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!

Johannes Punkt Interviews Marissa Lingen

marissa-lingen Michael: I asked Johannes Punkt (whose story “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” is in Reckoning 1 and goes live on the site next month) to interview Marissa Lingen about “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” because he’s from Sweden and I thought he might have interesting things to ask her, and because I’m trying to do everything I can to foster cross-pollination between Reckoning authors, artists, readers and yes, editors.

Johannes: I love how you write nature as something incredibly personal. Who do you write like, do you think, on your best days? Who would you like to write like?

Marissa: I want to write like my best self. I am inspired by so many other writers, but I have a hard time saying, “I want to write like Jane Yolen” or “I want to write like John M. Ford” or “I want to write like Octavia Butler.” I want to talk about relationship and society the way Octavia did, I want to have the interplay of ideas Mike had in his work, I want Jane’s range in talking to all sorts of audiences. I try to learn from everything I like, to see what makes it go. But at the end of the day, I can only write like me. If I’m lucky and work very hard, I can write like the best me.

Marissa: I’ve been reading more personal essayists lately as well as writing this piece–usually I write fiction. So I can say more particularly that I am inspired by Elizabeth Dodd and by Karen Babine, in this form, and I’m always looking for more inspiration.

Johannes: Since you wrote about wilderness—what is your favourite wilderness in writing?

Marissa: Since you’re Swedish there’s some chance you’ll actually know what I mean when I answer this! My first wilderness in writing was the robber’s woods in Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daugher, and I think that that writing about being a little girl in the forest, sometimes with her little boy friend, imprinted itself and the forest on my heart when that was me too. All the others since then have been paler echoes—some of them wonderful, but none as vivid as that first literary wilderness.

Johannes: Reading your piece, I couldn’t help but think about it and about how notions of private/public property shape the landscape and, in turn, those who grow up there. Have you and your Swedish cousins talked about Allemansrätten [A Swedish law that means that even if you own land, you can’t stop people from going there/temporarily sleeping there, &c. That’s the gist of it. In English it’s called “freedom to roam.”]?

Marissa: Yes! They had us out to their country house when we were visiting last year, and it came up then, because we walked out on the road but came back through a field and some woods that were adjacent. I had read about what a large percentage of Swedes go berry-picking or mushroom-picking—an even larger percentage of Finns, I think, under the same type of law—and it totally makes sense compared to here, where people mostly don’t do that. My best friend does urban foraging, but she always asks very carefully. She goes to the door and knocks and says something like, hi, I see your mulberry bushes are full of fruit going to the birds, would you mind if I picked some. And then she makes jam. And of course I don’t want random strangers wandering in and eating my tomatoes, but having a common understanding sounds appealing indeed.

Johannes: Related to the previous question: You write about wildness and wilderness, like a stewardship of nature almost. How do you feel about ownership of land, tamed, half-tamed, or not? (Is it something that elicits emotion?) obviously you wrote that the waterfall was “[y]ours” but the two feel like very different kinds of ownership, no?

Marissa: They’re very different indeed. My feelings about land ownership get complicated. We own a house on a third of an acre here, with woods in the back. When we moved in, the woods were part of a long strip of forested land that crossed ten or twelve people’s private property in going down to the city park. It wasn’t a large woods, but it was nice. Now several of our neighbors have chosen to cut and landscape that, which changes the feel of the whole. And of course that’s their prerogative, but it makes me gloomy.

The kind of possessiveness that I feel about Minnehaha Falls is an entirely non-exclusive possessiveness. It’s mine, it’s ours—and I want that “ours” to be as large as possible. I want all the people who live around here and even visitors to feel that they have some relationship with the Falls, some responsibility to see that it’s cared for. I think under our current system having it be a public park is the best way to do that, but if it can be a public park that makes people feel that they are part of the public, even better. I fear that too often “the government owns it” ends up feeling like “no one owns it, no one takes any responsibility,” when it should be a collective feeling of *everyone’s* responsibility. Ownership should feel more like “I need to take care of this [possibly with some other people]” than like “I can do whatever I like with this and no one can stop me.”

Johannes: Your piece discusses adjusting to disability. I got mine relatively early; I can hardly remember what it’s like to be “normal.” You seem to ground yourself with those memories and patterns; what do you do when the world is too xenoformed, too alien to adjust to? If it ever is.

Marissa: Oh, it is sometimes. Yes. There is a level of vertigo that results in dreams of being on a malfunctioning space station with the gravity going haywire, because that’s how completely disoriented my body is about up and down, and that’s the metaphor set my science fiction writer brain has to process those sensations when I’m unconscious. So my brain is literally saying: this is beyond our planetary reference frame, this is an alien environment.

What do I do practically: well, there is a practice my best friend refers to as “Marissa is brachiating again”: that is, going from branch to branch like a monkey. Only I am doing it in the house: getting around without falling over by reaching for the next thing to steady myself on, going from touching a wall to a chair to a countertop. That’s one of my best coping mechanisms in my small, immediate world. In the larger one–my assistance needs and coping vary a lot depending on how bad a day it is. Sometimes my cane is enough. Sometimes I need to take a friend’s arm. Sometimes the only thing that will work is patience, waiting for a day when the world and I are better lined up.

Johannes: And, lastly, it’s a new year and stuff. What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Marissa: I have Maria Dahvana Headley’s Aerie at the top of my stack of Christmas books. I loved Magonia, and I’m looking forward to Aerie very much. Last year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, and I’m now going through the rest of Solnit’s work a little at a time. I also read my first Gerald Vizenor novel, Treaty Shirts, which I loved, so I’m reading the rest of his stuff a little at a time too. And of course there are new things coming out that I’m eager for—Thoraiya Dyer’s debut looks pretty great, and our mutual editor has been talking up Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, so I’m excited for that.


Read “How Far Are We From Minneapolis?” in Reckoning 1.

Johannes Punkt writes with an accent. Previously published in Minor Literature[s], Pamphlets for the Apocalypse, among others. Studies translation at Lund University, Sweden. Email: johannespunkt@gmail.com.

Erin Hoffman Interview: “Transition”

erin-hoffmanMichael: My brilliant friend Erin Hoffman has ideas spilling out her ears and plates spinning from here to the next century. To celebrate the occasion of publishing her poem, “Transition”, in Reckoning 1, I managed to corner her to ask how she might envision a community forming around Reckoning not just to foster new ideas and beautiful art on the subject of environmental justice, but to be some actual change in the world. Here’s just a bit of what she sent me.

Erin: I love the magazine itself and the fact that it exists. We pan-seared some mushrooms in honor of the Reckoning launch, local chanterelles and oysters. Maybe that should be your launch event—have people cook local flora dinners and message you pics.

Michael: I love this idea!

Erin: What I think would be really cool is if the readers and writers for the magazine could become some kind of genuine community that could share information on what can actually be done, re the activism side of the magazine. I feel like it’s beneficial to me to even just keep hearing about your work in permaculture . . . keeps me thinking about these things.

Michael: (Makes note to ramble about permaculture here at some point. We’ll get to that. We’ll get to all of it.)

Erin: I have this idea about trying to promote backyard farming here in Palo Alto. We have a vegetable garden and because of the idiosyncrasies of where the sun is it happens to be in our front yard. Results in a lot of commentary from neighbors, which is surprising to me because these gardens are not uncommon—we have the most active garden in our cul de sac, and probably only 1 in 15 houses has one that we can see. Anyway . . . their interest was interesting to me, and I thought it would be interesting to try to make growing food more accessible. I was inspired by this segment of the TED radio hour on giving (there was also a whole “the food we eat” show that was great). What I’m messing with is this idea of just telling people to grow one thing . . . and then keeping a community map of gardens where people can share vegetables. So I might decide I’m just going to specialize in asparagus, so I’ll build a planter and just fill it with asparagus and people can come and take it. I might put out recipes in a box alongside the planter. The funny thing about this is that I don’t even think it’s easier to grow one thing than twelve things, but I think people don’t know that. They think growing food is hard. If they had a community purpose around it I wonder if a lot more of them might do it, and then it might also result in actually talking to your neighbors, which would be a nice thing around here.

Anyway, that’s a wild digression. But I do wish I had a community to talk about these ideas with, and it seems like Reckoning might be that place, if it were a place. OH MAN I COULD SET UP A MUD. ReckoningMUD? 😉

Michael: (Laughing.) I am not promising a MUD . . . but a community? I really want something like that. The magazine showcases only one facet of the brilliance and unique thinking of all these authors and artists. That one facet makes me want to see more. It makes me wonder what they could do and make and change if they came together.

Read “Transition” in Reckoning 1.