Monday, August 28, 2017

Twelve Years

Twelve years ago, I went to Biloxi, because I was at loose ends, because my parents bought my plane ticket, because them sending me was something they could do to help in Katrina’s aftermath. I worked with Hands On Disaster Relief (now All Hands Volunteers), the sort of outfit in its early years that asked only “do you have your shots, and do you want someone to meet you at the airport or bus station?”

My friend Serena had found this group, she went down a week before I did and met me at the airport. Other friends—Nina, Josh, Lydia, Kate, Carrie, Beth, Laura, Will, Vee—came too, or we met and made friends with each other as the raggedy bunch of recent college grads we were. I don’t remember it all, perfectly.

What I do remember is the knot of horror and rage that left me feeling like I was going to cry or vomit most of the time. I’m a white girl from New Hampshire with an expensive education. I spent most of my time in the mountains. I was not prepared for all of the destruction, for shaking hands with the people who had been left behind or stayed behind or just got back to Biloxi after the storm. I was not prepared for reality.

I came out of all of that, after a few months, with a puppy. Carrie had fallen in love with him at the animal shelter, but whatever home she’d thought to give him to had fallen through. And then when it was time for me to go, the puppy was on the edge of just being a spoiled feral pet of Hurricane Camp, so I adopted him. It wasn’t anything official—I just happened to be the one to take him to the vet, and I happened to write my name down as “owner.” I named him Noah, for the flood. They told me naming him Noaa would have been too much, even for me.

I kept that little guy, and I loved him. And for almost twelve years, he was my constant companion. He went with me across the country six times, saw me through two shattering heartbreaks and some minor heartaches, came with me to grad school, hiked where I hiked, swam where I swam, was where I was, for all that time. When my father died, I regularly cried into Noah’s fur like the world had ended. It has been a roller coaster of a decade, and Noah was there for all of it. We were the most secure daily fixtures in each other’s lives through all the changes I dragged us through, the adventures I sought, the troubles that hit. Until my poor sweet Pet came down with dementia, became uncomfortable, inconsolable, in his own skin and I had to let him go—two months ago now—snuggled in my and my sister’s arms, loved until the last moment he knew and beyond.

As the rain falls and the water rises in Texas, I feel as if no time has passed. Because the news is the same, the pictures are the same, the devastation is the same, the goodwill of neighbors, the kindness of strangers, the imbecility of the leaders, the ovine shock of the rest of the country…all of this is the same. My dog has lived a full life and died, and we—the people—have still not addressed the root causes of why these storms are so devastating.

The climate is changing, and we are changing it. The people we elect to leadership positions are not leading. These storms are not the wrath of God, are not natural—unless you might, as I could be convinced, think that these storms are the divine wrath of the forces of nature rising up against the species that has wrecked and ravaged our way through the world since we first discovered fire.

Storms are more frequent and with heavier loads of water because the planet is warming. The planet is warming because the emissions from making cars go, planes fly, smartphones charge and plastics ubiquitous and life too convenient are thickening the atmosphere and trapping air closer to the planet. We are thickening the air, insulating our planet from the necessary cool of the rest of the universe. And so, in our little chemical hothouse, the warmth begets moisture, the moisture begets storms with greater wallop than ever.

What is stopping us from stopping these things? In part, we are simply a lazy, selfish and unimaginative people. We think such things as Katrina, as Sandy, as Harvey will never happen to us, personally. It’s easier to think that. It’s easier to turn off the imagination, the voice that says “what if…” Horror of our own is incomprehensible, surreal. But, as my friend Mary, reporting from Charlottesville last week said “the thing to say is ‘it’s so surreal’ but that is an utter disservice to the reality that this all is.”

I don’t care if mass flooding and destruction is never going to happen to me. I’d rather it doesn’t, but it’s going to happen and keep happening to others, and there is nothing special about me that is going to make a storm pass me by. Anyone’s reality could easily be my own, if the tides turn, if the weather shifts. When.

If you did know that a storm was about to destroy your life, but could be soothed by taking a bus or putting up solar panels or air-drying your clothes, would you make those changes? Can you go without, can you live smaller, simpler? Could you use electronics less, more wisely? Are you willing to donate not your blood or money to relief efforts, but to make structural changes in your life that will cut the emissions that are increasing the severity of storms?

And then there are our politicians and industrialists. The policy makers seem hamstrung by industries that make money while Rome burns and floods, because they are. Our president cares more for his t.v. ratings than for staffing the agencies that oversee disaster response, never mind his abysmal decisions on loosening regulations on industries that will further increase the cloud envelope around the planet. But, much as I despise Trump, he is not solely responsible for this storm, personally. The fault is with all people who have power and refuse to act responsibly with it. All people. Anyone who makes a choice has power, that is the sort of power that needs to shift, that is the power we all have.

Twelve years. That is the difference between a first grader and a high school senior. That is a lifetime. I simply cannot accept that so little has happened on a large scale when so much happened in the small space between myself and the little dog who came out of the flood with me.

Lastly, a nice man I met in Biloxi, standing outside what had been his house, said that in disasters, people should donate socks and underwear. He could cope with a lot of the troubles, but being able to wear clean underpants just makes a person feel more human. This is the scale that horror happens at. Send underwear. Thank you.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Why the Wilds

Right now, I’m sitting in a big house on the coast of Maine. The breeze is coming off the water, and when the tide goes out again, I’m planning to kayak out to say hello to the seals on the nearby rocks.

And, in the meantime, I’m checking the news and seeing nothing good. Charlottesville is happening—I’ve just read about a car plowing into the crowd of KKK, Neo-Nazis, and their counter demonstrators, showing up for equality. One person has died, and more are injured, and it’s only mid afternoon.

Yesterday, the news was full of the President talking about using fire and fury and something even worse against North Korea.

And that this was, again, the hottest year on record. And refugees are still dying to leave their homes, and unwelcome on more and more shores.

The news, my dear, is as bad as I’ve ever known, and this is not the first time I’ve thought so. The weather is hot, the planet is crowded, resources are scarce, and we are all so frightfully on edge that damages that cannot be undone will be, are being, done.

What place, then, do words about seals and terns, stars and pine martens have? The more I know, the more frequently it feels like treason to still love wilderness, to still use the privileges of my skin and geography and lineage and education and bank accounts to go places, to watch for tides and scramble up mountains. Sometimes I worry that caring about the natural world and ecosystems and wilderness is very much rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic—if humanity does itself in with race wars or nuclear explosions or anthropogenic catastrophe, how much will the golden slant of sunset or the relationship between blackflies and blueberries or the calming transcendence of being a wild place matter?

I sure as shit don’t think we need a Wilderness Matters movement. Unless the bears and toads and birches are going to start rioting against the rank injustice of how they’ve been treated by humans, that’s just comparing sunlight and humans—as false a dichotomy as pro-life and pro-choice. Personally, I’m both. I’m for all of it. Sunlight and humans, life and choice, nature and culture, town and country, women and men, white and black and all the shades and variances between all of the supposed end points of spectrums.

A renewed appreciation and commitment to all the things is what I get from being out in the world. The scope and scale of the world will blow your mind—we operate so far from mere binaries and three-dimensionality. Recently an old friend and I hiked in the White Mountains. We passed through three major ecosystems and innumerable microhabitats. We’ve hiked the same trail together several times in the fourteen years of our friendship, and each have hiked it other times, with other friends. Our conversation was thick with their names, with stories and catching up have to tell, with the revelations and inanities that accompany any good hike. In one breath, we talked about the alpine plant community and the ways in which media is improving at portrayals of brown women. We hiked a busy trail on a beautiful summer Saturday and the trail was thick with other folks, all out for something like the same reasons we were, all passing over the same roots and stones with different stories and words and histories. All in the same place, yet each hike was distinct to the hiker.

And that’s just the human aspect. The mountain avens—subalpine flowers with a bright yellow buttercupish flower and leaves like spiky strawberry leaves—experienced the same day however flowers do. Maybe that’s just taking in sunlight and nutrients to pump out buds and blooms and fruit and propagate their species as best they can. Maybe plants do more than that, feel more, but even if not, that’s a remarkable amount of life happening in a little patch of the world.

The water rushing by the trail—frigid at the waterfall we stopped to swim in—all of that gushing and glugging along has little bits of life in it as well. And the rocks that the water runs over, that we clamber over—I draw some line at geologic sentience, but still, glaciers passed over those same stones before we ever did and snow sits on top of it every winter, waiting to hatch the mountains anew each spring. There are layers there.

I know, we all know, that human activities are changing the world, the ph of snow and ocean, the climate that ecosystems evolve with, the creation of trails, the pollution of water and air. And yet, I get great, humbling pleasure out of the reality that the mountains and the sea do not care about humanity. If I have a god, it is the ways in which I don’t matter to the rocks and the sea. The world means the world to me, and it doesn’t know or care what I do.

In the Scientific and Industrial Evolutions, there was an idea that God was nothing but a watchmaker, and that if the world could be picked apart and explored and investigated from the largest cogs to the smallest bolt and screw, the world could be known and Man (never Woman—we were busy with herb gardens and healing and raising babies) would be equal to the Divine.

This, I think, is horseshit. Even if I can think of all the cogs and wheels and layers and threads and fantastical tapestry of a single moment of my hike on that busy trail, if I can contemplate the lives of the seals and seabirds and tidal creatures and plants that I have been kayaking out to each morning while I housesit, my head and heart start to explode. If I add in the lives of all the people on the trails, the summer people owners of the moored boats and summer cottages, the people who live here always and maintain the docks and lobster buoys that I see as I sit as the lone human among twenty seals—well. The world is too big and beautiful to be understood taken apart like a simple watch.

I know enough to know I do not know a damn thing. That variety of ignorance brings me the greatest joy, allows me the space to fall in love with the world and all that it holds. Maybe there is something primal out there that rips a few layers of protection off my eyes, off my heart, but I come back from wilder places more able to see the complexities of life where humans live. And that helps, enormously, when reading the news and trying to figure out how to be in a fraught world.

Pine martens will not stop racism. Knowing the constellations will not erase the American caste system. Watching a seal dive will not calm the political discourse. The smell of salt water, of balsam fir will not stop nuclear proliferation.

What the wilds may do is open your eyes to the world so that you may better participate in the wider world. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rose Heat

“as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey” is the opening line of Gareth Evan’s poem that opens John Berger’s vital book Hold Everything Dear.

My head changed the words to rose heat for the journey, a small change, really, just one letter more and a bit of reshuffling, and there we are. I think of this when I see leaves soaking in sunlight, when I see logging trucks on my New England highways, when I put wood into fires, when I absorb and absorb and absorb the particular golden light of sunset, when I try to hold onto fierce peace of wild things, when I reach down within the best of myself to do good work in the world, to stretch my hands out like tree branches and become awake and aware and alive in the world.

The certain knowledge that people who live in the same neighborhoods as me, who shop at the same grocery stores, walk the same streets and pause to look up at the same shrieking seagulls and sunlight on the water…that these nearby strangers are having their doors knocked on by the government, that the phrase “show me your papers” isn’t reserved for Nazis in movies anymore, all of this is calling up on all the wells of rose heat I’ve ever stored for any journey. It’s stored up and spilling over—and some days starting to leach away—because I do not know the right outlet for all the love and concern I feel for all this beautiful world.

A student told me the other day that he had been seeing a lot of bald eagles around the college. Maybe, he said, it’s just the same one over and over again, but it’s still pretty amazing to see. I agreed, took heart at the wide-eyed wonder of someone even just a decade younger than me, and thought about how close bald eagles and other birds came to extinction before DDT was banned, before the EPA was formed, and how much love of the world is in real danger. When I lived in Montana and was hiking with a friend, a bald eagle swooped low over our heads and my friend said, sweetly, “Thanks, Rachel Carson!”—almost the way another set of believers would thank something more divine than human for the same gift of wonder.

As an environmentalist, as a human, as a Feminist, as a woman, as an American, as all of the ists and ans that I am, I feel as if I am trying at once to stand my ground, but that ground is being eroded on all sides. I know how the system is supposed to work—and I call my Members of Congress regularly, I attend neighborhood resistance meetings, I work at a college with a refreshingly honest dedication to sustainability—but I still feel beset on all sides and cannot help but see that the system is either broken or atrophied.

At my job, we’ve been discussing the opportunities for increasing the solar capacity of the college, in pursuit of our goal of carbon neutrality. The trouble—aside from the particulars of finding appropriate roof space or expanding a ground array—is that power storage technology is not yet advanced enough to meet what can be produced. On top of the storage, there is an inherent transmission loss of about 5% between production and use.

These all the same problems of storing and carrying rose heat for the journey.

I am at a loss for how to transmit my love and fear into power and change. The infrastructure of democracy seems in disrepair or decay or simply unable to handle the loads we require of it. We must reawaken it even as we seek to rebuild it, put new and different flesh on its bones. As much as I want to stand and speak and write and vote and donate and do all that I feel called to in the service of what I love and long to protect, I feel sometimes like I’m standing on the seashore and the tide is dragging the sand out from under my feet.

The truth with that, though, is if you stand long enough the sand holds your feet and ankles fast. And the tide always returns.

This is when it starts to get hard. The first month of euphoric disbelief and galvanized activism for a just America, that was a special time. Now, nearly two months into the buffeting winds of Muslim bans and abhorrent Cabinet picks and healthcare evaporating for our elders and empty promises of jobs and undeniable ties to a notably violent regime and the re-normalizing and re-institutionalizing of racism that had almost started to poke out into the sunlight and be rectified…now is when the journey really begins. And we must carry our rose heat forward in whatever forms and vessels we each can. It may be pussy hats, it may be daily calls to Members of Congress, it may be entering local politics, it may be opening up our spare rooms as safe havens, it may be increased mindfulness and a falling in love anew with the world so that we recall the value of what we protect, it may be and must be whatever each person has time for, now that the blush and fury of the first romance with activism has worn off with time, and the recognition of how much work this truly entails.

We are all vessels of power.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Girls in Books: Empathy and Identity from Immigrants and Refugees

(Image by Jessie Wilcox Smith)
A slow wave of vomit and grief has been rising in me as I learn more and more about the despicable and probably corrupt actions closing access to immigrants and refugees at the borders and airports of the United States—the country that I pledged allegiance to 2,160 times over the course of my public school career.

Part of that public school education was a beautifully in-depth study of the Irish Potato Famine and resulting wave of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1840s. My eighth-grade teachers had a database of real ships rolls, and each student was given the name of an Irish family and charged with writing the diary of one immigrant in that family. We started their stories in Ireland, wrote about the harsh harvest of blighted potatoes, the cruelty of living as serf-labor for the rich English Protestant lords, the decisions of our families to leave, the crossing, the arrival in Boston, and the utter fury and frustration after all the struggle and journey and family members dying on the voyage and leaving the homeland behind, to be greeted by cruel discrimination and further hardship in a United States that firmly stated that “No Irish Need Apply.”

Along with my Irish immigrant—she was a real person and her name was Mary Lahy—I have been thinking of all the other girls in books I grew up with. Before Mary Lahy, I learned about fitting your life into a small trunk and emmigrating from Kirsten Larson—the American Girl character who came across the Atlantic Ocean from Sweden to settle in Minnesota. I learned about some migrants' search for home from Laura Ingalls and her trail of homesteads from the woods of Wisconsin to the prairies of South Dakota. I learned about refugees from Lucy Pevensie and her three siblings who were sent out of London during the Blitz and landed at the Professor’s house and then in Narnia. I learned about Nazis in the back pages of my Molly McIntire books—the American Girl character who lived in the 1940s. I learned about orphans and displacement from Anne Shirley, of Green Gables, about Jim Crow from Cassie Logan in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and about religious discrimination from the very real Anne Frank and Corrie Ten Boom and fictional Annemarie Johansen. I learned about Japanese Internment from a random pick off the library shelf one school vacation when I was ten—the girl in the book sneaks out of school to fly to California to investigate the past that her family won’t talk about. She—and I—learned about a time when my country rounded up its own people and locked them away in horse stalls with barbed wire and guards.

Underneath all of the adventures and sass and courage and smarts of these girls, there is an undeniable blade of anxiety. As a little girl, the uncertainty and insecurity of all these stories hit me hard...imagining saying goodbye to my stuffed animals, my backyard, the life I knew. It may be shallow and childish, but all those stories did breed a certain empathy that sticks with me today. I look around my comfortable home, filled with all the things I own and love, all the reminders of who I am and how I got to where I am. I run through the long list of contacts in my phone and knowing how rich my life here is with support and love and memory. And I imagine how hollowing it would be to have to flee and leave it all behind, to not know for certain who in my contacts was alive or dead or if I could ever see them again. I would neither lightly nor willingly walk away from the pictures of my family, the bookshelves my father built me, the quilt my mother made me, the dog I’ve raised and loved for eleven years.

The people who we label refugees and immigrants are just people who by need or force have left their familiar belongings and lives to come elsewhere. I often feel that I can only really make sense of myself in the context of New England, and I have to will myself to not imagine what sort of tragedy it would take for me to leave this landscape. But, I am not different or special in my love for my home. Others who love their land just as I do mine have been forced to leave for reasons of safety and survival, for a lack of opportunity to stay where they would rather be. It makes my heart hurt, and hurt the more for knowing that I am merely lucky to only imagine and not experience this loss, so far. 

To go through the fear and struggle and grief, to rip your life apart and out of context, to parcel up only the most portable and essential of all that you own and love, to be adventurous and brave, and forge on to a new place, and then to be met by the corrupt discrimination and cruelty of President Trump’s recent actions on immigration…this is the worst and ugliest side of American history and identity.

We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Some people came willingly, freely to what has become America, seeking freedom for their faith and opportunities to make better lives than the crowded and oppressed landscapes of home. Some people came here stolen and shackled, only to be further abused, and to have that abuse grafted into laws. Some people came here long before everyone else, and were pushed aside by tides of newer immigrants, and made to live like refugees in their own lands. From any angle of American identity that I can understand, it goes against the marrow of my European-descended immigrant bones to deny others, any others, access to this land. It is particularly cruel to deny this when people have left their homes behind in fear and war and violence.

I don’t know how to combat this latest action of the President and his White Supremacist strategist. The usual channels of democracy feel more and more insufficient. People say we have been made for these times, but the infrastructure of democracy is reminding me of the flotsam and jetsam of a bridge broken and pummeled by sudden hurricanes and floods. I call my Senators and Congresswoman each almost daily, asking them to exercise human decency in immigration policy and to look deeper into the President’s business ties to countries on the “safe” list. I donate to six different groups that serve the interests closest to my soul. And I am looking at the door of my guest room in the apartment I share with two other women and wondering what it would be like to offer that room to someone in need of shelter. Because while I am calmly drying my dishes, sitting beside a heater with a cup of tea and tears running down my face as I type this, real people are living out every fictional scenario my girls in books taught me to care about.

None of this is normal. And those of us who love the freedom and democracy and immigrant legacy of this land cannot ignore what is happening.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Muzzled Lions

The Lion Aslan could be a lot of things, beyond being a powerful lion in the land of Narnia. I’ve been told he’s basically Jesus, but as I could never really square the adventurous fun of the Narnia books with the sanctimonious boredom of Sunday School, I always find that part of C.S. Lewis a little irritating.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Aslan is a magical lion who returns to the land of Narnia and breaks the cold misery that the White Witch has cursed the land with for years upon end. Aslan’s revolutionary return doesn’t go smoothly—he is betrayed, and in a trade for the life of his traitor, agrees to be killed by a mob of his opposition.

His sacrifice is done at the Stone Table, and Aslan is tied up and muzzled before he is paraded in front of all the creatures who believe in the creepy darkness of the White Witch’s power. And then the Witch kills him, with a knife made of stone.

The girls, Lucy and Susan, who hid in the shadows and watched their hero be bound and slaughtered wait until the Horribles go hooting away with the Witch. And then they come to him, hold his dead paws through the darkest part of the night, and take off his muzzle with their frozen fingers. Soon, the mice come creeping out of the fields and gnaw off the ropes that tied Aslan down.

And then, when the mice are gone and the girls are looking at the rising sun and imagining a world and a battle without their hero, there is a crack that shakes the earth, and Aslan comes back to life, stronger than ever.

I can, now, see the parallels to Jesus’ death and resurrection. I can also see the parallels to the seasons, to tides, to Apollo 13 slingshoting around the dark side of the moon.

It was the muzzling and the release that I thought of today, though. Science isn’t God, isn’t some sort of untouchable Deity or golden-maned savior in a fairy tale. However, in the work that the EPA, NOAA, and the USDA does, there is the information that can guide our country and culture out of the cursed rut of our own destruction through climate change and the impacts of pollution. Muzzling all of those voices, all those stories, all that information and data and solutions and knowledge, that is muzzling my real-life Aslan.

We need mice and moles and the little fingers of people lurking in the shadows to take off the muzzles and rip the ropes apart with their—our—teeth. The White Witch and the White House, they muzzle their prey before the slaughter.

Aslan explains to the relieved and confused little girls that there was a deeper than time magic that brought him back—that because the sacrifice was his choice in exchange for another’s life, it doesn’t “count.” For Lewis’s purposes of presenting Christian fables, this sacrifice to eternal life works well.

I, however, think more about the actions of the mice and the girls—they freed their hero, even as he seemed dead and gone. I like to believe that this—saving the savior—is part of what gives Aslan back his life. What good would his sacrifice have been if there had been no one at his side, releasing his voice to roar, his paws to crush the White Witch in battle?

I don’t need to spell this out with some fancy metaphor and image. Aslan is the work that the EPA, NOAA, USDA, NASA, and so many others do on behalf of all of us, for our safety and security in a fragile world. Trump and his gag order are the White Witch and her mob and muzzle and stone knife.

And we’re Susan, Lucy, and the Mice. Let’s get going, while we our love and belief can still bring back what we love and need to fight the coming battles. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Kittens, Rex Tillerson, and Pipelines

(I took this picture years ago. Now I know what I was saving it for.)
For arguments sake, let’s say that a white man named Tex Rillerson had spent his career climbing up the corporate ladder of a company that makes stuffed kitten dolls. He was very good at his job and during his tenure at Kitty Dolls, the country became deeply reliant on his company’s product—to the point that most Americans, regardless of political leaning, would find it difficult to function on a daily basis without their Kitty Doll.

All of which points to Tillerson’s talents as a business person, which does require a certain amount of political ruthlessness to make money by abetting a culture’s crippling dependency on a particular product.

However, a talent with toy kittens—no matter how popular and necessary they are to the functioning of the country’s economy—does not necessarily translate into a solid grounding in the sort of international diplomacy and big-picture cooperation that I would expect of a Secretary of State.

Particularly if, say, there were large international supply chains that could get the raw materials for even more kitty dolls to the private companies that could then make up the alluringly necessary-for-life-in-the-United-States product, and make a healthy profit from the sale of these kittens. To set up the new supply line, there is a bit of international agreement that has to occur—and this would involve the Secretary of State, who in this scenario, has a lifetime of loyalty to the stuffed kitten industry.

It is hard for me to imagine that our friend Tex Rillerson would be able to exercise the sort of dispassionate diplomacy that could properly and thoroughly examine all the ins and outs of this new supply line of raw material for his former industry. In the long and short run, it would be very hard to be critically impartial and unbiased, and those ties to the stuffed kitten toy industry—or to any industry that the Secretary of State would expect to encounter regularly in our globalized world—makes me extremely leery of career businessmen and women in positions of high authority and power in our democracy.

Pretend with me that Rillerson’s stuffed kittens—indeed the entire stuffed kitten doll industry— turns out to be hugely polluting, that the dolls emit a miasma that alters the chemistry of the atmosphere, that the supply lines for their raw materials are extremely fragile, those raw materials are a hazard to drinking water when they leak out, and that, the CEO of Kitty Dolls knew for years that his toys were this destructive to both his customers and the planet and Rillerson helped to shush up the truth about his Kitty Dolls because he was more interested in making money than in anything resembling care for people other than himself and his company.

And then, let’s just go ahead and stop pretending and recognize that Rex Tillerson was the CEO of Exxon Mobil, and that his company has known about the correlation between their industry and product and climate change for years, and he is now slated to be at the helm of a department that will have a strong hand in the building of oil pipelines, including both the Keystone XL pipeline that felt like a battle won, and the Dakota Access Pipeline that feels like the most nightmarish conglomeration of all that is most shameful in America’s past and present.

The American people are—myself included—too reliant on fossil fuels. We are addicted, our culture has structured itself to feed and foster this addiction, and we are not so slowly irreparably damaging out planet and ourselves through this reliance. We need leaders—on every level—who will help us recover from this affliction, rather than leaders who will further enable our disease. We need Secretaries of State, of Energy, of Education and all the rest who look beyond the bottom line. A country is not a business, a country is full of people who are trying to do the best they can, a country needs leaders who will help lift everyone up, not just their friends and business associates.

The Dakota Access Pipeline represents all that is worst about the United States past and present. A multinational fossil fuel company is trampling on the sovereign rites of a Native American tribal nation. The Federal government is now backing a private business’s right to a profit above the rights of a people who have been on this continent longer than any white people’s ancestors and have been treated horribly since some illegal immigrants showed up from Europe in the 1400s.

With Keystone—a battle I foolishly thought was won, not realizing that nothing is safe or sacred—it is the same belief that a company’s profit is the ultimate goodness in this world. Certainly, companies provide jobs, and people need jobs, but not, I believe, at the expense of all other concerns. There are other jobs, there are other ways of being, and there are other leaders to be had than those who put their own private business interests and networks before all other things in this world.

Call your Senators and Congresspeople, frequently. Get your news from sources your grandparents would recognize. And do whatever you can to keep weaning yourself off fossil fuels—our reliance gives those in power too much power, and they are not worthy of us. If Rex Tillerson had really sold stuffed kitten dolls—even if he was a steely-eyed industrial genius—he would not be in the running for Secretary of State. Because he sold fossil fuels, he is powerful. If we reduce our reliance on his industry, we reduce his industry’s destructive power and influence. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Thou Hast Done Champion

(Drawing by Trevor Stubley in T.H. White's The Book of Merlyn)
“Thou has done champion,” says the Hedgehog to King Arthur, towards the end of T.H. White’s The Book of Merlyn.

King Arthur has been whisked away on the eve of his last battle to spend his final hours in the company of his childhood tutors, Merlyn the magician and a host of animals. White, more than any other teller of Arthurian tales I know of, focuses on Arthur as a person, rather than a Legend. In White’s version, Merlyn trained Arthur to be a king and a leader of men by magicking him into lots of different animals as a child. Arthur spent time with these different species to see how they behave, how they commune, how they organize and how they are in the world. White was anti-war, and a far better than amateur naturalist, so these animal interludes are both more biologically accurate and politically astute than mere Disney cartoon magic. The point is amply made.

But, here at the end of his life when the beauty and justice and idealism of Camelot has crashed down around him in the angst and fury of Mordred’s Fascist rabble, Arthur is miserable. He worries that his fight for justice, his lifelong attempt for equality, all of his struggles and sacrifices, all of this has been for nothing because humans, it seems, are innately violent and ignorantly evil. Because he sees his fight as ending, and he himself losing, he believes it all a failure.

And then, in the midst of the animals fussing and complaining about warlike humans—all of which makes Arthur feel increasingly awful and personally responsible for all the evils of mankind—the little flea-bitten Hedgehog takes Arthur’s hand and pulls him back outside, into the moonlight and the landscape, and helps him to see how the world is beautiful, even though intrinsically flawed. The Hedgehog puts Arthur where he can see what he fought for, rather than parsing how he fought. And he congratulates and affirms Arthur, with those four words, which is the most graceful permission to exit I can fathom.

Since recently re-reading The Book of Merlyn, every time I see or hear or read anything about the evening of Obama’s presidency, the speculation about his legacy, the looming unknown specter of Trump’s dawning era, I want to yell and pray “thou hast done champion.”

Because, folks, it has been a wonderful eight years. Not a perfect time, by a wide margin, but a Good time in the metric I use for success. What the legacy of it all will be, I do not know. I hope that it will be an active legacy, that those who felt the spark of hope and change will remain rooted and engaged, that we will perpetuate our beliefs with our actions and words, rather than sit down and mourn the loss.

Along with the Hedgehog and King Arthur, I’ve been taking comfort in Jack Gilbert’s poem about Icarus, “Failing and Flying.” The end of the Obama era is not a failure—it is merely “the end of his triumph.” And, there was flight, there was progress. Hillary Clinton put her million more cracks in the glass ceiling, Barack Obama made the White House a little less white and a whole lot more dignified, and Martin Luther King jr.’s arc of the moral universe bent ever closer towards justice.

How long that arc is, how young this country is, how slowly evolution happens…all of this has given me pause and ballast in recent weeks. Change is grindingly slow, and our personal lives are brilliantly brief, so this makes change seem even slower. In The Book of Merlyn, as the old man Arthur questions his life’s work, Merlyn explodes over the disconnect between human history and evolution: “When will they learn that it takes a million years for a bird to modify a single one of its primary feathers?...Quite regardless of the fact that evolution happens in million-year cycles, he thinks he has evolved since the Middle Ages. Perhaps the combustion engine has evolved, but not he.”

Racial and gender equality, economic justice and environmental salvation—these are challenges that present-day Americans and the world need to address on a faster than a million-years-a-feather speed. And yet, if we can remember that we are, after all, only human and only one more species on this beautiful world, trying to govern ourselves, it lends some perspective to see how glacial evolution is. This is not a free pass; we must continue the work of hastening our evolution, of bending the arc towards justice, but we must have perspective in the scope of how we measure our progress. 

This is not to say that I believe that everything and everyone will be fine throughout Trump’s presidency. This will be a hard and ugly time. For the sake of those who threw the Hail Mary pass, held their noses at the brassy violence of Trump’s character, and voted for him purely on personal economic needs—I hope jobs are saved and created. However, I do worry intensely how the founding ideals of our country will go—I hear that the White House Press Corps is possibly being invited to move out of the Trump White House, and that more alternative bloggers and other media hosts are being invited in. The White Supremacist who advises the future President Trump announced this media change.

I do not doubt that there will be a violent lack of dignity within this administration, and that many shadowy corrupt dealings will take place in the background while the spotlight is on the histrionics of a Commander in Chief who doesn’t seem to understand he is playing with nuclear fire. People are going to get hurt—whether by armed conflict or loss of health insurance or recalibrated racism or climate change fueled floods and famines or all of this, I cannot speculate, but believe all are on the table. I ache with recognition that what I do, where I live, the color of my skin, I am unlikely to be one of the injured. And I know these protections are thinner than the dime all things can change on.

I imagine the Arc of Moral History to be something like a huge, timeless barrel hoop. Our jobs are to catch it, hold it, and hone it towards justice. We had it in our hands, but something slipped, and these next few years are the ricochet. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is how things move forward, this is how we evolve our primary feathers, how we fly. And in that, we will fail, sometimes. But the important thing is that we tried, that we bent the arc, that we flew, that we did.

As Merlyn lists off all the poets and writers and storytellers who will carry Arthur’s legend forward, all the places where his story emerges, all the ways in which he is not forgotten, I thought of all the acts of kindness and resistance that I know are happening as we go from Arthur to Mordred, Obama to Trump. King Arthur and Camelot—these are not remembered and retold because Mordred’s petulant rage broke the Round Table. The bitter end does not erase the sweetness of the being. The attempt is the triumph.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Playing Dead

Now that I work on a college campus, memories of my own time in college are bubbling up in surprising ways. What follows, is a uniquely bizarre set of circumstances that maybe only ever could have occurred on the St. Lawrence University campus in the early 2000s. Or perhaps it really could and does happen everywhere. Some of this may not be true, or accurate, but it is as close as I can recall, and that seems good enough to at least explore.

I am not, actually, sure how the tiff between the Greenhouse and the Outing Club started. There was always, when I was there, a certain amount of good-natured animosity—the Greenhouse was the environmental action themed house, and the Outing Club was the outdoor adventure themed house. To anyone not in those worlds, it would seem that the houses would have gotten merrily along, traipsing about the woods and waters on skis and in kayaks and discussing the literal common ground.

However, to people familiar with the nuanced tribalism of the situation, it should be immediately obvious that—as very young fairly homogenous twenty-somethings—we were all a little hungrier than average bear to define ourselves as being one thing or another. To borrow from the budding sociologists in our neighboring theme cottages of the Women’s Resource Center and the Pink Triangle, we “otherized” the shit out of each other, in order to better define ourselves.

Roughly, at the Greenhouse, we ate communal, vegetarian meals and got funding from the school to put in a compost bin. We hosted craft nights, board game parties, and the Student Activists for Global Equity regularly met in the living room to strategize about protesting the IMF, WTO and World Bank. In the Harry Potter scheme of things, this was definitely a cozy little home of Hufflepuffs. (It should be noted that I loved living there, that after three years of living in dorms and other, louder, theme houses, the Greenhouse felt like where I should have always been. I loved it, and the people I lived with were some of the best.)

At the Outing Club, they organized getting a St. Lawrence student on top of every 4,000 footer in the Adirondacks one weekend every year. One of their members shot a deer and hung it to drain in the front yard. They had barbeques, much better parties, and a slack-line. They made t-shirts for the Peak Weekend celebrating that they were going to, I believe the phrasing was, “penetrate Mother Nature.” I believe that, perhaps, some of alum Viggo Morentson’s cool brutality and stoic capabilities in the woods as Aragorn may have been modeled on the Outing Club.

At first, there was a little good-natured carping about how one house was a bunch of softie Loraxes, and one house was a bunch of jocks in Patagonia.

I’m not sure when the food throwing started, but it did. Or maybe the Greenhouse stole all the Outing Club’s silverware—we certainly talked about that, but I can’t remember ever going in there in active prank mode? I don’t like to think that the Greenhouse were merely objects that were acted upon rather than taking direct action towards an increasingly antagonistic force, but I really can’t think of anything that I—or anyone, really—could do where an appropriate reaction is to squeeze ketchup and mustard onto the side of the house.

Which people—I’m not saying exactly who, because I don’t remember—did, to the Greenhouse. That was just a minor inconvenience, and not really even for us who lived there because we were college kids and didn’t have to clean our own houses. I remember the cleaning lady telling me how hard it was to get the streaks of condiments off the window screens, and I didn’t have any idea of what to say, or how to explain, and just feeling like a privileged asshole.

Once condiments were passé, the game evolved. The dining hall had a soft-serve ice cream machine. The joke, apparently, was to make a big ice cream cone—one of the few foods allowed out of the dining hall, if you weren’t wearing cargo pants and a hoodie—and then walk back to the Outing Club, which meant passing the Greenhouse. Then, at the opportune moment, the ice cream cone was hucked at the house, and it was considered a real win if it stuck.

Again, dried sticky ice cream is more difficult to get off the side of a building than you might think. I had a big bay window on the second story, just over the porch roof, which made a better than average target.

We, in the Greenhouse, did think of retaliating. We were pissed. I despise the stereotype of a mousy, passive, and humorless environmentalist, and that certainly held me back from having the sort of shrill and hysterical screaming fit with the Outing Club, where friends of mine lived. We tried being just coolly pissed, trying to do Michelle Obama’s “they go low, we go high” before she made it cool. We knew that any major reaction would make it worse—there is a particular demoralizing trap of having your legitimate concerns laughed at. “What’s wrong? It’s just a joke.” is deceptively strong statement. We didn’t want to throw food, because we were concerned about food waste, and we had no authority to get them to come over and clean up after the one-sided food fight. And so we just sat tight, occasionally trying to chase Outing Club people down, from the dining hall, and steal the ice cream cones before the throwing.

But then we entered the animal kingdom.

The Outing Club, very generously, hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner every year before Thanksgiving break. The whole campus was invited, there was an enormous amount of food, any oven that could hold a turkey was taken, very pleasantly, by eminent domain the day of the feast.

Including the Greenhouse’s. Which was fine—just because we didn’t eat meat at our nightly suppers, didn’t mean that we all abhorred animal flesh or needed our kitchen to remain pristine. I tried to offer a campus program of eating locally made beef jerky at the house, and it only fell apart because I lost steam, not because it was meat.

So, there was the turkey, roasting away in the oven. And then there was the dinner, hosted at a house in the woods that the school owned.

And then, in the very late or early hours of the night, a terrific wet THUMP shook the front door of the Greenhouse.

It was, of course, a turkey carcass.

We at the Greenhouse chased them off. I vaguely remember standing on the sidewalk throwing pieces of turkey from my welcome mat, after people I knew well who ran off down the street, and then I suppose, we put the carcass in the garbage and went back to bed.

A quick survey of college friends on Facebook informs me that there were, at various other points that year: a dead squirrel, a dead raccoon in the recycling bins off the kitchen, and my sister Emily remembers her and I talking to a young gentleman from the Outing Club who sauntered up to the porch one evening with a large dead rodent with a rope around it’s neck, and swinging it like an Olympic hammer throw. One thing I remember about the whole saga, in not wanting to exacerbate the situation, I was disturbingly Stockholmed into thinking that this was some sort of joke, that if I didn’t laugh about it, with the animal carcass hurlers and the food wasters and the thieves of the cleaning staffs’ time, then I was a bad sport.

So, according to my sister, I discussed—in the agreeable tones of people who are both in on the joke, I imagine—what he might be doing. He stood on the sidewalk, while my sister and I sat on the porch swing, grinned his chiseled L.L. Bean model face off and twirled something furry, heavy and dead over his shoulder, replied that he was “doing oh, nuthin’, just out for a walk,” obviously—and off he went, with his little dead companion slung over his shoulder.

If logic applies in this situation, then it was later that same night that I was lying in my bed, the head of which was against the outside front wall of the house, and heard another heavy wet THWACK against the building, and the hooting laughter of people I knew running away.

In the morning, when it was light, I could see that it was a fisher cat—a large marten-weasel type critter, with a leash of twine around it’s neck, lying in a perfect “C” shape on the porch roof, just out of reach.

It was big and dead and cute and suddenly, this wasn’t at all funny more and I didn’t want to play along and I didn’t want to have to climb out on the roof to prevent an animal from rotting next to my window and I didn’t want the cleaning staff to have to do more work because some people were stupid and some people were permissively spineless.

And so, as I remember it, I asked the largest man who lived in the Greenhouse to go with me to Outing Club, where we woke up the kid I knew had hurled the fisher, and in angry calm—although bordering on shrill and no longer giving a shit about being a hysterical lady environmentalist—voices, told him he needed to get a ladder, get rid of it, and this all needed to stop.

And, with the sort of sober light of morning clarity where a lot of important college learning actually happens, he did come retrieve the carcass. I remember a sort of awkward apology as both he and I knew, finally, that this was a fucking weird thing to have happened, to have been normalized.

This isn’t the sort of major issue that college campuses get worked up about. I’d love for rape and binge drinking and mental health to be taken care of so that someone in the administration would tell students to stop being asshats and to stop throwing dead rodents and dinner-fowl at each other’s homes, but we’re not there yet. Maybe we don’t ever get there and this is the sort of not-good, not-clean, “toxic masculinity driven” fun that happens. It’s bad choices and drinking the Koolaid and not taking a moment to see what you’re actually doing…and in the context of a certain type of rich, private, WASPy college, it is totally explicable, while totally dumb.

 I know that working for me in the Sustainability Office is never going to be the biggest thing going on in my students lives. I was thinking about the challenges a student could face in getting their dorm to sort the recycling properly, and then about all the tiny dramas of daily life at college, and then bam, like a dead marten landing on the roof, I was back to thinking about this. It won’t be ketchup and squirrels, but odds are, something similarly wrong and asinine is going to come up among my new students.

In the dark corner of my soul that finds this grotesquely funny in the abstract hindsight, I hope it does. Although, I’ll make the perpetrators clean up the evidence, because that is what seems most egregious to me now. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Hold Everything Dear

I watched George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address in the winter of 2008 with a sort of blistering rage and worry about the state of the world. I don’t remember, now, what the seed of the trouble was—maybe Iraq, maybe climate change, maybe the sort of dread about nothing in particular and everything all at once that overwhelms me when the world seems to be floundering and slipping away from the all things bright and beautiful and fair. I felt, deeply, a sense of wrongness in the world that I was powerless to combat. When I think of then, of myself at that particular time of life—twenty-five, and maybe too old too be so adolescently dramatic and naïve—I imagine my fingers to be more like dry wooden twigs than flesh and blood, grasping at a world in winter.

Regardless, watching someone I believed then to be criminally idiotic speak about my country, I was crying and sputtering with rage. The friend I was watching the speech with got up, walked across the room to the bookshelf, and tossed a small white book at me. “There,” he said. “Read that and you’ll be fine.”

It was John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. I read it, and the world as I knew it, changed. I liked the quiet crackling of Berger’s rage, that he wrote of how the cramped crook of a boy’s body shooting marbles in a Palestinian settlement spoke of an undefeated despair and familiarity with unkindly small spaces. I liked the image of an old couple, crossing a check-point, holding hands no matter the age—a conspiracy of two against the world. I loved Gareth Evan’s poem at the start—where “the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat for the journey.”

I fell for the way of seeing the world that came through Berger’s words—here was love and fury and a seething peace within it all. The dead were among the living, and living smelled of the gasoline of motorbikes as much as the freshness of hay. The despair had grace and teeth, the ghosts had blood and bones. My own writing, when I’m reading Berger, is more bodily—I leave muscle and heart and bones and teeth and hands and skin and hair and blood on the page to a degree I’ve never come to from anyone else. His writing makes me aware that I am alive, mortal and physical, while tattooing an eternal, earth-bound mysticism and immediate humanitarian outrage into my being. The blinders are off, the gloves are off, and any shred of artifice joins them—butchered and beautiful—on the floor.

After Hold Everything Dear, I devoured everything that I could borrow from my friend, find in libraries, or otherwise get my hands on. I love, particularly, the Into Their Labours trilogy and To the Wedding. Into Their Labours are loosely connected stories about three generations in a small village in France, but the story, I think, is the same as small-town anywhere. The binding love, the sense of place, the dirt and reality rather than a sanitized Euro Disney history—this is the world I believe to be real. Each one of those stories opened something within my heart and worldview a little more, made me believe in the stubborn strength of humanity to lurch forward. When I didn’t like the ending of the trilogy, when I cried at how the heirs of a pastoral village end in the slums of a nameless city—this colors how I see the present world’s migrations and crowdings and inequities. Berger’s writing, gently and ferociously, reminds me who we are, and who we may be.

The same in To the Wedding, where the wedding reads like some frothy fantasy of a quaint village—except for the politics that almost keep a father out of the country and the disease that stalks the bride. To have harsh reality and fairy tale idealism holding hands on the page…this burnt something about tradition and mystery into my being that no church service or religion could ever have done.

I’ve sobbed in public while reading several of his books—And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos while sitting on the bench outside an underwear outlet, Here is Where We Meet while sitting in a shack at my job as a ski patroller, most memorably. Arguably, I’m hysterical and dramatic and like to draw attention to my literary loves. It’s partly true. I’m operatic in my reactions to what I love. I cry, sometimes a lot. Because I’ve found that Berger’s writing touches something like my bones, the reaction seems authentic. I’ve checked myself, many times, to make sure that I’m not in love with the idea of someone moved to tears by words on a page. I don’t think I am. The emotional reaction slows me back down to the pace where I can absorb the weight of the words, of the world as Berger points it out. Beautiful words that renew my faith in the world also change the beat of my heart and the timbre of my breath. It makes me wonder just how razor thin that faith must be if each renewal tingles my spine.

With Berger, I know I’m not alone in this breathless wonder. When I worked at a school library, the drama teacher and I found that we both love To the Wedding and stood in the hallway beaming and almost teary-eyed, each putting a palm over our own hearts and gesturing at the air with the other hand while jointly saying, again and again, “It’s just…”

Out of the last nine years that I’ve known about John Berger, I have feathered my bookshelves with copies of most everything of he’s written. Often, I check the “B” section of a bookstore first—not that I’m necessarily looking to buy more of his books, but I like to see them there. It’s my iteration of a rosary or a station of the cross, I suppose. My Berger collection is separated from most of my books, surrounded by the poetry and the other books that mean the world to me.

Yet, I thought today, about how long it has been since I’ve read any of the books. Certainly I still carry them around like totems—I spent this last summer with an abbreviated book collection and am sure at least Hold Everything Dear was saved out from storage. But I haven’t read them, any of them, for at least a few years. The poem I wrote in response to Hold Everything Dear fell out of my copy, dated January 30, 2008, along with a letter from my original Berger librarian, sent to my first Montana address that September. I know I’ve read the book since then, but can’t think when.

All the same, I was shaken to hear that Berger passed away yesterday. He was ninety, I never met him, he did not write back when I tried to write him a letter once, and he is not mine, personally, to mourn. Grief, I believe, is for those who knew him as the man, rather than those who knew him as the Writer. Nevertheless, I’ve been stumbling on something between gratitude and grief about his passing. I met Berger, as it were, when the world seemed dark with a government I did not like or trust. My worries and sadness about the world going forward now, rather than nearly nine years ago, have suddenly deepened. Between refugees and ISIS and Russian hacking and climate change and a President-Elect with climate deniers and white supremacists as confidants and advisors, I keep coming to the sense that the dark side is winning.

Lazily, selfishly, I wanted Berger and more like him to see me through this patch of history. I wanted his older world gravitas and someone who stole art supplies and made love to a woman he called Oslo (because it rhymed with First Snow) in the London Blitz to light the way for me through this modern mess.

But then I return to why I haven’t read Berger in a few years: I haven’t needed to. I used to need to, like needing a bandage over a wound, like an invalid heals in stages. I needed both the healing and then the proud badge of the scar. There are no scientific realities—other than death, digestion, decomposition, and the trading forms of released molecules—where fur and feathers become flesh, where flesh becomes bone. But that was the image that struck me today, still musing about why the death of a man I did not know causes such a hiccup in my heart—Berger’s books gave me something I needed, something I could hold, until the words slipped under my skin and into my solid, mortal bones. His writing helped me become who I am, and now that I am this creature with those particular tattoos on my bones, the only way forward is to be the incarnation of all that blood and passion and light and critical love and championing of this world.