheels?

There’s been some motion in that there are different ways to think about these things. It’s hard to feel that something productive is happening—there are sometimes small victories, but they’re a drop in this ocean.

How about the literal ocean?

Obviously some of the changes that will happen will be in the ocean. I’ve only been a handful of times, but scuba diving was amazing—to see all those amazing things, but then I think, “Is this the last time?”

What if it was the last time?

There are times where I can sort of take that, like, “This is a fact in the world,” and then there are times when it’s incredibly depressing. It depends on whether I’m in a situation to talk about the sadder parts of these things or not.

*

[Person 1 and Person 2 came up together. Person 3 came up toward the end of that conversation.]

How did it feel to do that drawing?

Person 1: I was extremely confident when I was drawing it, and now I’m kind of amazed at how inaccurate it is.

R: What makes it correct or incorrect?

Person 1: I was trying to replicate [the map]. I can see places where I did that. I like the way it looks, but it was not what was intended.

R: Of course the coastline is always changing.

Person 1: My aunt lives down in southern New Jersey on a barrier island, and since Sandy—there’s a nature preserve there that’s all dunes, and since Sandy the sand is collecting much further out and forming a new island. They were thinking about dredging it, but they just left it there to be a new island.

R: We’re always thinking about what we’re losing, but this is just something that changed.

Person 1: It’s just further down. What’s interesting is that no one has a claim to it—it’s not part of any township.

R: It’s a truly free space.

Person 1: Well, and on the rest of the island, they’ve got the Army Corps of Engineers pumping sand back onto the beach. They can only [leave the new island in place] because it wasn’t developed. My aunt works for an arts and science foundation, and people just developed right up to the water, but the place where she works was less affected by Sandy and it’s because of the preserved wetlands around it. So she gives tours and explains how wetlands are supposed to be a natural barrier.

How does this idea of letting it go, just letting the island form, play into your anxieties about change?

Person 1: What if letting things take their natural course—things might get a little bit unwieldy, there might be blowback. But…if I don’t have awareness of what’s happening, that vulnerability is scary to me. My reflex then is to try to exert control, which I intellectually know is futile, to have control over all possible outcomes or even have awareness of all possible outcomes. My instinct in that case is to use mindfulness to come back to right now, see what’s actually present. Things that are maybe going to happen but haven’t yet—what are the things I do have control over in this moment? I can pay attention to the breath. If I’m in an activated, anxious state, that might be valid but I’m probably not going to think about things clearly.

What are the coastlines that are important to you?

The Jersey Shore. My grandfather built a house on Long Beach Island, and my aunt lives there full time. Her husband is a fisherman, a bayman. And we just moved to Cobble Hill, so we’re right near Red Hook and Buttermilk Channel. Red Hook feels like a little seaside town. And the Hudson River—I grew up in Northern New Jersey up where the Hudson gets a little bit narrower. And [to Person 2] you’ve got Florida.

Person 2: Yeah, but I don’t claim it. I don’t feel connected to Florida. It wasn’t my choice to live there, and as soon as I had a choice I left.

Person 1: Do you want to feel a connection to it?

Person 2: I prefer rivers. Rivers with mountains or cities—they give me a sense of scale.

What are some ways to take care of the rivers in this city?

Person 1: … I’ve been learning about the Billion Oyster Project–not only are they using oysters to rehabilitate the waterways, but they’re creating these community reefs, where people can be involved in rehabilitation in their neighborhoods. I look at something like the Gowanus Canal—it’s so polluted, what can an oyster reef do? But people now have a relationship with the waterway. There’s also the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club–you can sign up to go out and take trash out of the water … But I think with the canal, a lot of people are like, “It’s too gross to think about.” So anything that changes that—I haven’t signed up with them yet, but I’m trying to make it a priority … I’ve been holding a weekly climate grief support group Wednesday nights, and it’s good to have that time, but one of the other people involved pointed out that we could also be using that time to be doing stuff.

Can you tell me more about the support group?

Person 1: For two months we were having it every Wednesday. There’s a core group of three, sometimes it grows to seven, and we’re open for drop-ins. I try to combine contemplative arts and talking about climate change, because I noticed that if I just start talking about it, I start talking faster, and then the people I’m talking to pick up on that. So we start with contemplative practices and share some of the physical tools of slowing down. If we start getting breathless, slowing the breath down a little bit. We try to keep it casual, make it a little bit informal. People have such a wide variety of responses. Getting together in one place lets us not feel so alone. Climate change is something I’ve been concerned about for years—when I was at Hunter College taking an [environmental studies] class, my teacher cried in class and said, “I’m so sorry your generation has to deal with this.”  … For me, knowing that other people are concerned about it instead of being at home by myself and stewing about it is important.

Do you feel like the support group has affected the way you deal with it or talk about it outside of the support group?

Person 1: Yes. I don’t want people to be—I want people to care about climate change and be curious about it. I don’t want people to be so panicked about it that they [DIDN’T WRITE DOWN THE END OF THIS SENTENCE]. I turned to Buddhism because of climate change, and a lot of that is about preparing for death. … A teacher, a Buddhist chaplain, has talked about how when someone is dying, they might forget, and start making a plan for the future—I vacillate between, “Oh, these are the facts of things,” and going back to my planning. How do I internalize the reality so it isn’t so jarring?

We knew about each other and were in touch before this, so: is there anything that you hoped to talk about during our conversation that we haven’t yet?

Person 1: Somebody was saying that the way that we respond to climate change comes from templates that we established as children. …  Things always feel more manageable when I’m talking about it with someone else—it’s like, “Right, people do care.” I want to seek that out as I try to internalize it.

[Person 3 came and sat down at this point.]

[To Person 3] What would you like to say or hear in the work that you’re doing?

Person 3: I’d like to hear more and more interest in saying, “Yes, I’d like to become involved.” Today, there were quite a number of people who wanted information about our next meeting, and I hope they’ll come to see what it was like and then get more involved. I’m very optimistic. There was only one person who came in, and I couldn’t do anything about it: I asked, “Are you involved at all?” and he said, “ I read about it,” and I asked if he wanted to be involved and he just [mimes a shrug]. And I wanted to say, “We’re not talking about climate change, we’re talking about a climate crisis.” But there was nothing that I could say to him. That’s sad, and it feels not great. I’d like to be able to say [things like that], but I think you can’t go directly, you have to go through something else. I give talks, and something I’ve tried is starting with bamboo. [HERE SHE SUNG THE PRAISES OF BAMBOO FOR A LITTLE WHILE.] I want to be able to talk about that—it’s best to go through something positive if you can, to get to the issues.

Person 1: I feel that too. Like, “Why don’t you care about this, are you crazy?!” What’s the other way besides that—mostly questions and mostly experiential. Can I be communicating safety through my voice and body languge, even when I feel like I should be raising my voice?

Person 3: I’ve been involved with a [Project] Drawdown group—we just had our last session. One guy in the group lives part of the year here, part of the year in New Zealand, and he’s going to India to help farmers there with their soil,* and he’s begun to get on the subway and when there’s a long enough distance between stops, he gets up and says, “I don’t want your money, I just want two minutes of your time to talk about climate change.” And people ask him for literature. People say thank you. I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I want to, but I don’t know if I could.

[Person 3 went back to her station in one of the climate activism houses at this point]

Person 1: I would just say that I felt my breathing start to slow while I’ve been sitting here talking with you. When I feel alone with it, I feel like I have to be responsible for so much. Sometimes I feel resentful—why did these instructors at Hunter College burden me with this knowledge?

R: What [Person 3] was talking about might not be what I think of as the priority, but I’m glad that people are dealing with different aspects.

Person 1: I’m accepting that I’ll never be able to think about all of it or do all of it. When I’m trying to get people activated, there’s no one way—if you want to chain yourself to a pipeline, I can connect you with people who will help you do that.

*If you’re making a slight face about this guy, I am too. I would need to know a little more about him, his work, and how he’s behaving toward the other people on those trains before I could comment well on how this fits into the question of how we carry out our responsibilities to the world we share.

*

How did it feel to do that drawing?

It felt like I was not doing a good job. I was trying to sort of like get the shape, but I was getting anxious because I knew that the paper was finishing. 

Also, the coastline changes.

I don’t know how fast it changes. I mean, you can’t really tell unless you really go to the coastline. My family lives on the Mediterranean, in Greece, and I spent a lot of time in the northern islands. A big problem there is pollution—boats unloading their graywater in the harbor. There have been changes because of erosion and earthquakes that you can see from year to year. I’m now 30 years old, 32, and I see rocks that have fallen off. My grandfather had a little hut near the edge of a cliff, and this is leaning now—there’s a crack on the cement, and this year, everything is falling off. It happened slow—there were rains, there was hail, this corrosion is just natural. It was just like this forever. Nature takes its course, I guess. In a different place, it could be different. A few days ago, it rained so much in a place in Greece —when they built the city, they didn’t think about how if there’s [much] more rain it’s gonna be mayhem, it’s gonna be like the world is ending.

It’s not spontaneous, it’s just just earth’s moods anymore. We’re affecting it a lot. People don’t know what to do to prepare for seasons. It’s also about survival in some places. We [in the US, I think they meant] have other people growing our food for us—in other places there are more wars and famine, places that rely on a really tiny source of water. It’s crazy. I get goosebumps. And it’s a global phenomenon.

… I think for now, people know better, but rectifying those mistakes is very hard. People don’t generally react well. When you try to do work with the environment you will always get some resistance. It’s more difficult to convince older generations—they’re not used to thinking long-term or thinking, “What I do affects how other people live.” Individualism is hurting people.

… My grandfather has a garden and trees, fruit trees and olive trees, and he was loving what he was doing, so the things [he grew] were always delicious. When you grow something with love it always tastes better. I’ve been lucky to witness how to work the earth with your hands—you love it as a kid and it’s something normal, it comes out instinctively.

How are you feeling about all of this?

Emotional. But I can only just keep doing what I’m doing. I have scientific knowledge to share, I work with biofuels, and through my relationships around me, family and friends.

Are there ways you could give back to the place you’re living now?

People can’t change. If you live in the countryside, you don’t get enough information. I would change the mindset—maybe be selectively insensitive, maybe it’s the first step to people realizing they need to change.

*

I do this climate storytelling project and I’ve been working on it for the last few years. How do you actually engage people in a deep way? The organization is set up as a public engagement tool, and it’s tapped into something that isn’t really available to people: how to express yourself on climate change, but also how to make this kind of work matter more—to build an ecosystem for it. I’m very connected to the practitioner community and the traditional climate community—less so in terms of climate art … My life is totally different than it was before. I’ve had to learn how to be an entrepreneur, how do you raise money. I used to work in climate spaces, but it was the kind of thing where there was a paid staff position, you’d establish a position and get funding for it. Entering into creative spaces has a personal hesitancy for me. 

What’s your desire for these stories?

I want them to help transform people’s thinking, and to provide people with an outlet for expression. If I actually spend the time reflecting on climate—because I’m a parent, because I’m relatively young and I’ll be living in the future, because I care about my community—I need to deepen my competence [in communicating about it]. On the cultural level and the bigger picture, people need to talk about climate more. Giving them these tools has potential to unleash action at a much higher level. I see this as part of a series of projects that shifts or changes our cultural understanding of climate change. The personal hesitancy is so much more for me than—not in all cases, but in some cases, the letters [we collected] are so beautiful and personal that I want to do [them] justice. I feel like I’m holding people’s feelings and emotions and there aren’t that many other places where that can happen. I feel a deep sense of responsibility toward them that it will be beautiful and it will be moving and it will be helping other people to transform their thinking. I feel the weight of their concerns and I want to do a good job. … It’s so overwhelming, I’m already doing so much on it—I’m trying to build the parts that I’m good at and that I can do, and to farm out the parts I can’t do to people who are good at it. But there’s also a lack of resources to get [projects like this] attention, to fund the project in its entirety. Every piece or component is a full-time job. … How does a whole body of work get attention and funding? There are organizers, artists, social entrepreneurs doing this work—how can they get the support to sustain it?

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