My obligation to my children when the world is on fire

By Shannon Lell
@ShannonLell

An odd light was coming through the windows at 7amTuesday morning. A light I’ve only seen moments before a powerful thunderstorm breaks loose in early evening on a hot summer day. When my kids and I went outside to catch the bus, acrid smoke filled our noses. We looked up at the sun—and it was a muted, flame orange—you could stare right at it without hurting your eyes. I took a picture. The world appeared as though you were experiencing it with gauze wrapped around your face; removed, hushed, hazy.

When we got to our car, it was covered in a mist of fine grey dust with tiny black bits. I immediately picked up my phone to see if Mount St. Helens or Yellowstone had erupted. The former erupted only nine years ago, and the latter is one of those events that would eventually kill everyone on the planet due to its mass, ash which would blot out the sun for years. That’s what was on my car, ash.

The only other time I woke up to ash on my car was in Alaska in 2009 when I was eight months pregnant with my first child, and Mount Redoubt erupted, trapping us there for days because flights were grounded. The light also reminded me of that time, too.

But it was a very important day. My baby was going to kindergarten. We’ve been preparing for this day. He’s the last one to fly the coop. I kept him around as long as I could—in fact, he’s one of the oldest in his class—but this day was always going to happen. We read The Kissing Hand before bed. We kissed hands. He came to sleep with me in the middle of the night which he hardly does anymore unless he’s scared. Him reaching out to me in the dark is one of my favorite things. Six years he’s been coming to sleep with me and someday he will stop completely. This moving on is hard, but neither of us were sad this morning when it was time to leave him there on the blue elephant carpet square—in spite of the flame orange and the ash.

It wasn’t a volcano, but there is fire. There have been so many wildfires raging in the Pacific Northwest this year that our weather has changed. iPhones registered it simply as “smoke” but this was the first time it rained ash.

Before I even pulled into the driveway at home from dropping my babies off, my phone pinged with a message from the principal. They were cancelling outdoor recess. The air quality was too bad to breathe.

I kept myself busy for a while knowing it was coming. I made a bed. Emptied the dishwasher. Sent all my important emails before it came. It was always going to come. How are you supposed to feel when your baby can’t go outside to play on his first day of kindergarten because the world is on fire? You tell me. I cried. I cried a lot.

People are scared. The world feels chaotic. Everything is political, even natural disasters, and especially the suffering caused by them. And this was always going to happen but we’ve made it worse. No one is innocent besides maybe the children.

There is so little I can do to protect them. Like the edge of land where waves break, like a dementia patient who keeps forgetting, the reality of this one fact hits me with full, fresh force each time I realize it. It is relentless. I can’t protect them. This knowing gets no less devastating each time I feel it. I mean, the world is on fire and my baby can’t go outside to play on his first day of school.

I suppose this was the chance I took all those years ago when I wanted to have a baby while volcanoes still erupted in Alaska and hurricanes transformed coastlines and people suffered and there is so very little I could do about it then, too. I actively chose hope in having a child, and when you choose hope you also choose despair. It’s a package deal.

I can’t do anything about that and it was always going to happen.

But I can read The Kissing Hand before the first day of school, kiss their hands and welcome them into my bed whenever they’re scared. I can point out the orange sun and say how beautiful the world is even when looking at it through gauze, and then I can wait to cry when they are away. Because they are not ready to know what I know. This is my only obligation to them, to be hopeful even when the world is on fire. To smile completely as I leave him there on the blue elephant square of carpet knowing what is always just outside the door.

Shannon Lell is a single mother of two and mountain biking enthusiast living in Seattle. She writes personal essays and is currently working on a memoir about her political, emotional, sexual and spiritual awakening in her 30s. She’d be thrilled to connect with you on Facebook or Twitter

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