|possible cover for the book|
So Lindy sent the last letter in our Earth book to me last night, December 25, a festival of light and life against winter's chill.
We don’t celebrate Christmas, but my family loves the various traditions that cluster around the solstice: candles, food and merriment when nights are long. One of my favorite poems for this time of year is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which affirms so much vibrancy (green holly and red berries, feasts and warm fires) without disregarding the world’s violence or things that exceed merely human frames (red is also the color of blood; animals suffer and shelter along with humans; green throughout the poem is supernatural in its ability to stun, challenge and stealthily thrive). Unlike the contemporary poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Troilus and Criseyde exults in a moment of viewing the Earth from great distance (so that it becomes “this little spot of earth, that is embraced with the sea”), the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight never gives you a moment of rising above it all. He is never tempted to imagine a view of the planet in its entirety, and thereby diminish life lived among the Earthbound. Icy winter weather batters knights, horses, and shivering birds equally, just as the sun’s warmth delights even the plants. It’s hard to take an easy moral from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, especially because the Green Knight is as full of life as death, of peril as exuberance. He’s a monster but he’s also a jolly drinking companion who after he forgives you for lying and decides not to chop off your head invites you back to his castle for cocktails. Facebook yesterday reminded me of that medieval poem’s intertwining of themes because so many friends posted about the Krampus (the horned and hairy devil who punishes naughty children) and Jólakötturinn (the Yule Cat who devours those who do not leave offerings) along with pictures of garlanded fir trees, gifts torn open by the eager young, and plentiful cakes. It’s traditional to tell ghost stories around the winter holidays. Maybe The Smiths said it best: “In the midst of life we are in death etc.” Can we have an un-ironic version of that?
Precariousness is also on my mind because we just made our annual December return to New England to see family and celebrate my dad’s birthday -- 85 this year, and so nearing the nearly 100 revolutions around the sun his father attained. At various family gatherings stories were retold about how many times things went badly wrong, and how persistence and good humor often enabled recovery. When he arrived in 1882, my great grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania, made his peddler’s way from farm to lonely farm in Penobscot County and was for many Yankees the first Jew they ever met. He eventually saved enough money to open a shop in Bangor, then a chain of clothing stores across Maine. He lost everything in the Depression. Sudden turns of fortune, the unkindness of family towards family, and eventual peace are recurring themes of these stories we tell. I am thinking about all this because Lindy’s letter contains a poignant meditation upon houses reduced to ruin and encountering human history as it vanishes into landscape. Few of my relatives now remember that my great-grandfather’s name was Simon, and fewer still know that it was really Shimson. Today you will not find many traces of the once lively Jewish community in Bangor.
But you will find something, if you look with enough attention.
When Lindy sent her letter I was on an airplane back to DC, descending through so much night rain that it seemed we were on a ship with battered portals. Alex is just back from his first semester in college. Katherine has completed about half of her first year of middle school. Wendy continues two jobs well, as a nonprofit’s vice president and as an elected official. Sometimes I think that time is propelling the four of us so quickly forward (how is it that we now have an 18 and an 11 year old?) that it’s always like that moment on the plane, onwards relentlessly towards destinations we can’t clearly see, trusting we will safely arrive. We landed, happy to be under the storm rather than within it. As we taxied for the gate I checked my phone for email. I read Lindy’s letter while we waited for delayed luggage and as we took a shuttle bus to our car. Its close is so full of hope and promise that I knew it had to end the book, even though she and I didn’t plan it that way. That sudden realization surprised me with the pang of sadness it brought. I do not want the conversation to end.
Earth is a problem. In my last letter I had worried that awe for its beauty can lead to political and ethical paralysis. Too often people convince themselves that it's enough to praise the splendor of the planet. Imagination propels us to find new modes of comprehension but it sometimes immobilizes or betrays. How do we ensure that appreciation and apprehension yield to endeavor? Lindy wrote (and I hope she will not mind my quoting her words here, but they seem so right as we approach the New Year):
So let us, and let all who feel able, both luxuriate in beauty and initiate action and change. We each can find a vision to lead us to an optimistic future, and we can lead with our visions. Let’s start.
This book comes to its close as yet another rotation of the planet round its warming star completes – a cosmically insignificant fact that means the world to us Earthbound observers, who need to pick some place to start and to end, and then to begin again. A lure for the imagination, a catalyst to creativity, and (if we are lucky) a spur to vision and engagement, Earth is too vast to be encompassed, especially in a book so small. Earth is a shared project, beautiful and incomplete.
Yes, let's start.