things that need noticing

“Where do humans come from,” my 4-year-old asked while we were out hiking the other morning.

I was carrying a mason jar filled with pond water we scooped from a vernal pond in the woods behind our house. The plan was to watch the debris settle and watch for nematodes and fairy shrimp to swim into view.

“What do you mean,” I asked? “Do you want to know where babies come from or how humans came to be in the world?”

I was prepared—somewhat—for the baby question. He has seen enough babies to understand that they have to come from somewhere. My son was not interested in babies though.

Where to begin? My mind short-circuited.

First thought: Humans are the matter that formed after the universe sneezed and sent shock waves throughout everything that ever was and all there ever will be. Humans are space junk that emerged over time and can problem solve but seem to mostly cause problems.

After launching with the big bang I realized I needed to speed things up a bit or I was going to lose him—and myself—before the next bend in the trail.

Second draft: A long time ago, before dinosaurs, before ferns, before trees, the world was like a soup filled with simple things. Over time, those simple things formed organisms like the stuff in the pond water. And over more time they formed more complex organisms. And after a long, long time, humans came along.

“Why?” he asked.

I think because it’s like reading. You start by learning the letters. Then you put the letters together to form more complex things like words and sentences and stories.

He seemed satisfied with that answer even though I was sure I wasn’t and we walked the rest of the way home plotting what to make for snack.

These are the things I enjoy most about parenting. The big questions children ask between the pressing ones. What is for dinner? Is this a school day? When am I going to die? Is summer far away?

Sometimes I feel like kids give voice to the thoughts we have lurking beneath the surface but that we have learned to keep the loud parts quiet. Because they can be scary. Because we are making dinner while writing an email in our heads and realizing we still need to get to the DMV before our license expires. Kids force you to confront the big questions that get lost in all the mundane to-dos of the day that turn into our lives. Kids turn up the volume and make you notice things that need noticing.

Like rocks in the ditches on the side of the road and the neat bloop sound they make when you toss them down sewer grates. Watching children explore makes us explore. And I think we could all probably use a little more of that.

A professor friend once told me “learning is hard.”

It felt profound at the time. But when learning a new skill or concept, there is often a long period of confusion before understanding. There is self-doubt. Frustration. Occasional tears. And the very real possibility that mastery may never come.

These days I wonder if we adults make it too easy on ourselves to simply stand still. We stop asking the big questions, at least aloud, and never seem to have time to dwell on them. We have devised excellent excuses for this and appear increasingly comfortable staying comfortable. And it’s making me uncomfortable with what that means for my own development and for our planet.

Today I am reading about rewilding efforts from a backlit screen I am increasingly tethered to. Stopping every few hours to study an entire world thriving in three inches of water and some leaf litter is an exercise in preserving my sanity—or at least my humanity.

We are inarguably more complex than the creatures swimming in my jam jar. But that’s just biology. So much of the complexity in our daily lives is our own doing. Perhaps that’s why so many of us feel like we are drowning despite all of this progress.

We have entire industries built to sell aspirational living. But no amount of mid-century modern furniture, boho chic tops, or essential oils can distract from the fact that, collectively, we are failing to address the big—and small—problems of our making. Sometimes it feels like we aren’t even trying.

“The world is going to fall apart if we don’t take care of it,” my 4-year-old observed while walking past a smashed plastic bottle on the edge of a gas station parking lot the other morning.

This was not a question.

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