Climate Workshop


It’s the end of the workday here in Fairfax. It’s been a busy day but I wanted to get this all down on paper. It’s an unusual day, and I think I’ll know just what it means if I write this post. Where to start. I think I’ll do this linearly, even though that’s not really how I think. It’s the moments in between that matter the most to me, the spaces and silences in between each step, the individual moments as they pass and fall, the inherent emptiness of each action, but as I refilled my cup with so much life the day before, today was an outpouring of progress and action, and here’s how that went.

Around 1 am I woke up for almost no reason at all. I just opened my eyes and I was awake, and I knew I couldn’t go back to bed. I walked into the living room, gathered my things, sat down, and picked up my tablet. I wanted to paint the changing seasons. The style I’ve been developing that’s been getting such a good reaction is one I’ve been working through and developing for around two years. I remember showing a prototype, more along the lines of reinterpreted William Morris designs with an abstracted grunge texture that I began when I was a student at CCA. Even then, it was considered one of the standouts of my period there, but I ignored it out of a growing depression that clouded my mind.

Depression creeps almost unaware. I never thought I had it until it became a steady rhythm, causing me to abandon great ideas and constantly search for another approach. I didn’t realize though that’s essentially what college is about, finding different ways to explore your own abilities, and while clinically it caused my depression, it was some of these creations that led a way out. I don’t think depression can just be so easily overcome, and I know I attribute my healing to both a good deal of cultural strengthening and also the medicine I take to balance my overall sense of self. That’s just the way it works. If you ever feel that kind of depression, it’s great to check in with a therapist. That’s how, after many years, I was finally able to free myself of the worst side effects of clinical depression. I’ve been stable now for almost three years, even in the face of what might be perceived as inescapably difficult odds. I know I’ll never feel totally secure but I believe I have the ability to grow now, and that’s what I focus on.

The way the style works is that I quickly make oil paintings using my own gesture sequences on an iPad, and then work carefully for hours on the color work and texture until I come to a solution that I did not expect. I almost think of what I do as a combination of photography and painting, since many of the tools I use once the traditional paintings are made have, like many of the tools in photoshop, their foundation in photographic techniques. I was trained in a dark room at SFAI and the tension between the critical moment when I dropped out of a painting class and enrolled in photography is preserved perfectly in the practice I’ve developed. It’s all an abstracted photographic art of organic flow paintings. It’s the closest thing to acrobatics I do.

I was compelled, for no reason, in particular, to make a series of paintings depicting the changing seasons, so that I could really feel each moment of them while I engaged in a climate workshop. I wanted to really use my time in between sessions (it was all day, for two days), to think about climate on my own terms, which for me this week was focusing on arts and literature, less on policy.

I spent the entire night in a raptured daze as I worked on each of the paintings: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, and I remember this exactly because of what happened when I finished the last one. My phone went off, the alarm bell was set for the time I had programmed to be how I would wake up every day. The phone started playing a music piece that sounded like the sunrise, and I watched this moment pass as the waking sounds allowed me to see that the last piece I was working on was an abstraction of the sun, which I chose for summer.

It was 4 am. I finished the piece, quieted the phone, cataloged and uploaded the final pieces into their respective media, and then spent the next hour and a half or so reading comments and studying what I had done. It’s the best-regarded work of any of my paintings in the last four months, but I realized that that really didn’t matter anyway. The paintings were like medicine I had made for my own journey, and I knew that as Walt Whitman intimated, making my own medicine might mean that I could have made it for anyone, and in that simple post was a shared offering. This was possibly the most impactful intervention I could have made. I made some coffee and sat back, researched for the second time of the day, and waited for the online workshop to begin.

It was a workshop called Climate Candidates Accelerator, which was a group learning session about engaging with public policy and leadership for climate change. I didn’t know what to expect but it was amazing, but there were some critical moments for me that I wanted to write down. The first presentation was about forming our own narrative about our climate journey, and that’s when things became interesting, and some of the best insights I’ve ever been able to develop began. We were shown an arc narrative, a western story construct that, while effective, and some may say the only method, of crafting a “well-told” story. Yet as I offered to the group, it’s not the only way. There is also a view of literature that is itself a kind of overstory.

And many of my great heroes, whether poets or prose writers, have long engaged in a kind of resistance against these western ideals and posed a different way to conceptualize the story. This is in many ways experimental, but I can’t help it. Almost all of the ideas I was taught at the schools I went to were experimental in a way. These institutions have been my home base and source of training for almost ten years.

And it might be that this way of looking at narratives is what storytelling may need to become. Divergent, multiple perspectives can always lead to a different reality than the hero journey so popularized. I love arc narratives. I love Disney, Marvel, and all of the artistry that comes from this architectural form, yet since I watch these films so visually, you almost might say that these stories, the best of them, are their own form of multi visualization. I don’t think it’s any mistake that for almost two decades my favorite films were film production documentaries, when there were groups forming the reality of the story they were documenting, yet their own journeys within them were so real, so important. We were given the basic outline, and then we were divided into groups to test our own versions, and that’s how my journey began.

We met in groups and had five minutes to say our climate story, and get feedback. What I found was that I really figured it out, aided by notes I had made before, of just what led me to the climate crisis, which I’ll include here now that I know. At the original meeting, I was just putting it together. I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but in 2017, my first semester at CCA, I wrote a short science fiction story about environmental collapse, and within two years I was in a writing class at CCA.

The writing program was in a separate building, a nondescript locked door that looked just like any of the industrial buildings in the design district in San Francisco. You had to ring a buzzer, and someone would let you in. And then you entered a secret garden of rocks and trees, leading to a stone floor room of windows and comfort. It took me a long time to find it, but once the door was opened, and I was inside, it felt like home.

I adored the writing class, they were why I started a non-profit for poetry two years ago, and they were like a shelter for all of my ideas. Nothing was discounted. We were all almost in love. Deep connections, sharing complete freedom and joy. Yet at the same time, the fires began. Within moments it seemed like we were wearing N95 masks against a bright red and orange sky. Smoke at dangerous levels, until we were all told to shelter indoors. I remember these days completely.

The fear of wondering if your windows were too porous, the thought that we might need to seal the windows even more shut. The reality of not being able to order an air filter quickly, and the feeling of sickness from polluted air. The devastation was miles away, and we felt it in the bay, and it went so far as to cause problems across the coast. It was a terrifying, gritty time to be alive. How could I have not paid attention?

My entire thesis was devoted to this concept, which I wanted to develop into a series of experimental designs exploring various aspects of the colony on a moon of Saturn. I designed robots and solar structures, I envisioned a biodiversity culture within new worlds, wondering out loud if there was a future for humanity, which at that close proximity, seemed almost out of reach. So why am I explaining this? Because the series of books I developed from this concept moving into where I left off earlier this year, was intended to be a divergent narrative shift that would reexamine the role of time and perception in the form of the novel if that could even be a term.

The story I had developed was both dream and reality, a series of three timelines that could be interspersed within each other to become something more, something I didn’t expect, and one that was always changing. It’s this same situation that I was developing within the paintings. It’s always open, and I feel like this subtle shift, not unlike what I wrote about before in the press briefing piece from a couple of days ago, allowed the work to become more than what it appeared to be at surface value. That’s what I was looking at changing. So much in our culture, especially limited in the building of these simple narrative forms, the good vs. evil, the binaries, the purity culture, all of it well documented in theory, was expressed in the simple paintings from earlier in the evening. I realized at that point that I was on a long journey, maybe the most important of the last few years. I realized that I had to continue writing, and that’s why I’m here right now writing this down. I will continue this book at some point.

Then we were given some charts and methods to categorize our power structures and support systems. This felt completely out of line with what I understand my network to be but I’ve never visualized it before. I know a lot of people, so it proved fairly difficult to do in the session. We were told to get a few pieces of paper. I don’t have any paper right now so I grabbed my iPad and tried to find a pen in ProCreate to take notes with. I kept selecting the wrong brush. Brushes that looked like markers, while writing turned into broad ink strokes as I looked at surprisingly as they fell on the page. We were supposed to categorize, but how could I, I sat for a few moments and then automatically started drawing a circle. Then I stopped and looked at it. It was, as I soon found out, an Enso. As written about in an article here, this is a description of an enso.

Enso (formally spelled ensō) is a sacred symbol in Zen Buddhism meaning circle, or sometimes, circle of togetherness. It is traditionally drawn using only one brushstroke as a meditative practice in letting go of the mind and allowing the body to create, as the singular brushstroke allows for no modifications. While at first glance, the enso symbol appears no more than a misshapen circle, it symbolizes many things: the beauty in imperfection, the art of letting go of expectations, the circle of life, and connection. The enso is a manifestation of the artist at the moment of creation and the acceptance of our innermost self. It symbolizes strength, elegance, and one-mindedness.

My day was peaceful from that point further. For the rest of the session, I stayed completely silent because I realized I had already learned what I had come here for and was able to just listen to the amazing community, many of whom feel like we’re already becoming friends. There were folks working on their campaigns, students with eager questions, amazing speakers, more learning and growing. It was beautiful, every moment of it, and as I said when I left at 2pm and was back home by 4 with a booster shot, twelve hours after I had finished my four seasons paintings. What I learned is that after hearing about what every speaker told us would be good for effective leadership I already have. I work with the public, seeing people and being kind for six hours a day in a front-line job, I write and have social efforts, and I’m already on a town committee for climate action. I can’t do more. This is absolutely everything I could possibly do, and I do it without hope of public office or power. Softness. We need to change the narratives. We can’t be caught in some kind of a childish tug of war between numerical entries, that’s an illusion, and it’s dangerous.

We need to reframe the very structure of how these stories are told because no one is a god, no one is a devil, and it’s these structural choices that prevent us from having an urgent need to address the climate and all of the issues we face so that we can all see a better day. I want to live in a world where all people are heroes, and everyone sees within themselves a spark of hope. That’s why I turned to Buddhism even in high school. In that narrative structure, Buddha-nature is within. We all have it, and that’s not powerlessness, that’s because the mystery is in all of us. The world is more than we feel it is. It’s only ignorance that clouds our way. And not anti-academic ignorance, just the blindness that turns us away from the miraculous, that on days like this, seem so open and undeniable. This was a perfect day for me, and I never realized I would feel it. The world could change right now if you let it.

This is, in its best instance, a strange way to conclude this post. But I realized I forgot to say just what I realized changed everything for me in my journey of climate activism and public service, which right now is at Peets, and if I ever need to be anywhere else, I will be, but right now it’s within the design, communications, and the visual arts. It’s very simple.

I went with a friend of mine to a Fridays for the Future March in San Francisco, and I didn’t know what to expect. We walked together through the crowd of youth activists, and somehow I got whisked away into the thick of it, right at the front of the line, and felt the cries of the students around me, the next generation. And for the first time, I emotionally felt their calls. It was a simple cry for action, not sad, not angry, just a plea, with all of the sense of frailty that that word has in its symbology and inflection. It was just a plea for a better world, for our leaders to come to their senses, and just do what’s right.

I realized at that moment that I would do everything I could for them, whether that’s making inspiring paintings, serving coffee, telling stories, writing posts, or anything they need. Today, I gave everything I could to this struggle, and in that sense, in some way, found my own way home, and that was just where I started, as an enso shows, so carefully balanced between beginning and end, a part made whole, a line to form and in all of that an empty space that is not quite an end and not quite a beginning. I need to study more. As someone said to me, we need to fill our cups as much as we pour out. So If you’ve read this you’ve had a good day at Reluctant Blogger Coffee Shop, where I poured out my soul for 17 hours. And now it’s time to rest, and heal. I am so excited, happy, and calm, and can’t wait for a new day.

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