I overheard some students yesterday talking about the death of the universe, whether it would be an explosion or a freezing event. They proceeded—with the earnest distance of high school debaters—to discuss the physics and astronomy and all the rest of the science of the end of the universe.
I went and re-read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.”
I don’t want the world to end, fire or ice, or flood or drought. This world is where I live, where the people I love are. I do not want that ecosystem gone. And so, I’ve been blinking back tears all week as I hear more about the floods in London and the ice storm predicted for Georgia. Suddenly, to me, everything feels frayed. The unpredictability of the world’s weather frightens me. Georgia should not have any, let alone multiple, ice storms in a winter. London should not be receiving more rain than it has in 284 years.
Like so many people, I’ve thought with deep, but distant, empathy about the low-lying island nations of Micronesia that are already bearing the brunt of rising sea levels and erratic weather. I’ve imagined the loss of a defining landscape—these were my childhood nightmares. Much of my reason for writing is because even the imagined loss of my home—my forests and mountains and my beloved people of these places—is so utterly shattering that I want no person on earth to come close to losing their own home lands and community in reality.
I suppose I thought that it was a bargain of some sort. That my actions here and there, that if I put my heart solidly in the camp of straining for a better world, perhaps someone’s beloved acres will be saved. And, ideally, before the cataclysmic changes come closer to my own home. I know this is unlikely, that there is neither destiny nor karma, that the wishes of our deepest hearts cannot control the weather.
Unless they can. Not control the weather, but better dictate our own actions, our own responses and reactions in the changing world. To continue as we have, the same tired and damaging patterns of behavior, this will only pull us deeper into the dangerous and terrifying quagmire. I had a professor in college who did about a decade’s worth of damage on my sense of environmental efficacy and hope—he just said, again and again and frequently with a sorrowful tone of blame, that we needed to change the shape of the culture. Now, I don’t disagree with that statement, but it’s an awfully tall and unspecific order. I’ve spent a long dark time struggling to figure out how to do that, how to save the world.
As things get worse, I also see them getting better. After the fears and the tears, I find myself more concentrated. When I look within and determine what I am most afraid of, it becomes a little clearer what I must do. I’m no longer, really, trying to save the world. I’m trying to make a better one, or, even more specifically, make the world around me better. I think my efforts are best spent on the people and pieces of the world I can touch. I cannot throw my body down as a sandbag in the Thames. I cannot wrap my arms around the state of Georgia and melt the ice. If we could fix things so easily, we would have, long ago.
The solutions though, are in what we can do, not in what we cannot. We can, for example, make our own lives simpler, truly simpler. We can learn to need less. And we will likely be happier for the change. I know some of the arrogance in this statement: the choice to live simply is a privilege unto itself. People in poverty live simply by necessity, not by choice the way a rich person takes up yoga or cleans out their closet every season to simplify their life. That is a larger problem, but not, as I see it, unrelated to this making the world better program. I was told today that I sound like a Communist. I prefer Socialist, but the comment didn’t come from someone it was important to split hairs with.
To me, making my life simpler entails focusing more on what is important to me in making the world I can touch a kinder and more equal place. A good friend shared a line of Amiri Baraka’s poem "A Short Speech to My Friends" with me recently: “A political art, let it be/tenderness…”
I love that.
This is the realm of the political that I prefer to move in, letting acts of kindness and tenderness between people soften the ice and cool the fires of the world I live in. It breaks the challenge of world salvation into the human scale it warrants. Begin with your own heart and work out from there. And, when there is need—as there is now—for large and small acts of resistance and resilience and restructuring around the ever and quickening changing climate, I hope that we all rise up out of that deeper, personal tenderness to guide the larger political structures of the world. It is a frightening place, this new world. It requires the bravery of tenderness to go forward into the unknown.
I am not ready to sentence all that I love to fire or ice or flood. That knowledge is my own most treasured tool in building this better world.
(Photo was taken in a place of fire, ice, hard labor, tenderness and great beauty.)