The illusion of a divide

My family and I are vacationing on the west coast of Florida – a stand-in for our preferred destination of Costa Rica as I am seven months pregnant and avoiding Zika. I am walking at an early afternoon high tide, feet in the subtle waves at the water’s edge. At first, the idyllic scene washes over me: the blues of the water, the white sand, the gentle breeze. My bare skin soaks up sun and warmth, foreign at this time of year in Maine.

As I walk, however, the feeling grows that I am tracing the steps of a sharp divide. On one side of me, human society sprawls over the sand. Plastic beach loungers are filled with travelers, not unlike myself. They drink from plastic cups through plastic straws and play beach games with plastic toys.

On the other side, nonhuman nature ebbs, flows and soars. Pelicans glide purposefully over the water, then suddenly pierce the depths. Terns dart, sea gulls swoop. The water glistens in the afternoon light as currents flow.

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The contrast is stark and startling. Like me, many of the people to my right were drawn here by nature’s beauty. Like me, they dip into the water, scoop sand, and marvel at the bird life. But as I watch the two sides of the divide, I am struck by how sharply it is just that: a divide. And I wonder. I worry, as I do daily, about the future of the natural world, human and nonhuman alike. I wonder: as long as human interaction with the rest of the natural world is so clearly defined by our terms, terms driven by our wants and demands, will we ever be motivated to truly question the ultimate impact of those lounge chairs, air miles and plastic cups and straws?

My toe grazes something hard and smooth. I bend to examine. A shell, a wide spiral. Like the rest of the natural world, perfectly designed for purpose with a simple, elegant beauty. I pick up the shell. My daughter is napping as I walk, and I imagine her delight over the shell when she awakens. I can hear her: “Ooooooh, Mama!” – eyes and fingers spreading wide in a desire to experience the shell with as many senses as possible. Earlier, she darted in and out of the waves, not unlike a sandpiper. Occasionally, she would fling herself down on her belly, completely unbothered by the wet sand, completely propelled to immerse herself as fully as possible in her surroundings. Or she would sit herself down in the water, cross-legged, gazing out to sea as waves ebbed and flowed around her small body, for all the world like a little bathing suit-clad Buddha.

Amongst all the people along the water’s edge, the children are consistently the ones most immersing themselves in the sounds, sights and feels of the rest of the natural world. They have not forgotten that they are a part of this world, after all. I say this while wanting to be very careful not to over-romanticize that relationship. The natural world deserves our respect. It is strong, powerful and holds an overarching wisdom and sense of purpose that many of us humans have forgotten.

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I notice a sole person venturing to swim the deeper water. His strokes aim him straight for a bobbing group of pelicans. I stop to watch. He draws ever-closer and I almost hold my breath. And then – the inevitable – the pelicans take flight. Nonhuman nature once again is moved aside. It almost appears to be placed in a way to accommodate human needs first and foremost. But this is an illusion. We humans will not be accommodated endlessly. To everything, there is a limit.

I dip into the water myself. As I swim, I watch a large group of pelicans fly over the tall buildings that were constructed practically on the sand. Like fortresses, the buildings stand prepared to protect their inhabitants, with air-conditioning and refrigeration and running water and electricity and Wi-Fi and the many other modern technologies that allow us to believe that we function apart from the rest of the natural world. These technologies support that illusion that we can meet all our wants regardless of what happens to the water and the air and the fish and the birds just outside.

The pelicans soar in formation straight towards the buildings, like a group of fighter jets. But what can they do? Peck at the roof-tops? Push their bodies through the windows?

We humans have made ourselves too impenetrable, too unyielding, too aloof. We have built too distinct a divide, there at the water’s edge and in many other parts of our lives. We have erected walls so thick they allow us the comfort of our delusional separation.

As I shake salt water from my eyes, I pray for greater clarity, for all of us. May we not just know, may we experience our interconnection. Every decision and action we take impacts the rest of life and, in turn, comes back to us. There is no divide. There is only all of us, all of life, together. We can seek the wisdom of the perfectly spiraled shells or we can stay on our beach chairs. The choice is ours. The consequences are extreme.

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What remains

I hope you know the feeling. You love someone so deeply, you want to just look at them, absorbing every detail with your eyes, without hurry. You are not driven by a desire to own them, somehow, by looking, but to know them. And in knowing them at this level of intimate detail, you are lifted beyond the walls of your skin. You become more than your limited self as you ponder the mystery that is the existence of another.

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This feeling, this is what I experience as I sit at the edge of the water. I want all the time in the world to look, not at another person, but at the explosion of beauty before me. My eyes feast on the water as it moves, chased by the same breeze that ruffles leaves on nearby trees. I want to learn from the particular way the light reflects off each part of the water’s surface. I want to memorize the curvatures and lines of the rocks that dip into the edge of the lake. My eyes travel to the tip of a particularly tall pine and I know freedom lies in the truth of that silent giant right where it meets the sky and that if I could look long enough, I’d somehow learn that truth too.

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I could sit for hours, with need for nothing more than the feast laid out before my eyes. Within this feast lies not just nourishment, but lessons delivered through the poetry of life’s simplest movements and presentations. How could anyone, ever, consider themselves to be more important than anyone else if they only sat here and looked? The larger truth is written so plainly in the water, the sturdy rocks, the reaching trees – life continues. I am to life as one more drop of rain is to the lake. My presence is felt, assuredly, and will ripple. The force with which I land (mightn’t that force depend on consciousness more than push?) will determine the spread of those ripples. But, ultimately, both myself and my ripples will be absorbed by the rest.

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And so I sit and look and I do not hurry away from this lesson about existence and impermanence. Eventually, I rise, slip between pines, and fade. The lake, the shore, and the trees – they remain.

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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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Listen.

I used to want to speak louder. To be more vocal, more often. To have the ability to let words tumble out of my mouth with the ease I saw in others.

Speaking often felt painful. Not physically so, but in some internal, energetic way. The words spun and twisted inside me, becoming larger and larger with each turn until they tumbled forth, unkempt and unpolished. Every syllable hurt my critical ears. I sounded ridiculous. And I was sure no one was listening anyways.

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Every shy person knows the struggle to speak. For me, that struggle came in two flavors. One occurred when I knew what I wanted to say but the words were blocked by my unease. The second came when I felt I should have something to say but didn’t. The latter feeling arose most often in the presence of what we tend to call “small talk”.

It took years to melt the walls that blocked my voice. Believing in what I had to say helped, believing it was important regardless of the level of polish it might carry when uttered. I have yet to find ease in small talk. I understand its importance. I don’t judge its existence. I wish it came naturally. But it doesn’t. Perhaps it never will.

The ironic piece is this: after years of learning to speak, now I want to be quiet. I want to listen.

As I feel the pace of life whirl, I want to tumble into the sounds of nature and the voices of the people I love and be still and present there. On a recent evening, my daughter and I sat at the shore’s edge. Behind us: tall, dry grass. Before us: the ocean at low tide. The breeze picked up. The grass began to move. The rustling arrested my thoughts. I became increasingly still as internal dialogue emptied and the sound of the grass poured in. Then I started an experiment. From that sound, so close behind me, I slowly expanded my listening outward. From the grass to the trees nearby, to the birds just beyond, to the crackling of drying seaweed, to the lapping of the water, to a distant plane. My daughter’s typically moving body sat quietly alert beside me.

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As a child, I loved to go outside on winter nights after dark. I’d lie on my back near the edge of the forest and listen to the wind move through the pine needles far, far above me. In those moments, my typically searching and yearning being would feel peace and contentment.

When I listen – and I mean really listen, with hearing as my whole focus – my internal sense of time slows. I feel completely where I am. I tune into the essential sounds of life and more and more believe it is okay to be quiet. It is okay to not always have something to say. It is acceptable – and perhaps even powerful – to speak only when I want and not because I think I should.

On that recent autumn evening, my daughter and I eventually made our way along the shore to a spot where someone has placed two chairs. She likes to sit together there. So we sat. As is so often the case, my sight took precedent over my hearing and I gazed at the sun’s golden dance across the water. Suddenly my daughter said: “Listen.” I turned. Her body was again alert. “Listen,” she repeated. “Wind. Trees.” Then she held her arms towards me. “Hold you.”

I shifted her to my lap and we sat. We listened. The wind in the trees behind us. The water before us hitting the rocks below. A bird calling. Wings flying. The world talking.

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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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A lie I cannot tell

It happened during one of my early riding lessons.

My mother had grown up with a strong love for horses. Once they had some land, she and my father managed to find two Morgans that sorely needed a home and they got two ponies thrown in to boot. My sister and I inherited our mother’s love, although perhaps to a lesser degree, and eventually I found myself at a proper stable taking proper riding lessons.

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Love horses though I might, I was also terrified of the creatures. A complicated relationship, I know. But allow me to explain. Not long after my parents first got horses, I witnessed my mother take a spectacular tumble that landed her in the hospital. I was probably four or five at the time, which means my sister was only one or two. My parents were riding in my grandparents’ large field while my sister and I played on the screened porch at the edge of the field, watched by Granny and Grandad.

The horses galloped across the dried grass. Suddenly, something spooked my mother’s horse at the far edge of the field, right by a cluster of pines. She took off, bucking and rearing. I watched as my mother was thrown from the saddle.

I don’t remember the exact details of what followed, but I do know that my sister and I began to cry, pressed against the screens, trying to get to our mother. I remember watching my father lift my mother up and carry her across the field. I don’t recall how they got the hospital. I do remember being terrified, as any child would be when a parent crumbles to the ground.

So you see, from a very young age I knew time spent with horses could result in significant injury. And thus I approached my own riding lessons fascinated but trembling.

My riding teacher instantly picked up on that fear. She had a solution. She asked me to repeat one phrase in my head, over and over, as I mounted the horse and as we circled the arena: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

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As a child, I took everything I was asked to do quite seriously. And so I approached this assignment with full dedication. I can imagine what I looked like – a little tow-headed sprite in a huge helmet and hand-me-down riding clothes, eyes bugging out, lips practically forming the words: “The universe is safe and friendly. The universe is safe and friendly.”

The thing is, it didn’t really work. Because, even then, I knew it wasn’t true. I had watched my mother fly off a horse and fail to walk back across the field. And while my parents carefully monitored our media intake, I had once walked in on my grandparents watching the news and seen footage of the Gulf War that haunted me for months after. Horrible things happened in the universe. That was the truth and I knew it.

I understand my riding teacher’s desire to reassure me. I experience the same desire as I prepare my daughter for bed every single night. We wander around her room slowly, saying goodnight to books, toys, pictures and animal friends. We close the curtains and I hold her.

I don’t know what she understands; she has only spoken one word definitely attached to its object at this point: “Mama”. But I talk to her. I tell her I hope she has a cozy sleep with sweet dreams. I thank her for a lovely day and mention some of the things we did. And somewhere in my mind, I remember my own childhood fear of the dark. I want to reassure her, just as my riding teacher reassured me years ago. I want to tell her that she is always safe. I want to tell her that the universe is safe and friendly.

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But the words stick in my throat because I cannot speak them honestly and I will not lie to her. At first, this left me feeling quite helpless. I’m sure all parents experience that moment, when they realize they cannot completely ensure their child’s safety in this uncontrollable world.

But I have found my way through that discomfort, at least for the time being. I have found the truth I can share with my daughter. I cannot tell her that she will always be safe. I cannot even tell her that I will always be able to keep her safe.

But she can know that she is loved. She is so very loved, by so many wonderful people. She can feel that love and carry it with her through the night and, someday, out into the world and wherever she goes.

And she can know joy. I cannot stop her from being afraid. Nor would I want to. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is learning to be with fear and move forward all the same. My daughter will certainly know fear, but I hope she also knows unbounded joy. May she delight in the world so utterly that the joy of it carries her and buoys her even in the face of all that is terrible.

And so I kiss her and send her to her dreams. No, the universe isn’t safe and friendly. And it is also a place full of joy. And you are loved beyond measure.

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Photo cred. Beth Woolfolk

Snow Days

Thoughts and images collected during a week of snow:

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I love a good blizzard. There is something so refreshing about the way that type of weather hits pause on the race of modern life. It’s sad but also true that it often takes a weather event like a blizzard to simplify life down to family, the warmth of a fire and a slower pace.

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Before the birth of our daughter, my husband and I often strapped on snowshoes in the midst of the storm and headed into the woods for a good romp with the dog. We blazed fresh trails, emboldened by the knowledge that we could always follow our own tracks back if we got really lost. Thick into the woods we trudged, heads bowed against the falling flakes. Occasionally we would pause and listen to the quiet. There is something so deep about the quiet of a woods filling with snow. When we finally traipsed back inside, shedding wet layers, I often felt rung clean and clear by the time spent communing with a bit of nature’s wildness.

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I snowshoed through the mountains of fresh powder yesterday, my young daughter strapped to my chest. We slipped between trees and under branches that drooped under a heavy, frosted weight. My daughter flapped her arms with excitement and watched delightedly as our dog moved like a dolphin to navigate the deep snow. The sun had pushed aside the clouds and the world literally sparkled. My heart lifted as my lungs filled with cold, fresh air and I felt my body work harder than in any gym as I put muscle into blazing a path through what was likely about two feet of snow.

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Has loving a snowstorm become a privilege? Is it reserved for the very young or those with a reliable heat source not hooked up to the grid or those who do not need to get somewhere quickly during or just after a storm? In other words, is it a privilege to be able to answer the call of a good snowstorm, the way it asks us to be cozy and quiet and the invitation, once the blizzard is over, to head outside and play?

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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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A father’s gift

June 2015

My father taught me to identify trees by their bark. We’d wander the woods, me sitting on his shoulders or skipping alongside, and he’d point out the different markings, colors and textures. My father has an intense, sometimes restless energy, not unlike my own, but out in the trees he seemed to relax. I fell in love with nature at my father’s side.

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These days, as I wander the woods around our home in Maine, breathing in the scent of freshly sunned pine needles, watching new leaves bud, it strikes me that my relationship to the living world, while filled with gratitude and love, is also nearly constantly tinged with grief. Climate change whispers its way through my conscience and a deep concern pricks at me, even as I delight in identifying birds by their song and, yes, trees by their bark. I know that nature is suffering and I know humans directly caused that suffering.

That grief has not always existed as an underlying texture in my daily experiences in nature. While I now know that Svante Arrhenius first proposed the possibility of global warming due to fossil fuel combustion in 1896, the concept entered my awareness sometime in my teen years. As a child, I raced through woods and fields full of joy, blissfully unaware that the world I loved so dearly already buckled under the increasing weight of decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

My children will never know a world untouched by the threat of climate change. Yes, I will not welcome my future offspring into the world with a cut of the umbilical cord and an introductory course on the science of carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. But discussions of climate change vibrate with increasing frequency. And they should. My desire for my children to know the truth trumps my desire to shelter them from sadness. When the time is right, they will learn about climate change. My hope is that any grief or fear they may experience will be outweighed by their delight in the sound of wind sweeping through tall grass, fireflies lighting the night sky and the feel of water against their skin as they swim through the beam of light on the water’s edge.

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As I contemplate the finesse required to teach such a balance of joy and sadness, I think about my father. I have already inherited so much from that man. As I brew my coffee strongly in the morning, delight in physical labor, dash to the dance floor, struggle to sit still, and passionately raise my voice for anything that moves me, I feel echoes of the man who raised me. That legacy will always be a part of who I am. I am proud to be my father’s daughter, and these days some of my greatest pride springs from the way I see my father grappling with climate change.

My parents are by no means wealthy, but my father has invested in an installation of solar panels and an electric car. He still works full-time, but sets aside time and energy to work with groups in his town dedicated to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. He consistently acts as a reality-check in such groups. Are they just talking or are they acting? Are they duplicating efforts done by other groups, and, if so, why aren’t they collaborating? Are they alienating anyone with a differing opinion, or are they truly listening and trying to work with others? My father brings this same sharp investigation to voraciously reading everything he can get his hands on about climate change and really thinking about what needs to happen in this extraordinary point in history. Marching side-by-side with Dad in Washington, D.C. and then in New York City in days of climate action are memories I cherish.

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So, as I feel sadness when walking the woods or contemplating my children’s future, I turn to my father for hope. He teaches me so much about climate change and parenting. I may not be able to fix the world for my children. I certainly will not be able to single-handedly ensure that climate change is creatively, intelligently and quickly dealt with, giving my children and their children the bright, healthy future that should be their birthright. What I can do is act, every day, in a way that means I can truthfully tell them that I did the very best I could to preserve the world I hope they grow to love just as much as their mother and their grandfather love it today.

Teaching my children about climate change while simultaneously encouraging them to love the world is one of the greatest challenges I’ll face. However, that love is the best inspiration for action around climate change I’ve yet to witness. Recognizing trees like old friends has not only meant that I’ve never felt alone. That world I fell in love with at my father’s side may be suffering and it may grieve me deeply to see that suffering. But I sure as hell don’t love that world any less. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let greed, ignorance or irresponsibility hurt one of the most consistent loves in my life.

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Wonder

December, 2014

This evening, my husband and I decorated our Christmas tree, a little fir I thinned from the woods behind our house earlier today. After draping lights and hanging ornaments, we turned off the house lights, sat on the couch, and stared at the tree, carols in the background. A line suddenly stood out to me: “Fall on your knees…”

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I have always loved Christmas. Yes, what child isn’t drawn, at least in some way, to the opening of gifts? I’m not going to pretend I was above all that as a youngster. But I will say that the holiday was always about much, much more. My family really did Christmas. On December 1st, Mom pulled out the advent calendar, home made, each day a clue to a hidden something – chestnuts, oranges, a Christmas craft we’d do that day, a Christmas decoration we’d get to put up. We sang, played carols on various instruments, visited nursing homes, packed food boxes, made gifts and cookies and decorations, and read Christmas books with beautiful illustrations. I know, it sounds ridiculously idyllic, but it kind of was. The month of December literally glistened with wonder.

And really, I think, that is what Christmas is all about: wonder. With an Episcopalian minister for a grandfather, I was certainly aware, as a child, of the Christmas story. Although, somehow, in my mind it was always Linus telling it, as he does in A Charlie Brown Christmas, standing under a single spotlight, blanket draped over his arm. A story told simply, not needing drama to evoke wonder. A story of hope for a world in need, of the beauty in community, of celebrating the humble. A story of the power of the innocent and the young.

As a child, I remember being particularly drawn to the fact that it was not just a fellow youngster, but a baby that we were celebrating. The whole world paused to respect the potential carried in a child, to honor that child with wonder.

Regardless of religious background, there seems to be an important reminder in that story, in that act of honoring simplicity, the young, and the humble. I know it is so easy for me, these days, to feel completely overwhelmed by the horrific events occurring worldwide and the incredible challenges we face in the years ahead – overpopulation, climate change, terrorism…and on and on. Hope can seem distant, if present at all.

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And then I go for a walk with our dog and watch an eagle circle the pond, or listen to a beautiful piece of music, or look into my niece’s wide eyes, and I see wonder. And it is in that sense of wonder for the world that I find hope. For what is wonder if not a close cousin to love paired with respect? A recognition of what is important. A celebration of what is truly valuable and what must therefore be preserved.

Christmas is a time for pressing pause and savoring those simple gifts that, truly, keep us going in the world today. Because we must also turn our attention to the challenges. We need to move forward with awareness of the truth of what we face, for it is only by fully acknowledging those challenges that we can hope to succeed in finding solutions. And yet, we must balance those truths with the equally valid beauty all around us. This balancing act is something I feel constantly on the farm. Every day, there is hard work to be done. Some challenges can seem insurmountable. But even as we stand in the field with a never-ending list of to-dos, we are surrounded by beauty. Everywhere, every moment, an opportunity to pause, a call to wonder.

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