Friday, December 13, 2013

Transforming Grief into Action

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

I was looking through boxes and boxes of old photographs, not just for fun, but as part of a larger project of bringing to fruition the many years of effort my mother had put into writing her memoir. She never finished the project, now she is gone, and the Holy One of Blessing is breathing down my back and leaving me no choice but to finish the work she had so intensely devoted so much of her time to for so many years. 

My mother was a master photographer, an artist through and through, and the best of her work speaks deeply what words cannot convey. She knew she was a gifted artist, but she was never able to admit that she was also a gifted writer. She tells the story of her life – her unusual childhood with many long trips into the wilderness and to remote places of the world, her family's history, her college years, her emotional breakdowns and hospitalizations, her learning, always, always her learning, her teaching, and then her poetry and her philosophy, and at the end, her old age – all of this she tells with skill and wisdom and writing both adept and beautiful. And interspersed throughout her text are her photographs, taken mainly in the second half of her life as she slowly and painfully learned how to live in this world, but also from her youth. Also included are photographs take by her father on his many trips around the world, some from before the turn of the 20th century. 

But it is not the exquisite photographs of my mother’s later years that strike me this particular day. Rather, it is the many photographs from my childhood home in rural southwestern Wisconsin. My father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and when I was seven years old, my parents bought an old farmhouse and part of a farm – 70 acres – half an hour west of the University. There I spent my formative years, there I lived with my mother’s breakdowns and extended hospitalizations in the psychiatric ward of one or the other of the Madison hospitals, and there I lived close to and fell in love with the land. 
So much of my childhood was spent outdoors! In grade school, I often walked home with my brother or one or more of the neighbor children, frequently pausing at the culvert over the stream to search for tadpoles and other signs of life. With a neighbor, a brother, a parent, or a friend, and frequently happily by myself, we explored every nook and cranny of our 70 acres, and often went further afield into the neighbors’ land as well. We sledded and tobogganed down hills, between trees, and over mounds of snow that sent us flying. We raised a variety of animals – mine were the chickens and the goats. 

We played in the barn, the loft sometimes full of hay, sometimes empty. We played in the neighbor’s barn and beside and in their pond. We watched the storms roll up the valley. We climbed to the top of the windmill, no longer functioning, its pump having been wired for electricity. We fashioned a make-believe home on a tiny island in the stream. We waded the stream in search of pretty stones and water striders. We examined and identified flowers. We gardened. We opened our home for walks, wood-cutting, hearty food, and fellowship. We struggled to get out of our driveway during snowy winters. We lived close to the land.
As I thumbed through picture after picture from my years on this land, longing and grief welled in my heart, and I felt tears in my eyes. How I miss that close connection to the Earth! And then, as the days went on, and I realized that I could not functionally remain in that place of grief for long, I began to understand. I began to understand that it is the deep love of the land that developed in me during my childhood and young adulthood that fuels the fires of so much of what I am passionate about in my later adulthood: Ma’yan Tikvah – a vehicle for praying outdoors with others; Wayland Walks – a program designed to get people outdoors onto the trails in our own community; working on climate campaigns – I do so desperately want for our children to inherit the Earth. 

Those photographs helped me better understand, they helped me see the depth of my passion and my commitment to the Earth. They helped me better understand why I am pushing forward with all that is closest to my heart. They helped me better understand just why the things I do are so close to my heart. 

I think of Aldo Leopold, who spent his most famous years in Wisconsin, his land ethic for our time, and the efforts of the Aldo Leopold Foundation to keep his legacy alive. Closer to home, I read Changes to the Land: Four Scenarios of the Future of the Massachusetts Landscape, and I know that although there is hope, there is also a recognition that so many of the decisions we make today will determine whether or not it will be possible for future generations to have even a taste of the experiences I had as a child. Looking back on my mother’s life, I know she must have thought something very similar, I know she mourned the possibility of experiencing the places she had cherished in the same way that she had. And when I consider the impact of climate change, the urgency of the issues regarding our planet can set my heart to racing and disturb my sleep at night.

One Earth, and only one. That is all we have. What will we pass on to future generations? The answer is up to us, to you and to me. We are the ones who make the decisions that determine the future. And so I continue to do the work I do, each passing year with a greater sense of urgency. This is how I channel my grief. This is how I assuage my guilt. This is how I keep my head and my heart above water and maintain the faith needed to go forward day by day.

 I invite you to join me and/or others in doing the passionate work l’ovdah u’l’shomrah, to serve and to protect (Gen. 2:15) this One Earth that is sacred to us all, crucial to our physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing, and threatened by the very ones who depend upon it.

 May we find the strength and the courage and the fortitude to truly guard and preserve this land and all that lives upon it.

1 comment:

  1. "I do so desperately want for our children to inherit the Earth"

    Inherit the Earth they shall, but as you say, what sort of Earth will that be?