An atmospheric river was predicted in the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday. So I was doubtful I would even make it over to the East Bay for the four-hour introductory session of the Women’s Climate Group, eight females who had signed up to participate in a twelve-week exploration and search for resolution around climate collapse. But the morning’s forecast showed showers throughout the day and so I arrived, dressed nonetheless in some serious raingear, on a quiet residential street in Berkeley at 9:45 with a sachel containing my favorite black leather journal, a fossilized flower for the altar, and some plain yogurt with muesli for snack time. I was the first to arrive and was nearly overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of a precious 9-month-old black and white Husky/Cattledog puppy who joyously honed in on the everpresent dog treats in my fleece pockets.
By 10:05, we were all seated in a circle in the living room, introducing ourselves and giving brief overviews of what had brought us to the group. We all agreed the group provided us with the opportunity to share our fears, despair, anger, numbness, loneliness, and anxiety over the climate catastrophe.
I was a generation older than the other women in the group, many of whom had not yet been born or were probably preschoolers when James Hansen spoke before Congress in 1988 about the role carbon and other greenhouse gasses were having on global warming trends. But I had known about global warming at least five years before. My husband and I were lounging over Bloody Mary’s on the sun-bleached patio at a friend’s house in Novato, CA, when her husband started telling us about the glaciers melting and sea level rise and the warming climate. And that it was our lifestyles that were causing it. Naturally, it was terrifying but we remained sceptical. Until Hansen.
When it was my turn to present a three-minute introduction, I sifted through decades of experience to find the most relevant work to condense my background into a sound byte. I chose to mention my work for WiserEarth, the Global Call for Climate Action, and the Climate Action Network. I mentioned that I had attended several UN COPs and had been very active in organizing climate mobilizations, including the phenomenal People’s Climate March in 2014. I concluded by saying I felt emotionally and physically paralyzed by despair for the past few years. As though my legs had been cut off beneath the knee. That my activism had virtually ceased.
Throughout the four hours, we sometimes worked with partners, answering questions designed to give voice to our innermost feelings. There were tears, anger, some screaming behind pillows. There was an overall consensus that talking about our feelings surrounding climate change was not something we felt comfortable doing in our everyday lives, even with members of our immediate family, and that it was difficult even to find a lexicon to discuss it. We were all aghast as we watched the power of denial as people continued on with their life choices as if nothing was wrong. Many of us expressed shame that we were not confrontational enough, not doing enough.
The majority of the women were not going to have children. I offered that my daughter and her partner to remain childless. I shared that my daughter was from their generation and said she had always felt that the survival of human life on the planet was not a given. I asked if others had felt that way. No one had; the realization of just how frail our hope for survival is had come to them over time.
One of the most poignant parts of the day was when we took part in a Joanna Macy-inspired ritual, The Truth Mandala. (It is interesting to note that Macy first wrote about this ritual in 1998.)
This ritual exercise provides a simple, respectful, whole group structure for owning and honoring our pain for the world, and for recognizing its authority and the solidarity it can bring. The practice emerged in 1992 amidst a large, tension-filled workshop in Frankfurt, on the day of reunification between East and West Germany; since then it has spread to many lands. To many participants it has been the most significant experience in a workshop, if not in their lives.
People sit in a circle. They sit as closely-packed as possible for they are, as we often put it, creating a containment vessel - or an alchemical vessel for holding and cooking the truth. The circle they enclose is divided into four quadrants (visible demarcations are not needed), and in each quadrant is placed a symbolic object: a stone, dead leaves, a thick stick, and an empty bowl. Entering each quadrant, the guide holds the object it contains and explains its meaning. Here are some words we use.
"This stone is for fear. It's how our heart feels when we're afraid: tight, contracted, hard. In this quadrant we can speak our fear."
"These dry leaves represent our sorrow, our grief. There is great sadness within us for what we see happening to our world, our lives, and for what is passing from us, day to day."
"This stick is for our anger. For there is anger and outrage in us that needs to be spoken for clarity of mind and purpose. This stick is not for hitting with or waving around, but for grasping hard with both hands - it's strong enough tor that."
"And in this fourth quadrant, this empty bowl stands for our sense of deprivation and need, our hunger for what's missing.--our emptiness."
You may wonder where is hope? The very ground of this mandala is hope. If we didn't have hope, we wouldn't be here. And we will see as we proceed, how hope underlies what is expressed in each quadrant..
Just as I was leaving Saturday, some levity. I turned on my phone to a text from a friend who said he’d spent 2 ½ hours watching tennis with my dog, and that she was settled in with a kong after a walk in the rain. A text came in from my daughter, who is working in Nigeria, with pictures of a puppy left on her cousin’s doorstep. She might adopt it when she gets home. Rescuing is okay. Rescuing is what we have to do.
There was a soft rain falling. Some blue sky poked through the cloud cover over the Berkeley hills.
Inside, my soul was keening but yet I felt numb as I listened to my GPS-guided trip home to the North Bay. I drove back over the Richmond Bay Bridge, recalling the time back in 2007 when my car had run out of gas on the bridge en route to hearing Senator Barack Obama speak in Oakland. Oh, the hope and excitement of those days! Now, I was heading in the opposite direction, back to a reality in which most of us acknowledge that things just aren’t right with the world right now. But we center our discontent on politics and the cost of living and when we do talk about climate we are talking about usually lamenting extreme weather, not touching on what this portends for the future. I don’t recall anyone admitting just how frightened they are, how powerless they feel, how angry.
Perhaps there is a deep need for a collective keening about climate collapse. Perhaps words will never be able to convey the intensity of the existential threat of mass extinction, the horror we will undoubtedly experience as we continue to observe systems breaking and collapsing. Keening is a primal sound, usually made in response to a death. It is universal, involuntary, associated with profound grief.
And that is what we are experiencing right now, no matter how much we try to divert our attention to other things, this IS the issue of our time. The only issue that ultimately matters.
The group continues with virtual weekly evening sessions for the next three months, with topics ranging from “Where Climate Change Lives in Our Bodies to Ecopsychology and Creativity as Radical Action. It concludes April 13 with another in-person 4-hour session in Berkeley. If the weather permits, we are heading out together to one of the large nature sanctuaries in the hills.
Kitchen Table Kibitzing is a community series for those who wish to share a virtual kitchen table with other readers of Daily Kos who aren’t throwing pies at one another. Drop by to talk about music, your weather, your garden, or what you cooked for supper…. Newcomers may notice that many who post in this series already know one another to some degree, but we welcome guests at our kitchen table and hope to make some new friends as well.