An Ode to You, Matt

Ever since I found out the news, I’ve been searching for the right words to say; the most potent string of sentences to express the profound impact you’ve had on my life, Matt. I take a cold, hard look at the person I am today, the things I care and write about, the music I listen to, and the life experiences I’ve been blessed with all as a direct result of our friendship and I can quite confidently tell you that I wouldn’t be the woman I am if it weren’t for knowing you. You were one of the kindest, smartest souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and I’m heartbroken, honestly, that you’re gone.

We met in one of the three classes we shared together in our first year of college and instantly hit it off. You were a total weirdo tree-hugging type and I knew I’d found a soul mate in you. I’d had such a shit time in school being bullied relentlessly and having struggled to make friends after moving back from the US just in time for my GCSEs. I couldn’t wait to put that place behind me. South Downs offered a whole new opportunity for me to come into my own, and I did. You played a pretty significant role in my happiness there. The cozy feeling of finally having met “my people”.

You lived right next door to South Downs, so on breaks, we’d wander over to yours and play with Cleo, bimble around the garden, and play video games before bouncing back to college to do work. You introduced me to all these cool documentaries that I’d never heard of but were somehow perfectly aligned with the environmental awareness I had been cultivating for a couple of years prior. Then there was Jeremy Gilley and World Peace Day. Remember that? Remember when Sharon let us ditch our Environmental Science class so that we could go see him speak at my old school? She was the best. Do you remember how pissed off we were when that shitty administration didn’t let us interview him afterwards? So rude.

Then I started that beach clean-up group. You were my biggest supporter. (And Sharon, obvs.) You were there encouraging me every step of the way and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that. We did some good work during that time! Even if we were in the minority in caring about litter. I guess that’s pretty uncool when you’re 17? Fuck everyone else though, right?

One thing you had so very right was your music taste. I stormed into college all angry with my Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and you brought some skank into my life. All. That. Ska. God, I wonder how differently my life would have turned out if you hadn’t introduced me to Capdown. That tiny little band that no one has heard of. You burned me that CD and I listened to it on repeat on my drives to and from college. Remember the time we saw them, when you came to visit me in Plymouth while I was at Uni? That was such a fun night, even if I did get properly smacked in the head. Totally worth it. And I think about how a strange friendship of mine unfolded a few years later over our mutual love of that band. I had just moved into a new house and the neighbor’s kitchen door was open and it faced mine. Blasting out, into the chilly winter sunshine was Capdown! I instantly became pals with those guys and ended up in a relationship with one of them. I wonder where I’d be now if that chain of events hadn’t happened…

There was also that time during Uni that I came to visit you in St. Austell. You were working at the Eden Project and living in the middle of nowhere. Man, was that place a sight to behold though! What a delicious treat! I’ve never been back since, but I will one day – I promise.

After that, you were doing PhD life on the east coast while I was slaving away in my lab in Bristol. I love that we used to write letters to each other and send postcards from our travels. Hardly anyone our age does that. One of those postcards came from you while you were in Tenerife. It sounded so unbelievably beautiful. Those dark skies and bright stars. I went to visit as per your recommendation and it broke my heart that I couldn’t get a hold of you afterwards to tell you all about it. We did everything you suggested while we were there and it blew our minds. All of it. I wanted to tell you how right you were. How I saw the world through your eyes in the way that you wished so many others did. I never got to tell you about my stay at the hostel up Mt. Teide, or the trek down through Masca and the kayak sesh round the coastline to Los Gigantes that followed. I don’t know anyone else who has done those things and all I ever wanted was to tell you about them. You understood.

I know you’re in another dimension reading this and raving about how much cooler things are in the afterlife. One day I’ll meet you there. Maybe we’ll finally get to interview Jeremy Gilley, eh? I love and miss you and think about you often. May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.

ICE, Travel Ban, and Prolonged Weirdness in Arizona

It’s July and while friends and family back home in the UK and Europe are returning to some semblance of normality, I continue in much the same fashion as I did back in March when this pandemic first hit: at home, alone.

I’m not entirely alone. Thankfully there are a few dogs and humans knocking about, preventing me from going entirely insane. Family, friends, and colleagues, however, are perpetually out of reach. I’m not sure how much longer for, either.

It’s summer in southern Arizona, which means two things: hazy days and sweaty nights. Residents have but one choice to make: whether they’re going to be morning larks or night owls. There’s no middle ground when it’s a thousand degrees outside. We are afforded sunrise or sunset, with occasional dances in the monsoon rains. During the rest of the time, we’re bound indoors exposing ourselves to the freezer when it all gets a bit too much.

Arizona has been one of the US epicenters for COVID-19 transmission rates and it’s not difficult to see why; we’re all stuck inside, in close proximity, facing the breeding ground that is air conditioning. Businesses have been lax. Masks have only been deemed essential very recently. Plus, it’s the wild, wild west, so there are plenty of entitled, conspiritualist types who feel they are above reasonable societal constructs like empathy and compassion. It’s a real hoot, I tell you.

Tucson is a humble, “blue” pocket in an otherwise mostly-red state. It’s easy to forget that I live inside that bubble until I venture out into the mask-less chaos of ridiculously large trucks boasting bumper stickers declaring Trump adoration, religious fanaticism, or confirmed racist status. These days, thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. I keep it that way; it’s safer within the city limits where the influence of the university’s scientific community can somewhat prevail. Reason: it’s a precious commodity.

Any hope that I had for a normal-ish fall semester crumbled some time ago. I’ve not given up hope on the future altogether (don’t worry, Mum,) but I am finding it difficult to imagine any kind of normal classroom scenario or ability to socialise at a bar for many months. It’s quite depressing. And all because a vast swathe of the population would rather take a chance on continuing life as normal. After all, their president says everything is OK, therefore it must be. No matter the nonexistent scientific credentials on either end. It’s a statement that says “your life matters not if it inconveniences me” and that, my friends, is America.

I’ve seen a load of graphics floating around social media that say some variation of:

“I don’t know how to tell you that you should be kind to people.”

And it’s true.

At first, I asked what went so wrong in the childhoods of all of these people that could have made them so lacking in empathy and compassion for others. Then, I took a step back and remembered: it’s a symptom of US culture itself; the dark side of the American Dream mentality of “I’ll do what I damn well please, no matter the cost to others.”

There’s a lot of fear in this country. Fear of scarcity. Fear of being any less than the best. Fear of other people. It has intensified since 2016 – since America decided that politics and professionalism no longer mattered, instead opting for sensationalist reality TV as a decent substitute.

The US has suffered from systemic racism since it decided to take root on native land and destroy its people all those years ago. Since then, we’ve watched as the white man has succeeded with ease, while all other peoples have fought ten times as hard for one-tenth of the financial gain.

I’m a white British woman living in the US and even I have experienced xenophobia. The US is notoriously difficult to live and work in for anyone without significant money in the bank and has been for some time, but during Trump’s administration, we’ve seen the visa process be extended from 2 to 6 months. More recently, during the COVID-19 crisis, applications have terminated altogether, the Social Security Administration has closed down and a travel ban has been put in place for those traveling to the US from the UK and much of Europe. There are no signs of these things lifting anytime soon.

Then there was the ICE ruling. In case it slipped below your radar, allow me to enlighten you. US Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) (a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security) passed a rule on July 6th, 2020, stating that international students studying in the US would be unable to continue this fall if their universities were exclusively offering online classes. I wrote more about it here. Thankfully the rule was rescinded after countless prominent universities filed federal lawsuits, but it begs the question: if this can slip through, what might come next?

It’s all a bit of a mess. I’m safe in the sense that I have a roof over my head and plenty to eat, but that isn’t enough. Most of life’s pleasures lie out of arm’s length and I fear the toll on mental health that this hostility and negligence will take. America continues to fall apart and it’s one of the greatest social experiments ever conducted, as we further isolate ourselves from each other while our leadership fails to acknowledge that there is even a problem in the first place.

We’re resilient, and therefore undoubtedly strong enough to bounce back. But it won’t be without a touch-and-go adjustment period. I don’t think any of us know quite what that will look like.

Photo by Sharosh Rajasekher on Unsplash

M-m-m-my Corona

There are days that I awake feeling as though things make sense now in a way that they’ve never before. The slow pace, the perspective, and the sifting out of useless junk that quarantine has allowed are gifts to behold.

Other days I writhe with anxiety and a sadness that isn’t FOMO, because nothing fun is going on. I guess it’s a kind of grief, if I have to put a word to it. Though in reality, it isn’t grief. I don’t actually know that there is a perfect word for it. It’s an uncomfortable purgatory of sorts, whilst we decide as a collective which path we’ll take next.

We’ve found ourselves at a crossroads: a necessary shaking of the snowglobe and opportunity for a rethink from the very obvious string of poor choices we have made. The power-hungry corporations and corrupt governments that have decimated the planet and widened the poverty gap. The brainwashing and beliefs that the individual has no power. Or worse, that every person placed on the pedestal at the front of the nation is credible. Worthy. They stand therefore they must have been touched by God. Only, that couldn’t be further from the truth. No man is without his flaws. No one exempt from poor decisions that must be admitted and corrected with humility and grace.

It’s not about perfection, for none of us embody such an elusive trait. Rather, it’s about trial and error, hard work, a dose of lightheartedness and above all else: thinking with the collective in mind. Not just your family. Not even your country. Not even all the other Homo sapiens on the planet. But the complex, interwoven, delicate architecture that dictates how many years we’ve got left on Earth before it’s declared a dead zone. After all, as the saying goes: we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

I’m realising the importance of playtime with friends. Of dancefloors packed with conscious, considerate humans. Of people-watching from my favourite cafe. Of xeno: those fleeting exchanges between strangers that are random, but powerful and alleviate any feelings of loneliness.

I’m thinking more each day of the allure of being at least somewhat self-sufficient. Whether that’s how I procure my energy or how I get delicious, nutritious food onto my table.

I’m becoming more aware of the humanistic need for physical touch, communication through body language and facial expression and the ways we bond through shared sound, scent and taste.

I’m reminded that the sense of community is always there. Sometimes it gets smothered underneath tales of darkness, fed to us in one very specific narrative that thrives off of fear and hopelessness amongst the masses. But most people – like, almost all of the people on this planet – are wonderful and want exactly the same things as each other: to survive and thrive.

We’re all on different journeys as we continue to quarantine so that we can protect our loved ones and society at large. And amongst even my most level-headed peers there are moments of uncertainty, fear and doubt about what looms over yonder on a horizon that fluctuates between blindingly bright and stygian as the night.

Know that the oscillations are normal; you’re an anomaly if you have been without a dull, dark day throughout all of this. But you can hold space for a future that’s better and I encourage you to spend at least a small portion of your time envisioning this.

What do you want to see for yourself and others? What kind of beautiful, brighter things that seem unimaginable in this current paradigm? National healthcare in America? No child going hungry? The use of psychadelics for healing, without stigma? A reverse on climate change and ocean acidifcation? The preservation of wildlife and collapsed fish stocks? No taboo for discussing mental health? Think big and embellish these ideals with as many details as you can. You have nothing to lose in doing so; only an abundance to gain.

I can’t tell you what tomorrow will look like, let alone next week. But I can tell you what I want to see for us all and I’m cementing it down in my mind’s eye. I hope you are too.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Zero Waste & Veganism No Longer Cut The Mustard In This Climate Crisis

So much changed in my life in 2019. It was a big year for me and I’m still very much processing it all as I ride the wave into this new decade that promises to be many things, including bizarre and chaotic from what I’ve seen at first glance. The themes that resonate above all else are vulnerability and communication. I’ll elaborate on those in a little bit.

I moved to Arizona a few months ago for an entirely new chapter in my life. I’ll be here a while; I’m in Grad School now. It’s hard. My brain is constantly being pushed to its limit. Plus, I’m in America; the land of “more is more”, “guns = life” and, supposedly, “each man for himself”.

I went through a pretty arduous but liberating process ridding my life of almost all of my possessions before I left Bristol last summer. Only the essentials made the cut and so I’ve been starting life, effectively, from scratch. And do you know what? It has been bloody marvelous.

One of the things that I’ve been struck by is the sheer kindness of total strangers since I’ve moved here. To help me get around, find my way when I’m lost, give me things “to get you started”, invite me to social gatherings, introduce me to people, buy me dinner, ask me about myself and be genuinely interested…the list goes on.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in my spiritual homeland and, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that when we’re where we’re meant to be, magical stuff happens. Or, perhaps it’s because America has this sense of community and “love thy neighbour” that’s infectious and undercuts the bullshit capitalist/corporate nonsense thrust upon its people by the powers that be. Either way, people have become my priority.

I still call myself an environmentalist; arguably more so now than ever before, actually. And it has always been that way. Ever since I was a kid organising litter-picking groups and volunteering outdoors, I’ve made life choices to study, document and communicate environmental destruction, highlighting the need for greater awareness about a myriad conundrums. I’ve tried to have the lowest impact without infringing on my own happiness or mental health. I can hand-on-heart say that I’ve always try to do what’s right.

Only, I don’t exist in a vacuum.

Over the past few years, I’ve lived a very privileged life. I’ve had a decent job, lived in a great city, had a healthy body and no dependents etc. I’ve spent my days indulging in a trendy and pretentious, “I’m vegan, no thank you, no straw, please” bubble of pretending that that is enough. That eating exclusively vegan is somehow God-like, or lugging my “zero waste essentials” kit everywhere with me is elevating me to Sainthood.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with taking tofu over pork in your ramen or getting a pumpkin spice latte in your own to-go cup, but when these choices come at the cost of isolation and disconnection from others, I’m not so sure I still agree with them. Nor do I agree with blindly accepting anything (no matter how vegan/zero waste-ish) without considering the supply chain. There are huge issues with a lot of soy and bamboo coffee cups – remember that!

Since I’ve lived here, for the sake of maintaining my sanity and not having a total breakdown, I’ve had to adopt a go-with-the-flow mentality. Moving abroad, processing the change in culture, having to make a whole bunch of new friends, learning my way around a new place, navigating a change in career (and not being funny, but, like, a really fucking challenging one at that), it would have just been too much for me to keep the reins really tight on myself and refuse to consume any plastic or animal products, as I was trying my best to do for a while in Bristol.

I’ve attended seminars with free pizza and I’ve eaten it. I’ve been recommended the “best burritos in town” (cheese mandatory) and I’ve devoured them, often whilst sat contentedly staring at a cactus for 20 minutes or more. I’ve purchased nachos in a styrofoam container. I regularly buy groceries packaged in plastic. I’ve eaten fish and enjoyed every bite. There are a bunch of things. But, do you know what? I’ve never been happier in my entire life.

To clarify: I don’t think that you need to eat animal products or consume single-use plastic to be happy; you can do without either when you’re in the groove. Rather, it’s the barriers I’ve done my best to dissolve, allowing for fruitful, meaningful connections with others that has really given me the good feels throughout this settling-in process.

See, we’re all the same. We all want what we think is best for ourselves and our loved ones, based on the ways that we have been raised and the experiences we’ve encountered. Sometimes kindness to the environment factors into that. Sometimes it doesn’t, unfortunately. One thing I have learned is that amazing things happen when people feel a part of something greater than themselves. That old sense of community I mentioned earlier? Yeah, that. We see it most profoundly in times of crisis which – although tragic – warms my heart. Just take a look at Australia right now.

We live in a time where the societal constructs favour isolation and loneliness. Depressing as that is to consider, lengthy work weeks and life within a cell phone do not equal the magic formula for love and connection. Neither does an economy built on the absolute requirement for its participants to perpetuate the high turnover of cheaply made, disposable items once coveted, rapidly diminished to garbage.

It’s not enough that we try to do our bit in isolation. It’s easy to be able to go to the grocery store, fill the cart with plant-based foods, pack the stuff in reusable totes and be done with it. We desperately need more than that, though. We need to work towards healthier communities where no person is left behind. We must listen better, prioritise healthy minds and spirits, fight constantly for equality amongst all peoples and most importantly find common ground where it appears – on the surface – as though there is none.

A few weeks ago, I saw a group of people picketing for veganism on a street corner outside a major grocery store. While I considered myself vegan for a long time and think it’s great to forgo animal products in the name of a healthier planet, this tactic as a means of converting the masses simply doesn’t work. In the same way that it’s ineffective to ram your religion down another’s throat and expect a positive response, so too is trying to shame others into eating what you eat. Your intentions might be pure and the message important for the collective wellbeing, but if you don’t convey it in a way that’s digestible, it’ll stay solely in your sphere.

I have a friend that works for a company that specialises in helping organisations in disagreement over environmental issues find common ground and rationally work towards solutions that everyone can agree upon. They consider the concerns of all parties involved with equal respect. This is how we need to approach all of our issues when it comes to the best path forward through our current climate crisis. We all think we know best; that our facts are the right ones to be taken as gospel. Scientific evidence must be brought to the table, though, and used at the basis of any decision-making. That’s where we’re tremendously lacking and it’s a total embarassment considering the mind-blowing bounty of resources available that all point at a different way of doing things despite leaders creating policies based on opinions.

Find. Common. Ground. Do what these leaders aren’t doing, because you’re smarter. Share your struggles, embrace the hardships and know that it’s OK to lean on others for support. Be open to having your opinions swayed. Be receptive to learning new things. Be comfortable challenging the very foundations upon which your beliefs have been built.

In one of my cell biology classes this past semester, we delved into the mechanics of actin and myosin filaments in helping cells do stuff like contract and move things around. The take-home message was that cells must be dynamic in order to be healthy. Nerdy as it sounds, I very much take this as a metaphor for life. Nothing is static. What can you think of that does well when it stagnates? Nothing. No, we like fresh and flowing and I encourage you to approach your thoughts and beliefs with the same logic. Be open to moving with the times; the survival of this planet depends on it.

Overtourism, Underappreciation: How Do We Tackle Our Travel Crisis?

There’s a very particular type of learning that comes through travel; in particular venturing to a faraway place where the culture and language are entirely different to your own. I like the way that it puts you in your place a bit: shows you how much you really don’t know about the world. It also challenges you on the most basic levels of communication and navigation – things we take entirely for granted and spare little thought in our day-to-day lives.

I’m very fortunate to have grown up as a third culture kid, because despite the longing for home and loneliness I battle with at times, I traverse through life fairly open-minded and interested in others whose lives are wildly different to my own. And honestly, without tooting my own horn, I think it’d be pretty stellar if more people were as curious.

With the internet bringing us ever closer together, the world seemingly shrinking before our very eyes and platforms like Instagram unlikely to disappear any time soon, we have at our disposal access to travel unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. All the flight deals, phenomenal ease of staying connected even in the most remote of locations and enough FOMO-inducing travel inspo pics to scroll through for the next 100 years.

I feel bittersweet about it all, to be honest. On the one hand I think about the ways in which travel has enriched my life and shaped me into the person I am today (and God, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.) But on the other, I gingerly peep at the harsh reality that perhaps the world’s beautiful natural spaces aren’t abundant enough to go around. We’re at 7.7 billion people on this planet and while each deserves an enriching experience during his or her time on Earth, is it really doable? Is there a way to keep doing all the travel while avoiding the plight of overtourism?

Overtourism has trashed our beaches, national parks and cities and while the average person truly means no harm, there’s an unfortunate “mob mentality” that kicks in when we see one person disrespecting a space; it suddenly seems to send a wave of permission through the masses that a free-for-all is totally acceptable. Look at what happened with the US government shutdown earlier this year? National parks now face years of damage that is, tragically, thought to be irreversible in some places.

So who stays and who goes? That’s the uncomfortable question. Or is there a way that we can still travel freely without leaving our footprint in the sand, as it were?

The obvious first step in responsible travel is to do so with the environment at the forefront of your mind. Before the photo-ops are explored and the bar has been located, I wonder how things might be different if we weren’t so entitled. It’s a complete privelege to visit another person’s land (or sea) and we must do so with immense respect. We need to adopt humility and pause to face the reality that those places don’t need any sign of us after we leave. None of us are that special. And while other nations kindly welcome us in and let us stay for a while, exploring what they have to offer, we will eventually leave and they do not wish to be stuck with the house left trashed by the party, if you catch my drift? Neither would you, I’m sure.

But let’s say everyone transformed overnight into respectful tourists, sticking to the footpaths and leaving no trace of their plasti wrappers, we still face the harsh truth that the numbers are staggering. The number of flights and pressure to expand our airports. The number of Air Bnb’s forcing out locals from their hometowns. And the population density that doesn’t go unnoticed by local flora and fauna, reshaping wildlife communities in search of tranquility. These things will still exist.

And so I pose the question – even if you have no answer: how do we stop the death and destruction that overtourism has caused and is popular culture ruining the world more today than it ever has?

Photo by Febiyan on Unsplash

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