Loving Harder a Drier, Hotter Place

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In a new book, Naomi Ortiz calls on disability skillsets to offer new rituals for staying connected to the Sonoran Desert.

Poems/Prose by Naomi Ortiz
Interview by Kimi Eisele

What was your inspiration and intent for Rituals of Climate Change?

The ClimateLore logo, featuring a yellow sun with the words "ClimateLore" in yellow.

Naomi Ortiz: When I finished Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, my first book, one of the components I identified for self-care was relationship with place, being able to rely on place outside of people-based support. In my own relationship with place, here in the Sonoran Desert, I was observing changes that felt scary. The desert is getting drying and hotter, and I found myself really withdrawing. I felt powerless, vulnerable, and scared.  The desert has been a source of support for my entire life, and I need it, but if I am turning away and can’t be in love with what’s around me then how can I participate in its protection and future? I needed to figure out how to have a relationship with this place. In addition to poems and paintings, Rituals for Climate Change includes a series of essays, which are a conversation with the desert about how I can show up as I am, disabled. I’m not able to go out and pick buffelgrass, so what can I do? I write about “loving harder,” which is what the desert tells me to do, and the layers of how “loving harder” has functioned in my life, which sometimes has been at a high cost. I grapple with how “loving harder” can look different in terms of a connection with land.

Book cover, “Rituals for Climate Change: A Crip Struggle for Ecojustice.” Naomi Ortiz Painting “Mending” © 2021 of maguey plant with tall flower stalk. On each stalk arm there are different objects, a raven, candles with a ribbon of Milagros, a heart with cholla flowers, a rug, bird nest, the waxing, waning and full moon and maguey flowers. 3 monarch butterflies are flying by. In the background is sand and mountains.
Book cover featuring “Mending,” painting by Naomi Ortiz

Can you talk about the intersections between climate change and disability. In what ways does the changing planet particularly impact people with disabilities?

I want to flip that question and talk about what disability offers us in this moment. As disabled people, we need to not be left behind. We have things to offer that don’t always get included in the conversation. We have skillsets for this time of climate crisis. And not just skillsets, realities. One of which is a confrontation with vulnerability. Disabled people do not have an option of not confronting vulnerability. We navigate the close edge of vulnerability constantly. We are also much more practiced in interdependence. There’s a definition of ableism which talks about how a fear of vulnerability is a foundational aspect of why disabled people are discriminated against or excluded.  Non-disabled people are afraid to acknowledge the potential future of disability in their own bodies. But climate change makes us all vulnerable, and vulnerability will be much more part of everyone’s lives in tangible ways.

Disabled people, and I’m using this in a general, cultural way—each disabled person obviously has different levels of familiarity and skills—but collectively, as a disability community we have a much better sense of respecting our own body’s capacity. Non-disabled society often treats capacity like failure, that having limits is a failure. The disabled body or mind is an entryway in to thinking about our limits and capacity. We, as a society, really need an embodied sense of limits so we can truly understand the limits and capacities of the place where we live.

What do you mean by “rituals” and why do they matter?

In Sustaining Spirit, I define ritual a few different ways, but the short version is “an intentional act that nourishes us and connect us with ourselves and with the bigger picture.”

And I also quote Maria de la Cruz, a midwife, who says, “All ceremonies are for the purpose of movement.” I needed a way to move through something that feels so big and overwhelming, so I needed ceremony. I use ritual to help me feel connected to myself and place, this thing larger than me. These tools were my scaffolding for thinking about how to engage in this really difficult question of addressing my fear of climate change.

I think about this book as a book of accompaniment. The reader is accompanying me as I go through this journey and I’m accompanying the reader as they go on their own journey to explore these difficult questions that are arising in this time. That is part of ritual for me, too.

 Ode to Plastic Cups 

“The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean.”1
                                                      Zero waste definition, Wikipedia 2022

Weight of both reusable glass plus liquid means
my wrist twists down
the only direction it bends
sends drink to splash on carpets or slippery floor

Worse yet
non-flexing elbow means arm
smacks cup across room with accidental gusto
                                              at least once a week

Beloved coffee cups
shatter into h u n d r e d s of p i e c e s
must dredge energy to clean up now
hot beverages, my expensive habit

At restaurants, I have to ask for a straw
slick perspiring drink
pointless to even try to lift
to lips with fingers, hand, shoulder
Instead, I bat and slide glass across tabletop
position straw below mouth, sip
then push it back, nudge, shift

Except, every once in a while, I miscalculate
or glass bottom catches on table surface
to topple and douse eating companion with cold beverage
saturate my clothes and shoes good

Unless the cup is plastic

Oh, chemically bonded vessel, with your springy forgiveness
to bounce passively on floor, patiently listless
you wait for me to retrieve you in my own time

Oh, plastic cup
with your bright shiny colors
your fun designs
your resilient sides
As scooter squeezes you between wheel and wall
you may bend, but do not crack where you lie

Weight light, large brim
I can sip straight from the rim

Glossy red party cups sold in long plastic bags
last me month-long jags
I stock up, dollar store deals
just what works for my body
call it an accommodation
this need for plastic cups

As disabled person
independence is precarious
daily life and reason
constructed upon a wobbly set of Crip hacks
get me from, can’t to good enough

Where is my place in zero waste?

1 Wikipedia, s.v. "Zero waste," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero_waste.
Sandstone cliff walls and formation painting. A raven flies and their larger shadow glides over the cliff. A flowering plant grows in a patch of dirt on the side of a cliff.
Cancion del Cuervo, painting by Naomi Ortiz
Ritual for Courage 

When I need courage, I draw plants

Like safety can be quantified in drawing, therefore knowing, weeds
which grow in my yard, at the side of the road, in the arroyo

In this dry gritty dirt where I sit, life springs up unadorned where animal or wind
dropped seed
                                                  amidst everything

Pencil lines arch, friction of hand slides over page, shakes loose what scares me

As shape becomes form, confidence is inspired by stems flung open wide to sun
Leaves bend in flow of breeze, relax, give themselves some room

                                                 Tiny flowers at the end of long peduncle
                                                 Entire plant, smooth to the touch
                                                 Blue-green leaves notched at the margin
                                                 Later, learn: Leaves edible, medicinal herb
                                                 Papalo Quelite

A practice to learn the secrets behind a name

Fortitude unearthed by greeting what lives at my feet

Love as Refuge (Part 4)

Light-skinned Mestize with dark hair, silver hoop earrings, burgundy lipstick and a black sweater with a white star sits in their scooter smiling surrounded by golden creosote bushes. Photo credit: Rachel Marie Photography
Naomi Ortiz. Rachel Marie Photography

My city is a collection of roads, buildings, xeriscape landscapes, and carefully maintained plants from hundreds of miles away. This structure facilitates my day-to-day, encompasses my home, coffeeshops where I meet with friends, and sidewalks I wheel down. Yet, even with so much movement, my grief feels stagnant, a puddle collecting on the concrete. All I can think is, Go to the desert.

I ask my partner for assistance, and we find a time for him to drive me out through the cool dry air to one of the two mountain parks that sandwich the city. Finding our way down a dirt road to a parking lot full of vehicles, laughter and son jarocho music float through the air. I am annoyed, as I also try to remind myself that disability access means ease for so many people to also enjoy this place. My partner helps me slowly piece my scooter together and checks in before heading off on his own hike. I roll off down a path to find a solitary spot.

On my way, pass towering tangle of branches
Crisp tang plucked from thorny branch
Orange, plumper than pebble-sized leaves
Watermelon sweet but does not drip
Salty, like Pica sprinkled from its tiny white-and-green plastic bag
Grind berry meat and seed with jaw, crush with teeth, grate and crack
Desert berry bush surprise
Finger pad flesh punctured holes sting from picking, ain’t no joke
Name in English, Hackberry
Must have better names from other peoples, from other times
I would name it Sunberry, or maybe, Bloodberry
Sweet strength

Hand and forearm are in the middle of the painting, palm side up. One half of the painting is a daytime desert scene showing cacti and mountains. The sun is the shape of a human heart. Roots go from the soil into the arm. The other half of the painting is a nighttime desert scene. Cacti and mountains are shown in moonlight. The moon is the shape of a human heart. A line goes from the moon into the arm.
Home, painting by Naomi Ortiz

I take it as a sign that I found my spot. I wiggle out of my scooter and onto the dirt. I hope that the voluptuous bush blocks me enough from the tourists and that I will not be continuously pestered about if I am okay. I briefly think through sassy responses and how I should make myself a sign for these times to hang on the back of my scooter, “I am okay. Just enjoying the view.” I take a deep breath and try to stop worrying about anticipated annoyance. I settle into what I really came here to feel.

A shadow from a passing hawk looks like it flies up the side and over each cactus, dancing over the soil. My sign to begin. I tell the desert my sorrow, quietly I sing it. This verbalizing, though necessary, does not feel like it is quite enough. I need more.

In this moment, I realize how angry I am—a big ball ferociously swirls in my chest. Once seen, once felt, anguish breaks through, drenching my fury. Tears drip down my cheeks, and yet, instead of release, everything feels trapped under a layer of despair. I lay my head down. I surrender to the dirt.

I am finally fully present with how grief is showing up. Body slumped. The sun is tucked behind clouds, dulling the blazing light. Ants march, moving so fast,

it looks like they jump across the sand versus crawl. Somewhere a cardinal whistles its song.

A ritual comes because I am ready. As the chatter and laughter rises and falls in the distance, I close my eyes and imagine a bubble of pink light hovering above the ground in front of my body. My anger, worry, and despair at first drip, then stream, into this container, which stretches and expands to somehow hold it all. I say a prayer to the universe or Great Spirit for help with this part. I channel whatever I can of these emotions and thoughts into this ball until I know there is nothing more ready to leave my body. Then, I imagine this round bloated container surrounded by patient love, and send it deep into the ground. I trust that earth can compost any energy.

The next part of my ritual I do grudgingly. I ask myself for four things I can accept right now. Start with simple—the dirt is digging into my arm. I have gratitude for the hackberries that have grown this season. A fly landed and is crawling on my skin. Then more challenging—I can’t control politics.

Moving off the ground back into my scooter, I feel things are not better but they do feel different. Shifted. I find there is an ounce of space to shift into.


Naomi Ortiz (they/she) explores the cultivation of care and connection within states of stress. Their new collection, Rituals for Climate Change: A Crip Struggle for Ecojustice, reimagines our relationship with the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and challenges who is an environmentalist. Their non-fiction book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, provides informative tools and insightful strategies for diverse communities on addressing burnout. Ortiz is also a co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Every Place on the Map is Disabled: Poems and Essays on Disability. Ortiz was a 2022 Disability Futures Fellow (Ford & Mellon Foundation) and was awarded a Reclaiming the US/Mexico Border Narrative Grant. They emphasize interdependence and spiritual growth through their poetry, writing, facilitation, and visual art.

1 thought on “Loving Harder a Drier, Hotter Place”

  1. Your book is the one all the twenty-year-olds in my life want to borrow. Reading it is a ritual for hope for me–that we can enter the shift from a limitless world of consumption to one less motorized, more thoughtful, human-scaled, more humane. That we can adapt. Thank you for writing and painting it, and thanks, Kimi, for this interview!


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