‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’
Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)
Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency. Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.
My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me. [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed. It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*]
Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen. Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness. Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment. This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it. That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action. Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.
In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either). We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity. All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this. It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.
When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved. I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed. Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era. Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth. Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears. There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do. And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share. And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.
As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat. It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline. We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America. Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?
The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words. We need both. Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness. This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.
I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in. If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence. North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’. I’m not a politician or a rhetorician. I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking. The place I find my words is on the page. Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity. This earth is where we live, our home. It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you. Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.
So, what should have been my parting shot? What can we do, as citizens and as writers? A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list. Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:
- Put your own house in order. Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet. Recycle paper. Buy secondhand books and pass them on. Manage with less.
- Cultivate words and deeds. Match thought with action. Speak truth to power.
- Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
- When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
- Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans.
- Write to connect, not to escape. Stay engaged with the world around you.
- ‘Bear witness. Hold uncertainty. Love the world.’ (Charlotte du Cann)
- Read widely and inquisitively, critically. Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
- ‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
- Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc. Pause and process your experience.
- Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have. Notice beauty and express wonder.
- Connect with others – know you are not alone.
- Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
- Beware of righteousness or too much humility. You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
- Be kind. ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
- Stay open to new ways of writing and living. Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic. Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
- ‘Be the change you want to see.’ (Mahatma Gandhi)
- Argue with this list. Make your own manifesto.
The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):
A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.
American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.
[With thanks to wordhistories.net]