Burn it down, build it up; catch the light, and the falling
“Scheming on a thing, that’s a mirage
I’m trying to tell you now, it’s sabotage.”
— “Sabotage,” Beastie Boys
Sunday night my daughter and I folded ourselves into the car to try to find some Northern Lights. The Kp index was at 6, well within our zone, and she’s been wanting to see the aurora for over a year. We drove up to Glacier National Park to walk by the lakeshore at Apgar about a half-hour’s drive from our house.
I’m not a good night driver. Even as a teenager I avoided it because my night vision is iffy. Walking is okay, but driving I can’t seem to process the headlight-lit information quickly enough and feel precarious. Every now and then, though, it feels good. To be out on the road at night, few other cars, ’80s rock on the radio except never the good ’80s rock, the songs you could never quite sing along or dance to but couldn’t headbang to, either. It reminds me of rare freewheeling teenage nights. Alone in my parents’ car before I wrecked it one icy day, sixteen years old and driving that same road back at night from my summer restaurant job near West Glacier. Listening to the same damn radio station.
I rolled into the parking lot and we walked out to the lakeshore under moonlight that moved in and out of clouds. It was still far too overcast to see anything but a few stars, and we kept turning around to stare at the Moon, shivering in the wind that blew across the frozen lake. We saw no aurora, but didn’t want to leave. Wouldn’t it be nice, we both said, if we could just spend the night here in the quiet under the stars peeking out of the gap in the clouds?
I took a photo, which was terrible, except I kept it because it looked like an oil painting.
“Should we try going up the North Fork?” I asked her, mindful of our mutual tiredness and my poor night vision and school the next day. She shrugged.
“Why not?” So we drove back south again, wiggled through the back streets of Columbia Falls, and headed up the North Fork, talking almost the whole time of the pains of middle school and the stupidity and cruelty of the Montana state legislature. An entity I wanted to assure my daughter I’d protect her and all the other kids and every vulnerable person from, but is that a promise any of us adults have shown ourselves capable of keeping?
Tuesday mornings almost every week, I volunteer in my daughter’s sixth-grade classroom. I thought I was done volunteering in my kids’ classes after elementary school but her teachers decided on a book clubs routine enabled by parents like me who didn’t realize they were getting into a year-long commitment. So Tuesday mornings I walk her to her entrance and then go around to the front of the school to check in as a volunteer, make small talk with the office staff while they print out a sticker that sometimes, for some reason, has my old driver’s license photo on it from almost ten years ago when I still kept my hair short and my skirts long.
I’ve worked in textbook publishing for so many years that garnering enthusiasm for rubrics or worksheets is something I can no longer even fake very well. Does it matter if students can identify the main idea or give supporting details? Not really. Half the time those questions aren’t even written well enough for students to understand what they’re looking for, but that’s not the point. The point is that nobody really gets anything out of answering questions that are only designed to get them through standardized tests anyway.
Actually, that’s not the point either. The point is something I figured out when I first volunteered to read with kids in my son’s first-grade class, and the reason that later I created a math games program for third-graders with a couple of other women: you’re almost never there to help them learn. You’re there to be an adult that they can connect with, who can help a kid be seen—especially for the kids who are so often unseen, and the ones who might not have adults in their lives who make their own existence feel safe, much less special. Ideally, you can help them build the confidence they need to read the paragraph, or add up the numbers, or decipher the word problem, or write that personal bit of narrative. That they’re competent and smart and deserve to use their voice. That they’re important to someone. That they’re worthy. Because they all are. That’s why I show up.
My book clubs group is so far all girls. It just shook out that way somehow. The books we read are old-fashioned, which makes them challenging. Some of the girls don’t like to read. We have to read but I’m not going to force them to like it. I let them chat a bit. Talk about what their mornings were like and how confusing it is to figure out what’s going on in the story. The morning we met right after a lockdown drill, I let them spend the first few minutes telling me how stupid lockdown drills were and what they’d suggest doing instead. I can’t really say adults know better because we’re the ones who have somehow let a world with lockdown drills solidify around them.
Middle school is such a tough time. I went to four different middle schools and was miserable at every single one. At the last one, I joined cheerleading, which my father recently said he thought was because I was trying to understand the dynamics of popularity, but I had to let him down: it was my fourth school in three years, and as a very nerdy kid probably on my fifth or sixth reread of Lord of the Rings, I was just trying to fit in. (It didn’t work, but at least the other cheerleaders were nice to me.)
When I gather at the table with the kids and we try to make our way through the confusing old-fashioned book, I let them wander in and out of what we’re meant to be doing. Connect with each other, laugh over something, use Taylor Swift songs to explain vocabulary words, look up birds of the Arctic on my phone since that’s where the book is set and we don’t know any of them. Some time ago, I started bringing snacks, because I remember what it’s like to be the hungry kid who’d barely gotten herself and her little sister to the bus on time.
I bring our attention back to the worksheets to write down themes and predictions and vocabulary but with uncertain feelings: I don’t know what kinds of lessons will be most useful for them in the future. Do any of us?
As my daughter talked about school and dreaded gym class and asked questions about the Montana state legislature that it pained me to answer honestly, I drove the car up the North Fork Road until we hit gravel, the snow banks on each side getting higher as the trees closed in and the snow started to fall more heavily. We wouldn’t be seeing any stars, much less auroras, but drove further anyway until we got to the curve where the valley opens out, my mind split between the dark road in front of me and the one driving our conversation. Take a flamethrower to all of it, I thought of the current legislative agenda, and all the larger structures and paradigms it relies on. Of the rage of not being heard, of all the ways there are of not being heard; of the frustration of knowing that at the same time somebody has to be methodically digging for the roots of these structures so that burning them down doesn’t result in them sprouting back stronger than ever; and that somebody has to be building something new, or rebuilding something old—better, in either case. Something alive, something able to withstand the maw that eats everything good.
I turned off the car and we got out. It was so dark and quiet we couldn’t even hear the river. The snow fell in thick flakes, hard, like it was being driven by a growing wind but there was no wind. We stood and smelled the snow and pine and after a while went home, peering up as we drove for the first sight of moonlight.
The next day the sun came out and people posted photos of the brilliant auroras on social media. The newspaper printed one covering the whole sky from the same lake we’d driven up to, but several hours later. I’d forgotten that auroras are best seen in the middle of the night.
I walked through the far side of town for two hours, near the wastewater treatment plant, and spent a while by the river listening to birdsong. I couldn’t stop thinking of the questions my daughter asked, the things that worried her. How they were the seeds of the worries that anyone paying attention carries full-grown. Of her friends and the kids in her books clubs group and all the other kids here and everywhere and how different their choices might be from what mine once were when they’re old enough to drive that road at night. Of how tired I am of adults saying that they put their hope in younger generations, when it’s we who should be fighting for a world that gives them something to hope for. And of the sunrise that morning, cast pink, and the moonlight behind the lake the night before, where I wanted to stay.
Town felt warm, ducks active on the river, magpies everywhere. (But the magpies have been everywhere all winter long. They’re more than ready to take over my house.) The next day it snowed all day and into the night, piling up at least six more inches, but that one day you could tell spring was inevitable. I hope I can hear whatever lessons it has for me, and with clearer vision.
The first insistent birdsong I’ve heard this year, standing at this spot by the river. Definitely feels like spring is coming, despite the several inches of snow we got the next day.
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
Brave the Wild River, by Melissa L. Sevigny, about botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter and their 1938 Colorado River expedition to document the plant life of the Colorado River, is available for pre-order. I read an early draft of this book and couldn’t believe how quickly I zipped through it. Melissa is a beautiful writer. Her book Mythical River is I think one of the best books I’ve read about water in the American West, and in addition to dealing with its complex history and the entanglement of water governance and abuse, it highlights Sevigny’s ability to thread her poetic sensibilities with her journalistic expertise. Brave the Wild River came out of her riveting essay “The Wild Ones” in The Atavist.
Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven in Aeon with a profile of Egyptian economist Samir Amin, his criticisms of Edward Said, and the concept of Eurocentrism: “Amin’s attention to how colonial legacies have shaped the economic and social structures of the world economy in a variety of ways opened the door for a wealth of scholarship on colonial legacies, imperialism and unequal exchange.”
Shannon Mattern writing in Places Journal about public drinking fountains and visiting the 19 reservoirs that supply New York City’s water: “The project, he argued, was animated by the conviction that water should be ‘a commons, not a commodity. . . . That drinking water should be freely available to the public, rather than being a private good, bottled in plastic by a corporation and sold for profit. I believe that’s why conservative commentators have been so critical of this initiative.’”
The movement for car-free cities or city centers is growing, writes Patrick Sisson in City Monitor, while reminding readers that cities long predate cars, and will outlast them. (Considering that pedestrian deaths from cars in the U.S. increased nine times faster than population since Covid started and large SUVs collectively emit more carbon pollution than many countries, a shift away from car-centrism is long overdue.)
I think I’ve shared this one before, but recently reread Lee Nellis’s piece in Mountain Journal on seemingly radical land conservation ideas for the Greater Yellowstone area, including granting citizenship rights to migrating wildlife and a nod to Henry George’s Land Value Tax, along with a shift in the stories we tell. “We cannot combat the dominant myth with facts. Those of us who want to live in a world made magical by wildness must offer a better story. We must offer a compelling narrative of gratitude, humility, restraint, and reciprocity.”
Longtime international journalist Indra Adnan on the Planet: Critical podcast on the failures of mainstream media and the alternatives people build when democracy feels like it’s failing: “You say there’s no low-hanging fruit. This is the low-hanging fruit. The possibility of relationship between people all over the globe, which means there’s a possibility of us coming into empathy with each other.”
Tuesday I attended a four-hour webinar on the Doctrine of Discovery that had extensive discussion of Johnson v. M’Intosh (including a phrase-by-phrase breakdown of the decision’s reliance on paradigms of domination) and more recent cases showing the pervasive influence of that 1823 case. The organizers—including Steven Newcomb, author of Pagans in the Promised Land—have said they’ll put the webinar recording online when it’s ready, but in the meantime some of the materials are available in shorter versions via Red Thought.
>>"Ideally, you can help them build the confidence they need to read the paragraph, or add up the numbers, or decipher the word problem, or write that personal bit of narrative. That they’re competent and smart and deserve to use their voice. That they’re important to someone. That they’re worthy. Because they all are. That’s why I show up."
This is brilliant. See, that's why I like you. You're so smart in this way.
Also, I have a theory (one currently lacking data) that everyone likes to read. All kids like to read. It's just that we adults sometimes don't recognise *what* they like to read, or what they would enjoy reading if they had a chance. Not a new thing - I remember how immensely offputting my English Literature class's set texts were at school, UUUGH [Shakespeare/Chaucer/Dickens/Bronte etc.] AGAIN, KILL ME. But - boys in particular with their fidgetty ways and the faint air of "boys don't read, that's boring, buys DO stuff" hanging in the air, where reading gets turned into a "nerdy" pastime.
(I wonder about this: now that nerds have thoroughly conquered popular culture, do kids still take pot-shots at each other for being "nerdy"? Do you see that happening at school? Is it still a thing in the way it used to be?)
Also, I wonder how "I don't read" equates with all the information-by-text that enters everyone's brains in today's world. I Don't Read, but I consumed 30,000 words of text message today? Or I Don't Read, but I watched 4 hours of subtitled Japanese anime? I dunno. Maybe reading is messier and more porous than it used to be, and not just because of the interventions of screens and digital paper...
I'm sorry you missed the aurora. I remember I emailed you enthusiastically that night because I saw it was visible right round the northern hemisphere, but - I only *just* saw it, because I got my timing wrong, and like you was haunted by other people's photos from almost the same location, except showing the damn thing in its full damn glory, damn them.
But I agree. There's something special about standing there in the dark, waiting, but also just enjoying what is already happening, even if that's just watching darkness ebb and flow, and the slow emergence of everything at the edge of our vision that normally gets drowned out. I could certainly benefit from having more excuses to do that. And I wish there were more that were as socially acceptable as aurora-watching. Like: "oooh, according to this app it's an unusually strong dark out there! Look at that! Under 400 nanoLumens! Wanna join me in watching it? Wrap up well, it's bloody cold out there..."
Yes, challenges happen, but as you may have heard, suffering is an an animal of a different kind. This cowboy is tracking that one, but she is elusive and slips adeptly from an eager grasp.