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?