Facing the Change


I’ve never put off writing an essay like I’ve put off this one.  Is it because I think it has to be positive and graceful…..like growing old gracefully?  And, what about this time in my life when I am facing accelerated changes on the planet and in my own body?  Menopause and global warming fears are a strange mix.  Some days I do not face either one very gracefully.  They both feel unfamiliar and vulnerable.


About 10 years ago I was sitting next to a man reading the Wallstreet Journal.  A headline caught my attention and I asked him if I could just read that article.  The article was written by a scientist saying that global warming was a myth and not based on any scientific evidence.  I was on my way to a conference to lead a workshop on taking personal responsibility for the fate of the planet and all life on it.  The basic premise of the workshop was helping people define who and what they care about deeply and examining their own lifestyle choices to see if those choices reflect that caring. 

I thought about the article and how it might effect the workshop I was about to lead.  I myself believed and still believe that global warming was and is a reality. 

And, does it really matter if it is or is not a reality?  Would it hurt to live as if it were a reality?  Someone sent me a great cartoon that shows a couple of characters who are living in the future.  They tell about all the things they changed in their lives because they were told about global warming years earlier.  They drove less, consumed fewer goods, and stopped eating animal products.  They got healthy from all the biking and walking and good food.  Their communities and the earth got healthier.  They turn toward each other at the end of the cartoon after they’d found out that global warming had been a myth and said, “There was no global warming after all….all those changes we made were for nothing!”


When people find out they are going to die from some terminal illness, they often live their life with a sudden attention to what really matters.  What if they do this and then find out that they are not going to die as soon as they expected?  Would it be a waste to live our lives with attention to what really matters even if there is not a looming threat?  What have we got to lose? 


When I look around at the planet, I feel like I am watching the majority of our species choose a slow suicide.  Like a self inflicted terminal illness.


I lead workshops on Despair Repair because I am well aware of the overwhelming feelings that come from looking into the dark corners of the planet. Despair follows me uninvited and can jump out and overtake me without warning.  There are times I wish I had never learned about the harsh realities of the suffering humans are causing. I wish I had never looked. I could be one of those blissfully ignorant people driving around in their hummer and working at a job with big bucks and benefits.  I could be one of the people who buy a product and do not think about what it took to create it and what will happen to it when it is disposed of.  I could be the smiling person who fills her grocery cart without ever reading a label. 


About a month ago I was sitting on a little airplane flying back to my home town.  I had just experienced four days of seeing the intense suffering of others (human and non-human).  I was with some of the most well educated people on the planet who have chosen to not act personally on what they know or to make even the most basic changes in their lifestyle.  I kept thinking “If THESE people don’t want to make the changes, how do I expect those who don’t HAVE the information to act?”  In my exhausted state of hopelessness, I was wishing the shaky little plane would just crash so I would not have to witness more of the dark corners of the planet.  Then as quickly as that thought came to me, I realized that when I am gone, the suffering will still be going on.  At that moment I could see how selfish it is to not be willing to witness it or continue to do what I could to alleviate at least some of the suffering.  I decided, once again, that if I can help even one being have a better life in the time I have left on the planet, it is worth it to do what I can.


My partner and I chose where to live based on wanting to lighten our environmental footprint. We thought we gave it plenty of thought and research.  We trusted our choice enough to build a house here.  We wanted to grow our own food and bike year-round, and live around a fairly open minded community.  We chose a university town because we are both activists and lead programs at the campus.  What we could not foresee, was the drought that has been hanging over us like a visitor who won’t leave for the past year and a half.  Our water collection tanks are empty and our garden plants are thirsty and many are dying in the hundred degree temperatures that came two months earlier than usual.  We have put so much work into transforming these gardens from clay soil covered in poison ivy to rich soil flowing with vegetables and flowers.  The lakes in the area are already warmer than bath water and it is only spring.  The rivers and creeks are so low that we can walk on them like trails.  We are questioning our decision to move here and build this home.  I want to trust that everything will be ok.  But I lie awake at night thinking about if we should sell our house and move quickly and where we could go. 


I take breaks from my work and franticly search the internet for the best places to be living when the global warming clock strikes midnight.  And how will we know when the clock is going to strike?  It could be tomorrow or it could be after I am long gone from the planet. Is it one minute to midnight or one year to midnight? 


I would like to react to it all as other species do.  They are not watching the news and fretting.  They are migrating to where there is water and the other things they need for survival.  The birds are plentiful around our house.  They are still singing.  Not a lot seems to have changed for them.  Some days I feel such joy at the natural beauty in our own backyard. The male cardinal feeding his mate, the fox moving across the path, the bat hunting in the sky above the house, the owls who wake us each night talking tree to tree.  Some days, I look at the same beauty and cry because I do not know how to get people to be so aware of it and so grateful for it that they will do anything to protect it.  I want to work tirelessly to educate people about what they can do to turn it all around.  And, on the other hand, I think it is too late.  It has gone too far already.  If by some miracle, we all would choose to make the necessary changes, the earth has already taken too many hits.  The species who are gone are gone. 


It is actually harder to write about how my life is affected by this than I realized it would be.  I hear myself sounding as confused as I am.  I hear the strange mix of cheerleader (“come on everyone, we can do it!”) and hopeless wet blanket pessimist.  If it is true that our thoughts create reality, I am creating more chaos.  I am not sending out any clear message to the universe about the world I think is possible to create.  I eat my organic salads so I will live healthy and long and at the same time I wish the humans would go extinct….. soon. 


My partner and I communicate regularly with others who are looking for home.  It is like a home search epidemic.  Like animals in a fire trying to figure out which direction they can go without burning, we are looking for a place to hunker down while our home seems about to go up in flames.  I want to surround myself with the people I love who are like minded and who feed my spirit.  I want to be in the places that are filled with the beauty of what is left of the natural world.  And sometimes, I just want to meditate for the rest of my life without a worry about what to do or where to be.  Sit right there on that meditation cushion paying attention to my respiration…. not craving anything or fearing anything.  No future, no past.  Just right now.  This is what I think other species know naturally.  My rescued dogs and rabbits could be meditation teachers.  It is unsettling to want to act to make a difference and to not think that it is really possible to turn things around.  To want to put every ounce of my energy into something I am hoping is just an illusion. 


The guy who wrote the article for the Wallstreet Journal about the myth of global warming would probably say I am being dramatic and over-reacting about nothing.  I hope he is right.  But what if he is not?  What if the direction things are going is as bad as it seems?


I was eating a banana today and thinking about how we are going to have to adjust our lives.  Shipped food and air travel may well become a thing of the past.  What will life be like with only local food?  Will my friends in Maine live on stored apples, leeks, potatoes and cabbage in the winter?  Will I learn to live without olive oil? 

I was walking on a logging road this week and saw a single wild strawberry, ripe and ready to eat.  I picked it like a precious little jewel and put it in my mouth.  The flavor was concentrated and divine.  Nothing like the cultivated varieties. This one little strawberry was more satisfying than a full basket of the giant ones shipped from corporate farms in California.  Will our new lives be like this?  Will we learn to live with fewer choices and quality over quantity?  American tastes have gotten used to quantity and looks over quality.  We are used to many choices. 


My British friend Michelle was visiting and as I asked if she wanted tea, I opened up my giant tea cupboard filled with about 60 kinds of black and herbal tea.  She shouted at me “You damn Americans and all your choices….I just want TEA!”  We laughed at her dramatic scene over my tea cupboard, but I also knew she was right.  We are so spoiled. 


My mind spins all over the place thinking about the choices we have.  I think it will be good for us to have to simplify our lives and I am scared about what I might have to give up.  I have a book called Material World.  It shows families from various countries posed outside their home with all their possessions.  They are interviewed about what they value the most.  What is striking in the book is that the families with very little in the way of material goods seem the happiest.  A large Asian family lists their one bicycle as their most prized possession.  We have two people in our house and about 7 bicycles in our shed.  Most of the bikes were found or purchased for next to nothing. We are not even close to wealthy by American standards and are still surrounded by things we don’t really need to survive. 


When I am backpacking, I am happiest.  Everything I need is on my back.  I wonder what all that stuff is back home and why I think I need it. 


A part of me looks forward to the big changes ahead.  I look forward to people having to simplify and work together.  I want to be an optimist.  I want to say that we will easily flow into the next phase of life on earth.  But I find it hard to imagine.  The transition is most likely going to be a rough ride.  It feels like a miracle when any two people can get along, let alone whole communities learning to work together.  But it happens.  I have seen people come together in ice storms to help each other and open their homes to whole busloads of children staying in their tiny farm houses when stranded.  We cannot expect the government or supposed experts to take care of us in a crisis.  We will have to learn to work together. 


When rats in a study were given the choice of eating junk food or healthy fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they chose the healthy options every time.  When primates in a study were given food at the expense of another primate being tortured, they refused the food.  Other species choose life and cooperate for their survival and often show compassion for their own and other species by risking their own lives to save them.  Most humans have not figured out these basic skills.  We are surrounded by the best teachers for how to live on the planet.  One of my greatest hopes is that we will begin to respect these non-human teachers and learn from them.  Another big hope is that I will not forget about laughter and joy and dancing while keeping my eyes open to what is happening on this incredible spinning earth…..that I will keep my heart open to loving and happiness even when the despair monster is breathing down my neck.