Close Kin

My son and I stand in front of the great japonica bush. Bare branches break our view of the grey winter sky. Nearly every other branch is occupied. Chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches and the rare flash of a red or grey-and-orange cardinal: the birds have come to feast at my parents’ feeders. 

And my son and I have come to behold. We feast with our eyes. My son is a mover and explorer. But even he has been caught in the spell of the small creatures. His little body stands still; his eyes are wide. 

I watch as the birds flutter from branch to feeder and back. My eyes sharpen and focus, a rarity for a mother of two children whose attention is constantly divided. I listen as wings beat through air and the birds dart around my head. 

My heart swells with affection for the little bodies, the soft feathers and dark eyes. I know that they are eating, that their activity is practical, but there is such joy in the way their wings beat, beat, beat back the air and then glide. Or perhaps it is simply the joy I associate with the ability to soar. Either way, it is contagious, and I feel my spirit lift, buoyed by both love and delight. 

And then, right next to the affection, right alongside the joy, comes a deep pang, whispering of threat, change, loss and my role in it all. The Audubon Society found that, in North America alone, two-thirds of bird species are threatened with extinction due to climate change.

I speak of grief with increasing frequency these days for two reasons. First, because I feel its presence riding with me often. I see the loons swimming with their babies on their backs and I feel it. I watch as the fox pauses in our yard, paw lifted, eyes on mine, and there it is. I witness my children in a moment of supreme joy and a familiar pang occurs around my heart.

And so I speak the grief and then notice the response. Some listen and resonate. I feel their reaction like a pebble dropping into water; they ripple with me as we take up the larger mourning together. Others squirm in discomfort or urge me to keep up hope, as if the two cannot coexist. I feel their response like a pebble hitting ice; I bounce against the sharp surface and skid away, no soft landing available. 

It is that discomfort with grief that also drives me to voice my experience of the threat and loss I see all around me daily. We are so eager to welcome the joy of the little birds’ flight, just as we embrace the joy of love. We are not as open to the complex mix of emotions that comes with truly taking in the current status of the Earth’s ecosystems and our role in creating the Sixth Mass Extinction.

I would like to say this: I beg of you, listen to the world right now. Sit still, don’t run, don’t explain, don’t push away. Let the birds and the trees and the many, many other beings who know, who have noticed, speak. See the subtle shifts, and the great ones. Read the advance notice of all that is to come, written in the movement of species, the droughts and floods, the fires and fleeing. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t rush past what you are feeling.

Grief is not an absence of hope. It is not to be avoided. It is the most appropriate, most resonant response to a loved one threatened. 

I was five when my grandmother was diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma and eight when she died. I remember the ferocity of feeling that surrounded those years of my life. I was young and while I might not have grasped the specifics, I understood the greater loss that was unfolding. 

And so, when I sat beside Grandma in bed in the morning, head against her dark green bathrobe, watching a game show on her bedroom television, I sharpened all my senses because I wanted to absorb her presence fully. My heart swelled with love and, right alongside that deep affection, filled with grief. 

When I looked out my bedroom window at rest time and saw her bending over her garden, long legs in trousers, bandana tied around her bald head, I watched and watched until rest time was over, my little body flooding with love and loss. 

The feelings of those years, held both individually and collectively by the members of my Grandma’s family and community, were our way of honoring her and our connection to her. We loved her. That love pulsated through every moment with her, and, right alongside it, the honest truth of loss as disease took hold. 

I loved my Grandma (still do), and I love this Earth. I love the chickadees and cardinals, the loons and trees, the fox and my children, and the great, wild web connecting them all and extending far into the future. And so, because I know the truth of what’s happening to that web, when I fill with love these days, grief is not far behind. It’s the best way I know of honoring the presence of each bright being and my connection to them all. 

It’s also a great source of inspiration for action. Which I why I beg this of each of you, of all of us: may we possess the strength needed to go to the heart of our mourning. As we watch the world ache, may we ache too. May we ache so deeply that we cannot help but transform that love (for what else is grief?) into powerful action. Because while it was too late to save my Grandma, it’s not too late to save the birds (at least some of them), or the fox or the children who are barreling together towards the future impacts of what we do today. 

We talk about this past year, the year of 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, and some speak about “a lost year”. But if we cannot learn to be with the grief that comes with loving, and not just the joy, then I fear we will lose much more. We will lose the future. 

May we be brave enough to feel the fullness of our love, now, more than ever.  Perhaps love is our greatest language. Perhaps it is the only force transformative enough to drive the action needed to meet this moment, to truly feel our way into an answer to the question extended in the challenge of climate crisis: what do we mean to each other?  

Reveal

Music vibrates from my phone speakers as I dash around our small kitchen, serving lunch while making dinner. 

Dashing. There are moments, these days, when I wonder if I remember another pace. Home with two young, very active children, with my entire “professional life” squeezed into a handful of hours each week and with limited daylight similarly squeezing our time for outside play, I’m always trying to do too much at once. 

Suddenly, my phone switches to a recording of the Boston Christmas Revels, music particularly beloved from my childhood. Music that defined every Christmas season and the many traditions my family celebrated annually. 

It’s as if a great hand suddenly grasps my whole body and says: “Stop”. An ache spreads from my heart up through my throat and into my eyes, which flood with tears. I’m transported from our kitchen to the expansive hall of the great theater at Harvard to which my family traveled each year to watch the Revels. I’m holding my Granny’s hand and we are dancing. 

Every intermission at the Revels began in this way. As Act One drew to a close, the performers would link hands to dance out of the hall singing “The Lord of the Dance.” And the last performer would take the hand of the first audience member and audience and performers alike would make one giant, seemingly endless chain that slowly curved its way out of the theater and into the entry hall. Under the arching ceilings and tremendous chandeliers, we all danced and sang. Together.

The memory gripping my being as I stand in my kitchen in Maine, miles from my family of birth, is of the last year I attended the Revels. Before my grandfather’s death. Before my own marriage or the birth of my two children. And Granny and I danced together. I remember watching her, eyes alight with joy as she kicked up her heels, thinking she looked like she might take flight, expecting her to let out one of her great, room-shaking “Whoopee’s!” at any moment. 

And as I remember my Granny’s joy, and how the sight of it filled me to bursting, I stand in my kitchen in the afternoon light and cry. My children do not notice. They are hungry and devouring their lunches. As I return to the present, I watch their little heads bend over their food and my ache spreads and deepens. 

This Christmas season, we are not joining hands to dance and sing together. We are not pouring towards each other in delight, celebration and love. We are careful and so very distanced. 

And while I long for my work and community and moments where I don’t have to accomplish five things at once, the majority of my ache around this time often settles on those two little beings eagerly enjoying their lunch. I want something so very different for them. I want joyous, carefree moments with other children. I want their father and I not to be so consistently tired and overwhelmed. I want dancing together with many others, holding hands, singing our joy to the ceiling and beyond. 

My son is still fairly oblivious. He is 18 months old, after all. He’s pretty focused on himself and his endless love affair with exploration and discovery (and, thank goodness, with his sister). 

But I know this time has impacted my daughter. She watches me too closely, tries to help lift the burden of this moment too much. And as I notice her shoulder responsibility, I ache even more. We talk about it, of course. It is okay for Mom and Dad to be overwhelmed sometimes, or sad, or frustrated, or stressed. It is not her fault. But she feels what she feels. She wants to help. We humans tend, after all, towards compassion. 

And as I watch her and ache, I think so often about innocence. It’s as if we’ve all lost a lot of innocence this year. And I think that loss is a good thing. 

So much has been exposed. The extent of our connection to each other and, therefore, our responsibility. The depth of inequality, prejudice, selfishness and greed. The way we have neglected systems of care. The heroic spirit of many who have risen to meet this moment. The utter failure of many others. 

And as we draw close to the threshold between this year and the next, and as Christmas music fills my home, I realize I’m not feeling much joy. Sure, there are moments of celebration. Yes, I still experience the thread that ties me to all I love about this wildly imperfect world. 

But often, these days, a lump sits in my throat very close to the surface and I realize it is grief riding along with me as I change diapers, set up paints and paper, hold little hands as we walk through the woods, and serve lunch while I make dinner. 

I’m not grieving for the innocence lost. Good riddance. The time to wake up and smell our responsibility has been long overdue. Within that responsibility lies so much potential. Potential for a world shaped by care and equity, reparation and justice, learning and leaning in, again and again. 

I’m grieving because this is not my daughter’s work or the work of the countless other young people who are feeling this deeply. It is mine, and the work of many of us in older generations. My daughter already reflexes to compassion and care. But too many of us have dissociated from our more tender tendencies. Too many of us have met this kicking and screaming. Too many continue to kick and scream. 

I have not hugged my Granny since last Christmas. She lives alone now, in the old farmhouse that my great-great-grandfather (her grandfather in-law) purchased in the early 1900’s to transform into a family summer home. What was once a sprawling summer playground is now a creaky old house. My uncle, one of the many heroes of 2020, has moved in with Granny and serves as her primary caregiver. We visit her outside or from her doorway. We do not hug. She is 92. The virus would probably kill her.   

My Granny moved across an ocean when she fell in love with and married my Grandad. I’ve watched over the years as she has let go of that old world, bit by bit, as her Scottish family and friends die. I can’t imagine how painful it is to be so far, especially now. She tells me that when she is lonely, she thinks about her home in Scotland. 

We are all letting go of an old world. We must assemble something new. Maybe it won’t happen through the pandemic. But it will happen, whether we consciously participate or go kicking and screaming. I feel the most grief when I think about the opportunity we might miss, the opportunity to make something really beautiful, to take the pain of this time and lean right into it, right through it, to the heart of what is possible. To create something together where no one is lonely—whether because they are physically isolated or because their rights or needs or existence have been discarded—not ever again.