Stories are Doors

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القصص أبواب = stories are doors 

The first word I learned on my first day of Arabic class was الأمم المتحدة, the United Nations.

Five years later, I walked inside COP22 in Marrakech, the U.N. talks on climate change, trailing red Moroccan mud on my shoes.

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After passing through airport-esque security (no, my shotgun microphone is not a weapon; no, I’m not concealing anything in my hair), I waited in line for my accreditation badge to be printed. I stood behind a delegation from Sudan and an ambassador from the World Bank. The World Bank man liked our green shirts printed with the words “Climate Justice Storyteller” across the front.

I studied Modern Standard Arabic for four years (2009-2013). Save for layovers* in Doha and in Abu Dhabi, I had never set foot in the Middle East before attending COP22 this November.

*Airports don’t count, right? But they are beautiful intersection points. See Naomi Shihab Nye:

Harvard students who take Arabic fall into neat categories: the vast majority who want to work for the State Department or the CIA; aspiring business leaders; the ROTC guy who occasionally came to class in uniform; and a poet obsessed with words (*points at self*). Our vocabulary lessons were skewed accordingly. It was two years before I learned how to ask to use the toilet. Official state functions were deemed more important.

In Morocco, my Modern Standard Arabic was woefully useless. I could introduce myself politely and barter for a taxi or a handful of oranges, but not much beyond that. The dialect spoken in المغرب diverges sharply from the formal stuff I learned in class. If I spent a few more months focusing on immersion, I could probably pick it up. Living breathing languages are beautiful for their twists and turns, but COP was about something else.

One thing I love about learning languages is that it teaches me to be a better resident of my own tongue. I’ll never be done learning Arabic, or English (!) for that matter.

Language is an approximation, always. The words that describe the thing (round, asinine, plastic, vertigo) can never BE the thing. Ceci n’est pas justice climatique. 

I’m most interested in the ways that stories (and poems) become doors, portals through which we access experience that is outside of what we would have come across otherwise.

I remember the first poem I ever read: “Zinnias” by Valerie Worth

Zinnias
by Valerie Worth

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.

That poem, for me, was a door. I had never seen a zinnia before, but I felt like I could feel the flower’s texture. I wanted to be “stout and stiff”––as if looking at a flower could make me more confident, more alive. It wowed me (and still does) that words could do that.

How can the climate movement harness the power of a poem? How can we be “like zinnias” and “stand no nonsense”? Where do stories come into play?

@SustainUS celebrates the end of #COP22

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A group of 13 storytellers from as far afield as Utah and Hawaii joined together to find out. We were selected as part of a Storytelling Challenge run by SustainUS.

Hundreds of people applied. I had my second round interview when I was super-sick, an amoeba wreaking havoc inside my intestines in Cambodia. I must have said something semi-coherent, though.

It was a privilege and an honor to receive the call from Morgan Curtis on July 4th: “Will you join the delegation?”

I said yes.

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SustainUS Climate Justice Storytellers at COP22

Fun fact: I met Morgan Curtis through this blog! She wrote to me about a year and a half ago asking for tips for her bike trip to Paris for COP21, which resulted in this post. And on Monday we’re meeting up for vegan pies in Oxford. LOOK OUT, WORLD.

In the months before November, the SustainUS delegation had weekly Google Hangout calls to work out travel logistics and figure out how we wanted to show up together inside the U.N space.

At a retreat in Oakland, California, we gathered to do a version of Joanna Macy‘s Work that Reconnects and to practice the basics of Nonviolent Communication, a method that involves listening without the intention of responding. Instead, I learned how to listen for needs.

It is a huge privilege to have access to the U.N. space, even as an observer. I wanted to honor the stories of climate change that need to be told; the voices that weren’t present inside the tents of COP22 because they were not allowed access, or the voices that, even present, were systematically silenced within. Why don’t indigenous nations, for example, have a seat at the negotiation tables as sovereign nations? Tribal sovereignty and environmental justice / climate issues go hand in hand.

I view my purpose as one of amplification.

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I spent the eve of COP22 on a rooftop with local activists talking solidarity across movements. Stories = fuel.

Earlier that I day I attended COY, the Conference of Youth that proceeds the Conference of the Parties (COP) each year. I stopped in at Green School Bali‘s booth, a storytelling space inspired by this episode of This American Life where a Japanese man uses an old phone booth on top of a hill to communicate with the dead. Inside the Green School booth, you could sit down and tell your own story of climate change. The personal is political is ecological.

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presidential

November 9, 2016: we are mourning, we are taking action

And while we listened, the world changed. My country elected a climate denier / sexist / homophobe for president. OH JOY.

The day after, SustainUS gathered with international youth climate activists outside COP22 to mourn the election results. The president elect isn’t going to do shit for the planet, so it’s up to the people. We sang. We stood in solidarity with youth climate activists from around the world.

If I had to be in this struggle, there’s no other youth activists I would rather be in it with. Our work starts now. The next four years are critical to take action to limit catastrophic climate change.

I am inspired by how this group shows up, together, in the face of systems of oppression and extraction that feel so heartless.

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prayer circle for Standing Rock held outside COP22

We brought human stories to the UN. We listened.

There’s no other group of people I’d rather be facing the climate crisis with. Now the real work begins.

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At the midpoint of the conference, I marched in Morocco’s first climate march with thousands of other activists.

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“People change not climate change. System change not climate change. Today, today, before tomorrow.”

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Local activists marched alongside the international community. In their eyes, the Moroccan regime used COP22 to greenwash its crimes. SustainUS stands in solidarity with local Moroccan activists fighting against an oppressive regime that values profits over people #300kmsouth.

I traveled to COP22 not because I believe that the U.N. can solve all the worlds problems, but for stories. I believe that storytelling, listening, and amplifying voices can be tools for social change.

Manari Kaji Ushigua Santi, President of the Sapara Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon, took the time to talk with me about climate change:

“We have to get to know ourselves again – who are we? We are part of a chain of life in this earth. We are not a being more important than all other beings. No. Where do energies come from? From the sky and from the earth. We don’t want people to exploit all these natural resources. Each resource: petroleum, gold, uranium, copper – all of those have life. They are elements that help us balance with the sky and with the earth, so that the earth sustains itself. What happens if we exploit all those resources? The world starts to dance.”

Since the end of COP22, I’m thinking more about the dancing world. The unsteady world. The world in which I will grow old.

(P.S. For an awesome book about dance, check out Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’m in the middle of it now and the way she writes about movement is stunning.)

How will people look back at this time: the age of screens? The age of environmental indifference? The age when we stood by and let destruction happen––the destruction of species, of the oceans, the Arctic, our coastlines?

Stories are the doors I build and walk through.

How can we tell the stories of the climate justice movement so that it brings in more people than it shuts out? COP, for example, has an old white man problem. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

I want to move through and move beyond closed doors and into new doors. Old doors. Doors where I dismantle the hinges, piece by piece. Doors I ram through and slam my body against, day after day. Doors I repair. Doors where I have no idea what’s waiting on the other side.

a city of doors 🚪 #marrakech #morocco

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Hungry for more? Here are a few door-like essays that I wrote during COP22:

Truthout: “From Standing Rock to Morocco: Indigenous Protesters Act in Solidarity Against Corporate Polluters”

Earth to Marrakech: “Meet Andy Costa, a Cycling Activist from Cote D’Ivoire”

Everyday Feminism: “Five Alarming Ways that Climate Change is Racist”

Earth to Marrakech: “Indigenous Leaders at COP22 Stand in Solidarity with Standing Rock”

Pacific Standard: “How Youth Delegates at COP22 are Mobilizing Ahead of a Trump Presidency”

Sierra Magazine: “Dispatches from a Youth Delegate at COP22”

(If you’re wondering to yourself––how can I keep this little storytelling boat afloat?––pop on over to my Patreon page. Any and all support is much appreciated. Plus you’ll get access to cool stuff like 1x poem every month written by yours truly.)

Until next time,

indigogirls

Imlil, Morocco; mountain dance

“Home: an Index”

Hey beautiful people,

I wrote an essay for The Alpinist that went live today

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… about what it was like to grow up with a mom who climbed mountains.

“There is glacial power in language, in naming things. I am here because my mother gave me a vocabulary for motion.”

Here’s the link: http://alpinist.com/doc/web16c/wfeature-home-an-index 

And a bonus image of baby Devi in the snow (lol). My mom tells me I was upset because the diaper wipes were frozen.

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chillin’ like it’s 1992

Hope you enjoy!

xo

d

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Big Coal

Marmor, QLD, Australia

Marmor, QLD, Australia

Impossibly long trains carry coal to the Queensland coast (for the power plant in Gladstone & for export overseas). 

I stopped to count: 125 carriages. 

Full to the sea, empty to the mines. And repeat.

The operation runs constantly. In a few hours of riding alongside the tracks this morning I counted at least six coal trains, plus a rogue passenger train. I’m about to go to sleep to the sound of coal moving (always moving) over the rails.

I am in awe of the scale of this operation.

Capitalism in action: the fuel. 

I wonder if I should try to visit a mine.

Cycling as Active Listening

I scribbled this brief meditation on why I do what I do halfway up a mountain pass during a 100km ride from Agnes Water to the Boyne Valley. I love hills. They reset my legs and my head and my heart.

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the flat bit before the long gravel climb


I see cycle touring as a form of active listening––listening to myself and the world around me.

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Do I feel safe? If not, I move on. When I am hungry, I stop and eat. When I am thirsty, I take a sip of water. I’ve grown to know when my period is coming based on the phase of the moon.

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churning waters at Rainbow Beach, QLD, Australia. My travel motto? Go with the flow. 

And collecting stories––where do I even begin?

The bicycle is a tool for connection. A conversation starter. A form of movement I love that can take me across borders of nation and gender and class and age.

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(I am me. I can never be anyone else but me. I am a white middle class almost 23-year-old cis woman from America. There’s no taking that away. But in listening I give the whole of myself––my ears, my heart––to a storyteller.)

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On the bike, I become fluid.

I am in my element. I am free.

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What’s the Point of Shaving Legs Anyway?

Hey beautiful people! I’m so happy to have this totally quirky and somewhat spring-like poem up today at BOAAT PRESS.

Enjoy, & check out the other poems, too! Stunning stuff. x

What’s the Point of Shaving Legs Anyway?

Forsythia comes to Massachusetts
like it always does:

in between the sugar maple
and the neighbor’s parked truck.

Never could I stomach
the yellow.

Children of invention:
you’ll be jittery from the adrenaline.

A diver at the platform, arms stretched––
ready to plunge

into my outstretched lungs. This breath
is made of roots

sighing and singing and sleeping.
A footprint from the treetops.

In first grade I learned
the water in my kitchen tap

was what the dinosaurs drank.
How peculiar.

I am most comfortable
when in constant motion––

on the highway
over water, stomping grounds.

Tendrils. Locks. The harbor opens
to a tiled tunnel

that uncovers wounds as they wash through:
the elbow, the knee, the transition places.

Bends I love.

Massages and Flowers

nukuloasunsetI dig my elbows and into her shoulders and the space between her clavicle, focusing the whole of my energy on relieving the stress. The lavender oil slacks between my fingers and her skin.

Suzanna’s 60-year-old back is tight from caring for her 80-year-old mother who is bound to a wheelchair. “I lift her from the bed into the chair, from the chair to the toilet, and back all over again,” she sighs. “It’s a lot.”

Suzanna lies out on top of my Therm-a-rest and exhales “nn-nn” when I push my thumbs on the knot directly.

“Is this okay?”

I knead and press until something in her loosens.

My mother taught me to give massages when I was eight years old. I remember practicing for the first time on my grandmother, how soft her face looked after even the simplest of backrubs. Since then, massage has been one of my favorite gifts to give––all I need is my hands and someone in need (oil is a luxury).

Ili is next. She takes off her shirt and lies facedown, tilting her neck to the right. I unhook the four clasps on her bra. Ili has three tattoos on her upper back, all in black ink: a skull with two flowers coming out of the ear, the word LOVE, and a line about an inch long without explanation or context.

After the massage, Ili takes my hand. “You come?”

I nod and shrug a sulu around my hips. We follow the footpath to the next village over, Levuka-i-Gau, her home. Mango seeds litter the path between. She points up to the mango trees where the fruit is just starting to get ripe. I ask Suzanna when they will be ready to eat.

“Not yet. Soon.”

We pass two bulls grazing in the tall grass. I put my pointer fingers on either side of my head, bow my neck down low, and stick out my rear, imitating the bull’s proud stride, defraying any tension by making fun of myself.

“Eeeo! Yes!” Ili shouts, exuberant.

I swivel my hips, stop walking, back it up, get low, pop up, vogue, freestyle with my wrists arching high to the sky, and throw in a few rib isolations for good measure.

Ili laughs her tall laugh and joins in. “Hop hop! We hop hop!”

Knowing how to dance (or at least being uninhibited in doing so) has gotten me far while traveling. What I can’t communicate verbally, I can say with my body. Plus, it just feels so good to move, to cut the persistent tropical languor with a goofy groove, to let my body run free.

I follow Ili off the main path as she takes my hand and leads me into her village. Bright roosters and peeping chicks peck the ground. The passage snakes between a cluster of tin houses. We wind our way to the water/shore/seawall where children splash and swim in high tide.

Ili’s husband chops wood with a long-necked axe. She greets him with a warm smile and insists that he puts his axe down for a moment to shake my hand. The smell of wood smoke and curry wafts from a fire and an accompanying big pot.

Ili reaches for my hand and we walk further up the hill to meet Suzanna’s mother. Suzanna wheels her into the main room of the house.

“Take off your shoes,” Ili reminds me. “Tombe. Sit.”

I take a seat on a squishy foam couch against the wall. Suzanna pushes the chair over a woven mat and as close to me as the wheels will come.

Her mother looks me in the eye and says a sentence in Fijian. I look to Suzanna, the question in my glance.

“She says she can’t walk.”

I touch her mother’s shoulder and say how strong she is. The radio hums away in Fijian, the rhythm of the words both familiar and strange. We hold each other’s eyes for a second, saying everything and nothing at once.

“We go?” Ili says.

I thank Suzanna and her mother––“Vinaka vaku levu!”––and follow Ili out the door and up a hill. We pass a group of Fijian men who lean against the trunks of tall coconut trees, passing a cigarette between their lips.

Ili guides me into the commissary where she introduces me to Lucy. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust from the brightness of outside. Lucy and I exchange a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. Then Lucy busies herself putting things into a plastic shopping bag. The sound of it rustles in the cavernous room.

With my eyes finally acclimated, I look around to take stock of the room. A gaudy, golden-lettered Santa Claus sign wishes people who exit a Merry Christmas. Two pairs of cleats sit lonely on a high shelf. Boxes on boxes of chicken flavored ramen noodles lean on each other in the room’s far corner. There’s a mug full of packaged toothbrushes near the cash.

Lucy hands the shopping bag to me: a package of butter biscuits and tropical juice mix.

“I didn’t bring any money––” I protest, but Lucy waves her hands nonchalantly, insisting that I take the gift. I bow my head in thanks.

I follow Lucy and Ili into an adjacent room that houses woven mats, a Hollywood-esque depiction of a blonde Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit, and a shelf with seashells of various sizes and colors. Lucy calls her daughter in from the kitchen and asks her something in rapid-fire Fijian that I have no hope of understanding.

In the meantime, Lucy takes out a sewing box and unravels a spool of brown thread. In one swift motion she fixes the needle’s eye on one end.

Lucy’s daughter returns minutes later with two handfuls of yellow flowers. She takes a moment to look me from head to toe, and then sits down next to her mother, biting off the end of the flowers and handing them to Lucy, who threads them onto the string, one by one.

Bua. That’s how we call the flowers,” Ili explains, lifting the completed necklace up and over my head. “It smells good, mm?”

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I smell sweet and feminine. Ili puts one of the bua flowers behind my ear, too, for good measure. I feel gorgeous.

Lucy calls her eldest son in from the yard where he was smoking and gives him a short sentence of instruction. He jogs out of the room and reenters a few minutes later with a coconut that I can only presume he has climbed up a tree to fetch. Lucy’s daughter finds a sharp knife in the kitchen and hacks off the coconut’s top in three bits. She hands me the coconut to drink.

Now not only do I smell sweet, but my palate is full of it, too.

Ili and I dance and laugh the whole way home.

Such grace, the act of giving. Hands to hands.

Photo on 11-6-14 at 6.43 PM #2

Burritos, Chaos, and Round Windows

Christina and I sit across from one another in chairs affixed to concrete above the Bay, cradling warmish halves of a burrito between our hands. The night is calm and alight, buzzing with an energy that makes me never want to leave this city. If I didn’t have a flight in four days to Fiji, I probably wouldn’t go. Programmed light bulbs on the spires of the Bay Bridge dance in waves from left to right, whispering in my ear: Stay. Just stay.

baybridge“YEAH, GIANTS!!!!!!!!” someone screams from the moon roof of a passing car, their orange foam finger waving in the air.

We laugh. A drunk San Franciscan stumbles by and sees my sign perched on the edge of the chair: tell me a story about water. He mumbles with a mouth full of spittle: “Is that for the Giants?”

“Yes. Unequivocally yes.”

“World series, here we come!” Christina chimes.

I take a bite and let rice and red beans and avocado meld in my mouth. This burrito has ruined all future burritos for me (thanks, burrito). The flavor is chaotic and free. I feel so alive.

A grease stain from the bag of tortilla chips that came with the burritos marks my “tell me a story about water” sign, oblong and unapologetic just below the letter T.

~

Christina picks me up in her Prius outside of the UCSF library where I had hunkered down for an afternoon of writing. Though I love the act of meeting new people and listening, just listening, I get exhausted from constant conversation. Writing without interruption is a refuge.

I was an endurance athlete in college, and apparently that side of my character permeated the design of this trip. Just. Keep. Going (but remember to rest and recharge).

I have lost track of the number of times I introduce myself in a day.

“What is that sign all about?” it begins. I have a short version, medium version, and long version of my life story to share with anyone who asks.

The medical books in the library lend me their quiet. I open one on brain aneurism surgery and quietly close it, nauseated. Another book shows me the diagram of the inside of a human ear. There exists a membrane called the round window that vibrates with opposite phase to vibrations entering the inner ear. The round window allows fluid in the snail-shaped tube (the cochlea) to move. This movement generates pressure waves in the fluid, ensuring that hair cells of the basilar membrane are stimulated. The hair cells connect to a neuron that translates the bending motion into a signal that enters the brain. Brilliant.

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Silence can be self-care.

~

Christina opens the car door from the inside and welcomes me into her life with the whole of her smile and a big hug. Though we are both part of an online community of women writers that started back in July, we have yet to meet in person. Christina saw on Facebook that I was passing through San Francisco and offered to get dinner and chat. I am so glad that I said yes.

Her voice is a duvet cover. Soft. Present. A balm to my fatigue.

“So where do you want to go eat?” she asks.

“I’ve heard that the burritos here are something else.”

“Then we’ll get burritos. There are two great taquerías in the Mission,” she explains, “and they’re just around the corner from each other. What do you say we do a taste test?”

The Prius is eerily quiet at stoplights. The car could be dead but for our voices. I can see how many miles per gallon we earn on the dash. Thirty-four on the straightaway. Ninety-nine on the downhill. We speed through the city, crisp and efficient.

Minutes in to our conversation, it is a relief not to censor myself: “I don’t know if this is TMI, but…” I begin.

Christina butts in: “There is no such thing as TMI here.”

That’s when I know I have found a friend.

Our conversation spreads from the car’s interior to the sidewalk as we catch up on each other’s lives––the small stories that have brought us to this precise moment. Our families. Our earliest memories. The things we love.

“So you were a dancer, right?” she says.

“How did you know?”

She cites Facebook pictures in which I have my hands up in a particularly dancer-like pose.

 

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Ok—I guess it’s pretty obvious.

We both grew up dancing. We rowed in college. We are fascinated with the idea of flow in movement. We reject settling down and settling for less than the best in relationships. We are 25 years apart in age but none of that matters. We remember the freedom of learning to ride a bike. We love the feeling of San Francisco’s hills in our legs.

Errant, elated cars honk and bleat as they pass behind us.

The bay water laps itself free.