getting paid to be politcal

Today I  got paid to stand on top of a mountain as wind whipped around me, feet planted wide apart in the snow, head tilted back, belaying children as they scaled a 30 foot ropes course element.

Today I got paid to check harnesses, tie knots, and grip rope until I could barely make a fist my hands were so cold.

Today I got paid to encourage and cajole.

Today I when I glanced up the mountains were stained brilliant red and pink by the sunset.

Today was good.  Today I shoveled snow and learned children’s names.

Today I got paid to be outside with young people.

Writer Terry Tempest Williams says that a shared love of nature is the most political act of all (Williams 80).  Walking back from the ropes course, our legs stiff from standing and climbing in the cold I glanced back to see the sky bright and clear with sunset.

“Stop!”  I yelled.  “Turn around and say ‘hey that’s beautiful.'”

“Hey!  That’s beautiful!”  Fourteen 6th graders from the Inland Empire of Southern California chorused, voices clear in the evening light, faces scrubbed clean by wind and snow, eyes bright with laughter and sunlight.

Today I shared challenge and a love of nature–I didn’t need to say much today but when I did say was political.

Works Cited

Tempest Williams, Terry. When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice. New York: Sarah Critchton, 2012. Print.

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alternatives

Arms leaning against the lunch table he asks me about the pin on my backpack that says ‘No Toxic Tar Sands.’  I tell him that I am involved in activism geared towards halting the construction and operation of the South Arm of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project that if completed will pump toxic tar sands oils from the boreal forests of Alberta Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  Between bites of food he questions and I explain.  He is curious, sympathetic, and slightly disappointed when I say that, although I know many who have, I have yet to lock myself to the machinery that is driving this project.

“This project is wrong.  It doesn’t make sense economically, socially, or environmentally.”  I say.

“Ok.”  He says.  “Then why is it happening?”

Stumbling over my words I try to convey that companies like TransCanada own big parts of the economic world, that global politics are driven by a culture of extraction that asks for more, more, more.  There is a lump in my throat as I push my words out, a worry that I will be unable to explain this most critical idea.

“Yeah, yeah, I understand that.”  He says.  “But why is it happening if it doesn’t make sense?  What is the alternative?”

“I don’t know.”  I say.  “But I know this project is wrong.  I know that tar sands are wrong.”

I have been asked this question many times–what is the alternative.  It is meant different ways.  Sometimes  it is an attack, a way of proving that I am ‘wrong’, idealistic, unrealistic.  Sometimes it is said with puzzled confusion, a way of expressing the complications of our culture.  Sometimes it is asked as an intellectual query, a way of inciting a pragmatic conversation about the moral implications of activism, environmentalism, and the ‘reality’ of living in a modern world.

I do not particularly like this question but I have been thinking a lot about its answer and have come to this–there are times in life to simply stand up for what you feel is wrong.  Balanced intellectual discussion and consideration of the benefits of exploitation, extraction, and oppression has a place but it is not a reason to shy away from taking a stand.  This kind of discussion can be dangerously debilitating–all of the shades of grey, costs and benefits can prevent action and stifle voice.  There are many systems of oppression from which I benefit.  The ‘alternative’ might not be easy, it might not always feel good but it might offer justice where justice is not currently found.

Our world is getting hotter.  The very blood of our earth is being sucked dry, water and oil, earth and ice and ocean pulled roughly from her body.  Perhaps we do not have an easy one-size-fits-all alternative but perhaps it’s time to stop what we’re doing and see what rises out of the ashes.

A friend recently told me that she had had enough.

“What if this is it?”  She said.  “What if this is the time where we say–actually no, no you cannot do that.  Oil cannot flow through that pipeline.”

I don’t know why the pipeline is being built.  It doesn’t make sense to me economically, socially, or environmentally.  But I know it is wrong.  And I know that even without clear answers about alternatives, even in a world where I fly in planes and drive cars and write this on a computer, I feel it is important to say,

Actually no, no you cannot do that.  Oil cannot flow through that pipeline.

 

For more information on the work being done to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/.

a place for anger

When I was fifteen my dad was diagnosed with leukemia. In three or so years that followed I did everything I could to not pay attention to the fact that he was really sick.  Even more than pretending he wasn’t sick I did everything I could to ignore the other realities linked to his cancer: the link between leukemia and natural gas production, the very real possibility that all of our family had been exposed to petroleum products that would eventually make us sick, the terror of waking up to smell chemical smells when near by wells were fracked, the fact during the same years that I watched my father’s body become lean, tired, scabbed, and sore that the very earth around me was cracked open, split apart, scraped clean in the pursuit of energy extraction.

Last year for Christmas I collected many of the letters and cards that were sent to my dad during the years that cancer was roughly shaking his body and our lives and made these words and images into an art piece that I presented to him in a celebration of life and survival and the experience we’d gained.  At her permission I included the following words from my mother’s journal:

I need a place to put my sadness.

My freshman year of college, depression was the place that I put my sadness.  For weeks I poured my sadness out in the form of tears.  I remember lying in my bed crying and imagining that my sadness was a heavy black cloud that I would wrap around me so that I could stay there forever.  Being depressed was a cathartic, painful, and ultimately illuminating experience for me.  It forced me to begin to see and in that process to consider what implications the things I saw carried.  The summer after my freshman year three months leading wilderness trips for girls in the north Maine woods saved me from being stuck in the place where I put my sadness.  Time spent watching the moon, paddling wide lakes, singing until my throat was hoarse, and swimming in water that chased away my breath helped me to find my way out of the place where I had put my sadness.  That summer the woods, the moon, and many powerful women pulled at my arms, legs, and heart–reminding me of all the journeys I had yet to take.  From them I realized that the natural world was the place to put my sadness.  My small body was not always capable of holding all the pain I felt but the earth?  She could take it.  I could yell and cry and laugh and shake my fists and she could take it.  And so I came out of the woods that summer, knowing I needed to go outside–to find joy and to find a place to put my sadness.

I recently told a friend that I was scared of becoming too involved in environmental activism and engagement because I had a lot of anger about what is happening in the world.  I explained that I felt unable to engage in this kind of work because I had no outlet or means to disengage–the Keystone pipeline is connected petroleum, which is connected to natural gas, which is connected to my father’s cancer, which is connected to my depression, which is connected to the natural world, which is the place where I put my sadness and find my joy.  I did not want to be involved because it was painful and because I was pissed.  My friend didn’t push.  He simply said that he hoped I would look at my anger sometime because there might be a lot of power in it.

I need a place to put my anger.

At fifteen I was not ready to be angry.  I was too busy surviving and ignoring.  At eighteen I was not able to be angry.  I was too busy realizing that I was sad, wrapping myself in this and allowing the pain to catch up with me.  But now?  Now I am angry.  I am angry that my story is not unique, that we live in a world where many feel powerless to the whims of the energy industry and the bone jarring, gene altering impacts of cancer.  I am angry that as a culture we have become careless with life, with wild spaces, deep forests, children’s hands, and dark skies.

I need a place to put my anger.

It is not enough to give the earth my anger–although I know she could take it.  My anger is something to share, to give, to burn for light.  My anger is a story to tell.  My anger is not something to ‘do to’ someone.  It is not a weapon or a threat, not an unkind word or careless act.  My anger is more fierce than that, it will not be silent or put out.  My anger is word and action, it is resistance and solidarity.  I am realizing that instead of preventing engagement and environmental activism, my anger makes it necessary.  It is necessary because it is an outlet.  Through both my work as an outdoor educator and the words I write here I chose to engage, to speak up, and to allow my anger to have a voice.  It is necessary because it is a place to put my anger.

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I was given an image of a duck on a lake, floating calmly.  Suddenly a gust of wind blows and throws a branch from a nearby tree, causing a terrific smash and crash.  The duck ruffles her feathers, all anger and fear and business.  She quacks noisily, speaking her indignation in sound and feather.  And then.  Then she settles back down, allowing her anger to move out of her.  She again becomes part of the calm and quiet.  I want to be like that duck.  To be angry and loud, able to speak fully my fear and disgust and then to settle back into the calm.  In the calm I will return to the place where I put my sadness and found my joy and I will see the stars. 

and then.

When I ask why he is working on the pipeline–how he got involved in this issue–he looks confused. A few years older and taller than me, he is a member of Tar Sands Blockade, a direct action campaign that has converged upon East Texas with the intent of stopping the construction of the south arm of the Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline. We are sitting around a fire on a balmy East Texas night. Wind whispers with the promise of rain and a shift in temperature but for now the air is damp and warm. Turning to hear his answer, I watch fire light bend across his face, softening edges and smoothing spaces.

“What–you mean climate change? Why do I care about climate change?”
“Sure.” I say. And he tells me.

His first year of college the war was starting and he was involved in activism to stop it. They were so passionate, so involved. They were going to stop the war. He looks me full in the eyes as he says this–the depth of his gaze conveying that no matter how idealistic this might seem now, there was clear intention and belief at the time that the war could, and would, be stopped.

They were going to stop the war. And then.

When they didn’t stop the war he vowed that the next time he would be ready–they would be ready– and another war wouldn’t start. He says that for him it is all about preventing militarization and the brutality that goes with it. He says that this drives him.

They were going to stop the war. And then.

And so, in the time after the war had started–when they hadn’t stopped it– he started learning about war and why wars start, what places that have war have in common. And he found that it was oil. In that time he found that somehow this whole crazy mess had become attached to oil and that this was why there was militarization, that this is what he would have to fight if he wanted to prevent war.

They were going to stop the war. And then.

So for him working to stop the pipeline is about climate change. Because climate change is about oil. And oil is about war. And war is about brutality and militarization and he wants to do everything he can to stop wars from coming.

They were going to stop the war. And then.

As he finishes speaking the fire spits and hisses and the wind shifts. Instead of being freckled with hazy stars the sky now swirls with wind, clouds, and rain. As we get up from the fire, bowing our heads against the wind and pulling on jackets, I pause–taking a moment to tuck his story away, taking a moment to collect myself, to make sure that as I leave this place I take it all with me. As we hurry from the fire, racing the rain, I turn to him,

“I like that.” I say. “Thanks for sharing your story.”
And then.
The sky lights up and the rain starts.

On the morning of every single new years eve of my life I have had the opportunity to participate in a world peace meditation. On this day, at six am central time, people from all over the world gather to send thought and intention believing that world peace is possible. This practice marks and numbers the years of my life. I remember the year that the war started, the years that I slept at my mama’s feet, the years that we watched the sun rise from the porch.

Every year we are going to stop the war. And then.

And then we spend a year living our lives. Waking up, eating, sleeping, laughing, traveling, crying, working, fighting, we spend a year living in a way that we believe will promote and create peace. And on new years eve morning we wake up at six am and we believe, even though the newspapers and our president and our ego tell us not to, that world peace is possible.

On new years eve morning 2012 I am thinking about the Keystone XL pipeline. I am thinking about whether or not I believe we can stop it. I am thinking about militarization and climate change and brutality and why we fight for what we believe.

And then.

And then I realize that I believe that world peace is possible because I want to stop this pipeline and this pipeline is connected to oil and oil is connected to war and war is connected to militarization and sometimes it seems like this old world is a crazy mess. On new years eve morning 2012 I believe world peace is possible because I am involved and want to stop the Keystone pipeline.

We are going to stop war.  And then.  When we do that–we will stop the pipeline.

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For more information on the Tar Sands Blockade and the work being done to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline visit http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/.

don’t forget

The stars are sharp in the sky above us. Sharper still, mountain air cuts tightly into our cheeks. Hands pressed in pockets, shoulders slumped against the cold, we walk closely together, bumping into each other as our words are scratched at by winter air. With wind chill it is -10 degrees on the mountain tonight–easily the coldest temperatures my freckled Texas cheeks have ever felt.

I am walking to dinner with two fifth grade girls who are spending the week at the outdoor education center where I work. In giggling, interrupting bursts they are telling me about their first day on the mountain. It has been an extremely cold first day, so tales of archery, outdoor skills, and team building are all tempered by the experience of keeping hands and feet, legs and shoulders from icing over.

“During Archery today I thought I was going to die.” One girl tells me, tugging on my arm to emphasize her point. “It was so cold. I seriously thought I was going to die.”

“Woah look at that moon.” I interrupt. I am a moon lady. I see, and notice, and love the moon. We stop to look up, and, before we are bumped from behind by the people following us to dinner, we are momentarily suspended with heads tilted back, gazing at the sky. She is a waxing crescent, a tiny bright sliver with a full outline on the other side. Recently I was told that when the moon is a crescent like this, with the perfect line outlining on the other side, that this is when the new moon is being cradled in the old moon’s arms.

Pushed along by the people behind us we continue towards dinner.
“Today has been fun but is it going to be this cold all week? If it is I might die.” Says the first girl.
“You know,” says the second girl. “I think you have to be careful that you don’t forget.”
“Forget what?” I ask.
“Forget to notice when it’s cold.” She says.

When I look at her she is gazing up at the moon, her eyes tracing over stars. Face framed by hats, hoods, and scarves she is cocooned from the cold and in this one moment she gets it. In this one moment this one child is teaching the lesson that we as educators try so hard to convey.

“I mean it’s so beautiful here. It’s not just cold.”

She is right. It is not just cold. It is also dark. And the old moon is being cradled in the new moon’s arms.

Don’t forget.

untold

Maya Angelou, a wise woman with whom I share a name, said that

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

When I was born it was seven degrees in Texas.  When I was growing up we lived off the grid.  When I was seven I learned that people believe in hell.  When I was ten Exxon put a pipeline down our road.  When I was fifteen my dad was diagnosed with leukemia.  When I was sixteen the fumes and smells of fracking made the outside world seem less safe than it ever had before.  When I was eighteen I was depressed because I didn’t know I needed to go outside.  When I was nineteen I remembered that I loved the moon.  When I was twenty-one I learned that rural community in Arkansas was being impacted by natural gas production.  When I was twenty-two I learned that people will tell you anything if you ask and that I was much stronger than I had previously thought.  When I was twenty-two and one half my eyes were changed.

These are stories that I carry.  At times they well up in my throat and when I am brave they spill out like birds that scatter in the wind.  I have kept journals for most of my life, filling pages with whispers and worries and wishes in the form of words.  These journals line several shelves in my room, holding a space for the journeys I have traveled.  Once or twice a year, back in my parent’s house, I riffle through them, thinking of who I’ve been and wanted to be.  These journals are, however, largely an act of conversation with self and, even as I write my story, the ‘agony’ remains within.  My journals are untold stories inside me.

My Grandmother is ninety-two.  I recently was given all of her journals.  Skimming their pages I am aware that much of her life has been an untold story.  The agony of her words makes this clear.  I do not want to spend the next sixty-nine years of my life using my journals to have a conversation with myself about my untold story.

This project is an attempt to alleviate the ‘agony’.  A friend recently told me, “if you want to be heard where you are, be heard.”  I want to be heard.

When I was born it was the winter solstice.  When I was seven I dropped the tip of a pencil down our well and spent months worrying I had lead poisoned my family.  When I was sixteen I had my first kiss.  When I was nineteen I ‘dropped out’ of school.  When I was twenty-one I watched a lunar eclipse on my birthday.  When I was twenty-three I the Keystone Pipeline carved a red scar through my community.  And.

I began to tell my story.