Lessons for 2020: How to Fight Back Against Ecological Grief

It’s a new year. Hell…it’s a new decade!!! I took a long break from this writing community… but now I’m back. I’ve spent a year and a half deeply involved in a civic action group I co-founded. It was a tough baptism, but I’ve learned a lot. An article in yesterday”s NY Times Sunday Review section by Emma Marris, Stop Freaking Out About the Climate, inspired me to reconnect today because it affirmed the lessons I have learned in the past year and a half and wish to share with you in the first days of this new decade.

As most of you already know, a third of Australia is burning up; thousands of families there are displaced and millions of unique animals are dying each day. People across the world are coping with floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes undoubtedly due to climate change that are forcing them to flee their homes and sometimes their countries of origin. So what’s an ordinary person supposed to do to avoid despair? My daughter tells me the newly coined phrase for this feeling is “ecological grief.”

The above-mentioned NY Times article affirmed what I have spent the past year and a half learning and today want to share with those of you who might also be experiencing ecological grief. Here are the recommended steps from the article and my “take” on them.

Step 1: Ditch the Shame
“As long as we are “competing for the title of ‘greener than thou’ or are paralyzed by shame, we aren’t fighting the powerful companies and governments that are the real problem, and that’s exactly the way they like it.” (NY Times)
I dumped my own feeling of powerlessness in the face of our degrading environment when I co-founded our civics group, a very small cadre of like-minded friends and relatives who decided to join forces to oppose the decisions being made by our local government that were harmful to our town’s ecological health. We have had a few successes, several setbacks and even a defeat or two, but we have developed a following in out town and our efficacy has grown proportionate to our growing numbers.

Step 2: Focus on systems, not yourself
Our small group of passionate citizens bonded over the potential demise of a small business in our town to be replaced with high-rent apartments and boutique shops. To make matters worse the new construction was to be poised atop a crucial wetlands area. To fight this battle we had to dig deep. We searched the local archives and found documents that in fact prohibited anyone from building on this property. This discovery opened a can of worms that has led to the unveiling of the political “systems” at work in our town that demand our constant vigilance. We succeeded in stopping the project.

Step 3: Join an effective group
We became our own effective group through a lot of hard work and inviting others to participate. There are other groups in town that have banded together at different times for different causes and together we are learning that the more we work together and share information, the more effective we become when it comes to voting for or against an issue. We recently banded together to stop a zoning change that would have allowed continued overdevelopment; the town is now considering our input.

Step 4: Define your role
This is an important one. “Take care not to overdo it at first and risk burning out.” After our first year I was nearly ready to quit. And so were the others. We had to talk it out and decide what we could realistically continue to do. Each of us plays a role in our group that we feel comfortable with. “Set a sustainable level of involvement for yourself and keep it up.” I knew I could not continue to be part of a struggle that consumed my energy and attention 24/7. “As a bonus, working with a group will increase the richness and diversity of your personal relationships, and may well temper your climate anxiety and depression.” I now take breaks when I need them, allowing me to have the energy to step up to the plate when I am needed. I have made some great, lasting friendships. Right now we are all awaiting the results of our latest pushback against zoning changes in our town. While waiting, we took the opportunity to get together during the holidays and celebrate our successes.

Step 5: Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.
“As we fight it is important for our mental health and motivation to have an image in mind of our goal: a realistically good future.” This is so important. I keep remembering how pristine my local environment was during my childhood. The beaches were never closed; the seafood and shellfish were plentiful and safe to eat; the air was fresh and our drinking water was safe. Life was not perfect; even then we lived with the pollution of cars and parents who smoked. My personal goal is to help restore the healthy conditions of my youth, for as many people as possible, in the area where I live. If enough people do the same in their neighborhoods, there’s hope for all of us.

It’s good to be back in this writing community. This decade really matters; I’m counting on you!

 

Not Taking Things for Granted

Today I am writing in response to an article by Neal Tognazzini  in this Sunday’s Week in Review section of the New York Times.  The gist of the article is about how we hurry through life, mostly taking things for granted, until something happens to give us pause and rethink the way we’ve been living. This has happened to so many of us.

For me “the something” was fourth-stage metastasized cancer. Four summers ago, I had just retired and was looking forward to my new life when it was suddenly hijacked by an extreme cancer diagnosis. I survived… and like so many survivors, was determined to never again take anything for granted. This article provoked some new thoughts on taking things for granted and how important it is to be able to put some things on the back burner so we can live our lives.

These things we take for granted can include a family we care about and that cares about us; a comfortable home that no one is trying to take from us; a job that affords us a paycheck to buy the things we want and need from week to week, year to year; the luxury of coming home after work to have a tasty, healthy meal and a couple hours to do what brings us pleasure….taking a walk, hanging out with family members, watching our favorite shows on tv.

So, what if you had none of the things I’ve mentioned? No possibility of a satisfying, well paying job in the near future or perhaps in your lifetime. No idea where certain members of your family are, and no hope of finding them. You do not own a home and never will be able to afford to. You are not even sure your “home” will be there when you return to it. Nourishing food is out of the question due to droughts, famine, or an ongoing combat situation. These are all extremely disorienting factors in the lives of so many people.

Tognazzini, writes about learning he has squamous cell cancer, but will survive:

“I came to realize that being oriented–having one’s bearings–requires being located somewhere, and that being located somewhere requires having some ground to stand on. What we take for granted is that ground.”

These words caused me to think about the thousands of children around the world who have left their homes with their families in search of “having some ground to stand on.” Many refugees have lost family members and/or their homes, however humble they might have been. They are stateless…without location. They belong nowhere. These children can never take a meal for granted, often don’t know where they are going or if they will have shelter when they get there. They are at the mercy of climate change, failed economies, malevolent leaders, uneducated parents, global indifference. There is no way they can imagine a future without loss and suffering. There is no guarantee they will find any ground to stand on.

In the coming days, weeks, months and years, teachers will encounter children and parents who do not have a safe, secure home; who cannot take the next meal for granted; who do not know when they will next see a loved one torn from them. For many kids, going to school in America is the first time in their lives they will have consistency and “some ground to stand on.” As teachers we must transcend politics and prejudice. We must model compassion and concern for others. We must make an effort to help the disenfranchised.  By providing support, encouragement and a safe environment for learning we can make a huge difference in someone’s life.  Every human being deserves this.

It’s So Hot ….

photo above: https://www.occupy.com/article/first-signs-global-climate-change-immigration-crisis-are-here#sthash.bb2ie5Hz.dpbs

We’ve all heard this statement at one time or another:
“It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.”

Here are some of my  thoughts regarding the heat wave we’re currently experiencing in the northeast.

It’s so hot… I haven’t left my house (with AC) in two days except to water the outdoor plants
It’s so hot… sunscreen melts right off my face
It’s so hot… the birds are lined up at the bird bath to take a refreshing dip
It’s so hot… it’s too hot to go to the beach
It’s so hot… tiny ants are coming into the house for relief
It’s so hot… even the weeds are wilting
It’s so hot… the AC is constantly running (and so is the bill)
It’s so hot… the bees aren’t showing up for the newly blossoming bee balm
It’s so hot… I’m thinking of putting on a bathing suit to go for a swim (at my age that’s an act of courage)
It’s so hot… we’re eating only fruit and salads to keep our calorie intake lower
It’s so hot… even thunderstorms don’t cool things off
It’s so hot… the leaf blowers are silent in the neighborhood

There’s an article in the NY Times Sunday Week-in-Review section (July 1), Fleeing a Warmer World (by Lauren Markham), about how drought caused by climate change is driving vast numbers of people to leave their homes in Central America and in desert areas of Africa. People who have lived for centuries in these areas can no longer subsist: they are desperate for ways to feed their families and so they are on the move. This is not the first time migration on this scale has happened in the history of the world. The Abandonment of Chaco Canyon in our own Southwest, for example, believed to have occurred about 1150, has long been attributed at least partially to a drought that literally drove the Anasazi cliff-dwellers from their homes, never to return.


White House, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
(https://ridb.recreation.gov/images/80267.jpg)


Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
(http://archeyes.com/pueblo-bonito/)

In the period between A.D. 1125 and 1180, very little rain fell in the region. After 1180, rainfall briefly returned to normal. From 1270 to 1274 there was another long drought, followed by another period of normal rainfall. In 1275, yet another drought began. This one lasted 14 years.

When this cycle of drought began, Anasazi civilization was at its height. Communities were densely populated. Even with good rains, the Anasazi were using their land to its limits. Without rain, it was impossible to grow enough food to support the population. Widespread famine occurred. People left the area in large numbers to join other pueblo peoples to the south and east, abandoning the Chaco Canyon pueblos and, later, the smaller communities that surrounded them. Anasazi civilization began a long period of migration and decline after these years of drought and famine. By the 1300s, it had all but died out in Chaco Canyon.

Was drought alone the only factor in the mass abandonment of the pueblos? Some archaeologists now believe that other factors — religious upheaval, internal political conflict, or even warfare — may have combined to exacerbate the effects of the drought. Whatever the root causes of the famine were, the archaeological evidence clearly shows it was devastating to the Anasazi.
(https://www.learner.org/exhibits/collapse/chacocanyon.html)

In the early 1980s when I was a young mother with a newborn and a toddler, we lived in a simple ranch style house with no AC. I remember the summer days of extreme heat all too well. I sat in the backyard under our large oak tree with my feet in a kiddie pool where my toddler son sat while I tried to nurse my baby who was literally stuck to my overheated, sweating body. I had never felt hotter in my life until now. I distinctly remember thinking “so this is how the poor people of the world live; at least those close to the equator.” Escaping the heat was all I could think of during heat spells and we had plenty of them in the ’80s. It’s no wonder people are again migrating across deserts and oceans in search of a drop of water, relief from the extreme heat and a place more hospitable to raising a family. If I were them, I’d be doing the same.

Hope Springs Eternal…for a Young Syrian in a Greek Refugee Camp

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man


Today many Christians are celebrating Easter, a holiday that honors the rebirth of Jesus Christ who was crucified on the cross two days earlier on Good Friday. Many other religions are also celebrating their annual Spring rites. Although I no longer espouse a particular religion (I was raised as a Lutheran), I did take a few moments this morning after brunch to reflect on the meaning of this holiday. To me, Spring rituals are all about hope.

The essay about the Refugee King of Greece in the New York Times Sunday Review section on April 16, 2017, reinforced for me how important it is to have hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be any. It is the story of a young Syrian refugee, Bassem Omar, who introduces himself to the Times reporter (Ashley Gilbertson) as the King of Ritsona. She goes on to say, “His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.” As he moves amongst his “subjects” he reminds them that “I want to make Ritsona great again, and the people agreed.”

I am immediately struck by the ironic title he has given himself, and especially by his personal version of the now-famous Trump slogan, Make America Great Again, which Omar has now adapted to his own crusade to improve life for himself and his fellow refugees in the small village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens. This is a young man who is well informed about global politics, and who has been able to give an ironic twist to his own circumstances using the words of the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump. He is clearly a rebel with a cause and that is why I am so drawn to him.

After 13 attempts at escaping by using fake IDs and passports, only to be turned back by police at the airport and sent back to Ritsona, he has decided he can no longer make an effort to escape because if “I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation.” I read his words as meaning he no longer has hope he can escape, so he is readjusting his circumstances in order to continue to hold hope in his heart.

His story leads me to reflect on my own two grown children, now 33 and 35, for whom hope is also an essential part of their lives. My 35-year-old son was able to go to a wonderful college, travel abroad to Germany, and fashion himself a career in filmmaking over the past decade. He is filled with hope for his future endeavors; in the “indie” film business, hope is the staff of his life.

My daughter, about to turn 34, has had many setbacks in her life due to a series of five open-heart surgeries, but she remains hopeful that with a good deal of patience and perseverance, she, too, can have a fulfilling life. She is working hard toward that goal. Without hope, she would find it hard to go on. Even though their circumstances are challenging in different ways, both have had our support, financially, emotionally and intellectually, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. But what about those who don’t have any support?

As I turn my thoughts back to Bassem Oman, I am deeply touched by the poignancy of his young life and his ambitions.

As he surveys his kingdom of 700 refugees living within a barbed wire refugee camp, he remains satirically confident. He tells the reporter that in two days he will be celebrating his one-year anniversary in this camp. “‘We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the distribution center. ‘You are welcome to come.'” These words represent the bravado of a young man who refuses to give up hope in the face of all odds.

I would like to put my arm around Bessem Omar’s shoulders, as I do with my own grown children, and tell him that I believe in him and his hope more than anything else I can think of. I will try to send a message of hope to him through the New York Times. If he cannot fulfill his dreams, what hope is there for humanity?

 

Back in the Political Arena Today

When U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the White House-hosted Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh in late October 2016, he closed by addressing his words to Silicon Valley types:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

Democracy is often messy. Yet out of the mess of the past month or so has emerged a victory for those who believe that the people of this country need to have all their health care needs addressed with the help and financial support of the government. I confess to being greatly relieved by this turn of events because a) it validates all the time and energy I’ve put into sending emails to local politicians; signing petitions; forwarding information to friends; b) it means we’ve all made a difference through our efforts and that is so rewarding. If you are not of the same persuasion, you may not agree with the rest of what I have to say. But we do need to listen to one another, so I hope you’ll finish reading my post.

Today I got back into the political arena by attending a meeting of the Huntington Town Democratic Committee at a nearby American Legion Hall. On a Saturday morning, there were about 50 people in attendance; most of them middle-aged or older. I saw some of my friends from the senior activist group I’ve joined, the Indivisibles. I was happy to see my fellow super seniors out there beating the bushes.

Our local congressman, Tom Suozzi, showed up and gave a very motivating speech. He encouraged us with his words: “The challenge is not just to resist and revolt, but to organize.” He stated that he is very energized by visiting groups like ours because “this is the way democracy is supposed to work. For too many years no one was politically active or wanted to get involved.”


He explained that our challenge now is to persuade the 10-20% of noncommitted voters to “work with us.” And that is hard work, he said. And it takes time…a lot of time. We were given a handout highlighting the things the Democratic Party has done to improve life in our town. He outlined his plan for organizing. He is taking his District 3 area and dividing it into 16 parts; he will be holding a town-hall meeting in each of them to start the recruiting and organizing process. He emphasized that we have to start by working on the local elections and turn things around.

Another person spoke about canvassing door-to-door and how it’s actually very interesting work to meet the people in your neighborhood and actually talk to one another. It’s not easy, he said in agreement with our Representative, but it’s very fulfilling work.

One person from the audience suggested that the Dems now need to be more aggressive about their own agenda, since the Republicans can’t seem to come with one they can agree upon. I think she’s right, and I hope that is some of the work the Democratic Party is currently engaged in.

I took a couple of petitions for people to sign to encourage our NY State Senators to adopt a single-payer health plan which is called the New York Health Act. I will share them with my yoga class participants. When I got home I felt good to have been part of the action the past few months and to see such encouraging results. But the real work lies in the weeks, months and years ahead for all of us who are unhappy with the way things are.