It’s been a rough winter and an even tougher year. We are emerging, but the questions remain: Who will we emerge as — and who have we become in this year? We can reflect on transformative moments during the pandemic when we felt the shocks of change: a positive test for COVID-19, the death of a loved one, taking to the streets in the name of racial justice, the darkness of isolation, a book read, a walk taken, a quieting of the soul, a puzzle completed with children sitting around the dining table. For me, it was a conversation with my uncle that not only changed the direction of my vantage point, but the direction of my pen.
We’d engaged in a telephone seesaw but hadn’t connected. I mentioned it to my father, who relayed it to his brother the next day. “I don’t want to talk to Terry,” my uncle told him. It was the week of the presidential election. No one yet knew if Joe Biden had won, though the polls gave me reason to hope. I finally reached my uncle Richard Tempest three days later to ask how he was doing. His reply was firm: “I appreciate your call, Terry, but I don’t want to talk to you about politics right now.”
My uncle and I have always had a close friendship even in our disagreements. He is right of the right. I am left of the left. His passion is hunting. His love is collecting guns and shooting them. My passion is nature. My love is birds and watching them. As a former state senator in Utah, he was respected and revered. His integrity is known. He said he only accepted money from one PAC because he knew he would not compromise his own beliefs — that was from the NRA.
“Rich, I’m wondering how we can bridge this divide between us?” I asked.
“We can’t,” he said. A long silence followed before he asked if I’d change my views on gun control. Or climate change and the environment, immigration, abortion? No, I wouldn’t, I told him. “So what do we do?” I asked again.
“If you are serious, depoliticize your language.” Another long pause. “Are you there?”
“I’m listening, Rich.”
“I read your latest book, ‘Erosion,’ every sentence. It did not move me. It enraged me.” This was in reference to my howl of essays on climate change, public lands, and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
“You have a gift,” he pivoted. “I have known you since you were born. You have always loved nature and birds — even as a child, you were the last one to leave the ocean for the day when we were together in California on the beach. What I am saying is that if you are serious about bridging this divide in our country, go back to beauty, Terry. Write about the beauty of nature, so I can read what you write and be moved.”
I told him I understood what he was saying, and promised I would try. “And what will you do to bridge this gulf between us?”
“I will keep talking to you.”
My uncle didn’t see my tears. What he was saying registered as a shock, the kind that, in the words of Virginia Woolf, I needed to put whole.
We are not whole as a nation. Echoes of my conversation with my uncle are happening — or stifled by discomfort — at dining room tables across the country. The chasm between us seems to be widening and many of my fellow progressives say, “We have no obligation to meet our political adversaries.” I understand that, too. As my uncle had suggested, who is going to change their positions? And maybe that’s the point. It’s not about our opinions or even our beliefs, it’s about our bonds. That’s why my uncle didn’t want to talk to me — he was afraid talking would destroy us. Healing this uncivil war, especially within our own families, is not about changing our minds or even our hearts but first creating a space where we can meet unarmed. Here, an opening can occur. We are not abandoning our principles, but expanding our points of view.
What I have learned in this pause at home in Utah’s red rock desert is that beauty is grace and in grace there is wholeness. Days can pass by simply watching light traverse the sandstone face of a mesa; the shape-shifting of clouds casting shadows on the land. In drought the rains will come when the sweet scent of sage meets the smell of petrichor that heralds an incoming storm, and a night sky of stars holds our humility and wonder as the Milky Way arches over us. This is desert grace, unearned, without merit, a beauty wholly present within the nature of things.
My uncle is a spiritual man, and a religious one. In the 1980s, he served as the mission president for the Mormon Church in the Boston area. I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Cambridge then, staying in the magnificent white clapboard home with black shutters on Hawthorne Street. The next day, we drove to Maine. We stopped at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge near Kennebunkport, where they had a church service to attend to the next day.
Rachel Carson was among my favorite writers. Rich knew this. We discussed her landmark book, Silent Spring, as we walked along the edge of the tidal salt marsh. I recall how quiet Rich became while my aunt Ruth and I talked about family, noting the black-bellied plovers probing the mudflats. Rich scanned the estuary; his eyes miss little, a gift he calls “having gamey eyes.” In that moment, we were bound once again by our love of nature’s beauty, regardless of our political and religious differences that too often seem as vast as an ocean between continents.
Perhaps, the divide between us in this country is not about politics, but imagination. Can we imagine something beyond individual points of view? Do we have the capacity to listen beyond words to a deeper place of dwelling, in the way nature asks us to be still and present with other species: a great egret fishing the edges, a mink who surfaces like a wish? I will try depoliticizing my writing as my uncle has exhorted me to do, because I know beauty is the bedrock of my political life — and I will trust our conversations will continue with an unexpected grace.
And so I begin.
In the red rock desert of Utah where I live, meadowlarks are singing with the full force of Spring.