Climate Anxiety Counseling: 5/29/16

Weather: Hot, but okay in the shade, even breezy and cool there at times.

Number of people: 13 stoppers, 4 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 6

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1, indirectly (see below)

People known to me, and I to them, from previous sessions:1

Pictures taken with permission: 2

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $2.07, plus one Hershey’s Miniature Special Dark with Peanuts



Sunday was Brown University’s graduation day, so there were a lot of families walking by carrying commencement programs. Almost none of these stopped, though.

I know people smoke weed in the park, but this is the first day I’ve actually been able to smell it, pretty strongly.

Lots of stories today that I and my interlocutors didn’t frame in the specific context of counseling, but that were great; I did note them after the fact but wasn’t able to get the specific wording, so I haven’t posted them here.

Today I spoke with someone whose spouse was translating for them, and it was definitely not an ideal setup–for example, if their spouse had been the source of their anxiety, they couldn’t have talked about it. It made me appreciate my students who have become medical interpreters.

In future, if someone who wants to talk to me is using a cane, I will offer them the stool I use to sit on.


Some conversations:

I think people make their own anxiety. I think people over-worry.

Do you have ways that you keep yourself from worrying?

I always put a check mark, like, “That’s gonna get taken care of.” I do it in my mind and I just keep moving forward from that. I don’t look back, I just keep going … When you have a plan, you worry less. Anxiety’s a disgusting disease, but some people do cause it themselves. They don’t want to focus on other things … They haven’t learned coping skills.

How did you learn yours?

Through treatment. The advice that I have, I learned from somebody else. I took it in.


[These two are friends who came up together]

Person 1: It’s hot out, it’s the first time it’s all of a sudden felt so hot. I spent the night at my parents’ house, and it was too hot to sleep without the air conditioner, so I went and got it from the attic at one in the morning…I meant to put it on in power-save mode, but it stayed on all night and it made the room freezing. Even the measures we take to control our own temperature control us. You can’t escape from the air, it’s the medium we all travel through. You can go to places, you can plan your life, like “I’m going to move to Alaska,” but there’s only so many things you can do to get away from the heat. In winter you can add more clothes to get warmer, but in summer there’s only so much you can take off.

Person 2: Unless you rip your own skin off.

[To Person 2] Do you have any anxieties of your own?

Person 2: Mostly what we’re doing to the animals kinda worries me a shit-ton. It’s like we’re invaders here on earth. We’re messing everything up for the animals that live here, and its their space, everything that’s happening with global warming and with the atmosphere. Everything, like their behavior’s falling apart and not enough people are worrying about it.


Person 1: I’ve been TA-ing again this year at [MIDDLE SCHOOL], and we just did a lesson about ecology, talking about bees as a keystone species, pollinating food–not just the food chain but a giant food web. And I’m worrying again about colony collapse disorder–there’s only 60%, 70% of the bees there were in the ’50s and ’60s*, and it’s because of these giant mass farming techniques, where they move the hives around. Whole colonies are dissipating because they don’t have a sense of place. We’re so used to transporting things, but what else is collapsing because it has no sense of home? How much of a solution is moving to a place when your climate gets destroyed?


I feel like a lot of talk about “environmentalism” or whatever focuses on not doing things, but I wanted to ask you guys to think about, how can we actively give back to the systems that we depend on, or nourish them? Like that sense of place?


Person 1: I want to go back to the not-doing-things: I went to temple for the first time in a while with my friend, and the rabbi [was talking about] Shabbat and relating it to a sabbatical–you rest, you give the land a rest and let it lie fallow. But it’s been corrupted by the weekend and the professional sabbatical, where you’re supposed to be more productive during your vacations, answering emails at night. Taking an actual rest, not doing anything, productivity in stopping.


*Doctor’s Note: I haven’t fact-checked this.




A man with a cane, who gets impatient with me: I can’t really understand him, except “My life. It sucks.”






I’ve just been diagnosed with COPD, and I’m really feeling it. I need to quit smoking but I don’t see it happening. There’s no cure for it. It’s like I’ve been given a time clock–I haven’t looked that far into it so I don’t know [how long I have].





I’m part of an advisory [committee? didn’t catch the word] for the EPA. It’s challenging. How to keep folks safe in their environments, especially indigenous communities, with the contamination in tribal territories and burial sites. We’re trying to … decrease a war from happening between civil society and the government, to work toward world peace collectively, by using tribal healing mechanisms, but we need help from the EPA and from state and federal agencies, and building relationships is challenging. But I think the government is ready as well. They see the stats and they see how their budgets will be affected, so we try to show them how it won’t be, but there’s gonna have to be some give and take.






Alternate Histories: The Subway Series

I went to New York, realized that what I was seeing in the bottom of the subway tunnels was water, and wrote this story.


When we pried up some of the streets, we laid down metal grid and limestone and marble and peat moss and sharp sand and the bones of some of the dead and broken glass turned back to sand. We planted salt-tolerant grasses, beach peas, heathers, junipers. We left plenty of streets, don’t worry. The ambulances and the power chairs can still get through.


The negotiations between the builders’ and plumbers’ and electricians’ unions (whose representatives drove in from Queens and Staten Island each day), the water’s lawyers (arriving on foot and on bikes), the various tenants’ rights cadres (some of them armed and riding the city buses), the Doctors, Nurses and Patients’ Coalition (in wheelchair-compliant vans), the delegation from Riker’s Island–these took almost a year, even with everyone eager to be fair, to admit that they might have been wrong or done wrong, to outlive years and decades and centuries of mutual suspicion and uneven violence. Pain and anger and hatred all wash out slowly, slowly, and only when people stop renewing them.


Rainwater filters down through the grids of plant and sand and stone into what used to be the subway tunnels, diluting the dank sick dark-brown water with clearer, washed water. In the storms, on the wettest most tantrum days, the tunnels become flood tunnels: the seawater crashes in and the skywater pours down: we made a place for them, because everyone and everything needs a place to be, and sometimes more than one. Spillways open and when the storm subsides, they close; when the storm subsides, sunlight comes down through the light-and-ventilation shafts and makes the water steam up.


We don’t need the subway tunnels for the subway anymore because work doesn’t work the same way. Most people live pretty close to the work they do, and no one works for a living; people live and they work. This took a long time, almost as long as it took to pry up some of the streets. We started doing it, and some of us got tired, and lay down, and the rats and the dermestid beetles from the Museum became our undertakers, and we gave our bones to the water.


This is terrible, we hear you saying, how can you stand it? There are pilgrimages to the catacombs but there’s no horror, or rather, horror is a part of our lives, a neighbor. We combined a few of the many things that people have done with the dead, since the beginning of the world.


We admit that we smashed up some of the buildings to get the marble. Even the softest stone is still hard, and holds a lot of memory. We wanted it to communicate some of what it had known to the water; we wanted its power to be transformed. But we didn’t smash up any people, or trap them into smashing themselves. We worked slowly and we worked with care, and no one worked past or even close to the limits of their strength, to move the stone on rollers, we chanted rhythmic encouragement and carried cleaner water, water gathered before it hit the ground, in the heat. Our plant and animal neighbors fed us, or calmed our minds, or renewed the air, or shit fertilizer. That’s how they were to us. How we were to them: pruners, killers, renewers of air, cleaners of habitat.


The rats have their own routes; the light that filters in, the unpredictable waters, and the lack of dropped food–there isn’t nearly enough to waste, anymore–make it less of a place for them. They live there, and sometimes there are terrible rat stampedes–we feel disgust–we stand as still as we can, shuddering, while they flood our ankles. They stay out of the water, though, now, we don’t know why. Science works differently now, too, we cut fewer things open, we stop fewer processes. Its motion is even slower, making some of us feel crazy. Those of us who can write, write our findings up on the tunnel walls, and sometimes the floods wash them away. Depending on the changing levels of dampness, moss and fungi flourish or dry to dust and sift down.

In the tunnels a few bats live, refugees, but they’re shy of people. We found out about the crayfish when the first raccoons came down. We stay away from them: they carry rabies, and there’s no vaccine anymore, not anywhere in the city or the world. But they’re among the best at finding exits and entrances, so sometimes we follow them at a safe distance, to see if there are places we should be watching out for, places where we poorly understand the change from aboveground to underground, where they understand it well. We don’t eat the crayfish. You can go to another storyteller to find out more about how we feed each other and where we sleep, the various ways we decide about children or pray or joke or clean. This is about the way we know the water underground.


Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, the water in the tunnel bottoms becomes sweeter. We lay marble tile from the smashed-up buildings, with cracks between so it can seep back down into the cycle, what we used to call the water table but now call the belly. The tunnels are long throats. This metaphor will break down pretty soon, but that’s okay with us. We build things now to be breakable, reparable, to flood and subside. Sometimes the water that sinks back down is seawater, is salt. We know this slows renewal, poisons roots, just like it would make you sick to swallow. We hope for time to dilute it.


On the hottest, driest days, the former tunnels are cooler than the streets, and we walk down the long ramps to lower our temperature, and that’s how we notice–after some generations have passed–the stalactites starting to form on the roof, just little nubs with a drop of water glimmering. Their roots are deep tobacco-stained brown; their extremities are gray and pale tan with the slightest surface glitter, as the sediments work their way down. When you see them changing, you don’t know it’s change you’re seeing. They are made up of millions of years of the minute dead, in aggregate, now entering another form, moved by the requirements of matter. They aren’t beautiful yet. Neither are we.

Climate Anxieties: An Open Letter to Another Friend

Dear ________,



I’m writing to you, from my damp state to your dry one, in the warmest December I’ve ever known. That feeling of not wanting to know because I might have to change what I’m doing is one I share so strongly. I think that’s evidence that what either one of us might do, alone, is not enough: the scale of the things I don’t want to know about, and the things I’m afraid I might have to do if I did, is much more of a rupture than what you’ve described, though you may think about those things too. But the feeling that we might be doing the wrong thing, and might have to leave our lives behind to do the right thing, is the same. We’re attached to our lives; we think our lives are us. Liking them doesn’t come into it.


Maybe, when we think, “I’m only one person,” when we think our actions are weak, it would help to remind each other that there’s only one of each person. This twitchy consciousness, but also the things we praise on a baby–fingernails, wisps of hair–are in an utterly refutable and irreplaceable combination. If delight is born in variation, your irreducibility, like everyone else’s, is a boon in itself. Think a minute how strange that is–that a violent person, a spiteful person, could be by this standard as lovely and as important as you. The variation of our specificity causes beauty, and so too with a rat, a fern, a moth, a mold, though their identities may not be much like ours or like each other.


Poet Magda Kapa posted on Twitter, where you and I know each other a little, a picture of a cherry tree blooming in this warm December among other cherry trees that weren’t blooming. We speculated that different trees, like different people, might be more stimulated by certain things–maybe this was a tree particularly susceptible to temperature, to warmth. Maybe if one of its flowers earlier in the season was fertilized and a bird ate the fruit and shat out the seed in a likely place, this tree’s child too would be sensitive to temperature. Maybe that would help it, or kill it, in the coming changes. This tree and its hypothetical descendant showed me how hard it is for me to think about a nonhuman creature as an individual, a genetic and spiritual individual, how in my head I’ve been equating the death of a human with the extinction of a species. How strange is that, if you want to talk strange?


One of my students, given the chance to write about something that grosses her out, wrote about guinea worms. They’re disgusting to human aesthetics, painful to humans infected with them, and nearly extinct thanks to human intervention. It’s hard to mourn the passing of an entire genome when that genome makes more worms that grow up in your gut and come out usually through the bottom of your foot (you can look it up). It’s hard to praise the part of variety that offends our senses and our sensibilities in this way, but picking and choosing isn’t just academic: what will we allow ourselves to eradicate, and what will those eradications take down with them? What does the voice that says to you, “You’re weak, you’re garbage,” have in common with the voices of elimination? But I don’t want to go too far down this road. Cruelty, violence, dishonesty, carelessness, when they describe actions, can eat away at a person’s presence in a system. It’s better when we take care; it’s better when we are just.


And these things are true because the idea of each of us as one person is factually incorrect, from the food that forms our tissues to the people that grew it to the gut bacteria that help us use it, from our pets to our priests. To our eyelash mites, a country; to our microbes, a planet. Vast swathes of corn grown in states we have never visited come to our cells to transform, and the pipes our or someone else’s ancestors built bring us water from the reservoir that at one point also sustained cattails and duckweed and ducks and turtles, aggressive phragmites or pickerelweed, water that drowned a town maybe or is even now being sucked up by the sun and carried elsewhere, not to be replaced for many years. History gnarls our toenails and plaques up our synapses. The rocks of the road rush toward us and away from us, and so much of what can kill us can do so because it can also nourish us.


The night I started this letter, I ate pizza at my friend’s house for her birthday, walking past the cords of wood she’d stacked for the woodstove that furnishes her only heat and the coop she keeps her chickens in and the tubs in which her housemate grows his garden. I thought about comparing myself to her and did so, briefly, and then I thought about everything that had to work perfectly in order for everyone who was there to be there, eating and talking, petting the cats and the dog, cooking food from a store (from a farm, from a factory) with gas from a pipe, from a tank, from deep in layers of stone, forced out and compressed and brought in on trucks, I think. My friend rubbed the dog’s belly and talked to him and us to show him that we wouldn’t hurt him. He’s new to the house.


It’s been months since you wrote to me with your climate anxieties, and many things have happened. You may have different ones now; mine have changed as I’ve been unable to avoid learning things. I don’t want to list the acres of forests that people have burned or the tons of carbon that power plants, mostly, have added to the air or the volume of sea ice that’s melted, not because it’s too sad or too infuriating but because in most cases it’s too far away and I still haven’t figured out how to bring it closer. I can’t find all the middle terms in the chain between the plastic fork we throw out and the rising temperatures of the air and water and dirt, between the warm weather and the lasagna we eat. It’s not just you. Everyone who talks to me at the booth reverts to this, either uncritically or with sneering criticism, but it comes to the same helplessness. I believe the kinds of small actions you mentioned in your letter are important in the sense that they remind us we are located, that each of our actions has reverberations, and because they may be good discipline for a day when resources are scarcer for more people.


But the question behind your question–or maybe it’s just my own question refracted through yours–seems to be, How do I change? And I’m wondering if any individual, irreplaceable person, or culture, or family, or nation, or ecosystem, can change before they have to–and sometimes not then. One of the first essays I read about climate change, by Elizabeth Kolbert maybe ten years ago, was about a colony that could not adapt to its new circumstances–how their middens the winter before they starved to death contained boiled shoelaces and the bones of next year’s calves, but no fish bones, because they didn’t eat fish. They couldn’t imagine living a different enough way; they didn’t change their sense of what was possible in time.


How does change that is not a crisis move? If you’re not in an emergency, you have it in you to make a choice with some deliberation. The more precarious your life is, the more everything feels like an emergency and the more unscrupulous people can profit from the disorder that accumulates when everything feels like an emergency. This is true whether you’re a person or a government, a synod or a council or a country or a minyan; it may even be true if you’re a wombat or a mangrove. If change that is a crisis moves spasmodically, sharply, change that is not a crisis moves deliberately whether fast or slow, testing the rock ahead of it with its foot.


How does change that is not progress proceed? I’m drawn to change that is not progress because one person’s progress is another person’s razed forest and poisoned river. I’m tempted to say it proceeds fractally, except that I don’t really know how fractals work. Maybe it’s more like roots, responding to both necessity and possibility, to the appeals of minerals and water, changing form, communicating with other roots. I picture the other cherry trees whispering to their orchardmate through the soil–in a tree way that I have to understand through my human mind, so take what I’m about to say with a touch of suspicion: maybe they couldn’t stop her from blooming out. Maybe all they could do was be there.


Fear is at the vein of your questions and mine; I didn’t even look back at your question for a while because I was afraid of what I’d have to do to respond to it. The fear of action, wrong action, no action; the fear of what might be required to move us out of this life and into the next. Do I only do the things I know won’t work?–go to marches, add to the compost, even run the booth itself, write poems? Is that my shameful secret, that I cling to my life by doing weak things, that if I really meant it I would do something grander, something worse, something wholly unmoored from this life? Have I hedged myself around with relationships that make me think that impossible, entwined myself with permissions, stitched myself deliberately to money and people and buildings and things so I could then describe myself, with truth, as helpless?


I could relinquish my house to the Narragansett people whose land this was first, donate all my money to reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. I could chain myself to construction equipment when Spectra Energy or National Grid start work on fracked-gas infrastructure in Providence or Burrillville. I could lie down in the grass and die, relieving the world of the burden of me–but we’re alive for such a comparatively short time–we have such a short time as living, particular beings. The things I can do as a dead person I can do just about anytime, but this is my chance to do things as a living being. Which ones will I do?


With love and gratitude,


Climate Anxiety Counseling at the Sankofa World Market: 7/8/15

Weather: swampy, then a cloudburst, then hot and bright, then another cloudburst

Number of people: 6 stoppers, 2 walkbys

Number of hecklers: 0!

Pages of notes: 5

Alternate Histories: 0

People who commented on the Peanuts reference: 1

Dogs seen: 1

Dogs pet: 1

Money raised for Environmental Justice League of RI: $0.25


It was generally a slow market day, maybe because of the heat and the rain.

Lots of people go into Knight Memorial Library from the side entrances rather than walk through the market to go in the front entrance.

I handled a couple of conversations … not badly, but not optimally, and I wish I’d done differently.

Multiple people opened their conversations with me by asking, “So did everyone come to you with their climate anxieties when it started raining?” or “Did everyone run to you in the downpour saying ‘climate change’?” There’s a little more information about climate change and rain in Rhode Island here, and here’s more about heavy rain and climate change generally.

Some conversations:

How we’re gonna make the transition into a new kind of world. I can feel the vision of the new world–I’m ready, a lot of people I know are more than ready, but we don’t know how to make smooth transitions from the way things are now. And I hope there won’t have to be a crisis or a tragedy in order to change people’s habits, which are deeply engrained. I’ve been trying to live my way into it, and I can see the structures crumbling. No one I know has any money, everyone I know is broke. They say the economy’s fine but it’s not fine for anyone I know. I have a lot of things I can offer the world, but I can’t figure out how to monetize them. We have to figure out how to put other structures in place. A friend of mine’s trying to start a Rhode Island mutual aid network*, where people who have real skills could share them with each other. But I owe [a very large amount of money] to National Grid and I can’t barter my skills with them.

Doctor’s note: could the friend be thinking of something like this?


A friend of mine’s son got shot and he died 15 minutes ago. And I have two sons, and one of them’s been shot twice. So violence and repercussions in this city. I just called the mother to say I have her paycheck, we work together, and she was still crying.


Things I should be doing that I don’t do. Like getting rid of my car, moving into very small square footage, buying only clothes made in America and meant to last. But the main reason I don’t get rid of my car is how will I move stuff around for projects? Do I get a UHaul, is that responsible? Is a car share responsible?


I’m kind of a neighborhood rabble-rouser. I helped bring this market to the library lawn. And [the people I work with and I] work with certain guiding principles: social justice, equity, inclusion, and environmental justice. We have less of a voice than other neighborhoods in the city, and why is that? We’re marginalized in public meetings–the South Side gets five minutes to speak, and the East Side gets 45 minutes … I can talk to anybody if they wanna talk, as long as they’re willing to build the conversation and stay in the conversation.


The world blowing up. My brother teases me about it. He says it’s gonna blow up in 2030.

Do you know what makes him think that?

He said he looked it up.

Have you looked it up to see if he’s telling the truth?

No, I don’t wanna.

What do you do when you think about it and you start to get scared?

I play with my dog and eat popcorn.

Does that help?


So now I have a weird question. Suppose he was right and the world was gonna end in 2030. What would you want to spend your time doing?

Living life to the fullest. Going on a really fast ride, doing lots of fun stuff. And being rich too. I know how to sing, so I’m gonna be a singer.

Do you record your songs?

I’m gonna put music on YouTube and see if people like it. One more question.

My last question is, if you were gonna help other kids do what they want to do, how would you do it?

I would do a fund and a company–well, not a company, a program, kinda like a school, or like an after-school program. This sun is smacking me right in the back.


I was thinking about this walking over here: all the water everywhere is polluted. Even the water in the ocean, this water that feels so cleansing and refreshing and [mineralizing?] is polluted. We’re showering in chlorinated water, and I read that chlorine makes you sluggish*–I don’t want to be showering in less enlivening water every day. There’s the loss of species, and not many people even realize it–we’re separating ourselves from the essence of being alive. I don’t think being alive has anything to do with shopping malls and superhighways.

Do you feel this disconnection, or are you worried about other people feeling it, or–

I definitely feel it, and when I get to be in nature [sic], I’m more comfortable, more at peace, less stressed. I lived in a tent for four months, and it was the happiest I’ve ever been. But I like the city, I like people and art and–and restaurants, but I feel like it’s in our human potential to bring together the best of both worlds.


*Doctor’s note: I can’t find confirmation for this. Anyone?

Today’s poem:

Will I be here

will I be here again

will my clothes dry quickly

like this was an argument

will I walk out of here

with a grasp of finance

black cloth accruing heat

paper gathering water

in a good cause the tops

of the tents collecting

from scratch and dust

hanging in the hot air

what do you use

and how do you hover

filthy and drawn out

like all water

sooner or later