Reservoirs (of Joy)!

From Reservoirs by Alejandra Calvo

I was recently invited to be part of a collaborative multimedia exhibition at the Boulder Public Library called Reservoirs. The exhibition was conceived of and curated by my wonderful friend Michiko Theurer, and featured visual art by Alejandra Calvo, musical contributions by Liangyeh Tai, and a poetic invitation by me! The exhibition space was filled with empty containers of various kinds collected from people living in and around Boulder, each of which (through the magic of transducers) acted as a speaker, through which played recordings of Boulder Creek. Each container resonated a bit differently, and so being amongst them felt like being inside a stream. Around the containers were lots of river pebbles. My task was to write something that would invite people into connecting the exhibition with climate change, and into making collective commitments to taking some kind of action. Here’s what I wrote!

There’s a poem I often think of when I’m just getting to know someone, or some place. If I’m lucky, I get to read it to them, maybe during the second or third time we get together. You’ve probably heard this poem; it’s called Good Bones by Maggie Smith. I’m only just meeting most of you, but still, I want to read this poem to you today:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

The reason this poem comes up for me when I’m with new friends, new lovers, new kindred spirits is because it’s about hope and it’s about fear. In those early days of something new, hope and fear swirl together, and this poem helps me make sense of the swirling. It helps me realize that what matters is what we hold on to, and what we let go of. We must begin, as the poem does, by experiencing all of it, the fearful and the hopeful. In the swirl we see, we hear, we touch, we feel and then, we choose what to do. We see and hear and touch all of it, we feel all of it, and then we move forward by letting the universe tell us what to hold on to and what to let go of. We choose to listen to the universe.

We find ourselves together here today maybe because we saw a flier for this event. Maybe we contributed a container, maybe we were just passing through. However we got here, we have a chance now to embark on a journey together. If you choose, you can join us today in making a commitment to showing up for ourselves, for each other, and for our future.

You live here in Boulder or somewhere nearby, and so I don’t need to tell you how precious this place is, how fortunate we are to live nestled amidst rock and creek and wind. And you know already that we—the collective we–are risking this place, and our futures here and elsewhere, through our own behavior. The world is at least fifty percent terrible—we know that!

But often, we disagree when we try to identify what’s terrible; we disagree more when trying to agree about how to fix what’s terrible. Thankfully, that is the work of political organizing, not an art installation!

Which is not to say that our gathering here isn’t political. It is, but it lives in the realm of bridging the political with the personal, in a way that all of us here, all of us who belong in a public library which is to say all of us, can find common ground.

So here is something we can find common ground on: we all, to live our lives, depend upon things. The things we buy (or don’t), consume (or don’t), use (or don’t), and discard (or don’t) …these things organize our lives, our choices, and our aspirations.

In describing a 2020 study on the impact of our choices here in Boulder on carbon emissions and climate change, the City of Boulder says the following:

“One of the most important findings…was the true size of the embodied emissions of what we consume in Boulder — meaning the emissions associated with the whole lifecycle of products we purchase and use, from production to disposal. Embodied emissions are not currently included in our emissions inventory. [The study] found that the size of embodied emissions is larger than all local sources of emissions put together. This means that even a small change in circularity and reducing consumption can have an enormous effect on [our] overall impact.”

What do you feel when you hear these words about our impact, arising from our consumption choices? If you’re like me, you feel fear and hope swirling together. The fear: what have I been doing? Do my wants make me a bad person? What do I have to give up? And the hope: oh, we can actually change something here! We can do things differently!

The point is not that we are the problem; take a deep breath and gather in that breath the fear that lives in little corners of you; then breathe out. Let that fear flow through you. Not because the fear isn’t warranted; perhaps it is. But because the fear gets in the way of moving us forward, towards action.

When you breathe out, let yourself taste a freedom from fear. Let this freedom leave, in its wake, a true sense of responsibility. Find, in the debris of fear, a real sense of hope that we can do more.

It won’t take just one breath; it’ll take many. So begin this breathing here, as you wander through this space amidst the sounds of the creek resonating through everyday objects. Find the pocket of sound that feels like home to you. Settle in, and pick up one of the river stones you find nearby. We invite you to hold onto your chosen stone for this month. Carry it with you, and let it witness your life—all you already do to make our world better, and all your intentions to do more. Each time you remember what you’re moved to do, breathe again. Fill this breath, and this stone, with the strength, the resolve, and the sparks of joy that remind you of what we are capable of doing together.

And when, inevitably, you find fear, or guilt, or anger, or despair, springing up within you, let it flow, like water over rock. You know how sometimes when water flows over a rock, it clears and sharpens, and sometimes it eddies and froths. You needn’t make sense of this, just watch it, and let it go. Come back to what helps move you, and hold on to that.

Carry this stone with you, and with it in your hand, cast a new eye on what you see, place a new palm on what you touch. Are there things in your life, actual things, that you can hold on to for a little bit longer, find new use of and new meaning in? We make meaning with our imaginations, with our attention, and by forging connection. So when you pause to really be with something, can you see its place in this whole flow of carbon and energy and precious minerals that make up our world and our lives? Hold on to that bigger picture, and then ask the universe: what is the right thing to do with this plastic bag, that cardboard box, this twice-worn shirt, that years-old can of beans?

Maybe, imbued with new meaning, you hold onto this object longer. Or maybe, imbued with new meaning, you find a better home for this object than you can give it, a different place where it will have a longer life, or where it sparks more joy. Our hope is if we all do this, over and over, in time we will let go of our wants that are forged in fear, and hold on to what we actually need. And most importantly, fueled by hope, we will see what we can bring to each other. We hope you’ll join us again a month from now, with your stone, to tell us what you found, and how you will move forward.

We can make this place beautiful.

A version of the text above was printed in these little invitation booklets that folks could take home with them

We gathered again a month later, and I wrote something for our closing celebration too. The event was called Reservoirs of Joy, to link up with One Book One Boulder‘s pick for 2023, The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (from which I’ve taken the quotes [in italics] below). Here’s what I wrote, it’s called Can We Let Joy Save Us?

When we gathered here a month ago, we were each invited to take a stone with us to hold onto until today. Our hope was that this stone would be your guide, your friend, as you brought awareness to your journey of commitment to acting with kindness and peace towards our world. I asked you let this stone remind you that you have choices about what to hold onto and what to let go of, be those material objects, feelings, old patterns or new convictions. We hoped that this attention to our choices would bring us closer to ourselves and to our truest needs and wants, shedding some layers of the fearful impulse to consume that so often masks those truest needs and wants.

Here’s the stone I took, and ironically enough, I’m a little sad and scared to be letting go of this stone today. We’ve had some good moments, this stone and I. Just a few days after our opening event, I had this moment of very strongly feeling like I needed to take an impulsive trip to New York City to see a play that’s based on a book that I love. But this stone was sitting on my desk as I searched for flights and hotels, and the stone jolted me into pausing. The stone asked me to ask myself if I really needed that specific, energy-intensive, expensive, carbon-emissions-heavy experience, or was there some other absence in my life underlying this impulse, an absence that could be tended to more simply, more kindly, and with less impact? There was, it turns out. All I needed to do was spend time reconnecting with a friend, the friend with whom, some five years ago, I had shared this book that I so loved.

Perhaps it is a question of priorities. What is it that is really worth pursuing? What is it we truly need? According to the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama, when we see how little we need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our well-being takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or the obsession of our lives.

There are two coffee shops within a ten minute walk of where I live, and communing with my stone over the last month has helped me realize that I am in very different moods when I want to visit each of them. When I go to one, where, to be honest, the coffee and pastries are solid but not amazing, I go because there’s a reasonable chance I’ll run into the kind-looking man who told me once about a conversation he had overheard, right there outside the coffee shop, between a raven and a sparrow. He’s there often (so are the birds), and I like that we can reliably look into each other’s eyes and smile just for a second. When I go to the other coffee shop, it’s because the coffee is really very good. In the last month, my stone has helped me see that I need moments of joyful connection more than I need good coffee.

The more we turn towards others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”

I want to be a reservoir of joy. I like the journey I’ve begun with this rock, and I’m somewhat nervous that when I let go of the rock the journey will end too. But it doesn’t have to. We can, each of us, keep moving slowly closer and closer to living in alignment with our deepest convictions, convictions that I know, at their heart, are life-affirming, peaceful, and joyful. We’ve gathered here today to let go of our rocks—let’s instead make today’s shared experience the thing we carry with us going forward. Let us be each other’s rocks.

I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about climate change, about the state of the world and how quickly we seem to be destroying it, and I’m not going to pretend we’ve freed ourselves entirely from overwhelm in the last month, any of us. But I have a feeling that we may have gotten a little bit closer to seeing how we save ourselves—through joy.

And the thing about joy is that it needs to flow. It needs to flow among us, and for joy to flow freely we need to trust completely that we will never run out of joy. As Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, quoted in The Book of Joy:

When you are grateful, you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. A grateful world is a world of joyful people.

I am grateful to you all for joining us here today. I’m grateful for this journey we are on together. I think we’ll be okay, if we let joy flow through us, and in flowing, let it truly change how we connect with each other and the world we live in.

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