Tuesday, November 18, 2014


“If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.”—Kahlil Gibran, On Friendship

If we're going to get wound up and frightened and furious about the challenges of saving the planet, we must also allow ourselves the relief and joy of victory when we overcome those same challenges.

I am writing this in tears. For a change, in the “caring about the world” sphere, these are out of delight and relief and some sort of shock that hopes and dreams can become reality and re-shape the world. The Senate rejected, 41 to 59, the bill that would have allowed the Keystone XL Pipeline.

For anyone who ever thinks that one vote doesn’t matter, think again. 40 to 60, and it would be a different flavor of tears this evening. God bless Senator Angus King of Maine.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been the Voldemoric face of climate horror for so long. It has been the cause to rally around, the concrete effort which environmental acts, actions, and movements have been built. Its name is appropriate—it has become a keystone, a lynchpin, a symbol that seemed to decide if the grassroots and common sense would prevail, or the world would fall apart.

And now, the particulars of this one threat against the world we love and know and want is gone. One lovely thing about being so emotionally invested is that, after sobbing with relief, I have to take wonderful, calming deep breaths and feel the knots in my muscles relax, feel myself free from a weight I’d been carrying so long and so deep I’d forgotten.

It is cheerily difficult to take a full deep breath when you are grinning and crying at the same time.

I know that there is a lot of work still to be done—that this particular bill only covered a short stretch of the entire pipeline, that dirty oil is still being drilled and refined and piped all over the world in all manner of nasty ways, and all of the thousand other ways in which the world is a complex mess in dire need of passionate acts of hope on every scale imaginable. There are politics to reviews, maps to assess, the reality of the existing pipelines and infrastructure to reckon with, and so on.

We can start on that tomorrow.

Right now, though, is the time to savor a victory, to enjoy a tide of hope and enthusiasm flowing back in, replenishing the fear and sourness that ebbs out through so much of this hard work of bettering the world. We goddamn did it. Against the long odds of fossil fuel industry money leaking into government and terrible economic conditions, our common sense, passion, hope and vocal, popular opposition have won. 

I am going to just enjoy being stunned for a few more hours.

There is still so much to be done. And, given what an impossible seeming dragon has just been slain through the coordinated or coincidental efforts of so many, I believe that we can bring about more and greater changes.

Because we already are.

A thousand thanks, a raised glass, a wrung out hankie, and a mighty embrace to everyone who has worked against Keystone, and for the better world we are living into.

(Polar bear was originally drawn for a traditional and depressing Earth Day type t-shirt contest. It seems much happier to be used it here. Huzzah!)

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Necessity of Gypsies

I am reading a beautiful book: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I picked it up after judging it extremely favorably by the cover, pictured above.

So far, under the covers of those starlit tents, a troupe of gypsy-performers wander through the deserted landscape of a world collapsed after an eerily credible flu pandemic sweeps through and decimates the global population, rendering human life on Earth Third World/Medieval in a matter of weeks. These gypsies act out Shakespeare and play classical music in the shanty towns of other survivors.

Mandel’s wasteland is a thorough and believable—most of the population is gone, the internet is gone, plumbing is gone, electricity is gone, gas is gone. People come to a hands-on, survivalist, practical way of being in the world that I find more refreshing than frightening. The modern infrastructure we rely on without thinking is impossible. Bandits wander around in horse-drawn cars, candles and fire are the only light, new communities spring up, some with strange beliefs bred of fear and desperation and post-traumatic relief at surviving, some with good governance and productive order, and some, the marauding actor-musician types, with the powerful, Star Trek infused belief that “survival is insufficient.”

I’m drawn, as ever, to the creative and passionate people outside the margins.

Because we need more of us out there—pulling back from the brink, waking up and rethinking how the world operates. The status quo is unacceptable.

A friend and I were talking the other day about Hurricane Katrina. She was reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, about the ethical and bureaucratic horror that was New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center during the storm. Doctors and nurses had their hands tied by legalities as they tried to save what lives they could in conditions that no one, ever, should need to be prepared for. My friend explodes with fury that the state of the medical complex is such in our country that, at the worse of times, good and trained medical professionals are impotent to act on their skills and instincts.

We were talking on the same day that the House of Representatives was voting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. One of my high school students had come to the library to talk to me about that vote, saying how she had just done a research project on the election in Louisiana this year, and how the Keystone Pipeline played a huge role, because of the jobs that such a project might bring to the region. Without saying so explicitly—as I am supposed to demonstrate appropriate vocabulary with teenagers, even when it seems nothing but the profane will suffice—we agreed that this was a truly fucked up state of affairs.

This pattern of life is killing us. We are the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. We all know this.

Almost everywhere I seem to look, the culturally entrenched patterns and infrastructure are destructive and crumbling, yet we continue to live within their frameworks and priorities. Scratch surface of the economy, the environment, the educational system, the emotional well-being of the population, politics, and a whole lot of rotten jerry-rigged systems, full of Catch-22s and evil contradictions emerge. A storm is coming, and doctors mix euthanasia cocktails for patients, because this is—in the moment and with the protocols on hand—some iteration of “best practices.” In this same state, ravaged by a carbon emissions exacerbated hurricane almost a decade ago and flooded with oil from a leak in an off shore well five years ago, elected officials—who, I believe have a mandated responsibility to protect and advocate for the safety of their constituents—invite, woo and welcome the same beast in again in order to create jobs. Jobs that will allow, demand, to continue participation in the same culture, the same system, the same economy built on debt, of the carrot always being just out of the horse’s reach, so that we become depressed, live within the toxic thought that we are neither—nor will we ever have or be—enough.

Is it any wonder that I adore gypsies who rise up as society collapses?

Though, as I think about why, it is not the freedom of the road that draws me to them. For all my wandering, I crave a home-place and roots far too much to join a pioneer caravan or circus train. I am lit on fire, though, by the idea of being part of a fluid community that lives outside the bounds of expectation. Perhaps it is all smoke and mirrors and fortune-teller lies, but living with a hint more imagination of what could be makes the reality of what is more expansive.

I can think of nothing better than being united with others who act and believe in this mode of being, roaming together through the world, sprinkling bits of magic and imagination in our wake, bucking trends of normal and living out the reality that something else is possible.

We need more and louder and happier gypsies, I think. People who simply refuse to drink the poisonous Kool-Aid of normal.

And, we’re around, hiding in plain view as mild-mannered librarians, for example.

It would be easier, sweeter, if we were all within sight of each other. If we traveled literally together, if we caravanned by day, set up our tents at night together, performed magic and plays and told fortunes together in the same towns. I love the thought of waking up every day and going to sleep every night in the camp and company of people who share a common allergy for normal and a common delight for imagination and possibility, of being a rooted in a place with a gypsy heartbeat.

It would be lovely, and it is magical when you stumble across a lost or new member of the tribe we do have. Mostly, though, we are scattered, each laboring solo in the hope that someone else is out there, doing the complimentary work necessary to keep the rebel troupe’s spirit alive, well, and fomenting.

They are. I am. You are. We are. Remembering that, repeating it like a mantra, a magic spell helps cut the loneliness, the doubt, the sneaking suspicion that we are each the only one trying to do this, the great beautiful thing of magic and hope and labor and love that we are doing.

What we’re doing—all the wonderful artists and teachers and builders and growers and doers and explorers and poets and assorted rebels who I count among my tribe of gypsies—is all part of the same great magic trick we are struggling to make real, and it would be a lot easier and a lot more reassuring if we could hold hands over the rough patches more often. We are trying to save the world—from any and all of the myriad of ways in which it is, at present, totally fucked up.

This is a tall order. By the metrics of normal, it seems impossible, statistically unlikely, and politically/economically disadvantageous that we can do this, all or any of it.

But, on the other hand, what is easily possible, statistically likely, and good for politics and the economy is precisely what is constantly threatening to destroy everything I hold dear and ethically sensible.

In that light, joining the intangible tribe of imaginative and practical gypsies makes more sense than anything else I can fathom.

Who’s in? 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Congress is Voting on Keystone Today

The trouble with using a radio as your alarm clock is that you come swimming up out of dreamland to stern newscasters announcing “The House will vote late today on the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

I will say this: it woke me up.

I’ve already emailed my Congressional Representatives, and have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, sweaty palms, and phantom bruises from kicking myself for not doing enough to voice my opposition to this and to add my heart and body to the masses who also disagree that filthily inefficient fossil fuels should be dredged out of Canada and sent through an enormous—many jointed and prone to leaks—pipeline to the Gulf Coast.

That sick feeling though, that may be the same as locking the barn door after the horses run wild. Worry alone, fear alone, is not enough to stop anything bad from happening. We must act, now and always.

Just yesterday, I was feeling so sunny about all things climate related. Granted, the U.S.-China Climate Agreement leaves a lot to be desired, but for the heads of two of the most climatically egregious countries to agree that a) there is a problem and b) the biggest offenders must bear commensurate responsibility for the solutions WAS A HUGE STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.

As was the Environment Action Club and Sustainability Group meeting I sat through at work yesterday. Students and faculty sat down together and collaborated on plans and campaigns to educate the school community—thoroughly and immediately—on what climate change is and the crystal clear need for action. I have been part of this conversation in many different capacities—student, staff member, citizen, fist-pounding would-be revolutionary at the kitchen table, writer alone in the early morning trying to type the logic of my heart into the world, etc.—and this was a rare meeting where I felt that there was momentum for positive change.

Much as I loved hearing about the U.S.-China Agreement, it was the meeting of high school students and teachers coming together out of hope and urgency that buoyed me up. Hopes become reality through interdisciplinary, intergenerational, flexible, collaborative solutions, born into the world out of personal knowledge and a sense of moral urgency. This willingness to articulate such hopes, fears, and morals and the courage to be our best selves, is what is going to save the world. 

I don’t know, at this point, how to do more than worry about the Keystone decision. I’ll spend the day constantly refreshing websites, re-emailing my Congressional representatives, and all the other motions that seem as rotely fraught with hope as any other ritual of faith.

If you read this in time, please do the same. Even if you think the government is broken beyond repair, even if you doubt that your name on an email petition will change your Congressperson’s vote, if you are opposed to continuing the cycle dangerous consumption and reliance on a toxic substance, have the active hope to put down your name in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It will matter to you what you do today.

And, I believe that is true, every day, regardless of what Congress decides about this particular pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline is not the be all and end all of the climate challenge. If—as I am determined to believe possible—Congress votes it down, then I am sorry to say that the glaciers will still be melting, the seas rising, storms increasing, and the landscapes and systems we know more dearly than our own skin changing. What happens today is important for the climate, as is what happens tomorrow, next week, and with every act and action of our being.

This can be daunting. This can feel like the weight of the world, the responsibility for every particle of carbon rests on your little body. Knowing differently, I still spend too much time crushed under that absurdity.

It’s better if you can flip that a little, to find the subversive joy in taking responsibility for what matters to you, to speak up and to listen, to act out and in and with all the others who are yoked by love and hope to this wonderful world. This is how we work against fossil fuel companies, against power companies, against the filthy money buying our government representatives, against ignorantly recalcitrant school administrations, etc.

Better, this is how we work for what matters. Whatever else that means to you today—use cloth grocery bags, go vegetarian, don’t flush when you pee, unplug from the world after dark, ride your bike, praye, make all holiday presents by hand, bake your own bread, donate money to environmental causes, enjoy the first snow of the year, run for the wild freedom of the hills, research solar panels or corporate malfeasance, tell someone you love them, go to the farmers’ market, buck trends, do anything and everything that calibrates the actions of your body with your belief in how the world can be better—please make your opposition to Keystone known, loudly and clearly and through whatever means seem effective, non-violent, and squared with the very ethics that lead you to know that such a pipeline is wrong.

We’re all in this together, which is how we’re going to win, and how we are already.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Fifth of November

(I haven't block-printed my own Guy Fawkes mask yet. This is from timdunn.deviantart.com)

A quick history:

On November 5, 1605 a Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was found installing kegs of gun powder in the basement of British Parliament. Along with several others involved in the Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes wanted to abolish the (astoundingly un-protest friendly) Protestant government, who were quite repressive towards England’s Catholics and other religious minorities. Fawkes was arrested, tortured, gave up his collaborators, and was executed for treason.

Since then, burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes has been a British tradition on November the 5th.

One is, poetically, admonished to “remember remember” this date.

Between March and May of 1982, graphic novelist Alan Moore and artists David Lloyd and Tony Ware created the book V for Vendetta. The character V wears a full Guy Fawkes costume and works to overthrow a repressive regime set in a nebulous but not too distant future Britain.

With the help of the 2005 movie of V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes has evolved from a violent religious zealot whose defeated treason was the cause of celebration to a sort of folk hero, a Masked Man of the People, who’s attempt to overthrow a regime he found unconscionable is more quickly remembered. The wider the gap between the powerful and the populace, the 1% and the 99% grows, the more I applaud this shift. The Guy Fawkes mask is the signature attire of the anti-corporate hactivist group Anonymous. They are marching in London tonight, not to burn Guy effigies, but to draw attention to a variety of social ills.

I love this. Ever since a friend first introduced me to V for Vendetta, via the movie, a few years ago, I’ve been not obsessed but sweetly delighted to think of ways to revolt against repression and oppression on the Fifth of November, (and really, any other day of the year.)

The key here, I think, is to look most deeply at the sources of our current oppressions. It was easy for Fawkes—his world wasn’t much bigger than England and there was a clear King and Parliament enforcing a world order that excluded him. Blowing that power structure up was a clear solution to the problem he faced. We live in a much more tentacled and nebulous world these days. And much as I love the cannons firing off in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, I’ve personally seen enough injured and traumatized people to be a fierce pacifist—no violence, even for a revolution of goodness. Especially then.

But, back to the source problem. People feel hemmed in, stuck, powerless, aspirationally impotent and all other manner of truly soul-sucking forms of oppression in too many quadrants of life and the challenges of the world. We run into “no” more often than “yes” and often in an unpleasant, lazy passive-aggressive sort of way—from workplace politics to ameliorating global ills from a glaring lack of universal human rights to rampant climate change.

The source of most of the troubles, as I understand it, is usually the person making the most money off the status quo. In our current world, money equals freedom and power, and those with those  hoard it like a small pack of feral Scrooges with all the—literal—resources of the world at their disposal to maintain their treasures.

It’s disgusting, the difference between the haves and the have-nots. The discrepancies between high and low wage earners in the corporate world, the money that fossil fuel companies make as they sell us gas at the cost of our planet, what poverty and success look like in different parts of the world, and so on.

I’ve been poor, albeit a highly educated New England/American version of poor. Even at this rarified level—dancing around the Federal poverty level for a single adult with no dependents—isn’t pleasant or poetic. There is a sucking in of pride and a recalibration of sense of self and dignity when trying to figure out if you qualify, fiscally and morally, for food stamps and other aid programs. To be over-qualified for jobs that do not notice your applications as you scrounge part-time seasonal, temporary, or service industry jobs where you get paid little and treated poorly, and field calls from student loan officers is a particular sort of humiliated frustration that I would wish on no one, and I know that my wishes do absolutely nothing to keep thousands of other out of this unhappy boat.

Either in poverty or without, there is a pervasive sense in our culture of neither being nor having enough. To me, whatever engenders this feeling of inadequacy is the source of much of our personal and global ills. Our rapacious appetites in pursuit of these goals are belittling our souls, making us run roughshod over human rights, our better natures, and also causing the violent destruction of global ecosystems. And, we’re not particularly happy living like this—we are busy, we are stressed, we refer to life as a rat race, and so on.

So, let’s stop living like this. Our culturally indoctrinated ideals of enough, success, and normal are causing great and oppressive unpleasantness. Easier than dismantling a government or a corporation—let’s hope on this side of the grave that we can continually re-affirm the difference between the two—is to divest ourselves, emotionally, from this economy, and to not play by the rules of expectations beyond our own.  The best I can suggest concretely is to follow Wendell Berry’s advice, here, and pretty much anywhere else you can find it.

Not to spoil the end of V for Vendetta, but there is a scene were a huge crowd of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks removes their masks and you see the sea of different, but united, faces present to effect a change in the oppressive systems that bind them in. I always grin and tear up at this part, because I believe that we are all revolutionaries, all hungry to live in and make a better world.

All we must do, then, is unmask and know ourselves as such. And remember there is strength in numbers—we are in this together and no one is alone.

(One of the more heart-twisting maskers revealed in the film V for Vendetta. Image from www.quora.com)