Cactuses, climate anxiety and some dancing

Essay Dec 3, 2021
Saguaros sillhouetted against the sunset with ragged clouds and a dark horizon. Photo by Nico, November 2021, Tucson, AZ.

The city is an endless strip mall and as the multiple lanes on either side gradually slim down into just two, one coming and one going, the flat openness finally begins to make more sense. The empty parking lots and oversized facades of store after store are replaced by the staccato of saguaro, cholla, barrel cactus, palo verde, ocotillo, prickly pear, creosote. Tall, spindly, stout, bushy, gashing and precise, a dancer turning her face, fragrant beyond belief after the rains settle the dust.

We park at the top of the pass amid the sunset crowds, last little car in a line of pickups and SUVs, then decide to switch over to a new friend’s backseat and drive down the other side of the mountain. A sandy path takes us deeper in, the sunset seeming to last longer than possible, the blazing barely holding on to the massive horizon piled with clouds receding into colors ominous, fleshy, seductive. The trail signs are nearly unreadable in the flash of bullet holes piled one on top of the other, the metal twisting back like lips. The one-two whistle in the bushes nearby is a curve-billed thrasher, our phones decide by some mystery of sound-wave analysis.

It is dark and our conversation swirls into eddies of thought familiar now, inevitable almost. The new friend says they haven’t been doing much this last month, but slowing down and moving intentionally, stepping lighter. They have the financial privilege to do so, and clarify that fact gracefully and easily, unceremoniously. I’m grateful to encounter someone wealthy who isn’t trying to accumulate more, isn’t using the added privilege of their degree to build a new career for themself, but rather, is simply existing, and redistributing, and carefully building community.

When I first tried to articulate any of this, months ago, I only got a few paragraphs in before reaching the conclusion I can’t help, and the last sentence, stranded on its own line, was simply: “I think the best option we may have is to stop.” I’ve been thinking about stopping as perhaps the first sane and possible response to the steady burn and flood of our generation, at least short of direct action. Of course, the incredible resistance movements led by Indigenous water defenders, such as the ongoing struggle by the Wet'suwet'en nation in so-called British Columbia, are what’s needed most. But I haven’t found it possible to join the front lines, and don’t know when or if I will. In the absence of direct action, I’m starting to think inaction may be the best thing I can do for the planet. Reducing my labor to the minimum I need to survive while trying to consume in proportion at least means I’m not expanding capitalism’s death drive. Continuing to work and buy and drive and grow a career and make art while living with such incredible anxiety and despair about the future of our world is a sort of mental divide that I feel will take me down. But these ideas are so complex and contradictory, enmeshed with relativities of privilege and hypocrisy, I find it hard to even write them down, much less to try to fully explain them.

We’re still walking down the dirt road at sunset. I make an attempt at articulating my theory of inactivity. We discover, this new friend and I, that we’ve been reading the same person, and his questions have not dug us out of our hole but instead redirected our digging in a different direction, perhaps out the side, we joke. The hole is, of course, climate anxiety or despair or apocalypse paralysis or late-stage capitalism rage or incomprehensible grief or the festering gashes of extractivism or the impossible bind of knowing yourself a settler or simply colonialism.

My climate anxiety has gotten a lot worse over the last six months.


The summer blossomed and sweltered across the shallow beaches of Rhode Island, my backyard growing unruly and full with vegetables and weeds as I reencountered friends and danced a little and cautiously sipped drinks at reopened bars, and slowly ventured out beyond the prudence of Providence. I spent those months turning the soil in a beautiful garden in a wealthy neighborhood, picking out invasive worms that wriggled and jumped ecstatic in a death-dance rapture trying to split themselves into two, reproducing asexually so as to keep churning the soil into coffee grounds, dry, dry, dry and nutrientless. I would drop them into buckets of soapy water where they writhed more and smelled like shit as they died. Their advance was unstoppable, tens of acres in a single season, depleting the earth as they went, with no predators, no poisons, no reason in this part of the world. I wanted to exult in their unnerving ability to reproduce, their lust for life, but it was all too terrifying.

By the end of the summer, I found they’d reached my own garden, destroying the soil I’d spent two years working to improve. Hands covered in the slime of their splitting, I knelt down in the weeds crying, howling, nearly hysterical. I couldn’t take it anymore: the diseased rosebushes, the worms a solid roiling mass filling even my dreams, the haze from wildfires on the other side of the continent blurring my vision, the tears of anger and despair dripping into that horrid dirt where beautiful plants still grew. But for how long, I couldn’t help but ask, over and over, how long, the anticipatory grief sucking me in.


Here, the saguaros twist into such graceful shapes and line the mountains like matchsticks and sometimes two curl around each other in a cuddle and sometimes an arm will droop like a long deadly dick and I think about why flaccid penises are seen as so bad and unsexy and what it does to a person to rely on things like hard and raging and stiff for pleasure. But in the dark, like now, the saguaros look more fuzzy than sharp, like they might be nice to hug, and we wonder how old they are, counting arms, 100, 200 years, more? How has it been to watch this city in the desert grow glowing in every direction? As we hike up the mountain, she pauses before a massive, elegant cactus to cry and I wish my feelings of reverence spilled out of me so, too. What animals have made their homes in the flesh of this plant, what droughts and fires and pillage has it survived? It is not as spongy, between the spikes, as it looks, but we still laugh at its give and bounce.


I think of this flesh, expanding in years of rain and growing thin in drought, at the dance class with three middle-aged women when the instructor tells us, voice crackling out of the computer in the corner of the studio, to move as though we were sponges, entirely soft and yielding, every organ giving in and every bone becoming pliable. We gently rise off the floor, arms spreading like a saguaro’s first century, accelerated to meet my human quickness, and our four bodies, spanning three generations of women’s lives, twist and spin around in the warm November light. Occasionally, the disembodied voice urges us to slow or spread or soften even deeper, and eventually tells us to pair up with one another. We drift into orbits. I’ve never danced quite like this with a woman who could be my mother or even my grandmother, and I’m aware, too, of the gap between our genders, how I know I am being read despite my tight bike shorts and long hair and sports bra.

So it begins uneasily, though soft, of course, and gentle, showing each other what our bodies can do, can still do, might yet do. She mirrors me faithfully rather than shifting in opposition, so I mirror her in return and our hands twirl around our torsos, above our heads, reach for the floor, and I wonder about her knees, how much can I tumble and roll if she is so intent on matching my movements. With trust easing in, hips drop and sway and a subtle eroticism comes between us, allows us to nearly touch fingertips, to drift further and hold each other’s presence merely in mind, and I do go to the floor, and she does too, a little, and at some point I speed up and spin around and around her, defying her ability to mirror, but she twists in place until I fall dizzy to her feet. We end with hands fluttering once again, now grazing each other’s face in a sort of prayer, a devotion, to age and difference and here we are, moving in our bodies despite.


In the sand, she started rolling down the dunes with abandon and it was a sort of slow motion, not in the sense of an action done slowly, but rather an experience that looked fast slowed down, the sand arcing over her and filling her dark curls with pure white dust at each twist down the dune face, grains tumbling in succession around a swirling body sinking and falling, falling and shifting, the earth responding to her shapes on its surface, and I went down after her, too fast at first, unable to emulate the grace of her dance, until I learned my own way, gathering grains in my arms and desperately burying myself, my legs, my hips, my belly, in dune, and breathing heavy dragging myself up its dissolving face, in these reinventions of performance shared just between two, three, maybe four, and the land, I’m finding a way to make with little mark, and this is satisfying, until now I try to type it up and wonder if rendering my dance back on the page that sent me running to my body in the first place is not some treason, a regressive recommitment to permanence, to productivity, to filling the world with stuff after months of attempting the opposite.


There’s a spot in the middle of my back, a reliably fucked-up vertebrae, I can always crack in a satisfying cascade of pain with the correct choreography of arching and twisting. I fear it cementing into a permanent sear down my spinal cord but can’t help pushing into the pop of bone slipping snapping into bone. Akin to how hard can they bite me, how long can I stand the teeth dragging across my shoulder and when does it become pleasure. The hand riding up my esophagus tightening tightening, letting go just before gasping. Face ground down under palm, gripped between eager fingers, kept just a breath away from lips until we can’t take it anymore. Savor the soreness the next day, the blossoming splay of violet and blueback ringing my neck all the way down between shoulder blades.

Three times in the last two years my trapezius has erupted into unbearable clenching, sending daggers out radially across my back, into my neck, even down my arm, nearly to fingertips. Coughed up my therapy budget for massages instead, the pain became so. I’ve grown wary of sleeping on too-soft pillows, or pushing my head too far between my shoulders, or sitting too long too hunched over a desk. A mere lace-like suggestion of knotting is enough to make me recoil, pray for mercy, breathe deep to soothe my shoulders. Yet when the vertebrae in the middle of my back beckons to be cracked, I give in gratefully, fearfully.


I’m lying on top of my balls by the side of a pool in the middle of the desert. Emerging from the water freezing from the night’s chill, the tiny hairs covering my body are slicked wet and swimming in sunscreen oil. My chest catches reflections of the unrelenting sunshine in an eerie, glazed way, like the skin is turning to liquid bronze. I think if I were to melt in this heat right now it would be as rivulets of molten metal pouring across the pavement. My nipples are a little itchy, not quite sore but irritating, and this is a sign, and I wonder when they will finally begin to grow. Below my bathing suit, a tight pink panty holds my dick down between my legs and holds my testicles up on either side of the fold in my hips. I’m lying on top of my tucked balls so they press up against the bottom of my belly, so I don’t feel the hunger that should come at this hour, only a hot fullness in my abdomen.

I’m reading David Wojnarovick’s memoir and want to write like him, how could you not, urgent and seething and in nearly every moment sexual, even the pen turned on as it scrapes across the page, raging against the death machine called america, a memoir of disintegration, sentences boiling over into each other inevitably, language like a camera roving across the contours of a life in defiance.

“I may be living a life that is the equivalent of a ride on an upside-down road but it is only to shake all the ropes off, even the types of mortality.”

“When I was small and it would rain I thought it rained all over the world but now I don’t think so.”

There are so many marvelous lines I would just quote entire chapters if I could.


We huddled tighter to the hard patch of dirt as the heatwave ripped toward us turning soil into coals, burning everything even though there was no green left to ignite. Somehow we weathered the blistering wind that tattered our clothes and left us lashless. Pulled ourselves off the molten ground and avoided the raging flames as best we could in a cruel echo of our childhood games, when we pretended the asphalt was lava and teetered playfully on the cracks to avoid falling in. Others walked in the direction of a massive iron door in the distance, and we followed hoping for some respite from our home become a sudden desert. We walked in a daze of shallow breaths.

I don’t remember how we made it all the way to the door, but I suppose it was by simply putting one foot in front of the other and stumbling through. The door opened into a sort of warehouse that wasn’t quite edenic, but was nothing like the inferno outside. Green grass, stands of trees, flowing water. People gathered in groups under the shade, holding each other and making sure they were alright. We were inside an outside, the refuge seeming a projection of our heat-warped minds, an impossible architecture of memory and loss.

Leaving my loves resting, I wandered around trying to make sense of where we were. I felt that underneath the grass the earth still roiled in agony, like it might slip out from beneath my feet and turn into the scorching reality I knew was just outside. Deeper in the warehouse were people who’d been there for longer, whose memory of hell had been smoothed over by the easy breeze in the leaves. They played tennis on flawless clay courts, running back and forth on feet with no traces of blisters or burns.

I couldn’t help but move furtively, hiding in the bushes, as I watched these carefree people. My rags and soot-covered face would anger them, remind them of what was outside, and they would turn on me, I thought. But I somehow also didn’t want them to accept me. Would I, too, forget that there was nothing left outside? That we were kept behind a massive iron wall? That this blue sky and green grass couldn’t possibly be real because all of that was gone, long ago burnt away and smothered in smoke?

As I pictured where I’d just come from, the smoldering as far as the eye could see, the acrid fumes clogging my nose and mouth, the tennis courts began to sink into the earth. The impossible architecture of the warehouse suddenly revealed itself, sucking everyone around me into the molten center of the earth coming to meet its now-molten surface. The planet turning itself inside-out just as we’d attempted to keep the outside in. I saw my legs melting into the grass, charring and curling into matchsticks and catching flame.


I’ve gotten to the point where walking down this desert road I confess to a near-stranger that I’m ambitious and selfish and would take most any payoff now for the space and time to make the art I see in my mind. They are generous in saying it is a false dichotomy, and I’ve long thought the same, but I’m sincerely beginning to suspect I would take a fascist publisher’s advance nowadays, and that sounds pretty solidly contradictory to me. I find it disgusting to give a company my anticapitalist words in return for helping them clean their image with a good college-educated white Latinx trans girl book. But I’m losing my faith in the ability of community-based, mutually-funded art to actualize the scale of my artistic dreams, and perhaps finally admitting I don’t want to settle for something smaller. So caught in the bind between accepting a slower, more difficult and diffused version of my visions for the sake of my politics, and selling out for my art, I’m wondering if I’ll give up on my ethical commitments given the chance.

To even consider such a choice is a tremendous privilege, though selling out still takes a fuck ton of work. Applying for grants and residencies, getting an agent, dealing with editors and publishers and managers all requires tremendous time and effort, and there’s so much I don’t understand. I think of all the incredible art made under duress and constraints, and how many artists I love have lost their fire in bed with capitalism, and I imagine the awful twisting sour sense of hypocrisy I’d feel trying to write anything remotely revolutionary for a major publishing house. And yet also how many amazing artists have done just that, how many books put out by big-time presses have deeply moved me and strengthened my will to revolt, been banned and burned though they were published by opportunistic capitalists, who turn around and publish our very oppressors words, too. So on and on, back and forth, while in this paralysis of ethics and art and politics and revolution I can’t write, can’t find work, can’t rest, can hardly dream.


I want to write towards freedom, not as an abstract concept, but as a guiding principle to center joy and abundance and possibilities full of life in the worlds I create. I’m tired of writing against forces of death, writing that digs the wounds deeper. When I forget about publishers and fascists and landlords for a day, I come up with three different storylines for science fiction novels, trilogies, films where we can thrive. When I forget, I have the energy to write something like an essay for the first time in months, see? My thoughts are actually allowed out of the dam of constant questioning. I don’t tend to doubt the merits of my art, or what people will think of it, because I make things I enjoy and trust someone else will, too. But imagining my art in service of capitalism, though it is inevitable, makes me never want to write again.