|(My dad's stonewall, Dimond Hill Farm, Concord, NH)|
When the climate talks were in Copenhagen, my graduate department was incredibly generous in funding several students to attend. My application for a slot was an enthusiastic medley of Humanities-based, qualitative musings about why I—an Environmental Studies writing student—would be as appropriate a candidate for a ticket to Denmark as students of environmental policy, international law and energy science.
As tends to happen when quick academic decisions are necessary, more scientific and quantitatively focused students were selected. I don’t doubt that they were excellent and good choices, that their presence in Copenhagen has honed their outlook and driven many actions since that time. However, I remain impatient with the pervasive idea that numbers are some how more valuable than words. Yes, it is hard to determine if a heart has been spoken to, awakened, and what that newly beating tempo may set the body and brain off to do, but precisely because of that immeasurable potential power, the Humanities earn their name.
What I wanted to do for Copenhagen, what I have always wanted to do and sometimes I’ve gotten closer than others is to help people to fold humbly inwards to act boldly outwards. This is harder to explain than a policy paper or an emissions report.
What I mean like this—with my apologies to any Danish historians and I may have lost some facts in the poetry: Geographically small Denmark was disproportionably a world leader for several hundreds of years. Then, their navy was beaten soundly in 1801. This shifted not only the world order, but also Denmark’s ethos and national identity. There was some internal reckoning and identity crisis on a national level, and the result was the country uniting behind the idea that, if not the most powerful country in the world, they would certainly be the greatest Denmark in the world.
And now they are a leader in environmentalism and have a largely peaceful and functioning society. While there have been undeniable violent racist issues within Denmark in the last few years—relating to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—we are in no position in the United States, with our guns and racism, to discount the larger lessons of Denmark’s ethos.
When my father began to struggle with the idea of retirement, with who he would be if not the “large and in charge” charismatic and effective bully of a community re-organizer, I talked with him about the history of Denmark, that they too had to humble, revision, and came out slightly reinvented, but changed only for the better.
In semi-retirement, my father built a stonewall at a nearby farm. He—envious of the craftsmen at a wooden boat show—had determined that in this next phase, he wanted to work with his hands. The farmers, wonderful women, encouraged him that it was good for his soul to get in touch with the earth. And he was fantastically happy, and even a little healthier drinking water and walking to work.
It was all too brief a retirement, but I’ll be forever proud of how my dad tried to be something new, yet was still building something for a community, albeit on in different dimension and different scale.
I’m sure that there are other nations who have, when faced with collapse, folded inward and re-birthed a more feasible ethos, but I have yet to find any country that has done it on the scale and with the ethics that makes Denmark an environmentally progressive leader. I hoped, when the climate talks were in Copenhagen, that something of this progressive humbling would rub off on the delegates, on the press and the scientists, that people would come streaming home with the seed in their hearts that things need not be as they always have been, that there are other ways of being than bygone identities.
To me, it was as significant and promising that the 2009 talks were in Denmark as it was that there were talks at all. In the disappointing aftermath of Copenhagen, where nations who must poured out their hearts and the policies of the powerful did not change, I clung to the comfort that, at least the world was talking about the climate. At least what I know to be as true as my bones, at least there is a sense that this is a global struggle, that we are not just a few crazy people watching tides rise and songbirds disappear and crops dry up and forests burn.
To know how many people do care is at once comforting and galvanizing. Who, we might ask, are so selfishly scared of change that they do not listen to this beautiful assembled symphony?
Who is it that ignores such vociferous passion?
Answer that, and it becomes clear that this struggle for a better world does have real adversary, villains with corporate stationary and billion dollar investments in the status quo.
Of course, with our phones and computers and cars and televisions and microwaves and jet-fuel heavy passports and plastic disposable everything that runs off dirty power plants and pipelines, we are each also part of what ignores the passion, part of what must pause to examine our own lives and choices, part of what must be humbled towards greatness.
And now, again, what parts of the world who can out of luxuriant responsibility and/or who must direst need are converging in Paris to again discuss the scourge of climate change. And, of course, each time there is a summit or major decision or action about climate change, the dramatic hype makes it seem as if the world hangs fully in the balance, that we will all drown, burn, starve, freeze or live on what happens with that single event.
This is absurd. The drama is chronic, the moment is every single one we have on this sweet earth with each other. The world is always in the balance, always teetering, and the fires, floods and famines are already here. We are living in the time of greatest crisis—climate change does not watch the news and get better or worse because some people sit down together and try to cap emissions or create public transportation. One climate conference, two, three…these will not alone turn the tide. We must do that, in between the headlines, in all our acts and actions.
I am at least as spotty on France’s history as I am on Denmark’s. But, even in what I have gleaned from Joan of Arc, Dumas and Dickens, Casablanca, Les Mis and Stéphane Hessel there is an invigorating lot of revolutionary resistance to and takedown of over-gilded and corrupt systems.
Also—and this may be the strongest piece—what has come out about French culture since the terrorist attacks of November 13th is that, simply, French love life. That rooted, determined joie de vive, this is something that the climate movement too often overlooks. We are full of facts, of statistics, predictions, carbon counts, horror stories, and fear. All of those have some place, but what we forget—at our own peril—is why we go about this business in the first place.
Why? Because the world is beautiful, because we love each other, because it would be simply rude to not protect all that is wonderful for all who have yet to come to fall in love with as well.
If I hoped that Copenhagen’s turn at the climate talks could bring humility, then it is my even deeper hope that Paris will teach us to bring joy to this work, to be brave and fierce.
These brighter tools, I believe, are sharper and stronger than any other for all that lies ahead.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Friday, November 27, 2015
|(Goose print, with my compliments to Mary Oliver and her wild geese)|
With the UN Climate Talks opening in Paris on Monday, and with Paris freshly symbolic of joyous resistance against terror, I have been trying to articulate the link between the two. Others, of course, have already found it and written and done magnificent work in highlighting the connection. But, never mind preaching to the choir—we are all part of the choir and singing out in our own times and ways and voices has certain merit in this necessary revolution on personal and global scales.
This morning, the morning after Thanksgiving, I found the most recent New Yorker hunkered down under the circulars and ads for Black Friday sales that came in the newspaper and mail. In it, Steve Coll writes: “The Islamic State is an oil-funded descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a branch of the original Al Qaeda, which was formed in 1988.”
For years, Black Friday has made me spitting mad. That our nation goes to sleep full of gratitude and turkey and pie and love on the small and human scale that transcends politics, full from a day of focusing on the bone-deep values of our lives and national ideology and wakes up to shop until we drop…this makes no sense. And when what I believe to be at stake with this pressurized American overconsumption—merely the life of our singular and beautiful planet, the authentic vibrancy of our human relationships—is further threatened by the discounted, disposable merchandise produced in decidedly unclean conditions, built with the energy of heartbreakingly filthy power plants, well…I turn into a snarly Charlie Brown about the commercialization of the holidays.
But this year, knowing that more pointedly anthropocentric threats than climate change are also tied to the blind overconsumption of resources, I have a slim hope that the madness of Black Friday and absurd Christmas consumption can be reduced. If we are, as a culture, hugely reliant on oil, and much of that oil is purchased from governments and states that fund terrorists, then, aren’t we, through our energy misuse and selfish purchases, funding conservative zealots with dreams of suicidal jihad and fueling the storms and droughts that ravage everyone?
In 2001, President George W. Bush encouraged Americans to fight back against terrorists by continuing to live our ordinary lives. Taken out of context, this message was watered down to “fight terrorism by shopping.” Which is absurd. When we shop, when we consume without thought for the back story of what we are buying, without an understanding of where our hard-earned dollars will go—my suspicion is that not only do we contribute to the changing climate, but we may very well be funding those who would hold a hotel hostage, gun down a concert and any other number of acts against humanity.
Rather than that, let’s rebel against terror and slow our destruction of this lovely world by living more ordinary lives. We can live smaller and smarter, and in this, we will be more connected to the rest of the world. In being wise and humble and aware that our voices and choices and actions do matter in this world, we grow magnificent, we become limitless. Rather than scrabbling to reach some nebulous and hollow ideal of enough and what a good life looks like, we learn to live how it feels right. The Socialist and artist William Morris wrote “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
I love this. They seem like good words for living by, for revolting from normal destructive pressures and connections, for embracing the holiday season with, and saving the world through.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Especially for the babies of my friends and the friends of my parents
|(Rosebud found behind my house yesterday.)|
Thursday, November 19, 2015
When I was little, we read Barbara Cohen's book Molly’s Pilgrim every fall. It was a Thanksgiving picture book and came trotting home from the library with my mom, my sisters or I every November for many years.
Molly is a little girl in an elementary school class. For Thanksgiving, the class is making a large scale diorama of a Pilgrim village. Each student is told for homework to take a clothespin and make a little Pilgrim doll.
Molly’s Jewish immigrant mother loves this assignment and makes Molly’s doll for her. The doll does not have a dark dress and white collar. There is no cute little white hat or apron. Instead, the doll is brightly colored with scarves and shawls, like she dressed out of rags in a hurry. The mother explains that of course the pilgrim lady looks like her—they are the same.
Molly hates this and feels that it is the wrong answer, but takes the clothespin lady to school anyway. She is bullied by some other girls in the class, all of who have perfectly predictable Pilgrim clothespins. Some are wearing fancier cloth than a Pilgrim would be, but the colors, the shapes, the style is recognizable and correct. This being a children’s book, where endings are tidy, the teacher naturally loves Molly’s odd-ball doll, and explains that this is what pilgrims truly were—outcast immigrants searching all the world for a place to be safe and free to live and worship as they pleased.
Thanksgiving is a holiday of immigrants, grateful to be together and to be free. It is a day of being thankful for surviving, for coming together. Add in that it was one of the all too few high points in Native American and interloping European relations and it does celebrate a beautiful and unique set of values. Values of grit, survival, freedom, unity, acceptance, abundance, and sharing. At our best, as a country, we can remember that we were born from those ideals.
We are not at our best. We are shuttering borders to refugees who truly need solace from the sort of daily horror and violence that has never been known on this soil.
Since the attacks in Paris, I have had a small pang in my chest. I am afraid. What the fear feels like is similar to the horrible creep of dread I felt last spring—lying awake every night for two weeks, afraid that the phone would ring at night and the hospital would say that my father had died.
In the end, of course, he did. But for all that I wish he were not gone, there was a hollow relief in no longer waiting for that worst to happen to my family.
I feel this dread again listening to the news of violent hunts for suspects in Europe, for France being in a state of war and Russia joining in a coalition, for the root causes of the refugee crises in the first place. People everywhere are living with this sort of fear and anticipation that the worst is about to happen, with the nightmare solid sick that the worse is happening. It feels selfish for me to have this sort of nebulous dread and sadness lingering in my heart. But, there is enough rage and grief in this world without me beating myself up for worrying that this beautiful world is being ripped to shreds.
Living with fear, I find, feels a bit like standing in the back of a moving pickup truck, or in an elevator that has just dropped. Everything feels a bit off kilter, and you reach out to regain balance.
And that is what I want to do with bad news, with fear. I want to reach out and hold on, to bring my people, any people together and make them warm and safe.
Which seems to be the direct opposite of locking borders and denying visas and establishing lower and lower quotas of refugees, all with higher and higher degrees of paperwork. I do not know how we can keep all violent extremists out of the country. I do not think we can, and we are throwing thousands of real babies out with fear-of-terrorist-bathwater.
These denials of human need are based on fear, based on wanting to keep what we know and love safe and alive. I know that. But, it will not work. And I believe that willful inability to interact with truth—the world is fraught with the violence of different beliefs, of intentions misunderstood, of resources too growing more and more scarce—is akin to burying our heads in the sand or not speaking Voldemort’s name.
A few Facebook friends posted earlier this week that Anne Frank and her family had been denied entrance to the United States at the start of World War II. Similarly, there were ships of Jewish citizens who fled Germany in fear and sailed around the world, willing to take any port in a storm. No port would have them, because some of the passengers were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers.
So, for the suspected or possible crimes of a few, hundreds of people were denied help and doomed to persecution, concentration camps, and death. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and mortifying. And we are supposed to learn from the past, from our mistakes. We must.
The world will never be perfect, or perfectly safe. I walked by a coffee shop yesterday and looked at the tables outside, knowing that people sat down at tables just like that in Paris a week ago and were mown down by machine guns. However, I’ve also sat at a café in a tiny mountain town and had a logging truck plow into the sidewalk very very close. Several of us could have been killed.
We cannot control the actions of others. What we can do, and what does allow the fear to bleed into a useful, thoughtful empathy, is control our own actions. If it were American refugees streaming into Syria, what sort of welcome would you want?
It is a mistake to believe that the world can be only one way. So, instead, let us catch our balance by reaching out and holding on to each other, even if, especially if we don’t all look alike. If Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, then this act of care, of welcoming is the American thing to do. Beyond that, it is the human thing. In combatting inhumane-seeming actions, holding fast to our humanity is the most crucial tool of all.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
To open, I happily admit to fiercely loving every one of my friends’ babies. Furthermore, each and every partner or spouse my friends have found is a wonderful addition to the circle of people I love. And I am friends with some of the greatest people on earth, and there are more in my tribe every year. I have learned more about what to look for, work for, wait and hope for, in a good partner from my nested-pair friends than I’ll ever be able to explain. Similarly, as my generation begins to re-people the world, I am breathlessly grateful to witness what soft-stern molten forms love must take to raise a mewling infant into a kind human.
I am constantly amazed at how the heart expands to hold all that we cannot help but love.
Nevertheless, when I am cranky and my calendar seems heavy with baby due dates and weddings, I am full of a strained combination of irritation and disgust.
Of course this unkind and selfish sentiment covers fear, of course it covers loneliness, of course it covers my most terrifying nightmare that as the cast of my world shifts and changes, my role in it all disappears.
There are countless ways in which I am lucky. For most of the life I have been responsible for, I have stitched in and out of beautiful pocket communities, all filled with other adventurers and seekers of something. In some ways, everyone ran away to join the circus, but what we found was not lions in cages and fat ladies singing on Ferris wheels, but each other and ourselves.
And perhaps, to the world outside the circus, outside the woods and waters, the summer camps and mountain lodges and matatus and travelers’ hostels and tight communities of seasonal jobs, we were the sideshow freaks, the ones who don’t quite fit, who allegedly lack linear drive or profitable ambition or understanding of civic duties, gender norms, and grown-up responsibilities.
But it didn’t matter, then, because we all had something like each other, and the knowledge that we weren’t alone in scampering from place to place, person to person, purpose to purpose trying anything and everything that might fit. We had that, and we had the smug and gleeful comfort of being modern Kerouacs and Abbeys and Caulfields—wandering and not letting the best parts of ourselves be devoured by the somnambulant phonies outside our circus tents. We were—we are—kind people and responsible citizens, even if our resumes are eclectic and our moral fiber suspiciously unmainstream.
Life at the circus itself is frequently terrifying—choices yawn up and demand to be made and all the hungry tigers of emotional insecurity are barely caged. There is also, in that rawness, a sort of wildness—perhaps just selfish adrenaline—that is beautiful. And, with nothing else to tie any of us down, we spent hours agonizing and analyzing and dreaming up the next thing. Several friends and I used to sit down regularly for life crisis meetings. We’d get out our lists and scraps of paper with ideas and just talk everything out for hours. It was exhausting, it is exhausting, but it is rarely boring in the way that mature life patterns frighten me with the specter of living in a rut—even a cozy one—for the next seventy years.
What I miss, what I fear will disappear under the nests and onesies of my lovely erstwhile circus folk, is both the willingness to adventure and the support of fellow wanderers. For very good reason, the circus is emptying at a distressing rate.
When there are a lot of us marching around outside the box of normal adulthood, we were a community of gypsies. When there are few, well, it does begin to feel like one is a freak.
And we’re not—those of us still a little unmoored at the circus—freaks or rejects or somehow emotionally or relationship-ally disfigured. We’re just not where the majority are, and that is a damn fine and damn scary place to be.
It seems like I blinked and when I opened my eyes most people I love have found something or someone or someplace that fit better than they’d ever found before, and their wanderings slow or change key. Suddenly, my people have started businesses, written books, built houses, had children, put on plays, fallen in love with a right person, become doctors, and all the rest of their kaleidoscope of talents. Whereas, I don’t find myself very much closer to solid guesses about the shape of my life than I had when I was ironing out scraps of post-it notes to share with friends across internet café tables. I don’t want to stop casting about for what fits and works, but I also don’t want to straggle when everyone else is somehow home.
It would be boring if we all went to the same places, is something that I tell myself when another shot of a beautiful engagement ring pops up, when another perfect baby arrives, when more houses are built and bought and made into homes, when more and more friends seem to get where they wanted and strove to go.
The home and the writing of books, I know that I want. The ring and babies I don’t know if I do. The person on the other side of the ring, the other side of the babies, to make the home with—that I’m much more sure of wanting. Before everyone began pairing up so solidly, I felt a little like we all belonged to each other in some way, a circus family. And, of course, there is the belonging to blood family and close friends that transcends all later-comers and all time. But it is different, being friends, when the nesting pairs start to cozy off. A dear friend reminded me last winter that those sorts of relationships take time and effort and can be very hard, but there is such reward for the time spent that free hours spool away to nurture that relationship above all others.
And I love that for my friends, that they have a person who will be their champion, steward, cheerleader, lover and boxing coach. I want to see those relationships work; I do not want my wonderful friends—or anyone—to feel lonesome and alone on cold nights. While I know that there can still be some loneliness in the richest partnership and that it is much simpler to speak patly and plurally as "we" than it is to merge independently minded gypsy selves into those two small letters, there is the sense of, hope of warmth and security amid the reality.
Of course I have bouts of bitterness, of jealousy, of insecurity, of fearful suspicion that—having been in love with a few good men and bruised my heart deeply in the process—my chances are all up, or that it is because of something deeply broken in me that I am so frequently the third or fifth or seventh wheel. Mostly, I worry that I missed a crucial developmental step that makes me unable to progress in any decisive and driven way, that I’ll spend my life as basically twenty-three years old and longing for gypsy friends, creative revolt, and a home in the wilderness, but somehow never committing enough to get anywhere and never being satisfied with where I am. Meanwhile, my friends will—as the heart demands—commit to caring for the life they’ve chosen or found and spend more and more time on their passion-fueled work and nests and hatchlings.
When I feel like this, I like to get in touch with my other un-nested pair friends. There are other people out there who do understand both loving the nested ones and the babies, and why being questioned about your local emergency contact can bring on an emotional funk. Who struggle with wanting to be held, but not hobbled. And that it’s fine and healthy to feel both. We are happy, being mostly free to do as we please—from eating ice cream for dinner to contemplating moving to Antarctica or starting a band or explaining our actions to no one—but we also have darker commiseration about how the world operates in binary, and that if one isn’t two-by-two, the mistake is transmitted as either a personal flaw or a fixed decision.
Being a party of one is neither. What looks like a yawning gap of lonesome unknown one day is the thrilling beckon of the wild another day.
Beyond the personal insecurity, I miss the feeling of belonging to a group of creative-thinkers and adventurous doers—revolutions and world rebuilding seems possible, over those confused piles of scrappy dreams. I believe that my nested-friends’ ideals are no less exciting and radiant than they ever were, but it is different to bounce ideas about writing books of poetry or confounding climate change around with people who are circumstantially more attuned to questions of bath time or if they should change their name after marriage.
I have learned, lately, more fully what happens when family changes demand the priorities of your energy, of your heart. All other things necessarily slip by the wayside when you are needed, when you need. We all juggle our own hearts unblinkingly for the deepest people in our lives people. I can readily see—emotionally and biologically—how dreams of a communal revolution, of a gypsy circus are subverted by the sweet and demanding realities of traditional adult milestones.
Perhaps fear of being pulled further from my wanderings is why I hold out at the circus: I am selfish and don’t want to find my passions subverted before they’ve been realized or to lose the vibrancy that there is with brilliant confused loved ones striving together towards something, even individual somethings. The force of will, the hunger, to not accept should and normal and anyone else’s expectation of your own behavior—this is a beautiful thing. I’ve been told it is adolescent, that I have some disturbing Peter Pan like tendencies, that I need to pull my shit together, accept—or just make—the necessary compromises, and the like. But I cannot see why growing up must follow a set pattern, why being an adult means leaving the circus, leaving the spark of imagining something different than what is behind.
This, all of this, is just a note to the others at the circus to say: you are not alone. We are not alone.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
|(Frozen cairns at Madison, 2010)|
Heading to a friend’s wedding recently, I almost didn’t go and turned around several times en route. Grieving for my dad, I have been in such a cold dark place that I was afraid that going to a joyful celebration of love would be the emotional equivalent of submerging frozen limbs in boiling water. The too quick, too extreme response to deep cold exposure can permanently damage the frostbitten. Things so warmed may never heal to a usable condition.
I do not want this for my heart.
I’ve studied hypothermia, and it seems as apt an analogy for grief as anything else. I’ve had frost bite, and know well how tender and vulnerable our damage-healed bodies remain, even after the surface heals.
Contrary to popular belief, hypothermia is not cured by stripping off the cold person’s clothes, popping them in a sleeping bag, and having a warm person hop in naked to share their body heat. Friction, in this scenario, is alleged to help. As nature abhors a vacuum, what happens in this situation is that the cold of one sucks out the heat of the other and you end up with two dangerously tepid people in a compromising and uncomfortably position, rather than two independently warm people who can then make their social arrangements from warm want, rather than icy need.
I’ve heard of some people becoming sex-crazed while grieving. There is undeniable solace in physical contact and I won’t judge another’s process, but I know that I would not find the warmth and comfort I seek in this equivalent of the naked hypothermia cure—one person needing more than the other can possibly give, and both ending up equally damaged.
How you do heal hypothermia predominantly demands that the heat of the cold person’s beating heart is the main heat source. Of course, this flickering warmth must be watched and tended with the same attentive effort as a lighthouse on stormy coast, a campfire in a snowy cabin, and other apt metaphors for dwindling flames in necessary wilderness.
But the warmth does and must come from within the cold person’s core.
However, the truly frozen cannot do this magical re-warming alone. Your only job, as the frozen, is to keep your heart beating. It falls to others to wrap you in layers and layers of blankets, to insulate you from the ground, from the elements, to place hot water bottles on your arteries, to feed you hot and sugary things to jump start your metabolism, to roughly rub your limbs to stimulate circulation, to help you walk on unfreezing feet as you start to thaw, to holding your hair back as your succumb to the screaming barfies (the most unpleasant nauseous sensation as warmed blood begins to circulate into colder-than-blood flesh.)
This sort of thawing is an enormous effort to ask of one’s companions. It is an evolving process, involving a total change of directions from whatever was planned. As I think on how so many people have both crawled out of the woodwork and stood in quiet readiness and responsive anticipation for whatever my thawing, grieving family needs—I am humbled with awe and gratitude. The wedding, which I did attend, was full of the consistent soft warmth and reassurance than only beloved community can provide.
Once you’ve been through anything hard, it is a duty to help others through. I think of this, of emotional hypothermia and comfort and love, as I make quilts for my friends’ babies.
I am coming to the point where it has been a long time to be sad. I even find myself being highly functional some days. I am at once impatient to fully thaw, and also only now awakening to how truly cold I have been with watching my flawed and wonderful father’s body cease to function.
Doing grief yoga the other day, I was visualizing the areas—hips and heart—where grief is stored. I saw my chest, pelvis and legs as blocks of human-shaped ice, solid though and only covered with only the thinnest of skin.
I do not see how so much sadness could possibly be stored in me. And I am one of the lucky ones—an employed educated white American lady, who is only coping with the end of one loved one’s life. Refugees, child soldiers, adult soldiers, people who lost their loved ones en masse—these people are likely full of thicker ice than I, and do not have the luxury and leisure to bend and stretch and write and bloggingly chip away at the presumed wonder of their own being dealing with a common part of being human.
With the time that has passed since Dad, I can see that things have gotten better. Which, on the rougher days, is hard to imagine. But it has been worse, and we have all survived it. So it can seem self-indulgent to wallow in this sadness, to speak of it now. Before, when it was at the worst, I couldn’t form the words, I think.
Now, too, there is an impatient feeling of having been branded—very few things truly scare me at this point.
What does scare me is the twin understanding of both how reliant I am on my community, and how fragile all our lives are. We are rich and loving and warm and there for each other, and we are each as delicate as an icicle. Our communities of support are woven of fragility.
I am also scared to let go of my grief. While doing the ice-chipping yoga—and I saw it as chipping with an ice pick, not a natural seasonal melting—and being advised to let go, I found myself wondering where released grief might go, and further, will I be hollow without my sadness? It seems to define the shape of my core more than my bones these days.
This grief is a connection to the last hours I will ever have with my dad, and, just as I try to square up the awful memories (he was no angel and would cringe to ever be thought so) with the best of him and everything in between—I do not want to let anything go because there will never be more. It feels disrespectful to his imprint on my being to let anything go, and it feels counter to his bold personality to hold onto grief.
I do not know how to go forward, and yet, every day, we all do.
A decade ago, I frostbit my nose—twice—in the space of a few months. It was fully frozen flesh with blisters and scabbing and a scar. The tip of my nose remains highly sensitive—sometimes white, sometimes red, sometimes purple and always running from November to April. My family—including my dad—responded to this freezing by giving me more scarves than I thought any one person would ever need.
And maybe that is something. The cure to the cold is our own beating heart, those who do the work of standing close to shelter the flame, and in our accepting the gift of their warmth and help.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
|(Fall in a post-forest fire section of Glacier National Park, 2009)|
I love fall. Not because it’s decorative gourd season or because the world is suddenly awash in pumpkin spice and apple pie, or even because of how the crisp edge of the air cuts against the fiery brilliance of the sunlight and changing leaves.
I love fall because it is a time of beautiful turmoil and change, a time to begin again. This is freshly sharpened pencils, new teachers, and blank notebooks. The knowledge of a coming winter lends a sense that we must act quickly before the snows fly, before this time ends. Fall is a Dylan Thomas-esque reminder to not go meekly towards the end, but to go out boldly into the last day lit hours of the year.
Today is Yom Kippur, which as it has been variously explained to my liberal Christian-raised, secular Humanist self, sounds like one of the most ethically powerful holidays on our planet. How I understand it—and I welcome correction and clarification—a community of people come together, enumerate the sins and slights—large and small—that they have been party to and responsible for over the last year. And then, together and as individuals, there is a prayer and promise to atone for those hurts and to do better in the coming years through personal actions.
To hold yourself accountable for your own part in the pain of the world and those around you, and to come through the feelings of guilt and sorrow with mindful resolve for improvement—I can’t think of a better way to be human.
Today, also, Pope Francis is visiting Washington, D.C. I am no more Catholic than I am Jewish, so my admiration of the Pope is—like my admiration of Yom Kippur—based solely on a sort of ala carte selection of the best of the headlines and cultural bathwater.
My understanding of the Pope’s approach to climate change, economic inequality, and what it means to be good stewards of each other and this planet, essentially comes down to: “love more, need less.”
Last Friday, I stopped by an apple orchard in New Hampshire. I was dropping off apple crates my school had borrowed after a field trip. Last year, on the same field trip, there weren’t enough apples for the kids to pick any. This year, the apple trees were so heavy with fruit that the branches looked like garlands of Christmas tree balls. “You must be having a better year,” I said to the woman who runs the orchard.
“You’d think,” she replied. “Last year, we had people and no apples, and this year, we’ve got tons of apples, but no people to pick them. It’s too hot—no one wants to go apple picking when it’s 90 degrees. They’re all still at the beach!”
I believe that the roots of why climates are changing, why weather patterns and growing seasons are becoming more erratic, why economies are collapsing all come from the same tree of ignorance. There is the pure, almost innocent, ignorance of not knowing, and then there is the ignorance of knowing and willfully ignoring.
As a society, as individuals, we can no longer plead that we know not what we do. We are, all, responsible and culpable for the increases of fossil fuel emissions that are destroying our beautiful planet and the lives of our fellow humans. I don’t care what the rationalization you make with yourself is—you don’t get carbon credits for being an environmentalist—the fact remains that we are all in this together, the jet-setting Hummer drivers and cyclists alike. This never-before-seen rate of climate change is anthropocentric. We are people. Ergo, we did this, and are continuing to do this to ourselves and to everyone and everywhere else on Earth.
This is insane.
But, we cannot plead insanity against storms and tides and heat waves and fires. It is as unethical a defense as it is ineffective. As I see it, our ignor-ance of ourselves as the destroyers of the planet is one of the major sins—if not the major sin—of humans at this point in time.
So how to atone, how to use the sobering strength of our understanding and the crisp sunlight of autumn to do better?
First, I believe, we must erase guilt. It will get no one anywhere good. Replace that stomach churning feeling of shameful inadequacy with its more efficient cousin, responsibility. Recognize that your decisions in the grocery store, in how and how far you commute each day, in how you fill your spare hours, really do matter. Vote. Get to know your community. Do the quintessential seasonal activities of your region—if no one goes apple picking or to corn mazes or hayrides or haunted barns or Old Home Days or State Fairs, these things and the people who live off them will disappear.
My mother works doing land use and historic preservation. My father was an urban planner and community invigorator in a rural state. I am my parents’ daughter. As such, I believe that the answers and solutions to today’s crises lie in layering old ways with new energy. If we are trying to learn to shrink our personal and global carbon footprints, I believe it makes sense to look backwards to how people lived with smaller carbon footprints. I’m not advocating for an Amish revolution, but if we can combine the economy of the past with the innovative potential of the present, we will get somewhere better than either.
This is not an easy way of atonement. However, I like the practicality of personal awareness and conscious choice in actions far better as a means of reckoning and atonement and forgiveness than the words of a prayer. It is an ethos of needing less, because of loving so much more than just ourselves.
I do not know that this will work. I believe that it can, and such belief seems stronger in the fall, when a day has hints of all seasons and more than reality seems possible.
Sunday, September 6, 2015
|(Me and Noah, November of 2005. Photo by Jeff Taylor)|
For a grad school environmental writing class, I wrote an essay about my experience as a volunteer in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. I was there from about Halloween to Thanksgiving in 2005—I wasn’t going door to door, counting and removing bodies, and seeing the worst, but I certainly wasn’t seeing the best either.
One of my classmates mentioned that I didn’t seem to have “relative distance” from the events I was writing about.
I am under no illusion that the troubles exposed and or caused by Katrina have gone away into some distant past, nor—despite a monumental recovery effort on the Gulf Coast—do I find much evidence that the root causes of the hurricane and aftermath have been addressed. I’ve found it hard to attain and maintain relative distance about Hurricane Katrina when my days begin with the hopeful and anxious snout of my Biloxi-born dog poking into my face.
For the last ten years, since my time in Biloxi, the puppy I adopted from there has been my constant companion. I was twenty-three with commitment-phobic gypsy tendencies, an allergy to plans, and a slim flash of understanding that a dog would likely complicate my life. All of these logical thoughts were overridden by the cuteness of the puppy amidst the wreckage of the Gulf Coast, the heft of his little body held relatively safe in my arms, and by my dad—wanting to do more himself about Katrina—cheerily bellowing into the phone that I ought to “just bring the damn dog home!”
So I did. And, with very few exceptions, wherever I’ve gone, so has Noah. He’s been across the country six times, lived in four states, ten towns, and with over twenty-five housemates. I can’t count the miles he’s hiked with me, the number of poop bags I’ve used, the hours I’d spend just scratching his ears.
And, despite a few idiosyncrasies, he’s a mostly happy pet. His story has had a pretty good ending—born out of a storm and living a life surrounded by people who love him, with a world to romp in, soft places to sleep, and food at regular intervals.
This dog doesn’t loom over my life and thinking like a Cassandric reminder of Hurricane Katrina, of deeply rooted national race and classism, of bureaucratic ineptitude on a deadly scale, of broken infrastructure, of climate change.
Except, sometimes, he does.
Why do I have this dog? Because the world fell apart.
And the world falls apart, constantly.
When I can stomach it these days, I follow the news. Droughts destroying food production. Fires burning up forests and towns, homes. Wars of faith and greed, killing innocents and sowing grief and horror. Carbon emissions rising and rising, the weather becoming unpredictable, the climates unrecognizable. Politics that are more anger than brains, with the heart almost totally lost.
Is it any wonder that people are desperate, are streaming out of their homelands, emigrating in search of peace, safety, and the resources to rebuild their lives?
Looking smaller, I can and do see the seeds of good change: almost everyone I know owns a bike and uses it regularly, small farms and local markets are growing in huge numbers, solar panels are increasingly normal, the economic collapse forced people to live and think a little smaller and smarter, America is beginning necessary and uncomfortable conversations about our racist culture and these movements are led by black people rather than liberal white politicians, more people than ever agree climate change is human-caused, and so on.
But when I look to the root causes of everything, of what causes the climate to turn California’s farms to dust, to burn up the West, to melt Iceland and freeze Atlanta, to flood Tuvalu, New York City, England, what causes so many parties to rub sharp elbows with each other in the Middle East, it all comes back to the simple fact that we use too much fossil fuel.
All of the post-crisis solutions—from rebuilding New Orleans to small scale local farming and creative zoning to make communities more walkable to the grounding constancy my weird little dog has provided me personally to opening borders to crisis-made emigrants—all of these are good and necessary and somewhat beautiful in the way that repair is a sign of love. We like to say that the best of humanity comes out in the darkest of times. I agree, I’ve seen it, and even been a better self when the chips are down—but I believe that the pat phrase takes responsibility for causing the darkest of times away from humanity ourselves.
Because who else causes war, burns the carbon that mutates storm cycles, puts other people in unventilated trucks, takes bribes and ignores crumbling infrastructure?
No God or ecological system I could believe in would do so, which leaves us mortals who run everything else on the planet as responsible for most of the evil stuff.
With every press of a power button, mile driven or flown, unthinking purchase, we participate in creating the darkest of times for someone else. It is not a clear line between powering up the computer—even to write about climate change and global justice—and floods, fires, famine, and refugees, but the links are there, and obvious once you start to look and think beyond the headlines, once you erase the relative distance between yourself and the world.
We are all culpable, and at this point, it’s not about becoming more or less guilty than your neighbor, or about self-importantly justifying your own actions. We are in this together, from the most liberal off-the-grid hippy to the Koch brothers. We are a culture of unthinking and selfish rapacity, and in our ignorance is our hideous complicit culpability.
Reversing that, I would like to see a culture of thoughtful minimalism, that from our intelligence, that from our interconnectedness, from our ability to be the best in the worst of times, comes an awareness and responsibility to live the solutions daily.
Reversing that, I would like to see a culture of thoughtful minimalism, that from our intelligence, that from our interconnectedness, from our ability to be the best in the worst of times, comes an awareness and responsibility to live the solutions daily.
We will not, cannot, stop the storms and upheavals that previous actions are already causing, but we can, we must, stop our habits and cycles before the world falls apart completely. Let our hearts grow larger and our own needs grow smaller. Let us be our best, always.
 I carpooled home from a climate change rally a few years ago with a young activist who argued that she needed her phone, laptop, and constant electricity and internet because of the difference she was trying to make in the world, but that other people should use less than her. If someone needs the same to keep in touch with loved ones, is that a less worthy use? It is a foolish and furious road to go down—trying to equate and supersede your choices above others.
Sunday, August 9, 2015
|(From the rebuild of Madison Springs Hut, 2010)|
Some of my earliest memories are of being at Mizpah Spring Hut when I was two years old. These are not clear memories—I have scraps of images of being in a bunkroom, in a bunk bed, of the place being filled with men with beards and women with braids—but they are distinct from the photographs my parents took of my older sister and I on the trail and around the hut, so I trust them to be real memories and not re-imagined creations from the pictures.
I don’t know if it is the semi-primal nature of my earliest memories, but I have been drawn to wilderness and wildness all my life. Growing up, the huts themselves carried totemic significance to me as pinnacles within wilderness and mountains. I went to Lonesome when I was an infant, Mizpah when I was two, and Mizpah and Lakes of the Clouds when I was ten. That was all it took for me to fall hard for these beautiful and weather-battered places set amid the mountains. I wanted to be of that world, but saw the whole operation as something like aspiring to have Mt. Olympus as a neighborhood. My eyes perked up when I spotted patches from the huts on other kids bags at school, at summer camp, at college. I thought better of classmates from 4th grade through grad school when they knew anything about locations in the White Mountains.
When I was twenty-one, I began working in the AMC huts. That time of my life has been more formative than any other thus far. Many of my most cherished friendships come from those years, all those hikes, busy nights, and the quiet riot of watching sunset gold become starlight. In those many seasons, I learned to live in questioning balance with wilderness and sustainability, with conservation and recreation, and to appreciate the many uses of the National Forests. These mountains were what I thought of in order to live simply, think global, and act local. The thought of the migratory songbird Bicknell’s Thrush—who’s breeding grounds are the climatically endangered boreal zone of New England—have kept my electrical use low, bike use high, and put up more than one clothesline. With others, I helped to rename a mountain for Abigail Adams as a small act of equality up there. I have lived above treeline in three seasons, hiked tough and beautiful miles, and done some of the hard, strange, wonderful and dirty work that keeps these huts running.
Partly, of course, I was there for my own selfish love and for the all-defying joy of being in those wilder places. For a time, I felt I could no more leave the Whites than I could live without my skin. Partly, though, I was there because, as I cannot imagine my face or heart without them, I want to keep those doors open and latchstrings out for others to come into wildness.
And so, hearing of a proposal for a ninth hut, I am torn between wanting more openings to wildness for more people, and worrying about the ecological impact of further backcountry construction and appropriation for high-impact use.
The AMC and New Hampshire State Parks are proposing an additional hut to be built in Crawford Notch State Park. From what I understand, it would be staffed and operated by the AMC with a highly nuanced special use permit from the State, much as is used for Lonesome Lake Hut. The hut would sleep about 50 people, be staffed for full-service in summer and self-service in fall, winter and spring, and be a less than two-mile hike from Rte. 302.
When I think of all the young children who could fall in love with the wilds by coming to this place, who could grow up to be passionate, stumbling advocates for wildness, I soften towards the idea. Opposing it feels a bit like slamming the door to wilderness behind me, which is unkind and unfair.
However, one of the most important things I have learned because of loving the wilderness, that I learned whilst living cheek by jowl by septic field and gray water system and helicopter-removed human waste and solar panels alongside wilderness in the huts, is that these wild places in the woods and mountains are fragile. Resilient, too, but I truly cannot see enough reason to stretch the ecological forgiveness of wild places to new limits by building additional high-impact structures within their already much trammeled boundaries.
I can be defensive, selfish, and cynical regarding the protection and use of public lands. I know this. I do not have all the facts regarding this ninth hut, its conception, design, purpose or function. What I do know is that eight such highly impacted sites, as well as many campsites—staffed and unmanaged, legal and illegal—already exist in the relatively small area of the White Mountain National Forest. What I do know is that the cost of staying at a hut—adult member prices are over $100 per person on a weekday night in summer—is that they are increasingly prohibitively expensive for many , especially local or even in-state families. I believe it is reprehensible to continue to tie wilderness experiences, environmental education and outreach to socioeconomic class in an era of increasing awareness of climate change, classism, and culturally pervasive racism. Shall only the rich be allowed easy access to the soul-changing experience of a mountain sunrise, of the dawn chorus of birdsongs?
I know that the building of a hut is physically and ecologically hard, and that the workers are there for the love of the work, the place, and each other, not for munificent (or even consistent, year-round, living) wages.
I know that the NH State Park system has had some financial difficulties in recent years and budget cycles and perhaps whatever the agency might garner from a very special use permit seems like a solution in that regard. I know that hut occupancy has been on the rise, even as the rates increase, and perhaps another hut does seem the easiest answer to satisfy demand. I know that I find it strange how little publicity this proposal has had—the public comment period runs from July 17th-August 15th and two public meetings were held in New Hampshire. AMC members with young children, in the greater Boston area—the demographic most likely to support another family friendly hut destination—do not seem aware of this proposal.
I know that I—as an environmentalist who believes that much of climate change is the bastard offspring of our unquestioned cultural demand for “more”—am inherently distrustful of anything that involves more and bigger and new. I believe it would be better to work with what resources are already built—huts, campsites, hotels, and lodges—to achieve the goals of this proposed hut.
What I know most surely is that the thought of breaking new ground in protected landscapes flies in the face of what I learned to value intrinsically within those landscapes. I have loved seeing and being part of the AMC huts’ attempts to transition toward ever greener energies, design, and ideals. As mainstream culture chugs unchecked towards more, these places continually push for efficiency, for shrinking the ecological footprint, for protecting the landscapes even as they draw people deeper in. As a naturalist—both front and backcountry—I felt that it was part of my job to help people fall in love with the mountains and woods and lakes and starlight around the huts. As noted ecologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber has said, “what we love, we must protect.”
Even, I believe, from ourselves.
I write this achingly aware of the privilege I have had in all my mountain life—from my infanthood to Hutmaster-ships. I want those hills wild and open to the wise use of everyone. I want what happens to my heart at the sound of a white-throated sparrow above treeline to happen to everyone. I want as much of that landscape untouched as possible, because I believe it does us good and better as a people to let more wildness remain.
Until August 15th, public comments can be emailed to Johanna.firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the Dept of Resources & Economic Development, Crawford Notch State Park Comments, 172 Pembroke Rd, PO Box 1856, Concord, NH 03302. If you have an opinion, share it there where it will do good. The public process is nil without an active and engaged public.
Monday, June 8, 2015
Tonight, as I am preparing to return to the farm, I feel like the selfish boy from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, that I may be asking too much from something that only has so much to give.
All spring, through everything, I’ve been taking deep breaths and thinking that everything will be better, will get better, once I get back to the farm. The thought of the farmers already at work, of the seeds they’ve planted since March sprouting and growing has been a source of enormous comfort and an active hope that life will go on, that joy persists and will bloom.
But now here it is the night before and while I have my water bottle filled and my snacks packed and both my rain pants and sunhat dug out, I am afraid that I have leaned to much on the possibilities of a few acres, some friends, and hundreds of hours of work and pounds of vegetables.
Last year, working on the farm nicely popped me out of a funk following a bad breakup. People talk about the healing, grounding power of growing things. What I found was the delight of new skills and capabilities that expanded my bruised identity and a deep recalibration of what honesty looks like in the world. Those were good and great pieces to find then. In fact, I’d recommend farmwork for anyone who’s heart has been broken.
However, all that foolish heartbreak and confusion barely even signifies beside what I am asking of the land this time around—to help me with the sadness of my father’s death. We have been saying it is like losing half the North Star.
To remedy that deep a sense of loss, a confusion of primal identity and omnipresent guidance seems too much to ask of anything—kindly tree, living person, or beautiful landscape.
When I lived in the mountains, there was tremendous temptation to anthropomorphize them, to believe that those mountains somehow cared as much for me as I did for them. While the farmland is a little more interactive, it still is a landscape with its own ecology, cycles and systems. True, my actions on the farmscape play more immediately into the layers of systems—human, vegetable, economic, woodchuck, etc.—than my actions on a mountaintop or beside the ocean do, but still, the land itself does not, will not, cannot feel empathy. The eggplants will not grow more beautifully in an attempt to comfort me, the potato beetles will not take the summer off out of respect for the bereaved, and so on.
This winter, when we thought my dad was merely depressed from retiring, he and I talked a few times about how excited he was to get back to building rock walls at the farm near my parents’ house and how excited I was to get back to my farm this summer. We missed our farm friends and we missed working with our hands and being able to see how we were useful. My mom put natural bug spray and poison ivy repelling soaps in both our stockings at Christmas.
Until last summer, neither my father nor I had ever worked on farms, or really expressed much interest in it. He was always busy saving New Hampshire and I was usually busy in the mountains. And, even though we talked over each other more than we listened to each other, it was more special than I realized at the time to have that common ground with him, even if our farms were in different states, even if he eschewed having anything to do with the vegetable side of farming, even if I told him he wasn’t really a farmer but a stonemason on a farm. He was a stickler for correctness and passed that critical nature right on down. The important things, though, the true things, are that we each made farm friends and did a lot of good soul searching and were delighted to put our hands in the dirt with other people every day.
At the hospital, there was a window that Dad could walk to for most of his first week there. The window looked west from Concord Hospital, up the hill towards my parents’ house, not quite visible beyond the crest of trees. The farm my dad had fallen in love with, though, was right at the top of the hill, its big yellow house and barn fully visible. On the wonderful day when my sisters and mother and I managed, with the help of some kind and resourceful nurses, to get Dad outside in a wheelchair for some fresh air and to see his beloved dog, as I wheeled him back up, I took him past the window to see the farm.
“I want to get back there,” he said, his voice raspy with dehydration and hope and fear.
“Okay,” I said. “Then you will. And we’ll compare notes from our farms all summer.”
I am not sure, but I do not think he went back to that window again.
One of my saner coping strategies, from even a few days before he died has, been to try to enjoy things twice as much, because the world has lost one of its biggest, loudest, most exuberant fans. As I have been taking my deep breaths and ticking off days on the calendar until I get to the farm, part of the hopeful belief that working on the farm can heal some part of this grief is the need to get back to a hue of joy that I shared with my dad. Even if I can’t call him to swap stories about blisters and hear what’s growing there.
And that is bittersweet.
But, fortunately, this joy is not something that is beyond the land’s capacity to give. To receive that, all I have to do is follow my family’s de facto motto and just show up.