On climate hustle, climate hope, and taking the climate action heat
Dedicated to bicycle advocates worldwide; my dad; and the green Nishiki he gave me rides on before I could pedal
I’ve been wanting to say something that’s probably ten disparate posts, but first I’ve got to untangle it all. This is a going to be a long read. Might be best saved for a very long bus ride. Let’s see what happens with Roman numerals…
It all started with this book my uncle sent to me last month. Well, he’s my dad’s cousin, but Uncle feels like the right kinship term. Chatting on the phone, I told him how I’d been struggling with whether to pursue publishing what I call my “Kajiji poems.” That’s a collection of work I’ve begun about my childhood overseas, a life my uncle also experienced, one that few who aren’t from missionary and military and expat families can really understand. He sent me Nestlings, by Paul Olson, who my uncle knew. I hadn’t seen Olson’s writing before, and it occurred to me—because I was so glad to read it, & left wanting more—that maybe someone would be comforted to read the poem collection I have percolating, too. I realized that maybe I even have some sort of responsibility (pftt! not to sound presumptuous) to put them out there. But far from being about me, maybe they’d help comfort someone who, like me, sometimes feels alone in their grief over their childhood loss of Home or Homes. Mostly I don’t want to deprive any person out there of the joy of connection I felt to Olson’s writing. Paul Olson died recently, from bone marrow cancer, so this is his only book. It contains stories from his MFA collection, published posthumously by his wife. In the book’s foreword she writes: “Once back in the United States, Paul followed the news of the genocide and its aftermath relentlessly, as it affected (and still affects) the entire region of Eastern Congo. Of all the characters in these stories, it is through Walt that Paul comes closest to expressing his own moral dilemmas with pacifism and living in Africa as a person of privilege.”
In the title story, Olson writes:
…if you touched the birds their mother would never take them back. Even touching the nest might drive her away. Once you touched them you had to take care of them, or they would die.
It actually all started this spring (“it” being this thing I want to say) with a move away from Beaverton, OR. Maybe you didn’t even know I’d moved away from Portland. But, yes, I’d been living 10 miles west of the “big city” in the suburbs for the past eight or so years. I left Portland the same year the city started charging residents a flat $35 arts tax, that at tax time, sadly, I found hard to afford on my income as a working artist. Because of having no car, it was important to find an apartment near the light rail line that tracked across Washington County, and one within at most a mile of the bus stop, on roads with bike lanes. Buying a house was out of the question. So, for the past almost decade, I lived in one of those densely packed 3-story suburban multi-family apartment complex buildings with no air conditioning and poor air flow, a double heat whammy in late summer. Cigarette and pot and BBQ and wildfire smoke and dryer sheet perfumes and car exhaust seeped relentlessly inside through the window screens. Why car exhaust? Well, carports are right under windows. And people lucky enough to have a car with AC would motorfully idle under those windows, cooling themselves off while filling the inside of apartments with that much more air pollution, and heat. Cars running with the AC on create their own microclimate heat dome outside themselves. But let’s be honest: if I’d had a car, I’d have done the same thing. Fair is fair. Anyway, it was in that apartment that I taught myself how to create a book manuscript in the open source program Scribus. I edited & typed in a bunch of my poems and inserted .jpgs, resulting in Portland Light: Post-Industrial City Poems & Photography (Volume 1). I was going to do a Volume 2, but it was hard to get much poetry done in that apartment, what with all the car idling. So the Kajiji poems are still waiting for a volume of their own. I’ve decided not to self-publish next time; instead, I’d like to find a publisher. By the way, if I could redo it, I’d title that first collection Portland Lite instead of Light. Then I could have followed it with Beaverton Lite. Titles are hard. Maybe now that I’ve moved again, I can come up with better ones.
So, why did I stay in that apartment so long, especially without a car, if it was awful? I don’t know. It almost started to feel like a calling after awhile. Maybe I just wanted the right to preach what I practiced. Fair is fair. As the oldest of four kids, I learned early that it doesn’t go well if things aren’t fair. Even though, of course, life isn’t fair.
I always forget what I’ve said in previous blog posts, so forgive me if I repeat myself. But I’m sure I’ve talked about how being a car-free person led to my needing to get around town on a bicycle. If you’ve ever done that, then you’re well aware how difficult the city, county, state and country departments of transportation (DOTs) have made it for you, by filling every nook and cranny with fast-moving cars and parked cars. So more and more of my time began to be devoted to making a place where not just I, but anyone who wanted to, could drive less. For the climate, the environment—or just because we should be free to choose not to drive everywhere, gdammit. Okay. But as I sat slow boiling in that apartment, for nearly ten years, the moment finally came to cash in savings from living so affordably. Car ownership is expensive; thus, households that don’t own any cars can save that money up. And now I live on the Oregon coast. Ironically, it’s actually—surprise!—more affordable than Beaverton. You really can’t make this stuff up. I can walk to the grocery store, the post office, the library, and hiking trails all in 5 minutes and I don’t even have to email city hall about sidewalk gaps. City Hall itself is only a 3 minute walk. I won’t go into the details of the move and how it happened, because divine intervention was surely involved and magic’s unexplainable. I was feeling despair one day, and renewed hope the next. The county Beaverton’s in kept cutting down mature trees, adding lanes for more cars, and packing people in like sardines while many members of the government & its contractors who did that to us live like exurban kings and queens. I guess I realized I could keep trying to resist all that, keep trying to change transportation—for climate, for equity, for humanity, for my ride to the office supply store—and grow in despair as the boiling got hotter and my efforts more futile; or I could leave. If I kept trying to save others, who didn’t even seem to want it, even fought it, I was going to lose myself.
Back to Nestlings, and expatriates. In an email with my dad & uncle, after my dad also read the book, my father mentioned complicated emotions about his past work in Kajiji. That is his story to tell, not mine, but part of what meant so much reading Olson’s stories, was being able to understand what my parents might have felt while working as medical missionaries, as medical peace workers; what adults went through. After all, I was just a kid, becoming part of the place. Few things make me swell with pride more than when my Kajiji Dad, who is planning his return to Kinshasa after living in the states, calls me a Tschokwe kid. Just as he is Tschokwe. But as an adult back in the states, even as I grinned at being an adopted Congolese, I was also not Black. Who would recognize me for who I am, apart from my family, my mom & dad, my Kajiji Dad and his family, and a few relatives who shared this existence? I was here now, in the US, but I set out to build an adult understanding of the place I’d grown up in, to learn its history. I loved the land, the trees, the storms, and often miss that part of earth, but why was the water wheel always broken? Why were so many people hungry and sick? And even being delimbed, just for trying to make a living at, for example, diamond mining?
This is the most complicated, confusing, and painful thing to talk about. Systems are very, very hard to change or elude. Let’s take, for example, one that seems very innocent. Let’s take a system in which the mode of transportation used by a majority of people, and the media infrastructure used to sell that transportation, including as a climate solution, is in part responsible for people losing their limbs and lives in Congo. How can one meaningfully and effectively talk about one’s fear and belief that cars are driving away with African minerals, mined amid wars? That these wars are deeply rooted in colonialism’s theft of natural resources? How does one broach that subject in casual conversation, when cars are owned and driven by most Americans in the United States—my relatives, friends, co-workers, community, yes, by even myself in previous decades, future unknown, and by immigrants to this country, the same whose government once condoned kidnapping people from Africa and forcing them into blatant slavery? The generations that did that are dead now. What should living participants of the country’s resulting systems do with this history? Participants whose ancestors may have been on this side or that side of the Civil War, which happened about a generation before Ford’s car factories? It seems like a first step would be to stop perpetuating slavery and theft. A baby born in 1863, as Henry Ford was, could have lived all the way to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, during which the freeway industrial complex was born. At some point our Federal Highway Administration came up with this “just for fun” Then & Now page, which they’ve since wisely removed (I found it on the Wayback Machine). I guess it turns out I’m not the only one realizing they need to learn about the history of the place they grew up in. In the last few years, lots of articles have been written about freeways, which have become America’s urban monument to the car. Like the Statue of Liberty, freeways are not intended for people to climb up and walk upon; only cars are permitted. It’s 2021 now; some would just say, it is what it is.
History aside—we do live in the present—freeways aren’t a modern transportation system at all without cars, the individual participants. Which makes it seem like we can choose to participate or not. As a couple of the articles I linked to point out, electric cars quietly perpetuate colonialism and near-slavery. But, can we choose? What if one decides they don’t want to use a car? That desire probably hasn’t even occurred to most people, but what if one wants to resist being forced to own a car as basic mobility? Most Americans, even in “progressive” cities like Portland, can now only choose to bike or walk to the bus if willing to do so in the roughest of conditions. Rough not because there are only roads of thick sand or a pair of grass-hidden tracks, like in Kajiji, but because the land is paved roads—wide roads packed with dangerous cars, a paucity of buses, missing bike lanes, few safe crossings. Oregon’s DOT even has a special webpage, a kind of Orwellian documentation, called the Daily Traffic Toll. The toll being death.
I got excited in March 2020, because COVID shutdowns led to a huge reduction in driving. I could turn left again, without having to do a tedious two-stage left turn! But as it turned out, many of the people still out there driving were doing it for ultra high-speed entertainment, and crashes skyrocketed. Funny how road congestion actually saves lives, and saves the public’s money, too. Emergency response is expensive. I was excited though, because along with a lot of other bicycle advocates, I saw an opportunity to finally get city and county road control departments to loosen The Car’s grip on roads while far fewer cars were on them. The idea, or at least my version of it? Creating emergency protected biking space by removing one car lane each direction on suburban 5-lane arterials using something cheap and hardy, like cement or water-filled plastic jersey barriers. This would’ve doubled as socially distanced walking & wheelchair space wherever there were no sidewalks. And it would have forced drivers to slow down, and stop expensively crashing. The jersey barriers might have paid for themselves! Even so, to convince leaders who drove to cross-town meetings in SUVs to agree to something like this & get their engineers to sign off was going to take huge energy. Luckily, that energy was building among bike advocates. This wasn’t just a frivolous whim. Along with other cyclists I was pretty nervous to bike five-lane arterials where drivers once going 45mph (still too fast for community roads) were now even more fast & furious on the “wide open” lanes, clocking speeds above 100mph. You could say, the road climate had changed. Ah. But the politics of public will had not.
It is hard enough to convince the non-activist crowd out there (though the Trump years had turned almost everyone into an activist at some level). The business community was still going bumper to bike tire against vulnerable road users with “Save Our Parking” rallies. Fine; par for the course. But it was devastating when even activists for positive change—including climate action, bus transit expansion & human rights in general—didn’t exactly listen or catch on to how putting comparatively cheap jersey barriers in the roads for biking could directly help related causes, like reducing asthma in the near and long term. At a last-ditch moment when all positive-change makers could have showed up for & with each other to try out some solutions, a few strongly divisive voices came out, ranked issues, lumped all cyclists together (those living on a swank Portland greenway and those living on a five-lane strip mall main street alike) and said the bike advocacy niche should “sit down,” so to speak; that cities had more important things to spend time and money on. That’s just my personal summary of what happened, so consider it subjective. But a few organizers, I recall them being white people, went further, suggesting that if bike “advocates” (again, not taking time to find out our needs or who we were) continued pressing cities for biking needs during COVID, that was racist. That’s probably the most insidious part, because it seemed casually intended to pit even bicycle advocates—many of whom are just people fed up with how hard it is to use bikes as transportation—people of all races, genders, ages and nationalities—against each other. Unsurprisingly, at least in the US, many stopped asking for emergency biking reforms, immediately. So much for political will. One big problem with cancel culture is, people don’t just stop talking, they stop listening too. I mean, the whole conversation grinds to a halt. All the bicycle transportation advocates I’m best acquainted with work at a level of civic contribution because we sincerely care about making things fair, especially as our climate changes. We know that many people aren’t choosing bikes because it’s “cool” or because they like to wear costumes. They bike to get places, being unable to drive or afford car ownership. It’s how some of us came to biking and advocacy ourselves. That’s probably why many of us are very practical people, even innovative, having had to exercise creativity with our affordable transportation for years. That said, quite a few transportation cyclists do have cars to fall back on. Those of us who didn’t were about to be wedged between a rock and a much harder place. It’s truly unfortunate that it got so much quieter out there for bikes; climate-wise, what resulted is bad for everybody, worldwide. Now it’s mid-2021 and the articles are coming out about the explosion of 2021 traffic and car sales combined with COVID’s financial hits to transit. That’s of course after last year’s year-end headlines about the most Portland crash-related deaths in 24 years. We are still sans emergency protections for biking. We still need it. Headline: Car-free Families Return to Car Ownership To Stay Safe Amid Baking Hot Climate Change. Headline: Told You So.
Incidentally, this year’s Daily Traffic Toll is up nearly 50% from last year. And last Saturday, the Oregon legislature passed a bill funding more freeway expansion.
And so it goes. Here’s a June 19th 2021 excerpt from the Save 30th Street Parking facebook group, out there in San Diego, not far from Streetsblog’s Los Angeles headquarters where they’re also getting more freeway lanes. The words are an actual quote; I’ve only changed the form. I wanted to play with plugging in “create space for biking” instead of “have parking.” And also ask, who is “we;” who is “you”; who is “people”; who is “they”? Whose coffin?
"We all know that if you don't have parking people will not come. They will find somewhere that is easier to go to shop. This is pretty much putting the nail in the coffin." —Quote by San Diego jeweler once profiled in a book called We Were Going To Change The World
My dad suggested that invasive cancer is an apt metaphor for climate justice. He said I could share what he told me: “In order to kill the cancer cells, a lot of the good cells have to be sacrificed as well. So, it is true that someone’s business is going to be hurt if parking is taken away. I think it is important that those fighting for equality and fairness, like you are, acknowledge the hurt that will happen to “innocent” people (shop owners catering to car drivers, white males applying for jobs, etc) in the effort to restore justice.”
In order to kill the cancer cells, a lot of the good cells have to be sacrificed as well. So, it is true that someone’s business is going to be hurt if parking is taken away.
That’s an incredibly wise analogy, making the point in a way I haven’t seen widely conceded among bike advocates. I may be biased—he is my dad—but I think he’s right. It makes me wonder if people who use bicycles to shop and commute are misguided to emphatically argue that we’re “the same” as those who own and use only cars. We’re not the same. Biking, we should admit, has changed us. It’s made us see things differently. As much as we don’t want to lose our Home, our identities may have shifted. Like coming back to America from rural Africa, looking forward to McDonalds and Cheerios, only to crave luku and saka saka.
And, I’m not even offended, to hear business owners call people using bicycles as transportation “selfish.” Many business owners are going to Other us. We should embrace it. It’s the only way to prove them wrong. As if only people using a car would go to a shop selling punk rock themed jewelry—I’d totally bike to that shop! Then again, maybe punk rock themed jewelry isn’t really something we need, in a climate emergency. I mean, a business person should be so lucky, if all they lose is a parking spot, while getting to keep their arms and legs.
But what did surprise and hurt bears repeating, because it was so globally harmful: several people on west coast social media channels, some who are even paid to advocate for important human rights such as affordable housing, police reform, climate justice, & yes, even transportation reform—led a charge in refusing to admit the connection between jersey barriers and issues like health inequities.
Count me among the people who’d prefer not to live next to a freeway, but have been forced to. In the US, freeways were often placed directly on top of neighborhoods lived in by Black people. It’s painful enough to live next door to this reality, seeing and hearing everyone driving right over it, cocooned in cars. But then there’s physical health. Apart from the constant stressful drone and noise of freeways, they pollute. Asthma is a major pre-existing condition, a risk factor, for someone who contracts COVID, especially someone whose access to medical care is systematically inequitable. And freeways, which continually absorb millions of taxpayer dollars for expansion (causing more asthma), enable the use of cars, the same cars that discourage biking the one otherwise delightful mile to the store.
Once freeways get their new lanes, city policies tend to unfold as follows: governments say those cars “need” wider five-lane arterials through cities and suburbs to “reduce congestion” to the freeway onramps; then cities “need” more police to respond to more crashes & write what are still legally called “accident” reports. And businesses “need” more land for car parking. And all that land use takes away from housing near places of work. And the cost precludes bolstering bus service. So more people drive cars, making it even worse for those who still can’t. And then the legislature funds more freeway lanes. Full circle.
What better way to disprove and flip all that than emergency street reform that makes it easy for some 50% of the population to ride a bike to work, school, and grocery shopping? If biking were suddenly a lot easier to do, as Paris foresaw, and as many bike activists were foreseeing and fanning the spirit of, maybe it’d be easier to deconstruct the legislature’s “political will” to keep freeways [read: cars] in the budget. And people’s health and housing situations would improve.
In any case, people using bicycles as transportation, whether as a way to resist the expansion of car-centric infrastructure, or because they were priced out of car ownership, still needed a place to ride safe even as their biking transformed the roads.
Just to speculate pointlessly, there are probably some cyclists keeping the faith that another magical opportunity like March 2020 might happen in the US. But it was other people’s last hope, especially regarding climate change. Not enough people were willing to challenge the occasional haughty twitter activist who—with caffeine-addled misreadings of people who did try to engage with them, & plenty of conversation-ending “start heres”—essentially said that safe bicycle transportation should not be among cities’ emergency systemic policy priorities during COVID. That was all despite the fact that people who had to bike to their essential jobs were now facing two kinds of acute danger, and sometimes three.
The brilliant Darrell Owens, who is more concise than I could ever dream to be, has emerged as a solid voice of reason:
But back in 2020, I couldn’t help seeing the resistance to provide space for biking as an indicator of the cancer’s spread. The patient—in this case, the earth, & its habitability for humans—seriously might succumb. Has anyone not heard the refrain, “transportation’s responsible for 40% of GHG emissions causing climate change”? I’m just some poet who wants to ride her bicycle, ha ha, but I’ve also grown protective of those who navigate our streets outside cars. If I were leading an organization that failed my car-free & bike-dependent colleagues like that, the voices or minds responsible for it would be fired right now. Politics sure has a way of taking the fun out of a friendly bike ride, doesn’t it? Fine—maybe not fired. Good people have a way of coming around, like wild crows whose loyalty you want to win. Maybe I’d just explain why they can’t ever leave bike transit out of emergency policymaking ever again. Organizations’ rationale may have been good-hearted, but was poorly communicated to an audience poorly perceived & incompletely understood. I doubt it, but maybe members will consider apologizing to the car-less who, miles away from the Zoom calls abuzz with COVID policymaking, were biking and walking to buses to grocery etc jobs & could’ve been using those jersey barrier protected lanes. Now more than ever, people using active transportation are experiencing worse microclimates than those inside cars. That’s injustice. In Portland, one progressive city counselor who deferred on creating safe COVID biking space even ended up losing her seat. Was that another casualty of policy organizations devaluing and further marginalizing those of us who need space for biking? Maybe it was a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot situation for Portland. I can’t say for sure; I was a veteran Beaverton voter by then.
Anyway, it was sad, in an already sad year. Witnessing the feeble crew of good guys going head to head, a battle that the majority of America, living off stores of hoarded TP, stayed blissfully ignorant of, is pretty discouraging, especially with high climate emergency stakes. Most biking space advocates backed down. Asking for something urbanist justice activists tweet is “bad” just feels gross. On top of that, was police violence. I kept thinking, the more people we can get using streets outside cars, the more we can keep each other safe. See and stand up for each other. But maybe there’s just too little trust between strangers.
Since removing ‘safe space to bike’ from the list of city priorities was often dictated by people who owned both cars and climate warrior buttons, at times they had the air of emperors with no clothes. I watched from the suburbs in muted horror (yes, you’re meant to chuckle at that) as several Portland advocates who hadn’t owned cars, announced they were buying them. Cars, not clothes. I guess they figured, if you can’t beat them, join them. Fair enough. I considered buying a car for a minute, too! Others apparently resumed a more private life; some only tweeted about issues deemed cancel-proof; some went behind the scenes, leaving Twitter but staying in communication with city leaders. By my personal observation, the burgeoning effort to finally get over the hump of resistance toward creating space for more biking and less driving, by doing it collectively and sweepingly during the planetary alignment of COVID’s wide open streets, had lost its sails by mid-2020 in most parts of the US. A kind of reckoning had come. A personal reckoning, for me. I knew I now had a decision to make, too. And no, tempting as Mayor Hidalgo has made it, I don’t mean moving to Paris. But moving? Yes, maybe moving.
“Hidalgo’s most controversial act has been to create about 870 miles of bike lanes that now crisscross Paris, a plan she intends to vastly expand.” —Time Magazine, July 2020: “How COVID-19 Showed Paris the Potential of a Greener City“
My dad—and again, this is his story—but the part that’s mine is, I know my dad has complex emotions about leaving Kajiji. Because the work, it hadn’t ended. Sickness, it continued. People still needed more and more medical care. You could just work and work and work forever and it wouldn’t end. Before all that, my dad’s surgeon friends had told him, “You’re leaving the US right at the beginning of setting up practice? But you’ll miss out on making so much money!” That’s nothing, compared to returning to a comfortable and privileged country, rich at the expense of countries like DRC. I still think about people we left behind in Kajiji, for whom there is no “return” to the US, where there are plentiful comforts and luxuries like carpet & box stores & air conditioning & day hikes by SUV & afternoons off to email the mayor again about oil terminals and taking an entire week to write this blog post. I think about how strange it is, to have grown up in that place, and then come back to this place, which is supposed to be far more “comfortable” and “opportunity filled.” I just let out a huge sigh, as I wrote that. Since I grew up away from the US, I didn’t get the formative indoctrination of how great the USA is, via TV, elementary school pledges of allegiance, the greeting card aisle, our holidays—the culture as a whole. I’m not a child development expert; all I know is many beliefs about the US are just another thing I hear that other people think. Just like how I grew up in a place with no cars, and learned walking works well, but then came here, where people think you are walking because your car must have broken down. They lean and shout over the din of motors from their car window, “Is everything OK? Do you need a ride?” It’s very kind. I always want to shout back, “No thank you, but I’d love your help making it nicer and normal to walk in America!” I need more space to walk and use a bicycle instead of a car. Especially on mainstreet orphaned state highways! Someday someone’s going to lean out their car window and yell, “I’m emailing the mayor as soon as I get home about how hard it looks to cross the street right there!” And we’ll exchange peace signs.
My Kajiji Dad once said he thinks DRC should manufacture and export their own cars. I still think about that, a lot. I think, yeah. If Americans want to drive, let them pay full price. Let that price cover fair wages for the Congolese who mine the minerals going inside cars.
Speaking of indoctrination… Just as smoking and cigarettes were movie-cool back in the day, lots of popular literature and music glorifies & celebrates driving, and references cars and driving as analogies. Like the video for Adele’s song, Chasing Pavements. It’s hard for me not to see it literally, rather than as a metaphor about relationships. (Raise your hand if you know someone who’s crashed their car into a tree. I do.)
In her song Adele asks, “Should I give up
Or should I just keep chasing pavements?
Even if it leads nowhere
Or would it be a waste?
Even If I knew my place should I leave it there?
Should I give up
Or should I just keep chasing pavements?”
But what if we’re at the point in climate change where giving up is the only way onward? I don’t mean in the sense of hospice care. More like how they say the moment you stop looking for your soulmate, that’s when they show up.
Here’s where I’ll introduce one last climate analogy, something literal from my life lately: Tinnitus. There’s no cure for tinnitus; the best medical advice out there is to learn to live with it. Instead of giving up, call it something more palatable, call it “acceptance.” When my father had to give someone a difficult diagnosis, like breast cancer, he’d tell them: Take a vacation mindset. Do things you love. Think about things you adore. This is actually far from giving up. It is about bringing back Living. Sometimes acceptance leads to changes in mindset that can help the body turn the illness around, heal it, give one’s life back. It inspires kindness. It can open up conversations that heal: “I didn’t know you were going through that. That you felt that way. I’m so, so sorry.” “Thank you. It’s okay, really. Let’s keep talking though, & together see if we can come up with what might work better. We can try some things. As long as we’re all in on it, even if it doesn’t work, we know we tried. And tried together. That’s what’s important, taking input from everyone and then giving those ideas a chance.”
I wonder if acceptance can work for our earth’s climate diagnosis.
Resistance: “but it’s tradition, lighting our own fireworks—freedom! And businesses depend on it! Americans shouldn’t have to give that up.”
Acceptance: “remember that thick wildfire smoke coming in the apartment last summer? Maybe we better ban fireworks. People are still free to donate to any charities that might have been supported by fireworks money.”
Sometimes solutions really don’t work for everyone, not as expected. When I got my first COVID shot, my preexisting tinnitus ramped up from maybe a 3 or 4 to a 6 or 7. The reaction was so unexpected and startling that after the first shot, I was extremely fearful about getting the 2nd. I got more afraid because every day for a month I kept researching what to do, which added to my stress, which added focus to the tinnitus. I also had a tiny hunch that completing the series might resolve the situation, if it was caused by inflammation. But instead of trusting my hunch and not worrying, I couldn’t resist reading people’s desperate forum comments about how loud their tinnitus had gotten and so on. It’s not that I expected the tinnitus to go away completely with the 2nd shot, just back to what it was before the first one. I talked with my dad about this, too. He is a doctor, after all. And he also has tinnitus. We assume it came from the anti-malarial medicine we took all the years we lived in Kajiji. Lots of medicines, even Advil, are ototoxic and can cause tinnitus to some degree of permanence.
After watching my dad nearly die in a bathtub, shaking with fever from malaria (I was nine) I can tell you that living with the tinnitus is what I’d choose over and over again. If it was between that and having to live life without my father, because of malaria, or COVID, or whatever, I’ll take living with tinnitus. Me getting my second shot is returning the gift he gave me those years ago: to live, to be here. I assume he survived because of the medicine that reduced his quality of life. We, father and daughter, must make choices in life, the best choices we can. Even if we hope to create change for the better, we can’t succeed if we’re at risk of getting sick. Including when that sickness is outrage at the people living like exurban kings and queens, who’ll never know what it’s like to live in a densely packed apartment complex with no air conditioning in the hottest heat a region’s ever experienced. Or fury that a few could get away with shaming bicycle advocates en masse, shutting down biking as a kind of urgent care, or urgent cure, that is probably—sometimes I think obviously—the only way to topple the freeway industrial complex. Or outrage at much, much worse, almost unspeakable things, that are impossible to undo.
Here’s the reckoning: to accept that fear and anger at having tinnitus makes it worse, literally. Some things will not go away, or change. They just aren’t going to change. Humans have talked about changing forever, but we won’t, at least, not as a race, a species, and for sure not by resisting what we are. What we share is a choice between acceptance and resistance. That’s why Tinnitus is also a great analogy for the activist/advocate/city political kerfuffle in April 2020. Which, I’m sorry, for a certain vagueness. Sure I was tempted to name names. But doing so would mire me deeper into anger, when I’m trying to focus in the other direction: ignoring them, like the ringing in my ears, and moving on. Blaming a few people, non-electeds at that, who were “wrong on the internet” in 2020 doesn’t feel like hopeful behavior, especially when they’ve also done some good. And wouldn’t Exxon like it if the good guys just stayed mad at each other? Ultimately, April 2020 was just a moment upon many moments and decades and centuries of humans and governments and presidents and dictators that brought us to this point in both our national government and the earth’s climate. I’m choosing to work on accepting that.
What I will say is, that political moment was like what happened the day after my first COVID shot, when I noticed my tinnitus had ramped way up. I let stress take over for a month as I panicked over what to do, namely, get the second shot, or not? Resistance has a way of eating away at health. I had that reckoning this April, with tinnitus, as well as last April, when I saw the big opportunity to create biking space had been lost. I realized I had to regroup & reassess my use of time, and of my life, of where I chose to live, of what I spend time thinking about, of whose cause I give my energy to, and how I think. Let me put it this way: there are places that are already more walkable, bikeable, and affordable than Beaverton & the Portland Metro. And it dawned on me I could go to one of those, rather than force it to come to me as I’d been insisting it should.
Similarly, the day before my appointment for the 2nd COVID shot, I came across a video by an audiologist, and it got through to me that I had to relax. Find my patience. Calm my fear and untighten my jaw. Since I wanted to complete the vaccine series, I did. I was filled with relief that the decision was made and done. I was free to think about other things again! The tinnitus is still a 6 or 7, but I don’t notice it all the time, and I can sleep okay.
Just like in this new coastal climate.
Portland was at its hottest ever last weekend. Their forecast for June 28th was between 105° and 115° followed by a lengthy stretch of 90°+ days. They got to 116. Unheard of. Those are Fresno-in-August temperatures—but air conditioning is overwhelmingly standard in Fresno.
Even Kinshasa, DRC tends to top out at 99° F.
It was even too hot for that light rail line I used to depend on.
Nonetheless, I have a climate action forecast. Humans, at least in the West, aren’t good at believing the news that we’re going to die. When it happens in less everyday ways, it’s breaking news. The news grips us for a while, then fades. The pandemic has both shaken and bolstered the Western sense that death happens to someone else. Arguably until we collectively witnessed George Floyd’s murder, we’ve been shielded from seeing death happen in western culture, not like I was at nine, volunteering in the nutrition center, trying to help coax malnourished children my own age to eat rice, flies buzzing into sores on their distended bellies. Or looking everywhere for my dad, wandering into the tuberculosis ward where people lay flat on metal cots, dying. Or even the year before, in Brussels, when I saw Dachau with my parents and siblings, saw Anne Frank’s house, learned of her diary. It’s not exactly accurate, that my childhood was “innocent.” There were just degrees of innocence broken, waves of education that settle in like a week of smoke, or a few days of heat. Still, my forecast isn’t good. I predict most Americans will forget the heat anomaly, just as they did the smoke. The American system, made up of 330 million or so individuals making disparate choices every moment, will ensure it. We don’t all watch the same channel. Some might argue that’s a good thing. Still, at least 63 people died in Oregon. Killed by the heat. Before last weekend, the state had only been tracking COVID and traffic deaths.
As for me, I was near tears with gratitude & relief to be free from that apartment I was in the past 8 years. It’s one thing knowing we will die someday; it’s another to live miserably for no good reason. I had finally realized I wasn’t in Kajiji anymore: I’m in America. What’s the phase after innocence broken? It took years but I’m finally in it. I’m glad I worked so hard to make car-centric roads better for anyone living like me, with no car. I know I helped make progress. But April of 2020 woke me up to the fact I was at the limits of my service in the Portland Metro. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry for people still there. But I—and maybe you relate to this—I had to accept that if even key climate justice organizers refused to get behind grabbing the opportunity for an emergency reduction in car lanes, then maybe it wasn’t going to happen at all. Certainly not where I lived, in the suburbs, miles from downtown Portland. I get it now: I cannot blame people, even climate activists, for being unwilling to live in all the ways that are climate action, as opposed to just talking about it. It makes total sense! It’s self-preservation. Who would volunteer to be uncomfortable and deprived on purpose, right? Of course, thinking & praying that companies or legislators or DOTs or Exxon or some woman in Beaverton will volunteer to live uncomfortably first, to pave the way, doesn’t seem like it’s working as a climate solution. It won’t work, not without more people talking who also walk the talk. Purposeful discomfort shows you firsthand what to talk about. But as I know, walking the talk is very hard work, often unpleasant. If rolling coal is blatant bigotry, two-stage left turns are microaggressions. Far easier to “fight” for climate justice from an air-conditioned office, with a car parked in the lot. Let someone else ride a bicycle in the suburbs. That unglamorous, everyday climate work may be harder to get people to do than protesting a pipeline, risking jail. It’s hard work to join the climate action bucket brigade: heavy, hard, hot work. And yeah it’s angering, to have the will to do that work, but then be deserted in it, to have no one to hand the bucket to. Professional climate justice organizers should know that’s the exact message they send, when they ignore bikes as a climate solution: “we’re deserting you.” But they’re kind of deserting themselves, too, & their own climate futures.
See—my tinnitus got worse just typing that. Let it go. That anger. Despair, that even activists you thought would show up for you, didn’t. Release those. Breathe. Let the outrage go. Let the guilt go too. You can’t save others. But maybe you can save yourself. You deserve to live where you want. To be comfortable. Anger and despair are qualities of a resistance focus. Resisting the ringing, wishing it would stop, only makes the tinnitus worse. Acceptance doesn’t always seem attractive, or even doable, but giving up may be the only way forward. It’s certainly the way to let distraction in. And distraction is the key to unlocking miracles. Maybe it isn’t all too late, for kindness, at least.
If only my former apartment managers would have at least declared rules for temperatures above 90°, saying, “Hey listen, we can’t have idling in cars with the AC on by windows; it makes the heat even worse. We can’t have people BBQing because the smoke is getting inside apartments and making it hard for other guests to breathe.” Because we are the guests of landlords, and they should treat us like it.
But they aren’t going to say any of that. And that makes it very hard to say it to each other, without winding up in an argument. Status quo is powerful. Even with the climate bearing down on us, it’s not hot enough yet. Let it go. Forgive. The alternative is no longer productive.
A person could spend their entire lifetime in moral outrage at how awful humans have been and continue to be to one another throughout history. After an “innocent” childhood in Kajiji, I learned as an adult what King Leopold had done to Congo. That’s one example. It’s everywhere. We have only to look at past actions of our own. But one has to wonder what moral outrage really is, and what it accomplishes. Could moral outrage be a flip side of guilt? Or—greed? Scary thought.
I’ll try instead to channel the Tschokwe spirit, that I took in through shoeless feet, through my skin scraping on the bark and ant bites of mango trees, climbing with Congolese kids who taught me. Channel the thrill of lightning storms and pre-hunt fire fights, and life going on, with laughter and calling names across kilometers and children galloping home. It all lasts just a second, before it’s gone.
Remember: leaving a service post doesn’t mean you have to stop the work. It might just mean you accept how likely you are to get it done. It means you’re allowing yourself to live in ways that bring more joy, if joy had dried up. You’re putting on your own oxygen mask first. Appreciating the successes, documenting failures, giving yourself a needed vacation, preparing for the next phase of work. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that we can collaborate remotely. All our faces are up there on the screen, together. Anyone can log in, from anywhere. We can make our little Zoom background whatever we want, as we consider treatment for our shared climate diagnosis.
Here I am at the end of the 10th thing. I’ve written this all out, yet I’m unsure what I’ve said… Have I said not to have faith? I hope not. To recap: I was in Beaverton, it got horrible, I moved, and now feel both relieved & torn. I’m happier here, but the work I found myself doing to improve life there—my own, and others’—is unfinished. Maybe I needed to live out my parents’ experience. Like father, like daughter, full circle. Maybe it was the only way I could finally understand. My dad’s mission was medical work. I was, I don’t know, a suburban transportation reform missionary. Now I’ve made a return Home. Still carfree, but a return nonetheless. Don’t look back, the parable goes. Look forward. Stay present.
Maybe this only makes sense to expatriates and missionary kids. But listen:
“The sun is shining
And I’m on that road
Don’t look back, ooh, a new day is breakin’
It’s been so long since I felt this way”
Don’t look back, don’t look back
It’s your chance to be different”
—Winarta, Don’t Look Back
Maybe it’s not even possible to look back; maybe, like your shadow, the places you’ve loved and cared for deeply will always stay just ahead of you.
When resistance seems futile, you can always just quietly Shine. Stay inspired!