At twenty-one I moved to Portland, and ended up living in a collective household of anti-nuclear activists. It was instant community for me- I met and befriended scores of people who worked, organized, and played together. We went to rallies and marches against nuclear power, visited friends in jail for civil disobedience, leafleted and wrote and partied. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened in 1979, and I leafleted the nuclear disaster movie The China Syndrome, which ironically was out at the time.
In the picture above I am at a rally at Portland’s Waterfront Park. I am 22 or 23. I am wearing a black t-shirt with a skull and atomic graphic, instead of crossbones, and the large letters say “Plutonium=Slow Death”. I’m smiling and pointing at my head, which has a bright yellow beanie cap on it with a solar-powered propeller. It’s an odd juxtaposition of somber messaging and hopeful goofiness.
As my life filled with school, parenting, work, and life, my activism subsided, or moved to other areas, including feminism and gay rights. Still my concerns about nuclear energy and weapons were a waxing and waning part of my consciousness.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986. This April 26th will be the 25th anniversary of that event. I learned, with the rest of the world, about the horrors of nuclear meltdown, and information from previous activism only served to deepen my fear and hasten my denial.
It wasn’t until the last decade that I decided to reconnect to my activist self. After 9/11 I resolved to return to work on environmental issues. I had heard of and long admired the writing of deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and had read her book “Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age” years before. Along with my organizing around issues of climate change and environmental justice, I took the opportunity to read, to go to workshops, and ultimately to offer workshops on spirituality and activism, particularly addressing the issue of how to stay present to pain and injustice in the world without going into denial, immobilizing depression, or cynicism.
It was from Joanna that I heard more details about Chernobyl. She had visited villages in some of the worst hit areas in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, offering her work. What isn’t commonly known is that when the radioactive clouds from the plant were rising and winds started blowing them toward Moscow, the government decided to take action. They seeded the clouds, causing poison rain to fall on forests and villages throughout the area. Essentially, these communities were sacrificed for the good of the larger populace of Moscow.
People got sick, many died. Now, twenty-five years later, in the village of Nobozybkov in the Ukraine, they must use Geiger counters regularly to choose where the safest places are for children to play, or to make gardens. The radiation moves with dust, and wind, and rain, and they never have a permanent safe zone. People continue to sicken and die. The generation born after the accident has heartbreaking levels of infertility and stillbirths. The forest areas around their homes are off limits, because the wood in the trees holds the radiation. They called themselves “people of the forest”, and a vital part of their connection to the land and culture has been destroyed.
And now, we are in the midst of the ongoing disaster in Fukushima, Japan. There are ongoing heroic efforts of workers risking their lives, short and long-term, to contain and mitigate a nuclear event that experts admit may take months to get under control, with unknown long-term effects. The radiation levels inside the affected plant are so high, it is no longer measurable by their instruments.
I have a rich, joyful, and rewarding life, but there is not one day that goes by right now when I don’t weep for all affected, and for all who will be affected…untold generations. I know that if I shut down around the grief of this, I will end up feeling my joy as a blunted, diminished experience as well. So, I try to remain faithful to my connections with spirit and the world, despite the desire, sometimes, for escape and numbing.
But then, I heard this last week- there is a nonprofit group, Viola, from the affected areas of Chernobyl that connects local school kids wanting to reach out to kids in Japan, launching a “Children of Chernobyl” program to connect with Japanese schoolchildren. The group is also sharing their hard-won best practices on food safety, public health, mental health and PTSD, and voluminous data gleaned from their decades of living and working in one of the world’s most toxic irradiated zones. They are translating their grassroots education materials into Japanese, and connecting with Japanese activists via Skype and online communications.
The beauty and poignancy of the children and adults of Chernobyl reaching out to Japan to offer solace and information is both humbling and inspiring. It reminds me that hearts that have been broken are often the strongest in the long run. And, it makes me think that any healing in store will only come in and through community- reaching out, offering hearts and hard-won grace. In this unsettling spring of grief, fear, and global unraveling, knowing this offers an odd sort of hope in the midst of the tears, like that solar propeller spinning crazily on my head, trying to balance the words of doom written below.
For more information and to donate to Viola and their Children of Chernobyl project, go to http://livingearthgatherings.org/japan-chernobyl-children/.