Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Future Used to Be so Bright

I wept twice on New Year’s Eve. I wept for the future — not for myself — I have lived a good long life. I cried for my daughter Lucia and her friends. They are juniors in high school, at an important crossroads in their lives. They are preparing for what is next; for what will come when they leave home in a little over a year. 

I don’t love New Year’s Eve. As I’ve aged I have a clearer understanding of who I am and I’m not a big party person. New Year’s Eve feels like a lot of pressure to feel excited and act inspired. I didn’t always feel this way. When I was young New Year’s Eve felt exciting. I remember planning with my friends how we would celebrate, what we would wear. I remember looking at the clock every few minutes between 11 pm and 12 am to make sure I didn’t miss the moment. The night was joyous. My biggest worry in those days was who, if anyone, I would kiss. 

I had big hopes for Lucia this year. I wanted her to have some of that excitement I had when I was young. I felt hopeful this year. Everyone in our small world is vaccinated and boosted. I’d hoped for her that she would be able to experience a party or some kind of celebration with her friends. But on the evening of December 31st the temperature outside was 22 degrees and that day the highest number of COVID cases ever was reported. There were no gatherings, no parties for my daughter.

My partner Nancy and I were invited to our good friends’ house for dinner. We all tested negative in the morning and planned to celebrate with a quiet dinner. We had Lucia drive us to our friends’ house so that she could keep the car in case she wanted to go to a friend’s house or maybe to a bonfire some kids were hosting at the park. 

One of the effects of climate change on our Northwest city is frigid winters, colder than they’ve ever been. Unlike the midwest city where I grew up, here we are unprepared for snow. We don’t have snow plows or salt trucks. Our hilly streets are icy and perilous. We have a four-wheel-drive car and I’ve given Lucia some snow-driving lessons, but it’s a scary prospect for anyone to be driving, especially your seventeen-year-old daughter on New Year’s Eve.

We got most of the way to our destination when I told Lucia to just drop us there and we’d walk the rest of the way. The narrow hilly streets were sheeted with ice and I didn’t want her to have to navigate those roads alone on her way home.

Nancy is from New Orleans and she is as comfortable with snow as I am with hurricanes. I am the authority when it comes to driving and dressing in cold weather. As a kid growing up in Chicago I learned that, in cold weather, you always dress like you’re going to get stranded somewhere. So, as we trudged the last five blocks to our dinner party, Nancy, wearing a beautiful coat that was not nearly warm enough for 22 degrees, was freezing, frustrated with me for having aborted our ride. I was warm enough and I felt relief that Lucia wouldn’t have to travel more icy roads than necessary. 

Nancy was steaming. In her mind, my anxiety had gotten the best of me and I’d made a rash, arbitrary decision about Lucia dropping us off so far from our friends’ home. For me, my decision felt right. I had weighed the options and decided that fewer icy, untravelled roads was better for Lucia. I felt absolutely justified in my decision.

By the time we reached our dinner engagement Nancy and I were stewing at each other. I was filled with worry for Lucia, checking my cellphone for a text from her letting me know she’d made it home okay. And I was mad at Nancy for not having worn a warm enough coat. Nancy was irritated with me for letting my anxiety bubble over as it has so many times in our long relationship.

I was wound tight as a rubber band ball, completely stoic, knowing that if I spoke something would snap and I would cry. Our gracious hosts, friends we’ve known for a quarter of a century, could see right away that we were not okay.

We all sat in front of the fire eating hors devours awkwardly until one of our friends took on the challenge of facilitating a conversation between me and Nancy. I started crying immediately. My stress for Lucia’s well-being was consuming me. Not just about the snow and ice, but about the loss of New Year’s Eve (again!), the possibility of not returning to school (again!). Nancy apologized for misreading me. I cried. I was grateful to have been able to release this tight knot of fear and sadness that I’d been holding.

As we ate a beautiful meal, dressed warmly, windows cracked for ventilation, we engaged in easy conversation for a while. We laughed and toasted. Eventually, as the outside temperature dropped and the room we were in started feeling colder, we started talking about the weather. This led to a conversation about climate change. And this led to me crying again. I was crying for what Lucia and her generation have lost because of the state of our environment. 

When I was a senior in high school (1986) there was a song on the radio, The Future’s so Bright, I Gotta to Wear Shades. I was heading off to college, looking ahead to my life. I had hope, excitement for this next chapter. I looked ahead without the burden of a thirty-year time limit on an inhabitable earth. 

My tears were about my daughter not having the freedom of this feeling — the feeling of untainted hope — a future so bright she’s gotta wear shades. As I cried the despair inside me swelled. It was so big for me. How must it feel for her? Thinking about this brought more tears. 

On New Year’s Eve Lucia stayed home. She had a friend come over for a few hours but there were no celebrations, no fireworks. And she was okay. She’s grown used to these disappointments. Thinking about this makes me cry again. 

I realize that this despair is not sustainable. I cannot stay in this place of sorrow for what Lucia doesn’t have. Sometimes I wish I could be a climate denier. Then I could look at a bright future again. I could believe in something amazing for Lucia, a reason for her to wear shades. But my despair is not helping my life or Lucia’s. For my sake and hers, I have to find a balance between this despair for the world and hope for the future. 

I hold onto my despair because I want to stay connected to the world, to what is happening to our climate. If I hold onto the truth of what is happening I am living in reality. But in doing this I am losing too much. I am depriving myself of hope. And isn’t there always hope? I have to welcome both despair and hope. 

When I am deeply sad, filled with anguish for this next generation it feels disingenuous to also have hope. It’s like sitting on a train track meditating while feeling the vibration of the train approaching and not doing anything. But the truth is that, though I can do my part for climate change — stop eating meat and dairy, fly less, drive an electric car — I cannot stop the train. I am too small, too insignificant in the grand scheme. In spending so much energy worrying and stressing and angsting, I am not giving myself space to feel hope. And without hope, there can be no joy, no gratitude, no peace. Without hope, what is the point in trying?

Sitting on the tracks having a spaz attack, filled with anxiety and despair, freaking out, is not going to slow the train. I know I can’t stop the train but I can try. I can hold onto hope and joy and peace even though I know the train is coming. 

On Christmas Day we watched Don’t Look Up (stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie). At the end of the movie everyone is gathered at the dinner table eating pie and drinking coffee. They are all holding hands as the rumbling of the earth grows stronger. They are calm, sipping their coffee, eating their pie, experiencing this moment together. They are resigned, waiting for the inevitable destruction of the planet. They all know it’s coming. They can literally feel it coming, but they are present, aware, in the moment of being together. They feel total love and gratitude for each other. 

I think of that last scene in Don’t Look Up. They have all tried hard to interrupt planetary destruction. Despite their efforts, the end of the earth came and they all died. Everyone died. But they had hope until the end. They tried until the end. 

I hope that we find a way to slow down the destruction we’ve brought upon our planet, to even reverse the direction a little bit. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. Crying on New Year’s Eve released something for me. It was the pinnacle of despair. Coming into another year of pandemic and climate destruction and teenage angst brought me to an emotional brink-- an important realization.

That end-of-the-year weepy New Year’s Eve night helped me recognize the importance of accepting these two opposite perspectives — despair for the world and hope for the future. If I want to have joy in my life I have no choice but to welcome them both-- to live with the awareness that the end is coming but to have hope anyway. 

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