Kate Schapira Interviews Michael J. DeLuca

Michael: This essay of Kate Schapira’s in Catapult, about the decision not to have kids in the age of Trump and climate change, was the direct inspiration for my Reckoning 2 editorial about making the opposite decision. We’ve talked a lot about this since. Kate has very kindly agreed to share a little more of that discussion here.

Kate: What has having a child/becoming a parent done to your sense of your range—the scale and the arenas in which you operate as a person, how much your calculations take in, where you geographically and physically go, what you consider your physical and social territory? Has it contracted, expanded, shifted the ground of your participation in the world as it’s becoming, how big you think and/or on what level of detail? This is such a written question, but I really want to know the answer!

Michael: Becoming a parent has shoved me into a lot of new arenas, given me an understanding of people I didn’t before—mothers are a huge example, a huge cross-section of humanity with which I was never before able to empathize like I am now. It has also shut me out of some arenas I used to frequent. I travel less, at least for now. But I talk to more people where I am; I have things to talk to them about, where I didn’t before. I think, in terms of my capacity to participate in all these arenas, it’s a wash. Everybody has a fixed amount of time in which to live and act; there are no fewer hours in the day now than before I was a parent, there will be no more hours in the day after my kid is eighteen and out of the house. But I see how I am forced to be more organized, and I see the potential for that to ripple out and have increasing impact the more comfortable and better I get in that. It may be the same as for any newly adopted responsibility? Starting a literary magazine, for example: much of the work there has felt like a chore, and it’s certainly work that has taken away from time I could have spent on my own writing. Filling out applications to the IRS for nonprofit status I might compare to an equivalently bureaucratic task I’m performing on behalf of my kid: filling out his passport application. It’s frustrating now; the payoff down the road I expect to be huge. So, an answer to the question about level of detail: I am forced to participate in the world at a much closer level of detail, but also to anticipate in a much larger scale than I have before. The level at which the kid sees the world is incredibly myopic, and I am responsible for so much of what he sees, but the fact that he is already in some senses an autonomous being reminds me constantly that the little details I choose to show him now are setting up bigger and bigger things for the future.

Kate: You write in your editor’s note about how you have to recast this story as a redemptive one. In order to do what—what’s the necessity?

Michael: To cope. That’s the hard answer. I’m doing that thing everybody does that makes storytelling so essential to being human: I’m choosing the interpretation that fits the narrative I’ve chosen for my own life, the new one that includes me being a father and him being my son. Now that I’ve done it, I can look at the pain and see it as a gateway to something better. And because of that, I can give the halfway constructive and optimistic answer to your questions just above. In certain real respects, it’s an act of will. I’m not even going to articulate the other version of this story; I’m not going to dignify it with my time. You could look at it as magical thinking, but in making that choice, I am encouraging myself to make decisions to further that narrative—proactive instead of fatalistic—to make the story true.

Kate: You also write about your obligation to “make the world good for him” and then later, you’ve written about some of the elements of that good world in the future tense. Can you talk about what you’re doing to bring them about–what brings that word “making” into it for you? What’s the relationship between the present pattern of your life and that future?

Michael: Small acts that accumulate. I want him to be proactive, progressive, I want him to see what’s possible and work toward it, I want him to care. I want him to know and find joy in the good things about the world so he’ll care. I don’t see how anybody accomplishes anything without caring, intensely. So that’s my starting point. Part of making the world good is not letting the awful parts overwhelm. We walk along my neighborhood brook a lot. Sometimes we go wading. We observe the Asian carp, the half-domesticated ducks, the muskrats, the feral housecats. When I first moved here I found its level of environmental degradation pretty bleak. Now I see it’s kind of amazing. He certainly sees it that way, which means I’m not just helping him, he’s helping me. Sometimes we drag a huge piece of discarded plastic out of the streambed, or pull invasive weeds and eat them. And then I go off to a town meeting to agitate on the brook’s behalf, on his behalf. I can’t stop my neighbors letting pesticides run into it off their lawns, but I can make clear to them that I’m not using pesticides and why. Eventually I’ll be able to make it clear to him. But for now it’s enough for him to be delighted at the way one duck out of twenty is always on lookout, warning the others of our presence.

The relationship between all that admittedly very small-scale action (there’s a lot more like that, more all the time, but most of it’s at that scale) and a better future, to me, is him. I know how cliché that sounds, believe me. Twenty-five year old me is rolling his eyes so hard right now. But it actually does work like that for me. He personifies the future.

Kate: Can you talk about what you do with your doubts, your fears, your griefs, when you feel them?

Michael: Sometimes—my chosen narrative and all of this above notwithstanding—I succumb to them. What that tends to look like is me lying on my basement floor staring up at the rafters for awhile drinking homebrew. Other times I channel them into something productive. Lately that’s shoveling snow, or turning over the compost, or figuring out some new small way to reduce my family’s negative impact on the world or balance it out with something constructive. For the new year, I’m getting into the habit of using cloth handkerchiefs instead of disposable tissues. I’m running a contest in my town for kids to design a logo to go on reusable cloth bags to hand out to residents at our annual cleanup event. Sometimes those little things help, sometimes they don’t. But I feel better coming up with more of them than sitting around moping. I look for inspiration in what I read. At the moment, it’s adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Learning helps me. Helps me believe I can get better at all of this, at thinking about the future, at helping my kid learn, at seeing the good and focusing on nurturing it instead of letting the entropy overwhelm me. I go away from people into as much nature and isolation as I can manage—sometimes I take the kid—and wear myself to exhaustion. That usually helps.

One more thing that really does help, always, is talking it out in earnest with thoughtful people who feel the same way and want to make things better. So thank you for this.

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Kate Schapira Interview: Climate Anxieties

kate-schapiraMichael: Kate Schapira’s Climate Anxiety Project is a fascinating creative experiment in which she sets up a counseling booth (in the style of Lucy from Peanuts) in a city square, invites people worried about the future of humanity to come and talk to her about it, records the results, and finds creative ways to respond. Her “Three Alternate Histories” in Reckoning 1 are just the tip of the iceberg.

I love your blog; I am so impressed and inspired by the Climate Anxiety Project, and I’m very glad to find out you’ll be doing new sessions in 2017. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me a bit about it.
I wanted to ask your impression of the reaction to it. I know the project has had quite a bit of press already. I wonder if you’ve seen any kind of momentum building from that. For Reckoning, I’m very interested in fostering community, of encouraging people to think together. Have you seen anything like that as a result of your project? Have you made any friends at it?

Kate: That thing of encouraging people to think together, of enacting community with each other, is something that the booth proper doesn’t always lend itself to very well, because everyone’s talking with me but it’s pretty one-at-a-time, they’re not necessarily ever talking to each other. Sometimes one person will jump in on a conversation that another person, someone they don’t know, is having with me, but I don’t know if any ongoing relationships ever come out of that. And I don’t collect data—contact information, stuff like that—because I think that would change the dynamic a lot. I have made a couple of friends, and there are people who are sort of regulars—people who aren’t necessarily coming back for more sessions, but who will come talk and catch me up on their lives when no one else is talking with me, and if I see them around we’ll say hi.

But one of the things that’s come out of the booth conversations is how isolated people feel, and how unable they feel to act together. One way I’m trying to respond to that is with this series of weekly neighborhood gatherings called Interdependence Days that I and a few other people started this summer. We share stories and food, we learn skills or make things together, we let each other know of more opportunities for neighborly actions and then sometimes we do them together—for example, somebody came and talked to us about a city ordinance to increase police accountability and transparency, and then one other person from the group and I went doorknocking about it. But we also do things like draw, or do reflective exercises, or make something together—we’re trying to practice ways of being with other people that differ from the ways our world most easily makes available to us.

About five people living in other places have at different times expressed some interest in operating a Climate Anxiety Counseling booth of their own, but so far as I know that hasn’t moved beyond interest. I would be beyond thrilled to help someone create a version of this that works for them and their city or town—I would bend over backwards to do this—so people who think they might like to try it should get in touch with me.

And I guess the last thing thing is about the alternate histories, like the ones you’re running here: while they’re obviously not literal instructions–they don’t taken nearly enough into account–they are suggestions. I wish people would try to follow them and see what happens, and I invite anyone and everyone to do so.

Michael: Can you share with me something you’ve learned in the course of listening to and addressing people’s anxieties? Do you think you’ve gotten better at it over time?

Kate: I’ve definitely gotten better at it over time, and the specific things I’ve gotten better at are listening and asking questions rather than volunteering information or making suggestions. This means that more of the conversation comes from the person who’s talking to me, and they have more opportunities to consider and understand their own thoughts, and I have more of an opportunity to be responsive to what they’re actually thinking and feeling, so that the conversation is really between the two of us and not a conversation I’m having with myself. This is key for people who are trying to work together to make something happen—both in the “what should we try to make happen” part and the “how should we do it” part. I’ve absolutely used this practice outside of the booth to do things with other people and it’s made both the process and the outcome better.

I’m not trying to get people not to be anxious, so the “addressing” part of it is really just about recognizing and being responsive, and maybe thinking through the “what do you do when this happens” of it a little more, and I think I’ve gotten better at all of those things. I do sometimes make recommendations, and I think those recommendations are less, “Go do this, it’ll be okay!” and more like, “Try doing this and see how it feels to do, and what you learn from doing it.”

I think the other thing I’ve learned is how real and true interdependence is, and how fake independence is. And from that, I’ve gotten better at talking about the flow between the human and the nonhuman, to kind of pierce the mental wall between “a person” and “the environment”—to be able to not just tell people that they’re connected to and interdependent with all these systems of life but to lead them to see and feel it.

Michael: Does doing this make you feel better about where we as a planet are going? Has it changed your expectations at all about what’s to come?

Kate: Not at all. Everything I see, both firsthand and reported–not just predictions for the future, but observations about the present–says that we are in the middle of a hard time that’s going to get harder, more painful and full of loss and grief, falling unevenly according to who’s already suffering or exploited. I don’t feel better about anything, ever, anymore, except in little tiny patches.

But those tiny patches matter to me and I want to nourish them, and I thin one of them does have to do with the way that people behave toward each other: the listening I spoke about a second ago, the ability to then align with what each other wants and needs, and the ability to imagine, together, something different than what’s happening. How we behave in this bad time—who we align ourselves with and what we try to do together, what we see as our responsibility toward each other, what we try to protect each other from and enable each other to do—is in the realm of things that we can help, that we’re not helpless about. And that “each other” includes humans and other beings as well.

Michael: Have you gotten many negative reactions, like the one I see someone has posted on your blog’s about page? How do you deal with those?

Kate: Not that many–it seems like people who think I’m stupid or wrong mostly don’t get into it. There was a little rash of that kind of response this summer, I think because a climate-change-trivializing blog found my page and linked to it, and some of the comments on that blog’s post—not mine—were rude in a personal way as well as disparaging the project, commenting about my appearance and stuff like that, but incredibly mild compared to what some people say to women online.

You probably saw that I didn’t respond to the comment on the Climate Anxiety Counseling About page, just put it up and left it there. Someone tried to have a Twitter fight with me about it too, and I just kept it factual and low-key and like, “You’re mistaken.”

Someone else wrote me this very long and concerned email, and I kind of treated it like a booth session: I said a little bit about where I was coming from, but mostly I tried to ask questions about where they were coming from, why they wanted me not to be worried, what they thought was an appropriate response. I don’t think I moved them at all, though.

When people have come up to the booth saying that climate change isn’t real or that it’s pointless or stupid to worry about it, sometimes I’ve reacted in a way I feel okay about, where I feel like we connected as people, and sometimes I’ve reacted in a way that I don’t feel good about, where I let irritation or impatience show in a way that didn’t let either of us learn anything. Anger is important and useful, but it’s better if you wield it on purpose.

I’ve included links to those posts from this summer in the list below, as well as a couple of reflective notes that people might like to see, and an explanation of the alternate history stories.

Thanks so much for putting Reckoning together—it’s amazing.

Michael: Thank you!

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Three Alternate Histories

from the Climate Anxiety Counseling Booth

Kate Schapira

Reckoning 1

Ownership

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/12/16

Heat, dryness, really sick people, kind of barren landscapes. A lot of—as I’m listing things off it looks a little bit like what’s happening right now, in terms of economic and cultural devastation. A lot more complete separation of folks with resources and folks without resources, a lot more violence and globalization from below—people joining forces, people finding commonness where they couldn’t before because they thought they were in competition.

That part sounds—not exactly hopeful, but like something that you would like to see.

 

Yeah, that is.

So what’s the fear part?

 

Starvation? . . . but when you go to identify it, it’s different than what you think. I like to think of the world as an ecological system. Basically the fear is that turned on its head and nothing being able to sustain anything else. I don’t even know how to file that, where to put that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/28/16

I’ve been down here 10 years working with the homeless. Last year they had a sign that said there was no smoking in the park, so then of course people came and smoked out here, but now people are smoking in the park again. . . . I’d like to see people down here motivated to clean up the park.

What do you think might motivate people?

 

I think people need to take ownership of it.

But what makes you take ownership of something? Like, do you own your house, what makes you feel like the owner of your house?

 

I think you have to tap into what people can do instead of what they can’t do.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 6/18/16

The story of competition is only one story.

D hangs laundry in his backyard, bees rocking and rummaging in the rhododendron pollen. He has a backyard, at the moment, that he can say “his” about. If he’s honest, it belongs also to the bees, to the rhododendron, to the grass; to the native trees that the rhododendron and grass replaced, to the Native people that his ancestors displaced, to the slaves that cleared the land of trees the first time; to the bugs that thread through the grass and the worms and grubs that tunnel through the dirt; to the microfauna in their guts and the fungal hyphae laced around them. All those whose speech is in their operation. The living and the dead. There’s enough backyard for all of them, if he does it right.

Until now, the other meaning of ownership has trumped this shared meaning in his mind: the getting of what you pay for, the holding of what you have. The recognition that he is always taking part takes him apart.

He does a few things. He and his neighbors on the one side work together on a pass-through through his yard between theirs and the street, breaking up the concrete of his driveway into pavingstones with moss between them, leaving half the fence to slow down noise and building the rest of its boards into a trellis. When he waters the plants or digs in compost, he treats it like an offering; when he poisons the carpenter ants that are gnawing down his house, he holds a funeral for them. When his neighbor on the other side comes out running from his other neighbor, her girlfriend, he sits with her on the porch and helps her make a plan about what to do next. Later he says to the girlfriend, “If you want to hit her, come talk to me instead. Whatever it takes for you to not hit her. Don’t do it again.”

“Or what?”

“What do you mean, or what? Don’t do it.”

The girlfriends break up and move away, taking advantage of the northward convoys. D doesn’t know what they do, what happens to them. Other people move in, turn the house next door into what turns out to be one of the first free clinics and build out a giant trellis to let the ivy and grapevine make it a superstructure of shade, stabilize its temperature in the increasingly sharp spells of dry heat and downpour. D chats with the people waiting to pick up their doses of hormones and makes tea for the people dying of cancer to wash down their painkillers—iced tea would probably be better, but he needs to repair the connection between the refrigerator and the solar cell. If the next storm doesn’t rip this house away, if food poisoning or accident doesn’t nab him on one of his work trips out into the countryside, he’ll probably die here, too. He belongs here, and so do the plants that scaffold or strangle each other, the tiny animal deaths that feed into insect and fungal life, the remnants of the dead, the visiting birds (ever fewer), the relations among all of these.

Many years later, on that same spot, a circle of people sit in a dry and ragged landscape, a stretch of dust punctuated by tree stumps and a few ragged foundations, in whose shelter the weeds grow and they can sleep. They are tired and dying, looking for the end of the wasteland. They pass an old thermos around. Each of them takes about half a sip. In the morning three of them are dead. The others form a circle, pass an old thermos around, each taking about half a sip. Then they keep walking, the slightly stronger ones bolstering the slightly weaker.

It doesn’t have to last forever, whatever it is, for you to be tender to it, for you to share with it; you won’t last forever, either.

Environmental Hazards

Routine releases means emissions in normal operation, emissions that might happen daily or more rarely, and they’re frequently regulated by permits . . . In accidental releases, planning is very important.

—Barbara Morin, Providence Department of Health

We’re always planning. We’re looking at every event.

—Michael Borg, Providence Emergency Management Agency

The next day, the hazmat teams descended on the Port of Providence, because they were responsible for reducing harm from hazardous materials. They were just doing their jobs when they gave the Univar and Motiva facilities and the staff at the Enterprise propane and National Grid liquid natural gas tanks a timeline and a protocol for distributing or neutralizing their fossil fuel and chemical holdings. The people working there were glad to cooperate, knowing that every day of dismantlement increased the chances of survival for a third-grader or an old man on oxygen or a school of fish, and knowing that as they did this work, their livelihoods were assured in the neighborhood.

There’s no good way to put natural gas or coal back in the ground—not every process is reversible, not every wound can be healed. A council of South Providence residents doled out the natural gas and propane to the rest of the city household by household, rationing it for heat and cooking, knowing that there would be no more when it was gone. They built big, ramshackle structures out of scrap metal and wood from dismantled houses across the train tracks, and colored them with chalk and festooned them with fabric to make sure the drivers could see them from far away.

The people of South Providence made room for the people who’d worked in the Port, and learned from them and the hazmat teams how to work with the chemicals without harm. Sometimes they were able to reduce them to inert compounds, or suspend them in substances that would neutralize them. Sometimes the best they could do was parcel them out into smaller quantities, to be stored above water. Filtration, solution, transformation. Prevention: better than cure. The people who’d worked in the Port, and the hazmat teams, learned from the people of South Providence other sets of skills: arguing, running repairs, improvisation, rapid calculation, code-switching, field medicine. They all breathed more easily.

The next hundred-year storm hit before the tanks were fully emptied. A lot of fish and seabirds died, too many to count, and two humans trapped in a car, and an entire long row of windbreaking saplings that the people of South Providence, old and new, had planted a couple of years before. They succumbed to the chemical-infused saltwater; they stood like thin gravestones.

It could have been worse, it could have been better. The rest of the city’s people took the people of South Providence into their houses elsewhere and took turns cleaning and airing the flooded buildings, breaking down the ones that were too badly damaged or too far into the floodplain to make sense saving; they took it in shifts so that no one had to have too much exposure to the poisonous debris. They noted and charted the lie of the land, where the water wanted to go. They thickened and lined the walls of their homes with torn fabric, scavenged wood, leftover office paper, dry grass; they cooked on tiny solar stoves outdoors in summer and saved their gas and wood for winter.

The people who were young during that storm were almost old when the next one hit, and things went very differently. All the tanks were long empty of poison; some were reefs for the shellfish that were just starting to come back. Long sections of train track ran quietly under the water, coated in algae that had evolved to digest the tar and creosote that soaked the railroad ties. People’s weather senses were better now, and with the help of predictive technology, they knew when to leave and let the water rush through what was left, if that was where it wanted to go. The city’s high points had food stores and hospitals; the city’s low points were thick with marsh grass shading into waterweed, and tiny crabs, and sand fleas, and lugworms, hunkering down to wait out a cleaner tide.

The Ocean State

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/8/15

I saw a thing in the paper about how a sea level rise of 3 feet is going to destroy the marshes and salt ponds, down in South County, that are breeding grounds for lots of fish and birds—plovers and stuff like that.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: 5/15/15

The city—pollution. Buildings, cars, power plants. People just like to litter, it’s just fun to them. Like when I was younger and I did litter, I felt bad about it. Like why would you do that.

What do you think would make people change that, those habits?

 

More influence. More influences. Maybe through music—I’m a musician, reggae, hip-hop, percussion. Inspirational vibes and dancing. If it’s there, more broadcasting of it, something in there for children—the inspiration needs to be there. Rhode Island is very depressing, people hate it. It’s depressing, it’s boring, there’s nothing to do. All it really is, is an ocean, which, sure, if you have money.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 9/8/15

The next day, I’m going to ask you to imagine, C listened to D and D listened to C. They saw that each other had said these things; they knew this much, at least, of what each other wanted.

The people living near the edge of the water broke their houses down to make room for some of the water—to make paths for it, to build rising bridges and floating marshes. D’s music gave shape to their work; he toured from site to site, and so did other musicians and bands (not everyone loves reggae, or early-’90s rock, or bachata). Back in the cities and inland towns, some couples in houses too big for them moved in with friends, opening their houses to people from the edge of the water, or people from over the water. Some, to preserve their ability to be alone, repaired houses that had stood empty. There was time to do all of this, time grouped and divided by music and silence.

Twenty-nine years later, the ocean is where music is, at certain times of day: a parade winding like a slow current, a circle pulsing around a performer like the devouring mouth of a starfish, a skein of song nourishing a difficult task. You take care of it because it takes care of you, or you take care of it because it’s where the music is, where the bus-boats fueled by algae stop to drop off people from the city, where the far-traveling boats still dock or rest from time to time. It’s on the platforms that sink and hover with the tide and that everyone works together to draw in or anchor when the storms get bad.

At other times of day, the music drops. It doesn’t stop completely—air doesn’t, water doesn’t—but it ebbs to make room for terns and osprey to fish, sandpipers to stab for worms, the ears to recover their quiet. Some people learn the music, or the silence, because of the animals. Some people learn the changes of tide, the bugs, the tiny hungers, because of the silence, or the music.

Sometimes, the music turns somber. There are no more plovers. There are no more moon snails. Your home, your home, the place that you loved, the place where you learned to love, is no more, has become something else—you will never see it again, never. It will never again surround you, as this music does, as these people and other creatures do—known to you only so far, so much—as this air does, as this water does.

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