Beyond Denial

Willow Fagan, Michigan

A few winters ago, Michigan had an unseasonably warm December, and a lot of people I knew—my friends, my mom, the local bloggers I read—joked, “Maybe global warming’s not so bad after all.” These jokes were, of course, a way of managing our deep fear; we were encountering the unsettling prospect that climate change was here, no longer a grim specter beyond the horizon but among us, all around us in the air that blew too warm.

But in the summer, when even the cool evenings are warm, and the green is everywhere and exuberant, I forget the lessons of winter. I walk around the tree-lined streets, or look out my window at the bright grass, and it seems impossible that the natural order of the world is threatened. The carefree easiness of summer seems to promise that fall will never come, let alone the unknowable new season of global warming. The broad-leafed trees, the grass, the birds and squirrels and spiders are the same as they have always been, the same as they were when I was a child, as far back as I can remember. This naïve faith is the same species of emotion as my childhood certainty that nothing truly awful would ever happen to me or to the people I loved.

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As a queer person, I have some experience with denial. I would like to be able to tell you that emerging from denial is like moving from blindness to light, prison to flight, as a butterfly escapes her cocoon. But the truth is more messy, more cyclical. I catch glimpses of the destruction that our collective actions have caused or might cause, of what global warming means or might mean, and then I retreat back into distraction, into disconnection, into false promises of safety. Do butterflies ever return to the broken shapes of their former shells, in need of shelter from snow or storm? Do they long to?

The shapes of human-wrought shells are longer lasting. The ones we build in our minds can endure long past their usefulness, stubbornly refusing to change shape even when the world they are meant to reflect has radically transformed. In my own life, my parents handed down to me their inherited certainties about sex and love, sin and God, and I had to dig through their fear and my own to discover the shape of my own sexuality, the color of my own true desires, right for me; same-sex, queer desires, as it turned out. This revelation was the first shattering of the safe bubble of my childhood dreamworld. For me, the choice came down to this: understand a core part of my being as sick and wrong, or abandon the worldview I had held my entire life, the worldview shared by my parents, my teachers, and most of my friends, in which God reigned over the Universe like a benevolent king, and all our stories had happy endings in Heaven. I chose to leave that faith behind.

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This may seem, perhaps, to have little to do with global warming. And yet it is the history I always speak from, the experiences which color my perceptions, whatever they might rest upon. I have found myself drawing on the skills and courage and wisdom I drew on then, as I rebuilt my understanding of the world in relative isolation, as I now face unpredictable changes that once again threaten the order of the world: the order in my mind, the order out there, the spinning circle of the seasons.

That spinning circle has become an important part of the order within my mind. I rediscovered the sacred in the natural world, in the shapes that tree branches make against the sky, in the swooping shadows of bats at dusk, in the constant motion of rivers and streams. I now walk an earth-based spiritual path, and one of the oldest, most central symbols of my path has been the wheel of the seasons, an image I use to center and ground myself, to open myself to the Divine, to the unfolding process of life, death, and rebirth—as exemplified by seeds sprouting and expanding in spring, fruit ripening in summer, leaves falling in autumn, roots slumbering beneath bare, frozen branches in winter, to wake in green splendor once again in spring—around and around, a spiral, the slow periodic quickening of the Divine.

Now, though, that eternal cycle appears to be a wheel wobbling, threatening to spin off its axis. How can I face this? How can I bear the thought of all that I hold sacred being irrevocably harmed or even extinguished? The web of life unraveling into dust and silence?

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There was a gap in between when I rejected Christianity and when I found a new spiritual home in earth-based religion, in particular the movement that some of us call neo-paganism. This time of uncertainty was a terrible openness, like being naked and alone on a plain which harsh winds had swept clean of anything but dust and grey. I did not know what to believe, or how to believe, how to know that anything was true, reliable, solid.

I feel threatened by the return of such scouring doubt when I try to imagine the future of global warming. Just as my discovery of my queerness revealed many of the comforting structures of my childhood to be sources of damage and deception, so too the full accounting of climate change indicts so much of what seems commonplace—cars, suburbs, oranges and bananas in northern climes in the middles of winter—as dangerous objects with an aggregate destructive power worse than that of a nuclear bomb.

Yet facing the truth of my identity has led me to a deeper appreciation for my life, a new way of tasting the skin of the world, a new way of being at home in my own skin. I trust that a similar transformation can occur through confronting global warming.

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This is how I cope now, how I bear the threat of eco-apocalypse:

I bear it in small doses.

I bear it in the company of others whose hearts are rooted in earth, whose eyes tear up at the cutting down of trees, the mangled bodies of deer and raccoons hit by cars, the news of the ending of an entire species.

I bear it by grieving, by allowing the swell of pain and tears. When this flow is dammed, I fear tsunamis but I open my heart to my heart, again and again, and I have yet to drown.

I bear it by reminding myself of what remains, the ongoing beauty of the world.

And at the worst of times, when I fear that nothing of the beauty I know will remain, I stretch to encompass this truth: The wheel of the seasons has never been eternal. There was a time before the Earth existed at all; and there was an Earth before the seasons, when all was live magma and there was no sea and no clouds. If we view the cycle of the seasons as a symbol larger than its actuality—as all real symbols are—then what it symbolizes, that deep order of endless change, of death and renewal intertwined and inseparable, may still be real even as the seasons themselves go haywire. The cycle of change is the heartbeat of the Universe—expansion and contraction, in and out, in and out, the rhythm within each body, each star, each atom, pulsing.

The massive destruction that global warming threatens to unleash sometimes seems boundless, endless. Yet, if the worst comes to pass in a tragedy far beyond words, there is an order so much vaster, so much older and deeper and wider than we can comprehend, which nothing we do can threaten.

In the worst of times, I take comfort in that.

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Copyright © 2013 River Willow Fagan