Climate Anxiety Counseling: Kennedy Plaza/Burnside Park, 5/24/18

Weather: Bright, hot sun, stiff cool breeze

Number of people: 10 stoppers, 3 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 10

People who got the Peanuts reference: 1

Pictures taken with permission: 4

Pictures taken without permission: 1

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

Dogs seen: 5 (4 tiny, 1 big)

Dogs pet: 0

Narcan shared: 1

 

Observations:

The park ranger and the parking meter enforcer hang out together.

Nonhuman organisms in the park: yellowjacket, starlings, hairy defoliating caterpillars.

Today I had lots of conversations with people that I didn’t get permission to write down. Sometimes this was because I asked and they didn’t give it; sometimes because they were in full flood of speaking and I didn’t have a chance to ask.

One such person had a blue jay feather tucked behind their ear, and I showed them the one I keep in the RI Organism card box.

People often ask me about trends from year to year. I’ve already noticed a slight uptick this year in anti-immigrant rhetoric, and I need to figure out how I want to respond to that (haven’t been satisfied with the ways I’ve handled it so far).

 

Some conversations:

I moved up here from Florida in ’86. Thirty years ago we never needed air conditioning. Now we need to put it in every summer, usually by May. Winter [used to start] in October. Everybody who says it isn’t happening has their head in the sand.

 

*

Well, I did read about Greenland. There was a huge article in the New Yorker—I felt almost traumatized. It’s just coming unglued. There are huge crevasses, it’s melting at such a rapid rate, and ice reflects sunlight but water absorbs it. It’s such a rapid pace that they can’t even [measure?] the rate of melt. It was a very powerful experience reading the piece. These people that have dedicated their lives to being on the front lines of global awareness of climate change—it just kind of blows me away …

Boston flooded, there were like, floating cars, and it was vastly underreported. I didn’t see it in the national news. I try not to be a huge conspiracy theorist, but I felt like it was deliberate. [The Greenland article] really woke me up—I was really aware of it before, but not feeling it personally. I think we’re going to see rapid changes coming down the pike in the next five years. I think people are gonna be up to their waists in water, I think people are in denial.

What do you think people would do if they recognized this reality? 

I’m moving inland. I’m visiting a friend in New Mexico, Santa Fe, and I’ll see what happens. I feel like I kind of go over better west of the Mississippi. My daughters have moved away, Lucy [the dog] finally died a few months ago—I’ve had a lot of loss and a lot of completion …

Have you talked to your daughters about it?

I haven’t talked to them about this. They think I’m nuts anyway. My friend who’s moving to Oregon, she’ll say, “If there’s a tsunami, I’ll just hop in the car.” If there’s a tsunami, you’re not getting in any car! I think it is hard to grasp, I don’t know. … If you love where you are and you have a good life, you wanna stay where you are. I think people are like, “Well, the weather certainly has been erratic,” and older people remember very different weather patterns, but people just think it’s weather. I remember these really cold winters, my boots getting full of ice. …

How does it feel, when you think about it?

It’s awful. I have a friend who’s a master of permaculture. She’s got a self-sustaining quarter-acre, where she can grow enough food to feed herself and her family—it’s like two backyard lots, and we’ve talked a lot about issues of food scarcity. She was pretty dire. Her feeling is that we’ve just really gone too far. And I kind of had to not have that conversation. I honestly don’t know much good it would do to have a garden if people around you were suffering from a shortage of food. … Sometimes there are things that are just too painful to discuss, too huge to wrap my brain around. There are times in the day that I’m more open to confront difficult things.

*

 

[I know both of these people, and have spoken to them at the climate booth before, but they don’t know each other. They came up to me one at a time, but also spoke to each other.]

Person 1: I guess I’ve been thinking about water. I was watching the weather on TV, which is not something I normally do, and they were talking about El Niño and La Niña, and I learned how the moisture that the soil absorbs in spring affects how rainy the season will be—the rainier a spring is, the more likely thunderstorms are, and that’s weird to think about.  A lot of things come and go—human matter is the same carbon that’s been around forever but it’s in different forms—but water doesn’t decompose, it’s the same water, and we only have so much of the water we have—I mean, we have so much and so much of it is not usable, a fraction of one percent of it is actually usable.  The rest of it, we can’t use it or it’s hard to use it. I don’t know how to turn that into an anxiety—well, it is an anxiety that—what if we don’t have water someday?

Maybe my anxiety is that I feel a little fatalist. Growing up as a child of global warming, I recognize that the Earth is dying and I want to make changes, but people who really know what’s going on are like, “We’re fucked.” Ten, twenty, thirty years—I think in thirty years we’re not gonna have energy. You have to put energy into getting energy: people talk about solar and wind power but it takes a massive amount of energy to make a metal turbine. Solar panels are made with all these rare materials.

… I tell my sister, she’s talking about what she wants to be doing thirty years from now, and I’m like, “Do you really think things are gonna be the same in thirty years?” Or people are like, “Our children’s children,” and I’m like, “I don’t know if there are gonna be ‘our children’–or they’re not gonna live like this.” We can take steps to preserve some things, but other things have already been lost. It doesn’t make me want to destroy—it makes me want to liberate things in the short term. I don’t think I would be as radical as I am [without the knowledge of climate change], and I think a lot of people have been radicalized. Soon, even the capitalists will suffer. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But I think it also has made me numb … Sometimes, I feel like I’m not doing anything, or I’m just working on my own things because I feel like it’s all gonna be gone in 20 years.

[Person 2 came up around this point.]

You can be delusional and think things can keep going the way they are, or keep going with just a few minor changes, but we’ll be transformed by this, so we can either be radicalized and work really hard, or take the sad way and just be passive.

One thing I’ve been thinking of is—people do things, or one of the reasons people do things is because they feel good, not just because they’re trying to avoid feeling bad, so in a time like this, how do you move toward joy?

Person 2: I’m just gonna keep doing what I’m doing. I feel like there’s no future right now, but I’m just gonna keep producing plays, keep writing the things that I want to see in the world.

Person 1: I feel like that a lot. Does it feel worthwhile to you?

Person 2: What feels worthwhile is that I find my tribe. People who I relate to and I relate to them.

Person 1: I think about how much fun I had on the night Trump was elected. We were all like, “I don’t know, fuck it, let’s get drunk in Worcester,” just breaking things and being like, “Nothing matters.”

Person 2: These days, I’m waiting for a cop to talk to me. That’s when I’m gonna be like, “Nothing matters.”

Person 1: Does it scare you?

Person 2: No, I’ve had ’em. I’ll have more. The more I learn about policing and social justice, the more I find if we can grow out of slavery we can grow out of guns. That’s the other thing that feels worthwhile, connecting with the youth and teaching classes—my art doesn’t exist without that. That’s how I move toward joy. I just applied for a grant, but if I don’t get it, I’m teaching this class anyway. Art through social justice—I get excited about that stuff.

Person 1: I don’t think people realize the mental health toll of living in the world where nothing is certain.

I was wondering if people who—you know, the more marginalized you are, the more likely you are to face upheaval every day, and I was wondering if people who have had to face that might have wisdom for those who haven’t.

Person 2: I wish. This is a cultural issue. I remember during the stock market crash, and black people were like, “Just another day. You’re stressed out over something that we’ve been living.” Most black people will tell you, “Welcome to my world.” You make the move when where you’re at is so uncomfortable that you can no longer bear it. You either think we’re crazy, or you join in.

map 5-25-18

Description: This (somewhat impressionistic) map of the state of Rhode Island says, “Put your worries on the map,” at the top, and “Is there a place in Rhode Island you’d like to protect?” at the bottom. Someone has drawn a circle around the entire state.

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Taking Time

Earlier this week, the city of Providence hosted the Resilient Providence Lab, inviting experts in sustainable design, city planning and urban policy to listen to Providence residents (referred to as “stakeholders”), look at the city’s streets and trees and ground and buildings, and make some recommendations to make the city more “sustainable”, “adaptable” or “resilient.” (Sorry about all the fingerquotes.) I went to a “stakeholders’ meeting” on Monday where the visiting experts served as moderators, asking people, essentially, about the city’s strengths and weaknesses in the face of climate change and its effects.

“Resilience” has limits and misdirections that I’ll talk about in another post (building on Melissa Chadburn’s and Lynda Barry’s ideas about it), but at this meeting what struck me more was the intensity and length with which the people in attendance, often there to represent a group, spoke about the thing they had come there to speak about, sometimes to the side of the moderator’s question. People sometimes challenged, or defended against, what others said; building on another person’s response was less common.

These were mainly urgent things: nourishing food and safe shelter, health and dignity and quality of life. All things that deserve time, thought, and swift response guided by both time and thought. More than one person pointed out the rarity of “a seat at the table”–the city’s table–for organizations attempting to serve and defend the Providence residents who are injured most by the city’s policies, social structures and economic systems. Experience, then, has taught them that opportunities to state what they need the city–the people in charge of the city–to hear are few,  that they must seize the moment and hold it as long as they can.

I sat in the “neighborhod/community” group the whole time, as distinct from the “buildings” group and the “infrastructure” group, so I don’t know how other people were speaking and listening to each other. One person in our group posited that in other groups, they weren’t having this conversation or stating these needs; another noted that the people who were at this table are often together, hearing each other, and that they wanted to introduce these needs into the two discussions that might be ignoring them.

Our home city had trained us well in scarcity.  As advocates, as representatives, we had learned that we were at odds with each other for the attention of those whose help (and resources, and skills) we need in order to change what needs changing. People were respectful, self-aware, restrained; we  were also fighting people who weren’t in the room, on behalf of other people who weren’t in the room, in an effort to get from one what we needed for the other. It seemed like this made it hard for us to hear each other, to note and emphasize the overlap of what we wanted, to insist together.

 

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Reflections on May in Kennedy Plaza/Burnside Park

This season, I found myself paying the most attention to people whose views of the world were marginal or heightened, people for whom the center of the circle of their consciousness was definitely not the one our culture assumes we have. They’re in the grip of a powerful state of mind and being–evangelism, revolution, fear, childhood–that shapes the way they understand and feel everything that happens to them. They know things in these ways. Even correcting for the fact that what we call “normal” consciousness or awareness is actually a wide and various map in itself, these four people’s variation was extreme.

U.S. culture as it presently exists forces us to view every action and interaction through the lens of money*; by default, it centers money, and by default, it serves the people who are best at getting money out of other people, animals, plants, or things, by every means at their disposal. Money as equivalent to access (to survival, to pleasure, to power) is presumptive; money as equivalent to access is a given. And that’s relevant to ecology and climate anxiety because this vision reduces everything and everyone other than the self to a “resource” for the self to exploit. It creates false scarcities where there could be abundance; it creates a mind of scarcity, and makes real abundance hard to see.

People who vehemently oppose money’s uneven distribution still often find it very hard to imagine a world with a different center. This is not an accident.

That’s one reason I found myself listening to people who for various reasons–some articulated, some inferred, and many invisible to me–saw their world in other ways. For some, it seemed that extreme suffering and violence had wrenched them into their visions; for some, their visions seemed likely to interact with other aspects of their lives and situations to make them more vulnerable; one or two of them hadn’t spent as much time in the normative vision, because they were kids, and were more able to have other kinds of interactions and transactions. I thought maybe they could help me understand other ways of entering, or creating, other worlds, of letting go deliberately of certain aspects of this one.

As a teenager, I encountered and latched onto the platitude, “If what you’re doing isn’t working, do anything else.” That’s helped me a time or two and even influenced the alternate histories, but my interlocutors brought me up against its limits. The evangelist’s world has no place for me in it; the fearful man’s world is helpful as a metaphor but living as though it were factually true would not be an improvement. Still, listening to them reminded me that to some extent, what we think can shape what we say and do. It also reminded me that whatever version of the world we make will need to have room for them in it–some kind of room, some version of them.

Some notes about what made this project possible for me specifically, from the first round, are here. My mom recently commented on my “willingness” (thanks Mom, I love you) as a key component of the booth sessions, and that willingness is a direct result of my being protected in certain ways. It may be those protections, too, that have led me to believe that variety–of life, of stories, of ideas, of terrain–is inherently lovely. I get really frustrated with narratives of purity and people who say there’s one true way to do this or that. But there are places on the map of variety of action that I fear, and that I want an end to. When we say that a world we want to make has “no place” for certain actions, we may be coming from a place of control, or a place of protection; a place of fear, or a place of salvation.

I don’t just want to make the world different; I want to make it better for (more) different living beings, human and nonhuman beings different from the ones it’s mainly good for right now. To do that, I have to imagine my way out of what I’ve often heard–including about myself and what I deserve–and question my new imaginations, to be sure they’re serving more than me.

In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see more alternate histories responding to the climate-related and other anxieties that people shared with me throughout the month of May. Like the first ones, these will be attempts to imagine different centers for our lives, different responses to each others’ needs. In July and August, some people I know will join me in creating alternate histories that I’ll share here and they’ll share elsewhere.

I haven’t forgotten my resolve to help connect people with each other, with nonhuman living beings, and with collective, restorative actions–the latter is one of the hardest things to imagine, as people’s responses to my questions often show. While I seek more concrete ways to do this, I want to expand the process of imagining worlds that we–the biggest, most expansive “we”, which still excludes some actions–would actually want to work towards and could actually stand to live in.

*Doctor’s note: I am oversimplifying this slightly on purpose.

Climate Anxiety Counseling: Day 15

Weather: Sunny, near-cloudless, cool in the shade, breezy.

Number of people: 6 stoppers, 1 walkby

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 5

Conversations between people previously unknown to one another: 2

Packets of Small State Seeds given away: 2

People who recognized and commented on the Peanuts reference: 3

People who called the booth “cute”: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.14

 

Observations:

Saturday confirmed as a low head count day.

I really like seeing graduates with their families.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked, shocked, to hear this, but people who say they’re going to show up don’t always. However, when they do show up, it’s extra nice.

It can be very hard to get people to talk about specific things they are scared to lose. That’s why, in the first conversation below, I’ve included a long song of praise for the climate of the Pacific Northwest, which I didn’t have to pry out of this person at all.

 

Some conversations: 

I don’t wake up in the morning and say, This is my main concern, but I recognize the threat that it poses. I went to the University of Washington and I studied psychology, I minored in astronomy — I’m so interested in earth and space science. That’s why I stopped. You don’t usually see that together, climate and anxiety … The first thing I think of is geological effects, as far as rising water. In Washington State, there’s a lot of things I might lose to Mother Nature. (Like what?) The city, the ferries — [the town I live in] is near a shipyard, a naval base, where they house active aircraft carriers to get repaired. … Especially there, where the ferry terminal is — it’ll be so detrimental to all the new architecture. Seattle is built on top of a city [I think he meant on top of a hill]: you go east, you’re going up, you go north, you’re going up. So I might lose 1st, 2nd, 3rd Street. It’s not like there’s a quick fix — “Oh, we’ll put a wall up” — that’s not gonna work. Everything’s mild in Washington State, springs are really wonderful — usually it’s right where you would expect the temperature to be. The fall is kinda the same as the spring, maybe a little warmer. An ideal day in the summer is the high 80s, dry heat. The air quality is the best, you can’t beat it.

*

Yeah, I would say I’m definitely anxious about global warming. It’s an interesting problem — there’s a dichotomy of being really concerned and the knowledge that the horrible things about it are probably not going to affect me, so I want to enjoy the state that the world is in now while that’s possible. I mean, according to the predictions that scientists are making — I live in the first world, so it may have dramatic but not life-threatening consequences. I’ll still be able to enjoy life in a way that most people aren’t going to be able to. I do have a fear of getting old and having a lot of things become huge problems around the time that I get old and can’t take care of myself. A fear of not being able to do anything about it — not being able to enjoy the world because you know this horrible thing is coming.

What if it was going to be sooner? You know, what if in the paper you read that instead of fifty years, it’s going to happen in thirty years or whatever?

I hate to say it, but I think that would — rather than wanting to immediately do something, I would be in the mode of trying to enjoy the world as much as possible. There’s a way to slow but not stop it, and I think a lot of people are like, “Well, fuck it.” If it did look that imminent, there are all these things I would want to do and see.

Do you really hate to say it? 

A little bit, because I think it’s a reflection on my weakness as a person, where everyone’s out to have a good life, which got us into this — why should we stop it now?

What do you see yourself doing to look out for people in this harder world? 

I think it’s going to require a radically different way of looking at resources that I don’t think anyone in the U.S. is at all used to. I’m a planner, and I try hard to live off not a lot, so that’s a skill I could maybe give to other people — like how not to use an obscene amount of water. I’ll be the jerk who’s like, You can’t take a 20 minute shower, you just can’t.

Are you that jerk now? 

No, not really. I try to be mindful of what I use, where my food’s coming from, but Americans are conditioned to not pay attention to that because we don’t have to.

*

I’ve been feeling glum about getting my work published, and then I get mad at myself for being glum, because it’s stupid. The reason I write isn’t to get published, but then I catch myself caring about this, and then I get so angry at myself for caring. My skin is so thin, and I keep waiting for it to get thicker as I get older. I should be impervious, but I’m not, and that’s what makes me so mad.

What if, like, future you could tell you that your skin is never going to be thicker, it’s not going to happen?

But then what do I do with that? I think the problem is more that I continue to need praise and positive reinforcement … I just want to know if it’s good or have it not matter.

 

Today’s poem: 

 

To live off not

a lot not to live on

what anchors and underpins

all your respirations

to remove yourself

from less and less

a thin wavelength

an extraordinary measure

before it’s needed

or as it’s needed before

in order not to need

as much to live

with that collapsed

as far away as impact

of the Andromeda Galaxy

into ours

our only one

we’d better take care of it

I forgot my shift

today was short and

so was startled

to know I’d have

to leave so soon

with so little time

to talk myself down from

a tearjerker ending

at least let me have

that guilt, that pleasure

of knowing I could

have done so much