Sometimes, when I shovel snow or pull weeds from the mulched paths in my garden, unearthing a collection of squiggling red earthworms, everything seems OK. “Normal,” even. As if this earth we inhabit is the same as it was more than three decades ago, when I was the age my twins are now, watching snow fall out our suburban windows, playing in the dirt in my mother’s vegetable garden.
It has taken me longer than I care to admit this to myself, let alone out loud: that the climate crisis is not a “when” but now. Undeniable. Fires, floods, violent storms, hotter heat and colder cold, warming waters and rising sea levels… It is our and our children’s reality on this earth. It took me longer to look this reality in the eye because the moment I did — the moment I do — my body tightens, like a wire twisting around a screw. And there I stay stuck, terrified and paralyzed. I do not fight, I do not flee. I freeze.
Ironic, isn’t it? Or tragic. Both, really. Because frozen is exactly where we cannot afford to be. Because inaction equals certain ruin. And yet, there I am — there many of us are — trapped.
My children were born the day of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump’s first presidential debate. Exhausted, elated, and high on hormones, it was an easy choice, that night, to turn the TV off, to refuse to engage in such heinously indignant fear-mongering masquerading as civil discourse. For nearly four years — the first four years of my twins’ lives — I pointed my anger and frustration over there, at them. It felt like a safe stance, bunkered there with the other haters, reflexively defensive.
And then, March 2020 happened. Hundreds of thousands dead, egregious murders at the hands of white police, mass unemployment, school closures… these were the things we could measure and see, no longer over there. They became the source of so much rage. But for many, as the months of isolation wore on, it was the sense of ambiguous loss that began to feel inescapably heavy: How do we mourn such mass death? How do we undo colonialist capitalism and a caste system built upon the invention of race while still scrambling to pay the bills?
The great power held its finger on the pause button while we all held our breaths. With so much time to think, so much less time running here and there, keeping moving our lives busily forward, the overwhelming grief came on faster than any of us could metabolize it. Even the most comfortable among us sat in our discomfort, squirming, but with no escape, like a hot iron held to our myopia. And the layers of our hubris began to burn away. Not by choice, no; few among us have the courage to walk that path, to stare it in the eye when the hurt is so great. But there is only so much pain we can keep at bay before we are crushed by the effort. In the great unsettling, there was much reckoning to be done, but no sure horizon to move toward. With no way out, one eventually goes in to the places that scare us most. There, the questions are truer and vaster in scope. There, I found a question I could not bear to ask: How do we grieve the choking of our Earth while we continue to bear and raise children?
The question had hovered out of reach for me, too charged to confront. I tend to catastrophize, I know. But this fear is warranted: The catastrophe we’ve wrought is more wretched and more real that we can even imagine. I recoiled from the question, the impossibility of its weight. I feared that if I touched it, if I named it, it could be my undoing. And so I put it back in its box, turned my face away. And left it there.
With the loosening of this past summer, I, like so many, tried to return to much of my life in the before: back to camp for the kids, back to work for me, back to trying not to worry all the damn time. It worked well enough for a while, filling my mind with mundane busyness allowed the fear to fade in the background.
But the Band-Aid didn’t stick.
Earlier this fall, I was asked to report on climate grief and anxiety in families: how such anxiety is showing up in children and adolescents and how we, as parents, might respond. This wasn’t a topic I chose, but one I was assigned. I’m a freelancer; I said yes with little thought of consequence.
I interviewed therapists, preschool teachers, environmental educators, activists and organizers in my home region of New York’s Hudson Valley. The more I spoke with them, the more I found I could think of nothing else. While the urgency of the situation was abundantly clear to me — no convincing was needed — and these experts’ opinions and tips made perfect sense, I wasn’t prepared for how the pain, particularly as a parent, would pull me under, swallow me whole.
Parenting in, and through, the climate crisis has many facets. Some of them feel not only obvious, but completely doable to me: I teach my children to turn off the water when they brush their teeth; we walk or bike rather than drive whenever we’re able; “Put on a sweater,” I say, rather than turning up the heat. I do my best to explain to two 5-year-olds why we need to compost, recycle, upcycle, buy less, buy differently, and so on and so forth. That is the easy part. But as has been proven again and again, individual actions aren’t nearly enough to reverse the perilous course we are all on.
“Children depend on you and me, on the large women and the large men around them, for more than we can easily, or comfortably, imagine,” wrote the essayist, poet, and activist June Jordan. She’s right: Our foremost obligation as parents and caregivers — to provide safety, to model ways to be in the world — is no small task. And therein lies the thorniest aspect of parenting in, and through, the climate crisis: We must communicate to our children that they are safe when fundamentally they are not. We must show them we can protect them when, in truth, we cannot. And at the same time that we’re trying, however fumblingly, to safeguard our babies, we know: We are in peril. We must adapt and change, prepare and respond. NOW. On the other hand, if we overwhelm the children in our care with information — if we pull back the curtain, fully, on the dire urgency of the situation — they, too, will shut down. Our children will be overwhelmed by fear and worry, and they too will freeze, unable to act or engage. They will fail to fledge.
This, I find, is that place from which I cannot get unstuck. I refuse to heap onto my young children — or anyone else’s, for that matter — an adult sense of responsibility. I’ve done enough therapy to know what that does to a child, to know what it did to me. I’m in the business of mitigating the epigenetic inheritance my children carry in their bodies, by no fault of their own, to the best of my ability. But in keeping my silence, in claiming to protect them, in following the let kids be kids mindset, I worry that I am bubbling them in an illusion of OK-ness that we simply cannot afford.
I think about what needs to be said, and I come up dry. The truth is, I haven’t a clue. I’m just beginning to crack open the door to the enormity of my own hurt, my own fear. I am still just feeling, wandering in the pre-dawn fuzz that comes before thought, that precedes narrative. How, then, can I speak to my children? What story can I tell them? How do I, who made them, snap them to attention without shattering their trust and faith, in me, in everything, in the process? I am lost in the woods, in over my head. My tongue, my lips, always so animated with words, are motionless. I am at a loss for the language I need for this. And yet, the pressure bears down.
To grapple with the question I cannot ask — the question so many of us have refused to ask — alongside our children is to admit to all harmful systems with which we have been complicit: capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy; notions of private ownership and the prizing of individualism and nuclear family. How we think of success. How we think of joy. How we think, even, of what it means to survive.
We are, as the poet Ross Gay points out, entangled: “We are f*cking entangled. Any movement toward disentangling ourselves from each other is wreckage. It’s wreckage.” And we are, it’s become glaringly obvious, willing to go down with the wreck of our pride and our precedent rather than giving up the bill of goods. How do we explain this to our children? And if we did, would they ever believe another word we said?
Climate activists, again and again, have pointed toward the importance of the collective in responding to the climate crisis; we have to undo our individualized ways of thinking and doing if we are to have a chance of saving ourselves. I know this is true. I agree with it to my bones. And yet: This, as a parent, feels to me an impossible task. I must encourage my children to do not as I do, not even as I say, but to blaze a path for which I can provide them no map. I must send them into the dark without a light and tell them to be brave, tell them they must find a way. I must loose them from my arms, from all that I thought I knew, if I do not want to lose them to catastrophe.
Our times, they say, are “unprecedented.” The word is so overused, has become so hackneyed, that we’ve become inured to its meaning and its magnitude. But we are all in new territory.
Still, throughout and despite all of it, our children are looking to us grown folk for everything. “Like it or not,” Jordan wrote, “we are the ones who think we know, who believe, who remember, who predict, a great part of what [children] will, in their turn, think they know, or remember, or believe, or expect… Children rely on us for their safety, for their sense of safety, for their sense of being in or out of their element, their sense of being capable of solving whatever problems come up, or of being incapable, of being helpless.” But we don’t actually know. We don’t have the keys, not the big ones we need; we’ve been shooed away from them all our lives. We need children and youth to outgrow us, to surpass us, to leave us in the dust.
This is not unprecedented at all. Rather, it is radical, in the literal sense of the word: “Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life. The humour… thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality.” We must return to roots so ancient and deep, from which dominant culture has become so estranged, that many of us have never touched their fibers, seen their caps. We must submit ourselves to what is fundamental. Inherent. Vital. The truths spoken there sound like a whisper, and we’ve grown accustomed to shouts. We must lean close and, for once, keep still, keep quiet.
We need, I am saying, to fall to our knees in a great humbling, to grieve and allow ourselves to be undone. And then, we must get up, blinking and wet behind the ears, and do what really must be done.
This is nothing the world as we’ve known it — the culture and society and institutions — has taught us to do. It, too, must be remade. The world. Our world.
This winter, my children and I will watch in wonder through the windows as snow drifts down, or whine when it doesn’t come at all. I will comment on whether it seems to be a “normal” winter or a strange one; “unprecedented,” I might even say. I will do this because it is what I know how to do. What I was taught to do. What I have always done. Despite myself, I still tread in the old grooves. Can I learn to notice, as I let forth familiar words from my mouth, that I am still grasping at old meanings? Speaking in tongues that have lost their meaning? Or will I find the courage to let them go, to let myself go, to fall, at last, into unknowing, and finally belong?