Climate Anxiety Counseling: Sankofa World Market/Knight Memorial Library, 8/29/18

Weather: Hot. Heat index over 100 at the start of my shift.

Number of people: 3 stoppers, 1 walkby

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 5

Dogs seen: 3

Dogs pet: 2

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.15

 

Observations:

I arrived late for my shift (combination of a late start, the heat, and a shortcut that wasn’t) and also stayed late sitting on the cool grass having a wonderful unofficial conversation about the relationship between community organizing, mental health, and care.

The market managers lent me a shade tent.

There’s a family of kids who lives around the corner, and they were much in evidence today. They all wanted to pretend to take the silver dollar I keep in the money jar for luck, and some of them added to the map. One of them reminded another one of the conversation she’d had with me about her grandmother, over a year ago.

A monarch butterfly flew past while I was sitting.

The second conversation here is with my friend Ash Sanders, who ran a project inspired by this one in Salt Lake City.

 

Some conversations:

My son gives me really bad anxiety. He’s really hyperactive and I can’t handle that sometimes … He likes to tell little white lies to get out of a situation, like, “Oh, I need to go peepee,” and he doesn’t need to go. And he gets really physical when we’re playing, he thinks we’re actually fighting.

What do you do when that happens?

I try to calm him down. But when I do that, he takes me as a joke and he goes to his father … He doesn’t give people their personal boundaries. You see him playing over there with that little girl, or if he’s playing with me he’ll be right up in my face … When I can’t handle it I’ll just walk away. But I have to do that constantly. I never get a break, it’s 24-7, it’s just go go go anxiety.

*

A big anxiety for me is how much I care about climate change and environmental stuff. I feel like it’s too intense. I can’t do it in a normal, more socially acceptable way, I have to do it in this way that’s more intense and—I guess darker. I feel like I’m holding back a lot. I’m not doing anything about it right now, and I’m scared to be my old out-there self, but I feel phony in a lot of ways. I’m scared of feeling exhausted all the time. I’m afraid I’ll open something up that will never stop hurting, and that I won’t know the difference between guilt and actions that I should take. I feel guilty all the time, and maybe I should. [I was raised Mormon] and you’re expected to be deeply obedient, and the extra politeness veiled a lot of evil and wrong things. I did push against that, but it exhausted me. And I’m scared that what this situation [of climate change] requires is unspeakable in public.

Who is your public, like which public are you thinking about when you say that?

I’ve been getting into conversations with friends in New York about whether or not to have kids because of what’s happening to the planet. And I am very opinionated, so I started saying more and more. I got tired of saying the “right” thing, so I said more and more what I felt, and I could see the discomfort in people’s eyes. Like I was implying that they weren’t good people. … I read and read things looking for somebody who thinks and feels like me, and they’re there, but they’re in the corners of the conversational world.

And another thing is that I’ve become concerned with animal rights really broadly, and that’s a hot-button topic among left-leaning people. I’ll hear a lot of people be like, “I’ll care about animal rights when human rights are accomplished.” Or like, “Fuck polar bears.” It makes sense, but it puts me at odds with people who I’m not otherwise at odds with.

… I started having these conversations hoping it would unstick me. I’m very tired of carrying around the bag of my cultural upbringing, and I want to know, where could I go if I weren’t carrying it? Mormons really believe in the power of language, the power of telling the truth, and a lot of the truths that they asked me to accept were quite boring but I did internalize that words can change people, and change the people who hear them … I’m pretty good at being brave, at being like, “Do it anyway, feel afraid but do it anyway,” but it never changed this basic really core part of me. And I think that might be beyond language, this thing that needs to shift.

… I’m really conscious about the passage of time. What time is mine to take when all this is happening in the world? I’m so exhausted by the rah-rah kinds of actions, I think they are required but I don’t necessarily feel capable of them right now. When I was doing [those kinds of actions] fast and well, I was depleting myself intensely and I was estranged from a lot of people, but it felt more true, and that’s confusing.

How does it feel reading the things by people who feel the way you do?

It’s intense, like some part of me is going out to meet them in the ether. A kinship thing. And I’m also thinking, “This person is so brave. I used to be like that.” So—relief and kinship, and maybe some jealousy and self-doubt. And then I’m like, Who’s reading them besides a few people? So I read this, and I feel more intensely, but…

Have you written back to them at all?

In a way I think the process of talking with [other] people has been a way of writing back to them. Maybe the reason I don’t just do that is because I feel like I should be honest with some of the hardest people for me to be honest with. Like with my parents, I’ve kind of given up on the idea that we can talk about this. And then I think, my dad will die and I won’t have said one honest thing to him. I would really like to be able to give them a bunch of books and articles and be like, “Let’s talk about it.” Mormonism teaches you that there’s one truth for the whole world, and it applies to every person, every time, every place, every situation, no variants. And [it teaches that] if you do say something different, you wound the person you’re saying it to irreparably. I realize that I think of my dad as an extremely fragile person, maybe more fragile than he actually is, and I’m terrified of but deeply want to talk to him in a real way. I’ve been protecting people, and I never have practiced saying what I meant [to him] in any honest way.

… It’s often been my role in a group to be the one who says that it’s okay to feel a lot of things, to have really strong opinions. … I’m good at being brave for others, honest for others, but I have to calculate how much energy something will cost me. I have chronic pain, and everything takes so much energy. I’m afraid of putting myself in high-energy situations. I’m afraid to put my foot across the line, I’m like, “Oh, God, I’m gonna get so tired again.” I don’t know how to say no, because I feel so guilty, and I was really trained to not have any boundaries as a way of showing love. When I’ve done things in the past, it can’t just be one thing—I have to be involved in six organizations and in charge of all of them. So maybe I have to give up my usual roles, let other people do those things.

*

On the map that asks people if there’s a place in Rhode Island they’d like to protect, kids wrote, “your though” (which might mean “your thoughts,” not sure), “place I care about is my country. (Ethiopia.)” and “I care about nauture living things,” with some pictures of trees.

map 8-29-18

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Climate Anxiety Counseling: Sankofa World Market/Knight Memorial Library, 8/1/18

Weather: gray and clammy; then, sunshowers; then, straight-up rain; then, gray and clammy again but slightly cooler

Number of people: 7 stoppers, 1 walkby

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 11

People I’ve spoken with before, back for more: 3

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $1.70

 

Observations:

I still have to talk with other vendors about this, but it seems to me that the market is doing well this year overall—a lively and ongoing flow of vegetable-buyers.

Talked with my first climate change denier in a while today.

This is the second time at this market that I’ve been mistaken for a paranormal service worker—a palm reader or a psychic.

The woman who owns the candy store across the way very very kindly gave me a bottle of water for free, and one of the farmers very kindly added an extra tomato onto my tomato purchase.

Pause for heavy rain at 3:30.

 

Some conversations:

Being unable to do anything. I’m a news junkie. I watch and I say, “This is awful, we need to clean this thing up, we need to do something.” There seems to be something done about it with this particular administration.

So are your anxieties at the national level or—

The geopolitical level. Who’s gonna talk down that little fat guy?

Where do you get your news?

I watch both sides. Fox, CNN, NPR—I go around. I spent time in the service. Given where the rest of the world has been and was, we are the greatest country in the world, the most generous country in the world. If you have a little problem—everybody’s gonna call us. But then they’re—it’s like a teenager, you raise them, you give them everything and they’re, “Well, I didn’t ask you to do that.” Not the countries, the leaders. Let me be clear, we’ve screwed up a few things. Vietnam—we maybe should’ve done something there, but not that.

…The criticism for this administration is harsh, not only here but outside. We have this deficit in trade. We paid for the security of the entire European administration, and now they don’t want to pay. But those talks are moving forward. I’m a conservative, and I’m in favor of whatever brings those policies forward—of changing attitudes that result in changing policies. The US is the dominant player in any aspect of society. Whether that’s something that should be—if these countries had paid off their share, maybe it wouldn’t be.

So you actually seem satisfied with what’s going on right now.

[Gestures at my sign] I’m in therapy! It ain’t done yet, but I’m under treatment if you will. I’ve gone to the doctor.

How do you feel like you can contribute to what you want to see?

My contribution would be to continue to vote to put the underpinnings, such as Congress, put those same policies into effect. It seems like a little thing, but overall, I’m taking it where I want it to be. You asked me what I was worried about, not whether I knew what to do about it.

[I give him a card to take with him and explain what the EJ League—where the donations go—does.]

See, now, that’s real, that’s not up in the sky. The arrogance of human beings thinking they’re gonna take on God. He’s gonna take care of us. … You gotta get out of yourself and look around a little bit.

*

We know it is our fault. We have been blessed with a planet, we know it, but we’re savage—we don’t know how to share. We should start to be humans. I wish that all of us would combine, ’cause we strong. I just hate the fact that—I think about that boy that died, how people came together. Why can’t we do that just because? Why does it have to be after a death? I am not too proud of my kind. ‘Cause it hurt. I’m part of it, you part of it too.

… Deep inside of me I know I’m not doing as much as I should. People say God is coming—I just hope one day we learn how to be humans and live together… Everything has a purpose. My mother had a parrot fish. He played with my mother, he noticed her, he followed my mother in his tank. He was her world, he was her baby. What makes you think because it doesn’t have language–I’m not a veggie, I try, my kids try. They saw a video of a cow getting killed. And I’m also part of that. It hurts. Trees, just because you can’t talk to them—they’re breathing things, they grow.

*

I’m worried about things not changing fast enough. We’re at a point in a lot of ways—not just with the climate, but in the political landscape, the social landscape, people who are marginalized—where change can’t come fast enough. What is it they say, two steps forward, one step back? One step forward, two steps back? It’s an interesting time to be alive—I wonder what a child growing up now feels like.

You’re not that old, you’re probably going to be around for a while. What does it feel like to you?

It feels like we have a lot of work to do. I’m a new medical resident at [HOSPITAL] and I work with families having a hard time, parents who maybe don’t know how to manage in the best ways, and try to hold space for them in a way that requires empathy and patience and emotional labor from me.

How do you take care of yourself in that?

Therapy, I see a therapist. And finding like-minded people and finding support among allies.

*

[This person also spoke with me on July 11th.]

I’m so happy I’m eating a tomato! I’m not sure if I’ve really thought one way or the other about what we talked about last time, not explicitly in terms of climate change. But I’ve really been enjoying summer and the natural parts—eating this tomato, going to the beach—but it’s tinged with a little bit of “I might not get to do this forever.” I’m working with [someone who’s studying] hospice, and there’s a similar mindset with an old relative. The psychology of hospice is, “It’s done.” I don’t necessarily think it’s the same. It’s natural that our individual lives end, but this isn’t natural. But then I think if there’s someone really young who has cancer—you can’t totally use the analogy because then it’s like we’re giving up. But there are parallels in terms of mourning.

*

Lots of kids drew on the “Put Your Worries on the Map” map today. You can see the thumb of one of them here, pointing at their art.

map 8-1-18

Remembering the Arctic Ice Cap: A Celebration of Life

Ever since I started offering Climate Anxiety Counseling, I’ve gone back and forth about mourning the places and people–human, nonhuman–that we know climate change will not just hurt, but kill, before they’re gone. It seems like ill-wishing them–pre-grieving, shooing them out of the world, walking over their graves. And it also seems like something that you’d do instead of trying to keep them alive.

This summer, in Newport, RI–which is admittedly a very odd place–they held a funeral for a beech tree that’s reaching the end of their life (fernleaf beeches usually live for 150-200 years–I’m not sure how old this one is or was, and I also don’t know if they’re still standing). I changed my tune a little bit. The tree was dying; this gave people a chance to appreciate it and acknowledge them while they were still alive.

And now, my friend Maya Weeks is holding a memorial and celebration for the Arctic Ice Cap: She writes, “As we anticipate losing year-round sea ice as soon as 2018, we are taking this occasion to gather and process our feelings about this changing ecosystem together. We will gather to say goodbye to the sea ice algae and the Arctic cod and the polar bear. Please feel free to bring candles and loved ones to the Mosswood Amphitheater [in Oakland, CA] at 2pm on Sunday, December 18.  Please feel free to say a few words if you would like. This is an outdoor venue with a ramp for accessibility.”

This comes just after another group of literal and figurative deaths in Oakland: people living and celebrating at the Ghost Ship, which burned, and the way of living and being that was possible there. You can donate to the relief fund here, and to funeral services and end-of-life costs for the trans women who died at the Ghost Ship here. When I donated to the latter, I also donated to the Trans Assistance Project’s main fund, which “exists to finance legal/ID changes and healthcare for trans folks in need,” because the living and the dead both need care, but in different ways.

Other living beings don’t necessarily do peopledom the way human people do. A forest might be a person; a jellyfish might be a community. And equating human and nonhuman death is full of bad logic and bad history, especially when the human who died died at the remote hands of structures of power and capital and cruelty. Who gets to die like a person, and who like a plant; who is a martyr, a casualty, a throwaway–these are all mediated by the structures I just mentioned, and I’m not looking to draw a comparison that isn’t there or isn’t right.

But one thing that the dead share is their absence–even if we, the living, are in communication with them or take their advice, we mostly recognize that the way they are is different from the way we are. And one thing the nearly dead share with the living is their presence, their ability to be touched and known. I’m still on the fence about mourning the still-alive. But I don’t think that sorrow and anger for one kind of loss needs to displace sorrow and anger for another kind, and I think that mourning the dead can help the living to fight like hell for each other.

 

Climate Anxiety Counseling: 5/11/16

Weather: Warm, sunny, breezy, perfect in the shade at the beginning, a little chilly toward the end.

Number of people: 13 stoppers, 7 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0! One walkby might’ve muttered “it’s not real” but I can’t be sure.

Pages of notes: 8

People known to me, and I to them, from past seasons: 3

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1, returning from last year

Picture-takers with permission: 2

Picture-takers without permission: 2

Number of dogs seen: 2, belonging to a friend

Number of dogs pet: 2

Number of times people called me “honey” but not in a way that made me want to kill them: 2

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $2.50

 

Observations:

Still not always remembering to do these things.

Pushing the handtruck (for new readers, I pack the booth in and out on a handtruck) was surprisingly not that hard.

Not a lot of people talked about climate anxieties directly, but quite a few people brought up climate change, extreme weather, ecological degradation, as if incidentally, while talking about their primary anxieties.

13 stoppers in one session is actually a lot (comparatively), and I’m wondering if this was because it was the first day in a long while–I was a novelty. We’ll see.

 

Some conversations:

I get anxious on buses. I start coughing, breathing heavy. I used to be on Klonopin but they took me off it now, I don’t know why. They got me on some other pill that doesn’t have a [word I didn’t catch] effect.

When you start to feel it, do you have to get off the bus?

I want to, but I have to get to my destination. If there’s somebody I know on there, I talk to them. Or I talk on the phone, I call people. Sometimes I pretend to talk on the phone when nobody’s there. I’ll say, Hi ______, that’s my daughter.

*

I love biking, I love working in my garden. Love kayaking. I’m planting celery, melons, some kale. Not doing tomatoes this year … I live in East Providence and we have a lot of squirrels, so I planted onions around everything. If you plant onions, they don’t like that. Or you can use pepper and water. I’m from down South, growing up we didn’t have pesticides, so you just put pepper and water in a spray bottle and spray it around the garden. It kills the grubs and things.

[Talking about fishing from a kayak]

We don’t kill the fish ’cause the fish have toxins in ’em by the time they come up this far. I tell people not to eat ’em. I tell people, there’s three discharge stations up there, three. … We just put ’em back. Stripers, if they stay out of the water too long, they get stressed and they die.

*

 

There isn’t much we can do about the climate, honey. That’s all in God’s hands. But the government here in Rhode Island needs a shakeup. Communication, communication is just horrible in this state. I moved here after losing my home in Sandy and I had to go through six months of hoops just to get an ID. I’m a veteran, and they put all the veterans in one box: either you’re full of drugs that are given to you legally or you’re just brushed off … the capitol is right here, and I don’t see the people up there

Have you been talking to people about this?

I’ve been trying to connect with veterans and servicemembers. I got my resume done over at Amos House, and they asked if I had a history of mental illness, and I said, Other than the emotion of losing everything from the storm, from having hundred-mile-an-hour winds pick up my car and drop it…

*

I get anxious because I’m not anxious–because when you walk around on a beautiful day like today, there’s nothing to remind you of it. When you hear the scientific spokesman for Congress saying there’s nothing to worry about, and then most of the scientific community does say there’s something to worry about–We went to see a movie where this guy took a photo in the Arctic every day and you could see the ice disappearing.

But does that feel close to you?

No, it’s just like watching a war, it’s all happening on TV.

Have you noticed any changes that have to do with the climate since you’ve moved to the States?

Well, this last winter was the most unusual winter since we’ve been here.

*

I need help. I feel like the fumes from the buses are making me sick. Not only that, but you can’t see the stars from Providence anymore.

Did you grow up here?

No, I grew up in New Hampshire, but it’s troublesome to me that you don’t see the stars. Today I woke up a little sick–I’m biking in Downcity and I feel like the fumes kinda cluster at the lower levels. It makes it difficult to breathe sometimes. I know they’re supposed to be clean engines or whatever, but when a big burst of it hits you right in the face–I worry that it’s shaving years off my life, like when I’m 76 I’m gonna lose a week with my grandchildren … I understand that RIPTA–they’re trying to help people [drive less], it’s not RIPTA’s fault. But I love nature and I love the birds and the trees. I wanna be on earth as long as I can.

*

[Person 1 started out as a walkby, then Person 2 came up and Person 1 decided to stay a bit]

Person 1: Honey, you would charge a hundred dollars for what I’d have to tell you.

Tell me a nickel’s worth.

Person 1: Three dead husbands: diabetes, diabetes, suicide.

Person 2: This is cool, what is this?

[I explain that I want to know what people in Providence are anxious about, whether it’s climate change or something else]

Person 1: Oh, in Providence.

Person 2: Homelessness, unemployment.

Person 1: Thank God I got a job, thank God I got a home. There’s a lotta issues here and it’s too bad, because it’s a great city, it’s a beautiful city. I have some really good people in my life, and I have my kitty cat. [He tells her story.] My partner and I, we were on the street for three years, I don’t know how we ever survived. It was not a good time. Then we got an apartment–four months later, I crawl into bed and I realize he died. Diabetic shock. Then our upstairs neighbor, who was a crack addict, decided to burn the house down. … I have some great people in my life and I’m lucky because they keep my heart open.

[I give him a card with a hermit thrush on it.]

Oh, I know these! My mother lived in Jamestown, she had a flock of those. They’re buggers. They are buggers.

 

Today’s poem:

 

Three dead husbands

Homelessness, unemployment

Three hundred dead husbands

Homelessness because there are no homes

Unemployment because everything is undone

Under the bodies of someones

Who tended someone elses at one point

Undertake, overwhelmed: the number

 

Climate Anxiety Counseling: To Keep In Mind

Tomorrow is the first day of the new Climate Anxiety Counseling season–I’ll be in Burnside Park, opposite Kennedy Plaza,  3-6pm tomorrow and Thursday. Here are some things I want to remember to do and ways I want to remember to be while I’m there:

LISTEN, first and throughout.

ASK QUESTIONS, many, before (or instead of) offering suggestions.

ASK PEOPLE MORE ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE FEELING AND WHAT THEY DO WHEN THEY FEEL THAT WAY, before asking them to move into imagining or “solution” mode. I think I and sometimes also my interlocutors want to get to that point too fast, because staying in the painful feeling is, well, painful. I want to keep things open, not try to seal them off.

BUT ALSO: BE RESPONSIVE, not formulaic; LISTEN well enough to know what questions might help a person talk and think more, maybe reach for words they haven’t thought of yet.

MAINTAIN A FIELD OF CALM for myself and them; don’t get agitated and definitely don’t escalate.

If I do offer a suggestion or prescription, make it both PARTICULAR to them and CONNECTED to people, creatures, forces and things outside but nearby or intertwined with them; REVEAL CONNECTIONS that are already there

Sometimes I call this whole booth thing a “project,” and I think the various offshoots of the booth thus far have been a project, but the booth itself is more of a practice. I am practicing the world I want: a world where we observe and trust, where it is safer to be more vulnerable, where we improvise responsively, where we listen. A shared world in which sharing is possible. A world where we take care of each other so that amplitude and hardship ebb and flow but are never fixed in any one person, place or role, a world that doesn’t destroy the carer or the cared-for. I want to enact that world here. I hope you all will help me bring it out of the world we know.

Alternate Histories: 4/22, 5/5

4/22/16

I have four kids, between 18 and 26, and I worry about the kind of world they’re going to have. For the first time it’s made me almost wish I hadn’t brought kids into the world. I go back and forth between thinking there’s a reason to be hopeful and thinking there’s reasons to not be optimistic. I keep telling them, Your generation has to figure this out, because mine really messed it up.

*

5/5/16

Barely two weeks later, the fires broke out at Fort McMurray. J’s fingertip ticced over the news liveblog and the evacuation/relocation group, the human pleas for and offers of aid. Marie in Olds wrote, “Don’t forget that there are lots of people willing to open their homes in Central and Southern Alberta. I know it’s a long way, but if you can get here, you can stay for free.” J was in Rhode Island; no one could get to her. She donated money to the Red Cross. She sat still, refreshing the images of flames until her eyes turned red, thinking: We already have this kind of world. It’s now, it’s here, it’s burning. She tried not to think about the trees becoming carbon gases and ash, the reserves of tar and oil igniting underground–was that even possible?–and loosing their heat into the air; she forced her mind back to it.

J called, texted, emailed the children who didn’t still live with her and said, “Come home.” They came, and gathered close around her. “It’s scary,” they agreed, though they were calm. She almost wished they’d show distress so she could switch to comfort mode, but they were no longer her babies and she had no comfort to give. They were just here, in this world, and so was she.

When the fires finally died down, weeks later, Fort McMurray’s former residents slowly made their way back–many by foot, some in convoys–to bid farewell to their former home, a plain of ash, plastic siding melted into lava flows, soil calcined to a depth of feed in places, metal still pinging and cooling. Tree and house skeletons crumbled a little at a time. There was no reason for birds to be there. Those who were able made a procession around the blackened places, praying or singing, shouting or sobbing, according to their natures and their traditions. They marked their faces with the ash. It took days. When they left, each person took a piece of debris away with them.

(Meanwhile, people throughout Alberta and neighboring provinces were working to find housing, adapt infrastructure, continue schooling, provide medical and spiritual care for all the people who had been displaced, and find them new work to do in order to be useful and feel purpose, and helping them settle near each other whenever possible. J followed this process from afar, to the best of her ability. She wanted to know what to do when it was her turn. Her kids had to remind her to step outside, to walk on the beach, to eat with them. There are many ways to keep a vigil.)

Exploitation of the Athabasca oil sands was over.  As a home for living creatures, the place was in abeyance; the land was a graveyard. Later on, much later, after J and her children were dead, it became a field, and plants and animals–different kinds, that had weathered the world’s other changes–began to live there, and even do well on the rich black soil.

 

 

Alternate Histories: 5/29, 6/13, 9/30

[Note:  this is another alternate history for the same two people who evoked the one yesterday and the one the day before.]

5/29/15

[After asking his nana for permission to talk to me]

I’m worried that I’ll never get to see my dad and he misses me and I miss him. And I miss nature, I miss everything.

Your nana’s over there, you don’t miss her, right?

No, she’s right over there, and my mom, and my auntie, except for my dad.

Are you guys in touch? [Shakes head.] Do you like to draw?

Yeah.

Maybe you could do some drawings and save them for him, I bet he’d like that.

I like to draw Minecraft. I make a comic book and I turn it into a comic book and all I do is make Minecraft, that’s all. Can I have a piece of paper? [I give him a piece of paper and he folds it.] Do you have a scissor or can you rip it? [He draws a line to show me where to rip, and unfolds a one-sheet booklet. He then goes and lugs his little cousin over to meet me and they draw together for a while on the backs of some of the alternate-history blanks, except he’s having a competition for how much paper he can cover and she’s not. I give him a marker, a clipboard, and the rest of the alternate-history blanks to take with him.]

*

6/13/15

I worked at Apeiron, I worked in Woonsocket. Life is so totally out of balance, so disconnected. We’re all implicated. It makes me so unutterably sad.

What do you do when you feel that sadness?

I try to put parts of my body on the grass and connect with Mother Earth … A lot will survive, but I think it might not be us. I try to breathe. I think about the bad things I do and how they contribute … I believe that everybody cares, given the opportunity to care.

I’ve been trying to think about what sadness might make possible.

Sadness leads to the desire for connection. Sadness informs reaching out. But I don’t share sadness often, because I want to make opportunities for people to perform their own responses, to facilitate a journey to authentic response.

*

9/30/15

But the soil wasn’t what they were worried about, you might be thinking, or it was just a small element of their worry. Their fear towers higher and their loss reaches deeper. So let’s imagine instead that W changes her direction. That every time someone says, “Beautiful day,” when she’s in line at the supermarket, she says, “It’s so unseasonably warm because the world is warming.” Every time someone asks how she’s doing, she says, “I’m sad and angry, because I can’t stop the polluting practices that are ruining the world.” When her sister calls from Houston to announce her promotion at work, she says, “We could lose between 20 to 50 percent of species out all life on earth, within the century, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

For T, it’s different. That’s too much work for us to ask a kid to do, so his family takes it on for him, and his teachers, and his grown cousins. But when he does speak about his worry and his loneliness, everyone listens, and they also listen when he talks about Minecraft, or shows them something he’s made. He gets into the habit of being heard, recognized, real to the people around him.

W never unbends, never cracks. Her presence as a mourner is total. She feels satisfaction, even peace, that comes from knowing what to do. What to do is this.

T and the kids he knows grow up–loved, recognized, embraced, curious, brave, and also confused, sad, lonely, frustrated, angry sometimes. What to do with sadness? What to do?

People do listen to W, and some emulate her. Every day they sit together for an hour and imagine their own deaths, and the deaths of everything they have ever loved. In the rest of their days, they attempt to alleviate present suffering. When people try to take care of them, to offer them food or shelter, they redirect it to someone else in greater need. They mark their faces with ashes. They are eerie, like the future.

And people, in awe of them, let them pass–into offices, into power plants, into factories. They tell the people inside the effects of their decisions, and then they leave. The next day they are back.

T and his friends let sadness make them kind and anger make them brave. They share everything they have. They run shining over the whole earth.

But what will happen, though? I hear you asking. What’s going to happen?

Alternate Histories: 5/29, 6/13, 9/29

[Note:  this is another alternate history for the same two people who evoked yesterday’s.]

5/29/15

[After asking his nana for permission to talk to me]

I’m worried that I’ll never get to see my dad and he misses me and I miss him. And I miss nature, I miss everything.

Your nana’s over there, you don’t miss her, right?

No, she’s right over there, and my mom, and my auntie, except for my dad.

Are you guys in touch? [Shakes head.] Do you like to draw?

Yeah.

Maybe you could do some drawings and save them for him, I bet he’d like that.

I like to draw Minecraft. I make a comic book and I turn it into a comic book and all I do is make Minecraft, that’s all. Can I have a piece of paper? [I give him a piece of paper and he folds it.] Do you have a scissor or can you rip it? [He draws a line to show me where to rip, and unfolds a one-sheet booklet. He then goes and lugs his little cousin over to meet me and they draw together for a while on the backs of some of the alternate-history blanks, except he’s having a competition for how much paper he can cover and she’s not. I give him a marker, a clipboard, and the rest of the alternate-history blanks to take with him.]

*

6/13/15

I worked at Apeiron, I worked in Woonsocket. Life is so totally out of balance, so disconnected. We’re all implicated. It makes me so unutterably sad.

What do you do when you feel that sadness?

I try to put parts of my body on the grass and connect with Mother Earth … A lot will survive, but I think it might not be us. I try to breathe. I think about the bad things I do and how they contribute … I believe that everybody cares, given the opportunity to care.

I’ve been trying to think about what sadness might make possible.

Sadness leads to the desire for connection. Sadness informs reaching out. But I don’t share sadness often, because I want to make opportunities for people to perform their own responses, to facilitate a journey to authentic response.

*

9/29/15

Okay, you don’t believe in the bell in the sky, you don’t want to make the bell in the sky happen. How about this…

When you’re in pain it’s natural to throw yourself down on the breast of your mother, if she’s not your enemy. And so the slopes with their scrub, the sidewalks with their cracks, the parks and beaches and vacant lots and meadows become dotted, striped, coated with people in pain, W and T among them, in different places, their chests or fingertips seeking contact with the dark earth. They share their sorrow with her and they rise up replenished; they take her wounds into themselves. Because of where and when they are, they lie eye-to-eye with yellowjackets and ants, they look to the side and see acorn caps and plantain leaves, a loose feather or a fallen oak twig. They look to the other side and see someone’s shoulder, or their hair interweaving with the grass.

They know (and if they don’t, they tell each other) that a big group of people in a place has a tendency to leave a mark, so they are careful with the length of time they stay. They start by grooming the places they lie down for human-made debris, but then they start to ask: what counts? Is garbage in a trashcan or a landfill better for the skin of the earth than garbage in the leaves? Some of them bring trowels and pick meditatively at the asphalt or concrete.

Mostly people stay for a little less long than it takes their body and their bacteria to move food or water along, so as not to cause problems with their shit or piss. But a few people lie there all day, for days. Maybe they’re skipping work, or don’t have work. Maybe they’re ignoring their families, or have no families.  Their sorrow is profound, and the people who lie next to them sometimes begin to bring them food and water, help them to nearby toilets or latrines reserved for them, even bathe them. They become shrines.

The other thing that happens is that through the seasons and years of lying on the ground, people come to know it better. Their ears and noses, as well as their skin, become attuned to its shifts, its layers, its veins, the motion of creatures within it or water below it. Someone who lies on the ground all the time can tell whether the ground they lie on is rich in plastic sediment, or lime, or mycorrhizae, or aerobic bacteria. They can sense the degree and nature of its strain or plenty. More often, it’s strain, and they share that stress and sorrow. Sometimes they can even tell what it needs, and ask for that, or bring it there–manure, or charcoal, or certain kinds of plants, or better drainage–not to serve humans better, but to feel more itself, to steady its balance.

… Does this offer you what you need? Do you believe it? Do you want to make it happen?

Alternate Histories: 5/29, 6/13, 9/28

5/29/15

[After asking his nana for permission to talk to me]

I’m worried that I’ll never get to see my dad and he misses me and I miss him. And I miss nature, I miss everything.

Your nana’s over there, you don’t miss her, right?

No, she’s right over there, and my mom, and my auntie, except for my dad.

Are you guys in touch? [Shakes head.] Do you like to draw?

Yeah.

Maybe you could do some drawings and save them for him, I bet he’d like that.

I like to draw Minecraft. I make a comic book and I turn it into a comic book and all I do is make Minecraft, that’s all. Can I have a piece of paper? [I give him a piece of paper and he folds it.] Do you have a scissor or can you rip it? [He draws a line to show me where to rip, and unfolds a one-sheet booklet. He then goes and lugs his little cousin over to meet me and they draw together for a while on the backs of some of the alternate-history blanks, except he’s having a competition for how much paper he can cover and she’s not. I give him a marker, a clipboard, and the rest of the alternate-history blanks to take with him.]

*

6/13/15

I worked at Apeiron, I worked in Woonsocket. Life is so totally out of balance, so disconnected. We’re all implicated. It makes me so unutterably sad.

What do you do when you feel that sadness?

I try to put parts of my body on the grass and connect with Mother Earth … A lot will survive, but I think it might not be us. I try to breathe. I think about the bad things I do and how they contribute … I believe that everybody cares, given the opportunity to care.

I’ve been trying to think about what sadness might make possible.

Sadness leads to the desire for connection. Sadness informs reaching out. But I don’t share sadness often, because I want to make opportunities for people to perform their own responses, to facilitate a journey to authentic response.

*

9/27/15

When you see a sad eight-year-old, you may feel an impulse to reach out to him, to enfold him. If W could see T, small and matter-of-fact, willing to talk to a stranger provided he had permission from his family, her attention and her yearning might condense around him until he became the world. But W can’t provide what T, according to him, needs: she can’t bring his dad back to him. What she can offer he might not need–he has a mother, a nana, an auntie, cousins. And a sadness that seems as big as the world isn’t the same as the world–healing one is no substitute for healing the other, though it might feel like it.

W would like to see T live to grow up, and she adds, in her small ways, to the things that may make that more likely. She doesn’t just work with Apeiron’s programs in schools, she’s helped to insist on safe school sites; she stands with efforts to hold police accountable and develop community justice alternatives. She protests fare hikes and cuts to library services. Her fear is for T, and everyone his age, and for herself, and everyone her age, and for the grass–the whole, old world.

And what does T want? He misses his dad–he wants to know that he’ll see him someday, in a day that hasn’t come yet. He misses nature–maybe he’d like to lie on the grass, too, or smell a different set of smells. But he’s not going to get in a stranger’s car and drive out to a meadow or the woods. And he might not get to see his dad again.

So in this story, what W and T need, and thus what they have, is a place to be wholly lonely even in the midst of love, to touch the face of their helplessness. A time of day, a signal to send to a satellite that sends back to everyone who calls to it all the voices together, amplified and textured into a deep note. It’s not comforting, but it’s solid. T’s auntie lets him use her phone to call out and to listen back.  And this –combined with the meeting of their bodily needs, combined with the equalizing of their relative safety–lets them rest a little, lets them work, lets them enjoy, lets them change what they do.

Alternate Histories: 5/22, 4/10

5/22/14

Are the poles really melting, and it’s gonna raise the seas? So we’re gonna lose Manhattan, Nag’s Head? It doesn’t matter! There’s no anxiety–you’ll be dead, I’ll be dead, and new life will come.

I guess I’m thinking about what happens before that, the people who–

[Laughing] The galaxy dies, a new galaxy will come!

But before that happens, the plants, the animals that we’re familiar with—

[Laughing] It doesn’t matter, the dinosaurs died, everything will die!

You keep interrupting me, stop interrupting me. When you laugh, it’s like you’re making fun of me.

[He keeps laughing and I keep giving him stoneface.]

I’ve enjoyed talking with you.

*

4/10/15

Too many people to count easily form a slow tide that fills the street. Their voices rise to the traffic lights, to the signal towers, to the helicopters, in rage, in grief, in unity, calling for justice for the dead and the living.

A circle of grown people, their faces marked with soot, lay small stones on a circle of dried moss. They say the names of the dead species: the Wopanaak names, the English names, the Spanish names, the Latin names, each according to their knowledge of the dead. I am grieved for you, they say, grieved and in bitterness.

Seven or eight human adults and children, and three dogs, visit a flat stone amid hundreds of other flat stones, between clumps of trees and interlaced with thyme, lichen, moss, bouncing bet and dandelions. There are no bodies under the stones; we have found new uses for human substance, for its elements and components, that we are resigned to because our relation with the dead person has not ceased. The dogs nose around dutifully while the humans speak to their dead friend, telling her about recent triumphs, discoveries, other griefs. Two of the friends announce that one of them is pregnant. They sing a song to her. They pour a little beer over her grave and drink the rest themselves. They leave offerings that they know the graveyard skunks and sparrows and ants and possums and wasps and starlings will eat.

The procession stretches along the sand and back from the edge of the water as far as the eye can see. Each person bends down to the water’s edge and dumps a small packet of what looks like pale sand. It is bone meal, the bones of the dead. They are seeing if it will restore the balance of the ions in that water, to make it less acidic and give the shelled animals living in it more to work with. As each person spills the bones into the inlet, they say the name of a person or a kind of plant or animal they miss.

The family dabs honey on the brow of the new baby and kisses it off, each naming the new baby with ten beloved names.

A person bundled in shawl and coat walks down into the city. “Hey sweetpeas,” they murmur to the fat red buds on the municipal trees in the cold cold morning, “it’s gonna be soon,” saying something they can’t prove or make true, like a doula, like a person who loves a dying person, or even an animal, across that gulf, that opening.