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.

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!