Photo / Zara Walker
On a sticky evening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I sit behind a tripod, peering at the screen of a small HD camcorder as my friend and his mom let me interview them about life, dance and surviving in Brazil on a very limited income.
My friend, who I’ve known since he was a skinny 18-year-old boy wearing oversized newsy caps, has transformed into a muscled 25-year-old-man with short dreads and silver spectacles. He’s always had a way of bridging the space between high concept and simple truth, with a heart-centered perspective.
While speaking about the importance of unity, he pauses mid-sentence to seek out a more tactile representation for his thoughts. He glances at his mom and asks her to give him her hand. Lacing his fingers in hers he says,
“When a circle is formed it’s the symbol of union. This union allows us to circulate energy. This energy is what we call love.”
Expanding and shrinking the circle within their interlocked fingers, he demonstrates how to stay linked while responding to movement with pliable ease.
“When there’s flexibility in love, there is more power,” he smiles.
In essence, the circle has more strength if it can bend and undulate with the velocity of movement or change.
This isn’t just high concept - this is proven in physics and executed in architecture. It’s a truth that scientists use as well as dancers. It’s somewhere in our human psyche – the knowledge that the circle has to form and then the circle has to flex.
For a time, when I wasn't working on my documentary in Rio de Janeiro, I was an elementary school dance teacher in Portland, Oregon. In both of those seemingly discordant worlds, I yearned to discover an equally discordant piece of information.
I yearned to discover what aspects of our humanity we most need to survive a rapidly warming world.
I wondered, with shallow breath during sleepless dawns, how we will collectively handle the global climate crisis as it worsens. Beyond the tangible, necessary, overdue measures we must all be willing to take, what deep human well we will draw upon to get us the rest of the way there?
How will we stand as a united front, so we can move the planet and ourselves from one side of this crisis to the other?
In the gym, on an unusually sunny January afternoon in Portland, twenty-eight first graders look at me wide eyed as I hold a stuffed frog in my arms. I tell them the story of how this small frog traveled through the Land Of Froo Froo, across the snowy mountains and over the lava bridge, until she reached the castle of a very grumpy king.
They lean forward in their cross-legged position and practically tip onto their tummies, as I explain how the frog gathered all of her courage to perform a dance for the king, hoping that in a fit of inspiration, he'd overturn the unjust law that prohibited Froo Froo-ians the right to dance. (If you didn't know this part of make-believe history, there was a terrible decree in 17fluffywiggle20 that no one in the land of Froo Froo could move in any way that resembled dancing and Froo Froo-ians have been living stiffly under the law ever since).
After my story about the brave little frog and her journey to dance for the king (including her subsequent success overturning the anti-dance law - i.e. Frog V. King) the kids line up against the side wall and prepare to work on their core strength, their spatial acuity and their buoyancy. Or put more simply, they prepare to jump like small frogs along a green painted line that takes them from one side of the gym to the other.
I instruct them to move one at a time, to keep one frog paw on each side of the line as they jump and to wait on the other side until every frog makes it across. I know they're excited about jumping. I know they are ready to impersonate the brave little frog from the tale I spun and I know they'll giggle and squeal as they revel in the satisfaction of pushing against gravity. But I don't anticipate what they'll do when they reach the other side. I don't imagine suddenly bearing witness to a profound display of teamwork, as twenty-eight six-year-olds show me the counterpart to courage.
The first child to froggy jump across the green line, (which is clearly imagined to be the lava bridge our protagonist traveled on her way to see the king), is Jack. When Jack gets to the other side, he immediately begins calling out the name of the next little girl who’s waiting to jump.
"Annie!" he cries, "Annie, keep going, I'm here! Annie! You can do it!"
He yells out to her like this, the entire time she jumps the line, until she makes it to the other side. When Annie gets to Jack, she begins screaming the name of their next classmate alongside him, clapping her hands wildly.
And so on and so forth - every child that makes it across joins the group and begins to call the next brave jumper to the other side of the gym.
The expression on each child's face when they begin the journey looks like courage infused with ecstatic relief.
The relief of being seen and valued. The relief of being driven by en-courage-ment from their community. And so the courage builds. The consuming cacophony that accompanies the final member of the class is outright jubilant. It is dramatically heightened because at this point the stakes are clear.
NO ONE will be left behind.
And finding themselves so close to getting the whole group across the divide, this class of twenty-eight first graders, will not settle for twenty-seven.
I find myself asking why, as adults, do we so often lose our deep inner knowing for how communities function
successfully and for what individuals need to thrive? Why do we lose our basic ability to
encourage each other with wild, sincere abandon, in the simplest and greatest of tasks?
Those 6-year-olds on that January day, they tapped right into a universal code.
We feel braver when our community bears wide-eyed-witness to our challenges, loving us amidst our fear and our confidence.
We feel braver when someone waits on the other side, reminding us over and over, “I’m here!”
We feel braver when someone promises to call out our name until we make it all the way across.
As the crisis of climate change makes a tangible and disturbing impact, we need to rapidly join forces. We need to figure out what we can save and how to survive in the face of what we can't save.
Blame and villainization have no place. Rigidity, isolation and withholding will be our undoing.
We need to form a circle. We need to bend and undulate with the forces of change without breaking the circle we’ve formed. We need to call each other’s names over and over and over.
In Brazil, on that warm, sticky night, my camera battery blinks an alarming five minutes left of charge, but I know not to rush my friend and his mom. I know not to break the flow of the interview.
Hands still intertwined, my friend looks at his mother and searches for words to wrap up his metaphor.
“If we leave the circle, if we abandon each other, we…”
She cuts in without hesitation, looking directly at my camera and finishes his sentence,
“We lose everything.”