Support Climate Justice Storytelling at the UN Climate Talks

Hi all! I’m part of a group of 13 youth delegates from SustainUS going to the UN climate talks in Morocco this November.

If you’d like to be involved with the climate movement / support us, that would be massively helpful!

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We’re focusing on climate justice storytelling, and will be bringing stories from COP22 to media outlets back home.

The Paris Agreement has been signed, but we can’t wait for 2050. The transition from fossil fuels needs to happen (and is happening) now. This is the decade to take direct action to prevent catastrophic global warming.

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I have 10 copies of a poetry chapbook left & a handful of postcards from driving across the country that I would be more than happy to send your way. If you’d like a letter or a book of poems in exchange for a donation, let me know!

Thanks so much for your support. If you can’t donate, sharing this link would be a great help, too.

Big love,

Devi

Storytelling and Community

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“Here comes an interesting person.”

I’m sitting with my legs folded under me on the maroon couch at Elaine Blanchard’s house in Memphis, cradling a mug of ginger tea between my hands. There are four women scattered on sofas and armchairs in the room. A fifth is about to enter through the screen door.

“This used to be a gathering for clergy women,” Elaine explains, folding her knees under her, “but now it’s expanded to interesting women.” She stands up to greet the newest guest and offer us carrots with tzatziki and glasses of bubbly, her movement fluid and confident.

~

Elaine Blanchard is a fabled storyteller in the Memphis area. She has written and performed in two one-woman performances: “For Goodness Sake,” a story about oppression and redemption, and “Skin and Bones,” about body image and eating disorder.

In addition to her solo work, Elaine facilitates a creative writing and performance program, Prison Stories, at Shelby County’s jail for women. Each class of twelve meets for four months during which participants share their life stories. Elaine writes a script based on the stories shared, which is then used by professional actors to create a performance for the entire community to attend.

This past summer, Elaine met for twelve weeks with a group of clients from Friends For Life, a service agency for people living with HIV and AIDS in Memphis. Elaine provided them the opportunity to tell their stories and wrote a script, “Positive Stories,” which was then performed by professional actors.

It is always wonderful to connect with a person who devotes their energy to understanding the art of storytelling, and who pays that love forward by listening and sharing the gift that words and narrative can be. Elaine is a light in the world. Her energy and warmth––a soft yellow glow––is contagious. I strive to pay that goodness forward, to be the best listener and storyteller that I can be.

She is hope incarnate.

~

When everyone is settled with beverages in snacks, Elaine regains her seat on the couch and settles into a story.

“Well I just got back from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough with my students from Memphis College of Art. Have you heard of it, Devi?”

I nod over my tea. The storytelling festival is an event that I read about in my Intro to Folklore & Mythology course freshman year in college (and dreamed about, because that’s what you do when you are a Folklore & Mythology student). It feels wonderful to be sitting here, just one degree of separation away from the national stage of storytelling itself. I don’t know if I’ll be back in the states in time for the festival next October, but goodness knows I would love to be a part of it in the years to come.

Elaine recounts a story she heard at the event: a mother at an internment camp in the Holocaust saved 55 children left to die in the woods by sneaking them soup under her coat.

The conversation turns to church matters next (this did, after all, used to be a gathering of clergy women) and somehow we end up back at stories of water and climate change.

“It’s odd that you’re doing this here,” one woman chimes, “––in the middle of the country, I mean. Things are slow to happen in Memphis. People are slow to care. We have the buffer of the coasts.”

~

If/when I have a place of my own, I want to invite people over regularly to tell stories as Elaine does, to chat over food and drink.

~

In my sophomore year, the Harvard College Women’s Center Mentorship Program matched me with Roxie Myhrum, Artist Director at the Puppet Showplace Theater. Roxie introduced me to many pockets of art and performance in the Boston area. One of my favorite events that we would attend was SOOP (Stories of Our People) in Jamaica Plain.

Before SOOP disbanded––the organizer, Aimee Rose, needed to focus on her acting career, which is perfectly understandable––Roxie and I would take the Orange Line out to gather along with forty or more strangers in the apartment that Aimee shared with a few other artists. The ticket to enter was an item of food: a loaf of bread or a vegetable or a bottle of wine or a block of cheese. Three or four people would be on duty to chop up the vegetables and get two big pots of soup started straight away. In the meantime we munched on the bread and cheese and wine and met the other folks in the room. While the soup was cooking, its smell permeating the house (sometimes aromatic with sage, other times deep and hearty), a few hours of storytelling would ensue.

Folks sang. There was interpretative dance about mother’s coming to visit from Wyoming, stories of visiting an ex the weekend before. A smattering of classic fairy tales. The occasional puppet.

My favorite spot to watch was perched on the countertop in the back of the room where I could see both the performer and the audience’s reaction. I had just finished taking a class called “Race, Gender, and Performance” with Robin Bernstein and seeing the performativity of everyday life juxtaposed with storytelling on stage set my mind working for days. I loved this new framework of viewing the world through performance, and community through storytelling. The stories we tell make us, in a very human way, who we are.

You know those moments when everything feels suspended, perfect, just for a glimpse of a second? Jill Dolan calls it “utopia in performance.” I remember being held there. The room held me. The community did. It happened once, in December, in the middle of a new friend’s dance piece.

Two months after I started coming, SOOP came to an end.

~

“Devi, you’ll love this,” Myah starts.

I’m in downtown Memphis, digging through my backpack to find soap and conditioner.

“So I went down to Mississippi to visit my nephew for his birthday,” she continues. “His one wish was to have s’mores for dessert. We made a campfire out back, and everyone sat around the fire. He pointed to his aunt and said in the cutest little voice: ‘Auntie, tell me a story.’”

Myah’s eyes light up. “And she did! It was the best rendition of the Three Little Bears I ever did hear. Of course it was my turn next. I didn’t know what to talk about, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always my favorite story so I did my best to remember the whole thing. It was probably the worst telling of all time, but he loved it! And I did too. It made me think of you.”

After telling stories, Myah’s family sang “The Wheels on the Bus” and feasted on marshmallows. Stories like this make my heart grow three sizes too big.

Community comes out of food and storytelling––of being together and fully present to share our lives with one another. If that isn’t a radical act, an act of love, then I don’t know what is.

Any Excuse to Celebrate

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Eden Brent sidles up next to me at my plastic chair in Doe’s Eat Place. Her boogaloo voice makes even the red and white squares on the checkered tablecloth come alive with music.

“I bet you wanted to sit next to a good lookin’ guy!” she chortles, loud and confident. “Well, I’ll tell you what: you got a good lookin’ girl instead.” Eden tilts her head back when she laughs and fills the whole room. Other diners pause with their forks halfway to their mouths or a knife in the air and stare. We don’t care. Our table is the length of the entire room and we are squished knee to knee to have a good time, to reconnect.

I met the loud, musical Brent family by accident, or trail magic, or just dumb luck. Everything is connected. In August 2013 I rode my bicycle down the Mississippi River Trail to collect stories from people I met along the way. I made a brief detour to Clarksdale, Mississippi at the suggestion of a librarian I met on the plane to Memphis.

“You won’t regret going to Clarksdale, honey,” she told me over the roar of takeoff, offering me a piece of minty gum. “It’s a must-go place. And plus, there’s a blues festival this weekend.” Sure enough there was music. And water. Lord, do I love water.

I ended up dehydrated in a farmer’s supply shop in Clarksdale after an unsuccessful attempt at finding my new friend Marc Taylor’s place on Old Highway 61. The two brothers who owned the place thought the sight of me with a loaded bicycle was a hoot.

“You’re all alone? And what does your mama think?”

The brothers handed me three bottles of icy water and we got to talking while sitting on lawn chairs inside the shop. Between sips of cool water––there’s nothing sweeter on a dry throat––I asked: “How does a combine work?”

It’s the questions that get me places.

As it turns out, one of the brothers lectures on agriculture at Delta State. My combine question sparked a two-hour detour in his white truck during which I learned about the difference between soybeans and milo and peanuts and the sticky, hexagonal bloom of a cotton flower. Seemingly anything could grow under the fertile umbrella of a delta sky––market prices drive which crops are planted, though. At the end of our trip the sun was arcing low and the brothers graciously dropped me off at my friend’s bright blue shack.

“Go see John Ruskey,” the youngest added, munching a toothpick between his teeth. “You’ll love Quapaw.”

“That place on Sunflower?” I asked, remembering a colorful, hand-painted sign I had passed earlier in the day. It looked closed.

“Just walk down by the river. You’ll find them there.”

Sure enough I did. John Ruskey a.k.a. Driftwood welcomed me into his basement-level office at the Quapaw Canoe Co. filled with life jackets and river maps and fossilized coral. His daughter, Emma, flitted about while strumming a mini guitar.

“I found a fish!” she exclaimed, running off to fetch its small body that she has preserved in salt. “It’s a bit stinky, but not too bad. Stinky, stinky, stinky!”

Driftwood rolled out a brightly colored map he had drawn of the Mississippi. The lines of the river have a dance of their own, arching smooth. The system is fed by fingers that reach into the east and west.

“You can stay upstairs at the International Youth Hostel if you’d like,” Driftwood said when it was time to go to the festival.

“How much does it cost?”

“Oh, you can stay for free.”

The Youth Hostel is a converted bar. Shellacked turtle shells and petrified mud and driftwood chandeliers beautify the space. There’s a perma-layer of rivermud on the floor that only adds to the hostel’s charm. I ducked in to drop off my panniers next to my bed for the night: a platform with a mattress on top that is suspended by fist-thick rope from a metal bar on the ceiling. It is fondly referred to as “The Floating Bed.”

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While unpacking my sleeping bag I met the brilliant Chris Staudinger. Chris, a New Orleans native, was working at Quapaw for a jaunt after graduating from Boston College. We connected instantly.

“There are no straight lines in riverspeak,” Chris told me over a cup of sun tea spiked with lemon.

We went out dancing and bonded over the bliss that is pecan beer while questioning the gendered expectations of asking someone to dance. Meeting Chris set off a chain reaction of southern hospitality that followed me all the way down the river.

“Where do you go next?” he asked.

“Rosedale.” And so Chris texted his buddy David in Oxford whose parents, Becky and Bill, are from Rosedale. Can you take on a girl biking the river trail by herself? They said yes.

After a four-hour ride in the August sun, I was grateful for a big mattress to sprawl out on. Becky and Bill fed me toast and scrambled eggs spiced with homegrown jalapeños. I counted my lucky stars.

The next day was Sunday. Becky and Bill asked if I wanted to go to church and I said yes. Why not?

Before paying homage to God we paid homage to the river with an early-morning jaunt on a motorboat. Later that evening Bill showed me his Cabinet of Curiosities full of mastodon teeth and river glass and vertebrae, along with a bowling pin and unidentified metal bits he has collected from the river’s churning stomach.

Back on land, the pastor began her sermon by asking: “Now who needs praying for today?”

One woman’s mother was suffering from a malignant form of brain cancer. We sent prayers her way. I pictured my silent words soaring up above the pulpit and out one of the stained glass windows, over the soybean fields to find this woman in her bedroom. Every little bit helps.

Becky stood up next to me in the pew. “I just wanna say that I have this here girl here staying the night with me and she is riding her bicycle down the Mississippi River all the way to Venice. Do any of ya’ll know someone in Greenville she can stay with so that she doesn’t have to sleep on the side of the road? Bless her heart.”

Anne Martin popped up instantly. “I do! I do!” Anne waved both her hands as she spoke. I knew I had found a new friend. Anne worked for twenty years as an anchor at the local TV station in Greenville and knew most everyone in the town. Later on when we walked together in the Kroger grocery, people would stop her to ask if she was really the woman from TV. She always smiles and says politely, “Well yes I am. That was years ago, though.”

“We’ll have to introduce her to the Brents.”

Anne worked her magic and made a few phone calls. By sunrise I had a set of directions in my hand and instructions to call Jessica Brent once I passed the Winterville Mounds going south on the Mississippi Number One. “You can’t miss the mounds. It’s the only hill aside from the levee for miles.”

Jessica met me just outside the criss-crossed gate that marks her yard. When I pulled off the highway and into her driveway, Jessica took one look at me and said: “Girl, where are your lights?! Don’t you know people ‘round here drive drunk?” The next day she came back from Walmart with an orange reflective vest, a pair of red and white flashing lights, and reflective stickers, which we stapled all over the vest. I’m sure these safety measures saved my life. Farther down the road, I met truckers who had passed me miles before on their way to the grain elevators: “You were blinkin’, honey. Blinkin’ and blinkin’ and I could see you comin’ from far away.”

Jessica and I stayed in touch. I wrote her a postcard and she came to visit Boston in mid-October. We took the elevators to the observatory deck at the roof of the Science Center where you can see the brick of Harvard Square laid out like legos. A thick layer of fog obscured the Boston skyline, but I gestured to where it would be, the contours of the Charles River hidden beyond tall buildings.

One year later: we’re all around a table again, laughing like no time has passed. Doe’s has no menu. Jessica reaches across the table to explain. “You want a salad? You have to try the salad.”

Her father Howard jumps in with his hand on my shoulder, “Baby, you like shrimp, right? Now you want it broiled or fried?” Howard squeezes “baby” into every sentence like it is liquid gold, instant belonging.

I wish I could have met his wife, Carol. She brought music to the family, and it reverberates still.

Jessica orders two-dozen hot tamales and three T-bone steaks for the table for good measure.

The food comes and it smells beautiful. All of it. Even the French fries.

I tend to lose consciousness of my body when I’m engaged full-on in the act of listening, but at the sight and smell of the large platters, the hunger that had laid dormant in my stomach stands up to dance. The dipping sauce for the shrimp is garlicky and divine. I didn’t know I liked shrimp until I rode down to the Gulf and said yes to a fresh catch. Everything changes in proximity to the sea.

“Here honey, this is chocolate––” Eden says, feeding me a bite-sized piece of steak she has carefully selected. “––chocolate from a cow’s ass!”

The meat melts into my body. I can’t remember the last time I ate red meat. Good god.

Bronwynne, the third Brent sister, is seated at the far side of table outside of talking distance––there are boyfriends and family friends scattered in between us. I make sure to tell her that I love her music before I leave, how it sustained me through many a long afternoon of senior thesis writing last summer.

On my last night in Greenville last summer, the Brents called a party together at Hank Burdine’s place. We cooked red beans and rice and after the meal, the guitar came out, passed from hand to hand.

“I just think we needed a reason to celebrate,” Jessica told me in between glasses of wine. “And here you are.”

How Do You Say Goodbye to a City?

I’m counting down the days until I leave this city: 20. No one told me that college would be the easy bit. Life since May 29th’s Commencement Ceremony has been evolving at breakneck pace. New routines, all of them temporary. I have to check myself from missing the person that I was, have to remind myself that growing is pain and confusion. It takes courage to leave relationships and places and things that no longer fit. Learning to welcome uncertainty is always a challenge.

Since May I moved out of a vibrant community of 32 undergrads who lived and cooked and cleaned together into a sterile single off of a hallway. My relationship with my significant other of a year fell apart. We grew apart. I helped raise a garden that keeps coughing out copious amounts of zucchini. I joined the November Project. I biked to the farthest corners of a city. I wrote postcards in all-caps to states I have never visited. I made sun tea in my orange Nalgene. I taught some thirty kids how to row. I got a cartilage piercing. All this while piecing flights together and calling up friends of friends who have visited Fiji, the place I will fly come October.

Now that I am into my last days in Boston I want to ask: how do you say goodbye? Most of what I love about the city has taken a different shape: the friends I once lived with have apartments and jobs elsewhere, the person I loved and I no longer speak, the community of rowers and co-opers and Folklore & Mythology concentrators I drew strength and inspiration from will, in all likelihood, never again be in the same place. There’s not a course catalog for this next step. I won’t be shopping classes. The Boston skyline at night is still arresting. How do you say goodbye?