Home > Books, Love, Reflections > cherishing now (and trees)

cherishing now (and trees)

My childhood home stood on a corner. In addition to having a small lawn at its front, it had one outside the backyard fence along its left side. My mom once planted several small trees there.

A few years after she planted them, she happened to talk to a man who worked with trees. He said that one of the trees should be cut down, pointing to some kind of dark mark inside a gash and saying the tree was already dead. It looked very much alive to my mom, who argued there must be something she could do to save it.

Nope, he affirmed. It’s already dead. It just looks like it’s still alive because it takes a while to for results of death to be evident to the human eye.

My mom, whose mental illness was itself becoming more evident by the day, thought her neighbors had done it–whatever “it” was. They’d hurt the tree to hurt her.

I simply thought it was interesting.

A few months back, I walked across a courtyard and pondered grim political news I’d just read. I looked up at a tree nearest my destination and thought, This is an illusion.

I see the tree almost every day. If I’d touched its base then, I’m certain I’d have felt the rough texture of bark, and enjoyed the coolness of the shade cast by its leaves. The tree exists, as much as I, anyone, or anything can be said to. The illusion was not in whether or not it existed, but how strong and healthy it looked at that moment.

With barely a beat skipped, I held climate change in heart and thought, The preconditions for its death have already been set in motion.

At that point, I couldn’t have justified the claim to anyone else. It was an intuition based on all I’d read and experienced in my life so far, a reflection of the idea that sometimes humans see that things have happened long after they already happened.

There was lag, I felt, between certain consequences and human observation of those consequences.

A few weeks after I thought about the illusory tree, I read Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. This being a book about soaring inequality in America (and how it’s crushed intergenerational social mobility, without most people noticing it), I didn’t expect to find insight into anything much related to illusory trees.

In Our Kids, Putnam explains how much research on childhood poverty is based on 30-year-olds who survived it decades ago. Social scientists who take this tack are thus learning about poverty as it existed decades ago, not as it now exists:

To be sure, the link from income inequality to opportunity inequality is not simple and instantaneous. As our cases illustrate, it took several decades for economic malaise to undermine family structures and community support; it took several decades for gaps in parenting and schooling to develop; and it will take decades more for the full impact of those divergent childhood influences to manifest themselves in adult lives. Moreover, this sad sequence started at different times in different parts of America. For example, this process began earlier and has progressed further in nonwhite communities, though it is now thoroughly under way in white communities, too. 

In his next paragraph, I was surprised to see reflections of my illusory tree:

These time lags of indefinite duration complicate our ability to draw a simple statistical correlation between inequality of income and inequality of opportunity. This methodological dilemma is not unlike the comparable problem of diagnosing global warming. Decades passed between the invention of the internal combustion engine and the changing chemistry of the earth’s upper atmosphere; decades more passed between that atmospheric change and glacial melting; and it will take years more before the sea floods Manhattan and Miami. Those long lags lead inevitably to debate among scientists about the pace and even the reality of systemic change. In both cases–global warming and the opportunity gap–causal links and future projects remain uncertain, but in both cases, if we wait for perfect clarity, it will be too late.

I held onto the memory of this passage as I continued reading and walking. A few weeks ago, I wrapped up reading Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich. While he makes an extraordinarily nuanced case on many fronts, a concluding chapter on climate change struck me hardest. Sayer, too, evoked for me images of my illusory tree:

If we are to stop global warming, we need to cut emissions startlingly quickly. Even if we stopped completely today, time lags in the effects of past emissions on climate would mean that temperatures would continue to rise another half a degree, taking us to 1.4 degrees Celsius higher than the temperatures before industrialisation. The longer we leave taking action, the bigger the problem will get. Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark calculate that if we are to have even just a 50% chance of keeping below the [potentially already quite dangerous] 2 degrees Celsius target we have to reduce emissions to little more than the 1850 figures by the end of this century.

But who should take responsibility for such action? Naturally, those most dependent on fossil fuels are most reluctant to do anything. The usual story we hear about greenhouse gases and climate change goes like this: For many years, the old industrialised countries were the prime culprits in causing global warming, but now they’ve been overtaken by China, which is building dozens of new coal-fired power stations (the dirtiest kind of fossil-fuel energy source) every year, so that’s where we should point the finger. What is almost always overlooked in the media and by politicians is that emissions of [carbon dioxide] stay in the atmosphere for many decades, even centuries. So a large proportion of the greenhouse gases that are currently causing global warming have been there for a very long time … The US’s cumulative emissions since 1750 are roughly four times those of China, even though China’s annual emissions now exceed those of the US. In effect, the western industrial powers and Japan owe the rest of the world a huge debt – or damages. And while you can simply write off financial debts from balance sheets, you can’t write off billions of tonnes of [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere.

Stephen Pacala, the director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, has estimated that 80% of the emissions in the atmosphere come from old industrialised countries, which make up about 20% of the world’s population. Blaming China as the main offender is wrong not only because it’s a late industrialiser: it’s also wrong because a substantial part of China’s emissions total should actually be attributed to the rich countries, as it derives from manufacturing goods for those countries; further, China still has relatively low emissions per person – 6 tonnes per person, compared with the US’s 18 tonnes. (The average world level is 4.9 tonnes per person.)

So there “lag” was, articulated for me by others who’d spent more time with not only the idea but its potential and even probable consequences.

Who’ve sat with the idea that things happen before humans may realize they’ve happened, and that they continue to happen even when what humans perceive as events–individual acts of emission–are actually processes.

As I walked back by my illusory tree minutes later, I wondered how I could face a world where the things I love are already in the process of fading away. What, I asked myself, is the point?

The answer practically leaped out at me as I left the tree’s shadow: All this was so before I saw it was so. We’re never guaranteed the future, let alone a good one. If tomorrow’s not a given, the answer is to cherish now for what it is, to fight for the survival of what is beautiful while accepting the fact that the fight might already be lost. The fight itself can be beautiful, if undertaken with loving acceptance instead of angry rejection.

Though I knew (thanks to my experiences with the book Just One Thing) that translating this insight to action would take time and work, I walked with a newfound spring in my step.

In this moment, in this now, the tree’s green leaves still reach toward the sun as they shimmer in the breeze.

Yesterday, I thought many times of my illusory tree, and how I’d thought the world already over because of invisible-to-human-eyes processes in place now.

I thought of all the beauty I’d not have appreciated if I’d kept confusing the future with the present. I’d have lost …

… the joy of my younger son’s frequent, loving nuzzles; yesterday, he caught my husband and I standing together in the kitchen doorway and nuzzled our legs while enveloping them in a hug.

… reflecting on how good a brother-in-law must feel to be done with his medical residence applications, and how much better it must feel being finished with one institution already having said it’d be honored to have him. Remembering what it felt to receive my first law school acceptance letter and realize it was going to happen, if I didn’t yet know where.

… the breeze through my hair as I stood in my older son’s school courtyard and waited to pick him up from school. I did this almost every day his first grade year, but only once or twice last year.

… the hug attack I received after my older son saw me standing in the courtyard. The way he chattered excitedly about a math program he really, really, pretty please wanted me to download for him when we got home.

… the light in my husband‘s eyes as he posed for a picture by our younger son. His kindness as he encourages me to slow down, and to treat my body kindly so that he can enjoy my company for decades instead of years cut too short by stress.

daddy glimmer.png

… the laughter from an excellent author‘s humorous reminders not to confuse one potential future path with all potential future paths, and sharing an appreciation for this author with my just-younger sister.

… cheering at the professionally designed cover the same sister commissioned for her novel, Waking Dreams.

… puzzling over what was funny about a picture she sent, and then belly-laughing for several minutes after I saw it.

… the “you found us!” from a beloved massage therapist, a year after giving up massages. Her spoken kindness as she attacked the various knots in my shoulders and back.

… the dazed grin on my face as I drove home thinking variations of, Oh, yeah! This is what it’s like to feel good!

… getting a cheap, tidy haircut in about ten minutes, and then … looking at myself and seeing that, though I’ve lost some of my outwardly apparent childish enthusiasm, it wasn’t a loss but a trade: for the hope of more wisdom and the understanding that the beauty of a moment isn’t defined by the moments that follow it.

sep2017 haircut.png

Whatever tomorrow may bring, each of these moments, these people, these paths, are precious and worth cherishing for what they are right now. There are countless possible tomorrows, some of which may be more frightful and others more frightfully beautiful; with only this moment, this now guaranteed, I am determined to more fully inhabit this now.

Tomorrow’s many nows? Well, I will meet each of them
when it’s time, tomorrow,
and find in each a reminder
that now is really

Like my (not-so-)illusory tree,
between breaks in the clouds, I will
reach toward the sun’s warmth
while I am still here
to bask in it.

  1. Nemorino
    September 16, 2017 at 7:24 am

    A thought-provoking essay. I’ve noted down the two books you quoted from.

    • September 16, 2017 at 7:35 am

      Thank you! The tree’s been swirling around in my brain a lot this last week; I wanted to write a post about it, but didn’t know what to write until yesterday.

      Both of these books were fantastic reads, but I have an especially soft spot for the Putnam book. He weaves together data and stories with twin compassion and insight, so that … the book ends up feeling less like a book to read for knowledge and more like a call to action to love (all) our kids whether or not we love any of the adults around them. That being said, I highly recommend both books. Some books provide a couple of good insights; in others, like these, they’re overflowing from every page.

  1. October 1, 2017 at 11:58 am
  2. November 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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