Your Home

Your first home was my body. From nothing more than a knowing you were there to pounds of aliveness churning, kicking and hiccupping, we rode together. You transformed me. As I expanded to fit your growth, the way I experienced life shifted to fit you as well. Every moment of every day and night, we were together, inseparable. My nourishment was your nourishment, my breath feeding into your life.

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Your second home was our arms and a sweet little hospital room. You came into the world with a gasp. I heard your breath before I saw your body. For three days, we existed together in a space between the womb and the world, colored with light gently filtering through rosy curtains, the hours as soft as your new skin.

Next came the space between the walls of our house. A home to bring you into and up within. We negotiated the slightly growing space between us and our need for one another. As days passed, we started to gaze outward more and more.

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Your truest home, your most lasting, permanent, forever home, is the one we fling ourselves into for peace. First, there were the long walks when my mind couldn’t comprehend the enormity of your upcoming birth. Then, after we traversed that threshold together, there were all the times I strapped you to my chest and propelled us both into the forest when nothing else could ease your cries. We’d wander between trees and as the smell of mosses, the touch of sunlight and the call of birds washed over me, my calm became your calm.

I have watched as you have found your way in that truest, most lasting home. As your body has grown, so has your attachment to the wide, open space beyond walls and “comforts”. Your hands explore plants, thread through soil and reach to follow the flight of butterflies. Your questions come fast and furious and so I have searched for answers.

Propelled by your curiosity, we have learned together, you and I. And something I didn’t believe possible has occurred. As we talk about pollination, as we identify species on our walks, as we spend an entire winter amble with noses to the ground, tracking the path of a fox, my own love for the natural world that births us and sustains us has grown.

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This truest, most lasting home has held my whole life. My mother assuredly carried me into the woods in the womb for reflection and comfort. My photo albums overflow with images of both my parents touching trees, bent over ferns, or ankle deep in the ocean, a little tow-headed toddler right alongside. I have loved, cried, hid and sought inspiration in the natural world time and again.

I don’t think I have a hope for you more profound than my wish that you know the same powerful, everlasting connection to that world. You grow up in extraordinary times. It has never been so critical that we realize that we are a part of and completely dependent on the natural world. We have very little time left to wake up to the truth of our existence, the truth that we need to preserve that most fundamental of homes in order to survive.

But it comes down to more than just need. Yes, we need the natural world. But action based in obligation lacks inspiration. And this is about so much more than obligation. We don’t just need the natural world. We love it. And if we don’t recognize that fact, I truly believe we are suffering a disconnection from our deepest nourishment.

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From the plant on an office desk in the heart of a city to the dance between fireflies on a summer night to the way we look at the moon and the stars to the drive to get “out in the countryside” on vacations to the way words fail when we stand on top of a mountain, our connection to our truest home runs so deep, to deny it is to deny a fundamental truth about ourselves. And to disrespect that world is to disrespect the core of who we are.

And so I hope you continue to run between tall grasses, climb rocks even more than jungle gyms and sit silently before wide expanses of water. I hope your eyes and heart and soul continue to light up as your lungs fill with the freshest of air. I hope you never, ever forget the home that will always be there for you, if we only honor it fully.

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Tasting Spring

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Last summer, my daughter fell in love. She was two years old at the time. If you think that is too young for a love affair, I urge you to set down this reading and immediately find a child occupied with nothing more than wandering, uninhibited, in the natural world. Watch how they look, listen and touch. Witness their little beings moved by the flooding of the senses with all this good earth has to offer. They are overcome with love, and rightly so.

For the now nearly three years of her life, I’ve watched my daughter as she traverses this deepening love affair. It is both steady while also displaying distinct moments of deepening affection, moments in which a new discovery or a new experience leads to a specific new love amidst her general, growing love for nature.

Last summer, it was the huckleberries. We are fortunate to be blessed with a path right at the edge of our driveway. This path leads into the woods and connects to a whole network of paths. It is just the type of path that promises the very best kind of adventures. Strewn with fallen pine needles and other forest debris, the ground is delicious under bare feet when warmed by the sun. As you wander this path, and especially as you let it lead you deeper and deeper between the trees, your companions are many: squirrels, all sorts of bird life, deer and even the occasional fox or porcupine.

We are doubly fortunate that a particular leg of this path travels along the shore of a large pond, or a small lake, depending on how you look at things. Before you see the water, you can hear the haunting cry of loons, a call that somehow simultaneously captures the joy of life and the ache of death.

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Where the path meets the pond, they begin to spring from the earth – the huckleberry bushes. Their thin branches tangle and tumble towards the path as the patch thickens. In the spring, bright new leaves tickle our arms as we walk. In the fall, the patch bursts into vibrant shades of orange and red, a startlingly gorgeous visual against the blues of the water. And in the late summer, the branches are prolific in berries. Darker and glossier than a wild blueberry but about the same size, the huckleberry has a distinct flavor – simultaneously sweet, sour and somewhat nutty. And last summer, my daughter experienced that flavor for the first time.

Importantly, though, I think her enchantment has much more to do with the experience of finding food in the woods. On late summer mornings, instead of starting our day with breakfast, we’d begin with the path. Often, we wouldn’t even bother with shoes. We’d open the front door and step out of the cool of our house and into the warmth of the morning sun. Our dog would scamper ahead, disappearing around a bend, knowing exactly where we were headed. My daughter would walk for a while, bending occasionally to examine a leaf or collect an acorn. Sometimes we would stop to watch a squirrel busy at their morning breakfast, sitting remarkably straight and alert on a tree stump, a pine cone clutched between paws, munching and staring at us, ready to bolt if we made any predatory move but not wanting to prematurely abandon the feast.  “It’s okay, little one, we won’t hurt you,” I’d say and my daughter would be fascinated. She’d want me to explain over and over why I said those particular words, why the squirrel might be afraid of us.

Eventually, I’d hoist her onto my shoulders and we’d catch up to our dog, traipsing down a short hill towards the water and then around a bend and there they would be. “I want to get down!” my daughter would exclaim as she started to wiggle with excitement. I’d plop her onto her feet and hand her the little cup we had brought along for gathering purposes. And we’d begin to pick. One for the cup, one for immediate consumption.

It quickly became evident that my daughter would pick without end, each berry more enticing than the last. “We need to leave some on the bushes,” I told her, early in the huckleberry season. “Why?!” – total incomprehension at this nonsensical suggestion. “Because, we aren’t the only animals that eat these berries.” And sure enough, we’d watch as birds darted between branches, occupied with their own morning snack. A lesson in harvesting honorably, in a manner that acknowledges our true place within a complex and interdependent web. We do not own this huckleberry patch; we are exceptionally blessed by its presence just a short walk from our house. I like to believe that the concept of this shared blessing only increased my daughter’s love for the little black berries. She did learn to modify her harvest, picking to fill her cup and then stopping.

We’d sit just beyond the bushes on a moss-covered rock and eat the berries as we gazed at the sparkling water below. The only thing that could motivate us onward in our morning loop of the path was the knowledge that, just a few minutes further along, we would come into full sunshine at the very edge of the water, standing on a rock that slopes into the cool depths. If we were lucky, we’d see the loons, calmly gliding further out, serenely surveying the new day. Assuredly, we’d abandon clothing and slip into the coolness, my daughter in my arms, her breath catching just briefly as her little body was surrounded by the water’s embrace.

It was a sad day when my daughter’s hands reached for berries and found only dried, shriveled remnants. A lesson in change, in the cycle of the seasons, in plant life. We still had a swim to look forward to, but even that eventually ended, as the water grew too cold.

“It will all be back next summer,” I promised. But through Maine’s long winter months, that must have seemed hard to believe. Bundled nearly to the point of immobility, we’d pass between the huckleberry bushes on our walks and my daughter’s mittens would brush the branches. Sometimes she’d ask to be reminded about the cycle of the plant’s life and when the berries would be back. Sometimes she’d just look, longingly, missing her beloved fruits.

It was early April before her patience began to pay-off and my story became more than just a story. We had nearly passed through the patch – me dismissing the bare branches for any sign of new action – when suddenly I saw it. I bent for a closer look and then called ecstatically for my daughter. She came at a clip. “Look!” I exclaimed. “Look at that!” At the end of many of the little branches – not all, but many – were buds. Beautiful, tiny, delicate pink buds. “Those are buds,” I explained. “They will open into leaves. That’s the first sign of the plant getting ready to make more berries.”

We were fortunate to be walking with a dear friend, an “auntie”, who is a student of botany. She and I worked together to describe how plants use leaves to make food, how that energy is put into making the flowers that, once pollinated, become the berries we so love. My daughter did not take her eyes from the little burst of pink as we relayed the science lesson with great enthusiasm. When we were done, she slowly lifted her hands and removed her mittens. She then extended one hand and oh-so-gently took the bud between her forefinger and her thumb. She held the little packet of life for a moment, then released it and licked her fingers. She looked at me, a huge grin spread across her small face. “I taste them, Mama,” she said. “The huckleberries.”

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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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Let her go

It’s not because of the labor. It’s not because of those incredibly rough moments in the first months: moments like standing in the kitchen with my finally sleeping baby strapped to my chest while eating my first bite of the day – a few spoonfuls of garbanzo beans from a can. Since becoming a mother myself, I appreciate my mom in a whole new way. But it’s not because of days of labor or moments like that.

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It’s because of the most basic and most challenging paradox I’ve found in motherhood: loving and letting go.

It starts so early, doesn’t it? I spent the months and days leading up to labor preparing myself in any way I could – yoga, meditation, birthing classes. I wanted to give our daughter as easeful a passage as possible into this world. But when the contractions begin, the only part of the process in your control is your response to whatever unfolds. She comes into this world in the way she must. And then you hold her and love her and, once she starts to wake up to the world, listen as she tells you about her experience of birth.

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And it doesn’t stop. You feel overjoyed as she begins to walk, marveling at the sight of that little body deciding where to go and getting there all on her own. You marvel and your heart leaps into your throat as you realize she will fall. Even if you hover behind her every step, which you don’t really want to do, she will trip and tumble in the way she must. And then you hold her and love her and listen to her tell you about how that felt. After she is done, you set her down and carry your heart in your throat as she totters off again.

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As I look ahead, I see the stakes rising right alongside her height, vocabulary and desires. She will meet so many people. Some will want to be her friend, some will not. She will try out for a certain sport, a certain role. She might get it and she might not. She will feel like her identity lives and dies in receiving certain selective positions – maybe a job, an internship, a college. She might be accepted, she might not. She will fall in love. Her heart will break in the way it must. And you will hold her and love her and listen to her tell you how it feels.

And then one day, maybe, she will go into labor of her own. She will call you, overjoyed that soon she will be holding her own baby. And you will wait, for hours that stretch into days, pacing, trying to keep fear at bay. You will receive text messages from her husband, maybe, or her wife, updating you on the process – dilation is not occurring. There is no fluid left in the sack. Now dilation has started. Now it has stopped. Now they have hooked her to Pitocin. Now she is pushing. You wish you could push for her. Hours. Now it will be a C-section. She will labor in the way she must, and the next day you will hold her child and love her and listen as your daughter tells you how it felt.

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And so I thank you, Mom. You taught by example. You modeled how to walk in that paradox for so many years. You listened as I wept. You did not try to fix it. You held me after I tumbled or when the world itself seemed to fall. You did not try to put it back together. And by not fixing or controlling my surroundings, you showed me that I was capable. That weeping was fine and tumbling was inevitable and no feeling is permanent. That I carried boundless strength. It was that strength that enabled me to labor for nearly three days, carried me during the first months of my daughter’s life and echoes each time I hold her and love her and then let her go.

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