The first guest story on website for the Stories of Good series is by Devi Lockwood, who after recently graduating from Harvard, got a travel fellowship, which she's putting to good use by cycling around the world and asking people about climate change. She shares a story from the beginning of her journey, and discovers that goodness is found in doing the work she loves with joy and compassion.
Sometimes it's not what you're asking, it's how you listen.
Minnie Mouse taps Mickey’s shoulder. “Mira, la chica con el letrero,” she mouths, pointing to the cardboard sign hanging around my neck.
Mickey saunters towards me in his big, red shoes. The oversized mouse head obscures any suggestion of eyes beneath, so I take a guess and look at what I think is a reasonable human eye-level as we speak.
“You want a story about climate change?” Mickey growls, a note of incredulity in his voice. His words are muffled slightly through the mask. I nod, point at the audio recorder in my hand and he nods back. I press record.
“Just you wait,” Mickey breathes, his voice hushed and dark. “This whole thing–– Hollywood, the lights,” he says, gesturing at the block of Times Square that surrounds us, “––is all an illusion. Deep down something is very, very wrong.”
Though it is after 10pm, it could be daytime for all the illuminated advertisements that hover over our heads like gods. A beacon of light: this America. Janelle Monáe and Windows Play. Gillette Razors and Coca Cola.
“The water's gonna come and wash all this away,” Mickey continues, his hands waving up and down the tall buildings surrounding us. “The whole coastline of the country will change, this year, even. When it happens, it will set our country back 100 years. There will be wars over water. Just you wait.”
Just this afternoon I left my hometown in the woods of Connecticut to come to New York City for the People’s Climate March. I’m wearing a cardboard sign around my neck as a way to engage with strangers who I would not otherwise have the opportunity to speak with. The sign has the words “tell me a story about climate change” scrawled across its surface in Sharpie on one side, and “tell me a story about water” on the other.
I glance away from Mickey’s wide-eyed stare to watch a teetering child and his two French-speaking parents approach Batman. The father tries to hand his child over to the unsmiling character for a photo, but the boy starts to wail in fear. Batman leers on, avoiding my eye.
Elmo approaches and lifts up his red, furry mask to reveal a smiling face beneath. “Tell a story about climate change?” he asks. I can hear the Spanish lilt in his accent. “My English isn’t so good. You speak Spanish?”
“Sí, se habla español.” I raise a silent thank you to every language teacher I have ever had.
“Soy de la selva.” I am from the rainforest, he begins. Elmo hails from a small town in Peru at the edge of the trees. He removes the red head completely as he speaks, cradling it at his hip as he unravels the story of deforestation in his hometown: the soil is loose and some drinking water sources have been rendered unsafe and the transport trucks belch dirty air. The logging money that was supposed to benefit the people has somehow funneled elsewhere. I nod and listen and record. It is the only thing I know how to do. We part ways as two children approach to have their photo taken with these icons of American joy.
I enter the Times Square subway station with my head full and swimming, trying to imagine the tracks flooded as they were after Hurricane Sandy. Water has filled this area before. Heck, there are pumps running throughout the city even now to keep this underwater tunnel system intact. Mickey’s eerie voice plays again through my head.
Deep down something is very, very wrong.
The water’s gonna come.
I cut the darkness by giving a warm hello to the man next to me in line where we wait to charge our Metro Cards. He is on his way back from a classic rock concert and asks what my sign is all about.
“I’m traveling the world for a year to collect stories from people I meet about water and climate change,” I tell him, watching the lines of his face reconfigure to something between incredulity and oh dear goodness why would you do such a thing. Though I have been away from home for less than 24 hours, I am becoming used to this reaction. The line moves forward. It is our turn to use the machines.
I fumble with my credit card at the kiosk, inserting and removing it too quickly. The now not-so-strange stranger says: “Try it slower. Once again. Even slower. There it is,” and points me in the direction of the outbound train. We part ways and wish each other a good night.
I tip the man playing bongos at the platform with the change in my pocket and he smiles.
Out of the corner of my eye I can half-sense when people are reading my sign, giving the words “tell me a story” a first and second thought. Some mouth out the sentence as they furrow their brows. Many look away. I love to watch the facial expressions, the raised eyebrows or half-smile. I pull out my iPhone to check the time and notice that the battery has died. Crap. What stop am I supposed to get off at?
The subway car is mostly empty but for a teen listening to loud music on headphones and two women sitting side by side, one with her head on the other’s shoulder. A baby sleeps on her mother’s lap. It is getting late.
A few stops later, the couple exits and one woman tells me: “I couldn’t think of a story about water just now, but I’ll tell my partner one once we get home.” I can’t help but smile. Thanks to the simplicity of a cardboard sign, the stories I hear are only one fraction of the stories that people might be thinking of when they read it. I love the idea of storytelling as activism, of inspiring people to tell stories on these topics to their loved ones or the humans in their immediate vicinity. I am a walking prompt.
At the next stop a woman with a nametag (“Hello, My Name is Guadalupe”) enters and sits two seats down from me. Guadalupe reads my sign and says: “Honey, you part of the Climate March?”
“I just finished up work at the union and we’re fixing to march ourselves. I’m in charge of signing people in,” she says, pride shining through her voice. “And water? We can’t survive without it. Water is all around us. Did you know your body is made up of 80% water?” It’s too loud to record audio, so I listen and remember.
I have forgotten whether I get off at 145th St or 157th. “Guadalupe,” I ask, “would you mind checking something on your iPhone for me?” We open the map app to check my friend’s address in relation to the subway stop, but the Internet doesn't work underground.
“I’ve got a son your age, just turned 22 last month,” Guadalupe continues, her hand resting on her phone in case we find some miracle of underground service. “He loves sports. Everything about them. There’s a park by the river in our neighborhood, and he goes there most days. There ain’t a sport he don’t play.”
Blissfully, the train rolls out above ground for a stop and we deduce from the pixels of the map that I’m getting off at 145th, the same stop as Guadalupe. A few minutes later, we exit the train together and I follow Guadalupe as she expertly weaves through the crowd with speed and precision. She leaves me with a set of directions––“Cross the street, go down the hill, and take a right, honey. That will get you right to where you need to be,”–– and a kiss on the cheek.
“You're nicer than most New Yorkers,” I laugh, recalling an episode earlier that day in which I was desperately trying to find a bathroom in midtown, but each place I tried would kick me out. It is surprisingly difficult to pee in the city.
“Well, I'm from the Caribbean!” Guadalupe retorts, her body beaming the warmth of elsewhere.
I don’t think I’ll ever be a New Yorker. I can’t stand walking that fast.
The kind of work I love is complicated, is a test of endurance, is unfinishable. This project, by design, will never be complete. I am learning to love the questions more than the answers.
Water and climate change are ideal issues for this kind of inquiry because no single story can encapsulate their entirety. The whole of human experience on these subjects is messy. The whole is slippery, is something that I can’t put my hands on (but I can listen to its pulse).
Listening is an act of love, and my work is never done.
Devi K. Lockwood is a poet, touring cyclist, and storyteller currently traveling the world with a cardboard sign around her neck to collect stories from people she meets about water and climate change. Her work has been published by Split This Rock, Sinister Wisdom, Verse Wisconsin, Cicada, Clockhouse, and is forthcoming in Adrienne. She is also editing a book-length work of poems, There Are No Straight Lines, inspired by the stories people told her on an 800-mile solo bike trip that she took in 2013 along the Mississippi River Trail. You can follow her travels at www.onebikeoneyear.wordpress.com, on twitter, and on facebook. If you have a climate change story, send it her way.