Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis, Yom Kippur & Fall

(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.

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