Some things about leaves

Walked to vote on a raw Novemberish day in Providence. When the weather is seasonable, I feel better, even though I know it has no long-term meaning. The leaves are starting to come down in earnest finally and pile up a little.

leaves 1

To pay attention to some things, we have to neglect other things. Let them just pile up on the sidewalk, break down as best they can, let the dogs shit in them, let their own tenants of fungus and bacteria emerge, unsanitary, let them spread a layer of humus slowly over the sidewalk, let people walk and wheel in the street, let dropped seeds take root. How quiet it will be. Sour smell of the smashed locust pods rotting, sparrows having to make different decisions.

leaves 2

Streets paved with gold, in the short term: let them learn again to maintain themselves, let the seedlings teach the concrete to crack. Think about who is with you now.  When you step off the street itself to let an ambulance through, you are taking a walk in the forest.

 

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Climate Anxiety Counseling: Kennedy Plaza/Burnside Park, 6/21/17

Weather: Muggy, breezy, clouds and sun, humidity lifting as it got sunnier

Number of people: 7 stoppers, 5 walkbys

Pages of notes: 6.5

People who recognized the Peanuts reference: 2

People who recognized me, and I them, from previous years: 4

Number of dogs seen: 4

Number of dogs pet: 0

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $2.80

 

Observations:

While I had a few conversations today, for a few different reasons I only ended up getting permission to post one, which is below.

I responded very disproportionately to someone today. I’ll reflect on it at greater length later, but what I’m taking from it at the moment is that the more responses I have prepared, the less likely I am to be a reactive dickhead whose mental habits lead me to use my power badly.

Beginning of shift, cop car parked at the Dorrance St. end of Kennedy Plaza. 3:03, bike cop ran through the park carrying a sandwich. 3:17, three cops in uniform walked through the park. 4:34, cop SUV drove down Washington St.

I saw 20+ skateboards today, some people riding them, some people carrying them.

Speaking of overcoming mental habits: C., if you’re reading this, I think my suggestions to you were okay and I stand by them, but I forgot another thing you could do and that we can all do: start learning about efforts and methods to abolish the police.

 

A conversation:

Probably I have five years to live. And I know my life doesn’t mean that much in the span of the Earth’s existence, but I just feel bad for all the families who are having children now. I totally get it, but it’s kind of selfish to have kids. I really wanna travel, but I don’t have enough money, because I live in this capitalist society where I have to make money to sustain a dying life. … Even if I started living eco-friendly in my regular life, it wouldn’t matter because the permafrost is just gonna come and kill everyone. I’ve grown so nihilistic. Human beings are just a cancer on the Earth. I just want to smoke as many cigarettes as possible and then die slowly and horribly, I’m sure Mother Earth will really enjoy that. I just put it really dramatically because … I coud be like, Oh, we’re all gonna do just fine, but no one’s gonna do just fine. I picked five [years] because I don’t know a ton of scientific evidence so I picked a low expectational number. I set my bar low so I can try to force myself to do the things I want.

… The way I was raised was super hedonistic, just monstrously gaining things. I live with my parents, and when I’m just living in my home it’s like, Enjoy this polished exterior that life has to offer—I’m really privileged but I live with people who [couldn’t] give less of a shit about the Earth. … But I’m not gonna run into my parents’ living room screaming, “We all have to kill ourselves. Hey, mom, wanna go out and get some cigarettes and smoke until we die?”

I love my family, they’re great, I wanna protect them. …Imagine trying to love someone to your fullest ability in the shortest amount of time. You can do it by communicating, expressing your love, and you can even do it by silence, but the people I’m dealing with don’t know silence. I just don’t want to have to do it. I don’t want to have to do it all now. I can do it, but I realize how much love I was gonna have to give when I was older—and I hate it that I’m not gonna get to do that—

More About Love

Today is the birthday of James Kuo, cartoonist, kind man, motorcycle maniac, brave soul, musical autodidact, joke maven, dreamboat, rock clamberer, and husband to me. I’m so glad he was born; I’m so glad our paths crossed; I’m so glad we get to walk the rest of the way together. His love for me sustains me and my love for him shapes me.

Last year, the New Yorker published a story by Jess Row called “The Empties.” It irked me for a few reasons, some solid (oh, Bridgeport CT becomes a hell zone while rural Vermont is fine?) and some more idiosyncratic (I just hate gleeful disaster fiction). One of its more irksome qualities was its thesis, demonstrably untrue, that love is automatically a casualty of catastrophe: not the people or things one loves, but the ability to love, the delight in and gratitude for a particular life. “We are the last of the loved ones,” the protagonist intones to herself.

Suffering can scar love, can contort it, can warp it. We’ve seen this. What I’m fighting is the idea that love, tenderness, loyalty and care are vestigial, that we’re better off dropping them to lighten the load when we have to run or fight or endure.

I repudiate that. I don’t claim to know or understand all the ways that love can move us, but I know that it can move us toward wholeness, that it can show us our node in the net of life and death, that it can hold us up and help us hold ourselves out. Zoe Todd writes of this net spreading through time and generations in her notes on sorrow. The Climate Anxiety Counseling project has one of its many root-fibers in love, love as a way to connect and sustain, love as a force to recognize and draw upon and add to, love as a reason to change.

More instantly, you don’t need to accept the proposition that it’s a good thing that any one of us is alive to acknowledge that if we’re alive it’s probably at least a little bit good when we’re constantly learning, becoming kinder, braver, more responsive to the world. That’s how James Kuo is, and that’s how loving him makes me, and that’s one of many reasons (some of which have nothing to do with me) that it’s good that he was born and is in the world now.

When I Think About It

Yesterday, when I read that the U.S. government granted Shell permission to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, I felt sick and drained. My limbs grew heavy; my chest felt like a chunk of asphalt. I continued working on the syllabus for my academic essay course, the course that helps students practice making sense, base their ideas on evidence, identify and question the sources of their positions and options. I got a draft done before heading off to choir rehearsal, where one of my fellow altos asked me how my day had been. I said, “Not great.” I told her why.

“I think I just make myself numb to a lot of it,” she said. “There’s so much that’s terrible.”

I don’t think I really feel it–the weight, the reality, the looming absence, the many stupid deaths, the blank ocean, the blank land. I tell myself that if I really felt it, I would do anything to make the feeling stop–which would not be the same as making the source of the feeling stop, which is what I want to do, and am trying to do, in my tiny way, and am trying to find bigger ways to do.

The song we’re singing in choir is a song of grief and love. It doesn’t have the power to bring the dead beloved back to life. If it did, I would sing it all day and all night. If it did, I would find people to sing it in shifts with me and the other people who are learning it with me, I would insist that we continue to bear this person up with our voices, I would beg if I had to. I still couldn’t make anyone sing, but I would try to make the case: “This is necessary and I need help to do it.” I would sing until the beloved person lived their years out.

Some deaths are stupider than others. Some deaths we can stave off by work, by love, by the will to both, by the willingness to risk our own lives, before they happen. Some deaths we can resist by courage, by faith, by recognition of and action toward what needs to change. But the ones who are lost are lost.

If you are feeling very badly today, if willful dismissal of evidence and greed and fear and failure of courage are weighing down your limbs, I hope it helps to know that today I am feeling that way too.

Climate Anxiety Counseling at the Sankofa World Market: Reflections

During my third stint at the Sankofa World Market, a woman around my age came up to the Climate Anxiety Counseling booth and spoke about the stresses of her present living situation: her sister with five children had moved into a house originally intended to hold the speaker, her mom and her brother; they were short on space and long on noise, and there were other circumstances within the family that made it harder for everyone to live together. As I listened and asked occasional questions, it seemed to me that I’d seen her before, but I wasn’t sure and I hate to be wrong about that. When we reached what seemed like the end of the conversation, she asked my name.

“Kate,” I said, and her face changed and I said the name I thought was hers, as a question. Then we shrieked, and I came around the booth to hug her.

She and I met when she was working in a social work or counseling capacity at a charter school, where a girl I was mentoring* was a first-year student; the three of us met together a few times, eleven years ago. This time it’s only two weeks before we see each other again. She tells me things are going better at the house, presses a variety of snacks upon me, gives me her card and flyers for the CSEA, where she works, and makes sad sounds when I say it’s my last day. We like each other.

The CSEA of Rhode Island holds literacy and citizenship and ESL classes, offers assistance to women and girls suffering from domestic violence, helps people with their taxes, provides interpreting services, works for voter registration. They do this for Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong and Vietnamese Rhode Islanders; that’s who they serve, though they do some of it with the help of organizations that also serve other people.

I was thinking about this and also about July 22nd, when I had three separate booth conversations about religious faith and practice. I have neither of those, but even I know that the fact that they provide a reason other than affection to look out for people is a fringe benefit, not their purpose. I’ve been thinking more and more about that benefit because, like the CSEA’s mission and practices, it leads me in the direction of relations within and between structures, as well as between people, that are or have the potential to be sustaining rather than exploitative. Love and liking are powerful, but they can’t be the only ways for a person to get what they need–what they actually need–any more than money can be. Cleaning a person’s house because they share your faith, or helping them successfully escape a violent situation because they share your history, is an alternative to doing so because they are paying you, and doesn’t depend on you liking them. And alternatives are what we are looking for.

These things are obvious, but I mention them because a good way to be sure something happens is to have a redundancy of systems set up to do it, and to achieve that redundancy, a lot of beings have to be part of making it happen–they have to agree or “agree.” That is, it must be built into their they, their we, whether or not that agreement is what humans call conscious. In the present, our human we is limited and impaired, perilously close to I, so it’s hard to get to the simplest answer of all: we’ll do this because you need it, or rather, some of us will do this because some of us need it. In the expanded, ecological sense of “we,” it’s even harder: proportionally few humans now know, or are even equipped to listen for, the alpine or arboreal complement or parallel to a “need” or a “decision,”** to recognize it, and to act in accordance with it. It’s become almost a truism, a sourly regurgitated tidbit, that as we live within extractive*** capitalism, we serve it by default; that our easiest actions are most destructive to ourselves and others. Yet surely this is true mainly of humans at the moment, more than it is of other living beings. By continuing to grow, to root, to bloom, to allow itself to be fed and to be digested, is the purslane resisting?

Another interlocutor at the market spoke bitterly about “actions” like changing light bulbs from incandescents to fluorescents–“distractions,” she said. We talked about arguments we’d heard for and against the fossil fuel divestment path boosted by 350.org and others. “If someone would say to me, ‘This is definitely what you and a lot of other people should do,'” I said, “I’d do it.” This puts me almost exactly where I was more than a year ago, and realizing that–that I still have no clear sense of a path to truly collective action and, more importantly, being–spurs my frustration and anger and sadness. One small side effect of that impaired “we” I mentioned above is that I turn those feelings back on myself. **** These reflections are fumbling, hampered, and slow. I’m sorry. Like you, I live in the world.

The second, related truism that sticks in my craw is exemplified by this quotation from Naomi Klein:

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.

She at least makes the distinction of atomization–the “I”, the impaired “we.” But my point is that unless we follow this up with what each “I” must do in unison with a bunch of other “I”s, to make a less impaired “we”–what it is that “we” all must do together, or what some of us need to do while others of us do other things–that atomization will remain and we will be where we were before, which is where I am now. That’s why I’m looking at articles of faith, at organizations that turn externally imposed affiliations (“Southeast Asian”, for example) into sources of internal mutuality–the different “we”s that people are using, that might teach us how to say it better and for more reasons. I believe this will also be more helpful, not less, in making us responsive to the differences within the “we” (a carrot does not need what an oak tree needs, and it may be equally resistive for a person with one history to embrace what a person with another history eschews).

The Climate Anxiety Counseling booth is, in one sense, a one-woman show. (Someone recently rejected my suggestion that I “train” and send someone else to do it at an event I couldn’t attend myself.) There are reasons, detailed here, why it’s possible for me in a way that it might not be for other people. If it has the potential to be more than that, I haven’t yet successfully accessed that potential in what I’m doing or inviting others to do. This is a confession of frustration, but not of resignation. I will continue to try. I will continue to listen and ask questions.

* People who know me know about this person, who is a grownup now. I’m not going to say anything else about her here except that she is a terrific human being whom I love and admire.

**Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” describes learning to listen in this way. Expect me to refer to this work again: it’s important.

**Thanks to Gene Bernat of Living Systems Laboratory for this word, which possibly everyone else has already been using but which is the perfect name for what it is.

****For more about why this has a social or exterior valence as well as an interior or chemical one, Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling is a good resource.

Alternate Histories: 5/7, 6/28

5/7/15

Girlfriend 1: Finding work. I have a job, I wanna find a better one. More money, more stability. I don’t mind dangerous–I used to work unloading the freight when it comes off the 18-wheeler, sometimes it shifts around, you can’t just take it off however. I worked with electrical and manual jacks–you have to be certified, you have to know what you’re doing. I’m not too concerned about global warming. I’m concerned about my sister’s pregnancy–she’s had three miscarriages. I’m concerned about my girlfriend’s health, she’s sick right now. My girlfriend smokes and I want her to quit. I call her a dirty smoker–she’s dirty smokin’.

Does that make you want to quit?

Girlfriend 2: Yes.

Do you know what would help you quit?

Girlfriend 2: Vaping.

It sounds like you guys are taking care of each other.

Girlfriend 1: Yep. We’re getting married, she’s not going anywhere.

*

6/28/15

Throughout the following week, DD tried to pay attention to when she wanted a cigarette and when she actually smoked: on breaks in her workday, after she and M fucked, between dinner and dishes, when she was angry or lonely. Frankly, she thought those little vaping things looked stupid and smelled sickening; they eased the cravings but didn’t feel the same as lighting up. Lighting up? DD started carrying matches, dropping them only at the last second, or letting her lighter burn until it got too hot for her fingers. She looked into the flame and while it lasted tried to be as angry as she could, or as satisfied, or as sad. She used the vaping thing only when she absolutely needed a nicotine hit, and then she did it furtively, in the bathroom, because it looked so stupid. “You’re crazy, baby,” M said, hugging her.

By the time M’s sister reached the end of her pregnancy and had to go on bed rest, both M and her sister could take time away from work without penalty–M to take care of her sister, and M’s sister to take care of herself. M’s work was changing–her shifts were less frequent because of the scarcity and cost of fuel and the drop in imports. Her hours were longer because when shipments came in they tended to be bigger, and the things she was unloading were different–no more vegetables from California, different kinds of machines, medicines for new sicknesses. “Maybe you don’t care about climate change,” DD joked, a little bitterly, “but it cares about you.” They held off the wedding until the new nibling was old enough to walk with them and strew brightly dyed grass and plant seeds in their path, since no one would be crass enough to pick and kill that many flowers. The dyes wouldn’t hurt the seeds or the soil, but who knew if the seeds would take.

Getting to see M for longer at a time made DD need less nicotine, and so did her new job on the coast, treating the land for salt after storm surges. The job was just whatever, but being near the water felt good to her, even after it came up too high and left a stinking mark on the land, and everyone she worked with understood her need to take frequent breaks, look out past the tideline and take big, harsh breaths of salt-and-seaweed air.

By the time DD’s diagnosis of lung cancer came down ten years later, M saw her every day during her hospital stays, and so could M’s sister, her boyfriend, their other boyfriend, the nibling, and three of DD and M’s oldest friends. The basic living stipend was in place by then, and of course DD’s care didn’t cost them any extra money, but M went into work twice a week to have something to do. The hospital itself was small, one floor–it used to be a big-box store–and smelled like vinegar. One of DD’s co-workers from the salt plant took the bus up to visit and brought her a little bottle of salt water to smell. They all watched her take the top off and inhale.

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.