Stories and Bodies and Stirrings from Paris

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“The world has a mortal fever. I am a witness to this sickness.” –Inuit hunter, Greenland

There is the story and there is the body. The body is where we feel things. The body takes in the information and records it as sensation and responds with an action—a smile, tears, a handshake, a standing up, a sitting down, a refusal, and acceptance.

In Paris, I’ve been hearing the stories and seeing the bodies and feeling the feelings and recording the reactions.

The artist Mel Chin came to Paris to make a film “The Arctic Is Paris” about an elite subsistence Inuit hunter from Greenland who wakes up on his dog-less dogsled in the middle of the city. I heard Chin speak about the film-in-progress (and saw excerpts) at the Gaite L’yrique, a theater not far from La Republique and the headquarters ArtCOP21.

In the film, the hunter wanders the streets pulling the sled himself (reminding me of the Greenpeace/Radiohead project with the polar bear in London) until he sees a French standard poodle and soon falls into a dream in which a team of poodles helps pull him. The dream sequence Chin showed was funny and poignant and sad and adaptive and provocative and funny again.

The film project was truncated by the Nov. 13 attacks, Chin explained, but Chin turned the camera on the “atmosphere of emergency,” and started to work on story about the link between climate change and global terror. “Dreams are crushed on a daily basis,” Chin said. “But new dreams are made.” This is the kind of artist resiliency I love.

After Chin’s presentation, two subsistence hunters from Greenland Jens Danielsen (who is featured in Chin’s film) and Mamarut Kristiansen were invited to the front of the room, where they sat on Chin’s movie sled, sandwiching their interpreter. Thick, stoic men, they wore shiny blue tops and shorn short hair.

“We can no longer read the signs,” Jens said.

We look out the window in the morning for the weather. Our ancestors taught us how to read the sky, the clouds to predict the weather because of changes to the ice. The tracks we used to use are no longer there. We can’t go as far as we used to. In early 90s we hunted and fished in the sea ice. We would drill down 2 meters. Not this way today. These years the thickest is less than 1 meter. Scientists come and tell us what is happening, and some say no it isn’t happening. It’s hard to be in the middle. But we are the ones who see the changes and live under them.

“I have an opinion,” he said. “Our ancestors never experienced this rapid change. It’s us, people, making the pollution. The use of oil and powering things we use is polluting our world.”

He sat still as he spoke, stoic. Like a block of ice.

“Our biggest challenge is when darkness comes. Ice used to come two months earlier, in October. We can’t go out hunting or by boat now because the ice comes in darkness. This is the hardest period of our lives.”

The hunter holds the microphone and says these words and does not move his body very much. I imagine him standing at his window far to the north looking at the sky. I imagine the movement inside him as he searches for the signs and does not find them. I feel the stirring inside myself.

This is what empathy feels like. To feel in myself on behalf of someone else. This body at the window, looking. This body with his dog bodies. The body moving across the snow. The body searching. These are bodies at the coastlines, bodies at the forest fires, bodies at the floods. These are the bodies gathering up the belongings. The bodies migrating. The bodies untethered. The bodies without belonging.

When you see people on the frontlines of climate change, you begin to really understand, if you didn’t before, how place is inextricably tied to culture. You begin to understand how there aren’t words for the things that are happening this, but that silence isn’t acceptable. You begin to feel the thing rise in you, like fire, like sea: an anger, a certainty, a resolve. You hope everyone around you feels it too.

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Theater as Sneak Preview, Paris COP21

12321473_10207324221397304_1019933800125326378_nEarlier this week I went to Montreuil, a neighborhood in eastern Paris, home to the 2-day People’s Climate Summit, an alternative to COP21 organized by Coalition Climat 21, a network of over 130 civil society organizations working to birth a social movement to address climate change. Also in Montreul was the Global Village of Alternatives, a festival of all the ways one can de-fossil fuel-ize their lives—gardening, compost toileting, beekeeping. The Summit’s main focus was on building momentum for a movement and to that end offered a seemingly endless number of talks and teach-ins every hour. I chose a conversation/panel about system change and walked away from the festival (and the ragtag but wonderful street parade, complete with trombones and drums) past the colorful cardboard arrows, through the neighborhood to a warehouse/concert.

The panelists, among them the former ambassador of Bolivia to the UN, Pablo Solón, Pat Roy Mooney of ETC Group, Cindy Weissner is National Coordinator for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Mary Lou Malig, Global Forest Coalition Campaigns Coordinator, and a delegate Peru representing campesinos. None were very optimistic about potential COP21 agreements. Solon stressed that with no text/language about leaving fossil fuels in the ground or about deforestation, there would be little change, as these as the two issues have pivotal impacts on developing nations. Together the panelists called for a cultural systemic shift, acknowledging that real change to climate policy and fossil fuel consumption will only come about once the masses demand it. So the mood was both dour and energizing, from one minute to the next. While I realize the importance of raging against the machine (believe me), I sometimes feel amidst activists that activists without something to rail against have is no raison d’être, so they have to keep railing and railing. That might be necessary. And it’s also exhausting. I get animated by possibility and conviction, and that was here too. But sometimes the proportions are off.

Next up, to my surprise and delight, was a mock trial facilitated by climate change journalist and activists Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein: Exxon vs. the People. In a brilliant display of meaningful theater–what Klein called a “sneak preview” of what’s to come–they called 10 witnesses to the stand, each of who gave personal testimony to the ways they’ve experienced or observed the impacts of climate change in their lives, work, or homes. Among them were poet/activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands, a young Sami woman from a reindeer herding family; Faith Gimmell from the Arctic Village in Alaska; Jason Box, a climatologist; Cindy Baxter, founder of ExxonSecrets.org; Ken Henshaw of Social Action Nigeria; Bryan Parras of T.E.J.A.S; Sandra Steingraber, writer and activist; Antonia Juhasz is an American oil and energy analyst, journalist, and activist; and others.

The strength of this trial—and its clear impact on audiences—was the first-person testimony. To hear person after person speak about climate change is touching down on his/her home landscape, impacting their lifeways and cultures, is incredibly moving. The Sami reindeer herder spoke of the loss of ice and reindeer. The Arctic Alaskan spoke of the excessive fires in her state last summer of the decline of salmon and caribou, and the toll of these losses on the mental health of indigenous communities. “When I say we subsist from the land, it’s not just food security, it’s about our culture, spirituality economy. It’s the very social fabric of our community. And when a community is stressed you see the devastating impacts.”

The Nigerian, Ken Henshaw, spoke of flooding and desertification that has left Nigerians desperate. Dead rivers and the loss of an entire farming season due to too much rain in the Niger delta. Lake Chad, a source of irrigation and of fish, has shrunk to half its size. People become destitute and desperate, he said. And in those conditions it is easy to recruit. “We trace directly the rise of Boko Haram to climate change.”

And then, there is benzene in the water: 900 times higher than the normal amount. The life expectancy in Ogoni land, he said, has decreased to between 43 and 50. “I am 39 years old,” Henshaw said. “I’m afraid. I drink that water. I’m really getting scared.”

Bryan Parras spoke of deteriorating human health in Exxon refineries in Houston, Texas (home state of Exxon) and high rates of cancer. “It’s no coincidence that we have the best cancer center in a state that also has an industry that operates much like cancer.”

The scientists and journalists said important things too, but it’s the first-person testimony that gets me. The ground truth. The ways climate change is disappearing landscape and culture. When I hear these stories and see the bodies of those telling them, I think: what is there to quibble about?

The people tell the story. The journalists tell the story. The story is already told. Exxon learned 1970s, thanks to their team of brilliant scientists, that burning fossil fuels increased greenhouse gas emissions, which contributed to warming temperatures. And then they began to cover up the facts. They began a campaign of silence. They hired experts from tobacco, skilled in silencing, to help them.

So McKibben and Klein and a team of witnesses take Exxon to task.

“Exxon maintained an architecture and ecosystem of denial, disinformation, and deception,” McKibben said.

“It is Exxon’s crime that says money trumps life,” said Klein. “So we do not seek that money. But we have a duty to seek justice.”

In the assembly hall, Exxon is indicted by the faux judges (one of them the actor Peter Sarsgaard).

While the crowd cheered and applauded, I was reminded about what Peter Sellars says about art-making: that artists have to make the thing visible before it becomes real. And so my conviction is that this important theater is indeed a sneak preview of what is to come.

I was also thinking about this amidst the cheers and the applause. We can take Exxon to task. And we must. And we must also acknowledge the ways we have benefitted from the acquisition of that oil, endlessly affordable, over the past 40 years. We are implicated. It’s uncomfortable. But from the discomfort, we too can shift.

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Duet with Melting Ice

 

The amazing Chip Thomas (Jetsonorama.net) filmed this for me and made this beautiful video.  I can’t get enough of the ice.

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Some Choreographies from Paris…

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(from Michael Pinsky’s “Breaking the Surface,” La Villette – Canal de l’Ourcq, Paris)

9 December 2015

COP21 takes place at a conference center in Le Bourget, north of Paris, about a 15-min metro ride from the apartment of my dear friend and host, Shannon Cain, in the 10th Arrondisment. Ten more minutes on a free shuttle and you arrive at a very official looking place, with large white signs and a grid of thick white pillars each decorated with a country flag. You need a badge to get into the official negotiators area, the “blue zone,” but the “green zone,” or the “Climate Generations” pavilion, is open to the public. A long tent constructed of particle board and god knows what else, it houses dozens of NGOs and non-profits and conference rooms, tables with pamphlets and expensively-printed posters and vinyl panels and compostable trash and flush toilets and photographs of glaciers and diagrams of technical solutions and indigenous people in traditional clothing and a lot of people on laptops on phones and scientists talking on screens and even, at one point, Al Gore, broadcast live from next door.

Early on I walked by a screen showing footage of the polar bear who keeps trying to find ice to stand on and keeps falling through. I stood there for a bit watching, feeling exasperated and anxious and helpless while someone next to me took a picture of the screen. Then I moved on and listened for a while to some young climate scientists talk about their bicycle trip from Antarctica to Paris (!)(www.PoletoParis.org) and then a bit later Al Gore up on the monitor said that in the last 40 years we’ve lost over half of the animals on the plant (not species, just individual animals) due to habitat loss and disaster.

There was a lot information to ingest (including nearly 10 seminar rooms with panels and discussions happening all day every day every hour), but I wasn’t much hungry for information because I was too busy feeling things. Eventually I found the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion and sat and watched movies made by Sami filmmakers. The Sami are indigenous to northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. I didn’t know anything about the Sami until a few days ago, when a young Sami woman testified against Exxon at a mock trial held by Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein (brilliant!) speaking about her people’s relationship with the reindeer. Among other changes, warming temperatures have caused ice melt along travelways both reindeer and Sami people need to hunt and survive. Whole herds have fallen through the ice. So have people. Also, rain frozen on the surface of the snow prevents the reindeer from smelling food underneath, so they starve. And that’s problematic for the people who depend on them.

The short films showed vast and beautiful northern Scandinavian landscapes, big skies, blue mountains, stretches of green and yellow scrub, snow, water. The two I saw were both by women. (Yay!) Elle Maria Eira’s film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akeu6WV_WxQ#action=share) was about a young Sami girl whose village is visited by oppressive Christians who want to convert them, or at least destroy emblems of their culture. Beautifully shot, it featured gorgeous underwater swimming scenes and swift running through the landscape. Amanda Kernell’s award-winning Stoerre Vaerie (Northern Great Mountain) (http://cargocollective.com/amandakernell/Stoerre-Vaerie-Northern-Great-Mountain), is a short film about an aging woman in denial of her Sami heritage coming to terms with loss. Gorgeous. Haunting.

After the films, the room filled with more people—including several more Sami in traditional dress, several Inuit people, and one young Shuar woman—and cameras and microphones, and soon Swedish-Sami artist and singer Sofia Jannok began to sing, her voice like a prayer. She spoke about her people, referencing the film Avatar. “I felt like I was watching a painful documentary of real life, my life.” She spoke of the grab for land in the region by mining companies and the increasing rate of suicide among Sami youth. In a video of one of her songs, two young Sami walk off into nothing, one into snow, the other into sea. “People are like the ocean,” she said, “whether you see them or not they are like the ocean, endless.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr13WV7UkgA

At this point, I was unable to hold back the tears anymore.

“Artists and cultural workers always speak to our hearts. For us politicians it is sometimes difficult to reach out and touch people’s hearts,” said Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sami Parliament in Norway. Indeed.

Keskitalo was part of a panel of Sami and Inuit leaders sharing the realities of life in the Arctic and new coalitions such as Inuit Circumpolar Coalition bringing together Arctic Indigenous people to address climate change. “To survive in the Arctic you cannot be primitive,” Keskitalo said. “You have to have an advanced culture.”

All this, while the negotiators were next door making arguments and quibbling and furrowing their brow about cost and responsibility.

It starts to seem asinine after a while. When you hear the stories of the people and the reindeer and the polar bear and the lemmings and the tortoises and the entire cultures and languages and ecosystems.

And maybe this was why I was so agitated. All that energy in those pavilions. Brains and hearts and printed material and fancy screens and songs and the people who are most afflicted and its all swirling around and I think … there is so much at stake, and it’s all seemingly in the hands of world  leaders and … do we trust them? It is too much to ask?

An hour later I’m at CentQuatre, an arts and performance space in the 19th Arondissment (a neighborhood near me and near where the Nov. 13 attacks occurred). There is breakdancing happening in a room by the front entrance, several exhibits of photographs and other artwork throughout the building, and a giant central hall filled with people sitting on the floor listening to a panel of speakers in the front. The hall is lined with banners and signs (“We have solutions!” and “No CO2LONIALISM” and “No jobs on a dead planet”). When I get there Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, is delivering a passionate message. Make no mistake, he says. We’re not talking about saving the planet. The planet will go on with out us. We’re talking about saving humanity. He talks about smart solutions happening in the developing world, like a machine invented by four Nigerian teen girls that turns urine into electricity (http://makerfaireafrica.com/2012/11/06/a-urine-powered-generator/) and other projects that compost waste. “I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure European shit isn’t superior to African shit. So let’s get our shit together and solve this,” Naidoo said. The crowd laughed and hands went in the air and in that moment I knew I was in the right place. The agitation turned to hope.

This is the Climate Action Zone, organized by CoalitionClimat21, (http://coalitionclimat21.org/en) with programs and events happening every day during the COP21, everything from teach-ins to yoga to civil disobedience workshops. Each evening, in a general assembly, those who’ve been inside the negotiations offer a public debriefing of what happened that day. And there are headphones for simultaneous translation, English-French.

As I listened to the debriefing, I realized (again) how complex it all seems. A cap of 1.5 degrees C is now what most island nations are demanding, though the negotiators are barely able to agree on 2 degrees C. A half a degree. It’s probably still not enough. The basic report was that we still don’t know anything but “They are negotiating hard.” One woman in the audience asked a question. “Is there anything positive at all at the negotiations? All we’ve heard so far is everything that’s not happening.”

The speakers on stage were startled by the question. “We weren’t expecting that,” one of the women said. “It’s complicated.”

Their answer: No, not really.

Negotiations aside, the day ended on a positive note with word about D.12 (http://d12.paris/),  the protest planned for December 12 (sadly, the day I fly out), the day after the negotiations. The mobilization will begin with a ceremony honoring those who have died due to climate change with flowers and song and art. The state of emergency prohibits assembly of more than 2 people, so the protesters will go 2-by-2 in red (clothing, umbrellas, scarves) to create a red line of safety, a line that must not be crossed.

As always, I’m deeply impressed by the ability of activists to mobilize and plan protests in big cities. This a most beautiful choreography. And on Dec. 12, one with a beautiful and imperative message.

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The Next Big Thing

Stock__Train_Tracks_2_by_TkrainThe Next Big Thing Blog series is an author’s work-in-progress project, started by the She Writes blog. It’s a chance for authors to tell you what they’re working on. The author answers 10 questions about their next book, and tags the person who first tagged them, plus at least 5 other authors.

Thanks to Kara Waite, who I didn’t even know had written a novel (which I can’t wait to read!) for tagging me.

Here’s my next big thing

Q: What is your working title of your book?
A: The Lightest Object in the Universe

Q: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? (Read the full-length synopsis here.)
A: In this story of love, loss, and adaptation in a post-Apocalyptic America, she rebuilds her neighborhood; he walks cross-country via railroad; birds sing, waddle, and fly.

Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?
A: Some years ago, I got an issue of Adbusters in the mail that portended a catastrophic event ending the our capitalist, corporate, cheap-oil world system. The issue was a collection of philosophical musings and tirades about the “crash,” as well as letters that  were both personal (“I stay because New Yorkers are good at surviving, because we pride ourselves on our resilience.”) and practical (how-tos on raising chickens, cleaning wounds, and treating water). Dozens of images helped to depict the actual events and their psychological impact.

I was struck in particular by two submissions. One was a letter from one lover to the other, now distanced, missing. The other was a hand-drawn map of the U.S. railway system with a call to”go west”: “Train tracks make for sweet travel.” Accompanying the map was a series of hand-drawn hobo symbols used to communicate helpful information (water, safe camps, threats, etc.). “Pick up a piece of chalk and spread your own messages…” the contributor implored.

So I did.

Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: Literary fiction “in the near future.”

Q: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A: I’ve actually thought a lot about this, but I’m not sure I’ve landed yet on the cast. At first I wanted George Clooney. You know, so in the midst of shooting I could have a lurid affair. Then I went to William Hurt, who I’ve always loved for his awkwardness and hidden competence. Minnie Driver for the female lead, or someone like her: feisty, energetic, and slightly wild.

Q: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A: I don’t know the answer to that. Publishing is at an interesting moment. Who knows what is best? I’m aiming for an agency. I’m not opposed to self-publishing. Whatever gets the book to be read and enjoyed by the most people.

Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A: First draft. Two years and 10 months. Oy.

Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A: I would not compare it to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, even though whenever I begin to describe it, people interrupt and say, “Like The Road?” No, not like The Road. The structure borrows a lot from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I could flatter myself and say Margaret Atwood’s works, because I love her and because I think she renders plausible “what if?” future scenarios very well, which is what I’ve tried to do in the book. But it also carries a lightness and a joy , but I can’t think of other books like that at the moment.

Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A: I’d been struggling to write non-fiction essays about American exceptionalism and the privileges afforded me by having grown up in the world’s Superpower and what to do about gratitude when you only feel angry at your country for its wars and its imperialism and its bravado. Those essays were bad and no fun at all to write.

When I started writing this novel, I was living in a neighborhood where people (myself included) were raising kept backyard chickens, putting solar panels on the roof, buying locally-grown food, re-routing the water systems of the house to supply the trees with greywater, and raising cisterns to catch the rain. We rode our bicycles to work and to play. This was around the time conversations about peak oil started happening and a whole bunch of books on the topic came out. It seemed sort of silly to look the other way, even though that’s what most of America seemed to be doing. It wasn’t all that hard to not drive a Hummer or to start supporting a local farmer.  Maybe, for better or worse, we had some of the energy and motivation that comes from feeling “right.” But then again, it never felt like we were doing enough. I still drove my car. I still flew to the east coast at least once or twice a year to see friends and family. I still ate fruit out of season sometimes. I still cursed my country’s foreign policies. I was still mad about Afghanistan and Iraq and all the prior fiascoes in Latin America (NAFTA, IMF austerity packages, dollarization) that were still impacting people’s lives for the worse.

I decided to offload my angst to some fictional characters and see what happened.

Q: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
A: There are lots of bicycles in the story! Good guys who ride around and do good deeds. There are also some bad guys on bikes who cause all kinds of trouble.

There’s also an evangelical preacher who has monopolized the airwaves and tirelessly broadcasts promises of ice cream and “ascension” as he lures people to “Center” for salvation. Who follows? Who finds redemption elsewhere?

Unlike most books about the apocalypse, which tend to be dark and brooding, this one has a lot of hope. It’s a love story, after all.

# # #

(you can read more than you’d ever want to know about me on my web site: www.KimiEisele.com)

I’m tagging these writers:

I hope they’ll share their “next big thing” too!

1. Donna Steiner, who was in my first writer’s group in Tucson years ago. Her words are delicious.

2. TC Tolbert, a dear friend of mine, poet and essayist, who is changing the world for transgendered people and their allies with every word he writes. Buy his new anthology, Troubling the Line, here.

3. Elizabeth Frankie Rollins, another friend of mine who just published the amazing short story collection, The Sin Eater and Other Stories, which you should buy right now and read and be amazed!

4. Marge Pellegrino, the amazing author and teaching artist who improves the lives of refugee children every day! You should buy and read her young adult novel, Journey of Dreams, too!

5. Laura Markowitz, dear friend and author of Book of the Sky God, an amazing novel for young adult readers, which you can download and read, too!

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40 Gracias, Day 40: Moment

December 31, 2012

Last day of the year. Pigeons perched, as they often are. Air cold. Sky blue. Glorious clouds. Who among them notices when the year turns over? Who among them is content, puffed against the cold, breathing into each moment as the clouds pass? Each moment can move us. Thank you 2012.

40 Gracias 40 Moment from Kimi Eisele on Vimeo.

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40 Gracias, Day 39: Crisp

December 30, 2012

Another perfect walk along the river. The air cool and crisp. The sun bright and warm. Perfection.

40 Gracias 39 Crisp from Kimi Eisele on Vimeo.

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40 Gracias, Day 36, 37, 38: Book

December 27, 28, 29, 2012

I won’t finish by the end of the year, but hopefully soon after. The days are full of this. And the sound of the heater. It’s been lovely and hard and lovely again.

40 Gracias 36, 37, 38 from Kimi Eisele on Vimeo.

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40 Gracias, Day 35: Brightness

December 26, 2012

The light returns.

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40 Gracias, Day 34: Family

December 25, 2012

The little Eisele family together on the traditional Christmas hike. Beyond blessed.

40 Gracias 34 Family from Kimi Eisele on Vimeo.

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