Can we find joy?

When you were a child, did you have some special place in nature? I was lucky enough to grow up at the edge of the big city, and my place in nature was a patch of woods in my backyard.

I built a fort there with my sister and our neighbors in the alders. The branches drooped from our climbing them to form a sort of roof. We tunneled under those long, scraggly limbs, swept out the leaves, put pine cones up in the larder, and built ourselves a happy home.

Being outside has always been when I feel the most free and most essentially myself. When I sink back into those first experiences of the natural world, the feeling I remember is of pure joy.

Lately climate change is threatening that joy. If we continue with business as usual the planet will be ice free by the year 2100. By that time, there may be 10 billion people on the planet. Florida will be underwater, and the largest animal on earth will be the cow.

In 2100, my daughter will turn 73. Anticipating this inevitable crowding, temperature rise, loss of biodiversity, and struggle for resources has me worried. How can we expect life to carry any quality under those conditions? This is not the world I would choose to leave for my child.

Changes are already happening. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, the snow melted out of the mountains in May this year. There was no frost over Memorial Day weekend to take out the zucchini plants of over-zealous gardeners; meaning that our growing season is suddenly extended by almost a full month. Fields of wildflowers bloomed in the first week of June instead of over the Summer Solstice. Before the first of July we saw 85-degree temperatures, ripe salmonberries, and the tall, blooming fireweed that used to signify the end of summer rather than the beginning.

The ocean is warmer too, and the waters are less nutrient-rich, meaning there is less out there to eat. For five years the humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park have been in a steep decline and last year they had a total reproductive failure. King salmon returns to Southeast Alaska in 2018 were the lowest we’ve seen in 50 years of record keeping.

I don’t think people are drawing enough meaning from these observations. They are not separate issues; they are distinct symptoms of the same illness. Even with so many warning signs, I’m afraid the end of life as we know it is going to catch us by surprise.

Again, I shake it off. Bad situations always get worse before they get better; the downward spiral is a kind of progress. Pain pushes until a system breaks, and then we find a new way forward.

Climate change is especially scary for parents; because our peace of mind depends on world that will maintain a friendly, habitable surface beyond our natural lifespans.

I hear some friends saying they don’t want to have kids because of climate change. I’m not sure exactly why; maybe these sensitive people intend to slow emissions by limiting population growth by one human at a time. Maybe the idea that children will inherit our ecological damage seems too unfair. Perhaps they know parenthood would increase their worry and suffering. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these reasons.

If you don’t want kids, then don’t have them. They disappear your free time, rub avocado on anything, and sixteen years later inevitably scream, “I hate you!” into your face. Bringing a new life into the world is a contract that should not be entered into lightly.

But don’t opt out of parenting for the sake of the planet. Only when we are whole, when we stay human, will we do our best work. Let kids inspire you to live with your eyes open, and find joy, no matter how small, in every day. Fear of the future isn’t reason enough to miss out on your life.

Five years ago I saw climate change ramping up, and my need for a baby only intensified. Kids drive my commitment to talk about this thing and prioritize solutions whatever the cost. Before I became a parent, I might have gotten tired and stuck my head in the sand. But now, I can’t. With my daughter as my muse the burden of this work feels more serious, but also somehow lighter.

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel writes: “Enjoying your child and sharing in the awe of discovering what it means to be alive, to be a person in a wondrous world, is crucial for the development of your child’s positive sense of self.” I feel this intuitively: That the play and fun threatened by anxiety are the very resources we need to get all of us through the climate crisis.

I have an awesome memory of being nine, sitting on the tarmac in Anchorage waiting to fly to California with my mom and younger sister, and the three of us singing “I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

Flying standby, all of us in dresses, and waiting for our red-eye to take off, we serenaded our airplane. Can you imagine this happening today? Of course not. But maybe that’s because you haven’t met my mom. My mom is a master of spontaneous fun, and she does not embarrass easily. A silly childhood is a gift my mom gave me.

Sometimes this kind of fun is an effort for me. But it’s getting easier. Because of my child, I have memorized lyrics from the Moana soundtrack. Because of her, my husband goes to the swimming pool and does handstands underwater with a goofy grin in his face. Because of her, Grandma goes down slides saying, “Wheeee!” and makes herself sick on meri-go-rounds.

I would like to say I am giving this gift to my daughter but actually the reverse is true. In wanting my daughter to be proactive and resilient, I too am becoming proactive and resilient. Thank you, A, for bringing silly back.

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I went to Anchorage this summer and got to take A and my nephew B back to that little patch of woods behind my parents’ house where I used to play.

The backyard is not the same. It is cleaner now; with more light and fewer mosquitoes. The alders fell down and my parents cleared the brush. It is better in many ways, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

How many of us have returned to our special childhood place and found it changed? Or maybe the land you love hasn’t suffered anything extreme, but it looks different when seen through an adult lens. Can adults return to changed natural places and also find joy? I don’t know how to, but we have to try. Otherwise, we will only hurt ourselves and our children.

There are days when I don’t know how I will cope; when a tightness grabs ahold of my throat, and I focus too hard on the constant flow of traffic. I miss the way things used to be; but playing with A helps me to accept changes in the natural world and feel grateful for what beauty remains.

I would have liked to see the American West when bison roamed the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. I wish I could have rode over the Sierra Nevada to find a raw California coast glittering in the sunlight. I would like to have seen an un-dammed Columbia River teaming with salmon spill over a wetland full of nesting birds.

But my life would not have been better for it. Every generation has feared for their childrens’ future. We stand at an extreme and important moment in Earth’s history, but the emotional stress we feel as parents at this time may be less unique than we think. It is hard to know what matters except in hindsight.

In sad moments I take a hard look around my city. I find beauty in the architecture; in the intentions of city planners and their vision for the future. I do my best to focus on the ways things are improving. Sometimes, all we can do is accept the times we live in.

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There is a lot of beauty still in the world, and it deserves to be celebrated: For our kids’ sake and for our own. Returning to my childhood backyard is difficult for me because I know how it used to be and I see the changes. But through my daughter’s eyes, nothing has been lost. Perhaps one day she too will rake the leaves, gather pine cones, and feel that same joy as I once found there.

As we bravely step forward and raise the climate change generation we will help our kids through uncharted environmental disasters and emotional challenges. Despite the uncertainties, it is we adults who will miss the most. This gives me some comfort. Shifting baselines are the blessing curse of passing generations.

I believe, whole-heartedly that my daughter will have a good life as long as I teach her to appreciate the world for what it is and not for what it used to be. I’m not saying it will be easy; I’m saying I have to try. I don’t know if we can find joy in this world, but I know kids help joy to find us.

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Thanks C & M for the good conversations that led to this post.

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