It is no coincidence that last night after learning the awful news from Paris, with a heavy heart, I began to read Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World. It is a book about many things and many places, among them, learning the ancient art of mosaics in Italy. Taking broken shards and creating something that catches and reflects light is something that this world of ours could use more of, definitely.
I awoke this morning still sad and angry about humanity’s incessant ability to destroy one another, not only in Paris but also in Beirut and Syria, and a myriad of other places I’ve never been that always includes Sandy Hook, too. But the acts in Paris hit home as deeply as the mass shooting in Tucson several years ago that injured Gabby Giffords and killed many others. Both Paris and Tucson were home during significant phases of my life. But my heart was softened this morning by a message posted on Facebook by Frans, my Parisian host father from all those years ago. While his message acknowledged anger and sadness, he reminded me that now we should look inward and for the Soul to reclaim its liberty. He ended with a beautiful phrase: Je suis en devenir – I am in the making, and I realized that we are all in the making, not one of us is yet complete, not a single one of us.
But of course, I was still angry and sad. I still am. It takes time to heal. And often it takes more than time. For me, I often need time outdoors on my feet – walking, running, hiking – to sort out the thoughts chasing one another around my mind. I headed for Old Kettle Road, the farthest road from our house in the neighborhood, a journey I’d made while mentally composing my first post for this blog several years back. Back then, it wrapped around an open meadow, which legend holds, was used as an airstrip in the 1940s. In the last several years, though, it’s been subdivided and homes in various stages of construction and habitability line its edge. I came here because it’s a quiet walk, it’s rare to see others, and solitude was what I was hoping to find. I was mostly alone, however, the natural world held surprises for me.
On my way down the hill, an adult American kestrel flew right in front of me – maybe five feet away – and perched in a nearby tree and showed me its tail feathers. A raven did a similar maneuver about a mile further down the road, flying close enough that I could feel the movement of air from its wings. And then, when I turned on Old Kettle, thinking of Paris, there was a coyote, maybe 40 feet beyond, trotting away from me down the road. And in that moment, the wiliness and adaptability of the coyote seemed very à propos for Paris, a city that is constantly reinventing itself while maintaining its allure and history. The coyote sensed my presence and stopped, looking back at me over its shoulder. We regarded one another for a long minute or less, until she lost interest and resumed her silent trot, at the quick, even pace that only belongs to the stealthy.
I spent the afternoon at Watson Woods with Madeleine and several of her friends. We were volunteering with Prescott Creeks to help eradicate wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) from the wetlands there. It was hard work, using shovels to remove these plants with roots the size of carrots from the mucky, sticky mud. Teasel is a European species, introduced in the eastern US on purpose, but which has spread throughout the West choking out native grasses and plants. In some areas the ground was carpeted with teasel and it was difficult to see the progress we were making. I had to keep reminding myself that every plant we took out was not going to flower and go to seed and give life to thousands of others. I felt like the Little Prince battling his baobabs on Asteroid B-612. It was good therapy to attack this plant under the watch of the stately golden cottonwoods, even if our work made a rather small difference to the Watson Woods.
A few weeks ago, I went with a dear friend to hear Terry Tempest Williams speak. Williams is a writer, activist, and conservationist, a champion of the American Southwest. I first encountered her writing through Refuge, her account of her mother’s death from breast cancer, while I was in the midst of my own breast cancer experience. It also expresses her dismay that, while shepherding her mother toward death, she was also witnessing the destruction of natural habitat due to the Great Salt Lake rising to record levels, a place which had previously given her much solace. Williams does not mince words and yet also writes with a sensitivity that is simultaneously delicate and powerful. Refuge is so eloquent and potent that at times I had to set it aside, unable to bear the truths about human and ecological suffering that it contains. I know that Finding Beauty in a Broken World will not be an easy read either, but that it will be worthwhile.
At this talk in October, though, Williams spoke about her work in conservation and how it is that change is enacted. She and her husband Brooke have found that one tactic that has worked is what they term “uncomfortable dinner parties.” They’ll host a dinner party, inviting people who have different visions regarding a difficult topic, and after dinner they’ll have a conversation about it. They might invite ranchers, tribal leaders, developers, environmentalists, and lawmakers to discuss an issue like the Bears Ears, a proposed national monument. And through these conversations around the dinner table, they’ve been able to make progress through compromise and listening. Again and again, she returned to conversation as a solution for every issue for which the audience members sought her advice. It’s such a simple idea, and yet how often do we avoid it? We avoid it for a simple reason, too: it’s difficult.
In the midst of our sometimes seemingly endless grief, whether it be due to our own personal suffering or that caused by a global event or something in between, conversation quite possibly could make a big difference. So I ask you to start one, perhaps even an uncomfortable one with a person you might not ordinarily choose. Invite someone, especially someone that you perceive as different from you, into a conversation and be sure to take some of that time to breathe and to listen. We are all in the making. We are all becoming. We are all mosaics, trying to make something beautiful from the broken pieces around us.