People Get Ready, There’s a Train a-Comin’

October 14, 2009

OK, I confess.
When Al Green is about love, I am about love.
When Al Green is about God, I am about God.
Whenever he sings, I am moved.

Tomorrow is Blog Action Day on the theme of Climate Change and, having started two incoherent and depressing pieces, I’ve decided to ditch them.

Instead, I just invite you, having happened upon this page, to close your eyes and open your heart to this performance and imagine it applies to how we human beings are going to respond to the big big problems we’ve created.

This is what I have to offer for tomorrow. Just the wish that we can bring the hugeness of our love along with us on this journey into the pretty frightening unknown.

Halloween

October 13, 2009

My children’s fondest wish: to have a new, store-bought, commercial just-like-everyone-else’s Halloween costume. Elsa wants “to be” a witch; Ned wants “to be” a vampire.  In other words, they want “to be” normal as normal is defined on the day in the calendar year when many things go topsy-turvy.  On a special display in our local supermarket, you can buy an identity for a day, a wicked ghoulishness made of plastic and foil that gets rewarded with individually-wrapped chocolates and sweets made from glucose and e-numbers.   They don’t want one of my homemade costumes (admittedly not very good as I am a lazy, ill-skilled seamstress), they don’t want something second-hand (I am however a highly adept aquirer of pre-loved goods at cheap prices via car boot sales, second hand shops and ebay).  They are willing to borrow certain items from friends– this is because as children they desperately covet what other children have, and borrowing seems a way to gain that thing, if only temporarily.

I am really torn about what to do.  I appreciate the appeal of packaging and newness and the thrill (that comes but quickly goes) of purchasing, the retail gratification.  The truth is, we can afford the £14 to buy the outfits they want.  (My husband grunts at this thought.)  (And I see really clearly that other families might not be able to afford this, or, alternately, might not be able to afford the time to make a costume, and buying things feels like the better option.)  So I have to decide– there are lots of factors.

One factor: Halloween as a holiday in the retail calendar in Britain seems like a hideous import from the USA. Of course there are the Celtic traditions of Samhain and various festivals that in this part of autumn revel in the thin veil between the living and the dead.  It’s a seasonal time of brown leaves and dying straw, days getting shorter and darker, wind getting chiller and howling.  It’s a beautiful time.  And there are old-time ways to celebrate, that feel magical and fun and deliciously, autumnally scary.  Games with apples.  Carving swedes. Processions of children. Walks in the darkness listening to twigs cracking and leaves rustling.  And then by the 5th of November it’s Bonfire Night, where pyromaniacs and pyrotechnocrats smoke out the cities and freak out the dogs all across this windy island.  Here in our lovely town in mid-Wales they burn beautiful towers of shipping pallets and waste wood from trees; where we lived in Oxford it was mattresses and assundry building supplies that are too costly to take to the tip.  People with asthma stay in their houses.

The pumpkins everywhere feel artificial in the British context.  George can’t stand them, because he likes cultural celebrations to belong to where they belong, and Halloween, though with a long history in Britain and Ireland, is now a globalized commercial date.  I am a little torn because I always want to give my kids a little taste of my American childhood.  I particularly remember the little orange money  boxes and our chanting as we knocked door to door: “Trick or treat for UNICEF/ and candy while you’re at it!”  I am planning a little party for children– maybe we will light a fire in the garden, roast bread dough and tell ghost stories.  A commercial holiday in which everything is SOLD to kids puts images in their heads– tells them what ghosts and witches look like,  and I guess my resolution is to take out that which degrades the luminous mystery — I want them to feel cold out there in the twilight and wonder, was that a ghost they saw from the corner of their eye, is that blackbird flying there really a witch… On the other hand, kitsch is silly and fun and a little licorice bat never really rotted anyone’s teeth…

Yet I am ever aware that to participate in the world of plastic throw-away tat is to condone it.  I have been able, because we live in a rich society, to buy probably 85% of my children’s junk second-hand.  They have as much crap as any kids do in Britain or the US, but I’ve somehow justified it to myself that we haven’t spent a lot of money on it and we haven’t supported the industries that manufacture this throwaway stuff.  If it didn’t exist so plentifully at large, we wouldn’t be able to have it this way, and that would be fine.

But last night thinking about how much STUFF exists just as ephemera began to bother me.   I watched a short documentary about manufacturing in Shenzhen in ChinaLink…   and it reminded me the toll on human lives, and on local environments and on global futures that the proliferation of cheap stuff takes. Things we don’t need, things that are destined to become rubbish.  Annie Leonard makes these connections so excellently in The Story of Stuff, but somehow despite its being animated it felt above the heads of my 5 and 8 year olds. (I might need to revisit that opinion.)  I think I could show them this film, as an introduction to our conversation.  Elsa can now read subtitles– maybe she would enjoy that.  I’ll tell them they’ll get extra “screen-time.”

So much global manufacture has been transferred to China (which also receives an ever growing amount of our refuse for oh-so-toxic “recycling”).  So much of the rise of China’s global greenhouse contribution has to do with this manufacture — more than half their emissions are in export industries .  But we buy the shit, the blister-packed holiday-themed junk that our children beg us for.  Those Dracula fangs, those jack-o-lantern baskets, that polystyrene pitchfork.  The life-sized glow-in-the-dark skeleton that I myself desire to own. We are jeopardizing the safety of humanity for these?

7:00am Saturday Morning

October 10, 2009

We are sleeping peacefully when our little boy slides into bed, wrapping his legs around mine. Ten minutes later, our daughter comes in, rarin’ to go but needing that little cuddle. There we are as every morning, grown-ups desperately hoping for another quiet five minutes, children wanting to begin the bounce and verve of the day. 

They are pulling the duvet and poking each other and laughing, squealing, and shrieking, and out of the blue Elsa exclaims:

“What do we do, the world is collapsing and stuff?”

“What do you mean collapsing?” I ask.

“You know, all the fish are dying, the plankton, climate change is starting, the polar bears are dying.”  I don’t know quite what her information source is.

I am bleary and really wanting that additional snooze.

“It’s great.  You are lucky,” I somehow stutter, “Your generation gets a chance to be heroes.”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Everything’s dying and in danger, you get a chance to try to save things.”

“YaY!!!!!” she shouts, jumping on the bed, laughing, pillow-fighting with little Ned.

Hold It Like a Baby

October 9, 2009

My lovely friend Clare is visiting.  Last night I was worrying to her that in writing this blog about climate change from my particular point of view, I am putting out negativity.  Her response was something like: whatever it is you have to say, HOLD IT LIKE A BABY.  She said, if you fight to be positive there is a violence  and judgement  in suppressing “negative” feelings.  She is a practioner of Zen. Whatever is on your mind, whatever it is that you want to say, she told me, hold it gently and warmly, carefully and deliberately.  Hold it like you would a baby.

Today is cold which feels right.  George made a fire in our wood burner for the first time in many months, and we are baking these huge potatoes– earth apples– for our dinner.

A Letter from the Headmistress

October 7, 2009

Dear  …

Thank you for your letter. I am putting a reminder about parking on and obstructing paths in my next letter to parents.

With regard to the cycle shelters, I think this is an excellent idea. I would also be happy to talk to [the traffic warden] if you could ask him to contact me.

Thank you for your offer of help. Perhaps we could meet to discuss the way forward?

Best Regards,

 …

Hooray!  That felt easy.  Now to proceed to Step 2.

A Positive Attitude

October 6, 2009

I’VE GOT ONE!

WATCH THIS SPACE!


Weather Woman

October 6, 2009

Our house is the coldest place I have ever lived.  Even in summer, we sleep in warm pajamas beneath feathers, flannel, wool and fleece.  We admit that sometimes it’s warmer outside than in.  We are working on an eco-renovation, in case you are wondering why we put up with this situation, but in the meantime, it’s bleepin’ cold!

Feels a bit sad that after a largely lackluster summer, autumn is blustering in with noisy winds and horizontal rain.  I looked out the window at the expanses of grey this morning, and made sure the children were dressed warmly for the day.

Out the door we finally got (mornings are an exhausting rush with school children)– and truly surprisingly, I’d say shockingly, the air felt: balmy, warm, humid, sweaty.  “Where did that come from?” George asked quizzically.  It felt exactly like that– some odd bit of air had blown in from somewhere, hmmm, where could it have been?  Might it be a roaring whisper of that supertyphoon headed mightily towards eastern Japan as we speak?

It was in 1999 that I first began to resent television weather forecasting for its banality and apolitical approach to the weather.  It’s television culture in general, so where’s the surprise?  Why would I expect the Weather Girl or WeatherMan (sexist language duly noted) to deliver more than a few jokes and present the information we need to get on with our day, our week– and only our day and our week.  Umbrellas, everyone, or get out the sunscreen…

What if The Weather as a television institution took on a social responsiblity:   Inform us.  Tell us statistics .  Which record we are breaking today: hottest, dryest, wettest, coldest, smoggiest, foggiest, iciest, angriest.  Explain how phenomena are changing, patterns shifting, new cloud formations, new seasons, new anti-seasons, new hives of  dead bees.

Tell us the truth.  Tell us why the air on the morning of the 6th of October 2009 in the mountains of mid-Wales feels like an afternoon in Texas in the spring.

Slow Food/ Jewish Food

October 4, 2009

I would not say that I believe in “God,” or am inclined to follow prescriptions of a religion, but I couldn’t deny that I feel myself to be Jewish culturally.  At the most straight-forward level, I was raised by people who were raised by people who were raised by people who were…   There’s the humour, the inner turmoil, the Yiddish phrases, the yes-i-have- to- include -it guilt….

My husband is not Jewish; he’s a pork-pie and buttered bread and pint of bitter kind of Englishman, but he is supportive of the (admittedly paltry) efforts I make to have at least an echo of Jewish culture in my house– latke parties at Hanukah, truncated seders, a honey cake at the new year.  The only efforts seem to center around food (though I have found some Isaac Bashevis Singer tales that I’m getting read to read as the nights draw in.)

This morning I was looking at the plum jam I made last week, an incredible almost unreal and lurid pink with a bright and  tart and deep flavour, and I thought how fun it would be to make blintzes. (Yum!  Blintzes are a thin pancake folded around a nice mild simple cheese mixture, the whole thing fried in butter and served with cooked fruit or jam.)  The taste of cooked plums seems very eastern European to  me, I don’t quite know why, because I haven’t eaten them there and wasn’t really served them as a child.  I considered the lekvar (a prune butter) that fill hamentashen, a yummy Purim pastry, and thought of prunes as a necessary result of the incredible gluts that good plum trees offer– and the fact that when plums fall, you need to start cooking or eating them really quickly, so having ways to preserve them and ways to use those preserves– very important.

Eastern European Jewish food as a culinary tradition comes from eating locally, seasonally, frugally– not a political or aesthetic choice, but a fact of life.  And of course this tradition has within it creative responses to keeping dairy and meat separate, so it will often feel similar to the cuisines of other cultures (Polish, Russian, German, Italian, etc), and of course it will never have anything of shellfish or the pig, like bacon and sausage which are so central (and in fact crucial to preserving traditions, and poor cultures) to other national/ regional ways of eating.  It’s main incredients are foods that are cheap and easy to find.

Parsnips, carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions, beets.

Apples.

Barley, rye.

Eggs.  Split peas.

Simple farmer cheeses,  Cheaper, longer-cooking cuts of meat. Whole chickens as something really special.  Liver, chopped.  Gizzards to flavour the broth.  Using the bones.

Herbs like parsley and dill.

Years ago, where I cannot remember, I saw a mind-opening museum exhibition of product packaging of mid-20th century American foodstuffs marketed to the Jewish consumer.  The idea was, here we have people we can sell stuff to, let’s help them to make this product their own.  I think there were the Jewish companies like Manischevitz and that other one I can’t remember, but also mainstream food companies like Kraft and Heinz.  The exhibition had a “we-are-a-melting-pot” kind of approach, showing how Jewish consumers (probably women) would take on the buying and cooking habits of other middle-class Americans; this was the story of assimilation.

My mother would have been at the tail-end of this moment of culture and cooking.  She taught me to cook with Heinz”s ketchup as an ingredient, to make matzoh balls literally from the recipe on the spine of the box, to sweeten the sauce for prakhes (stuffed cabbage) with a famous-brand “grape jelly” as the mother of Barbara Walters had done (how she knew this detail escapes me, but she deemed it interesting.)  (Can I tell you I don’t cook this way anymore?)

I think there was a feeling amoung our people that the food we’d traditionally eaten was lumpen and heavy and probably signalled “poor.”  And then of course “health” started to seem important, so cooks abandoned schmaltz (chicken fat) in favor of industrial food oils and margarines. (And probably threw all that good resource in the bin!)  At some point in the world of American Jewish cooking that I received, international elements were celebrated, like Israeli cuisine (hippies cooking cous cous and hummous, coriander and cumin in the carrots….) which began showing up in our holidays and events.

When I find myself cooking traditional Jewish foods, I try to imagine something different.  For one my general interest and attraction to the Slow Food Movement means trying to shed elements of  industrial agriculture, industrial processessing with additives and preservative (ready-ingredients for example) as well as global marketing and shipping– meaning, I’d always prefer local, seasonal, accessible. There is on the positive side a real celebration of place, the way that food comes from a place and a culture and in fact makes that culture.  In reference to Jewish cooking, I feel a kind of  plain, undecoratedness adds to both the beauty of the food and a kind of “authenticity” that helps us remember who we were, and are.

One experiment: sauteeing (organic, too icky to think of using otherwise) chicken livers in chicken fat, which is traditional  obviously, but everyone I know in the rich world now chucks out the animal fat and imports the oil– be it olive or sunflower or safflower or canola.  The flavours of liver and onion, and nothing else–  now that tastes like the past to me, like the Chopped Liver at R&W Deli in Philly circa 1968– absolutely revolting to a young child like me being also fed TV dinners and cherry sodas.  As my friend Alix perfectly described it, chopped liver is “mud and onions.”  Slow Food, Yiddishe style.

For non-vegetarians, re-learning how to cook with animal fats (actually if organic and fed proper forage not industrial feed develop a really great Omega ratio [see Nourishing Traditions] is critical. When you think of how much embodied energy, and how much greenhouse gas emission, let alone how much living spirit, is entailed in the raising of animals for human food, it’s unconscionable not to use every bit you can.  Traditional Jewish cooking would have done this for reasons of economy.  

Seasonality would have been similarly tacit.  A Jew in the shtetl  would have placed that egg on the seder plate knowing that the egg was a thing of spring, that chickens didn’t lay methodically through the year in overcrowded henhouses.  Dandelion would be more bitter on a seder plate than romaine (which is hardly bitter at all, let’s admit)…  This is all stuff just flying off my head, and I’d like to think it through.  So by the next passover I could make a seder meal with traditional yet easily gotten local foodstuffs– and prepare all really simply, yet beautifully.

A friend inquires how/where one might get matzoh that was natural and nice.  Any ideas anyone?

If you are finding this interesting, let’s talk about what your next seder might be, what you might cook, what a real Slow Food Climate Aware Seder might look like on that white tablecloth, or feel like in our bellies.

Well, all this makes me want to go dig out my Claudia Roden…

Hope

October 4, 2009

The first thing to say:  I am sorry if you are experiencing me as depressing.  Really, truly, my intention is to reveal an inner dialogue (much of which I know others share) and come out on the other end someplace positive!  I promise.

In reference to the planetary dangers ahead as a species and as individuals, I know people who talk about hope, and I know people who talk about the importance of not having hope.  A lot of this is a philosophical discussion, and somehow philosophy is an entitlement of thinking people, whereas highly personal/emotional reactions are thought of as excessive, unproductive, irrational and perhaps nutty.  I straddle hope/no hope in my daily life of thought and mood. To usher climate change issues into every level of economic and socio-cultural transformation, we’ve got to include the deeply personal.  Women hating housework at the level of daily resentment was a crucial motivator in 1960s feminism. Feelings matter…

Someone just wrote this to me, in reference to my last bit of writing:

I just keep going back to the same word: impermanence.

It’s difficult for me to connect with your thought process. There was a lot of “heaviness” there…. 

However, the part on being disconnected – that definitely resonates with my paradigm.

Your reality (and your perceptions and feelings about the environment) are a reflection of yourself. How you are connecting with yourself will show up as a reality. That’s putting it very simply. I see a picture of the Himalayas and I think “Wow, what majesty!” You look at that same picture and you think “This is horrible!”

Different perceptions.

We care about the environment. We do what we can. We support government structures that will take us down the correct path. 

But we see and hear all these dooms-day stories about the earth. It’s very stressful and anxiety-building. If I’m not hearing a solution or a call to action – that message is adding stress to my daily life that will manifest in not enjoying the current moment – the one that matters most. 

Let’s keep active. Do everything we can to make this a liveable planet – but let’s also be in the moment and just enjoy what we have right here, right now.

First, let me say there is basically nothing above with which I disagree (except where she sees might trust government I probably do not).   I see the importance of living in the moment; I agree that tactically in terms of communication we need to project “vision” and “solutions;”  I realize I somehow failed to convey to her the extent of personal lifestyle change and committment  and small and large projects to which I, and my husband in his career in a big way, dedicate our lives.  Somehow I totally turned her off, or scared her, or failed to reach her, to persuade her.  Or maybe, and this leaves me sad, there are some people who just don’t get it/feel it/ know it in their bones yet.

(Yet.  As someone said recently, those people are going to fall harder, because they are not seeing it coming.)

She and I began our discussion when I commented on a friend’s facebook photo of one stunning picture among a series of awe-inspiring photos he took in Tibet in 2002.  She had written that her heart dropped in beauty at the sight of a particular snow-covered glacier.  I, in my personal practice of not remaining silent about heat and melt, wrote that my heart dropped wondering how much of that snow had already melted in the eight years that have passed, and would melt in the next decade.  Party Pooper, that’s me!  (I have read about the exponential rate of hotting up in the Himalayas, and the terrifying water issues that are going to result across Asia in the next decades.)  She wrote, “Impermanence,” referring to a Buddhist notion of nothing remaining constant, not even mountains.  I wrote “Suffering, ” referring to all the beings who do, and will.  I wanted to quote the Dalai Lama who sees climate change now as a larger problem to the people of Tibet than the Chinese occupation.  That seemed a juvenile strategy to me, so I wrote to her one to one explaining my very personal journey with all this.  We had a nice exchange, I thought, and I sent her the link to this web log.

Clearly she finds me a bummer and all my emotional to-and-froing stressful, and heavy, which it is to me too!  I could use some of that Buddhist detachment, but I would want it to come from a place of very deep attachment to and love for the world around me.

That particular dialogue stopped feeling fun and productive, but the larger questions go on about living in the now and the larger expanse of  time ahead of us– and whether we must have hope or not for the future and for the changes we can make now.

Good friends who read Derrick Jensen insist that we give up the idea of hope (meaning, that changes and tweaking our industrial capitalism will only delay not prevent social and environmental collapse, which is ultimately good).  This is a simplistic summary, but I think accurate enough. (Awaiting correction or clarification anyone might offer!)  Obviously hope is a semantic problem as well, but I’m not mentally inclined towards these ways of thinking.

Other friends place hope way in the distant future, when some kind of new stability is able to emerge socially and agriculturally/ permaculturally from whatever new climate emerges.  We are talking “eventually” here– therefore, it’s hypothetical too.  (It’s all hypothetical really.)

Then there’s a different kind of hope, which I’d say is like wishing to be able to keep pretending. That’s not quite right.  It’s where we place our hope-against-hope.  It’s hope where we would like to admit that the severity of our thinking is wrong. Obama is in the category.  Copenhagen is in this category.  Technofixes might be here.  (I used to call myself an atheist praying for a technofix.)  All the things all of us are doing hope-against -hope (350.org, 10:10, Avaaz, Age of Stupid, I could go on and on)– all the Good Faith daily actions we keep doing of reducing our impacts and  striving for energy and emissions-change at every level: transport, housing, manufacture, agriculture, sewage, resource use, product design, travel, tourism…  Imagining a world where everyone gets it together and we make the changes we need.  In time. Though by a hare’s breath.

Hoping for this is Hope.  

All this by and for people willing to accept a new mindset of change, even if you call it austerity, and a kind of world view that holds within it a notion of “climate justice,” and futurism, and humanism– to make sure there is something left for the future. I’m not willing to give up these shreds yet.  And that’s why I consider myself a hopeful person, shocking as that might appear to some dressed in its dour garb of heaviness and grief.

“Feeling” Climate Change

October 2, 2009

I have been wondering what makes some people “feel” the hugeness of climate change.  I think I am one of them.  When I let my imagination take me into the cold harsh science of the facts (facts, Mr Gradgrind, facts), I am sad, and fearful.  As well as angry (at polluters and consumers and macro-level decision makers), depressed (at all that we are losing), worried and anxious (for resource depletion and food instability, let alone the increasing frequency of climatic violence).  

Most emotional engagement attaches to imagining my children in this earth-depleted future. But I can imagine myself as an old lady, desperately uncomfortable in heat-waves or blown around vulnerably by gale-force winds.  Of course there are movie images–  Soylent Green is always the specific one– but I see swathes of refugees in my mind and now will never forget a futuristic art installation at the Tate Modern in which the main hall was taken over with triple-tier bunk beds and a sound recording of dripping, dank, endless rain.

I have a friend who seems to focus her feelings on the rapid extinction of so many beautiful kinds of plants and animals, the murder of species really.   There are probably people who could mourn a landscape, the loss of snow on a particular mountain, rains you cannot predict, maple syrup, summers without sun, springs that are summers and the ugly distortions of what used to be such cherished and magical seasonality.

My husband will now and then say that someone “gets” or “does not get” climate change.  By this I think he means a kind of intellectual grokking of the emerging evidence.  Of course it is possible to hear all this evidence, as it constantly issues from the media, and not absorb it, to go on with business as usual.  He understands this as denial, which takes psychological and social forms.  (See his blog http://climatedenial.org).  I must admit the concept of denial does not totally make sense to me.  I think if people don’t “get” it, then somehow they are not feeling it.  But maybe you could then argue that finding ways not to feel it is what denial is?  (I recognize that people do a lot of different things with  feelings.)

I have long been intrigued by the workshops of Joanna Macy who with other “Deep Ecologists” has developed the  “Work that Reconnects.”  This “work” bases itself on the premise  that people are disconnected from their feelings about really huge social issues and problems; that if you can get in touch with your feelings, acknowledge them, they can become your strength because they are what connect  you to the realness and the beauty of how things could be.  I think she used to use the phrase “Despair and Empowerment,” developed when nuclear weapons seemed so prominent (of course they still loom ominously), but “despair” is actually a word that turns people away.  Thus, the new nominal focus on the postiive of “reconnecting” with self and world.  

Disconnection is numbness.  By working through the numbness, you can feel, and therefore, connect.

As someone who is capable of dwelling in despair (something I try to address), and hopelessness (must say numbness hasn’t neccessarily been an issue), I had wanted to take part in these workshops but somehow the time and place had never been right.  So last spring I organised an abbreviated version for our small town.  I really tried to get people to come, but didn’t succeed in getting more than ten (which was enough actually).  I remember trying to enthuse one woman, a quite warm, guitar-playing, earth-mother kind of Roman Catholic.  I described to her what I understood to be the importance of dealing with “despair” about all the losses climate change would bring.  “Despair!” she said.  “I don’t feel despair for the planet.”  That was a real conversation stopper because I knew if I went on she’d just think me self-indulgent and annoying.

Which perhaps I was, but months spent staring my sadness in the face have had a good effect, because they’ve helped focus for me what I think my reactions and roles might be– hence, a kind of “empowerment” rather than just feeling passive, or paralyzed, or just overwhelmed.  

Empowerment– to reclaim power for oneself, from feeling powerless against the hugeness of it all.

One of those roles is that I see myself as a potential bridge-builder, something I’d like to write about next week.  I don’t think i’m a leader really, or even a work horse, but I have the capacity to relate to lots of different kinds of people and that actually is one of the most important gifts I’ve been given.

Another role has to do with this blog, which is that I feel I have some creative and perhaps inspiring artistic expression that has been blocked, and I want to proceed with this, unblockedly.  Writing as a discipline is really effective at creating synapses in your brain (I can feel it happening!), and also to keep track of the fleeting thoughts and connections that can add up to meaning and motivation and productivity.

I also have about ten smaller scale things I want to do, which I won’t list here, but active things that push awareness and preparation of climate change, and the contraction of the energy we need forward.

And the main thing, just figuring out how I am going to mother my children. Because if I can just face the future as I see it, I know who they need to be, the gifts they need to bear, the skills they need to have,  for their lives to be empowered where one might easily feel defeat and despair.