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

“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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It’s autumn. I have things to tell you.

Fine people of the internet:

Holy goodness, it’s been a while. I have so much to tell you! This is going to be a long post, so fasten your seat belts, friends. Pour a cup of tea. The last month has been full of life.

Autumn always makes me think of new beginnings: the start of school, most intimately (I’m two years out of university, but the feeling still lingers)––classes and lectures and rowing practice and long shadows in the afternoons. It’s a time to go internal, to breathe deeply in that slippery light.

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Kapiti Coast

 

Everything starts in blue, right?

In mid-March I ventured north from the Kapiti Coast to volunteer for three days at WOMAD New Zealand, a world music festival that takes over New Plymouth once a year. The acts were something out of this world. Tami Neilson’s Album “Don’t Be Afraid” has been on heavy rotation in my world for the last six months or so; it was divine to see her perform live. You best believe I danced my socks off.

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Seriously, go listen to her stuff right now.

And then there was DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian quartet who wear funky hats and dedicate themselves to preserving Ukrainian folk songs. Their creative process is something like this: 1) go to the remote mountain areas in Ukraine, 2) find the oldest living women in the mountain villages, 3) ask them to sing the folk songs they know, 4) record said songs, and 5) reimagine the songs for today’s audience.

The result is AMAZING. Talk about kick-ass percussion. And of course my inner folklorist is dancing.

From Taranaki I traveled north to Auckland for a wedding. Because sometimes surprise things happen on the road.

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Speaking of which, I’d love to introduce you all to my travel buddy from here on out… Charlotte Chadwick!

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We clean up okay. This was at Charlotte’s high school bff’s wedding in Auckland. 

Charlotte is a singer-songwriter, poet, and theater-person extraordinaire (actor / director / playwright / etc.) from Aotearoa New Zealand who also happens to be an awesome ESL teacher. She’s traveled all over and tells great stories, to boot. You can listen to some of Charlotte’s music here: charlottechadwick.bandcamp.com

The journey will be solo at times, together at times, and delightfully messy, as per always. Because that is what journeys are. Journeys change. And this change is most definitely good.

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Happy Devi is happy 🙂 

From Auckland, Charlotte and I headed to Tauranga to learn some coding skills from the delightfully talented Robert O’Brien, a software developer who has generously given his time to make the next phase of the One Bike One Year journey a reality. His son, Max, has also kindly volunteered his design talents.

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Octocat, a new friend

Ya’ll know how I have been alluding to making a map on a website where you can click on a point and listen to a story from that place?

Well, it’s coming to fruition. Slowly, but yes. Things are happening. Stay tuned.

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Doing metadata research at the National Library audio archives in Wellington & geeking out over all the old audio equipment 

Then Charlotte & I started to plot a way out of Aotearoa. This wasn’t easy, because I had made a commitment not to fly.

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Friends, we tried everything.

I went back and forth for four months with a cargo ship executive who had promised me a free trip out of New Zealand. Long story short, he couldn’t make it happen. There were insurance problems. Oy.

Then we tried for super yacht / sailing positions. But it’s the wrong season to sail towards Southeast Asia. The cruise ship companies we talked to didn’t have positions that would suit our needs, but we applied anyway and heard nothing.

Then, grudgingly, we looked at flights. There was a ridiculous sale going from Wellington to Bangkok in mid-May.

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We bought the tickets.

I’ll be writing more about this soon, but weighing the value of travel and continuing to collect stories vs. the carbon footprint of a flight (or even a cargo ship trip, for that matter)… it’s sticky stuff. And stuff that it’s necessary to talk more about.

Honestly, poetry helps get me through.

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And while I do have a small place in the “family of things”, it’s my duty as an activist to tread lightly on this planet while doing the kind of listening work that has become my life.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”

So many questions. Mary Oliver is a goddess of questions.

In other news:

The cardboard sign turned three years old! HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the wrinkly piece of cardboard that has helped me collect hundreds of stories in five countries during the last 3 years. There will be a new incarnation of the cardboard sign in SE Asia, most likely with words in more than one language. Woot!

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Baby cardboard sign / day one of story collecting / Boston / April 2013

chronicles of a story listener — 1.5 years and counting

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the well-worn sign in all its glory #tellmeastory

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Speaking of multi-lingualism, my work was featured in a newspaper in Vietnam:

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And last week was pretty big: I did an interview  with the German enorm Magazin for their June issue, plus an interview & photo shoot with Bicycling Magazine in the good ol’ US of A. Not sure when that print copy will be out, but I’ll post some sneak peak photos as soon as I have them to share.

It was a windy afternoon on top of the world where Jacob Howard took the photos for Bicycling––you check out some of his other work here. The big uphill climb up beyond the Brooklyn Turbine was totally worth it.

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Big wind, big sky, bigger things ahead.

Onwards,

Devi

Book Recommendations

I made this list recently for a friend & thought you all might like it, too––

an incomplete list of the books I have read and loved in the last year.

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Keep on keepin’ on. And read more poetry.

xo
d

Back on the Air

NEW ZEALAND FRIENDS:

I’m going to be back on the radio with Nights on Radio New Zealand National tomorrow night, November 17, at 7:10pm.

The interview should last just under 20 minutes. I’ll tell riveting tales from the cargo ship… or whatever else Bryan Crump dreams up of asking!

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Tune in if you can.

Friends everywhere else, I’ll post the link as soon as I have it. You can also listen live here:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights
 
Big love,
Devi

Coal Dust

It gets everywhere: windowsills, tabletops, the kitchen ceiling.

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Marmor, QLD, Australia

This home is a good 3/4 of a kilometer from the train tracks.

Marmor isn’t a coal mining town, just a village on the transport route.

The starting salary for driving trucks at the mines out west, though? Somewhere north of $100,000. I can see why anyone would want a piece of that pie. Fly in, fly out. Live in a camp. Get the work done. Twelve hour shifts. Reap the benefits.

At what cost?

Always at what cost.

I’m enmeshed in reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Piece by piece. It is a dense, necessary text. Rich with insight. Please go read a copy if you haven’t already.

I want to be a part of making the world habitable for future generations.

This is my part. Listening. Breathing in the dust. Sipping tea with new friends on a porch and recording a story about the cyclone that passed over here in February of this year––eye and all––almost ripping off the roof and felling several trees. Interconnectivity in action. What fuels the climate system? What fuels the economy?

“We’re not tree-huggers,” the storytellers are quick to add. As if environmentalism were a dirty word.

Dirt.

Coal dust on the windowsill.

One of my hosts used to manage service stations out west. The miners would come in after work to buy a cola, still in their work uniforms. Save for a ring around their eyes they would be covered in the black stuff.

One day one of the workers changed shifts and came in with his face clean to buy a cola. She didn’t recognize him.

All is swirling but here I am, in the middle of it, probing the edges, crossing continents whole.

There is nothing else I would rather be doing now.