December 20, 2011, by Kathleen Dean Moore
The fir tree stands in the bay window, still fragrant with the spice of the forest. Boxes of ornaments litter the floor. Laughing and bending over the work, every adult in the family is trying to untangle strings of Christmas lights. A tiny girl practices walking backward, beeping like a truck. She backs into a cardboard box. Reaching out small hands, she pulls open the flaps. There, tucked into tissue paper, lies an angel—brown curls, pale feet, and wings made of white feathers. The child pokes at the wings.
“Duck!” she says.
She brings the angel’s dainty nose close to her own.
“Quack!” she says.
From that moment, the child and the angel cannot be separated. Like any mother duck, she crouches on the floor, tucks the angel under her chest, and lies there with her eyes closed and her arms spread, sheltering the angel. At nightfall, the child’s mother wraps a blanket around the angel and the child and carries them both to bed.
By morning, glittering gifts will pile under the tree, but in my mind, those gifts will be inconsequential. The gift that I want for my granddaughter is the soft shelter of what might be earth, but could well be mistaken for heaven. I want her to know the iridescence of ducks and their tail-up feeding on a flustered lake. I want her to know the lake itself, the green smell of it, its coolness at dusk. I want her to be safe in this world, and I want the world to be safe in her arms.
At night, the child cries out, awakening the household. A soft light glows around the edges of the bedroom door and I hear her mother speak quietly. “Don’t be afraid,” she murmurs. “Don’t be afraid.”
But on this deep and starless night, the whole world is startled awake. The child’s fears are the world’s night terrors. Under a half moon, cattle lick dust in the desert. Bedrock dissolves in the acid sea. Blue ice falls at the ends of the earth. Saltwater snicks over dikes. The last song of a wide-eyed frog fades away. The grownups are taking it all, taking even the mountaintops, and unleashing the floods. Maybe we have already twisted the great swirling skies into storms that will change the world forever.
I don’t want to think about this. I want to fall asleep again and awaken to the crowing of a small child who pads into my bedroom, holding an angel by the hair. I don’t want to think about this especially: that in some tragic confusion, we are wounding the world for the sake of the children. I want to wake up laughing and, leading the child by the hand, flip the switch that brings the tree alive with light and dazzle. But I can’t escape this: we have cut ancient trees to give the children big houses. We poison the fields to give them bread. We manufacture toxins to give them plastic toys. We kill village children to give our children world peace. For the sake of the children, we amass wealth by ransacking the world where they will have to live. What kind of love is this?
The night, as it turns out, was a tough one for the angel too. Her feathers are ruffled, and her dress, unsurprisingly, looks like she slept in it. This seems not to matter to the angel and not at all to the little girl, who holds the angel out to see the lighted tree. In a child’s eyes, everything is equally miracle, ducks and angels. The earth is full of mysteries and wonders, worthy of reverence and awe. If the word for that is “sacred,” then let us say that word.
For the sake of the children, we are called to sacrifice—which means, literally, that we are called to make the world sacred again. We are called to see that the light that glows behind the trees at the end of the day is a miraculous light, and it’s the same light that catches in a child’s hair, and flares from burning methane gas. The world is a great and astonishing improbability that has come, for reasons we will never understand, as a gift to us.
Behind a pile of crumpled newspaper and cartons of decorations is another box. The child trundles over to help her father open the flap. She pulls out a framed photograph of my grandmother, which has been clipped from the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They carefully position the picture in its traditional place beside the tree. In the photograph, my grandmother is a small child, so the picture must have been taken more than a century ago.
The child is wearing neat buttoned boots and a little fur-trimmed coat. Her head is thrown back. Curls spill over her shoulders. Her arms are lifted and her small hands are turned upward in the universal gesture of astonishment and joy. What has she seen? The doors of the Macy’s department store have just opened to reveal a towering Christmas tree that glitters, for the first time in the history of the town, with electric lights.
It’s hard to imagine that in only a century the world has moved such a distance. Here is one child who stands in rapture before the glory of a new technology. Now, here is another child who stands at the edge of a damaged and desecrated world. Time is so short. The challenge to create lasting ways of life is so great. May the bells ring and the angels sing for us all.
Listen: the author reads her essay aloud.
Kathleen Dean Moore is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University and the founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. Her most recent book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, was published in September.