Mental Health on Parliament’s Lawn
I’ve been back on the lawn now for 5 days and haven’t done any blogs or social media posts. I’ve enjoyed very much my partner Julie and our 4 year old daughter Hana being with me for 3 of these last 5 days. They returned to Christchurch on Friday.
Many of you who are engaged with the climate and ecological crisis will also be familiar with struggles similar to myself, with low mood, anxiety or despair. For me, it is hard to single out a single, dominant cause. Mental health seems to have so many levers attached to it, some more significant levers and other more minor levers. One example of a mood “lever” is if I’m feeling low, just trimming my beard or having a haircut usually helps me feel significantly better.
A big feature of low mood for me is also feeling very overwhelmed: completely swamped by expectations, unmet duties, unfinished tasks. Feeling overwhelmed I fall into being less and less productive, and so progressively feel even worse.
I went through a period after my 21 day hunger strike of feeling significantly low and unproductive. Again, it is difficult to identify all the levers behind my post hunger strike low mood: it could have been part of the transition back to eating from fasting for that length of time. One fascinating observation I have from hunger striking is that my emotions were very quiet and stable when I wasn’t eating, and then returning to eating was like the furnace of emotions in my belly was lit up again. Equally, my low mood post hunger strike may have had significant cause in losing the very clear engagement and focus I had while hunger striking.
Anyhow, the last time I returned to Parliament’s lawn (on Rick’s 20th and final day of hunger strike), there was an immediate lift in my mood by returning to the lawn. It felt deeply right to be there for Rick’s last hunger strike day, and Rick’s very tender and still presence was a privilege to be with. I do think hunger striking enables the more noble side of ourselves (that everyone has in their own unique way) to shine more brightly and I was soothed by that day sitting in Rick’s shining presence.
In the following few days I remained on the lawn that week, I remember feeling somewhat lonely and sad at times. Sad because the hunger strikes and vigil were reaching an end (the decision to continue the vigil to the election was only made later that week) and lonely because I was alone on the lawn for much of the mid week and also alone in the evenings at Viard House. However, feeling sad or feeling lonely isn’t the same as the despondent flatness I experience in what I’m calling “low mood”. There is a poignancy in loneliness and sadness, that still feels alive and connected to love and caring. Whereas what I’m describing as “low mood” is more akin to despondency, even despair; it is a more lifeless, trapped and disconnected feeling.
So, my most recent stint on the lawn was overall a very enlivening and supportive experience. This was also significantly helped by a wonderful final day on the Friday. A larger than expected turnout came to Fridays for Future and the XR roadshow finale event. It was a joyful day of reunions and new connections.
In the few days prior to returning to Wellington this time, I was falling again into those familiar feelings of overwhelm and “low mood”. I’m remembering too irritability, sometimes a short fuse with Julie and Hana that feels ugly and shameful to admit. All part of the multi-levered, stuck and tangled knot of “low mood”. So, it was good to leave the complexity of home duties and expectations in Christchurch, come to Wellington with Julie and Hana and have quality time together: on Parliament’s lawn with light duty 4 hour days, exploring the city together and resting at Island Bay in the generous and loving hospitality of Francesca and Dolf.
However, returning to Parliament’s lawn for this final stint (final for this particular action, I do hope to return again in future), did not entirely lift my recently returned low mood. I’ve been enjoyed very much the precious quality time with Julie and Hana and experienced also some returning clarity of mind by sitting on the lawn. But the shadow of unmet duties and unfinished tasks has remained present, albeit a lighter, less overbearing presence. My “low mood” has still been nipping at my heels and its nipping is more debilitating than enabling!
So we come to Vigil Day 97: it’s Saturday and I set up on Parliament’s lawn just after 10am. Kieran joins me shortly, carrying a yellow ukulele and his motorized skateboard with part of its underneath workings hanging off: “It’s brains fell out on the way here” Kieran announces cheerfully, and then after Kieran’s “How are you?” elicits a “I’m a little low” from me, he announces “We’re going to give a concert!” An audience of zero and any low mood objections from me are obviously irrelevant!
Kieran sets himself up on Molly’s folding plastic stool and tunes up his ukulele. We take turns at choosing songs. Gradually I warm to the experience, although some of the songs Kieran chooses I barely or simply don’t know, choosing songs in turn means there are some I’m familiar with. One of my early choices, Neil Young’s “Old Man”, we didn’t do so well. I’d have liked to have sung it better while thinking of my own Dad: despite my fraught relationship with him, now looking in the mirror I see him. Even hunger striking I see some of my Dad’s passion for crazy ideas! “Old Man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were . . ”
Two middle aged guys, mostly singing badly, to nobody: yet I notice a gradual shift in myself, a thawing of the heart, a relaxing of self consciousness. Kieran does a passable impression of Tom Waits singing Time: “. . the wind is making speeches and the rain sounds like a round of applause . .” Wellington weather is actually being kind today, sunshine and little wind. I join the chorus with growing enthusiasm “And it’s time, time, time; And it’s time, time, time; And it’s time, time, time that you love; And it’s time, time, time”. Our singing, while it never becomes entirely in tune or on time, it does improve and our renditions of Leonard Coen’s Hallelujah and John Lennon’s Imagine were occasionally alright. Yeah!
Interspersed with this impromptu, unrehearsed performance is small conversations with occasional passers by and longer, deeper conversation with each other. I confess to Kieran that I have not yet read the 4,000 words he wrote (in a single evening) back in July for “The Homework” page on this website. This is quite a shameful admission, it is one of the unfinished tasks lost in my overwhelm soup. My admission triggers Kieran a bit also as he is such a powerhouse of support for the vigil and hunger strikers, this website, kea forum (Kieran’s discussion forum on discourse), “Imagine my Relief” podcast, interviews, videos, animations etc, etc. “Shit man, what do I have to do to get people to look at the stuff I do? Nobody is listening!” It’s ok, we are comfortable with each other; this is a good, honest moment. I promise (as much a promise to myself as a promise to Kieran) that I will “read at least half of “The Homework” tonight”. I don’t know how Kieran achieves a fraction of the vast array of his climate related work, combined with a real job at Weta workshop. Does he ever sleep? Obviously not much!
It has been a good day. Shortly after midday, preparations begin near us for the arrival of a gentleman who has walked from Tauranga carrying a small pink coffin, a hikoi to protest legal liberalization of abortion. While we don’t share the kaupapa, we are respectful and friendly and receive in kind. Kieran and I decide to vacate our space in front of King Dick, to avoid any confusion and to give the visitors space. We move with our placards to one of the nearby bench seats. It is close to 3pm when we eventually pack up for the day and go in search of an open café for coffee and further conversation.
Later I catch the number 1 bus to return to Island Bay. As the bus turns from Lambton Quay onto Hunter Street, suddenly the bus is surrounded on both sides of the street by climate protestors! WTF, why didn’t I know about this! I search the protestors faces for someone I recognise. Nobody. It seems to take ages before the bus reaches the next stop. I jump off, phoning Kieran (who I’d seen walking in the same direction carrying his brain injured scooter). No answer from Kieran, I leave a voice message and walk briskly back to the protest. Now nobody is there, only two technicians, one of them packing up a smoke machine on a trolley. I approach him and get the rest of the story: yes it was a film set and they are filming an ad “for the Government” about the need for action on climate change! I look forward to seeing it.
Into the small hours that evening I read all the 4,000 words Kieran has written, do minor edits/corrections and write larger edits for parts of the section Kieran wrote on the “seven homework points” from my whiteboard (this minor editing work was the reason I had been avoiding reading Kieran’s 4000 words), somehow losing all my editing and rewriting it. Then I follow up some of the afternoon’s conversation with Kieran by watching the latest podcast from “Image my Relief”, https://imaginemyrelief.blog/2020/09/14/ending-oil-and-gas-dependency/ (a link to a 52 minute video of Dr Terrance Loomis talking about the predatory delay behaviour of oil companies in response to the climate and eco-crisis, see also http://www.terrenceloomis.ac.nz/latest-publication.html ).
Somehow, today has pulled the right levers of my tangled “low mood” knot. My low mood has lifted (for now) and I’m engaging in some productive action.
Half way through writing this blog (written off and on through Sunday, the following day), I discover that Vigil Day 97 was also World Mental Health Day. Is there something bigger than all of us that sometimes we tap into, sometimes entering a flow of existence? Or are these serendipitous coincidences just the Universe blowing a kiss. I don’t know, but sometimes I feel low and sometimes I feel engaged, connected and alive.
Whatever state I’m in, it is all an incredible miracle; at once both fragile and robust.