Maybe you are standing in a doorway, bouncing on the tips of your toes. Maybe it is the threshold between your life as it has been—to some extent comfortable or easy or thoughtless—and the life you might have if you lived and ate and saw and felt things with the knowledge that the world is in the middle of irrevocable, likely catastrophic climate change, amidst a dozen other types of catastrophic, irrevocable changes, and it is up to us, more or less, how catastrophic that change is.
Right now, you maybe eat meat that comes to you in plastic, free of excess fat or skin or bones. You might drop your produce into tissue-thin plastic bags, eat bananas from a plantation in the Caribbean and mangoes from Mexico even in midwinter. Before the pandemic, you drove your car to work every morning, the trees on either side of the highway blurring into an indistinguishable mass, and took airplanes to see different parts of the world. Maybe you are the kind of person who loves to be outside, who feels a kind of exhilaration at being in the midst of vast landscapes or towering trees, and you know that these views are something to be careful with, so you stay on marked trails and carry your trash out with you, but these remote places feel separate from the rest of your life, bound by a different set of rules, a different way to exist. You were not unworried about these things—some days, as you were sitting in traffic, with the smell of a thousand engines rising up around you, you saw the poison of it all, rising into the air—and your mind turned to the threshold again, wondering what it is that exists beyond this sense of the familiar. And even now, as the constraints of your world have narrowed down to the immediate and deeply familiar—your home, your neighborhood, your family—there is still a worry that other, greater changes lie ahead.
But as with all thresholds, there is a risk involved in stepping over this one: The risk of having your life, up until now relatively comfortable and full of modern conveniences, suddenly being upended. You run the risk of choices, long made unconsciously, now requiring deliberate thought and care, just when so many others are also becoming complex beyond imagining. It’s not that you haven’t made hard choices before, haven’t complicated your life for the sake of a greater good—you wear a mask, or have debated whether or not it is safe to see an elderly family member or go to the grocery store, ordered expensive food delivery because of a tickle in your throat. But you know that the thing that is really at risk now, the thing that is holding you back from stepping across this threshold, is the risk of your own heart, breaking irrevocably.
I left my job in publishing and went to divinity school because I thought knowing more about God would help me see thresholds like this one more clearly and help me step across them: It had always seemed that being a person of faith was an easier way of living in the world, and I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe because I wanted to be more virtuous, more full of patience and grace, more sure about the world and my place in it. I was raised in a faithful house, but had never, even through all the Sunday school sermons and grace over meals, felt anything like conviction or certainty or comfort, just an unmet desire.
In theologian Howard Thurman’s book, Disciplines of the Spirit, he tells a story about a woman who was afraid of fully committing to a belief in God because she was afraid of a call to radically transform her life. But when, in a moment of spiritual abandon and joy, she took the step, it turned out that all God really wanted from her was a better organized sock drawer, and from there, it was mostly easy.
Even my gloriously messy sock drawer felt like too much of an ask, for God. I wanted to stay precisely myself, but faithful and comforted and better, somehow.
And so I remained on that threshold, hoping books and classes would help me make my way to belief and the whole while knowing that they wouldn’t. But in the midst of my longing, a different door opened, and I walked through it before I knew what was happening: I fell in love with the world. I had grown up in New England, and after years in Texas and in major cities where the most wilderness I saw was scraggly trees growing at regular intervals from the sidewalk, I found myself back in a place where I could name plants around me, where I could watch the wheel of the seasons turn beneath my feet in the little stretches of actual wildness I encountered on my walks to campus: crackling cat ice and then the faint halo of green around branches in stands of trees, soon turning to the dirty neon yellow-green tennis balls of Canada goose goslings, and the long necks of blue herons reaching from a dead tree, drunkenly perfumed flowering lilacs gone wooded and gnarled next to old wooden sideboards, the yellowing and reddening of trees from their crowns downward, flurries of yellow ginkgo leaves. I loved it because I could name it, because it was at once familiar to me and full of the deep strangeness of the wild world, even within my own corner of the suburbs.
At the same time, I was taking classes on spiritual responses to climate grief, on contemplative prayer, on the sacraments of eucharist and baptism—wheat and water and wine as sacred. I was reading the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer and Annie Dillard, who found relationships with the world around them even in the midst of their semi-suburban neighborhoods, so much like my own. I read Virginia Woolf, a writer who returns time and time again to the thinness of the membrane that separates one being from another, who knew that “we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
The thing that moved me across the threshold in a mad dash toward the open arms of the world was nothing less than love. This is what it felt like to be in relationship to the world, to be in care and trust to one another. Not just human to human, owing each other our goodness and patience and gentleness, but human to every thing around us, owing the same consideration and care to blades of grass and sunning turtles as to our neighbors. It is hard not to be moved to love when standing between a 200-year-old red oak tree and its sister across the quad, their fates as entangled as their roots, by ants carrying loads larger than themselves to sustain a shared home, even when being hissed at by a Canada goose for coming too close to its grazing babies.
And yet, like with every great love, there was my heart on the line: The winter when goslings didn’t appear on the pond because a warm spell in February meant that eggs were laid too early and no goslings survived through the rest of the bitterly cold spring. That 200-year-old red oak dismantled, branch by enormous branch, for an expansion of the school and badly needed disability accommodations, and knowing that its sister tree would suffer and struggle to stay alive in the following years, half of its root system removed. The knowledge, that even as my heart already breaks at the thousand and one other injustices we’re forced to witness as part of living in the world today—children separated from parents at the border, the mosques and synagogues where people find God defaced with paint and bullets and bombs, a virus and police violence pandemic sweeping through communities that have felt the brunt of social neglect for generations—that I will have to withstand the additional storms of wildfires decimating populations of already-endangered creatures, of swaths of the Amazon mowed down, of climate change changing the corners of the world I know and love like they are parts of my family. There is so much heartbreak to witness in the world already, it seems foolhardy to sign myself up for more.
And yet, I find not my sock drawers but my life rearranged, almost without my noticing. Meat has done a slow fade from my diet, fast fashion has been replaced by an interest in sustainable fabrics and mending practices. My head is full of the names of plants and birds around me, and every spring I get the urge to sink my hands into dirt, to coax living green things up from the ground.
One afternoon, my partner and I sprawled on a blanket in the miraculous expanse of our backyard, reading, with our napping dog stretched out between us. We looked up, and there was a baby rabbit, the white mark on his forehead just fading, watching us as he worked his way down blades of grass, totally still except for a quickly moving jaw. The rabbit remained, even as our dog woke up and stirred, as we turned pages, as one of us got up to go into the house for tall glasses of water, watching and eating, unafraid of our human solidity and clumsiness. From our blanket, we watched the rabbit back, books abandoned, fascinated by the way he reared up on his diminutive hind legs, reached a front paw to bow a stalk of grass toward himself, flattened and swiveled and twitched his ears. And this, one slow afternoon at a time, is how it comes over you.
So to you, standing on the threshold, I say this: the only way through is to let yourself fall in love. Watch deeply, let yourself learn names and familiarize yourself with habits, find the thousand tiny ways the world outside your window changes every day. Let the wilderness of the place you call home woo you, let it root deep. Your heart will break, but you will become porous to the world around you. Allow yourself to be changed, like you have changed the world; leave your sock drawer in disarray, if you will, but heed the voices that are calling you to wildness and care.