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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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

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.

Mickey Mouse & Elmo on Climate Change

“I am learning to love the questions more than the answers.”
— Devi Lockwood

I’m thrilled to be a part of Amy Gigi Alexander‘s blog this month as part of the “Stories of Good” series. The story I wrote comes from the first night of my year-long trip to collect stories from people I meet about water and climate change. (Micky Mouse and Elmo had a fair bit to share on this topic).

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While you’re at it, check out Amy’s writing — she is stunning. The real deal. It is such an honor to be the first writer in her guest series.

Coming later this week: a post from Amy on One Bike, One Year about female travelers. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Here is an excerpt from Mickey Mouse & Elmo on Climate Change:

Minnie Mouse taps Mickey’s shoulder. “Mira, la chica con el letrero,” she mouths, pointing to the cardboard sign hanging around my neck.

Mickey saunters towards me in his big, red shoes. The oversized mouse head obscures any suggestion of eyes beneath, so I take a guess and look at what I think is a reasonable human eye-level as we speak.

“You want a story about climate change?” Mickey growls, a note of incredulity in his voice. His words are muffled slightly through the mask. I nod, point at the audio recorder in my hand and he nods back. I press record.

“Just you wait,” Mickey breathes, his voice hushed and dark. “This whole thing––Hollywood, the lights,” he says, gesturing at the block of Times Square that surrounds us, “––is all an illusion. Deep down something is very, very wrong.”

Though it is after 10pm, it could be daytime for all the illuminated advertisements that hover over our heads like gods. A beacon of light: this America. Janelle Monáe and Windows Play. Gillette Razors and Coca Cola.

“The water’s gonna come and wash all this away,” Mickey continues, his hands waving up and down the tall buildings surrounding us. “The whole coastline of the country will change, this year, even. When it happens, it will set our country back 100 years. There will be wars over water. Just you wait.”

Hop on over to Amy Gigi Alexander’s website for the whole story!

Rhythm

In the first three weeks of this trip, I have recorded nearly eight hours of stories about water and climate change in New York City, New Orleans, Rosedale, Clarksdale, Oxford, Memphis, and, most recently, St. Louis and Ferguson. The processing of this audio is slow going, but it’s a work in progress. I am looking forward to uploading and sharing these stories with you when they are ready.

I’m learning to become a better listener. Recognizing rhythm is a huge part of that.

In her book “Talk to Me,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:

“Character, then, seemed to me to be an improvisation on given rhythms. The more successful you were at improvising on language, the more jazz you have, the more likely you could be found in your language, that is, if you wanted to be found in your language. Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not. Yet from time to time we are betrayed by language, if not in the words themselves, in the rhythm with which we deliver our words. Over time, I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.”

What am I listening for this week? I’m listening for rhythm in a storyteller’s speech––iambs and trochees and spondees. I’m listening for patterns and the moments where those patterns break down.

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This is especially relevant in light of the protests in St. Louis and Ferguson that I am participating in this weekend as a part of #FergusonOctober. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year, it’s that racial injustice and climate injustice are inextricably linked. I am in the area because on-the-ground leaders have asked for support. All our grievances are connected, and no one will win until we all win––racial justice IS climate justice.

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I am still processing the events of the last 24 hours. Last night I participated in a march from the neighborhood where Mike Brown was shot to the Ferguson Police Department alongside members of Mike Brown’s family. This is a world far outside of my own experience as a white woman from Boston, and I recognize that. I worry about what will happen after this weekend’s events, when the crowds of outsiders (not all are white, but many are) leave. This thought makes my heart hurt.

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While we walked, we chanted:

“NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. NO RACIST POLICE.”

“HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT. HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT.”

“INDICT, CONVICT, SENT THAT KILLER COP TO JAIL. THE WHOLE DAMN SYSTEM IS GUILTY AS HELL.”

alllivesmatterThere is power in hundreds, if not thousands of voices speaking as one. Even when the chants fractured and there were different groups saying different words at once, the energy was electric. Thank god for bullhorns.

The march ended at the Ferguson Police Station, where there was a POLICE: DO NOT CROSS line reinforced by some fifty police in shields, helmets, and riot gear holding batons in one hand and tear gas in the other.

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I am nervous and eager for Monday’s civil disobedience. I am all ears.

I’m Marching for Stories

On September 21st, I’m marching with an audio recorder in hand.

I’m marching alongside tens of thousands of people who believe that the time is NOW to call for change.

I’m marching because we are living at a juncture of history––what will you tell your grandchildren that you did?

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I’m marching to listen for stories. To witness. To document. To be present and to offer the whole of myself to this movement.

I’m marching to make a commitment to build a better world.

Why are you marching?

http://sign.peoplesclimate.org/