On Sustainability, Love Stories, Humor, and Difficult Truths
December 19, 2018 § 14 Comments
by Lesley Heiser
“Now listen to me. This is a love letter…
This is writing whose wage no one wants to pay”
~ Nicole Walker
Not long ago, I made my first appearance at an AWP Conference. Arriving in the gray, I felt cold, tired, excited, amazed at the cost, guilty about flying a thousand miles, and shy.
Like everyone else, I wanted to bump into fabulous writers, introduce myself to strangers, inveigle myself into editors’ lines of sight and converse with them, and sit in marvelous audiences. All of this I did.
On the afternoon of my last day there, I sank into a seat at the back for a panel whose title I think was “Literature and the End of the World.” I sat somewhat fearful. This seemed like a morbid end to three exciting days, yet what could be more compelling?
I somehow expected a deluge of facts. I may have expected a deluge of emotion. But my notes from most of the panel consist only of this: we have to write about the environment extremely well, as well as we write about anything else or better; we have to bring the full range of our emotions to writing about the environment and not our stances of sentimentality, moralism, or didacticism; we can aspire to connect and engage, even to warm and inspire.
If that had been all I learned, it would have been enough.
But the last presenter on the panel—I was also there for him. He happened to be the person I’d fallen for when I was in college. It had been so long ago–more than half our lifetimes. He saw me in the back, approached me, and opened his arms, and all of a sudden I felt as though I remembered all of it. Then he went back and sat behind the table.
As it turned out, his particular topic was a bit more edgy than that of his co-presenters: he talked about the strengths of humor-writing on the environment including on environmental degradation and loss and our possible doom. Twain had been funny about the stuff he wrote about, my friend reminded us. Thoreau was also pretty comical. Humor could precipitate the sympathy of the reader or listener. When it landed, it invited people in.
From that point of mutual openness anything could happen including the good and really good things that we need to have happen like conservation, innovation, reduced consumption, and other forms of caring for the environment—this was my friend’s implicit point. Also funny writing can make for great art, unlike preaching. The audience really responded to his focus on reaching the reader in a humble, intimate, enlivening way. He was talking about something that I hadn’t expected, something that was paradoxical, but it wasn’t cavalier.
Somewhere I’d read something he’d written that was similarly paradoxical and, listening to him, I remembered: it was about the actual and potential beauty of some forms of natural destruction. A desert is beautiful even as it grows larger. A riverbed gives us striking patterns when the water is gone. Pollution makes the sunset more vivid to the human eye and more memorable to the human heart.
These are difficult thoughts or they are difficult truths yet even if they are truths, we can hold them somewhat lightly or we can hold them in different ways at different times.
Sustainability: A Love Story by Nicole Walker
For me, Nicole Walker’s new book takes off from what I learned in 2016 and goes in myriad directions in a coherent, beautiful way. It’s got plenty of humor, yes, but also other modalities from awe to rage to deep commitment to laugh-out-loud moments of admitted craziness to arduous moments of depression and of course to love. I’m pretty sure it’s not a book about the environment or its looming destruction. Rather it’s a beautifully crafted, enter-anywhere, narrative and lyric poetic manifestation of one person’s engagement with the environment and with the all-too-apparent ruination in the right-now.
In terms of art, the book for me is an installation whose spaces I can enter in my own undisciplined way, recalling my own loves and dreams, losses and nightmares.
It’s a diary whose narrator struggles to protect her home and family from worsening fires, considers a family friend’s suicide, raises bright and wonderful children, consumes cheese, meat, oil, clothes, and a lot of other stuff, pollutes and throws out and otherwise gives up, tends her marriage which is also an environment, and finds ways to start over every day.
It’s a map, a normal fallen person’s rendering of her way forward and not the idealized and didactic written tracks of an environmental saint. As such, this book invites me in as no perfect book could do to create my own full and fuller and yet more full way of engagement, my own personal, love-centered, quirky, broken, and therefore sustainable-for-me path of thinking and doing in order to save something, even the world, despite my own depression and enormous imperfection or because of them, as I can, and in my own corner.
Finally, the author says her new book is a love letter written first and foremost to her husband Erik.
Love: A Sustainability Story
Love Is a Battlefield
Love Is All You Need
Coda: First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke, 2018
Synopsis: “The pastor of a small church in upstate New York spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife.”
I watched this movie last night. It’s on the Amazon channel and elsewhere. The New York Times just called it one of the ten best movies of the year. It’s grim for a long time on the environment and on the prospect of renewal and on human prospects but it has a very strong, vivid arc. For me the value came from watching it through until the end. Twenty-four hours later, I’m still amazed.
Lesley Heiser is a Maine writer whose work appears in Boulevard, Puerto del Sol, Ms., Taproot, The Rumpus, Stirring, and elsewhere. She has a lot of hope.