Sunday, November 29, 2015

Progress is a Humble Rebellion

(My dad's stonewall, Dimond Hill Farm, Concord, NH)

When the climate talks were in Copenhagen, my graduate department was incredibly generous in funding several students to attend. My application for a slot was an enthusiastic medley of Humanities-based, qualitative musings about why I—an Environmental Studies writing student—would be as appropriate a candidate for a ticket to Denmark as students of environmental policy, international law and energy science.
As tends to happen when quick academic decisions are necessary, more scientific and quantitatively focused students were selected. I don’t doubt that they were excellent and good choices, that their presence in Copenhagen has honed their outlook and driven many actions since that time. However, I remain impatient with the pervasive idea that numbers are some how more valuable than words. Yes, it is hard to determine if a heart has been spoken to, awakened, and what that newly beating tempo may set the body and brain off to do, but precisely because of that immeasurable potential power, the Humanities earn their name.
What I wanted to do for Copenhagen, what I have always wanted to do and sometimes I’ve gotten closer than others is to help people to fold humbly inwards to act boldly outwards. This is harder to explain than a policy paper or an emissions report.
What I mean like this—with my apologies to any Danish historians and I may have lost some facts in the poetry: Geographically small Denmark was disproportionably a world leader for several hundreds of years. Then, their navy was beaten soundly in 1801. This shifted not only the world order, but also Denmark’s ethos and national identity. There was some internal reckoning and identity crisis on a national level, and the result was the country uniting behind the idea that, if not the most powerful country in the world, they would certainly be the greatest Denmark in the world.
And now they are a leader in environmentalism and have a largely peaceful and functioning society. While there have been undeniable violent racist issues within Denmark in the last few years—relating to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—we are in no position in the United States, with our guns and racism, to discount the larger lessons of Denmark’s ethos.
When my father began to struggle with the idea of retirement, with who he would be if not the “large and in charge” charismatic and effective bully of a community re-organizer, I talked with him about the history of Denmark, that they too had to humble, revision, and came out slightly reinvented, but changed only for the better.
In semi-retirement, my father built a stonewall at a nearby farm. He—envious of the craftsmen at a wooden boat show—had determined that in this next phase, he wanted to work with his hands. The farmers, wonderful women, encouraged him that it was good for his soul to get in touch with the earth. And he was fantastically happy, and even a little healthier drinking water and walking to work.
It was all too brief a retirement, but I’ll be forever proud of how my dad tried to be something new, yet was still building something for a community, albeit on in different dimension and different scale.
I’m sure that there are other nations who have, when faced with collapse, folded inward and re-birthed a more feasible ethos, but I have yet to find any country that has done it on the scale and with the ethics that makes Denmark an environmentally progressive leader. I hoped, when the climate talks were in Copenhagen, that something of this progressive humbling would rub off on the delegates, on the press and the scientists, that people would come streaming home with the seed in their hearts that things need not be as they always have been, that there are other ways of being than bygone identities.
To me, it was as significant and promising that the 2009 talks were in Denmark as it was that there were talks at all. In the disappointing aftermath of Copenhagen, where nations who must poured out their hearts and the policies of the powerful did not change, I clung to the comfort that, at least the world was talking about the climate. At least what I know to be as true as my bones, at least there is a sense that this is a global struggle, that we are not just a few crazy people watching tides rise and songbirds disappear and crops dry up and forests burn.
To know how many people do care is at once comforting and galvanizing. Who, we might ask, are so selfishly scared of change that they do not listen to this beautiful assembled symphony?
Who is it that ignores such vociferous passion?
Answer that, and it becomes clear that this struggle for a better world does have real adversary, villains with corporate stationary and billion dollar investments in the status quo.
Of course, with our phones and computers and cars and televisions and microwaves and jet-fuel heavy passports and plastic disposable everything that runs off dirty power plants and pipelines, we are each also part of what ignores the passion, part of what must pause to examine our own lives and choices, part of what must be humbled towards greatness.
And now, again, what parts of the world who can out of luxuriant responsibility and/or who must direst need are converging in Paris to again discuss the scourge of climate change. And, of course, each time there is a summit or major decision or action about climate change, the dramatic hype makes it seem as if the world hangs fully in the balance, that we will all drown, burn, starve, freeze or live on what happens with that single event.
This is absurd. The drama is chronic, the moment is every single one we have on this sweet earth with each other. The world is always in the balance, always teetering, and the fires, floods and famines are already here. We are living in the time of greatest crisis—climate change does not watch the news and get better or worse because some people sit down together and try to cap emissions or create public transportation. One climate conference, two, three…these will not alone turn the tide. We must do that, in between the headlines, in all our acts and actions.
I am at least as spotty on France’s history as I am on Denmark’s. But, even in what I have gleaned from Joan of Arc, Dumas and Dickens, Casablanca, Les Mis and Stéphane Hessel there is an invigorating lot of revolutionary resistance to and takedown of over-gilded and corrupt systems.
Also—and this may be the strongest piece—what has come out about French culture since the terrorist attacks of November 13th is that, simply, French love life. That rooted, determined joie de vive, this is something that the climate movement too often overlooks. We are full of facts, of statistics, predictions, carbon counts, horror stories, and fear. All of those have some place, but what we forget—at our own peril—is why we go about this business in the first place.
Why? Because the world is beautiful, because we love each other, because it would be simply rude to not protect all that is wonderful for all who have yet to come to fall in love with as well.
If I hoped that Copenhagen’s turn at the climate talks could bring humility, then it is my even deeper hope that Paris will teach us to bring joy to this work, to be brave and fierce.
These brighter tools, I believe, are sharper and stronger than any other for all that lies ahead.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Blood and Oil, Beauty and Use

(Goose print, with my compliments to Mary Oliver and her wild geese)

With the UN Climate Talks opening in Paris on Monday, and with Paris freshly symbolic of joyous resistance against terror, I have been trying to articulate the link between the two. Others, of course, have already found it and written and done magnificent work in highlighting the connection. But, never mind preaching to the choir—we are all part of the choir and singing out in our own times and ways and voices has certain merit in this necessary revolution on personal and global scales.

This morning, the morning after Thanksgiving, I found the most recent New Yorker hunkered down under the circulars and ads for Black Friday sales that came in the newspaper and mail. In it, Steve Coll writes: “The Islamic State is an oil-funded descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a branch of the original Al Qaeda, which was formed in 1988.”

For years, Black Friday has made me spitting mad. That our nation goes to sleep full of gratitude and turkey and pie and love on the small and human scale that transcends politics, full from a day of focusing on the bone-deep values of our lives and national ideology and wakes up to shop until we drop…this makes no sense. And when what I believe to be at stake with this pressurized American overconsumption—merely the life of our singular and beautiful planet, the authentic vibrancy of our human relationships—is further threatened by the discounted, disposable merchandise produced in decidedly unclean conditions, built with the energy of heartbreakingly filthy power plants, well…I turn into a snarly Charlie Brown about the commercialization of the holidays.

But this year, knowing that more pointedly anthropocentric threats than climate change are also tied to the blind overconsumption of resources, I have a slim hope that the madness of Black Friday and absurd Christmas consumption can be reduced. If we are, as a culture, hugely reliant on oil, and much of that oil is purchased from governments and states that fund terrorists, then, aren’t we, through our energy misuse and selfish purchases, funding conservative zealots with dreams of suicidal jihad and fueling the storms and droughts that ravage everyone?

In 2001, President George W. Bush encouraged Americans to fight back against terrorists by continuing to live our ordinary lives. Taken out of context, this message was watered down to “fight terrorism by shopping.” Which is absurd. When we shop, when we consume without thought for the back story of what we are buying, without an understanding of where our hard-earned dollars will go—my suspicion is that not only do we contribute to the changing climate, but we may very well be funding those who would hold a hotel hostage, gun down a concert and any other number of acts against humanity.

Rather than that, let’s rebel against terror and slow our destruction of this lovely world by living more ordinary lives. We can live smaller and smarter, and in this, we will be more connected to the rest of the world. In being wise and humble and aware that our voices and choices and actions do matter in this world, we grow magnificent, we become limitless. Rather than scrabbling to reach some nebulous and hollow ideal of enough and what a good life looks like, we learn to live how it feels right. The Socialist and artist William Morris wrote “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

I love this. They seem like good words for living by, for revolting from normal destructive pressures and connections, for embracing the holiday season with, and saving the world through.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Especially for the babies of my friends and the friends of my parents

From V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Today, I packaged up several baby blankets to send to friends’ babies. While it is far from a traditionally pastel and bland baby greeting, as I write cards and addresses, as I tidy up edges and seams for these unknown little babies, I have the doomed prisoner Valerie’s letter from V for Vendetta running through my head as a sort of cheery promise and blessing to them:
It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it or sell it or give it away. We must never let them take it from us. I don’t know who you are or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I will never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope that you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.”
I don’t know many of these new humans who are still discovering their fingers and toes. Some, it may be years and years before I meet them. They may never know me, or I them. Some, of course, are closer by and easier to be on friendly terms with.
But it doesn’t matter. I love them all, seen and unseen, hugged and unhugged. And I hope with every word I write and each daily decision of how to be in this world as terror and climate challenges ramp up and up, that these children will grow up with love and roses. And, if I have anything to do with it, they will.
With each new human my friends produce, I can more easily appreciate how lucky I and my family are to be loved by different generations of these non-blood aunts and uncles. When I hope that nothing devastating ever happens in the lives of all these new bright babies in my friends’ arms, I can imagine my own parents’ friends feeling the same towards my infant self and sisters. And, that when the troubles do come, it is these people who never wanted hurt to touch your life who will best cushion the sharp parts.
When my dad was first in the hospital, one of the only useful things I could think to do was to get in touch with my mom’s friends. As long as I live, I will be my parents’ child, so there is a sense that they are always more adult than I or my sisters. In trying to figure out anyway to help my mom, the best thing we could do was to call her friends.
And they showed up in force. With texts and emails and letters and visits and food and prayers and vacuum cleaners and hugs, these women and men swooped in with a ready willingness to be adults and do anything that could be done. Friends hold us up, so we can hold others, so we do not have to hold everything and everyone in only our two little hands.
Similarly, I was thrilled every time I walked into my dad’s hospital room and saw his friends visiting, saw their cards and notes and pictures and flowers. I have loved hearing their stories about my dad since then, have loved joking with them about all the ways in which he was irreverent, absurd, and wonderful.
There is nothing quite as wonderful as seeing other people love your best people. That is part of what I want to send to these babies—the promise to help take care of them and their parents when the going gets rough, a promise that nothing needs to be done fully alone.
This Thanksgiving, I have been cringing and snarling at the greeting card gratitudes of being thankful for health and family. That bare human minimum has been rocked for me. My family is like a smile missing a tooth and no one’s health can be taken fully for granted I have learned. But, alongside being terribly absorbed with what is missing, what is absent, I am grateful on a level deeper than grief for all those who are present, who love me and mine and who I love with the boundless ferocity that does make the world turn, makes things better, and bring roses again.
Thank you, friends. For everything.

(Rosebud found behind my house yesterday.)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refugees and Pilgrims

When I was little, we read Barbara Cohen's book Molly’s Pilgrim every fall. It was a Thanksgiving picture book and came trotting home from the library with my mom, my sisters or I every November for many years.
Molly is a little girl in an elementary school class. For Thanksgiving, the class is making a large scale diorama of a Pilgrim village. Each student is told for homework to take a clothespin and make a little Pilgrim doll.
Molly’s Jewish immigrant mother loves this assignment and makes Molly’s doll for her. The doll does not have a dark dress and white collar. There is no cute little white hat or apron. Instead, the doll is brightly colored with scarves and shawls, like she dressed out of rags in a hurry. The mother explains that of course the pilgrim lady looks like her—they are the same.
Molly hates this and feels that it is the wrong answer, but takes the clothespin lady to school anyway. She is bullied by some other girls in the class, all of who have perfectly predictable Pilgrim clothespins. Some are wearing fancier cloth than a Pilgrim would be, but the colors, the shapes, the style is recognizable and correct. This being a children’s book, where endings are tidy, the teacher naturally loves Molly’s odd-ball doll, and explains that this is what pilgrims truly were—outcast immigrants searching all the world for a place to be safe and free to live and worship as they pleased.
Thanksgiving is a holiday of immigrants, grateful to be together and to be free. It is a day of being thankful for surviving, for coming together. Add in that it was one of the all too few high points in Native American and interloping European relations and it does celebrate a beautiful and unique set of values. Values of grit, survival, freedom, unity, acceptance, abundance, and sharing. At our best, as a country, we can remember that we were born from those ideals.
We are not at our best. We are shuttering borders to refugees who truly need solace from the sort of daily horror and violence that has never been known on this soil.
Since the attacks in Paris, I have had a small pang in my chest. I am afraid. What the fear feels like is similar to the horrible creep of dread I felt last spring—lying awake every night for two weeks, afraid that the phone would ring at night and the hospital would say that my father had died.
In the end, of course, he did. But for all that I wish he were not gone, there was a hollow relief in no longer waiting for that worst to happen to my family.
I feel this dread again listening to the news of violent hunts for suspects in Europe, for France being in a state of war and Russia joining in a coalition, for the root causes of the refugee crises in the first place. People everywhere are living with this sort of fear and anticipation that the worst is about to happen, with the nightmare solid sick that the worse is happening. It feels selfish for me to have this sort of nebulous dread and sadness lingering in my heart. But, there is enough rage and grief in this world without me beating myself up for worrying that this beautiful world is being ripped to shreds.
Living with fear, I find, feels a bit like standing in the back of a moving pickup truck, or in an elevator that has just dropped. Everything feels a bit off kilter, and you reach out to regain balance.
And that is what I want to do with bad news, with fear. I want to reach out and hold on, to bring my people, any people together and make them warm and safe.
Which seems to be the direct opposite of locking borders and denying visas and establishing lower and lower quotas of refugees, all with higher and higher degrees of paperwork. I do not know how we can keep all violent extremists out of the country. I do not think we can, and we are throwing thousands of real babies out with fear-of-terrorist-bathwater.
These denials of human need are based on fear, based on wanting to keep what we know and love safe and alive. I know that. But, it will not work. And I believe that willful inability to interact with truth—the world is fraught with the violence of different beliefs, of intentions misunderstood, of resources too growing more and more scarce—is akin to burying our heads in the sand or not speaking Voldemort’s name.
A few Facebook friends posted earlier this week that Anne Frank and her family had been denied entrance to the United States at the start of World War II. Similarly, there were ships of Jewish citizens who fled Germany in fear and sailed around the world, willing to take any port in a storm. No port would have them, because some of the passengers were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.
So, for the suspected or possible crimes of a few, hundreds of people were denied help and doomed to persecution, concentration camps, and death. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and mortifying. And we are supposed to learn from the past, from our mistakes. We must.
The world will never be perfect, or perfectly safe. I walked by a coffee shop yesterday and looked at the tables outside, knowing that people sat down at tables just like that in Paris a week ago and were mown down by machine guns. However, I’ve also sat at a café in a tiny mountain town and had a logging truck plow into the sidewalk very very close. Several of us could have been killed.
We cannot control the actions of others. What we can do, and what does allow the fear to bleed into a useful, thoughtful empathy, is control our own actions. If it were American refugees streaming into Syria, what sort of welcome would you want?
It is a mistake to believe that the world can be only one way. So, instead, let us catch our balance by reaching out and holding on to each other, even if, especially if we don’t all look alike. If Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, then this act of care, of welcoming is the American thing to do. Beyond that, it is the human thing. In combatting inhumane-seeming actions, holding fast to our humanity is the most crucial tool of all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Single Ladies at the Circus

To open, I happily admit to fiercely loving every one of my friends’ babies. Furthermore, each and every partner or spouse my friends have found is a wonderful addition to the circle of people I love. And I am friends with some of the greatest people on earth, and there are more in my tribe every year. I have learned more about what to look for, work for, wait and hope for, in a good partner from my nested-pair friends than I’ll ever be able to explain. Similarly, as my generation begins to re-people the world, I am breathlessly grateful to witness what soft-stern molten forms love must take to raise a mewling infant into a kind human.
I am constantly amazed at how the heart expands to hold all that we cannot help but love.
Nevertheless, when I am cranky and my calendar seems heavy with baby due dates and weddings, I am full of a strained combination of irritation and disgust.
Of course this unkind and selfish sentiment covers fear, of course it covers loneliness, of course it covers my most terrifying nightmare that as the cast of my world shifts and changes, my role in it all disappears.
There are countless ways in which I am lucky. For most of the life I have been responsible for, I have stitched in and out of beautiful pocket communities, all filled with other adventurers and seekers of something. In some ways, everyone ran away to join the circus, but what we found was not lions in cages and fat ladies singing on Ferris wheels, but each other and ourselves.
And perhaps, to the world outside the circus, outside the woods and waters, the summer camps and mountain lodges and matatus and travelers’ hostels and tight communities of seasonal jobs, we were the sideshow freaks, the ones who don’t quite fit, who allegedly lack linear drive or profitable ambition or understanding of civic duties, gender norms, and grown-up responsibilities.
But it didn’t matter, then, because we all had something like each other, and the knowledge that we weren’t alone in scampering from place to place, person to person, purpose to purpose trying anything and everything that might fit. We had that, and we had the smug and gleeful comfort of being modern Kerouacs and Abbeys and Caulfields—wandering and not letting the best parts of ourselves be devoured by the somnambulant phonies outside our circus tents. We were—we are—kind people and responsible citizens, even if our resumes are eclectic and our moral fiber suspiciously unmainstream.
Life at the circus itself is frequently terrifying—choices yawn up and demand to be made and all the hungry tigers of emotional insecurity are barely caged. There is also, in that rawness, a sort of wildness—perhaps just selfish adrenaline—that is beautiful. And, with nothing else to tie any of us down, we spent hours agonizing and analyzing and dreaming up the next thing. Several friends and I used to sit down regularly for life crisis meetings. We’d get out our lists and scraps of paper with ideas and just talk everything out for hours. It was exhausting, it is exhausting, but it is rarely boring in the way that mature life patterns frighten me with the specter of living in a rut—even a cozy one—for the next seventy years.
What I miss, what I fear will disappear under the nests and onesies of my lovely erstwhile circus folk, is both the willingness to adventure and the support of fellow wanderers. For very good reason, the circus is emptying at a distressing rate.
When there are a lot of us marching around outside the box of normal adulthood, we were a community of gypsies. When there are few, well, it does begin to feel like one is a freak.
And we’re not—those of us still a little unmoored at the circus—freaks or rejects or somehow emotionally or relationship-ally disfigured. We’re just not where the majority are, and that is a damn fine and damn scary place to be.
It seems like I blinked and when I opened my eyes most people I love have found something or someone or someplace that fit better than they’d ever found before, and their wanderings slow or change key. Suddenly, my people have started businesses, written books, built houses, had children, put on plays, fallen in love with a right person, become doctors, and all the rest of their kaleidoscope of talents. Whereas, I don’t find myself very much closer to solid guesses about the shape of my life than I had when I was ironing out scraps of post-it notes to share with friends across internet café tables. I don’t want to stop casting about for what fits and works, but I also don’t want to straggle when everyone else is somehow home.
It would be boring if we all went to the same places, is something that I tell myself when another shot of a beautiful engagement ring pops up, when another perfect baby arrives, when more houses are built and bought and made into homes, when more and more friends seem to get where they wanted and strove to go.
The home and the writing of books, I know that I want. The ring and babies I don’t know if I do. The person on the other side of the ring, the other side of the babies, to make the home with—that I’m much more sure of wanting. Before everyone began pairing up so solidly, I felt a little like we all belonged to each other in some way, a circus family. And, of course, there is the belonging to blood family and close friends that transcends all later-comers and all time. But it is different, being friends, when the nesting pairs start to cozy off. A dear friend reminded me last winter that those sorts of relationships take time and effort and can be very hard, but there is such reward for the time spent that free hours spool away to nurture that relationship above all others.
And I love that for my friends, that they have a person who will be their champion, steward, cheerleader, lover and boxing coach. I want to see those relationships work; I do not want my wonderful friends—or anyone—to feel lonesome and alone on cold nights. While I know that there can still be some loneliness in the richest partnership and that it is much simpler to speak patly and plurally as "we" than it is to merge independently minded gypsy selves into those two small letters, there is the sense of, hope of warmth and security amid the reality.
Of course I have bouts of bitterness, of jealousy, of insecurity, of fearful suspicion that—having been in love with a few good men and bruised my heart deeply in the process—my chances are all up, or that it is because of something deeply broken in me that I am so frequently the third or fifth or seventh wheel. Mostly, I worry that I missed a crucial developmental step that makes me unable to progress in any decisive and driven way, that I’ll spend my life as basically twenty-three years old and longing for gypsy friends, creative revolt, and a home in the wilderness, but somehow never committing enough to get anywhere and never being satisfied with where I am. Meanwhile, my friends will—as the heart demands—commit to caring for the life they’ve chosen or found and spend more and more time on their passion-fueled work and nests and hatchlings.
When I feel like this, I like to get in touch with my other un-nested pair friends. There are other people out there who do understand both loving the nested ones and the babies, and why being questioned about your local emergency contact can bring on an emotional funk. Who struggle with wanting to be held, but not hobbled. And that it’s fine and healthy to feel both. We are happy, being mostly free to do as we please—from eating ice cream for dinner to contemplating moving to Antarctica or starting a band or explaining our actions to no one—but we also have darker commiseration about how the world operates in binary, and that if one isn’t two-by-two, the mistake is transmitted as either a personal flaw or a fixed decision.
Being a party of one is neither. What looks like a yawning gap of lonesome unknown one day is the thrilling beckon of the wild another day.
Beyond the personal insecurity, I miss the feeling of belonging to a group of creative-thinkers and adventurous doers—revolutions and world rebuilding seems possible, over those confused piles of scrappy dreams. I believe that my nested-friends’ ideals are no less exciting and radiant than they ever were, but it is different to bounce ideas about writing books of poetry or confounding climate change around with people who are circumstantially more attuned to questions of bath time or if they should change their name after marriage.
I have learned, lately, more fully what happens when family changes demand the priorities of your energy, of your heart. All other things necessarily slip by the wayside when you are needed, when you need. We all juggle our own hearts unblinkingly for the deepest people in our lives people. I can readily see—emotionally and biologically—how dreams of a communal revolution, of a gypsy circus are subverted by the sweet and demanding realities of traditional adult milestones.
Perhaps fear of being pulled further from my wanderings is why I hold out at the circus: I am selfish and don’t want to find my passions subverted before they’ve been realized or to lose the vibrancy that there is with brilliant confused loved ones striving together towards something, even individual somethings. The force of will, the hunger, to not accept should and normal and anyone else’s expectation of your own behavior—this is a beautiful thing. I’ve been told it is adolescent, that I have some disturbing Peter Pan like tendencies, that I need to pull my shit together, accept—or just make—the necessary compromises, and the like. But I cannot see why growing up must follow a set pattern, why being an adult means leaving the circus, leaving the spark of imagining something different than what is behind.
This, all of this, is just a note to the others at the circus to say: you are not alone. We are not alone.