So Close to Joy If Only…

Deena Metzger’s essay is brilliant and necessary. It makes for harrowing reading in a tone equal to the crisis we inhabit.

I read Deena’s urgent message while waiting for my husband in the nuclear medicine area of our local hospital, where he was undergoing tests. I am constantly struck by the privilege of those who can go to a well-equipped hospital. In many places in the world, including this country, my husband would have already died of the sepsis infection for which he is receiving prolonged antibiotic treatment. Last week, he was an in-patient here for his third bout of sepsis in as many years. I had been hoping to go to a literature and ecology conference at UC Davis, near burnt-down Paradise, but could not leave him while he was so ill. At eighty-six, in good health, still working as an actor, still co-running a theater company with me, sepsis has come out of the blue and we don’t know the cause. We recognize the symptoms, though, sudden high fever, shakes, loss of mental clarity, and we rush to the hospital. In the emergency room when he became delirious, I did think he might be dying. “Don’t go,” I whispered, over and over, laying my head on his body, close to his heart. “Please, come back to me.” (Since I wrote this, a diagnosis has been made; a serious but treatable underlying illness weakened his immune system.)

“Every love story is a tragedy,” my dear friend and great theater-maker Judith Malina always said. She died in 1986, at the age of eighty-eight. Individual death at the end of a long, fruitful life is the best for which we can hope, but it still terrifies. And the older I become, the longer the list of people I’ve loved and learned from, and worked with for a better, more peaceful, less endangered world, who are dead.

I learned about illness young. My father, at age forty-two, when I was seventeen, was stricken with inoperable cancer. He worked in a chemical plant, he sprayed his beloved roses with chemical pesticides weekly without a respirator mask, he ate meat, he smoked. He was the victim of a mental illness, untreated, which sent him into daily uncontrollable, terrifying rages. Once diagnosed, he was given toxic chemotherapy until he died. At the very end of his life, his brain had been affected and he hardly knew who I was.

I understood, then, the connection between mental health, cancer and chemical pollutants, as well as toxic medical treatment. I understood he ate himself up, and was eaten by the “high” standard of living in the West.

But we are speaking of the end of the world—the end of life as we know it, all of life, from the insects to the largest of beasts.

My daughter recently gave birth to her second child. In a cab after the theater I heard her sweet voice calling from the hospital in San Antonio. “Mama, I am having the baby,” I instantly saw her flying out of me after one last push, perfect, into the arms of the nurse, who cried out in joy, “Oh, it’s a beautiful baby,” and laid her on my chest. What will become of her child?

I debated whether or not to bring a child into this world, and had three abortions subsequent. She was born in 1980, at the height of the nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, against which both Deena and I organized, calling for unconditional, unilateral disarmament.

My friend the psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein, author of The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a peace and eco-activist, told me she never thought she would see her own child grow up. After Hiroshima, she knew we were doomed. “But, here I am, watching her age.”

Dorothy endlessly spoke about “why we can’t see what we must see in order to survive.” This was to be the subject of her last book, but then she got Alzheimer’s and died.

We are split-off. We live as if life goes on in an endless predictable round, one season after the next. We mourn individual deaths. We watch the seasons blur, the ice melt, the rains fall heavier or we endure the drought, and we know our days are numbered on this earth. Not only individually, but also collectively as a species, one among all the rest equally threatened. We are the criminals, the cause of this demise.

And we change ourselves once we have this realization. We devote ourselves to the cause of the living planet. We conserve, we stop doing what we did: driving, flying, buying so much, drinking bottled water, using plastic bags, eating meat, for goodness sake, we recycle, turn off the lights. We don’t turn on the air conditioner unless the humidity becomes unbearable. We teach, write, march, speak.

I live in New York, a city-dweller, with two fourteen–year–old cocker spaniels who read my mind as I read theirs. My daily wildlife are squirrels, sparrows, pigeons, rats, crows, water bugs, and the people of my city, in their various states of desire and need.

I lived here on September 11, 2001, a clear, cool, crisp, blue-skied, perfect New York City day, until the air was full of smoke, until we were breathing in the detritus of buildings mixed with the vaporized flesh of the victims. The city became quiet, still, contemplative. People lined up quietly to give blood (which was not needed since there were few survivors). St. Vincent’s hospital, in the Village, where the lines formed, was also the epicenter of treating AIDS. Now, it’s been torn down to make way for luxury condos. We gathered in the parks at the makeshift memorials for days after the attacks. We did not want war. “Our grief is not a cause for war,” we chorused. I did in-depth witness interviews with survivors; overwhelmingly those in our Columbia University study opposed the bombing of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq.

I lived in New York during hurricanes Irene and Sandy. I watched the Hudson meet the East River, flooding downtown Manhattan. The subways did not work. People were stranded in their NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] homes on the ocean without medicine or food. Young people from Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Movement, rushed to aid them, climbing flights of stairs in the dark, long before FEMA. I had to hitchhike to teach. People in New York have tended to bond, to become kinder, more reflective, in a disaster.

Yet I worry that the intensifying climate crisis will make us meaner and more grasping. Am I going to give up my food to feed you when I know my food is all there is. Am I going to be let into the sixth floor neighbor’s house to take shelter there from the rising water because I live on the first floor, already flooded? With two old dogs? What about sharing the last of your clean water?

There is really no place to go. No way out of this city.

Shouldn’t the elders like me volunteer to die first?

Then there’s the rage. Rage against the Republican climate-deniers, rage against the Democrats’ inaction whenever they’ve had the chance, enormous rage at the Fossil Fuel Industry, the Lobbyists, RAGE against those who deny the TRUTH. For the sake of their dividends. And whose willful denial is killing us.

This is a crisis that requires not just consciousness change but a massive people’s mobilization leading to creation of public policy for the public good. Grassroots organizations like the People’s Climate Movement, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are currently demanding implementation of a Green New Deal.

I teach Environmental Justice to college students. My job is mobilize them, tell them the truth, tell them not to drink bottled water, to eat less meat, walk more, not “Uber” which they use as a verb. My first job is to get them to remember and write down their magic moments in nature, their “meadow moment” we call it. Once they remember, they are ready to work for the planet. We speak of justice, how the poor who have done the least to cause the problems, suffer most, how closing borders during a climate crisis is a crime against humanity. My job is to fill them with solutions, not despair. My job is to change their lives.

My job is to write, a new cli-fi futurist play, – Other Than We/,- that imagines something else altogether, something as yet unthought-of, preternatural, a new start. It’s an adventure story set in the future, after “the deluge,” about the creation of a new species capable of enduring on a denuded planet, but with this caveat—a consciousness change so that henceforth each action will be attached to the heart. Thinking and feeling would not be separate. The mind itself would arrest the repulsive action. These new beings, four-legged or two, with opposable thumbs, androgynous, fast, would be conscious on a level other than we. They would have made the evolutionary leap we can feel ourselves straining to make. They would think/feel.

“Somehow our consciousness is the reason the universe is here,” says the physicist Roger Penrose who posits a quantum physics, outer-space theory about mind’s origins. (No one knows how consciousness came to be. Many believe the problem too difficult ever to be solved by the human mind.) In contrast to outer space, I propose consciousness evolved from rubbing up against other living beings, from being licked, picked at, looked at and held. From the sensual effects of the body experiencing a living world, having emerged from the mud, the water, grown up and out of decaying organic matter. These fleshy sensations began to alert us to the fact that we are separate but alike and to create Mind itself. Looking in, looking out. From a glob of flesh, thought. The formulation should, therefore, be reversed: without the living world, there is no reason for consciousness.

However it may have happened, too complex for our small minds to understand, we are bound to matter, one to the other, consciousness tied to and emerging from the living organic world which expresses various degrees of consciousness itself, wiser, as in, more sustainable, related and generous than ours. That we with our large brains would set about destroying the mulch that allows us to become and to know who we are is incomprehensible. Yet, this is precisely what is going on.

Human consciousness destroying itself for the sake of greed.

How happy we all suddenly would become with a Green New Deal. Something meaningful to do. Shared activity, work, sacrifice, delight. How full of purpose we would become, how mentally healthy, saving the world and one another. How much easier it would be to die one’s individual death while watching everyone else engaged in protecting life for successive generations. How close we are to joy, if only…

About the Author

Karen Malpedeis the co-artistic director of Theater Three Collaborative, with her partner, actor/producer George Bartenieff. She is a writer and director, author of 19 plays, including “Other Than We” which will have its world premiere at LaMama ETC, Nov. 21-Dec. 1, 2020; and “Extreme Whether” staged in New York, and in Paris during the ArtCop21. Four of her recent plays are collected in the anthology Plays in Time: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, Prophecy, Another Life, Extreme Whether. She is editor of Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays; Women in Theater: Compassion and Hope; her play Us is published in Women on the Verge: Seven Avant-Garde Plays by Women, Better People is in Angels of Power. Her numerous essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in Confrontations, Tri-Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, Torture Magazine, Dark Matter and elsewhere. For information about her theater’s work visit

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