all-light-cannot-see-anthony-doerr

Remembering What We’re Built To Do

sunshine through the trees
Image from http://www.ForestWander.com

When I was 18, a boy at Camp wrote a poem for me. Although I didn’t requite his crush, I still consider his poem one of the most romantic things I’ve ever received, because of its candour. The second line was “She’s just like sunshine through the trees,” and to this day I still feel kinda thrilled about that. Sunshine through the trees is one of my favourite things in the whole world.

A while back, I heard on CBC about a study showing that spending time in green space improves our mental health. Apparently, being in the presence of leafy trees actually makes us happier.

I think most of us can vouch for this. At the end of a long, white winter, I’m sure I am not alone in feeling an almost physical thirst for those luscious green leaves. It’s nice to get this confirmation: we are built to feel that way.

Family Camp at NeeKauNis last month was full of reminders of the things we are built to do and enjoy.

Here we are, in the age of modern medicine, where Westerners rarely worry about diseases that used to kill us in great numbers – smallpox and tuberculosis, for example – and we’ve handily encouraged a phalanx of new maladies all by ourselves.

We eat packaged food so far removed from its sources that we don’t even recognize the ingredients; then we wonder why we have troubles with our various organs and our energy levels.

We’ve surrounded ourselves with harmful chemicals in our food, clothes, grass, household products, and everything plastic; then we are devastated when opportunistic cancers have a field day.

We spend hours a day sitting, hunched over some screen or other, often sacrificing sleep for addictive overstimulation; then we realize – too late, sometimes – that our heart or lungs or joints or brains don’t work properly anymore.

We live in our container-homes, put in our earbuds so no live people can distract us, and avoid eye contact with the humans who serve us coffee or check out our groceries; then we shake our heads at the rise of prescription anti-depressant use.

I’m not speaking in self-righteousness. I do most of these things too. I’m not condemning modern medicine either, or technology in general. I really appreciate the benefits of ultra-portable computers, affordable antibiotics, high-speed transportation, laparoscopic surgery, and the wondrous capacity of the internet. I like Cheetos and Toaster Strudel, I watch TV on Netflix, I love Facebook, and as I’ve mentioned, I am very grateful for the existence of prescription anti-depressants.

But when I’m in a restaurant and see a family of four at the next table, not speaking, each absorbed in a separate hand-held device, my husband and I look at each other and quietly vow: That will never be us.

And at Family Camp, I remember that when those contemporary facets of life drop away for a few days, it does good to every layer of our selves.

It helps that there are children of all ages there. They’re all over the things that humans are meant to do. Just watching and listening to them is therapy.

built for 3

Children run and jump and climb and slide. They laugh their heads off, and cry hard when they need to. They sing and dance with joy. They build and knock down. They splash and spin. They scrunch their fingers and toes in the sand. They get dirty with real dirt. They want stories, hugs, their own little space, and their own accomplishments.

I want those things, too.

When I think about what really, actually makes me feel good, it’s mostly simple things. The things I’m built to do. The same things humans have been doing for centuries – or longer.

Dancing until I am out of breath.

Cooking for someone I love.

Making art.

Getting lost in a great book.

built for 2

Sitting in dappled shade. (Sunshine through the trees.)

Hugging.

Plunging into cool water on a hot day.

built for 4

Sipping a hot drink on a cold day.

Listening to music I love – or better yet, making some.

Hearing breezes, birds, crickets, rivers, waves.

Writing.

Looking closely at something beautiful.

built for 6

Reading to my kids.

Going to bed when I’m really tired.

built for 5

Walking in fresh air.

Laughing.

Eating something truly delicious.

built for 1

Sharing thoughts and feelings with a friend.

Doing a job well.

Having an adventure.

I know, they read like clichés, worthy of a curlicued garden tile. But there are reasons the inspirational-message market is so successful. Mostly, it’s because

1) It really IS good for us to dance as if nobody’s watching, sing like nobody’s listening, etc., because we’re built to.

And

2) We busy humans are remarkably good at forgetting the value of those seemingly easy things.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the thousand little jobs you have to do on a daily basis. I could easily spend all of every day doing small, necessary, basically mindless tasks. Which is not satisfying at all.

For me, I know, I need to think of those good-for-my-soul things as medicine. Taking my medicine is my responsibility, something I must do for my health. And in order to take it, I have to notice it. I have to be truly mindful and present.

That way, any time I can grab a bit of dappled shade or kid snuggles or good conversation, they will heal what ails me.

What precious things are you built to do?

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Too much to say, too little to say

wooden angels in newtown connecticut

Sean asked me yesterday if I blog to try to “make sense of the world.”

Yes. Absolutely. That has never been more true than now.

I also blog because, as I know from keeping a diary for so long, it helps a lot in painful moments. It’s a way for me to remove a piece of what’s making my mind hurt, look at it from a small distance, not quite so close to my heart, and begin to let it be… if just a little bit.

I know there’s an overabundance of writing on the topic of Newtown, but I am compelled to add to it anyway. This week, I can’t write a normal blog post about funny things my kid says, or Christmas preparations, or teacher politics.

Because this week, when I think about teachers, I can only think about the educators at Sandy Hook – the ones who never expected to lay down their lives in the course of their jobs, and the other ones who, from now on, will always wonder when they might have to. I’ve only read two news articles about the shooting, but they were enough to brand forever on my brain the thought of a teacher shot dead while shielding her tiny students with her body.

I don’t know how you ever teach again, after surviving a catastrophe like Sandy Hook.

This week, when I think about kids, it’s worse. Obviously, I think about my children all the time, but now there’s this underlying horror with too many strands to put my finger on… I look at them, my vivacious three-year-old son, my wide-eyed baby daughter, both so beautiful it makes me ache, and I feel guilt-gratitude-tumult-terror-overwhelminglove…

… and I wonder… How do I deserve these beautiful children… How could I have brought them into this messed-up world… What would I do if something like – what would I do if – what would I…

… Oh God. And I can’t wonder any further.

It might sound like a strange thing to say, but I’m thankful that Sebastian died the way he did. If I had to lose a son, it’s a blessing to feel sure that he didn’t suffer, never had a chance to be scared or alone or even to cry. His was the most peaceful death possible.

Of course, I know this doesn’t death-proof my other children.

There is no word for how crazy it is to me that pro-gun types are advocating more guns right now. The idea of guns in an elementary school is so, so wrong that my brain can’t even process it. People actually dare to make the argument that if the teachers at Sandy Hook had had access to their own guns, not as many people would have died that day. This may be mathematically true (maybe), but guns in school classrooms is a tragedy unto itself. And let’s be realistic: there’s no way those guns wouldn’t do harm, and most likely unnecessary harm.

As a Canadian born of pacifist parents, my mind is boggled that anyone could possibly believe anything contrary to

MORE GUNS = MORE DEATH FROM GUNS.

It’s already proving to be true in Canada, even though we have no “right to bear arms”, and we don’t generally have the cowboy mentality toward guns that is common in the U.S. We are still utterly shocked and outraged when someone opens fire in a public place in Toronto, but the frequency is increasing: our gun problem is growing. As more illegal firearms enter the country across the border, more people get shot. Period.

It’s common knowledge that the majority of gun crimes are committed by males. I don’t disagree with people who say it’s because society puts too much emphasis on male toughness of a certain kind, but I think it’s deeper than that.

It’s scary: somehow, little boys seem hardwired to think guns are cool. I noticed it while teaching kindergarten last year: young boys – even the quiet, gentle ones – seem to gravitate toward games involving guns. They’ll turn almost any inanimate object into a gun – to “shoot bad guys”, of course.

My father, who, along with my mother, transplanted himself decades ago to a new country to avoid being obliged to kill people, has admitted that he ate puffed wheat as a kid solely because it was “shot from guns”. (So ironic that it’s “Quaker”.)

My own son, with no toy weapons and zero violent TV or video games in the house, has been known to say, “Guns are cool,” and, if we allowed it, would do plenty of pretend-shooting.

If I were to see him do that that right now, I think I would burst into tears.

To me, this is the greatest argument for gun control. Wherever this “manly” urge to shoot stuff comes from, it’s far more likely to reach fruition if there is easy access to guns. Add mental illness into the mix, and obviously, it’s deadly. Since neither the urge nor the illness is going to be eradicated, it’s the third ingredient that has to go.

The other question that I can’t get out of my head is: Why is this so much worse?

I remember the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 – the one that deeply shocked our nation, and spurred much tighter gun control laws, along with discussion of childhood abuse and mental illness. It filled us all with fear and incredible sorrow. I also remember Columbine, and Virginia Tech. And I know that countless innocent people die violent deaths every day in countries filled with war and terrorism. On the same day as the Newtown tragedy, sixteen people died from a car bomb in Damascus – which was forgotten by news sources almost immediately.

Why does this awful event haunt me – and all of us, it seems – so much more?

Not just because it’s still so raw. Not just because it was so unexpected, so appallingly incongruous in that little town. Not just because a massacre in America is so much rarer than a car bombing in the Middle East.

I think it has to do with how easy it is to put yourself into the scene. I saw pictures of those parents, rushing to the school to find out if their children were safe or dead, powerless to stop the world being ripped from under their feet… and they could be me. I think of those traumatized teachers and students, and I can’t help picturing the faces of my own wonderful students and colleagues at my school. They could be us.

And then. They were so young.

The murder of innocents is almost impossible to take.

On Easter Sunday in 1997, I was eighteen years old. I sat in silence at Quaker Meeting in my hometown, reeling from the news of the murder of two-year-old Zachary Antidormi, remembering the Dunblane school shooting a year before, feeling like the world should be ending, and composing this poem in my head.

Light is in everything
But a shadow fell upon a woman
at a moment
Blade in hand she slayed Innocence
and God was not in that knife.
Baby Angel of momentum growing
    now impossibly stopped.
This is a shadow where anguish is complete and
Innocence hides.

Light is in everything
But a darkness possessed a man
on a morning
A score of bullets tore Innocence
and God was not in that gun.
Tiny Spirits of energy flowing
    now indelibly cut.
This is a darkness where heartbreak is real and
Innocence cries.

Your words     life      rebirth       hope        spring      chances
fall alien on my ears like a sick joke

Tell me God needs little students and maybe
a little guard to help them across
    but not
that God’s hand wields knives and machine guns.

Remind us how to find Innocence
    somehow
because that is where God’s Light lives.

We are in the darkest time of year, in our corner of the world. Hannukah has just ended, Christmas is almost here, and we are filling our homes with light, warding off that darkness.

As Hawksley Workman wrote, “the darkness defines where the light is.” When I lost my son, I suddenly understood these words. At the awfulest moments, humanity’s love can be a very powerful thing. It plunges into the hole with you, and gradually, it can help you climb out and stand up again.

Humanity’s love being sent to Newtown right now is immense and beautiful. Let us find ways to be part of it.

newtown-memorial

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