We’re gathered around a large table in Marty Coleman’s backyard.
Marty Coleman, a long-time peace and justice activist at All Saints Church, now in her 80s, offered to let us use her backyard for our Racial Justice Ministry (COLORS) retreat.
It’s early morning, the sky is overcast, and there’s a chill in the air. But, after a string of hot days, no one’s complaining.
It’s been five weeks since my father died, and the first time life feels back to normal.
It’s peaceful here in Marty’s backyard, and I’m grateful to be sitting here around this table with people I’ve come to love and admire this last year.
We were instructed to come prepared to share our personal goals for the year, and when it’s my turn, I talk about my goal to educate through writing and storytelling.
Claudia Owens Shields, one of the African American members of COLORS, a psychologist who specializes in healing race- related trauma, is the next person to share.
She says that her goal is to understand how segregation happens in the church.
“Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America,” she says. “How does this happen? I want to find out.”
It’s an intriguing question. I watched the video of Martin Luther King talking about this a week ago — when I was preparing to deliver my father’s eulogy.
When we’re on our lunch break, Claudia approaches me.
“What are you writing?” she asks.
I tell her I’ve been working on a memoir about race in America for a couple of years. “Both of my parents were antiracists. My father integrated a church in Chicago in the 50s, and I’m telling that story,” I say.
“Where did you live in Chicago?” she asks.
“On the South Side,” I tell her.
“At what intersection?”
“82nd and Rhodes.”
“I lived at 96th and Langley.”
“Oh, wow, my Grandmother lived on Langley!” I say.
It’s a small world moment.
It turns out that Claudia went to the church, Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. And not only that — she knew Lois Fluss, one of my Mom’s closest friends. Lois was the adult I was closest to as a child.
Lois brought us Beaman Gum and other items when we were sick.
She and her husband, unlike my teatotaling parents, were unapologetic about their love for martinis, and “martini,” thanks to Lois, was one of the first words my sister learned to say.
Lois was one of the few white people who stayed in the neighborhood when the “restricted covenants” that kept African Americans out of the neighborhood were no longer enforceable, and the familiar “white flight” followed.
Claudia told me, “I once asked Lois, ’Are you white?’ She said she was blue and green or something.”
Integration didn’t last. Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States — and the church is all African American, but for one white woman who stayed.
I feel lucky, though, for those few brief years when white people and black people worked together for the common good, and from a common faith.
And I’m amazed that only a week after my father’s memorial service, we are here: two women from the same church, sitting around a common table, breaking bread together, working together to dismantle the racism and privilege that exists in our church and community. And stopping with the others at the table — black, white, and latino — to watch a scarab fly up and through the spaces between the leaves of the wisteria that covers the awning above us ——excited, if overwhelmed, by the work ahead of us.
Possibly a charismatic leader had a vision of another way of living.
Whatever happened, Teotihuacan, which is about 30 miles NE of Mexico City, was one of the most peaceful civilizations the planet has known, a vast civilization that stretched from modern day Arizona to Honduras, and lasted for almost a thousand years.
Due to the pyramids, which were constructed from about 1 AD to 350 AD, it became a sacred site and a ceremonial center that people from all over Mesoamerica visited, until the population grew to 200,000.
Theotihuacan was a thriving metropolis with a diverse culture that was known for its harmonious co-existence, a civilization that glorified peace, and not war.
“Yes, there sacrifices, yes, there were wars,” says Columbia University Archeologist and Art Historian Esther Pasztory, “but that was not the heart of its ideology.”
Archeologists have yet to uncover any representation of an earthly king or royal tomb. Dr. Pasztory suggests in her book, Experiment in Living, that the people of Teotihuacan didn’t need a king because of the way they elevated the Goddess, who unified the diverse culture.
“Though I imagine that the leaders, those who thought up the combined ritual and political attraction of what was to be Teotihuacan, were definitely powerful humans, I see them as having integrated their ideas not by setting up one of themselves as a divine king but by elevating the Goddess to colossal proportions,” she writes.
The image of the Water Goddess (the prototype for the Aztec Water Goddess, Chalchiuhtlicue) was dominant at the Temple, and both the Pyramid of the Sun, which included underground caves, and the Pyramid of the Moon were her domain.
At the Pyramid of the Moon, on the third day of our Flourish retreat, we scattered ancient seeds that Indians in San Miguel Allende gave to one of our retreat leaders, Val Jon Farris, reenacting a planting ritual that the Teotihuacans engaged in every year when the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) appeared over the cosmically–aligned Pyramid of the Moon.
We walked up the narrow steps of the pyramid, zig-zag, the way our ancestors had walked.
And stood at the top, looking out over the vast landscape that stretched for miles in all directions.
There were green ponds, where the tiny frogs we’d seen along the trail had been born; bursts of yellow flowers that grew everywhere under the sun; and a ribbon of rosy red that moved through the landscape like the tail of a kite in the wind.
What happened to Teotihuacan, no one knows. The civilization may have been destroyed by foreign invaders, but archeologists think it’s more likely that its destruction was due to an internal uprising. The pyramids may have become too popular, and crowded conditions in a place where there was no way to purify the water, caused health to decline.
Possibly, due to the wood-burning in the Temple, there was deforestation that caused a failure of crops, and this led to the destruction of the temple.
The collapse of Teotihuacan in 750 AD is a mystery, but it’s also a mystery that the civilization lasted for as long as it did (Dr. Pasztory notes in Experiment in Living that the United States is only 200 years old, and already people are talking of its decline).
After centuries of the oppression and denigration of women, witch burning, and efforts to make women second class citizens, it was humbling and empowering to be in a place where women once had power – not power over, but power to — the power to encourage, to plant, to give gifts of water, minerals, and wealth — the power to inspire a whole civilization to flourish.
Listening to the voices of the people of Teotihuacan, I hear them saying the same thing that the indigenous people at Standing Rock are saying — that water is life; some things, and places, and moments are sacred; and there is a different way of living.
All photographs, with the exception of the Goddess photograph, were taken by Beate Walden.
A friend, Rob Meurer, died last week in a tragic accident. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street in front of his house in Studio City.
On the days following his death, I tried, but failed, to post anything about Rob on Facebook. I felt too raw. Too tender. Too shocked. Or maybe it was because I knew I needed to make a more thoughtful tribute to this gifted musician and generous person who taught me so much about art, and the dedication it takes to live a creative life.
On the morning of the day Rob died, I read a meditation about the importance of finding that “indwelling spirit,” or sustaining force within us that can carry us through times of sudden change — when events happen so fast we don’t have the time to adjust, or integrate the changes into our lives. The message helped to steady me as I dealt with Rob’s death, and how fast it had come, and how shaken I was.
Rob was a terrific musician, and he blew us away with his music every other week at the Unitarian Church of Studio City, where we met over ten years ago.
Sometimes he sang the music he wrote with his long-time collaborator and friend, Christopher Cross (Rob played keys and synthesizer on the album that won Cross a grammy in 1979).
Other times he sang Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Peter, Paul and Mary songs — “River,” and “Stewball,” and “With God On Our Side.”
He was brilliant, and funny, and constantly made us laugh.
Every time I saw one of the productions, I went away thinking about how lucky the kids were to have someone so creative and knowledgeable to work with and learn from.
This is Beth, Rob, and “Audrey” in “Little Shop of Horrors”
Rob and I stayed in touch mostly on Facebook this last year, although our paths happened to cross the day before he was killed.
We lived in the same neighborhood, we both liked to walk, and he was on his way to the store when I was walking home from Trader Joe’s with a bag of groceries.
I congratulated him on the musical he’d written that was being performed in Chicago. He told me the audiences loved it, but the reviews were not good.
“Many plays and movies that don’t get good reviews, initially, go on to be successful,” I said. ” “I didn’t think you were supposed to read the reviews.”
“The producers read them,” he told me.
Oh, right, money, I thought.
In an interview with the Daily News, Chris Cross talked about what Rob said to him when a project they’d hoped would be a commercial success had not worked out the way they wanted it to. ”Rob often said we should keep going, ‘because that’s what we do,’” Cross said, “His love of the craft was as deep as anyone I’ve ever known. He knew why he was here.”
My most enduring memory of Rob (besides him letting me use his car for several months when I moved to Studio City ten years ago — In L.A., who does that!? ) is of Rob singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom Flashing” in church one 4th of July weekend.
“Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing, ” he sang.
It was the best cover of the song I’d ever heard. And it was so Rob, a Bernie Sanders supporter who was always rooting for the underdog, always standing against the forces — political or religious — that would divide us.
Rob’s wife, Beth, asked us to light a candle on what would have been Rob’s 66th birthday last week.
As I lit the candle, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller I’d heard that day that reminded me of Rob’s passing, and of what the meditation I’d read earlier said about change, and how change can empower us and help us to grow if we don’t resist it, if we take it in the right way.
by Lisel Mueller
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious
And I made a vow to keep going — to keep creating. Because that’s what Rob taught me. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for.
I know the feeling
of floating down rivers
in inner tubes,
the feeling of rivers then
and rivers now—
We were always dancing
in the orange kitchen alongside women
who looked like light.
We lived on our own strength,
by our own kind rules,
caring for the whole of life,
standing alone in our wisdom,
always with a stream in sight.
Carolyn Studer, 2016
photograph by Sabrina Walden, 2016
ABOUT THIS POEM/PHOTOGRAPH PAIRING:
Devi Lockwood is poet and environmental activist who is traveling around the world collecting stories about climate change and water. I wrote this poem after interviewing her and listening to some stories from her travels. Devi is writing blogs about her travels for the New York Times. She’s on her way to Morroco.
Sabrina Walden is the daughter of my friend, photographer Beate Walden. Sabrina is a senior in High School in Zug, Switzerland. At the time she took this photograph, she was about 10. It spoke to Beate of rivers and light.
My first piano students were relatives of Anwar El Sadat, the Egyptian President who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for his participation in the Camp David meetings with Menachem Begin that resulted in a peace treaty with Israel.
I’d never met people who practiced Islam before; however, over the years I grew used to the sound of the device in Mona’s and Mohammed’s home that reminded them to pray, and the preparations they made each year for Ramadan that included periods of fasting.
The children’s mother, Mona, was a beautiful woman, slender and petite, with thick, dark hair and dark eyes that shone with the light of kindness.
Her children took more after their tall father, Mohammed (the nephew of Anwar Sadat), but they were also good looking and bright.
Once, during a piano lesson, I asked young Mohammed about the sound I heard coming from the device that, I realized later, was there to remind them to stop and pray, but he didn’t want to talk about it, and so I stopped asking questions.
Mostly we laughed and joked, and played music.
I never talked to the children’s parents about anything other than music and their children’s lessons until after 9/11.
The week after that horrible tragedy, while friends in New Jersey were smelling the stench of death in the air, Mona invited me to stay for lunch after the children’s piano lessons were over, and I accepted. As she set the sandwiches, oranges, and lemonade on a table on the patio in their backyard, I sensed that something was pressing on her. Her smile had disappeared behind a cloud of worry.
The first thing she said when we sat down to lunch that day was, “My religion is a religion of peace.”
Listening to her talk about her faith and the Muslim community she was a part of, I had no reason to doubt her. For years, I’d experienced the peace and tranquility of her home, where there was never a hint of fanaticism.
I’d enjoyed meeting Anwar El Sadat’s sister, a journalist, when she came to visit, and the brief talk we had about her travels and writing.
Besides, I’ve long felt that extremists within Christianity are as dangerous as extremists within Islam, and I’ve often been in the position of having to defend my faith against those who associate it with violence and destruction.
Some Christians, like some Muslims, have no qualms about using violence and terrorism to promote their religious beliefs or ideologies.
After all, after 9/11, George Bush announced that God told him to invade Iraq. For many of us, this was morally repugnant.
As I listened to her talk, I realized how similar our views were about religion as an instrument of peace and justice.
I left that day feeling that we were sisters, and felt closer to her than I do to many Christians.
My own spirituality deepened and broadened as a result of our talk, and I look back in gratitude for the risk she took in opening up to me.
I think of her so often — her graciousness and beauty — as I listen to the ugly things that are said about Muslims.
After the Paris attacks, a Facebook friend announced that anyone with Muslim friends should de-friend him immediately.
Politicians are making efforts to keep Syrian refugees, who had nothing to do with the Paris attacks, out of our country, because of assumptions that all Muslims are dangerous.
Donald Trump, the Republican forerunner, said that Muslims should be required to wear arm bands, similar, many have noted, to those the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. More recently he’s proposed that all Muslims be banned from entering the country.
“We have no choice,” Trump said, “we must be vigilant!”
A few days ago, I spoke with a friend who worked for many years for Church World Service, an organization that helps refugees. He told me that the vetting for refugees is already tough.
“Many people think it’s too tough,” he said. “Refugees already have to wait for several years before they can be relocated, and now there’s talk of making them wait an additional year.”
Obviously, that will be too late for many of them.
My friend said, “if we won’t take in refugees, then I think we should take down the Statue of Liberty, put it on a battleship, and return it to France.”
At least we won’t be hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another.
And yet in the midst of all this vitriol there are touching expressions of love, too.
I’d like to think that this hospitality, at core, is who we are.
I do agree with Trump about one thing: we must be vigilant.
We must be vigilant against the bigotry and hate that Trump spews. We must be vigilant about the way he uses fear to manipulate his supporters. We must be vigilant to sort out truth from lies.
“Yes, security was a legitimate concern then, as it is now,” wrote Nichol Kristof in the New York Times, reminding his readers of our refusal to admit Jews into the country in the 40s, “but security must be leavened with common sense and a bit of heart.
To seek to help desperate refugees in a secure way is not naïveté. It’s not sentimentality. It’s humanity.”
So many of us resist our own emotions. We try to push them away, and to get rid of them, because they make us uncomfortable — anger, for example.
But the resistance solves nothing, we soon realize, and only makes things worse for us.
Thich Nhat Hahn, my favorite Zen teacher, said that when he was a young monk he learned to deal with his anger by welcoming it. “Welcome, anger, my old friend,” he’d say whenever anger arose in him. Soon the anger would dissipate.
Many people argue that anger is useful when we are confronting injustice. Anger motivates us to change what is unacceptable in our world.
I thought about that as I listened to the speech Jenny Horne, a Representative from South Carolina, made last week about taking down the confederate flag. She used her emotion, her anger, for a positive result. It seems there is a place for righteous indignation.
But constant anger can make it hard for people to hear us and for us to hear others. It stops dialogue.
Over the years I’ve learned to practice Thich Nhat Hahn’s method of acceptance rather than resistance — to say “yes” to whatever it is I’m feeling in the moment, whether it’s anger, dissapointment, or jealousy.
I welcome anger like an old friend, invite it in as to a warm house, let it take off its heavy boots, listen to it, make it tea, and give it my full attention.
Paradoxically, the loving attention, the warm embrace of acceptance, causes the anger to dissipate.
I’ve always loved the words the protagonist in Arthur Miller’s play, After the Fall, says as he contemplates our fallen world, and his less than perfect life.
He explains that he was suicidal until he had a dream.
I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not to go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible…but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms.
For me, it was an idyllic childhood. I was aware of extreme prejudice — the hate newsletter circulating in the neighborhood where I lived on Chicago’s south side, and the white people moving out when “restricted covenants” were declared unconstitutional, and blacks moved in — but I was protected from the worst of it.
One day, a white businessman called and told my mother he was going to blow up our whole family, along with the church where my “integrationist” father was the pastor — but I was not told about the phone call.
When a mob of angry white people showed up at the home a black family had purchased a few blocks away, I was not informed.
Mahalia Jackson lived in my neighborhood. Her windows were shot out.
Recently an article appeared in Chicago’s wbez news about Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my father was the pastor in the 1950s. The article mentions my father, and how he welcomed black people into the church at a time when this just wasn’t being done.
I think it shows how bad it was back then — and still is — when the kindness of one white man is considered newsworthy.
For me, though, it was a joyful time.
My 5th grade class was the best.
All of the white people moved off our block, but we got Ernie Banks. Who could complain?
In the 1950s, Chicago was the most segregated city in the North. Everything, it seemed, was against integration. Racism (as it was elsewhere in the country), was written in the code and protected by the laws. As Beryl Satter notes in his book, Family Properties, the prevailing attitude of whites was that the mixing of the races “would cause the decline of both the human race and property values.” Many people, especially real estate people, benefitted economically from segregation.
My father accepted a call to start a church in Costa Mesa, California when it was obvious that Crerar, which was almost all black by then, needed a black pastor.
So we took off for California, where I adjusted (quite poorly, at first) to all white Orange County.
Both of my parents, though, continued to speak out for civil rights, and maintained the friendships they started at Crerar.
My father spoke from the pulpit against housing laws that discriminated against blacks.
My mother took me to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke at the L..A. Coliseum.
After the Watts riots in 1965, our youth group spent a week in Watts helping a Baptist Church in Watts paint their church building. At night, we stayed in the homes of the kind and gracious church members, and at the end of the week, the church treated us to a potluck, and a concert by the Baptist church gospel choir. Imagine!
Some years later, when I was in seminary in Marin County, California, I joined St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, which is half black. During that time I was the grateful beneficiary of the wisdom of people, both black and white, who’d long been committed to the struggle for justice.
For a long time I thought things were better than they were back then. However, afterFerguson, I began to question this. I felt frustrated enough to connect with the Black Lives Matter movement started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, and marched in L.A. in protest against the killing of unarmed black men and women by the police.
I joined SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), an organization of white people who are acting as allies in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
I’ve learned that to be a white ally is to share in constant state of grief.
Dara Silverman, the coordinator of SURJ, told us in a conference call after the massacre in Charleston that there’s a backlash right now due to the significant organizing efforts across the country and in Charleston. One organizer said that most white people in Charleston were in denial that the killings were racially motivated.
Clearly we have a long ways to go after 400 years of systemic racism, first slavery, and then 100 years of Jim Crow laws, but today, in spite of the grief, I see many reasons for hope. One reason for hope is the black church; the other is the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m proud of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and my brothers and sisters in the faith for their attitude of forgiveness, which does not include condoning, excusing, or forgetting what’s just happened there.
Nicky Finney, one of my favorite writers, black or white, wrote an article recently about how conflicted she was after the massacre. She had plans to go to a wedding that week, although she really wanted to be in Charleston. Finally, she said, “Love won out.”
In her article, Finney quoted one of the witnesses who spoke at the wedding she attended that week:
“What has always kept us going as a people is our fierce commitment to love and loving and being loved in the face of evil. Black love has always been our weapon,” the witness said. Finney wrote at the end of the article, “This is what I fiercely believe.”
This is also what I fiercely believe.
We are with you, Charleston, in friendship and in love.
“Taking good care of yourself means the people in your life receive the best of you rather than what is left of you.”
— Lucille Zimmerman
“When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world, yourself included?”
— Mary Oliver
My father is a dream. At 94, he has some memory loss, but he’s still sharp. I love our visits and our talks, and I love him.
However, after driving back and from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles for several months — in part, to cover for a sibling who was ill — I needed a break.
Anyone who has been a caretaker knows the importance of self-love.
It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you can’t love yourself, you’re not going to be much good for anyone else.
It’s hard to do, especially for women, because we’re so used to putting ourselves second and third, but there are times when we need to put ourselves and our own needs first.
The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, often talks about the importance of practicing self-compassion and lovingkindness towards ourselves, even when we’re not feeling our best. “The more we’re able to feel tenderness towards ourselves,” she writes, “the more easily it flows to others.”
I’ve never been good at putting myself first. Often I feel guilty when I do it. But when my sibling was better, and he and my father were back in communication, it seemed a good time to try it.
I worked on my business.
I dove into my work.
On Easter Sunday morning I was editing, and on a roll, and — as Mary Karr once said — when that happens “you don’t get up from the gambling table.” So I did something out of character: I called and told my father I’d have to miss the service, but I’d come up afterwards for lunch.
Truth be told, I don’t like chapel. Besides, every time I’ve gone with my father, he’s complained he can’t hear a thing that’s being said.
When I arrived in his room, I apologized for being late, and told him we’d have our own service.
“Wherever two or three are gathered together,” I said, and he liked it.
We sat by a water fountain outside the common dining room on the beautiful grounds where he lives, and chatted with the people who came by. We listened to our favorite versions of “Over the Rainbow,” and I played him a recording of “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” a song I’d been listening to all week for comfort.
We talked about a friend of ours we missed.
At lunch, we enjoyed talking politics.
My father is one of the few Democrats where he lives, and always appreciates our talks.
I stayed until late, hoping to avoid the traffic on the way home, which turned out to be horrendous, even at 10 p.m.
I’d had that month off, though — that time of self-care — and I felt refreshed enough to handle it.
I’d planned on waiting a couple of weeks before going up again, but the following Monday I got a call from my brother, who told me my father was upset because I hadn’t shown up that morning to take him to chapel.
“I told him it was Monday,” my brother said, “and I finally convinced him, but he wants someone to take him to chapel. Will you go?”
“I don’t like chapel,” I said, “but sure, I’ll go.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about those pigeons in the Loren Eisley essay, “The Brown Moths,” who keep returning to the site of the abandoned El in Philadelphia, even after it’s been replaced by a subway, and it’s no longer the river of food it used to be for generations of pigeons.
When they hear a familiar sound — some construction workers who are breaking up the stanchions — they return again, bravely flying through the sparks and the noise of the jackhammers, waiting patiently by the peanut vending machine, and listening for the jingling of change.
I wonder if we, too, are what Eisley calls “a curious instance of the memory of living things for a way of life or a locality that has long been cherished.”
Or else it’s the ritual, alone, that’s comforting for my father now.
After chapel, we sat outside in the sun by the fish pond and talked.
I read to him from a book about race relations on the south side of Chicago, where he integrated a church in the 1950s, when he was a pastor.
I was just a child then, and had no idea what was going on just a few blocks away from where we lived — the burning of the homes of black people by angry mobs of white supremacists who didn’t want black people to move into our neighborhood.
He took a nap, and afterwards asked me what the sermon was about that morning.
When I told him, he said, “I have a hard time believing that.”
“I have a hard time believing it, too,” I said.
When I left that night, I promised we’d go again sometime.
“Only when it works out,” he said.
“ Okay, it’s a deal,” I said, and like a pigeon, I flew off. I flew home.
“…shake my future challenge our first world’s
capitalist consumerist criminal one
of perpetual purchasing shake my future past the edges of the known…”
I first heard about ecofeminism at a wisdom-sharing conference I went to last October in New Mexico with Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Dr. Hyung Kyung Chung.
Dr. Chung, a Christian liberation theologian and Buddhist Dharma teacher from Korea, described herself, in one of her talks, as an “ecofeminist.”
Ecofeminism, I’ve since learned, was first coined by the French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. It has taken many forms, but all ecofeminists make a critical connection between the way we dominate and exploit the earth, and the way we dominate women.
“To heal the wounded earth,” Dr. Chung said, “we need to heal the women.”
As I listened to Dr. Chung’ and Gloria Steinem talk that week, I heard the echoes of Native American Indian writers I’d read over the years who regard the earth not as a resource to be exploited, but as a relative to be honored.
Beate Tsosie, a Tewa Indian poet and environmental justice activist from whom I took several poetry writing classes that week at Ghost Ranch, told me that Indian people still refer to the earth as their mother, and strive to live with the earth sensitively, respectfully, and harmoniously.
Native American Indians and ecofeminists alike are critical of patriarchal and hierarchical systems which have left those at the bottom broken, marginalized, and struggling for their very lives.
Both stress the importance of replacing those hierarchical systems with circles where dialogue and healing can take place, and decisions can be made democratically and collectively.
For the Native American Indians, it should be noted, healing is not only about the curing of disease, but the restoration of relationship — first with ourselves, then with the earth and with others.
At our last poetry class, Beate asked us all to go outside, listen to the earth for five minutes, and then write about it.
As I stood on the ground with the fall leaves under my feet in the vast space of Ghost Ranch with the beautiful friends I made there — women with whom I shared many laughs and much joy — I listened.
I heard the earth’s gratitude for the witness of the women who were there that week.
I became aware, in a new way, of the earth’s life-giving abundance, and extraordinary and selfless grace.
I heard in the tall and stately cottonwood trees that grow there — trees more beautiful than any cathedral could be — the healing music made by the wind and the leaves.
A balanced returned; and I felt restored.
You don’t have to be a feminist or a womanist (as Alice Walker calls herself), to understand the connection between our human well-being and the well-being of the earth, or to see how patriarchal/hierarchical systems of domination have harmed us, the earth, and our relationship with one another.
Endless wars, oppression, unspeakable suffering, and now the ecological crisis we are facing, have turned us toward healthier ways of living.
Some feminists, including Gloria Steinem, see the ecological crisis as the wake-up call we need to find new ways of living and relating to one another and the earth.
She wrote in A Revolution Within twenty years ago:
“Disasters like pollution, a new species extinction every few hours, biospheric degradation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation are all powerful reasons to overturn the centuries of the either/or, Man-against-Nature paradigm that got us here. To think about taking our place in nature instead of conquering it is a deep change in the way we see ourselves and the world. It means changing from binary and linear thinking to a cyclical paradigm that is a new declaration of interdependence.”
Recently I listened to a talk about climate change by the scientist Jeremy Rifkin. He said the solution to the crisis is the expansion of our human empathy.
Empathy isn’t something we need to manufacture; scientific studies have shown we are wired for it. Without it, we would not have survived.
He said we need empathy not only for those in our religion, tribe, or nation, but for the human species as a whole.
Alice Walker said something similar in a talk she gave at the “Earth at Risk” conference in San Francisco in November of 2013.
“Friendship is the way we resist,” she said,
“for it is friendship, not only in one’s community, but especially with the people of other places in the world, that I believe must be the bedrock of our resistance to tyranny, brutalization, militarization, incarceration, as well as any other madness dreamed up by the sociopaths who would humiliate, eliminate or control us.”
The South African ecofeminist poet, Malika Ndlovu, wrote,
“ that howling wind
that crashing sea
that breaking earth
that starward tree
all revelations of where the treasures be.”
“Defeatism is a product of linear thinking and I am not a linear thinker. I meander. I am a river and I am alive and that, at least, is cause for celebration.”
Devi Lockwood, a recent graduate of Harvard University, received a Gardner & Shaw Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship last year to collect stories throughout the world about climate change and water.
Devi has already travelled to Tuvalu and Fiji, and is now in New Zealand.
I’m one of her biggest fans, and was delighted when she agreed to let me interview her about climate change, what makes her an optimist, and what keeps her moving. Here is our interview. I hope you enjoy hearing what she has to say as much as I did.
What caused you to do this? Did you have an “aha moment” that woke you up to the problem of climate change?
I believe that storytelling (and, more importantly, listening) is a form of activism.
All struggles are interconnected, and I see my particular version of storytelling-and-listening-as-activism as having several complicated root systems, many of which are only becoming clear to me as I travel & become more self-aware. Let me try to tease out one:
I have been in love with life for a long, long time. I first voiced it to Julie Hartley, director of Centauri Summer Arts Camp (http://www.centauriartscamp.com/), sometime back in the early 2000s when I was a camper there in the poetry program. After one of our campfires (full of acoustic guitar and singing and storytelling and the beauty of people just being themselves), I went up to Julie and announced:
“I think I’m in love.”
I couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old. Julie’s smile was gentle, taking me in, my knotted hair and notebook and hopelessly big smile. I avoided washing my hair for days to keep the smell of the music and woodsmoke in my hair.
“Someone special?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s not a person!” I laughed. “I think I’m in love with life.”
Julie’s eyes softened. “That’s the best kind of love.”
Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard
Round, in neat flat rings.
Even cut and bunched
Arranged to please us
In the house, in the water, they
Will hardly wilt– I know
Someone like zinnias: I wish
I were like zinnias.
I had never seen or heard of a zinnia before, but suddenly I knew what it felt like ––– the power of that poem stays with me still (thank you, Valerie).
I strive to write things that communicate that kind of elusive truth: a fragment of a story that must be told. I am drawn to poems that change the way I breathe.
My environmentalism stems out of all this love:
the desire to be attentive,
to leave the world oh-so-slightly better than I found it.
Climate change? Well gosh.
I don’t think that there was a single moment, but I did take a course called “Natural Disasters” at Harvard with Prof. Brendan Meade to fill my physical science requirement. The course lectures focused on the physics of earthquakes, Prof. Meade’s specialty, as well as landslides, tornadoes, forest fires, and the like. At the end of the term we learned about the physics of ice melting and changing sea levels and the fact that some ice sheets are so massive that they have their own gravitational pull––when that ice turns into water, regions locally may experience a net sea level fall, whereas the sea level rise will happen on the complete opposite side of the planet. The communication of water from the Arctic to Chile fascinated me. I have since forgotten the finer points and equations we learned, but the basic concept (and this holds true in plate tectonics, to an extent) that a small movement in one place can have a massive effect elsewhere––how cool is that?
I’m attracted to complicated things, to questions.
I started feeling compelled to act on these issues after taking another course, Politics of Nature, taught by Prof. Ajantha Subramanian. We learned about the Environmental Justice movement (http://www.nrdc.org/ej/history/hej.asp) and then applied that kind of thinking from everything from the Bhopal disaster to the Boston transportation infrastructure: our own backyard.
Within this context, climate change becomes an environmental injustice: often the communities who contribute least to the problem are those most affected.
I was hooked on doing something. And so here I am, listening.
You’ve been collecting stories about water and climate change in your travels. If you had to select one story to tell for Earth Day about your travels, what would it be?
It’s always difficult for me to choose just one thread of story, but these two come to mind:
What person or persons have you met that have touched you? Changed you?
I meet people who change me every day. Really, it is magic. Something about the cardboard sign opens up possibilities for face-to-face connection. Not everyone I talk to has a story to share, but most people are interested in the project.
I spent the last few nights in Riversdale, New Zealand with a new friend named Zella. Her whole house is awash in color––reds, oranges, affirmation. She is a being of light. Zella and I stayed up late watching movies and eating vanilla ice cream with frozen berries on top. We talked about Life with a capital L: the hard work of inviting our fears to the table, the necessity of mindfulness––of revolution. We pontificated on the kind of activism that begins within. After a few days of dancing in her kitchen, Zella started calling me “wood nymph.” It makes me smile.
Zella told me a water story about the internal geography of rivers in her life, how swimming in rivers in Colorado, Montana, and now in Riversdale, New Zealand brings a sense of continuity into her life. Her voice says it best:
Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
I heard Jane Goodall speak last year at All Saints Church, and she said we should not “think globally” because it’s too depressing. We should focus our efforts on what we can do locally, and gather with others who feel the same way we do.
Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
Oh, what a great question! As a peripatetic soul, my definition of “local” is a moving target. I feel most alive when I am constantly in motion, whether I’m on a bicycle cycling from town to town, dancing in the kitchen of a new friend, or engaging in a conversation that lets off at a different place than where it started.
I believe in activism that begins face-to-face.
I believe that listening is the best gift I have to give to this world.
I believe that when we focus in on bettering the lives of the people around us––of actively saying thank you and the little gestures that let people know they are appreciated, are loved––that there is a ripple effect out into the abyss.
I believe that our thoughts have ripples, and that we actively create the world around us.
I believe that the world is made by people acting in it.
I believe that no two people are alike, and that if someone garners more energy from thinking about global issues and someone else is inspired to act locally, that there’s absolutely no problem with that.
We need all kinds of thinkers. All kinds of doers. Most importantly, we need thinkers who do.
I focus on the particular nitty-gritty detail of one-on-one interactions because it is where I feel most comfortable, most myself––in that mode of listening.
And yet global thinking is so necessary. Dialogue about Antarctic ice sheets and sea level rise in Tuvalu and strengthening storms and changing weather patterns worldwide needs to happen. And yes, it can be depressing. But as long as that conversation is accompanied by some kind of shift, some kind of change––no matter how small––then we are moving somewhere.
And movement is what I’m all about.
To quote the promotional materials from the September 21, 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC (my first stop on this world-wide trip!), “Para cambiarlo todo necesitamos que todos participen.”
It takes everyone to change everything.
Many people have a “we’re fucked, we’re doomed” response to climate change, which makes it so hard to talk about. When I read your posts, I don’t hear anything like this attitude coming through.
Are you optimistic?
Hm. I don’t know what I am. I’m me? Let’s see.
I believe in the beauty of small things. Wispy clouds. Poems written by local poets. Nautical themed earrings made by an artist from the southernmost city on the planet. Small actions. Thank you notes (http://anincompletecatalogofthanks.tumblr.com/). Washing dishes while dancing to ABBA. Smiling. Storytelling.
Does this sound mushy?
I guess I’m an optimist after all.
I garner no energy from being fatalistic. I have listened closely to people who are fatalistic (and will continue to listen closely to anyone who has a story to share with me), but pessimism is not my jam.
The threats of climate change are very real. I feel their weight. I felt their weight when I lived for a month in Tuvalu, collecting stories from those people who called the coral atoll––highest point 4m above sea-level––their home.
And yet (and yet)––
there is joy in Tuvalu,
a nation that might be engulfed by the ocean in my lifetime.
There is dancing,
community feast days,
card games, big stars,
volleyball matches played on the airport runway at sunset,
the crashing of the waves.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is always little bits of beauty wrapped up in the awful stuff. I’m off to find those. That’s where my focus lies.
While the world still moves,
and we are still alive in it
there is reason to celebrate life.
If I ever feel that “we’re fucked” kind of despair, I withdraw into the beauty of motion. What is happening outside me and what is happening inside me are not distinct. It is my job to find the beauty in the everyday. To listen.
Defeatism is a product of linear thinking and I am not a linear thinker. I meander. I am a river and I am alive and that, at least, is cause for celebration.
Naomi Klein sees in this crisis the impetus to make changes that will benefit us all in the long run.
What changes do you hope we will make?
What is the first thing we should do?
I wish that people had more courage to ask questions,
to question authority.
I wish that political decisions (or possibly all decisions?) were not ruled by a utilitarian calculus that hinges on the question: “Will this make me money?”
What would happen if we asked, instead:
“Will this action enrich the lives of the people around me,
the non-human world, too––
will this action benefit the place I call my home?”
And home is wider than four walls and a roof, mind you.
We get out of the community what we put into it.
I use the word “community” here to denote human and nonhuman actors: the ocean and sea lions and the air and tui birds and the groundwater supply. Everything, gloriously interconnected.
I wish that we did not glorify those who stockpile money. What use is there in that?
Do you have information you want to share about the kickstarter campaign you started so that you could travel by ship and not by airplane?
Well, it’s done now, but I’m happy to announce that I will be taking a cargo ship from Auckland to Melbourne in mid-May aboard the ANL BINDAREE.
The campaign was a massive success––the goal I set to raise in 30 days was achieved in a day and an hour. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I couldn’t sleep.
At the moment I’m in Invercargill, New Zealand––totally amazed that I managed to get myself all the way down here to the southernmost city in the world. It’s practically in Antarctica! Well, not quite. But still. The wind is positively Antarctic in origin.
After Australia, who knows?! Possibly the Philippines? or Indonesia? It depends on where I can get to by boat and by bicycle.
If you could recommend one book to read, what would it be?
Today I picked up a book of poems called Markings by Bluff poet Cilla McQueen. In it she meditates on the landscape of Bluff. Environmental themes weave in and out.
Here’s a few stanzas I love from her eighteen-page poem “The Autoclave.”
It was magical finding these poems in my friend’s crib in Waikawa (crib is the word they use in the south island for a bach / cottage / get away from home-home), just two days after having spent the day wandering and writing in Bluff myself.
I’ve been enjoying your poetry. If you have a poem to share, I’d love it.
Well, this poem is oldie but goldie––and recently won me first place at the Geraldine Future Living Festival (http://www.futurelivingfestival.co.nz/) poetry competition! For this honor I was the proud recipient of a bottle of local beer, a locally grown apple, face oil, and many hugs and well wishes from those gathered at the poetry reading. This is without a doubt my proudest poet moment of late.
But the birds? On that day
rain rose not fell. Every-
one stood with their heads to
the ground, doctor’s orders,
to increase circulation
touch the divine, or maybe
to levitate). But those birds
trapped in puddles, caught
in a mid-day bath (as fear of
a fire when showering)
just disappeared, up:
Did they know? Did they bother
to say goodbye? And on the ground,
what held up the trunks of trees,
if not flow of water upside down?
In the evening newsreel, Niagara Falls
was a torrent, a vertical column of water
and some poor soul in a barrel
was just going up and up and up,
a drip a speck a drop in the ozone layer.
Then we were all on a quest
to ask the sky for our water, please
we are thirsty and dizzy from pressing
our ears to the ground. And she said:
it was never yours to take.