A place to begin

This morning, as I backed my car up to pull out of our driveway, my cellphone rang with a call from my husband. Our 2.5 year-old daughter was in tears just inside the house. She had, unbeknownst to either of us, been making me a Valentine with a plan to give it to me before I left for work. I had kissed her goodbye, not knowing exactly what she was doing and she hadn’t realized I was walking out the door and was now in tears, finished Valentine in-hand.

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My daughter never cries these days when I leave. For me, it was a no-brainer to put the car in park and dash back to our front door. Face against the glass, my daughter stood with a red paper heart clutched in her little hands. I opened the door and she pressed the heart towards me. She had glued smaller hearts across the surface, wrinkled and piled, and her effort was clear. Tears gone, she beamed up at my face with anticipation and delight. I exclaimed gratitude and love. She started to trot back into the house and then turned around.

“Momma, I was upset, because I wanted to give that to you before you left.” I crouched down. “I am so glad that you did. I am going to carry this with me all day.” She walked right up to me and put her little nose against mine. Big eyes looked straight into my own. “I love you so much,” I said. “I love you!” And then her pajama-clad, soft little body was gone.

I got into my car and drove away, hooking a recent Fresh Air interview into the speakers. The interview was with James Balog, an environmental photographer who most recently created the powerful film The Human Element. The film vividly explores both the already-existing and future impacts of climate change on humans. I listened to Balog talk about a special school in a hospital in Colorado established for children with extreme asthma, induced by poor local air quality. Balog estimated that nearly 100 children attend the in-hospital school. These children can rarely play outside. As I listened, my unborn son kicked steadily against the side of my uterus.

I spent part of my workday reading more stories about the current impacts of climate change on young people: impacts ranging from loss of homes or parents in extreme weather events to severe anxiety to massive food insecurity. The most vulnerable are just that: most vulnerable. I thought about my two children, one who is already running around, breathing in, and loving the world and the other who has yet to see his first tree, hear his first loon call at night or identify the feeling of fear by name.

We are so fortunate. The air around our home is not extremely contaminated – yet. Water is not lapping at our front door – yet. We have not had to pack up our children and our possessions and embark on life-threatening travel to a new home – (here, it is especially terrifying to add “yet”). We have food and clean water. Our children can breathe and explore and learn to love the world free of extreme fear – for now.

I spend a great deal of my time these days researching, thinking and writing about how to best prepare young people for a world with climate change. I find myself increasingly supportive of introducing the topic younger than many might imagine – although certainly in very simple terms at first. I think a lot about how to balance truth with encouragement. Joy and play are essential. I do not want my children robbed of their childhood, pushed to grow up too quickly by the looming presence of climate change. But I also want them to incorporate the reality that is climate change into their worldview. I want them empowered to apply their joy, their play and their best loving, creative selves to the challenges ahead. I want them to know that bravery is not the absence of fear and that empathy is possible across vast differences, be those differences based in ideology or species.

When I get home today, I will wrap my daughter into my arms, perhaps with a little extra vigor. I will not tell her about the children with asthma or the ones who have lost their homes. For now, I will affirm her creativity and kindness. I will help her learn to value feelings, hers and others’, to name them and allow their presence while also learning how to transform them into action. I will walk with her out in the world and together we will soak up the interconnection of living beings and learn as much as we can about the delicate but powerful ecosystems that sustain us all. We will learn respect and empathy. We will recognize our agency and ability to create solutions to problems. We will read stories about heroes. We will learn how to listen to others and appreciate their feelings and values. We will separate our wants from our needs. And I will continue to leave her to go to work, to face the harsher realities, both so that I may make my contribution and so she may learn about courage and the value of community beyond her parents.

This is where we begin. Together, we will stitch the fabric of the blanket that will one day provide comfort, support and nourishment as she learns the facts about climate change.

Valentine’s Day, we have told her, is about saying “I love you” and showing the care that accompanies that emotion, something we hope to celebrate every day.

Together, I hope we become a Valentine to the world.

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The hope I send forth

Spring is about families.

First it is the early signs. The robins busily build nests, flying from the branches to our lawn and back again with tufts of dried grass clenched in their beaks. Ducks chase each other across the pond. At night, the peepers are busy. “Netting”, my daughter calls it – her two year-old attempt at the word “mating”.

We wait, and eventually results of this frenzy appear. Tiny beaks are glimpsed over the edge of nests. Baby deer tiptoe delicately onto our lawn after their mothers. On a morning run, I startle a mother duck and her young out of the reeds at the edge of the pond. I stop and watch their retreat, marveling at how organized they are, even in a moment of panic. At night, the peepers are suddenly silent again. “They are done netting,” my daughter solemnly explains. “They are taking care of their babies now.”

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We see tadpoles and tiny snakes and new fish leaping for new mosquitoes. The plants, too, follow the call of nature and make their push towards reproduction. We watch the huckleberry bushes with interest, noting the new leaves and delighting when blossoms appear. “Next come the berries!” I tell my daughter who remembers their tangy taste from last summer’s walks.

This spring, I’ve enjoyed a particular obsession with a family of loons. They appeared in April, the two sleek bodies on the surface of the pond, circling each other in a ritual as old as time. My daughter delighted in watching them dive and resurface as they sought food.

As we sat and watched the two loons, day after day, my breath caught in my throat. The beauty of a new family and the hope threaded through that beginning juxtapose so much of what is happening in the human world right now, where hopelessness and helplessness rage. The loons simultaneously embodied self-sufficiency and vulnerability. They built their home and caught their food, carefully creating a place for their young while eagles circled and snapping turtles swam and countless other predators loomed.

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Climate change alarmed me before the birth of my daughter. But when she came into my arms and my life – in the spring – my fear for the future of this world soared to a new height. I had thought a lot about the pairing of climate change and the hope involved in becoming a parent, deciding to bring a vulnerable new being into a world with such an uncertain future. I resolved to work in every way I knew to simultaneously prepare my daughter for that world and to make it better for her. Some days the path is clearer than others, but at no point have I regretted choosing hope over fear.

However, the fear certainly lingers. It whispers at me as I watch my daughter greet the world with soft hands and big eyes. It screams at me as I listen to certain national and international “leaders” chose power over science and continue to publicly deny climate change. And as our country engages this spring in a horrific immigration policy of separating families, of detaining children away from their parents, and now of detaining whole families, I consider how destroyed ones home must be for one to take the enormous risk of leaving. If we destroy this earth, to where will we immigrate? And what might face us when we get there?

It seems an act of daring so sweeping that it borders on insanity to cast my daughter into the world today. While any number of rationale bang around in my head, the best I can offer is this: I love my daughter and I love this earth and I believe the two just might be good for one another. And, I must remind myself, I do not cast her into the world empty-handed.

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As we watch the loons raise their baby, I am not only teaching my daughter to love and respect the rest of the natural world. I am exposing her to a fundamental and life-sustaining truth: in that world, we are never alone. This is a truth that comes with responsibility, yes, but also with deep nourishment. She will be fed by the sound of the Wood Thrush, the sight of the harvest moon and the smell of pine needles baked in the sun. Delight will always be available to her, a kind of delight that costs nothing but attention. The “why?” of life will be abundantly clear to her in the pulse that surrounds her, always, threading her to every other family, whether walking, swimming, flying, or unfurling leaves to catch the spring sun.

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An evening with the “ouchie trees”

“Ouchie tree?” My daughter’s little voice rang out from her perch in the pack strapped to my back. We were making our way through the woods. With the light of the day fading, I felt the chill around us deepen. I also heard the hint of concern laced through my daughter’s question.

The previous day, while on the same path, she and her father had found a tree with a long, narrow slit running down the trunk. The tree had grown thick and bubbly around the cut, as trees do to seal off the injured area, preventing contamination by bacteria or other foreign substances, and ultimately allowing the tree to grow around and enclose the wounded area within the ever-expanding trunk. Not elegant, but powerfully effective. Our daughter, who has been enjoying an ongoing search for “woodpecker trees”, initially thought the mark might have been the calling card of a bird’s search for bugs. “Actually,” my husband had corrected her, “The tree got cut there. That’s like an ouchie.”

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Later that evening, my husband relayed the story to me. Our daughter had fretted about the “ouchie tree” for the rest of the afternoon. We’ve taken a specific approach to her own bumps and bruises: when she falls, we wait and watch for her reaction and then we react accordingly. We honor wherever she lands, literally and emotionally. She is a pretty rugged little being, and typically pops right back up to re-engage in the play at hand. But, like so many little ones, she is deeply concerned about the “ouchies” of others. And she was now worried about the “ouchie tree” with an intense fixation.

The tree was a conversation topic throughout the following day. I had pondered the issue and prepared my reply. When my daughter brought up the tree, I told her that trees, like people, get “ouchies”. But, more often than not, they continue to grow and thrive right alongside whatever mark the “ouchie” might leave. The mark is like a memory – of one moment in the tree’s life. The tree has many moments.

I told her we would go back and visit the tree. I asked her what the tree might say to her. She said: “I missed you.” (This is the generic response for what anyone or anything might say after an absence.) “Indeed.” I said. “And it might also say: ‘Look how tall I am! I had an ouchie and I am fine.’”

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So, our evening walk found us searching for the “ouchie tree”. Eventually, we found it. Even in the gathering dusk, the mark was apparent. We paused right alongside the tree’s trunk. I touched the slit and the bulge of growth on either side. In my peripheral vision, I saw my daughter’s mittened hand reach out to do the same. Then her head tilted back. “So tall,” she breathed.

My gaze lifted as well. Far above, branches shifted slowly in the light breeze. Needles waved. We watched. The tree was thriving. Ouchie and all.

There are so many moments where I am rushed in my responses to my daughter. I hear her and reply, but my attention is not fully present and there is less consciousness behind my words. But I’m trying, more and more, to slow down and honor the profound learning that is happening in every moment of her days, moments in which conversations about the “ouchies” of a tree are really about so much more.

She is learning about life. And what I’ve come to realize is this: I am learning right alongside her. As I ponder my responses to her questions and as I watch her eyes, hands and heart encounter the world, I gain fresh insight and experience. It’s a tremendous gift: the opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the world and its innumerable teachings daily.

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We ultimately bid farewell to the “ouchie tree”, after promises to visit again soon. As we made our way back through the woods to our house, my daughter kept a vigil for more “ouchie trees”. And now that we were looking, we found many. They are everywhere. Trees, like people, like all living beings, bear the wounds of the years. And still they grow, gracefully chasing light upwards, strongly rooting into the dark and damp below. We touched so many trees that evening. I hope we soaked up a bit of their strength, a fraction of the wisdom of their ways. I hope my daughter remembers that evening and what we learned together as we bore witness to the “ouchie trees”.

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What could have been said…

I understand why men didn’t speak up at the Golden Globes this year. I really do.

I did not watch the awards ceremony, but, boy, did I hear about it. I imagine there are few who didn’t. The theme of recognizing the work and struggle of women with everyone wearing black, the speeches – from Oprah and others – eloquently and powerfully addressing the work women are doing right now to spotlight both harassment and continuing inequality – it was clearly a different awards show this year.

My friend posted an article that really grabbed my attention, particularly when coupled with her commentary. The article highlighted the conspicuous silence of the men present. Why didn’t they address the blatant and important theme of the evening? Why didn’t they speak to their role in the equation?

In sharing the article, my friend also shared the complexity of her feelings on the topic. On the one hand, she recognized that men can support the women’s movement in ways that are not as publicly visible. On the other hand, if they have a platform, a position of power and the opportunity to reach millions of listeners, shouldn’t they use that opportunity? Others commenting on her post pointed out that no matter what the men present said, it would not have been the right thing and would have taken attention from where it should be – on the women and what they are saying. Anything a man would say in that situation would inevitably come across as self-serving or promoting.

The article and the comments my friend made and received rattled around in my mind all day, along with a question of my own: When we are confronted with a situation in which a group of people have suffered persecution at the hands of another group and we are identified with the latter, through race, class, gender or by some other factor, how can we verbally show support for the persecuted? Recognizing the many, many complexities in such a situation, recognizing all that we do not and can never know about the experience of those persecuted, how can we speak out in a manner that isn’t self-serving, that is truly supportive? Do we have to remain silent because to speak is to step into a truly uncomfortable and complex realm?

Or can we learn together? Is there some way to speak from exactly the place of complexity in which we find ourselves – to address it rather than shove it under the rug or use it as a reason to remain silent?

What if the men present at the Golden Globes had said something like this: “I’m worried about saying the wrong thing here, but I believe to not speak up in support of the incredible work being done by women right now is to not support that work. I don’t want to take the attention away from where it should be: on the work being done, on what the women are saying, on the very real issues they are highlighting, and on the important changes that need to happen. I just want to say that I support this work 100% and I’m here to do anything I can to help make those changes.”

I don’t know about other women, but this would have worked very well for me. I would applaud the man who could stand in his discomfort and not-knowing and speak these words, words that stay focused on the work the women are doing and don’t draw the attention towards the man’s discomfort in the face of that work. To be able to stand in discomfort but not make that the story. To recognize that within not-knowing lies an opportunity to learn. To know that even if the work ahead drives straight into uncharted and potentially increasingly uncomfortable territory, your support is the best thing you can give, especially when coupled with a willingness to learn and to be changed in that process of learning.

I get that it is unfair to place the responsibility of teaching on the persecuted party. To do so is to doubly burden those who have already shouldered undeserved weight for far too long. But we cannot know what we do not know. When we pretend otherwise, we further abuse those who truly do know, who have experienced the persecution firsthand.

As I think about the resurgence of so many movements that seek to address the inequalities and injustices rampant the whole word over, I find myself hoping again and again that we can be brave enough to stand in discomfort. May we be capable of admitting when we do not know. May we be willing to offer support while not seeking to take over the story. May we be ever and always open to being changed in the process of communal learning this world so desperately needs.

And may I learn from what was missing at the Golden Globes. The next time I want to show support but am nervous about speaking up, may I remember the words I would have liked to hear from the men present at that awards ceremony.

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To Feel More Fully

Here we are, once again nearing the turn of the year. Whether we shrink from it, gallop eagerly forward, or stand still in impartiality, the threshold between this year and the next approaches us as surely as the darkness at the end of each day or the dawn after each night.

I am reminded of something the late great Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue said about thresholds: “[I]f you go back to the etymology of the word ‘threshold,’ it comes from ‘threshing,’ which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.”

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More critical and challenging and worthy fullness. Good lord, doesn’t that sound beautiful? Doen’t that just reek of exactly that which is most needed in this world today? So many of us seem to be moving at a pace that actually dilutes our sense of being. We function as shreds of ourselves as we rush from one “doing” to the next.

I see the impact of this rush in myself. As my daughter and I spend the afternoon together, I move from cleaning to cooking to folding clothes, occasionally glancing at my phone. “Mama, playdough!” she says. “Mama, mama! Quesadilla!” And she trots around the corner, a huge beam on her face, proudly holding a plate on which she has perched a blob of playdough that she painstakingly flattened with her little, soft hands.

And I almost miss it. I’m almost so busy feeding the woodstove that I don’t take the time to turn towards her. Assuredly, there have been many moments where I have missed her invitation, have stayed in the busyness at hand rather than turning towards my bright, beautiful daughter as she seeks connection.

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Turning towards connection. Another phrase that grips my attention as some sort of compass towards the healing this world desperately needs. We are so disconnected, shrouded in our bubbles of productivity and individuality. How often do we actually take the time to feel the truth of the connection that ties us to the rest of the world?

I’m not talking about just being social. It’s not as simple as that. We can be in the midst of a raging party and still be disconnected. Yes, we need to celebrate community more fully, but as a massive introvert, I’m a big believer in solitude as well. What I’m talking about is connection to the moments of our life. A commitment to show up fully, with presence and the porousness required to actually feel the moment we are in.

I get it. To feel fully, profoundly, is so. fucking. hard. Especially today. As I read news of another police shooting, as I watch Dreamers live in fear that their right to exist in this country might be stripped, as I look into my daughter’s eyes with the echo of a recent article I read about the increasing pace of climate change ringing in my head, I’d like to run from my feelings. I’d like to hide my head in pretty much any metaphorical “sand” that might numb me to the harsher aspects of today’s world.

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But here’s the thing. The fact that I can choose whether or not to feel these truths means that I live in a position of profound luxury. For those impacted directly, that choice does not exist. And yet, the fact that I am not impacted directly doesn’t mean I’m not connected to the system that causes those horrible truths in the first place. Through feeling, I wake up to my role and the choices I have surrounding that role.

I believe we have to feel, we must feel, and that in this feeling lies our salvation. If I did not experience a wildly complex mix of love, grief and fear when I hold my daughter and think about climate change, I wouldn’t have any desire to try to find solutions, to seek to make a positive difference. I’m not advocating that we allow ourselves to be completely overwhelmed by feeling. I understand that balance is so important, that we must have the capacity to hold our feelings. But the balance generally seems to be tipped in the favor of less feeling these days.

My hope is this: that as we journey through the upcoming threshold, we might all shed the husks that shield us from feeling. May we set aside any worry that feelings might make others uncomfortable. May we reclaim emotion as a powerful tool for positive connection and change. May we care and care deeply, emboldened by the knowledge that it takes tremendous courage to care and that within caring lies a promise, yes of pain, but also of a sure path to meaning.

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Joy in Action

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I could try to describe the feelings I experienced as images of the recent women’s march poured in from all over the world. I could try, but I don’t really see the point. The feeling was so much better than words.

I was perhaps most impacted by the radiant joy I saw on the faces of so many of those pictured. Yes, joy. It was clear: the act of coming together for something so passionately believed in uplifted those involved at a moment when it would be very easy, and understandable, to sink into a deep depression.

Joy. It’s elusive. One moment we feel it, coursing through us, making us want to dance, to shriek, to hug, to leap. The next moment, it’s gone. But for the moment of it’s visit, we felt so extraordinarily awake, so vividly alive.

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That’s what joy is to me. It’s a moment of pure aliveness combined with feeling 100% that I am exactly where I want to be, doing just what I want to do. I don’t feel this unless my action is aligned with my values.

Isn’t it remarkable, how easy it is to act in a way that doesn’t reflect our values? Why do we do this so much of the time? Assuredly, the need to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to clothe our children and be able to bring them to the doctor – these needs mean, for many, that we must labor without love.

But where and when we have the choice, why don’t take the path that leads towards joy? Is it perhaps because when we pursue that which we truly value or in which we truly believe, we are putting more of our hearts on the line? The risk is greater. Sometimes, it is a lot easier not to care, to exist at a sub-par level.

If I could put one hope out there right now and have it answered, it just might be the hope that we could all start choosing actions that align with our beliefs. Look at the faces of those people marching. Just look at them. They are so beautiful. It’s not because of their clothing or their makeup or hairstyle, or anything as superficial as all of that. It’s because they are doing something they believe in so strongly they cannot do otherwise. May we all be graced with that beauty in many more moments this year and in the years ahead. May we radiate with the joy that comes from putting our bodies, our minds and our creative beings to use in a way that aligns with a great sense of purpose. If we are brave enough to take the risk involved – (and I’m willing to bet a whole lot on this) – we will all reap the benefits.

I’m going to try it myself – inspired by those faces in the sea of marchers this past weekend. When I reach a fork where I have a choice and one direction is easy but maybe not quite aligned with what I believe is important and the other direction is a bit more challenging but so clearly in line with all I hold dear, I’m going to walk down that path towards joy.

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Considered Days

January 2016

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My childhood days were made rich not by what we possessed but by the attitude of those around me. From my mother, we learned to marvel at each detail in nature. My father’s laugh echoes through my memories as does his contagious sense of humor. I watched my maternal grandparents model generous work in the community as a way to celebrate your blessings. My paternal grandparents taught me to look for magic in every-day moments.

We did not live in a fairytale bubble, sheltered from the harsh realities also contained in the world. Instead, the people who loved and raised me somehow managed to convey that the world is beautiful in spite of the great horrors that also exist, and that celebrating the beautiful is often the best way to combat the terrible. We learned to feel both responsibility and gratitude for each other and the world around us.

In 2016, I gave birth to my first child. She enters a world that often scares me. Climate change, institutionalized inequality, bigotry – these forces weave through our communities and through the world. And then, in the fall, I watched as an appalling political reality rose in our country.

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I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to parent, heck, how best to live in today’s world. How do I call the joy and celebration with which I was raised into the need to roll up my sleeves and work daily, in ways big and small, to honor the rights of all beings and this planet? And how do I pass onto my daughter a sense of delight in the world combined with respect for the realities with which we are faced?

I believe the answer lies in my childhood. What better inspiration exists than love for the world? Why would we want to work for a world that we don’t first think is beautiful?

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What is the best way to live in today’s world? As I face a new year (and our country’s new political reality), I want to share my exploration of this question. This blog will be my journal of discovery. It will be messy. It will likely run quite a range – from reflections on childhood memories, to experiences of new parenthood, to pondering about recent news. Some days, an image might say more than words. Many days, I won’t publish anything (that new parenthood thing). But with what I do make permanent here, I’ll record a year of inquiry.

I’m setting down the commitment to take some aspects of my internal dialogue public because we are all in this inquiry together. It’s not just about celebrating what is still beautiful about life and it’s not just about mindfully and messily exploring how best to live in today’s world. It’s about exploring together. I believe community is more important than ever – offline, online, in the streets, in our homes and everywhere else. As a chronically shy individual, community isn’t something that’s ever been easy for me. But I think it’s really important that we share our stories, our struggles and our joys as we face this crazy thing called life and the crazier thing that is our world today. So, here goes.

PS – I’ve included some posts from a former blog life that give a sense of what I might share here over the next year.

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Nous sommes le monde.

January 2015

Okay, let me begin by being clear. The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris was despicable and deserves the world’s attention. We should be shocked when the right to free speech is so violently targeted. We should raise our voices and collective conscience in response.

And…

As I watched social media absolutely ignite in the days following the attack in Paris, I had to wonder. And I was not alone. In the midst of the very vocal protest occurring across the Internet and beyond, a few feeble voices started to echo my wondering. What about the horrific attacks on freedom that occur around the world every day? Every. Single. Day.

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Yes, it was horrifying to see artists so violently targeted due to an act of expression. Yes, it was horrifying to see those attacks happen in broad daylight on the streets and in the buildings of Paris. Yes, it shakes us to the core to see nonviolence met with violence, to see a community stricken by such unjustifiable, unfathomable loss.

And…

On January 10, three days after the attack in Paris, 20 people were killed in a market in Nigeria when explosives strapped to a young girl (believed to be 10 years-old) went off. This was just the latest in a string of attacks that began January 3, carried out by the militant group, Boko Haram, that have reportedly claimed around 2,000 lives. Yes, these events received news coverage, but it has been massively eclipsed by the events in Paris.

Even the recent Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan that left 150 dead, mostly children, received neither the extent of coverage nor the extent of international response seen in the days following January 7.

Why? Yes, these attacks occurred in countries with far-less stable governments than France and in areas less accessible to journalists. But if we stop our exploration of the disparity in attention there, I think we fall short.

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We fall short in what it means to be a part of the global community. We are Charlie Hebdo, yes, but we are much, much more. We are the world. Attacks on free speech, attacks on the right to education, the strapping of bombs to innocent, young girls, we cannot choose which to see, which to bond with, where to unite. We are united in it all. We are the artists, the students, the ten year-old girl. We are the people living in the island nations that are rapidly disappearing due to climate change. If we kid ourselves, even for a second, that we are isolated from these hardships, we are forgetting just how global the world is today.

The odd, bizarrely paradoxical aspect of these horrific occurrences is often the voices of hope beautifully and bravely raised in response. Who wasn’t touched, and deeply so, to see so many join together to march the street of Paris? It is incredible, isn’t it, to see how despair can be met with such resounding hope, such vocal visions of the possibility, always present, of the best, most humanitarian world possible.

So, yes, let’s raise our voices to protest what happened on January 7 in Paris. Let’s be shocked. But can we, please, be equally shocked by the widespread acts of terrorism that continue in Nigeria, and in so many other parts of the world. I get it, it is overwhelming. There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. But I believe that it is our responsibility, those of us who are incredibly fortunate to live in safety, security, even luxury, to see that suffering and to do everything we can to stand alongside it and help. Let’s not stand over it all and select what to see, where to care. We are wildly compassionate beings. And we are the world. Let’s stand in the midst of it all and raise that collective voice of hope.

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