Mothers, Children, and the Big Blue Marble

This article was frist published in winter, 2007. 

Two stories have captivated our friends Molly and Tessa this week: Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, and the biographies of Vancouver East Side women who were murdered on a farm in Coquitlam. Both women usually try to keep their exposure to news to doses that don’t overwhelm them. Neither has a taste for gratuitous violence, and they live without television in order to preserve their ability to feel. But these were stories which they believed they had a responsibility to understand, to see and hear and, yes, feel. Afterward going to the Filberg Center to watch the Al Gore film, they walked their dogs around the field under a rainy sky. The conversation went something like this:

Molly: We are such a short-sighted species. Like a whole species of four-year-olds.

Tessa: But that doesn’t make sense. Four-year-old whats? Gods? No, we’re full-grown as humans go; this is as big as we get. And it’s as smart as we get.

Molly: How can that be?

Tessa: We’re a short sighted, well-meaning, stupid but dear species.

Molly: I don’t know about the last part. Dear? I’m angry that we are so polluting and changing the planet. It’s crazy.

Tessa: I have a different response. I see that big blue marble earth photo, with its think little atmosphere protecting it, and I want to put it into my lap, like a child. I want to make sure it’s coat is just right, not too hot or too thin, and comfort it and make it all right. I feel so maternal.

Molly: That sounds a bit arrogant. We’re the children. What makes you think she needs or wants us trying to help her? We mess it up every time. The earth is mother. A harsh mother, at times. And indifferent to whether we stay around.

Tessa: Really? How do we know? Seems to me that we have to try to be the grown ups this time; Gaia’s in trouble and she needs our help. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about her as our mother and start thinking about her like a child.

Molly: The earth doesn’t need us; life is strong. She’ll survive without us; it’s humans that will not survive. And a lot of other species we’ll take down with us. But life will come back in some form. Just not the same.

Tessa: I don’t know about that. Maybe I’m crazy, but I see that little layer of atmosphere, and I think that it somehow needs love to hold it together. It needs something with consciousness to appreciate it, or maybe it would be lonely and just kind of fall apart. I think it needs us. I don’t think that cockroaches could provide that layer of love.

Molly: That’s not very scientific.

Tessa: Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

A few more turns around the field, and Tessa was still on her maternal theme. Her response to the plight of the earth was grief and worry. Children, she said, could get lost and die. Could the planet?

Tessa: I see the pictures of those missing women, and read about them. They were all somebody’s child.

Molly: Or foster-child. Some of them had been pretty let down.

Tessa: But not as much as I would have thought. Somebody loved each one of them, and worried and missed them. There is nothing worse than looking at your child, or missing them, and thinking, ‘oh, my. We could lose this one. We really could.’ We’ve got to figure out how to care for living things in a better way.

Each was thinking also about Tessa’s own daughter, now 20, living in the city and not calling very often. They had tried hard to give her all that she needed, but they both knew that somehow it had not been enough. The child hangs on a precipice; they fear they could lose her. Guilt, anger, grief and compassion well up every time they speak about her. They miss her terribly, and yet the household peace that her absence brings is also welcome. So much emotion. So much fear.

“You know”, says Tessa, “When my daughter was born, I looked at her and I promised to give her whatever she needed. Anything that threatened her would have to get past me. I loved her fiercely as my own blood and my responsibility. And I was a good mother; I maybe even gave her everything that she needed from me. But that was my blindness: what she needed from me was only part of what she needed. I didn’t realize how much we needed community. She needed a whole adult unity around her so tight that she couldn’t slip through. She needed adults who would talk to each other, compare stories, support one another around her. Not just parents, but teachers and everybody. I didn’t know how important that was, and I didn’t know how to build and maintain it.”

The missing women slipped through the cracks in community, even though they had adults who loved them and who gave the best they had. The man who killed them also slipped through the cracks, and became a monster barely recognizable as human who could snuff them out. The children of mothers everywhere are in danger; they could all slip through the cracks in a world where it isn’t safe to play outside, under the sky. The sky itself is in danger; the thin layer of air that protects this precious blue planet and makes it the only place in the universe that could be our home might break, irreparably. Individual love is not enough.

Some will read this and think that it is a cop-out. European-descended North America is possibly the most extremely individualistic culture in the world. It was descended, after all, from young people who moved far away from home; who went off to frontiers that their parents would never see. We are used to thinking about every problem in individual terms: “what do I need to do to fix this?” To say that individuals, even parents, don’t have enough to keep children and the planet out of danger sounds like an abdication. If we don’t do it, who will? So far, humans in groups appear to be no smarter, and in fact a whole lot more stupid, than humans individually.

Still, we have to change that. Because individual efforts can’t do it. We need a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We need to look after, generate and protect a layer of spiritual atmosphere, made up of love and appreciation and the human capacity for wonder. In that atmosphere, maybe we can collectively create some solutions that tie together and surpass our individual contributions to the cause. Tessa has a point, and if it’s magical thinking, then so be it. We need some magic. And we need a “we” that can be trusted to believe in when individual efforts are not enough.

Children can get lost. So can planets. We could lose this one. And all we have to work with is ourselves, and each other. Not gods. Maybe permanent four-year-olds. And we’ve always tried to believe that this was enough. But can we get smart enough collectively? Can we build a “we” worth believing in? Can hard work and courageous honesty and good will and faith do it? Well, what else do we have?