Often when I’m in the zone on stage, I’ll ask the audience if there’s anything they want to hear a poem about. Based on the response, I may pull something out of my repertoire or sometimes make up something new on the spot.
Several years ago I was doing a poetry gig in Wellington in a sweet art space high above the city street. I’d been speaking lots of intense political poems. I asked for audience requests, and a voice piped up from the crowd: “Have you got any poems about hope?”
The audience member’s request was friendly, but I felt like I was being called out. Sure I could rhyme impressively about the need for revolution, about processing our grief for the world, about the strength to stand up and fight. But could I actually invoke and believe in a hopeful future?
At that moment, I really couldn’t. At that time, I’d been reimmersing myself in the latest climate science, and I just could not feel good about the future of the world. It seemed like during the handful of years since I’d completed my master’s degree in environmental science, the predictions around climate change had gotten progressively more immediate and more frightening. Hope? No, that was not on the list of emotions I could channel on stage at that time.
I took it as a challenge, though. I knew I’d been called out. So I put writing a hope poem on my creative to-do list. However, it stayed on my to-do list. I just couldn’t get there.
Then, a few years later, I was granted a residency at a writer’s retreat in California – the Mesa Refuge, one of the places that has truly blessed my creative path. Lots of incredible writers have passed through this refuge in Point Reyes, where a few writers at a time live while working on projects relevant to ecological and social change. In the upstairs bedroom, with views over the estuary, there’s a tradition of writers signing their names on the walls in the walk-in closet. I was mindblown to discover that just a few weeks earlier, the tower bedroom where I was staying had been inhabited by the brilliant Rebecca Solnit, one of my absolute literary sheroes. I prayed that Rebecca’s propensity for creative lateral thinking might be still lingering in the room and rub off on me.
Downstairs in the epic Refuge library, I found a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark. I totally recommend this book to any progressive souls who like to nerd out about history and how change actually happens over time. The book helped me reorient my own concept of hope – and out came my Hope poem, at last. As Solnit writes:
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”
So Hope doesn't mean we believe a particular outcome will happen. Hope means we choose to believe that the future is unwritten – and therefore that it is worth trying to write it. It is a commitment to love in the face of uncertainty.
I spoke my new Hope poem to my musical coconspirator Daniel Wander across the world on Skype one night, and he composed music for it, which we eventually recorded for my album Sacred Activist:
I’m still not at all into spiritual teachers who tell us we are crossing some magic cosmic threshold and everything is gonna be just fine if we stop worrying. Hope doesn’t mean blind optimism.
But another revelation in my journey with hope came this past summer, on the dance floor. My buddies in the band Mad Hallelujah were playing their song Condor. Various indigenous peoples of the Americas share a prophecy that the condor and eagle will fly again together. This prophecy is a metaphor for the ways of feminine and masculine, South and North coming back into balance, so that healing may come to the Earth. And while I was dancing to the Condor song, things inside me started moving too; hearing my friends sing their words about this healing prophecy, I realised that I still hadn't personally been believing in the possibility of a good future on Earth. That’s a funny thing, because I know many people see me as this inspiring beacon of positivity and hope when I’m on stage. But in spite of my ongoing rallying for good causes, when I’m off stage, I usually haven’t really been able to imagine that everything might actually turn out okay on this planet.
In truth I’ve been focused on medicinal cannabis activism the last few years in part because it feels easier than my history in ecological activism. What a relief to feel my voice joining with others to change things in the space of just a few years! Although the cannabis campaign has certainly been hard and frustrating at times, in other ways it feels like a vacation from the slog of fighting things like poison, habitat destruction and climate change, because the media loves this cause and the country does too, and so things are moving.
But what about our planet, and the climate? Many eco folks might say the perspective that it’s not gonna turn out okay for most species on Earth is just realistic! But I also reckon that believing we are definitely doomed is not helpful.
I’ve been on a massive physical healing journey myself in recent years to find my way out of a decade-plus of debilitating chronic illness. So I've had to learn a lot about the role of the mind in healing. One of the things that fascinates me most is that we know that belief can cure us; that’s what the placebo effect is all about. If someone takes a sugar pill, or even has a fake surgery, their faith in the treatment can heal them. On the other hand, if you talk to people who work with cancer patients, they’ll be well aware that folks who believe they are doomed tend to go downhill quickly. Our minds are that powerful. When our cells believe something, they can enact it.
So what about the healing of our world? If we are all one body, then it seems to me someone has got to plant some seeds of faith in the collective consciousness. Not a false faith, but an openness to possibility. An openness to grace and positive transformation. If we all believe we are definitely doomed, we are probably doomed; how could we possibly organize effective movements for change if we don’t actually believe we have the power to change things? Starting to believe in the impossible makes it a little more possible. I’m not saying faith in itself is enough; we still need to do the work. But belief in possibility opens a doorway. And it can start with any of us choosing to hold that candle of vision.
Rupert Sheldrake writes about morphic resonance — the concept that our collective consciousness is not confined to any one of our individual brains, but rather exists as a field. When one person stands up for change, it makes it more possible for others to do the same – whether or not we know about each other. I reflect on when I was busted for cannabis four years ago and was facing a massive list of criminal charges against me. I tuned into my highest self and asked, “Why is this happening to me?” I was told two reasons: “The plant wants to grow into the light and this is part of that”; and “This is to anchor sacred warriorship, in yourself and for the planet.” Looking back on the last few years, I can see how both of these purposes have been solidly in motion.
So on that sweaty dancefloor this summer, grooving to my brothers’ song for the Condor, I made a vow – or rather I remembered a vow that perhaps I made before I was born. This vow is to hold in myself the vision of a healed world; to anchor this vision of possibility on Earth, in the collective mindscape. Those who know my work know that I am NOT talking about denying the many, many problems that crave our work, or denying the necessity of pragmatic activism in the world. What I am denying is the inevitability of doom. The future has not been written yet. We are writing it every moment, and we need to know that. As I have recited so many times in the conclusion to my poem Sacred Activist:
For the power of the heart is infinite,
and the song of love is a symphony,
and we’ve all got an instrument to play
and if we close our eyes the darkness won’t go away
But when we open them holding each others’ hands,
together we have the strength to stand
on the edge of the cliff in strength and bliss
open hearts on the edge of a vast abyss.
So fellow firewalkers, summon your wits
A path of glowing embers is raked from the pit
If you reach trance, your foot soles will not be burned by hot coals
If that is possible – then ANYTHING is.