The coming climate crisis: the ultimate turning point?


News bulletin from the continuing drought in the west: it was too hot to water the plants today.

I don’t mean it was too hot for me as a human being to be outside watering today – although that is true as well. It was over 100 degrees today.

The water itself was too hot to put on the plants, so hot it almost burned me coming out of the spigot. Luckily I had put on garden gloves; the nozzle of the hose was too hot to pick up with bare hands.

Hot water is bad for plants. It shocks the roots. Plants need a certain amount of water, within a certain temperate range, to survive.  Humans reach for a cold glass of water on a hot day, not a cup of boiling hot tea.* Likewise, a plant’s roots reach out to take in cool water from underground.

The water coming out of the hose was more like the temperature one would use to cook vegetables.

At first I thought, well, this is normal. This water has been sitting in the hose, which has been baking out in the sun. Of course it’s warm. Let it run. I waited for the hot water to run its course so the cold water from underground could flow.

But it didn’t. The hot water just kept coming.

It got me thinking. What if it was always like this? What if this was ‘the new normal’?  If climate change proceeds as predicted, is this what I can expect? Hotter temperatures, extended drought, plants dying… at what point will this land I love no longer be able to support life as I know it?

“Why didn’t they do something?” future generations will ask. “They stood idly by as their water supply dwindled? They watched their plants perish, knowing that they were sure to follow… but they still denied there was a problem, and refused to act in the interest of their long-term survival?” In retrospect, it will seem so obvious: they should have conserved more of their resources, enough to sustain themselvesThey consumed too much, too fast, and so entire peoples were wiped out. Just like that. They’ll shake their heads, feel sorry for us, perhaps. Shudder and lament a way of life gone extinct.

Sometimes I am baffled by people who remain steadfast in their denial of climate change. How can they not see what is happening?  Answer: people don’t see problems that they don’t want to see. The brain is wise enough to protect us from things we cannot handle, and particularly from those that could threaten our survival.

Acknowledging climate change can feel threatening. Our way of life is threatened by climate change. We may not survive it, individually or collectively.  If we do, we will have to live differently.  We will not be able to sustain ourselves as we did before.  It doesn’t take much extrapolation to imagine what surviving in a changed climate might require. “Civil unrest” is far too polite a phrase to describe the acts that desperate people without food or water might be driven to commit. Scarcity and fear bring out our most brutal human instincts.

This can be a terrifying thought, one we’d rather not think about.


However, not thinking about it doesn’t make the problem go away. What if we responded by opening up our minds to the possibilities, and envisioned the future life we might build for ourselves? What might we do differently?

How might climate change be a turning point for us, individually and collectively? How do we want to respond?

We can turn away from the threat of climate change by pretending it doesn’t exist. We can stay stuck in that first stage of grief, after shock: denial. Or we can face it with our heads up and our eyes open. We can respond in productive ways. We can come up with creative solutions. We can adapt. We can survive and perhaps even thrive. But only if we are honest about what’s happening in our world. Only then can we go confidently into the future.

*British folk excepted. I know y’all love your tea.




Begin again.

Sister Mary Kay, this one’s for you.

How did I become a writer? What or who gives me the authority to say that I am a writer?

To be sure, I have written many things. But so have many others.

I’ve often been drafted to write first drafts, because “that’s the hardest thing, starting with the blank page,” clients say, looking at me meaningfully.  My task? Do the dirtiest and most bedeviling of writing work: stare at the blank page and transform its nothing into something. To do this is to confront one’s demons straight on and wrestle them to the ground.

“Who are you, to call yourself a writer? You insignificant thing, you imposter, you talentless hack?”  My first demon to confront, always, is this one.  Who am I, indeed? To have the temerity to scratch out my words and dare to call it “Writing,” with a capital W?

The only possible answer I can give: I am the only me there is. This combination of elements, this soul may have lived through many lifetimes, but will only live this one once. No one living now, before or after – not even my closest relatives and friends, nor any other member of my cohort – will see and experience the world as I do.

Almost everything I needed to know about writing came courtesy of one person: Sister Mary Kay Lampert, my AP English teacher in my senior year of high school.  She gave me the the confidence and the audacity to call myself a writer. She also did the biggest favor anyone has ever done for me as a writer: she critiqued me honestly, no holds barred. She didn’t let me muddy up my prose with unnecessary nonsense. She never let me get complacent. The better I got at writing, the harder she pushed me to be even better.

I thought of her tonight, as I was making excuses for why I hadn’t been writing lately. Procrastinating, doubting myself, not summoning the courage and discipline to put pen to paper. (Okay, more like fingertips to tablet… which sounds a lot less poetic than pen and paper, doesn’t it? This is what we’ve lost with technology.)

Remembering my teacher and her lessons, I got a sinking feeling like cement in my stomach. Ugh… if Sister Mary Kay was alive today, she’d be kicking my ass right now.  “Molly Rose McDowell, why aren’t you working? This is a timed exam!”

She was the nudge I needed. Because life is a timed exam, too, with the difference being that we don’t know how much time we have. You don’t know when the bell will ring and they’ll say, “Time’s up! Pencils down!”

All the more reason to start now, right this instant, wherever you are. Doesn’t matter where or how. Just start where you are.

In the words of another teacher of mine, Dr. Oliver Sacks:

“Let’s begin.”

Again. Starting here. Right now. Wherever we find the thread again. Wherever it may lead.

Communities, causes and countries have turning points, too.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

The history of the world is full of turning points.  Often the fate of an entire country rests upon the shoulders of one individual, on his or her choice to be a beacon of hope, an agent of change, a fighter for peace…or something quite the opposite.

Liberia in the year 2000 was one of the most brutal places on earth. In the grip of a warlord who seized power in a bloody coup, Liberians endured a six-year civil war in which human rights abuses were widespread.  Government forces and rebel groups roamed the country and terrorized the population. It seemed no one could stop the madness.

Yet in 2005, Liberia held peaceful democratic elections and chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its President, becoming the first African nation to elect a female head of state. Women took an active role in peace building and recovery.

How did such a dramatic change happen in such a short time? After decades of war, how was peace finally achieved in Liberia?

The answer begins with women who were tired of the brutality and said, “Enough is enough.”

Continue reading Communities, causes and countries have turning points, too.

Elegy for five tree stumps

“Elegy is a form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet. As he will feel regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love became the principal themes of the elegy. Elegy presents every thing as lost and gone or absent and future.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Elegy for Five Tree Stumps*

Today my landscape was reshaped
Rendered flat

Men came with machines


And marred my outland view

But then, I spoke with them
(The men, not the stumps)

“Are you…?”
“Why are you…?”
I asked

“We are,”
Was the reply
“To make way for something new.”

How many times had I done such things myself?
Destroyed the old to make way for something new?
Too many to count

And yet…

To see them today,
Their roots all torn asunder
(The stumps, not the men)
I felt such sharp pain
That I wanted to shout “Stop!”

But I did not.
For I thought,
“Who am I to stand
in the way of change?”

I know better,
For I have been:

The stump
The roots
The machine
The driver
The dirt
The field
The observer
The one who gave the order

Haven’t we all?

*Though it is likely obvious from the (ahem) level of quality or lack thereof, the quote is Coleridge’s, and the tree stump elegy is mine. It’s my first ever elegy, so please: be kind. Or better yet, compose your own, and together we’ll elevate the elegy as an art form. Or we could just rule the galaxy (as father and son, as mother and daughter, as brother and sister, as friends…whatever). Which is a heck of a lot easier than writing about it.

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Little earthquakes everywhere


The longer I live, the more I discover that things are not always what they appear to be.  Nor are they as black and white as we wish they were.

It’s important to remind myself of that when I’m tempted to judge others (or myself) too harshly.

When friends and family look at the trajectory of my life and the demise of my marriage and ask “What happened?” I wish I could give them a quick and easy answer.  But there isn’t one. What happens between two people in an intimate relationship is far too deep and mysterious to be captured and summed up in a single sentence.

I have a hard time explaining why I did what I did, why I left when I did, what caused me to go in such a different direction with my life.

It’s not that there weren’t good reasons (there were) or that I don’t know what they are (I do, mostly).

It’s just that rehashing the past in order to find a culprit and assign blame is usually a fool’s errand.  What I will say is this: if there is blame to be laid, the lion’s share of it is on me. We both made mistakes. We’re not bad people. We’re not perfect people.

We’re also not the two people who joined their lives together in 1998.  Those two young kids are long gone. So too is their sense of invincibilty and boundless optimism.  I miss that sometimes; that confidence that you will beat the odds. Once that’s gone it can be difficult to get back.

We were the last two people you’d expect to get divorced. Seriously. At times I look back and can’t believe that all of this has really happened. At times I’m as shocked as anyone else that things turned out the way they did.

By the time we parted ways in 2015, we could no longer reconcile the widening differences between us.  What had started as cracks in our foundation had spread out in several directions.   There were dozens of little earthquakes, and everywhere I turned it seemed things were crumbling — in my work life, at home, with my health, with our finances. The cracks became canyons.  In the end too much had happened, and we had changed so profoundly that we were unrecognizable to each other.

You know how something can look fine from the outside but be falling apart on the inside?  You can’t always see the cracks, especially when they’re plastered over and well concealed. I myself denied their existence for quite some time, until I couldn’t anymore.  Then I pretended not to see them.  But there are some things you can’t un-see.

I tried to fix the cracks by filling them with everything I could think of: work, food, drink, sugar, caffeine,  yoga, meditation, exercise, more work,  nature, reading, counseling,  journaling, self-help books, spiritual groups, house projects, family cheer, everything.  I went on a macrobiotic diet. I completed a marathon. I lost 30 pounds. I volunteered at my kids’ school. I took Spanish classes. I tried a lot of different things, but could not outrun the truth: something was nagging at me. I could not keep going in the direction I was going.

There was and still is a restless force within me, a powerful drive to explore new vistas and learn new things. This came hardwired into my DNA. I can’t apologize for it any more than I can apologize for having green eyes. There’s a bit of the rebel in me. In different circumstances I might have been a revolutionary. (For instance, in Cuba in 1958. But alas: I was born too late.)

I never felt like I fit the conventional mother mold. Often I’ve felt like an imposter, and have wondered how soon the rest of the world was going to figure that out. I figure the real parents — the legit ones who actually know how to do this kind of thing for real — are going to show up any minute to relieve me of my duties because I clearly don’t know what I am doing.

I have not been a bad mother, but I wish that the forces and events that transformed my life had not uprooted my boys from the life they had known up to that point. Change is part of life, and we cannot spare ourselves or our loved ones the pain of it, as much as we might try. I know that. But still. I never wanted them to suffer, least of all as a result of my actions.

I hope my children will forgive me for the upheaval I have wrought in their lives. The children’s father, my former husband, a generous and gracious man, forgave me long ago. He says he hopes I can forgive myself, for my own sake. I hope that, too.

Have I done the right thing with my life? I don’t know.  Is there such thing as a “one right path” for a person’s life?  If so, how is that determined? And by whom?

For some people, organized religion provides the answers to these questions. For others, a communal code of ethics establishes what is right and what is wrong. My own spiritual beliefs are eclectic; my cathedral is more likely to be a grove of pines than a bricks and mortar type place. I respect the beliefs of people of faith. I think we’re all trying to do what we think is right, whatever we think”right” is. We’ve each got our own little pieces of truth.

But I don’t accept that there is one truth, or just one “right” way to do things. I do not believe that things are black and white. I’ve seen too much of the world to buy the lie that any one of us has cornered the market on right versus wrong. “You divorced a good man? Then you are a bad woman.”  I know plenty of people who hold that view. Most of them are no longer speaking to me.

That’s okay. I never expected anyone to understand why I did what I did, or to forgive me. If you’ve never had the bottom fall out of your life, never stood amidst the rubble and wondered “How the hell did I end up here?” I can see how it might be easy to judge that kind of mess as “something that happens to other people, bad people who make bad choices — but not to me! I’ll never end up like that.” I used to think that way, too. Until I became one of those people. That’s how I learned — the hard way** — that things (and people) are not always what they seem.

Looking around, though, I find myself in pretty good company.  Turns out there are a fair number of us who haven’t lived perfect lives, who aren’t blameless,  who have stumbled.  And among us are those who have dusted themselves off and gotten back into the arena to give it another try. And another.

That’s where I hope to be.  Bruised, shaken, unsure, still covered in the dust of a dozen little earthquakes, but damn it, still in the arena.

*Except when they start crusades, or go on jihadist benders, or shoot up Planned Parenthood. That’s just messed up.

**Is there any other way? Seriously. Do you ever hear anybody say, “Oh, I learned that the easy way”?  Me neither.

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What are the chances?

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.  No sirree. I was sure that it would last forever. I was in for the long haul. I just didn’t foresee the forces and events that would change my life, transforming me into someone quite different than the one who said “I do” that day.

When they were little our children occasionally would ask, “Are you and dad ever going to get a divorce?” My answer — which I emphatically believed then — was always the same, delivered with a reassuring smile and a warm hug.  “No. Never. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Fast forward a few years.  It’s 2008 and I am 36.  “Life begins at thirty-six!” my father once said.  He was right, in a way.  Quite a lot had to happen before I could see the wisdom and hope in that statement, however.  What I didn’t know then: my life had to crumble first, and it would be up to me to rebuild a new life out of the rubble. Thirty-six was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a few more years to the present day.  Nearly all the major building blocks of my life — my living situation, my career, my vocation, my future plans and aspirations — have changed.  If you had told me five years ago what my life would be like today, I would have laughed and said, “No way.”  Such an outcome seemed like a near impossibility; about as likely as a meteorite landing on my head.

By now I should know better than to laugh off things I thought would never happen to me.

Back when I was teaching health to 10th graders, I’d remind them that statistics can be useful in evaluating risks, making decisions, and determining which things they should worry about at their age (drunk driving accidents, which kill over 7,000 teens each year) and which ones not to worry so much about (odds of being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000).

The thing to remember about statistics like that last one is, there are a lot of high impact/low probability events that you shouldn’t spend time worrying about because the chances of them happening to you are miniscule. Is it likely that you will be that 1 in 5,500,000? No. But you know what else? Somebody’s going to be that one. And if that somebody is you, that event is likely to change your life significantly.

There are at least two lessons one can draw from this. They seem contradictory at first glance, but both are true:

1) There are exceptions to every rule, so please, do not resign yourself to a particular fate. Be curious, question popular wisdom, believe that you can overcome even the toughest obstacles and the longest odds.  Don’t take anything for granted.

2) The rules of life generally will apply to you, too. There are some risks you don’t need to take and shouldn’t take. You are not likely to be the exception to the rule. You are not immortal. Don’t take anything for granted.

The first part of the message is the easy sell: yes, sometimes you have to look beyond the field of obvious possibilities and shake things up.

But the second part is tougher to accept, especially for kids who can’t yet imagine that someday they might face the fates of the adults in their lives. You may not believe it now, kids, but the scary stuff that happens to other people can happen to you, too.

When you’re young and feel invincible, it’s easy to believe you won’t be the one: the 1 in 6 Americans who will die from heart disease, the 1 in 7 who will die of cancer, the 1 in 300 who will die in a car accident.

Even as adults, we think we will beat the odds.  Even after I became a statistic myself — a one in a 1 in 23 million chance – I still believed I’d be the one on the favorable side of much more common fates.

There are many things I never thought would happen to me. Half of marriages end in divorce. That’s one in every two. Even after I was one in twenty-three million, I still believed I’d beat the odds and not be that one in two.

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.

Why am I here? I can’t remember.

In yesterday’s post,  I committed to telling my own turning point stories.   Might as well start with the big one that divided my life into “before” and “after.”

I was working as a policy analyst at a government agency that underwrote and managed (among other things) one of the biggest and most successful environmental programs in the world. Before that I taught math, science, and health at a private high school for three years. I was taking masters level courses at Portland State University in global environmental economics, system dynamics, political science and intercultural communication. I had already completed about thirty credits of postgraduate work and was on the road to a promising career at the intersection of politics, law, and science. My life felt full of opportunity.

Such were my plans and ambitions when a brain tumor wiped that dream right off my map.

To describe in medical terms (or even layman’s terms) what transpired in the first nine months of 2001 would require more space than a typical blog post can accommodate. Plus it would bore the pants off most people. It’s not that interesting unless it happened to you, or you’re into that kind of thing. (If it’s the latter, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for here.)

In the words of Inigo Montoya, swordsman and Spaniard:

Lemme esplain…No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”

A cavernous hemangioma had taken up residence in the frontal lobe of my brain, where it had been growing into a tangled mass of channelized veins that were leaking blood into the tissue around them.

Picture a flood in a subway station that drowns the passengers, shorts out the electrical circuits, fills the tunnels with sludge, and rots the tracks.

That was my brain. Blood, like any other liquid, follows the path of least resistance. Whatever it encountered along the way — white matter, gray matter, neural networks — were quickly smothered, clogged, and calcified. Nothing could be done about the dead tissue, other than to remove it, along with the mass in the middle.

In the meantime, though, there were daily seizures and excruciating headaches. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t be left alone. I couldn’t understand or follow basic instructions. Even simple conversations were exhausting and difficult, because by the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten the beginning, and couldn’t remember what we were talking about.

Traumatic brain injury is funny like that: all (or at least most) of the pieces are there, but you don’t remember how they fit together. I love jigsaw puzzles, but putting the pieces of my life back together taxed me beyond belief. Everyday tasks took two and three times longer than they used to, because I often had to talk myself through them step by step, and remind myself how to do them.

“Brush teeth, brush teeth…okay. First open the door. The one to that room. With the mirror. Open the mirror. No, wait. You can’t open a mirror. How does a mirror open? What is in it? Oh…I was looking for something. Something I had to get. What was it? Is it here? Why did I come in this room? Is that me? That face? No, that does not look like me. That girl is tired and lost. She looks so old and her face is so blank.

Why am I here? I can’t remember.”

A lot of days went by like that. In addition to the constant clatter (“why is everything so loud all of a sudden?”) there was a buzzy little voice inside my head that muttered endlessly about our situation.

“There’s so much I don’t remember. ..there’s so much I don’t remember…do you think they know how much you don’t know? Can they see that you are bluffing, bluffing, faking it, smiling and nodding even though inside you are shaken and aghast that you just got lost on your way to the bathroom and then couldn’t remember how to operate the sinks? Jesus, Molly…what are you going to do with yourself? Is this it, how it’s going to be for the rest of your life?”

Losing my hopes and dreams for my career left me rudderless. Around that time I learned a phrase from a big red-bearded Irishman named Bryan that summed up my situation succinctly: I was like “a ship in irons,” stalled with no wind in my sails, unable to navigate in any direction, and more or less at the mercy of the wild open sea.

I sensed that there still might be hope for my recovery, that maybe I could learn to speak in more than one -syllable words, and rebuild my vocabulary, and become again the writer I once was, before…everything changed.

Fifteen years later, I have the benefit of hindsight and I know how it all turned out.

But at the time, I didn’t. All I knew was that my life as I knew it was over.

those moments in life that change everything