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The World is Burning
But not like that
A thing I didn’t expect to happen while writing The Understory is a rise in equal parts wonder and doom.
Let the reader understand that doom has always been a part of my story. Some remember the hellfire and doom preached from the pulpit, but all I remember from my childhood pastor was gentleness. He was our next-door neighbor when I was a toddler and then my parent’s closest friend throughout my childhood and I never once heard him raise his voice. Hell was not my version of hell, the world was.
From my earliest memories my father was plagued with something that bordered on obsession with the end times. He believed the social security number was paving the way for the mark of the beast and refused to allow any of the eight of us to have one. Despite my mother’s best attempts to make our childhoods happy and experiential ones, mine has a dark vignette of fear framing it. I was terrified of truant officers, doctors, professional buildings of any kind. When Ruby Ridge happened, the news was on constantly, my father ranting about the feds overreach. I secretly packed a go-bag and stuffed it under my bed, ready for men with guns to infiltrate our own homestead. In my early teens he became obsessed with y2k and gold-bullion and stacks and stacks of pearly white cassette tapes full of sermons from Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation. By the time we became of an age to get our drivers licenses and paying jobs, he was determined that we would get neither. I learned to drive on busy southeastern Pennsylvania highways without a drivers license, permit, or insurance. My first few jobs paid me in cash.
By the time I left home—the year of y2k, my brother’s death, my parent’s separation, and my liberation into the world a social security number opened up (college, a drivers license, insurance, a paying job, and so much more)—I was done with doomsday. The world was my oyster and I was going to slurp everything I could from its crevices.
The thing was, though, that I didn’t know how to exist in the world. I was, in some ways, like an infant. I read once (and can’t remember where) that for an infant everything is new, so when a fire-breathing dragon walks in your front door and the adults all blanche and run for cover, the little one just thinks, “Wow, yet another new thing!” and goes on eating applesauce.
That’s how my life felt in so many ways. I was terrified to let people know that of course, afraid they would see how much I didn’t know and how every movie, book, opportunity had the potential to Absolutely Change My Life. My friends thought it was cute that I’d never seen Star Wars or eaten steak or flown in an airplane or gotten my own oil changed, but I was embarrassed by those truths and tried to keep them hidden as much as possible. I tried to act worldly-wise when I was anything but. I’m positive some of the more discerning adults in my life saw straight through the act.
I refused to listen to conspiracy theories of any kind. Anytime I was asked for my social security number, I wrote it with flourish (I still do). Anytime I needed my drivers license, I whipped it out. You want to card me? Happily. You want me to pay taxes on my paltry salary? Where’s my checkbook? I still suspected doctors and haven’t been able to shake that one entirely in my life, and I would be 34 years old before I ever had health insurance, but I was determined to suck the marrow from life almost every way I could.
This morning, Nate and I were listening to the morning news on NPR as we do every morning, and when it ended, his phone began to play a poem from OnBeing called, “On Another Panel About Climate, They Ask me to Sell the Future and All I’ve Got is a Love Poem” by Ayisha Siddiqa. She writes,
What if the future is soft and revolution is so kind that there is no end to us in sight.
Whole cities breathe and bad luck is bested by a promise to the leaves.
To withstand your own end is difficult.
The future frolics about, promised to no one, as is her right.
Rage against injustice makes the voice grow harsher yet.
If the future leaves without us, the silence that will follow will be an unspeakable nothing.
What if we convince her to stay?
How rare and beautiful it is that we exist.
What if we stun existence one more time?
When I wake up, get out of bed, my seven year old cousin
with her ruptured belly tags along.
Then follows my grandmother, aunts, my other cousins
and the violent shape of their drinking water.
The earth remembers everything,
our bodies are the color of the earth and we
Been born from so many apocalypses, what’s one more?
Love is still the only revenge. It grows each time the earth is set on fire.
But for what it’s worth, I’d do this again.
Gamble on humanity one hundred times over
Commit to life unto life, as the trees fall and take us with them.
I’d follow love into extinction.
Oooof. Read it again.
“The future frolics about, promised to no one, as is her right.”
After the poem was finished, it was quiet for a few moments while Nate readied his eggs and I sipped my hot tea. There was no time for a long conversation, he had to begin work and I had an early morning ophthalmologist appointment, but as I stirred my tea to cool it off, I said, “I don’t know if it’s just all the reading I’ve been doing about the forest and trees and carbon storage and climate change, but I’ve been realizing I don’t look forward to the future as much as I did in my twenties.”
“Do you mean, like, in your life or…?” he left the sentence dangling, waiting for me to fill it in.
“Yeah, I mean, I feel really sad about the earth and climate, our country and politics, the church and other institutions, but also about our own family. People our age are starting to look forward to the empty nest and their kids growing up and having grandkids, and sometimes I look around at our life and think: What am I doing?”
He was quiet for a minute and then I said, “Sorry for being such a downer at 7:22 in the morning.”
“Nothing like a little existential crisis before 8am,” he chuckled.
“But do you know what I mean?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I feel it too. As I’ve been doing all this reading about theology, gender, and sexuality, and there’s so much about procreation, I think about the life of a eunuch, those who didn’t procreate and what they were called to for God’s kingdom instead. But I also think about this past weekend in New Hampshire, visiting my college friend who said to me, ‘Having my kids has made me more patient,’ and I thought, I feel more patient too even though it wasn’t kids that made me that way, just life. I mean, I guess I’m saying we’re not totally wasting our lives.”
“Yeah.” I said. “I know that we’re not wasting our lives, that we’re doing good things and trying our best to be faithful, to be here, doing whatever it is we’re called to do today, and that’s sanctifying us and growing us, but sometimes I just feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness about our world, the climate, politics, the state of the church in the US. I’m not despairing, I just feel preoccupied in a way I didn’t used to be. Maybe this is just being in our forties?”
It was time to leave for my doctor’s appointment by then and the rest of our conversation was fragments we left dangling as he dropped me off in the parking lot, Harper’s head hanging out the back window.
“Hey babe,” I said, pointing at the car next to ours with a sticker on it saying, Life is better with a dog. “It’s true,” I said.
I think I was born into a fearful life, and as much as I’ve tried to run in the opposite direction—the things that scared my dad don’t scare me at all, and while he thinks climate change is a hoax and wants to Make America Great Again, I research shrinking icebergs and rising waters and temperature changes across the globe and try not to cry every time we pass a clear-cut forest or do the carbon math when a tree like our giant willow falls—I still find myself wrapped up in fear. Not fear for my own life but fear for the future we’re giving to those who come after us, the kids who will grow up knowing climate change is real and it’s our responsibility to do something with our money and mouths and votes and the creation mandate we were given to by the God who made this globe and loves it and everyone on it.
I love this earth. I’m not ashamed to say that. I’ll always agree with poets like Richard Wilbur who argue that “love calls us to the things of this world,” and writers like Wendell Berry who say that, “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
I don’t believe this world is going to burn with the fire and brimstone of God, but I do believe that if it burns, it will burn by our own foolishness and selfishness, our inability to see the ends of the means by which we go about our days sipping lattes and clicking add to cart and voting for politicians who are funded by giant corporations who exist on bailouts and then go bankrupt anyway. It will burn because of our dependance on drilling deep into the marrow of this world and reaping its lifeblood to fuel our giant vehicles and heat and cool our giant houses and ship our giant lifestyles across the ocean. I think that’s on us.
I’m with the poet, I’ll follow love into extinction, but I’d rather follow love into re-creation. I’d rather follow love into re-wilding the cities and landscapes we flatten and shred for new big box stores and yet another gas station and megachurches and suburbs. I’d rather follow love into the mossy undergrowth of a forest and lay my body across her ferns and fungi and the roots of an old tree and say, “No, you can’t have this one, not on my life.”
I am not a mother and not for lack of trying or desire, but perhaps there is a little of a mother in me yet. I want to mother the earth if I can, mother the ones who walk upon her, using her and abusing her, not knowing all along that it’s their own future they’re thwarting. I want to mother us into hope again.
But I suppose I have to mother myself there first.
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