Sunday, September 26, 2010

Books that are shaking me down

I currently have three jobs (mothering, painting, and a night-time gig waitressing) and a million things to do on my list that simply go undone..... ugh. I start to sweat just thinking about it all. But you get the picture...

So: I have had to sacrifice one of my great pleasures in my life, which is reading, because I have an addictive nature when it comes to reading and will stay up all night with a gripping plotline. Such excesses are obviously unsustainable and laughingly self-indulgent and so I have quit, cold turkey, like a recovering alcoholic. 

But...... the other day, at the downtown library with my beloved Sava (we have re-initiated our Wednesday morning storytime ritual), a book called out to me from their Recent Additions shelf. "Eaarth", by Bill Mckibben. "What a strange title," I mused as I picked it up and checked it out on a whim.  Flash forward two weeks, and you find me a slightly shattered, altered person. Which is one of the wonderful things about books: their ability to infiltrate and rearrange the reader. But I digress...

Okay. So I don't know maybe I have been living under a rock the past few years but I had NO IDEA that things had been getting so progressively snowballingly worse for our planet and our climate, even since just 2007. I am embarrassed, because I am supposed to be an environmentalist and all, and I know I have been busy, but I didn't even really register the great debacle which was the Copenhagen convention of 2009, where the leaders of our nations met and failed to come to any type of agreement on how we were to all globally unify to dramatically curtail the warming of the globe.

So.... I read this book, Eaarth, and felt like I was sucker punched in the gut. Alternating waves of nausea, of hopelessness, and utter despair. Because he says, and this seems crazy to repeat, because I am ever the eternal optimist, that we have lost the fight. The planet is irrevocably altered, already. We have so much CO2 in the atmosphere that there is no real way to halt the process, and we look to a future of radical warming, desertification, water loss, famine and pestilence. We have already gone past the point of no return, and now we just have to figure out how to live on a dramatically altered planet. This means, for my daughter, that in her lifetime she will see her (mostly) green, verdant and lovely planet changed beyond recognition.

I cannot accept this. In my cells I cannot accept this. And yet I believe him. I think he is right. I grew up under the shadow of the fear of nuclear war, with a mother who fought for policy change and peace... but this is something different. This is.....

Like, what do you do with this information? What is the point of anything we do? Why go into my studio and paint silly, beautiful works of art that won't affect any type of real change? They are artifacts. If I am honest with myself, in my best moments I create only material goods, to hang on the walls of the privileged few who can afford them. That night I went to work at the restaurant and wove in and out of table in a state of mindless despair and utter exhaustion. All sense of purpose emptied out of my life. What is the point of doing anything if it is not ACTIVE, DIRECT engagement in policy change and technological solutions? But I am not political. And I am not a scientist. I am an artist and I love people and I love creating objects of beauty and I want to live in a soft green world and give that same opportunity to my daughter who I so fiercely love and want to defend.

You know the killing thing for me in all this? It is that I believe that humanity has received most of its good qualities from direct engagement with nature. That we are uplifted by our encounters with butterflies and thrumming honey bees: restored by our wanderings into forests. Our prophets come from the Wild. That our great metaphysical traditions evolved out of our relationships with the Great Beingness which is the interconnected life force of our vital, breathing planet. Okay... so a hurricane wipes out an entire village, and there is great suffering and loss and it is horrible. I am sad.. I grieve for their loss. But I am comforted to know that the natural world still surrounds the pain and will eventually heal those involved. What happens if our planet starts to look more and more like Mars?  Will we, as a people, become more war-like and less humanitarian? I mean, obviously there will be more wars, over the dwindling reserves of our planet... and less money and support to help those victims of local disasters.......but will we start to reflect the pestilence in our own souls even more? I am afraid of this. I believe in the essential goodness of people and I love this soft green planet so fiercely. It seems impossible that it is so very sick right now.

So what do we do? I have the good fortune of knowing a wise and gentle friend who has been battling these same issues for some time now, Justin Van Kleek, (who lent me the book Twelve by Twelve) and he came over to share some tea and talk with me. He is an activist, a vegan and committed localvore, and he doesn't really hold any hope for the future, but we had some relevatory talks that helped me to process it all. I won't go into all the details of our conversation, as this is already an absurdly long post, but I will touch on some salient points. Basically, we returned again and again to certain Buddhist ideas. One is: there is no hope. But, without hope, you commit yourself to working towards the change you wish to see in the world. We kept coming back to verse 29 of the Tao Te Ching:

"Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it."

And the bodhisattva vow: which completely distills this essence of hopeless action:
"Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all"

So.... this current world is perfect. My aching, grieving love for this green planet is a form of grasping, and thus I have already lost it. I am meant to understand that the environmental disaster is also perfect, in its own way. We are not meant to save the world... we cannot save something which is perfect. What a strange, holy thought. I feel at the precipice of some great change: to fall into despair or into an altered and more clear state of being.

Justin caught me using the word "should" a lot in our conversation. As in: "I shouldn't be painting: I should be working in politics, fighting for real change", and he told me that for him, once the word "should" enters the mind, it is like a death. That "should" breeds a force of misanthropic do-gooders, civil fighters that burn out during their attempts to save the world, rather than true warriors who are acting from a place of clarity and love, and renewing energy. The antidote to exhaustion is whole-heartedness. The antidote to the horror of hopelessness, is small and loving action. So, Justin implored me, (and I paraphrase)  "Do not give up painting and creating works of beauty. You talk about how buoyed you are by nature.. what makes you think you are not nature? Not a part of that same nature, and that your artwork is not as transcendent or uplifting as a tree?"  (Side note: in his own way,  Jamba is always talking about this. I cherish, say, a dragonfly humming around the garden and chatter excitedly to Sava about it, and a minute later I am smashing flies in the kitchen with a fly swatter. "Your mommy is practicing aesthetics right now," he will croon to her.)

What profound thoughts. How lucky am I, to have such loving friends to help guide me in this life. So, what next. I think I would like to act. I want to try to minimize my impact, and so I vow to reduce my own carbon imprint. I am going to commit even more to a localvore, and organic diet. Continue going to my lovely farmers market. I am going to try to be more successful and profitable in my artwork, so that I have more money to give to organizations that are creating and imagining a new world. I am going to start planting trees, and I am going to use my beautiful network of loving and amazing friends (YOU) to try to help spread the word. I implore you the read the book "Eaarth" if you haven't already, and take some time to digest the information in there. I think we all need time to prepare and adjust ourselves.

Next book on my list: Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken. I just read his article "Ecologist" in an anthology called A Passion for this Earth. He is talking about the millions of organizations that have sprung up in response to our humanitarian and environmental crisis, and likens their dispersed, decentralized formation to our own bodies' immune system. It is a fascinating thought, and I want to read more. But here is a quote from his article that I will leave you with; it is by David James Duncan:

"When small things are done with love it's not a flawed you or me who does them: it's love. I have no faith in any political party, left, right, or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist in these strange times is by giving little or no thought to 'great things' such as saving the planet, acheiveing world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Whereas small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach."

and now, I am going to go paint.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, Erin. Your sincerity is palpable here, and it is really inspiring.