Sometimes, when I’m 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 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 streets. Figuring it was ok to get gritty with a progressive urban audience, I performed a series of intense political poems. Then 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 righteously about the need for revolution, about standing up and fighting. But could I actually invoke and believe in a hopeful future?
The truth was, 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. In the last few years, 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 an important challenge, though. 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, in 2014, I was granted a residency at a writer’s retreat in California – the Mesa Refuge, a magical place that has twice blessed my creative path. The Mesa sits right on the edge of an estuary in Point Reyes, and on the edge of the North American tectonic plate - a "place for writing on the edge," they say. A few writers at a time stay and work on projects relevant to ecological and social change. In the upstairs bedroom, there’s a tradition of writers signing their names on the walls in the walk-in closet, and there are some well-known names scrawled there. My jaw dropped as I discovered that just a few weeks earlier, the tower bedroom where I was staying had been inhabited by Rebecca Solnit, one of my literary sheroes.
Downstairs in the epic Refuge library, I found a copy of Rebecca’s book Hope in the Dark. I totally recommend this book, which explores 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 doesn’t mean blind optimism. 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:
So am I hopeful? I would say my own hope is an ongoing work in progress. That's one reason it's good for me to keep performing this poem – so that I have to hear it myself.
It's been spiritually important for me to thread my voice into New Zealand's medicinal cannabis movement the last few years. At time, it's helped me shore up my sense of hope. Sure, the cannabis campaign has certainly been hard and frustrating – I like to joke that one of my primary uses for cannabis is to deal with the stress of cannabis law reform. But medicinal cannabis has still been a more fun ride for me than past campaigns I've slogged on, fighting things like pesticides, habitat destruction and climate change. The media loves the medicinal cannabis cause and the country does too, so activists get portrayed sympathetically, with lots of media attention; as advocates we support each other and collaborate well; and we're not fighting against any majorly powerful economic interests trying to tear us down. So things are moving. The outcomes are not yet anywhere near perfect, and I carry some grief around this for sure. Still, I have to keep reminding myself that within just a few years, sick people and their families have stepped out of the margins and actually caused a change in the law! I feel myself anchoring this experience in my bones to remember for the future: we are changing things, we can change things, remember this.
But what about our planet; our climate? Many eco folks might say it's just realistic to believe that it’s not gonna turn out okay for most species on Earth. I can't argue with that. But I also reckon that believing we are definitely doomed is not helpful.
Beliefs matter. I’ve been on a massive physical healing journey myself in recent years, finding my way out of a decade-plus of debilitating chronic pain. So I've had to learn a lot about the role of the mind in healing. One of the things that fascinates me is that belief on its own can cure our physical body; that’s what the placebo effect is all about. If someone takes a sugar pill, or even has a fake surgery, the person's faith in the treatment can heal them. On the other hand, if you talk to people who work with cancer patients, they’ll generally agree 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. I've seen it in my own healing. And in the collective body, 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.
So I have made a vow. 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 attention, or about 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 remember 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.