Friday, December 12, 2014


"Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, 
a vote for the kind of world we want to live in." 
Frances Lappe Moore

For Laura M.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she is struggling with and looking for help in how to balance passion and doubt, privilege and responsibility with regards to how to be a good activist, a good human, a person who is doing that mythical, unreachable quantity of “enough” to make the world a more just place.

Especially in the face of all that seems freshly wrong with the world—climate change and human rights violations being chief concerns—there is a constant worry and pressure to continually rise ever higher, deeper, wider to all such challenges.

And, if we succumb to the doubts, the crippling overwhelming grief that we are not and never will be enough—just one lone beating heart and set of bones against all the troubles and sorrows and crimes we would stop with our bodies and breath if only we could…well, we’ll lose it all for certain.

I once had the incredible opportunity to sit down to breakfast, one on one, with the environmental-feminism-faith-everything writer Terry Tempest Williams. We talked about my nascent writing, about what I want to do. A cavalry of words came out—that I want to write about the stench of an outhouse in a Kenyan slum, about the tremor of a man’s handshake after Hurricane Katrina, about the incandescent rays of sunset on the mountain flowers, about all the other ways I long to write people in love with the world I love so that they’ll join in its salvage. And then there were no more good words and I choked out amongst hot tears that “I just worry it will never be enough.”

Terry Tempest Williams reached across the table, grabbed my elbow, and with a few tears of her own, reassured me that: “it will never be enough. But you have to do it, anyway.”

It is the best advice I’ve ever had.

What “enough” looks like for each person, trying to be good and better in this ravaged and beautiful world, is varied. There is no right answer, there is no end point when we can safely wash out hands and say that it is enough.

When I was in Kenya, in its slums and suburbs and villages and goat-dung huts, I was uncomfortably aware of the color of my skin for the first time. (I’m from New Hampshire; it’s a very white state.) Knowing the horrors that people who look like me had visited upon the people who looked like the Maasai-Samburu women or the beggar boys in the Nairobi streets, I wanted to rip my own pale skin off and be invisible. I did not want the prickling awareness of my privilege, because I did not know how to use that as a tool against the unjust system that creates and exacerbates these ridiculous gulfs between humans.

I am still not sure, but I’m done wringing my hands and wondering about how to tear off my skin and live without my pigmented privilege. I cannot, so wishing and dithering is a waste of precious time and energy. What I can do is keep that fire of awareness in my heart, treat all people with kindness and respect and equality, and speak up for the rights and privileges of other humans. 

This works until I find myself looking at a black student at school and wondering how the hell we live in a world were someone who looks like him could be easily shot in some parts of the country, while his white classmate would be allowed to buy Skittles unquestioned. Or why the people who look like me could mostly afford to get out of Hurricane Katrina’s path, and the black people drowned in their attics. 

No matter how well and equally and kindly I treat anyone, the world is a lot scarier than I can fix alone.

We are none of us in any of these fights alone. Dark times will find us all, but there are more and growing numbers of people who want the world kindly different than it is. We have each other, seen and unseen. We are at sea amid a movement of empathy, and part of that is the ability to receive, as well as to give. Let yourself recognize and take in the efforts and energies of others. None of us are the messiah.

My friend also asked for companionship, for help, in balancing the different sorts of activism she is compelled to be part of. How do we split and divide to the passions of our hearts—hearts that leap from our chests at suggestion of violence and injustice—while remaining united and committed to each cause? If I am a passionate Environmentalist, how can I also have the energy and time to be a good Feminist, a voice for Civil Rights, and all the rest of the unpleasant panoply of injustices that need strong voices and bodies?

Add in that one still needs to meet at least a modicum of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and there are not enough hours in the day, months in a year, years in a life to be “enough.”

As an Environmentalist, I think constantly about reducing my consumption, paring down my possessions so that I live with only what I truly need and what brings me joy. And I do this for my own freedom and peace of mind in unhooking from the cultural drip of consumptive crimes committed out of feeling insufficient, rather than trying to match some ideal of the carbon foot-printless Environmental activist. I’ve known smugly posturing minimalists and activists who put the political before the personal, and there was a whiff of selfish disingenuousness about the whole show. I know people with the clod-hopping carbon footprints of Paul Bunyan who have among the kindest and most ethical ways of being in the world that I am fortunate enough to witness. And I know many people in between, merrily striving forward. One of my two brilliant sisters is fond of saying she likes having her loved possessions because: “it means I plan on sticking around this world for a while.” With Environmentalism, I believe in finding the personal enough that comes from honesty, and manifests itself humbly. Enough is saying no to a pipeline, to a cavalcade of iDevices, enough is planting a garden, enough is getting arrested, enough is not getting arrested, enough is refusing to support public radio stations that accept National Gas Money, enough is shopping at thrift stores, enough is installing solar panels, enough is writing this. Enough is never enough, but it is always a personally necessary act that makes your soul clean and happy.

With Feminism, I stick pretty close to the same idea for fighting racism—treat everybody with the same dignity and respect, and have the self-respect as a lady, to call the patriarchy out when it rears its ugly head. Which is quite frequently. For example, yesterday, a co-worker was talking about how uncomfortable her breast pump is—as this is a very female-gender specific field of science research and product design, I suspect it hasn’t received the merit, attention, or funding it deserves. Peel back a little more, and the repercussions of painful breast pumps are that it is harder for women to nurse at work, so it is harder for mothers to return to work while nursing, so it is harder for women to stay in their jobs—accruing financial resources and workplace experience and intellectual satisfaction—and have kids, which so far, is both cheaper and easier for women to do than men or test tubes. This biological v. individual balance seems like it’s hard enough to reconcile, without a paucity of science on the simple matter of a breast pump.

Which project, really, has more benefit for human—not just man—kind?

In my head and heart, all these sorts of injustice in the world that need to be combated by passionate activists of all stripes are braided together. The root of it all—environmental degradation, violent racism, classism/economic abuse, and misogyny—is a combination of unequal power dynamics and limited global resources. Whoever controls the resources has the power.

Going off the map by respecting everyone equally rather than kowtowing to the powerful, by minimizing your own resources to lessen anyone’s power over you and your reliance on an unjust economy, by speaking about the (sometimes unconscious) abuses by the powerful, by using personal passion and talents as tools for revolution and happiness, by recognizing the efforts of others instead of constantly striving to be the lone superhero, is as good a collection of ways to combat doubt and indecision and apathy in these Good Fights as I know. I hope and trust they’re enough, because it’s what I have to do anyway. And there is no other way I can or would rather be.

(image from

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fear of Flying

Recently, I annoyed myself and likely others, with an entirely accurate and extremely pompous statement that I wasn’t fully comfortable, environmentally, with the thought of flying across the country for a quick visit with friends. That’s a lot of carbon to spew into the atmosphere for my own brief pleasure and convenience. And the unthinking ease of it all, that one can flit around the globe in the span of a few hours and not be amazed—just peeved about the lack of snacks—bothers me. This nonchalance bothers me more, maybe, than the carbon molecules spewing out the jets, bonding together again, thickening the atmosphere until the glaciers melt, sea levels rise and seasons change unnaturally. It’s a tough call which sort of arrogance is more irksome.

I’m not particularly pleased that an aversion to air travel has come up as a sticking point in the patchwork of my ethics. For starters, it turns me into a sort of smug-greenier-than-thou killjoy when friends—people I dearly love and have not seen in far too long—begin to talk of reunions and trips and travel. Secondly, it leaves me with a false dichotomy, weighing my love for my people in distant places with the more esoteric love for the planet. Truly, only one of side of that equation loves me back a fiercely as I give, wraps arms around me, laughs with me, makes me feel like the world is both should and will be saved.

It’s not a fair fight—it’s comparing apples to giraffes, really. And it’s one that I try to not bring on myself. It’s not about if I care about my distant people or not or how much. That is immeasurable. This new hiccup comes from a deep disturbance in the unexamined means towards common ends.

Part of this disinclination to fly comes from the fact I earned Masters degree in the monetarily-unrewarding field of Environmental Writing just as the economy tanked. For the last five years, I have been unable to consider flying anywhere. Either I haven’t had to money to buy a plane ticket, or I haven’t been able—either scheduling or dollar-wise—to take enough time off from my cobbled part-time and seasonal jobs to go anywhere more than a few hours drive away. Perhaps my growing discomfort with air travel is just some gnawing form of Classist jealousy—because I haven’t been able to have X, I’ve hastily built myself some convenient moral high ground about X being foolish as a consolation, so my economically disadvantaged position is a choice, rather than a personal failure. “Oh air planes and organic caviar? They’re fine for silly things, but their richness really poisons the ambrosial purity of my rice, beans and bicycle…”

I hope that I’m not that insecure or priggishly sanctimonious, but it is a possibility.

Whatever, the reason, I’ve had a break from the mental conditioning that one can—and maybe should to be some semblance of an accomplished global citizen? —jet set around frequently. And now, five years grounded, it just seems strange to not think of such things, to just buy a ticket and get on a plane and be elsewhere a few hours later. What is the fuel efficiency of a 747, how much carbon, per passenger, does it emit per mile, where does the jet fuel come from, and what are the labor and environmental standards of where this fuel came from, and so on.

These are metric questions that can be easily answered with some Google searching. But they aren’t, to me, the really interesting ones. I’m interested in why we don’t ask those questions about almost anything that literally fuels our very convenient lives. It is the convenience that troubles me. That what was once a scientific miracle is now commonplace and dreaded as drudgery with people spinning around the world for brief business meetings and snappy international weekends and so on. It some how seems disrespectful of the beauty and complexity between places, between people, of the science and wonder and mechanics of flight itself, to erase all that distance so quickly. There was something about immigrants and pioneers, leaving home and making fully new roots far away that we’ve lost—because it is so easy to go from place to place, I wonder if we are always half-rooted between where we are and where we’ve been.

Yet, there are things I have seen on the other sides of the globe that have changed my understanding of how to be in this world more than I would have ever learned if I’d never left Grover’s Corners. I wouldn’t have the worldview I do without what I saw and did in New Zealand or Japan or Kenya or Denmark. I wouldn’t know myself half so well without the trips I took to Oregon or Montana or Mississippi or Colorado. I don’t begrudge the ethical, mental, emotional, aesthetic benefits of traveling, and there are times when I almost believe that the weight of carbon pollution from flights of fancy is nothing when compared to eyes and a heart opened to all of the possibility witnessed in a different place.

Almost. Because, really, how much of this wonderful world do we each need or want or deserve to see before becoming willing to alter our lives for its survival? Does recycling every week or owning a Prius or joining a CSA or only shopping at thrift stores and Patagonia mean that you “earn” the carbon points to flit off to Paris?

Of course not. Life doesn’t work like that. These are not simple trades and numerical balances. We live in pulsing ecosystems and webs, not algebraic equations or score cards. All I ask is that we begin to think before we act, to believe that the benefit of what we do—in all things, not just airports—is worth the cost. That we do not act casually and callously, that we stop the dangerous cultural habit of being inured to wonder. That we slow down and make choices, rather than be carried on the air currents as if we had no agency in the matter.

And I don’t have an answer or a firm line that I hold. I may fly to Montana to see my friends, I’ll certainly fly to visit my faraway sister at some point, and there are beautiful places I would love to be in, to touch and smell and be alive in. Here is what it comes down to, for me: Fossil fuel is—basically—pressurized, refined extractions of previous life on this planet. It is absolutely crazy to think that we’re all driving and flying around on the carbonic memories of dinosaurs and primordial slime.

But we are. And that is entirely mind-boggling, and more than a little sacred. 

If I believe that what I am doing in a car, in an airplane, unwrapping a plastic package, is somehow respectful of and furthering the legacy of these lives that have gone before, then I’m okay with it all. It is an imperfect solution, and I am not in anyway consistently pleased with my own abilities to follow through with this ideal. Being aware and hopeful though, this is  the only start I know how to make.

(And I’m not a total Greench. I support people who can and choose to, respectfully and humbly, get on airplanes flying to their loved ones for the winter holidays. It is cold and it is dark and we hunger to be around people we love and who love us. I think that dinosaurs would be okay with some seasonal migrations for love.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Justice and White Privilege

Lying in the street last night as part of the #Indict America Davis Square March in Somerville, I thought of other times when I have laid down among strangers. When I went to summer camp and we laid down on the tops of mountains to look at the stars. When I was initiated into the rugby team my freshman year of college and all the new players were told to lie down on the floor of the town’s dive bar while the other players dumped beer on us, (even at the time, I found this asinine and quit the team shortly thereafter.) When I’ve taken wilderness medical courses and role-played being a patient for other students to practice their rescue skills on.

Last night was somehow a constellation of all three—a scrying look for light and beauty, communal initiation, and imitating a victim in hopes of learning how to solve a problem.  

It is unconscionable to me that we live in a country, a world, where one person can cause the death of another human and face no consequences from the alleged justice system. Regardless of any self-defense, stand-your-ground, castle-doctrine, line-of-duty legalese, I can’t wrap my heart around abdicating responsibility for ending someone else’s life. Add in the entrenched racism that makes some white cops feel particularly justified in using force against black citizens, and all my injustice alarms go off. These latest events—Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, most notably—where unarmed people are killed by police are beyond my comprehension.

So, there I was, lying in the street with a few hundred other people, at busy intersections, at rush hour, in Cambriville. It made as much, if not more sense, than anything else to do in response to violent injustice. I arrived in Davis Square a little after five, and when I got there, people were already laying in the street. It felt odd and melodramatic to walk past the ring of embarrassed looking spectators with cameras out and police with conflicted faces and neon vests and lie down with the edge of the marchers. But it felt a more dishonest type of strange to stand on the sidelines and watch people put their bodies in service to the common sense and outrage at the racism so violently entrenched and codified into our country’s system of law and order. Once I was present, it would have been false to not lie down and join in.

Four and a half minutes of a “die-in” is a long time to lie in silence on your back on the December pavement, breathing in and out and gratefully aware to be breathing at all, while you try to not kick anyone in the head, while you listen to parents sooth their fussing babies. I’ve lain on my back to see snowflakes fall, to watch meteor showers, in corpse pose in yoga classes, and there was something similarly meditative in this particular action. In taking a moment of stillness, the vast connectivity of the world seems more apparent. Lying on the street by choice and lying on the street by racism and violent…there but for the grade of skin tone go I.

I had told several friends about this protest, but none were able to make it. People have other commitments, other priorities, and most were cringingly aware of their white privilege in apologizing for being unable to come. Me, I have no babies to run home from work to care for, my work is remarkably untaxing on my life—I am never required to stay late, and I had no other plans for this Friday night. I have a life that leaves me with the rare freedom to frequently be where I want, when I want. Which, yesterday, happened to be marching and lying down and standing up and simply being in solidarity with the other people who make their passion for justice manifest in the world. It is as good a way as many spend my hours.

It is the phrase “white privilege” that stuck with me, as I watched helicopter lights through the fog, circling the very peaceable events of the rally. It is a privilege to know—almost certainly—that if I am ever arrested, it will be at a time and place of my choosing, likely for a very intentional and deeply personal act of some sort of civil disobedience. I have never been stopped on any street, I have asked directions of police officers, smiled at them, thanked them, joked with them, several have pet my dog, and almost all my police interactions could have been out of a white children’s book.

Until the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was unaware that black kids are frequently given not just an uncomfortable and terrible sex-talk by their parents but also a “how to behave around cops” talk. What I know and what I have learned, am learning, about how deep the gulf is between white and black is partly a mark of privilege, but more a mark of my deep ignorance. I think of myself as being just another human for justice, and beyond black or white, but the truth is that I am white in a world that is unfair in my favor and that fact plays a part in how I am and can choose to be in this world.

That I am unafraid of law-keepers is something I have never thought to be aware of, grateful for, and now I am furious that others cannot feel the same. Injustice gives me a screaming migraine, the shame of my ignorance makes me nauseous, and I am deeply aware that one white liberal lady’s response to racism should merit no time on anyone’s watch. How I feel is immaterial: the criminal patterns that such ignorant, unquestioned privilege perpetuates are the point.

One of the chants going around last night was “If you shoot us down, we will shut it down.” It was hard to hear, and hard to tell, but I got the slight sense that white people were frequently saying “if you shoot them down, we will shut it down” and black people were frequently saying “if you shoot us down, we will shut it down.”

A small difference, and one I hope was a trick of acoustics and the imperfection of call and response while marching through traffic.

But I don’t know. With the phrase “white privilege” I always try to think of it as responsibility the ability to choose, rather than merely an insulating tier or flip response. Saying white privilege doesn't assuage or laugh away the guilt or responsibility to use this absurd power for the good of everyone, whatever color. I worry that myself and the other white liberals who mostly think of ourselves as standing up, speaking and marching and breathing for those who cannot, that there is still a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” that white American liberalism regarding race is another weird twist of the paternalistic/Colonial “white man’s burden.” It’s like the tricky line that male Feminists walk—wanting to support women’s rights as human rights, but not wanting to fall into the traditional, protective role of being louder, more powerful or more often heard than women themselves. I go to some marches and rallies and vigils because movements need followers even more than they need leaders. Part of the phrase “white privilege” implies that white people hold more of the cards, that we’re naturally at the top and have the choice and responsibility to act justly and wisely to care for the downtrodden “others.”

If that’s the case, we white privileged people are doing a terrible job and shouldn’t be allowed to run anything.

Because, it can’t be us or them anymore, in any regard—black or white, citizens or cops, men or women, rich or poor. Lying there, listening to the silence of a shut down street, and thinking of the snowflakes and stars and emergency survival skills and yogic breathing and the beautiful brown toddler sitting with her mothers behind me, it did all bleed into one big world. All we have is each other, just humans.

And how we choose to act towards and for and with and around each other is, actually, a matter of life and death.