That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Where do you find hope? What does it ask of you? In today’s That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Upheaval, Torrey House author Brooke Larsen answers a new and challenging hope.
by Brooke Larsen
Before the sun rose on September eighth, I was startled awake. A tree branch crashed to the ground outside my apartment window. Then I heard what sounded like an explosion as hurricane-speed winds pummeled hundred-year-old trees to the ground.
My partner, who didn’t even wake up during the earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front earlier in the year, continued snoozing as I sat awake in panic. I went outside and quickly ran back in after receiving a cold gust of dust and leaves to the face. When Andrew’s phone alarm finally woke him up, he started getting ready to drive to work. I told him it wasn’t safe. It took a text from his friend saying, “A tree just fell on me” for him to concede.
The winds started calming down in the afternoon, so Andrew eventually went up to feed the cancer cells he researches at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. I sometimes wonder how those cancer cells feel now that a new disease has become a more effective killer.
I suddenly felt more lonely than I had during the entire pandemic.
Soon after Andrew left, the power went out across Salt Lake City. Of course, a place like Huntsman Cancer Institute has a backup generator. My old apartment building? Not so much. With the power went the Internet, which overloaded the cell networks across the entire city. I no longer could make a call or receive a text. I suddenly felt more lonely than I had during the entire pandemic.
I’m an introvert that worked from home long before stay-at-home orders. When COVID first hit, I welcomed the alone time. But an inland hurricane on top of a pandemic on top of killer cops on top of wildfires burning the West? Too much.
I tried desperately to upload Instagram and Facebook on my phone, seeking some superficial level of connection. When that failed, I put on my old black puffy coat dotted with patches of purple duct tape, and walked a few blocks to the Beaver Bottom Bungalow.
The BBB has been a home to activists and community organizers for the past decade or so. I lived there for a year, and the old central city brick bungalow still houses some of my closest friends.
I knocked on the door, mask on, and asked Kate, Easton, and Maria if they wanted to hang out on their porch. They bundled up and joined me outside. The air held a bitter cold. After a long, hot summer, the ferocious winds brought near freezing temperatures.
“Well, climate scientists didn’t warn us about inland hurricanes,” I joked.
“Yeah, add that to the list,” Maria replied with the kind of laugh that could suddenly break into a cry.
I’m not sure if the extreme wind event has any correlation with climate change. I’ve searched the Internet and found little results. But for the month leading up to the storm, we had been experiencing the side effects of a definite climate-change-fueled disaster. The West was on fire. And smoke from Oregon, California, Colorado, and pockets of Utah filled the Salt Lake Valley with an orange-brown smog.
Over social media, I had been watching my friends in Oregon and California go through massive losses. From losing their hometowns to losing the ability to safely go outside. I zoomed in on photos of the red sky and the ash that settled on their clothes.
A few hours before hurricane-speed winds roared through Salt Lake, other nearby friends were rushing their son to the hospital.
A few hours before hurricane-speed winds roared through Salt Lake, other nearby friends were rushing their son to the hospital. He couldn’t breathe. He’s two years old, too young to diagnose with asthma, but when the air pollution reaches toxic levels (which it frequently does in Salt Lake) he sometimes goes into respiratory distress. When my friends left the hospital in the middle of the night, they came home to massive trees falling down in their backyard.
It was all too much.
“I feel hopeless,” I declared on the BBB porch.
“Yeah shit is really bad,” Kate said.
“And this is just the beginning,” Easton added.
I’ve been organizing for climate justice most of my adult life. My “coming of age” has been shaped by climate change as this constant looming force in the background.
About six years ago I noticed a switch in the way young people talked about climate change. It was no longer we’re going to stop it, but rather, we’re going to make it less bad. We’re going to create resilience and adaptability in our communities. And we’re going to shut down the fossil fuel industry to prevent total catastrophe.
Now, climate change is no longer in the background, it is here. Throughout 2020, I felt the climate crisis in the constant scratch and tightening at the back of my throat. I saw it in the smog and the heat waves that radiated off the pavement. I smelled it in the smoke that was never punctured by the scent of crisp rain that usually explodes from late summer skies. I tasted it in salty sweat that dampened my mask as I chanted “Justice for Bernardo” and “Black Lives Matter.” I heard it in sobs piercing my car speakers as NPR broadcasted stories about loved ones lost to pandemic, a public health crisis that will only occur more frequently in a warming world. I felt it on my dry, overwashed hands.
I used to be all about the shiny kind of hope. My first organizing job was with the Obama campaign in 2012. That was also my first time voting for a presidential candidate. I was nineteen and living in Colorado, a swing state at the time, which felt exciting compared to my deeply red home state of Utah. I took a semester off from college to register voters, build neighborhood teams, and get out the vote. “Hope” was a slogan for the Obama campaign. There’s a photo of me from that time with HOPE written across my hand, hand on my heart, as if I’m making a pledge to hope.
This year, hope feels different. Partially because I’ve lost some of my younger faith in our troubled political systems. But also because now hope often doesn’t feel hopeful.
This year, hope is dark.
Hope brews in crisis, sparking mutual aid networks that have formed since COVID-19 hit, mobilizing a community ready to deliver groceries, show up at protests, or help chainsaw fallen trees after an inland hurricane.
Hope surfaces as relationships deepen despite the limits of Zoom calls and awkwardness of air hugs six feet apart.
Hope simmers when we face hard truths and refuse to look away.
Hope simmers when we face hard truths and refuse to look away. Hope echoes from the mouths of all those yelling Defund the Police in the streets all summer long as they learned that our police system was created to capture slaves seeking freedom, as they shared the research that shows reforms don’t work and cops don’t keep us safe. What keeps us safe? Well-funded schools, mental health services, quality healthcare, shelter for all.
Hope births anew as snow falls on the same day news outlets declared Trump lost the election, the same weekend Las Vegas received its first drop of rain in over 200 days.
In her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson says that hope never asked “a crumb of me.”
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I’m no longer interested in that kind of hope. I’m interested in hope that asks of us. I’m interested in the active kind of hope that requires courage and choice, the hope that lives in the waves of resonance between my rage and your sorrow, between my joy and your celebration.
On September eighth, as wildfires devoured the West and one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds uprooted trees that I had rested my back against throughout the pandemic, hope asked of me.
After I walked home from the BBB and Andrew returned from feeding his cancer cells, the winds picked back up. We lit the one candle and found our headlamps in totes of camping gear. We lay in bed, and Andrew held me as I sobbed. Even if the windstorm had no connection to climate change, the extreme weather event coupled with the sustained wildfires and a global pandemic triggered a depth of grief I hadn’t let myself feel since the reality of the climate crisis first sunk in many years ago. The climate crisis felt more real and here than ever before.
At the time, I took my grief for hopelessness. But I’m beginning to see that if I had no hope, I might not cry for the burning world my generation is inheriting. Maybe hope is the refusal to be numb, the surrender to feeling that keeps you grieving and yelling in the street and knocking on a friend’s door during the few calm moments of an inland hurricane.
I water hope as tears pour from my eyes when rain fails to fall from the sky. Grief and love are sisters, as Francis Weller says, and what’s worth hoping for if love and her pesky sibling aren’t in the room too?
Brooke Larsen is a community organizer, writer, and narrative strategist. She is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the U of U Environmental Humanities Graduate Program and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis. She weaves collective action and shares stories for a just transition with the People’s Energy Movement.
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